Should I Stay Out of Politics?


Recently, I had a rather strong emotional reaction to the passage of the health care bill.  I have been reflecting on that off and on for a few days.  It is no secret, nor have I ever made it one, that I am a political conservative.  I generally vote Republican because generally speaking, Republicans are conservative.  With that being said, I did not vote Republican in the last presidential election because I was not in favor of who the Republicans nominated.  I agonized over the decision, but finally decided that I could not, in good conscience, vote for McCain.  Since Ron Paul, my preferred Republican candidate, did not run on the Republican ticket, I broke with the party that I traditionally vote for and voted for Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party’s candidate for President because he most closely resembled what I believed. 

            However, in recent years, prior to the election of 2008, the Republican Party has moved closer to the center in order to try and appease their power base.  Meanwhile, traditional conservatives in the Party did not move, so when their party began to go moderate, they got labeled “right-wing.”  Now, after the 2008 election and this health-care debacle which has succeeded in pretty much making all politicians look evil in some regard, they are once again trying to move right and I am left (no pun intended) questioning the point of it all. 

I may be a political conservative, but I am first and foremost, a disciple and follower of Jesus Christ.  When I look at Jesus and his life, he seemed to buck the system much more than he played a role in it, which honestly does not look very Republican to me.  But he also believed that people were ultimately responsible as individuals to repent to God for their sin and not rely on Judaism or the Roman government to be their salvation, and that doesn’t sound like a Democrat. Jesus never relied on the system as the method of salvation.  While never completely throwing Judaism out with the bathwater, he had strong words for those in the system calling the Pharisees and the Sadducees a “brood of vipers” in Matthew 3:7.

I honestly do not buy into the propaganda that many in the evangelical base promoted in the 80’s and 90’s that this is a Christian nation.  If we ever were a Christian nation, which I have serious doubts about considering the evidence that most of our founding fathers were deists, we certainly are not a Christian nation now.  Buying into that line of thinking almost makes it sound like the “manifest destiny” of the 19th century (which translates into American Imperialism in the 20th and 21st centuries) makes us some sort of nation chosen by God.  The notion that America is blessed because it has honored God by promoting democracy is really nonsense.  Since when did God ever put his blessing on any governmental system except the theocracy of Old Testament Israel?  Perhaps our country is blessed because since it is a democratic society, we have more Christians.  But even that suggests that other countries with Christians are somehow less worthy than Americans are.  The bottom line is that the gospel of Americanism is different than the gospel of Jesus Christ.  To accept that an American Utopia will be our savior denies that all-sufficiency of Christ as our Savior.  In other words, a perfect United States will never make us more righteous.  Righteousness comes from only one person, Jesus Christ. 

So should I vote?  As of right now, my conviction is that I should vote, but only because Christians are commanded to seek justice and the way that our voice is heard in America is through the ballot box.  But I should never substitute my civic duty for my moral duty to obey my God and my Savior.  That is idolatry and it feeds into the lie that my salvation belongs to someone other than Christ.

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When Does Theology Go Bad Part 1-Defining Correct Theology Version 1.1


What seems like a very long time ago, I posted part one of a series called “When Does Theology Go Bad?”  I had wonderful intentions of posting part two, but I never got around to it.  So, I am going to attempt to at least post part two sometime in the near future.  Meanwhile, since many of you have probably forgotten what I posted, here is the original post with some slight formatting changes and clarifications:

I was theologizing this morning in the shower (the best place to theologize). My thought was, “When does theology become bad?” To say that is becomes bad simply because it is incorrect is not going far enough because so-called good theology can become bad when it is applied wrongly. It is true that incorrect theology will lead to bad theology. So maybe it is best to define our terms at this point.

How does one define correct theology? I think there are at least three ways to determine this:

  1. For theology to be correct, it must be correct biblically. In other words, the theology must not violate Scripture. I also that this is the most important criteria for determining correct theology.
  2. For theology to be correct, it must also be historically accurate. In other words, is this how the church has historically defined this issue? This can be a tricky one, because many denominations have historically defined some doctrinal issues differently, but on the essentials of Christianity (I define the essentials as those listed in the Apostles’ Creed with a relational[1] emphasis) the church has generally had one historic interpretation. An example of where theology can go wrong historically is the doctrine of the Trinity. Historically, the Trinity has been defined as one God in three persons, but certain sects of Christianity, Oneness Pentecostals for example, teach that it is God in three forms, not persons. This is historically incorrect and thus leads to incorrect theology.
  3. For theology to be correct, it should generally fit neatly into your system of theology. I have often viewed theology as a head of hair (ironic, don’t you think?). On one extreme, you can have George McFly hair, flawless and slicked back. At the other extreme, your theology can be like Alfalfa from Our Gang with that one large portion of hair sticking straight up in the air. It is not necessary that your theology fit into a neat box. Pre-packaged Christianity is not what we are after. Even the best theologians can be rough around the edges. But if part of your theology sticks out as inconsistent with the rest of your theology, it is most likely incorrect and can become very bad if you do not address it.

 


[1] My concern here is to point out that to merely acknowledge and intellectually agree with the Apostle’s Creed is not the definition of a Christian.  One must accept Christ, meaning that they understand that they are sinful, that their only hope of salvation is Christ and His work on the cross, and repentance, meaning that they must accept Christ’s forgiveness and turn from their sin unto the abundant life that God calls us to.

Emptiness Vs. Hope


There is a sense, as I write this…of emptiness.  I have wanted to write for a couple of days on my reaction to new health care legislation passing.  But after fuming on Monday, I am left…well…empty.

