Thursday, November 8, 2012

Social Justice: Issue 1 -- Rest

That both liberals and conservatives have ideological balloons to be busted ought to go without saying.

But, I don't know or minister to a lot of liberals, plus they're so easy to bash, I think I'll leave them alone for right now. :-)

To lay my cards out there: I am a conservative of a sort, though I have some really unconventional thoughts on immigration and other issues not really worth mentioning here. On economic matters, I lean heavily libertarian. I don't advertise it, and I don't usually bring it in to the pulpit unless it is quite evidently the burden of a text. I usually will only preach against the dangers of dependency, and abortion, when it comes to issues in the polis anthropou.

There is a great danger in that position, though, and that is many people who hold it believe it frees us from any obligation to the poor, be they the indigent poor, the "fatherless and widow," or the working poor. Self-reliance is a Christian virtue, as long as one understands that it does not mean independence from God. But, there are people in every society who are forgotten, and unable to fend for themselves.

And, the Christian is to advocate for justice on their behalf, and expend his own personal mammon of time, talents, and treasure for their well-being. It does not follow because one believes the state is not responsible for the well-being of individuals (beyond basic safety and services), or that the state ought not to order anyone to provide for anyone else, that therefore my conscience is free to ignore the plight of those who cannot fend for themselves.

There are fundamental issues in advocating for the poor that we ought to uphold, as Christians. The minor prophets, especially, tell us what these issues are. A fundamental issue, of course, is rest: that is, adequate time for the body and soul to recuperate, to enjoy life, and to enjoy God.

Presbyterians have been so busy arguing for centuries over what may or may not be done on the Lord's Day that we have missed a fundamental point. The fundamental point isn't football on TV or with the kids in the yard. The fundamental heart of the Sabbath is rest and mercy.

How interesting that the Sabbath is not a covenantal ordinance, but a creational one. Like marriage, it is not just for believers, but intended to be a blessing.

Please don't misunderstand me: I am not arguing for the imposition of a repressive Sabbath, or arcane and now silly blue laws that forbid hunting on Sunday in Virginia, etc. I am arguing for the fundamental principle that all God's creatures: manservants, maidservants, oxes, and asses, and strangers within the gates, ought to be given protected rest.

In the midst of that protected rest, believers may worship.

Lord's Day observance has become a class issue. If I can afford to have a Monday-Friday job, with my weekends free, then I can worship with the people of God. But, if I work in the restaurant industry, or for Lowe's or Home Depot, the notion that I, as a believer, might be granted a day of rest on the first day of the week as a fundamental part of my religious commitment, is not a protected right.

During our time in Virginia, I remember one of the blue laws coming up for discussion by the legislature on precisely this point: the protected right of a worker to choose Sunday as his mandatory day of rest. The legislature considered doing away with that right, and ultimately did, if memory serves. And, there was no resultant Christian outcry. In a country where every person has every discrete right protected by code, ought not the day of rest to be protected?

But, the issue is larger than that.
And, the principle carries farther than Sabbath.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Of Seventh, Shadyside and Sovereign Grace (Scripture Saturation)

Okay, all those s's are cool.  I didn't plan it that way, honest!

I'm thinking on how the church worships.  My contention is:  a mature Christian ought to be able to worship anywhere, in any style, as long as the content of worship is within Biblical bounds.  I can understand why a Christian may have difficulty worshiping in the presence of mimes, for instance (I have preached in a service like that once), but within Biblical parameters and elements, style, for the mature Christian, must become decidedly secondary.

I will lay my cards on the table.  My personal preference is decidedly high Presbyterian --almost Episcoterian.  That is my preference.  I would never make an attempt to foist it on a congregation.  But, I highlight the three above experiences because they are places where I have felt I have truly worshiped --have felt most like the worship of heaven brought down to earth to me.  Part of the reason was the utter seriousness with which the worshipers undertook their task --people were invested in worshiping   Part of the reason is that each was, in its own way, Scripture saturated.  Other than that, the worship could not have been more different.

Let's start our tour with venerable old Seventh Reformed, snuggled on West Leonard Street in the old West Side of Grand Rapids Michigan, in 1996, when I arrived there as a newly-married intern.  I have never seen a church before or since that worshiped as reverently and fervently as that church.  It is the only church I have ever seen that filled its pews in both the morning and the evening.  The congregation sang four selections in the morning and six at night (counting a song-service).  Each service was at least 75 minutes long, or longer.  The sermons of my pastor and boss, J. R. de Witt were long, animated, and arresting.  Those people, drawn from across the conservative Dutch spectrum, chafed at one another in meetings, but in worship they were united.  And they sang.  They sang whatever they were given to sing.  And, they sang it well.  They sang out of the old blue Trinity Hymnal.  They heard the Law read every Sunday.  They had a creed every Sunday, and the Lord's Prayer, every Sunday (these elements divided between morning and evening).  The pastor preached regularly through the Heidelberg catechism.  The liturgy had "sursum corda's" and "salutations."  The communion and baptismal liturgies were ancient, long and thorough --the less-familiar work of the Synod of Dordt.  And my soul was lifted to heaven there like no other place.  I don't think it could be replicated even if we tried.  It was formal and long, and we loved every single minute of it.

Now let's go for a moment to steel-wealthy Pittsburgh --where the blast furnaces filled the pocketbooks of industrial titans who built churches like those seen nowhere else (East Liberty Presbyterian is probably the grandest).  Amid the old affluent Shadyside neighborhood sits the Presbyterian church of the same name.

Shadyside has a notable past.  Its famous pastor, Hugh Kerr, initiated World Communion Sunday there in 1934.  It was the first church to broadcast its services on the first radio station in the US, KDKA Pittsburgh. The broadcast was heard by Peary's company at the South Pole.  That's history.

Today, Shadyside would be pegged as an establishment PCUSA church --not notably liberal, and the gospel is still propounded by its pastor M. Craig Barnes.  The worship is about as "high" as one can get and still be Presbyterian.  And, yet, the service is saturated with Scripture.  There are responses and voluntaries and introits.  And, it is filled with Scripture the way many far more conservative churches aren't.  It doesn't hurt that they have a monstrous Reuter organ (pipe organ aficionado that I am).  What I notice, however, is the reverence, and the Scripture, and the song.  I felt lifted to Heaven --as Calvin, after Scripture, says the believer is when he communes with his God.

Then there is Sovereign Grace.  I can hear the old Sesame Street song --one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn't belong.  Not so!  I had the privilege of attending a Sovereign Grace conference in Baltimore with a SGM pastor friend.  Bob Kauflin is the worship leader.  They are charismatic.  This is evident from how they worship.  There are hands raised and even a bit of jumping and shouting, though nothing "wild."  There are some "prophecies" given (all vetted by elders, and all edification).  But the songs --the songs are filled with Scripture.  Old hymns and new songs, deep and thoughtful and reverent and joyous.  Again, I felt lifted to Heaven.

For the mature Christian, worship must transcend preference.  The mature Christian may have preferences, but he can commune with his God among other believers of all sorts of different styles.  The thread that binds the three churches above is Scripture saturation.  Oh, that such would be true of all our churches.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Maybe It's Easier to Solve a Problem Like Maria

On the general principle that publicans are closer to the kingdom than Pharisees are...

I agree it's a bad idea for pastors to use their children as examples, and I don't from the pulpit, and the ones I'm going to talk about aren't going to read this so I reckon it's alright to break that rule here and now.

The issue is this:  the bright, attractive, accomplished, compliant, self-reliant Pharisee child.  Know the type?  We have one of those here.  We do not, as of yet (and I pray we won't) have a prodigal --the child that may or may not be lovable, but that breaks your heart.  We do have a very high-maintenance child who tends to get into trouble a lot, mostly out of boundless energy and curiosity.  The effort of discipline tends to be mostly directed at him, because mostly he calls for it.

