The Stargazing Christian Leader

In his classic work The Republic, Plato uses the analogy of a shipmaster to illustrate some important points regarding leadership of a state. In order to properly steer a ship to its destination (in Plato’s day anyway), the shipmaster must always consult the stars to orient himself geographically, since the stars are the only fixed directional guide out on the open sea. And yet one who observes a good shipmaster continually consulting the stars in this way might think he is distracted—an impractical stargazer!

The situation is similar with good Christian leaders, who are properly also theologians, since they, too, must constantly “look up” in the course of their work, consulting eternal, lofty truths as a directional guide. And they, too, might appear to be distracted from practical matters. Yet, they are actually being very practical. Like the shipmaster, they orient themselves morally and spiritually according to what is constant and unchanging in order to steer their “ship” (their local Christian community) through the turbulent waves of life.

So what are some of those immovable biblical truths according to which Christian leaders should steer their ships? It seems to me that a good Christian leader, whether a pastor or leader in a Christian school or other organization, must do two things: remind those they lead of their identity and their purpose. Many leaders fail to do this, perhaps because it seems to them ponderous, abstract, or simply impractical, given the many pressing issues they face. But I can’t imagine anything more practical than to know your identity and purpose as a Christian.

The apostle Paul, one of the leaders of the early Christian church, does exactly this in all of his epistles. A good case in point is Ephesians 2:1-10. In this passage Paul reminds us of who we were before our transformation in Christ: dead in our sins, slaves to fleshly desires, and servants of the devil, thus “by nature deserving of wrath.” He also notes who we are now—our identity as Christians: alive in Christ, saved by grace, and destined for eternal riches. These observations culminate in Paul’s remarkable observation about our purpose: that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do” (v. 10). That is, we are the handiwork of God who are also ourselves handiworkers. So Paul is telling us that we are working handiworks.

This might seem ponderous and abstract, but it is profoundly practical as all good theology is. And the practicality of these truths are evident in the fact that they are encouraging, affirming our value as children of God, and highly motivational. What could be more motivating than to know that your work has eternal significance?

So as a Christian leader, I will always dwell upon and remind those I lead regarding their identity and purpose in Christ. This might make me appear to be a theological stargazer, but it will help me get the ship I captain to its destination!


The Best and Worst of 2021

It has been another eventful year for the Spiegel family. After 27 years in Grant County, Indiana, we relocated to southern Indiana, where Jim assumed the position of Head of School at Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington. We love our new community there as well as the town of Bedford, where we live. As usual we are closing out the year with summary remarks about good and bad stuff related to film, music, books, sports, food, and family.

Film Experiences

Jim:  It was good to get back to movie theaters after a year of Covid-induced cinema shutdowns. I enjoyed No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s worthy swansong as the eternal James Bond character. And Free Guy was a lot of fun. Ryan Reynolds is tremendous in this creative adventure that blurs the lines between reality and digital fantasy. The long-anticipated Beatles’ Get Back documentary was wonderful to experience. For those who don’t know, this is Peter Jackson’s extensive re-editing of the original footage made of the Beatles during their writing, rehearsals, and recording in January 1969, which culminated in their famous EMI rooftop performance. Jackson casts this chapter of Beatles history in a refreshingly positive light, as he captures the Beatles’ wit and playfulness in a way that was missed by the original Let it Be film. It is six hours of pure joy for Beatles fans. As for disappointments, the most notable of these was Oslo, August 31st. Brilliantly directed by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, it is the most dark and depressing film I’ve seen since Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Trier’s storytelling about a relapsing heroin addict is excruciatingly believable. I kept waiting for some light to dawn in the main character’s life. I’m still waiting.

Amy:  Not many in-theater experiences to reflect on this year, but I do agree with Jim that Free Guy was a highlight. The Netflix series Maid was a well-acted look into domestic abuse and the razor’s edge woman trying to escape their abusers. Impressively, it is a well-balanced depiction of how broken many aspects of “the system” are without villainizing everyone who is involved in the system.  If you are looking for a quirky, dark but touching series, The Cleaner is a good choice. If you are a true-crime addict like myself I highly recommend Heist, another Netflix series and This is a Robbery.

Food and Music

Amy’s Best Food Experiences of the Year:  For food experiences, I’ll lump together all the lunches and dinners we have enjoyed as a family since moving to the Bloomington area. We have really enjoyed the variety of choices, everything from Indian and Thai to Turkish and Traditional American. The food has been great but also the joy of being together as a family, which with three of the kids living away from home, is priceless.

Jim’s Best Musical Experiences of the Year:  I discovered and journeyed through the discography of the moody Canadian band Metric, whose musical style has ranged from new wave to dance pop to synth rock. I also enjoyed doing a deep dive into the music of Sia, whose addictive pop driven by her powerful, quirky vocals, feels like a guilty pleasure. It started with her Everyday is Christmas album (easily the most catchy, if utterly secular, Christmas album I’ve ever heard), and from there I traveled back to her early days in the alternative band Zero 7. She’s had a fascinating musical evolution. My favorite albums of the year were Flyte’s This is Really Going to Hurt, the Bleachers’ Take the Sadness out of Saturday Night, and Lord Huron’s incredible Long Lost—my favorite album since Cage the Elephant’s Melophobia. But the musical highlight of the year was seeing Bob Dylan in concert for the 7th time, with my daughter Maggie at Indiana University in November.