I have been following the health care debate for some time.  I knew that the bill was supposed to be voted on this past weekend, but a Saturday filled with “honey do” projects and a Sunday filled with going to meet Dog the Bounty Hunter at a book signing, it had slipped my mind.  Monday morning, as I put on my socks, I clicked over to Google news and lo and behold, there was the announcement.  I finally got to work, quelling my anger, having to go in early because I had to be with my wife for a medical procedure that she was having.  At 7am, I had to try and put whatever was going on in my head to the side and concentrate on how boxes were stacked on pallets.

At some point in the morning, someone made me mad.  I guess it is inevitable when a temp has to tell a supervisor that something needs to be changed.  But I didn’t really ask to be a temp, nor did I need the pushback.  Not that day.  I ran out the door at 11am to be with my wife for this procedure.  I got there, only to find out that despite the fact they had told her to be there at 11am (her Mom had dropped her off), they had not taken her back yet, and it was almost 11:30.  Finally, at some point before 11:45 (I’m not really sure because I didn’t check the time) they took her back.  I asked how long the procedure would take and they said half an hour and then an hour of recovery from the anesthesia.  I settled down with my book and I waited.  Around 1pm, I began to suspect that they would be calling me soon, but they never did.  1:30 came and went and I was fighting impatience.  Finally, at 2pm, I walked back to the nurses desk to find out what was going on.  “You must be looking for Kandice, right?” the nurse asked.  When I replied in the affirmative, she told me that the doctor had been late and that she would be out soon; they were doing the procedure right now.  I returned to the waiting room and waited some more.  2:30 came and went.  3:00 came and went.  Finally, at 3:30, after an hour and a half of being told that it would be “soon” and after almost four hours since my wife had left the waiting room for her procedure, I walked back there again.  I saw my wife, sitting up on a gurney, looking very pleasant.  The nurses took the pager that had given me, which had never gone off, and as they led me to the seat beside my wife, I told them, nicely but firmly, that they needed to do a better job of keeping the family in the waiting room informed of what was going on.  We then had to wait yet another hour because the doctor wanted to speak to us about the results of the procedure and he was conducting another procedure.

Finally, around 4:30pm, the doctor came to see us.  “I don’t like what I see,” he said, and went on to explain that something was inflamed that should not be and it could mean that my wife’s initial diagnosis of Ulcerative Colitis was incorrect, or that the pouch that had been created surgically was infected.  Not really good news.  We left the hospital with little hope.  I was tired from waiting and she was really tired from the anesthesia.  After we stopped for dinner, I returned home to find a few responses on Facebook from my status update about the health care bill and after a day of being angry, my words were probably more blunt than normal.  To be honest, I’m really not wanting  to talk about this health care thing anymore, suffice to say, I don’t really think that it is going to do what the Democrats want it to do and the economic ramifications of it will be, in my opinion, devastating.  For the record, that is not a prophecy, it is an opinion.  I could be wrong.  I hope I am.

After two additional days of partial-brooding, I am left where I have been many times.  I have never been one of those people that walk around with a perpetual smile on my face (at least, I don’t think).  The truth is that even though I am a Christian, I really do not expect life to be hunky-dory.  Life is tough, but God is good, as the saying goes.  I will say though that I have fallen victim to putting my hope in something other than God which is sin.  I have had to ask forgiveness for that.  It’s a lesson that I have to be continually reminded of over and over.  Where will be this landmark health care reform take us?  What will the result of my work situation be? What will the prognosis be for my wife? I really do not know, but I cannot put my hope and trust in something other than the One who offers ultimate hope and trustworthiness.  It only leaves emptiness and despair.

Now that I have written this, putting it in writing, I am left…hmmm…what am I feeling?  I don’t think its emptiness…acceptance, maybe?  I think that may be it.  And while I must confess that I feel far from hopeful, I think that acceptance may lead to hope.  And that hope, in the Ultimate Giver of health care (ok, that may have been a little cheesy) is something that I can hold on to.

N.T. Wright’s Paul and The Future of Justification: A Response and Review of “The New Perspective of Paul” And the Implications of Redefining Justification


I have just finished reading N.T. Wright’s Paul.  For those of you that do not know, N.T. Wright is “the Bishop of Durham [Anglican] and one of the most widely read biblical scholars of our day” according to the back cover of the book.  Indeed, out of all the theologians that I disagree with, Wright is one of my favorites.  He stands in good company with John Wesley. 

The reason that I chose to read this book, one which would not have been on my normal “to read” list is that discussions of what is called “The New Perspective of Paul” have come up in recent conversations with people and I have to admit, although I had heard of it and knew of its controversial elements, I was not familiar with it enough to offer any sort of critique.  For the theological novice, the “New Perspective” is hard to get your head around and the particular book that I read was one of his Wright’s shorter, but much more dense titles, originally put together to be presented at the  Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge University.  If you want a cursory look at the teaching of the “New Perspective,” I would not suggest reading this book.  This book is primarily geared for those who have a background in theology and I chose to read it because I wanted a short, but detailed examination of the “New Perspective” in the author’s own words.  It should be noted that by my critiquing of Wright’s work, I am not calling into question his salvation.  However misguided I believe that his teachings are, I believe that he firmly stands in the evangelical model of Christianity.  With that being said, if you have not already figured it out, I do disagree with his interpretation of the teaching of Paul.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

