Monthly Archives: January 2012

Bonhoeffer and “Disgraceful” Habits in Worship

Deutsch: Gedenktafel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Zio...

Image via Wikipedia

To fully understand the import of the quotations in this post you have to understand something about Dietrich Bonhoeffer the person in addition to Bonhoeffer the theologian. Bonhoeffer was born into a rather aristocratic family. His father was an eminent psychiatrist, one of his brothers was a physicist who was working on splitting the atom. To say that this family was “just another German family” would be wrong on so many different levels. And the same could be said about arts within the Bonhoeffer family. Dietrich was raised to have an intense love for music, and he could play many instruments, the piano and lute were two he excelled in playing. He was such a gifted and talented musician, in fact, that his family once thought that he would enter the field of music as a profession.

So, do not think that any of his statements concerning music in the worship of the church come from some tone-deaf crank crying “sour grapes.”

In his doctoral dissertation Bonhoeffer objected to the current state of affairs in a “bourgeois” church where there was more of an emphasis on pleasing the crowd than there was proclaiming the gospel. He wrote:

In this case the sermon serves the need to experience something beautiful, learned, and moral during the free hours of Sunday; hence the all too familiar type of sermon, the ‘speech’ in which proof is offered for the literary expertise of the preacher and the corresponding interest of the ‘audience.’ The danger of allowing the church to become a voluntary association is all too obvious here. (The same is true of the disgraceful habit of including individual artistic performances, such as a solo by a professional singer, in the worship.)  [from Sanctorum Communio, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 1, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, p.273.

Later, in a work dedicated to the communal life of the church he had this to say about congregational singing:

The essence of all congregational singing on this earth is the purity of unison singing – untouched by the unrelated motives of musical excess – the clarity unclouded by the dark desire to lend musicality and autonomy of its own apart from the words; it is the simplicity and unpretentiousness, the humanness and warmth, of this style of singing….There are several elements hostile to unison singing, which in the community ought to be very rigorously weeded out. There is no place in the worship service where vanity and bad taste can so assert themselves as in the singing. First, there is the improvised second part that one encounters almost everywhere people are supposed to sing together…There are the bass or the alto voices that must call everybody’s attention to their astonishing range and therefore sing every hymn an octave lower. There is the solo voice that drowns out everything else, bellowing and quavering at the top of its lungs, reveling in the glory of its own fine organ. There are the less dangerous foes of congregational singing, the ‘unmusical’ who cannot sing, of whom there are far fewer than we are led to believe. Finally there are often those who will not join in the singing because they are particularly moody or nursing hurt feelings; and thus they disturb the community. [from Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 5, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, p. 67]

I find it very interesting, profoundly so in fact, that here we have someone who is so musically inclined, gifted and talented that everyone who heard him play or sing knew he had the talent to be a professional musician, and when he speaks of congregational singing he insists on unison singing (all voices singing the melody) and specifically against the pretension of having gifted singers emphasize their vocal range, or especially, sing a solo.

Contrast this to the arguments made in favor of using instrumental music, “praise teams” (a term I am beginning to despise with a passion), liturgical dance, or some other form of performance worship in many congregations today. “But how can you deny someone who has been gifted by God the right to exercise that gift?” “We are all supposed to share our gifts to build each other up, and I have the gift of (insert: playing the guitar, operatic singing, liturgical dance, etc). “Having a professional group lead our worship leads to a more dynamic and pleasurable experience – no one wants to hear bad singing.” I could go on. The emphasis is invariably placed on the quality of the singing and the resultant pleasurable experience for those in the “audience.”

As any reader of this blog probably already knows I am a devoted Bonhoeffer student. And, not surprisingly, I believe Bonhoeffer nails it with these comments, among others. Congregational singing is not about the quality of the product, it is not about highlighting someone’s obvious musical talent. If there ever was a theologian who wanted to make that argument it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But, Bonhoeffer knew the purpose of congregational singing – it was to be a unison event in which the entire congregation participated to the glory and praise of God, and to the mutual edification of each member present.

Having been raised in a fellowship that stresses four-part harmony with the occasional very strong lead sections for soprano, alto, tenor and basses, I wonder how the unison only, no four-part harmony idea would go over in the congregations where I have worshipped. This one thing I do know, however: I would much rather worship in a congregation in which only unison singing was encouraged, than in a congregation where a few “gifted” individuals were allowed to perform for the congregation every Sunday.

I find it amusing in a way, and not just a little disturbing, that I find in a Lutheran pastor the kind of dedication toward congregational singing that I also see disappearing from a fellowship that once made that dedication to congregational singing one of its identifiable hallmarks. That is the funny thing about theology. No one group can claim a monopoly on good theology. And, regrettably, bad theology is a common failing of every group.

Moses – He is the Very Model of a Modern Major Minister (and Member)

Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments...

