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.

Thanks for a Great Year!

Just did a little check up on this site for the year 2018. This was the first full year of this blog, which is kind-of a rebirth of my old blog, “Instrument Rated Theology.” I have been deeply blessed to have been in conversation with many of you – and I wanted to pass along that I enjoy each and every response, question, or push-back that I get.

My numbers in terms of readers and views for the entire year would probably make for a bad month for some blogs – maybe even a bad day – but for me, I just appreciate every time someone reads my meandering thoughts. As I noted somewhere, sometime, I write mostly just for me, and if  what I say proves to be beneficial for someone else – so much the better. I don’t even mind if someone disagrees (so long as it is done politely), because at the very least I can say that I provoked some thought. And, who knows, maybe you can change my mind – or at least get me to change how I portray something.

So, just for giggles and grins, I thought I would share the top 10 blog posts for the past year on Ascending Lower (as voted by you all, the reading public):

  • The Bible’s Greatest Silence . . . and the Church’s Loudest Cry
  • A Pox on ‘Praise Teams’
  • Rocky Mountain High
  • Praise Teams (Again)
  • Why Are We Divided?
  • Of God and Guns
  • Willow Creek and Human Pride
  • Proposing a New, Really Old, Hermeneutic
  • Disciples and the Lord’s Prayer
  • Mega-Star, Mega-Preachers – a Pox on Your House Too

Okay, so I probably need to stay away for Poxes and Praise Teams in 2019.

My goal is to do more writing on individual texts and theological topics – but invariably some ‘hot-button’ issue comes up and I feel a need to swat at it. I also want to improve my review articles on the books that I read, and I have a doozy for my first review of 2019. I hope I can do the book justice.

Once again, thanks for reading, and a huge thank you to those who have chosen to “follow” this blog. I hope I can repay your kindness by providing thoughtful, if not always agreeable, content.

Let us all resolve to ascend higher by climbing lower this coming year.

Reading Report – 2018

Packing up 2018 and getting ready for 2019 –

This past year turned out to be quite a journey for the ol’ Freightdawg. The Smith family moved back to Colorado (yea!) but virtually simultaneously we discovered that my wife’s cancer returned (major yuck!). So, amidst all the relocating and multiple extended trips for therapy, I have not had the kind of time for reading that I usually do. So, for 2018 that meant a total of 5,672 pages of books read, a huge drop-off from my typical year.

But, on the other hand, that limited number of books read (a total of 17) allowed me to get a better picture of the kinds of books I am typically reading. 2018 was interesting – fully a quarter of the books I read were related in some form or fashion to the book of Revelation (two commentaries and two books related to apocalyptic literature). Another quarter of my reading was related to spirituality and spiritual disciplines. You would think I would be better at maintaining my spiritual life, but, you would be wrong.

In the “no surprise here” category, three books on my completed list related to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Last year I completed the entire 16 volume set of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English edition), so in 2018 I only read books related to Bonhoeffer.

The other books I read in 2018 were a hodgepodge of academic type books. I very rarely ever read fiction (some would say that is a huge omission, but I have a hard enough time buying good non-fiction books. I don’t know how to begin to find good fiction books).

Maybe I should add that a huge accomplishment I completed in 2018 was to take my Revised Standard Version, my New Revised Standard Version, and my English Standard Version copies of the Bible and begin marking them in various colors to help me track various themes and critical texts. That took quite a bit of time, but I learned some interesting things about translation issues even within one single family of translations (the three translations are really closely related). I may go through another translation or two with the same process. In 2019 that would be the NKJV and, if I add another one, would be the Common English Bible.

Already on tap for 2019 are three books I did not get to in 2018, and if all goes according to plan I will be able to provide reviews of those books in the coming months.

If any of my readers have suggestions for good theological books, please pass them along to me. I have the strange belief that if I am not learning something, then I am going backwards. I do not like going backwards! If any of my suggestions prove to be beneficial to you, let me know that as well. It would be nice to know that I have helped a fellow traveler out along the way.

Let us purpose to ascend higher by climbing lower in 2019!

