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October 2004

Becoming a Christian

Herbert Jones, my Dad's dad, didn't become a Christian until he was seventy-two. It's funny how it works so differently for different people. Grandpa had been a real character, from what I've heard. He did rodeo stuff for years when my Dad was younger and all sorts of wild things occurred in that life, I guess. When my Dad was really small, Grandpa would take him to pool halls, where Dad would stand on an apple crate to play pool. That may not sound so bad now, but from where I came from "going to pool halls" was shorthand for "he wasn't a good person."

My Dad tried for years to convert my grandfather, but Grandpa would have none of it. He didn't need church or God. What made him change his mind?

One Sunday morning his five-year-old, newly baptized, only grandson called him and said while crying, "Grandpa when I get to heaven I want you to be there."

Given my current understandings of theology, such a story sorta turns my stomach. It seems like this really manipulative, emotional thing. Yet all I know is that it was genuine on the side of the five year old, and it seemed to lead to a genuine change in the life of grandpa.

Grandpa called a minister he respected and asked to talk to him about God. Grandpa "accepted Jesus" and became an active churchgoer and a more kind and loving man. Grandpa and Grandma got to church early all the time. After all, it was a mile up the dirt road, and everyone knows that you should get there 30 minutes early. So, they gave him the key to unlock the place and get it ready and he was responsible for ringing the bell (yes, they still rang a bell to announce when church was about to begin).

Now I have such radically different views of the after-life and of salvation, but there is one thing I know for certain. I did see my grandpa in heaven, at least the part of it that is this side of death. When we enter into the church, we become a part of the eschatological community that is the kingdom of God. And grandpa and I walked together in the community for 9 years, and he still surrounds me as part of that great cloud of witnesses.

What a Game!

OU-OSU. Wonderful game. This was great football, probably the most excited I've ever been watching this particular game. I think both teams played beautifully. Adrian Peterson and Mark Clayton were amazing to watch. And the Woods brothers were incredible. Both teams should be quite proud. I've longed for the day when Oklahoma would have two great football teams, and I think we've arrived.

Her Name Was Ruth Robinson

Bob & Ruth Robinson lived in a little white house. They liked to watch Lawrence Welk, and Ruth made wonderful Swedish Meatballs. They had blackberry bushes in the backyard. Ruth was a little old lady with white hair and glasses. Outside of my own parents, Ruth Robinson is the single greatest influence on my life.

When we lived in Grove, OK in the late '70's and early '80's we were members of the First Baptist Church. Bob & Ruth quickly became adopted grandparents for our family. Ruth was the kindergarten Sunday school teacher, my kindergarten Sunday school teacher. Like the old Robert Fulghum essay that "Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," I feel that way about my religious education. All the most important, the most basic stuff of my faith, the stuff I've always felt, believed, and practiced, what has never changed and never will I learned from Ruth. It was while in Ruth's care that I "became a Christian" and under her tutelage that I felt the call to ministry. Ruth simply showed God's love and grace. In fact, if I had to put an image on God's love and grace, it would probably be hers. She was always kind, even when you'd done something wrong. She didn't punish, but would lovingly admonish and would take the time to explain to you what you had done wrong.

One time I stole some stuff from the Sunday school class. I was so excited by some books we had read from in the class, that I hid them in my clothes and took them home (remember, I was only five). When my parents discovered it, they took me over to Ruth's to return them. I felt awful. I had let down this woman whom I loved dearly. But Ruth smiled. She forgave me. She praised my desire to learn more. She sat next to me on the couch and hugged me. I never stole again, but I also understood forgiveness.

Or one time she was babysitting me and Kelli at her house and The Lawrence Welk Show came on tv, and I turned the channel. Ruth admonished me. She instructed me to turn the channel back. She explained that she was watching, that she liked the show, that this was her home, and that I didn't get to watch whatever I wanted all the time. And watching Lawrence Welk is liking dying a slow painful death. I thought that when I was five and I still think that. But this lesson was about thinking not only of yourself, but of others and respecting their desires and wishes even when they were quite contrary to your own. From Ruth I learned tolerance and acceptance of diversity.

