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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.]

When Is It Better To Remain Silent?

A strange question crossed my mind this morning – what situations demand a verbal (or written) response and what situations are helped far more effectively with the deafening sound of silence? I think that most biblically literate people are aware of the dialectic illustrated in the seemingly contradictory teachings of Proverbs 26:4-5. Sometimes you shut your mouth, sometimes you shut the mouth of your opponent. But, how do you make that determination? When is a word aptly chosen to be like an apple in settings of silver, and when is silence to be golden?

I’ve wrestled with this question quite bit lately. I have witnessed some fairly egregious mistakes both in logic and in interpretation, and have (amazingly, for me) managed to keep my mouth shut. For someone who spends significantly more time with his foot in his mouth, I have been pretty proud of myself for my self-restraint. That is, until I feel guilty for letting somebody think he/she has won an argument when all they have really done is to advertise their ignorance. So, I come back to my conundrum – speak up and risk all kinds of negative fallout, or keep silent and risk the opposite, but equal fallout? I do not think I will ever really know for sure, but this is what I have learned in my ever-increasing but not excessively-long sojourn on this earth: It is far better to keep your mouth shut –

When you are not absolutely certain of your facts, or of your discernment of those facts.

There is a difference between knowing something to be true, and knowing beyond any question that said fact is true. I cannot tell you how many times I have offered an absolutely certain-to-be-true assessment of a situation, only to be utterly chagrined that what I thought was true really was not as true as I thought it was. Even if we would be correct about a situation if our discernment of that situation were to be infallible, it can still be wrong if we have missed an important detail. Solution: keep your mouth closed unless you know what you are saying is irrefutably true.

When speaking up would cause more confusion, or hurt feelings, than remaining silent.

I call this “Speaking the truth wearing army boots.” This is speaking the “truth” with a scorched earth policy in mind. “Go ahead and swing the axe and let the chips fall where they may.” How many marriages, families, and churches have been destroyed with such good intentions in mind? You may be right. You may be absolutely right. Keep your mouth shut anyway.

When speaking up simply does more to give validity to your opponent than it does to challenge them.

Believe it or not, some people, and their arguments, just do not need to be refuted – they are self-refuting. None of God’s inspired spokesmen set out to refute every single false teaching. “Have no other gods before me” is a whole lot easier to say than specifically eliminating all eleventy-million different idols that humans have invented. By specifically attempting to individually refute certain teachers (and/or their teachings) we give them far more significance than they are worth. Obviously some opponents do need to be singled out (and Paul and John do a pretty good job with a couple of rabble-rousers), but it is better to keep our powder dry for when we really need to use it, than to go “heretic hunting” and waste valuable time and energy on people and issues that ultimately mean nothing.

When speaking up is ultimately more about showing off your (real or imagined) expertise on the subject under discussion.

I read a book review recently concerning a book that I had  just finished. I did not have that high of an opinion about the book, and I was wondering if I was alone in my response. I came across a phrase that made me laugh out loud, and it has become a favorite expression of mine in regard to certain preacher/authors: “(fill in the blank) sure likes to hear himself type.” I have to admit that one stings a little, because I think it is too often true of what I say (or type). I will try to do better, and only tap out what needs to be tapped out.

So, I doubt I have answered the question – but maybe I will print out this post and keep it handy – just in case I get an itchy tongue (or finger to type)  something when I just should really keep my mouth shut.

Dear God, Thank You For the Memories

Been a little wistful lately (love words like “wistful.” They are so elegiac.) Along with all this wistfulness comes a very deep sense of thankfulness. Thus, a little different kind of flight through the fog today. I will proceed through a series of concentric circles.

The first circle is that of my immediate family ( and, by extension, my larger family by marriage). As I get older I appreciate my birth family so much more. My father (who passed away in 1990) was a quiet man, but more and more I am coming to understand more of his quietness. I lament the years we collectively lost when cancer took him far too soon. My mother survived her bout with the “c” word, and has lived to see two more grand babies and three great-grand babies. My sister, the aged one, is a grand-ma herself. Through marriage and births our family of four is quite large now. A deep and wonderful blessing for sure. It was in this home that my sister and I received our faith, and in this home that we learned how to love. Whatever I am, or will ever amount to, I owe to my quiet but mischievous father and strong mother. My own little family is all the more golden – my beautiful wife and precocious-yet-tender-hearted daughter. I guess time will tell if I have been able to pass on what I have been given, but I earnestly pray that I can, and have. Thank you, God, for placing me in this home, and for giving me my married home.

