Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A homiletics course in one verse

One verse? Only one.

I've ranted before about the temptation of preachers to preach flowery sermons, give religious lectures and generally show off their speaking ability.

But if you want to know how to preach, you only need to read and heed one verse. Following this will save you a lot of money, save you a lot of aggravation, and help your congregation hear and keep the word of God.

It's Nehemiah 8.8. Here it is. Listen carefully:

"So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading."

3 easy steps to homiletical mastery: read the book distinctly. Give the sense -- in other words, tell them what the text is saying. Finally, cause them to understand what's written.

In a sense, the preacher's job is not to persuade the congregation. Not to make them feel guilty. Not even to make them trust in God. All of those are God's job, and His word does the job. (Hebrews 4.12: "For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.")

The preacher's job is to preach. You've got enough to do, doing that. Trust God's word to work, and follow the humble examples of Ezra and the other Levites who preached that day.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

New search engine:

Search engines are -- at this point -- a key to a useful web.

Google entered the market some 10 years ago, and basically trounced sites such as Altavista. And the primary reason it was able to beat out all competitors is that it is simple and useful.

Simple? Even the page design is simple, clean, uncluttered. The page loads easily and quickly. The site is obviously there for one reason. There are no extraneous graphics, designs, or anything. It's not pretty. It's just, well, to get to our next issue, useful.

Useful because Google does one thing (at least with their flagship page) and does it well.

But better things always come along. So when I heard of a new search engine -- -- pronounced "cool" -- I checked on it. And frankly, I wasn't impressed.

The site is pretty. Much prettier than Google's. But I'm not looking for beauty. Does the site appearance detract from the search capability? I don't know.

My concern is with's usefulness. What I like about Google is that it's intuitive. For example, if I want to check the price of Citigroup stock (stock symbol "C") I enter "C" (just the letter; nothing else) on the Google search, and I get the current price of Citigroup stock. Along with a lot of other information, of course, but I get that immediately. Cuil doesn't give me that.

Another example: enter an address. Google will usually give you a map of the address. Not 100% of the time, but most. (For reasons I don't understand, finding directions on Google has fallen down some in the last few months. It still works, but just not quite as good as in the past). Cuil provides nothing like that. Full addresses often provoke a "We didn’t find any results for" response.

So I won't be going to Cuil. I wish them the best, but this doesn't seem fully functional yet. When I used Google the first time very shortly after they'd begun operation, I was immediately struck by how good and helpful it was. It needed no selling. Cuil, however, struck me as more annoying than anything else. It needs work and tweaking to make it into something useful for web users.

Friday, July 25, 2008

"There is no help for him in God"

Sloth was among the so-called "seven deadly sins." (Also known as "capital vices" or "cardinal sins").

And the definition of sloth has changed. We hear sloth and -- since it's part of the American psyche to be Puritan -- think "lazy." And laziness might be a part of this sometimes, but that's not getting to the bottom of sloth.

At its core, the sin of sloth involves believing that we are beyond God's help, that God is not gracious to us, so that we despair of God's kindness.

Psalm 3.2 captures this attitude perfectly: "Many there be which say of my soul, There is no help for him in God."

Most of us often think that way. We imagine that there is no help, no comfort, no mercy in God available to us.

But verse 3 answers this despair: "But thou, O LORD, art a shield for me; my glory, and the lifter up of mine head." God shields us, protects us, and lifts us up. Even when we despair, He remains faithful.

