Saturday, August 31, 2019

Corner Lot

Welcome to Robby McAlpine’s corner lot in the sprawling multi-megatropolis of Greater Blogdom.

Robby, a.k.a. “robbymac”, has been blogging since 2003. Curated here is a sampling of his blog’s most-popular posts—or most infamous, depending on your point of view—as well as a few of Robby’s favorites.

Robby’s style of writing often includes what’s known as “creative non-fiction”—the creation of fictional characters and scenarios to shine a new light and perspective on biblical, theological, and church-related topics. The majority of the posts (articles? short stories?) archived here would fit into that category.
For those who keep track of such things, Robby’s most-viewed “creative non-fiction” post is #metoo—WWJD?
Links to the books Robby has written can be found in the website navigation bar, or the sidebar at right.

Thanks for stopping by! We hope you enjoy your visit.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Fade to Black

Is there a patron saint for writers?

I pondered the question as I took another sip of my pint. The patio area outside our favorite pub was roughly half-full, and I’d managed to commandeer a table in the back corner, nestled against the pub’s turn-of-the-century brick façade.

The breeze rustled the nearest trees, sending a dappled kaleidoscope of light-and-shadow patterns across the patio. It was a perfect mid-summer’s evening.

The Catholic mystic, Francis de Sales, is traditionally recognized as the patron saint of writers and journalists. But for aspiring writers of my generation—carving out our first literary creations on manual carriage-and-ink-ribbon typewriters—the venerable Snoopy, perched atop his doghouse in defiance of the law of gravity, was the more obvious choice.

A shadow loomed over my table, and I glanced up to see the mischievous face of the Younger, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Barista from the Genesis Café. The Elder peeked from behind them, waving a friendly greeting.

“The patio—always my favorite.” The Elder’s enthusiasm was evident as he shouldered past his companions to seat himself beside me. He folded his hands on the table, beaming a delighted smile.

The Younger assisted the Barista into her chair, and plunked himself down opposite me. “Parking’s a lot easier in the winter,” he commented ruefully. “But once you’ve found the best pub in town. . .”

“Aye, there’s a wee lad who knows wot’s wot.” The Barkeep sidled over to our table, slinging his bar-cloth over his shoulder. “What bevvies can I bring the lot of ye?”
Elder (looking confused, as if there could be only one rational answer): “Guinness.”

Younger (loftily): “Double IPA.”

Barista (shuddering at the Younger’s choice): “Hard apple cider, please.”

Me (hoisting my nearly-empty glass): “More of the same.”

Barkeep: mutters under his breath and retreats into the pub.
“Is it true what I’ve heard?” The Elder leaned forward, addressing the Barista. “You’ve quit your job at the Café?”

The Barista grinned brightly at him. “Today was my last shift. In two weeks, we’re moving to the Centre of the Universe. I’ll be doing my BFA at Ryerson.”

“Bachelor of Fine Arts,” the Younger stage-whispered, translating for the Elder’s benefit.

The Barista continued as if she hadn’t heard the Younger’s comment. “I’ve been picking away at photography classes at college, but my husband and I—we decided it’s taking too long. So, we’re just going to dive in, head first. He’s an I.T. guy. Finding work won’t be hard for him while I’m in school full-time.”

“That’s very wise. You’ve obviously given this a great deal of thought,” the Elder replied, nodding. His words sounded like a benediction. “Although, I have to say: I’ll be sorry to see you go. The Genesis Café won’t be the same without you.”

“Aw, thanks.” The Barista’s expression turned serious for a moment, but her infectious grin won out. “It's been a great place to work, but that season’s over. ‘You can’t live in the past,’ or so everyone tells me. It’s time for the next chapter.”

The Barkeep reappeared with a dramatic flourish, distributing our drinks around the table. He tucked the serving tray under his arm and sketched an awkward salute at the Younger and Elder. “This round’s on the house, gents. Just a way for me and the missus to say thanks for your patronage.”

“Yours, too, young lady,” he hastened to add, nodding at the Barista. He waved a hand at the Elder, stopping him before he could speak. “Naw, don’t say nuthin’. It’s the least we could do for two men o’ the cloth, especially since you're no bringin' weapons wit' ye anymore.”

And with that, he spun on his heel and disappeared into the pub.

