Not Every . . .

Not every mountain is a molehill . . .
Not every molehill is a mountain . . .
Not every misspoken word is a heresy . . .
Not every thought needs to be acted on . . .
Not every major news story deserves a sermon on Sunday . . .
Not every sermon deserves discussion on Monday . . .
Not every change in worship order represents a rejection of truth . . .
Not every prayer is answered the way we want it . . .
Not every answered prayer is met with gratitude or thanksgiving . . .
Not every gift is a blessing . . .
Not every hardship is a curse . . .
Not every truth is benevolent . . .
Not every lie is malevolent . . .
Not every kindness is returned . . .
Not every act of evil needs to be avenged . . .
Not every person who dies goes to heaven . . .
Not every Bible is read . . .
Not every sin is confessed . . .

And,

Not everyone is perfect.

Why can’t we learn these things?

Four Things Absolutely Necessary in Order to Learn Anything

It happened to me again recently. After presenting (what I thought was) a fairly balanced review of a subject and stressing that there really was no way to come up with a definitive answer regarding a specific question, I had someone come up to me and declare that s/he followed  the opinion of someone who has been dead for 40 years, and was not that much of a scholar to begin with. This person was in no mood to change his or her mind, and was quite emphatic about that point.

Sigh. Some days you just cannot win.

But, it did get me to thinking. What is the absolute, rock bottom necessity in order to learn something? I came up with four qualities. Maybe you can add another or two.

  1. Curiosity. If you hear or read something once, and are never curious about that subject again, you will never learn anything about that subject. Curiosity about anything is the first requirement to learning.
  2. Humility. If you think you know everything, or that your conclusion is perfect, you will never learn anything. In order to learn a person has to accept that (1) his or her knowledge may be limited or imperfect in some form or fashion and (2) someone else may be more knowledgable about that subject. Education is, on one basic level, an exercise in humility.
  3. Energy. It takes effort to learn. A person has to read, or listen intently, has to investigate and construct questions and responses to questions. Learning is laborious, and quite frankly, many people just do not have the energy it takes to correct mistaken opinions or to learn new facts.
  4. Adaptability. Learning something means we have to change, to adapt our thinking, and often times adapt our behavior. This requires a rather significant investment sometimes, and to be fair, sometimes that investment is just more than some can handle. I chose the word investment for a good reason, though, and the ability to adapt to knew knowledge pays huge dividends for future growth.

I have to admit I am an inveterate student about just about everything in my life. I consider that a tremendous blessing given to me by my parents, and nurtured by some amazing teacher (who were also life-long learners). And, admission number two, it just really rubs my fur the wrong way when someone comes up to me and attempts to dismantle my presentation with the uneducated, shallow musings of someone who has been dead for four decades, and who could honestly be described as someone who stopped learning the moment he crafted an opinion.

But, that is just me, and I know that not everyone shares my (admittedly jaundiced) view of blindly following someone or something that we read half a century ago.

Your thoughts?

How to Spot a Fake, and a Real, Expert

Okay, a little background here. I have been blessed (?) with a little extra free time recently, so I have been doing some extra cleaning, some gardening, and generally just trying to keep my mind, and fingers, busy. Last week my wife, her mother, and our daughter went for one of my wife’s regular check-ups. I had even more time on my hands. So I started “surfing” You Tube. I watched this and that, and then I came across a firearms professional by the name of Paul Harrell. I watched one show, and then another, and then another.

If you are even remotely interested in firearms (I am by no means a gun nut, but I do hold an appreciation for them) you owe it to yourself to watch a Paul Harrell video. They are mostly around 20 minutes long and packed with a lot of cool demonstrations and advice.

So, anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah –

Paul Harrell has two episodes in which he discusses (1) how to spot a fake expert in the field of firearms, and (2) how to spot a real expert. The first list  (he gives five clues) is really focused on firearms, so it is really not pertinent to theology. However, his discussion on how to spot a real expert is spot-on perfect. The two episodes really struck a nerve with me, and so I decided to see if I could modify his first list to give five ways to spot a fake Bible or theological expert, and I will give his three ways to spot a real Bible or theological expert along with some “expert” comments of my own.

