Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Is Christian Education, Well, Christian?


A few preliminaries. First, I have been involved, at some personal cost, in the starting up of a Christian school, had many dealings with a Christian school board, and watched the products of Christian education from my youth up.

We have also, briefly, home schooled our children. Now, they are in public schools. Some of you will cry "Ichabod," I know. More on that to follow.

I have also been, in the past, a total Christian and home school partisan. But, life is rarely simple, and God mercifully does not leave us with unexamined prejudices, if we are his children.

My contention is this: the modern Christian education movement, for its many strengths, remains, at this point in its young history, sub-Christian.

This is not a curricular matter, necessarily, though it can be. It is not a matter as to whether one adopts the classical model or not --which is a good model, after all.

It is not so much about content as it is about ethos, and ethos is a slippery thing to critique, because it is often a matter of unspoken, unexamined presuppositions. My purpose in this is to help advocates of Christian schools examine their presuppositions, and right the ship. This nation would be enormously benefited in perhaps no greater way than to have real, robust Christian schools.

The first thing Christian schools need to do is forget about vouchers. Vouchers are bad news. The experience (and probably the precedent) of Grove City College v. Bell (of which my alma mater Hillsdale College was also a victim) means that any money that passes through federal hands is federal money, and that comes with federal mandates. Private schools do not want to kowtow to federal mandates. God will supply all the money to do all that he intends for us to do, if we are faithful to ask him, and trusting him ourselves by our sacrificial giving.

The second thing Christian schools need to do is to endeavor to cease being the province of rich Caucasians. Christ's kingdom did not consist only of those people who could afford to breathe the rarefied air. If the Christian school is at all like Christ, should it not be reaching out to the least of these --raising money to pull kids out of failing inner city public schools? The objections inevitably are, "Where does the money come from?" "But, 'they' don't know how to behave, have the home life, etc etc." That is racist code, in case you don't speak White. Do we sound like a bunch of pre-resurrection disciples or what? Faith endeavors require faith --surprise, surprise.

If Christian schools are comfortably the province only of the wealthy and white, they aren't Christian, quite simply because they aren't ministering like Christ did.

The third thing Christian schools need to do is to stop simply ministering to the academically excellent. How often do Christian school boards say, "We need to make a choice: minister to the academically gifted, or the academically challenged. We choose the gifted." Who would Jesus have chose? I think we know the answer to that. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are few and far between. It is excused by shortage of resources, etc, to which Jesus may just say, "Why are you discussing among yourselves that you have no bread?..you have not because you do not ask, and when you ask, you ask wrongly." Faith moves mountains; it can certainly fund schools. Where is the faith?

The fourth thing Christian schools need to do is to ask themselves what percentage of their graduates are actually vibrant, productive Christians. How often schools protest that this is not their job. But, if they claim to be a Christian school, then of course it is their job to make every effort to see that their graduates are living for Christ; if they don't see this as their job, then why take the name Christian? It is not exclusively their job: parents and church share the responsibility. But, if Christian schools are not graduating Christians, then the school ought to do some real soul-searching, and examination of priorities. If our goal is to graduate Christians, and we are not, why not? Now, of course, only God can change the heart. But, this in no way lessens the school's responsibility to gear its entire ethos towards the conversion of its pupils.

The fifth thing Christian schools need to do is to abandon the covenantal model. That's right. You heard me, loud and clear. The alternatives are not just "Covenantal" or "no standards." The third way is the evangelistic model: where it is clearly set before parents and pupils: this is what is taught, this is the discipline that is practiced. If you are willing to abide by these standards, and submit to this discipline, then we will take you, regardless of belief.

The covenantal model fails because it is simply flawed theology. The fact that one parent can give a testimony does not at all indicate that the family is living for Christ, only that one parent believes him or herself to be a Christian. It does not at all judge whether the child is a Christian or whether the parent is bringing that child up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. It teaches us that the New Covenant is an externalized thing, which is a lie that destroys entire denominations. If the school keeps the gospel at the center, establishes prayer as a fundamental feature of its community life among faculty, board, and parents, it could be a powerful force for the gospel. But, to do this, it must seek people outside "the covenant." This, after all, is what Jesus did. If a school is to be Christ-ian, should it not be like Christ?

So, our children are in public schools. I would not put them in public schools everywhere. But, in our situation, the public schools are excellent and Christian friendly. We have had teachers and administrators freely share their faith. Our son came home and announced, "'Jingle Bells' is not a Christmas song. It is a winter song. It is secular, not sacred. He is quite adamant, now, about our choice of Christmas music." He learned this in music class. Our daughter's class read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

Our eldest has had significant learning challenges due to a recalcitrant form of epilepsy. We had her in Christian schools in our previous charge. They tried their best (well, at least one teacher and one aide (both dear family friends) did), but were inadequate to address all her needs (and we did not know the full extent of her problems, either). In our public school, she has received the best of personal care and attention from loving teachers, many (if not all) of whom are outspoken Christians. She has received occupational therapy, speech therapy, and educational help. She has been loved and ministered unto. We suggested an educational aid to them (phonetic reading by the Barton method), and they got it approved and now use it throughout the district. They have been most responsive to parental concerns.

I am not naive enough to think that this is not an exception to the rule. But, praise God for the exceptions. I also realize full well that this is not the same as a comprehensive world-and-life-view curriculum. But, that, after all, is the responsibility of the parents. And, one is left to ask, if the Christian schools are sub-Christian in significant ways, and the local public school is at least Christian friendly, which choice may be better for my children?

The school of the wealthy and white that bears the name Christian may lead my children to think that being Christian is the same as being wealthy and white. At least in the public school, the battle lines are clearly drawn. My children know and challenge things they are taught that don't comport with what they believe. And, they do this at 11 and 8 years of age. My eight year old son has non-churchgoing friends to whom he speaks, fearlessly, about God, the Bible, and Jesus, who he invites to church, and for whom he prays regularly. I pray he doesn't lose that heart for his lost friends. I think he would, were he in a "covenantal" situation, where "everyone" is a "Christian."

Thoughts?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Of Statesmen, Scholars, Soldiers and Spark Plugs

Samuel Rutherford. Edmund Burke. George Washington. John Adams.

Each of the above contributed in a unique way to the Founding of the American Republic. Each was unique --a type. Rutherford laid the intellectual foundations for "a republic of laws and not of men." Burke modeled statesmenship --a principled conservatism that argued (contra Lord North, and the idiot king George III) for the rights of free Englishmen, wherever they happened to reside. Adams, by sheer force of intellect, will and obnoxiousness, goaded a recalcitrant Continental Congress towards Independence (if you haven't seen William Daniels in 1776, or the excellent HBO biopic on Adams, or read McCullough, you simply must!)

Each of these represents a type --not without some overlap to be sure. Scholar. Statesman. Soldier. Spark-plug (or firebrand, but it didn't start with S). One can think of other colonial figures who would fit these categories: Henry the firebrand, etc. Often, this bred intense dislike and rivalry between these men (Jefferson and Henry, Jefferson and Adams, Hamilton and Adams) etc etc.

Which leads me to the church. God gives us all sorts of types. Paul was different from Peter was different from Apollos, and on and on. And, thus, life is often difficult.

In the current REformed milieu, we have all these types, given to us by God. And, it makes us somewhat tense. I would put myself more in the spark plug category, incidentally.

The statesmen wonder what the spark plugs are all worked up about this week, and why everything is such a big deal, and needs to be dealt with immediately.

The spark plugs think the statesmen are far to moderate and accommodating of sin and error, and far too captive to the culture.

Both spark plug and statesmen think the scholars are too detached from the reality of life in the war.

And the scholars think the spark plugs are overly simplistic and incautious, and the statesmen are overly simplistic, and too cautious.

Meanwhile, the soldiers keep their heads low, march where they are ordered, plead for more troops for the battle, for better rations and uniforms, for more armaments, and are fighting the war. They are inspired by the statesmen and spark plugs, and fed by the scholars.

Thoughts?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Theological Self-Critique















NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms...

Yesterday, I taught a church history Sunday School class on John Wesley. As I prepared it, and even as I taught it, some things finally came together in my mind. The relative youth of the New Calvinism is leading to a fair amount of immaturity among new Calvinists, which is unfortunately stoked by crude caricatures promulgated by older Calvinists.

This unhelpful trend is fueled by Radio discussion programs that are one extended snarky, smarmy inside theological joke (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean), the oversimplified view of Arminianism as if it were one monolithic Pelagian heretical movement, etc etc ad nauseam.

The great danger of this is when younger believers or the children of the young Calvinists start to peek behind the theological curtain, and, to mix a metaphor, begin to see that the emperor has less clothes on than heretofore thought. It is this, I think, that is partially fueling the "progressive" party of the PCA, pressing men really out of evangelicalism, and I repent for whatever part I have played in that in the past.

The straw man will not, I pray, be the death of the resurgent Calvinism. I am praying that our better lights prevail (and I would put Piper at the head of that list, but also Mohler, Ferguson, Keller, and Begg). These men are moderate in the right ways, have the wisdom of age, and understand how to keep the primary things primary. The test will come, I predict, when the movement is in the hands of younger men.