The next larger circle is that of my family of faith – the church. So many names and faces flash in front of my mind’s eye here – the small congregation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the larger, more metropolitan congregation in Albuquerque. I wonder what has happened to many of those saints – I know many have passed on to await the resurrection. How many are still faithful? I know the faith that they taught to me – were they able to maintain it themselves? At least one congregation that I was associated with bears no resemblance to the congregation of which I was a part. Another has ceased to exist altogether. I was blessed to be born and to live in such a different time. When I was growing up I always knew what my elders stood for. I may have disagreed with them, but at least they stood firmly so that a person could disagree with them. Kids these days are being led by a bunch of theological wet paper bags. I hope that the younger generations will see in me someone who actually believes what he says – and does not have to stick his finger up in the air to find out which direction the cultural wind is blowing before he opens his mouth. Thank you, God, for giving me men, and women, of strength – who, imperfect as they were, yet lived their faith in you to the best of their knowledge, and who taught me that I could do the same, regardless of my many mistakes.

My next largest circle is actually a part of that circle, but I single them out because of their specific role in my life – that of educating me. Here I can name some names – because these names and the faces of these gentlemen are so engraved upon my memory: Ian Fair, Neil Lightfoot, John Willis, Everett Ferguson, Bill Humble, Tony Ash, Eugene Clevenger, Holbert Rideout, Lemoine Lewis, Richard Hughes, Leonard Allen, Thomas Olbricht, James Thompson, and David Edwin Harrell. These men comprise a virtual “Who’s Who” of scholarship within the Churches of Christ. They are great men of wisdom and human knowledge, but also great men of faith. Whatever I am on a professional level I owe to them, although in no way do I blame them the weakness of my study. Thank you God, for dropping me in the middle of the finest associations of scholars and mentors possibly ever assembled among the Churches of Christ. I certainly did not deserve such an honor, and am only now truly coming to grips with the value of the education that I received.

The next circle belongs to those giants of the Restoration Movement that bequeathed to me my spiritual heritage: Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, “Raccoon” John Smith, Walter Scott, Moses Lard, and in the next generation – David Lipscomb. I read their productions in awe – not only were they theologians of the first rate (even though they would have eschewed the title), but they were prescient in attempting to prophesy to the church a full two centuries ahead of what some so-called “prophets” of the church are now saying and writing. Their spiritual heirs have not always lived up to their ideals, and as human beings they themselves were sometimes in error, but I would much rather live with their honest mistakes than share in some of my peers’ dishonest ones. Thank you, God, for giving these men a special measure of your Holy Spirit to lead a revival of truly biblical proportions. I pray for your Spirit to lead us again!

Finally, in the last circle are those who are outside of my circle of faith, but have led me into paths of righteousness that I otherwise would never have known existed. Some I have had the pleasure of meeting – Richard Peace and Glen Stassen, although the second only by way of the phone. Others I know only through written correspondence – John Drane (who supervised my doctoral dissertation). Others I have known only through their books – David Augsburger, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, C.S. Lewis, and by far and away the single-most powerful theological influence on my life – Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I thank you God for giving these men the talent to write – and the eyes to see and ears to hear what needs to be seen, heard and written. I truly live in a blessed, blessed time as far as being able to stand on the shoulders of some spiritual giants. I pray I can share with others what I have learned from their hands.

Aye, what a “cloud of witnesses” that surround my life! What a treasure to take a trip around my office and look at book titles, certificates, diplomas, and pictures, and realize just how privileged I am.

Thank you, God, far more than words can utter. I am, among all men, most truly blessed.

