October 23, 2014

Dumb Up, Brother: A Spirituality of Ignorance

servant_jesus.gifSomewhere in the backlogs of this web site I recounted what it was like being on staff at a church full of seminary students. Everyone knew so much that we had real difficulty doing anything- like buying stamps- without endless debate.

Of course, there were advantages to having a lot of smart people in the church. Our liturgy was far ahead of most churches, so on an intellectual and aesthetic level, it was a thing of beauty. We never had problems getting Sunday School teachers. We had problems getting our Sunday School teachers to not use too much Hebrew grammar. And, of course, because we were a rather intelligent bunch, we enjoyed the blessing of not being ignorant.

I’m quite serious. It’s not a good thing to be ignorant, and Christians shouldn’t hold up ignorance itself as any sort as a virtue. As much trouble as it was, I was glad there was always someone around to remind us that economic decisions had connections and repercussions in the real world. I was glad we were made sensitive to racism, sexism, discrimination against the disabled and so forth. I was even glad when some homosexual Christians came by to talk with the pastoral staff about their concerns. They didn’t get what they wanted from us, but it was a conversation that I wasn’t ashamed to participate in.

Now I live in a part of the county where ignorance of every sort is widespread. The dropout rate is almost 30%. Running any kind of school here is a battle. And most of the ministers and Christians in this area are untaught, or at the most, self-taught. Comparatively speaking, pastoral ignorance of various kinds is common.

My friend Walter is a local pastor. He’s never attended Bible school, much less college. He’s not much of a reader. He’s too busy in his bi-vocational ministry just trying to make ends meet and do what his job, family and church need of him to be a scholar. Some of Walter’s sermons are difficult for me to listen to. They are delivered in mountain style and they are, frankly, hard to understand. Mostly, Walter takes a well known character or story and applies some principle from the scripture to the day to day experiences of his congregation.

Mountain people face many difficulties. These include poverty, drugs in the community, unsafe living conditions, lack of economic opportunities, undependable medical care, crime and so on. A mountain pastor is always facing a congregation who, for the most part, are there because if God doesn’t come thorough, life is going to fall apart. Walter’s people believe that he can point them to God’s power and presence. They believe the encouragement of the Lord comes through the “man of God.” They are generally not there to experience a “Christian classroom” with pastor as professor.

Of course, those who are more educated in the doctrines of the Christian faith will tell me that there is much wrong with Walter’s ministry. He needs to know many, many things and preach them faithfully. His congregation will be strengthened by doctrinal soundness in way they won’t be through Biblical stories and their lessons. His ignorance ought to be repaired and his ministry improved. I’ll not argue with that, but I will tell you another Walter story.

One thing I didn’t tell you is that two years ago, I was in the hospital with my dying mom, and I needed a pastor. At the time, I didn’t have one. I guess I could have called any number of the ministers that I know. Actually, having been the minister in the hospital before, I was fairly certain of what would happen, and while I wouldn’t have been ungrateful, it wasn’t that important to me.

Walter happened to be in the hospital that day, visiting members of his congregation and the wider community, as was his habit. He found me, my wife and my dying mom in the ER.

Walter stayed with me all day. He found a doctor who would let my mother stay in our hospital and pass there, instead of flying her to Lexington. He helped me talk to the doctors about the course of treatment mom and I had agreed on. He prayed for me. He was a pastor to me. He was Christ to me.

Never once did Walter attempt a theological justification of the ways of God. He never got out the Bible. (Nothing wrong if he’d chosen to, of course.) He was the Bible for me that day. He put flesh and blood on God and hung out with me. He thought for me when I couldn’t think clearly. He knew my heart and he helped me listen to my heart at a very confusing moment. He treated me with love and dignity that brought joy into one of the worst days of my life.