What we need is a warm-hearted Reformed evangelicalism, such as Murray describes in his book The Old Evangelicalism.

And, thus the importance of theological self-critique. I have not one doubt about the Reformed faith. I have many doubts about how it is practiced, enforced, and held, as if we had the right answers not only on theology, but also practice, and were doing a fantastic job of reaching the lost and engaging the culture. And, it is practice where we fall far short --a serious sin.

Why do we not have the missionary fire of the early Moravians? Why not the blessed kingdom productivity and zeal for good works of the early Methodists? Why are we not able to bridge racial, cultural, and economic divides like the Pentecostals?

Perhaps, I think, because we spend so much energy critiquing these folks, sneering down our theological noses at them, making circular, nonsensical arguments their positions (particularly continuationism), wrongly pegging Wesley as if he were a Pelagian, and dismissing the Moravians and their one-hundred-year prayer meeting, simple lifestyle, openhanded generosity, and fervent holiness as "pietism."

The Reformed world needs to wake up. We are so dead, and I doubt we even know it. We love to be right, and are satisfied with our rightness. Most of our efforts are aimed at self-preservation. The activities of our courts, and our boundary markers are excessively punctiliar. All our effort, it seems, goes into procedure and organization.

We would do well to heed this counsel from Wesley:

What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God? And to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not it is worth nothing. Now I would fain know, where has order answered these ends? Not in any place where I have been: not among the tinners in Cornwall, the keelmen at Newcastle, the colliers in Kingswood or Staffordshire, not among the drunkards, swearers, Sabbath-breakers of Moorfields, or the harlots of Drury Lane. They could not be build up in the fear and love of God while they were open, bare-faced servants of the devil.”

But maybe it's just Monday.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Richard Wurmbrand on Preaching

Maybe an antidote to much evangelical preaching? Wurmbrand suffered 14 years of horrific torture for Jesus, more than half of it bereft of light, sound, or contact with other humans. Yet, his love for his captors led many of them to Jesus.

Here's what he says about preaching:

Some tell me "Preach the pure gospel!" I don't know what this so-called pure gospel is. Was the preaching of John the Baptist pure? He did not say only, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Matthew 3:2). He also "rebuked [Herod]...for all the evils which Herod had done" (Luke 3:19). He was beheaded because he didn't confine himself to abstract teaching. Jesus did not preach only the "pure" Sermon on the Mount, but also what some actual church leaders would have called a negative sermon: "Woe to you, scribes, and Pharisees, hypocrites!...Serpents, brood of vipers." (Matt 23:27, 33). It is for such "impure" preaching that he was crucified...Sin must be called by its name. Communism is one of the most dangerous sins in the world today. Every gospel that does not denounce it is not the pure gospel.

Now, communism is dead in most parts of the world, God be praised. We still need to be prayerful for its victims in Cuba, Venezuela, Viet Nam, North Korea and China, and most likely to come in Bolivia. But, Wurmbrand's point is well-taken. The church must be like the prophets: opposing all that keeps men in prison for their faith, and in the Satanic, destructive clutches of deceptive philosophies.

Like Wurmbrand, we ought to hate communism (or whatever ism) and love communists.

video

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christians and Twilight (or "Was not Meat Loaf among the prophets?")


On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?

Will he offer me his mouth? Yes!
Will he offer me his teeth? Yes!
Will he offer me his jaws? Yes!
Will he offer me his hunger? Yes!

Again, will he offer me his hunger? Yes!
And will he starve without me? Yes!

Warning: the below is very frank...

The vampire craze is a strange one, I must admit. Teen girls and moms alike lining up with baited breath to catch the next installment of the love affair between Edward and Bella --star-crossed teens, a twentieth century pulp fiction Romeo and Juliet.

I am not writing to critique either the books or the movie. I am rather writing to talk about the differences between men and women, and how the sin of lust takes different forms in each.

We all know the seriousness of the porn empidemic. If a man does not take positive steps to avoid it, it will find him, and more likely than not, it will hook him. The reason is the way God has wired men. Men are attracted to those parts of a woman that are different than he is, those parts most specially related to the bearing of children. He is also attracted to physical depictions of the act he most desires to perform with a woman. It is (sadly) natural. It is also sinful and damning. The vast majority of men are into it --even Christian men.

And, how many women are dismayed, disgusted and hurt to find out their husbands are using pornography. They view it (rightly) as a betrayal of sacred trust. Marriages even end over it --wrongly, I might add. The man does not view it that way. He (wrongly) does not view porn as having any significance beyond physical gratification: it is a matter of mere appetite. Women understand the power and purpose of sex far more than men do. Women know, innately, that it is designed to be a powerful bond between souls, not just physical gratification.

And, this is what makes women particularly vulnerable to a different sort of porn, and that is fanciful romance. To call it porn is not too strong a word. It is equally destructive, sets up equally unrealistic expectations, and has, at its root, the same core sin of pornography --an escapist fulfillment of fantasy in someone other than one's spouse. It breeds discontent with the real nature of the male-female relationship.

Many have praised Twilight, written by a Mormon mom, for its high morality. But, on closer look, is it really moral? Doug Wilson has some good thoughts here.

Let me ask you: does the following sound pornographic? (Citing Doug Wilson):

Edward has a “musical” voice, a “dazzling face,” “flawless lips,” a “crooked smile” that is “so beautiful,” a face that was “such a distraction,” he flashes “a set of perfect, ultrawhite teeth,” and he is a “bizarre, beautiful boy.”

He has a “perfect face,” “brilliant teeth,” a “glorious face,” and, if we hadn’t made this clear yet, he had a “stunning face.”

...what with his golden eyes, his black eyes, his “too-perfect face,” coupled with the fact that he is “interesting,” “brilliant,” “mysterious,” “perfect,” and “beautiful.”

Never mind that these descriptions would make Miss Austen faint, and give even Margaret Mitchell a toothache.

I ask you, ladies, as moms of girls, is this what you want your young women seeking in young men? How is this any less salacious than a young man who is attracted by female body parts? We routinely tell boys not to objectify women, to look at a girl's eyes, and not down, etc. All this we ought to do. But women are no less sexually perverse than men. Men fantasize about sex, and women fantasize about sexual romance. Men want women, and women want men to want them.

The Christian woman ought not have an easy conscience about this. We would discipline a group of men who went out to a strip club to see a hot new dancer. But, how many husbands dare question whether a group of women ought to go see Twilight?


...And does he love me? Yes!

Yes! On a hot summer night would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?
Yes! I bet you say that to all the boys....

Monday, December 7, 2009

What Ought Preachers to Harp On Today?

At least in the Southeast...

The burdens of preaching to our present day:

1.) Uphold Christ in his all-sufficiency, but don't misuse the doctrine. I sense some are taking "Christ-centered" to the extreme, and not challenging enough our comfortable lifestyles. "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and do not the things that I say?"

2.) Put forth the Trinity in its relational dimensions. We are created for relationship with God and others because God is inherently happy among the three persons, and has his completion in the fellowhsip that exists in himself. That happiness overflows to us, and draws us in.

3.) Spend relatively little time preaching against the ills of the culture, and the sins of others, and relatively much time preaching against the idols of those in front of you. The cultural mandate does not mean telling people for whom they must vote.

There are idols in conservatism and liberalism.

Political Conservatives tend to think that as long as I have all the right moral positions, and obey the law, I can make as much money as I want and spend it on myself. Jesus says no.

Political Liberals tend to discount the de-humanizing force of cyclical dependency. If a man will not work, neither shall he eat.

Jesus has things to say to both groups. Unfortunately, churches full of conservatives tend to hear sermons bashing liberals, and churches full of liberals tend to hear sermons bashing conservatives. This is completely backwards.

4.) Keep people from being satisfied with too-easy answers, and cast them on Christ, instead of their own efforts.

Some people really think that if I homeschool my children, do everything right, etc, the product will be young Christians. This is not reliance on grace or constant reliance on Christ. Others think mastering doctrine or church practice or whatever will result in a life pleasing to God. What God wants is reliance, in the first place, not on what we do, but what he is done. Don't give people refuge in good things that fall short of the main thing --which is reliance on Christ.

5.) Teach them that holiness means following Christ, not just adherence to a list of requirements.

The whole idea that a decent, lawkeeping life is the same as following Christ denies the nature of the New Birth. The Spirit moves about as he wills, like the wind, so does everyone born of the Spirit. All our life is one of discipleship --following Christ. His Lordship goes far beyond a list of Ten don'ts and do's. That is kindergarten spirituality.

6.) Emphasize the power of the present ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Reformed people don't think about the Spirit much. Could that be why his power is so lacking in our churches? Preach him as an undergirding to every message. Make people aware of the power that is available to them by his indwelling.

7.) Teach the spiritual value of a moderate, uncluttered, simple lifestyle. Do not let people be comfortable in a moral, affluent lifestyle while people are going hungry. As Piper says, "Tell them they don't need gold, when copper will do."

8.) Teach them to train their children, but not idolize them.

