Monday, March 30, 2009

God the Experience: Can it be a Trap?

Much of the discussion in the Evangelical Catholics post/comments revolved around the topic of the "Sunday experience" as being decisive in major decisions we make about our ministry affiliations. My view on this matter has been shaped by many things, not least of which is a history of moving around the globe with the military.

In my 22+ years in the Air Force, I've been in a lot of church/chapel services. Through it all, I've certainly seen my share of preachers, music, congregational cultures, etc. I have sung my share of hymns and of contemporary music, accompanied by everything from pianos and organs to full praise bands with electric guitars. I have seen elaborate altar calls and simple benedictions. I've seen expository and topical sermons of many kinds. I won't say I've "seen it all", but I've seen perhaps more than most.

Whenever we move, we look for a new place to plug in. There are so many factors to consider: the how close the building is to our house, the quality of the preaching, the children's programs, the music, and of course ... whether people were friendly (I know--just keepin' it real).

In the end, most of us make an initial decision based on what that particular "Sunday experience" was like versus our expectations. Often, the search is long and full of disappointments: the atmosphere was either too stuffy and formal or too irreverent and chaotic; the sermon was too "fire and brimstone" or too watered down; the people were either too cold and distant or downright suffocating; the music wasn't what we like and consider to be really spiritual ... you get the idea.

To make matters more confusing, our first impressions are generally wrong and our expectations change. The uplifting music that first attracted us may not "feel the same" after a few months or years. The pastor's sermons start to sound the same from week to week. What used to seem like enthusiastic worship starts to feel forced, or what used to seem solemn starts to feel boring. Oh, and of course we discover that a bunch of these people who seemed so nice are (gasp) sinners, and occasionally act like it in the most inconvenient ways. Disillusionment sets in.

But then ... we tried that other church down the street, and well it seemed so fresh and different! Ah, and the cycle starts again.

Like most of you, I have my preferences, but the years have taught me to make my choices based on a somewhat different set of criteria than the "Sunday experience". I've come to ask the question: "Where does God want us to serve?" rather than "Where do I feel 'fed' on Sundays?" This changes the calculus, because the burden is on me rather than on the congregation.

Worship in military chapels will do this to a guy ... chaplains come and chaplains go, and none is like the one who preceded him. The new one is assigned based on a variety of factors, generally not to include his statement of faith or preaching style. The congregation itself is highly transient and none is a "member" in the church sense of the word. Yet this has been my mission field--the people God has called me to serve for much of my career.

Coming back to the question of the "experience"--I've come to think of this as occupying an outsized place in our decision making. We are commanded to praise, honor, serve, obey ... but nowhere in Scripture are we called upon to "experience" God. Yet we seem to believe that unless we feel the appropriate tingling in our toes, we are not engaged in authentic worship. In the name of the experience, we abandon our insufficient church in search of something deeper and more satisfying. In so doing, we leave those with whom we had forged a bond and who had come to depend on us in search of a better experience.

What's more, for those in leadership, planning the services themselves may devolve into an exercise in manipulation, as we try to create the experience that will satisfy the hungry flock and entice visitors to make decisions. In a perverse way, it becomes "atheistic worship", as we try to do the Holy Spirit's job, because after all, He can only operate under the most pristine, man-made circumstances, as measured by how many people come forward during the altar call.

Like in marriage, there is virtue in joining with a body of believers and staying faithful for better or for worse, and in shunning the siren's call of the "Sunday experience."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Richly Blessed

Having spent several days discussing Evangelical Catholics with a guy named Rich, I suppose this would be a nice time for a little tribute to an "almost" Evangelical Catholic named Rich ...

Rich Mullins was reported by some to have been within days of formally converting to Catholicism when he died in a car accident in September 1997. He'd long been fascinated with the Catholic church--St Francis of Assisi was among his personal heroes--and he had attended Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) courses. Others who knew him well wonder if he really would have gone through with it, as it would have alienated his largely Protestant audiences.

Rich is singing the Eternal Song now, and we are poorer for his absence here on earth. Perhaps it was merciful that he was taken home while he was yet formally "unclaimed" by any church, as his wonderful music is free to live on unencumbered by the controversy, and continues to edify sincere Protestant and Catholic believers alike.

The song "Creed" celebrates the Apostles Creed, which has faded from much of the Protestant memory, sadly.

I particularly admire his skill with the hammer dulcimer, which seems like it would take an awful lot of dexterity to play.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reading My Wife's Mail

Yesterday I went running along the Potomac River. As I approached the Lincoln Memorial, I had to cross the street that carried the busy traffic of the Memorial Bridge. As I strode confidently into the crosswalk, an approaching car had to slow quickly to let me cross. The driver was clearly angry and shook her fists at me. I confidently pointed toward the crosswalk which (in my mind) gave me the right of way. She pointed toward the stop sign that was clearly meant to govern pedestrians (see photo). Clearly she was correct--I should have waited for her to pass.