“And what about you, Robby?” The Younger rounded on me before the door finished closing. I noticed neither he nor the Elder seemed inclined to respond to the Barkeeps cryptic weapons reference. “What’s all this about your new writing adventures?”

“It’s like our creative colleague just said.” I nodded at the Barista, who returned my look with a playful shrug. “It’s a new season—a transitional interlude between one writing genre and the next.”

“That’s a fancy way of saying you’re moving on,” the Younger countered. He toyed with his drink, running a finger absentmindedly around the rim of the glass. “After sixteen years—you’re actually going to pull the plug.”

“A time to write, and a time to write something completely different.” I knew it was a lame joke even as I said it, and I hesitated, not knowing how to adequately express my thoughts.

Not surprisingly, it was the Elder who came to my rescue. “There are times and seasons, my friends. Remember Jesus’ words? ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ (John 3:8) I believe this is one of those times.”

The Younger leaned back in his chair, uncharacteristically subdued. He locked eyes with me, and I’m certain he looked a little misty.

“Thank you for giving us a voice,” he said at last, his voice cracking. He took a deep breath, glancing at his companions. “Thanks for giving each of us a voice.”

It took me a moment to collect myself. “It’s been my pleasure, and an honour. I’m going to miss you guys.”

The Barista stirred, wiping away a tear, and managed a watery grin. “Give my regards to Deven.”

I stood, reaching for my writer’s notebook. “I will. And—there’s no good segue for this—I think it’s time for me to be on my way.”

I gestured at my notebook. “I’ve got a first draft in desperate need of editing, and a writer’s conference next weekend…”

The Elder held his Guinness aloft, a nostalgic twinkle in his eye. “To the King and His Kingdom.”

The rest of our little group clinked glasses with him, accompanied by a ragged echo of his words. “To the King and His Kingdom.”

Each of us drained our drink in a prolonged swallow. The Younger gestured at me with his empty glass, his facetious humour resurfacing. “You sure you want to drive after pounding that back?”

I laughed as I gingerly replaced the glass on the tabletop. “Actually, I think I’d like to take one last walk along the waterfront. I’ll be fine.”

I looked around the circle of faces. “And you?”

There was a moment’s hesitation as the Barista, the Younger, and the Elder exchanged glances. As if by unspoken consent, the Elder spoke on their behalf.

“We thought we’d go inside for one last round of curry fries, for old time’s sake.” He tipped an imaginary hat at me. “Drive friendly.”

I nodded, returning his gesture with my own nonexistent hat. I shook hands with the Barista and the Younger, and set off down the sidewalk.

I’d gone perhaps half a block when I found my steps slowing in the early dusk. I came to a complete standstill, my eyes roving over the quiet street, the placid lake to my right, and the empty boardwalk.

I glanced over my shoulder in time to see the Younger—silhouetted in the entryway—as he gallantly held the door open for the Barista and the Elder. They made a show of accepting his magnanimous gesture as they entered the pub, and I could only imagine the clever one-liners they traded back and forth.

The door swung shut behind them, and the light was abruptly cut off.
To the King and His Kingdom.
The Elder’s words echoed in my mind as I rounded the corner, and the pub disappeared from view.

I quickened my pace as a moon-less night descended, cloaking the street in darkness. The evening chill brought with it a ground-level fog, blurring the outlines of the buildings. Streetlights—glowing sentinels spaced at regular intervals—provided scant illumination.

I halted as two figures emerged from an alley just ahead. A young man, probably in his late-twenties, shadowed by a younger female companion. His clothing was dark and sturdy; she wore threadbare jeans and an over-sized hoodie.

“Can I help you?” I asked, uncertain what this chance meeting might mean.

They came closer, and I could see them clearly, confirming my first impression of their ages. Their faces reflected an unsettling urgency, coupled with exhaustion. Or perhaps fear.

“I’m Amos, and this is Aubrey.” The young man’s voice was raspy, and his eyes darted back and forth, scanning the street as if he feared we were under surveillance.

Aubrey stepped into the streetlight’s circle of radiance, her dark eyes haunted.

“We’ve got a story to tell,” she said, brushing a strand of hair from her face with a fire-scarred hand . . .

(fade to black)

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Campfire Ghost Stories

The crackling fire provided a calming soundtrack to their yearly gathering.