God, and not activity and accomplishment, should be at the center of family life. Do not think your children need every experience --what they need is your time, interest, and love, and Jesus. Don't ever say or think "I did everything for you, or gave you everything." That's a sure sign that you have denied them the one thing that God requires of you: that you give them relationship with yourself, and lead them to Jesus' feet.

9.) Keep them aware of the spiritual war that is happening all around and within them.

Again, Reformed people tend to discount spiritual warfare. I've seen Satan too up close and personal to discount him. There is a war within and without. Awareness of it leads us to cast ourselves constantly on God, which is the point, I think.

10.) Promote an evangelical catholicity.

News flash: Reformed people tend to be narrow. They don't like to read those they may disagree with. This harms us. Teach people to read with discernment, and then point them at Lewis, Wesley, Tozer, Newbigin, Bonhoeffer and others. Likewise, teach them that Reformed people aren't always right. Disagree with Mike Horton and RC Sproul. It's good for you and them (your people, not Horton and Sproul).

11.)Teach them that holiness is an indispensable quality.

Sometimes Reformed people react too strongly against moralism, and seek safe harbor in antinomianism. The Higher Life types are wrong about much, but they are right about this: the Christian is not always and only to be a perpetual failure. Frankly, I am tired of myself and others always only confessing failure, and never seeing victory and transformation. Schaeffer tired of this too --read True Spirituality. I agree with Schaeffer! Ravi Zacharias said the one puzzle he cannot make any sense of in all existence's great mystery is this: why the gospel doesn't often deliver the transformation it promises in himself or others. I agree with Ravi. Chesterton said the one objection most people have to Christianity is Christians --I agree with Chesterton.

What else should preachers emphasize?

Thoughts on Preaching for Preachers and Listeners

One of my favorite topics is preaching, and how it's to be done and heard. It's valuable for listeners to hear preachers think out loud about preaching and respond.

Preachers can be stubborn and overly sensitive about preaching. Understandably so, since hopefully the preacher is pouring his whole self into the exercise. If he isn't, he ought to go work as a mid-level functionary somewhere.

So, just some points to consider.

1.) We ought not to give up on preaching in our multi-sensory age, but neither ought preachers to underestimate how listening and processing information has been changed by media exposure. The spoken word is not dead and can still hold the attention. We are exposed to infinitely more verbiage now than ever before, and probably can process more information more rapidly than previous generations.

What we find difficult to do is to hold on to sustained logical and rational argument. We can lament this fact, and long for the good old days, or we can adapt to it so that we are heard. I prefer the latter.

The best compliment I think I ever got on preaching was from a mid-teenage boy who visited a few times at one of our churches. The mother of the girl he was seeing said, "He said he has never understood any other preacher, but he understands you." This is not because I dumb things down, but more because my own scattered brain leaps from topic to topic, addressing one issue from multiple sides, and trying to utilize some recapitulation of major ideas. I find this more difficult to describe than it is to do.

A fuller description of it can be found in Fred Lybrand's Preaching on Your Feet.

A closely related second point is:

2.) The Greco-Roman rhetorical form is dead, and good riddance to it. In popular parlance this is "three points and a poem." Formally it is: proposition and supporting sub-statements. Thanks to Fred Craddock and his fine little book As One without Authority for pointing this out. In case you haven't noticed, the Bible isn't written this way.

Unfortunately, expository preaching, in desiring to be a servant of the text, too often views the text through the lens of rhetoric. Craddock says: don't just preach the content of the text, but let the text provide the form, and the impact of the sermon. It is hard to unlearn old habits, but being true to Biblical form and impact is being true to the text, and tends to build interested listeners, too.

2.) Preaching needs to be a bit raw-edged. My mentor passed on what his mentor passed on to him, "It's no sin to be interesting." I would hasten to add it is a great sin to be boring! Preaching should be a bit raw. This doesn't mean it must be loud (though it can be). But, it is a whole person endeavor, and sometimes that is less than polished and refined. What it is, is real. This is why, I think, younger people are flocking to listen to Mark Driscoll and Francis Chan. There is no mollycoddling in what the say. For all their faults, the younger generation are tired of plastic imitations of reality that so satisfied their parents. They will take the truth straight up, thank you very much.

But, if you preach raw, baby boomers will be the ones to complain. Those who sought out the PCA because they loved Reformed arcana do not like their lives, priorities and comfort challenged. Many of them have not met Christ, but believe him to be merely a set of propositions, not a Divine Person (about whom propositions are true) whose white-hot living presence will inevitably drive out impurities. You can see the disconnect between their faith and life in the faces of their children, sad to say.

3.) Throw away your notes. Do it now. Nobody cares about your precise wordings, least of all the Holy Spirit, who longs to use you and all your hard work, but to free you from your love affair with your own words. Nobody ever commented, "I don't think he used his notes enough." It took me 12 years to do this. Do it now.

4.) There is no one style. A great preacher can be voluble, or soft-spoken, he can be brainy or relatively simple. I find myself profiting more and more from a variety of styles.

It used to be (confession time) I would mock the preaching of men like Ben Haden --not expository enough. Now, it almost brings me to tears.

Jim Boice preached like he was reading out of a commentary, but the Holy Spirit used it to great effect.

John R. de Witt scales the rhetorical heights, and set truth on fire with pathos and fervor.

Sinclair Ferguson is quiet and gentle, and yet tears the heart to bits.

A certain Manhattanite I shall not name preaches erudite, doctrinal, and Christ-centered sermons in a way that gains a hearing among post-moderns. One of the most memorable sermons I ever heard was him preaching on Abraham interceding for Sodom as a model of imputation. All of these men are preachers in the grandest sense, and all very different.

Another post to follow on what sorts of applications I think ought to predominate in preaching today, at least in my cultural context.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Life Together

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's lesser known (than The Cost of Discipleship)but equally profitable book Life Together speaks of how Christians are to get along with one another in the church, not with illusions of everything being in perfect accord all the time (for we are sinful and short-sighted), but rather the beauty and benefits of struggling within the bonds of love.

So, both Tim Keller's comment on my last post, and a moving sermon on the gospel in the midst of relational conflict by Scott Roley(Christ Community, Franklin, TN), have got me thinking about this.

There was a lot of conflict in the early church. We see it in Acts on how the Gentiles were to be incorporated into the church, and the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark. Corinth was fraught with conflicts over personality and false teaching. Galatians mentions the conflict with Paul and Peter.

The church does not do conflict well. The Scriptures lay down clear teaching on how to deal with conflict, both in situations of interpersonal offense, and in situations of false teaching or false practice.

Having grown up in the mainline (Reformed Church in America) and coming into the PCA, I thought it was a city set upon a hill. But, what I realized is that though there are significant sins of liberalism, the sins of orthodoxy are more heinous. A radical statement that! But, we are accountable for the knowledge that we have. My friend J. R. de Witt used to talk about the sins of dead orthodoxy a lot --and I have experienced them firsthand. A cold, censorious, judgmental and narrow spirit, a lack of compassion and brotherly love, a hidebound insistence that one's own way is THE WAY, anger, consumerism, Spirit-quenching, and cathedral-building (yes, I know, I hate Reformed cathedrals --they are sinful in an age of poverty and hunger, sorry people, but it's my blog).

And I say again: these are far more egregious than the sins of the mainline, simply because we ought to know better. IF we have the Holy Spirit, then why isn't he more manifest?

I have to note that: a.) I am incredibly guilty of everything I say above, except that I haven't built a cathedral (yet). b.) these sins are no respecter of party in the PCA, but seem to me to be equal on all sides. Each party has its jerks, and all of us are jerks now and again.

The danger in our post-modern context is multi-form. One of the chief dangers is confusing persons with arguments. This happens in two ways: either my opponent in an argument is my opponent in life, and therefore not only mistaken but evil, or at least stupid, or, that an attack on a person's position is an attack on their person.

We need to understand that Satan loves to push us to both of these poles. I have both experienced each of them, and been guilty of them in debates in the church. Both of them hinder understanding, and the advancement of the truth. Both of them leave lingering resentments.

We also have a false understanding of unity that says it means we must be in complete conformity of opinion and practice all the time. Disagreements and disputes ought never to arise among a family, or the people of God. This is conflict avoidance, and it hinders the triumph of truth.

So, I don't know how to do this. But, I know it's crucial that we do it. We need to find ways to deliberate and debate without horns and without teeth. We need to understand that good men may differ.

But, the most disheartening thing of all is that I have never seen a minister challenged on the grounds of his deviating from the truth who has been humbled, confessed his sin, and returned to the straight and narrow. I have seen men who have sinned in their behavior broken and contrite, and returned to the fold, but I have yet to see a minister chastened as to his beliefs and teachings who humbly confessed, and returned. I believe I have a pretty good grasp of church history, and even there, I can find no examples of a man whose doctrine was challenged, who admitted he was wrong. Surely someone in the course of the history of the church has indeed been wrong, and been humble enough to admit it!

So, how do we debate, discuss, and rebuke in the church? It's Monday, and per usual, I have no answers on Mondays, only questions :-)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What Will You Do While Your Straw Man Burns?

