Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Spiritual Israel

I grew up in an Assemblies of God church, where most folks supported Israel almost instinctively. In the Presbyterian church I now attend, many members dislike Israel just as instinctively. As for myself, I like Israel: I identify with it emotionally: I like the people there: I love the country and celebrate its successes. As I walk around the streets of Tel Aviv, I smile at the עם ישראל חי graffiti that shows up everywhere: so different from what you see in the States, and redolent of a people so in love with their nation that even their hoodlums are patriotic.

My pastor recently loaned me a DVD called The Iron Wall. (It’s posted in its entirety here.) It tells the story of Israel’s settlement, and the building of the wall – or the “barrier” as my Israeli friends refer to it – and the consequent suffering of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis. It’s blatantly unfair in some respects, as it tells the story of Israeli injustice and brutality without any sense of the context in which those acts occurred, but what remains is still troubling.

As Charlie was handing over the DVD, we talked about the situation in Israel, and his plan to visit there in the near future. Through the course of our discussion – well, argument, really, but the respectful kind – it became clear that whatever our assessment of the facts, our emotional perception of Israel was quite different. If you were to give names to the ways in which our different perspectives represent the Biblical tradition, I suppose you could say that I’m more like David, and he’s more like Nathan. I respond emotionally to Israel’s glories: he responds emotionally to her failures. I most easily see Israel as somehow, uniquely the chosen people of God; Charlie sees how she has failed to live up to that calling. I think that both perspectives have truth to them; both have some degree of Scriptural warrant; and both are, to some degree, unfair and biased. (As Charlie put it, “I don’t get angry about Darfur the way I get angry about the West Bank. I want to hold Israel to a higher standard.”)

That said, I agree with my pastor that Israel’s settlements on the West Bank have done a great deal of harm, both to the Palestinians who were displaced, and to Israel’s moral standing in the world, and with its own people. The settlements are blatantly illegal, and while the various governments which permitted them did so to solve short-term political dilemmas, they’ve closed the door to all but the most determined peace process. When Arafat refused Ehud Barak’s offer to withdraw from more than 90% of the West Bank, most Israelis reasonably concluded that Arafat was not serious about peace. But when Barak’s same government continued to build settlements, it was perhaps reasonable for the Palestinians to conclude that Israel wasn’t terribly serious about peace, either. Israel has a non-negotiable right to exist in security; it doesn’t have a right to take whatever land it wants from people who already live there; and it saddens me that Israel has continued to engage in this self-destructive policy.

I think my pastor and I could both agree that the whole area seems to be under the sway of an odd mix of sin and holiness. It’s as if life is lived at a different intensity in the holy land: as if spiritual forces are more actively engaged. The first time I touched the Wall, I felt a sudden weight of centuries, of depth, of history, of glory: the legacy of David. The second time I touched it, I felt a sense of waiting, expectation, sadness, and more waiting: the legacy of Nathan.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Are Denominations Dead?

Every once in a while, I still hear someone (usually uneducated) use the word "religion" when they mean "denomination"; and I still sometimes hear even educated people make a distinction between "Christians" and "Catholics" – as in, "I'm not a Christian, I'm Catholic." This particular misuse of language tends to heighten the distinctions that exist between the various divisions of Christianity, but it would be foolish to pretend that those distinctions don't still exist, or aren't important.

In a recent trip to Jerusalem, I heard a story about the wonderfully surreal ways in which those distinctions show up from time to time with particular force. Although most folks in Jerusalem, whatever their faith, have figured out how to get along with their neighbor, of whatever faith, the tensions that remain are undeniable. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is perhaps the pre-eminent example of this. Built on the traditional site where Jesus was both crucified, buried and raised from the dead, few other churches in all the world have such a claim to being "the holiest site in Christendom". Yet the church itself is nearly falling apart, due to lack of repairs. It's not that the good monks running the church can't get their hands on the money to fix it: it's that they can't agree on who should pay for what. You see, throughout the middle ages, while Jerusalem was in the hands of the Muslism, different Christian Churches fought one another, with fair means and foul, for control of the site. Those involved enerally the Orthodox and Catholics, though I think the Ethiopians and Copts got their licks in from time to time.

Eventually, the story goes, the different Churches got so tired of fighting each other – or the scandal reached such proportions – that they agreed to share control of the site. And sometime around 1852, they signed a "Status Quo Agreement", defining exactly who would have control over which areas of the church, and when. The crucial clause in the agreement declared that in all common areas – hallways, doors, windows, etc. – no changes were to be made unless all the signatories agreed. The surreal bit started the very next day after the agreement went into effect, when they realized that a workman had left a ladder leaning up against one of the second story windows. That ladder has now been there for 155 years – I saw it myself just a few months ago. Nobody can agree on how or when or whether or why it should be moved: so it stays there.

