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.

A Saintly Stepfather

(Please read Matthew 1:18-25 in your favorite Bible.  I have used the NIV as a basis for these remarks.)
There was the little boy who approached Santa in a department store with a long list of requests. He wanted a bicycle and a sled, a chemical set, a cowboy suit, a set of trains, a baseball glove and roller skates.
“That’s a pretty long list,” Santa said sternly. “I’ll have to check in my book and see if you were a good boy.”
“No, no,” the youngster said quickly. “Never mind checking. I’ll just take the roller skates.”
A less materialistic little fellow came closer to the real meaning of Christmas. A store owner was doing some last minute Christmas shopping with his young son when he saw another store owner with whom he had been friends for some time. The two of them exchanged greetings and spoke with each other about what a financially profitable season it had been for their respective stores. The small boy overheard his father say, “This has been the best Christmas ever.”
As the store owners parted company, the father and son continued their shopping, but the father noticed his son had become very quiet. He inquired as to his son’s silence, and his son replied, “Dad, you just told Mr. Johnson that this was the best Christmas ever.”
His dad replied, “I did, son. The economy is great, and people are really spending.”
“O.K.” the son replied, “It’s just that I always thought the first Christmas was the best one.”
<Retrieved from http://www.tonycooke.org/holiday-resources/christmas_illustrations/ on 12/2/16.>
More than any other holy day, Christmas has been co-opted by our culture, turning it into something irrelevant to the event itself. We know from church history that the church took Dec. 25th away from the pagans who were celebrating the winter solstice. Now it seems they want their
holiday back.
The important thing to we who believe is keeping our perspective in order. At Christmas, we celebrate one of God’s signature events. He became one of us. Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man at the same time is a fact that taxes our knowledge and our imagination, but is wholly necessary for a saving faith.
Whatever reason others may have to observe Christmas in their own way, ours is to look to the Incarnation, the in-boy revelation of God, and rejoice that He came. This is why we return to the biblical texts year after year, reaffirming the faith we have received as a heritage and work to pass along as a legacy.
Last Sunday we looked at the family tree of Jesus. There we saw an important if neglected figure in our history of faith, a man named Zerubbabel. He set an example of perseverance and devotion to doing the will of God that we would do well to follow.
Which leads us to today. At the top of that family tree we found the name Joseph. Joseph, we should observe, was NOT the biological father of Jesus. While Matthew includes Jesus at the very top of Joseph’s family tree, this is not for the usual reason. It is not a relationship of blood that bound Jesus to Joseph.
As we shall see, God is the Father of Jesus. One of the persons of the Trinity would, from Jesus’ birthday forward, be known as “God the Son” because he accepted a human body that God the Holy Spirit made for Him in cooperation with a brave little lady named Mary.
Out of convenience and respect we refer to Joseph as Jesus’ “father,” but it would be more accurate to say that he was Jesus’ “stepfather” or “adoptive father.” I do not make this point to take anything away from Joseph. He too is a great man of faith who sets an example for us to follow.
1. Joseph made a wrong but kind decision (1:18-19).
It was a wrong decision because he did not know the true means of Mary’s pregnancy. Verse eighteen clearly tells the reader the cause of Mary’s pregnancy: THROUGH THE HOLY SPIRIT. Since he believed that Mary’s pregnancy was disgraceful, Joseph decided to DIVORCE her.
It was kind decision because he did not want to expose Mary to disgrace or harm. Joseph writhed on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, he was FAITHFUL TO THE LAW. The Law had a very strict penalty for adultery; death by stoning (see Leviticus 20:10). On the other hand, Joseph wished to spare Mary of both kinds of suffering if he could. If he extended her mercy, that outcome could be avoided. However, there was still the court of public opinion and the DISGRACE Mary would face in the community.
Joseph resolved his dilemma by his decision to keep the DIVORCE and its cause quiet. He wanted to keep Mary and her pregnancy out of the public eye as much as possible. In this instance, Joseph is an example of the classic struggle between law and grace, between holiness and love. Knowing how to balance these sometimes complimentary virtues is one essence of wisdom.
2. God’s messenger changed Joseph’s mind (1:20-21).
The word “angel” literally means “messenger.” The ANGEL OF THE LORD APPEARED TO JOSEPH IN A DREAM to deliver God’s message about the truth behind Mary’s pregnancy.
Let’s note the specifics of the message.
The angel addresses him as JOSEPH, SON OF DAVID. Especially in Matthew’s Gospel, it is essential to note that Jesus came as the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament to send a Messiah. One aspect of the Messiah is that he would continue the dynasty of David, being one of His descendants. We looked into this last week. Though Joseph is not Jesus’ father, it is still important that he be a descendant of David, and that fact is affirmed again by the angel.
DO NOT BE AFRAID TO TAKE MARY HOME AS YOUR WIFE. Of what was Joseph AFRAID? Based on the context, we can assume he was afraid of violating the Law. He may have also feared public ridicule or retribution.
