Sunday, December 9, 2007

Another Lewis Quote

If anybody hasn't figured it out yet, C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite Christian writers. And this passage has resonated with me, probably because I've made my living for years working on houses. He admitted he borrowed the idea from George MacDonald; I've never read enough of MacDonald's stuff to find the original reference. Here's Lewis' take:

"Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of--throwing out a wing here, putting up an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage; but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself." "Mere Christianity", p.205

My life has had a lot of unexpected changes and turnings compared to where I was, say 40 years ago. But I've learned to trust the Architect, and I have no wish to go back to my own original plans.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

My Van

I decided it's getting time for something a little light-hearted around here, so I'll update on one of the things that's been going on for me. I had to replace my work truck this fall. Now, I know Rednecks are supposed to drive pickups, but I'm a bit contrary (which is itself a Redneck trait) and I like vans. My stuff stays dry (even caps on pickups often leak); I can access my gear from the back, from the side doors, and even from the cab; and when I get home for the day, I don't have to take my tools out of an open truck bed, I just lock the doors and go in the house. I hadn't planned on buying another truck this year; I liked the one I had and was hoping it could go for a few more years. But out of the blue, one day a shift went sour and its transmission changed from 4 speeds forward to 2 speeds forward--and no reverse! When I hit the Internet to figure out what was wrong, it turned out to be a very common problem. And apparently in the mid-90s all three American carmakers switched to using automatic transmissions controlled by the engine's computer, and all of them have some kind of problems--stamped parts that break, oil passages that are too small and cause failure from inadequate lubrication--makes me wonder if too many of their old engineers retired and the new ones weren't as smart as expected.

Anyway, I found a 1991 15-passenger, already minus most of the seats. It's early enough to avoid the electronic transmission and its problems, yet only had 75,000 miles--for us, that's practically new (I usually buy them with 100-150,000 and drive them for a couple of years until the wheels fall off--when we part with a car, there usually isn't much left)(I should also add that Indiana hits you an excise tax on the value of your car every year when you get your plates, so it's Old Car Heaven around here--a new car can cost you 3-4 times or more in plates).

The fellow I bought it from had started dealing with the condition of the paint (seems like most Detroit paint jobs since 1980 peel off after 10-12 years). He primed it, using spray cans. I had a compressor and a spray gun available, but I've never been that good at spray-painting, and I didn't have any place indoors to do it--this one-ton van is too tall to fit under a normal garage door, even if there was room to get it in the garage--and there isn't. But I had heard something, and googled "painting your car with a roller" and found it. My truck now has a real "Redneck paint job"--Rustoleum, applied with foam rollers and foam brushes. No, it isn't going to win any prizes at car shows, but I wasn't going to enter it in any car shows anyway. It's a 16-year-old work truck, not a show car. I was concerned about that gray primer just blending into the mist on a cloudy, rainy day--now, with a white roof and "electric blue" body, it shows up real well, on the road and in parking lots.

I found where Hot Rod magazine tested out this method of painting a vehicle. They concluded that it passed the "5-5 test"--if you're 5 feet away and the car is moving at 5 mph, it looks okay. It's an industrial paint, just a lot cheaper than the standard automotive paints--you can buy it at Home Depot and Lowe's. And the guys who've had it for some years say you can match the paint perfectly later, you can't always do that with car paint.

Anyway, that's one of the things I did this fall when I wasn't blogging.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Which HasBeen Put First?

I was re-reading a C.S. Lewis book last night and came across this passage:

"And no sooner is it possible to distinguish the rite from the vision of God than there is a danger of the rite becoming a substitute for, and a rival to, God Himself. Once it can be thought of separately, it will; and it may then take on a rebellious, cancerous life of its own. There is a stage in a child's life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas and Easter. I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began 'Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen'. This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety. But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer be sacramental. And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat. They have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life." from "Reflections on the Psalms", pp.48-9.

Reading this now at the beginning of the annual "Christmas rush" it struck me that our society has largely chosen the ritual over the spiritual. Think of the controversies the last few years over the euphemisms being promoted over names of items associated with Christmas--"holiday trees" and "Winter Break" are only a couple. Some want to keep the festival while discarding the Reason for it. But removing the spiritual element also removes the moral restraint, and so the festival becomes one of excess and overindulgence. And once that pattern takes over, it always escalates; it always takes more and more to keep up the pretense of satisfying the urge, because our people have chosen the Lesser and are trying to fill up the void left when we rejected the Greater.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Warning

One of the most chilling passages I've ever seen in the Bible is Matthew 7:22-23: "Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them,'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.' "(NASB)

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking about the Judgment Day. And those whom He describes Himself saying this to are not the pagans, the atheists, the hardened sinners--He will be saying this to people who thought they amounted to something in the church, people who did miracles and wonders in His name. He calls them "you who practice lawlessness." What is "lawlessness"? It's rejecting God's law; and Jesus elsewhere summed up the whole law in two things: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, he is effectively saying, if you don't walk in love for God and man, you are none of Mine, and no religious activity, even miracle-working, can overcome that lack.

This passage is not an isolated one-time thing; it is echoed through the rest of the NT. Just before His arrest, Jesus was saying things to the disciples like "Love one another as I have loved you" and "By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another." Late in his life John was writing things like "If any man does not love his brother, the love of the Father is not in him" and "If you do not love your brother that you do see, how can you love God who you do not see." Paul wrote a whole chapter on love in I Cor. 13, and started out by saying it was "a more excellent way" than the tongues and prophesying he had just written about. One more from John: "For love is of God, and every one who loves is born of God, and knows God." And that implies that those who do not love do not know God.

In my life I've run across a lot of Christians who are more interested in arguing than in love--arguing over End Times, whether the "sign gifts" have ceased or not, Calvinism/Arminianism, liberal theology/conservative theology (there seems to be a whole cottage industry these days of blogs and websites to identify who is orthodox and who's a heretic) and nowadays over the postmodern thing--I see quite a few who are "agin" it. And if there's one thing I've seen again and again over the years, it's that when people start arguing they quit loving. I've seen at least one church destroyed because the leaders argued instead of loving.

