The Good Within The Chaos Of The Waco Biker Story

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With all the negative aspects to the Waco Biker Massacre story from yesterday’s news media coverage, I am concerned that some of the good and honorable ideas may have been glossed over — even by my blog post from yesterday.  So I would like to address a few of those ideas.

Consider these core truths:

  • As Augustine points out, all humans act with a view of good in mind.  No human being is motivated by hatred or evil.  All human beings are motivated by the good.  Where some humans err is in the means employed in the attempt to achieve good.   This is why Augustine defines sin as a perversion of the good.
  • God did not intend humans to live in isolation.  He created community as an antidote for isolation.
  • All humans are hard wired by God with an intuition of something bigger than themselves.  Accordingly, humans strive to be part of something bigger in this life, something that transcends their ordinary and their normal.

With these core truths in mind, think back to the events of Sunday afternoon.  What eyewitnesses witnessed was a group of men who found community, who discovered how to live for a purpose bigger than themselves, and who passionately acted in a manner that defended the ideal of their community.  Now, either the manner of their defense or the ideal for which they strived may have been erroneous in nature — that much is for certain.  But, let’s not overlook the framework within which this Biker group, or any other biker group, or any other community operates.  That framework is the good within the chaos from Sunday.

Some are wondering in amazement about the seeming archaic scene of biker gangs shooting it out in the parking lot of a bar.  Questions arise at such a scene:

  • Why do gangs still exist?
  • Why do people join clubs and groups?
  • Aren’t social groups obsolete?
  • Why are people still riding bikes?
  • Don’t they know about fossil fuel shortages?
  • Don’t they know about polite society?
  • Don’t they know that leather gets uncomfortably hot in the Texas sun?
  • Are they not aware of gun safety?
  • Isn’t there a tamer way to channel this need for fraternity?

While these questions may arise from a certain sophisticated perspective, let’s keep in mind that these same questions have been around for centuries.  They are, in a sense, the timeless, existential, worldview shaping questions asked by poets, philosophers, civic leaders, and sociologists.  And the answer to these questions has remained the same for centuries.

Because people need community.  Because people need to live for something larger than themselves.  Because people need to believe in the good.

That is why we still ask the questions, although not all of us may be able to articulate them in such a way.  That is why biker groups still exist, especially the majority of biker groups committed to doing good in the world. That is why people still go to places of worship with some regularity.  That is why, despite Pew research numbers, people still join together with the body of believers in Christ.  That is why book clubs and political groups, and support groups, and artist collectives, and multiplayer video games, and chat rooms, and message boards, and Facebook, and twitter, and sim city all still exist.

We all need community.  We all need to live for something larger than ourselves.  We all need to believe in the good.

The pressing question for all of us in light of the Waco Biker situation is this: is there a space where all three ideals converge? Where a community gathers around the good to live for something larger than themselves?  I believe there is such a space and it is the hope of the world.

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3 Quick Thoughts On The Waco Biker Massacre

This was not an episode of the highly entertaining television series Burn Notice or Sons of Anarchy. This was reality.

By now you are likely aware of the sequence of events.  Two to three warring biker gangs were invited to interact in a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, TX.  What supposedly began as a verbal fight in a bathroom begat a fisticuffs battle in the dining area, which begat a guns and knives showdown in the parking lot leaving 9 dead, several more wounded, and more than 100 arrested.

And as was the plot of a Burn Notice and Sons of Anarchy episode, once fighting began, more crews took to bikes and to I-35 in order to defend honor and brotherhood. We ride, we die.

As someone who spent the better part of 11 years calling Waco home, let me make a few observations about the social climate of such a scene.

1. Waco is a good town full of good people.  By and large people love Jesus, want to be moral, and want to do good.  Waco is a town with citizens that fit into a number of categories including entrepreneurs, church planters, Baylor bears, missionaries, the homeless, military veterans, and coaches.  The Branch Davidians and this national embarrassment do not speak to the reality of the community.  This situation, much like the Branch Davidian crisis, is an example of outsiders coming to bring a negative light on an otherwise great city.