This statement is puzzling if we don’t understand that culture’s wedding traditions. When the marriage was arranged and agreed-upon, the couple was considered to be married in every way until the wedding day. Then the wedding was held and the union consummated for the first time. What looks to us as an “engagement” is a different relationship in their culture. In this case, as Mary’s “reputation” was already under suspicion, Joseph was told to move up the wedding date and immediately include Mary in the home he had made for the two of them.
WHAT IS CONCEIVED IN HER IS FROM THE HOLY SPIRIT. Mary was not, as everyone assumed, guilty of adultery. She had not cheated on Joseph. Just the opposite; she had been faithful to both Joseph and God. The truth of the matter was that her pregnancy was a miraculous act of God.
SHE WILL GIVE BIRTH TO A SON…YOU ARE TO GIVE HIM THE NAME JESUS…HE WILL SAVE HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS. HIS PEOPLE are the Jews. Jesus’ own description of His mission was to the nation of Israel first.
FROM THEIR SINS = Jesus came to save people. Sin leads to death. The sacrifice of blood is God’s cure for the problem of sin and Jesus’ blood would be shed for that purpose.
3. Interlude: explaining prophecy (1:22-23).
As we’ve observed, Matthew is very concerned about Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, so, no surprise that 22 verses into his Gospel, we have the first citation of fulfilled prophecy. This is not part of the angel’s message, it’s an aside delivered by Matthew. Let’s note the specifics.
THE VIRGIN WILL CONCEIVE AND GIVE BIRTH. This is obviously a supernatural, miraculous occurrence. Both Matthew and Luke go to lengths (as we’ll see in v. 25) to let us know Mary’s pregnancy was this miracle.
To be clear – the conception of Jesus was supernatural; a miracle. The birth of Jesus was completely natural and typical. Mary shared the experience of every mother from Eve onward.
SHE WILL…GIVE BIRTH TO A SON, just as the angel predicted to Joseph in v. 21. As we see later in the passage, this is exactly what came to pass.
THEY WILL CALL HIM IMMANUEL might, at first glance, seem contradictory with the angel’s instruction to Joseph to name Him Jesus. Note that THEY, not “you” will call Him Immanuel. This is a name others will bestow on Jesus. The meaning of this name or title is literally “God with us;” Jesus was God present in the flesh. What is more significant than the name itself is what it tells us about Jesus; He would be GOD WITH US.
4. Joseph completely obeyed God (1:24-25).
WHEN JOSEPH WOKE UP means he didn’t waste any time. Joseph was obedient in time and in the fullness of the angel’s instructions.
It’s my pet theory that the wedding date was moved up and perhaps it was observed without the usual fanfare and the customary week-long party. I speculate that it was early enough in Mary’s pregnancy that no one else knew about it and a quick wedding might mislead others into thinking Jesus was Joseph’s son.
This theory has only a little support in the Bible. In Matthew 13:55, when Jesus returned to Nazareth after beginning His ministry, the people of Nazareth remarked, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” If they had ever known about Mary’s pregnancy before consummating her relationship with Joseph, they forgot about it. I like to think that Joseph was such a kind-hearted man that he was willing to endure a slur on his character rather than let Mary take the heat for something she clearly had not done; be unfaithful to him.
Joseph is such a faithful man he took the command of God one step further and did not insist on his conjugal rights: HE DID NOT CONSUMMATE THEIR MARRIAGE UNTIL [after] SHE GAVE BIRTH TO A SON. This, of course, fulfilled the prophecy entirely, maintaining Mary’s virginity until the birth of Jesus. Also, Joseph followed through on all the angel’s instructions and GAVE [Mary’s son] THE NAME JESUS.
For all kinds of reasons, Christmas has occasionally been a tense, hotly contested holiday. One of the recurring stories is non-Christians complaining about how the holiday gives Christianity too much of the spotlight.
You may remember that our former governor Bill Janklow was not one to let complaints bother him too much. When criticized about having a nativity scene on display, Janklow prepared to let every religion put something on display in the Capitol, and even set aside an “empty corner” for the use of atheists.
Tony Cooke and David Beebe came up with a cute and insightful look at the conflicts of Christmas. They took a popular poem and wrote their own version of it. The titled it ‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas.
‘Twas the fight before Christmas,
And all through the house,
Not a creature was peaceful,
Not even my spouse.
The bills were strung out on our table with dread,
In hopes that our checkbook would not be in the red.
The children were fussing and throwing a fit,
When Billy came screaming and cried, “I’ve been bit.”
And Momma with her skillet, and I with the remote,
She said, “You change one more channel and I’ll grab your throat.”
When on the TV there arose such a clatter,
I sat up on the couch to see what was the matter.
When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
The cable was out, it was my worst fear.
“The Cowboys, the Celtics, the Raiders, the Knicks,
Without the sports channel I’d soon need a fix!”
And then in the midst of my grievous sorrow,
I remembered the times I had promised, “tomorrow…”
“Not now, my children, but at some soon time,
Dad will play with you, and things will be fine.”
Now under conviction, I looked at my wife,
Where was my kindness? Why all the strife?
My heart quickly softened; I now saw my task,
Some love and attention was all they had asked.
I gathered my family and called them by name,
And told them with God’s help I’d not be the same.
We’ll keep Christ in Christmas and honor His plan.
No more fights before Christmas—on that we will stand.
My children’s eyes twinkled; they squealed with delight.
My wife gladly nodded; she knew I was right.
It was the fight before Christmas, but God’s love had come through,
And just like He does, He made all things new.
<Retrieved from http://www.tonycooke.org/holiday-resources/christmas_illustrations/ on 12/2/16.>

