Systems and Numbers

I like systems.  I like plans.  I like balancing my checkbook and working on a personal budget.  For some this obsessive-compulsive organizational architecture marks me as fairly strange, but I see it as essential.

We know that organization and discipline–whether it be financial, concerning personal health, time management, or coordination of life goals–can be a struggle for many people.  This is why shows like The Biggest Loser and gurus like Dave Ramsey have become so popular.

Yet it is not just individuals who face disconcerting questions about their ability at self-management.  Churches (together with other organizations large and small) must address the reality of unclear thinking and disordered systems as well.  To meet this need, there has been a lot written in the area of church management and vision/purpose alignment.  Of the latter, Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Church is as good an example as any.

In my “Discipleship and Spiritual Formation” class we have also been talking about various systems and models of discipleship.  This past week we’ve had extensive discussion on the book Activate, which presents a compelling case for a specific and developed small group structuring of the local church.  It is a great manual for those thinking about this kind of congregational model.

As you would expect, I laud this turn towards thinking systematic thinking.  At the same time, I also caution my students about putting too much faith in a “cookie cutter” or “one-size-fits-all” model of ministry.  The temptation for the minister is to hear or read about the hot new trend and immediately implement it in their congregation without thought for their unique context.  Similarly, overemphasis on “the system” can ignore important contingencies that emerge, even while causing leaders to persist in something that is most definitely not working.  All in the name of the system!

Jesus once said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  That too was a system (and a good one!) but not one to which we were meant to be enslaved.

Remember: the system is there to help you, not you to keep the system going!  Use what works in your context, and do not be afraid to cast aside that which fails.


Republican Gestalt

The Republican primaries in Michigan and Arizona will soon be a thing of the past…though will go no further in helping conclusively decide the party’s nominee.  Mitt Romney seems sure to win in Arizona, but his trouble convincing voters in his “home state” of Michigan and Rick Santorum’s rise there means that this little dance will probably go on for a little while longer.

I’d be afraid to bet who’ll win in Michigan tonight, but suffice it to say that it won’t be by very much.  If Santorum pulls out the victory, chaos continues to reign.  If Romney manages to win, things will be a little more stable…but only a little.

The problem with this year’s Republican presidential primaries is that the four remaining candidates are each attractive and flawed at the same time.  I’ve highlighted their individual drawbacks elsewhere, but consider: each of them has a particular strength that is attractive to the conservative electorate:

  • Ron Paul appeals to the libertarian elements that desire, above all else, freedom.
  • Rick Santorum fires the passions of social conservatives who feel lost in a changing world.
  • Newt Gingrich carries the mantle of the fighter–and no small amount of governmental experience.
  • Mitt Romney has the presidential “look,” the organization, and the financial acumen to address their economic woes.

    He would, however, be very afraid of fire.

A conservative friend of mine likes to say “Anybody But Obama.”  For many Republicans this is a truism.  The problem is that, this year, the GOP cannot turn this generic “anybody” into a specific “somebody” they can all agree on.

If it were possible to meld these four men together into some sort of Frankenstein-candidate, I think the Republicans would have their nominee.  He would be a truly formidable opponent for Barack Obama and likely win the November election.

Barring this unlikely eventuality, they are going to have their work cut out for themselves over the next 8 months.

Bono & Karl Barth

As I continued my Lenten reading last night in Karl Barth’s Romerbrief, I lighted upon a passage that spoke to me in an interesting way:

“Fugitive is the soul in this world and soulless is the world, when men do not find themselves within the sphere of the knowledge of the unknown God, when they avoid the true God in whom they and the world must lost themselves in order that they may both find themselves again.

This is the Cause of the Night in which we are wandering: this is also the Cause of the Wrath of God which has been manifested over our heads.”

Barth’s words resonated with my own understanding of a world deeply caught in night–as violence in Syria and bloodshed in Ohio remind us even today.  Issues of lostness and soullessness and darkness pervade our existence, and only in God’s Light may we find our way out.

I also liked his words because they reminded me of one of my other favorite theologians: Bono of U2.  In their seminal album Achtung Baby the band has a track called “Ultraviolet (Light My Way).”  Almost psalmically, Bono implores “Baby, baby, baby light my way”:

And the day is as dark as the night is long
Feel like trash, you make me feel clean
I’m in the black, can’t see or be seen

my favorite lyric, however (and perhaps my favorite line of all time) is the crescendo he hits right here:

When I was all messed up
And I had opera in my head
Your love was a light bulb
Hanging over my bed

I don’t know if Bono intended the meaning I draw from this song, but I’ll take it anyway.  Powerful stuff.  This on the same album, of course, where Bono earlier claims “It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky/It’s no secret that our world is in darkness tonight” before baldly stating that “The universe exploded ’cause of one man’s lie.”

Thankfully, one Man’s Truth has provided the way back from the depths of our shared night.

Saturday Remainders

A few thought-provoking pieces from around the web:

1.  From Forbes via Kenda Creasy Dean, the sad report of an unfortunate trend where teen girls post videos of themselves on Youtube and ask the world to tell them if they are ugly, fat, etc.  In the words of the author, “Absolutely nothing good can come of this.”

