Quit Crying – It’s Our Fault!

Yesterday’s daily Bible reading made me a little queasy:

For the day of the LORD is near upon all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head. (Obadiah 15)

Our God is a crafty one, he is. He figures out the absolute worst punishment for every infraction: he lets the criminal decide his punishment by virtue of the crime.

In the United States the two most vocal groups are (1) those who believe that all is lost, that our culture is minutes, if not seconds, away from annihilation, and (2) those who believe that we have not moved far enough, that we need to keep pushing to free it from any semblance of a Christian heritage.

I think God has listened to both, and taking both into consideration, has allowed our culture to become exactly what it is – and is becoming. Just consider:

  • We have pushed the idea of individualism to the point that there can be no collective, no “union” at all. We are radical individualists, and that is just a grenade toss away from anarchy.
  • We have obliterated the distinction between the genders, or sexes, depending on which word you prefer. No longer is there “male” and “female” but only one’s chosen preference, how one “identifies” at the moment.
  • We have spent billions, that’s billions with a “b,” on the “war on poverty” and all we have to show for it is a permanent underclass that depends entirely upon the government for its existence. When you can make more money (in cash and benefits) from doing nothing than in working an entry level job, why work? We now have multiple generations mired in this web of laziness and entitlement.
  • We have spent even more on the “war on terrorism.” How’s that “hopey, changey” thing working for you? I kind of miss getting on an airplane without getting undressed in front of hundreds of my fellow would-be terrorists.
  • In the church we have focused almost entirely upon generic evangelism to the virtual elimination of the concept of discipleship. Oh, we are baptizing large numbers of people – people who have no issue with abortion, with gambling, with greed, with a government that starts wars with reckless abandon, with a malignant form of capitalism that is destroying our environment as well as our family structures, and with a doctrine that begins with the phrase, “I think . . .”

So – what do we have to show for all these achievements? We have athletes, teachers, and other public figures who are censured, and sometimes lose their jobs, because they say something that “offends” another person. We have a permanent underclass that increasingly makes demands that will soon be impossible to meet. We have a culture that is so confused about gender that we are even arguing about the definition of “mother” and “father.” And, we have a weak, beggarly church membership that views the church as a social club and not a collection of individuals following a crucified messiah in absolute discipleship.

In other words, God looked down on us and said, “Okie fine, if that’s the way you want it – that is the way it will be. I’ll be here when you figure out that your nest is too foul to live in, but until then, don’t come crying to me.”

Do you realize that God told Jeremiah 3 times to stop praying for the Israelites! God told a prophet 3 times to just stop it, DON’T PRAY FOR THESE PEOPLE. (7:16, 11:14, 14:11)

I wonder what he would say today?

I, for one, do not believe our culture is so far gone as to be unredeemable. However, I also stand firmly in the footsteps of Barton W. Stone, David Lipscomb, and dare I mention his name, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who all preached without fear or favor that the only way this generation will be saved is through the mighty power of a holy God, and through the working of his Holy Spirit.

We are not going to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We’ve drank from that poison long enough. It’s time to pray for a revival – a holy revival – where we all start by getting down on our knees and confessing:

“Woe is me, for I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5)

Maybe then God can start to clean up the mess we have made of ourselves.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#15)

And so we come to the end of my mostly tongue-in-cheek list of “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection.”

15. The practice of doing theology requires the honest appropriation of lessons learned from history. We cannot handle the text of Scripture honestly today if we ignore, or even worse, disparage the work of theologians in our near or ancient past. This is true both of those theologians with whom we agree, and with whom we disagree. To borrow a phrase, “Those who do not learn from history (or past theology) are doomed to repeat it.” History is a beautiful thing.
15.a.  However, the above truth does not mean that we slavishly follow every conclusion reached by earlier theologians. We must read theology with a discerning eye, knowing that all humans are capable of great spiritual insight, and all humans are capable of great sin. We are to respect our forefathers and foremothers, not worship them.

This “truth” reveals a long-simmering pet peeve of mine, which I find within congregations of the Churches of Christ, but also within virtually every nook and cranny of Christianity (real or imagined). That peeve is that this generation believes that this generation is the ONLY generation to have everything all figured out, that earlier generations were populated with ignorant boobs, and that future generations will only screw up what this generation has perfected.

I am so tired of a cabal of cultural observers who have anointed the coming generation of “millennials” as the smartest, the brightest, the most observant and intellectually astute generation to have ever walked the face of the earth. I remember reading a report by someone who had interviewed a group of graduating theology students that was so gushing it was nauseating. According to that observer, the group of 22-25 year olds that he was visiting with was so theologically radiant as to overcome the light of the sun.

