A Bittersweet Departure.

Goodbyes are never all that easy. Even when that trite line, “It’s not goodbye; only see you later,” is applicable, the “see you later” is rarely without any emotion at all. Even if you’re leaving for a new opportunity, the end doesn’t always make the means easier. Some are certainly harder than others, though. For example, I imagine leaving a summer job in a pump and drum warehouse  is easier than, say, a job as a youth pastor.

In fact, I know that to be true. The summer after my junior year of high school, I left a job I had worked during the summer — a hard job, to be sure, but one that paid well and presented me with some amusing relationships, to say the least — at (shockingly) a pump and drum warehouse. Telling the warehouse manager I was leaving was easier, relatively speaking; after school started we both knew it was only a matter of time before the 30 minute drive for two hours of work would get to be pointless. Nevertheless, saying I was leaving wasn’t without difficulty because for some reason, departing often feels like something is left unfinished, or plans are left without a clear path forward, or relationships are left without a sort of closure.

Today, telling folks I am leaving is not so easy.

The pit I feel upon telling my students I am leaving Mountain Brook Presbyterian is hard to quantify. Much harder to quantify than the pain I felt telling my boss at the pump and drum warehouse that I would no longer be working there. I feel a similar ache when I tell congregants with whom I’ve worshiped, whose relatives I’ve met, and whose concerns I’ve heard over the last almost-year that I’m leaving. When I told my pastor and boss that I’d be leaving at the end of the month, I felt that same pit develop in my gut.

I’m thankful, today, that my departure is difficult. What that means, near as I can tell, is that these people with whom I’ve worked and worshiped over the past little bit have impacted me a whole lot. They’ve loved Kaleigh and I well, they’ve cooked us meals, and they’ve laughed with us. My students and fellow congregants have made my time here so rich and fulfilling, and they’ve taught me so much.

Today, the goodbyes sting a little bit, irrespective of whether they’re “see-you-laters” or not. But that’s a good thing, I think, because if it didn’t hurt at all, it probably means my time here didn’t mean enough. That sting is indicative of a deeper thankfulness for the bond of common love and grace in Christ that has made these relationships so fulfilling. I’m approaching this departure with a weighty joy, because I’m so excited about the doors the Lord has opened for Kaleigh and I, for the opportunities which are cresting on the horizon. All that said, today I feel the weight of saying goodbye, or see you later, alongside that joy, and I’m grateful for it.

Encouragement from Older Saints

It’s the Seventh of April, 2017, and I’m at my desk on a Friday night writing a term paper (well, obviously not right now). Perfectly nestled in between spring break and summer, during my undergraduate years it would be in situations like this where I would find myself more acutely burnt out than at any other time. However, the Lord is faithful to encourage us sometimes through the voices of older saints.

Lately, I’ve run across some of the addresses which John Murray, the Scottish systematic theologian from Westminster Theological Seminary, gave to his students over the years. Murray, ever the perceptive professor, seems so in tune with the experience of a student even over fifty years later. He was more than ready to acknowledge the “drink-from-a-fire-hose” experience of a theological student:

“The discipline of the theological curriculum is arduous and oftentimes painful. Sometimes you may be tempted to think that the routine of class-work and the time-consuming energy expended on details are not relevant to or promotive of the great vocation to which you are called. Sometimes a feeling of bewilderment and confusion may overtake you…Sometimes the gigantic nature of the field of study and of the task that lies ahead of you will give you an overwhelming sense of your inadequacy and it may appear hopeless for you to continue on that long journey of sweat and travail and perhaps tears that leads to the goal of intelligent and effective ministry.”

Murray, obviously not the sugar-coating type, doesn’t leave his assessment there though. Later on in the same address, he says,

“If you are ever caught in the grip of these temptations I would urge you to patience and perseverance. Do the little bit of work that falls to your hand day by day. Do it faithfully and diligently. In this sphere of human endeavour and divine vocation we are pedestrians. We cannot fly to the mountain tops. We must climb by the steep and thorny path. We may try to fly. But our attempt will end in disaster. There are no runways or landing strips on these majestic peaks. Even if we do survive a crash landing, we shall soon have to come down and we shall come down with the ignominy of folly on our brow.”

