Letters From Farley


Roger L. Smalling


Rarely is the term "Prelude" employed to describe the introduction to a body of literature. In the domain of the arts, it customarily introduces music or drama. But "Prelude" has a more experiential ring than the mundane noun, "Introduction". And this booklet is intended as an experience, not a treatise.

An ominous connotation also adheres to "Prelude", such as "Prelude to a disaster", or "Prelude to being called on the carpet by the Presbytery". This latter usage comes to mind because of the booklet's slightly iconoclastic tone. But isn't iconoclasm a blast?! Such a delectable vice! Often worth the risks. Someday I shall get around to repenting of it. In the meantime, I present, "Letters From Farley".

Who is Farley? He's an almost imaginary ministerial colleague. Farley actually exists somewhere in England, but I've lost track of him. He was the leader of an Operation Mobilization summer team in France, where I was a fledgling missionary, young and taking life seriously. Farley taught me, among other things, not to take life quite so seriously.

He was somewhat of a 'character'. Despite this, we enjoyed a remarkable affinity of mind. He taught me his favorite game, which for want of a better title, we shall call, "Challenging Everybody Else's Presuppositions". It quickly became a favorite of mine, also. The game has served me well, both in and out of Christian circles. The following is an epistolary format of imaginary correspondence from Farley on a variety of themes.

I hope you enjoy the game also.

Dear Roger,

Though your invitation that we become confidants is flattering, doubts plague me. It strikes me as comparable to a proposal to strip. This entails some distressingly practical questions, such as, Who goes first? How much can we trust the other party? Will anyone cheat? What is the intended result? I don't recall any clarifications in your suggestion.

But even more important, is the issue of appropriateness. For Christians, this is always foremost, so let's address it first.

I find no scriptural evidence to suggest that the "self-disclosure" or "intimacy" concept is a key to spiritual maturity, nor even therapeutic. Unless Scripture portrays it as essential, then we are free to enquire if it is even advisable.

Moreover, the origins of the idea disturb me. "Self-disclosure" is a procedure involved with the "group-encounter" techniques practiced by some psychologists, nearly all of whom are humanists. Since their humanistic methods failed with individuals, some assumed it might work better in a group. But the presuppositions remained the same. As humanists, they feel that man is basically good. Though man has problems, he retains enough latent goodness to provide the basis for self-improvement, if only the right techniques are applied. Group-encounter, with its emphasis on transparency, is part of this package.

Sooner or later, the world's ideas filter into the Church, usually about the time that the 'experts' abandon them as failures. The Church then endeavors to apply them to her problems, with similar results. Some appear to view the garbage-heap of the world's discarded notions as the source of their supply. Does this testify to the riches of Christ?

By now you might conclude that I am rejecting your proposal to be confidants. Untrue. I merely want to be sure that we don't commit idolatry.

Idolatry? How so?

God is jealous, and our fellowship is to be first and foremost with Him. Could the "self-disclosure" concept be a substitute for a lack in the devotional life of some believers? Religious forms of humanistic substitutes are surely no better for being religious.

I suppose the answer boils down to the quality of our relationship with Christ. But if self-disclosure is your desire, then you are welcome to go first.

Your irascible colleague,

Dear Roger,

So we agree that complete self-disclosure is inappropriate among Christians. It only remains to negotiate the limits. This puzzles me less than your suggestion that we share only our "spiritual" battles. What, precisely, is the difference between a "spiritual" battle and any other kind?

By "spiritual", I assume you are referring to certain religious exercises, like Bible study, prayer and church attendance, in which all Christians consistently delight and of which we ministers are experts. This sublime definition would serve our purposes, if it were not baloney.

At any given time, I seem to find one or more of these activities unappealing, and occasionally downright tedious. And I distrust any Christian who refuses to admit the same.

That's why I distrust the mystic types in my church. Some appear to have been born with a natural religious bent that assists them in attaining an apparently uninterrupted sweet communion with God, characterized by unruffled feathers and a benign smile. How much of this do you suppose is real, Roger, and how much is genetic? Is there a gene for spirituality? Sometimes I think so, and wish I had it.

I'm reminded of that worn-out joke about the man who said to his wife one sunday morning, "Dear, I don't want to go back to that church today. The people are unfriendly, the music is old-fashioned, the preaching is lousy, and the whole thing is boring." His wife replies, "But you must go, dear. You are the Pastor."

Granted, I may be rationalizing my own failures. Nevertheless, I'm posing a serious question. Is such a sweet, mystical communion really supposed to be the norm?

If we always walked in a sense of this communion, then what are we saying when we talk of walking by faith? What about the virtue of acting on conviction of truth, regardless of feelings? Or even contrary to our personal temperments?

How then could the habitual sense of sweet communion be normative, if acting on conviction of truth is the higher virtue? Don't try to weasel out of it, partner, with nonsense that these two are compatible after all. You know they aren't.

Is the sense of "sweet communion" one of the inducements that God must remove to test the genuineness of our convictions?

Granted this, the mystics are wrong, and we strugglers might be closer to normalcy after all.

This still smacks of rationalization, doesn't it, comrade? But occasionally my self-deceptions contain a grain of truth.

What do you think?

Your onerous colleague,

Dear Roger,

So! You are having trouble with your district supervisor? Are you quite sure it is not the other way around? It might be amusing to interview him to see out whohe considers the source of conflict. But never mind. We both know human nature too well to doubt his answer.

