Me with my lovely wife, Kathy:

Saturday, December 30, 2017

My Nomination for 2017 Word of the Year:

It's the last day of 2017. I'm ready for church, but have a few minutes before we need to go, so  I figured I'd do what seems to be the in-thing to do at the end of the year--declare a word as the word of the year.  Most of the "Words of the Year" seem to be assigned that status because so many people have looked the word up in some database, or done a search for it on the internet. My word of the year received that distinction because it is one that has been central in what I've been doing since January a year ago, and because it has been at the heart of the work of Pacific Islands University, the ministry within which I serve.

It's been a remarkable year for Kathy and me, and Pacific Islands University. I wasn't supposed to be here on Guam. Kathy and I had already purchased tickets to return to Palau, to serve in the extension PIU used to maintain there, and to work with the Palauan Evangelical Church. PIU's President, Dr. Dave Owen found out he was sick when he landed in California, for what was supposed to be a couple of weeks long visit to the US Mainland. He, and his wife, Joyce, have yet to return. It turns out that his ailment was a potentially deadly form of cancer, T-cell Lymphoma. The last year for Dave and Joyce was filled with chemo-therapy, scans, kidney failure, a bone marrow transplant, and thankfully what appears to be a complete recovery.

About the same time that we at PIU were dealing with Dave's diagnosis, we also had to deal with the departure of a much-loved Academinc VP and the announcement that Spring 2017 was the last semester that our VP for Student Development, and her husband, our Maintenance Director, would be with us. Then a wonderfully sweet volunteer teacher--between her and her husband, they taught a full-time load each spring--had jaundice. The diagnosis went from hepatitis, to gall-bladder, to pancreatic cancer. She never got out of the hospital. Another husband-wife team has been serving under a far less than ideal situation. Because of an aged father who needs care, and the utter incompetence of US immigration, this couple is separated by thousands of miles. He here, and she in Europe.

It was only partly in jest that I referred to our campus at the "Village of Job" (For you non-Bible types, that's Job, sounds like "Joe," with a "B" on the end. Read the first two chapters of the Bible book by his  name and you will understand why.) Those calamitous problems were stacked on an institution that was already thin on staff, short on money, and working hard to adapt to rapidly changing needs in this part of the world. My status went from "the guy who sits in the president's chair," to Interim President, to President. For an old preacher who found it humorous that he was a member of the Board of Trustees for PIU, that is a steep learning curve.  Kathy? What was anticipated as a four-month absence from home, has now become a year-long establishing of a second home. Like me, her status has changed over the past twelve months. She has grown from sweet, to sweeter, to the sweetest person I know.

So, perhaps you can understand why I am declaring FAITH as the word of this year that is coming to an end.

Faith means a lot of different things. In making my declaration I embrace some of them, and reject one outright. Let me deal with what I don't mean, first:

There is the Oprah, Hallmark, for you old-timers, the Norman Vincent Peale idea of faith. It is an act of the will, an almost magical (or according to some you can remove the "almost") power that we humans have to make things better. Some have called it "faith in faith." You just have to believe. Not only does this kind of faith, so-called, not deliver, it can often make things worse. Well-intentioned, wrong plans executed with the utmost faith are still wrong, sometimes destructively so. Actually, 2017 has been very been instructive in confirming the lesson that really, I have no control. I can't trust in myself and my abilities, especially in my pseudo-ability to conjure up good things by thinking and feeling good thoughts. Cross that one off the list. It's not what I mean.

Biblically faith often refers to a set of truths. This use of the word has been brought into our world, by the admonition, much more common in my youth than now, "Keep the faith." That great servant-leader, the Apostle Paul, was able to say, just before his death, "I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7). Jude found it necessary to counsel Christians living in a time of moral decline (sound familiar?) to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints" (Jude 3). There is a body of truth that one ignores at his own peril, and often the peril of others. Down through the centuries, the followers of Christ have faced evil forces, which compelled them to forsake the faith--reject this body of truth.

They didn't. 

Another way to put it is to say, "We should believe in the truth that God has given us. If that is to take place, we have to know what that truth is. We need to be like Ezra, who had decided to "set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach" it (Ezra 7:10).  It takes work, Paul told his protoge', Timothy. to study, do his best, make every effort at mastering this faith (2 Timothy 2:15). I suppose, if God had chosen to do so, He could have given us an infusion of all the truth we would ever need. Instead, He gave us the Bible. He gave those who are gifted as teachers, and ordained that those who become Christ-followers should be a part of the church so we would have the benefit of her knowledge not only in the present but that accumulated store of faith-knowledge that goes all the way back to the time when the "Faith was once for all handed down to the saints." I have been privileged to grow up in a place and time that abounds with witness to, teaching
of, and encouragement in that Faith. Over the past year, it has been my privilege to be involved, in a more intensive way than ever before, in helping those who grew up in a less Faith-saturated environment to gain a better grasp of the Faith.

