Thursday, October 20, 2016

Logical Church Fallacies

            Every day in the church is an adventure.  Sometimes it’s pretty groovy.  At other times it’s just goofy, and I feel like I’m in an episode of The Twilight Zone.  Whenever I’m playing the role of Pastor Serling, it’s usually because of some bizarre or twisted thinking which is taking place.  We call them “logical fallacies.”  A logical fallacy is nothing more than a flaw in reasoning; it is to forego critical thinking skills and skate on some lazy brain action.  Logical fallacies create havoc.  The paucity of reasonable, rational, logical thinking has not only turned-off potential and emerging leaders for the church, but has left a sizable gap in our discipleship of the mind.  The lack of solid critical thinking skills can ruin entire congregations.

            Perhaps you doubt.  But consider some familiar ways of thinking within the church which are really nothing more than logical fallacies:

The Strawman:  This is misrepresenting someone’s argument to make it easier to attack.  Someone makes a blanket statement that only consumers want an alternative worship service, or that poor people just don’t want to work.  This faux position makes an easy target to knock down.  The problem is that the person setting up the strawman does not have enough information to be drawing conclusions.  Most of the time there has not even been one conversation with the people for whom the strawman argument is directed.

The Slippery Slope:  This fallacy is the assertion that if we allow A to happen, then B will consequently happen too, therefore A should never be allowed to happen. One example:  If we allow same-sex couples to marry in our society, then biblical authority is out the window and the next thing you know the traditional family is gone.  Whatever your view is on same-sex marriage is not the issue here – it is asserting the fallacy that if allowed all hell will break loose.

The Loaded Question:  This flaw is asking a question that has an assumption built into it so that it can’t be answered without appearing guilty.  Some church people love this approach.  For example, one parishioner asks another if the pastor has visited them, within earshot of the pastor – it puts the person being asked in a no win situation with the unreasonable assumption that the pastor is negligent in his duties.

The Bandwagon Jump:  We likely all know this one:  appealing to popularity or the fact that a lot of people do something; it’s meant as a form of validation for one’s position.  This is the church person who will confidently proclaim that no one likes the new small group ministry, and everyone hates it, which is meant to deflate the new ministry before it ever really gets going.  It works because there are usually people who do not want to be on the “wrong side” of the issue.

The Emotional Appeal:  This fallacy is in manipulating an emotional response in place of a valid or compelling argument.  A person stands up in the church’s annual meeting and says we don’t need padding on the pews because there are Christians in Africa worshiping in a hut with no pews at all.  No one wants to be a wimp, so the padding never happens.

The Ad Hominem Argument:  This is my personal favorite.  I chuckle every time I hear it.  I chuckle a lot.  Instead of dealing with the argument, this is simply attacking your opponent’s character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine his/her position. For example, after providing a compelling reason for a change in ministry focus to families, another church member then questions why we should listen to a person who has never been married.

            There are a whole lot more fallacies, and this is only a small swatch of them.  Turns out we fallen people have all kinds of creative ways of refusing to think well about things.  In all cases of logical fallacies there is an inherent bias toward a certain position.  Therefore, the person purporting his position does not listen and seek to understand.  He only wants his opinion validated, or position adopted, or ego stroked, and will do whatever it takes to make it happen.  It is nothing more than lazy thinking and a lack of humility.  Jesus offers us an alternative to logical fallacies with sound humble reasoning through careful storytelling and logical teaching.  But don’t take Pastor Serling’s word for it.  Go ahead and read the Gospels for yourselves.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Breathing of Prayer

            Prayer is the breath of the believer.  There is no life apart from the breathing of prayer.  But with prayer there is life because it opens us to a life-giving relationship with God in Christ.  One of the ancient fathers of the faith once described prayer in this way:  “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you.”  It would be weird if I told you that it is your duty to breathe.  Instead, it is our delight to breathe clean fresh air every day.  We don’t need to be told to do it; it is just a part of being alive.

