Fear Of Whales

Archive for May, 2015

Baptism. Or: Why the Mainline Church is in Decline

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baptismA professor asked recently why the mainline church was in decline, and ridiculous ideas abounded from the students including (my favorite)

Do we have to call it “Decline” that sounds negative. Why not “contracting” that’s much nicer.

And that kind of a response to legitimate criticism certainly doesn’t help us. But bemused as I am, I cannot say that is the problem. The reason for decline is, and can only ever be at the font.

For the church to be in decline means that we bury more than we baptize. It really is that simple. And in the PCUSA we seem determined to do everything with the baptismal font apart from baptize.

We are “a sacramental people” we believe in “leading through the water” we want there to be “a baptismal presence” in every service. Just don’t expect any baptisms.

Perhaps during the prayer of confession the pastor could splash in the water representing that we are washed clean.

Perhaps we could buy vestments or sing hymns about baptism and talk about remembering.

Perhaps we could talk to our friends about Jesus and invite them to come and be baptized in fro—
No, No I didn’t think so.

Donnelly.Nancy_FontThe president of my seminary, at a recent Q&A waxed poetic about the big, obtrusive, full, glass baptismal font at the presence of our Seminary chapel which has absolutely, positively never been used for a baptism. He thinks it’s just grand that although we are not a baptizing community, we are a worshiping community and that the font is present among us. About the fact that we all walk past the waters in remembrance as we file into seats. About the debate that raged over the question of including it or not, and about how the right side won.

But I had a different question. One I’m annoyed to be apparently alone in having. Why the hell (pun intended) are we not a baptizing community? Are lives not changed at seminary? Are people not coming to saving knowledge of Christ as a result of this community? Is the good news not being preached?

And if not why not?

If that is not the case should we not rather change it than dress it up and get some other things wet instead?

I’m not saying God can’t do another Abraham and Sarah style miracle and bring a child to a pair of your octogenarian congregants so you can practice one more paedobaptism. I just think he’s more likely to cross the street into the pub. There is a group of millennials there who just started working through Philipians over beer, and they have water there too.

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May 28th, 2015 at 11:42 pm

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I’ve been to a lot of topical bible studies on “Unity” and it’s always uncomfortable. The implicit application is that we should all agree with one another and never argue. There are verses :

Philippians 2:2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

John 17:11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.

Most recently, I ran into it in the Presbyterian Book of Order

F1.0203a The Unity of the Church

Unity is God’s gift to the Church in Jesus Christ. Just as God is one God and Jesus Christ is our one Savior, so the Church is one because it belongs to its one Lord, Jesus Christ. The Church seeks to include all people and is never content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for itself alone. There is one Church, for there is one Spirit, one hope, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:5–6).

Because in Christ the Church is one, it strives to be one. To be one with Christ is to be joined with all those whom Christ calls into relationship with him. To be thus joined with one another is to become priests for one another, praying for the world and for one another and sharing the various gifts God has given to each Christian for the benefit of the whole community. Division into different denominations obscures but does not destroy unity in Christ. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), affirming its historical continuity with the whole Church of Jesus Christ, is committed to the reduction of that obscurity, and is willing to seek and to deepen communion with all other churches within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church

So for ordination in the PC(USA), I will have to sign off that I am going to “strive to be one” and uphold the unity of the one church and not particular denominations…

What in the world does that mean?  I’ve always heard it interpreted (as it seems to be in the BOO) that we should be agreeable, and try not to have denominations split over theological differences. We should never argue, we should get along.

If so, it raises the question of how? How to I “strive” to agree with someone with whom I disagree? At least Jesus in John had the good sense to ask God for unity of the church and not tell the disciples to try it. But so many church groups seem to take it as instruction including my own, they just won’t tell me how!

I think this commitment has become a meme because of anti-intellectualism. I think saying “we have a commitment to unity” is a kludge that is used by people who are uncomfortable with thinking about complicated things to reduce it all to love, love love without daring to parse what that means. I think the answer to “How?” that nobody will voice is “Turn off your brain”

But what if it meant the opposite?

What if it was not a mandate to be disingenuous, pretending to agree with everything, or to be wishy washy, believing whatever is popular or whatever it appears we are supposed to believe in the group. What if it was really a mandate to believe what is true and defend it earnestly and in a compelling manner? What if it meant we had to argue, had to encounter the other, had to let our ideas come into conflict with others so that we could find out what was really true.

