Monthly Archives: August 2012
In my daily Bible reading for today I read 1 Samuel 20 once again. Verse 18 of this chapter is one of my favorites. I have used it in funeral addresses, and perhaps in a sermon or two. In the story leading up to this verse, David and Jonathan are discussing the reality of King Saul’s hatred of David and his plan to have David killed. They come up with a plan – a feast will occur and David will be expected to be in attendance. He will intentionally be absent, and based on King Saul’s reaction they will know whether Saul actually intends to kill David or not. In describing the plan Jonathan tells David, “You will be missed, because your seat will be empty.” I think those are such beautiful words, and words that are so full of meaning for us today.
I do not want to suggest that we are all princes or princesses in a royal court somewhere, and if we are not physically present the kingdom will somehow suffer irreparable harm. However, I do believe that we can legitimately apply this verse to our walk of discipleship if we bear the following principles in mind:
If we are absent, our presence will be missed if we -
1. …Are deeply involved in the work set before us. No one really misses a slacker, indeed, the absence of a slacker is very often a blessing. Many times people get their feelings hurt because they are absent from a church or a Bible class and no one calls on them. Two options are possible – one is that the group is truly unchristian and they either do not care or do not notice. But to be honest another option is available. Maybe they do notice the absence, and rather than regretting it are actually thankful for it. Before you get your feelings hurt, ask yourself, “How deeply involved in this program, class, assembly am I?” Chances are, if you are not being missed, it is because you were never fully present in the first place.
2. …Are involved in a work that is critical to the functioning of the church. Although we are loath to admit it sometimes (oftentimes??), not every ministry of the church is equally valuable. Yes, it is uncomfortable if the trash cans are not emptied on a timely basis, but are we to equate emptying a trash can with offering spiritual counseling or teaching a class? I have served as a building janitor and believe me, I take that job very seriously! But I have also served as a minister and Bible class teacher, and it does not take hours of preparation to empty a trashcan, and you do not have to carefully prepare an outline and class handouts in order to vacuum the auditorium. I place janitorial work much higher than most within the church, but I also am aware that Jesus himself made a distinction between that which is important, and that which is necessary.
3. …Are closely connected to several other people in the work of the church. It all sounds so elementary, but the more people who are aware of our presence, the greater the likelihood that we will be missed when we are absent. It is easy for our absence to be felt in a small group of 8-10 people, but in a congregation of 500 our absence may not even be noticed. Get to know other people. Invite them into your home. Visit them in theirs home. Build your own small group that cares deeply for one another. Remember, even with hundreds of followers, Jesus chose 12 to spend intimate time with, and from that group seemed to have selected Peter, James and John as a closer group of confidants. Make yourself indispensable.
4. …Care about the absence of others. So, no one called or sent you a card when you were absent? How many calls did you make the past week or month? How many visits to the hospital did you make? How many visits to the nursing home? You would be surprised how little acts of thoughtfulness (or the absence thereof) come back to repay you. We do not offer these acts of service in order to receive them at a later date, but my point is that we cannot hold others spiritually accountable for not doing acts that we ourselves are unwilling to do. I have known people who do not even recognize whether they have been missed or not because they are just too busy taking care of others who were absent.
Maybe you can add to this list. I would like every disciple to bear this verse in mind when thinking about how he or she is being treated by others in the church. Will we be missed when our seat is empty? Have we been absent and no one had a reason to notice? How deeply involved in the Lord’s work are we? And are we involved in a work that is critical to the expansion of the Kingdom of God? How many people are in our circle of intimate friends? Are we inviting more people into that circle, or are we watching it slowly dwindle and die off?
Let us pray that we are all so useful that we will be missed when our seat is empty.
Okay, another philosophical entry here.
The process my class is working through right now is the question of what is real – or perhaps more basic, is anything outside of the physical realm (which is to say, metaphysics) real? Few people would deny the reality of the bedpost they stumped their toe against because they were too stubborn to turn on the light, but what about pain? Is pain real? The sensation of pain can be described as the process of electrical impulses transmitted from the offended toe up to the sensors in the brain, but is that sensation “pain,” or have we simply classified a biological response as an emotional one, therefore giving reality to something that technically does not exist? There is no “pain index,” no way to quantify or qualify pain. You cannot measure it, weigh it, taste it, smell it hear it – none of our five senses can apprehend “pain.” Not in the way that we can touch a desk, smell supper cooking, measure our new born baby or listen to the song of coyotes welcoming the new day. In fact, some people simply do not feel pain. Some people have been in “pain” for so long that they have sublimated the sensation. Is pain simply a human construct?
