Monday, August 18, 2014

Casting Stones... from Our Idol Worship?

It's so easy for us evangelicals to forget it.

We too easily forget the insidiousness of sin.

We forget how present it is in our lives.  How subversively it can haunt our thoughts, and discretely tarnish our actions.  We become complacent regarding how susceptible we are to it.  When a socially negative sin does crop up in our lives, we try to hide it, but sins that aren't socially negative we sometimes joke about under the guise of humility.

And when somebody else commits a socially unacceptable sin, we marvel at their audacity, or their feebleness at being unable to rise above committing such a thing.  Then we peg ourselves and our personal sins against that public, socially unacceptable sin.  And we measure our self-worth to the person who just did The Big No-No.


I've written before on this blog about how pleased I've been that a former pastor at the church I attend has been welcomed back onto our church's staff.  The Reverend Dr. Joseph F. "Skip" Ryan was the first pastor hired by Park Cities Presbyterian in Dallas, and he led the church through a remarkable period of growth through the 1990's.  Tragically, he fell into an abusive behavior pattern with prescription painkillers, and resigned from service in our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America.

The elder board at our church, however, did not turn away from Dr. Ryan or his family.  Indeed, our congregation reached out to the Ryans and made sure they stayed with our church, through his rehabilitation, the restoration of their family relationships, and even reinstatement into pastoral ministry within our denomination.  Eventually, Dr Ryan's replacement as senior minister at Park Cities, Rev. Mark Davis, asked him to come back on staff, which he did in 2012.

Earlier this summer, as I was reviewing the search parameters provided by Google Analytics regarding the visitors I've had to this blog, I noticed that somebody had been searching online for something regarding Dr. Ryan and "relapse."  But I didn't think too much about it.  I've had a number of people visiting my blog searching for a variety of topical information about Dr. Ryan, and I figured somebody must be muckraking.

Last week, however, it happened again.  "Pastor Skip Ryan relapse."

"Boy," I thought, "somewhere, the rumor mill is spinning out of control."

But yesterday in church, I learned it wasn't a rumor.  Dr. Ryan had admitted to a relapse, which had occurred in April of this year, and resigned from his staff positions at both Park Cities and Redeemer Seminary, an institution he'd helped found in Dallas.

So, while I'm disappointed - along with many of my fellow churchgoers - I wasn't surprised at the news.  But the reason I wasn't surprised has more to do with just the early warnings I'd received in my Google Analytics data.

By that I mean that, just as many evangelicals make heroes out of church leaders like Tim Keller, and John Piper, and Chuck Swindoll, and Billy Graham, and Mark Driscoll, many evangelicals - particularly in the PCA denomination - made a hero out of Dr. Ryan.

"Look at him - the handsome, wealthy, always-tanned Skip, with his boundless energy, his insightful oratory, his beautiful wife, his prestigious church, his worldwide ministry, his influence over so many seminarians, his friendship with everybody who's anybody in the PCA... look at Skip!"

Everyone may not have used all of those accolades, but this is how I've heard others rave about Dr. Ryan.  And yes, in many ways, he is indeed a remarkable man, the atypical evangelical:  born into an affluent family, raised in prestigious coastal Connecticut, graduate of Harvard, traveler of the globe, and possessing a cosmopolitan worldview that transcends politics and most of pop culture.

And he's preaching at a conservative church in Dallas, Texas?

Granted, that church has one of the wealthiest congregations in America.  He preaches to corporate CEOs, powerful lawyers, eminent physicians, several multi-millionaires, and at least one billionaire every week.  They come to church dressed to the nines, driving luxury cars worth more than a suburban starter home.  Hey - rich people need the Gospel as much as anybody, and as Park Cities Presbyterian's first pastor, Dr. Ryan was able to help design a unique fellowship that espoused an amazingly pointed, Christ-centric theology without making his wealthy congregation feel guilty for being wealthy.

It's a rare preacher indeed who can preach both "Christ crucified, risen, and coming again" and "death to self" and watch his 1,100-seat sanctuary overflow with socially-accomplished worshippers.  I particularly remember the Sunday after 9-11, when services were so packed, people were literally sitting on the floor.

He was granted an honorary doctorate from the PCA's revered seminary, Westminster, in Philadelphia.  He was invited to keynote a number of important religious events around the world.  When I started attending Park Cities, as a weary refugee from the church worship seeker-sensitive movement, even I was bedazzled by his grasp of Reformed theology and his uncanny ability to be both intellectual and plain in his teaching.

After his first "fall from grace," our entire church enthusiastically welcomed Dr. Ryan back to the ministry, and things quickly picked up to where he'd left off several years before.  He became chancellor of Redeemer Seminary, in-demand as a guest speaker, and whenever he preached at Park Cities, congregants made a specific point of attending.  No other pastor on staff commanded such interest and favor.  And I'm told, within our denomination, the adulation and fawning over Dr. Ryan was even more pronounced.

Where things go from here, and what happens to all of this acclamation, now that Dr. Ryan has unfortunately relapsed, is unknown.

I suspect that at our church, the Ryan family will continue to be loved and nurtured.  They hold a special place in the congregation, stemming not simply from his role as the church's first senior pastor, but from the genuine affection Dr. Ryan and his wife have showered upon many in the church by virtue of their authentic care for them.  Even if Dr. Ryan never again returns to the pulpit, which itself shouldn't be a foregone conclusion, I think his stature as a man of God will remain visible at least to us here in Dallas.  Both the first time, and again now, Dr. Ryan has expressed a humble willingness to submit himself to whatever measures our denomination's governing bodies impose upon him.

Besides, frankly, his sins may be socially punitive, but how much worse are they than the sins you and I commit - that nobody but God knows about?  Yes, there is a stigma about abusing prescription drugs, but there isn't as much of a stigma about gossip, or anger, or jealousy.

Or making idols out of our religious leaders.

PS:  At this point, to avoid the appearance of exploiting his situation, I'm not going to blog much more about Dr. Ryan directly.

Frankly, however, isn't it almost natural for a "recovering" addict/abuser to relapse, since addiction is such a tenacious thing, and so difficult to kick?  This is what it's like in the real world:  people don't necessarily "kick the habit" once and for all.  It's a continuous struggle, and we need to come alongside our Dr. Ryans for the long haul. This is a sobering reminder - for him, and for us.

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