Craig Vick's Scattered Thoughts

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Winners and Losers

Competition runs deep in our culture. We pay tribute every weekend  in our sports arenas and through our televisions. We invest heavily in sports not just in terms of money but even in terms of our emotional well being. If my beloved Green Bay Packers win this Sunday, all is well. If they lose it will take me a couple of days to adjust. When my team wins I exclaim, “We won!!” This is odd given that I didn’t even play, nor do I have a personal relationship with anyone on “my team”. I read of many horrible things that take place in our world. I’m ashamed to admit that I respond more violently to a “bad call” by an official than I do to poverty, totalitarian brutality and gross injustice.

Our love of competition goes deeper than sports. We make everything a competition. It’s not enough for me to be a good software engineer. I must strive to be the best engineer. My company is out to crush all competing companies. We have competitions, formal and informal, even where they might seem to be out of place. Who is the greatest artist, dancer, philosopher, actor, teacher or preacher? We latch on to objective, measurable indicators of victory. The best preacher isn’t the one closest to God (we’re not sure what that would mean) but the one with the greatest following. If a matter seems undecided, we can always take a vote. Our legal system is implemented via competition. Our political system, our democracy, is expressed as a series of contests. If Derrida had been an American his two great dicta would have been “There’s nothing outside of sports” and “It’s competition all the way down”.
Many years ago I used to speak to various churches on the subject of competition. My talks were based on the insights of an author I’d love to credit, but, unfortunately, I’ve forgotten his name and the title of his book. His main point was both simple and compelling. Competition is good, but always as a means rather than an end. The word ‘compete’, for example literally means to strengthen with. ‘Contest’ is to test or challenge with. I may, for example, run on my own and achieve speed, endurance or both. If I run in competition with another, we strengthen each other. We run faster and better than we would have run on our own. Competition, then, is good when it serves a good purpose.
Our adversarial court system is good, we believe, because it has the best hope of achieving justice. The prosecution and the defense battle the case and, hopefully, truth prevails. There are no guarantees. We understand that our system isn’t perfect, but we believe that it is better at assuring justice than any other system.
Disaster occurs, however, when we forget the greater good. The greater good gives competition meaning. Without it, competition is meaningless. Worse, without it competition risks becoming something evil. A prosecutor may win a case by obfuscating evidence. Most of us see such behavior as immoral even when legal.The goal is a just trial, not a win. The same goes for sports. A sports franchise that holds a community hostage in order to get a stadium built, without regard to the needs of that community, is immoral. It’s evil. It’s wrong.
When my son was young he played in several sports. At times, leagues would attempt to hide winning and losing. The thought seemed to be that losing was so detrimental to the self image of a young boy or girl that it’s better if we make it appear that all the children win. At times we wouldn’t keep score. At other times we’d change the score at halftime if one team was too far ahead. I find such practices to be pretty silly. Even so, they do show a recognition that competition can do harm when we forget the greater good. A better approach, it seems to me, is to teach our children the real value and meaning of competition. We need to teach that the goal isn’t to win, but to make our opponents better as they make us better, to strengthen together. We do that by playing the game with passion, working to win and working at playing justly. Winning or losing doesn’t automatically make us better people. Winning is meaningless as an end in itself.
Because of my disability, I wasn’t able as a child to do all that’s required to participate in sports. I couldn’t run, which made it close to impossible to get to first base even on a good swing of the bat. I was also far too easy to catch and sack, which would seem to preclude my ever being a quarterback. We might think that my childhood was spent on the sideline, watching my friends play. We’d be wrong. My friends included me in all of our games. We simply changed the rules so that I could meaningfully compete. In baseball, someone would run for me. In football, we outlawed rushing the quarterback. We found that rule gave me too big of an advantage, so we changed the rules again. We allowed rushing the quarterback after counting to five. With very little reflection, we knew that the rules of competition should serve us rather than the other way around. Dare I say we understood that the greater good, our friendship expressed as we played together, was what gave meaning to our competition?
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Worship Metaphors

 

On any given Sunday two people may perform the same actions, one worshiping while the other is not. They may sing the same hymns, pray the same prayers, hear the same sermon, and partake of the same sacrament, all the while having the same postures and expressions, and yet only one worships. One may sing a song of praise to the Lord. The other may sing the same song to no one in particular perhaps cherishing thoughts of the upcoming football game. True worship, the kind of worship that God seeks, is in spirit and in truth. Self deception is an ever present possibility. Looking like everyone else doesn’t equate to worship.