This is why continued prayer is important. We should pray even when we don't feel like it, even when we imagine that God does not hear our prayers, even when tired, despairing, scared. We are not always faithful. But God is faithful. He is always there to be our help. Even when we imagine He won't.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Moonstruck, the movie

Cher and Nicolas Cage are great in this movie from 21 years ago. And this is probably the best scene from the film:

How women view men

"Trained incapacity": why you don't recognize things you should

from Herman Kahn's World Economic Development: 1979 and Beyond, Westview Press, 1979. pp. 482-484. He borrowed the term -- if not the concept -- from sociologist Thorstein Veblen:

"Educated incapacity often refers to an acquired or learned inability to understand or even perceive a problem, much less a solution. The original phrase, "trained incapacity," comes from the economist Thorstein Veblen, who used it to refer, among other things, to the inability of those with engineering or sociology training to understand certain issues which they would have been able to understand if they had not had this training. The training is essential to gain the skill, and society wants these people to have the skills, so I am not objecting to the training. But the training does come at some costs by narrowing the perspectives of the individuals concerned.

I also often use the phrase to describe the limitations of the expert—or even of just the "well educated." The more expert—or at least the more educated—a person is, the less likely that person is to see a solution when it is not within the framework in which he or she was taught to think. When a possibility comes up that is ruled out by the accepted framework, an expert—or well-educated individual—is often less likely to see it than an amateur without the confining framework. For example, one naturally prefers to consult a trained doctor than an untrained person about matters of health. But if a new cure happens to be developed that is at variance with accepted concepts, the medical profession is often the last to accept it. This problem has always existed in all professions, but it tends to be accentuated under modern conditions.

Large organizations have the tendency to proliferate new forms of expertise and specialists who are drawn largely from a very special social and cultural milieu. Bureaucracies in our technological society depend heavily upon members of the New Class—or at least recruits from graduates of universities that emphasize liberal and progressive ideologies and viewpoints, almost to the exclusion of hard or tough perspectives. Even the practice of business seems to be in danger of becoming a professional specialty. I would guess that the more prestigious the business school and the more academically difficult the training, the more likely that the graduate will be both ideologically oriented and a narrow technician, rather than a decision maker in contact with the pressures and insights of the real world.

Educated incapacity in the United States today seems to derive from the general educational and intellectual milieu rather than from a specific education. This milieu is found in clearest form at leading universities in the United States—particularly in the departments of psychology, sociology, and history, and to a degree in the humanities generally. Individuals raised in this milieu often have difficulty with relatively simple degrees of reality testing—e.g., about the attitudes of the lower middle classes, national security issues, national prestige, welfare, and race. This is not to say that other groups might not be equally biased and illusioned—only that their illusions are generally reflected in more traditional ways.

Educated incapacity is becoming a worldwide problem; in many ways, the post-industrial culture is likely both to cause and to further this "malady," though all cultures have relatively general and deeply held educated incapacities."

Book buying

I'm looking for this book: Luther as nominalist: A study of the logical methods used in Martin Luther's disputations in the light of their medieval background

Published in just 1994, the book seems wildly out of print, and the only sales I can locate have prices in the $150-160 range -- which I'm not willing to pay at this point. If anyone has a copy they would like to sell, please contact me with the price.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Philip Jenkins: Interpretations of the Bible Across Cultures

Here's the more extended program:

Understanding contemporary church life

Philip Jenkins' gives one of the best introductions I've seen to contemporary church life: how the focus of the church is shifting from north to south, and how that change is long-term, and will change the way that my descendants will pray.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

How to distribute the Lord's Body and Blood?

This is a letter I sent to a friend this week. It's part of a continuing discussion in Lutheran circles about ordination and distribution of the Supper.

"Been doing a lot of thinking about our discussion vis-a-vis the distribution of the Body and Blood.

I think since I've been pulled back a bit from it all, the arguments along these lines sound, well, so Talmudic and contorted. It's almost painful to hear. Perhaps we should simplify the rule: if you're ordained (in orders, whatever) you can touch the elements. If you're not, you can't.

We've made it way too complicated. Which, of course, comes back to my argument that there should be a whole plethora of ordinations in order to make this work.

It's easy to make fun of the small church bodies. (I've done it plenty). You have a congregation of 11 people, and 5 of them are in major orders. But why is it so difficult to make Lutherans imagine a congregation with more than one ordained guy doing the Supper? Is it that a classroom model is operating in peoples' minds? (A classroom or lecture hall has only one teacher, of course). I don't know.

