Blog Archives

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.]

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.

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.

Creating God in Our Own Image

Omniomnivordme.

Pardon me for a little whimsicality, but that phrase always returns to me when I think of things that are easily explained, but just as easily confused and exaggerated. The expression (actually just a series of unrelated abbreviations from the aviation world) came from a friend who liked to claim he could speak in tongues. If you are a pilot, that is pretty funny. If you think you can speak in tongues, not so much.

Today I revisit my last offering and expand upon it. When we speak of God in Platonic or Aristotelian terms (like saying God is the ultimate idea, or that he is the “unmoved mover”) we utterly lose the biblical concept of God and therefore create God in our own image.

Specially, and to the point, the more “omnies” we put in front of our descriptions of God, the less Hebrew (and therefore less biblical) and more Greek (and therefore, more philosophical) our understanding of God. The classic definition of God in virtually any sermon or class that you will hear revolves around three “omnies” – omniscient, omnipowerful, and omnipresent. In English that would translate into, “all knowing, all powerful, and all present.” So we have come to know and believe about God. But are these descriptions true?

Let’s take the first one – does God know everything, as in everything? Many passages could be provided to affirm that. What is less well known are the passages that limit, or at the very least, appear to limit God’s knowledge. For example, 2 Chronicles 32:31, “And so in the matter of the envoys of the princes of Babylon, who had been sent to him to inquire about the sign that had been done in the land, God left him [Hezekiah] to himself, in order to test him and to know all that was in his heart.” (ESV) God did two things here that are quite unacceptable for an Platonic/Aristotelian God – he “tested” Hezekiah (meddled in Hezekiah’s business) and he had to learn, or discover, or find out, what was in Hezekiah’s heart. But what about a more well known example – Genesis 22:12, “He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.'” (ESV) Once again, as in the previous text, a Platonic/Aristotelian God would already know what the outcome of the situation would be, and in fact, would not have put Abraham to the test to begin with. In fact, the whole episode is an intolerable and grotesque act for a Platonic/Aristotelian god – why would an all knowing and all loving God make such a brutal command. In Greek terms it is simply unthinkable. God would be beyond such “inhumanity.”

What about the second – that God is all powerful. Can God do anything he wants? Let me rephrase the question – Would it please God if no one ever sinned, if no one ever hurt anyone else, if everyone strove to serve God and him alone? Can God force that outcome? Well, I suppose theoretically he could, but would God then be God? Yes he would, in the Platonic/Aristotelian mold, but not in the Hebraic mold. In other words, according to the Old Testament, God is a limited God – he is limited by his own holiness. There are things God cannot do simply because if he did them, he would not be the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Many things transpired that were against God’s will, and any being that could speak the world into existence could have stopped those unwanted events. However, God limited his actions in the world for the express purpose of remaining God – so that his holiness might be revealed through the events, and not through his overpowering them not to happen.

So then, is God omnipresent – is God everywhere at once? Once again, theoretically yes, but following the last example, does he limit himself in his presence in the world? Well, if you read Ezekiel 10, you read that the glory (presence) of the LORD clearly leaves the temple in Jerusalem, allowing for its destruction. Once again, God could have protected the temple, and if his presence was truly there I doubt if any human could have destroyed the temple, but God wanted Ezekiel to know that there are times and places where God abandons this earth!

What I have discussed here is clearly open for discussion – are these passages to be interpreted literally or figuratively? But, to be honest, every description of God can be equally challenged. When the poet speaks of God knowing everything or being everywhere – are those statements to be taken literally or figuratively?

To repeat myself ad nauseam, my point is simply this – the more language that we borrow from Plato and Aristotle to define or explain God, the further from the Bible we travel. And when we speak of God getting angry (a no-no for Aristotle) or repenting, or forgetting, or leaving his people, or testing individuals to learn what was in their heart, the more biblical and “Hebrew” we become.

As I closed the last article, so I close this one. Athens (philosophy) is a great place to visit, but we are much safer, and beyond question more biblical, if we reside in Jerusalem.

What Does It Matter, Anyway?

This post is intended to be a companion piece to my post of yesterday, so if you did not read that article, use the little arrow thingy and back up a page.

I think most Americans are familiar with the screech made by our former Secretary of State when she was being questioned about the murders of our ambassador and assistants in Benghazi. “What does it matter, anyway?” was her response when being questioned about what she knew, when she knew it, and what could have been done differently. “What does it matter, anyway” has become the mantra of an entire generation of Americans – not just politicians with a failed policy on their hands.

