Saturday, July 18, 2009

Do Words Mean Things?

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, like many nominees, has come under fire for the things she has said.

In defending her judicial philosophy that she would hope that a ‘wise Latina’ would make a better judgment than a white male, Judge Sotomayor pointed to a remark that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had made: that a wise woman and wise man should be able to come to the same conclusion. Judge Sotomayor, contrasting their respective statements, concluded that Justice O’Connor could not have meant what she said.

Judge Sotomayor also defended these and other of her remarks by claiming that she was ‘misunderstood’.

Let’s review: a justice is required to take the words of another, apply them to a set of facts, and issue a ruling that explains the application of words to facts.

In Judge Sotomayor we have a Supreme Court nominee in whom are combined first, the presumptive ability to discern what a Supreme Court Justice could not have meant by her plain words, and second, the almost unbelievable inability to make herself ‘understood’.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

'Profit Motive' or 'Bank for the Buck'?

In promoting his ambitious reprise of Hillary Care, President Barack Obama addressed the concerns some Americans have expressed regarding the government panel responsible for deciding what treatment would be granted under government health care.

Obama pointed out that the market system has its own "panel of experts" in the insurance officials who approve payment, and that his "experts" are better. Obama was asked why people should be willing to abandon the market's experts for government experts, exchanging the devil they know for the devil they don't know.

According to Obama, the current system utilizes health care dispensers who are governed by the "profit motive," while government health care dispensers under the government system are governed instead by how to "get the most bang for the health-care buck."

Despite all the utopian haranguing, this is, it seems, a distinction without a difference.

That is, if market health insurers are seeking a "profit motive" in attempting to serve its customers while keeping costs as low as possible, this seems remarkably similar to Obama's omniscient, beneficent panel attempting to keep government health care costs as low as possible.

The real difference in the two schemes is something Obama and universal care proponents don't wish to acknowledge: that the "profit motive" inherently includes the profiteer's realization that he must also please his customers, or those customers will find another insurer.

Getting "the most for the health-care buck" under Obama-care revolves around the government attempting to keep costs low (so that the 'savings -- read, 'profit', can be spent on bridges to nowhere). The government -- in contrast with those 'evil' profiteers -- does not need to concern itself with satisfying its customers, as our experience with the United States Postal Service should confirm.

Do we really want the same people who mangle our magazines and crush our FRAGILE boxes to determine when and how we should receive a proctological exam?

Is good health care a moral good? Sure. Is health insurance the only way to deliver good health care? No. Is government the better option? No. Government only does a few things well, and attempting to be a market player in the delivery of goods and services is not one of them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Theft OK if Booty is for Education

In an article entitled “$100 mill. pulled from Rainy Day Fund”, it is reported that the cash-strapped State of Alabama is delaying sending out tax refund checks because public education is in proration and there is an anticipated shortfall of funds.

WFSA anchorman Bob Howell described the situation aptly in suggesting that taxpayers aren’t getting their refunds yet because education is a higher priority.

Apparently, per the article, “By state law the education system has to be funded before refunds are sent out.”

Let’s review some facts:

· There is a “Rainy Day Fund” for education from which $100 million has been pulled.
· There is apparently much more left in the “Rainy Day Fund.”
· Tax refunds are the money that the State has OVER-COLLECTED from taxpayers.
· OVER-COLLECTED taxes do not belong to the State.

I don’t know about you, but I would suspect that the average taxpayer who is due a “refund” doesn’t have the luxury of a “Rainy Day Fund” from which to operate when money is tight.

By the way, a tax “refund” is no such thing. It is, actually, a “return” of money that never belonged to the State and shouldn’t have been taken out of the taxpayers’ pocket. But Orwellian language manipulation is at work when the document taxpayers send to the government to report how much money they made is referred to as a “tax return”, giving the impression that taxpayers are giving something back to the government, while the government’s return of the taxpayers’ money – which it never should have had – is deemed a “refund”. Go figure.

Conceivably, then, if someone in Alabama state government decides that education had not been properly funded, no taxpayer will receive his “refund.”

There are many indications that public education has taken on a level of importance in our society wholly incommensurate with its actual worth: bloated bureaucracy, teachers’ unions in lock-step with liberal apparatchiks, poor graduation rates, totalitarian control over content. But delayed “refunds” should reveal just how subservient society has become to public education.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t advocate educational anarchy. But public education is supposed to be a servant of the people. Government is supposed to be a servant of the people. They are not supposed to collude together in thievery against the taxpayer.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

How to Listen to a Sermon, OR What to Demand of Preachers (Part 1)

Part of healthy church life is faithful expository preaching. In fact, one could say that expository preaching is foundational to the life and health of any local congregation. (see Mark Dever’s 9Marks of a Healthy Church analysis here.)