What is the New Perspective?  It is, indeed, hard to define and there seems to be no synopsis of it that will work for all occasions, but Wikipedia tried defining it this way: “The ‘new perspective’ is an attempt to lift Paul’s letters out of this framework and interpret them based on what is said to be an understanding of first century Judaism, taken on its own terms.”[1]  From the starting block, I have problems with Wright’s premise.  It is as if he is saying that we have got it wrong for the past 2000 years.  He assumes that the version of Paul that was traditionally understood by the Reformers, particularly Luther, is inaccurate.  Although in most of the critiques that I have read about this, this fact is glossed over, it is an important one for us to understand.  My own personal opinion is that while not as developed, the main thrust of Luther’s argument, justification by faith alone, was the basic belief of first-century Christianity and was de-emphasized in the subsequent marriage of the Roman Empire and the Institutional Church resulting in the bastard child of Middle-Age Roman Catholicism.  When I say that, I am not equating being Catholic to being unsaved, I am saying that the Catholic Church between the late fourth century to the sixteenth century had a serious identity issue equating salvation to church membership, most of the time, it seems, under duress.  During this time, there were certainly elements of the church that maintained that we are saved apart from works, but because of the tyranny and demagoguery of the leaders of the church, these things were not taught en masse until they were finally freed and taught by the Reformers.  For 2000 years, and most certainly in the last 500 years in Protestant Christianity, salvation by faith alone, in one form or another and in one place or another, has been taught primarily using the letters of Paul.  And now, Wright is claiming that they all got it wrong.

Wright begins his work by reminding us that Paul lived in three worlds: the world of Judaism, the world of Hellenism, and the world of the Roman Empire.  This is not being disputed, but his radical interpretation of what Paul was saying in light of this is the thrust of this book and of the New Perspective of Paul.  I honestly do not feel qualified to offer a full response to this line of thinking (it requires a theologian much more astute and qualified than myself), but there is one thing that I want to address up front and clearly.  In his redefinition of Paul’s thinking, he redefines one very important aspect of Christianity: the meaning of justification.  Lifted from his very works, Wright says, “Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian.”[2]  John Piper, who wrote an entire book in response to Wright’s re-definition of justification, restates Wright’s position on justification, using his own words, like this: “‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people.’ ‘[Justification] was not so much about ‘get­ting in’, or indeed about ‘staying in’, as about ‘how you could tell who was in’. In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church’ So the divine act of justification does not consti­tute us as Christians or establish our relationship with God. It informs or announces. ‘The word dikaioø [justify] is, after all, a declarative word, declaring that something is the case, rather than a word for mak­ing something happen or changing the way something is.”[3]

I am not going to respond to this, other than to say that I agree with the traditional theological interpretation of justification.  Rather than to offer a full response, I am going to stand behind someone who has done a much better job at responding to this and that person is John Piper.  As I said before, John Piper has offered an extremely well-thought out response to Wright and has even been in dialogue with Wright, who according to Piper, submitted an 11,000 word response to Piper’s first draft of The Future of Justification.[4]  If you would like a greater understanding of the implications of the New Perspective of Paul, in particular, the implications of Wright’s “re-imagining” (Wright’s very own word) of the biblical meaning of justification, then I would highly recommend this book to you.  For the record, I have not read it all, I have only skimmed the sections that I was interested in, but from what I saw, Piper’s response to Wright is academic, well-presented and represents a true biblical response to Wright’s heterodoxy.  As a general rule, we must be very wary of any theologian that claims he has come up with a new meaning or understanding of traditional Christian teaching, particularly one that is as fundamental and foundational to the understanding of Christianity as the definition of justification.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Perspective_on_Paul

.[2] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 125.

[3] http://www.desiringgod.org/media/pdf/books_bfj/books_bfj.pdf  pg. 19

[4] http://www.desiringgod.org/media/pdf/books_bfj/books_bfj.pdf  pg. 10

My Geographic Heritage: Ohio, Michigan, and Growing Up In Hickory


As I write this, I am recovering from a head cold that I seem to get about once a year.  This year, it kept me out of work for 2 days, but the good news is that I am feeling better, but am certainly not 100% yet.  For those of you that emailed me or gave some encouragement over Facebook, thank you very much.

As I lied on the couch for the past two days, I have been thinking about my geographical heritage.  I think it has something to do with this new show on The History Channel called MadhouseMadhouse is about racing at a historical racetrack in Winston-Salem, North Carolina called Bowman Gray Stadium which was one of the very first tracks on the NASCAR circuit.[1]  Now, I’m not a big racing fan, but I did grow up in Hickory, North Carolina, about an hour away from Winston-Salem.  For some of you, that may surprise you.  I have found out recently that a lot of people think I’m from Michigan.  Well…I’m not.  I was born July 2, 1976 in Catawba Memorial Hospital in Hickory, North Carolina and remained there until June, 1995.

When I was a kid, I wanted to leave Hickory.  I looked around while I was in high school and figured out that if I wanted to be anything, I needed to leave Hickory.  That’s not to say that any of my friends that chose to stay are nothing; it’s just to say that, for me, I felt like I needed to leave.  Like that Bon Jovi song, I was “a home town boy born a rolling stone.”  For those of you that do not know about Hickory, my home town is named after a bar.  It was originally called “Hickory Tavern” after a log tavern that was built and after the railroad came through, the city’s name was changed to just “Hickory.” If you go downtown, you will see a number of bars.  It’s a product of a city culture that has German roots, including a Lutheran college and many Lutheran churches.  It is situated in the foothills section of the mountains, a short drive from the town of Boone and about an hour northwest of Charlotte. At one point in the country’s history, 60% of America’s furniture came out of Hickory.  I am not sure where I read that, but I have remembered that statistic for a long time.  When I was a kid, if your parents wanted a job, they could probably find one, as long as you were willing to work for a furniture factory. 