Yesterday I discussed the fact that we (primarily in the church) simply do not have the ability to stand firm anymore. Well, that is only partly true. We will fight to our last drop of blood over the color of the curtains, the positioning of the furniture, and the name of the song book that gathers dust in the book rack; but when it comes to issues of genuine faith, of matters that cut to the core of the gospel, we have one timid little response – “What does it matter, anyway?”

I see three primary reasons why congregational leaders, and therefore the congregations they lead, have found it impossible to stand firm against the onslaught of post-modern secularism. They are: a lack of a foundation, a lack of support, and a lack of courage. Let me address each of these individually.

First, I see the primary issue involved in an inability to stand firm as being the complete lack of a solid foundation. Most important, we have lost the foundation of knowing Scripture. Although we exist with the veneer of being a “Bible people,” we really do not know the Bible. This is true to varying degrees in many elderships, and is only magnified as we move down the generations. Elders today are not selected because of their knowledge of the Bible and their ability to put that knowledge into practice. Elders today are chosen because they are good business men, they are popular, they have the “perfect” family, and maybe even because they come from a long line of previous elders. My wife relates the story of having an elder get furious with her because she corrected him during a teen Bible class. If teenagers can correct men who are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of a congregation, that congregation is in serious trouble. I wonder, though, how many teenagers would know more Bible than their elders? Our knowledge of the Bible is pathetic, and it is impossible to stand for issues of faith when we do not know what that faith is.

In addition to a lack of knowledge of Scripture, we have an even lower (if possible) level of knowledge of our history – our tradition. Some would even argue that we do not have a tradition. Yea, and babies come from underneath cabbage leaves. Tradition is a wonderful thing – a blessed thing. But you would not know that by talking to the average member of the Church of Christ. We know nothing of Alex and Bart and Walt and my favorite – ol’ Raccoon John himself. How could we know anything of our history, and why would we even want to, the way it is disparaged and ridiculed from the majority of pulpits and lectureships in the country? Here is a indisputable but despised fact: the more liberal a person is, the closer that person is to the most radical conservative in at least one respect – they both hate our history. Liberals hate it because, to them anyway, it makes us look foolish, immature, and ignorant. Ultra conservatives hate it because we are simply not supposed to have a history – we popped out of the ground fully grown in 33 A.D., and except for a few hiccups now and then, have been pretty much a perfect people. Both extremes are utterly and damnably wrong – contra the conservatives we have a history that stretches back to Abraham at the very least (remember, the “Father of the faithful”), but is made up of every nook and cranny of human history from that point on. And, contra the liberals, it is a wonderful, beautiful, mesmerizing, and totally enlightening history. Alex and Bart and Walt and ol’ Raccoon were brilliant theologians and practitioners. But you would not know it if you read any of our most recent attempts at explaining our Restoration History. (Okay, rant over.)

Second, elders – and especially our young people – find it difficult, if not impossible, to stand firm because they get little or no support when they try. It’s one thing to get shot in the chest when you are facing an opponent – but it is something entirely different when you are getting shot in the back at the same time. I have seen good men reduced to meaningless figureheads not by their opponents, but by the congregation they were leading. There is a good reason the author of the book of Hebrews wrote, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” (Hebrews 13:17). It is frustrating when an eldership appears to be paralyzed, but it is disastrous when an eldership takes a stand on an issue they consider to be a matter of faith, only to be skewered by the flock they are attempting to protect. Or imagine the confusion of a spiritually mature 16 year old girl who objects to having to shower next to a psychologically damaged 16 year old boy (in all his anatomically glorious self) only to be told that she is being a bully and needs to be more sensitive – and this by members of her own congregation! It is often difficult to take a stand when you know it is going to be controversial, or even worse, contradictory to secular theories. That difficulty is multiplied exponentially when the people you believe to be your spiritual family abandons you.