Image via Wikipedia

Okay, my apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan, but I am working through a series of sermons on Moses and I am impressed by how modern the story of Moses is for us. Here, in broad outline form, are some ideas that I will be exploring in the next few weeks (in sermon, not necessarily in this space) –

  1. God really did quite a bit of work preparing the world for Moses as much as preparing Moses for the world. I don’t want to give too much away, but reading behind the lines and between the lines shows us that God was not just working in the life of Moses, but he was working in and among several related families to make sure that the ministry of Moses would ultimately be successful.
  2. In our youth infatuated, instant satisfaction oriented world, it is both comforting and challenging to realize the length of time God spent in forging Moses’ steel. This in and of itself is worthy of a number of lessons, but I will  try to keep this sermon to a manageable 2-3 hour time slot (hey, Alexander Campbell could preach that long extemporaneous!)
  3. When God gives the orders, he very rarely accepts excuses from the person to whom he gives the orders.
  4. Overcoming your enemies can in many situations be easier than overcoming your friends.
  5. The story of Moses is an exquisite snapshot into the collision between triumph and tragedy.
  6. Despite all of his flaws (which are writ large), Moses was still a great man of God and received one of the greatest funerals that was never witnessed.

Something else I noticed as I was outlining the lessons I would like to present: in the Old Testament Moses gets the bigger part of 4 entire books. The other two members of the great heroes of the Israelite faith (Abraham and David) only receive a few chapters. Yet, when we move to the New Testament, it is clearly Abraham and David that are in the minds of the writers and preachers. With the possible exception of the book of Hebrews, Moses receives only passing mention, and then it is mostly related to the law he mediated. I am not exactly sure what that means (if anything), but it sure got me to thinking, and it provides a nice little seed bed for some future meditations.

As my thoughts and sermons progress I may add some summaries to this space – we’ll see. In the meantime, read the story of Moses and listen to a fine performance of the Pirates of Penzance, the HMS Pinafore, or The Mikado. Great stuff!


I have no idea why a picture of a orange tabby cat came up in my search for "Moses" but I could not resist adding it to this post!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Conversion

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been tackling some pretty emotionally charged topics in my last few posts, so I thought I would take a break and report on what is going on in my life right now. I am in the process of doing my background reading for a guided study on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to be partially fulfilled with a seminar in April. I am re-reading Eberhard Bethge‘s biography of Bonhoeffer and I am enjoying learning some new things, and also being reminded of others. One thing about Bonhoeffer that has always been sort of a curiosity to me is his journey from theologian to confessing Christian.

So much of our life is defined by our culture before we even have a chance to make any decisions on our own. So, with Bonhoeffer’s early life it was completely possible to be a “Christian” and even a theologian without really being a member of the church. This is one of the unintended consequences of a state church, one in which a person is baptized as an infant and just considered to be a member even though no personal decision has been made. So, much to his family’s agony, Dietrich decided to follow in the footsteps of some distant ancestors and be a professional theologian. The role of professor of theology was supported by the state, so once again you really did not have to believe what you were teaching, all you had to be was competent and engaging. Bonhoeffer received his doctorate at age 21 – too young to be ordained, so he thought about a life in academia. But an assistant ministry position in Spain, combined with a trip to New York had the effect of making Bonhoeffer reconsider. Upon his return from the US, Bonhoeffer had his first experience with lecturing in Berlin, and he also became involved in the growing ecumenical movement of the early 1930’s. Something profound happened in the years of 1931 and 1932 that no historian has been able to completely identify. But the intellectual genius and theological gadfly had undergone something of a conversion. He no longer considered theology just to fulfill a profession, he became a confessing Christian. What he was teaching suddenly became real to him. He started attending church regularly. He formulated some of the ideas that would come to have a profound influence on a rising generation of young people in Germany, and ultimately, all throughout the world.

All of this I had read before, but it got me to thinking again. In the US we have what are referred to as “believers churches.” You have to make a profession, or at least your parents do, before you can be considered a member. You generally do not see people entering the ministry unless they are firmly convinced of the truth of the Christian message.

Or do we?

How many pulpits are being filled by men (and women in some situations) who no longer believe in the message of Jesus? How many do not believe in the virgin birth, the miracles, the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus? How many believe the Bible is just a collection of fables? And how many refuse to admit their beliefs because they are being paid too much money?

One of the things I love about Bonhoeffer is that a man who started out as a marginal “believer” and devout intellectual became one of the great leaders of a confessing church movement and would ultimately give his life to the cause he helped build. Today, in the land of the free and the home of the brave we have men who no longer believe in Jesus being paid to preach to a congregation who are clueless about their preachers’ loss of faith.

I wonder if a few months in prisons staffed by the Gestapo might change the employment ideas of some of our now unbelieving preachers.

Oh, well, just some meandering thoughts as I get ready for this seminar.

The Lord’s Church and Poverty (5)

Solution of a kuromasu logic puzzle.