Sports

Jim’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year:  The Atlanta Braves are World Series champions! Oh yeah, baby.

Amy’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year:  Jim, Andrew and I have created a weekly family NFL pool. Winner picks our Sunday lunch spot and the loser mows the yard or does the dishes for the week. I consider having beaten Jim and Andrew three times a lifetime achievement.

Jim’s Most Disappointing Sports Moments of the Year:  The Chicago Cubs let go of Javier Baez, Chris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo! What were they thinking? Combined with the previous dismissal of Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber, this ridiculous fire sale cut the heart out of the team. Still, the Chicago Cubs will forever be the 2016 World Series champs. At least the Cubs’ front office can’t take that away from us.

Amy’s Most Painful Sports Moment of the Year:  Bryzzo, say it isn’t so!

Good Reads

Jim:  In 2021 I devoted more of my reading time to classic literature, which was a welcome break from virtually non-stop technical scholarly reading for the previous 30+ years. A definite highlight was Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I also greatly enjoyed reading the science fiction of H.G. Wells, including The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, and The War of the Worlds, all of which are replete with interesting lessons about human nature and the ethics of technology. Recently I began reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I’ve purchased four different translations and so far am most pleased with the rhymed version translated by Addison, Dryden, Pope, et al.

Amy:  Reading The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs had the unique effect of a balm to my battered spirits but also continually challenged my earthly perspective and called me to a deeper faith. I believe every committed Christian should read this book. Live Not by Lies by Rod Dreher helped me to articulate my feelings regarding our government’s approach to Covid and inspired me to hold the line of my convictions. Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey was as insightful as it was entertaining, and sometimes weird. I also discovered mystery writer Anthony Horowitz and only regret I have now read all of his books.

Best 2021 Family Memories

Jim: My favorite memory of the year, and one of the best of my life, was our son Bailey’s engagement to Grace Bennett a few weeks ago. The Bennetts and our family conspired for surprise get-together at the Bennetts after Bailey’s proposal. Fortunately, Grace said yes!

Amy: We have a little nook off our living room which I have spent a few afternoons curled up in listening to the kids joke around in the kitchen together. Also Austen and I have enjoyed many a delightful walk on the trail behind the new house, contemplating the universe and stalking squirrels.

Best Kids’ Quotes of the Year

  • Maggie (about her brothers preparing steaks for dinner): “You’ve gotta love the mutilated bodies of tortured animals.”
  • Bailey: “Before the Internet people were stupid.”

New Year’s Resolutions

Amy: To beat Jim in our fitness challenge, read more, and figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Jim:  To continue to pray every morning on my knees.

 Happy 2022 everyone!


Ho Ho No: Why the Santa Myth is Hazardous for Children

In American culture the Santa Claus story is generally considered to be a fun and entertaining aspect of the holiday season. Parents everywhere get a kick out of convincing their kids that Santa is real. This deception is, of course, reinforced through popular Santa songs, Santa films, and assorted books, games, and toys, such as the now popular Elf on the Shelf interactive toy which many parents use to motivate their kids to behave better, premised on the idea that the toy elf on their shelf is actually a moral scout for Santa.

Even committed Christians tend to see the Santa story as innocuous, though some find the tale of ole St. Nick to be an unfortunate or annoying distraction from the true meaning of Christmas—a celebration of the arrival of the Christ child to a world in need of salvation. Rarely, however, is the Santa myth regarded as a direct threat to Christian belief. After all, every adult understands that Santa isn’t real and that playing along with the story is, well, all in good fun. What danger could there be in the fable of a jolly, chubby old man soaring through the sky on a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer to bring joy to little boys and girls all around the world?

But let’s think this through. Consider the attributes of Santa Claus, according to the standard story. In order to visit the requisite 1.5 billion households worldwide, Santa would need to travel at a speed of more than 1,300 miles per second in an open sleigh while taking a fraction of a second (.0003 seconds, to be exact) to complete his deliveries at each stop. Such power over the laws of nature suggests something along the lines of omnipotence.

Furthermore, according to the Santa myth, he has exhaustive knowledge of all of our lives. As we all affirm when singing that popular Clausian hymn every Christmas season: “he sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake; he knows if you’ve been bad or good.” Clearly, then, Santa is also omniscient.

And, of course, Santa isn’t merely aware of these things. He is also our moral judge, making meticulous assessments of little boys and girls (and adults as well?). And Santa’s judgments have significant practical consequences in the form of rewards (wonderful presents) and punishments (bags of coal). Therefore, we had better “be good for goodness sake.” After all, Santa’s judgments are always right and executed with perfect justice. So Santa must also be perfectly good, an omnibenevolent being.

What all of this adds up to is a being who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good—a being that is essentially divine. Of course, again, it’s just a silly popular story that we all know to be fictional. But that is not what millions of American parents tell their children. According to some surveys, as many as 85% of children in the United States believe that Santa Claus is real, in most cases, presumably, because their parents have told them so. Many parents personally embellish the tale and play along by, say, eating the cookies and drinking the milk that they leave out for Santa on Christmas Eve or by making a point of taking their kids to the mall to tell Santa what they want for Christmas. And when their kids get old enough to register skepticism about the whole story, they are often told to “just have faith.”