As I ran back to the Pentagon, I had the chance to consider this. First, of course, there is a certain foolishness in thinking one can be protected against all hazards by a painted line in the street (those of you from New York City may stop rolling your eyes at me now). Self-preservation alone should have convinced me to be more careful. But let's set that aside. The existence of the crosswalk gave me a sense of "entitlement" (a dangerous sense I picked up while stationed in Germany, where they take their crosswalks seriously). It was there to channel my movements rather than to constrain the driver. But I self-righteously and foolishly interpreted it as my right-of-way.

In the same way, when I read Paul's guidance to wives and husbands; children and fathers; slaves and masters in Ephesians 5-6, I need to be careful not to read someone else's mail. The commandments directed at me as a husband, for example, are meant for me. This may seem obvious, but there is a temptation for me to gloss over it and focus on my wife's responsibilities: "You need to submit to me." Yet the passage does not say, "Husbands, make sure your wives submit to you." Focusing on Mrs. Jailer's job takes my eye off the ball: loving her as Christ loved the church, giving myself up for her, etc. is more than enough for me to work on. I need to read my own mail.

Stated another way, in the same way my focus on the driver's responsibility with respect to the crosswalk took my eye off the stop sign, fixating on Mrs. Jailer's responsibility takes my attention off my own, and can serve to rationalize my own bad behavior: "Well, I can't be expected to love her if she doesn't submit ..." Of course, a careful reading of the passage makes it clear that I am to do exactly that, in the same way that Christ loved and gave Himself up for us while we were yet sinful.

Even worse, excusing my wrongs by citing hers reduces me to idolatry. I'm effectively saying, "I can't be expected to obey unless my wife does!" My wife thus displaces God (in my mind) as my enabler for obedience. The truth is that "it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose". Transferring that power to Mrs. Jailer (or Jailer Jr., or Jailer Boss, etc.) is idolatrous, unfair, and a losing strategy.

Transferring it to anonymous motorists can get me killed.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Evangelical Catholics

An old friend of ours, Rich Maffeo, has commented on one of Jailbreaker's recent posts, and brings to light a phenomenon many call "Evangelical Catholicism". This term can be interpreted variously, but here I refer specifically to former Evangelical Protestants who convert to the Catholic church. While the tide of conversions has generally flowed in the other direction, those who have moved from Evangelicalism to Catholicism have had a pronounced and outsized effect on the "Church of Rome" in recent years.

I'd like to introduce this topic for broader discussion first by highlighting a couple of thoughts Rich and I have traded already in the comments of a previous post:
[Jailer] At best, as you imply, tradition may represent the collective wisdom of godly people throughout ages past, and there may be much good to be drawn from it. A wholesale abrogation of its traditions may leave the church unnecessarily adrift. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity was not fully developed within the New Testament timeframe, though it is clearly drawn from New Testament Scriptures. But the work of the early saints, the Council of Nicea, etc. are important to this day in giving the church an expression of that Scriptural truth that has stood many tests throughout the centuries. At worst, however, the pitfalls of tradition are nothing short of catastrophic. The Pharisees are an example, as was the Roman Catholic church itself throughout the Middle Ages. The effective exaltation of Divine Tradition over Scripture, together with the unfortunate union of spiritual and temporal authority in Rome, brought about the horrible corruption that made the Reformation so very necessary. Okay, well to quote Mr. Potatohead from Toy Story II, "Oh, you had to bring THAT up!" So let's dwell on more present realities. I can agree and attest that the alphabet soup which is present-day Protestantism leaves much to be desired insofar as its squishy and polyglot doctrinal foundations, and this is, in part, due to its disdain for tradition as being of any value whatsoever. This is also tragic, and leaves much of the church unable to wrestle with a variety of false and silly teachings as they slosh through our pulpits and Christian book stores and media outlets. On the other hand, I would argue that Catholicism, though certainly in a better place now than in much of its history, continues to struggle with some basic theological problems that its tradition has frozen into place. I would especially list among these the problems of other mediators between God and man besides Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5)--or shall I say, other mediators between man and Christ--and ultimately the overlay of human tradition as supplemental to (and therefore displacing of) the authority of Scripture. Yes, Scripture does--and will always--suffer from various human interpretations. By necessity, some of those must be incorrect. Some of them are even irredeemably heretical. But I will take that authority over the exaltation of our very fallible human tradition.

