Monthly Archives: July 2012

Was Peter Just a “Dumb Fisherman”?

What was the Apostle Peter like? The narrative I learned in Sunday school was that he was just a “dumb fisherman.” The image I absorbed was of a burly, manual-labor kind of guy, but not all that smart. If God can use a dumb fisherman, then he can use anybody. That’s the lesson we learned from Peter.

But was Peter really dumb?

I don’t think so. In fact, I think he was quite smart and articulate. He could still be impulsive (cutting off the guy’s ear) and misguided (wanting to build tabernacles at the Transfiguration) and cowardly (denying Christ). But I don’t think Jesus selected a dummy.

In reading Peter’s speech on Pentecost Sunday, I see a guy with a very good command of Old Testament scripture, who could put together a strong argument for Christ on the spur of the moment, and who could command a crowd’s attention. Of course, in Sunday school we were led to believe that this “dumb fisherman” pretty much just opened his mouth and out came this speech, compliments of the Holy Spirit. But while I won’t downplay the Holy Spirit’s role, I don’t think Peter was just a wind-up doll.

As I read other stories about Peter in Acts–at Solomon’s Colonnade (chapter 3), before the Sanhedrin (chapter 4), with Cornelius (chapter 10)–I see a smart man. He had a firm command of Scripture, able to quote relevant Scripture off the top of his head. And he was convincing as he spoke about Christ being the Son of God.

In Acts 10, Peter had a vision which involved extending salvation to the Gentiles. This was a fundamental, earth-shaking concept. Chapter 11 finds him in Jerusalem defending the idea in front of, no doubt, some very smart, educated people. But he held his own, and with the Holy Spirit’s help, they accepted this revolutionary idea. I’m sure Peter had to defend it in many other settings, too. Jews would not easily extend their “chosen people” identity to Gentiles.

Plus, he wrote two very good epistles, the first of which quotes Old Testament scripture rather extensively. He knew his stuff.

So no, I don’t think Peter was a “dumb fisherman,” any more than I think Jesus was just a “dumb carpenter.” I think Peter was a very smart fisherman.

I think of my Grandpa Welker. Just a “dumb farmer”? Not at all. Though he never went to college, Grandpa was one of the smartest guys I’ve ever known. He could talk to anybody about anything. Grandpa’s oldest son, my Uncle Marvin, is another very smart guy. You have to be smart to succeed in farming today. It’s a complicated business. Uncle Marvin never went to college, and I’m guessing that as a kid he hated school and wasn’t a very good student. But if you’re looking for native intelligence, Grandpa and Uncle Marvin have it.

In Jesus’ day, a college education wasn’t exactly common, and there wasn’t much need for book learnin’. It was a farming and fishing society, with lots of manual labor. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t smart people.

I think Peter was a smart and articulate guy, with a good dose of personal charisma thrown in, a natural leader. And that’s partly why Jesus picked him.

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Thank You, Stephen Covey

Stephen Covey, author of the megaseller “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” died today (July 16, 2012). He was an extraordinary person.

I read the book soon after it came out. It remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. Here are the seven habits:

1. Be proactive. Take the initiative in life, and take responsibility for your choices. Control your environment, rather than let it control you.

2. Begin with the end in mind. Know what you want to accomplish.

3. Put first things first. Do what is most important, not what is most urgent.

4. Think win-win. Look for solutions that benefit everyone, rather than solutions that have a distinct winner and loser.

5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Listen to the other person’s viewpoint; understand where they are coming from before stating your view.

6. Synergize. Let the strengths of various people combine to achieve something better than any one person could have accomplished. He calls it “creative cooperation.”

7. Sharpen the saw. Balance and renew yourself–mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually.

Those are all good principles. But the one I’ve found most enduring in my own life is Number 5, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I can be reactionary, responding quickly to something I don’t like. But Covey presents a much better path. A path I’ve tried to follow for over 20 years.

Stephen Covey

Largely as a result of learning this principle, I tend to assume the best about people, giving people the benefit of the doubt until I learn otherwise. For example, when I hear of decisions by local government that seem questionable, I step back and remind myself of these things:

  1. Smart, competent people were involved in making these decisions (I give them the benefit of the doubt in being smart and competent).
  2. Whatever objections I have, these people have already thought of and discussed at length.
  3. I don’t have all the facts. They do.
  4. Don’t criticize until you understand the facts.
  5. Even then, ask yourself, “Is it really necessary to criticize? What’s to be gained from that?”
  6. Remember: If I were in their shoes, I would want people to trust my judgment.

I take the same approach at work toward decisions made in local churches or at the denominational level.  And I take that attitude toward decisions made in my own church, Anchor. We have smart people with good intentions. They weighed all the pros and cons before acting. While their decision may not set right with me, I need to understand all the facts before criticizing them. In the meantime, I give them the benefit of the doubt–I don’t understand why they did what they did, but I assume it was the right thing. (Unless there’s a past pattern of poor judgment on their part. Example: Congress.)

