Friday, January 28, 2011

Be Nobody Special

In another post here: Non-Messianic Sense of Non Destiny there was a similar theme expressed as this:

I'm in book five of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Horse and His Boy. Since it happens to everyone, like myself, who rereads books over and over, it goes without saying that I am seeing things this time never noticed before. For example, this short speech by the Hermit of the Southern March to Bree, the talking horse, on his way home to Narnia after being in slavery:

My good Horse,” said the Hermit… “My good Horse, you’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit. No, no, cousin. Don’t put back your ears and shake your mane at me. If you are really so humbled as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses. Of course you were braver and cleverer than them. You could hardly help being that. It doesn’t follow that you’ll be anyone very special in Narnia. But as long as you know you’re nobody special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse, on the whole, and taking one thing with another. (emphasis mine)
This is the message you will never hear in schools, TV commercials or churches. In fact you will hear the very opposite. "You are special!" is the mantra of well, everyone. The idea is everyone is really, really special. And to a point, I suppose it is true. But if everyone is special then no one is special. So, then, of course, the goal is to be more special by doing special, specialized things. Distinguish yourself.

Schools tell you, "you are innately special so do something special and change the world." The commercials tell you, "you are special, buy our product, change the world." And the evangelical churches? There are two kinds of pastors in the main. Those who speak at conferences with Green Rooms and those who want to do so. How could they have any other message besides one in which the listener walks away with the purpose of doing something special to change the world? All for the glory of God.

I mean, who would want to be a person no one has ever heard of? What kind of person just goes about their business in this rock-star culture? What pastor wants to remain nameless in year-in and year-out obscurity? When fame and reputation and notoriety are ripe for the picking? Why would you be Greta Garbo, when there's YouTube?

But I say, "Be nobody special." Do your job. Take care of your family. Clean your house. Mow your yard. Read your Bible. Attend worship. Pray. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Love your spouse. Love your kids. Be generous. Laugh with your friends. Drink your wine heartily. Eat your meat lustily. Be honest. Be kind to your waitress. And expect no special treatment. And do it all quietly.

The problem is that the zeitgeist of this age is you should let nothing stop you from being special. And the most especially vulnerable to this sermon are the young people who after a semester of college are now experts at being special. And the preachers of this message, regardless of the medium, are nothing if not earnest. And it is not hard to imagine why. Telling someone they are not special sounds cruel. But I disagree.

The "you're nobody special" message may be the most freeing message of all. For now, you can just be yourself. Over against being the abstract, "special", you can land on the hard concrete reality of being yourself. No need to be the "pie in the sky" version of someone else's idea of what special is. You can now just love God, love others and be nobody. And as long as you know this. "'re nobody special - you'll be a very decent sort of horse, on the whole, and taking one thing with another."

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Wise Words

Here are some wise words from Gregory the Great (540-604) on the perils of pastoral pride. First, a warning against the intoxication of authority:

Therefore, those who preside over others should consider not their rank, but the equality of their condition. Moreover, they should revel not in ruling over others but in helping them. For indeed, our ancient fathers are not remembered because they were rulers of men, but because they were shepherds of flocks.

Next, a plea not to lose the truth because you love applause:

And [it happens that] while he is encircled with immense favor, internally he loses his sense of truth. Forgetful of who he is, he scatters himself among the voices of others and believes what he hears them say about him rather than what he should discern about himself from within.

And one final warning on the dangers of a haughty spirit from the life of Saul, Israel’s first king:

[Saul] had previously seen himself to be of little consequence, but after he received temporal authority, he began to think of himself as greater than everyone else. In a wonderful way, when he was small to himself, he was great to the Lord; but when he thought of himself as great, he became small to the Lord. (The Book of Pastoral Rule)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Shepherd Leader

by David Murray

1. The shepherd is patient with his sheep
The shepherds and crofters in my congregation would sometimes encourage me to get some sheep. Even my wife, who is from the Scottish Highlands, suggested it at times. However, as a city-boy, I knew that I simply did not have the patience required.

In the Scottish Highlands there are many single track roads; they allow only one car at a time. Every hundred yards or so you can find little passing places where two cars can squeeze by. Many’s a time I ended up on one of these single track roads behind a bunch of sheep, slowly moseying along. Initially I would hoot my horn, rev my engine, shout out the window – all to no avail. I learned to simply wait until they decided to saunter off the road and back into their fields again. Nothing would rush them.

