Yet One More Reason Why Preaching (And Coaching) Are a Fools’ Errand

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A few years ago I was coaching Cross Country.  We were doing one of those workouts that required my athletes to work hard the entire workout.  To those of you not trained in distance running, most workouts require runner’s to start slow and build up.  But this wasn’t one of them.  I wanted them to work hard the whole time.  And they knew it.

Yet they were dogging it.  We were doing repeats and their times were not anywhere near what they were supposed to be.

Then the last repeat came and, because they knew it was the last one, finally ran faster than I had even wanted them too.  They crossed the line with these big grins on their faces as if they had done something special by running so fast for 1 repeat.

I was irate.  They knew they were supposed to be running that hard the whole workout and yet they lounged around and waited for the last one to suddenly run.  YET THEY WERE PROUD OF THEMSELVES?!?!?!

So I let them have it.  To this day I am not sure if I should have or not but that doesn’t change the fact I did.

I preached one of my best, most passionate sermons.  I explained to them that they had set great goals for the year.  I clarified over and over that I believed in their goals.  I emphasized that I wanted nothing more than to see them succeed.  Then I let them know that lazy workouts would destroy all of that.  There was no reason to dog the repeats until the last one other than apathy and apathy has no place in sports!  I came close to repeating the Apostle Paul in Corinthians, “And you are proud?!  Should you not be ashamed?!”

They rolled their eyes at me and then half jogged, half walked a cool down back to the school.

All but one of them.  My hardest worker, a young, energetic and goofy kid aptly named “Timmy” ran next to me the whole way back.

“I am sorry, coach!” he said over and over.  “I didn’t mean to slack off.  I really try so hard to do what you say.  I hope you are not too mad and I promise that I will do better next time.”

His sincerity was both admirable and humorous.  Timmy’s workout had been incredible that day.  He had nothing to be sorry about.  I was proud of him almost always and super proud of him that day.  He had worked hard while the upperclassmen slacked off and that is not easy to do.

Don’t miss the irony:  My lecture had gone completely ignored except by the one person who hadn’t even needed to hear it.

That is an irony I face almost every Sunday.  After a few songs, an offering and some announcements, I get up for 20 to 30 minutes and, borrowing from Moses in Deuteronomy 30:19 “Set before them life and death, blessings and curses.”  Then I urge my small congregation to,  “Now choose life!  That you may live.”

Then the people who have all ready chosen life long ago and have walked a better holiness than I yet have, tell me, “You know Pastor, you are right.  I need to do better.”

And those who I am the most unsure about, whose lives spew forth the darkness, roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, whatever,” and look back down at their phones.

And I am not complaining about this.  I have learned that these types of ironies keep me incredibly humble.  Here I am setting the table of life and death as carefully as I know how.  Then I present it to the people and no matter how hard I try, those all ready alive look at it and feel guilty.  Then the dead look at it and feel nothing, shrugging their shoulders.

But I’m just the waiter, discharging the duty ascribed to me by the master chef.  If I was the chef I might be a bit more offended but I am not.  I am just the humble servant who, to be honest, hopes more Sundays than not my sermon will be completely forgotten by Tuesday.  I would rather they forget my paltry words and live a life worthy of the gospel than the other way around.

So I have set the table.  I have scattered the word and that is what God requires and what God will reward.

I think Jesus even told a parable about this.  A farmer went out to sow his seeds.  .  .

3 of a Pastor’s Great Fears. . .Ranked!

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Okay, before we begin, I know you know all the Bible verses about things like anxiety and worry and fear.  I know them too and I have most of them memorized and remind myself of them daily.  But knowing them and feeling them are two very different things.  So here I sit as a Christian pastor who is seminary trained, holiness sanctified, and a Bible loving preacher and I am telling you that memorizing Bible verse about anxiety doesn’t get rid of anxiety.  It turns out quoting those verses to anxious people doesn’t help that much either but I’ll save that blog post for another day!

The whole anxiety thing is really bad when you are a pastor.  I don’t know if you know this but the statistics are in and most churches are in a very precarious spot.  They are one bad conflict or one untimely rich person’s death away from closing.  Anxiety and fear seem to just come with that.

But acknowledging your fears for what they are does help.  And as I have prayed through my fears and tried to cope with them I have realized there are three great fears I have, at least when it comes to my relationship with my congregation.  I have listed them below in descending order of how much anxiety they cause me.

