Combating Consumerism in Worship

May 23rd, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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For my last post in this short series on worship, I’d like to comment on consumerism’s insidious influence on our worship preferences and practices. That we even need to speak of consumerism in worship represents a deep and shameful irony (and one in which I am sure Satan relishes). After all, what could be more antithetical to worship—which is meant to be wholly Other-centered, the active denial of self in the exaltation of Another—than insisting on our own way? How can self put forth its own interests in such an ugly manner at such a beautiful time? Yet, as we all know, it happens. And it happens not in the pew behind me, but in the dark recesses of my own heart.

 

I want my worship experience to be as I prefer.

 

I want it to be all about me, even as I sing that it’s all about him.

 

How can we mortify this sinful tendency in our hearts and lives? Looking up, fixing our attention on Jesus, will certainly help. Worthy of our worship is the Lamb who was slain, which (if I’ve read the accounts of Jesus in Gethsemane correctly) was not his preference. He died to his self-will for our sakes, and we in response take up our own crosses—crucify our self-will—for his sake.

 

But let me suggest that another helpful remedy is looking around at the Bride of Jesus: his beloved, blood-bought Church. When we look around at the local congregation of believers, we may not see people from every tribe or nation or tongue, but we will still see marvelous diversity—people from different genders and ages and ethnicities. God has gathered us together, and our Christ-centered, gospel-wrought unity is far greater than anything that could possibly divide.

 

Here are three ways looking around at the gathered church will help you mortify your consumerism in worship:

 

  1. It will remind you of the root issue. The heart of the problem, as others have said before me, is the problem of the heart. I am the issue. And looking around at others deeply engaged in authentic worship of a glorious God will remind me of that painful truth. I have often heard people say ridiculous things like, “I just couldn’t worship today.” The comment is inevitably aimed as a jab at the worship leader for failing to create an appropriately worshipful atmosphere. (Make no mistake, by the way: there are things worship leaders can do that inhibit worship, and we need to be mindful of them.) What always surprised me, though, was the number of people surrounding the disgruntled congregant who could worship that day. The glory of God had not departed the church because the song selection was so theologically offensive or anything like that. It was a matter of unfulfilled personal preference. And yes, sin will inhibit your worship, so no wonder you couldn’t worship that day. However, seeing others worship God at a moment when you feel worship is impossible will point out the root issue, which lies within you. Confession, repentance, and re-entry into worship should follow easily enough.
  2. It will encourage an appreciation for diversity. Heaven will be wondrously diverse, and many of our local congregations display at least a modicum of that diversity. With a group as diverse as what you’ll find in a typical church, you can expect very different musical preferences. Some will value tradition, while others will appreciate newness. Some will worship demonstratively (e.g., hands raised, clapping), while others will prefer an inward posture. Some will like rock, some country, some classical, some bluegrass, and on and on. People will have different musical abilities, especially when it comes to their singing range. Now, I would guess worship leaders hear more about key choices than song selection, but the truth is there is no good key for everyone in a congregation. Men and women, for example, sing in very different ranges, so it will be well-nigh impossible for a song to be comfortable for men and women to sing simultaneously (unless it has a shockingly limited range). Looking around at others who seem to be singing with gusto a song that you don’t really like and can’t sing particularly well will remind you that you are not the only member of the congregation. You will then have an opportunity to appreciate and embrace the diversity within your gathered church. (Parents and children will often like different music, of course, and I can only think how gratifying it would be to see your children abandoned in worship—even if you don’t care for the tune!) In fact, if your church is reasonably diverse and you have strong musical opinions, you should expect (and even hope) to like only a portion of the songs each week. And that will be a good thing—for the diverse congregation surrounding you, and for you, as you embrace that diversity for the Lord’s and their sakes.
  3. It will help you love others. This is really just the next step in the same direction. Once you appreciate the diversity of your church (and their musical preferences), and assuming you’ve crucified your self-will, you will now have the opportunity to love the rest of your church. In humble service, you can sing songs that just aren’t your favorite because you see how they are ministering to others and allowing them to experience real intimacy with their Father. In self-crucifying love, you can consider their needs as greater than your own and defer to their preferences. Let me take a practical example. Suppose the song selection that morning contains a few songs on the muted, reflective side of the spectrum. Perhaps one even contains strong expressions of lament. Now, everything is peachy keen in your life, and you’d prefer the happy-clappy (I mean no disrespect for the genre, truly) types instead. As you grow in love, you can be grateful that those who are hurting, depressed, broken that morning have words to express the deep emotion within them—even though it doesn’t resonate with you right then. It is truly an opportunity to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), a tangible expression of our love for one another.

 

We put consumerism to death in our hearts because it is sin, and all sin separates us from our good and gracious God, in whom all delight and pleasure is found. But we put consumerism to death because it separates us from our brothers and sisters in Christ too. We look up. We look around. And we sing with undignified passion (2 Samuel 6:22) because he is worthy, and they are family.

 

What other tips would you suggest for combating consumerism in worship?



Fighting Idolatry

January 10th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Now that I’ve started to identify my idols, what next? How do I fight idolatry in my life? How do I learn to treasure Christ more, to value supremely only that which is supremely valuable?

