A Month of Sundays…

I published this review in 2004. A reader found it today, and encouraged me to republish it.

Review of A Month of Sundays – by John Updike
February 23, 2004

John Updike is a troubling writer for any conservative Christian reader. His themes are dark, his language rough and his characters vexing; but more than any other novel I’ve read, Updike’s A Month of Sundays provokes sobering reflections about life and love, lust and godlessness.

The book’s epicurean protagonist, Tom Marshfield, is a minister who flirts disastrously with what the French call la convoitise de la chair. He’s brilliant and winsome–perverse and deceitful. Not since Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll has a character been split so perfectly between the conflicting whispers of his better angels and lesser demons. He’s in a miserable marriage and everyone knows it, including his wife, whom he attempts to entangle in an affair with his associate, Ned Bork. He wants out of the hypocrisy of his ordination, but he has no place to go. And for all of his profane honesty and candid impiety, this wicked preacher keeps me reading.

Marshfield’s theology is virile and his sexual appetites insatiable. He’s the kind of preacher no congregation wants–but that many unwittingly call. He is Bill Clinton in a clerical collar.

Updike has given personality to the tensions within the struggling souls of many ministers. He’s pulled back the black robe of the ministry to reveal an even blacker heart. In A Month of Sundays, Updike tells the secrets that nobody wants to hear but cannot deny: Christian ministers need more grace than a gutter drunk or a skid row whore.

Martin Luther once wrote, “The defects in a preacher are soon spied; let a preacher be endued with ten virtues, and but one fault, yet this one fault will eclipse and darken all his virtues and gifts.” Never has this been more true than in Tom Marshfield. Think Jim Bakker on Viagra and crystal meth, and you get the idea.

Reading the book is an opportunity for clergy and parishioner alike to explore the shadows of lust that lurk in every prayer closet, and while I appreciate Updike’s introducing me to the Reverend Tom Marshfield, he is the kind of man I hope never to meet–either in a pulpit, or on the town, or in the mirror.

SWBTS “Mrs.” Degree, Pt. 10.

The final installation of our primer for Southwestern homemaker hopefuls is perhaps the most critical of tasks for the lady of distinction.  The sooner you get accustomed to having support staff attend to the menial responsibilities of household cleaning, the more you will be able to focus on other priorities of greater importance.  The following video will provide SWBTS’ future homemakers with basic tips for the hiring of maidstaff.  In addition to the principles enumerated in the video, we at Baptist Blogger would like to add two additional considerations for the hiring of maidstaff.

First, never hire any person who is the spouse, friend, or friend of spouse of a blogger.  Your maidstaff will have tremendous access to your personal belongings and files, and you must ensure your privacy from the incessant meddling of bloggers.  Some bloggers are especially adept at pulling service staff over to their side, and they will play upon the natural sense of class inferiority that your maidstaff will certainly possess.  You will need to watch very closely to make sure your private idiosyncracies do not become blogger fodder on account of a disgruntled maid.

Second,  make sure that your maidstaff understands the importance of leaving full rolls of toilet paper in each bathroom before the weekend.  A true homemaker cannot tolerate unthoughtful maidstaff who neglect this highest of priorities.  Exchanging rolls of toilet paper by yourself is neither ladylike nor appropriate for a woman of your distinction.  In the event they forget to change your toilet paper rolls, you must call them immediately to leave their families or other responsibilities and return to the house to change the rolls.  If you have to call them to perform this task, again, stress to them that they not tell any blogger about it.

(HT:Former Magnolia Hill Maid)

Notes from an evening in Houston…

While visiting with Houston’s Judge Paul Pressler a few years ago, I had the opportunity to peruse his library. A book edited by perennial presidential contender and Council for National Policy patron, Howard Phillips, entitled, The New Right at Harvard, occupied my time for the better part of an hour. A few months later, I met Howard Phillips in San Antonio, TX, and asked him for a copy of the book, which he graciously mailed to me shortly thereafter.

In the book’s appendices there is a section on political strategy for the Reagan administration, complete with talking points for conveying to the public certain perceptions about the president, his adversaries, and the state of national security and morality in America. That evening at Pressler’s home, I wrote down the sixteen “principles of strategy” that Phillips suggested to his conservative cobelligerants. Today, in my office, I found those notes and decided to post them.

