Ride Report Spring ’14 – Saturday (Lake Toxaway, NC to HOME!)

The last day is upon us! As I mentioned in the last post, our stay in the lovely 8-room Mount Toxaway Inn left us a little bit further from home than I had planned. We covered 360 miles on Saturday. It was a long, good day of riding, but we made it home just before sunset.


We decided to head north to pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Neither of us had ever been on two wheels on the parkway, and that would set us up to go through Cherokee and the Great Smokey Mountains, and give us a decent route home.

Mount Toxaway Inn. Despite the feelings of murder, it turned out pretty nice!

Mount Toxaway Inn. Despite the feelings of murder, it turned out pretty nice!

So we load up the bikes in the morning and hit the road. John saved me a little bit of hot water. I couldn’t complain. It was more than we would have had on the side of the road with the bears!

The climb out was great. There was almost no traffic. These were ideal motorcycle roads far enough off the beaten path that we could really enjoy them. Tons of ascents and descents kept things interesting. Lots of road-side creeks and bluffs. I hope I can live near a place like this at some point in my life!

The morning was uneventful. We made good time to the Parkway.

By the way, in case you’re curious about the pictures… Most of them came from my GoPro Hero2. I tried something new this trip. I mounted it to my left auxiliary driving light. That gave it a pretty close shot at the road. For most of the run, I had it set to take a still photo every 10 seconds. The battery seems to last longer this way, and honestly it’s easier to sort through 4,000 stills than it is to watch 4 hours of video to see the good moments.

2014-04-12 10.17.29We stopped at the Cowee Mountains Overlook, elevation 5,950 feet. (Does that make the Strom a member of the mile-high club?)

A nice couple in a BMW convertible was there and told us which overlooks to make sure we stopped in. He said this was his favorite, but that everybody s topped at the highest point on the road, which was the next overlook on the left. So of course, we had to head up there and document the process, right? Pics or it didn’t happen!

2014-04-12 10.23.58

We stopped for a few minutes at the peak and then got back on the road. After all, there’s still a long way to Nashville!

This was one of my favorite parts of the trip. The combination of being well-rested and comfortable from three days of riding just made everything “click.” The Parkway has a low speed limit (45mph through here). That, combined with gentle curves and high quality road made it a really “zen” ride.

The road did throw one curve-ball at us. We were zipping along pretty good and came up on a sign that said “TUNNEL” — and before we knew it, we were in it. It wouldn’t have been a problem if it was one that you could see through to the other side, or if I wasn’t wearing sunglasses, or if I didn’t have my sun visor down…


In hindsight, I should have stood on the brakes to get my sunglasses off! Once I got inside, I couldn’t see anything except the yellow line right in front of the bike. I remembered really, really hoping that there weren’t any bicycles or critters in there. That wouldn’t have ended well.

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel! It's not a train!!

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel! It’s not a train!!

When we got out of the tunnel, John asked me if I could see anything, because the only thing he could see was my taillight! Insert something about “the blind leading the blind” right here…

I don’t remember where exactly we were, but there was one great spot where as we were coming around the mountains, you could look over the gap to your left and see a waterfall off in the distance. I think, based on the shape of the road, that we had to have passed over it (or very close) at some point, but I never saw it again. Absolutely gorgeous!

We exited the Parkway onto US-19 through Cherokee. This was good road, but very busy. We got stuck behind slow trucks several times.

Cherokee is a neat town to drive through. It’s such a strange place since they added the casinos. Some places look really, really rich.  Other places look really, really poor.

Fattening Food Foto

Fattening Food Foto

We stopped for lunch at Paul’s Diner. We ate outside near a little creek that ran down under the road and to the river across the street. John and I each tried a variation of Indian Fry-Bread. It was basically a biscuit, deep-fried. John had a taco on it, I had a burger. It was pretty good, but I’m pretty sure my arteries are now 4% more blocked than they were the day before.

We continued from here to US-441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We were excited and dreading this section of the trip. We knew the park would be busy because it was really one of the first beautiful Saturdays of the year. It was busy, but not too bad.

2014-04-12 13.21.53TN-73 was our next turn, towards Cade’s Cove. We had been on the road a couple of miles when we saw the traffic jam up ahead of us. THERE WAS A BEAR! Trip = made.

He/she was a lot closer when we passed–down by the fallen tree that’s horizontal in the picture. By the time we got off the bikes and got the camera, it was already heading back up the hill. The park ranger said it was probably a 1-year old who had just recently been kicked out of the den.

The rest of the ride through the park was uneventful, eventually dumping us out in Maryville. From there we continued on to Lenoir City where we picked up US-70 and started the long direct trip back home.


Considering I live just off US-70, a long way west of here, I was expecting this part of the ride to be a little bit dull, but it really came through. Ozone Falls was beautiful just beside the road. The farming country around Crossville and Sparta was nice.

