Preaching An Offensive Gospel, Without Being Offensive

Yesterday I bemoaned the fact that I sometimes get much healthier instruction and encouragement from authors outside of my faith community than I do from authors who share my specific theological convictions. I do not rejoice in that particular experience. I find it distressing, to say the very least. But, it leads to a question: What is it about their writings that I find so encouraging, that I find lacking in authors/preachers from within the Churches of Christ? It is a fair question.

The issue I mentioned yesterday was that they make an unflinching defense of the gospel of Christ to confront not only their culture – but primarily of their own church community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not begin his journey by attacking Adolf Hitler – he was initially only interested in purging National Socialism from the German church (although, confronting Hitler directly was close behind). Lesslie Newbigin did not set out to attack the political system of England – he wanted to wake his church up to the idolatry that it had absorbed (although, you cannot attack idolatry without attacking the idol that inspires it). Os Guinness does not want to re-write the Constitution, he writes primarily to Christians in order to get them to follow the gospel of Christ (although, in so doing, we do have to take a serious look at the humanistic nature of the Constitution).

All three of these authors touch on and hover around a central theme – the gospel of Christ is at its core an offensive gospel. Not hateful, mind you, but offensive, yes.

The gospel is offensive to the modern, western, and in particular, American, culture. In our world the center is the self, the individual. Everything we do magnifies the individual. Life is all about ME! If I want it, I get it, no matter what it costs or how it deprives others of what they want. My personal happiness and my personal welfare eclipses every other concern. I can destroy the earth, I can ruin reputations, I can use derogatory and repugnant language, I can kill the unborn child in my womb, I can even change my biological birth gender – all because I am the king of my life and I can do whatever I want to do that makes me happy and self-fulfilled. To deny me that freedom is the worst crime that a person or a society can commit – it is a denial of my personal, individual, reign over my life.

Contrast that with the gospel. In the kingdom of God the community – the church – is the most important organism, and the individual only gains importance through that community. In the kingdom of God the other comes first, not the self. In the kingdom of God we die to ourselves and live for the other, and in particular, we live for Christ. In the kingdom of God the most important right we own is the right to relinquish all of our rights for the benefit and the promotion of the community. In the kingdom of God responsibility is as critical, if not more critical, than any supposed rights. In the kingdom of God no truths are considered “self-evident” – that is a fiction of the enlightenment. The only way we know truth is through the revelation of God himself. In the kingdom of God the most important symbol is not a flag or a gun or a piece of paper – it is a cross, the symbol of hatred on one side and divine love on the other. In the kingdom of God the only way to win is to lose, and the only way to live is to die. We ascend by climbing lower.

Bonhoeffer, Newbigin and Guinness all preach this gospel. They all make the same point, albeit in different ways and even though their message has been intended for vastly different audiences. It is only through this offensive gospel that a human can know his or her value, and it is only through this gospel that a bent and broken world can be healed. It is tough medicine – in a sense it is a medicine that actually kills the patient before it can restore the patient to a new life.

Exactly what the gospel proclaims in the pages of the New Testament.

So how is what I hear from authors/preachers within the Churches of Christ any different? What do I hear from our spiritual leaders?

  • We cannot tell the millennial generation to grow up and value the body of Christ as the preeminent reality because it might hurt their sense of individuality, and they might leave and go elsewhere.
  • We cannot tell the sexually degenerate or confused that there is one, single immutable truth about sexuality because it might scare them away from the church.
  • We cannot confront a hyper left-leaning or right-leaning political constituency with the reality that they have replaced their faith in God with an idolatrous belief in human reason for fear that they consider us crazed lunatics – or even worse, rabid fundamentalists.
  • We cannot confront an aging group of baby-boomers (and I am one) with the thought that the way in which they have used and abused the earth’s resources is in direct contradiction to the mandate in Genesis to husband the earth for fear that they might withdraw their necessary contributions to the church.
  • We cannot confront either Democrat or Republican with the gospel call to forsake all idolatrous nationalism for fear that we might be viewed as being unpatriotic.
  • We cannot preach the exclusive message of the gospel for fear that we will be considered hateful and prejudiced.
  • We cannot preach that there is one way, and one way only, to God and that is through the death of Christ. We cannot preach believer’s baptism because that is simply a dogma and is narrow minded. We cannot preach that there is only one church because that is sectarian.
  • On the other hand, we must preach inclusiveness, praise individuality, and above all, maintain the liturgy of the Church of the American Myth.

