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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Few Thoughts on 1 Corinthians 3

“So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas (Peter) or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” 1 Corinthians 3:21-23
Today, while working in an Old Testament text for Sunday’s sermon, I was cross-referenced to the above passage.  The Corinthians—perhaps the most contemporary of ancient biblical people—displayed a tendency we know too well in American evangelicalism.  Paul referred to himself and Apollos and Peter as “servants and stewards” (1 Cor. 3:5; 4:1).  But to a fractured Corinthian fellowship the men became their “princes,” in effect (“It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes,” Psalm 118:8-9). 
Groups in the Corinthian church had congealed around their favorite servant, crowning and elevating him above the others.  Between Apollos and Paul and Peter themselves there was no rivalry.  But different people in the church were endeared or repelled or unimpressed with Paul or Peter or Apollos.
Apollos might be the unnamed guy whom Paul references in 2 Corinthians 8:18, “the brother” who was renowned in the churches for his gospel preaching.  I make this plausible linkage only because of what’s written of Apollos in Acts 18, that he was a great orator and rhetorician.  So it is easy to see why some Corinthians preferred him.  Great teaching gifts!  But we also learn in Acts 18 that Apollos was not the best theologian. 
Paul, a great theologian, was criticized by some Corinthians for not being a very good preacher (2 Cor. 10:10).  And yet some were saying, “I follow Paul.”  And why not?  Courage, conviction, strength of character, doctrinal depth—Paul!  A personal testimony of a life radically changed after meeting Jesus in extraordinary circumstances.
And Peter—all that personal time with Jesus Himself!  To shake Peter’s hand was to shake a hand that had touched Jesus Christ in the flesh numerous times.  Peter could tell personal stories of travels with Jesus.  Top that, Apollos and Paul!  So some of the Corinthians yet preferred Peter, because there was just something extra Jesus-y about him, you know?  Peter, however, wrestled at times with some implicit Jewish elitism, as we see in Acts and Galatians 2.  Peter was still just a man, as was Apollos, as was Paul.
Apollos, Paul, and Peter ministered to a church too focused on making servants princes.  Evangelicals simply make too much of church leaders today.  The celebrification of ministry means more church leaders are in brighter spotlights than ever before.  Radio and internet give us 24/7 access to great teaching and Christian conferencing is its own industry.  It feels uniquely Corinthian how we talk of leaders and leadership today.
Men have to be part of the mix because God calls men to lead His church.  God has purposed to use people to build His church.  And so it is just as Corinthian to disdain church leaders.  There are those who never encourage or affirm a leader in his role because they think it their duty not to “puff him up” with praise.  But the opposite of boasting in men is not to bash them.
Men are vital but we’re not absolute.  It is Jesus’ church.  Only God is both vital and absolute.  Men come and go.  But Jesus remains, “and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Assessing Value

