Thursday, May 27, 2010

I'm Writing a "Book"

Book is in quotes because I don't know that it will be worthy of publication, or that any publisher will be interested in it. I'm doing because my session granted me a 3 month sabbatical, and it gives me purpose and a drive to learn.

The book doesn't have a title, but it does have an aspiration. It is a book that I would love to be helpful to the average person in the pew who asks, "What is covenant theology?" The Reformed world has tons of books on the so-called 5 points of Calvinism. But, it doesn't have a ton of books on this topic. There are a few, but I don't resonate with any of them.

Here are some lessons I'm learning:

1.) You must write a book for yourself only. What I mean is: you have to see it as valuable for its own sake, even if nobody else cares one thing about it, or reads it. I am writing to help my own thinking and devotional life. I am writing to learn, and writing, just like reading, helps you formulate, synthesize, and express ideas, which is the preacher's job.

2.) Writing a book shows you immediately how dumb you are. Writing a book means reading a lot of other people's books --people who are smarter than you are, and who write better. This is a good thing. I am learning a lot.

3.) Writing a book is hard work. It involves wrestling with ideas, and how to communicate them. It involves asking others to tear your work apart, which is akin to asking someone to shoot your favorite dog. You do this because you know what you mean, but other people may not, and the point is that you would express yourself clearly to others.

4.) Writing a book is lonely. I am an introvert, not a recluse. I am learning that about myself. An introvert needs some close friends who care about the things he cares about, with whom he can banter: think Lewis and his beloved Inklings. But, book writing means being somewhat sequestered, like a monk.

5.) Humanly speaking, writing a book is pointless. Writing a theological book won't bring you glory, most likely. When I was at T4G, the book room was overwhelming --just the sheer number of titles. I agree with old Solomon: many books are a wearing thing. Far too many of them say what has already been said better, by someone else, somewhere else. Even if you clear the publication hurdle, you become just one more book among thousands. You cannot write because you want to be noticed. You must write on the off chance that, should the book make it to market, it might be helpful to someone.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Triumphing Over Damaging Circumstances

I am in the thick of reading Manchester's incredible biography of Winston Churchill. There are many life lessons in the book, not the least of which is the power of the human will to triumph over devastating circumstances.

It is hard to imagine a more difficult home life than that endured by young Churchill. His father, Randolph, was descended from nobility, and one of the most famous statesmen of his day. As a young man, he was drugged at a party, and awakened in the bed of a syphilitic prostitute. In that day, there were few treatments and no cure for that horrendous disease. Syphilis gnaws at the body, and then at the mind. It claimed Randolph's life at a young age, but not before it brought about his almost total public disgrace.

Not only was Randolph a somewhat pathetic public figure, he was as an awful father, who did little to disguise his open dislike for his son, even from his earliest days.

Many children with one antagonistic parent can take refuge in the arms of the other, but this too was denied young Winston. Winston's mother, Jennie, was a New York socialite, with a wanton sexual appetite. Even in Victorian England, there was open sexual promiscuity among the nobility, and Jennie made no pretense about hiding her numerous paramours from her husband, children, or society at large.

Neither Randolph nor Jennie had much interest in their son, and, even if they had, the norm for young gentlemen was miserable boarding school. Winston's plaintive letters home are pleas for visits and affections, neither of which he got.

Yet, as children in such families often do, he lionized his father, and worshipped his mother. It is a mark of the implantation of the divine on us that, even when we have no model for what family life ought to be like, there is something innate in us that recognizes when it is horribly wrong.

It would be foolish to argue that Winston was unaffected by his parents. In fact, the evidence shows quite the opposite. He was a worthless and pig-headed student, perennially in trouble with whatever schoolmaster or marm was in charge of him. And, the deep melancholy of his adulthood perhaps could be blamed on the relational frigidity of his upbringing.

But, this is Churchill we are talking about --one of the greatest men of history, the man of indomitable courage, the square-jawed opponent of Hitler, the one man whose eloquence and spirit could raise the weary heads of the beleaguered Brits during the blitz. We might say he transcended his upbringing --and doubtless there is truth to that. We might also say that his upbringing was inescapably part of him, that it actually helped to forge his character.

We often tend to treat people as if they are damaged goods --simply the victims of forces beyond their control, helpless, and incurably wounded by what they have done, and what has been done to them. I am not at all calloused to the wounds of others, but what I am saying is that God will not only help us transcend circumstances, but, in his sovereign control over every painful circumstance, he redeems the pain, to make us even more useful people.

David's young life was fraught with pain, but God redeemed his circumstances to build him into a man after God's own heart. Joseph, too. Jacob knew hurtful rejection by one parent. And, above all, Christ was rejected by his own Father on our behalf.

So, take a lesson from old Winnie. Chin up, good man. You are not the product of your experiences, but the child of the living God, and he will strengthen you to make you useful to him --the highest call of all.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

To Preachers: Boring Your People Is a Sin, So Stop It.

Good stuff from Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It is a mystifying thing why something as exciting as the history of redemption is turned by many an orthodox preacher into something boring. It is also a mystifying thing why something on which all eternity for individuals hinges is so often preached as if nothing is at stake.

Maybe preachers need to think about sermons less, and think about preaching more, not in such a way to turn them into polished orators with affected methods of speaking, but rather a basic understanding of what preaching is.

Is preaching expositing a text? Yes, it is. Without a text, we have no message to bring to our people. But, there is much expositing that doesn't qualify as preaching.

I have the great privilege of meeting with several seminarians regularly. What I am trying to get them to see is the romance of preaching, the art of preaching, the joy of preaching --the sort of preaching touted by old liberal Fred B. Craddock in his book Preaching or by old conservative Willie Still in The Work of the Pastor or by Lloyd-Jones, or Fred Lybrand or others.

And that is this: not preaching that sounds one particular way, or follows one particular method, but is, at least in part, what Phillips Brooks called "Truth mediated through personality." It can take a myriad of different forms. Two of my favorites are Sinclair Ferguson and John Piper. Their styles could not be more different, but the ethos they show forth is the same. If I were to journey outside my own Reformed camp, I would cite the ethos of Tozer (the portrait above), or of Jim Cymbala or of David Wilkerson or of Len Ravenhill. The truth can be shouted, and it can be whispered. The cry of "sound the alarm" from the rooftops can rouse the sleeper to action, but so can the anguished whisper that comes in the middle of the night. We can be roused with a shout; we can be wooed in a whisper.

Ethos is a slippery thing upon which to get a grip, to be sure. But, preaching must manifest a sacred thirst, a holy desperation, the spirit of Psalm 42. It must have an urgency, and a vitality to it. I have come to think it is more about lifting a text off a page, than it is driving people into a text. It is heralding it forth before hearers --holding it up to their faces so they might see it, smell it, and taste it, as well as hear it.

The Scriptures are a fascinating story. The language is sensual: there is blood and illicit behaviors, and jarring grotesque imagery, as well as profound beauty, and affecting human drama. There are truths that confront us, and poetry that soothes us. There are warnings, and there is inestimable comfort. Most of all, there is a call: the call to stand in God's holy presence, clad in the righteous robe of his Son, to both come away from the world, and to be pressed back into the world, to serve the world in the name of its Creator. Is it a radical thing to say our sermons ought to be filled with the sound of Scripture, as well as the substance of Scripture?

And the worst thing we can do to a book like that is to make it boring. My friend and mentor J. R. de Witt often cited his own homiletics professor who said, "It is no sin to be interesting." May every preacher heed those words today.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Should We Hold All the Truth with Equal Tenacity?

Short answer: We should not.

Long answer: Picture a man living in a city-state. This man is opposed to two things currently against the law: smoking in public buildings, and human trafficking.

There are several groups in the city, working for change. One group thinks it is wrong to ban smoking --that it ought to be up to the business owners, and not the city, to make that determination. The other group is working to make human trafficking legal.

The man who opposes both --should he equate the two issues? Should he be at every city council meeting arguing, "Smoking in public is a tantamount evil to human trafficking." Should he spend his fire on both issues?

To my fellow PCA conservatives: not all issues are created equal. Yesterday, at Presbytery, tearful arguments were made that the PCA was founded to stand against two things: alternate views of creation days, and prohibiting women deaconesses.

Really? Because if I thought those were the issues behind the PCA's founding, I would have stayed in the RCA, thank you very much. I thought the issues were, oh, I don't know, the inerrancy of Scripture, the resurrection, the doctrines of grace.

It is a sad character flaw to treat all issues as if they were equally ultimate. B.B. Warfield, the champion of inerrancy and doctrinal fidelity, believed in deaconesses. J. Gresham Machen, the champion of the fundamentals and truth of Scripture, was not a 6/24 man. Neither was Charles Hodge.

The truth is: we are losing the battles for what is important by fighting battles over what is unimportant. And, quite frankly, it is tearing at the fabric of the PCA.

I will fight battles. I am involved in one now, over an issue that I believe pertains to the gospel of free grace itself. But, that is an important battle. Far more important than these little ones that invite scorn and derision, and drive thoughtful men away from, and not towards, the conservative cause.

God help us all.