In short, what we need to preach is the insipid, watered down, meaningless pablum that we hear from every other religious organization that has swallowed Satan’s bait – hook, line and sinker. Oh, we will be popular, and I can list a number of congregations that are just busting out of their buildings to the point they have to have “multiple campuses” to demonstrate their popularity.

But, if I read the book of Revelation correctly, these are not of the church of Christ, even if they wear the name Church of Christ.

In preaching this gospel we cannot afford to be hateful, mean-spirited, ungracious. It is a command, not a mere suggestion, that we “speak the truth in love.” But is is simply un-loving to change the gospel into something that it is not. The apostle Paul had no hesitancy to know and to teach that the gospel is repugnant to a wide range of audiences – it is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. The early martyrs, from Stephen on down, were not killed because they told everyone that they were quite all right. To Americans the gospel is “hate speech.” Because it challenges each and every one of us to die to ourselves and our selfishness, the gospel is deeply offensive.

To be sure, I have only painted one side of the picture. The other side is that the gospel is profoundly beautiful and loving. It is the picture of a God who so loved his (rebellious and fallen) creation that he became a part of that creation in order to redeem it. It is a picture of a God who so wants to totally redeem all of that creation that he has entrusted those who believe in him with the blessed task of sharing in that redemptive story. I do not want to ever lose sight of this side of the story. But just as the gospel story recounts, you cannot get to the resurrection without first going through the cross. No one objects to Easter. Gethsemane and Calvary are preposterously offensive, however, and it is exactly Gethsemane and Calvary that we are called to bear.

As our culture falls ever more deeply into a moral abyss, it is absolutely critical that someone, or a bunch of someones, preaches this offensive gospel, so that the cross of Christ will be effective and powerful to draw men and women to God.

The question is, who is going to preach it?

Seminars/Workshops to Grow and Inspire

Growing up in the Churches of Christ, spring and summer meant “gospel meetings.” The meetings were always evangelistic in nature, sometimes lasting a week. Previous generations had “protracted meetings” which could last a couple of weeks or even longer if the field was “white unto harvest.” As I got older the meetings shrank from a week to either Sunday through Wednesday, or sometimes even Friday through Sunday. The emphasis shifted from evangelism to “meeting needs,” primarily marriage enrichment type of meetings.

Now, I find it rare to see or hear of a congregation hosting an evangelistic meeting, although some “felt needs” kind of meetings are still held. I think this is a huge loss for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that congregations are exposed to fewer and fewer preachers and topics. Congregations have fewer opportunities to interact with each other, and the sense of “brotherhood” is suffering.

Where I am currently ministering (the San Luis Valley Church of Christ in Alamosa, Colorado) we recently hosted two amazing seminars/workshops. I want to describe each very briefly to encourage anyone who is looking for options to serve their community or to grow and inspire their congregations.

The Widowhood Workshop with Dean Miller. This is a workshop designed to (a) educate the congregation about the needs and ministry opportunities both for and by the widows and widowers in your community, and (b) empower a congregation to begin a ministry to its widows and widowers. Dean Miller is a widower himself, and is currently preaching in Maury City, Tennessee. This workshop is designed for three days (Sunday through Wednesday night) and is equal parts message to the congregation and outreach to community members. A separate presentation is available during one of the days (Monday, preferably) for Bro. Miller to speak to a community group and to encourage community members to attend the Monday-Wednesday night meetings. As Bro. Miller points out, the odds of both husband and wife dying at the exact same moment are just astronomically small. So, at some point in time virtually every marriage will end with either a wife or husband being widowed. Bro. Miller begins with a survey of biblical material documenting just how critical ministry to the widowed is in God’s revelation. He then explores the needs and feelings of the widowed, the various issues confronting the widowed, and even includes a special session on the question of remarriage and blending families. As a result of this workshop, a young couple has assumed the responsibility of creating a ministry to the widowed in our community, and I am firmly convinced that over time this outreach will have a significant impact on our community. I do highly recommend Bro. Miller and his workshop. More information is available at double-u double-u double-u dot widowhoodworkshop dot org. (spelled out to keep spam bots from attacking!)

