All Good Things

Please read Psalm 85 in your Bible.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

Jesus is Keeper of all God’s promises, the Giver of all good things.

One part of the process of maturing is setting aside the myths and mistaken thinking that comfort and guide us when we are young and/or immature.  For example, the inevitable moment in growing up when we set aside the Santa Claus myth.

In his book Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller tells the story of when he first realized that Santa was not real.  He was eight years old at the time and at the mall.  Needing to use the restroom, he went inside and was awestruck to see Santa himself, standing there using the facilities.  He thought it an honor to see jolly ol’ St. Nick, even though he was outside of his usual environment.

Santa finished what he came for, turned around and caught young Donnie staring at him.  He said, “Ho, ho, ho, kid.”

There were no words in young Donald’s mind and nothing came out of his mouth.   Santa shrugged & walked out of the bathroom.

After being starstruck wore off, Donald realized that Santa had left the men’s room without washing his hands.  Yuck!  He could not believe that someone with Santa’s reputation for fussiness about keeping naughty and nice lists could be so lacking in simple hygiene.  It was then and there that Donald decided there was no such person as Santa Claus and the guy with germy hands was just someone trying to earn some extra money during the holidays.

He left the restroom to join his family who were already in line to see Santa Claus.  He asked his mother to be excused.  He sat down in the lingerie department and consider the ramifications of this important decision.

(Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller, 2004, pp. 22-25.)

This process is not just for children, however.  All our lives we are supposed to continue maturing, continuing to put away the myths, superstitions, and half-truths that have made us comfortable but are wrong.

Jesus came, in part, to keep God’s promises.  He became one of us to give us the whole truth about God and set us free from the untrue things that hold us back from real life with God.  Psalm 85 is packed with “adult words” and encouraging promises.

  1. The key words in these promises.

FAVOR (v. 1).  The object of God’s FAVOR is the LAND.  The Promised Land was one of the chief points of Jewish theology, it was a sign of God’s love for His people.

Restoration (v. 1+4).   The historical object of restoration was to be returned to their LAND, to end their 70 years of captivity.

Forgiveness is named and described in four different ways.

God forgave and COVERED ALL THEIR SINS (v. 2).  True forgiveness requires some forgetting, putting away the offense.  When God forgives, He forgets completely.  We must do the same.

The psalmist pleaded with God to forgive and SET ASIDE ALL YOUR WRATH AND TURN FROM YOUR FIERCE ANGER (v. 3).  Forgiveness requires giving up one’s right to seek revenge or punish.  To truly forgive, both the forgiver and the forgiven need to humble themselves and make some sacrifices

He also pleaded with him to PUT AWAY YOUR DISPLEASURE (v. 4).  Forgiveness does not allow grudge-holding.  Love does not keep a record of wrongs.  This truth is expressed twice in verse five, in slightly different ways.  (Do not BE ANGRY WITH US FOREVER, and do not PROLONG YOUR ANGER THROUGH ALL GENERATIONS.)  They show a concern for the future and a desire to move forward.

Revival (v. 6).  To “revive” something is to restore or renew life; to spark vitality where life is ebbing.  This is a gift from God, another act of grace.  Asking for and receiving God’s forgiveness is the first step toward revival.  Every revival has begun with intense times of conviction of sin and repentance.

LOVE (v. 7).  LOVE is an Old Testament virtue.  It may not be as obvious as it is in the NT, but it is true that throughout the Bible, LOVE is the greatest virtue.  This verse is as accurate and abridged statement of the Gospel as you’d hope to find in the NT.  LOVE has always been God’s thing.

RIGHTEOUSNESS (vs. 11+13).  We think of RIGHTEOUSNESS in moral terms and that’s true, but not the whole truth.  The origin of RIGHTEOUSNESS is not in our moral willpower.  It comes with the Holy Spirit.  It is another grace God gives us.  The Bible says that any righteousness we can achieve is inadequate to save us.  As v. 13 makes clear, the human form of RIGHTEOUSNESS was expressed in the living and teaching of Jesus.  We follow His example.

  1. The results of the promises kept.

REJOICE IN YOU (v. 6).  Joy is supposed to be our “default setting.”  If life is characterized by anger or gloom, something must change.

SALVATION (vs. 7+9).  It is likely the original readers/singers of this psalm saw restoration, revival, and SALVATION as returning home from Babylon.  For us, SALVATION takes on a more eternal perspective.  We think of SALVATION as our going from earth to heaven.

PEACE (v. 8).  This is REAL peace, the kind that passes human understanding (see Philippians 4:7).  More than the absence of conflict, this is an emotional stability that exists in the face of conflict, a contagious positivity and ease.

HIS GLORY will DWELL IN OUR LAND (v. 9).  God’s presence is His glory and is manifest in light.  God is among His people and in the LAND.

The combined virtues of LOVE and FAITHFULNESS, RIGHTEOUSNESS and PEACE become possible (v. 10).  We know it is difficult to be loving AND faithful at the same time.  God will sometimes require us to do the faithful thing and someone will feel like we’ve been unloving.  Doing the right thing will put us at odds with people doing the wrong thing, or doing nothing.  When your choice is between doing God’s will OR anything else, pick God’s way.  Be obedient to God first and let the people sort themselves out.  We have to answer to God.

THE LORD WILL GIVE WHAT IS GOOD, the LAND WILL YIELD A HARVEST (v. 12).  Whether or not we recognize it at the time, the LORD will do what is GOOD for us.  What we HARVEST depends on what we have planted (see Galatians 6:7-8).

  1. Our part in receiving these promises.

We must LISTEN TO WHAT THE LORD GOD SAYS (v. 8).  On a practical level, this means two things.  First, listen to the LORD, not the world and CERTAINLY not the devil.  Second, as James 1:22-23 states, don’t just listen to God’s word and then go out and do whatever you please.  Apply the word.

Be FAITHFUL SERVANTS (v. 8).  Pride can get in the way of being a SERVANT, but you must serve others if you want to serve the LORD.  God’s will is that we should serve each other, not be individuals unconcerned about each other, or worse, in competition with each other, or worst of all, in conflict.

TURN NOT TO FOLLY (v. 8).  FOLLY here refers to claiming to be a child of God but behaving like a worldly person, not following the way of God.  It is the worst kind of FOLLY to see the life that God offers and then reject Him.

FEAR HIM (v. 9).   FEAR of God means at least three things.  One, feeling awe for God; being overwhelmed by His glory and goodness.  Two, having respect for God; complying with His will because you recognize His authority.  Three, it is legitimate to have a healthy FEAR of God.  A healthy fear is based on knowledge that God has all power and that one day we will have to stand before Him in judgment.

Verse 11 lists two virtues and describes their different points of origin.  FAITHFULNESS is something we practice: that’s why it SPRINGS FORTH FROM THE EARTH.   To be faithful, we must make our daily decisions based on the guidance we receive from God’s word; it involves our will.

RIGHTEOUSNESS is a virtue we receive from heaven: that’s why it’s said to look DOWN FROM HEAVEN.  To be righteous, we must allow the Holy Spirit within us to guide us into the right things to say and do.

  1. Jesus was born to keep these promises.

This truth is affirmed in the Gospels.  In Matthew 1:21, an angel declared to Joseph one reason for the birth of Jesus; “[Mary] WILL GIVE BIRTH TO A SON, AND YOU ARE TO GIVE HIM THE NAME JESUS, BECAUSE HE WILL SAVE HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS.”