Or the time when we were having the annual Easter Egg hunt at church, and we were all running around collecting our eggs. Ruth noticed that in my excitement, I was running and swinging my basket so much that all my eggs were falling out. When I finally noticed, I had hardly any eggs compared to the other kids. But Ruth had grabbed a few and set them aside just for me. From Ruth I learned about a fairness that isn't blind but sees with eyes of compassion.

Or the time when she was over for Sunday lunch at our house and I asked for something to be passed to me by one of my parents, who went to do it, when Ruth said gently, "Scotty, you didn't say please." Ruth cared that I learn manners more than my own parents did. She taught me to say please and thank you and you're welcome. But these were so much more than just polite language. From Ruth I learned hospitality and gratitude.

Bob died while we were still living in Grove, so Ruth became even more a part of our family. Over the years, even after we moved to Miami, she'd come to visit, once even spending Christmas with us. Eventually she had to go live in a nursing home in Altus near her sister, nieces, and nephews. And when she died while I was in college, I had not seen her in many years.

Ultimately, Ruth taught me that I was a loved child of God. She told this five year old that he would receive crowns of glory one day for the ministry done for God's kingdom. What a beautiful image by which to guide a life. And what a wonderful, loving, caring, beautiful woman to serve as one's model for what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

My Religious Heritage

Eight of folk who took ship on the Mayflower to come to America for religious freedom are my ancestors. One of those, Elizabeth Tilley Howland, wrote in her will words that I long ago committed to memory (I'd love to double check the exact wording, but Mom has the family book), "It is my will that all the children walk in the fear of the Lord."

I had relatives, though not direct ancestors, who left Massachusettes with Roger Williams and went to found Rhode Island and the First Baptist Church in America.

In the 19th century these descendants of pilgrims married Quakers, as they moved west. But by the time of my great-grandfather, Albert Harley Nixon, they were no longer church-going folk. Albert, though, became a Christian as an adult, and as with so many that do, he had a profound religious fervor. I never knew my great-grandfather, but the stories I hear are wonderful. He seems to have been a jovial man who spread his joy to all who came into contact with him. He was a member of the First Baptist Church of Miami, OK. The old-timers would tell me stories of him. Their favourite was how anytime someone from our family committed their life to Christ, Albert would yell out "Hootenany!"

This is the story from my Mom's side of the family. I knew most of them as deeply religious people, whether they were Baptist or Pentecostal. My grandfather, Willard Nixon, had become a Christian as a young man, having not grown up in a Christian home. But he became a pillar of the First Baptist Church where he dedicated his life as a deacon, fourth grade Sunday school teacher, Royal Ambassadors leader, and long-time chair of the Properties Committee. He was a patient and temperate man who always prayed more creative prayers than most when it was his turn to pray in church.

I was SO proud to be a fourth generation member of the church I grew up in. It was a church that had raised my mother and raised me and my sister. My mother was a shining star in Miami in the sixties. She was a leader in her school, church, and community and was well respected and admired. Early on Mom did some youth work and felt called to ministry. Unfortunately, she was not in a place that could understand that, and she was told that she could not be a minister. And, so, she became a dedicated lay person. She and Dad served jointly as youth ministers at First Baptist Jay, OK and later as youth department directors at FBC Grove, OK. We returned to FBC Miami in the early 80's, where Mom & Dad continued their leadership. They built a young adults class from scratch that developed most of the young leadership of the church in the coming decade. She, after Dad's death, taught youth again and began writing Sunday School Board curriculum. Later she created a ladies class that ministered to many other single women. Now she's at FBC Oklahoma City where her gifts are finally appreciated and she is a Deacon.

My Dad's parents were not church-goers. But he told such stories of his grandmother. She lived in the little house, and I mean really little, next door to my grandparents. My great-grandmother was blind, and as a child Dad would go over to her little house and read the Bible to her and she would explain to him what he was reading. In the little white church house in Narcissa, it is a plaque dedicated to my great-grandmother which hangs under the picture of Jesus against the wall behind the pulpit and beside the baptistry.

