Don’t Be Like That Cow

24 May 2022

In the course of doing a little study on Luther’s attitude toward science, I ran across this little gem:

We are beginning to regain a knowledge of the creation, a knowledge we had forfeited by the fall of Adam….Erasmus does not concern himself with this; it interests him little how the fetus is made, formed and developed in the womb. Thus he also fails to prize the excellency of the state of marriage. But by God’s mercy we can begin to recognize His wonderful works and wonders also in the flowers when we ponder His might and His goodness. Therefore we laud, magnify, and thank Him. In His creation we recognize the power of His Word. By His Word everything came into being. This power is evident even in a peach stone. No matter how hard its shell, in due season it is forced open by a very soft kernel in side it. All this is ignored by Erasmus. He looks at the creation as a cow stares at a new gate.

from Luther’s Table Talk, quoted in John Warwick Montgomery, Cross and Crucible p. 5.

Some Podcasts Worth Your Time

17 May 2022

There’s a ton of material out there, and it can be hard to find speakers that consistently deliver ideas and commentary worth thinking about. Here are three that do:

Stories are Soul Food

The Theology Pugcast

The Aaron Renn Show

I commend them to you.


Serve Somebody

3 May 2022

Academics and other “smart” people regularly feel that they are drastically undervalued, and ought to be paid vastly more than they are. They are badly mistaken, but it’s a very common sentiment. Where does it come from?

It comes from their formative years. At a very early age, we immerse our children in a totally artificial environment in which the whole official incentive structure (grades, honor rolls, access to enrichment activities) hinges on academic performance. For the very formative thirteen years from kindergarten through high school, this is the case. All that time, incentives and advancement are tied to being smart, to academic performance. Although they are often socially penalized, the smart kids are on top of the academic heap. A child who performs well in that environment is likely to get a chance to spend more time in it — college, then often grad school, for a total of six to ten more years.

Some of them will even do so well in the academy that they will be offered an opportunity to never leave — they can stay and teach. If they continue to publish and ticket-punch their way up, they can work their way into a tenured research position where they don’t have to teach actual students; they just research and publish their work. Which is to say, they do school papers for the rest of their lives, and get paid for it. They work their way up by producing academic work that pleases a professor, and then join the ranks of the professors and produce more academic work that pleases their professorial peers. At no point in this process do they have to produce something of tangible benefit to the rest of the world. It’s easy to start thinking you don’t ever have to — and if they stay in academia, they really might not have to.

Those (un)lucky few aside, the rest at some point enter the workforce, where a very different set of rules and incentives is in play. Now in the corporate world, there’s sometimes a degree of unreality similar to academe, but set that aside for a moment and assume that our case study — a smart student with at least a college education — has been forced into productive work.

Being smart doesn’t get you anything in the economic mainstream. The trait most rewarded is your ability to serve. If you can provide a service that people need or want — scrubbing toilets, computing taxes, polishing widgets, keeping their vehicles DOT compliant, fixing cars, cooking food, setting bones, whatever — then they will give you money. The rarer the service, and the more they need it, the more money they will give you. Being smart helps to the extent that you can use your smarts to serve better, faster, more efficiently. But nobody pays you to just sit around and be smart. Mostly, nobody pays you for ideas. They pay for execution, which is the hard part.

Knowledge workers might seem like an exception, but they’re not. Knowledge workers are paid for delivering the relevant facts to the people who need to know them, when the body of possibly relevant information is so large and confusing that it’s very hard to learn it for yourself. A good knowledge worker is generally smart, with an encyclopedic knowledge of a hard-to-master field. But that’s not what he’s paid for – he’s paid for telling you what you need to know about that field, and saving you the trouble of having to master it yourself – in other words, he’s paid for turning his specialized knowledge into a service. 

This focus on service and performance is not some rude shortcoming of an imperfect world. It is absolutely as it should be. Like the song says, ya gotta serve somebody.


More Relevant Than Ever

9 April 2022

Once upon a time Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a brief essay on minimalist ways to resist tyranny. You should read it. As our culture slowly shakes off its Christian hangover and wanders further from reality, the lies will get more egregious and therefore more fragile. Accordingly, the demands to pretend that the lie du jour is eminently reasonable, even self-evident, will get more strident. In “Live Not By Lies,” Solzhenitsyn gives some very good advice. You may be called to do far more than he advises, but I doubt you’ll be called to do less.


Meeting Michelle: A Parable

29 March 2022

Once upon a time there was a guy named Jack. Jack liked to talk about his girlfriend, Michelle. He told all his friends about her — how witty, beautiful, and kind she was, the latest funny thing she said, where they went for a date last night. All his friends were sort of excited for him at first. But time went by, and nobody met her. She always seemed to be somewhere else. After a while, they began to be a little suspicious.  Was she real? Hadn’t she always seemed a little too good to be true, after all?

They began to argue among themselves. “She was always a little too good to be true,” said some. Others said, “No, look how different Jack is. Obviously she’s real.” But nobody really knew.

