Monday with Michael Spencer
Dumb up, brother!
I live in a part of the county where ignorance of every sort is widespread. The dropout rate is almost 30%. Running any kind of school here is a battle. And most of the ministers and Christians in this area are untaught, or at the most, self-taught. Comparatively speaking, pastoral ignorance of various kinds is common.
My friend Walter is a local pastor. He’s never attended Bible school, much less college. He’s not much of a reader. He’s too busy in his bi-vocational ministry just trying to make ends meet and do what his job, family and church need of him to be a scholar. Some of Walter’s sermons are difficult for me to listen to. They are delivered in mountain style and they are, frankly, hard to understand. Mostly, Walter takes a well known character or story and applies some principle from the scripture to the day to day experiences of his congregation.
Mountain people face many difficulties. These include poverty, drugs in the community, unsafe living conditions, lack of economic opportunities, undependable medical care, crime and so on. A mountain pastor is always facing a congregation who, for the most part, are there because if God doesn’t come through, life is going to fall apart. Walter’s people believe that he can point them to God’s power and presence. They believe the encouragement of the Lord comes through the “man of God.” They are generally not there to experience a “Christian classroom” with pastor as professor.
Of course, those who are more educated in the doctrines of the Christian faith will tell me that there is much wrong with Walter’s ministry. He needs to know many, many things and preach them faithfully. His congregation will be strengthened by doctrinal soundness in way they won’t be through Biblical stories and their lessons. His ignorance ought to be repaired and his ministry improved. I’ll not argue with that, but I will tell you another Walter story.
One thing I didn’t tell you is that two years ago, I was in the hospital with my dying mom, and I needed a pastor. At the time, I didn’t have one. I guess I could have called any number of the ministers that I know. Actually, having been the minister in the hospital before, I was fairly certain of what would happen, and while I wouldn’t have been ungrateful, it wasn’t that important to me.
Walter happened to be in the hospital that day, visiting members of his congregation and the wider community, as was his habit. He found me, my wife and my dying mom in the ER.
Walter stayed with me all day. He found a doctor who would let my mother stay in our hospital and pass there, instead of flying her to Lexington. He helped me talk to the doctors about the course of treatment mom and I had agreed on. He prayed for me. He was a pastor to me. He was Christ to me.
Never once did Walter attempt a theological justification of the ways of God. He never got out the Bible. He was the Bible for me that day. He put flesh and blood on God and hung out with me. He thought for me when I couldn’t think clearly. He knew my heart and he helped me listen to my heart at a very confusing moment. He treated me with love and dignity that brought joy into one of the worst days of my life.
Walter showed me that day that if you are going to measure life by how it’s lived, and not by how people talk about what they believe, he knows a lot more about God than I do. He’s not read anywhere close to the books that I’ve read and he doesn’t have my vocabulary or degrees. He has the the book that matters, and its author, in him. Compared to Walter’s embodiment of Jesus, I’m stupid.
Those of you planning to write and tell me the other side of the coin can save your ink.
I know the other side of the coin. What I’m going to say to anyone listening is that I see little evidence that great learning or correct doctrine produces Christ-like people. It may, and it certainly has a part to play that can’t be eliminated. God has used books in my life to make me more like Him. But a lot of those books have been theologically ignorant and incorrect by the standards of the doctrinally correct and intelligent.
I’ve spent years listening to claims and counter claims about how various theologies, doctrines and denominations can get you the real Jesus if you’ll learn there bit or or join their team. Based on the resulting lives I’ve seen — starting with my own — I’d say we’re all full of “dung” on that one. Christ-possessed individuals exist across the spectrum of denominations, education and sophistication. In fact, I’m starting to suspect God puts his fingerprints all over more people from the wrong side of the tracks than on “our” side just to throw us off. He must enjoy hearing me say someone who does or doesn’t believe theology/doctrine “X” can’t manifest the deep imprint of the fingerprints of Jesus. (Heaven’s Comedy Channel must include hours of stupid things I’ve said.)
Jesus says that God loves to take a Walter and show me real spirituality. He loves for me to realize that I can make an “A” on a theology paper and be useless in a hospital or in the lives of real people. He loves for me to hearing the banging, clanking, crashing uselessness of much of what I’ve valued, and then discover the treasure in what I’ve called trash.
Walter has a life full of Jesus. How did Walter get so full of Jesus? By wanting him there and keeping the doors and windows open for Jesus. Not by learning the outline, the answers and the PowerPoint version and stopping there. My version of Jesus often looks a lot like an essay question I’d write. Walter’s Jesus — his rough, unpolished and ignorant version of Jesus — is the real deal, at least when it counts.
Remember that Jesus was a teacher, but he never dismissed class. Life was his classroom, because he refused to isolate truth into compartments. He had no intention of producing a disciple who was an expert in theology but useless in a hospital ER. He had no plan to allow the specializations we use to excuse ourselves from what it really means to be a Christian. “Carrying the Cross” and “Washing Feet” weren’t talks. They were life.
And if you’re smart enough to improve on that, you’re too smart.
Dumb up, brother.