White Lies, Big Lies, and Extraordinarily Monstrous Lies

A new word has crept into my vocabulary, although not by my choice. That word is “gaslighting,” and I just noticed it reappearing in a number of different contexts. I had to keep looking it up – I would find out what it meant, then forget about it, and then it would show up again and I would have to go through and look it up again.

I would suggest you look up the word in a modern on-line dictionary  (or maybe two or three to make sure you get the full nuances), but in the “Freightdawg” version, gaslighting refers to someone who lies blatantly and unreservedly, then denies any form of deception, invokes every form of belittlement and stops at nothing to tear down the defenses of his or her victim, both mental and physical. Over time, the victim believes he or she is going crazy, and sinks deeper and deeper under the spell of the one who is doing the gaslighting.

I actually thought I was reading a definition of “politician,” but I digress.

The thought occurred to me this morning that millennial generation and the generation that will follow are, and will be, the most gaslighted generations ever to have lived. As a culture, we are simply losing the ability to identify white lies, big lies, and even the extraordinarily monstrous lies.

Major corporations lie without the smallest recrimination. How can you tell that a politician is lying? – when his or her lips move. I think most are aware of the egregious lies that are part and parcel of advertising, but how many of us are actually aware of the lies that are told via movies and television shows? Lies and lying are not just the rare foray into trickery and deception that once was recognized, but scorned, by earlier generations; now lies and lying actually comprise the majority of both our verbal and non-verbal communication.

Now, this is where the concept of gaslighting comes in. It is one thing to lie, and then when caught, say, “Oops, you caught me – that was a lie, and now you know.” Gaslighters, on the other hand, go beyond simply lying, and accuse the innocent victim of being crazy for thinking that the lie is a lie. “How dare you think that I was lying when I said you could keep your doctor and your health insurance!” “What do you mean, to suggest that a person cannot choose their own gender?” “You must be crazy to think that our culture will survive past the next 12 years!”

The next step is to belittle the victim, to make the victim feel insecure and mentally unstable. So, Christianity becomes a disease for thinking that biology actually matters for something, that it is a matter of constitutional law that a person has the right to the free exercise of his or her religious beliefs, that raising a child belongs to the purview of the parents and not the state government. Slowly, but inexorably, the defenses of the victim(s) are chipped away until finally there is nothing left but to rely upon the supposed wisdom and benevolence of the gaslighting bully.

Precisely what is happening on a massive scale in our American culture.

What to do? I hate to sound like a “Chicken Little” here, but the time has come for all who are concerned to literally question everything. I know that sounds radical – and there must at some point be a place of a secure foundation – but I have come to the point that I just do not trust anyone anymore (a bit of hyperbole, to be sure, but close). I cannot trust the government or any elected officials, I  surely do not trust advertisers, I am far too familiar with academia to trust the “assured results of scholasticism.” To be honest, I’m even having a bit of a time trusting spiritual leaders who seem (at least to me) to be far more concerned with placating and pleasing our modern culture than in submitting to God.

I find solace in reading the Old Testament prophets. Repeatedly they warned the Israelites “Do not trust in the military, do not trust in silver or gold, do not trust in foreign alliances, do not even trust your own feelings or intellect. There is one and only one you can trust: trust God and serve him with all your heart, soul, and strength.”

I can trust God, and I can trust those who trust in God alone. Everything else is but a white lie, big lie, or extraordinarily monstrous lie.

Are You Hungry for Bible Study?

Yesterday I opined that far too often in Sunday school settings we settle for the simple, trivial answers to questions. Often that is exactly, and only, what the teacher is searching for. It is a process that has been ingrained in those of us who have been in church class settings for most of our lives. We learn it early in childhood, and the template never changes. Questions are meant to keep the class moving, and if anyone offers a deeper, or different, answer than that which is expected, the whole process bogs down and we actually have to think. I believe there are a number of reasons why we have fallen into this slovenly routine.

