Middle Isaiah and the Churches of Christ

This is the third installment in my series on middle Isaiah, so if you have not read the first two, I encourage you to do so. That will provide the necessary background for what I want to convey in this post.

One of the necessary, although frustrating, statements that needs to be made anytime an entire group of people is discussed is that in doing so the author must depend upon generalities. So, in this post I am going to be making some general observations about the Churches of Christ in the United States, and invariably someone is going to be able to say, “That is not my experience at all!” To which I will say, “Great! I am glad that you have not had the experiences that I have had, and that you can see things from an entirely different point of view.” But, I cannot see things from eleventy-billion different sets of eyes, so what you will read below is my observations based on years of study and personal experience. As with every automobile commercial ever made – your mileage may vary. If the shoe fits, wear it, if not, find one that does.

What I can say from my experience and study is that the Churches of Christ, as a whole, are not a liturgical group of people. That is to say that our services are largely extemporaneous (although sometimes highly routine). We do not follow the lectionary readings, we do not follow the “church calendar,” and we most certainly do not have a hierarchical view of the priesthood v. the laity. This very decided “low church” atmosphere is even reflected in our architecture and interior building designs. Most congregations are housed in simple wood frame buildings, or if necessary, other very simple structures that, if the name outside were hidden, could be confused with a mortuary or a nursing home. “Ostentatious” is NOT a word that could frequently be used to criticize any of our buildings. Likewise, the interior of our buildings are almost exclusively utilitarian. We have no majestic arched colonnades, no awe-inspiring auditoriums, no sparkly stained glass windows, no lofty pulpits and certainly no jaw dropping organs or choir lofts. Most buildings in the congregations where I have served or worshipped have simple floor plans, and the auditoriums are sparsely decorated, save for a simple table that provides a place for the Lord’s Supper emblems, and a simple (although sometimes massive) pulpit for the preacher to hide behind (just kidding about that one!).

So what does our decidedly non-liturgical form and functionality have to do with middle Isaiah – and the points of emphasis I have made in the last two posts? I’m glad you asked, even if you didn’t.

I have often said, and even now repeat, that one of the greatest failings of the Churches of Christ – particularly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries – is that we have forgotten who we are. We have no sense of history – of our own and certainly not of the Christian church. It seems like for many decades we have tried to prove that we are so unlike everyone else that we have lost sight of Him who we should be like.

In a short, pithy little sentence, – we have forgotten who God is, and in so doing, we have forgotten who we are supposed to be.

Enter in middle Isaiah. In the middle section of this magisterial prophecy, Isaiah proclaims the word of God to a people who have not only forgotten him, but who have actively rejected him and who are following gods that are not gods – the idols. While making a show of being good Yahwists, those who believe in and worship the true God, these syncretists had created a religion that by all appearances was devoted to Yahweh the true God, but in all reality was simply a veneer to cover their real worship of human imagination, and more to the point, of human strength. They had created God in their own image, and would have nothing to do with prophets who tried, with all their might, to get them to return to the Holy One of Israel.

I really have no objections to being non-liturgical, and there is much to be said for having simple, utilitarian buildings. However, there is an insidious danger that is attached to both of those characteristics that I do not think we have cared to think about. When you minimize the truly awesome experience of coming into the presence of a holy God (by making the worship merely extemporaneous and by minimizing the glory of the meeting structure) you inadvertently and I would say quite unintentionally minimize the God to whom you are offering your worship. There were good reasons why the liturgy developed – and why the churches of the middle ages became such magnificent edifices. The Christians of these ages realized it was simply too dangerous to come into the presence of God without some structure, some careful guidance, about how to do so. They also realized, just as with David and Solomon, that the place where God met with man was to be a magnificent dwelling place – not that God was restricted to that place or that he lived only there. But, I believe they rightly understood that if we were going to invite God to meet with us and to feast with us – might we not want to make the meeting place just a little more important than our own homes? I’m not arguing for the kind of ornateness that makes you afraid to enter lest you get dirt on the floor. But I am suggesting that if all we offer to God is some ramshackle little building, then maybe our view of the awesomeness of God is just, well, ramshackle.

