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!)

A Week Without Social Media – A Review

Last Friday I made a radical, and some might add, too hasty decision. I had spent a sleepless night fretting over an argument I was having with someone I don’t even know regarding an issue that neither one of us had any inkling of the truth of the matter. Now, stop and think about that. We did not know each other. We were both making assertions the other thought was wrong. And, in perfect honesty – neither one of us was in a position to know any of the facts of the case. All we had was some quotes and a lot – I mean A LOT – of speculation and incendiary accusations.

When I finally woke up on Friday I thought – phooey with this. Why am I losing sleep over an event like this? So when I got to my office the first thing I did was to deactivate my accounts with Facebook and Twitter. I still have one “social media” account, but I have to admit it is about as useless as it can be. But it doesn’t cause my blood pressure to go ballistic, so I’m keeping it for a while.

Anyway, what I was getting to was this – here are some reactions to a week without Facebook and Twitter.

  • I really, really miss some aspects of Facebook. FB was how I kept up with many of my friends and professional acquaintances. That was how I learned about their joys and their hurts – and got to see some pretty hysterical pictures of pets. Cutting off all of that is pretty disorienting. I wonder if anyone is missing me – but that in and of itself reveals that much of my social media interaction was all about ME, so maybe God was letting me know how selfish I was becoming.
  • On the other hand, I do not miss the political posturing and hate memes at all. I had friends that were all over the political spectrum, and it was pretty distressing to see the vitriol expressed by people who I knew to be good and thoughtful friends. I could not care less who they supported or what issue they hated, but their FB posts made it impossible for me to keep up with them and avoid the drama. I know there was the “unfollow” and “unfriend” options, but then how was I to keep up with them?
  • Twitter, on the other hand, has become a garbage dump. I realized at one point that I was following certain persons – leaders within the Church of Christ with a large following of both real and “internet” persons – who were posting comments that were blatantly unchristian would have infuriated Jesus. They were not just border-line comments that could be excused as opinions or feelings – they were outright scandalous in nature and revealed the most bitter and hateful heart. I now have zero respect for those leaders, and I even question those who support them.
  • I have realized that I am going to pay a pretty steep price for deactivating my accounts. A purely tangential benefit of my FB and Twitter accounts was that I was able to keep up with the newest books and trends in theology. In the past week I feel like I have just had my left hand amputated. Somehow I will need to figure out how to stay abreast of this information via other sources. I just have to find those sources.
  • Another price to be paid – FB and Twitter were two avenues that I used to broadcast my blog posts. Now millions of my devoted readers are bereft of my profundity. “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is vanity and a chasing after the wind.”
  • You might be tempted to argue with me that all I have to do is to focus on the good and ignore the bad. The only problem is – FB and Twitter posts were created for the very specific purpose of NOT being ignored. No one posts a meme or tweet and then says, “boy, I sure hope no one pays attention to what I just said!” That is the big lie of social media. You can’t argue, “it’s just my opinion, get over it.” When you disparage a public figure, when you blindly accuse someone of murder, when you post bitter, hurtful words that are clearly intended to cause someone else to hate what you hate, you cannot just say, “I’m entitled to my opinion.” You may be – according to the US Constitution. But since when is being legal being right? Since when were the words of Jesus rescinded – “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” When was it that Jesus retracted his statement that the two greatest commands were to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and the second greatest command was to love others as we love ourselves? If we would not physically treat someone with such disrespect if they were in front of us (and with Jesus standing nearby), why do we think we can get away with treating that person shamefully just because we are “anonymous” on social platforms like FB and Twitter? I confess – I have stooped to the very behavior I am condemning, and it is primarily for that very reason that I deactivated my accounts. “If your FB or Twitter feed causes you to sin – CUT IT OFF!”

I won’t lie and say the past week has been easy. On way more than one occasion I have been tempted to restore my accounts “and just listen,” but then I realize my self-control when it comes to “just listening” is about as useful as putting up a stop sign in front of a hurricane. My FB and Twitter accounts were changing me – and I assure it it was not for the better. You can only drink poison for so long before it takes its effect. I know there are many good things about FB, less so about Twitter. But sometimes you have to put up barriers around your spiritual life to protect that which is the most important to you.

On the positive side, some of my guitars have seen the outside of their cases for the first time in months . . .

I Don’t Get It (Church Division)

I have often said, and now once again confess, that I am not the sharpest bulb in the drawer, or the brightest blade in the box. There are many things about which I am confused, and when someone explains them to me I want to say, “Duh, why didn’t I think of that?” So, the following conundrum may not be a problem to you at all. But for me, well, I’m stuck . . .

The problem to which I refer was illustrated by a recent conversation when, in a room full of individuals representing many different churches, a person said, “We are all Christians, we may have different labels, but we all believe the same thing, believe in the same God, believe in Jesus.” To which I thought to myself, “Um, no we don’t.”

