A Rant on Methodology

Warning: I will offend people in this post.

Before I get to the offensive stuff, I have a confession. I have financial difficulties. In fact, I would even go as far to say that I am experiencing spiritual bondage in the area of finances. I admit that it may very well be my greatest failure and area of doubt. This line of thought has been on my mind since my college years, but it has increased pretty heavily the past couple of days.

In the past, I have shared my problems with others. I began to notice a pattern. When I openly share my financial problems with people I believe to be “safe,” every single person who offered to assist (excepting one guy, who himself was a financial planner) tried to guide me to Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey. I have a problem with this fact. He has helped many, I can not deny that. The fact that so many think highly enough of him to refer me to his stuff is a testament to his influence. Most of the time, when people consistently agree on something, I begin to get suspicious. This financial guru is no exception. Hesitantly, I tested the waters. I would skim his famous book, tune in to his radio broadcast, and watch a video on YouTube. Personally, I do not like the way he presents himself. I believe his presentation spoils his message. 

Before I go too far into my rant, I think it is appropriate to disclose that I have never fully gone through his Financial Peace program. With that said, from what I have seen of his program, gleaned from some of his writings, and heard from his mouth via radio and web broadcasts, he seems to speak to our self-centered pride more often than not. What I have been exposed to lacks grace and humility. After mentioning my concerns to dear family friend, one of the most recent to recommend Ramsey, the response was, “Ok…. understand….his personality is direct, strongly masculine, very extraverted, gritty humor. no nonsense type of guy who turns some people off. He may appear worldly. However he speaks into eternal truth.” Well, then. It seems as though my objection may be dismissed by implying that I have thin skin. I should just put on my big boy pants and listen to his message. He is speaking eternal truth, after all. Am I simply so weak that I am not able to handle a strong, masculine approach? Even if that was the case, is it appropriate to expose me in order to desensitize me, to make me grow up? While that may work, I am not quite sure that is the best approac. I need a measure of grace when being fed truth.

This gets to the root of my concern: how can we describe something as beneficial or good news if it is truth without grace? As Christians, should not our message to the world and to each other be full of grace AND truth? I am learning that we have not really been good at that. It only takes one quick glance at the Church in the USA to see that one without the other is useless. Our churches are still plagued by perspectives out of the modern age, when we pursued a pure, universal truth. When we found what we were looking for, we wielded our “truth” in such a way that we were ready to conquer whoever opposed it. There was little grace. The irony was that even if our truth was grace, we still used it as a weapon! How did that work out for us? I think the current relevance of the Church to our culture is evidence. The effectiveness of reaching our culture with this attitude is painfully obvious. What is required is both grace and truth, in relatively equal measure.

Enter the political climate in the USA this election cycle. I am reminded of a particular US presidential candidate. We have someone who “tells it like it is” who is also described as a bully. The defense that I have heard about his methodology is that desperate times call for desperate action. Among the Christians, I have heard the point that Jesus sometimes employed abusive language. They point to Jesus cleansing the temple or his lambasting the teachers of the law in Matthew 23. Is this supposed to grant permission for us to speak truth and act without grace? Are we being like Jesus when we do so? Jesus was blasting the established religious leaders. Jesus reserved his harshest language for those who claimed they had it together! Sure, he was speaking the truth. He was speaking to people who believed themselves to be perfect! Is that what we are witnessing these days in the public arena? If so, I continue to be ashamed of my people.

I close this rant by turning back to Dave Ramsey. Perhaps someone can help me find where he addresses my financial concerns. I am willing to be corrected. Here is what I believe is the root of my personal financial woes: I believe the lie that I am on my own. God has left me alone to deal with my own financial troubles. The source of my problem is the same heretical theology that says, “God only helps those who help themselves.” If I am truly honest, I will admit that I feel abandoned by God because I can never do enough to pull myself out of this financial pit in which I find myself. I struggle with this lie because I continue to be exposed to it. Well intentioned advice givers continue to serve it up to me. If this truly is the case, is it much use to me if you use a heavy-handed approach to apply clear financial principles in order to help me? Besides, if I accept such help, would it not simply serve to feed my errant theology and my selfish pride? Is it not better to first address the problem for what it truly is, a spiritual crisis of faith? 

