Wednesday, November 29, 2017


   So what does the average seminarian actually know how to do when he enters the ministry?  Notice, I didn’t ask how much he knows.  He probably knows more than he will ever actually make use of in ministry to real people, or even in ministry to himself.  Depending on the Presbytery that examines him he will probably be pressed to know a great many facts and details about all kinds of things theological, historical, and hermeneutical. 

    The candidate for ordination will be force fed with knowledge, and then squeezed like a lemon, so that the committee can examine him to the point of dripping out of him everything they can, up to the limits of his knowledge.  They will take him to the edge of his learning, and God help him if that edge is too far from the expectations of the committee.  The gulf between expectations and his deficiencies will not be easily tolerated, let alone any shaky, suspicious opinions, or convictions.  If found wanting he will be sent back for more study, and possibly for a few persuasion sessions.

    Studying is in fact what he knows how to do, and what the members of the Examining Committee know how to do.  This is what he will do to his disciples, and to any potential new officers; he will make them study.   And when it comes to any kind of hands on work of ministry, he will endeavor to study that as well on his way to actually avoiding it.  It is hard to learn from pastors these days, unless one has time for more study.  If one wanted to be mentored by a pastor, to catch some ministry skills he might be modelling, well, one would have to sit quietly while he reads, or uses some kind of software study material, or as he listens to a sermon series by a prominent scholar; that is if the student wanted to emulate the skills of his pastor.

    If one were to ask a seminary where the practical training comes in they might answer that they are in fact not a Bible College or Institute that teaches “ministry.”  Or they might say that is what internships are for, where they send recent graduates to learn from recent graduates who have no practical experience either, except in preaching on Sunday morning.  It is hard to learn ministry skills from pastors who are still learning theirs on the job, or have settled for a new definition of the job that has conveniently left off the skills of evangelism, home visitation, hospital visitation, prison preaching, doing acts of mercy and good works, and even counseling or conflict resolution.

   If such pastors are planting churches and asked to train new Elders and Deacons they repeat for them what they learned how to do in seminary.  Yes, they challenge them to study.  They give them as much theology, doctrine, apologetics, Catechism, and Book of Church Order material as these lay people can absorb.   They don’t necessarily teach them how to pray, or how to have a good argument in a meeting without getting mad and quitting the church, or how to handle a divorce case, or how to go on a mercy visit, or how to mobilize the laity to do ministry in the community, or how to design and organize various outreach kinds of ministry, or how to handle the pressure of marriage and child raising while feeling obligated to keep ordination vows and serve the church.

    Internships are not for a student to become a gopher for the church staff, or to be saddled with a particular ministry (such as nursery or Jr. High) that everyone else seems to be avoiding.  It is specifically to rotate him through essential skills; how to evangelize and share his faith actively and on purpose with strangers, how to visit widows, the elderly, the sick, and those in prison, how to prepare and execute a worship service, wedding, and funeral, how to moderate and help make effective a leader’s meeting, how to problem solve and deal with conflict on every level (other staff, Elders, Deacons, members and attenders), and how to cast vision for ministry.  He needs to do these things with and in the company of the Senior pastor and other leaders so he can hear their reflections and see their reactions in ministry context.

    Internships are to help a potential pastor realize if he has a work ethic or not, if he knows how to set boundaries for himself and his family as he does ministry, and if he has the capacity and willingness to sacrifice himself and his boundaries for the sake of the Gospel.   Internships should set up new pastors for the reality that one will often need more people, more money, and more time to get the simplest programs off the ground.  This reality will help new pastors learn the joy of frustration and anxiety, and be tempted to reach the heights of resentment and despair as no one seems to give a rip about his new idea.   Where will the volunteers come from, and where will the resources come from?   Oh yes, this is where interns learn the practical realities of faith and prayer, and that God makes things happen out of resources that aren’t yet seen.

    Without practical training experiences pastors will continue to be woefully unprepared to really train their members for ministry, and they will continue to avoid those experiences because it means risk, and time, which could be better spent in ….study.  Without passing practical skills to the people of the church then those church members will have no way of showing the love of God to the people of the world, or of learning how to get to those people and communicate the Gospel to them.

May the Lord raise up among us great training pastors, who take potential leaders into practical ministry and teach them skills by doing, reflection, and re-doing!


Thursday, November 16, 2017


  Let’s talk about sex baby!  It kind of seems that is all anyone is talking about these days, and maybe that is really good.  It is also sad.  It is certainly needed but at the same time it is a bit disturbing.  Surely no one of any mature years can be shocked that sex causes us so much trouble.  We are in a period of calling out old sins, old sexual assaults and harassment, even old rapes.  We are always (always) in a period of current sexual exploitation, brokenness, confusion, aggression, and need.