3.  Everybody in my church will one day come to hate me.  I live every day in fear that I am going to do something incredibly dumb that will cause everybody to turn on me.  I have family members and friends who have lived through this scenario and I still cry for them.  It is such a nightmare, especially for their families.  It is so hard for a spouse to have to terminate close friendships because their loved one was fired.  I worry greatly about what such a day would do to my wife and my children.    With that said, I don’t lose much sleep over this possibility because if my whole church comes to hate me, the solution will be brilliantly simple.  .  .painful.  .  .but simple.  I will just resign.  Then the church will be able to go on and I will have given a great gift to another pastor who gets to be the white knight on a handsome stead who gallops into that situation to clean up the mess.

2.  Everybody in my church will love me.  I like being liked.  I freely admit that.  I probably like being liked more than most people.  I have the personality of a suitor, desperate to woo people to my good graces.  But I know all too well the liabilities of that personality.  They are not that you will fail to woo everybody.  The liabilities come when you succeed in wooing everybody.  I live everyday in constant fear of having too much political power.  I worry about what might happen on the day I blindly lead my blind fan club into a death trap.  I have never been universally liked (thank God!) but I have come close and it was close enough to know what massive harm I really could do with a group of, well, groupies.  It was scary enough that I actually did resign.  The fallout of that resignation was really rough.  I had abandoned my fan club and caused separation anxiety both in them and me.  I never want to have to do that again.  But I look at myself in the mirror quite often and remind myself that I will if I must.

But now for the true nightmare scenario, the one that makes me tremble and keeps me up at night.  .  .

1.  Half of my church will hate me and the other half will adore me.  I know of pastors who have been in these situations and their churches barely survived.  The worst thing a pastor can become is a divisive figure, one who unwittingly pits one group against another just by being themselves.  These situations are so tragic and so hard to fix that I hope I never find myself in one.  I hope my leadership is never so horrible that a church splits because of me.  As Jesus once said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25)  And I could not stand to walk away from the shredded remains of a divided church.   And yet it happens all the time.  At those moments only a very, very wise and prayerful District Superintendant, or denominational leader, can bring about any good.

Well, what do you know, a blog post about fear had a sentiment about hope up there.  And maybe that is how we conquer our fears, by recognizing the hope therein.

So during my anxious days and sleepless nights, I do hope that my leadership is just adequate enough to not shut down a church.  To hope for any more than that would be pride.  To hope for anything less would be disaster.

 

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A LOT of Books

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Long time followers of this blog (again, really, just my mother and I think at this point her uncle Paul) know that my huge goal for the 2016 calendar year was to read 100 books.  Well, as of yesterday around 3pm I read the last words of Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel Lila and let it slowly dawn on me that I had actually succeeded.

Then I went to my list of books and went to publish them here only to realize I had accidentally listed one book twice which meant I still had another book to read!  So I frantically downloaded a Walter Brueggemann volume on the life of David, read it over the last 36 hours and can now proudly say I read 100 books this year!

This part of 2016 has been brutal but well worth it.  I do not sit still well and I have always found reading boring but several times this year I forced myself to sit for hours at a time and work through a book when I rather would have been doing anything but.  That is the real victory.

I made up some other rules as the year went on to keep myself in check.  At one point it occurred to me I had not reread any books from previous years so I continued that, meaning the list below were all brand new to me this year.  At another point I realized the oldest book I had read was from the 1960s and that bothered me so I began reading older books.  Then I noticed that some books I read were kind of short so I forced myself to read a string of longer, harder books to make up for it.

So after a long year of averaging 2 books a week, I proudly publish my list.  I broke them into categories for you all.  I wanted to do an official ranking but that was taking way too long.  But I do have categories for the top five and for “forgettables.”  I didn’t include those in other categories.  I typed some sarcastic or noteworthy comments on the ones that felt like they deserved it.  This is for your perusal and I hope you spot one or two you would like to read in the next year!

(Oh and if you spot another book I listed twice, just go ahead and keep that to yourself.  Ignorance is bliss!)

