Category Archives: Pensees
When Civil Servants Aren’t
In the western world, Wikipedia suggest that the term “Civil Service” goes back to 1829 and the expansion of the British Empire — namely that the British government needed people with administrative and managerial skills to manage the resources, the production, and the commerce that took place in their various colonies. The basic principle behind such management, of course, is much older and we see ample examples of this through history. One very early example of this is the work of Joseph while he was serving in Pharaoh’s court.
The word “Civil” goes back to the Latin word, civilis, which refers to a citizen in a given region or city. In turn, behavior that was considered “civil” was understood to reflect that kind of behavior that promoted good will amongst those people who happened to be living in said community. The notion that those who govern are servants, of course, is also a Biblical one, finding its roots in Romans 13:4. When you put these ideas together, you get the notion that a civil servant is someone, ordained by God, whose role is to serve or otherwise benefit the people of a given region or city, promoting the well-being of all who live in said place. They were to be both civil in their behavior and to have the mindset of a servant, seeking the good of the whole, not their own personal agendas.
While the impetus for this essay was originally the shameful behavior of Representative Brian Sims, namely in his bullying of pro-life protesters in his district, the problem is more widespread than that. Sims, himself, is a predator who accosts women and youth, mocking and harassing them in the hopes of driving them off — seeking to use intimidation to rob them of their Constitutional right to peaceful protest. He is an embarrassment to the legislature of our Commonwealth and has made himself a laughing-stock to pundits nationwide. The only thing that surprises me is that he has not been slapped with a harassment lawsuit, but perhaps he already has.
I expect that it is safe to say that most of us expect better from those in political office. The problem is that while there are numerous men and women who do seek to govern with civility and integrity, it is the noisy, ignorant minority, modeled by Representative Sims, that stand out and give a bad name to all. Rhetoric and false information seems to drive much of our modern political process rather than reasoned dialogue and debate (no dear friends, mud-slinging and sophistry is not legitimate debate; legitimate debate is the reasoned exchange of ideas in the hopes of reaching a conclusion that is logically and morally best!). Again, Representative Sims is not representative of the many civil servants that I have had the privilege of knowing over the years, though sadly he is drawing attention away from that which is good given his antics.
So, where am I going with this? First of all, shame on all of our elected officials whose work revolves around their personal agendas. A leader puts their personal preferences to the side for what is best for the whole community. A leader seeks what is true and faithful to those standards that are established for the good of the community. In other words, if you are a Federal official, the Constitution of the United States is your measure and standard. For Representative Sims and others who lead the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it is the Pennsylvania Constitution. For local officials, it is the local ordinances. For leaders in church, it is the Bible and the Constitution of the Church or Denomination.
Second of all, Civil Servants should be just that. What does that mean? In Biblical language, that means they have a lot of repenting to do. In more pragmatic, political language, we, the citizens, need to take our elections seriously and vote these self-centered, hate-mongers out of office. Folks like Sims are doing little more than wasting tax-payer money and undermining, rather than promoting, the good of the Commonwealth.
And, so what is the end in all of this? Friends, get involved in the political process. Vote and actively support candidates that not only support Christian values but also who understand the role of a “Civil Servant.” And, as you do so, make sure that you behave with civility. Back when Mitt Romney and Barak Obama were debating, each running for president, my son, then about 11 years old, took an interest in politics for the first time. So, we allowed him to stay up past his bedtime to watch the debates and then to discuss them. Even at 11 years old, he kept saying to me, “Dad, he didn’t answer the question he was asked.” Yes, and it was true of both candidates. If an eleven-year-old can notice sophistry like that, why do we tolerate it? How good it would be if political debates consisted of people actually concerned about solving the problems that face our society in a civil way and not in a way centered on personal or political gain.
Solomon wrote that there was “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The nineteenth-century theologian, W.G.T. Shedd, wrote: “Originality in man, then, is not the power of making a communication of truth, but of apprehending one.” One pastor I knew while growing up used to say, “True genius is not creating something new, it is knowing what is good enough to steal (and improve upon).”
I am told that every combination of chords that can be played has been played. And thus, there are no truly original pieces being written — yet, people are still writing new music. It can be said that every possible combination of words has already been written, yet new books are still being written. There are only a finite number of possible plot lines in literature and all of them have been explored, yet new stories are still being told. You can see the shadows of previous designs in every invention, yet we are still trying to build a better mousetrap. And the ideas that seem new or novel to us only seem so because we are generally poor at teaching history.
So, am I suggesting that we do not create? Not at all. In fact, I am suggesting just the opposite. One of the things that makes us human is the fact that we create new things, we learn from the things that others develop and we re-imagine those things to make them better, faster, more efficient, and more useful. It is this work of making new things that not only distinguishes us from the animal kingdom, but that reminds us that we are made in the image of a creative God. And so, as we imitate God, particularly in creative work, we grow in our reflection of His character, that is, so long as we create well.
There is a sense, particularly when it comes to artistic expression, of good creativity and bad creativity. Not every color blends together in an aesthetically pleasing way. Not every chord progression is pleasing to the ear. There are things that belong together and things that clearly do not belong together. Not every alteration on a design is helpful or appealing. And, while certain things appeal to one person and not to another, there are still combinations and compositions that are more or less universally disconcerting and disturbing to the eye, ear, or mind.
C.S. Lewis called this a departure from “the Normal” or the “Sense of Normal.” For Lewis, there was a sense of color, sound, and design that is found in the created order that we humans are meant to imitate when we create things. When we go outside of that sense of “Normal,” we find things to be disturbing and aberrant. That, of course, does not mean that people do not sometimes try and produce art outside of the realm of “the Normal,” but it does mean that the art will tend to only appeal to a certain niche crowd that shares the artist’s disturbing perspective on the world.
I am reminded of my college years and an instance in a class where we were to write a fiction story. I had written a story where the murderous villain was caught but escaped trial on a technicality. The response of my classmates was to be appalled. The technicality was a legitimate one and certainly, people had been released from jail on that technicality before. There was nothing outrageous or unrealistic about the villain’s release. Yet, in the story, I had generated such hatred and disgust for the villain that, when he was not convicted of the murder of these women, my classmates left the story dissatisfied and angry. Or, to put it another way, the sense of “Normal” also includes a basic sense of justice that needs to occur in a plot line.
The challenge we face in society is that as the knowledge of God is attacked and devalued in the classroom, we more and more fail to see the value of this sense of the Normal, which originates and is given value by God’s design. We also fail to see the importance of creating things of interest and beauty to all. Until we really consciously recognize that we are engaged in the imitation of our creator, the motivation for creation will always be self-serving and limited in scope and value. It is only when God’s sense of “normal” is applied to our creation, that true value and aesthetic beauty will be visible.
5 Things You Need to Know about Going Deep
Back in High School, I was a competitive swimmer. No, I never broke any records, but was good enough to be on the team and consistent enough that the coach put me in relays and things like that. And so, during those years, I swam seemingly endless laps across the surface of the water of the swimming pool — so much so that often, when I got home from a late practice or meet, that I would fall asleep and dream about swimming more laps.
In college, though, I was introduced to something different by a friend of mine’s father who was a scuba instructor. One evening, while I was at the pool swimming laps, he took me to the side, strapped a tank on my back and taught me how to breathe through the regulator and let me loose. I had been certified with a snorkel and a mask before, so the principle was pretty easy, bu the contrast was profound.
Slowly, I descended to the bottom of the swimming pool in the area used for diving. I saw the other swimmers on the surface making laps and heard some of the commotion, but being 9 feet below them, underwater, it was strangely quiet and peaceful; I found myself largely sitting there, peacefully reflecting on life — contrasting the frantic pace of the busy “surface-swimmers” with the slower, more deliberate movements in the stillness of the deep.
It strikes me that life is reflected in that contrast. How often it is that we are so busy with the frantic pace of life that we are like those people swimming on the surface, completing lap after lap, exhausting themselves with labor, but never going any deeper than a few inches from the surface and how few people, take the time to slowly find the peace that comes with going deep into the waters of life.
It doesn’t matter what your calling in life happens to be, it is worth going deep and the satisfaction you will find in the deep waters will compensate for the “lack of laps” you complete on the surface.
1. While knowledge can be gained at the surface, wisdom is found in the depths. Education in the modern western world is largely about swimming laps. Like it or not, you almost cannot help it. Now, understand, my point is not to “bash the system,” though I do think the system has some serious flaws. My wife and I are both products of the system and she spent the majority of her teaching career in that system. And though I spent the majority of my teaching career in a private Christian school, it is still modeled on the same system (just with a Christian curriculum), so I lived it as well. This was the system that shaped both my college and my seminary education as well. There is so much to cover in a limited period of time — swimming laps is the only way to accomplish this.
Yet, if one is deliberate, one can make the time (at least occasionally) to go deep. For me, that meant guarding my Sundays from school responsibilities so that I could rest and read some things that were not required-reading (and read them at my own pace, meditating on them as I went). In college, I discovered this in debates that took place in the student lounge and in studying philosophy — not so much in the philosophy classroom as what took place when the philosophy professor opened his home so some of us could come and talk about ideas — where we were gathered out of a love for learning and ideas, which, after all, is what “philosophy” is all about anyway… And wisdom is not just knowing things, it is applying those things you know in life.
2. Going Deep takes time and patience. There is no doubt about that reality, the deeper you go, the more time you will spend going down rather than swimming laps. And so, there is a trade-off. If you work on an assembly line, the chances are, this won’t be valued. Sadly, at the Christian School where I served, this was only partly valued — in principle it was commended, but in practical application, we were kept so busy that we did not have time to do so. Even more sadly, this is often not appreciated in the church where all too often, people do not value the need for a pastor, for church leadership, and for others of influence in the church to think, reflect on what is being done, and to contemplate things deeply. All too often, if the pastor or those leading are not present for every church activity, people wonder what is wrong.