What about God? Is God a human construct that we have devised to explain what is otherwise unexplainable? Many people, including some leading theologians, believe that is exactly the case. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, was only too aware of the popular belief of a “God of the gaps.” He saw that for too many Christians God only existed to get them through the hard times, to make sense of a world when science did not have all the answers, or to fill in some other “gap” of human knowledge. Bonhoeffer resisted this emphatically, teaching that God is God and we as humans have no right or power to place God in such a beggarly position. But, Bonhoeffer’s critique was dead-on perfect. Just because someone says that he or she is a “Christian” does not mean that his or her image of God is the same one that is portrayed in the Bible. The Biblical God is certainly not a “God of the gaps.”
But, getting back to our question, is the God of the Bible a human construct or not? This is the fundamental question of all faith. If the God that is described in the Bible is simply a construct of the human imagination, then he is not God at all; he (or rather “it”) is simply a little “g” god and not worthy of our worship in any way, shape or form. The sooner we can dispense with such a superstitious being the better for all mankind. If it can be proven that this humanly constructed god is the best that we have, then call me an atheist. I want no part of that system.
But, philosophically speaking, the other side of the equation must be given equal thought. What if God is real? What then? That does not automatically make the Bible His revealed word, and it does not make Jesus His son, and it does not prove the resurrection, but if we accept the reality of God’s existence then certain other questions necessarily follow. Either God created the world or he did not. If he created the world, he either created it with specific intention and design or it was by accident. If it was by design he either revealed that design to his highest creation (man) or he did not. If he revealed his design then one book that makes the absolute claim to be the record of that revelation (the Bible) is either that record or it is not. If the Bible is the record of that revelation then everything in that record either points to the design in some manner or it does not. One key theme of the Bible is that God entered into his creation to redeem it through the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth, so either that claim is true or it is false. If the claim that Jesus is the messiah is true then what Jesus said about the immediate blessings and eternal destiny of mankind is either true or it is false. If it is true, making all of these other choices true, then I certainly want to learn all I can, and submit myself as much as I can, and allow the Messiah to “recreate” me as much as I possibly can, so that I can share in that eternal destiny.
Can I “prove” any of this? No. Hebrews 11:6 states that if we want to draw near to God we must believe that he exists, for without faith it is impossible to please God. That means I cannot ever prove that God exists. If I could there would be no reason for faith, for faith is the process of doing something even when “reason” dictates that it is irresponsible to do so. It is irresponsible to take a knife and go out and sacrifice your son. It is irresponsible to build a boat in the middle of an arid or semi-arid plain. It is irresponsible to get out of a boat in the middle of a stormy sea. It is just as irresponsible to preach the message of a resurrected savior when you have been put under a legal injunction not to do so, under the sentence of death if you continue to do so. Faith highly illogical, as I am sure Spock would agree.
So, is God real or not? In a quantitative sense, no. He cannot be measured, weighed, touched, smelled, heard or tasted – none of our five physical senses can apprehend God. If they could, God would not be God.
But, in a metaphysical sense (that is, in the realm of this existence that transcends the rules of physics), then God absolutely does exist. I believe that for many logical and some illogical reasons. I believe it because it makes much more “sense” to me to accept his existence than it does to explain this world without His existence. I believe it because He gave me the intellectual capacity to comprehend the truth of the message of the book that claims to be his eternal Word. And I believe it because I have seen the world through the eyes of someone who does not believe in His existence, and that is indeed a hellish place to be.
And, finally, I believe in God in the exact same way I believe in pain when I smash my toe against the bed frame. He simply refuses to allow me to deny His presence. I certainly do not understand Him. There are times I want to scream at Him. There are times when I must admit that I do not love Him very much because quite honestly it seems like he does not love me very much. But deny His existence?
Only a fool would do that.
This semester I have the wonderful opportunity to teach a great group of students the subject of Philosophy of Religion. That subject combines two great loves that I have, philosophy and religion. However, we as a group are struggling with the contents of the textbook selected for the class. As frustrated as I feel, imagine their response when the pilot of their semester long airplane flight climbs into the cockpit and announces over the intercom “…ladies and gentlemen, we will be on our way to our destination, where ever it is, just as soon as I figure out how to start the airplane…” Not exactly awe-inspiring words.