 

On a handful of occasions I’ve tried to learn some form of artwork or other—drawing, painting—usually with 5229725173_493ea39a9f_zspectacular ineptitude. The most enjoyable part of the process, though, is reading the manuals that purport to teach you in four easy steps. Steps one to three usually involve drawing some very basic shapes, starting to get a sense of proportion, etc. Then step four shows the completed picture, colored and shaded, with detail and nuance throughout. I always feel like they’re missing a few steps in there.

 

So, in sketching out these four steps, I’m well aware that I’m missing a few steps in here too. The broad outlines are easy, but the nuances of working them out in your own heart are difficult and time-consuming. They will take a lifetime of gospel contemplation. Nevertheless, here they are, just to get us started.

 

  1. Confess and repent. This seems like a no-brainer, but I’m amazed at how often we skip this part. If you’ve done the hard work of identifying idols, make sure you then recognize the idolatry as sin, and repent of it. For example, if you’re in a dating relationship with a non-Christian because you’re worshiping the idol of human love, confess your idolatry—which will mean getting out of a sinful relationship. If your life of luxury and self-indulgence betrays an idol of comfort, repent of it—which will mean sacrificial giving and a simpler lifestyle. Listen to how Paul puts it in Colossians 3:5-8: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” These sins, he says, are expressions of idolatry—and the wrath of God is coming because of them. That means we need to act; we need to rid ourselves of all the sinful manifestations of our idolatry. Confess and repent.
  2. Work out the end game. Really, where will your idolatry lead? Will anything in this world ever be enough to satisfy the deep longing within you? If you get everything your idolatrous heart desires—which is unlikely anyway—will that be enough? One way to think this through is to look at people who have what you want: are they satisfied? From what I can tell by looking at the wealthy, money doesn’t bring any real satisfaction, so why would I devote my life to it? I’ve watched many climb the career ladder without ever achieving the feeling of significance they’d hoped for. Addicts are addicts precisely because their “drug”—sex, shopping, heroin—is never enough. C.S. Lewis hits the nail on the head: “Most people, if they really learn how to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning can really satisfy. I am not speaking of what would ordinarily be called unsuccessful marriages or trips and so on; I am speaking of the best possible ones. There is always something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, that just fades away in the reality. The spouse may be a good spouse, the scenery has been excellent, it has turned out to be a good job, but ‘It’ has evaded us.” I suspect this is why people move so quickly from one fascination to the next: first a job, then marriage, then a new home, then a child; when the excitement wears off, we have to begin again—a new job, another child, a bigger house, a better spouse—only to find “It” still evading us. This is very much the point of Ecclesiastes, and its truth is felt intuitively by the great mass of humanity. Work out the end game. Your idolatry will leave you unsatisfied at the last.
  3. Treasure Christ. If your idolatry will lead you unsatisfied in the end, turn to that which alone can satisfy—God himself. To quote C.S. Lewis again, “Creature are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.” Some of our longings are met in this world—hunger and thirst, for example—but the deepest longings are not, so we must look beyond this world, to the invisible yet more substantial spiritual world. Asaph expresses it nicely: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). St. Augustine taught that what shapes us most fundamentally is not our beliefs or thoughts, but out loves. We are what we love—and we are most what we love I may say I love truth, but if I tell lies to protect my reputation, I prove I love my status more than I love honesty. Our deepest longings will be met only when we love most what is most deserving of our love, Jesus. As Augustine famously said in the opening lines of his Confessions, “You stimulate [us] to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.” In other words, this is the positive side of working out the end game: look at what will actually satisfy in the end, and then order your loves so that you can experience the fullness of joy found in him.
  4. Apply the gospel. You’ve begun to treasure Christ, you understand your need to seek ultimate joy in him alone, but how do you go about it? Turn to the gospel again and again. God does not love us in the abstract, but in the true story of Christ’s coming to earth as a human to live the life we should have lived, then to die the death we deserved to die, before being raised to the newness of life which we can experience through faith in him. Paul describes it thus: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the beautiful exchange wrought at Calvary: he takes my sin, which God punishes in him at the cross, so that I may take his perfection as my own—welcomed, then, as a dearly loved child of the Almighty Father. What will contemplation of a love like that do to me? First, it will soften my heart. It will humble me, because I recognize in this story the price of my rebellion against my good and gracious Creator. I am more sinful, more wretched, than I would ever have dared admit. But second, it will enflame my heart. It will captivate and enthrall me, because I apprehend, at last, the overwhelming, relentless, costly love of my Father. I am more loved, more cherished, than I would ever have dared dream. To the extent that I can grasp this truth, allow this love to seize and transform me, I will be freed of my idolatry, freed to order my loves rightly. Money is good because with it I can purchase what I need to survive, but it is as nothing before a love like this. Human love is excellent and often praiseworthy because we were made for fellowship and intimacy, but a finite being cannot offer me the infinite love for which I thirst. Achievement is fine because I am using my gifts to glorify God and serve my neighbors, but my significance is already given in God’s acceptance of me. Apply the wonder of the greatest, truest story ever told to your heart, and your idols will soon dim in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

 

What other strategies have you found effective in overcoming idolatry through the gospel?



Why Do Christians Hate Gays?

April 16th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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It seems to be the question on everyone’s minds. How can those who proclaim a loving, forgiving God demonstrate such hatred and bigotry? Unfortunately, many self-proclaimed Christians have made this a legitimate question to ask, displaying undeniable cruelty to those God, in some sense at least, loves.

