It has happened again. When in happens in multiples it gets your attention. One is an accident, two is a coincidence, three times – well, you had better pay attention.
And they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:33-37 RSV)
It would appear that there is no end of those who want to discuss among themselves who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. As I mentioned, I have come across several just in the last few days. The last one was the straw that broke this camel’s back, and so I had to vent some steam here.
There are a multitude of ways in which some declare their own superior discipleship over lesser “mere Christians.” Some do it through speaking in tongues or some other miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Some do it through rituals or practices -say fasting or praying or going on “faith walks” or the such. One favorite among preachers within the Churches of Christ is to measure Bible studies and baptisms. Some youth ministers can’t wait for summer camp so that they can carve a whole new row of notches on their spiritual six-shooter. I suppose, if I wanted to, I could add that some measure their superiority by their advanced educational degrees, or at least their advanced knowledge even if they do not have the paper to certify a degree. I mean, after all, did not Paul tell Timothy to “study to shew thyself approved unto God”? (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV) How much more of a direct command can we get than that?
The point is, it does not matter whether we quote Matthew 28:18-20 or 1 Corinthians 14:5 or 2 Timothy 2:15 until our faces turn blue – all our soap and blather will not change one basic, fundamental fact that is taught in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation – God’s grace is equal and equally undeserved and there are no levels of superior or inferior spirituality when it comes to the servants of the kingdom.
I mean, really, how many times are we going to have to hear the words of Jesus??
Listen to Paul explain, again and again, that there are NO super Christians:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. No neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7 RSV)
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Corinthians 4:1 RSV)
For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake…But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:5, 7 RSV)
See also 1 Corinthians 12:4-13:13, Romans 12:3-8. Ephesians 4:9-16.
What is so distressing to me when I hear or read these promoters of super-spirituality is that it is so believable! We want to believe that if we work a little bit harder, pray a little more fervently, teach one more Bible class that someone else or are able to parse a verb in one more language than someone else that God must pay us a little more. He has to reward us a little higher. We so desperately want to believe that there are levels of spirituality, so that I can be just a little better than the scum-sucking, bottom-feeding pew-sitter taking up space and wasting valuable resources of the church. And that is the deadly sin involved in this judgment – I am better than you because according to my measurement I am just a better, holier, more spiritual disciple than you are.
So tongue speakers measure spirituality by speaking in tongues, introverts measure spirituality by hours of prayer and devotions, personal evangelists measure discipleship by the number of Bible studies conducted and baptisms accomplished and scholars measure spirituality by articles written and conferences held.
And it is all so dreadfully, profoundly, disgustingly, sinful! Pride is a sin and it does not matter who is doing the bragging.
Why can we not just accept Paul’s teaching and realize that it takes all of us to make up the kingdom? If you have a miraculous gift – fine and wonderful. But don’t condemn me because I have another gift. Can you pray for hours uninterrupted? Wonderful! Do not cast off those who are a little more distracted. Can you initiate, teach and conclude dozens of Bible studies a year? Yahoo and praise the Lord – but do not sniff down your nose at those who cannot, and according to Scripture, even should not, be doing so. And can you translate the Bible from all the original languages into dozens of others? Jump for joy and pass the printing ink – but do not condemn, judge or dismiss those who do well to read from one easy-to-read translation.
One more passage from the mouth of our Savior:
So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10)
Let us do our duty, fulfill our gifts, lift up those who are striving to fulfill their gifts, and let us for once and for ever get over this adolescent fixation on whether we are more spiritual that someone else simply because we have a different gift.
Okay, that topic line ought to generate some curiosity. Truth be told, I’m kind of curios about it myself. I have some ideas about where I want to go, but we’ll see if I can get there or not.
The United States has been shocked over the past several weeks over two seemingly unrelated major aircraft accidents. In the first, an Asiana Airlines plane coming in for a landing in San Francisco clipped a sea wall and burst into flames as it slammed to the ground. In the second, and most recent event, a UPS plane also coming in for a landing mysteriously got well below the landing path and slammed into a hill a short distance from the runway. In both accidents there were fatalities. The reason “why” something tragic like those accidents occurred can never take away the pain of the loss of those human lives.
There are major differences between the two accidents. The planes were built by two different designers. The first was a major people-carrying airline, the second strictly a cargo carrying jet. The first had at least three pilots in the cockpit and was landing in the daylight with good visibility. The second had two well-qualified pilots, was landing at night (or, extremely early morning) and there were reports of low clouds and less than perfect visibility, although not low enough to mandate a precision instrument approach.
The questions are baffling: Why would (at least) five well qualified and highly trained professional pilots fly two state-of-the-art modern jets right into the ground? Why were there no distress calls in either case? Why did the automated systems in the planes not alert the pilots with enough time to recover from their low approaches? Were the pilots too fatigued? Were they distracted by other aspects of the planes’ highly technical computerized flight systems? Was there insufficient or defective communication between the pilot-in-command and the pilot flying as first officer? (Just because a pilot is listed as “captain” and “first officer” does not necessarily mean each was flying in that capacity on that leg. It is customary for captains and first officers to alternate legs of flights so that each can log time as “pilot-in-command” time in their log books, and to log take-offs, landings, instrument time, night flight, etc., as necessary components to keep their credentials up-to-date. Captains fly from the left seat, first officers fly from the right seat, regardless of who is “pilot-in-command” on that leg).
