Author Archives: Paul Smith

Judged not by Fame but by Faithfulness

My daily Bible reading and devotional thought gave me quite a jolt today – but hopefully in a good way. I was reminded, once again, of how many different ways we as humans attempt to justify our existence by our awards, achievements, and accomplishments – the stuff of resumes. And, I was reminded of how virtually all of that striving is utterly rejected in the Kingdom of God.

That truth is especially meaningful to me as I survey the contemporary “postmodern” church scene. Scores of articles and research tools have been published informing church leaders how they are to modify their efforts in order to win and keep this or that generation of believers. The entire message can be encapsulated in the dictum that numbers mean everything, and if you are not growing you are not successful, you are just not “doing” church right. So we have to “re-imagine” church, or re-define church, or whatever the latest poll or survey says we need to do.

Preachers are especially vulnerable to this siren song. Perhaps it has always been this way, but is is clearly true today. Young men look to the trend setting churches and dream of preaching at such a “successful” church. Small congregations that do nothing but stay faithful to the gospel are not even given a second glance. Maybe one day they will be invited to speak at their favorite lectureship. You have to be a “senior” minister at a mega-church for that to happen, though. No “small congregation” ministers need apply. A church that is looking to hire a preacher demands “proven” success in evangelism and church growth. Lists upon lists are given as to what a preacher is to “do,” but very little about what he is supposed to “be.” Job descriptions can run multiple pages long. Sadly, many of the items listed could also describe a “community organizer.” Very, very few items pertain to the gifts of the Spirit.

Somewhere lost in all the search for praise and acclamation is the message of the towel and basin. Jesus gave the greatest lesson on leadership this world has ever witnessed, and he did it without a word. He took a towel, and a water basin, and washed his disciples’ feet. In the Kingdom of God, leaders are defined by service, not by stature. In the Kingdom, we descend upwards. The last will be first, the least shall be greatest.

This morning, I needed to hear a message from God’s word, and it was given to me:

In the Kingdom of God, we will be judged not by fame, but by faithfulness.

Three Special Requests

To all my wonderful readers out there in the fog –

I have three small requests of you today. You may not personally be able to help with any of them, but if you might know of someone who can help, I would appreciate if you would pass along this site and if you will leave me a comment with some way to reach you, I will contact you privately.

First, I am currently looking for a ministry to relocate to, and so if anyone is aware of a teaching position involving Bible or theology, I would greatly appreciate having that information. Also, if you are aware of a congregation of the Churches of Christ that is looking for a pulpit minister, I would love to have that information as well. In return, you can pass along the information to this site and let them get to know me a little. I guess I should say I am a little more curmudgeonly in writing (a little??) than I am in person, so those of you who know me can pass that along as well.

Second, the ministry where I am currently serving, the Greyhounds for Christ at Eastern New Mexico University, is in need of some short and long term financial support (NOT the reason why I am leaving – just passing along a special need!) This is a wonderful ministry with a GREAT group of college students, and due to the confluence of a number of reasons, we could use some one-time contributions and also some long-term supporters. If you, or someone you know, is looking for a mission point then please put them in contact with me and I would love to visit with them about this opportunity.

Finally, the leaders here will be looking to fill the campus ministry position here, hopefully by the first of August. Did I mention this is a GREAT place to minister with a really great group of college students? I can recommend this position, the leadership here, and the ENMU students 100%. If you know of a young man who has a special love for, and understanding of, college students, please let me know about him, and once again you can put him in touch with me.

Well, thanks for the brief commercial break, and I promise to return you to our irregularly scheduled meanderings through the fog here shortly. Until then, please remain in your seats with your tray tables in the upright position . . .

The Danger of Linking Patriotism and Christianity

I write this the day after the first of the “winnowing” elections in the 2016 presidential election cycle. The war drums from almost all of the partisan camps are beating loudly today – well, except from those who had to drop out due to non-existent support. Next up, New Hampshire. From there – it won’t end until November.

Long-time readers of this space should know I am very conservative when it comes to issues of politics and the Christian faith. Conservative, yes; but not in the manner that most expect a conservative to write. I confess a different type of conservatism, one that is more intentionally based on “conserving” the teachings and implications of the apostolic writings, as opposed to the American Revolutionary fathers.