He Who Defines the Terms Wins the Argument

A question I have been hearing (and repeating) frequently over the past few days, weeks, and months: “How could the moral compass of the United States change so radically, and especially so quickly?” I have no definite answer – but I think I have a pretty good clue. If you get to define the terms of the disagreement, you are two-thirds of the way to winning the argument.

For evidence, I offer the once useful, and justly powerful word, “victim.” Once upon a time, and really not that long ago, a victim was someone who was subjected to harsh, often unbearable and quite frequently lethal, abuse and/or events that were beyond his or her or their control. The Jews, gypsies and other “undesirables” were victims under the Nazi reign of terror in the mid 1930’s. Blacks were victims of the horrid social constructs of colonial America, extending quite literally into the 1960’s. Native American Indian tribes were victims of the despicable results of the American concept of “Manifest Destiny.” These, and other true crimes against humanity, are fitting examples of the concept of “victim.”

Notice today how that concept has changed. Today the only requirement necessary to claim the mantle of “victim” is to have your feelings hurt. A student hears a lecture that includes concepts or ideas that are foreign to his or her worldview and immediately becomes a victim of racism, genderism, or any number of other “isms” that might apply. A man wants to marry a man, and the bakery that refuses to bake a cake or the photographer who refuses to participate in the fraud is sued into bankruptcy because the couple has become a “victim” of “homophobia” (an illegitimate word if there ever was one). An entire class of victims has been created, not because of a genuine, certifiable injury, but simply because their narcissism has been challenged and they have no other recourse but to scream, “victim!”

In the beginning of this linguistic shift the church capitulated to the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, pressure to conform. It was believed that by becoming more “accommodating” and less “strident” or “abrasive” that the masses could be reached, yea, even converted, from the error of their way. What was not recognized then was the fact that if you allow your opponent to set the terms of the debate (and by defining all the terms the other side HAS set the terms of the debate), you will never be able to adequately or correctly present your argument. The moment the scriptural argument against homosexuality is presented, the homosexual lobby screams “homophobia, I’m a victim of homophobia” and the discussion is over. The moment an argument for male spiritual leadership in the church is presented, the egalitarians scream “patriarchy, I’m a victim of patriarchy” and the discussion is ended. The moment some person is told to get off of the unemployment roll and actually get a job, the “employment challenged victim” starts screaming “Capitalism, I’m a victim of crass, unjust capitalism” and can therefore return to the safety of his or her couch to watch the latest reality TV show.

How could the moral compass of the United States change so radically and so quickly? Quite simply, because those who were tasked with maintaining even the minimum degree of biblical morality quietly allowed it to happen. We, and I speak of the church here, simply acquiesced to the virtual re-writing of the dictionary, and we were either asleep and were not aware of what was happening, or we meekly followed along with the crime in the hopes that we would not be viewed as homophobic, patriarchal, capitalistic, xenophobic, troglodytes.

I suggest that the point has been reached where there simply is no more ground to surrender, no more space to retreat. The time has come to speak forcefully, even if that means those who disagree with us view us as being “abrasive.” In no way am I suggesting being unkind, vengeful, or hateful. Christians must never use the tools of Satan to attempt to defeat Satan. However, the time has come that we can no longer allow our language to be corrupted beyond the point of any usefulness. Sin must be labeled as sin – whether it be in the realm of sex, greed, hate, sloth, fear, or selfishness. We will not be loved or appreciated. I think I remember Jesus, Paul and Peter all saying the same thing about those who stand up against the powers of this world. But, who do we want to please – the world, or Jesus?

I am reminded of the words of Martin Niemoeller, a World War I U-Boat captain who would later become a part of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. He would spend the entirety of World War II in a German concentration camp because of his opposition to the Nazi regime. He wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

At some point the church is going to have to confront this godless attempt to silence and ultimately destroy Christian morality. The question is, who is going to be left to speak out?

Goodbye, 2015, and Good Riddance

2015 is almost over, and for me the end of the year cannot come soon enough. I certainly hope your year has been better – exponentially better – than mine. 1990 was by far worse than 2015, but this past year comes in a solid second. I cannot remember a year in which virtually every decision, every action, every plan I made, thought, or worked on resulted in such failure, disappointment and regret. In reviewing some of the posts I wrote this year I can see how my disappointments and struggles have colored many of my posts. I have been far too “snarky” and negative. I regret that. I am told these seasons come, and I guess I need to take solace in the fact that things cannot get much worse. The law of averages has to even out somehow.