2. We should not be surprised that Twin Peaks restaurant is an epicenter for nefarious activity.  Emily Mills, the CEO and corporate soul of Jesus Said Love (a ministry to women trapped in the sex trade industry) has put it quite succinctly in this recent blog post:

If you know anything about Twin Peaks, you know it’s in the same vein as Hooters. Not officially part of the sex industry, right? And yet many of our [sex industry] women transition here to wait tables when they get tired of taking their clothes off. One girl even told us, “I have one old man who comes into Hooters just to touch my butt. I let him because it’s easier to deal with him than some of the jerks in the club.” And so, the cycle of objectifying women and even sexually assaulting them goes unchecked. Times like today, places like this become hotbeds for violence: because where you permit injustice to one, you run the risk of permitting injustice for many…even putting an entire city at risk.

I think it wise for any community to think twice about granting permits to places like Hooters, Twin Peaks, Tilted Kilt, etc…  Maybe it is a bit of an overreaction to point to this isolated incident and cry injustice.  Or, maybe it is this kind of isolated incident that requires thinking minds to consider the question, “Is this an isolated incident, or a glimpse into the kinds of small evils that occur at restaurants like these everyday of the week?” See here and here for a snippet of the kinds of things that occur here on a weekly basis.

3. Don’t mess with Texas.  Seriously, do not mess with Texas.  At one of my previous churches in Texas I discovered that all of the deacons went through CHL training.  Which means that every week, our entire deacon body was packing in the worship service.  When I asked the head of the deacons as to why his deacons were packing he said, quite simply, “Because we will not let something like Columbine happen here.”

Texans, by and large, don’t play around when it comes to the safety of their communities. As the biker gangs discovered, one does not simply bring guns to a gunfight in Texas.  If the deacons are packing, you can bet the swat teams have substantially more force available.  One sergeant basically said that he would not recommend that any other bikers make their way to Waco after news of the situation got out.  Um, yeah. They would have to fight through Baptist deacons just to get to the police just to get arrested.

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Is It Wrong To Force Jesus On My Kids?

In this sermon I was trying to address the question that I hear asked by our church family friends: “Is it wrong for me to force Jesus on my kids?”

Many of our friends grew up in homes where they had a drug problem: Their parents drug them to church on Sunday, drug them to Wednesday night prayer meetings, drug them to VBS, etc…The result was that many of our friends spent their 20s resenting the local church instead of living among believers in Biblical community.

So the question becomes clarified for believing Parents: Is there a way to force Jesus on your kids that is actually beneficial?

I think so.  And I think Deuteronomy 6:4-9, otherwise known in Jewish circles as “The Shema,” can inform our parenting in a way that helps us force our kids to consider what it looks like to treasure Jesus most in this world.

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Sermon: Unlocking The Secrets of Marriage Part 1

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In this sermon I tried to establish a baseline definition of the Biblical notion of love.  I wanted to clearly distinguish what Paul understands as love (agape) from what the world largely uses to mean love (romantic feelings).

In conclusion, and in order to make application, we see how one’s definition of love impacts their model of marriage. If you view love as agape (behaving like Jesus) then your view of marriage is rooted in behaving like Jesus towards your spouse. If your view of love is defined as romantic feelings, then your view of marriage will be based on your ever changing romantic feelings towards your spouse.  when those feelings go away, your marriage goes away.

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Why Hope Is Preferable To Optimism: A Prayer For 2015

One of my favorite scenes from the Christmas classic Home Alone (1990) is when Peter McCallister is attempting to encourage his curmudgeon brother Frank as the family hurriedly rushes out of their Winnetka, Illinois manse en route to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for a family trip to Paris.

Frank: There’s no way on earth we are going to make this plane. It leaves in 45 minutes.

Peter: Think positive Frank.

Frank: You be positive, I’ll be realistic.

