To Hold a Baby Bird

But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children:
~ 1 Thessalonians 2:7

This article originally appeared in the Baptists for Liberty newsletter, June/July 2017 edition.

John Feinstein published his 1996 book on professional golf under the title: A Good Walk Spoiled. The phrase probably wasn’t original with him, but it is a great description of the game played in otherwise idyllic settings. I’ve personally experienced the spoiling of a good walk, particularly in my younger days. I continually sought advice on how to improve and get strokes off my game, but to give you the rest of the story; I will just say I’m not a professional golfer today, nor any sort of golfer, really, since I never play.

Golf is much like a lot of things in that you have to start somewhere. It’s unavoidable. Assuming you have the clubs, tees, and enough balls to Johnny Appleseed the woods and lakes of the course, the game of golf begins with the grip. Before you can address the ball or begin a swing, you have to hold the club in some fashion and gripping it like a Louisville Slugger isn’t going to do. The first grip I learned was the Vardon grip, though I later changed to the interlocking grip, which I think was made famous by Jack Nicklaus. I don’t think the change made a lot of difference for me, but I felt like I had done something.

The grip has two parts—the arrangement of the fingers and the pressure. I often heard the analogy that one should grip the club like they were holding a baby bird—firm enough so that the bird could not escape your hand, but not so firm that you crush the bird. This finer point of the grip is lost on most amateurs who white-knuckle the club like they are trying to wring the neck of a disagreeable chicken. While the amateur’s grip may be beneficial for Sunday dinner at the farm, it’s no good for splitting a fairway or finding greens in regulation.

The golf game begins with the grip. Aside from the tense muscles and coiling of the torso to unleash a monster drive down the middle, there must be gentleness to hold the baby bird and not kill it. You need enough pressure to hold the club but not all the pressure you can muster. To play golf, you must strike the ball. In order to strike the ball, you have to grip the club. In order to grip the club for striking accuracy, you have to use the right amount of gentleness in your grip pressure. So my philosophy all comes out to this: golf begins with gentleness.

I realize the readers of this newsletter did not come here for tips on keeping their ball in the short grass. My point is that most amateurs see the game as one of brute strength. They think most of the drive off the tee and how much distance they can get. While a towering drive on a par 5 can give you hopes of an eagle, golf is much more about finesse and delicacy. Accuracy is more important than length. Being farther in the woods is undesirable. This is probably why most amateurs don’t make much progress.

I once played in a foursome with a gentleman in his seventies. I outhit him all day. I consistently drove farther, though he was in the fairway and I was in the rough or trees. He would land on the green while I was over it. He two-putted most of the time and I easily doubled his effort. At the end of the round, his stroke count was also in the seventies and I had made a century. Had we been playing cricket, I would have been bucked up making a century, but it is an open-face shame in golf. It’s the sort of thing that causes many to put down the clubs and take up gardening or bird watching. Obviously, he understood the touch of gentleness the game requires and I nearly came out of my shoes every time I swung.

The Theme of Gentleness

Gentleness is the theme of this edition and this article’s design is to see something of how that theme works out in the life of a church. A church, of course, is a body of baptized, believing disciples who have been organized and joined together for the purpose of doing Jesus’s work on the earth until the end of this age. A church is made up of some number of people holding common membership and assembling together in a location for worship, instruction, and business.

Anyone who has been a part of two or more people trying to work together understands that such an arrangement has challenges. Different levels of maturity, skill, understanding, temperament, schedule, expectation, patience, sensitivity, and personal preference give opportunities for all sorts of problems. Unfortunately, many pastors and church members deal with the problems that pop up like an exuberant twelve-year-old boy playing Whack-A-Mole at the arcade. Mallet firmly in the hand, they bounce back and forth waiting for the next talpid head with beady eyes to pop-up. Then they whack it.

In the life of the church, our grip should begin with gentleness. Though there are times when we must use sharpness and severity, we should overall be characterized by gentleness, or meekness. This is a theme in Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth we call, Second Corinthians. In the general exhortation in the opening of the letter, Paul calls the church members to gentleness by reminding them of God’s comfort to us in tribulation, and having received comfort of God, Paul writes we are “able to comfort them which are in any trouble” (2 Corinthians 1:4). The necessary inference is that they should comfort those among them who are in any trouble.