So what happens when a kid discovers that the Santa story isn’t true? Some aren’t disturbed too much by it. However, many of us vividly recall what a crushing realization this is. I certainly do. And for most kids the disappointment likely has nothing to do with the number of presents they believe they will receive in the future, since the discovery that there is no Santa Claus is likewise a discovery that one’s parents are reliable providers of Christmas gifts. Rather, this revelation is a discovery in the direction of naturalism—that the world is not as magical or enchanted as one had been led to believe by the most significant authorities in one’s life: one’s parents. What else have my parents been teaching me that is actually false? What other authorities in my life have been deluding me? No doubt the questions in the mind of an eight- or nine-year-old kid are not this well-formed, but this is the basic train of thought that I have heard adults report of their own experience as kids when first learning that the Santa story is fiction.

If the Santa myth ultimately serves to generally undermine a child’s belief in world-enchantment, the skeptical effect is more specifically associated with the classical theistic traits of Santa Claus. If a kid is told for years about this omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being, only to have faith in that being dashed, then how might this impact her regard for biblical teachings about a God possessing precisely these same attributes? Again, the skeptical associations may not necessarily be conscious, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

This is on top of the more obvious problem with telling one’s kids that Santa is real, namely the fact that to do so is to lie to them. And it is not an inconsequential lie, I would argue. It’s difficult to see how a conspiracy of parental deceptions wouldn’t have the psychological effect of sowing distrust in a kid’s mind regarding their parents’ other teachings, including—perhaps especially—teachings of a theological nature.

So however popular and entertaining the Santa myth may be, deceiving one’s kids about Santa is problematic. The fact that it is a lie that undermines parental trustworthiness is sufficient reason for parents, especially Christian parents, not to participate in the deception. But the fact that it could also set kids up for religious skepticism might be the most compelling reason not to play along. Perhaps more of us ought to take seriously the possibility that the Santa story, for all it’s fun, is actually hazardous for children.


Running up the Score

In the world of sports it is common to hear people complain about teams “running up the score”—playing hard to score additional points or runs even after the outcome of the game has been decided. Some cases of running up the score in professional football and baseball are legendary. It is supposedly an “unwritten rule” that such superfluous scoring is unsportsmanlike, impolite, or even immoral. I have never been moved by this complaint, which, as a huge sports fan, I have heard hundreds of times over the years—about athletic competitions at all levels, from pee-wee soccer to NFL football.

To those who make such complaints I have often asked why they take offense at teams who run up the score. What exactly is wrong with playing your hardest even when your winning the game is no longer in doubt? The standard response is that this humiliates the losing team or that scoring “needless” points makes the other “look bad.” Some even appeal to the Golden Rule—would you want the team you’re playing to run up the score on you?

None of these arguments have ever moved me, and I’ve often wondered why. I was prompted to reflect a bit more deeply on the question after my son’s high school soccer team was on both ends of blowouts in consecutive games, losing 9-0 and then a few days later winning 8-1. In each case I was made aware that some parents were bothered by the winning team’s piling up the points long after the game’s outcome was decided. But in neither case was I personally bothered by this. Why not?

First, to address the standard arguments, it could be said that any outplaying of one’s opponent “humiliates” them or makes them “look bad.” After all, by defeating your opponent you literally make them a loser. Isn’t that humiliating in itself? So if avoiding humiliating situations is so important, then one should avoid competitions entirely. But, of course, that would be silly. And as for the Golden Rule, at least speaking for myself, this doesn’t enjoin me to stop playing my hardest because I have never wanted my opponent in any sport to stop doing their best. In fact, I would find it patronizing if my opponent decided to “take it easy” on me because they were beating me so badly. I would feel insulted and, yes, offended by this. So, for me, the Golden Rule dictates that I always try my hardest against my opponent. (Though I must admit that I have sometimes failed at this, such as when playing a vastly inferior racquetball player.) Of course, I am referring to contexts of serious competition, as opposed to when, say, playing a sport in an instructional context, when bowling or playing a board game on a date, or when teaching one’s kid how to play certain sport.

There are several positive reasons to keep doing your best even when winning big. First, to not try your hardest is to give your opponent a false sense of their own ability and level of achievement. To return to the Golden Rule, when I play someone in racquetball, among other things, since I am a serious player, I want to improve my sense of my own ability when playing them. If they take a big lead and then “let up” when a comeback is virtually out of the question, this invites me to think I am better than I really am, and this does me a disservice. It is not merciful to give me an inflated sense of my own ability. It is a deceit dressed in compassion’s clothes.

Second, there is the matter of discipline and self-control. When the win/loss outcome of a game is no longer in question, this tempts both teams to get lazy. If teams are only playing to win, then I suppose it might make sense for players to relax and not try so hard in such cases. But, as the old adage goes, it isn’t just about whether you win or lose. It is how you play the game. Even when losing by six touchdowns in the fourth quarter you can and should still strive to play the game well. And so it goes for the team who is on the winning end of such a blowout. In other words, no matter the score and no matter whether one is winning or losing, you should always do your best. This is to honor the game as well as your opponent. Playing your best is always the most dignified thing. But I would hasten to add that dignity and athletic virtue also demands that players not “rub it in” when winning big. Mockery or otherwise belittling one’s opponent when beating them badly is always wrong. And here is yet another way in which lopsided games provide opportunities for self-control. Such games challenge winning players to restrain impulses to be haughty or arrogant, and this is an important moral skill.

