Author Archives: Paul Smith

Grief and the Loss of a Pet

Munchkin

Munchkin

This post has nothing to do with theology – or at least the academic kind. I suppose it is very theological in the sense that everything we do relates in some form or fashion back to our Creator.

This past Friday we had to say good-bye to one of our little pets, a cat named Munchkin. We have owned a total of 7 cats, and now we have had to say good-bye to 4 of them. Each has been difficult in their own way – we had Half-Pint for 19 years. Mouse was the quirkiest little cat you could imagine -and he was almost telepathic. I think he knew when we would be hurting before we knew it. Bear we only had for a couple of years, but he was an absolutely gorgeous orange tabby and he had the heart of a full-fledged saint. He always curled up on my lap when I would do my daily Bible reading. Munchkin was a feral kitty we “rescued” (she would say kidnapped) from our backyard. We had her for 11 years – the second longest lived of our cats. Our cats (and now our puppy) are not just pets – they become a part of our family. Now we are down to Callie, Raven and Duchess, and these three have taken on an even greater significance as they age and fill the void that Munchkin left.

I don’t know why the death of a little animal touches me so deeply. But, I’ve pretty much quit fighting the emotions. Friday I was a blubbering, sobbing wreck. I bonded very closely with little Munchkin, and losing her was like losing my right arm.

Its the little things that still knock me for a loop. Saturday, a little more than 24 hours after we took Munchkin to the vet, I went to feed the other cats. We had been feeding Munchkin on her own separate plate so we could keep her strength up. I grabbed three saucers instead of  the two I needed to feed the others. I lost it. Today the garage door blew open and I had to count noses to make sure none of the cats had escaped. Instead of stopping at three I briefly started looking for #4, even getting so far as to call out for “Munch…..” I lost it again.

I grieve the loss of all my pets – even the dog I had as a boy growing up. I was in college when my father had to take her to the vet for the last time. It just breaks my heart to know what he had to go through.

They are precious little gifts, our pets. If you own a cat or a dog do me a favor and give them a hug for Munchkin’s sake for me. And one for Half-Pint, Mouse and Bear as well. As for me, it’s time to cuddle with my little Duchess. She’ll tell me all about her day and go to sleep against my tummy purring contentedly.

If only pets could live as long as the love they give is complete…

Thanks for letting me rattle on for a while. Maybe this week I can get back to thinking theologically.

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Dialoguing On The Need For Christian Dialogue

not equal

not equal (Photo credit: holeymoon)

I just made a discovery – about my own interpretive process. The process itself is not something new to me, I guess it is the way I have been thinking for quite some time. But the end result of my thinking has just become much more clear. You’ll have to wade through the whole post for my last sentence to make any sense. But it is where I am today.

Let me begin by saying dialogue is great. I heartily support dialogue. Dialogue is necessary and in most cases is quite pleasant. Dialogue is absolutely necessary if two people, or two groups, are to find common ground and negotiate a mutually acceptable position in the midst of a heated and bitter conflict.

Which is why the Church of Christ should never, ever, in any way, shape or form, enter into a dialogue with anyone or anything.

A dialogue takes place between two equals, or between a lesser who appeals to a greater, in the hopes of finding a mutual agreement. A dialogue is a prologue to a compromise. Married couples sometimes need to have a refereed dialogue. Big companies and organized labor quite often need to come to a bargaining table and have a refereed dialogue. Prosecuting and Defending attorneys dialogue quite often to avoid the bother and expense of a trial. On occasion antagonistic countries need to be brought to a negotiating table in order to have a peaceful dialogue.

The Church is not a marriage partner to anyone or anything in this world. The Church is not a big company, nor is it an amalgamation of unionized workers. The Church is not a country, or an aggrieved individual. The Church has no equal on this earth with whom it can compromise. When the Church compromises it loses its nature. It simply ceases to be the Church. To put it bluntly, the Church has no one or nothing with whom it can dialogue.

Over the past 50 years virtually every church group, religious group, denomination, whatever you want to call it, has entered into a “dialogue” with a group that wanted it to become more modern, more “relevant,” more in tune with secular practices and mores. The “Social Gospel,” militant feminism and now militant homosexuality are just three areas in which a religious group has “dialogued” and come out looking far more like the world than when it entered the conversation.

Can you name a major religious group, denomination, or independent church that is theologically more conservative or less “progressive” today than it was 50 years ago? I cannot. Some may not have changed (although, I would argue very few), but I cannot think of a single Christian faith group that is more conservative today than it was just a scant half-century ago.

The only way a group has been able to maintain any kind of conservative, narrowly biblical interpretive stance is to split off from a larger, more “progressive” movement. So we have seen huge defections from the Anglican/Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church and many Baptist and Church of Christ congregations. Whenever anyone says, “We need to reexamine our beliefs about….” what they are really saying is “we need to change our beliefs about…..” and “dialogue” becomes the vehicle by which that change is effected.

All of which makes me very nervous and very skeptical when I hear certain voices promote a new or ongoing “dialogue” between the church and atheist movements, or agnostic movements, or further dialogue with proponents of homosexuality or feminism or militarism or any other king of “ism” for that matter. This would extend, by the way, to “dialogues” with religious groups with whom I might share one or two core convictions, but who have chosen to make substantive departures from what I believe to be Scripture itself is to be viewed.