Back to Social Media (Sort of)

After a number of months of self-imposed exile, I am returning to social media – in a quasi-limited sense.

I made a decision some time ago that I could just do without social media – namely just Facebook and Twitter – at least for a while. I knew I would miss out on a lot of things that were happening in my friends lives, but I had to pull back a little from the constant urge to be tied to both FB and Twitter. In the intervening months my concerns were realized – I just really miss out on hearing about big events and such as that. Also (and this is a little weird), I get a lot of ideas about what books to read from my FB and Twitter accounts. I was losing out on some important trends in theological studies.

So, after a lot of thought and some careful planning, I have decided to return to FB and Twitter, although you might say I will be doing more lurking than real interaction. But, I have set some very strict limits for myself, and if things get too out of hand, I will “chop off my right hand” once again.

Basically, what that means is I have no need to be inundated with hate. I get enough hate without my own “friends” spewing it out to me, okay? So, if you hate Trump, or if you hate those who hate Trump, or if you hate Democrats or Republicans or the Senate or the House or any other such thing – just know that I will block you or mute you or unfollow you or whatever I need to  do to keep my feeds as clean as I can. Let me put it this way . . . I am xxx years old and I have earned the right to decide whether I like or dislike any politician, sports team, or current trend in Americana. In case you wonder, I despise, I loathe, I abhor virtually every aspect of our current political system, so no one is going to score any points with me by pointing out how bad “the other guys” are because once you cross Zero on the continuum, there is nothing either side has to offer me. And believe me, both Republicans and Democrats are WAY south of Zero on my continuum.

You know, this world is really a very beautiful place, once you excise politics and politicians from your compulsions. In the past few months I read more, listened more, absorbed more of LIFE just because I was not so wrapped up in Washington or Santa Fe or Denver or wherever. I reconnected with my past – my own past – and discovered there was a lot back then that was really fun and interesting. It makes me kind of sad that I have forgotten so much, and have lost so much, just because I became so infatuated with all the rottenness of the world.

So, I want to keep in touch with the fun, happy, positive, things in people’s lives. I want to see the doggie videos and the kitten videos and hear about the victories and the awesomeness of this world. I want to hear about good books and good movies and good times. I will continue to share my meandering thoughts on my blog, because, well, I have a lot of meandering thoughts. If, and maybe I should say when, I share something that is a little negative in my blog, I hope I will balance that with what I feel can be done about it. I’ll try to stay positive – well, preachers cannot always be perfectly positive – but I even when I have to step on some toes and try to correct what I think are some invalid beliefs or assumptions, I hope I can do it in a positive way and leave my readers with a ray of sunshine.

I hope I can do better in 2019. We’ll see.

Middle Isaiah and the Churches of Christ

This is the third installment in my series on middle Isaiah, so if you have not read the first two, I encourage you to do so. That will provide the necessary background for what I want to convey in this post.

One of the necessary, although frustrating, statements that needs to be made anytime an entire group of people is discussed is that in doing so the author must depend upon generalities. So, in this post I am going to be making some general observations about the Churches of Christ in the United States, and invariably someone is going to be able to say, “That is not my experience at all!” To which I will say, “Great! I am glad that you have not had the experiences that I have had, and that you can see things from an entirely different point of view.” But, I cannot see things from eleventy-billion different sets of eyes, so what you will read below is my observations based on years of study and personal experience. As with every automobile commercial ever made – your mileage may vary. If the shoe fits, wear it, if not, find one that does.

What I can say from my experience and study is that the Churches of Christ, as a whole, are not a liturgical group of people. That is to say that our services are largely extemporaneous (although sometimes highly routine). We do not follow the lectionary readings, we do not follow the “church calendar,” and we most certainly do not have a hierarchical view of the priesthood v. the laity. This very decided “low church” atmosphere is even reflected in our architecture and interior building designs. Most congregations are housed in simple wood frame buildings, or if necessary, other very simple structures that, if the name outside were hidden, could be confused with a mortuary or a nursing home. “Ostentatious” is NOT a word that could frequently be used to criticize any of our buildings. Likewise, the interior of our buildings are almost exclusively utilitarian. We have no majestic arched colonnades, no awe-inspiring auditoriums, no sparkly stained glass windows, no lofty pulpits and certainly no jaw dropping organs or choir lofts. Most buildings in the congregations where I have served or worshipped have simple floor plans, and the auditoriums are sparsely decorated, save for a simple table that provides a place for the Lord’s Supper emblems, and a simple (although sometimes massive) pulpit for the preacher to hide behind (just kidding about that one!).

