Video Sermon Link

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

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

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

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

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

Hope it helps.

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.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Leadership From Below

Yesterday’s post generated a thoughtful comment, and that comment spurred another thought in my mind. “Iron sharpens iron . . . ” so the wise preacher said. So, indeed, it does.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into what could arguably be called one of the most aristocratic families in Germany. His father was a leading psychiatrist,  both of his parents came from aristocratic, if not regal, blood lines. Growing up Bonhoeffer was keenly aware of the primacy of position this placed him, and there are clear statements where he admits this was troublesome to him.

In the church struggle that Bonhoeffer was so deeply involved, he quickly realized that it was not the ecclesiastical aristocracy that was going to stand up against Hitler and defend Christ and the church. It was going to be the masses, the people in the pews, the “commoners.” Time and again he begged the leaders of the German churches to take a stand against the Nazis, but they were concerned about their position, they were concerned about the legal structures that existed in Germany,  they were concerned about finances, they were concerned about everything but what they should have been concerned about – the purity of the church. The support Bonhoeffer (and his compatriots) received came from below – the members of the church that, according to church laws then current, really had no official voice. When the pastors lost their income (the pastors of the Lutheran and United churches were supported by the government, who paid their salaries out of taxes levied against all citizens), the church members stepped up. When the Gestapo closed seminaries and threatened churches, the members opened other doors of education and worship. Bonhoeffer learned what it was to lead “from below.” It confirmed for him what he had  always been uneasy about – aristocracy comes from blood lines, but genuine Christian obedience comes from the heart.

In congregations all across the religious spectrum today, and certainly within the Churches of Christ, there is the “aristocracy” that is concerned about everything except what they should be concerned about. Politics, money, power, even social issues such as abortion and gun rights can co-opt a congregation and leave its members floundering. I do not want to be some “Pollyanna” or “Dorothy” and think that we can click our heels together three time and return back to Kansas. But, hopeless romantic that I am, I do believe that there are Bonhoeffers and Bethges and Niemoellers* out there who are willing to risk their reputations and even lives for the sake of the church (Martin Niemoeller was a U-Boat captain in WWI, he received an Iron Cross for his service. He spent WWII in Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp.)

Let us learn how to lead from below.

*I apologize to the historians and Niemoeller legacy, I know that his name is spelled with an unlaut over the “o,” but I cannot figure out how to put one there. Actually, Bonhoeffer’s family name was originally spelled with an umlaut over the second “o,” but the spelling had changed by the time he was born. Seeing as how my family name was in all probability spelled “Smyth” or even “Smythe” at one time, I can relate to the vagaries of generational name shifts.

Leadership and Submission

Today a question: If it is almost universally agreed that we should all be submissive to one another (Ephesians 5:21, one would have to be fairly obtuse to object to that directive from the apostle Paul), what happens when a person is placed in a position of authority? How can one submit to those he (or she) is actually given authority over? How can you lead from below?

I hate it when I ask myself these questions. I ask better than I answer. But here goes anyway –

First of all, leadership is not inimical to submission. If it was, Jesus was the worst leader of all time. In fact, you could say that Jesus is the answer to the question how to lead from below and that would be the end of it, but then what would become of the rest of this post?

Leading from below involves certain behaviors that come from certain traits of character. First, leadership from below involves listening – not just hearing but actual active listening that forces one to accept and to process what the other is saying. Active listening itself comes from a trait of compassion and caring. The first thing you learn about someone who cannot listen is that they really do not care very much, either.

Second, leadership from below involves participation in the lives of those being led. In more bucolic terms, the shepherd needs to smell like the sheep. The best managers of an assembly plant are those who understand from the bottom up what it feels like to work on the line. If you are going to lead an elementary school, you had better know what it feels like to get down on your hands and knees with the kindergarteners. The best boss I ever worked for in my secular work life actually climbed in our planes and flew them occasionally. That let me know he trusted our mechanics, and it was kind of nice to see him on the flight line, too.