We enjoyed not being on the interstate so much that we decided to stay on 70 all the way to Nashville. We bailed once we hit Briley Parkway, took the interstate across Nashville, stopped for a quick bite to eat, and then took 70 the rest of the way home.

I didn’t have my camera on for this stretch, after all, I’ve seen 70 between Nashville and White Bluff literally a thousand times. (That, and my memory card was full!) But it was a beautiful welcome home. Middle Tennessee was just a little bit further into spring than anywhere else we had been, so the Harpeth river on our left, the bluffs on our right, and the sunset straight ahead was hard to beat.

In total, we covered 842 miles, give or take. The bikes performed perfectly, and the riders were good enough. The weather was perfect. You couldn’t ask for a better ride. We made it home safely. It just has me wondering….where to next?

Thanks for reading!

Ride Report Spring ’14 – Friday (Benton, TN to Lake Toxaway, NC)

We planned for Friday to be the “fun” day. It definitely delivered! We covered 213 miles and 9 million curves, give or take. The Dragon’s Tail (US-129) is 318 curves in 11 miles. The math checks out, right? :)


We got a little bit of a late start. John did see a night-time visitor to the campsite. In his words, it was “bigger than a cat, smaller than a dog.” My vote is raccoon. Or really small bear… If you know anything about our past rides, you know my feelings about raccoons…

Campsite, Sweet Campsite

Campsite, Sweet Campsite

The hammocks did well for the night. It was a little bit cool. My phone showed the overnight low at 49F. We eventually broke down camp and got on the road. The plan was to head to Tellico Plains, get breakfast at the world-famous Hardee’s, hit the Cherohala Skyway, the Dragon’s tail, and see what else we could find.

It was pretty cool in the morning, but things warmed up fairly quickly. We retraced some of our steps from the previous night to make our ride a little nicer. We took TN-30 to TN-315 to Tellico.



The Skyway is always quite a bit cooler than the surrounding area. I wasn’t quite riding at my best in the morning, but John seemed to be nailing it. He dragged the pegs on the Vulcan at least twice on the Skyway. If you know the Vulcan, you know that’s pretty impressive.

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We made good time and speed across the Skyway. It’s hard not to have a little bit of fun, although occasionally you start staring off into the overlooks and scare yourself. Oops! North Carolina had a couple of State Troopers out on the Skyway. One had a sport bike pulled over. When we passed him, he just waved with a, “He got me, so he didn’t get you. You can thank me later!” sort of look.

Next stop was the Dragon’s Tail at Deal’s Gap (US-129). We decided to do a down-and back. John’s favorite road is the Skyway. Mine is the Dragon. If I had more time and money than I had sense, I’d book a hotel at the end of the dragon and ride it back and forth all week. I’m pretty sure that by the end of the week, I’d either be dead or the best rider around. It’s just fun. Friday afternoon was a good time to hit the Dragon. Traffic was pretty light. No troopers at all! (Because everyone knows that the posted limit of 30mph is a joke!)

Got a couple of good shots from Killboy and one of the other photographers:452852 452849

Have I mentioned that I like this road?

Forgive me, John, but I do have to do this… On the way in, John got a little bit happy with the rear brake. No damage, no injuries, but it did require a trip to the Tree of Shame.

2014-04-11 14.13.37 DCIM101GOPRO

2014-04-11 14.15.10Obviously – we had a good time. After a fuel stop and visit through the gift store to purchase temporary tattoos to try to scare our wives, we took to NC-28 and started heading toward Franklin, NC.

The pavement was mixed quality here; lots of patch jobs and tar snakes, but it was good, pretty road. I think it’s part of the Moonshiner’s trail section of motorcycle roads in the area. It takes you by Fontana Dam, the lake, and several different creeks and mini-waterfalls. It was great riding.

Once you hit Franklin, NC-28 joins up with US-64. This highway quickly becomes less of a highway and more of fun two-laner. There are about four roadside waterfalls you can see. The road is narrow, with the rock face so close to you that you get tempted to reach out and touch it with your hands while you ride. (I had to keep reminding myself that I had wide saddlebags on during this stretch!)

The waterfalls in this section of western North Carolina are worth the price of admission alone. If you’ve never been here, you absolutely need to. The only point of confusion–the names of the waterfalls on the maps doesn’t match what locals call them. I asked people in a gas station where Quarry Falls was. They didn’t know what it was until I showed them my map. They told me I was looking for “Bust Your Butt” falls. Oops!

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This place is really good. You could probably spend all day in this 10 mile stretch of road just taking it all in. If you can only hit two, Dry Falls and Bridal Veil were the neatest. Anytime you get to go underneath a water fall, you get a front-row seat to one of the coolest things in creation.