The lessons I have learned about faith in 2017 have been mostly about a properly focused version of the kind of belief that I rejected as deficient.
Years ago, I was privileged to speak at the baccalaureate service for my son's high school class. In preparation for the assembly, I took a piece of climbing rope and cut it into pieces, about six inches long. I'm far from being a mountaneer, but during my message to the graduates, I was able to tell them about an experience I had had rappelling down a rock face. I explained all the safety precautions that my guides had taken before allowing me to go over the edge. Basically, no matter how clutzy I was--and trust me, I'm good at clutzy--I would arrive safely at the bottom, as long as my rope was sound. On the other hand, the most skillful climber is doomed to disaster if his rope is rotten.  At the end of the baccalaureate, I handed each graduate a piece of rope, to remind them that in life, even more than in climbing, you better check your rope.
Faith in a lie is deadly. Faith in God's truth is utterly dependable.

While my task has been to be an administrator/teacher/encourager/fundraiser/public-relater in a Christian University, my experience has caused me to be a student in the school of faith. I'm learning that:
  • Those things that really matter are beyond my control. I've had to breathe deep, lean back into the rope, and trust.
  • The things that I can do may seem unimportant and small, but they aren't. The Lord trusts big things to those who are faithful in small things. 
  • Just because I do the small things doesn't mean that God will come through with the big things I have in mind. I'm not playing "let's make a deal" with the Lord of the universe. The fact is, I'm learning . . .
  • The big things I want often aren't God's plan. If I could make a deal with God, it would be a bad deal. Not because God is mean, actually it is the opposite. God is too good to allow the likes of me to draw-up the plan for the what is going to happen. He is too kind to allow me
    to plan the future. When it comes to what will happen after this moment in time that I'm experiencing right now, I'm completely clueless. 
  • Likewise the Big, really good things that God has in mind, are often things that I've never thought of.
  • The best I can do is to do what I'm supposed to do, as best as I can figure that out, and then leave the ultimate outcome to God. As if He needs my permission.
So, others can go with youthquake, complicit, or Feminism. For me the 2017 word of the year is FAITH.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Starting Churches or Scraping Gum

I don't know Perry Noble. I've never listened to him preach, or read anything he has written. I think, maybe, one time I heard him on a panel with some other pastors. I am sure, though, that God is not calling him to start another church.
From all I hear, Noble is a talented speaker. He possesses that "something" that causes we mere mortal pastors who slug (or in my case slugged) it out in in relative obscurity, to have to do battle against jealousy, envy, and covetousness. He led Newspring Church, not only to mega-church status but into a multi-site, cyber-connected phenomena. About a year-and-a-half ago Noble was removed from his pastoral role, because of a dependence on alcohol, and for other reasons. The elders at Newspring maintain that he is, at the present time, not qualified to lead the church.
My pastoral friends and colleagues who serve in church structures with a hierarchy of leadership will rightly point the finger to what is happening in South Carolina, and say, "There they go again. That is what is wrong with Evangelicalism." To underline the point and add an exclamation point, Noble says the new church will be named "Second Chance Church." If this one doesn't work out will there be a "Third Chance Assembly"?
I maintain that, as long as he is not breaking any laws, Noble has every right to gather a group of people and call it whatever he wants. I am equally convinced that those people who are attracted to such an assembly should not be coerced to not attend. They can go, give, and participate as they please. If anybody asks me, though, I'd tell them they shouldn't.
I currently live in Guam, where "America's day begins." Guam is a US territory. We are part of the USA, except when we aren't. Citizens don't vote for president. We have US Postal Service, but if you send anything other than a letter to the rest of the US you have to fill out a customs form like you would to ship to another nation. I see an eerie similarity to the way many Evangelicals treat the authority of local church elders. "We believe in the authority of the Elders of the local church, except when they disagree with me, do something I don't like, or stand in the way of what I see as my private word from God."
Earlier I said that some of my colleagues will be rightly critical of Evangelicals because of actions like Noble's. Let me qualify that a bit.

