The Chiming of the Hour

When my family lived on Wabash Avenue in Fort Worth, right across the street from University Baptist Church, the hours were sounded by the nearby carillones of Carr Chapel and University Christian Church. When walking to and fro across the TCU campus or while jogging in the surrounding neighborhood the bells made me cognizant of the time. All I had to do was listen.

I was also occasionally made aware of death. When the UCC congregation gathered to mourn together, declare their hope, and to offer words of comfort, the bells informed the neighborhood. Funerals began with a slow, clear, and steady bell, tolling for us all.

There was one particular afternoon when I was home alone, standing in my  small, cold bedroom, being warmed mostly by sunshine passing through the window panes, when the carillon of UCC rang out a series of hymns, songs I recalled having sung in my younger years. Words flooded my mind, songs of praise, some long forgotten and now freshly remembered, and my heart was warmed. I was glad. Some may have considered the bells an intrusion, an unwelcome clamor. But I found them to be a comfort, a welcome call to prayer, a moment of joy and celebration.

I no longer remember which hymns were sounded. But I remember the moment. And I think of it often, anytime I hear the sound of bells.

Facebook Friend, I Need a Favor

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Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

Hello there, Facebook Friend.

I’m writing to ask a favor. It’s a strange favor. So, please, hang in there with me.

I’ve been writing online for many years. You may have read something I have published, and if so I thank you for your kindness. Reading requires time and attention. When a person tells me I have written something they found helpful or insightful I am both grateful and amazed. Just the fact they told me they read leaves me floored. I wrote something. They read it. Wow!

You may not have read anything I’ve written. Maybe this silly appeal is your first foray into my prose. For that, I am sorry. But we’re connected. And because we’re connected, I have a request for you too.

I’d like you to invite you to subscribe to my website.

You’re probably saying, “That’s it? That’s the favor? But that’s an invitation!”

I know. That’s a problem. But I’ll level with you. This is an invitation, but if you grant me permission to drop something in your inbox every time I publish an essay, you’re doing me a favor. Let me tell you how.

If my memory is correct I’ve been using Facebook since the fall of 2004. I’ve been on Twitter since April of 2008. Those services have changed. The news feed used to be chronological. It is not anymore. It also used to be algorithm free. Now, the items we see first, at the top of our feed, are curated by a complex formula based on our past likes, comments, and scroll rates, or the likes and comments of friends in our network.

The goal of services like Facebook and Twitter is not, foremost, to connect us to one another, but to connect us to their service, and then to convert our likes, profile information, commentary, and other contributions into data that can be crunched, analyzed, packaged, and sold to marketers, sales teams, and product developers. Signing up is free of charge, but there is a cost. The extraction is found elsewhere, and it  is covert.

As social media services have changed their algorithms and redesigned their news feeds, they’ve made things more difficult for people like me. I’m a writer. I focus on theology and church related concerns. I’ve written devotional material, and I’ve also composed serious essays on pastoral ethics and spiritual formation. I don’t enjoy yelling about it. I have a strong dislike for click-bait and controversy. I’m more dove than hawk. That’s a problem on social media, which rewards the bombastic, confrontational, and flashy types.

I once read a quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger who said that every industry, every endeavor, requires a bit of salesmanship. So, in a way, this is my bit of salesmanship, despite the fact I’m not much of a salesman. I’d like you to do me the favor of subscribing to my blog in order to decrease our shared reliance on social media algorithms to ensure we remain connected. I’d also like to invite you to engage with me and my writing in web space other than that provided by the major social media services.

For all their promise and wonder, and for the many fantastic ways these services do keep us connected (there is some benefit), I think we can all admit that there is a downside to the medium. Most of us are still here because if we weren’t continuously scrolling, we fear we’d be missing out.

Question: What are three things you’ve seen on social media in the past three days that drastically impacted the course of your day which you wouldn’t have heard about through another channel? Question: How many items did you scroll by that occupied mental space which you didn’t need to know and could have done without? If we all logged off for good, we wouldn’t miss too much.