To Mary, the angel Gabriel declared a different purpose, “YOU WILL CONCEIVE AND GIVE BIRTH TO A SON, AND YOU ARE TO CALL HIM JESUS.  HE WILL BE GREAT AND WILL BE CALLED THE SON OF THE MOST HIGH.  THE LORD GOD WILL GIVE HIM THE THRONE OF HIS FATHER DAVID, AND HE WILL REIGN OVER JACOB’S DESCENDANTS FOREVER; HIS KINGDOM WILL NEVER END.” (Luke 1:30-33).

Paul affirmed Jesus was the keeper of God the Father’s promises (see 1 Corinthians 1:30-31).  He is our RIGHTEOUSNESS, HOLINESS, and REDEMPTION

Jesus is Keeper of all God’s promises, the Giver of all good things.

Don’t be content to just hear the words; be ambitious to do them.  The world needs godly people ambitious to do God’s will.

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The Shining Face of Jesus

Please read Psalm 80 in your favorite Bible.  I used the NIV to research these remarks.

Jesus is our light and our salvation.

The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking trail in the US.  It winds up and down the rugged Appalachian mountains and is 2,200 miles long.  Imagine!  It runs from Georgia to Maine.

Most people only tackle part of the trail, but if you’re really ambitious, the whole thing takes an average of 165 days to complete.  It is just putting one foot in front of the other, right?  Do that about 5 million times and suddenly you’re all done!

I mention this because it takes 365 days to hike through the average year.  As the average American takes just 5,900 steps a day, the year is a journey of just over 2 million steps.  That’s not half the distance down the Appalachian Trail.

This data helped me put into perspective what a “hike” a year of living can be.  I am grateful that Christmas comes at the end of the year.  Imagine how tedious life would be if we trudged through another year without anything more to celebrate than another one starting up?  Depressing.

Nobody really thinks Jesus was born on Dec. 25, but I say, who cares?  We need Christmas most at the end of the year and God bless it!

Similarly, the birth of Jesus Christ was the culmination of God’s plan for world salvation.  We celebrate His birth because in that one baby God kept the promises He had made to His people.  This Advent season we are going to uncover and explain some of the delightful promises of God in an unlikely place; the Psalms.  In these worship songs we see the footprints that led to the Messiah whom God had promised to His people.  It’s amazing to consider that the first part of this journey to salvation was literally taken in baby steps!

  1. Jesus is our Shepherd.

In Psalm 80:1-2 God promised He would send a Shepherd for His people.  Although shepherding was a major occupation at the time, in their culture, being a shepherd wasn’t a glamorous/desirable vocation.  In that respect I wonder why did God choose to represent Himself as a shepherd (PSS 23:1; ISH 40:11; JMH 23:1-3; 31:9; EKL 34)?  He had at least two reasons.

One, because we are all like sheep.  In Isaiah 53:6 it is written; We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; & t Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  Sheep need a shepherd to survive.  If the flock is to be successful, the shepherd must guide, protect, and care for them.  Like sheep, we tend to wander off to do our own thing and get ourselves in calamity.

Two, because God is our leader.  Shepherds need a protective and sacrificial attitude; God has demonstrated that spirit time after time.  A shepherd leads from among the flock, not from a distance.

In this Psalm the nearness of God is implied in the phrase, ENTHRONED BETWEEN THE CHERUBIM.  This refers to the statuary atop the Ark of the Covenant in the temple.  These heavenly creatures faced away from one another with their wingtips pointing backward.  They did not quite touch and the space between was considered to be the dwelling-place of God.  All of this is meant to reassure us that He is in the midst of His people; He is intimately related to us.

JOSEPH is chosen to represent the people of God because, according to 1 Chronicles 5:1-2, the rights of the firstborn were taken from Reuben and awarded to Joseph instead.  Also, Joseph is one of the holiest men in the Bible.

The psalmist calls on the SHEPHERD OF ISRAEL to AWAKEN to their plight and to SAVE them.

Anticipating the chorus (vs. 3, 7 & 19) in v. 1, the FLOCK asks the SHEPHERD to SHINE FORTH.  When God appeared to His people, He appeared in His glory, in actual light.

We find the fulfillment of this problem in John 10:11-15, where Jesus called Himself THE GOOD SHEPHERD and told us what that meant.  The Greek word translated as GOOD is kalos, which includes perfect competence and moral purity.  Jesus is the Ultimate Shepherd.

Most importantly, it meant the GOOD SHEPHERD sacrificed Himself to save his sheep (11).  Jesus gave His life on the cross to save us.  For, unlike a hired hand, the GOOD SHEPHERD cares about the sheep (12-13).  This “hired hand” was intended by Jesus to be a symbol of the Jewish religious leaders and an indictment of their leadership of the people of God.

The GOOD SHEPHERD knows His sheep and He knows God the Father (14-15).  The Greek word for KNOW is ginosko, which implies a knowledge based on something more substantial than facts; it is also knowledge based on personal experience.

  1. Jesus is our Light.

A plea is made three times in this Psalm (vs. 3, 7, 19), a plea that becomes a promise of light to shine on God’s people.  Three times the psalmist plead with God, RESTORE US, O GOD; MAKE YOUR FACE SHINE UPON US, THAT WE MAY BE SAVED.  (See Numbers 6:24-26; Psalms 31:16; 67:1 for similar language.)  If it helps, think of these verses as the chorus or refrain of the song.

To have God’s FACE SHINE UPON you meant to have God’s attention, experience His presence, and receive His blessing.  When we endure trials it’s easy to feel lonely and wonder where God is.   The purpose of His attention – as far as the psalmist was concerned – was to RESTORE and SAVE them.  This is a plea for deliverance from their enemies and further, to bring them back to a place of favor.

According to v. 17, the FACE is that of God’s appointed representative; THE MAN AT YOUR RIGHT HAND, THE SON OF MAN YOU HAVE RAISED UP FOR YOURSELF (also in v. 15).  At the time this prophecy was made, the readers would’ve understood that the MAN referred to here was the king and/or the whole nation of Israel.  However, with the benefit of the New Testament, we have perspective to see that Jesus is this MAN.  That is the prophecy God intended to convey.  We see this cycle of prediction and fulfillment in the following details:

First, AT YOUR RIGHT HAND: the right hand being the position of power and influence in their culture as well as ours.  Matthew 26:64; Mark 16:19; Acts 2:33; 5:31; 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; and Hebrews 1:3 testify that in heaven, Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father.

Second, THE SON OF MAN is the title Jesus preferred to use for Himself, as we see often in the Gospels.

Third, God the Father RAISED UP Jesus in two senses; from birth to maturity He raised Jesus in a human body and also He raised Jesus from the dead.

We look to a couple of places in the Gospels as examples of the fulfillment of God’s promise in the chorus of Psalm 80.

In Matthew 17:1-2 it is written, After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.  (See 2 Peter 1:16-18 for Peter’s account of this event.)  This is the literal fulfillment of Psalm 80.  The face of Jesus literally shone brightly on three of His disciples.

This supernatural event was accompanied by a voice from heaven identifying Jesus as God’s Son, the Father was pleased with Him, and they were to LISTEN TO HIM.  This is called the “Transfiguration” because of the supernatural change in Jesus’ appearance.  Its purpose was to fulfill prophecy and confirm Jesus’ claims He was God’s Son.

In John 8:12 we read, When Jesus spoke to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Here Jesus used LIGHT more as a figure of speech than a literal luminescence.  The LIGHT is a symbol of the goodness, truth, and glory of God.  In Jesus, God the Father was present and the truth was revealed in His teachings.

