I’ve been accused of saying controversial things. Don’t know whether I could ever be convicted or not. Even very recently I have been taken to task over some things that I’ve said, things that I felt were smack dab right down the middle of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. In the famous words of the movie, “Cool Hand Luke” and later “Smokey and the Bandit,” what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.
So, just for giggles and grins I thought I would explain my view of why preachers (and bloggers) sometimes say controversial things.
1. Sometimes they are jerks. There, I said it. I knew some of you would be looking for this one, so I decided to start off with it. Yes, some preachers are jerks – obnoxious morons who go through life with the motto, “I’m not happy until everyone around me is unhappy.” Of course there is no defense for these people, and I hope I do not fit that category.
2. Sometimes they are just clumsy. They are not intentionally rude, crude and socially unacceptable, it just seems like if there is a way to mis-state something or make a comment at the wrong time they manage to find and take advantage of that opportunity.
3. Conversely, some people have 10 sore thumbs, and they spend their day doing nothing but searching for hammers to stick those sore thumbs under so that they can yell and kick and scream at the one who wielded the hammer. In other words, what the preacher said was not so controversial, it was the ears of the person who heard it that caused the problem. I can relate here. I have had my fair share of people who are incapable of hearing what I said. Even if I plainly said, “I don’t believe in ‘X’” I would have the person walk up to me and challenge me in that “I’m concerned about your salvation” tone of voice, “Why do you believe in ‘X’.” Honestly, what do you do with such a person?
Those were all pretty bad reasons for a preacher either to be controversial, or to be accused of being controversial. Now let’s look at some other reasons:
4. The naming of sin is controversial. If he does his job well, the preacher must hold his congregation to a higher standard than what the world sets forth. That means he must not only name sin, he must condemn it. A preacher who never challenges his congregation, a preacher who always makes his flock feel better about themselves and the world around them, and a preacher who believes it is his task to make his congregation “happy, happy, happy” is not worth listening to. The “Good News,” the gospel, must be preached in its entirety (and thus there must always be the proclamation of redemption) but the message of mankind’s fall from grace must precede that message of redemption. When you start naming sins, you start becoming controversial. No one likes to hear their pet character flaw be named as a sin that would separate them from God.
5. If he is to do his job well, a preacher must spend a large portion of his time on the mountain talking with God. If he does so intently and humbly, when he comes down from that mountain his face should be shining with the glory of God. That means the words he speaks, having received them from God, will be threatening for the people who hear it. (Ref. Exodus 34:29f). Please note: I say this by way of illustration, not literally. But a man who spends time in the presence of a holy God is going to preach different from someone who simply reads commentaries and the daily newspaper. His words should be controversial – unless he is preaching to a congregation of God’s cherubim and seraphim.
6. Related to #5, this world is a bent and broken place. When you try to fix a bent piece of metal or warped piece of wood you face resistance. Once a body reaches a certain state of being, it will resist any attempt to change that status. What “is” becomes what “ought to be.” The only problem is, what “is” is very rarely what God wants it to be. Therefore, in order to change, there has to be some discomfort, some pain. That pain is frequently identified as the preacher being controversial. He is, but intentionally and biblically so. God intends his spokesmen to be controversial in order to change what “is” into what “ought to be.”
I know points 4, 5, and 6 are closely related, but each has its own little nuance. I hope they make sense. Simply put, I believe in the message of Ezekiel 3:16ff. If a man feels called by God to proclaim the words of God, some of what he says (albeit not everything he says) will be controversial. If it is not, then I believe that minister is simply failing to be the watchman that he is called to be.
A personal confession here. While I have been all too guilty of reasons 1 and 2 above, I feel that to an even greater extent I have failed in my duties as a preacher and “watchman.” I have avoided controversy, sometimes at all costs, and I have been too quick to retreat when I should have spurred my faithful steed and charged into the battle. It is difficult, sometimes exceptionally so, for a young minister to know where the line is and when it is more valuable to cross it and when he should back away from it. No one should ever be a jerk, and it does not help to be clumsy. I have been guilty of being both. I need to work on that. But I also know I have been rock solid, straight-as-an-arrow right about something, and I have pulled back simply because I have not wanted to “rock the boat.” I need to work on that weakness as well. I do not want the “failure to communicate” to be my failure to stand for what is right and true.
Controversy can be, and often is, a blight upon a preacher’s ministry. But it need not be, and it should go without saying that if there is never any controversy then perhaps the preacher is simply following the sheep and not tending them. What is sinful is not the existence of controversy, but the mishandling of that controversy. Does the preacher need to be rebuked? Do so in a biblical and spiritual manner. But, why is controversy always the fault of the preacher? On the other hand, does the complainer need to be rebuked? Paul plainly and clearly rebuked Peter, and John openly rebuked Diotrephes. Unless we are to assume that both Paul and John were blatant sinners and disturbers of the peace, we have to understand that sometimes a wayward, belligerent or complaining church member needs to be told to straighten up and fly right.
There I go, being controversial again.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you. (Exodus 20:12)
I did not specifically plan to write about parents just before Mother’s Day. I guess that was just serendipity. But it does allow me to get something off of my chest. More of that in a moment – but first, let us look at this command.
Have you ever wondered why, after four commands that specifically relate to God and how we are to honor Him, that the first command that relates to our fellow humans is a command to honor our parents? This is not just important, I think this is critical to stop and ponder.
