Thursday, May 30, 2013

Rank Order

     This morning I was greeted with an invitation from to check out some books in which they believe I would be interested. Most of the time I simply discard these e-mails without a second glance, but this time the item on top of the list really caught my eye.  On top of the list was, "Anyone Can Intubate (5th Ed.): A Step-by-Step Guide to Intubation and Airway Management" by Christine Whitten, M.D.  Now I am sure that Dr. Whitten's textbook on opening up emergency airways in crisis situations is a great read (and all of the reviews are 5-stars).  I am equally sure that when Dr. Whitten states in her title, "Anyone can intubate," that she means that anyone can learn to intubate, and not that anyone off the street with no knowledge of human anatomy and physiology can pick up the necessary tools and get started--or at least I hope that is what she means.  Of course, the average reader will immediately understand that Dr. Whitten's intention is to encourage timid health science students (doctors, nurses, technicians) that they too can perform an often life-saving procedure and need not be afraid.  Of all of the possible interpretations of the title of Dr. Whitten's book, this seems the most likely and best.
     Now what I have done here is to rank order a couple of possible interpretations of the title of Dr. Whitten's book and then, based on that ranking, chosen the one that seems the best fit for the author's intent.  To review, the proposed interpretations were:
  1. A bode of confidence to health science students and (perhaps) health professionals that they can perform a life-saving procedure and instructions to do so.
  2. A proclamation that anyone, no matter who they are or what training they may have, can perform a successful intubation procedure.
Given that range of interpretations, the first is the obvious choice and the second seems silly.  Now we could probably expand the list to contain a good number of other possible interpretations based on the available evidence (which, in my case, because I will not shell out the $30 for the book, is limited to what is available for free).  Indeed, when you read the introduction to the book, the author makes it clear that the intent of the book is to do #1 and so the title should be interpreted in keeping with the author's intent.
     As some of you know, my undergraduate degree was in economics (and political science, but the economics side has always proved much more helpful).  Economics is the science/art of making choices based on the available information.  In order to do this, we have to be able to rank order our choices.  This morning, as I helped my now 5-year old daughter put on her shoes we had the following exchange (it will be helpful to know that for her birthday she requested and received a stuffed dalmatian to keep her other stuffed dalmatian company while she was at school):
M:  (Looking at her two toys on the floor in front of her) Daddy, do you know which Dalmatian is my favorite?
PB:  I guess it is either Dotty or Spotty.  Since Spotty is new, I guess it is Spotty.
M:  You are right, I love Spotty, but I also like Dotty. 
PB:  Well that's good.  I am glad you like your toys and are grateful for them.
M:  Even if I had 25 Dalmatians, my favorites would still be Spotty and then Dotty.
PB:  Alright, can we focus on getting your shoes on and getting out the door on time?

My daughter was able to rank order her toys with regard to preference this morning.  Her sister, at two, is able to do the same thing at snack time.  Yesterday K ate all of her pretzels, then all of her goldfish crackers, then her pears, and only then drank her water.  Her rank order preference was easy to see.  Rank order preference is either an innate part of being human or something we learn relatively quickly.  Either way, it is part of how we operate as human beings.