In that vein, I must say I am deeply concerned with the current association of the ideas of “patriotism” with that of the principles of Christianity. During these heated election cycles we are lectured time and time again that it is our “patriotic” duty to go forth and cast our ballot, and that, in no uncertain terms, it is our Christian duty to do the same.

I challenge the first concept, and flatly reject the second.

First, where is it framed as any kind of law or principle that voting is equal to a patriotic act? It seems to me that the only way voting could be construed as a “patriotic” act is if the act of not voting would be actively destroying the principles upon which the country was founded. The problem is we vote for people, not principles. It seems to me that if we are forced to vote for someone who clearly is working to overturn the principles upon which this country was founded, it would be more patriotic NOT to vote. I have listened to most (albeit not all) of the candidates for president this election cycle, and I can assure you that NONE of them espouse a purely Christian viewpoint. Admittedly, some are more acceptable (from a purely secular viewpoint) than others, but what part of patriotism says I have to hold my nose and close my eyes when I pull the lever at the ballot box? I am not going to vote for someone as a “patriotic” duty, only to see the principles upon which this country was founded be trampled and trashed.

But, second, and by far the most important to me: where is it written in Scripture that it is the duty of a Christian to vote? The closest anyone can come is a mis-application of Romans 13. The only thing Paul (and Jesus!) had to say about the government was that it is the duty of a Christian to live in such a way as to not bring reproach upon the Kingdom of God. If the government forces us to pay taxes – then pay taxes we must. However, the process of casting a ballot is a freedom, a choice, and one that should only be used with the greatest care and only with Kingdom principles as the goal. To say that we have to vote for brand “X” because he/she is marginally better than brand “Y” is just foolishness – and dangerous to the extreme!

Shortly before World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was asked what he would do if war broke out. He said that he would have to pray that Germany would be defeated, in order for Christianity to survive in his country. The government would view that sentiment as treason – the ultimate act of anti-patriotism. Not so! Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the ultimate patriot. He loved his country so much that he wanted it to be defeated in war – so that it could survive in peace.

That, my friends, is patriotism. So do not lecture me about how I have to go vote for someone (anyone) that I am convinced will only work to violate God’s Kingdom principles.

Dialog vs. Fellowship?

Okay – contrary to my usual over-wordiness, this post will be relatively short (yea, right, I bet you’ve heard that one before).

The subject comes from a conversation that I had yesterday with a peer (and to hide everyone’s identity – I will speak in the most general of descriptions). We were discussing many things theological, and in the middle of the conversation he mentioned a distinction that I do not think I have used, or even been aware of. Maybe I have, and just forgot it. Anyway – it was striking to me and so I thought I would throw this out and see if it resonated with anyone, or if anyone had any comments or feedback.

The comment was this: he is a member of a large denomination, one in which there are some smaller fellowships. His particular association is fairly conservative, and another of the groups which share the same name is, in his estimation, beyond liberal. So, in our conversation he mentioned that he is in dialog with many religious groups (both inside and outside of his denomination) even though there might not be any true “fellowship,” but he (and his association) cannot even be in dialog with this other group which, (at least nominally) they should be in fellowship with.

That got me to thinking – what difference does it make to be in “dialog” with a group, but at the same time refuse to be in “fellowship.” What “lines” exist for deciding that fellowship cannot be maintained, but healthy dialog can occur? And, at the next level, what line (or lines) must be drawn that, when crossed, mean there can be no “fellowship” between groups, or individuals within those groups?

Clearly, as the New Testament is silent on the issue of “denominations” (in the New Testament there is only the church, and heretics and schismatics outside of the church), there can be no clear and unambiguous teaching from the pen of the gospel writers or the later apostolic letters. However – is there no counsel at all?

Somehow this is a new concept for me (sorry if you have traveled down this road before – more than one person believes me to be a Luddite, but I digress). I would love to be in dialog with a number of individuals – but in order for there to be dialog there must be some basic assumptions, and one of those assumptions is that there must be mutual respect. I can dialog my peer with whom I was conversing, even though we come from very different perspectives, because he is firmly convinced of his own position, but, at least in my presence, is respectful and generous to listen to what I have to say.