3. Not everyone likes going deep. Here’s the thing, when you are swimming laps, progress is easy to measure…lap one, lap two, lap three, etc… Going deep leaves things in a more undefined state. You don’t count laps when you are contemplating from the bottom of the pool. Yes, you can measure depth, but much of that is only done with respect to those who are swimming over top of you on the surface, but the reason you are swimming deep is not to count laps but to contemplate for a season. Scholars, scientists, and others who have mastered their field understand this — there comes a point where they focus more on growing in their understanding than on completing tasks. Tasks, of course, are still completed, but often for different reasons than the surface-swimmers are turning out laps. On the surface, tasks are completed to achieve goals, purposes, and ends which often are meant to enable more lap-swimming. In the deep, tasks are completed because the moment of epiphany is sought out. There is a difference and that difference makes people uncomfortable.
4. You occasionally need to surface. Here’s the thing; the oxygen tank only has so much air in it. Eventually you have to surface if only to gain a new tank. And, like with scuba diving in deeper contexts than a swimming pool, the ascent must be taken slowly as to not harm yourself (I have never had “the bends” or “decompression sickness,” but the way it has been described to me sounds like it can’t be any fun). Also, from the depths of the waters, things on the surface can become distorted if you stay down so long. This, I would argue, is why so many professors are so out of touch with reality — they live in the deep and rarely come up for air.
Working on an advanced degree is teaching me a lot about this. Every article that I read points me to another article or to a book that I need to read and the cycle seems endless. It is an enjoyable cycle for those who like being in the deep, but I have also been counseled that there comes a point when one is “deep enough” that one needs to come to the surface and start writing that dissertation. Otherwise it will never get written.
5. Like your vegetables, going deep is good for your soul even if you prefer swimming laps. Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen what was better (Luke 10:42). That does not mean that the things Martha was doing were unimportant. It also did not mean that Mary was unwilling to help her sister after the teaching time was done. It simply meant that at the time and in that situation, Mary chose to go deep, listening to Jesus’ words and allowing the housework to wait. Laps would be swum later; it was good for her to go deep. If you are a Christian, the same wisdom applies, when it comes to Jesus, you need to go deep if you are going to grow wise. Again, this does not diminish the value of the Martha’s in the church (we need them), but even Martha needed to stop her laps and swim deeply on occasion.
The Scientific Method: A Christian Idea
“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down?”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Madman (1882)
In Nietzsche’s classic parable (one which every Christian should be familiar), he portrays a kind of prophetic madman (arguably Nietzsche himself) running into the midst of a crowd and declaring that God is dead and that they have killed him. The “they” refers to the people of his day, of his culture, and of the formal church which had become ensconced in liturgical monotony and not genuine religion. By their disbelief, by the idolatry of tradition, and by the people’s lack of commitment to genuine faith combined with their commitment to science and rationalism, Nietzsche believed that they had effectively removed God from the society (something that Nietzsche believed was a good thing).
Christians, of course, have been quick to point out during the years that followed, that the notion of God being “dead” or his being “killed” is an irrational concept. By definition, God is eternal and thus cannot cease to exist by any means — he simply is. Further, God’s existence is not predicated on the belief of his people — whether people believe that God exists or not, whether people worship him or not, does not change his state of being. He nevertheless always and eternally is. He is a self-existent being and all things that exist derive their existent from him.
Nietzsche’s commentary is nonetheless instructive for us for 19th century Germany is not the only place or point in history where those who claimed the name of God’s people had fallen into idolatry and unbelief. One need only read the book of Judges to see this cycle taking place over and over or to read the prophet Hosea to see God’s judgment upon his people because they have simply gone through the motions, doing the right thing in form but not being committed to it. Isaiah, Chapter 1, is another prime example, illustrating for us God’s dissatisfaction with his people as they are distant from him.
In any time and in any place where people substitute the form of religion for the practice of religion, you find an era where this takes place. Read the letters of Jesus to the seven churches in Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3) — five of the seven were under the criticism of Jesus and two of those five were pronounced to be under judgment. This was a good deal of the reason that a Reformation of the church was needed in the 16th Century and it is the reason that the American and European churches largely need to repent, for very few care at all about obedience to the Word of God , only about maintaining their status quo.
But what has this to do with the scientific method? Nietzsche’s observation was that with the death of God the world would be turned upside down. Now, it can be argued that Nietzsche is using this more as a rhetorical device than as an observation, but let’s run with this statement (quoted above) for a minute. If God is not then there is no authority higher to man to which one can appeal. If God is not, definition becomes entirely human in its manufacture and not eternal. If God is not, then laws really have no meaning other than the meaning which we give to them; and if God is not, there is no reason to assume that the laws of the universe are consistent between one place and another.
The Scientific Method is the process of establishing a hypothesis, making predictions about the nature of cause and effect based on this hypothesis, and then testing the hypothesis to confirm that the actual results match the predictions made. The entirety of this method is prefaced on the principle that the universe is orderly and predictable. Yet, the assumption of an orderly and predictable universe is a Christian assumption based on the fact that we have a God who is orderly and who has created in a way consistent with his orderly character.
Does that mean that no one but Christians can use the Scientific method — or at least that no one but theists? Of course not. The scientific method properly applied is an essential aspect of doing research and science. But without a commitment to the notion that the universe is rationally structured by a rational God, why bother with the scientific method in the first place? Why be committed to the notion that the laws of physics are set and consistent? It is worth pondering the implication of a universe created by an orderly being and a universe that just randomly generated itself without anything to guide it or to order it. In Nietzsche’s atheistic model, we might as well be plunging in every which direction without any basic points of reference like up or down.
Christian Doctrine and the Paradox of Theseus’ Ship
There is an old thought experiment that dates back to the ancient Greeks that surrounds Theseus’ ship. As a youth, I grew up with the stories of Theseus, the six labors, his battle with the minotaur, and the various adventures that surrounded this Greek hero. In his writings, the Historian, Plutarch recorded that Theseus’ ship was left docked in the harbor of Athens as a memorial to the hero, and little by little, as boards began to rot, the Athenians replaced those rotten boards with fresh lumber, preserving the monument.
The thought experiment…the Paradox of Theseus…raises the question, if you are replacing parts of Theseus’ ship, at what point does the ship cease to be Theseus’ ship? Philosophers have debated this for ages and many answers are given to this question. Some argue that when even one board or plank of the ship is replaced, it is no longer Theseus’ ship. Others argue that regardless of how many boards are replaced, it is aways Theseus’ ship. Thomas Hobbes went as far as to raise the question of “what if” when the rotten planks were replaced, someone had taken the old rotten ones, preserved them, and slowly rebuilt Theseus’ ship…then, which one would be the real one?
Aristotle provides us with the main solution to this paradox when he distinguishes between formal causes and material causes. The formal cause — the form that it takes — is not changed even if the actual materials have changed. Thus, in the formal sense, the ship in the harbor is Theseus’ no matter how many boards are changed. One could even replace the wooden boards with plastic ones and the formal cause would remain unchanged even though the material cause was radically different.
From a Christian perspective, while Aristotle is helpful, one might argue that Plato is even more helpful. Plato spoke about forms for things, but argued that the perfect forms exist only in a spiritual realm, or a “World of Forms.” Thus, when we see a circle, what we really see is an imperfect representation of the perfect circle in the world of forms. The same thing can be said about rocks and dogs and even people. There are lots of varieties of each, but each matches a class of entity whose perfect representative exists in the spiritual realm. Thus, Theseus’ ship in the harbor is Theseus’ ship, no matter how many boards are replaced because it is the embodiment of an ideal form. In the case of Hobbes, then, both the ship in the harbor and the preserved rotten ship are Theseus’ ship — both are imperfect physical representations of the original form. Just like there are many dogs, but one “Dog Form,” so too there can be many Ship’s of Theseus.
The Christian philosopher, St. Augustine, fleshed this idea of the Forms out further, locating these forms in the mind of God. God understands the perfect triangle or circle or dog, etc… and the physical world (particularly the fallen physical world) is an imperfect reflection. Thus, while the perfect form of Theseus’ ship exists in the mind of God (remember, all things in this world decay and rot over time), the ship kept in memorial is always Theseus’ ship because it reflects (however imperfectly, whether by decayed wood or replaced timbers) the perfect image in God’s eyes.
Okay, it is an interesting thought experiment, but of what value is it to Christians who no longer really care about Theseus, ancient ships, or Greek Philosophy? On the most basic level, one could argue for the importance of studying reasoning and logic as a part of our growing and maturing as Christians. Indeed, our God is reasonable and is not a God of chaos (1 Corinthians 14:33) and so, the more our lives reflect that the more our lives reflect the character of God. But that would lead us to the more important application of this idea.
We are told in Scripture that humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). This image was not lost in the Fall (Genesis 9:6), but it was clearly distorted, twisted, and bent by sin. In the New Testament we are told that Jesus is the perfect image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) and we are being molded and remade into Christ’s image (Romans 8:29). Thus, the life of the Christian is a process by which one is changed from the image of the man of dust into the image of Christ — the man of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:49). We are Theseus’ ship, as it were, constantly having our spiritual planks replaced (sin has rotted them) and being remade and conformed into the image of Christ — a process not complete until we see heaven. Further, while (as Augustine would teach) the perfect circle or the perfect dog exists in the mind of God, the perfect man exists as a person.
Indeed, we are changing. In fact, spiritual stagnation is the worst thing that can happen to the Christian. They become dull, complacent, and no longer engage in the good works for which we were created (Ephesians 2:10). Change into the image of Christ is a mark of the Spirit’s sanctifying work upon our lives. The thing that strikes me is how often (as Christians) we are tempted to want to relive the past — one more shot at the “old man” and not a pursuit of growing as the “new man.” Yet, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise, we can’t go there — we are no longer the person we once were. The planks have been changed. The old ship of Theseus, composed of Hobbes’ rotten boards, won’t float. The new ship in the harbor will, but the new ship is composed of new pieces; if you go back and take out the new pieces and replace them with the old rotten ones, it will sink too. If you want to live…and I mean really live out your identity as an image-bearer of God, then you can only do so with the new boards — the new, sanctified boards. No, I am not the same man I was 27 years ago when I became a believer, but that is a good thing; my life was sinking fast due to the rottenness of sin in my soul; I am grateful for the new boards that God has been constantly replacing in my life. May we all genuinely be grateful for those changes (even the ones that hurt when initially made).
What Must a Christian Believe?