From here, we continued to Highlands. This town sort of reminded me of Estes Park or a little ski town with lots of little upscale shops. Unfortunately it was also the sort of town where the sidewalks close at 9. We found The Pizza Place (elevation 4,118 feet) and stopped in for calzones. We hadn’t quite planned on the altitude and the temperature difference, so during dinner, we started looking over options.

We thought we found some campgrounds past Cashiers, so we got on the roads. Unfortunately most of the campgrounds we saw on google were either RV/trailer parks or closed or had no facilities. We got pretty cold, and it was getting dark, so we ended up bailing to the Mount Toxaway Inn.

I think my Facebook post described it pretty well…


We passed the hotel and turned around to come back to it. When we got there (about 9pm), the lights were off and there was a sign on the office door that said “If we’re gone, call…”

2014-04-12 09.02.29John grabbed his cell phone (he had better service than I), and dialed the number. We got a little bit worried that we were stuck when we could hear the phone ringing in the office. Eventually someone answered and said he’d be down in a few minutes. While we waited, it was really incredible–total silence. I couldn’t hear an air conditioner, car, or anything. It was totally dark in that way that you only get in the mountains.

Eventually the manager came out and let us in. We got one of the 8 rooms and were grateful for it. The hotel was actually fairly nice. It was perfectly clean, just a little bit dated. (For example, the microwave and the TV were roughly the same size.) The checkout procedure was awesome: leave by 10, and leave your key on the dresser.

It was a good day. We were both definitely tired and looking forward to a soft bed and hot showers for the long trip home. We ended the day a little bit further east and south than I had planned. (I think we were less than 10 miles from the South Carolina border.) I have to admit, we talked about calling in sick for Sunday to go to the beach, since were close, but I figured since had already posted to Facebook about where we were… :)

When you look at the map, you know it’s going to be a good day when you almost never leave “green” areas. We were in national forests or parks almost all day. I can’t argue with that!

Saturday’s report is coming soon! :)

Ride Report Spring ’14 – Thursday (White Bluff, TN to Benton, TN)

John and I got together for a quick 3-day road trip a couple of weekends ago. I thought I’d share some of the good stuff from the trip. We covered 842 miles in 3 days. John was on a 93 Vulcan 500 (my old bike). I was on my 04 V-Strom 1000. This was my first ‘long tour’ on the bike, so I was excited to see how she did for multiple days…

Thursday: 269 Miles: White Bluff, TN to Benton, TN

Thursday - Part 1

We got a pretty good start on Thursday morning. Had an unexpected change of plans for the babysitter, so I was a little bit late getting on the road. I met John in Burns, we fueled, and then headed to I-40 and TN-840.

Now we know how Jim Cantore feels...

Now we know how Jim Cantore feels…

We took 840 to try to get some distance knocked out quickly. There wasn’t tons of traffic, but the wind was awful. This was the first time I had ridden the Strom fully-configured (with all the hard bags) in wind, and I hadn’t anticipated just how much it would catch. It was the sort of gusty wind that causes you to change lanes without planning on it. By the time we had gone twenty miles, we already had a lady on a phone in an SUV try to take me out. I was beginning to wonder if this was a good plan or not! The bikes were loaded, so we kept on going!

Better than it looked!

Better than it looked!

We took TN-840 to I-24 towards Murfreesboro. We picked up US-70S towards McMinnville, and stopped there for lunch at a Mexican place–La Cazona. It didn’t look like much, but they had some of the best chips I’ve had in a long time.
We picked up TN-80 towards Athens via Pikeville and Dayton. If you haven’t ridden through here, it’s good stuff–some switchbacks, and great views. A few logging trucks got in the way, but nothing major. We made it to Athens and then took TN-39 to Englewood to stop and see where my grandparents used to live. Englewood, TN

After a quick photo stop, we took US-411 to the Hiwasee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park. (Talk about a park that needs a better name. Descriptive? Yes. Memorable? No). We camped for the night. The campground was almost empty. I think there were more rangers than campers. The rangers were super helpful. One delivered wood to our site and gave us tips about what roads to hit. Everything was beautiful and green, nice and in bloom.

The ranger’s tips were great, but unfortunately, John and I didn’t remember the details of which roads to go on exactly, so we just sort of explored and meandered it worked out great–mostly.


We left the park and headed south on US-411, picked up TN-30. We drove alongside the Hiwasee down through Reliance and Chilhowee at US-74/US-64. John saw a sign for the Chilhowee Overlook and we decided to give it a shot. This was one of the best decisions of the trip:

We stopped here and made some phone calls to gloat about how pretty it was. After a while, it was getting pretty close to sunset, and we still needed to hit a grocery store if we were going to eat tonight, so I asked the GPS what the quickest way back to Benton was. Low and behold, this nice, paved, twisty, overlook road connects back very close to 411. “Let’s try it,” I said!