Sadly, he is more willing to listen to my convictions than are some of my “family members” within the Churches of Christ. That is why what he had to say about dialoging with groups outside of his denomination, even though dialog with those who share the name of his denomination was no longer possible, resonated with me so powerfully. I’ve been there too, I just could not verbalize it the way he said it. It’s the same experience I had at Fuller Theological Seminary. I could not “fellowship” with many of my classmates, but we had some wonderful (and at times heated) dialog.

Comments? Feedback? Threats of excommunication?

Thanks for flying in the fog today . . .

What is Education? (revisited)

Funny that something so basic can be so misunderstood. So much of what is passed off as “education” today is nothing of the sort. This is how I have come to understand education.

First, all education begins with a challenge to what we have previously known or accepted as true. You simply cannot learn something that you already know or believe. You can be reminded of something that you once learned and had forgotten, but to use the terms learn or education concerning something that you already know is to misuse the terms.

Second, one takes the challenge of the new thought or idea and puts it to a critical analysis. Here is where the student says, “I’ve never thought of this before, or in this way. I wonder what others have to say about this.” In elementary school the final source of truth might be our parents, but usually we confirm a new idea before we accept it as our own. If we do not have an “ultimate authority” we keep knocking the idea around with others until we can confirm or deny the new concept.

Learning does not stop with critical analysis, however. A third step involves returning to that which I already know, and either assimilating or rejecting the worth of the new idea. Most of what I read concerns thoughts or ideas that I have not previously experienced. I can confirm that those thoughts and ideas are, indeed true and correct as far as they go. Much of that, however, are thoughts and ideas that are not important to me and I basically ignore or forget them as soon as I learn them (sort of the study, test, and dump that most students practice on a regular basis). Yes, you can say that I have learned a great deal about the grammar of the Greek language – but I can assure you I have assimilated very little of it. I have to go back repeatedly and remind (there’s that word again) myself of concepts I have previously learned. On the other hand, if I need to know something, and can use it immediately and repeatedly, that fact or practice becomes a part of my life. Thankfully I did not have to remind myself of the principles of landing an airplane every time I took off. I learned it, and it became “second nature” in a very real way.

The final step in education then returns to the first step, and we are prepared to challenge ourselves, or be challenged by, another thought, idea, concept, or practice. The circle, or spiral, continues as long as we live, or at least as long as we aspire to learn. It is certainly true that we can remind ourselves of a great many things – and a great many things are worth our time to pull out and remember from time to time. But, to expand our mind we must challenge, analyze, assimilate and challenge again.

I fear the misnaming of education is a mistake that is all too frequently made in church settings. In far too many Bibles “classes” challenge is not accepted. The only thing that can be discussed is what is already known, approved, and accepted. Not even the teacher is allowed to study things that are new or challenging, for fear that some of his new “learning” might infiltrate his presentations. If there is no challenge there can be no critical analysis. In fact, there cannot be any critical analysis of things that are already accepted and approved. There can be no “what” or “why” questions – unless the subject involves an outsider, and we wonder what or why “they” think the way they do. If there is no critical analysis, there can be no assimilation, no “building” upon a previous foundation. Only that which is approved can be approved. That is circular thinking, and that is not education.

My greatest mentors over the first half of my formative years were all devout (and brilliant, by the way) members of the Churches of Christ. I learned from men such as Everett Ferguson, John Willis, Ian Fair, Neil Lightfoot, Bill Humble, Lemoine Lewis, and Eugene Clevenger. These are men who epitomize education to me. Most, or at least many, of them obtained their doctoral degrees from the pinnacle of Ivy League (and, not to be redundant, liberal) universities. Yet, they remained true to the Restoration plea that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the ultimate authority to which all new ideas and concepts must be compared. My greatest mentors over the last few decades of my life have been outsiders to this circle of faith – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, and even more recent, N.T. Wright. Having a solid foundation, I can compare what is new, unfamiliar, and in some cases unsettling, with what I previously learned to be true. I have come to learn (pardon the pun) that much of what these “outsiders” teach is actually true – true in the biblical sense, but perhaps not true in the sense of my tradition. Not all, to be sure – I do have to exercise my critical analysis muscles quite a bit!