If you listen carefully and participate fully, then that means that occasionally leadership from below means suffering. No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, and that means leaders as well. Perhaps less bucolic, but certainly no less colorful, is the illustration that was impressed upon me a long time ago: the higher you climb up the flag pole, the more people are going to see your rear end. When the water boy makes a mistake, no one in the stadium will know. When the head coach calls a time-out that he does not have, or when the quarterback throws an interception to end the game, everyone knows. Leadership from below means that we accept our frailty, and also accept that our mistakes are going to be more visible, and potentially more critical, than the mistakes of our followers. Leaders have to stand up and absorb the shots – and have the ability to grow from them.

I guess by way of conclusion I should say that leadership from below also involves a great amount of joy. I simply cannot express the joy I felt when I saw a student return from his/her check-ride and realize that there was a new pilot, a new instrument rated pilot, or a new commercial pilot, or a new flight instructor in the world. Of course I was responsible for teaching them (and a failure meant the FAA would be looking at my teaching skills), but the student had to study, to practice, to actually pass the exam. It is nothing but pure joy to see the “light bulb” come on and see a new babe in Christ emerge from the waters of baptism. So, not all is doom and gloom in terms of leading from below.

I guess it goes without saying that the opposite of these traits pretty much describes bullies and autocrats. They don’t listen, they do not help or participate in the lives of those being led, they certainly do not suffer, and I would suggest they are the most joyless individuals in the world. And the church is full of autocratic bullies. Heaven help the congregation that is led by a man (or men, or women) who refuse to listen, who never get their hands dirty doing ministry or teaching the kindergartners, who are too hoity-toity to even expose themselves to suffering, and whose faces would break if they smiled. God has a message to those who lead from the ivory tower, who dictate but never participate, who “bind heavy burdens on those who seek to obey, but do not lift a finger to help:”

He wants His church back.

Listening, participating, suffering, joy – what else would you add to the list in terms of “leadership from below?” I know my list is not exhaustive, probably not even comprehensive. But, I do hope that I have laid a foundation for the concept that leadership and submission are not mutually exclusive; indeed – they have to be inter-related on a very fundamental level.

Let us learn to lead from below!

Guitars, the Social Sciences, and Christianity

Pardon me while I take a little stroll down the stream of my consciousness …

I love guitar music – mostly anything that comes from an acoustic guitar. I am not so much enamored with electrics, but that is personal preference. So, I have been playing around with my guitars recently and doing a lot of thinking about theology and life in general. Guitars have that magic with me – kind of transport me into another world altogether.

I say that I “play around” with my guitars because I really do not have the ability to play them – at least not to my satisfaction. In my mind there is a real difference between playing at an instrument and making music on that instrument. To use a slightly different image, anyone can open a can of soup and slap some ham on a couple of pieces of bread and make themselves a lunch. But, it takes real culinary skill to create a feast. I’m a can of soup and ham sandwich kind of player. To paraphrase Rowlf the Dog, I’m no Segovia, but I get by.

So, I’ve been pondering what it is that separates a musician from a soup and sandwich hack. It occurred to me that musicians have the ability to do two things that S&S hacks never quite seem to put together. First, musicians understand music. They just get it – all the modes and scales and circle of fifths and all that. Whether they have been taught, or whether it is simply intuitive (which is my guess), they simply know music.

I don’t.

My daughter knows color. She has a rare gift from her maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather – but she is just a natural talent at putting colors together. If I have a question about my wardrobe, I can go to her and she can set me straight in the blink of an eye. I’m lucky to have her around. She has that “gift” for visual art that I am talking about with auditory art. Some people have it. Soup and sandwich hacks don’t.

The other thing true musicians have that I don’t is the knowledge of their instrument. In the hands of a true musician, a guitar or a piano or a flute or a violin simply becomes an extension of their body. In my hands a guitar becomes a weapon of auditory destruction. There is more than just a passing difference.