First, these surface level answers are a great equalizer. Everyone has heard that the Pharisees are the bad guys in the New Testament, and everyone (or most everyone) has access to Hebrews 11:1 as the answer to the definition of faith. If someone raises their hand and answers with the same answer that I was going to give, I can feel good about myself, and equally feel good about my neighbor.

These answers are also simple – in the sense that there is no complexity to them that requires further examination. Once we learn that the entire point to the parable of the “Good Samaritan” is that if we see someone beside the road that is beaten and half-dead we are supposed to put them on our donkey and carry them to the nearest inn, we have the text mastered and we can get ready for the worship service. The thing about the parables (or at least, many of them) is that they made the original audience furious with  Jesus. If we somehow do not get that edge as we read these stories, haven’t we totally missed the point? In other words, there is much about the Bible that is complex, and it is exactly in that complexity that we are to see ourselves and recognize our sinfulness. To turn every story into a third grade morality play is a horrible way to study the Bible!

I guess that gets me to my third point, and really my major point. We are just lazy students of the Bible. When, for example, was the last time you have really been challenged by a Bible class? If you are a teacher, when was the last time you really made your students uncomfortable? We want the easy, the simple, the milk. Teaching classes that challenge is hard work – it requires hours, not minutes, of preparation, and it requires a mind-set that not only allows for challenging discussion, but actually fosters it. It means actually having to tell a student that his or her response is wrong, or maybe not wrong but inadequate. That means risking upsetting a member, and we all know that is a sin that cannot be committed! Being a student in a class that provokes both thought and response is equally discomforting. It means my cherished answers might, in reality, be wrong. It means I might have to actually listen to my classmate as he or she shares a response that I have not considered before. It means that I might actually have to read ahead and come to class prepared to engage with the material (heaven forbid!!).

To push that point just a little further – when was the last time you assigned an outside book, or were requested to buy an outside book, as the basis for a Bible class? Once upon a time that was the norm – now it is almost unheard of. I think I have a pretty good idea why we have stopped doing that. One, making someone buy a book is just so gauche – it might be expensive (and we can’t make the church actually pay for educational material) or it means that a student is actually engaged with the class subject; two, it might be written by someone “outside the faith” and we cannot under any circumstances be challenged by someone else’s thinking; or three, materials written by our “sound brothers” are just so insipid that there really is no point in buying the book, because they only reinforce the trivial answers that we were going to give anyway. Whatever the reason, I just see fewer and fewer outside reading materials being mandated as supplemental texts.

So much has been said and written about why churches are losing members. Entire forests of trees have been cut down to make paper that has been compiled into books with answers to that question. Could it be, is it even possible, that one very real reason so many younger people are leaving the church is that they come hungry for Bible study and leave even hungrier?

How many times will you go to a restaurant and, instead of the sumptuous entree that you ordered, receive a bowl of cold cereal “because it was easier for the cook to prepare.”

Yea, I thought so.

Teachers, either challenge your students to deeper Bible study, or let someone else teach. Church, demand your teacher give you more than these trivial platitudes. Let us get back to serious Bible study!

Questions (?)

My last post introduced a question about a text in the gospel of Mark (no, not 16:9-20, but that’s a good one too). It is a question for which I have no solid, concrete, irrefutable answer. Many people don’t like that. Their entire faith is built on the existence of solid, concrete, irrefutable answers to every question. In fact, they don’t even like the existence of questions, period. For them, the Christian life is one big, solid, irrefutable truth.

Does your preacher/pastor/priest allow you to ask questions? Are questions allowed in your Bible classes? I don’t mean the childish or self-promoting questions that are intended to trip up the teacher or to promote the superior intellect of the questioner. While we are at it, I do think there are stupid questions – only because the intent is deceptive and mean-spirited. I do not believe any question that has as its focus the desire to learn should be considered “stupid.”

Returning to the topic at hand – what is the official, or even maybe more important the unofficial, policy regarding questions where you worship? Without knowing anything at all about your church, I can fairly confidently make one declaration – if your preacher/pastor/priest or church leadership does not allow, and even encourage, honest, seeking questions then you are a part of a sick church.