Image via Wikipedia

So, if what I have said in previous posts is true (and because I wrote it, I will vote for myself if no one else will), how is the church going to address the issue of poverty? The idea that we are going to get the US government to change its policy of free giveaways is just plain lunacy. We have created a culture of victimization and on one side of the political aisle there are too many people who earn their money and derive their power by keeping people in poverty. On the other side of the political aisle there are people who earn their money and derive their power by exploiting the irresponsible behavior of a few very visible individuals struggling with poverty, so there is just not going to be any change from Washington any time soon. Maybe ever, who knows. So what is the church to do?

First, I think we need to realize that attacking the problem of poverty is going to be a multi-generational task. Therefore we should not set our sights on a measurable change within 5, 10 or even 25 years. We need to aim for long-term systemic change and consider the immediate gains that we might achieve as an extra benefit.

First, I believe the church should respond immediately to dire financial, housing, and medical needs. If someone is in need of immediate food, housing, or other critical area of human life the church should respond with due haste and diligence.

Second, I believe the local congregation should have a focused plan for benevolence and community involvement. Simply having a “benevolent fund” or “benevolent committee” is not dealing with the issue of poverty. It would be far better for the congregation to say, “this is how we are going to reduce or eliminate one area related to poverty in our community” and to stick with that plan for an extended period of time. What follows are just some suggestions, some of which are being used by congregations already, some may not be.

Create a learning center in your building or a building you can rent for that purpose. Use your church members as tutors. Renovate an old warehouse to have table saws, lathes, sanders and work benches on one side and sewing machines, computers and maybe some cooking tools on the other. Encourage boys to learn to be tailors and girls how to build a cabinet. Give young people a chance to build self-confidence and experience the joy of creativity, and keep them off the street for a couple of hours a day.

Create low-cost or no-cost babysitting services for young mothers or fathers to use in order for them to attend classes to better their hiring prospects or to get a job so they can begin to earn a livable wage. Demand progress, but make sure that the parent has a chance to succeed. This will be a long term investment, but with the proper structure you can teach self-sufficiency and demonstrate that working toward success is in itself a measure of success.

Check with your area schools and see if they need new books, furniture, audio-visual equipment, etc. If they have everything they need (doubtful) them move to an inner city school and repeat the same question. Many schools are in dire need of just the basic equipment needed to teach. Do not use the worn out expression, “I pay taxes, isn’t that enough?” It did not work for Ebenezer Scrooge and it won’t work for us. Clearly our taxes are not enough, or the money is being sucked into too many administrator’s pockets, but the kids are not seeing much of our tax money. If you have several schools that need books, A/V equipment, furniture, etc., maybe you can set up a quarterly special contribution where you help one school every three or four months. The point is to give our schools the tools they need to educate our children for a chance to succeed when they graduate.

Provide simple tutoring opportunities if your local schools have none. Many schools provide tutor sessions taught by staff teachers so they can earn some extra income. Do not compete with these situations, but if none exist, this is a huge area for a congregation to make a difference. Create a math club, an English club, a History club or just an old fashioned chess club. The point is to help children learn and comprehend what their daily lessons are about.

Begin English as a second language classes in your building, or offer your building for meetings of community groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon, etc. Providing adults with the opportunity to overcome addictions is a significant way to alter the cycle of poverty. Giving seminars for wise investing, marriage counseling, and child care are also meaningful steps to altering the cycle of poverty.

Consider giving no-interest loans to individuals who have solid business ideas and plans for opening their own business. I relate this to the Old Testament idea of loaning a man a bushel of seed grain so he can plant his own field. At harvest time you would get your seed grain back and he would have the harvest to sell or to eat for the winter. By helping a man open a repair garage or a woman begin a floral shop we could not only help an individual move into a productive life, we can enhance the value of our community. And the loan should be non-interest. Make the agreement one that benefits the worker, not the congregation!

Do you get the idea(s)? All it takes is a little creativity and a little compassion and the ways we can help individuals are limitless. For those of you who are concerned, yes, we will get abused in some way at some time. But just think of the eternal consequences for those we help. We not only give them a reason for living in God’s restored kingdom on this earth, but we show them that the church’s message concerning eternity has validity and meaning. We fulfill God’s message of loving others as much as we love God. We use our wealth to create a sustainable living for others. We give freely as we have been given. We lift someone out of poverty (or more properly, we allow someone to work themselves out of poverty) and we are blessed by their success in the process.

A win/win situation carved out of the raw material of desperation and despair. Sounds pretty good to me. I know many congregations are implementing some of these ideas, and even many more. Let’s take the issue of poverty away from the government. The government is utterly incapable of handling it. Let’s address the issue of poverty with God’s wisdom. We will not eliminate it, but we can certainly do a much better job than Washington!

The Lord’s Church and Poverty (4)

Picture of siblings living in extreme poverty ...

Image via Wikipedia

As a brief review, let’s look at the ground I’ve covered so far. I believe God hates poverty. I believe he wants his people to join with him in alleviating the pain of poverty. But I’m enough of a realist to know that God has not created a world in which poverty will ever totally be eliminated. I also believe that the causes of poverty are many and multi-faceted, and that many factors usually collide to force a person or a family into poverty.