Which brings me to the "problem" child.  The problem is, she is anything but a problem!  She usually does nothing wrong.  She's conscientious, bright and motivated, and a lot of people (teachers included) tend to tell her how great she is.  This is not good.  I love her, but I fear for her --the worst thing I can do for her is to stoke the fires of pride and self-centeredness.  If I do that, she will be unbearable to live with, and pity the man that marries her.  At the same time, I do not want to dampen her enthusiasm, or fail to praise her when she excels (which, let's face it, she often does).

The heart of the problem is, as always, the problem of the heart.  I can love her and pray for her, and when I hear that Pharisee croak his ugly voice out of her cute little mouth, if she cuts down others, if she complains and critiques her mother, if she is snotty or bratty or throws a fit because she doesn't get her way, I can address her heart on the level of the gospel.  I am more and more convinced that we need to focus more and more on what Paul said to Peter at Antioch --you aren't behaving in accord with the gospel.  I have to find a way to say that in eight year old language.  We don't treat people or think of people that way, because it is not Christlike.

The worst thing I can do, as a parent struggling to do my job Christianly, is to make her my princess, the apple of my eye, the one I hold up as an example to my other kids, the one to whom they will never measure up (I'm not saying they don't measure up --they do).  I need to get her to see herself in light of this truth --God be merciful to me, a sinner.

How do you handle a child like this, if you have one?  I am starting to think that all parents need to watch the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before they have kids to learn what not to do.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Friendship, Naturally....Or, Kuyper's Napkin Ring

I've told the story many times, but I find it very interesting.  One of my mentors in the ministry, of Dutch extraction and a lover of all things Dutch (the product of a mixed marriage, his father was RCA and mother CRC).  Someone gave him a prize possession --a silver napkin ring owned by the towering theologian, pastor, publisher, university founder and Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper.

The inscription?  Proverbs 17:17b.  The b is important. Proverbs 17:17 says, "A friend loves at all times and a brother is born for adversity."  The b is "a brother is born for adversity."

And the lesson is, if you are only a friend to people when they make little demand of your time or energy, you're really not their friend at all.  You are acting sub-Christian; you are acting naturally.

I've observed this in the church --if a person is difficult or makes demands on our time and energy, we naturally lapse into self-protecting mode, and withdraw.  We want to be around cheerful people.  Nobody wants to sit with Job in silence.  I think sometimes Job's friends get a bad rap for their obnoxiously bad advice --but at least they were there with him.

Having gone through some low periods, as we all do, I know the demands that makes on friendship, and how little understanding people are who don't share that particular malady.  We withdraw from people who bring us down --we want those who will lift us up.  It's natural.  Misery may love company, but company generally doesn't like misery.  Sometimes being a friend just frankly stinks.  We naturally want to talk about football or the weather or politics.  We don't naturally want to plumb the depths of another's suffering to help lift him out.

I have known a few people with diagnosed borderline personality disorder, and others I suspect are afflicted with it.  It's one of the most intractable mental maladies of all, and distinctly unpleasant.  There are no shades of gray in relationship with a person with BPD --they are either your best friend or your sworn enemy.  If you've ever been written off by a person with no good reason, it may be that they have BPD.

Or, it may be that they are just acting naturally.  This hurts; I know.  I have wanted to take certain people and shake them and say, "You know, I love you, but you are a really horrible friend."  The friends that ceaselessly talk about self --it's natural to do that.  Dale Carnegie taught people to exploit that --people love to talk about themselves so, if you want to make a sale, get them talking about themselves, etc.  But, we would do well to learn from Dale.  There is a studied art to friendship, and part of it is learning how to converse --and say "but enough about me, how are you?"

The church is supposedly a supernatural community.  Why are we so often held captive to what we do naturally?  Why do people withdraw from us when times are tough?  Why, when a person falls prey to an illness do they sometimes receive few (if any) phone calls, cards, expressions of empathy, or offers of help?  There are times when it feels like a good idea, even to pastors, to give up on the church altogether.  But, then, you see that there are a precious few who do.  Praise God for them!  The ones who are living the transformed life, the ones who do care.

The church is often said to look just like the world in terms of morality, which is sad enough.  I think it's even sadder though, when the church looks just like the world in lack of empathy --when we allow ourselves the luxury of selfishness with time and energy.  If that's you and you're a Christian, you're like Peter in Antioch --your conduct is out of accord with the gospel.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Power of a Good Story, Well-Told

One of life's great pleasures for me is to read well-written books. I may care little about the topic or the subject, but good writing is compelling, in and of itself. Likewise, a fascinating figure or event can be rendered so inadequately that it becomes boring, and the details of the story itself are obscured behind turgid or unintelligible prose.

I am, as most who know me know, an avid devourer of biographies. I would rather read biography than anything else. The human story is compelling to me. There are some fantastic biographers out there: Manchester, Massie and McCullough come to mind (wonderful for alliteration). Right now, I am positively engrossed by Massie's huge biography of Tsar Peter the Great. I am waiting with baited breath for the third volume of Manchester's exhaustive work on Churchill, entitled The Last Lion. Manchester fell ill and the work had to be finished by another, but the man was hand-picked by Manchester and worked alongside him, so I am hoping not to be disappointed.

Probably the most compelling and well written biography I have seen in recent years is Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken. Hillenbrand has a great subject –Olympic athlete turned castaway turned POW survivor turned evangelist Louie Zamperini. Equally important, she tells the story very well –history as page-turner.

As a minister, I communicate for a living. Preaching and teaching consume much of my working life. I also have the privilege of mentoring some aspiring pastors. I repeatedly tell them that, in my experience, both in homiletics classes and in our own preparation, the accent of preperation falls on what to say and not how to say it. This results in turgid sermons, jam-packed often with information, but not presented in a way that is either compelling or digestable. Sermons are a form of oral communication (quite obviously) –and we often write them as if they were intended to be read (My colleague Andrew Vander Maas did his D.Min. dissertation on this, and I am hoping he will turn it into a book). The danger is that we cease to improve, not so much in what we say, but in how we say it.

Preachers have the most compelling story to tell in all the world –the drama of creation, redemption and consummation through faith in Christ. We have a good story, we need to tell it well. Nobody I have found has done as good thinking on this as Fred Craddock, emeritus professor of preaching at Candler School of Divinity, Emory University. His two books Preaching and As One without Authority ought to be read and re-read by anyone who steps the pulpit. Craddock is a proponent of not imposing a foreign rhetorical form on the structure of Scripture lessons –but rather that the message itself ought to be shaped by the form of the passage under consideration. He is right –it's difficult to do, and oughtn't to be done in an artificial or wooden way (and frankly, not everyone should do it his way --but we can all learn from him). But, stop to ask yourself when the last time was you heard a sermon on a Psalm that was as beautiful and affecting as the Psalm itself? I can remember the last time I did –where I was sitting and who was preaching.

The telling of the story is as important as the story itself. I am not arguing that all preachers ought to follow one particular style (certainly not main point, 3 sub-points!) but rather that, whatever their particular style, they need to become the master of it. Everyone else is expected to improve their craft; preachers ought to, too.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Our Big, Fat Greek Presuppositions (or "The Platonic Captivity of the Church")

"The longer I live" is something you start to say when you notice hair growing in your nose and ears, but why fight reality...."The longer I live and pastor in the church, the more I think we are the unwitting children of the Greeks."  Now, the Greeks were wonderful --Socrates, Plato and Aristotle deserve their places in the intellectual hall of fame.  They asked big questions, and formulated some of the best answers that one could, short of Biblical revelation.

(If your eyes glaze over reading this, just hang with me, I'll bring it home)

And yet....

Anyone who knows anything about history and doctrinal development knows that Roman doctrine, particularly after Aquinas, relied heavily on Aristotle.  Aristotle, it is said, reasons from man up to God, and in pondering how the human can possibly relate to the divine, posits a heirarchy of beings (one can see why it so resonated with Catholicism --think of those medieval pictorial representations of the universe with God at the top, man at the bottom, and a bevy of intercessors and mediators in between).

