A Unicorn in a Patio Chair

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
~ 2 Timothy 3:16

Why a book?

As of 2016, around one million books are published annually in the United States. Is this thing on? One million. Every year. I cannot make sense of that, but there it is. The term glut hardly covers it. The majority of ebooks I own were either free or less than $1.99. Many of the books I have in my humble home library were either given to me or purchased for less than $10. Rumors of the printed book’s death have grown and spread like kudzu for years, though Samuel Clemens might suggest they’re exaggerated.

People now perceive little value for a book. I’ve heard people question why anyone would read a book when you can always Google anything you need to know. Though the Bible is still the best selling book, it may also be the least read. Lifeway Research conducted a survey designed to be representative of the United States and found 10% of people had never read the Bible at all. Only 11% had actually read the entire Bible and only 9% had read it more than once. The largest group was 30% of those surveyed who answered they had read several passages or stories from the Bible. Despite not reading it, 87% percent of households own a Bible and more than half have a positive view of it and think it’s valuable.

You might think I’m going to bewail biblical illiteracy, and it is tempting. I have quite a different track in mind. With facts staring us in the face, I ask, is it reasonable that the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present Creator of everything would give us a book about himself? Books are about as abundant as dirt on the earth and probably only slightly more valuable to the average earthling. Many people will say the Bible is valuable, but it’s obviously not valuable enough to read. Why would God give us a book about himself that few would pay any attention to?

To Know or Not to Know?

We first must think, not about a book, but about knowledge. We bring nothing into this world with us. Though we are designed to breathe and transition naturally from fluid to breathing air, we don’t know what air is. We don’t know what breathing is, nor why it is so important? We are born knowing nothing. Everything we have come to know by the time we die, we have learned from somewhere. The knowledge we gain will have much to do with the nature and form of the information available to us.

Some things we find out through observation and exploration, but many things we have to be told. We can observe the creation around us and infer a powerful and wise Creator (Romans 1:19-20). Creation is a form of revelation, but it leaves much unknown. What sort of Creator has made everything? Is he holy, righteous, just? Does he have wrath and love? How can we creatures serve and please him? Does he even care or notice whether we do? What about heaven, hell, life after death? Why do we die at all? Having a conscience, we know guilt, but can guilt ever be removed? Is the Creator changing or unchanging? So revelation of some kind is necessary. We cannot find out such things by merely watching the sun rise or staring at stars in the night sky.

Says Who?

I hope we can agree that some form of revelation is necessary for us to know truth about our souls, life, death, and judgment to come. But, what form should necessary revelation take? God could give immediate revelation to each individual. The problem is obvious. The party of the first part has received revelation A, while the party of the second part has received revelation B. When A and B are not equal, and may even be in direct opposition, where does that leave us? How could we possibly know which is right when one says one thing and another something else?

Alternatively, God could give revelation to a few different ones and that revelation be handed down through oral tradition. This still ends up with the same problem. There is no fixed standard, so how could differences be resolved? When one claimed to speak revelation, how could it be verified? Another obvious problem would be how to deal with charlatans and deceivers. Without a fixed standard, we are ten-year-olds shoving each other on the playground.
“Oh, yeah?”
“Says who?”
“Says me!”
“Oh yeah?”

A fixed standard of revelation is then necessary. How are we to know and be assured of truth? God has given us a written word that is sufficient for everything we need (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:3-4, 16-21). A fixed, written standard is not only necessary, but reasonable and indispensable.

Some would object: if there is an infallible, inerrant, fixed, written standard, then why are there so many different sects, denominations, and groups who all claim to be following the Bible? Why so many interpretations that vary widely and even contradict each other? Let’s consider a couple of things here.

First, finding fault with the Bible because different people think it says different things is kind of like finding fault with genuine currency because of the existence of counterfeit bills. Do we doubt the validity and worth of a real Ben Franklin because of a plethora of fake C-notes? Let’s look at it another way.

Say you have a sealed room with one way in and out. In the room you have placed a book and you have selected a dozen people at random. You send the people into the room one at a time to read the book. Afterward you quiz the participants about what the book said, and you get six or eight different interpretations of what was written in the book. Is it more reasonable to think the difference is in the book or in the people? That brings us to the next consideration of why so many different interpretations exist.

Second, the diversity of interpretations is due to the noetic effects of the fall and man’s imaginative capacity. The term noetic refers to the intellect and the fall refers to the fall into sin and the damage of depravity because of it. Man’s intellect is affected by the fall and one proof is that it is possible for a man to think of a lie and possible for a man to believe a lie. Why, it’s not only possible, but I’ve seen it done. So man has the capacity to conceive of lies and to believe lies.

