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Judged not by Fame but by Faithfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Education? (revisited)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Have Here, Is a Failure to Communicate

I had a strange dream last night . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why America is Doomed (And it has Nothing to do with Homosexuality)

To begin, I am not an “expert” in the field of education. However, I have had more than the average experience both in learning and teaching. I just completed my Doctor of Ministry degree – not the highest peak on Mt. Academia, but it was a hefty hike. I have about 4 years (give or take a month or two) as a flight instructor, both on the ground and in the air, and that qualifies as some pretty unique educational opportunities. When you have a student and a classroom in which death is a very real possibility, you learn to teach effectively pretty quickly. I also have now been teaching in a community college or university setting for four years (one semester at a community college, 3 and 1/2 years at a university). So – Ed. D. I am not, nor am I a retired public educator. But – I have been around the block a couple of times. And, I have a daughter in elementary school – so I can see what is happening from the bottom-up, as well as the top-down.

Everyone is worried about the demise of America via the path of immorality. While I share everyone’s worry about the collapse of biblical morals in our country, I am not convinced that America will fail (or fall) because of lax morals. To be perfectly honest, during the “Roaring 20’s” the crime rate, examples of racial animosity, and, yes, sexual perversity makes our present age look pretty tame. I certainly would not want to be transported back to that time period. Granted, much of the sexual perversity was hidden, but I seriously doubt it was as invisible as many would have us to believe.

No, the reason I fear for America is because of our stunning – almost inexplicable – rejection of the basic concept of education.

I love my students, I really do. There are a few I would like to strangle, but in a good way. I just do not think they are working up to their potential. My frustration with the students in today’s university is that they have been so utterly and completely cheated. They have been told they are the most brilliant, smartest, and most over-achieving generation to grace the world stage – and many of them cannot compose a coherent sentence, let alone an argumentative paragraph or essay. They have been lied to, mass promoted, babied, and coddled ever since they entered kindergarten.

My wife hates it when I get on these rants because she is a substitute teacher, and she is all too familiar with the stresses of teaching. In no way do I want to disparage the well-meaning and hard-working teachers in today’s classrooms. As in any profession there are a lot of bad apples in the barrel, and they certainly give the rest a bad reputation, but 99% of the teachers in today’s classrooms are hard-working, dedicated, education professionals.

The problem with education today revolves around a group of people who, to borrow a phrase, should not even be trusted to be left alone with a pack of matches. They are called “politicians.” Their only job is to raise obscenely huge amounts of money and then to turn that money into votes. They know nothing about education, and except for the occasions when they must address the issue, could care less about education. Professional politicians have gutted the education system here in New Mexico – and they appear to be utterly oblivious to the fact.

Closely related to the politicians are the professional administrative staffs that, as with the politicians, know little and care less about classroom teaching. Those administrators who work their way up from the classroom are generally good administrators. However, those who have nothing more than a higher degree in “Educology” are disasters in the schools. All theory and no practical experience, they take what the politicians hand them and force the teachers to follow. If we had a few more administrators who were willing to stand up to the politicians, our schools would be so much the better.

I am intimately aware of a state university that has been told – get this – that its library holdings are too large. Yes, you read right. The university has to cut its library holdings by upwards of 50 percent because there was simply too many books and journals on the shelves. There must be room made for the foofy coffee and deli bar. And no library would be complete without a commons area where students can gather and plot their next demonstration against the administration. Oy vey. I guess you get what you pay for.

At its core, education is really a very simple process. You start with the absolute minimum that is necessary, and you add piece by piece, drilling and memorizing and practicing and rehearsing, until you have a principle or a concept mastered. Then you add another piece, and you drill and memorize and practice and rehearse until it is mastered – and on and on you go. There is something wonderfully egalitarian about the fact that in English subjects almost always precede verbs, and the fact that 5 x 4 = 20. The social issues faced in an inner city school in Baltimore cannot be compared to the social issues faced on the reservations of northwest New Mexico, but nouns and verbs and multipliers and divisors are always the same. For all the variables in social contexts, education itself is wonderfully fair. If you work hard, you learn. If you play all day, and if your teacher’s hands are basically tied behind their backs – you don’t learn. And that, my friends, is what is happening all across our beautiful fruited plain.