[Rich] Jailer, it might surprise you that I agree with virtually everythig you said. My only disagreement might center on your comment about mediators. Let me explain. Yes, absolutely and positively, there is only one mediator between God and man . . . Christ Jesus. And it causes me a great deal of consternation when my fellow Catholics elevate, (de facto, if not de jure), others -- including the Blessed Virgin -- to a place reserved only for Messiah Jesus. However, the Catechism and other Catholic Church documents instruct the laity against doing so, quite clearly. Problem is, the laity either don't fully comprehend Church teaching, or they go beyond that teaching due to their own will. What the Church DOES teach (and of necessity I simplify here) is that because those who have died in Christ (for example, the Saints) . . . because they are not dead (for "all live unto God"), they are in that "great cloud of witnesses" and in a position to pray for us who are on this side of the grave, in much the same way as I might ask you for prayer. The Catholic (and Orthodox) Church teaches we all have the privilege to ask saints such as St. Monica, or St. Thomas, et. al. to pray for us. The OT (as well as the NT) is replete with examples of holy men who prayed (mediated) for others (e.g. Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul . . .) So the term "mediator" as used in that sense is not at all extrabiblical. Unfortunately, there is often a distance between an official position of a Church and how the sheep interpret (or are taught) that position. Hence, the significant need for being "instant in season and out of season [to] reprove, rebuke, exhort" others in God's word (and, in my case, Church teaching).
Please note that though Rich and I are naturally theologically opposed on some important issues, I am fully persuaded of his sincere faith in our Lord Jesus, and rejoice to confidently call him my brother in Christ. He maintains his own blog devoted to equipping Catholics to understand the Scriptures.

To dig further into this issue of Evangelical Cathoicism, I'd like to take an extract from a Catholic priest's blog (emphasis mine):
One former Presbyterian minister told me the story of how he was received into the Catholic church, and how one of his first Catholic pastors welcomed him and wanted him to help make the liturgy more relevant. The Catholic priest thought this convert clergyman could help out. The former presbyterian pastor was shocked and dismayed. He said, "This is exactly what I do not want. For ten years as a presbyterian pastor I tried to make up my own services, preach on what I wanted and devise some sort of 'liturgy' or 'worship experience' for my people. I became a Catholic because that just won't do. I want the Cathechism. I want the liturgy. I want the lectionary. I want the Liturgy of the Hours. I want the spirituality of the saints. I want the Church. Most of all I want the Eucharist."
There are several lines of discussion here, but what I'd like to focus on is what drives people from their Protestant churches back "home" to Catholicism. One theme comes out for me in both Rich's comments and the unnamed minister: a desire for something more doctrinally solid and methodologically consistent than much of the fluffy feel-goodism that poses as postmodern Evangelicalism.

I ask for your thoughts below as we develop this further ...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Caring for the Warfighter's Soul

Chaplain Mark Robertson, my dear friend, brother and fellow Airman, recently published an essay on his experience with hospital chaplaincy in Iraq. The whole thing is fascinating reading, but here's my favorite excerpt:
My six year old, Dorothea, didn't want me to deploy. She said, “Daddy, what if you get killed?”
To calm her fears, I put on my body armor, saying, “This is bullet-proof.” She knocked tentatively on the breast plate, as if it were the door of a stranger's house. Then she punched harder and harder. Since her little fists couldn't hurt me, she trusted the body armor.
But then she thought, “Daddy, what if Osama Bin Laden gets you?”
I said, "I'll run away.”
She continued to worry, “What if he runs faster than you?”
So to convince her of my lighting quick speed, I started chasing her around the house, wearing my body armor, of course. After catching her, I tickled her. She giggled hysterically, as I covered her with “Daddy” kisses.
Then I said, “In Iraq, the Air Force lets me drive a special car. This car can drive off the road, through the sand, and over rocks. This car drives much faster than Osama Bin Laden can run.”
Amazed, she said, “Over rocks! You can drive a car over rocks. Wow!”
This is how I convinced her that I was safe from all danger. If I could drive over rocks, then Osama Bin Laden couldn't catch me.
The entire essay is available here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Gospel & Culture (Part 2): Assumptions and Absolutes

[Jailbreaker’s Note: This post builds on both Part 1 and the discussion on Ministry Models.]

The main question under consideration in this series on the Gospel & Culture is as follows:

When crossing cultures with the Gospel just how difficult of a task is it to bring “the message” to a particular people without entangling that message in the “culture” of the messenger? Does it even matter? If by “culture” we mean eating with silverware instead of chopsticks or shaking hands instead of bowing it’s probably not very difficult to leave culture out of the message. However, if by culture we mean the forms, practices, and mindset of the western church system it’s another matter entirely.

Last month, the key point being presented was that our forms, practices, and mindset can have much more in common with man-made religion than with the unique and radical message that we hold so dear. In this post we’re going to develop that point a step further by taking a closer look at how tradition and the deeply rooted assumptions of the messenger can affect the message. The target audience of this series is not so much those who don’t care about the Gospel, but those who, in fact, care deeply. Furthermore, this is not primarily written for those who don’t view the Scriptures as their authority, but rather for those who do.

With that said, I think it's safe to say that all of us who view the authority of Scripture as the supreme authority believe that its teachings must take precedence over all else. Whether it’s church history, family upbringing, the teaching of a particular denomination, theological system, or Christian organization, we all believe that the teaching of Scripture must, on each and every occasion, take precedence. That’s not to say, of course, that the other things have no value. In and of itself, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with living according to western church tradition, a particular denominational system, or even our own personal preferences. Many great men and women of God have gone before us and we have much to gain from their teaching and experiences.