So my question for these proponents is this – what exactly do you mean by “dialogue?” The way I read the Bible, the Church of Christ does not negotiate anything. The Church does not have the power to compromise with anyone or anything. The Church of Christ is not an equal to any secular power or entity. Therefore, the Church of Christ is under no compulsion or expectation to “dialogue” with anyone.

Nor am I, as a member of the Church of Christ, authorized or deputized to “dialogue” with anyone or any group and speak for “The Church of Christ.” I can only speak for my own convictions, my own beliefs, and my own interpretations of Scripture. And, as much as they may want to argue, no one can speak for me based on his or her interpretations, convictions, or beliefs. I cannot even speak authoritatively for the congregation of which I am a part, and for which I serve as a minister.

In a sentence, the “Church” is a group of people who live their lives in a submissive relationship to the absolute authority of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

So, when you say “the church needs to dialogue with ……,” exactly what authority are you giving the Church that God himself has not given it? And who will speak for the “Church” that you think needs to enter into this dialogue? And what power or authority does that person (or persons) have to bargain with?

Membership in the Church is non-negotiable. That is the thing about the church that the world never has understood, does not now understand, and will not likely ever understand. Discipleship is a total and complete surrender to a Lord and Savior who demands our complete devotion.

So, when I say that I cannot enter into a dialogue with a certain group or with a certain person, I am not trying to be mean, nasty, ugly or unduly obstinate. I am simply living out my conviction that I do not have have the power, the authority, nor the freedom to “dialogue” with someone who refuses to accept the God under whom I have placed my life, and His Word, which I hold to be absolute in guiding my life. I can teach, I can “give a reason for the hope that is within me.” I can evangelize – that is – spread the good news. But I cannot, and I will not, lower my understanding of the nature of the Church of Christ to make it be something that is equal to or lesser than a vain philosophy of this world.

And that, dear reader, something that I am discovering in increasing measure, is profoundly unpopular.

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Credulity Crisis – Critiquing Christian Themed Entertainment

test

test (Photo credit: DaveBleasdale)

This post is a continuation of my last post. In this installment I will be making a careful examination of the claims of the book and soon to be released movie, “Heaven is For Real.”

For those who have not read the book, the story is about a little boy who suffers terribly from a misdiagnosed appendicitis attack, comes close to death and experiences a vision in which he claims to have seen (among other things) Jesus, his deceased grandfather, and his sister, who was actually never born. In his vision the grandfather has become younger in heaven, while his never-born sister has aged to a young girl. There are many problems with the story, but I just want to focus on the theology.

I need to make something absolutely clear here as I begin. In no way do I want to suggest that the little boy on whom the book and movie is based did not have the visions that are claimed in the book. I have personal reasons for allowing that he did, indeed, have those visions. This critique is not an ad hominem attack on that little boy. However, the interpretation of those visions has become the basis of a multi-million dollar enterprise, and there are serious repercussions that flow from the veracity or falsity of those religious interpretations. It is to those interpretations that I now turn.

Disciples are commanded, not merely encouraged, to test the veracity of the spirits that claim to be from God (1 John 4:1). I do not have to guess that a book or movie that discusses a vision of heaven and the residents thereof to be a message from God. The parents of the little boy, the publishers of the book and the producers of the movie all claim that the message comes from God. So, I can rest on a firm foundation that I am not arguing against a straw man. I am testing a spirit that claims to be from God.

So, I begin by asking, “Does the message support or contradict a portion of Scripture that we can all agree upon as being a clear message from God.” The first text I want to point out is Luke 16:19-31. The relevant words are found in v. 27-31:

He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” “No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (NIV, emphasis mine)

This, of course, comes from the mouth of Jesus in the story of the Rich man and Lazarus. If we cannot agree that this passage is from the mind of God then I suggest we cannot agree on anything.

English: Digitalis Purpurea young plant

English: Digitalis Purpurea young plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second passage is much longer – 1 Corinthians 15:35-58. I can only summarize here, but I encourage you to read the entire passage. In sum, Paul teaches the Corinthian Christians that our resurrection bodies will in no way, shape or glory be similar to our present human body. While we will have “bodies” they will be as different from our human bodies as the leaf is different from the seed.

Once again, unless you want to remove one of the greatest teachings on the resurrection from the New Testament, we have to say that this passage came from the mind of God.

Third, I would turn to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, but for length we will only point out v. 15-17:

According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of The Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet The Lord in the air. And so we will be with The Lord forever. (NIV, emphasis mine)

Here again we have the apostle Paul writing one of the foundational texts on the nature of the resurrection, and quoting Jesus no less; so I take this passage to be from the mind of God.

What do we learn from those passages? We learn that Jesus himself rejected the idea of sending someone back from death, or even near death, to accomplish the purpose for which the written Scriptures are more than sufficient. How much more sufficient is the story of the resurrection of Jesus and the rest of our New Testament?

Second, we learn that our post resurrection bodies will not resemble our present bodies. Simply put, we will not resemble what we look like now. To say that someone can take a peek into heaven and recognize its occupants is to contradict what Paul said about our resurrection bodies.

