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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Reading, Writing, and the Arithmetic of Keeping Up

Reading widely in the evangelical world I encounter a lot of subjects. We’re writing on any variety of things but not always clarifying the issues. In discussions with Christians I'm often asked my opinions on so-and-so or their view of such-and-such. While I try to stay aware and informed with currents and who’s who, I don't always have enough interest or time to tune in or keep up. I’ve never been compelled to attempt omni-loopness, but like most of us I don’t want to feel myself out of the loop.

“The loop” feels increasingly loopy though—and sometimes more like a noose—in that keeping up with all the trends, controversies, and Kardashians of evangelicalism can be dizzying. I think we resemble T. S. Eliot’s poetic remarks in Choruses from the Rock:

"Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness,
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence,
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of The Word.

"Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

Ponder with me Eliot’s probes, one at a time. Where is the life we have lost in living? Living at the breakneck pace we do, we’re often only able to react not reflect. That’s great for Twitter feeds but the life we lose in this is the life of unhurried contemplation. We have knowledge of motion but not of stillness, of speech but not of silence. We are becoming a scattershot people.

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Wisdom is skill in living. It doesn’t make you dour such that we can tell who the wise people are by those who aren’t having any fun. Neither is the wise person so much an umpire of life distinguishing balls from strikes. For that a simple knowledge of good and bad, right and wrong will suffice. The wise person is more like an appraiser ascribing value: This is worth my time and attention and love and focus and commitment and energies more than that.

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? The world is awash in information now. But in all this digital flotsam and jetsam a lot of us are only treading water, having lost or never gained the knowledge of how to swim. My point is the one who knows how to swim maximizes his buoyancy. The ones drowning in the sea of information are trying to drink everything in. While the words are etymologically linked, mere information is not mature formation. Eliot was right: We have knowledge of words and ignorance of The Word, both.

Take the word/Word “gospel,” for example. I’ve just read a simple little book by Greg Gilbert entitled What Is the Gospel? Gilbert justifies its writing by taking his readers on a mini-tour of “evangelical preaching…books…websites…[where] you’ll find one description after another of the gospel, many of them mutually exclusive” (p. 18). He then cites examples: the gospel is new wine that requires one to get rid of his old wineskins; the gospel is the good news that God’s face is always turned toward you; the gospel is syncing with the way of Jesus; the gospel is living in the reality of God now—here and today. Gilbert summarizes:

“Is the good news simply that God loves me, and that I need to start thinking more positively? Is it that Jesus is a really good example who can teach me to live a loving and compassionate life? It might have something to do with sin and forgiveness. Apparently some Christians think this good news has something to do with Jesus’ death. Others apparently don’t.” (p. 20)

It’s a jumble out there. “Endless invention, endless experiment”—with things we’re not supposed to experiment with, really. Again, all of our writing is not always clarifying the issues. And our impulse to originality confuses the original. If I didn’t have theological degrees I think I would be confused by a lot of today’s evangelical witness. What precisely am I supposed to know and believe?

Here’s how I figure it: We should keep up less and get behind more. Get behind two or three subjects you’ll determine to know well for the glory of God. You don’t need an opinion on every controversy. Nor must you buy the book everyone’s buzzing about, especially if you haven’t read Christianity’s greater and more enduring works. For every new book you read, read an old one next. Slow down. Fix your concentration. Discipline your loves. Simplify before you diversify. And the God of peace be with you.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Speaking for a Living