Employers are experiencing a greater and greater difficulty in hiring qualified workers. Simple tasks like writing a report or giving a public presentation are impossible when the employee is used to communicating with sentences like “y are u l8??” I have students that think Wikipedia is an academic cornucopia, except that they would not recognize what the word “cornucopia” actually means unless they “google” it.

America is at risk – and not necessarily from immorality. America is at risk because young Americans are not being pushed to be the most highly educated workers in the world economy. We are in the process of dumbing down our educational system to the point that our graduates will simply not be able to find good jobs, and those that do end up being employed are going to have to be re-trained and re-taught by their employers at a staggering cost. Those nations that insist on basic, fundamental education are going to pass by the United States like we were standing still, if they have not already done so.

The United States put men on the moon learning how to spell and cipher and speak intelligently using techniques that are now considered passé and, in some circles, even damaging. I wonder why that is? Are we actually afraid of success? Do we actually fear accomplishment? Why do we reward mediocrity? Why is everyone so content with this trend?

I give a huge shout-out to my peers who genuinely do care about their students and the process of education. I hope you serve long enough to see the trend reversed. I know you care – and I thank my daughter’s teachers who care about her and her classmates. I know how you are limited – and I see your frustration. Maybe, just maybe, sanity will return, and you can begin teaching the way your heart and your head tell you is the best way to teach. We can hope, anyway.

What do Lions and Babies Have in Common?

There has been an incredible uproar (pardon the pun) over the killing of a beloved black-maned lion, Cecil. Actually, Cecil was not just killed – he was lured to his death from a safe game preserve, then shot with a bow and arrow. He suffered for 40 hours before the poachers managed to find him and finish the kill with a rifle. The supposed “hunter” was a rich American who paid $50,000 for the privilege to “hunt” a lion. This was not a hunt. This was an act of barbarism.

What has upset many others is that there appears to be more people upset over the killing of Cecil than the revelation that Planned Parenthood sells the harvested parts of aborted babies to medical labs and transplant clinics. The logic is that an unborn child is of far greater value than an African lion, so why are people not more upset over abortion? I am not sure that question is valid. I do strongly believe a human life is more valuable than that of a wild animal. But I also have a somewhat different take on the difference between the reaction to the killing of Cecil and the Planned Parenthood fiasco.

I think the two are actually related, and the furor over the killing of Cecil points to a fundamental crisis of the human spirit that is also demonstrated through abortion.

The killing of Cecil is so raw – so blatant, and the greed of the killers is so easy to spot. The greed of the abortionists is more obscure (indeed, to listen to their defenders, it does not even exist!). But there is another commonality between the lion poachers and the abortionists: arrogance.

What is it about a man who would pay $50,000 to kill an animal? Conservationism? Give me a break. If you want to preserve wild animals, you could donate the $50,000 to an animal preserve and take a picture. No – these people (and there are more than you might think, of both sexes) believe that because they have the money, and because the have the right equipment, and because they have the “right” to kill an animal, that those things justify these supposed “hunts.” What is it about those who believe it is perfectly acceptable to kill an unborn child? These people (once again, of both sexes) believe that because they have the money, the technology, and because the Supreme Court has discovered the “right” for them to take the lives of these unborn children, that they are justified in their murderous actions.

In both situations the commonality is arrogance – the same arrogance that was on display in the Garden of Eden and is on display every time we as humans decide that we are smarter than God. It is rebellion against God’s will. In the words of the Word of God – it is sin. And sin, whether the poaching of a majestic lion or the murder of an unborn child, has its root in the heart of the human being. We wantonly destroy because we believe we are gods, or perhaps that we are better than gods.

There was, and is, no excuse for the poaching of Cecil. I was sickened as I read the story. I hope the individual responsible for this travesty is held accountable in some form or fashion, and that the process of these “trophy hunts” is ended. I am equally sickened by the actions of Planned Parenthood. I would like to see all abortionists punished for the murders they commit. I do not have to choose between outrage over one or the other. Both reveal the depths of the emptiness of the human soul. When we decide that our ability to destroy God’s creation (for no other reason than to magnify our own importance) is more important than our responsibility to protect and maintain that creation, it does not matter whether the life is human or not. Once again, I am not saying the life of a lion is equal to the life of a human being. That would certainly not be biblical or moral. What I am saying is the disregard for God’s creation is equal in both situations.