  • Not all Evangelicals are part of an independent church. Some Evangelicals function in churches with hierarchies similar to those of mainline denominations.
  • Most Evangelical churches are not mega, and most Evangelical pastors are not celebrities. In my life-long career, I think I shook hands with one pastor who had, what amounted to, his own plane. He didn't give me a ride. The Evangelical leaders I know drive smaller, non-luxury cars, live in modest houses--one each--and are more likely to be found eating at McDonald's than at a plush resort. To look on the doings of a tiny minority of Evangelical leaders who "achieve" celebrity as the standard for the rest of we poor clergy infantrymen just doesn't make sense.
  • While celebrity pastors are often able to find a group that will rally around them, after a scandal, there are many communities where churches, though independent, properly honor leadership decisions of other churches. (Though I don't know Newspring Church, I'm respecting the church's leadership in this article.) The churches I have been privileged to associate with would tell Noble, "Go back to Newspring. Work through the plan they have for you." I, and other colleagues of mine, in other churches, have told people who sought membership in the churches where we led, "Go back and sort out your issues with your former church, then, if you still want to join here, come back and talk to us."
  • In short, not all Evangelicals wear the same jeans and untucked shirt.
He didn't ask me--neither did Tullian Tchividjian, Ted Haggard, or any of the others who followed this route--but if Noble had asked my advice, I would have told him that for the sake of the body of Christ, the reputation of the church, for your own welfare and that of your family, for the benefit of those who will gather around you if you follow through on this "Second Chance" plan, DON'T DO IT! Go back to your church, submit yourself to that leadership. Act like, and live like the church is more than just your private domain for showcasing what you can do. You may need to scrape gum off the bottom of chairs for a while.
You fellow pastors didn't ask me either, but here is some free advice. DON'T ENDORSE THIS KIND OF THING. I don't care how good a preacher, leader, organizer, etc. someone is, they don't get to go to the head of the line. As the CT article referenced above indicates, this isn't about punishing someone. It is about protecting what we used to call a "sacred calling."
For you laypersons, know this: Most likely the best church for you is the one you are in. We need to evaluate church leaders more on Godliness than on "kewlness." A pastor who lives the truth he proclaims is what you are looking for.

One more thought: "The God told me" syndrome causes a lot of trouble (in my humble opinion way more than any good that comes from it). If we are dealing with Scripture, properly understood and applied, we can go with confidence that God is leading us, but the sanctifying of hunches, intuition, and desire packaged in sanctified--dare I say "sanctimonious"?-- language leads to all sorts of evils. That is why the church in the New Testament is led by a plurality of leaders, not one man who speaks as a prophet who should not be questioned.
If Perry Noble gets to announce that, contrary to the leadership of the church to which he belonged (belongs), and in opposition to the pattern of the New Testament, God is leading him to start another church, then I get to make my own pronouncement. Pastor Noble, God isn't calling you to start another church, right now. You need to scrape gum for a while.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Thoughts on scandal and accusation:

I published this over at STTA, but it is probably more apropos here. Hopefully it will engender some careful thought and constructive conversation.

The Hits Keep on Coming

Another one . . .

(Those of you who follow the news will recognize that either I'm late, or I sat on this for a couple of days. It is the latter. I realize that this is sensitive. I hope it isn't needlessly offensive.)

I received a text message today. It shared the news that Garrison Keillor was the latest famous guy to be accused and summarily fired over allegations of sexual misconduct.
I'm not even going to try to count. Suffice to say that in recent months some of the biggest names in entertainment, the news world, and politics have fallen. Others, against whom convincing accusations have been made, have thus far avoided the ax, but for how long? The current climate is clearly more open to hearing the accuser than at any time in the recent past. We can rejoice over that. Too often, and for too long the same power that was used to abuse those who were not in positions of power, was wielded to keep those victims from bringing the abuse perpetrated on them to light. For what it's worth it's not a new problem.
On the other hand: Was it during the Clarence Thomas hearings, when Anita Thomas accused the, now, Supreme Court Justice of sexual harassment, that this statement first became popular, "It's not the strength of the evidence, it's seriousness of the accusation"? Have we entered a time in which no male in any kind of public position could successfully defend himself against a serious accusation?
I don't know. It seems that the mood of the public is such that one need not even try. I have no way of knowing whether Garrison Keillor deserved to be fired or not. His comment is telling, though, "I’m 75 and don’t have any interest in arguing about this.”
Some would say that it doesn't matter if some innocent guy gets clobbered. It's about time for the shoe to be on the other foot. For too long those in positions of power have taken advantage of those who had little, if any, recourse. It's only right that power be given to those who follow in the train of those who were powerless. I imagine that there is a new breed of public relations specialist--experts at crafting statements that carefully skirt around matters of guilt or innocence, instead making sure that their clients are the first to condemn the actions of accused colleagues, whether accusations are real or imagined, because it is the seriousness of the accusation that matters.
If anyone has Solomon's email address, I would appreciate them forwarding it to me. Until I hear from the sage, though, let me point out some flaws in the current system, and offer a couple of suggestions that might move us in the right direction.
We absolutely should empower those who are treated wrongly, sexually, and in other ways, to be able to come forward and tell their story to the right people. Our Lord has a long history of sticking up for the weak. When the abused are throttled into silence the abuse and sin is compounded.
Yet, we dare not act as if every accusation is gospel truth. The Bible gives a high standard for receiving an accusation (1 Timothy 5:19). Though scripture champions the cause of the underdog, it cautions against perverting justice to even the score (Exodus 23:2-3).
Today's campaign against sexual abuse is taking place more in the newsroom and around the water-cooler than in the courtroom. Popular opinion is not a good standard of guilt and innocence. Just look at some of the fashions of the past, and examine the roster of those who have been elected to be public. The majority can be wrong.
Our goal should not be to make up for past wrongs to others, by what we decide about entirely different people today. Rather our response should be to repent of past wrongs and commit ourselves to seek justice in the present--it's not about evening the score, it's about doing what is right.