One of the debates that circulates around Christian church circles has to do with what that core body of information happens to be to which all Christians must assent. There are many who would say that the Apostles’ Creed stands as the most basic test of the Christian faith. Yet, I think that we would all agree that there are essentials to the faith that the Apostles’ Creed does not cover: the inspiration of Scripture, the dual nature of Christ, that we are justified by Grace through faith alone, etc… Further, most Mormons that I have interacted with will claim to affirm the Apostles’ Creed, though arguably there are differences by way of definition. So, while the Apostles’ Creed clearly provides a starting point, it is by no means able to stand on its own.
The Heidelberg Catechism addresses this very question prior to launching into a long exposition of the Apostles’ Creed. Question 22 asks: “What then must a Christian believe?” The answer is: “All that is promised to us in the Gospel, which are taught in summary in the articles of the universal Christian faith.” In other words, the Apostles’ Creed is at best a summary that needs clarification, thus questions 23-58 provide that clarification within the Heidelberg Catechism.
But what does it mean when it says, “All that is promised to us in the Gospel”? To answer that question, we must first address the question of what the Gospel is. Certainly, we use the word to refer to a variety of things. Our Bibles contain four books (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) that are explicitly referred to as “Gospels.” Further, when we speak to others about the “Gospel,” what we usually mean is explaining the basis of the Christian faith — man is a sinner in need of redeeming (and cannot redeem himself); Jesus, who had no sin and is the Son of God, came and died a substitutionary death for all who believe; so, repent and believe and you can share in this eternal promise…
Yet, on the most basic level, the word “Gospel” means “good news.” And where can this good news be found? It can only be found in the Bible. What is the good news? The good news is that though man is rebellious and fallen from the beginning, God had ordained a plan to redeem an elect people for himself through faith in His Son, Jesus. Where is that found? In the Bible. It is found in all of the Bible. The Old Testament lays the foundation for and prefigures the work of Christ in the New Testament, and the New Testament makes little sense unless rooted firmly in the Old. It is one complete book that contains and records the complete revelation of God. It is indispensable to the Christian faith…all of it. And thus, Heidelberg states unambiguously that we must believe all of the promises contained in he Gospel.
I think that it is high time, as a church, that we make a commitment to the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy the test of orthodoxy. Of course, that leaves a lot of people that we know, love, and care about in the cold. Then again, did Jesus not say that it is those who keep his commandments that love him (John 14:21)? Did Jesus not say that all authority in heaven and on earth is his (Matthew 28:18)? Does Moses not say that this Word was our very life (Deuteronomy 32:47) and that man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3)? Every word… And does not Peter point out that all things that pertain to life and godliness come to us through the knowledge of God (2 Peter 1:3)? And how shall we have knowledge of God apart from embracing the Scriptures? Without the Scriptures we could know nothing about the God we worship. And since men are not qualified to give counsel to God (Romans 11:33-36), of which part of Scripture can man say to God, “I do not need this”? No, it is all breathed out by God to equip us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
So, what am I suggesting? I am suggesting that the test of orthodoxy be that the Scriptures are inspired by God in the original manuscripts (every word and letter — what is called “plenary inspiration”) and are thus inerrant (without error and without the possibility of error in what they teach) and are infallible (they will not fail the one who puts their trust in them). It is a commitment to the whole counsel of God that we must look to and our friends in the community who might believe otherwise may very well not be Christians as they are not being Christian as the Bible so presents.
Does this mean that we shut out as heretics everyone who disagrees with us? No. There are certainly areas of disagreement that take place within the orthodox church, areas where believers with a commitment to inerrancy have honest disagreements. Further, there may very well be some genuine believers who are being deluded into error by the false churches they attend. While in the first case, we can discuss and debate and not break fellowship, in the second case, we evangelize, we make an apologetic, and we try and sway those friends attending bad churches to seek out a church that upholds the Bible. It is by this manner that we add light and clarity to the muddled mess of our watered-down and politically correct church environment.
Are You Ready to Go to Church Tomorrow?
Okay, the pastor is just on one of his soapboxes, again. Sure, this is a soapbox…but if you are a Christian, it should be your soapbox as well. So, hear me out.
You see, many people are simply satisfied that you are going to church in the first place — you remember that kind old lady from Sunday School that used to say, “I don’t care where he goes as long as he goes to church somewhere…” She had all of the best intentions, but boy, she couldn’t be more wrong. What good does it do a person to attend worship at a place that plays at church, but does not teach in a way that is faithful to the Bible.
But I’m not talking about that dear old lady with all of her good intentions. And I am not talking about the silly statement that people that don’t want to come to church make…you know the one… “I can worship anywhere and don’t need to go to church to do it.” We could talk about the nature of the body of Christ and how it is to be unified for worship in conformity to God’s command, but my interest is not to go there either. And I’m also not talking about those who tell me, “I prefer to attend that other choice because they have Saturday-Night services…,” as if worship is about our convenience…no, my point is not to go there either.
What I want to address is the mindset that many have who think that their presence in the sanctuary at the prescribed hour is the most important thing. Now, I grant you, it is a better thing to be in church than to not be in church — at the very least you will be exposed to the preaching of the Gospel. But being physically present in church is the easiest part of your worship…and arguably the least important part. God demands that his people be wholly committed to him, not just our bodies, but our minds as well. But to engage mentally in the worship of God’s people, you need to prepare yourselves. So, here are some thoughts in the form of practical advice that you can put into play today to help prepare you for tomorrow’s service of corporate worship.
1) Have you prayed for the Pastor and those leading the service of worship? Are you committed to seeking God’s face that these men may speak the Word of Truth to you in a way that is wholly consistent with the testimony of the Scriptures?
2) Have you prayed for yourself? Are you committed to seeking God’s face that you may be prepared to listen attentively to what the Pastor brings that you may take it to heart and learn from him? Pray that the Holy Spirit would convict you where you need to be convicted and that he will apply the Word of God to your sinful heart.
3) Have you read the text on which the Pastor will preach? Most pastors are more than willing and able to share their sermon texts at least a week in advance. If they are unable to do this one might be tempted to ask about their preparedness or organization.
4) Having read the text, have you made a list of questions you have from the text itself? Take these with you as part of your notes (yes, plan to take notes on the pastor’s sermon…it will allow you to learn and it will keep him accountable — and if he knows you are taking notes, not only will it encourage him in his preparations but it will also encourage him not to take any shortcuts in preparation). Plan to take these notes with you and see how many of your questions the pastor answers. And if he does not answer one of your questions, drop him a note asking him said question, it will encourage him that you were listening and that the text is important enough to understand that you want to know said answers.
5) Do you know the hymns which will be sung or the additional readings that might be present? It may require a phone call to the church secretary to discover this, but if you can learn these things, reading the words ahead will allow you to prepare better to sing them.
6) Have you read through your notes from last week’s sermons? If your pastor preaches in the form of a series or through given texts of the Bible, reading these sermon notes will jog your memory and assist you in engaging with the text.
7) Plan to get a good night’s sleep. A rested mind is a more engaged mind. Be ready to engage fully in the worship of God.
We could likely add other things to this list, but try these things and see how your engagement with worship and the text will change. I also think that if you engage with these things, your personal devotions will improve, but that is a different conversation. Or, let me just say, in the words of the old television commercial, “try it, you’ll like it!”
Easter, the Resurrection, and Worship
Folks that know me well, know that I don’t much like the choice of the word, “Easter,” that is used in English speaking and German speaking congregations. The term originates from the name of a pagan goddess of the woodlands and is just one more reminder of syncretism that is found in the Christian world. Much like with Christmas, we seem to have created two parallel holidays: Easter with its chocolate and bunnies as a celebration of the coming of spring and Resurrection Sunday to venerate Jesus’ rising from the tomb (for my satirical reflection on Christmas and X-Mass in honor of C.S. Lewis, click here…).
Don’t misunderstand these musings… Theologically, I do affirm that we gather every Sunday to celebrate the Resurrection and to bless God’s name. Yet, with others, I agree that there is a pragmatic value attached to setting apart a time during the calendar year to focusing especially on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and reminding ourselves of its foundational importance to Christianity. In addition, Easter (think spring and new life here) and the tendency of people to come out to church, lends itself to being a time where a greater emphasis should be placed on evangelism and again the resurrection.
But can we talk honestly about church practices at Easter for a minute? How oftentimes, the tendency is to make this service bigger and fuller than other services during the year, save perhaps on Christmas Eve? The logic flows somewhat like this: 1) more people will come out, 2) if we make more of a production, then perhaps people will appreciate it enough to come out again the following Sunday.
But wait a minute? Is worship meant to be a production? Productions are about what we are doing and are about an outward performance. Is that really what should be present in the life of the church? I would say, no, it is not. Worship is about our drawing close to God according to His Word, they are about blessing God’s name and submitting ourselves to the instructions found in His Word. It’s not about us. It never was and never will be. The moment you make worship into a production is the moment you cease to be practicing something that is Biblical an you begin practicing idolatry. Further, the logic of the argument mentioned above fails as soon as those visitors, impressed by the production, come out any other Sunday morning of the year. Then, they see the hypocrisy of those putting on the production and what does that say about genuine Christianity?
Am I saying that we ought never do anything special on Resurrection Sunday? Of course not. But I am saying that those kinds of special things must never cross the line and become a performance. I am also saying that if you would not include said special music on any other Sunday of the year, you ought not include it on Resurrection Sunday, lest you fall into the trap of performance. Of course for some churches, performance is a way of life and that in itself is a conversation to be had another time.
So, where do I fall on this matter in terms of practice? I confess, it is easy to fall to the temptation of doing something big on Resurrection Sunday morning. The Resurrection of Christ is the great triumphant benediction of all of history, so indeed, that makes sense. But at the same time, I have become over the years much more sensitive to not making the morning a production. That defeats the purpose of why we gather and presents a false picture of Sunday worship to visitors. So, the order of service and elements that are present are the same as is found the rest of the calendar year. The only difference is that my preaching tends to be a little more evangelistic in nature than would be found on any other given Sunday. Other Sundays I focus a little more heavily on the discipleship of the body. What I don’t do is to make Resurrection Sunday or more commonly, “Easter Sunday,” into what one pastor I know calls “Superbowl Sunday for the Church.” That, I think is wrong.