If you put those two things together you get a true musician. If one or both of those things is missing, well, pull out the can opener and reach for the mustard. I know that if I put my finger on the third fret of the first string I get a certain sound. A musician knows that the next sound he or she needs to hear is a G. He or she also knows there are a whole bunch of other frets on the fretboard that will give them that sound. They make music. I can string together some notes that vaguely resemble music.

If you haven’t  guessed by now, I am in awe of musicians. Especially guitarists who can create pure music. I’m talking Segovia and Kottke and Huttlinger and Atkins and Chapdelaine and Romero and the Pimentels and Denver and Hansen and Parkening and Clark and Campbell and from the ladies – Vidovic and Isbin – and probably a dozen others that have slipped my mind. They are my guitar heroes.

Did I say there was a connection here with theology . . . I think I started out that way. It seems to me that there is one way to be a true human being, and another way that closely resembles the soup and sandwich musical hack. You can study philosophy and psychology and sociology and all the related social sciences, and if you work hard enough and long enough you might come up with something that resembles human life. That is like knowing that if you put your finger on the third fret of the first string you get a boink that sounds sort of what you wanted it to sound like.

On the other hand, you can know Christ, and you can know the human instrument. In that case you know that the next sound you want to hear is a G, and you also know there are virtually limitless methods you can use to arrive at that note. It is the difference between knowing how to open a can of soup and creating a feast. When we come to learn Christ, and come to understand what it is that makes us truly human, we are in the realm of making music, as opposed to just hitting some random notes in the proper succession.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that Jesus did not come in order to make humans divine. He came in order to enable humans to become fully human – to regain that which we lost in the garden. That has always had a profound impact on me, and, to be honest, I think Bonhoeffer was on to something.

I think it worth mentioning that Bonhoeffer was also a musician – so talented in fact that his family and friends thought that he had a legitimate chance to become a professional musician in Germany. He also knew how to play the guitar. Music, guitars, and theology – now that is a spiritual feast!

Why settle for just plinking around with some notes in the social sciences when you can play genuine music? The best thing about Christianity is that you do not have to have some inherent skill – all you need to do is learn to trust the master conductor. He will lead you into mastering both the music, and your instrument.

But you have to learn how to submit – and to trust – this conductor. Otherwise, all you will get is a can of soup and a flimsy sandwich.

Headed for Oblivion

A number of circumstances have converged in my life recently and I have (once again, for the millionth time) started playing my guitars. I have been channeling my inner Peter, Paul, and Mary, my inner Statler Brothers, my inner Don Williams, my inner Don McLean, my inner many, many others. Mostly I have just been channeling my inner John Denver. I have been listening to and watching a lot of JDs songs. One song in particular always leaves me with a lump in my throat, its called “What are We Making Weapons For (Let Us Begin).” One brief little snippet of a verse is this,

Now for the first time, this could be the last time.

At the time Denver wrote and recorded the song there was no real certainty but what the “cold” war would suddenly and irreversibly go “hot” with no mechanism for controlling it. For the first time in human history, it was a very real possibility that any “shooting war” would be the last of our civilization.

I don’t think we face that kind of mutually assured destruction today – at least not at the degree of uncertainty that caused Denver to write that song. But, at least in the United States, I do think we are headed for a form of oblivion. How far progressed we are will be a question for historians to determine. I do not hold much optimism for the future, however.

Observers of political history are right to point out that we as a republic have always had our rancorous moments – and just about every national political contest has generated some form of ugliness. In the defense of our current situation, at least we do not settle disagreements with a duel. But that is slight reassurance for what we do to each other.

I can attest that every presidential election – and I mean ever blooming one – since 1980 has been styled as “the most important election in the history of the United States.” Even given some slack for hyperbole, that is really quite a mouthful. Somehow I think the elections of Lincoln and later Franklin D. Roosevelt to have much more significance for our republic than Clinton, Bush, Obama or Trump. Maybe all four combined! I would even rate the election of Kennedy to be more significant than Clinton, either Bush, and certainly Obama.