It is interesting, but speculation has focused on one common thread in both accidents – the growing dependance on automation and the resulting loss of piloting skill among super modern jet pilots. As computer technology has become more and more complex inside these jet cockpits the role of the pilots has morphed. Modern jet pilots are far more “systems managers” than they are “stick and rudder” pilots. Few jets are manufactured with cables connecting the pilot controls to the flight surfaces, meaning that there is no “feel” experienced by the pilots. In the case of the UPS plane, the pilots fly with a little joy-stick mounted on the side of the airplane, much like a computer game controller on your family entertainment center. The computer is constantly evaluating every control input by the pilot, and in some situations will actually override the control input by a pilot. No doubt this is a good thing in some situations, but, once again, it removes certain command decisions from the pilot. The maddening thing is the pilots are not required to know less: in fact, they must learn more – but they are not learning more about flying, they are learning more about managing complex computer systems. Perfectly good airplanes are not supposed to be flown into the ground. Something is very wrong with our technology obsessed culture.
We are not altogether in the situation that Dave faced with HAL in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” but we are getting close.
As I write this it is still far to early in either accident to know for certain why each accident occurred. Knowing a little about cockpit management and having studied some accident reports I can think of some scenarios for the first accident (the Asiana flight at San Francisco) but the UPS flight is simply a mind-bender to me. UPS is a top-notch, extremely well run organization with some of the best pilots around. Flying freight is a great gig. No passengers to complain, relatively uncrowded skies to fly in, great companies (UPS and Fed-Ex for sure) and extremely lucrative pay packages. I am sure that both of the pilots on the UPS flight were living their dream. That they would fly that jet into the ground is, to me, simply unimaginable. I suppose some day we will know what happened in those last few seconds, but it simply defies common logic at this point.
Which, in a long and circuitous route, brings me to my third topic – that of the decline of education in the United States today. In many ways we are the most technologically progressive and the most educationally regressive society that has ever existed. Our college students can operate virtually any type of computer equipment with expert proficiency and yet many cannot write a coherent English sentence. Our elementary school children are taught that spelling does not matter as long as they can get close to how the word sounds. Students are promoted to the next grade level with no regard for their ability to perform, but simply because holding them back would damage their fragile self-esteems. And now, with the explosion of on-line (so called) education, more and more people are being given certificates and diplomas for accomplishing nothing more than watching a few videos and taking a few multiple choice on-line tests.
In economics, if you continually print more and more paper dollar bills, the overall value of those bills drops. Our “one dollar” bill is nowhere close to the value it had several decades ago, simply because the Federal Reserve keeps printing more and more and more, just to prop up the economy. In education, when you hand out worthless and meaningless diplomas and certificates you are in effect “devaluing” the value of your diploma or certificate. Quite honestly, a high school diploma does not mean as much as it once did. And Bachelors degrees and Masters degrees are catching up with blazing speed.
If you read this space often you know this is a common rant with me. I just hate to see education go down this road. We should be demanding more, and all we are doing is demanding different. There is something tragically wrong when a child can enter college and not be able to spell correctly, write a coherent sentence, and to be able to analyze a complex paragraph or short story. I have no idea how the folks in the hard sciences are doing – maybe they are faring better. I just know what I hear and see, and it is not pleasant.
The sad thing is it is not the student’s fault that they are not being taught. You cannot learn what the teacher refuses to teach. I wonder if the “group promotion” concept did not have more to do with the educators’ fragile self-esteem rather than the students’ need to be recognized. If all of your students pass on to the next grade you must be a pretty good teacher, right? Who cares that they cannot read, write, or do basic math. Just pass them up to the next teacher and make those students his or her problem.
I guess that works to a certain degree.
Until airplanes start falling out of the sky for no good reason.
(Editor and author’s update: After posting this the lovely and very perceptive Mrs. Freightdawg gently questioned me – okay, she lowered the boom on me. Because of my rather injudicious choice of language, it might appear that I am accusing individual teachers of blatantly refusing to teach the necessary basics of education. This is NOT what I intended to convey. Many teachers are forced to teach nonsense and they deeply resent having to do do in order to teach to some governmental standard. I feel for those teachers. When you are between a rock and a hard place it is impossible to find a comfortable position.
That having been said, I stand by my assertion that the overall product of the American educational system is just weak. Maybe the problem goes way beyond the local and state schools systems. Maybe it is totally a failure at the federal level. Whatever the cause, the answer is simple: go back to basics – reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, spelling, penmanship, and basic fundamental science courses.
If I offended any teachers out there I am sorry – that was not my intent. My purpose was to draw attention to the dismal product of our overall American educational system. Until we lean how to fix that, our children will always be at risk, and ultimately, so will our culture.)
To begin, the standard warnings: I am not a geneticist. I barely survived high school biology. Neither am I a sociologist, psychologist nor psychiatrist. I am a minister, and college instructor and as such you can call me a professional theologian, although the ivory tower types would certainly have room to look down their noses at me. I try to be as faithful to the text of Scripture as I can, knowing that I have certain biases and characteristics about my life that shape, whether consciously or unconsciously, my reading of Scripture. Also, I want to approach this subject in a pastoral context. The question to ask is not how do we condemn someone, or make their life miserable, but how do we bring every life (and we are all broken in some way) into the healing power of Jesus? I hope my comments are viewed as such.