He urges his students to take comfort in their own inability. As “pedestrians,” we must yield to the will and work of God, and praise God for that. Were we not pedestrians, were the burden of this work squarely upon our shoulders, we would undoubtedly “come down with the ignominy of folly on our brow,” (whatever that means).  The Professor, in his charge to Dr. Edmund Clowney, elaborates further:

“May you always be imbued with the broken spirit and the contrite heart, and before the vision of God’s majesty say with the prophet, ‘Woe is me, for I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.’ You, like all of us, are not sufficient for any of these things. Be increasingly aware of your dependence upon God’s grace.”

Ah, here’s what this pedestrianship consists of: a broken spirit, a contrite heart, and an increasing awareness of our dependence upon God’s grace. It is God who gives the growth, and it is God who gives the grace. This beautiful pedestrianship comes with a responsibility, though:

“Expediency is not the policy that regulates the witness or behaviour of the Seminary. It would sometimes be to our apparent advantage to suppress certain aspects of truth, to soft-pedal on matters that evoke the dissent or even provoke the ire of many people. Many of the positions maintained are unpopular and we lose support. Sometimes we are tempted to stand for things which the counsel of God does not warrant. But we may not succumb. The whole counsel of God and nothing more! The whole counsel of God and nothing less! We must not presume to tone up this counsel and be better than God. We must not tone it down and prove unfaithful to our commission.”

John Murray’s exhortations are directed primarily at theology students, but they’re applicable to Christians across the board. All Christians find themselves feeling overtaken and bewildered at times. All Christians are pedestrians insofar as they are upheld by God’s righteous, omnipotent hand in their vocation and in their life. A broken and contrite spirit is necessary to do the Lord’s work faithfully not just for budding theologians and pastors, but for the cashier and the miner as well. A dependence on the grace of God is the precondition for any God-glorifying work in the pulpit and on the assembly line. Most importantly, though, the responsibility of the Christian is to preach the whole counsel of God, nothing more and nothing less, whether at the water cooler or in the church house.

 

 

Theological Hubris

Theological education is important. In fact, I think it’s so important that I’d venture to say that if you’re in ministry, or going into ministry, you should do everything you possibly can to pursue theological education.

This is a good and noble thing. Christ’s Church needs and will need faithful ministers of the Gospel to, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, guide her through the coming decades and centuries. These ministers must be “intellectually buttoned up and theologically squared away,” as one of our professors likes to say. John Murray, the great Scottish theologian, says this about his own endeavor to faithfully engage in theological education as a professor at Westminster:

“Westminster Seminary raised a banner for the whole counsel of God when concrete events had made it more than apparent that Reformed churches throughout the world had laid in the dust that same banner, defaced, soiled and tattered. When the enemy came in like a flood, God in his abundant mercy and sovereign providence raised up a standard against Him.”

It’s really difficult to overstate the importance of theological education. All that said, theological students should be the last ones to be puffed up by our knowledge. By virtue of searching the Scriptures for hours each day, we should be those most familiar with our own sin in light of an all-holy God.

But we’re often not. Like the First Man, and every human after him, we meet God’s tender promises with an overconfident, “Hath God really said…?” Hath God really said that knowledge puffs up? Hath God really said we must keep the heart?

We must not be so naïve as to think that the same pride which pushes us to watch our Facebook statuses to see how many likes people give it (or, rather, how many likes people give us, as if that status is an extension of our very selves) pushes us to look down upon folks who don’t know the difference between some obscure theologico-philosophical concepts.¹ We must be killing pride, or pride will be killing us.