But with each election cycle I am noticing how much more divided the electorate is becoming, how much more unforgiving the contestants are, and how the victors are becoming so much less inclined to set aside their election mentality and settle down to the process of governing. Today it is all campaign, all the time. There simply is no time to govern.

So, maybe for the first time in our republic, this could be the beginning of our journey into oblivion. A nation of 350+ million people cannot continue to exist with the hate, the anger, the vitriol, the passionate and long lasting intolerance that all sides have for each other. The “middle ground” of American politics is evaporating before our very eyes. What has taken its place?

As goes culture, so goes the popular religions within that culture. Which means, dear Christian, that the church of Christ is every bit as threatened by this headlong march into anarchy as is the government. Note: this is not an attack from the outside – it is clearly an internal war. In America in 2018 there is less tolerance of opposing viewpoints regarding Christ, the church, and how we are to relate to one another than in any time in our history.

How we are to come out on the other side of this is still a matter of the future. But, just as one person’s opinion, I do not think that we can deny the division and the passion that accompanies this division. I think I am also correct in suggesting that if we are ever to make any progress in slowing down or eliminating the eventual melt-down of the church, we are going to have to put down our weapons and pick up some towels and some wash basins.

What are we making weapons for? If peace is our vision, let us begin.

Jesus and the Disciples’ Feet

Because I am huge on context, let me set the stage for this post. I am teaching a series of lessons on “How We Study the Bible” on Sunday mornings. Last week the lesson was on the necessity for us to determine, as far as we humanly can, the meaning of the text in its original setting. If we do not look to see what the text meant to the original audience, then the chances of us ever learning what the text should mean for us are slim and none. This coming Sunday the lesson then proceeds for us to learn, once again as much as we humanly can, the differences between that original audience and our situation today.

My “test” passage is John 13:1-15, the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet. Many questions arise from this text, and chief among them, at least for me, is “Why is this event, so critical in many respects, totally ignored by the other gospel writers?” To phrase it the other way, why is it that only John records this event? Which then opens a very interesting study . . .

One would have to be blind and deaf not to notice the radical differences between John  and Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But let’s just take one slice of the larger picture and see if it does not help us with the issue of chapter 13. The slice I am referring to is that of the miracles recorded in the gospel of John. By my count there are seven – not counting, of course, the resurrection of Jesus himself. These are: the changing of the water into wine (or Welches grape juice, depending on your theological leanings), the healing of the official’s son, the healing of the paralytic, the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus walking on water, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Of these seven, only two are recorded by the other gospel writers (unless you count the healing of the official’s son, which is a possibility).

It is interesting to note that the two that John “duplicates” are also the two that receive the least amount of his attention. It is almost as if John is saying, “Everyone already knows about these stories, they have been discussed in other gospels accounts, so I am going to mention them but not spend a lot of time on them.” In contrast, the healing of the paralytic in chapter 5 and the healing of the blind man in chapter 9 receive careful and in-depth treatment.

John is communicating messages, even simply in the amount of space he allots to the stories he wants to highlight.

So, back to my point. If we could summarize, what is the common denominator in all of these seven miracle stories? What is their point? Only one appears to stress the supernatural power of Jesus as such – the story of him walking on the water. This is one of the stories John “duplicates” from the other accounts, and receives very little attention, comparatively speaking. I would suggest, however, that when viewed alongside the other miracle accounts, John is including this event not to stress Jesus’s super-human power, but to underline one of his major themes.

Note that every miracle account in the gospel of John emphasizes Jesus’s awareness of, and removal of, a person (or persons) physical or emotional need. Stated another way, Jesus serves the ones he miraculously heals, feeds, or brings back from the dead. His miracles are examples of his service to those who are hurting. Jesus relieves the pain of the groom and his family by providing the appropriate wedding beverage. He serves the official by restoring his son. He serves the paralytic and the blind man by healing them. He serves the people by feeding them. He relieves the emotional crisis of the disciples in the boat by walking out to them, and immediately getting them to their destination. He serves Mary, Martha, and of course Lazarus, by bringing Lazarus from the grave.