 

Perhaps, we might think, we simply need to be more spontaneous. Prayers, speech and song composed on the spot might seem guaranteed to be genuine. Sadly, our self deception runs too deep for such a guarantee. Like a husband who knows just what nods and sounds are needed to convince his wife that he is listening, even when he is not, so to we can quickly learn how to spontaneously generate what only appears to be worship.

 

How often do we truly worship? At times, we know we are merely participating in the forms of worship rather than the reality. We conclude that such a state of affairs is a minor sin when, in reality, it’s idolatry. For this reason, I am sometimes impatient when we discuss our forms of worship while ignoring what I believe is the elephant in the room. If we focus on the form without addressing the spirit and truth of worship we will only succeed at generating controversy.

 

How do we address the real problem? I don’t know how to do that directly. It’s a question of being spiritually awake and examining our own hearts. What I hope might be helpful, however, are the following worship metaphors. None of these metaphors are original with me, though I have found them to be good guides. Metaphors cannot create true worship, but they can remove some of the noise that keeps us from hearing clearly the voice of the Word.

 

Worship as Performance

 

At first sight, it might seem that viewing worship as a kind of performance or play is exactly what’s wrong with much of worship today. The thought comes naturally enough. Many of our sanctuaries look much like theaters. People come to be entertained. The worship leaders, pastors and choir put on a show, and that’s why there on what looks like a stage. We do not sell tickets; we do try to fill seats. The service is evaluated in much the same terms as we might evaluate a movie. We want our preachers to be dynamic, the service to be stimulating and, like a play, it should all start and end on time. Participation by the congregation is limited by everything from the seating (there is little room to do much more than stand or sit) to the overall setting. If someone up front does something particularly outstanding, the congregation wants to applaud (though probably won’t). True worship, as a performance, seems about as likely as being able to jump into a film.

 

That can all change if we view the performance as Kierkegaard suggests in his Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Rather than thinking of the congregation as the audience and the worship leaders as the performers, he suggests that we view God as the audience. To worship is to perform for and before God. The performers are the congregation. The worship leaders are, according to Kierkegaard, the prompters. They give us our lines when we forget. Our desire and goal is that God be pleased with what he sees.

 

At the end of a worship service, rather than asking one another what we thought of the service, we should ask what God thought of the service. Though I’ve read several reviews of plays, I’ve never seen a review that evaluated, or for that matter, even mentioned the prompters. Rather than asking how the preacher or choir performed, each member needs to review his or her own performance. God, our audience, has told us what he is looking to find, worshipers who worship in spirit and in truth.

 

Worship as Dialog

 

Most worship services are structured as a dialog. God speaks first. He breaks the dark silence with his wondrous light. We respond. God calls us to worship and we sing praises to him. He reveals his law to us and we weep for our sin and cry out for his mercy. He speaks his love to us through the death and resurrection of his son. He declares his forgiveness. We rejoice and commit to living for him. He teaches us and we bring before him our needs. He blesses us with his good words.

 

For this metaphor to be useful we must each hear the voice of our Lord on Sunday morning. God has not called us to eavesdrop on someone else’s conversation; he speaks to us. We are called to answer and to encourage one another to answer. He speaks through his Son, through the Scriptures, through the exposition of the Word, through the celebration of communion and even through our love and encouragement of one another. We respond with songs from the heart, prayers of faith, repentance, praise, and love for him and for his people. If we do not hear his voice, we cannot truly worship. If we are not responding to his voice we are like Adam and Eve hiding in the garden trying to cover our own sin.

 

On Sunday we, as a congregation, are called to meet with God by God. This is an appointment that cannot be missed. The call goes out to all corporately and to each individually.

 

Worship as Dance

 

A quick word study of the Scriptures will show that the Bible sees dance as an expression of joy. Great victories are frequently celebrated by dance. Dancing is also contrasted with mourning. There are times when our joy is so full and great that dancing is the most natural response. Worship is a joyful dance. It is a joy that we cannot help but express. When our troops come home in victory we dance. No one needs to tell us what to do. To hear the news, if we understand it, is to want to dance. God has won the greatest of all victories in the death and resurrection of our Lord. On Sunday, we dance.