 

But if a handful of Christians have made the question necessary, some on the other side of the debate have asked it without challenging the presuppositions behind it. I would suggest that before we ask why Christians hate gays, we must first ask if Christians hate gays. After all, the Westboro Baptist sorts seem to be in the hate-mongering minority even among fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. I belong to the latter category and I find the assumption that Christians hate gays to be intellectually (if not morally) offensive. So I will challenge it by first asking the related and seemingly never asked question.

 

Do Christians love gays?

 

I propose that they do—at least those of them humbly seeking to live faithful Christian lives by the grace of God.

 

Consider what it means to love someone. As far as definitions go, I have always preferred C.S. Lewis’: “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it may be obtained.”[1] Love has little, if anything, to do with bare emotion, and rather more to do with spending ourselves wholly to see our beloved experiencing the very best. For this reason parents sacrifice time and energy to put their children through school so that they can follow their vocational dreams. For this reason patriots have given their very lives so that their families and loved ones back home can live lives free from terror and oppression. We may quibble whether these choices were wise; we may challenge whether the results were in fact the “ultimate good” the loved ones could experience. But we cannot challenge the loving intent of the actions.

 

Now, for Christians the definition of love remains the same, except that we would more narrowly define what anyone’s ultimate good is. Christians believe, as they always have, that God himself is the ultimate good, the very best that anyone can experience. It was for this reason, according to the Bible, that Jesus Christ came into the world and died his sacrificial death on the cross: that anyone who trusts in this work of Jesus might live the fullness of life, might experience perfect peace and complete joy through a relationship with God himself.

 

You may not agree that this is the ultimate good, but you cannot disagree that this is a central tenet of the Christian faith, and one to which Christians are entitled to cling.

 

According to this understanding of love, colored in distinctly Christian terms, do Christians love gays or not? Surely they do (or at least the bulk of them from my experiences in mainstream evangelicalism). If, as Christians believe, the ultimate good we could wish on anyone we love is God himself; and if, as the Bible states clearly throughout the Old and New Testaments, homosexuality—like all sexual activity outside of a heterosexual, monogamous marriage—is a sinful practice that separates the person from God; then the most loving action a Christian could take is to call the beloved homosexual out of life-destroying sin and into life-giving fellowship with God.

 

To the gay community, this approach is anathema. It is a violation of human rights, unjust discrimination, narrow-minded bigotry and hatred. Christians, we are told, should mind their own business, stay out of other people’s bedrooms, and quietly delude themselves with their pretended spirituality.

 

That may all be true. But note the sleight of hand that takes place in such a maneuver. The gay community and those who advocate it have asked us to adopt their standard of love, their definition of “ultimate good,” now given an individual, humanistic tinct. In addition, they have asked Christians to abandon outright the historic heart of Christianity—in essence, to cease to be Christian—by insisting that we no longer proclaim that message publicly.

 

In other words, the gay-rights movement has proven itself to be just as publicly vocal (evangelistic?), intolerant, and narrow-minded as the Christians they denounce. Both sides, in order to continue being what forms the core of their identity, must persist in trying to convert the other side: from homosexuality to celibate same-sex attraction on the one hand, and from evangelist to relativist on the other. But so far, only one group has acknowledged its proselytizing instinct.

 

Three conclusions follow. First, despite our entrenched positions, we need not give in to vituperative hatred, as the worst advocates on both sides have regrettably embraced. Second, this does not mean that Christians hate gays any more than it means gays hate Christians. Individuals on both sides may lapse into this lamentable stance, but the movements will necessarily forego them: Christians because they are called to love, and gays because they espouse individual freedom, including freedom of religious belief.

 

Third, and finally, the debate will continue. If love wins, it has to. For Christians will continue proclaiming their ultimate good, the fullness of life found only in Christ; and gay-rights advocates will continue proclaiming theirs, the autonomy of the individual to choose their own happiness.

 

I can only ask, as a Christian tired of being dismissed as a hate-filled homophobe because I believe in the authority of the Bible, that the debate continue honestly, not with the stunted reasoning of a meme-generation. Christians cannot preach love and then practice hate, as most of culture has vociferously reminded us; but neither can the gay-rights community preach individual freedom and practice cultural hegemony and vitriolic jeremiads against those who choose another way of life. To do so would be hypocrisy.



[1] “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994): 49.



Love and a Multitude of Sins

November 27th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I have noticed a curious phenomenon among Christians today: when it comes to sin in the church, we speak when we should remain silent, and remain silent when we should speak.

 

If someone sins against me, causing personal offense—by which we usually mean a wounded ego—I am likely to confront the person, sharing my hurt and frustrations with him. It is almost unforgivable that someone who claims Christ as Lord could treat me in this unholy manner! However, if I see that same brother reckless in a sin that does not injure me—does not wound my pride or comfort—I am likely to keep quiet and not involve myself. After all, what if he becomes angry with me? It just isn’t worth the headache to admonish someone—unless his sin causes me more discomfort than confronting him does.

 

I think we have got this perfectly backwards.