But, at least Catholics are honest.  The Western mind was a Protestant mind --that legacy is slow to die.  Even if it has died out in academia, it still permeates the understanding of the average person, even if he's never taken a philosophy course, and knows nothing more of Plato than his name.  Plato, it is said, reasons from God down to man, and the central feature of his school of thought is dualism.   Dualism discounts the physical world --sees it as a shadow (at best) or a deception (at worst).  The early church had to contend with dualism --it's why Paul got laughed at on Mars Hill.  The last thing a Greek wanted in the afterlife was a disgusting body, with all its filth and limitations.  But, perhaps even more difficult was the ingrained but opposing ideas that either the body was nothing, and so no deed in the body could affect the real you, and you could therefore be as immoral as you wanted, without affecting your soul (libertinism), or the body was in its very nature evil so all physical pleasure was therefore evil (asceticism).  So, in the early church, you get the detestable rites of the Gnostic sects, or Simeon Stylites on his pole for decades.  The saddest conclusion reached by Plato-drinking Christians was a denial of the resurrection, so pointedly refuted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.

We have to admit, the Scriptures posit some duality --there is a distinction between body and soul.  Traditional Christian theology (though some challenge it now) teaches an intermediate state --a time when body and soul are separated.  We are quick to note that this is an unnatural separation, and not one that God  intended originally, nor will such a state go on everlastingly.  We are meant to be bodies and souls together.  The body and the soul are two different things, but they are friends, not enemies.

Essentially, the problem of Plato is that he (and we) make enemies out of things that are supposed to be friends.  Body and soul are meant to be together.  I don't think that evangelicals of the Reformed stripe would argue that point, but the presupposition sneaks its way into other nifty arguments --any time we put in opposition things that ought to hang together, we are channeling Plato.  Things like:
  • should a church be concerned about doctrine or about saving souls?
  • Should Christianity be more an affair of the head or the heart, more about reason and belief or emotion and love?
  • should a church be concerned about teaching or the poor?
  • Is truth or love more important?
  • Which is  more destructive:  lust or greed?  
  • Is emotion or reverence more appropriate for worship?
You can probably add to the list.  But the point is that each of those questions forces us to make a relative comparison --we value (or eschew) one more than another.  This is a false choice.  The right answer is "all of the above."

How can we in the church escape our Platonic captivity?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Of Chickens, Christ, Law and Gospel

Too much has been written on the controversy over Chik-Fil-A scion and exec Dan Cathy's comments about traditional marriage, and the support of Chik-Fil-A that was rallied yesterday.  So why not add more?

Except, I simply want to consider it from one angle, and that is from this question: Do we expect the world will be more friendly to the gospel than it is to the law?

It's a hot topic for debate --how should the Christian interact with the unbelieving world?  Should he do it with law or gospel?  Myself, I don't think we can generalize.  Jesus used law where people's hearts were hard and self-righteous, and they had to be shown they were sinful (like the Rich Young Ruler).  Jesus used gospel where people's hearts were already broken --they knew they were sinners, and they needed grace.

But, the meme that seems to be current that troubles me is this:  If only we (or those) stupid evangelicals understood that if we showed (or spoke) the gospel instead of standing up for traditional marriage, then maybe secularists would know we're not hateful, and they'd accept us, and we'd get invited to their parties like Jesus did, and we would be able to bring the gospel to them sans the offense.

Now, this is not about whether or not boycotts or rally days or political action, or buying chicken or portly former Arkansas governors of the left or the right.  That is an issue for another time, and it's been exhausted.

It's an issue of whether or not it's true that the gospel is somehow less offensive than the law.  There is no question that the law can offend.  People who are flagrant violators of the law are offended by the law.  But, pretty decent outwardly moral people like the law's message which is "do this, and live."  Salvation by decency.  Very doable, very nice, and nice people can do it.  Moral, respectable people can do it.  Or, they think they can.

The truth is, whether we lead with gospel or law, we are going to be offensive.  The gospel is more offensive than the law because it hits humans at the point of pride.  "Do this and live" stokes pride.  "You can't do it no matter how hard you try" slaps pride down.  We don't like it.  I don't care how degraded a person is --by nature, we don't like the gospel.  It is only by grace that we come to like, and then to love, the gospel.  The gospel shows me who I am, and I don't like that picture very much.  I'd rather not look in that mirror.  But, the gospel doesn't leave me in the crumpled heap of an accurate self-assessment.  It shows me a savior who is God himself, who died for me, not just so I can go to heaven when I die (which is a grand thing) but so that I can be restored to that original dignity for which I was created --not the mess I have made out of it.

So, think Chik-Fil-A is gauche.  It's okay.  Think that all the Christians who supported it are misguided or whatever.  But, don't kid yourself in thinking that if Chik-Fil-A, or you or me, or the coolest hippest pastor out there, led with gospel instead of law, he'd get the love of the world.  If the world hates you, it hated me first.  That is from the lips of the walking Gospel himself.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Some Thoughts on Same Sex Marriage

I think it's important to state from the top that the Bible teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman for life.  Things can happen that break that bond, but the standard remains. In Matthew 19:5 (ESV) Jesus said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh'?  So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."  Homosexual activity and marriages are therefore sinful.

How should we approach this issue?  First, we need to understand what the Bible says about marriage.  Second, we need to understand that our secularizing world will not care what the Bible says, and so the arguments we make for heterosexual monogamy ought to be primarily apologetic in nature.

From the first, we must admit that the evangelical church has done a lousy job on marriage in its own ranks.  Well might the homosexual activist say that evangelicals believe that marriage is between a man, and a woman, and a woman, and a woman....  It is wrong to argue that homosexual marriage will kill the institution of marriage.  The sexual revolution and the rampant divorce that followed in its wake have all but killed the stabilizing institution of marriage.  We need to give kudos to the Roman Catholic Church on this point --they have not yielded to popular pressure or practice.  Yes, there is some hypocrisy --granting annulments and so on, but their stance remains:  the Catholic church is firmly against divorce.

Some Christians have wrongly sought to abandon any public or legal protections for the institution of marriage.  If marriage were not a government issue, then we would not be having this discussion.  This is true, but hardly consistent with a Christian world-and-life-view, which is why I say that we must come to understand marriage Biblically.

Rome is wrong here:  marriage is not a sacrament.  Sacraments are means of grace for believers and marriage is for all men and women.  It is not a private religious contract between a man and a woman, but something undertaken for both private benefit and public good.  It is good for children to be raised in two-parent homes.  It stabilizes society and prevents poverty and every study ever done bears that out.  That is an apologetic argument for why government should recognize and sanction marriages, though it does not answer the question of why  two men or two women ought or oughtn't to be able to marry.

Theologically, we understand that marriage is a common-grace ordinance.  It is written into creation itself, and not just for Christians.  A pluralistic society can never grasp this teaching, since it believes that the Bible is simply one religious book among many.   Some point out that the current institution of marriage (one woman and one man, for life) is of relatively recent vintage and that Scripture itself contains abundant examples of believers who did not follow this example.  Genesis, however, is an ancient document (roughly 3500 years old) and Jesus draws his teaching from the very beginning of Genesis.  God's original intent and design was not polygamy, though believers did certainly engage in it.  Yet, without exception, polygamy introduced grief into the households where it was practiced (the deadly rivalries between Isaac and Ishmael, Joseph and his brothers, and among the children of King David).  It did so because it departed from God's design.

Although somewhat tangential to the main case, apologetically we might argue that polygamy creates nothing but problems: rivalries among wives and among the children of different wives, and a shortage of marriageable women (since the birthrate of males and females is roughly the same, polygamy inevitably creates too few marriageable females).  Those who would argue that the federal government's interest in "traditional marriage" is relatively recent might consider that the Federal Government denied Utah statehood from at least the 1850's in large part due to the LDS practice of polygamy.  The government has long realized that it has a vested interest in promoting stable monogamous heterosexual marriages.

What we must draw from this is:
1.) God has a particular design for marriage.
2.) Departures from that design bring misery (as in the case of polygamy and divorced and unwed motherhood).