The rise of social media created a scene of sorts, a place to see people and a place to be seen. It is still a scene, as we all know, that people occupy in many different ways. But I’d like our minds to meet elsewhere, preferably in a quieter space that I curate online. If social media is the rave, I’d like to invite you over to the coffee house, a place to clear your mind, think, sober up, detoxify, and maybe learn, exchange ideas, and strengthen a tie with someone you have shared history with. I write this assuming it is more likely than not that we’ve hung out, played a game, been on a trip, or sat in the same room together.

I’m hoping you’ll come over to my website, click follow, and submit your email.

You can still catch me on Facebook. I have a Facebook Page you can like. Make sure you click on the settings wheel and opt to follow or receive updates. Links will also be posted to my Twitter feed. I can’t promise a lot of interaction on those services—I post most of my content through Buffer. I don’t have social media apps on my phone. But if you come by the website I’ll try to interact in the comments, especially if you are someone I know.

Finally, Facebook Friend, most of you are people I have known through school, camps, or church stops. A few I know through writing and publishing. I thank God for you all. Community is a gift, both the strong and the loose ties, and I have no doubt (even if you do) that the God of heaven has bound us together in eternity and time for some good purpose, however mysterious and elusive that purpose may be.

Thank you for your readership.

As Always, I am,

Sincerely Yours,

BAS

Artistry and Doubt

I don’t think there’s an artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they’re doing.

– Francis Ford Coppola

This is reassuring. Or perhaps not! Maybe I should spend more time doubting what I’m doing!

The problem with any endeavor that is worth doing, artistic or otherwise, is that showing your work can be terrifying. One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in writing, speaking publicly, or in leadership has been the fear that my work will be rejected, that it won’t be received well, and that I’ll be labeled a flop or failure.

But paradoxically, that same fear has often led me to work harder, to pay greater attention to detail, to be open to correction and change, thus making sure my future efforts are of more value, not less. The result has been improvement and growth. Growth requires risk, vulnerability, boldness, daring, and courage. A little bit of doubt can foster humility. There’s always the chance that even your best efforts will fail. The odds are you have failed , and you will again. Keep going.

Your best work is still ahead.

In Plain English

A free confession is a condition of full remission and when the sin is public the confession must be public. If the minsters of England had sinned only in Latin, I would have made shift here to admonish them in Latin, or else have said nothing to them. But if they sin in English, they must hear of it in English.

– Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 15

Richard Baxter was an Englishman, churchman, and minister who lived from 1615 to 1691. The Reformed Pastor, an instructive treatise on the ministerial vocation, was written in 1655.

In it, Baxter advocated for clerical reform. He believed ministers should be faithful and diligent in service. He believed many were not and should be called to account. He felt it was his responsibility to rebuke his fellow clergymen and to call for change.

In Baxter’s preface, we discover that other ministers objected to his instructions, particularly when he named their failings in the common tongue–English. His opponents preferred Latin so that only the clergy could read it. But Baxter thought publishing in English was necessary and of the greatest possible help. By writing in English, congregants would remember their clergy were like them and find assurance that their pastors would lead the way in repentance.

Clergy and congregation were together in the same boat.

Baxter writes:

If thousands of you were in a leaking ship, and those that should pump out the water and stop the leaks should be sporting or asleep, yea, or but favour themselves in their labours, to the hazarding of you all, would you not awake them to their work, and call out on them to labour as for your life? And if you used some sharpness and importunity with the slothful, would you think that man were well in his wits that would take it ill of you, and accuse you of pride, self-conceitedness, or unmannerliness to talk so saucily to your fellow workmen? or should tell you that you wrong them by diminishing their reputation? Would you not say: ‘The work must be done, or we are all dead men : is the ship ready to sink and do you talk of reputation? : or had you rather hazard yourself and us, than hear of your slothfulness?’ This is our case, brethren. The work of God must needs be done : souls must not perish while you mind your worldly business, and take your ease, or quarrel with your brethren : nor must we be silent while men are hastened by you to perdition, and the Church to greater danger and confusion.

– Baxter, 16

Baxter calls on his fellow pastors to get to work, for it was not only their lives that depended on it but the lives of all those in their care. He wanted other ministers to hear his message and also wanted congregants to be aware so that they too could see the need for the whole church to enter a season of repentance and a time of dedicated prayer for renewal.