HOW TO SPOT A FAKE BIBLE OR THEOLOGICAL EXPERT:

  1.  They know nothing about the subject at hand, and really do not have any way to have learned about the subject. This is so obvious when someone, even many preachers, attempt to prove a point by referring to the original Greek or Hebrew. They are not an expert in Greek or Hebrew (or archaeology, or Ancient Near Eastern culture, etc) but they really want you to think they are. They are fakes.
  2. They have read a book, or attended a seminar, or maybe they have only heard a sermon, but they are an expert anyway. These are the one trick ponies – how many times have you been regaled by an “expert” who has read exactly one book on the subject, and even that by a non-expert himself. I am so familiar with this through my experience with Dietrich Bonhoeffer “experts.” They might have read Discipleship or maybe Life Together, and all of a sudden they are “experts” on one of the most enigmatic and multi-faceted theologians of the 20th century. No they are not! They are fakes, and need to be called out as such.
  3. They come to a conclusion and then argue backwards. How many of you have heard a sermon or attended a class on John 2, and based solely on the conclusion that Jesus would never corrupt anyone or lead them to sin, prove that the wine he created was nothing more than grape juice (not sure whether it was Welches or Ocean Spray, but never mind). Well, the text clearly indicates that the wine was of such superior quality that it was disturbing to the master of ceremonies that a social miscue had occurred. But, what of the first conclusion? Did Jesus never give anyone the opportunity to sin? He healed on the Sabbath, driving many to seek to kill him! Is murder not a sin? He raised people from the grave – were they exempted thereby from ever sinning again? I will firmly assert that Jesus never tempted anyone to sin, but why would creating wine for a wedding festival be considered a temptation? If that is true, then God himself is the greatest source of temptation in the whole world! (Didn’t he create everything?) You see, if you come to a conclusion first, and then argue backwards to prove your point, you can be an expert (although fake) at anything.
  4. Closely connected, they fall back into the “everyone knows” something argument, therefore never needing to prove their point. “Everyone knows” is the ultimate trump card – so if you disagree you are obviously not part of “everyone,” and who wants to be a nobody! But “everyone knows” is a pathetic appeal to ignorance that proves that the speaker is really a super fake expert, and they need to be told to bring their evidence with them next time.
  5. Finally, fake experts are simply terrified to be imperfect – their entire life and well being are dependent upon their being superior in every detail of every subject. They teach in abject fear that someone, somewhere might know more than them, or be able to prove them wrong, so they surround themselves with sycophants and those who are absolutely bedazzled with their superior intellect. This is why when they are challenged in public, so many of them have a cadre of defenders that shout the challenger down. The grand guru is simply not to be questioned. Fakes never like to have their metal proven, so they rarely speak without their body (and reputation) guards handy.

Okay, let’s move on to Paul Harrell’s three ways to spot a real expert, and I will add some comments of my own (clearly marked with a bold heading).

HOW TO SPOT A REAL EXPERT: (FROM PAUL HARRELL)