What if Paul’s command was not that we would have no theology, but instead that we would all have good theology together? What if Jesus’ prayer was not that we would shut up but that we would be able to speak openly?

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (….) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Explicit, God-Given differences. Unity of faith equated with knowledge of God. That in turn equated with maturity. Real-talk as an essential part of it. NOT being wishy washy children lacking theological convictions.

Suddenly the epistle takes on a tone I find much more palatable and actionable.

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May 20th, 2015 at 10:14 pm

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Experience and Conservatism

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1b3356592e5c24a63a66b6e9ab357fabI want to write some more about my journey to the right in the last two years.

In my last post I described one of my integration experiences to seminary where I was endowed with the identity of of a privileged conservative. I worry I may have implied that endowment is the only reason I have moved right. That’s not true.

I had every opportunity to respond to that endowment by over correcting, and presenting myself as that much more progressive to prove everyone wrong. Or perhaps to present myself as having grown as a result of my interactions here at seminary.

”Prejudice rarely survives experience” reads a prominent bumper sticker in the parking lot. It’s true (and quite clever) but it cuts both ways. Benefit of the doubt rarely survives experience either.

I fully expected, as I left a life in the church to the right of me theologically, that when I entered a community full of queer, feminist, and liberation theologians much of my unseen prejudice would be burned away. But the prejudices I carried turned out mostly to have been in their favor.

I expected to be challenged with better ways of thinking about the liberal specialties. Multiethnicity, Social Justice, radical welcome and love for everyone. I expected to see a world of Christianity on the other side of the line. I was excited to meet the church free of fundamentalism, literalism, fear, and totally willing to accept in compromise some ambivalence, relativism, ambiguity, and moral inattentiveness.

What I found was a cliquey group of people, many of whom are profoundly bitter. An Echo chamber of a community with unwritten and arbitrary rules, full of people who, as a whole, are every bit as dogmatic, fearful, and politically bought-and-sold as the far right.
It’s not that they are bad people. Many of them are my dear friends. And it’s not that liberals have worse problems than conservatives. It’s that they have the SAME problems.

In politics this is called horseshoe theory, if you go to far to any side one side you end up headed toward the other and it holds true theologically.

We still have taboos, unforgivable sins, shunning, name calling, cognitive dissonance, and fear. The boundary lines are every bit as sharp and unbending, the bounded territory is simply farther left.

And as for the scholarship? In my experience it is just as flimsy as on the right, there are known figures with legitimate doctorates on both sides, but few if any are able to produce anything of value outside their own group. Theologies are created to privilege and exalt the group that creates them on the left as the right. Some gold stars go left for being more transparent about that reality.

And it’s not that the middle is this golden mean with none of the problems of either extreme. I maintain the right to pick and choose and try to avoid problems, but I’m a sinner like anybody and probably end up choosing into several flaws of the left and some others of the right.

So I’m more conservative now than I was. I used to appreciate so much about the right, the faith, the confidence, the simplicity and sincerity, but want to distance myself from the snakes: the self-hating, the obsession, the anti-intellectualism. Now that I live in the left and there are snakes here too (the same snakes) I feel more comfortable embracing the things I love on the right and not seeing the snakes as representative.

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May 13th, 2015 at 1:45 pm

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“You Just Don’t Get It”

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In Improv there is a concept called endowment. When setting a scene, you say things about other characters, and they say things about you. Those things become true as a result of them having been spoken aloud in the scene, whether or not they were part of the performer’s original conception of their character.

So if for instance you and I are in a scene, and as you walk onstage I salute you and say “Hello Captain”, I have just endowed you with the character trait of being a high ranking official in some hierarchical organization, probably active military personnel. You have no choice in the matter. I made you into that.

Like many aspects of Improv, this carries over into real-life in muted ways. Children are often endowed with characteristics by their teachers. A child who is told he is a bully will tend to act out in ways that would be expected of bullies, a child that believes themselves to be gifted will tend to work harder and earn better grades as a result of what others say about her achievements.

I person that is told they do not and cannot understand a concept. Won’t.

