The Depressing Burden of Mediocrity

I have come to a depressing, but inescapable conclusion.

No one wants to be exceptional anymore.

With very few exceptions (sports, maybe the arts), no one wants to stand out above their peers, and certainly no one wants to be accused of being exceptional in their field. Mediocrity has become the new obsession. Viva la vanilla.

I am reminded of a scene in one of my favorite movies. I cannot remember the script verbatim, but I can come close. The movie was “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and this particular version (I’m told there is more than one) is told through the eyes of an English fop who goes about rescuing members of the French aristocracy during the French Revolution. The scene is a lavish party in which the Englishman arrives impolitely late. He excuses himself with his usual bravado and over-the-top grandiosity by saying, “Sink me, if you Frenchmen are all not so equal that nobody wants to do the driving anymore.”

Americans have become so indistinguishably equal now that no one wants to drive anything anymore.

The debate about “American exceptionalism” over the past decade is just one, although a troubling one, example of this relatively recent development. Why is it that to suggest that the United States holds some sort of “primacy among peers” role is some sort of blasphemy? American soldiers were primarily (although clearly not solely) responsible for the winning of two world wars. American farmers feed more people than dozens, if not hundreds, of countries combined. When disaster strikes, American reserves and very often American lives are the first to alleviate the resulting misery. American ingenuity and technology drive the world’s economies.

Now – before you get your shorts all in a knot – I am not saying that America is the only country that feeds the homeless, fights in wars to free the oppressed, sends money, material and soldiers to rescue victims of disaster, and that invents all kinds of cool and beneficial products. What I am saying is that, at least for well over the past 100 years, the world has turned to the United States time and time again for help, and the United States has responded positively in virtually every case (alas, many times too late). Why is it considered anathema to be proud of those accomplishments, and our place of power in the world?

Ah, that mean, nasty, ugly, word power. Being exceptional means you have power, and most likely you use that power in an oppressive, unjust manner. Or, the only reason you are exceptional is because you are part of the power-system, which oppresses those who are clearly not exceptional.

Do you have straight “A’s” on your report card, are you on the Dean’s Honor roll? It is because you are privileged, and you are part of the oppression of the average student. Have you climbed the corporate ladder to reach the highest level of management (heaven forbid you become a CEO!)? It is because you have stepped on everyone underneath you, you have built your status with “the man” on the backs of the “people.” Have you worked hard, saved wisely, and can now retire with some measure of financial security? It is because you have stolen your future by oppressing those who do not have what you have. At every turn, those who have worked to obtain some level of exceptionalism at all are denigrated and sometimes attacked, whether physically or by words.

I was reminded of this phenomenon recently in a conversation with a new acquaintance. In a conversation regarding teaching at a university, he said that the concept of the “sage on the stage” is dead. That is, a professor is not supposed to hold his or her advanced knowledge in front of his or her students as some kind of virtue, but rather the professor is supposed to “flip the class” and let the students learn and explore the subject for themselves. Supposedly, this creates smarter students.

Hogwash and poppycock, I say! I am grateful, and increasingly so as I get older, that I was taught by some monumental “sages on the stage.” In fact, as I progressed through my education, those men only climbed higher in my estimation, not lower. They were brilliant – not only in what they had achieved academically, but in the manner in which they presented that material at just the right dose and at just the right time. I thank God none of them tried to “flip the class” while I was learning from them. There is a reason some men and women are exceptional scholars and teachers – and it is not so that they can make their precious little snowflake students feel like they are important!

Strive for mediocrity if you wish. Aim to be average if you must. Set your goal to “boring” and get off the highway to personal improvement at the next exit. As for me, I choose to aim for the exceptional, and then if I fail (ahem, when I fail) at least I will have challenged myself to be the best I can be. I will probably never be thought of as exceptional (except maybe by my dogs, bless their hearts) – but I refuse to acquiesce to the accusation of being mediocre (that’s what my cats are for, just to keep me humble).

May God bless all the exceptional people in my life, and may He bless you with the burning desire to be exceptional in His kingdom!

[By the way – in 1931 Dietrich Bonhoeffer skewered the American education system (primarily the theological educational system) for this exact problem. Compared to his education in Germany, he was shocked at how the American system was designed to be a “cordial exchange of opinions than an undertaking on behalf of knowledge.” So, maybe the drive for exceptionalism in the United States has always had its opponents. However, in some fields it was expected that students would not only strive to be the best, but would actually achieve that goal. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English) Vol. 10, Translated by Douglas W. Stott, p. 305-307.]

Book Review – Going Public: Why Baptism is Required for Church Membership (Bobby Jamieson)

Going Public: Why Baptism is Required for Church Membership (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2015) 228 pages.

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There is something mildly disturbing when you read about the theological disagreements and debates within other religious groups. It is disturbing on the one hand because you are not supposed to be reading other people’s mail. On the other hand because there are so many problems within your own group, it is comforting to know there are problems in other people’s houses as well. But, we are not supposed to enjoy other people’s problems. So, it was with a real sense of schadenfreude that I read this book.