So, anyway, today’s valiant effort in explaining the issues we are dealing with involved first and second order processes. Specifically in terms of faith, believing in God is a first order process, and thinking about that faith and the processes that are involved in that faith, is a second order process. Stated in other words, theology is a first order process, philosophy of religion is a second order process. We are thinking about the process that is involved in the creation of and working through theology.
But a question occurred to me in the process of teaching the class this morning – how many people think they have a first order faith when in reality all they have is a second order faith? In other words, how many people have a faith that only wants to talk about and learn more about faith, instead of a faith that seeks to know God? It seems to me that such people delight in discussing things about God, but very rarely ever get around to discussing God Himself. By way of analogy, its like getting a Ph.D. in the subject of prayer, and yet never praying. We may learn everything there is to know about prayer, but if we do not learn the power of prayer itself, of what value is our learning?
I have to admit my own failings in this regard. It is all too easy in an academic setting, or even as a full-time minister, to get caught up in words about God, and to ignore the reality of God. This tendency is what the great mystics of the Christian faith have preached against for generations. One of the greatest heresies of the Christian faith, and perhaps one of the easiest to fall into, is the temptation to turn a faith in God into a faith about a faith in God. Ultimately, what this devolves into is pure idolatry. We replace God with our own human constructs, and so eventually what we refer to as “god” becomes nothing more than our own reflection in a mirror. Do you doubt me? Then why do so many people today have as their picture of “god” a card-carrying Republican, Democrat, Tea-Partier, NRA member, ACLU member, pro-lifer, pro-choicer, unionist, free laborer, etc, etc, etc? The point is when we stop focusing on first order issues (the nature of God, the character of God, the manifestations of God, the will of God) and we start focusing on secondary, or even tertiary issues, we then lose the reality of the presence of God altogether.
Perhaps I am creating a bogey-man where none exists. Maybe, but I don’t think so. So much of what I see that is consuming the time and mental energies of Christians today are not first order issues. But when I compare these issues to the issues discussed in Scripture, I see that without fail the second order issues of life are dealt with only after a period of time in which the spokesman (or spokeswoman) has concentrated on first order issues. It is only after one’s relationship with God has been adequately addressed that these important, but not ultimately critical, issues can be discussed.
In terms that perhaps we can all understand: in the bible story confession, prayer and fasting always preceded monumental decision-making. If the theology was wrong then it did not matter how accurate or profound the philosophy, things were not going to turn out satisfactorily.
In no way am I discrediting the process of pursuing a higher education, especially one that includes a course in the philosophy of religion. I just hope that I can instill in my students the necessity to spend more time getting the first order things right before they devote themselves to studying for my test. Which, by the way, should be a fairly high issue of secondary importance to them!
(By the way, as I have reviewed this article it occurred to me that I may be using “first order” and “second order” in a way that a professional philosopher would not. I hope that I articulated my meaning adequately. I apologize if my use of terms is confusing. I am by no means a professional philosopher, and I am barely an apprentice in the field of spirituality. Occasionally my zeal exceeds my proficiency level. If I need to rectify a serious error, please let me know.)
I seem to remember discussing this issue in a previous post, but that is the advantage of working with a mind with as small a memory bank as mine has. No matter how many times you recycle a worn-out topic, it always seems fresh and invigorating.
I don’t want to be gauche, But, have you ever known someone who was fairly intelligent, but who was convinced that he/she was far more intelligent than she/he really was? I don’t mean the person who is simply opinionated, I mean the person who is obnoxiously self-assured. And, sadly, their assurance is woefully misplaced? How do you deal with individuals such as that?
My complaint de jour is with those individuals who want to make it sound like they are more intelligent than they really are, so they spice up their talks with a few foreign phrases. These days Latin seems to be making a comeback, although French and German are solid standbys. Sometimes it is truly obvious that the person does not know what they are talking about, but sometimes they honestly do know what they are talking about, they just want to emphasize that fact. Oy vey. I mean, really.
Just one example among many: it seems everyone these days is utterly captivated with the missio Dei. You cannot open a magazine or log onto Twitter without reading the latest and greatest installment on or about the missio Dei. It would appear that if the average church member would ever get plugged into the missio Dei all of our moral, ethical, legal and most important, missiological problems would be over. In my recent search for a new ministry position I even read an on-line job posting where the new preacher was expected to further the missio Dei in the community. I was truly impressed. Bewildered, but impressed.