   We live in a media atmosphere where, on the same day, we hear about someone guilty of rape that was never reported and a man who just spent 45 years in prison for a rape he didn’t do, but has now been exonerated.  Given the right context and circumstance, (especially of race and income) we have brought the hammer down hard on suspected rapists but let other rapists go free; usually because they were rich and powerful. 

  We have lived in an age of sexual hedonism where Hugh Hefner gave an apologetic for how free, frequent, and multiple partner sex means freedom from a puritanical life of constraint and up-tightness.  We live in an age of feminism whereby women want control of their own bodies, to have sex when and with whom they wish, to dispose of pregnancies when and how they wish, to dress how they wish, to drink and drug when they wish, and yet seem to expect men to act with restraint and take control of their own impulses.  Yes, they should, but men are as stupid as women when it comes to sex, and along with their stupidity often have the power to take what they want and cause great and lasting harm.

   We live in an age where people seem to think it is okay to grope other people, whether it be on the street where women grope attractive men who might be total strangers to them (and vice versa), to the office or studio where male supervisors and bosses think it is okay to grope employees.  We live in an age where teachers sleep with their students and pregnancy results either by them or in them.  We live in an age where female teachers go to jail for child sexual abuse of their teen-age boy toys.

  I am sure I don’t have to tell anyone the law, or what is right, or what God demands but can I say simply…Keep your hands off of other people’s bodies if they haven’t given you permission, and especially if they don’t belong to you in marriage!  Do not make sexual advances, remarks, innuendo, gestures, or remarks to anyone to whom you are not married!  Does that sound limiting? It ought to, and it will keep you out of trouble.

   We live in an age of open homosexuality and yet live in an age of denial about how behavior might be connected to HIV/AIDS and STDs.  Education and protection and advances in medications are the answer but not morality, not self-control, and certainly not censure for behavior.   We condemn human trafficking and indulge the porn industry.  What the hell is going on here?

    There is hypocrisy everywhere; in religious leaders who get found out as child sex abusers or as excuse-rs of the abusers and in politicians who call for legislation regarding various sex or gender related issues and then are found out to have skeletons in their own closets.  We live in an age of media “gotcha” for every celebrity, politician, priest, or leader whose failure may be a moment of indiscretion, a circumstantial and stress caused illicit relationship, or a hidden life of a stalker looking for prey.

    There are victims; they never asked for the abuse, they were never seducers, and they never thought it might happen to them.  Some of these of course were children or teens, some fearful about their livelihoods, some afraid of a closed door for advancement, some afraid of a counter-attack of reprisal, some physically afraid, and some just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Some of these vulnerable folk live with a scarred and damaged psychology for the rest of their lives, a damaged view of their own sexuality, a perverted view of how to relate to members of the opposite sex, and some live on to recycle the abuse.

    Who among us can be pure?  Who among us has the right to speak?  If I am a sexual being can I reflect on these issues without admitting to my own desires, my own fantasies, my own failures, my own frustrations, my own recklessness to fulfill my own pleasure and exploit others?  No, not if I am honest.  I know how I have thought about women, my objectifying of them, my secret plans for using them, and I know how worse I would have been without the restraints of my own conscience, the reality of criminal prosecution, the reality of social and community condemnation and abhorrence.  I blame God for my not being worse than I’ve been.  The restraint of grace is what I count on the most.

   We are not pure, but we must speak.  Even if we have all failed, we must speak.  We must seek to protect our children, our neighbors, our spouse, our community, the vulnerable, and our future.  Sex is a great gift, but oh how twisted it has become.  Sex is a great need, and how powerful its desires are within us.  Sex is such a great comfort, a witness to confidence, an intimacy of love.  It is so damn dangerous.

   The attempt to attack either gender, alone, for sexual abuse or sin is both disingenuous and delusional.  The tendency to attack institutions, such as the church, either as institution or religious theology, is simplistic and a little too easy.  Of course there are failures in churches, in church leadership, in how they have dealt with abusers, in how they have sheltered them, in how they have failed victims.  This is true in every social institution where there are sexual beings.  The church however should have done better, and it must do better, and when caught in its failure ought to be called out. 

   Yet, again, wherever there are institutions made up of people, and those people are sexual beings, there will be sexual trouble.  The military which counts on professionalism to inhibit sexual misbehavior, finds out again and again that professionalism in and of itself cannot do it. The news media, which is the mouthpiece of this very story, finds corruption in its own ranks.  Every industry and business, educational institutions, and the arts, all have sordid stories.