And I take the same approach in my marriage. When Pam says something that strikes me as wrong, or when she proposes an idea that initally sounds like a bad idea, I try not to respond immediately. Instead, my first reaction is to give her the benefit of the doubt. I’ve trained myself to take a breath and remind myself:

  1. Pam is very, very smart.
  2. Pam mentioned it because she thought it was a good idea. She doesn’t suggest stupid things.
  3. Pam has been thinking about this for a while. I just now heard it for the first time.
  4. The idea probably has merit. I just need to understand it the way Pam does.

Then, rather than respond negatively or in a knee-jerk way, I ask questions or make comments to discuss and learn more. If it is, indeed, a bad idea, she’ll realize it without me needing to tell her.

At least, that’s how I WANT to respond to Pam. I don’t always. Pam will tell you that. I can be a jerk of the knee-jerk variety.

I do not, unfortunately, take the same approach on Facebook. On Facebook, I remain far too reactionary. So I’ve still got plenty to work on.

But regardless–thank you, Mr. Covey, for being one of those rare writers who have made a lasting impact on my life.

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Why Does Mitt Romney Deny His Past?

I really don’t care if Mitt Romney remained involved with Bain Capital after heading off to save the 2002 Winter Olympics (which is what he did–he commendably rescued a sinking ship). If he had the capacity to deal successfully with the Olympics, while at the same time keeping his hand in a very successful company–good for him. A President needs to be able to multitask, to give quality attention to several (or many) things at the same time. So good for him.

But why is he denying that this was the case? That puzzles me.

There is so much evidence and documentation of his continued involvement at Bain after “leaving” in 1999. Steve Kornacki put it all together in a Salon article. Including:

  • Romney was listed on SEC documents as Bain’s president, CEO, chairman, and sole shareholder for years after 1999.
  • In 1999, the Boston Herald reported that in taking the Olympics position, Romney would “stay on as a part-timer with Bain, providing input on investment and key personnel decisions.”
  • In July 1999, a Bain press release identified Romney as CEO, and said he was taking a “part-time leave of absence.”
  • In a November 2000 interview, Ann Romney said her husband remained involved with Bain.
  • Marc Wolpow of Bain told the Boston Globe in 2002 that he reported directly to Romney while he was in Utah directing the Olympics.

Other reports show that Romney apparently earned at least $100,000 salary as a Bain executive in 2001 and 2002, though he says now that he had left the company.

Why is Romney denying his past? Why can’t he just come out and say, “Yep, I was doing both things at once. I was focused on the Olympics, but I still carried some influence at Bain and was involved in some decision-making there. What’s the problem with that?”

He should be proud of his work at Bain, just as he should be proud of his work as Republican governor of a predominantly-Democrat state, and of his role in instituting universal healthcare in Massachusetts. Yet he keeps rewriting his much-documented past.

I disagreed with John McCain on key policy issues, but I always felt he was honest about his past, the good and the bad. I trusted John McCain; I just didn’t vote for him. I’d like to be able to trust Mitt Romney, but he’s making it very hard, and I don’t know why.

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Can’t We Just, You Know, TALK?

On the July 15 edition of “Meet the Press,” I saw something which I thought was all but dead: two partisan operatives being objective about, and negative toward, their own candidates. Republican strategist Mike Murphy criticized something Mitt Romney was doing, and Democrat strategist Hilary Rosen responded by giving a simliar criticism of how Barack Obama was falling short.

It was so refreshing!

This is something we’ve lost in our polarized culture: the ability to have an objective conversation. That “Meet the Press” exchange was not a conversation–a TV show isn’t built for that–but it showed me that Rosen and Murphy were capable of stepping back from their partisan roles and engaging in a real conversation.

I long for a conversation in which people can freely argue both for and against a particular candidate. I can give you pluses and minuses for Barack Obama, and pluses and minuses for Mitt Romney. I’d love to have a conversation with someone who can put aside partisan preferences and just talk freely, without thinking he must convert me…or I him.

I’d love to feel free to voice my many criticisms of Barack Obama, and to hear my Republican friends respond with their reservations about Mitt Romney. Just talk, and see where it ends up.

You just don’t see that anymore. Instead, people argue tooth and nail in favor of their prefered candidate, and will not accept any criticism of their candidate (or will dismiss it or rationalize it away). I’m at fault, I admit. When people take nothing but an anti-Obama position, then I’m goaded into responding in kind. I seldom affirm pro-Romney or anti-Obama statements, so I’m as guilty as the next person. Guided largely by my assumption (right or wrong) that the other person has no interest in a conversation, I default to argument mode. And I hate that.

