Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why Kentucky Should Pay Attention to Indiana

Been a while since I've given an opinion on college basketball beyond my Tournament picks. After all, Hoosier fans don't have a lot to say about ethics in basketball in the post-Bob Knight era.

But really, the Sampson debacle should give Kentucky fans pause. Indiana basketball, determined to climb back to the top and recover its mojo after Mike Davis' reign, hired an ethically-challenged but nationally-known coach to lead its program back to the promised land. Sampson landed two top recruiting classes, but repeatedly was in trouble with the NCAA for violations first at his previous head coaching job and then at Indiana. In addition, he brought at-risk kids to surround his one prize recruit; it all came tumbling down toward the end of the 2007-08 season. When Tom Crean came in to fix the program, he had two scholarship players left who averaged 1.8 points between them.

The news from John Calipari today reminded me so much of the Sampson fiasco. Let's see: according to Coach Cal's bio, he took UMass to the Final Four and was the national coach of the year in 1996; what he didn't mention was that the season and Final Four appearance was vacated by the NCAA for major program violations. And according to his UK bio, he took Memphis to the Final Four and was the national coach of the year in 2008. But now we discover that his program that year also had major violations and will most likely lead to vacating the season and the championship game appearance.

Which means that at least during his two best seasons, Coach Cal (or his staff, who reports to him and for which he is responsible) cheated. Which means if I was a Kentucky fan, I'd be very nervous. UK just needs to look across the Ohio River to see what happens when an ethically-challenged coach leads your history-rich program. The aftermath is a painful thing to watch.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Back on Calvin Blog

This week is my second week on the Reformation 21 Calvin's Institutes blog. The first two posts are here and here

Thursday, May 21, 2009

True repentance rests on God's goodness

"Yet we must remember to exercise restraint, lest sorrow engulf us. For nothing more readily happens to fearful consciences than falling into despair. And also by this stratagem, whomever Satan sees overwhelmed by the fear of God he more and more submerges in that deep whirlpool of sorrow that they may never rise again. That fear cannot, indeed, be too great which ends in humility, and does not depart from the hope of pardon. Nevertheless, in accordance with the apostle's injunction the sinner ought always to beware lest, while he worries himself into dissatisfaction weighed down by excessive fear, he become faith. For in this way we flee from God, who calls us to himself through repentance.

"On this matter, Bernard's admonition is also useful: 'Sorrow for sins is necessary if it be not unremitting. I beg you to turn your steps back sometimes from troubled and anxious remembering of your ways, and to go forth to the tableland of serene remembrance of God's benefits. Let us mingle honey with wormwood that its wholesome bitterness may bring health when it is drunk tempered with sweetness. If you take thought upon yourselves in your humility, take thought likewise upon the Lord in his goodness" (Calvin, Institutes, 3.3.15).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Grace Precedes Repentance

"We mean to show that a man cannot apply himself seriously to repentance without knowing himself to belong to God. But no one is truly persuaded that he belongs to God unless he has first recognized God's grace...No one will ever reverence God but him who trusts that God is propitious to him. No one will gird himself willingly to observe the law but him who will be persuaded that God is pleased by his obedience. This tenderness in overlooking and tolerating vices is a sign of God's fatherly favor" (Calvin, Institutes, 3.3.2).

Thoughts on Dan Brown

These were excellent thoughts on Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. I thought the salient paragraph was this one:

In the Brownian worldview, all religions — even Roman Catholicism — have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true. It’s a message perfectly tailored for 21st-century America, where the most important religious trend is neither swelling unbelief nor rising fundamentalism, but the emergence of a generalized “religiousness” detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition.

What is so ironic is that this view--that religion is in a separate sphere, one that is only accessible by intuition or sentiment and one that is not verifiable by typical canons of knowing that characterize the rest of the world; hence, all religions actually are useful for "spirituality" or "religiousness" and not for truth--is the fundamental worldview of modernity. This modern worldview developed from the work of Immanuel Kant, who separated Phenomena (the appearance of things verifiable by scientific testing) from the Noumena (the substance of things that are unverifiable and ultimately reside in the mind of God). 