 

We can develop this metaphor even further. When we dance our Lord leads and we, as his bride, follow. We move in perfect time to the music as we are led by him and filled with his Holy Spirit. Our dancing is not random; it is given form by the order of worship. God calls us to the dance. He announces the great victory. He heals our hearts and gives us the ability to move freely. Our mourning is turned to dancing. We have not been given an invitation to watch a dance. Those who simply watch soon find themselves in the company of Michal who complained when David danced.

 

Are we dancing on Sunday? As I look at my own heart I find that often I’m not. We cannot fix this by making changes to our order of worship. That’s not to say that the form of our worship isn’t important. The form, however, is not the central problem. If the words of the new song do not move me to dance, changing the tune will not help much (though as an observer rather than a participant, I may strongly believe that the tune is the most important thing).

 

When God calls us to worship this Sunday, these metaphors may prove useful. They will, admittedly, break if pressed too far. If used carefully, however, I hope that they give us some tools to worship in a way fit for our King.


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Au Revoir Camp Joan Mier

Camp Joan Mier was a camp for children with disabilities. It was located in the hills of Malibu overlooking the Pacific Ocean. For ten days every Summer, from age ten to eighteen, I was a camper there. It was in many ways the highlight of my year. I did a Google search on the name because I wanted to make sure I spelled it correctly for an upcoming disability parable. I found some sad news. Camp Joan Mier, my Summer camp, has closed. You can read about the closing here.

I confess that, after the sadness of realizing Camp Joan Mier had closed, I was a little annoyed by the remark in the above article attributed to Steven Rosenthal. He described Camp Joan Mier as “a great place for disabled children to learn how to tie their shoes and make their beds”. Why did this bother me? I’m sure he intended no harm. Perhaps something I ate for breakfast has made me more irritable than normal. For the record, however, let me point out a few things. First of all I doubt any child learned how to tie his or her shoes at Camp Joan Mier. We all knew how to tie our shoes before going to camp. The minimum age for a camper, as I remember, was ten. If the implication is that children who live with disabilities need a special place to learn how to tie their shoes, that’s at best misleading. There may have been some children with disabilities which prevented from or made it very difficult for them to able to tie their own shoes. Even so these challenges would have been solved long before coming to camp. The same goes for making our beds. Bed making was more strictly enforced at camp than at home (at least for me), but this was a matter of discipline, not learning. We all knew how to make our beds before going to camp.

Rosenthal’s remark, whether intended or not, points to a difference in perspective, the difference between viewing a disability from the outside as opposed to the inside. From the outside a disability is seen as a monster. It robs one of normality. The focus falls on giving back as much of normal as is possible. People are even seen as disabilities rather than as people. From the outside it looks like I can’t tie my shoes. Shoe tying is part of normal life. If I can only learn how to tie my shoes, I’ll be that much closer to normal. From the inside, I’m already normal (or at least as normal as I’m ever going to be). I don’t spend much time thinking about shoe laces. Tying my shoes may be difficult. It may be a big nuisance. It’s not a part of who I am.

I don’t want to end on a complaint. Though I’m a few years late, I’d like to give Camp Joan Mier a more proper eulogy by expressing my thanks. Thank you for being a huge part of my growing up years. Thank you for making so many friendships possible. Thank you to all of the staff and counselors who gave far more than was required. Many of you kept in touch even after the Summer ended. Your love and patience were tremendous gifts. Thank you for introducing me to rock n roll, days at the beach, sand crabs, star fish, rattle snakes, camp life, arts and crafts, swimming contests and a host of beautiful people. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to sing in a band. Thank you for providing some magnificent adventures and many memories. Thank you for being there as I chartered the very difficult waters of being a teen. Thank you for a cabin overlooking the ocean. Thanks to all who gave their support through donations or taxes. Many lives were enriched by your mission. We’re all a bit poorer now that you’re gone.


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What is Faith?

What is faith? Observant readers of this blog have no doubt noticed that this question is present in almost everyone of my posts. Johannes Climacus, one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms, defines faith as immediacy after reflection. I realize that many of my readers are rolling their eyes at this point and some have already left this post in search of better reading. “Craig”, some are thinking, “you started off so well with a clear question (What is faith?) and then you jumped into a muddy philosophical lingo.” Many of my readers, always with good taste and respect, have teased me about the philosophical (ie undecipherable) nature of my writing. I’m guilty as charged. Thanks to all who have tried to understand what I write. You have given me a great compliment. I hope you’ll bear with me a little while longer. In this post I want to show why this definition or view of faith means so much to me.