DARKNESS symbolizes the evil and falsehood of this world where it is ruined by sin.  It is the opposite of the character of God and the righteous standards to which He calls us.

Jesus is our light and our salvation.

Not everyone embraces the rapidly-changing world of social media.  I, for one, will not surrender my 90’s vintage flip phone for a smart phone and only accepted the flip phone under duress.  But even I can see a couple positives in social media.

First, of all the technologies that could have experienced this unprecedented change rate of change, I’m encouraged that the one people chose the kind of technology that empowers our communication.  We could’ve been crazy about solar-powered vehicles or sunk a lot of research into robots or space travel, but the market chose phones.  This is proof to me that people want companionship.  We need and want to be heard and to listen.

Second, it has enlarged our definition of “neighbor.”  The Internet and all forms of social media have given us access to one another that defies geography.  “Neighbor” no longer means just the people who live near us or our co-workers or family.  We can access one another around the world literally at the speed of light.  Deeds of darkness can be exposed to the entire planet in minutes.

Obviously, as a human invention, social media is capable of grave sins and presents serious dangers.  It needs to be handled carefully and we’re still learning and feeling out the ethics of this kind of instantaneous and virtually unlimited access to each other.

The challenge social media presents to believers is to set an example in using it in the most God-honoring way possible.  Though the media has changed, the message remains the same.  We must let the world know that Baby Jesus became the Good Shepherd and the Light of the World so the world may be saved.  During Advent, make full use of your Contacts list.  Pray for them daily and contact them to proclaim Jesus as Savior.

Love Never Fails

Take up your preferred Bible and read 1 Corinthians 12:31-14:1.  Myself, I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

Love is the virtue at the center of our identity.

Now that the turkey is reduced to leftovers, we put Thanksgiving behind us and think more about Christmas.  I know we have Christmas overachievers in our church family; you already have your gifts bought, probably wrapped, and either hidden or placed carefully under your tree.  The underachievers who will wait until Dec. 24 OR LATER to shop and all the rest of us are going to be out and about the next three weeks.

One of the things we experience while out and about, especially this time of year, are strangers doing “random acts of kindness” to other strangers.  This week, Richard Hanson had a great idea to improve the custom.  His idea was to have a card prepared explaining that your act of kindness was not random at all, but was the product of a love-relationship with Jesus Christ.  Do the act, leave the card and have a “silent witness” of Jesus.

We have printed several of these cards for your use.  Let me recommend you take a few of these and when you buy lunch for the people in line behind you or pay for the purchases of the person in line ahead of you, give them one of these cards and put the face of Jesus on your kindness.

J.B. McPhail wrote, “Love is the fabric of a life well lived.” Acts of kindness are seasonally appropriate and give evidence of good character.  If you use these cards, you will add witness to service and improve both, with eternal consequences.

  1. Context: THE GREATER GIFTS, THE MOST EXCELLENT WAY,

THE WAY OF LOVE (12:31 + 14:1).

There are three expressions Paul used that provide context for this teaching, so it’s important to interpret these first.

The first is, EAGERLY DESIRE THE GREATER GIFTS.  Paul wrote about Spiritual Gifts because his original teaching had been corrupted by false teachers for their purposes.  The Gift of Tongues had been exalted as being above all the others, so Paul countered by saying there are greater Gifts than Tongues. Paul didn’t identify which Gifts are GREATER, but in chapter fourteen, he made it clear that the Gift of Prophecy is a more useful Gift than Tongues.

The second phrase is THE MOST EXCELLENT WAY.  This is Paul’s transitional statement, the way he introduces this chapter about love.  1 Corinthians 13 is a passage lifted out of its context possibly more often than any other in the Bible.

Paul wrote about Spiritual Gifts in the chapter before and after.  Ch. 13 is NOT a parenthesis, but part a chain of reasoning covering chapters 12-14.   In chapter 12 he introduced the reader to the Spiritual Gifts, listing and defining them as God’s way of growing churches.  In chapter 13 he puts them in proper perspective vis-à-vis LOVE; the Gifts are ways to express and enact love.  In chapter 14 he showed how misuse of the Gift of Tongues messed up worship in the Corinthian church.

Paul made it clear that LOVE is superior to t Gifts; it is THE MOST EXCELLENT WAY.  The Greek word for LOVE here is agape.  The word was used only once in all the secular Greek texts which survive into modern times.  This word was taken up by New Testament authors and the Church to convey the ultimate love given by God to humanity.  It is the deepest, most spiritual version of the three Greekk words for LOVE.  It is the ultimate kind of LOVE.  It is not superficial, sensual, or sentimental.

The third phrase is FOLLOW THE WAY OF LOVE is in 14:1; LOVE is a WAY of life.  We are to pursue this virtue in our daily living and ultimately, in our character.

  1. Without love, even the Spiritual Gifts are powerless (13:1-3, 8-10)

Without love, TONGUES fail to communicate (1) and will ultimately be STILLED (8).  LOVE is the difference between merely making noise and communicating in a godly way.  Without a translation, public use of the Gift of Tongues only succeeds in making noise and worse, may irritate the Body of Christ, like the clang and bang of a GONG and CYMBALS, say.  The GONG and CYMBALS were used in Old Testament worship (see 2 Samuel 6:5; 1 Chronicles 13:8; Psalms 150:5) and also idol worship; not referred to in a derogatory way. Instead, there’s just not a lot you can communicate with a GONG or CYMBALS.  We need to make words, not just noise.  One aspect of love’s superiority over Tongues is that LOVE will continue to exist after the Second Coming, while the Gift of Tongues will cease (8).

Without love, the knowledge and faith bestowed by PROPHECY amounts to NOTHING (2) and will ultimately CEASE (8).  The Gift of Prophecy can involve FORE-telling the future but it is mostly FORTH-telling; interjecting the truth where people are misunderstanding or misbehaving.

MYSTERIES and KNOWLEDGE are variations of the same Gk word.  They refer to deep knowledge of hidden and significant things.  In Paul’s time as in ours, “moving mountains” is an expression for overcoming great challenges (see Mark 11:22-23).  BUT – done without love, even great achievements are NOTHING.  After Jesus’ Second Coming, there won’t be any need for the Gift of Prophecy because all survivors will know God’s will (see JMH 31:33-34).

Without love, GIVING has no benefit (3).  The kind of sacrifice Paul describes in verse three is total, even to the point of giving up one’s life.  In modern terms we might paraphrase Paul to say, “Even if I become such a workaholic that I suffer burnout”.  This may be a reference to the fiery trials of Shadrach, Mesach, and Abenego in Daniel 3.  Notice that Paul did NOT say in verse eight that giving will cease.  Heaven will be a place of ultimate and true giving (never false or for evil, only good).

Our knowledge is, at best, partial and immature (8-12).  It requires love to make it valuable.

Our knowledge is always partial.  People who ignore this fact fall into a vice that makes people hard to live with: the arrogant assumption they know it all.  Paul identified this vice in 1 Corinthians 8:1, Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.  KNOWLEDGE PUFFS UP means that knowledge can lead to pride.  The Bible teaches that only God is all-knowing, so put your pride in park and get real!

Our knowledge is always immature.  Growing old and maturing are not the same thing.  Growing old happens automatically; the longer we survive, the more birthdays we accrue.  Maturing takes time, so it looks similar, but maturing is a process that happens by intention and application of hard work.  Spiritual maturing, the greatest of all kinds of maturity, happens only with hard work and the help of the Holy Spirit.

The more we learn, the more we have to admit there is more we CAN learn.  It takes a maturing person to admit there is still room for self-improvement and then to take up that challenge.  There is no reason to be “puffed up.”