This is something that I am still chewing on, what are your thoughts?
Men without Ears
In 1943, C.S. Lewis published his short, apologetic work, The Abolition of Man, in which he tackles “The Green Book,” a new text being used in the British educational system, one that elevates observational science over the arts and moral norms. Lewis’ premise is ultimately that the educational system was producing “men without chests” — people who used reason and their passions without the constraints of moral virtue.
The Abolition of Man was written 75 years ago and time has been the judge of Lewis’ fears and predictions. And while the point of this reflection is not to go on a long diatribe about the state of the American educational system, if the violence present in the schools today is any indication of the moral standards of student bodies, then it is a pretty clear indication of Lewis’ insights into the consequences of a bad educational model. And, by violence, I am not simply referring to school shootings and stabbings, though that is a heinous crime, I am also talking about the violence in the hallways — bullying, verbal abuse of other students and teachers, and a general lack of respect for authority amongst the student body.
My concern this morning is to suggest that we have entered a stage beyond Lewis’ prediction of men without chests. We have also created heads without ears. Many people complain that in our world today the art of debate has been abandoned. Well-crafted argumentation has been replaced simply by arguments, most of which seem to be built on an ad hominem approach.
Truly, this is not a new thing. Ad hominem and the use of other logical fallacies are techniques that Arthur Schopenhauer suggested, for example, in his work entitled, The Art of Controversy. Further, it was the method of the Sophists in the 5th century B.C. Of course, it is arguments like these to which great thinkers like Socrates and Plato objected. Yet, today, thoughtless gibes seem to be the approach that people commonly take — a brief survey of recent presidential debates is a good indication of that reality. And, I am not convinced that audiences of these supposed debates really desire to hear competing ideas weighed out, I think that most only desire to have what they already believe echoed back to them in clever and novel ways: arguments rather than carefully discussed reasons.
And that brings me to ears. Ears are the organ by which we hear things. And, in principle, it is that which we hear in a conversation that ought to cause our minds to reason and understand the position of the other person. If you say, “I think we ought to do X rather than Y,” that is merely an opinion. But, if you say, “I think we ought to do X rather than Y, because of A, B, and C,” then that is a different matter altogether. Then we can carefully evaluate reasons “A, B, and C” to confirm that they are legitimate and pertinent to the question at hand. In addition, when I respond, “No, we need to do Y, because of reasons J, K, and L” then we have data and principles to discuss. As Sherlock Holmes often quipped to John Watson, “I cannot make bricks without straw!”
The problem is that it takes time and energy to come up with reasons for your position and to be able to defend those reasons in a thoughtful way. It also requires that we sincerely listen to one another, rather than using the time when the other person is talking to come up with our next attack.
Interestingly, Jesus teaches in parables precisely because people “hear but do not understand” and “see but never perceive” (Matthew 13:14). Such is seen as a judgment of God upon the unbeliever that they will remain blind and deaf to matters of spiritual truth. Yet, have we created a society that elevates this spiritual blindness and deafness? Have we created a society where we no longer can even hear the ideas of others in a meaningful way. We use our mouths then to spout off our thoughts, but without reasoned dialogue and an exchange if ideas, every man does what is right in his own eyes and we are left with chaos.
And, if a culture ceases to value its chests (moral virtue) and its ears (the exchange and deliberation of other ideas than our own), that what is it that is left? Anarchy? There is no question, if you have spent much time around this blog, that I have strong opinions. And, as a Christian pastor, there are certain presuppositions that I have that are fundamental to the way I think and evaluate ideas. At the same time, I have most enjoyed those rare, deep conversations with those from whom I differ, that have been held in respectful ways, carefully evaluating reasons for positions and not seeking to attack the person for holding said opinions. Given that said conversations do still happen in rare circumstances, I wonder (and pray) that the art of debate may one day be revived in our land.
Have a Blessed New Year!
May God bless you as we bring 2016 to a close and prepare to begin 2017. It is always easy to for the negative things of the year gone by to dwarf the good things that took place, but overall, this past year was the most challenging we have had to face. With my teenage son’s stroke this past February, our family life and routine was turned on its ear and spun every which way. Yet, in times of crisis, God provides strength, often through others around us.
Many are saying that the church is irrelevant in today’s modern age and that faith is an individual walk and not something that we do in connection with a larger body. Apart from being an unBiblical notion, it is clear to me that anyone who would desire to live apart from the Christian church is a fool. They have strengthened and surrounded us with grace over this past year…something for which we will be eternally grateful.
Thus, having learned a great deal, having been tried, and having been sobered, we look toward a new year. And while we do not know what it is that it will bring, what we do know is that our God holds that year (and every year!) in his divine hand and he will use the events of life to conform us into the image of his Son, Jesus Christ.
God Bless You and May You have a Blessed New Year.
‘Preacher’ Win Groseclose
On Christ’s One Sacrifice
I’ve not posted here of late as I have been finishing two books, one, on pastoral theology that is now out, and the other on the Atonement. Here is an excerpt on Hebrews 10:11-15.
“And every priest stands daily serving and over and over again he brings sacrifices to offer which can never have the potential to take away sins. But this one, offering a sacrifice for sins, sits down without interruption at the right hand of God, from that time on waiting until his enemies are made a footstool for his feet. For by one offering he perfected, always, the ones who have been consecrated.”
Note the contrast we find here between the ongoing ritual of the temple priesthood and the once and for all time sacrifice of the Son of God. The first is neither efficacious nor has the potential to be efficacious for the people. It is simply an ordinance that is practiced that has no power to atone. They are lifeless acts of the walking dead; zombies who claim to live, but are lifeless. Their works, rather than being a pleasing aroma to God, are rancid and foul before the Lord. Yet, like maggots, many are drawn to the dead forms, finding comfort in the decay, because they fear the demands of the Lord of Life.
An Open Letter to President Obama, Governor McCrory, and other Interested Parties: Bathrooms and the Strange Legacy of Sartre
Presuppositions govern our perspectives on life and until we recognize that, we tend toward intellectual dishonesty at best and our debates tend more toward sophism than truth. Once we recognize that, we can engage with much more humility in honest conversation…that is, if we are willing. Sadly, honest and civil conversation around politics and religion, I am told, is a rare thing in our current society. People prefer to yell rather than to earn the right to whisper. My hope for this letter is to whisper.
To do that, I must be up front as to where my presuppositions lie. If you have read much of my blog, that ought to be obvious, but in case this is new to you, know that I am a Christian pastor in an old German-Reformed congregation. I consider the Bible to be the true revelation from God, with every word inspired through many authors across many generations, but all by one God. Thus, I affirm doctrines like that of inerrancy and infallibility when it comes to the Bible. That puts me amongst a group that are often labeled as “fundamentalists,” and that may be accurate, but if it is, my fundamentalism is much more akin to that of Gresham Machen than to that of Pat Robertson. I value intelligent dialogue, not mere rhetoric to gain influence.
As I said, my hope is to whisper, but perhaps it is more than that, my hope is also to interject a perspective into the conversation that I have not heard much of in the news that has covered the debates around bathrooms and who uses them.
The Simple Solution
Of course, I ought to note that there are simple solutions to the question at hand, yet simple solutions are often not what people strive for in American politics. One solution, which would favor the view of the political right would be to change the labeling of bathroom doors from “men” or “women” to “XX” or “XY.” Chromosomes are things with which we are born and they do not change as a result of a “gender identity” decision or even as a result of gender reassignment surgery. The chromosomes with which you are born are chromosomes with which you will die.
The other option, which would favor the political left would simply be to convert all bathrooms to single-use bathrooms to be used by anyone when the need arises. This is certainly how the vast majority of us live when we are in our homes, we could certainly adapt to that in public institutions without that much grief, though obviously there would need to be some remodeling work done to achieve this end. A variation on this can be found in many places in Europe where there are common restrooms for both men and women. In these areas, there are private stalls for use, but common sinks that both men and women share. I confess that as an American raised in the conservative countryside of rural Maryland, the first time I encountered a bathroom such as this, it took some getting used to, but it still wasn’t long before I adapted.
But we don’t want Simple Solutions, do we?
The reality is, this is not really a question about bathrooms, is it? While I do not know the current statistics, I would imagine that the population in America that would identify as transgender is relatively small. That does not mean that the question of how to accommodate those who are “transitioning” should not be taken seriously, it rightly should. But it seems odd that so great a battle has been waged on this matter in our culture. Surely there are overall relatively few people “challenging” which bathroom to enter. As to the other side of the debate, I would imagine that a male who presented himself as a female would receive little attention (if any) for using the ladies room in a public place. I would suggest that the same would apply to a woman who presented herself as a man.
Presuppositions and Principles?
Permit me to suggest that the real question behind the matter of bathrooms is the question of public acceptance. Will we, or will we not, accept the notion of gender choice in our society. Those who are proponents of the LGBT community would say that society as a whole must accept their lifestyle choices as legitimate and thus bathrooms and other public accommodations must be made. Those, particularly, like myself on the Christian right, would say that gender is not fluid, but is tied to biological sexuality (remember the Chromosomes above?). This is the real question at hand, though I suppose it might be easier to fight over bathrooms than to tackle the question seriously (and yes, that is a rebuke of both sides).
Lewis or Sartre?
So, which comes first? In Sartre’s work, Existentialism is a Humanism, he argues that at the heart of the existentialist perspective is the notion that existence precedes essence. In other words, we first come into being and then we are given the awful freedom and responsibility of giving meaning to that existence. Even so, according to Sartre, giving meaning belongs primarily to the individual. Applied to gender, the cultural grandchildren of Sartre would state that defining their own gender identity is part of giving meaning to one’s own existence.
In contrast to Sartre, C.S. Lewis, who is oftentimes claimed by Existentialists as one of their own (though I would disagree with that claim), when discussing gender and sexuality in the novel, Perelandra, describes sexuality as an outward expression of an inward reality (the inward reality being gender). Thus, existence and essence are inextricably bound together, but with essence preceding existence — borrowing the notion of St. Augustine that essence begins in the mind of God.