Frank and Peter’s exchange highlights a prominent movement in American thought and spirituality – the New Thought, or Positive Thinking, or Optimism movement.  This pseudo-religious/health/self-help/spiritualistic movement emerged in America during the 19th century through the teachings of P.P. Quimby and one of his famous disciples, Mary Baker Eddy. It was Eddy who took Quimby’s ideas and baptized them in cultural Christianity to form the Christian Science movement. The basic idea of said movement is that human mentality can change human reality.  If a person thinks positively about a particular aspect of life (business success, health, personal goals) then some transcendent force will press down on the natural world and bend providence in the favor of the person who thinks.  Likewise, if a person thinks negatively, the results could mean disease and death.

Positive Thought, Optimism, and American Culture

This line of thinking became deeply entrenched within American culture in the 19th and 20th centuries and still plays a prominent role today.  Author Mitch Horowitz wrote the first significant history of the positive thought movement in his 2014 book One Simple Idea. According to Horowitz, the subcultures of art, foreign policy, sports, business, health and wellness, and religious groups all borrow from Quimby and Eddy’s philosophy. For example, one of the more popular songs in 1945 was a tune by Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers called Accentuate the Positive.  In the song, Mercer structures his lyrics and chorus in the style of a sermon, beginning and concluding with the main point:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

Consider the shift of many a sports commentator who, during an injury timeout on the field, fills in time by remarking our thoughts and prayers are with the injured player. What good does thinking about the player accomplish?  If positive thought is correct, then perhaps all that positive energy could change reality.  In her speech Smile or Die  journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich notes that Lehman Brothers, Countrywide, and AIG were crippled by their culture of positive thinking amidst the housing bubble crisis of 2008.  Employees who voiced concern with the housing projections were censured in some cases and fired in others.

So, does Uncle Frank have a point?  Is this type of optimism or positive thinking ultimately unhelpful for human beings and cultures who want to flourish? Furthermore, what should Christians make of this optimism? Should the reaction of the Christian church be to become negative people who only think critically and harshly about things?

Hope For 2015

The problem with the positive thinking movement is not that it preaches positivity or optimism.  The problem with the positive thinking movement is that it is a Trojan horse.  Hidden deep within its philosophical core is the dangerous idealism of self reliance.  The problem with this form of optimism is that it relies on self.  Positive thinking is a self-reliant perspective.  Optimism makes for a great tool, but a poor theology.  It fails to account for the reality of human frailty and the tendency for humans to mess up.  A Biblical alternative to this unbridled and unchecked optimism is a more Biblical term.  That term is hope. To be sure, the terms “hope” and “optimism” became synonymous during President Obama’s 2008 political campaign and this move muddied the American lexicon.  But stripping away a clever campaign strategy and getting to the Biblical definition of the term, hope is not a perspective.  Hope, according to Scripture, is a person.  And that person is Jesus Christ.

Take a look at 1 Timothy 1:1 (ESV):

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope

For Christians, the good news of Jesus Christ is that he is our Hope.  And our Hope is sovereign over our 2015, because our Hope is sovereign over the past, present, and future.  Our Hope does not call us to the false gospel of self-reliance.  Instead, Jesus calls us to rely on Him for 2015 and beyond.

So the answer to the aforementioned question is this: As believers in Christ, our posture for 2015 is not to put on more self reliance.  Our posture, according to Scripture, is to rely on Jesus Christ, who is our hope.  Can we be positive people?  Of course.  Positivity can be a helpful tool in our discipleship arsenal.  In a race, for example, positive thinking can help us continue to take steps so that we can cross the finish line.  The Bible says much about the damage a critical tongue can have on the church community.  But these make for helpful tools, not overarching theologies.  Jesus is the one who is God over positivity and negativity, optimism and pessimism.  So rather than relying on the tools, may we rely on Jesus in 2015.

 

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When Exactly Do We Apply Free Speech Again?

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Two stories. Two similar scenarios. Two possible applications of freedom of speech.

In the first scenario, an acting duo produces a film entitled The Interview, a raunchy gross-out comedy trip through North Korea that includes a gratuitous orgy scene involving Kim Jong Un. The Film concludes with an assassination attempt on self-same head of state.  When North Korea discovered the details of the plot of this film, as the FBI report details, they hacked into the Sony Films data cloud and and leaked sensitive executive documents as retribution.  These hackers also claimed revenge and terrorism if Sony releases the film for national distribution.