I'm not saying these other issues have no importance at all. But it seems clear to me that Jesus, John, and Paul all considered Love the Most Important Thing. And any time we take one of these lesser things and try to act like it's the Most Important and forget that Love is the real Most Important Thing, we are making our own priorities higher than God's, and are in danger of the final rejection of Matthew 7:23.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Personal Update

I haven't done this before, but at least one reader expressed concern about my wife's recent health problems, so I figured I should report. She is doing better. Not any cut-and-dried cause, but it looks like a familiar suspect. Miriam had a brief hospital stay almost five years ago--heart-attack symptoms, but no actual heart attack, low cholesterol, no blocked arteries. It turned out to be formaldehyde poisoning--she had had a small business making tents for historical reenactors (we've done some of that ourselves since 1993). Some of the canvas was treated with a flame retardant containing formaldehyde. We had figured out that every time she made a flame-retardant tent she got another kidney stone; but in early 2003 some other things pushed her over the edge, and she got really sick. Formaldehyde doesn't cause hives or sniffles; it interferes with liver and kidney function. We did find a doctor who recognized it and helped, but it took a long time to de-tox from the experience. She is still very sensitive to a lot of chemicals--even latex paint bothers her for a couple of weeks after it is applied.

Last winter Miriam got a job selling flowers at Costco here in Indianapolis, as a contract employee for the flower wholesaler. She liked the job, enjoyed being around people, had some play for creativity. But there is a strong possibility that the dyes and pesticides used on the flowers are bothering her. She has given notice that she will not renew her contract next month, and her supervisor is looking for someone else to take over (supervisor is not happy about it; Miriam's sales were often among the best in the region, until she got sick). She is feeling much better after some rest and de-toxing activity, and around February she'll look for a new job.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Postmodernism and the Doctrine of the Fall

Despite the rantings of some church leaders about how awful pomo is, I personally think it fits better with one basic Biblical doctrine than modernism does. The modern assumption is that man is basically good, and with proper education, health care, and the elimination of poverty, everything will be fine. The Bible teaches that man was created good, but rebelled against his Creator; and ever since, man has been flawed. Compared to what he was, he is now flawed morally, intellectually (researchers figured out years ago we only use about 10% of our brain's capacity) and physically. This means you can't always count on people doing the right thing; even the smartest have blind spots and weaknesses, and very few are as smart as they think they are; and our bodies run down, wear out, and succumb to diseases.

It is common to claim that postmoderns don't believe in absolute truth. But what if there are some absolutes, but you can't rely on fallen Man, as he now is, to (1) recognize one if he stumbles across it, (2) understand it completely if he does recognize it, and (3) express it accurately to someone else so they can understand it? I think the real net effect is nearly the same; you don't have properly functioning absolutes, not because there are none, but because Man doesn't "get it" when he sees one.

Which of these two views of Man--the modern mantra that Man is basically good, or the historic Christian teaching that Man is marred by the effects of sin and death--actually corresponds better to the real world we live in? If Man is good, why are there such people as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Saddam Hussein, Ahmedinejad, Charles Manson, and the neighborhood mugger? But according to the Bible, such people are to be expected because of the present nature of man. Even when he means well, Man does not always do what he knows he ought to do (I've worked in residential construction for the last 20 years, and I've seen way too much shoddy, substandard, unsafe, and just plain WRONG work done by supposedly trained and licensed tradespeople--and missed by the building inspectors, too!) And there are some people who don't even mean well.

I think the postmodern shift is going to allow us to get back to some basic Biblical concepts that the modern world rejected and tried to ignore. As Brian MacLaren expressed it, the modern world was not a bed of roses for Christianity; let's look for the opportunities the new situation may bring.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Is postmodernism really "back to the future?"

It's been a while since I posted anything here--you know the saying, "Life is what happens while you were making other plans."? My wife has been ill (doctors still don't know what or why), several car breakdowns (I'm finding the Internet more useful than the repair manuals you buy at the parts stores, but you have to get home to use it.) Anyway, enough has been going on to push blogging to a low priority. BUT--lately somebody came over and read my postings lately, read the whole schmutz, apparently, AND LEFT COMMENTS!! So I know he was here! (Thank you, ded, for giving this tired blogger a shot in the arm, and maybe a needed kick in the pants!)

Going back to the title of this blog, I thought I'd say some more about the "postmodern" thing. While some Christians have come down hard "agin it", I think they're overreacting to the first stages when they should be pitching in to have a chance to help shape the final product. A few months ago Harrison Scott Key, on the World Magazine blog, made the remark that "postmodern" with a small "p" really only means "what comes after 'modern'."

Yes, there are some common characteristics. But I think a case can be made that even these are not necessarily opposed to Christianity. For instance, take distrust of authority: I admit I have a pretty strong distrust of human authority. But it has nothing to do with any academic philosophy or literary criticism; rather it is rooted in the doctrine of the Fall, as I learned it from the writings of C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. Because human beings are fallen creatures who do not always do what is right, I am not going to put unlimited trust in any human authority figure, in government, business, or the church. (I do not have a problem with God's authority--He isn't a fallen human being). The idea the man is basically good is not a Christian teaching; it is one of the results of the modern worldview. It did not take hold in this country until after the Civil War. In fact, the writers of the US Constitution definitely did not believe men could be trusted with absolute authority; that's why they wrote so many checks and balances into the Constitution. For many years I regarded myself as something of a "throwback" or pre-modern, because some of my attitudes were more common among Christians of the late 1700s rather than in the 1960s and 70s. And I think the postmodern shift may be recovering something valuable that people in the last century moved away from.