This leads me to my final point in defense of playing your hardest even when winning by a large margin. A severe trouncing provides the losing team with an opportunity to display poise even under adverse circumstances. Athletic competitions are a powerful and important training context for real life. They are most important as means to ends, not ends in themselves. The achievements of putting a rubber ball through a metal ring or hitting a cowhide sphere with a maple wood stick are essentially meaningless in themselves. But we contrive the games of basketball and baseball in order to develop character and provide entertainment for those who observe. This means that sports are most valuable as preparations for real life challenges, difficulties, triumphs, and failures. And among the many real life situations that we all experience are humiliating and failures. To have experienced humiliating losses in athletic contexts provides us with helpful, if painful, practice at maintaining our poise and dignity in such situations. And that is a moral good.

So there are good reasons to think that there is nothing wrong with “running up the score” in contexts of serious athletic competition, notwithstanding the common appeal to the “unwritten rule” that this is a bad thing to do. Indeed, perhaps there is a reason that this supposed unwritten rule is unwritten.


The Starting Point of Sin

Some of you may know that month Jim, the kids, and I moved to southern Indiana as a result of his accepting a new position as head of school for Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington. While this is the third time our family has moved premises, this was by far the biggest change of scene for us all. The distance wasn’t the only factor, though moving hours away is a far cry from the puddle jump moves we have made in the past. We were leaving behind the only community the kids have ever known, as home base at least. The church they were baptized in as infants; neighbors, schools, childhood friends, and on and on it goes. It has been disorienting to say the least.

Packing up the house, we discovered all sorts of things, some good and some not so good. Items we thought were lost were found; dirt and dust we didn’t know were accumulating was discovered, etc. And then we went about the process of repositioning old furniture in a new setting, sorting through forgotten boxes and deciding what to keep, what to pass on to others, and what to throw to the curb. This new setting has helped me to see our possessions in a new light, both literally and figuratively. And this is true of me as well.

The combination of quitting my job which, for the last two years has consumed so much of my time and energy, and moving out of the community I have spent my entire adult life in has been a great opportunity for self-reflection. For me, as I am sure it would be for many of you, self-reflection is usually an opportunity for self-berating. Critical evaluations of oneself aren’t always a bad thing, but too often I use it as a chance to focus on my flaws, cry to God about what a failure I am and crawl into a hole of embarrassment and shame.

Recently, however, I have been trying to take a different approach. I’ve been attempting to see my moral failings with gratitude. If I never see areas where I am weak, how can I grow strong? Yes, it’s unpleasant to have one’s frailties and faults exposed but the alternative is much worse. I must ask myself, do I want to have the appearance of goodness all the while hiding my sinful thoughts and deeds or do I want to expose them in order to grow?

Imagine going to the doctor because, while appearing perfecty healthy, you know there is something internally wrong with you.mThe nurse comes in and hands you one of those delightfully revealing paper gowns and tells you to get undressed so the doctor can diagnose the issue. Are you going to be uncomfortable? Clearly yes, but you have a choice: get uncomfortable and be exposed or stay clothed and continue to get sicker. We are faced with the same choice when dealing with our sin and the Great Physician. He cannot heal us unless He first exposes our disease.

Now I am not calling for some sort of celebration of sin. Not saying that we should all start indiscriminately dropping our metaphorical drawers and glorying in our exposed failures. There is both a time and place for sharing our sin through confession, both with God and with others. Just as none of us particularly want to see people traipsing through the malls in paper medical gowns, I don’t think we should go about broadcasting our moral failures in an attempt to normalize behavior which we are biblically told is wrong.

What I am calling myself to do is to see my sin coming into focus as a starting point to begin from rather than a finish line I failed to cross. From this starting point, I can start the journey, first to repentance and then to growth and freedom. The diagnosis is just the first step; it doesn’t immediately bring the cure. But it is a necessary one without which there can be no healing.

This move was not one that I looked forward to. But I am grateful for the chance to see myself in a different light and to grow as a result. One day, I will make my final move, from earth to my heavenly home. Then I will have the chance to see myself in the light of God’s Glory, clothed not in a flimsy exam gown but in Christ’s righteousness. Then I will be diagnosed, treated and cured, surrounded by the saints and home for good.


Resign to the Grind

This week begins my fourth week as head of school at Lighthouse Christian Academy—a K-12 school in Bloomington, Indiana. There are lots of wonderful, dedicated people there whom I’ve enjoyed getting to know. I’m excited to see what the coming school year will bring. Although none of us know the future, we can absolutely count on two things: 1) God will be faithful to us along the way and 2) the work will be a grind, and by that I mean consistently hard and often tedious work. But that’s okay, because all jobs are, in one way or another, a grind. At least if one is going to do them well.