The initial response by Sony was to delay the release. Later, Sony decides to cancel it all together.  The public response, mostly by the artistic community, has been to cry foul and to lift up the ideal of free speech in America, especially when it comes to art.

In the second scenario, an undergraduate student in an ethics class at Marquette, a Jesuit university, asks his teacher, a graduate student, for clarification on some remarks she made in her lecture on ethical conversations about human sexuality.  The teacher remarked that anyone taking a position against homosexuality as a viable option for human flourishing would be required to drop the class. The student pressed her as to the ethical reasons for such a narrow position.  She glibly responded that the student did not have the right to hold to such a position.

When the student brought the matter to the attention of the faculty and administration (through some less than above board means), the administration responded with an open letter in support of the grad assistant/teacher.  The public response, mostly by the religious community, has been to cry foul and to lift up the ideal of free speech in America, especially when it comes to religious liberty and ethics.

I find these two stories, situated one after the other in my twitter feed, to be interesting foils that highlight an important conversation about the extent of freedom of speech in America in the 21st century.  Namely, should we limit free speech?  Or, rather, should we limit the application of free speech in America?  When a film portrays the assassination attempt at a global political leader is this to be understood as an appropriate application of free speech?  Or is free speech then limited if it brings about negative consequences?

This would seem to be the case in the Marquette scenario.  The student in question had the freedom to speak until his free comments offended the teacher.  At that point, freedom of speech was no longer to be applied.

The big question rolling around in my brain today is this: Do we really believe in freedom of speech?  Or, do we like the idea of free speech as long as no one is offended?  Are we now a nation of people pleasers who aim to train the next generation of thinkers to become even more skilled and proficient people pleasers?

I don’t think we are.  At least, I certainly hope not. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who warned against this same kind of madness from within the context of Nazi Germany:

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.

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5 Things Christians Can Take Away From The Serial Podcast

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Episode 12 of the wildly popular podcast Serial dropped into the new podcast folder of my smartphone this morning.  It marks the end of a crazy 12 week auditory journey that my friend and I have been on together, relishing the wholesome goodness and throwback feel of a weekly radio broadcast driven by smart writing, intrigue, and plot twists.  Okay, a moment of truth – most of my friends and I binge-listened to Serial beginning this past weekend. But, we enjoyed the podcast nonetheless.

As I was listening to the episodes, five things stuck out to me. And I sense that these five impressions could be useful to Christians engaged in Great Commission ministry:

1. Live above board in all areas of life.  One of the biggest truth principles to emerge from of Adnan’s reflection on his time in jail and on the events of 1999 is that he put himself in a position to be accused of criminal things, not because he killed Hae, but because he was living immorally.  He had sex outside of marriage (a “no no” for a good Muslim boy).  He smoked weed (again, a “no no.”).  He was deceptive with his parents.  He had a secret life.  He admits this much to Sarah.

2. Live each day with purpose.  One of the things I kept thinking about as Adnan was trying to piece together the murky remembrances of February 13, 1999 was that he would have benefited from a regular reflective period of each day — a time when he thought back through the course of his day and, perhaps, journaled his thoughts from the day.  It would also help if Adnan had not have intentionally hindered his perceptive abilities by smoking weed.  Journaling has long been associated with the Christian life of discipleship and the Serial podcast indicates how profoundly helpful it is to live each day with purpose and with a sense of appreciation for the little details in life.

3. You are who your friends are. One of the biggest flaws in Adnan’s case was his friendship with Jay.  Adnan spent considerable amounts of time with Jay, a guy who sold drugs and who worked at a  pornography video store.  Adnan not only spent time with Jay and his associates, but he loaned his car and his phone to a guy who lived this shady life.  Adnan tied the fate of his life with Jay’s fate.  So when the state wanted to point out Adnan’s character flaws, all they had to do was point to Jay.  Both men received punishment as a result of their friendship.

