Archives For Pastors

Christians & Retirement

December 7, 2021 — 26 Comments

When do pastors retire? Or, in the opinion of some, can Christian pastors actually retire?

If you’re looking for answers to this question in the Bible, you will find it’s not specifically addressed. Retirement is a relatively modern concept. In earlier ages, women and men were expected to continue contributing to the family and common good as they were able, even during their winter years.

This added a type of dignity to many of their lives. It is not that the crippled or dependent were viewed as something less, but there was an expectation that as long as a person had something valuable to offer to others, it was wrong to waste it.

Pastors are in a unique position. Most believe they have been “called” by God in some manner to serve the Lord and our brothers and sisters, created in his image. If God actively calls you, does that vocation (from vocatio, calling) expire on some set timeline?

It’s curious how people refer to some arbitrary age such as sixty-five as time to retire. Many Western nations have institutionalized that rather capricious practice by determining an age at which you can begin collecting money from the government’s coffers.

Some, like the U.S., have recently adjusted that beneficent accomplishment (i.e. becoming a senior citizen eligible to receive “social security” payments), in light of increasing lifespans, and political policies not suitable for discussion among the genteel audience of Mere Inkling.

Most secularists naturally think retirement – like everything else – is about them. One financial adviser said, “Retirement is like a long vacation in Las Vegas. The goal is to enjoy it the fullest, but not so fully that you run out of money.”

C.S. Lewis described one such person in a 1921 letter to his brother. He describes a mutual friend’s in-laws as ironic.

As you will never meet them (nor indeed will I), it is no breach of confidence to touch on the grim humours of his future ‘in-laws.’ A mother . . . who has all the money but is nevertheless incapable of resisting her husband, a retired army officer, busily engaged in trying to see if his constitution will ‘keep’ by being sufficiently soaked in spirits.

This indeed has been his life work, and the devil of it is that it seems likely to ‘keep’ a good bit yet.

Semi-Retirement

The frame on my auto license says “Semi-Retired Military Chaplain.” After retiring from active duty in the Air Force, I anticipated providing “pulpit supply” for vacationing pastors and serving an occasional “vacancy.” An interim or vacancy pastor covers the months between the departure of a congregation’s pastor and the call of a new pastor. I’ve served three, one of which was more than a year long.

Now that I’m a bona fide senior, I thought my vacancy days were over. It appears, however, that God may have other plans. This week I’ve been approached by a congregation interested in calling me to serve them in that role.

Please pray that God leads them in whether or not they should formalize that call. And, please pray that I will clearly discern God’s desire in this matter. Right now it appears to be one of those “Matthew 26” moments where “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Can Anyone Truly Retire?

So, do pastors ever really retire, in the sense of ending their ministry? The answer is an unequivocal “no.” What’s more, if you are a Christian, you don’t get to retire either.

Here’s the catch – this vocation to actively serve God all of our days doesn’t just apply to pastors. You see, all Christians are called to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Consider 1 Peter 2:5 where the apostle writes: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

While you usually hear the truth of the “priesthood of all believers” from Protestants, the fact is that it comes directly from the Bible and applies to us all. As one prominent Roman Catholic journal puts it:

The priesthood of all believers is a call to ministry and service; it is a barometer of the quality of the life of God’s people in the body of Christ and of the coherence of our witness in the world, the world for which Christ died. . . . this teaching is a summons to faithfulness on the part of all Christians, Protestants and Catholics alike.

Retirements or Transitions?

So, whatever we would like to be true, the fact remains that retirement is not part of God’s plan for his children. But that shouldn’t trouble us. Because the Lord not only promises to give us the strength to do anything he asks of us, he also leads us into different fields of harvest at different points in our pilgrimage.

Thankfully, he doesn’t expect me to be as effective working with youth as I was in my thirties (although some of the best youth workers I’ve seen were in their seventies).

Just as I can’t rapidly deploy to a warzone with members of my flock as I once did, I possess the maturity, patience and compassion to care for those in the twilight of their lives far better than I did decades ago.

An interesting testimony to these shifts in ministry focus is found in the Old Testament. God set the tribe of Levi apart to oversee all details related to the worship of God in the Temple. But their ministry in the holy place (the Temple and the Tent of Meeting which preceded it) was of a specified duration.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more.

They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties” (Numbers 8).

This passage is fascinating. At fifty, the priest step down from their ceremonial religious duties. But they do not drift off into some lazy retirement. They assume new responsibilities. A role God deemed better suited to this stage of their lives.

So too, wizened old pastors still have a role in God’s church. For some it may be serving during seasons of congregational vacancies. For others it may simply be to pray.

In a 1930 letter to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis offers a delightful description of a “retired” pastor who is still about the business of caring for others. The fact that Lewis wrote this while an avowed atheist makes it all the more moving.

I walked as usual after lunch, dropping in on the way to see if old Foord-Kelsie would accompany me. I think I have mentioned him to you – a retired country parson of 80, who drives his own car, carpenters, and mends everyone’s wireless.

He is an irreplaceable character . . . as redolent of English country life as an old apple in a barn. He is deliciously limited: cares for no poetry but Shakespeare, distrusts all mysticism and imagination, and all overstrained moods.

Yet you could not wish him to be otherwise: and inside this almost defiantly human and mundane framework there is such tenderness of heart that one never feels it bleak.

He was in his workshop when I arrived, with shavings all about his ankles, making a cover for the font of old Headington Church.