To give an idea what this can mean, from something that happened a few years ago: We attended a new church that was starting up in the Lawrenceburg area, a Vineyard church. The pastor made a poor decision about the order of service. It was a poor decision for two reasons: he rejected what most of his people wanted; and because he had agreed publicly to what they wanted, it put him in a position of going back on his word. Under the Vineyard church structure, the local pastor pretty much has the authority to do whatever he wants. But I can't find anything in Scripture that teaches that having authority automatically protects you from being stupid, or protects you from the consequences of bad decisions (half the people left that church in a couple of weeks). Look at Rehoboam in the Old Testament--he shot off his mouth and was left with only a fraction of his kingdom's territory and population.

Well, life is intruding again; have to get out and do some things. I'll try to get some more posting in soon.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What's Wrong With Gambling?

My last post drew a comment from Scott Roche: "Of course gambling is no longer seen as a sin by most Christians. Just out of curiosity, what would you use to justify that it is?" I found the comment last night, but was too tired to respond then. I also wanted time to think about it before writing about it.

It is true that gambling is not directly condemned in the Bible as some other activities are--drunkenness, adultery, and so on. And C.S. Lewis had one of his characters point out in "The Pilgrim's Regress" that God Himself could be considered an inveterate gambler--He takes risks to accomplish His purposes, risks that apparently He considers worthwhile. And on the human level, there are many risk-taking situations in business and other areas that could be thought of as gambling.

But I do think there is a significant difference between the risk-taking mentioned above and the gambling for money--poker in its various forms, slot machines, betting on the horses, numbers games, state lotteries, etc.--that go on today. (The way some people play the stock market could be included too.)

Scott, my first approach to answering your question is to do as Jesus often did and ask you a question in return: How does taking someone's money at cards or with dice fit in with "Love your neighbor as yourself"? Or "Love one another as I have loved you"? How do you seriously love someone and yet take his money? (And if you think the corporations who run the casinos and manage the lotteries are still fair game, go back and look up what Jesus said about the quibbling the scribes and Pharisees used to get around the Law at times. Corporations are a legal fiction in our culture, but they still have people involved--shareholders, employees, management--and they may punish those who lose too much of their money.)

The other conclusion I come to is that gambling for money comes under the heading of "coveting" which is the subject of the tenth Commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor." (Ex. 20:17, NASB) "Anything that belongs to your neighbor" would include his cash. I was taught in a theology class that the Ten Commandments are rooted in the nature of God Himself: He is truth, so lying is wrong; He is faithful, so adultery is wrong; and because He is generous, coveting is wrong. The New Testament both condemns coveting and encourages generosity in the followers of Christ. If a Christian goes into a casino or a "friendly" card game with the expectation of coming out with more money than he carried in, he's probably coveting.
(Of course, I can only say "probably", but God knows the heart--for sure.)

One other standard of evaluation, advanced by Jesus: Look at the fruit. What has been the fruit of gambling in Dearborn County, Indiana? Well, the local governments and the state definitely have more money than before--the town of Lawrenceburg and the county have spent money like drunken sailors for the last ten years (they've also had to fend off attempts by the state to increase its share and reduce theirs). The state seems to go from one fiscal crisis to another, so the casinos have not been a real help. Lawrenceburg and Dearborn County have more problems with drunken driving and crime than they used to--they had to expand the capacity of the local court system to handle the increase. There are a lot of ads offering help for people with gambling problems. And since there are now three riverboat casinos in three consecutive counties, the one in the middle is struggling at times because the other two siphon off so much of the traffic. I really can't say the results are that impressive.

By the way, Scott's statement that "gambling is no longer seen as a sin by most Christians" fits in with something I did say in that last post: that too many churches are full of "churchgoers" rather than disciples of Jesus.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

I have been thinking about my last post, and the comment that it came from. And I ended up looking back at one of the events that prepared me to think about the problems in today's church structures and practices.

Back in the mid-'90s we were living in Dearborn County, Indiana, on the Ohio River just west of Cincinnati, Ohio. The state of Indiana had recently decided to have riverboat gambling on the Ohio River, and various counties were deciding whether or not to get involved. Dearborn County's officials chose to pursue it, and the issue was put on the ballot.

Now Dearborn County was a changing area. The eastern part was turning into suburbs of Cincinnati, with subdivisions filling in the open spaces. The towns--Greendale, Lawrenceburg, and Aurora, were picking up some new residents from the city, but hadn't visibly changed yet. The western half- to two-thirds of the county was still predominantly rural.

It also appeared to be as religious as any other small-town/rural area. There were the usual mainline Protestant churches in the towns, and a Catholic church in Lawrenceburg. There were a couple of megachurches in Bright, up in the suburban area near the Ohio line, a Methodist one and a Christian Church/Church of Christ. And the countryside was dotted with church buildings, mostly of the traditional denominations--Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and a sprinkling of others. They weren't on every crossroads, but there were plenty of them.

There was an appearance of strength of religious faith in the area. And when the ballot issue on riverboat gambling came up, nearly all the churches opposed it. (And it wasn't often they agreed on much.) Yet when the vote came, the gambling issue sailed right through, regardless of the opposition of the churches. Within a year the casino was open. The churches of Dearborn County were not as strong as they appeared to be.

I guess this event caused me to look a little closer. I began to notice that those numerous country churches mostly had only six to ten cars in the lot on Sunday morning. I got wind of a Methodist pastor and his wife, also a pastor, who served two churches each to make a living. Former church buildings in the region ended up with new uses.

And to be quite honest, that gambling initiative could not have passed without the votes of a significant number of churchgoers. That leads me to think that many churchgoers are not living lives shaped by their faith, but by the general culture. The church system in this country has for many years been producing churchgoers, but not real disciples.

Since that time, I've seen a lot more: surveys documenting that most Christians live pretty much like their non-Christian neighbors, estimates of 20,000 churches that will close their doors in the next decade or two, church leaders who don't live and behave like Christians...the list could go on and on. But things started getting a lot more obvious to me after that election.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

A Basic Question

I've been participating in some discussion on Steve Sensenig's blog, Theological Musings. and Steve paid me what I guess is the blogger's ultimate compliment: he took my comment and made it into a guest post in its own right. While I don't know that I should put the whole discussion here, I am putting up the new post here on my own blog. So here goes:

Looking back at this whole discussion, I come back to this basic question–What is Christianity? Is it
(a) a set of activities in a sacred place on Sunday morning, with a list of tenets to be subscribed to as a condition of participation, coupled with rules for behavior, enforced by the official leadership


(b) a way of living, every day, 24/7, in relationship with Jesus Himself, and with others who also are in relationship with Him.