This is a post of repentance. When I look upon this pride, it bears a bushy beard and a bald head. This picture is a self-portrait. Though my theological convictions require me to realize that the only thing I contributed to my salvation was the sin that made it necessary, I invite fresh air into my head each and every day. Each and every day, I ask, “Hath God said…?” right before I lean on my own understanding, right before I boast in my own works. Theology must always also be doxology, and in this, I fail continuously.

There is only one cure for this, it seems: I must flee to Christ. We must flee to Christ, the life-giving spirit, He who became sin, though He knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.

 

 

¹ This is not to say that debating doctrine is useless, but merely that the attitude with which we do this must always be taken captive to Christ.

Trumpism and the Christian Right: A (very) Short Comment

I thought long and hard about putting “Christian” in scare quotes. But, for Lent, I gave up clickbaity titles.
As I watch President Trump do his thing day in and day out, which mostly consists of putting together meh (or worse) policy, and, with shocking consistency, absolutely bungling the roll-out of said policy, I wonder to myself (and sometimes to others), “How did he get here?”
But, thank goodness, I need not look far to find the answer. Within my own tradition are the folks who crowned him. Sarah Posner has the number of white evangelicals who voted for Trump at 81%. Now, this is kind of misleading in the context of her article, because there is some nuance in that number whether one wants to acknowledge it or not. Not every one of that 81% voted for Trump because they adored the New Yorker; in fact, probably a sizable number voted for him as a vote against Hillary. Does that make a protest vote morally defensible? I don’t know. The logic is compelling for some, though not so for others. I’m less concerned in this post with the protest voters, and more with the white evangelicals who stood behind Trump from the beginning of his Gordon Bombay-esque run to the Oval.
This is my burning question: Were you so forgiving of Bill Clinton? It doesn’t take a whole lot of looking to find the Falwell crowd’s rancor during the Lewinsky scandal, and with some of that criticism I want to agree! It seems absolutely reasonable to hold your leaders to higher moral standards. However, one must apply those standards consistently, for what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Is it that you believe that Trump has the moral high ground on Bill? Or is it just that you agree with his views?
Okay, so inconsistency aside, do white evangelicals think Trump aligns with their religious ideals? And if so, what actions could even be marshaled in support of that case? The sad thing is that this isn’t even the most befuddling part of the phenomenon BECAUSE THERE ARE SO MANY BEFUDDLING PARTS OF THE PHENOMENON. These are genuine questions I have, because despite a not inconsequential amount of effort, I can’t find any pattern of practice which makes me think Trump’s ideals align with those of evangelical Christians in a non-trivial way. The blind support white evangelicals exhibit for Trump raises some questions for me: Did you preach about chastity and vote for a philanderer? Did you preach about equality of men and women and vote for a misogynist? Did you preach about the Marriage Supper of the Lamb which will include folks from every tribe, tongue, and nation, and vote for a xenophobe?¹
What’s more, white evangelicals have left perhaps one of their best public leaders, Russell Moore, out to dry time and time again with regards to Trump. Donald Trump has so clouded the vision of white evangelicals that one of the most faithful public Christians I can think of is on the verge of being railroaded because he won’t fall in line. As a white evangelical, man, I’m disappointed. If you’ve got certain views about borders, or about how you can rationalize a Trump vote because of separation of conviction, fine. But given a choice between Moore and Trump, why choose Trump? This cultural moment has asked, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Donald Trump or Russell Moore?” and white evangelicals have responded by persuading the crowd to ask for Trump.
¹ I’m not using these terms lightly. A strong case can be made that all of these words are applicable.

Postcards from the Echo Chamber

It’s March of 2017. We’re still finding out that all those, “Man, I can’t wait for election season to be over so we can stop with the partisan hackery” comments (mostly made by me) were so naively shortsighted. What I forgot to account for when I was making those naively shortsighted comments was the fact that several appointments would revive the same partisan hackery (and some certainly deserved it) and that every policy move of the new administration, whether Trump or Clinton, would be in its own way some kind of atemporal re-offering of the same November 2016 criticisms.