Bobby Jamieson wrote this book to address what I assume to be an ongoing debate among various evangelical groups, especially the Baptist churches, regarding the importance of baptism vis-a-vis church membership. If there is no ongoing debate, he sure spent a lot of time and energy addressing something that is not a problem. Because the book is addressed primarily to evangelicals,  and perhaps those in the Baptist denomination more specifically, I felt like an outsider overhearing a heated discussion in the booth behind me at the restaurant. But because the topic of baptism is so fundamental to New Testament Christianity, he was speaking to me at least tangentially, and so I write to review this book as a New Testament Christian, although not perhaps as someone in its intended target zone.

I will have a little more to say about what I appreciated about the content a little lower, but lest I be misunderstood, (and quite against my normal pattern of good first, bad later), I am going to address some glaring weaknesses in the book.

First, Jamieson misses the theology of the rite of baptism. The title of his third chapter, “Where Faith Goes Public: (Most of) a Theology of Baptism” is far more revealing than I think he intended. He almost gets the theology of baptism correct. Throughout the book he could almost be accused of linking baptism to salvation, but he just cannot go there. As a good Baptist (step-child of John Calvin), Jamieson holds resolutely to the doctrine that one becomes a Christian through some kind of mental assent, and only then is a candidate for baptism. [As a brief aside, his constant references to the need for a Christian to be baptized were annoying. The New Testament never speaks of a Christian needing baptism. Christians have been baptized; penitent and believing sinners require baptism.] He defends his position with the old canard about the thief on the cross being welcomed by Jesus into paradise without the rite of baptism (p. 39). On the other hand, he cannot get away from passages such as Acts 2:38 and 1 Peter 3:21 (which he quotes verbatim in the next paragraph) – and therefore he is hoisted on his own petard. As he so confidently avers (repeatedly either in these exact words or terms almost identical): “Baptism either is or is not required for church membership.” (p. 30). Scripturally speaking, baptism either is, or is not, a matter of salvation. If you cannot make baptism a matter of salvation, you have no grounds to make it a matter of church membership. So, his theology is “most of” correct – but what he leaves out is the “most” important aspect of baptism.

Second, Jamieson repeatedly confuses the terms Church (big “C”) and church (little “c” – “congregation”), with intensely aggravating  results. Sometimes he uses the word “church” to mean the universal church of all who are saved. Primarily, however, he uses the word “church” to mean a local group of believers who are committed to one another and who share a common bond either of location or of some other choice, i.e., a congregation of the universal Church. However, in a theological/practical work such as this, these terms need to be clearly differentiated. His inability, or unwillingness, to do so, reveals a second weakness in his theological acumen. When a person is baptized, the Lord adds him or her to the church – His church – period! (Acts 2:41, 47) The process of being welcomed and recognized as a member of an individual congregation is something entirely different. But here is where his “get saved first, and then be baptized to become a member of a church” theology breaks down. If you are saved, if you are a Christian, if your eternal salvation has been secured and your name is in the Lamb’s book of life, why is church membership – especially membership in some little congregation – even important? If I were opposed to Jamieson’s belief about the importance of baptism to church membership, the easiest way to confront him would be to attack his basic ecclesiology. If a saving relationship with Christ can be obtained outside of and prior to any thought of joining his body, the Church, why should I join his church? In other words, why be baptized at all? Jamieson begins with an a priori conclusion that church membership is necessary, but never explains or defends that position. Indeed, he cannot.

[Editorial note: upon re-reading this paragraph I’m afraid I did not make my point very clear. The New Testament IS VERY CLEAR about the importance of the church, and of Christians being members thereof. HOWEVER, Jamieson does not make that argument, because he separates baptism from salvation (and, therefore, “Christians” from church membership). When I said that Jamieson cannot make the argument about church membership, I did not mean to infer that there is no New Testament teaching to do so. I simply wanted to emphasize Jamieson himself cannot make that argument, because of his own conclusions. Sorry for any confusion.]

Third, Jamieson is guilty of the equivocation he so staunchly opposes. After arguing with painstaking care and a fair amount of repetition for 210 pages that adult believer’s baptism (credo baptism) is absolutely essential for church membership, he makes this incredible statement regarding how an “open-membership” church should transition to mandating baptism as a prerequisite for membership: “Fifth, if you currently have unbaptized paedobaptist members, I’d suggest they should be ‘grandfathered in’ – that is, remain members.” (p. 211) To recognize the equivocation in that statement you would really have to read the book, but what Jamieson is saying is this: “You must be baptized as an adult Christian in order to be a member of a church. Infant baptism is not baptism in any way, shape, or form. However, if you have been baptized as an infant [something he flatly rejects as legitimate], and you have been accepted as a member of a church [something he emphatically denies as advisable or even possible]  – don’t worry about it. You are ‘grandfathered’ in. Your baptism now counts.” It is a staggering self-rebuttal.