I would love to have an actual conversation. A conversation where someone makes a point in favor of Mitt Romney, and I can say, “You’re absolutely right.” And the person then says, “But on the other hand…”, and then gives a criticism of Romney. And I can respond, “I disagree. Here’s how I would defend Romney.” A conversation without dividing lines.

Because nearly everyone I know is a Republican, I’m normally cast in the position, at least out of fairness, of defending Obama. Of defending him against someone who will not admit the slightest shred of good in anything Obama has done. There can be no conversation with such people, and that disturbs me.

I just want to talk. Not argue. I’m tired of arguing.

Can’t we just talk openly, honestly, about politics? Can’t we try to follow Stephen Covey’s principle, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”?

The fate of our country does not hinge on whether you vote for Obama or Romney, or whether I vote for Obama or Romney. So ferociously trying to win every political argument is silly. The fate of our country, more likely, hinges on our ability to engage in civil dialogue with people who disagree with us, and to honestly seek to understand the merits of opposing viewpoints.

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My Severely Stupid Attitude Toward Taxes

I’ve got this crazy personal philosophy which both Democrats and Republicans dislike. At least, I don’t hear anyone in the political world, of any persuasion, advancing my notions. Which means I must be ignorant, misinformed, out in left field, naive, or some combination of all of the above.

Actually, I possess all of those things in heaping quantities. Yet, I will open my mouth and disgorge my stupidity. Here’s what I believe.

I believe that if you buy something, you pay for it. One of those personal responsibility things. When my parents buy a car, they don’t wait 20 years and then give me the bill.

My crazy notion is this: each generation should pay for what it buys. A “pay as you go” deal. My generation, collectively, through the people we have elected, has racked up trillions of dollars in debt. We “bought” that debt through our want-it-now greed, fiscal lack of discipline, bloated bureaucracies, multitudinous ear-marks and governmental services, and sundry stupid decisions. So we should pay for it.

We bought it, we pay for it. We broke it, we pay for it. Kind of the same thing.

Not pass it on to future generations (the “kick the can down the road” thing). Which is what everyone in Congress and the Administration is proposing with their “raise such and such amount of money over the next 20 years” thinking.

So I oppose tax cuts (on the basis of what would seem to be conservative principles, but apparently aren’t). Which means I disagree with continuing the Bush tax cuts. I agree with the President about ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. I disagree with the President about continuing the Bush tax cuts for people like me, making less than $250,000. We should (brace yourself) basically garnish the waves of my generation to pay for our extravagance. We should not give the bill to the next generation.

The only way my generation can pay for my generation’s bills is by taking it out of our hides. The economy will never grow enough to pay for our high living. Spending cuts alone will never suffice.

Democrats, of course, will object, “I didn’t vote for George Bush and his wars and unfunded drug plan, so don’t make me pay for it.” And Republicans will say, “I didn’t vote for Obama and his healthcare plan and bailouts, so don’t make me pay for that.”

But like I said–we’re in this together. “We the People” got us into this mess. So “We the People” of my generation need to cough up the money.

I know, I know. It won’t work on oh so many levels.

Economists say increasing taxes in a time of recession would seriously hurt the economy. The “fix” is to give people more money to spend–to buy more products, so companies hire more people to produce more products, giving more and more people more money to spend. I get it. “Spending” is the solution to a poor economy, according to The Smart People.

I also realize that if we extracted $15 trillion in taxes from We the People, most of Us the People would need to declare bankruptcy. Because that’s a whole insurmountably gargantuan bunch of money. So I’m a terribly naive and unrealistic idealist. I get it.

Or, by advocating tax increases, maybe I don’t get it. Proof of my don’t-get-it-ness is that nobody, absolutely nobody advocates what I’m suggesting.

But I still say: each generation should pay its own bills.

Is that so unreasonable?

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When Did Jesus Become a Republican

A friend pointed me to this video. Good stuff. It’s a song by Cindy Lee Berryhill (who I’m not familiar with).

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Musings on God’s Blessing

I like to challenge Christians to examine their assumptions, even if raising questions about their most cherished beliefs makes them mad. American Christians tend to go through the roof when you  raise questions about God and country. I realize people will think I’m anti-America (which I’m most definitely not), but I’m more interested in being pro-Bible, in really understanding how God views things. So with that in mind, let me ask:

What does it mean for a country to have God’s blessing?

In praying for people, we often say, “God, please bless so-and-so today.” That’s a different kind of blessing, akin to singing “God Bless America.” I’m talking about the “special anointing” kind of blessing, the type of blessing many Christians claim America has had from the beginning. The type of anointing Israel had, that various prophets had, that the early apostles had, and that I believe Billy Graham had. Yes, I think God has blessed America in various ways, has rewarded us for our goodness, and has used us for his purposes. I see nothing unbiblical about that. But though I’ve been taught it my whole life in every church I’ve attended, I can’t accept the idea that America has been given a special anointing by God.