Going through the words of Jesus Himself in the Gospels, I cannot find anything that leads to (a); in fact, he often rebuked the leaders of the (a) system of the day. I grew up in churches, have been in churches all my life, and my conclusion now is that in most situations, the more of (a) you have, the less you have of (b); in fact, (a) tends to replace and eliminate (b)!

How did “Abide in me” come to mean “Be at the church building every time the doors are open”?

If you want to improve your relationship with someone, say your wife, do you go off to an auditorium and sit while someone who claims to know her better than you do lectures for half an hour? Or would the time be better spent going somewhere alone with your wife and conversing with her for half an hour? Which really builds the relationship with her?

I’m afraid most humans are too lazy for their own good. We’d rather have a list of rules to keep than try to walk in the Spirit. We want a doctrinal statement to assent to rather than trying to learn to hear His voice ourselves. The Hebrews started it at Mt. Sinai–they wanted Moses to hear God for them.

And for those who would say “It’s some of each, both (a) and (b)” my question is How can it be both, when (a) eliminates (b)? I think, and I suspect [frequent commenter] ded would agree (based on what he’s written here), that they are two different things, coming from two different sources. If God meant it to be a symbiosis, it would be a stable symbiosis, not constantly drifting in one direction.

To look at it another way: What has been the “fruit” of (a) in this country? Do we have a vibrant church that is transforming its culture? Are non-believers coming to Christ in droves? Are believers “turning the world upside down”?

Or is the picture more like this: “Our bookshelves are full of Christian books and videos. We have churches on every major street, more staff workers than ever before, large Sunday school departments, cell systems, mega- and meta-church seminars. We have Christian bumper stickers, political action groups, huge parachurch ministries–and in the midst of it all, we have lost every major city in North America.” Back in 1999, Wolfgang Simson included that quote from Ted Haggard in his book “Houses that Change the World”.

Maybe we do need to lay aside everything that’s been written since and go back to the New Testament for our original instructions.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bob Girard Has Gone Home

Most people may never have heard of him. He wasn't a big-name speaker or denominational executive. He didn't found a megachurch, didn't land in one of the "hot rock" pulpits. He didn't have a radio or tv show. But for many of us who read his two small books back in the 1970s, his words were a breath of fresh air, and had a profound influence on some of us.

Bob Girard was a Wesleyan pastor in Arizona who had the courage to follow God's leading out of "church as usual" and into uncharted territory. He got fed up with programs and began to look for better ways to live as Christians. He found some things out, restructured his congregation for small groups, and eventually they gave their building back to the denomination and operated as a network of house churches. The thing folded later, but their influence lives on. Bob's two books, "Brethren, Hang Loose" and "Brethren, Hang Together," are still being sold on Many of us who got into small group life in churches in the 70s read his books and learned from them; his writing helped us avoid many pitfalls and saved a lot of headaches. He had to learn to let go and trust the Holy Spirit to lead through others, something many pastors never learn at all.

Anyway, many years and additional books later (and for me and my wife, quite a few churches and small groups later), Bob Girard has gone home. He left this life on June 19 of this year. I found out about it almost accidentally, because I clicked on a link to the blog of the writer of an article I had just read. That eventually led me to his obituary, the blog of one of his family members, and a website that has now been started for him. He seems to have quite a legacy: a fairly large family of children and grandchildren and their spouses (looks like quite a few of them are still strong in the faith) and an untold number of spiritual children who follow in his steps today.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Going It Alone?

There are some things in the Christian life you can't do alone. You can pray alone, you can sing alone (for some people, that's a plus!) you can read your Bible alone, you can listen to teaching and preaching alone through the modern miracles of radio and recording. But have you ever tried to do the Lord's Supper alone? It's pretty lame.

Even the name "Communion" says you can't do it alone. It comes from the same Latin root as the words "common" and "community,' which has its base in the Greek word "koinonia," which means "in common" or "fellowship." It's something you do as a group, not alone.

While I'm on this subject, I'll say a bit about the communion practice at one particular church we were in back in the late 1970s and early '80s. We allowed plenty of time for the Lord's Supper (this was before the church growth experts or the seeker-friendly churches --whoever it was-- decided services shouldn't be longer than an hour or so). We'd sing a song, have a meditation and prayer, and then instead of passing the elements, we went up to get them. A father might get them for his whole family and take them back to the seats. Or the whole family might go up together. Friends might go up together. Occasionally friends who had been at odds during the week would go up together and use the opportunity to make peace and seal it with Communion. People might kneel and pray up front before partaking. And however long it took, the rest of us just went on worshipping. It was very relaxed. And yet very important. And in most of the churches we've been in since, it has always felt rushed, and it seems to me, regarded as less important than the sermon. And that bugs me, because the New Testament in at least one spot uses the language "On the first day of the week, when the disciples met together to break bread...." That sounds to me like their real reason for meeting was not the sermon, but the Lord's Supper. I'm afraid that in most churches the sermon has, implicitly or explicitly, been regarded as the center of the service (many churches only have Communion at all a few times a year) when Biblically it is not central, and may not have been a standard part of the first-century church at all.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

More on Fruit

Last Tuesday evening our small group was discussing the weekend's sermon, which was about joy, one of the fruits of the Spirit. During the talking, something struck me. We often talk about "feeling" joy. But really, if you look closely at the various fruits of the Spirit, they aren't feelings, they are attitudes. And attitudes are something we choose. We can even change them. Sometimes we choose unconsciously, without thinking. But they are chosen, not something determined by our circumstances.