I am blessed, richly blessed, to have been able to ask questions in my youth and young adulthood. Like most twenty-somethings, at the ripe old age of, say, 22, I was pretty confident I knew all there was to know, or at least all that was needed to know. That came to a pretty emphatic end. Then, I entered a second phase of my education – my masters degrees – in which I came to realize that maybe I did not even know the right questions to ask. Flash forward some 20+ years and in my doctoral studies I came to yet a third realization about questions: sometimes the question is far more valuable than any answer that is purported to solve it.

Pause for a moment and consider Jesus’s parables. How many of the parables are really open ended questions? Oh, we try to tidy them up and make them self-contained little stories complete with moral and application. I think this just illustrates our ambivalence, or actual irritation with questions. “Just get to the point and move on, preacher!” “Don’t leave the sermon hanging on a question, give me something I can apply in my life!” As a good friend once pointed out in a class on the parables, we want to sanitize the parables and derive and answer that implicates the Pharisees or the Sadducees so that we do not have to deal with the messy, and very problematic, possibility that Jesus is telling the parable to implicate OUR behavior.

I cannot help but believe that one reason so many young people are leaving the church (well, young and middle aged and old) is because the decades that we have spent denying or limiting the honest and seeking question have finally come home to roost. Yes, I am well aware of the research into why people are abandoning the church, and I think each of them has validity. But, thinking back to my teen years, I really do not remember a time in which my Sunday school teacher welcomed us asking questions. My parents allowed me to question, to be sure, and I think maybe that is just one of the reasons why I am so confident in my faith today. I do not believe because I have all the answers, I believe in spite of my questions and my inability to answer them, because I believe there is a God in whom I can trust.

In re-reading this post something occurred to me – I have been “trained” in two different evangelistic methods, and both of them emphatically reject the value of the student asking any questions. The “evangelist” is to deflect every question, to refuse to answer any curiosity the student may have, and is taught to stay “on subject” throughout the entire lesson. Wow. How  completely un-Christ like. What these methods teach, unconsciously for sure, is that the teacher has all the answers, all the truth, and that questions are not and will not be allowed in this church. Just believe what I am telling you and keep your questions locked away.

How utterly pathetic. Not every question has equal value, to be sure. Some questions are “red herrings” meant to deflect attention from a particularly troublesome aspect of the lesson. I get that. But to reject every question? To suggest that no question is worthy of discussion? To imply that the teacher turn a deaf ear to the honest and searching aspect of a seemingly benign question – these are just repugnant concepts to me. Thank goodness Jesus was never trained in these evangelistic methods.

I hope that if you are in a situation where you cannot honestly and faithfully ask a question, that you will be able to find a place where that is allowed. Just remember, Jesus never rejected an honest question – in fact he almost went out of his way to create them. Do not ever settle for a spiritual home in which questions are forbidden.

A Solid Hit and a Whiff

As I used this space to address President Trump yesterday, I feel it is only appropriate that I return today and give him the credit he deserves for his comments regarding the shootings in El Paso, TX, and Dayton OH.

First, I appreciate his denunciation of racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. I felt like those were strong statements, and much needed. He also earned my applause by calling for stricter laws regarding the sale of certain weapons (although, background checks are notoriously weak in preventing the kind of attacks we saw over the weekend). He also called for the passage of so-called “red flag” laws, which I also support, that allows for family members to notify law enforcement officers of erratic and potentially dangerous behavior, and if found to be credible, allows those officers to remove firearms from someone. Here in Colorado the state government has passed those laws, and completely inexplicably to me, all the rural law enforcement agencies immediately rebelled and said they would not comply. Holy insurrection, Batman! Here is a tool to keep a lunatic from possessing enough firepower to kill dozens, if not hundreds, of people, and the law enforcement agencies say they will not enforce it? Talk about nuts. But I digress.

Where I feel President Trump failed, and failed miserably, is to acknowledge that his words have fostered a great deal of racist behavior, bigotry, and, yes, actions of white supremacy. I did not expect a confession, though. Trump does not apologize, it is not in his personality, and certainly not in his vocabulary. So, I give him respect for his denunciations, and credit him with a total whiff in regard to taking any kind of personal responsibility.