First, credit where credit is due. Thanks Ben Kappers for getting me thinking about this.

The great danger in any "inner ring" is that we talk to ourselves, and thereby become firmly convinced that we are right, and the other guy is not just wrong, but stupid, evil, and a bum.

There is a great danger of this in the gospel ministry. Our friends, sad to say, are all people who think pretty much like us. Even in the ranks of ministers in a denomination with a common and heavily-enforced statement of faith, we subdivide into particular camps, and rarely are friends with the "other guy." There are twin sad results. One is, our rationales for our own positions are weaker than they need to be. The second is, we fail to love the others, and become prideful of our own opinions.

How this might be handled in the church (where reproof, standing up for truth and correction are necessary things) is a subject for another day. The topic for today is the world.

So, a ministerial student or other ardent young Christian has been taught in his Jesus incubator that all atheists are not only wrong but stupid, angry, selfish people, that all homosexuals have deep personal issues, that all secularists and statists are just self-interested fools.

Then, God, in his good providence, puts them in contact with the world. And maybe they meet a real, living atheist who feeds the poor, is kind and generous, and doesn't care much that you are a Christian, if it works for you.

Or, he meets a homosexual who is a decent person, no more "flawed" than he himself is, and pretty likable, diffident, and humble.

Or, he develops a friendship with a liberal who really does think that government is the answer to the worlds problems, and is a sincere, devoted friend.

What then? His whole paradigm crumbles. Sometimes, he starts to question everything he's been taught. If those who taught me are so seriously wrong about this, what else in my world-view is wrong?

I think of two models in this regard. One is my mentor who maintained a close friendship with the atheist minister of the prominent self-described "liberal" church. This was no mealy-mouthed liberal, but a fiery, strong, and very intelligent man, as my mentor is. Yet, they respected one another, loved one another, even as each was firmly convinced of the other's error. The bond was love and respect, not agreement of opinion.

The other model is a pastoral friend in Western North Carolina who, for years, has carried on productive dialog with local abortionists. Does he want to change their minds and practices? OF course he does. Why? Because he loves them as much as he loves the unborn, I suspect. Are they murderers? Well, so am I.

And, this is something we in the church need to learn. Nobody out there is any more particularly evil than we ourselves are, by nature. A homosexual is not a worse person than I am. A liberal is not necessarily mean and nasty --some of them are far kinder and more generous than many who can rightly state every Biblical doctrine.

The point is not that we should abandon our beliefs about any of the above things. The point is that we should love people, even as we disagree with them, and try to understand them. The old principle of debate, so neglected in our current practice, among my own "party" in my own denomination is instructive: know your opponent's position so well, and be able to state it accurately in a way he himself can affirm.

And then love him. Respect him as a fellow creature in the image of God. The only difference between him and you is not you. The only difference between him and you is that you believe in Jesus, and he doesn't. Or, he does, but he doesn't quite see the full picture. Then, ask yourself, "Is it possible there are places where he sees more clearly than I do?" I may be right about morality, but he may be right about generosity of spirit and wallet, for instance.

Our church culture needs to change. We need to know unbelievers, love them as persons, and show Christ to them. We ought not shy away from giving the cause for Christ, but it must be done out of humility, love, and respect.

Why? For we are no better, no better, no better....And such were some of you, but you were washed...Did you wash yourselves? Did you make yourself clean? Did you rescue yourself from erroneous opinion and sinful practice, or did Jesus do that for you? And, if Jesus did that for you, then why don't you think he won't do that for someone else?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Future of the Church? or St. Curvy



This is a photo from a famous set --all of which is worth viewing. It is the former home of the Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church of Detroit, affectionately dubbed "St. Curvy's" What you cannot see is more impressive than what you can. Above the large plexi-glass skylight (inevitably put in place by some well-meaning but misguided diaconate) is an elaborate dome, with massive stained glass windows. That all this is still intact, though abandoned, is amazing.

Since I grew up going to Detroit for baseball games, I have always had a peculiar interest in it.

This picture tells a story. Of a city that had the most industry wealth in America and then fell into the dilapidation of crime, poverty, and gross corruption. This picture is just one of many churches and other grand structures from the sad implosion of the Motor City.

The decaying architecture of Detroit is the gilded age: gaudy, ornate, over-the-top, massive and opulent. Theatres , train stations, amusement parks, all abandoned and going to rot. An area area the size of San Francisco within the city limits of Detroit is vacant. Picture after picture of massive church edifices, Protestant and Catholic, now vacant and left to decay.

But, it also tells a story about the church. Obviously, this church had incredible wealth --a massive structure, all that curvature in the architecture and pews, the ornate woodwork and stained glass. It was a cathedral built for the ages, but the congregation didn't even last one hundred years. I wonder how long our expensive cathedrals of today will remain the home to vital congregations?

But, that is not my reason for writing. The church qua institution is in sad shape. But, Christ promises, the church as living organism will prevail. Why, then, does the institution of the church receive the majority of our time, efforts, and treasure? We need buildings, a modicum of organization, clear leadership, all of these things to be sure. But, our weakness is to make these things our top priorities, when mission ought to be our top priority. We spend most of our time oiling the machine, and fixing it when it breaks down. We, particularly those of us in ministry, ought to spend most of our time on three things: word, prayer, and people. We might add that those of us who are the regenerated ought not to expect the most time spent on us --but we, rather, ought to be spending most of our time on word, prayer and lost and broken people --helping them find their way home.

I am not doing this. I am praying to God that I shall, and that those I pastor shall, become like this, and not meet the same sad fate of St. Curvy's.

Monday, October 26, 2009

God Cares About People No-one Else Cares About

Okay, so I've been preaching, thinking, and praying for a few years now that:

God has a specific plan for the believer's life, and disobedience to that is disobedience to God.

Because he has given us his holy Spirit, we are enabled to do things beyond our ordinary abilities. Yet, this is far from my own experience, and the experience of most Christians I know.

And, I have the conviction that has developed that (no extraordinary revelation here), God cares about people nobody else cares about, hopeless cases.

But, life is going so well. Why, then, did I have to start reading The Cross and The Switchblade?

And, why, when reading it, did I get teary eyed and start to pray? I don't tear up at books, ever.

David Wilkerson does everything wrong. He puts out fleeces for God. He has his youth pastor close his eyes, open his Bible, and then put his finger on a verse and begin to read. THis is not how you discover the will of God, at least not to me.

But, extraordinary stuff started to happen.

There is more to this adventure than I have heretofore experienced, and I am wondering what the next step is supposed to be. I only know it has to be more than it is right now --somehow caring for those nobody cares about.

What next, God?

LIfe (God) Lessons?

We tend to drink in destructive untruths and half-truths about God with the cultural water. A famous one is that God will not place on us more than we can bear. That is absolutely false, and the Bible nowhere says it. Throughout Scripture, we routinely see God placing more on people than they can bear, so they will learn to rely on him fully, deeply, and experientially. God's call to Abraham to sacrifice beloved Isaac, David's loss of an infant son, and then a grown rebellious one, Jacob's loss of Joseph --deep griefs all, and more than any human can bear.

A related destructive untruth is that God charts suffering on the course of believer's lives to "teach them lessons," as if God is some cosmic schoolmarm, with a huge ruler, just waiting to rap the knuckles of pupils that are dullards. This is an un-Biblical notion of God, and it is from the pit, designed to rob believers of the beautiful comfort that comes in belonging to God.

I certainly believe that nothing comes about by accident, and it is equally destructive to say of suffering, "God had nothing to do with this." The question is, then, what is God's purpose in charting suffering in the lives of those whom he loves?

God is at the bottom of the well of suffering. When all is stripped away, when life with its fleeting pleasures appears as the Vanity Fair that it is, when we are robbed of the comforts of the unpredictable plant, we discover that God is there, and that relationship with and to God is the all-engrossing thing. God plus nothing really is everything: everlasting joy and eternal comfort. Heaven would be grand if all it were was a big empty black room, with God and me in it. He is the all-entrancing, all-engrossing thing, the thing without which life is not worth living, and the One with whom even the hardest life is very heaven. God designs suffering to draw us close to his own breast.

It is true that God sometimes deals out suffering as a discipline for the sins of his people. In other words, sometimes my rebellion against God makes him withdraw his protection of me. But, even in this, God is not standing over and against me, wagging his finger. In fact, his discipline of me is a mark of his love --those whom the Lord loves, he chastens, and reproves every one he calls to be his child. God's discipline is not the discipline of the elementary principal, but of the loving father. It is done in the context of relationship. Even the extreme measures necessary to get the attention of some of his children --the handing over to Satan of the Corinthian offender, for instance-- is done out of love, "for the destruction of his body, and the salvation of his soul." God will bring his children back.

