October 22, 2017

iMonk Classic: Ordinary Thoughts

Weaver Near an Open Window, Van Gogh

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From August 2007

First, thoughts.

You go to the doctor with pain in your chest. He spends the whole hour talking about God.

Is this OK?

You go to a musical production of “Oklahoma.” The cast comes out and gives their testimony the entire time.

Is this OK with you?

You hire a carpenter to redo the kitchen. He spends most of his time talking about God, and runs the hours up twice what they should be.

An EMT comes to help you when your mother falls. He talks about God all the time he’s taking vitals and getting her ready to go in the ambulance.

If you are like me, you’re happy these people are godly and God-centered. But at these moments, you would like them to do the ordinary thing, and to do it right and well. They can talk later.

This isn’t hard, and it’s not denying the faith. It’s the way good parents raise their kids, the way good employers and employees do their jobs, the way anyone expresses their faith in their vocation.

Sometimes I preach and sometimes we conjugate verbs. Both are God’s work in my life. I believe, confess, teach and preach that God is sovereign, but I’m not the guy who falls down the steps and says “Glad I got that over with.” And when someone else falls, I’ll help them up and see if the steps need to be fixed. It doesn’t mean I believe in God’s sovereignty less. Maybe I believe that if God is sovereign, I’m free to not worry about the whys, objections and explanations.

Peasants' Churchyard, Van Gogh

Second, a story.

When I was in seminary, I was on staff for several years on a church that you could call a “seminary church.” By that, I mean that a significant number of the congregation came from the seminary down the road. We had faculty and many students. At the time I left, probably 60% of the church was seminary related.

Our pastor was extremely popular with the seminary community, and deservedly so. A bright young New Testament scholar with an attractive family, he came from a blue-blood Baptist family in the south and had a career as a popular college preacher, so he understood the journey of the seminary family, who mostly came from similar roots and journeys.

The graduate school was especially well represented in our church. We had many members who were on the Ph.d track at seminary. Most wanted to be seminary professors. We also had a fair number of grad program drop outs and people who had attended seminary but never graduated. It was a unique congregation, to say the least.

Now, this was a great blessing in a lot of ways. We never lacked for teachers. We were able to do a lot of things in worship that other Baptist churches couldn’t do because of the particular background of our congregation. I enjoyed many wonderful, high level theological discussions with church members.

Of course, those of us on staff were also there to run a church, and before long, we learned about the other side of the coin with our unique congregation. Having a church full of seminary students created some unique problems in the “ordinary” business of running a church.

What do I mean? Well…..you have to understand that Baptist churches allow a lot of congregational input. Monthly “business meetings” or congregational meetings are part of how the church is administered. There are many committees. The deacons have a lot of input. When significant changes are made or new directions are undertaken, there will be a lot of discussion with the congregation.

In our church, that meant that a small army of seminary faculty, seminary students, seminary drop-outs and seminary professor wannabes participated in all that congregational input. From monthly business meetings, to congregational forums discussing new church policies, to committee meetings on financial purchases, we were subjected to what we came to call “The Seminary Treatment.”

“The Seminary Treatment” meant that you couldn’t talk about the issue in front of you without backing up and taking the big picture- as seminary folks saw it- into account. What should have been ordinary, became an occasion to show what you knew and to pontificate and opine with the passion of a Luther.

Ordinary issues became reformation-level debates. Minor purchases took on major significance. Pragmatic policies sank into the swamps of theory and theology.

At one point, we decided to renovate our fellowship area and to purchase round tables. Or, let me say, we attempted to purchase round tables. First, we had to go through weeks of discussion on the Biblical ethics of spending the money. Then we had to discuss what the Bible meant by fellowship. Then we had to discussion the inclusion of the poor and the homeless. And then we had to discuss the dynamics of round tables and how that affected discussions. And we had to hear the latest research on group dynamics. And then we discussed how we need to encourage more interaction between seminary and non-seminary church members. And then we had to ask if Jesus wanted us to have a building. And then we had to admit that we were participating in the western, suburban idea of church. And then we had to talk about the symbolism of the circles. And then we talked about a lot more stuff.

What we needed to do was buy some tables. Instead, we spent hours listening to theology, ethics, research, social theory and the “wisdom” of the seminary community.

Now listen: these are all good questions. There’s a time to ask them. But it’s difficult for a church to do what needs to be done when theological questions become the dominant questions about everything.

There’s a time to talk about God, and there’s a time to get people to work in the nursery. There’s a time to be God-centered, and there’s a time to be focused on the problem in front of you. There’s a time to quote Jonathan Edwards, and there’s a time to just be quiet and clean up the spilled soup.