Third, we learn that there will not be “stages” of progressive resurrections. “We who are alive will not precede those who have fallen asleep” and “we will be caught up together with them” means that they (the saved dead) will not precede us, and we will not precede them. We make the final journey together. Once again to be blunt, our dearly departed loved ones are not in heaven – unless you want to reconstruct 1 Thessalonians 4 (and 1 Corinthians 15).

I would like to stop here and ask the question, “For what purpose was the book written and the movie produced?” The best answer that I can decipher is that God wants us to know that he loves us and he wants us to go to heaven. That’s it. The opening chapters of Genesis are not sufficient. The soaring poetry of Isaiah is not sufficient. The melancholy songs of Jeremiah are not sufficient. The life of the Son of God as recorded in the gospels is not sufficient. The hours of agony suffered by that Son of God on the cross are not sufficient. No – it takes a little boy suffering an extended illness and coming close to death and returning to life to get the message out that God loves us and wants us to go to heaven.

Jesus on the cross on the Stone Bridge in Píse...

Jesus on the cross on the Stone Bridge in Písek, Czech Republic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The publishers of the book and the producers of the movie have placed anyone who criticizes the book in a difficult position. All they have to do is accuse the opponent of despising a little boy, disbelieving in God, rejecting the power of God or maybe all three. Obviously I reject that accusation. I believe the theology of the book and movie is horribly flawed – certainly sacrilegious and bordering on blasphemous. Whatever the little boy did or did not see, the resulting production is unbiblical and dangerous.

I started this post by saying I do not disbelieve the little boy’s experience. I would be a reprehensible fool to suggest that I have knowledge that the little boy did not have the vision he claims to have experienced. I can, however, hold the interpretation that a group of adults have made regarding that experience up against the measure of the Word of God. As I have demonstrated, that interpretation fails miserably.

Two other issues bear very quick mention at this point. The interpretation told in the book and movie has made a lot of people a lot of money. This is not some altruistic telling of a gospel story. Serious amounts of money are exchanging hands here – and all based on the events that took place when a little boy was experiencing tremendous pain, was receiving numerous drugs, and was for a time under anesthesia. The entire process just seems scandalous to me.

Second, what pressures are being placed on this young boy? For the rest of his life he will be known as “the little boy who went to heaven.” We have all seen how notoriety destroys the lives of child actors. What happens when the boy grows, and, heaven forbid, stumbles or experiences a valley to match the mountain top experience he had as a child? How will his “adoring fans” respond? How will the world respond? But, more important, how will he respond? You cannot live a perfect life. Somewhere in his life he will experience the desert of spiritual emptiness. I hope the adults in his life are preparing him for that eventuality, so that when it does happen (NOT IF it does happen) he will be prepared to come out on the other side unharmed.

We are not supposed to check our brains at the door when we enter the waters of baptism. To think critically does not mean that we reject everything we see, hear and read; but to be a disciple does not mean that we uncritically swallow every story that claims to be “Christian,” whether that story is titled, “The Passion of the Christ,” “God’s Not Dead,” or “Heaven Is For Real.” Let us test the spirits, and that means some will pass the test, and others will not. Let us pray that God helps us make those decisions humbly and with extreme caution.

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“Group Think,” Gullibility, and the Cinema – A Plea for a Biblical Response

Referees

Referees (Photo credit: compujeramey)

[Opinion disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this piece are mine and mine alone, and do not reflect the views of anyone that I am associated with - and that includes my wife, child, employers, my four cats, my rambunctious puppy or my very limited number of friends - or at least the friends who considered themselves my friends before they read this blog. My language is hyperbolic and some might consider it extreme. I intentionally did so for a purpose. I just want to make that point perfectly clear. In my next post I will return to a "quieter" and more analytical response. Today the right brain, tomorrow the left.]

There have been a flurry of “Christian” or biblical-themed movies hit the big screen in recent years, and especially in recent months. Just a few that come to mind are “The Passion of the Christ,” “Fireproof,” a somewhat lesser release called “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry,” the most recent additions “God’s Not Dead,” and “Noah” and the soon to be released “Son of God” and “Heaven Is For Real.” I know I am missing many, but these are the ones that jump to my mind.

“The Passion of the Christ” and the recent release of “Noah” have generated the most discussion, mostly because they were big budget, big name releases that were heavily advertised and were, in different ways, very controversial. “The Passion of the Christ” was controversial because of the persona of Mel Gibson, hardly a choir boy, who pushed the movie from conception to completion. It was also brutally graphic – some reviewers felt it was almost obscenely so. “Noah” is controversial because (a) the only relation it has to the biblical story is the namesake and a lot of water and (b) I believe the producers and marketers of the movie wanted it to be controversial so they could sell more tickets.

In my opinion, many, though not all, “Christian” themed movies are just bad – some wretchedly so. I believe this first because of the (un)theology involved. Others suffer from low budgets and poor acting, directing and other technical aspects. Some are just so blatantly transparent that they reek of condescension and hyper-morality. Once again, in my opinion these movies are not just bad – they are bad in epic proportions – dreadfully, wretchedly, horrifically, insultingly bad.

So why are these movies so popular? Why do otherwise sane and believable ministers and bloggers scream “You HAVE to go see this movie” in bold letters and with three exclamation marks at the end? The obvious answer is that perhaps they have seen the movie and they genuinely like it. Movies are like anything else – my tastes are not everyone else’s tastes. What is garbage to me is a diamond to someone else. So, while you may think a particular movie is the greatest thing since “Gone With the Wind” I will politely say that hitting my thumb with a hammer is a far more enjoyable experience than watching it.