Really? A generation that has not, or has barely, reached their 30th birthday, and they have already “understood all mysteries and have obtained all knowledge”?

A little confession here, but I am half-way through my fifth decade, and I am only now starting to understand the questions, let alone have any idea about the answers.

Which brings me to my point in Undeniable Truth #15 and 15a. Theology is second only to the field of History that is bound to a study of the past. The old maxim that we are gnats standing on the shoulders of giants is hyperbole, but a warranted hyperbole. We cannot understand our present, let alone make any projections about the future, unless we have a deep and broad understanding about our past.

Where this particular truth disturbs me the most is within my fellowship of the Churches of Christ. To be blunt: the average member of a Church of Christ is pathetically ignorant of his or her spiritual heritage. I don’t just mean historically foggy – I mean historically blind. I hear it in comments both from the pulpit and from the pew. It is embarrassing to hear it from the pew – it is revolting to hear it from the pulpit. For far too many people, the past 2,000 years of Christian theology simply do not exist. It is not that this history is minimized – it is excised! But what that leaves is a person who is struggling to live the life of discipleship with no memory. Imagine waking up each morning with absolutely no memory. How could you function? Yet, we attempt the same impossible task each and every time we disparage or remove any attempt to learn from Christian history.

[A mea culpa here – how can people learn what they have not been taught? Church leaders who do not insist on a basic understanding of church history (including Restoration History) are impoverishing their congregations. A course covering some aspect of church history must be a part of any healthy Christian education curriculum, preferably beginning in the high school years, but continuing on a rotating basis throughout an adult education program. Sermon over.]

The opposite extreme is by no means any improvement. An ignorance of our spiritual heritage has caused some to idolize certain figures who have obtained some measure of notoriety. It is a curious truth: those who are the most historically ignorant tend to idolize historical figures the most. The only problem is, it is not the real person (or the person’s teaching) that they turn into an idol. Being ignorant of the real historical person (or teaching) the modern sycophant creates a straw man (or ideology) and then reads that gilded idol back onto the pages of history.

I have just one teensy, tiny little example. How many members of the Churches of Christ revere some understanding of Thomas and Alexander Campbell? Now, how many of those same members also hold very firmly (even obstinately) to the hermeneutic of “Command, Example, and Necessary Inference” to discover how the Christian is to live his or her life today? Okay, now, how many of those who revere Thomas and Alexander Campbell, and who hold unswervingly to the hermeneutic of “Command, Example, and Necessary Inference” are aware that Thomas Campbell was firmly convinced of the command part, was reticent about the example part, and was emphatically against using any kind of human inference in determining Christian doctrine! You read that last part right – Thomas Campbell flatly rejected “necessary inference” in his hermeneutic – at least as it related to binding one’s conclusions on others. Yet, if you challenge “CENI” today you better be wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Sigh.

I do not want to worship any human being – and believe me I have my theological heroes! Every human that ever lived has lived in some measure of error – except, of course, our Lord. However – from the second century church fathers all the way through history down to and including such modern writers as N.T. Wright – great minds have wrestled with the teachings of Scripture and the questions of human life. Not all of their answers have been right, and a good many have been wrong. We can no more erase their contributions from our understanding of the Christian life than we can erase our memory of what happened yesterday or last year.

We are who we are because of those who have walked before us. If we see greater truths in the Scriptures (and, let’s hope that we do!) it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Let’s just remember that they too, were gnats standing on the shoulders of their giants.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#11)

This post shall be rather brief (I’m trying to make promises I can keep) –

11.  The choice of imagery used in Scripture has as much value as the message communicated by those images. Example: the many metaphors used to describe the “people of God.” (Which is in itself a metaphor).

My point here was (and is) that we should not view Scripture as a “flat” piece of literature. The Bible contains some excruciatingly boring lists of genealogies, some breathtaking poetry, some captivating narrative, and some mystifying views of the future. To treat the genealogical material in the opening chapters of Chronicles with the same significance as the parables of our Lord is just wrong. As Jesus himself said, there are “weightier” matters, and by definition that means there are less weighty matters.

Over the years I have come to love the Scriptures as literature. I have come to recognize the artistry of each gospel writer, I have been shown both the tenderness and the pugnacity of the apostle Paul, and, in particular, I have been enthralled with the deep layers of the book of Revelation. I cannot explain all of this in a tidy little blog post, so I will end with as simple an encouragement as I know how: as we sit down to read the Bible, let us open our minds – and our hearts – to absorb the words of Scripture with all the variety and beauty that they have to offer.