But let me back up a little further.  My mother grew up in North Tazwell, Virginia, a very rural Appalachian community in the northwestern part of the “panhandle” of Virginia, not too far from the West Virginia border.  As of the 2000 census, there were only about 45,000 people in the whole county.[2]  Going back even further, the Appalachian area was settled by the Scotch-Irish, a distinct culture that emerged when the province of Ulster, in Ireland, was settled by the Scotch.  Then called Ulster-Scotch, they soon re-settled in areas of Great Britain and in the United States, specifically in the area where my mother grew up.[3]  Ironically, my father’s heritage is much the same.  The name “McDowell” used to be spelled “MacDowell” (and indeed there are still some of those around), but the “a” was dropped in favor of sounding more Irish.  Having this Appalachian heritage on both sides of my family explains a lot about me.  It could explain my temper and my stubbornness.  My mother’s maiden name, “Witten”, is German, but my grandmother’s maiden name is “Byrd”, a distinct English name.  I have also been told, although I am unable to substantiate this claim, that my great-grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee Indian. This would explain my mother’s jet black hair as a child. So I am a Scotch-Irish German Indian or, as I like to call it, an “alcoholic in waiting.” 

Anyway, my Mom migrated to Hickory in the early 70’s to find work.  After moving around to a couple of jobs, she began to work at Century Furniture Company, where she retired a couple of years ago after working there for 35 years.  My father grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  His story is a long and complicated one, but he migrated north to Charlotte, North Carolina where he married and fathered two children.  I recently reunited via the internet with my half-brother.  It might surprise some of you that I have a brother.  I do, but he is about 25 years older than me.  I usually describe myself as an only child because that is how I was raised and the rest is too hard to explain.  Well, unfortunately my Dad’s first marriage did not go well.  I do not know all of the details, but I know that the marriage ended in divorce.  Eventually, my Dad migrated to Hickory to work on a railroad franchise earning him the nickname “Papa Piggyback.”  Apparently, this enterprise did not work out, but he remained in Hickory and was a member at Temple Baptist Church in Hickory, North Carolina, where he met my mother and eventually got her a job where he worked at Century Furniture Company. They married in 1973.

In addition to Hickory being a furniture town, it was also a racing town.  For those of you that do not know, NASCAR started unofficially during prohibition when moonshiners would soup up their car to transport their illegal products.  Even when Prohibition ended, they continued to run moonshine from the “revenuers” to avoid paying federal taxes.  The culture grew and soon they were racing those souped-up cars and ultimately NASCAR was born.  All of this happened, by the way, in the area that I grew up in or not too far from it.  Hickory is home to Hickory Motor Speedway, a track that used to be on the NASCAR circuit, but was dropped when the “Grand National Series” became sponsored by R.J. Reynolds and then known as the “Winston Cup.”  Racing is, by far, the most popular sport in my hometown, even bigger than the Super Bowl.  Tobacco sponsorship was taken for granted.  Tobacco use was, for the most part, acceptable, except in very conservative churches.  My father smoked (Winston’s by the way). Most of his friends smoked.  Many members of our church smoked.  I began smoking at 14 years old and smoked off and on until I was 21 years old, at one point smoking about a pack a day.  So, there’s the environment I grew up in.  At the time, Hickory was a very blue-collar town and that was all I saw.  There was much more to the city than I gave it credit for, but ultimately, all I saw was an endless life of working in a factory.  I wanted more.

There was something else I cannot leave out.  Hickory is divided by railroad tracks.  This may not be as true as it was when I was a kid, but the tracks divided the north and the south sides of town.  My school, both the public and private schools that I attended at any given time, were on the north side of the tracks.  Coming from the north, once you crossed the tracks on Sweetwater Road, the area became much more run down.  I didn’t live in the ghetto, but I did live in a trailer park.  Now, I know that some of you look down on others who choose to live this way.  For my family, we really could not afford anything else.  My Dad moved us out there when I was seven years old.  I’m not really sure why, but I think it was just because he wanted to own something of his own and a trailer was all that we could afford.  He passed away when I was ten years old, a product of the carton a week of Winston cigarettes that he smoked.  It was me and my Mom for nine more years in that trailer park.  There were times when I was ashamed, but I have to hand it to my friends at my Christian school, I was never made fun of for living there.  As a matter of fact, if anyone did, I remember a couple of my friends coming to my defense.  We were poor, but I didn’t know it.  I never missed a meal, although my Mom did.  She chose to feed me rather than herself on a few occasions.  She took on extra hours at work to make the ends meet.   Let me tell you guys, I had a great childhood.  My friend Angie, who used to live down the street from me in the same trailer park, reminded me of that recently.  I would go down there to play with her and her little sister, Becky.  We would look for “buried treasure” in the dumpster and play wiffle ball in her backyard.  One time, we had a neighborhood Olympics and I went at break-neck speeds down a hill on a skateboard with no helmet or pads.  Angie was one of my best friends growing up, even though I didn’t want to admit that one of my best friends was a girl. When we weren’t playing together, I would be in “the woods” letting my imagination wonder.  “The woods” were what I called a small wooded area, maybe 2 acres at the most, just down the hill from our trailer.  I loved that place.  As I am writing this, I am getting emotional just thinking about how I felt when I went back there and saw that the new owner razed it to make room for more mobile homes.  One time, me and a neighborhood boy named Johnny went sledding down a hill in the back of  “the woods” in one of those rare Carolina snowfalls.  We didn’t have a sled.  Very few people owned sleds in North Carolina because you were lucky to use them once a year.  Instead, on this particular occasion, we used an old piece of sheet metal that we found.  We got going so fast that we landed in the open sewer at the bottom of the hill, and thus ended my sledding career. The truth is that I had it better than most people I think, but I didn’t know it at the time and I’m only now realizing just how good it was.  I’m not so naïve as to think that everyone who lived in the park had it as good as I did.  In the mid 90’s, my friend Johnny that I just mentioned put a gun in his mouth over a girl that left him. 