Much is written for preachers to help them prepare biblical, expository sermons. One would think that listening to them doesn’t require much instruction. After all, everyone should already know how to do that.

Years ago, Mortimer Adler wrote How to Read a Book. Material abounded to help authors write books, but Adler demonstrated that just because someone possesses the mechanical skill to read it doesn’t necessarily give him the ability to comprehend a book. In the same way, just because someone possesses the mechanical ability to hear doesn’t necessarily mean that he is able to listen to a sermon.

What I hope to do in this series is explore the issues related not to the producing of sermons, but to the reception of them, both to increase the congregation’s expectations of what should occur when a preacher preaches, and to edify the body of Christ to the glory of God.

What Is a Sermon?

The concept of sermons and preaching has entered the vernacular of our conversation in many ways. When someone is trying to tell us what to do, we might tell him “Quit preaching at me!” Or we might describe his attempt at persuasion as “sermonizing.”

For now, we might define preaching as “proclaiming, explaining and applying the Bible” and a sermon as “a particular event of preaching.” Given those definitions, it is still quite possible that someone might tell the one delivering a sermon “Quit preaching at me!” and it is still quite possible for him to be guilty of “sermonizing.” It is also quite possible that those who think they are delivering sermons are actually more soporific than watching paint dry.

What might be helpful in this discussion (because I wish someone had told me these things long ago) will be such things as How to Tell Good from Bad Sermons, How to Listen to a Bad Sermon, and How to Wake from Dozing During a Bad Sermon and Make Others Believe You Were Listening. For now, it might be appropriate to talk about what sermons are not.

That, however, will be the topic of Part 2.

Disciple Making and the Great Commission Resurgence

At the recent Southern Baptist Convention held in Louisville, the SBC voted to appoint a task force charged with examining if and how the axioms of a Great Commission Resurgence (Dr. Danny Akin) should be implemented in the denomination.

It seems that a primary concern of Dr. Akin and others is that the prior Conservative Resurgence in the denomination has not translated to an appropriate increase in emphasis on and success in evangelism and missions.

For Southern Baptist Christ-followers holding to the Bible as God’s revelation to man, it should go without saying that we should “content earnestly for the faith” (Jude 1:3) as historically understood by Baptists, an idea represented by the Conservative Resurgence. It should further come as no surprise that we should be concerned to understand and obey Christ’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), an intent expressed in Dr. Akin’s Axioms and the Resolution passed by the SBC.

In many efforts to counter error or address inadequacies, however, there is a tendency in those efforts to distort the overall teaching of which the particular emphasis is a subset. For instance, efforts to counter teachings of works-salvation sometimes give the appearance of antinomianism. Efforts to counter cheap grace sometimes give the appearance of legalism.

While I do not suggest that Dr. Akin and other proponents of a Great Commission Resurgence have contributed to such a distortion – or that such a thing exists, at all – some of the language appearing in commentary surrounding this issue could lead to an unfortunate misunderstanding of the Great Commission (or serve to reveal that such a misunderstanding already exists).

Because the Conservative Resurgence was aimed at securing Southern Baptist doctrinal foundations, some characterize its focus as “inward.” And, because the Great Commission Resurgence aims to re-examine our denomination in terms of missions and evangelism, some characterize its focus, in contrast, as “outward.” Similarly, some denominational focus is characterized as being “local”, while the focus of the GCR is characterized as “missional” – addressing evangelism and missions across the globe.

Yet the Great Commission as found in Matthew 28:18-20 doesn’t seem to draw those distinctions, and certainly doesn’t support the inward-outward/local-missional dichotomy that seems to be presumed in these discussions.

Jesus commissions his church to “make disciples.” These disciples are made in the local church, and disciples made in the local church are ones who make other disciples. Truly, when disciples are taught to “observe all that I [Jesus] commanded you” they will behave as disciples, making other disciples, both near and far. Biblical doctrine leads to a desire for biblical obedience. Orthodoxy produces orthopraxy.

Some have suggested that when we are too “inward”, “missions” is neglected. This may be true, but not because there is such a distinction inherent in disciple making. And what is sometimes forgotten is that if we play into this supposed dichotomy and focus only on the “outward”, disciple-making is neglected.

