A Well Meaning Absurdity (Welcome to My World)

I have to get a few things out-front and up-top. I’m going to share a quote from a very well meaning gentleman. I have never met this individual, and I truly believe he intends only good, no harm. I have no animosity toward him, and absolutely no offense is intended toward his intentions. But the quote is so absurd, so ludicrous, so off-the-wall ridiculous that I almost lost my mouthful of coffee as I read it. It is just the final nail in the coffin of well-intentioned attitudes that are utterly bereft of any cognitive value. Okay, so I guess I’ve tipped my hand here, so here is the quote-

Being a preacher in a small church can be hard – very hard. Maybe 2-3 elders. Little if any staff – MAYBE a youth minister. So much of this preacher’s work is never seen by the majority of the church. Yet, so many of these people serve for years! May God bless them.

Did you catch it – “Small church” – yet there are two or three elders, a small staff and, catch this, possibly a youth minister on board! Yee haw – such a “small church” would be a huge growth spurt for me!

I hear this kind of rhetoric from a lot of people – mostly those east of the Mississippi, but quite often even from the gilded masses in Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. Maybe “small” churches in those states have elders, a secretary or two, and a youth minister. However, from where I sit, the secretary, the youth minister, the education minister, the evangelism minister, the elder/shepherd/pastor, and even the janitor are often the same guy that teaches class every Sunday morning, preaches once or twice on Sunday and teaches a class on Wednesday night. Oh, yeah, there is also planning the VBS every summer, scheduling a guest speaker or two each year, providing 24/7 on call benevolence assistance, preaching for the occasional funeral and wedding, and being available for the local prayer breakfast and sports teams blessing.

I get the sentiment – let’s be thoughtful for the “little guy” who has to muddle through with such a small entourage to carry the train of his robe. But, it is exactly this kind of absurdity that drives me crazy. I have been in full time ministry over 25 years – in five congregations as “the” located preacher, and I have never served in that capacity with an eldership. I have served with two elderships – blessings to be sure – but one was as a youth minister and the other as a campus minister. I really loved having a secretarial team – but I had become so used to doing everything myself I really did not know how to effective use their expertise (and they were GREAT ministers in their own right – ministers as servants of the congregation).

What the above statement reveals to me are two things. First, as mentioned above, I think the intent is genuine and positive – the one who wrote the thought wanted to convey a need to consider those who work in smaller congregations. But, honestly, the quote reveals such a profound ignorance of what “smaller congregations” really means. Ministers who serve small congregations outside of the “Bible Belt” rarely serve with elders, have NO staff, and the only “youth minister” is someone who is willing to take the kids to McDonalds after church services. Where I serve now the nearest fellow full time minster is a 45 minute drive away. I’m lucky. In my last position the nearest fellow minister was over an hour’s drive away – over some nasty mountain passes that become treacherous during the winter.

So, please, do not hurl any invective against me for hating on the person who wrote the above quote. I get, and I appreciate, his concern. But – please do not take the quote with any degree of literalness. I would LOVE to have two or three elders to share my burdens, a staff to help with some of the mundane paperwork, and a youth minister to plan the VBS and bring me my morning coffee.

But, I have the blessing of serving a small congregation, and to be perfectly honest, with the exception of the elders, (which I would genuinely love to have!) I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Quiet Assurance

I’m using my “read through the Bible in a year” schedule to select passages on which to preach each Sunday. I’ve been trying to rotate between the three sections – Psalms, Old Testament, and New Testament. So far this year has been mostly bouncing between the Old and New Testament readings, but I have a bunch of passages to preach from the Psalms in the second half of the year (my reading schedule calls for a reading of the Psalms twice each year.) This Sunday, however, the Psalm reading won out.

I will be preaching specifically on Psalm 46. Notice how this Psalm ends –

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress (Ps. 46:10-11, ESV)

Have you ever noticed with what a quiet calm so many of the biblical writers faced their greatest fears and calamities? Now, to be sure there are many passages which speak of anxiety and concern. But, just off the top of my head these other passages came to mind as I was thinking about Psalm 46 –

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:2)

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the LORD, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Such faith, such calmness, such beautiful literature!

We are truly living in unsettled times – our culture, our morality, our very democracy is being shaken to its roots. What can we do – to whom and to where do we turn?

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore. (Psalm 121)

I have to honestly admit a sense of fear about the future. I fear for my daughter, and for the generation her generation will raise. When our government tells us that men have to be allowed into women’s restrooms, when high school girls have to sue the state of Connecticut in order to be allowed to compete in track events without the presence of male competitors, when presidential candidates openly promote abortion until the very moment of birth – and when a presidential candidate shamelessly promotes his marriage to his “husband,” I have to ask, “Where will it stop?” And, how did we get to this point anyway?