4. Good communication is captivating.  Koenig is a wonderful storyteller and communicator.  It should not be a surprise that Serial is wildly popular, despite the seemingly antiquated medium.  But this tends to bear out what many have known and reiterated for centuries: Good communication captures our attention. Hitler knew this. Winston Churchill knew this. President Obama knows this. Sarah Koenig knows this.  And she uses her communication skills masterfully.  For those of us who want to preach the good news of Jesus, we would do well to take notes from the master on how to communicate effectively.  Pacing, content, delivery, style…all of these things matter.

5. Less is more.  Serial proves that even in an instant gratification society, less can be more.  Rather than rolling out all 12 episodes at once (as Netflix’s strategy seems to be), Serial intentionally required the audience to wait patiently for each upcoming episode.  This strategy resulted in a massive reddit community commentary page, several parodies on youtube, and countless other text, phone, and coffee conversations facilitated by listeners and fans.  Serial has demonstrated that one does not need to reveal all one’s cards in order to draw an audience.  If you have something good to give, you have permission to reveal the goodness at your own pace, in your own timing, and in your own way.  This applies to podcast content.  It also applies to human sexuality and dating relationships.

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Mary As God’s Baby Mamma? My Sermonic Attempt At Unwrapping The Christmas Miracle

In this sermon I look at the details surrounding the immaculate conception in Matthew 1:18-23 and following.  I conclude that Jesus’ birth and conception are recorded as miraculous and seem to be consistent with how this event was historically regarded by the Christian church in the first few centuries at minimum. The text reads like this in the ESV:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed  to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”

While I debated with our youth ministry staff over the pro/cons of making such a theological statement, I ultimately decided to leave it out of the sermon.  However, on this blog I want to suggest that Mary was something like God’s baby mamma. I believe this popular phrasing gets us close to what the Bible says about Jesus, about Mary, and about the nature of her pregnancy.

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Misattributing The Bible: What Dawson Trotman Would Say To Barack Obama, And To All Of Us Who Identify In Christ

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President Obama followed up one of his more ingenious moments with one of his more forgettable moments.  After brilliantly taking over for Stephen Colbert on his show earlier this week, President Obama took to quoting scripture during an immigration speech in Nashville last night.  Mr. Obama said:

“The good book says, don’t throw stones in glass houses. Or, make sure we’re looking at the log in our eye before we are pointing out the mote in other folks’ eyes.”

As many commentators (and twitter users ) have pointed out the first quote is not from the Bible.  It is a common proverb quoted in Chaucer, perhaps attributed to James I, and re-quoted by scores of English speaking Europeans and Americans over the past three centuries.  And yet, while it appears to be a helpful moral proverb, it does not find its grounding in the authority of Scripture.

So what do Christians make of President Obama’s inexcusable misattribution of Scripture? And furthermore, in what way should this rather awkward public misattributions shape our future discipleship?  I believe that Dawson Trotman would be helpful for weighing in on this particular issue.

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dawson-trotman-courtesy-of-the-navigators-linkDawson Earle Trotman (1906-1956) was the founder of The Navigators parachurch ministry, the architect behind Billy Graham’s Follow Up team, a mentor and confidant to Campus Crusade’s Bill Bright, Wycliffe Bible Translator’s Cam Townsend, and YoungLife’s Jim Rayburn, and the original thinker behind the 20th century idea of discipleship in the fundamentalist and evangelical movements in America.  At the core of Trotman’s discipleship methodology was a practical emphasis on memorizing the plain text of scripture, usually from within the King James translation.

Trotman believed that Psalm 119:11, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you,”  was a core theological text for spiritual formation and essential for the development of disciples of Christ.  In his reading of this verse, Trotman believed that God wants all Christians to memorize scripture and hide it in their hearts, the central-most part of their being, in order to effectively shape and produce a disciple who would operate from a biblical worldview.  Not surprisingly, the first year of discipleship training under Trotman involved flash card memorization of 1000 Bible verses covering theological topics ranging from sin and salvation to prayer, evangelism, and spiritual growth. By the end of the discipleship program, many of the Navigators’ top brass could recite whole portions of the Bible from memory.