Dad entered into church when he married my mother, and he became a strong layman serving many terms as a Deacon and Deacon chair, as Sunday school superintendent, as a Sunday school teacher and director, and even as a lay preacher on occasion.

In all those many generations of family religious history, there is no record of a minister. Other than Mom's calling that was not realized, I was the first. But it makes so much sense. I knew no other life and nothing has been so important to me from my earliest memories.

Distressed about Spiritual Formation

You know I had planned to write a series of Closing Arguments on the election. Everything that needs to be said about this election has been said. The choice is clear.

Instead, I'm going to go ahead and get to some ideas I was saving for after the election, but which fit with what I wrote last night. And thanks for the wonderful comments and e-mails I've received, including some from the youth (now adults) mentioned.

While I was in Chicago for my vacation, Marty and I and another friend (let's call him James, not his real name) had a conversation about faith and the church. Marty and I left distressed and disturbed by the conversation. I spent days even months now trying to fully understand it. Marty has puzzled over it too, and it has led him to a new understanding of his calling.

James is a friend from college. When we started OBU together as freshmen, James was one of those Jesus freaks. It was April that year before I saw James wearing anything other than a Christian t-shirt. It was in April that year that James' dad died, and I know it deeply affected him. As has so often been the case with others my age who have lost a parent, I reached out to James in that moment and we became even closer.

Over our years in college, I watched James grow. He never had a sophisticated intellectual faith, but he had passion and enthusiasm. In the sense that we in the religion department were a community together, James didn't need to be the sophisticated thinker. James was the person who brought a contagious enthusiasm to the rest of us. I needed James to fill his role in the Body of Christ.

James went from college to serve as a youth minister in Europe. While there he served a wonderful congregation (I know, I visited it once after he had left) with a great pastor who is also a dear friend of mine. This pastor is very intelligent, an excellent preacher, edgy & liberal, and all-around wonderful at what he does.

When James returned to the U. S., he gave up ministry and turned to acting. He has had some success. I worried that he seemed to be drifting. It had been four years since I had seen James when Marty and I talked to him that night.

James has abandoned the Christian faith. He was finally too overwhelmed by the hypocrisy and the hurtfulnesss of the church, for one thing. James has drifted into a feel-good spirituality. Just a mish-mash of whatever feels good to him at the moment. He says he feels freer and happier than at any time in his life.

Marty and I kept responding to James' statements. And it was surreal. Here I was, the resident liberal of the OBU religion department (in my day) and a philosopher trained in all the questions and doubts one can pose to the faith, and Marty, who was scarred by his life as a preacher's kid who had spent years not in the church and has been so cynical about religion for so long until recently, and we were the ones defending the faith to James! James who had always been so full of passion.

I told James, "I'm disappointed in you. You know better. In the sense that we were in community together at some point, you were one of the best of us. And I needed you to be that."

As I puzzled over that conversation afterwards I was worried about what we do in Christian education and spiritual development. James had had an excellent Christian college education. He had served in a great progressive church with a wonderful pastor. He had received about as good a training in Christian discipleship as one can receive. And here he was, going from being one of our best to abandoning the faith.

I have committed my life to the discipleship of others. And I realized in that moment that even when we do our best, we have no idea what will happen.

Why I Became a Minister

It was January 2000. Tim Youmans had been at FBC Shawnee just a few months. We had become good friends. He and Karen had been a blast of fresh air into my life and my religious life. I was becoming disenchanted with church before Tim and bored of my roles leading the college ministry, serving as a deacon, and being on the task force that oversaw the creation of our ministries center (which kept bogging down). But Tim and Karen had rejuvenated me. And I think I helped Tim in a lot of ways. He too needed a friend of like mind while trying to navigate his return to Oklahoma baptist life (something he's still trying to navigate).