Then one day, one of Jack’s friends, Lance, met Michelle. She was everything Jack said she was, and then some. Not everybody believed Lance when he reported back. Among Jack’s friends, the arguments about whether Michelle was real continued. But to Lance, the arguments suddenly seemed a little silly.


Three Worlds

21 January 2022

I expect I’ll have more to say later about Aaron Renn’s very provocative think piece in First Things, but for right now, just go read it. It’s worth your time.


Free Grace and Provisionism

31 December 2021

I had a chance to guest with Drew of the Provisionist Perspective, discussing GES’s critique of provisionism. You can watch it here.


Proclaim!

2 December 2021

A friend and I had the opportunity to start a Theopolis Conversation on proclaiming the gospel. The way Conversations work, we contribute an opening essay, other writers respond, and then we conclude the conversation with a rejoinder. It was an enormous amount of fun, and you can find it here.


Another Letter to a New Pastor

26 October 2021

I wrote this several years ago to a friend who was being promoted from deacon to priest. May it be an encouragement, especially to my bivocational brothers. As always, names, places, and such have been altered to protect identities.

Dear Walter, 

I don’t know if you recall it, but in the charge to you at your diaconal ordination, you were told that that when your time in the diaconate is through, and the time comes to engage in the ministry of the Word and prayer, it is an obsession that deserves a man’s full-time attention. So the Twelve Apostles judged it, and speaking from my 7 years of experience as a full-time laborer in the Word, I agree: this testimony is true. 

It is not, however, the whole truth.

There was another apostle, born out of due time, who—although possessed of a right to full-time support in his ministry of the Word—had a different obsession: to take the Word wherever God called him, whether that would provide him with a living or not. In that mission, he was sometimes supported; many times he made tents instead of making a living from his ministry. Paul’s bivocational life was a matter of economic necessity, but it also had a pastoral effect. Paul challenged the Thessalonians, who had a problem with laziness, to follow his example. He reminded them that when he was with them he ate no one’s food free of charge, and earned his keep with his own hands. Paul could not have made that point so solidly, had he been in “full-time ministry” (as we call it) during his stay in that city. We don’t know whether Paul’s bivocational life in Thessalonike was a deliberate pastoral choice or a providential necessity, but in either case, God used it for the good of the Thessalonians. 

And so I write to you on the occasion of your ordination to the priesthood to offer you this reminder of Paul’s life, taught to us by the Scriptures and attested by my own experience. I have served as a full-time seminary professor and pastor. I have also found myself selling fabric, painting houses, installing bathtubs, driving busses, hawking curriculum like a Lebanese rug merchant, and more, in order to finance my ministry.

So I speak—from a certain perspective—-as a ministerial failure. There is an upwardly mobile, slick corps of professionals that fill the full time salaried spots in our churches. I spent 7 of the 14 years of my ministry in those exalted ranks. Of late, I have fallen from them, and do not appear to be in any danger of recovering. 

You may find yourself called to serve in that corps of polished professionals. I’ve been there, have many faithful friends there, and am happy to affirm that there’s plenty of good work to do there. If God calls you to it, then serve there without shame. But on the occasion of your ordination to the priesthood, I want to remind you—for whatever my unsolicited counsel may be worth—that such a calling is by no means inevitable. 

You may be called to the “failure” that was Paul’s life, and if you are, you must leap into your calling without shame. That might be relatively easy at the beginning, but as time wears on, you will begin to see the costs of your expensive ministry hobby. I want you to know, from someone further down that path, that it is worth it. God will provide. I do not understand His ways, and I yell at Him sometimes. I have had sleepless nights when I didn’t know how I was going to pay the rent, or afford a desperately needed dental operation for Kimberly. It has not been easy, not by any stretch. But it has been good. God is good; all His ways are good. He will carry you when, by every earthly calculation, you should fall down. 

What sustains me in my service now is not the memory of the “glory years” when I was a paid, full-time worker in the Word, or some hope of getting back to that station eventually. What sustains me now is the character that was formed in me long before I was ever ordained, during my years as the hands and feet of Christ serving the Body in whatever capacity was needed. 

By the time they ordained me, I knew I wasn’t getting a coveted appointment to an indoor job with no heavy lifting. I was getting a license to serve, as I had always served — only more so. It might not be fitting to leave the ministry of the Word and prayer to serve tables, but it is sometimes necessary. You might have every right to make a living from the ministry, but in God’s providence, you might not have the ability to do so. In the context of the American church, you will be made to feel like a second-class citizen for that, and you will be tempted to scratch and claw for a “better” post with better pay. 

But no. Labor in the calling God has given you, secure in the knowledge that if you have to pay your own way, you are not the first. God will care for you, and your treasure is invested in heaven, which holds up surprisingly well when the bottom falls out of the earthly markets.

I wish you every success in your ministry. May Christ the Sun of Righteousness shine on you, and scatter the darkness from your path, and may the blessing of God Almighty—-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—abide in you and rest upon you always. 

Blessings, 

Tim Nichols


No One Dared Join Them

2 October 2021

You can find my latest essay “No One Dared Join Them” over at Theopolis.