So, what is the Lord’s church supposed to do about poverty? I want to first approach that question by looking at the larger context of our American social system. And, as I mentioned in the last post, I believe this system is toxic when it comes to the subject of poverty.

We must look at this issue from two different extremes. On the extreme left are those individuals who view poverty as a cult of victimization. I have to be careful here, because to an extent I agree that many fall victim to forces beyond their control. They truly are victims in that sense. But where I see the far left making a fatal error is in declaring that these individuals are then relieved of any responsibility in solving their situation. In other words, once a victim, always a victim, and it is up to someone else to solve the problem. Loosely translated, that means rich people and those mean, nasty, horrible corporations.

Those on the extreme right fare no better in my analysis. As I mentioned before, many view poverty only through the lens of laziness. For them every situation of poverty can be traced back to some sin of laziness or lack of preparation. Those in poverty are simply dismissed unless and until they move to solve the “sin” problem in their life, which usually means they have to get a job and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In addition, there lurks another issue in many far right opinions concerning poverty – racism. Because the majority of those living beneath the poverty line are minorities it is assumed that hard working anglos are superior intellectually, morally, and spiritually to all these African-Amercian, Hispanic, or Asian deadbeats. Few will speak thus openly, but you don’t have to listen very long to hear obvious racially charged comments. Never mind that in the pages of the Bible it is invariably the poor who are praised for their deep spirituality! But we do not want facts to get in the way of our opinions.

Now here is the strange part of this situation. These two radically different viewpoints have crawled into bed with each other to create a political system that not only cannot solve the problem of poverty, but in reality works to deepen it. The whole poverty issue has been made an ugly step-child of the government, and so in a development that defies all explanation both the extreme right and the extreme left are absolved of any responsibility to truly help the poor. The government saves the extreme left because it levies taxes to pay for social services, so those on the left do not have to look to themselves as solutions to the problem, all they need to do is pressure the government to raise taxes and increase programs for the poor. Those on the extreme right just shrug their shoulders and declare that poverty is a societal problem best taken care of by the government. To quote Ebenezzer Scrooge, “I pay my taxes, is that not enough?” That is simultaneously a profoundly liberal and conservative statement.

Now, before anyone starts pointing out the tremendous works of religious groups such as Catholic Charities and all the myriad of non-catholic benevolent works, I admit that these works are present and do much good. But you have to admit that these are peripheral works, applied only after the government has done its job. The fundamental thought process in the United States is that poverty is a governmental problem, and while we might feed a few folks or build a few houses, the church is not the primary source of help for those trapped in poverty.

And here is where I am stumped. Because this viewpoint is so entrenched in our culture I simply do not see a way to remedy the situation without a wholesale (and politically suicidal) dismantling of the welfare state. If we pay people not to work, if we penalize couples for marrying and therefore encourage single parent families, if we pay single mothers more money for having more babies, if we make it more advantageous for single mothers and fathers to stay home than it is to get a job, if we create minimum wage structures that make childcare more expensive than a person can pay by holding an entry level job, if we perpetuate education inequality by making sure that underachieving schools do not get adequate funding and high-quality teachers, if we focus our educational system entirely on preparing students for college knowing full well that many do not want to go, and many cannot go then the result will be exactly what we are observing right now! The levels of poverty will only deepen and the consequences will only get worse!

So, insane as it may be, we as a culture must work toward getting people off of welfare, we must make marriage a financial benefit, not a penalty, we must stop the cycle of unmarried pregnancies, we must create situations where individuals can get the necessary job experience to earn a livable wage without making them spend everything they earn on childcare, we must invest heavily in providing equal opportunities for learning (note: not guaranteeing it!) and we must provide a viable option for those students who are not gifted academically, but can be excellent producers within our society by attending trade or other specialty schools. And this is going to require the concerted efforts of both those on the left and the right to put down their prejudices and work together to solve these basic human rights kind of issues.

I believe the church does have a role here, so my next entry will look specifically at God’s plan for taking care of the poor, and how a church might take steps to help the poor in their immediate area.

The Lord’s Church and Poverty (3)


Image via Wikipedia

It seems to me to be one of the greatest contradictions in the Bible. The Bible tells of a God who can create a universe out of nothing, who can heal the sick and raise the dead, a God who establishes kings and destroys nations and yet this God cannot do something as seemingly simple as eradicating poverty. It just seems to me that making a universal law similar to gravity would have been a whole lot easier than making a human out of a lump of clay. But then, I was not there at the beginning so I am just guessing here.

This apparent contradiction is nowhere more visible than in Deuteronomy 15:1-10. I already mentioned this text in the first of these articles. Moses tells the people of Israel that no poor should exist in their land, then within the same paragraph tells them that the poor will always exist in their land. Is Moses confused, or are we confused when we read this passage?

I do not claim to be an Old Testament scholar, and certainly not a specialist in the Hebrew language or the Pentateuch as a whole. But I see in this passage a very real window into the heart and mind of God. While I do not believe that God intentionally confuses or speaks with a double tongue, I do believe that he challenges his people with the reality of paradox. There are opposites in this world that we cannot deny, and these opposites are signposts to a greater truth. Consider: truth/falsity, light/dark, heat/cold, love/hate, war/peace, and should (ought)/reality. There are many should’s and ought’s in this world, and just as many contradicting examples of reality that oppose those should’s and ought’s.