In heaven (WHEN COMPLETENESS COMES, v. 10), our knowledge will be full and mature.  Now we see God only as He is reflected in human beings – sometimes a very poor likeness – but then we shall see Him FACE TO FACE.

(Corinthian mirrors of polished metal were famous in the ancient world – Paul refers to them here.)  In heaven we will KNOW FULLY, even as God now has perfect knowledge of each of us.

  1. The qualities of true love (13:4-8, 13).

Paul expressed the qualities of LOVE positively: LOVE IS…

– PATIENT (4) = it overlooks small offenses; resists becoming resentful; is active, not passive.

– KIND (4) = it thinks of ways to help others.

– Joyful in the TRUTH (6) = lovers are happy with honesty.

– Unfailing (8) = as God is love, love will always be needed, appropriate, and powerful.

– Maturing (11) = childish ways of thinking and speaking giving way to adult means are Paul’s way of symbolizing spiritual maturity.

– Protective (7) = it helps, doesn’t hurt unless pain is necessary for healing.

– Trusting (7) = by being trustworthy.  Loving people have discernment but start with positivity.

– Hopeful (7) = Negativity always hinders and hurts.  Hopeful people give others the benefit of the doubt.

– Persevering (7) = will not give up on people and is willing to endure adversity in order to love.

– The greatest of all virtues (13) = HOPE and FAITH are important, even essential virtues.  They will all remain for eternity, but LOVE is t GREATEST.

– You could summarize all ten of these virtues as being having a focus on someone other than self.  Those who truly love are focused on God first, others second, self last.

Paul also expressed the qualities of LOVE negatively: LOVE IS NOT…

– Envious (4) = it is not materialistic; it does not want what others have.

– Boastful (4) = it does not seek superiority over others, nor is it characterized by “one-upmanship” and an insistence on “winning” arguments.

– Proud (4) = it is not arrogantly centered on one’s achievements and qualifications to the point of feeling entitled.

– Dishonoring (5) = it is not so self-absorbed as to disregard the well-being of others, even to the violation of God’s standards.  It doesn’t withhold respect.

– Self-seeking (5) = this vice sums up this entire section.  The other eight vices explain how to recognize self-centered people.

– EASILY ANGERED (5) = it’s focus is not on one’s self manifest in a short temper and/or perceiving insults or injuries where none were intended.

– A recorder of WRONGS (5) = it does not withhold forgiveness.  When we pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” we may be asking for a world of hurt.  Selfish people hold grudges.

-Delighted with evil (6) = it does not derive a wicked happiness when seeing someone else “get what they deserve” or get away with wrong-doing.

Horror is not a genre I enjoy, so I rarely read or watch it.  One of the most horrifying movies I’ve ever seen has no monsters or killers or violence of any kind.  It is a film shown to us in elementary school, called “Cipher in the Snow.”  It is the short story of an ordinary school kid who walked off the school bus one morning and fell over dead.  His teacher undertook to understand what killed Cliff.

The film was based on a story by Jean Mizer, a lady who worked as a teacher and guidance counselor, published in the NEA Journal in 1964.  It was produced by Bringham Young University and has been used extensively for anti-bullying education and moral training.

Although the film does not come out and say so explicitly, it is clearly implied that Cliff died from a lack of love.  The teacher finds that Cliff’s parents divorced and he had no friends at school.  There was no one there to love him.

It scared the willies out of me, but I took the lesson to heart.  The film illustrates the disaster that is a loveless life.

Love is the virtue at the center of our identity.

Love is one of the easiest things to talk about and sing about.  Everyone wants to celebrate love and everyone wants to receive love.  It’s not so easy

to do.  It’s not always part of our nature or personality to be loving, especially not at the high standard God sets for love.

It’s much easier and more natural for us to love self first, or substitute legalism for love and then make excuses to conceal our lack of love.  Love is not optional for a follower of Jesus, it is essential, indeed, the defining aspect of our character.

Seek ways to love.  Act on opportunities that present themselves.  Love is too important to be kept waiting, so get to it.  And, there’s no better time than Christmas to go about proclaiming and enacting the love of Jesus Christ.

An Ethic Based on Life

A Suggested Ethical Basis for Neighborliness for All World Citizens: A Common Valuation of LIFE

Acknowledging my naivte, I hold out hope that one day people will come together around a commonly held ethic that transcends national, religious, and philosophic lines.  I get energized by ideas, but have learned repeatedly that not everyone else does.  With those caveats, I humbly submit for your consideration the first plank in a platform for citizenship and world cooperation.

 

TAKE                    USE/DENY         TOLERATE        AFFIRM           GIVE

LIFE1                     LIFE2                 LIFE3                 LIFE4                LIFE5

<———————————————————————————————————————–>

-2                           -1                         0                        +1                     +2

Evil                        Offensive          Neutral               Good              Ideal

 

1 Respect for life is truly the foundation for civilization.  However, there are always exceptional situations that prove the rule.  On an international and individual level, we observe that sometimes we have to take life in order to save more lives or defend innocent lives.  Taking life is the ultimate act of negativity.  Examples of this value are murderers, serial killers, and mass murderers.

 

2 These people devalue life with words and/or deeds that treat human beings as something less and animals even worse.    When life is something to be manipulated for personal gain, then that person is making a negative contribution to society.  Examples include bigots, criminals (pimps and pushers), sweat shop owners, and slavers.

 

3 It can be argued that not caring IS making an ethical decision and it is choosing sin.  However, here I compare the societal impact of actions and attitudes rather than evaluate them from any particular ethical system.   People in this category are indifferent and/or circumspect about their value of life, preferring privacy or isolation to engagement.  People who take a hard “scientific” view of humanity can devaluate human life to being merely equivalent to animal life.

 

4 Attitudes and actions at this level are more characterized by words than deeds.  Lots of people have positive, life-affirming beliefs, but not as many get involved in defending life from encroachments on life that happen because of greed and/or negative philosophies.  Examples of this level of affirmation of life include theologians, philosophers, and social scientists who are champions of life on paper and in their armchair, but who do not take those views into the street.  Their advocacy is limited to private or academic circles.

 

5 Those who can be said to “give life” are active advocates for life, defenders of the weak and innocent; those whose love is both public and persuasive.  They aren’t necessarily “activists,” but they act on their convictions even when such action threatens their personal comfort zones.  Parents who raise their children with life-affirming values are perhaps the best example of this valuation of life.

The Empty Church

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A BOOK REPORT ON

THE EMPTY CHURCH:

The Suicide of Liberal Christianity

by Thomas C. Reeves

(Reviewed by Rev. Brett Best, July, 2017.)

THE BIG IDEA

Reeves writes with an uncompromising but reasonable style to explain how Liberalism has plagued the American mainline denominations almost to death.  The death of individual churches is beyond dispute and happens daily; the effects on the national groups are indisputably taking their toll.  While Christianity isn’t threatened, these denominations certainly are.  For the record, he calls these denominations the “Seven Sisters of American Protestantism” and they are, the American Baptist Churches in the USA, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church.

In his own words, “This study places liberal Protestantism in a historical context, describes its current plight, and makes recommendations for its revitalization.” (p. 1)  As you might guess, it is the first of these three goals that takes up most of the pages of the book, but it’s such a tightly-woven, expertly concise telling of history it makes good and informative reading without bogging the reader down.