Yet, living in a pluralist society, how can we make a commonsense apologetic case for the protection of monogamous heterosexual marriage in law?  I think too often our arguments are weak.  For instance,  the "marriage is chiefly for procreation" argument is deeply flawed.  Theologically, we understand that marriage is not chiefly for procreation but companionship.  You do not have to be capable of procreation to marry.  Infertile people can marry; people past childbearing years can marry.  Likewise, the definition argument fails --it is mere semantics to argue "Well, the definition of marriage is a union between a man and a woman, therefore marriage can only be between a man and a woman."  It's a sad day when we have to resort to a dictionary to make our arguments, and definitions change over time.  We don't have an unchanging language authority.

We must understand, too, that we are losing this battle, and are probably going to lose it definitively and for good in the very near future.  It shouldn't be a cause for rejoicing that 60% of North Carolinians who voted did so in favor of protecting heterosexual marriage.  Our focus should be on the 40% who didn't.  40 years ago, that would have been unthinkable.  20 years ago, the number may have been 90/10.  

That said, it is important we make the case.  We need to make it to our own children.  The younger generations of evangelicals are softening towards homosexual practice and we need to teach carefully how we in the church are to regard homosexuals and their desire to marry.  Too often, our stance has been motivated by somewhat of an "ick" factor (conservative Christians who were unruffled when pastors in their denominations were exonerated while preaching that Jesus did not rise from the dead are leaving their denominations in droves for ordaining and marrying homosexual persons, which I find troubling).  Mark Yarhouse's book Homosexuality and the Christian is a good place to start.

Why is it, from an apologetic standpoint, that state recognition of homosexual marriage is a bad idea?  Theologically we understand --God created man and women to be together in a one-flesh, companionship, head-helper relationship.  We know that any deviation from the norm brings misery.  Therefore, we ought to want to prevent people from experiencing misery.

How do we, then, make the argument?  I think presuppositionalism helps us here --in other words, the best way to win an argument is to look for the weaknesses or inconsistencies in your opponent's argument.  You don't have to be harsh or unloving as you do this, but gently pointing out inconsistencies in his case will build the case for the truth.  Presuppositionalism is built on the premise that the truth is a coherent whole and any false system will have cracks and flaws --find those and you can advance the truth.

I think the case might advance this way.  What is marriage, after all, and where does it come from?  Is it mere social convention, or something more?   What does it mean?  Why is it significant?  Is it only an emotive response --somehow solemnizing the fact that humans have some desire to mate for extended periods of time, not unlike geese or cardinals?  Why is it a desirable state to be sought by anyone, let alone homosexual persons?  Nothing hinders homosexual men or women from living together, committing to one another for life, from engaging in  sex, or solemnizing such with a ritual.  Why is it that civil marriage is a desirable state?  Is it for tax purposes?  Is it for the right to make end-of-life sorts of decisions for a much-beloved companion?  

In short, it is generally true that the burden of proof falls upon the one introducing the novelty.  What argues in favor of the change?   If modern Western society has upheld heterosexual monogamy as the ideal for two millennia (and arguably much longer), and, moreover, this practice also prevails in the Orient, why is it so?  Is it merely an evolutionary response --that it's better for offspring to pair for extended periods?

I would hazard a guess that most homosexuals would argue that marriage is of far more significance than the benefits listed above.  Here is where the point could be pressed --but why is it more, what invests it with such significance?  How can it really "mean" anything apart from its religious moorings?  And how could it mean anything if those religious moorings are just made up?   What is it in us that makes us desire a relationship that causes so much pain, is so unstable, calls for so much self-sacrifice, and so often fails?  

I am just putting this out there.  I don't know how strong it is, really, but I have yet to see it tried.  We must realize, however, that rationality doesn't always win the day.  One could make a rational and logical case, but if another person is heavily personally invested in his lifestyle, rationality won't change his mind.  The Holy Spirit, however, just might.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Lord Gave, and the Lord Has Taken Away, Blessed Be the Name of the Lord

Many of you already know that my wife and I lost a baby in the womb this past week.  We discovered that the baby had died at a doctor's visit on Tuesday.  The procedure for removing the baby was scheduled for tomorrow.  In God's great mercy, that procedure is no longer necessary.  The baby came today.  I am glad that he did (I say 'he' though we do not know if he was a boy or a girl).  What a privilege it was to see him, tiny, perfectly formed, with delicate and perfect little hands, arms, legs, feet, and toes.  Truly we are knit together in the secret places, fearfully and wonderfully made.

I think the hospital procedure, while often necessary, would have separated us from the reality of what had happened.  We got the privilege of seeing him, of crying.  If the child had been a girl, her name would have been Zoe --life.  And he or she does live, before God.

Grief is such a strange thing.  There is no comparing the intensity of grief over one loss to another.  I have grieved friends and church members and grandparents, but not yet a parent, nor have I grieved a born child.  I will say this --there are different forms of grief.  Beyond that, I cannot characterize it.  It is grief and it is real, because it was the loss of a life, the life of a child unseen in life, and yet loved, both by us and by our Savior.

Our church's Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes Biblical teaching on such things this way:

10.3  Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how He pleaseth. So also are all other elect persons, who are uncapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.

A. A. Hodge, in his commentary on this section, summarizes thus:

The phrase "elect infants" is precise and fit for its purpose.  It is not intended to suggest that there are any infants not elect, but simply to point out the facts --
1.) That all infants are born under righteous condemnation; and
2.) That no infant has any claim in itself to salvation; and hence
3.) The salvation of each infant, precisely as the salvation of every adult, must have its absolute ground in the sovereign election of God.
This would be just as true if all adults were elected as it is now that only some adults are elected.  It is, therefore, just as true, although we have good reason to believe that all infants are elected.  The Confession adheres in this place accurately to the facts revealed.  It is certainly revealed that none, either adult or infant, is saved except on the ground of a sovereign election; that is, all salvation for the human race is pure grace.  It is not positively revealed that all infants are elect, but we are left, for many reasons, to indulge a highly probable hope that such is the fact.  The Confession affirms what is certainly revealed and leaves that which revelation has not decided to remain without the suggestion of a positive opinion upon one side or the other.
The judge of all the earth will do right, and we leave such matters to him.  Whatever God's disposition towards the children of unbelievers, in Christ he is our Father, and his covenant promises to be God to us and our children are sure and true.

David Dickson gives the Biblical reasons for the teaching of this section:

1.) Because John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother's womb.  (Luke 1:15)
2.) Because the Prophet Jeremiah was sanctified from his mother's womb (Jeremiah 1:5)
3.) Because the promise is made to believing parents and to their children conjointly (Gen 17:7, Acts 2:39).
4.) Because of such, says Christ, is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 19:14)
5.) Because the apostle calls children which are descended but of one parent in covenant with God, holy (1 Cor. 7:14).
6.) Because God hath promised in the second commandment, that he will show mercy unto thousands that are descended of believing parents (Exo. 20:6).

In The Help, Celia buries her unborn children among the roses.  We put our unborn child in the ground, too, near the flower garden.  A seed is not given life unless it falls to the ground and dies.  We have a sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead --and a body, born or unborn, young or old, is the seed planted in hope.  Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust....but with a sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Some Thoughts about Ministry, Particularly for Those in Seminary

I know two older ministers who began to write books about ministry based on their own experiences.  One didn't finish before he died, and I am praying the other will!

Here are some thoughts from me at year sixteen, with hopefully thirty more to go:

1.)    Ministry is frequently lonely.
2.)    You will be compared unfavorably to your predecessor, because you were in part a reaction hire (you had strengths where he had weaknesses).  Your successor will be unfavorably compared to you, and will likely be a reaction hire.
3.)    Preaching is the greatest, awfulest thing in the world.
4.)    It is hard to be productive when you are the one in charge of your own schedule.  Using time well is difficult, when you are the master of your own schedule.
5.)    You will feel guilty about the time spent doing the very things you need to do to be a productive pastor.