There’s also nothing necessarily wrong with preferring one particular approach over another. That’s what culture is. By and large we live the way we do because we prefer it over any other approach to life. Life is most comfortable to us when approached in a manner that we've become accustomed to. It’s part of our “first birth,” and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.
The problem lies in the elevation of our preferred approach to a level that is equal or superior to the Scriptures. As Mark 7 warns:
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men ... Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.
When the Scriptures are inadvertently placed in a secondary or subordinate role to a prevailing mindset we have a major problem indeed. I say "inadvertently" because, after all, no one would purposely set out to undermine the Scriptures unless they themselves were an enemy of the cross. The question that we’re compelled to ask, then, is: Does the warning in Mark 7 only apply to enemies of the cross? Can tradition, even good tradition, nullify the word of God? Could this warning be applied just as well to our Christian organizational and denominational structures, to our theological systems, and to our western church mindset? Assuming that Jesus is not just speaking in superlative language, how seriously should we take this passage?

Let me emphasize that the question here is not whether the above has value; the question is whether it’s possible for the above to nullify the word of God! If the answer to that question is a firm and absolute no–that there’s no way it’s even remotely possible–then there’s no point in reading on. If, on the other hand, the answer to that question is yes–that it may indeed be possible even for “good tradition” to nullify the word of God–then it begs the question, how? In what way?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from 20 years of living and ministering in the "rocky soil" of Japan, it’s that
all of us operate from a set of deeply rooted assumptions when it comes to life and ministry. Some of our assumptions are good and necessary; others are, well ... let’s just say, in need of reexamination, particularly when crossing cultures with the Gospel. The good and necessary, of course, would include things like core doctrine–the person and work of Christ, salvation by grace through faith alone, the authority of Scripture, etc. Since these are non-negotiable absolutes from Scripture, there’s no reason to reexamine them. The historical and foundational tenets of our faith are simply not open for debate. The same applies to sin and morality. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in “Jerusalem” or “the ends of the earth,” murder is still murder, adultery is still adultery, and sin is still sin.

However, it’s another matter entirely when dealing with deeply rooted assumptions that have been birthed by our western church tradition. These tend to be harder to pin down because
what one person regards as a non-essential tradition is often viewed by another person as a non-negotiable absolute. Paul calls these “disputable matters,” but too often we regard them as core doctrine.

When a disputable matter is elevated to the status of non-negotiable absolute, I would submit to you that it is precisely at this point that we run the risk of subordinating the Word of God to the tradition of men. Our intentions might be good and our resolve to live with the Scriptures as our supreme authority might be sincere and unwavering, but we cannot so easily escape the influence of our deeply rooted assumptions.

Though we may not be keenly aware of it (or willing to admit it), every one of us approach the Scriptures with a particular mindset that is heavily influenced by religious & professional training, denominational & organizational norms, personal preferences, past experiences, culture, family values, gifting, personality, gender, age, and so forth. Generally speaking, we tend to perceive what we expect to perceive. Information that is consistent with the prevailing mindset is perceived and processed readily, while information that does not fit into the prevailing mindset is easily overlooked, ignored, discounted, misinterpreted, or rejected outright.

Take, for example, the prevailing mindset on "church". Though we all know that the Scriptures unequivocally teach that the church is people (a very special people but people nonetheless), the prevailing mindset cannot imagine church apart from buildings, programs, formal meetings, memberships, and elaborate organizational structures. The prevailing mindset thinks in terms of “going to church” even though the Scriptures clearly speak in terms of “being the church.”

To complicate matters even further,
most of us sincerely believe that we’re not placing tradition or denominational norms above Scripture. We are quite capable of making the case, from Scripture, why our activity, program, or denominational norm is really not a tradition at all. In our thinking, these are good and necessary if the truth of the Gospel is to be preserved and the body of Christ is to function properly.

Furthermore, we all know what the Word of God teaches about “rules taught by men,” but all too often
we assume that the Scriptures can’t possibly be talking about us. In our mind, it’s always the other guy’s tradition, the other guy’s denomination, or the other guy’s mindset that God is addressing in this passage. Essentially, it’s the other guy who is guilty of elevating a disputable matter to the status of non-negotiable absolute, not us. The way we view it, as long as our core doctrine is in order we don’t have to bother with the warning in Mark 7 because it really doesn’t apply to us.

Believe me, I’m as guilty as the next guy, but how would all that change if we took the warning in Mark 7 to heart? If the Holy Spirit began to open our eyes to the possibility that even good tradition can nullify the word of God, what affect might that have on us?
How would we even know what effect our forms, practices, and western church mindset is having on the message if we’ve never even stopped to seriously consider the possibility?