I am distressed by those who refuse to be challenged, and so to expand their education. I am equally distressed to read, and to hear, of those who claim to be leaders in the Churches of Christ today who begin with the challenge, and then jump straight to assimilation without the critical analysis phase. How did Everett Ferguson come away from that bastion of liberalism known as Harvard with such a conservative understanding? Because his feet were well grounded, and he was not swayed by “every philosophy” that blew his way.  Suffice it to say that our pulpits are full of preachers who catch wind of a new idea, and, embarrassed by their suffocating “tradition,” blithely follow that new idea where ever it blows, even if it blows up. Jumping on every new and sexy idea is not education. Forcing your congregation to follow you into your folly is not leadership. However, I am afraid we have idolized those who are the least worthy of our following, and we have mistakenly identified blind allegiance as true education.

I am, by nature and by nurture, an educator. I simply adore teaching. I love it when my students “get it.” But I don’t want it to be easy. I want there to be some struggle, and I do not necessarily want them to accept every “i” and “t” as I present them. I want my students to get an education – and some day it would be a great honor for one of them to teach this old dawg a new trick or two.

*Note: Arrrrgh. I just realized I posted under this exact title some time ago. That is the thing about my memory – it works so irregularly that almost everything is brand new to me. Sorry for any whiplash that folks might have experienced.

What We Have Here, Is a Failure to Communicate

I had a strange dream last night . . .

It appeared that I was summoned as a visitor to a sublime and dreadful courtroom scene. A preacher (whom I recognized, but will not identify to protect his guilt or innocence) sat forlornly at the defense table, while the prosecutor’s table was empty. Instead of one judge, there were a number of men, dressed in strange robes that resembled bedouin clothing more than that of modern judges. The gallery, of which I was a small part, was quiet – acting almost fearful, as if we were not really wanting to watch the events that would unfold before us.

The heavy tone of the room was broken when one of the judges cleared his throat and spoke. “Mr. __________, you have been summoned to stand before this tribunal before your death, rather than following your death, for a very special reason. Your record of service in the name of the one who sits on my left is impeccable. You have devoted the better part of your life to promoting the good name of Jesus and furthering his church. However, it was determined that you have recently become guilty of hypocrisy, and of a type that borders on treason against the kingdom. You will now stand and respond to our questions, for the purpose of ascertaining whether you will be returned to earth to continue your mission, or if you are to be removed from an earthly life altogether. Let us proceed . . . ”

Another of the judges spoke. “Mr. ___________, for the record, let us clarify. When you began your ministry, you professed to speak only of things spoken by Jesus, and written by myself and my partners on this tribunal, is that not correct?”

The preacher, pale and quivering, nodded and mumbled a quiet “yes.” Apparently he was aware of the identity of his interlocutors, although their specific identity was still hidden to the rest of us.

“Thank you.” Replied the second speaker. “Now, based on that confession, we have some questions we would like to pose to you to determine if, indeed, you have been faithful to that promise.”

“Is it not true” spoke a third judge “that as a young minister you spoke often and lovingly about the need to openly identify the Lord’s church through clear references to his name, or title?” “Yes, I did” replied the accused. “Then, why, here in these later years, have you chosen to identify your assembly as “_________________”? (name redacted for privacy reasons). “Well, it became obvious to me that by using the name under which I was first serving, that many people were put off, and refused to give my message any hearing. I wanted to lead as many as I could to my Lord, so I had to change the name on the building in order so as not to offend.”

At this comment the character seated in the middle of the group of judges raised his eyebrows, but remained silent.

“Let it be entered into the record that the accused withdrew any reference to the name or title of our Lord because such a reference was embarrassing and he believed it to be a negative influence” spoke the third judge. The other judges nodded in agreement, “So be it.”

The second judge once again spoke. “Mr. _________, you have stated many times in your early ministry that the record we who are seated before you must be listened to wholeheartedly, and obeyed faithfully, is that not true?” Another nod of the head and a mumbled “yes.” “Then, your proclamations in these later years are very troublesome. Just to name a few – you caused a serious defection in your congregation when you insisted the addition of practices into the worship service which are clearly not present in our writings, and you openly ridiculed certain other practices which are clearly given. You devalued the leadership qualities of men while encouraging women to step outside of their blessed and holy giftedness. You have even gone so far as to recently suggest that marriage vows can be exchanged between members of the same sex, provided those vows remain faithful. How do you answer?”