6.)    A lot of the scary myths of seminary just aren’t true (unrealistic expectations of your wife, on your time, on your children).  Usually, a church wants to love you.  You will always be held at a bit of a distance, but this is part of being in the ministry.
7.)    Be more patient about change.
8.)    But don’t be too patient about change.
9.)    Every church has a personality and a set of unwritten rules and assumptions about pastors.  Be careful not to misread this.
10.)                        It can be difficult to find ways to inject yourself into your peoples’ lives.

11.)                        Some people will profoundly dislike you, and neither you nor they could verbalize why.
12.)                        You will get very close to some people towards the end of their lives.  They will die, and you will grieve deeply.  Don’t underestimate the power of that grief.
13.)                        Understanding the expectations of any particular church is a tricky thing.
14.)                        God will often give you a few folks who serve as your surrogate family.  Develop those relationships and be grateful for them.  Sometimes these people will eventually pull away from you, and you will be reminded again that one of the costs of ministry is being separated from your family.  Let this help you long for heaven.
15.)                        You will discover ugly ambition in yourself and it may show itself in pettiness, jealousy, and bitterness.

16.)                        When people leave your church, it hurts.  When they leave because of you, it hurts double.  This will happen.
17.)                        Sometimes you will be paralyzed by an overwhelming sense of your own inadequacy.
18.)                        At some point, somebody will probably accuse you of not preaching the gospel.  Make sure they’re wrong.
19.)                        If you can’t hold people’s interest with Scripture for twenty-five minutes, it’s not the Scripture that’s boring.
20.)                        Short notes of encouragement to people who are going through tough times or serving the Lord faithfully mean a lot.  A pastor who notices and is thankful is appreciated.

21.)                        Expect to go through the well of grief and suffering to make you useful to others.  I was just reading about the late Dr. Henry Bast, the paragon of expositors among the Dutch Reformed in the middle part of the twentieth century.  He buried two wives and a son, and Parkinson’s caused him to lay down his career and he languished his last six years unable to walk and only talking with great difficulty.  Make sure it makes you useful and not bitter or withdrawn.
22.)                        God does not promise that faithful churches will flourish.
23.)                        Reach out to people.  This is hard if you are introverted as many Reformed people are.  Find ways to compensate for your introversion.
24.) Work to improve your preaching.  Many pastors think about what to preach but stop thinking about how to preach.  Yet, the 'how' dictates how the 'what' is heard and is of equal importance.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Letter I Wrote, at the Editor's Request, to the Dearborn Free Press

Introductory comment:  I think a lot of the current immigration debate, and fear of the rising number of Muslims in our midst, is the product of jingoistic fear.  The church has much self-examination to do before it begins blaming Mexicans and Muslims for our problems.

Christless Christianity – As Dangerous As Islamic Law

While a student at Hillsdale College, I had several Arab-American friends, and know first-hand that not all Islam is of the radical sort.  Just as in Christianity, there are nominal Muslims and there are Muslims who take their faith seriously.

“It’s easier to identify some external enemy, and overlook the enemy within.  Civilizations fall not by external pressures  - but by internal rot.”

Some people fear the  rise of radical Islam and the threat of Sharia (Quranic laws).  In the deep south (Alabama, Florida,  Mississippi…) we hear rumors of honor killings, female genital mutilation and women wearing burqas. We hear stories (some real and some exaggerated) about the death of liberty and the imposition of Sharia in the West.
What dangers lead to the death of liberty? Is creeping Sharia law the greatest danger?  It’s easy to identify some external enemy and overlook the enemy within.  Civilizations fall not by external pressures but by internal rot.
The Christian church bears a large part of the blame. For about the last sixty years, the church has been giving  advice  to help people make their lives better. This message has been put forth from all sorts of pulpits in all kinds of churches  -  whether mainline and liberal or evangelical and conservative.
The evangelical church may tack on a “get saved” message now and again, but, by and large, middle class suburbanites were only hearing “solutions" to the problems that kept them awake at night:  marital, finances, career and children.

The Problem of Christless Christianity

Yes, we need help. The type of help we need, however, is not making our old lives better. The help we need is a brand new life. We need to be rescued, not improved.  We are the reason things go wrong in our lives.  We need the resurrection power of Jesus Christ to transform our lives.
Tragedy happens in some families but it is not tragedy that makes most people miserable. What causes the angst and agony of our daily existence?.  How do we get on the rat-race for bigger houses farther out, with better jobs, with prettier wives, and more-accessorized kids?  Some people have found peace and joy in the midst of  sickness, tragedy, and poverty because they understand something we in the church often forget. That “something” is Jesus.
Is Jesus making you happy? My church tells me Jesus can make me happy. The disciples of Jesus were happy even as they were being killed. Yet many “modern Christians” are not happy — because  they don’t really want Jesus Christ in their life.  They want Christianity without Christ.  They want a happy and fulfilled life on their own terms.  Sadly, they get neither Christ nor their happiness in the end, just as the man who marries for money gets neither love nor joy.
The church, however, persists in the face of this misery trying to offer people a better life – a self improvement program.  The church baptizes affluent American values and offers a life of comfort with little self-sacrifice or inconvenience.
Bonhoeffer was battling the evils of Nazi Germany, while preaching the good news of Christ. Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  What was he talking about?
We are to called to be loving, sacrificial, humble, selfless, honest, chaste, industrious, thrifty and kind. Yet, we find  ourselves unable to do those things. “The Law” is powerless to bring about the result it intends. “The Law of God” tells us to be good, but it has no power to make us good.

“The Islamic world looks at the United States as decadent, slothful and morally rotten – a civilization teetering on the brink, and ripe for the picking. We must agree with them in this.”

This is where Christ comes in. In Colossians, it says that Christ is our life. Christ is our robe of righteousness. Until we see that we ourselves are the problem, we will never see that Christ is the solution. Our old life must die, and the resurrection power of Jesus will give us a new life!
This brings us back to the idea of freedom and tyranny. Whether Sharia law or tyrannical socialism – the nature of tyranny is the same – it is the forced practice of virtue, however skewed its notion of virtue is. How can something be virtuous if I am forced to do it?  Externally enforced virtue is no virtue at all.  It is not my virtue that makes me pay taxes to support the poor, it is the threat of punishment.
The Islamic world looks at the “Christian” west as self-indulgent, decadent and ripe for the picking. They are right, and their answer is Sharia law – holiness enforced from without.
The American experiment flourished for a long time and some historians have been searching for the “missing ingredient”.  What was the “secret sauce” in the American recipe for freedom and prosperity? What was the motivation for the “Puritan work ethic”?  The secret sauce was (and still is) love.
Love for Christ motivated a significant portion of the populace to thrift, industry, charity, moderation, self-sacrifice and worship. Jesus said that those who believe in him will have rivers of living water flowing from within themselves, bringing refreshment and blessing to all around. We have been living off that accumulated capital now for several generations, and its effect is waning. Public morality has collapsed. Legislation and regulation increase in response in an attempt to put the government’s finger in the collapsing dike.
The Islamic world looks at the United States as decadent, slothful and morally rotten – a civilization teetering on the brink, and ripe for the picking. We must agree with them in this. The answer to an encroaching Islam at home and abroad is not Terry Jones protesting in front of a mosque, the death of Al Qaeda leaders, or bombs lobbed into Libya. The answer is a life filled with the love of Jesus;  sharing the good news of Jesus resurrection with our neighbors.
Ken Pierce –  Jackson, Mississippi

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Evangelapologetics, or Two Men at a Boat Show

That isn't a word, but it should be!  In the middle part of the twentieth century, such divergent voices as Karl Barth and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones cast doubts upon the whole enterprise of apologetics --how to defend the faith.  Both favored Christian proclamation over Christian argumentation.  I resonate with that, a bit, if we view apologetics as two men seated on a podium, bandying about truth as if it were a ping-pong ball, a set of intellectual propositions with no practical application.