We redeem the days of Advent by following the faith example set for us by Joseph.  In addition to being faithful to God’s will, Joseph showed grace.  He demonstrated personal holiness in his full devotion to God and gracious love in the sacrifices he made for Mary and by adopting Jesus as his son.

The King’s Kin

(Please read Matthew 1:1-17 in your favorite Bible.  I have used the NIV for my remarks.)

Matthew, author of the first of the four Gospels, lived and wrote in a time when it was an important question who your ancestors were.  His purpose in starting with the genealogy of Jesus is cultural; it answered the question of who His kin were.  On the historical side, it establishes Jesus’ place in history and His descent from Abraham and David.

Theologically, Jesus’ connection to David is important for the fulfillment of prophecy: God had promised that the dynasty of David would be unending.  Of course, there would be no one man who could keep that promise himself as we all must die.  But Jesus, who lives forever, reigns forever.  In Him the line of David and the rule of his descendants continued into eternity!

The first two-thirds of Matthew’s genealogy come from various OT sources.  The remaining one-third is information not included in the Bible, but there is good extra-biblical evidence that public records of ancestry were kept at least throughout the first century, AD.  People like Matthew could have researched these sources for this information.

There are 42 men mentioned and four women mentioned.  Usually genealogies were exclusively male; Matthew including women implies that he had a point to make.  The explanation I prefer is that Matthew wanted to show in some of these women and men is the family tree of Jesus included some grafted-in branches and some twisted limbs.  He is showing how the King of King’s kin included a few foreigners and some notorious sinners.  The implication is that God is so powerful He uses whom He chooses; a sparkling-white pedigree is not necessary for us to be used by God.

The passage is organized according to Matthew’s three eras of Jewish history, from Abraham to Christ.

  1. Set #1 = From one family to one nation (1:2-6).
  2. Set #2 = From nationality to captivity (7-11).
  3. Set #3 = From captivity to Christ (12-16).

BACKGROUND = The BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY.