But I would like to suggest that there is another reason why any movie that has a vague “Christian” message is hyped so relentlessly, regardless of whether there are any artistic or theological reasons for doing so (or for avoiding it, for that matter.) I believe that most “Christian” movies are hyped and are popular with “Christian” audiences because that demographic is so starving for anything that even resembles “secular” themed movies that the Christian audience will simply neutralize any intellectual or critical component of their thinking because they want to go watch a movie that is one of “ours.” We have bought into the concept of “group-think” to the point that we cannot criticize or reject any product that has a “Christian” message because we would be guilty of shooting ourselves in the foot. I have been more than mildly amused with the fact that the greatest amount of negativity regarding the release of “Noah” is NOT directed at the movie (contrary to what some may think), but the real vitriol has been reserved for those reviewers (Christian or secular) who happen to criticize the movie on any of its major faults. It is “biblical,” it is at least tangentially related to God and faith (how much is dependent upon the viewer) and so the movie and the ones who produced it are viewed as being simply beyond criticism. “Hey Christians, we made a movie for you so shell out your money and keep your mouth shut.”

''You can't know, you can only believe - or no...

”You can’t know, you can only believe – or not.” – C.S. Lewis (Photo credit: QuotesEverlasting)

I guess I am more disappointed in the ones who should really know better – the ministers and church leaders who should (one would hope) have a greater grasp of theology and apologetics. I have to say in all honesty that the entire premise of “God’s Not Dead” is so incredibly laughable that I honestly wonder what anyone related to the film was thinking when they put the storyline together. A professor wasting an already limited amount of class time to having a debate with a student? A student getting away with yelling at a professor in front of a class? And really, how many professors would waste their time forcing their students to sign an atheist manifesto like “God is dead”? Now – I am well aware that atheistic professors will openly belittle and ridicule Christianity. But, come on people! Sometimes our spiritual xenophobia is so extreme that it borders on psychotic illness. I have agnostic/atheistic students in my classes who (a) would never set foot in a movie theatre with such a blatantly condescending title as that movie and (b) even if they did they would laugh out loud at the ridiculous setting of the movie. And they would definitely not appreciate  the characterization of the professor in the movie.

Brothers and sisters, if we want to attract an agnostic or atheistic audience and honestly engage them in a meaningful discussion, insulting their intelligence is NOT the way to go about it. If we want to show that the message of Christianity is superior to that of the atheist, we should portray the atheist as the atheists or agnostics that I know – honest, kind, logical thinking people who are open to the person of Jesus but who have been led astray or even brutalized by a false manifestation of Christianity. (Incidentally – the movie itself violates a major rule of logic. In a proper philosophy class you would never be allowed to create a “straw man” type of opponent, which is exactly what the professor in the movie becomes. We think that because the “straw man” was defeated all similar arguments are thereby defeated. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the depiction is inherently misleading and therefore unethical.)

But these movies are NOT made for atheists or agnostics, they are made for “Christians,” because “God” or some biblical character’s name is in the title and they are supposed to “prove” that God is not dead or that he did thus and such thousands of years ago. They are designed to reinforce our already solid convictions. So “Christians” are shelling out dollars by the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, and no one is asking the 8 most basic, fundamental questions a Christian should ask about movies such as these – is this movie true? Is it honorable? Is it just? Is it pure? Is it lovely? Is it gracious? Is it excellent? Is it worthy of praise? (Philippians 4:8). If it fails on a majority of these questions then we should not support it. (I would also argue that these questions should be asked of ANY movie we think about seeing!)

C.S. Lewis is reported to have said that the world does not need more Christian literature. What the world needs, he said, was more literature produced by Christians that was excellent literature – good, solid, captivating stories that were told in a brilliant manner. I agree wholeheartedly with Lewis. What we need are wonderful movies, well written, beautifully acted and produced, and marketed not as “Christian” apologetics, but simply as captivating, worthwhile movies the whole family can view and enjoy.

And, maybe, if we did that, we might actually be able to engage our agnostic or atheistic friends in some honest and open discussion.

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Super Christians or Servants?

Stubby is better than you

Stubby is better than you (Photo credit: aloha orangeneko)

It has happened again. When in happens in multiples it gets your attention. One is an accident, two is a coincidence, three times – well, you had better pay attention.

And they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”  (Mark 9:33-37 RSV)

It would appear that there is no end of those who want to discuss among themselves who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. As I mentioned, I have come across several just in the last few days. The last one was the straw that broke this camel’s back, and so I had to vent some steam here.

There are a multitude of ways in which some declare their own superior discipleship over lesser “mere Christians.” Some do it through speaking in tongues or some other miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Some do it through rituals or practices -say fasting or praying or going on “faith walks” or the such. One favorite among preachers within the Churches of Christ is to measure Bible studies and baptisms. Some youth ministers can’t wait for summer camp so that they can carve a whole new row of notches on their spiritual six-shooter. I suppose, if I wanted to, I could add that some measure their superiority by their advanced educational degrees, or at least their advanced knowledge even if they do not have the paper to certify a degree. I mean, after all, did not Paul tell Timothy to “study to shew thyself approved unto God”? (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV) How much more of a direct command can we get than that?