Church Inside Out with Tim Archer. Tim is the Spanish ministries director at the Herald of Truth in Abilene, Texas. He has been a missionary in Argentina and has made numerous trips to assist the churches in Cuba. Tim has an incredible heart for evangelism, and through the years has developed a keen eye and a scholar’s pen to share what he has learned. What I love so much about Tim’s approach is that it is (a) thoroughly biblical, and (b) psychologically sound. Much of what I abhor about evangelistic programs, materials, and methodologies is that they hang a target on the back of a “lost soul,” and then force the “evangelist” to follow a prescribed methodology that is inflexible and domineering. A teacher is given a notebook (sometimes hundreds of pages long) and told to follow a rigid set of questions and then hold a Bible study using a set of chain references designed to convince the “lost soul” how to be a Christian in “X” number of sessions. If they have not been converted by the end of session 3 or 5 or whatever, give up and move on. One common aspect of these “follow the bouncing Scripture” methods is that the student is never, never, ever allowed to ask a question. If they do, the proper response is to divert their attention back to the chain reference of Scriptures and move them toward baptism.

Exactly what the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists teach their door-knocking missionaries.

Tim’s approach is much more student oriented. I cannot explain (nor do I want to) the entire process in this little post, but Tim begins with the student and his or her relationship to God, and then works with them to draw them closer to God. With some people that means what we do is pray for them, that God will “plow the field.” With other students that may mean listening to them (and YES, even allowing them to ask questions!!), with others that may mean we sit down and work through the gospel story (focusing on just one passage of Scripture, not a “follow the bouncing chain reference” approach). The goal for Tim is not just baptism (although he makes clear that is critical) – it is the creation of a disciple of Christ.

If your congregation is serious about creating disciples who can then create disciples, I highly recommend Tim’s seminar. You can contact Tim at double-u double-u double-u dot HearaldofTruth dot org.

One Body with Matt Carter. I learned of Matt’s seminar quite serendipitously through Tim Archers blog, the Kitchen of Half Baked Thoughts (a must if you want to be challenged in your thinking). Matt just recently completed a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Harding School of Theology, where he serves as the Director of Admissions. Matt also serves as a worship minister for the Church of Christ at White Station in Memphis, Tennessee. Matt’s doctoral project/dissertation was focused on the so called “gifts of the Spirit,” and he overwhelmingly demonstrates that we have almost universally misunderstood what those gifts are. I know that is a radical statement, but his study and defense of this proposition is conclusive to me. Once again, I do not want to attempt to explain the entire workshop in just a couple of paragraphs, but suffice it to say that the “gift” is not some miraculous manifestation of the Spirit that takes days, if not months or years, to discover. Rather, God prepares each Christian through a number of ways to be a “gift” to the local congregation, using the power of the Spirit. He begins with a thorough examination of the pertinent passages of Scripture, and then concludes with a session of personal reflection and communal affirmation, usually around a meal. This workshop was just unbelievably powerful for me, and I cannot wait to see how his message will transform our congregation. Contact Matt at double-u  double-u double-u dot onebodyworkshop dot com.

I was profoundly lucky enough to be able to combine Tim Archer’s and Matt Carter’s workshops into one extended workshop on one Saturday. Matt can conduct his workshop on a Sunday (Bible class, worship, and communal meal), and Tim’s workshop takes anywhere from 4-5 hours, depending on the congregation’s needs and Tim’s schedule. We were also fortunate enough to keep both Tim and Matt over until Sunday when they each presented an additional lesson.

All told, this little congregation received about a million dollars worth of information, encouragement, and blessings over the past two months. I am sitting here just in awe of the material we received – and attempting to process how we are going to put it all into practice.

If your congregation is looking for a message – or messages – that will empower and inspire your family to outreach and growth, I highly encourage you to contact these men to see if they can serve you in the near future. Tim’s and Matt’s schedules are full to overflowing, and Dean’s schedule will fill up quickly after word of his workshop is spread around. I suggest you contact these men quickly to arrange for a meeting with your congregation.

The Church Really Needs to Rediscover the Old Testament

I’m preaching a series of sermons on Christ and Culture. What has been the best source of pertinent material?

The Old Testament.

I kid you not. When it comes to speaking to the contemporary church about the dangers of lapsing into the modern malady of multiple-ideology malaise, the best biblical response is given in the first testament of faith, not the second.