Warning & Fulfillment.  Through the prophets, God had repeatedly warned His people Judah that their sin would land them in grave difficulty.  In fact, He specifically said that they would be conquered and carried off by a pagan nation for 70 years.  (See Jeremiah 25:8-14 and Jeremiah 29:10-14.)  In 597 B.C., the Babylonians invaded Judah, sacked the city of Jerusalem, and destroyed the temple.  They carried off to Babylon the wealth of the city and the temple as plunder, along with the strongest and best of the survivors.  The biblical accounts of Daniel, Esther, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego all come out of this period of the history of the people of Israel.

Promise & Fulfillment.  With the warning, God promised them that their captivity would be for a limited time (70 years) and at the end of that time, He would restore them to the land.  In the interim, they were to remain faithful. During the course of their captivity, the Babylonian empire was absorbed by the Persians.  In 538 B.C., the Persian Emperor Cyrus named Zerubbabel, a prince of Judah, as governor of Judah, which they considered a “colony.”

CHARACTER STUDY = ZERUBBABEL

Why bother to look at this man’s life?  Both Matthew and Luke list him as one of the ancestors of Jesus.  That alone makes him important.  But more to the point, God promised to use him in a great way in Haggai 2:20-23:

20 The word of the Lord came to Haggai a second time on the twenty-fourth day of the month: 21 “Tell Zerubbabel governor of Judah that I am going to shake the heavens and the earth. 22 I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.

23 “‘On that day,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

The person bearing the signet ring carried the authority of the person who normally wore it.  It was pressed into a lump of hot wax to seal a scroll or at the bottom of such a document to serve as a signature.  This designates Zerubbabel as an important biblical figure, someone who directly represented God’s will to the people.

Who is he?  His name means “descendant of Babylon” and is probably the Hebrew version of a Babylonian name.  It seems strange to me to name one’s child after the nation that conquered you.  But the people of God were living in captivity in Babylon at the time and his name may simply indicate this.

Without getting into the complicated particulars, his parentage is not as simple as it appears in Matthew’s genealogy.  (The Bible cites two different men as his father: Shealtiel is the usual name given (i.e., Ezra 3:2+8; MTW 1:12), but in 1CL 3:19 the name Pedaiah is set forth.)  This is one of many examples in this list where God uses someone whose family history is less than squeaky-clean.

What did he do?  Most of what we know about Zerubbabel we read in Ezra and Haggai.  He was named governor of what was left of Judah; he returned to Jerusalem to lead the Jewish refugees in building the second temple.  This was no easy task.  In addition to all the logistical challenges, Zerubbabel faced active and even violent opposition from neighboring nations.  The enemies of Judah did not want to see Jerusalem’s walls or the temple reconstructed.  They were so successful in convincing the Persians, construction was stopped and building suspended during the reigns of several Persian emperors.  In 520 B.C., Emperor Darius allowed construction to recommence.  This time, it would not be interrupted until the second temple was dedicated in 515 B.C.

After the second temple was built and dedicated, Zerubbabel was not mentioned again in the Bible.  However, among the Jews of Matthew’s day, he took on a heroic kind of image, a man who stood against seemingly insurmountable challenges to do what God asked him to do.  One explanation of this admiration is that Zerubbabel was singularly devoted to accomplishing the rebuilding of the temple.  He did not use that responsibility or achievement as a springboard to fame, but quietly receded to the background once his objective was accomplished.  Zerubbabel showed a dedication to the house of God and more importantly, to the will of God, that caused him to persevere and complete the work God had set before him to do.

Zerubbabel did not do this work alone; he was supported by the prophets Ezra, Haggai, and Zechariah.  Nehemiah brought support from the king and the people labored to construct the building themselves.  His name is often mentioned with Joshua the high priest, so they were partners.

Over the years, Zerubbabel came to be identified with the Messiah the Jews were awaiting.  They believed that the promised redeemer would be a man like Zerubbabel.  This makes him an important but lesser-known biblical figure and connects him with Jesus in ways other than mere ancestry.

Zechariah 4:6-10 give us some appreciation of the importance of Zerubbabel.

So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.

“What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’”

Then the word of the Lord came to me: “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you.

10 “Who dares despise the day of small things, since the seven eyes of the Lord that range throughout the earth will rejoice when they see the chosen capstone in the hand of Zerubbabel?”