I suppose that’s why missionaries tend to be so “weird” sometimes. We’ve been thrust into a new culture that approaches life in a manner different from our home church or country, and our eyes begin to see what has been previously unseen to us. Indeed, the challenge of taking the Gospel to the rocky soil nations of the world is forcing us, albeit kicking and screaming, to go back to the Scriptures with fresh eyes for insight, answers, and perspective. In the process, many of us come face-to-face with our own deeply rooted assumptions for the first time as the gentle prodding of the Holy Spirit brings about profound changes in the heart of the messenger. The foundational tenets of the message don’t change one iota, just the stuff that muddles the unique and radical message we hold so dear.

On a practical note, then, how do we determine whether something is truly a non-negotiable absolute or merely a disputable matter? First: I would suggest that we need to learn to
distinguish between form and function. What I think you’ll find is that the function is the non-negotiable absolute from Scripture, and that the form is essentially free to adapt and change. You’ll save yourself and others a lot of grief if you can seek to agree on the necessary functions even if you can’t agree on the particular forms.

Second: I would suggest that we need to get together with a handful of other believers and, with Bibles open, discuss the following question:
Is this a non-negotiable absolute from Scripture that applies to any believer (or group of believers), in any culture, of any nation, in any time period, since the time of Christ?

So, for example, body life is a function that is most definitely a non-negotiable absolute from Scripture, but can the same be said about our buildings, programs, formal meetings, and denominational structures (i.e. our forms)? Do the Scriptures speak to the possibility of engaging in meaningful body life apart from our existing organizational structures?

Furthermore, would we insist that every believer in Iran and North Korea be held to this particular standard? How about the believers in the 2nd or 3rd century? Do the Scriptures speak of one set of absolutes for believers living this century in a country
with religious freedom, and a slightly different set of absolutes for believers living in another era or in a country without religious freedom? How might we approach things differently in America if we applied this kind of thinking toward those we’re trying to reach for Christ here?

I believe that we are going through yet another major paradigm shift in church history. It’s an uneasy time for sure, but it’s also an exciting time to be alive! None of this is about dismantling what exists;
if anything this is about new pathways for the Gospel and new expressions of body life for those who, like the believers in Iran and North Korea, will never be a part of our Western church system. If there is even the slightest possibility that tradition, even good tradition, can muddle the unique and radical message we hold so dear, wouldn't it be only prudent to examine this matter further? For the sake of the Gospel can we do any less?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Ours is to dare!"?

This post is prompted by two of Jailer’s recent posts, Christian Stabilizers and Destabilizers, and Angry Young Christians. It’s especially the latter post that I think could use another look, one reason being the use of Che Guevara as a foil. He’s a very recent figure and it’s too easy to point how poor a model he makes. So I’d like to propose a more remote model, the French revolutionary, Georges Danton, especially as he is presented in Thomas Carlyle’s dramatic history of The French Revolution.

Carlyle’s history was published in 1837. So, not only were the excesses of the revolution known to him, but so were the Napoleonic wars and the tumult of post-Napoleonic France. Still, his pessimistic declaration concerning what would follow from the convening of the Estates General in 1789 turned out to be remarkable as prophecy: “Two centuries; hardly less; before Democracy go through its due, most baleful, stages of Quackocracy; and a pestilential World be burnt up, and have begun to grow green and young again.” (The Berlin Wall fell 200 years later. But “Quackocracy” seems still to have some staying power.)

Given Carlyle’s view of the revolution and its consequences, it’s striking that Danton receives almost heroic treatment: His physical stature is sometimes described as having been “colossal” or “massive”, so his dominance in the revolutionary scene had a physical, as well as a political dimension. An added dimension to this was the fact that he was a strikingly ugly man. In more than one sense, he was a revolutionary giant. At the conclusion of his treatment of Danton’s death, Carlyle states, “So passes, like a gigantic mass, of valor, ostentation, fury, affection and wild revolutionary force and manhood, this Danton, ....”

As for Danton’s character, one can find references to it on the Internet as “dissolute”. Moreover, Carlyle condemns his participation in the horrors of the period: “But neither did Danton shriek; though, as Minister of Justice, it was more his part to do so.” He then quotes Danton as saying in defense of the Terror, “We must put our enemies in fear!” However, Carlyle offers testimony that, in response to personal entreaties that someone might be spared, Danton granted the request “always”, and, more strikingly, “neither did one personal enemy of Danton perish in those days.”

Before long, the Terror began to feed on its own, and Danton was himself one of its victims. He was subjected to the usual show trial, and fought back, showing no cowardice. Carlyle then describes the scene, “At the foot of the Scaffold” in the spring of 1794: Danton apparently cried out, “O my Wife, my well-beloved, I shall never see thee more then!” But he then caught himself with, “Danton, no weakness!” Then his last words to the executioner were, “Thou wilt show my head to the people; it is worth showing.”

