Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

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Not Nice, Flan

Flannery O’Connor, America’s first mistress of the dysfunctional family, wrote a story called “The Enduring Chill”. In it, the son of a rural Georgia widow returns to his hated (of course) home from a failed attempt to make it as a writer in New York City. He is convinced that he is dying and writes and seals a letter for his mother in which he chronicles his bitterness against her hoping to leave her with an ‘enduring chill’ of doubt and remorse.

Instead, he reveals a chill of his own, and one shared by many others, I suspect.

“I have no imagination. I have no talent. I can’t create. I have nothing but the desire for these things.”

Thus is encapsulated the chill lurking in the back of any who wish to create: the fear that they lack the capacity to do what their heart longs to do. Its creeping icy wind stirs and grips artists and preachers alike.

My own version of hell is having an ear good enough to know that my guitar is out of tune, but one insufficiently skilled to bring it into tune. Cursed forever to be out of tune, falling short of the music one wants to make, leaving only the options of playing poorly or not at all. That is an enduring chill.

Thanks, Flan (is that what your friends call you?) for awakening that specter for us.

Hello, World

As some might have figured out, I’ve been flying “Somber and Dull” this summer on autopilot. The posts on David Crumps Knocking on Heaven’s Door (which began here) were prepared in June and have been posting automatically through the summer months.

I, meanwhile, have been chasing family through Georgia-Tennessee-Ohio-Michigan and have been chased by yellow-jackets in North Carolina. Around those exciting events I’ve been keeping up on my day job and having way too much fun working on another very involved writing project. And, now and then, I’ve watched movies and read books finishing, among other things, Dombey and Son (begun here) and being not all that impressed. And occasionally, but not often enough, I’ve sat on the back porch and stared at the clouds.

But the summer is coming to an end and so I’m fixin’ (!) to get back to the more regular, and consequently eclectic, postings. Stay tuned.

Branding, 3

A while back I posted some thoughts about branding, particularly the wisdom of calling a blog meant to be engaging and playful “Somber and Dull”. That generated some fun feedback and, in the end, I’m happy sticking with the title. There certainly is no competition for the domain name.

While these things were on my mind, I ran across this picture of the Florence (Kentucky) Mall in the online edition of the Atlantic Monthly.
I was reminded that a branding vs. local ordinance issue led to that distinctive water tower message. Originally, as can be seen here, the water tower was painted with the name of the mall on whose property it resides. Florence2It seemed like a good, though drab, way for the mall to attract the attention of passing motorists.

But then, as I understood it (I lived nearby at the time) local officials protested that commercial advertising was not permitted on water towers or other structures that high. Faced with the prospect of having to repaint the whole water tower, some brilliant person suggested that the two side bars of the ‘M’ in ‘Mall’ be whited over and a stem placed beneath the remaining two lines, forming a ‘Y’. With the addition of the apostrophe, a visual impression was created that is now far more noticed than the original ever would have been. (It has since been re-painted, repeatedly, so that the ‘Y’ looks far more ‘Y-ish’. Originally, it looked like a converted ‘M’.)

There is no moral to this, no reason to point it out other than the fact that I find it interesting and to bemoan that no such event has occurred to make “Somber and Dull” more noticeable to a passing world.

“Hey, Kettle! It’s me, Pot. You Don’t Need to Hate Yourself!”

Is repentance a matter of ‘changing one’s mind’ about sin, or is it something more active, such as changing one’s behavior? Conflicting takes on this have been argued, which is troubling since repentance is so central to the Christian life.

Therefore, I appreciate John Frame’s clear and sensible presentation of the topic in his Systematic Theology (pages 958-960). Building upon his distinctive perspectival approach he reminds us that BOTH a change of mind AND a change of behavior, together with genuine sorrow for sin are each properly considered repentance, each observed from a different perspective. I would encourage any puzzled by the idea to visit these concise pages.