Anyway, I think the teachings that are encapsulated in the middle chapters of Isaiah indict the majority of congregations of the Churches of Christ. I think we are too flippant when it comes to worship, and I think our “low” view of our meeting places communicates something that we do not intend, and would actually actively deny. In a word, I believe we are too humanistic in our approach to worship. We do not have, nor do I think we attempt to create, an Isaiah 6:1-9 kind of experience when we “enter his courts with thanksgiving.”

The natural outgrowth of this lack of “awe” in our worship is seen when we promote humanistic approaches to solving all of our problems (the parallel of Isaiah’s compatriots sending down to Egypt for deliverance from the Assyrian hordes). If our God is simply too small to demand our finest and our best, then why not put our faith in politicians and in the Supreme Court justices? They do demand our allegiance! They do demand that we respect their power. Notice how majestic the House and Senate Chambers are? Notice the pomp and circumstance when the President enters the room? Most male members of many congregations cannot even be bothered to put on a nice dress shirt these days. “Come as you are” has now deteriorated into, “who cares what you look like, just wear whatever ratty old clothes that are in the bottom of your closet.” Try wearing those clothes in a courtroom. I’ve heard of judges throwing people out of their courtrooms because of inappropriate dress.

How can we claim to worship a Holy God if we treat him with less respect than we are called to give to a magistrate judge?

You see, middle Isaiah (along with Amos, and Micah, to say the least) has much to say to the 21st century Churches of Christ. I’m afraid not much of it would be pleasant, either.

We have forgotten who God is. We have forgotten who are are called to be. And we have forgotten who we are.

May we all ascend by climbing lower.

Middle Isaiah (II)

Yesterday I started a series of thoughts taken from the middle section of Isaiah. Today I want to continue those thoughts with what I have come to see as a staggering series of statements made by God, conveyed by Isaiah, that convince me that the Israelites had forgotten who God was. It seems unthinkable – until you stop and consider the current state of Christianity today. Who is God? Is he some puppet that can be controlled by magic-like incantations? Is he the tribal god of some nation, or nations, who in warrior like temperament goes about destroying other nations? Is he some mythological creation of man’s imagination who simply serves as a foil for all of our weaknesses and failures?

This is not a complete list – I am certainly not going to claim infallibility here – but stop and read these passages from middle Isaiah and see if you do not catch on to a common theme:

  • 41:9-10, 13
  • 42:6, 8-9
  • 43:3, 11, 13, 15, 18-19, 25
  • 44:6, 8, 24
  • 45:3, 5-8, 18-19, 21-22
  • 46:4, 9, 11
  • 47:4
  • 48:9, 11-12, 17
  • 49:26
  • 51:12, 15
  • 52:6

As I said yesterday, I am not technically nor linguistically gifted enough to make any definitive statements about the book of Isaiah – but it is striking to me how these statements are clustered together in this middle section of the book. I am convinced it is not accidental – the book is far too carefully constructed for this kind of emphasis to be accidental.

What I can (at least reservedly) say is that this emphasis on the being and nature of God is a critical one for the church to learn again today. Yesterday I wrote of the insanity (in my opinion) of us as Americans to repeatedly put our faith and trust into failed and failing human beings, and then to complain bitterly that our Christian principles are being rejected.

What should we expect? That somehow once a person is elected to congress that they will suddenly become a Christian? Or even more preposterous – that a person who identifies as a Christian is somehow going to change the cess pool that currently describes the situation in Washington D.C.? A whole barrel full of rotten apples does not change just because you put a good apple in the barrel. The good apple sours – it is the nature of apples . . . and of human nature.

Isaiah was speaking to and writing to a nation who had forgotten who and what their God was. They knew of him as a talisman – a good luck charm that was good to have around if things got kind of sticky. But, their real faith, their real trust, was in the strength of men – and in the specific situation that was identified yesterday – the strength of the Egyptian army. God told the Israelites, “Go ahead, trust in Pharaoh, see how far that gets you!”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in the mid 20th century, said the same thing had happened to his German nation and church. God was just a “God of the gaps” for them. Trust in the army, trust in your genetic heritage, trust in blood and soil – and if things get too far out of hand, trust in God.

Sound familiar?