Read Ecclesiastes. There’s a time to remember your creator. There’s a time to enjoy life and think of something else. God can handle it if we don’t talk about him all the time. God is sovereign over tragedy, but that’s not all that Christians have to say or do. God never asks us to be his attorneys in the court of world opinion.

We should be God-centered. It’s my constant prayer. God’s sovereignty is a comfort and a rock in trouble. But being God-centered doesn’t mean God-talk and God-questions all the time. It means the ordinary questions have their place.

Comments

  1. I think what you experienced were bad examples of being “overly” focused on God, the healthy way to “pray without ceasing”, is for every decision, every thought, and every word that proceeds out of our mouth be directed straight from the Holy Spirit. If we practice the presence of God with such intensity that we don’t move without Him telling us, we will truly begin to see the abundant Christian life, and we will finally be equipped to truly do the work of the ministry, or as Jesus put it, do “greater works than I did”.

    Let’s step it up church! Pray without ceasing!!

    • Randy Thompson says:

      The problem is, the Holy Spirit sometimes seems to tell some people that the church should buy round tables, and, at the same time, telling others the church shouldn’t. Others seem to hear the Spirit saying “wait”—maybe for a sale? If God’s will is the reason to do something, you still can’t avoid the question of “Who is God speaking to in this group?” I suspect there have been church splits where everyone involved, on both sides, feels like they’re doing God’s will. (Of course, the larger community who witnesses the split isn’t terribly impressed with claims of God’s will being done!)

      The issue at hand, though, seems to be more about the “thinking” end of things, or theologizing. I value the life off the mind, and I value, deeply, good theology. But, as the article points out, theologizing can be more about personal display than about reality. LIkewise, “seeking the Lord,” “praying” and any other such spiritual activities can be about personal display too, as Jesus’ Pharisee praying on a street corner reminds us.

      Personally, I’ll take godly common-sense in a context of humility. (Humility allows for God to over-ride common sense, when common-sense isn’t God’s common-sense.)

  2. Perhaps Paul’s instructs on prophecy in 1 Cor 14 are relevant here. You don’t want every prophet throwing their thoughts in every time, even though all are gifted by God. But then you don’t want to silence any prophecy.

    I can imagine this scenario where a pastor says, “Our budget is tight, so I told the church that God demands his people tithe to their church. I also told them that if we sow generously, we will reap generously, that if we give lots of money to the church, God will bless us financially. But there are these theology students in the church that get on my case about how I’m interpreting scripture. I didn’t want a theology discussion, I just want to get the budget healthy”.

    If we always put pragmatism first, we’ll get it wrong in the end. But balance is needed. And humility to trust that God’s wisdom is at work someone other than myself.

    • Eric, it seems to me that in your scenario pragmatism, rather than finding a theology to support what the pastor thinks needs to be done, is the best thing. I’d a thousand times the preacher tell me he needs me to give more in order to keep the lights on, than to feed me prosperity gospel for the same reason.

  3. Your post reminded me of something my dad, a Nazarene pastor, said: “You can be so heavenly minded that you’re of no earthly good.”

  4. Your round table story both rings true and makes me cringe.

    I remember when my daughter was approaching adulthood, in the years between turning 18 and turning 21, when I had to discourage her from asking me what to do about stuff. If the question was complex I’d help her think through her options, but I would not answer her “what should I do” questions even though it frustrated her. You have good sense and have exhibited good judgment up till now, I’d tell her, and you’ve thought through everything, so whatever you decide to do will be OK. It seemed to me that it was my job to get her to take on these decisions and responsibilities, to push her the last few steps on the path that started when she was a helpless newborn and was supposed to end up with her being an independent adult. I can’t believe that God wants to keep us in perpetual childhood, so that we have to seek his will about buying a dadgum work table. Wow.

  5. It sounds like Gnosticism in both parts. In the first, vocation is secondary to talking about spiritual wisdom. In the second, the mondane is over-spiritualized, rather than having inherent value on its own.

  6. “God can handle it if we don’t talk about him all the time.” ~ Whew (she said wiping her brow!)

  7. Amen. One of the things I really admire about the Catholic tradition is that somewhere there is someone who can just make decisions. Rather than having the whole congregation focused on the shape-of-the-tables. Imperfect decisions, yes – but they will always be imperfect decisions. But they get made and the world moves on. I remember so many long dreary Protestant meetings about things that in any corporation would have probably been decided by an assistant (if he/she had brought the issue to the attention of their boss it only would have made him wonder what they were paying him/her for).

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