Archive for November, 2012

BREAKING UP THE FAMILY

November 29, 2012

“For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.”
1 Corinthians 12:12

This is a hardcore Christian post full of theology and inside references, so it might not be of much interest to some readers.  Fair warning at least.
The Christian church has two meanings.  The first meaning is the church in general, the body of Christians worldwide through the centuries; everyone who is a child of God through the grace of Jesus Christ.  This means every Christian ever has been part of the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, of whom he is the head.
The other meaning is more local: a specific congregation.  This sense of the church is generally understood to be a family, a body created by God for fellowship, worship, learning, exhortation, and aiding the needy and broken in their community.  It is a place for prayer, teaching, hymns, and healing the wounded soul.
In the 90s, I attended a conference by Ligonier Industries in Seattle with the great R.C. Sproul and luminaries such as Rod Rosenbladt, Sinclair Ferguson and so on.  The topic was about the church in both senses, and one of the best talks was about when to leave a church.
R.C. Sproul said that there were three options:
  • You must stay in a church if it is faithful and teaches the gospel and is faithful to God, regardless of how much you like the pastor, how well you get along with the other people, or whether the people there do what you demand they do or not.
  • You may leave a church if it is theologically troubled, but is generally orthodox; has discipline, sacraments, and the word of God.
  • You must leave a church if if abandons the basic faith and teaches total heresy; a church that rejects the Bible, rejects the triune God, and so on.
This is for the layman, the person in the pew.  In other words if you’re in a good church but like another one better nearby, you should stay where you are.  Why?  Because you’re part of a body, you are part of the family there.  You should only break up that family for very good reason, properly, not simply for personal problems or some whim.  Yes, that lady sitting in the nearby pew might sing off tune or the pastor might not visit as often as you like.  They might sing songs you don’t like so much or too slowly, they might not have the certain specific ministry you want, but you’re part of a body, and tearing that apart should be done only for a better cause than personal dislikes.
There are other circumstances, for example.  Someone might marry, meaning the couple they can only  one church at a time.  Someone might be in a job that moves a family around often (the military for instance) and thus they have to change churches.  This is more targeted at “church shoppers” who keep moving around to find their ideal congregation, though.
As a Christian, being part of a church body and regular attendance means not only that you become part of a community and fellowship, but that you place yourself under the visible discipline of that church.  If you do wrong, they then have some leverage, so to speak, to help push you back on the path.  In addition you’ll be both in the witness of other saints around you, but be a positive influence on the others.
The talk, and Sproul’s later writings and talks are very helpful for people dealing with a problematic or annoying church.  In modern culture where everyone is so self-focused and selfish these days we need reminding that our lives are about more than just ourselves and how happy we are.
However, there’s a bit of a problem with all that.  Its not that what he says is wrong, its that it is incomplete.  So much so good for church members in the pews, but what about the pastor?
I attend a Christian Reformed Church, a denomination with a heritage of great theology and truth that is falling on bad times theologically.  The local church is very good still, like many scattered across the nation even if the denomination is falling.  It is a typical pattern for the church to swap pastors every five to ten years, each pastor moving on to another church after a short term.  Since I started attending the chuch in 1975, I’ve seen six pastors, plus all the interim ones between.
Although some churches retain a pastor their whole lives, the typical pattern is for them to move around between congregations.  The Anglican church, for example, will often swap out a pastor after a few years, with some Bishops alternating between a more liberal (theologically) pastor with a conservative one.
And this brings up the question; what about all those arguments for why you should stay with a church?  What about the church being a body you wound when you leave?  What about the fact that you’re part of a congregation, a family, and should only leave that reluctantly, and for very good reason?  I understand pastors are a special sort of bird with a different calling than others, but that doesn’t negate all the reasons to stay at a church?
So how about it pastors?  Why this exemption, why is it suddenly okay to break up the body, why is it fine to tear part of the family apart for job reasons?  Why shouldn’t the pastor be encouraged to stat at a congregation as much as an ordinary pew sitter?
I bring this up because it seems like any time a pastor gets a better offer they “feel the spirit move them” to move on.  This one always wanted to be a missionary and suddenly got an offer, so they go.  That one leaves to head up a school because they always liked the idea.  Another moves on to be at a bigger church.  Still another moves on to be in a church in an area or state they prefer.  A church closer to their family, a church in a climate they prefer, a church with greater opportunities for their talents, a church with more room for growth, on an on.
I am sorry if I sound cynical, but it seems to me that too often this “calling” business is an excuse rather than a cause for moving on, and pastors just get to do it whenever they want.  And if one guy leaving the church hurts it by their loss – and hurts that one guy by his leaving – doesn’t it hurt far more to massively disrupt the congregation by a shepherd leaving his flock?  Does a pastor not have an even greater burden to stay with a congregation?
In the end it seems to me that pastors are at least as guilty of “church shopping” for the ideal congregation that bends more completely to their vision of the church and career than even ordinary paritioners.  Individual Christians are guilty of moving about churches for petty reasons and selfish whims, but so are pastors – and when a pastor leaves, its a serious problem for a church.