I think I was born without an optimism bone, or muscle. I am Captain Pessimism. Maybe Admiral Pessimism might be more accurate. So, in days like today, in times like these, I really need to hear these passages from the Psalms and Habakkuk.

I think I’m going to be preaching to myself this Sunday. All others are welcome to eavesdrop, if you wish.

What Has Theology to do With Baseball; or Baseball With Theology?

Although I am starting with baseball, please read to the end if you are wondering about the theology part.

In a bizarre, other-worldly sequence of events, I find myself paying far more attention to the Houston Astros (*Asterisks*) cheating scandal than I ever pay to the regular season in baseball. I am what you might call a September-October kind of fan, perhaps a little more if my beloved Dodgers are playing for something serious in the fall. Otherwise, baseball is just white noise to me. This year is totally different. Due to this cheating scandal I am absorbed with trashcans, buzzers, tattoos, center-field cameras and the unbelievable numbers of ways in which you can apologize by blaming everyone around you and never, ever, really even coming close to an apology.

This scandal has riled my emotions for two primary reasons, and probably a whole host of secondary reasons. First, far more than cheating by pumping yourself full of steroids, this scheme by the Astros to steal games affects the integrity of the game itself. It is one thing to steal a home run record, it is something entirely different to literally change the outcome of an entire season. Let’s be honest – unless every ball park had the exact same dimensions, a home run record is quaint at best. To compare the cavernous  old Yankee Stadium with the tiny (relatively speaking) Fulton County Stadium where Hank Aaron played for so many years is just nuts. Also, the height of the pitching mounds changed through the years, the consistency of the baseballs has varied greatly, so, once again, let’s be honest. The only records that really mean something are those where players from different generations can compete on a level playing field, pardon the pun. (Stolen bases comes to mind – the distances between the base paths has never changed).

The second reason why this scandal has so infuriated me (and I mean heart palpitating, hands shaking, wanting to scream kind of infuriation) is that it significantly affected players’ careers and earning potential. I think of Yu Darvish. He was traded after the 2017 World Series and I was eternally grateful. I felt like he almost single handedly surrendered the 2017 World Series to the Astros. Well, now I have to wonder. And, the Chicago Cubs have publicly stated that with his performance in the ’17 series his market value dropped considerably. What could he have earned if he had been a part of the World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers? What about Clayton Kershaw, who dominated in the regular season, yet looked like a little leaguer pitching in Houston? What about the pitchers whose ERA ballooned because of the banging trashcans in Houston and were sent down to the minors never to be heard from again? Or who lost bargaining power because of a disastrous outing or two in Houston? What about Aaron Judge, who lost the MVP voting to Jose Altuve, one of the dirtiest of the Houston players? (More on Altuve later). This is what just really chaps my hide about this entire thing. The cheating scheme may not have physically injured someone, but in terms of career damage and financial damage, the results are despicable.

I could add the lack of a sincere apology – but that is to get ahead of myself.

The Astro organization has bent over backwards trying to contain the damage. The only problem is that every time someone from the organization opens their mouth, the damage gets worse. A number of weeks ago Jose Altuve and some other player were almost gleeful that the cheating scandal was behind them – and, they won the World Series so get over it. Then, the owner had to chime in. Yes, they broke the rules, but it never impacted the game. Wait, he never said it never impacted the game, except that he said that very thing not more than 40 seconds earlier. Well, it might have impacted the game, and it might not, you never know, and by the way, we won the World Series so get over it. The players chimed in – yeah, we’re sorry (not), but the cheating never changed the outcome of a game, and we won the World Series so get over it. The utter arrogance of the team is beyond belief.

Apologists have come out and tried to get certain players either completely or partially exonerated. “It was only a few players, “x” player only had “x %” of his pitches identified, blah, blah, blah.” The whole team is dirty. Correa is dirty. Altuve is especially dirty, whether he had a tattoo or not. Verlander is dirty, he of the “I hate cheating in any form or fashion” reputation. Bregman is dirty. The whole stinking team is dirty, and their attempts to wash their dirty laundry in public is repugnant, to be honest.