A log shifted, and a swirl of sparks gusted heavenward, the sizzling sound accented by a choir of crickets in the darkness and the occasional blip of unseen fish breaking the surface of the tranquil lake.

“There is nothing new under the sun.” The Scholar quoted perhaps the most oft-repeated phrase from his area of expertise. “What we are experiencing today was known to the ancients just as well.”

The Historian nodded solemnly, his every mannerism soaked in the aura of musty books and tweed. “Same as it ever was,” he agreed.

The Younger spoke up, brows knit together as he carefully rotated the marshmallow he was attempting to brown without burning.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s a normal spiritual rhythm,” he mused. “My friends’ attitudes feel more like they’ve given up on their faith. And they don’t want to hear anything from me about it—they’ve made that clear. I feel handcuffed. Our faith used to be one of the things that bonded us, but now it’s become That Which Must Not Be Named.”

The Elder sipped his coffee—‘black, the way God drinks it’—and said nothing, content to allow his circle of friends to answer.

“The human heart has a rather predictable tendency to wander.” The Scholar puffed on his pipe, smoke wreathing around his long face. “The ancient Israelites, followers of Yahweh, forgot their covenant and fell into idolatry with alarming frequency.”

He paused for a moment, his thoughtful countenance illuminated by the flickering firelight. “Yet Yahweh was faithful even when they were not, sending prophets and leaders to turn them back to their faith. Nehemiah reading the Law to the people after rebuilding Jerusalem, for example. Or perhaps King Josiah’s discovery of the Torah in the ruins of the Temple and his subsequent reforms.”

“Church history is a record of the same pattern.” The Historian took up the narrative, shifting on the log he sat upon, searching for a more comfortable position. “The post-Nicean priesthood was no stranger to corruption, and there were many ‘reforming’ movements within the Catholic Church, long before the Reformation.”

“Isn’t that why there’s so many Protestant denominations?” The Younger came close to interrupting in his eagerness. “A new movement seeking to recapture the life of the New Testament church?”

The Historian smiled faintly. “Yes, but also many aberrant movements ended in heresy, even as they advertised themselves as returning to ‘biblical’ Christianity. One must be discerning.”

He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, staring into the campfire. “But it’s also quite true that the Holy Ghost was faithful to bring ‘revival’—if I may use the term—to rejuvenate a passion for Jesus even in a cold-hearted, corrupted church or denomination. If there was ecclesiastical resistance . . . Well, those whose hearts had been ‘revived’ were often given little recourse but to break away.”

“That reminds me of King Saul being replaced by David—the ‘man after God’s own heart’.” The Scholar knocked his pipe against his knee, dislodging the dead embers. Whether or not he intended his action as a metaphor was impossible to tell.

The Elder refilled his metal camping mug from his thermos. The steam from his hot coffee rose in a miniature counterpoint to the smoky campfire.

He spoke for the first time, with a nod of appreciation to his colleagues. “The lesson we can take from both biblical and church history is God’s faithfulness to rekindle the embers of a dying faith.”

He sipped his coffee cautiously. “The Holy Ghost can be trusted to re-ignite a passion for Jesus. Your friends may resemble what some Plymouth Brethren theologians call the ‘great falling away’—I won’t debate that.
”But the health of the Church universal is in the hands of Someone else. And I believe the Holy Ghost will do the work Jesus promised would be done.”
“Revival.” The Younger uttered the single word in a neutral monotone. He reached out and stirred the fire with his marshmallow stick, watching as sparks flared upward in response. “Let’s hope so.”

The Elder raised his coffee mug in salute, a knowing twinkle in his eyes. “Let us pray so.”

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Windblown

“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.”

The desert sun beats down upon the Traveler, its glare blistering and merciless. He pauses for a moment, shielding his eyes with one hand as he scans the horizon. The dry, searing wind raises another dust cloud. Somewhere—untold miles ahead—his destination lies waiting.

A frugal sip of tepid water from his half-filled canteen soothes his parched throat, at least for now. He must conserve his supply—hasty gulps would be his undoing in the wilderness.

He reaches inside his tunic to find the ancient map. The tanned leather is as soft as silk from years of use, handed down from his father and his father’s father. The intricate chirography has faded over time, and he squints at the faint markings, coaxing their reluctant hues to divulge his route.