Our garage at home currently resembles something like the queue on Antiques Roadshow.  We’ve placed my grandmother’s dining room set in there along with a solid oak S-roll top desk.  These two furniture items, along with a couple other things, are in the garage awaiting sale as soon as I get around to notifying Craigslist.  Recent remodeling in our home has displaced these items from our usefulness.
But what price to ask for these items taking up my wife’s parking spot?  Grandmother’s mahogany dining room set is antique but in need of some refurbish.  The desk, acquired from a family friend years ago in return for helping him move, is also old in the way we like things to be old: handsomely well-built with multiple cubbies and drawers.  It’s the kind of Americana you see in a Norman Rockwell painting, something an avid fly-fisherman would keep his meticulous ties neatly organized in.
Unable to locate a manufacturers’ mark or date on these items, I resorted to looking for similar furniture online and found pictures and suggested prices.  One auctioneer’s website was especially helpful in assessing the value of what I have.  I now have some numbers in mind for what I’d like to get for the buffet and table and chairs, and the desk.  But how can I know for sure that my numbers are right?  I have fears of someone showing up for the desk, let’s say, only too happy to shell the bills into my hand because I way undershot the worth and they know it.  Something like it turns out I have a desk a Revolutionary War hero made and I was happy to get $500 for it.  The guy I sell it to contacts Sotheby’s and sends his kids to college on it. 
Because of this fear, I sought the pricing advice of a recommended antiques store in the area.  Took pictures of the pieces in my garage and loaded them onto my iPad.  Showed up at the store and was first told, flatly, they wouldn’t buy from me.  Fine, I said, I was looking more for advisement anyway—just a ballpark recommendation from those in the know, based on the pictures, what price one-not-in-the-know might ask for his furniture.  But the store was cold to that request, I suppose because it seemed to them like aiding competition.  A glimmer of help finally emerged when I was apprised of an appraiser I could call and provided his number.
I don’t want to call the appraiser though because I don’t want to pay him to come to my garage and tell me what someone else should pay for our items.  So I am going solo on this, for now—no compass, wits against the antique furniture world.  I know what I’ll ask for our items and believe it is a fair price.  And if Thomas Jefferson arranged for the Louisiana Purchase seated at our desk I don’t want to know that after I sell it!
Still, for confidence sake, I wish I had more of this skill of the appraiser I will not hire, this skill of assessing the true value of things.  I’ve long admired those who are really skillful at value assessment (just not enough to pay them for it, right?).  But I’m thinking more of value assessment as a life skill. 
Do I rightly assess the value of the place I work or the people I’m with, for instance?  My kids will sometimes, as kids do, rundown their school in exasperation because they’re tired or disappointed.  Their perspective is limited by their immaturity.  They don’t know the wider world as I do; they don’t know truly how to assess the value of the education they’re getting and how well they have it in the school they’re getting it in. 
We say privileged kids like them should never complain.  Privileged adults like us should never complain either even in a recession.  Have you seen the pictures from Somalia?  And yet complaint is a natural part of life in a fallen world.  It signals that we know something better awaits, not just that we long for it.  It can mean one is only world-weary, not ungrateful.
But like the nicks on Grandmother’s dining room set and the coffee cup stains on the desk, if complaints accumulate over time they can diminish the value of people, places, and things.  We can then adopt a kind of “as is” approach to our lives that is fundamentally defeatist; the value of what we have is lost on us if we think this or that or he or she should be more or better.  I’m not speaking absolutely against improving one’s situation or striving for better in one’s career or attempting something new.  But many have done this only to discover later that the places or people they launched out from were more valuable to them than they knew: they were really loved in that little church; she had the finest of neighbors in the old neighborhood; his salary was smaller but free-time greater with his previous company.
Like Moses asking God to teach him and the people he led to number their days rightly for gaining a heart of wisdom (Ps. 90:12), I’m crafting a similar prayer for value assessment: Teach me, O Lord, to keenly and appreciatively assess the value in life of all you have richly provided me—familial and vocational, relational and material, experiential and aesthetical—so that I don’t squander or sell off cheaply what is meaningful and good, even priceless, and so that I live before you wise not ignorant, for all my days, until you come.
(By the way, the pictures below are of the actual items for sale: if you’re interested.  My blog readers may be subject to discounts!)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Competency Extrapolation

In John Dickson's excellent work Humilitas, I am introduced to a concept I've noticed in myself, alas, as well as others, but heretofore never had a concise name for: "competency extrapolation."  This is the malady of conflating opinion with genuine expertise.  Or to put it more simply perhaps, it is when you or I engage in you-don't-know-everything-there-is-to-know-Mr.-Smarty-Pants gamesmanship with someone whose subject competency is truly greater than our own. 

Dickson cites as his example a friend of his who believed the doltish historical assertions in The Da Vinci Code were true.  Now, Dickson holds a PhD in ancient history.  If anyone could set his friend straight on Dan Brown's Gnostic varnish job on the Gospels it was Dickson.  But it was just because his friend was such a renowned engineer, highly intelligent in his field of expertise, that he argued with Dickson for the historical integrity of a novel that had none.  Competency extrapolation.  "Because his judgment about things mechanical was so astute and widely sought after," Dickson concludes, "he backed himself on matters far outside his speciality" (p. 53).

