Never assume that smart people know what they’re talking about.

Especially when it comes to the Bible.

I’m reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer-winning The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismIt’s excellent if you’re into that sort of thing. I am.

Today, though, an aside caught my eye. President Roosevelt, having asked Taft twice to return from his post as governor of the Philippines twice to serve on the Supreme Court, wrote him a third time to insist that he return to replace the retiring Secretary of War.

“You will think I am a variety of the horse leech’s daughter,” Roosevelt began, alluding to the biblical parable in which a blacksmith’s perpetually dissatisfied daughter demands ever more of him.

My first thought was “I know the Bible decently well, and I have no idea what she’s talking about.” So I took advantage of my vast theological library Googled it.

Roosevelt is referring to Proverbs 30:15, which starts out “The leech has two daughters: Give and Give.” It can also be translated “The leech has two daughters; ‘Give! Give!’ they cry.” Admittedly it’s a strange verse, having to do with forces in nature that are never satisfied.

At any rate, the KJV uses the word “horseleach,” which is a certain type of leech, but also apparently a term for a veterinarian or blacksmith for horses. The Bible verse, though, is referring to the leech.

This is fun, isn’t it. But here’s the relevance: You can see how Goodwin got where she got. However, in regards to Roosevelt’s allusion,

  1. There is no parable, just [a half of] a proverb.
  2. There is no blacksmith, and therefore no blacksmith’s daughter.

Goodwin is a smart person and a good writer. In all likelihood, she read this obscure reference from Roosevelt, looked up a couple of things, and patched together a backstory. It’s just that the backstory was wrong. It’s a little more interesting is that no one in the pipeline– Goodwin, research assistants, editors– was familiar enough with the Bible to raise an eyebrow. But even there, hard to criticize non-Christians for not knowing obscure Bible passages super well.

Here’s the point: Smart people get things wrong, just like the rest of us. People with Pulitzers and PhD’s are human. They have gaps in their knowledge and understanding, to say nothing of the little biases and mental tricks we’re all prone to. This problem is magnified when the Bible is involved. People who know very little about it feel very confident in making bold assertions about its contents and their value. (I’m not accusing Goodwin of this.)

Never assume that something’s true just because a smart person said it.

Remember that the next time you read something about the Bible that makes you say “wait, what?”

***

Note: It’s possible that I’ve missed something here, that Goodwin is right and I’m wrong. If that’s true, I invite you, kind reader, to bring evidence to my attention, and perhaps you will prove my larger point by refuting my example.

In defense of Facebragging, sort of

You know Facebragging– always only posting amazingly flattering pictures and giddy exclamations about how great life is. Your 857 friends roll their eyes but dutifully click “like” so you’re good and validated. Don’t be that guy.

However, if you read through my timeline, I’m aware that you’ll see tons of cute and funny kid pictures, lots of funny kid quotes, occasional links to things I find interesting, and not much else. Even on Twitter, where I’m purposefully more unfiltered, I don’t share much about bad days. Perhaps this makes me sort of a Facebragger. But I have reasons.

First, in the share-ALL-the-things moment we’re living in, it makes sense to have a bit of a filter. I’m all for being real, for permission not to be OK, all that. But I have… hang on a sec… 901 Facebook friends. (I feel like I crossed 1000 at some point. Hm.) I am under no obligation to be as “real” with all those people as I am with my wife, close friends, coworkers. The idea of 901 people knowing that the combination of sin, stress, and sinus headache is making me not at all fun to be around today is not appealing to me. If the first days of spring are making me glad I’m alive, I’m a little more likely to share that.

The second reason is one I feel more strongly about. My family is not perfect. We (yes, all of us) have tantrums and inappropriate talk and whining on a daily basis. But my family is also freaking fantastic. I am more than happy to highlight how much I love our adventures, and since we have friends on several continents I’m grateful for how Facebook lets us see and share day-to-day stuff. When one of our kids is having a hard day or does something embarrassing, that’s not to share with everybody. If a picture or story doesn’t communicate “this kid is awesome and I love being their dad,” it’s not going online. One day, my kids will be able to look through my digital footprint or whatever, and I hope that’s their takeaway: Dad always loved being my dad.

I don’t suggest we Facebrag, selectively sharing to make our life look like a comparatively flawless paradise of awesomeness. Facebook permanently proved its worth to us when Eliza was sick, allowing us to easily share what was going on and helping mobilize people to pray. Just this week I learned via Facebook of a crushing blow suffered by some friends we’re not in close touch with anymore, and I was able to grieve and pray for them. I appreciate honesty in any and every forum.

I do suggest we think about what and why we’re sharing. Christians in particular are to let our speech be gracious, seasoned with salt. I suspect Paul would also say something like “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, post about these things.”

Sex makes smart people do stupid things

There’s no shortage of stories of sex scandals involving famous people, but one that sticks out to me is David Petraeus.  You’re probably familiar: He’s an American 4-star general who led (at different times) the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, then served as head of the CIA. A brilliant guy. He literally wrote the book on counter-insurgent warfare. He was touted as presidential candidate without people even really knowing what his political views were.

Then, just after last November’s election, Petraeus suddenly resigned after only a year at the CIA. It turned out he had had an extramarital affair with a woman who wrote his biography. The affair was discovered by CIA investigators, who look into these things because the last thing you want in the intelligence community is skeletons in the closet that open you up to blackmail.

Now this guy is talented, high-achieving, promising, disciplined, and smart. (One of my favorite stories: In the early 90’s, Petraeus was accidentally shot in the chest with M-16 rifle during a training exercise. He had major surgery, then left the hospital early after showing doctors he could do 50 pushups, without a break, a few days after being shot in the chest with an M-16.) He knows how to defeat terrorist organizations on their own turf. Yet he was brought down by a run-of-the-mill sex scandal, a series of stupid decisions, and some embarrassing emails with an attractive woman who fawned over him.

A fairly obvious point from this: Sex makes very smart, very wise, very competent people do very stupid things. That’s because sex is very good and very powerful. It’s kind of like a nuclear power plant: very good when working properly, very difficult to restrain when things get out of hand.

It’s designed that way.

adapted from the intro to a recent sermon on the 7th Commandment

Indulgences

The Protestant Reformation was kicked off on the issue of indulgences. This was a practice of the medieval Roman Catholic Church: to oversimplify, the pope could release your soul, or someone else’s, from time in purgatory as a reward for you doing a good deed. Like, mmm, I don’t know, giving money to the church. Just thinking out loud.

Pretty tidy arrangement. Do whatever bad deed you’re into, pony up a little cash and you’re good.

We still have these today, especially for the rich and famous. So Al Gore’s house can have a carbon footprint the size of Montana, but it’s OK, because he buys carbon offsets. (He owns stock in a company that sells the carbon offsets, but that’s neither here nor there.) Bono can spend over a grand to fly his hat first-class because he also spends a lot of time asking other people to give their money to the poor. Obama can run a drone war and get a pass, because he’s not George Bush he supports gay marriage (now).

But that’s just the low-hanging fruit. We do this too. I don’t want all the moral demands of worshiping the living God, but I do give money to charity, so I’m good. I dealt with Hard Person A earlier today, so I should be OK to ignore Hard Person B tonight. I’ve already moved 5000 miles for Jesus; do I really have to engage with the homeless guy I pass on the way to work?

Indulgences are just one more way we seek to justify ourselves. One more dead-end street. There is none righteous, no, not one. The less we try to explain that away, the better the Remedy will look to us.

Greener grass

A couple of weeks ago Melissa had a guest post on our friend Annie’s blog. Side note: our friend Annie is a real writer, and a good one. Check out her book, especially if you have tween or teenage girls.

Melissa’s post was about how single women can love their mom friends. We’ve heard a good bit of advice on how married folks can love (and be sensitive to) singles– advice we need and appreciate– and not much going the other way. I am far from objective but thought her post was terrific. Also, Annie the Real Writer had a good response the next day.

One theme that emerged in the comments was that singles and parents want what each other has. Parents (myself included) look at our single friends and see sleeping late on Saturdays, spontaneous dinners out, freedom from worrying about whether somebody should go to the doctor, etc. But mostly the sleep. I cannot emphasize this enough.

At the same time, singles look at families and see love with security, a deep sense of home, belonging. For many, the family with kids and all the craziness that whole scene brings is the picture of what they want, and fear they might not get. I remember how much I ached for kids of my own, even when surrounded by friends’ kids I loved.

The grass is always greener on the other side.

It’s tempting to respond to this tendency with a sort of equivalency argument. “Well, some things are better about being single; some things are better about being married with kids.” But that’s kind of cheap. It’s not a zero sum game. I do miss sleep (and Melissa misses a lot more of it), but I wouldn’t trade being a dad for anything. I love our family life, but it means other relationships go on the back burner. Less time to do things that are fun and good. There are gains and there are losses, and to try to equal them out cheapens both.