There is more, much more, to be said, but perhaps, for now, this is  . . .

STTA (Something To Think About)

Monday, August 14, 2017

If each of us empties our bucket, perhaps we can start a stream.

Normally, when people ask where I'm from I answer with a measure of pride. I'm from Virginia, not just Virginia in general, but a lovely little corner of the state called the Alleghany Highlands.

Though the construction of a highway changed it some, Thomas Jefferson visited that water fall, just up the road from my house. (It is pictured as it is now.) Not only is the area I'm from beautiful, it is made up of fine folk. My community is made up of people who wear hardhats and carry lunch boxes, lay down tracks and drive trains on them, love the forested mountains, yet use them as a resource to supply the world with lumber and paper. We catch trout, hunt deer, and cheer for Virginia Tech.
Though in many ways my part of VA is not like the
rest of the state, there are clearly linkages--not all of them pretty. In the graveyard where my parents are buried, there are a number of graves marked with the Southern Cross, the sign that the occupant of that grave fought for the Confederacy. Believe it or not, a lady whose father fought in the Confederate army attended the church I pastored. There is a monument to the soldiers of the Confederacy in front of the courthouse in my town. Many of the residents in my town attended segregated schools, and the next town, a former railroad hub, ranked high on the list of numbers of African-Americans who were lynched by angry mobs. One theory is that, since the railroad afforded some of the best employment for the black community, that some bigots saw the need to "keep them in their place." I wish we were past those negative parts of our past, but we aren't.
Just a hundred miles from my town is Charlottesville, the hometown of the author of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson. I'll not review the ugly activities that have taken place there in the last few days. You can read about it here, and on other news sites.
It is clear that when it comes to race relations we still have a ways to go. It is a complex matter, but in a Something to Think About, that I recently sent out, I suggest some ways that we can make a difference. If enough of us follow this advice we might actually push back the barriers of darkness.
The stage is set for a conflict of dueling rights.
"We have a right, even an obligation, to remember our history.""I have a right to go to the park without seeing a man who oppressed my people honored as a hero."
"We have a right to speak freely, especially here in Mr. Jefferson's home town."
"We have a right to oppose you, to point out that some whom you regard as heroes, were our oppressors."

"We will not be silenced.""Neither will we."
 "Freedom of speech" that only protects the speech of those with whom the majority agrees is not really freedom. Yet allowing the kind of hateful rhetoric, and offensive public display that is likely to produce a tragedy like the one that took place in Charlottesville Virginia, hardly passes as protecting the public.One of the clear teachings of Scripture is beautifully summarized in the words of our Lord,
 “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you,
for this is the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 7:12, NASB) Using the Lord's gift of Himself as the chief example, the Apostle Paul reminds us to, "count others more significant than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3, ESV). Each of us needs to stop being so insistent on "my rights," and start being more concerned about loving others. Much of what is wrong in our world will not be cured by more police and better laws. It will be made better by kindness shown to others.
I may have a right, but I probably shouldn't demand it if it causes my sister or brother pain.
I may not be able to stop evil from putting on a show, but I can refuse to be a part of the audience. If enough of us do that, evil plans will suffocate in the vacuum.
The answer doesn't involve somebody. 
It must start with ME!     To paraphrase Pogo, I have seen the solution, and it is me.