As I know many hunters, and have hunted big game myself, I feel I must draw a distinction between fairly hunting for food and what these “trophy” hunts project. Many thousands of honest hunters harvest what God has given to man in order to eat what they harvest, and also to manage game herds and bird populations. This is what I refer to as “husbanding” or nurturing God’s creation. Paying $50,000 to kill an animal that is lured to you is not a hunt, it is not husbanding God’s creation – it is killing for the sake of seeing an animal die. There is no justification for such action. That people even attempt to defend this shooter disappoints me.

Just a thought for those who think that we can give the poacher a pass while focusing entirely on the abortionists – until we come to the realization that ALL of God’s creation is our responsibility to protect, we will NEVER be able to effectively end the scourge of abortion. In other words, we are going to have to come to grips with what God told Adam in Genesis 1:26-31 – God’s very first command to humankind. If we are to have dominion over God’s creation, we must humble ourselves and recognize that it is God’s creation, he created it to be good, and we are not permitted to destroy it for our own selfish, arrogant, desires.

The History of Confession

A few more thoughts as I work through the content of my dissertation. The practice of confession has a long and quite varied history. My study in the history of confession taught me that I had much to learn about this important Christian practice.

First, if you were raised in a largely “protestant” (usually meaning, “anything other than Roman Catholic or Jewish) background, you probably thought of confession as something that you did just between you and God. For the really big sins, or even the little sins that happened to be the topic of family dinner tables, you had to “go forward” and sit on the front pew and tell the church you were sorry for what you did. Often the church members where you had to do this were totally unaware of what you had done, so your “confession” very often created a considerable amount of gossip. Which, in turn, I suppose should have caused more people to “go forward” and confess, but it rarely did.

If you were raised in a Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, or Lutheran church (and perhaps some others) confession probably meant going into a room or closet such as is pictured above and making confession privately to a priest. I think that in the imagination of most Americans today, that is the most common image of confession.

What I discovered is that in the earliest centuries of the church, the church members took the commands of James 5:16 quite literally. Confession was made before the entire congregation, and was specific rather than generic. The congregation then responded with forgiveness, or, if necessary, a period of “penance” in which the offender was made to endure some punishment (usually exclusion from the congregation) until such time as he/she was deemed to have suffered long enough. Obviously the process varied between congregations, and even regions of the world. The point of the procedure was to purify the soul of the penitent, and to make clear that further inappropriate behavior would meet with stricter punishment.

After Constantine’s “conversion” and after Christianity became the prevailing religion of the realm, confession took a turn for the private – and the seeds of the modern confessional were planted. As the gap between “clergy” and “laity” became wider, the need for “official” absolution became more important. So, the congregation was excluded from both the confession, and the absolution/penance. This took decades, even centuries, to fully develop, but this is the procedure that is so common in the “high” liturgical churches such as I listed above.

With the Protestant Reformation confession was frequently, although not exclusively, returned to the people. The concept of the “priesthood of all believers” was variously implemented, and in especially in groups associated with the Anabaptist movement the idea of confession to one’s Christian brother or sister – or to the congregation at large, was once again practiced. Both Luther and Calvin taught confession to one’s Christian brother or sister, and only in times of great spiritual distress must one go specifically to a priest (although, in later years, both Lutheran and Reformed churches have put a higher value in confession to ordained clergy).

With the Reformation another, very distinct, usage of the word “Confession” (with a capital “C”) became prominent – that of a specific “Confession of Faith.” A Confession of Faith is similar to a Creed, although a Creed is much more succinct, and has the purpose of defining what is accepted as orthodox faith as opposed to heresy. A Confession of Faith is longer, and has the purpose of defining different styles, or forms of worship. Stated another way, Creeds are designed to be universally believed, Confessions of Faith are more sectarian and define specific positions of separate groups. So, the question “What Confession do you follow?” would be analogous to the more common question today, “Which denomination are you a part of?”

