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!

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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.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading/Watching: The Big Short

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If you look at the tumultuous decade at the beginning of this century, a number of very notable events stand out.  September 11th, 2001 certainly rises above the rest as the defining moment of the decade.  With it stand the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Bush’s election in 2000 and Obama’s in 2008 are certainly notable.  Then sometime in the Fall of 2007 or Winter of 2008 Wall Street investors stopped buying Subprime Mortgage Backed CDO’s.  The trillion dollar market entirely disappeared.  .  .and for months nobody admitted it.  The bankers behind the CDO’s covered it all up, still valuing their CDOs as if people were buying them but in September of 2008 5 trillion dollars disappeared out of the US GDP in a single week and suddenly everybody knew.

Since then several politicians, bankers, investors, reporters, authors and even Hollywood studios have tried to explain to the average U.S. citizen what went wrong.  What happened was so incredibly complex that your average voter with an undergrad degree in Art History will never take the time to understand it and your average banker still is not able to understand it.

Michael Lewis offers one of the most successful explanations in the “Big Short.”  He tells the story of the 2008 collapse through the real stories of four investment firms who made billions in 2007 and 2008 because they knew what was happening and shorted the whole market.

The producer of “Anchorman” (yes, the Anchorman starring Will Ferrell) picked up the book and turned it into a movie which came out last year.  My wife rented the movie and we watched it last week and after viewing the film I just had to read the book.  It was one of those rare cases where I was delighted to watch the movie first because there is no way I would have followed the book without picturing Steve Carrell and Brad Pitt as their various characters.

Both the book and movie are a must read and a must watch, albeit for adult audiences.  There is a high amount of language and a bit of nudity.  To be honest, I was okay with the language because after studying the factors behind the 2008 recession I want to spew profanity too!

Click to buy!

In that vein, both the book and the movie start out as comedies.  The four heads of the investment firms can be pulled from the stereotypes of your average CBS lineup.  Michael Burry, who was the first to discover the absurdity behind the subprime mortgage market has Asberger’s and doesn’t understand sarcasm, which means everyone thinks he is a sarcastic jerk.  He wears shorts and baggie T-shirts and listens to heavy metal music while trading and absolutely hates people.

Steve Eisman is a very blunt, very rude, prone to anger banker whom you either love or hate.  At one point right before the crash he was attending a conference workshop where he jumped up in the middle of the presentation and accused the presenter of being stupid.  In the middle of his tirade his cell phone started ringing, to which he yelled, “I have to go take this call.  It’s my wife!” and stormed out of the room.

Greg Lippman is a conman’s conman.  He is totally honest by being ridiculously smarmy.  He plants ideas in your head by using the form, “I’m not saying you’ll make so much money you’ll be sleeping with Penelope Cruz but.  .  .”  Steve Eisman’s employees hated Greg but Eisman loved him because, “his self interest is so obvious.  I respect that about him.”

There was also two college grads who started trading out of their neighbor’s shed and took 110,000 to millions with the help of an apocalyptic, doomsday forecasting banker who not only foresaw the 2008 economic collapse but the as yet not happened collapse of San Francisco bay into the Pacific Ocean.  “I have to hang up now.  I just realized I need to sell my house.”  And he did and they didn’t hear back from him for 3 months, after he had moved further inland.

Along the way they met strippers with 5 subprime mortgages, a nanny who owned a 750,000 home, and the chief investor of Goldman Sachs who was participating in a debate with Steve Eisman arguing that his Goldman’s stock was sound while the stock plummeted to $2 a share.  One brave college kid asked him, “Would you still invest in Goldman’s stock now that it has halved in the time you were speaking.”  The investor had zero idea it was happening because he had turned his phone off.  When he said, “of course” the audience booed him and stormed out of the room.  The only person left was Alan Greenspan who was scheduled to be the next speaker.

That was the only problem with the “Big Short.”  I felt like I was reading a fantastically well done novel only to research various tidbits and find out all this stuff did actually happen.  Our world is so much more absurd than you can ever imagine.

