Archive for January 2012

This past Tuesday, all my favorite shows were cancelled thanks to the State of the Union (SOTU) being aired on every channel.  So I just hunkered down and watched/listened.  (I’m kidding about the tone–I like that networks do their best to get you to watch the SOTU, because it is important.)  Here are some of my thoughts on the whole affair.

Introductory Thoughts:

1. Cards on the table: I consider myself a theological conservative and a political moderate/independent, though I do find myself leaning left more often than leaning right.  I have this nasty tendency to see wisdom and folly in both “sides,” which makes it quite difficult for me to come out and make a decision when voting time comes around.

2. I approach political speeches with great cynicism.  I know that everything about the SOTU is carefully calculated using market-based research and principles.  As one of my pastor friends likes to say, “It’s hard to find the person behind the ideology,” or in this case “behind the crafted, vote-seeking presentation.”  This is not a commentary on President Obama as much as our current political scene.  (There was one entertaining moment of apparent spontaneity–when the audience was caught completely off-guard by one of the only jokes in the speech and Obama responded sheepishly to the crickets.  And by the way, I love that they panned to Michelle; I get that face all the time at home!)

The minuses:

1. Call me unpatriotic, but I always get concerned when there is a lot of “America is the best” or “America needs to be the best” talk going on.  Statements like this, for example: “Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you – America will always win.”  Is that true?  What does he mean by leveling the playing field?  It seems to me like you can pursue global justice or American economic/military superiority, but you cannot honestly serve both of those masters.  Not all the blame falls on the President.  There is this false notion going around that says to love one’s country means to think one’s country is the best in the world.  It’s simply not true, and we ought to beware such language before a God who regards nations as nothing in his sight and who opposes the proud.

2. From whence they come?  There were a lot of programs that the President laid out that I think would work.  But a number of times, he mentioned the importance of rewards/incentives for businesses who stay in the U.S., for the best teachers, for kids who go to college, etc.  A couple times, the President alluded to some ideas for funding these incentives.  But there are still a lot of big question marks in my mind of how we materially encourage (bribe?) people to do the right thing while also making a dent in a ginormous debt.   In another instance, the President gave a great line that got me excited coming from a family of educators: “Give [schools] the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”  Preach it!  But then this thought:  If you are not going to evaluate teachers by standardized test results (a good thing) and you are going to reward the best teachers and weed out the ineffective ones (I suppose a good thing), how are you going to determine who gets rewarded and who gets booted?  The President brings up a great issue.  But how do we implement this in a fair way?  And does the federal government really have the ability to accomplish this?

The pluses:

1.  Specificity and purpose.  While one commentator afterward called the speech a “laundry list,” I appreciated the President’s specific discussion of a variety of issues and what he sees needing to be done.  During his 2008 campaign, I thought he was rightly criticized for giving speeches that were more cheerleading than clear on issues.  But on this night, he simply said, “Here are the issues that need to be addressed.  Here are the ways I see us best addressing them.”  I liked that.

2. Inspiring and encouraging leadership.  The President said a number of times to his congress, “Send me _____, and I’ll sign it right away.”  First, let me qualify this: I realize that this refrain may have been intended to pass the buck for lack of effectiveness in the administration so far and blame congress for any future ineffectiveness.  That said, as I listened, I found myself all excited to sign up for one of these committees.  I think it’s great for a leader to say, “This is a problem that needs to be dealt with.  Here is a vision for how we can do it.  Now get creative and let’s make it happen!”  Perhaps this is just my moderate naievete that we should be able to get together and work for the good of the country.  So sue me, I liked it.

In conclusion, I enjoyed the President’s conclusion.  He told us we needed to be more like the Navy SEALs who raided the bin Laden compound.  ”All that mattered that day was the mission.”   This is a concept we need to grasp as churches as well to battle our divisiveness (John Armstrong calls it “missional ecumenism“).  But what is our mission as a nation?  The SEALs had a very clear mission, which was why they could unite around it.  But how does that apply to a nation?

What do you think?  What were your thoughts about the President’s address?  What do you think is our national purpose or mission, around which we can unite?

I know you’ve all been sitting at your computers for the last 3 weeks just wondering, “When is Pastor Jon going to post a new blog?!”  Well, in those 3 weeks, I’ve been doing a couple things: 1) Pondering whether or not tongue-in-cheek comes through in blogging, and 2) Spending a week in Tampa, FLA with other young clergy participating in a training program.  This was the first of four trips to Tampa I will undertake over the next four years for training in different aspects of pastoral leadership.  The basis for this first week was “Family Systems Theory” (FST), a way of understanding human behavior developed by Murray Bowen.  In essence, the idea is that we are not best understood as isolated individuals, but as parts of the various systems in which we function (ie. family, workplace, faith community).  After a week of being immersed in this theory, I’ve got a lot of stuff packed into my brain that I’m still processing through.  But rather than talk about FST, I want to spend this blog talking about the processing…process called “Integration.”  Integration is an idea that I believe is essential to the Christian call to live “in the world, but not of the world.”