Before I hit “publish,” I must also comment on the utter hypocrisy of the left regarding these shootings. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the shooter in Dayton was a radical leftist, and had strong leanings toward leftist anarchists rather than the alt-right, looney-toon white supremacists that attracted the shooter in El Paso. So, where is the outrage from the Democratic contestants for the White House? Where are the calls for the radical left to be shunned and censored? You won’t hear that kind of language from the Democrats, because those radical leftists are the very base of the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and a whole host of others. Former President Barack Obama came out with a blistering attack on those who promote fear and hatred, and not once did he acknowledge that these extreme leftists depend on stoking fear and hatred of those with conservative, mostly Christian values. If I gave President Trump one thumb up and one thumb down, I have to give former President Obama two thumbs down. Not only did he not acknowledge the militancy of the far left, but along with President Trump, he utterly refused to confess his own responsibility in fostering a climate of racism and bigotry in this country.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we must rise above this political morass. We must demonstrate the self-sacrifice and “love of one’s enemies” demonstrated by our Lord. We can not accomplish this by promoting, or even countenancing the kind of hatred that is being spewed by both the far left and far right in this debate. There is only one way for Christians to respond –

We ascend by climbing lower.

Video Sermon Link

Funny what happens when you go drudging through your computer files. I had actually forgotten that this video existed. As I am searching for a new ministry position, I thought this might be a valuable tool to help folks understand a little bit better about my preferred preaching style.

It might also be a valuable tool to eliminate me from consideration, but I suppose those are the risks.

Anyway, here is the link to my YouTube version of me “waxing an elephant.” (P.S., it is from 2016, but I only get better with age!!)

FWIW, I start out behind the pulpit, but later move to the front. Also, there are a couple of technical glitches, but they are resolved after a few seconds (the microphone gets turned on, and the voice sync is resolved).

I actually thought this was a pretty good lesson in spite of many obvious weaknesses.

Hope it helps.

How to Kill a Church

Working on my sermon for this week and it occurred to me how many ways there are to kill a church. Here are just a few that I have identified:

  • Attack the leadership – the congregation’s problems are all their fault.
  • Make every issue about you and them, not us.
  • Never, ever, under any circumstance, volunteer to help.
  • Criticize everyone who does volunteer to help.
  • Compare your congregation to one that is bigger, wealthier, in a larger community that has far more resources.
  • Be sure to be offended by every effort to grow – both spiritually and numerically, and be sure to let everyone else know just how offended you are.

Any others?

But, What Can We Do?

Kind of been in a funk lately. Everywhere I turn all I see are opportunities for me to throw my hands up in despair and to ask, “What use is it? What can I do?” I look around and in every aspect of our lives we are confronted with a nauseating concoction of racial animosity, open hostility, sexual dysfunction, and a paralyzing narcissism that threatens to destroy our nation. I cite just one example, although many more could be given: as I survey the political landscape two things are beyond debate. One, the Republican party has no answer for Donald Trump. I was desperately hoping that someone with a modicum of composure and decency would step up and challenge him for the nomination for the 2020 presidential election. Nope – be it from a lack of courage or just political calculus, no one wants to challenge his Donaldness. Too bad. Our nation deserves better. But, second, the crop of Democratic challengers is simply beyond stupefying. They are so beholden to the abortion/LGBTQ/socialism cabal that there is not ten cents worth of difference between any of them. Seriously – is it even possible to be a Democratic leader and to think independently or with originality? From what I hear and read, I doubt it.

So, once again, I ask – what can I do? Is there not something that a mere mortal can do while swimming in this vacuum of moral and ethical standards?

On the one hand, I would say unequivocally, “NO.” Just to be realistic, there are some situations that are just too big and complex for individual humans to change. Serious, lasting, and meaningful change can only be effected by large groups of people who are united, not only in purpose, but in courage and resolve. I know there are many who see the same things I see, but are just not disturbed by them (or, certainly not to the degree with which I am disturbed). Others are far more disturbed than even I am, and propose solutions that not even I am willing to consider.