But, with all due respect, with all the talk about the missio Dei, I wonder if we have lost sight of the mission of God. I understand how easy it would be to do that. I mean, the missio Dei is so, well, magisterial. The mission of God, by comparison, is just so pedestrian. I pity the poor preacher who submitted a resume to the above congregation but who only wanted to further the mission of God in the world. He would probably not even get an interview.
All this discussion reminds me of a joke once told by Jim McGuiggan. It seems a small rural town in Ireland was hosting a traveling culinary expert. The fancy chef was teaching the local housewives how to separate egg yolks. “First, take a highly sharpened kitchen implement and gently perforate the apex of the egg. Repeat the procedure on the basal protuberance. Gently aspirate into the upper aperture to separate the albumen from the yolk.” At that point one of the housewives turned to another and comment, “Well, I’ll be. And to think that for years I been pokin’ a hole on both ends of an egg and a blowin’ on it.”
Sometimes you just cannot beat simplicity.
I wonder why certain individuals do not ever quite seem to understand a person’s life situation, but will spend endless hours discussing the sitz im leben of some poor homeless waif. The discussion of a super-human individual just comes across more esoteric if we change the subject to an uber mensch. I wanted to apply for one position but was saddened to learn that the company wanted a curriculum vitae and all I had prepared was a resume. I am just such a hopeless persona non grata.
Maybe someone out there in cyber-space will be able to clue me in here. I hope so. I would really like to join in with the missio Dei.
I just read where Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon, has passed away at the age of 82. Being a lover of all things aviation this news hit me particularly hard. There is just something about a human being flying to the moon and back that captivates me, and I am truly sorry that we have decided that it is not important to push the limits of our own skill anymore.
In addition to being the first man to walk on the moon, Armstrong was a quiet hero. He immediately stepped out of the spotlights. As one article I read reported, many faulted him for remaining so quiet. However, the space program is not about one man, it never was. One of Armstrong’s fellow astronauts said that there were many who were physically capable of performing what Armstrong accomplished, but perhaps he was the only one with the emotional strength to live through the following media attention the way he did.
As I reminisce about the flight that truly changed almost everything about our modern world, I wonder how many people today could accomplish what Neil Armstrong accomplished with as little self-congratulation. He was a remarkable team player. He understood that it was not only his two flight mates, but also the dozens of other astronauts as well as the hundreds of technicians in Florida and Houston that made his flight possible. Also, he knew of the series of flights that would follow his and expand on the accomplishments of Apollo 11.
Armstrong’s overall silence makes his words even more powerful. He was one of many who strongly defended the decision to return to the moon, and he bitterly criticized President Obama’s decision to cancel the next moon landing. When someone who is normally reticent about speaking out on matters of public interest speaks with the clarity and the force that Armstrong did you have to take notice. The difference in leadership quality between Obama and Armstrong is stunning. Armstrong accomplished what many dream about but few have the talent to achieve. His humility in the face of his notoriety is all the more remarkable.
America is losing its heros such as Armstrong in greater and greater numbers these days, and I’m not sure that there is anyone “in the wings” so to speak to replace them. It’s not that we do not have anyone accomplishing notable deeds, but the focus then becomes all about them. Case in point – just months after the super secret mission to rid the world of Osama bin Laden a former SEAL team member writes a book about the mission. What used to be unthought of has now become reality – a special forces member writes a book to bring glory, if not to himself and his team, at least to the mission itself. Will this jeopardize the lives of future special forces team members? Who knows. But I cannot see any good coming from it. And it is in such stark contrast to the history of the special forces and their team members. Maybe it is a sign of things to come. If so, it is a sad comment on the nature of those who seek to serve their country in these elite force teams.
With the passing of Neil Armstrong our astronaut hero corp is certainly diminishing. Let us continue to honor these great Americans who risked so much in a peacetime effort to expand mankind’s knowledge and capability. May we all aspire to live our lives in the same kind of pursuit of peaceful means to make our home on this earth just a little more livable.
(Note: an earlier edition of this post erroneously made mention that John Glenn had also passed away. I don’t know how that came to my mind – but I was certainly wrong and glad to report that Sen. Glenn is still alive and well.)
Have you ever wondered about all of those regulations in the book of Leviticus regarding the “unintentional sin?” (Refer to Lev. 4 and 5 if you are curious.) I have often wondered about how one can sin unintentionally. I always thought that sin was an intentional violation of God’s will. Now, I can do a world of things unintentionally, so I get that part. I just have always struggled with the idea that if I do something unwittingly that it can be considered a sin. I’ve heard or read all the examples of speeding in a zone in which you did not know the speed limit, but on one level you generally know what is a safe and legal speed depending on where you are. And, second, being guilty of speeding in a zone where you did not know the speed has nothing to do with moral culpability. Ignorance may lead to a speeding ticket and a monetary fine, but it says nothing about your desire to obey traffic laws.