And lest anyone think that, surely, after 155 years, we should all have matured sufficiently to allow reasonable, rational discussion (to say nothing of the ειρηνη χριστου) about our differences: in 2002, a Coptic monk, whose job it was to guard the Coptic section of the roof, moved his chair out of the hot sun and into the shade: on the Ethiopian side of the roof. The argument escalated, and in the ensuing brawl, 11 monks were injured, some of them seriously. And lest anyone think that only Ethiopians and Copts are capable of such beautifully surreal moments, in 2004, a Franciscan monk (advertently or inadvertently) left a door open during a Greek Orthodox service. This was taken as a sign of disrespect, and in the ensuing brawl, four monks were arrested.

Still, apart from a few hold-outs, it's become clear to me that differences between denominations are getting less pronounced, and much less important to their members. In 1964, my mother's Baptist family was scandalized when they found out that she was dating a Pentecostal. Not one of them now can remember why they were so bothered. I myself grew up Pentecostal (Assemblies of God), went to a non-denominational seminary, taught at a Methodist university, and I'm attending a Presbyterian church where we just hired a Lutheran as our youth director. Most of my favorite writers and theologians are either Anglican (C. S. Lewis, N. T. Wright) or Catholic (G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, J. P. Meier, and even the former Cardinal Ratzinger himself, Pope Benedict XVI). I find myself equally challenged by Luther and Aquinas, Augustine and Calvin. I doubt that most members of any church I've attended in the last 10 years could tell you their denominational distinctives. My good friend David Townsend might be raised as a counter-example: he can quote many of the Presbyterian creeds by heart. But despite that fact, his own personal theology smacks much more of Jacob Arminius than John Calvin. And astonishingly from the perspective of any 17th century Protestant theologian (either Calvinistic or Arminian), he doesn't see that as having much bearing on his membership and active involvement in a Presbyterian church.

Associated with this, I think, is the rise of the homogenized worship service. Apart from a few outliers, any church in America that is of any size or that is experiencing any growth, has nearly the same worship service: what I call "contemporary Baptist". One or two hymns, perhaps, but nearly all the rest choruses; a very contemporary musical style; quite often charismatic in flavor, but generally without public speaking in tongues; a sermon that is mildly exegetical, generally light on theology, and easily applied to one's personal life.

This leads me to my one real concern about the astonishing breaking down of denominational walls that has occurred within my lifetime. Like C. S. Lewis, I agree that the schisms in Christianity are – or should be – temporary: nothing more than adolescent growing pains. But I worry that the reason Baptists have decided Pentecostals aren't so bad isn't that the peace of Christ has finally won out over deeply-held theological beliefs: but rather, we haven't been thinking deeply enough about our faith to realize that there are differences, and sometimes very important ones. The death of denominations is perhaps only a symptom of the death of theology.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Latest Email from Everest

Here's the latest email from my cousin, Brian:

Most of you know that I stood on the summit of Mt Everest yesterday, so I wanted to let you know that I am safely back in base camp as of this afternoon.  

If you hadn't heard that I made the summit of Everest, here are the stats of our climb-  

Willie, Tendy Sherpa and myself arrived on the summit at 29,035 feet on Thursday May 24th at 2:45 am. We spent 20 minutes on the summit and then descended all the way to camp II 8000 vertical feet beneath us. A good time from the South Col at camp IV to the summit is 9 hours. Many climbers need 12 hours. Willie, Tendy and I made it in 5 hours 45 minutes and were back at the South Col in 8 hours! Most need 17 hours. It was still early being only 5am so we kept going all the way down to camp II at 21,200 feet arriving around noon.  

Although I did not get a view from the summit as it was pitch dark, I was really happy to be one of the few to stand on the roof of the world in the middle of the night! It was bitter cold, maybe -60F with the wind-chill so that was really cool. We tried to slow down by turning down our O2 flows and waiting a little at the South Summit at 2am but frostbite was coming on quickly in those temperatures so we had to keep climbing to stay warm.  

This was Willie and Tendy's 2nd summit in only a week. I believe that Willie now has the Westerner record. Willie has 7 summits of Everest now and Tendy has 5. Our summit yesterday was by far their fastest ever in half the time of all of their other summits. They were both really excited with our screaming fast time.  