Walter showed me that day that if you are going to measure life by how it’s lived, and not by how people talk about what they believe, he knows a lot more about God than I do. He’s not read anywhere close to the books that I’ve read and he doesn’t have my vocabulary or degrees. He has the the book that matters, and its author, in him. Compared to Walter’s embodiment of Jesus, I’m stupid.

Those of you planning to write and tell me the other side of the coin can save your ink. I know the other side of the coin. What I’m going to say to anyone listening is that I see little evidence that great learning or correct doctrine produces Christ-like people. It may, and it certainly has a part to play that can’t be eliminated. God has used books in my life to make me more like Him. But a lot of those books have been theologically ignorant and incorrect by the standards of the doctrinally correct and intelligent.

I’ve spent years listening to claims and counter claims about how various theologies, doctrines and denominations can get you the real Jesus if you’ll learn there bit or or join their team. Based on the resulting lives I’ve seen- starting with my own- I’d say we’re all full of “dung” on that one. Christ-possessed individuals exist across the spectrums of denominations, education and sophistication. In fact, I’m starting to suspect God puts his fingerprints all over more people from the wrong side of the tracks than on “our” side just to throw us off. He must enjoy hearing me say someone who does or doesn’t believe theology/doctrine “X” can’t manifest the deep imprint of the fingerprints of Jesus. (Heaven’s Comedy Channel must include hours of stupid things I’ve said.)

Jesus says that God loves to take a Walter and show me real spirituality. He loves for me to realize that I can make an “A” on a theology paper and be useless in a hospital or in the lives of real people. He loves for me to hearing the banging, clanking, crashing uselessness of much of what I’ve valued, and then discover the treasure in what I’ve called trash.

Walter has a life full of Jesus. How did Walter get so full of Jesus? By wanting him there and keeping the doors and windows open for Jesus. Not by learning the outline, the answers and the powerpoint version and stopping there. My version of Jesus often looks a lot like an essay question I’d write. Walter’s Jesus- his rough, unpolished and ignorant version of Jesus- is the real deal, at least when it counts.

Remember that Jesus was a teacher, but he never dismissed class. Life was his classroom, because he refused to isolate truth into compartments. He had no intention of producing a disciple who was an expert in theology but useless in a hospital ER. He had no plan to allow the specializations we use to excuse ourselves from what it really means to be a Christian. Carrying the Cross and Washing Feet weren’t talks. They were your life.

And if you’re smart enough to improve on that, you’re too smart. Dumb up, brother.

(NOTE: “Walter” is not a real person, but a combination of several mountain pastors I know who all have the character I am describing. And, yes, one of them spent the day with me in the hospital, just as I described.)

Comments

  1. Keep on brother and don’t let the “Yes, buts” get you down! I love the learning, the stretching of my mind, and the sharpening of my understanding that comes through theological debates, but I love this site best for the encouragement of knowing I have brothers in Christ going through the same path as myself.

    God blesses!

  2. Lewis once wrote something to the point that “good philosophy must exist, if only to counter bad philosophy.” I think there’s a lot to be said for that ancillary role in theology–it’s not about being a good person, it’s about trying to serve the church with the truth.

    Thanks for the post. I’m reminded of Paul: “If I speak in the tongues of angels and men, and have not love, I am but a clanging gong…”

  3. It certainly sounds like the Walters were a great help to you in that trying time, and it’s good to know that they were there for you. Based on the way you describe his actions, I would like to suggest that the aid he rendered you was more that of a very dedicated and compassionate friend, rather than a pastor. Practical help and companionship during a trying time is a wonderful thing to have, but it can essentially be given by anyone with a caring spirit, whether a pastor, an everyday Christian, or an atheist. I personally have made a commitment never to see my pastor as merely a professional nice guy. In a dire situation such as severe personal illness or bereavement,. I would need spiritual and doctrinal guidance to help my faith stay strong and to weather the storm. I would look to others for simple compassion.

  4. Michael,

    Thank you for this post. Just know this: God used your writing, your words in this story you have shared to dramatically impact my life today.