THE LITTLE IDEAS

First, a couple words about opinion polls and other statistics: one, I am not a believer in opinion polls.  There’s a certain falsehood that’s built into polling.  Regardless of how much science there is the data collection, it creates a false impression that we’re accurately gauging what people think/feel/prioritize.  Statistics of this sort are a more malleable medium than pollsters care to admit.  Have you ever heard a couple diehard sports fans debating whose team is greater?  Statistics fly about the room as proof that convinces no one.  Numbers are not always objective and they can be selectively used to make a point without ever proving a point.  To me, the most genuine numerical evidence is where people are spending their money and their time.  Maybe how they vote, although that can be too small a sample to be reliable.

Second, Reeve’s statistics are two decades old.  When you rely on statistical data, the other edge of that sword is that it ages.  I do not believe the situation has changed enough to repudiate any of Reeve’s points, but you understand my meaning: when you read the statistical parts of the book, you think, “Yeah, but these numbers are so OLD.”

“As is quite well known, the mainline churches have been shrinking dramatically during the last three decades and appear to be confused and helpless at a time when the nation is crying out for inspiration and guidance.” (p. 9)  “Confused and helpless” is the title of the first chapter and is an apt summary of the condition of the mainline denominations.  Between the youngest adults opting out (it would be another decade or so before we started calling them the “Nones”) and the graying of the oldest members, the mainlines face enough losses of membership.  Factor in the distress caused by liberal denominational leaders and policies, you have an explanation for the hemorrhaging of people, churches, and money.

“The obvious question is, Why do liberals dominate?  As we have seen, liberals have long been prominent in the mainline.  But there is also an important principle of group dynamics involved here: moderate, otherwise busy people are no match of zealous, ideological interest groups eager to attain power.” (p. 15)  He goes on to explain something I’ve wondered about for a long time; why denominational leaders tend to be liberals.  Liberal clergy disconnect from the local church because people in the pews don’t want to hear their nonsense; they tend to be more conservative.  So, when parish ministry isn’t an option, what does a theologically trained person do except go to denominational HQ?  To paraphrase a familiar adage, “Those who can, preach.  Those who can’t, administrate.”

Here’s a sign of the disconnect between liberal clergy and conservative congregations: “Complaints about the political partisanship, character, and competence of clergy are commonplace in many denominations.” (p. 23)

Liberals blame the folks in the pews for the demise of their congregations and denominations.  They cite the anachronistic nature of a faith derived from an ancient book (the Bible) as making them irrelevant to modern audiences.  Reeves will spend the remaining chapters explaining how the liberals’ abandonment of history and tradition in favor of trendiness and cultural accommodation is the real cause.  At liberal and conservative extremes, people are lost when there is an over-emphasis on politics.

Why should anyone bother renewing the mainlines?  If they are dinosaurs, why not let them go extinct?  Reeves offers some good motives.

  • The people in the pews still revere the church’s traditions, history, and doctrines, which can provide the inspiration and guidance our culture needs and occasionally wants.
  • The local church is still important to local people.
  • If denominations fall, what is the alternative? DISorganized religion?  This kind of chaos invites more drop-outs from the faith.
  • The secular culture liberals adore has been clearly proven to be morally poisonous.

With specific statistics and quotes along with sweeping generalizations, Reeves paints an unflattering portrait of the Church in America.  He notes the causes of liberalism (i.e., an uncritical accommodation to culture) and its effects (killing churches).  He explains how the “Seven Sisters” have declined and contrasted how liberals and conservatives explain a decline that is obvious to both.  The situation has not changed much in the 20 years since the publication of The Empty Church, with the possible exception being that liberals are becoming bolder and more inclined to use their media and education system advantages without being limited by nagging details like truth.  Reeve’s analysis is logically more applicable to Boomers than their Millennial grandchildren.  The first chapter is one of the most quotable in a book that fairly blossoms with good quotes.

Popular culture is the bane of true faith in the sense that it has created what Reeves calls “consumer Christianity,” the title of his second chapter.  When Modernism moved the center of the faith to the individual (from its Pre-modern focus on the Church), self-centered manifestations of doctrine and practice began to be codified in how we understand and do church.  The tension between culture and Christianity is a frequent topic in this book.  Liberals accommodate themselves to, and even celebrate secular culture while conservatives resist, even vilify it.

On a parallel track, American Church history is a cautionary tale about how culture (and its fossilized form, government) has related to Christianity.  I don’t think people who argue for a “return” to a “Christian America” or propagate a “secular America, like the Founding Fathers envisioned” really understand history.  Once again, the bias of the extremes fouls the well of truth.  Reeves devotes a lot of pages and statistical evidence to back up a more moderate and realistic view that America has always been a culture of individualism, with individuals who backed or opposed Christianity, as their inclinations lead them.  “Religious individualism, to repeat, is at the core of American Christianity.” (pp. 61-62)

In chapter two, Reeves characterizes American Christianity with these broad strokes.

  • “First, our faith is not tied to our churches.” (p. 61) Think of Billy Joe who insists he can worship God just as well in the woods or in a boat (usually with a six-pack) as readily as in a church.
  • “Second, Christianity in modern America tends to be superficial.” (p. 63) Biblical illiteracy, the statistically insignificant difference between the behaviors of churched and unchurched people, and the gap between claims of faith and acts of faith are examples of this superficiality.

Individualism is something Christian and non-Christian Americans share with each other.  What divides us is the Left’s stranglehold on media and education, which they manipulate to justify their actions and the philosophy that supposedly gives rise to them.

Historically, Reeves blames the Enlightenment for birthing Modernism and Post-modernism, philosophies that establish the individual as the center of all things, relativising morality and nullifying the true authorities of the Church and Scripture.  “The point is, to repeat, that this secular religion tended to focus on the self and its desires.” (p. 74)

Intellectuals are fond of social engineering and, to use Rousseau’s classic phrase, they have little difficulty countenancing schemes that ‘force people to be free.’” (p. 79)  The third chapter is about the three “secular religions” Reeves identifies as the Enlightenment, Marxism, and science.  These three historical movements have been perpetrators of grave persecution of individual Christians as well as Christianity as a whole.  None of their attacks have succeeded in gravely injuring Christianity, but is from their toxic cesspool that Liberalism has spawned.  It has done from within the Church what these secular religions have failed to accomplish by working against us from outside.  What’s especially subtle is how the individualism of these secular religions has been blended into American Christianity, making it the consumer-oriented organization it is today.

Chapter three covers American church history up to 1920, chapter four from 1920 to 1960, and chapter five sees us from the 60s through 1996, when the book was published.  The final chapter sets forth some suggestions on how the mainlines could be reformed.  The Empty Church is well-researched and written, presenting these historical periods with just enough detail to substantiate the author’s generalizations.  Space in this humble review does not permit even a bald listing of the movements and persons of these eras.  Such a summary is not necessary as Reeves has done such a commendable job cataloguing and commenting on them in The Empty Church.

Liberalism in the American Church started the mainlines on their decline in the 1920s, with a brief respite in the fifteen years following World War II.  Remember, one way to scale Liberalism is the degree to which liberals condone the culture of the time, whatever it may be.  “Without a Bible or a church tradition to provide, in their [liberals’] judgment, dependable spiritual or ethical authority, most liberal Protestants went along with the flow of events in the secular world.” (pp. 145-146)  Proving once again it is easier to let the river push you than to row against the river.