The question you asked about leadership is academic, spiritual and profound. In other words, I don't know either. The standard answer as to why God appoints some to high offices, and not others, is because some are endowed with wisdom above their fellows. The Lord looks into the crowd of candidates and spots one with superior wisdom. This is the chosen one. That is why some are appointed to spiritual leadership, and others not. This fact is, of course, common knowledge.

I haven't believed that silly myth for the last 23 years. I've been in the ministry for 25 years, which means it took me less than 2 years to notice how silly it really is.

I realized it largely through self-observation. I would have preferred that God reveal it in some other fashion, but who am I to question His mysterious ways?

So you think your supervisor's four-step process is unique? Surely you jest! How many times have we done the same, Roger? First, we make a genuinely stupid decision. Second, the wounded scream. Third, we apply our "wisdom" to clean up the mess, and bring "healing." Fourth, we congratulate ourselves for our "wisdom" in rectifying an ugly situation in such a way that nobody gets the blame...certainly not the leader!

People may be appointed to offices for reasons other than intrinsic wisdom. Perhaps it is to teach them rather than their subordinates. Some wiseacre said that people generally get the leadership they deserve. Perhaps some leaders are a means of inflicting judgments on the unworthy. Is that why God put us in our particular offices? Is this the reason why your supervisor is over you, old friend? That verse in Daniel about God promoting the basest of men is disquieting. I would feel better if it were not in the text.

I've evolved a theory that the rarefied atmosphere of high-level spiritual office causes a dissolution of the neural endings in the frontal lobe of the cranium. Therefore, never aspire to promotions, Roger. It might be the last rational thought you have.

Your pungent pal,
Dear Roger,

So! Your supervisor turned out to be right! I'm genuinely sorry that you feel so annoyed. No, I retract that. I'm not at all sorry. I am gratified. Not out of malice, mind you. It's simply that misery loves company. I share your chagrin, having experienced the same interminable times.

How often have I assumed that my leaders were wrong when they weren't? I've forgotten on purpose because chagrin is one of my least favorite emotions. For us ministers, planned forgetfulness is almost as useful as double-think, don't you suppose?

Now the specific issue in your last letter had to do with the question of where you went wrong in your calculations of the situation.

Your calculations were not the problem.

Let me put it delicately: You are a numbskull. After all those years in the ministry, it has escaped you that faith in God is just as necessary in this area as any other. The basic problem was not your supervisor. It was your attitude toward your supervisor. And that attitude can be summed up in the term "unbelief".

Is God sovereign even over christian leaders? Appearances may belie the fact, but it is really true, you know. If the Lord can turn the heart of a king in whatever way he pleases, as Proverbs tells us, then how much more can he bend the neck of a christian leader? True, the neck might get broken in the process, being frequently endowed with the attribute of stiffness. But it is God's business to do the breaking, not yours.

I shall not exhort you on how easy it is to adjust to these facts, because it isn't easy at all. When the car is about to crash, it is natural to want to grab for the wheel. But let's keep in mind that doing so might make matters worse.

Your kooky colleague,

Dear Roger,

I grieve for you, Roger. I weep for you. Such a disastrous dilemma befalling your church causes shivers of apprehension that it could happen to me.

Would God that the treasurer had absconded with the funds; that a deacon had run off with the secretary; that the ACLU had taken an interest in some of your remarks....

But for a Theistic Evolutionist to request membership in good standing in your church...that is beyond the ultimate.

Your description of his views is apt. The term "stinks" is not one currently used by our more astute theologians, but it will do in a pinch. Such a position is, in my opinion, just as atrocious an example of theology as it is of science. But this is not what you asked me for. You asked for advice as to what to do with him.

I regret that I haven't any "really good" advice, as you put it. I can only sympathize with your suffering.

I can also sympathize with the suffering of your Theistic Evolutionist.

His suffering? How so?

It just so happens, Roger, that I have talked with a couple of those. I discovered, to my surprise, that some of them have gone through a nerve-jarring, mind-boggling, soul-searching and painful odyssey. While many might be accommodating themselves to the ungodly thought-currents of our confused century, others feel they have taken a courageous stand for intellectually honesty in the face of rejection from their lesser informed brethren.

Nevertheless, I think both types are profoundly deceived. This is sad, but is it a reason for rejecting them? After all, is the church a society designed exclusively for the undeceived? What if they were deceived about issues less controversial?

It's the controversial nature of the matter that most bothers you, right? But do we accept people on the grounds that they are deceived only about non-controversial issues?

But your dilemma doesn't exactly reside there, does it? If only he were not, as you put it, "such a good christian in every other way", the dilemma would not be so acute. Were it not for that, you could use our standard operating ministerial procedure and sidestep the matter on other grounds than the real issue. It is clear that you don't have that luxury in this case.

What makes it worse is that he asked you point blank if he could be a "member in good standing". I really wish he hadn't said that. "Member" is one thing. But "good standing"? Now that might be going a little too far.

On the other hand, maybe that's your answer. You could ask your Presbytery for a definition of the difference between "member" and "member in good standing". They could refer it to the General Assembly , which would appoint a study committee on the precise theological distinctions involved. A position paper may be included in the Archives, which could delineate the persons belonging to each category.

Unfortunately, the process might not be completed before the year 2025. Assuming that you, your Theistic Evolutionist, and the church are still alive by then, you will be able to refer to the paper for guidance.

In the meantime, I regret that you may be forced to fall back on plain old love, tolerance and patience. That's not much to go on, mind you. But in emergencies, sometimes God obliges us to make do with the little we have. Only He knows why we wind up in such dilemmas. Were I not so theologically sound, I would suspect He lacked foresight.

Your befuddled buddy,

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