“That is easy,” the preacher said tremulously. “Modern scholarship has unequivocally determined that many words attributed to my esteemed judges did not, in fact, come from your pens. As a faithful minister I could not preach what was not the word of God. I could not continue to promote a false and dehumanizing gospel. Once that veil was lifted from my eyes, how could I return to chauvinistic and homophobic traditions?”

The gasps from the gallery drowned out the whispered conversations among the judges. The first judge rapped the bench with his gavel, ordering silence.

“So, Mr. ____________, are you telling these judges that the accumulated wisdom of over 2,000 years has been ‘unequivocally’ overturned by your ‘modern scholarship?” A quiet wave of laughter spread through the gallery. The preacher did not answer, but dropped his eyes. We in the gallery could see his face turning red.

The third judge who had spoken earlier resumed the questioning. “Mr. ____________, these are serious allegations, but throughout the history of the church on earth, many similar serious issues have plagued the Lord’s people.  God’s grace is certainly able to cover a multitude of misunderstandings – but we are not here to issue your final judgment, only to determine your fitness to return to your ministry. Far more troubling are some of your more recent lectures regarding the very nature of our Lord’s saving sacrifice.”

A fourth judge now entered the conversation. “Mr. ____________, your declaration to speak only the words of Jesus has been duly noted. Yet, you have repeatedly and clearly stated in recent sermons that the sign of solidarity with our Lord is no longer a necessary act of obedience to him. Baptism into our Lord’s death, a symbolic lowering into his grave, and a triumphant resurrection from that grave is, to quote your most recent offering, ‘something that is beneficial for the life of the believer, but cannot be made a requirement for salvation.’ Do I quote you accurately?”

Once again the preacher said, “yes,” but his mood had changed. Rather than meek submission, he was growing irritated with the line of questioning, and his ire was beginning to show. “Listen, I learned from my conversations with people from many different churches and even different religions that there are a lot of wonderful people out there, people who do not believe in baptism, but believe in Jesus. People who are good, moral, upstanding individuals with whom I could not find anything to question. Once again, I could not find any words that were clearly written by you all that would keep those people out of heaven.”

Finally the character in the middle of the group of judges raised his voice, along with his arched eyebrows. “I must disagree – for did not my inspired apostles record my very specific words, ‘Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved”? Did not my inspired apostles speak clearly and repeatedly throughout my new covenant about the sacredness and importance of the new birth into my blood and resurrection? Did not my apostles make it clear that there are most decidedly two groups of individuals, one who trusts in my words of promise and obeys my commands, and one who because of willful rebellion refuses to accept my authority and/or my clear instructions?”

As the final words were fading into the background, a thick and heavy silence fell upon all the assembled – far more thick and heavy than was at first.

After what seemed like hours, but what could have only been a few minutes, the first judge spoke once again. “Mr. ________, you have been accused of hypocrisy and actions that are treasonous to the church that you have pledged your life.”

“It is the decision of this court that . . . ”

Just as suddenly and mysteriously as my dream started, it came to a terrifying end. What was the verdict? What would happen to this well known and popular preacher? Would he be allowed to return and continue his ministry? Would he be sent back to correct his errors? And why was I given this privy information?

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Rest assured, brothers and sisters, the failure does not lie with the source.

I will not go to sleep comfortably any time soon . . .

2016 – A Year of Proclamation

Yesterday’s post was the “glass half empty” view of the year of elections that we are facing in 2016. My good blogging friend Tim Archer pointed out in a comment that I was sort of hyperbolic in my statement, and I have to plead mea culpa. I understand various election cycles in our history have been, well, beyond the realm of what would be considered appropriate or meaningful.  My experience has been that while campaigns have been hard fought, they have rarely (although perhaps occasionally) been as poisonous as this cycle has demonstrated – and I fear it will get worse. So, yesterday my goal was mostly “negative” in the sense that I wanted to challenge our commitment as Christians to the Kingdom of God. Today, I want to look at the “glass half full” side. I want to demonstrate the positive side of withdrawing from partisan politics.