But, beyond those basic realities, there is a greater reason why I tend to be more reserved in looking at global (or, at the very least, national) problems: I have what can be described as an “apocalyptic” outlook, and I believe that God remains in control of this world, and that if there is to be any kind of meaningful and lasting change, it will only come about by the working of His Spirit and under His control. Stated another way, God gives humans whatever kind of world they ask for, and right now we are receiving exactly what we have wanted for the past 75 years, if not longer. We have demanded a country that is focused entirely on the individual, so God has said, “Okay, you’re not going to like it, and it is not going to end pretty, but here ya go!” I believe that if we humbly and sincerely asked for a country that truly reflected God’s kingdom ethics, he would give it to us in such volume we could not measure it.

So, in that regard, certain passages from Scripture come to mind:

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:10)

Thus says the LORD to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s . . . You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf . . . Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. (2 Chronicles 20:15, 17)

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (Revelation 14:12; see also 1:9; 2:2, 3, 19; 3:10; 13:10)

On the other hand, there is not only something that I can do, there is something that I have to do. I have to get, or keep, my own house in order. It does absolutely no good to preach to the world about its failures if the church of which I am a part promotes the same sinful behaviors in which the world indulges.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ll preach it straight and plain: the church needs to be restored and purified if we even have the slightest inclination to reach out to a bent and broken world.

We bemoan the sexual depravity of our western culture, and yet we allow – if not actively protect – divorces and illicit affairs within our congregations. We protect sexual abusers and predators under the guise that they are respected members of the community and even elders/deacons/Bible teachers of the church. We prohibit the man who does not have a tie or sport coat from leading worship in a public capacity, yet we turn a blind eye and glorify the man who beats his wife or physically abuses his children. And we think that God does not see?

We preach against the greed of the pagan world, and yet we violate the clear teaching of James 2:1-17 on a weekly basis. Elders and deacons are chosen, not on the basis of their spiritual maturity and godly natures, but on the basis of their success in business and their social club memberships. We cannot stock a decent food pantry or maintain a decent benevolent fund, yet we drive to our multi-million dollar church buildings in the most opulent vehicles that we can drive (note, not necessarily afford, but that we can drive).

We hire our preachers not based on their ability to challenge and confront us, but on their ability to soothe our itchy ears. Where is the voice of the prophet among Churches of Christ today? Where is the voice of John the Baptist saying, “Who told you to come to church, you bunch of snakes?” Where is the voice of Amos crying out, “Listen to me, you filthy rich heifers, you fat and lazy bums!” We have the best educated, most theologically astute core of preachers that we have ever had, and, at least from what I can see and hear from national publications, we are probably more biblically illiterate today than we have ever been in our entire history. Our preachers and elders “lead” by holding a finger up to discover which way the wind of culture is blowing so they can jump out in front of us lemmings.

Read the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation again. Underline every time the Spirit of Christ tells a congregation to repent. Underline the references to sexual impurity. Underline the references to greed and idolatry. Stop and ask yourself, “What is John’s message to these churches – are they not God’s people, are they not the saved, are they not the ransomed?” But, then read the last two chapters of the same book. Notice who John says will be excluded from the new heaven and new earth. He is not writing to pagans. He is writing to members of seven congregations of the Lord’s church in Asia. Christians. Just like you and me. Just like our congregations. And he is telling them they stand under judgment for their immoral behavior.

In a very real sense, it bothers me that I am more upset, and more indignant, with the behavior of a world that does not know any better than I am with people who – at least on the surface – should know better and act better. It is really sad that there are people whom we would consider “lost” who behave more in line with God’s kingdom than many who wear the name “Christian.”

I cannot change the world. I cannot overcome forces that the apostle Paul clearly identifies as “demonic” and supernatural. But I can, I must, make sure that those who bear the name of Christ are walking “worthy” of the calling they have received. (Ephesians 4:1; 4:17, 22, 24; 5:1, 9)

Lord, restore your church again!!