Finally, there is the issue of courage. It is difficult to take a stand on a matter of faith if you are confused about what that faith is, and if you are convinced that no one will stand with you if you try. But it is utterly impossible to take that stand if you are a coward, even if you know the truth and have a whole army standing behind you. I believe most elders and a majority of young people are good men and kids. But there is a disturbingly large percentage of elders (and adolescents) who are nothing more than weak-kneed, limp-wristed, lilly-livered cowards (I am trying to restrain myself here). These are individuals who know the truth, and who know that there are people who are looking to them for leadership and will defend them to the last bullet. They choose – willingly – to accept the path of least resistance anyway. They do not want to cause a scuffle. They do not want to be seen as being “old fogies.” They are more interested in their image than in their position of leaders (and yes, young people can be awesome leaders). Ignorance can be educated away. Support can be generated. But cowardice? Cowardice kills before the battle is even joined. “There is nothing to fear, except fear itself.” Oh, what timeless words.

Christians who are concerned about the perilous times in which we live must do three things. We must return to the Bible, we must once again become a people of the book. We cannot stand firm for a faith of which we are ignorant. We must also not only accept, but we must come to appreciate our history – from Abraham to the apostles to the Reformation to the Restoration to our present day. We are products of our history – and we must learn from that history or we are certainly doomed to repeat its disasters. We must stand in solidarity with those who are taking a risk to defend their faith. We must support our elders when they say “no” to the Baals and Asherahs of secularism. We must support our young people when they refuse to be driven by the twisted beliefs of this culture. And finally we must learn what it means to be biblically courageous – to “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). In a memorable line from one of my wife’s favorite movies, “Courage is not the absence of fear – courage is the decision that there is something more important than fear.”

All of this is critical because our faith, our morals, our beliefs, that which we stand on – all of these things matter very much.

What does it matter anyway?

Stand at the foot of the cross and ask that question. Then you may get it.

(Update, Aug. 11, 2016 – it occurred to me that some might notice that I omitted preachers from this discussion. Be assured, I have no mistaken ideas that ministers/preachers are exempt from being cowardly and just flat-out ignorant. As I was writing I was thinking primarily of congregational leadership, and for some strange, backward, unknown reason I still believe that ministers serve under the eldership, not above them. Yes, ministers/preachers lead, but if the elders would exert their God-given authority, fewer young trash-talking preachers would have a pulpit to do so.)

The Inability to Stand Firm

Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13, RSV)

One of the benefits of growing older, I have learned, is that your vision becomes more clear. Not necessarily your eyesight, which I have also learned, becomes more blurry – but your vision. You are able to apprehend things in a manner that youth simply cannot perceive. A few people can see them when they are young, and we notice these individuals and label them as “visionaries” or “mystics.” Old people are called crotchety or old fogies. I appear to be approaching old fogyism.

One of the things I have perceived over the past few years is that with each new “generation,” the ability to stand firm with any teaching or principle that contradicts the prevalent culture – what we call “political correctness” – is slowly but steadily disappearing. In other words, it is perfectly acceptable to “stand firm” when you are defending the garbage that issues from the LGBTQ faction. Such firmness is even considered downright heroic. However, let a high school boy or girl raise their voice in defense of Biblical sexuality and you would think Adolf Hitler himself had been reincarnated. Defend the “right” of a male to use the female locker room just because he “identifies” as a female and you win humanitarian of the year award. Defend the right of a female to be safe in the same locker room and you are vilified as being inhuman (or worse). In many ways I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a young Christian in the typical American high school. The pressure to conform or to be ostracized must be monumental.

I see this trend being played out increasingly within congregations of the Lord’s church. “Can’t we all get along” is the mantra of the day – and that is a very difficult idea to argue against. We have been divided over so many inconsequential things; it would be wonderful if we could learn how to put our personal wants and wishes aside for just a few moments and genuinely consider how we can work together for the kingdom. But there are limits to “just getting along.” There is a line – however narrow – between right and wrong, truth and error, holy and profane, good and evil. God gave us the sense, and he gave us the instructions, to know the difference. To fail to draw those distinctions is to fail to obey God.

The key to understanding the difference between standing firm and looking for compromise is in the above verse (just to list one). Paul said to “stand firm in your faith.” He did not say to demand your opinion in matters of methodology or in matters that are by their nature “inconsequential.” He dealt with those issues in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 9. There are matters that cut to the very core of what it means to be a unified body of Christ, and there are matters that are of individual preference and taste. The first are matters of faith the second are matters of function.

I do not want to suggest that determining the difference between these two poles is always easy. I do want to emphasize that doing so is necessary. To divide a congregation over an issue that is simply a matter of methodology is to sin against the body of Christ. To accept, and to practice, a teaching that violates either the letter or the spirit of Scripture is to commit either heresy, or at the very least, heterodoxy. Read the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. Note the difference between being reprimanded (the loss of love, the need to stand firm) and being condemned (the teachings of the Nicolaitans, the woman “Jezebel”).