Last week I preached on Deuteronomy 7, 8, and 9 – Moses’s warnings to the Israelites not to think too highly of their numbers, their seeming military strength, or their righteousness. If the contemporary church does not need to hear that sermon then I will eat my diplomas. This week I turn to a fascinating character study in the life of Jeroboam I, who would become the patron saint (demon?) of bad kings in the northern kingdom of Israel.

On the one hand, Jeroboam had everything going for him that you would want in a king. God had a prophet go and specifically give Jeroboam the detailed prophecy of what was going to occur in his near future. God specifically chose Jeroboam for his divinely inspired mission. He gave him a specific sign to accompany the verbal prophecy. God promised Jeroboam a perpetual kingship, just as he had promised David. In short – Jeroboam had it all, and then some.

And then Jeroboam gave it all away. He became fearful. He thought he would lose what God had promised him. So he set about to fix a problem that did not exist. He called his cabinet together to discuss the issue. The problem, they decided, all revolved around the commanded, and therefore necessary, worship in Jerusalem. Eradicate that problem, and you solve the potential problem of losing your kingdom. So, Jeroboam built two temples, one in Dan and one in Bethel, complete with priesthood and ritual “like the one in Judah,” but one of Jeroboam’s own creation.

Well, I’m not going to give away all of my sermon, but what does that story have to teach the church? Funny you should ask.

Today I see the church focused almost exclusively on a problem that does not exist – or I guess I should say only exists in the minds of a few academics that are so focused on picking lint out of their bellybuttons that they have lost sight of reality. The church is worried (fearful!) about losing its young members, about not being “relevant” (whatever in the world that word means) to its surrounding culture, about giving up its “place in the conversation” concerning contemporary issues.

Jesus promised that he be lifted up, he would draw all men unto him. Jesus promised that even the gates of hell would not be able to withstand the onslaught of the gospel as preached by the church. God promised, and then demonstrated, that through Jesus’s life healing and wholeness would come to the entire world. Pretty powerful promises, if you ask me. Kind of like the promises Ahijah gave to Jeroboam, although you could say that Jeroboam’s promises did not even come close to what we have been promised.

And yet we sit around and fret because a young generation demands more and more from the church to meet their needs, that the world views the gospel as irrelevant, that we are not given a chair at the great conversation table. And I cannot help but think that God must be asking his legions of angels, “When are these people going to get my point?”

Read the next paragraph carefully, because what I am going to say is carefully nuanced. I do not care if a generation (or, actually just a portion of a generation) bullies the church and threatens to leave if its demands are not met. I do not care if by “relevancy” the current philosophy demands that I surrender the fundamental nature of God and of human beings. I do not care whether we have a “place at the conversation” if the conversation is all about how irrelevant and meaningless the church is, and what can be done to eliminate it from public discourse altogether. What I do care about, and care passionately, is that the church remains true to her commission, that she lifts up the name and saving work of her Lord, and that she refuses to surrender her very nature all because of an irrational fear of what might happen.

What might happen is not really theoretical at all. All a person has to do is to see what has happened to the Anglican (Episcopal) and Presbyterian churches after they have capitulated to the bullying demands of postmodernism. The number of adherents in those churches has plummeted, even as they make fundamental change after fundamental change in order to staunch the bleeding. And, really, what is the point of belonging to a church that basically believes everything and acts identically to the way its surrounding culture believes and acts? Why belong to a church that has eliminated the concept of sin, and therefore can offer no concept of salvation? If supporting your local sports team offers the same (or even greater) sense of community, and a lot more excitement, why waste time on your day off going to a religious assembly that has basically lost faith in its own mission and importance?

Jeroboam tried to bathe his new temples and ritual in pious, even consecrated, language. “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:28, see Exodus 32:4!) God was not fooled. In one of the most explicit, and terrifying, rejections of the plans of man against his divine will to be found in the entire Bible, God told Jeroboam, “. . . but you have done evil above all who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods and metal images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back.” (1 Kings 14:9, emphasis mine)

You see, that is what I am afraid of. We can make other gods and create alternate rituals and build imposing edifices (real and philosophical), and we can attempt to bathe those gods and rituals and edifices in pious and even “Christian” language. But we will never fool God. I am personally terrified that in our efforts to save the church, all we are doing is casting God behind our backs.