Even the short traders, Eisman’s clan in particular, always assumed there was someone sitting atop the pile of corruption who knew what they were doing.  They really believed there was a moral voice at the top governing the whole thing and when that person emerged , they would lose all their money but the U.S. economy would win.  So far that person has not materialized and the U.S. economy is still losing.

Michael Lewis, the author, records that they all knew Wall Street was corrupt.  It was when they realized Wall Street was also stupid that they decided to short the whole market.

As the book and movie end, comedy turns to tragedy and the absurd becomes aggravating instead of entertaining.  After all, nothing has changed since 2008.  The government bailed out Wall Street with zero stipulations or demands for change.  The banks who were given the billions of taxpayer and Chinese dollars used no small amount of that money to hire lobbyists and invest in political campaigns that would maintain the status quo.  Yes, your read that right.  They are using our taxpayer dollars and nations ballooning debt to pay politicians to continue to empower their corrupt stupidity.

And Bernie Sanders, one of only two national politicians who seems to care about this (the other being Elizabeth Warren) just lost the primary to an opponent who gives speeches to Goldman Sachs for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I don’t know what to do about all of this as I sit here alone in my kitchen taking a break from writing a sermon on Joel.  I do know the prophet Joel’s repeated calls for us as a society to “lament” and to “mourn” are certainly resonating.  I am not so much angry as I am sad because in the words of the movie version of Steve Eisman:

“We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball… What bothers me ins’t that fraud is not nice. Or that fraud is mean. For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught, things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.”

 

As I Prepare to Preach on Pentecost Sunday

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The wind is blowing a gentle breeze outside.  As I type these words I can hear its swooshing sound and see the trees outside my office sway.  Three Sundays ago the wind was blowing at 50 miles per hour and I was at home sick while my associate preached.  At that point I was a little bit sad Pentecost wasn’t then because God’s Spirit is breathe and God’s breathe is 50 miles per hour and more mighty.

As in answer to prayer the wind is still blowing today, albeit with much less force.

The wind blew my hair as I unlocked the doors of the church this morning.  I was reminded that the church is the content of the breath of God.  The Spirit is the breath but as the Spirit breathes, we are what it pulls in and then sends out.

In the same way that when I take a breath I am pulling in some weird mixture of Nitrogen, O2 and CO2 (among other things) and then breathing out a similar mixture, but with more CO2 than O2, the Spirit breathes in this weird mixture of holy and sinful people and then breathes those people out, but with more holiness than sin.

As I stepped in the door I turned to look at the two giant trees that grace our front lawn.  I was reminded that they also breathe in and breathe out only their breath is the reverse.  They give us more oxygen and through it more life.  We give them more carbon and through it more life.  They do our part.  We do ours.

I have always appreciated the trees for that very reason.  Without them, we have no life.

What I have not always appreciated is that my breath is just as valuable to them as they are to me.  Without my breath they die.  Without my gift they wither.

Today, on Pentecost Sunday, we remember that glorious day when God’s breathe blew over all creation.

In spiritual (Spirit-ual) worship we are breathed into God.  In benediction we are breathed back out to all creation.  We are breathed in sinful and breathed out holy.  However, we are not breathed out for our own benefit or own pleasure.  Holiness is not for the benefit of the saints, in the same way that my CO2 does nothing for me.  Holiness is for the benefit of the creation, for all creatures of our God and Kingdom.

Pentecost happens so that the saints may heal the hurting.

So that the saints can fix the broken.

So that the saints can love the unloved and unloveable.

So that the saints can reconcile the enemies.

So that the saints can comfort the afflicted (and yes, afflict the comfortable)

So that the saints can adore the ugly and entertain the lowly.

Pentecost happens so that a Holy people can redeem the world.

Happy Pentecost Everybody!