 

Jesus commands us—not a polite request, mind you, but a demand from the Lord Almighty—to deal with sin in the church decisively: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15). This is to be done privately, at least initially, as Jesus goes on to explain (18:16); and it is to be done gently and humbly, mindful of our own propensity to sin and need of grace (Galatians 6:1). Above all, it is to be done lovingly. But that is the point, of course: to refrain from speaking—to leave a brother or sister in their sin without the exhortation and support of the fellowship of believers—is no love at all. It is indifference, perhaps the severest form of hatred for a family member. (And we are family.) James understands this well, writing to his scattered flock, “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). To save a sibling from death, to cover over a multitude of sins—is this not love?[1]

 

The trouble comes when we have been personally offended. When this happens, as it will inevitably in the fellowship of sinners, we so rarely respond in love. Instead, we respond in pride and anger—damnable sins, to be sure. I suspect God calls us to forgive without admonition in these cases to keep us from the temptation to pride, to keep us in the humble experience of grace. As he so often does, Bonhoeffer strikes at the heart of the matter: “Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sins is there no apology whatsoever.” Our community life usually suggests the reverse. Remember, just a few verses after Jesus commands us to call out a sinful sin, he shares the parable of the unmerciful servant in answer to Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?” (Matthew 18:21; cf. 23-25). The parable’s powerful lesson is apropos: how can we trifle with a sibling who owes us a small debt—spare change, really—when we see the immensity of the debt God has canceled in our own lives? Paul expresses it tersely, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). We remain silent for our own sakes, pray for our siblings, entrust them to the infallible work of the Spirit. We forego pride. We choose love.

 

Love. Love compels us to speak, compels us to call the beloved, but wayward sibling to the abundant life Christ tenders. And love compels us to fall silent, to contemplate the magnitude of God’s love in our own lives, to forgive as we have been forgiven.



[1] The language of covering over a multitude of sins calls to mind 1 Peter 4:8: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Here Peter makes explicit the connection between love and overcoming sin.



Postmodernism: Making Their Biggest Beef Our Greatest Asset

October 30th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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Note from Brandon: This is an exciting moment for Follow After Ministries, as today we welcome our very first guest blogger. Justin Burkholder, on the pastoral staff at Grace Pointe Ministries and soon-to-be missionary to Guatemala City, shares his thoughts on how to engage the elusive postmodernist lovingly and sensitively. In reading this, I am reminded of the old witticism, “How will they hear unless we listen?”

 

Before I say anything. I am neither condoning nor rebuking postmoderns. I am merely observing and explaining.

 

Now, I readily understand that postmoderns are very elusive. Frustratingly elusive. Illogically elusive. Irrationally elusive at times. And it is miserable to actually discuss matters of weight and depth with them. But, I think that the very fact that postmoderns can be categorized this way reveals a foundational postmodernist frustration in the way people approach them that they vehemently oppose.

 

It appears to postmoderns that the goal is not to listen to them or be with them, but only to categorize them. Once you can fully ascertain the system of thoughts by which an individual lives their life, you can ignore them, accept them, or even convince them of something else.  Though many would not agree that this is their actual goal, this—unfortunately—is the experience of many postmoderns.

 

Experience Is Everything

Postmoderns do place much weight on their own experiences. And no matter who you are, your experiences shape your truth. No matter how a magazine/website reviews a gourmet restaurant, if you had a bad experience, you will tell all of your friends and you won’t go back. 

 

Regardless of a postmodern’s religious history, almost all of them have story after story of belligerent leaders and authorities who disparaged and discouraged doubt, struggle, and anything else that rocked the theological/practical boat of their church/home/Sunday school class.

 

Take my background, for example. The problem for me was that the categories with which authorities and leaders arranged people didn’t ever actually fit the majority of my experiences. So, the authorities would talk about people who were “saved” and people who were not “saved.” These terms carried all sorts of moral baggage, establishing a pattern by which people lived their lives. “Saved” people had a standard of holiness. They didn’t do certain things (drink, smoke, dance—or go with girls who do). But the problem was that I was doing lots of things (pornography) that weren’t even talked about, which seemed to be a whole lot worse than the things that they did talk about. Was I “saved”? Was there room for someone like me?

 

Or take theology. The Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election was very appealing to me. But I just couldn’t fully accept some of the teaching on the end times. I had met some charismatic friends and they seemed to love Jesus more than anyone at my church (including me), so I became open to the sign gifts. For a time I was categorized as a heretic of sorts, creating divisions and strife, when in reality I was just trying to make sense of things.

 

Regardless of what my issue was, it was a microcosm of the greater. This kind of categorization has taken place everywhere; and it is considered poison to postmoderns.

 

Poor people, black people, gay people, women, republicans, democrats, the wealthy, used car salesmen, people with long hair, black clothing, musical genres, Arabs, Christians…etc. It wasn’t just fundamental Baptists who had legalistic tendencies. There is legalism everywhere. If you don’t want to be __________, then you do __________.  All __________ do or don’t do __________.  

 

No matter where the postmodern turns, there seems to be this obsession by others from other worldviews to categorize people (enslave people to a law), and then make a judgment based upon that categorization. And much of it is done in the name of truth. This kind of categorization and assessment releases people from actually having to listen or understand. And, even worse, one presumes to understand entire populations of people without ever actually engaging them. The “judgment” cry is not empty; it is legitimate, reflective of a wound that almost every postmodern bears, many of them having been wrongly labeled themselves—as gay, emotional, distorted, disconnected to reality, idealistic, etc.