Readers will immediately notice many similarities, and a few differences, between the Conservative Caucus’ strategies and those of the Patterson-Pressler coalition.

1. The winners tend to be those who attack, not those who defend.
2. Determining the terrain on which the battle shall be waged can presage the outcome.
3. Changing the subject is very often more effective than winning an argument, especially when most voters pay more attention to the accusations than the explanations.
4. It is not the passive millions or the temporary majority that shape events, but the militant few.
5. The most influential combatants are those motivated not by lust for power, prestige, publicity, patronage, or parties, but those who seek the victory of principle, driven by a deep-seated yearning for justice and moral satisfaction.
6. Victory — achievement of ultimate objectives — must be the goal. Any strategy which concedes the inevitability of the adversary’s result concept is a plan for defeat. Losing as slowly as possible is not good enough. We need a fundamental change of direction, not a mere change of degree.
7. A leader will seldom get more than he asks for.
8. Hostile elites whose power is entrenched in the media, banking, big business, bureaucracy, legal, cultural, and academic circles cannot be permanently appeased. If they are not opposed, it is they, rather than you, who shall set the agenda for public debate, defining the nature of civic virtue and right action.
9. Personnel decisions fundamentally affect the character and course of any administration. When choosing between credentials and experience, on the one hand, and values, on the other, always choose values for positions which have a policy setting or policy influencing character. Credentials and experience can be hired.
10. Especially when a coincidence of promise and aspiration is lacking, a specifically delineated vision of desired results must be set forth.
11. Bad decisions, permitted to stand uncorrected, will produce ever more destructive results.
12. Play your game, not your adversary’s game. Don’t respond to your in-box. Make the world respond to your initiatives.
13. Mobilize your assets. Get off the defensive. Attack, Attack, Attack!!!
14. When one chooses the correct enemies, he acquires the right friends.
15. The president, by use of a veto strategy, can control budget decisions with the support of 34 senators or 145 representatives — provided that he is prepared to challenge the congress by vetoing continuing resolutions.
16. Special interests will complain as loudly for the elimination of 50% of their subsidies as for 100% of them. But if you cut 100%, their complaints will eventually grow too faint to hear.

Weekend preview…

In the coming days I will be posting on the following issues/topics:

1.  Why I’m glad the Democrats won both Houses.

2.  On the Peasant Rebellion and Martin Luther: Criticizing the Reformer without compromising the Reformation.

3.  The Bard of England the the Bishop of Ft. Worth:  What William Shakespeare can teach us about the tainted love of faith and politics.

4.  Thanksgiving Reflections

5.  On Resolutions for San Antonio

6.  On confidentiality and transparency in the governance of SBC institutions.

7.  On candidates for 1st and 2nd VP offices

Wither Whither Texas Baptists?

Early Sunday afternoon, I made my way down the I-35 corridor from Dallas to Austin for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. By Sunday evening, I was seated toward the back of Great Hills Baptist Church to hear the Rev. Dwight McKissic preach on the assigned subject, “The Pastor’s Helpers.”

Before the meeting began, I joked with Rev. McKissic that he should select Romans 16:1-16 as his text, highlighting the deacon ministry of Phoebe of Cenchrea, the ministries of Priscila and Mary, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Julia and Olympas. McKissic chose Acts 6 as his text of reference, then proceeded to expound quite eloquently about the preparation, selection, and administration of ministry support staff. Before he preached, he received a standing ovation of the house, prompted by the applause of his own congregation, who had gathered in Austin to lead in choral worship.

Earlier that evening, the pastor of Great Hills Church, the Rev. Michael Lewis, preached on “The Pastor’s Harvest,” offering the challenge to personal evangelism and soul-winning that is standard faire for such conferences. At one point in his sermon, Rev. Lewis likened the sufferings of the Apostle Paul — stoning, shipwrecks, whippings and scourgings, etc. — to the the suffering experienced by Southern Baptist leaders at the hands of bloggers.

Somewhere in my mind images conjured of Br’er Rabbit being flung into the briar patch.

On Monday afternoon, I heard SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards of Resolution No. 5 fame preach on the subject of holiness. Richards is a good speaker, with an earnest style and pleasant demeanor. For the most part his sermon was a commendable reminder of the importance of personal sanctification, and he shied away from addressing the alcohol issue in much detail. I suppose he and I both are tired of that silly saga of Southern Baptist history.

