26 February 2008

a conversation on denominational renewal

Today begins "A Conversation on Denominational Renewal," a conference in St. Louis, which runs through Thursday. Though not denominationally sponsored, this event comes from within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and is directed towards the health and renewal of the PCA.

The conversation is designed to provide a lot of room for discussion and interaction among participants - of which I understand there will be around 250. There will be relatively short presentations (30-45 minutes) on the topics of ecclesial ethos, how we do theology, liturgy and worship, ecclesiology in relation to other church bodies, and mission. Each of these five presentation will be followed by significant time for questions, challenges, dialogue, and further explanation.

A kind of Beta version of the conversation took place last April in Baltimore with around 80 people in attendance, to allow the speakers to try out their talks, hone their ideas, anticipate questions, develop ideas, and so forth. I attended that version and found it very beneficial and a great time of encouragement and fellowship. Of the talks, I was particularly challenges by Jeremy Jones's talk on how we do theology together as confessional Presbyterians, as well as Greg Thompson's talk on ethos.

If the prior conversation was the Beta, the present one in St. Louis is the general release, 1.0 version. I wish I could attend St. Louis, but finances and my class schedule make that impossible. It's too bad since I could use what I hope will be an encouraging and constructive time together among sisters and brothers within the PCA.

While I see many wonderful and positive developments in the PCA on the level of individual parishes and ministries, on the denominational level I'm deeply discouraged. In recent months it seems that every few weeks brings yet another item that looks to me like new nail in the PCA coffin. I'm weary.

At any rate, pray that the conversation goes well and grows into a fruitful moment through which the PCA might come to have a better sense of its identity, its mission and catholicity, and what it might look like to serve faithfully in our present world.

25 February 2008

davenant on christian unity

John Davenant, an English delegate to the Synod of Dort, writes the following in his An Exhortation to Brotherly Communion betwixt the Protestant Churches (1641):

With those Churches it is fitting to retain brotherly communion, which we will not deny but that they retain conjunction and communion with Christ, the Head and Foundation of the holy catholic Church. Yea, except we will yield and confess ourselves to be estranged from the body of Christ, we cannot but be their brethren, who are esteemed to hold brotherly communion with Christ, our elder Brother. For the band of holy brotherhood betwixt Churches themselves, cannot be broken at men's pleasures, except they be also broken betwixt them and Christ, who is the head of all Churches. If the Saxon count the Helvetian - or the Helvetian the Saxon Churches - so alienated and torn asunder from Christ by their errors, that they are neither founded in Christ nor by Christ the elder Brother taken into the brother society of fellow-members, then they may pretend some reason why they renounce communion with them. But if in no wise they dare affirm this, we cannot have just cause to disclaim brotherly communion with those who Christ himself blusheth not to own, and call his brethren...

They who are founded in the same Christ, and rooted in the partaking of eternal life, ought to be founded and rooted in mutual charity. But no Protestant will deny, but that the Protestant churches are founded in the same Christ, our Lord and Savior. It ought therefore to be well weighed and considered whether the office and nature of charity itself doth not wholly detest this: to make an endless schism and rent betwixt churches, for some diversity of opinions. It was Augustine's judgment that "Christian charity could not be kept except in the unity of the Church, and that those who persist in discord belong to the lot and portion of Ishmael." For who will say that there is not brotherly hatred in schism when there is no other original and obstinate persisting in schism but brotherly hatred?

Most sure it is that the proper duties of charity cannot appear and shew themselves in these differences of the Protestant Churches. I appeal to the Apostle himself for my witness (Rom 12:9ff.; 1 Cor 13:5ff.). If we grant those Churches which we conceive somewhat to err in the faith, yet to be sanctified and preserved in Christ, the foundation of the Church, our faith though something the sounder will little avail us if our charity be wanting toward all the saints. For saving faith cannot be unless conjoined with charity or brotherly love as the Scriptures everywhere do witness. "For what shall a man's sound faith profit him, where the soundness of his charity is baned with the deadly wound of schism?" (Augustine).

24 February 2008

school daze update

In a prior post I mentioned our process of discernment regarding where to send our daughter Claire for Kindergarten in the autumn. After prayers for wisdom, talking through the options with friends and family, doing some research, and considering our finances and the kinds of aid available, we decided upon the Miquon School for Claire.

It seems like a really great school that is pedagogically progressive, does a great job integrating subject matters with arts, music, hands-on learning, problem-solving, and the outdoors, giving structure and guidance while also respecting and nurturing children's creativity and imagination. Moreover, it has beautiful facilities with classrooms spread out among a number of light-filled, many windowed buildings that open out to their wooded multi-acre campus with a stream running through it.

Addendum (2/26): I'm even happier to have Claire accepted at a school we really like after reading this Chicago Tribune article: "Parents face cut-throat competition - for kindergaten."

11 February 2008

a gated community of the soul

There was an interesting article I chanced across in this morning's USA Today: "A Gated Community in the Evangelical World." It points out how a number of prominent, wealthy, and celebrity evangelicals find themselves disconnected from the life of any local parish community.

In some cases, where church attendance might draw paparazzi or require a significant bevy of bodyguards, I can understand the hesitancy to disrupt the life of a local congregation. But I wonder how much the phenomenon outlined in the article is an effect of [a] an evangelical piety that fosters an individualistic and privatized spirituality and [b] complicity with secular patterns of elite exclusivity? Thoughts?

school daze

Among the activities that have occupied our time and kept me from blogging is our school search for our daughter Claire for next year. This year she is in a three-day per week (pre-)Kindergarten we really like, but next fall she will begin a five-day, full-day Kindergarten. Since her current school is only a nursery through Kindergarten program, we're searching for a grammar school where she'll be able to stay for the coming years.