Top 5

  1. Prophetic Lament by Soong Chan Rah (Not only the best but also the newest. I think I bought it two days after publication.)
  2. Gilead by Marilyne Robinson (Robinson’s three novels about pastors and their families are on this list but this one, the first one, stands above the others as a triumph in literature.)
  3. A Failure of Nerve, by Edwin Friedman
  4. Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson
  5. The Social Animal by David Brooks

“Forgettables”

*I honestly did read these books but I also honestly have no recollection of doing so.

  1. The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen 
  2. Story-Shaped Worship, by Robbie Castleman (Sad story: this book was listed twice on my original list which meant I had to read another book at the last minute to get over the 100 mark.)
  3. Move on By Vicky Courtney
  4. Growing God’s Church by Gary L. McIntosh (I remember this book now! It was stupid in every way.  I hated it.  I wrote a blog about it too!  I am still leaving it here though in the hopes that I forget it again.)
  5. Charles Finney Biography
  6. Essential Beliefs by Mark Maddix and Diane Leclerc
  7. God Dwells Among us by G.K. Beale and Mitchell Kim
  8. Jesus the Pastor by John Frye

Most Unique

  1. The Sacred Diary of Plass by Plass (A friend lent me his copy. Good luck finding another one.)

Bible Books

  1. Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson
  2. Kings and Presidents by Tim and Shawna Gaines
  3. Our Father Abraham, by Marvin Wilson
  4. Carolyn Sharp Old Testament Prophets for Today
  5. Interpreting Prophetic Literature by James Nogalski
  6. Challenging Prophetic Metaphor by Julia M. O Brien
  7. The Theology of the Book of Amos by John Barton
  8. The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel by Paul Anderson
  9. Cycle of Victorious Living by Scott Daniels
  10. Paul by Rowan Williams
  11. Who’s Got Your Back by Eddie Estep
  12. The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing
  13. The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter (I am ashamed to admit that I had not read Alter or Brueggemann before this year. But at least I remedied it now.)
  14. The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter
  15. Spirituality of the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann (I feel like Brueggemann’s books are cheating because they are short but every word is packed with incredible meaning. The point to page ratios are outstanding!)
  16. David’s Truth In Israel’s Imagination by Walter Brueggemann

The Cheaters

*With low page numbers, these count as books but barely.  Most were read in a day or even an hour when I was down, unmotivated and desperate to catch back up.

  1. Trinity: The God We Don’t Know by Jason Byassee
  2. 30 Days with Wesley by Mark Harmon (a wonderful Wesleyan devotional meant to take a month. I was behind by four books in late July so I read it in an hour and a half.)
  3. Antagonists in the Local Church by Brian Samsen (This was actually a thesis for a D.Min but it was 120 pages and very good)
  4. Missions Mosaic by Donna Wilson (This is one of the Church of the Nazarene Missions books. I could have read and counted all six but that really would have been cheating)
  5. Church History for Modern Ministry by Dayton Hartman (This is not the worst book but it is the most disappointing. I bought it thinking it would be a long primer in church history and found it was 4 chapters and 80 pages talking about why pastors should study church history)

The Grossly Overblown Discussions of Meaningless Data

  1. Meet Generation Z by James Emery White (Spoiler alert, the next generation is being raised by the current generation so James Emery White is fairly convinced they are going to be bad at everything, mostly God stuff)
  2. Reaching Millenials by David Stark
  3. America at the Crossroads by George Barna

More Theological and Academic

(Three of these are about Martin Luther and one is by Martin Luther.  It is kind of fun to just dig deep into one historical person and their theology.  This category also wins the award for most books written by people I know!)

  1. Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Theology of Christian Perfecting, by T. A. Noble
  2. The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord
  3. Wholeness in Christ by William Greathouse
  4. Theology of Martin Luther by Paul Altheus
  5. Martin Luther’s Theology by Lohse
  6. Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will by Julian Baggini
  7. Christian Ethics and the Church by Philip Turner
  8. Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy
  9. The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther (By far the oldest book I read!)
  10. Union with Christ by Braaten and Jensen

Novels

  1. Home by Marilyne Robinson
  2. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  3. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  4. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (This is written like a novel but could easily fit in three or four categories. It is a must read and fascinating in every way.  I still find myself quoting it in my head.)
  5. Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  6. Far Side of the World by Patrick O’brien
  7. The Prestige by Christopher Priest (The Christopher Nolan movie based off this book is way better. One of those rare cases where cinema was an improvement.)