Okay, I’ve pretty much laid out my cards as to what I do not like about the book – now a few kind words in its defense. First, I did appreciate the emphasis on baptism, even if it was a weak understanding of baptism. Second, the connection that Jamieson makes between baptism and the Lord’s Supper is much stronger – and something that to be honest has been lacking in my thought. The emphasis that Jamieson places on the Lord’s Supper is an emphasis that is lacking in most discussions of the importance of church membership. While I am decidedly lukewarm in regards to the author’s treatment of baptism, I was challenged by his focus on the Lord’s Supper. And finally, I appreciated Jamieson’s focus on the role of the church as authoritative community. Too often we let the individual decide everything in regard to questions of faith, and Jamieson rightly sees that if Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom to the church, it is the church that should inform the individual, not the other way around. [Another aside here – very much as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say!!] Alas, we in the United States are simply too enthralled with the individual as supreme – much to the dismay and weakening of the congregation of Christ.

Would I recommend this book to others? It depends. I am not opposed to recommending a book even if I disagree with the conclusions of the author. If you are able to read critically and can separate the meat from the bones, I would suggest the book might be valuable to you. If you want another book on the subject of baptism to add to your collection this is not an altogether bad read. I really do not know of that many books that connect baptism and the Lord’s Supper and church membership. If you want to see how evangelical churches are wrestling with the topic of baptism, this would be a good book. However, this is not a book to learn about the theology of baptism. This is not the book to learn how to do exegesis or hermeneutics. This is not an especially fine example of concise writing. As with virtually every book, it has its strong points – its just that I found too many weaknesses in it for me to recommend unequivocally.

Love Letters to a Young Minister (letter 1)

(Note: in this series, which will show up from time to time, I want to address some issues concerning ministry from the point of view of the minister. But I want to do so in a constructive way, the way I wish someone had spoken to me many years ago. I may not have listened then, but just hearing the words might have helped. Feel free to share these words with a young man who is contemplating entering the ministry, or who has just started in ministry. If I just help one young family, I will have accomplished my goal.)

Dear young preacher,

I want you to know I write from love, the kind of love that has walked a mile in the shoes you are trying to wear every Sunday. I want you to know that not everything I will say will apply to you – so pay attention to what you think might fit and throw away the rest. Also, no one person can experience everything, so no doubt you will come across some things that I did not see, hear, or feel. As an old car sales commercial said a long time ago, “Your mileage may vary.” But on the other hand do not be too dismissive. As the inspired preacher once said, what goes around comes around (paraphrased, as you can guess). Nothing is ever entirely new. Life as a minister is always life as a minister.

I want to begin with this letter about your calling, your motivation to become a preacher. To be blunt, what makes you think you can even be a preacher? Has someone told you you should become a preacher because you have a powerful speaking voice? That you have great stage presence? That you have an air of confidence? That you are smart? Maybe even that you are handsome and attract people to you? Congratulations, but don’t think you are a preacher. Don’t get me wrong, these are all wonderful attributes. But none of them qualify you to be a preacher. A good sportscaster on TV, maybe. A preacher, not.

Church members are good at a lot of things, but guessing who will or will not be a good preacher is not one of their better strengths. If it was, every young man who ever stood up on Wednesday night and read a Scripture or led a song would become the next Billy Graham. Preaching – or rather the work of ministry – does not work that way. The world, and that means those who sit in the pew, look at the outside. God looks at the heart. If you do not have the heart for ministry it will not matter how handsome or beguiling your voice is. Your ministry will ultimately fail, no matter how popular you might become. If you have the heart for ministry God will make your service a success, even if you never preach to more than 50 people at a time. Don’t settle for the red stew of popularity if what you are searching for is the birthright of ministry.

Here are some other questions that might be more valuable in helping you decide if ministry is for you: Do people search you out for comfort and advice with their problems? Are you approachable and caring, or cold and prickly? Do you ache when you see someone else hurting? Are you able to just sit in silence with someone, or do you always have to have a quick solution? Can you sit for hours reading and studying out a complex literary problem? (let’s face it, the Bible is literature, if you cannot handle reading and meditation, go for the sportscaster job). Can you take pure, unabashed, venomous criticism and let it fall off your shoulders, or do you get upset if someone criticizes your favorite football team?

I hate to say this so bluntly, buddy, but when Jesus told his disciples to “take up their cross and follow him,” it is in all possibility that he – and they – were looking at a crucified criminal. Whether that is true or not, soon they would be looking at him hanging on that cross. Jesus did not call his disciples to a life of ease and comfort. To be quite honest, it very often hurts to be a minister. Don’t sign up unless you are at least willing to feel the pain.