First, when Christians pull out of the vitriol and mud-slinging of partisan politics, we demonstrate that we follow a greater power. When a Christian says, “I know God is in control, but we have to win this election or I will lose my freedom/job/security/safety (whatever the threat might be),” in effect what he or she is saying is, “I really don’t think God is in control, so I better fix things myself.”

Let me put it another way – whatever you are afraid of losing is that thing that you worship. If you are afraid of losing your guns, then your guns are your idol. Are you afraid of losing your security? Then your well-being is your idol. Are you afraid of losing your job? Then your work productivity has become your idol. Jesus’ call to discipleship is radical – I’m afraid we really do not understand just how radical that call is. I do know, however, that a good many people have had to discover that. I could explain, but that is the source of another blog.

Second, when Christians pull away from the nastiness of partisan politics it frees up a massive amount of time, energy, motivation, and money to invest in the kingdom of God. Just think how much money will be wasted on TV, radio, computer, billboard, newspaper, magazine, and other forms of advertising in every form of media over the next 10 months. The total will be staggering. For what purpose? The purpose will be to get some person (or persons) elected to an office where they can return the favor by providing their benefactors with staggering amounts of federal or state funding. That would be bad enough if that is where it started and stopped – but thousands (dare I say millions) of these dollars will be contributed by Christians who will then not have that money to support their local congregations or national or international charities. It is a monumental waste of financial capital. Beyond finances, however, what about the time that will be dedicated to campaign issues, and mental and physical exertion that will be devoted to the election? Christians who would not devote so much as one week out of the year to attend a special gospel meeting will now spend months putting up signs, going door-to-door to talk to voters, handing out leaflets, and other forms of public interaction in order to get “their guy” elected to some state or federal office. You might want to argue that “major elections only happen once every four years – so I am not spending that much time in politics.” To which I would respond – “Jesus is only going to come back once.” I think that should figure into our priorities.

Third, and perhaps most important, when Christians separate themselves from partisan politics it will elevate the standing of Christ’s church. To me there is nothing more unbecoming of a body of Christians than the impression that the kingdom of God can be identified with one political party or the other. How wonderful it would be if everyone in the United States could look at Christ’s church and see something so different, so radically new, so amazingly transformed that they would learn to become ashamed of their broken ways. The more Christians lower themselves into the muck of partisan politics the less likely that is to happen. “Why do I have to change my ways when you Christians act no better than I do?” is a legitimate question. On the other hand, a church that has been pulled out of the pig-pen of human politics by the blood of Christ should act, look, talk, and think in ways that are radically different from the world. Our citizenship is in heaven, Paul wrote. Christians need to start acting like we are kingdom people, not partisans.

In no way am I suggesting that Christians should remove themselves from critical issues facing our country. Issues of equality, fair trade, human exploitation, poverty, health, and a number of issues should be addressed by the church. But, the critical point is that these issues should be addressed from the point of view of the gospel, and not from the Capitol building or the White House. Christians have for too long abdicated the greatest power in the world – the power of the cross. We have come to believe that only a President or a group of Senators or Representatives can change anything. The early church believed a rag-tag group of fishermen, tent-makers, and tax-collectors could turn the world up-side-down. And, because they believed that (and believed in the one who gave them the power), that is exactly what they did.

2016 will indeed be a year of decision – and for the Church of Jesus Christ it can be a great year of proclamation as well. A year to proclaim that we have been called to a higher righteousness, a greater glory, and a deeper reality. A year to proclaim that we have had enough of the world, now we are going to follow the cross. A year to proclaim that, although some human form of government might be necessary, that government does not have the authority to enslave its people. Jesus came to set God’s people free – free from sin to be sure – but free from all human bondage as well, and that includes a representative democracy.

I need to hear that message as much as anyone. Enough of the half-full glass. My cup is supposed to “overflow.” Let us be done with the empty and vain machinations of abusive power. Let us become what we have been called to be.