So, who is right? Clearly, I lean toward Lewis. To be fair, our culture leans toward Sartre. I appeal to the Bible as my ultimate authority; our culture tends to appeal to experience and personal expression as its ultimate authority. Which is right? I suppose that both sides of the conversation are equally committed to their position, but while I have been known in other contexts to vigorously debate the rationality of appealing to the Bible as one’s ultimate authority and in turn, submitting to its precepts, I promised that I would whisper, so I will only point out the different starting points that each side of the debate holds.
I will say, though, that one of the problems in the conversation is that terms have not been well defined and are often confounded with one another. Sexuality and Gender are prime culprits. Sexuality deals with one’s biology. This includes, but is not limited to genitalia. It also includes inner organs that are germane to males or females respectively as well as those pesky chromosomes. As chromosomes do not change nor do the actual organs a person has in their body, “gender reassignment” ought not be referred to as a “sex-change” though that is often the term that is applied.
In contrast to sexuality, gender is defined more by societal norms than it is by one’s biology. This deals with our roles, our manner of dress, and the way we interact with one another. Historically, gender has largely been tied to biology (as Lewis would affirm), but in today’s world, the question that is being raised (largely thanks to Sartre and our Existential culture) is whether we must bind them together or if they can be treated seperately. Curiously, if one separates the idea of gender from that of sexuality, gender then becomes solely a matter of self-expression, and the idea of “gender-reassignment surgery” becomes as much of a misnomer as the phrase “sex-change surgery.” The surgery itself becomes nothing more than a cosmetic modification to make it easier to appear as the gender of one’s choice.
Laws have two purposes. The first purpose is to punish wrong-doing. The second purpose is to discourage people from behavior that is immoral. Herein lies another point of debate. How is immoral behavior defined. Clearly, I would appeal to the Bible. Society seems to appeal to social expectations, a view that I believe is fraught with danger given the fickle nature of said expectations and the sinful nature of man. Each law, though, at its very core, must answer the question, “How am I rewarding moral behavior and punishing behavior that is immoral?” And yes, with that in mind, every law legislates someone’s morality on some level.
From My Point of View
Given that I have already shared my presuppositions, it should be obvious as to where my point of view lies. The Bible is clear that homosexuality is immoral in the first place and it seems to me that much of the draw of Transgenderism is the notion of making homosexual desires more acceptable in the eyes of the culture. Even if not overtly intended to be a gateway into homosexual behavior, living life in gender roles different than those which would normally be bound to one’s sex is a form of deception, which, too, is an immoral action according to the Bible.
Whispering and the Conversation in Front of Us
The real question is whether or not we can have a dialogue on this matter in a productive way while still whispering and not raising our voices or our fists. Personally, I am very concerned that the opening up of bathrooms is little more than a first step — a minor skirmish in a larger campaign — towards something that not only will radically change the nature of the culture around us, but will also invite young men and women to express themselves and their urges in even greater immorality. I fear too, that it will be the loudest voice and not the most sound argument that will win the day and the whispers of truth will be drowned out and forgotten.
The Culture War: Win, Lose, or Rebuild?
In the battle of Gibeah (recorded in Judges 20), the armies of Israel drew the defenders of Gibeah out toward the highways and away from the city by a feigned retreat. As Israel fell back, appearing to route, the heart of Israel’s army lay in ambush around the city, thus defeating the city while the city’s defenders were chasing after a decoy.
As I meditate on what is typically called the culture war, lately it has been occurring to me that we (the conservative evangelical church) may be acting a lot like the defenders of Gibeah. As we look around us at the broader culture, it is clear that the church has been losing influence. In many segments of society, the voice of the church has been relegated to the irrelevant and thus we find ourselves speaking only to ourselves and thus not influencing the culture around us as salt of the earth and light of the world.
Maybe we have been duped — duped into thinking that we are still fighting a legitimate war and as we pour out all our resources and energies against our perceived enemy, they have been gladly giving ground because they are nothing more than a distraction and the real battle has already been lost.
Before you get all angry and storm off, just hear me out because I am not a defeatist — in fact, if anything, I usually am called a “triumphalist” by people who don’t like what I am saying. Just bear with me for a moment.
What if we have been duped? What if the culture war was something that was lost a generation ago when people began allowing prayer and Bible instruction to be taken out of our schools? What if the culture ware was lost when evolution and situational ethics began to be accepted as the norm instead of a divine creation and absolute morality? What if the church’s acceptance of “Tax-Exempt” status (as if the Government ever had the right to tax a Church) upon the promise that the church would not play an active role in politics was the point where we lost the war? What if the cultural belief that “religion is a private matter” is where we lost the war? What if we have been fighting decoys while the enemy lay in siege and infiltrated our congregations and our homes, leading the next generation to stray from the church? What if the creation of the “Christian sub-culture” has been nothing more than a colossal failure whereby we have removed our own influence from the wider world? What if we are doing nothing more than fighting ghosts that don’t need to win because the real war has already been won? What if?
Do I have your attention? Just maybe? If we have lost the war, then that changes the whole paradigm and approach, doesn’t it? It has been said by many, the world around us today is more like the world of Paul’s day than the world of Luther’s day. If so, how do we react? How do we think differently?
What if the change in paradigm means no longer fighting a culture war that has been lost but instead, consists of building a new culture. No, not a sub-culture like we see around us today — that has not proven compelling (sorry, folks, my intent is not to hurt feelings). What if we let go of the whole Christian sub-culture thing and began really competing on the same footing and level as secular artists, writers, musicians, and dramatists? No, not in a preachy way, but what if the most compelling stories, music, books, ideas, etc… came from people who happened to be Christian and their Christian worldview informed what they produced (but was not what they produced). What if the best book, work, video, etc… in every field just happened to be produced by a Christian whose worldview was again, below the surface, informing what was thought.
What if, by building a new culture that was more compelling than the old culture happened to be (even to the non-Christian), was our tactic and approach. What if we realized that this is also not a new idea, but that others, like C.S. Lewis, were arguing for this kind of approach nearly 60 years ago — yes, when many of those things I mentioned at the beginning were lost! What if we approached this world as builders…though not unlike the builders of Nehemiah’s day, with spears in one hand while work was being done by the other. We need to defend agains the attacks that the enemy will really bring when they realize that we realize that their feigned retreat was a ruse. Something to think about…
Am I Missing Something?
Normally I try and stay out of the fray when it comes to the frenzy around popular scandals and sensationalistic stories. Maybe I should make more social commentaries than I do, but guess that I would rather immerse myself more deeply in God’s word and trust people to have a little common sense that can be applied to a situation strange or otherwise. Yet there has been an odd buzzing around evangelical circles and I am feeling compelled to at least comment in the hopes that this buzz will go along the wayside sooner than later.
It seems that recently, Atlanta pastor, Louie Giglio was first invited and then disinvited to offer the benediction at the second inauguration of President Barak Obama. It is said that the invitation came as a result of Giglio’s work to raise awareness about sex trafficking in the United States. The disinvitation came as a result of a twenty-year-old sermon where Giglio presented the Biblical testimony that homosexuality is sin. And now, it seems that every major figure in evangelical Christianity along with major figures in the liberal establishment are offering us commentaries — folks, enough already! Yet, let me ignore my own advice and make a couple of comments:
1) Why in the world would the Obama Administration invite an evangelical evangelist to offer the benediction? And why, oh why, did Giglio accept said request? Think about it. Perhaps it would be flattering to be asked to offer such a benediction, but there comes a point when one ought to decline.
Though I have never been asked to offer a prayer at such an auspicious occasion (and don’t expect to be), as an area pastor I do regularly get asked to pray or offer a benediction at community events. In these cases, the first question that I ask is always, “Am I allowed to pray in the name of Jesus Christ?” If the answer is, ‘no,’ then my answer is ‘no’ as well. Inclusivity in presidential politics is no new thing to the scene and clearly guidelines and rules would be established for such a benediction that would water down the intentional Christian spirit of the prayer.
One might counter that this is a pluralistic nation in terms of religious beliefs, and indeed it is, but I am not a pluralistic pastor — I am a Christian pastor, and so is Louie Giglio — and thus my loyalties lie with Christ and any authority I have to offer a blessing upon the lives of others also comes from Christ.
Furthermore, when one shares the stage in a setting like an inauguration with someone, that offers an implicit endorsement of the person with whom the stage is shared. Why go down that road? How can an evangelical endorse any politician that supports the gay agenda, the pro-choice agenda, and the agenda of those who are seeking to marginalize the Christian voice from civil life (in our schools, our courts, etc…)? What fellowship does light have with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14)
2) While my intention is not to slam Pastor Giglio here, it seems odd to me that those pursuing a liberal agenda would have to go 20 years back to find something “incriminating” against him in his sermons. Surely, I would hope, that nearly any evangelical pastor would regularly be speaking in a way that those who pursue sin would find offensive. My grandfather (a Methodist minister) used to say, “if you are not stepping on toes, you are likely not preaching the gospel.”
As preachers, part of our responsibility is to address the sins of our time in a way that reflects God’s word and not the fickle preferences of men. We are to call the culture away from its self-destruction and not chase the culture to the praise of men. We should be calling people to repent of their sins — homosexuality being just one of such wicked lifestyles our world has embraced. We should also be calling people to repent of sexual immorality of all kids, including sexuality outside of wedlock. We should be calling people to repent of pornography, slander, gossip, unforgiveness, anger, pride, adultery, and the list goes on! We should be proclaiming the truth that we are fallen sinners and that there is forgiveness in Christ Jesus alone — there is no other way to the Father but through the Son. Surely that too must be greatly offensive in our politically correct society!
This does not mean we are wagging our fingers at the world, for we point toward our own fallenness as well, and we proclaim that in Christ there is grace and forgiveness — yet Christ himself also calls us to turn away from our wicked lifestyles, not to become comfortable in them or accepting of them. “Go and sin no more” are words from Christ that echo down through the centuries.