It is absolutely critical that congregational leaders learn the difference between what is of faith, and what is of opinion. An entire generation is at risk. One of my beloved professors, Dr. Eugene Clevenger, taught in his class on the Corinthian letters, “The greatest right I have is the right to surrender my rights.” Equally critical, especially in the 21st century is this, “The greatest responsibility I have is the responsibility never to surrender the truth of Scripture.”

It is a question of sailing between the Scylla of legalism and the Charybdis of anarchy. It is a narrow and difficult passage. But difficult does not mean impossible. It is not only possible, it is imperative. To fail to make the choice is to utterly fail, and that is something this old fogey simply cannot accept.

Joshua 10:10-14 and the USA

And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, saying, “we have sinned against thee, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.” And the LORD said to the people of Israel, “Did I not deliver you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites, and the Maonites, oppressed you; and you cried to me, and I delivered you out of their hand. Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will deliver you no more. Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.” (Joshua 10:10-14, RSV)

For someone who loves a good sense of irony, this passage is just perfect. The Israelites were up against it. They were being attacked by the Philistines and the Ammonites. The Israelites had been serving the gods of these nations, but it was obvious that the faster they went, the behinder they got. Finally, somebody (or a few somebodies) decided, “Hey, let’s call on that LORD God, you know, the one that helped our parents and grandparents and great-grand parents. Maybe he can help.”

And the LORD, master of everything including dramatic irony, said “Pfffft.” (I paraphrase slightly.) Israel had made its bed, sleeping with all the Blue-tick hounds, and now they were complaining about the fleas. “Tough luck” said God – “Why don’t you call on all those fancy idols you have been worshiping for so long – maybe they can help.”

Well, we all know the story – Israel did put away the false gods, they (re)committed themselves to serving the One True God, and once again God heeded their cries and provided them with a deliverer.

I wonder if God does not refer to the same playbook every once in a while.

All across this wonderful fruited plain we hear the cry of the “oppressed.” “Lord, save us” is the cry. “We are in a bit of a pickle down here, and we could really use your help!”

And God says, “Pfffft.” (Once again, I paraphrase slightly.) “Go and call on those gods you have been worshiping for over 200 years now – see if they can rescue you!”

Let’s see if these gods can save us –

Politics – yeah, like mixing oil and water has worked so well for us. The crass greed of the Republican party versus the even more crass licentiousness of the Democratic party. “Vote for me because I am less evil than my opponent.” The wonder is not that our system is collapsing, the wonder is that it has taken this long to collapse.

Philosophy – okay, if our own muddled thinking got us into this mess, maybe our own muddled thinking will get us out! And we wonder what defines insanity.

Technology – I know, let’s create something – fashion it with our own hands (not really understanding what the long-term results will be) and then place the entire survival of the human race on that creation! Dynamite was supposed to be so powerful that its creation would end the possibility of war (so thought its creator – Alfred Nobel). Nuclear energy has worked out so well for us. Huge wind turbines are the latest, greatest saviors of life on the planet – unless you happen to be a migratory bird, and then, well, too bad for you.

Education – this one might have helped, except that we quit applying it about three decades ago. Who knows if it would have been all that great, seeing as how it was the source for numbers two and three above.

The point is that we (American Christians and secularists alike) have been worshiping at the altar of idols for most, if not all, of our history. There have been brief periods when we “call upon the LORD,” but they have been few and short-lived. Even today, when conservative Christians bewail the moral stagnation of our country, our solutions are based entirely upon idols – we look to a new President, or a new Congress, or a new Supreme Court. We demand a new educational system. We demand new (and expensive) weapons to guarantee our “peace,” when we live in terror every day.

To all of this I say, “Pfffft.” (And I do not paraphrase here). I am tired of trotting out the old solutions, the solutions that have not solved anything. I would like Christians to try something we have tried all too infrequently throughout the history of the United States – I would like Christians to rely upon the power of Christ living in and through the church. I want to see Christians feeding the poor and housing the homeless – who needs government programs? I want to see the church assume the responsibility of teaching our young people – and who cares about the Department of Miseducation? I want to see the church take the role of changing the lives of prostitutes and drug addicts and the hungry and the naked and the “poor and huddled masses, yearning to be free.” And I would like to see the church expect – demand even – that a changed moral life accompany a changed physical life. Jesus healed the sick – but he also healed the sickness of sin and bade his followers leave their former lives of rebellion against God.