Pastor and Church Helps

  1. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor or Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
  2. How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching by Will Willimon
  3. The Cross Shattered Church by Stanley Hauerwas
  4. The Art of Pastoring by David Hansen
  5. The New Parish by Dwight Friesen and Paul Sparks
  6. The Power of Loving Your Church by David Hansen (Hansen’s books are now sacred to me because they were given to me by a mentor during a difficult time.)
  7. Time Bomb in the Church by Daniel Spaite
  8. Fellowship of Differents by Scot McNight
  9. The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson
  10. Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation Between a Mormon and an Evangelical by Robert L. Millet and Gregory C.V. Johnson
  11. The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson (see below comment about point to page ratios. This book easily could have been fifty pages long and instead was 350.)
  12. On Leadership by John Gardner

Devotional.  .  .Maybe? or Mostly Just Self Helpers

  1. The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic or Awesome? By Tripp Fuller
  2. The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer
  3. Life in the Spirit by A.W. Tozer (It is quite possible Tozer would turn over in his grave to be included on a list between Tripp Fuller and Rachel Held Evans. . .or maybe he would be honored. The jury is still out on this one.)
  4. Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans
  5. Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans
  6. Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves Adam Hamilton
  7. The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
  8. Love and Respect by Emmerson Ebberichs
  9. A Woman of Strength and Purpose by Cynthia Tobias
  10. Grace Walk by Steve Mcvey
  11. Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by Lauren Wiener
  12. The Reason for God by Timothy Keller
  13. In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day by Mark Batterson
  14. Wild Goose Chase by Mark Batterson (I judge books by the point to page ratio, asking “how many legitimate points did this person make per page?” Batterson fails every time.  He makes one point for every two hundred pages, making 90 percent of his words superfluous.)
  15. Grace by Max Lucado
  16. Every Man’s Battle by Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker

From or About History, Recent and Long Ago

*Let’s just assume that almost every single one of these books was incredible!  I love history.

  1. Truth and Duty by Mary Mapes
  2. Nazarene Roots by Stan Ingersol
  3. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
  4. Natural History Essays by Henry David Thoreau (This was the oldest book until I read Luther’s “Bondage of the Will”)
  5. The Big Short by Michael Lewis (The movie and the book are must read/must watch to understand just how disgusting the 2008 market crash was.)
  6. America’s Original Sin by Jim Wallis
  7. The Great Crown Jewels Robbery of 1303 by Paul Doherty (Have you guys seen Braveheart? Well, true story, it turns out while Edward the Longshanks was defeating William Wallace at Falkirk a bunch of monks and thieves broke into his treasury and scattered the contents across London.)
  8. Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel
  9. A History of Davis County by Glen Leonard (Picked up this 400 page volume at my local library. It is a history of the county where I live and a fascinating one at that)

Memoirs of the Living

  1. Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton (A fascinating account of the trials of a suburban, church mom. I wonder how many like her sit in our pews every week?)
  2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisis Coates
  3. The Blood of Lambs by Kamal Saleem
  4. The Pastor by Eugene Peterson
  5. Usain Bolt’s Autobiography

Technology Culture

  1. Alone Together by Sheryl Turkle
  2. Screens and Teens by Kathy Koch
  3. Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle

2016: The Year I (And We) Got Dragged Down to Their Level and Beaten By Their Experience

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Long time followers of this blog (in other words, my mom) know that I do this corny thing where I name the calendar years.  Many of you (again, probably just my mom) will remember that 2015 was the year I sold out to suburbia.  2012 was the year my dreams came true.  And 2007 was the year for getting up and moving on, just to name a few.

Over the last few weeks I have thought about this past year in my life and become convinced that there really is only one title for it, which is all ready announced above.  It is a title stolen from several popular cliches, my favorite of which is, “The problem in arguing with a five year old is that in no time at all bystanders can’t figure out who is the five year old.”

This year I interacted with a lot of five year olds who are trapped in adult bodies.  At key times I gave into the temptation to operate on their level and play by their rules.  It didn’t work and nobody won.  Unfortunately, to go into further detail about those situations would be innappropriate.  It, itself would be something a five year old would do.  Let me just say that today, on one of the last days of this calendar year, I find myself still grieving the fall out of a year marked by immaturity, my own above anyone else’s.