The point is, it does not matter whether we quote Matthew 28:18-20 or 1 Corinthians 14:5 or 2 Timothy 2:15 until our faces turn blue – all our soap and blather will not change one basic, fundamental fact that is taught in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation – God’s grace is equal and equally undeserved and there are no levels of superior or inferior spirituality when it comes to the servants of the kingdom.

I mean, really, how many times are we going to have to hear the words of Jesus??

Listen to Paul explain, again and again, that there are NO super Christians:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. No neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7 RSV)

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Corinthians 4:1 RSV)

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake…But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:5, 7 RSV)

See also 1 Corinthians 12:4-13:13, Romans 12:3-8. Ephesians 4:9-16.

"All is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert....

“All is Vanity” by C. Allan Gilbert. Life, death, and meaning of existence are intertwined. (Woman gazing into boudoir mirror forms shape of skull.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is so distressing to me when I hear or read these promoters of super-spirituality is that it is so believable! We want to believe that if we work a little bit harder, pray a little more fervently, teach one more Bible class that someone else or are able to parse a verb in one more language than someone else that God must pay us a little more. He has to reward us a little higher. We so desperately want to believe that there are levels of spirituality, so that I can be just a little better than the scum-sucking, bottom-feeding pew-sitter taking up space and wasting valuable resources of the church. And that is the deadly sin involved in this judgment – I am better than you because according to my measurement I am just a better, holier, more spiritual disciple than you are.

So tongue speakers measure spirituality by speaking in tongues, introverts measure spirituality by hours of prayer and devotions, personal evangelists measure discipleship by the number of Bible studies conducted and baptisms accomplished and scholars measure spirituality by articles written and conferences held.

And it is all so dreadfully, profoundly, disgustingly, sinful! Pride is a sin and it does not matter who is doing the bragging.

Why can we not just accept Paul’s teaching and realize that it takes all of us to make up the kingdom? If you have a miraculous gift – fine and wonderful. But don’t condemn me because I have another gift. Can you pray for hours uninterrupted? Wonderful! Do not cast off those who are a little more distracted. Can you initiate, teach and conclude dozens of Bible studies a year? Yahoo and praise the Lord – but do not sniff down your nose at those who cannot, and according to Scripture, even should not, be doing so. And can you translate the Bible from all the original languages into dozens of others? Jump for joy and pass the printing ink – but do not condemn, judge or dismiss those who do well to read from one easy-to-read translation.

One more passage from the mouth of our Savior:

So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10)

Let us do our duty, fulfill our gifts, lift up those who are striving to fulfill their gifts, and let us for once and for ever get over this adolescent fixation on whether we are more spiritual that someone else simply because we have a different gift.

Amen?

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Why Contemporary Theological Debate is Virtually Impossible

English: "Debate and Oratory". Image...

English: “Debate and Oratory”. Image for first page of “Debate and Oratory” section of 1909 Tyee (yearbook of the University of Washington). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are a child of the American Restoration Movement you are the product of debate. Not many of us realize that, but it is as certain as the brightness of the sun or the scent of a rose. We may describe it differently, but the reality exists. The overwhelming majority of our theological beliefs have been hammered out and refined through the process of written or oral debate.

While some criticize this, or bemoan it, in reality this is a healthy process. In fact, we can see the very first “ancestor” of the debate process in Acts 15. Two groups of people, each with differing opinions and with differing evidence to defend those opinions, meet together for an open airing of the differences and the resolution of the problem. In several of his letters the apostle Paul carries on “debates” of sorts with his readers. He offers what is, or what he believes might be, an argument against his position, and then demonstrates why that particular argument or statement is false.

Debate is NOT an evil thing.

However, I am growing more convinced by the day that civil debate in a modern setting is virtually impossible. There are many reasons why I think this is true, so let me list a few:

1.  Theological positions become emotional positions, and the resulting language makes it impossible for the opposing side to articulate any kind of positive position. They are always on the defensive, and are in a no-win situation to begin with. Case in point: I just read a tweet (message on the social media Twitter) in which those who disagree with the full inclusion of women in every aspect of a Christian worship service are guilty of “gender injustice.” Now, because I disagree with the position that women can participate in every aspect of leadership within a congregation, including leadership within a worship service, automatically I am guilty of injustice. Let’s parse that for a minute – what does injustice mean to you? Cruelty? Viciousness? Overweening power and brutality? The denial of basic human dignity? How, might I gently respond, does a complementarian position in which women are viewed as equal in every sense of the word, but have differing roles to fulfill in the Christian economy, equate to injustice? Yet, the inclusion of that word precludes any rational debate.