Clergy were not immune to the siren call of “relevance” achieved by cultural conformity.  Reeves quotes historian Edwin S. Gaustad who captured the feelings of clergy of the day and into our own time; “In the struggle over image, the clergyman unsure of his role as a prophet or moral leader as citizen or therapist, found little reassurance in observing the swift deterioration of his economic and professional standing.” (p. 106)

One trait common to all extreme positions is the tendency to go overboard if left unchecked by anyone with common sense or an actual alternative point of view.  In his chapter “Stuck in the Sixties” Reeves shares a few anecdotes of the excesses to which liberals have gone when they are unfettered by sensible folk.  The “ReImagining 1993” conference held by liberal feminists is one example of the silliness that has been offered in place of orthodox theology and behavior.

In his chapter on renewing the mainlines, Reeves offers several observations and suggestions for ways in which the mainlines might be moved back from extinction.

  • Urbanization is both a bane and a boon to the mainlines. Urban culture seems to favor secularization and liberalism, but statistics show it also increases the opportunities for church involvement.  Urban ministry needs to cease being the domain of the left and moved more toward the center.
  • Educational centers have long been nesting grounds for liberals. But statistics show that more education tends to increase church participation.  Reeves advocates bypassing existing liberal seminaries and other institutions of higher education to create new, more orthodox educational institutions.
  • Liberals and church growth experts have sought to convince us that “outmoded” worship styles and worse, biblical literacy, are offensive to moderns. Again, statistical data tells the opposite story.  Mainlines need to ditch the 50 year-old notion that “relevance” is achieved by simple-minded, uncritical incorporation of popular culture into worship forms.
  • Because the mainline leadership has yawed so far to the left, politics is a subject that should largely be banned from Sunday mornings. The mainline leaders are so thoroughly wedded to the Democratic Party which has been completely dominated by liberals, a stern corrective course needs to be taken.
  • People are opting out of church because they see it as irrelevant. “Irrelevant” does NOT mean, as liberals suggest, outmoded, archaic, ancient, or traditional.  It means – because of the folly of liberals – that it is no different from the world.  The emotional/spiritual felt needs of many people of all ages can be more conveniently found in the world, and so people have reinvested their time and resources in other institutions.  To win them back, the American Church must hew to the right and reclaim our history and traditions and our orthodoxy.  Accommodation to culture is killing us; confrontation of culture will save us.
  • “Here we are at the root of things: the submission of liberal Protestantism to a secular gospel rests upon a failure to accept the essentials of the Christian faith.” (p. 175) We can have a lively discussion of what constitutes the “essentials,” but we can come to agreement if we limit our discussion to the things that are truly important to our faith; the distinctives that we share.  Historically, we have suffered the splintering into denominations because we have allowed non-essentials to be treated as essentials.
  • Reeves calls for “vigorous spiritual formation” on page 178. By this he means rejecting the Pragmatism and Literalism of Science (and all the offspring of the other Secular Religions mentioned earlier), in favor of a return to the miraculous, supernatural, and divine.  Otherwise, church is just another club.
  • Return to a strict moral code will revitalize the mainlines if such strictures are based on Scripture, the spiritual formation previously mentioned, and a dose of common sense. We don’t need a return to the silly fussiness of Fundamentalist prohibitions; that would be an overcorrection.  One thing most people respect is integrity.  The American Church has lost respect because liberals have argued for a dumbing down of Christian morality until church folk are no more moral than unchurched folk.
  • We need to advocate for “common grace” in our culture, genuine respect for all views, not the shallow “tolerance” the left has as its sole virtue and practices with unblinking hypocrisy. We are not in competition with the Secular Religion of Science, but respond reasonably and graciously to those who disagree.  The American Church will earn respect if she sticks to her guns without sticking it to the “other guy.”
  • “Rejuvenated mainline churches must also become engaged actively in evangelism.” (p. 188) This simple sentence underscores the main thing that is wrong with mainline churches.  Evangelism is one of the most exciting and fulfilling aspects of Christian life and is the most neglected aspect of church life, to our shame.  Part of the reason for this is psychological; if there is no real difference between the church and the world, why invite anyone to step across the threshold?  If sin is not a problem and the cross is a myth, why put up with the stuff that accompanies church life?  It’s easier to stay home and more fun to invest our time elsewhere if none of this makes any real difference.  Emptied of the supernatural, we can find better ways to get our coffee on Sunday morning.
  • A return to Scripture and an emphasis on biblical literacy in and outside of the church walls will facilitate both evangelism and discipleship. Liberals forsake the authority of Scripture to exalt reason.  Fundamentalists exalt the authority of Scripture and forsake reason.  We need to find a middle ground between these false extremes and stand firmly on it.
  • “Renewed mainline churches should also take immediate steps to stem the flight of their young people.” (p. 192) Conservative churches raise up young people who generally remain true to their faith.  The liberal near-monopoly on education makes adolescence a vulnerable time and our culture is doing everything it can to extend adolescence.  We need to prepare and undergird young adults by confronting the culture they face and by which they are influenced most of their waking hours.  The proliferation of cell phones has heightened their exposure to media and the Church has done little or nothing to help them sift the good from the bad.
  • “Renewed mainline churches will also accelerate their social and charitable institutions.” (p. 165) This is another aspect of American society that has been abandoned to the devices of liberals who take advantage of their captive audiences.  Charitable institutions in this country began as extensions of the Church, but we abdicated that kind of service to secular and governmental agencies who use them to expand the liberal agenda.
  • Reeves takes a hard line on mainline clergy as well. He urges a return to more traditional forms of pastoral ministry, leaving the political activism and moral relativism predominant among the mainlines behind.

“Finally, how difficult will it be to renew the mainline?  An abundance of evidence suggests that the task is extremely formidable.  For one thing, as we have seen, many liberal Protestants, especially at the leadership levels of the mainline churches, are pleased with the current situation.” (p. 200)  “It is extremely unlikely that efforts to renew the mainline churches will start from the top down.  Meaningful reform will no doubt have to come, as it has in the past, from the rank and file.” (p. 201)

We need to decide whether or not the mainlines are worth saving.  Considering the alternatives, I’d say so.  Then we need to decide that the renewal of the mainlines will only happen with God’s Spirit at work in the pews and work its way out from there.  It then needs to involve the local clergy and skirt the denominational office as a lost cause, working in regions as a leaven.  Person to person, church to church across localities, eventually the tide will turn even the vast rudder of the denominational leaders and the ship may yet avoid the inevitable iceburg.  We can either act or let the inevitable demise happen.

MY GRADE: A.

The Contemplative Pastor

A Book Report on

THE CONTEMPLATIVE PASTOR

Eugene H. Peterson

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Reviewed by Brett Best, 7/17/17.

THE BIG IDEA

Based on the subtitle, “Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction,” one might conclude that Peterson attempts to restore spiritual direction to the job description of Christian pastors.  That is undoubtedly the intent of the author.  However, as the greatest portion of the development of his thesis does NOT involve things of the past, one has to wonder, “How is this a return to the art of spiritual direction?”  It may seem picayune to note this, but we are attempting to identify the central idea of the text, and something as obviously stated as a subtitle merits a closer look.  “Reexamining” would, I believe, be a better choice of words and more reflective of Peterson’s methodology.

“Art” is an aptly-chosen word, given Peterson’s obvious affinity for poetry, emotionally expressive prose, and a wordsmith’s fascinations with turns of phrase.  More importantly, it conveys Peterson’s sensitivity to the spirit of a thing and knowledge that expressing the spirit is not a formulistic science, but an art form to which one brings imagination and intuition.

There is a great deal that can be said about “spiritual direction” that has been more aptly stated than I can.  It’s possible that Peterson may not define the term in the same way as those who make a ministry out of spiritual direction.  In his book, spiritual direction is more of a general heading than a specific destination.  That is not to say that it is formless, just that sufficient flexibility is required to fit individuals with the steps they need to take to bring God into the gaps of their awareness and action.  I suspect Peterson’s definition is more process-oriented than product-oriented.