We did well, until we got to this turn…


“This doesn’t look so bad! Let’s try it!”

The Strom is set up pretty well for this…not so the Vulcan! But John and I decided to give it a whirl. After all, the GPS said it was only .6 miles until the next turn.

That was all well and good until we got to the next turn…



Turning around didn’t seem like a viable option, and the Vulcan was hanging on great, so we decided to keep going. I didn’t feel the need to tell John that the GPS now said it was 7 miles until the next turn, leading me to think that this would be the norm for several more miles. Fortunately for his rear tire, which is totally a sport/touring tire with 10% tread left, the GPS lied. We only had about 2 more miles of gravel, but it was good!

We finally made our way to the Family Dollar in Benton and back to the campsite. We had a gourmet three-course dinner: gas-station style ice cream cones, Ramen noodles, and a chicken/corn/carrot hobo dinner. The hammocks were up and ready to go. Day one was a success!

A Good Death?

They say that two things are certain: death and taxes. April 15th has come and gone. We’ve paid our taxes or filed our extensions—delaying the inevitable.

Death comes to us all. It is the great equalizer. The rich man in a mansion and the poor man on the street corner both end up in a six foot hole in the dirt. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”

Death may equalize us, but not all deaths are equal. A nurse worked with a well-known atheist at his death. Shortly after she served a Christian in his last hours. She knew neither patient but asked the Christian’s family, “Is this man a Christian?” They responded by saying, “Yes, he is a man who lives in the fear of God, but why do you ask?” Her answer:  “For all the wealth of Europe, I would never see another infidel die.”

She stared in the face the difference between someone who had hope in death and someone who had none. She would have been glad never to see hopelessness again.

As we think about the sacrifice of Jesus, we see in him the ultimate “good death.” No one took his life—he gave it willingly. He didn’t go kicking and screaming. He didn’t plead for an appeal or a second chance. He didn’t raise an angry fist to God and say, “This isn’t fair!” He didn’t bargain or try to bribe his way out of it. Instead, he carried his cross and he gave his life for you and for me. His death was so special that even the executioners couldn’t help but notice. “This was a righteous man!” “Truly this was the Son of God!”

Jesus showed us the path to a good death. As he hung on the cross, he quoted scripture that directed him in life and sustained him in death: Psalm 31:5 “Into your hand I commit my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”

Want to live a good life and die a good death? Commit your spirit to the faithful redeeming hand of God.

Not Everything Is True

I was reading John to get ready for our Wednesday night class last week and got to the story where Judas is angry because Mary “wasted” expensive ointment on the feet of Jesus. He argued that the money could have been used for the poor, instead.

John 12:6 stood out to me as the narrator gives us a peek into Judas’ heart: “He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put in it.”

Judas said he cared about the poor. Judas actually cared about himself.

There’s an important principle: what we say is not always what we mean. Sometimes people don’t tell the truth.

This is obvious. Of course people don’t tell the truth! Lies abound. What’s the joke? How can you tell if a politician is lying? His lips are moving! But here’s the thing: if we’re not aware of this principle, we might do it ourselves.

I can say, “I am speaking the truth in love.” But that statement does not guarantee that I am either speaking truthfully or lovingly. Sometimes that label (“truth in love”) has been slapped on statements that are decidedly not true. Other times the problem comes with the attitude. It may be true, but it is certainly not acting in love. What makes this even harder is that true things that need to be said because of love are sometimes very hard and very painful to say or to hear.

So before you say that you speak truth in love, take a moment and make sure that’s really what’s going on.

Tech Tip: Buy a UPS – a Battery Backup

Sunday got me motivated to get an Uninterruptable Power Supply set up for our projector and computer in the auditorium at church.

We had a brief power outage Sunday morning. The projector, projector computer, audio recording computer, sound board, amplifier, and microphones all cycled out. The outage was less than ten seconds, but it was enough of a distraction to throw me off for a few minutes.

We hadn’t installed a UPS on the system in the past. We had talked about it, but hadn’t gotten around to it. We’ve got plans in place to get one in ASAP.

Interested in getting one? Here’s what you might need to know.

First, figure out how much power you need.

Calculate the wattage of your equipment and you’ll be able to figure out exactly what you need. Almost anything electrical will have a wattage rating somewhere on it. For us…

  • Projector Computer: 300 watts max
  • Projector: 350 watts max
  • Sound board: 20 watts
  • Amplifier: 200 watts

Our total is 870 watts with everything at max power. For what it’s worth, very seldom does this equipment draw anywhere close to max power. There’s a great little device called a “Kill a Watt” that you can get online or at places like Harbor Freight. Plug it into the wall, plug your equipment into it, and it will tell you exactly how much energy it uses in watts. This is a great way to check your math.  Don’t forget, though, that some equipment uses significantly more power when first turned on than during normal use, so you want to watch those numbers carefully.