  1. How they deal with the unknown. Real experts want to learn, to be corrected if they are mistaken, and are curious about new developments in their field. Comment: This is so true in Bible studies! I had the blessing of studying under some of the finest true experts in their respective specialties, and each one of them demonstrated this trait. They studied, they read, they attended seminars, they wrote for fellow specialists to critique. They never stopped learning. True, honest experts deal with the unknown in humble, seeking, searching ways. And they are quick to respond graciously when they are taught something new.
  2. Real experts avoid using absolute terms like “always” and “never.” Because, connected to point #1, real experts know that there is always (oops) something new to learn, even if they are specialists in a field, especially one as diverse and expanding as firearms. Comment: need anything be said here beyond Paul Harrell’s comment? Using absolute terminology gets a person in dangerous ground very quickly, and biblical experts rarely use such words (although, I don’t want to say never!) So many times in Bible study we want certainty – we want absolutes where there simply are none. An expert will admit this (exposing his lack of omniscience), but a fake will not. A fake will give the audience what they are searching for, often illegitimately.
  3. Real experts look the part without looking like they are in a costume. This one is a little tricky, but there is simply a sense of “genuineness” that an expert portrays, that a fake cannot. A fake may dress up like an expert (and use all the right words), but they just do not fit the part. Comment: Once again, this is so true in church settings. If you cannot be an expert, all you have to do is become a bully by impression and fancy language. Real story – I know of an individual who was hired to perform a function that was, apparently, beneath his view of himself. So, he had everyone refer to him with a title that he had not earned and he was not qualified to wear. He even wore a garment that would verify his fake title, and the very fact that he wore it demonstrated how much of a fake his title was. The thing is, the title he could have worn was respectable, and he had earned the right to wear it. But, it was just not “expert” enough, so he made himself to be more important by claiming something that was utterly fake.

In most of our churches there are real experts, and there are fake experts. We are probably each experts in something – at one time I was almost an expert in issues related to Cessna 402 and 404 aircraft. Today, I doubt I could get one off the ground. I know nothing about farming or cattle ranching, but if you ask me about Dietrich Bonhoeffer I can give you a fairly educated answer. I would starve to death if I had to earn a living repairing cars or welding something, but let me teach a class on the book of Revelation and I can give you your money’s worth. Just because you are not an expert in Greek does not mean that you cannot teach a class on the gospel of Matthew – just don’t try to fool anybody with knowledge you do not have.

So, there you have one of my favorite all time posts about theology, and it came from watching a bunch of You Tube videos about guns.

Who would have thunk it?

Just Wondering – A Relationship Question

Before I ask the question, I have to set the context. This question applies to total strangers, or perhaps distant interactions, not those we know intimately or those whose behavior patterns are well known, not only to us, but to virtually all who know them. Okay, now that is settled, let’s move on to the question –

Do people respond to us the way we have treated them, or do we treat people as we anticipate that they will respond to us, thereby encouraging them to respond as we have treated them? In other words, in our initial reactions to people, are our interactions the result of honest responses, or are they more the result of projected feelings (prejudices)?

If I see someone, and based solely on skin color, hair style, clothing style, tattoos, facial hair, or some other external identifier, decide that person is a threat to me, how will they respond? Do we not guarantee their response by our defensive behavior? Or, if we see someone whom we define as being attractive, intelligent, wealthy (or at least as wealthy as we are), do we not encourage a friendly response by our body language, our eye contact, and especially our language?

I’m going out on a limb here, but I feel that most of those who read this blog would agree that to judge someone solely by initial impressions is ethically wrong. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is perhaps simplistic, but it holds a great truth. We are not to judge a person’s character by mere transitory externals.

But, what changes when we treat someone we know with contempt, with loathing, with slander?

I have just recently become intensely aware of how vicious former friends and colleagues can become to one another. This is not a recent development – hear the words of the psalmist,

For it is not an enemy who taunts me – then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me – then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house we walked with the throng. (Psalm 55:12-14)

The pain of which the psalmist wrote speaks deeply to me right now.

There is something profoundly offensive – sinful – when a person turns against a former friend, colleague, confidant. If we are to treat those with whom we have no prior interactions with respect and dignity, why is it suddenly acceptable to treat our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ, with utter disregard? How can it be pleasing to God that we turn our backs and shun those with whom we have broken the bread and sipped the wine at the Lord’s table?

Did Jesus not say that the world would recognize his disciples by the way they love and respect one another?

I’m stepping on my own toes here, so please no one think I am setting myself on an ivory pedestal. If I am speaking biblically here, it is as a prophet, and to be perfectly honest, prophetic words are often as difficult to hear for the prophet as for the audience.