However, I take great solace in that I am not alone.  National headlines this year were saturated by stories of infantile adults.  I remember last January taking a good hard look at the Republican candidates for President and being somewhat surprised by the stellar list of level headed statesmen, names like Kasich, Bush and Rubio with a few others.  A few months later I watched in utter horror as Donald Trump managed to get those statesmen to argue with him about what sizes their penises were.

Last October Trump gave the Democrats the same treatment when he successfully argued in a debate that because he had slept with fewer women than Bill Clinton, that made him more fit for the presidency than Hillary. And Hillary engaged him.

This year we have also watched well meaning and peaceful protesters get characterized as violent.  I have read about reputable news organizations who use to deal in facts, but now deal in internet clicks and ad revenue.  I have watched Christians whose entire political platform consists of “The Ten Commandments” tell more lies on the internet than any other group, despite the fact that telling the truth is one of the commandments.  And we have seen an ever expanding list of celebrities become embroiled in scandals that are not really scandalous.   But an overblown and easily excitable blog readership overreacted to the hint of a scandal and the celebrity over reacted to their reaction, causing a true scandal.

The rules have been changing for decades but this is the year it all came to a head and the five year olds took over.

In fact, one of the best books I read this year was written twenty years ago and is almost perfectly sripted for a time like this.  Edwin Friedman, on his dying bed, typed his last plea for “calm, non anxious leadership” in “Failure of Nerve.”  He argued that there was an increasing amount of anxiety in the world and only the mature, calm people could lead us out of it.  But he did not type with rose covered glasses.  He did not sugar coat his words.  He knew and described bluntly that calm, non anxious leadership would invite a scary amount of persecution.  The only thing worse than acting like a 5 year old is acting like an adult in a room full of 5 year olds.  If you don’t overreact they accuse you of not understanding the severity of the situation.  If you do overreact they hit you with the accusation of hypocrisy: “And you say you are the mature one!”  In my case it is even more cruel.  “And you call yourself a pastor!”

I tried being a five year old to save the five year olds a few times this year.  It didn’t work and all I found was frustration and misery.  So next year I think I’ll try being an adult again.  Friedman is absolutely correct that there will probably be more misery and frustration there.  But at least when 2017 draws to its close, I’ll have something I don’t have now, namely, “integrity.”

What’s Pastor Kevin Watching: Tom Hanks on SNL

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The last few months I have heard over and over again the lament about how difficult it is in the current cultural climate to get along with people who disagree with you.  The minute you express an opinion you are labeled as an us or a them and the conversation is over.  That drives me nuts.  I just want to be friends and talk about movies and football and occasionally Jesus.

Even those things are controversial any more.  We seem to live in an age when the lines that divide us are being drawn in ever bolder ways and nobody seems to have a way to begin erasing some of them.  This makes me sad and crazy worried for our future.

Then came Tom Hanks to Saturday Night Live this weekend.  I never watch SNL or take it very seriously.  It isn’t just because of the crass nature of the show but lately the skits have just been sloppy with dumb punchlines and lousy writing.  But SNL is still a fairly solid institution that digs deep once in awhile to deliver something true and beautiful.  They did so during 2008’s presidential election.  They delivered again in 2012 when a children’s choir began their Christmas episode by singing “Silent Night” in honor of the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary.  Last night they did so again, albeit with a great assist for Tom Hanks.

The opening debate spoof was humorous enough but after the beginning credits Tom Hanks donned an overcoat and sat down to give Americans some great “Dad” advice for moving forward.  “Your complexion is getting darker but don’t let it bother you.”  “Do you really need so many guns?”  and the like.

But the epic brilliance came when Tom Hanks crashed a “Black Jeopardy” skit as a back woods cowboy sporting a patriotic T-shirt and a Trump hat.  The host, played brilliantly by Keenan Thompson asked three contestants a variety of questions that poked fun at inner city black culture.  Surprisingly, Hanks’ Trump supporter answered every question perfectly but he was speaking about his own rural culture.  Thompson’s host and the two other contestants were shocked as they began to bond with him.  At one point Thompson and Hanks exchanged an extremely awkward hand shake.  The moral was that despite the idiotic labels and stereotypes, inner city blacks have much in common with rural whites.