Just to clear things up, I plan to go through Ramsey’s Financial Peace program this summer. I hope to be proven wrong about him and find grace along with the eternal truths he conveys.

A Theology of Pastoral Ministry

​I have spent much of my life serving myself through the task of pain avoidance. My ministry is self-care. I want what I want, and I will not be manipulated into doing what anyone else wants. When trouble comes, I do what I can avoid it. When trouble is unavoidable, I determine to endure it as quickly as possible. This life-long escapism has kept me alive, but it has prevented me from living.

​That my life has been difficult is hard for me to say, yet I freely admit that it has not been easy. I was exposed to alcohol and recreational drug use at a very early age. I was still in diapers when I first began to get drunk. Pornography became a means of escape before I was 10. I know abuse and how it can come in many various forms. Morality was broken even before it began to form within me. All there was to life was the self. Violence, racism, and loneliness were ever-present as I grew up. Fear was my companion constantly. Otherwise, I was alone. I hated life and everyone in it. Everything around me was dark and vampiric.

​Somewhere along the way, something changed. A light shined into darkness. There was something, someone completely other. Holiness. I became captivated by The Other. A life-giving light seemingly came from nowhere, and I could not overcome it. My hate and loathing melted, transforming into a loving astonishment. There was value beyond myself. I began to change. This…life was so irresistible that I could not help myself. The more I saw the light, the more I fell in love with it. I drew nearer. I yearned for it, longed for it, lusted after it. At once, I was enveloped, captivated. I dedicated the only thing I had, myself, to service of Holiness. My life became a ministry. When I enter into these relationships, I enter with the intent to provide pastoral care. Sometimes, this looks a lot like listening to the other. Other times, it looks like simply being a companion and a nonthreatening presence.

​Life with the Light has not been easy. As I draw nearer to the source of my fascination, the shape of a cross becomes ever clearer. Ironically, I understand and continue to learn that the way into the Light is to face darkness. The way to hold on to my Lover is to give. I know that life is not about the self, it is about the other. I now know that in order to live, I must lay down my life. As I understand it, I am attempting to address spiritual needs by encouraging, refreshing, and restoring another’s soul. I belong to a community that transcends time and space. Fear still accompanies me, but it has changed. I yearn to facilitate this experience for others. It is too good not to give the life-giving joy I have experienced.

I have spent much of my life serving myself through the task of pain avoidance. It hurts too much to turn away from my Lover, my God. I want to give this to others. My ministry is self-care. His presence is a soothing balm, not just for me. I have the pleasure of applying to others because I now know I am healed more fully only as I apply it to others. I want what I want, and I will not be manipulated into doing what anyone else wants. What I now want is to fall further in love as I give to others more love than they can ask or imagine. When trouble comes, I do what I can to avoid it. The Cross helps me stand under it. When trouble is unavoidable, I determine to endure it as quickly as possible. I do not want to be separated from my Lover for long, so I remember that I am participating in my Lover’s suffering. This life-long escapism has kept me alive, but it has prevented me from living. I now know that I am made for life eternal, and I give my life to making this eternal Light known in both big ways and small.

I have come face to face with demons in the eyes of more than a few people. In many ways, I still face demons every day. I know I am not the only one. Others need to know they are not alone. These things equip me for pastoral ministry.

Something About Me

Greetings! Thanks for checking in! Please allow me to introduce myself and share a bit about me. I want to write what follows in order to explain one of the most important formative experiences in my life. This has recently come back up in my thought life, and in order to process it once again, I believe it best to write it down.

My name is Curtis, but many who know me call me by my nickname, Creto. I was born and raised in South Carolina. I grew up a poor country boy, experiencing what I thought was a tough but simple life. This misunderstanding began to change shortly after I graduated high school. A series of events lead to my finding out that I had been lied to all of my life. Everything I knew to be true–about myself and my life– was suddenly disrupted when I was told that my biological father was not the man I thought he was. This conversation was not as simple as a “you were adopted as a child.” No, it was far, far messier and much more confusing. I’ll try to explain.