 

And so, no matter what you do or say, the postmodern will almost always be terrified of being labeled, categorized, or “figured out”—because once they are, they are certain that no one will ever actually hear them, or even attempt to understand them. Many of them are like abused puppies: in many conversations, at the first sign of an elevated newspaper (the Bible?), they run.

 

How Is This Your Greatest Asset? (Or, How I Learned to Stop Categorizing and Love the Postmodern)

 If you can understand this approach to postmoderns, you will be light years ahead of everyone. Your words will change, your tone of voice will change—your demeanor, appearance, perspective. It will put you in a much more gentle and generous light. You should approach them as if they are terrified puppies instead of philosophical combatants.

 

Postmoderns want to hear stories. Stories resonate with them. They are broken and wounded by scandalous amounts of divorce, abuse, sexual promiscuity, and a general incongruence that they have seen in all of the institutions of which they have been part. Their lives have been a far cry from perfect. And stories express the pain and hurt they have experienced. They want to know that you aren’t perfect, because they aren’t. And stories convey that with power.

 

They want to know that you were/are broken too. They want to know that this world is a broken place, and that it is okay to be broken. They want to hear that you have failed and that it is okay for them to fail again. They want to be able to explain how they have come to their conclusions without you labeling them or categorizing them. They don’t want you to philosophically wrestle with them, they just want you to talk with them. They want to know that you and your God love them in spite of their brokenness and confusion.

 

More than that, many of them would just like for you to sit with them, and listen to them, and love them. Eventually, they will let you in. And when they do let you in, they want to be sure that you don’t have everything figured out. Because, despite their arrogance and pretense, they will always admit to not having anything figured out. They want the tension. Everywhere that they have been where people “have it all figured out” they encounter the judgment, categorization, and bullying spoken of previously.

 

They know there are flaws to their perspectives. Tons of them. Which is why they don’t ever have enough confidence to share them or to convince someone else of them. As a matter of fact, that just might be the theme of postmodernism: “There are flaws in everyone’s perspectives.” (And yes, I know that perspective may be flawed as well.)

 

But what many of them do know and believe without a shadow of a doubt is this: If being convicted and convinced about what you believe means treating people as they have seen them treated, then they will happily live in ambiguity for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately few postmoderns have met people passionate about their beliefs, who won’t go to any length necessary to wrestle them into believing the same. And when the postmodern doesn’t agree, they fear that the name-calling will begin.

 

The challenges of postmodernism are not some idiotic ruse that a group of dumb kids created so that they don’t have to answer questions; for many they are a defense mechanism. You must understand this to engage them. If you don’t, you will always be fighting and arguing an imaginary enemy, while the puppy—this beloved creation of God—flees in terror.



Trust Me

August 28th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Jeremiah, in some of his best known words, wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” The implication to the final rhetorical question seems to be no one can understand it. And, in particular, we cannot understand our own hearts. We think we know ourselves, but our own hearts deceive us, blinding us to our real motivations, thoughts, feelings. We do not need Satan to deceive us when it comes to our own sin; we are perfectly capable of accomplishing that on our own.

 

As I prayed this morning, I asserted boldly that I was not motivated by pride in some specific request. (I am sure God needed that information in any case.) But these words from Jeremiah came to mind almost immediately. If I do not know my heart as well as I should because my heart actively deceives me, then I should pray differently. Instead of asserting my innocence without knowledge, I should take a line from the psalmist: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). Rather than assuring myself that I am not, I need to implore God to reveal if I am driven by sin unknowingly.

 

I suspect I am not alone in this overweening boldness. When addressing girls on the issue of modesty, for example, I inevitably hear loud protests. Immodesty, I believe, springs from a lack of satisfaction in Christ, trying to make oneself feel lovable and beautiful apart from God. But most of the women who have heard me speak on the subject assure me this could never be in their hearts; rather, they are only trying to look “cute,” and weren’t even thinking of the response they get from men, other women, or even themselves. Maybe. But I would guess some heart-deception is at work. “Search me, God, and know my heart.”

 

Or consider the thorny issue of gossip. How many of us have flattered ourselves that we’re having a long conversation about someone else because we love them and just want what’s best for them? We have assumed our motivation is love and proceeded accordingly. But if we trusted ourselves less, and asked God to search us more, revealing the many offensive ways within us, we might arrive at a different conclusion.

 

While in Jerusalem for the Passover festival early in his ministry, many people saw the miracles Jesus performed and believed in him. The feeling was not mutual. John writes, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people” (John 2:24). If Jesus would not trust us because he knows what is in us, should we trust ourselves?



True and Godly Love

August 22nd, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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How does the Bible define true and godly love, the blessed intimacy and bond that unites a man and woman in the state of marriage? Here are some reflections on just this question, given as the charge to my younger brother and his new bride at their wedding last week.

 

Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm;

for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave.

It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.

Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.

If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.

(Song of Songs 8:6-7)

 

This text as much as any other in Scripture gives us a biblical definition of true love. People the world over have tried to define love. Every weekend at the theater a new movie opens promising to give us a fresh look at a weathered topic. For the most part, though, it seems all we can agree on is that love matters—more than money, fame, power—even though the search for many has proven futile. Love has fallen on hard times. Some have even gone so far as to declare the death of marriage, an archaic and oppressive institution. You stand here this afternoon against this unholy tide, for which I am grateful. For I believe the problem is not that marriage has failed love, but that our self-seeking, romanticized, and spurious love has failed marriage. Having slipped from the majestic vision of this God-inspired Hebrew poet, many have fallen for a cheap imitation. We need a return to truth, a way out of this romantic quagmire. The Song of Songs will give us just that.