We all do this at times, Dickson observes.  Some of us slip into competency extrapolation more easily than others: if, for instance, we're used to being an opinion leader or shaper of others' thinking, such as in my work as a pastor.  I'm asked to render reflection and critical judgments on all manner of matters civic, financial, vocational, academic, domestic, political, historical, and theological (and even medical on occasion, though I’m not that kind of doctor!).  I know this is because I am generally trusted and regarded a competent life-guide, for which I am grateful.  I do seek the Lord's incomparable wisdom continually.  But there is so much about these and other fields I know little to nothing about, including my own field of expertise, theology.  It is well said that the more you plumb the depths of God the more you realize how out of your depth you really are with Him.

I remember some TV show about doctors in which the patient, a young woman, would consult Google on her smartphone in her hospital bed while the doctor discussed her condition with her.  She then argued with his recommendations, having instantly found second opinions online to back herself with.  That's competency extrapolation in extremis.  (Citing Latin right there when I don't know Latin might qualify too!)  Or take that memorable scene in the movie Good Will Hunting, when Robin Williams showed Matt Damon his competency extrapolative scoffing was a cover for deep insecurity: “You’re an orphan, right?  Do you think I know what that’s like because I’ve read Oliver Twist?”

We witness the dynamic of competency extrapolation all the time: in the stands at ballgames when fans, who've watched a lot of football, therefore know better how to play the game than coaches or players; in parent-teacher conferences when Mama, who studied education in college, suggests to the youthful teacher that her lack of experience is why her son, who refuses to work, is failing; and in the armchair theologian who's led "countless" Bible studies, that indomitable Sunday morning quarterback whose question for the preacher after his sermon has just enough edge to it—just enough mustard on it—that it's obvious the congregant thinks his pastor doesn't know what-the-Heaven he's talking about.

The antidote to competency extrapolation is the practice of that kind of humility that refuses to overreach.  Humility that recognizes competency or expertise in one area of life does not translate into competency in all areas.  This is why theologian John Stackhouse included a chapter in his book Church called, "I Have No Opinion.”  He writes, “It is a good intellectual and spiritual discipline for opinion-mongers such as myself to admit limitations and stop talking” (emphasis his, p. 36).   

Likewise, I've come to regard it a mark of spiritual growth to admit that sometimes I just don't know what I think about a particular issue, or what you should think about it either.  The surprise is how often this seems to disappoint people.  I think this is because modern American culture is a lot like ancient Athens, which Luke describes as a place where “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21).  In other words they (and we) loved hearing themselves talk.

I love responding to weekly questions for the Faith in Memphis blog (, though I am a little embarrassed how often pieces of my responses are making it into the Saturday paper.  But not everything I'm asked to write about is in my depth.  This week's question, for instance, is about immigration.  It's not an issue I've kept up with much—beyond taking in an episode or two of Border Wars on the National Geographic channel.  So my commentary needs to honestly (and humbly) admit this or else I'll extrapolate.  That's a refined way of saying I'll posture, or write checks with my ego my intellect can't cash. 

I'm fascinated by a variety of subjects and read widely; I sure want to know more than I do.  But I can’t keep up with everything—every theological dispute or debate, every current issue, etc.  I can’t even keep up with everything going on in my church and home!  So the next time you ask me about something and I tell you I don’t know—I really don’t know.  But far from finding this a place of ignorance, it’s a place of deeper wisdom and better humility.

Friday, August 12, 2011

What About These Fretful Times?

I'm up at Faith in Memphis with thoughts on "times like these":

Monday, August 8, 2011

Dispatch from the DMV

I met a woman at the well (see John 4) moments ago. I write this from the DMV. We're here to get Caleb's driver's permit. Banished to the waiting area while Caleb is tested, the only empty chair was next to a beautiful young woman, around 20, with two small kids in tow. From her appearance I could never guess her story. She looked like a young Germantown mom.

Her four-year-old girl spoke to me, so I volunteered for conversation that I have five kids, including a four-year-old boy. The mother then said something you don't hear everyday: "My daughter and I just got out of foster care."

Three babies have been born to her by different fathers. She was first a mother at 15. My Caleb is 15 today. Her stepfather, the only dad she knows, has been imprisoned for the last nine years but gets out Wednesday. She's worried that he won't return to her mother, whom she adores and now lives with, because her mother is imprisoned herself, by alcoholism, and the stepfather has said he won't go back to her if she's drinking.