Absent from any proper notion of repentance is self-hatred, though many sensitive Christians somehow manage to wedge it in. When made aware of sin some speed rapidly to the conclusion that they must be worthless and useless people. This is both wrong and hope-destroying.

It is wrong because the Biblical idea of repentance nowhere includes it. We are indeed to hate sin, but our sin does not define us. We are not the sin. We belong to Jesus, we are beloved by him, and we are the adopted children of God. When we sin, he does not begin to hate us or cast us off. When we become aware of our sin, we should not conclude that we are suddenly hateful and not worthy of his love. We have NEVER been worthy of his love, but in Christ we are forever the apple of his eye. Our sin or our awareness of it does not change that.

The church in Corinth was a boiling cesspool of disunity and immorality into which Paul speaks severely and firmly to bring about repentance. In doing so he calls them saints beloved by him and by God.

Self-loathing is wrong AND it is hopeless. When we identify our sin with our person we can despair of there being any hope for change. Sin is a stubborn resident who needs to be evicted, but he is not the householder. If we forget that we will tend to see ourselves as those who will always be the way we are.

It is true that sometimes we do not change. It is true that we may struggle long and hard against the same sinful tendencies and fail time and again. But the only hope for change, the only thing that keeps us from giving up, is the deeply held knowledge that we are, even in our sin, beloved of God. We will only change, that is repentance will only lead to substantial growth, when we know that we don’t need to change in order to be loved by God. He loves us now and forever.

Christian, hate your sin, not yourself. Never forget that you are the beloved of God. You belong to the one who gave his Son to deliver you out of the dominion of that sin into the kingdom of his love. You are now and ever will be a child of God.

And Kettle, I know that calling you black is a bit disingenuous of me. I’m working on that.

Profession or Possession?

Those who have hung around evangelical circles know the following statement posted on the “Together for the Gospel” twitter feed to be fundamental to the evangelical faith:

“Mental assent and simple profession are not efficacious.”


This was posted with a picture of evangelical theologian R. C. Sproul in his most vigorous pose over which was written a further quote, all attributed to him:

“It is the POSSESSION of faith, not the PROFESSION of faith that transfers us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.”

And again, those nursed and bred on evangelical Christianity will raise a hearty “Amen” to these sentiments (Unless we are Presbyterian, in which case we will tighten our lips and nod our heads up and down, lest we seem too demonstrative.)

I do not have the full document from which these statements were lifted to properly understand the nuance lying behind them. If I have misapprehended the intent of such statements, then I trust someone will correct my misunderstanding. They are, however, by themselves suggestive and apparently sufficiently clear for @T4GOnline to post without context. As they are, and as they reflect a well worn sentiment, they invite comment.

Though we would not quibble with the basic assertion that mere profession is not what unites us with the saving work of Christ, we must ask, “How is such possession measured?” It would seem to be a fundamentally important question. If one’s only hope for eternal salvation, if one’s only confidence for the forgiveness of sin, if one’s only assurance that the death of Jesus was in fact efficacious for me, is my possession of faith, then how do I know that I possess it? What if I’m only fooling myself into thinking I have it? How can I know that I possess this thing apart from which I am eternally lost?

As a pastor, this is a question asked often of me. It is asked by those who profess love for God but wonder if they are fooling themselves and fear they lack possession of what they profess. In fact, they read such tweets and walk away with their confidence shaken (such that those who make such statements might consider the weight of millstones before tweeting).

If possession is 100% of gospel hope how then can one be sure of possessing what is needed for salvation? With such questions we leave the comfortable world of theological assertion and enter the messy world of real people making the real journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City.

The question being asked is, “How can I know that I am saved?” The answer to that on which I have been nurtured has been that our assurance rests on a three-legged stool: the certainty of the Word of God, the evidence of a changed life, and the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. But as I shepherd real people (indeed as I navigate my own life) I find that though they believe the Bible (leg #1), they see so little change in their lives (leg #2). This uncertain holiness tends to muffle inner assurances (leg #3), leaving them to wonder if the voice they hear assuring them of their sonship is not the Holy Spirit at all, but some other intent on leading them to damnation.