Perhaps the most heroic part of Carlyle’s portrayal of Danton is set two years before his death: In the spring of 1792, the Assembly of Revolutionary France declared war on Austria and prepared to advance on the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium). However, their disorganized army was quickly faced with invasion by a Prussian army and defeats that summer threw the Assembly into confusion and panic. Were noises in the distance the sound of alarms that enemies would soon enter Paris? Enter Danton into a wavering Assembly: “... it is not the alarm canon that you hear: it is the pas-de-charge against our enemies. To conquer them, to hurl them back, what do we require? To dare, and again to dare, and without end to dare!” Later that month, French armies would finally start to win victories, but, had the political will to resist evaporated - as it had seemed about to do - those battles might never have been fought. Danton, at a crucial point, was the Revolution’s backbone.

The point in recounting these details of Danton, and Carlyle’s treatment of him is to put forward something of a touchstone which we can use when we consider topics like the “Angry Young Christians” and the “Destabilizers” which Jailer treated, and the “revolutionaries” whom many in the church, seem to idolize. When we talk of these, it’s useful to be able to compare them with “the real thing”. And, whatever else he was, Danton was certainly that. Consider the following points:

First, what is at stake?:

The case that 1789 ushered in “two centuries of Quackocracy” is a strong one, but the revolutionaries - and Danton in particular - saw themselves as bringing in a wonderful new era of popular sovereignty, in which, as they saw it, dramatic change would transform history for the better.

To turn from secular history to church history, consider the principal issue at the heart of the Reformation, “Justification by Faith”. The reformers saw themselves as re-engaging in the fight that Paul had fought, and it’s no accident that Luther’s commentary on Galatians has had the influence it has had since: “For in the righteousness of faith, we work nothing, we render nothing unto God, but we only receive and suffer another to work in us, that is to say, God.”

How do most “revolutions” in the church measure up against this kind of standard? How often is it the case that the “issues” behind the turmoil are petty matters of style - what sort of hymns are being sung, or the way the minister speaks, or what sort of youth group the congregation will have?

The pettiness of so many church “revolutions” can often be explained by the fact that, in the last analysis, the issues are simply personal:

Recall the appraisal reported by Carlyle that “neither did one personal enemy of Danton perish in those days.” This is not to say that the Revolution did not produce some very petty and vicious men, like Robespierre, but, for Danton at least, the nature of the cause was too great to allow the time or inclination for personal pettiness.

Jailer mentions the division in the Reformation on the doctrine of the presence of the Lord in the sacrament. Luther especially could be violently outspoken on the matter, and Calvin, in particular, experienced his ire, but did not take it personally, as the following passage from MacNeil’s “History and Character of Calvinism” shows: “After a violent pamphlet by Luther in 1544, Melanchthon wrote to Bullinger: ‘I cease to hope for the peace of the churches.’ Calvin, still calling Luther ‘my revered father,’ tried to soften the resentment of the Zwinglians and wrote to Melanchthon: ‘I reverence him [Luther] but I am ashamed of him.’” Here too, the issue was too great for personal pettiness on Calvin’s part.

In contrast to this, I know of an instance where differences in a local church over the ministry of its pastor led to members on different sides standing up in church meetings and reading imprecatory psalms at one another!

Finally, consider the matter of consequences when real issues are at stake:

In the American Revolution, a much tamer affair than the French one, Ben Franklin remarked, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”. Real issues involve real stakes. Remember that Danton was guillotined.

A good case can be made that the “theme psalm” for the Reformation was the 46th: “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” is based on that psalm. Nations were in turmoil. Men like Tyndale were killed. John Knox spent 19 months as a French galley slave.

Contrast these with the consequences we usually see in contemporary church “revolutions”: Personal relationships may be (and often are) sundered. The losers in a faction fight may form a new church, or just move down the road to another one. Matters like these are painful, true, but they hardly bear comparison with being strangled to death, while tied to the stake, like Tyndale (whose body was then burned).

One way of putting these points together is to think of how important it is to have certain people on our side, when it really matters:

Carlyle, reporting on Danton's speech ("Ours is to dare!") in 1792 says, "Old men, who heard it, will still tell you how the reverberating voice made all hearts swell, in that moment; and braced them to the sticking place; ...."

The danger for Martin Luther in going to the Diet of Worms in 1521 was so acute that Frederick the Wise had him kidnapped on the way home, just to save his life. Yet he went, because he was convinced that the issue at stake was the gospel itself. For the same reason, when it was demanded that he recant, he was convinced he had no choice but to decline, his concluding words being, "I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise." Almost 500 years later, those words still matter!

But, in most contemporary church "revolutions", this matter can't come up: The issues and the consequences simply won't support it. What conclusion then can we draw from thinking this way about these "revolutions" and the “angry young (and old) men (and women)” who foment them? Frankly, I don’t think they measure up. Instead of Luther's famous, "Here I stand", what we have too often is something like, "I'm not being fed". In Macbeth’s words, most of the time, it's just “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. In the end, their basic meaning turns out to be just, “Look at me!”