It can happen. It should happen. It would happen if we would just try it. Otherwise, our faith in God is just empty, vain, words.

And if you don’t believe me, well, all I have to say is “pfffft.”

Where Have All the Christians Gone?

Where have all the soldiers gone,
Long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone,
Long time ago.
Where have all the soldiers gone –
Gone to graveyards every one.
When will they ever learn?
Oh when will they ever learn?
(1960’s folk scare anthem, titled, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? third verse)

I picture a scene in the late 1930’s in Berlin. It is a picture of two worlds. On the one hand an economy that was literally on the brink of disaster is now starting to show signs, not just of life, but of genuine health. The mood of the nation borders on ecstasy. The long, dark night following the embarrassment of the Great World War is fading into the dark recesses of history. People are working. There is food on the table. Instead of a waffling, insecure national government, there is a leader who knows what he wants to do – he knows what is best for his Volk, his people. He is their leader, der Fuhrer.*

Crouched over a simple wood desk a young pastor and sometimes university lecturer looks out his window overlooking Berlin and wrinkles his forehead. Through his spectacles he sees a much different Germany. The bright red, white and black swastikas that hang from the government buildings, as well as from many of the church buildings, do not indicate wholeness to him, but rather a terminal sickness. Rather than a facile prosperity, he sees the war machine fueling the new economy. Rather than unity and a restored pride in German law, he sees the systematic dismantling of basic human freedoms. As a country rises like a phoenix from the ashes, he watches a culture begin to burn with the most acrid fires of hell. And he wonders, where is the church? Where are the Christians? The church buildings appear to be full – but where is the faith? Where are those willing to follow their Lord to the cross?

America in the second decade of the 21st century shares far more in common with Germany in the 4th decade of the 20th century than many people are aware of, or are willing to admit (and, no, I am not trying to be sensational here, just point out some disturbing historical parallels). Our most recent economic scare, the “Great Recession” has long since faded from our (increasingly deficient) memory. Ever since September 11, 2001 our federal government has incrementally but steadily become more monolithic and focused on the person of the president. What once was a trip-partite “sharing of the powers” has become a totally inefficient and inept Congress and a judiciary that is nothing but a docile lapdog of the most liberal and leftist agenda. Our current president, and both of the nominees of the two major parties, have made it abundantly clear that they do not respect the constitutional separation of powers, but that, as the elected president, they will be the de-facto fuhrer of the American people.

Morally the country is in a complete free fall. No, we are not emptying neighborhoods of “undesirables” and shipping them off to death camps. But that quaint little concept of “freedom of speech” is fast becoming a relic to be studied in a museum. Do you think we are a country of laws, and not of personal privilege? Compare the story of a baker or a photographer who decline to participate in the wedding of a homosexual couple, only to be sued into oblivion, to the story of a sovereign state, the duly elected officials of which pass a law that protects the rights of individuals to exercise their religious freedoms, only to see one of the largest corporations in the country discriminate against them by removing one of their largest celebrations from the state. Who gets the praise here – those who practice their religious rights, their freedom of speech, or the state, (or corporation) that uses their legal or economic power to bully the other into submission? From newspaper editorials to talk shows to political pundits – the voice of those who defend perversity and attack those who stand for Christian morality is almost universal.

The tragedy here, from a biblical standpoint, is that the church has become utterly complicit in this decay. Instead of a clear voice (remember Amos?) all we here from the collective pulpit of American Christianity is, “Don’t say anything offensive!” “Scientists say they can’t change, so we should not burden them with guilt!” “We have to make the gospel relevant, and telling people about sin just does not communicate anymore!” I guess the worst is, “If we tell people they have to change, they might leave the church!” Yea, right. As if having them in the church is doing them or the church any good.

It’s called SIN, people. Sin in the world, sin in the church, sin in you, sin in me.

What we need is for the church – for disciples of Christ – to stand up with a unified voice and condemn that sin. Condemn the sin in the world, condemn the sin in the church, condemn the sin in us – you and me.

Despite the efforts of the young pastor – and hundreds like him – the church in Germany chose either to remain mostly silent – or to actively support the fuhrer – and the world erupted into another hell of war. Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

So, I ask – Where have all the Christians gone, long time passing . . . 

*Fuhrer (with the umlaut, which I cannot seem to figure out how to insert over the “u”, simply means “leader” in German.)