Once we recognize, and value, the beauty of the presentation, we can far more deeply recognize, and value, the content of the message.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#10)

Not really sure who I stole this from . . . but I’m pretty sure I’m not smart enough to put all of this together as compactly as it appears –

10.  Attitudes and beliefs have consequences. Words, used to express those attitudes and beliefs, have equal consequences. Words chosen to convey spiritual concepts have eternal consequences.

Undeniable Truth #10 expresses a pet peeve of mine. I repeatedly hear the statement that, “it’s just my opinion” or “you can believe what you want to believe, it really doesn’t matter.” Well, it may be your opinion, but it is not “just” your opinion. And, while we are all entitled to believe anything we want, what we believe really does matter. It matters a great deal.

Adolph Hitler and his henchmen did not achieve their hideous reign of terror by just building some concentration camps and suddenly murdering people. Hitler was placed into power in January 1933, but it was not until almost a decade later that the mass deportation and extermination of entire sections of German society began. What transpired between 1933 and the early 1940’s was a slow – but diabolical – attack on the attitudes and beliefs of the German people. Hitler murdered the German conscience before he murdered over 6 million Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and other disenfranchised peoples.

To illustrate the power behind the truth of Truth #10, let us examine the downward trajectory of American culture since the legalization (and normalization) of abortion in 1972. The right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy through abortion has been framed almost entirely on the belief  that a woman has the “right” to make her own health decisions. Who in their right mind would disagree with that? But is that what abortion is really about? A health decision? This is all predicated on the belief (against all scientific evidence) that the product of a fertilized human egg is not a human being.

If you believe a Jew is nothing more than a rodent or a cockroach, then killing a Jew is actually a benefit to society. If you believe a baby is nothing more than a “mass” inside a uterus, then removing it is a “health decision.” Beliefs really do have consequences.

But no one, and I mean no one, can argue that our culture has not become more crass, more violent, less tolerant, and more dangerous in the decades since 1972. If you devalue human life in the womb, you devalue all of human life. If all we are is a highly evolved reaction of egg and sperm, then does it really matter if that development is suddenly ended? Why is infanticide wrong if the infant is totally dependent upon an adult? And, why would it be wrong to selectively eliminate those whose “development” is somehow defective? I think you get my drift here.

Those who promote life have another belief entirely – that an abortion kills a living human. Abortion is murder – a human life is destroyed by a premeditated action. You just cannot get around the implications. A human life begins at the moment of conception. A genuine ethic of the value of human life works to ensure that all of human life is protected – regardless of race, creed, or culture. A belief that human life is created in the image of God translates into action that seeks to safeguard that image.

A belief, enshrined in the Supreme Court decision known as Roe V. Wade,  empowers the entire abortion industry. A belief that one’s sexual orientation can be freely chosen and changed on a whim is fueling a radical re-structuring of human interaction. The belief that a divine god can and does will the murder of innocent bystanders is sanctioning a horrific expansion of terror throughout the world.

Every action that you might perform today – from the decision whether or not to take a shower to your decision to risk your life to save another – is based upon a belief or an attitude that you hold to be important. Some attitudes and beliefs are obviously more important than others, some are even life changing. How we choose to express those beliefs and attitudes, both by words and actions, have consequences. How we choose to express our belief in God and Jesus Christ have eternal consequences.

What you believe matters! Your attitudes matter very much to God, and you will demonstrate your beliefs and your attitudes in your every action.

Let us make every effort to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) If our thoughts are bound to Christ, our actions will not be far behind.

A Genuine, Heartfelt Question

My daily Bible reading this morning resulted in a genuine, heartfelt question. I pose the question because I honestly do not know the answer (although I may have some ideas). I am also not trying to cause a ruckus.

Before I pose the question, I have to provide the standard disclaimer: I know that regardless of how generally true a statement is, there is always an exception. And, invariably, it is a representative of the exception that screams the loudest – “your assumption is invalid because I do not agree with it.” Okay – I am asking the question as a general truth, not an absolute truth, so just as with just about everything else, your mileage may vary.

So, my question is this: Why is it that most socially active churches tend to be theologically liberal congregations, whereas most theologically conservative congregations tend to be the least interested, and therefore virtually inactive, on social issues?

There appears to be a tremendous chasm between those who view social activism as the major, if not the exclusive, part of the gospel, and those who view spiritual (read personal, “soul”) salvation as the entirety of the gospel. I suppose it should be fairly obvious, but I believe this is an unfortunate, and indefensible division.