Sometimes in raising our kids we had to push them to examine their attitudes toward things, and maybe persuade them to change their attitudes in particular areas. And it often worked quite well.

But what about the feelings? Well, if you bring your attitudes around to what they ought to be, the feelings will usually come around after a while. Feelings are useful followers--they make lousy leaders.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Some years ago I came up with what I call the "Monument Theory of Church History." It works like this: In every generation, God is doing something; people are drawn to it, and after some years, most sit down at that spot and build a monument to what God did. One result of this is that the landscape is littered with Christian monuments to God's past activity--Lutheran monuments, Presbyterian monuments, Methodist monuments, Christian Church/Church of Christ monuments (the one I grew up in), Pentacostal monuments...all over the map. Even the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s produced a few. The Vineyard churches grew out of that time, and while John Wimber, their most prominent leader, lived they stayed vital. But he died in 1997, and five or six years after that I began to see signs that the concrete was starting to set. (We spent about 10 years in Vineyard churches in Cincinnati and in Batesville, In.)

The trouble is, while people are building monuments, God moves on and does something else, usually in a different spot, with different leaders, different focus, different aspect of truth He wants to highlight. And I came to the conclusion a long time ago that I don't want to spend the rest of my life polishing some monument; I'd rather be part of what God is doing now. Yes, it is great that God did something in this spot maybe 20 years ago; but the monument that's been erected here, while very nice, is not Him--and I want to be where He is now.

There's a place in south-central Kentucky, about 10 miles or so from the Tennessee line, called Red River Meeting House. Around 1787 a log Presbyterian church was built there. The region was known as "Rogues' Harbor" for the lawlessness of its inhabitants (travelers often disappeared while passing through). After several years of prayer by the small group of faithful Christians in the area, a Communion service in 1800 set off a major revival, the first of the frontier camp meetings. A visiting clergyman hosted another event at his church at Cane Ridge in northern Kentucky, and what the historians call the Second Great Awakening was well under way (the first was in the mid-1700s, involving John Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and others.). "Rogues' Harbor" changed its character and lost the name, and became known for hospitality to strangers. It also became a center of anti-slavery activity--slave owners who had believed Negroes to be not fully human and without souls saw the Holy Spirit falling on whites and blacks alike and were convinced that they had been wrong about slavery.

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church, a small denomination that formed out of the camp meetings, still owns the property. The original log church was followed by several buildings (the original log building's site is now part of the cemetery). When the last of them was disintegrating in the 1950s, and the congregation no longer existed, a group of local people partnered with the Cumberland P.C. to preserve it as a historic site. A replica of the log church was built on part of the remaining open land (and replaced in the 1970s after vandals burned the first one). In October each year a weekend commorative gathering in honor of the original camp meeting is held by a mixed group of local people and historical reenactors. There is still a feeling of peace that hangs over the grounds.

We (me, my wife Miriam, and my younger son Caleb) were part of the commemorative gatherings for several years. Caleb and I were part of the impromptu band that played for the services, we camped with the reenactors, we enjoyed ourselves there. But there came a time when we concluded that it was time to put our energy into what God is doing now. It isn't that monuments are wrong; but sometimes a good thing crowds out better things. We need to learn from the past, but we must live in the present, and if possible build for the future.

I once read an interview with Carol Wimber, John Wimber's widow. She said he was never that worried about the future of the Vineyard, but that his hope was that their kids would find what God was doing next and go be part of it. I think he was right.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Guitar

Most people think the guitar is a musical instrument. I see it as a bit more complicated than that. To me, the guitar is a family of 10 to 12 musical instruments (or more, depending on how you count). Most of them have some similarities--most have six strings, most are mainly made of wood--but there are differences, too, including more or less than six strings, use of metal in place of wood--and some look quite different from the rest.

Part of those differences stem from the fact that those 10 to 12 instruments are used in even more styles of music, and each type of music puts different demands on the guitar and the guitar player. The "licks" a bluegrass guitarist uses would be out of place in rock--the rocker's playing wouldn't go over in a jazz setting--the jazz player doesn't measure up in a classical guitarist's eyes--get the picture? As a matter of fact there have been times when it seemed to me that after playing guitar, the most common activity of guitar players is looking down their noses at each other. They get to feeling that their musical genre and type of guitar are superior to the others. There are some who aren't so snobby, but all too many are.

And that's to be expected, really. Guitar players are not angels; they're fallen human beings, just like the rest of us. So enjoy the music--as many styles as you can--but when they quit playing and start putting each other down, just take it with a grain (or five or six) of salt!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

My Musical Family

I haven't said too much about music here so far, but it has always been a part of my life. As far back as I can remember, I was singing. When I was fifteen I took up playing guitar, and kept singing. In high school I was in Concert Choir and Varsity Ensemble, as well as church choirs. And when the Hawkins family got together, we made music. My father played guitar, mandolin and tenor banjo (he had a couple of violins, too, but in his own words, "he never got the squawks out"). He had played in a few bands, working the bars around Harrison and Ross, Ohio in the late 1930s and early '40s (near Cincinnati). Once they got on the radio--live show, before the days of DJs. My grandfather played guitar and mandolin, my grandmother played piano and guitar. But I only learned last year that my great-grandfather, who died before I was born, had also played guitar. We were together, playing music, and my Dad sang one of his old songs that I'd remembered him singing over the years, but my son Caleb was struck by it and asked him to write down the words, then got him to talk about where he learned it--turned out that when he was little, his grandfather, my great-grandfather, had played his guitar and sung it to him!

My sons carry on the family tradition. Nathan, the older, plays guitar and electric bass. But Caleb, our youngest kid, took after my Dad--he wants to play everything. He started with guitar, then banjo, then mandolin, then fiddle. Added upright bass (he had one for a while, but sold it--they take a lot of room). He had dulcimer lessons from a friend of ours some years ago, now he has one--it's about the only instrument he's had formal lessons on. Also added harmonica and dobro recently. He's messed around with keyboards at times. Once in a while he plays the electric bass he got from Nathan.

