Of Conversations and Dialogues There Is No End

There are certain phrases which have vague or unknown meanings, and yet are frequently employed in speech. One such phrase, “doing life together,” was recently satirized by The Babylon Bee. Another one is a phrase that often precedes a thought: “I feel like.”

This latter one has been a great troubler of my own soul recently. I hear it so much that it has crept into my own colloquial vocabulary, and when I catch myself using it, I immediately repent in dust and ashes. Numerous conversations between myself and my wife have been abruptly interrupted by this devil. The other day I said something to the effect of, “I feel like I called so-and-so recently,” and immediately thought, “What does that even mean?”

Does one “feel like” they did something? Or did they do it? “Feel like” is a simile in need of completion. It’s correct use would be to describe an actual feeling, as in, “I feel like I’m dying,” when in severe pain. It most certainly doesn’t denote “thinking,” which is what I was doing and is how the booger of a phrase has come to be used. What I should have said was, “I think,” because that’s what I was doing. I was “thinking,” not “feeling like.”

Believing that I had sinned against the english language, I confessed to my wife that I had butchered an english verb, and she was gracious to forgive me (perhaps to get my mind back to the real topic at hand).

Now this is a minor infraction, I know. But it’s introductory to one of the real nuisances of late, which is the use of “conversations” and “dialogues.” These two words have been used as though they are twin Saviors, or John the Baptists who point to the Savior. Some cultural issue arises—racism, sexuality, immigration—and the commentators from every branch of the intelligentsia offer as a solution “more conversations,” or suggest the need for “more dialogues” as a means of arriving at solutions.

These words have been tossed around so much that a new translation of Ecclesiastes 12:12 might better read, “Of conversations and dialogues there is no end, and much of them is weariness to the flesh.”

What do we even mean when we say these things? When these “conversations” in public discourse actually occur, seldom are they between opponents. There are of course exceptions, but the exceptions prove the rule. Most often some group hosts an event with a panel full of people who have conversations about a topic they already agree on.

Take the many public “conversations” about racism recently. Rarely do we find a panel made up of both those who believe it’s a systemic problem and those who do not. Rarely do we find one made up of those who argue for the concept of white privilege and those who deny it. What we most often find is each camp, gathered together in their respective bubbles, armed with their respective stats and stories, who then affirm their own respective conclusions while offering solutions based on those conclusions, when in fact it is those very conclusions that is the idealogical source of the divisions.

The point: most of our “conversations” are just echo chambers. We don’t need more “conversations.” We don’t need more “dialogues.” What we need are actual debates. They can be formal, but also informal. They can have rules, or no rules at all. But the difference between a “debate” and a “conversation,” at least as of late, is that the debate has the opposing sides in the same room together. The conversation is isolated. The debate actually offers a broader perspective, whereas the conversation is built on many shared assumptions.

But most importantly, a debate—make that many debates—is designed to get to truth. Our endless conversations tend to assume the truth is known.

And that’s really the goal, is it not? Whatever the issue might be, we should want to know the truth of the matter first; and then from truth we derive implications and work for solutions.

What I see in much of the public discourse is a fundamental disagreement over what constitutes the truth. One side assumes they know it, while the other side does the same. They proceed to converse among one another, and the divide increases. Isolated “conversations,” whatever that word has come to mean, will only exacerbate the problems. What we need are more debates. Lots of them. Debates in public. Debates in private. And of course a willingness to get offended, for that is what debates will surely do. Nevertheless, as we see at the cross, offense is generally what is needed to arrive at truth.

Review of The New Pastor’s Handbook

Over at 9marks, I have a review up of a new book that should prove helpful for many pastors. Here is a little snippet:

About five months in to becoming a pastor, I remember running into a seminary acquaintance at a conference. We had shared a few classes together, and were catching up with small-talk. He also asked what it was like to be a pastor—a question on the mind of many a seminarian. His facial expressions and tone communicated a sense of curiosity and wonder, like a wide-eyed soldier in boot-camp asking a veteran soldier what combat was like.510hi1iwel-_sx311_bo1204203200_-270x250

I replied that I was enjoying the pastorate, and that I had learned many things but was learning still more. I mentioned the surprises, challenges, and encouragements. Yet one can only say so much in five minutes.

His curiosity is common, I believe, to many who consider entering the ministry. We need advice on how to prepare. We want to know what the day-to-day experience of a pastor is like. We want to hear details, even if they are bad, so that we can mentally rehearse in our minds how we’d respond in certain situations. We want practical guidance, theological instruction, and biblical wisdom poured into us so that we might be “equipped for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:12). In short, we want to be able to ask lots of questions and receive lots of answers.