I left Hickory for the first time in the fall of 1994 where I attended my one and only semester at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where I became a believer and met a guy by the name of Steve Sparks from the Detroit area who ultimately introduced me to William Tyndale College in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  I left for Michigan the first time in 1995.  After being there six months, I failed miserably, and after a short stint in the Army in 1996, I remained in Hickory for the next two years.  I grew there spiritually and finally decided to give Michigan another try in June of 1998.  This time, I stayed and remained there until September, 2005.

I have a strange love/hate relationship with Michigan, particularly Detroit.  The city has so much potential.  When I first moved there in 1995, I was naïve enough to think that most of Detroit looked like Northville, an upscale suburb of Detroit, near where I lived.  I knew there were bad parts, but thought that Detroit just got a bad rep.  But when I moved back in ’98 and met people from other parts of the metro area, I began to understand a lot more.  And Tyndale changed a lot in those three years.  Its enrollment dropped substantially and it began to struggle financially.  I heard many rumors about the ethics of the school from some decent sources, but I chose not to believe them since I had no proof.  The Detroit city government went from bad to worse and became more corrupt than ever.  Slowly, I felt a mental, physical, and economic depression descend on a city and a school that I really loved, but was watching struggle.  It was like watching a family member that was an addict.  You love that family member and you know they could be something if they could just get rid of that addiction.  Finally, it was announced that the school would close its doors at the end of 2004.  I was already set to graduate, but many of my friends were not.  Losing Tyndale was like losing an old friend.  Many people can go back to their alma mater to celebrate, but I cannot.  Tyndale died and so did my hopes for the city of Detroit.  When I decided to go to seminary in 2005, I left the city and I have only looked back to the few friends that I have remaining there, mostly from my old church and Tyndale.

Enter Ohio.  I am a Carolina basketball fan and, because of my time in Michigan, a Michigan football fan.  After living in both states, I can confidentially tell you that Michigan football fans don’t really like Ohio State football fans, but Ohio State football fans HATE Michigan football fans.  I had to learn that the hard way.  Moving to Ohio though, was like breathing fresh air.  The traffic is ten-times better, the people are a little-less intense, and the traffic is ten-times better.  Hey, did I mention the traffic was much better?  The cost of living is cheaper, the schools are better, and the people are, for the most part, much more laid back than people in Michigan.    I do not have as much to say about Ohio other than if you do not have at least an acquaintance with football, you are probably not going to like it here, especially if you live in Stark County, where I live, the home of the Canton Bulldogs and the Massillon Tigers, the biggest rivalry in high school football in the country and the only high school football game bet on in Vegas.  I am concerned, however, that the future of Canton, the biggest city in Stark County and the city that I work in, is troubled.  The economic downturn has hit Canton hard and things around here are looking bleak.  I currently working as a temp at a meat processing company, but I have continued to look for other permanent work and let me tell you, there is not much out there and it is certainly worse than it was a year ago.  I am left pondering my future and if God may be leading us away from this area.  It’s a decision that I have wrestled with for some time, not wanting to leave family and friends behind and certainly not wanting to move to an area where we have no connections at all, but this spring, I will graduate with my Masters and my “official” reason for moving here will be accomplished.  I am left wondering what will happen in 2010.  I honestly do not know.

So that’s my geographical heritage.  As I am now in my 30’s, there are times that I really miss Hickory.  It’s honestly hard for me to go back there because I’m hit with so many memories that it’s hard to take.  My Mom is still there, remarried and no longer living in a trailer park.  Of course, I still have many friends there, but much has changed.  The furniture industry has taken a major hit and the economy of Hickory has been permanently altered, but the city has grown and diversified and has an awesome future ahead of it.  If you find yourself in Hickory, you need to find a few places.  You need to check out McGuire’s Pub in Hickory, next to the community theatre, near downtown.  I love the atmosphere and the fact that not that many people know about it.  Also, go around the corner and check out the Olde Hickory Tap Room, another great place to hang out.  You also got to check out Dante’s Pizza.  It used to be in the mall before they remodeled and it just has excellent New York style pizza that floods my head with memories of my days as a mall rat eating pizza and playing video games and flirting with the girls that worked at Sears.  And for Pete’s sake, find some place to get some BBQ!  North Carolina has the best BBQ in the world, bar none, and you have to check out Bennett’s or Shell’s which in my opinion, are the best in town.  If you can, take a day and ride up to Blowing Rock and Boone, two great cities in the mountains that have lots to do.  Find the Valle Crucis General Store and enjoy a nice Coca-Cola in a glass bottle and pick you up some barrel candy.  Get over to Wilmington, about a 6 hour drive from Hickory on the other side of the state and go to the beach.  I recommend Oak Island….and please…get some seafood while you are there….awesome Calabash shrimp.

If you are ever in the great state of Michigan, it isn’t all bad.  After all, it’s the state where I met my wife and there are still a few things you need to see.  You should try and see the North American Auto Show, usually held at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit.  It is the biggest auto show in North America!  While you’re there, go down to Lafayette Street and get yourself some Coney dogs, the best I’ve ever eaten or go down to Mexican Town and go to Xochimilco’s (pronounced “Sosheemilco’s”) and try a Super Burrito.  I dare you!  Or, if you are extremely brave, check out the White Castle in the shadow of old Tigers stadium.  Just be prepared to wait a while.  If you go during the fall, try to get out to a cider mill.  The cider and the doughnuts are always good and the atmosphere is very romantic. 

If you are ever in Ohio, one of my favorite things to do is to go out to Amish country and just walk around.  There is a lot there to do, particularly in Berlin.  You can also drop by Wilmot and eat at the Amish Door.  If you are in Navarre, the town that I live in, be sure to stop by at Anderson’s In The Village.  The coffee is great!  If you are in Canton, check out the Pro-Football Hall of Fame.  It’s quite a sight, but go early; it does get crowded.  Head up to Cleveland and check out the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame.  Try eating at the Flats.  Ask the locals which side to go to, because I forget.  If you are in Shelby on a Sunday morning, you can check out my former church, CORE Community Church.