Folks, that is a horrifying thought. And that is why I believe the church needs to rediscover the Old Testament.

Ascending Lower and Confronting Blatant Sin

Being a minister, an “amateur” theologian, and a sometimes keen observer of current events, I have come to an incontrovertible conclusion:

Our culture is not getting better, in fact, it is deteriorating by the day.

It was not all that long ago that a group of evangelicals were touting themselves as the “moral majority.” Just by reading the headlines, the “moral” is anything but, and the “majority”? – Pssshaw.

Throughout the life of this blog I have tried to emphasize that Christians win by losing, that we are stronger in our weakness, that the way up is by climbing lower. It is counter-intuitive, but it is the way of the cross. That is what Paul meant when he said the cross was foolishness and a stumbling block. It is just upside-down and inside-out.

But  am vexed with a problem – how then do we confront blatant sin? How are those who empty themselves as Christ emptied himself (Philippians 2) supposed to act when the world hurls so much garbage at our feet? I can think of a couple of ways that ascending lower does not mean.

First, it does not mean that we become so attached to the sinner that we fail to name the sin. I am becoming increasingly put-off by the so-called peacemakers who are so afraid of offending certain people that they refuse to call sin, sin. Particularly in regard to LGBTQ issues, the progressive Left has become so powerful that to even suggest that homosexuals or transgendered individuals might be sinners is to commit an unforgivable sin.

It is even worse outside the church.

Yes, I am suggesting that even, or especially, within the church the progressive mantra of “no offense” has so permeated our language that we cannot label sin as sin. How horrible that Paul could label some of the Corinthian Christians as formerly sexually immoral, homosexuals, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, greedy, drunkards and swindlers. (I Cor. 6:9-11)

You cannot be a former adulterer unless at one time you had been an active adulterer. You cannot have been a former homosexual unless at one time you had been a practicing homosexual. You cannot have been a former drunkard unless at one time you were an active, practicing drunkard.

You see, some people take the idea of “ascending lower” to mean that we cannot pass judgment on anyone, no matter how much in defiance they are living their life before God. That is NOT ascending lower. That is moral cowardice. That is cheap grace, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That is abdicating our commission to preach the gospel, whether people want to hear it or not.

But, second, ascending lower does not mean that we “lower” ourselves to behave in ways that are actually beneath that of our contemporary culture. The apostle Paul became “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22), but never in the negative sense. Jesus emptied himself – but never to fill himself with negativity. Paul followed in the footsteps of his master to empty himself in order to lift others up. We cannot do that by using the very methods our enemies are using against us.

When I say we are to confront blatant sin and yet to do so by “ascending lower” what I mean is that we label sin and confront the sinner for the purpose of having that sinful person redeemed by the blood of Christ. I will use a simple image, but one that I hope is illuminative.

My best teachers were not the ones who praised my work effusively and who told me that I was perfect and had nothing to improve upon. Well, in fact, none of my teachers said anything of the sort, but my best teachers were the ones who noted what was positive about my work, and then with the skill of a surgeon, reduced the rest to mere shreds. They did not excuse misspellings just because of my intent, they did not pass over poor English grammar because I was a quiet kid, they did not forgive obvious transgressions of logic and argumentation just because of my last name. They labeled each infraction with painful detail. And, then they taught me how to keep from making those mistakes again. And again. And again.

We do not serve the kingdom of God by excusing sin, whether it be closet racism or open homosexuality. We do not further the kingdom of God by tsk, tsking, when open confrontation is called for. We do not glorify God by minimizing the rejection of God’s revealed will. We cannot become more Christian by accepting behavior that directly violates the nature of God. We cannot lead people to the cross by telling them that all is quite well with their lives.

Every day I am confronted with the reality that this world in 2019 is not the world in which I reached my adulthood. In the immortal realization, if not the exact words of Dorothy, “We are not in Kansas, anymore.” That world, that life, that way of comprehending reality disappeared a long time ago.

What has not changed is our commission – our outreach to the world. We have to be smarter than we were 30-40 years ago. We have to lighter on our feet and quicker with our response. We have to be more sincere, more honest, and more confessional. We have to be more humble and more self-aware. That is what I mean by ascending lower.

Let us, then, fearlessly proclaim the truth even as we bend over to wash a pair of dirty feet.

