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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.]

Thank You!

Yesterday I passed a milestone of sorts, one that I was not even aware was coming. Yesterday I logged my 500th post on this site. Imagine that – 500 rants, tirades, musings, grumps, growls and the occasional piece worth keeping.

So, I want to say “thanks” to all of you who visit this site, and an even bigger “THANKS” to those of you who take the time to comment. I must note with some degree of chagrin that the number of reads and visits is WAY down this year, so I am kind of in an evaluation stage right now – wondering if it is worth keeping past the summer of 2017 (all paid up until then). I love writing, and there is always some burr that gets under my saddle (I’ve written and deleted two posts just today!) If you don’t mind, let me know what you think.

And, as always, thanks for flying in the fog with me. I hope I’ve shared something along the way that helped, or at the very least, made you stop and think.

The ol’ Freightdawg

In Memory – Randy Becton

I just learned today of the passing of Randy Becton. Perhaps not many recognize the name, but I know there are thousands throughout the country (and the world) who do. We have lost a real treasure with his passing.

I was lucky enough to have a class under Randy. It was a class related to Christian ministry, although I would have to research my records to find the exact title. It was in that class that I was most fully made aware of the concept that God uses wounded people to heal other wounded people. As we are all wounded in one way or another, that means God can use each of us to heal others around us. The first step, obviously, is to recognize how we are wounded, then we must see how God has redeemed (healed) us, and then we must learn how we can use our broken-but-healed selves to bring others to Christ. The class was transformational, to say the least.

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I have one other memory of that class that I would like to share. Randy suffered with lymphoma as a young man. Once, during one of his long hospital stays, an elder came to visit him. Randy could tell some pretty horrifying stories of what people would say to him while he was in the hospital. As he related the story of this elder’s visit, he shared what many would think would be a rude and insulting question that this elder asked of him. The elder asked Randy if there was any sin in his life that Randy might see as an underlying source of the cancer. Note – not the cause of the cancer, but that God was using the cancer to “wake” Randy up to a more critical spiritual issue. As Randy retold the story there were tears in his eyes. You have to understand the context to the situation – the elder had a close relationship with Randy. This was not some “fix-it” spiritual charlatan that was looking to score some death-bed confession. This was a man who was vitally interested in Randy’s spiritual and physical health, and he was probing to help Randy see that the two realms are not as separate as we often make them out to be. Randy’s point was this – many people said rude and insulting things to him with the idea of making him “feel better.” This elder, with the true and honest question that revealed his sincere love for Randy, asked what some would consider to be an insulting question, yet for Randy it was one of the most loving visits he could remember.

Now I must caution you – do NOT go to every hospital room and start asking people to spill their deepest, darkest sins to you. Not unless you have a deep, personal relationship with that individual, and are asking with the most pure and God-like intentions. Otherwise, you will likely get a bed pan thrown at you, and for good reason. My point in relating that story is to share with you what Randy impressed upon us – true love, caring love, shepherding love – sometimes leads us to places we might be uncomfortable, but it is exactly in those places of discomfort that true ministry takes place.

I also must relate that Randy was one of the very few instructors who ever chewed me out in front of a class. To this day I have no idea what it was that I said that upset Randy, but I can honestly say that I would rather be chewed out by Randy Becton than be publicly praised by some of my other instructors, whose sincerity I could neither trust or believe.

I was truly blessed by Randy Becton. He was a huge man with an even bigger heart. Our loss is his graduation to glory.

Requiescat in pace.

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.

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

Thanks for a Great 2014, Looking Forward to 2015!

2014 was a relatively quiet year here at Instrument Rated Theology. Most of that silence was due to the fact that I was doing a lot of writing – on another little project that demanded my attention. Oh, well – that is done and over with, so onward and upward.

Even with the scarcity of posts, you, my readers, kept the blog alive and gave me a wonderful gift. This past year the blog witnessed another record number of views – an average of just over one thousand per month. I am humbled, and more than just a little perplexed. Although I write my posts in order to be read (why else write them?), it is still just a little spooky to know that many of the things I have written continue to have such a long life. That makes me want to continue to write, and also challenges me to write about things that interest me – and are of interest to my readers.