You see, in my limited intellectual capacity, you either believe something or you don’t. If you believe something, it is important to you and you are at least willing to defend it as a personal belief, or you are willing to discuss your belief in the hopes of arriving at a better belief. Let me state a necessary deduction to my way of looking at the world:

Those who claim that all “Christians” believe the same thing and are simply divided by different “labels” are either (a) ignorant or ambivalent about the beliefs of their own church or are (b) ignorant about the beliefs of other churches or (c) are of the opinion that said beliefs are totally irrelevant.

If you hold position (c), then my only question is why do you affirm any of your current beliefs? If such beliefs are irrelevant, then it seems to me you would discard those beliefs and accept the beliefs of other who are utterly and totally convinced of the importance, and correctness, of their beliefs. So, let’s look at positions (a) and (b), which are really just two sides of the same coin.

To be as honest as I can, and to be as gentle as I can and still be clear, it is simply impossible for followers of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, and various other stripes of free church theology, to be “united” in any realistic sense of the word. For example –

If you are a Roman Catholic, and you firmly believe in such dogmas as Papal infallibility, apostolic succession, transubstantiation (and its related dogmas), the veneration/adoration/worship of Mary (and the perpetual virginity of Mary as well), then it is simply impossible for you to be “united” with those of us who reject those dogmas. Those doctrines are not just incidental to the Catholic faith – they are what makes Roman Catholics what they are. If you reject Papal infallibility, if you reject transubstantiation, if you reject any kind of special place for Mary – well, it is very difficult for you to consider yourself a Roman Catholic. And if I reject those doctrines, how can you say you are in fellowship with me?

Likewise with Lutherans – if you  hold to consubstantiation, if you hold to the doctrine of “faith only,” if you defend infant baptism, then I would suggest it should be impossible for you to consider that a Roman Catholic on one side or me on the other would be faithful Christians. The Catholic should (if he/she is being true to Catholic doctrine) reject the idea of “faith only,” as do I, for entirely different reasons. The Roman Catholic and I both believe we are saved by faith, but I flatly reject (and I have reason to believe the Roman Catholic would too) the addition of the word “only.” Martin Luther added it to Paul’s teaching in Ephesians (and elsewhere) and in so doing completely changed the meaning of the text.

Calvinists (and all their permutations in the Presbyterian and some Baptist churches) are in more of a pickle than Lutherans, in my opinion. If you hold to the traditional TULIP explanation of Calvinism (Total depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints) then I am so far away from being a Christian as to be an atheist – I reject every one of those doctrines. But, if you reject any one of those teachings, the house of Calvin folds like a wet paper bag. You cannot hold to total depravity and reject irresistible grace. You cannot believe in unconditional election and reject the idea of limited atonement. In other words, to be consistent, you have to hold all of these concepts in a tight bundle, or your concept of Christianity comes unraveled. I would certainly not be in the “family” as it were.

The point I am trying to make is that when someone makes a statement like, “All Christians believe the same thing and we are all saved by Christ and the only thing that makes us different is our different names,” they either are woefully ignorant of the differences they claim are unimportant, or they do not really believe the fundamental tenets of their respective church.

If you believe that Christ is sacrificed every time the priest blesses and elevates the host, if you believe that Christ’s body is physically present in some form in the elements of the Lord’s Supper, if you believe that an infant needs to be baptized and receives the forgiveness of “original sin,” if you believe that a person is born to eternal salvation and someone is born to eternal damnation – then I suggest that you and I have very little in common except some generic teachings of a wandering rabbi who lived approximately 30 years before the final destruction of the Jewish temple. Jesus then becomes a more pious Plato or Aristotle. If you think that those distinctions are merely “opinions,” then I suggest you need to reject those opinions, because it is those “opinions” that are the main sources of division between churches who claim the name Christ.

I also want to make another point very clear – some of my favorite authors and “mentors” (in an impersonal sense) hold Roman Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed (Calvinistic) beliefs. When I want to learn more about the spiritual disciplines I find that more often than not I am drawn to Roman Catholic authors (or, Anabaptist writers). When I want to learn more about the Old Testament, chances are I will end up with a Presbyterian or Anglican author. If I had to get rid of every book in my library except for one author, I would keep my collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran and someone to whom I am deeply indebted for my understanding of what it means to be a Christian. So, am I making a blanket condemnation of those who hold these various doctrines? No, I hope not – that is not my intention. My only goal in this little exercise in rambling incoherence is to point out that despite our best intentions, and regardless of what sweet sounding words we may use, if we truly hold to the major confessions of our faiths, we are NOT united as Christians.

I freely confess – I am a child of the Restoration Movement and I am convinced that if disciples of Christ would simply return to the teachings “once for all” delivered to the saints (and in my world that would be Genesis-Revelation), then we could call ourselves united. Then there would be differences of opinion (types of worship, perhaps, other truly incidental and transitory questions), but we could at least convey to the world that we are united on the very basic core of our Christian beliefs.

Maybe someone can explain to me how people who hold diametrically opposing viewpoints can be said to be one united faith, but until someone does, I just don’t get it.