Our culture is respect phobic. Just think about what passes as humor today, what gets the biggest laughs. If a comedian can make a joke about any authority figure the house goes crazy. We disrespect the office of the President of the United States. We disrespect the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court. We disrespect the courts and our police officers. We disrespect spiritual leaders (especially if they are conservative Christian spiritual leaders!) and we disrespect school teachers.
And all of this disrespect begins in the home. We, as a culture, have virtually dismissed the concept of respecting our fathers and our mothers.
Unfortunately, I fear a great deal of this situation began with parents who decided they did not need to be respected. Somewhere back in the 1960′s or maybe a decade or so later the latest and greatest philosophy was that parents were not supposed to be authority figures, they were to be their children’s best friends. So, respect went out the door and it was replaced with a faux friendship, something that was neither friendship nor was it parental leadership. A generation deprived of parental guidance then went on to raise their children without any real understanding as to how to be parents. Now, at least the third generation of children is being raised by parents who do not know how to instill respect, and more tragically, will not support those adults who are left who are capable of teaching respect.
Respect must be learned, but if there are no teachers, how can it be taught?
Strangely enough, it is exactly during this time that the “Hallmark Card” holidays of Mothers Day and Fathers Day (and now Grandparents Day and who knows what other day we will choose to celebrate) exploded. I think there is a telling sociological process going on here.
Simply put – we are not honoring our parents throughout our normal year, so when that one “special” day comes along we have to assuage our guilt and so we buy flowers, or an expensive necklace, or a fancy gizmo for dad, and we pass that off as “honoring” our mother or our father. How many times will you be told just before Mothers Day or Fathers Day to “honor” your mom or dad by spending a lot of money on something that is either basically pretty trashy or on something that will wilt and fade away within days if not hours? That is honor? Excuse me, but that is buying forgiveness to mollify a guilty conscience.
We don’t honor our parents by giving them some cheesy gift once a year. We honor our parents by respecting and obeying them while we are in their homes, and by continuing to honor and respect their guidance throughout our adult years. We honor our parents by raising our children to believe in and to respect the teachings that our parents instilled in us. We honor our parents by working hard and by doing our best in everything that we do. We honor our parents in the way we treat other parents who are both older and younger than we are. We honor our parents by mentoring younger parents in the craft of raising children – and that means that we demand respect from those tyrannical three year olds who absolutely refuse to offer it. We honor our parents with our words, our actions, and our thoughts. Everything that we do communicates either that we respect and honor our parents, or that we could not care less about those who raised us.
We honor our parents when, at that point we must disagree with them, or decide that we must act or believe in a way that our parents would never act or believe, that we still honor and cherish the guidance that brought us to our adult decision. No parent is ever perfect, and in a way it is no dishonor to disagree with our parents. But it is a huge sign of disrespect to mock or disparage the thoughts and beliefs that our parents held deeply. We can disagree in a most holy and honorable manner.
Our “retirement centers” and “nursing homes” and other facilities have become nothing more than warehouses for abandoned and disrespected parents. I know that many older adults can no longer take care of themselves and require specialized attention. I am not speaking about those individuals. I am speaking about those parents whose children cannot be bothered by the physical demands of taking care of an older parent and who simply ship them off to some out-of-the-way institution so that they can maintain their upper middle class lifestyle of soccer games and ballet recitals and country club events.
When we disrespect and dishonor our parents the land will vomit us out. I think that is pretty much the message of Exodus 20:12.
I do not think that day is in our future. I think it is here and now. We live in a land of mockery, abandonment, disrespect. Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. That which a man sows, he shall also reap. I think that is pretty much a New Testament principle. And, sadly, I think we are living it out right now.
“Holy God, as our eternal Father – teach us how to respect. Give us the courage both to respect our elders and to instill respect in our children. Help us to once again live in a land blessed by the sweet odor of respect and honor. Help us to see the error of our way, and lead us back onto the path that we have forsaken so long ago.
Just sitting here ruminating on a subject that has been festering for a while. I really do not know who to address this to, so it will just be an open letter – directed at no one in particular and a lot of people in general.
To all those who are fed up with, cannot stand, and are otherwise angry at the church. I think I get your message. I want to say “I think” because to say “I fully understand” would be presumptuous. Because I have not met you personally, you may not fit every description that I mention in what follows. So, let me begin on a foundation of humility. I want to understand where you are coming from, and to a certain degree I think I get you. And, whether you believe me or not, in many areas I agree with you. But still, there is a yawning chasm between the two of us that bothers me…
The overwhelming majority of you are in your third decade of life. Some are much older, some are younger. That tells me that the majority of you simply have not had the opportunity to experience so much of life that longevity teaches. You may have traveled extensively, you may have lived with the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. But, you are still young. Youth has its advantages, to be sure. But youth also has its severe limitations. There is a reason that God turned the leadership of the church over to a group of individuals we refer to as elders. Age does a lot of things to our bodies, but it is an incredible teacher for our hearts and minds. So, I am not necessarily criticizing you for your youth, but I am making a point. You have not seen a lot of things and experienced a lot of life simply because you are not old enough to have done so. Hang around a while – you will.
That leaves some of you who are my age and older who still angry at the church but for entirely different reasons. Maybe something I say will speak to you as well, but I fear the issues you have need another letter. Increased chronological age does not necessarily equate to increased maturity. An angry senior citizen is no improvement over an angry toddler.