Before this job, I worked as a college professor for 28 years, and that was certainly a grind. Preparing lectures, giving lectures, advising students, serving on committees, attending faculty meetings, filling out forms, and endless grading. And the research and publishing part was just as difficult and tedious, if not more so. But that’s what it takes for success as a college professor—a willingness to push through, day after day, semester after semester with the tedium.

This is no less true in those fields that are typically considered glamorous or prestigious. Professional athletes are exalted in our culture, envied by many. Yet their work involves enormous amounts of repetition with training drills, weight-lifting, dietary regimens, constant travel, and media interviews. It’s an exhausting lifestyle, to be sure. Of course, we rarely pity them, because—at least in the case of major sport male athletes—they make a lot of money. But that doesn’t keep their work from being a grind.

The same is true in the entertainment world. A successful Hollywood actor must work through countless scripts, repeatedly rehearse lines and prep for their roles, work through conflicts with directors and fellow actors, and do tons of photo shoots and interviews, all the while working with their agents to establish their next acting gig. And the more successful they are, the greater the demands on their time. Likewise for rock stars; whether working in the studio or going on exhausting tours, their work is a tedium of repetition, and success (and sometimes even survival) hinges on how well they can keep the grind from crushing their souls or tempting them to abuse drugs or alcohol—a common problem in the entertainment world for just this reason.

Or consider a successful CEO of a company. Even the multi-millionaire mogul must endure daily briefs about the business, constant number crunching, and all that goes into monitoring product development, marketing, financials, and personnel issues, and pressures often created by rumors of scandal, social media issues, and one’s competitors, not to mention backbiters within one’s own fold. A truly stressful tedium indeed. Again, we never pity the Jeff Bezoses, Bill Gateses, or Jack Dorseys of the world because they are so wealthy. But their professional lives are every bit the grind of any other successful worker.

And then there are the other fields of work that are more obviously grinds—those who work in auto factories, retail management, manufacturing, accounting, mail delivery, truck driving, medical research, communications, informational technology, counseling, landscaping, dentistry, and law. Each of these industries, whatever one’s role, is in one way another a serious grind—again, assuming one is doing reasonably good work. One can avoid the grind by slacking off, of course. But that is simply to choose failure.

Bottom line: to be successful in this world you must resign to the grind. Real achievement necessarily requires a dedication to doing dull, monotonous, repetitive tasks and doing them well. (My latest YouTube video fastens on this point.) This is a fact about the human condition that the writer of Ecclesiastes sums up well when he asserts, “All things are wearisome, more than one can say” (Eccl.1:8). Amen to that.


A Biblical Tension Regarding Cursing the Wicked

One category of biblical psalms is the so-called “imprecatory psalm.” These are psalms which invoke God’s harsh judgment upon those who do evil or otherwise oppose the things of God. One of the most severe among these is Psalm 109, authored by King David:

My God, whom I praise,
do not remain silent,
for people who are wicked and deceitful
have opened their mouths against me;
they have spoken against me with lying tongues.
With words of hatred they surround me;
they attack me without cause.
In return for my friendship they accuse me,
but I am a man of prayer.
They repay me evil for good,
and hatred for my friendship.

Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
and may his prayers condemn him.
May his days be few;
may another take his place of leadership.
May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow.
10 May his children be wandering beggars;
may they be driven from their ruined homes.
11 May a creditor seize all he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
12 May no one extend kindness to him
or take pity on his fatherless children.
13 May his descendants be cut off,
their names blotted out from the next generation.
14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord;
may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.
15 May their sins always remain before the Lord,
that he may blot out their name from the earth. (NIV)

This creates a tension because Jesus says, “love your enemies and bless those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44), and the Apostle Paul says, “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Rom. 12:14). Yet in Psalm 109 and other imprecatory psalms (e.g., Psalms 5, 35, 52, 54, 56-59, 79, 83, and 94) we find requests for calamity, suffering, and even destruction of the wicked, which is anything but blessing. So what gives here? How do we reconcile these biblical passages? On the one hand, we have psalmic prayers that implicitly enjoin us to pray calamities upon the wicked. On the other hand, we have Jesus and Paul admonishing us to bless and not curse. How might this tension be resolved?

Here are some ways of dealing with the problem that I’ve heard some people propose:

  1. The imprecatory psalms are not model prayers. They are not normative so much as insights into the emotional states of the psalmists which accurately reflect our own states of mind when dealing with injustice and wickedness. It is easy to see why most evangelical scholars would reject this approach, as it essentially suggests that there are elements of the psalmic prayers that one ought not to follow, the implication being that following the Psalms in some cases would be unwise or even sinful. Furthermore, this creates a dangerous slippery slope. Where does such suspicion of the psalms stop? Must we then question the wisdom of all of the Psalms?
  2. The New Testament ethic differs from that in the Old Testament. In Old Testament times certain judgmental, even condemning ways of dealing with the wicked were appropriate, but with the coming of Christ we have a different ethic, a revised moral standard. The problem with this approach is that it does violence to the moral unity of Scripture. While it must be granted that the levitical and civil aspects of the Old Testament law were abrogated with the advent of Christ, the moral law remains constant. To suggest that the Psalms recommended an action that Jesus condemned is to suggest that moral goodness itself is mutable. This is unacceptable.
  3. The imprecatory psalms don’t really invoke curses upon the wicked. Yes, they are requests that God bring pain and misfortune upon them, but these do not rise to the level of a genuine “curse.” Unfortunately for this approach, by any reasonable definition of the term, the calamities requested by David in Psalm 109 definitely qualify as curses. Merriam-Webster defines a curse as “a prayer or invocation for harm or injury to come upon one” and Dictionary.com says that to curse is “to wish or invoke evil, calamity, injury, or destruction upon” someone. Surely, by these definitions, David’s requests that his enemy would die, that his children would be impoverished and homeless, and that his sins never be forgiven qualify as a curse.