2.  Those who hold a particular opinion refuse to consider the weakness of their position, or any possible exceptions to their opinion. Case in point: growing up within the Churches of Christ I was taught from a very early age that the Greek preposition eis means “for the purpose of.” Thus it was crystal clear that when Peter said “Repent and be baptized eis the forgiveness of sins” he meant “for the purpose of receiving the forgiveness of sins.” Nothing could be clearer. I was told that those who translated the word eis as “because of” were completely wrong, both in Greek and in theology. Imagine my surprise, then, when in doing maybe the most exhaustive research that I have ever done for a series of sermons, that I discovered that there is, indeed, a use of the Greek preposition eis that has to mean “because of.” The passage is Matthew 12:41, where Jesus very clearly states that the men of Nineveh repented eis the preaching of Jonah. Now, eis cannot mean “for the purpose of” in this passage! It has to mean “because of” or “as a result of.” Now, do not get me wrong. I still believe eis in Acts 2:38 means “for the purpose of.” But I learned an important lesson. We cannot summarily dismiss every challenge to our conclusions without carefully considering the basis of that challenge. Yet, today, objections and challenges are routinely dismissed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is mentioned in point #1 above, if you disagree with me all you are is a mean, nasty, inhuman person, and probably ignorant as well.

Debate Logo

Debate Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3.  The differing sides cannot even agree on the measure that would be used to decide the truthfulness or falsity of any position. In Acts 15 the disciples relied upon Scripture and the leading of the Spirit to come to a unified position. Today that appears to be all but impossible. Returning to the issue of women and leadership roles in the church, I have repeatedly asked how it could be that Paul would so clearly and unambiguously state in Galatians 3:27-28 that women are to be full and equal partners in every possible scenario in the Lords kingdom, and yet in writings which were either possibly or even certainly produced much later than the Galatian letter reverse himself and teach that only men are to lead in certain aspects of the church. We are not simply arguing two different interpretations of Galatians 3:27-28. We are approaching the question from two entirely different philosophical and epistemological  foundations. If we cannot even decide on a mutually agreeable measuring stick, how can we even begin to engage in profitable debate?

In pointing these issues out I have to admit my own weakness and shortcomings in the process. I am emotionally invested in my conclusions. After all, if a position is not worth defending it is not worth holding. And, as I pointed out in point #2, I have been guilty on more than one occasion of assigning false motives and conclusions to my opponents. I hope I am better now, and I hope I get even better with time, but human flesh is human flesh and I still catch myself violating my own standards from time to time.

I hope I am wrong, I hope that as disciples we could gather and join in a decent “conference” or debate and constructively address some of these issues. I just do not see that happening any time soon – and that saddens me.

For a people immersed and raised in the cauldron of discussion and debate we owe it to our forebears to be able to acquit ourselves better.

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A Very Special “Thank You” To My Followers

Thank You

Thank You (Photo credit: Celestine Chua)

Was just taking a break a few minutes ago and I thought I would check on something and that led me to this observation: I have never (or at least, in a very long time) publicly thanked those of you who follow this blog on a regular basis.

 

There are currently 202 of you who follow the blog in one form or another. Wow. That is very special to me and I hope to bear that in mind as I consider future installments.

 

I am honored by the time you give to reading my thoughts, and I hope I provide something of substance, even if you do not agree with me.

 

Blessings,

 

Paul

 

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Some Musings on Growing Up Spiritually Spoiled

Stream of consciousness alert here – this post may not flow too logically. If you get confused, that’s okay. I am confused too.

I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth"

I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth” (Photo credit: Chevysmom)

Something Rush Limbaugh said the other day resonated with me. The only time I listen to Limbaugh is when I am in my car driving to my exercise or to lunch. I cannot give you the set up for the comment beyond he was discussing global warming (a massive hoax according to RL). The thing he said that made me start thinking was the overweening pride and arrogance that we who are alive today have when we think that we have everything all figured out, that we are the paragon of all human existence. In regard to global warming his point is that we think we have a real crisis here because the average temperature of the atmosphere has gone up a degree or so in the past 100 years or whatever. Of course, if we think that we are the be-all and end-all of civilization, we might have reason to be concerned. But if you look at the thousands of years of human civilization, who is to say that OUR atmosphere is the norm by which we should gauge all atmospheres? Maybe we have been living for the past 1,000 years in a atmospheric freak, and our world is just beginning to settle the score and get back to the way things were 1,000 years or more ago.

Whatever. You can have your own opinion about global warming or climate change or whatever you want to call it. But what does his theory have to do with spiritual issues? Have we decided that we, in the 20th/21st century have discovered what the sum total of godly living is? Are we going to measure all civilizations, past and future, against our vast and unchallenged spiritual maturity?

~ ~ ~

As I was explaining to one of my classes this past week, if we viewed all of humankinds’ knowledge as one of our oceans, what we know right now at this moment in history amounts to about a sewing thimble full of water. Our arrogance, however, exceeds that of the distance between the earth and the sun.

Where this slaps me upside the head right now is in trying to figure out why so many young people who are raised in the church are leaving the church, and what we can do, if anything, to reverse the trend. In a moment that may be born more of fatigue and frustration I’ve come to think that what we have been doing for the past 40 years is exactly the wrong thing to be doing!

You see, I was lucky to be raised at a time in which youth ministry was just getting started. I was blessed to have some of the finest youth ministers in the Churches of Christ influence me – perhaps one of the finest ever in the person of Bobby Hise. But, looking back on the situation through the eyes of a (mumble, mumble) year old, I wonder if we are not doing more harm than good by trying to “meet the needs” of teenagers and trying to “make the Bible relevant” to teenagers. I see more time, money and energy going into youth ministries today than ever before with decreasing results – when the graduates of these programs enter college or young adulthood they leave the churches in droves. Why? What are we doing that is producing such negative effects?