So, if you belong to God by faith in Christ, know that he loves you, and will never cast you off. You are his child, he is your father. That relationship is invincible, it is impossible to forfeit. Yet, if you stray from him, he will make life distinctly unpleasant for you until you return to his fold. And, if he charts suffering in your life, you need not fear, because he is pulling you to himself, and showing you that he is all-sufficient, and relationship to him, with everything else stripped away, is the fullness of joy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Christian and Entertainment

We have come a long way. Abraham Kuyper was one of the most profound and influential Reformed thinkers on matters of faith and life about one hundred years ago. His Lectures on Calvinism served as an impetus for Francis Schaeffer, and through him (and Carl Henry and others), for the whole evangelical move towards forming a comprehensive world-and-life view.

In the Lectures, he writes (and I paraphrase from memory), "On these three things, Calvinism places a distinct veto: dancing, playing cards, and the theatre.")

Not one hundred years later, most Reformed Christians (and others), look back, and think "How quaint." IN a cultural blink, we go from a complete ban on such things, to complete acceptance of them.

Now, don't stop reading, or throw away your Monopoly board. My point is not that Biblically serious Christians cannot dance, play games, or watch shows (movies, televisions, and plays). My point is that we need to start thinking about what we watch. Somewhere, we have gotten the idea that we can dredge about in the muck and dreck of the world for hour after hour during the week, and still think and act and feel Christianly?

Some Christians have over-reacted, and, as is always predictable with overreaction, fallen short. Some Christians will only read Christian literature, watch Christian movies, or listen to Christian music --almost all of which is junk, by any definition. I don't think it is providential accident that most good art and literature has not been done by Christians. But, that is a post for another time.

The question for today is: what may a Christian enjoy, of the world's entertainments? Is it wrong to listen to Beethoven, to read Twain, or to watch Spielberg?

Because of common grace, no. In other words, the world has some comprehension of truth and beauty, and God has gifted some unbelievers the ability to reflect his truth and beauty in profound ways.

But, as Christians, we need to think. All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable.

So, to wit, a few humble guidelines:

1.) Does this skew my moral compass? Does it cause me, even if only during the duration of the show/movie to call evil good, and good evil? For instance, did I cheer for Jim and Pam on the Office when they found out she was pregnant?

The great danger today is the normalization of homosexuality in media, in both drama (House, now Heroes), and comedy (The Office, Arrested Development). How will this shape the thinking of young people who watch these shows? How is it affecting ours?

2.) Does the show cause me to have the appropriate response to sin and tragedy? In other words, like Schindler's List, does it cause revulsion at evil, or do I end up cheering for morally ambiguous characters?

3.) Does it draw me into the sin? Nudity and sexual scenes in movies actually involve us in lust in a way that a murder on screen does not involve us in that sin. We find actual sexual pleasure in lust, and ought to avoid all sensual nudity in our entertainment.

4.) Should we avoid any stories with immorality in them? The issue is too subtle. The question is what the obvious intent of the author was. Crime and Punishment powerfully illustrates human depravity, but in a way that appalls us, and makes us averse to it (as only Russian novelists can). Porky's (or more recent incarnations of the same teen sex comedy idea) shows depravity, but in a way that draws us into it.

5.) Should profanity itself be a consideration? This is more difficult. Gratuitous profanity, used simply for its own sake, or for comedic value is certainly out of bounds, "let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouth." Clark Gable's sole profanity in Gone With the Wind was uttered with devastating effect. It was the sentence of condemnation on the frivolity, triviality, self-absorbed and petty evil that was Scarlett O'Hara's life. An aside, we ought to be far more offended by the casual use of God's name ("O My God, Good Lord, Lordy, etc")than we are at scatalogic terms for bodily functions.

There are probably other considerations we can put into an entertainment matrix that will help us. The sad fact is that even these 4 principles will write off many, if not most, shows and movies.

I am being convicted of this in my own life, and thus I share it. Thoughts? There are certainly considerations I have missed, and I would like to know what they are.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Is David Wilkerson Right On?

Not always.

But I think he is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_M2AMGlrMs&feature=PlayList&p=F41380832CD637B1&index=4

Listen. It will do your heart good.

If you have an aversion to passion and tears in the pulpit, you might be put off. But, then I would urge you to examine your own heart.

This is decidedly unfashionable preaching: a sincere man who bares his heart with nothing to gain.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Music in the Worship Service

Some people are music snobs --and they won't sing anything low-brow.
Some people are music cretins --and they won't sing anything high-brow.
Some people are music curators --and they won't sing anything new.
Some people are music dilettantes --they will not sing anything old.

We ought to be none of these things. We ought to sing whatever we are given to sing (as long as it's Biblical) with full voice and heart. Does God deserve anything less than full-throated praise?

And, we ought to be a bit of all these things: we ought to sing high brow and low, old and new.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Just As I Am...

I am pondering writing a book, and I covet the prayers of any who might read this. I have thought for some time that we in Reformed churches do not understand sin and how to handle it very well at all, and it might deserve a book.

Theologically, we understand sin, and its judicial guilt. What we seem to lack is a sense of sin as a hostage taker --who holds victims in bondage. Thus, when a sinner is caught in any of a small list of sins, we come down on him with both feet, and enact punitive church discipline. We depose from office or suspend from the sacraments.

Both of those things are sometimes necessary. We with-hold the sacraments for the same reason we might excommunicate --as a means of grace in reverse--to show an impenitent sinner what life is like outside the covering of Christ's blood. As Paul said, for the destruction of the body, and the salvation of the soul.

We ought never, therefore, suspend a penitent sinner, or a struggling addict, from the Lord's Supper. He needs that nourishment. We do not come to the Lord's Table to testify that we are without sin, Dordt's Liturgy says, but rather have daily to struggle with the lust of our eyes and the infirmities of our flesh.

But, even in the case of a sinner who initially appears protective of his sin, or, as we might call it, "hard," we ought to work long with him, to see if his heart is indeed hardened. Idolatry is a blinding thing --and it takes supernatural effort for the blind to be brought to sight. Remember the man in Corinth in an incestuous relationship with his step-mother --even he was brought to repentance and restored, with rejoicing.

A church officer becomes entangled in some sin. The first thought we have is the purity of the church: he has lost his fitness for office. I had a friend in another denomination who had a sin issue come to light. It almost cost him his ministry and his marriage. I say almost because the particular denomination he was in determined to rescue him, and restore him. Sounds like Paul in Galatians to me, "If a brother is overtaken in a fault, you who are spiritual should restore him gently, taking great care, lest you too be tempted." There, but for the grace of God, go I, indeed.

In our own denominational context, those who are wounded by Satan in the battle don't fare as well. And I maintain this is because we have too low a view of sin, not because we have too high a view of it, not to mention too low a view of the work of the Spirit, and the healing offered in the cross. We view sin primarily as judicial guilt --the necessary punishment for which is condemnation. But, and especially for the believer, sin is even more a matter of hostile power. The believer who sins, even boldly and repeatedly, is not condemned, but disciplined as a beloved son. Believers who sin cavalierly are denying the Lord who bought them. They are in danger of placing themselves under a yoke of bondage from which Christ has freed them.

Sadly, what begins with a high hand, often becomes a prison from which one longs to escape. If we view sin merely as guilt, then we say, "You made your bed. Now lie in it awhile," or worse, "There is no hope for you." This is doubly disastrous. Disastrous because we give our brother no hope, and disastrous because we have a very light view of our own sin.

The tragedy of this is it keeps sinners from seeking help in the light of day. Sin festers in the darkness. But shame and consequences keep sinners from seeking the very help the church supposedly exists to offer. The level of sin bondage in our churches is mind-numbing. I would encourage a cursory read of Mark Regnerus's fine Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers if you don't believe the bondage out there on just that one sin issue. Pornography and attendant evils remain unaddressed because of the great shame that is heaped upon those who are thus enticed --including, now, a large percentage of evangelical Christian men and boys (and, in alarmingly growing numbers, girls and women).

When sin becomes bondage, we call it addiction, and it has grown deep thorny roots in the heart, roots that do not disappear overnight. Simply telling the addict that he is sinning is Law --it does not contain within it the power of deliverance. Helping him sort out his addiction in the light of Christ, and with the help of the Spirit is gospel, and this is the work to which we are called. I would recommend Neil Plantinga's Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin , particularly the chapter "The Tragedy of Addiction"

And, we can lament and condemn and denounce, but if we do that, we are being more righteous than Christ, who came not for the righteous, but sinners, not the well, but the sick. The sick need healing, the sinner needs forgiveness and restoration. He is already "bruised and broken by the Fall."

The sad thing is that our forebears understood this well. They have a full-blown hamartiology that we have abandoned. One thinks of Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices, or John Owen's On the Mortification of Indwelling Sin.

Augustine, the fountain-head of Reformed Theology after the Apostle Paul, wrote of his own life and death struggle with lust:
I was bound not by an iron imposed by anyone else but by the iron of my own choice. The enemy had a grip on my will and so made a chain for me to hold me a prisoner. The consequence of a distorted will is passion. By servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes necessity. By these links...connected one to another...a harsh bondage held me under restraint.


The Westminster Confession, 5.5, acknowledges the fearsome power of indwelling sin:
5.5 The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled;(1) and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.