With all of that said, I want to thank all of you who regularly, or even occasionally, read this blog. I had fully intended to devote more time to writing this past year, but see the above paragraph. I have been comforted to check in and see that this space continues to receive what I feel like is a wonderful bit of attention. The blog should reach 10,000 reads this year, which is a slight decrease from last year, and not anywhere close to the major heavyweights in the blogosphere, but for me it is a deeply appreciated sign that at least some of my meandering thoughts are considered to be worthwhile.

There is one bit of trivia about what I have written that stands out to me as curious. The one post that continues to receive the most attention is the post I wrote on the difference between tolerance and indifference. That post is read almost every day, and sometimes multiple times in a day. The folks who read it never comment, so I’m not sure if people are agreeing, disagreeing, or just mildly curious, but I hope that what I said is considered thoughtfully.

It now appears certain the the Smith family will be moving from Portales in the spring or summer of 2016. What we will be doing is unknown, but I feel certain we will find a place to serve God in some capacity. Once again I do plan on writing more in this space in 2016, but we will see how that plan goes.

Before I close, I must share two very bright and joyous endeavors that I was able to celebrate in 2015. The first was when I received my diploma for my Doctor of Ministry degree. Whew! My daughter made a huge banner for our living room that said, “Congratulations Dr. Daddy Smith.” How can you feel bad when you have that kind of love from your child and wife? The second was this fall semester when I helped the Chair of our university department complete a program review for the Religion Program. It was an incredibly steep learning curve for me – but with my supervisor’s help we prepared a review that has been very well received by the administration. I feel very, very, blessed to have been a part of that process. God is good – even with all of our mistakes and failures His love never ceases, and his blessings never fail.

Once again, I want to thank you for reading, and I wish you all a very merry Christmas and holiday season, and the very best and most prosperous of years in 2016.

Love,

Paul Smith, the ol’ freightdawg

The Evaporating Center of the Churches of Christ

Have you ever watched a puddle of water evaporate? It seems like nothing is happening for the longest time, and then it is gone. Slowly, inexorably, the water just becomes vapor, then a damp spot, and then, nothing.

I feel like I am watching a puddle disappear, and that puddle happens to be the only church I have been a part of, loved, and occasionally argued with. The vast center of the Churches of Christ is simply evaporating. More quickly in some places, more slowly in others – but the tide of change is undeniable.

When I was a child, then a young man, and even into my young adult years certain things could be counted on. Death and taxes were two of the more unpleasant, but there was a definite comfort in knowing my faith family was solid. Oh, we had our crusty fundamentalists and our wild-haired “digressives,” but like most families the outliers were pretty much used for illustrations and family reunion jokes.

Now, the joke is on the middle.

The fundies and the un-fundies have long been sharpening their knives, and now the hostilities are fully engaged. The more progressive the one side gets, the more reactionary the other side becomes. This just infuriates the progressives (who steadfastly protest that they do not care what the fundies are doing) and so they "push the envelope" even further. Anyone who just wants to follow Christ and wear his name is accused on the one hand of being "soft" on doctrine and of being a cultural coward by the folks on the other side of the aisle.

I used to stand comfortably in the middle of this grand, varied, and sometimes confusing assembly. Now, I am not even sure where the middle is. I fear it is gone.