That said, defending the faith is a useful thing.  It is useful in Christian proclamation as a way of placing underpinnings beneath Christian convictions -- here is why we believe certain things to be true.  Some effective modern Christian communicators, Ravi Zacharias among them, have shown the use of apologetics in its full flower --as a way of evangelizing the lost, of giving a credible Christian message to thinking audiences, hence evangelapologetics.

I am not one to get fussy over apologetic method.  I am far more interested in applied apologetics than I am in aruging about the theory that lies behind this or that line of argument.  I think that the classical proofs for God are of use.  Yet, I acknowledge that classical proofs, apart from revelation, can get us only so far towards the Biblical notion of God's person and his work.  What classical proofs can show us about God roughly lines up with what Paul says everybody knows about God in Romans 1 and 2 --that there is a God, and certain things about his nature --that he is all-powerful and all-just, etc.  Classical proofs can get us nowhere near God as he is revealed to us in Christ, or the message of redemption.  Classical proofs align roughly with what we call general or natural revelation.

This is why I gravitate more towards a generally presuppositional approach.  I say "generally" because my knowledge is not nuanced enough to tease out all the differences that exist.  I do, however, feel a bit compelled to speak about it in light of what Professor Paul Copan writes about it over at The Gospel Coalition.  The presuppositionalism he critiques there is unrecognizable to me.  If presuppositionalism were what Copan describes, then nobody would believe it to be true.  My purpose here is not to trash other ways of doing apologetics, but rather to explain what presuppositionalism really is.  Professor William Edgar did it probably better and certainly briefer here:  Fides Quaerens Intellectam.

What is presuppositionalism?  Many people dismiss it because they think it begins with assuming what it ought to prove, namely that God exists, and the God that exists is the God who reveals himself in Scripture.  Some may argue that way, but I think presuppositionalism begins with some basic acknowledgments about how we know what we know.  It does not assume that man can or does come to his knowledge about life, the universe, and everything from outside the system as an objective observer.  He does not have the benefit of objectivity or omniscience.  He discerns truth as one within the system and as a part of the system.  He is a created being, how can he know what lies beyond creation or interpret creation in any meaningful way?  Moreover, he approaches what he sees and hears not with a completely open mind but rather with certain preconceived notions about what it all means.  These notions can be examined and amended, but they are inevitably there.

The first question, then, is not about what we know (the content of knowledge or belief) but about how we know what we know.  The first question is not "Does God exist?" but "How do I come to know anything?"   You can see this reality reflected in the structure of the Westminster Confession of Faith which begins, not with a statement of beliefs about God, but a statement of beliefs about how God makes himself known.  The Christian answer to the question "How can I know anything?' must be "Only because God has revealed it to me, either through his words or his works."  This is where many thinking people accuse presuppositional apologetics of circular logic --assuming that God exists in order to prove that God exists.

Yet, this misses the point.  The presuppositionalist understands the purpose of apologetics is to demonstrate the truth of God to those disinclined to believe it, and, what is more, that it is more important to win a heart than an argument.  He simply goes about it in a different way.  His way is to invite those who see the world differently than he does to view the world through his eyes, if only for the sake of argument.  His desire to win them over expresses itself by showing others the logical coherence of the Christian message.  His basic premise is that the truth is coherent and consistent and falsehood, by definition, is incoherent and inconsistent.  So, even as he demonstrates the consistency of the Christian world-and-life-view, he points out the inconsistency of other world-and-life-views.  His arguments are not based so much on proofs as they are consistency.  His question to his conversation partner is, given these particular presuppositions, does this view not make sense?

Picture two men at a boat show.  There are many boats for sale.  One man is a representative for a particular brand of boat; the other man is a prospective buyer looking to trade up from his current boat.  He believes in his product.  He knows why his boat is superior to all other boats.  He knows the ins and outs of all the mechanicals, the materials, the power and hydrodynamics.  Yet, at the forefront of his mind is this:  he believes in his product, he knows, in his heart of hearts that it is the most excellent product out there.  He knows the real questions of the buyer are "Why is this boat better than mine?  Is it faster?  Will it float?  Does it leak?  Is it reliable?  He knows the best way to make the sale is to put the boat in the water  and let the man drive it.  If it truly is a superior product, the boat will sell itself.  What is more, the salesman is so secure that his product is the far superior one, that he might invite the buyer to drive other boats.  He might go along with him and point out where the other boats fall short of his boat --inferior grommets that might give way, inferior engine design, cheaper parts that will not hold up.  The other boats may look pretty but they will get you only so far.

If the Christian faith is true, it must be consistent.  If it is true and all other systems of thought are false, then they must necessarily be inconsistent.  Yet, to argue that other systems are false is not to argue that they contain no truths whatsoever.  To have any credibility, they must accommodate themselves to reality in some sense, they have to speak in some meaningful way to the questions humans inevitably have about the meaning of life, eternity and morality.  The Christian asserts that these truths are borrowed from the Truth, which is found only in Christ.  The truths found in other religions give us meaningful points of contact to engage with adherents of other world and life views, not for the purpose of demonstrating how much they have in common with Christianity, but rather to demonstrate how those fixed realities to which they accomodate themselves actually unravel the system.  For instance, Christianity, modern Judaism and Islam all believe in a God who both is morally perfect and rightly demands moral perfection --in other words, a God who is just.  This presents a problem, however.  Man is not morally perfect.  How can sinful man find favor with an inflexibly holy God?  There is only one possible consistent answer.  It cannot be that this God regards those who live basically obedient lives.  No just judge on earth would look at a murderer and pardon him because of the many other good things he did in his life.  That would offend our innate sense of justice! The only logically consistent answer is that such a God must punish sin.  The only answer then, that gives relief to such a conundrum is the cross of Christ.

What the presuppositionalist does, in light of such an argument, is this.  He takes a commonly believed truth, and uses it to deconstruct the false systems and demonstrate the consistency of the true.  He is not "proving" anything, but demonstrating rather the beauty and love of the Christian system.  He realizes an argument cannot win the heart, but it can show that the truth about God is both logical and lovely.

The presuppositionalist finds his points of contact with unbelievers not in abstractions or philosophy, but rather from what the Word of God tells us about all humans, believers and unbelievers.  Man's chief problem is not the objections of his mind (though it is wrong to discount them) but the autonomy of his heart.  Scripture tells us that all humanity knows there is a God and yet suppresses that truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).  They know this because God has made it plain to them (Romans 1:19).  What is more, all humanity knows there is a moral code, and understands the just sanctions for breaking that moral code, and yet not only breaks it, but teaches that breaking it is a virtue (Romans 1:32).  This is not just abstract knowledge, but every person's personal experience.  Any time we pass judgment, rightly or wrongly, on the behavior of another, we have demonstrated our knowledge of the fixed verity of the existence of right and wrong (Romans 2:1).   Though philosophers have long tried to account for the existence of a moral compass and conscience by locating it somewhere in creation, this enterprise has failed.  We can thank Nietzsche and those who followed him for finally killing it off with horrific aplomb.  A transcendent moral norm is not a material or created entity.  It must come from somewhere else.  Other examples could be added:  the reality of love, for one.  Paul uses these basic facts about human nature: man's creation in the image of God, his rebellion against God, and his knowledge that he has rebelled against God as the dark intellectual and experiential underpinnings upon which to build the beautiful reality of the grace of God experienced solely in his own Son.  This presuppositionalist humbly submits that we should, too.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Always Improving Your Craft

Hugo is a beautiful movie.  I don't like 3-D much at all, but I am sorely disappointed I didn't see it in 3-D (it was, however, a great way to break in a new Blu-Ray!). It is a movie about the movies, a beautiful story set amid beautiful scenery.  It is hard to write about it without spoiling the plot line, but suffice it to say it is about a forgotten man who once was a great artist in his given medium, and how he finds redemption through the persistence of a young boy and girl.

It is, in short, a fictionalized account of the later life of Georges Melies, the early cinematographic genius, famous for his "Voyage to the Moon," in which the rocket launched from Earth hits the Old Man in the Moon in the eye.  Melies was a restless perfectionist and innovator, always driving himself to do better and be better, inventing an art where none had previously existed.