The issue that I want to examine today involves the behavior of homosexuality, and in particular, what seems like a growing movement within Christian churches to view homosexuality as a God-given, inborn trait. This inborn reality and the behavior that follows must either be accepted and celebrated (the Anglican/Episcopal church, many churches within the Presbyterian Church USA, many Lutheran churches, etc) or at the very least acknowledged as real, yet overcome through self-denial or outright rejection. I want to challenge this growing acceptance of a theory that I believe is false at its very core, and therefore dangerous for Christians to promote.
As we begin, let us ask what advantage is being sought when a person says, “This is how God made me, I cannot change; therefore you must accept me for the way in which I am created by a loving and all-powerful God?” This person is laying a foundation that if someone chooses to disagree with him or her, the antagonist must be in disagreement with God. No self-respecting Christian wants to disagree with God, so the inclination is to surrender the first half of the statement while trying in some manner to overcome the second part. In my opinion that is an exercise in futility. The person who builds this foundation has done so intentionally to block the Christian into a corner. You either agree that God created this person with these traits, or you reject the creative power of God at the outset. Once you accept that God has created the trait it becomes an exercise in sophistry to attempt to label the behavior as sinful. For every argument that is made there is a ready-made defense. The Christian who argues in this matter becomes Sisyphus, forever doomed to pushing a boulder up a craggy hill.
So, for me the issue revolves around the question of the naturalness, or the normalcy, of the homosexual inclination. Are some people simply born with an irresistible need, and therefore desire, for sexual, psychological, and emotional support from a person of the same sex? If you answer “yes” to that question, how can you argue that the expression of that need can be considered as an abomination, a perversion, of God’s so-called “plan” for human sexuality? If God gave a person a need for sexual release with a person of the same sex, how can he condemn the practice of that release? In my opinion, this is an unanswerable question.
There are, make no mistake, abnormalities and genetic malfunctions of a myriad of types and variations within the human body. Some people are prone to obesity, some to diabetes, some to outbursts of anger and rage, some to the inability to process alcohol, and some even to kleptomania (the urge to steal). No one seriously would argue that these abnormalities or malfunctions should be accepted and celebrated. No one who is morbidly obese enjoys being unable to perform even the most basic of human activities. No one who is diabetic would glorify the issues that they must deal with. Certainly, most alcoholics would give anything to be rid of the problem that they struggle against on a daily basis. The issues are clear, and the response is virtually unanimous – we fight against these diseases and genetic problems only by first acknowledging that they are diseases and genetic malfunctions.
And so my question to those who argue that homosexuality is an inborn, genetic “gift” from God is this – would you accept and promote a search for the identification and “cure” of this genetic trait? If not every inborn, genetic trait is a positive, healthy, “natural” one, how can we argue that a “homosexual” gene is a positive, healthy, “natural” gene?
There are a couple of facts (as I see them) that even homosexuals cannot deny. One is that homosexuals cannot reproduce without either (a) a surrogate female to carry a baby for two homosexual men, or (b) a male to donate sperm to one or both females in a lesbian relationship. Homosexuality is, by that very definition, unnatural. If someday a genetic link is discovered that determines a person to be homosexual, then I would also suggest that link must be defined as abnormal, recessive, or defective in some way.
One other fact that I believe homosexuals must accept is that there are individuals who have lived a life practicing homosexuality and who have made the conscious decision to leave that lifestyle and live either in a heterosexual union with a husband or wife, or as a celibate single. If, as some suggest, homosexuality is a genetic trait, this would be impossible. Now, the public response from most homosexuals is that “these people were never really homosexuals to begin with, they were simply acting like homosexuals.” This is the old Calvinist response reworded. When someone who lived most of their life in the church suddenly disavowed anything having to do with Jesus it was argued – “This person was never really a Christian, so their rejection of Jesus just revealed that they were reprobate all along.” Never mind that during the person’s life of homosexuality, (or Christianity) neither they nor anyone even closely related to them would suspect that they were anything but homosexual or Christian. Once again, we return to pure sophistry. We try to prove a negative. Logic, and ultimately the revelation of Scripture, ceases to be applicable.
The inability, or the refusal, to confront someone actively involved in a sinful lifestyle is not compassion. It reveals the worst form of negligence. We cannot confuse acceptance of a sinful lifestyle with compassion. The most compassionate thing is sometimes the most painful. Jesus said, “Go and sin no more,” not “go with my sympathy.”
I want to close by saying that human sexuality is complex and mysterious. We will no doubt never understand the depths of what it means to be male and female. But, just as God has given us food to enjoy and to promote growth, and drink to enjoy and to promote growth, he has give us our sexual natures to enjoy and to reproduce the human race. God has also given us very strict limits as to how we exercise that sexual nature, just as he has given limits in terms of food (not to starve ourselves, and not to the point of gluttony) and drink (not to starve ourselves, but also not to the point of inebriation). We simply cannot redefine the terms of sexuality based on evolving, and some might say devolving, cultural standards.
We must also admit that the event of conversion is equally complex and mysterious. I cannot explain why one person would reject their homosexual lifestyle and another person says that such a process is impossible. I do reject the “impossible,” however. With God everything, is possible. Otherwise, none of us could leave our life of sin and become new creatures.