“Unintentional sin” however DOES speak of moral culpability. You are guilty before God of not only violating a written regulation, but also of a corrupt character. That is graphically illustrated because the only way to “justify” the sin was through the death of an innocent animal. If it were just a matter of ignorance and technical bookkeeping, a fine and a few hours of community service would have sufficed. Unintentional sin, in God’s eyes, was a major infraction not only of communal relations but also of divine-human relations.
This past week I thought I was doing something that I needed to do to get my computer to work in a certain way. I thought I was following the instructions on the screen. I wanted the computer to function at a different (and I thought higher) level. I hit the last click to restart my machine and the screen went blank. It never fully came back up. I tried to fix that and did get it to come back – with all of my data completely gone. Now, through the magic of a computer technician I have recovered many of my files, but the event was harrowing. It was all so “unintentional” and yet there was no denying my guilt and complicity in my near-disaster.
Is that what the writer of Leviticus was talking about? I am not sure I know the answer to that question. As I said, I wonder about those regulations, I do not have a firm, set-in-concrete answer. But this one thing I am absolutely certain of – God takes all sin deadly seriously. He does not give us a “walk” just because of our good intentions or our lack of specific knowledge of an issue. Has he provided for our “justification” when we become aware of our sin? Absolutely! Does the cross of Christ minimize or lessen the seriousness of unintentional sin? As the apostle Paul would say, “By no means!”
I believe that in our dominant Christian worldview today we have tried to skate past the concept of unintentional sin. We focus almost entirely upon “intentional sin” and we treat intentional sin in almost the same manner that the Old Testament writers treated unintentional sin. If you intentionally set out to commit adultery, divorce your spouse, get drunk, cheat on your taxes, lie, cheat, steal, etc., never mind…just repent with a whole heart after the deed has been done and God will square the books in the end. By way of contrast, in Leviticus intentional sin was met with immediate “excommunication” or the casting out from the assembly (meaning economic as well as spiritual punishment) all the way up to death of the perpetrator(s). How we have minimized the commission of blatant sin!
In Leviticus, when the sinner was made aware of his or her sin the course of action was not only to repent, but also to sacrifice. The restoration of the unintentional sinner was expensive, and it was intended to be. God was teaching his people about the importance of living a righteous life, and of making things right when you did something wrong, even if you were trying not to do something wrong in the first place. No excuses, no walks, no “just try harder next time.”
What does this have to say to us as spiritual mentors and leaders today when we recognize the “unintentional” sin in our life, and/or the lives of others?
Sometimes reading the Old Testament is a really scary proposition.
It begins when we are very young. We ask a question and someone laughs at us. Or we ask a question and someone tells us we have asked a stupid question. Or we are told there are no stupid questions, so we ask a question and the non-verbal response lets us know right away that the teacher or whoever truly does believe that we asked a stupid question. Or, we asked a question and the person in charge got the impression we did not know what we were doing, so they took our job away, or we did not get the promotion, or we found our responsibilities curtailed. It does not take long in our culture today to break someone of the habit of asking questions. There is probably no place on earth that is more devoid of honest, soul-searching questions than a Bible class or other assembly. A person might be willing to ask a question of fact (assuming there is a sense of safety in doing so), but rarely will a person ask a question that reveals any serious doubt or insecurity inherent in the person asking the question.
That is really a sad commentary on how we view questions, and the importance of questions in developing a healthy faith. Read through the gospels, for example, and take note of how many times Jesus is approached with questions. They represent not necessarily questions of fact (although many of the questions appear on the surface to be questions of fact), but the majority of the questions penetrate much deeper than just “yes/no” type of questions. Our gospel accounts would be significantly shorter if Jesus had responded to every question with a “what a stupid question” kind of response.
As a minister I felt this issue creates one of the major short-comings of our modern concept of the sermon. It is all one-way communication. At least it is in the predominantly white, middle class, mid-level high church in which I grew up. (Mid level because we were certainly not liturgical, but eschewed Pentecostalism with a fervor.) Many has been the time that I have been listening to a sermon and I really, really wanted to raise my hand and blurt out, “You don’t really mean what you just said, do you?” but I have felt just the slightest bit uneasy in doing so. Or maybe just an innocent, “Could you please explain that last point again, you lost me somewhere.” Most of the time by the time the sermon is over we have forgotten our question, or the issue has become so confusing that we lost the whole point and it just did not seem important to pursue at a later time.