Let’s start with ‘immediacy’. What does this word mean? I find it helpful to think of the experiences of a child. As children we have an immediate trust of our world. We assume it’s safe and right. We trust our parents, that they love us and will care for us. We have this trust even when it’s undeserved. A child’s trust isn’t easily destroyed. Immediacy, in this sense, is joyful. For most of my years growing up I went to a school for children with disabilities. From the outside this may have looked to be a sad place. One would see wheelchairs, braces, crutches, amputees, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and more, and all this suffering would be borne by children. A closer look, however, would reveal that we were, for the most part, very happy. This wasn’t because we were special or knew some life secret. It was because we were children. We accepted and enjoyed our world as children do. We knew an immediacy before reflection.
Of course, it’s not only children who experience life in this way. As adults, we may find ourselves reverting to our childhood or finding new forms of immediacy. We fall in love, find a friend, see our children being born, meet our grandchildren and the world is good and beautiful. We may even experience immediacy over fairly insignificant events. I’m embarrassed to tell how delighted I was to see my beloved Green Bay Packers fell the Saints last Sunday.
Climacus might give us two warnings about this childlike immediacy. First of all, he might point out that this kind of immediacy isn’t faith. It’s on the road to faith, but it’s not faith. Faith is immediacy after reflection. Secondly, he might give a warning  to those of us who tend to look down upon this childlike immediacy. We may be convinced that we’ve matured. We’re grown up now. We have no need for childish immediacy. Climacus might ask us to make sure we’re even on the road to faith. Do we look down on expressions of immediacy because we’ve made so much progress in our own journey or because we haven’t even started our own journey? I find this warning especially relevant to those of us who tend to think a lot about theology. When we find ourselves looking at others and saying “How immature” or “How naive” it’s time for self examination.
What, then, is reflection? In California I had a next door neighbor who lived, as a child, in Hitler’s Germany. Her mother was arrested. Before being taken away this mom promised her young daughter, “If there is a God, I will return.” After that day my next door neighbor never saw her mother again. I was told that story almost thirty years ago and I still can’t even think about it without shedding a few tears. Reflection takes place when all that we think we know and love, in our immediacy, is assailed by doubts. Our world, as we know it, is shaken at the foundations.These doubts may be intellectual. They may be experiential. We look at what we believe and begin to see that we have no sure intellectual foundation for our beliefs. We look at death camps and totalitarian regimes and wonder if we can ever again sing “This is my Father’s World”. In our doubt, some will tell us to just believe. They want to protect our faith. Climacus, however, might warn that it isn’t faith but unreflected immediacy that’s being protected. Faith is immediacy after reflection.
So how do we make the last movement? How do we get to immediacy after reflection? How do we get to faith? Climacus, by his own words, won’t be able to join us for this part of the journey. He can describe faith. He can admire it from a distance, but he hasn’t experienced it himself. As children we believe our world is safe and good. This gives us joy and room to experience love. As adults we find we have no right to these beliefs. Our world is dangerous, continually threatened by death, suffering  and evil. How do we find, after reflection, an immediacy that brings joy and love? Perhaps this isn’t something we do at all. Perhaps it’s a gift. We bring broken promises, disappointed hopes, tears, fear, doubts, powerlessness, despair, failure and brokenness. Our Lord gives faith. In him we have a new immediacy.
I’ve used this view of faith often when I prepare sermons. For example, Jesus’ mother asks him to handle a problem at a wedding. There’s no more wine. Mary has a confidence in her son. She knows he can solve the problem. Then something shocking occurs. Jesus rebukes his mother. It’s a gentle rebuke, but still a rebuke. Mary must find her confidence in Jesus this time after reflection, after the rebuke.
I’ve also found it helpful in pastoral counseling. I don’t mean that I start teaching about Kierkegaard. I use it more as a reminder to myself. My goal isn’t to cut off immediacy or reflection, but to point through reflection to a new immediacy in God. When I’m faced with what might appear to be a naive faith, I rejoice. When reflection comes I don’t try to stop it. I encourage it and I weep. Then I pray that God will do what I’m not able to do.
This week I’ll be preaching from Luke 18:15-17, a text where Jesus tells us “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” I probably won’t mention Kierkegaard, Climacus, immediacy or reflection. It isn’t wise for a pastor to put a congregation to sleep. You, however, my blog readers, will know what I’m thinking and asking. Faith is immediacy after reflection.