For thee years I lived and ministered in Kansas City’s inner city and then moved and spent 3 years in rural Oregon.  So I could relate to the skit in profound ways.  The cultures of rural Oregon and inner Kansas City were almost identical, even if the skin colors were different.  I felt completely at home in both places and it wasn’t until I moved to suburban Salt Lake City that I now feel completely out of place.

More than that, I loved the awkwardness of the Keenan Thompson’s host.  He acted the character with a complete unease and visible cautiousness as he tried to tip toe around the white guy.  There was this uncertainty about just how this Trump supporter was going to mix with the others.  When the white guy answered the questions perfectly, Keenan was noticeably shocked and thrilled each time.

Something in Thompson’s performance resonated with me on a deep level.  As a pastor, I cannot find a better image for my vocation in this awkward, divisive world.  Every Sunday morning I am the awkward and cautious host.  I get up to face a group of people from drastically different backgrounds.  I have liberals and conservatives and hispanics and whites and wealthy and homeless in my congregation and when they all get together I am visibly terrified about how this is all going to go.  Like Thompson’s host, I tiptoe around things while trying to urge them into deeper conversation.

Most of the time it goes extremely well.  Like Thompson’s host I find myself smiling and nodding and saying, “yeah, yeah, that’s right man!  Yeah, good job!  I’m proud of you!” and then attempting the awkward handshake.

What I loved the most about Thompson’s performance was though he was terrified he kept the game going.  There was a quiet courageousness in his character that I loved.  He kept stepping up to the plate and ended the skit with an excellent punch line, “After commercial break we are going to play the national anthem and just see what happens!”

That is me every Sunday morning.  After our opening song I stand up and face that room of highly diverse people and say, “Good morning.  Let’s sing some songs and pray a bit and talk about the Bible and see what happens!”  And then I pray hell doesn’t open up and swallow us whole.

It hasn’t happened yet as we continue to dig deeper into God and into each other and realize that we have much in common and our dumb labels are just that, DUMB.

The More You Read, The Less You Know

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A bit under a year ago I made the big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG’s as they are called) to read 100 books over the 2016 calendar year.  It was a hard goal to commit to and has been a harder goal to pursue.  Right now on August 22nd, I freely admit that I will never do this again.  On January 1st I will gladly drop back to my usual pattern of reading one book a week.

The books I have conquered have not all been easy 100 page self helpers with one point chapters.  Over the last month I completed Martin Luther’s 350 page “Bondage of the Will” and read three systematic theologies all running over 300 pages.  In addition, I have kept to my usual pattern of reading 2 or 3 news articles a day, every issue of TIME magazine and a few religious periodicals as they become available.

Since it is August 22nd, I should also freely admit I am not sure why I am doing this.  Initially it had something to do with the fact that I did second grade twice.  Since then I have always felt like I was a year behind my fellow colleagues.  This is the year I catch up!

The reasons for the BHAG go deeper than that.  Every older pastor I respect has impressed upon me that pastors must read and that they must read a variety of books from a variety of fields and perspectives.  On the same note, I know several pastors who don’t read, or only read very selectively, and almost to a person their ministries, especially their sermons, are theological disasters.  Some of them pastor large churches but they are peddling cheap forms of consumer religiosity, not the deep truths of God’s Word.  I don’t want to be them, even if it means being a small church pastor for the rest of my life.

With that said, the more I read the more I distrust reading.  In fact, over the last several months I have come across several quotes by historical figures who themselves read very widely and deeply.  Yet at the end of their lives they recommend Christians just read the Bible.

A.W. Tozer, who wrote 40 books himself and was known for reading several more, is one of the more blunt ones.  In sermons he preached towards the end of his career that are now published as “Life in the Spirit” and “How to be Filled With the Spirit”, he recommended his congregation not read too many books other than the Bible.  He argued that we could trust his judgment in this because he had read so many books himself.

I am quickly agreeing with Tozer.  It is quite possible that in the very near future I will tell my congregation, “my job is to read books so that you don’t have to.  And trust me, that is a great act of love and sacrifice on my part!”

What Tozer may have known is that the more you read, the less you know.  It has all ready been commonly said that the goal of an education is not intelligence or rote memorization of data or even acquisition of a skill, but humility.  One of the jokes told to us in college was that if we graduated thinking we knew something, my alma mater would have failed me and I would deserve a $100,000 refund.  Sadly, I know some of my classmates who deserve the refund.  But the more you study, read, memorize and practice, the more you realize you don’t know anything.