I want to tell you that we – the older generation that you seem to be so bent on overcoming – have been where you have been and we have done what you are doing. With our grandfathers, or maybe for some of us our fathers, it was the “social gospel.” For many others of us it was that promising panacea called “youth ministry.” Then there was the “bus ministry.” Our pet phrase was “ministry with a social conscience.” Then we were saved by becoming “seeker sensitive.” We were given a healthy dose of “purpose driven.” Now we are told the only thing that can save us to to become “emergent” “incarnational” or “missional.” Next up – “discipling.” We have been transfixed with Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and now Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. It has become so confusing that we need a scorecard to keep up with all the slogans and phrases and personalities. It’s just that we – the old gray head set – need bifocals to read all the small print.
As a member of the “traditional, fundamentalist, backward, Luddite” generation that provides so much of the anger that you are venting, I would like to suggest that you take a moment to analyze why it is that we are so wary of your efforts. After reading volumes of your books, scanning your blogs and watching your You Tube videos, I would gently like to suggest that you criticize without offering the least indication you have attempted to understand what it is you are criticizing. You think that you are criticizing the “established, traditional, fundamentalist church” but who you are actually criticizing are people. Real people. People who have stood where you are standing and who have asked the same questions and who have been through a lot more fights and defeats than you have.
You come across as selfish, arrogant, narcissistic, and vain. The very traits, I would suggest, that you criticize us for being.
You preach a tolerance of ideas and practices and yet you ridicule and reject the values and beliefs of the generations who have gone before you.
And, I say again lest I be misunderstood, we can recognize these failings because we pioneered them. You are simply perfecting the faults we instilled within you. But I hasten to add – the fact you have perfected them is no honor.
If we are hesitant to accept your panacea for church renewal I suggest that it is because we are tired of the rhetoric – the empty promises and of dealing with the burned out remains of ours and previous failures. The generation that is older than I am had to deal with me – they heard the same empty promises and they dealt with the same blown-up congregations and they had to pull out the bandages and try to put broken people and lives back together. And my generation blithely walked away from all the carnage and smugly patted ourselves on the back for being such faithful and devoted disciples of the Prince of Peace. Until it happened to us. Now we see the same thing that our forefathers experienced and it gives us a lot of heartbreak. We cannot undo what we did, but we are not much interested in having the same thing happen to us.
Believe me, many of us are looking for something better! We have not lost the idealism of our youth, but the scars and the broken bones have taught us to be a little careful about how we go about instigating change. We may need bifocals to read our old leather-bound Bibles, but we can see through the dim lights of your “new” worship. We may need hearing aids, but we hear nothing of substance in your theologically vapid praise bands. And we can smell a rat through the fog of your incense.
So, please – if you are asking us to give you the courtesy of listening to the next one greatest discovery that will save the church from every evil that befalls it, give us the courtesy of realizing we have heard this song before. We sang it too. We even added a few verses and an endless repeating chorus. Realize that we are not your enemy until you back us into a corner and give us no other option but to either leave or fight back. Yes, there are individuals who are my age and older who have demonized every word you say and every idea you put forward. I do not like them any more than you do. I reject their rhetoric and their hateful attitudes. Every mansion has a few cobwebs in the corners.
I appreciate your enthusiasm for the Lord and His church. I appreciate that you are not only willing, but also very capable of the skill of analysis and problem solving. I would suggest that one skill you are lacking significantly is the skill of the appreciation of history – your history, and your immediate history to be exact. I would also like to suggest that unless you seek to remedy this gap in your resume you will find yourself in an interesting situation in about 20 years or so – give or take a few.
You will be exactly where I am, peering through your new pair of bi-focals, writing an open letter to your children and grandchildren who have discovered the next latest and greatest saving prescription for the church they have discovered is old and stale and irrelevant.
The very church you are in the process of creating.
An old guy who is willing to listen, but justifiably cautious about swallowing every idea just because it is new.
Please, learn to be comfortable in your own skin.
I grew up as many people do, thinking that I had to be something that I was not, and quite honestly, was never, ever, going to be able to become. It is, to be perfectly blunt, a lousy way to live. But so many of us are conditioned by society (parents, school mates, teachers, preachers, trusted adults, etc) to think this way that it seems rather abnormal to find someone who just wants to be who they are, regardless of their cultural preconditions. With me it was not my parents (who were and are amazingly supportive) but rather the larger culture in which I was raised.
Just a couple of examples. For many, many years I was led to believe that I had to be an evangelist or else I was going to be a second class citizen of heaven (or worse.) My eternal fate would be sealed by the number of persons who would tell St. Peter at the pearly gates who baptized them. If I met that magical number of inclusion into the sainted masses, well then I was in. Miss it by one or two and I might as well learn how to love sulphur and brimstone.
It took me quite a while to find Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. It seems to me that the apostle Paul was quite satisfied to admit that not everyone could be, or even should be, an evangelist. Isn’t it amazing to discover that someone who beats you over the head with a Bible has missed such a huge part of it? Now, don’t get me wrong – I love preaching and teaching. I will study the Bible with anyone, anytime. But I am most certainly NOT a personal evangelist and I never will be one. But, I learned that is okay. I had to learn how to be content in my own skin.