We still take our instruments when we go to visit my folks. Dad will be 88 this fall, but he still gets out the guitar and plays with us, at least for a while. I'll sing and play a couple of their old favorites, and Caleb will either do something old or some of the songs he's written (unlike me, he is a songwriter). I've also been singing to our youngest granddaughter, born this year, and she seems to like it. Looks like the tradition will go on.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Commumion Meditation

The day after feeding the 5000, Jesus was in the synagogue in Capernaum, where He made the statement, "I am the bread of life." Later on in that discussion He said, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your fathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever."

This teaching freaked out his listeners. The Jews had no tradition of cannibalism, and the Law of Moses required them to avoid eating or drinking blood. John records "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him." But the Twelve did stick with Him. And I can imagine them, a long while later at the Last Supper, when Jesus gave them the bread and wine, saying "This is my body" and "This is my blood", looking at each other and thinking, 'Is this what He was talking about that day?' Probably the lights really came on for them after the Resurrection.

I don't think there is anything magical about the bread and juice. It isn't the going through the motions of Communion that makes the difference in us. But it is a reminder that our life comes from Him, our new way of life depends on Him. Our spirits must feed on Him.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Remodeling Questions

I've made my living as a remodeling contractor for over 20 years now. And in those 20 years there have been two questions that come up again and again. The first is "Why is it so hard to find someone to work on my house?" The second is "Why does it cost so much?" I don't know who will see it, but I thought I'd lay out my take on the answers to these.

One answer that applies to both questions is that there aren't enough people doing the work to handle all that needs to be done. I've read the contractors' magazines for 20 years. And there have been items and articles about the labor shortage in the building trades for almost the whole time. There aren't enough young people coming into the building trades to replace the ones who are quitting or retiring. I saw an article last year saying the average age of a subcontractor in new residential construction is 45. And my own experience on jobs goes along with this. The last new house I worked on was in 1996; in the month or so our crew was on that jobsite, I saw maybe one man who looked to be under 30. Of the crew of 4 that I was with, I was the youngest at 46. Back when I started in this work, there were 4 of us who got together to take on big jobs, such as roofing a large house or siding or interior trim in new houses; I'm the last one of the four still in the construction field. Age and injuries have taken a heavy toll; not too many stay in construction until retirement age. A lot of things in construction used to be considered young men's work (framing and roofing, for example) but now older men are doing them because there are too few young men. The biggest relief so far has been immigrants (legal or illegal), but they work out best on large crew jobs, with one good English-speaker to interpret for the rest.

A second factor on both questions is that construction can be a hard way to earn a living, in other ways besides the physical issues. To begin with, the whole field is rather seasonal. The winter is slow. Around March or April it starts to pick up. By June I'd often be booked up for three months out--one year it was five. After Labor Day the backlog shrinks to about a month or so, then by November you're going week by week, then day by day. In January I'd usually have only a week or so of work for the whole month, two at most. We learned to cope by saving all year so we could take a two-week vacation in January (there's no such thing as PAID vacation when you're self-employed).

Along with the seasonal work, you don't always get paid for a whole day's work. I've always told folks I'd do jobs from one hour long up to a month long. The main value of the one-hour jobs is that they often lead to bigger jobs--many people will try you out on something small and call you again for something bigger. But it is almost impossible to schedule more than half a day's work on one-hour jobs. People's own schedules and the variables in length (half an hour here, one and a half there, then a trip to the hardware store for something unexpected) throw things off and you can't get everything in. My real bread-and-butter is the week to two-week jobs, and the month-long jobs are nice when I can get them. Any longer than that and I start to lose other work because I'm tied up too long. And sometimes, especially in the spring, I have to take a half-day or a whole day out and get estimates out to people so I can keep the work flowing.

That brings up what is probably the biggest single expense in contracting--estimating. Everybody expects free estimates. In fact, they are not really free--they are paid for by the people who actually have work done. How many estimates does it take to get a job? It can be as high as 10 per job, in the commodity fields like siding or windows. In most remodeling, the experts figure you're doing well if you get one job for three or four estimates. I love repeat customers, because with them I often get 3 jobs out of 4 estimates. On the other hand, I've had people call up wanting some estimate in the spring--and that's all I hear from them until they ask for another estimate. I reached the point a long time ago where I don't even do a third estimate if the person hasn't had any work done at all. "Tire kickers" like that just run up the costs for everybody else. How much does it take to do all these? Generally I can kill an hour going to look at the job, sometimes two. The estimate itself may take an hour or so for a simple job, 8-10 for a complex job like finishing a basement or designing and building a deck.

Over the years I've seen plenty of fellows try to move from working for a contractor to contracting on their own; most start out charging their new customers what they were getting paid per hour as employees. After about 6 months they figure out that with all the time they are really spending, they'd clear more per hour as a minimum wage employee. A few learn to charge more for their work; most go back to being employees.

The above isn't a complete answer to the two questions, but it's a start. This post is getting long enough, but maybe I'll come back to the subject someday.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

More on Spiritual Gifts

Last night's message at church got me thinking some more on this topic.

I think there are some things that are a combination of talent and gifting. For example, being a worship leader requires a certain level of musical talent, but I've known some very good musicians who could not lead worship well. I think this may be a composite of developed skill and gifting.

I also remember Steve Sjogren, founding pastor of the Vineyard in Cincinnati, sharing that he once believed leading worship was one of his gifts, but later concluded that he was a worshipper, and when he picked up a guitar and worshipped, other people got drawn in.