The Traveler’s concentration is broken by the unexpected sound of a voice behind him. Startled, he clutches the map to his chest as he pivots to face the newcomer.

“Need some company?” The smile on the newcomer’s face is broad, his desert-roughened voice hoarse but clear. He glances at the map in the Traveler’s grip, intrigued. “Where’d you get the map?”

The Traveler recovers from his surprise, smiling at his unexpected companion. “Company’s always welcome. Are you heading for the Oasis, too?”

The other nods enthusiastically, and the Traveler remembers the leather map crumpled in his fist. He relaxes his grip and holds it out for the other to see. “Oh, and I’ve had this map for years. It’s a family heirloom, handed down from generation to generation.”

The smile fades from his newfound companion’s face, replaced by an expression of good-natured skepticism. “You’re still using the same map as your grandparents? No disrespect—but isn’t that just a little . . . old-fashioned?”

The Traveler laughs as he smooths the weathered fabric. “Well, to be honest, the markings are pretty faded. It’s not always easy to interpret. But it’s worth the effort—the map’s a reliable guide.”

His companion takes a deep breath, searching for the right words. He’s concerned but doesn’t wish to offend. “No, what I meant was—there’s many ways of getting to the Oasis. Hanging on to out-dated maps can be a little . . . confining, wouldn’t you say? It’s a new day, and maybe it’s time for new maps.”

The Traveler smiles, his dry lips feeling stretched. “This map’s never let anyone in my family down. I may not be able to understand every detail with perfect clarity, but it’ll guide me to the Oasis.”

“Well, to each his own.” The newcomer shrugs, and then his eyes light up as he catches sight of something over the Traveler’s shoulder. “Excuse me—but I think my ride’s arrived.”

He steps past the Traveler as an enormous tumbleweed bears down on them. The Traveler tightens his grip on the map as he scrambles out of its path. His companion inexplicably throws himself into the tumbleweed’s thorny embrace, and is carried off.

“New maps for a new generation . . .” His cheery voice fades quickly as the tumbleweed rolls on its way.

The Traveler watches him disappear from view, perplexed. He glances down at the faded map, studying the time-worn markings and comparing them to the hazy mountains in the distance.

Satisfied, he resumes his trek across the desert sands. Not long after, he sights a cluster of cacti ahead, their spiny arms held stiffly aloft. A single flower adorns the tallest plant, and the Traveler spots a young woman sitting cross-legged in its shade, shielded from both scorching sun and arid wind.

“Another pilgrim, bound for the Oasis.” The girl salutes him with an upraised canteen before taking a rejuvenating swig. She grins as she screws the lid back into place. “Which route are you taking, friend?”

The Traveler pauses in the shadow of the tallest cactus, mirroring her action with his own canteen. His moistened lips don’t feel as cracked as he returns her smile. “The same route I’ve been on since childhood.”

He shows her the map. The young woman runs a finger gingerly along its soft surface. Her eyes widen.

“I used to have one just like this,” she enthuses, handing the map back to the Traveler. “But I traded it in. I’ve heard that if you don’t change maps every so often, you run the risk of becoming too rigid. I make a point of trading for a different map every three years or so.”

The Traveler looks perplexed as he glances from the woman’s sincere face to the map in his hands. “A different map every three years? How do you know if they’ll lead you to the Oasis or not?”

She gets to her feet as another swarm of tumbleweeds approaches, smiling easily. “It’s the journey, not the destination, that counts.”

She leaps into the nearest tumbleweed, giving the Traveler a friendly wave as she is carried off.

Alarmed, he consults his map and then races after her, waving his arms. “Don’t go that way—you’re heading straight into Dry Gulch! There’s nothing there but rattlesnakes and scorpions!”

“That’s just your interpretation.” Her voice wanes as the tumbleweeds reel on.

The Traveler slows to a halt. His examines the map again, and his heart sinks. The dry wind tousles his hair as he stares after the rolling tumbleweeds. They plunge over the edge of the precipice and disappear from sight.

The Traveler stands motionless, arms hanging loosely at his sides, helpless. He looks over his shoulder at the cactus, as if hoping the spiny succulent could explain or offer comfort.

He takes another sip from his canteen, and turns to face the distance mountains. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve as he squints at the map’s faded markings. Tucking it into his tunic, he resumes his dogged trek.