The result of Kant's philosophical move was to create a dualistic world that separated science from faith, matter from Spirit. Theologically, this worldview was best articulated by Protestant Liberalism, which sought to distinguish "abiding truths" from "changing (theological) categories" and which ultimately tried to cordon off theology from the acids of history. In our day, this generally pervasive attitude that separates truth from religious claims is actually based on a worldview that is only about 200 years old and which finds its best proponents among mainstream Protestants who have generally set aside the historically-based truth claims of Christianity. 

What is odd to me is that the upshot of Dan Brown's work has not been to turn people back toward mainstream Protestantism, but to turn people away from the church (and Christianity) completely. It reminds me of C. S. Lewis' The Last Battle in which the cynical creation of Tashlan ultimately inoculates the Narnians against the truth of Aslan--because truth and reality itself was drawn into question on the behalf of a pluralistic, general religiosity, the Narnians would not and could not believe. 

At the end of the day, our best hope--both in answering the claims of Dan Brown and the worldview behind it--is not simply to debunk his historical claims point by point (as several excellent books did after The Da Vinci Code movie came out), but to question the essentially modern, Kantian worldview that helps Brown make sense. After all, Christianity is faith based on historical facts, none more important than Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for sinners on Calvary and rose bodily the third day from the grave. If that is not true in a way that destroys the dualism between phenomena and noumena, then we of all people are most hopeless.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Baccalaureate Benediction

I like to post these benedictions; you can find others here, here, and here. This was from Covenant Seminary's Baccalaureate, May 14, 2009:

Men and women of God,
as those thoroughly equipped for every good work,
may God grant you
confidence in the God-breathed Word;
competence by the Spirit's empowerment; and
complete delight in the God who loved you 
all the way to Jesus' cross and empty tomb.
Go with God's peace,

Friday, May 08, 2009

Eugene Peterson on Pastoral Ministry

I love reading Eugene Peterson. I find him hugely helpful for my own self-reflection as a minister. Right now, I'm reading Under the Unpredictable Plant, which focuses on vocational holiness and which is classic Peterson. Because I'm enjoying him again, I decided to do a bit of a google search. I ran across this excellent interview and resonated with this section:

How did you become a pastor?

I think I was attracted to the intense relational and personal quality of this life. At the time I decided to become a pastor, I was assistant professor at a seminary. I loved the teaching, but when I compared it with what I was doing as an associate pastor, there was no comparison. It was the difference between being a coach in the locker room, working out plays on the chalkboard, and being one of the players on the field. I wanted to be one of the players on the field, playing my part as the life of Christ was becoming incarnate again in my community.

That’s interesting, because if there’s one life that many pastors idealize, it’s the academic life.

That’s strange, isn’t it? When people say, "I don’t want to be a pastor, I want to be a professor," I say, "Well, the best place to be a teacher is in a congregation." Everything I taught during my tenure at Regent College was first developed and taught in my congregation. At Regent, of course, I embellished it. I put in footnotes. But the motivation of the people in the classroom was different from those in the congregational setting: they were looking for a degree, whereas in the congregation, people are looking for how to live the next day.

What is Church Government? no. 2

Out June 1st. Buy it for yourself, friends, loved ones, neighbors, and church officers. 

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Why Johnny Can't Preach

I had seen Dr. T. David Gordon's provocative little book, Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, in the catalogs and was eager to read it. My interest was heightened by some Internet chatter about the book and the comments others had made to me about the book. So, when the Seminary bookstore finally got it, I picked it up and just finished it. I think I can give the book no higher praise than this: Dr. Gordon may be a curmudgeon, but he is right.

And he is right on two major counts. First, Gordon is right to pin the reason why Johnny can't preach on the cultural forces that have affected the way ministerial students and young ministers read texts and compose arguments. Most of us in the educational world bemoan the inability of many of our students to produce basic outlines, shape rudimentary arguments, or craft reasoned essays. Some of us even go so far as to give students a basic framework in the syllabus for writing the essays for which we look and yet it is shocking how students are unable to follow even such suggestions.

This is an aside by way of example. In one syllabus, I have: "the first three paragraphs of your essay are introductory, so tell me who wrote the book, where does the author teach, what does the author say are his reasons for writing the book, and finally what is his argument; in the next two pages, summarize his argument in three major points; in the next two pages, evaluate his argument in the light of class readings and lectures; in the final paragraph suggest whether you liked the book and whether you would recommend it to another." You would be surprised how few students can even follow this basic formula for a book review essay.