All of this 2,000 year history of the word confession makes a “restoration” of the concept problematic. The word just means so many things to so many different people. Many people think they are confessional, when, in reality they are not. Others are confessional, but not in the biblical usage of the word.

It is my great hope and prayer that I can teach – and hopefully convince – those who are willing to consider my insights that we as members of the Churches of Christ need to become a confessional church once again. We need to renew the biblical concepts (plural) of confession – adoration and praise, thanksgiving, lament, and the specific confession of sin. While we do not necessarily need to mandate the old practice of “going forward and confessing fault,” that would be a huge first step for many congregations. After all – it was one of the fundamental practices of the early church!

As I have mentioned in all of my posts on this subject, I will be presenting this information in seminar form, and if you and your congregation is interested in learning more about how to schedule a seminar, please contact me at my regular email address: abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com.

Theology Matters – Really!

Some little voice in the back of my head tells me to follow up just a tad bit on my post yesterday. There I made the somewhat (?) confusing statement that I agreed more with someone that I ultimately would disagree than with someone who, on the surface, I should agree. It is a frustrating feeling. However, while still firmly believing that what I said is true, I also think that I may have inadvertently said something that I do not believe is true.

Theology matters. It matters greatly. We cannot avoid that truth, no matter how fervently we might wish to. There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of separate groups that all claim in some fashion to be “Christian.” Many of these groups proclaim doctrines that are diametrically opposite to doctrines taught by other “Christian” groups. Yet, with no apparent sense of confusion or shame, everyone seems to go along with the idea that all of these groups are somehow on the same page and headed in the same direction. Logic, if not theology itself, makes this a foolish conclusion.

A person cannot be a Calvinistic-Arminian, nor an Arminian-Calvinist. A person cannot be a Cessationist-Pentecostal, nor a Pentecostal-Cessationist. A person cannot be a Catholic-Protestant, nor a Protestant-Catholic. The same bifurcation holds true with Pedo-baptists and Credo-baptists, egalitarians and complementarians, transubstantiationalists, consubstantiationalists and symbolists. Many other theological issues that have divided Christianity simply will not allow for cheap and meaningless compromise for the sake of a supposed unity.

Theology matters. When I say that I agree with someone with whom I must ultimately disagree, I am not saying that I can set aside the substantive disagreement for the sake of the more temporary agreement. Now, mark these words carefully – I am not saying that such a person is not in a saved relationship with his or her God. I simply am not in a position to make eternal judgments. However, I can, based on my understanding of the Scripture, decide whether what I understand of his or her position is true. I can also be taught, and I reserve the right to teach what I believe to be the truth.

I hold many doctrines to be of such weight that I simply cannot “agree” with those who hold clearly opposing conclusions. I may be correct, the other person may be correct, or a third option is possible – that neither one of us is entirely correct and the absolute truth of the matter lies in some third possibility. But, I cannot simply lay aside my conclusions and convictions simply in order to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings, or to massage some flimsy and ultimately false “unity.”

I chose the image above this post for a reason. The realm of theology describes the void where the woman is frozen. There is an absolute truth to which she is headed – in my image that would be the eternal and unalterable truth of God. There is an equally solid truth from which she is jumping – the truth of our convictions. Theology is that space in the middle – theology is a searching, a probing, a “working out” of that which we can see but yet that which is still not under our feet. But theology is not just some whimsical, “pie in the sky by and by when we die” exercise that a few pointy-heads secluded in their ivory towers can participate in. Theology is built on solid study of the Bible – the solid rock upon which all theology must be built. Theology might be described as a leap (and other images are certainly legitimate), but theology is not a blind leap, nor is it a careless leap. Theology is a well-measured, calculated and purposeful leap into the mind and heart of God.

So, theology really matters. I agree with some theologians, and disagree with some – often the same theologian and often in the same book, chapter, or even page. We all see as through a glass, darkly. Or, a fog, depending on our point of view.

