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Focus on the Preached One, not the Preacher

While it is true that many Christian preachers tend to allow their morality (moral weakness) shape their theology, it is equally true that many are inclined to let their self-righteousness (moral strengths) shape their theology. Both preachers invoke the character of God. The one invokes his love, the other his holiness. But both too often tend to make their theology the vindicator of who they NATURALLY are. Both moral failure AND moral outrage are base human characteristics ingrained in all souls. 

Both men need Christ. Because saying no to our righteousness is just as hard, even harder, than saying no to our lusts. All sincere Christian preachers and pastors fall into one of these two categories as far as their inclinations go. Listen to them any amount of time and the direction to which they are vulnerable becomes discernible. Listen to both of them. Don’t choose one over the other. Don’t try to balance them. Instead, let them cancel each other out. Instead of putting one on a pedestal over the other, high and lifted up, let them blend together deep down at the foot of the Cross. Because both point to Christ.

I am Rachel Dolezal

Rachel Dolezal comes from a fundamentalist Christian home. There are many things that I want to say about her background and the ideology of her family that I believe contributed to the miserable outcome that is Rachel right now. Though her lying and pretending are inexcusable it does not exonerate her family for any harm they may have done to her. That discrediting her seems very convenient to protecting an alleged sex abuser in their home seems, sadly, very likely.

I pity Ms. Dolezal. I feel sorry for her.

But why did she have to pretend to be someone that she wasn’t? Why does she feel so compelled to embellish her story, to color over the bland white with tales, exaggerations, and outright lies? It reminds me of a fundamentalist Christian pastor that was exposed four years ago for claiming to have been a Navy Seal. Jim Moats graduated from Bob Jones University in 1974, pastored a rural KJV-only church and, per the church website, associates with the far-right elements of Independent Baptist Fundamentalism. The story is very sad, but it is telling.

Former Navy Seal Don Shipley suggests that part of the problem is just being clergy. You could almost hear the disdain in his voice:

“We deal with these guys all the time, especially the clergy. It’s amazing how many of the clergy are involved in those lies to build that flock up,” Shipley said. (source)

Why do we crave a good story about ourselves?

  • Americans love a rags-to-riches story. It’s part of our cultural DNA to highlight the impossible odds that athletes, businesswomen, and celebrities have overcome to get where they are.
  • American evangelicals in general (particularly conservative/fundamentalist evangelicals) put such a premium on “personal testimony” that they are much more likely to respond uncritically to someone’s claim of “God’s working” and embellish their own story of “God’s working” in their life.
  • Stories of heroism and victimization are even more appealing when combined with Christian testimony. I remember hearing fantastic Vietnam stories from fundamentalist leaders when I was a kid and when I began to read military history assiduously as a young man I started developing a suspicion about the credibility of some of the stories that I had heard. I felt I had been tricked into adulating a spiritual leader on the basis of stories that, because of my voracious reading in military history, were becoming increasingly unbelievable to me. I also heard amazing missionary stories that could never be fact-checked of deliverance from wild animals, walking on fire, and intense persecution. Victims — genuine victims — would exaggerate what had happened to them because it was only when it got gory and gruesome did the story arouse compassion in the hearts of hearers.
  • Fundamentalists, particularly, are prone to yarn-spinning leaders because of a distorted understanding of the Gospel.
The reason we embellish our stories is because we cannot embrace the reality of our nothingness. But it is our nothingness that makes God’s grace so amazing. The pastor who was publicly embarrassed four years ago was caught in a story that he let develop and then ultimately promoted because it met a deep personal need in his life. He needed to feel like he was somebody.  Rachel Dolezal is an interesting case study, but why is it that Christian pastors and missionaries and leaders feel so inclined to tell amazing stories about themselves? What kind of gospel do we proclaim when our leaders — our leaders! — are so afraid to admit error, be real, and be nothing? Are we not missing out on a better understanding of the Gospel that would free us from such empty pursuits of security and self-acceptance? Why is image so, so important? Why do we cherish self-promoting anecdotes and why must we invest so much in displaying evidence of our specialness? Why do clergy especially desperately inflate their pasts?
We are nation of people given over to superlatives. If we do not have the best of something, we have the very worst. If we cannot canonize, we demonize. God forbid that we should be regular folk, just average. And as parents we dread the possibility that our kids are just, well, kind of normal.
Here’s something to mull on: My wife does not think I’m the best looking dude in America. And I don’t think she’s the prettiest woman in America. We both know that if we were better looking we’d be working for Fox News. But we really love each other and delight in each other’s looks.  Exclusively. Jennie and I rejoice together about how the gospel has slowly delivered us from the tyranny of the “-est.”

