Chastising Myself

IMG_2251 (1)I have been chastising myself since last night.

I had been in conversation on Facebook with a Jehovah’s Witness who had set up the straw man of John Shelby Spong as an “authority” on the subject of hell. He was using a video-taped interview with the heretical, now retired, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark as support for his argument against the concept of eternal punishment. In earlier postings, he had made other pointed attacks against non-JWs. In turn, I had been sharing the manifold errors that I believe are clearly evident in the history and theology of the Witnesses. I had been praying that the man might be released from the deluding influence of the organization. In each encounter, he had responded using copious copied-from-JW sources. When in this most recent exchange, he came back with–what I took as–a compounding personal affront, I impetuously, without consulting the Lord, withdrew from the conversation and unfriended him, shaking the dust off my feet as a testimony against him.

Now I have spent most of my professional life studying world religions and new religious movements; I have engaged with many, many individuals walking innumerable paths. I can’t recall ever being the one to withdraw from a conversation, and I’ve been trying to comprehend why I did this time. I think I’m upset with myself because I fear it may have been the wounding to my person that served as the final straw and not the many affronts to Christ.

I woke this morning to find the following as the day’s devotional entry in Streams in the Desert. The line that leapt out from this was this: “Beloved, whenever you are doubtful as to your course, submit your judgment absolutely to the Spirit of God, and ask Him to shut against you every door but the right one.” It is possible that the Lord might have called me to withdraw from the conversation because other work needed to be done in the man’s life before he would be open to hearing what I had to say. The problem is I didn’t wait to hear from the Lord.

The devotional that follows gives a nod to one of my favorite verses (Isaiah 30:21): “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.'” I used to keep a copy of this verse on my desk at the seminary and churches I was serving. As I now sit at a crossroads in my life, I am especially grateful for the call to return to these words today. Sometimes doors are closed. Sometimes God directs our steps to the right. Sometimes we are led to go left. Sometimes, we’re told to stay put. And sometimes…

Here’s the devotional, with its admonition to look to the Lord for clear direction:

Having been kept by the Holy Spirit [at that time] from preaching the Word in Asia (Acts 16:6).

It is interesting to study the methods of His guidance as it was extended towards these early heralds of the Cross. It consisted largely in prohibitions, when they attempted to take another course than the right. When they would turn to the left, to Asia, He stayed them. When they sought to turn to the right, to Bithynia, again He stayed them. In after years Paul would do some of the greatest work of his life in that very region; but just now the door was closed against him by the Holy Spirit. The time was not yet ripe for the attack on these apparently impregnable bastions of the kingdom of Satan. Apollos must come there for pioneer work. Paul and Barnabas are needed yet more urgently elsewhere, and must receive further training before undertaking this responsible task.

Beloved, whenever you are doubtful as to your course, submit your judgment absolutely to the Spirit of God, and ask Him to shut against you every door but the right one. Say, “Blessed Spirit, I cast on Thee the entire responsibility of closing against my steps any and every course which is not of God. Let me hear Thy voice behind me whenever I turn to the right hand or the left.”

In the meanwhile, continue along the path which you have been already treading. Abide in the calling in which you are called, unless you are clearly told to do something else. The Spirit of Jesus waits to be to you, O pilgrim, what He was to Paul. Only be careful to obey His least prohibition; and where, after believing prayer, there are no apparent hindrances, go forward with enlarged heart. Do not be surprised if the answer comes in closed doors. But when doors are shut right and left, an open road is sure to lead to Troas. There Luke awaits, and visions will point the way, where vast opportunities stand open, and faithful friends are waiting.–Paul, by Meyer

 

Interviewing Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night

I’m looking forward, with great excitement, to next Monday’s interview with Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night. The cover of his book notes that: “A brilliantly starry night is one of nature’s most thrilling wonders. Yet in our world of nights as bright as day, most of us no longer experience true darkness. Exposure to artificial night at light has been cited as a factor in health concerns ranging from poor sleep to cancer. And eight out of ten Americans born today won’t ever live where they can see the Milky Way.”

