Wednesday, February 21, 2018


A Sunday School teacher posed the following question to her class of children:
     "I'm thinking of something that is furry, has four legs and a bushy tail and collects nuts for the winter. What is it?
     Hands shot up immediately.  "Jesus!" shouted one little girl.
     "Jesus?" said the teacher.  "Why did you say Jesus?"
    "Well," was the reply.  "It sounded like a squirrel but this is Sunday School, so I knew the answer was Jesus!"
I believe that this little tale is the source of the occasional usage of the expression "Squirrel Answers" by my daughter Sherry, with whom I am in frequent communication.  While I felt I agreed with her usage, I also felt I need a more concise definition.  However, Mr. Webster was of no help and  when I  googled it, all I got was pictures of little creatures and statements regarding them. I didn't think that this was what Sherry was referring to so I texted her for her definition .
Her reply: "That's a hard one.  I use squirrel answer because otherwise I have to give a whole paragraph.  LOL."
"I guess basically it's when somebody gives you a trite, by the book answer to a complex, and often personal question.  It is an answer meant to stop the conversation so it is quite often judgmental in nature."
"For instance you say that you're having a hard time dealing with the suffering in the world and they quote a Bible verse.  Or you say that gun control is a complex issue and they chastise you for causing strife."
After further thought she continued:   "However, based on the jokes that that comes from (apparently a reference to the above story) I think it's when people give you the spiritual answer they're expected to give you - with little regard to whether it's true or not."
Not concise, but pretty clear.
We're all used to hearing evasive answers from politicians and other public figures:
     "Is it true that you called the president an idiot?"
     "I will not lower myself to answering a question like that!"
But it is sad when Christians who are  supposed to have an answer for everyone who asks, can only give canned, evasive answers or out-of-context Bible verses.  I'm not sure why this is done, but I believe squirrel answers are symptoms of more serious problems.  If I may speculate on some of the sources.
First I believe that some, as the little girl in the story, assume that this is what we're supposed to do.  As children we are taught to memorize Bible verses, usually with no regard to context.  This continues into adult life.  Many Bible even have tables printed, listing various needs or problems, each followed by an appropriate (?) verse or verses.  We assume that "there's a verse for every problem" (as I have actually been told), that maturity includes a knowledge of the right verse for every situation and that all the questioner needs is to find the right verse.  But the Bible is not a magic book full of magic verses.  It's a complex book that deals with many moral issues in various contexts.  It demands thought!
The above types of squirrel answers may not necessarily be judgmental but often are, and whether or not, will be perceived as such.
Another source of these answers (related to the one above) is that the answerer believes he/she has attained a greater knowledge than the questioner and again all that is needed are the appropriate words or cliches, which are to be accepted without question.
But I suspect that one of the main reasons for squirrel answers is a lack of faith, a fear that shows up when questions are raised for which there appear to be no obvious answers.  I suspect that some Christians have a faith which can be easily shaken by sincere questions.  A pious canned answer can be a protection against such questions.  It can also put the questioner on the defensive.
But a faith in the truth and authority of Scripture, a faith in a God who is sovereign, has no need to fear questions for which the answer is not clear or is not known.  The follower of Christ has no need for fear but should take every question as an opportunity for growth in faith.
I read somewhere of a graffiti slogan sprayed on a wall, "Jesus is the answer!"  Below it was  sprayed in a different hand, "What was the question?"
(By the way: the little girl in this story was not Sherry.)

Friday, February 9, 2018


"Men it's a sin to bore people with the Word of God!"
These were the words growled to a class of potential preachers by Haddon Robinson, our homiletics professor at Dallas Theological Seminary.  Haddon was undoubtedly one of the best preachers I have ever heard.  His voice was gravelly and he seemed to have a snarl when he spoke due to a slight disfigurement which made his mouth a bit off center.