But, we ourselves tend to have adopted the shallower view of sin promoted by Holiness and Keswick teachers --defeat of sin is a relatively easy thing, and if one hasn't accomplished it, it is a defect of faith. (Read J.I. Packer's Keep In Step with The Spirit for his own encounters with this destructive teaching as a young Christian man.

The added tragedy is that we have developed a list of sins that are less serious than others. I have written a lot here about sexual sin, because that is the sin that is first on every evangelical's radar. Sexual sin, and its attendants (such as unbiblical divorce) are at the top of our sin pyramid. In fact, I have never seen anyone disciplined for anything other than sexual sin or divorce. Sexual sin is serious --nobody who has become entangled in it would deny that. Because sex is intended to build relationships, its misuse destroys much. Because it is intended to open the heart, the misdirection of sexual desire callouses the heart.

The issue is not that sexual sin isn't serious. The issue is that other sins are equally (and sometimes more) serious. Pride, censoriousness, an unforgiving spirit, intemperance, gluttony, and lack of charity towards others are destructive interpersonal sins. But, for some reason, all of these are tolerated among the Christian populace, and church officers, too, to our own destruction. They aren't serious: not as serious as substance abuse, a gambling problem, an affair, or sex addiction. Those sins are icky, and we don't like to think about them. But, a lot of successful people (even in ministry) are proud, so it's okay.

But, given that sex sins and these others are serious and lethal. What then? Cancer is serious. Do we take a gun and shoot the cancer patient? No, we spend months and hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to save the person while killing his disease. Are we that devoted in love to those with sin diseases in the heart? Or, does it demand too much of us?

Why do we not acknowledge that God is sovereign over serious and spectacular sins, and can make even these redound to his own glory? Can't the hard fought battle with sin put us in a place of usefulness to help others who are where we once were? Is the church missing out because we shoot our wounded, rather than rehabilitating them?

O God, cleanse us from the guilt and power of sin.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A new (to me) thought on election.

It always strikes me as sad that the doctrine of election or predestination has become an issue of contention --primarily, a philosophical point of debate.

The Scriptures do not use election this way. They use it to affirm the Godness of God –his sovereignty. It is not meant to exclude anyone from coming to Christ, or to lead to speculation about who the chosen might be. There are three primary uses, the third of which came to me with clarity this last week. None of these uses, I suppose, is any more or less important than the others. The first use is that it is a doctrine of comfort for the hurting soul, struggling with sin, conviction and assurance. The second use is that it is a doctrine of challenge –allowing us to live boldly and fearlessly for the kingdom of God, knowing that nothing can truly harm us –no-one can separate us from God’s sovereign love. The third use is the one that dawned on me anew this week –the doctrine of election is encouragement for the disenfranchised and downtrodden of the world. “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame those that are wise, and the weak things of world to shame those that are strong…that no-one may glory in his sight.” (1 Cor 1 paraphrase). The early believers, confronted with the glorious reality of Christ, may have puzzled over their low estate in the world. We may still do this. Confronted with the wickedness of the powers that be in the halls of government, high finance, Hollywood, and the like, the ordinary believer may feel powerless and shunted aside. But, in God’s economy, not so. The believer has been chosen by the sovereign of the universe to accomplish his will –a treasure entrusted in a clay jar—to keep us humble, and to make sure the world, in the end, knows that all glory goes to Christ.

The Church a Business? Perish the Thought!

I know the church is not a business, but…. How often have I heard that phrase, and in nearly every church I have served. This is not an argument that the church should not operate on sound fiscal principles, and that many churches do not keep adequate watch over their spending priorities.
That said, the church is not a business in any sense of the word. To think about the church that way is to think about it backward. A business provides a product or service with the goal of making a profit, and therefore gears itself to that end: what will create more customers, a larger market. The business serves, but it expects benefit in return. When the church sees itself as a business, its goal becomes quantitative growth for itself. Success, then, is measured in numbers, nickels and noses. Subtly in some places, and blatantly in others, worship and messages then are judged by the crowds they draw.
The church is never to be measured in this way. It is not to be measured by the people it attracts, but by the message it preaches and the subsequent good it does. These are God’s criteria, and they fill every page of Scripture. The church’s goal, then, ought to be Biblical fidelity and acts of mercy. The love of Christ compels us to this work. And, it is here that the evangelical church has lost its way. When the evangelical church abandoned the city, the city began to rot. Sometimes, evangelical churches abandon the city even when they remain within its confines.
Hurting people are the harvest field. The gospel will bind up their wounds, and be heard by them as good news. If the church concentrates on Biblical truth combined with merciful action, then God will bless it with vitality, joy, contentment, and perhaps even growth.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

C'mon Conservatives: Do We Have a Free Market Answer for Medical Care?

The conservative movement is going nowhere, fast. And, sad to say, it has already lost the health care debate. How did it lose? By never showing up --the empty podium is telling.

There is no question that American health care is horribly broken. It is not just broken for those people who cannot afford to access it --in fact, it is less broken for them (through Medicaid, SCHIP, etc) than it is for basically productive people.

And, it is broken because it is an entire economy that has been exempted from the rules of the marketplace. One can point the finger of blame at "greedy" hospitals, "greedy" doctors, or "greedy" insurance companies, but much of the blame falls at the feet of, you guessed it, Uncle Sam.

In fact, the whole system is a post-War relic. It is the relic of Uncle Sam fixing wages in the second world war that motivated companies, based on market principles, to offer "benefits" --untaxed income. Among those benefits was health insurance --then a tiny fraction of the overall cost of employment. So, the whole system is based on an anachronism --wage and price controls.

One does not have to look far to see how perverse this is. Your coverage is dependent upon who you work for. If you work for GM you have better coverage than if you work for a GM dealer. You can be a very successful independent businessman and have worse coverage than the Wal-Mart cashier.

This perversity is built into the system. Name one other industry, other than the health insurance industry, that is built around denying its product to the very people who most need it? It is not the well who need the doctor, but the sick!

Sorry, Sam, this one's personal. Our daughter has a pre-existing condition. She acquired this about the same time our denomination saw fit to cancel its health policy. Most of our pastors are young and healthy, you see. And, if you are sick, or your child is, then sorry folks, we're out of luck. We've got our cheap individual plans. The big churches have their own groups. You're stuck.

Which was okay in Virginia, because they have guaranteed issue policies. But not MS, oh no. We are in the insurance dark ages here. But, I digress.

As it stands now, the whole system is horribly prejudiced. Prejudiced against whom? The self-employed and the small business --those too small to form "risk pools."

The answer to this is NOT socialized medicine. Socialized medicine perpetuates the problem. It has no natural cost control mechanisms. It tends to set the costs of products artificially low --which inevitably must make other costs inevitably high, lead to a decline in services, or the decimation of capital (aka crumbling hospital buildings).

The only answer to bring down costs is the market. Why does not Hospital A say, "We offer the same great service as Hospital B, but cost 30% less?" THat's what Wal-Mart does. TJ Maxx does not have the amenities of Macy's, but the products on the rack are the same. If doctors, hospitals, drug companies and insurers had to compete, it would drive the inefficiency from the system.

Now, there are other issues to be sure. Malpractice insurance is one. The artificially lowered prices of the government insurance plans are another even larger issue.

BUt, unless and until conservative address this issue, without the me-too-but less that is all too common, we will never gain a nationwide hearing. It is a crisis headed towards catastrophe --one that could be averted, if conservatives would apply their ideals to the problem.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Moral Positions and Rescue

Okay, meeting Jesus in Matthew 9:9-17.

As an evangelical and Calvinist Christian I struggle with two things that are difficult to reconcile, but which coexist perfectly in Jesus. Those two things are this: recognizing sin and evil as such, and reaching out to rescue people who are entrapped in those things.

I have said before that the way to deal with the broken sinner is with restoration, not condemnation. We are to be about rescue.

Jesus confronts people with different problems in different ways. In neither case does he discount sin. The two basic categories of people that Jesus addresses are the proud and the broken. The indifferent never appear on his radar screen --perhaps a topic for another post.

Jesus never sets out to break the broken. He does not break bruised reeds or quench smoking flax. Those who are broken find restoration. They do not find sanction for their sin, but deliverance from it (witness the Samaritan woman at the well). They know who they are and they agree with Jesus' assessment of them. They don't have to have it pounded into their heads. They know their guilt, and are hungry for forgiveness.

But, the proud are a different story. Jesus has hard things to say to proud people. His purpose is always loving --to show them they have no reason for pride, and to break them, and then restore them. To these people Jesus says hard things.

The struggle in preaching is this: some people before you are proud, and some are broken. What is more complicating is that some of the proud think they are broken (elder brothers who see themselves as the prodigal --thanks Tim Keller and Richard Sibbes for pointing that out). My own flesh craves the message of forgiveness even as I am sinning with a hard heart and a high hand.

And, the other complicating factor is upholding truth and righteousness. What if, upholding the BIblical teaching on human sexuality, both a denial of homosexuality and promiscuity. Some people out there are pursuing those lifestyles. Some are broken by them; some are hardened in them; all are destroying themselves and missing God's blessing.

The same could be said for every correct moral position: sanctity of life, business ethics, family relationships, gender roles, etc.

The answer of some is simply not to deal with those things, and just preach the gospel. But, this is not what Jesus or the apostles did. WHen Paul said he labored to know nothing but Christ and him crucified, it obviously wasn't to the exclusion of teaching on spiritual gifts, head coverings, sexual immorality or the Lord's Supper.

So, how do we do this? How do we uphold righteousness and yet preach grace? How do we reach sinners with the free message of grace, oppose the proud, and uphold the truth? Those are the three poles that all preaching must work within and balance.

May God make it so.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Piper's Message to the President

Are You Lost Yet?

Okay, so when Lost first started I thought, "Plane crash show. What can they do with that?" and didn't watch. Then, somehow, I got intrigued, and we watched the first seasons on video. Though the show has meandered, it has set up a very interesting scenario. There are two directions it could go. Given JJ Abram's history, it could go the route of absolute incoherent stupidity (witness: Alias --you can only run a show on Jennifer Garner's looks / revealing outfits for so long). Or, it could be setting up a brilliant allegory --an allegory of what is the question.

The most intriguing thing to me is the names of the characters --each of them representing a different philosophy or world and life view. I am sure I will miss some --and someone else can fill in the blanks.

Confirmed:

Hume: one of the fathers of empiricism and naturalism, skeptical of reason, big on experience, emotion, etc.
Locke/Bentham: INteresting they are the same person. Locke: social contract; Bentham: utilitarianism/natural rights --also interesting that he appears to be a figure of religious significance
Rousseau: the noble savage, tabula rasa
Faraday: Father of the experiment, electricity
Austen: early feminist, irony/sensibility, gentle satire
Hawking: theoretical physicist best known for work on time dilation, etc. She served as the guide to the time and entrance points to the Island.
Charlotte Staples Lewis: hardly developed as a character yet, but quite obviously CS Lewis
Abbadon The destroyer of Revelation.
Kelvin one of the fathers of modern physics, a minor character
Christian The guide to Locke --shades of Pigrim's Progress?
Questionable:

Ben Linus: Linus is one of Apollo's three sons, also Charlie Brown's spiritual advisor. Is Ben good or evil? We don't know yet. He has killed Locke twice, but last it appeared that he knew that Locke would be brought back to life on return to the Island.

Haven't figured out yet:

Shephard
Sawyer
Hurley
Sayyid: Maybe Islamic worldview?
Jin & Sun: Do have daddy issues --Confucianism?
A lot of characters that have "died" (most lamentably Charlie, Claire (she is dead, right?), Ana Lucia, Michael,and Eko)

So my thought is this is one big spiritual allegory. But, the question is, an allegory of what spirituality? There is a war coming --Widmore (Anti-Christ?) warned of that. He also didn't want Locke to die.

So what's your verdict. What will the end be?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Calvin on Comfort for the Sinner Approaching the Lord's Supper

This is the quickest…method of preparation for you. If you want to derive proper benefit from this gift of Christ, you must bring faith and repentance. Therefore, so that you may come well prepared, the examination is based on those two things. Under repentance I include love, for there is no doubt that the man, who has learned to deny himself in order to devote himself to Christ and his service, will also give himself whole-heartedly to the promotion of the unity which Christ has commended to us. Indeed it is not perfect faith or repentance that is asked for. This is said because some people, by being far too insistent upon a perfection which cannot be found anywhere, are putting a barrier between every single man and woman and the Supper forever. But if you are serious in your intention to aspire to the righteousness of God, and if, humbled by the knowledge of your own wretchedness, you fall back on the grace of Christ, and rest upon it, be assured that you are a guest worthy of approaching this table. By saying that you are worthy, I mean that the Lord does not keep you out, even if in other respects you are not all you ought to be. For faith, even if imperfect, makes the unworthy worthy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Feast

Okay, so I am not as grumpy today --not that I didn't mean anything I said yesterday. Shape up, sinners! :-)

Contemplating the Lord's Supper today. It really is a beautiful thing that says and does so much to/for us. It is hard to capture it all. First and foremost, it is a proclamation of the Lord's death. This is why Christ instituted it. Could it be that Jesus knew the church would be tempted to empty the cross of its offense, to shove it off in a corner somewhere, and talk about things like happy, prosperous, successful lives? The Lord's Supper makes us keep two awful and wonderful facts in front of us. First: rather than let sin go unpunished, God offered his son --the offensiveness of my sin. And second, God offered his son --the costly love of God in Jesus.

Christians have differed about what the Lord's Supper means, though these distinctions strike me as less strident than in the past. Some, I think, make too much of the Supper as a physical participation in the sacrifice of Christ. Others, undoubtedly, make too little of it. Whatever we make of it, what happens, happens! The Lord's Supper points us back to the Passover, in its deliverance of God's people by the blood of the firstborn and the spotless lamb. It brings us into the Upper Room, reclining at table with Jesus. It takes us to Calvary, and makes us see our savior's face on the cross. And, it brings our hearts to heaven, where Jesus sits at the head of the table, as the bridegroom.

The Lord's Supper takes us back and forward, but it also testifies to the present reality of the unity in Christ of all believers --that we are family bound by common blood, a blood-tie that is closer than natural kinship.

But, it is also a meal. Christ himself feeds us. He brings satisfaction, joy, and nourishment to the hungry and thirsty soul as surely as bread and wine do to our physical bodies.

Let us rejoice!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Hard Questions for the Church of God

1.) What's one thing you no longer do, because Jesus is in your life?
2.) What is one thing you've started doing for Jesus?
3.) What are some tangible behaviors in your life that you are convicted you need God's help to change?

I live an affluent life. There are many things I have bought I wish I haven't. My lifestyle has risen with my income. And, I am starting to ask myself some hard questions about that. I am doing this because I am tired of hearing people's immediate response to any conviction on material things being, "God wants us to enjoy ourselves." Yes, someone said something similar in Scripture. Who was it? The man who tore down his barns to build bigger ones, that's who. It's a problem when Christians begin to sound like the bad guys in parables.

I don't think everyone needs to sell everything to go live in a mud hut. I do think we ought to consider what it means to live moderately. John Piper in his book for pastors entitled Brothers, We Are Not Professionals has a great little chapter, "Brothers, Tell Them Copper Will Do." His basic point was: both copper and gold are conductors. Copper conducts well, and is less expensive. Why do we need gold?

My own principle, which I have often failed to uphold, is to buy quality but not too good of quality. A Lexus is a dressed up Toyota --buy the Toyota (okay, I am a Toyota fan). Buying things that won't wear out in a week is good stewardship. But, is a suit bought off the rack at Dillard's any less servicable than a custom-made suit from the upscale retailer? Is the $1000 bottle of wine really that much better than the $20 bottle?

Our first goal is not to enjoy life, but to enjoy God. IN serving him there is great reward. And, he has called upon us to give generously. To live at a lifestyle less than we can afford, to bless the multitudes who have little. Evil Pope Leo X said, "God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it." How many Christians think, "God has all the money in the world, let me enjoy what I have." The truth is: God doesn't need our wealth, but he has set you as a steward over it, and where your treasure is, your heart will be.

Is your money in ostentatious houses, multiple homes, luxury cars, big screen televisions (mine is)? Is it okay to have those things as long as you don't "love" them --what does that even mean?

Or maybe it's Monday....

Don't Come Home from Drinking with Jesus on Your Mind, or Jesus Didn't Die So You Could Make a Real Ass of Yourself

I use "ass" in the King James meaning of the word.

Okay, what's stuck in the preacher's craw this morning? The basic comfort that many people in evangelical churches have with excessive consumption of alcohol. Unlike previous generations of PCA ministers, I am not a teetotaler, nor do I believe the Bible demands such of us. One look in my refrigerator would be sufficient to establish this point.

Yet, I find it a sad thing when someone questions whether Christians should consume alcohol, he is immediately met with the objection of freedom in Christ --the liberty we are given from man-made regulations in pursuit of a holy life. Yet, I wonder if some of this protesting is actually against what Paul's intention --professing to be mature in Christ, and is actually infantile Christian behavior, if it is Christian at all. IT is using liberty as an occasion for the flesh.

The truth is this: if you are drinking to the point where you ought not be driving, you are drunk in the Biblical sense of the word. Drunkenness is sin. Don't do it.

Now here me: addiction falls into a different class. People become dependent upon things --sin takes deep and thorny roots. A person struggling to overcome addiction will find nothing but help, support, and counsel for me --Paul's call for gentle restoration.

But, there are a whole host of social drinkers out there --for whom a party just isn't a party unless alcohol is served. Christians who are comfortable consuming multiple alcoholic beverages, treading as close to the line of drunkenness as they dare go, and probably kidding themselves that they have not stumbled over it.

Why not try this: if you like an occasional beer and wine, enjoy one. One? Yes, one. If that's a problem for you, then you have a problem. Do not tell me you can consume five drinks and still honor Christ. Do not tell me you can empty a bottle of wine and still maintain your faculties. Protest your liberty before Jesus, not me.