At seminary, I’ve been endowed with the role of campus conservative. An ironic distinction, considering the criticisms from the right I had grown accustomed to taking, but not one that is altogether false. I do after all believe the Bible is authoritative on all matters on which it speaks, that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, and that there is only one God and one way to that God through Christ.

WLIIA--_Robin_WilliamsIt’s also not a totally unexpected role for me to play considering I am a white straight male from an upper middle class background. I look like the poster child for privilege, and again, that isn’t false. I have pretty well every kind of privilege there is. But where previously it was an attribute (and one I worked to identify and mitigate) now it is my Identity.

It all started my first week here when a friend invited me to a wedding reception held after a campus BBQ. I hadn’t met the brides, but I’m an extrovert, and was assured that the invitation was open to the whole campus and that that’s where the people would be.

It was about the second conversation I became a part of that someone asked me what I did before and frowned when I said the word “InterVarsity”. In retrospect that cannot have been the first thing about me that made her frown. She was a young lesbian student beginning her last year and fighting a difficult ordination battle in the church, drinking a lot, and celebrating a victory for her community in what she expected to be a very safe space. Here I come bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to start seminary with few if any qualms about the church. InterVarsity was just the clincher.

”Why’s she frowning?” Someone asked

“There’s a lot I like about InterVarsity, but they are also currently leading the charge against the required inclusion of homosexuals in leadership”

”It’s an adjective!” She said

“What is?”

”Homosexual people. Homosexual is an adjective”

”I’m sorry, of course. Against the required inclusion of GLBT individuals in leadership”

”No! Not Of course. Language is important, language matters, and when you drop the word ‘person’ off and just say homosexuals you are dehumanizing the entire community which is done in order to subjugate…”

It was a rant, and it went on for some time. At the end of it I apologized again, and was soon relieved to hear my friend was leaving and I had an excuse. I spoke to him at some length about my difficulty with the conversation, feeling like my misstatement was incommensurate with the verbal lashing I received. But I had no idea. By morning it seemed word had gotten around that I was the a conservative, fundamentalist, sexist, racist, republican, and the reputation stuck

(never mind the irony that those are all adjectives used as personal nouns)

So now people approach me with that presumption. Whatever I say or do goes through a filter of what is expected of me as a straight white male conservative republican. Because there is a kernel of truth in all of that, what comes out is always confirmation. It often results in my being criticized and when I ask for more details they tell me “You just don’t get it” or “I don’t want to talk about it with you” or “You’re blind to it”

whoseBut that’s an endowment. If I’m blind to it and you won’t talk about my blindness with me then I am condemned to be blind forever. If I said “homosexuals” and you won’t accept my apology then there can be no absolution. Therefore I have no choice but to continue being that guy you expect me to be

When someone says to you “Your white privilege is preventing you from seeing how racist that is” There is no response that does not solidify you into that identity more deeply. your choices are “Yes you’re probably right, I am certainly privileged” or “No, I don’t think that’s true in this particular case” and either one confirms their suspicions and encourages them to say more things like that to you more often. Sub “white” for straight, cis, Christian, upper class, abled, American, monogamous, etc. and there is pretty much no sentence I can utter that I will not soon have to admit is the result of one privilege or another.

”The clouds sure are beautiful today” yet I apologize for my sighted-privilege and oppressive western standards of beauty

But I don’t think there is a lot of awareness about how much my community has made me what I am. How much my role in the seminary is an endowed trait that I was given. I didn’t come here expecting to be the conservative guy. If you had asked me in 2013, I would have told you I would probably be the radical missional guy, the couchsurfer who was intentionally homeless for a spell as an immersion experiment, who pared down possessions to a single carload, who runs scripture studies with Muslims and Homeless people. Or maybe the community guy, who designs board games in the big apartment, and worked previously putting on events on campus. Now I’m the guy who makes the bible verse references, who argues that evangelicals aren’t as crazy as we think they are, who gets chewed out for the way things I’ve said could me misconstrued as racist in other contexts in which I did not say them. The community has effectively made me more conservative

This isn’t a “poor me I’m so oppressed” situation. It’s actually the opposite, I’m pushed farther into a place of privilege and oppression. Is that really what we want to do to people like me? Will that help the cause?

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May 6th, 2015 at 12:38 am

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