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Monday, February 16th, 2015

With an initial investment of less than $100, I began a new hobby in 2015. A workbench, a dovetail saw, and a couple of flea-market hand planes have me set up to try my hand at traditional woodworking.

My accomplishments in this noble guild can be summarized briefly: I built the workbench (such as it is) on which all future work will take place. That is all. For the last couple of days I’ve been shaping a lovely piece of rough-sawn and locally sourced poplar into the proper dimensions, from 1.25 inches thick and slightly crowned to 1 inch thick and flat. If there is anything left of it when it’s finished—after I’ve shaved a little off this side then a little on the other side and then, well, a little more on the first side to keep it even and so on—it will become a bench for our foyer. That will be my second accomplishment.

This type of woodworking is traditional in at least two ways. For one, the basic technology utilized in modern hand tools is more or less unchanged since about the 17th century. (If the articles I’ve skimmed are to be trusted.) More personally, two of my great-grandfathers were craftsmen. The television in our living sits atop a chest-of-drawers one of them built decades ago. It is fashioned from repurposed crates delivered to the ammunition plant where Daddy Carl worked. (Handmade of reclaimed lumber. Daddy Carl would have made a killing on Etsy.)

The thing is, though, I am not using my great-grandfathers’ tools, nor did either of them teach me the techniques I’d need to know to use them. My tools are technologically primitive but really rather new. And I’m learning everything I know from videos on YouTube. The word “tradition” comes from a Latin root that means to “hand down.” What I’ve done is more nearly picked up something discarded and put it in my pocket.

But this is what “tradition” and “traditional” mean, for the most part, today. Few people I know learn traditional skills from their elders or in dusty workshops or well-lighted studios. We learn traditional technologies such as planing and canning through our new technologies—tablets and smartphones. Tradition isn’t binding or authoritative. It supplements our sense of tactile connectedness with the past. That’s one sense new technology really cannot satisfy. Tradition is today a selective recovery of artifacts—spiritual or material—carefully curated to complement our lifestyles. This is a definition of tradition previous generations would hardly understand.

I’m not complaining. When I finish my bench, I’ll snap a couple of photos with my smart phone. One of them, certainly, will feature a nearly translucent ribbon of poplar beside the planer and the other will show off the finished product in good light. I’ll post them on Instagram. Probably on #handtoolthursday.

What Difference Does Tradition Make?

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

My people on all sides of the family are low-church anti-traditionalists. Many of them bend in an anti-institutional direction in general. They like their privacy. They don’t like to be told what to think or how to behave—not by Hollywood, not by the government, not by dead Christians they’ve never met.

This is the earth I was grown in.

Some of these convictions stuck with me. My autopsy (and my writing, too, I hope) will reveal a deep vein of populism running head to toe. But despite my anti-traditionalist upbringing, I’ve found great comfort and guidance in the Christian tradition. Here are just a few ways I find tradition makes a difference for my faith.

It offers a framework for questions.
When I was a teenager, I often got the impression it was unfaithful to ask faith-related questions. And boy did I have questions. What I’ve learned from tradition is that there’s nothing wrong with questioning. But there are wrong ways to question. (Here’s a great recent book on just this topic.) The Christian tradition gives me a stable place to stand while I ask my hard questions. Not to mention lots of examples of faithful questioners.

It gives direction for discipleship.
In every age Christians decry certain vices and celebrate certain virtues. It can be very easy to convince ourselves that we are good Christians because we don’t cuss or because we vote Democrat or because we have deep convictions. Tradition reminds us that the things other generations pursued—like holiness and justice and simplicity and compassion—are as important today as ever, whether we recognize it or not.

It points out my presuppositions about Scripture.
If you’ve seen this book you’ll know that I think we sometimes get Scripture wrong. The cheapest way I know of to have a cross-cultural experience is to read old writers. Tradition helps us see what we take for granted; it illuminates our blind spots. Reading texts from other centuries has taught me more about myself than anything written in my own generation. And the better I know myself, the better I read the Bible.

It helps me make sense of the present.
At some point I began to wonder why the faith community I grew up in believed what we believed and behaved how we behaved. This book by Nathan Hatch explained it. Our instincts in the twentieth century were formed by debates and battles from a hundred years before. The tradition helps me understand why things are the way they are so I know how to live faithfully in the present.

It gives me hope for the future.
God has been at work through his church for two thousand years. We face real challenges today. But history bears out the truth of Scripture: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” There is hope for the future because God has been faithful in the past.

I’d love to hear from you. What difference does tradition make for you?

Trendy Tradition

Friday, July 19th, 2013

A couple of articles discussing the appeal of tradition among younger evangelicals have circulated the web this week. One of them, by Andrea Palpant Dilley, encourages traditional churches to be slow to abandon their traditional worship style and values if their primary motivation is attracting young people. Not all young folks want a contemporary worship experience. Or as she so eloquently expressed the matter:

Consider that some of us in time renew our appreciation for the strengths of a traditional church: historically informed hierarchy that claims accountability at multiple levels, historically informed teaching that leans on theological complexity, and liturgically informed worship that takes a high view of the sacraments and draws on hymns from centuries past.