Catching on to a common theme here? Good.

The account in chapter 13 is not a one-off, stray account of a weird event in the final hours of Jesus’s life. The washing of the disciples’ feet is really the culmination of Jesus’s teaching to the disciples – and the exclamation point of John’s account of Jesus’s ministry (prior to the crucifixion, of course). Jesus came to serve, to wash the feet of not only his disciples, but of everyone he came into contact with.

I have heard it said that we have to physically wash one another’s feet in order to obey Jesus’s words in John 13:14. Never mind that a person’s foot in Jesus’s day was covered in all kinds of dirt and grime from walking up and down dusty streets strewn with all kinds of unsavory material. Never mind that our feet today are probably the second most hygienically protected parts of our anatomy. Never mind that most of us shower, if not daily, then at least several times a week, and that we protect our feet with comfortable socks and sturdy shoes (ladies sandals excepted). Never mind that we totally ignore other passages where Jesus is just as emphatic with commands we blithely overlook – has anyone chopped off their right hand or gouged out their right eye recently (Matthew 5:27-30)?

So, what is it about John  13:14 that makes people want to follow the command verbatim whilst eschewing other equally clear commands? Just an opinion here, but I think it is because washing someone’s already clean and hygienic foot is just soooooooo emotional and sooooooooo spiritual. And, again just a personal opinion, we are utterly and totally misapplying the passage when we do so.

John’s point is not that the follower’s of Christ need to wash an already clean and well protected foot. John’s point – I guess I should say Jesus’s point – is that we should serve other people, even up to and including performing the most embarrassing and personally disgusting acts of kindness for other people.

How many people who would gladly wash someone’s already clean foot would also clean an invalid’s filthy bathroom? How many people who would make a big show of washing clean feet would also clean the house of the crazy cat lady whose charges have urinated and defecated over every square inch of that house? How many people who want their foot washing to be recorded for posterity would want their picture taken while they wretch over the sight and smell of a homeless person passed out in their alcohol induced vomit?

We see pictures of someone, maybe even an important someone, washing the feet of another person and we think, “how noble.” Maybe it is. Maybe the person is diabetic and has not washed their feet in weeks and maybe it is an act of true service and kindness. But my guess is that in the overwhelming majority of cases the foot is already so clean as to be sterilized and the event is staged to demonstrate how much we are like Jesus.

And because we do not stop to think about how different our world is from the world of Jesus and his original apostles we utterly, totally, and completely miss the point of the story.

The point of this post is not that we should never wash the feet of someone who desperately needs that service and who cannot do it for themselves.

But, please, unless you are going to chop of your right hand and gouge out your right eye, don’t use John 13:14 as some proof text to justify your act of “service.”

We only serve when we climb lower.

No! The Church Does Not!

If you are even remotely connected to any religious media (Facebook, Twitter, books, magazines, etc.) you are bombarded with messages such as, “If the church is going to survive, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to keep (or attract) millennials, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to be seen as relevant, it must . . .” followed by some brilliant insight observed by some church growth guru. I’m sure I have even been guilty of using those words myself. If I have, (or I guess I should say, when I did) I was wrong. Mea culpa. I am now here to say, “No.” The church does not have to do (a) or (b) or (c). In fact, all the talk about what the church is going to have to “do” is part of the problem. Understanding why this is such a critical issue takes some serious thinking, so let me explain my position.

First, the church was not created by Jesus to be some crutch, some plaything for those who comprise its membership. The church IS Christ on this earth. The church is his body, as Paul makes explicitly clear – 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:23, 5:30; Colossians 1:18, 2:19 to name a few passages. Therefore, and this is the nub of the issue, to say that the church “must” do something or the other in order to keep or to attract any sub-group of people is to say that JESUS must do that something or the other.

Are you really willing to tell Jesus what he has to do? Does Jesus really have to bend to every whim and fancy of every coming generation? Is there a set of rules for the builder generation, the boomer generation, the “X” generation and now the millennial generation? Or, is there one body, the church, to which every generation must submit its personal preferences and demands for the good of the whole?