The whole debate on single ministry guys, licensed deacons, etc., is painful to hear and more painful to argue. And the idea of ordaining a guy who will ipso facto be stuck to one location is -- in my opinion -- close to a denial of the catholicity of the church. Again, just ordain guys who will be assisting. Train them and ordain them or ordain them and train them, but whichever path is chosen, just do it and it solves a fair number of difficulties. (Introduces some, too, I'll give you that, but I think it solves more than it introduces).

As far as the single ministry guys, I honestly think there should be a revisiting of the monastic vow of stability. I don't know which is chicken and which egg or if they're related at all, but I suspect the moving every few years became popular at about the same time that marital divorce became more common, and with about the same effects. Pastors have problems or become bored or whatever, and put their name on a call list. With an assumption of stability, both congregation and pastor have to work through problems. Sometimes the problems are serious, and need someone to come in, absolve, hear confession, mediate, and this presupposes a bishop there who comes in with a pastoral modus, and not -- God help us -- conflict resolution checklists.

There are times when it's irreconcilable, but I wonder how many times both sides would be vastly better off if it were an assumption that they would stick to this, pray, talk, listen, and work it through? I think that so many times there's no growth, no forgiveness, no new life because we all know that when there's a problem, we'll just split up, and be done with it."

Friday, July 18, 2008

Why I like cats

Things Protestants like: prayer meetings

When I was a child, I was told that a sure sign of a good church was having a Wednesday night prayer meeting.

Now the church has historically had vespers (and other such Offices) but this was nothing of the sort. It's a prayer meeting, and it's the place where Protestants learn their very best extemporaneous praying skills.

When the latest evangelist comes to town

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Things Protestants like: Billy Graham

You can criticize Pope Benedict. Or Desmond Tutu. Or Mother Teresa. Or a president. But woe to you if you criticize Billy Graham. Because among the things Protestants have liked for some 60 years Billy Graham ranks right up there.

I suspect part of the love Protestants have to Graham stems from a 1950s anti-communism fervor and that sort of got settled into Protestant bones, and has never gone away. But Graham remains popular and well-loved. At least for those of a certain age. Younger Protestants, who have no memories of the vast gatherings Graham used to speak to, have less fervent feelings for him. But Graham's statements on various issues are still guaranteed attention.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Things Protestants like: big hair

OK, it's unfair to make fun of fundamentalist bad hair days. But I suspect these two thought this was a good hair day. That's what's scary.

Our fundamentalist Protestant brethren (sisters, too) have had a thing for big hair for decades. It's never gone away, and my wife swears you can walk into Wal-Mart at 1 p.m. on Sunday, and immediately spot the Baptists fresh from church: women with large print dresses, and even larger hair.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Things Protestants like: radio preachers

Don't feel like getting out of bed for church? Too cold/hot/rainy/dry/whatever?

Don't worry! Just reach over and turn your radio on.

Of course, you can update that for 2008: turn on the TV or search Google. Or Youtube. Because Protestants love radio preachers.

If St. Paul were writing today, he'd have updated Hebrews 10.25 to include electronic church stuff. The pity is that the love for e-church has spread to non-Protestant brethren. (Even the non-separated types). Mother Angelica, what were you thinking?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

When prayers seem hopeless

More on the prayer of Bartimaeus, from Living Prayer, (p. 49) by Metropolitan Anthony:

"We can learn from Bartimaeus in our practical approach to prayer that when we turn to God wholeheartedly, God always hears us. Usually when we realize that we can no longer depend upon all that we are accustomed to find reliable around us, we are not yet ready to renounce these things. We can see that there is no hope as far as human, earthly ways are concerned. We are aiming at something, we search for our sight and we are constantly frustrated; it is torment and hopelessness and if we stop there, we are defeated. But if at that moment we turn to God, knowing that only God is left, and say, 'I trust thee and commit into thy hands my soul and body, my whole life,' then despair has led us to faith."