There are some spiritual gifts that are not that pleasant to be involved in. For most of my adult life I've had a form of the gift of discerning spirits: I don't identify evil spirits, but if something is going on and the Holy Spirit is not in it, there's some kind of internal alarm that goes off in me. Unfortunately, when that alarm goes off, it often means I have to go talk to somebody--somebody who really doesn't want to hear it. Know what? Many of the pastors I've known do not have much appreciation for this gift, especially when they have a new pet project in the works. I do have to be careful not to mix up this with my own likes and dislikes, and not to speak until I'm sure of what I'm hearing. It doesn't happen all the time; I'd say the "alarm" has been quiet for a couple of years now, and that suits me. It's not a comfortable gift.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Drifting Along

A couple of years ago, I don't remember exactly when, I read something in a article on the 'Net that has stuck in my mind. Don't even remember how to find it now, but this is pretty close to the writer's words: "There is nothing inherently wrong with building an organization to do God's work; the problem is that, over time, building an organization to do God's work becomes an intoxicating substitute for doing God's work."

This is a profound idea. It also expresses, in a religious context, a principle that I came up with over many years that applies to almost all organizations. Since I haven't seen it expounded by anyone else, for the purposes of this blog I'll call it "Phil's Law of Institutional Drift." What is this law? "Over time, the natural tendency of institutions and organizations is to drift towards being run to suit the convenience and benefit of the staff rather than the clientele."

This principle applies to just about all human organizations. It sheds a little light on why the hospital staff will wake you up at a pre-set time--to give you a sleeping pill. It is why minor-level bueaucrats (BMV employees, IRS clerks, local government people, you name it) will sometimes convey the impression that you are an interruption to their work rather than the reason for it. Lower-level employees of large corporations are no better in this, nor are labor union leaders. All too often schools illustrate the principle too. Even religious organizations are not exempt; Francis Schaeffer once commented "One of the official titles of the Pope is 'Servant of the servants of God'--but when he is in Rome, he is carried about on the shoulders of men." (Don't mean to bash this particular church or any particular man in that office--just another example of the drift at work--Protestant denominations just haven't had as much time for the drift to work on them.)

I admit it is possible for a particular organization to resist this drift. But it takes a conscious effort, continued over time. And the larger the organization becomes, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the resistance. And the drift goes on....

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Gifts and Fruit

In my years in the church (fifty-seven of 'em--no, I'm not a "young whippersnapper" any more), I've seen many times when after teaching on "spiritual gifts" and talk about "discovering your gifts" and so on, a lot of people, often young but not always, get excited about them and want to start exercising them. (Especially the ones that put you up front--I have some thoughts on this, but it will have to be another post.) But what I have come to understand from reading the NT passages on spiritual gifts is that they are not given to us as individuals; they are given to the church--we are not the recipients, we are the delivery truck drivers. They are given to meet the needs of the church body in this life, and as such, they are temporary. Some may be lifelong, but by God's standards that is still temporary. And there have been times in my life when something was given through me, to meet the needs of the moment, and that particular type of gift was not given through me again--sort of a one-shot deal. (And if God wants to work that way, I'm okay with it.)

Now the fruit of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control--are a different matter. We have to develop these in our lives, with the help of the Holy Spirit. (If it was up to us to generate them on our own, the church would be in a sorry mess--come to think of it, sometimes it does get like that!) But these are character qualities, not functions. So whatever we can acquire of them really does become ours, not only for life, but for eternity. In fact, acquiring these is what turns us into the kind of people who can enjoy Heaven.

I'm not saying the gifts are unimportant, but that they are God's business. If He wants me to help with some delivery now and then, I'll do what I can to oblige. But my real concern--my day job, you might say-- is developing the fruit of the Spirit in my own walk. Can't say the mission is fully accomplished, but I haven't given up yet either.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Postmodern Process

I just finished reading "A New Kind of Christian" by Brian Maclaren. (Yeah, I know, I'm late getting around to it.) I have already read a couple of his books; in fact, it was Maclaren who helped me realize I've been postmodern for years. And after that, I went back and re-read some of Francis Schaeffer's books that I acquired in the 1970s; I found that he was dealing with postmodern issues before anybody had come up with the name for it. But unlike some, he didn't start ranting "Postmodernism must be stopped--it destroys our apologetic!" He just quietly adapted and found ways to talk to people where they were. He understood that all people are created in God's image, even if they themselves do not believe it, and should be treated with love for that reason. Because he believed that, he was able to reach out to all kinds of people, from teenagers to middle-aged ultra-liberal church bishops like James Pike. He was not always successful in bringing them to Christian faith, but he still did not "write them off" or indulge in hate.

Maclaren had a quote from a C.S. Lewis book that I had never read (it was a book on medieval literature, his professional field, not one of his "Christian" works). In this quote Lewis seems to note the differences between modern thinking and the medieval patterns, but then acknowledged that someday the modern pattern would be replaced itself. Whether he was aware that the process had already begun is hard to say, but at least he could distance himself from modernity enough to see the possibility.

And the change IS a process, not an event. The change from medieval to modern was a process too. The date Maclaren sets, 1500 A.D., is only a convenient approximation, just as 2000 is for postmodernism. (I would say that the first crack in the fortress of modern science was Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, in 1927--the first hint scientists had that they could not nail everything down; even Einstein didn't like it.)

Some complain that postmoderns are too negative, but that was true of the first moderns as they broke with the medieval traditions, too. Schaeffer was as aware of the faults of modernism as anyone--he had some negative things to say about it. In order to replace something, you've got to recognize its defects; then you can look for something better (or at least different).

I have to get to work--probably more on this later.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


It seems to me that the 20th century was the age of the institution, especially the big institution. In recent decades, it got so all of life was governed by institutions. You're born in a hospital, sent to day care and pre-school as soon as possible, then to public school (preferably in a big, "consolidated" district), then college, then off to a job with some big corporation, or else a big government agency or maybe a big non-profit organization. Then you retire, live in a "retirement community" until they ship you to a nursing home, and then back to the hospital to die.

Is it any wonder that people want some opportunities for personal contact, maybe some handmade art objects for their homes, some things that aren't mediated by big institutions? And I guess I've been sort of counter-cultural in this respect for a long time. In the 1980s there was some buzz in the media about self-employment and being an entrepeneur--I started my first business in 1975. When we started home schooling our kids in the early 80s, the HS community in the Cincinnati area where we lived was just seven families. And our church life had centered around small groups for several years before that. Our second child was born at home, and the third would have been if we could have arranged it. (He's now 19 and getting ready to move out. Meanwhile, our daughter--the child who was born at home--has kept the tradition going; her third daughter was born at home this winter.)