Holy Wednesday Reflection: The Power of Resurrection

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I don’t know when the last time you were tested was.  It could have been clear back in high school or the early days of college.  It could have been a recent certification for your career or even a job interview.  My guess is that very few of us find those experiences fun.  Nerve wracking is probably a more adequate description than
“entertaining.” And I assume you probably want the test to be over long before it actually ends.

The worst tests I have experienced in my life have been from miniature satans.  The Hebrew word, “satan” actually means accuser and I have met my fair share.  They are always innocently provocative, pretending like they are just doing their job for king and country and the betterment of humankind.  Their accusations are anything but. They come at you with everything including the kitchen sink. They have been keeping a list of your wrongs and they have reached the point where they believe you need to know. So they corner you and let it all come out.

My only option at that point is to listen and to keep my own temper in check. There is nothing but to endure it and hope it is over soon.

In Mark 12, as Jesus teaches in the temple, the satans come out.  The chief priests take their first stab, blatantly attacking Jesus’ authority.  After their accusation fails to stick, the Pharisees take their turn, asking about taxes.  After they fail too, it becomes the Sadducees turn.

For those of you whose only experience with the Sadducees is from that Sunday School song, they were not actually all that sad, you see.  But they did flat out refuse the possibility of a resurrection from the dead.  Their slogan may as well have been, “you only live once.”  This put them at odds with everyone else around at the time.

But in Jesus they may have seen an opportunity to endear themselves to their opponents.  So Jesus’ public testing continues as the Sadducees bring their most convoluted critique against the resurrection.  They propose a very complex hypothetical concerning marriage.  “Suppose a woman was widowed 6 different times forcing her to marry 7 different brothers.  Whose wife will she be when everybody rises from the dead?”

Then I am sure they sat back in their smug arrogance, assuming that they had just stumped the famous teacher, as they had probably stumped many others.  But Jesus does have a reply and as his reply to the Pharisees looked forward to his death, so his reply to the Sadducees looks forward to his resurrection.

“Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!””

I think like the Sadducees we do not know the power of God displayed in the resurrection.  I think sometiems we get caught in this assumption that the New Creation will be just like the old one except without death.  We simplify the reality of the resurrection of our bodies down to a cheesy romcom with a happy ending.  We catch ourselves arguing, “New creation will be everything we enjoy about this life and none of what we don’t.”  Or worse, “In the new creation we will get unlimited freedom to do whatever we want without consequences!”

I am not sure that is what Jesus is arguing to the Sadducees.  Instead Jesus is advocating that the resurrection will touch every corner of our creation.  There won’t be any institutions, establishments, nations, companies or people that will not be fundamentally changed and that includes even our sacred marriages.

As we look forward to Easter morning, we look forward to a cataclysmic, apocalyptic and fundamental change upon the world where everything we know is radically altered.  Our eating, our drinking, our entertaining, our relationships will all be transformed by the new creation that God has wrought upon our existence.

And that is fundamentally good news!

Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, create in us new hearts again today that long for the resurrection of the dead and the great new life to come!

My Ash Wednesday Homily

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I plan on saying something similar to this during Ash Wednesday tonight.  Hope those of you who are not there will still enjoy it.

I love Joel.  I love that it is one of a few books in the Bible that has its own holiday in Ash Wednesday.  Sure we Joel shares the ashes with Genesis 3 and Is. 58 but don’t be fooled.  This holy day is all about Joel.

There are a few things I love about Joel.

For one, I love how short and vague the book is.  It is only 3 chapters, snuggled there towards the end of your Old Testaments between Hosea and Amos. It’s about an army or an army of locusts or maybe just locusts.  Who knows?  Regardless it is quite apparent that Israel’s got a problem.  This army is destroying everything.  I love the line in 2:3 that says everything in front of them is the garden of Eden and everything behind them is wasteland.  I know some people like that (just kidding).

There aren’t any easy answers to the problem.  There doesn’t seem to be some Wal-Mart pesticide they can spray around the crops.  They don’t seem to have enough soldiers in the army to actually go to war.  It’s bad.  It is a bitter day, a dark day.  They didn’t know the way out.  Our garden is about to become wasteland and there is nothing we can do about it.