In this brief passage we read very familiar words and very comforting promises.  This shows us how important Zerubbabel is in the history of God’s people and what a potent example he sets for us today.  God’s message to us through Zerubbabel is one of encouragement: DON’T GIVE UP!  In God’s time God’s plan will be enacted.  Stay faithful.

This is especially important when trials or periods of stagnancy or feelings of inadequacy arise, as they inevitably do.  Drive through Atlanta, Georgia today, and it’s nearly impossible to picture the aftermath of the Civil War, when the city smoldered after a relentless, 36-day shelling from Sherman’s Union troops.

The shelling finally stopped on Aug. 9, 1864, and a handful of people sorted through the burned-out embers, wondering how in the world they might possibly rebuild the city. In the early days, it must have been impossible to think that within a century, Atlanta would be one of the largest cities in America, and on its way to becoming one of the best-known cities in the world.

No, the heady days of the 21st century were far beyond the imagination of those living in the lean times of Civil War Reconstruction. For them, finding enough food, and finding good shelter, took all their work, all their time, and all their emotional energy. In those days, imagining a mega city in its steel and glass glory was simply not possible. And yet Atlanta would rise from the ashes, bigger and more fantastic than ever.

I am going to ask you to take some time this week to ask yourself where does God want you to be in 12 months?  What will be different about your situation by Thanksgiving Day, 2017?  What steps will it take to get you there?  How can you start today?  Between now and then, remain true to your vision by following the example of Zerubbabel.

(If you’d like to see this message delivered, the video is available on YouTube at “EBCSF.”)

Self-control Starts at the Top

This month is the conclusion of the Year of Jubilee.  To recap, that is an OT commandment that every 50 years, a time of rededication to the Lord and restoring the nation to respect the ancient ways.  It has been from September to September because the Israelite calendar is based on the moon, while ours is based on the sun.

Here at Emmanuel, our observance of the Year of Jubilee has been to spend these nine months studying the Fruits of the Spirit.  We conclude by looking at the Fruit of Self-control this Sunday and next.

Though it is listed last among the Fruits in Galatians 5:22-23 it ought to be first; for it is in the exercise of self-control that we know love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness and gentleness.  These Fruits come from the Holy Spirit. They do not appear at all in human nature except by means of self-control.

Self Control Test

“THIS TESTS YOUR ABILITY TO CONTROL YOUR OWN BODY!

“While sitting at your desk make clockwise circles with your right foot.  While doing this, draw the number ‘6’ in the air with your right hand.

Your foot will change direction!”

<Retrieved from http://atworkandbored.com/jokes-inc/jokes.php?joke=self-control-test-7261 on 9/16/16.>

“In Galatians 5:23, ‘self-control’ (temperance, KJV) is the translation of the Greek word enkrateia, which means ‘possessing power, strong, having mastery or possession of, continent, self-controlled’ (Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, “Galatians,” p. 160). Vincent’s Word Studies of the New Testament adds that it means ‘holding in hand the passions and desires’ (vol. IV, p. 168). The word thus refers to the mastery of one’s desires and impulses, and does not in itself refer to the control of any specific desire or impulse. If a particular desire or impulse is meant, the context will indicate it.

“Another Greek word, nephalios, has the same general meaning, but it generally covers a more specific area of self-control. It is often translated as ‘temperate’ or ‘sober.’ Even though its root condemns self-indulgence in all forms, the Bible’s writers use it to refer to avoiding drunkenness.”

<By John W. Ritenbaugh, Forerunner, “Personal,” December 1998 cited at http://www.cgg.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Library.sr/CT/PERSONAL/k/230/Fruit-Spirit-Self-Control.htm, retrieved on 9/16/18.>

Please read James 3:1-12 in your Bible.  I refer to the NIV in this post.

Gentleness is a Fruit of the Spirit and evidence of true discipleship.

  1. Teachers, for example (1-2).

Being a teacher in the Church is not for everyone.  By TEACHER James meant a person authorized to interpret and apply Scripture.  A frequent problem faced by the early Church was false teachers who authorized themselves and spread lies.  James warned them that teaching is not for everyone because teachers are judged more STRICTLY.  He singled out teachers as they are the best example of people whose words must be carefully chosen.  Their words reveal the truth about their teaching.

