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:

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.