Archive for June, 2010

Don’t Mess with the Godfather

Tim Aynes, a co-laborer here at IC who leads MissionsMandate, sent me a link to a post (“The Godfather of Christain Media”) based on its relation to my sermons this past Sunday. We’re working our way through Colossians and this Sunday morning focused on 3:16 (and I amplified on it with some application based on the parallel Ephesians passage in the evening service). The relevance of the link was found, I think, in the fact that I had stressed that our idea of worship should not be restricted to the sermon, but I did so positively rather than negatively. IOW, I tried to increase the value we place on prayer and praise without minimizing the importance of hearing from God’s Word via sermon. The writer of the post, on the other hand, takes a very negative view of the sermon’s place in worship and of the value of sermons in general.

As traditional church-going Christians, we often judge the entire service by the “quality” of the sermon-as if somehow it could be graded. If you removed the sermon from a Protestant Sunday morning, you’d probably be left with nothing but a few songs-perhaps the dreaded announcements. When we say we’re “going to church,” we really mean we’re going to hear a sermon. It’s not much of a stretch to categorize church as a synonym for “sermon-listening.”

For Chermak, this is problematic because sermons are no longer effective and, he claims, are the result of Christianity being influenced by Greek sophists. The latter claim not only lacks proof, but it runs directly contrary to what we see in 1 Corinthians 1-2. Rather than accommodate the culture around him, Paul stood against it by defending preaching. The question of effectiveness seems to come up regularly in our day because of its love affair with media trendiness. More could be said about each of these, but allow me to just fire off some quick thoughts about this:

  • Effectiveness is really an ancillary question. The real question is one of obligation, i.e., what has God told us to do? The Corinthian problem seems rooted in a desire to be more effective. Paul’s answer was that God’s chosen method brings Him glory and accomplishes His purposes. Nothing has changed since then, so we ought to stick to what God has ordained.
  • If we were, though, to engage the effectiveness question, it seems that his charge is prejudiced, i.e., it is ineffective according to the standards he has developed. But what standards are those? By normal standards, you can make an easy case for the effectiveness of public speaking and preaching. There seems to be ample evidence that people want to hear good public speaking (didn’t a president recently get elected based mainly on this?). People flock to conferences and settings in which people give speeches. And it’s not just that people come to hear it, it also is an effective means for teaching, motivating, and training. I am not sure what part of the planet he lives in, but it seems like most other parts find it effective.
  • Ultimately, though, the effectiveness of preaching hinges on the combination of faithfulness to the text of Scripture and the work of God’s Spirit, not the act of preaching itself. So, even if public speaking were judged to be an ineffective means for changing people, this argument against preaching fails in that it ignores the content and genuine power of preaching. God’s Word is living and active (Heb 4:12). The Spirit uses that Word to transform those whose eyes have been opened by Him to see Christ in it (2 Cor 3:18). I have no doubt that preaching will be ineffective if it is being done by those who do not believe its truth and trust its power.
  • Chermak is critical of the sermon because it is primarily (if not exclusively) monologue in nature. That means, to him, that the preacher is active, the listeners are passive, and there is no interaction going on. I fear that Chermak has been exposed only to bad preachers and apathetic listeners! Good preaching is never like he describes it.
  • His critique of monologue, though, is also flawed by its shallowness. It’s convenient to make the claim that preaching became prominent because of Greek sophistry and love of rhetoric, but that ignores the character and pattern of God’s revelation in written and spoken form (cf. Heb 1:1-2). God speaks to us. He sent prophets to speak. He sent His Son to preach. Preaching was so central to the Lord’s earthly mission that He could turn away from needy people and say, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for” (Mark 1:38).

Through I disagree with John Stott on a number of fronts, I fully agree with this assessment by him, in Between Two Worlds, about preaching:

Preaching is indis­pens­able to Christianity. Without preach­ing a necessary part of its authen­ticity has been lost. For Chris­tianity is, in its very essence, a reli­gion of the Word of God. No attempt to understand Chris­tianity can succeed which over­looks or denies the truth that the living God has taken the initiative to reveal himself savingly to fallen humanity; or that his self-revelation has been given by the most straight­forward means of communi­cation known to us, namely by a word and words; or that he calls upon those who have heard his Word to speak it to others. 

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Godly Ambition

My older two sons and I are working our way through Dave Harvey’s new book, Rescuing Ambition. It’s been a pretty good read and has provided some good opportunities for helpful discussion. We’re just past halfway through, so I’m not prepared to offer an unqualified endorsement, but Harvey writes in a very readable style and is quite gifted at combining profundity and pithiness. He’s pretty funny too.