Our world is up-side-down when it comes to viewing ministry. We look at the “wunderkinder,” the amazing twenty-or-thirty somethings who preach for multi-thousand member congregations as the pinnacle of preaching. Don’t go there. The majority of congregations of the Lord’s people have less than 150 members. Many have less than 100. Sure, some guys get the big gigs. Scratch their life very deep, though, and you might be pretty disgusted by what you uncover. As Jesus once said regarding a certain false piety – they have received their reward. It takes a certain kind of minister to properly lead a congregation of more than 1,000 members. Lord willing you will be there one day. But don’t try to bake a cake in 15 minutes. Take your time. Learn to love people. Learn to love the book. Learn to love God. If he wants you to be in front of a crowd, he will put you there. The cream always does rise to the top of the milk. Dead fish float to the top of the lake, too – so be careful about wanting to be on the top.

Yea, I know this letter has been kind of a downer. But, Jesus was careful to lay out the cost of discipleship before he accepted anyone’s enlistment papers. Take some time and think about you, your wife or girlfriend, your plans, your hopes, your dreams. Ask yourself if you are more interested in hearing the applause of the crowd, or hearing the quiet, “Well done” of your Father in heaven. I have much more to say about the joys, and humor, of preaching. I just wanted to “show my cards,” so to speak, before we get too deep. There will be plenty of time later for the confetti and cake.

Sincerely,

An old friend.

A Deceptive Question

In addition to my daily Bible reading this year, I am reading through the Apocrypha. These books are accepted as canonical by the Roman Catholic Church, and as “valuable, but not inspired” by other groups. My interest in the Apocrypha began a number of years ago, mostly as a tangent from my study of the book of Revelation. So, anyway, today I was reading in the book of Judith. What amazed me in the story is that Judith (the heroine) actually prays to God that he will bless her plans of deception (which, by the way, ultimately lead to murder), and that, because her plans are ultimately successful, the author intends to suggest that God did bless her deception. (For the reference, see Judith 9:10, 13)

The blatant “in your face” aspect of the deception and resulting murder got me to thinking – I can not really recall having a discussion on the “theology” (I know, really bad term, but I can’t think of another) of deception. That got me to try to remember the examples of deception in the Bible – and there are a number of them! (I do not claim this list is exhaustive – just off the top of my head).

  1. Abraham deceives two different individuals regarding his relationship with Sarah.
  2. Isaac makes the same deception regarding Rebekah.
  3. Tamar deceives Judah, and tricks him into committing an incestuous sexual relationship.
  4. Jacob deceives Esau, Isaac, and Laban.
  5. Laban deceives Jacob.
  6. Joseph deceives his brothers, at least initially.
  7. Rahab deceives the men of Jericho.
  8. Jael deceives Sisera, and shortly thereafter murders him.
  9. David and Jonathan deceive Saul regarding David’s absence at King Saul’s feast.
  10. Throughout the period of the Judges, deception is the stock-in-trade of deliverance by the judges.
  11. Saul’s (Paul’s) deliverers help him escape from Damascus through a deceptive maneuver.
  12. Ananias and Sapphira tried their hands at deception, but it did not go very well.

All of this got me to thinking more – At what point does someone have the right to command absolute, unrestricted, complete truthfulness and honesty? One man who did do some extensive thinking about deception was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His answer would not please very many people, I am afraid. He concluded that there are some people in this world that simply do not deserve an honest answer, or an honest relationship. Consider for example the whole idea of war – does a general have the responsibility to reveal his plans to his enemy? What about prisoners of war – are they obligated to reveal everything they know regarding plans and tactics to their captors? What about the situation in which an enemy asks about the whereabouts of innocent lives – is there a universal principle dictating that such hiding places be revealed, even if it means certain death to the innocent victims?

I know there are many who believe in the hard and fast rule that no lie, no deception, is ever permissible.

I know there are others who believe that any lie is a good one if it protects you or your loved one.

What I have never experienced is an honest-to-God discussion and examination of the concept of deception, and how we as disciples of Christ are to respond in situations that have no clear-cut answers. Let’s be perfectly honest here, in a number of situations listed above, God not only blesses the deceiver – the Scripture makes it clear that the innocent victim of the deception would be dealt with in a more severe manner if they actively pursued the seeming result of the deception! (See Abraham’s and Isaac’s deceptions in particular).

I have my own thoughts regarding this question – but I am wondering – what say you? Have you thought much about the question of deceptive actions in the Bible (and outright lies)? How would you answer the question – is it ever permissible, even expected, to lie or deceive another person?

I’d appreciate hearing what you have to say!

A (Silent) Lesson from Abraham

Here is another thought I had from a recent exercise in my daily Bible reading. How often do we think about the “Law of Abraham”? How many lessons do we teach on the “10 Commandments as told to Abraham”? Do we even connect Abraham to law?

No. Abraham is the hero of faith. Abraham is the “go-to” guy when we want to contrast belief, or faith, and law-keeping. Abraham gave us the apostle Paul, Moses gave us the Pharisees.