Yo, I should’ve known better.

Just like always, though, our Facebook profiles are there to provide us with a medium through which to dialogue with our counterparts and heal the divide. Except, this isn’t what happens. We do more heating than healing. This isn’t so different from 2012, or even 2008. With that said, though, the cultural-social environment is such that, not only does one feel justified in flexing their rhetorical muscles on the internet, they feel justified in blocking (or unfriending, or unfollowing, or un-whatever-ing) those who refuse to ogle at those same muscles.

I don’t think this is a good thing.

Of course, you’re within your legal rights to do this. It just probably doesn’t behoove you. Once you’ve curated your Twitter feed, or your information intake, in the same way you’ve curated your Instagram page, your information output, you’ve locked yourself in an echo chamber. So, as long as you’re not coming out of it, here’s what is: callousness, caricatures, and generally poor arguments.

NYU sociologist Steven Lukes talks about agenda-setting as 2nd degree power, which would include things like setting the agenda at community meetings, etc – which amounts to essentially influencing people by curating the information they receive.

Don’t fall victim to your own agenda-setting. Don’t blindly bind yourself to your own beliefs, especially if they might need some more examining.

I find myself especially prone to make this error. I often think that arguments I’ve dealt with in the past are settled questions, when in reality, they might warrant another look. Worse yet, once I carve out a nice, cozy ideological space somewhere, I don’t like to climb out of it very often. I wed myself to my beliefs and opinions in a way that’s probably unhealthy. Here, I find it especially hard to get outside my comfort zone. Maybe it’s because I dig stability, and thus see any change in ideology as an unwelcome disruption. I don’t know. That’s probably worth some exploration.

I am the 17%

Quinnipiac’s poll last week has President Trump’s approval rating among Republicans at around 83%. The same poll attests to a ridiculous amount of polarity in the cultural-political climate today; they’ve got Democrats disapproving of Trump at a 91% rate. I don’t know (I really just don’t care to look it up) what the polarity has been at the beginning of previous administrations, but I can’t believe it’s ever been higher than this.

Obviously, a vast majority of Republicans approve of the job President Trump is doing. For the math whiz who’s reading this, though, you’ve probably crunched the numbers up top and figured out that I’m not one of them. There are several reasons for this, not least of which being that I fall to the right on the conservative spectrum. I’m probably more appropriately labeled as a libertarian conservative, so take this piece with that in mind.

It’s precisely because of that identity that I’m displeased with the job the President is doing. I can think of three reasons as I sit here at my desk why that’s the case for me.

The first is President Trump’s asinine comments about the “mainstream media.” No conservative, establishment or tea party, libertarian or traditional, should ever be surprised that the New York Times or the Washington Post isn’t giving their point of view the most charitable reading. On a deeper level, though, Trump’s comments raise the question: Who is the mainstream media, and what qualifies one to be a member of the club? Surely he’s not also referring to the National Review or the Wall Street Journal, with their generally conservative tilts, despite the fact that both have pretty wide readerships and decent pedigrees.

When you, as leader of a republic, say that the media is the enemy of the people, you draw very clear battle lines. Now, it’s important to note that Trump is not walking into the Mother Jones newsroom and forcibly removing their computers and servers. However, it’s not at all hard to see the logical steps from “the media is the enemy of the American people” to “unless you’re nice to me, you’re no longer allowed to publish news.” Has Donald Trump ever seen All the President’s Men? If the President would like for Jeff Bezos to say nice things about him, it might be a good idea to return the favor by charitably engaging the Post himself, or at least not roll out policy in so clumsily a way that the Post seems justified in grilling him. Even Chris Wallace (CHRIS. WALLACE.) was aghast at Trump calling the news media the enemy because *gasp* not even President Obama said that, no matter how much he whined about Fox News.