The chapter we read for yesterday focused on what Harvey called the paradox of ambition—that it leads downward in humility versus upward in self-exaltation. He used Philippians 2 as the base for most of the chapter (some of which was easily found in that text and some of which seemed a little squeezed into it). I was very thankful for one portion particularly because it provided a great opportunity to talk with my sons about something that has been a concern of mine for some time. I’ll let Harvey speak, then follow up with why I thought this was a valuable statement:

One great measure of our humility is whether we can be ambitious for someone else’s agenda. Not just tolerate and accommodate the goals of those over us, but adopt their vision, promote and pursue their dreams. Our willingness to make others a success is a great measure of the purity of our ambitions.

I am not sure whether that resonates with you or not, but it does me for a few reasons. I think it strikes right at the heart of our culture’s obsession with self that seems almost exclusively to equate success with making a name for yourself. Really, this isn’t a problem unique to our culture; it’s rooted in depravity and, therefore, found in every culture. But ever since our culture rejected any kind of theistic frame of reference and made man the measure of all things, it’s like the cult of self has bulked up like it’s on steroids. Noble accomplishment isn’t enough; being recognized for a noble accomplishment means as much or more than the accomplishment itself. In a culture like ours, selfish ambition is actually admired and applauded.

It’s understandable, though still sad, that this would drive people with nothing more to live for than the fame that can be attained during their short lives on this planet. It doesn’t make sense, though, when it infects people who ought to be living in light of eternity and the promise from God that He is “not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints” (Hebrews 6:10). People who are confident that God sees all things don’t strive to make sure everybody else sees what they are doing. To the contrary, they actually look for ways to serve that can only be seen by God (cf. Matthew 6:1-18).

Once the quest for personal recognition and fame are set aside, then we ought easily to embrace any “agenda” which truly aims for God’s glory, whether it is ours or someone else’s. If we only get fired up about our own ideas and only invest our energies into our own agenda, then we are more than likely infected with selfish ambition. I don’t have time to develop it like I’d like, but this applies, I believe, to: (1) pastors who never move to advance projects outside of their own church (other than their own ideas); (2) assistants who give more attention and devotion to their own agenda than the agenda set by the one(s) they are supposed to assist; and (3) church members who pick and choose from what their church is doing according to how it fits with their own personal agenda.

The bottom line is that all of us should be completely committed to Someone else’s agenda! Our job is to figure out how we fit into it and then work to see that it gets advanced. This should be our great ambition. It is pitiful that we too often let the advancing our own name get ahead of advancing His great name. A lot more would get done if we were more concerned about His glory than getting the credit for what is done.

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Building a Better Case for Morality

Not sure if you heard about the story out of California about teens playing a game called “Beat the Jew,” but I read an article responding to it that I thought was interesting. The author, J. E. Dyer, was, properly, shocked that this could happen in his corner of the desert, but his main point is to call into question the strategy being used to confront the problem.

Sadly, comments at the Desert Sun about how to put the “Beat the Jew” players in a better frame of mind have tended to focus on emphasizing the horror of the Holocaust:  e.g., bringing in Holocaust survivors to talk to the kids, telling them stories of the evil brought on by Hitler and the Nazis.  But while that kind of interaction is always worthwhile, the direction implied by this approach is ultimately weak and situational.  Its tacit premise is that Jews are to be treated with the same respect we accord all human beings because they were victimized in the Holocaust.  And that is a profoundly fragile premise, contingent on no one else trumping the high “victim card.”

Yet as we see with the Hamas “Palestinian” narrative, it is cheap and easy to create victim narratives that gain wide favor through playing on people’s emotionalism, prejudices, and ignorance.  Western audiences have been responsive to the political game of “The Biggest Victim” for decades now, and the result is moral chaos.  Swinging in the breezes of victimology like weather vanes, we are losing all sense of why we should “treat each other right.”

None of us, not Jews or anyone else, is reliably protected by being perceived as a victim.  It’s not victimization that qualifies us for humane and respectful treatment by others; those aren’t even valid terms for an effective morality.  It’s the obligations we levy on ourselves that are the actionable elements of the moral code.  From that perspective – the only perspective that yields reliable patterns of behavior – there is exactly one thing any of us needs to know about Jews, and that is that they are our fellow human beings.

The victimization paradigm fails in a lot of ways, but the one highlighted by Dyer is perhaps the most important societal failing. It produces a moral relativism which leads, it seems, inevitably to an implosion because everybody claims special rights, even freedom from obligation to what is right, because they hold victim status. It shifts the basis of moral authority away from truth to sentiment, and that is always a very dangerous shift. For example, emotional fervor is driving most of the violence in the Middle East. The victimization paradigm serves to give it plausibility and justification—“They’ve been subjected to so much injustice, what else should we expect.”