So, what do we do with Genesis 26:2-5:

And the LORD appeared to him [Isaac] and said, ‘Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws. (Genesis 26:2-5, ESV)

Just in case you did not catch it, those last few words (charge, commandments, statutes, laws) are exactly the same terms used to describe the Law of Moses throughout the Psalms (and other references in the Old Testament).

So, a question arises: when did Abraham receive these charges, commandments, statutes, and laws? We are not told (at least, specifically). The Scriptures are silent as to when or how Abraham received them – but as this text makes obvious, clearly he did receive them – and in much the same fashion as Moses, as the language is virtually identical.

As much as I am loathe to make arguments from the silence of Scripture, I want to use this example to make a point: often we are told the result of something, or a derivative of something, or a consequence of something, without ever having been told what that something is. That something was plain to the original audience, and while it would be derivative to us, its truth is no less, well, truth!

At the risk of offending many in today’s “anything goes” world, I have a couple of applications where I believe this principle is valuable in instructing us, if not binding (and, once again, I am loathe to use the silence of Scripture to bind anything. That is a recipe for disaster).

In two contemporary battles being fought in the church, Christians are being told that, since Scripture nowhere explicitly condemns or negates a practice, then that practice is either allowable, or even is sanctioned. One practice is allowing women to have equal roles in leading, teaching, and shepherding a church; and the other is in regard to allowing many forms of worship, including, but not limited to, instrumental accompaniment to singing, “liturgical” dance (?), and various other forms of making worship more entertaining, or “relevant” as promoters would say.

Now, in regard to the first example (egalitarianism) I firmly believe Scripture to have a clear and unequivocal voice (as I have written about previously). But, many protest that there is no CLEAR teaching in the New Testament regarding this topic. I would suggest that those arguing the second example (worship additions) have a stronger case – but only in the sense that there is no overt rejection of such practices.

What does Genesis 26:1-5 have to do with these questions? Simply this – nowhere are we specifically told that God gave Abraham a list of charges, commands, statutes and laws, at least not with the specificity later given to Moses. Yet, clearly God did, or Abraham could not have obeyed them. This later comment (statement) demands that a previous event had to have taken place. In regard to the two examples given above related to our contemporary situation, what Paul (and others) wrote about the roles of men and women in the assembly, and about the proper decorum in that assembly, had to have had some basis in a previous word from God, or it would have been meaningless to Paul, Peter, or anyone else in the first century. Thus, 1 Corinthians 14, 1 Timothy 2 and 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 3, had to have been written from a larger God-inspired context of male leadership or the words would have been meaningless to a primarily pagan culture (they would have made perfect sense to a Jewish culture, however). The transition from a sensual worship experience (musical instruments, liturgical dance, exotic aromas, etc) had to have a basis in a teaching from the apostles, or the omission of those items from worship as viewed in the New Testament would have been seen as ludicrous. The few passages we have (Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, the basic theme of Hebrews) that do indicate a rejection of the sensual/physical from a majority of practices of worship make perfect sense if we understand an underlying command or instruction from God to do so. And, just to add one more thought here – the emphasis in the New Testament to two very sensual/physical aspects of the assembly – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – makes it clear that it is not just the physical/sensual that is being rejected, but the very aspects of the physical and sensual that were meant to be types of a later more spiritual worship. God gave us our bodies and they are intended to be used in worship, but just as Christ superseded the Old Covenant, so too New Covenant worship is to go beyond Old Covenant worship.

Okay, I know I have drawn a tenuous parallel from one Old Testament text to the modern worship wars. But this is the role of theology – to use the gifts of our intellect to draw fair and legitimate conclusions from Scripture in order to make sense out of a world gone horribly awry. I will leave it to you to judge if my conclusion is valid. While I am certainly not saying my conclusion has the force of Scripture, I am definitely offering the idea it is worth debating.

In sum, I wanted to make one point and then to illustrate how that point might be applied today: We are NOT told every single detail about every single encounter between God and his servants the prophets. Sometimes, we are given a later word that clarifies or magnifies an earlier, unrelated encounter. I believe it is fully within the realm of possibility, and even probability, that our New Testament authors were writing with the clear and unambiguous leading of the Holy Spirit when they penned their instructions on practices related to the worship assembly of the church. We denigrate or minimize that leading to our own peril.

Abraham – Prophet of God

I learned something today in my daily Bible reading that (1) opened up a new line of thought for me and (2) simply reaffirmed how important it is to read the Bible continually lest we think we know everything about everything. My apologies to those of you who have already seen/learned/known this; I’m not the sharpest bulb in the litter, so excuse my excitement for a few moments as I ponder this observation.

The text I came across in my assigned reading included these verses:

The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” (Genesis 18:17-19 ESV)

Now, for a number of decades now I have interpreted the LORD’s decision to inform Abraham of His plans to be based on the future role of Abraham – the fact that he would surely become a great and mighty nation and so on. But today, for some inexplicable reason, my mind immediately recalled the words of Amos:

For the LORD God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets. The lion has roared; who will not fear? The LORD God has spoken; who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:7-8 ESV)

How odd, I thought, for God to feel like he had to reveal his “secret” to Abraham, because the language sounded just like the LORD was including Abraham as one of his prophets.