When you are about to blow a gasket or a fuse with someone in your congregation, remind yourself, “They are only sheep…and so am I.” What’s the point of hooting your horn and revving up your engine. Be patient.

2. The shepherd knows his sheep
I have to be honest, despite years of looking at sheep, they still all look the same to me. Yet, I could walk through a field with a shepherd and he would know the names and even the characters of each one. He would know their ewe, their ram, and their lambs. He knew the scrapes they had been in and the number of times he had to rescue them.

While the pastor should study and know the nature of sheep in general, he should study and know his own sheep in particular. The first priority in going to a new congregation should be to get to know everyone’s names – from oldest to youngest – as quickly as possible. Then work at knowing their characters, personalities, gifts, struggles, etc.

3. The shepherd values his sheep
I’ve often been amazed at the misty and dreamy expressions that come across shepherds' faces as they talk about their sheep or point them out. They seem to say, “They may be only sheep, but they are my sheep.” They care for them and think about them constantly. One shepherd who moved to the city for a while told me that he once woke up in the night with a dream about one of his sheep. He phoned his mother to check up on it, and sure enough, the sheep was in need of medical attention. Explain that!

The pastor should value each and every sheep as highly as possible – whatever their physical, spiritual or financial health! Statistics mean little to the pastor. 99 may be doing well, but if one is missing, he will move heaven and earth to find it. When I first moved to the Scottish Highlands, in the course of pastoral visitation, I used to innocently ask, “So how many sheep do you have?” I could never figure out why the answers were so vague until my Scottish Highland wife told me, “David! That’s like asking how much money do you have in the bank!” I stopped asking. So why do we always ask pastors, “How many are in your congregation?” Like the shepherd, the pastor values each sheep as of infinite worth. So whether he has 10 or 1000, the value is the same – infinite!

4. The shepherd loves his sheep
The shepherd does not just value his sheep as if they were units of economic production (in fact most Scottish shepherds I know made a financial loss on most of their sheep). He loves them; and not just as a collective, but as individuals. He does not just have loving feelings but takes loving actions.

The pastor will find it easy to love some of his sheep. But there are others… Pray over the particularly unloveable ones. Ask God to help you find something to love in them, or to help you love them even if there is nothing loveable about them - after all that’s what the Great and Good Shepherd does daily for you!

5. The shepherd observes his sheep

No matter what day I looked out at the sheep they all looked the same and all did the same. However a shepherd can detect the smallest difference. He can sense problems long before they fully develop. He sees a sheep in an unusual spot in the field. He sees a change in its posture or eating habits. And he takes action.

The good pastor will develop these powers of acute and careful observation as well. He will develop an instinct for problems in his sheep’s lives. He senses a different expression on the face, a different posture in worship, a change in vocal tone, and he may not be able to put his finger upon it, but he sense something is wrong. And often a few wise questions reveal well-founded fears.

6. The shepherd feeds his sheep
Hungry sheep are unhappy sheep…and noisy sheep. The shepherd knows the best fields to take his sheep at different times of the year. He knows when they need particular kinds of grass. He knows when water is needed to refresh and reinvigorate his flock.

The Apostle Peter had a passion for feeding the flock of God, and we know where he got that from (John 21:15-22; 1 Pet. 5:2). When I started out in the ministry, one senior minister told me, “If you keep their bellies full, you won’t hear any bleating.” It takes a wise Shepherd to know what kind and amounts of food each sheep needs. May God help us to feed the right kinds of food, in the right amounts, at the right times. And may he help us not to starve or over-feed our sheep, nor give them indigestion!

7. The shepherd leads his sheep
In Western cultures, the shepherd follows behind the sheep, and directs the sheep with dogs. But in the East it was the custom for shepherds to go before the sheep, to break up the way, to clear paths of danger, to take the safest path. He leads them beside the still waters, in straight paths, through the darkest valley.

Too many Western pastors have embraced the Western model of Shepherding when it comes to leadership. They follow the sheep rather than lead them. The pastor should be out in front of his sheep in his theological knowledge, in his spiritual experience, in his awareness of danger, in his plotting of the course, etc.

8. The shepherd speaks well of his sheep
In Scotland I eventually learned not to criticize or mock sheep in front of their shepherd; it was a rather sensitive topic! And I also learned to listen to wonderful long descriptions about individual sheep, as the shepherd brought out the strengths of each member of his flock.

The pastor should make it a policy to speak well of his congregation as a whole and of its individual members. If someone criticizes one of his sheep, he leaps to his/her defense and brings out the good. When he travels to other places and is asked about his sheep, he replies with words of affection and appreciation. And not just because words of criticism will almost always get back to the sheep.