If there is any one single “must” that the church is bound to obey, it is that the church must be the body of Christ. That’s it – there is no other “must.” We learn about that body by studying the gospels, and we learn about how the church either successfully, or unsuccessfully, fulfilled that commission by studying the books of Acts-Revelation.

The body of Christ obeys what the head of the body commands it to obey. The body of Christ is the physical extension of the exalted and reigning Lord now ascended to the heavens. The body of Christ does not get to vote, does not get to add to or subtract from, the commands that its owner and head gave to it.

It strikes me as ignorance bordering on absurdity for someone not even out of his third decade of life to lecture the church – which has existed for almost 2,000 years – about what it “must” do to survive. But, that is just part and parcel of our narcissistic world. Everything revolves around “me,” so obviously the church must revolve around my wants, my wishes, my demands, my understanding of what “ought” to be. When the church has succumbed to that siren song it has floundered. When the church has resisted that temptation it has flourished. The church is the body of Christ on the earth – and the only imperative that body has is to remain faithful to its head – Jesus the Messiah.

There is a word for what I am describing – it is “discipleship.” It is described beautifully in those aforementioned gospels, and it is taught in the aforementioned subsequent books of the New Testament. There is another book that talks about this topic, and interestingly enough, it has that simple title, Discipleship*. When it was published it stood the prevailing cultural church on its head. If it was read, I mean really read, today it would have the same result. I believe its author would be aghast at how so many people claim to follow its principles when those very same people are so busy telling the church what it must do.

If, and more likely when, I have been guilty of that sin I repent. I never want to be guilty of telling Jesus what HE has to do in order to attract some selfish little pedant to attend some church assembly. Members of the church of Christ are disciples of Christ, and to that end we either transform our will to become what is the will of Christ, or we cease to be members of the body of Christ (ref. Revelation 1-3).

The church is the body of Christ – let us never lose sight of that reality!

*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (also published as The Cost of Discipleship).

Why Lipscomb Had It Right

In my last post I talked about how Barton W. Stone’s apocalyptic worldview was transmitted to David Lipscomb (1831-1917), and how Lipscomb articulated that worldview not only in word (his book Civil Government) but also in his daily life. His views were to be utterly discredited during the heated debates over premillennialism, and today his teaching would be considered odd at the very least, most likely unscriptural, and probably even treasonous and heretical. I think Lipscomb had it right.

To summarize his views would be too much for the time I have allotted, so I will just jump to the conclusion – there has never been a civil government that has been blessed by and chosen by God. None. Never. Nada. I can see the arched eyebrows and hear the snickering – you think you have me with the selection of Saul. But re-read that story. God told Samuel that he was indeed capitulating to the whims of the Israelites, but he also made it very clear that the request for a king was a rejection of the reign of God. Saul was an abject failure. David, the “man after God’s own heart” lead a government that eventually involved adultery, murder, rape, fratricide, and would eventually disintegrate under the weight of misgovernment, violence, and outright idolatry.

Yes, God used the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians for his purposes. Yes he chose Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus. But in every situation he punished those leaders for the abuses of the instructions and the limitations he gave them. He destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish temple at least twice. I repeat – there has never been a civil  government that God has blessed or chosen for more than a very limited period of time, and history (if not Scripture itself) records that God eventually punished that regime/nation. God is not in the business of establishing civil governments.

The reason, I believe, is clear. It is not within the power of man to govern himself – this is Scripture. Even in the kingship of David, the word that is most often used of David’s rule (and often of that of his successors) is not melech, (king) but nagid, (prince). God demands that he remains king. The human ruler is just a figure-head. The government resides with God. When man demands the kingship, disaster follows.