Doggone Bad Theology

It is spring break week here in the fog so I have been doing some catch-up reading. I am reading two books in particular, one that is stimulating and enjoyable and the other that is, well, just painful. What I find particularly disturbing is that the book I am being challenged by and the one that I am enjoying is written by someone with whom I have much to disagree. The book that I am reading just because I feel like I have to (for reasons that will go undisclosed) is written by someone who is a member of the Church of Christ. In fact, in certain parts of the country he would be idolized, yea worshipped, if he were to step up to a pulpit and start preaching. He is certainly no “average” member of the Church of Christ. He is about as far to the right as you can get within the fellowship of the churches of Christ without being anti-institutional, non-Sunday school or one-cup-only for the fruit of the vine during communion.

The one with whom I have doctrinal issues writes in a manner as to promote his beliefs without putting down any others, and with the intention of building up the body of Christ. The other uses derogatory terms to describe his “enemies,” makes no effort to mask his ridicule of their positions, and offers no apologies to “calling them out by name.” The first authors uses hermeneutical processes that are agreed upon by most scholars today; the other uses a hermeneutical principle that only he and a few others find convincing. The first author is willing to consider options other than his own conclusions; the second summarily dismisses any challenges to his conclusions as coming from someone who do not love God nor do they respect the Bible. Even when the second author makes a conclusion that I agree with I am frequently appalled at his logic and his condescending tone.

Have you ever agreed with someone you disagree with more than you agree with someone you agree with?

I have often said, and firmly believe, that I learn more from someone I disagree with, if they present their positions fairly and openly, than I do from someone that, for every other reason, I should agree with. Maybe I am weird that way. I would just much rather discuss religion with someone who knows and understands what he/she believes than with someone of my own faith group who simply parrots what some teacher/preacher/parent/friend once said. And that goes for those on both ends of the “conservative/liberal” spectrum. Wild-eyed liberals turn me off just as fast, if not faster, than closed-fisted reactionaries.

At the end of one of my undergraduate semesters a question was posed to our professor as to how we should respond when someone says/teaches something in error concerning the topic we had just completed studying (I am not sure whether it was Greek, Romans or Revelation – I can remember the professor and the statement, but not the subject). The professor paused for a moment as if to collect his thoughts. Very slowly he said, “Gentlemen, you must be very careful in those situations. Challenging someone’s long held beliefs is perilous work. But bad theology must be named as bad theology.”

In my 30-plus years serving the church in a number of capacities I have learned the truth of that statement over and over again, and have marveled at the wisdom of the professor who uttered it. Bad theology kills, no matter how loved or worshipped the speaker/writer/teacher is. Bad theology must be named as bad theology.

And doggone bad theology is the worst.

Talking in an Echo Chamber

Regardless of who we are, what we do, or what we believe, we like to be around others who share the same interests and opinions. It is the most natural and logical of situations. We seek out those with whom we have the most in common and situations where we feel the most comfortable. It would be ridiculous to constantly want to be around people who disagree with us or to be in situations where we constantly feel threatened.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in issues of faith. Christians want to be with other Christians, not Muslims. Muslims want to pray in Mosques, not Cathedrals. Even more specific, Roman Catholics like to worship with fellow Catholics, Lutherans with Lutherans, and Baptists with Baptists. I choose to worship with fellow members of the churches of Christ. It is there that I am at home. I know the language.  I am with family.

Even certain doctrines or beliefs within a specific faith or faith community have their own boundaries. Within the churches of Christ we have those who accept separate Sunday school classes for different ages, and those who believe the congregation should not be divided. We have those who believe it is wrong to eat a common meal in the church building, and those who have full sized gyms and coffee houses in their buildings. We have those who partake of the Lord’s Supper with one cup and one loaf, and those who have the  oversized thimbles full of grape juice and multiple little crackers. Instruments of music, female worship leaders – every question creates new divisions and either creates or deepens animosities.