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A video tribute to Metropolitan Anthony

I've been quoting at length from Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) from his book Living Prayer. Here's a video tribute to him:

Not giving up in praying

Metropolitan Anthony writes on the prayer of Bartimaeus (Living Prayer, p. 48):

"How often does it not happen that after seeking and struggling for years on our own, when on a sudden we begin to cry to God, many voices try to silence our prayers, outward voices as well as inward voices. Is it worth praying? How many years did you struggle and God did not care? Is he to care now? What is the use of praying? Go back into your hopelessness, you are blind, and blind for ever. But the greater the opposition, the greater also is the evidence that help is at hand. The devil never attacks us so violently as when we are quite close to the term of our struggle, and we might yet be saved, but often are not, because we give way at the last moment. Give in, says the devil, make haste, it is too much, it is more than you can stand, you can put an end to it at once, do not wait, you cannot endure it any more. And then we commit suicide, physically, morally, spiritually; we renounce the struggle and accept death, just a minute before help was at hand and we might have been saved."

Things Protestants like: testimonies

Telling what Jesus has done for us is wonderful. Certain Protestants -- especially the evangelicals -- have made it into an art form, and woe to you if you are not up to it.

To some Protestants, a testimony must be readily available. Which means you might be called upon at any time, in any meeting, to tell what Jesus has done for you. On Youtube, you can find a multitude of such: "From Prison to Preacher!," "Gangland to God!"

All of which is wonderful. If -- big if -- you have such a testimony. But woe to you if you were "born in a Christian home" (to use the stock phrase) and have no such testimony. In such cases, one must find whatever tiny aspects of rebellion and sin were manifest in childhood, and out of these fashion the debauchery from which you were then saved.

(Franklin Graham -- son of Billy and Ruth, and a man doing some very admirable work -- is nevertheless one such bad example, in his book Rebel With a Cause).

Even Protestants who give up their faith still cling to the testimony motif. Bart Ehrman, who no longer considers himself a Christian, nevertheless continues the testimony theme in his book God's Problem in which the first several pages are devoted to giving a testimony and then what we might term an anti-testimony.

But famous or not, all Protestants like testimonies. Without a good one, there will be whispered doubts about your salvation. Conversely, the more lurid and debauched your life-before-Jesus, the higher your ranking will go amongst the saved.

Monday, July 07, 2008

things Protestants like: new Bible translations

Protestants don't have a magisterium like Rome or the Eastern churches, so there's no one (except a few hard core preachers) to tell them which Bible to use. (And those hard core preachers are going to tell them to use the KJV. Count on it).

Which means that Protestants are at the mercy of every religious publisher around, and every few years, there'll be a palpable excitement over the New and Latest English Bible translation. We'll be assured by advertising that this will be the definitive translation for English speakers. That is, until the next New and Latest translation comes along 3 years later. It's like a rolling ball.

Protestants collect new Bible translations like some Catholics collect rosaries. And you can count on Serious Protestant Bible students to have a shelf of English translations. Like all fads, the old ones seem kind of quaint. And like bell-bottoms and tie-dyed shirts, the old ones are there to remind us of our foolishness.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Things Protestants like

Along the lines of the blog Stuff White People Like, I was thinking about things Protestants like.

I got to thinking about this after reading a post on a friend's blog. So I'm going to throw out the first one. If you have ideas or things you think Protestants like, let me hear from you.

The first thing -- probably the biggest and for some, an almost defining thing -- is not being Protestant.

Not that they're Roman Catholic. Or Eastern. Or Coptic. Or whatever. The signboard on their church reads "Presbyterian," or "United Methodist," or "Lutheran," or "Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptist." Or whatever.

So you would think they were Protestant. But if you engage theologically oriented Protestants for more than 15 minutes, you will come up with some variant of this:

"Oh, we're like the original, early, primitive church, before it became corrupted." (Sometimes they leave out the "like.")