There is a vast universe of information out there of which the smartest of us have only grasped an iota.  The more I read the more I discover things I was flat out wrong about, or had not even the slightest idea existed.  The more I read, the more I know that I know not.  Everything I thought was true proved wrong by another turn of a page.

Also the more I read, the more I realize the authors don’t know what they are talking about either.  They are almost as limited as I in their grasp of reality.  Take Martin Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” where he quotes Romans at length.  Over the last century new archaeological findings from the 1st century Roman empire, including several written documents, have proved most of Luther’s exegesis of Paul misleading.  On top of that, the holocaust awakened scholars to the long neglected awareness of 1st century Jewish thought and literature.  Post holocaust we understand Paul was much more Jewish than Gentile and our Gentile readings of his letters are incredibly inaccurate.  Poor Martin Luther didn’t know that.  He was a victim of his time and place and of the information he had available to him at the time.  Because of that he also advocated for the Holocaust centuries before his followers would actually carry it out.  One Lutheran historian noted that you can’t blame him for his antisemitism.  He was merely acting out of the common sentiment of his time.

Aren’t we all?  I too am a victim of my own time and place and so are all of the many authors whose books I have been devouring these last months and years.  Don’t even get me started about present day “journalists” who seem to be more victim to their context, which in this case is internet clicks, than anybody has ever been!

Realizing this to be true, what could I possibly say from the pulpit on Sunday?  We might be wrong about everything?  There is a futility to existence that I know not how to answer?  Don’t ever read anything by anybody because they are probably wrong?  Martin Luther was a heretic?  John Wesley probably was too?  But don’t worry, you and I are definitely worse than either which is why we keep their stuff around and insist that at least our pastors study them!

All of that may be good, especially for our time and place where people are growing increasingly arrogant about what they assume to be true.  However the second half of Tozer’s advice rings truer.  The Scriptures are far more profound than anything I have yet discovered.  The Scriptures ring truer, reveal more and inspire us to virtue more than any other document yet produced.  I have spent my 32 years on this planet studying them, memorizing them, learning their languages and I have yet to discover their depth. And I am sure that I will spend the next 40 to 50 years of my life continuing to pore over them only to continue to discover new territories of God’s wisdom and grace.

For this reason, the more I read the more I find myself quoting books from the pulpit, but not to say, “See here, this author has something to teach us.”  But to say, “See here, this author maybe should have read Scripture more closely.  See here, this author might have been wrong because Scripture teaches something else.”  Or on a more positive note, “See here, I didn’t read Scripture well enough and this author pointed out to me something I had missed in the text.”  “See here, our God is greater and more loving than even Luther or Wesley or Tozer or Lewis or Chrysostom or even our modern day authors have yet discovered!”  They help us dig a bit deeper but Scripture reveals to us that there are much greater and deeper ravines of God’s great love yet to explore!

After all, Scripture teaches us over and over that it is not about what you know, but it is about who you know, that all loving but all encompassing, great three in one, one in three personality we label God and the Hebrews called YHWH!

See here, I read many books so that I can continue to encourage you to spend your life reading the one Book and getting to know the one God!

The True Problem With “Legalism”

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I am a pastor in a holiness denomination, maybe THE holiness denomination.  We were the largest and most successful grouping of churches to arise out of the 19th century Holiness Movement and our favorite hymn “Holiness Unto the Lord” is truly our watchword and song.  I find myself talking and thinking about holiness a lot, a lot more than, say, my reformed siblings.

One of the things I find myself pondering as I think about our watchword and song is that nasty four letter word, “legalism.”  The word is used so much by so many Christians these days that I am not sure it means anything any more other than, “bad Christian.”  With that said, it originally referred to a short lived period of US church history where the ethics of various denominations became fundamental.  In college I learned it was my generation’s job to repent of that time and help lead the denomination in a new direction, but not so much that we turn to another four letter word “antinomianism” or lawlessness.