    We are all parts of the one body. Thank you for being Christ to me today through your special gifts that He gave you. Keep serving Him.

    Mark Hunsaker

  5. Amen! wonderful post and I couldn’t agree more.

  6. Memphis Aggie says:

    Nice post. I think “Walter” would also make a more effective evangelist as well. Those on the fringes of Christianity, like I used to be, are persuaded more by a life led for Christ than the most clever argument. I know I was. One of the finest men I’ve ever known was a Church of Christ Elder who lived the word, but never preached it.

  7. I lived in the mountains of middle Tennessee so I really empathize with your thoughts. I have known pastors that I really said some downright stupid things in their sermons but were considered to be the godliest men in their communities. It’s sometimes very puzzling but always humbling.

  8. Micheal, your words spoke to me today. I’ve been spending many hours recently wrestling with Calvinsim vs. Arminianism (and how to enlighten by poor Sunday School class). But last night my sister called and told me a young friend of hers has cancer, and I (thinking back) I did a horrible job of comforting someone who was hurting badly. Forgive me Lord!

  9. I once made a decision to stop reading theology for my soul’s sake. I really think all this theologizing and proof texting has very little if nothing to do with our relationship to God. It may even be harmful, we tend to argue and blast the people who are supposed to be our allies, or we tend to have these frameworks where we try to trap God and categorize things for our own comfort. Ironically enough with your situation, this was the time I decided to go back to the Catholic church, not because I was convinced of their theology, but as a refuge, to clear the voices in my head and worship anonymously, as a simple layman disappearing amidst the throngs in Mass.

  10. Welcome to the other side of the tracks. It’s a lot more fun on this side, anyway.

  11. I have to add, I am not in any way advocating the Catholic church to you. I now attend an emergent church because I feel this more closely represents me.

  12. Michael, Here is a relevant story for you (remember, I’m not Catholic – but Lutheran).

    In the Northern part of South Africa there is a small town – not bigger than 10 – 20 K people. The white segment of that population is mostly Afrikaans speaking, church – going folks of the Calvinist stripe.

    There was a young man dying of Aids – related disease. His church membership was Dutch Reformed. He was in a mess – and only his sister was there to care for him. He needed to be cleaned several times a day (and night) – she couldn’t go anywhere.

    The local DR minister visted him once – basically a “be of good cheer” visit.

    Then the Catholic woman’s group heard of him. They came in to help – they arranged a help schedule to allow the sister to sleep during the night, and get out sometimes. The bathed him, fed him, sat with him.

    Shortly before his death, he was received into the Caholic church.

    Now as the Bible would say, which of these were the young man’s neighbour?

    Note – this is not a denominational issue, but one of willing hearts and minds.

  13. “At all times preach the Gospel and when necessary use words.” – St. Francis of Assisi

  14. That’s an amazing story, Michael. I’m a bit of an intellectual snob myself, but sometimes people you come across can be just so Christlike it turns your world upside down. I guess the way Christ should.

  15. Bob Sacamento says:

    I know what you mean. Or you know what I mean, which seems to me how it works.

    I was a mountain kid myself, though not quite as far back in the woods as you are. I was intellectual, or nerdy depending on POV, and when I got out and went to the big city and found other intellectual Christians, it was a breath of fresh air to an asthmatic. But since then I have seen way too many people theologizing when they should be acting and “explaining” when they should be listening and fighting over things that look for all the world like the old angels on a head of a pin thing.

    What I’m thinking right now is that, yes, the church needs theology. The church should be committed to explicating scripture and its consequences for our thought life as fully as possible. But that doesn’t mean everybody in the church has to be doing that, any more than they all have to be missionaries or preachers. Hopefully the Walters will listen to the intellectuals as much as their time and energy allows; hopefully the intellectuals will remember to speak to the Walters and not to just each other; hopefully they will watch and follow the practical examples of the Walters. Theology is mucho importante for the church, but that doesn’t mean it has to be everybody’s “thing.”