Man also has an imaginative capacity that is capable of thinking of the impossible. He can imagine something in his mind that does not exist, and maybe could not exist for various reasons. Not only can he imagine unreality, but he can hold true, untrue, real, and unreal thoughts in his mind simultaneously. Let me illustrate.

Imagine a wrought-iron patio chair. It’s not hard. Maybe you have one, or your grandmother did. You can think of the white lacquer paint and the rust stains. You can envision the cracks in the paint and the places where the metal is exposed and smooth from wear. You can think of the heft of the chair and how solid it feels to sit in. Also imagine a purple unicorn. The beast can be solid, striped, spotted, piebald, or whatever you like. Think of the mane, tail, and the horn protruding between the ears atop its gallant head. Imagine the hoofbeats as it trots around the yard, or the crunch of the apples it eats off the tree. Now imagine the unicorn sitting in that wrought-iron patio chair. Silly image, isn’t it. A unicorn sitting in a chair is funny, but you did it. You saw it in your mind.

You just illustrated to yourself why there are so many different interpretations of the Bible. You just simultaneously imagined something real, the patio chair, and something not real, the purple unicorn, and brought them both together, the unicorn sitting in the chair. That scene does not exist, has never existed, and will not exist, but you saw it. The fact that you put a unicorn in a patio chair does not mean there is something wrong with the chair, or that patio chairs are not real.

Remember, Remember

I’ve gone long, so I hope the roast won’t be tough by the time you get home to it. I think I have demonstrated somewhat the reasonableness and necessity of a fixed, written standard. Our thinking doesn’t always go straight and we need something to inform and correct us. A written word is also necessary because we need something to go back to because we are so prone to forgetfulness. We need reminding and we need to remember. So, God has given us his word (1 Timothy 4:6; 2 Timothy 2:14; Hebrews 10:32; 2 Peter 1:12-13, 15; 3:1). God has given us a book, so read it and then read it again.

Call it What You Will

… and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
~ Genesis 2:19

By any other name

So, you’re a square thinker. Not a creative.” He lifted the sleeved cup off the lunchette table and sipped. There it was. After a few minutes of conversation between sips of Starbucks, this manager had assessed and labeled me. As he savored his macchiato, or whatever the froofy drink was, his eyes barely concealed the calculations happening behind them. He was a manager. I was looking for a job. He sized me up and played mental Tetris to see if I fit in his organization.

Since I don’t know what a creative is, I’m not complaining about not being one. I’m not sure about the square thinking either, but it’s no big deal. I had assessed him in a few minutes as well. The way he carried himself, the sound of his voice, and some of the phrases he used fit with his graying temples, highwall haircut, and the fact his clothing was crisp even though he was dressed casually for the office. I guessed former military. Maybe in service he honed his skills for reading people and he pegged me quickly. I don’t know.

Don’t Put Me in a Box

Everyone chafes a bit at being labeled. Most everyone thinks they’re such special individuals they defy labels and social constructs. We are just like a group of so many teenagers who must express their unique individuality by all having pink hair and nose rings. I just gotta be me, man. We are like men without chests and with small souls, who think they can augment the inside by leasing space on the outside for expression from a creative. The dragon slithers down the arm, peeking out of the sleeve, and almost making a hiss. All the while, the real dragon remains unseen with his foot on the guy’s neck. Some prefer their labels applied directly to the forehead.

Labels are unavoidable and not all bad. Men have been categorizing and labeling things since the Garden of Eden, and since being kicked out of the garden, they’ve been getting a lot of it wrong. The act of naming is not sinful, but usurping authority to rename what God has already named, is. Maybe that is trying to be a creative. I don’t know.

Since the CBA has repackaged October as a pastor depreciation month, let’s consider the label of “pastor.” The term pastor is rarely found by itself these days. Since Senior Pastor is so 1980s, we have Lead Pastor, Pastor for Preaching, Teaching Pastor, Pastor of Vision Casting, and I don’t know what they’ll come up with next. The question I’m most often asked is, Are you a full-time pastor?

What Are My Options?

I want to respond to that question, “Is there any other kind?” I think I know what they mean by full-time, but I honestly don’t know how a man who is a pastor could be anything other than a pastor 24/7. They usually mean: Do you work some type of job to make a living while you pastor? Employment to support a preaching habit is a little long, so people usually say such a pastor is bi-vocational. Okay. if that’s what you want to call me, then, yes, I am bi-vocational and in that sense, not full-time.

I encounter romantic notions and expressions about bi-vocational ministry and, I must admit, they sound a lot like “be ye warmed and filled” (James 2:16). I’ve worked the old 40+ my entire ministry, and it’s nothing to boast about. Some say, “Well, Paul made tents.” Yes he did, or maybe he was a leather worker, but let’s not get off track. The fact is that Paul worked with his hands to meet his life necessities when he needed to (Acts 20:34). When he first came to Corinth, he worked during the week and preached in the synagogue on the Sabbath days (Acts 18:3-4). When Silas and Timothy came to Corinth from Macedonia with support from other churches, he threw himself more into the ministry (Acts 18:5).