He would not come out, and I stayed to shout conversation for fifteen minutes above the thudding and singing of his circular saw. We had a bit of everything: an outburst against Shaw, a broad story, and then, as always, onto Tristram Shandy. ‘Wonderful book–oh a wonderful book. You feel snug when you read that–you get in among them all in that little parlour. . . .’

I wish you could have seen him saying all this, bending down as he shoved a beam of wood against the saw, with one dear old wrinkled eye screwed up and held close to the work. You must hurry up and come and see me before he dies, for he of all people should be added to our stock characters.

Lewis does, indeed, portray his walking companion, the Reverend Foord-Kelcey, as a “stock character.” But he does so with evident and sincere affection.

So, our vocations do not forever remain constant. They may change over time, but God’s call on our lives does not wane.

We may approach these transitions with some trepidation. I am not ashamed to admit I do so at the present moment. I hope you will join me in seeking to hear God’s call and respond with joy and enthusiasm, just as the saints before us – “Here I am! Send me.

Robotic Religion

June 6, 2016 — 17 Comments

robot monkClergy can be irritating. I know that better than most . . . because I am one.

While a tiny minority bear some striking similarities to humble saints of the past, far more carry all of the common marks of fallen humanity. They can be argumentative, vain, manipulative, and even vindictive.

It’s not pretty.

Ministers aren’t unique. Being on the “inside” of any community—be it construction workers, educators, soldiers, bankers and politicians—allows one to see unpleasant attributes that are often shielded from the general population.

But, getting back to clergy . . . Since their role is unique in conveying “divine” counsel to others, it is especially important that they be approachable and amicable.

Scientists in China are working on a means of getting around the built-in limitations of the human mediation of divine wisdom.*

They have devised a “robot monk.” It is quite versatile. Not only can it chant Buddhist mantras, something an iPod could do at least as well, it is able to carry on a conversation! Well, the conversation is presently limited to 20 set questions about Buddhism. And the use of a touch screen “held” against his chest makes the comparison with an iPad a bit more accurate.

The automaton’s creator predicts the robot in the yellow robe of a novice will have a major impact, even though he spends most of his day “meditating” on an office shelf.

Enthusiastically agreeing, one worshiper said, “He looks really cute and adorable. He’ll spread Buddhism to more people, since they will think he’s very interesting, and will make them really want to understand Buddhism.”

Now, how can a Christian pastor hope to compete with that. After all, not many are considered to be “cute and adorable.”

What Would C.S. Lewis Think?

That’s a question I sometimes ponder when confronted by particularly odd realities that few of his day could have foreseen.

Lewis was quite respectful of clergy. Read, for example, this account of the way that even religious leaders can succumb to a type of patriotism that is far from biblical.

Patriotism . . . is not a sentiment but a belief: a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others. I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?”

He replied with total gravity—he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar—“Yes, but in England it’s true.” To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid. (The Four Loves)

Now, it was not the personality or demeanor of this elderly priest that made his comment inappropriate. It was the comment itself. But for a prime example of clerical pride that drives people away from the Gospel, one needs look no farther than the “Episcopal Ghost” in Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis concisely states the distinctive purpose of clergy. “The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live for ever.”

Could any other role demand so much integrity and goodwill? I think not. And it is precisely because this role is so unique and significant, that our shortcomings are doubly damning.

Perhaps, given the failings of sinful (i.e. all) ministers, it’s time to consider substituting a robot?

shermanI have no doubt that in no few cases it would be an improvement.

Of course, Christian churches would require a different model. Perhaps one that looks like Sherman on the Mount (minus the bird)?

_____

* You can read a Reuters article about this marvel of Chinese technology here.

The Nones Have It

June 1, 2016 — 23 Comments

noneThe arrival of the “post-Christian” Western world is ahead of schedule. Great Britain just passed the point where those with “no religious preference” actually outnumber those who profess to be Christians.

With Europe leading the way, can North America be far behind?

You know what makes this even more shocking? The results come from a survey where all the people claiming to be disciples of Jesus needed to do, was simply check a box. One wonders how many among that 48% would still claim to be Christians if they lived in Iraq.

Ponder for a moment the sobering title of an article in London’s The Spectator.

“Britain Really is Ceasing to be a Christian Country.”

The secularization of the United Kingdom was a matter of great concern to C.S. Lewis. And this erosion was well underway during his lifetime.

The truth is that although Lewis excelled as a Christian apologist (defender of the faith), it was not a role he coveted. He much preferred to write speculative fiction, literary criticism and devotional works.

Yet, because the need to reach people with the simple truth of the Gospel had grown so dire, Lewis felt forced to offer a persuasive rationale for belief. Consider the following description of his self-understanding. These words were written in response to a public attack of his work by a theologian. The final sentence bears directly on the subject of this column.

When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my unbelieving fellow-countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered by revivalists or in the unintelligible language of highly cultured clergymen.

Most men were reached by neither. My task was therefore simply that of a translator—one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand. For this purpose a style more guarded, more nuance, finelier shaded, more rich in fruitful ambiguities . . . would have been worse than useless. It would not only have failed to enlighten the common reader’s understanding; it would have aroused his suspicion. He would have thought, poor soul, that I was facing both ways, sitting on the fence, offering at one moment what I withdrew the next, and generally trying to trick him.

I may have made theological errors. My manner may have been defective. Others may do better hereafter. I am ready, if I am young enough, to learn. Dr. Pittenger would be a more helpful critic if he advised a cure as well as asserting many diseases. How does he himself do such work? What methods, and with what success, does he employ when he is trying to convert the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans who surround him in his own city? One thing at least is sure.