When the issue of homosexuality was raised with Giglio, rather than to use that opportunity to speak truth into the culture, he soft-pedaled the matter and stated that the question of homosexuality had not been in his “range of priorities in the past fifteen years.” Really? Surely homosexuality is one of the most significant issues eroding the morality of our society over the past fifteen years…am I missing something? Especially given that much of Giglio’s public ministry has been focused on calling kids to “making much of Christ,” does one not think that one’s lifestyle is part of that? Were one to have a ministry that focused primarily on our older generation (let’s say 65 and up…sorry Mom and Dad!), then it would be easy to see how this social issue would not play a role in the forefront of his ministry because that generation in our culture was largely raised on Biblical moral teachings. The younger generation was not and has been encouraged to experiment with sin. One ought to keep that in as much of the forefront as sex trafficking, the use of drugs, and other self-destructive behaviors. Giglio clearly is committed to the Biblical truth on the matter, given the language of his released sermon, but why has he played down the question when raised?
3) It is true, as people like Al Mohler point out, that Biblical foundations are being eroded from our culture and that society is actively seeking to marginalize the influence and presence of evangelicalism from public life. That said, why do we assume (as evangelical Christians) that having an evangelical pastor pray for our president (one who rejects what evangelicals stand for) will change the current state of affairs? Don’t get me wrong, we are to pray for all of our leaders — in this case, I would argue for conversion — but the public prayer at an inauguration does not seem to be the kind of thing that Paul was speaking about when he wrote those words to Timothy.
And why should it bother us if our president would choose a liberal pastor, a unitarian pastor, or even a Muslim Imam to pray for him at his Inauguration? Why not find someone to speak words that will be meaningful to the man being Inaugurated?
Yes, as Christians we may not like the idea of our Christian presence being lost in the Presidential Inauguration, but is it really there just because a Christian offers a prayer and the President swears on a book he cares nothing for? It is said that of Evangelical Christians in America, only about 20% eligible to vote did, so why bother getting upset now? And why bother getting upset at anyone but ourselves. If we have chosen (as evangelicals) to refuse to be salt and light, then it is we who need to repent for our bashfulness. We have bought into the idea that if we put up the pretense that we are a Christian culture we will be…sadly, the Bible calls that hypocrisy. We are a nation grounded in Christian roots, but we have strayed far from the spot where we began. We need a political revival like the spiritual revival that took place in Josiah’s day, calling people in our nation back to the foundation upon which we began — the foundation that God blessed and made our nation the great beacon of freedom and liberty that is — though as we stray further and further from that foundation, we will lose more and more of that freedom and liberty that made our nation great.
The bottom line is that these kinds of things (disinvitations and the like) are not the problems; they are only symptoms of the problem. We, like ancient Israel, have fallen into a time where every man does what is right in his own eyes — and we are paying the price for that sin. No, I don’t think I am missing something.
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!
It seems that these days people speak a lot about liberty, protecting their liberties, and how their liberties are being threatened by this legislation or that group of people. “We live in a free society!” people proclaim and use that status to excuse or protect all sorts of behaviors. When the government speaks of laws that would restrict gun ownership, the conservatives yell that their liberties are being compromised. When the government speaks of controls on the spread of pornography on the internet, the liberals yell that the freedom of speech and of the press is being compromised. When a homeowner’s association tries to restrict the way renovations are done to a house, homeowners cry out that their liberties are being infringed upon. Even in theological circles, the matter raises its ugly head. When Reformed Christians begin speaking of God’s absolute sovereignty over a person’s life, death, and salvation, the Wesleyans wave the banner of libertarian freedom for the human will. And so the debates ensue.
But do we really even understand what it is that we are saying? There is no question that there are things we oppose, and with good reason, but is liberty and freedom the right plank to stand upon when taking a stand for one or more of these matters? In fact, do we even know what these words mean in the first place? True, we know the mantras. Patrick Henry is famous for proclaiming, “Give me liberty or give me death!” in the face of British oppression. We have a giant statue personifying liberty standing in the New York Harbor. As Americans, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” But if we do not understand what is meant by these statements, then the mantras become nothing more than repetitious slogans fit to adorn bumper-stickers and drink coasters and are useless when it comes to living out one’s life.
So, what is the definition of liberty and freedom? The dictionary defines liberty as “the state of being free within a society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s life, behavior, or political views” and “the power or scope to act as one pleases.”1 Liberty comes from the Latin word, libertas, which means “freedom or independence.” The word free is derived from the German word, frei, which has roots in the Indo-European word meaning, “to hold dear.”2
But what does this imply? If freedom means that I can do whatever I feel like doing, then a free society sounds more like an anarchy than something that would honor God. Surely there must be some qualifications placed on our liberty lest a free society become a horrific place to dwell.
To really understand the implications of these ideas, we need to begin by looking at the source of freedom and liberty, God himself. Though Jefferson was anything but an “evangelical Christian,” he did get one very fundamental idea correct…that is that we derive our “unalienable”3 rights from our creator — a creator who has these rights within his person in a perfect sense. God has perfect liberty, but does that mean that God’s liberty is absolute in the unlimited sense of the definition given above? Particularly for those who have grown up in a culture that has told them that “God can do anything…”, the answer to this question may be surprising. For God cannot do anything (he cannot lie, he cannot sin, he cannot cease to be God, he cannot cease to be perfect and infinite, he cannot make a bolder so large that he cannot move it, etc…). Instead, God can do anything that is consistent with his person and perfections.
You see, it is the perfection of God’s own character that limits his own liberty. That does not mean that God’s liberty is imperfect, far from it. The liberty to be chaotic and inconsistent is hardly a true liberty at all; instead, it is deprivation. In God’s perfect4 liberty, he acts in a way perfectly consistent with his attributes and perfections (His holiness, righteousness, joy, etc…). At the same time, his liberty is restrained by his character so it is expressed in a fashion consistent with his character and ethical norms (which flow out of his character).
Thus, while we often talk about our need for unlimited liberty in society, such liberty is no liberty at all, but chaos and anarchy. What is best for us is liberty that is constrained by an ethical norm, yet if this ethical norm is not outside of us as humans, it cannot provide a consistent norm within which we can enjoy our liberty. And, since human government is nothing more than a gathering of people exercising authority over other people, neither the individual nor the government can establish such norms — as mentioned before, anarchy is the result of the former and governmental oppression is the natural result of the latter. What is necessary is to appeal to a norm that is transcendent and greater than human existence who also is benevolent, not malicious, in his character.
With that in mind, then, true liberty becomes living in a way that is consistent with one’s character and personality (not under coercion or intimidation) but that is also in accord with an ethical standard established by God. In turn, when we pursue immoral ends, we sacrifice our liberty by degrees that are equivalent to the immorality that we have chosen to pursue. When Jefferson argued that we have the unalienable right to liberty, this is the sense by which he understood liberty (remembering that this liberty he speaks of is endowed upon us by our creator — if we share God’s liberty as a result of the Imago Dei, then our liberty must be of the same kind and category as our creator’s liberty). He sought to advocate for perfect liberty in contrast to unlimited liberty, which is no liberty at all.
Sadly, as a society, we have lost the vision set before us by our early American Fathers and our Christian Theological heritage. It is neither taught in school nor in church and then we stand and wonder why it is that our culture has gone astray and that moral chaos reigns in the culture. The book of Judges is an excellent commentary on American life today; when every man does what is right in his own eyes, the culture will fall into immorality and bondage. Christ has established the church to be the agent by which the culture is preserved (we are salt and light); yet, the message of the church has been anything but preservational. We have feared the culture rather than fearing for the culture (given the direction it is bent toward). And thus the church has tended to follow rather than to lead. And, with that in mind, it is well past time where we begin to step out and engage once again, bringing truth into dark places and the life-preserving salt of mercy to those in our midst. And in that, let us learn ourselves first what it means to exercise perfect liberty and then teach the world to do the same.
1 From the Oxford American Dictionaries.
2 Not surprisingly, the word “friend” also comes from this Indo-European root.
3 Unalienable means that something can neither be given up nor taken away. It is part of the very essence of the thing. Thus, were humans to no longer have these “unalienable rights” we would cease to be human. The only way that such a right can be part of our essential being is if we are made in the image of one who also has these rights (in an ultimate sense) as part of His essential being. As Christians, we refer to this as the Doctrine of the Imago Dei — we are made in the image of God and thus these rights that are perfectly found in God are also found in us, though in imperfect ways.
4 Notice that I am using the term, “perfect” and not, “unlimited” here.
Knowledge Without Understanding
It seems that we have an addiction to knowledge without an interest in understanding. We go to conferences and seminars but we return home and little ever changes. In the church, we hear sermon after sermon exhorting us to live this way or do that and, like a fad diet, we might try out a few suggestions for a day or two and then let it go by the wayside. We have become junkies for academic degrees but tend to divorce what we are learning from life. Game shows glamorize those who have memorized endless strings of facts with absolutely no emphasis placed on being able to apply or to interpret those facts in a way meaningful to life. As the early church father, Tertullian, lamented, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” Or perhaps, to put it in today’s vernacular: “What does real life have to do with book learning?”
In the world of Artificial Intelligence, there is a running debate over the question as to whether it is possible for a computer to “think.” In other words, can a computer ever be designed and built in such a way that it will be able to use inductive logic and make inferences based on new situations. Though the science-fiction community has been toying with the idea of thinking robots for quite some time, science-realty has not been able to produce such a machine. The simple reason is because no matter how fast or sophisticated the computer processor or the algorithms that make up the software, a computer is little more than a processor of information.
The Philosopher, John Searle, developed a useful analogy to help understand the limitations of computers. He described a man placed in a room that contained nothing but two books written in Chinese. There was also a slot where pages could be put in and a slot where pages could be sent back out. Imagine, he continued, that a man were put into the room that had never studied or even heard the Chinese language. The process would look something like this. A page of paper would be put in through the first slot that contained Chinese characters. The person in the room would then compare the characters on the paper to the characters in the first book. When he found the matching character, that book sent him to a page in the second book and then the man would write down the characters he found in the second book on a page of paper and send it back out the second slot.
Over time, one might expect that the man in the Chinese room would become proficient at his task and thus become both very swift and very accurate in his writing of the symbols. In fact, the man might become so proficient that he would no longer need to use the books as references. Yet, at no point will the man ever learn Chinese. The symbols themselves only carry meaning in terms of which symbol he is to write and not with the thing or idea that the symbol represents. And essentially, a computer chip is little more than a man in a Chinese box (just much smaller!).