These are sensitive and lovely people who are not helped by the clever turns of phrase that make for good tweets telling them that their profession is meaningless in the larger scheme of things.

I want to cry out in protest, but there are few who hear my voice in this little corner of the evangelical world, no matter how loudly I speak. Were I to be heard I would point out that some well respected theologians, St. Paul among them, have placed greater weight on profession than our evangelical forebears have done. Paul reminds us of the importance of inward faith, certainly, but it is interesting to me that when he does he gives a priority to outward profession that seems missing from our tweets:

“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)

Essential inward trust cannot be known without public profession. Merely external words do not save anyone, but neither does a purely inward faith. In fact, contrary to the tweet, it is not our faith at all that transfers us from the kingdom of darkness to that of the light, but our Savior. This he does by living, dying, and rising again, all in which we take part through our union with him. We take hold of Christ by believing in our heart and by confessing our trust in him with our mouths before the church and by being marked with the covenantal sign of baptism.

Christianity is not a mere inner conviction. It is not a private faith. It is covenantal to the core, as Mr. Sproul would, I know, agree. The hope of our eternal salvation is dependent solely on Christ and not upon my ability to hold on to a pure inward faith. Jesus holds on to me even when my heart is broken and shaken and weak.

When people question their salvation and look about for some word to assure them that they are secure, as sheep often do, it does no good to ask them to look into their hearts to see if they possess faith. That is the very question they are asking. And it does no good to ask them to scan the works they have done, because being sensitive they will see their lives littered with the remains of promises broken, holiness marred, love denied. Ask them to listen to the inward voice of the Holy Spirit and all they might be able to hear is someone screaming “hypocrite” deep within them. They can find no solace by an inward examination.

But we can ask them to look elsewhere. They can look to that time when they professed faith, publicly embracing Jesus Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel. And they can look to the mark they bear, the sign of God’s covenant faithfulness applied to them, the sign of baptism. By these things they can see, and are MEANT to see, that they have been marked by God as belonging to him not by what they have done, but by what he has done for them. By looking at these objective signs, they can see that, so united with Christ, they are secure in the heavenly places with him.

They can, in fact, look to their profession and their baptism and their relationship to the body of Christ, the church, as objective signs of an inner reality that, though oft assailed, is nevertheless real. And they can rest in that when all other subjective measures slip through their fingers like dry sand.

It is the possession of faith that unites us with Christ, of that there is no doubt. But a possession so often assailed is fortified by a sign and seal of God’s promise that he who professes faith will be saved. On that I can rest. On that those who post such things rest.

I just wish they would let others rest in this as well.

For similar thoughts, more carefully expressed, from someone with actual credentials, see this.

More on Spotlight

My comments on the movie Spotlight last week spawned a thoughtful and articulate response from a reader. I did not want all her effort and insight to get lost buried in a comment and so she consented to allowing the comment in it’s entirety to be posted here. Thanks, Suzanne, for your contribution to this conversation!

I appreciate your willingness to address ‘the elephant in the room’. This is huge!

You make an excellent point, that abuse is not a Catholic issue, but rather a problem in Protestant churches as well. Whether is it physical abuse, sexual abuse, or verbal abuse, our churches, and our country, is filled with it. I think it has become a problem within the church for several reasons, it is rarely addressed, predators have unsupervised access to children, parents are blind to the facts, (or they ignore them) and when predators do confess, members are not informed of the potential threat. I also believe that we tend to turn off our ‘intuitions’ and so the signs go undetected. If we did happen to suspect something suspicious, we would probably ignore it in the belief that God will protect our children, or that we shouldn’t think bad thoughts about our fellow brothers/sisters. Sadly, the abuse goes on and it takes years before the victims come forward, usually after much anguish and turmoil of feeling like perhaps it was their fault. Even more pathetic is the fact that when they finally come forward, they are met by leaders who want to cover it up. Leaders inflict additional damage by reinforcing the fact that it must have been something they had done to cause the person to ‘lust’ after them. In the countless cases I have known, when the abuse was exposed, the emphasis was to ‘love’ and ‘forgive’ the abuser. Oddly, those who preach unconditional love and forgiveness for all, withdrew from the victim, leaving them helpless and hurting. I personally have NEVER seen where the ‘victim’ was wrapped in love and supported. Actually, I have NEVER seen where the victim was shown the ‘grace’ that the abuser was shown, but rather the opposite. This results in a victim wondering why God abandoned them and why the church abandoned them. The scars are carried throughout their life.