Oh, and let’s not forget the two guys at the top who are the dirtiest – the owner of the Astros and the commissioner of major league baseball. The commissioner gave the owner a full pardon and whitewash, and the owner has hidden his guilt behind that pardon. Major league players are furious at the Astros, and what is really telling, they are furious at the commissioner because he did absolutely nothing to the players. He could have easily vacated the 2017 World Series title (a serious argument could be made that, even if the Astros did not cheat in the series, their very presence was obtained by fraudulent means, therefore nullifying the final results.) He could have banned the current team from participating in the 2020 postseason. He had a number of options and wiffed on all of them. The players are furious. The fans even more so. I can only imagine how those well behaved fans in the Bronx are going to gently and kindly welcome the *Asterisks* every time they visit New York.

Okay – enough of the scandal – gotta get my blood pressure down. What does all of this have to do with theology? I’m glad you asked.

Our God has so arranged our physical and emotional nature that the concept of fairness is a powerful inborn trait. Doubt me? Just hover near a group of toddlers playing around each other. It doesn’t take very long at all before one or more will scream loudly, “That’s not fair!” Where is this learned, where is this taught? I would argue it is buried deep within us, and whether we admit it or not, we hate it when we are aggrieved and we are mindful of when we are guilty and unpunished.

Balderdash and poppycock, you say? Not so fast, I retort. How many times have you done something wrong, only to have it swept under the rug and then you actually feel worse than if you had been held honestly and equitably accountable? When we do something wrong and are not held accountable two issues are communicated – one, that we ourselves are not important enough to be corrected so that our behavior can improve, and two, the issue at hand was obviously not important so whatever we did to violate the law or command should never have been in place to begin with. In other words, there is a double whammy – we are not valuable enough to be corrected and loved, and the violation was of such inconsequence that it meant nothing to begin with. When those issues are combined in a situation of significant enough size, the ultimate results can be debilitating.

As I said, I think this is something God put deep within each of us, whether we have ever put words to it or not.

This is where confession, repentance, punishment, and forgiveness are so critical – theological issues to be sure!! If there is no confession, no honest and complete grasping of a wrong committed, there can be no path forward. Repentance would be the promise of a lifestyle that denounces and rejects the violation under discussion. There must be some form of punishment and an equal level of forgiveness and restitution. “Justice” without mercy is cruel; “mercy” without justice creates anarchy. God demands both justice and mercy.

I think the two stories of Kings Saul and David are illustrative here (1 Samuel 15, 2 Samuel 11-12). Both violated God’s commandments. You could even argue that David’s sin was far worse than Saul’s. Both gave what appeared to be strikingly similar confessions. Yet, Saul was utterly rejected and eventually died with his sons on Mt. Gilboa, while David lived a long life, forgiven by God and blessed to see a child of an adulterous relationship anointed king. What was the difference?

While the text does not make this crystal clear, David’s confession and repentance must have been sincere, and Saul’s must have been spurious and contrived. In other words, Saul apologized because he was caught and had to in order that he could continue to be king (we won the World Series, so get over it), and David felt genuine sorrow and, at least in some measure, revealed a “new and contrite spirit.” Note that both kings were punished! There can be no forgiveness without adequate restitution. God did not sweep David’s sin away as if neither he nor the sin really mattered. David mattered to God, Uriah mattered to God, Bathsheba mattered to God, and for David to experience restoration he had to feel the whip of punishment, so to speak. The difference between the kings is that genuine David was restored, while fake Saul was rejected.

So, what can baseball fans learn from Saul and David? One, apologies have to be sincere and complete. I have yet to hear one Astros player apologize to any single team or player for cheating. They are mighty sorry they broke the rules, but, hey, they won the World Series so get over it. I want to hear apologies to the New York Yankees, the teams that came in behind the Astros when the playoffs rolled around, I want to hear an specific apology to Aaron Judge, I want to hear a specific apology to Yu Darvish and Clayton Kershaw and to every fan who mistakenly thought that the Astros won all those games with nothing but pure talent. Second, I want to see some legitimate punishment. I want the commissioner to publicly say that there is no way for certain to know that the 2017 World Series was won legitimately. It may have been – and the Astros may have legitimately won the right to compete in the Series. But we do not know that, and we cannot know that because the entire process has been called into question by the systemic cheating plan the Astros used. The 2017 World Series title needs to be vacated – not given to the Yankees or the Dodgers – just simply vacated and the reason why published loud and long. I want the Astros to be banned from the post season in 2020. I want them to play this season for nothing – because their cheating stole at least one season from some other teams and I want them to know what playing for futility feels like. And I want the commissioner to get to the bottom of the entirety of the cheating scandal, and if any other team was guilty then they have to be equally punished – and that includes my beloved Dodgers!! Believe me, as angry as I am now, if it is revealed that the Dodgers cheated as much or more than the Astros I will go positively apoplectic.