Only include what you need to keep up and running during a brief outage. Is it okay with me if the monitors go out for a few seconds? Sure. They’ll be back on in less than 10 seconds when the power comes up.

My main concerns were the computers, projector, and sound system.

The projector takes a minute or two to cool down and a minute or two to come back up. The computer might take 5 minutes to come back up if it needs to “scan and repair” as they sometimes do after an improper shutdown. Don’t forget to count the time it takes to open your PowerPoint, find the right spot in the file, etc.

Select a UPS unit based on watt rating

I did a quick search on Amazon. For $150, shipped, there is a 900 watt UPS. That would cover everything I need with some wiggle room. I could get two smaller units and divide out the equipment if that worked better based on my wiring, too. They have a 1,200 watt unit for $198 that would cover my audio recording computer and the LCD monitors, too.


It’s easy. Plug in the UPS to the wall. Plug your equipment into the UPS. Turn it on.

Really, that’s it!

Final thoughts

Seriously, it’s easy. There’s no good reason for you not to do it.


As an added bonus, many (most?) of the units out there include some sort of insurance. If your equipment is damaged by an electrical surge when properly installed and plugged in to the unit, they may even pay for replacement. Many of us work at churches with very high deductibles on the insurance policy, so this can be a big help.

When the power flickered, because I could see the sound guys running around trying to fix things, I was probably distracted for a couple of minutes. We had 122 at worship that morning. Every minute I speak takes two hours of the collective group’s life.

I don’t want to waste two minutes (4 hours!) because of a 2 second power blip.

This stuff won’t keep your equipment on indefinitely, but it’s likely to get you through most of the quick outages we face.

Hope this saves you some headache! Go buy a UPS!


The Book Review that Might Get Me Excommunicated

muscle-shovelIf you’re a member of churches of Christ, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about Michael Shank’s Muscle and a Shovel. It has gathered more attention than anything like it in recent memory. He has sold more than 67,000 copies—a real feat since most self-published books don’t move more than a hundred units.

Michael Shank’s book has been riding an incredible wave of popularity in recent months. The Christian Chronicle published a story about the “thousands of baptisms” connected to the book. I personally know of several churches that have purchased cases to hand out for evangelism. Reviewers say things like, “If I could only have one other book besides the Bible, this would be my choice.”

My title gives my position away, but I am not convinced this is the book we ought to hold up as the number two to scripture. I have several serious concerns that I feel obligated to share. When I hear nothing but positive reviews of something, it can be a warning sign that we’ve joined a bandwagon rather than really thinking critically about something.

Let’s start with the good:

Shank tells a good story.

Honestly, the literary quality is average at best, but the story is an interesting one. We like to peek behind the curtain of other people’s brains and witness what goes on in their heads and hearts, particularly in regard to religion. (Don’t believe me? Notice how popular Heaven is For Real, The Shack, and many others are?) We like it even more when it is a story that lines up with our expectations. This is a story of “our people” and in every turn, “we” are right. Of course we’re going to like it!

Shank also has many biblical conclusions. I wouldn’t argue with many (most?) of the points he makes. There is something beautiful about baptism that is lost on many in our religious world. He does a great job of demonstrating the necessity of making faith your own—understanding what and why we believe.

He helps us see the foolishness of biblical illiteracy and dependence on religious leaders. It’s a great thing to search the scriptures, and he shows us that. He encourages us to think critically about why we make the religious decisions that we do. He even helps us think about our hermeneutics: how do we interpret and apply the Bible?

But unfortunately, that’s not what the book is known for.

The bad:

My biggest concern has to do with the general attitude and tone of the book.

Yes, I know that Shank can point to “thousands” of baptisms as proof of the efficacy of his methods. Benny Hinn can point to tens of millions of viewers worldwide and donations for a $36 million dollar jet. Neither Shank nor I would validate Benny’s ministry on that basis. If I had to guess, Shank would point to 2 Timothy 4:3 and warn about itching ears. Isn’t it possible that the same could apply to Shank? Or me?

Conservatives are not immune to that possibility. We are quick to recognize “liberals” as people who want to be placated, but I have known conservatives who have the same desires! If you are a member of churches of Christ, what in this book confronted you? Did anything? If there wasn’t anything, that’s a good indicator that it might be tickling your ears.

Shank’s book presents itself as a precisely factual retelling of his conversion story. He makes that very clear throughout the book. He goes into detail to explain the notecards and journals he kept so that he would get it right, but there are some inconsistencies that worry me.

In one moment, he doesn’t know what baptism means. In the next, he’s researching Calvinism at the public library? Nothing in the story would have motivated that research up until this point. In one moment, he is totally biblically ignorant, but in the next, he’s debating like a School of Preaching graduate. It makes the claims of accuracy a little bit tough to swallow. The book to me feels like it is an account that is “enhanced” – whether unintentionally by the foibles of memory or intentionally to make the story more powerful.