“Let justice roll down like Falling Spring,
 And righteousness like the Jackson River.
(May it reach Charlottesville, Richmond, Washington DC, and the world.)
(Amos 5:24, My Home Version

Friday, August 11, 2017

Kathy and I have the privilege of living on the beautiful island of Guam and serving at Pacific Islands University. Our presence here, "Where America's Day Begins" has placed in the middle of an international story. We really hadn't even thought about Kim Jong Un's threats until we received word from the director of our mission, recommending some simple actions that we should take. As far as our activities, and from what I can observe for the rest of the Guamanians, Kim Jong Un's threats have little, if any, impact on life for 160,000 or so folk who call Guam home. To use a saying that doesn't quite fit, "This ain't our first rodeo."
Recently Kathy and I watched most of the Liberation Day parade, here. Signs of Guam's history as a place that was conquered and then liberated in World War 2 are all over the island. Guam didn't become known as the "Tip of the Spear," as a result of North Korea's recent saber-rattling. The Air Force and Navy have maintained bases and sizable forces here for decades. Guam also has a large National Guard presence. A pastor friend of mine is an old B-52 pilot. He doesn't look worried.
I believe in God's providence. I'm here in this place at this time, for a reason. Perhaps one reason is to encourage prayer. I did that recently in a mailing that I send out from time to time. I'm glad people have been interested in the piece. I am copying a link to the piece below in the hope that its presence here will motivate more people to pray.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Controversy that Keeps on Controverting:

My mother's name was Irene, Maybe that's why I aspire to be irenic. I try.
I felt bad, when I read the other day that Eugene Peterson had said in an interview that he would do a gay wedding  My negative reaction was not only that another well known influential Christian leader had announced himself to be in favor of something I, together with most of Christian thinking for two millennia, find to be not in alignment with God's word, it was that Jonathan Merritt felt compelled to ask the question. I mean, come on, Peterson is eighty-four years old. As far as I know, he's never been a culture warrior. Couldn't he have gotten a pass on this one? Of course, he could have taken a pass. Just because a question is asked it doesn't mean that an answer must be given. But again, he's not as young as he once was. Is he as sharp as he used to be? In another article released the next day, Peterson said, "When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment." He went on to say, "I would like to retract that. That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage."
One's position on gay-marriage is the "Gotcha Question" of the hour. It's obvious that Merritt's piece is not long enough to add anything to the extensive discussion that has gone on for the past five, ten years, or longer. No attempt is made in Merritt's piece to differentiate between gay in the sense of homo-erotic desire, the way Wesley Hill describes it in his book Washed and Waiting, or the way the term is commonly used in our culture as both desire and practice. One can make the point that the introduction of marriage clearly implies the latter, but was Peterson keeping up?  Is that distinction recognized by everyone who reads the article? Maybe his mind is as sharp as my Uncle's pocket knife, but I know that as soon as that question came up he either had to shut it down or start juggling several balls at once. Shutting down the conversation isn't free either. Do a web search on "refuses to answer question on gay marriage," and note what comes up. It's tough. Exegetes will parse your words, culture warriors from both sides will take aim, and, this is where it really hurts, people we love may get hurt. I want to speak the truth, but I want to choose when and how. In todays omni-connected world I never who is listening/reading, and I can't assume that someone isn't.
As hard as it is, Peterson should have said, "No comment."
Better, Merritt, knowing that his interview wasn't going to contribute anything to an important discussion, and realizing that asking the question would just cause a good guy grief, should have asked no question.
The next day Peterson released the article I mentioned above. It is an attempt to put toothpaste back in the tube. You can't do it. You just make a mess trying. Today I saw on my Facebook feed that some folk couldn't resist pointing out that Peterson had white goo all over him. Jake Meador wrote a piece that appeared under the "Christianity Today" banner. Actually, I think it is a good article, except . . . Meador could have made his point without kicking a guy while he is down. I guess I'm just naive. I don't move in the circle of those who publish books and have a huge international following, but I don't see why the ethics, or the importance of kindness, mercy and restraint are any different in that world than in the world I can see as I peer out through my keyhole. At the risk of being judgmental, the only reason I see for using Peterson's name in the otherwise worthwhile article is using the name of the famous author and Bible translator, caught with his foot in his mouth and toothpaste on his shirt, would increase C.T. and Meador's reach. The condemnation of one failure should not be built on a platform of failure to show love and respect to a brother, especially one at the end of a productive life.
A wise man who has been a member of the church I pastored all my adult life said on several occasions, "The more you stir in it, the worse it smells." Guys, let's quit stirring in this one.

(For what it's worth if you type in, or click on, some of the key words in the search engine on this blog, you'll find that I've wrestled and written several times on gender issues. Since I'm not always careful to use labels there are probably more. If you find some let me know. I'll add the labels. My other reader will appreciate it.)