This is the more-to-the-story that many don’t think about. Pastors do not have the gift of making the sun stand still. They do not have 32 hours to every day. Though a pastor may be working full time to support his family, the church typically still expects the pastor to do the full-time work of pastoring. I would also add, the concept many have of the responsibilities of a pastor is extra-biblical. Too many birds and not enough stones.

More Than Crowding the Plate

I’m going to step in and take one for the team. Bi-vocational pastoring is always sub-standard and sometimes sinful. Paul wrote, “The Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). From the context, Paul means that pastors should receive a living from the church without having to work another job (1 Corinthians 9:4-6). What constitutes a living will vary by time and place, but that is why he writes in terms of a living and not some fixed amount. He taught the same elsewhere (Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17-18).

Follow Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 9:4-14. The pastor’s living is not determined by what the church thinks he needs, or what they think he should live on. First, Paul makes a statement in question form that he has a right (exousia) to a sufficient living (1 Corinthians 9:4). Second, he defines a sufficient living relevant to the individual, because he may have a wife and children, and therefore his right to a living is a living for his entire family (1 Corinthians 9:5). Third, Paul further defines a living by being sufficient such that he would have no need to work to make money (1 Corinthians 9:6).

Paul illustrates with three familiar examples of making a living (1 Corinthians 9:7). A soldier who is conscripted into the army should not pay his own way, nor work a side job in order to live while he fights for the army. A soldier is given room, board, and equipment in addition to being compensated with pay. A farmer that works his fields doesn’t work another job to support his farming. He eats of the fruit produced by his fields. A shepherd does not work another job in order to take care of his flock. Rather, he makes his living from his flock.

Lest anyone want to quibble with him, Paul goes on to show the Scriptures teach the same (1 Corinthians 9:8-10). Jesus affirmed this principle, and even in reference to ministers (Luke 10:7). Paul states the direct and necessary consequence of Scripture teaching (1 Corinthians 9:11). Those who work at spiritual ministry should be supported by those who receive that ministry. The same principle applied to the priests in the temple (1 Corinthians 9:13). Paul reaches an emphatic conclusion that this is ordained by the Lord (1 Corinthians 9:14).

The pastor has a right to a living and he also has the right of refusal (1 Corinthians 9:15). He exercised this right in Corinth and Thessalonica (2 Corinthians 11:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8). The whole thrust of this teaching is that the church has a responsibility and does not have a right of refusal.

Yeah, but …

This, that, and the other thing has been offered by churches as to why they are not meeting their biblical responsibility. I realize situations differ and I think that’s why Paul writes as he does, which makes the living relevant to the man and so on. I realize a lot of churches are small and cannot give a man a living. In those situations, we have to realize bi-vocational ministry is sub-standard, not ideal, but necessary. If, on the other hand, a church can, but is not giving their pastor a living, then bi-vocational ministry in this case is sinful, on the part of the church at least.

I don’t believe the Bible teaches a church should give an extravagant living to their pastor. Of course, I don’t know any churches or pastors where this is even possible. Most of the pastors I know work hard at pastoring and work other jobs in order to support their families. I can’t think of a single one I’ve heard complain that their church isn’t paying them enough. I realize you cannot give what you do not have, but churches do need to seriously consider whether they are doing all they can for their pastor to have a living without earning money in other ways.

The Wild Turkey Trot

And it came to pass, that when Jehudi had read three or four leaves, he cut it with the penknife, and cast it into the fire that was on the hearth, until all the roll was consumed in the fire that was on the hearth. 
~ Jeremiah 36:23

Reading is not safe … but it is good.

Campbells Creek is a near twenty-mile long tributary of the Kanawha River, running from above Putney to empty into the river near Port Amherst, east of Charleston, West Virginia. Campbells Creek is also the name of the hard road that runs along the creek through the holler for most of the water’s course. Holler is the proper colloquial pronunciation of the term, hollow, which is a narrow valley between the mountains having a head and a mouth. This is common geography throughout West Virginia.

The Creek has many different communities and adjoining hollers, such as Putney, Blount, Cinco, Fivemile, Tad, Point Lick, Coal Fork, and Springfork. It has a rich history with coal mining going back to the early part of the 1800s and was the site of one of the last known Jesse James style train robberies east of the Mississippi, which happened in the first half of the twentieth century. I’ve often told people it is the home of many notable characters.

I grew up at the head of Springfork Holler, was married at the mouth of Big Bottom Holler in Tad, and went to school from kindergarten to twelfth grade at Point Lick. Fair Haven Christian School at Point Lick was founded in the early 70s as a result of the textbook protest by the visionary leadership of Dave Kilburn. It was a small school with somewhere around one hundred students from K4 to 12th grade during my time there.