You cannot read the prophets (and especially the minor prophets) and overlook the emphasis they place on social issues (hunger, legal justice, care for the poor, etc.). Mary’s song in Luke 1 fairly screams out social justice. Jesus’s entire life revolved around attending to people’s social needs. James makes the point crystal clear in his biting ironic questions in chapter 2:11-6 of his letter. The point is so obvious I just do not understand how congregation who claim to follow the Bible the most strictly cannot see it – you cannot preach the gospel and deny, overlook, or minimize the social ills that plague our culture.

Conversely – what possible good does it do to crusade for social justice and overlook the one, basic, fundamental social disease that is the cause of all others – namely, the sin that resides so deeply within the hearts of all people? To put a bandage on a gangrenous leg might appear to be compassionate, but if the dead skin be not removed, the death of the patient is certain. Did not Jesus proclaim that his body and blood were shed for the forgiveness of sins? (Matthew 26:28) To feed a family and yet overlook their spiritual needs appears to me to be the worst kind of condescension. Is their eternal destiny not more valuable than a loaf of bread?

In other words, there cannot be a dualistic approach to eliminating those things that afflict the human race. Sin must be confronted – both individually and systemically. Just as certain, social ills such as poverty, injustice, health care, education, employment, and all related issues must be addressed. The Lord’s church cannot focus on one while pretending the other does not exist, or worse, mocking one or the other as unworthy of the gospel of Jesus.

So, my question remains – why do we (and I must admit guilt here too) – try so hard to make this an either/or situation?

Evangelism – to What?

I have been struggling for some time to find a way to express some impressions I have regarding the status of the church of Christ and its role in American society today. What I see happening in the United States today in terms of the disintegration of morals has been equaled only by the period of 1860-1900 and the years 1914-1945. What differentiates those epochs from today is the crushing circumstance of three wars (the “Civil” war, and World Wars I and II). The rapid and, I would argue, unparalleled evaporation of Christian ethics today is unique in that we are not being faced with a military enemy (foreign or domestic); we are being destroyed by our innate human capacity for self-destruction. As Pogo so famously observed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Enough of the political and economic lecture – what of the church? Is the church not focused on the kingdom of God, of setting things right, on the most basic Christian duty of evangelism? I think in some convoluted kind of way the answer is yes, and therein lies the problem. I simply do not have any confidence that the church knows what it is evangelizing for.

Over the past few months I have been been trying to come to grips with the concept of evangelism. I am not by nature an evangelist. I am hoping that by nurture I could possibly be made one. But I have been utterly unable to discover a source that addresses the twenty-first century situation on the one hand and the message of the New Testament on the other. In other words, what I find is either a complete sell-out to contemporary culture on the one hand, or a hackneyed, right-wing, reactionary, escapist Pharisaism on the other. As I see the New Testament, neither is healthy, sound, or Biblical – however you want to describe it. If followed to their logical conclusions, both will kill the church.

If I can summarize my understanding of evangelism it would be this: the word itself means “sharing the good news.” If you see the gospel as “good news,” that means by definition that the gospel is confronting, or overcoming, “bad news.” The bad news is that, even though God created the world good, through man’s rebellion it (and mankind) has become evil. Thus the gospel is the good news that overcomes the evil. The key word that both the left (cultural accommodationists) and the right (reactionaries) want to avoid is the word sin. The cultural accommodationists want to deny the word outright, and the reactionaries see it everywhere but in themselves.

To understand evangelism aright, we must all, every single one of us, admit to ourselves and confess to others that we are utterly incapable of good in-and-of ourselves. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3:10-11) “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:22-23). This is the admission that neither the far left nor the far right can make. The left dismisses it as absurd, the right cannot take it upon themselves. Therefore neither the church of cultural accommodation nor the church of the self-righteous can properly evangelize. 

It is at this point that I turn, once again, to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I know, I know. Some of you probably have to grit your teeth when I mention Bonhoeffer. I cannot help it though – I am drawn like a magnet to the clarity of his vision and the honesty of his writings. Born in 1906 he was old enough to be aware of the events of WWI (one of his older brothers was killed in action) and he died just weeks before WWII ended. Therefore, few men have had a more “up front and center” position from which to observe, and critique, the world and the church’s reaction to it.

One aspect of Bonhoeffer’s response was that he relentlessly attempted to get the church to confront the sin of both the eroding German culture, and the complete refusal of the church to oppose the Nazis. Modern readers love to quote Bonhoeffer as he stood up to Hitler (yea, Dietrich!). But how many sermons have you heard, or how many memes have you seen on Facebook, that repeat Bonhoeffer’s blistering attacks on a naive, complacent, and even complicit German church (boo, Dietrich!). Too many people want to turn Bonhoeffer into some 19th century American evangelical. To be sure, Bonhoeffer would not be welcome in many American church buildings today. He knew well the meaning of the word, SIN.