Tim asked me to go as a sponsor to the January Retreat which was on the weekend of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. I agreed to go, with some reluctance. I had never felt an affinity for youth ministry. Though I had been called as a minister at the age of five (though my Mom will say she knew it before I was even born) and had been ordained in 1997, I had never felt any interest in youth ministry. Once, in college, our youth minister back in Miami asked me to do youth stuff and I told him "I'm not good at that. I didn't understand teenagers when I was one, and I definitely don't now."

There was a party at my house the Friday night we were leaving. We laughed about me going on a youth retreat. One of my friends drove me over to the church where we were gathering to get on the bus to go. I sat up front with Tim and Jan Tipton and David James, both good friends. We had long been on the same sides of lots of church issues. Jan was social justice and missions oriented. She was divorced and re-married. David is a recovering alcoholic. They were people who had lived life and could speak with honesty and integrity about the good and the bad. Tim, Jan, David, and I have long been great conversation companions (and dominoes players!).

When we got going, Tim introduced me to the bus of youth. Though I had been in the church for six years and had been prominent in church leadership roles, I did not know many of the teenagers or them me.

Will Sims was a sophomore and not a member of FBC. He was a Methodist who, along with a bunch of non-FBC, non-baptist kids, came with their friends to our youth group. When Tim introduced me as "Deacon Scott," Will somehow misheard and misunderstood (we still don't know how) and thought my name was "Stevie Deacs." Needless to say, that nickname stuck and there are a group of early-twentysomethings out there who still call me that or the shortened "Deacs."

Little did I know that that nickname was just the beginning. Will wanted to talk to me and ask me questions. Being a philosopher, sometimes people are curious what this is and what you know. He pulled me into conversations with him and the other sophomore guys like Matt, Tyler, Tony, O'Sung, Adam, Aaron, etc. Over the course of the weekend we talked and played. They fell in love with Capture the Flag the way I taught it to them.

That weekend I saw in Tim's ministry a youth minstry I had never seen or experienced. He was singing secular songs. He was singing religious songs that were edgy and profound at the same time. He played a video of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The topics we dealt with were radical issues -- racism, economic prejudice, homosexuality, etc. Wow! Could youth ministry really do this?

And those teenagers drew me in. They asked me questions. Frank questions. Serious questions. Silly questions. Deep questions.

And it didn't stop. After that weekend they wanted me to start coming on Wednesday nights. Tim recruited me to lead a series that February on the philosophy of religion, and they packed the room to hear these discussions of the problem of evil, religious pluralism, the nature of God, etc. Finally they talked me into coming every Wednesday. Then they wanted me to come to their guys' cell group on Sunday nights. So, I joined that. We'd meet for dinner at the Little's house and Rocky Wade would lead the devotional. Then we'd go upstairs and play pool and ping pong and watch Jackass together. But that wasn't enough. They wanted me to teach their Sunday school class, so eventually I resigned as director of the college ministry and became the 9th & 10th grade teacher. Within four months I had a completely different set of roles to fill at church.

Not just these guys, but all the youth, asked me questions. I had early on decided that I would always answer honestly and directly and wouldn't simplify the complex things. They asked about the bible and prayer and theological issues. But they also asked about drugs and drinking and sex and dating and every range of real life issues. And they weren't asking theory. They wanted to know what I had done and what I hadn't. What my views were. Etc. And, as promised, I answered even when it wasn't flattering to me to tell the truth.

What happened? They opened up to me. They shared about their struggles with drugs and alcohol. They shared about the sex they were having. They wanted to talk about loneliness. They talked about troubles with their parents. They talked about all the everyday ethical choices they faced. And in those moments I ministered to them.

In February 2001 when I was trying to decide to pursue academia or the job at Rolling Hills, I had a moment of spiritual revelation in Tim's office. As a minister I could have more practical impact on actually helping people than I could as a professor. Why did I have that moment? Because two parents had just come in to talk to Tim and me about their daughter being institutionalized for an eating disorder. And just the week before one of our kids had BOTH their parents arrested for sexually abusing their nieces. And that same week a bisexual girl in the group had told me and Tim that she had been raped by a boy.