As time has gone on, I have learned to embrace my heritage, particularly my southern heritage, because it has made me the person that I am today.  There was a time in my life when I didn’t like having to be home on Sunday afternoon for lunch to eat fried chicken and drink sweet tea.  I didn’t want to go to church three times a week and I thought that living in a trailer park was something to be ashamed of.  Now, there are days, particularly on a cold February day in Ohio, when I would give anything to be playing wiffle ball in my friend’s backyard next to that stinky dumpster.  We didn’t have much, but we certainly had all we needed and more.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowman_Gray_Stadium

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tazewell_County,_Virginia

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotch-Irish_American

True Celebration: Going Deeper


I mentioned in my last blog that “Prayer, silence, solitude, and other spiritual disciplines become not just a mundane routine, but a moment, a possibility, an encounter, an opportunity to spend being intentional about knowing this God more and more and daring Him to take you to the next level.”  I would like to comment more on this aspect of spiritual growth.

Let’s define some terms.  How do we define spiritual growth?  I actually prefer the term “spiritual formation” because I think it is a more accurate term.  To me, “growth” seems rather one-dimensional, like short to tall or thin to fat.  “Formation,” however, seems multi-dimensional, and that is how I see the spiritual life working.  Wikipedia (the trusted source for all internet truth) defines “spiritual formation” as “the growth and development of the whole person by an intentional focus on one’s (1) spiritual and interior life, (2) interactions with others in ordinary life, and (3) the spiritual practices (prayer, the study of scripture, fasting, simplicity, solitude, confession, worship, etc.)”.[1]  As you can see from this definition, which I think is very good, spiritual formation is not just about you and God or simply about the removal of sin. 

            Growing up, I was always taught that if you had a problem with sin, you should confess that sin, preferably at an altar during the invitation at church and leave that sin at the altar and never pick it up again.  I did that again and again with certain sins, wondering why I still struggled with them and blaming myself for picking them back up again.  The problem with this type of thinking goes back to how we define spiritual growth or spiritual formation.  If we define spiritual growth as merely “the absence of sin,” then we do not go far enough.  Think of it this way: You have a bucket full of bile.  You want to somehow present that bucket of bile to someone as something to drink.  What’s the best way to do that?  First of all, get rid of the bile!  Second, you’re probably going to want to rinse the bucket, if not, get a new bucket all together, and then you need to fill that bucket with fresh and clean drinking water.  Using this analogy, all I was doing at that altar was confessing my sin, thinking that mere confession would solve all of my spiritual problems.  Twelve-step programs have a term for this.  It’s called “negative sobriety.”  If an alcoholic simply does not drink, he is negatively sober, and according to the teachings of most twelve-step programs, negative sobriety will not keep you sober for very long.  You must become “positively sober” which allows growing and forming spiritually. At some point, you have to rinse your bucket and begin to fill it with pure drinking water.

            I have not read many books on spiritual formation, but I have taken two classes on the subject.  One was an undergrad class where I was first introduced to Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, a book that is considered a Christian classic and one that I think every believer should read.  One of the things that just recently struck me was the subtitle to this book, “The Path to Spiritual Growth.” With the exception of the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible-reading, and meditation, I had always viewed most of the spiritual disciplines as optional.  They were for use for someone who had the time and wanted to go deeper in their walk with Christ.  I never viewed them as essential.  However, Foster says, right in his title to the book that the disciplines are not “a” path to spiritual growth; they are “the” path to spiritual growth.  Foster asserts that the spiritual disciplines are not an option for the believer, they are essential. 

            Let’s pause here for a second.  I am not proposing that a person can earn his or her salvation based upon adherence to the spiritual disciplines and I do not think that is what Foster is proposing, although he is often vilified in some circles.[2]  As I said in my last blog, “I believe it [election] is unconditional because it is through no conditions of our own.”  I do not believe that we, as humans, do anything to deserve salvation.  Once we are given mercy from our sin and its punishment (hell) and grace from God to accept His gift of salvation unto an abundant life[3], what does that life consist of?  How do we obtain this abundant life?  I believe the abundant life that God has called us to is when we, as believers, live to our full spiritual potential, unlocking fruits of the Spirit like peace and joy in a way which can only be a result of pressing deeper into the Spirit and following the Spirit in a fresh and meaningful way.  I believe that Foster is asserting that the abundant life, the deeper life, is obtained through the utilization of the spiritual disciplines, the keys to unlocking this deeper life.  On a side note, I am not asserting any Gnostic, “secret knowledge” or anything like that.  I believe that this spiritual awakening is available to every believer, if we seek after it.  Breaking apart Wikipedia’s definition, I think that we can see that spiritual formation has to do with (1) the vertical life, i.e. the status of our relationship with God, (2) the horizontal life, i.e., the status of our relationship with our fellow humans and (3) the actual integration of the spiritual disciplines. 

            First, you cannot begin to go deeper with God if you have not taken the first step.  There are two aspects of this first step.  The first aspect is that you must be a Christian, i.e. a believer.  You must believe that you are a sinner that is hopeless apart from a God intervention and you must believe that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, fully-God and fully-man, was that intervention, sent to us from God the Father to take our place as the punishment for our sin and to give us this abundant life that we seek.  You must accept Him into your life as your Savior and trust Christ by grace through faith for your salvation.  The second aspect of this is that you must be actively seeking God in your day to day life.  Foster asserts that prayer and Bible reading are spiritual disciplines and, indeed, they are, but in my opinion, they are also essential ingredients for any level of spiritual life.  They are part of Christianity 101, if you will.  Read your Bible and pray every day.