I never asked her name, but she's at the DMV because she needs a picture ID to retrieve her birth certificate, and yet also needs a birth certificate to receive a picture ID! She can't register her oldest daughter in Kindergarten without it, and is stuck in a bit of bureaucratic limbo. She seems to me implacable in the face of this frustration, one who remains poised to a challenge, and she's had many. Her foster care was disastrous and abusive. She was sent to homes where the foster parents were in it only for the money. She's the one who paid.

I told her that my four-year-old is adopted, and of Lynn's and my interest in foster care; that I've written for publication and advocated in our church for this. It's an arena in which too few Christian families venture, and our salt and light is missed by people like my seat mate in the DMV waiting area. She's going to church now and has a pastor she can confide in. She knows the taste of living water and wants to stay close to the reservoir, to make things different for her kids. It's obvious to me she's an intelligent, well-spoken girl. I urged her to try to pull close to some ladies at her church for encouragement and wisdom.

She prays a lot. She told me about yesterday at her church, how the pastor addressed addiction issues. Her voice quietly trailed off, "Yesterday was a good day." I said, "It really is one day at a time for you, isn't it?" She nodded and wiped her eyes.

It occurs to me that when I say "yesterday was a good day" it never has a context of desperation attached to it because I haven't lived in dire straits. Dire Straits for me is a band that was popular when I was 15, in the early days of MTV. For her it's the runaround at the DMV and most everywhere else she goes except church, thankfully.

But I pose the question: where was the church when she needed a solid home, she and her little daughter? Why is the foster system not flooded with evangelicals providing homes? How many of our people have the room in their homes and their hearts? One good home with foster parents in it for redemptive reasons would have made a substantial difference to her whole life, and even the lives of her kids. For most of us, our yesterdays were mostly good days. Our todays are even better. We can do some really good things about the tomorrows of more than a few.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Free Labor

I am not handy.  I do own a chainsaw and thus my Man Card remains valid.  But I am not deft with hammer or drill, skill saw or measuring tape.  My aptitude is for working with words not wood.

However, I am the son, and son-in-law, of men who are very handy and are together engaged in an improvement project at our home as I write this.  They have knocked out a wall separating two rooms we would no longer tolerate the barrier between.  Now our living space is much more open.  All we have to do is paint when they’re finished.  They’re also rewiring and improving some lighting and vents.  These two indomitable seventy-year-olds can do it all: carpentry, electrical, drywall, plumbing, tile.  And they enjoy the work and working together.  Our kids get the rare treat of having both grandfathers together at their house.

Lynn and I get the rare treat of free labor.  The work our dads are doing for us would cost thousands of dollars if we contracted it.  We’re out only hundreds for materials.  I know they could roof our house too if they set themselves to it.  But as we want both of them around a while longer we’ll stick to conscripting inside projects on the ground.  They do have to go in and out of our attic though, an area of our house I’ll dub this week “Fahrenheit Heights.”
And yet no labor is really free, is it?  Someone pays something for everything “free.”  We’re monetarily paying for the needed materials bur our dads are paying too in quantities of time, exertion, and mattresses on the floor in kids’ rooms.  To say we appreciate all they’re doing is an understatement.  But with family you don’t have to overstate appreciation either.  Our dads are happy to do for us because they love us.
I’m thinking over lunch today about what they’re doing for us—knocking out the wall—how this parallels to the ultimate act of “free labor.”  It’s in Ephesians 2: how Jesus’ Father knocked out the “dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) to create an open living space between God and man.  The Son paid the cost in His own flesh.  But it’s free to us as a labor of love.
I will think of this now when I’m home in that part of our house, this parallel to Ephesians 2.  I’ll see where the wall used to be and think appreciatively of our fathers and what they put themselves through to do this for us.  Our house is more open and spacious and free because of their “free labor.” 

But I’ll also think appreciatively of how our Father works and what He knows how to do, how He opened up a way to Himself in love and has freed me to enjoy a spacious grace.