So, let us make a covenant with our God to never treat a brother or sister in Christ with less regard, with less respect, with less love and concern, than we would  treat a total stranger.

Let us ascend by climbing lower!

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.

Words Have Consequences!

From my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” (#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.

Since long before the election in 2016 we have been regaled with Donald Trump’s mean spirited and very often blatantly racist words, primarily through his “Tweets,” short pithy little statements uploaded to the social media platform Twitter. Mostly these have just been food for his ultra-right wing base, and fodder for his enemies. Christians who understand the seriousness of even any careless word have recoiled from such statements, but, up until Saturday, these outbursts have been viewed as the rantings of a demagogue, someone who is more bluster and bloviating than substantial.

That all changed on Saturday, August 3. That was the day someone took some racist words and transformed them into racial terrorism.

While it is still far too early in the investigation to know everything for certain, there are some facts that I believe are incontrovertible: Trump has said/tweeted some unconscionable statements regarding immigration and the racial makeup of many of those immigrants, the shooter in El Paso targeted persons of a specific race and nationality, and (this point is still being confirmed) the shooter has written a “manifesto” in which he speaks approvingly of Trump and his racially twinged statements.

It’s not impossible to connect these dots.

Do I think Trump intended his words to have this effect? Absolutely not! Do I think Trump is a racist? Probably, just like 99% of the current House of Representatives and Senators. But, mostly, I think Trump sees people in terms of green, red, and black. That is, if you can further Trump’s personal agenda (raising money, erasing debt or furthering his narcissistic agenda) he likes you, regardless of your race or gender. If you cannot do any of those three things, you are useless to him, regardless of your race or gender. Also, mostly I think Trump is just a fool – in the biblical sense. He does not believe in God (at least, the God of the Bible) and he thinks he can solve all of his problems with his own intellect. That is the biblical definition of a fool.

Do I think racist statements, regardless of how innocuous they are made, can have the kind of result that we saw on Saturday? Absolutely. Our nation is becoming more hateful, more racially divided, more prone to racial violence with each passing year. In one sense, what happened on Saturday, August 3 was inevitable. And, let us be clear about something else – the long road that ended in El Paso was promoted by the election of Barack Obama. Obama saw every event during his two terms of office in relation to race. Trump was NOT the first racist to be elected to the office of president. I’m pretty sure every one of the presidents has been racist to some degree or another – some quite blatant. To suggest that Trump is the first to be afflicted with this sin, or that Republican presidents are racist and Democrat presidents are not, is beyond preposterous.

Trump and his political minions are trying effusively to distance Trump from the shooting in El Paso. I’m sorry, but that ship sailed from the harbor a long time ago. In my mind there is just one thing Trump should, even can, do to extricate himself from this tragedy – confess that his language has been horribly offensive and exploitive, and apologize to the races and nationalities that he has targeted. He will not do that, of course, and it would just be a beginning, but it would be a good start.

Every individual who has spoken in a public setting has said things he/she did not mean or later regretted. I am certainly in that list of offensive speakers. It is not that we intentionally set out to offend – but our mouths are not always connected to our brains, and even when they are, sometimes our brains are not connected to our consciences. We sin with our mouths, let us be honest and confess that proclivity. But, I stand by my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection number 10 with all of my being. Words have consequences. Words that relate to theological truths have eternal consequences.

Let us be so diligent, so careful, so painstaking in the choice of our words, that we never have to apologize for denigrating the value of another human being simply based on the color of their skin, the nation of their origin, or the language that they speak.

By our words we will be justified, and by our words we will be condemned. (Mt. 12:37)

The Loss of Transcendence and the Death of Humanity

Pardon me as I continue (sort of) my lament from yesterday . . .