Then, no sooner had I taken a sip of coffee and turned the page, I read this:

Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours. (Genesis 20:7 ESV, emphasis mine)

The conversation is between the LORD and Abimelech (who had been duped into believing Sarah was an available bachelorette by the aforementioned Abraham). Yes, the liar (okay, half-liar, but he did it twice, so that makes him a whole liar) is a prophet; and not only a prophet, but one who was chosen by God to become a great nation and through whom all spiritual blessings would descend. And here is the kicker – Abraham is to fulfill his role by “command[ing] his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.” Not bad for a man who has a singular inability to admit his wife is indeed his wife, and who will have just as much trouble ruling his household without some dysfunctional moments.

Okay, so I learned more than one thing this morning. Abraham is arguably the first “prophet” of God. And, as trite as it may sound, even prophets of God stub their toes now and again when it comes to promoting “righteousness and justice.”

Sort of reminds me that we all, prophets or not, are made of clay; and regardless of our desire, some days our calling exceeds our obeying.

 

America: Land of the Soft and Home of the Victim

I begin my 2017 musings in a minor key, but addressing an issue that I believe is important if Americans in general, and Christians in particular, are going to make any kind of difference in the world today. If you narrow the audience down to members of the Churches of Christ, then I would say this topic rises to the level of urgent, if not critical.

I shall begin by posing a question (two actually): When, and how, did Americans become so soft? How is it that we have become a nation of victims?

I recently viewed a video clip of some twenty or thirty something year old who was discussing the issue of the problems facing millennials (the generation born in the 1990’s and into the 2000’s). He was making some really good points: this generation was raised by parents using a defective parenting philosophy. This was the generation that was told it was impossible to “lose” and that no one was “superior.” Everyone gets a trophy or a medal, no matter if you come in first or last. Parents were told to become their children’s best friends, and the child’s self-esteem is the be-all and end-all of parenting. Also, technology has had a significant impact on this generation – from smart phones to iPads to social media platforms, this generation is truly drowning in technological inventions. This has created an entire set of social problems – a millennial can have hundreds of “friends” and thousands of “likes,” and yet be utterly alone and bereft of any social skills whatsoever. Additionally, this is the age of instant gratification. From microwave ovens to instantaneous download speeds, this generation simply does not know how to wait. Patience? That is so yesterday – or worse.

Then, just when I thought the speaker was on to something, he launched into a blistering indictment of modern culture and how “we” were going to have to act if this generation was to be salvaged. “We” (and I’m not really sure who he was speaking to, although corporate America seemed to be the general focus of his tirade) are going to have to change everything so that this generation can cope. These poor little darlings are so fragile, so soft, that any challenge to their survival is going to have to be overcome by anyone and everyone who is not a millennial (because, obviously, the millennials did not create any of these problems, so how can they be expected to solve them?)

Assuming his earlier points were valid (and I thought he was pretty astute), let me ask a few follow-up questions:

  • Which generation alive today was raised by perfect parents? I defy you – no generation has been perfect, and every generation has had to deal with dysfunctional family situations.
  • Which generation has not been told they are brighter and smarter and more likely to succeed than their parents? In other words, which generation has been told they are the one exclusion of the evolutionary family tree? I posit that none have been.
  • Which generation has not been significantly impacted by technology? My grandfather, for instance, was born before the Wright brothers made their first flight, yet he lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Can any millennial claim to have witnessed that kind of technological leap? I dare say, NO.
  • Which generation alive today was not handed a critical, life changing and potentially world altering political crisis? I would suggest there is only one – the one generation that claims to have had life the worst – the millennials. World War 1 and 2, Korea, Vietnam – these were real shooting wars, and the last three involved the use (or at least the potential use) of atomic weapons, so, please, do not tell me that the events of 9/11/01 or the election of Donald Trump qualifies as a real crisis.

I think I could go on, but I hope you get the point. The millennial generation is no worse off, and in a number of ways is so much safer and more prosperous, than any generation in recent memory. Yet, to hear the majority of Americans talk today, you would think we are the most impoverished, insulted, abused, and persecuted culture to have ever existed. How did we get so soft?

And, lest you think I am drawing a line of distinction around Christians, think again. Just let someone say, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and you would think Adolf Hitler himself had been resurrected. Persecuted?? Because prayer has been taken out of public schools?? Because homosexuals have been granted the “right” to get married?? From what I hear from a lot of “Christians,” prayer has been removed from a lot of churches and “Christians” have long been trashing the sanctity of marriage as well, but I suppose that is a rabbit that will better be chased on another day.