Before Paul was deep in the letter, he pressed this application on the Corinthians in a specific case. A “punishment” was imposed on a “man” by the “many” (2 Corinthians 2:6). The word for punishment, epitimia, means a penalty. This is the only occurrence of the word in the New Testament. It was in common use, a word referring to a legal penalty imposed for some infraction against the city/state. It was a punishment for an infringement by one of his own rights of citizenship. The word used for many, pleionon, means the more part, or the greater number. It was used as we would say, majority. It is clear Paul was talking about a man who had been a member of the church who had discipline enacted on him by the church. Some suppose this was the man from 1 Corinthians 5, but that is not certain.

Paul said the punishment was “sufficient,” which meant the discipline had accomplished the purpose of bringing the man to repentance. Paul urged gentleness toward him so they would not increase his sorrow by their severity (2 Corinthians 2:7). He wrote they should “forgive … comfort … confirm … love toward him” (2 Corinthians 2:7-8). This is consistent with how he instructed the church at Galatia that they were to restore a repentant one “in a spirit of meekness” (Galatians 6:1).

Paul’s Gentle Example

Paul particularly taught ministers were to be marked by gentleness (2 Timothy 2:24-25; Titus 3:2). He also modeled gentleness in his ministry (1 Thessalonians 2:7). He likewise taught and modeled it to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 6:3-6, 10-11; 7:9). Paul was deliberate in his gentleness. It was his preferred manner (2 Corinthians 13:10). He could be severe when he believed he needed to be (2 Corinthians 13:2).

Paul was criticized in Corinth because of his gentleness. As is often the case, it was mistaken for weakness and he was put down because of it (2 Corinthians 10:1, 9-10). Paul could be so bold as to be gentle because he had confidence in the work of the Spirit in the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 1:15; 2:3; 7:16; 8:22; 10:2). He could speak to them the word of God in humility and meekness and have patience for the Spirit’s work. He set an example all ministers and church members should follow because we have confidence in the Spirit (Colossians 3:12-17; Ephesians 4:32).

Hold that Bird

Birds innumerable have met their end in the hands of many church members. Honest questions can be met with immediately hostile answers. The weak can be pushed down rather than helped. Like the Corinthians, we can be in danger of overloading sorrow on a repentant one. Sure, severity is needed at times, but remember it takes wisdom to use severity well. We should also remember that the true wisdom that comes from above is “pure … peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (James 3:17-18). May we manifest good “works with meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13). Don’t kill the bird. Start with gentleness. Be guided by wisdom.

Cheesy Fingers

And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. ~ 2 Timothy 4:4

And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. ~ 2 Timothy 4:4

You have probably heard the humorous observation of how Christians sometimes pray to ask God to make up for our bad choices. We’ll grab a bag of cheese puffs and a high-sugar, high-caffeine soda and then pray to ask God to bless it to the nourishment of our bodies. If we truly want our bodies to be nourished, apart from a transformative miracle from God, then we must dramatically increase the quality of food we are feeding our bodies.

While that is humorous and hits closer to home than we would like, I wonder how often this is true of our spiritual lives. How often are we snacking on spiritually equivalent cheese coated puffs of air while praying and hoping that our souls will be nourished somehow? One place this is very apparent is our approach to church.

God has designed the church to facilitate the spiritual growth and maturation of its members. This is not the only purpose of the church, but it is a very important purpose. Paul taught this in his letter to the church at Ephesus:

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.
~ Ephesians 4:11-16

One of the consequences of “the edifying of the body” is “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” The apostle has spiritual maturity in mind. He wants to see the Christians grow up and become men and women of the Word.

So the church is one of the means of sanctification in our lives, yet so few people think of it this way. Many want a church just like they want their snacks—sweet and light and causing a momentary good feeling. A person cannot live on snack food, at least not very long or well.

Paul put this craving this way:

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
~ 2 Timothy 4:3-4

Paul warned Timothy that people would not endure sound teaching, but would seek out snacks for their cravings. He described these people as having “itching ears.” You would think he was talking about America, because we certainly have itching ears. Apparently, we are scratching those ears with cheesy fingers.