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Church, Messy As It Is, It's God's Plan, For Now, And For The Future

After a lifetime of pastoral ministry in a small town church, I'm called on to teach a class on theEcclesiology: after four decades +  of preaching, counseling, marrying, burying, weeping, rejoicing, seeing people leave for wonderful reasons--as in Great Commission--and dealing with others who left for all sorts of bad reasons, working through Mondays when I wanted to leave, and enjoying other times when I couldn't imagine ever doing anything else (obviously, the latter pretty much won), I need to figure how to incorporate that experience into a few class sessions, without allowing who I am to hijack what I'm tasked to do--actually teach ecclesiology, not talk about the old days. As I look back on my real-life experience, work through what I'm doing now--getting ready to teach a class at Pacific Islands University--and look forward to what is next--the second half of the class is eschatology (last things)--I find myself again thinking, "The church is this world's last best hope."
church and last things, some 8,000 miles from home.
As I was working on the syllabus for the class, my daughter-in-law, a pastor's wife, sent me this article. Especially, if you are part of the leadership of a church, I encourage you to read it. (If you're old enough to remember the song, don't let the title discourage you.)
Ephesians 5 tells us that God's plan for the Bride of Christ, the church, is to make her a "church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless" (Eph 5:27).  I can assure you, whether you look at the church as a worldwide entity, or you evaluate any local assembly of Christ-followers, she ain't there yet. Don't be discouraged, though. The Church is still the tool God is using to accomplish His purpose. She is an essential part of guiding this world, and each of us, to the destiny God has planned.
The Church: it's what God is doing in the here and now, leading to making all of creation what it ought to be. That's worth thinking about. If you can, I invite you to enroll as a student or auditor in THEO 302, June 26-August 11, Write me at the address below and I can get in touch with people who can help you do that. I know that for most of you, showing up in Mangilao Guam three times a week is going to be kind of hard. If you would like, though, I'll give you some reading you can do so you can study on your own. (Some of it will involve buying some books. Some will be handouts that I'll send you for free. Begin with the article linked below. It's part of my introduction.) If you are interested, send me a note at

Pray for your church, your pastor(s), the church; and I'd appreciate you praying for Pacific Islands University, and for me and my students as we work through THEO 302.

Love the One You’re With

In spite of a couple of horribly run-on sentences, no English teachers were actually harmed in the production of this blog post.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Review of Roger Olson's book, The Essentials of Christian Thought

Roger Olson will be familiar to many readers through his blog on Patheos. This is where I came to know him. You can read more of his biographical data there. It will suffice to say here that Olson grew up in a staunchly Christian home, and kept what is best from that background. He describes himself as "a Christian theologian of the evangelical Baptist persuasion.  I am also a proud Arminian!  And I’m influenced by Pietism."  While I often disagree with Olson, I find his passion for ordering life and scholarship on a right understanding of the Bible refreshing.  When I read that his book on Christian thought was soon to be published (here), I was intrigued. I'm glad I purchased a copy, and I recommend it.

As a small town pastor, I didn't use the word "metaphysics" often, yet, in the way that Olson uses the word in Essentials, I was constantly dealing with the concept. "This book proposes to help especially Christians devoted to the Bible as God’s Word understand its implicit philosophy of reality— what is really real behind and beyond appearances. And it proposes to help them distinguish between the Bible’s implicit vision of reality and competing ones— some of which are sometimes even labeled “Christian” or “compatible with Christianity” (p, 9). Those of you who know my recent history will understand why Olson's secondary purpose intrigued me. "A secondary purpose of this book is to provide administrators and faculty members of Christian institutions of higher education with a relatively simple elucidation of the “faith” part of “faith-learning integration”— a central reason for such institutions’ existence" (p. 9). 

Olson frequently mentions a line from Alfred North Whitehead, "Christianity is a religion seeking a metaphysic. . . ." Olson is not alone in observing that over the past two millennia Christian thinkers have borrowed metaphysical systems from various schools of philosophy. Olson's contention is that while the Bible does not present a metaphysical system in a direct systematic way, the text of scripture is infused with a clear view of what ultimate reality is.