And every division creates a new echo chamber. It is impossible not to recognize that each position comes complete with a venue to promote that opinion. As early as the second generation of the Restoration Movement, members were divided as to whether they were “Advocate men” or “Standard men.” (Women, I suppose, were identified by their husband’s allegiance). Then there came the Firm Foundation, and the Gospel Guardian, and the Heretic Detector (I kid you not), and Contending for the Faith and the Spiritual Sword and then Image and then Wineskins – and the beat goes on. Each journal, and sometimes associated lectureship, has rules about who can, and more importantly, who cannot be included in their “circle.”  Although in the early years of the Restoration Movement many journals carried written debates and articles that conveyed opinions contrary to the editor, that day has long since disappeared. Now, in order to be accepted by any journal or any lectureship a writer or speaker must be fully vetted, and if there is any shibboleth that cannot be explained, he (or she) is simply excluded.

Every journal and every lectureship within the fellowship of the Churches of Christ today is simply an echo chamber of the opinions and attitudes of those who edit/direct it. Oh, you may have the rogue conservative that travels out west or the closet progressive that manages to sneak in the midwest somewhere, but those situations are rare to the point of being isolated, and perhaps embarrassing to the powers-that-be once they are discovered.

So conservatives speak and write in echo chambers that simply reinforce their interpretations and opinions, and progressives speak and write in echo chambers that reinforce their interpretations and opinions. I am not exactly sure how to change that situation. Like I said, who wants to be in a place where they are threatened and made to feel like a lamb in the middle of a wolf convention? Not I, said this sheep.

But I just wonder (thinking out loud here), if some of the outrageously stupid things that were said in these echo chambers were spoken in a venue where they could be challenged and proven to be utterly baseless, would the condition of the average church member not be much healthier? I mean, to be absolutely honest and utterly frustrated here . . . it cannot be that it is scripturally wrong to hold or participate in a particular belief or practice and at the same time for that belief or practice to be scripturally right and blessed by God. One belief or practice is (a) wrong, and therefore a sin, or (b) right and therefore blessed by God or (c ) it is not a scriptural issue to begin with and therefore is neither (a) nor (b). But it cannot be both (a) and (b). Likewise, a passage of Scripture cannot have diametrically opposite interpretations and both (or all, if there be more than one radically different interpretation) be correct. One interpretation must be false. Jesus did not suggest that the Pharisees and Sadducees were merely mistaken. He called them blind guides and fools, and a brood of snakes. I get the impression Jesus believed the Pharisees and Sadducees were BOTH flat out, positively, absolutely wrong.

I have grown weary trying to hear a sane and honest, and yet direct, debate about some issues facing the Church of Christ today. There are a lot of people talking and writing and pontificating and lecturing and other sundry things. But they are all doing so in their respective echo chambers, where they receive standing ovations and feel-good reviews and everyone goes away happy. It is easy to feel good about what you hear in an echo chamber.

Problem is, Jesus did not say to listen to the voices in an echo chamber. He said to listen to his voice. God said listen to the voice of Jesus. It seems to me that the ONE voice we are not paying attention to today is the ONLY voice we should be listening to.

What if, or Even if…

One of the joys I have is teaching and learning from some really great young people. The other day following class a few of us were discussing various topics, and one of the things we were talking about was faithful obedience. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and their great statement of faith came up, 

O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18, RSV)

One of the students told the group he had prepared a lesson on the difference between faith and fear. The lesson is profound, so I share it with you.

Fear says, “What if . . .” Fear says, “What if I fail, what if I get sick or die, what if this solution costs too much or does not achieve the goal for which we out to overcome, what if the people reject me, what if there are unforeseen setbacks, what if, what if, what if.”

Faith says, “Even if . . .” “Even if I fail, even if I get sick or die, even if this solution costs more that the value returned, even if the people reject me, even if there are unforeseen setbacks, I am going to follow God and his word, and I am not going to give in to fear.”

It was a powerful moment. Far too often I have collapsed under the weight of the “what ifs.” I am cautious by nature, almost to a fault (maybe certainly to a fault). I like to see the end before I take a step. Could I have uttered the words of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? I shudder to think.

How many times do we worship false gods because we are afraid of the “what ifs.” How many good projects are not even attempted because of the “what ifs.” How much good could be accomplished if we would just say, “even if.” We really need to have the courage to swim against the crush of the crowds – the courage of our convictions.

I needed to hear that message. I hope it helps you too.

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