I’ve known a lot of ministers in a lot of different faiths. I’m friends with several Baptist pastors. Not a single one would answer the question of the origin of the Baptist church like he claims that every single one did in this story. Their answers sound exactly like the straw-men we set up to knock down, not like any human being that I know. (I’ll grant that it’s possible that Shank had the misfortune of meeting the worst of the worst, but I’m not convinced…)

I can’t help but think that this is an account that is remembered a little bit differently than it happened.

Shank is quick to lampoon others for ignoring context, but he blatantly ignores context right and left.

Early in the book he argues against “faith only” righteousness in Ephesians 2. He explains away Ephesians 2 by saying that Ephesians is a book dealing with people who were trying to bind the old law and circumcision on believers. The problem? That’s the summary of Galatians, not Ephesians.

He repeatedly quotes 1 Peter 3:15, a passage that he makes to mean, “You have to be able to give scripture for every practice of your church.” Is it a good and right thing to explain the authority by which we act in our churches? Absolutely. But this passage does not teach that. If you read anything in 1 Peter, you see that Peter is writing to the dispersed people who are being persecuted for their faith. When Christians are slandered, they don’t lash out like most people would expect. Peter tells them to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within them. That’s a pretty big difference—especially for a book that assumes that anyone else who takes a scripture out of context is intentionally misusing the text. I don’t honor truth by using bad reasoning to get to it.

The attitude in the book troubles me. He over-simplifies issues that have been the subject of two millennia of debates. He accuses people who don’t fall on his side of the issue of being intellectually dishonest or incapable. Let me rephrase that: if you don’t agree with Shank, he’d say it’s because you’re lazy, a liar, or dumb. You haven’t used any muscle and shovel. That’s not a charitable position by any means.

Is that what you want to win people with? Is that what you want to win people to?

It is true that there are lazy and dishonest people. But “they” don’t have a monopoly on that market. “We” have plenty of them, too. We really ought to be careful before we call everyone else in the religious world a stupid liar!

Another point of concern: Shank’s entire study and conversion experience focuses on the doctrines of the church. There is almost no emphasis on attitude and behavior. He virtually ignores the topic of grace except to warn against misusing it. (Kindle says that the word grace appears 44 times. Fewer than 8 of them occur without the words “falling,” “obedience”, or some sort of refutation of grace only.) He warns about many false churches, but Christianity without grace is not biblical Christianity!

Jesus said that the identifying mark of his disciples would be their love (John 13:35), yet the book seems to delight in retelling the fact that he enjoyed swearing at Baptist pastors in his head. Do you really expect to teach a Baptist friend anything in the paragraph after the author calls him a pompous a—? Yeah right! Paul said that we must speak truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Without love, we’re just a loud racket that accomplishes nothing! (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

Shank’s idea of the distinctiveness of the church is based around congregational government and doctrine. Those things matter, but the main thing has to be the main thing. Where was the first and greatest commandment? Where was the golden rule? Where was the Sermon on the Mount? Why was there no emphasis on what Jesus emphasized?

Shank’s character in the book says he doesn’t buy the “we’re the only ones going to heaven” line. That makes people feel good. But then the book teaches: “From my understanding of God’s Word, if you’re a member of a denomination, whether it be Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Mormon, or any church that Jesus Christ did not establish and buy with His blood, there’s no question that you’re headed towards eternal destruction.”

Shank totally misses the difference between a flawed local congregation and the universal, ultimate body of Christ. Every group with a name is a denomination—like it or not. The word “denomination” means a group separated by a name. The Bible is clearly against division (see John 17, 1 Corinthians 3, etc.), but there is a difference between division and denomination. Even the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3 are recognized and identified by name.

I think the Bible teaches the significance of baptism, so you could call me a Baptist. The Bible describes elders or presbyters or bishops who guide the church, so you could call me a Presbyterian or an Episcopalian. I want to be a person who follows the methods of Jesus, so you could call me a Methodist. Acts 2 describes the birth of the church on Pentecost, so you could call me a Pentecostal. I believe that the church transcends borders of nations, languages, and time, so it is fair to call me a Catholic Christian. Orthodoxy (and orthopraxy) are important to me, so you can call me an Orthodox. I have been “grafted in” to true Israel of God (Romans 11:24, Galatians 6:16) so you could call me a Jew.

You can call me all of those things, but really, I’d prefer you call me Matthew. And I hope you know that I’m a Christian.

Is it good that there are so many religious divisions in a city today? No. Do the names on the buildings communicate something? Of course. But Shank misses the point: we need to make sure we are members of Christ’s church and in community with Christ’s people. Sitting at a building with the sign “Church of Christ” saves you no more than sitting at a building with the sign “Christian Church” damns you.