We all held a bit of fear, even reverence for this man, and we took his words of warning seriously.  Of course later, after we'd graduated and entered into our ministries, we forgot them  and proceeded to bore people with the Word.  I must confess that I was among those who disobeyed.
We were required to attend chapel services every day and most of the times we went willingly, as we were fed with messages and sermons by some of the greatest theologians and preachers in the land.  After over forty years I barely remember  3 or 4 of the 500+ chapel messages.  But I do remember the singing!  Richard Seume was the seminary Chaplain and he felt that was his ministry to teach us how to worship.  He introduced us to the grand old hymns of the faith:  Charles Wesley's "And Can it Be?"; "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" (the "Diadem" tune) and so many others.  After more than 40 years I still get chills as I recall 700 students and faculty - mostly men - belting the hymns out with gusto, some singing melody, while others sang their parts.  I believe Dr. Seume felt too, that it was a sin to bore people with their worship of God.  But as with Haddon's warnings, we went out and forgot.

Today we search for "relevance."   We've left behind those dusty old hymns and those biblically based sermons (of course with a nod to some Scriptural passages).  We give people "inspiring" sermons.  We sing songs that have few words and yet are easily forgotten - "seven-eleven songs" someone has labeled them - seven words repeated eleven times.
And in this attempt to be relevant, I believe we have made Christianity irrelevant - and boring!  We're afraid to seriously address theological issues because we're afraid we'll frighten or bore our congregations. We're afraid to speak on the moral issues confronting us, possibly because they've been pre-empted by the political parties and we don't want to sound political.

We don't sing those majestic hymns; we don't sing theological hymns; we don't sing hymns that might arouse emotions.
We have become "the bland leaders of the bland."

I retired from full-time ministry a decade ago and have now become one of those who fill up the pews.  Though I confess that I often find church services boring, I also recognize that in those years of ministry I was a contributor to that sort of boredom in my congregation.  Forgive us - forgive me - Lord for that sin that Haddon warned us of.

And forgive me dear reader, for  my curmudgeonly rant.

I do feel better now!

Saturday, November 18, 2017


"But if you are called an Evangelical Christian and boast in God ... being confident of yourself that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, having a form of knowledge and of the truth in the Bible.  You then who teach the other, don't you teach yourself?  You who preach not to steal, do you steal?  You who say don't commit adultery, do you commit adultery?  For God's name is slandered among the unbelievers because of you ..."
- Paul the Apostle (Romans 2:17-24 - I changed a few words.)

An accused pedophile is a candidate for a Senate seat from the state of Alabama. Numerous women have come forth with allegations of his attempted relations with them when he was in his thirties and they were teenagers.  We are told that he was banned from the local mall around the same time, because of his coming on to teenage girls.

Many of his constituents are defending him in various ways, besides blaming the liberal news media, the Democrats and the establishment Republicans.  A couple of the weirder defenses are:
            "Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter, so what he (the would-be senator) did was no different."  (There is no mention of Joseph's age in the Bible, nor any mention of his being a carpenter at that time; and he didn't have sex with her till they were married and she had given birth to Jesus.)
            "This man is being 'persecuted like Jesus Christ.'"

Of course. the late night comics are having a great time with this and even the more serious newspersons seem to have problems keeping from rolling their eyes.  But, whether comics or newspersons, whether of the left or right, all refer to him and his supporters as "Evangelical Christians."

This title of course is nothing new in the public discourse.  "Evangelical Christian" is understood to be a voting bloc of the extreme right.  They stand for "values," "family values" and extreme moralism.  They are opposed to gay marriage (actually anything to do with homosexual behavior), abortion and birth control.  They want to "bring America back to God."  They are often seen (by friend or foe alike) as angry.  They feel they are being persecuted.

Wait a minute!  I object!  I have for many years considered myself an Evangelical Christian and I take exception to the accepted descriptions above!  I do not want to be identified with these.  I know that some who once would have referred to themselves as Evangelical Christians, have dropped the name, and I confess that I have been tempted to.  It's difficult having to explain that I'm not one of those guys.

So I believe we need to look at the history of these two words.  First the word "Christian."  This word is only used three times in the New Testament.  And it is not a name taken on themselves by the followers of Christ.

The first usage is in Acts 11:26:  " ... and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch."  This was a formation of the name "Christ" and meant something like "followers of Christ."  Before this they had never had the label pinned on them.  The church in Antioch was the first church with a large number of Gentiles (non-Jews) and the label was apparently given by non-believing Gentiles to this new group.  It may have been a name of contempt, or at least disdain like the term "Jesus-freak" back in the 1970s.