I think part of the answer goes back to Limbaugh’s observation. We have convinced ourselves that the next generation is the only generation that matters, and we will do anything and everything to make sure they have it better than we did. We have flashier worship services, the latest and greatest (and hippest) songs, we have multiple screens for our video sermons and the teens can interact with the speaker on their smart phones. Yet, I can tell you emphatically that our college students know far less Bible now than my high school classmates did “x” number of years ago.

~ ~ ~

My friends, in the local vernacular, we are all hat and no cattle.

~ ~ ~

Okay, I’ll admit it – I grew up spoiled. I had the world handed to me on a silver platter and served to me with a silver spoon. We had youth rallies and special classes and impressive camps designed just for us. We got to sing our special songs and we even taught some of them to the adults. And, as good American parents we have even upped the ante with our children and grandchildren. We will move heaven and earth to make sure our children and grandchildren are pacified and satisfied in a church that they will believe is “relevant,” whatever in the world that means.

And, boy – just look at the results. Look around at the average congregation. How many college students do you see? How many 20-30 somethings do you see? Some congregations may be doing very well, thank you. I suspect most are not.

~ ~ ~

I find it more than simply fascinating that at the exact moment in which Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the gospel writers emphasize that Jesus began to teach the disciples that being the Christ meant death on a cross. Not only that, but being a disciple meant following that death on the cross and perhaps even sharing in that death on a cross.

So, while we are teaching that the Christian life is cool and hip and everybody should be a Christian and churches should try to do everything in their power to make sure we are comfortable and satisfied and have all our narcissistic needs met (especially if we are young and beautiful), Jesus was saying, “Hold on here – you got the theology right, I am the Son of God. But do you really know what that means and what following me means?”

~ ~ ~

The point is, when increased budgets and activity result in decreased results, maybe we have something backwards. Maybe we have had something backwards for over a generation now. Maybe we need to re-think the whole discipleship issue, from the ground up.

Maybe we should be teaching more about the cross and doing less spiritual spoiling of our children, grandchildren, and converts.

What Does the Church Do When the World Quits Smiling?

New Mexico Supreme Court

New Mexico Supreme Court (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meant to tackle this topic last week, and the wheels came off of my planning cart.

A few months ago I wrote a response to the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that a photographer could not legally refuse to participate in a homosexual wedding regardless of that photographer’s religious belief. In the weeks/months that have passed since that ruling the accounts of courts and judges forcing people to accept and even participate in what they view as aberrant behavior have just mushroomed. In my last post I mentioned I would suggest a way forward for the church, but in reality what I have to say is not new – either to me or to others. So, I am not claiming originality here, but I would like to share once again what I believe the church must do, or must continue to do if it is already doing so.

By way of reminder, I do not see the United States as a Christian nation. Perhaps we once were: that point can be debated. But we should no longer use the phrase if we are to have any respectability. At one time those who lived in the United States but were not Christians managed to smile when Christians invoked the phrase. Now, the American world is no longer smiling. The quaint little expression “Freedom of Religion” now is interpreted to mean, “Freedom to keep your religion to yourself.” When Americans no longer have the right to LIVE their religious beliefs, we in effect no longer have that freedom.

We must accept this fact or nothing else we do will ever matter.

So, how is the church to move forward in a post-Christian world? Once again – I make no claim to originality, but here are some preliminary thoughts:

1.  We are going to have to get over the fact that people will hate us. For too long we have been thinking and acting as if we can change people’s hearts by changing our beliefs and practices. If I have heard once I have heard a thousand times, “if we do not change [x] (where “x” can be just about anything) then our young people will leave us and no one in the community will want to join us.” So, churches change names, worship styles, language styles and incorporate the newest, flashiest equipment on the market. And what happens? Their young people leave for an even edgier church and the people in the community do not want to join them because they are simply the latest in a long line of churches who have changed names and core values.

Is my Bible the only one that has John 15:18-25 in it? Or is this the first generation in which speaking up for one’s beliefs has caused a negative reaction? Why do we believe that changing OUR beliefs will cause others to change THEIR hearts? I am not suggesting that we should be hateful, or that we should never ask questions about what we believe. But legitimate self-examination is a far cry from running in absolute panic away from any criticism or unwarranted attack.

No – we are going to have to overcome this irrational fear of being disliked and we are going to have to realize that the new “normal” is for God’s people to stand out in stark contrast to a bent and broken world.

2.  We are going to have to ACT like we believe what we say we believe. We say we believe in a lifetime of marriage between one man and one woman, but we practice the acceptance serial marriages like we owned a wedding chapel and our livelihood depended upon as many “re-marriages” as we can possibly create. We say we do not believe in pre-marital co-habitation, yet we allow our children and grandchildren to “try out” marriage partners as if they were test-driving a new vehicle. We say we oppose graphic violence, sexuality and adult themes, and we buy millions of dollars of movie tickets every month, and allow our teens and pre-teens to do likewise. We fill our minds with the same base lyrics that non-Christians fill their minds with, and salve our consciences by attending a worship hour a week and re-proclaiming how much we hate words and actions that blaspheme our God.

But, if we ditch the cable and turn off the satellite, our neighbors might think we are weird or un-American or something. See point #1.

3.  We are going to have to re-evaluate this entire “The Constitution as the 67th Book of the Bible” mantra that “conservatives” have been repeating for so long. Oh, no – no one actually ever says that, but that is exactly what is meant in many of our good conservative (read “Tea Party”) speeches.