A QUICK NOTE

November 28, 2012
WATN has been getting a lot of spam and trolling lately, so for the time being, comments are shut off.  I appreciate people’s thoughtful posts and input, but its too much work to keep going in and cleaning the place up, so for now I’ll just go without and see how it goes.
OK I’ve opened up the comments with moderation to control what comes through.  For some reason the last two weeks has been an ocean of drug spam (levitra, viagra etc) and a troll lately, so I want to cut back on the nonsense a bit.

PARTY LIKE ITS 1999

November 27, 2012

“You cannot raise a couple of generations in liberal air from kindergarten to university — with motion pictures, with television, with newspapers, with mainline churches — in a default liberal setting, and then turn it around with elections. You can’t save the country with a guy in the voting booth punching the tab of the fella with the (R) after his name every other November.”
-Mark Steyn

Years ago I wrote about how I don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh much any more.  At the time I got a few annoyed comments and mentions on other blogs, but people more and more seem to be having the same reaction.  It isn’t that Limbaugh is any less informed or thoughtful, its that he’s not as entertaining and is a bit behind the clock.  Back in 1992 he was the cutting edge, but these days what he comments on 87 blogs have already written about by the time he’s on in the morning.
In fact, Rush often these days seems to rely on blogs for his content, judging by his website.  And I do check that often, because he had links and stories to check into for writing – since I wasn’t interested in being first, but in analysis with a fuller picture.  I still check his page once in a while for stories, especially just after the election.  I was curious how he’d respond.
You see, a lot of bloggers and pundits are soldiering along as if this was just another election, a bad loss, but nothing final.  Right Wing News for instance is still sending out polls (the last one was “who do you back for 2016 in the Republican Party).  That’s just ignorant, or deliberately blind.  I guess I understand, its their job.  John Hawkins makes money on all his websites, so he keeps chugging along for the dollar at least.
But Rush has been different.  He’s been dead on with several monologues and comments, pointing out that all the analysis by the usual suspects is trash.  He asks them over and over: what do you think will change things? Becoming Democrats?  Why vote for Republicans at all then?  Pandering more?  Look at the parade of women and minorities at the RNC, and how much difference it made.  The official media, leftist, and Democrat operative line is that Republicans are all old white males, despite all evidence to the contrary.  It simply doesn’t matter.
None of it matters, not any more.  The fact is, Republicans lost for two reasons, one of which is what happens when you allow the Chicago political machine take over national politics, and the other is all cultural.  Rush keeps hammering this point, based on his website: you can’t win this with elections, you can’t win this by changing advertising or who you nominate.  Others have picked up the same theme, such as Mark Steyn.
The truth is, America has fallen off that cliff.  For a few years now, I’ve been comparing the nation to Wiley E Coyote running on thin air, chasing the Roadrunner, before he looks down.  Well, we looked down.  Now all that’s left is the funny sign Wiley pulls out from behind him to indicate his dismay.
Everyone in the country knows something is not just horribly wrong, but doom is on our horizon.  We all feel it, deep down; we sense it like that wet dust smell of rain before it starts to fall.  That’s where all the Mayan calendar and zombie apocalypse nonsense comes from.  We joke about it but we know its all going terribly wrong.  Even people who don’t really understand the facts, who don’t know much about politics or economics can tell something is awful.
In the past, the response would be to bear down, work hard, change leadership, and look for a way to cut back, sacrifice, and prepare to rebuild.  That’s what virtue and the Calvinist Work Ethic was like.  Instead of whining that it wasn’t fair or demanding the government fix things, people would roll up their sleeves.  That’s how we got through the depression.  People hopped trains to find migrant work, sold apples in the streets, helped each other out, and did what they had to.
These days, the reaction is quite different.  They demand everyone fix their problems, give up what they earned, share more, redistribute more, and government should make it all better.  It all relates to virtues, and western culture hasn’t just abandoned virtue but has become institutionally contemptuous to virtue entirely. 
  • Courage is how we make it through the hard times when it doesn’t seem like there’s any future.
  • Fortitude is what makes people keep going when all seems lost or get back up when they’re knocked down.    
  • Humility is why you help others and stand on your own feet instead of demanding others pay your way.
  • Justice is how we understand its wrong to demand others give what they earned so we don’t have to.  
  • Temperance is what lets you cut back and show restraint to avoid loss and waste. 
  • Wisdom is what gives you the ability to find a way through.  
With those virtues, the United States built from a ranging frontier to the world’s most powerful military, greatest economy, richest nation, and most potent industrial power in history.  Through the work ethic, Edison saw 100 failures just 100 ways that didn’t work, its how the US was the source of most of the greatest achievements in technology, art, science, music, and more for over a century.
The loss of those, the abandonment of any objective sense of ethics, and the rejection of tradition without a single effort to replace them has led to the grinding halt we’re experiencing.  The efforts of generation after generation working hard to do right led us to several generations of momentum, but it has been slowing and we’re in the last shuddering steps before it all falls down.
So people are partying now.  They voted to keep the party going than to make the hard choices to turn it around.  They had a choice: cut their budget or cut the government’s and they chose their own, then pretended they wouldn’t have to because the government would get it all from rich people.  Sal Traina calls them “Suicide Voters” fixated on their cause and caring nothing about what happens to everyone else.
The math doesn’t add up, history proves its a lie, and I think deep down most people know it but they just don’t care.  They sense its all a lie but they’d rather eat, drink and be merry one more day because its too hard, too scary, and would require them to give up the last shreds of what keeps them from noticing the emptiness in their lives.
Because that’s what its all about, distracting ourselves from how wrong we know it all is.  In Rome Caesar would distract the people from their situation and the crumbling empire with bread and circuses.  We do it to ourselves.