“No turning back,” he tells the cactus as he passes. “No turning back.”

Monday, July 30, 2018

Soul Rhythm

“Why do you go to church?”

It’s a fair question. A lot of people—many of them long-time followers of Jesus—have been asking it with increasing frequency in recent years.

When my friend Luke Geraty posed the question online last week, it got me thinking about the thin line between why I go to church (regularly) and why I should go to church (regularly).

Here—in no specific linear order—are a few of the things that came to mind:
  1. First, the obvious one. Hebrews 10:24-25: “do not give up meeting together.”
    Not out of some religious sense of drudging duty or slavish legalism—but because I need other Christians in my life. In their original context, these verses were not intended as a whip to enforce attendance, but rather an encouragement to gather for much-needed mutual support.
  2. It confronts my consumerism.
    Like many people, I have an unfortunate tendency to evaluate church through a consumerist grid of “what’s in it for me?” I want to “get something” out of the worship, the teaching, the prayers, the fellowship (even the coffee). I need to be reminded that I’m called to serve. On any given Sunday, there are opportunities to lay down my selfish consumerism and grow up (mature spiritually) by serving others.
  3. Spiritual rhythm/soul care is a real thing.
    Everyone loves Eugene Peterson’s phrase “the unforced rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:28-30), and we all benefit from regular soul care. For me, part of my spiritual rhythm is going to church—regularly. Attending once every three weeks or so (a growing trend observed in many churches) isn’t much of a rhythm—you’re there just often enough to say you still attend, but not enough that you make any real connections or impact. Generally speaking, it’s easier to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), when I see them on a regular basis.
  4. It’s healthy to be around people who challenge me.
    If I only hang out with a few like-minded friends in a coffeeshop or pub, we will have great fellowship and a good time. Church gatherings, on the other hand, are often much more diverse: populated by an admixture of broken, needy, opinionated people who may push my buttons. I won’t mature as a Christian if I don’t learn how to appreciate and minister to/among others who are different.
  5. It’s good to be reminded of the foundations of our faith, even (especially) when I naively think “I already know this.”
    You’ve heard the analogy about how bank tellers can spot counterfeit currency, because they’ve handled the real thing so much that the fakes become easier to detect? The same goes for our spiritual lives—the more we’re deeply, thoroughly marinated in solid biblical theology, the less likely we’ll be seduced by clever manipulators playing “alternative facts” or Twisted Scripture.
  6. There’s just something about corporate worship that nourishes the soul.
    Whether I’m on the worship team or singing in the congregation, there’s something rich and deep and powerful that takes place when a myriad of voices are raised in song. There’s a solidarity—a unity—that transcends our divergent personalities, backgrounds, opinions, struggles, and questions, as we turn our absolute, unmixed attention to worshiping Jesus. Together.
  7. And finally, if I truly want to “be the change I want to see”, I can neither be the change—nor see it—if I’m not there.
    Regularly.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Satan Sends an Emoji


image source: Wikicommons
In the Olden Days of Yesteryear, Satan would often phone church people to personally congratulate them when they took on tasks normally reserved for him. “You’re doing one helluva job. Keep up the good work!”

These days, things have gotten much busier, and wanting to keep up with the times and technology, the Devil is now sending diabolically clever emoji’s to signal his approval.

The task at hand, as it has been for many years, is two-fold:
(A) Demoralize church leaders to the point where they quit.

(B) Failing that, surround said leaders with enough toxicity that they can only survive by building walls of protection around themselves.
For example: in the Olden Days, the well-timed phone call—preferably during Sunday lunch—which interrupts the leader’s family time with a barrage of criticism. Meal-time ruined; leader’s motives, gifts and passion called into question; spouse & children witnesses to the carnage which in turn (dis)colors their view of church. Perfect!

The caller hangs up, tingling with a rush of self-righteous adrenaline—“I really gave them a piece of my mind held them accountable.”

And Satan sends an emoji.