When I got out of preaching (for a while) I became a pilot. Now, in the pilot world the equivalent of being a personal evangelist is being the captain of a Boeing 747 or Airbus jumbo jet. I was a little bit older, but I was still driven by the concept that I had to perform at a certain level or that somehow I was just not good enough, or that I still had some mountain to climb. Quite honestly I did not want to pay the price to become a captain of a Boeing 747, so failing to meet that expectation did not hurt too much. But I learned something valuable along the way. New generation Boeings and Airbuses basically fly themselves. And, for the piloting part that the plane does not fly itself there is a crew of two highly trained and very proficient pilots. In the job that I had (flying freight for a small company) all I had was me and a plane that as often as not did not even have a functioning auto pilot. And when I did get a plane with an functioning auto pilot all it did was keep the wings level and the altitude steady. I still had to fly the plane through weather that ducks would not fly into, and I had to do it by myself. That, my friends, is really piloting an airplane. I learned that the big boys could sit on the tarmac and swelter in 110 degree heat all they wanted to. I was going to enjoy flying my little Cessna 402 and 404 and really enjoy flying the airplane. Chalk up another lesson in being content in my own skin.
During my brief stint as a hospice chaplain I had the supervisor from Gehenna. This person was not happy with anything that I did (well, with one notable exception). I did not visit enough, or I visited too much. I did not give enough counsel or I gave too much. Once I met with a family at their request and had a wonderful session. The next week I was called on the carpet for not involving another “team” member (who, by the way, never included me in their meetings with families). It was utter misery. But, my skin was getting thicker and I knew who I was, what I was capable of (and, equally important, not capable of) and so finally I just chucked the whole situation in my supervisors lap and walked away. No one has the right to make another person miserable for doing a job to the best of the person’s ability and giftedness.
I now find myself as an educator and administrator. I find out daily that I am gifted in ways I did not fully realize, and I find out daily that I am a real klutz at things that I once thought I was good at, or at least was going to be good at. But, I’m nearing the age where I could be considered a “classic” (although far from “antique”) and maybe for the first time in my life I can say with quiet calm – I’m good with my gifts and I am cool with my limitations. I cannot take credit for the first, and I refuse to be blamed for the second. I am mortal, and every mortal is good at something and bad at others. I may not be a personal evangelist, but how many personal evangelists have landed an airplane full of critical documents, medicines and other essential freight at an airport shrouded in fog where the visibility is one half of a mile and the overhead ceiling is 200 feet? And in an airplane going over 100 miles an hour? Hmmmmm?
Two words of caution here. One, I am not speaking of throwing up your hands and saying, “that’s just the way I am, get over it” if you are behaving in a way that is truly counter to Kingdom behavior. I am not saying be happy if you are living in a sinful relationship or condition. God expects all people everywhere to live according to His standards, His criteria. I am not giving you permission to dismiss God’s word or the teachings of his Son.
Two, just because I may not be gifted in some areas, or even if I am gifted in other areas, that does not mean I cannot try to improve where I feel God has called me. I want to become a better preacher, teacher and administrator. I would not even mind becoming a better personal evangelist. But I must use God’s standards for my life, not the standards of someone else who is exceptionally gifted in one particular area, and who cannot accept or refuses to accept that not everyone is as gifted as they are in that area.
Get comfortable in your own skin. God made you to be someone special – find the dirt where you feel especially happy and bloom where you are planted.
And don’t let some supervisor from Gehenna tell you that you are worthless. God sent his Son to die for you to tell you you are priceless!
It is right there in the middle of all the blood and guts, the “thou shalts” and the “thou shalt nots.” It is a tiny little verse, hardly more than a gnat’s whisker in the whole scheme of God’s ponderous revelation. Alone and overlooked, it sits quietly, and maybe even patiently, waiting for someone to read it, to listen to it, maybe even to take it to heart.
You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:32.
We live in an ever-increasing senior-phobic society. We warehouse our elderly in “care homes” or “retirement centers” or some other euphemistically appropriate term. Those names are nothing but short-hand for, “a place to put the old and worthless until they die.” Billions of dollars are spent in the frivolous attempt to keep ourselves from showing any age: memberships at the gym, expensive surgery, hair color by the gallon.
The youth of our population are venerated and sought after. If a question of generational conflict arises, the deference is given to those who are barely out of adolescence, or perhaps barely entering it. A generation that does not even have the capacity to understand the questions are being given the responsibility of coming up with the answers. And the answers that they are providing are being utilized with hardly a thought being raised as to their truth or ultimate health. The answer seems to work now, and now is the only thing that matters, so let’s go with what works. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
We are in the midst of a huge economic downturn. Those who are most vulnerable are those in the middle ages, those who have valuable work experience, but who also have four or five decades of existence behind them. Sorry. You cost too much. Better to hire someone who knows how to work a computer, but does not have a work ethic. At least we don’t have to pay them as much for the work they don’t produce.
The same is true in the church – if not even more true. Congregation after congregation wants the maturity of a man who has been in the traces for 15 years, but they want that maturity behind the face of a 30 year old. Excuse me? How does that math work? Let a man turn 50 and he might as well forget finding a preaching position today. Never mind that at 50 he has finally achieved a little bit of education from the school of hard knocks and might actually know how to properly preach and guide a congregation.
Even our “elders” come with children in diapers. An “elder” at 35? Who exactly is he “elder” than?