You see, Murray Bowen was not a Christian (as far as I know), whose theory was not intentionally connected to Christianity in any way.  One of the questions I kept asking and discussing with my colleagues in Tampa was, “How does (or doesn’t) this fit with the Gospel, with the call of the Church, and with our call as pastors?”   In our culture–more than any other culture in history, dare I say–we are confronted with all kinds of information, theories, and ideas.  We are constantly filtering all of this input into what seems true and what doesn’t.  This filtering is done both consciously and subconsciously.  We are deciding what should be “integrated” into our worldviews and lives and what should be discarded or even actively opposed.  As humans, we cannot avoid this process of integration and rejection.  There are things that are true (accurate to reality) or helpful to our goals and things that are false (inaccurate) and unhelpful.

As I said in my introductory first blog post, “The purpose of this blog is based on a very simple assumption: Christians are called to think differently about life.”  There are things that we must say “Yes” to and things we must say “No” to in life.  Naturally, we fall back on making these decisions thoughtlessly, just going with flow of our bodily impulses or the culture around us.  But as Christians, we are commanded, “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  Thus, we are called to engage the Integration process thoughtfully, comparing whatever new information we are presented with to what we believe already and to reality.  The goal of Integration is that we would be, well, integrated.  By that I mean that we are not saying “Yes” to ideas or beliefs that utterly contradict each other (contradiction is different from mystery and paradox) and that our beliefs and behaviors seem to fit with each other.  The letter of 1 John is a great example of a call to integration: “We love because he first loved us [integrated].  Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen [disintegrated]. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister [integrated].”

Integration is a word I actually learned while in seminary with my wife, who is a counselor.  For students to become licensed, they had to learn–as students in any psychology grad school–theories from Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, and B.F. Skinner.  But as a Christian seminary, psychology students also had to take a course called “Integration.”  Every theory–especially in psychology–makes assumptions about the nature of human beings, the role of God, methods of healing, and what is ultimately best for people.  These assumptions are going to be very different for a Christian than for someone (like Freud) who is clearly opposed or indifferent to Christianity.  The integration question in this context is, “What insights did Sigmund Freud have that fit my understanding of reality, what of his theories do not, and what insights might actually seem true enough to replace some of my existing beliefs?”

As I mentioned in my post on Harry Potter, it is far easier to wholly accept or reject someone’s ideas.  It is more difficult to engage the process of Integration–more difficult, but also more Christian (in my opinion).   So briefly, here are some principles I employ when I am engaged in the mental process of Integration.

  1. Humility and Honesty.  To engage the Integration process, I have to acknowledge that I don’t know it all.  I also have to be able let the new information challenge my assumptions and beliefs.  A number of times, I have received a new bit of information that has challenged what I “know” about the Gospel and the Bible, only to go back to the Scriptures and have them opened up in a new way.  Not many of us would say, “I’ve got it all figured out,” yet many of us live in a way that says, “Don’t you dare challenge my beliefs and assumptions!”  Jesus faced the most opposition from people who would not let their understandings of God and faith be challenged, even by…well…God himself.
  2. General and Special Revelation.  These doctrines have been quite enlightening to me.  Basically, they indicate that even though someone might not be engaging Jesus and the Scriptures in faith (special revelation), that doesn’t mean that they have no way of discovering truth.  God has given all humans access to some level of truth through the creation, interactions with people, and life experiences (general revelation).  In other words, we should not be surprised if Sigmund Freud or the Buddha or Stephen Hawking or John Lennon are actually making true insights into the world.  As the saying goes, “All truth is God’s truth.”  Of course we are going to find true insights in other religions because they are living in the same world, learning from trial and error like everyone else.  Of course people who look closely at humanity and the natural world are going to gain true insights.  As Christians, we can learn from some of these basic insights, while also knowing that God has chosen to reveal himself in a more full and relational (special) way in the Scriptures and in Jesus.  Integration allows people–even people who may not know or love God at all–to help us check our blindspots and drive us back to God in our search for love, truth, and wisdom.
  3. Seeing the problem vs. Having a solution.  This is a big one for me.  I am constantly awed at how insightful non-Christians can be into the human condition.  The best and most honest comedians, poets, musicians, and journalists are intimately aware of–in Christian terms–human sin and cosmic brokenness.  They are intimately aware of our deep needs and our quest for hope.  To put it more simply: they are intimately aware that something is wrong.  A couple years ago, I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.  There is much I find appalling in Rand’s philosophy of how things should be, but there is much I find prophetic in Rand’s perception of our human and societal condition.  I believe Jesus and his Gospel work are God’s solution to the problem.  Yet, while I am left unsatisfied with the ways the Buddha or Ayn Rand or Sigmund Freud would seek to solve our problems, I think we can gain some insight from them into the problems that need to be solved.

It is easy to hate and reject information that makes us think or challenges our assumptions.  But such knee-jerk reactions keep us 1) from the general revelation insights we might learn from others, 2) from developing a spirit of humility and openness, and 3) from being able to connect and interact meaningfully with anyone who is not “like us.”  Integration can be a rigorous process.  But it is one that is essential if we are going to live in this world in a meaningful way while also being transformed by God’s Spirit.  This is just some introduction to the idea of Integration.  I hope you can see the process at work in some of my other blog posts and maybe you can even practice applying it when you read, see, or hear some new bit of information.  Don’t hate, Integrate!