Saturday, May 29, 2010

My Old Schools

So tonight I was coming back from where I had been and that great old Steely Dan song in which they sing “I’m never going back to my old school” came on the radio and I thought, “In three out of four cases, me neither.”

Allow me to explain.

My educational career began in 1963 at Gordon Grammar School in my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia. Gordon was a 1st-8th grade school that consisted of three buildings: the “new” building (I have no idea how old it was but it was newer than the “old” building) that was a single story structure housing the 1st and 2nd grades, the “old” building (I don’t know how old it was but it sure seemed old) that was a two-story building housing the 3rd-8th grades, and the building in between those buildings that doubled as the lunchroom and the auditorium. There was no gymnasium; all of our recreational activities took place outside.

Gordon Grammar was more or less the city elementary school where the white kids who lived in town attended; I say “more or less” because there were some white children from out in the county who attended and there were a few black students whose parents sent them there under the old “freedom of choice” policy. There was also an elementary school in the Aldora Mills community and a school at Milner, including a high school, where mainly white children went. And there was the Booker School where 99% of the black children in the city and county attended; I think that Booker housed 1st through 12th grades but I’m not sure about that; the unfortunate nature of things in those days was that there may well have been other black schools but if there were I didn't know about them.

I learned a lot at Gordon Grammar School; I will always be indebted to teachers like Mrs. Light, Mrs. Elliott, Mrs. Pitts, Mrs. Tenney, Mrs. Fambro, Mrs. Heinz, Mrs. Ruffin (she was married to my father’s cousin), Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Branch and Miss Vescey for the solid educational foundation they gave me.

(The "old building" at Gordon Grammar School)

Integration and consolidation happened in 1970, the year that I went into the 7th grade, and the Gordon Grammar School that I had known and even loved ceased to exist so I can’t go back to that old school. In fact, that’s literally true, since all the buildings were eventually torn down. There is a very nice public library on the site now, which is good.

I don’t know if our community leaders thought that somehow Lamar County would be the only place in Georgia that would not have to integrate; I do know that we were not prepared in any way, shape, or form for the changes that came. While I don’t remember all the details of how students were assigned, I do know that what it pretty much boiled down to was that the girls were sent to Milner, which I think was renamed Birch Street School, and the boys were sent to Booker, which was renamed Forsyth Road School. That was how things remained for the next four years and so those were the conditions under which I went to school from 7th-10th grades.

In retrospect I see into what an interesting situation we sheltered Gordon Grammar students had been thrust, given that we went from our small school with its small classes (I had gone to school for six years with pretty much the same small group of friends) to a much larger school with the vast majority of our fellow students being people we not only did not know but had never seen before. But not all of my Gordon Grammar classmates participated in the great experiment; some immediately or eventually went to private schools and others were able to attend schools in neighboring counties. It was only in the fifth year of consolidation, my eleventh grade year, that the girls and boys began attending school together again.

As you can imagine, little cohesion or camaraderie developed in my class; we graduated in 1976 and so far as I know we have never had a class reunion.

Somewhere along the way a bond referendum passed and construction began on a brand new high school. Lamar County Comprehensive High School opened in the fall of 1975, my senior year, but I opted to forego my senior year in order to enroll early at Mercer University and so I never attended classes at the new school. My graduating class had the honor of being the first class to graduate from and in the new school and I had the honor of being the valedictorian of that class; I did participate in the graduation ceremony but I felt awkward and out of place.

Anyway, I never attended Lamar County Comprehensive High School, my alma mater, and I’m not sure if the Forsyth Road School property is still in use; I know that at one time it served as a National Guard Armory. So, when it comes to high school, in one sense my old school was never my school at all and in another sense my old school is not a school anymore. I can’t go back to those old schools.

Mercer University in Macon, Georgia is my one old school to which I can and do go back; every building that was significant to me when I was a student there from 1975-1978 is still there and still in use: Roberts Hall, Shorter Hall, Knight Hall, the Administration Building, Newton Hall, Willingham Chapel, the Student Center—and of course Freshman Women’s Dorm (I think they call it Plunkett Hall now) where Debra lived when I pursued and courted and visited and fell in love with her and Mary Erin Porter (MEP) where she lived during that glorious year when not only was I a college senior but also was engaged to Debra Kay Johnson.

Sometimes Mercer leaders like to compare the Mercer of the present, which has grown by leaps and bounds in every way including reputation in the thirty-two years since I graduated, to the “small liberal arts college with a law school attached to it” that it was back then. While I am proud of Mercer’s growth and of its standing, I will always be grateful for the way that “small liberal arts college” changed my life.