Jason Helopoulos’ new book, The New Pastor’s Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry, in a sense, fulfills this desire. His book is like having the opportunity to sit down with an experienced pastor, ask any ministry related question, and receive a sound, concise answer.

You can read the rest here.

Superficial Conviction

Ichabod Spencer (1798-1854) wrote a book called, A Pastor’s Sketches, that details his conversations with different people concerning the way of salvation. In the book he has a chapter called, “Superficial Conviction,” in which he describes a certain young man who had an apparent conversion, but later fell away. Spencer had been preaching a series of messages on the justice of God and the wickedness of the human heart, and this young man along with some of his friends were angered by his messages. They could not tolerate them. They could not fathom a God of justice, nor believe that the human heart was as depraved as Scripture said it was.

One evening, Spencer was preparing to preach again, and he received word that these young men planned to show up at the meeting with stones to stone him. Spencer was undeterred. Knowing that his preaching had alarmed them, he resolved to preach that night on the wickedness of men and the anger of God against the wicked. The evening came and he preached the messages without any conflict. The young men were present, but no one stoned him.

After the preaching, Spencer held a meeting for anyone interested in becoming a Christian. Some of the young men came. A few months later they joined the church. But when Spencer interviewed one of them for membership, something the young man said stuck out to him as a concerning statement. Spencer confronted him about bringing stones to the church to stone him, and the young man denied it and said, “I know my heart was wicked enough to do almost anything, but it never was bad enough to do that.”

It was this last statement that concerned Spencer, because this appeared to be an indication that the young man was not fully convinced of the depths of his own depravity, and therefore the great need he had of a divine work of grace in his heart. He acknowledged a certain level of wickedness in his heart, but could not see himself as so evil that he would be capable of violence.

Spencer kept the statement in mind. The church received him into its membership, and for a time Spencer believed the young man was a true believer—just with some erroneous beliefs. Nothing that couldn’t be corrected. He remarked, “And though I believed, and had always acted on the principle, that true experimental religion will always lead its subjects to a knowledge of the great essential doctrines of the Christian system—indeed, that to experience religion is just to experience these doctrines—I came to the conclusion that this principle would not adjudge him to be unfit to become a communicant.”

The young man appeared to live a Christian life for the next couple of years as long as he was a member at Spencer’s church. But he eventually moved to another city, and when he did, Spencer learned that the man was no longer attending public worship, and had become a “profane and intemperate” man. Spencer went to see him, and when they met, he discovered the young man had become nothing more than a Pharisee—self-righteous and believing in his own goodness. The young man told him, “Indeed, I never did think my heart was so bad as some people tell of. I never did much hurt; and as to being so bad that I can’t reform, I know that I can turn from sin when I please.”

Spencer’s original suspicions had been confirmed. The young man did not have an intellectual problem with doctrine, he had a heart problem with sin. The statements he had made were coming out of his heart. And what they revealed was a person not convinced of his radical depravity, but of his inherent goodness in need of slight corrections.

Spencer concludes this account with a perceptive reflection:

I have often thought that a truly regenerate man cannot have any doubt of the entire depravity of the heart. If he does not see that, it is probable that he does not see his heart. And hence his repentance, his faith in Christ, and his reliance upon the Holy Spirit, will probably, all of them, be only deceptions. My observation continues to confirm me more and more in the opinion that to experience religion is to experience the truth of the great doctrines of divine grace.

The God Augustine Worshiped

What, then, is the God I worship? He can be none but the Lord God himself, for who but the Lord is God? What other refuge can there be, except our God? You, my God, are supreme, utmost in goodness, mightiest and all-powerful, most merciful and most just. You are the most hidden from us and yet the most present amongst us, the most beautiful and yet the most strong, ever enduring and yet we cannot comprehend you. You are unchangeable and yet you change all things. You are never new, never old, and yet all things have new life from you. You are the unseen power that brings decline upon the proud. You are ever active, yet always at rest. You gather all things to yourself, though you suffer no need. You support, you fill, and you protect all things. You create them, nourish them, and bring them to perfection. You seek to make them your own, though you lack for nothing. You love your creatures, but with a gentle love. You treasure them, but without apprehension. You grieve for wrong, but suffer no pain. You can be angry and yet serene. Your works are varied, but your purpose is one and the same. You welcome all who come to you, though you never lost them. You are never in need yet are glad to gain, never covetous yet you exact a return for your gifts. We give abundantly to you so that we may deserve a reward; yet which of us has anything that does not come from you? You repay us what we deserve, and yet you owe nothing to any. You release us from our debts, but you lose nothing thereby. You are my God, my Life, my holy Delight, but is this enough to say of you? Can any man say enough when he speaks of you? Yet woe betide those who are silent about you! For even those who are most gifted with speech cannot find words to describe you.

St. Augustine, Confessions, I.IV.