Yet, as computer engineers seek to develop a computer that “thinks” more like a human thinks, humans are becoming conditioned to think more like computers…essentially as repositories of vast quantities of information but never applying that information to life. We gorge ourselves on information, but never slow down and reflect enough to incorporate all of the data we ingest into a unified system of thought and life.
The reality is that technology surrounds us and has become a part of our daily lives. While we can control our obsession with information, we cannot step away from the reality that information is a part of the DNA of our times. What we can do, though, is to better filter that information through a mature and unified worldview…one based upon the Scriptures of the Bible. All the while, always discerning how new ideas fit into the whole. If ideas are consistent with the fabric of the Bible then they should naturally fit into ones system of though; if not, it should be held in suspect while seeking to understand the Biblical ramifications of the new view. Is it corrective or destructive to the whole system? The one direction that we cannot afford to go, though, is the direction we are traveling…that of holding many contradictory ideas in tension, never unifying them in a system, but affirming any bit of information as equally valid and considering that knowledge of many things is more valuable than the understanding that comes from being able to apply those things to the whole.
The Problem of Thanksgiving for the Unbeliever
I suppose that I should make one qualification up front. And that is that I personally know a number of non-Christians who are very thankful people and who thoroughly enjoy the celebration of this American holiday. There can be no doubting the deep Christian roots of this event, but regardless of one’s faith (or lack thereof), there is much in life to be thankful for as Americans. I should also state up front that many people (Christians included) live out their lives holding to a variety of inconsistencies without paying them any mind or suffering as a result of said inconsistencies — such is the natural end of living in a post-modern world. My intent here is not so much to argue the merits of a thoroughly consistent worldview, but rather to raise the question of Thanksgiving for the atheist, assuming the value of a consistent worldview.
To begin with, there are several categories by which we may mark our thankfulness. The first, we could think of as “personal thankfulness,” which would reflect a certain sense of satisfaction for having made choices or having done something that brought benefits to your life. “I am so glad that I chose such-and-such a restaurant for dinner” or “I am thankful that I chose to strive for this goal” are the kinds of mental thoughts that would accompany this kind of thankfulness. This thankfulness is good and important, but I would suggest that it makes up a smaller percentage of the state of our thankfulness than one might initially think. Simply put, often that restaurant was suggested by a friend or we were helped to the particular goal by others and the timing was perfect for you to be successful. Thus, this kind of thankfulness often is at least partially dependent on events or persons outside of you as an individual.
And that, then, leads us to the second kind of thankfulness: thankfulness toward others. This reflects the kind of thankfulness that is directed towards another human being who has done something that has benefitted you. It might be a nice gift, but it also might be found in the form of advice, counsel, or even a rebuke. As I look back on my life, I am very thankful toward certain friends of mine who had the integrity to tell me that I was about to make a stupid mistake if I took this or that action. I might not have felt thankful at the moment, we seldom do when people speak truth to us, but over time, once my ego stopped swelling and my self-defense mechanisms returned to their proper place, I realized the wisdom of what was told to me and was thankful to have such friends.
Yet, again, this kind of thankfulness, while common to our experience, likely does not make up as large a proportion of our total thankfulness as we might think. The reality is that even in cases like this, there are still elements of providence (the atheist would likely call them coincidence) that are outside of the control of either you or the person toward whom you are thankful. For example, there are chance meetings that brought about conversations that led to the advice (or whatever) you happened to be given. And how did you make such a friendship? The singular friendship that I have maintained from my years at the University is that of a lady with whom I happened to get lost on campus. It seems that the two of us were given wrong information as to where a certain English class was to meet and we both ended up in the wrong corridor together at the same time. The typo on our course-lists, the fact that neither of us had received the correction (when most of the class did), and the timing by which we bumped into each other were all elements that were outside of our direct or indirect influence. I am thankful for all of these events because she and I have kept up correspondence over the years and have encouraged one another as we have both gone our separate ways in life. If we are honest as we survey the landscape of our experience, there are numerous such events that can be traced in our lives for which we are surely thankful. Again, some would call these things coincidence, from a Christian perspective, I choose to use the term “providence.”
Thus far, at least in the immediate sense of personal satisfaction and thankfulness to someone for kindness, there is no contradiction between the atheistic worldview and said thankfulness. In fact, were an atheist choosing not to be thankful for these things, one would have to draw the conclusion that something was wrong with the person’s thinking. Yet here is where the consistency comes to an end, for how is it that someone can direct their thankfulness toward someone (or something) in which he does not believe? Let me explain.
If I am given a gift, while I am thankful for the gift, I will typically express that thanks toward the one from whom the gift came (to do otherwise would be considered rude). That is easy enough to do when a friend or neighbor gives something to us, but what about when providence shines its face upon our lives? To whom (or to what) does the atheist express his thanks? Arguably, one of the reasons that ancient man began worshipping idols was to solve this dilemma. At least in the stone representation of that which his imagination dictated was the source of good things, one could then direct one’s thanksgiving. Yet, the atheist does not set up idols of wood or stone.
The likely answer to this dilemma that the modern atheist will bring to the table falls into one of two categories. One view is to argue that all things are determined by a sequence of cause and effects and thus these things took place and they could not have not taken place. This worldview is referred to as “fatalism” and is a form of deterministic approach. The atheist who holds to this view ought, then, be thankful for nothing (for what happened logically must have happened and could not have been otherwise) or recognize that their thankfulness also is simply a result of chemical interactions that are a result of causes (and again could not have been otherwise), thus making the idea of thankfulness devoid of meaning (it is simply an experience). Any discussion of thanksgiving, from a fatalistic perspective, reduces itself to meaningless absurdity and is thus neither internally consistent nor helpful if one is trying to be consistent with their worldview.
The second, and arguably more palatable, solution of the dilemma as to whom shall we express our thankfulness is to argue that what I am referring to as “providence” is nothing more than pure random chance and thus, I am not thankful to chance, but thankful for chance, in turn, never directing one’s thanksgiving toward someone or something. Yet, how can one be thankful for something that is purely random? Even the craps-shooter praises “Lady Luck” for his good-fortune with the dice. It is not that which is random that we are thankful for, but we are thankful for that which guides or superintends that which is perceived to be random. Granted that the atheist will likely counter that we simply perceive someone guiding “chance events,” but our perception is little more than a figment of our own imaginations. Certainly, the question as to whether God is a figment of our imagination or not is a discussion to be pursued, but not here because this response of the atheist is meant to do little more than to distract from the question at hand: can an atheist be thankful in a meaningful way while still being consistent within his atheism. The answer to the matter must be “no,” for thankfulness must be directed outside of oneself, particularly for the events and circumstances that we have no control over. I am thankful, for example, that I was born and raised in the United States of America in a middle-class home with a family who loved me. This very fact has afforded me opportunities that I would not have had were circumstances different. Yet there is not one aspect of these circumstances that I can say that I had any control over. I might thank my parents for loving me and for their choice to reside in America, but their choice to do so was also based on events that were outside of their sphere of influence (where there were jobs, etc…).
So, where does that lead us? No, I do not expect a run of atheists coming into the church, giving up their unbelief, and accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior because their worldview has inconsistencies. Sure, it could happen, but that would be a work of the Holy Spirit, not the work of a logical argument. In addition, it should be noted that Christians are not the only ones who can appeal to this kind of argument, any religious institution that envisions their gods interacting with the lives of men can appeal in similar ways. My purpose is to appeal to what I believe is an inward desire that we each have — and that is to have a worldview that is consistent with experience, reason, and itself. I have had atheists say to me, “I am thankful for my inconsistency,” but deep down, is that a very satisfying way to live? Is intellectual inconsistency either satisfying or something to thank oneself for? I would suggest it is not and would counter that intellectual consistency is not only satisfying, but it is something we desire deep down (and ought to because we are made in the image of a God who is perfectly consistent with himself).
Bread and Circuses
Let me paint a picture for you of a culture where the Senate ruled over the people and the “commoners” had little say over what laws were enacted in the land. The culture that I am describing was one where many flocked to the cities of jobs, though they would only earn poverty level wages. Healthcare was available, but only for those who had the wealth to afford it; most suffered under whatever folk remedies happened to be available. Infectious disease was rampant in the poor sections of the cities and the government did little more than turn a blind eye to their situation. About the only thing that the society could expect in terms of assistance was a little bit of free grain and free tickets to an occasional arena even — “bread and circuses.”
I am trusting that this description sounds fairly familiar, but I am not talking about our own society, but am instead talking about the first century Roman empire. For the elite, it was a comfortable time in history: there was art, culture, relative order in the empire, abundant access to wealth, and there was rule of law to keep the “rabble” in their place. For the poor, it was a life of hard labor, starvation, and death. The bread was meant to keep the poor working and the tickets to the games was meant to keep the poor from revolting — the ancient precursor to television, one might argue. And it is into this world that God chose to send his Son, taking on flesh and living not amongst the rich, but amongst the poor.
It has been said that compassion is a character trait that is learned, not one that is natural to us. Our default is typically to take care of “ol’ number one” first and others second. If that is the case, and I think that there is merit to the idea, then the ultimate teacher of compassion is God himself. In both Hebrew and Greek, the same word is used to describe both compassion and mercy, and that is what God was doing when he sent his Son to come into this world, to live amongst us, and to die to atone for our sins.
But the question of compassion must not end with the compassion of God. We need to ask the question as to whether or not we have learned compassion from His example. You see, compassion cannot be modeled by the pagan gods, which are made of wood and stone — they neither move nor see nor hear, so how can they extend compassion to any? Compassion cannot be modeled by the gods of nature, for nature is cruel and only the strong survive. And compassion is not modeled by the god of the atheist, for their god is their own mind and reason, thus any action taken will be self-serving. If the God of Christianity, then, has modeled compassion to us, shouldn’t then we who have received the compassion of God also be the most compassionate people in the world?
In ancient Rome, that became the case. One of the first things that Christians did in ancient Rome was to establish hospitals that welcomed all, rich and poor. These hospitals were staffed with doctors, pharmacists, teachers for the children, caretakers for orphans, nurses, people to care for lepers, surgeons, cooks, priests, laundry women, and pallbearers. Never in the history of the world had such institutions been established and the Roman elites looked at the Christians and just did not understand why believers were doing what believers were doing. And Christianity thrived even in an empire where professing Christians were persecuted and sentenced to death within those circuses that everyone attended.