For those eager not to miss out on the bandwagon, there are many ways to earn these congratulatory dopamine-enhancers (far more satisfying than a merelike or retweet). Here’s a partial list:

The Declaration Of Defamation that shows up in a leader’s mail slot in the church office, from that most-prolific of all letter-writers: “Anonymous.”
The recurring line-up of the usual suspects outside the pastor’s office, ready to grind their Axe of Agenda because the pastor has (in their opinion) somehow failed them God in a recent sermon.
The young worship leader who devotes hours and hours of practice, prayer, and using their gifts for the Kingdom, only to be told that numerous people plan to boycott the next time they lead worship because they don’t like (a) the volume, (b) the drums, (c) the songs, or (d) (fill in pet musical peeve here).
Or the equally disemboweling dagger: “You’re not anointed” or “you’re leading from ‘the flesh’ and not from the Spirit” (because these people can discern a worship leader’s heart and motives, just like God can).
The prickly email sent from a parishioner with a laundry list of complaints spiritual concerns, speaking “on behalf of a lot of people” (to give their criticism added weight).
Those who delight in spreading gossip under the guise of ‘concern’: “You know, a lot of people are saying [blank] about you behind your back—I just thought you should know.”
The grumpy person in the lobby—arms crossed, brow furrowed—compelled by All That Is Holy to accuse the leader of being aloof, unapproachable, or looking defensive (while remaining blissfully unaware of the irony).
This is only a partial list, of course. With time, effort, and a little creativity, the possibilities and permutations are simply endless. The Enemy appreciates the additional help. Be diligent, and don’t ever take your foot off the gas pedal.

And Satan sends an emoji.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

#metoo—WWJD?

Imagine the original audience for the Sermon on the Mount. Now, picture a furrow-browed, intense young man (sorta like the rich young ruler) debating with Jesus...

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
~ Jesus of Nazareth (Matt. 5:27-29)

Gouging out an eye? To avoid lusting? Dang, Jesus, isn’t that just a little—you know—extreme?

And Jesus, I’m not trying to tell You how to do Your job—I mean, You being God ’n’ all—but couldn’t You throw in something a little more reasonable?

I have a few suggestions:
  1. How about blame the woman for how she’s dressed?
  2. Or maybe throw in a few words to the effect of: ‘Boys will be boys’.
  3. Just say something—anything, really—that deflects the responsibility from us guys and put the blame ’n’ shame on someone else.
What’s that, Jesus? Yeah, I remember the story of Job—he’s one of our heroes in the Old Testament! What’s Job got to do with anything?

“I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman.”
~ Job (Job 31:1)

Is that all Job said, Jesus? Really? Nothing about how women are dressed, or…

Look, Jesus, I really don’t think You understand… yeah, You bet I’m getting angry! What else do You expect, when You keep throwing all the responsibility back on us guys?

Who? The ‘apostle Paul’? Never heard of him—wait, what do You mean by ‘spoiler alert’? What’s this Paul guy going to say?
“When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures...
“But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control...
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there.”

~ Paul the Apostle, on behalf of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:19-25)
Okay, Jesus, I’ve tried to be patient, but You clearly have an anti-male bias. I’d prefer to get a second opinion, if You don’t mind...

Ask Lucifer? Great idea—where can I find him?

Friday, March 31, 2017

Of Pearls, Swine, & Strawmen

The Elder watched, eyebrows raised, as his young friend aggressively stirred the usual “fixings” into his americano.

He couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen the Younger so agitated. His own hands were cupped around his mug of coffee—“black, the way God drinks it”—and he waited in silence.

The Younger replaced his spoon on the table with an exasperated sigh, the sound of the metal utensil evoking a sharp protest on the wooden surface. The Younger paused for a moment, suddenly self-aware of his agitation.

“Sorry about that,” he admitted to his life-long friend. “I’m just . . . really frustrated with how things went the other night.”

“I’m all ears,” the Elder replied, nodding to acknowledge the other’s apology. “How did the topic come up, if you don’t mind my asking? And what was it about your friends’ comments that impacted you so negatively?”

The Younger picked up his spoon once more, tapping it on the table, spinning it around in his fingers, and tapping the table again with the opposite end. The Elder chose not to point out the unconscious action of his friend.

“Well, you know me and my friends—we love talking about our faith, life, and how the two interact. It’s usually a lot like the conversations that you and I have, at least most of the time. But last night . . .”

He flattened the spoon under his hand, and looked up to meet the Elder’s concerned gaze. “You’ve heard of the notorious ‘straw man argument’, I’m sure. It’s become its own meme, almost to the point of being a caricature of itself.”

