Platonic Realities

This is a different kind of post from my usual fare.
I have noticed something about coming to the midwest from west of the Rockies: I did not know what they were talking about.
Here’s what I mean. When I was in California, we enjoyed things like soft-serve ice cream, jelly-filled doughnuts, and when Christmas came around we would put tinsel on the trees – some people even “flocked” their trees, sprinkled them with glitter, and hung plastic icicles on them.
But now I am filled with a slight Platonic echo. Those things that I knew in California in my youth were but shadows of the real things.
Take soft-serve ice cream. What soft-serve is trying to replicate is the decadent dessert called ‘frozen custard.’ See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frozen_custard. Frozen custard is a rich, delightful, frozen cream-based batch of wonderfulness that Dairy Queen only wishes it could reproduce. Frozen custard is what soft-serve ice cream wants to be when it grows up.
The same for the jelly-filled doughnut. When I lived in California, we had Dunkin’Doughnuts and (more popularly in the west) “Winchells.” Winchells was where the cops hung out. The west coast was not a real doughnut culture – not nearly the same as New England. But in high school, after a night of “TP-ing” (ask your friends who grew up in the ‘70’s about that), we’d go over to Winchell’s, get some doughnuts, and chuckle under our breaths over our exploits – knowing full well that three squad cars were represented in the room. Anyway, if we were feeling flush with cash, we might splurge on a jelly-filled “doughnut.”
But now I live in Michigan, in the metro Detroit area, and we have a lot of Polish people living around here. Before Lent, the Poles create a wonderous pastry called a “paczki” (pronounced “paunch-kee”) to be eaten on Fat Tuesday (sometimes Fat Thursday). See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C4%85czki and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fat_Thursday. It is, again, what a jelly-filled doughnut aspires to be.
Of course, living in a winter snow environment, I’ve now experienced the fun of seeing icicles form. I never thought about it until now but icicles don’t form in the cold of winter, they only form when it’s warmed up above freezing for a bit. Again, plastic icicles on the Christmas tree, or the icicle decorative lights during the Christmas season pale into silliness when you see the real thing: an ice beard bordering the eaves of a house, building, or church.
Finally, just this morning, Barb and I were out driving further north where a little snow had fallen the day before. As we drove past leafless trees, we noticed that they sparkled in the sunlight – they looked like they had pieces of tinsel or were sprinkled with glitter: very pretty.
So I suppose the point is, first, I never really knew what I was missing. I grew up unaware of the reality of frozen custard, paczkis, and snow effects. I only had the fake attempts. Sure, this would give people ammunition to claim that southern California is full of fake stuff. But I will tell you this for free, southern California does have real mountains, real ocean, real sand beaches, real deserts, real oranges, real palm trees, etc.
Second is this wonderful fact of life: Here I am in my mid-50’s and I’m still learning about stuff. That’s pretty cool.
I think I’ll celebrate by knocking off icicles from my eaves. 


Rob Bell Stuff ...

I've watched the Brashir interview (http://bit.ly/fGPBzm), the much longer interview in New York
(http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/archives/2011/03/rob_bell_on_uni.html); I've read critiques by people who have read the book
(http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review/, http://www.challies.com/book-reviews/love-wins-a-review-of-rob-bells-new-book, http://www.dennyburk.com/revising-hell-into-the-heterodox-mainstream/ - they are all negative, seem fair, and are persuasive) and a few things occur to me:
1) Rob Bell just doesn't think like most of us
2) His presentation is very attractive to those not committed to Christ
3) He absolutely refuses to be fit in a box
4) He does a lot of "deconstruction" of Bible, words, and ideas
5) He seems to put up a lot of "straw man" characterizations of things like God, heaven, hell, etc.
6) I am personally concerned about several of his statements that seem vastly different from the plain meaning of the Biblical text
7) He has a propensity for not answering the questions that are asked. I'm very familiar with this in the political arena but am personally very uncomfortable with this in the arena of theology.
8) Finally, let's say - for the sake of argument - that Bell is wrong on his view of heaven and hell. Yet those who have been at his church (people I personally know and trust) say that he is very good on other doctrines. If he is wrong on one thing then, it seems to me, he ought to be confronted on that thing. There are critiques out there that are 'out of scope.'
However, do not misunderstand me: if he is wrong, it is completely appropriate to criticize what he is saying.


Criticizing Preachers

As we have finished our ReFocus process here, one of the initiatives we developed was a “Sunday Service Excellence Team” that reviews our services and evaluates everything from the PowerPoints to the sound quality to the sermon presentation. That last part, sermon evaluation - has been particularly key as we do team-preaching.
 One of the issues that we’ve had to struggle with is the very nature of evaluating a sermon and the effect that has on a preacher. One of the lessons I had to learn while at my former church was
1) Don’t criticize a preacher within two hours of the sermon’s end; and
2) Don’t get “in the head” with silly stuff before a preacher gets into the pulpit.
I’ve tried to help the team understand the nature of preaching: that preachers get up there, pours out their souls, “leaves it all on the field,” and always gives ‘A’ level effort. After giving a sermon, the preacher is raw, spent, and frequently still running on adrenaline. That is exactly the *wrong* time to offer critique or challenge. But it is exactly the time when people feel compelled to do so.
Right here - I have to again beg the pardon for violating these rules during my time at my previous church. My pastors there helped me to understand and gain sensitivity to this matter of how to better express love and respect for the preaching ministry in the moment. They helped to understand that in the abstract and now I understand it experientially. I appreciate their patience with me.
 So we are going through this issue. It is hard.  I remember being ticked off by critique I received days after the “preach.” BTW, this is the first place I’ve heard the word “preach” used as a noun (as in, “That was a mighty good preach you did there, pastor”). Criticism of a sermon is an intensely personal thing. Most people who haven’t done it regularly do not understand this dynamic. Attempting to separate the message from the messenger, it seems to me, is a fool’s errand in the realm of preaching. All that to say that there is a real tension in evaluating and bringing critique to a sermon in both encouraging excellence and encouraging loving relationships.
 Of course, one of the ways to deal with this (as I’ve come to realize) is to understand the danger and mentally steel myself against the nonsense comments that can come afterwards. I was briefly toying with the idea of just exiting the sanctuary through the door that happens to be near the pulpit and going to my office to de-compress after preaching. That is not a good idea. But …
That got me thinking. I remember hearing of a former pastor at a previous church that would preach his sermon and then disappear right after the service. At the time, I interpreted the story to say that this guy didn’t have enough of a pastoral heart to interact with his flock during after-service mingling time.
 But now I wonder. I wonder if the ethos of that church - back in that day - was less loving and more critical. I wonder if that guy was acting out of emotional self-protection by getting the heck out of Dodge before some “well meaning” person told him - again and for the umpteenth time - about how he was a failure as a preacher because of some little inconsequential fault or disappointment. A pastor can only take so much of that before they start to hate the sheep that keep biting at him. So maybe that guy - to keep whatever pastoral heart he still had - ran away from the dangerous “post-preaching molestation time" as a self-preservation strategy.
I don’t know if that was the case at all. But I do know that criticism of a sermon right after delivery takes on greater force than the criticizer probably intends. Call me immature or not tough enough or inexperienced or whatever. But as I’ve looked into this with other mature, tough, and experienced pastors – they all tell me the same thing: criticizing a preacher after the sermon is very hurtful. Of course, let’s not forget that there are people who do want to hurt.
Anyway, all of that to say that I have learned that to keep my energy (and, yes, even my defenses) up until I’m done greeting and mingling with folks after a sermon.