2016 – A Year of Decision

And so it begins. 2016 will be a year of significant change, or changes, for Americans. I am not convinced as Christians we are prepared for those changes.

One change for certain is that by the end of the year (unless our Lord returns before then!) we will have a new president, and likely a large number of new senators and representatives. On the local level there will be new governors and state representatives. Not a single vote has been cast in the 2016 elections, and already the vitriol has reached levels never seen before. And that is just within one party – the partisan sniping has yet to even begin in earnest.

2016 will prove to be a pivotal year, I am convinced. This might be true for the country, but I am actually more concerned about the church. Whether the union survives is ultimately inconsequential. How the church weathers this storm will have eternal consequences.

Every election cycle since I have been old enough to vote has been labeled “the most important election of this generation.” The phrase has become so overused I am tired of it. There can only be one election that is the most important of this generation. All the others pale in comparison.

Jesus told Pilate in no uncertain terms, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” (John 18:36, RSV)

I’m afraid that in 2016 far too many “Christians” will elect a new king. They will elect a king from this world – actually they will elect this world as king, with a human being as the face of the power. Already my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of hateful and unchristian postings, “shares,” and “likes.” Many are so full of error as to be scandalous for a Christian to be associated with. Paul would tell his student Timothy, “Shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (2 Timothy 2:22-23) I may be in the minority here, but I simply cannot understand why someone would jeopardize their eternal salvation over something so stupid and senseless as a partisan election.

2016 will be a pivotal year. Choices will be made. Elections will be held, some candidates will win, some will lose. The greatest tragedy will not be that one political party or the other will gain ascendency. The greatest tragedy will be that some children of the King will renounce their eternal heritage for a mess of temporal soup. They will exchange the glory of their Father for the rags of a demonic imposter. They will echo the tragic refrain of those Jewish leaders some 2,000 years ago, “We have no king but Caesar.”

Choose you this day whom you will serve. (Joshua 24:15) Choose partisan politics and you will never know peace. Choose Christ, submit to His kingdom, and you will never have to worry about the results of some meaningless popularity contest.

Book Review – Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision (Paul R. House)

Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together. Paul R. House (Crossway:Wheaton, Illinois, 2015) 197 pages.

One thing that you can say about my book reviews is that I am NOT generally on the “cutting edge” of literary publications. Chances are I am reviewing books that are anywhere from five to fifteen years old – or maybe even older. Every once in a while, however, I do get ahold of a book that has been published in the preceding twelve months, and luckily for me this book is one such example.

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Paul R. House has given words to something that I feel very deeply. The fact that he did so by incorporating the theology and practices of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is just icing on the cake to me. In fact, I initially bought the book because of the connection to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I am hopelessly enthralled with Bonhoeffer, and the title of this volume piqued my interest). However, I quickly came to realize that the real value of this book lies in House’s critique and solutions he gave to a critical issue facing seminaries and schools of theology.

 

I write from my own perspective, and so others may have a very different opinion based on their experiences, but I will go out on a limb and say that, with few exceptions, Churches of Christ do not do a very good job of preparing ministers. The Bible departments in our colleges and universities, our graduate schools, and our schools of preaching do a passable job in teaching the content of what a preacher needs to know (and some do that better than others), but on an over-all basis the schools that are tasked to prepare the next generation of congregational preachers do not do a very effective job of forming the life of the minister. There is a kind of silent code that states, “our job is to provide a student with the skills he will need to be a preacher, it is up to the candidate to be the kind of Christian he will be.” This was certainly the case when I was in school 30+ years ago; I am not sure how true it is today. Just a hunch based on some very unscientific observations, but things have not changed much in the product, however much has been changed in the theory end of the equation.

If my observation is valid at all, that would mean that the Churches of Christ fare no better, although probably not any worse, than the situation House describes. He challenges the notion that ministers of the gospel can be trained in sterile, “academic” settings exclusively. He especially challenges the idea that a minister can be shaped or formed through the process of “on-line” courses which basically amount to nothing more than the transfer of data between two computers. House is no neophyte – he has a Ph.D from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has been involved in seminary education for over 30 years. His academic credentials are impeccable. What he says needs to be heard, whether you ultimately agree with him or not.