I understand the whole “decently and in order” instruction that Paul gave to the Corinthians. But can we not ask and answer questions in a decent and orderly manner? Would it not be advantageous to develop someone’s faith if we stopped our formal sermonic delivery and took the time to explain a confusing thought or stopped to undo a slip of the tongue?
Anyway, the point of this post is not to re-structure the sermon part of our assemblies. The point is that we will never grow or develop our faith if we are unwilling or too fearful to ask questions. We should not surrender our God-given inquisitiveness and desire to learn just because our culture has put a damper on the asking of questions. We need to develop the courage of the early disciples of Jesus and we need to voice our confusion, our doubts, and our fears. In that way we can be taught, encouraged, and strengthened by those who are older, wiser, or who have walked the path that we are just beginning.
So go ahead – ask your question with courage. You will be surprised to find out how many people wanted to ask the very same question, but were afraid to do so.
Tomorrow I begin a brave new direction of my life as a university instructor (albeit part-time). As I have been preparing myself for this career change I have been thinking about the whole concept of teaching and learning. I have been a student most all of my life. I have worked my way through elementary, mid-school, high school, under-graduate college, graduate school, and now doctoral studies. I have earned all of the flight certificates and ratings that I wanted except two (Multi-Engine Instructor, and Airline Transport Pilot). I have attempted to learn how to play the guitar for most of my life. I have taught high school students, adults, and I have trained many students to fly airplanes. I have taught novices how to read Greek and how to fly in the clouds. I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the theory of both teaching and learning.
However, throughout all of this I never really sat down and came up with at philosophy of learning or teaching. So, with this rather significant professional shift looming over my head I thought it would be time to attempt to articulate some thoughts about why we teach and why we learn. These are provisional, and just like my 15 Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (see appropriate page on this blog), these are subject to change. Here goes (stated in the form of pledges):
1. Whether I teach or study, I will do my absolute very best so that I will honor the God who gave me the intellect and the ability to both study and teach. Anything less is to dishonor my Creator.
2. I will teach and learn not to please myself, my parents, my married partner nor my teachers or students. I will teach and learn for the goal of either imparting greater wisdom, or obtaining greater wisdom. Any other goal subverts the purpose of education. This is true whether the subject is theoretical in nature, or application oriented.
3. Integrity and honesty will form the foundation of my philosophy of education.
4. If I cheat or perform at any level below the best that I can perform on any given subject, I am cheating my teacher, my students, my classmates and ultimately the God who gave me the ability to learn. Earning a grade is not the goal of education; learning is the goal of education. By cheating I diminish the entire educational process.
5. Because the goal of education is to increase the level of wisdom in both myself and my students or fellow-students, I will do everything within my power to help my students or fellow-students in their studies. Although we very often attempt to make it competitive, the process if education is not competitive but communal. By helping others I help myself and everyone involved in the process.
6. I will remember that there will always be someone who performs better than I will perform, and someone who performs less capably than I perform. I cannot be the best in every subject and in every situation, but neither will I be the worst in every subject nor in every situation. I will learn what gifts I have been given and I will learn to excel in those gifts, and I will honor and respect those who have been given other gifts and who can excel in those areas.
7. I will understand that assigning a grade does not mean assigning a measurement on a student’s moral character, and I will understand that when I receive a grade it is not a measure of my moral character. A grade is simply a temporary measure of the attainment of a particular set of theories or skills, and is in no way the final measure of a student’s capability to learn. I will be fair and honest in the assignment of grades, and as a student I will be mature and honest in the acceptance of the grade I have earned; and if there is an honest discrepancy between what I feel I have earned and what I have been assigned, I will deal with the difference in a respectful manner. If a student challenges the grade I have assigned, I will listen to him or her and respond with respect and humility.
Okay, there you have the big seven. Maybe at the end of this semester (or academic year) I will come along and add one or two more. Hey, I started out with only seven undeniable truths for theological reflection, and now I am up to 15. I may write a book on this subject, who knows. Of course, that will be after I get this Doctor of Ministry thing finished!