The reason, perhaps, that we see either the “inward” or the “outward” being neglected at various times is that we act on a false dichotomy. “Disciple making” requires both inward-outward and local-missional in balance. Let us not forget that Jesus does not divide the Great Commission task into “inward” and “outward” elements, but simply commands us to “make disciples.”

The interest shown in a Great Commission Resurgence is encouraging, but my hope is that the SBC’s exploration of the matter will address this perspective.

After all, if we were truly making disciples, lamentations over the lack of evangelism should be moot.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Church Health: Catching the Summertime Blues

It seems to be fairly common practice for churches to cancel or limit services during the summer, the most common victim of this summer sacrifice being the Sunday evening service (for those churches that still have one).

I suppose the theory is that summer is the time when most church members are vacationing and attendance will be down.

But this cause/effect relationship leaves us with compelling questions. First, if lower attendance means eliminating services, then we should also cut the Sunday morning service and the Wednesday night supper/prayer meeting. After all, very few vacationers stick around for the Sunday morning service, and none come back from the beach for Wednesday's pot luck supper or for a progress report on Aunt Matilda's bunion.

If lower attendance is not the reason for cutting summer services, then perhaps it is too avoid offending the consciences of vacationers. One cannot feel guilty about missing church if there is no church to miss. But, alas, this also leads to other problems. If cutting evening services eases the beach-bound member's conscience, then why cut only one service? The conscience would be eased three times as much if all three weekly services were cut. Furthermore, if easing the conscience is the goal, why ease it only in summer? Why not cut Sunday morning services during hunting season? Why not cut them when a big golf tournament is going?

So, if neither low attendance nor easing the conscience is the goal, perhaps it is something as yet unconsidered. Perhaps we cut services during the summer because members need them less. Perhaps we've worshiped God enough during the previous nine months: we've built up a "worship credit" against which to draw while we absorb the rays. Or, perhaps we've fellowshiped enough with believers and need to spread joy among the unchurched on the beach.

Or, perhaps there is less need to feed the sheep and guard the flock during the summer months. Spiritual ignorance, indwelling sin, and spiritual warfare are, perhaps, inversely proportional to the number of vacations the congregation takes.

So, if our spiritual leaders are concerned about their members' collective conscience, unused 'worship credit', fellowshiping with the unchurched, and spiritual vitality, there is, really, only one conclusion to reach: more vacations means more spiritual vitality, and the deacon board should mandate that members stay away from church year-round, so that piety and church health can reach new levels.

Hypocrisy and Gov. Sanford

Many authors have documented that the image of religious people – particularly Christians – held by non-religious people is dominated by the idea of hypocrisy. Southern Baptists were stung a bit recently when an informal poll taken by Thom Rainer resulted in summary description of us as teetotaling-fundamentalist-legalistic-fried-chicken-eating-bingo-parlor-opposing hypocrites.

Governor Mark Sanford earned the “hypocrite” label when it was discovered that he was committing adultery with an Argentine. His “hypocrisy”? Having been married with kids while committing the adultery.

This is not new, of course, as Jesus himself pasted the hypocrite label on the religious leaders of his day.

But it seems that in many cases the label “hypocrite” is thrown on anyone who sins, and who has formerly said, in one fashion or another, that we shouldn’t sin.

But is that hypocrisy? Is Governor Sanford a hypocrite?

Southern Baptists are rightfully called hypocrites when we spend such time and energy on certain sins – gambling, liquor – while completely ignoring others – greed, materialism, idolatry.
Hypocrisy is NOT when a man believes, or even states, that adultery is wrong, and that his covenant with his wife is sacrosanct, yet then commits adultery. That is simply sin. Hypocrisy is not when one believes that false witness is wrong, but then lies about something. That is simply sin.

Hypocrisy is the idea that one can say something is wrong only for others. If Gov. Sanford had explained himself with the claim that what he did wasn’t really adultery (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms Lewinsky”), or that it was alright for governors to do but not citizens, that would be hypocrisy.

If Southern Baptists claim that because they don’t gamble or drink, they have no sin problem, that is hypocrisy. If Southern Baptists claim that liquor is wrong for everyone else, while maintaining a lifestyle of drinking, that is hypocrisy. If Southern Baptists claim that God is not concerned with gluttony, lying, materialism, or adultery (except when Gov. Sanford commits it), that is hypocrisy.