It is sobering to think of the damage being done to society by this kind of privatization of moral ethics. Perhaps more sobering is the fact that this mindset so pervades our culture that it is seeping its way into how believers approach ethical issues. We, of all people, should recognize the reality and authority of an external standard, the Scriptures, given to us by the One who is Truth.

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One Mistake Away from Perfect

If you are a baseball fan, then you probably have already heard about what happened at the end of the Detroit Tigers game last night. Armando Gallaraga, the Tigers’ pitcher, was one out away from throwing a perfect game—no hits, no walks, 27 batters producing 27 outs. It is the pinnacle of pitching achievements. For perspective, there have been 20 perfect games thrown in the modern baseball era (which conservatively estimating must be over 16K games). It is an incredible accomplishment.

On what would have been the 27th out, a ground ball was hit to the right of the Tigers’ first baseman, Miguel Cabera. He made a very nice play to field it, and then threw it to Gallaraga as he came over to cover first. Although it seemed clear (and replays definitely confirmed it) that the runner was out, the umpire, to everyone’s surprise, called him safe.

I was driving home from church, so I was listening on the radio and the announcers were parked between stunned and irritated. I got home right after the play, so I ran in the house to check it out on TV. Two of my sons and my wife were already up in arms about the call, assuring me that the runner was out. The TV announcers were also stunned by the call. Replays showed that the players and trainers in the Indians’ dugout were all shocked. Even the guy who was called safe looked amazed at the call!

It could probably go without saying that the fans in the stadium were extremely unhappy. The boos were pouring down (no doubt intensified by the booze that was pouring all night long!). Tigers’ players and coaches were at various stages of anger. It was a bad scene at the end of an incredible pitching performance by Gallaraga, who himself seemed to be caught between joy over pitching so well and disbelief that the last out of a perfect game was botched. I felt badly for Gallaraga, but was truly impressed by his post-game interviews. He was clearly disappointed—a perfect game has never been thrown by a Tiger pitcher so it would have been a record book accomplishment.

The Tigers’ skipper, Jim Leyland, was very hot at the end of the game, doing what has come to be expected of the skipper’s role—serve as spokesman for his players. Leyland doesn’t pop often, but when he does it’s usually with some intensity. He was pretty ticked, but I think he also knew he needed to step up so that his players would back away. After the game, he was far more subdued. He still thought it was a bad call, but he qualified his criticism in two ways: (1) we have the luxury of replays which the umpire did not, and (2) this stuff happens in baseball because players and umpires are only human and they have to make calls in the heat of the moment.

For his part, the umpire, once he saw a replay, owned up to his error very clearly and contritely. I was impressed. No qualifications (that I’ve seen or heard). Just a simple, heartfelt acknowledgement that, though at the time he thought he made the right call, the replay is clear that he made the wrong one. He was very clear that he felt very badly about this, and he went directly to Gallaraga to apologize (reportedly with teary eyes). He didn’t dodge or minimize the fact that his error had a terrible consequence for Gallaraga. To use the vernacular, he manned up. It was good to see.

So, some reflections on this:

  • This is a case where, if it were possible, seeking help with the call, once it was clear that there was debate about it, would have been good. I am not sure if the vantage point of the other infield umps would have been able to help, but conferring in a tough spot is almost always a good idea.
  • It is good to remember that sometimes people make the wrong call without intention to do so and without ill motive. IOW, they make a call on the spot as they see it from their vantage point because they have to make a call. They don’t have the luxury of replays. As Leyland said, this is a good umpire who made a costly bad call. Now, I am sure that Leyland would also acknowledge that there are bad umpires who regularly make bad calls. There is a difference, though, between making a bad call and being a bad umpire. And it takes it to another whole level to assume that a bad call was made for sinister reasons—as if this ump were deliberately trying to rob Gallaraga of his perfect game. I am sure there are some conspiracy theorists who think that, but since it would be virtually impossible to prove either way, I’ll leave that to them.
  • If, like this umpire, we find ourselves in the position where we have clearly made an error in judgment, then we should own up to it just as clearly. In situations like this nobody wants to hear explanations that try to dodge or minimize the gravity of the mistake. Everybody knows that umpires are limited to their vantage point, subject to human error, under a lot of pressure to make a quick call in intense situations, etc. All of that is a given, but they are professionals who are expected to do their job carefully and well in spite of these things—perhaps even because of these very things. I am sure he had reasons for making the call he did, but offering them up only sounds like excuse-making. Just own the bad call and apologize for it. And make sure your apology acknowledges the seriousness of the error and the deep regret you have for making it. This umpire earned my respect and has my sympathy because I am sure he’s going to get hammered over this for a long time. Not from me, and, because he owned up, I bet not from Gallaraga or Leyland either.

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