Many preachers are worried about the “new atheism” and the attacks on Christianity from the outside. I really do not fear that much from atheists – atheists have been attacking the church for 2,000 years and have not succeeded in harming it to any great extent. No, the greatest threat to the Lord’s church today comes from within. It comes from people who do not know, and who do not care to know, who and what God truly is. That is an attack that is truly serious.

And that is why it is so critical for the Lord’s church today to read and study the prophets, not just middle Isaiah. But, if you do need a place to start, middle Isaiah is a really, really good place!

May God bless his church with a rekindling of a desire to know Him, and to put our hope and faith in Him and in Him alone!

Middle Isaiah (I)

No, this is not a post about the authorship of Isaiah. I am not linguistically, nor technically, nor even geekickly gifted enough to opine authoritatively about the authorship of Isaiah. Let it be enough to say that I believe that Isaiah wrote the overwhelming majority of the book (allowing for some third party editing and final composition) and that he did it over a long and effective prophetic ministry. No, what I want to do in this series (no telling how long or sequential this will be) is to look at the middle third or so of the book of Isaiah, beginning with chapter 30 and moving into the 50’s.

The passage that caught my eye recently was this, and I will quote it from the New Living Translation (2nd ed.) because I think the translators did a singularly good job in capturing Isaiah’s pointed, if not sarcastic, tone in this passage:

What sorrow awaits my rebellious children, says the LORD, you make plans that are contrary to mine. You make alliances not directed by my Spirit, thus piling up your sins.

For without consulting me, you have gone down to Egypt for help. You have put your trust in Pharaoh’s protection. You have tried to hide in his shade. But by trusting Pharaoh, you will be humiliated, and by depending on him, you will be disgraced.

For though his power extends to Zoan and his officials have arrived in Hanes, all who trust in him will be ashamed. He will not help you. Instead, he will disgrace you.

Now go and write down these words. Write them in a book. They will stand until the end of time as a witness that these people are stubborn rebels who refuse to pay attention to the LORD’s instructions. They tell the seers, “Stop seeing visions!” They tell the prophets, “Don’t tell us what is right. Tell us nice things. Tell us lies. Forget all this gloom. Get off your narrow path. Stop telling us about your ‘Holy One of Israel.'” (Isaiah 30:1-5, 8-11)

Hear anything similar to what is occurring in the United States? Oh, no, we are not going down to Egypt to put our hope in Pharaoh. But what are we putting our hope in? The office of the President? The nine Supreme Court Justices? The Constitution of the United States?

You see, we have our false saviors just as the ancient Israelites did. Only, we excuse ourselves because we say that we are the true church, we say that we are disciples of Christ, we say that our citizenship is in heaven.

So we go on putting our hope and our faith in the President, the justices of the Supreme Court, and the Constitution. We are, in Isaiah’s words, “stubborn rebels.”

When will we get it? When will we learn to wean ourselves from the teat of human power and authority and learn to “lean upon the Lord”?

It is disturbing to me how we can read passages like this in Bible class at the nine o’clock hour, and then during the worship service that begins an hour later, pray that our leaders will make laws that will save America from certain collapse.

Um, you cannot legislate yourself out of a cesspool that you legislated yourself into. If you “trusted” humans to be your national and even spiritual leaders, don’t be surprised that they are going to do what humans are destined to do – protect themselves and their power structure by caving in to the lowest common denominator. In the United States, that means money and even more power.

The only way the United States will survive, let alone thrive, is if there is a spiritual revival, a revival initiated by the Lord’s Spirit (note the interesting use of this phrase in v. 1 above) and empowered by that same Spirit. We can vote until all our faces turn blue and all we will have accomplished is to put different failed and failing human beings into positions of power (which they will be loathe to surrender!)

We can read the opening verses of Isaiah 30 and smirk, smugly believing that we are just SO much smarter and more spiritual than those nincompoop Israelites who trusted in Pharaoh. Then we will go off and sign a petition calling on the President to appoint another conservative to the Supreme Court, so our values can be protected.

Lord, forgive us miserable sinners.