And, finally, if the first two items can be achieved, then we need to move on and strive to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. If the apologies are sincere, and the punishment appropriate and measured, then restitution must be equally broad and complete. No bean balls, no spiking the second baseman, no throwing beer on the right fielder. Just play ball.

You see, theology matters, even in the grassy diamond of the baseball field. What does God require of sports teams? How about justice, mercy, and a humble presence before God? (Micah 6:8, Amos 5:24)

Conservatives/”Evangelicals” are Really Beginning to Scare Me

You know, sometimes life hands you an absolute victory, something so easy and so perfect that it would be virtually impossible to mess up.

And, somehow, we manage to mess it up.

Thus I have been thinking about the decision the Mitt Romney made to vote for the the impeachment of Donald Trump, and the immediate (and continuing) vitriolic response to Romney’s decision. Romney has graciously and repeatedly explained his decision – he took an oath to defend the Constitution, and much further than many politicians, he believed his oath was first and most importantly made to God. Therefore, when he came to realize that Trump abused his power (which, I agree with 100 %), he knew he had to vote to convict. It was not a vote of convenience, it was not a vote to placate the maddening crowd. It was a vote of conscience.

Now, conservatives and “evangelicals” (whatever in the world that term means anymore) have been clamoring for years – decades – for more politicians who will uphold their oaths to defend the Constitution. They have been clamoring for years – decades – for men and women of conscience to stand up and be heard, even if (or especially if) that voice is contrary to the herd mentality. So, they get a senator who is willing to defend the Constitution and vote his conscience and what happens? These same conservatives and “evangelicals” are ready to lynch Romney from the nearest tree.

I don’t get it. Here is a perfect example of how conservatives are so perfectly different from liberals, at least in general (not one Democratic senator voted to impeach Clinton). Here was an opportunity to say, “See, the conservative approach (and the Republican party) is the place where people can hold conscientiously differing opinions, and we are all stronger for it.” But, no. Like a crazed group of cannibals, the extreme right (and maybe some of the mainstream right) is having a conniption fit and calling for the head of the one man they should be honoring. And, in so doing, they are demonstrating why I believe that currently neither party can lay claim to being safe or sane. The right wing of the country is seriously beginning to scare me, and that in and of itself terrifies me, because the left wing is so far from redemption that, should they gain power, I honestly do fear for a second “civil” war.

From gender bending issues to abortion to rabidly insane calls for the repeal of the 2nd amendment to the Constitution (and the flat out repudiation of the 1st amendment), the far left wing (is there a center-right wing of the Democratic party??) of this country is becoming seriously deranged. Now more than ever those who consider themselves conservatives, and especially those who consider themselves to be disciples of Christ, need to stand up and defend individuals who hold to their morals, even if (and perhaps especially if) those morals do not align 100% with a given political leader.

We need men and women of courage. We need men and women who will stand up to other elected officials and remind them that we are a country of laws, not of entitled men, and when laws are violated then there must be repercussions. We need men and women of courage who will take their oaths seriously, even if it means voting in a manner that jeopardizes their political future.

I disagree with Mitt Romney profoundly on a number of issues – theological and political. But, I am proud to defend his actions in regard to his keeping his oath, and his reasons for voting against “his” party and president. It may cost him some votes, it may cost him an election, it certainly has cost him within the right wing of the Republican party. Good on him, I say, because for once we see a politician act like a statesman, a leader, and not a sycophant.

I wish we had more like him in the senate and in the house of representatives.

So This is Where We Are Headed

Last night marked a new low in American politics, civics, and common decency. The President of the United States and the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States could not shake hands with each other.

The Speaker of the House ripped a copy of the State of the Union speech in half, in full view of the assembled Senators, Representatives, and members of the Supreme Court, along with other dignitaries.

The most dignified and significant offices of government of the United States are currently being held by the most petulant, childish, immature, and stupid individuals on the face of the earth. And, yes, I do mean “stupid” because their behavior goes way, way beyond ignorant. That was intentional and utterly bereft of any redeeming excuse or explanation.

But, mark my words, it will only get worse – the fetid swamp will only become more fetid and putrified.

Unless . . .

Unless someone, somehow, manages to learn the basic rule of civility and governance – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That means unless somehow, someone realizes that in order to save our republic they must cease to be partisan political hacks and become statesmen (and stateswomen, gender neutral).

Yes we can have differences of opinion. Yes we can have different visions of how we want the country to move forward. Yes, we can have honest and fervent debates about those opinions and visions. But, at the current rate of this infantile tit-for-tat, name calling and thuggishness, we as a republic are doomed.