The thesis of this book is that, while philosophy can be helpful for answering questions the Bible does not answer, two considerations must be made. First, the Bible is not devoid of any metaphysical vision of ultimate reality; it implies one and that is easily discernable if one does not approach the Bible with a wrong assumption (e.g., that narrative cannot imply a metaphysic). Second, discerning that biblical metaphysic is a matter of looking behind the narrative at what it assumes about ultimate reality. There a clear vision of ultimate reality is apparent to any discerning reader looking for it. That clear biblical vision of ultimate reality is, as already expressed, the supernatural, personal (but not human) God of Israel and of Jesus Christ. . . . (p. 140-41)
In Essentials Olson points out where this borrowing has led to what he regards as pollution of the stream of Christian thought. Quoting from one of his "guides," Edmond La Beaume Cherbonnier, "aspects of extrabiblical philosophy have crept into and corrupted Christian theology over the centuries and still does so today" (pp. 88-89). Olson also briefly articulates his view of what the Bible presents as the ultimate view of reality. He compares this Biblical view with other popular views. And, though he denies that his is a book of apologetics, he upholds the Biblical view as superior over all the alternatives. In the later endeavor, Olson makes use of a word coined by Emil Brunner, "eristics." He gives a brief, practical definition on page 106, "[W]hen set alongside alternative worldviews, Christian philosophy is superior."

As pointed out at the beginning of this article, Olson is Arminian in his theology. Another of his books is Against Calvinism. As is to be expected, his Theological orientation comes through in Essentials. While those of a Calvinist persuasion will find some of Olson's thoughts along these lines troubling, perhaps even provoking, in the end, they are worth considering. Olson does not merely bluster about his Theological orientation, he raises thoughtful observations and questions. Even those of us who end up disagreeing with Olson concerning parts of his presentation will find ourselves sharper for the experience. I found Olson's book to be less a lecture, and more a long conversation over coffee. Not only did I find it intellectually stimulating, I enjoyed the read.
Toward the later part of the book a key theme began to be clear to me. Rather than try to put it in my words, I'll let Olson state it himself.
The biblical narrative . . . implies that God’s sovereignty . . . permits room for human free will as the power of alternative choice— the ability to do otherwise than God wishes. Everywhere God blames people for their sins, not himself. Their hardness of heart is their own doing, not God’s. Reason not only strains to accept the paradox offered up by divine determinists; it breaks apart when attempting to embrace both absolute, all-controlling divine sovereignty and human responsibility for sin. Also, extreme versions of God’s sovereignty such as divine determinism cannot avoid verging close to pantheism or what some philosophers call theopanism— the idea that God is all there really is; all is merely an extension of God. Without some degree of creaturely autonomy and freedom the ontological interval between God and creation so crucial to Christian metaphysics threatens to close. (p. 229)
. . . God’s freely chosen creation of free cocreators.  This is a paradox but not a contradiction.  It implies risk on God’s part. . . . this is all based on God’s voluntary self-limitation or self-restriction of power as explained earlier. . . . [T]he Bible and the best of Christian thought view history as an “unpredictable invention of two separate liberties bound together in a common enterprise.” (p. 231)
To interject a bit of my own musings for a moment, that concept of God taking a risk, exists at the far edge of my thinking about things Divine. Yet it is unmistakeable that such concepts--perhaps anthropomorphic, something Olson denies--do exist in Scripture. "Because of sin, then, human freedom must be understood as power of contrary choice granted by God in an act of awful love and risk— for the sake of fellowship" (p. 232). At this point Olson is close to Open Theism, a view that he in another place rejects. This is one of the "I need to think about this some more." points that abound in this book. It is one of the reasons that I plan to read it again.

I read the Kindle version of Essentials of Christian Thinking. I found it easy to read. The search feature in the Kindle version is useful. I don't know whether the print version has an index. The Kindle version does not. If my review is not sufficient to persuade you to purchase the book--something I find hard to believe--and you find yourself at a Christian bookstore, or you have opportunity to look at a friend's copy, I would encourage you to read the appendix (p. 235). It will enable you to see whether you want to read the book or not.

ZONDERVAN The Essentials of Christian Thought Copyright © 2017 by Roger E. Olson

Olson, Roger E.; Olson, Roger E.. The Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.


Introduction: Why This Book

  1. Knowing Christianly: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story Interlude 1 [Modernity/Postmodernity]
  2. Ultimate Reality Is Supernatural and Personal (But Not Human)
    Interlude 2 [Clearing up some misconceptions]
  3. The Biblical Vision of Ultimate Reality Retrieved
    Interlude 3 [Philosophy, Apologetics, Paradox]
  4. Non-Biblical, Non-Christian Views of Reality
    Interlude 4 [". . . the generic Greek philosophy of the educated elite of the Roman Empire . . . is the metaphysical philosophy that has most often and most profoundly influenced Christian thought"]
  5. The Biblical-Christian View of Ultimate Reality: God
    Interlude 5 ["If Yahweh God, the Lord, is ultimate, absolute reality upon which everything else, outside of God, is dependent, how can God be conditioned or limited in any way? How can the metaphysical ultimate reality be vulnerable?"] 
  6. The Biblical-Christian Perspective on the World
    Interlude 6 ["Has science replaced metaphysics in the modern world?"]
  7. Biblical-Christian Humanism
    Interlude 7 [Questions of Freedom and Sin]
  8. Appendix: A Model for the Integration of Faith and Learning