THE FOURTH TALENT

November 21, 2012

“Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed”

I recently read a book about the fall of Rome that for once was actually about the fall of Rome.  It detailed the very last emperors of Rome and how the entire empire collapsed, leaving only shattered remnants in the peninsula of Italia.  Previously I’d read of the first invasions, of how Rome’s once mighty status collapsed, and so on, but it was nice to find something about the actual end rather than the beginning of the end.
Called The Fall of Rome: A Novel of a World Lost by Michael Curtis Ford, the book was pretty entertaining and interesting, and I’ve read several of his ancient history novels.  What really stood out in my mind, however, was a sequence in the second third of the book, an encounter between the main character Odoacer (who became King of Rome as it fell) and a hermit.
Odoacer had a rough life.  He excelled at leadership and tactics, he was a great warrior, but he kept backing the wrong guys and over and over again he was defeated through circumstance, treachery, or misfortune, and he was feeling pretty awful.  The hermit gave him some words of wisdom in the novel and while these words are fiction, they were particularly wise and interesting to me.
If you’re familiar with the Bible at all, you probably know one of the parables Jesus taught as recorded in the gospel of Matthew 25.  In brief, it tells the story of a powerful man who entrusted three servants with money (called “talents,”).  Each talent was a significant sum of money; worth about 6000 drachmas, or roughly sixteen years wages.  In America, that averages out to around $800,000.  Each servant was given an amount equal to what the master believed they were capable of properly handling while the master was away.  He told them to invest the money and further his fortunes.
When the master got back, he checked on his servants, how well had they handled their money and their responsibilities?  Well the first doubled his money, an incredible display of skill and luck.  The second had also doubled his money, but the third had a different story.  He didn’t invest or attempt to do anything with his talents, he buried the money and gave it back when the master returned.  This man was hurled into punishment and misery for his failure to follow orders (and for insulting the master as well).
So far so good, a story of obedience, service, gratitude and the consequences of misusing what we’ve been given to work with.
But the hermit had another servant in mind, one not in the scriptures.  He proposed a fourth servant, another man given a talent.  This servant, he said, invested the money and failed, producing no return.  He had to come to his master and admit that he’d tried, but failed.  Now, given the picture we’re given of the master in this text, he seems like a pretty lousy guy, but the hermit suggested that the response from God to failure was different than you’d expect.
Failing, he said, was no sin.  God doesn’t care if you succeed He cares if you obey.  If you try and fail, that doesn’t make God unhappy, it makes him very pleased because you tried.  If you give your honest best and try to serve God, but things don’t work out, God is happy.  Because success or failure here on earth is irrelevant to a servant of God.  Service is what matters, doing His will and bringing Him glory to the best of your ability.
This is a tough lesson to learn and live through.  All my life I have tried over and over to find a way I can combine my talents (yes, that’s where the word comes from) with a way to make money and I fail over and over.  I work hard, I focus on doing the best I can, and yet nothing ever seems to come of it.  I have definitely failed God as well, sinning through my life and at least on occasion deliberately defying Him to do what I wish instead.  But most of the time I try to do what is right, whatever the cost, and that cost is very high.
I have limited health, I have few resources.  I don’t have a rich uncle or connections anywhere, I don’t have a legacy to rely on, I am a poor man in a poor family and don’t have a lot to work with.  I have some talent in writing, art, languages, and so on, but have never found a way to turn that into any sort of living.