Or, maybe it's just Monday.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Image at War with Substance

As a child, I used to think I would be a rather suave, sophisticated adult: a snappy dresser who could appreciate the finer things. But, alas, now approaching the 40's, I live in a cookie cutter house (don't get me wrong, it's very nice) in a vanilla suburb (also nice). My wardrobe is typically geeky white male, got on the cheap (mostly) at places like Stein-Mart, Marshalls, and the Maxx (okay, my wife will add my penchant for Bean/Lands End --still pretty square). I like classical music, red wine, and the theatre, but my knowledge of them doesn't go very deep (sometimes, that's a blessing).

I am great with all of this. I work in a very image conscious part of probably the most Southern city on earth. Status, appearance, knowing and being known, and connections are everything. The appearance of wealth is prized. In this, it is not unique, though it has a far different flavor here than elsewhere --people have something to PROVE, and the wealth is not easily worn like in other parts of the country. Incidentally, the wealthiest people I have known (and I have casually known a few billionaires and several more that sat on tens of millions --don't ask me how that happened) are some of the most humble and down-to-earth --it seems that the upwardly mobile, upper-middle are the ones who need the APPEARANCE of wealth.

We run into this in the church. Sometimes, the argument is made that we need to polish image. Words need to be parsed carefully, also tone of voice. Staffing decisions that favor young, polished, handsome athletic types would be prized by some (thankfully, not all). We think, somehow, we need to adorn the gospel with polish. We need beautiful buildings and designer clothes, and a winsome type A personality.

The truth is: Jesus was none of those, nor did he seem to include such people on his team. He picked losers --let's be honest about it. Yes, the early church picked up a physician later on, but I doubt Luke carried the prestige of top-flight doctors today. And, he did this for purpose --he puts his treasure in jars of clay to make sure we know the surpassing greatness of his power has nothing to do with us.

Image does not help substance. Image does not help advance the gospel. Image harms the gospel. The church is not an auto show, where a curvy young thing needs to be strewn across the hood to sell a product. The gospel is the supernatural power of God, and it changes lives. Is the church anemic today because we don't understand this? I think so. Humility, service, sharing the gospel, and cultivating Biblical knowledge and spiritual disciplines work every time they are tried. Why do we keep seeking something better?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Who Do We Blame?

I am all for individual responsibility. The Scriptures teach that we are responsible for our own sins. No more shall it be said (heard) in Israel, "The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge."

Yet, our understanding of human nature bids us look beyond sin as something as a purely voluntary action of the will --and something that can be resisted by mere willpower.

It is an essentially Pelagian view of sin that says all we must do is resist sin, and, when we fail, it is a moral failing --purely our own "fault." Those who think thus need to own Romans 7.

Which brings me to the thorny problem of Who's Responsible? Conservative evangelicals tend to place sole blame on the sinner: if a person becomes addicted to a substance or experience, it is the moral weakness of that person that brought that about. And, implicitly, this gives rise to pride: I am of sterner moral stuff, because I didn't fall prey to lust, or greed, or drunkenness.

And, it tends to us reasoning that certain sins are more serious than others. Some sins, of course, are more serious than others, but not always the ones we think!

I wonder sometimes if our blame is largely misplaced, if loving the sinner and hating the sin actually means hating the purveyor of sin, while having restorative mercy to the one ensared in the sin. This is not quite moral man and immoral society --more like, sin-prone man, and temptation-proffering society. I am finding myself far more angry at the addictors than addicts these days. I abhor the gambling industry. The whole industry is aimed at addicting those who involve themselves in it --they study the psychology of the gambler, and feed off the addiction.

AS I read the Bible, I see both Satan and Jesus operating this way. Satan feeds off weak and sinful human nature --to entice people to slavery. God's condemnation to death rests upon Satan for this (Genesis 3). Jesus is incensed in the temple (no pun intended), not at those who are buying the doves, etc. (thus "driving the market!") but at the dovesellers! HIs anger rests not on the sinners, but the purveyors of sin.


We might say the same thing for porn, alcohol, or drugs. Our anger should at least be somewhat --and I would argue, mostly, directed at the purveyors. Yet, we throw drug addicts in jail. But, at least in 2 of those three things, the purveyors are protected under the free market, and freedom of speech.

Part of the church growing to understand grace must mean that sinners sins ought not to shock us. Indeed, we understand, empathize, and seek to deliver, not condemn. But, it also means directing our anger to the right places: those who profit off the sinful nature.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

We (All) Are Marshall

So, my wife and I watch We Are Marshall the other night. Pretty affecting story --movie largely true rendering of the horrible plane crash that took an entire football organization: players, coaching staff, and fans. Why do sports movies move even those who aren't much interested in sports? Tragedy, triumph over adversity, pathos, etc on full display. And, no neat endings. Marshall's program took over a decade to recover. Jack Lyengel left after 3 years with a 9-33 overall record --and never coached again. The one remaining coach of the old squad (who had driven home) walked away from football forever after assisting in the recovery season.

Whatever the venue, human drama is a moving thing. You could care little for sports, and find yourself caring very much about a tragedy that occurred over 35 years ago. I think that is why so much of Scripture is story: truth ensconced in moving history. We all live a story, and therefore we can find commonality in the "human condition" whether it be an athlete or a mentally ill mathematical genius (which few of us will ever be). So, too, we can touch base with an aged infertile couple like Abraham and Sarah (or Hannah and Elkani, or Elizabeth and Zachariah), or a sexually wayward king, or a despairing prophet, or a rejected Messiah. We know a little of each of those things, and that makes the story move us.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sermon Writing Agony

I am convinced, if I could write my sermons in the shower, they would be so much better. A flood of ideas come with the flood of water out of the shower head (okay, flowery preacher prose there, sorry about that).

But, there is an agony in staring at the text and computer, when ideas seem hard pressed to come.

Sermons can be agony not just for the listener, but for the preacher, too!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Buildings, Programs, and Attractive Demographics

My denomination seems to be in the midst of a building boom, though likely current circumstances may slow that trend. It is a natural outgrowth of our way of "doing church," which is mostly find a nice, affluent suburban --or hip, trendy college, or eclectic, regentrifying city--neighborhood, and put a church there.

Then, having attracted a well-heeled clientele, set out to wow them with architecture and accouterments. Whether a massive traditional structure with a roaring pipe organ and stained glass, or a modern theatre-style with the latest in video and sound technology, our church life is expensive --but we have the people to pay for it.

And, we can justify it all, too. As was said to me at a recent (not my) presbytery committee meeting, "The rich need Jesus too." Now, that was not the subject for debate. Everybody needs Jesus. That's kind of a given, right? The subject for debate seemed to be whether the poor needed Jesus. IT seems to me that Presbyterians, in defiance of our history, have decided it is our mission from God to reach affluent, well-educated types. Please. Don't we think well of ourselves?

Difficult words to say. My own church is affluent, and well-educated, though our building, while large, is hardly ornate or attractive in and of itself, nor is it in a desirable demographic. I love majestic church buildings, grand organs. I even love some contemporary worship, if the content of the songs and sermons are meaty. So, I point this arrow at my own heart, too.

I realize all of this could sound like spiritual pride, and I am certainly not immune to pride (no-one is), but I wonder if the joy and excitement of actually reaching the lost and ministering to the hurting (real kingdom work) has passed Presbyterianism by not because we are not culturally accommodated enough, but precisely because we are too culturally accommodated. Not in terms of seeker-friendly worship or a vacuous, feel-good message, but simply because we have made peace with materialism. The American dream and the Christian dream have melded in our thinking. We think and strategize and plan, but maybe we have missed the main thing --Jesus cared about those who had nothing in this world and put them first on his list. The outcast, the notorious sinner, the self-degraded, the fatherless and widow, etc etc.

These are not the people in our Presbyterian churches. Why not? We have lost the ethos of our founders --evangelical Christianity always found far more fertile fields among the meek and lowly than it did in the halls of power. INdeed, when Presbyterianism grew popular and wealthy, it soon lost its Biblical fire. We have tried to find a way to retain the BIblical fire WHILE being prosperous. I am starting to doubt that is an option given to us in God's Word.

May he save us from ourselves. May the harvest not pass us by. May he make us a tool of mercy in his hand.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Francis Collins rocks

Who is Francis Collins? Oh, only the premier geneticist in the nation. Only the man who headed the mapping of the human genome --the most incredible scientific discovery of our age.

And, he rocks, see below:

During a debate with Richard Dawkins, Collins stated that God is the object of the unanswered questions about the universe that science does not ask, and that God himself does not need an explanation since he is beyond the universe. Dawkins called this "the mother and father of all cop-outs" and "an incredible evasion of the responsibility to explain", to which Collins responded "I do object to the assumption that anything that might be outside of nature is ruled out of the conversation. That's an impoverished view of the kinds of questions we humans can ask, such as "Why am I here?", "What happens after we die?" If you refuse to acknowledge their appropriateness, you end up with a zero probability of God after examining the natural world because it doesn't convince you on a proof basis. But if your mind is open about whether God might exist, you can point to aspects of the universe that are consistent with that conclusion.[11]