Control of one’s tongue is the acme of perfection.  James summed up human nature when he wrote, WE ALL STUMBLE IN MANY WAYS (aka “No one’s perfect”).  The word STUMBLE means to sin, to make mistakes.  IN MANY WAYS can also be translated, “on many occasions.”  However, if it were possible for someone to be perfect, their perfection would be revealed by their NEVER being AT FAULT in what they say.  Such a person would be a PERFECT MAN, ABLE TO KEEP HIS WHOLE BODY IN CHECK.  This is James’ way of saying that the very highest form of self-control is tongue control.

He is not saying this is the only kind of self-control or the only kind that counts.  Instead, he’s saying that control of speech is the hardest form of self-control to achieve.  As we’ll see, this also means that the sins of the tongue are the easiest to commit and the most commonly committed ones.

  1. Taming the tongue (3-8).

James offered other examples of the difficulties of tongue taming.  The point of the first three examples is that something small has a big effect.

– Big horses are turned by something so small it’s called a “bit.”

– Big ships are turned by little rudders.

– Whole forests are set ablaze by a tiny spark.

The bit, the rudder, and the spark are tiny in comparison to the thing they control or start, but that doesn’t make them meaningless.

The fourth example is that while people can tame wild animals, they can’t tame their tongues.  People in that society took pride over the way they tamed animals just as people in our society take pride over the way we invent new technology.  James was deliberately popping their bubble.

When he wrote that the tongue is a RESTLESS EVIL, we can easily imagine a wild jungle cat that is very threatening in its lethality.  Like a rattlesnake, the tongue is FULL OF DEADLY POISON.

Physically speaking, the tongue is not a large part of the body, BUT IT MAKES GREAT BOASTS; which is another way of saying it causes a lot of trouble. Psalm 73:9 describes the godless in this way – THEIR TONGUE STRUTS THROUGH ALL THE EARTH.

The meaning of all these metaphors is this: tongue-taming must be attempted because our tongue can cause a world of hurt.  We tend to underestimate the weight of our words; the effect our speech has on others. Sometimes that’s a product of genuine humility; we just don’t think we have that kind of influence over others.  Most of the time it is an excuse we offer to cover our laziness and/or lack of love.  For whatever reasons, we just don’t care what our words do to one another.

To correct this, James went to great lengths to explain that our words DO have serious effects, wide-spread consequences, and even fatal results.  Here are the consequences of wagging tongues:

– A GREAT FOREST…FIRE (5).

– A WORLD OF EVIL (6).

– CORRUPTS THE WHOLE PERSON (6).

– SETS THE WHOLE COURSE OF HIS LIFE ON FIRE (6).

Just in case all of that is not enough to motivate us to guard our words or just stop talking altogether, James identifies the ultimate source of our terrible tongue wagging; it is ITSELF SET ON FIRE BY HELL.  In John 8:44 Jesus similarly identified Satan as the father of all lies.

  1. Talking the Talk IS Walking the Walk (9-12).

James condemned the fact that our tongues are used for contrary purposes.  James set up a contrast to show how our tongues, like the rest of our bodies, have potential for the highest good (praising God) and the worst evil (cursing people).  What’s ironic is that both of these extremes can come from one mouth.  That is contrary to God’s original plan; He created our voices to be used to express love for Him and for each other.

The tongue betrays what is really in our character; that’s the point of the three mismatches in v. 12.

– A fresh water spring will not produce salt water; neither will the opposite be true.

– Fig trees do not produce a crop of olives.

– Grapevines never produce a crop of figs.

This gives us another good motive to mind our words, doesn’t it? Our words betray our secrets, our inner life.  We are constantly telling our story and it is right out there for anyone who’s learned to listen.  The way we speak (non-verbals) will either prove or disprove our sincerity.  The motivations and attitudes we attribute to others are projections of our own motives and feelings.  Be careful what you say and how you say it – you don’t know what you’re giving away about yourself!

Travis Bradberry co-wrote the bestselling book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and co-founded TalentSmart.  On 9/17/2012 he published an article titled “The Six Secrets of Self-Control.” He wrote:

“What is it about self-control that makes it so difficult to rely on? Self-control is a skill we all possess (honest); yet we tend to give ourselves little credit for it. Self-control is so fleeting for most that when Martin Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania surveyed two million people and asked them to rank order their strengths in 24 different skills, self-control ended up in the very bottom slot (for the record, self-control is a key component of emotional intelligence).”