He adds, “I speak all this to none but the guilty; and thus I have given you those reasons which forced me, even in plain English, to publish so much of the sins of the ministry, as in the following treatise I have done.”

It has been said the church is more of a hospital for sinners than a mausoleum for saints, though it is in fact a place of formation, care, exhortation, and responsibility for both. All, in this respect, will be accountable for their fervor, dedication, and obedience to the calling of Christ. Imperfect clergy are part of an imperfect church; both are counting on a perfect salvation offered by a perfect Messiah. And we need one another in order to be faithful.

Yet the pastoral vocation does bring with it the responsibility to direct the hearts and minds of the people toward God and to walk with the people in holiness. Ministers should bear that weight and own that facet of their calling.

Baxter understood that if the church is in trouble, the first people called to repent are her ministers. This demonstrates the clergy have understood several essential and related truths: that salvation is by grace, that the power of God transforms, that forgiveness is ours in abundance, and that service in the kingdom of God is a great privilege. These truths are for the whole church, not the minsters only. But by leading the way in repentance, there is greater possibility for new direction and new life for the body as a whole.

The Practice of the Shepherd

In our examples of Christian leadership, we too often emphasize getting others merely to do as they are told. In this way the church largely conforms to the leadership structures of the world. Indeed, leadership is normally an empty euphemism when applied to our standard communal efforts, whether in a church or outside it.

To manipulate, drive or manage people is not the same thing as to lead them. The sheepdog forcibly maneuvers the sheep, whereas the biblical shepherd simply calls as he calmly walks ahead of the sheep. This distinction between sheepdog and the shepherd is profoundly significant for how leaders of Christ’s people think of their work. We must ask ourselves frequently which role we are fulfilling and constantly return ourselves, if necessary, to the practice of the shepherd.

– Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 107

This passage from Willard has long been one of my favorites because he captures the essential nature of the pastoral task, which is to lead others in the “manner and spirit” demonstrated by Jesus, described here as the practice of the shepherd.

Too often, pastors think they are responsible for enforcing behavioral conformity, minimizing conflict by correctly navigating congregational power dynamics, or for successfully executing a strategic plan or vision. And while faithful shepherding may involve correcting and rebuking those who err, protecting the flock from danger, creating an environment where all brothers and sisters in the fellowship relate peaceably with one another, and discerning God’s leading for the congregation and leading all to walk according to God’s prescribed path, the manner and spirit in which these things are done, when they are done in the way of Jesus, differs markedly from the ways of leadership we commonly find in the world.

Jesus claimed he was the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). In doing so, Christ pulled together threads found across the Old Testament that speak of God as the true and loving shepherd of a people God has claimed as his own. Christ remains our Good Shepherd. Those who serve him, both men and women, are called to lead in a way that reflects his person and character. Willard writes, “When we lead as shepherds, our confidence is in only one thing: the word of the Great Shepherd, coming through us or, otherwise, to his sheep.”

How is this possible? We are reminded that Jesus knows his sheep, and they know him, and they know and listen to his voice (John 10:1-16). This is the way we should want it. Willard says, “We do not want them to follow another, even if we ourselves are that ‘other.'” We trust that God has called the congregation together, that the Spirit has been given to them, that we have limited responsibilities as servants and shepherds, and that Christ is the head of the church.

This understanding of the pastoral task, of course, is congregational. That is another reason I think it is so helpful, and so needed. It is a way of leading not only for pastors, but for the body, who respond together to the leading of Christ. Willard states, “Following the practice of the shepherd, we would never stoop to drive, manipulate or manage, relying only on the powers inherent in unassisted human nature (see 1 Peter 4:11). Not only that but the undershepherds (pastors of God) count on their flock to minister the word of God…to them. Ministry of the word is never a one-way street when it is functioning rightly in any group.”

Leading in this manner requires a quiet confidence in the power of God, a steady commitment to teaching the congregation the Scriptures, and demonstration of holiness in heart and life.