English: West face of the United States Suprem...

English: West face of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. Español: Edificio de la Corte Suprema de Estados Unidos en Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen, the Constitution is a wonderful document. Maybe the best human government document that has ever been written. But, strictly speaking, following the Constitution is exactly what has brought us to this point in history. The words “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Bible,” or “Christian” simply do not appear in the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence. The framers of the Constitution did not want a theocracy, and certainly not a Christocracy,  and they made sure we did not get one. But human seeds grow up into human trees, and the fruit of a Christ-neutral document is now becoming ripe. Yell and kick and scream all you want to, but how else are you going to interpret the protections ingrained in the Constitution that prevent one religion from becoming physically forced upon all citizens? If we have the freedom to exercise religion, we also have the freedom not to exercise religion, and when you allow (or actually mandate) broken, sinful, human judges to decide what is or is not constitutional, then bingo – welcome to the U. S. of A. in the year 2014. So, what was brilliant in terms of human government has proven to be utterly disastrous in terms of discipleship to Christ.

But, to quote that out-dated and horribly non-American apostle Paul, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20)

4.  The church is going to have to start practicing some old-fashioned discipline. The church has boundaries. We are not everyone and everything. Not everything is holy. Not everything is “set apart.” There is clean and un-clean, holy and un-holy, Christian and un-christian, saved and lost. It is ridiculous to suggest that a congregational leadership cannot exercise any kind of discipline because “if they do then people will get their feelings hurt and they will leave.” This is not to suggest that the eldership “withdraws fellowship” from someone just to rattle their swords. I have witnessed that and it was a stain against some good men and a good congregation. But for a biblical leadership to allow, or to even sanction, blatant immorality within the congregation is just unconscionable. The same is true of doctrinal beliefs. A  congregation cannot condone or sanction contradictory beliefs. You cannot have a separate worship service for every competing feeling or doctrine. If everything is acceptable then nothing is sinful. And we wonder why people look at us with our three different services with three different worship formats and laugh? We are not demanding discipleship – we are offering a circus.

Sorry for the wordiness today – I guess I got a little carried away. But the world is not smiling at us anymore – if it ever did. And we, as God’s people, are going to have to learn a new way to act. Or, conversely, we are going to have to start acting like we’ve known how to act all along.

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“And Now For Something Completely Different…”

Monty Python's Flying Circus (album)

Monty Python’s Flying Circus (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone familiar with the 1970′s British hit “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” will recognize that tag line. In the 30 minute shows that aired on our PBS station that line would occasionally pop up to signal a shift from one really weird skit to another. That was the thing about Monty Python. Nothing was ever “normal.” You went from completely different to completely different.

I am not going to state my age (because, hopefully, it will be continually changing) but I will say that in my lifetime the moral culture of the United States has changed more radically than during any equivalent time period. I am not speaking in terms of technology, as there have been other generations in which technology has advanced more than during my lifetime. (I think of my grandfathers who were born before Lindberg and who watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.) What I am talking about is in relation to what is considered right and wrong. I came from the time period in which Mary Ann had to keep her belly button covered to appease the censors. Rhett Butler was almost black-balled because he said he really did not care. Lucy and Ricky had to sleep in twin size beds separated by a night-stand.

Today, a person is considered a bigot if he or she thinks that marriage should be defined as an intimate relationship between a man and a woman. I have to take my shoes off at the airport because some crazy might try to blow the plane up with a bomb in his sneaker. I dread the month of April knowing that someone is going to shoot up a school, a movie theater, or bomb an athletic event.

I know there was a huge shift in morality centered around the major wars – the Civil, the World War to end all World Wars and the World War after that one, the Korean “Conflict” and the Vietnam “Police Action.” But, thinking in terms of the general public, the “man on the street,” has there been a more radical change in the mores and values of the American public than in the past 50-60 years?

Just think of it – we are now actually debating what the concept of “Freedom of Religious Belief” means. When I was born we were only concerned about freedom from ring-around-the-collar.

What does the future hold? Who knows – I cannot see it getting any better for persons of conservative religious or moral belief. You cannot put toothpaste back in the tube once it has been squirted out. Mary Ann’s bare mid-riff has morphed into Miley Cyrus’ bare, um, well you get the idea. Unless there is a cataclysmic change in society’s perception of “right” and “wrong” I can only picture things getting worse.

Does that mean we give up, throw in the towel, wave the white flag? No, never. But it does mean we must learn how to challenge the changing moral landscape a lot more intelligently than we have for the past half-century. It means, oddly, that we are going to have to go back to a way of thinking far more similar to the first century than the 21st century.  Jesus, Peter, Paul and the early church fathers lived in a world where homosexuality was openly practiced, women were treated like chattel to be bought and sold, and infants were routinely allowed to die if the father rejected them. Yup, kind of sounds like the LGBT, pornographic sex-trafficking, and Planned Parenthood culture we live in today.

We can no longer rely on our supposed “Christian” foundation. If we ever had one it is quickly disappearing in our collective rear-view mirror. We must own up to the fact that biblical standards of morality will be viewed as “abnormal” and even bigoted and hateful. What once was normal is not normal anymore.

“And now for something completely different…”

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