Basing his argument on two of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s more popular (and readable) works, Discipleship, and Life Together, House defends his argument that theological education – at least the kind of theological education that shapes and forms a minister’s life – needs to be done in community. While rigorous academic work must be a part of the seminary experience (the part I think our schools excel at), there must be a high level of face-to-face mentoring and spiritual formation that occurs as well. House demonstrates that Bonhoeffer had his greatest impact on the future of the church through the experiences he had with his seminarians, beginning at Zingst, and then moving to Finkenwalde and ultimately to the collective pastorates in Kosslin and Gross Schlonwitz. Bonhoeffer was a demanding educator – he expected a high level of exegetical acumen from his students, but he was equally concerned with who the young men were, and what they were training to become. Bonhoeffer did not just want to share information or pass along esoteric tidbits of theological trivia. He wanted to form ministers who could go out into one of the most demanding, and physically terrifying, situations in church history and not only survive, but to thrive and help their church members to thrive.

The fact that a majority of Bible majors in universities and colleges associated with Churches of Christ do not plan to or even want to enter into congregational ministry* is a devastating indictment against the education they are receiving. Various reports are suggesting that there are not enough students enrolled to adequately serve the number of congregations who presently need ministers, and with the baby boom generation of preachers getting ready to retire or are no longer able to serve the congregations, the need for additional servant-ministers will soon become acute. The ultimate answer to this need is no doubt far more extensive than the suggestions in this thin volume, but if you are looking for a place to begin, the wisdom in this book would be my first suggestion.

*Based on a personal report of one prominent university dated some years ago. Other colleges and universities may have a much higher proportion of students who not only desire, but are actively planning, to enter into congregational ministry. My apologies if my brush is painting with too broad of a stroke.

Goodbye, 2015, and Good Riddance

2015 is almost over, and for me the end of the year cannot come soon enough. I certainly hope your year has been better – exponentially better – than mine. 1990 was by far worse than 2015, but this past year comes in a solid second. I cannot remember a year in which virtually every decision, every action, every plan I made, thought, or worked on resulted in such failure, disappointment and regret. In reviewing some of the posts I wrote this year I can see how my disappointments and struggles have colored many of my posts. I have been far too “snarky” and negative. I regret that. I am told these seasons come, and I guess I need to take solace in the fact that things cannot get much worse. The law of averages has to even out somehow.

With all of that said, I want to thank all of you who regularly, or even occasionally, read this blog. I had fully intended to devote more time to writing this past year, but see the above paragraph. I have been comforted to check in and see that this space continues to receive what I feel like is a wonderful bit of attention. The blog should reach 10,000 reads this year, which is a slight decrease from last year, and not anywhere close to the major heavyweights in the blogosphere, but for me it is a deeply appreciated sign that at least some of my meandering thoughts are considered to be worthwhile.

There is one bit of trivia about what I have written that stands out to me as curious. The one post that continues to receive the most attention is the post I wrote on the difference between tolerance and indifference. That post is read almost every day, and sometimes multiple times in a day. The folks who read it never comment, so I’m not sure if people are agreeing, disagreeing, or just mildly curious, but I hope that what I said is considered thoughtfully.

It now appears certain the the Smith family will be moving from Portales in the spring or summer of 2016. What we will be doing is unknown, but I feel certain we will find a place to serve God in some capacity. Once again I do plan on writing more in this space in 2016, but we will see how that plan goes.

Before I close, I must share two very bright and joyous endeavors that I was able to celebrate in 2015. The first was when I received my diploma for my Doctor of Ministry degree. Whew! My daughter made a huge banner for our living room that said, “Congratulations Dr. Daddy Smith.” How can you feel bad when you have that kind of love from your child and wife? The second was this fall semester when I helped the Chair of our university department complete a program review for the Religion Program. It was an incredibly steep learning curve for me – but with my supervisor’s help we prepared a review that has been very well received by the administration. I feel very, very, blessed to have been a part of that process. God is good – even with all of our mistakes and failures His love never ceases, and his blessings never fail.

Once again, I want to thank you for reading, and I wish you all a very merry Christmas and holiday season, and the very best and most prosperous of years in 2016.

Love,

Paul Smith, the ol’ freightdawg

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