I just wonder today, as I ponder what it means to be an evangelist in the year 2017, if the church is not killing itself by trying to do something it totally misunderstands? My main question is this, “What does it matter if people are being baptized into a church that no longer believes in its core message?” What good is evangelism if there is no sin, if there is no “bad news” to destroy? And what good is a church that cannot admit to, that cannot confess, its own sin? If we say there is no sin, or if we say that we are not sinners, do we not make God out to be a liar? (1 John 1:10)

It seems that everyone today is mourning the decline of the church in America (and, indeed, in most of the industrial “West”). This, I believe, is good. We cannot change something that we do not recognize is wrong. But we cannot change something by mindlessly repeating the mistakes that got us here. We must go back to the core message of the New Testament – of the Bible even. We are, every one of us, miserable offenders. Only if we begin here can we move toward evangelism.

“Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy wais like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter life a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy Holy Name. Amen.” (A general Confession to be said by the whole congregation, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 1662, emphasis mine, PAS)

How to Win a Complex Theological Argument Without Really Trying – A Lament

I saw it again today. A complex theological discussion ended abruptly, yet without a legitimate conclusion. One side walked away feeling euphoric, the other feeling cheated and abused. The discussion was over, yet nothing had been settled. Neither side was changed; indeed, because of the nature of the argumentation neither side could be changed. What is sad is that through the specific use of tactics the conversation is likely never to be honestly entered into again. The “victor” obviously sees no need to, and the “vanquished” rejects the inherent dishonesty of the other. Never again shall the twain meet.

How do you win a complex theological argument without ever really trying? It is profoundly simple, actually. All you need to do is appeal to experience. Experience is the “Mother of all Debate Bombs (MOADB).” Drop it once and your enemy is reduced to picking up the splintered shards of whatever evidence they might have produced. Its effect can be devastating – although virtually never appropriate or legitimate.

Consider the two examples where I see this most frequently used. (No names will be provided to protect the guilty). A respectable, although intense, discussion begins over the significance of baptism, both in terms of salvation and the larger issue of ecclesiology (who should be considered a member of the church). At a critical point in the discussion one of the participants asks a rhetorical question: “Are you saying my father, God rest his saintly soul, will not be in heaven?” The MOADB was just dropped. How can there be a response? Say, “no” and all the fiery pit of hell will explode. Say, “yes” and derail the entire discussion into who has the mind of God. Say, “I do not know” and the discussion then becomes moot. Why discuss something with an ignoramus? (Never mind that option three is clearly the best, unless someone DOES have access to God’s infinite wisdom.) The point is that with the introduction of the dearly departed saintly relative, the issue becomes one of experience (the experience of having to deal with relatives/loved ones who disagree with me) and the playing field never will be level again.

Example two: A proponent of gender egalitarianism defends his (and it is almost always “his”) change in understanding the increased leadership role of women in a worship service. “I knew I was wrong when I looked into the eyes of my sweet little 10 year old daughter and realized she would never be considered worthwhile in my church.” Here is a case of the double MOADB. First, who wants to accept the role of arguing with a “sweet little 10 year old girl.” My daughter has had me wrapped around her little finger ever since the day she entered this world. Two dogs and a turtle are ample proof of that, and my fortress of arguments against a rabbit is crumbling by the minute. But I digress.

The second, and more insidious, experiential argument in the above statement is the declaration (accusation, actually) that a female is considered “worthless” in a congregation that places the role of leadership solely upon qualified men. But I hear it all the time! In a recent article in a national magazine, the writer stipulated that one of the factors in deciding whether a congregation was “healthy” or not was whether there were females participating in significant leadership roles in the worship service. Clearly, not having women (plural) on the stage means a congregation hates women (and, I would assume, that means the women in the congregation hate themselves – a rather pernicious loathing, I might add).

However, once dropped, the MOADB cannot be recalled. The discussion is over, regardless of whether the subject is a dearly departed relative or one’s precious little progeny. Move the discussion from reason (logic, exegesis, historical examples, etc) to emotion (experience) and the battle is won. You really do not even have to try very hard. It is so simple it is astounding.

All of this is to illustrate, and to stress, my Undeniable Truth of Theological Reflection #1 all over again. If your goal is to win the argument (or at least prevent your opponent from answering you), then by all means drop the MOADB. But if your goal is to humbly submit to the truth of God’s word, and to lovingly attempt to correct someone else who you feel is in error, then the pretentious use of empty emotionalism is absolutely forbidden.

To paraphrase a teaching of our Lord, it is far better to lose an argument and maintain your virtue, than to win a debate and lose all sense of your honor.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.