George: Faithful Witness to the Truth

I have never been a fan of the term "witnessing", because I think it reduces what we are ("... you will be my witnesses ...") to an activity ("go witnessing"). The fact is, I am a witness to the truth of the gospel at all times. I may at a given time be a bad one, a muddled one, a lazy one, or an indifferent one, but I am still Christ's witness--not just when I choose to be.

George and I were both Christ's witnesses in high school. I was a new Christian, and very eager to fit in and be accepted by the other kids. George had just transferred into my school from a local Christian school, and he was like no one I'd ever met before. He was bold about his faith, but not forced or pushy. He was extremely genuine. He was widely respected, despite the fact that he openly represented Jesus at an age (17) and in a place (Santa Cruz, California) where it was otherwise considered very strange to be an authentic believer. Rather than hide his light under a bowl (as I generally did), George let it shine bright and clear.

George did something invaluable in showing me what a real Christian looked like outside the walls of the church. After we graduated, it took me years to recognize what a difference George had made in my life. It took me still longer to find him again so I could tell him. His was, and remains, the power of an authentic witness, and I still learn from it today.

This is George, my old friend and still my hero. I invite you to visit his ministry site (Grace Children's Home) and his blog (Palau Perspective ...) to learn more about this man of God.

Also, if you'd like to donate to Grace Children's Home, you can do so here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Milky Church: Biblical Illiteracy

In December 2008, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported on the beliefs of self-identified American Christians. Sadly, it probably won't come as a surprise to most of you that people who identify themselves as Christians (including those who call themselves "evangelicals") overwhelmingly hold to a host of unbiblical beliefs. A depressing sample is below:

I've been thinking more about this problem lately, as I have increasingly found myself among "believers" (many of whom are regular churchgoers) who know shockingly little about the beliefs they profess. Of course, this is not a new problem in the history of the church:

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!
Nor is it unforseen that sermons, Bible studies and popular Christian literature should eschew serious examination of the Scriptures in favor of such banalities as "victorious Christian living":
For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
I suppose this should bring us back to Ellen B's question from last month: "what should we do personally?" For my part, I have resolved to do a better job in teaching basic Christian doctrine where I am able, particularly in the places and positions God puts me in (father, teacher, church leader, etc.), and in helping believers to learn to study the Scriptures themselves.

Oh, and I think I'll post something on the blog about it and see what you think can be done.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Christian Stabilizers and Destabilizers

Recent discussions on this page have set me to thinking about some principles of negotiation I was taught in a military school not long ago: the idea that negotiations generally feature stabilizers and destabilizers. I think this idea is helpful to understanding the tension between evolutionary and revolutionary change.

Stabilizers are generally interested in consensus. They look into a difference of opinion and see common ground. They are vital to a negotiation where the goal is to reach an agreement. The church needs its stabilizers, lest every minor controversey end in division. As Jesus would say, "Blessed are the peacemakers ..."; or the Apostle Paul, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." Moreover, while he agreed with those who believed in their freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols, he also chided that it was not worth causing their weaker brethren to stumble: "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification."

On the other hand, destabilizers are also important to a successful negotiation, because someone needs to make and defend the case before the stabilizers give everything away in their pursuit of consensus. The gospel itself is fundamentally destabilizing, beginning with a very radical premise: that an infinite, eternal, unchangeable God will judge man for his sin and rebellion! Both Jesus and Paul, their quotes above notwithstanding, were themselves highly destabilizing where they needed to be ("I did not come to bring peace but a sword"), and both ultimately paid for it with their lives. When it came to the core principles of the gospel message, they stood firm, often resorting to passionate and "destabilizing" language, whether speaking to the enemies of God: ("You brood of vipers! "); the troublemakers in the church, ("I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!"); or the church itself, ("You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?")

So clearly there is a time for everything, to build and to tear down, to keep and to throw away. Wisdom is knowing which is which. When do godly men need to be destabilizing: to tear down, throw away, and draw a line in the sand, saying "this far and no farther!" (or, alternatively, "we must go farther!")? Alternatively, when is the time to stabilize: to build, keep, and bear with one another's weaknesses?

One historical example may help illuminate this problem: Luther and Calvin were highly destabilizing in a necessary way, but were their differences over Christ's spiritual presence in the Lord's Supper worth the deep and enduring schism that resulted between these two great Reformers and their followers? Would not a stabilizing influence have profited the church more at this key point?
The problem of the stabilizer in a negotiation is that he will give away too much in his pursuit of an agreement. For the Christian stabilizer, it is that he will compromise until he has lost all his principles. Unity will become the overriding goal to the detriment of truth, which will ultimately ends in ... well, something that looks a lot like Unitarian-Universalism: there is no Truth ... there is only "truth for me" and "truth for you".

The problem of the destabilizer, of course, gets this exactly in reverse, and truth becomes the only worthy objective. Besides unnecessarily dividing the body of Christ over minor differences in theology or method, the destabilizer unguided by love and the Holy Spirit can easily become the dogmatic. The "truth" he so ardently defends may actually be falsehood, because he knows everything he needs to know and no longer learns from God.