So none of these options look promising to me. At this point, I believe the best—though not entirely satisfactory—way to deal with this tension is to say that such imprecatory prayers as we find in Psalm 109 might be made in a spirit of blessing, in the sense that one might pray that God would bring such calamities upon a wicked person in order to prompt their repentance, which of course is always a blessing. And one might pray that the loss of descendants and the loss of forgiveness only come as a condition of the wicked person’s refusal to repent and persistence of defiance of the Lord, which is only just. Of course, such a hellish eternal destiny for the wicked is anything but a blessing. But the person praying in this way may nonetheless hope for the person’s repentance while also affirming the justice of God in condemning them if they do not repent. Finally, the loss of descendants can be seen as redemptive at least in the sense that this would mitigate the negative effects of the sins of the wicked down through succeeding generations.

I acknowledge that this way of dealing with this biblical tension is not ideal. At the end of the day, Psalm 109 and other imprecatory psalms present us with a serious challenge as to how we should prayerfully regard the wicked. I welcome any alternative suggestions as to how we might resolve this tension.


Lessons from the Road

The past year has been a rough one for all of us. The pandemic has hit everyone in one way or another. Diminished freedom, closed businesses, canceled travel plans, school shutdowns and of course the deaths of loved ones. As most of you know, over the last nine months, outside of the pandemic our family has been on a rather painful and frightening journey. Not only was Jim unexpectedly fired from his job, but he also lost two dear friends in a tragic accident, our beloved dog passed away from cancer at only 5 years old, and our youngest son, Andrew, broke his arm in what seemed like a routine fall while playing basketball. All of these events have left me emotionally drained and frankly perplexed; wondering what God’s plan is for our future, asking how we can appease Him to make the compounding losses stop. But the past months have also left me with some insights that I wanted to share, in the midst of the story, rather than at the “end.” While Andrew’s arm has healed and he is back on the courts, Jim is still looking for employment and, to put it bluntly, Ben, Meg and Penny are still dead. My hope is that as you deal with your own tragedies, disappointments and trials, some of my observations can come in handy and I want to share them before the curtain closes on this particular season for us, when they are harder to affirm and seem less inevitable. Most mothers will tell you all the pain was worth it when they are holding their baby in their arms, but fewer by far will say the same in the throes of labor pains. Most travelers will say it was worth the journey when they are sitting by the fireside, but rare is the content person when lost and low on gas.

Lesson One: No one knows what tomorrow brings. Repeatedly since August, when Jim was terminated, I have said “I don’t care where we go. I just want to know.” As different job opportunities have come and gone, I have embraced the idea of moving to the city, moving to the country, staying where we are and moving far away. Any of these prospects would be hard, but for someone like myself who loves to plan and organize (read: someone who is a total control freak), none would have been as nearly as hard as not knowing. A week or so ago, when another seemingly viable job opportunity dead-ended, Jim told me he felt God telling us to be still and wait. Well, duh, what else could we do? But there is waiting and then there is waiting. I have been waiting like a five year old on a road trip, kicking the back of God’s seat, asking “Are we there yet?” every two minutes. I am trying, semi-successfully, to wait as in “wait upon the LORD…” kind of waiting. And doing so has stilled something inside, loosened my grip on the future, and made me realize I may not know what lies ahead, but this is nothing new. I thought I knew before, when we got up on that morning last fall like hundreds of other mornings. Ben and Meg thought they knew when driving home from their date night in November. You, dear reader, think you know right now. But, unbeknownst to us, the decision had been made and the driver was going too fast to stop. And unbeknownst to you, the detour could be straight ahead. Who knows? I know who doesn’t know, and that’s you and me. Acknowledging that God has planned this trip long before you could read a map, and that this detour isn’t really a “change of plans” at all can bring a peace that passes understanding. I have cried out “Just tell me what to want and I will want it. This job? That job? No job? I’m good with anything. I just want to know.” And God has repeatedly answered “Just want me and let the rest sort itself out.” Such an annoyingly wise and beneficial truth. It’s just like God to tell us exactly the opposite of what we want to hear, but in a way that is exactly what we need to hear. I have no doubt I will still kick and whine from the backseat in the future, but by God’s grace I will do so fewer times before we arrive “home.”