So, in 2015 I plan on doing more writing here, and hopefully something that I write will be a blessing to my readers – or if not a blessing, maybe it will be an encouragement for a better response somewhere else. As always, this blog is for my thoughts, however irrational they may be, so if you want to disagree with me you are more than welcome to be wrong.

I have a long list of books that I will be reviewing in 2015, and, if the mood strikes me, I will be rehearsing some of the material that I prepared for my DMin dissertation. Also, I intend to continue my conversation with Christ’s church – those who agree with me and especially those who do not. I have a sneaking suspicion there are far more in the second category than the first.

Thanks to all to signed up to follow this blog. Please feel free to comment, disagree, ask a question, or send large donations. I have to pay for that diploma (not yet conferred) somehow.

My prayer is that all of you will experience God’s shalom in 2015.

Again, thanks for flying in the fog with the ol’ Freightdawg.

People in Whose Presence I Stand in Awe

Okay, been posting a bunch lately, but over the summer and into the fall I have been involved in a very introspective process. As a tangential benefit of this study I have learned I stand in awe of a number of individuals. I just wanted to share who those people are.

First, I am in awe of those who have earned a PhD degree from a real university (not one of those paper mills). I slaved over a paper that came to just over 180 pages in length, and one of my supervisors told me her doctoral dissertation was over 400 pages in length. I have SO much more respect for the holder of legitimate Doctorates of Philosophy – in any field, history, philosophy, religion. Those who belittle education better not cross swords with me – I am not in the mood to praise ignorance and stupidity.

Second, I am utterly in awe of those who play instruments or sing on a professional level. I mean real musicians, not “America’s Got Talent” musicians. I mean concert musicians, pianists, guitarists, wind instruments, string instruments of all kinds. Just about anyone can play three chords on a cheap guitar. But I am fortunate enough to get to witness some amazing young people who can sing and play with the most amazing skill – even at their level of development. It is awe-inspiring. I simply bow in honor to them.

Third, I am in awe of anyone who can build something with their hands – carpenters and metal workers especially. I am gifted at turning large pieces of wood into sawdust, and that is about it. So, when I see a hand-crafted table, or an ornate ironwork, or even a quality painting, I just quiver.

Once upon a time I had dreams of being a leading professor, or a concert pianist, or a carpenter. I now know none of those things is going to happen. But, I can appreciate the skill of each of these groups of people even more. Now, when I hear a lecture, or hear a concerto, or examine a hand-made wooden table, I can just enjoy it, instead of envying the one who produced it. That makes for a much more pleasant experience.

Thanks to all who have achieved such heights in their chosen fields. I tip my hat to you all.

A Very Special “Thank You” To My Followers

Thank You

Thank You (Photo credit: Celestine Chua)

Was just taking a break a few minutes ago and I thought I would check on something and that led me to this observation: I have never (or at least, in a very long time) publicly thanked those of you who follow this blog on a regular basis.

 

There are currently 202 of you who follow the blog in one form or another. Wow. That is very special to me and I hope to bear that in mind as I consider future installments.

 

I am honored by the time you give to reading my thoughts, and I hope I provide something of substance, even if you do not agree with me.

 

Blessings,

 

Paul

 

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A Merry Christmas to All…

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To all who read and follow this blog, may you have a merry Christmas and a joyous New Year. And, most of all, may your theology be clear, the sun at your back, and may you always have a tailwind in all your endeavors.

Paul Smith, the ol’ Freightdawg.

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.

Thank You

Thank You (Photo credit: drp)

I just noticed that you, my readers, pushed my blog reads to over 10,000 for the year. Now, I am well aware that many blogs get 10,000 reads in a month, some may get that in a day. But, for me, 10,000 is a pretty special number. I was kind of hoping for that by December’s end, so to get it with a few days left in November is really nice.

So, thanks heaps and bunches. Especially to those who are following my blog on a regular basis.

 

Paul

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