As the old joke goes, experience is a wonderful thing. It allows you to recognize the same mistake the second time you make it. As you get older you (hopefully) gain a lot of experience. That means you either have made a lot of mistakes in your life, or you are wise enough to learn from the mistakes of others. I do things the old-fashioned way and learn by stubbing my toes and smashing my thumbs with the hammer. Amazingly, sometimes I have to hit my thumb two or three times before I learn to hold the nail with a pair of pliers. Like I said, experience is a wonderful thing.
Over the past couple of posts I have shared some experience that I have gained in my years as a minister/preacher. The things that I have written about have not been profound, but if a young man reads them and gains some valuable wisdom, then so much the better. Actually, I think that what I wrote is valuable for every Christian, but maybe has a little more application for the life of a preacher. Certainly we can all learn to hold our tongues when we are angry and also to learn to withhold our criticisms. Today I would like to continue in this thread, but hopefully change the tone slightly. Today I would like to focus on a positive character trait that will serve anyone well, but especially someone who is serving in a professional ministerial context.
If you choose a people helping profession to earn your living (or even to volunteer!) you will get hurt. It is a horrible fact of life, but it is absolutely certain that either the people you are trying to help will hurt you, or someone closely related to them will hurt you. Maybe the same is true for accountants and engineers and carpenters, but when you sign on as a preacher, a teacher, or a counselor you open yourself to some harsh and sometimes vindictive emotional attacks. It is in the nature of the service. The closer you get to the center of someone’s life the greater the danger of exposing their wounds. When those wounds are opened up it causes a great deal of pain. The most obvious response is to strike out against the one who exposed that pain, and with very few exceptions that means you, the preacher, minister, teacher or counselor. When that occurs (note I said when, not if) you have a couple of options.
The first option is the “low road.” The lowest road of all would be to retaliate in kind to the person who hurt you. Return their fire – if it is an elder, a grumpy church member, a defiant divorcee – whatever, blast them with everything that you have. This is frequently done from the pulpit or teacher’s lectern, so as to be cleverly disguised. Except that retaliation is very seldom disguised as much as we think it is. Of course, by taking the low road you will virtually guarantee that the person who attacked you will simply elevate their level of antagonism and will return your fire, but once the battle is joined there is little that can be done to alter that response. Also, it is a fairly certain reality that by joining in the conflict you will shorten your tenure wherever you are. If you a minister/preacher, you will be asked to move on or you will decide that the grass will be greener and the people more loving somewhere else, and you will just move your family and your baggage. Eventually, though, the next person you counsel will hurt you and you will respond by firing back, and the cycle will repeat itself once again. Remember that experience thing that I mentioned in the first paragraph?
Another low road is to retaliate against the person who hurt you by striking out at a safe person, someone you believe will not attempt to hurt you in return. So we yell at our husband or our wife, lash out at our children, or kick the cat. The insidious part of this response is that it is all done unconsciously. We do not intend to do so, we certainly do not want to do so, but we have these pent-up emotions and we have to get rid of them somehow. Bingo – we shoot at the nearest target, and those we love the most bear the brunt of our wounded pride. This behavior has its own punishments, however, and so the downward spiral of pain and retaliation simply takes another course and all too often the end result is either divorce or alienation from our children. This is certainly not a happy place to be.
Now, let’s consider the alternative. Take the high road. This road can be described in by referring to several different passages of Scripture, but the basic thought is the same. Do unto others as you would like them to do to you. Love your neighbor as yourself. Turn the other cheek. Walk the second mile. As far as it is dependent upon you, live at peace with others. Bear one another’s burdens. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus the Christ. If “firing back” is the best way to describe the low road, the high road can best be described by “unload your weapon and put it down.”
I will be the first to admit that taking the high road is not a natural response. I am pretty good at firing back. Maybe not at the person who hurt me – I am too clever to do that. I shoot at people who are utterly clueless as to what has hurt me. Remember my luck with nails and hammers? Well, other people’s thumbs are in danger any time I pick up a hammer. And given the fact that I am frequently asked to preach or teach, my opportunities to lash out at innocent bystanders are numerous. I have learned that I have to be very careful when I have been wounded not to carry that wound into the pulpit, or to carry it home. Sometimes I can succeed, all too often I fail.
But Jesus did not come and die to bless or justify sinful human pride. He came to expose the nature of that sinful pride and to remove it. He also provides the heart that is to replace that sinful human heart. It is a heart of self-sacrifice, of loving others with the love of His Father. It is the heart that David prayed for in Psalm 51. It is the heart that searches for, and then walks, the high road. The more pride we have, the lower the road that we are forced to take. The more that we allow God to destroy our pride, the higher we can go.