High school sweethearts, my mother was married to my dad. He was in the US Navy. At some point, they had a son who died of SIDS. They divorced. He went overseas on deployment. Here is where things get confusing. When he returned, she was pregnant with me. For some inexplicable reason, they remarried. I will never know why. Likewise, I will never know if he really knew I was on the way when they re-married. Conveniently, I was born “premature.” Since I was not yet born, my dad took me in as his own. In truth, I was conceived as a result of an affair months before his deployment ended. I say it was an affair because my biological father, a publicly elected figure, was married. As far as I know, he is still married to the same woman. After a few years, my mother and my dad divorced again. I believe this was when I was about seven. She quickly married another man. If you are keeping count, there are now three men. Growing up, I had suspected that my mother had an issue with keeping true to her marriage vows. This fidelity issue came out in the open when I was a junior in high school. She was caught in the shower with yet another man. My step-father and my mother separated, and disgusted with the whole situation, I chose to live with my step-father until I graduated high school. After graduation, I left home, never to return.

Flash forward to the next year. I had just completed my first year of college. Living with a fraternity brother for the summer, I partied. A lot. Later that summer, I got into an argument on the phone with my mother. I expressed my concern with her lack of commitment when it comes to the men in her life. I made my point. She was confronted with an ugly truth, brought up by her own son. I do not know if it was out of anger, embarrassment, or something else entirely, but she lashed out. She dropped the bomb that quite literally rocked my world. Our discussion ended quickly after that. Quite naturally, I was left disoriented. I questioned everything I knew to be true about love, happiness, pain, and desire. As I navigated through layers and layers of the complexity and deceit that was my life, I even questioned truth itself. Everything seemed empty. Nothing had meaning to me anymore. I longed for truth. I needed something, someone to trust. I longed for something stable, something that would provide fulfillment and give purpose to the emptiness I was experiencing.

This was formative in that I tried as much as it was possible to begin at square one and build an identity. After that summer, I returned to the small, private Christian university for a second year. Many factors converged in my life that led to my making the decisions I made that Fall. Being in a Christian school, in the traditionally Christian southern culture, I naturally looked to the Christian claims in my own life. I tried hard to find a meaning to the culture and to the lifestyles I saw around me. It was all empty and meaningless. One evening, in a fit of despondency and nihilistic frustration, I opened myself up to an experience I will never forget. I tried to pray to the Father of Jesus Christ. Acknowledging my lack of anything, I turned to the Christian God. It was then that I had an overwhelming sense that I was not alone and that my life had a meaning. Strangely, I felt as if warm, unseen arms embraced me. In that embrace, very clearly, my inner being “heard” a voice proclaiming that I had a Father who cared for me more deeply than any of the men I had known in my life. I had a Heavenly Father who was a father to the fatherless. That experience changed my very being. For the first time, everything seemed right. Everything suddenly became as it should be. In that moment, I became a believer in the God of the Bible. I became a Christian. I am fortunate that I was in Charleston, SC, my place of birth. It was there that I was born again.

Pilgrimage to Simplicity

What would you say if I told you that it is possible to live a life that is free from the complexities that perplex us; a pure life, where we are aware but not consumed with all the contingencies and the exceptions that might disrupt our well-being? We can live a life free from the common stresses that consume our attention on a moment by moment basis.

Would you say that I am crazy? If so, perhaps you would be right. After all, most people we encounter daily live with fears, worries, and concerns. But what if I am right? What if a graceful life of peace is possible this side of the grave? I truly believe this kind of life is possible here and now. I am so convinced that I am willing to spend the next few months (a REALLY long time for me) proving that it can be done.

Self-Employed?

The past few months, I have been frequently confronted with the idea of becoming an entrepreneur or a freelancer. As a man who is responsible for a wife and five young boys, this prospect is terrifying. I have no guarantee that I will be able to provide for them. Then again, my current situation does little to that end. Perhaps it is a valid time to consider it.

The biggest question I have is what it is I would do; what service or product would I market. I have a variety of interests, and my innate drive to always learn more always drives me in multiple directions. Besides my life circumstances, I have four different sources of influence that are driving me mad with desire to go out and start finding a way to make this freelance/entrepreneurship thing happen. First is a book by Chris Guillebeau titled, The $100 Startup. I have to put it down every few pages because I feel as if I will jump through my skin. I have no idea what it is I would do, but reading this book makes me want to do SOMETHING… and do it NOW! I MUST impact someone’s life and get paid to do it!