So what does our decidedly non-liturgical form and functionality have to do with middle Isaiah – and the points of emphasis I have made in the last two posts? I’m glad you asked, even if you didn’t.

I have often said, and even now repeat, that one of the greatest failings of the Churches of Christ – particularly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries – is that we have forgotten who we are. We have no sense of history – of our own and certainly not of the Christian church. It seems like for many decades we have tried to prove that we are so unlike everyone else that we have lost sight of Him who we should be like.

In a short, pithy little sentence, – we have forgotten who God is, and in so doing, we have forgotten who we are supposed to be.

Enter in middle Isaiah. In the middle section of this magisterial prophecy, Isaiah proclaims the word of God to a people who have not only forgotten him, but who have actively rejected him and who are following gods that are not gods – the idols. While making a show of being good Yahwists, those who believe in and worship the true God, these syncretists had created a religion that by all appearances was devoted to Yahweh the true God, but in all reality was simply a veneer to cover their real worship of human imagination, and more to the point, of human strength. They had created God in their own image, and would have nothing to do with prophets who tried, with all their might, to get them to return to the Holy One of Israel.

I really have no objections to being non-liturgical, and there is much to be said for having simple, utilitarian buildings. However, there is an insidious danger that is attached to both of those characteristics that I do not think we have cared to think about. When you minimize the truly awesome experience of coming into the presence of a holy God (by making the worship merely extemporaneous and by minimizing the glory of the meeting structure) you inadvertently and I would say quite unintentionally minimize the God to whom you are offering your worship. There were good reasons why the liturgy developed – and why the churches of the middle ages became such magnificent edifices. The Christians of these ages realized it was simply too dangerous to come into the presence of God without some structure, some careful guidance, about how to do so. They also realized, just as with David and Solomon, that the place where God met with man was to be a magnificent dwelling place – not that God was restricted to that place or that he lived only there. But, I believe they rightly understood that if we were going to invite God to meet with us and to feast with us – might we not want to make the meeting place just a little more important than our own homes? I’m not arguing for the kind of ornateness that makes you afraid to enter lest you get dirt on the floor. But I am suggesting that if all we offer to God is some ramshackle little building, then maybe our view of the awesomeness of God is just, well, ramshackle.

Anyway, I think the teachings that are encapsulated in the middle chapters of Isaiah indict the majority of congregations of the Churches of Christ. I think we are too flippant when it comes to worship, and I think our “low” view of our meeting places communicates something that we do not intend, and would actually actively deny. In a word, I believe we are too humanistic in our approach to worship. We do not have, nor do I think we attempt to create, an Isaiah 6:1-9 kind of experience when we “enter his courts with thanksgiving.”

The natural outgrowth of this lack of “awe” in our worship is seen when we promote humanistic approaches to solving all of our problems (the parallel of Isaiah’s compatriots sending down to Egypt for deliverance from the Assyrian hordes). If our God is simply too small to demand our finest and our best, then why not put our faith in politicians and in the Supreme Court justices? They do demand our allegiance! They do demand that we respect their power. Notice how majestic the House and Senate Chambers are? Notice the pomp and circumstance when the President enters the room? Most male members of many congregations cannot even be bothered to put on a nice dress shirt these days. “Come as you are” has now deteriorated into, “who cares what you look like, just wear whatever ratty old clothes that are in the bottom of your closet.” Try wearing those clothes in a courtroom. I’ve heard of judges throwing people out of their courtrooms because of inappropriate dress.

How can we claim to worship a Holy God if we treat him with less respect than we are called to give to a magistrate judge?

You see, middle Isaiah (along with Amos, and Micah, to say the least) has much to say to the 21st century Churches of Christ. I’m afraid not much of it would be pleasant, either.