In the case of poverty we see both the ought and the is in the Deuteronomy passage. The ought is that there should not be any poor. The is cannot be denied – there are multitudes of poverty-stricken people in the world. The reasons have been discussed in the last article – sometimes people are lazy or make stupid decisions, but by far the greatest causes of poverty are situations in which the person is passive. Events happen that cause poverty. If God were to have eradicated poverty he would have had to eradicate virtually every other aspect of our universe. Poverty in some segment of our world is as endemic as health and prosperity is in others. We are fools if we think we can eliminate one without eliminating everything else.

So, if I am correct in that assessment, what has God called his people to do in the face of this sometimes crushing poverty? I do not want to be trite here, but I think he wants us to do what he wants us to do in every other situation that arises from the human condition. He wants us to join with him in his mission to care for those who cannot care for themselves. And that starts with the realization that God has given wealth to the wealthy for this very reason.

We were all poverty-stricken and helpless until God intervened and made it possible for us to have the blessings we enjoy. None of us created any of our wealth outside of God’s gracious provision. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to share those blessings with those who (temporarily) have lost those physical blessings.

As Jesus told his apostles as he sent them out on what is referred to as the “limited” commission, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matt. 10:8, ESV) In grand theological terms, we enter into the missio dei when we take what we have been given and make this world a better place.

(Digressive rant warning: why is it that if we use a Latin or German or French term we somehow come across as being more intelligent or more spiritual, or both? For instance, why is the mission dei more spiritual than the mission of God? I read all over the blogosphere of the missio dei, but hardly anything about the mission of God. Pipsqueak theologians are all atwitter about the missio dei as if they just discovered a new planet or something. It drives me up the wall. End of digressive rant.)

More than any situation in the world today, it is through our attitude to poverty that Christians can reveal the image of their Father in heaven. While the biblical text does clearly condemn laziness and making foolish decisions, nowhere is poverty itself condemned! In fact, all through the Bible there are repeated injunctions for the wealthy to provide for the care of the poor, the weak, the oppressed and those who have no visible source of protection (Lev. 19:9-10, Micah 6:8, Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 22:3, Matthew 9:13, Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27, just for starters!) What is specifically condemned is the abuse of those classes of people. All too often we have it reversed. We protect the oppressors and abuse the defenseless. God can not be happy with this situation.

We have all freely received, so we should freely give. That is, give without making moral judgments. Give without demanding interest upon repayment. Give with no hope of return at all. In a phrase, we are all to be God to our neighbor, because we all depend upon God for our existence.

I have much more to say about this in future entries. As a transition (a segue, for all the theological pipsqueaks out there), let me just say that our American culture is toxic to this concept of Biblical care for the poor. How so you ask? Please return to this space in the very near future, as I seek to explore how our culture has made the biblical mandate for the care of the poor virtually impossible.

The Lord’s Church and Poverty (2)

English: poverty

Image via Wikipedia

In my last post I pointed out that in Deut. 15:1-11, Moses said both that there should be no poor among the Israelites, and that there always would be poor among the Israelites. I raised the question as to how both propositions could be true. Eventually I will get to that question, but first some more background stuff.

What causes poverty? In our Sunday night discussion we had several good answers, which I will summarize here. NOTE: this is not an exhaustive list, as I am not a sociologist. But I think we did a pretty good job of at least hitting the major sources of poverty.

(1) Laziness. I hate to say this, because those on the left disregard this as a cause of poverty in any form, and those on the right think it is the only cause of poverty. I will address those on the far right at then end of this post, but for those on the left let me just say that you cannot read the book of Proverbs and deny that God equates a large part of poverty with human laziness. It can be seen in a third grader trying to get someone else to do his homework, and an adult who refuses to take care of his or her work, house, or family. Laziness all too often results in poverty.

(2) Serious illness/death. How many people have been driven into poverty as a result of a family member becoming seriously ill, suffering an accident, or losing their life. Suddenly a home that might have two incomes only has a partial income or none at all. Added to that are increased medical costs.

(3) Natural disasters. Think of how many livelihoods are destroyed when a hurricane, tornado, or fire strikes a populated area. Fishing trawlers and barber shops can not be purchased with one’s pocket change. Well, what about insurance, you say? Not everyone can afford to completely insure their livelihood, and some insurance companies refuse to pay under some circumstances and it can be as expensive to force them to pay as it is to recover the loss. Insurance is not the golden parachute that so many people think it is.

(4) The loss of a job for other reasons. Many thousands have discovered that a comfortable lifestyle on Monday can totally disappear by Friday with one simple little pink slip. With the real unemployment rate being well into double digits it is not realistic to suggest that within 3 or 6 months a person trained to do one highly specific job can find employment somewhere else.