Walking the high road means we do not retaliate, either against the one who hurt us, or the safe people who surround us. We do not “return fire,” we unload our weapon and work to help those in pain safely unload theirs. We absorb the barbs, the jabs and the slanders and we return love and forgiveness. We may need to challenge and correct where it is necessary (never allow sin to go unchallenged) but we do so in humility, knowing full well that we all bear a heavy burden of sinful human nature. We keep our eyes focused on Jesus, knowing that he is our great example of being humiliated beyond description, yet remaining silent and even praying for those who hurt him the most.
I cannot say that I am where I want to be in this regard. I’m just too short-tempered. But I’ve got enough bandages on my thumbs to know that I need to work on this issue, and I pray that I am better at handling attacks than I was a few years ago. I pray that I am better next year than I am today.
Maybe I can even get to the point that people do not run for their lives when I pick up a hammer.
In my last post I talked to preachers about the sin of preaching when anger is the primary motivation. Closely related to that temptation is the temptation to criticize your congregation.
One of the things that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was adamant about in his mentoring of young pastors was the demand never to criticize the congregations where they worked. Now, in the Lutheran system in Germany the way in which pastors were sent to parishes was much different than our “free” church system in which congregations choose their ministers. In his context pastors were sent – I believe the congregations had some freedom to “call” a pastor, but the process did not resemble our “courtship and marriage” that modern minister searches sometimes resemble. But the end result is much the same – ministers find out that the congregation is not perfect, and the congregation finds out that the minister is not perfect.
At the point in which the minister and the congregation find out that each is somewhat less than advertised there is the proverbial “fork in the road.” One option is to find a like minded individual and lay out every gripe and complaint that one side has about the other. From a minister’s perspective this is often done in “preacher’s meetings” or in phone calls to trusted friends. Every bellyache is describe is nauseating detail. Elders won’t eld, deacons won’t deac, teachers won’t teach – the list is long and distinguished. I have to admit my own failings in this area. There were times when I felt like I just had to unload my pain and anger. Pity the poor recipient of my venom. I have been on the receiving end of such complaints too. All too often it becomes a contest of one-upmanship. Sort of a “my congregation is worse than your congregation” kind of competition.
On the other side of the equation is the gossip and complaining that occurs about the preacher, but that is not what this post is about – so we will just admit that it occurs and we are not going to change it, so let’s accept it and move on.
No, what I want to stress is that by complaining about our congregations or criticizing them (even to trusted friends) we poison the well from which we drink. If we label our elders or congregational leaders as ignorant or incompetent buffoons sooner or later that opinion becomes very evident in the way we respond to them in public. If we tell others that our congregations are full of stupid, mindless hayseeds then at some point they will learn that we have no respect for them and they will respond in kind. If we fire the first shot, we should not be surprised that we get back what we give, pressed down and heaped up. Remember – we only have one pop-gun. The congregation comes armed to the teeth.
I know – believe me I know – that there are times when we as ministers need to seek out the counsel of trusted friends. I know that there are issues that need to be addressed, and those issues involve real flesh and blood human beings. I am only too aware of the fact that there are situations in which the relationship is so toxic that the minister needs to leave (and, to be honest, a “Do No Enter” sign needs to be placed on the door of the church to warn off any prospective ministers!). But when those situations arise the manner in which we deal with them speaks volumes about our own Christian attitudes. If we seek out the counsel of a good and trusted friend and speak honestly and humbly about the situation, he or she can help us see the failings in our own life and ministry and help us to overcome the problem we are currently experiencing. If all we do is criticize and vent our spleen nothing positive can be accomplished, no matter how brilliant and caring our friend might be.
And so, as much as I hated to read Bonhoeffer when he writes it, I ultimately have to agree with him. Never criticize your congregation. Seek the wisdom and guidance of a trusted and spiritual friend – but always do so from a position of humility and repentance. Remember this one very important fact – if the congregation was smart enough to hire you in the first place, then they are smart enough to unhire you as well. If they were worth courting and relocating for, then they are very likely worth working through problems for. When the time comes to separate, separate on the most beneficial and amicable terms possible. Remember that unless you plant a congregation, you will be following a minister that left for one reason or another, and there will be someone to follow you in your current position. In that sense there are always three ministers involved in any position change.
Let’s make it easier on the other two guys when we move – and to the best of our ability let’s remember that every congregation is imperfect, but it, and the people who make up that congregation, are the blood-bought children of God.
Let us be very, very careful about how and when we criticize someone else’s children!