Taking the longest length of an Israelite king (approximately 50 years) and the shortest (just a few months), the United States has been in existence for anywhere from 5 – 15 Israelite kings – not a lot of time. And look at what has happened: the “separation of powers” among executive, legislative, and judicial powers is all but non-existent. Especially over the past several presidents the power of the presidency has been significantly increased. Likewise we see the judicial branch not even coming close to just measuring if laws are constitutional, but the Supreme Court is actually writing legislation. The legislative branch is just a bunch of empty suits and dresses – they have no more power today than a high school debate team. That basically leaves the entire government of the United States in the hands of 10 people – one President and 9 Supreme Court justices. When the President and the majority of the SCOTUS all share the same political affiliation (as happened under President Obama) there is no recourse, there is no justice, there is no rule of law in the land. Harsh words you say? Well, it happened. President Obama and his Attorney General decided that a law that had been in place for a number of years was unconstitutional – a power they did not have – and the Supreme Court, emboldened by his directive, promptly ruled in favor of his administration’s decision. Our “representative democracy” is  quickly crumbling into a marginal oligarchy.

David Lipscomb saw this. He lived through the Civil War. He saw the reality of the dictum, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He, perhaps more than anyone in his time, realized that Christians are just exiles and aliens in a foreign land, and while we are to obey the laws of that land, we cannot foul our hands by participating in a bloody and godless civil government.

It has been argued that Christians have to participate in civil government or Satan will win. I have one question (well, actually, two): where in Scripture does it say that Christians have to participate, have to vote, have to hold political power? And, two, what part of losing your life for the kingdom of God do you not understand?

The essence of politics (of civil government) is power. Individuals run for office in order to gain power, and once in office, their goal is to maintain that power and to try by all means necessary to increase that power. In a closely related issue, the grease that makes a democracy run (if the powers are relatively equally divided) is compromise. That means person A has to give up something he or she wants in order to get person B to vote with his or her proposal. The problem is that you cannot give up Christian morals. You cannot give up Kingdom ethics. You cannot trade a vote on abortion for a vote on war subsidies. Dance with the devil and see how far you get.

On the other hand, the essence of Kingdom ethics is self-surrender and submission. Those who lose their lives will find them. We have to die to Christ in order to be raised with him. We have put off the old self in order to be clothed with Christ. Do not be like the Gentiles, Jesus said, who love power and love to lord it over their subjects. Instead, become servants. Chose the lowest place. Put down your crown and pick up a towel. What part of this is difficult to understand? Where is the concept of grasping power found in the cross – check out Philippians 2 if you need to.

I get that these words are radical. But you want to read an interesting story? Read Jeremiah 35. Jeremiah was told to invite a group of people over for some wine. The folks were known as the Rechabites. He did – he invited them over and set a lot of bowls of wine and cups and said, “party hearty!” They would not touch the wine, because their ancestor gave them two instructions – never live in a walled city and never drink wine. They had obeyed their ancestor for generations – always living in tents and never drinking wine. God used them as a powerful parable against the Israelites who had rejected his teachings repeatedly and in grotesque fashion.

I just wonder if someday God is not going to use the Amish and the Mennonites to judge, and condemn, sinful America. We ridicule those folks with their backward ways, their rejection of everything modern, and of their simple faith. Ah, yes, their simple faith. They believe God told them to eschew extravagance and to live simple, faithful lives. And, for the most part, they have – for generations. To our lasting shame, I might add.

I can live in the United States and pay my taxes and obey the laws of the land and be completely detached from the filth of the government. I do not have to vote – in fact I actually  believe it to be more faithful to my God not to vote. I can respect my leaders, and even pray for them, without becoming complicit in their ungodly and unchristian decisions. In fact, I believe that my God calls me to do exactly that. I am to pray for the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God and all that means, not the continued dominance of one political party or the other.

It all boils down to where is my allegiance – to the Christ of calvary or the American flag?