Willie gave me the honor of being the first to step onto the summit. My first thoughts were "I am the highest person on the planet right now!"  

The BBC is going crazy with my summit. They filmed me climbing all the way to the summit and on the summit. Their two camera crew's filmed me up to camp I climbing through the Khumbu Icefall for the 7th time, and then Willie filmed the rest with camera equipment they loaned him. Then they waited 3 hours in the ice fall this afternoon with camera's set up so that they could film my return. I guess I just made medical history by having HAPE only 3 weeks ago and then returning to summit Everest. Medical articles are being written as we speak and I guess I am the center of a 4 part series kind of like Everest: Beyond the Limit that will be released internationally in 6-9 months. Discovery Channel will most likely carry it in the U.S. Pretty crazy with all this attention. I have never been a minor celebrity so it is kind of fun. There were a bunch of people waiting for me at the edge of the ice fall. Many told me that they had their radio's tuned in on our progress and when we called down at 2:45 am while standing on the summit that the tears started to flow with their excitement for my success. Pretty cool. We are having a big dinner tonight with the BBC and Everest ER to celebrate.  

We were also the last of teams to summit Everest from the south in 2007. The weather closed in behind us. The wind is now howling at 70-90mph on the summit and will for the next week. The monsoon is also now here so it looks like things are done on Everest from the south this year.

 I'm looking forward to him getting back, presumably safe, at least for a while.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

My cousin Brian Smith summited successfully

I got news about 3:00 pm today that my cousin -- 12 hours away -- has successfully summated Everest. According to Mountain Madness, he, his guide Willie, and Tindy Sherpa left Camp IV at about 9:00 pm, figured out that they were going to summit too soon, and stopped and waited for light. However, it got too cold for them, and they decided to continue on. They stepped foot on the summit at about 2:50 am, called a few people, got cold, and decided to head down. They've reached Camp IV right now, and will leave shortly to head down to Camp II, where they'll take an extended break. (Apparently it's possible to sleep there – which isn't really so possible at the higher camps.)

More as I hear more . . .

Latest news about my cousin

I mentioned in a posting last week that my cousin, Brian Smith, was in the process of climbing Mt. Everest. He's been climbing mountains since high school (when he made his first winter ascent of Mt. Rainier), and climbing Everest has been his dream for as long as I can remember. He's paid out quite a lot of money to be on this expedition, and has had more than his fair share of suffering. This picture here, for instance, was taken while he was suffering from HAPE up at Camp II, about three weeks ago.

He managed to descend back down to base camp, but after some time there, still not recovering, he walked the 35 miles back to Namche Bazaar, figuring that his attempt on the summit had come to an end. But in the thick air (at 10,000 feet) he managed to recover enough that the doctors gave him a clean bill of health, and he walked back to base camp, and began his acclimitization all over again.

The latest news I've heard (from the Mountain Madness website) is that he and his guide have begun their summit push, leaving Camp IV at about 8:30 pm in the evening. Every member of his family is very excited for him, and I'll post details as soon as I have them.

My Dad has posted more pictures of his climb -- before this most recent push -- here.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Spirituality and the OSI Model

In my last post, I tried to describe the idea that spiritual reality could be understood in some fashion as “the next level up in abstraction”. That’s a confusing idea, so in the interests of muddying the waters further, and in standing with ancient philosophical and theological tradition, I’d like to try to explain one confusing, abstract idea by reference to another, even more confusing one.

The first thing that any book on networking does is try to explain the OSI Model. Wikipedia does a much better job of explaining it than I could, but suffice to say that the OSI model is a way of thinking about the different layers in a network, from the physical layer on up through the applications that actually run on the network and make our lives alternately miserable and wonderful. (From here on out, I’ll assume that you understand the OSI model. My apologies if you don’t, or don’t want to: no offense taken.)

One of the very interesting things about the OSI model is that it makes you aware of the different levels of significance possessed by each bit on the wirestream. A given flux of electricity means one thing on the physical layer, yet something else entirely on the data-link, network, session, presentation and application layers. A given packet means something very different when it’s considered from the perspective “IP” vs. “TCP”, or when you add in the encrypted data that it’s carrying as a part of an SSL conversation, or the HTML or XML tags that it’s carrying.