Risking the loss of the title in the sub-title’s examination, it’s a good time to remember that the title of this book is The Contemplative Pastor.  The work was written with Peterson’s colleagues in pastoral ministry in mind.  It is “contemplative” in the sense that it urges the parish pastor to transcend the “scientific/professional” approach that has dominated the field in the last century to embrace a cooperative search for meaning; pastor and people.

THE LITTLE IDEAS

Chapter 1 – The Naked Noun.  In modern usage, nouns have been weakened by the excessive use of adjective in order to specialize or just “sell” the thing.  Pastor is an example of a noun so miserably used with adjectives that it has been bleached of any meaningful identity.  Peterson purposes to correct this loss by offering unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic as three suitable adjectives to use in modifiying the noun pastor.

Chapter 2 – The Unbusy Pastor.  It is blasphemous to attach the adjective busy to the noun pastor because it indicates a sinful state in which the clergyperson is unavailable to the people paying for his/her availability.  We allow ourselves to become busy because we are vain or too lazy to say “no.”  The unbusy pastor attends the things that are really important, not just the stuff that mollifies his desire to please people or herself.  Pastors need to be unbusy enough to pray, preach, and listen.  If they would recover biblical priorities, they must wield the cultural icon of a schedule to squelch opposition, appealing to the fiat, “My schedule does not allow this.”

Chapter 3 – The Subversive Pastor.  (This is where I came into this project.  Thirty years ago – the last time I bothered to read Leadership magazine, I read an article by this name that was taken from this book.  The concept hung with me all these years and inspired me to read it now, thirty years later.)  Popular culture has denigrated the office of pastor to such a bland, pasty-faced character who offers smiles and hugs in the vain hope of acceptance or at least relevancy.  Peterson sees the pastor’s role as playing that caricature for all its worth, the whole while undermining the errors and confronting the sins of our arrogant culture and the Church that has been co-opted by it.  Ours is a guerilla war, making no fiery clashes we cannot hope to win, but concentrating on the power of the truth to influence and win converts from the “Kingdom of Self” one at a time.  Vanity and naivete have influenced pastors to commit themselves to logistical campaigns destined to futility.  The Kingdom of Self cannot be assaulted directly; the Kingdom of God works through parable and other forms of misdirection that advance our cause in a way that makes victory possible.  It is an interesting paradigm and has encouraged me a great deal over the years.

Chapter 4 – The Apocalyptic Pastor.  This adjective would be contrary to subversive if “apocalyptic” meant what we usually think it means.  Peterson takes the word away from its usual, sensational, sense, to emphasize the revelatory aspect.  The pastor’s job is to reveal God to the people.  This seems patently obvious until we take stock of how deeply we have perjured ourselves where God is involved.  To the degree that secular culture sanctions God, we have misrepresented Him.  To Peterson, the apocalyptic pastor must be patient because God does not change and people stubbornly resist Him.  To honor God and to overcome sin’s resistance, patient adherence to the truth is needed.  In my reading, this was the weakest of the three adjectival chapters, the paradigm a bit stressed by being stretched too far while possessing less substance.

Chapter 5 – Ministry Amid the Traffic.  It is a trade secret that clergy wish there were more Sundays in the week.  It is the time between Sundays that is the most stressful for us.

Chapter 6 – Curing Souls: The Forgotten Art.  To write of “curing” souls is a fascinating turn of phrase and I am coming around to it.  However, the chapter is based on Peterson’s “because I said so” kind of reasoning, with support from other sources conspicuous by absence.  His point is that pastors can either “cure” (mature/improve) souls or run a church, but not both.  As is the case whenever someone presents a false dialectic that requires a choice (“either…or”), I encourage people to ask “Why not ‘both…and’ instead?”  Peterson is so eager for his new turn of phrase he isn’t willing to address the possibility that both activities (curing and running) may be redemptively used for the Kingdom of God.  A pastor may engage in more curing than running if first he seizes the initiative to define what ministry and congregational life is really about.  Second, he/she must consciously use language that is descriptive (by which I suppose he means story, parable, and idiom) over against prescriptive language (which either commends or condemns).   Third, the pastor is usually busied solving problems and counts these as progress in ministry.  Part of curing souls is seeing past problems and looking at the larger, more important, issues of relationships and beliefs which no doubt contribute to the problems anyway.  Again, process trumps product.

Chapter 7 – Praying with Eyes Open.  Most of this chapter is an homage to writer Anne Dillard.  It really only serves the reader as an over-long emphasis on the “art” of spiritual direction and a call to spirituality that is more abstract.  I would advise the reader to skip this chapter.

Chapter 8 – First Language.  Peterson wants so badly to argue for the primacy of prayer as the pastoral task that this chapter almost descends into anti-rationalism.  I suspect it is a point that must be made as it is the greatest weakness among clergy and laity alike.  Prayer is the most vital thing in a truly spiritual life and yet it is the most neglected thing.

Chapter 9 – Is Growth a Decision?  Prayer leads to providence as surely as sowing to reaping.  The question is one of will – divine and/or human – and how they intermingle to accomplish anything in prayer.  Peterson’s solution is to offer the middle voice of English grammar as a symbol of the mutual participation of human and divine will in accomplishing spiritual maturity in the believer and in the local church.

Chapter 10 – The Ministry of Small Talk.  The definition of “small talk” is very much in the eye of the interpreter and we tend to make such decisions very selfishly.  However, not everything a lay person has to say is a worthy use of a pastor’s time.  “Art” will always require sensitivity to context and may also require participation (usually active listening) in moments that might seem otherwise trivial.  Pastors can easily see walk-ins as intruders on their more important (read: “more spiritual”) activities.  Such an attitude will obviously cast a shadow on trust and will provide fewer opportunities to provide spiritual direction.  In a sense, pastors earn the right to be heard by listening.

Chapter 11 – Unwell in a New Way.  This chapter is Peterson addressing some of the symptoms of postmodernism in our culture without necessarily intending to do so.  From his point of view, adolescence is a model for understanding the sin nature.  It is immature and committedly so.  (I agree and have thought so for years).  There are two aspects of this cultural adolescence; a sense of inadequacy (especially in spiritual matters) and a lack of context that comes from expunging tradition and history.  This is “new” in the sense that in the 50s pop culture began a cultural shift from respecting age to respecting youth.  Postmodernism is part of the process and the product of this shift.

Chapter 12 – Lashed to the Mast.  Here’s another trade secret: pastors have a complex relationship with their churches.  In Peterson’s case, this is manifest in his contention that lay people have low expectations of their pastors because it makes less work for them.  Contrarily, pastors have an overly-high view of their work and exaggerated expectations of themselves.  The latter makes pastors irrelevant and the former depresses them.  The epitome of this state of disrepair is pastors offering to baptize Cabbage Patch dolls at the height of that craze.  Hilarious but true.  Being a pastor means having the job at which it is easiest to placate one’s clients but hardest to live with one’s self.  If that sounds like a prescription for failure, it is.

Chapter 13 – Desert and Harvest: A Sabbatical Story.  If you’re not considering a sabbatical, this is the most important chapter of the book.  If you are considering a sabbatical, this is the most important chapter of the book.  Otherwise, there’s not much here for the between-Sundays pastor.

The final two chapters are an ode to poetry as a means of becoming “artsy.”  Unless you need help getting in touch with your feeling side, there’s little to be mined in these pages.