A fascinating side note in all of this is that in the “Legalism Era” other Christian denominations were just as legalistic as we were.  Today, many of them still are if not more so.  I often wonder how the Baptists, who often don’t seem to have any theology of holiness at all, still throw people out of their churches for things like playing Magic: The Gathering or reading Harry Potter.  All that to say at least legalistic Nazarenes have an excuse and a theology that pushes us towards legalism.  After all we are not the ones saying, “everybody sins every day in thought, word and deed” and then throwing people out of our churches for sinning every day.

Thinking beyond that interesting side note, I often wonder what the real problem with “legalism” is.  I really don’t think it is having a biblically based, church established ethic.  Every social gathering ever known to humanity has had an established ethic.  It is what makes communities possible.  For example, I recently ran past a Yacht Club who seems desperate for new members and is advertising heavily in our community.  Desperate though they are, if you don’t buy a new yacht they still won’t let you join!  Are they legalistic or do they just not want their yacht club to turn into a “whatever vehicle suits your fancy club?”

I think our problem isn’t really that we enforce and hold ourselves to a biblical ethic.  I think the problem with legalism is the age old problem of treating good advice as if it was biblical mandate.  I think as we try to be a holiness people in the world, we hit several gray areas, times when a simple yes or no doesn’t seem to suffice.  In those areas we survey all our options, pray and come up with some good advice about what might be the best way to act in that situation.  Many times we are right.  But then we begin to apply that advice to others as if this is the only absolute right thing to ever do.  Then we practically force others to follow suit or else we begin talking and thinking about them as “lesser Christians” not because they won’t follow the commands of the Bible, but because they won’t listen to our obviously good advice.

To further explain what I mean I want to think through 2 case studies.

The first is the “Focus on the Family” parenting and family advice.  In 1977 a Nazarene psychologist named James Dobson began “Focus on the Family” as a way of helping parents raise better children.  Dobson was and still is a very accomplished psychologist and for the most part did an okay job at fusing biblical parenting ideals with the 1980s North American culture.  Many parents have read his books, followed his advice and seen great benefits.  It was the kind of awesome thing that can happen when a Christian takes both Scripture and their cultural context seriously.

The problem arises when in 2016 Dobson has a massive group of followers who have turned his good advice into biblical principles.  I personally know several parents who have been driven from their churches because they didn’t agree with Dobson’s advice or just didn’t have time to read his books.  When I talk to some of Dobson’s people they seem to believe that James Dobson’s books should be added to the canon of Scripture and are normative for faith and practice.  If his advice isn’t followed you are considered a bad parent and a horrible Christian.   This is one case where our good advice has supplanted the gospel in the lives of our church.

Another example would be protecting ourselves from false accusations of sexual misconduct.  Unfortunately this has become a major area in clergy education.  I have had to and will again have to sit through many seminars about how to protect myself against accusations.  This is badly needed for our day.  We live in a very anxious and paranoid time and the most harmless of accusations have ended otherwise successful pastors and even closed down a few churches.

The advice in these seminars is extremely valuable.  Don’t be alone in the same room as a child.  Don’t drive a child home alone.  Don’t drive alone in a car with a member of the opposite sex.  Always meet with a member of the opposite gender in public.  When you do have to meet alone in public by all means make sure your spouse knows all the details about it.  I try to live my life by these rules.  It is unfortunate that our society is so judgmental that I have to but I do have to!

But these are not biblical.  Nowhere are any of them even suggested in the Bible.  In the Bible Jesus draws water from a well with an adulteress in the middle of the day when no one is around!

The problem here is that when we tell someone, “well you might be innocent but you were stupid for not following MY advice about how to avoid accusation” we are putting the most judgmental people in control.  And whatever you want to say about the Christian ethic, one of its foundations is “do not judge or you will be judged!”

In fact, the Hebrew word “Satan” literally means the “judger” or “accuser.”  When we falsely accuse people and then declare them innocent of the crime but guilty for making yourself susceptible to accusation, we are basically telling the Satans in our church, “you can have free reign!”  We are literally handing the keys to our kingdoms over to Satan.

So follow good advice.  Do the hard work of deliberating about what is best in any given situation.  Pray for discernment always and often.  But don’t punish those who do not follow your good advice and by all means do not hand the keys of the gospel over to the most judgmental, accusatory people in your church.  Instead they need to be reminded that bearing false witness is a crime against the commandments and those who judge may wake up in a very hot, dark place on the other side of death while those who are just ignorant will finds themselves in the arms of mercy.