Natural patterns of darkness are as important as the light of day to the functioning of ecosystems. With at least 30 percent of all vertebrates and more than 60 percent of all invertebrates worldwide nocturnal, and with many of the rest crepuscular (active at twilight), the implications are enormous. While most of us are inside and asleep, outside the night world is wide awake with matings, pollinations, and feeding–in short, the basic happenings that keep world biodiversity alive. Light pollution threatens this biodiversity.

I’ll be chatting with Paul about the search for natural darkness in an age of artificial light and will be posting an article on this site about this critically important book. I’ll also let you know when this On the Road with Mac and Molly episode is available for listening on Pet Life Radio (www.petliferadio.com).

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Trying to Grab a Victory on the Cheap

King James Version of Bible, first edition, title page - 1611
King James Version of the Bible, first edition title page

Over the last couple of days, self-identifying Atheist Facebookers (not necessarily “card-carrying members,” just folks) have been reposting a slam against Christians and the Bible from The Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science. Referring to the King James version of the New Testament, the piece asserts that “21st century Christians believe the ‘Word of God’ is a book edited in the 17th century from 16th century translations of 8,000 contradictory copies of 4th century scrolls that claim to be lost letters written in the 1st century. That’s not faith. That’s insanity.”

Coincidental with this posting was a recent debate at the University of Cambridge between Prof. Dawkins, an ethologist and evolutionary biologist, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams. The debate proposition that “religion has no place in the 21st Century” lost by 324 votes to 136.

The London Telegraph reported that, in stressing his central concern as simply whether religion is true, Dawkins summed up his argument by describing religion as a “cop-out,” “a betrayal of the intellect,” “a pernicious charlatan” and a peddler of “false expectations.” Interestingly enough however, early in his address, Dawkins described himself as a ”cultural Anglican.” One is left to wonder if the author of The God Delusion was so roundly beaten because he hadn’t done his homework, had betrayed what he claims to be his own guiding principles, and is struggling with his own self-identity.

The self-stated mission of Dawkins’ foundation is: “to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and human suffering.” From the aforementioned FB posting and the summary of the comments made by Dawkins at the Jan. 31 debate, one might easily come to the conclusion that Dawkins is desirous of replacing what he perceives as religious fundamentalism with a secular fundamentalism that eschews scholarly inquiry, shuts down respectful debate, and preaches intolerance of other perspectives on the subject of religion. As the Urban Dictionary notes, such anti-religious ideology often “militantly ridicules, mocks, scorns and satirizes the idea of the existence of a deity or deities and or religion . . . [and employs] propaganda, bullying and insults as tactics to push adherents to abandon their professed beliefs and or convert them into like-minded individuals.”

But, you know, I’m beginning to think there may be a chink in Dawkins’ anti-religion armor. We may be watching an ethologist kicking against the goads.

In a public dialogue with Williams on the nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin at Oxford in February of 2012,  there was surprise when Dawkins acknowledged that he was less than 100 per cent certain of his conviction that there is no creator. The London Telegraph reported that “the philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: ‘Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?’ Prof Dawkins answered that he did. An incredulous Sir Anthony replied: ‘You are described as the world’s most famous atheist.’ Prof Dawkins said that he was ‘6.9 out of seven’ sure of his beliefs.”

As Dawkins has begun to accept the possibility that God exists, he might – from this point – begin to question whether that God could have conveyed truths about the God-self through human instruments who put that revelation in words that Christians have received as “The Word.” Who knows where Dawkins might end up if he gave the study of theology the same level of attention he has given to science?

Oxford theologian Alister McGrath offers this succinct assessment of Dawkins: His “engagement with theology is superficial and inaccurate . . . His tendency to misrepresent the views of his opponents is the least attractive aspect of his writings.” Many have listened to Dawkins over the years because he’s achieved so much in science but theology, while a companion discipline to science, is just as rich and detailed and just as demanding of rigorous attention and inquiry.

Literary scholar and cultural theorist Terry Eagleton passes similar comment in the London Review of Books: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins…are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster . . . critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook.”

