Monthly Archives: February 2011

My Pastor is My Hero

Who’s your hero and why? It’s a question we ask first class midshipmen (seniors) at the U. S. Naval Academy during their one-day ethics capstone seminar, which I helped lead yesterday. The most frequent answers are parents, older siblings, coaches, and professional athletes. In all the times I’ve done this seminar, I’ve never heard anyone mention a member of the clergy, whether priest, minister, or rabbi. Why is that? Maybe our society is becoming more secular or perhaps it just sounds too dorky to say, “My pastor is my hero.”

Then I started thinking about the answers middies gave to the question why?  In those cases where the students picked someone they knew personally, time was key. Parents, older brothers and sisters, and coaches all spend significant amounts of time with their children, siblings, and athletes, respectively. They form mentoring relationships. Pastors, on the other hand, are often overwhelmed, overworked, and overbooked. As a consequence, they have limited contact with the young people in their churches, even those who attend regularly. Somewhere between the first and twenty-first century discipleship turned into a program, and youth ministry became a sub-specialization or mere stepping-stone to the pastorate.

Maybe we clergy have gotten our ministry priorities wrong. Is it possible we put too much emphasis on once-a-week, in-front-of-the-congregation preaching and teaching events? Perhaps we need to make time for coaching little league, serving as scoutmasters, or tutoring kids in afterschool programs. We also need to do some soul searching about what kind of role models we are for our own children. Instead of aspiring to lead multi-staff churches with big budgets and high attendance, maybe we should look for small group and bivocational ministries where we can pour more of ourselves into fewer lives—like Jesus who spent most of his time training twelve disciples. What we need is a Jerry Maguire philosophy of ministry: “Fewer clients. Less money.”

If we do that, maybe some young people will have reason to say, “My pastor is my hero.”

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Happy Birthday, Mr. Washington!

The Prayer at Valley Forge by Arnold Friberg (1913-2010)

Today we celebrate the birthday of a childless man who fathered our nation: George Washington. For  each of the past four years our family has made the pilgrimage to Mount Vernon to pay our respects, stroll the grounds of his plantation overlooking the Potomac, and eat peanut soup. (Okay, we tried the peanut soup last year and didn’t like it that much.)

Washington was a private man who lived a life of public service. He never wrote his autobiography, likely because he feared that as a self-taught Virginia farm boy he couldn’t compete in literary matters with peers like Thomas Jefferson, the polymath, and Bejamin Franklin, the practical sage.

If I could pick a word to describe Washington it would be the Latin word “gravitas” from which we get our word “gravity.” It’s difficult to translate into English, but it means something like “dignity.” Washington was a military commander and statesman par excellence. And according to at least one recent historian, he may have been a truly devout Christian, not a Deist as is often claimed (Lillback, George Washington’s Sacred Fire, 2006).

So happy birthday, Mr. Washington!

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An Impossible Standard?

In the Ancient Near East, one of the most basic principles of law was “an eye for an eye,” called the law of reciprocity. We find it in both the Babylonian King Hammurabi’s Law Code (ca. 1780 BCE) and in the Old Testament Mosaic Law (Lev. 24:19-21, Deu. 19:16-21). The purpose was to limit vengeance, not encourage it. If your neighbor poked out your eye, you could poke out one of his eyes, not both. If a person committed murder, the perpetrator alone should be put to death, not his family.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us a new rule: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”(Mat. 5:38-39). This is one of the most famous sayings of Jesus and yet one of the least followed. It goes against human nature, legal tradition, and even common sense.

Nobody likes being picked on. Everybody wants a bully to get his comeuppance. Like Plato, however, Jesus taught it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong, even if you’re in the right.

The world would be a much nicer place if all people lived by Jesus’ maxim, but they don’t. So why should I? It’s like nuclear disarmament. The world would be a safer place if we got rid of all nuclear weapons; however, the governments that have them don’t want to disarm unilaterally. It’s too risky.

Instead of the Golden Rule we prefer the opposite: “Do unto others what they do unto you.” An eye for an eye. That’s a lot easier and more practical. You don’t have to become a pacifist or oppose the death penalty or allow people to take advantage of you.

Jesus gave us a seemingly impossible standard for morality. You’d have to be perfect to live the way he taught us in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, in the same passage he said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Mat. 5:48). Jesus’ teachings sound like unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky ideals for a utopian society, not the real world we live in.

We couldn’t possibly live the way Jesus taught us to, could we?

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Am I a Christian?

John Wesley (ca. 1766) by Nathaniel Hone, oil on canvas, 49 1/2 x 39 1/4, National Portrait Gallery, London

Am I a Christian? I have been asking myself this question today. It’s not that I’ve done anything particularly bad. Nor am I struggling with my faith. I’ve been reading John Wesley, the eighteenth-century founder of Methodism. A Moravian pastor once asked him, Do you know Jesus Christ? Wesley was a clergyman and a missionary, yet he was shaken by the question. Although he answered in the affirmative, he feared his words “were in vain.”

In fundamentalist Christian circles, certainty is the hallmark of true faith. I remember one Baptist layman asking an evangelism prospect, “How sure are you that you’re going to Heaven—50, 75, or 100 percent?” The right answer was 100. Anything less meant you weren’t saved. At least that’s what he believed.

But true faith does not preclude healthy introspection, or even doubt. St. Paul told the Christians at Corinth, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:2). Being willing to question your faith and entertain doubts is a sign of humility, not unbelief. That’s something I appreciate about Wesley. He honestly examined his heart and life. He was willing to ask himself, Am I a Christian? Are you?

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