  • I cannot believe in a 6,000 year old earth because I studied and learned how that number was ciphered out. I must be a liberal.
  • But, I believe in the inspiration and authority of all of the Scriptures – even the ones that claim Moses wrote the greater part of the Pentateuch, and that Isaiah actually did write all of the book that bears his name. So, that makes me a reactionary.
  • I have received multiple degrees from ACU and now have my Doctor of Ministry almost complete from Fuller Theological Seminary. By virtue of guilt by association, color me a flaming progressive.
  • Except that I believe there is firm scriptural and theological evidence for such issues as baptism for the forgiveness of sins, acapella congregational singing, and male spiritual leadership. Avast, I’m a knuckle dragging troglodyte.
  • I believe in the necessity of a highly trained, deeply educated “professional” ministry staff. Hefty lefty, am I.
  • Except that I also know all too well the intoxication that comes with an advanced education that is divorced from reality. An education is only as good as the grounding of those who provide it – and a thermometer is not the only thing in this world with numerous degrees and no intelligence. I must be a tighty righty.
  • I believe in the power and strength of a solid, healthy tradition to anchor our peevish human ways. Way out in right field! But I despise a stifling traditionalism that squelches the moving and leading of God’s Holy Spirit. So I’m so far out in left field that I’m selling popcorn and hot dogs.

I know I am introspective by nature. When I take one of those psych tests I raise the “melancholic” bar to impossible heights. It’s not fun always seeing the dark clouds behind the silver lining. If I sound like a bucket of cold water – well, that’s me. But I used to find solace in knowing my church family had my back.

I’m sorry, but the only thing I feel now is that one side or the other only wants to bury their knife in the middle of my back.

It’s not only lonely trying to be in the middle, now it is emotionally and spiritually dangerous.

Grief and the Loss of a Pet

Munchkin

Munchkin

This post has nothing to do with theology – or at least the academic kind. I suppose it is very theological in the sense that everything we do relates in some form or fashion back to our Creator.

This past Friday we had to say good-bye to one of our little pets, a cat named Munchkin. We have owned a total of 7 cats, and now we have had to say good-bye to 4 of them. Each has been difficult in their own way – we had Half-Pint for 19 years. Mouse was the quirkiest little cat you could imagine -and he was almost telepathic. I think he knew when we would be hurting before we knew it. Bear we only had for a couple of years, but he was an absolutely gorgeous orange tabby and he had the heart of a full-fledged saint. He always curled up on my lap when I would do my daily Bible reading. Munchkin was a feral kitty we “rescued” (she would say kidnapped) from our backyard. We had her for 11 years – the second longest lived of our cats. Our cats (and now our puppy) are not just pets – they become a part of our family. Now we are down to Callie, Raven and Duchess, and these three have taken on an even greater significance as they age and fill the void that Munchkin left.

I don’t know why the death of a little animal touches me so deeply. But, I’ve pretty much quit fighting the emotions. Friday I was a blubbering, sobbing wreck. I bonded very closely with little Munchkin, and losing her was like losing my right arm.

Its the little things that still knock me for a loop. Saturday, a little more than 24 hours after we took Munchkin to the vet, I went to feed the other cats. We had been feeding Munchkin on her own separate plate so we could keep her strength up. I grabbed three saucers instead of  the two I needed to feed the others. I lost it. Today the garage door blew open and I had to count noses to make sure none of the cats had escaped. Instead of stopping at three I briefly started looking for #4, even getting so far as to call out for “Munch…..” I lost it again.

I grieve the loss of all my pets – even the dog I had as a boy growing up. I was in college when my father had to take her to the vet for the last time. It just breaks my heart to know what he had to go through.

They are precious little gifts, our pets. If you own a cat or a dog do me a favor and give them a hug for Munchkin’s sake for me. And one for Half-Pint, Mouse and Bear as well. As for me, it’s time to cuddle with my little Duchess. She’ll tell me all about her day and go to sleep against my tummy purring contentedly.

If only pets could live as long as the love they give is complete…

Thanks for letting me rattle on for a while. Maybe this week I can get back to thinking theologically.

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The Awesome Power of a Genuine Compliment

de: Pferd macht ein Kompliment (Zirkuslektion)

Yesterday I received a compliment. This pat on the back came from someone I only have a professional relationship with, someone who I have spoken with on the phone, but have not met in person. The person is accomplished in their chosen field. This person also served as a mentor to me through a recent course of study. So, when I received his compliment I felt like I had been given a rare and priceless jewel. I cannot describe the feeling that came over me.