As always, I stand willing to be convinced otherwise if I am in error concerning any aspect of what I have written. I am certainly not omniscient in this or any regard. These are my conclusions, opinions and related questions as I stand at this time, and I invite others to join in the conversation.
In everything, may God be glorified, and may we seek to be shaped into the image of His Son.
When will we be able to move past our racism? (I speak primarily of the United States, but other countries no doubt have their racial issues as well.) When will we, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, judge a person based solely on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin? I have an answer, but I will save it for the end of this post.
I reacted very strongly to the verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial. I thought the verdict was wrong, a fiasco, a blatant miscarriage of justice. Within 48 hours one of the so-called “unbiased” jurors revealed she had signed a book deal to “tell all” about the trial and the deliberations. Public outrage blew that bald-faced self-promotion out of the water. But this same juror showed up on a national TV show and spoke about her experiences. She referred to the defendant as “George” repeatedly. She spoke explicitly about a “stand your ground” law that was never even referenced in the trial, nor in the jury instructions (the wording, as far as I can tell, came from a self-defense provision, but not the law that received the nickname, “stand your ground.”) She allowed that Zimmerman should not have exited his vehicle that dark and rainy night, but almost in the same breath said that race had nothing to do with the jury’s deliberations, nor did she think that racial profiling was a part of the case.
In other words, this supposedly unbiased juror confirmed every one of my public and private fears about this trial. She connected totally on an emotional level with Zimmerman (poor little Georgie, he got a boo-boo on his noggin). Even though Trayvon Martin was doing absolutely nothing wrong, and that Zimmerman never should have exited his vehicle, she still bought into the defense argument that it was Martin that initiated the confrontation, not Zimmerman. We will never know who started that fight, and all we have is Zimmerman’s story. According to this juror there were three votes for guilty and three for acquittal when the jurors first started their deliberations. One juror actually felt Zimmerman was guilty of 2nd degree murder, two others felt he was guilty of manslaughter. That means that the three who leaned toward acquittal were able to change the minds of the three who leaned toward conviction. I wonder how they managed to do that?
Actually, I think I know. All through this trial Zimmerman was portrayed as the victim. Martin has been referred to as a thug, a hoodlum, a gang-banger, street trash. Zimmerman sat in the courtroom all spiffed up in his designer suits looking absolutely cherubic. And don’t feed me that “half Hispanic” line. Zimmerman looks as lilly white as Princess Kate. Those jurors saw this as a white/black issue, whether they would admit to it or not. It was simply inconceivable that a good white boy would be the instigator of a racial conflict. That black boy got what he “deserved.”
This morning a poll was released that just further confirmed my suspicions. As long as the link is valid, you can find the story here. To summarize, the poll revealed that by a significant margin white people and Republicans feel that there is no racial problem in the US, and that the justice system is just fine. Not surprisingly, black people and Democrats feel that racism is alive and well in the US, and that the justice system is broken. In my mind this disparity can only be interpreted one way – when you are in power, when you have absolutely no fear of being profiled by the color of your skin, when you do not have to fear having some vigilante with a loaded gun follow your 17 year old son simply because he “looks suspicious,” when you can put on a suit and tie and have a juror call you by your first name, then the world is pretty rosy for you. Conversely, when you cannot go to a convenience store and buy a snack without having somebody question your behavior, when you cannot walk down the street without having people move away from you, if you fear having your child pulled over by a policeman for “driving while black,” if your son can be shot dead and have the killer acquitted from even the most benign charges, then you are not going to have a very cheerful view of America and its judicial system.
By an overwhelming majority, white people and Republicans just simply do not get this. There is none quite so blind as he who will not see.
For the record, I am a white middle aged male. But a few years ago one of my very good friends told me about being stopped by a policeman in Houston, TX, for no other reason than he was a black man driving where he should not have been driving. “Driving while black” is what they call it. Maybe for the first time in my life I felt another man’s pain because of blatant racism. It changed me.
If I am not mistaken, God calls this behavior “sin.” And he has always called it “sin” and he will always call it “sin.”
How will America heal its racial divisions? The only way that I see forward is for all of us, white, black, brown, yellow, red – even green or purple, to actually confess that we have a racial problem. That’s right – all of us. White on black, black on white, brown on black, red on white – every color against every other color. Racism does not cut one way, or even two ways. Racism cuts every direction, and we cannot even remotely consider ourselves to be a Christian people as long as we harbor prejudices against someone simply because of the color of his or her skin.
Maybe one day we will be able to judge people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. But as the Zimmerman verdict, and the very public comments by that juror demonstrates, that day will not occur any time soon.
Certainly not as long as a few scratches on the back of one man’s head are viewed as more significant than a gunshot wound in a young man’s chest.
Turn to me and be saved, all who live at the ends of the earth, because I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:22, God’s Word Translation)
I was following along today in my daily Bible reading schedule and this verse caught my attention. A question came to my mind – “Why do we read Scripture?” It is not as easy a question to answer as you may think.
This is a personal confession, but for me the vast majority of my Bible reading is academic, professional, or related to debate and confrontation. That is to say, I read to find out what a passage “means,” I read to find out how to present the message to others, or I read in order to make my point or to refute the arguments of others.
In rather stark terms, I totally misread Scripture. Not always, but far too frequently. And, I might add, with disappointing results.