If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me. (“Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger”)

It is the duty of each generation of Christians to share the faith with their neighbors. Likewise, it is the responsibility of each new generation of clergy to teach faithfully . . . and to live a God-pleasing life.

Whenever we fail to tackle the “laborious work of translation,” God is able to raise up another to do it. Still, men and women of the caliber of C.S. Lewis are few and far between.

May God have mercy on Britain, America, and all of those lands where we have taken for granted the heritage of faith bequeathed to us.

_____

If this subject interests you in the least, take a moment to read “Having Pity on Pittenger.” Anglican priest Dwight Longenecker describes a chance encounter with Dr. Pittenger decades after Lewis’ death.

I was alerted to this news account by Gene Veith’s fine blog, Cranach. The good doctor does an outstanding job of bringing newsworthy stories to the attention of those interested in Church and State relations.

csl introvertLearning about ourselves is a lifelong quest. And the more actively we pursue self-knowledge, the wiser we become.

A well known sixteenth century Christian mystic wrote:

“Self-knowledge is so important that even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it.” (Saint Teresa of Ávila, Interior Castle).

This self-knowledge leads to a greater recognition of our dependence on God. She continues, “so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more to us than humility. . . . As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God: let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating on His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble.”

C.S. Lewis echoes this sentiment.

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed. (Mere Christianity).

As part of my self-examination, I have recently revisited my “personality type” as assessed by the well known Myers Briggs Personality Indicator (MBTI).

Without over-explaining the MBTI, it measures an individual’s preference related to four ways by which we experience and make sense of the world. (News Flash: Not everyone perceives reality the same way!)

These dichotomies are:

Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I)

Whether your preferred focus is outward or inward.

Sensing (S) or Intuition (N)

How you focus on information and process it.

Thinking (T) or Feeling (F)

Primary preference in your decision-making.

Judging (J) or Perceiving (P)

Your orientation towards making sense of existence.

You can get some additional authoritative information here. There are also numerous “unofficial” websites related to the subject.

Sixteen combinations are possible, and each has its respective strengths. (None are “better” than others, of course, since we’re all created in the image of God.)

Speaking of which, I’ve also been studying the different combinations that are more common to Christian ministers than they are within the general population.

For example, the following types (with their shorthand title) range from two to six times more common for male clergy than the general male American population:

ENFJ (The Teacher)

ENFP (The Provider)

INFP (The Healer)

INFJ (The Counselor)

ENTJ (The Field Marshal)

Which type of pastor do you prefer?

Online Surveys to Visit after you finish this post

There are a number of free MBTI-type tests online. Naturally, they are not as reliable as the official inventory given through a certified provider. Nevertheless, the following sites did render accurate assessments for me, based on my formal scoring.

I have mentioned in the past that I am an *NTJ… with the asterisk representing that my I/E preference is too close to call. A previous post shows how that makes me a blend of Middle Earth’s Elrond and Théoden.

Humanmetrics Jung Typology Test

CelebrityTypes Personality Type Test

So, What Is C.S. Lewis’ Personality Type?

This is a subjective question. The MBTI is a self-reported assessment, so guessing the type of another person is by nature dicey.

In Lewis’ case, however, there is a fair degree of consensus. This is due to his openness about his personal life and his extensive writings. The general agreement does not mean though that there are not minority opinions.

The most common argument is that C.S. Lewis was INTJ. I find the reasons persuasive, and not just because it matches my own type!

One student of the subject says “Check out this quote—how INTJ is this?!”

Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them—never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through? (A Grief Observed)

One blogger writes, “There is no doubt in my mind that Lewis was an INTJ. It seeps off all his writing and is blatant in his behavior in all of his biographies.” She continues:

Highly imaginative child who lived in a dream world? Check.

Someone highly emotional/sensitive but that never showed it on the surface? Check.

A prolific writer who blazed through finishing projects at an astounding rate, who was so successful at everything he did, despite never having done it before, that he quickly rose to the top? Check.

Another site considers both C.S. Lewis and his fellow inkling J.R.R. Tolkien to be INFPs. The aptly titled CelebrityTypes.com offers a brief selection of quotations to illustrate the reasons for their identification.

If the site’s identifications are accurate, the two are in good company. Other writers include John Milton, Augustine of Hippo, Hans Christian Andersen, William Shakespeare, Søren Kierkegaard, George Orwell, A.A. Milne, Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin.

A Warning from Lewis Himself

Understanding ourselves better than we already do, is a good thing.

Being overly curious about the personality of someone who is deceased is another matter. Lewis’ point in the passage that follows is that such concerns must never supersede our regard for others, in the spirit of Matthew 8:22.*

There is a reaction at present going on against the excessive love of pet animals. We have been taught to despise the rich, barren woman who loves her lap dog too much and her neighbor too little. It may be that when once the true impulse is inhibited, a dead poet is a nobler substitute than a live Peke, but this is by no means obvious.

You can do something for the Peke, and it can make some response to you. It is at least sentient; but most poetolaters [worshippers of poets] hold that a dead man has no consciousness, and few indeed suppose that he has any which we are likely to modify. Unless you hold beliefs which enable you to obey the colophons of the old books by praying for the authors’ souls, there is nothing that you can do for a dead poet: and certainly he will do nothing for you. He did all he could for you while he lived: nothing more will ever come.