The second is Scott Dinsmore’s recent challenge, extended to me via email through Live Your Legend. It is titled the Start-A-Blog Dream Job Challenge. Scott started off as a blogger, so it is no surprise that he has an affinity for that platform as a vehicle to success. What I like about this challenge is that it is in-line with my approach to blogging. As was stated in an earlier post, my hope here is to use this platform as a means of processing thoughts by forcing me to put them to words, creating coherent sentences suitable for general consumption by others. Winning a $500 ticket to a global summit just helps to be motivated to follow through with this vision.

The third avenue leading me the direction of the entrepreneur/freelancer is a series of blog posts by Paul Sellers, a Welsh artisan and self-described lifestyle woodworker. He wrote a series about becoming a self-employed craftsman titled, “Starting Out On Your Own.” The novel thought of a crafts person, using mere hand tools to create is absurd in this day of specialty electric machines. I must admit that ever since my days as a young Boy Scout, I have always loved creating things with wood…rather the idea of creating things with wood. Every time I have tried, I have either been faced with a lack of skill, lack of appropriate funding, the proper tools, or I injure myself. I lost a fingertip to a table saw nearly 10 years ago. Since then, I have been a bit shy about the whole prospect.

The fourth source of inspiration is found in Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You To Be Rich fame. I will be the first to admit that I do not like his uncompromising approach to make more money. This year, he has designated as “the year of more.” To be clear, his concern is more than monetary riches, but bragging about how much money he makes is certainly a turn off. I have always hated that point of view. More is never the answer. I believe contentment lies in simplicity and sincerity, not in luxury and insatiability. However, his influence in the realm of applied social psychology with regards to providing someone with a service they really want and is willing to pay top dollar to receive it is intriguing, to say the least. It is in his very dogged refining of focus that his genius is revealed. My problem isn’t so much that I am lazy. I am inconsistent and lack focus. His methods refine focus and get at the fears that are driving hesitation and inconsistency.

These four are the main sources of inspiration that have spurred me to consider doing the self-employment thing. The reality is that both my wife and I acknowledge that I am not much of a businessman. It would take a great amount of confidence and passion for me to do so. I must also consider my desire to teach overseas. Is it possible to be a woodworking itinerant teacher of theology who writes? God only knows.

Sick

It is that time of year again. Well, while sickness isn’t really an annual occurrence, it sure seems that way. This time, the whole family has come down with a serious stomach bug…all in the same day!

It has wiped us all out. No more deep theological thought until I get over this!

Zombie

What is a zombie? A living corpse, mindlessly wandering, with no place of belonging; no rootedness. A zombie was once alive and retains a semblance of that prior life. Death is re-animated. Its existence is forever consuming without any real purpose except to consume, to merely continue existence. Living, but not really alive. If I were to think about it, this is Adam’s gift to his progeny. Christ’s gift is belonging. When he left, he told his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them.

Christ belongs with the Father. He returned there. I am exceptionally grateful that in his descent that he claimed his own so that we may ascend with him! He has a place, and because he came, I have a place where I belong. I have a citizenship that transcends locale. Here, I am merely a sojourner and a pilgrim. I know that I will leave this world. Only then will I finally be able to truly go home.

Is it Really Important?

In a recent conversation I spoke about how I was musing on a line that is often omitted in the Apostle’s Creed. To be fair, it is often omitted for good reason, and it is telling that the earliest versions did not include, “He descended into Hell.” Why then, do many church traditions include it, expand on it, and include Christ’s descent into Hell as doctrine?

I wondered, if I want to live a life that faithfully depicts biblical truths, I should restrict myself by emphasizing the things emphasized in the Bible. When I look back at my concern for understanding death and Christ’s descent, I realize that it is not of primary importance. However, it is more important than secondary concerns.

Simply put, the single most important event in the Christian faith is the Resurrection (cf. I Corinthians 15:12-19) and without any understanding of death and what happened between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, one does not understand the Resurrection. It has an import that directly effects how one understands the very reason for hope in this life!