If you went to a Christian school, you are familiar with weekly chapel services at such places. We had them, and I have to say they were often interesting. One day we filed in as expected, boys to the right and girls to the left. The preacher was already there, sitting quietly in one of the deacon’s chairs in the pulpit. He was reading a magazine. It was something like Field and Stream, I think. We had no forewarning of the monodrama we would witness that day. He appeared to be reading articles and turning pages slowly.

He neither looked up when we came in, nor acknowledged our presence in any way. We sat down, confused, and glanced at one another. Suddenly, he howled, ripped a page out of the magazine, crumpled it up, and threw it on the floor muttering something about wild turkeys messing up his magazine. He went back to silent reading. Suddenly, he shrieked and jumped up. He ripped another page out, threw it on the floor, and stomped it. This time it was the Marlboro Man that marred his magazine and incited his rage. He sat down and went back to reading. He repeated his action a couple more times before finally throwing the whole magazine down and stomping it. He went on to preach his sermon, the point of which he had just illustrated in dramatic fashion.

Some would say his illustrative sermon was powerful because I still remember it 20+ years later. I reply that I don’t remember the substance of the sermon at all, only the antics. I think that was the sermon where he instructed us impressionable youths to go home that afternoon, take our television sets out into the yard, and shoot them up with a 12 gauge. He wasn’t specific whether he preferred pump action or polk stock. I guess that was up to our individual tastes and teenage discretion. Those were different times.

The Problem is Not With the Footwork

Many people read the way of that preacher’s exaggerated theatrics. They may not shriek and stomp on their reading material, but as soon as they encounter anything the least bit objectionable to them, they can’t think of anything else. It ruins the whole book and the entire experience for them. Granted there are some books we should not read, whether that is because they are a complete waste of time or reading them is equivalent to pumping raw sewage into our living room. Certain books are helpful, others are not helpful, and still others are harmful. Books can fit in those categories cleanly sometimes, while at other times they are more like the sweet spot of a Venn diagram.

When we commence to stompin’ on our books like we just discovered we’re standing on a fire ant hill, we think we’ve done something. A cold sweat formed on our forehead and we were out of breath. We feel as though we strenuously refuted whatever error it was that started our fit to begin with. In short, we think this is discernment. It isn’t discernment. A monkey could be taught to Wild Turkey Trot every time it saw the Marlboro Man. Lest anyone think this a sign of discerning wisdom in the primate, the monkey’s flinging of feces directly after should disabuse you of the thought.

The problem for us here is not with the footwork. We are not trying to work out whether it should be a jump stomp, standing stomp, or a stomp and a kick. We need to develop real discernment and to grow in our understanding. We know we need resistance and challenge if we are to grow in a skill or physical strength. If you can play the piano with any proficiency, you have had to practice. You did not play proficiently the first time you pounded the keys. Our minds are similar and need challenge to grow and sharpen.

Beam me up, Folly

I’ve written before about different areas of reading for preachers to consider. With this post, I’m adding another category: Reading what you don’t agree with. Some books are garbage and aren’t worth reading even if some hidden morsel floats with banana peels in the dumpster juice. Proverbs says that fools gobble up folly with no thought (Proverbs 15:14), so I’m not advocating that kind of reading. Reading wisely means reading thoughtfully and considering the end of what you read (Proverbs 4:26; 14:8; 22:3).

Humans are fallible and the books we write are fallible. God has created us with creative and imaginative capacities we don’t fully understand. Humans are capable of simultaneously holding thoughts of truth and error, real and impossible. Do you remember the old television show, Star Trek? I can remember seeing reruns when I was a kid. I was never a big fan. Do you remember how they used to teleport members of the crew from the ship to various planets? I think they had the phrase, “Beam me up.” Is teleporting a human being from a spaceship to a planet a reality? Does that exist as a possibility? No it does not, but we have no trouble imagining it. Human beings can have a good grasp of one subject while being ignorant or completely wrong about another at the same time. A book can be the same way: simultaneously edifying and wrong.

Growing in discernment means distinguishing between what is good and what is not. Solomon warned his son to give no consent to sinful enticement, but rather to give heed to the instruction of wisdom (Proverbs 1:10; 2:1-5). Reading books is one way of seeking a multitude of counselors (Proverbs 11:14), and walking with wise companions (Proverbs 13:20).

Some men boast they do not read or listen to men. I suppose this sounds noble to some, but such a man is saying he listens only to himself. It reminds you of the old saying about the lawyer who has a fool for a client. Proverbs teaches us that fools will neither seek nor receive counsel from others (Proverbs 1:7; 10:8; 12:15; 15:5). Such a man is not living by bread alone, but rather by his own mental regurgitations (Proverbs 26:11).

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