We are experiencing, in increasing measure, the slow death of humanity. I don’t mean humans as such (although that might be coming), what I mean is the loss of what makes us human, what separates us from lower animal life. It seems to me that the more technologically progressed we have become, the deeper into nihilism we have fallen. We know more and can do more with greater ease than ever before, and we are far sicker than we have ever been.

What got me to thinking about this was a recent camping trip. Not that long ago it was natural to assume that a family went up into the wilderness (or, at the very least, away from the confusion of the city) to get away from the noise, the hustle, the frantic pace. You left all of that “behind” so you could unwind, relax, shed some of the stress of the “dog eat dog” world. I noticed this past weekend how all of that has changed – and not just a little bit. I was stunned to see that off-road vehicles (we used to call them ATVs) are now almost obligatory for the modern camping family. That, along with mammoth fifth-wheel campers makes most camp sites look like the infield of the Indianapolis 500 auto race. As I stood knee deep in a gorgeous little stream I had to strain to hear the birds and squirrels fuss at each other because the almost constant barrage of four-wheelers on the nearby road made it impossible to hear God’s awesome creation.

It got worse. From time to time I could look up and see the passengers in these noise making contraptions. From what I could tell they were not happy. They were in a hurry to get somewhere, anywhere but where they were. Many had scowls on their faces, but virtually all were expressionless. Here they were in quite honestly the closest thing to the Garden of Eden, and they were either bored, or actually pained. They had to get somewhere else fast, so they could not enjoy where they were or what they were doing. Every so often they would come ripping back down the road they had just zoomed up. In a hurry, oblivious to the world of creation around them. Making noise, and utterly, completely unable to here the birds and squirrels chatter and talk to them.

It was so unbelievably sad.

We, as humans, have created a world where we can control virtually everything. If it’s too hot we turn on the air-conditioner. If it’s too cold we turn on the heater. If we are bored we turn on the TV or the tablet or our cell phone. If it is too quiet we blast our stereos or plug our ear-buds into our tablets and tune out the world. I just saw an article pointing out how there are signs of increasing mental struggles of pre-schoolers because of the increasing use of “screen time,” the fact that children do not interact with their physical world, but are increasingly tied to computers, tablets, or cell phones. It has now become the norm that even when we try to “get away from it all” we pack everything up and bring “it all” with us. We haul around our stress, our anxiety, our utter inability to deal with life if we are not stimulated to the ends of our hair follicles.

We have, or at the very least, will soon lose every concept of transcendence, of the “awesome.” When we do we will have lost the very last vestige of what it means to be human. To me that is not theoretical – I have actually witnessed it. People, human beings, created in the image of the Divine God himself, so completely engrossed in technology that they cannot even recognize, let alone appreciate, the awesomeness and transcendence of God’s most holy creation.

I do not have a Ph.D in psychology, but it really does not take a psychologist to recognize that we are a sick culture. Anger, depression, anxiety – all symptoms of a decaying society are rising at an exponential rate. Children are displaying acts of greater and greater violence at younger and younger ages. Prescriptions for anti-depressants are skyrocketing. Young people are identifying feelings of rootlessness and meaninglessness like never before. And, yet, the demand for the next upgrade for a cell phone or the next greatest app is unending.

I am not naive enough to believe that all of this can be reversed if we only clicked our heels together three times and repeated with Dorothy, “I wish I was home.” But, I am equally opposed to the idea that I should just shrug my shoulders and say none of this matters. It matters, and for future generations it should matter very much.

Somehow, someway, in calm and reasoned thought or in pure desperation, we are going to have to learn how to unplug, unwind, and “deconstruct” our over-stimulated lives. Maybe when we run out of fossil fuels and we can no longer drive massive trucks that pull 40 foot fifth-wheel camp trailers we will learn how to live life patiently again. I think learning how to hitch up a horse to a wagon might be valuable for a great many of us. It would, at the very least, teach us that we need to respect and nurture God’s awesome creation.

And, it would be a lot quieter. Maybe we could learn to listen to the birds and squirrels again.