My point is that we, as Americans – and that includes Christians equally, if not more – have raised victimology to a fine art. Everyone is offended by everything these days. Political correctness has not only destroyed higher education (exhibit “A” – the number of colleges and universities that had a collective emotional melt-down the day after the general election), but it has permeated and is in the process of destroying the church as well. Preachers should not be worried about Hollywood or Washington telling them what they can or cannot preach – they should be worried about the members in the pews who do not know the definition of the word “sin” or the significance of Jesus’s death on the cross. Jesus did not die because humankind was perfect – he died so that his disciples might be made perfect. And the only way his disciples can be made perfect is to die themselves – die to the world that is so blatantly seeking to destroy the church today.

I have no idea what the future holds for America. Politically and socially we are on a downward trajectory and I personally see no reversal in the near future. If we continue this head-long plunge into narcissism I fear for the future of the Republic. However, we as a nation have proven ourselves to be incredibly resilient against a number of enemies, so maybe we can overcome our own seeming desire for self-annihilation as well.

As regards the church, this I know for sure. We will not be able to save ourselves. Humankind never has, and never will be able, to overcome this depth of fatal self-absorption. We are going to have to return to being a people of the cross – that horrible symbol of God’s judgment on human hubris – if we are going to have any meaningful message to speak to the world.

In the vernacular of the day, we are going to have to put on our big boy pants and suck it up, buttercup. We are not the victims, we are the sinners. We, the church, collectively and individually as members of it, are all “miserable sinners” (in the words of the older Anglican confession. Sadly, even that has been modernized.). We are going to have to start preaching against sin and we are going to have to start practicing both positive and negative church discipline. If we (the church) had been faithful to our mission we (society as a whole) would not be in the mess we are in now. So, let’s be honest with ourselves, honest with God, and honest with the world.

Let us pray that in 2017 we can have the courage to stop being victims, and start being responsible disciples of Christ.

Looking Toward a New Year

Well, 2016 is “in the can” as broadcasters like to say, and whether that can is the film canister ready for shipment or the trash can ready for the dump I will let you decide. For me 2016 had equal parts awesomeness and awfulness, so I am looking forward to 2017 with both fear and fascination.

As for this space, I have optimistically set some writing goals for 2017. The good Lord willing, I will attempt to devote more time to writing in this blog and here are just a few of the topics I will tackle:

  • More devotional thoughts stemming from my daily Bible reading.
  • More thoughts about the current state of Christianity, the Churches of Christ, and my own faith journey.
  • Advice for younger men who are trying to serve as preachers/ministers. I know this topic is kind of silly for me (as if I am any kind of source of wisdom), but having served a number of congregations for 20+ years (with ten years of flying airplanes thrown in there for good measure), I think I have something to share for those who might be willing to hear.
  • Quotations (and comments) from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my favorite theologian.
  • More book reviews.
  • Who knows what else?

I want to thank each and every one of my followers, readers, and those who take the time to comment on my musings. I hope what I have to say is beneficial – at the very least I hope that what I have to say gets you to think about Jesus, his church, and how we who are his disciples can more faithfully follow him.

Blessings on a great year in 2017, and, as always, thanks for flying in the fog with the ol’ Freightdawg.

New Page Added – Daily Bible Reading Schedule for 2017

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Dear Gentlereaders, for a few years I have suggested daily Bible reading schedules, but mostly through descriptive posts. I have used two schedules primarily – one from the Moravian fellowship (order through http://www.moravian.org), and one that I kind of developed on my own. I say “kind of” because I cannot really remember how it came to exist – I know I borrowed the general idea from a couple of other sources, but to the best of my memory (poor as it is) I do not think I stole the outline in its entirety.

As nervous as I am about plagiarism, at least I HOPE I did not steal it.

Anyway, this year I decided to see if I could post the reading schedule as a .pdf document, and I think I was successful. With my knowledge of computers, that remains to be seen.

The schedule as posted on the “Daily Bible Reading Schedule – 2017” page will take you through the Bible twice in 2017. I use this schedule for a couple of reasons. First, reading larger sections of Scripture keeps me in the “story” of the Bible. It allows me to keep the larger narrative of the Bible in context. Second, this schedule allows me to read the Bible all the way through in two different translations each year. That way I “hear” the Bible in different voices. I try to use one “literal” or formal translation, and one dynamic (or in Paulese – “loosey-goosey”) translation.

Do not be afraid to modify as you must. For example, I do not try to be too legalistic in following the schedule. When I get to Leviticus, for example, I do not try to parse every single law. When I get to 1 Chronicles, I let myself skim through the genealogies. On days when I cannot seem to concentrate I do the best I can. On those days when I can really dive deep – I dive deep. I’m not always perfect, but I strive for consistency and accept what the day gives me.

For a matter of reference, you should be able to complete the day’s reading in 30-45 minutes, depending on how fast you can read.

(For those who prefer much shorter readings – who like to read for depth and not volume – the Moravian Daily Texts schedule calls for you to read through the Psalms each year, and the entire Bible every two years. I like that approach very much as well, for while it does not emphasize the “story” aspect of the Bible as much as my schedule, there is much to be argued for a slower and more in-depth reading of the Bible.)