Dilley is telling her own story; she avoids making any sweeping claims about trends toward tradition. The other article, “Young Evangelicals Are Getting High”, explains that young evangelical Christians “are going over to Catholicism and high Anglicanism/Lutheranism in droves.” And here’s why:

The kids who leave evangelical Protestantism are looking for something the world can’t give them. … theology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. … They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents’ churches and not finding it.

I’m glad this discussion is still getting attention. You can’t talk about tradition for long before you start talking about history, and that makes this church historian very happy. But it’s not a new discussion, and the trend toward tradition isn’t new either. It was Robert Webber, back in 1999, who pointed out in Ancient-Future Faith that young evangelicals seem hungry for deep roots. (That’s when I joined the conversation.) Chris Armstrong reported for Christianity Today on the appeal of the early church for twenty-first century Christians in 2008. And I helped put together an issue of Leadership Journal called “Rediscovered Roots” in 2009.

The story of movement away from low-church worship to liturgy is definitely a popular story. It’s my story (another day, perhaps). But it’s important to remember that the movement runs both ways. Lots of folks I know who now worship in low-church, nondenominational congregations grew up in Roman Catholic, Anglican, or otherwise liturgical churches. For them, what some outsiders consider rich tradition they themselves consider dead formalism. Many of my community college students grew up in Roman Catholic or Orthodox (Greek, Russian, you name it) churches and left having no idea what was going on in the worship services. These students are attracted to contemporary, nondenominational, informal worship experiences. (See this, for example.)

What is really fascinating to me is that it’s not only young evangelicals that are returning to tradition. Judaism and Islam are also encountering flocks of young faithful who want to recovery ancient practices—more Hebrew in the synagogue and more interest in sharia law, and so on. (See this great article for more.) It makes me wonder: is there anything in particular about our tradition, Christian tradition that appeals to young people? Or does my generation simply long for some connection, any connection, to the past?

Sometimes I wonder just how deep my generation’s appreciation for tradition runs. Sometimes I feel like we want to adopt the parts of tradition that seem meaningful to us, that give us that sense of connection we long for. But we are slow to submit to tradition; we don’t want to be burdened by it. I hope this interest in tradition ultimately sparks an interest not just in liturgical worship but also in the actual facts and faith and practice of Christianity past. I’d hate to see the trend for the contemporary replaced by trendy tradition.

What the Zimmerman Trial Means to Me

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

For the last several days since George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, I have relied on other writers to articulate my thoughts and feelings about the verdict. Amy and I have been surprised by how emotional we’ve been about it all and about how closely to home the news has struck.

I want to make it clear that I don’t know what all this means or what we ought to learn from it. I don’t have any proposals for making America a better or safer or more just society. I don’t have any special wisdom or insight into race relations. But I’m a dad and, more to the point, I’m a dad who worries. And I’ve finally captured a few thoughts that have been circulating in my brain. In no particular order:

1. It’s time we admit race matters. I’m not convinced George Zimmerman is a racist. I’m not qualified to make that judgment. But I do believe that his presuppositions about black males contributed to his actions on the night he shot Trayvon Martin. If that’s true, then that means race matters.

Americans all know that race should not determine what we think of someone (i.e., whether we fear them or find them suspicious). Unfortunately, because we know race should not affect our judgment of people, we have convinced ourselves that race does not affect our judgment of people. And that’s just not the case. (For data, see paragraph six of this great post by Jen Hatmaker.) It’s time we admit that race matters, that it affects our decisions, that for all our efforts to be colorblind, we are not.

Be honest: how many of these statements do you agree with, whether or not you’d admit it out loud? I suspect all black men are aggressive. I suspect all Asian men are good at math. I suspect all hispanic men know how to hang drywall.

Saying these things out loud makes us feel racist. But we need to acknowledge assumptions if we hope to move beyond them.

I’ll start.

It shames me to admit that I sometimes feel uncomfortable or unsafe in the presence of unfamiliar black men—say, in elevators or on dark streets. By God’s grace, this is changing. But I’m learning what’s at stake if I don’t come clean about this fear. If I’m not honest about my feelings about race, I can convince myself that race doesn’t matter. But it does. And I think it’s time we all admit that. (For more on this, read—please read—these reflections from my friend Daniel Hill.)

2. It’s not easy to raise a black son in America. I can’t imagine what it must be like to grow up assuming that all the people who are supposed to look out for my best interest—policemen, teachers, neighborhood watchmen—will expect the worst of me because of the color of my skin. A friend of mine suggested this week that I will do my son a world of good if I’ll raise him to be articulate and respectful. Of course that will be my goal with all my children. But stories like the 2009 arrest of Henry Louis Gates at his own home remind me that black boys and black men do not always receive the benefit of the doubt. I always do.

I barely feel equipped to make my son healthy lunches when Amy is out. Much less do I feel prepared to teach him how to respect those who, through no fault of his own, may not respect him until he has shattered their presuppositions.