And I am glad that, in the case of Mercer, I can still go back to my old school.

(Knight Hall at Mercer University, home then and now of the Christianity Department)

After Debra graduated from Mercer in 1979 we moved to Louisville, Kentucky so I could attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; we stayed there seven years while I earned both the M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees. As I have written of elsewhere and so won’t go into here, in subsequent years the character of SBTS changed so completely that I do not think of it as “my” seminary; I made one visit to the campus a few years after finishing there and I have no intention of ever going there again. (I realize that my attitude seems harsh to some people, including some friends of mine, who have gone to SBTS in the years since the changes took place, and I don’t ask them to understand but rather just to accept that to me the “old” Southern was a better place while to them the “new” Southern is a better place.)

(Boyce Library at SBTS)

I’m never going back to that old school because while the buildings where I went to class and studied are still there the school I attended does not exist anymore.

I guess that the old Steely Dan song is not really what got me thinking about these things; rather, it is an effort by two old friends to put together two very different reunions.

My old Gordon Grammar School classmate and Little League baseball teammate Wade Head has been hard at work organizing a reunion of our Gordon Grammar friends. Wade, along with other of my Gordon classmates, graduated from Barnesville Academy in 1976 and as they began talking about having a reunion of their graduating class they decided to include, among others, the kids (we’re all in our fifties now!) with whom they had gone to Gordon Grammar. So in June we’ll be getting together; I am so excited about seeing those folks, most of whom I have not seen in over thirty years and some of whom I have not seen since 6th grade.

And my fellow Mercerian Keith Alderman is trying to put together a reunion of folks who attended Mercer and who were active in the Baptist Student Union in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Again, I’m excited about this possible reunion because the BSU folks were my family during my time at Mercer and, while I have seen and kept up with a good many of them, it will be good to see many more and to catch up on each other’s lives.

Thank you, Wade and Keith. In three out of four cases, I’m never going back to my old schools. But it sure will be good to get back with my old friends.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Patriotism, Religion and the Building of American Community

With Memorial Day upon us and Independence Day following close behind, my thoughts have turned to the value of patriotism.

I confess that in years past I have spent quite a bit of time pondering patriotism’s too frequent mutation, under the influence of fear, arrogance, and xenophobia, into nationalism and jingoism. I confess furthermore that I am still troubled by those who talk and act as if the United States is always automatically better and more correct in any scenario that is played out under any circumstances with any nation and as if anyone who offers a criticism of an American policy or program is, if not an enemy of the state, at least unpatriotic.

I confess also that in years past I have spent quite a bit of time fretting over the too often uncritically reflected upon connection that many people seem to make between Christian commitment and patriotic allegiance and particularly over the marriage of convenience between far right wing Christianity and far right wing politics. I confess furthermore that I am still troubled by those who talk and act as if somehow pledging allegiance to the American flag and pledging allegiance to the Christian flag are two sides of the same coin.

But I’m not thinking about those things this year—well, not much, anyway.

Instead I’m thinking about the valuable and healthy role that patriotism can and should play in forming, preserving, and enriching a sense of community among Americans.

“Patriotism” as I define it is a healthy love for, respect for, and devotion to one’s homeland, whether it is one’s homeland by birth or by adoption, and to its people, its traditions, and its principles, and a commitment to protect it, to defend it, and to work with all other citizens to make it even better.

Now, as a Christian (and I think I can safely assume I would say this if I came from another faith tradition) I must add that my commitment to love and to serve my God and to have my life formed by my Scriptures is prior to and more important than and thus must inform and can even sometimes limit the ways in which I can serve and support my country. It’s simply a matter of putting first things first and as a Christian my primary allegiance is to my Lord and all my other allegiances, including my allegiance to my country and even to my family, exist under and are shaped by that primary allegiance.

One of the great principles upon which the United States is founded is the principle of religious liberty; in this nation people are free to practice their religion (or to practice no religion) and are free from being compelled to support an established or state religion. I think that is a good and healthy thing, which I am sure the Founding Fathers would be relieved to hear. I furthermore think that it is a principle around which we should rally and which we should all, irrespective of our religious traditions and convictions, defend.