Failure is hard on a soul.  Trying and falling down again and again becomes wearing.  A few times it can be tough but challenging.  A score of times it simply becomes depressing, corroding your will to live and try again.  Hope fades away, dreams become cruel taunts, and in the end you wonder why you even wake up in the morning.
I seem to have a unique knack for being good at things nobody wants to pay for any longer.  I have skills which seem to be outdated and unwanted.  And what’s worse, I face a culture which almost uniformly celebrates and rewards the worst, meanest, and most crude and salacious approach to business.  Great works and significant, meaningful efforts are ignored or derided, but crass and filthy efforts become incredibly successful.  Patrick O’Brian didn’t see success until he was nearly dead, but Jersey Shore keeps getting renewed contracts.
I say this not to whine or seek sympathy, it would be pointless.  I’ve had all the sympathy a man can stand before becoming resentful.  What I’m trying to point to here is that I know what failure is like, more than most.  More than nearly anyone.  My whole life sometimes seems like one big mistake, and I used to lie awake night after night wondering why on earth I was even alive.
The truth is, I’m alive for the same reason everyone is, everywhere, always.  We all exist, we all live and breathe for one purpose and one purpose only: to serve and glorify God.  We were created to serve God, whether ill or healthy, strong or weak, stupid or smart, foolish or wise, successful or unsuccessful.  Each and every one of us lives for that one driving, ultimate purpose.
Seeking anything else above that purpose will always lead to misery and confusion.  Its like a train that looks around at all that beautiful landscape and wants to go exploring.  Once you leave those tracks, you will be bogged down or even ruined.  Losing track of that ultimate, overarching purpose means losing your way entirely.  Staying on the track means you keep moving toward your goal. In the end, finally in glorification, you stop being a heavy, track-bound train and become a creature that can go and be everywhere, like you have always longed.  Wanting that before its time is childish and impatient.
Yet even if you aren’t a Christian, there are lessons here.  That fourth talent brings up a very important point: winning or losing is secondary to how you play.  If you cheat to win, if you break the rules or stoop to the worst approach to succeed, what have you accomplished, what have you earned?  That money, that acclaim, that success is wonderful, but behind it all is a rot inside you that you cannot ignore, and it will inevitably taint your soul.
Lets say, for example, you betray agreements, lie about your opponent, pander to the worst aspects of society, abandon any attempt to address your job and the problems it is supposed to deal with, and work with people to miscount and inaccurately report the results of an election. You can win that way, but what have you just done?  You’ve undermined the entire process of election, you’ve presented yourself to history as a scumbag, and you will usher in misery and depression the likes of which the world has never seen.  Your lust for power to implement your schemes means you’re not doing your job and in the end you’ll be revealed for the failed incompetent everyone always suspected you were.
Sure, your sycophantic friends will always cover for you.  Your allies and those who gain from your efforts will try to rewrite history and spin the truth into lies.  But ultimately, like it or not, the truth does come out.  Stalin had a whole government covering for him, and allies in the west like Duranty writing lies to protect him.  Nobody thinks Stalin was anything but a monster these days, with a government that utterly failed its people.
Trying well and doing the best you can, yet failing, is part of life.  And it does bring growth and wisdom.  Yes, it brings sleepless nights, ulcers, sadness, even depression.  But it brings learning and understanding as well.  One of the biggest problems the right has politically – conservatives, etc – is the belief that success is a God-given reward for doing the right thing.  That’s a cruel lie.  Doing the right thing, working hard, and being a good citizen can lead to nothing but failure, loss and misery.  These days especially doing the right thing makes you look like a sap, a dupe.  