3. What we call “justice” is really just the efforts of frail humans to make the best of bad situations. No one wins in a case like this. A son is dead. A man has to live with the guilt of taking a human life. In this scenario, “justice has been done” means legal culpability has been established and the legal consequences of one man’s actions have been decided. But wrong has not been put to right. Societal equilibrium has not been restored. Injustice has not been defeated.

It’s important to remember that the American justice system is not a fool-proof system. It’s a great system; maybe the best in the world (I don’t know all the systems, so who am I to say?). But we’ve spent the better part of 400 years figuring out how to apply in practice the values and ideals we hold in principle. And we’re only people, and people make mistakes. Yes, the jury has spoken. And the jury is made up of people who leave their turn signal on for 45 miles on the interstate, who can’t figure out the self checkout register at Wal-Mart, who we are sure the rest of the year are to blame for ruining America. I’m not saying they got it wrong in this case; I don’t know. I respect our system. I am confident in our system. But our system does not achieve ultimate justice.

4. The gospel is our only hope. Some have quoted Colossians 3:11—”here there is no Jew or Gentile”—to remind us all this week that our primary identity is not racial but spiritual. Christians are one in Christ, for sure. However, I think Paul’s point in Colossians is that from God’s perspective there is no Jew or Gentile, etc. No one has special access to God based on genetics, and no one is excluded by genetics. But the book of Acts tells us that, from a human perspective, the challenges that arise when Jews and Gentiles (or African- and Anglo-Americans) worship together do not disappear. The gospel doesn’t help because it tells us we are all one. Coca-Cola commercials tell us that. The gospel transforms us because it teaches us that, in Christ, we can acknowledge and embrace those who are not like us. Confession and forgiveness are required for things to be on earth as they are in Heaven (i.e., one in Christ).

Ninety Percent Obscurity

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Nobody knows better than New England Baptists how ministry is changing in America. And that shouldn’t surprise us. They’ve been at least a generation ahead of the rest of us for a couple hundred years. They practically invented evangelicalism in the 1740s. That was nearly a century before my home state (Arkansas) was admitted to the union. And while many of us west of the Mississippi fear the creeping influence of secularism, our New Englander brethren minister in the least religious states in America.

Fortunately, they are also a generation ahead of us in recovering the critical ministry value of faithfulness.

Earlier this year, I spent a long weekend with a group of Baptists from Vermont and New Hampshire. Before an evening session, one pastor reflected on the fact that the Bible only records three years of Jesus’ life and ministry. If Jesus died at 33, then we only know about ten percent of his life. Or, as this pastor put it, that means Jesus’ life and ministry was “ninety percent obscurity.”

That’s a feeling with which he and his fellow shepherds could relate. The Baptists were once the leading spiritual lights in New England. Following the Great Awakening, Baptist churches grew in massive numbers. Within about sixty years of the revival, Baptists grew from just dozens to nearly twenty-five thousand in New England. Those swelling ranks had influence beyond the church world. They carried with them considerable cultural clout. The Baptists did a lot to see the first amendment added to our constitution, for example, to ensure religious liberty for dissenters like themselves. They were a thriving, culturally relevant force.

But now the region’s churches are shrinking. Several of the pastors present that weekend hold services in church buildings erected in the 1740s which, on the one hand, testifies to the longevity of the movement. On the other, it speaks to a certain stagnation, a leveling off of 200 years of growth. Many pastors are bi-vocational, because their membership can’t support a full-time minister. And instead of being a shaping influence in the broader culture, the churches are fighting to prove their relevance in their profoundly secular environment. They labor in obscurity.

At the risk of sounding like a forecaster of doom, their story is our national story. It’s how we often tell our story, anyway. There were days when people went to church—most people, maybe. When the church was a cultural force for change for the better. Times have changed and are changing. If we want to know what awaits us in a generation, we need only look at New England.

But this is not a cautionary tale. It’s a story of hope.

Even if the conditions in which these faithful men and women serve may frighten some of us, the spirit in which they serve holds a lesson for ministry in the coming age. They have rediscovered the value of faithfulness.

The pastors I spoke with in New England have concerns, to be sure. But they are committed to blooming where they have been planted. Several call themselves “25 to Lifers,” because they have committed to spend their careers in small towns and seemingly insignificant churches. They have decided that God has called them not to extraordinary success but to uncommon faithfulness—to serving quietly and confidently in ninety percent obscurity.

It strikes me that, in this way, they are recovering a key value of the Great Awakening out of which their movement (and the rest of evangelicalism) was born. Although today we think of the impact of the Awakening in terms of the massive numbers of new Christians it produced, the heroes who were celebrated at the time were honored for their commitment, not their success. David Brainerd was chief among the faithful. Brainerd served as a missionary to the Delaware Indians for just a few short years, until he died of tuberculosis at the age of 29. He had enough success in his ministry that churches tried to lure him away to pastor their more notable congregations. But he refused. His mind was set on serving, in relative obscurity, where God had called him. That faithfulness was his legacy.

For those of us who fear the Western church’s decline in numbers and influence, it’s tempting to focus on strategies for greater success. We may hope there’s a formula to secure our future. Our Baptist brothers and sisters remind us that faithfulness in obscurity is more important than splash and clout.

(This post originally appeared on Out of Ur.)