Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Value of Church History for the Pastor

Quoting someone to extensively in a sermon can be a distraction. But quoting and learning from the heroes of the faith can be reaping the fruit of that which God has cultivated in His Church through the ministry of His Word.

As a pastor, your people do not want you to plagiarize--indeed we ourselves do not want to lie, cheat and steal. We must not plagiarize. Give credit where credit is due. A laborer is worthy of his hire. If we learn from the exegesis, preaching and ministry of another, we must give credit. If we quote we must cite.

However, if we too frequently quote someone else you are considered a cheat or a hack who has somehow not walked with God. If you cite the influence of Luther’s theology of the cross, Calvin’s doctrine of God’s Word, or you account being moved to zeal and worship through Athanasius treatise on the Incarnation, suddenly you can be treated as if you had not actually handled God’s Word for yourself.

It is a most peculiar frustration, a Catch-22. Do no plagiarize but do not acknowledge too much that we all stand on the shoulders of the greats. If a hero of church history influenced you too much somehow God has not caused the growth--you have not walked with God but with men, so we are told.

The reality is that godly men handling God’s Word can stir you to godly thoughts. Anyone who has been moved be preaching knows this. They can drive you to the Word. They can show you things in the Word that have their authority and basis for belief arising from the Word and not man. Nevertheless the Spirit used a man to open you to the treasures of His Word.

Yet most want pastors to have original thought. Some do not want a pastor too dependent upon the past. It is considered that if the pastor has learned from the greats, he is not all that great nor very godly having walked with men instead of God--so the thinking goes. To have a pastor and preacher find something new and unique that he quotes from no man--now that is godliness. It is considered that “God has spoken directly to Him.” This is personal but history is impersonal.

To the contrary: originality is a wrench in the toolbox of heretics. It is a noose for the most horrendous of wranglers. Originality can be a sign of pride, of a puffed up heart. It can be the sign of a weak mind that is crafty and scheming rather than a resolute mind who walks with God and amongst the heroes of the faith. Am I so bold as to think that I will have insight, knowledge and a “voice” that God has given to no man before me? Am I so arrogant to think I can craft a theology that is independent of the great men of God and so equally independent of the very Word of Life that enlivened them?

As pastor must never be dead, feeding of the scraps of history that have fallen to the floor. But a good and godly pastor should know his place at the table. He is dining on the meat of God’s Word all the while knowing the delight of table fellowship with men who have done the same. Sometimes our best thoughts into the Word of God are stirred by the Spirit when we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mercy for the Doubting

Over at Storied Theology this week, J.R. Daniel Kirk commented on (black) and quoted an excerpt from Christianity Today (in red):
"Drew Dyck’s “The Leavers” strives to give a balanced assessment of both the reality of young people leaving the church and the prognosis for their return. There are several sociological factors that make a return with the advent of marriage and children less likely than it was in earlier generations.
But the point that interested me most was when he probed the reasons given for folks leaving.
Almost to a person, the leavers with whom I spoke recalled that, before leaving the faith, they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts. Some were ridiculed in front of peers for asking “insolent questions.” Others reported receiving trite answers to vexing questions and being scolded for not accepting them."

Today, as I prep for Sunday School, I ran into these verses:

17 But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, 18 that they were saying to you, “In the last time there will be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.” 19 These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit. 20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life. 22 And have mercy on some, who are doubting; 23 save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh. 24 Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, 25 to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. 
Jude is all about watching out for false teachers and contending for the faith that God has given to the saints. So there will be mockers and ungodly who creep into the church and they are to be resisted and corrected with correct teaching.

But then there are others who are doubting and you have to help them and be merciful to them. You have to build them up and show them Christ's love.

For the contentious unbeliever in the church you don't cast your pearls before swine. But for the ailing lamb that wrestles with doubt: you must be gracious and merciful and nurse them to health. You must be like a nurse aiding in childbirth rather than the CDC irradiating a contaminant.

The problem is too many Christian never use Biblical wisdom to discern between a wolf and a baby lamb. We end up shooting the sheep thinking that we are contending for the faith rather than seeing that contending for the faith entails being merciful with those who doubt. This means we address the issue but with gentleness, compassion, and empathy, sympathizing with their weakness in faith just as Christ sympathizes with ours. We do not put on a stiff upper lip of authoritarianism that spouts route answers. By the same token when the Bible and the faith provides assurance, answers and hope we must give the reasons for our hope.

The bottom line: yes there are mockers but all doubters are not mockers. We do a disservice to Christ when we treat a doubter like a mocker (and vice versa). Far too many Christians have driven others away from the faith because they could not be merciful to one wrestling with doubts. They rebuked when the should have nursed mercy.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Should I ask: 'What Does it Mean To Me?'