9. The shepherd pursues his sheep
When a sheep is missing or straying, the shepherd does not say, “O well, I’ve got 99 left.” No, he seeks until he finds it (Lk. 15:3ff). No matter how far away, no matter how foolish the sheep has been, no matter how frequent his straying, the shepherd goes after it.

When a person is missing from public worship, the pastor inquires after him or her. When a person is missing a few weeks in a row, the pastor is getting ready to leave the 99 and go after the straying soul. When the pastor hears that a member has been involved in a heated public argument, or has started dating a non-Christian, or has been saying inappropriate things on Facebook, etc, his cloak is on, his staff is on his hand, and he’s on his way to recover the stray. My brother-in-law once so spent himself hunting for three lost sheep (the woolly kind) that he just about died with exhaustion! He would not give up, and neither should the pastor.

10. The shepherd rests his sheep
In Scotland, just before the winter started, the shepherds would go out into the moors and mountains to gather their flocks that had been enjoying the summer pastures. Sometimes it would take a few days to drive them to their winter shelter. But he never chased them or pushed them beyond their limits. He knew when they needed a rest and a breather.

There are times in congregational life when the pastor must pressure the sheep to move on. Maybe, there is a building program to be undertaken, or an outreach campaign that needs all hands on deck. However, the wise shepherd knows when he has driven the sheep far enough and long enough. He knows there are seasons of rest and refreshment needed as well.

11. The shepherd perseveres with his sheep
There are days when the shepherd feels exhausted, discouraged, frustrated and unappreciated. He is tempted to give up. “Why do I get up every day and give myself to such ungrateful creatures?” However, the good shepherd patiently perseveres.

This is not to say that the spiritual shepherd never leaves a flock and moves on to take care of another. It is simply to say that he does not do so when the first problems appear. And when he does sense the Great Shepherd's call to move on, he may leave the sheep, but the sheep never leave his heart.

O that the Lord would make us and give us such shepherds today, according to His promise: "Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding" (Jer. 3:15).

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Sheep: "This time it's personal"

by David Murray

I pastored for 12 years in the Scottish Highlands. During that time, I was surrounded by sheep: sheep on the roads, sheep on the mountains, sheep on the beeches, sheep in my yard. O, yes, and sometimes sheep in the shepherds' fields. My study on the Isle of Lewis was 12 inches away from a field full of sheep. Sometimes at night I would look up from my computer and see many pairs of luminous green eyes staring at me through my window! I got to know sheep pretty well. What did I learn?

1. Sheep are foolish

I don’t know what sheep would score in an animal IQ, but I think they would be close to the bottom of the scale. They seem to only know how to do one thing well – eat grass (and produce more grass-eating sheep).

It's possible to know little, yet not be foolish; but not if you are a sheep. They are so irrational. You watch them as they pause in front of a stream. They know they can’t jump it or swim it. So what do they do? They jump in anyway!

2. Sheep are slow to learn
Every shepherd will tell you countless stories about how sheep can be taught a very painful lesson, and yet fail to learn the painful lesson. A sheep may get caught in barbed wire trying to break through a fence. And the next day it will try it again, and again,…

3. Sheep are unattractive
Some animals may not be very bright, but make up for it with grace and elegance in their movement and actions. But sheep are so awkward, so lacking in agility and dignity. Although some shepherds may tell you differently, to most outside observers sheep are dirty, smelly, and ugly.

4. Sheep are demanding
Ever watch a lamb suckle its mother? Almost as soon as it is born, it is violently sucking its mother’s udders. And that insatiable demand never leaves them. They demand grass, grass, and more grass; day after day, and night after night. (Do they ever sleep?) And when snow is on the ground, they aggressively demand food from the shepherd. Just listen to them bleat if their troughs are empty even for a short time. And just watch the life-or-death stampede when the shepherd appears.

5. Sheep are stubborn
Have you ever tried to move a sheep? It’s like trying to move an elephant. Ever watched a shepherd try to manoeuvre a sheep into a fold or a dip-tank. It’s like trying to wrestle with a devil. Half a dozen sheep invaded my garden once. I thought it would be easy to hustle them out the wide gate again. But it was as if an electric shield (visible only to sheep) stretched across the gap. I could get them to go anywhere and everywhere, but through that gate.