            Second, you must be at harmony as much as possible with your fellow humans.  I say “humans” because I want to be gender-inclusive here.  If I may be transparent here, this is an area that I really struggle with.  I can easily adopt a “Jesus and me” attitude that assumes (rather legalistically even) that as long as I read my Bible and pray every morning, it does not matter what else happens.  That is fundamentally and categorically unbiblical and if I may be so bold, it is sin.  Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor and took the time to hang all the Law and the Prophets on that statement.[4]  Unless we love others as ourselves, we are not being obedient to Scripture.  For me, where this strikes at the heart, is in my sense of entitlement.  I am thoroughly a “Burger King Christian.”  I always want to “have it my way.”  If I do not get my way, I often act out like a child that has his toy taken away.  My anger becomes directed at whatever or more importantly whoever is in the way of me obtaining that thing which I so sinfully think will cause me to be ultimately happy.  It could be a server at a restaurant, the person making my sandwich at Subway, or the vehicle that just refuses to get out of my way.  I constantly have to repent of my attitude.  If I do not confess this right away, I risk giving up the best that God has for me and I really do not want that. 

            On a side note, I think that we are often guilty of misrepresenting what sin actually does to us.  What I mean is that we often view sin as an action or omission of something that we should or should not be doing and by that sin we completely hinder what God is doing in our lives.  I do not think that is accurate.  What I think is more likely is that sin acts as a clog in a drain pipe.  The bigger the clog (the more sin) that is in the drain pipe, the less water gets through.  It does not mean that the drain is completely clogged, unless we are not a believer; it means that we just get less and less of God than we could.  This would explain why certain areas of our lives we seem to do really good at spiritually and why others we do not.  It might be a crude analogy, but the spiritual disciplines help us to break out the plunger and really get to the issue of why our sin holds us back.

            Third, spiritual formation has to do with the actual integration of the spiritual disciplines.  I have already mentioned that I think that Bible-reading and prayer are considered spiritual disciplines; they are also essential spiritual ingredients for any level of growth.  I also now think that for one to grow spiritually, one has to integrate more disciplines.  Bible-reading and prayer are only the beginning. I recently had an experience that supported this belief.  I mentioned that I had taken two classes in spiritual formation.  The second one was just this past quarter where we focused on the actual spiritual disciplines themselves.  I had to practice a short-term and a long-term discipline.  I chose silence and solitude for my short-term and prayer for my long-term.  I cannot begin to express to you the level at which I felt like I pressed into God.  My times of silence and solitude were some of the most rewarding times I have ever experienced in my walk with Christ.  These were the moments that I actually believe that I began to feel the love of God.  There are no words.  They were simply incredible.  I have also continued to try and focus on my prayer life, especially with my wife.  My wife and I now have a regular prayer time on Wednesday nights together that I often look forward to.  I have been more challenged in my personal prayer time recently because of lack of time.  After my class ended, the holidays and the move took a great deal of time and energy.  I am now trying to redirect that energy into spending more time with God.  Since I prefer to take long walks for retreat purposes, the snow and cold weather have made this difficult so I am praying (no pun intended) for warmer weather soon.

            In closing, as I write this, I do not mean to be legalistic and say that you have to do these things to be a Christian.  What I do mean to say is that if you want to be intentional about growing in Christ, if you want to live the abundant life that God has called you to live, you do not do it by osmosis. You cannot somehow attract spiritual maturity by simply “hanging out” passively.  You have to be intentional about it and I think that Foster’s book is a good start.

Blessings,

David McDowell


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritual_growth

[2] http://www.thepropheticyears.com/wordpress/2008/05/30/the-richard-foster-of-the-emergent-church-leaders.html

[3] http://www.gnpcb.org/esv/search/?q=john+10%3A10&src=esv.org

[4] http://www.gnpcb.org/esv/search/?q=Matthew+22%3A34-40

The New Watershed


In early 2003, my wife and I were living in New Boston, Michigan, a “down-river” suburb of Detroit.  While still in Wayne County, we could stand on our front porch and look over into Monroe County.  We were committed to our church, an Assemblies of God church in Sterling Heights, Michigan which is in northern Macomb County.  Even though we have moved almost an hour away, we believed that God had called us to be a part of that fellowship.  At that time, I was getting near to the end of my undergrad schooling.  After moving north from North Carolina, my theology underwent a major shift when I had a charismatic experience and spoke in tongues.  Shortly thereafter, I began to attend this Assemblies of God church that better matched my theology, but I still struggled with the concept of a second baptism in the Holy Spirit.  In my opinion, there just was not enough scriptural evidence.  My theology had also shifted from being a “Calviminian” to embracing Calvinism and some modified form of reformed theology.  I found myself in a unique position of being both reformed and some form of charismatic.

When my belief in Calvinism came to light, my wife and I tearfully were forced to step down from our positions as youth sponsors at our church.  It was a painful time for both of us.  We loved our church and we loved the youth, but rather than create division between any of the youth and since this was a much more important issue to the leadership of the church than I thought, for the greater good, we said good-bye.  In my pain, I began to search for a community of believers that I could belong to and I stumbled on a message board for “Reformed Charismatics.”  Since early 2003, I have been a member of this group and as much as a message board could shape someone’s beliefs, that board was very influential.  This was a watershed moment for me; I began to try and embrace my beliefs and found that there were others like me out there.