(5) Lack of education. Our economy is becoming more technologically demanding and also more demanding of communication skills. These are fields that demand high levels of education. At the same time education costs are skyrocketing (funny how Democrats never complain about the inflation rate of higher education. Don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them??) While this may not be strictly a cause of poverty, it is a factor that makes it virtually impossible to break the cycle of poverty.

(6) Single parent families. Look at any chart of individuals and families in poverty and the largest percentage will be those in single parent families. Now, as with education, this may not strictly be considered a cause of poverty, but it cannot be ignored in the scheme of analyzing the continuation of cyclical poverty.

So, maybe you can add a reason or two. What should this communicate to the Lord’s church? I think the biggest thing we need to see from this list is that only one can be directly controlled by an individual – laziness. Every other cause listed is outside of the control of many living in poverty. Even with single parent households the one parent may have become single due to death or abandonment. If so many causes of poverty lie outside of an individual’s control, we must be extraordinarily careful about assigning guilt to those who live beneath the poverty line.

This is my main grief with those on the right wing of the church who believe that poverty is always a mark of sin and therefore should be dealt with like a spiritual problem. They have a carefully constructed syllogism in their mind: Laziness leads to poverty. John Doe is poor. Therefore, John is lazy. He might be. Or, he could have lost his wife after an 18 month battle with cancer and he suddenly has to deal with three young children by himself. Or his company could have sent his job to India. Or he could have lost everything in a flood, fire, tornado or hurricane. Or he might have become obsolete to his company because his job is now being performed by a robot. Life, and poverty, cannot be neatly summed up in one three-part syllogism.

In part one I stressed the golden rule for churches in terms of poverty: recognizing that the ability to create wealth (and very often the wealth itself!) is a gift from God. In one word, the church needs to learn humility. Now we see that the causes of poverty are many and multi-faceted. Have I changed any minds? Are we beginning to see poverty in a different light?

We now have a pretty solid foundation to move on to the big question: if we are supposed to do away with poverty, why are so many people still poor?

The Lord’s Church and Poverty

Beggar in front of Walker Art Center, Minneapo...

Image via Wikipedia

I recently started a series of lessons on the subject of poverty. Based on what I know about the subject it will be a very short series. I am not poor. I have never been poor. I have been raised in one of the most prosperous countries during one of the most prosperous times that human kind has ever experienced. For me to examine poverty is like a dog to examine the lunar rocks returned from the Apollo space missions.

That having been said, I find it increasingly uncomfortable that as I read the Bible I find God deeply concerned with the situation of the poor. I say uncomfortable not because I think God should be unconcerned with the poor, but because I am so unfamiliar with the terrain. As I mentioned in my class this past Sunday night, one passage I find very interesting is the first 11 verses of Deuteronomy 15. In this brief paragraph we are told (1) that there should not be any poor in the land based on how God has blessed his people, and (2) there will always be poor in the land (a passage that Jesus repeats in Matt. 26:11). Why, right after saying there should never be any poor in a land of plenty and blessing, would God say there will always be poor people?

I am concerned about the attitude many Christians display openly, or sometimes carefully conceal, about those in poverty. A pervasive attitude among Christians today is, “Well, I had to work hard to get what I have, I am certainly not going to give it to someone who will not work, and if they want what I have let them work for it like I did.” The problem with such a statement should be obvious (which is why I think we do not say such things openly). However, God’s point of view is this, “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.” (Deut. 8:17, 18) There we go. God may not have given us the wealth we have in a pretty wrapped package, but he gave us everything we needed to produce that wealth. But that is just so difficult for us to accept. We want to think we did it all ourselves. We are good Americans, and good Americans pull themselves up by their bootstraps and we don’t take any charity and we build our fortunes by the sweat of our brows.

Except we don’t. Everything that we have, everything that we use to produce our wealth, everything that we think we have produced ourselves has been given to us: it has been provided to us by our God. That is the plain, simple, unvarnished truth. We are all charity cases. And it is only with the humility that truth demands that we can honestly begin to approach the issue of poverty today.

Now, before anyone quotes 2 Thess. 3:10 to me, yes I know that passage is in the New Testament. But we are not talking about labor here. The Old Testament also makes clear that one is to work for his or her support. But the point I am trying to make is that even the labor that was expected of the poor and alien was made possible by a gift of the landowner. An owner was not to reap to the edges and corners of his field, and was not to go over the vineyard a second time, so as to allow the poor and the alien to “work” for their food (Lev. 19:9). Along with this teaching was the year of the sabbath and the year of the Jubilee, in which the land was to lie fallow and all lands were to return to their original caretaker (see Lev. 25). I was about to say “owner,” but the point of the year of Jubilee was to reestablish that the real “landowner” was God himself. The economic system that God devised would be so radically different from our free market capitalism that we could scarcely survive if we were somehow to implement it today. It is so totally, well, unAmerican.