But one of the side effects of our tradition of religious liberty and the resulting tremendous religious diversity in the United States is that our religious traditions and convictions often become lines of division and debate and even of antagonism. There is nothing wrong with the practice of apologetics and all Americans should certainly have the freedom to make their case and to speak their minds so long as we are respectful and civil about it. Let’s face it, though—most of us do in fact think that there is something a little more valuable and “right” in our faith tradition than there is in other traditions or in no tradition; otherwise, we wouldn’t stay in it. I, for example, am a Christian and I truly believe that the ultimate and at the same time most accessible (a tension I just have to live with) revelation of God is in Jesus Christ. I would very much like to see absolutely everybody absolutely everywhere become a disciple of Jesus.

But that is not going to happen here in America or anywhere else. Moreover, all American Christians are never going to interpret or practice their Christian faith in the same way.

Therefore, practicing ecumenism is very difficult. Perhaps to our shame but nevertheless understandably given the way things are, holding truly ecumenical Christian worship services or sharing in truly ecumenical Christian ministry efforts—and by “truly ecumenical” I mean services or efforts at which any Christian group or individual would be fully welcomed and fully included and fully appreciated—is difficult, given the differences in worship and doctrine and practice that divide us. Certainly, then, holding truly ecumenical—with no requirement or expectation that the participants be Christian—worship services or ministry efforts is even more difficult.

For the record, I’d be more than willing to try it in either or both ways—“Christian ecumenical” or just “ecumenical”—but I recognize the difficulties. While it is true that God is one and while it is true that people of all religious traditions probably should be willing and able to come together to worship that one true God, it is simply the case that our different beliefs and convictions and practices make it hard.

In the United States of America, then, building over-arching community around religion, even around the worship of the one true God, is a non-starter.

So here I return to patriotism—did you remember that this is a post about patriotism?—and to the valuable and healthy role that patriotism can and should play in forming, preserving, and enriching a sense of community among Americans.

The bottom line is that we have at least a chance to be unified behind our common allegiance to the United States and to the principles on which the nation is built.

It is not—or at least is should not be—difficult for us to see that we best celebrate our American freedoms or remember our American history or embrace our American heritage when we do so not as Christian Americans or Jewish Americans or Muslim Americans or Buddhist Americans or Atheist Americans but rather as Americans who happen to be Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or Atheist.

It is our common allegiance to America that can and should bring Americans together and create American community.

I know that some will say that this is idolatry, the putting of America in the place of God, but I deny that. I say again that for a person of faith his or her commitment to God must come first. I also say that where ecumenical progress can be made it should be made. But I also say again that our heritage of religious liberty and the fact of religious diversity make it impossible for religion—even faith in the one true God who, I would say, is most fully revealed in his Son Jesus Christ—to be the basis for American community.

The creating of such community is the most important role that true patriotism can play.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Trouble with God

There are many directions in which an article with that title could go and so you may already have developed some expectations about its content.

You might expect that I am going to talk about the trouble with believing in God when God cannot be, in any way that would pass laboratory scrutiny, experienced. Well, (1) either there is a God or there is not, (2) if all that is real is what we can prove then we are of all species most to be pitied and (3) I have had sufficient personal experience with a startlingly magnificent Other that I have no trouble believing in that Other’s existence.

To quote the theologian Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Or you might expect that I am going to talk about the trouble with believing in a loving God when there is so much suffering in the world. Well, (1) suffering appears to be woven into the fabric of things, (2) I and others can testify to a strange phenomenon in which we actually experience the presence of God to a greater degree in difficult times than in easy ones and (3) the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ continue to teach me that God suffers with us and is overcoming our suffering.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

No, the trouble that I have with God comes not from wondering if God exists or why, if God exists, there is suffering in the world.

The trouble that I have with God comes rather from the fact that I sometimes—quite often, really— find God to be so utterly aggravating. Frankly, God won’t leave me alone.

Sometimes I think that my life would be simpler if I did not have to take God into account because in taking God into account I find that there are greater expectations, responsibilities, and obligations placed upon me. And if it really is God with whom I have to do—and if it really is God who has to do with me—then the expectations and responsibilities and obligations could hardly be higher—nor could the stakes. After all, if the One with whom I have to do really is God then it is not in this life only but in the life to come that I have to do with that One.

It is the same, although to a lesser degree, with all relationships; they increase the expectations and responsibilities and they raise the stakes. Being a husband does. Or a father. Or a friend. Or a neighbor.

I don’t have to live in any of those ways, by which I mean that no one forced me to choose to live in any of those relationships. I could have withdrawn from society and lived in some secluded place far away from any other person. Even if I could not have managed to live on a deserted island or in a mountain cave I could still have chosen to live without opening myself up to the demands and the risks that are inseparable from personal relationships. I could have limited my personal conversations to statements like “#1 with sweet tea” and “It’s a debit card.” I could have chosen to live being responsible in anything approaching a personal way to no one except me.