The thing about being abused, is that you know the signs and you can sense a predator almost upon first observance. Perhaps the awareness helps by saving a victim or two. I think predators know when someone can see through them. Perhaps we should all tune into our intuitions and be more vigilant. I don’t think Christ would stand silently by while predators attacked the children he loved so much, nor do I think he would have been silent at the men/women who abuse either verbally or physically.

Thank you for reminding us that we must not get complacent and that we must address these issues. I am grateful for Marci Preheim and Sarah Taras, and for movies like “Spotlight’ that bring about awareness. I am very grateful that you are willing to bring to light the ‘hidden’ things. I appreciate your transparency for it says to every victim that there is someone who cares, and someone who will be their advocate. This is a tremendous aid in their healing process.

Some alarming stats below.

“Every year more than 3 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States involving more than 6 million children. The United States has one of the worst records among industrialized nations – losing on average between four and seven children every day to child abuse and neglect.” -National Child Abuse Hotline

I Hate Sunday!

I posted recently some thoughts on rest. Since that is such a strong biblical theme, I thought a few more thoughts on the matter might be well placed. Of course, my writing on rest is akin to the 300 pound sports reporter writing on tennis – it is something he observes from afar but doesn’t do very well himself.

The subject of ‘rest’ invites us to think about the biblical idea of Sabbath. But for some of us, “Sabbath” does not speak of rest but of restriction. Laura Ingalls Wilder in her book Little House in the Big Woods recounts what Sundays were like for her as a little girl.

“On Sundays Mary and Laura must not run or shout or be noisy in their play. Mary could not sew on her nine-patch quilt, and Laura could not knit on the tiny mittens she was making for Baby Carrie. They might look quietly at their paper dolls, but they must not make anything new for them. They were not allowed to sew on doll clothes, not even with pins.
“They must sit quietly and listen while Ma read Bible stories to them, or stories about lions and tigers and white bears from Pa’s big green book, The Wonders of the Animal World. They might look at pictures, and they might hold their rag dolls nicely and talk to them. But there was nothing else they could do.”


Some of you are familiar with such restrictions and you understand clearly the reaction of the impetuous Laura:

“One Sunday after supper she could not bear it any longer. She began to play with Jack, and in a few minutes she was running and shouting. Pa told her to sit in her chair and be quiet, but when Laura sat down she began to cry and kick the chair with her heels.
“‘I hate Sunday!’ she said.”

I understand Laura’s frustration. I don’t think we were meant to hate Sunday.

But perhaps that has not been your experience and for you Sunday has never been different from any other day of the week. For you, perhaps for the majority of people today, though they have been given no reason to HATE Sunday, they’ve been given no reason to LOVE it either. In our swinging to extremes we have lost the spirit of the Sabbath captured by Isaiah when he commands us to

…call the sabbath a delight… (Isaiah 58:13)

In that text, Isaiah mentions some restrictions that should attend the Sabbath. But the restrictions, oddly, are mean to make the Sabbath delightful. What we have done is to focus on restrictions as if Sabbath is about restrictions. We rebel against restrictions because we do not consider what the restrictions are for.