So, my first observation in this topic of the Lord’s church and her response to poverty is this: we have to realize that we are all recipients of God’s gift of wealth. Even if we think we’ve done everything by ourselves we must stop and reconsider that idea. Who gave us our primary education? Who provided the textbooks and buildings? Who made it possible for us to go to college? Who provided us the capital to start our own business? Who provides the labor for us to earn a profit? Who provides us the food and water we need to survive and thrive? Is it clear yet? No one, and I emphasize NO ONE has created their wealth by themselves. We as Americans are the recipients of the greatest gift, and gifts, of any people alive, and I might suggest, who have ever lived.

If we can understand that one golden principle I believe it makes the rest of what I want to share so much easier to accept. More on this in the days to come.

A Call For Rigorous (and Righteous) Debate

Debate Logo

Image via Wikipedia

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, intellectual debate was a prefered and healthy part of human discourse. It was through debate that ideas were accepted or rejected, minds were sharpened, and conversations were started.

But then the engine jumped the tracks and every car behind it became a twisted metal wreck. Even the word “debate” now is often seen as an ugly word. What passes for debates today are just glorified verbal gladiator exhibitions, where the loudest and shrillest voice wins. Long gone are the concepts of truth-seeking and polite discussions of significant issues. So, because I am a knuckle dragging troglodyte, I would like to suggest we reinvent the polite (although rigorous) form of debate. While I never had debate in high school, and I’m sure there are others out there who can provide the precise rules for debate, I would like to suggest these ground rules from a purely amateur point of view.

1.  Actually honor your opponent! Treat him or her as you would like to be treated. Speak deferentially. Acknowledge their accomplishments, training, knowledge and wisdom. After all, you do not want to debate a wet dish rag. If your opponent is worthy of your mental acuity, then let them and the audience understand that you respect them.

2.  Begin, continue, and end with the strong points of your position, not the (supposed) weaknesses of your opponent. Let the audience know what you stand for, not what you are against. If you cannot give the audience many good reasons to believe what you believe, maybe you should not believe it either!

3.  Know your opponent’s arguments as well as they do. Do not misquote them, or misquote any of their allies. Do not assume you know, make sure you know. If you quote them, quote them in context. Clarify their position before you debate it.

4.  Disagree with your opponent’s position, not with your opponent. They may be wrong, they may be right, or they may be partly wrong and partly right. The point of the debate is to arrive at a greater understanding of a greater truth, not to leave your opponent in a puddle of sweat and blood.

5.  Do something radical – when your opponent says something that you agree with, magnify that agreement! It is virtually impossible to agree with another person 100% of the time on 100% of the issues. Likewise, it is virtually impossible to disagree with someone 100% of the time on 100% of the issues. So, where there is mutual agreement, loudly proclaim that agreement.

6.  If you cannot begin as friends, at least begin with mutual acceptance and admiration, and end the same way. Debate is not a battle to the death, it is the free yet controlled expression of deeply held convictions. I may disagree vehemently with someone’s stated beliefs, but I can respect them as a person and as an opponent deserving of honor.

There are probably other good rules to add to the list. I really kind of miss the opportunity to hear two sides of one issue debated honorably and rigorously. I know that they do sometimes occur these days, but I would like to see more of them (done right, that is). Kind of an aside here, it would also be nice for people to hold their convictions deeply enough to actually be willing to debate them. It is irritating to want to have a conversation with someone only to have them say, “well, you believe what you want and I’ll believe what I want.” But I guess that is another topic for another day.

Alexander Campbell

Image via Wikipedia

It is said that Alexander Campbell, one of the fiercest debaters within the Disciples of Christ/Churches of Christ history, made his supporters furious by inviting his debate opponents out to meals during their lengthy debates. His response was classic. They were men worthy of honor, even though he might disagree with their conclusions. If he could not eat with them, how could he say that he respected them in debate? If he did not respect them, why was he debating them?

Right on, Alex. (And by the way, great hairdo!)

The Church’s Infatuation With Youth – Folly or Fatal?

English: Billy Graham Crusade in Cleveland Ohi...

Image via Wikipedia

A high school senior stands behind the pulpit and preaches a sermon. The congregation goes wild and proclaims him to be the next Billy Graham. A young boy not even in his teens tells the story of the Bible and is praised for being smarter than the preacher and all the elders combined. Young men not even old enough to drive are shipped away to “preacher training camp” and have their heads pumped full of praise and glory and then get shipped back home to “practice” what they have learned. What they have learned is that if the stand in front of a crowd and quote a Scripture, express an opinion and close with a poem they will have their backs patted and be told they are great men of God.

I may be in the extreme minority here, but I am convinced the church is destroying the lives of more young men than we are creating future preachers. There is simply no way a congregation can look on a young boy age 8-18 and know whether he is qualified to be a spiritual leader. He may have incredible stage presence. He may have a suave method of delivery. He may be an amazing public speaker. But none of these things qualify a young man to be a minister in the Lord’s church.