For those willing to admit that there just might be a God, for those interested in the truth about the origins of the Bible, perhaps you might consider doing some research before rejecting, out of hand, that which Christians call “The Word of God.” You might start here: http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/bib-docu.html

A Tragic Reality: A Wave of Pastors Being Washed Out of Their Positions in the Church

Pulpit (photo released to public domain)“It’s on account of people like you that I send prophets and wise guides and scholars generation after generation – and generation after generation you treat them like dirt, greeting them with lynch mobs, hounding them with abuse” (Matt. 23:34, The Message).

The Barna Institute estimates that a pastor in the United States is forced out of his or her ministry every six minutes; another study estimates that 1,600 ministers leave the ministry every month. An article on the American Association of Christian Counselors website estimates that, on the day you read this, 43 pastors and their families will leave the ministry here in America. Whichever of these statistical estimates hits closest to the reality, we are seeing, as Ron and Rodetta Cook note, “a wave of pastors being washed out of their God-called positions in the church.”

Christianity Today has reported that nearly one-third of all churches in America have experienced a conflict within the last two years that resulted in the pastor leaving, by choice or by force. Nearly half of these men and women will never return to pastoral ministry. This is a tragic and heartbreaking reality that should alarm all of us who identify ourselves as Christians.

In an online article, Charles H. Chandler notes that, after facilitating a session of participants’ stories at a Healthy Transitions Wellness Retreat where the same pattern emerged again and again, he was asked, “Is there a rulebook on forced termination?”

His conclusion? “I have worked with hundreds of ministers who have experienced forced termination. At this point, I have decided a rulebook is floating around out there somewhere and it does suggest that a few disgruntled church members can follow the above listed rules and ‘kick the preacher out”; I’ve never seen it in writing, but its effectiveness can be seen in case after case.”

The pattern he observed being repeated in church after church looked like this:

“First, each minister had been ‘blind-sided.’ A group of two or three persons, usually self-appointed, approached the minister without warning and said he/she should resign because of loss of effectiveness. They convinced the minister that the whole church shared their feeling. The ‘group’ presented themselves as merely ‘messengers’ and insisted there was nothing personal about the request. The messengers told the minister they loved him/her and really hated to deliver the resignation request.

“Second, while the minister was in a state of shock after being ‘blindsided,’ the ‘group’ dumped guilt on the minister. They said the pastor should resign and the related conversation must be kept very quiet. If word got out, it could split the church. And, the minister would not want to be known as one who caused a split church! Any negative effect from the minister’s leaving was dumped directly on him/her as though a minister could just slip away and never be missed.

“Third, while the minister was still in no condition to make a decision of any kind, the group pressed for a decision. In most cases, a few weeks or a few months of severance was offered – provided the resignation was given immediately and the entire conversation kept quiet. The ‘messengers’ added, ‘We have to know what you plan to do, because if you refuse to resign or if you talk to other church members, we will take away the severance and call a church business meeting to fire you. Then you will get nothing.’”

Though the messengers may tell the pastor they represent the vast majority of the membership, quite often they are a self-appointed faction who acts behind closed doors. And, according to a survey conducted by Leadership magazine, 80 percent of forced out ministers report that the real reason for their leaving was not made known to their congregations.

Ken Sande, who has developed “The Peacemaker” church resource set, has summarized the cost of conflict between pastors and churches:

“Pastors are not being adequately trained in conflict resolution; conflict brings down thousands of them every year; churches engage in spiritual battle without proper leadership, and then churches wonder why they have so little fruit and suffer so much. No secular business would accept such high leadership losses. Executive turnover in businesses typically cost employers from 12-18 months of the executive’s annual salary. If this figure were applied to the pastoral turnovers, we would see that they are costing the church over $684 million a year! If you measured the cost in terms of seminary or Bible experiences that go down the drain whenever a pastor leaves the ministry, you would come up with a similar appalling number. But the cost to the kingdom cannot be measured in terms of money. How precious is the gift of preaching the gospel, and what is the cost when a pastor loses his pulpit and his gift is silenced? Whatever the measure, the cost of losing thousands of pastors each year is astronomical. The church cannot afford to let these losses continue.”