   There are lines which must not be crossed, for those are the things which protect and enable society to function.  Yet, we are all in need of compassion. We all have to have some sane understanding of the temptation in many of us to cross those lines. This has always been hard for societies, how do we draw clear lines of safe and right conduct without producing self-righteousness, self-deception, and hypocrisy?  Which value system will win in how we live our sexual lives with one another in this world because it is a value system that decides where the lines will be drawn? Without those lines, those borders of decency, we produce a license for predation and with that the fear and determination to protect and revenge our own, and that leads to violence. 

   How do we deal with people’s shame, both of the abused and the abuser?  How do we deal with people’s guilt?  How do we deal with the reality of sexual passion without denying that we all pretty much have it and, for many of us, go through times, periods, years, and a lifetime of not quite knowing what to do with it?

    I come back to grace.  The powerful mercy of God, the grace of Jesus who died for sinners, the mercy of God to forgive the failures, the power of God to heal the victims, the power of God to change an evil heart, the merciful power of God to deliver the addicted and sexually imprisoned, the free adoption of God to make those who feel like orphans realize they have an identity as sons and daughters of a God who loves them.  We dare not “put a cork in it” because we were not made to simply suppress it, but we dare not fail to surrender its passions to a loving and gracious God who knows how to help us use it for his glory, and our joy.


Tuesday, November 7, 2017


    Every time African Americans seem to ask for their rights, or protest against injustice, or gain some political, educational, or economic footing there are those who see their gain as a loss for white people.  There is such a hysterical fear among some whites that any gain for African Americans is seen not simply as an achieving of their rights as full citizens but as a “win” over white people, as a step toward actual  “Negro” supremacy.

   I am reading (listening) to a great biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Ron Chernow.  Surely this must be a book that revisionist historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction are going to hate.  One of the things that jumped out to me in the book was the citing of historic quotes from those who opposed the implementation of the 14th & 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

    Some folks actually used the phrase “Negro Supremacy” to describe what was happening in the country during Reconstruction.  This is the time when 4 million freed slaves went from being counted as 3/5 of a human being for Congressional representation to being counted as full citizens.  Black people were to be given the full protection of the law, they were allowed the right to vote, and to run for office.  Those Confederates who would not admit defeat attempted to do everything they could to prevent black people making use of their rights.  The origins of the Klu Klux Klan came from this time and it was a time of terrorism, violence, and intimidation.

   It is interesting that the Southern states were allowed to increase their Congressional representation by counting black folks as full persons (they gained 40 extra seats) but did not intend for black folks to be treated as equals.  This was a perverse outcome of Reconstruction and made it harder for the Republicans (the party of the North and abolitionists) to continue the reforms of Reconstruction.  Virulent racism kept resisting any substantive change to the status of black folk (except as legal slaves) by wailing over “carpet-baggers” and injury to State Rights and racial fear of what free black men might do to white women.  White Republicans were assassinated, black men were slaughtered, schools that Northern missionaries had come down to build for freed black people were burned.  A reign of terror took hold until President Grant could break it through a targeted prosecution of Klan leaders. 

   The reelection of President Grant in 1872 was the freest election for black voters, something they would not enjoy and not to be repeated again until 1968.  So powerful was racism that it resisted and finally broke the hold of the former abolitionists and Northern Republicans on the reforming and integrating of the South toward a real living out of the Bill of Rights.  One hundred years of racial darkness enveloped the South, and a system of Jim Crow segregation was allowed to deny black folks their full rights as American citizens.

   One of the things that comes to light in Chernow’s book is that even some abolitionists gave way to racism.  They had advocated and fought for emancipation but were ready to throw away the human rights of people of color and were not ready to count them as equals.  This fear of black ascendancy is irrational but it is based on real emotional passion.  Most of it is simple fear and pure anger, expressed and practiced as hate. It is a zero sum game way of thinking that if “they” gain “we” must lose.  This is as tribal a rivalry as one can find in the world.  We are not immune from it today, not in thinking, relating to one another, or in politics.

   Full rights, full protection, and full integration into the life of society and the country doesn’t mean anyone has to lose, except in someone’s preconceived ideas of what a society or country should look like.  This fear of “Negro Supremacy” continues to prevent white folks putting themselves into the shoes of people of color when they are profiled, treated unjustly by authorities, treated differently in schools, courts, or employment opportunities.  Racism prevents empathy and without empathy we can’t achieve unity. With unity our whole country prospers.

    For too long children have been lied to about the time of Reconstruction, lied to about campaigns of racial violence, lied to about the mechanization's of racist politicians to dismantle the achievements of the Civil War, and about the sacrifice of both white and black people who lived and came down to the South to realize those achievements.  Many of them were wonderful Christians who took their lives into the hands, and gave up their lives, for the glory of Christ and for the freedom of men. We all need to resist “zero-sum-game” thinking when it comes to treating people with dignity and standing for their rights.