Isn’t it amazing the awesome power of a genuine compliment. Of course, we should understand this when we stop and think about the brutal destructive power of hateful words. The little children’s ditty – “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is just so flat out wrong. I have seen young children absolutely crushed by the destructive power of an unmerited criticism, or even the harsh condemnation of a very minor offense. I have to be reminded of this time and again as I react to my own daughter, especially in times when I am hurting, or tired, or frustrated with another issue. So often I lash out with harsh words when a gentle correction and helpful instruction would be so much more appropriate.

No deep theology or profound esoteric questions today. Just a deep, profound “thank-you” to a person who had such a huge impact on my life with just a few words.

May we all have the opportunity to build someone up with a genuine, heart-felt compliment, and may we never lose an opportunity to speak that kind word.

A Word To My Younger (and maybe not so younger) Readers

Comfortable in My Own Skin

Comfortable in My Own Skin (Photo credit: meganhutchh)

Please, learn to be comfortable in your own skin.

I grew up as many people do, thinking that I had to be something that I was not, and quite honestly, was never, ever, going to be able to become. It is, to be perfectly blunt, a lousy way to live. But so many of us are conditioned by society (parents, school mates, teachers, preachers, trusted adults, etc) to think this way that it seems rather abnormal to find someone who just wants to be who they are, regardless of their cultural preconditions. With me it was not my parents (who were and are amazingly supportive) but rather the larger culture in which I was raised.

Just a couple of examples. For many, many years I was led to believe that I had to be an evangelist or else I was going to be a second class citizen of heaven (or worse.) My eternal fate would be sealed by the number of persons who would tell St. Peter at the pearly gates who baptized them. If I met that magical number of inclusion into the sainted masses, well then I was in. Miss it by one or two and I might as well learn how to love sulphur and brimstone.

It took me quite a while to find Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. It seems to me that the apostle Paul was quite satisfied to admit that not everyone could be, or even should be, an evangelist. Isn’t it amazing to discover that someone who beats you over the head with a Bible has missed such a huge part of it? Now, don’t get me wrong – I love preaching and teaching. I will study the Bible with anyone, anytime. But I am most certainly NOT a personal evangelist and I never will be one. But, I learned that is okay. I had to learn how to be content in my own skin.

English: Provinceton-Boston Airline Cessna 402...

English: Provinceton-Boston Airline Cessna 402C N83PB at Key West Florida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I got out of preaching (for a while) I became a pilot. Now, in the pilot world the equivalent of being a personal evangelist is being the captain of a Boeing 747 or Airbus jumbo jet. I was a little bit older, but I was still driven by the concept that I had to perform at a certain level or that somehow I was just not good enough, or that I still had some mountain to climb. Quite honestly I did not want to pay the price to become a captain of a Boeing 747, so failing to meet that expectation did not hurt too much. But I learned something valuable along the way. New generation Boeings and Airbuses basically fly themselves. And, for the piloting part that the plane does not fly itself there is a crew of two highly trained and very proficient pilots. In the job that I had (flying freight for a small company) all I had was me and a plane that as often as not did not even have a functioning auto pilot. And when I did get a plane with an functioning auto pilot all it did was keep the wings level and the altitude steady. I still had to fly the plane through weather that ducks would not fly into, and I had to do it by myself. That, my friends, is really piloting an airplane. I learned that the big boys could sit on the tarmac and swelter in 110 degree heat all they wanted to. I was going to enjoy flying my little Cessna 402 and 404 and really enjoy flying the airplane. Chalk up another lesson in being content in my own skin.

During my brief stint as a hospice chaplain I had the supervisor from Gehenna. This person was not happy with anything that I did (well, with one notable exception). I did not visit enough, or I visited too much. I did not give enough counsel or I gave too much. Once I met with a family at their request and had a wonderful session. The next week I was called on the carpet for not involving another “team” member (who, by the way, never included me in their meetings with families). It was utter misery. But, my skin was getting thicker and I knew who I was, what I was capable of (and, equally important, not capable of) and so finally I just chucked the whole situation in my supervisors lap and walked away. No one has the right to make another person miserable for doing a job to the best of the person’s ability and giftedness.

Margaret Hamilton as the Witch in the 1939 fil...