I Would Leave Your Church

On September 11, 2009 in Minneapolis, MN, the Religious Newswriters Association held a meeting, which featured a Q&A panel for reporters. The topic was: The New Calvinists. The panel consisted of three members: Collin Hansen, John Piper, and Carolyn James. Each panelist made a 15-minute opening statement and then the floor was opened for the various reporters from local and national news entities to pose questions to them about the New Calvinist movement.

Special Annual Issue

Special Annual Issue

This topic has enjoyed a broader interest since Time magazine mentioned it earlier in the year. The special March 23, 2009 issue featured a cover story entitled: 10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now. The New Calvinism ranked third among the ten ideas listed.

  1. Jobs are the New Assets
  2. Recycling the Suburbs
  3. The New Calvinism
  4. Reinstating the Interstate
  5. Amortality
  6. Africa, Business Destination
  7. The Rent-a-Country
  8. Biobanks
  9. Survival Stores
  10. Ecological Intelligence

Time magazine brought this movement to the attention of a more secular audience and has piqued their interest. 2009 has proven to be a year of intense discussion about religion in America, but it is unclear what fruit will be produced from it. Now, let’s turn our attention back to the meeting in Minneapolis.

A Question of Offense
During the open floor, reporter Cathy Grossman from USA Today addressed a question to John Piper about his opening statement. Piper led his opening statement with how his calvinism deals with the tragedy of 9/11. In summary, the question on September 12th was: Where was God? He responded that God was not helpless nor unable to stop it, but was in charge and in control. He then mentioned what he would say eight years later to children who had lost parents then. He would still tell them God was sovereign over that moment and that same sovereign God, Who is wise and good, will help them in the hard life they have been given. To this Ms. Grossman asked:

If you could please go back to your opening comments about what you would tell the children who lost their parents, because I must have misunderstood you . . . If I lost a spouse and I took my child to your church and I heard you say those things, I would take my child out and never come back. So, clearly I misunderstood.

Though he would go on to say more, Piper immediately responded:

Not necessarily.

Before we go any further, let’s deal with the disclaimers. I am not naive enough to think that I can comprehend everything Ms. Grossman was thinking or feeling from her few brief comments and question. I don’t know all her motivation. This post is not to criticize her and really is not about her. Neither is this post about the theological and practical problem of reconciling the sovereignty of God and the reality of evil and suffering in the world. To that I will simply commend John Piper’s statements as right in a very brief setting.

What is this post about? I want to take the brief exchange quoted above as an opportunity to generalize about very real attitudes and reactions people have to offensive truths.

Offensive Truth
The Bible is a book of absolute truth and absolute truth is a hard rock that busts realities, ideas, thoughts, philosophies, knowledge, teachings, etc. into two categories: true and false, i.e. true and not-true. Absolute truth is always exclusive and therefore offensive to those whose “truth” is excluded.

As long as a church is believing, preaching, teaching, and practicing the Bible, there will be many points where people are offended. The relativism that permeates the worldviews of many demands that offended sensibilities trump truth. In other words, if your truth claim offends me, it is not true, or at the very least you should not speak it. Many come into church services prepared to make for the aft exit as soon as their delicate offense reactors are tripped.

In the face of threatened departure, some trim and soften their message to at least minimize the potential offensiveness. We should speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We should be gentle and patient while instructing in meekness (2 Timothy 2:24-25). But we should never compromise or hold back the truth to protect the hypersensitive feelings of the crowd.

The truth is: If Jesus Himself were there teaching and preaching, many would take offense and leave. This is no new phenomenon. After Jesus had taught some hard truths, He saw many leave.

From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.
~ John 6:66

Did Jesus trim or soften His message? Did He re-think the way He was “doing church”? No. He turned to the twelve and simply asked, “Will ye also go away?” (John 6:67).

We certainly don’t want to offend unnecessarily, but neither can we avoid offending if that means compromising or concealing the truth. When we are faced with, “I would leave your church,” may we remain courageous and faithful and pray for those who so oppose themselves.

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