THE FINAL GRADE: B+

Peterson’s task was to restore spiritual direction to its rightful place as primary among the pastor’s tasks.  That achievement is no less necessary today than it was in the nearly thirty years since the book’s publication.  I award this grade on the basis of a good try made with insufficient methodology and evidence.  In the art vs. science dialectic, it errs on the art side.

For example, you can’t hue and cry about the current culture’s adolescent lack of moorings to history and then substantiate most of what you write with personal observations and subjective reflections that lean more to the “art” than “science” side.  While pastoral ministry still needs the course adjustment Peterson advises, he method of making his point seems too “micro” in scale to achieve that correction.  But that may just be Peterson being a subversive.

Reading the book has made it clear to me that discipleship/spiritual direction is a part of ministry I have personally neglected.  While Peterson’s introductory tract may have been surpassed by more recent entries in the field, it served me well as an introduction and incentive to spiritual direction as a means of moving people closer to God.

Overcoming the Dark Side – A Review

Dark Side

(Disclaimer: If you’re a Star Wars fan and have come here looking for more fuel for that fire, turn away, my young padawan: it’s not that “dark side.”)

A BOOK REPORT ON

Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership

(Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima)

by Brett Best

June 2017

THE USEFUL MAIN THOUGHT

Whatever it is that makes a leader effective is a two-edged sword; those who are not careful in wielding it may cause self-inflicted wounds on the backswing.

THESIS STATEMENTS

“It was during this research that it became clear that a paradox of sorts existed in the lives of most of the leaders who had experienced significant failures: the personal insecurities, feelings of inferiority, and need for parental approval (among other dysfunctions) that compelled these people to become successful leaders were very often the same issues that precipitated their failure.” (p. 13)

“Because it is a part of us that we are unaware of to some degree, lurking in the shadows of our personality, we have labeled it the dark side of our personality.  However, in spite of the foreboding mental image the term dark side creates, it is not, as we shall see, exclusively a negative force in our lives.  In almost every case the factors that eventually undermine us are shadows of the ones that contribute to our success.” (Italics by the authors, p. 28.)

“The aspects of life that push us in a positive way toward success can also exert a negative pull, destroying our effectiveness.” (p. 33)

“In short any behavior that seems to overpower us, as well as any urge or motivation that seems to uncontrollably drive us, is a possible sign indicating the presence of our dark side.” (p. 71)

“Though expectations are necessary to a degree, they can also be a two-edged sword in our lives.  These healthy expectations can motivate the people toward whom they are directed to behave and achieve beyond their current level.” (p. 185)

QUOTABLES

“We live in a culture obsessed with both having and success.  True success is a state of being not having.” (Italics by the authors, p. 19)

“For, all too often, when the lessons of the dark side are never learned, it drives even successful leaders to make unwise, impulsive, unethical, or immoral choices that may ultimately lead to the forfeiture of the very success it created.” (p. 91)

The authors quoted Abraham Lincoln: “All human beings have their weaknesses, but not all of us realize them, come to grips with them, or offset their negative impact.  As a group whose primary endeavor is interacting with other people, leaders must accomplish the paradoxical task of managing their darker sides.”  (Italics in text, pp. 150-151.)

“The purpose of examining the past is not for the assignment of blame, but for self-understanding.” (p. 174)  I chose this quote because it is the sole balance against repeated exhortations to engage in the dredging of one’s past for the purpose of finding where the corpse-like seeds of self-destruction may lie.  It read to me like a call to psychotherapy.  As we live in a culture predominated by lawyers and therapists (evidence of our national self-destruction), I found myself wishing for more balance.  Blaming dad and mom can serve as a mechanism for not taking ownership of the person we’ve become.

“Our legalism is well-intended; nevertheless it is also quite repressive and destructive for those who must live and lead under its weight.” (p. 184)

“We must come to the point where we recognize that our value is not dependent on our performance, position, titles, achievements, or the power we wield.  Rather, our worth exists independently of anything we have ever done or will do in the future.” (p. 213)  This is the best quote in the book and should have been in the introduction.

MY OPINION: PRAISEWORTHY PARTS

The authors precisely identified their aims and assumptions in the opening sections of the book.  They numbered them and set them aside to make them obvious instead of making use delve into the text to mine them or discover them by accident.  I appreciate assisting the reader by making the important bits obvious.

I read the revised version of the book; the original was published in 1997, the revised version in 2007.  I mention that because that time frame overlaps the rise of popular study of “emotional intelligence” in our culture.  Although the authors reference little or none of the fruits of this research, they ran on a parallel track.  Students of “EQ” will recognize the strands of thought shared with psycho-social observers of the time, purveyors of emotional sophistication in our intellectual processes.  In fact, with repeated references to Maslow and Jung, the greater portion of their teaching is based on social sciences than Scripture.

It is helpful to identify leadership styles and explore the light and dark sides of each.  A “Cosmo”-style self-evaluation is offered as a means of identifying one’s predominant leadership style.  Of course, the names assigned to the styles are negatively-oriented to their dark side: the Compulsive Leader, the Narcissistic Leader, the Paranoid Leader, the Codependent Leader, and the Passive-Aggressive Leader.

A five-step program is offered to aid leaders in overcoming their dark side, whichever form it may take.  If employed, I can see where this basic level of organization may help someone whose score in any of the dark sides was eight or more points.

MY OPINION: SHORTCOMINGS

The authors too frequently resort to generalizations like “many in the Christian community.”  How many?  What statistical data or anecdotes or other evidence can you offer to support such a contention?  To me, this is not scholarly; it is a lazy kind of writing that asserts as truths non-facts that are unproven and probably unprovable.  While I trust McIntosh and Rima as observers, it is simply not helpful to toss these sweeping generalities around as if they were self-evident.

This is a book on leadership among thousands.  It makes a point that may be examined in a more scholarly fashion elsewhere, but it is an important point to be made.  My concern is that the authors have given us an inoculation but not the cure.  The book successfully alerts the reader to the important point about the double-edged nature of leadership qualities, but, in spite of its length, does so superficially.  I would advise the reader who is concerned about their own dark side to turn to more competent sources of information on emotional intelligence.

The self-evaluation is an example of a double-edged nature.  While it is the backbone of the book, there is no more science here than one of the hundreds of quizzes on Facebook.  Science would establish a database on responses to these questions and create a sense of how commonly each aspect of the dark side occurs.  Science would trace connections to discoveries about emotional intelligence and explore linkages between these components of the dark side and established mental illnesses.

Having said all this, it would appear that I’m arguing that the book needed to be longer, to include more information.  Actually, my biggest concern about the book is that it is too long because it is filled with the wrong kinds of information; the author’s summations, generalizations, and exercises of imagination that stand in the place of genuine research.

To me, DARK SIDE is an example of a “padded book.”  There is enough new and useful information here for a journal article.  The rest is padding added to increase it to book length.  The authors make profuse use of historical/biblical examples of leadership meltdowns.”  While anecdotes are useful rhetorically, in this case their profusion indicates a shallowness of substance.  Another example of padding is extensive use of quotations.  It amused me to see multiple quotations from Sue Grafton.  I was under impression she is known as a popular author of fiction.  Is leadership theory part of her publishing resume?  The book is simply a mile wide and an inch deep.

MY OPINION: FINAL GRADE

If I wanted to be cute, I’d give DARK SIDE a “D” for “dark.”  Instead, I’m giving it a “D” for the shallowness of scholarship and the addition of too much padding to stretch a viable journal article into a salable book.