I shudder to think, though, how sad and empty my life would be had I chosen that way. I shudder to think of how less human I would be. I shudder to think of how less me I would be.

The people in my life who matter the most to me, the ones to whom I am the closest, the ones in and through whom I find so much of my life’s meaning, are also the most aggravating—by which I mean they never leave me alone, they never stop making demands on me, they never stop causing me to feel responsible to them and for them, even when they are not trying to do those things, which, I am eager to report, they almost never are. They do them just by being there and by being there for me.

It is aggravating.

And it is wonderful.

I would have it no other way because it is precisely in the relationships that place the most responsibilities and demands on me that I find the most excitement, the most fulfillment, and the most meaning.

Yes, my life would be simpler without those people and without the responsibilities and demands they place on me but it would not be as full of joy and possibility and adventure and meaning as it is because they are in it.

That brings me back to why God is so utterly aggravating.

It all comes down, I think, to openness—openness to the possibilities, openness to others, openness to risk, and, to sum it all up, openness to life and to the potential fullness of life. The more open I am to someone else—to all that I can bring to her and that she can bring to me, to all that I can be for him and that he can be for me—the more reward there will be but also the more risk there will be. The more vital and important and necessary a relationship becomes, the more responsibilities and demands and obligations I will feel in it and the more I will want in the depths of my being to live up to and even exceed the maximum requirements—even when I don’t want to.

If it is that way with the people to whom I have opened up my life and who have opened up their lives to me—if so much of the reward is imbedded in the aggravation—how much more that way will it be—must it be—with God?

So here is a new prayer: “Thank you, God, for aggravating me. Please don’t stop. Amen.”

(Please note: the image above is "Jacob Wrestling with God 1" by Georgia Artist Chris Cook. You can learn about Chris and purchase his artwork here.)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

In Defense of the Humble Hypocrite

(A sermon based on Matthew 23:1-12 & Philippians 3:12-21 for Sunday, May 2, 2010)

A few years ago, not long after news about a prominent Christian leader’s moral failures broke, I was watching a televised discussion that involved, among others, Chris Matthews and Tucker Carlson. Matthews was lamenting the hypocrisy of the situation. I was agreeing with what he was saying. It is, after all, terribly damaging when a Christian leader is found to be saying one thing and doing another.

Besides, hypocrisy is a problem that the Gospels tell us was addressed often by Jesus. Indeed, in the balance of Matthew 23, Jesus over and over uses the phrase “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” It really is a problem when we Christians, and especially we Christian leaders (who run the greatest risk of playing the role of modern-day scribes and Pharisees), pretend to be something we are not, claim to be better than we know we are, or hold others to a higher standard than we are willing to apply to ourselves—all of which are characteristics of a hypocrite.

But then Tucker Carlson said something very interesting. He said, “I’ll speak in defense of hypocrisy.” My ears perked up. I was prepared to disagree. Then he explained himself in words like these: “The best of us are hypocrites. If we can honestly say that we are living up to our ideals, then our standards are way too low.”

That got me to thinking. Maybe the ones of us who are in the saddest shape are those of us who are too satisfied with ourselves because we are aiming too low and settling for too little in terms of the standards we are trying to reach. I’m reminded of a book that Lewis Grizzard wrote that was entitled, “Shoot Low, Boys—They’re Riding Shetland Ponies.” Maybe too many of us are aiming at Shetland Ponies when we should be aiming at Clydesdales!

The hypocrisy that is dangerous is arrogant hypocrisy. And we can be arrogant only when we are aiming too low. We can be arrogant about the state of our lives but only if we are willing to believe that far too little is possible and if we are willing to accept far too little progress in our lives.

We aim too low when we are harder on others than we are on ourselves. Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:3). Those leaders did not do what they taught others to do. Since they taught others to do certain things, we can be sure that they expected those people to do those things. But, Jesus said, they did not expect the same of themselves. Do you ever find yourself excusing yourself from being and doing what you know God wants you to be and do but at the same time being hard on others for their failures?

Do you ever practice the hypocrisy that says “I’m ok” but bases that evaluation on the acceptance of standards that are lower than those you apply to others? Then you’re aiming too low.