Whatever your desire, and whatever your comfort level, I hope you spend more time with the Word of God in 2017.

 

Book Review – Baptism and the Remission of Sins: An Historical Perspective (David Fletcher, ed.)

Strange introductory paragraph: within the past year or so I read (and reviewed) a book on baptism edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright entitled Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. The book is basically a refutation of the arguments in favor of infant baptism, or to put it positively, a defense of adult, believer’s baptism. As the purpose of the book is the efficacy of infant versus believer’s baptism, the topic of baptism for the remission of sins is dealt with only tangentially. And, because the editors (and, I would assume, most of the authors) are Baptists by denomination, you will not find much of a defense of Restoration Movement beliefs regarding the importance of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. However, and this is the point of this really strange introductory paragraph – I learned a great deal about the Calvinist approach to baptism, and why even many neo-Calvinists are opposed to infant baptism. It is an enlightening book, and I highly recommend it to all who are interested in theology, and especially the topic of baptism.

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Baptism and the Remission of Sins: An Historical Perspective, David Fletcher, ed. (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Co., 1990) 432 pages.

I’m not exactly sure when I first read this book, but my copy has a 1990 publication date, so undoubtedly it was sometime in the  1990’s, or perhaps early in the first decade of the 2000’s. I just finished re-reading it, and I am struck with a profound thought: This is a book that needs to be read and digested by every member within the Churches of Christ who is concerned about the recent developments within the brotherhood of congregations of the Churches of Christ. Quite simply, this book places the Restoration Movement’s theological wrestling with the practice of baptism within its historical perspective, and as such, provides a wealth of information for understanding the rejection of the importance of baptism by many of the “leading voices” within the Restoration Movement.

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The book is a collection of independent studies, and as such, suffers from the general problem of collections: some are outstanding, some are not so much. The opening chapters by Jack Cottrell I hold to be nothing less than brilliant – and provide a historical perspective that is utterly missing in most discussions regarding baptism. Beyond question, the information detailing Huldreich Zwingli’s distortion of baptism is absolutely critical to understand if you want to fully grasp the significance of Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and the other Restoration leaders. Chapter 3 on the British Restorers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was valuable, but not as illuminating as the first two chapters. Chapters 4 and 5 examining Alexander Campbell’s views on baptism (by John Mark Hicks) are superb – distilling the amount of material and the oftentimes contradictory nature of Campbell’s teaching is a monumental task. Hicks performs the task admirably, and if you know nothing of Campbell and his writings, these introductory chapters will help you immensely. Chapter six is especially eye-opening, and is critical to know in light of present controversies: it details the debate between Campbell and John Thomas regarding the necessity (or lack thereof) of a person’s knowledge and understanding of the meaning of baptism prior to that person’s baptism. My guess is that chapter alone will shock and disturb many within the Restoration Movement. I was personally disappointed with Michael Greene’s treatment of Barton W. Stone in chapter 7 – I believe a far more sympathetic view is both possible and necessary – but I tend to be more of a Stoner than a Campbellite, so I am a little prejudiced there. Chapters 8 and 9 are good (discussing the Rebaptism Controversy between David Lipscomb and the Gospel Advocate versus Austin McGary and the Firm Foundation; and the Open Membership controversy between the Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ), but not exceptional. I believe the subject matter of chapter 8 deserved greater detail, and the material of chapter 9 was also covered in far too cursory manner – but still those are tiny quibbles against two very informational chapters.

So much is being written and discussed today about the meaning and purpose of baptism, how much one must know before baptism, and probably most discussed – how should the members of Churches of Christ view the baptisms performed in the denominations (and increasingly, non-denominational churches)? The practice of baptism is becoming more and more common, and more and more theologians are openly discussing the importance of baptism related to a person’s salvation. I find it distressing to the point of absurdity that, at the very moment when the eyes of more and more preachers and theologians are turning to baptism again, so many “leaders” or “prominent preachers” within the Churches of Christ are backing away from baptism as fast as they can, and promoting the neo-Calvinistic view of baptism promoted in Schreiner and Wright’s book.

While not the only reason I can give for this movement, I would suggest that increasingly more and more preachers, elders, and congregational leaders within congregations of the Churches of Christ are utterly ignorant of the history, and yes, theology, of the practice of baptism. While this book does not delve deeply into the second topic (chapter 10 does cover the design of baptism), the history of baptism as practiced in the early church, the Reformation, and particularly within the Restoration Movement is covered in exceptional care in this collection of essays. If you are struggling to understand baptism in this post-modern context, or if your congregation is struggling to understand baptism today, you owe it to yourself and to your fellow believers to buy, and study, this book.

(Note: In searching for images of the cover of the book, I noticed a 2009 publication date – I provided images of both titles of the books. I could not discern if there was a substantial change from 2000 to 2009, so the 2009 might be a simple re-print, or it could entail an updated and/or corrected copy.)

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