Watching those early movies is fascinating --they are primitive, yet beautiful.  We have come far so very fast in terms of technology.  Sound, then color, then Cinemascope and Panavision, then stereo, then surround, and now digital and CGI.  Hollywood has been restlessly improving itself since its beginnings.

Which makes me think about preaching...

I found a new and insightful blog,, by Eric McKiddie, one of the pastors of the storied College Church @ Wheaton.  McKiddie is excellent at offering pithy and wise advice to pastors on the whole range of pastoral attitudes and practice.  His blog 12 Ways to Improve Your Preaching in 2012 started quite a lively discussion on my Facebook page.

I work with seminary interns, and one of the things I try to do is to get them to examine the "How" of preaching, in short to be thinking of delivery and how it can be improved.  Seminarians often view sermons as we might view our children --beloved little darlings-- and perish the thought that anyone might tell us we could improve them!  Those who have let me critique their sermons probably wish they hadn't, later (though some come back and thank me).  I have stressed to them that sermons are part art and part science, and, like any skill, we ought to be intent on getting better.  Preaching is part gifting, part caught and part taught.  WE also tend to know it when we hear it, even across a range of styles.

The aspiring preacher needs to find his own voice and cultivate it.  The danger of listening to good preaching is to become a mimic of a good preacher --and the mimics are never as good as the originals.  I firmly believe preachers ought to ingest a regular diet of good preaching for the good of their own souls, and also with an ear towards improving themselves, but to avoid at all costs imitating those whom you hear.

One part of preaching I think that has sadly fallen out of fashion is eliminating notes.  I am no anti-note legalist, but I know, in my case, notes do me far more harm than good.  The danger of "notelessness" is straying off topic, but really this is not difficult to remedy --know what you're going to say, and don't say anything (generally) you hadn't planned to say.  Preaching is oral proclamation, which is a very different thing from written communication, and a sermon that is read, generally, will sound stilted and fail to connect.  I say generally to all this because there are exceptions!

I say this too, because I use notes in the evening, and I know how much less enjoyable preaching is when I do it.

Friends who studied under great homileticians (Henry Bast, Haddon Robinson, Robert Rayburn) all report that it was expected of them not to take notes into the pulpit.  It seems to me that a reasonably intelligent and disciplined man should be able to speak for 25-35 minutes on a topic extemporaneously without veering too far afield.  Sometimes I wonder if this is why so many candidate sermons sound like Bible study notes, and, sadly, many preachers fail to ever advance beyond that.

The danger of all of this is, of course, that I, or any, who venture to opine about preaching may come across as regarding myself (ourselves) as experts, and as gifted preachers.  That is not my intent.  I do think, however, that I generally know what makes for good preaching, about which much more could and should be said (and McKiddie is excellent on this, as is Fred Craddock in his books Preaching and As One Without Authority.)  

The overall point is this: preachers ought to be restless and intentional about improving the "hows" of their preaching --things like structure of argument, rhetorical flow, voice and delivery.  Other preachers care to weigh in?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Church Impossible or "To See Ourselves as Others See Us"

Okay, I've become addicted to Restaurant Impossible, a kinder and gentler version of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.  The premise of the show is this:  celebrity chef Robert Irvine sets out to save a failing restaurant, given just 2 days and $10,000.  Often what you see makes you never want to eat in a restaurant again.  Dated decor, filthy kitchens, uninspiring food (often from cans and without such basics as salt and pepper), vermin, surly owners and unsanitary food storage.

It makes you wonder, "Can't these people see this?"  The truth is, quite often, they cannot see it.  Why?  They are so immersed in it.  It is their world, seven days a week and twenty-four hours a day.  Even if they wish things could be different, they have no idea how to make them better.  They need an outsider, an expert, to come in and show them the way.  Usually, what Robert finds is by teaching them a few techniques, giving them a new start, and a few pep talks, he can transform a restaurant. At the end of each show, they give a brief update from three months later.  What would be more interesting is how the restaurants are faring a year or more down the road.  Were the restaurateurs really capable of change, or will they fall back into familiar yet ultimately destructive habits?  Several of those he tried to save have indeed closed.

I have remarked to my wife that it would be great to have a Church Impossible --someone to come in from the outside and look at the facilities, the worship, the decor, the culture and demeanor of a church and its pastor.  The result would no doubt be painful, but, when we are immersed in our own world, it can be so difficult to see how others see us.  We think we are nice people, why don't more people join with us?  Or, we think we know how we need to change, but our own opinions are very much colored by our own subjectivity.  An older friend in ministry told me once to write down everything negative you notice during your first six weeks because, after that, you won't have the eyes to see it any more.

Every church has a mythology about it.  Outsiders may see us, our facilities and worship, our staff and membership, very differently than we perceive ourselves.  Often a pastor, as an outsider, can see these things, but meets great reticence to change or improve.  He doesn't have the built-in credibility of a long-time member, and fights the institutional inertia that plagues every group of men and women under the sun.

Some things we might write off as superficial really aren't.  God deserves our best, he deserves us doing whatever we do, well.  So, some questions we might ask ourselves are these:

Are we really a friendly church?  How deep does the friendliness go?  Are we quick to invite visitors over for lunch, to bring new members into our circle of friends?

Do we do our music well, whatever style it might be?  Does the congregation sing in a way that is worthy of the worship of God?

Do the sermons exalt Christ and invite others to know him, and, for those who know him, inspire them to follow him more faithfully, in every area of their lives?  Are they accessible, yet challenging?  Does the pastor seem to care about both truth and people?  What could he do better?

Is the facility inviting, well-kept, bright and easy to navigate?  Is the nursery convenient to the sanctuary?  Are the spaces open?  Are the bathrooms bright and clean?  Do the lights all work?  How is the sound?  (These things may seem mundane, but they send a message --do these people care about their facilities as the place they gather to worship God?)

There are many more questions that could be asked.  So, what would you ask?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Piety and Learning, Gentleness and Conviction

The last several years were difficult for my friend Knox Chamblin.  He seemed to have one health trial after another.  His anemia gave way to an aggressive leukemia.  He suffered well.  He suffered as a Christian.  He asked God for healing.  He came to the elders to be anointed with oil.  Last week, the Lord took him home.  His prayer for healing was answered and we will see the result at the resurrection of the just.

I loved Knox Chamblin as a professor.  I had him for Pauline Epistles and C. S. Lewis.  I did not know him well as a student.  I remember, as a brash Yankee, first hearing his gentle Southern accent.  I remember being moved as he wept at the lectern.  I loved his classes, his unique take on the text of Paul, his Calvinist's love for C. S. Lewis.

What a privilege it has been to be his pastor and his friend for these past five years.  I have yet to come to terms with the fact that he is gone.  The other delight of these past five years is coming to know and to love his dear wife, Ginger.  I have never known two people like them.  Words fail me to describe them and their relationship, and their ministry both individually and together.  They were some of my inner ring --those people to whom a pastor can go on a dark day, and confide in, and know that he was being lifted up by them in prayer.  Scripture tells us (Hebrews 13:17) that some people will be hard to pastor, and tells us not to be those people.  Knox and Ginger are the exact opposite --they have always been more of a blessing to me than I could ever be to them.)  During Knox's long hospitalization, the Lord gave me some wonderful times of prayer and reflection with him.  Many people make small talk.  Knox was not unusual in that regard.  Yet, inevitably, the conversation naturally turned to the preciousness of Christ and his word.  It was not forced, it was not artificial, it was part of the warp and woof of this man's being.

Knox Chamblin was a unique man.  He was a Biblical scholar with a poetic soul.  He was an irenic and peaceable soul of unshakable conviction.  He was a seminary professor who went to prisons to visit.  He was a minister in the PCUSA to the end of his life,  yet devoted his life for the last thirty years to a PCA congregation.  Christ has his warriors and his polemicists, and they are necessary.  But, Christ also has his gentle giants and his peacemakers, and Knox was one.