Consider this an "open thread" and record your thoughts below in the "comments".

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

No Justice, No Peace?

"No Justice, No Peace!" is a favorite slogan of street demonstrators who demand some sort of "fairness" from the authorities. Indeed, there is little that aggravates us as much as the belief that we or someone we care about has been treated unjustly. Asaph wrote of how this aggravation over injustice can turn to inner rage and rob us of all peace:

When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you
Mrs. Jailer recently purchased a refrigerator at a yard sale for $50. It was a great deal, or so she believed, until she found that the lady who sold her the appliance was never available for the pick-up. Time and again we called, only to find that she wasn't home or was "just leaving." Then last week when we called, we discovered that she'd sold the refrigerator to someone else ... and had no interest in returning our money.

Now we have to make a choice. Do we hunt her down and retrieve this money, when we know that she's probably not going to return it no matter what we do? $50 isn't chump change, but nor is it worth going to small claims court, or stalking her, or even spending a lot of time and energy worrying about. No, in the end it's not the $50 that would drive us ... it's our sense of injustice!

You see, we have a well-developed sense of justice, particularly when it comes to what we are owed! We know what's "fair" and what's "unfair" when we are wronged. However, in one of the best illustrations I've ever heard on the topic, RC Sproul illuminates how justice by itself is truly a terrifying prospect for us, whose hands are stained with sin!

Like Sproul's freshman class, we can come to see God's grace as His duty toward us. Assuming His unconditional love is required of Him, we grow angry when we or those we love suffer more than is "fair". But this assumes that fairness rather than mercy is truly what we want from God.

No Mercy, No Peace!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Jacob Becomes a Man

The account of Jacob's wrestling match with an angel on the banks of the Jabbok river used to perplex me greatly. Why did God set up this wrestling match? Why was it even remotely competitive, with the angel unable to overpower Jacob (before putting his hip out of joint)? Wasn't Jacob's refusal to let the angel go "until you bless me" impertinent? So why was he blessed anyway? Jacob's encounters with God just seem very different than other accounts of men who fell on their faces.

It's been helpful for me to put Jacob's experience in context. First, Jacob was chosen by God while still in the womb to be the child of the promise--the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham and Isaac. He would be Israel, and the human ancestor of Jesus. God was committed to Jacob.

Of course, Jacob proved himself to be considerably less than worthy of such an honor--a superb example of God's great mercy and patience, but not much of an example of personal faithfulness. Moreover, Jacob was basically a wimp from early on--a mama's boy, in contrast to his manly brother Esau. He got what he wanted through deceit and conniving, and then by running away whenever things get dangerous.

His weak and servile interaction with Rachel and Leah betrayed the pathetic depths to which he had fallen. He slept with whomever he was told, including the maidservants. At a particularly low moment he allowed Leah to buy his "services" from Rachel for a night with her son's mandrakes. To put it crudely, he played the prostitute while Rachel played the pimp.

Jacob's early encounter's with God seemed to lead nowhere. He was impressed by the experiences, but his commitments were tentative and conditional: "If God will ... then the LORD will be my God". This is hardly to be confused with the "Here am I, send me!" of Isaiah. But then the wimpy weasel who was Jacob at this point could hardly be confused with the pillar of strength and devotion who was Isaiah. We can almost rationalize God's forgiveness of Isaiah's "unclean lips" on the basis of his comparative righteousness ... Jacob's filthy "lips" would seem to demand a harsher judgment. Obviously this reveals a misunderstanding of the "filthy rags" nature of man's righteousness. Isaiah was certainly not impressed by his own righteousness, but Jacob's failure to be impressed by God's majesty and mercy still seems troubling.

Ultimately, however, God's long patience and preparation culminates at the Jabbok River. There's nothing like impending doom (the approach of his brother and enemy Esau with 400 men) to concentrate the mind. Jacob's prayers take on a new urgency and humility ("I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant.") but still his actions reveal his self-centeredness and cowardice, as he sends his servants ahead with bribes and then even his family ahead of him across the river, placing them between himself and the threat.

God has planned this moment, however, and at the same time as He humbles Jacob, He also wants to build him up. God wants Jacob to submit, of course, but He also wants Jacob to be a man and to stop running and engage with Him. So Jacob is not presented with a test of cleverness, but a test of physical strength and endurance. The wrestling match with the angel goes on all night, and God allows Jacob some degree of success, though in the end the power of God is clear when Jacob's hip is wrenched. Still, Jacob learns tenacity, and refuses to let go unless he is blessed. Jacob needs to learn humility and submission, but he also needs to learn the courage and responsibility that comes with manhood.

Jacob's response demonstrates that he was finally prepared to take the lesson to heart. He rises, limping and humbled, and then moves across the river and passes in front of his household to meet Esau himself. He bows down to Esau, accepting Esau's judgment as God's own, and receives mercy. It was, at long last, an act of faith, humility ... and the act of a man.