I do not say that a personal emotion towards the author will not sometimes arise spontaneously while we read; but if it does we should let it pass swiftly over the mind like a ripple that leaves no trace. If we retain it we are cosseting with substitutes an emotion whose true object is our neighbour.

Hence it is not surprising that those who most amuse themselves with personality after this ghostly fashion often show little respect for it in their parents, their servants, or their wives. (The Personal Heresy: A Controversy).

Reflecting on our own nature, and pondering the personalities of those we respect, are worthwhile activities. However, it’s best to remember that all we can see are mere glimpses into the depths of who we truly are.**

_____

* Matthew 8:22 quotes Jesus’ response to a disciple who demurred that he could not follow the Lord until after he attended to his father’s burial. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’”

** As Paul words in Romans 8:27 are paraphrased in The Message Bible: God “knows us far better than we know ourselves . . .”

Echoes of Christmas

December 29, 2015 — 10 Comments

Rosary Basilica LourdesI love greeting people with “Merry Christmas” after the day itself has passed.

Most people are surprised—probably thinking that I slept through the celebration. Many Christians, however, respond with their own best wishes, in recognition that the celebration of Jesus’ nativity marks the beginning of a season of wonder.

The celebration of the Incarnation miracle is far too wondrous to be confined to a single day.

People often ask “how was your Christmas?” By that, most are inquiring as to whether it was enjoyable.

It is a profound question, if one truly reflects upon it.

As a child, I must confess that the quality of my “Christmas” was probably determined to large extent by the presents I received. I don’t remember many of the particular gifts—these many years later—but I do recall the anticipation I felt as we awaited Christmas Day and the glorious unwrapping.

As a parish pastor my perceptions of a “good” Christmas were determined in large part by the number and enthusiasm of the individuals attending the season’s special worship services. (I am not proud, of course, to confess this.)

In later, semi-retired days, I gauge the joy of each Christmas by the time spent with family. To have all the kids and grandkids near is magnificent. To be able to connect with our “extended family” is icing on the cake.

Obviously, I’m not alone in measuring the quality of my “Christmas experience” by the presence of family.

At the close of the First World War, as C.S. Lewis had finished recuperating from his wounds, he longed to be able to return home to Ireland to celebrate with his father and brother. The Armistice had been signed a month earlier, but delays prevented his arrival by December 25th. Nevertheless, he did manage to arrive for the Christmas season, as Warnie recorded in his diary two days later.

A red letter day. We were sitting in the study about eleven o’clock this morning when we saw a cab coming up the avenue. It was Jack! He had been demobilized, thank God. Needless to say there were great doings. He is looking pretty fit . . . In the evening there was bubbly for dinner in honour of the event: the first time I have ever had champagne at home.

Family can be a wonderful thing, although there seem to be an increasing number of people in our day who are a scourge to their families. My heart goes out to those who have lost their loved ones, or who have never experienced familial love in the first place.

These holiday seasons—filled with laughter and champagne for most—can be a barren emotional wasteland for many.

It is good for us all to remember that fact, and remain vigilant to draw the lonely into the light of our family campfires.

The Deep Joy of Christmas

I have said that as a child, I relished the anticipation of my gifts. Later in life I have focused on other matters in assessing whether or not my Christmas has been an exceptional one.

The fact is that the foundation for all of my happiness comes from an awareness of Christmas’ true meaning.

In a word, Emmanuel. God with us.

For me and my family, it simply would not be Christmas if we were not able to gather with our sisters and brothers in Christ to celebrate Jesus’ birth. That said, for believers in some Islamic and Buddhist nations where Christians are not free, the miracle of Christmas rings no less true.

The presence of the Holy Spirit, and the constancy of Christ’s grace are such an indivisible part of my life, that I often take them for granted. And so it is during Christmas.

The gift-giving and family can occupy the forefront of my thoughts. However, it is only because of the life-giving sacrifice of that innocent Child that events in this life possess the potential to have eternal significance.

Jesus came in humility. He came to serve. He came to suffer. He came to offer his own pure life to redeem our imperfect and corrupt lives.

That’s what Christmas is about, and that is why it is too wondrous for its celebration to be relegated to one brief day.

Literary Martial Arts

December 31, 2014 — 8 Comments

nonficOne of the lowest moments in my writing life occurred when a creative writing professor advised me to “stick with nonfiction.” Oh, she said it gently, but it still struck me with the power of a mixed martial arts (MMA) hammerfist.

I was majoring in editorial journalism at the University of Washington. Attempting to expand my scope, I took a short story writing course. It was a mistake.

I thought I had done adequately during the course. I was even moderately pleased with a couple of my stories. The instructor, on the other hand, well let’s just say she was not impressed with my effort.

She was right. At the time, my ear for good fiction was quite immature. I do not claim that it’s particularly well developed today, but I have written a story about a medieval pilgrimage that I hope to unveil in a year or two.

I was reminded of my literature professor’s grim assessment as I recently read an interview with a pastor, who is also a lawyer, and happens to be a writer as well. His name is Randy Singer.

Singer describes the similarity of his professions by saying “They all require skills in persuasion, in telling stories to illustrate things.” I guess he’s right.

The difference being that pastors tell true stories, authors of fiction write imaginary stories, and attorneys weave tales that lie somewhere in between.

The part of the interview, which appeared in World Magazine, that I found particularly insightful was this:

When your only desire is to tell the story so people don’t even notice the wording, at that point you’ve become a fiction author.