Lesson Two: God is faithful whether you are happy or not. If you know me at all, you know that I love and respect my parents beyond measure. My folks have been absolute rocks, praying for and encouraging us on a daily basis. As we have waited for news on various job leads, my dad has texted or called to say, “God is faithful.” This, of course, is true. He is faithful to His plans, to His glory and to our ultimate good. But that doesn’t mean He is faithful to provide for our happiness. So each time, my dad has reminded me of God’s faithfulness, I have reminded him that God’s faithfulness does not equate to my happiness. I have never doubted God’s faithfulness. But I serve a god who has allowed His prophets to be jailed, His saints to be martyred, and His Son to be killed. Even Jesus asked for a quick change of plans in the garden. But here’s the thing: when God is faithful to His plans, His glory and our ultimate good, that should be enough to make us happy. It’s like the saying “When Mama’s happy, everyone’s happy.” That’s not because Mama is selfish. It’s because she is the heart of the home and out of her happiness flows the service, planning and love that provides for everyone else. God is the heart of creation and out of His will flows salvation for us all. So maybe my dad was right after all, darn it; my happiness does rest in God’s faithfulness. It just might not be the quick fix sort of happiness I long for; but the kind that His prophets, martyrs and Son are enjoying even now, the kind that lasts forever.

Lesson Three: There comes a time to wipe your eyes and start faking it. This lesson came from my co-worker, a 6’5” giant Nigerian man I call my little brother. When he told me that maybe it was time to stop hiding under my desk and crying, it really annoyed me. Didn’t he know how hard the last months had been? Didn’t he understand the emotional load I was carrying? Didn’t he get it? Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t; either way, though, he was right. The grief we have experienced is real and has changed our family forever. But we are still alive; we still have work to do and there comes a time when you have to get back at it. I think Jim has been much better at this than I have, pouring himself into his music and using his time wisely. I have obviously kept working and kept busy with the kids, but my thoughts have been consumed by our situation. Analyzing it, planning for what’s next, talking through all the “what ifs” ad nauseam, opening up the wounds again and again. Sometimes I can’t help being overwhelmed by the emotion of it all. I just don’t have a lot of buffer to absorb any additional blows. Some things send me back under the desk for a brief time out. Like the time the kids convinced me Maggie had shaved her head and was really upset. But after a few minutes, I have to get back in my chair and go back to work. I don’t want to allow our circumstances to blind me to the struggles of others around me. Just because we are having a tough time doesn’t mean everyone else is off in Candyland having a grand ole time of it. It’s amazing how reaching out to encourage others helps my wounds to heal a little faster. It’s like playing “I Spy” to pass the time on a road trip; being more attentive to the world around you really does make the journey less tiresome.

I hope these reflections are helpful to you, whatever you are currently experiencing. If you are in a season of sorrow, may they bring comfort to you. If you are in a season of joy, may they serve as a “caution ahead” sign; not to diminish the happiness of today but to prepare you for any rough road that might lie ahead.


Ten Great Taylor Swift Songs

Taylor Swift is a towering figure in popular music and for good reason. She has produced nine superb albums and deservedly won numerous Grammys for her work. Despite this, it saddens me to say, she doesn’t get the credit she deserves as a songwriter. At this point, I would list her among the best songwriters in the history of American popular music. Still, some of my friends dismiss her because, at least until recently, her music has been slickly produced and perhaps also because she is so popular. For music afficionados who disdain the torrent of drivel that pours out of the pop music industry this is an understandable reaction. But, alas, for all of the slick production, Taylor Swift is a

from Wikipedia.org

masterful songwriter. So I’ve decided to make a list of what I regard as some of Swift’s best songs, particularly from a songwriting standpoint. But the recorded performances and arrangements inevitably figure in my thinking as well.

I am going to list these chronologically and completely ignore Swift’s first three albums, strong as they are. This means I am bypassing such early classics as “Back to December,” “White Horse,” “Mean” and, my personal favorite from her early period, “Sparks Fly.” And there are many other great tunes I could have included, some of which I actually enjoy more than many of the songs on my list (e.g., “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Holy Ground,” “We are Never Getting Back Together,” “I Know Places,” “Shake it Off,” “Getaway Car,” “Don’t Blame Me,” and “Paper Rings”).

If you’re not very familiar with Swift’s music or you haven’t closely inspected her lyrics, I invite you to do so as you go through this list. The videos links include lyrics.

  1. “All Too Well” (Red, 2012) – This is one of Swift’s many break-up songs, but which poignantly expresses lingering regrets and features especially powerful arrangement dynamics. This song is a clinic in both songwriting and production. Check out Swift’s live performance of the song at the Grammys in 2013.
  2. “The Lucky One” (Red, 2012) – This is the song that first got my attention regarding Swift’s songwriting talent. A powerfully communicated message about the destructive effects of immense fame—an uncommon theme in popular music. MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” might be the best in that category, but Swift’s “The Lucky One” is right up there.
  3. “Blank Space” (1989, 2014) – Art often imitates life, and sometimes it intentionally imitates lies or exaggerations about life. This song falls into the latter category, as Swift explains in this live performance at the Grammy museum.
  1. “I Did Something Bad” (Reputation, 2017) – At first blush this song seems like a confession, but it’s actually more likely a declaration of innocence in the face of unjust accusation. “They say I did something bad” goes the refrain.
  2. “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” (Reputation, 2017) – Swift is the master of the musical rebuke, and this one is as good as they get, presented in a musical form that is reminiscent of a Broadway musical and accented by Swift’s clever humor (another quality of great songwriters).
  3. “Death by a Thousand Cuts” (Lover, 2019) – This song is the perfect marriage of form to content—blending a poignant melody with a tragic lyrical theme. And it is loaded with great lines. So good.
  1. “Invisible String” (Folklore, 2020) – There are probably ten songs from Folklore that I could include in this list. The album is that consistently strong. But this one stands out to me for its lyrical subtlety.
  2. “The Last Great American Dynasty” (Folklore, 2020) – A song about philanthropist Rebekah Harkness who married into the wealth of Standard Oil tycoon William Harkness. Swift purchased a Rhode Island property once owned by the Harkness, hence there is a personal connection.
  3. “No Body, No Crime” (Evermore, 2020) – A crime drama in a song, complete with a clever twist at the end. Is there anything songwriting-wise this woman can’t do?
  4. “Marjorie” (Evermore, 2020) – An emotionally powerful song about Swift’s grandmother that also works in some instructive life maxims, without being either maudlin or preachy. All couched in a that misty musical ambience that pervades both Folklore and Evermore.