"Purifying the church from the springs of its primitive life, and raising it besides into a new and higher form," was the way Phillip Schaff (1877) put it. But Protestants never want to claim that they are doing anything different from what St. Paul or St. Priscilla would have done. That would open them to the whinings from Rome that their's is a new church, not the primitive church.

Thus, the first thing Protestants like: not being Protestant. Doesn't make a lot of sense, but some things in this life don't.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Getting rid of books

My wife wants me to get rid of some of my books. It's something she has to say occasionally.

And I always think that there's no way I can get rid of any of my books. They are all essential, and life as we know it would stop without them.

Of course, it's not true. The reality is that we are growing and learning and books that really, really were essential 20 years ago are such no longer. So I'm getting rid of some of them. My rule of thumb is that if I can never see myself reading the book again, there's no reason to keep them.

What I'm troubled thinking about is my Bible concordance. A Bible concordance was an essential for Bible study when I was in college. Mine is keyed to the KJV (one of the reasons I use the KJV almost exclusively is that so many tools are tied into it) and it's an enormous book in which every occurrence of every word (including "a," "the," and "and") in the Bible is provided with the verse references.

But I don't use it anymore. I haven't for years. Because, of course, there are superb concordances online, and in those you can not only search, but refine your search.

And still I hesitate. Because I imagine that some day I might need a book-based concordance. In case of a power outage, for instance.

But on those days when the power is off (I live in North Carolina, and we live with an occasional ice storm with concomitant power line breaks) I'll wait to do my concordance work.

I still don't like reading books on a computer screen, although I think that attitude will seem quaint one day. But study tools such as concordances are made for online work. Getting rid of these books is a good idea.

Becoming aware of our enslavement

"Once we have become aware of our enslavement, and have passed from mere lamentation and a sense of misery into a sense of brokenheartedness and poverty of spirit, our imprisonment in the land of Egypt is answered by the words of the next beatitudes: 'Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted', 'Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth'. This mourning that is the result of the discovery of the kingdom, of one's own responsibility, of the tragedy of being a slave, is a more bitter mourning than that which is the lot of the simple slave. The slave complains about an outer situation; this mourner, who is blessed by God, does not complain, he is brokenhearted, and he is aware that his outer enslavement is the expression of something far more tragic: his inner enslavement, his severance from the closeness of God. And nothing can be done to escape this situation unless meekness is attained."

Living Prayer, p. 28

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The gift of love

"The Wise Men traveled a long way and nobody knows the difficulties they had to overcome. Each of us also travels as they did. They were loaded with gifts, gold for the king, frankincense for the God, myrrh for the man who was to suffer death. Where can we get gold, frankincense and myrrh, we who are indebted for everything to God? We know that everything we possess has been given us by God and is not even ours for ever or with certainty. Everything can be taken away from us except love, and this is what makes love unique and something we can give. Everything else, our limbs, our intelligence, our possessions can be take by force from us, but with regard to love, there is no means of getting it, unless we give it. In that sense we are free with regard to loving, in a way in which we are not free in other activities of soul or body. Although fundamentally even love is a gift of God, because we cannot produce it out of ourselves, yet, once we possess it, it is the only thing we can withhold or offer."

Living Prayer, p. 14

Coming nearer to God

"Coming nearer to God is always a discovery both of the beauty of God and of the distance there is between him and us. 'Distance' is an inadequate word, because it is not determined by the fact that God is holy and that we are sinful. Distance is determined by the attitude to God. We can approach God only if we do so with a sense of coming to judgment. If we come having condemned ourselves; if we come because we love him in spite of the fact that we are unfaithful, if we come to him, loving him more than a godless security, then we are open to him and he is open to us, and there is no distance; the Lord comes close to us in an act of compassionate love. But if we stand before God wrapped in our pride, in our assertiveness, if we stand before him as though we had a right to stand there, if we stand and question him, the distance that separates the creature and the creator becomes infinite."

Living Prayer
, p. 10