Singer’s description struck me with the force of an MMA ridge hand (a reverse knife-hand). When I came to, I finally knew why composing fiction does not come naturally to me.

I love words too much. Too much to sacrifice them simply for the sake of the story. Oh, I value the message also, but getting there is half the fun.

Although I don’t love words to the degree many poets lust after them, I still possess an affection that does not allow me to view them through purely utilitarian lenses.

To add insult to his literary injury, Singer adds the following, in response to the question of what he learned while writing several successful novels.

Third, to be less verbose and let the action carry the story instead of thinking, “What are some really flowery and cool phrases and words that I can weave into this?”

That’s enough, friend. You made your point. I would have responded a bit more colorfully and fragrantly, but I hear you.

Singer doesn’t cite C.S. Lewis in the interview, but his counsel is consistent with that of the Oxford don. Lewis advised using clear and concrete language, “so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.” (Personal Correspondence, 1956).

Similarly, Lewis would always argue for the words not to draw attention to themselves. Essentially, they need to get out of the way so the message can come through. “Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified.”

It’s wisdom like that which causes us to recognize C.S. Lewis as the brilliant, gifted, creative, versatile and anointed writer that he was.

As for Singer, perhaps I’ll have to check out one of his legal thrillers. The latest is set in antiquity, with a Roman jurist defending Paul before Nero. Should be quite interesting. Not so good as a nonfiction account of such a trial would be . . . but probably worth reading.

Misplaced Trust

October 16, 2014 — 8 Comments

trustingWhy do some nurses kill? Most people attracted to the nursing profession possess deep reservoirs of compassion for others. And yet, every once in a while we read about a nurse intentionally taking the life of a patient.

Today’s case comes from Italy, where a forty-two year old nurse is under investigation for thirty-eight possible cases of murder. And we are not talking about the ending of a life that some would term euthanasia.

Poggiali did not overdose them to end their suffering. She did it simply because they irritated her. She, or their relatives, bothered her.

One troubling aspect of the case could only happen today. Authorities have actually found a photograph on her phone where she is standing beside a deceased patient giving a “thumbs up” sign. (The article didn’t indicate whether this was a sickening “selfie,” or if there is another person at the hospital with a similarly demented sense of humor.

When people we implicitly trust violate our faith in them, it is jarring. We struggle to comprehend things when . . .

Medical professionals intentionally cause injury . . .

Clergy behave immorally, particularly when they attempt to justify it from the pulpit . . .

Police victimize rather than protect . . .

Teachers care more about themselves than their students . . .

Soldiers display cowardice rather than courage . . .

There is some good news here. It is precisely because these breaches of our expectations are the rare exception, that we are shocked by them. For the most part, people entrusted by the public with authority or power honor that trust.

(Let’s exclude, for our discussion here, the case of politicians, where that supposition would be hotly debated. As Lewis in his essay “Equality” wrote, “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.”)

Our trust in people who occupy special positions goes so far as to be illogical. For example, we tend to think of actors or actresses as possessing the traits of various characters they have portrayed.

We laugh at the joke, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Yet, we’re still tempted to ask the person how we can best deal with our persistent cough or chronic rash.

We think of television cops as believing in law and order, but if we seriously considered the matter, we would recognize just how foolish that is. They are no more, or less, likely than anyone else in Hollywood to be law abiding.

An ongoing scandal reveals just how disorienting it can be to have our illusions shattered. It is the case of Stephen Collins. In the popular Seventh Heaven series, he played the ideal father. A pastor, no less. We mourn for the lives he has injured, and we subconsciously grieve our own disillusionment.

The solution to the problem is not in ceasing to trust others. Life from that perch would result in paranoia and alienation.

No, I think that it still makes sense to trust—within limits. I am willing to extend my trust to someone in a respected profession who I have just met. That is based on the profession’s self-policing of standards.* Most require minimal education and competence standards, and have mechanisms for decertifying those who violate professional ethics.

Still, when time allows, the best advice is probably to “trust and verify.” The time I take to verify whether the person’s credentials or claims are true corresponds to the importance of what I’m entrusting to them. I would leave my car with a mechanic far sooner than I would entrust my child to a babysitter.

Returning to the case with which we began, we assume that a hospital is one of the safest places to be. And, even in light of the latest tragedy, this remains true.

For every one nurse tempted to end a complainer’s life early, there are a hundred thousand** who are striving to prolong the lives of their charges.

Trusting should not only be viewed as something we extend to others. Each of us would do well to ponder for a few moments just how trustworthy we are. This is especially true for those of us in privileged or respected professions. However, it is no exaggeration to say that the measure of any woman or man is determined by the degree to which they have earned the trust of others.

Lewis writes about the nature of trust, as it relates to friendship. It doesn’t relate to trust imbued in societal roles, but rather in the trust that exists where a relationship is already present. Still, he expertly describes the interplay between mind and heart, when it comes to trust. And this explains, in part, why the betrayal of our trust causes us so much anguish, in mind and soul.

To love involves trusting the beloved beyond the evidence, even against much evidence. No man is our friend who believes in our good intentions only when they are proved. No man is our friend who will not be very slow to accept evidence against them. Such confidence, between one man and another, is in fact almost universally praised as a moral beauty, not blamed as a logical error. And the suspicious man is blamed for a meanness of character, not admired for the excellence of his logic. (“On Obstinacy in Belief”).