Listen, I know I am not going to convince everyone – I probably will not even convince some of my closest friends. They, among all who read this blog, know I am a nut, and kind of untethered in certain respects. But I have come to a devout conclusion: if anything nice can be said over my dead, stinking body, I want it to be that I was consistent in my beliefs. If I say, if I preach, if I write, that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God” then I had better act like I believe those words. I just do not see any passage of Scripture that tells me I have to be active in a civil government. I see many that tell me I should not. I see many principles that teach me I should stay away from governmental powers. I see many truths that lead me to believe that compromise with politics is death for spirituality.

I want to know Christ, and the power of his rising, share in his suffering, conform to his death – when I pour out my life, to be filled with his Spirit, joy follows suffering and life follows death.

That, my friends, is why Lipscomb had it right.

That’s Why We Call Them “Elders”

Over the past several months I have come to appreciate certain things more deeply: health, a strong marriage, the love of a child. Our life’s circumstances can change in the blink of an eye, and very rarely for the better. All too often we lose something, or have something taken away from us, and all we have left are some memories and a bunch of questions.

In regard to the church, I have also come to realize, and appreciate, the simple wisdom of something that many take to be a relic of history, just a curiosity of a bygone era that needs to be erased as well. That “relic” is the practice of having churches overseen by a plurality of senior disciples called “elders.” For so many that is a quaint but no longer useful tradition that is more harmful than helpful. For me, it is becoming just one more example of the immeasurable wisdom of our creator God.

I am growing impatient, and even somewhat disgusted, with individuals who heap endless praise on the generation that is just now coming of age, calling them the most spiritual and mature generation to grace the face of the earth. I saw it in a comment just this past week. “This generation is just so much in love with Jesus!” the speaker said. Hidden within the comment was a dagger – no other generation in recent memory has ever loved Jesus like this group!

Oh. Spare. Me.

I was born into a generation that really loved Jesus. My parents’ generation really loved Jesus. My grandparents generation really loved Jesus. I can look back in history and identify generations whose love for Jesus makes this coming generation look like a bunch of wallowing sycophants. Spare me the generational comparisons – at least until this generation has had enough time to prove themselves.

One thing my generation did accomplish – or shall I say destroy – was to separate our “love for Jesus” from a love for his church and those who were tasked with leading it. I was born at the tail end of the “Jesus people” generation, the ones who screamed “Jesus yes, church no” at the top of our voices. We were taught not to trust anyone over 40. What this coming generation has been able to accomplish is to lower that age down to 30. Or, maybe 20. They have taken the Boomer’s disdain for the church and raised it exponentially. I note with a genuine degree of fear that, especially within the church, the disdain for age and seniority has reached Promethean heights. The term “elder” has lost all meaningful significance.

There are just some things that cannot be obtained without the passage of time: the capacity for maturity, depth of wisdom, the skill to raise multiple children through the stormy waters of adolescence, the ability to maintain and to deepen a strong marriage, the tact and strength to deal with aging and declining parents. There is more than just a poetic reason why white hair is the crown of a life well lived.

The thought occurred to me the other day that twenty-somethings know all the answers to all the questions. Persons over the age of 65 have experienced the questions – they have seen it, felt it, heard it, lived it, cried over it, had their hearts broken over it, conquered it, been almost destroyed by it, and somehow have managed to survive it. Twenty-somethings walk with a strut. Seniors walk with a limp – for a good reason.

I am not discounting book smarts. I think I did some of my best work in the first years of my ministry. I also left behind some wrecks. And I am not suggesting that mere age is some guarantor of wisdom. There are a lot of seniors who never matured out of adolescence. The fruit of the poisonous tree of the “Me Generation” will be around for a long time.

But, as simply and as passionately as I can put it, there is a reason for 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  There is a wisdom and a maturity that those who have reached their sixth decade and beyond own that those who have only lived for two or two-and-a-half just cannot have. The practice of having a congregation overseen by senior disciples is not just a quaint artifact of a bygone era. It is rooted in the deepest wisdom of God. Congregations are hurting themselves – and possibly poisoning their future – by rejecting this divinely mandated practice.

There is a reason we call them elders. If we are wise, we will honor them, respect them, we will pay attention to and learn from their wisdom, and we will submit to their leadership.