Rehoboam could have had the entire nation of Israel as his servants. The older, the wiser, the “gray heads” all told him to respect the people, listen to the people, lighten their load – be their servant leader. He turned to his younger comrades. They scoffed in derision. Forget the gray-beards, they said. Double down. Make the people pay. Show ‘em what you are made of. Show ‘em who is boss. Rehoboam listened to the young fools instead of the wisdom of the sages, and he lost his kingdom. He split God’s people and they never recovered.
I speak as a baby-boomer who is watching the age and wisdom of the generation ahead of me pass away slowly but surely, and in ever increasing numbers. Because of the accident of my birth I grew up in a situation where I have never known sacrifice. I have never known want, or hunger, or deprivation of any kind. How can I pass on to my daughter knowledge that I have never obtained? And why should I listen to someone 20 years my junior who has spent those 20 years in a more favored and ostentatious culture than the one I was given? Why are they lecturing ME about how life should work, and why should I listen to them? What wars have they fought? What depression did they live through? What nation have they built? What sorrows have they lived through? What obstacles have they overcome?
I am not asking these questions in anger or sarcasm. I am asking them sincerely and openly. I want to know why I should look to youth instead of age for the wisdom to know how to solve the problems of a bent and broken world.
Today we are in the process of eliminating the wisdom of the ages from our congregations. We no longer rise in the presence of the gray hair. We no longer honor the face of an old man or an old woman. We are therefore, if I read the passage correctly, in the process of eliminating the fear of the LORD our God.
Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. Turn the nation, turn the church, turn anything over to those who do not have the experience or the knowledge to make the wise decisions and the results will be assured.
But that tiny little verse is still there, still waiting, still hoping that someone, somewhere will listen to it. Maybe a young person will read it and listen to it, and maybe even take it to heart. We can hope.
Sometimes we as teachers or preachers or even parents begin to doubt the effectiveness of our words. We teach or preach seemingly for hours and yet nothing happens. We are tempted to think that our efforts and our words are in vain. But I want you to stop and think – why are you a teacher or preacher? It is most likely because someone in your past encouraged you to become a teacher or a preacher through their words and their example. And, I’ll bet my dollar against your dime, they had periods of time in which they questioned the effectiveness of their teaching.
Once such teacher in my life was Mike Lewis. He taught the courses on preaching while I was in my undergraduate program at ACU. I remember a lot of things about the semester course I had with Dr. Lewis, but it was a series of chapel speeches that I remember the most. I cannot remember the year or the semester, but Dr. Lewis spoke during chapel for an entire week on Psalm 73. That series of lessons has always been special to me. I cannot read the psalm without thinking of Dr. Lewis and that series of lessons. Yes, our words can have a profound impact, even years after we speak them. Which, as an aside, is yet another reason why we should be so careful in how we use them.
Psalm 73 is a story of one man’s journey into and out of doubt. He begins with where he wants to be, moves through what reality seemingly teaches him, recognizes his own false conclusions in the matter, and following an epiphany in which everything suddenly becomes clear, moves through to proclaiming God’s glory. Thus he ends where he started, but at the end of the psalm the confession is real, whereas in the beginning there is just the slightest tinge of hesitancy (does “surely” end with an exclamation point or a question mark?).
What I find to be so powerful in the text is that the psalmist receives his epiphany while in the act of worship in the house of God. In the psalm up to this point all we have is the most bitter of questions and statements pointing to the futility of faith and a good many reasons why worship would be the last thing the psalmist would be doing. Yet, in v. 17 that is exactly where we find him, resolutely worshipping the God he doubts, doing the things that his neighbors would think he was a hypocrite for doing if they knew what he was thinking. The man in psalm 73 defeated his doubts by doing the very thing he doubted – by expressing his worship to God.
I have been through enough tough times to know that there is no “silver bullet” that slays every demon or destroys every doubt. But I cannot help but wonder if the reason so many people leave the church is because they quit practicing that which their faith calls them to practice. If you can only improve your golf game on the golf course, if you can only learn to be a surgeon in an anatomy lab, if you can only perfect your artistic skill by hours and hours of practicing on your instrument, doesn’t it make the slightest little bit of sense that the only place one can strengthen their faith in in a place of worship doing what centuries of faithful (and doubting) Christians have done? In other words, does it not make sense that practicing belief would serve to strengthen that belief?
I am not saying that “in church” is the only place one can come to faith, nor to strengthen it. But on the other hand the message of this text is that it was in the presence of God in the sanctuary that the psalmist received the answer to his doubts. There were many reasons for the psalmist not to be in the sanctuary. But he was there, and it was there he received his answer. If we believe that the Bible is God’s word spoken to man, then we need to give this passage serious consideration when it comes to answering one of the most basic questions of a disciple – what do I do if I start to have doubts about God? The man in psalm 73 suggests, rather gently by the way, that the one who feels such doubts should go to the sanctuary. Go worship. Enter into the presence of the eternal one. And let Him help you with those doubts.
For some reason the man in Psalm 73 speaks to me. Maybe it is because of life’s experiences, maybe because of the beautiful way in which the psalm is written, maybe it was Dr. Lewis’ passionate lessons from the text, maybe it was all these reasons plus some others. I have borrowed on Dr. Lewis’ talk many times in my ministry, and it is always with a prayer that what I have to say communicates to others what the psalm communicates to me.