Richards did share with pastors’ conference attendees that his home has an “angel box” that censors out vulgarity and profanity from his television. I have searched the internet to find such a contraption, but the closest I came was the TV Guardian 201 Series, which claims to filter out 95% of all television profanity while you watch. I don’t think I’ll be investing in one any day soon, however, because I don’t watch that much television to begin with. I’m curious what programs find their way onto Jim Richards’ television that necessitate such a device?

The Andy Griffith Show always seemed so clean to me, unless, of course, we’re talking about Otis Campbell’s moonshine swillin’ ways. No telling how many boys and girls ran out to build liquor stills on account of those episodes of reprehensible and irresponsible programming.  For more on these and other concerns about the shows you thought were okay to watch, please refer to our old standby at Baptist Blogger, Pastor Tony Smith.

Of course, it’s a good thing Southern Baptists lifted our boycott of Disney last year. Now we can happily watch Fraggle Rock and Brother Bear and Power Rangers, sitcoms which are no doubt certain to remove any need for Rev. Richards’ little box.

At another point in his sermon, Richards juxtaposed the sins of embezzlement and fornication with the sins of “muckraking bloggers,” which elicited a mixture of approving hoots and grunts. I can hear it now:

“Microphone No. 2, please state your name and your motion.”

“I am Jim Richards, messenger of First Baptist Church of Ft. Worth, TX, and I would like to offer an amendment to resolution number three, ‘On Blogging.'”

“Thank you, Brother Richards, the Chair will recognize you for three minutes.”

“Thank you. I would like to insert the following resolved after the first “Be it resolved” to make the resolution read: ‘Be it further resolved that we urge no one to be elected to serve as a trustee or member of any entity or committee of the Southern Baptist Convention that is a blogger.'”

“Thank you, Brother Richards, do we have a second?”

(Somewhere down in front in the ‘reserved’ section a ‘second’ is shouted, followed by Jim Richards appeal that blogging is a sin like fornication, graft, and drunkenness — which explains why the SBTC website has removed their blog)

“And is there anyone to speak against the motion to amend? Microphone number one, are you speaking against the amendment.”

“I am.”

“Then please state your name and your church.”

“Thank you, Mr. President. I am (insert the name of your favorite muckraker here)….”

Late Monday afternoon, a Romanian Baptist named Paul Negrut preached on the subject of humility, choosing also to address his concerns about blogging and the internet. Having just watched this film, I was pleased to know that some sectors of Eastern Europe have internet access after all. Perhaps the tiny town of Glod should start a blog about the injustices they have experienced at the hands of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

My favorite moment of the SBTC Pastors’ Conference was the election of officers, which occurred at lightning speed without any need for ballotting. At the time to vote — a time when “pastors” are to be voting for officers of the “pastors’ conference” — I gleefully observed not a few women, including a former ERLC trustee and current IMB trustee from West Texas, Mrs. Skeet Workman, lift her hand — presumably not as a pastor — to vote for the candidates.

I am reliably informed that the SBTC passed a resolution on glossolalia, which I have not seen due to my having to leave Austin to conduct funeral services Tuesday afternoon for a church member. Early Tuesday morning, however, I was able to meet with a group of BGCT pastors for breakfast and discuss our similar concerns about our respective state conventions. A number of SBTC pastors have asked me what my plans are for continued participation in SBTC, and how I would advise them regarding their own affiliations.

My position is this: State conventions are tremendous wastes of time and resources. SBTC at least has the sense to continually minimize its own percentage of Cooperative Program dollars, though it is regrettable that any money is directed through SBTC to backwards backwoods landmark insititutions like Jacksonville College.

Nevertheless, pastors do not affiliate with state conventions; churches do. I am affiliated with the SBTC by default because the church where I pastor is uniquely aligned with that particular convention. My sympathies may not concur with everything done in the SBTC, but affiliation with the convention was a matter of my congregation’s choosing, and I do not see any point in formally pushing or pulling Parkview Baptist Church away from that affiliation. At this point, Parkview sends 5% of undesignated receipts through SBTC, an increase from a flat $100.00 a month at the time of my election as pastor. This year, I have prepared budgetary recommendations for our finance committee that maintain this commitment, while exploring other channels for more direct missionary support. I have also prepared a letter of enquiry to SBTC leadership regarding the existence of means for negative-designation of certain ministry line items that might not harmonize with the ministry philosophies and visions of member churches.