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Insuring the Citizens of "X"

(Normally, I'm not very political here. My intention today is not primarily to put forth a political position, but to encourage a civil, sensible conversation. No doubt the ruminations of my mythical king, and my thoughts that follow, leave much out. That's what the comment box is for. If the comments are civil, and based on sound thinking--not only emotion--I'll be glad to post them even if I disagree. After all there is the remote possibility that I could be wrong.)

Let us suppose that I am King of the Kingdom of X. The latest population census indicates that there are ten citizens in my kingdom. Six of my citizens are married. Two lovely couples are still childless. The other husband and wife have grown children who have gone out of our kingdom. They live in Y, Z, or somewhere. There is a widow and widower, lovely older folk. I won't be surprised to be asked to preside over another wedding. The grand matriarch of the kingdom is one-hundred and seventeen. She gave up mountain climbing last year. After she returns from a bike trek to the neighboring kingdoms, she will return to her job as librarian of the Kingdom. Some folk tell me she is getting to be a bit forgetful. Perhaps in five or ten years we'll need to build a nursing home for her.
Then there is Jack the Tenth. He drinks, a lot. He insists on riding his big Howard Davidson motorcycle without wearing a helmet. When he goes down the road there is more smoke that comes from his cigarette than from his bike. Sometimes he smokes some weed that he buys in the Kingdom of Colorado. He says it makes his rides prettier. The kingdom just bought its first ambulance, just in case.
As a benevolent sovereign I want to make sure that my subjects are well cared for, so I'm going to provide what the Kingdom of C calls Universal health care. My kingdom isn't rich--we are still making payments on that ambulance--so I have to figure out a way to pay for it.
My Royal Accountant tells me that we could easily cover eight of our citizens for $10/month. If they all pay. If we knew for sure that Sarah the Matriarch would die in her sleep at home, we could do the same for her, but, there is that nursing home. Then there is Jack the 10th.
"I'm consulting with Count Adrenaline of the Kingdom of Chaos, to come up with an estimate for him. It ain't gonna be cheap or pretty, though."
Bob, one of the young husbands in my kingdom is a sharp lad. He approached me the other day. He
wants to start an insurance company. He might even sell policies in Y & Z. He said for folk like Sam & Sally, the other young couple, he could provide complete coverage for $8/month including agreeing to pay for costs related to the birth of their child, which is about a sure thing. While we were talking the smell of burnt fuel and tobacco wafted through the window, accompanied by the roar of the Howie.
"Him? . . . wouldn't touch him with a ten-foot pencil, no matter how sharp."

OK, my fairy-tale has gone far enough. In the real world not only are the numbers of citizens far greater, the complexity of issues is exponentially greater. Having said that, though, can't we just admit that there are several elephants in the room.

  • Some people are a far greater risk than others. Much of that divide lines up with the divide of old and young.
  • If everyone is going to be insured, the healthy, at least for a time, are going to have to put more in the system, probably much more, than they take out.
  • If there is a government mandate--that means the government can punish you if you don't participate--then those who choose a healthy lifestyle are forced to subsidize those who live foolishfully, or dare I say it, "evil-ly."
  • For an insurance company to say I can insure these healthy, young people for $X, but if I include these unhealthy old people it will cost $X x Y, is not necessarily cruel or a sign of callousness. It is reality.
  • If there is a blanket mandate that anyone can sign up for insurance at anytime without consideration for pre-existing conditions, how is that different than allowing someone to buy a car insurance policy ten minutes after the wreck?
    Compassion and common sense have to have an intelligent conversation on this one.
  • Whether the coverage is single-payer, or as it used to be called "socialized medicine," or provided by businesses, the reality is, it is still a form of insurance. Somehow sufficient money must be collected to pay for what is spent for the care people need. Deciding whether government or business can do it best is a conversation that needs to take place. 
  • There is a limit to how much we can squeeze health-care providers. If fixing plumbing in bathrooms pays better than fixing the plumbing in our chests, guess which career the best and brightest will choose.
Our new President has already begun to "dismantle" the Affordable Care Act. The rhetoric is about to get deeper than the pile of bills one gets after a major surgery. It's important not only that we play nice, but that our conversation be governed by clear thinking.