Scripture, the very word of God, was not written to be used as a billy club, an instrument of terror and abuse. It was not written to be a forensic textbook, a guide to win arguments and destroy enemies.
God spoke to his prophets, servants and apostles in order to win people back to Him. God’s messages were always personal, even if delivered to a large crowd, or even an entire nation. God’s messages were written in first person singular – “I.” The object was almost always “you,” although on occasion it could be “them.” The prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles in the New Testament never spoke about, or taught about, or tried to explain God. They simply spoke for God. Theirs was the message, “Thus says the LORD God…” This is a critical point to grasp, because we (speaking generically) do not read our text this way.
Everything changed when the Greek philosophical mindset overcame the Hebraic worldview. Even before the coming of Jesus the Greeks had a history of trying to figure out the question of deity and how the gods related to man. And so, as Christianity spread from its Judaic cradle the discussion ceased to be, “What did God say?” and became “What is a god?” or “What is a man?” We can document this in the early debates and struggles of the church. In the first few decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus the message was simple – “come back to God through the blood of Christ.” But, that did not last for long. Soon people started to ask questions like, “How could Jesus be God?” and “How could a god become man, anyway?” So, academics replaced evangelism, ontology replaced faith, and we have never really rid ourselves of that Greek desire to figure out the “how” instead of simply answering the “what” question: what are you going to do with the message of Jesus?
The bottom line is that I do not believe Scripture was written so that I can explain God. Quite simply, God does not need to be explained. Either we believe in Him or we do not. We can’t explain him anyway – Plato and Aristotle’s noble attempts notwithstanding.
Scripture was written so God could win us back to Him. The divine “I” still speaks to the human “you.” Sometimes that word is painfully personal. Sometimes it is national, or even universal, in scope. But, it was not written to be an academic treatise, a manual for succeeding in public debate, or as a introductory text in biology and physics.
I still fall back into my old habits, but I am learning. I hope that I will be able to get better as I learn to read deeper. And I hope you will too.
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.
[And so ends my series on the 10 Commandments. Thou shalt rejoice.]
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:17 RSV)
There is a significant shift between commands #4 (to remember the Sabbath day) and #5 (to honor parents). That shift is from commands that regulate or prescribe our behavior before God and to commands that regulate or prescribe our behavior with other people. That shift has been widely noted and thoroughly commented on. However, there is another shift that occurs between commands #9 and #10, and it is a shift that I have not previously noted until I started working through this series. Maybe I read about it somewhere, but if I have it sure did not stick in my memory very well.
That shift is from overt behavior to an attitude of the heart. Think about it. Honoring parents, not killing, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness – all of these require an action, or refraining from an action. But covetousness? That is strictly a heart issue. Therein lies a critical exegetical and hermeneutical point that I think many of us (okay, at least me) have missed when we study the 10 Commandments.
I have been raised with the understanding that the 10 Commandments were all about what you did or did not do. However, when Jesus came along he straightened everybody out and made sure that it was not just about what we did, but what we thought. Therefore (and I’m jumping over some intermediary steps here), the Old Testament is all about the flesh and the New Testament is all about the spirit. Therefore, we can reject the Old Testament and follow only the New Testament.
The only problem is, this is not true. The Old Testament was never just about the flesh. In fact it was not even primarily about the flesh. God simply used more fleshly illustrations in the Old Testament (animal sacrifice, oil lamps, incense, laws carved on stones) to teach His lessons. Like a patient and loving parent, God was showing his children how he wanted them to behave. But we do not discipline our children simply to inflict pain. We teach our children profound spiritual lessons through the use of very down to earth physical means. As they get older we can dispense with the physical, because they have (hopefully) already learned those lessons.
The truth is, the Old Testament is full of God emphasizing the spiritual truths that re-appear in the New Testament. But, if we dismiss the Old Testament because of a few bloody sacrifices and some arcane language about skin diseases and dietary restrictions we don’t see those truths. In fact, we consciously overlook them. And in so doing we excise a significant part of God’s complete word.
I know I have not dealt too much with the tenth commandment. So, let’s look at that command very briefly.
Why are we not to look upon our neighbor’s belongings (wife, servants, animals, anything) with longing eyes? Because, very simply, in so doing we are telling ourselves (and anyone who is sharp enough to catch on to what we are doing) that God’s gifts to us are not quite good enough. God loves other people more, and so if we could just have sex with our neighbor’s wife, if we could just own their servant (hire their employees in our world) or own their car then we would be loved by God just as much. Coveting what belongs to someone else is, at its core, a rejection of the grace of God-given to us. We shake our fist at God and say, “Not good enough! I want more, better, bigger, prettier, more expensive!” Coveting a neighbor’s wife is the sin of David – God would have given him anything he asked for, but no, that was not good enough for David (2 Samuel 12:8). He took that which was not only illegal, but primarily irreligious to have. He rejected God’s grace and demanded a physical pleasure. In one of the most amazing reversals of justice, God does not demand David’s death (which could have been expected due to David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah) and completely upon the basis of grace extends David’s life. Not only that, but God elevates the son of this union, Solomon, to the throne of Israel. How about that for a reversal of fortunes!