You’re Going to Fail – Preach Anyway

I awoke this morning to a splendid question from an old friend, the crux of which was the latter part of 1 Peter 2:8, “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” My friend was having difficulty with the word translated “destined.” Neither he nor I ascribe to the Augustinian/Calvinistic school of predestination, and he was justifiably perplexed. This is a text that, if one so desired, one could make a mountain out of a mole hill and reach for predestination. Anyway, I’m not sure if I answered his question in a helpful way, but it got me to thinking about the subject. Then, almost as if it had been preordained (pun intended), I read John 8:47 in my daily Bible reading schedule, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

Let me say at this point that I am absolutely convinced of the truth of biblical predestination – one would have to be a ninny to read Romans 5-9 among other passages and not accept the idea of predestination – and my mama did not raise no ninny. But there is a catch – and it is a big one. The Bible nowhere speaks of individual predestination in the manner in which Calvin (in particular) built his theology. The context in Romans 5-9 is always plural – it is a group of people who are predestined – the church! The Bible only speaks of an individual being “predestined” in the rarest of cases – I can think of Pharaoh on the one hand and Cyrus on the other. That God chose or appointed or anointed other prophets and the apostles has no bearing on the Calvinistic concept of predestination at all – that is comparing apples to oranges.

So – how can Peter so blithely speak about persons being destined to disobey? Because Peter stood in a long line of preachers who were told their work was going to be largely (or sometimes completely) in vain – yet they were told to preach anyway.

Isaiah was told that his message would be largely ignored or rejected. He was told to preach anyway. Jeremiah was told that most of his words would either be ignored or ridiculed. He was told to preach anyway. Ezekiel was told that he was preaching to a church of people whose foreheads were like bronze – he was told to preach anyway. Jesus himself picked up on Isaiah’s words and used them against the Pharisees who were devout in rejecting his preaching (Isaiah 6:9-10, see Matt. 13:14-15; also Acts 28:26-27). Why all the rejection? Why did God keep telling his prophets, and even his own Son, to keep preaching when their words were to be of no avail?

Because God does not want anyone to spend eternity outside of his presence, and even if it means some will reject his word, he still wants every man, woman, and child, to hear his gospel! (Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9)

Let’s go back to John 8:47. Why did Jesus tell the Pharisees that they could not hear the words of God? Because they did not have God or God’s will in their hearts. It was not that God predestined them to reject his will or his words. They did that on their own. They had rejected God as the King of their lives and in so doing made it impossible for them to hear his word. Who was it that could hear? The poor, the blind, the lame, the prostitutes, the tax collectors – in other words, those who realized that they were spiritually destitute. They could hear. They would listen.

A professor explained it to me simply one time – it is perhaps too simple, but it gets the idea across. He drew three pictures on the black-board (yes, it was that long ago!). One was a slab of butter. One was a lump of clay. One was an ice cube. Then he put a great big sun up in the sky. What would happen to each of the three materials? The butter would melt and become gooey. The clay would harden. The ice would melt and eventually evaporate. The sun was the same source of heat for all three – but it was the inner makeup of the individual materials that dictated the result – not the heat.

Jesus’s parable of the soil is instructive here. The same seed is thrown on multiple types of soil. The eventual result for the farmer does not depend on the seed, his method of broadcasting the seed, whether he prayed for the seed, whether he used the proper technology to apply the seed, or how the crop would later be harvested. The success or failure of the crop depended upon what type of soil the seed landed. Now – don’t push a parable beyond it’s immediate application. Yes, it matters whether we pray and how carefully we speak to our neighbors. But, ultimately, the choice of discipleship depends upon the heart of the hearer, not the voice of the preacher.

So, why preach if the overwhelming majority of your preaching is going to be rejected, ridiculed, or just plain ignored?

Because God said success or failure was not up to us. Yes, we are going to fail. Preach anyway.

The Glory of the (Not So) Ordinary

Today my mind was struck by a goodly theme – pardon me for not being academic or profound or philosophical or theological. Today I’m just being me.

I wanted to write a post on the glory of little things. I have been touched so many times lately by things that at other times I would have just missed – either through my hubris or just plain inattention. That got me to thinking about how I have been formed by little things. And the more I thought, the more the “little things” came to mind, proving to me that they really were not little at all. In fact, in retrospect, they were really quite huge.