Beam me up, Scottie. There is no intelligent life on this planet. Not in the leadership, anyway.

What Color is the Sky in Your World?

Sorry if you were expecting a great burst of optimistic sunshine today. I’m just not sure what is going on in the world today – you might say I am in the funkiest of funks. To wit:

  • A major league baseball team cheats to win at least one divisional and league championship, and perhaps a World Series, and the owner and players get off completely free. The management gets fired. Sooooo much justice there. (Pleeeeeze don’t argue that 4 draft picks and $5 million dollars are “punishment.” Baseball does not function like football or basketball regarding draft picks [most, if not all, draftees are years away from seeing a major league ball park, and very, very few end up playing an inning for the team that drafted them], and $5 million for a baseball owner is like you or me scrounging through the sofa looking for pocket change to go buy a cup of coffee.)
  • State legislatures across the country are brazenly attacking the Second Amendment right to self-protection by the ownership of firearms. These are not “common sense” approaches to gun violence, but are vaguely disguised attempts to restrict, or out-right ban, private use or even ownership of guns. I have written previously that I do not consider the U.S. Constitution to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, but seriously, if we can simply eliminate the second of our most cherished “Rights,” which will be the next to go? The first?
  • I’ll be honest here (although greatly in the minority, and probably greatly to be hated) but I am sick to my stomach with the adulation and hero worship afforded to the death of a basketball player. Kobe Bryant was a human being, a deeply flawed human being. If justice was served, he should have spent several years in prison for rape. Justice is rarely meted out against “heroes,” and Bryant has been dutifully beatified and enshrined among the pantheon of distorted American saints. It is amazing what absolution a little money and the right colored jersey can buy you.
  • In the fetid swamp that envelopes Washington D.C., a grotesque parody of epic proportions is on stage for all the world to see. A party that was absolutely aghast at the lurid behavior of a Democratic president now shrugs its shoulders at the lurid behavior of one of its own, as if to say, “nothing to see here, move on.” Meanwhile, the other party – which was totally oblivious to perjury and obstruction charges against one of their own – now sees the machinations of the Republican president as somehow equal to George Washington fighting for the British.
  • Every day a new story breaks about the “progress” of the current rage of gender dysphoria – be it homosexuality, gender “reassignment” or some such other nonsense. We are not just dealing here with the questioning of reality, but the very rejection of any semblance of reality.

Pardon my jaundice here, but has anything happened in 2020 that has been praiseworthy or admirable? It just seems like we have been given a re-run straight out of the 1970’s. Only worse.

I am working on teaching through the minor prophets on Sunday mornings, and I wonder – did Amos and Micah and Joel and Hosea and all the others see the same things in their decadent cultures? Many of the minor prophets were writing at the peak of Israelite (and south Judah) power. They were not just rejected because their message was counter-cultural (it was!), but also because it was considered ludicrous, insane even. How dare you challenge the status-quo, especially when the status-quo brought so much economic, political, and military power?

I have noted this elsewhere (and if you want a far more erudite exposition of that to which I am referring, see just about any offering by Os Guinness), but our culture cannot exist for long going the direction it is currently headed. Only two options exist, as far as I am concerned. One, there will be a huge, epic, tectonic, quantum change in our collective conscience and we will be spared from certain annihilation; or two, the American dream will collapse like a soggy house of cards, and sooner rather than later. The weight of the debris from the disintegration of any semblance of sustainable morality or ethic is simply too much for our tottering foundation to bear.

If you are tempted to pshaw at me, just ask yourself – exactly when did it occur to you that protecting the perversity of transgender people to be the “Civil Rights Issue” of our generation (as identified by Bernie Sanders, or was it Joe Biden – I lose track)? I rest my case.

When I was a kid we would tease someone who made an outlandish statement by asking with mock seriousness, “What is the color of the sky in your world?” I am not sure what color the sky is in the world of many people.

As I look around me, I’m not even sure I know what color the sky is in my world. It used to be all colors of beautiful blue and gold and orange and red and amber and even black, depending on the time of day. Now . . . it is just all so . . . funky.

Do You Have 53 Minutes to Spare?

I don’t typically do this, in fact, I cannot really think of any time I have done this except for one time I think I shared a link to one of my sermons (no, I don’t usually preach for 53 minutes. It just seems like an hour.)

But, I came across this video about a year or so ago, and I feel compelled to share it with folks who might not know how, or even care, to find it on their own.

This video is just wow – just wow. It has such an important message about seizing the moment, about doing what your heart calls you to do, about having dreams and setting goals.

And, it’s pretty tootin’ funny as well!

I hope you enjoy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kIMTJRgyn0