     Now let's zoom out of the two examples above and apply all of this in our life of faith following Christ as his disciples.  Lately I have heard a lot of talk coming out of our (soon-to-be-former) denomination, the PC(USA) about celebrating the diversity of many interpretations of Scripture.  You can read all about in this propaganda piece aimed at keeping congregations considering dismissal in the fold of the PC(USA).  What the PC(USA) presentation fails to do is rank order that diversity of interpretations, claiming instead that all of them are equally valid within a vaguely defined theological perimeter.  The emphasis throughout the presentation is on a celebration of diversity, not on seeking truth.  "There is room for differing views, dialogue, discussion and discernment," the presentation claims.  Again, there is an idea that this should be framed, however loosely by the Reformed tradition, but the greater emphasis is on the celebration of diversity.
     There is truth in the statement that Christians have a variety of interpretations of the Scripture, but the proposed course of stating that as a naked fact and then celebrating the variety does not seem wise to me.  It seems that there ought to be a way to rank order interpretations, at least, and claim that some are better than others.  To be sure, as the presentation claims, we ought to do scholarly work in seeking to interpret the Scripture text and get at original context and other historical matters so we can get a peek at author's intent.  This will not, however, reveal the true meaning of Scripture in every instance.
     Let's get concrete.  In the Gospel according to John, in the midst of a conversation with his disciples leading up to his arrest Jesus stated, "Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6 ESV).  For those of my readers who prefer the original language: "λέγει αὐτῷ [ὁ] Ἰησοῦς· ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια καὶ ἡ ζωή· οὐδεὶς ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸν πατέρα εἰ μὴ διʼ ἐμοῦ. " (John 14:6 NA27, identical to NA28).  Now we can come to a variety of interpretations of what Jesus means by these words.  Surely the context of the immediate verses will help to decipher.  For instance, it is helpful to know that the context is Jesus going to the Father and claiming his disciples know the way.
     Interpretations can then stem from that and vary greatly.  While we may not be able to say with absolute definitiveness that this is the correct and timeless interpretation of the text, we should, at least, be able to claim some are better than others.  Further, in the case of our example, the Apostle John reveals author's intent which leads us to suspect the ultimate meaning here is that you need faith in Jesus.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Challenges in my Ministry

It has taken my two months to complete my series reflecting on the questions I was asked during my examination before the EPC's Presbytery of the Pacific.  Today I turn attention to the final question, which was something like, "What do you find most challenging in your ministry?"
Now, I am prone to complaining and this question could have given me a platform to air out all of my complaints about pastoral ministry.  At the time, however, the Spirit did not lead me in that direction.  Perhaps consciously or unconsciously I was thinking about Jude 23:  "save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh."  So my answer then, and now, is that I do not know how to get the Gospel into the hands, hearts and minds of those who need it most.  To be fair, this is the work of the Holy Spirit, but as a disciple of Christ I am one through whom the Spirit works.  Indeed, Heinrich Bullinger in his masterful Second Helvetic Confession in the first chapter alludes to the idea that the ordinary, or at least usual, way for people to receive the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit is the proclamation of the Word.  The 154th and 155th question of the Westminster Larger Catechism agrees with the point Bullinger had made about 100 years prior:  "The ordinary external ways Christ uses to bring the benefits of his mediation to his church are his regulations, particularly the word, sacraments, and prayer, all of which are made effective for the salvation of his chosen ones...The Spirit of God causes the reading and especially the preaching of the word to enlighten, convince, and humble sinners..."  [As an aside, as you read questions 154-160 I really like that the Westminster divines concluded with a section of the requirements of those who hear the Word preached.  Too often the responsibility for the preaching ministry of the congregation is couched only with the preacher when the responsibility is actually shared between preacher and hearer under the guidance and illumination of the Holy Spirit].
To recap, I find the challenge of my ministry is that I do not know how to snatch people out of the fire.  The ordinary means of doing so is the proclamation of the Word--yet I do not know how to proclaim the Word effectively outside of the Sunday worship service.  In my ministerial context, I find this particularly challenging.
In my ministerial context I am 1) young, 2) in a foreign cultural context (moving from suburban to rural) and 3) fairly well convinced that my seminary training was not particularly useful for doing actual parish ministry.  Now that third point needs some qualification (the first two I addressed here and here).  I will be grateful until the day I retire that I received exegetical, theological and relational tools to use in my ministry from my seminary education.  The challenge is that I was trained for a ministry context that largely does not exist any longer. 
The cultural expectation of church attendance has dissolved in the Pacific Northwest.  The Pacific Northwest never had the church-going cultural of the rest of country, but there was still an underlying notion that most people would attend a church, at least occasionally.  That expectation first dissipated in the cities (Portland, Seattle, etc.) but has now reached the rural communities as well.  The result is that my training--conversion through proclamation from the pulpit--is no longer an effective ministry strategy.  To date, I have nothing to replace this strategy and so I feel the tension and challenge of the call of the Gospel to proclaim Good News to the captives (Isaiah 61:1-3), yet I do not know how to get into the vicinity of those who need to hear the Good News most.
I think that my personal challenge is really the challenge of the American Church in the 21st Century.  I am all ears regarding ways forward through this challenge.