For the past 7 years, I have remained a member of that board, but my beliefs once again began to modify.  What I have discovered is that they have not changed so much in belief as they have in emphasis.  I credit this change to many things, but first and foremost to simply being exposed, through my seminary training, to people who love the Lord with all their heart, but approach Him very differently than I do.  I am now convinced that God’s covenant people are in almost every denomination across the board.  To be reformed does not equal being Christian.  To be charismatic does not equal being Christian.  Indeed, there are many people who would shun being called either of these that remain true to God and his calling upon their lives in all sorts of denominations.  What truly matters is what you do with Jesus.  For many, this may seem to be overly simplistic, but what I have discovered is that you can theologize until you are blue in the face, but it all comes back to just a few simple things and this is the biggest of them all.  There are a few other things that have changed.

First of all, I no longer believe that every believer has the ability to speak in tongues.  I honestly do not know if I ever believed it nor do I think that the Scriptures support this belief.  I do believe that some people are gifted with this ability and I am one of them.  I do not flaunt the gift, but I do exercise it, being very careful to follow biblical guidelines in doing so, but I would not define myself as a charismatic.  I even had a pastor friend of mine tell me plainly that I was not a charismatic so I have referred to myself less and less with that term as time has gone on.  My concern has shifted now to a more broad concern that we allow the Holy Spirit to work intricately in our lives.  The Spirit does indeed move in mysterious ways and for us to shut out something that the Spirit might be doing is dangerous and simply bad theology.  As the old saying goes (in a different context), “Leave room for the Holy Spirit.”  I have heard of many calloused people who defined themselves as believing in charismata and those that have not get radically surprised by the Holy Spirit in ways almost too heavy to comprehend.  Just because you lift your hands in worship or believe in instant healing does not make you a charismatic; it makes you biblical.  Being a biblical Christian is something that every believer should strive after and having a biblical view of the Holy Spirit is part of that.

The second thing that has happened is that I have become less concerned with systematics.  While I tentatively embrace all five points of Calvinism (because I believe they fit together like a chain), I am not a hard determinist on it because I see many holes in it and places in it that I just have so many questions about.  I have called myself a “questioning Calvinist” because to say I am fully Calvinist would not be truthful anymore.  I believe that humankind is totally depraved and completely dependent upon God for salvation.  I believe that God unconditionally elects some of us unto salvation.  I believe it is unconditional because it is through no conditions of our own.  I am not exactly sure of all the intricacies of how the Spirit moves within us to affect our will and move it toward Christ; it is a mystery, a divine dance that I can only seem to look at theoretically  as if from the outside looking in, but I know how that plays out in my own life.  I am a dirty and sinful person who relies on himself way too much and shuns the Spirit’s work in my life way too often.  I often, by my own volition, choose to accept something less than what God would have for me and that is sin. I know that my sin often blinds me because often I do not notice it until the light of the Spirit shines on it and reveals it.  I cannot trust my pliable heart to reveal to me what I should do because my heart has proved so deceitful in the past that I can lie to myself.  I am a wicked man that deserves only pain and suffering.  It is through that pain and suffering that I see my need for God.  I know that I need a Savior and I know that when Jesus went to that cross, he was thinking about me, in some way.  I am not sure if He thought of me personally, but He certainly could have.  But I know that His love caused Him to pour out His blood for all who would believe in Him.  His grace and the Holy Spirit draw me to Him even though my heart desires other things.  It is that grace that holds me close to His side even when I feel like I want to run away.  I am not sure how systematic or Calvinist all that is nor do I really care, because it’s biblical and my experience has only served to prove it more so.

The third thing is that I now believe in the radical love of God.  Oh, I believed in love before, but the deeper I went into studying the love of God, the deeper that I seemed to experience it.  I am growing weary of people who talk about God hating people.  When you study the Scriptures and pull out the passages that talk about God hating people, they can generally be explained away in the context of the passage.  God certainly has the capacity to hate. He hates sin, but he looks upon his creation with love, a radical love that is so incredible and awe-inspiring that to experience it at the greatest human capacity is only like a drop in the ocean.  Even though I have been a believer over fifteen years, I sincerely believe that I am only beginning to experience the love of God.  What does that say about the love of God?  It cannot be grasped by any level of intellect or education but only through experience.

The fourth thing that I now believe grows out of the first three things.  Once you realize that the Holy Spirit cannot be put into a box, once you realize that trying to over-systematize theology is futile, and once you begin to drop all pretenses and swim in the love of God, you get real intentional about it.  Your life cannot remain the same once this trifecta of the Holy Spirit, theology, and love converge.  Little else makes sense than to serve the Author of this glory.  Things fade away like chaff in a hurricane.  Perspectives click and you become tunnel-visioned on the shear majesty of the One who dares to love you so much as to shatter your preconceptions of His deity.  It matters not how you define yourself as long as you define yourself in Him. Prayer, silence, solitude, and other spiritual disciplines become not just a mundane routine, but a moment, a possibility, an encounter, an opportunity to spend being intentional about knowing this God more and more and daring Him to take you to the next level.

As in 2003, I now stand on the eve of a watershed moment that will forever change how I view God.  I have watched this moment approach, almost like watching a ship from a far off, getting closer and closer to the dock.  As I have prayed more, sat in silence more listening for the Spirit, sought different ways to try and push myself in understanding, I have felt a bit of a rebirth, like a little pink baby completely dependent upon its mother for everything.  I am broken, beaten and bruised from trying to do things the wrong way, for trying to fit myself into any other identity other than Christ. For my identity, I do not need labels that only serve as crude instruments for things that we cannot grasp.  Labels can be helpful, but not in this context. The thing that I know, as much as one can know issues of faith, is that for me to live can never be anything but Christ, or it is sin, and for me to die, for His glory, would only be for gain.  I fully agree with the hymn-writer: “My faith has found a resting place, Not in device or creed; I trust the ever living One, His wounds for me shall plead. I need no other argument, I need no other plea, It is enough that Jesus died, And that He died for me.”

God bless you all,

David G. McDowell