I would encourage everyone to re-think their appraisal of not only the 10 Commandments, but the Old Testament in its entirety. Yes, Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant. Yes the old covenant practices are removed (more correctly defined – perfected) in the sacrifice of Jesus. Yes, we have done away with the physical nature of the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly sacrifice of blood, the burning of incense, and the other trappings of the tabernacle/temple worship. But we also have to remember that the Old Testament was the Scripture for the first century church. By removing it from our study and our worship we have impoverished the modern church. It is time to recover this tremendous spiritual feast.
Let us never forget the words of Jesus on that mountain, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17).
Let us learn to read the 10 Commandments, and the entire Old Testament, with new eyes.
[Legal disclaimer: I am currently involved in the university teaching world. The school that I serve currently believes very strongly in the process of on-line teaching. Therefore, my comments should be interpreted strictly as my own, and in no way do they reflect the policies or opinions of any employer I have had in the past, or will have in the future.]
I do not think that it would be controversial at all to make that statement that education in the United States is in a crisis mode. It has been for several decades, but it seems to me that the passage of the “No Child Left Behind” act really put the education system in the US in a tailspin. Educators are finally getting the attention of the politicians, and there are some hopeful signs that we can correct the worst of the damage, but I’m not sure but that we have severely handicapped the better part of a generation with our “teaching to pass the standardized test” methods of the past several years.
DOWNWARD TREND #1: However, I see another trend developing, and as bad as NCLB was, I think this one is worse. And it has come not through the edict of congress, but through the evolution (or devolution) of the twin powers of developing technology and political correctness. That trend will ultimately spell the demise of what we refer to as “higher education” in the United States. It affects junior colleges, standard four-year colleges, and graduate programs. That trend is the seemingly unstoppable headlong rush into “on-line” computerized courses where the student has no face to face contact with his or her professor, nor any collegial contact with fellow students.
If you stay current with higher education trends you are no doubt familiar with “Massive Open On-Line Courses” (MOOC) that many universities and colleges are offering. If the university does not offer a MOOC, it is virtually certain that it will offer some or all of its catalog of courses via an on-line option. There are many reasons given for the option to allow on-line courses, but the bottom line is, well, the bottom line.
On-line courses save money, and that is their only benefit. Pious platitudes such as, “it allows the non-traditional student the ability to study and maintain their current position” is just that – a pious platitude. If the courses were limited to only those students who could not physically attend a local university that might be a legitimate argument – but even then I am not going to accept it. And, it is clear that more on-campus students take on-line courses than do off campus students. In the common vernacular, on-line courses are a crock.
From the founding of this nation until just a few decades ago, the attainment of a Bachelor’s, Master’s or Doctoral degree was the sign of exceptional perseverance, a dedicated work/study habit, and very often of great sacrifice. Our businesses, our corporations, our classrooms, and our courts are full of individuals who bussed tables, served as waitresses/waiters, mowed lawns, washed windows or mopped floors in order to put themselves through a college or university, and they did it by taking night classes or going to school in the day and working at night. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the graduation podium. Instead of a higher education being a tremendous honor and hard-earned accomplishment, it became some kind of a right that should be bestowed on everyone who wanted it. Exit hard work, sacrifice and dedication, enter the privileged class.
I am a part of that generation that felt it was “owed” a higher education. For my graduating class it was assumed that we would be going to a university. And, with very few exceptions, it was assumed our way would be paid by our parents – or with loans we would have to pay back, or by grants and scholarships supplied by someone else. That is just the way our world worked. Several of my classmates in college did have to work their way through school, but at least all of us had to do one thing in common – we had to leave our homes and travel to an on-site university where we had to sit in a class and actually pay attention to the professor.
Now, move the clock forward to the second decade of the 21st century. The right of a higher education has only been strengthened, but a profound shift has occurred in relation to the sacrifice and dedication it takes to obtain that degree. Today’s pitiful little high school graduates do not have to leave home, or even leave their bedrooms, to enter college. And, heaven forbid they actually have to pay for the degree they are supposedly earning. No, the mantra is that we want a full college diploma, but we don’t want to have to actually attend a class or pay full tuition, we want to stare at a computer screen dressed in our jammies and pay a fraction of what it costs to support a brick-and-mortar physical building.
I know I am being snarky. I’m sorry, but this issue is just too important not to express some of my baser emotions. But, intellectually, here is the real rub. education is more than the simple transfer of data from one computer to another computer. Education takes place in the give-and-take and the interaction between instructor and student, and between student and student, and that has always been the strength of a university setting. Students from all different backgrounds and all different belief systems are smashed together in a grand environment in which ideas and concepts and thoughts and issues are discussed in an (ideally) neutral context and out of the whole glorious mess an educated person emerges sometime later. Remove all of the educative environment and all you get is the transfer of a few thousand pixels of information and an isolated individual with no real connection to the instructor or their fellow students.
If costs are truly the issue, there are ways to address that issue. First and foremost would be the elimination of government guaranteed student loans. (Like that will ever happen.) But to cut the education nose off to spite the financial face is simply, in a plain old good English word, stupid.
DOWNWARD TREND #2: Lest I get too long-winded concerning the first issue, I have to address the second disturbing trend I see developing. In the grand and glorious state in which I reside the governor just signed into legislation a bill providing for the largest city to offer high school classes in which the students will be prepared to graduate with, get this, both a high school diploma and an Associate degree. Already many students are graduating from high school having earned enough college credits through dual classes to enter a college or university as a second semester freshman, or in some cases, even a sophomore. I remember as a high school graduate we could earn college credits, but we had to take a college equivalency test administered by a specific college or university to do so!