It’s analogous, I think, to the significance of a neuron firing in our brain. Atomically, it is the result of such-and-such chemical forces; neurologically, it represents a particular configuration of the brain’s neural network; taken morally or emotionally, it could be part of the decision to die for a friend (or cheat on your wife or just to help yourself to another cookie). And in the same way, a free, moral decision has one meaning at the moral, individual level – and yet another on the social or communal -- perhaps quite another meaning (or level of meaning) at the “spiritual” level. Of course, there are probably many other levels that could be enumerated besides “quantum”, “chemical”, “physiological”, “neural”, “subconscious”, “conscious” and so forth. We don’t understand most of the mechanisms that sit in-between ourselves and our bodies. It’s sort of like we understand Manchester bit encoding and HTML, but not IP or TCP or HTTP.

I think this idea bears some similarity to neo-Platonism: perhaps you might call it “neo-neo-Platonism” (as ugly a neologism as ever there was). It’s similar in some ways. But I’m not really talking about forms, i.e., that what we’re talking about is the idea which is the model for all individual instantiations of reality. Rather, I’m saying that these entities arise out of physical (and mental and spiritual) existence at the same time that they order it. I don’t think these are absolutely abstract entities, but rather, relatively abstract entities. If I was to try to place it, I’d say that this approach is probably closer to Aquinas in its consideration of Universals than to either Plato or Hegel.

So how does God fit into this? It would be convenient in some ways to say that God is just the highest level of abstraction. But I don’t buy that – it’d just be pantheism all over again – uncomfortably close to Hegel. Rather, the right place for God in this model is to say that God is beyond the highest level of abstraction. The highest level of abstraction would be the Universe, the Whole Show. But God is the One who puts the Whole Show on and gets it started.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Spiritual as an Emergent Property

When I was in college, I briefly enjoyed Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness – right up to the point where I realized that it was being taken by many of my peers as a more-or-less accurate description of what the spiritual world was really like. In that book, and in many sermons and conversations, I realized that people were conceiving of the spiritual world as something like the physical world, only invisible.

That conception has always made me uncomfortable. Granted that any of our wetware categories are bound to be inadequate descriptions of what, by definition, we have only the barest notion, I remain convinced that some theories – images – metaphors – conceptualizations are more helpful than others.

So what would I put in its place? How would I attempt to describe something as abstract as “spiritual reality”? I’m well aware that anything I propose is, in its own way, as limited and inappropriate as saying, “It’s like this world, only invisible.” Still, I like the idea that the spiritual world is the next highest level of abstraction: it stands one step higher up the conceptual plane than the physical, material, social world of our everyday experience.

Here’s what I mean. Many of our own concepts (such as consciousness, free will, etc.) don’t make sense if viewed from the perspective of reductionistic materialism. They can’t be explained in terms of the movements of atoms: you have to give meaning to those movements of atoms, and the meaning doesn’t come from the atoms. Meaning only arises from, well, the next highest level of abstraction. Consciousness is often described as an “emergent property” of the oddly constructed matter in our brains, and I think this is the sort of idea I’m referring to.

Similarly, spiritual forces could be understood as the next highest level of abstraction. Just as our own spiritual existence arises from the semantic nature of physical events in our brains, so “spiritual” entities like principalities and powers (and for that matter, devils and demons and – maybe? – angels) could be understood as the next highest level of abstraction. I don’t just mean that when we call something “demonic” we’re using a symbol or a metaphor: I mean that there could be some sort of ontological and not merely symbolic reality behind this language. (Certainly, although popular Christian belief has frequently attributed something like a “spiritual body” to these beings, it’s pretty clear that that’s a metaphor. The exact nature of their existence is of course beyond our experience and is probably unimaginable. This description of them is probably somewhat metaphorical, too: but it’s also probably less metaphorical than the language about “spiritual bodies”.)

This idea finds a certain kind of support in Scripture. When Daniel is finally met by an angel after weeks of prayer and fasting, he is informed that his angelic support had been withheld by the power of “the prince of Persia”. This seems to imply that even in Biblical times, demons were associated specifically with nations or “Great Powers” (in the political language of the early 20th century). It’s not strange, therefore, to find Paul referring to the demonic powers arrayed against him as “τὰς ἀρχάς”, “τὰς ἐξουσίας”, “τοὺς κοσμοκράτορας τοῦ σκότους τούτου”, and so forth.

If this is in any way correct (or even just “helpful”), it raises a number of interesting questions. For one, could Satan exist apart from human beings? If the demonic is best understood as a higher-level ontologization of our collective evil, it would seem to imply that a world without material sentient beings could not be subject to evil spiritual forces. Similarly, I’ve always thought the idea that God grew up with humanity to be even more silly than it is perverse – but it makes some reasonable sense to ascribe this sort of growth to Satan.