Margaret Hamilton as the Witch in the 1939 film version (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I now find myself as an educator and administrator. I find out daily that I am gifted in ways I did not fully realize, and I find out daily that I am a real klutz at things that I once thought I was good at, or at least was going to be good at. But, I’m nearing the age where I could be considered a “classic” (although far from “antique”) and maybe for the first time in my life I can say with quiet calm – I’m good with my gifts and I am cool with my limitations. I cannot take credit for the first, and I refuse to be blamed for the second. I am mortal, and every mortal is good at something and bad at others. I may not be a personal evangelist, but how many personal evangelists have landed an airplane full of critical documents, medicines and other essential freight at an airport shrouded in fog where the visibility is one half of a mile and the overhead ceiling is 200 feet? And in an airplane going over 100 miles an hour? Hmmmmm?

Two words of caution here. One, I am not speaking of throwing up your hands and saying, “that’s just the way I am, get over it” if you are behaving in a way that is truly counter to Kingdom behavior. I am not saying be happy if you are living in a sinful relationship or condition. God expects all people everywhere to live according to His standards, His criteria. I am not giving you permission to dismiss God’s word or the teachings of his Son.

Two, just because I may not be gifted in some areas, or even if I am gifted in other areas, that does not mean I cannot try to improve where I feel God has called me. I want to become a better preacher, teacher and administrator. I would not even mind becoming a better personal evangelist. But I must use God’s standards for my life, not the standards of someone else who is exceptionally gifted in one particular area, and who cannot accept or refuses to accept that not everyone is as gifted as they are in that area.

Get comfortable in your own skin. God made you to be someone special – find the dirt where you feel especially happy and bloom where you are planted.

And don’t let some supervisor from Gehenna tell you that you are worthless. God sent his Son to die for you to tell you you are priceless!

Book Review – You Lost Me (David Kinnaman)

03.365 (02.08.2009) Faith

03.365 (02.08.2009) Faith (Photo credit: hannahclark)

You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011.

At the outset I must admit a certain degree of discomfort in reading this book. Most of it comes from the title, You Lost Me. As I interpreted the title it appeared to me that the author would join with the multitude of authors who are bashing the contemporary church and are listening exclusively to the next generation(s) to fix all of the identified problems with the church. There is a sense in which the title, You Lost Me is a reflection on this youth infatuated mindset. Notice the implied accusation – you, the church, the ones who should have it all together in a nice neat little package that fits all of my needs and my wants – you are responsible for losing me, the center of the whole entire known universe. I recoil from that accusation. If that kind of accusation could be leveled at anyone, how many and with what fervor could certain individuals make that accusation against Jesus.

After reading the book I am partially convinced that this is not what Kinnaman had in mind. I say partially, because a large portion of the book is devoted to listening to the cries and complaints of those who have left the church. I understand the methodology – Kinnaman and his group at Barna desperately want the church to listen to a generation that is finding the church (and sometimes even Jesus) to be something they can do without. Kinnaman himself is passionately devoted to getting the message of Jesus out to a new and doubtful generation. He just wants the rest of us to be as “in tune” with the coming generations as he seems to be. He genuinely has a gift at understanding young people, and I applaud his efforts at teaching the rest of us who might be a bit blind or deaf to what the coming generations are saying.

With that goal in mind, I would recommend this book to all who are concerned with the youth of their congregation. I would definitely read this book along with his earlier book, Unchristian. I feel that the first book was more valuable, as the topic of that book was how non-Christians view the church and how we might be able to respond to them. This book is about those young people who, at least on some level, had a connection with the church and a vibrant faith, and for one reason (or a host of reasons) decided to leave the church. Reading the book is painful, because if you work with young people for any length of time you will recognize the stories of the young people Kinnaman profiles through your own experiences. I saw several of my friends and former students in this book, and even occasionally saw myself.

A couple of weaknesses – at least from my limited point of view. One, I never really resonated with Kinnaman’s description of the young people as “nomads, prodigals and exiles.” It seemed like he was trying to come up with a somewhat biblical way to describe these young people, and the descriptions just seemed stretched to me. I kept having to remind myself of what each group really was, because to me there was way too much overlap between the groups as he has defined them.