Now, either high school students today are just light years ahead of where we were thirty years ago, or something is seriously flawed about this system. Believe me, I grade papers produced by college sophomores, juniors and seniors. I have students who cannot compose a coherent English sentence, let alone a college level paragraph, or heaven forbid, and entire 10 page paper.
So, you are going to tell me that a high school graduate has learned everything he or she needs to know in order to graduate from high school and an additional two years of college studies to earn an Associate degree? Really? Really? I get to see the results of all our educational political correctness, and believe me, it is depressing. But it is NOT just me. Every instructor I talk to has the same experience. We are producing the most highly credentialed uneducated graduates ever in the history of this country.
Hey, Governor Martinez – I have an idea. Let’s just give every kindergarten graduate a full four-year Bachelor’s degree and cut the whole elementary, middle school and high school stuff out. That would save us a ton of money!
What is the solution to this madness? I really do not know. Maybe society will devolve so that spelling, the construction of a coherent sentence and the ability to perform fundamental math equations will no longer be necessary. Maybe with voice activated computer systems the human brain will shrink to the point that none of this will matter. Maybe when we fill our heads with hip-hop mush and utterly lose the ability to read Plato and Aristotle and Shakespeare and Thoreau we will no longer be aware of what we are missing. Maybe then it will be of no consequence at all.
But for some of us still alive it matters very much. And when I have a paper turned in with eloquent phraseology, perfect spelling and genuinely creative thinking, there is a little glimmer of hope that possibly the concept of education will not die after all.
I can only hope.
You shall not steal. (Exodus 20:15)
A very good friend gave me a surefire way to determine whether you have violated this commandment. Just follow these questions -
Is it in your possession? (yes)
Did you buy it? (no)
Did you trade something for it? (no)
Did someone give it to you? (no)
Did you make it? (no)
Then you stole it. Give it back.
That logic is pretty easy to follow if we are talking about a candy bar at the local convenience store. But when the discussion gets to adult issues the answers are not so easy to come by.
Is gambling stealing? Well, at least if you win something?
What about the lottery, is that really gambling? And if you win something, are you guilty of stealing other people’s money? (They obviously don’t have it anymore!)
And, (drum roll please) what about the 6 million dollar question – is making a living off of welfare considered stealing? A person on welfare (and a whole host of other governmental give-aways) is not earning anything, is not receiving the benefit of any labor. A whole bunch of other people do not have the money that they did earn by hard work that was taken from them (by force of law, by the IRS). So, is welfare stealing?
Some would argue that living off of welfare is simply being taken care of by a benevolent government. I would agree with that argument if the government was accepting donations for the welfare system. I would also be more willing to accept it if the recipients were required to produce something in order to get the benefits. But when you coerce people into surrendering large portions of their income to support a systematic method of discouraging industry and self-reliance then I have to question whether there is any benevolence in the system at all.
In God’s economy as illustrated in the Old Covenant, a wealthy land owner was able to cultivate, plant and harvest his crops. This provided for his family, and no doubt the families of his hired hands (or slaves, as the case may have been). Perhaps he also sold or bartered his crops for the other things his family needed. It was an economy that was certainly not capitalistic as we use the term, but it did allow for hard work and industry to be rewarded. However, the land owner was specifically commanded not to harvest to the very edges of his field, and was not to scrape every last grape from his vine. He was to leave the edges, the corners, and the odd bunch of grapes for the poor, the homeless, the landless, and the outcast. There was no welfare system in God’s economy. Provision was made so that poor people could eat, but they had to get out and harvest or glean for their well-being and the care of those who were depending upon them. It was a perfect system of checks and balances. The wealthy could earn a decent living, the poor could be taken care of. But everyone had to contribute.
In my opinion, welfare is nothing other than legalized stealing, big government sanctioned theft. As I mentioned, that goes for a host of other government sanctioned subsidies and grants. We are simply stealing from the industrious and giving to those who cannot work, or more insidiously, are able to work but are simply not willing to work.
What about gambling and playing the lottery? A case could be made that, since everyone involved plays willingly, there is no theft as such. While the issue is not as clear-cut to me as the issue of welfare and other governmental “redistribution of wealth,” I do have some serious misgivings about such “games of chance.”
For one, gambling and the lottery have been rightly described as a repressive tax against the poor and ignorant. There is a reason wealthy people do not use gambling and the lottery as a way to get more wealthy – they know that the house always wins. It is true beyond question that the wealthy gamble, and gamble in huge amounts (just consider horse racing, the “sport of kings”). But I would suggest that for wealthy people gambling is primarily a recreation – a sport, a competition that raises their adrenaline level and makes their otherwise boring lives a little more interesting. On the other hand, the poor and the ignorant see gambling and the lottery as a way to move up, “I’m gonna hit it rich sometime.” There is a joke that says rich people have IRAs, 401(k)s, stocks, bonds, and other retirement portfolios; rednecks have PowerBall. That would be a lot funnier if it were not so true, and so very sad. Billions of dollars are wasted annually that should have been spent on rent, food and clothing.