I am studying death so that in this life, I might have hope. My aim is to share that hope, and in doing so, share life.

Of the Going Down of Christ into Hell, pt1

“He descended into Hell.”

This line is sometimes omitted from the Apostle’s Creed (or added to it, depending on your perspective) in its section on Christ. How are we to understand that short period of time between Jesus’ death and resurrection? Why is this ill-described moment in history so important that it is built in to the confessions of the ancient Christian Church and many modern iterations of the same? Why do we make such a big deal of something about which Scripture is relatively silent? I will begin my reflections here the same way they germinated in my mind.

It started one recent Sunday at church. The president of a Christian college in Uganda spoke during the service. He is a self-described evangelist, and I found in his preaching a sense of urgency. I did not realize that I had missed it. Growing up a Baptist in South Carolina, one would expect a preacher to have a little bit of “fire” in his sermon. Up here in New England, I have noticed that this style of preaching is equated to unnecessary theatrics and a provocation of a forced emotional state. Perhaps this is just my experience, but it seems to be true!

Back to my Ugandan Brother. He spoke of the East African Revival and it’s key marks, personal repentance and holiness. I wondered what contributed to that sense of urgency and why I did not see it as much here in New England. One could presume that it is because he is more accustomed to coming face to face with death; a kind of liveliness that results from “fearing the One who can destroy both the body and the soul.” It got me thinking about the Wisdom Literature in Scripture that recounts the merits of musing on death. Here in the U.S.A., we value youth and immortality so much that as a culture, we shy away from and outright hide anything that resembles feebleness or death. Is that why there is not so much urgency to prepare for the possibility of life after death? Is that why the demographics are what they are in the U.S. churches? (I truly wonder why my mind gets so distracted on these tangents. I promise to get to where I’m going.) One way or another, my thought process shifted to why we fear death and how we understand (or fail to understand) death. Should we be more urgent in addressing life? Should we be more urgent in addressing death?

As I noted in an earlier post, I paused when I read an exposition on the third article of the 39 Articles of Religion. Specifically, I was struck by The concept of how Jesus Christ died for our sake and descended into Hell. At this point, I was intrigued. I began reading as many commentaries and expositions as I could get into my hands. How could he have done anything after death and before resurrection? He was dead, right? What do we know about death, anyway? What is so important about it that I need to consider it?

In search of an answer, I go first to the beginning. Genesis states that God created everything good. If I am paying attention, I can confess that life is good. Adam and Eve were placed in Eden, and they were warned not to eat the fruit of a certain tree. With that command, God said in Genesis 2:17, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” God’s command states plainly that the day they ate of it, they would die. Because of this, I can safely assume that death is a bad thing. Yet, Adam and Eve ate of that tree, and they lived long enough to have at least three children, seeing at least two of them grow old enough to have professions. Genesis 5:5 even states that Adam lived 930 years. I am left befuddled as I try to understand death in these introductory chapters of the Bible.

In my attempt to make sense of the scene, I presume that Adam and Eve died spiritually the day they ate of the tree. Their physical death was stalled due to the loving graciousness of their Creator. My conclusion includes a division of death into spiritual and physical. This would allow for Christ’s physical death at Golgotha and his being spiritually present in Hell, doing some work. While it does not get me any closer to understanding death, it provides a very fragile framework. On its own and without any further explication, this is heretical territory, and I do not want to be here. The greatest problem is having a Christ who does not fully participate in our suffering.

Allow me to explain why this is dangerous. If in Adam, all humanity is spiritually dead, yet Christ lived spiritually after physical death, descending into Hell, then as far as I can tell, Christ did not experience spiritual death as we experience it. This provides a Christ who did not fully experience the current, fallen human experience, keeping him from fully redeeming mankind from our experience. If Scripture teaches a division of death into physical and spiritual, I need to either uncover more truth from Scripture or divest myself of some presuppositions. Perhaps I need both, but I believe this is an appropriate starting point.

One thing is certain: more study is needed. First Corinthians 15 testifies that while the first Adam brought death, the second Adam (Christ) became a life-giving Spirit. Perhaps this is where I should turn next in my search to understand death, Christ’s descent into Hell, and why death should be such an urgent matter.