In my brief review of Dr. Keith Johnson’s lecture on “Bonhoeffer and the End of the Christian Academy” here I pointed out a response he made during the question and answer period. You never know what you will get in question and answer discussions following a lecture or panel talk. If the question is good then the time can be wonderful. Bad questions, or ad hominem attacks make the time horrible. In Dr. Johnson’s case I cannot remember the exact question, but his answer was brilliant.
Dr. Johnson made the point that for the first 500 years of Christian history the emerging theology was all written by active church men – preachers, bishops, other leaders. For the next 1,000 years theology was mostly the responsibility of monks. These were men (and a few women) who were still deeply committed believers and were connected to the church, but removed in the sense that the monastery was not the active church. For the last 500 years Dr. Johnson pointed out that that most of our written theology has been created by academicians – men and women with Ph.D’s but who are not necessarily connected to any body of faith. In fact, much theology has been written by individuals who have no connection to the Christian faith at all, with the exception that “Christian theology” provides them with a steady income. This has had a chilling effect upon the growth of the church.
For one thing, if you are not vitally connected to your subject, your only purpose in writing is academic. There is no “there” there. So what if you are right, and so what if you are wrong? It just provides more opportunity to write another article or book. On the other hand, if you are preaching or serving in a leadership capacity in a local congregation then what you say or write has immediate and significant implications. Even if you are dealing with your subject in an academic manner, you are still aware of the actual application of your thoughts. For just one example, it makes a huge difference if you are getting ready to preach a sermon (or even write an article) on marriage and divorce if you have had, or are currently having a counseling session with a couple who is experiencing marital difficulties. Your thoughts, your words, your whole attitude is shaped by what you hear and experience during those slices of life. An academician who has had no experience in ministry simply does not have that interest, nor the concern, that a preacher, teacher, elder has.
Second, and perhaps more to the point, if those who are doing the writing of theology are strictly academicians, the entire concept of heresy is eliminated from the church. Academicians do not speak of heresy, except as an academic subject. For the church heresy must be a living issue. If there are not some issues which are considered false, then there can be no issues which are considered true. Everything at that point simply becomes acceptable.
However, the Bible clearly speaks of true and false teachings. The church must be able to label certain teachings as false, and those who teach them as false teachers. Baptism cannot be both for the forgiveness of sins, and at the same time not for the forgiveness of sins. One teaching is false. The bread and wine cannot both be the actual body and blood of Jesus, and simultaneously a representation of the body and blood of Jesus. One of those two teachings is false. The leadership of the church cannot be both limited to men and at the same time open to females. Homosexuality cannot be a sin and something cherished by God at one and the same time. One of all these pairs of teachings has to be orthodox, the other heterodox – or better put, heresy. But, if it simply is an academic discussion, then these distinctions simply do not matter. An ivory tower academician does not have to deal with whether or not to admit fellowship to a practicing homosexual, or whether or not to practice adult baptism. For him (or her) those issues are just topics for a lecture or a peer-reviewed paper.
Dr. Johnson’s point is a powerful one. We need to have men and women who devote themselves to academic study. I honor those who have the mental strength and the desire to devote themselves to the kind of intense study that is required to earn the Ph.D degree. As one who would truly like to earn a Ph.D but simply does not have the intellectual fire power to do so, I owe a great amount of gratitude and respect to those who do have that gift. But, they must realize that the man in the pulpit is a skilled and necessary part of the educational process as well. So is the woman sitting on the floor in the first grade classroom. So is the one-on-one evangelist studying the Bible with a student over a cup of coffee. So is the missionary in a foreign country or in one of our own cities. Theology is what every Christian does, not just the intellectual elite.
I mentioned in my last post here that within the colleges and universities of the Churches of Christ I have witnessed a real shift in the speakers in our brotherhood lectureships. More and more the only speakers that are invited are mostly young university professors, or those who are extremely closely connected to a university or college. The day of the mature and experienced located minister preaching a real “sermon” in a lectureship are all but over. I believe there is a necessary place for ministers to have access to our university professors. But our universities are getting further and further removed from the congregations they were designed to serve. The increased focus on young, highly trained but largely inexperienced professors to take a leadership role in working our our modern theology will ultimately have a disastrous effect on the church. God did not call his spiritual leaders “elders” without good reason. Age, and experience, just cannot be obtained from a book.
Rehoboam could have been king over the whole nation of Israel, had he simply listened to the wisdom of age. But he trusted the counselors of his own age, and he split the kingdom, something from which it never recovered. Are we not going down the same path today?
I was going to begin this post with the stereotypical plea that, “I don’t want to be accused as being a Luddite, but…” and then it occurred to me – maybe I do. Maybe being a Luddite at the right time and for the right reason is not something to be ashamed of, but is in fact something to be proud of and something to pursue. So, call me a Luddite if you wish…if I am guilty I shall wear the badge proudly.
The issue upon which I opine this wonderfully rainy day is the growing (and virtually irrepressible) movement towards on-line courses in colleges and universities. What started out as an interesting experiment has now grown into a full-fledged growth industry. And, in the minds and hearts of us fully committed Luddites, that will, and is even now resulting in, a travesty of sorts as it relates to education at the highest levels.
Education is a major passion of my life. As my mom relates it, I have always loved learning, and I have always had a special relationship with my teachers. Not all of them have been equally skilled, but each has had a unique impact on my life. I have experienced life as a student in elementary, high school, as an under graduate college student, as a graduate student, and now as a participant in a doctoral program. I have also been a “vocational” student, first as a student pilot, then as a applicant for a commercial pilot certificate, and then as a flight instructor applicant. I have served on the other side of the lectern as well; first as a graduate assistant, then as a flight instructor, and now as an instructor in religion in a state university. Learning is in my DNA. And at every step, from my first grade teacher through the director of my last Doctor of Ministry special project has been a teacher, a mentor, a guide: in some cases someone who literally slapped me with a stick.