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* The fact that some “professions” don’t have any mandatory requirements or standards, means that I remain wary when I meet people sporting those titles. For example, in America it’s possible to “ordain” oneself (or buy a meaningless diploma or certificate online). Thus, when someone tells me they are a minister, I am eager to learn more (about their education, congregation, accountability, etc.). There are far too many hucksters out there to take a person’s word for it that they are a genuine minister of God.

** Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but I’d like to continue believing that the ratio is something wonderful like that, 1:100,000. Then again, if I think of it literally, in terms of how many are “tempted” to expedite the passing of an inconsiderate and ungrateful patient, I imagine the numbers might be rather less encouraging.

A Caveat about Caveats

September 4, 2014 — 5 Comments

cave canemA caveat, most readers will know, is a warning. One of my favorite usages comes from ancient Rome, where many villa owners procured guard dogs to protect their property. Cave Canem–beware of the dog–became a common motif for entryway mosaics.

One of the most familiar caveats is caveat emptor—buyer beware. Not only is this warning well known, it is absolutely true. Without an express warranty, you may have little hope recouping your loss when something you purchase fails.

Caveats, however, need not infer that the subjects they refer to are dangerous.

For example, the guard dog may well be an affectionate “member of the family,” who warms up quickly, even to strangers who have been invited into the home. Likewise, the new car I’m contemplating purchasing may be ideal for me. Fairly priced, economical to drive, and not so dated in appearance that it shouts, “yes, I’m a grandpa.”

Caveats don’t mean “stay away.” They merely advise us all to think before we act. (And, as universal rules go, this is a very good one.) Caveats, and good parenting, remind us to read the “fine print” before signing anything.

I want to encourage all readers of Mere Inkling to use their God-given intelligence to evaluate what you read on these pages. In the same way, I hope you will all apply your God-instilled conscience to measure my words.

In light of this sincere desire, I encourage you to read the gentle caveats offered below.

General Caveats for Readers

What should readers of Mere Inkling keep in mind as they peruse these posts? First of all, there are a number of general considerations—applicable to everything each of us reads and hears.

1.  Understand the perspective of the writer. What are the assumptions and worldview of the person who wrote the piece? It can be hazardous to simply assume that a writer shares your own values—or even definitions. Many people would be shocked at the diversity of definitions for a word like “church” that roam the internet.

2.  Ensure we read what we think we did. By this I mean that we should reread sections that we find confusing or offensive. It may be we have misread what the author intended. (This is especially true when a writer seeks to play with the English language, and uses phrasing unfamiliar to our ear.) In cases where we have normally enjoyed the writing, but now find ourselves bothered by something, it is always good to ask the writer to clarify what they meant. More often than not, I’ve found this opportunity to elaborate dispels the problem.

3.  Reject the myth that anything you read is absolutely objective. Objectivity, except for mathematics, is essentially impossible. Our education, values, experiences and mood all affect the words we write. The best we can hope for in what we read—something Mere Inkling strives for—is personal honesty and fairness.

Mere Inkling Caveats

1.  Mere Inkling’s author is a fallen human being. By definition, that means that I am imperfect. Not all-knowing, nor always gracious. Imperfect though I am, I try my best to speak here in a forthright, considerate, modestly entertaining and, most importantly, a truthful way. When I fall short of that, feel free to write to me about it.

2.  I am a Christian. I certainly don’t apologize for this. Nor do I apologize for the wish of all disciples of Jesus that everyone might know the joy, forgiveness and peace that comes from abiding in the Vine (a metaphor for Jesus, as described in John 15).

3.  Your host at Mere Inkling is an evangelical Christian. This is a hazy adjective, often used in mutually contradictory ways. I apply it here to myself in the context of holding fast to the basic Christian truths, including the aforementioned desire of God that all people might come to him through his only begotten Son.

4.  I am a catholic Christian. Not a Roman Catholic (with a capital C), but catholic in the word’s creedal sense—a member of the one universal Church. As a catholic Christian, I subscribe to the ecumenical creeds, agreed upon as the fundamental doctrines of the faith during its earliest years. These include the Triune nature of God, the Incarnation miracle, and the atonement. Like my mentor, C.S. Lewis, here at Mere Inkling we focus on “Mere Christianity,” the common core of the faith. I consistently attempt to qualify my words on subjects where there is not a clear consensus.

Each of us has his individual emphasis: each holds, in addition to the Faith, many opinions which seem to him to be consistent with it and true and important. And so perhaps they are. But as apologists it is not our business to defend them. We are defending Christianity; not “my religion.” When we mention our personal opinions we must always make quite clear the difference between them and the Faith itself. (C.S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics”).

5.  I am a Lutheran Christian. Again, I do not apologize. Lutherans understand we are only a small part of the “one holy catholic and apostolic faith.” Each denomination (indeed, each individual) possesses a distinctive interpretation of the Christian faith. We are free, of course, to associate with that community we believe follows God’s leading most faithfully. (It is a given that no community is without flaw, since no human being is.) I have written more on this aspect of my identity in the next point, and on the “Mercy” tab you will find at the top of the page.

6.  I am an evangelical Lutheran Christian. This is not a formal category, but means that I subscribe to historic Lutheranism as it has been taught and held since the Reformation, rather than some of the current expressions of “religion” that may be labeled Lutheran. In essence, this can be summarized in the “solas” of Lutheran doctrine.

Sola Scripture – Scripture Alone meaning that the Bible, the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, are the ultimate authority for determining true faith.