My salvation is not negated by the fact that people with whom I worship misunderstand something about God. I am not automatically damned because my preacher is wrong about something. If this were true, we would all be lost. I know everybody in the congregation where I preach would be.

Shank claims that he has given us “plain Bible teaching with no human opinions.” He says that his book contains “no personal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.”

That’s great rhetoric, but it isn’t true. If this book were nothing but the Bible, it would be the Bible. It’s not. It’s Muscle and a Shovel. It’s Michael Shank.

I don’t have a problem with books. I have a problem with books pretending that they’re something they aren’t. We are all interpreters! Sometimes we are good interpreters. Sometimes we are bad interpreters. To claim that we aren’t is disingenuous at best.

The same restoration leaders who encouraged us to speak where the Bible speaks and be silent in its silence also reminded us, “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” While we don’t all agree on what constitutes essential and non-essential, we can agree on a definition of “all things.” Before I’m comfortable with a book like this, I need to see more charity.

Muscle and a Shovel came across to me as one proud man’s conversion story. It was the roller coaster ride of his highs and lows through religious searching. There’s plenty to learn from him. But let’s not make his story or his method become the method.

Final thoughts

I want to be very clear about this: I’m grateful to be a member and minister in the church of Christ. I’m grateful for my church home. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be, but we are absolutely not perfect, so I want to be careful about making it sound like we are.

If you’re a member, you might enjoy reading the book. I think you can learn from it. I wouldn’t even mind using it for a class—as long as it was open as a case study of what is healthy and what isn’t.

I cannot recommend giving it to non-religious strangers. I can’t recommend giving it to religious friends in other groups, unless there is a very strong, open, and candid relationship that can work through positive and negative ideas. Without that, this book is very likely to be offensive. I don’t believe that it is likely to be a “productive” offensive, either.

Overall, I can’t recommend Muscle and a Shovel. There are more balanced, healthier approaches to evangelism than this book. There are better studies of theology than this book. And there are better stories than this book.

Shank says that thousands have been baptized because of this book. I’m not sure I think that’s the case. After reading it, my assumption is that if thousands were baptized as a result, millions of others may have been permanently turned away. I’m afraid we’re going to deal with the negative publicity of this book for decades to come.

Spiritual Sickness: Allergies and AIDS

This post is taken from a recent sermon on our “Spiritual Sicknesses Series.”

Living spiritually can be really tough! Peter’s warning is sobering: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)

1peter5-8Paul gives us a little more encouragement, but it’s still a warning: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to main. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

God has designed our physical bodies in an amazing way. He has given us immune systems to help us identify and respond to the threats that surround us constantly. Our immune systems literally keep us alive, but they can mess up in a couple of serious ways.

The immune system can get messed up by over-reaction. We call that allergies. A little piece of Tennessee pollen floats into my nose, and my immune system is pretty sure it’s actually anthrax riding on an ebola cloud, so it goes DEFCON 1 and starts trying to sneeze it out however it can.

It also messes up by under-reaction. That’s the main result of AIDS. The immune system pretty well dies and lets everything in, no questions asked.

God gives Christians a “spiritual immune system.” Here are a few components:

Fellowship. The community of God’s people is a great self-defense system. It helps me think about what is right and what is wrong.

In the congregational community, you’ll find someone who can recognize the same things that have hurt you. We have recovering addicts. We have people who have suffered losses—and survived. We have people who have people who have been through divorce and people who have managed to put the pieces back together. We have doubeters!

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 is just great: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

Another defense system is prayer.

Someone once said that prayer is a good test for behavior. If I can’t pray for it, I shouldn’t do it.

Prayer also strengthens us. Right before his arrest, Jesus told his disciples, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation! The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)

Discernment is another defense system 1 John 4:1 and Hebrews 5:14 talk about this skill. We learn to tell what is good for us and what is bad for us.

Discernment is the spiritual version of “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!” It is the ability to tell what is right and wrong.

Conscience is one last piece of the spiritual immune system. It’s the “check engine” light on the dashboard of our souls.

It can be very helpful, but just like our body’s self-defense system, it can go wrong.

There’s a preacher-story about conscience. A man wrote the IRS a letter and enclosed a check. “I can’t sleep,” he said, “so I’ve written you a check for $50 for what I owe you in taxes. If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send you the rest.”

The Middle Road

It is vitally important that our immune systems be well-tuned. Over-reactions can destroy us. Allergies cause us to respond to pollen like it was ebola. AIDS causes every invader in the world to be successful. These tools keep our immune systems in balance.

An Overactive Consciencesneezing-woman-with-allergies

When our spiritual immune system has allergies, it sees things that are okay and over-reacts. It is a conscience that is easily provoked. A person like this worries a lot, and likely judges others a lot.