The second has to do with President Trump’s issues with free market principles. No matter what happened with all the Carrier nonsense in December, Trump’s apparent willingness to at least act like he’s strong-arming Carrier (and seemingly other companies in the future) into keeping some of its jobs here is frankly a bit frightening for any fan of small government. Lest we think that this is an isolated incident, his administration’s whispers that they might be able to eminent domain some land along the border to spend billions of taxpayer funds (no matter what they say about taxpayers being reimbursed) to build a massive wall next to the Rio Grande can be seen as nothing other than a gross encroachment of the federal government.

Finally, and this point goes hand-in-glove with the first, Donald Trump’s ascent to quasi-demagoguery should bring up feelings of concern in the conservative cultural conscience. It should be no surprise that a world leader who takes each critique as a personal attack on his character (some of which are actually attacks on his character, and many of those are warranted) has huge issues with a press which slaps him around. He’s morally inconsistent, talking smack about Jay-Z’s language while saying horrible things about women in a tour bus with Billy Bush. Also, he’s got this cultish hero-worship thing going on, which is pretty evident from a quick gander at his Twitter feed or from a cursory listen of any of his speeches in which he claims to be the only one who can fix the problems we face, and darn it if he isn’t the best fixer the world’s ever seen.

I disapprove of many aspects of the job President Trump has done thus far (here I’ve alienated 83% of Republicans). That said, there are a few things I favor, like the Gorsuch nomination among some others (aaaaand here I’ve alienated 91% of Democrats). Overall, though, I think threats, implicit or otherwise, to free speech and free markets are some of the most dangerous threats which can be made in America. That’s why, as a libertarian conservative, I’m one of the 17% who disapproves of the President.

 

*It should be noted here that this article is super rough around the edges. There aren’t a ton of sources, though I promise they’re out there. I just didn’t want to hyperlink every one of them. Also, for every statement I made, there are probably two caveats or qualifications I should have made. I didn’t, though, because that piece would’ve been about a million pages long.

Thanks, Doc.

By now, if you pay attention to conservative media, you’ve probably seen that Thomas Sowell, the intellectual giant, has stopped writing his weekly columns. Surely this is a blow to intellectual conservatism, but at the same time it is an opportunity to reflect on a wonderful career.

Thomas Sowell has had a profound impact on me over the past several years. When I identified as a far left liberal in high school and early in college, the thought to which I went when I was looking for foundational, rigorous conservatism was that of Dr. Sowell.  His work was the hallmark; that which, as a liberal, I would have to reckon with if I was to dialogue intentionally with many of my conservative/libertarian friends. Refuting the simple, vague, and generally unreliable establishmentarian conservatism of Mitch McConnell & Co. was useful only for building straw men whose ultimate purpose was to be torn down in a fit of theatrical rage.

It was Dr. Sowell’s thought that finally attracted me to the ideals of small government and personal liberty. His clarity of thought and charity in interaction were instructive and helpful to a young contrarian like myself, for he showed me (and many others) how to deal faithfully with those who disagree with you while also refusing to let them off the rhetorical hook. Dr. Sowell showed me that, if one is to embrace the ideals of liberty, such an embrace need not mimic that of Trumpian “conservatism” today, or the establishment conservatism of some recent Congressional Republicans.

Now, one need not agree with each and every thing another person says in order to be thankful for them. Rare is the public figure with whom one can agree on each of the finer points of policy and public life. With that said, many have found broad agreement with Dr. Sowell on a general level. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Sowell’s thought, in conjunction with that of many other Chicago economists and others, like Ayn Rand, who are not professional political strategists, is partly to thank (or blame, depending on your ideological commitments) for the rise in young, principled libertarian/conservative/classical liberal thought which has produced people like Dave Rubin, Alex Epstein, Ross Douthat, and many others.

Dr. Sowell, your influence is probably too large to quantify. I will certainly miss your syndicated column, as will others, but I’m always thankful for your work, and the foundation its provided for many thinkers to build upon.