This also requires the rejection of all other ways of leadership and a form of servitude that can only be learned by putting aside oneself and putting on Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, that is both the hardest part, and, in the end, the easiest way, for while trusting in Jesus requires the abandonment of all that we are and all that we have, it brings to us the return of eternal and abundant life.

The Google Search for God

What is God? It is only a subject that has inspired some of the finest writing in the history of Western civilization—and yet the first two pages of Google results for the question are comprised almost entirely of Sweet’N Low evangelical proselytizing to the unconverted. (The first link the Google algorithm served me was from the Texas ministry, Life, Hope & Truth.) The Google search for God gets nowhere near Augustine, Maimonides, Spinoza, Luther, Russell, or Dawkins. Billy Graham is the closest that Google can manage to an important theologian or philosopher. For all its power and influence, it seems that Google can’t really be bothered to care about the quality of knowledge it dispenses. It is our primary portal to the world, but has no opinion about what it offers, even when that knowledge it offers is aggressively, offensively vapid.

– Franklin Foer, “The Death of the Public Square”

While it is not necessary for you to know Augustine, Maimonides, Spinoza, Luther, or Russell to make a run at answering the question “What is God?”, engaging with these voices certainly will not hurt. (When it comes to anything ultimately useful, either with regard to theism or atheism, Dawkins might be relevant at the moment, but will eventually prove inconsequential. He is a polemicist and populist, not a careful philosopher.)

I would, however, recommend acquainting yourself with pastors, theologians, and friends who know these voices and can answer this worthwhile, ancient question with the wisdom of years, scholarship, experience, and the knowledge of the Holy Scripture. Foer is right on this front: the workings of web search engines are not to be bothered with the quality of knowledge dispensed. Instead, seek out flesh and blood companions who know the answers human beings have offered to the question “What is God?,” who are kind enough to have the conversation, and who are willing to help you discern truth from error in your thinking.

True is Better than Done

While viewing a documentary I saw a sign above the desk of a journalist which said, “True is better than done.” I searched the web for the phrase and the top results were a series of links offering and explaining a different saying: “Done is better than perfect.” The former fits well with journalism and other forms of knowledge work. The latter jives better with creative enterprises like the visual arts, creative writing, or graphic design.

In creative work, it is possible to become so obsessed with imperfections that one never ships and never shows. Fear and doubt prevent completion, even if the work itself is excellent and all that is lacking is the click of the word “publish” or “send.” The artist holds off on sharing, believing the work could be perfect with one more tweak, a little more time, and one additional, elusive dash of inspiration.

But the work may be done. It may never be perfect. Done, rather than perfect, might be the state of affairs. All that is left is to unveil the work, take criticism, and refine your craft before telling the next story, composing the next image, or shooting the next subject. Creative work involves the viewer, the reader, as a critic. The critic helps the artist take the next step.

In knowledge work, such as journalism, you desire to write in a way that coheres with and explains reality. You want it to be true, not perfect, and not just done. There is only one way to be confident you are done: the story you have told is true. A true story does not have to be perfectly told. Journalism is meant to inform the citizenry, to put the truth to the public. It involves the citizens. The citizens help the knowledge worker take the next step, offering new leads, a new chapter, a follow up, another project.

Both the theologian and the preacher can learn from the knowledge worker and the creative worker (speaking of the arts; all work involves creativity). Theologians are like journalists, in this instance an example of the knowledge worker. They labor hard for the truth, and they help preachers and the whole of the church to familiarize themselves with the best of the tradition, the times, and their text, which in the Christian tradition is the Bible.

Preachers are theologians. Yet, there is a sense in which their vocation involves elements of the creative worker. Every sermon, every new venture, if it is led by the Spirit, will have a mysterious element, an element that is hidden and yet to be revealed, an outcome and a reception that can only be discovered in the sharing. Work may be presented as done but not perfect, yet also true. Once the Word of God is proclaimed by the preacher, delivered prayerfully and humbly, it is hoped that there is an illumination, a revelation of what God is up to in the midst of the world.

The theologian and the preacher, both, are doing work that involves the congregation, the church. The church helps the preacher and the theologian take the next step, using their voice to discern truth from error, and their lives as a testing ground for that which is offered, a place to explore and to discover the mysterious and manifold ways of the Spirit.