The Elder nodded in sympathy, a rueful smile quirking at one corner of his mouth. “I’ve had a few run-ins with it, yes. I take it that a straw man was introduced into your conversation last night?”

The Younger shook his head, taking a hearty swig of his americano. “We were talking about the Atonement . . .”

The Elder whistled, his eyebrows arching higher. “The Atonement? You and your friends could never be accused of having shallow theological discussions.”

The Younger shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Yeah, we like the heavy topics, I guess. But as soon as I started talking about my understanding of the Atonement, I got shut down instantly. They said that anyone who believes in substitutionary atonement believes that God is a ‘cosmic child-abuser’, and nobody with any intelligence would worship a ‘monster’ like that . . .

The Elder sighed, leaning forward as he, too, swallowed some of his coffee before it cooled off too much. “Let me guess—the vengeful Old Testament God taking out His wrath on His unsuspecting and defenseless Son?”

The Elder continued as his young friend nodded wordlessly. “Well, it wouldn’t be any exaggeration at all to call that kind of terminology the most glaring and manipulative straw man fallacy that I’ve come across.”

He took a longer gulp of his coffee, and set his mug down firmly. “To be blunt . . .” The Elder leaned forward to emphasize his next words.
”Using the phrase ‘cosmic child abuse’ is, at best, infantile. And at worst, it reveals an arrogant refusal to engage in the honest, intelligent exchange of ideas.”
The Younger finished his drink quietly, listening to his mentor/friend with rapt attention.

“Think about it this way,” the Elder kept his voice down despite his obvious passion for the subject at hand. “The most fruitful discussions—or dialogues, or debate—are characterized by both respectful dialogue and listening to each other’s viewpoints, and thoughtful interaction with the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing views. Iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17).”

The Elder paused for a moment, adjusting his spectacles. “Such an obvious and calculated straw man as ‘cosmic child abuse’ circumvents any meaningful conversation. It’s actually a very anti-intellectual approach, which has but one goal in mind: to shut down discussion. To prevent thinking.”

“And here I just thought it was a bullying tactic,” joked the Younger, his lop-sided grin not very heart-felt.

The Elder leaned back, finishing off his coffee with one prolonged swallow. “It certainly is that, no doubt. But even more so: it shows a profound level of hubris—arrogance—to ignore the theological giants of the faith who have wrestled long and hard to put language to our beliefs, by using such a simplistic and offensive caricature.”

He sighed, returning his friend’s grin with one of his own. “I could make a comment about pearls before swine, as Jesus did in Matthew 5:6—and His warning rings true in our time as much as it did in the first century. But I think there’s also a more redemptive approach that we should keep in mind.”
Ask your friends: what Scriptures led them to their current position on the Atonement? We all understand theres a certain level ofoh, I guess I would call it wrestlingwhich every theologian has to embrace. And I certainly hope your friends are basing their thoughts on Scripture and not merely on the latest philosophical trends. See if your friends would be willing to put aside their caricatures and invest some time in wrestling through the Scriptures together, as a group, and re-learn the lost art of respectful dialogue.”
The Younger held his empty mug aloft in a salute. “Having a respectful conversation? Wrestling through the Scriptures together? I’m all for it. I don’t even care if we all agree on everything, once we’re done. I’d just like to have a real, honest, strawman-free discussion about it!”

The Elder laughed quietly, his posture relaxing as a sheepish look crossed his face. “Just don’t tell them I called them ‘infantile’, okay? I really must learn to be more cautious in my choice of words . . .”

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Non-Confessional Movement

“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16)

Some people don’t like doctrinal statements, viewing them as a tool of oppression and exclusion. They would much rather be “non-confessional.” (Meaning: doctrinal agreement is optional, as long as people play nice).

Unfortunately, non-confessional movements usually end up looking like the picture at left.

What makes a doctrinal statement useful is its objectivity. It serves as an impartial standard, a measuring stick, a plumb-line by which all parties can evaluate their own doctrinal health.

There have been times, historically, when churches and movements have changed their minds and/or gradually wandered away from their core beliefs. The Old Testament also candidly records where God’s chosen people did the same thing—but it should be noted that the message of the prophets was to “turn back”, and in church history, terms like revival and renewal were linked to people “returning” to a faith they’d abandoned or allowed to atrophy.