If I was in a church that had affiliated with the BGCT, I would take a similar stance; and I have encouraged my BGCT friends not to jump ship to SBTC unless their laymen absolutely insist on it. We in Texas have two imperfect conventions, each with their own set of idiosyncratic problems and their own group of power-players. Likewise, they both have commendable opportunities for shared ministry venture and forums for healthy fellowship among churches in Texas.

My basic thought is this: Ride the horse you’re on. If it bucks you off, don’t try to saddle another horse in the barn. One of them has no brains. The other one has no guts. One needs a lobotomy. The other needs a swift kick in the hind quarters. Both of them have been outdated forms of transportation since the invention of the combustion engine.

Any way you slice it, state conventions are a dying species. Personally, I passed the time at SBTC’s pastors’ conference trying to count white heads and portable oxygen tanks. My few moments in the BGCT plenary session left me with a similar impression. And while I don’t think we should hasten their respective deaths, I am fully committed to signing a “Do Not Resuscitate” order on the both of them. Others, no doubt, will keep the feeding tube flowing long after rigor mortis has set in. Only the church universal has the guarantee of heaven’s bulwark against hell’s gates. Conventions of churches, like spring dandelions, may flourish with beauty for a season. In the end, however, they usually produce more weeds.

Letters to little ones…

Through the years I have made it my practice to write letters to the newborn children of church members on the day of their birth.  This afternoon, I ran across a letter I wrote last year to the infant son of my associate pastor.  When I visited the hospital that first night of his life, I read this letter aloud to his entire family, who had gathered in the room.  Pastors, no sermon you will ever preach on Christian parenting will be as meaningful to a new Christian parent as a letter to their child on the day of his/her birth.  Reading it this afternoon, I stopped to pray for one-year old little Lucas Cook, who isn’t feeling well today.
October 26, 2005

Dear Little Lucas Cook:

Shortly before 3:00 p.m. today, you were brought into this world to be another voice created for God’s praise and glory.  Over the past nine months, you have been fearfully and wonderfully made.  God has knit you together in your mother’s womb, and before today ever occurred, God knew you.  Today is a wonderful day of celebration in your parents’ lives.  A little more than two years ago your mother and father met at Southwestern , and I had the privilege of watching their love for each other mature, seeing their commitment to Christ develop, and becoming their friend along the way.  Lucas, God has given you the kind of home few children have.  Today there were other children born at the same hospital – other mothers and other fathers – but you have been born into a day when many parents don’t care about their children.  Many don’t love them like they should or provide for them.  Many parents are bad examples rather than good ones.  Chances are, most of those who were born today in Harris Hospital will never know the kind of home you are going to have.

Other children were born today in places of the world where their lives are in danger from disease and epidemic.  They have been born poor, destitute, in shacks and huts to parents without the means to feed them or clothe them.  When you are growing up surrounded by love, they will be lonely.  When you are learning what kinds of food you love and what kinds you spit back up, they will be starving.  When you are feeling the warmth of home and security, they will be afraid and cold in the night. And why?  Why have you received such a better start in life than they have?  Is it because you are more special than they are?  Is it because you are more important to God?  Never let your little mind begin to think such things.  You have been born into the wonderful blessing of family, love, faith, and health for no other reason that God is sovereign and his ways are beyond finding out.

Lucas, I have come to love your father.  He is a man who seeks to follow the Lord and have victory over sin.  He is a man who seeks to love his wife and honor his father.  He is a man who seeks to serve his Creator and the church which Christ purchased with his own blood.  As you become a young man, you will be wise to learn from him.  He will not steer you wrong, and he will not give you bad counsel.  The days will come that the advice of your friends will be more enticing than the wisdom of your father – but do not listen to them.  Your father will teach you to respect women and cherish them.  He will teach you to work hard and with honesty.  He will teach you to pray, to serve, and to love.  He will teach you patience, and sometimes he will try your patience.  But in the end, his desire for you is that some day, in God’s good time, you will choose a wife for yourself who is as noble as the one he chose, and you will start a family, and he will travel hundreds of miles to smile and cry and thank God for the privilege of being your father.