But now, with the advent of the computer and email and FaceBook and Skype and many other on-line learning tools the teacher is becoming irrelevant, meaningless, replaceable with the click of a mouse. Too harsh you say? I think not. I can see the handwriting on the wall, and at least to this knuckle dragging Troglodyte, the future does not look encouraging for the role of the classroom teacher.
In my view the process of education is not simply the transference of a bit of knowledge from one intellect into another. That is aptly described in the well worn definition of a lecture: “The process of transferring a professor’s notes to a student’s notes without passing through the brain of either.” Heaven knows we don’t need any more of that kind of education. But, I really do not call that education. Education is transcendent. Education involves not only the intellect, but the emotions and the body as well. The process of education is not complete until there is a mutual transformation that occurs between teacher and student, mentor and disciple.
And I will state emphatically and without reservation that transformation cannot occur unless there is a genuine “presence” involved – and that means the presence of a teacher/mentor and student/disciple.
Defenders of on-line education will, of course, argue that there IS a teacher-student relationship. I argue that relationship is only fragmentary at best, and is fictitious at worst.
First, a concession. If education is to be defined simply as the transference of a body of knowledge from one set of notes to another, then on-line teaching may have a place. Perhaps in the most elementary of classes, where there would be very little dialogue between teacher and student anyway a case could be made that on-line learning has a role to play. I would still argue that these situations are few and far between. There is simply too much involved in the education process that cannot be transmitted across DSL lines, even with HD digital cameras and video conferencing software.
However, as a student I learned as much, if not more, from the INTERACTION with my teachers and professors as I did from their lectures or assignments. My high school English teacher punctuated her displeasure with our efforts with the emphatic clicking of her (very long) fingernails on her desk. Dr. Lemoine Lewis became so animated when speaking of the early church fathers that it seemed he was transported back to Jerusalem or Antioch, even though he was lecturing right in front of me. The rich humor of Dr. Everett Ferguson’s witty asides informed me not only of the vastness of his knowledge, but of his impeccable ability to apply that knowledge to the modern ecclesiological scene. Dr. Bill Humble taught me of the value of loving my research topic in a way that no downloaded YouTube video or inter-active chat room session ever could. And, as an instructor, I have learned the value of noticing a student’s frown, a hopeless sigh, a resigned closing of a text-book, or an excited arching of an eyebrow when a confusing subject suddenly becomes clear.
In short, although I may have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century world of on-line education, I shall do so only with the most vociferous of objections. My Lilliputian resistance may ultimately prove futile, but I shall not go down quietly.
In conclusion, and almost as an aside, I feel I should mention what (in my mind, anyway) is driving this headlong rush into digitized ignorance – money. It is pure, red-white-and-blue American capitalism. On-line courses are less expensive for colleges and universities to fund, and they are less expensive for the student. So we make excuses about how advantageous these courses are, how they make distance learning possible, how they expand the reach of the college classroom, etc ad nauseaum, and we pocket the profit. If you doubt me then let us make a little wager. Let us increase the cost of on-line classes so that it is more expensive for the college or university, so that it would be more expensive for the student to enroll, and so that the instructor would get paid significantly less for teaching the class. Now – where would on-line education go?
In my fully convinced Luddite mind we in academia are selling our institutional birthright for a bowl of economic soup. We have an obligation not only to provide an education, but primarily to instill in our student what an education really involves. We do not exist simply to transmit knowledge. A book is all that is necessary for that, thank you very much. Education is about the expansion of the entirety of the process of becoming a human being. Education is at its core about transformation. And, education is at its core transcendent. Immediacy and frugality are unworthy substitutions for transformation and transcendence.
Thus endeth the rantings of a Luddite.
Tomorrow I begin a brave new direction of my life as a university instructor (albeit part-time). As I have been preparing myself for this career change I have been thinking about the whole concept of teaching and learning. I have been a student most all of my life. I have worked my way through elementary, mid-school, high school, under-graduate college, graduate school, and now doctoral studies. I have earned all of the flight certificates and ratings that I wanted except two (Multi-Engine Instructor, and Airline Transport Pilot). I have attempted to learn how to play the guitar for most of my life. I have taught high school students, adults, and I have trained many students to fly airplanes. I have taught novices how to read Greek and how to fly in the clouds. I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the theory of both teaching and learning.
However, throughout all of this I never really sat down and came up with at philosophy of learning or teaching. So, with this rather significant professional shift looming over my head I thought it would be time to attempt to articulate some thoughts about why we teach and why we learn. These are provisional, and just like my 15 Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (see appropriate page on this blog), these are subject to change. Here goes (stated in the form of pledges):
1. Whether I teach or study, I will do my absolute very best so that I will honor the God who gave me the intellect and the ability to both study and teach. Anything less is to dishonor my Creator.
2. I will teach and learn not to please myself, my parents, my married partner nor my teachers or students. I will teach and learn for the goal of either imparting greater wisdom, or obtaining greater wisdom. Any other goal subverts the purpose of education. This is true whether the subject is theoretical in nature, or application oriented.