I also suspect that this idea only makes sense if reality itself is in some way radically spiritual, in ways that we (at least, we in modern Western culture) can’t yet begin to understand. But perhaps reality is made of such stuff that language about “personhood” or “beingness” could be applied to such “abstractions”. The interesting part about this is that if it were in fact the case, science as science could never know about it. It’s not the sort of thing that science could tell us: because science would always be operating at a lower level of abstraction. Science pulls apart: this level of reality could only be known by pulling together.

If I ever develop this idea further, I’d need to find some way to make sure that this didn’t degenerate into a new sort of paganism, with gods and goddesses floating about all over the place – and worse yet, with ourselves as precisely those gods and goddesses. We need, in other words, to acknowledge that overarching all of these “levels of abstractions” is the one, true God, who has deigned to remove Himself from the abstract and Universal, and place himself among us.

Friday, May 18, 2007

"Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet"

It’s not particularly enlightening to point out that growing older is difficult. It’s happens to everyone; and everyone complains about it. But most of the things that make being human worthwhile are the same. Everyone is born – everyone breathes – most nearly everyone has children – most people get a job – the lucky ones get a job they love. Our culture has this notion that only the exceptional is meaningful: that you’re not worth writing about unless, say, you’re climbing Mt. Everest (as my cousin is at the moment). The reality, of course, is that it’s the universal things which are most meaningful.

I first encountered this notion in Chesterton. I could go on for pages with his quotes, but I’ll let this one suffice:

“It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, "Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe," or "Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet." They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complex picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority.”

And one of those universals which is always somehow quite particular and individual is aging: growing older: getting ready for death. I’m only 38 – not really there yet – but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I still have three grandparents left, but they’re aging, and watching them do so is an experience that is painful, sad, enlightening, and sometimes filled with remarkable grace.

About three months ago, my paternal grandfather (94) fell while carrying almost half his weight worth of scrap metal, and not unexpectedly, broke his ankle. In a fit of reasoning that exhibited perhaps more stubbornness than grace, he insisted that they wouldn’t have called it a “walking cast” if he hadn’t been meant to walk on it. The not-unexpected result ensued, his ankle refused to heal, and last week he had to have surgery to repair his brittle and suddenly uncooperative bones. This time the doctor’s instructions were devoid of ambiguity and left little room for interpretation.

His wife of 72 years – my 90 year old grandmother – has been doing her best to keep up with him, but we can tell that it’s wearing on her.

Following a sudden decline in her health, my 89-year old maternal grandmother recently moved into an assisted living facility. A good percentage of her 70 descendants descended onto Longview, WA, to help with the move and to get her situated in her new apartment; but then they left again, and she’s mostly alone in her apartment, too deaf to make friends, and too weak to walk anywhere but the dining room.

For a long time, I’ve felt like death is a fate to which only heroes should be subject: it’s too hard, too painful, too extraordinary to be required of ordinary people. But maybe that’s the point. It may be that death is God’s way of turning us each into heroes. In the Resurrection, not many will be able to say that they climbed Mt. Everest, or stormed the beach at Normandy, or plucked an infant from a burning building. But there will be one tragedy – and triumph – which will have ennobled us all.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Crunch Week