And, Lucas, you have a beautiful mother.  The excellence of her charm is only surpassed by the grace in her heart.  She has dreamed all her life about holding you in her arms.  When she was a little girl, she would play house, and hold dolls, and pretend to be a mommy.  All little girls hope for such things, but not everyone gets them.  Today, your mother is lying in a hospital room holding the baby she’s always wanted with the man she always desired.  She will nurture your character, and raise you to honor your father by the example she sets.  She will teach you to behave and have manners.  She will be there to hold you when you are afraid at night, to dry your tears and bandage your knees and bake you cookies and hug you every chance she gets.  One day, you will think you are too big for her hugs, too grown up for her silly little ways of saying she loves you.  But don’t let that day come too soon.  Enjoy it to the fullest and thank God every day that he saw fit to bring you out of her womb and into her arms.  She will not mislead you, and she will not deceive you.  Sometimes she will spank you, and sometimes you will say things that make her cry.  But her hurt will pass when those times come only because of her deep love that cannot be shaken.  Your mother is wonderful, not because she gave you life…but because she knows that God has given it to you.  She knows that you are a gift from the Lord, and a responsibility.  Today she has accepted both, come what may.

And Lucas, today, as your very first pastor in the world, I wan t you to know that I am praying for you.  I want to be the kind of minister that will foster your coming to Christ at a very early age.  Little babies can be deceiving.  You look so innocent and so pure.  But the Scripture says that even as you are now, you are a sinner in need of God’s grace.  Today you have been born, but one day you must be born again.  I pray God that you come to know his rich grace and mercy and follow him all the days of your life.

With love from your pastor…

Hyacinth Bucket recommended for SWBTS new degree…

hb Hyacinth Bucket is the leading candidate for the new “Mrs.” degree offered at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX. Born of common stock in the outskirts of London, Mrs. Bucket (pronouced Boo-kay) has made great strides to climb the ladder of British aristocracy. When referring to her home, she calls it a “manor.” When answering the telephone, she refers to herself as “the lady of the house.” Her very expensive Royal Doulton dinnerware — complete with hand-painted periwinkles — adds class and sophistication to her regular candlelit dinner parties. She requires that doors be opened for her, often drives from the backseat, is somewhat embarrassed by her brother-in-law, Onslow, and concerns herself with regular household dusting, cleaning, and sweeping to maintain the home for dignitaries and visitors at any moment. Always dressed in tasteful tapestried garments perfectly tailored to meet the demands of her fluctuating figure, Hyacinth Bucket knows that a lady must present herself as one if she is to be treated as one. She’s famous for her hand-written correspondence, and always careful to measure for the perfect placement of the first-class stamps on her envelopes. She refuses to open anything but first-class mail, and keeps her ear to the ground for any gossip that could justify her sense of superiority over her countrymen.

Some may think she is snobbish, uppity, completely ridiculous in her endless insistence on proper etiquette, and happily oblivious about the way her nonsense effects those around her; but we at Baptist Blogger feel that she is a perfect complement to the course objectives. Marie Antoinette she is not, building Versailles while the peasants live in dilapidated lean-tos. A benevolent soul she is, hiring the less fortunate to staff her dinner parties and attend to her matronly responsibilities.

Hyancinth Bucket is a lady of the first order, and while she may fall short on the virtue of quietude — booming and boisterous as she is when insisting on her way — her strengths as an exemplary homemaker far outweigh the odd little idiosyncracies that keep the whole neighborhood giggling behind her back.

It is with great pleasure, therefore, that we recommend Mrs. Hyacinth Bucket to fill the vacant faculty spot at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

SWBTS “Mrs.” Degree, Pt. 4.

Now that we’re making progress in our homemaking tutorials, it is important to address the greatest ministry concern of any first lady: how to set and serve a table properly. A minister’s wife has many hats to wear, none of which is as important as that of hostess. Knowing the proper placement of cutlery and utensils, and the correct position of plates and saucers will enhance your ministry and home. Treating guests of any socio-economic background is important; and a church janitor should be served the same way that one would serve a seminary president. It’s the little things that matter in hosting an elegant dinner, and your guests will never forget how richly blessed their lives have been on account of your fine china and polished silver.

Please observe the following instructional video, mindful that a true and godly Christian homemaker will find substitutes for at least two of the stemware positions on the table. We at Baptist Blogger recommend a nice iced tea or Sparkling grape substitute. Nothing says “I’m a holy hostess” like a tall cool glass of Luzianne. A garnish of fresh mint sprigs or sliced lemon is an added touch of sophistication.