Sola Gratia – Grace Alone meaning salvation is an unearned gift of God, given not because we have earned it.

Sola Fides – Faith Alone meaning that God’s grace is apprehended not through wisdom, good works, or any means other than a simple trust in the promise. Ironically, this faith itself is also a gift of God.

7.  I am a pastor. While pastors with seminary educations do study Greek, Hebrew, Theology and assorted other subjects, we are not the same as what most people mean by the word “theologians.” Pastoral Theology is distinct from Systematic Theology. The former focuses on practical ministry to individuals, while the latter is most concerned with abstract matters. While I also possess a second graduate degree, my Master of Theology degree (much different than an M.A. in theology) was earned in the study of Early Church History. My concern remained the work of God among everyday human beings, rather than scholastic philosophy.

8.  While I never intentionally write anything with the goal of offending any reader, I recognize it is impossible to avoid all offense. (Even the least controversial prose is capable of offending.)

Allow me to illustrate how simple truths can elicit dramatically different responses, with two simple declarations.

God loves all people. This is true, and inoffensive. Most people today, and all orthodox (biblical) Christians would agree with the statement.

Not all people will go to heaven. This too is true. However, it provokes great outcries from many quarters, including some religious organizations that arise out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus himself offered “hard sayings” that elicited grumbling. John’s Gospel records a powerful account of this, occurring immediately after the Feeding of the Five Thousand.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? . . . The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” . . . “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.

C.S. Lewis referred to the alienating nature of some truths when he wrote the essay, “Cross-Examination.”

I believe that there are many accommodating preachers, and too many practitioners in the church who are not believers. Jesus Christ did not say “Go into all the world and tell the world that it is quite right.” The Gospel is something completely different. In fact, it is directly opposed to the world.

9.  I am an American. Again, no apologies. I applaud much of what this nation has valued and shared during its history. I regret many of the mistakes the United States has made, and continues to make. I recognize how fortunate I have been to live in a nation with access to educational and medical resources not available to all. I genuinely appreciate other cultures and have been privileged to live in Europe, Asia and the Pacific. The right I treasure most—and one I pray will be extended to all people—is freedom of religion.

10.  I welcome offline correspondence. I recognize many people are reluctant to post a comment on a blog, which is visible to the public. I also realize that some readers would appreciate privately offering a comment or posing a question. I welcome this, and encourage you to use the form below to write to me. I will respond from my personal email account and we can discuss sensitive matters in greater depth. I must say in advance, however, that I do not have the leisure time to aid with any research. Similarly, while I am happy to offer general pastoral advice, only a fool or con artist would presume to conduct serious counseling or therapy via email. (You need a local pastor or counselor for that.) That said, I do enjoy spirited and honest discourse, so d feel free to contact me.

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The picture at the top of the page comes from the entryway to the “House of the Tragic Poet” in Pompeii.

Who Should We Trust?

March 24, 2014 — 14 Comments

staffordshire cross“You can trust me, I’m a pastor.” When I was ordained thirty-three years ago, that might have been sufficient to persuade many people to give me the benefit of the doubt. Not so today.

The latest Gallup poll records the continuing decline of our trust in “clergy.” Relentless negative press (much of it recording genuinely criminal and repellent behaviors) has taken its toll. Today only 47% of Americans trust ministers (of all faiths).

The good news, if you can consider it that, is that clergy still rank as the seventh most trusted group (out of twenty-two vocations considered).

But it remains quite pitiful. And quite understandable. Even being a pastor, there are many people considered clergy who I would not trust. First of all, anyone who purchased their “ordination” over the internet, and has the audacity to pretend to be a minister. I see a credibility gap there. (I would not include those who buy one of the fake diplomas as a “joke” to be untrustworthy . . . only those who pass themselves off as a “real minister.”)

I could go on, but my purpose here is not to trash clergy, since more than enough people already devote themselves to that purpose.

I am curious just who, in our increasingly uncertain and selfish world, we should trust.

I personally am in a rather envious position. I don’t have to rely on hoping people will trust me because I’m a pastor. I am also a sworn officer of the law. Albeit, I merely serve as a volunteer chaplain with my local county Sheriff’s Office, but we honestly do swear an oath to uphold the law, and we proudly wear regular uniforms, complete with our own chaplain badges (stars).

The thing about being in law enforcement is that I can benefit from the fact that it is the sixth most respected institution. So that carries me across the halfway mark all the way to the 54% trustworthiness milestone. I guess that’s fair, since I too place a higher trust in the integrity and professionalism of the average deputy or officer than I do in the average minister.

But, as I already said, I’m in a rather unique position, in that I also qualify for an even more respected category, that of a military officer. The 69% level of trust for military officers ties that of doctors and is only 1% below grade school teachers and pharmacists. So, I guess that if I want to instill confidence in my integrity, I’d best tell people that I’m a (retired) Air Force officer, and not that I am a member of the First Estate.

Trust is important. It’s a key commodity in any relationship, and absolutely essential for intimate relationships such as those shared within a family. Trust takes a great deal of time to build, and it can be shattered in just a moment. Its fragility is the primary reason why it must be treasured and guarded.

Trusted are those who never give others a cause to doubt them. My wife and I made a promise to our children that we would never lie to them. Never. We explained there would be times when we could not tell them something, or where we could only reveal a portion of the facts about a matter . . . but we promised them that whatever we did tell them would be the absolute truth insofar as we were aware.

Because of our honesty with them, our children (all adults now, of course), have been amazingly honest with us the whole of their lives. They trust us. We trust them. And none of us take that amazing gift for granted.