Why work hard, pay your bills, and keep your mortgage paid off?  Sometimes your best just isn’t good enough, and in modern America, we’ve got a government working hard to reward you for not trying and punish you for working hard.
The truth is you can do your best and work hard as you can and everything can end up horribly wrong.  In fact, I would suggest that it often turns out that way, especially in modern culture.  Yet what you learn and how you grow as a person is a success in its self.
Financial and worldly success is a nice feeling in the world – I’ve had small glimpses of it – but it is always hollow and can even be damaging if it comes too easily.
Take writing.  There are authors who had success and sales too early in their careers and their work suffers for it.  There aren’t any real “overnight successes” but some can be pretty close.  And when that happens they don’t learn how to craft their work properly, they don’t learn skills, polish their writing, and worst of all their success leads editors to tend to leave their work alone – or at least the writers to ignore editors.  Its selling, it must be right!
So their books end up monstrosities, poorly written and even lazy.  Their work suffers, and their dreams and ideas suffer for it.  How much better could they have been with more effort put into learning and perfecting their writing?
Or consider someone like Quentin Tarantino.  His movies are pretty good and he does a decent job as a director, but they all suffer, each one more so, from a lack of proper editing.  He loves to write clever dialog, but he gets too clever by half, too cute.  I’m reminded of pulp writers who spent more time trying to come up with a witty or creative way of describing a situation or person rather than creating a good plot well written.  The stories start to read like a series of cute lines packed together rather than a story.
All really successful movie makers seem to fall into this trap, of needing yet getting less and less editing.  Imagine if someone had been overseeing episodes I-III of Star Wars, how much better they could have been.
Failure teaches skills, success can reward a lack of them.  And is the world really better off for having 874 reality shows on television?  They’re successful, but are they making the world any better… or worse?  Is culture and society really benefited by Paris Hilton finding a career based on a debauched lifestyle and “accidentally” leaked cell phone videos?  Is the nation really better off because pastors have found they can build a career by saying what people want to hear and avoiding any talk of God and sin?
America is fixated on success, it permeates our culture.  Success becomes the goal rather than what brings about success.  Everyone wants instant, or very swift, gratification and success.  We all want to have what we want as fast as possible.  I become outraged if my internet connection is slower than normal, when I used to wait 5 minutes to download a file in the late 80s, amazed I could even do it.
But success is something that is hard to accomplish or it has no value.  If I walk out of my door and suddenly am showered with cash and fame simply for existing, none of it has any meaning.  Yes, its useful and pleasing, but it doesn’t mean anything.  It has no purpose or significance beyond simply making me happy.
And maybe in the end that’s what God is trying to pound through my thick stupid head: you’ve bought far too much into the culture around you.  And honestly, I’d probably be insufferable and awful if I had the success I sought for.  I have a tendency toward arrogance that I fight every day.  When I was younger, because I was a quick learner, school and life went very easily.  I barely had to try to study or read and I’d pick up what other students were struggling with.  And as a result I didn’t learn much about hard work or trying to achieve things through struggle.
Thankfully my parents saw this and did something about it: my mom forced me to take piano lessons for years and I got pretty good at it, but I had to work hard every day practicing to even get there.  That didn’t come easily, not at all.  Probably they could have done more to challenge me, but dad was always at work and mom had poor health too.
But its been a tough lesson, like I suppose all of them are.  At least the important lessons. 

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