            There is such a thing throughout the history of the church known as “the breath prayer.”  It is to pray short repetitive prayers, like breathing.  It would be strange if I told you that breathing is too common and repetitious, and, so, it should be different or not done so often.  Like breathing, prayer is to be done not once but many times, over and over again.  The Jesus Prayer is a breath prayer.  It comes from a combination of Luke chapter 18 verses 13 and 39:  “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” and “Son of David, have mercy on me.”  Put together, it can be said in a breath.  Breathing-in, you pray “Jesus, Son of David,” and breathing-out, “have mercy on me, a sinner.”  It is a prayer meant to surrender ourselves to God’s grace as naturally as it is to breathe.  To utter it several times is a continual reminder of the God in whose presence we stand.  If we are to live into Paul’s command to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), then learning the rhythm of breath prayers can be quite important.

            Furthermore, just like breathing, prayer is more effective and is better done in a position or a posture that is conducive for it to happen.  Putting a pillow over your face makes it difficult to breathe.  But sitting up and paying attention to taking-in deep amounts of air helps us to breathe well.  Within Scripture, there is no one-size-fits-all to prayer.  Standing, having outstretched arms, uplifted eyes, kneeling, and even prostrating ourselves are all postures of prayer before God.  We severely limit ourselves if we only think of praying with eyes closed, head-bowed, and hands folded.

            Standing is usually seen as a gesture of respect in many cultures, even our own.  Sometimes it is good to stand when we pray, acknowledging God’s majesty and our desire to submit to him.  Lifting our arms helps to give us an awareness of God’s bigness and that he is over and above us; it is a posture that literally opens the core of our body toward God and communicates a willingness to receive whatever he has for us.  Looking up to heaven with open eyes causes us to know we are not alone, but God watches us.  Praying on our knees is certainly a way of expressing humility before God.  Prostrating ourselves, or lying face down, is a powerful reminder that we pray mindful of our place – that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.  Every breath is dependent upon God in whom we place our trust.

            It is therefore only fitting that a room your church building be designated for the primary task of prayer.  A Prayer Room not only visibly reminds us how important prayer is to the church, but is a special place available to stand, sit, or kneel in prayer so that the Spirit-breath of God can fill us with life and blessing.  A Prayer Room is designed for Christians to worship and pray, to intercede for others, and to stand in the gap by praying for the salvation of those who need Jesus Christ.

            Seasons come and go, but it is always open season on prayer.  Let us renew our efforts and our effectiveness at praying to the God who was, who is, and who is to come.  May you know the joy of answered prayer, and the love of God in whose mercy is our very breath.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Hurry Up and Listen

“My dear friends, you should be quick to listen and slow to speak or get angry.  If you are angry, you cannot do any of the good things that God wants done” (James 1:19-20).

            Rarely does anything go as planned in life.  Yet we all have certain desires and expectations about how things should go in our lives.  When things go sideways, tempers flare.  People do not listen well and are quick to blame and jump to conclusions.  Difficult life circumstances can lead to pointing fingers and giving heated opinions about problems.  Verbal jabs can take over in the church.

            Inside of all our heads we have higher brain functions, and lower brain functions.  We need both of them.  When there is danger, the lower brain immediately kicks in and puts us on a hyper-vigilant state to resist and deal with the threat.  This works great when a burglar is in your house, or you jump in to help someone in a car accident, or any number of things which threaten life.  Adrenaline is great for danger but not so great when there is simply things going on we don’t like.  The problem with the lower brain function is that it operates more on instinct and not on rational, logical, and reasonable thought.  When the lower brain is functioning the higher brain function is not so much.  If you have ever seen someone all worked-up about something and that person does not listen to any kind of reason, you are observing a person who is operating in the lower brain function.  Most of our contemporary problems are not solved through the lower brain’s activity of responding to fear and threats of danger.

            We need to hurry up and listen.  People caught in their lower brain function do not listen because all they can see is what upsets them.  There is a great need for listeners today.  Very little productive communication takes place because there are so many people in a hyper-vigilant state going on and on about their opinions and what’s wrong with everything and what we should be doing.  We just talk over and on top of each other because we already have our minds made-up about how things really are.  Nobody is listening.

            On top of all this, there are a number of things which distract us from any kind of ability to listen well:  our busy-ness; constant background noise of the TV, radio, tablet or computer.  And these often just appeal to the lower brain with no substantive thoughts.  This all has major implications when it comes to listening to God.