3. Integrity and honesty will form the foundation of my philosophy of education.
4. If I cheat or perform at any level below the best that I can perform on any given subject, I am cheating my teacher, my students, my classmates and ultimately the God who gave me the ability to learn. Earning a grade is not the goal of education; learning is the goal of education. By cheating I diminish the entire educational process.
5. Because the goal of education is to increase the level of wisdom in both myself and my students or fellow-students, I will do everything within my power to help my students or fellow-students in their studies. Although we very often attempt to make it competitive, the process if education is not competitive but communal. By helping others I help myself and everyone involved in the process.
6. I will remember that there will always be someone who performs better than I will perform, and someone who performs less capably than I perform. I cannot be the best in every subject and in every situation, but neither will I be the worst in every subject nor in every situation. I will learn what gifts I have been given and I will learn to excel in those gifts, and I will honor and respect those who have been given other gifts and who can excel in those areas.
7. I will understand that assigning a grade does not mean assigning a measurement on a student’s moral character, and I will understand that when I receive a grade it is not a measure of my moral character. A grade is simply a temporary measure of the attainment of a particular set of theories or skills, and is in no way the final measure of a student’s capability to learn. I will be fair and honest in the assignment of grades, and as a student I will be mature and honest in the acceptance of the grade I have earned; and if there is an honest discrepancy between what I feel I have earned and what I have been assigned, I will deal with the difference in a respectful manner. If a student challenges the grade I have assigned, I will listen to him or her and respond with respect and humility.
Okay, there you have the big seven. Maybe at the end of this semester (or academic year) I will come along and add one or two more. Hey, I started out with only seven undeniable truths for theological reflection, and now I am up to 15. I may write a book on this subject, who knows. Of course, that will be after I get this Doctor of Ministry thing finished!
In my last post I talked to preachers about the sin of preaching when anger is the primary motivation. Closely related to that temptation is the temptation to criticize your congregation.
One of the things that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was adamant about in his mentoring of young pastors was the demand never to criticize the congregations where they worked. Now, in the Lutheran system in Germany the way in which pastors were sent to parishes was much different than our “free” church system in which congregations choose their ministers. In his context pastors were sent – I believe the congregations had some freedom to “call” a pastor, but the process did not resemble our “courtship and marriage” that modern minister searches sometimes resemble. But the end result is much the same – ministers find out that the congregation is not perfect, and the congregation finds out that the minister is not perfect.
At the point in which the minister and the congregation find out that each is somewhat less than advertised there is the proverbial “fork in the road.” One option is to find a like minded individual and lay out every gripe and complaint that one side has about the other. From a minister’s perspective this is often done in “preacher’s meetings” or in phone calls to trusted friends. Every bellyache is describe is nauseating detail. Elders won’t eld, deacons won’t deac, teachers won’t teach – the list is long and distinguished. I have to admit my own failings in this area. There were times when I felt like I just had to unload my pain and anger. Pity the poor recipient of my venom. I have been on the receiving end of such complaints too. All too often it becomes a contest of one-upmanship. Sort of a “my congregation is worse than your congregation” kind of competition.
On the other side of the equation is the gossip and complaining that occurs about the preacher, but that is not what this post is about – so we will just admit that it occurs and we are not going to change it, so let’s accept it and move on.
No, what I want to stress is that by complaining about our congregations or criticizing them (even to trusted friends) we poison the well from which we drink. If we label our elders or congregational leaders as ignorant or incompetent buffoons sooner or later that opinion becomes very evident in the way we respond to them in public. If we tell others that our congregations are full of stupid, mindless hayseeds then at some point they will learn that we have no respect for them and they will respond in kind. If we fire the first shot, we should not be surprised that we get back what we give, pressed down and heaped up. Remember – we only have one pop-gun. The congregation comes armed to the teeth.
I know – believe me I know – that there are times when we as ministers need to seek out the counsel of trusted friends. I know that there are issues that need to be addressed, and those issues involve real flesh and blood human beings. I am only too aware of the fact that there are situations in which the relationship is so toxic that the minister needs to leave (and, to be honest, a “Do No Enter” sign needs to be placed on the door of the church to warn off any prospective ministers!). But when those situations arise the manner in which we deal with them speaks volumes about our own Christian attitudes. If we seek out the counsel of a good and trusted friend and speak honestly and humbly about the situation, he or she can help us see the failings in our own life and ministry and help us to overcome the problem we are currently experiencing. If all we do is criticize and vent our spleen nothing positive can be accomplished, no matter how brilliant and caring our friend might be.
And so, as much as I hated to read Bonhoeffer when he writes it, I ultimately have to agree with him. Never criticize your congregation. Seek the wisdom and guidance of a trusted and spiritual friend – but always do so from a position of humility and repentance. Remember this one very important fact – if the congregation was smart enough to hire you in the first place, then they are smart enough to unhire you as well. If they were worth courting and relocating for, then they are very likely worth working through problems for. When the time comes to separate, separate on the most beneficial and amicable terms possible. Remember that unless you plant a congregation, you will be following a minister that left for one reason or another, and there will be someone to follow you in your current position. In that sense there are always three ministers involved in any position change.
Let’s make it easier on the other two guys when we move – and to the best of our ability let’s remember that every congregation is imperfect, but it, and the people who make up that congregation, are the blood-bought children of God.
Let us be very, very careful about how and when we criticize someone else’s children!