The second time we encounter this word is in Acts 26:28.  The apostle Paul had been imprisoned for over two years with no clear charges made.  Finally he had made an appeal to the supreme court of his day, to Caesar himself.  Porcius Festus, the Roman governor scheduled a hearing to determine his actions and called in Herod Agrippa II to aid him in his determination.  Paul in making his case and giving his testimony began to preach the death and resurrection of Christ.  Though Festus accused Paul of being crazy, Paul pressed his case to Agrippa (who of course claimed Jewish ties.)  "King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets?  I know that you do."  And Agrippa replied to Paul, "In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian" (Acts 26:27, 28). Again, this may have been a contemptuous use of the word. Agrippa couldn't  escape the logic of Paul's argument and so, as many do today, resorted to sarcasm.

The third use of the word is in 1 Peter. Peter in this letter is urging his readers to "Keep your behavior excellent (or beautiful) among the Gentiles" (2:12a).  He admits that "they slander you as evildoers" (2:12b).  And then he tells them, "if you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.  By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evil-doer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God" (4:14-16).

The label was apparently used derogatorily by those outside the faith in New Testament times and continued to be used that way for some time; to be a Christian was even considered a crime.  All this changed with the legalization of the faith by Constantine and somewhere the word Christian became a word used with pride.  If we fast forward a thousand years or so, we find that the word had become an adjective.  All Europe had become "Christian," if only in the cultural sense.  Today much of the world, including America considers itself Christian.

And what about the word "Evangelical"?  Well the earliest use I know of is from the 16th century.  It was originally used of the followers of Martin Luther and then spread to the other Reformers.   It seems to have been essentially synonymous with "Protestant."  But the roots of the word go way back before the word Christian, even before the Christian era.  It is derived from the Greek word euaggelion, which means, simply "good news" and is found around 75 times in the New Testament.  Also used in the New Testament are the words euaggelizomai, "to tell or proclaim the good news" and euaggelistes, "a bearer (or preacher) of "good news."  (By the way our English word "gospel" - god spell has the same meaning.)

Though the word "evangelical," like the word "Christian" has become more of a cultural term in Europe.  In the United States it has kept much of its original flavor

My Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition defines evangelical in a number of ways, but I believe the following definitions describe how we have historically understood ourselves.

"Evangelical:  1) of, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel esp. as it is presented in the four Gospels. 3) emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual."

There is no mention of a voting bloc, or of anything political.  I'm sure the 12th Edition will correct that oversight?

So I will continue to refer to myself as an Evangelical Christian.  And I will use it in the sense given above.  I am a Christian - a disciple - a follower - of Jesus Christ.  I am an Evangelical - one who has been saved by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ and who believes in the authority of Scripture.

To my friends and others on the right:  Please make sure your Evangelicalism has to do with your faith in Christ and your desire to live by the authority of Scripture and not with your Pharisaic moralism or right wing politics.  Please try to live your lives by the example of Christ and the leading of the Spirit.  And when you fail please don't make excuses, don't hesitate to repent and confess your sin.  And please don't accuse your accusers; don't play the martyr!

And to my friends and others on the left:  Please recognize that there are many Evangelical Christians who attempt to live as Christ would have them live.  And when you see or hear of some who call themselves Evangelical Christians but fail to live up to Christ's example, remember that we, like you, are still imperfect sinners.  And when you see some who are behaving in open hypocrisy , if you must label them as Evangelical Christians, at least put quotation marks around the label! 

Thursday, November 2, 2017


Nine years ago, on November 3, 2008, the United States elected our first African American President, Barack Obama.  Uni and I were overwhelmed with excitement that Tuesday evening as we watched the acceptance speech of the man we had voted for.  We had been ministering across racial lines for years and had felt that in our own small way we had made some contribution toward what was then known as "racial reconciliation."  We felt that Barack Obama's election was a great step forward for our nation and the church in America.  We soon found out that we were overly optimistic in our assessment; in  fact we found out the very next evening as we attended our (all white) church's Wednesday evening service. 

We had mixed emotions over the negative comments we heard; our joy became mixed with grief and anger.  What we had seen as something beautiful was perceived by many in my (white Christian) circle as something ugly.  By Friday I had assembled my thoughts enough to publish the following post which I am here republishing in its entirety:


Back in 1960, I was a fairly young believer and attending what I regarded then as a Bible-preaching church. It was an election year, my first in which I’d get to vote for president. The Democrat candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic was running against Richard M. Nixon, a Quaker and well-known Communist hunter.