  16. As a long term internetmonk reader I have often had to laugh to myself about my lack of knowledge of so many issues raised. The blogs and comments have challenged me and pointed me to Christ.

    Equally I have had to chuckle at how having much knowledge seems to be the cause of lots tension, self righteousness and down right unpleasantness. Again it has pointed me to Christ as it helps me realise that the reality of Christ in my life requires “Walter-ish” characteristics which may or may not be gained from much learning.

    The joy of paradox. Lord help me in both.

  17. I’m a happy Lutheran. I attend a men’s bible study (mostly elders) and a weeknight small group (mostly single women). I love them all.

    Recently I asked for help so that my fiancé could have a place to stay for a visit from out of town.

    I asked the leader of our small group, a woman who lives by herself in a beautiful, big house.

    She could not help me for fear.

    Then I asked for help from my men’s bible study group. The first to respond was a elder friend who was not actually a member of my conservative Lutheran church, but actually a longtime guest from a loosey-goosey Methodist “community church” down the road. He was happy to help but logistics prevented it.

    The only other person to respond to my request for help was another gentleman from my men’s bible study. Like the first one, he was a guest from another church–atually a committed Roman Catholic from a congregation down the street, who has been coming to our Lutheran bible study for quite some time. He and the first gentleman are the only two non-members in this bible study group.

    No members of my church volunteered their hospitality for my fiancé.

    My fiancé stayed with the Roman Catholic and his wife, and will be doing so again next month.

    This, from the denomination who first specialized in calling the pope the antichrist, and sometimes still does.

    I can just imagine the reaction from some TRs. “Oh, if you had only been a member of a Reformed church, none of this would have happened, because unlike the Lutherans, we’re all nice and full of hospitality.” Or “Oh no! I hope you do not become a Roman Catholic because of this.”

  18. Jesus said “Love one another as I have loved you. By this shall all men know you are my disciples if you have correct theology, proper worship, sound expository preaching and fervent praying.”

    Hmmmm………somehow that isn’t how I remember that verse going.

  19. Thank you for the reminder that we all need from time to time. I’m just curious, being rather new to imonk, where did you live previously and where are you originally from?
    Ivy

  20. Only lived in Ky, but before 1992 I lived in Louisville and Owensboro and Somerset.

  21. Bob Sacamento says:

    “Love one another as I have loved you. By this shall all men know you are my disciples if you have correct theology, proper worship, sound expository preaching and fervent praying.”

    LOL!!!!!

  22. Michael,
    Thank you for this great story about Walter(s). My teacher in Modern Church History at the ELCA Lutheran Seminary I go to said to us yesterday that “Missions are God’s great joke on doctrine.” We were talking about Charles Finney, who went far beyond mere Arminianism and danced with Pelagianism in his theology. He was unschooled and abhorred the study of doctrine. He was also responsible for converting, some say, over 500,000 people. Walter, in your story, is a mission-oriented kind of guy, it seems to me, and all the doctrine in the world can’t stand against his Christ-like presence in your story and probably in his congregation as well. Like someone else in the responses, I am a bit of an intellectual snob as well and actually enjoy reading doctrine and theology. Your Walter story makes me wonder how much that stands as a wall against my seeking out the face of Christ in those who I encounter.
    Peace!
    Seth

  23. To the above, I meant that Finney was unschooled in theology and seminary training. He was a successful lawyer before he “took a retainer for the Lord’s cause.”

  24. It always comes back to liturgy, doesn’t it? Theology not done on one’s knees or through one’s hands and feet becomes an empty parody of its subject matter. Acts of kindness and mercy not patterned on the form and sense and sensibilities of liturgy or prayer become empty do-gooderism or works-righteousness. But ever since Descartes, Christians continue to struggle with the lie that thinking and doing, or the intellectual and the spiritual/virtuous, are two separable dimensions.