Another thing I love about Joel is that Joel is one of few of the prophets to not play a blame game.  There is no announcement of judgment or criticism.  Joel doesn’t point the finger at any particular group and say, “this is your fault.”  It might be implied that some sinfulness is to blame.  The others certainly go that way.  But Joel doesn’t go that way, at least explicitly.  Joel seems to be more concerned about the future than the past.

And Joel’s forward looking solution (if it can be called that) is this, “let’s return to God because God is gracious and compassionate.” (2:13)  I don’t know how to solve the problem but I know the problem solver.  Let’s give him a call.  Let’s get him in here and see if he might help us.  Let’s return to God.  Let’s get the whole assembly together from the young to the old.  Let’s postpone the weddings and get the pregnant moms out of their hospital beds and let us fast and let us pray and see what God might do.

The next thing I love about Joel is the open ended question right there in the heart of chapter 2:14, “who knows?  The Lord might have a change of heart and leave a blessing behind.”  Contrast that with the army that leaves a wasteland behind.  If we go to God and if we plead and pray and beg and fast then God just might relent and bless our socks off.

This is the movement of Lent.  The other 310 days out of the year we seem to collect horrible problems without easy solutions.

I think of the movie Lethal Weapon 4.  Mel Gibson and Danny Glover begin the movie by going out fishing.  As 90s action movies go, they end up getting in a shootout with the Chinese mafia.  Mel Gibson goes home to his wife and he is all banged up and she says, “You were just going fishing!  Do you go looking for trouble?”

And Mel Gibson says, “No, trouble knows right where to find me.”

I can relate.  Trouble’s got my number.  I have problems.  My problems got problems.  Most of them are my fault.  A few aren’t.  But none of them, not one of them are easy to solve.  Like all of you I am a victim of my own personality which brings it with bad attitudes and bad choices but we also have to deal with each other’s bad attitudes and bad choices.  And most days the weight of my own helplessness is too heavy to bear.  I bring this up because I think you all might be able to relate as well.  We are victims of our own dumbness and we can’t help ourselves and we can’t save ourselves.  There is no bootstrap tough enough to pull ourselves up by.

So 310 days out of the year I have problems without solutions.  I tear my hair out trying to find a way that I can just look at myself in the mirror with some dignity.  I try solutions and they fail miserably.  I brainstorm new ideas and people laugh at them.  I try to reconcile and end up sounding more bitter.  .  .and being more bitter too.  I have problems and I don’t know the answers.

But I know the great problem solver.  I know the great redeemer.  I know the great forgiver.  On Ash Wednesday, this special day, as we look back at 310 days of sinfulness and the trouble and problems it causes, maybe we need to hear Joel again, “Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.   Who knows whether he will have a change of heart and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?”

Who knows?  Maybe the army will turn back or even be overcome?  Who knows?  Maybe those locusts will all die?

Who knows? Maybe one day your problems won’t have problems.  They will have solutions!

Who knows?  Maybe one day there will be reconciliation and forgiveness between you and those you hurt?

Who knows?  Maybe one day about six and a half weeks from now there will a glorious and new morning where Jesus rises from the dead to proclaim forgiveness, to be our God and to leave a blessing of eternal life behind?

Who knows?  Maybe there will be a better day, a newer day, a glorious day we call salvation where we will be God’s people again!

I would welcome you tonight to wait for that new day by receiving the ashes and eating the Eucharist meal.  The ashes are a reminder that without Christ we are dust and will return to dust.  We wear them boldly but not proudly.  We are not proud of our own sin and our helplessness but we boldly proclaim that our sinfulness is not the end of the story.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A Very Stupid Book

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I had a college professor that always assigned one lousy book a semester to read.  He claimed we needed to read stupid books so we don’t become stupid people.  The reasoning was that stupid books teach critical thinking in a way good books never will.