Overwhelmed

Regular readers of this little blog have probably noticed something – I have been uncharacteristically silent over the past several days and even weeks. It’s not that I have disappeared, its just that life has kind of backed a dump truck up to my life and let loose an entire load of issues, problems, and catastrophes. To wit:

  • At the beginning of October we discovered my wife’s cancer has returned. This has created an avalanche of doctor’s appointments, over-night trips, and the associated scramble for time and resources.
  • Just this past week a related but preventable problem forced an all-night visit to the ER, a medical flight to a major hospital and an emergency surgery. I do not think I have ever been so disoriented as I was during a 72 hour stretch as I was those few days.
  • I am needed to help my sister deal with our aging mother and to do some things that will provide for her continued care. More travel, more emotional drain, more financial stress.
  • Ministry issues don’t go away just because there is illness or other problems. In addition to my wife’s health, I am struggling with other issues totally unrelated, but that have consumed the lion’s share of the time I am not focused on providing help to my wife.

In other words, I have just been too overwhelmed over the past few weeks to really attend to my thoughts here. When I get a few free moments, all I can think of is the need to pull back and rest.  I do not want people to think I have disappeared, but on the other hand, disappearing for a few days doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.

I have been working on preparing some continuing thoughts on what it means to ascend by climbing lower, and I hope that soon I will be able to share those thoughts. Oh, and I finally got around to reading a C. S. Lewis masterpiece, Mere Christianity, about which I have much to say. (Why it has taken me over 30 years to read this book is absolutely beyond comprehension. What a book!)

I know that some folks are continuing to stop by and read some previous posts, and for that I am deeply thankful. Please be patient with me, and as time and energy permit I will return to sharing what I believe is critical for the future of the Lord’s church. Until then, peace be with all of us.

Confronting Toxic People and Maintaining a Submissive Attitude

Talk about serendipity. I have been struggling for a while with a particular situation in my life, and just today saw something that just leapt out at me. Because the overall scenario relates to the focus of this blog, I thought I would share some stray thoughts and maybe help some other folks along the way.

The truth of the matter is that every single one of us has to deal at some point in our lives with toxic people. By toxic I mean poisonous – they are simply not happy until they ruin other people’s happiness or fortune or both. They will scam and cheat to get to the top, and if they are not on the top, they will do everything in their power to destroy or dethrone those on the top. If they feel threatened they will not just respond in kind, they will respond with exponentially more aggression than they feel has been directed against them. Our current president of the United States is a poster child of a toxic personality. The president he replaced was just a step below him – powerful positions attract toxic personalities just as light bulbs attract moths.

The two most common ways of dealing with toxic personalities is to either (a) punch them in the nose and attempt to get them to back down, or (b) allow them to run all over you in the hopes they will tire of their aggression and move on to a more belligerent opponent. I will address each of these responses in turn.

First, there is truth in the maxim that the only way to deal with a bully is to back him (or her) down. One thing toxic people depend on is that no one is going to call their bluff, to make a stand. Toxic personalities are frequently the result of low self-esteem, and that generally means a deep seated fear. Expose that fear, and the bully will run. In point of fact, Jesus stood up to the bullies in his life, and that demonstrates that sometimes you must stand up and challenge the toxic personality and deny them their self-ordained superiority.

Sometimes.

The danger is that by attempting to make a justifiable stand, all we do is verify in the mind of the toxic personality that the world is against them and it is they who are justified in their belligerence. It is a mighty fine line that we attempt to walk when we decide we must back a bully down. I believe the key to help us understand when and how to do so and maintain our Christian attitude is found in Matthew 5:39. This passage, which has been all too frequently mis-translated (and thereby mis-applied) does not mean that we are never to resist an evil person, but that we are not to resist evil using evil means, or using the policy of “eye for eye” (see Romans 12:17-21 for Paul’s confirmation of this assertion!) If a disciple is to never resist an evil person, then Jesus is the chief sinner – for he resisted evil (and evil people) at every turn. But – and this is the truth that Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount – we cannot confront toxic people using our own concoction of toxic poison!