Our local public elementary school is merely adequate, at best, so we've been exploring a variety of other options - which in Philadelphia add up to a bewildering variety of possibilities: private non-sectarian, parochial, private Catholic or Protestant or Quaker, public charter schools, parent co-operatives, etc. I've lost track how many we've looked into on paper or via website and, among those, how many we've visited.

The past six weeks or so was prime "Open House" season, which, if followed up with applications, leads to testing, visits, observation days, and financial aid paperwork. We've also explored some various grants, for instance, one offered by a private foundation for eligible residents of Philadelphia who are sending kids to private school. All of this, of course, takes considerable time.

We've been very impressed by several of the schools we've visited (the Miquon School, Waldorf School, and Project Learn especially), each of which has its own particular strengths or interesting philosophy or unique culture, often very attractive, but rendering the process of decision-making difficult.

Growing up, I attended the same private Christian school from Kindergarten through senior high, much of which was very enjoyable - especially in high school - and which had its own benefits. Given the main options we're considering, Claire will not stick with any one school for so long, but will eventually have to switch schools when entering the middle grades or high school. But I think may be a good thing.

Part of me really likes the idea of an explicitly and intentionally Christian education. There's certainly a lot to be said for weaving Christian content into a curriculum from an early age and having Scripture and Christian songs as part of one's school culture. But, having looked at a number of Christian schools, I'm sometimes disappointed that their philosophy of Christian education doesn't seem to extend much beyond intellectual content.

Looking at the Quaker schools really made this stand out to me. While the Quaker schools aren't perfect and don't always live up entirely to their ideals, I have a great deal of respect for how Quaker values are often permitted to color every aspect of how they conceive of education - not only (and perhaps not even primarily) in terms of intellectual content, but in their philosophy of the human person, their pedagogy, their approach to development and socialization, how they handle conflict resolution, and so forth.

I don't see the same degree of intentionality and thoroughness in most models of Protestant education. And this puts one in an odd dilemma as a Christian parent. Several of the schools we looked at are relatively "secular" or, at the very least, not within a confessional religious tradition. This doesn't mean they are at all hostile to religious values. Indeed, several seem to value and encourage students bringing their traditions into the mix and at least one would probably be manifestly uncomfortable for a committed secularist.

But these same schools often have very well-worked out ways of structuring pedagogy, valuing the uniqueness and giftedness of children, training kids to resolve conflicts peaceably, encouraging critical thinking, developing a variety of competencies beyond basic language and math, addressing children holistically, and inculcating a desire to seek justice for those who are marginalized and dispossessed. In these respects, even apart from an explicit Christian confession, some of these institutions seem to embody what looks to me like a more comprehensively Christian ethos than what some of the more religious schools offer.

That is, to my mind, a very odd dynamic and makes the decision-making process often all the more vexing. Nonetheless, through prayer, advice from friends, recommendations, and our own observations, we will come to some kind of discernment in the coming weeks.

09 February 2008

fastnachts and ashes

Evidently my attempt to start blogging regularly again is floundering. Some other years I've given up blogging during Lent. This year I've grown so detached from blogging that perhaps finding the leisure to blog a couple times a week should be a positive discipline I take up during the Lenten season.

This past Shrove Tuesday I found myself craving fastnachts, those wonderful, often square doughnuts Pennsylvania Germans use to celebrate the last day before Lent, sometimes sold in rural Pennsylvania at firehalls and the like as a fundraiser. Even though the German Reformed of Pennsylvania didn't observe Lent as an ecclesiastical event until the latter part of the 19th century (unlike their Lutheran neighbors), Lent was still often part of customs in the home. And among those customs - shared with the Lutherans - were the yummy, sugary, doughy, fatty fastnacht, a final indulgence before Lenten observances.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find any fastnachts here in the city - though I didn't look very hard. I settled for a generous plate of pancakes instead, just as common among many traditions and probably not so bad for one's health.

Easter is early this year - 23 March, almost as early as it can be, since it always falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox on 21 March. That means Easter can't be any earlier than 22 March.

With Easter this early, Ash Wednesday was early as well, catching many of my students off guard as they noticed their ash-marked classmates, leading them to scramble to find out when campus ministry was offering prayer and imposition of ashes. Living in an urban area, largely Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant, the sight of ash-marked foreheads as Lent commences is a normal part of the landscape.

There's something encouraging and sobering to be surrounded by Christian people, marked together as creatures of dust, laboring together under a sign of penitence and of our own mortality. Since I'm teaching class on Wednesday nights this semester, I wasn't able to attend our parish's Ash Wednesday service, but I did join my students at midday over at our campus chapel.

In his homily, the campus minister told us of a time when, ministering at an elementary school, he burned the palms in front of the children on a smoking charcoal grill, reducing them to glowing embers - just to illustrate where the ashes came from and to indicate our mortality and frailty before a God of consuming fire. As he later began to distribute the ashes, marking the forehead of each child beginning with the youngest, the first Kindergarten student in line looked up at him with fear in his wide eyes, but standing his ground.

"What's wrong?" the pastor asked, "Are you not feeling well?"

"I'm okay, Father," the child replied, "I'm just a bit scared. How hot are the ashes," he asked, "and will they burn me much?" not realizing the ashes in the cup had been prepared separately from the ones still smoldering on the fire.

The amazing thing, the minister pointed out, is that the child hadn't run away, but was ready to take up his ash-marked identity, even if it hurt or burnt.

How ready are we to live out our identity in Jesus Christ, trusting that his grace is enough to sustain us, even when we face situations where following him is uncomfortable or perhaps painful? Do we have that child-like trust that he knows what is best for us, however things might appear?