The article lists these six “secrets” that aren’t really any more secret than common sense.

Self-Control Secret #1 – Meditate

Self-Control Secret #2 – Eat

Self-Control Secret #3 – Exercise

Self-Control Secret #4 – Sleep Self-Control Secret #5 – Ride the Wave

Self-Control Secret #6 – Forgive Yourself

<Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2012/09/17/the-six-secrets-of-self-control/print/ on 9/16/16.>

If we swap out “Pray” for “Meditate,” these six things are disciplines Christians can endorse as reasonable means to self-control.

Though it may sound like willpower, self-control is a Fruit of the Spirit, which means it is a character trait that God gifts into us.  It is more accurately understood as an exercise of spiritual power to follow God’s will.  That’s good news – we don’t have to achieve this on our own.  Instead, we rely on the Holy Spirit to motivate and empower our self-control.

A Church Called Emmanuel

I have vacated the pulpit for the last two weeks to make time for special events and speakers, which is why I’ve had no posts.  (If you’d like to see for yourself, please head to YouTube, EBCSF.) As there have been requests for this script in print, I present here in this space the Readers’ Theater written and performed for the 95th anniversary of the founding of Emmanuel Baptist Church.  This was celebrated on August 7th, 2016.

 

FIRST:            We are here today to commemorate and celebrate the 95th

anniversary of the founding of Emmanuel  Baptist Church.  It was on August 7, 1921 that Emmanuel Baptist Church began.

 

SECOND:       Pardon me, but I beg to differ.  While it is true that August 7 was the

first meeting at which we assumed that name, it can also be truly said that this church began eight years previously, when I commenced work as a missionary in this field.

 

FIRST:            The voice of Miss Helen Tenhaven, folks.  Helen, what brought you to

the east side of Sioux Falls?

 

SECOND:      You may call me Miss Tenhaven, sir.  I do not know you so well as to

be on a first name basis.  (Pause.)  It was a train that brought me to Sioux Falls, but the Lord who led me here.  We convened and organized a church to make Christ known on the east side of this city.  A great advancement on this cause came when Mr. Astor Blauvelt gave us land upon which our chapel was constructed.

 

FOURTH:       That’s where I come in.  With the help of the Baptist State

Convention and the First Baptist Church of Sioux Falls, I was constructed on the corner of Second Street and Cliff Avenue.  Though I have been referred to as the “Tar Paper Shack,” I am quick to remind people that I was the first home to Emmanuel Baptist Church.  Without me, where would the church have been?  So show a little respect, please!

 

THIRD:           It was the “LITTLE Tar Paper Shack” until I came along and expanded

our facility and built a parsonage.

 

FIRST:                        That is Rev. L.W. Rogers speaking, folks.

 

THIRD:           I have the honor of being the first pastor to serve at Emmanuel.  God

blessed us so completely that our little chapel was soon too small.  We quickly built an addition and purchased the lot next to us for a parsonage.

 

FIRST:                        Rev. N.L. Haney came next and Emmanuel continued to grow.  He

was followed by Rev. W.C. Erickson.

 

THIRD:           I inherited a building too small for our needs, so we broke ground

for a new house of worship on October 29, 1932.  Compared to the “Tarpaper Shack,” our new church home was seen as palatial.

 

SECOND:       However, the men on the Building Committee did not have the fore-

sight to construct a full basement beneath our meeting-house.  It was not until several of us ladies teaching Sunday School objected to the cramped conditions that a basement was built.  Rev. J.S. Jones was our pastor when this work was done in the latter part of the 1930s.

 

THIRD:           When I came on the scene in ’41, the church was thriving.  In two

years, we burned the mortgage!  What a day of rejoicing that was!

 

FIRST:            The mortgage burning was one of the highlights of the ministry of

Rev. R.C. Krushchwitz, who pastored at Emmanuel from 1941 through 1946.  Under the leadership of Rev. Robert Williams, the congregation purchased a meeting-house formerly used by the East Side Lutheran Church.

 

SECOND:       I remember that.  It was January 1, 1950 when we first moved in.