Let me begin with the description of a little gift. My wife and daughter gave me a framed picture of me on a horse. Just a little gift you say? Bite your tongue, knave, I respond. That picture is utterly priceless to me. It reminds me of me as a little boy – so innocent and full of promise. It reminds me of my childhood home, and the treasures that are associated with it. It reminds me of my precious friend – Wimpy – the horse of any little boy’s dream. Wimpy was the horse that Trigger and Champion and whatever Matt Dillon’s horse was named all dreamed about being. He was the best! I loved that horse, and I treasure that picture with all that I have!

I think about my “little” job of flying freight. I had a co-worker named Barney. Barney was the greatest. He scared me to death. One day I had the privilege (terror?) of flying with him. He knew his route so well that he put the plane down to about 100 feet off the ground, put it on autopilot, and started working a crossword puzzle!! Like I said, Barney was the best. One day we were all sitting around commiserating about our mutual sad affairs. One pilot said that he looked forward to getting a real job, one that was important. Barney gave us one of those Clarence speeches – you know, Clarence the angel in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Barney pointed out that we were flying critical freight – boxes and letters and other time sensitive materials that could make or break someone’s life – or at the very least enhance it. “Seems to me,” Barney said, “that this job was mighty important after all.” We all sat in silence, in awe of the greatness of the Barney-meister. Barney was the greatest, and no one who was blessed by his skill in getting packages from point A to point B would ever have known his name.

I think about the little preachers in my life – the ones only a truly few people are blessed to have heard preach. I remember one time in Farmington N.M. when a bunch of us preachers got together to have a little seminar of sorts. It was during a VBS – one preacher would take a night during the VBS to speak to the parents and other members of the church. I worked and worked and worked and “waxed an elephant” and probably sprained an elbow congratulating myself on what a wonderful preacher that I was. And then a fellow minister by the name of Philip James stood up and delivered one of the most truly awesome lessons I have ever heard. Never heard of Philip James? – I don’t doubt it. He preaches for a little congregation in a little community in northern New Mexico that you probably would not remember if you drove through it. At the time Philip was almost blind – I don’t know if he has received the healing he so richly deserves – and he was quiet almost to a fault. He was also one of the funniest preachers I have heard, once you got him to tell a joke. But people will go on and on about all the “mega preachers” in all the “mega churches” and they will never have the blessing of hearing Philip James, one of the greatest preachers I have ever heard.

I think about the little people in my life – the guys like George Olmstead. Don’t know George Olmstead? He was just the custodian at Montgomery Blvd. Church of Christ – and gave me one of my first jobs. He asked me to help him clean the building on Saturdays so he could do some of the more heavy cleaning and waxing and what-not. Every once in a while he would bring a bottle of “pop” over to where I was cleaning and just sit and talk with me. What a giant of a man! Few people knew, or ever cared to know, about George, but to me there was not a bigger or more important man in that congregation, and there were some heroes of my faith in that congregation!

I think about little words of praise. Due to my severe acne problem I never got to play high school football beyond my 9th grade year. My coach was named Bob White. Coach White was a zen master to me. One day we were doing a particularly painful drill in which we had to line up in two lines facing each other and, on Coach White’s whistle, try to knock each other into semi-unconsciousness. There was somewhat of an unwritten rule that the big guys tried to arrange it so they would hit a big guy, and leave us little squirts to whale on each other. Well, something got goofed up because I ended up facing our number one running back, Buddy Baker. Buddy was a great guy, but he was a beast. I looked at him, he looked at me, and then looked at Coach as if to say, “can we switch, Coach, I don’t want to hurt the little fella.” Coach looked at Buddy, looked at me, and said, “what’s the problem, Smith can do it!” We got into position, and the last thing I clearly remember was hearing Coach’s whistle, and then a pain like I have never felt before. As I stumbled back to get into line again all the guys were looking at me in a state of disbelief. I lost the battle, for sure. It had to have looked hilarious. But I will remember those words to my dying day – “Smith can do it.” Well, sometimes Smith can’t, but I’ll always line up and wait for the whistle.

So many little things, so many little people, so many little words. But none of them are little to me, all of the people are spiritual giants, all of the gifts are priceless treasures. All of them make up who I am.

The glory of the ordinary, even if it is not ordinary at all.

Confronting Toxic People and Maintaining a Submissive Attitude

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

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

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

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

Sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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