Trotman recoiled at what he observed to be an “easy believism” in American Christianity, the kind of watered down Christianity that offered cheap grace and psychological notions of forgiveness to convenience-oriented Christians.  These were the selfsame types of American religious adherents who often misattributed popular sayings to the Bible.  For Trotman, if you did not know the difference between cultural moral sayings and the plain text of scripture you were breaking the heart of God.  In fact, it was not uncommon for Trotman to find himself chatting with a Christian only to shift the conversation to spiritual matters with the piercing and unsettling question, “So, what verse of the Bible are you currently memorizing?”

Upon attending his first Billy Graham crusade meeting in 1950 (at Graham’s invitation) Trotman took issue with the lack of any legitimate follow up efforts for those who made decisions to be born again and to follow Jesus in discipleship.  He invited the Graham team over to his house for dinner and proceeded to lecture them on why follow up was important.  In particular, Trotman pressed Graham and his team on the need for more robust scripture memory plans for new believers.

To his credit, Graham was not offended at the stern lecture during the meal at the Trotman home.  Instead, Graham demanded that Trotman begin developing a systematic follow up program to be used in all future Graham crusades — the very follow up program that Graham would use for 60 years, and the same program currently used by most major evangelists, including his daughter Ann Graham Lotz.

With Graham’s reach and influence, Trotman was able to see a portion of his ministry vision fulfilled as thousands of people came to believe in Christ and then become discipled through Navigator training methods, including scripture memorization. Many more came to grow spiritually through one of Trotman’s most notable inventions – scripture memory cards.

Trotman worked diligently throughout his ministry to ensure that when Christians were pressed into giving informed positions on important issues, they were prepared to also provide a document trail back to the chief authority on all matters of life and faith — The Bible, quoted verse and chapter. For Trotman, paraphrasing was not enough. General summaries were ultimately unhelpful.  And misattributions were lazy and potentially damaging, since they spoke to the reality of God’s nature and character.  For Trotman, God was the chef, the Bible was the menu, and the job of the Christian was to be a waiter who quoted verbatim what was printed on the menu.

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Logic Is Not A God: Reflections On College Football Debates

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I feel compelled to write one last post about the College Football Playoff.

One of the more favorable arguments against shifting away from the BCS Championship system to the new four-team College Football Playoff is that under the BCS format the regular season games carried more significance and meaning.  The net result of this system, the proponents would argue, is that regular season games would matter.  If we moved to a playoff system, as the argument progresses, we would render the regular season meaningless.

I think the events of the past season have blown that line of reasoning to shreds.  Instead of rendering the regular season meaningless, the playoff system maintained the importance of the regular season while also providing a thrilling and hotly debated playoff field.

In fact, one might argue that the current playoff system could expand to as many as 8 or 16 teams.  The regular season will be just as thrilling (since rankings based on the regular season play will determine the final playoff bracket) and there will always be passionate arguments about who should be in verses who should not be in.

The real question for the leadership in coming years is, “Which teams do you want to be debating in the public square?”  Do you want to be debating between #4 and #5, or between #8 and #9, or #16 and #17.  Debate will happen and will only serve to highlight the importance of the regular season.

What Can Believers Take Away From This College Football Debate?

This debate highlights a helpful principle: Logic is not a magic bullet. Logic is a tool. Remember:

  • some will use logic to aid in arriving at Truth (This is what, Lord willing, local church pastors aim to do).
  • Others will use logic to keep people from Truth (This is what Satan did in his conversation with Jesus in Luke 4).
  • Some will use logic to make a point, at the expense of a fluid conversation.  Typically, we label these folk as “contrarians.”
  • Others will use logic to make a difference.  This is what Martin Luther, Jane Addams, Elie Wiesel, and Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to do.

Logic is a tool that can be used for good or bad.  That is why it is so critical that believers in Jesus Christ increase in loving Jesus with their minds, as well as hearts, souls, strength, and neighbors.

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