For the last six months, since sometime back in November, the developers at Zango have been working on version 10.0 of our toolbar/desktop advertising client; and we're finally getting ready to release; and I’m not happy. The issue at the moment is that we’re scheduled to release in less than two weeks – and we still haven’t quite hit Zero Bug Bounce. I’ve been watching the count of P1 bugs carefully each day for the last two weeks, and we keep hovering around 10-15. That’s got me worried. We released our internal beta yesterday, and as expected, that’s released a whole new slew of bugs, so maybe I should be grateful that today’s bug P1 count was still at 13 – but I’m not quite there yet. On the surface, I'll confess, this release isn’t a lot to look at: our toolbar (in all its various brands) will look mostly the same, and the ads we serve will look and behave mostly the same way. But there's a lot that's changed under the hood. For starters, we'll now support Vista -- which was a much larger challenge than anyone had thought -- maybe I'll throw out a blog on that one sometime. Perhaps the biggest change is that we can now cross-promote content across our different brands. In other words, it used to be that if you had Hotbar installed, and wanted to access content on, you had to install Zango -- with the result that you had two toolbars, which looked almost identical, and pretty silly, stacked on top of each other. In addition, I'll confess, they often interfered with each other, resulting in more system instability than anyone here liked. This release will change all that: if a Hotbar user wants to watch a video on (I recommend Daniel and the Bus), they just get access, without any prompts or anything to install. This means that we can promote our videos and games to our Hotbar and SBU users – and Hotbar and SBU to our Zango users – which will hopefully help us improve how long our users stick around. From my perspective, though, the most interesting bit has been how this release came together. Since Zango acquired Hotbar a year ago, we’ve been trying to figure out how to merge our different cultures, mostly with success, but certainly not without some hitches. As a part of the merger, we lost the product managers in Tel Aviv who had been keeping the product moving forward, and it took us a while to get those positions refilled with solid folks. In addition, it’s just hard bringing two teams together, who speak different languages, live thousands of miles apart, have mostly never met each other, and who have maybe eight hours of overlap a week (if the Bellevue folks come in early and the Tel Aviv folks stay late). But we made a special effort on this release to act as one team. Our product managers, whether in Bellevue, Montreal or Tel Aviv, now report up through a single Director of Product Management (and no, you can’t have her). We worked off a set of unified business requirements, and a unified functional spec. We moved all our code to Team Foundation Server (dumping StarTeam in Bellevue and VSS in Tel Aviv), worked off a common bug database, managed the project centrally here in Bellevue, and implemented a common, automated daily build system. The toolbar (Tel Aviv) and the search assistant (Bellevue) are still separate code bases, and don’t share much: but we do finally have a common installer for all of our brands. All of that is good. But I remain worried that we’re behind. I know that folks on both sides of the Atlantic are working overtime to get this release out. It means a lot to us: just getting Vista support should get us another 5% in daily installs. There’s not much more I can do at this point: I’ve never been qualified to write production-level C++, and it would be a mistake of the highest order to let me loose on the code base. So I alternately encourage and harangue and kibbitz, and do my best, on the whole, to let the folks that know what they’re about keep at it. Hopefully I’ll have some good news in a couple weeks.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

D*** Presbyterians

Over the four years that my wife and I have been attending our church (a small Presbyterian congregation in Bellevue, WA), I've done my best to avoid getting involved in the internal workings of the church. I've often thought that it's as difficult for a pastor to remain genuinely interested in God, as it is for a gynecologist to remain interested in sex; and I suspect that things are quite similar even if you're only on the church board. (They call it "Session" at our church -- not sure if that's SOP for Presbyterians, or specific to us.)

Something happened the other day that reminded me why my reticence is a reasonable (if somewhat cowardly) strategy. About six months ago, our church lost its associate pastor, and we've been trying to replace him ever since. Doing so has been more of an ordeal than we had anticipated, and the majority of the ordeal has been a result of the Presbytery we're a part of. I've never had the pleasure of attending a Presbytery meeting, but one of our Session members gave me an earful the other day.

After months (literally) of preparation, representatives from our Session appeared before the Committee on Ministry (termed "Committee on Meddling" by my friend on Session), a 27-headed monstrosity which must approve any proposed changes to a church's staffing plan. The highlight of the evening came when the vastly over-sized committee got into an argument about whether the proposed job description should have "Worship" as the first item (where one committee member insisted it should be) or as the fourth (where it currently resided). Eventually the COM approved half of the changes we had asked for, decided it was too late to continue, and asked our representatives to come back again in, say, two or three months. My friend was censoring himself (we were in church, after all), but I didn't have any trouble guessing at the words he would have liked to use to describe his feelings. Our pastor, who had been there as well, and was listening in, noticed the look on my face -- pursed lips, shaking my head, grinding my teeth -- as the story unfolded. When it finished, I said simply, "I can't imagine how I would have reacted." He nodded, smiled and said, "Well, Ken, you told me long ago there was a reason you didn't become a pastor."

It's weird existing simultaneously in the corporate world, and in the ecclesiastical (even if my ties to the latter are somewhat less involved). I'll confess that a part of me isn't any more comfortable in the one than in the other. I like how quickly things move in the corporate world: that there's a reasonable hierarchy that people are comfortable with, that decisions get made quickly, that the arguments and debates are generally productive, and that we have the opportunity to make observable progress. But I remain uncomfortable with the compromises with my values that are sometimes necessary.

I suppose this is necessary in a fallen world: all of creation, as St. Paul said, groans as in the travails of childbirth. τῇ γὰρ ματαιότητι ἡ κτίσις ὑπετάγη. But I wish that I knew more about how to bring about the workings of a new creation that is supposedly the goal of Christian work, whether secular or holy. I know I often fall short: and I suspect I fall short more often than I know.