Here's a good post from a guy I went to college with. He writes:
Recently I’ve been asking this question more and more. It has been impacting my preaching so that when I read a text or think through a sermon, I keep asking, “How does the gospel fit into this?” “How does the gospel change the application?” I think too often we look at a sermon or a text and ask the question, “What does this mean to me?” and in the end it doesn’t matter what it means to me, it matters what it means. Or, another way, when preaching instead of giving a bunch of steps:  3 ways to fix your marriage, 5 steps to getting out of debt, 7 P’s of purpose (all of these aren’t bad), but I want to ask, “How does the gospel change the way you think about money, debt, about your marriage, sex, emotions, needs, your goals, etc.
The Bible is applicable in all that is teaches. It is profitable for correction, teaching, rebuke and training in righteousness. But one thing we should be asking do we have a "me-centered" approach to Scripture? Do I come to God's Word expecting it to teach me something by virtue of what it is? Or do we come with an expectation that the Bible must bend itself around me and what I think I need? 

Following up in FB I wrote:
Too often people want X number of steps or a 'what does it mean to me' and the temptation then is a pastor never filters the application through the gospel. I've often asked are we as pastors creating the 'moralistic therapeutic deists' that we say the is not the gospel-centered Christian the Bible lays out for us.

To which Josh responded:
I had a prof in seminary who said the dumbest question we ask is "What does this mean to me?" as if God is sitting in heaven on the edge of his seat to see what we'll come up with. He said we should ask, "Of all the things God could have put into scripture, why this? Why did God inspire this to be written? Why have these words lasted for thousands of years for me to read them now?" It changes how we read Scripture and what we look for in it.

I once heard David Dunbar say "Instead of saying 'Apply the Bible to your life', we should 'apply our lives to the Bible.'" The idea is that it makes you think which one is immovable and which one should be formed to fit around the other.

Most people who say "What does it mean to me" no doubt have good intentions. They are asking about how they should obey or apply Scripture. What is Scripture asking them to do. However more and more the emphasis is becoming "What does it mean to me?" The problem is when I become the emphasis as if I figure out where the Bible fits into what I already hold to be true or what to go and do.

What I am arguing is that the Bible as to form and fashion me into something else rather letting myself become the standard.

In that, rules and lists of 'go and do' are much too simplistic. Rather the emphasis in Scripture is "God has done, no you can 'go and be'." We need to get the indicative and the imperative right.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Education and Ethics

Here is an interesting article on a person who writes for a living by completing papers, projects, assignments and thesis as contracted out by student. The essay is quite scary in the sense that for so many education has become about image and not learning.

This part was most disgusting:
I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow. I have been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America's moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution. All in all, we may presume that clerical authorities see these as a greater threat than the plagiarism committed by the future frocked.

IF you are a seminary student: how dare you hire someone else to do your work and your labor and take credit. Similarly, if you are a pastor: how dare you hire someone to write your sermons. 

One of the problems is that education today is assumed to be an entitlement. A child MUST go to college and subsequently colleges overtime lower their standards to the lowest common denominator. Very few question: is college for everyone? What ever happened to the respectability of trade schools? With the proliferation of degrees, now Masters degrees a considered common stock, and indeed doctorate degrees too. Yet we would not go to a medical doctor who had not done their own work, yet if this essay in any indication we have countless individuals in all fields of the humanities, liberal arts, and other 'soft sciences' that are paying others to do the work.

This is just terrible.

The temptation is to turn this into something that is adventurous: 
"You've never heard of me, but there's a good chance that you've read some of my work. I'm a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can't detect, that you can't defend against, that you may not even know exists."