So, there is a truth in the idea that toxic people in our lives must be confronted, but that confrontation must be according to God’s will, and not our own desire for revenge or, even worse, or own sinful desire to be “top dog.” Chances are if a person is acting in a belligerent, toxic manner to you, they are also being abusive in other situations, and there is a very high likelihood that others are at risk. We cannot allow others to be hurt just because we are afraid of confrontation. There is a time and a place to protect ourselves and others that we know are in danger. We must, however, be extraordinarily careful lest we fall into the trap of revenge or one-upmanship.

Which then leads to the second of our options, and that is to just do nothing and let the toxic person have his or her way, and hope that soon he or she will tire of the game and move on to a more worthy opponent. I must admit a certain weakness here, as this is my default response. That is, until I have a belly full of being pushed around, and then I erupt in the most unChristian  of behaviors which really does not serve me – or anyone around me – very well.

Once again, there is Scriptural precedent for following this course of action. Returning to Matthew 5, it is clear that Jesus is suggesting that personal resistance is not the preferred choice of action. Paul repeats that teaching in Romans 12. But, and make no mistake about this, both Jesus and Paul did offer resistance when resistance was not just available, but was also the appropriate response. Jesus did stop the mob from stoning the woman caught in adultery. Jesus did challenge the Pharisees and others as being a bunch of hypocrites and snakes. Jesus did clear the temple of the money-grubbing merchants. Paul did forcibly confront Peter in the matter of withdrawing from the Gentiles. Paul did forcibly confront the Galatian heresy, and he did hand Hymenaeus and Alexander “over to Satan.” Paul had to deal with Alexander the Silversmith, John had to deal with his Diotrephes.

And yet Jesus allowed himself to be arrested, as did Paul, and both surrendered to events that would lead to their deaths because they had first surrendered to the will of God in their lives.

As I see it, and as I am struggling mightily to apply in my life, if the issue is larger than my wants and my feelings and my personal situation, then I must act to confront the toxic person and either remove them or terminate their authority, if possible. If, however, the conflict in my life is nothing more than a conflict of personalities or if the situation appears to only revolve around my perception of my own self-importance, then I am not justified in acting in a toxic manner myself.

Submitting to  one another, loving one another, being genuinely concerned for one another, does not mean, and even cannot mean, that we allow toxic people to control our lives or even worse, to control the church for which Christ died. But let us be so very careful that we do not allow that truth to so color our perception that we fall into Satan’s trap and become the very poison that we so rightly abhor.

Let us serve, and let us lead, by ascending lower.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Leadership From Below

Yesterday’s post generated a thoughtful comment, and that comment spurred another thought in my mind. “Iron sharpens iron . . . ” so the wise preacher said. So, indeed, it does.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into what could arguably be called one of the most aristocratic families in Germany. His father was a leading psychiatrist,  both of his parents came from aristocratic, if not regal, blood lines. Growing up Bonhoeffer was keenly aware of the primacy of position this placed him, and there are clear statements where he admits this was troublesome to him.

In the church struggle that Bonhoeffer was so deeply involved, he quickly realized that it was not the ecclesiastical aristocracy that was going to stand up against Hitler and defend Christ and the church. It was going to be the masses, the people in the pews, the “commoners.” Time and again he begged the leaders of the German churches to take a stand against the Nazis, but they were concerned about their position, they were concerned about the legal structures that existed in Germany,  they were concerned about finances, they were concerned about everything but what they should have been concerned about – the purity of the church. The support Bonhoeffer (and his compatriots) received came from below – the members of the church that, according to church laws then current, really had no official voice. When the pastors lost their income (the pastors of the Lutheran and United churches were supported by the government, who paid their salaries out of taxes levied against all citizens), the church members stepped up. When the Gestapo closed seminaries and threatened churches, the members opened other doors of education and worship. Bonhoeffer learned what it was to lead “from below.” It confirmed for him what he had  always been uneasy about – aristocracy comes from blood lines, but genuine Christian obedience comes from the heart.

In congregations all across the religious spectrum today, and certainly within the Churches of Christ, there is the “aristocracy” that is concerned about everything except what they should be concerned about. Politics, money, power, even social issues such as abortion and gun rights can co-opt a congregation and leave its members floundering. I do not want to be some “Pollyanna” or “Dorothy” and think that we can click our heels together three time and return back to Kansas. But, hopeless romantic that I am, I do believe that there are Bonhoeffers and Bethges and Niemoellers* out there who are willing to risk their reputations and even lives for the sake of the church (Martin Niemoeller was a U-Boat captain in WWI, he received an Iron Cross for his service. He spent WWII in Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp.)