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his introduction to J.R.R. Tolkien. Although the two would become lifelong friends, there were obstacles that needed to be overcome. One, described by Lewis, was that Tolkien belonged to not one, but two, categories of people who Lewis had been taught to regard as suspect. He was an atheist at the time, but it wasn’t simply Tolkien’s deep faith in Christ that gave him pause.

When I began teaching for the English Faculty, I made two other friends, both Christians (these queer people seemed now to pop up on every side) who were later to give me much help in getting over the last stile. They were H.V.V. Dyson (then of Reading) and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Friendship with the latter marked the breakdown of two old prejudices. At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.

I’m not sure where philologists ranked on Gallup’s recent poll, but I am quite sure they did not include questions about different denominations or faith groups. Before ending these thoughts I suppose I should share with you the most trusted group in the survey—nurses. Eighty-two percent of Americans trust nurses. And I too would agree with that.

The matter of who we can safely trust is of great importance. In fact, it could be argued that it is the most important question in our lives.

Ultimately, even when we assure one another we will only speak the truth . . . even then we disappoint one another. Being human, we are finite, imperfect. We cannot always be there, even for those we love. Sometimes we fail to live up to our own standards and our promises dispel like a vapor in the wind.

Johnny Cash recorded a powerful song before he died. He had lived a rough and tumble life, and had found peace in a relationship with Christ. That peace, however, did not cure all of the ills or heal all of the scars he had experienced, and his profound familiarity with this world inspired the gritty lyrics of “Hurt.”

I wear this crown of thorns

Upon my liar’s chair

Full of broken thoughts

I cannot repair

Beneath the stains of time

The feelings disappear

You are someone else

I am still right here

What have I become

My sweetest friend

Everyone I know goes away

In the end

And you could have it all

My empire of dirt

I will let you down

I will make you hurt

In a moment, I’ll share a link to his performance of this moving song. But first, the answer to the question with which we began.

Who, exactly, should we trust? Johnny Cash learned the answer to that question, and so did C.S. Lewis. I trust the same Person that they did—someone who will never disappoint. Someone who cannot lie, since he himself is the Truth. As Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 2:

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David . . . I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him . . .

if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

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If you wish to watch the video of Johnny Cash’s musical epitaph, you can see it here.

The pectoral cross show above is part of the Staffordshire Hoard, which is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon metalwork ever found. It dates from the 7th or 8th century.

Boot Camp Religion

September 23, 2013 — 21 Comments

drill instructorShould pastors be more like cheerleaders, or drill instructors? That’s an interesting question recently posed by the president of World Vision United States.

While flying to Saint Louis, I brought along several magazines I hadn’t had an opportunity to read. (The opportunity to read for an extended period is about the only thing I still enjoy about long distance travel.)

One of the magazines included a review of Unfinished: Believing is Only the Beginning by Richard Stearns.

It included an interesting comparison which intrigued both as a pastor and a military chaplain.

The great commandments of Scripture have now become just great suggestions, offered like fortune cookies, to take with us or leave behind in the pews. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). If churches are going to lead a revolution to change the world, then our pastors need to act and speak less like spiritual cheerleaders and more like drill sergeants.

It’s a valid question. But, the truth is that we are talking about a spectrum, not an either/or dichotomy. A pastor should never be a mere cheerleader. Nor should a minister ever be a simple drill sergeant.

Being a pastor is much more complex than either of those labels. Far better to use the metaphor of shepherd.

The author’s point is well made though. In our current “feel good” age, with its divinization of the notion of self esteem, many clergy seem to think their primary role is to “encourage” the saints. They forget that we should be encouraging them to do something. Something, perhaps, like running a race.*

That’s actually the theme of the book—Christian discipleship. Following Christ more closely each day, as we correspondingly come to more and more resemble our Father.

Disciples are not expected to just “talk the talk” of obedience; they are to “walk the walk.” Studying the blueprint in Scripture means that we follow its instructions. It requires that we obey what Scripture teaches. Anyone seeking to truly know God’s calling on his or her life must be serious about obedience. Do we really think that God is going to give a critical kingdom assignment to someone who hasn’t been faithful in day-to-day obedience to his commands?

There’s even a passing C.S. Lewis reference in Unfinished, albeit not a particularly flattering one. The author doesn’t actually speak ill of the Oxford don, but he does criticize the way that some preachers tend to “proof text” their message with pertinent quotations. (I avoid taking personal umbrage at the criticism, since the point Stearns is making is quite valid.)

Far too many Sunday sermons bat around theological ideas like badminton birdies for half an hour. They quote a few verses of Scripture, tell a few stories, throw in a line or two from C.S. Lewis or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but never challenge the congregation to change anything in their lives.

The sermon is offered like a piece of gum for congregants to chew on for half an hour, but as soon as they get to the parking lot, most will spit it out. The job of the church is not merely to explain the truth but, rather, to use the truth to bring about life change.

I’ve never been accused of preaching chewing gum sermons myself, but I know exactly what he is alluding to.

Unfinished doesn’t actually object to quoting Lewis, just to a shallow, formulaic approach to sermon preparation. The book, in fact, includes several Lewisian citations of its own, referencing no fewer than four of his works.

As a fellow writer and theologian who loves quoting C.S. Lewis, I’ll forgo pointing out the irony.

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* The role of the coach, as in training athletes for their competition, is a useful image. Note 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”

Also, Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”