Under his thinking, I grew a lot yesterday afternoon.

You see, every year I get a free book in the mail from a forgettable organization that specializes, I assume, in giving pastors free books.  This is now the 4th book I have received from them and the other three were worth reading.  They weren’t ground breaking but they were practical, helpful stuff.

This new book was a step lower.  It might have been the worst book I have read in some time.

It was called “Growing God’s Church” by Gary L. McIntosh.  Apparently Gary McIntosh led a research team that interviewed a bit over 1,000 new Christians and new church members.  Their questions focused on how and why these people had come to Christ.  The book was published to help pastors reach people better.  On that premise, this should have been a book worth flipping through for an hour on a sunny afternoon.

However, very strangely, the book didn’t begin with the results.  Instead McIntosh spent five chapters trying to argue that evangelism should be the only goal of the church.  He retold the four gospel stories and Acts as if they were 1950s gospel tracts.  McIntosh wanted his readers know not to be fooled by what Jesus actually said and did but to know that Jesus really just wanted to get us into heaven and recruit us to preach the 4 point Romans gospel.  He even argued that the only reason Jesus showed compassion was because it was an incredibly effective evangelism means, not for the sake itself of compassion.  Don’t be fooled.  God isn’t love.  God is evangelism.  God only loves to dupe us into praying the sinner’s prayer.

His exegesis of the gospels was more the eisegesis type.  Eisegesis is the frowned upon practice of taking your preconceived ideas to Scripture to find proof texts.  McIntosh seemingly all ready knew that getting people into heaven was the most important thing and he did not want to be bothered by what the gospels actually say, just to know that Jesus agrees.

His most blaring example came from Luke.  In Luke Jesus begins his public ministry in Nazareth by proclaiming that he will “make blind see, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hear and to proclaim good news to the poor.”  (Luke 4:22)  Then Jesus goes out and does almost exactly that to real life blind, deaf, sick and poor people.  Later Jesus even sends a message to John the Baptist, pointing to the actual miracles he had accomplished as proof that he was the Messiah.  Gary McIntosh brings this up and uses it to argue that Jesus only came to help the spiritually blind, lame, sick, poor and that Jesus didn’t actually care about actual blindness, this despite the fact that Jesus actually made blind men see.  But McIntosh decided it was just metaphorical so it is.  This is just one example of many I could cite.

The research was questionable too but, to be fair, all research is.  For one, his sample size was too small and limited to a few denominations.  He made some wild generational claims that I don’t think will hold true throughout lifespans.  He points out gender and generational differences that were statistical ties but uses the fact that one was .5 higher to argue that everybody in that demographic are that way.

His main assertion in the second half of the book is that family members make the best evangelists.  He argues we should nurture and use that.  Ironically I do wholeheartedly agree and think his research does validate that.  More than that he has some okay ideas about how to go about it.

Also, even though I loathed McIntosh’s eisegetical interpretation of the gospels, he still referenced a few verses that I had not thought of in quite some time.  I have been studying the use of the word “glory” in John’s gospel and McIntosh quoted one of the “glory” verses I had not yet noticed and that verse at first glance does seem to support his thesis and not my own.

But those random useful snippets are not what made the book worth my time.  It is incredibly easy to get stuck in the rut of only reading things that fit my preconceived notions.  Most of my books come to me from the suggestions of colleagues in my own tradition.  Those books are good but I sometimes wonder if it is a waste of time to read things that tell you everything you all ready knew.

In turn, it might not be a waste of a Monday afternoon to read a book from someone in a completely different theological tradition.  He quoted verses I hadn’t noticed and suggested things I would not have thought of.  Even though I disagreed with him, at least I now know why and how his tradition sees things.

In the end I might take a chapter or two to my outreach team to help them think critically about evangelism in our local community.

In my professor’s thinking we might have McIntosh’s stupidity to thank for the elimination of our own.  Or maybe I am wrong about everything and he is right.  We only find out when Jesus comes.

Until then, have a great Valentine’s Day!