The Temptations of Intellectual Pride

Many times over the years people have asked me about the dangers and pitfalls of studying philosophy, particularly for a person of faith. Usually the questioner has worries about the subject matter of philosophy—the questions that philosophers ask and, especially, wayward ideas that abound in the field, from metaphysical naturalism to moral relativism, which are inimical to a Christian faith perspective. In answering the question, I usually make a couple of observations. One is to acknowledge that, yes, there are many hazards involved in philosophical inquiry as regards the ideas and arguments one encounters in the field. And yes, it is possible for a well-intended Christian philosopher to be duped by what the Apostle Paul calls “hollow and deceptive arguments” (Col. 2:8). I have seen this happen to many people over the years. But I have seen it happen just as frequently, if not more so, in other fields, especially in the social sciences. So philosophical studies should not be singled out as the academic field most hazardous to one’s spiritual health. Moreover, I believe the potential upside of Christ-centered philosophical studies to be greater than that of any academic field, aside from theology.

Another observation is that when it comes to spiritual hazards in academic pursuits, the biggest culprits are not particular subjects, ideas, or arguments but rather human vices that are often occasioned by academic inquiry generally, including but not limited to philosophical studies. Here I am thinking especially about intellectual pride. I can think of at least four ways in which serious academic pursuits present temptations to intellectual pride.

One such temptation is the desire for absolute intellectual autonomy, the impulse to work things out for oneself when it comes to worldview and questions about all sorts of issues, including one’s ultimate values and the meaning of life. Of course, a certain amount of intellectual autonomy is good and proper, even necessary for human maturity. But taken to the extreme, where a person denies, even if only tacitly, the authority of Scripture over one’s life and belief system, this is, from a Christian perspective, most certainly a vice.

Another related temptation is the inclination to dismiss scriptural authority or particular biblical passages because of confusing passages and a lack of philosophical sophistication. While what has traditionally been called the perspicuity of Scripture (the clarity of its meaning, at least on the most central issues, for ordinary readers) is commonly hailed as a hallmark of its divine inspiration, someone who is trained in rigorous logical analysis may be tempted to question this because Scripture’s assertions and narratives are sometimes cryptic, confusing, or even crudely articulated and not what a trained academic, such as an analytic philosopher might “expect” from a divinely inspired text.

Thirdly, rigorous academic training and the pursuit of rational accounts and demonstrable explanations for phenomena can tempt a person toward a disinclination to be content with mysterious aspects of Christian doctrine. Appeals to mystery can sound like a cop-out to the serious academician (never mind the fact that everyone relies on significant articles of faith at the foundation of their belief system—e.g., the laws of logic, the general reliability of sense perception, the law of causality, and even the existence of other minds), and for this reason the Christian scholar may be tempted to deny or disparage the role of mystery in her belief system.

Finally, the fact that academicians tend to be endowed with significant intellectual gifts—which partly explains why they become academicians in the first place—is itself a source of temptation. Such people tend to have greater mental adroitness, and this brings with it skills for profound insight and innovation but also for rationalizations and obscuring moral truths. Intellectual gifts, like all human talents, are a double-edged sword, both a blessing and a curse. A significant aspect of the latter is the temptation it presents for the intellectually gifted person to effectively deploy her acumen to warp, undermine, or obfuscate otherwise plain biblical teachings, especially as these regard Scripture’s moral standards and the obligations they impose on us.

Augustine maintained that the root of all human sin is pride, which is essentially arrogant self-satisfaction. C. S. Lewis agrees, noting that “the essential vice, the utmost evil, is pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind” (from Mere Christianity).

Any gifts or talents with which God blesses us may be occasions for pride, and this is especially true of intellectual gifts, for the reasons I’ve noted. This might explain why there are so many biblical warnings and rebukes regarding intellectual pride. The book of Job culminates with the Lord showing Job the puny reach of his understanding. The writer of Ecclesiastes calls the pursuit of wisdom under the sun “a chasing after the wind.” And Jesus highlights how some of the greatest insights are “hidden…from the wise and the learned and revealed…to little children” (Mt. 11:25).

We would all do well to keep this in mind, especially those of us who are academicians. If not properly tethered by a humble submission to God and the authority of Scripture, our intellectual gifts may actually become a hindrance to understanding, amounting to more of a curse than a blessing. As the Apostle Paul says, “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … [T]he foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:20-25).