6. Sheep are strong
I’ve watched the most macho of men beaten by sheep. You look at their skinny “arms” and “legs” and think “easy.” Next thing you are flat on your back or face down in the dirt. I’ve been flattened by running sheep. It was like getting run over by a tank.

7. Sheep are straying
Perhaps the main reason Scripture chooses sheep to characterize us, more than any other animal, is because of its well-deserved reputation for straying (Isa. 53:6) and getting lost (Lk. 15:3ff). So many times I was out in the middle of nowhere when I would come across a sheep – miles from anyone and anything - and totally unconcerned. I would look up on a cliff and there was a sheep out on a lethal ledge. Other times, when fishing miles from anywhere, I would come across ditches and bogs with the decaying remains of a wandering sheep, and I’d think, “How did that get out here?”

8. Sheep are unpredictable
If you travel along the roads of the Scottish Highlands you will soon learn to expect the unexpected. You look ahead on a quiet piece of long straight road with no cars. You spy sheep in the distance on the side of the road. They watch you driving along towards them. Hundreds of yards pass. You are almost level. Well, they aren’t going to cross the road now, are they? Screeeeeech! Well, what do you know!

9. Sheep are copycats
OK, bit of a mix of metaphors here, but I think you get my point. When one sheep decides to start running, they all decide to start running. If you were able to ask one, “Why did you start running?” it would say, “Well, because he started running.” The next would say the same. And the next one. And when you got to the last sheep he would just say, “I dunno.”

10. Sheep are restless
It always puzzled me how little sheep slept. I would be in my study at midnight, look out, and there they were still eating grass. And no matter what time I arose in the morning – 3am or 5am – they would still be eating grass.

Other times, there would be a beautiful summer evening when everything was still and quiet and you would come across a field full of sprinting sheep (usually due to the Scottish midges – look it up on the internet).

I once heard that for sheep to lie down they need freedom from fear, freedom from friction with others, freedom from hunger, and freedom from pests and parasites. From what I’ve seen, that combination is very rare.

11. Sheep are dependent
Some animals can cope and thrive without any close supervision. Not sheep. They are very dependent on their shepherd. They cannot live without him (or her).

12. Sheep are the same everywhere
I’ve been in a number of different countries in my life and enjoyed the many cultural differences. But sheep are the one constant - in character if not in looks. The American sheep is the same as the African sheep (see 1-11 above), which is the same as the Asian sheep, which is the same as...

The shepherd is a sheep
Well, of course, this is not a zoology lecture, nor an agricultural seminar. The sheep metaphor reveals the nature of the sinner, even the saved sinner, and hence the difficulty of the task facing the shepherd.

And the greatest difficulty of all stems from the fact that the shepherd is also a sheep! It might be easy for pastors to read this post and say, "Hey that sounds like my congregation!" But it also sounds uncomfortably too much like you (and me) as well doesn't it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Eschatology and the New Media

Eschatology and the New Media
from Blog and Mablog by Douglas Wilson

Jesus is the Lord of history, and this is why we don't need to be afraid of Twitter. Or Facebook. Or teenagers typing with their thumbs. Jesus is the Lord of history, which is why we don't need to worry about Google making us stupid.

Don't mistake me. Google does make many of us stupid, but only in the same way that libraries have made us stupid for many centuries. Libraries make a handful of people really wise, and provide many others with artificial props for their footnotes.

Everywhere the human race goes, it drags a bell curve around with it. We put on airs because of where we are on the existing curve (or we feel bad because of where we are on it), but we fail to recognize that a blue collar auto mechanic today is working with sophisticated electronics that would have completely stumped Aristotle on one of his good days. One half of all medical doctors graduated in the lower half of their class, right?

We live in a time of tremendous innovation, development, and apparent chaos. There are many opportunities to worry about it all, and so I want to lay my cards on the table, and talk about why I am excited about the future. This is going to sound funny, but I am excited about the future because I am a postmillennialist. And I am a postmillennialist because I am a Calvinist who believes that the sovereign God over all things is truly, inexhaustibly, and fiercely good. He keeps His promises.

We also need to remember that the eschatological future promised by the prophet Isaiah, and the future that was shaped by industrial revolution, and will continue to be shaped by the digital revolution, are the same future. I don't believe in an invisible spiritual future, shaped by the Holy Spirit, full of sweetness and light, and an actual historical future shaped by the Devil, Halliburton, the Illuminati, and Murphy's law. The world, this world, is presently going where Jesus is taking it. Be wise, but stop worrying.