Throughout church history, statements like the Apostles' Creed, and the Nicene Creed (among others), have served in similar ways, providing a much-needed litmus test so that movements could obey the Scriptural admonition to safeguard the church from doctrinal “alternative facts”.

For example, St. Paul’s warnings and instructions:
  • “I know that after I leave [Ephesus], savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:29-30)
  • “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer.” (1 Timothy 1:3)
  • “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Timothy 4:3)
A “Statement of Faith” is vital for straining out doctrinal error, and the New Testament is replete with admonitions to be on guard against false teachings. St. Paul was not the only one to sound the alarm. Similar warnings were voiced by St. John (1 John 4:1), St. Peter (2 Peter 2:1-3), and also Jesus Christ (Matthew 24:10-11).

When a movement eschews a statement of faith, preferring instead to be non-confessional, they create an ethos where no teaching can be objectively evaluated, and where alternative (doctrinal) facts cannot be challenged.

However, something far more insidious results from a non-confessional approach, which inspired my choice of picture at the top of this post:
A non-confessional movement will always be controlled by the biggest bullies. It is inherently power-based and political in nature.
Without the objective standard of a Statement of Faith, the direction of such a movement will rest in the hands of those with the most political power. Appeals to Scripture or the history of Christian orthodoxy will fall on deaf ears. Alternative (doctrinal) facts can now flourish freely.

Anyone holding to a confessional approach can then be effectively ridiculed and silenced, usually by caricatures, shout-downs, and zinger-ology (I've written about these tactics before). Doctrinal questions and debates are settled by whomever can generate the loudest echo chamber, bolstered by the largest number of “likes” and retweets.

No, thanks. I’ll take the (confessional) antidote St. Paul gave to Timothy:
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:1-2)

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Evangelical: Say What You Mean


image credit: CredoHouse

I wrote a post recently about how the term evangelical seems to have been co-opted and caricatured to the point where it has almost become meaningless. And possibly even detrimental. This came out of ongoing conversations with friends, representing a variety of denominations and age demographics, about whether or not the term evangelical could possibly be redeemed.

More than once, weve sadly lamented that its probably better to dump the word altogether. Irredeemable. Beyond hope. Deep-six that sucker. Ghost the term.

But the more I think about it, the more I have become convinced that abandoning the term evangelical  would be the wrong choice to make. And heres why:
  1. If having an honest conversation is the goal, then the term evangelical becomes a door-opener. Hey, do you have time for a coffee? Id love to explain, as an evangelical, what the term means to me . . .
  2. If people are just looking for a quick way to write you off, and they have a stereotype caricature inaccurate understanding of the term, well . . . that was never a conversation in the first place.
(So why allow them to control the narrative and try to put you into a box that doesnt exist?)
The graphic at the beginning of this post is a good summary, and I like providing solid explanations in a visual arts medium. But at the same time, its full of a lot of insider-jargon that could make any conversation over coffee long and one-sided.

A more basic approach might be to start with the four key elements that describe evangelicalism as introduced by David Bebbington in what has become known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral (in one of his earlier books)There are ranges of opinion and nuance under each of these four items, but as a broad description, it works:
  1. Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  2. Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross making salvation possible
  3. Conversionism: the belief that each person must choose to follow Jesus (oldskewl: be born again)
  4. Activism: the gospel is a marketplace faith and societal impact is the fruit (missions & ministry among the poor and marginalized)
I would probably insist strongly recommend that you put it into your own words, so you dont sound like an encyclopedial parrot. For starters, you dont need to call it a quadrilateral or give a biographical sketch about who David Bebbington is.

Just sum it up in your own personal-speak:
  1. The Bible is a Big Deal: when its teachings and my life dont match up, guess who needs to change?
  2. Jesus was crucified so we can have life. Yes, He loves us so much, that He would voluntarily go to that extreme.
  3. Nobody is born a Christian, you have to make a choice to surrender to Jesus. And keep surrendering (that's called 'discipleship').
  4. Faith in Jesus is a private decision that is expressed in the public square. By serving, not by being obnoxious.
However you might choose to put it into words, I think its time for those of us who are evangelical to stop playing possum when people misrepresent who we are and what we believe.

So when you hear somebody make a comment about typical evangelical and you suspect they dont really know what the term means, why not invite them into a conversation about it? Buy their coffee.
Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. (1 Peter 3:15)