 

Some will find it interesting that God has devoted an entire book of the Bible to defining true and godly love, but considering the contemporary condition, his wisdom is clear. God places a high value on marriage, as Scripture attests to uniformly. Jesus, in performing his first miracle, blessed the wedding celebration of a young couple in a tangible way, turning the water into wine and saving the new family social blushes. God himself performed the first wedding ceremony and gave the bride away. And in his infinite wisdom, God saw fit to establish as the first earthly institution not the state, not even the church, but the family. God created and blesses the marriage state. It is a sacred institution undergirded by the reflected love of God himself. In fact, the ultimate purpose of marriage is not a celebration of human love, but divine. Every marriage, whether wittingly—or even willingly—or not, proclaims the gospel of Christ Jesus. In the husband’s love for his wife, we have an imperfect reflection of Christ’s love for the church; in the wife’s devotion to her husband, we have an imperfect reflection of the church’s devotion to Christ. This is the profound mystery of which the apostle Paul writes eloquently, and this is why God devotes so much sacred scripture to the topic of love. So what does he say? What makes love true and godly? Our text today suggests at least three ideas.

 

First, true and godly love is invaluable. Our poet writes, “If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” True and godly love has no price. No material consideration enters the heart. In fact, within the Song we have this truth performed. The happy couple, reflecting on their courtship, remember a time when Solomon, the wise and wealthy king, sought to steal away the Shulammite bride for his harem. He promised her untold riches, but she refused because she loved her humble shepherd truly. True and godly love does not turn to marriage as a financial decision, not to provide security or tax breaks or comfort. True and godly love does not turn to marriage for any consideration other than love, really. If you are seeking affirmation or self-worth or satisfaction or thrills or whatever, you have come to marriage as a business transaction. And if you feel the other does not hold up their end of the bargain, things will fall apart. In this regard, let your way be the way of Christ. He loves his church through no merit of our own, nor to gain any end for himself, but simply because he chooses to love. When you love the other for their sake and not your own, you reflect his love. (And, I might add, when you see nothing lovable in yourself, and yet you see the other’s love, you will be forever reminded of God’s unmerited favor and relentless love.) True and godly love seeks only the other, because it delights in the other. The self and love, in contrast to much contemporary nonsense, are absolutely incompatible. Let your delight be in each other—you are delightful people, after all—and let that be enough.

 

Second, true and godly love is zealous. Our poet writes, “For love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.” True and godly love produces an unquenchable zeal for the marriage and for its beloved. It is passionate, like a mighty flame. As many wildfires prove every year, flames spread insatiably; in the same way should your passion for each other grow. We have largely capitulated to the idea that romance, passion, sexual desire all fade with time. Some foolish people even proclaim that marriage is the end of all the fun you used to have. This is a damnable deception. If a couple never experienced more excitement than the courtship, they never loved at all. True and godly love grows more passionate with each passing day. Kindle the flames of your passion unflaggingly. Have you ever seen an older couple out for a walk, still warmly affectionate with each other, holding hands, even flirting? May it be so with you. May your children and your grandchildren see you as tenderly and as passionately in love as we see you today. But this will not happen on its own; it will take work. You will have to sweep away bitterness at times; you will have to forgive real offenses; you will have to inject romance into the routine intentionally and often. But do so, because you love the other, you regard each other as better than riches, and because true and godly love is jealous. It is jealous for the health of the marriage, for the strength of the bond between you. Fight for it. Embrace passion. Remember the great lengths to which the Lord went in his pursuit of us, sending his son, his only son, whom he loved, to be a sacrifice for our sins. That is zeal for the other, loving passionate pursuit. Let this serve as a model of your own love. Kneel down and wash each other’s feet. Speak words of life and encouragement to each other, forsaking harsh, cutting, selfish words. Support and serve one another. Love one another zealously.

 

Finally, true and godly love is unending. Our poet writes, “Love is as strong as death. . . . Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.” We do not normally associate love and death, but they have this point in common: they both will persist until the end of time. With one startling exception, the dead do not rise to life; they remain in the grave. Well, one does not fall out of love any more than one falls out of death. No matter what comes—rising floodwaters, rivers of life’s vicissitudes and challenges—the flame of love continues burning. This is not today’s perspective, of course, but this is truth nevertheless. Let Christ Jesus serve as your model once more. Christ’s love never changes—it is unending and unconditional. And so must yours be. In Romans, Paul climaxes his argument concerning God’s grace with, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If none of these can separate us from the love of Christ, and you are to love each other as Christ and the church love each other, the question arises, what can separate you from your love? Nothing, the answer must be. In good times and bad, in imperfection and glory, today, tomorrow, and forever, you must love each other wholly and completely. The great prophet and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.” Let the unbreakable covenant into which you are about to enter sustain you even when the choice to love—to sacrifice self, to forgive, to endure—becomes difficult, even impossible. What God has joined together, you cannot separate.