            Bible reading is the primary source for Christians to listen to God.  But reading the Bible is too difficult and dull for far too many believers.  Sitting quietly before God and slowly reading the words of Scripture, and giving focused attention to Him in prayer has been relegated to the super-spiritual among us, as if it is not normal to read the Bible and pray.

            I haven’t even said anything about preaching yet.  It is little wonder why so many preachers today think they need to be showmen with such little listening that actually occurs.  Then, there are always people who think they already know what needs to happen, so they check out during the sermon.  In order to hurry up and listen to God’s Word, it needs to be a priority in our lives.  We must say “no” to some things in order to make room to listen to God.  We must prepare for worship and listening through deliberate preparation.  Listening is not just going to happen.  It has to be looked at as a skill just like anything else in life, and purposefully cultivated.

            A teachable spirit which is attentive to the words and ways of Jesus is a listening spirit.  A place to begin is to allow some space for listening within the worship service.  Cramming the time with as much stuff as possible is not conducive to hearing from God.  But through slow and deliberate speech, times of silence and contemplation, and careful planning can spawn an atmosphere of listening to God and his Word.  Let the church model for parishioners how to listen well.  For straining out all others voices in order to hear God might be one of the best things we can do today.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

God Is Good

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers.  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.  He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created (James 1:16-18, NIV).

            God is good – all the time.  And all the time – God is good.  That statement is a bedrock foundation for the Christian faith.  Without a basic affirmation and belief of God’s goodness, our faith will experience cracks and not stand the test of hard circumstances and difficult situations in life.  Without the steadfast conviction that God is good, the alternative is that God is somehow fickle or even mean – that he does not really care about the problems we experience in life.

            Last week I had an experience I have not had in twenty years; I bounced a check.  First of all, it's embarrassing because I didn't have the resources I thought I did. It's frustrating because you tack on the charge for your negligence. So, here I walk into the bank where everyone knows the pastor.  And I get to walk up and tell them that the pastor needs to clear up his insufficient funds.  A trial is like a bounced check. You feel stuck with a problem that you don't have the resources to solve. The temptation is to rant to God: "Do you see me over here, God? Do you see what I’m going through? Are you paying attention? I'm about to bounce a lot of spiritual checks here. I don't have the resources. I don't have it emotionally. You're rattling my faith, God. Don't leave me in this mess.”

Those expressions of desperation you feel so awful about are in fact the exact truth that God has been trying to bring to your attention. You flat out don't have the resources. He wants you to come to the place where you humbly get before him in a deeper way and tell him what he's known to be true all along: you are in over your head and you need him.  Your poverty of spirit enables you to receive from God.

            When life is good, it is not a stretch to say God is good.  But it might be easy to slide into a belief system that thinks God is the problem when situations take a turn for the worse – that somehow God is the source of our trouble.  And if we have not been working on a relationship with God, we will have scant resources to draw from in a time of trouble.

            God is good.  God is not mean.  Every single good gift that there is in this world comes from God.  Nothing evil can come from God.  There would be no good in this world if God was not around.  God’s grace is constantly around us.  If his grace were not here, it would be like living in a dystopian novel.  It would be like a zombie apocalypse where everyone is constantly looking over their shoulders for the next evil thing to happen.  But, although there is evil in this world, it could be a whole lot worse if it were not for God’s goodness.

            People will typically question God’s goodness when they do not understand what is happening with something they do not like.  They want answers.  They want justice.  They want stability.  And when it does not come right away, they might question if God really cares.  But you do not need to understand everything about a situation to know that God is good.  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).  Nothing can separate us from God’s love – not trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword – not any adverse circumstance that occurs in your life.

            God has good plans for his people, the church, because he is a good God – all the time – without changing like shifting shadows.  As long as we believe we have the resources and abilities within ourselves to do church ministry, it will likely either not happen or not occur with the blessing of God.  Only through the humility of dependence in a good God who gives good gifts is there true hope and faith.  World Communion Sunday reminds us that our good God is at work in people from all nations and ethnicities all across the earth, providing spiritual nourishment to us at his hospitably good Table.  Thank you, Jesus.