Learning From Lincoln

LincolnI have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent history of Lincoln’s political rise and presidency, “A Team Of Rivals.” While I’m far from done, I have already found in this book why I love history so much. History is, next to the Word of God itself, the greatest teacher of humanity. Sadly, history is the last thing on most minds in 2014.

One of the temptations to avoid in studying history is making heroes of people who were, in every respect, human and ordinary. The times a person lives in often draw out the extraordinary in them and this is no less true of Lincoln. Kearns Goodwin’s book does an excellent job of balancing the extraordinary and ordinary in Lincoln. I believe he was as ethical a president as we have ever had. Still, he strikes me as a man who wouldn’t just capture your attention right away; at least until he started talking. He strikes me as human in all the best ways you can say that.

But as a person and a leader, here is what I am learning from Lincoln in this book.

1. From lemons to lemonade. Life’s a struggle. Learning about Lincoln’s battle to educate himself was truly an inspiration. He did not have access to the best schools in the land or professional degrees, but that only pushed him to want to learn more. I laughed when I learned that Lincoln spent the 1853 circuit semester trying to master Geometry. (I stunk in Geometry in High School but have wanted to take a summer course on it for several years to see if I would get it now). Lincoln was forever trying to improve himself. That’s a trait in the greatest leaders. I’m inspired because I feel I have so much more to learn and Lincoln’s story has added a ton of fuel to the fire.

2. Slow and steady wins the race…  Patience and persistence ought to go together. Instant gratification is always short-lived and fleeting. Life offers no easy buttons and, if we think about that just long enough, we might actually recognize what a good thing that is. The best things in life come from toil, sweat, patience, and persistence. Lincoln’s trek to the presidency was unlikely only because of the sheer amount of failure he experienced along the way. In 1854 and 1858, Lincoln lost two races for US Senate…painfully. Two years later Lincoln was elected president of these here United States.

Frederick_Douglass_c1860s3. All men are created equal.  Lincoln’s favorite expression from the Declaration of Independence was a motto for his life. Frederick Douglass noted that Lincoln was the only white man he ever knew who didn’t talk to him like he was only noting the color of his skin. Just as Lincoln is powerfully human, it seems he was good at expecting nothing more and nothing less from others as well. When he appointed so many political opponents to his cabinet, he was showing extraordinary grace to men who probably didn’t deserve the grace, but were still right for their positions. He was above holding grudges. AMEN. Life’s way too short for that.

4. The importance of ethics. I think it was his ethics and magnanimity which made allies of former opponents. Lincoln had paid the price for sticking to his ethics. He was also rewarded many times over for sticking to them as well. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what the other person thinks of you. If you can live with yourself, you should sleep well at night. Ethics are too important to give up just because the crowd wants you to give them up. The saddest thing about personal ethics is that many don’t even know what good ethics look like, so when a leader makes decisions based on those ethics, those decisions get castigated as mean or hard-hearted or cruel. Prepare to suffer for your ethics. The right people will understand what happened. The wrong ones won’t. Indeed, half of the nation didn’t understand the ethics Lincoln lived by.

And there’s so much more, but on this President’s Day, I’m glad I can resort to history to learn from a great man who also was President of these here United States. Maybe there is another Lincoln out there somewhere for our day. (I doubt he/she works in DC). Maybe it’s you! It’s never too late to learn.


Pastor T.





Integrity…And How The Church Can Get It Back

In my limited involvement in helping congregations in difficult circumstances in our District, I keep seeing different manifestations of the same problem. Unhealthy congregations commonly have problems with integrity. I will use a simple definition for integrity. In the Church, integrity is when the teachings and mission of the Bible, and the teachings and mission of the congregation, match.

This is not a problem with the Bible. While this should be self-evident, too many congregations and denominations have essentially tried to adapt–and as a result discredit–the Bible in trying to get the Bible and the practices of the local congregation lined up again. As historical criticism has led whole church bodies off into what’s called the “social Gospel,” we have seen plenty of examples of this. Now, a self-serving misinterpretation of the Bible’s teaching on “love” is used to browbeat Christians into tolerating all sorts of immorality.

Now, it is not the Church’s job to play judge in such matters, but it is the Church’s job to preach and teach what the Word says to these matters while striving to work lovingly with those who may be in error according to the Bible’s standards. It’s just that the world places great pressure on Christians not to do that, but rather to tolerate. In order to justify such toleration, many local churches and denominations have had to bend the Bible to fit the situation rather than teach the Bible straight up. This is where integrity has been lost. It shouldn’t surprise us to see that the fastest declining denominations in American Christianity include such denominations as the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the new leader in decline, the ELCA.

But for the local congregation, regardless of denominational stripe, the problem of integrity is no less daunting despite overall agreements that we live by the Word of God. Walk into many local congregations and the problem is not what the national church body is saying/doing nearly as much as what the people in that place are saying/doing/not doing. Local churches are lacking in integrity because of internal factors as much as external factors. “Practicing what we preach” sounds like a remote ideal for many congregations. Nice in theory if impossible in reality.

What accounts for this lack of integrity? Often it’s many years of bad decisions made for the wrong reasons under good intentions which still lack any comprehension of the long-term effects on the body as a whole. As Peter Steinke puts it, maintaining peace and harmony becomes more important than the congregation’s integrity. Translation: Keeping a few influential types happy becomes more important than doing what’s right for the congregation as a whole.

As such, these short-sighted actions effectively mask the deeper problems in the system…at least for a while. Dirt swept under the rug is never gone. It’s only hidden until the dirt must again come out. And deferring cleaning the floor until a later  date usually makes it that much harder to do when the time comes to actually clean the floor. “Taking the easy way out” is one of the main contributors to this lack of integrity in local congregations. The “easy button” eventually fails and we have to do the hard things that have to be done to get our integrity back.

For pastors and quality lay leaders who no longer can avoid making these changes, it often means facing the ire of the privileged few who are facing disenfranchisement through the actions required to restore the integrity of the congregation as a whole. Expect the disenfranchised to pack their bags, crying injustice all the way. They will be the first to question the congregation’s integrity. It’s a ruse. The truth is actually that the congregation may not have shown this much integrity in a long time. The good news is that most congregations have a “silent majority” who, although they may struggle to understand what’s going on, often recognize it when changes become too necessary to avoid. The only problem is that this majority is silent. It would make things better if they would actually get up and speak (especially out of the Scriptures). When the silent majority starts to speak up, you know you are on your way back to health. Clearly it’s become safer for them to speak and that’s why they are.

So, what can a congregation do to start restoring its integrity, where its teaching and mission start to match up with the Scriptures? A few suggestions…

1. Reexamine your recent history (past 20-30 years) and be honest about it. Look at the most important decisions that were made and ask why they were made. Was the decision about the future of the whole or was it to appease a certain group or person in the system? In so doing, you are not attempting to castigate the intentions of anyone in particular, you are learning how the congregation as a whole thinks and makes its decisions. You are also learning who or what the system fears the most. Often, lack of peace/harmony is the great enemy in the eyes of the majority in the congregation. Unfortunately, peace and harmony are not the best factors for making the big decisions. In fact, they can be plain awful.

2. Consider establishing 4-5 core values in your congregation which, when its time to make big decisions, are the non-negotiable factors in making the decision. These core values, of course, need to be Biblical and rooted in the Gospel. Have your congregational assembly approve these values as a body and remind them of their approval of these values when they are challenged in the decision-making process. Then the changes which will restore integrity don’t fall just on the pastor or the most prominent lay leaders. It is now the will of the congregation.

3. Consider establishing some sort of policy-based governance. One can invest too much importance on policies, but the fact of the matter is that well thought out policies on governance and other aspects of congregational practice, approved by the congregational assembly, save more hides than a taxidermist. Again, done rightly these policies start to become the will of the congregation and start to galvanize a new way of thinking in the congregation. Integrity won’t be far behind.

4. Remember whose Church it really is. This really is Principle #1, but I figured the practicality of the first three suggestions probably kept your interest better than if I had led with this. The fact of the matter is that a Christian congregation’s integrity is defined by Christ and not the the intentions of anyone else in the congregation, no matter how well intentioned those people may think they are. Where Christ is number one, Christians are putting their own opinions in subjugation to God’s will. Unhealthy congregations pray “Thy will be done” every Sunday, but do they mean it? Where Christ is #1, we don’t have to wonder about the answer to the question.

I’ve written before that there is no perfect Church, not where sin abounds. Still, both individually and corporately, Christians indeed can do much to brighten the greenness of the grass on their side of the fence. It’s really not rocket science. Letting Christ shine as our Lord and Savior, churches can get their integrity back. It won’t be easy, but it will be rewarding for the long haul and the future of the congregation.

With prayers for health for all Christian congregations who struggle in these last days,

Pastor T.



Warmer Weather, Warmer Thoughts

I have been a reader of Peter Steinke’s books on church management for a several years now. The most helpful thing he has taught me is to recognize the congregation I serve as an emotional system, just like a family. Because congregations are based on relationships, both with God and with one another, it’s important to understand how systems operate. People behave differently in groups than they do alone or in private. Understanding that truth goes a long way to understanding what goes on in a congregation or any other organization for that matter.

This is why there has been a notable change in the environments in the American Church since 2008. The uncertain nature of the American economy has created a lot of anxiety in society, some of which overflowed in all the protests on all sides since then. The Church here in America is struggling like never before because its local congregations are directly affected by this anxiety. Tensions rose in many local congregations since then and they were bound to do so. Christ has placed His Church right in the middle of the world and even though we are salt and light to that world, the world’s darkness often finds its way into the Church as well.

Add to that a winter like we had here in Wisconsin, dominated by a jet stream that was relentlessly pouring polar air on us in December and January and it’s not hard for this pastor to see the wear and tear the winter has had on the people in the pews and the people who were not able to get to the pews thanks to the weather.

The snow’s hard. The ice is hard. The relentless cold is hard. The attitudes are hard. The work of the ministry is hard when all this happens. I’m not complaining. I’m just being real…and keeping my light out from under the bushel. We’re all in this together.

That jet stream has finally evened out and we are looking forward to a return to more normal temps. My prayer is that we would thank God for that. The sun always rises. The temps do always return to normal. Weeping only remains for a time. Joy comes in the morning. Our God is not cold toward us. His heart is warm toward His human creation, loving us through thick and thin, serving us in all life’s circumstances so consistently with His gifts of forgiveness and life, paid for by the blood of His one and only Son.

So this Sunday, let me encourage any who reads this to join with other Christians in thanksgiving for a return of some warmth. I hope to see a sizeable crowd Sunday.

And then we’ll all go to Culvers together afterward. 😉

Blessings and prayers for warmth,

Pastor T.


A couple of weeks ago, I watched the movie “42” with several high school aged youth and we talked about its lessons for today. At the time, I didn’t think to ask if we see such examples of discrimination today. I wonder what their answer would be.

Perhaps they would be naive, embracing postmodernity’s mindless “love is toleration”-thinking. “Of course there is no such discrimination today. We tolerate all.” It’s been noted to the point of nausea just how untrue this is. Tolerationism is only tolerant of that which we tolerate. Those we don’t agree with we castigate with every bit as much force as a redneck baseball manager shouting invectives at number 42 at the plate. The website Twitchy has become known for publishing tweets where the tolerant show in Tweets a phenomenal cruelty toward those with whom they do not agree. The bully certainly has not left the playground in American society. Racism, to be sure, still exists. But don’t think we are more discriminating in our discrimination. We’re less tolerant than ever and the beauty of living in 2014 is that we can be intolerant in the name of tolerance.

I think Exhibit A in this new discrimination is the attitudes of society toward Christianity. Now Christians should be less horrified by this than they are. Christian history reveals that the Church never has it better than when it has it bad. Still, the brazenness of this antipathy toward all things Christian can be a little unnerving. Even Bill Nye got caught in the crossfires of this hatred when Richard Dawkins criticized Nye for giving creation a platform. Christianity doesn’t even deserve to be given a platform according to Dawkins. In Richard Dawkins world, Christians are booted off the playground by a sort of bullying that reduces the opponent to nothing. This isn’t “open-minded,” it’s cold-hearted and extremely closed-minded.

Those who criticize Christianity would counter that the Church has behaved this way too, which certainly is not wrong, at least at times. Sadly this sort of logic has a puerile “he hit me first”-flavor to it. The problem is that this observation doesn’t work as a “one size fits all”-analysis of Christianity. For all its warts, there still has been no greater agency of mercy in the world for the past 2000 years than Christianity. Not all Christians are mindless automatons who only believe what the Church tells them to believe. Indeed, to demonstrate mercy to the less advantaged requires eyes that see clearly, minds that perceive carefully, and hearts that feel for the needs of others. Many judgments of Christianity don’t even bother to consider these realities. Moreoever, what many judge Christians for could be observed across the spectrum of religion and philosophy. The judges are no better than the judged. The problem isn’t Christians vs. atheists. The problem is hypocrites vs. hypocrites.

At least the Bible has a cogent, if unexpected, answer to the problem of hypocrisy among Christians. The Bible rather counter-intuitively teaches “Of course!” Christians do not have it all figured out a la Ken Ham. By often suggesting they do, fideistic Christians probably deserve the world’s shouts of “Hypocrite!” We have the truth in God’s Word but sin means we don’t have the truth perfectly in our lives. That’s why churches with Sacraments should be given another consideration. Those gifts of God are for the hypocrites who confess themselves as such. God doesn’t discriminate on the basis of perceived hypocrisy. He forgives in the name of His one and only Son, something our world doesn’t have the stomach (or the courage) to do. Many postmodern mega-temples don’t have the courage to do it either, endorsing positivism to the point of ignorance.

No. It’s far easier to engage debates or shout the other down. It’s easier to argue that our opponents must be sub-human forms of life who do not deserve a platform for their crazy ideas. It’s easier (and more fun) to play the part of the playground bully. God’s people fight this temptation too. As one Bible scholar has noted, Israel at Jesus’ time was sick of being bullied. They wanted to be the bully. Only Jesus had other plans…

So a pox on both your houses. As one dispassionate observer said of the Ham/Nye debate, the world needs a humble Christianity and a more open-minded atheism.  I’ll take up that challenge. I wonder if anyone else will.

Pastor T.

Some Thoughts On The Ham/Nye Debate

I have not seen every last minute of the debate, but I have seen the entire thirty minute “constructives” (to borrow language from my HS debate days) and the four rebuttals, as well as the first four crowd questions. I suspect the rest of what there is to see is simply repetition. I do believe I’ve seen enough to draw some broader conclusions and I’m actually quite surprised at what I am thinking right now.

Bill Nye, to his credit, offers a lot more wiggle room for mystery than I expected. That sense of mystery correlates into a desire to learn that is admirable. By contrast to Ham, who presents it all as a nice, neat package, I appreciated Nye’s more “wondering” approach to those things we don’t know and will probably never know about man’s origins and the formation of the world. It seems to me that the Bible’s record of not telling us everything, but only that which we need to know as Christians, doesn’t discourage this sort of allowing mysteries to be mysteries. It surprised me to see an acolyte from evolution allowing for “I don’t know”-answers in the debate. It was the hinge of the debate to be sure. I can’t imagine Richard Dawkins being very happy about Nye’s humility when it comes to those things we do not know.

Nye’s other arguments, it seems to me, are based on quite a lot of assumption and conjecture and some are patently false. The notion that creation science would put a halt to scientific discovery and innovation is patently false to the point of laughable in my mind. Ham did a great job of running some pretty black tire marks on that argument.

Ken Ham, on the other hand, did what I expected him to do. He didn’t advance many arguments he hasn’t used before. Still in the debate arena where the two models were put side-to-side, I was brought to a greater clarity on Ham’s approach as well and I am reconsidering just how much of his approach really is accurate at a Biblical level. Bill Nye may have subtly hit on a good point when he kept referring to “Ken Ham’s Creation.” I’m not sure I am completely where Ken Ham is on the Bible’s account of creation. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think the text of the Bible is always congruent with Ham’s arguments.

This is NOT, I repeat, NOT a denial of creation. This is a matter of different nuances in interpreting the Bible.

For instance, it seems to me that young earth creationists don’t all share Ken Ham’s view of the age of the earth. Ham’s view is much younger than I am comfortable with, even though I believe in a young earth. The question I would have for Ken Ham if I was debating him on Biblical interpretation, is: How does one measure the time between the creation and the Fall? It seems to me that the Bible gives few, if any, clues and if one wants to run to Adam’s age at his death, do remember that his age doesn’t even become important until there is a fall. Does that age include the time between his creation and the fall? I don’t think we can be certain of that at all.

Ergo, young earth types who run the earth’s age out to 16000 to 22000 years, (considerably farther than Ham does), are not without some warrant in their conclusions. Call it an uncertainty principle, but it’s still standing on the valid point that the Bible doesn’t really answer this question. Regardless of how old any young earth person may think the world is, it’s important to recognize the Bible’s lack of speaking on this issue. Ken Ham’s mistake here is his certainty. It’s too certain, too neat, too clean.

Ham’s theology seems to me to be fideistic. It rests on the basic assumption that God’s Word tells us everything there is to know, rather than everything we need to know. Hence, Ham doesn’t ever fall back on “I don’t know” when he should. His argument versus evolution can be basically summarized with “they don’t know” (which which I agree) but “we do know” (which is not entirely true). We know what the Bible says and that we confess in its full literal and historical truth. We do need to recognize that the Bible still leaves many questions unanswered and what is the value of faith if we have to have all those answers in one nice, neat package?

In short, if there was not a single shred of scientific evidence for creation, I would still believe it. That doesn’t bother me. Still, faith has to recognize that God’s Word is not a reference text or encyclopedia where all the data exists. Augustine supposedly wrote that there can be no faith without doubt. I think real faith doesn’t always say “I know” but is often quite happy to say the opposite. Bill Nye seemed happier to say that than Ken Ham…and that was very revealing. As I wrote above, that probably doesn’t sit well with fideistic Christians every bit as much as it doesn’t sit well with fideistic evolutionists like Dawkins.

Ken Ham also could have brought along more science than he did. I think that would have been invaluable to his point. I guess what I’m saying is that I appreciate Ken Ham the scientist more than Ken Ham the theologian. Most helpful is his correlation between logic and observational science. That’s the winner argument, if you ask me. Evolution is the side that is guilty of throwing out logic when it doesn’t fit Darwin’s purposes. Logic, I believe, is serving the creation side quite well these days and Ken Ham shouldn’t stop what he’s doing in that regard. He’s far more consistent than Bill Nye by arguing that there could not be logic at all if everything happened by random chance.

Bill Nye proved, as most evolutionists, not to be above a great deal of conjecture and assumptions in his science. Evolutionists can be quite the storytellers…these stories are about the interpretation of data and, just as young earth creationists can disagree on interpreting the Bible, so can evolutionists. The lack of a symmetrical agreement across evolutionary science on the data is the most telling problem of evolution. The ever-growing phenomenon of scientists leaving the evolution discussion to be argued by the philosophy departments of their universities is the proof that evolution simply cannot be argued as inarguable fact. It’s all about the data and data always has to be interpreted. Ergo, the church of evolution is built on faith far more than it is built on fact. (And it’s just as divided as the Church, whose divisions are created basically by different approaches to interpreting Biblical data).

Still, Ken Ham could learn something from Bill Nye. He could learn that not everything is as explainable from the Scriptures (or science) as he thinks. That should not be a problem for Christians.

In return, Bill Nye could learn that the conclusions he draws from the data he invokes is not self-evident. It’s not self-evident to creationists, to be sure, but also to many scientists regardless of their stripe. (I would cite discoveries in astronomy, microbiology, and brain research as the leading examples of this). Defending scientific evolution is defending a house divided and Ken Ham would do well to explore more those divisions and help people understand why science itself is changing. It may not be because scientists are becoming Christians, but it is a telling lesson how much evolutionary science assumes before it even considers the data.

Neither man is infallible. If science has nearly deified Darwin in the past, we Christians would do well not to deify Ken Ham in response. All these men were/are exactly that, men. Recognizing the limitations of being human helps us recognize that there will always be questions left unanswered. “I don’t know” is far more human (and faithful) than “I know it all.” I’ll take God’s Word as telling me what I need to know, not necessarily everything there is to know. I appreciate Ken Ham’s helpfulness on many things. And I am pleasantly surprised to hear an evolutionist say “I don’t know.” I think that’s a first. I appreciated both men’s efforts.

But I have to say, neither one was a debater. 🙂  I would have gone for the jugular in many places where neither man did! Sorry, this old HS debater can’t pass up the opportunity to bury an opponent!