In a culture that doesn’t understand grace and love, superlatives are essential to survival. Superlatives are necessary to get attention. Even if they’re not true.  Sometimes it’s cute and funny. When I was a little boy I remember my Dad singing out in the car as we were traveling somewhere, “Who has the prettiest mommy in the whole-wide-world?” And we kids would all chime in, “We do!” But, I distinctly remember feeling a bit conflicted as an overly-analytical boy because I thought that one of my friend’s mom was actually prettier! I loved my mom more, but facts are facts.
Then I went to a small bible college and watched our lousy basketball team get slaughtered on the court while my classmates chanted, “We’re #1!” Again, it was a little bit of a conflict for me because I clearly wanted our team to win, but by the evidence in front of me they were at the very most #2, not #1!
Why the craving for the superlative? And why do the public servants of Jesus seem to cling to them, especially in the fundamentalist world?
It is because they are not fully understanding the gospel of grace.
College chapel after college chapel we got treated to stories about the best, the worst, the godliest, the holiest, etc.  (One notable exception was when the graduation speaker preached a message entitled, “Nothing.”) Perhaps I was and am too analytical, but I started listening carefully and earnestly when I was a young man, and little by little it began to dawn on me that when a preacher told his story he was the baddest boy on the block, the meanest thug in the Navy, hung around the worst crowd, had the godliest mama, the saintliest grandpa, went to the best college in the land, etc.
Superlative after superlative.
And so, as a young minister, I started doing the same thing.
I started my preaching career in the heart of a legalistic fundamentalism that adulated the “man of God.” I only had a few stories because I was so young, but I told them with vigor. And I embellished them. A good story gave me the right to stand in front of all the other people with boring lives, untouched by the power of God. A good story was proof that God’s blessing was on my life. A good story separated me from the pack and gave me a sense of worth. A good story garnered hearers and helped me get my message out. Plus, I was a missionary that often basked in the admiration of supporters.
Somehow — slowly — grace arrested me. Somehow I couldn’t get away from the nagging reality that I was always less than what people thought of me. And certainly less than my own stories implied. None were lies, but many were more plain and mundane than my story-telling suggested. I felt enslaved to having something interesting to say! In addition to my own sinful grasp at significance came the unasked for suppositions about the quality of personhood that people in Christian circles heap on “the man of God.” And my struggles in my marriage, my temptations to lust, my boredom with the Bible, my intellectual weaknesses, and my failures in ministry all daily reminded me that I was not what my image was.
Worse, I wasn’t that bad either! Just kind of regular. I was neither the most rebellious or the godliest. Not the smartest or the dumbest. My life was amazingly superlative-free and I found this very difficult to accept. How could I be a servant of God with no dazzle?
So I tried to credential myself somehow. Honestly. I drove myself to work harder and read more and push more so that I could at least have an authentic “-est” in my resumé. But gradually I came to realize that I have no “-est” to really be proud of. I can’t even boast of being the plainest or the boring-est.
But grace suffices.
One day in glory billions of nothings will surround the Throne and celebrate the Lamb. In that moment we will finally see with perfect clarity that the election of nothings has transformed us into exalted beings. And we’ll be ashamed that we ever sought to inflate our resumes.
The real former-Navy Seal is right to disdain a clergy that steals valor for credibility, especially when we purport to be preachers of grace. Rachel Dolezal grasped at so many things, inflated so many stories, to be significant. Now, in the glare of judgmental society she may start to pine for the anonymity of insignificance. I hope so. But it is scary, this place of insignificance. It is only when we have our nothingness filled by Jesus, our God, that we are truly liberated from the need to tell a good story about ourselves.
I am Rachel Dolezal. But Jesus has saved me. And now I’m just bland, white, average me.
We can find peace in our averageness and say, “I am what I am by the grace of God.”
“I am what I am by the grace of God”?

Church-planter as Entrepreneur?

The business model has killed the church today and resulted in a muddled ecclesiology. That and the American post-“Bowling Alone” pathology of community/small group obsession that resembles group therapy more than actual salt-in-the-world fellowship. More on that later. Suffice it to say that I’m not a fan of using business models as an example to the church-planter. Continue reading

A Model Eldership Apology

Matt Chandler (the pastor at the Village Church) preached a good message yesterday and asked the church to forgive the elders with these five questions. I think that they are very well-conceived.
1. Will you forgive us where our counsel turned into control?
2. Will you forgive us where we failed to recognize the limits and scope of our authority?
3. Will you forgive us where we allowed our policies and processes to blind us to your pain and confusion?
4. Will you forgive us where we acted transactionally rather than transitionally? 
5. Will you forgive us where we failed to recognize you as the victim and didn’t empathize deeply with your situation?

Elder Authority, Discipline, Sanction, and the Village Leaders

Yes, the local church is too often like a village with elders. And each village has its dynamic, culture, traditions, and power structure. All the villages have their political dynamic and the unspoken-but-felt vibe of whether one is in or out. Unfortunately, too many villages feel that they are safe from the abuses of a single chief because they have a council of elders and that is enough. But a council of elders is no guarantee against the abuses of a council of elders.

In the space of six months we have seen several high profile churches deal with the public consequences of their elders’ decisions and, in all cases one way or another, retracting previous unanimous elder-decisions.

  • The 14,000 member Mars Hill Church closed its doors. Elders who were unanimous several years ago in their disciplinary actions toward two other elders recanted their decision.
  • The elders of Harvest Bible Church in Elgin, Illinois issued an apology for their unanimously-decided rebuke of dissenting elders.
  • The elders of The Village Church issued an apology for the way they dealt with a particular church discipline issue.

How could a group of elders be so confident that they would actually engage in actions that would hurt a brother and yet a mere few years later be no longer unanimous or confident in their elder action?

These churches have (had) this in common:

  1. A high view of church discipline and pastoral authority.
  2. A strong leader of “celebrity” status.
  3. A plurality of elders.
  4. Autonomy as a local church.
  5. Strong emphasis on the life of the local church and membership obligations to the local church as the central place for their spiritual growth.

This is a recipe for plurality groupthink and the consequences are dangerous, particularly when it comes to the very delicate business of spiritual discipline, rebuke, or issuing some kind of sanctioning action, whether that is advising the congregation to not fellowship with the person charged or by exercising a group policy in relations to any individual (as in “anything that is said to one of us elders about the church will be shared with the whole body of elders”). But this problem is not just a problem in the big churches, but it is prevalent in many small churches where there is plurality of elders.

In the Providence of God, I have been on both sides of the actions of this kind of plurality groupthink that was either disciplinary or sanctioning.

Continue reading

Leadership Centered or Word & Sacrament Centered Church?

Robes freak out most evangelicals. I get that. I don’t want to wear one. But most miss out on the reason why some non-Catholics wear robes because it is not just a Catholic thing. The reason for non-Catholic robe-wearing clergy is different and more nuanced than the setting apart of the clergy as a separate class of men. It is, in fact, to hide them. Continue reading

Solid Joys and the Cure of Me Addiction

Solid joys and lasting treasure

None but Zion’s children know ~

John Newton

Solid joys. This is what I need. This is what my soul needs. Because I am an addict. I am addicted to me.

I can’t get over me. I will resolutely choose to indulge in me “one last time”, perhaps even in excess so as to punish myself and make me not want me anymore. You know, the reasoning of all addicts. The Me drug is adaptable. It mixes just as well with a holy hymn as with porn. I am my own supplier and I give me to me with no threat of overdose unless it is to sell me on me with the line that the big dosage is well-deserved me time. I believe the lie. I’ve bought into the ideology of the characters of Infinite Jest that the cure of excess is excess.

Some drugs have nasty side effects. Dry mouth. Munchies. Vomiting. Distorted perception. Paranoia. The list goes on. Me indulgences render me cynical, afraid, angry, numb, reticent, barren. When on me everything I do is disabled. I slather my prayers with me, thinking that they are not real unless me flavors all my worship. Subjectivism trumps the objective when I am high on me. 

I need an intervention. I need a halfway house. An escape. I cannot neutralize the fatal attraction of me. Me consumes me. Is there a place where I can be healed? Is there a place where addicts like me can go to be freed of me?

The Church is the halfway house for the me addict that I am. There, in the midst of many other druggies, I encounter solid joys. The kind of joys that only those born again of the Spirit can grasp. From the Church, that halfway house that harbors those on their way from me to forever likeness of God there wafts the fragrance of Christ. It makes some me addicts so sick they turn the other way. But for this me addict, the fragrance of Christ makes me puke up me. In the communion of Christ I run from me to the cross of Jesus where not only did my Healer die for me, but me was stripped of its addictive powers. At the Table of the Lord, surrounded by many other me addicts, the subjective surrenders to the Objective and I feel the power of me crucified and the satisfaction of sensing, “It is no longer I that lives, but Christ lives in me.”  As surely as I taste the bread in my mouth and the wine on my lips is the joy of my freedom from me. 

The cure of Me Addiction is a new me. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Communion with Jesus is joy. It is treasure. It is solid and lasting. And this Sunday, once again, I meet with the halfway house to confess where I have come from and be reminded where I am going.


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