Live and in Living Color!

And now, the moment you have all been waiting for – okay maybe not all of you, and maybe not THE moment you have been waiting for . . . but here it is anyway!

Thanks to my lovely wife and the talents and kind assistance of one of our members, here is a video of the latest attempt at a sermon by the ol’ Freightdawg.

Anyone needing (or just wanting) a new preacher – feel free to share.

Thanks, and as always, I appreciate your companionship in the fog . . .

Paul

Disorientation

When you are flying in the fog the worst thing that can happen to you (at least, before you crash) is that you become disoriented. It is a bizarre physiological reality – but you can be in just about any flight position – right side up, up side down, nose high, nose low, extreme bank angle – and your body will tell you that everything is just hunky-fine. There is a mistaken idea among non-pilots that you would just know if something was wrong. On the contrary – your eyes, your inner ear, your “seat,” basically your entire body will conspire to tell you the most pernicious lies. Graveyards full of disoriented pilots silently proclaim the grim results. The mantra of flight instructors becomes the pilot’s only way of survival – don’t trust your senses, trust your instruments (and keep a good cross-check going, because one of your instruments may have failed!).

I have spent the past week severely disoriented. Following the murder of the five police officers in Dallas I have gone through a dizzying range of emotions. Initially I felt an almost uncontrollable rage. I just wanted to strike out at anything – a punching bag would have been most helpful. Along with that emotion came confusion – how could anyone actually support the actions of the killer (and there were several who did)? I was caught in a “death spiral” – all I could do was depend on my senses, and my senses were telling me that everything was incomprehensible.

Incomprehensible – that is just the word for what I feel. I cannot comprehend the rhetoric surrounding the events of the past week. I do not understand how one of the most blatantly racist and militant protest groups is afforded blanket amnesty from virtually every segment of our society – with the result being the ambush and murder of five law enforcement officers, and the wounding of a number of others. What is particularly galling to me is that the response of supposedly “Christian” leaders is not to challenge or criticize this blatant racism, but to actually support and encourage it. This just reinforces my conviction that many so-called “Christian” leaders are concerned not about the truth of the gospel, but only about pandering to special interest groups in order to maintain their aura of sanctity – and power!

Every Christian should be appalled when a police officer abuses the power that is invested in him or her and uses that power to insult, injure, or kill an innocent civilian. It should not be a surprise that with the number of law enforcement officers that there are some who should not be wearing the badge or shield (one statistic I read was 800,000 LEOs nationwide). There have been far too many situations where an officer is clearly out-of-control, or worse, guilty of a major crime. With that fact only too well documented, it should also be noted that in a number of supposedly “clear” examples of police brutality, the factual evidence demonstrated that the officer was acting well within his/her authority, the “victim” was actually the aggressor, and the officer acted to protect his/her life or the lives of others nearby. Such inconvenient truths do not matter – the officer’s life is ruined, property is destroyed, and livelihoods of truly innocent business people are either wiped out or severely damaged, all in the name of “justice.”

Like I said – I just do not get it. Some brave voices in the media have pointed out that our nation is being ripped apart at the seams. It should come as no surprise when good is called evil and evil is called good that the foundation of civility is cracked. Just stop and consider what “justice” and “freedom” look like in the United States today – the relentless murder of millions of unborn children, the glorification of sexual perversity including, but not limited to, transgenderism and homosexuality, the systematic attacks against and removal of the safeguards of religious expression. But when the leading voices of the “Christian” church are either silent – or worse, are actually complicit in this degradation – how will the truth be heard?

The way in which a pilot safely navigates the fog and storms that envelop his or her plane is to rely completely upon the instruments that tell him or her what the plane is really doing. In the moral fog that has descended so thickly upon our culture it is imperative that disciples of Christ stop trying to “feel” their way out and begin to trust the Scriptures once again.* Those who do will be unpopular, they will lose their “power” (whatever they think that power is) and may actually be vilified. But disciples also know that submission to the will of God is the ONLY way to bring reconciliation and wholeness (both physical and spiritual) to this earth.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9, RSV)

*In saying this I am not suggesting that the Bible itself is to be worshipped – that would be bibliolatry. I am saying, however, that God’s “instrument” that he has given us for our safety and protection is his written word. We cannot say we trust, or believe in God, and at the same time disparage, dispute, or minimize the Scriptures.

%d bloggers like this: