Saturday, December 17, 2011

Some Thoughts on Christopher Hitchens

I understand the truth of what the Scripture says, "The fool says in his heart 'there is no God.'"  Yet, smart atheists  serve a purpose in the life of the thinking believer, and Christopher Hitchens was a smart atheist.  Doug Wilson, his sometime sparring partner has written a fitting tribute to him over at Christianity Today.  Christians do themselves a disservice when they assume that the atheist (or any opponent of evangelical Christianity) is the product of some personality disorder or traumatic experience.  It is true that some very smart people go stark raving mad when it comes to their opposition to the Christian faith (Richard Dawkins comes to mind).  Even Hitchens went off the rails sometimes, but generally he presented smart, credible challenges to the too-easy answers with which we comfort ourselves.  I find few people on the "other side" of whom this is true (Camille Paglia would be another, but she has largely and lamentably fallen silent of late).

Many people in my circles (and I chide myself here) are satisfied with very pat answers, and are unwilling to allow their faith to be challenged by the good arguments of the other side --this is true in terms of every aspect of the Christian world-view --politics as well as religion.  So, we end up repeating mantras instead of thinking deeply.  Scripture is altogether different.  Ecclesiastes stares into the abyss and finds some discomforting things there.  Job wrangles with pain and evil and finds his ultimate answer is no answer at all --simply a call to leave it to God, and a confident resolution that God will triumph in the end.  That is faith --but we need to understand why it is not always intellectually satisfying.

The larger point is to find the best opponents of what you believe and read them or, if you have the chance, wrangle with them in person.  If your faith is too brittle to withstand those sorts of onslaughts, it needs to be strengthened.

One of my mentors in the ministry is an incredibly smart man, intellectually curious across the field of human endeavor.  A conversation with him is at once fascinating and intellectually daunting, as topics fly by in a flurry.  During his ministry in one place, a mutual friend introduced him to the notable, vociferous atheist forty-year pastor of the downtown liberal church.  Yes, I said atheist.  This man was not a "pat answers" universalist liberal --he denied the existence of God, and told his free-thinking congregation as much.  This group would meet regularly at the same spot, in an inklings-like friendship:  my friend (pastor of a large, staunchly orthodox and Calvinistic church), the acquaintance (a notable Christian Reformed intellectual), the atheist pastor, and another liberal pastor (best described as a Calvinist turned Unitarian).  I once had the temerity to ask my mentor why he did this.  His answer was simple, "He keeps me honest."

I think the confessional Reformed tradition suffers today from an insularity --the same people saying the same things to friendly audiences, and it can create a stifling atmosphere.  My answer is not, of course, that we become liberal --it's that we develop stronger answers for why we're not, and cordial relationships with those that are.  We need to have our iron sharpened, and we can only do this as we learn to intersect with those with whom we disagree.  Their arguments are stronger than we think, and sometimes ours are weaker than we think.  We can only change that by interacting with them.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Brief Quote on the Reformed Faith and Our Mission

W. Robertson Nicoll was a well-regarded British pastor, Bible scholar and journalist in the nineteenth century. Throughout the years, he wrote a series of obituaries and brief tributes to British church notables that he had known. These are collected in the volume entitled Princes of the Church. Some were doubtless famous in their own day and are now forgotten. Some are remembered for their scholarly accomplishments (Lightfoot and Westcott). Some are remembered by their theological heirs (A. Maclaren, Alexander Whyte, Andrew Bonar). A few stand out as titans in their respective traditions: Cardinal John Henry Newman and the great Baptist Charles H. Spurgeon.

What Nicoll says about Spurgeon flies in the face of the popular myth that Calvinism can only flourish among educated, elite people (in fact the whole history of Dutch Calvinism flies in the face of that too --google Petronella Baltus, but I digress).

Nicoll writes: It may seem a hard saying, but it cannot be doubted that his theology was a main element in his lasting attraction. Why has Calvinism flourished exceedingly in the damp, low-lying, thickly peopled, struggling regions of South London(?)...Mr. Spurgeon's hearers had many of them missed all the prizes of life; but God did not choose them for the reasons that move man's preference, else their case were hopeless. Their election was of grace. And as He chose them, He would keep them. The perseverance of the saints is a doctrine witout meaning to the majority of Christians. But many a poor girl with the love of Christ and goodness in her heart, working her fingers to the bone for a pittance that just keeps her alive, with the temptations of the streets around her and the river beside her, listened with all her soul when she heard that Christ's sheep could never perish.

The very poor...are beginning to hope that councils and parliaments will do much for them. They may find it so, but Mr. Spurgeon made little of such things. He taught them...that now in the living communion of the soul with Christ, they might have all the joy they needed. A man too wise, too experienced, not to know how slowly the battles of the poor are won and how little their victories often yield --he insisted on the joy and peace in believing, which the world could neither give nor take away. Life might pursue its hard, monotonous way of obscure toil, scanty wages and a great weight of care, but over it all there might rest a soft and sacred light. The common people heard this gladly, and well they might, for it is so. Perhaps when they have had a little more experience of the politician they will hear it more gladly than ever.

I think sometimes we have a Reformed brain, but not Reformed hearts. Calvinism and affluence are strange bedfellows, sometimes, Max Weber notwithstanding. Calvinistic commitment, historically, has seemed to wane with increased prosperity (Religion begat prosperity, Mather said, and the daughter devoured the mother).

Do we, in the new Reformed movement, really believe we are the lowest of the low, and that God can reach other lowest of the low with his sovereign grace? Or, do we assume that the elect must have a certain educational level and financial means? Are we really in this for "whosoever will" or only for people like us? May God build his people from all races and income levels and walks of life!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Glory and Grit

Psalm 96:9 Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!

Matthew 11:19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds."

Our church culture tends towards extremes and absolute divides. Perhaps that is just a characteristic of the American temperament. We have a hard time with "both/ands," and usually opt for the "either/or". An example: either a church is concerned about teaching the Word and doctrine, or it is concerned about the poor. The word and doctrine crowd think the poverty crowd are simpering social-gospelers. The poverty crowd thinks the word and doctrine crowd are the dead orthodox. Well, why not orthodox people who care about the poor? Why is it so hard for us to avoid what smart people call neo-Platonic dualism? Why can't we love doctrine and those for whom life is very hard?

I find the same thing true in terms of worship and ministry model. Churches tend either toward grit or glory. The gritty church assumes that everything has to be raw to be authentic. It is like NYPD Blue, a show of unparalleled brilliance in terms of grit. The police were as flawed and volatile as the perps. The lives of the heroes were as tragic as those of the villains. The camera took it all in with unblinking eye. The gritty church assumes that worship should be as raw (and sometimes as vulgar) as life itself can be. There is little beauty, and a lot of very straight talk. I am not offering a blanket condemnation of that --I think straight, pointed sermons that are as explicit as Scripture itself can be when circumstances warrant are part of real preaching.

The good of the gritty church (and Mars Hill Seattle would be a classic example, I think) is the sorts of people they are reaching --the great unwashed multitudes that would feel very uncomfortable in a church that operated on the "glory" model (more about which below). They see prostitutes and sinners come to Christ and be forever changed. Their pews are filled with the lost who are being saved.

The glory model is different. It isn't about a particular worship style (it could be contemporary or traditional) but about attracting a particular type of person --generally affluent suburbanites. Like Ravenhill (if memory serves) said, "Churches used to be about rescuing the perishing, now they are about recruiting the promising." We need great programs and great buildings in great locations. We need to be shiny and impressive. Production values are the name of the game in worship. We want to recruit people like us --people who are smart enough to get it, and successful enough to pay for it. The church locates where life is easy (at least on the surface), and aims all it does on serving the people. Though the church (like all churches) engages in service, the ethos is more about catering to the people, rather than pressing them into the gritty areas of life. The service core of such churches, one might suspect, is rather small.

The glory church is good in that it seems to recognize that God is pleased when we do what we do as well as we can, when we are dissatisfied with shabbiness or shoddiness in music, in preaching, in teaching, in our buildings, etc. Churches do not have to be dank, ugly and serve industrial grade coffee. We can put out nice brochures and have great instrumentalists and erudite and compelling messages. All this is good.

My argument is simple: we should have both. The church should be excellent, have great worship, do all that it does with an eye towards its Master, and it should be in the prisons, on the streets, in the undesirable neighborhoods, with the addicts and the refugees and the homeless.

Can a church do both of those things? I think it must. It is not optional. A church cannot be a church and fail to seek to serve the needs of the community around it as well as the world. In many ways, it is easier to reach the world than the community. The "undesirables" across the sea are far more palatable than the ones sitting in the pew next to you --this recalls a classic scene in "The Help" where the same ladies who won't let their domestic employees use their restrooms are collecting funds for the starving children of Africa. This does not mean worship should or must become gritty. We need glory too. We need to have our eyes lifted, if only for a few moments, off what is ugly in the world and focused on what is beautiful about God in Christ.

May the church not shun the grit even as it embraces the glory.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Update: A Prison Visit, at Last

Yesterday, God granted me success in seeing my imprisoned friend.

He is doing well, away from the issues that claw at his heart and destroy his body. He looks good. He is his "old self," which is his new self in Christ.

He hopes to get out. I don't see that happening. He has not quite come to terms with the magnitude of what is facing him.

In the meanwhile, he has joy in Christ and is ministering to others, studying the Word with them and encouraging them. I have no doubt he will do this even if he never again sees the light of day.

Visiting the prison is interesting. As I was leaving, they were pulling a sad man out of the detox/holding room not 3 feet away. A foreboding deputy had found some sort of drug in the parking lot outside the prison. An older white biker-type was being frisked and his worldly possessions cataloged. I stood there with my friend, unacknowledged, waiting for him to be taken back, watching the sad panorama of lives unfold around me. There are stone-faced prison personnel who visages bereft of human kindness --perhaps the defense mechanism that comes from any small show of compassion being exploited, there are those still in the thrall of addiction, whose minds have been forever altered by the damage of drugs. It all looks like the sad wreckage of humanity.

Perhaps saddest of all is that, due to overcrowding, all Christian services have ceased, at least for now. I pray that won't continue. There are men and women in our prisons who are ripe for Christ. Pray that we can bring him to them.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

More Prison Sadness and a Note of Hope

I received another letter from my friend in prison today. The third letter. I have written him three times. His letter indicates he has not heard from me or anyone else. He must be in despair. I don't know what to do but to pray. I am going to call the warden tomorrow, but I doubt he will be able to tell me anything.

Pray for my friend.

The note of hope is that some people get this. Prison reform is hard, but it can happen. Ohio is an example. May Chuck Colson be granted an extraordinarily long life --I just don't see many other Christians doing this sort of work:

Oh, and just an update. My last post was prophetic. I drove to the jail at the appointed time --and was turned away at the door. I will, DV, try again early this week.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Forgotten Man

I have a friend and congregant in jail. Why he is there is really immaterial, but let's just say it is not due to any official injustice. He and I had become very close when life was going well for him and then, when things fell apart, I did not know where he was. I would hear reports from those who had seen him, and the reports were not good. So I must confess I was a bit relieved to hear he was in a place where, while certainly not desirable, he would be clothed, fed, housed, get his insulin and be away from the demons he could not seem to escape.

Prisons are not pleasant places to visit. I have been to three, each of them quite different. We do not expect prisons to be pleasant. Yet, I wish they were better than they are, for a multitude of reasons. Not only this, but prisons are not easy places to visit. If you go to see a shut-in or a sick member in the hospital, by and large, you pick your time, or you arrange a time, and you go. A prison is the luck of the draw. You drive there. Some prisons allow you to arrange a time, but there is no guarantee you can actually the person at that time. If someone else is using the visiting room, you may be out of luck (and about 2 hours of your time, without having made a visit).

It was Charles Colson who opened my eyes to the horrible reality of imprisonment. We are "law and order" people. We want those who commit offenses to serve their time. Christians, other than Prison Fellowship, have not given much thought to what ought, and ought not, occur behind bars. We allow prisoners to be dehumanized --and wonder why animals are released. Prison Fellowship has had good success with rehabilitation --except where the courts have shut them down for being too "Christian," not realizing that the gospel is at the heart of why they are successful.

To me, it should not be hard for society to provide a decent prison environment --one that made a productive use of time, that was safe, where a man could earn his keep, and improve his mind. It should not be like a murderous cattle pen, where the strong can prey on the weak, and the murder and rape are ever-present fears. Decency demands this. These are men and women made in God's image --marred by sin and candidates for redemption. They ought to be treated with basic dignity and afforded basic protections and basic joys.

I have yet to see my friend. The jail was busy, you see. I could not go when I needed to go. I must wait till tomorrow. At 3 pm. To see a man with nothing but time on his hands. Even then, this is not an appointment but a hope. I will drive an hour round-trip on this hope, as I have before, and hope I am not disappointed in my effort to see him. If this is frustrating for me, what must it be for my friend? What is more, he can only be visited by his pastor and immediate family, and then only for twenty minutes, once a month. The man's family wants nothing to do with him. The church is his family, but he is beyond most of our reach.

My friend tells me that the man who has been behind bars for years is a broken man. He is not defiant like the young offenders. He has lost hope. He is ripe to hear the gospel --but it is hard to get the gospel to him. The system and its byzantine rules (and they are staggering) makes it very hard. My friend tells me the man who comes to the prison to do services has no gospel at all --all condemnation and no grace. All of this makes me very sad.

Prisoners, like the unborn, are out of sight and out of mind for most people. They are men and women. They have done wrong and been caught. They are paying a debt of sorts. Some of them are dangerous and never need to be let out. Some of them are self-destructive and need to be kept away from the substances that enslave them. Most of them are like looking in the mirror.

I hope someday, perhaps, to have a part in prison ministry. Until then, let's not forget the forgotten men and women behind bars in this country. Let's figure out the ways to get Christ to them.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Remembering a Friend

I have thought for awhile that, since many of my chief influencers in ministry are older, I was in for some painful goodbyes in the coming days. Today, God called my friend and former senior pastor Cortez Cooper to be with himself. Corty was eighty years old, and always the portrait of robust health. He modeled that stanza in "How Firm a Foundation,"

E'en down to old age all your people shall prove,
Your sovereign, eternal unchangeable love.

Corty was a modest man, not given to talk much about himself, but every once in awhile, you'd find out interesting tidbits about him. Ronald Reagan used to come hear him preach during his days as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Nashville. God used him to bring NASCAR legend Daryl Waltrip to faith, and Corty is the reason Daryl began to drive for Tide. He had pastored First Nashville for ten years. The declining fidelity of the Southern Presbyterian Church, and its impending merger with the far more liberal and larger PCUSA led the church to vote as to whether or not to leave. Though the congregation voted in the majority to leave the old denomination, the session (at Corty's suggestion) had insisted on a super-majority, which they did not give.

Corty resigned, and went to plant a church. First Church wanted to provide finances, and Corty refused their offer. He and several hundred (out of a church of several thousand) went and started Christ Presbyterian, which grew huge under his leadership.

Yet, for all of this, the size of a church mattered not at all to Corty. We first met Corty when I interviewed to become his assistant pastor at Draper's Valley Presbyterian in rural Southwestern Virginia. His wife, Pat, had deep roots in that church. Her father, Preston Sartelle, Sr., and her brother, Preston, Jr., had been pastors of the church. Corty retired from his position as coordinator for Mission to North America. He and Pat now occupied full-time the lovely antebellum home they had purchased while he worked in Atlanta.

When we visited, the Coopers insisted that we stay with them. At first, it might seem strange to spend several days living with the man who was evaluating you for a position, but he and his wife literally met us at the car door, hugging us both. We felt at home immediately.

Corty was planning to retire (again). He wanted a faithful assistant that might succeed him as the pastor of Draper's Valley. This is, in fact, what happened. Though he and I were wired very differently, there was never a moment's friction between us. We went through some very rough times together. He was like a patient grandfather, and I learned a lot from him about how to be a pastor.

His wife, Pat, was a true mentor to my wife. She was strong, and very firm in her opinions, and yet modeled a quiet graciousness. She did not speak much, but when she did, she could cut through a fog of opinion with a simple, poignant question. She was a true help meet to her husband. She is a model of comfortable hospitality --she taught my wife that the house did not need to be perfect in order for it to be welcoming (though hers was both!). She often told the story of phoning her pastor-father from Davidson College saying, "Daddy, I met a boy, but he's a Baptist!!" Well, in God's good providence, he did not stay a Baptist. She is very much in our thoughts today. It is hard for us to think about Pat without Corty, so joined were they.

That said, it would be impossible to measure up for him. He had such a zest for life and a zest for people. He could make you feel loved and at home in an instant --he was a people magnet. When Corty retired and the church called me, he immediately began a string of interim pastorates so that he would be "out of the way" (though I always wished he had stayed "in the way!" We missed them terribly when they left). He served churches in transition. Some of these churches were very small. One was a remnant group of just a few dozen. Others were some of the leading churches of our denomination (Kirk of the Hills St. Louis and Chapelgate Baltimore). He was still doing this when he died.

God brings people like this into our lives as a precious, fragile gift. I do not have a whole host of friends, but the friends I do have are deep wells. I praise God for the elder brothers he has given me along the journey. Part of friendship is pain --deep grief when a friend is called to glory. I lost a friend my age a few years ago --that was painful. I have now lost a friend 40 years my senior --this is painful too. Lord, in your grace let me be just a little like my friend Corty Cooper.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Power of a Living Voice

We had an incredible time on Broadway. Ever since I can remember, I have been a huge fan of the live theater. For a small city, Grand Rapids had a fairly live theater scene, and I was privileged, growing up, to see quite a few shows. Since then, Pittsburgh and its grand theaters have filled the bill on our visits there.

Though I had been to Broadway once before (in its seedy days), I had never gotten to see a show. Through the generosity of some friends, we were able to see not just one show, but three. It was an awesome experience. At one, somehow I managed to get front-row center seats --nothing quite like that. At another, I got to be in the same room with Brooke Shields --Brooke Shields! The third was a lark --we had finished dinner on Monday night, and decided to go to the TKTS booth to see what was available. Most shows are dark on Monday, and we got there about 7:35 (most curtains are at 8). Nonetheless, at that time, the tickets are cheap, and the seats were grand --just one look and I can hear a bell ring, one more look and I forget everything... Pretty fun show.

What is it about live performance that makes it so compelling? Yes, movies can be awesome and profound, but there is something magical about live actors on the stage. Actors develop a dynamic between them and their audience, something that is missing from a screen (and perhaps in acting in front of a camera). Feedback is instantaneous. There is laughter and applause. There is a sense that they are with you or they aren't.

Some have hypothesized that the great revivalist orator George Whitefield was a frustrated actor. There are some similarities between acting and preaching --the great allure of being the center of attention of a crowd. The feeling can be very much like this:

The costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props
The audience that lifts you when you're down
The headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops
The sheriff who escorts you out of town
The opening when your heart beats like a drum
The closing when the customers won't come...

There is a drama to good preaching, to be sure, and preachers are human and like some measure of notice and acclaim --though of course we shouldn't be in preaching for notice or acclaim.

God puts his word on a printed page for a reason --so it might be a fixed verity, a point of truth, a standard, like the official weights and measures kept under lock and key by the government so they will not be altered.

But, he gives his word a living human voice, in part because he wired us to find this compelling. Ours is not a day of great orators. There are no Bryans on the Platte or FDRs or Churchills on the wireless. Still and all, we love a living voice. Like Nipper sitting on the coffin listening to the phonograph, we recognize our master's voice. "My sheep know my voice and they follow me...another they will not follow."

God spoke through the prophets, and through his son. Now, he speaks through fallible, human spokesmen who are faithful to his word, who can embrace and be embraced, who bleed, who empathize, who fail and make mistakes just like their hearers. On the one hand, it seems so very foolish (1 Cor 1) --but on the other hand, it seems so very wise.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Let's Try This Again --NYC living redux.

As we wandered around New York over those four glorious days, I pondered a bit what New York must be like for New Yorkers --not those going from one site to another, but rather those who spend their workaday lives there. We saw New York from the Circle Line boat (a fascinating tour, even though Irene kept us from circumnavigating the island), and from the Top of the Rock (with 8000 of our closest friends). But, what about the person who drops into a hole in the ground a few blocks from his apartment, and emerges a few blocks from his office, day in and day out, in blowing snow and soaking rain?

Our view of New York is one of a holiday weekend, with lovely weather, and diminished busyness (except, of course, for Times Square). Is New York as fascinating for New Yorkers as it is for out-of-towners? Is it as fun in January as September?

I have never lived in a big city, though I love them. I have remarked often to my wife that, if we lived in Pittsburgh, I would go to the Strip District (a wholesale multi-ethnic food extravaganza) every week to buy my groceries at the Italian grocers. But would I really? Wouldn't I just go to the local corner supermarket and the big box retailer? It’s hard to say. Big cities are fun places to visit, but then again, I don’t have the three hour round-trip commute our boat tour guide has.

I think I would like to try living in a big city someday. The mix of ethnicities, the wonderful food, the atmosphere of life, the arts scene, the neighborhood feel would be all very enjoyable. If I never get to do that in this life, I know that I shall in the next. One of the great comforts for me about Heaven is knowing that the believer will never miss out. If I don’t make it to Salzburg or St. Petersburg or Paris in this life, I know that what awaits me is far more glorious. If I never complete my bucket list of places to visit and experiences to have, I will have an eternity of endless fascination to enjoy. I long for that day.

What Would It Be Like to Live in NYC?

As we wandered around New York over those four glorious days, I pondered a bit what New York must be like for New Yorkers --not those going from one site to another, but rather those who spend their workaday lives there. We saw New York from the Circle Line boat (a fascinating tour, even though Irene kept us from circumnavigating the island), and from the Top of the Rock (with 8000 of our closest friends). But, what about the person who drops into a hole in the ground a few blocks from his apartment, and emerges a few blocks from his office, day in and day out, in blowing snow and soaking rain?

Our view of New York is one of tourists on a holiday weekend, with lovely weather, and diminished busyness (except, of course, for Times Square). Is New York as fascinating for New Yorkers as it is for out-of-towners? Is it as fun in January as September?

I have never lived in a big city, though I love them. I have remarked often to my wife that, if we lived in Pittsburgh, I would go to the Strip District (a wholesale multi-ethnic food extravaganza) every week to buy my groceries at the Italian grocers. But would I really? Wouldn't I just go to the local corner supermarket and the big box retailer? It’s hard to say. Big cities are fun places to visit, but then again, I don’t have the three hour round-trip commute our boat tour guide has.
I think I would like to try living in a big city someday. The mix of ethnicities, the wonderful food, the atmosphere of life, the arts scene, the neighborhood feel would be all very enjoyable. If I never get to do that in this life, I know that I shall in the next. One of the great comforts for me about Heaven is knowing that the believer will never miss out. If I don’t make it to Salzburg or St. Petersburg or Paris in this life, I know that what awaits me is far more glorious. If I never complete my bucket list of places to visit and experiences to have, I will have an eternity of endless fascination to enjoy. I long for that day.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Lunching on the Cathedral Steps...

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine sits in a lovely neighborhood not far from Central Park. By happy accident on our way there we happened upon the famous Tom's Diner, known to the world as "Monk's," where Jerry and George often held court. Having heard my wife's plea not to plan our entire trip around eating, we found a wonderful Italian grocery, and got a roast beef sandwich to go.

We had the loveliest lunch resting on the capacious steps of St. John the Divine (hearafter SJD). SJD began its life as the world's largest vanity project --it remains the world's largest cathedral, unfinished and with no immediate plans to finish. I say it was a vanity project because New York's Episcopalians wanted a rival to Midtown's famous St. Patrick's. Now it stands there, in its awkward unfinished state, still massively impressive. Its North Transept was destroyed by fire, filling the rest of the sanctuary with soot and smoke. The main sanctuary was cleaned and reopened; the North transept was never re-built.

The Cathedral is impressive because of its tapestries, its landmark Aeolian-Skinner organ (the gold standard in church organs and one of two grand organs in New York I had the misfortune of not hearing played!), its art and its bizarre multi-culturalism. It is here that a woman performed an "Aids Mass" by drenching herself in cattle blood (where is PETA when you need them?). It is here that a female Christ figure is displayed, with jetliners crashing through her hands. The temporary exhibit was a circle of some sort of deer skulls from the West on poles. This is not something one would see in the average Presbyterian sanctuary.

New York is filled with grand edifices. I would have loved to see the famous Riverside Church, which John D. Rockefeller, liberal Christian philanthropist, built as a cathedral to progressivism, for his favorite pastor, Harry E. Fosdick, and where the famous organist Virgil Fox warred with a subsequent Mrs. Rockefeller for the right to play his magnificent Skinner at full volume for church preludes. The gospel is still heard in some of these grand edifices (Doug Webster, an evangelical PCUSA minister who now pastors Central Presbyterian in New York, was a guest at my church this last Sunday --his brother-in-law is my assistant). I doubt it is heard at SJD, at least not part of the regular diet.

I love beauty. I love cathedrals. Our current age finds them prohibitively expensive to build, and a misappropriation of resources that might be better directed at missions and mercy. I wonder, though, why so many massive, formerly faithful churches sit vacant or, alternately, those that remain don't tell men and women of the good news of the free grace of God abounding in Jesus Christ to the penitent sinner. I wonder why so many (or the few) go in for the poor substite of deer skulls or female Jesuses or cow's blood masses.

And then I rejoice that the gospel goes forth. Manhattan houses some fine church edifices, but it houses many fine churches that don't meet in those fine edifices --thou art within no walls confined, as an old hymn has it. I am glad the gospel is going forth in New York. I am glad it is finding stock brokers and homeless people. I am glad for Jim Cymbala in Brooklyn and the late David Wilkerson in Times Square and for Tim Keller and for a host of faithful others. God has his people in that great city and he doesn't need cathedrals, as beautiful as they are, to accomplish his work.

Brokenness Is No Fun

It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply... A. W. Tozer

I refer to the last year or so of life around our house as "The Year of Things Breaking." The list is too long to recount: dishwasher, new dryer, freezer, coffee maker, computer, printer and my wife's engagement ring --I am sure there are other things too! Brokenness is no fun.

Though it is aggravating when it comes to our material possessions, it is far more painful when it happens to our selves. Those who would serve the Lord will, without exception, find themselves being broken --and it is no fun.

There are various ways that God does this. In my own experience, it has been through health issues for my wife and eldest daughter. God can do it through the stubborn resistance of a much-detested indwelling pet sin. He can do it with business reversals, rebellious children, or a challenging church situation. He does it, the Westminster Confession says, for his own good purposes, a reason that sounded hollow to Job and often sounds the same to us. It is no mystery that the Psalms are filled with the "Why me?" question.

Yet, there are reasons. First, if we are to be used of God, we need to be broken. To be broken means to be disabused of our neat and tidy view of life. We begin Christian adulthood with hopes and dreams --grand aspirations for our families, for our careers, for our ministries. We soon encounter cold, hard realities. The child we groomed to be a star student struggles and needs remedial help. The son upon whom we pinned athletic glory doesn't show much interest in anything. The church on which we pinned great hopes for ministry success struggles along a bumpy road. Our own bodies are felled and hindered by unexpected illness.

People who are not broken are insufferable. People with all the answers --with perfect families as the result of perfect methods, and perfect outcomes. People with perfect churches that go according to perfect plans, and attract perfect people. Such, really, do not exist. It is an illusion --a facade constructed for public show, a path to glory without pain. It is a false path; it does not exist.

God's strength is perfected in weakness. How slow we are to learn that. The treasure of the gospel is put in jars of clay so that we can claim no credit for helping it succeed. Speaking of my own experience, the paltry little bit of suffering I have experienced has made me far more empathetic with others than I would be otherwise.

You cannot be a minister or an elder without empathy, I don't think. You can't remain cold, distant and clinical and really minister to people. You have to hurt for them and with them. That means you have to open yourself up to hurt. This, in itself, is not pleasant. You cannot proceed with the "I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain..." self-protection mentality. You have to open yourself up to public shame. You cannot love your own reputation. You have to be willing to empty yourself as Jesus did. You cannot hire others to do your dirty work; you are called to be a servant, and there is nothing beneath your doing. You have not risen too high to change a bedpan.

I have often felt very broken. It is perhaps the worst feeling in the world. It can feel like life is unraveling without much hope. As Psalm 42 says, our experience can be like that of drowning under all God's waves and breakers rolling over us. This hurts. We have two options: it can make us withdrawn, private, chilly individuals for whom self-protection trumps being useful to God or we can allow ourselves to be broken.

Christ was broken. He was not only crushed physically, but spiritually. He emptied himself of reputation. There was no grandeur and earthly glory in what he did. He was despised and rejected by men and, for a time, by his own Father. He did this, though, for the greater good of bringing many sons to glory. The pathway to glory is through suffering --there is simply no other way. If our chief goal in life is to serve God, then we have already made our choice. We have chosen to be broken and to bleed --but not for no purpose. We have chosen it so that we might be useful to God, and humble before others.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

But It's My Opinion --How Do We Know When We're Right or Wrong?

One of the hardest things in the life of the church is a difference of opinion. Far too often, minds are made up with few facts, and assessments are skewed by our life experiences, emotion and subjectivity. The clash results when opinions are closed to reason, or any thought that I might be wrong. Healthy self-doubt is good for the Christian --we can pretend we are as fair and objective, and really believe we are (far so than the other guy), and yet be miles away from God's will on any given subject.

Scripture, however, gives us some guidance in this. How do we know that we are rendering a wise, godly opinion? James tells us:

James 3:13-18 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

First, it is held in meekness. The anger of men generally does not serve the purposes of God. Yes, there are occasions for righteous anger, but they are few and far between, and usually not on matters of difference between believers. In matters where truth and righteousness are not at stake, being tentative is a virtue.

Second, it is pure. It does not act from selfish motive, concern about the opinions of others, or one's own standing or selfish advantage. It seeks the welfare of God and others above its own.

Third, it is peaceable It does not provoke or seek quarrels. It ratchets down the temperature of discussions. This is one reasons elders are to be men without hot tempers --a hot temper usually equals foolish decisions.

Fourth, it is gentle. The wisdom of God is not harsh, unyielding, demanding and performance-driven. These are not godly qualities.

Fifth, it is open to reason. How often have I seen in church debates where men have said "I have made up my mind and you aren't going to change it." That is an inherently godless position; it goes against what Scripture here says. God hears us out; he considers our cause; he even "changes his mind" (I know, that's anthropopathic language, but it proves my point. To our appearances, God changes his mind). God is reasonable and open to entreaty and his servants ought to be too.

Sixth, it is fraught with mercy. A Christian should be quick to forgive and quick to seek forgiveness. He cannot live comfortably at odds with another Christian. He needs to put himself in the position of his opponent, to try to see things from his perspective, to understand him.

Seventh it is impartial. It does not regard persons, does not favor anyone, but considers all facts. It is not done out of malice or prejudice against a person.

Eighth, it is sincere This is difficult. We may sometimes know when we are being insincere, but we are capable of being sincerely wrong and heinously so. Sincerity by itself is nothing; it must be joined to these other fruits, if we are to find assurance we are in the right.

Ninth, the result is peace. I have seen torn session rooms come together by wise counsel. Men who were greatly at odds calm down, reason through, and someone proposes a solution. It satisfies everyone, and everyone leaves smiling.

I reiterate: these things must hang together. Separately, each can delude and become dangerous. A smattering of them is not enough --they must hang together. They are qualities of character and they can only come from the Spirit. Without him, is no wisdom at all.

Monday, September 19, 2011

NYC -- the Delayed Effect

Sometimes, it doesn't hit you till later...

I can't believe I've been home from New York for almost two weeks.  Time flew while we were there and it continues to fly.  That in itself makes me long for heaven where there is no separation of time from the high points of life, neither memory nor anticipation, but always present.

I expected to be overwhelmed by New York, intimidated by its bigness and bustle.  I grew up in a small town, and have lived in moderately-sized metropolitan areas, whereas my wife is from the big city (not NYC).  How pleasantly surprised I was because, though New York is massive, it is divided into unique and defined areas, each with its own distinct character (SoHo, Midtown, Upper West Side, Lower Manhattan, etc).  Lower Manhattan feels very businesslike  --large, imposing structures, perhaps not all that different from the business sectors of other major cities, except for its notable landmarks.  The World Trade Center site did not move me as I expected it would --not initially.  We were there before the barricades came down and the affecting memorial opened to the public.  It felt very much like a construction zone.

It did move me very much, however, upon reflection.  We visited the week before 9/11 --the tenth anniversary.  As I watched the various commemorations, it dawned on me in a fresh way that I was there --I stood there, on the very scene of the horror.  I cannot imagine what it was like, nor would I ever care to know.  I think it is good both that the WTC is getting back to business (though some of its plan remains to be realized) and that there is such a fitting memorial in the midst of a place where space is so precious.  The thing that affected me most was a special that featured phone messages and conversations from those trapped in the Twin Towers --some of which were their last words on earth.  That I had been there made watching the commemorations all the more moving; it gave a point of identification.  Standing at the WTC site did not feel different than any other place I have visited --which was precisely how the average WTC worker felt when they arrived at work that day.  I imagine that all of them anticipated a normal commute home. Tragedy disrupts the norm and reminds us how broken the world is.

I was surprised how much my whole New York experience had a delayed effect --perhaps it was simply too much to process at the time, and it dawned on me later: standing in the large holding room where so many made their first arrival on these shores (including my great-great grandfather and possibly my great-grandfather), then thinking, if the trains were confusing to me, how it must have been for those who did not speak English.

One thing stuck with me from Ellis Island --a quote by the great former mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.  As a very young man, LaGuardia was a multi-lingual translator, working as the mediator between would-be immigrants and US Immigration officials.  LaGuardia said the heart of the translators was with the immigrants, and they would sometimes translate in ways that would be viewed favorably by immigration officials.  Many of them were the children of immigrants and they knew the great risk these people took to get to our shores, and how devastating it was to be sent away.    They were mediators who were on the side of those who stood before the government officials.  That makes me think of Christ.  The INS officials were the representatives of the Law --they ruled according to the code (even though the code now seems ridiculously arbitrary).  The translator was an advocate, a mediator before the harsh fixed reality of the code, but he was not neutral.  He was on the side of the immigrant.  The analogy is not a perfect one, but Christ is not a neutral mediator, either.  He is very much on the side of his people.  He is biased towards us. He loves us and he wants us to gain entrance, so he did everything he could so that we might enter into God's kingdom.  What is more, he prevailed.  

It's Monday and words are difficult, so more to come another day...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Trying to Make Sense of a Sometimes Inscrutable God

I need help figuring something out.  I know pastors are often expected to have more questions than answers, but here's a question.

James 1:5 says "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him."

I have had two profound occasions in the past several weeks where I have been presented with decisions, and prayed this prayer.  Each time I have not received an answer.  Moreover, once in the past, over a very profound and life-altering decision, I prayed that prayer over the course of several weeks.  To this day, I do not think I made a wise decision.

Here are the two decisions I was faced with.

One of our children presents us with especially difficult parental decisions.  I don't want you to misunderstand -- he is not an inordinately unruly child, he simply requires special handling.  I find myself praying this prayer often over how to respond to the challenges we face in dealing with him.  The decision is not simple because, if I made it the way I think his choices warrant, it would have a profound and sad effect on another group of people (namely a sports team which has an inadequate number of players and cannot sustain losing one).  I don't so much want advice on the decision --there are a ton of factors I have not presented here.

I am just curious, though, how to make sense of the promise in James 1:5.

Then, yesterday, as a presbytery, we were presented with a momentous decision which has the most profound implications in the life of one of our members.  We were not presented with this decision or the facts leading up to it until we walked in the door of the meeting, and we were expected to decide this individual's fate within the course of a few hours.  Again, throughout the meeting, I prayed this prayer.  I received no response.  I didn't expect writing on the wall of the sanctuary, but merely to be swayed by arguments one way or another.  Receiving no response I abstained from voting.  I probably abstain more than any other presbyter, for this reason.

I know the "Job's friends" answer would be "Well, you must not have fulfilled the conditions of James 1:6."  My response, "Lord, I believe.  Help thou mine unbelief!"

I am curious, though, for some help and thoughts on this matter.  The promise seems definite, but my experience is that the wisdom is not always forthcoming in the time frame that demands a decision.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

New York Observations, Part I

I took my beloved wife to New York to help compensate for fifteen years of keeping my life from falling apart. Our honeymoon was somewhat lackluster (read --the highlight was a visit to the Ephrata Cloister --google it), and so I've tried to do somewhat better with key anniversaries.  10 was Chicago, 15 was NYC --and what a trip it was.  The brief report is --it could not have been more perfect.  I can't remember ever having a better time on vacation.  It will take weeks to process it all.

Part I does not necessarily imply a Part II or III, though it might.  Other posts of lessons learned from New York may include things like, "Don't trust Google Maps and 3G Coverage to get you close to your hotel with your luggage via subway" or "Brooke Shields is holding up pretty well at 46, even with the deathly Morticia Addams makeup," or "Can anyone really finish one of those Woody Allen's at the Carnegie Deli?" or "Wow, the (Episcopal) Cathedral of St. John the Divine is one big, wacky place..what's with the deer skulls?"

Part I, however, is this --Lessons Learned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  What I know about art could be written on the back of a Monet postcard.  If I were to opine about art, it would be insignficant and foolish opining, to be sure.  I know what I like.  I like the way Rembrandt used light (thus my office is full of Rembrandt).  I am fond of Renoir, of John Singer Sargent and Henry O. Tanner.  That's my postcard, but not my point.

I've been to a few art museums.  I am very fond of the Chicago Institute of Art and its iconic masterpieces but the Met set itself apart in my book.  It is not because of its massive size and collection, merely, though that is surely impressive.  It is not because it houses Gilbert Stuart's masterful George Washington and other works of like notoriety or because it houses a bona fide Egyptian temple --all of which is very cool.  Much of the Met is like other art museums I have visited --portraits hung on walls, statuary in great naturally-lit halls, and collections of various trinketry.  One thing distinguished it in my mind, and that is art in context.  Some of the Met is given over to rooms taken from homes, and transported and erected in the museum.  You might walk through a seventeenth century American parlor, an eighteenth century Italian bedroom, or a twentieth-century Frank Lloyd-Wright living room.  In those rooms you find art on the walls --the way much art was originally hung.  The room itself was art; the furnishing was art, and the paintings on the walls were art.  The paintings were part of the overall effect, even as they stood out from it, and were enhanced by it.  You see paintings not disembodied from their natural context, but in their natural context, and it helps make sense of things --the era, the fashion, the subjects and the like.

There is much to be said for a painting on a blank wall in the museum --the way it focuses the mind on the subject at hand, and so on.  Yet, seeing art in a context brings out a whole new meaning.  A tree standing by itself is notable, but a lush forest full of color can overwhelm the senses.

I suppose many lessons could be drawn from this; one I choose to take away is this.  Our lives happen in the midst of contexts.  Though, like the paintings in those rooms there may be singular moments of great beauty, and evidence of the exquisite artistry that stands behind all our lives, much of life forms the beautiful context for those things.  Life is not all art.  Not every moment is interesting and compelling.  The drapes and the furniture are not as compelling as the paintings, but they form the context that brings meaning to those paintings, and makes them make sense.

I think I sometimes expect that life ought to be more exciting --more paintings and less drapes and rugs.  We can expect church life to be like that too --grand and bold strokes that mystically combine into something that draws the eye and arrests the attention, evidence of a master at work.  Yet, there is masterful artistry in the turning of the wood for the furniture, in the sewing of the drapes, in the weaving of the rug.  The mastery may not be as immediately interesting as the painting, but it is no less evidence of skill.

My moments of ennui and the dullness of routine are the master's work no less than the moment of my wedding, or the birth of my children, graduations, ordination and the like.  Lord, help me to see that!  There is much artistry in the backdrop of the masterworks of life.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Spectacular and the Ordinary

A few years ago, I found out that MSG has a decidedly negative effect on the way I function. This ubiquitous food additive brings nothing to the flavor party, but it intensifies how existing flavors taste. It is often used to give inferior foods superior flavor --to blitz our buds with intense flavor satisfaction. And, I can tell when I eat something laden with it, unawares. My brain doesn't work well. My face flushes. I get exhausted but can't rest. It is like having too much caffeine, but far more unpleasant.

It's not hard to figure out why the food industry loves the stuff. If I can make my product taste more intense than the other guys, then he will prefer my food. Everyone tries to one-up the other guy, and that's how you go from Coke in a reasonable 8-ounce bottle to the gigantic Mega Big Gulp with a billion calories.

Blitzed senses. That pretty much sums up our world. Everything needs to be bigger, better, faster, brighter, louder, sexier, "now with more pizzazz." We want everything to be extraordinary, to stand out. By definition, however, not everything can be extraordinary. If it is, the extraordinary becomes ordinary. If everyone lives in Versailles, then nobody is wowed by Versailles any more. We become de-sensitized --we only have, it seems, so much capacity to be wowed and awed. Then, we become jaded. Our senses are blitzed. Nothing seems extraordinary; nothing can wow me anymore. We are tired and yet can't rest: like me on MSG.

We see this in human lives too. From our earliest days we are told to "Be extraordinary." The gospel preached to us from the tacky, ubiquitous motivational posters that adorn the industrial-chic hallways of the average high school urge everyone to stand out, to soar above the crowd, to seek notice and acclaim. Don't settle for the ordinary. But again, not everyone can be extraordinary. IF everyone gets the 4.0, the 4.0 loses its meaning. If everyone is the star quarterback, who is left to play third clarinet in the half-time show?

I am facing 40. This is hard for me. I was the youngest in my class in school, one of the youngest at the seminary, pretty young for a pastor (a game in which you are, sadly, either too young or too old for most of your career, except for a brief shining moment from 38-45). Now, I am staring down the traditionally-feared birthday. I am realizing how ordinary I am. I live in an ordinary house. In a suburb. On one of a maze of identical streets. I pastor a wonderful but very ordinary church in an ordinary city. I am ordinary. And I'm okay with this.

That is a bald-faced lie. I have an Ego and too often he runs the show. That self-seeking beast wants to stand out. He wants to be something, to make his mark, to break into some elite inner ring, to be the "go-to guy," to be significant, to be noticed. When Ego doesn't get his way, he sulks. He does what he does half-heartedly. He envies the significance of others and grumbles about how undeserved it is and if people just knew what a jerk that guy was, well, things would be different. Ego hates ordinary faithfulness --it bores him to death.

I need to realize how ordinary I am, and to be okay with that. I'm not there yet, but I preach most effectively when I preach to myself. Here goes:

God can do big things with ordinary. It is not "settling for ordinary," but working hard at ordinary --that is faithfulness. In 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul says, "But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." Paul faced defections, failures, opposition, imprisonment and beatings. Perhaps most painfully, he faced people who mocked him and questioned his message because of his failures and how ordinary he was. There were far more spectacular speakers than him. There were self-seeking superstars, wanna-be superstars and those whom God raised up to be of particular wide-ranging blessing in the church not twenty years after Christ. And then there were foot soldiers. Faithful men, faithfully plodding, on places like Crete! Hardly a place for monumental world impact, among the lazy sluggards and gluttons of that rocky isle. Yet, God had people there and they needed to be fed.

Is it really better to be a doorkeeper in God's house? My Ego screams, "No!" God, kill my ego, and help me to work hard at being ordinary.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Too Good To Be Made Up

Recently, I've been reading and watching material on the clandestine activities around and after World War II, specifically A Man Called Intrepid and The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Intrepid was a man named Bill Stephenson, a Canadian airman who, like many involved in covert operations, was omni-talented --a walking treasurehouse of knowledge and intellect who existed in the small and probably-illegal group around Winston Churchill when he was Vice Lord of the Admiralty and then Prime Minister. Oppenheimer was the man behind the bomb who, though no-one could ever prove his disloyalty even after extensive wiretapping and bugging, had early communist associations, and was finally broken when his security clearance was revoked.

Many lessons could be learned from the lives of both men, but the chief lesson I take from both stories is that the truth is often stranger and more interesting than fiction. Fiction always has an artificial ring to it, at least in my ears. I love fiction, but it is not hard to tell that it is fiction, even if there are no fantastic events in the narrative.

Ian Fleming, spy himself and creator of James Bond said of Bill Stephenson, "James Bond is a highly romanticized version of a true spy. The real thing is ... William Stephenson." The events of Stephenson's life, and those of other WWII spies, show us that the truth is stranger than fiction, and more compelling too.

I think about this in regards to the great unfolding story of Scripture --it is simply too good to be made up. It has a lovely internal consistency that spans thousands of years, multiple cultures and authors. It centers on one singular, unique man. Its beginning is the beginning of the world and its end is the end of the world. Its middle is the middle of time --the time from which all other times are dated. It begins with one man and extends to the ends of the earth and ultimately fills the whole cosmos. It describes the world as it is: beautiful and orderly, but horribly broken. It describes us as we are --beings capable of mighty acts of creativity, but horrifically bent towards sin and self --this odd amalgam of great intellect and debased behavior. Oppenheimer himself was a living display of this: an intensely vain and difficult man, a profligate life, an enormous intellect combined with incredible naivete and knowledge that could ultimately end life on the planet. And, it holds out hope --it simply must be true. Humans are creatures imbued with hope --no matter how life is, our default setting is to long for something better. The truth is --something better is out there --a world infinitely better than this: beautiful and not at all broken. And it holds out for us the possibility of being who we were created to be: good, intelligent, lovers of beauty and compassion.

For that to happen, what is broken needs to be fixed. The wrong needs to be judged and destroyed. This happened at the cross, though the fullness of that reality waits the dawning of a new day. I, for one, cannot wait till the wrong in me is finally destroyed, and the wrong in the world is, too.

Friday, June 10, 2011

You Like Me, You Really Like Me....Or Do You?

One of my friends and mentors suggested that the title was hardly scintillating, so I thought i'd give it another go....

I've been thinking about this lately, an observable phenomenon that helps us understand the ability of churches (or any conglomeration of hominids) to incorporate individuals, and bring them in to the circle of love.

I am talking about churches, but the principles really apply across the board to groups of human kinship, and can just as easily apply to circles of friends. This is theoretical, but I hope not boring.

Jesus tells us "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The Golden Rule. Simple? yes. Difficult? yes. Let's see how.

A group may perceive itself to be friendly and welcoming, but the members of any group are in the worst position to evaluate themselves. The real judge of inclusion is the outsider who is coming in to the group. Sometimes, we set a relatively low bar for ourselves --as long as we allow someone in, we are fulfilling the law of love.

Many churches are very good at welcoming visitors, speaking with various levels of acceptance to newcomers --from at least acknowledging their existence (sadly lacking in many churches) to genuine and sincere questions about the visitor himself (better than simple acknowledgement).

The real test comes in inclusion. Many churches miss this. Inclusion goes beyond simple and even sincere interest. It involves relational depth, by which I mean something quite different than what is often meant in our age in which catharsis is practically elevated to an element of worship. Many churches see themselves as inclusive communities because they sincerely care about those who come in. This is a necessary thing, of course, but it isn't true community.

The inner sanctum of relational depth involves far more. Many churches sincerely want new people, and sincerely welcome them, but find new members drifting away after short periods of time. This can even be seen among various teams and groups within a church --always on the hunt for new blood. New members come in for a time, then fade out.

Many reasons for this, of course. One of the chief reasons I observe is investment. If a group shows itself, either by hostility or simple neglect, to be hostile to the contributions, ideas and thoughts of a new member, that member will quickly grow discouraged and leave. He senses that his acceptance is conditional upon his conforming to established ways of thinking and doing. Now, some of this is required in order to belong to a group. There has to be some sense of identity and his ideas have to be somewhat congruent with the group. The Founding Fathers should not have listened to a Communist (okay, I know, totally mixing my historic periods but I'm tired and sitting in the airport) merely because his ideas were new. He needs to go along a bit, to build some credibility. At the same time, he needs to be let in. Perhaps the Lord is using the new blood to bring in some new ideas, and try some new ways. This can be threatening to the existing power structure, even though their opposition is largely subconscious --simple resistance to the new.

Persons and their ideas are not easily separable. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Wouldn't you want your ideas heard? Wouldn't you want to contribute? If you were encouraged to participate in something new, and were trying to find your footing, would you not want to be valued and accepted?

Value leads to investment, investment leads to security. If we are valued, we invest in a community. If we invest in a community, our joy grows there. If we want our churches to be happy places of kingdom service --true families-- we need to work towards full inclusion of outsiders, and work very hard against being friendly, but ultimately closed, clubs. Cliques, you are officially on notice.

The second random thought is this: inclusion in a group means being given the benefit of the doubt, not being viewed with suspicion. It means that, when you fail and put your foot in your mouth, it's not really noticed because there is underlying love for you as a person. We often think we are inclusive, but we have made full inclusion contingent upon a person's acting and speaking in a particular way --embracing certain perspectives and avoiding others. We have a built in subconscious radar for this sort of thing. People sense very quickly whether or not they truly belong, or whether the "love" they are offered is conditioned on them meeting certain preconditions. When they mess up, or when they say something impolitic, is grace extended, understanding and acceptance, or are they jumped on with both feet.

When you are not given the benefit of the doubt, when you are judged, and when your words are used against you as some estimation of what is true in your heart, you become alienated, and you begin to look for groups where you might fit better.

This is most painful to observe in the church, and very painful to experience yourself, trust me. We all want to fit --most of us are still teenagers at heart, feeling the pain of rejection acutely whether or not we give voice to it. I find it is a reason many churches, even those who attract a visitor stream, fail to grow --we don't easily open the circle of our community, our entrenched identity and values are too fragile. We are sinful, prideful, and insecure. Me included. Lord help me not to be guilty of that which I so clearly see in others.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Grace, Faith, Works, Boast, unto Good Works....

The Reformed churches, it seems, always have some sort of debate raging. The current debate, though it has many other features, largely concerns the place of obedience (or "works") in the Christian life. On one side, some are advocating that the believer's works are somehow included in their justification, not as fruit, but as grounds. This is legalism and needs to be expunged. Ephesians 2:8-9 says "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast."

Yet, as often happens, a response and overreaction by incautious pastors and professors arises on the other side, decrying any place for evangelical obedience in the Christian life. The commands of Scripture are disingenuous --they are only designed to show us that we cannot keep them. Application in preaching or any call to the Christian that he "ought, must, or should" is seen to be legalism. The only answer to any question in Scripture can only be "Jesus has done it all."

Now, we must admit from the first that this is a legitimate use of the commands of the Scripture. The Law is designed to show us our inability to keep it, convict us of sin, and cause us to look outside ourselves for our salvation, and to turn to Christ in faith, disabused of any foolish notion that we can contribute anything to our righteousness before God. This is the first use of the Law.

Yet, this fails to reckon with Ephesians 2:10. Indeed, it seems to me that both extremes of this debate avoid that verse. Both sides miss that the selfsame works that fail us in justification are the works that God expects of those he has regenerated. The New Perspective / Federal Vision side of the debate says the works that Paul eschews there are the ancient covenant boundary markers such as circumcision. We are saved by faith apart from boundary markers, but not apart from "Thou shalt not commit adultery," which is very much a part of our righteousness, they will say. This, of course, is denied us by the context. Paul uses the same word "works" to describe the same things that cannot save, but which are expected of those already saved.

You can see this by simply substituting the word "circumcision" for works. "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith...and that not of circumcision, lest any man should boast." Now, that is a true point, and the Jews probably needed to hear it --Galatians addresses such things. Yet, it is in 2:10 where the argument breaks down, "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, unto circumcision, which God ordained beforehand that we should walk in them." It simply doesn't wash.

The other side (we'll call it anti-nomian, or "anti-law") says works play no place in our lives as Christians. To say they do is to deny the gospel. Some will go so far as to say that preachers who preach commands or imperatives (oughts, musts, shoulds) are legalists and denying the gospel or not preaching grace. This is most grievous to the preacher, and I have counseled dear friends who have faced this charge, and I have faced it myself on occasion. Yet, again this fails the Ephesians 2:10 test. Paul's point is, and I repeat myself, that the same works that can never justify very much are expected of us as Christians. This does not mean we never sin, never fail, never make bad choices, never go headlong into sins and addictions with a high hand --certainly we do. It does not mean that even our best acts are not stained by sin and self --of course they are.

The truth is far more encouraging, and it is simply this: God accepts our imperfect obedience, merely by his grace, as a thank offering, well-pleasing in his sight. What freedom is found in those words. My works please my father. What could be better news than that? They don't make me right with him, they don't earn me his love. They are, rather, the product of the love that he has shed abroad in my heart.