I can hear the objections already. “But what about what Paul said to Timothy, ‘Don’t let others look down on your youth.'” First of all, we don’t know how old Timothy was. He might have been in his 30’s for all we know. Second, Timothy had a special relationship with Paul, and was specifically gifted by Paul for his ministry. So, even if he was in his early twenties he certainly had a greater pedigree than what any church today can offer. And finally, we do not know the reason why people were given to “look down” or “despise” Timothy. In the light of so many unanswered questions it is inappropriate to use that passage of Scripture to defend the our current practice of putting pre-teens on a pedestal neither we nor they can comprehend.

The results of this foolish infatuation with youth are all too visible: broken marriages, broken homes, failed ministries, broken churches, infidelity to marriage partners – the list goes on. Men don’t just leave the ministry when they find out that (1) ministry is not just making fine sounding speech every Sunday and (2) they were not as qualified and prepared as everyone told them they were. Men leave the church completely when that happens. They are not just deflated, they are destroyed. The church does not bind up and heal broken ministers, we shoot them and leave their corpses in the sun to rot. Then we turn to the next 22 year old wunderkind and start the process all over again. If you doubt me just look at how many young men graduate from our colleges, universities and schools of preaching every year. Then track how many stay in preaching over the next 2, 5, 10, or 15 years. If we keep 50 % of our ministerial students in the pulpit for 10 years I would be absolutely stunned. My guess is that the figure would be around 20 % or lower. I doubt we keep hard statistics on such numbers because it is not very comforting to document our failures.

Should we be training young men to preach and to minister? Absolutely – but we must first realize that the process we are now using is flawed, and in all too many situations, fatal. As one who was going to be a minister until they wheeled me into the church in a wheel chair, then one who was burned up by the church and as one who has returned to ministry with a different set of spectacles I do have some suggestions as to how we can better train our young men to become and to remain solid ministers for the church:

1.  We must begin by retraining ourselves as to what indicates that a young man might become a minister. We are seduced by smooth talking, good looking, eloquent crowd pleasers. But ministry is primarily working with broken and wounded people. Instead of looking for the next pulpiteer we need to ask ourselves, Is this young man caring? Does he draw his peers to him for strength and comfort? Is he given to cliquishness and party building? Does he search out the “fringe members” of the church? Is he a good listener? Does he love to study and is he willing to learn from the masters? How does he handle praise – is he humble and kind or does he reflect a haughty attitude? How does he treat the girls he dates? Are they made to feel lucky that he chose them, or does he treat each girl with respect and dignity? Does he relate to all age groups, or does he only socialize with his generation? In his general conversation is he kind and affirming or does he cut, belittle, and ridicule those who disagree with him? Does he have as many enemies as friends? The point is that any young man (or woman, for that matter) can be taught the rudiments of exegesis, hermeneutics and good sermon delivery. Only God can make a minister, however. We have been looking for the wrong traits for much too long.

2.  We must train our young men to realize that ministry is not preaching. Preaching is a part of ministry, and a significant part at that. But ministry is also visiting with hurting members and members who are hurting the church. It is holding the hand of a dying grandmother and also holding back your temper when you are being attacked. It is figuring out how to get many members of a church to look to the future and it is reminding others that there is a long and wonderful heritage of history to look back on. Ministry is fun, depressing, exhilarating, brain numbing boring, terrifying and greatly fulfilling all in one day and sometimes in the same hour. Ministry is not for the squeamish nor for the praise seeking glory hound. Far too many men enter the ministry seeking praise, respect, fulfillment, and recognition. If a man is not happy in his own skin before he becomes a minister he will become a miserable failure after he becomes a minister, at least one congregation will pay the price for his insecurities.

English: Pulpit at St Nicholas' Church, Worth ...

Image via Wikipedia

3.  And when we find a good minister we need to move into the 21st century when it comes to financial support. I believe emotional and spiritual burnout is the #1 cause of ministers leaving the church, but financial crises have to be a strong #2. It is simply unconscionable that a congregation can have an average per family income of between $50,000 or $60,000 or higher and to have that congregation offer to pay their minister a whopping $30,000 a year. “Oh, but we will provide a house to live in too.” Wonderful. Have you ever gone to a department store and told the clerk, “I’d love to pay you for my children’s clothes, but would you accept that we get free housing instead of cash?” Or go to the doctor and tell them that instead of paying for the visit you will just send a copy of the free housing agreement. Yea, I thought so. Find out what your minister is being paid. Is it average for the congregation? In the community is it average for his level of education? Does he have a growing family? Have you considered insurance and retirement? Do you pay for him to buy a new book every month? Do you pay for subscriptions to journals so he can stay abreast of current events? Do you pay for him to attend a conference, special class or lectureship every year? Do you give him a raise every year? Do you reward him in other ways – by giving his wife special treats or perhaps paying for his children to attend a summer camp? Ministers and their families have lives as well, and if we do not invest in them they will need to move on where they can be taken care of.

I believe the church is infatuated with youth. In some cases this might just be folly, but I’ve seen too many situations where it is fatal – spiritually at least. We can do better. Our young men and their wives and their children deserve for us to do better. Let us strive to create mature ministers for the church – for their sake and for ours.

%d bloggers like this: