Monday, May 14, 2012

Suspicion on the basis of difference

From Pastor Ed (5/13/2012)— a repost from 2009


At one point in my ministry at Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church in Tennessee, I was talking with an acquaintance about the liturgy in our congregation. I specifically mentioned that we were beginning to make use of the liturgical calendar more intentionally. He wrinkled his nose, furrowed his brow, and replied, “I don’t know... that’s sort of like the Roman Catholic and orthodox churches.”

I said, “Sort of.”

He responded, “But aren’t you a Presbyterian church?”

Even though we talked about it for a few more minutes, I could tell the conversation was over at this point.

This fellow, and many like him, approach such matters from the same perspective: they are inherently suspicious of anyone— or anything— that is different from what they understand and practice. In this case, his experiences and personal practices had suggested to him that all Presbyterians had plain, unadorned, even stoic worship that varied not by season nor circumstance. Therefore, he concluded, any church that diverged from this path, even though they may be Presbyterian, was not practicing proper Presbyterian worship. They— and in this case, we— must be in error.

Why must this be the case? Is it so that the Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox are utterly wrong? Could it be possible that they might teach and/or practice some things with which we might disagree, but not all things? Couldn’t the same thing be true of other Christian traditions?

When faced with questions such as these, I’ve found that “Suspicion because of difference” will grant my premises. Yet, when it comes to actually practicing this, they have no interest, and in fact they are sometimes fearful.

This is natural, I think: we are all fearful of what we don’t know and understand. Most of us are insecure enough to interpret differences as a conscious and active condemnation of our point of view, rather than simply a thoughtful and purposeful acceptance of another point of view. And we are prideful enough to look on something that is different from what we do, think, or feel as wrong by default.

But we must be careful when our default position is to be suspicious of something simply because it is different. Look at it this way: most, if not all, of how you spend your time today, what you think about, and the beliefs that you hold, are inherently different from what you did, thought, or believed a decade or two ago. In many of us, the differences are drastic-- and we are grateful that they are! In fact, if someone cannot honestly say that this is at least somewhat true of them— that they are a good bit different today than 10 years ago— then they either aren’t being honest with themselves or they haven’t demonstrated any personal growth over that time.

If I, 10 or 15 years ago, had met the “me” from today, would I even recognize myself? Would I be suspicious of the differences I saw in this other person? If that is true of me— and you— then shouldn’t we give those who are different from us some benefit of the doubt?

What are we looking for when we demand conformity to our own images in this way? Are we simply looking for affirmation? Are we attending to some deep insecurities that cause us to second-guess ourselves, and therefore others as well?

Or are we asking for some shibboleth that Scripture itself doesn’t require? Tim Keller once said, “No matter where you are, there is someone to your right, as it were, who thinks you sold out the Gospel.” Is this what we’re getting at when we get so suspicious so quickly?

At another point I had a conversation with someone who noted that, in visiting a different Presbyterian church, he had observed a surprising number of things that harkened back to Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic practices. He was surprised.

“Why?” I asked him. “I think John Calvin and Martin Luther would have wanted it that way.”

“Do you really think so?” He asked.

“Yes; after all, Luther and Calvin didn’t want to not be Roman Catholic— they simply wanted the Roman Catholic church to be biblically faithful.”

But we forget that. And we forget that our differences— whether they be about worship practices, liturgical calendars, theologies of baptism, or how actively we must pursue a certain social agenda— ought not be something that we are inherently suspicious of.

After all, and this is the sum of it: we're bound together by our belief in the Gospel, much mores than by our shared beliefs about secondary and tertiary matters. Any further shibboleth that I construct is wrong. Let’s be a bit less suspicious.*

*Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not suggesting that it is wrong to have theological standards for, say, ordination— but simply that when I don’t “get” the way another Christian practices their faith, I must be careful not to assume that their faith therefore isn’t real.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What Am I Listening to?

I've grown quite weary of the radio news these days; way too much analysis of politics and the presidential race, among other things, has driven me away at least for now.

So I've been adding to my regular round-up of podcasts. Here's a bit of a round-up of the podcasts I listen to regularly. (Note: most links are to the iTunes Store.)


You may notice a pattern here: I usually only listen to pastors that I know, and/or that are connected to a church that I also have a connection to. This isn't by mistake: an interesting argument can be made about whether you should listen recordings of the Word preached by pastors you don't know, from churches you've never attended, and to whom you have no accountability whatsoever. (But perhaps that's for another post…)

Other Christian/Religion Podcasts


Off the list…

  • Living Christ Today— mainly, because they began to repeat content so often. Also, I understand that they have plans to phase it out. And finally, I find it difficult to keep up with a daily (or even every weekday) podcast, and I would lose track of the series too frequently.
  • Mac OS Ken— since I'm not so immersed in tech culture (and work) on a regular basis, I found this one less helpful for me than when I used to do some Mac consulting. Also, again, the every-weekday thing.
  • White Horse Inn— I've always been cautious about recommending this one, because the tone is often too condescending and polemical for my tastes (and I want to avoid exposing others to that, because of the risk of their picking it up!). Also, I found the current series a bit tedious and more condescending than usual.

There you go— my current podcast lineup. On any given week, even I can't run out of stuff to listen to!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Bits & Tidbits, April 2012— revenge of the son of tidbits...

It's been a while since I've done a round-up of links for articles I've read recently; I think I will bring this back, though, since I so often see articles that I want to pass along.

In more recent months, I started a "Tumblr" page ( that serves as a sort of archive for all of the articles that I find, as well as other things (Facebook status posts, pics that I find on the web, etc.— in a strange example of circularity, there's also a link to every post on this blog, since they are automatically posted to my Facebook and Twitter pages)— and you can see a "feed" from this page in the sidebar of my blog, if you scroll down far enough: it's labeled, fittingly, "Bits & Tidbits".

Once a month, I'll look back over these and pick out several that I think are especially worth looking at. Here's a selection for April.

  • The Accidental Sex Offender by Abigail Pesta (from Marie Claire). This piece highlights a problem with our current system of "justice" that I've mentioned before— we don't really treat some members of our society justly. I'd love to see something productive done about this.
  • Redefining the Parish Model by Melissa Kelley (from ByFaith magazine). I'm so encouraged by the model presented here, not simply because of what it looks like on paper, but also because I've seen this model applied with great and fruitful results.
  • Will Gattaca Come True? by Mara Hvistendahl (from Slate). This is great consideration of the growing abilities of genetic science to discern all manner of things about our unborn children, and how it will present parents, insurance companies, and society in general with ethical questions that, frankly, I am fearful about what the answers will be.
  • Youth Ministry's Tendency Toward Legalism by Cameron Cole (from The Gospel Coalition). Most of us who have worked in youth ministry are aware of this tendency; here's helpful insight into WHY it exists.
  • The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage by Meg Jay (from The New York Times Sunday Review). You may have seen this one already, as it has made its way around Facebook fairly well (that's how I first saw it). Don't miss the surprising source of this thoughtful opinion piece that confirms what many of us already know and believe.
  • Which Vocations Should Be Off Limits to Christians? by Gene Edward Veith (from The Gospel Coalition). Helpful parameters for considering vocation and its consistency with our faith and worldview, from one of the more dominant voices on worldview of our era.
  • Weight Stereotyping: The Secret Way People Are Judging You Based On Your Body by Shaun Dreisbach (from Glamour). Wow— here is a presentation of a statistical study that demonstrates how this problem is worse than you think.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Sermon texts for May

5/6 — Romans 5:1-11 (The Cross: Suffering AND Glory?)
5/13 — 1 Peter 4:1-11 (Standing Firm)
5/20 — 1 Peter 4:12-19 (Suffering as Christians)
5/27 — 1 Peter 5:1-5 (Church Life in the Face of Suffering)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Books for April 2012

The Pleasure of My CompanyThe Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a great little book! While it starts off a bit quirky, it is always entertaining; there are several places where the plot will surprise you (pleasantly).

Steve Martin artfully explores the life of a man with some challenges due to mental illnesses, and how he seeks and finds a “normal” life. With the same quality of story-telling as his other work, Shopgirl, but less suggestive content (not that Shopgirl was particularly salacious)— in other words, mostly clean language and only a little PG-13 or R-rated content.

I continue to be impressed with the genius and creativity of Steve Martin— comedian, actor, art collector, recording musician, producer, and, yes, author. I recommend The Pleasure of My Company highly.

Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian ConvictionsTactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions by Gregory Koukl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first heard about this book on an interview that the author did on the White Horse Inn over a year ago. At the outset, I confess that the description of the book and what the interview would cover made me skeptical— it sounded like maybe the Shamwow guy does heavy-handed, debate-style evangelism. Yuck.

I was wrong, and I was glad I kept an open mind long enough to hear the interview. Likewise with the book. Despite the awful job that the publisher did in presenting the book, it’s not a bad read at all.

Greg Koukl basically employs some elementary logic in discussing how to effectively diffuse arguments against the faith. He offers a handful of useful techniques tactics for exposing poor thinking and turning the discussion toward the truth. I appreciate his emphasis on a diplomatic, friendly, and conversational approach, and I’m grateful for his frequent reminders of how the ethos of the interaction matters.

My biggest quibble with Tactics is how Koukl seems to conflate convictions (even biblically-based convictions) with the Gospel. For example, his first sample “encounter” is a discussion about abortion and the pro-life position. Obviously this is a subject that most Christians have strong views about, and it is an important topic for seeking serious and winsome dialogue. But let’s be clear: someone can become a Christian without “toeing the party line” about abortion, and at the same time someone switching their views to “pro-life” doesn’t necessarily move them any closer to understanding (or embracing) the Gospel.

Now, it’s true that some issues are inevitably associated with Christianity, and some conversations in which one may hope to discuss Gospel truth may get sidetracked by these issues. I’m not denying that being pro-life or other biblically-derived positions may be obstacles for some. My complaint is that Koukl described a conversation in which he challenged (successfully) the pro-choice views of a stranger, and that was the only topic that he discussed with her— then he compliments himself for having presented the faith effectively. This is my point: being pro-life is connected with Christianity, but it isn’tthe faith.

There are other occasions in the book where it seems like Koukl wants a soapbox, or at least to be thought someone with clever rejoinders to peripheral objections. It’s too bad, really, because without these the book would be a pretty great discussion about effective apologetics conversations.

(Koukl doesn’t make a clear distinction between evangelism and apologetics, and he occasionally uses Scripture out of context, but I won’t harp on these. Be aware of them, though, if you’re considering reading the book.)

Here’s another time when I wish GoodReads would allow half-star ratings, as I would prefer 3.5 stars. I DID like the book a good bit, even with the quibbles above.

Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small GroupCoach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group by Joel Comiskey

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There’s definitely a need for books in this category on the market. While plenty of books are out on small groups generally, most of them are geared toward the same niche: entry-level and lower mid-level small group leadership, often with the same tired advice and approach re-packaged in one more pastor’s clever, alliterative terminology. Books on advanced leadership for small groups are rare. Books on leading leaders— coaching, in Comiskey’s parlance— are rarer still.

So in that sense I’m grateful for this book. It’s certainly better than nothing, and there’s some good bare-bones advice on coaching small group leaders to be found. If you’ve never had leaders under you, and you have no real idea how to supervise, encourage, train, or hold accountable those who are hands-on in ministry, you’ll find Comiskey’s take on the subject useful. (In that way, too, the advice he offers is not limited to small group leaders; it would easily export to any leadership scenario.)

Most people who have been in a staff ministry role, however— or who have been simply supervising other leaders in any capacity— for more than a couple of years will probably have intuited much of Comiskey’s take on the subject. Is there more beyond this one? Frankly, I’m doubtful, though I hope I’m wrong.

My sense is that Comiskey either works for a very large (mega?) church, or he has in the past, and he has new coaches coming on-board regularly. If that’s the case, then his approach in this book makes sense to me.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad book, and (apart from the typical few Scripture verses taken out of context) there wasn’t anything that I really disagreed with him about. I didn’t find this book that helpful, but I’m sure others might.

View all my reviews