We aim too low when we settle for adoration by others of our outward goodness. Jesus pointed out that some of the religious leaders of his day did what they did to be seen by others. Now, sometimes, if you do good, you will be noticed. Such is inevitable, ordinary, and acceptable. But if your motive for doing good things or doing right things is to be noticed by others, then you have a problem. Jesus had much to say elsewhere about doing your good works to be seen by people. If you do so, he said, you already have your reward; it is better to do your good works in secret and to be seen by your heavenly Father who will reward you in secret.

You really can fool some of the people some of the time and all of the people some of the time—but you can fool God none of the time. Do you let yourself be rewarded by the adoration of others?

Do you ever practice the kind of arrogant hypocrisy that says “I’m ok because everything that everybody sees of me makes me look like I’m ok”? Then you’re aiming too low.

We aim too low when we value reputation over service. Some of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said, loved to have the seats of honor and to be called by respectful titles in public. They had good reputations and people responded to those reputations with signs of honor and respect.

Again, there is nothing wrong with being respected for who you are and for what you’ve accomplished. But the point of being a Christian is not be looked up to and admired and given positions of honor. The point of being a Christian is to be a servant. Our Lord is the one who gets the highest honor, and he earned his place by giving his life up. We are to be servants to one another and servants to the world.

Do you ever practice the kind of arrogant hypocrisy that says “I’m ok because everybody treats me like I’m ok even though I don’t give myself up for others like Jesus told me to do and showed me how to do?” Then you’re aiming too low.

We aim too low when we focus on self rather than on Christ. Maybe this arrogant hypocrisy all boils down to being more interested in feeling good about yourself than in anything else. Paul said about his opponents in Philippi that “their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). We get in trouble when we let ourselves be governed by our appetites, and most of us have a powerful appetite to feel good about ourselves, to be looked upon positively by others, and to be able to think that we are better than others. Therefore, we are tempted to set standards that we can meet or we find a way to excuse ourselves for violating our standards.

Do you ever practice the kind of arrogant hypocrisy that says “I’m ok because I’m satisfied and fulfilled and because I can excuse my moral lapses because they make me happy?” Then you’re aiming too low.

The hypocrisy that is defensible and even necessary is humble hypocrisy.

My sermon title says, though, that I want to speak in defense of humble hypocrisy, not of arrogant hypocrisy. What’s the difference? Arrogant hypocrisy is self-centered and is willing to accept low standards so that you can feel good about yourself.

Humble hypocrisy is not like that. It never claims to be more than you are. It is never satisfied with where you are. It admits and lives in light of the fact that you have a long way to go. It is rather a hypocrisy that readily admits that our lives don’t yet match the terms that we use to name them (Christian, disciple of Christ, child of God), that our lives don’t yet come up to the ideals that we profess. And it never accepts low standards because its standard is Jesus Christ himself.

Think of it this way. When I say that I am a Christian, am I making a hypocritical statement? In a way, I am. To say that I am a Christian means that I have trusted in Christ as my Savior. I’m pretty comfortable with saying that, although I have to admit that my trust is not always what it should be. But to say that I am a Christian also means that I am a committed disciple of Jesus Christ, that I am dedicated to living life in the way that he modeled for me. I fall short when it comes to that. I say it anyway, and really, I mean it. That’s what I want to be and to do. But I have to admit that I have a long way to go.

Paul said that he had not yet reached the goal of knowing the full power of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. “But,” he said, “I press on to make it my own…. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12b, 13b).

We are heading toward heaven but right now we live on earth—as people who really belong in heaven. We are heading toward complete maturity and transformed bodies that will be ours in the resurrection but right now we have to live in immaturity and in incompleteness on earth—as people who really belong in the full presence of Christ.

Our standard is a heavenly one. Our standard is a holy one. Our standard is Jesus Christ himself. We never live up to it but we are always moving toward it. We live in faith and confidence that he will one day make us all that we are supposed to be and now we do our best in his grace and power to be all that we can be.

Are we rid of self-centeredness? Are we rid of self-interest? Are we rid of all the things that stand in the way of living as Jesus did? And listen to this, the really crucial and central question: are we centered and focused on the cross? Are we growing in our willingness to sacrifice and to serve? Are we willing to accept suffering for Jesus’ sake? Perhaps we’re making progress, but we all have a long way to go.

And so we are hypocrites. We are not all that we claim to be. We do not live up the standards that we should accept for ourselves. Again, if we are living up to our standards, we are aiming too low. But we need to be humble hypocrites. We are saved by the grace of God, we are forgiven by the mercy of God, we are claimed by the love of God, and it is the grace, mercy, and love of God that will see us through.

Let us admit who we are, praise God for his grace, and move forward in discipleship!