When we have our “grass is greener” moments, we shouldn’t indulge them and grow bitter at those who have what we want. But maybe we shouldn’t talk ourselves out of them with “well, at least” arguments, either. I think, instead, we must acknowledge that there is much that is beautiful and much that is hard in every season. The hard doesn’t take away the beauty, nor the beauty the hardness. They’re both just there. We can relish one, mourn the other, and know that most of both is temporary. The greenest pastures here have nothing on those beyond. And there we’ll get all the rest we need.

Guys, man up and show your love.

This fall the Bible study we host in our home is studying lesser-known OT figures. This week was Jonathan, the son of Saul and friend of David.

There are several passages describing David and Jonathan’s friendship.

As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.
(1 Samuel 18:1-4)

And as soon as the boy had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground and bowed three times. And they kissed one another and wept with one another, David weeping the most. Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, because we have sworn both of us in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring, forever.’” And he rose and departed, and Jonathan went into the city.
(1 Samuel 20:41-42)

“How the mighty have fallen
in the midst of the battle!
“Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.
(2 Samuel 1:25-26)

Be honest: These passages make you a little uncomfortable, don’t they? They do me. I don’t talk like this with my guy friends. And as you might expect, there’s no shortage of speculation about the details of David and Jonathan’s relationship. Interestingly, the same is true of Abraham Lincoln. There are ridiculously unsubstantiated fringe rumors that Lincoln was homosexual, based on his healthy friendships with men and the fact that he shared a bed with another man in a rooming-house– an entirely normal practice in his day.

In fact, read letters between men from about 1900 or earlier and you’ll be surprised at how open they are in expressing affection. In contrast, guys today typically express our positive regard by making fun of each other, or we don’t express it at all. Our loss. (It’s worth noting that David and Jonathan, who were willing to express themselves as above, were quite masculine, what with all the bear/lion/giant-killing and the multiple-soldiers-overtaking and such. It’s not like they were over at the coffeehouse reading Derrida all day.)

Why is this? I think that, ironically, it has to do with our culture’s obsession with normalizing homosexuality and blurring the distinction between the sexes. It is very rare that you’ll find an article about Christianity and homosexuality that doesn’t bring up David and Jonathan (or, even more strangely, Naomi and Ruth). The reason that’s ironic is that the alleged sexual liberators are supposed to be the ones who are comfortable with people being secure and free about their feelings. But let two men express affection, and suddenly they’re a closet case. Men have learned this lesson, and now we know: Don’t show your love for another dude. It’ll be taken the wrong way.

It’s a shame that this is where we are. It’s a shame that our culture can’t appreciate masculinity and femininity in all their varied forms, that we have to flatten the distinctions and ignore the obvious, lest we be accused of bigotry. But we don’t have to bow to it, guys. We need good, healthy, life-giving, and yes, affectionate relationships with other men. Part of getting there is being willing to express our love for each other, without fearing that it will make things weird.

Jesus isn’t a jerk, but sometimes he’s awkward.

In John 4 Jesus is having a perfectly nice conversation with a Samaritan woman. By the standards of the day he’s being nice to talk to her in the first place, her being a woman and a Samaritan and all (v. 9). And he gives her a beautiful picture of the Gospel:

Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (4:13-14)

She’s sold. She wants this water. She asks for it. Then Jesus makes it awkward.

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (4:16-18)

Now this isn’t Jesus having a little faux pas, like when my dental hygienist apologized for hurting me and I said “That’s ok, if you came to me for marriage counseling I’d probably make you cry,” and she said “You’re probably right. I went through a divorce a couple years ago…” It wasn’t like that at all, because Jesus isn’t a blabbering fool like me. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows this woman has a particular sin pattern, and right at the point where she seems ready to believe his message, he baits her and brings it right out into the open.

In the process of sharing the Gospel, Jesus pointed directly to someone’s obvious, external, sexual sin.

Can you imagine what we’d say if we heard someone preaching the Gospel like this? We’d call him a fundamentalist, or at least a jerk. We’d say he wasn’t being missional, or incarnational, or sensitive. We all know that kind of preaching is no good anymore.

But Jesus isn’t a jerk, and he went there.

My point is certainly not that we should go around constantly pointing fingers at people’s external sins. There were plenty of times Jesus didn’t do this. Also there’s the whole omniscience thing, and the fact that he knew things about this woman she didn’t know about herself. And we can be certain that what he did here was out of love, out of a desire for this woman’s good, not a desire to shame or humiliate her.

But Jesus’ love is often very different from our culture’s view of love. In the case of this woman, the rest of the conversation shows she’s very willing to talk about spiritual things, but always wanting to keep it on the level of the theoretical. So he shows his love for her by poking that bubble. He makes it personal, brings it down to earth. “You’re a sinner, and you need a Savior.”

We cannot be more loving than Jesus. We can’t be kinder or wiser or more sensitive or more missional than he was. And yet, sometimes he was quite abrupt, even awkward. (As we see here, it wasn’t always with conservative religious types.) We don’t have the exhaustive knowledge or wisdom he does, but surely there are times when we should speak with that same kind of boldness.

Reflections from nerd camp

One of the pleasant side effects of our unexpected summer in the States is that I was able to attend my denomination’s General Assembly, a yearly gathering of all our pastors and elders. Or, as I like to call it, PCA nerd camp.

GA has it all: Motions. Substitute motions. Points of order. An exhibitors’ hall with swag. If for some reason that doesn’t do it for you, there’s also seeing old friends, singing “A Mighty Fortress” with 1000 other dudes, and good restaurants within walking distance.

There is plenty of boring minutiae. (Did you pick that up in the last paragraph? I was being subtle.) And yes, we Reformed guys do like to debate, on some things others don’t think are worth debating. Of the two hot topics this year, neither vote went the way I wanted. But overall it’s great. Some of my favorite moments from this year.

  • I went to a seminar on ministering to people with same-sex attraction (put on by Harvest USA, which is a great org). I sat near the front, and at the end glanced back behind me. There were about 30-50 of us– largely uncool middle-aged pastors and lay leaders, most of whom do not pastor edgy urban churches where you’d expect to hear this topic. Middle-aged suburban conservative evangelicals: This was a crowd of people who, according to everything you hear in the New York Times, should absolutely detest homosexuals and anything having to do with them. And yet there we were, learning how to reach out to them with the love of Jesus.
  • Our denomination is overwhelmingly white, but we’re trying to do a better job of reaching all cultures. At one lunch I heard from an African American brother, reporting on our growing number of black and multi-ethnic churches. “After 30 years in this denomination,” he said, “I no longer feel alone.” We also have a growing outreach to Hispanic communities, and 2 churches made up mostly of Native Americans, one of which is led by a Native American pastor. And again, all the upper-middle-class white folks are thrilled with this. Eager for it.
  • Lots of little overheard conversations: An older pastor encouraging a younger guy who’s looking for a job. Not giving him political tips, but reminding him to be himself, speak humbly but boldly, and trust that God has a place for him. An Iraq veteran who worked at the convention center talking to one of our Navy chaplains, who went into counseling mode when the guy brought up something personal. Several pastors who saw Prague on my name tag and were excited to hear about the growth of the church there.

My denomination is one small corner of the household of God. We certainly don’t get everything right, and we have our own sinful tendencies. We’re a family with issues, like everyone else. But I was grateful to spend a few days with a thousand other ordinary pastors who love God and his church. Most of us will never be famous or noteworthy, but Jesus sees, and he loves us. May that be enough for us.

Little things

I had a doctor’s appointment today. (I’m fine. Thanks.) The doctor told me some meds to pick up, so my plan was to take a tram, then a bus, hop off the bus to run into a pharmacy, then back on the bus to go home.

I was lost in some very deep and important thought on the tram, and missed my stop. (This happens more than I’d like to admit.) The next one was close, so I walked back up the hill to the previous stop to catch the bus. Mildly annoyed at all the steps involved in my afternoon, although for Prague they weren’t bad.

Just before the bus stop, I saw a welcome sight: the bright green plus sign that’s universal (well, here) for a lékárna, or pharmacy. I stepped in, got what I needed, and was out in less than 2 minutes. No hopping off the bus, or waiting to hop back on the bus. I probably saved about 30 minutes by going to that pharmacy instead of my usual one. Nice little moment.

Our days– everyone’s– have plenty of hard moments. There were probably people in that doctor’s office today who got bad news. But our days also have thousands of these nice little moments– when things don’t go as badly as they could, or some small thing works out. It’s nice when God pulls back the curtain a bit to let us see and appreciate one of those thousand little things.

I see what you did there.

Recent train of thought:

I think I’m ready to want an iPad. Not that I’ll buy one, just ready to want one.

If I had an iPad, I’d subscribe to some periodicals and read them on it… National Review, maybe a theological journal or two… it would be worth the money…

Oooohhh.

And that’s why Apple has more cash on hand than the US government.

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