Two, and this relates back to my discomfort with the title, Kinnaman only tangentially places any kind of blame on those who are leaving. In other words, it remains the church’s fault that young people are leaving, the church is going to have to change, the church is the source of the problem, the church is forcing all these wonderful, saintly, kind, and most of all, brilliant young people out of its doors. This was the part of the book that just kept grating on me. To be fair, towards the end Kinnaman does in a round-about way mention that these young people are responsible for their own decisions, but it is a very subtle and almost apologetic acknowledgment.

At one point I wanted to scream, The church IS exclusive! Get over it! In an appraisal of the younger generations that I’m sure will turn most of them off, I have to say that in many respects the group of young adults from 18 – 30 represent one of the most narcissistic, inwardly focused generations I have ever seen, and that is saying quite a bit because I came along right at the tail end of the baby boomers. But stop and think about these generations – from what have they ever been deprived? What hardships have they ever faced? These were the children whose parents got into fistfights so they could obtain a Cabbage Patch Kid. These are the children who have had a cell phone virtually from the time they could talk. They have been coddled, breast-fed and then spoon fed their whole lives. They have been protected and over-protected. They do not go out without a helmet, knee pads and elbow pads. If their feelings get hurt they sue. If they get a bad grade they have their parents confront the principle. If they get a bad job review they leave – if they stay in a job long enough to get a job review. Yes, a large part of their problem relates to their parents and grandparents (the aforementioned baby boomers) but to even remotely suggest that this group of navel gazers has all the right answers and the church should somehow contort itself to make itself more “attractive” to this age group is just preposterous. Maybe that is not what Kinnaman is saying, but I know that is what many others are saying, and maybe I just misread Kinnaman.

Throughout this book I kept hearing a sub-message, “the culture has changed, the church needs to align itself with the culture to be relevant again.” I reject that premise. The culture into which the church was born was immoral, unjust, sexually dysfunctional and economically challenged. So what did the apostles and early disciples teach? “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” In other words, the early church leaders said the church, God’s manifestation of his Kingdom on earth, was different. If you wanted to be a part of culture and the world, so be it, but do not claim to be a part of Christ or of his church. Joining Christ meant you left this world – not literally, but your heart, your mind, your soul was transformed. I am sure a lot of the early converts realized how radical Christianity really was and they high-tailed it back to their comfortable ways – just like people turned their backs on Jesus and walked away from him once they discovered that he really meant “cross” when he said “cross.”

I do not buy the concept that the church has to be more tolerant or accepting of homosexuals to keep from hurting someone’s feelings. I do not buy the concept that the church must relax its teaching on gender just because a few 18-30 year olds find it exclusionary or old-fashioned. I reject the call to rewrite 2,000 years of church doctrine just because someone with all of two decades of existence (or less) finds it to be out-dated or somewhat stuffy. They are more than welcome to leave the church if they so desire. It is tragic when they do, and I am not saying the church should push them out. But when they leave, they should not have the temerity to blame the church for their decisions. Every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess – but they will not be able to tattle or pass the blame.

I would like to end on a positive note, because I do feel the book is a valuable read. Kinnaman does offer some valuable suggestions along the way. I found chapter 11 to be particularly beneficial, but it was also in chapter 11 that Kinnaman returned closer to a classic view of the church and moved further away from the “let’s make the church look like contemporary culture” strain that moved ever so slightly beneath the earlier chapters. Just to tease a little, in chapter 11 Kinnaman stresses relationships, a biblical view of vocation, and a return to the way of wisdom. These are solid responses to the problem, and, as I mentioned, I found them particularly beneficial.

I want to stress that this review is purely my own response – your mileage may vary. I enjoyed the book, I recommend the book, and I suggest you listen to what Kinnaman is saying. I just wish he had offered more in response to these young people by way of challenge. There is a reason God expected young people to look up to, listen to, and respect the wisdom of their elders. Youth is full of folly, and nowhere is that folly more evident than in the narcissistic views of our youngest adults. The church will not long survive if we follow their lead. The church may be in trouble now – but let’s make sure the cure is not worse than the present disease.

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