Meetings were held at various churches, fundamentalist and others, including the one I attended, denouncing the evils of Catholicism and foretelling the horrible dangers that would befall our Protestant nation if Kennedy were elected. Not only was He Catholic, but also a liberal!

Rumors were circulated by mail and tract (I wonder what would have happened if we’d had the Internet).

Well, of course, all of us true believers voted against this horrible evil, but to no avail. Kennedy won! Fear struck our hearts! America was doomed! But few, if any, of our fears were realized.

When Barack Obama was campaigning for election, rumors were spread, only now we have the Internet.
-- He’s a secret Muslim.
-- He’s an Arab.
-- He “pals around with terrorists.”
-- He’s not even an American.
-- He’s going to promote gay marriage.
-- He’s going to take our guns away.
-- And, of course, he’s the anti-Christ!

And a few truths:
-- He’s a liberal (so were the signers of our Declaration of Independence).
-- He’s black (actually, he’s mixed-race)!
-- His middle name is Hussein.

The evening that Obama gave his acceptance speech huge crowds gathered in cities across the nation. Uni and I were moved to tears when we saw the images on our TV screen. Blacks and whites embracing; tears rolling down the cheeks of older black people.

A half-century after the Civil Rights Movement, after the demise of Jim Crow (our American version of apartheid), an African-American was elected President of the USA. We felt it was a great moment in the history of our nation, a demonstration that “all men (really) are created equal.” It was truly historical. Here was a moment all Americans, whether Democrat or Republican, whether black or white, no matter whom they’d voted for, could celebrate.

But such was not the case. Instead, we were told by our Christian friends (and others) that the reactions we witnessed were the same sort of reactions that the anti-Christ will get when he appears; that America may no longer be a “Christian nation” (whatever that is!). A friend of mine was told that the second coming must be near because of this.

This strange mixture of fear, eschatological zeal, far-right politics, and I believe, downright racism is unbecoming to those who name the name of Christ.

And even those who claim that they are not afraid say something like, “Well, we have to remember, God is still on the throne.” Apparently though in their thinking, the throne is wobbling and God is barely hanging on!

Our God is Sovereign! He reigns! He sets up rulers and takes them down. He has a purpose in setting up Barack Obama. Perhaps the church through this will learn a little more tolerance, as some of us did 48 years ago.

Bill Ball

Knowing that very few of my friends and acquaintances read my blog, I felt that I needed to get these thoughts out to as many as I could,  so I e-mailed it to everyone in my address book.

I waited in fear and apprehension for the replies.  Though only a small number replied, I felt relieved when I read them.  Very few were hostile;  some expressed agreement;
some even seemed to share my feelings; most of them expressed what I at the time optimistically considered "qualified agreement" (See:  YES HE IS.)  I now feel that I was incorrect in this assessment.  Today, as I re-read these replies I understand most of them as attempts (sincere or insincere) to be irenic or conciliatory, perhaps out of respect (or pity?) for me.

I believe that the last nine years have demonstrated that my early optimism was misdirected.  We have made little, if any, progress toward racial reconciliation in America and in the church;  in fact I fear that we've actually gone backward.

For the eight years of Barack Obama's presidency we saw animosity toward him running high, and I strongly believe that much, if not most of it was racially motivated.  Why else would congressional leaders state that their goal was to see him fail?  Why were there so many conspiracy and "birther" theories?  Why the increase in the number of racially motivated and white supremacist hate groups - the Klan, the neo-nazis?

And the situation has not improved since Barack Obama left office.  Racism now seems to have become official American policy.  White supremacist groups are more open and even accepted. And the church at best looks the other way.

Many of my white Christian (and other) friends will sincerely deny that all of these people and actions are or were racially motivated. Perhaps some weren't, though I suspect that many people are simply refusing to look inside.  We fear what we may find.

Uni and I are brokenhearted!  And please do not accuse me of being "political."  This is not simply a matter of politics, but a matter of right and wrong.  It's a matter of the church being the church, of actually loving our neighbors.