 

Invaluable, zealous, unending love: that is my prayer for you. At many points on your journey together you will fall short of this sacred ideal. We all do. But in those times remember the words we read together today, and renew your commitment to live it fully. Lift your eyes off yourselves—your imperfections, your trials, your sorrow, your pain—and fix them on Jesus Christ. We do not love as we ought because we do not remember the God who is love as we ought. Consider the cross, the strength of his love—its price, its passion, its endurance—and love each other as he loved us. To your happiness and his glory.

 



The Measure of All Things

April 14th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | 3 Comments
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Humanism, as Francis Schaeffer noted, is what happens when “man is the measure of all things.” In our educational system, is man the measure of all things—or the Man? That is, are we Christian or humanist?

 

Stemming from recent, fruitful conversation with colleagues about what makes education truly Christian instead of humanist, I have tried to compile a short, and undoubtedly inchoate, list of distinctions. As always, comments—corrections, suggestions for improvement, additions—are more than welcome. (The points proceed in tandem.)

 

Humanist Education . . .

  1. Is driven by a concern for results. Schools clinging to a humanist mindset emphasize quantifiable measures of success, such as standardized test scores and number of graduates who attend college, as if these numbers were a reflection of genuine learning—or even the most important aspects of education.
  2. Produces productive members of capitalist/socialist societies. Part of the problem with a results-driven approach is that the results only measure one’s aptitude for entering the marketplace, which is the sole goal of humanist education today.
  3. Encourages self-esteem, and does so openly and proudly. However, what is lacking in this world is not self-esteem, but a true understanding of biblical anthropology, which humanist education will not provide.
  4. Embraces postmodern epistemology, leading to subjectivity, and stealing away such core concepts as truth, certainty, and even judgment.
  5. Enforces cultural (and moral) relativism. As part of its uncritical acceptance of postmodernity, humanist education assumes no culture or code is intrinsically superior to another, and insists that all members of its system adhere to the same rigid dogma, ironically.
  6. Exhibits a vapid yet undimmed enthusiasm, undoubtedly springing from a belief in the inevitability of progress and the innate goodness of humanity—both of which empirical evidence (and sheer common sense) seems to deny.
  7. Adopts democratic egalitarianism as the norm within and without the classroom. Other than the academic elite themselves, no one can claim certainty, superiority, or expert status—not even the teacher, really. Every idea is as good as every other, whether academic, cultural, aesthetic, philosophical, or even theological.
  8. Is student-centered, the corollary of democratic egalitarianism. Modern educational fads push teachers to empower students to learn and then to serve as mere guides on a journey of self-discovery. While this may work in some subject areas, it often leads to the equalizing of unequal ideas, especially in classes where certainty and precision must prevail (such as Bible, of course, but even literature and the social sciences).
  9. Employs behaviorism as classroom management. Because the problem is external behavior, not a corrupt, sinful heart, the solution is simple behavior modification—detentions and demerits, gold stars and “good jobs.” Even within Christian education, we reward those whose behavior is acceptable, no matter how twisted the heart, and punish those whose behavior is less than spectacular, no matter how willing the spirit.
  10. Leads to absolute fragmentation. Dismantling the curriculum into discrete subject areas, each with largely unrelated standards, and then dividing the day into short, interrupted bursts of fragmented learning has become the accepted norm. Beyond that, even, we have the separation of academic instruction from every other type—spiritual, moral, emotional, etc., leading to compartmentalized, fragmented existence.
  11. Practices an uncritical acceptance of technology. While much technology is good and has its place in the classroom, the trouble stems from assuming it all is good and should be embraced uncritically. In practice, technology often leads to greater fragmentation, a shorter attention span, an inability to read and comprehend the written word, and the diminishing of sustained, reasonable thought.
  12. Commits to human-centered paradigms. Christian schools that seem more humanist than godly accept that what the world has to offer them will be good enough—bell schedules, curriculum, standards and benchmarks, educational fads—rather than discerning and sifting, or even reworking the whole paradigm from a Christ-centered framework.

 

Christian Education . . .