Further, many students cannot read texts closely. As a teacher, some of my most disappointing classes have been electives run seminar style, based on the close reading of primary source texts. When students are unable to reference "chapter and verse" from Kuyper, Edwards, Bushnell or Hodge, pointing the class to a particular page, summarizing the point, and advancing the argument, it devolves to me having to do that for the class. In the end, many of these electives become my own running dialogue with the text with the students listening in. This may provide a nice modeling opportunity, but it is disappointing--because I hope to learn from the students, which doesn't happen when I do all the talking.

Some of the Covenant Seminary faculty have talked about whether we need to rework the MDiv curriculum to include a first semester professional seminar, which would cover things like "how to read a book" and "how to write a paper." Clearly our cultural forces and our educational system are failing to give our students the tools and sensitivities necessary to read texts well and compose clear arguments. And, as Gordon notes, this will inevitably affect the way men preach.

Second, Gordon is right that the content of preaching must center repeatedly and insistently on the person and work of Jesus Christ. His discussion of the evangelical content of preaching in chapter four is priceless--he diagnoses four alternative types of preaching (moralism, how-to, introspection, culture warrior), demonstrates the difficulties, and points back to robust Christ-centered exposition. And while I may quibble with one point--namely, when he observes that the pulpit is almost never the place to enforce moral behavior or raise questions for the complacent to examine themselves (pp. 90-1); I wonder then what he would do with the imperative sections of Paul's Epistles--the main point does not lose its force.

A thoughtful and thought-provoking book, it was well-worth the two hours it took me to breeze through the 100 pages or so. But the points that Gordon raises will be with me for weeks, months, and even years to come. In fact, I think I need to go now--I'm going to buy Shakespeare's sonnets and have myself a good read.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Pastor as Minor Poet

Over the past couple of days, I finished reading a new little book by Craig Barnes, professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and senior minister at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in that city. The book was titled, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life; I found the book extremely helpful in several ways.

First, the entire image of poetry to capture the ministerial life is extremely provocative. Of all the literature I've read, it comes closest to evoking Max Dupree's view of leading as an art form rather than a technique or science. And clearly, pastoral ministry is an art--the ability to see below the surface, below the "text" of a given situation or even the biblical text to the deeper "meaning" buried between the lines, within, above, or under a given situation, is hugely important. It is important not just for survival (important in its own right), but to minister the Gospel in such a way that it meets the person's real need, not simply the presenting issue.

Second, in reconstructing pastoral identity away from being "a quivering mass of availability" (Barnes uses this wonderful phrase from Stan Hauerwas), Barnes draws repeatedly, deftly, and quietly on the resources of the Reformed tradition: it is not your ministry, it is Christ's; it is not your identity, but Christ's in which we participate through union with him; the Gospel is not about you, but you are about it; and the sufficiency of God's love in Christ to sustain us despite (not because of) our performance. So much of our tradition echoes through the book but is done so deftly (can't think of a better word) that I found it a rich theological feast.

Third, Barnes was wonderfully realistic about the pastoral life. The fact is that the congregation can be quite "unpoetic" at times, blind to the meaning beneath their lives' texts, unable to recognize that the presenting issue is not the real issue, content with the often pointless and yet safety of small talk. And yet, the pastoral role is to "mole" beneath the surface and travel in the subterranean highways of the human soul--in order to do this, there must be an equal sense of comfort with the "major poetry" (the Bible and Christian tradition) and the particularity of this human with whom I'm talk about the weather. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found it stimulating, especially reflecting on five years of ministry here in St. Louis and an upcoming transition back to congregational ministry Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Above all, I appreciated Barnes' concluding words: "The pastor lives by the belief that Jesus Christ holds all things together, and it is for this Savior that the harried souls in the pews truly yearn...So there they sit, frantic and frazzled, but daring to hope that there really is a sacred Word that can fill their deep yearning. The name of that word is Jesus Christ, and the minor poet gets to reveal his mysterious presence every Sunday."

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

No more website

For those who care, I decided to discontinue my website ( I set it up as a gateway for people who wanted to contact me for PowerPoint slides for On Being Presbyterian. But right now, those PPT slides can be found on the Seminary's website and in the future we'll have them available at the First Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, website. Plus, I wanted to save the $14 a month.