American Christians are part of the worldwide church, a universal body of believers, all of us equal children of God. Christians in other countries, I’m told, are sometimes amused by the arrogance of American Christians, who think their country holds a special place in God’s eyes. We assume that our power and affluence are proof of God’s blessing. Because, as Scripture shows, God is always on the side of the rich and powerful…right? But other nations and empires enjoyed extended periods in the sun–Babylon, Alexander’s Greece, Rome, the Incas and Mayans, Genghis Kahn’s China, England, Spain–and we don’t talk about them as possessing God’s anointing.

Or is America just, you know, special?

I’m sufficiently true-blue American to believe that yes, among the countries of the world, we are indeed special. I love my country, and am willing to fight and die for my country. But I’m not willing to insist that America enjoys some kind of special blessing from God, because I see no biblical precedent for that. And when people talk about God’s special blessing on America, I tend to take a contrarian approach.

In 1776, did God favor the Colonies, which supported slavery and would continue to support it for nearly 100 years, causing untold human misery and injustice, over England, which was ending the slave trade? Prior to the Mexican-American war, Mexico had ended slavery. But in defeating Mexico, slavery was able to spread to Texas, and took aim at the other Western states we “liberated” from Mexican rule. Was the spread of slavery pleasing to God? (Actually, based on Old Testament precedents, you could make a case for this very thing. But not under the New Covenant.) Maybe we won those wars on our own, because we were simply superior militarily.

In fact, numerous countries abolished slavery before the United States got around to it–Denmark, Norway, Haiti, England, Mexico, Spain, Holland, Argentina, Uruguay, Estonia, France, Greece, Chile, Sweden, Bolivia, Portugal, Venezuela, Prussia, Austria, Peru, Cuba. And after finally freeing the slaves (at great cost), we turned our attention to wiping out Indians. Is this the picture of a divinely anointed country?

I’ve heard Christians claim that America lost God’s blessing when we ended prayer in public schools, or after the Roe v. Wade abortion decision. To me, those are just opportunistic political arguments. We’ll hear the same thing if gay marriage becomes the law of the land. What’s the truth? None of us have a clue. We’re just putting words in God’s mouth.

In the Old Testament, the Israelites certainly enjoyed God’s blessing. It kind of came and went over the decades, depending on their leadership at the time and the attitude toward worshiping idols. Under Moses and Joshua and David, and occasional judges, God most definitely helped the Israelites succeed. They were favored.

It’s sad reading about King Saul. He had everything going for him, including God’s anointing. I picture him like Lyndon Johnson–tall, commanding, charismatic, forceful, talented. But things went tragically wrong, and it was Saul’s fault. God told Saul, “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”

Saul destroyed all of the people, but kept the best sheep and cattle. When the prophet Samuel showed up, Saul boasted, “I have carried out the Lord’s instructions.”

To which Samuel replied, “Then why do I hear the sound of sheep and cattle?”

Busted!

Because Saul didn’t completely carry out God’s command, God rejected him as King. He remained as King, but without God’s blessing. 1 Samuel 16:14 says, “The Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul.” Chapter 18:12 adds, “The Lord was with David”–who was not yet king–“but had left Saul.”

Everything David did prospered. Success came easily. But not for Saul. He no longer had God’s blessing.

Success once came easily for America. Most everything we did prospered, even though some of it was evil (like our treatment of American Indians, not to mention–again–slavery). Today, we can still get our way, but mainly because we have such a powerful military and a dominant economy. We can force our will, without God’s help–which is how Genghis Khan and Alexander and the Romans extended their godless empires. They relied on pure human strength. We in modern-day America don’t require God’s blessing. We’re powerful enough on our own.

The Bible, from what I understand, never shows God bestowing any special anointing on any country except Israel. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) Did America ever have some special blessing from God? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps America, like other great powers throughout history, is mostly a synergy of resources and personnel and energy and circumstances. Yet, like England, we’ve been a spiritual standard-bearer for the world, spreading the Gospel across the planet, and I’m sure that counts for something with God. So maybe we did–or do–have some special extra-biblical blessing from God. But maybe not. Who can claim to know the mind of God on this? And therefore, can we justify perpetuating this concept of divine anointing?

In warfare, history is always written by the victors. In many wars, both sides are confident that God is on their side, but the winner is able to boast, “See, God was on our side.” I totally sympathize with Christians in other countries who think it’s arrogant for American Christians to think we are divinely favored, just because we are the biggest dog on the block–as if Jesus always sides with the powerful. Jesus liked to hang around the marginalized, the poor, the decidedly non-powerful. And I see no reason to think Jesus has changed his tune.

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