Back in the 90s I read a book called "Megatrends" by John Naisbitt. One of the things he predicted was that with all the high-tech stuff in our society, people were going to want what he called "high touch" things to balance it--hand-made pottery and other art (music is still on CDs, but there's been a drift away from synthesizers to acoustic instruments in the last few years), anything where they can feel they touch real live people. I don't recall him saying anything about the Internet. It may not have taken off at the time he was writing. And it's sort of a paradox--obviously high-tech, but a tool for touching people--and it has made it possible to find kindred souls all over the world, even if there are none in your own location.

I don't think institutions are going to completely disappear from the landscape for a long while yet. But their dominance is fading--hospital costs are skyrocketing, public schools are facing increasing criticism of their results (Biblical term, "fruit"), the auto industry is hemorrhaging (I'm real glad I didn't follow my Dad's advice to get a foreman's job at Ford), and the house church movement and other emerging church forms are pioneering less-institutional forms of church life. It's an interesting, if sometimes scary, time to be alive.

Redneck Authenticity

Postmoderns put great value on "authenticity"--being real, not putting up a facade, or a mask, not play-acting (which is the original meaning of the Greek word that became our English word "hypocrite"). They don't like it when people seem all right but are actually pushing a "hidden agenda."

Rednecks share some of the same attitudes, they just express it differently. They might say a certain person is "puttin' on airs" and even issue the warning "Don't git above your raisin'."

When I was thinking about starting my own blog and the idea for its title hit me, I googled the term "postmodern redneck" to see if anyone was already using it. Found various places where the two words were in the same sentence or paragraph, a few people who did refer to themselves in that way, but no one with the blog title at that point. The other thing that came up was a Wikipedia article about "rednecks"--yes, there really is one. It included material about the origin of the term--one theory is that it goes back to red scarves worn around the neck by 17th-century Scottish Covenanters, and was brought over to America by Scottish and Scots-Irish settlers (my mother's maiden name is Burns, by the way). The article also included a quote from a Professor James C. Cobb of the University of Georgia, essentially regarding a redneck as a man "who is what he is and doesn't give a damn what anybody thinks."

If that ain't authenticity, what is?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Authority and Respect

I mentioned in my last post that postmoderns and rednecks both have some issues with authority. While that's still fresh I decided put out some of the things I've learned over the years in this area.

To me, authority and respect are two sides of the same coin. If people respect you, you will have a lot of authority with them. If they don't respect you, you'll have the bare minimum they can get away with giving you. There are also two kinds of respect/authority: positional and relational. Positional respect goes with some kind of position--teacher, boss, doctor, pastor, cop, etc. Its big drawback is that it is only temporary--maybe a life of 2 weeks to 2 months in most cases, as little as 5 minutes in a few. Its main value is to give the authority figure time to develop relational respect, which is the respect you earn. But once earned, it lasts much longer, maybe even for life. (Unless, of course, you manage to blow it badly.) The more of it you earn over time, the more authority you have. Even rednecks generally know which of the cops in their small town is firm but fair, and who is the jerk who likes to throw his weight around.

During my senior year of college and for a couple of years after I worked for a franchise organization in two different cities, for two different managers. The first never asked anyone else to work as hard as he did, genuinely cared about his employees and customers, built good relationships with both as much as he could. He had tremendous authority with his people, because he had earned it. The second was a former Air Force captain--not a pilot or combat officer, he finished college with a metallurgy degree and spent his military service in a laboratory. His military background turned out to be a liability--he did not have a clue how to deal with employees who could legally quit--and did they ever quit!! It was a constant struggle just to maintain a minimal staff level, let alone any growth. Finally I quit too, largely because my future with the organization depended on his success, and he wasn't going anywhere until he learned to earn respect. Even our best employees had little respect for him and many of our customers had less. It took me a couple of years to process that experience and really understand what was wrong.

Couple of other lessons I've learned on this: The people who have earned the most authority generally wear it very lightly--they'll rely on other methods most of the time, rather than using raw authority. The people who are most enamoured with their authority and position usually have the least. Also, authority is like a bar of soap--the more you use it, the less remains (can't remember where I read that, but I agree).

That's all for this one.

Why "postmodern redneck?"

To put it simply, 'cause I are one. I figured out several years ago that I'm part of the approximately one-third of Baby Boomers who are or lean toward postmodern thinking. And my redneck credentials are impeccable (might be peckable too, if your taste runs that way.) From 1998 to 2006 we lived in a trailer on 4-1/2 acres, with a pole barn and assorted sheds (Don't ever buy a spread with a storage building bigger than the dwelling--junk DOES expand to fill the space available). There was a time when of the half-dozen cars in our driveway the only one that actually ran was not only the worst clunker of the lot (the driver's door was latched with a bungee cord), it wasn't even ours--just on loan till I could get one of the others fixed. It's my heritage, too. My maternal grandfather died of injuries from a coal-mine accident near Hazard, Ky. My uncles worked in the mines until they came north to work in the factories, with the exception of Uncle Junior, who made up for it by being the family jailbird (a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it).

The terms "postmodern" and "redneck" aren't as incompatible as you might think, either. Postmoderns aren't real respectful of authority--neither are rednecks, they just show it in different ways. Both live with uncertainties, just different uncertainties (is this car going to make it home, or do I have to rummage around for the baling wire?).

So the point of this particular blog is to look at life (at least those parts of it I find interesting) from these two perspectives. Sometimes it may get a bit philosophical, sometimes a little "down home". I do plan to generally avoid political discussion, not because I don't care about it but because there are already so many political blogs out there. And, as you may have noticed by now, there may at times be a little bit of humor--for me, the Eleventh Commandment is "Thou shalt not take thyself too seriously."