(I suppose in the interest of open disclosure, I have been known to occasionally buy the tempting PowerBall ticket myself. The baby always needs a new pair of shoes. What was I saying about “ignorant”?)
It all boils down to those simple little questions and the heart of the disciple. Did you earn it? Did you make it? Was it a gift fairly given? Did you buy it or trade for it with money or something else you fairly earned?
If not, you stole it. It does not belong to you.
Give it back.
And the Lord said: Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid. (Isaiah 29:13-14, RSV)
I wish I had a dollar for every book and blog post that has been written describing the decline of the church of Jesus Christ today, or the prescription of the one single magic potion that would reverse this decline. Depending on the theological worldview of the author the church either has to become more modern or it has to go back to a pristine form of some past era. The worship needs to become more vibrant, relevant and “hip” or it needs to become more contemplative and dignified. The church needs to surrender the reigns of leadership to the younger people (whether in actual roles of leadership or at least in terms of the direction of the church) or it needs to “put the young ‘uns in their place” and reject any and every call for modernization. Just about everyone has a silver bullet or at least a silver plated bullet that will bring the church back from the brink of destruction to a full blossom of youth and vitality.
I am struck with the realization that most of these suggestions, while every one might be good intentioned and even healthy in some respect, can be described simply as window dressing. Hiring a younger minister, recruiting a praise time or removing the praise band altogether, removing the pews, creating a prayer labyrinth, lighting candles and incense – all of these external changes will amount to nothing if there is not a substantial change somewhere else. That change has got to be in the heart of the individual, and the collective heart of the congregation, or nothing anyone does is going to amount to anything at all.
I am also struck with the realization that the one voice that most people refuse to allow to be spoken in the church is the voice of the prophet. Hence, I turn to the prophets with increasing interest. I am convinced we cannot hear the voice of the Messiah correctly if we refuse to hear the voices of those who prepared for his arrival. I believe our focus on surface religion and our avoidance of the prophetic message are inextricably related. If we want to restore our church, we must learn to hear the prophets once again. No, that is not a “magic bullet.” But it is a necessary beginning.
Notice in the passage above – Isaiah did not say the people were not honoring God. Oh, they were honoring God all right – dressed in their finery and exuding all kinds of spirituality they worshipped with great pomp and circumstance. But, and this is a common theme throughout all the writing prophets, God would not be mocked with their false worship. He saw straight through their empty and vain ceremony. As Isaiah stated it, the process of worship that had devolved by the time of his writing was simply, “…a commandment of men learned by rote.” How many of our worship services can be described by that one dreadful line?
I have been involved in multiple ministry situations in a relatively broad sampling of congregations and there is one characteristic that defines virtually all of them. (Note: I have not been to every congregation, so if your congregation does not fit this description, simply move on). That characteristic is a lack of commitment. I am not accusing every member of every congregation – some members are amazingly committed. There is, however, a disturbing number of individuals who simply could not be any less interested in the mission of the church.
I have known members who would not miss a softball practice or game to save their life, but who cannot manage to get out of bed early enough on Sunday morning to attend a Bible study. I have known dear sweet little old widow ladies who would not miss their weekly card game if they had double pneumonia, but let them be afflicted with a case of the sniffles and they are nowhere to be found on Sunday morning. I know men who can quote the batting averages of the complete roster of their favorite baseball team who could not find a Scripture if they were handed a Bible with thumb indexes for each book. I have known church leaders who had a chest full of pins from their social club honoring their recruiting prowess who never, ever invited anyone to attend a worship service. I have known salesmen who would drop everything to make a sales call for their business but who were always “booked solid” when it came time to make an appointment to study the Bible with a friend or neighbor. I have known brilliant teachers who were always “too tired” to teach a class. I have known retirees who had plenty of time for the golf course, for the fishing stream, or for the lunch room at the senior center but somehow never had any time to volunteer for a congregational ministry.
Why is it that the auditorium will be full on Sunday morning, but on Monday or Tuesday night when the “rubber is meeting the road” there is only a handful of members show up? And why is it that even though they are so worn out, so tired, and so distracted, that they would not be any other place but the Bible study table, the prison visiting room, the nursing home, the soup kitchen? Is it not because deep inside their heart they have the love of their Lord burning brightly?
Somehow or another the softball diamond, the card table, the bowling alley, the social club, the Senior Center – all of these can make absolute demands of our time and we do not even flinch. But let the Lord’s servant speak the words “total commitment” and watch the fur fly.
How dare you expect me to be totally committed to the church! You are not my master. I have more important things to do.
And so Bible studies go untaught, lonely people go unvisited, critical ministries wither and rot when the willing servants finally get burned out or die. And the members who only know the “fear of the Lord as a commandment learned by rote” wonder why their country is “going to the dogs,” wonder why no one seems to have any moral values anymore, wonder why no one is attending their church anymore, wonder why there is no teacher for their class, wonder why no one will ever come to visit them. And they dream up such wonderful ideas as adding PowerPoint projectors to their auditoriums and building a prayer labyrinth in the weed patch behind the building. And, if they are really radical, they might even recruit a praise team to make their vain worship more relevant.
Sometimes I really have to wonder – Is God through with us yet? When is he going to do something marvelous with this generation? And will we have the spiritual eyes and ears to become aware of it when it happens?
God, revive us again, and please give us eyes to see, and ears to hear when your Spirit starts working in our desperate world.