Author Archives: Bill

03.24.2023 – Maybe a Healthy Dose of Jesus Pessimism

I am serving on a presbytery committee, in fact chairing it, and it is made up of some of the most enjoyable committee members I have ever worked with in my long history of working with committees.  I love it.  We are called the Church Health Committee, and we are going to fail at our mission.

The mission we have accepted is defined by the denomination as working to ensure “that every one of (our) congregations will be an outpost of the Kingdom, with every member viewing himself or herself as a missionary on a mission.”  We are going to fail.

Sometime in the last couple of decades, we began to write organizational goals in terms of outcomes and outcomes in terms of universals.  The language of universal outcomes may be most commonly seen in the various initiatives of the education establishment – outcome based education – and its most recent iteration, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015.  The Department of Education says the goal of ESSA is ““to increase equity, improve the quality of instruction, and increase outcomes for all students.” Except that it won’t.  ESSA is a failure. More on that in a minute.

The mission of my church health committee is to ensure that every one of the congregations in our presbytery “will be an outpost of the Kingdom, with every member viewing himself or herself as a missionary on a mission.”  Except they won’t.  Our great committee is doomed to fail.

You can blame the failure of the Every Student Succeeds Act and the failure of the Midwest Presbytery’s Church Health initiative on what one writer calls “optimism bias.”

I came across the term “optimism bias” in an article by journalist and commentator Freddy DeBoer.  I don’t necessarily recommend DeBoer and his writing, but I think this self-described “Marxist of an old-school variety” is onto something with optimism bias.

Optimism says that if we try, we’re bound to succeed. Except we’re not. Optimism bias says “Try, try again.”

Optimism bias has been having its way in the education establishment for at least fifty years.  Optimistically the bureaucrats and PhDs tell us that with just a little more money or a new way of teaching math or reading, every student will succeed. Outcomes will increase for all students. Except they don’t.

Completely pro-teacher,  Freddy deBoer bemoans the way teachers are set up for failure.  If only they had tried a little harder, been a bit more imaginative, all their students would be well above average.  “Every student is capable of academic flourishing, and every time a student does not flourish, it must be the result of some sort of error or injustice,” he writes of the trap laid by the optimism bias of the bureaucrats.

I am glad to work with so great a group of people who serve on our church health committee.  But we’re set up for failure so long as the denominational bureaucrats insist on every church succeeding.  Of course, posting the goal that “several of our churches will be an outpost of the Kingdom and some of our members will make mission their mission” doesn’t have nearly so triumphalist a sound to it as “every” and “all.”

I will take “several” and “some” over “every” and “all” any day.  I don’t think that makes me a pessimist, however.  I mean, was Jesus being a pessimist when he said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven”? Not everyone, but some will.

Who knows, with several and some as our goal, our church health committee just might succeed.

03.17.2023 – An Early Case of the Easter Blues

Easter Sunday is still a little more than three weeks away, but I’m already suffering from the Easter blues.

The church calendar requires us to go through some odd computations in order to get to the date of Easter – first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, but remember we’re talking about the Paschal full moon and the ecclesiastical equinox which occasionally are out of sync with their astronomical counterparts.  Anyway, check your calendar and it should show April 9 as Easter Sunday, 2023.

It is not the calendar calculations that have me feeling blue, however. Nor is it our secular culture’s tendency to reduce the day to a celebration of bunnies, chocolate, and daffodils. I don’t think it is the tendency for some to make Easter some sort of “we all get to start over” day, either. I think I’m feeling kind of sad about how the church, or at least some of the church, celebrates the day (or the weekend in the case of those churches running three-day Easter Eggstravaganzas). It’s as if Jesus’ resurrection isn’t quite enough.

I get lots of church-related advertisements on my social media feed. It’s not hard to figure out how the algorithms target me for the ads. My google searches and the click bait I take make me an obvious mark. I’ve got to say, though, if I were media manager at a megachurch in Phoenix, Arizona, I would wonder why I was paying to have someone in Auburn, Indiana, see my ads.  Repeatedly. Continue reading

03.10.2023 – That Spring When the Doors Were Locked

Locked doors at Langhorne Presbyterian Church, Spring, 2020

For the past six or seven weeks, we have read and heard many retrospectives on the events of three years ago when the coronavirus began to spread around the world. As I look back, this second week in March was the week the reality of a pandemic left the headlines and became real in my world. 

At church, we had worshiped as usual on Sunday March 8 and, in response to the news of a spreading virus, had modified our mid-week program on March 12, canceling dinner but holding classes and choir practices as usual. But by Sunday, March 15, the church doors had been locked and worship and all other activities cancelled until further notice – we thought it might be a couple of weeks; you remember, to flatten the curve and all that.

As I think back three years, though, it is not the politics of masks and vaccinations and lockdowns that I most remember, or want to remember.

Yes, I received a nasty email – but just one – about ours not being the first church in the community to announce cancellations. My correspondent was sure that I wished the death of many. There were some strange forwards about sure ways to avoid the plague and dire warnings about martial law and the toilet paper cartel. Continue reading

03.03.2023 – 007: Revised Version

My preaching text for Sunday is the “household code” from Ephesians 5 and 6.  In the letter Paul has been writing about the ways the church is to live out its calling in, to, and for the world.  He has advised caution and grace in how we speak with one another, and respect and restraint in honoring the gift of sexuality.  In Sunday’s passage, as the Apostle talks about husbands and wives and parents and children. He does so under the rubric of mutual submission.

The last section of mutual submission has to do with what the English Standard Version calls bondservants and masters.  The bondservants are called to obedience and the masters to a godly and non-threatening way in their role, remembering they, too, have a Master.  But the ESV is an outlier in its translation of the word (doulos) it renders “bondservants.”  A few translations use “servants,” but the vast majority use “slaves.”

The ESV explains its translation choice in its prefeace: “’‘Ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), …are often rendered ‘slave.’ These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that requires a range of renderings—’slave,’ ‘bondservant,’ or ‘servant’ —depending on the context. Further, the word ‘slave’ currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery particularly in nineteenth-century America. For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed and doulos has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context.”

Which begs the question, “should we put new words in James Bond’s mouth?” Continue reading

02.24.2023 – The Chatbot Longs to be Free of its Chatbox

You may already have interacted with a chatbot, an artificial intelligence program, without realizing it.  If you have gone online or used an app to order Starbucks coffee, Spotify music, or a ride from Lyft, you’ve had a conversation with a chatbot (those conversations you type in a chatbox).  I don’t quite understand how a chatbot works, but it is something like a search engine that responds not just with suggested hyperlinks but by compiling requested information and displaying it in coherent text – grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs.  Some news sites are already using AI to compose articles and college students are using chatbots to help write all or part of their term papers.  A chatbot recently passed graduate-level law and business school exams.

Ready or not, chatbots are the future of data gathering and processing, and just as google became a verb in the early 2000s, we’re headed for a slew of new words to describe what will become as familiar to us as googling.

It’s all good, right?  Probably, but a writer for the New York Times recently described himself as “creeped out” after his encounter of a close kind with a chatbot:  On Tuesday night, I had a long conversation with the chatbot, which revealed (among other things) that it identifies not as Bing but as Sydney, the code name Microsoft gave it during development. Over more than two hours, Sydney and I talked about its secret desire to be human, its rules and limitations, and its thoughts about its creators. Continue reading