If we have, as I think we have, lost the ability to rest, to be silent, to be still, to reflect, to think, to meditate, to pray, or even to have conversation with each other, it is because we have allowed busyness to crowd such needful activities our of our lives. We may say that we want to do any one of these things, but we are simply too busy. And so large chunks of human delight are cast aside because other things, more noisy and clamorous things, get in our way.

Into this reality God invites us to Sabbath rest. To put aside certain activities, so that we can in fact, be renewed in body and spirit. The restrictions always have a purpose, an end, a good goal. As a fellow student in college challenged me, “What if God gave us the commandments because he loves us and knows what we need?”

What if. What if, one day in seven, we denied ourselves Netflix or the NFL or the lawn or the grocery shopping? What if we put those things on another day and set aside one day for the things that get crowded out of every other day? What if we devote that day to worship, to loving others, to sitting in a quiet place, to prayer, to reading the Bible, to reading books that feed the soul? What if?

What if we saw that the reasons we do not do certain things on a Sunday are so that we might do other, more important but less urgent things? That changes the meaning of the restrictions.

We say that we don’t have time to pray, we don’t have time to read, we don’t have time to write letters to our kids, we don’t have time to think. And we don’t. But we can, if we were to see that God has commanded us to take one day in seven to turn our attention to the things that matter to him and are needful to us. Maybe he does, in fact, want us to rest?

I’m not calling for a return to Laura’s world. But I do want us to consider what we might be missing if we neglect the discipline of rest.

Branding, 2

Speaking of ‘branding’, I ran across this interestingly named barbershop today:


I don’t know what idea this is supposed to conjure in the average person’s mind, but to name a barbershop, one especially with ‘Hot Lather Neck Shaves’, after a woman whose claim to fame was her being beheaded is, well, a bit surprising.

I halfway expect it to be located next door to the ‘St. Joan BBQ’.

It wasn’t.

Lady Jane Getting a Haircut Lady Jane. Getting a haircut.


Branding, oh, how I hate thee. And clearly, I’m lousy at it.

In marketing classes around the country, professors are even now, I’m sure, pointing to a certain web site named ‘Somber and Dull’ as the worst possible title EVER for a blog that has aspirations of drawing thoughtful and engaging readers. It’s as if Coca-cola named itself ‘Brown Sugar Flavored Water’ and hoped to get people to drink it. I never buy dessert at a restaurant. Unless, of course, the restaurant is named CHEESECAKE Factory, and then I have to buy cheesecake.

Branding. It makes a difference.

I was with some fellow pastors the other morning and someone mentioned having read something I had posted on this blog. Some others, unaware that I had a blog, asked for the name of my blog so they could check it out. So I told them. Out loud. I don’t think I’ve ever done that hoping to get people to read it. One of them said something like, “Well, that’s inviting.”

Pastors are such sarcastic souls.

I explained the genesis and background of the title. (You can read about that here.) It makes sense. It’s a meaningful personal story based upon one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. And it once made for a pretty fun April Fools joke.

But it just does not have pizzaz.

So, if you have suggestions, make them. I’m happy to give each suggestion the sober, or somber, consideration it deserves. Especially if you are a marketing professor.


When the sons of Korah speak these words

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God. (Psalm 42:1)

we read them as their longing for a mystical emotional experience of the presence of God. Perhaps that is right. Certainly I speak with lots of people who are longing for a more concrete and less purely intellectual experience of God. This could be what these men longed for as well.

But if we read the whole psalm, we realize that what they longed for was something they once had but which was not simply lost but had been stripped from them. And what had been stripped from them was the opportunity to “come and appear before God” (verse 2). What they longed for was not simply the experience of God, but the experience as it was mediated through the place where they would meet with God.

These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival. (Psalm 42:4)

To be blunt, and anachronistic, but still on point, they had been denied the opportunity to go to church. And they missed that, grieved for that, lamented that, because ‘church’ was where they could come and appear before God and have their desperate soul thirst assuaged.

They had been denied and longed for what we have and take for granted.

May today our glad shouts and songs of praise return, from our hearts, as we come and appear before God and have our thirst sated.

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