In his book The Grand Weaver, Ravi Zacharias relates a traumatic hospital experience to his maturation in ministry. Zacharias had major back surgery and needed to be carefully turned onto his side in his bed. The call button he pushed summoned a nurse unfamiliar to him, who insisted that she could turn him singlehandedly instead of getting assistance. Before he knew it, the nurse placed her hands directly under Zacharias’ back—right on the surgical site—and pressed to lift him. Zacharias almost blacked out from the pain.
“What’s all that padding you have on your back?” the nurse said as she roughly withdrew her hands. “The surgical site!” Zacharias snapped, tears streaming from his eyes. “I thought you had a hip replacement,” the nurse said. “I didn’t know you had back surgery!” When Zacharias’ doctor learned of it later he was outraged.
A similar thing happened to my dad after his first knee replacement. The day came for the staples suturing the incision to be removed. But the nurse assigned to the task might as well have employed a chimpanzee to do it. She ripped each staple off his leg as Dad wailed. It was such a harsh experience for my dad that after his other knee was replaced he took the staples out himself—cutting each staple in the middle to pull out the points without ripping his skin. His doctor didn’t blame him after what Dad went through before.  
My own unfortunate-experience-with-a-nurse story involves vasectomy. We won’t go there.
But here’s where Zacharias goes in his book:
“The nursing staff was supposed to assist the healing process and aid in the recovery, yet this nurse didn’t even know the nature of my injury. How could she be of any help in the healing process? I couldn’t help but think of my younger years in ministry when I carelessly uttered words of castigation against certain persons, things, and behavior, acting like that nurse as I plunged verbal blades into already sore spots. It’s so easy to lash out and cut and condemn with prophetic zeal. Pulling someone down is easy; building someone up is difficult. It takes a mature and patient heart to heal with a tender touch without compromising one’s convictions.” (p. 139)
That’s the kind of heart I endeavor to display in preaching. I too can remember, painfully, times when I used words to pulverize persons, places, or things that didn’t gibe with my reading of the Scriptures. Or times when I was just insensitive, like the Sunday years ago when I stood behind a lectern and took pot shots at a certain anxiety medication. I had the congregation howling as I mustered my best rhetorical flourish to wonder aloud why anyone would subject themselves to side effects that seemed to create more anxiety than salve it. Now you’re worrying about diarrhea! Why not just try not worrying as Jesus prescribed in Matthew 6—duh!?
It was a small congregation, 120 folks or so. I noticed one of our ladies excused herself. Later I learned she went to the foyer to cry. You guessed it—she was on the medication I was pillorying for cheap laughs before I made my “more serious” spiritual point. She told the woman who found her there that she didn’t want to take the anxiety meds, but after all she’d been through…. (She had witnessed her ex-husband murder her father.)
I felt lower than low. I made her feel that in swallowing a little white pill every morning at breakfast she was disappointing Jesus. She was gracious to receive my apology that afternoon. But I learned something valuable that day, albeit at her expense. I learned that a preacher is not primarily a comic but a minister. It’s fine to make people laugh—laughter can be good medicine (Prov. 17:22)—but I crushed her spirit with my mocking missives. I’m putting this purposefully paradoxical, but my own depression diagnosis in 2007 cured me of insensitivity to people’s pains.
Currently at First Evan I’m preaching a series on the church. Yesterday’s message was on Matthew 16:13-20 and I took time to note the different conclusions Roman Catholics and Protestants have reached on Peter’s role among the apostles. After one of the services an elder expressed appreciation that I took evident care to present the Catholic position fairly and without rancor. He told me that his Catholic niece had once attended an evangelical church service in which the preacher savaged Catholicism, mostly by erecting and destroying straw men. My elder’s niece was so upset she made an appointment with the pastor to find out why he was so keen on misrepresenting what her church taught. He told me, “I’m going to send her your message as an example of how it should be done.”
I’m grateful to God for his words because they’re progress markers. I have intentionally worked to temper my pulpit tone through the years, even as my convictions have deepened. In fact, the more my convictions have deepened the less need I feel to prove them. And so I’ve made it my homiletic practice to be fair to opposing views as I present mine. I also check the desire to scold the culture for being ungodly. Sin is sin and I’m obligated to point it out. Some immorality and/or doctrinal erosions are worth denouncing and correcting with prophetic zeal. But rubbing people’s faces in it is tantamount to enjoying the fact of human depravity.
In this vein I remember back to another years-old Sunday. A cousin of mine, not an evangelical, was in town and attended our church to support the family. At the time, the movie Dogma was out. I railed against it during my message, galled that Alanis Morissette could be cast as God. God didn’t take such offenses against Himself lightly, I thundered.
Afterwards, my cousin asked me if I’d actually seen the movie. Picture me standing there with my cousin, who had seen the movie and liked it, while he corrected the details in its plot that I miscommunicated in my rant for righteousness. I could tell he thought I lacked credibility; that he would have more readily allowed my displeasure with the film if at least I’d seen it. And he was right. Rather than piquing his interests in the gospel, I repelled him. Our congregation had nodded in approval as I derided the makers of Dogma. But what my cousin heard was a preacher being dishonest to art in order to defend God’s honor (which God doesn’t need me to do).
Everyone verbally stumbles, James says (Jas. 3:1-2)—right after saying not many should become teachers! Even yesterday, late in the afternoon while taking the garbage cans to the curb, I suddenly remembered something I said in our third service and was immediately conscience-stricken, wondering if a certain couple I know were possibly affronted. It was an offhand comment made toward the end of the message. But it touched on a life situation for that couple, and they could have easily misconstrued my words. Hopefully they gave me the benefit of the doubt.
In moments like that I reproach myself and wish I could go off on a silent retreat for a month. Such are the occupational hazards in speaking for a living. But more hazardous perhaps is living to speak, because then you must have your say and be heard. Like Zacharias’ inept nurse, such preachers are sure they can move people themselves even though they don’t know what they’re doing, and so they can press on people’s pains as well as create new ones, supposedly in the interests of truth. This doesn’t make preaching more divine. It makes it less human.