Part of being wise is that we do not forget the doctrine of sin. Sin is radical and deep, and capable of many cultural grotesqueries. We see them all the time, and we read about them all the time. Welcome to the spiritual war. Belief that we will win the war is not a denial of the reality of that war. My optimism is not of the kind that denies the existence of the battle. My optimism is of the kind that maintains that we are winning the battle.

To change the metaphor, to believe that the car is gassed up, running fine, and on the right road, does not keep the kids from squabbling sinfully in the back seat.

This means that every new development presents us with opportunities to sin, and, in a sinful world, the initial impulse is to sin. Wealth gotten by old-fashioned labor is sustained. Wealth gotten the frothy way, dissipates quickly (Prov. 13:11)

And so here is my central thesis: technology in all its forms is a type of wealth. The Bible contains no warnings about technology as such, but is crammed with warnings about the bias of wealth. Which way does wealth set us up? The Bible says that the wealthy are tempted to hubris, self-sufficiency, lack of concern for the poor, oppression, and the rest of that sorry lot. Wealth is a good thing, but it brings temptations. A lot of wealth is a lot of a good thing, but it brings with it a lot of temptations.

Say a man comes into wealth, and the first thing he does is join three of the swankiest country clubs. Not a good harbinger. The same thing is true of the guy who gains his wealth, and who runs off to the inner city to join a new monastic community. That's a bad sign too.

It does not profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul in the process (Matt. 16:26). This remains true even if the world is in the process of gaining the world, but loses its soul on the way. Wealth is not a substitute savior. It is a good thing, a creational good, and it is one which we are tempted to set up as an idol (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). Until the resurrection, wealth is a good thing which always tends to distract us from our love for Christ, and the task at hand.

Now, what we are seeing with the multitude of silly applications of Facebook, and Twitter, and music downloads, and research with Google books, and every new app you can think of, is the response of the noveau riche to windfall wealth -- a response that is as old as dirt. There is nothing whatever that is new about this. There is nothing new under the sun.

We have always had worriers. Plato worried about the written word. At the birth of the modern era, others worried about the typeset word. Now we worry about the digitized word. And, let it be said, the worriers always have a point. There are always examples of folly that they can point to, and they are not making it up. But the fact that you are not making up the bad examples does not mean that you are fitting those bad examples into the right paradigm of interpretation.

A good example of an erudite worrier would be Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death. But for every book like that, given the propensity of Calvinists to worry needlessly, I would recommend that you read three like Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, Postrel's The Future and Its Enemies, and Ridley's The Rational Optimist. Why should Calvinists worry? In the collision between the sovereignty of Jesus in history, and the influence of sin in history, sin is the certain loser.

Now some will object that the books I have cited are not by believers. And I will point out in reply that things have gotten really bad when unbelievers can see what Jesus is doing more accurately than believers can. When unbelievers by common grace are reading history right side up, why should we reject that in favor of believers who are reading their Bible upside down?

We worry about the course of history because we are not in control of it, and we like to pretend that this means no one is in control of it. But this follows not. Jesus is the Lord of history. He is the Lord of this.

This will end well. It does not mean that everything ends well for everybody, but simply means that folly becomes apparent over time. In the long run, stupidity never works. You complain that some stupid teenager is exhilarated because he has 28 superficial "friends" on Facebook. Okay, that's dumb, but how is it different from our practice of writing old-fashioned letters to a mortal enemy, making sure the letter begins with a term of endearment, "Dear . . ." Dear?

Keep moving, people. Nothing to see here. Nothing new here. Nothing new under the sun. Some are wise, and many are (comparatively) foolish. The only question before us now is whether or not we will be among the wise or the foolish. Carping criticism from outside, from the Unabomber cabin, is not an effective response. It is not wise -- even if you are gracious enough for it to be a Wendell Berry cabin instead.

Jesus is the Word, and by His Incarnation He has sanctified the right use of words for all time. The Internet has given us a torrent of words -- what else is new? And the fact that the torrent has increased so much should fill us with a sense of exhilaration. Our responsibility as people of the Word is to give ourselves to the study and practice of how all this can be used wisely.

If your use of Twitter is limited to informing all your followers that you are rummaging in the fridge for some Dr. Pepper at two a.m., then sure, quit that. But suppose you tell your followers that 'poverty and shame come to the one who refuses instruction,' what now? How is that an abuse? It is a godly word.

The constant and ever present temptation in the Church is the gnostic temptation of locating sin in the stuff, sin in the matter, sin in the wealth, sin in the technology . . . instead of locating it where it belongs, in the heart of man.