Let us learn how to lead from below.

*I apologize to the historians and Niemoeller legacy, I know that his name is spelled with an unlaut over the “o,” but I cannot figure out how to put one there. Actually, Bonhoeffer’s family name was originally spelled with an umlaut over the second “o,” but the spelling had changed by the time he was born. Seeing as how my family name was in all probability spelled “Smyth” or even “Smythe” at one time, I can relate to the vagaries of generational name shifts.

Leadership and Submission

Today a question: If it is almost universally agreed that we should all be submissive to one another (Ephesians 5:21, one would have to be fairly obtuse to object to that directive from the apostle Paul), what happens when a person is placed in a position of authority? How can one submit to those he (or she) is actually given authority over? How can you lead from below?

I hate it when I ask myself these questions. I ask better than I answer. But here goes anyway –

First of all, leadership is not inimical to submission. If it was, Jesus was the worst leader of all time. In fact, you could say that Jesus is the answer to the question how to lead from below and that would be the end of it, but then what would become of the rest of this post?

Leading from below involves certain behaviors that come from certain traits of character. First, leadership from below involves listening – not just hearing but actual active listening that forces one to accept and to process what the other is saying. Active listening itself comes from a trait of compassion and caring. The first thing you learn about someone who cannot listen is that they really do not care very much, either.

Second, leadership from below involves participation in the lives of those being led. In more bucolic terms, the shepherd needs to smell like the sheep. The best managers of an assembly plant are those who understand from the bottom up what it feels like to work on the line. If you are going to lead an elementary school, you had better know what it feels like to get down on your hands and knees with the kindergarteners. The best boss I ever worked for in my secular work life actually climbed in our planes and flew them occasionally. That let me know he trusted our mechanics, and it was kind of nice to see him on the flight line, too.

If you listen carefully and participate fully, then that means that occasionally leadership from below means suffering. No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, and that means leaders as well. Perhaps less bucolic, but certainly no less colorful, is the illustration that was impressed upon me a long time ago: the higher you climb up the flag pole, the more people are going to see your rear end. When the water boy makes a mistake, no one in the stadium will know. When the head coach calls a time-out that he does not have, or when the quarterback throws an interception to end the game, everyone knows. Leadership from below means that we accept our frailty, and also accept that our mistakes are going to be more visible, and potentially more critical, than the mistakes of our followers. Leaders have to stand up and absorb the shots – and have the ability to grow from them.

I guess by way of conclusion I should say that leadership from below also involves a great amount of joy. I simply cannot express the joy I felt when I saw a student return from his/her check-ride and realize that there was a new pilot, a new instrument rated pilot, or a new commercial pilot, or a new flight instructor in the world. Of course I was responsible for teaching them (and a failure meant the FAA would be looking at my teaching skills), but the student had to study, to practice, to actually pass the exam. It is nothing but pure joy to see the “light bulb” come on and see a new babe in Christ emerge from the waters of baptism. So, not all is doom and gloom in terms of leading from below.

I guess it goes without saying that the opposite of these traits pretty much describes bullies and autocrats. They don’t listen, they do not help or participate in the lives of those being led, they certainly do not suffer, and I would suggest they are the most joyless individuals in the world. And the church is full of autocratic bullies. Heaven help the congregation that is led by a man (or men, or women) who refuse to listen, who never get their hands dirty doing ministry or teaching the kindergartners, who are too hoity-toity to even expose themselves to suffering, and whose faces would break if they smiled. God has a message to those who lead from the ivory tower, who dictate but never participate, who “bind heavy burdens on those who seek to obey, but do not lift a finger to help:”

He wants His church back.

Listening, participating, suffering, joy – what else would you add to the list in terms of “leadership from below?” I know my list is not exhaustive, probably not even comprehensive. But, I do hope that I have laid a foundation for the concept that leadership and submission are not mutually exclusive; indeed – they have to be inter-related on a very fundamental level.

Let us learn to lead from below!