The Bible describes this condition in a way you might not expect. It calls an over-active conscience a weak conscience. Check out 1 Corinthians 8:7-13. It talks about eating meat sacrificed to idols. People with knowledge understand that it doesn’t matter if the grill says Webber or Zeus—the hamburger is still just hamburger. But people who came out of idolatry might have an over-active conscience that won’t allow them to eat that meat.  Paul says that he would never eat meat if it would offend that weak conscience brother.

searAn Underactive Conscience

The opposite condition is described in 1 Timothy 4:1-5. This conscience isn’t called weak; it’s called seared. It’s been char-broiled and it has a thick skin. It doesn’t notice anything, even if it is a severe threat. Paul says that people in this condition encountered it because of insincere liars, deceitful spirits, and the teachings of demons.

Spurgeon described the tragedy of this condition powerfully:

It is a very terrible thing to let conscience begin to grow hard, for it soon chills into northern iron and steel. It is like the freezing of a pond. The first film of ice is scarcely perceptible; keep the water stirring and you will prevent the frost from hardening it; but once let it film over and remain quiet, the glaze thickens over the surface, and it thickens still, and at last it is so firm that a wagon might be drawn over the solid ice. So with conscience, it films over gradually, until at last it becomes hard and unfeeling, and is not crushed even with ponderous loads of iniquity.

Paul gave Timothy and us some great instructions. He told him that “the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1:5)

Hurt People Hurt People

The cliché is true. When we have been hurt by others, we tend to become people who “share” our pain by inflicting it on the people around us. Hurt people truly hurt people.

Do you know when the last person died because of World War II? January. Yes, this January! January 4, 2014. Undetected, undetonated explosives triggered an accident that killed one and wounded thirteen in Euskirchen, Germany.

Do you know when the last person died because of World War I? Two weeks ago! It’s the same basic story. A bomb lay dormant for a century near Flanders fields in Belgium. It killed two construction workers.

Do you know when the last person died because of the American Civil War? It’s practically ancient history compared to the other two stories. It was in May of 2008, more than 140 years after the Appomattox Courthouse surrender.  Sam White was restoring a cannon ball he had found. Something went wrong. The antique explosive was still powerful enough to send shrapnel over a quarter of a mile.

Each of these wars has long been over. The last World War I veteran died in February of 2012. To schoolchildren today, these are stories from the history books. Despite the passage of time, explosives still remain, ironically becoming more unstable as time passes.

icebergThese bombs make a pretty good analogy for how hurt people operate. Sometimes our wars are long past, but relics from our history show up and hurt the people close to us. We might not be fighting anymore, but the weapons are still within reach. Sometimes we’re not even aware that they’re buried where they are. Sometimes people can trigger those explosions without even realizing it. Hurt people hurt people. We need to be aware of the long-lasting effects of our pain and be on guard against these unseen dangers!

Spiritual Sickness: Cancer

This post is taken from a recent sermon on our “Spiritual Sicknesses Series.”

Cancer is horrible.cancer

One of the things that makes cancer so awful is that it is, effectively, us!

Cancer is what happens when a tiny part of you makes a copy of itself. But instead of stopping after one copy, the cellular gas pedal gets stuck and like some deranged Energizer Bunny, it keeps going and going and going and… Eventually these cells become the tumors which strangle the life of out of the rest of your body.

Cancer is hard to treat. Almost anything that will kill cancer will kill you. It hides. It feeds off the same systems that feed you. It spreads.

Can you think of a spiritual condition that this is like?

2 Timothy 2:14-19 describes people who constantly quarrel about words, who speak irreverent babble, who lead to ungodliness and division, who swerve from the faith, and upset the faith of some. Paul told Timothy that their “talk will spread like gangrene.”

He is describing people with an argumentative heart.

It’s a simple mutation. It’s a good thing to stand up for what is right. But when the devil pushes the gas pedal on a virtue, he turns it into a vice. Righteousness is only four letters away from self-righteousness. It begins taking over a person, and Paul warns Timothy to make sure it doesn’t take over a church.

There’s another example in Hebrews 12:12-17. The Hebrews author warns about a “root of bitterness” that can spring up and destroy people.

Is it natural to be upset when you’re wronged? Absolutely. Remember that Jesus got angry from time to time.

But what happens when the devil pushes the gas on that feeling? It takes over. And it can be deadly.

We have to be careful to examine our hearts. Jeremiah 17:9 says that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” Matthew 15:19 says that from “the heart come evil thoughts” like murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander. These things take over.

The easiest time to deal with cancer is when it is first formed, before it can spread. The same is true with spiritual cancers. It is easier to excise a little bitterness from your heart today than it is to try to force forgiveness in twenty years.

When you are diagnosed with a physical cancer, your life depends on the doctors acting act quickly and decisively. The same is true of the soul!