We have forgotten who God is. We have forgotten who are are called to be. And we have forgotten who we are.

May we all ascend by climbing lower.

Overwhelmed

Regular readers of this little blog have probably noticed something – I have been uncharacteristically silent over the past several days and even weeks. It’s not that I have disappeared, its just that life has kind of backed a dump truck up to my life and let loose an entire load of issues, problems, and catastrophes. To wit:

  • At the beginning of October we discovered my wife’s cancer has returned. This has created an avalanche of doctor’s appointments, over-night trips, and the associated scramble for time and resources.
  • Just this past week a related but preventable problem forced an all-night visit to the ER, a medical flight to a major hospital and an emergency surgery. I do not think I have ever been so disoriented as I was during a 72 hour stretch as I was those few days.
  • I am needed to help my sister deal with our aging mother and to do some things that will provide for her continued care. More travel, more emotional drain, more financial stress.
  • Ministry issues don’t go away just because there is illness or other problems. In addition to my wife’s health, I am struggling with other issues totally unrelated, but that have consumed the lion’s share of the time I am not focused on providing help to my wife.

In other words, I have just been too overwhelmed over the past few weeks to really attend to my thoughts here. When I get a few free moments, all I can think of is the need to pull back and rest.  I do not want people to think I have disappeared, but on the other hand, disappearing for a few days doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.

I have been working on preparing some continuing thoughts on what it means to ascend by climbing lower, and I hope that soon I will be able to share those thoughts. Oh, and I finally got around to reading a C. S. Lewis masterpiece, Mere Christianity, about which I have much to say. (Why it has taken me over 30 years to read this book is absolutely beyond comprehension. What a book!)

I know that some folks are continuing to stop by and read some previous posts, and for that I am deeply thankful. Please be patient with me, and as time and energy permit I will return to sharing what I believe is critical for the future of the Lord’s church. Until then, peace be with all of us.

My Love Affair With Books

A couple (or more) posts back I asked for a response to the question, “Who is (are) your favorite books/authors?” While the response to that question did not fully show up here, on another site it created quite a conversation – and I loved every response. A comment was made that preachers must be readers of books. I cannot tell you how much I agree with that statement.

Our current infatuation with “social media” is destroying the American brain. I know some may think that is a harsh condemnation, but I firmly believe it to be so. Twitter, Facebook, other social media sites, and even blogs (yes, even this one) have finished warping the American attention span that started being whittled away with the 30 minute sitcom on TV. I remember reading the thoughts of a research guru who suggested that if an author cannot make his or her argument in the first “x” number of pages of a book (I forget the exact number but in was in the teens), that millennials and even some in the other age groups would not bother to finish reading the book. Even in this space, once I get up to about 1,000 words in a post I get nervous, because I know that people will not bother to get to the end of the post.

That is just so sad. When I was young I remember people making fun of the Readers Digest condensations of such books like War and Peace, Gone With the Wind and even Moby Dick. Imagine now – even a condensation would be too long!

I love books, and I fear for the time that we will not be able to follow extensive arguments – arguments that stretch over chapters, not just pages. Some thoughts just cannot be summarized in 15 pages. And if you have to limit the size of the book to 125 pages because the audience just cannot follow an argument any longer than that — well, what is going to happen to our educational future?

Imagine Beethoven being told he had to produce an entire Symphony in only ten pages of score. Imagine Shakespeare being told that if his plays lasted more than 30 minutes he could not keep his audience’s attention. Psalm 119 runs 176 verses long – ponderous, repetitious, magisterial.

I have had a life long love affair with books. It continues to this day. C.S. Lewis is reported to have said that there is not a book long enough nor a cup of tea big enough to suit him. Where would we be without C.S. Lewis?

Thanks to all who chimed in on my “Who Rocks Your World” question. It was deeply gratifying to know that so many folks are reading so many books – in extremely diverse subject matters and with a wide variety of authors.

Do yourself a favor and dig out an old book and brew yourself a big cup of tea (or coffee) and stretch your brain for a while. You will be glad you did!

(and this post took far less than 1,000 words!)