  1. Is driven by a concern for fruit. Numbers do not matter, but hearts do. The measure of “success,” if we may even use that term, will be the invisible, eternal qualities, such as conversion, revival, loving obedience, and obedient love.
  2. Leads students to pursue vocation—God’s calling—apart from purely economic concerns. Because preparing students to enter the marketplace per se matters but little (and attending university may even be superfluous), Christian schools help students glorify God in the way he has called them instead, equipping them to use their gifts in the service of his kingdom.
  3. Encourages Christ-esteem. A biblical anthropology, centered on the cross, assures us we are both profoundly sinful and profoundly loved. Students develop a healthy sense of who they are when they embrace both of these points in glorious tension. What matters is not what others think of them, or even what they think of themselves, but what God thinks of them in Christ.
  4. Embraces Christian epistemology, leading to conviction and humility, a willingness to espouse adequate (if not absolute) knowledge in key areas.
  5. Engages in honest frustration and painful dialogue that moves toward humility before the Creator of all intricacy and nuance. The culture-shapers of the institution, such as the administration, faculty, and chaplains, then “enforce” this humility and dialogue.
  6. Exhibits a Christ-centered historical hope built on the substantive sacrifice that is shaping the school culture. Humanity will not progress, nor even individual humans, except by the grace of God and the work of his Spirit, which we seek regularly in spontaneous prayer.
  7. Adopts the hierarchical model of Scripture itself. All who are in Christ have ideas to share, as Paul reminds the Corinthian church; but some have been given unique roles within the church to equip others, as Paul reminds the Ephesian church. Those whom God has specifically called to pastor and teach the church will shape discussion of the ministry (and even vision) of the school especially.
  8. Is God-centered. Teachers and students, within and without the classroom, submit to Scripture, follow the Spirit’s guidance, and recognize the God-ordained authorities over them. Especially in Bible classes, but ideally in all, teachers will eschew both teacher- and student-centered approaches, allowing the Center to be the center.
  9. Employs relational authority as classroom management. With an unwavering and outwardly visible commitment to the gospel, teachers will strive to reach the heart of students as instruments of God’s grace, knowing that behaviorism produces naught but whitewashed tombs. Love is, of course, the ethic of the kingdom, and thus it will be the ethic of the classroom, for both teacher and student.
  10. Strives after full integration. Being willing to rework the model from the ground up, Christian schools will pursue not only academic integration, as well as educational integration into a biblical framework, but absolute integration. There is neither secular nor sacred, mind nor spirit, education nor discipleship, for all are one in Christ Jesus.
  11. Practices a discerning use of technology. Teachers will utilize what will aid in achieving real integration and advancement; but they will also sensitively discern the differences between contemplation and stimulation, information and knowledge, thought and activity.
  12. Commits to submission to the Spirit’s leading when it conflicts with our pre-conceived (and often humanist) paradigms. For example, teachers will joyfully spend instructional time on prayer when necessary, or even hold a class “late” when the Spirit is moving in a discussion. The administration will critically evaluate all humanist ideas, models, etc., before (if) adopting any of them.


Postmodern Humility

April 10th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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There is a false humility that breeds subjectivity and precludes certainty. Because we cannot know anything absolutely, we assume we can know nothing adequately—and forbid others from thinking or speaking so.

 

There is another humility, born of conviction, that produces faithful service and selfless love. Because we know some things with certainty, we act with conviction and grace-driven purpose.

 

To one of these we are called. To the other we succumb with alarming frequency, giving in to the fads and falsehoods of this present darkness.



A Theology of Teasing

March 12th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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I recently had the opportunity to speak on the power of speech (ironic, I know), and offered at that time a brief “theology of teasing.” I sought to defend the notion that teasing—poking fun, irony, even sarcasm in its less technical sense[1]—can serve a life-giving purpose within the Christian community. My comments were not received favorably by everyone. So I wish now to give a fuller defense of what I only hinted at earlier.

 

Some would argue that teasing should never form a part of the Christian’s repertoire. The argument seems to follow 1 Corinthians 13:5, which says love is not rude. The underlying assumption is that teasing is necessarily rude, and since we are called to love—and therefore called to kindness, not rudeness—we cannot tease. I suspect this is a subtle form of begging the question, however, as it assumes what it is trying to prove, viz., that teasing is wrong. If we slow down and work through the argument as a whole, we may come to a different conclusion.

 

Scripture offers an absolute injunction as regards our speech. Paul says in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (ESV). That the injunction is absolute—covering all of our words—is clear from the strongly dichotomous language: “Let no . . . but only . . . .” Thus, the test we must apply to teasing is whether or not it is wholesome or corrupting, good for building up, giving grace to those who hear.

 

At this point we may be tempted to answer cavalierly, “Teasing is never wholesome, never builds up, never gives grace.” I am not sure we have the biblical right to say this, however, as Scripture happily forbids the sort of speech that can never give grace. In fact, Paul does so a few verses later, enjoining the Ephesians, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, what are out of place” (5:4). Filthiness, foolishness, crude humor—and other forms of speech, such as gossip, slander, deceit, hatred—can never bring grace, and so God explicitly prohibits them. Teasing does not make this list.

 

It should not be hard to see why. A simple logical syllogism should do the trick.

  1. If teasing brings grace, it has a place in Christian conversation.
  2. Teasing brings grace.
  3. Therefore, it has a place in Christian conversation.

The point of disagreement is statement #2. However, it seems unwise to disagree with the proposition, as (1) Scripture does not speak condemningly of teasing, and we always must be careful not to teach as doctrines the commandments of men (Matthew 15:9) and (2) many people’s personal experiences agree with it. It seems far wiser to be more situation-specific, rather than sweepingly dichotomous, asking in each case if the teasing comment brings grace or not.

 

Not everyone enjoys teasing, and so we must be careful when using it. Some people have experienced grace through teasing—strengthening the relationship as it often does—but this does not give us the blanket right to assume that all will. We must, as Paul commands, see what “fits the occasion” and what will give grace “to those who hear” specifically. This requires sensitivity to the person and to the Spirit. We well understand the psalmist’s prayer, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips” (141:3).

 

As Proverbs reminds us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (18:21). When teasing will bring life, we should joyfully use it to bring humor, intimacy, wit, and the like to our gracious interactions; when it will bring death, we abstain. The decision will never be easy, especially when it proves so hard to tame the tongue (James 3:8), so we must choose our words carefully and lovingly. Love, not law, has the final say.

 

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).



[1] Sarcasm technically means speech intending to mock or wound, which would of course be sin. But in today’s vernacular, it usually means little more than irony, which is something altogether different.