God called me to youth ministry. God used Tim Youmans and Will Sims and Matt Little and Tyler Holland and Adam Shepherd and Aaron Vogel and Jan Tipton and David James and Carrie Dyer and Andrea Collum and Molly McMurry and Marshall Behre and too many other kids to name but that these will stand as representatives of. And they called me to a ministry that meant really helping kids with the real issues that they face. The things they face in life are rarely nice. But I do everything I can to be open to the teenagers in my care, to let them know that I'm a real person who has faced things similar to what they have faced, that I've lived a real life. And every time, every time, the return is that they open up and share their lives with me and maybe, just maybe, I can help.

Music to Die For

Last night I went to see the Dallas Symphony's & Dallas Symphony Chorus' performance of Verdi's Requiem. I was previously unfamiliar with this composition.

It begins very soft and gentle. The voices are so soft that at first you don't even realize that they've started singing. You marvel that a choir that large can sing that softly, especially when you hear them full voiced later on. That opening of the Requiem aeternam was my favourite part.

My next favourite part is the Dies Irae. It really does sound like a Day of Wrath the way Verdi has composed. Dramatic, startlingly, powerful. And it keeps appearing throughout the Requiem. Each time the sound of the choir is overwhelming. The acoustics in the Meyerson are maybe the best I've ever experienced. These were the best seats I've ever had, so I got to hear the full effect of the acoustic design.

The guest conductor, Claus Peter Flor, looked like Beethoven with poofy hair that went from shades of black to white hitting all the grays in between. I very much enjoyed the Bass-Baritone Nikita Storojev. And the soprano, Christine Brewer was simply exquisite.

My Blog

This is my space. My personal space to share my thoughts, ideas, adventures with people who might be interested -- friends, family, strangers. It's not anyone else's to control. I know it is a public forum, so I already hold back and only share what I want the public to see. But this is mine. And it has been a source of fun and energy and communicating with friends and meeting new people over the last six months. If you don't like what I write here, then don't read it. If it offends you, then either stay away or stay around and let's see if we have something to learn from one another. I will not be put on the defensive in this place.

Just thought you should know this.

Closing Arguments Part One

It is time to wrap this election campaign season up. My second post on this blog was a declaration of my opposition to Bush. In "Closing Arguments Part Two" I want to wrap up my argument against him by using his own criteria to judge him -- the war on terror, response to 9/11, etc. This time I simply want to enumerate the other reasons that I'm against Bush and why I think you should be as well. (This list isn't exhaustive, but it's what is on my mind at the current moment).

Gas prices are at their highest levels ever. Oil is $55 dollars a barrel. During the Clinton years gas prices got down to their lowest ever, adjusted for inflation. Oil was down around $20 and gas was 89 cents in Shawnee. In 2000 Bush criticized Clinton for the high gas prices of that year and promised to keep them down by appealing to our connections with our Arab, oil-producing allies. Why are high gas prices to count against the president? Because he and others of high office in his administration are oil executives. It gives every appearance that the policies of this government have been to benefit Big Oil. Maybe it is only the appearance, but even the appearance of this impropriety should be avoided. And I'm not naive enough to believe it is only an appearance.

Halliburton. I still am convinced that the $7 billion no-bid contract to the company which the Vice President used to be the CEO of is the largest White House scandal since the Tea Pot Dome Scandal of the Harding administration. Maybe the larger scandal is that this has never reached the level of scandal.

Character. In 2000 Bush ran on bringing decency back to the Oval Office. Yet the accusations of ethical impropriety for this administration abound and the list is FAR more serious than the accusations (mainly rightly) leveled against the Clinton White House. Besides those listed above you also have the leaking of confidential information about a CIA agent, coziness with figures in the largest corporate scandals in American history, and a level of secrecy and inaccesibility unheard of in the modern presidency.

Arrogance. Bush repeatedly comes across as unreflective, dogmatic, isolated, and arrogant. His inability at the April press conference to name mistakes of his administration may be the most revealing thing in his presidency about his character. And he still was not prepared to answer this question earlier this month in the town hall debate.