Knox was not named for the great Scottish reformer.  If memory serves, one parent was a Baptist, the other a Methodist, and, in true twentieth century fashion, they settled in their married life on being Presbyterian.  What a providential happening!  What a blessing that this singular soul was entrusted by God to perhaps the most cantankerous part of his fractious family.  For Knox there was no separation between scholarship and doxology and piety, between heart and head and hand.  So many of us have such a hard time holding those things together.  Whether it was effortless for Knox, he and the Lord know.  It certainly looked seamless to me.

Knox was brilliant beyond reckoning, certainly.  His work Paul and the Self, a masterpiece of Christian psychology (in the theological, not technical sense of that word), is no easy read.  His commentary on Matthew is as devotionally rich as any Ryle ever wrote, and far more scholarly.  God, in his grace, allowed Knox to finish that work, and I am grateful.

Knox's memorial service was the most moving service I have ever been party to in our church.  Throngs of people, "It Is Well" and "How Firm a Foundation," reading Psalms especially dear to him in his affliction, reflecting on his life and how it reflected Christ, Ralph Davis reminding us that Christ is sympathetic to us in our losses, but violently angry at death itself, and alone has the power to overcome death  --a beautiful, wonderful and awful thing all wrapped up into one.

I am thoroughly dissatisfied with what I have written.  My words fail this good man.  My grief today feels different than that of last week, or of his service.  Today it is the dreary dull reality of loss and emotional weariness.  I am grateful to God that he gave us Knox for 76 years.  I am so grateful for these last 5 years.  Yet, how I wish they could have been many more.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Life Stranger than Fiction

I have long been taken with Walker Percy.  I am fascinated more by his life than by his novels.  I am not much of a fiction reader, to be honest, but I have learned from his profound essays.  Much of what I write below is drawn from the moving PBS special on his life.

If it were not biography, Tennessee Williams could have written the life of Walker Percy.  He was born into a prominent and tragic Southern family.  His grandfather had committed suicide.  His father was a prominent Birmingham attorney, with wealth and privilege.  He, too, ended his life.  Suicide felt like the family curse to Walker, and he wondered if he were destined to walk that same road.

Walker, his brothers and his mother went to live with his cousin, "Uncle" Will Percy, himself the author of a haunting memoir Lanterns on the Levee (a very worthwhile read).  Will was a Southern gentleman, never married, and a leading citizen of Greenville, MS.  His father LeRoy, whom he lionized, was a United States Senator who stood down the Klan.  Will himself had rather liberal sympathies.  Greenville was anything but a stereotypical Southern town.  It produced a progressive newspaper, edited by Hodding Carter.  It had a prominent synagogue.  It was wealthy beyond imagining and a cosmopolitan oasis in the Mississippi Delta.  Will entertained luminaries of every sort in his capacious estate and Walker was the beneficiary of it.  His childhood friend included another man who would become an equally prominent Southern author --Shelby Foote.

While still a young man, Walker's mother drowned.  She was driving on a treacherous road, her car came around a sharp corner and missed the entrance to a bridge.  She drowned with her younger son in the car.  He lived, but she died.  Walker was soon at the scene --he did not know it was his mother's car until he arrived.

One can understand why a young man might want to leave much of this behind.  The settled philosophy of his early life was agnosticism --he was to be a man of science.  He went to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He settled on becoming a doctor, and studied pathology at Columbia University.  While there, working on cadavers, he contracted tuburculosis, and was forced to lie flat on his back for months in a sanitorium.

At some point, Walker began to realize that science could not account for the deeper, richer things in life --beauty, love, nor could it grapple with man's plight, blindly trying to make his way in the silent universe, sensing there is meaning, but not being able to read what that meaning was.  He awakened to the reality of God, yet not without profound and burning questions.  He had been profoundly influenced by existentialism.  He became a Christian Existential Catholic.  Existentialism prizes the individual acting decisively.  While in the sanitorium, he resolved to marry his long-time fiancee, become a Catholic and move to New Orleans.

Only he didn't quite move to New Orleans.  He settled in the nearby town of Covington, and writes movingly of why he did so.  Though becoming a literary giant through his novel, The Moviegoer, he was a regular citizen, in his later days, found at the waffle house and driving a beat-up Toyota.

He and his wife, Mary Bernice ("Bunt"), had two daughters.  They would take walks down by the river.  Because snakes abounded, Walker carried a rifle.  Once, when the younger daughter was a baby, he shot a snake.  Bernice and the older daughter winced.  The younger daughter didn't make a sound --they had just discovered she was deaf.

Percy's life was marked by tragic and difficult circumstances.  Many people's are.  Is it right to draw lessons from a person's life?  Was it Percy's circumstances that gave him so many things to say?

I wanted to introduce you to Walker Percy because he has some wonderful things to say --perhaps I'll chronicle some of those in a later post.  I am not commending him religiously or philosophically.  I am commending him because he makes me think.  Maybe he will make you think, too.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Some Random Thoughts about Doing Good while Doing Minimal Harm

There has been a lot of healthy talk in Christian circles lately about how best to go about doing good in the name of Christ.  Both Fikkert and Corbett's When Helping Hurts and Tim Keller's Generous Justice contribute much to this discussion.  Some of this is distilled from them, and some from my own experiences.  Some of it may not even be right!  Just some thoughts.

1.) You have to be willing to be "taken," up to a point, without getting jaded.  This is really difficult.  The Christian should be wise --we don't want to help in a way that winds up hurting, but neither do we want to deny aid just because a person might be playing us.

2.)  Sometimes, the best thing to offer is comfort, support and companionship.  Some financial holes are simply too deep for most individuals (or even congregations) to fill.  The apostles once said to a beggar, "Silver and gold have I none."  Of course, they promptly offered healing that is beyond most of our spiritual gifting, but we can offer the same Jesus.

3.)  When in doubt, ask for counsel.  If you are faced with a decision as to how to help, or whether to help, get some quick counsel from like-minded brothers and sisters.  They will help you avoid purely emotional or reactionary decisions.

4.) Don't be too cautious.  God is with you and you have the Holy Spirit.  Not all doing good is safe.  Don't be foolish (I was once, and am glad I escaped), but don't be reticent.  Don't let the possible worst case scenario, or all the potential contingencies, keep you from helping someone.

5.) Doing real and lasting good is very hard to do.  Many people's problems are the result of factors far out of your control (relationship issues, health difficulties, lifestyle choices).  You can often alleviate immediate needs, but more needs will present themselves because of poor choices or just the size of the predicament the person is in.  Do what you can, but realize you can't do everything.

6.)  If you don't know how to help a person in a particular situation, get to know some people who do.

7.) Be willing to say "no," while still offering support.  Sometimes people will ask you to do things that are dangerous for them (like collecting an outstanding debt).  Politely refuse and tell them why.

8.) Be careful what you pray for.  Sunday night we had a prayer service.  Since we are an urban church, I told the congregation we needed to ask God to bring us all sorts of people, and help us welcome them and meet whatever needs we can.  Immediately afterwards (actually before!) an acute need became available.

9.)  Expect unexpected blessings.  Getting involved in peoples' messy lives is hard.  You will probably get hurt and taken advantage of.  But, you will also get some really awesome unexpected blessings, too.  I've seen it --tangibly and really.  I don't want to share details because of the potential for embarrassing some involved, but let's just say it can be spectacular to help people.

10.) Build relationships, don't just write checks.  We are good at alleviating guilt by giving money.  Money is necessary, to be sure.  Look to build friendships.  Ask for God to bring you friends who present particular challenges --who aren't from your walk of life, your race, your education level, your economic class.  Take them out, invite them over (Jesus said to!).  People are people.  You will be surprised at the deep bonds that can be forged.

11.)  It's not wrong to feel good about doing good.  Kant told us that if a virtuous act made us feel good, it wasn't virtuous (or something like that).  Nonsense.  It's okay to feel satisfaction when you help somebody.  It's part of the reward.  You won't always feel it, and not feeling it is not a reason for not doing it, but when you do, enjoy it.  "I did somebody some good today" is not a bad thing.