Friday, May 30, 2008

The Greek Language, Roman Roads and Starbucks
Musings over a cup of Pike Place Roast

What do all these have in common? Much has been made by Biblical commentators of significant historical providences during an otherwise silent inter-testamental period—between the last book of the Old Testament and the coming of Christ. During that 400 years, two grand empires left behind two great legacies transforming both the speed and effectiveness of communication in the Mediterranean world. Alexander provided the Greek language as the common denominator of commerce and learning, the Romans well-built roads and the freedom to travel on them. Both were intended for human conquest, control and profit, but employed by the feet and pens of the Apostles, invaluable to the spread of the Christian gospel. The rest is world-turned-upside-down history.

Starbucks? Assuming that Common Grace still abounds, I ask what else might be identified, particularly in our time, as useful cultural provisions for the spread of Christianity and the edification of the church? Certainly the printed word, globe-shrinking transportation, radio, television, electronic media, the internet. But one recent development not to be underestimated here in America is the Coffee Shop. "Starbucks," you say? With their ever-so-secular feng shui and nasty new little mermaid logo? Remember, there was nothing particularly Christian about Koine Greek or Roman pavement, and both conveyed many things pagan while at the same time serving infinitely higher purposes. Okay, if you don't like the Seattle original, think Caribou (as I most often do), or Dunn Bros. or whatever else is available where you are, but do think about what the genre has accomplished for human interaction.

What the coffee shop has done for the socially starved and spiritually hungry is remarkable. It has provided a thrifty option, a convenient excuse, a ubiquitous venue for people to get together and talk, read and debate, confess and pray and commiserate and counsel and edify and rebuke and encourage the faint-hearted and weep and laugh and strategize and reflect and google and blog and evangelize and study, test the spirits, examine the scriptures to see if these things be so, ask questions and give answers for the hope that lies within us. In the atmosphere of Starbucks white noise confidentiality, put a coffee cup in my hand, I'm ready to talk.

What did we do before coffee shops? We did lunch and dinner; time-pressure and expense. Bars and pubs; noisy and not usually a good idea. We had people over; still do, but it gets complicated and doesn't happen as readily or spontaneously as meeting at a neutral location. We talked after church; surface-y and truncated, unsatisfying. We used the phone; not as good as face-to-face, and curiously enough, nearly impossible for men. We wrote letters; no we didn't, that was a previous generation.

As on Roman roads and most religious television (now there's a botched providential opportunity!), there are time-wasters, thieves and conspirators too, so the coffee shop can be used for the spread of the worthless and even harmful, but used for good it's just so easy. "Let's meet for coffee" is much more appealing than "can we talk?" So I think it's a 21st Century divine providence. By the way, I say don't sweat the new logo, just appreciate the ambiance and the opportunities and enjoy.

The coffee is better than church basement percolated Folgers too.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Grandson Escapes!
Just heard from his mom that after leaving him buckled in his bouncy chair for a little while to take care of things in another room, this is what she found upon her return!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Fun With the Morning Talk Shows
Flipping from NBC's Today Show...
where economist Matt Lauer grilled the CEO of Exxon—scolding him for the nefarious practice of earning a profit for his shareholders and not ignoring the laws of supply and demand. Actually, I think all the supply and demand talk went right over Matt's head. I wonder how he would respond if the handlers of his millions in investments came back and said, "Oh by the way, Mr. Lauer, we thought you were earning too much on this one so we gave your dividend away to somebody who needs it more." Fox and Friends...
where Harry Connick, Jr. live from the Big Easy described one of the post-Katrina houses he helped build for a friend. When asked whether he would ever be invited to stay there,
Connick responds: "That remains to be undecided."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Even "Christian" Service?
Having pondered for some time the concept of "The World in the Church," and how the secular idolatry of personal ambition, the "pride of life," worms its way even into spiritual enterprises, I find this thought from D.A. Carson's book, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, concise, sobering and dead-on. His topic is glory, Who gets it and in what limited sense it is reflected derivatively in the believer as Christ is "glorified in you" II Thessalonians 1:2:
The Christian’s whole desire, at its best and highest, is that Jesus Christ be praised. It is always a wretched bastardization of our goals when we want to win glory for ourselves instead of for him.... Lying at the heart of all sin is the desire to be the center, to be like God. So if we take on Christian service, and think of such service as the vehicle that will make us central, we have paganized Christian service; we have domesticated Christian living and set it to servitude in a pagan cause. (57–58)
"Paganized Christian service," I suppose, could describe any ministry activity that in the name of the Gospel becomes a vehicle for personal advancement—that motivates participants by an appeal to a need for recognition or to the attractiveness of being "at the center" of a special elite within the ranks.

Sometimes the phenomenon is accompanied by glaring doctrinal, financial or moral deviation—but not every time. Sadly, since 1st century Galatia there have always been preachers, sects and fringe churches with questionable motives. They followed St. Paul all over Asia and beyond. In anything-goes 21st Century America all varieties abound, but I'm convinced it's not just prosperity groups and the patently weird who set Christian activity into "servitude in a pagan cause."

The system works. Personal ambition is an effective motivator. But it is not Christian, and it is a strange bedfellow with Christian doctrine. Yet precious Christian truth is sometimes called into the service of paganized Christianity. Unity. Discipline. Holiness. Even a passionate emphasis on the Cross of Christ and the extirpation of indwelling sin becomes a convenient tool in the hands of some for the advancement of self and the manipulation of others—lots of humility talk, in reality practicing anything but. Mercifully, there are always tell-tale outward signs of corruption on the inside of these gleaming white dishes. Look carefully and Pharisaical roots are showing.

Watch for subtle legalism; a written or unwritten code of extra-biblical conformity necessary to fit in. Watch for evidence of sectarianism; inwardness, group loyalty and pride that goes beyond mere fraternity. And then authoritarianism; an odd preoccupation with "apostles'" and elders' authority and your submission. Without exception, some kind of highly concentrated pyramid structure inevitably emerges to protect leadership and provide a pathway and footholds for the attention-needy novice on his way up. Elitism is another clue. Are there secretive rings within rings inside the church or organization through which a person must progress toward full acceptance?

I'm more convinced than ever that polity is a reliable objective clue to the health of a church. In any church where the ekklesia, the congregation gathered has no meaningful place, where an imperious leader or group of leaders rule absolutely, as in so many apostolic and shepherding groups even within evangelicalism, the culture-medium is perfect for the kind of bastardization Carson describes—and worse.

Incidentally, the blade cuts in many directions. Personality-driven seeker churches and emergent churches are in danger, some apostolic groups for sure, but surprisingly, there may be as much to worry about among the young Reformed reaction to Emergent. There is a troubling growth of not-very-reformed authoritarian chatter among some of them, and at least one up-and-coming new "Reformed" denomination with very ominous symptoms. Almost as if the right reaction against the emergent loss of scriptural authority is to assert your own authority. Yikes! But that's a topic for another day.
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. Matthew 20:25, 26

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Fun With Bumper Stickers
Sometimes it's the juxtaposition of two that provides the entertainment. Yesterday I saw these two placed inches apart on the back of a mini-van:

Yes, when I do pay attention to Minnesota Public Radio I'm frequently outraged.