An agenda dominated by religious fundamentalists and corporate big wigs. We still don't know the full influence of the latter on things like energy policy or the occupation. But we do know that the far religious right has unprecedented access is setting government policy. It was fully realizing this fact after a Newsweek article almost a year and a half ago that made me leave the Republican party.

Unfulfilled promises. In 2000 he promised a "humble foreign policy," reform of immigration, social security reform, a bipartisan mode of governing, to unite the country after the divisiveness of the year's before, to make the GOP more inclusive, etc.

Fiscal irresponsibility. Fiscal conservatives cannot support this president, if they have any integrity. He has run amok with the public finances because of his dogmatic allegiance to an ideology instead of dealing with the real life issues facing the country. He should not have squandered the surplus on taxes, but should have used that to reform social security and medicare with the exciting, innovative ideas he proposed in 2000. That would have been a grand accomplishment and a victory for conservatism. Instead he has run up the debt while increasing the size of the federal government more than any president in our history, including FDR. He has damaged our children's futures in order to pad the wallets of his corporate buddies in the here and now. This is not conservatism. This is not Republicanism.

Destruction of our American values. The application of the Patriot Act by this Justice Department has robbed American's of the civil liberties that even this administration says are the issue in the war on terror. Their environmental record is abyssmal. They have attacked gay Americans for their own political gain. Poverty has increased dramatically under their watch. They have increased suspicion and doubt of Americans abroad.

Bush v. Gore

This week George Will wrote a column criticizing the SCOTUS decision in Bush v. Gore.

Will thinks that the standard that the Court applied in overturning the decision of the SCOTSOF will lead to all sorts of electoral chaos this year as lawyers run around the country using that standard to affect the counting and recounting of ballots.

I'm still puzzled by Bush v. Gore. At the time, I tried to read it narrowly, as simply overturning the Florida ruling. The Florida ruling needed to be overturned; it was bad constitutional law and bad constitutional practice. A week before the SCOTUS had ruled 9-0 that the SCOTSOF was on shaky ground and need to re-examine their decision. The Florida court seemed intent on re-writing the rules of the election process after the fact. Which seemed so troublesome to me. Clearly mistakes were made and their were problems in the system, but what we needed to do was go by the rules as they had existed before election day instead of creating new standards from the judicial bench.

Partly all sides were annoying in the recount battle. Everyone seemed so intent on making sure that their guy came out ahead. To me the only refuge in a moment like that was very strict interpretation and application of existing law.

Which is one reason that I was so puzzled with the SCOTUS for making the deciding decision. I figured that they would punt it to the House of Representatives, who the Constitution says should decide such matters. I'm still not sure why the Court didn't allow the process to play out that way. I still think that they could have ruled to overturn the SCOTSOF without in that decision handing the election to Bush. I'm also still puzzled by the TWO rulings in Bush v. Gore. People forget that there were two rulings handed down that night. The first decision was 7-2 and seemed to overturn the Florida ruling. The 5-4 decision is what seemed to hand the election to the GOP. I'm still confused about the relation between the two rulings or even why there was a second one. It seems that the first was sufficient to settle the nightmare created by SCOTSOF but yet still punting the decision of what electors to confirm back to the Flordia legislature and, ultimately, the US House.

Will thinks that it is likely that by Jan. 20, 2005 we will not have settled the electoral issues and that someone temporary will have to be sworn in as president. There is one precedence, but I always forget the details. Some president didn't want to be sworn in on a Sunday, so someone else was sworn in as president for one day. This happened sometime in the early 1800's. I forget the office that the temporary guy was in that entitled him to that position. As I read the Constitution, if we do not know who is the rightful president on Jan. 20, then the Speaker of the House should be sworn in. The Speaker is second in the line of succession and as of Jan. 20 there will, in this scenario, be no sitting President or VP. But there will be a sitting Speaker because the House will have convened on Jan. 6 (I think that's the right day). So, if George Will's prediction is right, get ready for the very short term of President Dennis Hastert.