As you read the account, the author details about people who love to boss others around but have little ability to actual communicate using proper English. Sadly for most success is measured by the results and pragmatics so that as long as I get ahead, who cares how I got there.
"I, who have no name, no opinions, and no style, have written so many papers at this point, including legal briefs, military-strategy assessments, poems, lab reports, and, yes, even papers on academic integrity, that it's hard to determine which course of study is most infested with cheating. But I'd say education is the worst. I've written papers for students in elementary-education programs, special-education majors, and ESL-training courses. I've written lesson plans for aspiring high-school teachers, and I've synthesized reports from notes that customers have taken during classroom observations. I've written essays for those studying to become school administrators, and I've completed theses for those on course to become principals. In the enormous conspiracy that is student cheating, the frontline intelligence community is infiltrated by double agents. (Future educators of America, I know who you are.)"
What is amazing though, is this research writer is excellent at selling a product. He/she certainly works but he does need to do the work of real research and evaluation. He doesn't have to weigh arguments and sort data--he can just skim, scan, collate and produce:
"I haven't been to a library once since I started doing this job. Amazon is quite generous about free samples. If I can find a single page from a particular text, I can cobble that into a report, deducing what I don't know from customer reviews and publisher blurbs. Google Scholar is a great source for material, providing the abstract of nearly any journal article. And of course, there's Wikipedia, which is often my first stop when dealing with unfamiliar subjects. Naturally one must verify such material elsewhere, but I've taken hundreds of crash courses this way. 
After I've gathered my sources, I pull out usable quotes, cite them, and distribute them among the sections of the assignment. Over the years, I've refined ways of stretching papers. I can write a four-word sentence in 40 words. Just give me one phrase of quotable text, and I'll produce two pages of ponderous explanation. I can say in 10 pages what most normal people could say in a paragraph. "
It almost gets Orwellian about the use of language. It extremely easy to use language to sound profound and intelligent rather than actually using it to concretely communicate things. At times succinctness is a greater sign of profundity than verboseness. I am not knocking true intelligence, vocabulary and an ability to craft clear penetrating scholarship. But notice:
"I've also got a mental library of stock academic phrases: "A close consideration of the events which occurred in ____ during the ____ demonstrate that ____ had entered into a phase of widespread cultural, social, and economic change that would define ____ for decades to come." Fill in the blanks using words provided by the professor in the assignment's instructions." 
Unfortunately, towards the end of this article the write passes on the ethical blame. Don't blame me, I'm just providing a service. Ask why people would want me. It is, to put it mildly, unfortunate that the author would excuse themselves in such a fashion. Of course, their is enough ethical culpability to go around. 

Read the whole thing.

over at CATO they make this comment:
Again, we can’t know from a single ghost-writer’s experience if ed school students systematically cheat more in college than their peers in other fields, but we certainly shouldn’t be surprised if they do. We’ve organized education in this country in a way that decouples skill and performance from compensation, and instead couples compensation to the mere trappings of higher learning (e.g., masters degrees). We’ve created a powerful financial incentive for existing and future teachers to cheat. 

I am not against paying people fairly (including teachers), but this again goes to my point that competence and ability is not measure merely by the accumulation of degrees. I once heard from a pastor  a friend in his community complained to him about his pastor who was getting another degree just to rack up a higher salary. We would be silly to think that it is only in the educational fields where people see compensation coupled to the trappings of higher learning. Higher learning is worth more if it is real learning with real work, effort and energy expended.

The true test of learning is not the degree but what one does in their life with said degree. Degrees should be the beginning of education and life-long learning not the end. To this end, I once had a professor in college who refused to hang his doctoral degree in his office. When asked about it, he said, I don't need to prove that I have a degree by hanging it on the wall rather the evidence of my degree and learning should be displayed in the classroom. I consider this man both humble and realistic: his life beyond the degree was a demonstration of the degree he had earned and the seriousness with which he studied and taught. (He was, I might add, the hardest professors I had in college, but I wouldn't trade my experience in his classes for the world).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why Star Trek?

Over at Mere-O they are offering a giveaway of David VanDrunen latest book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. One of the ways to enter was to give an apology for your favorite TV show to which I obliged them:

Why is Star Trek my favorite TV show?
(1) Because as a young boy is inspired me with adventures in a universe that was much bigger than earth. It was a source of enjoyment, wonder and adventure.
(2) It introduced me to epic themes and often used drama to engage in life events.
(3) It provided provided a vision of the future that was optimistic and hopeful. Unfortunately, it is a bit too rooted in modernism and it clashed with my Augustinian theological sensibilities. But this clash of worldviews is still stimulating and fun as it plays out in sci-fi.
(4) It has influenced pop culture for more than 40 years and has probably impacted said culture more than other television franchise in history.
(5) It’s impact on science and future scientists is almost incalculable as it has inspired real people to go out and do real things for the benefit of us all.
(6) It’s way more intelligent and far less mystical than Star Wars will ever be. ;)
(7) Five TV series, and 11 movies, probably secures it as the most productive science fiction drama ever. (not to mention books, comic books, an animated series, countless fan productions, conventions, and memorabilia)
(8) It’s enculturated and adapted itself to every generation since the 1960s at the same time it offers continual subtle critiques of current themes and current events.
(9) I’ve learned some Shakespeare and classical literature from watching it.
(10) It gives me something to theme my blog around and retain my geek creds in an area beyond just theology and Biblical studies.
(11) It has created its own subculture in the world of fandom.

Not sure how serious they were for that way to enter the contest, but hey, they said it, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

Next time, maybe I'll offer a two kingdom theory on Star Trek-- Christians can enjoy culture after all ;).

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Genesis 1-3 and the Kingdom of God

Here is a paper that I have been working on for a denominational study committee. At this point I am just uploading the draft but I hope you can enjoy it. I welcome comments and feedback by email or in the comments below.
"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...