What a way to start the new year!  Our old building had seen its day and we were ready to move on to a new house of worship.  Outside it was cold, but our hearts were warmed by the excitement of a new gathering place for our growing church family!

 

FOURTH:       There I sat, on the corner of Austin and Cliff.  I didn’t mind the

change in congregations.  I figured, “Well, if I’m not going to be Lutheran, I might as well be Baptist!”  These new folks came in and worked hard to give me a new look inside and out.  This went well with the new spirit I could sense in the worshipers.  I was happy to become Emmanuel Baptist’s church!

 

THIRD:           That move occurred under the guidance of Rev. Williams, my

predecessor.  I am Rev. Harold McMullen and served the east side with Emmanuel from 1952 to 1960.  I guess you could say I was a “visionary”  because during my pastorate we purchased the block between 11th and 12th streets, Blauvelt and Mabel avenues.  It would be almost another decade before that property became our new home.

 

FIRST:                        The lots that make up our current location were paid for during Rev.

H.J. Crandall’s ministry.  But it was Rev. Charles W. Newman who lead the church during the exciting time when our fourth house of worship was constructed.

 

THIRD:           I pastored here at Emmanuel for nearly 16 years but I can tell you                                that building here on 12th was the great achievement of that time.

 

FOURTH:       The excavations that signaled the beginning of my construction

might be considered by some as my “birthday.”  But I figure, who wants to have their birthday be April Fool’s Day?  So I prefer to mark my birthday as a building on January 12, 1969; the first day that the congregation held worship services inside me!  I am mighty proud to sit on this hillside, an example of how God’s people can, with His help, turn a vision into a reality.

 

THIRD:           Following Charlie Newman was no easy task, but I was a man of

considerable personality and made every person feel welcome and valuable.  Like Pastor Newman, Emmanuel Baptist was my last full-time pastorate before retiring.  As I was here on the first Sunday worship, I felt as if Emmanuel and I had enjoyed many happy years together and I kept my ties to the congregation throughout the remainder of my days.

 

SECOND:       That was Rev. Ballard Blount.  We saw a number of people added to

our membership during his tenure, including 27 in his first year!

 

FIRST:            Rev. Roger B. McCarty followed, and during his pastorate, the

sanctuary was remodeled.

 

FOURTH:       You don’t know how good it felt to have my insides fixed up!

 

FIRST:                        During Rev. Kim Liedtke’s time with us a praise team glorified

God in a contemporary way.

 

FOURTH:       When Rev. Randy Rasmussen was here, I got my first big facility

improvement in over 40 years.  The Emmanuel Baptist family came together to add an elevator and a new front entrance.  I guess you could say I got a face lift and the people got a lift too!

 

SECOND:       The elevator makes every part of our building accessible to every

member of our congregation.  It’s an asset to those of us who are just a little less mobile than the rest.  No more having to go outside and around to get to the Fellowship Hall!

 

FOURTH:       Now, with Pastor Brett Best leading our church, we’ve made all these

improvements to my lower level!  I suppose that new carpets and painted walls in a basement are kind of like a new pair of sandals and a pedicure on a person!

 

FIRST:                        We’ve been talking about pastors and buildings, but of course,

Emmanuel Baptist Church has always been about her members and the community around her.  Emmanuel is the people who praised in the pews, cooked in the kitchen, taught in the classroom, and walked the neighborhood serving our neighbors.  Emmanuel is…

 

SECOND:       A little girl in a starched pinafore dress, a pink silk ribbon in her

curly dark hair.

 

THIRD:           Men sweating in the South Dakota summer, working to build and

to maintain the building.

 

FOURTH:       Worshipers with heads bowed in prayer or with faces raised in

joyful song.

 

FIRST:                        We have worn…

 

SECOND:       Our Sunday best.

 

THIRD:           Dirty overalls.

FOURTH:       Choir robes.

 

FIRST:            We have…

 

SECOND:       A proud past.

 

THIRD:           A vibrant present.

 

FOURTH:       A hopeful future.

 

FIRST:                        We are…

 

SECOND:       Emmanuel Baptist Church.

 

THIRD:           Emmanuel Baptist Church.

 

FOURTH:       Emmanuel Baptist Church.

 

ALL:                We are together in Christ.

 

(By Rev. Brett Best, 2016.)