2.  Mark Driscoll has gotten into trouble once again, this time over church discipline.  Is the article a legitimate critique of growing cult-like tendencies within Driscoll’s church, or a secular attack on an historic Christian prerogative?

3.  Your election piece of the week:  have the Republicans effectively destroyed their chances at winning the election this fall?
Feel free to share your thoughts!

For Trekkie Eyes Only

As you’ve probably noticed from reading this blog, I’m a big science fiction fan and have been for a long time.

I’d seen Star Wars as a kid and had some awareness that “Star Trek” was a thing, but didn’t really get into this world until junior high.  Our school library had a series of novelizations of Star Trek episodes authored by science fiction writer James Blish, and I took full advantage of this fact.

Meeting Kirk, Spock, McCoy and others through the printed page thrilled me to no end.  New vistas of storytelling and wonder at the “final frontier” now opened on the horizon.  While others delved deeply into the world of comics and graphic novels, I was reading Star Trek books like Prime Directive and Spock’s World and enjoying the many episodes offered by the franchise’s various incarnations.

I could go on a lengthy discussion of Star Trek‘s merits, but would rather point out a few exciting Trek facts of which fans should be aware:

  • A supposedly “lost” original and unfilmed Star Trek script as has been found!  You can read about the story here, or buy the script from Amazon.  I think the cast of the new movie should produce the episode…just for fun!
  • Star Trek novels continue to be published, telling new and exciting stories set in the Roddenberry universe.  Take a look at this list of upcoming releases.
  • If you’re hungry for more Star Trek on the small screen, take a look at the fan-made series called Star Trek: Phase II.  The acting and effects are a little rough, but…wait, this is Star Trek we’re talking about here!
  • The world of the comic books has a number of different related series, the most intriguing called “Star Trek” that reimagines classic episodes of the 1960s series in the new universe of the most recent Star Trek movie.  Exciting stuff!
  • Most interesting:  news of an official Star Trek/Doctor Who crossover!  What, you say?  That’s right: the man from Gallifrey will finally bump into the Enterprise!

The Power of the One-Liner

Ah, the one-liner.  The joke that makes you chuckle.  The meme that features talking cats.  The historical quotation that makes you go “hmmm.”  The quasi-spiritual saying that clutters up our Twitter feeds and Facebook statuses.  We all post them from time to time.

Short sayings are simple but memorable.  The best of them grab you by the scruff of the neck and won’t let you go.  Yet as out brave new world of social media has elevated these to an art form, there are often a lot of trite sentences attempting to pass for profundity.  Comments in this vein mistake style for content and neglect to remember that the best brief quotations only you to something deeper, reminding you in their few words that a simple sentence cannot exhaust reality.

In his introductory comments to his Commentary on Romans, theologian Karl Barth both revels in the one-liner while using them to undermine the idea that they as simple statements can ever be enough.  In the following few sentences (each one worthy of Facebook status), he makes the following claim:

“The simplicity which proceeds from the apprehension of God in the Bible and elsewhere, the simplicity with which God Himself speaks, stands not at the beginning of our journey but at its end. Thirty years hence we may perhaps speak of simplicity, but now let us speak of truth. For us neither the Epistle to the Romans, nor the present theological position, nor the present state of the world, nor the relation between God and the world, is simple. And he who is now concerned with truth must boldly acknowledge that he cannot be simple. In every direction human life is difficult and complicated.” (p. 5)

I’m no Barth scholar, but I’m beginning to see why this work in particular became so influential.  In a few words in each of these sentences, he reminds us that truth cannot be exhausted in these same sentences.

Life, my friends, is a lot more complicated than that.

Ashes to Ashes

Today is Ash Wednesday, the traditional start of the Lenten season in the Western Church.  Though Lent is–as many of my students here at Northwest might tell me–a non-biblical tradition, it is a powerful one that speaks to the depth of our humanity and the heart of the Christian faith.

Lent often begins on this day with a church service and the “impositions of ashes” which reminds us that it is dust from which we come and dust to which we will return.  A fitting start to the Lenten season, in which preparation for the Cross (and the Resurrection) turn us inward as we reflect on the life and death of Christ and our sinful frailty.  I’ve observed Lent for over a decade now, and commend it to you regardless of your denominational background.

It is tradition to penitentially “give something up” during this season to remind us our of limits and Christ’s sufferings.  Some abstain from certain kinds of food.  Others have given up Facebook between now and Easter.  Still others have decided to “take on” something new: a spiritual discipline, acts of service, study of a particular book of the Bible, or more regular prayer.  I encourage you to consider making the choice to do something similar this Lent!

One of the things I will be doing this year is reading through Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans.  The book is, in short, Barth’s response to the positive yet ultimately empty theologies of his day in favor of a new and more realistic approach focused on the person of Christ.  I know that historically it is one of the most important theological works of the 20th century, but I’ve never read it.  I look forward to changing that fact over the next few weeks and plan on sharing some of what I’ve learned on this blog.

Enough about me.  It is Ash Wednesday.  What will you give up or take on?