    Was Walter shelving his mind or turning off his brain when he attended to dying? My guess is that he wasn’t. Nor should we.

    If our theological pursuit of the Truth is getting in the way of our pursuit of the Good and the Beautiful, then our theology is usually just as problematic and flawed as our virtue.

  25. Mostly, Walter takes a well known character or story and applies some principle from the scripture to the day to day experiences of his congregation.

    Pardon me if I missed someone else already saying this in one of the comments, but it strikes me that this post is a pretty good mountain pastor message itself. ;-)

  26. Nicholas Anton says:

    Prodomos

    re; “It always comes back to liturgy, doesn’t it?”

    According to my dictionary, “liturgy” is “a prescribed form/forms or ritual for public worship”, and not just “doing”. Post New Testament liturgy is simply man made. There is not even a prescribed form given in the New Testament for “communion”, and “baptism”.

  27. The church I attend has a lay ministry. Not a lay pastor, a lay ministry, through and through. There is a monthly schedule of what brother will preach on what Sunday and whether it be on Sunday morn or in the evening. As a result, it’s not just professor preacher, nor unlearned zealot. It’s a combination. (Yes, without seminary training you can be as learned as anyone who came out of a seminary, if not moreso, and can read just as much. The difference, I think, is that doing this outside of seminary, you are not pressured to beleive what you are forced to read, but read at your leisure and give it all an honest appraisal. But I digress.) When one man does all the teaching in the congregation the people don’t get the full picture of the Bible. If you had a Walter this Sunday and the seminary guy the next, you’d get a fuller understanding. All theory and no application doesn’t work in any subject.

  28. I’ve long thought that those of us with an intellectual bent need to occasionally meditate on Luke 10:21, where Jesus almost dances a jig (the word translated ‘rejoiced’ can have connotations of spinning like a top – I don’t think this is ‘refined’ rejoicing – Jesus is excited), tickled pink that the intellectual elite of His day didn’t get it, but the ordinary, unintellectual, ignorant (‘babes’) people did. You have to wonder if sometimes He ends up snickering over us.

    Those of us with the gifts to deal with heavy theology too easily make the Christian life about heavy theology, which makes those who don’t have those gifts kind of secondary in the Kingdom. It’s too easy to forget that those gifts aren’t given to us for our own benefit, but to benefit those who aren’t so gifted. If our exercise of those gifts makes people think that we’re the Important People in the Kingdom, and they’re secondary, then we’ve got a ways to go in learning what those gifts were actually for.

  29. Monk wrote: “What I’m going to say to anyone listening is that I see little evidence that great learning or correct doctrine produces Christ-like people. It may, and it certainly has a part to play that can’t be eliminated.”

    I agree. The Holy Spirit produces “Christ like people” and even then we must keep in mind that we are all sinners!

    What that “mountain” pastor showed you that day was a person comitted to their vocation. He could have been a veritable “Einstein” theologically speaking and still showed the fruits of the Spirit and that is what is sort of confusing about your article. Sanctification isn’t about what we do; rather, it is about what God does through us. As sinners we are going to fail miserably on a daily basis. People are going to catch us on our “bad days”. You caught this pastor in one of his “good” moments.

    But, if you felt ministered to, it was the Holy Spirit at work and not that pastor, and not you. Remember, God can speak through a donkey (Jack Ass) if He so chooses. Indeed, there are no “two sides of the coin” here. There is only one side of the coin and that is the work of God in our lives. Anything we do that we might feel makes us “better” are just filthy rags in the site of a Holy God who demands perfection. Christ is our perfection!

    We can thank God for the pastor “Walters” of the world, but let’s also remember that all glory goes to God! I am sure “Pastor Walter” would want God to recieve all the praise for that day whilst assuring us all that he is a poor sinner in need of God’s daily unmerited grace and mercy.