Something has happened though. Today, it would seem, Christians are often seen as self-serving and insulated from the pain and misery of the world around them. Pagans no longer shake their heads in disbelief at the compassion we are willing to show to the poor and suffering, but describe Christians as being just as “self-seeking” as the next group of people.
So what is the solution? The solution is not to win more political elections and gain power to enact laws to protect the “Christian way of life.” Such laws are not bad, but legislation cannot transform a culture. The early Christians turned Rome inside out without ever getting a seat in the Roman Senate. The early Christians turned Rome on its head by sacrifice and compassion for those in need. If we, as modern Christians, desire to see America turned on its head, this is the model that God himself has set for us — radical compassion, grace, and mercy. Such is what God demonstrated when he sent Christ to us as a baby in that manger and such is the kind of compassion that we ought to emulate as we live our lives amongst a people who reject the truth for which we stand.
The Culture Wars
In Christian circles, we talk a lot about the culture wars and at least vaguely, I think, most people have some sense of what is meant by that. As we look around us, the western culture has grown more secular and less markedly “Christian” as a whole and the culture war is the crusade that many have engaged themselves in to turn back the cultural influence toward one that is more markedly Christian. And, as one who has spoken and written on the importance of Christians living out their faith in every aspect of life (both inside of the church and outside of the church), this cause is one toward which I am very sympathetic. Having said that, can we talk?
First of all, I am not entirely convinced that we are going about things the right way in terms of what we are trying to achieve. Is it the culture we are called by Jesus to redeem or is it the people we are called to evangelize? One might respond that both go hand in hand, and they do, but which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The group that would broadly be defined as leading the culture war would argue that as we see a change in the culture, we will see a change in the people. There is a certain degree of truth to this line of thinking as it would seem that most people will go with the flow and do what is acceptable to the culture.
When the “Blue Laws” were in place, people’s lives revolved around church because there was little else to do. There is no question as to the sociological benefit of these laws as even the most basic moral teaching of the Bible affects people’s lives and behavior. Yet, when the Blue Laws were repealed, church attendance dropped, which indicates that the percentage who left were only there because of the cultural expectations upon them and not because they had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus did say that in the final judgment there will be many who will cry out, “Lord, Lord!” and to whom Jesus will say, “Get away from me, I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). So, did the “Christianization” of the culture build the church? The church as an institution perhaps was built up, but the word “Church,” in a Biblical sense, normally refers to a body of believers that have been called out from the world and into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Arguably, then, the church was not built up by simply existing within a Christian culture.
It should be noted that we use the term “culture” in a variety of different ways. In addition, we talk about cultures and sub-cultures within a given culture. There are also various “cultural expressions” that people may embrace as well as the “culture” of certain pieces of music, art, or literature. In addition, when you are sick and go to the doctor, he or she may take a swab and apply it to the back of your throat to take a “culture” to see what kind of bacteria may be developing in your body. So, when we talk about a “Culture War,” what kind of culture are we talking about and is that even the proper term that we ought to be throwing about?
Typically, when speaking of a “Culture War,” we are referring (as do sociologists) to those shared norms, ethics, linguistic expressions, histories, folk-stories, values, and beliefs that bind a group of people together. We might talk broadly of the “Western” culture that has been dominated by the thought of the Greek Philosophers and Latin thinkers, the European Renaissance, and the Christian religion (as this was the dominant influence in the development of Europe for well over 1,000 years.
We might narrow the discussion down further and talk about the “American” culture or even about the evangelical sub-culture within America, but bottom line, it still gets back to these shared beliefs and histories that bind a people together. But how do these beliefs get propagated? Certainly they are not innate as cultural expression varies widely throughout the world. They are taught then, by one generation to the next, either intentionally or unintentionally, by those who hold said beliefs. And unless one makes a deliberate effort to “break out” of a cultural norm, that culture will continue into another generation.
Interestingly enough, the word “culture” comes from that Latin term colere, which means “to cultivate or tend,” and was originally used to describe the way that a farmer would work the ground and tend to the crops that he has planted. This is a valuable note because there is nothing unintentional about the way a field is cultivated. The farmer chooses how he prepares and fertilizes the plot of land, the kinds of seeds that are sown, and the way those plants are tended and harvested. Similarly, culture is created by those within the community.
Yet, if culture is created by those within the community, does the idea of a “culture war” really make any sense at all? It presents a picture of workers in a field warring over which seeds to plant — one side fighting to plant corn and the other fighting to plant wheat. Does it not make more sense to focus on changing the hearts of the planters?
Prejudice is one of the things that people have been trying hard to change in our culture (and rightly so). And in many areas, the work has been very successful. But what is bringing the most success? Is it laws that are written outlawing prejudice or is it people’s hearts being changed and choosing not to propagate the prejudices of their parents in the lives of their children? I would suggest that the latter is the tactic being used with success. I would also suggest that the families where people marry across ethnic lines is where you will see the most pronounced removal of the prejudices because hearts change when people are in fellowship with one another.
Does this mean that Christians should not engage the culture? Of course not, we are called to tear down the strongholds of Satan in this world (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). As Christians, we should express the faith that we hold in every area of life. That being said, we will not fulfill the Great Commission by once again having Christian thought and principles dominate the cultural norm; the Great Commission needs to be fulfilled by discipling people. And for people to be discipled, their hearts must first be changed by the power of the Gospel.
One final note on this line of thinking from the five years that I taught Bible in a Christian Academy. It was amazing how often I had students who could answer all of the questions correctly on a Bible or a Worldview test but when left on their own, would live as an unbeliever. The culture at the Christian School was intentionally Christian. The curriculum was also designed to foster a Christian worldview. As teachers and administrators, we had won the “Culture War” at our school (at least on the surface). Yet, we had many kids who could live in the Christian culture, yet were not being discipled because the Christian culture was not the culture that they had embraced as their own. The solution for the school environment was not to institute more rules or to offer more Christian “cultural” experiences. The solution is to get to the heart of the student and apply the Gospel in the hopes and prayers that God would regenerate their dead hearts and give them life.
The school tends to be a microcosm of the community and the Christian school is a microcosm of a community that is dominated by Christian culture. If we aim to change hearts by changing the visible culture, we will likely lose both. Yet, when hearts are changed, the culture will be changed by default. The “Culture War” as described is at best a crusade that will change small pockets of life — we may take the promised land by force, but for how long will it be held? Instead, let us wage war against the powers and principalities of Satan, seeking to evangelize the hearts of men, for this will be the “Holy War” that will bring long-lasting and spiritual fruit.
So what makes a friend a friend? And when I speak of friends, I am not thinking of those we might casually refer to in that way, but those with whom you have a close and enduring bond — a bond that is strengthened, not weakened by trials and difficulties and with whom love is the only right word to describe the affection that you have for one another. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties, I used to describe this kind of friend as one who you would trust with your car, your girlfriend, and your credit card. Now that I am older, I would describe such a person as the kind of person that I am content simply being with in life together…you know, the kind of person that it doesn’t really matter if you are doing something in particular, but simply being together is enough. It is the kind of person with whom you can disagree and it doesn’t really matter because your relationship is not established on points of common opinion, but instead is built on life together.
It is the kind of relationship that Sherlock Holmes is portrayed as having with John Watson; the mysteries that Doyle wrote about simply provided the backdrop; what made the stories was the relationship between these two men — these two friends. While this is the kind of friendship we ought to have with our spouses, it is often not limited to our spouses. It is the kind of friendship we ought to have with our families, though families often fall short and it is typically not limited to family relationships. And, this is the relationship we ought to strive for with other Christians, though such relationships are often had outside of the church. And, it is a relationship that typically is built over time, while going through the ups and especially through the downs of life together. If our lives are described as part of the tapestry of history, these friends would be the strands that not only are intertwined with our own but also whose color so blends with ours that at a glance, the two threads almost appear to be one.
I have been doing my devotions of late in the scripture passages that deal with the life of Abraham. And what strikes me as remarkable is that despite the messiness of his life and despite his failures and sins, Abraham is not only called the father of the faithful (Romans 4:11-12,16; Galatians 3:7), but Abraham is also called “Friend of God” (Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). Scripture tells us that God spoke to Moses face to face as one speaks with a friend (Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 34:10) and Jesus says to his disciples at the last supper, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15), but it is Abraham that history has marked off as the one having such a relationship with God that he is called “friend of God.”
So, what marked Abraham’s relationship in this way? Certainly this was God’s design, but what can we learn about this friendship that can be applied to our relationships with each other and to our relationship with God? The first thing that we should note is that while God was always faithful on “his end” of the friendship, Abraham was not. Yet, Abraham’s failures did not compromise the friendship he had with God. We should secondly note that their friendship was not defined by the destination or by the promise. Abraham spent nearly his entire relationship with God as a wanderer in the land of Canaan and Egypt. He knew that God had promised him the land, but he also knew that it would be distant ancestors that would actually inherit the promise after spending more than 400 years in Egypt (Genesis 15:13-14). Abraham would die long before the promise was fulfilled. In fact, Abraham received the initial call from God to leave the land of Ur prior to receiving the promise that God would make his descendants a great nation (Acts 7:2-4). It would only be in connection with the call to leave Haran after his father’s death, that the covenantal promise was given (Genesis 12:1-3). We might suggest that the friendship was strengthened by the covenant and promise of God, but clearly it did not begin with these things.
If I were to speculate, I think that it would also be safe to say that Abraham’s relationship was also not based on common likes and dislikes or on common experiences. Certainly Abraham disliked many of the things that God dislikes and it is true that God enters into our experiences as we are in relationship with him, but this still seems to be a superficial place to ground our understanding of this very special friendship. There is no questions that these things, whether experiences or the covenant, were part of the maturing of this friendship (at least on Abraham’s side), but they do not seem to be the essence of the relationship.
I would suggest that the essence of the friendship that Abraham had with God was not in knowing where they were going or how they would get there, but in knowing that they were going in that direction together. And I think that this principle applies to our friendships with other humans as well. We began not by asking about Abraham’s relationship with God, but with the question of what makes a friend a friend — or, what distinguishes the deep and genuine friendships from the casual (and often superficial) friendships that we have. The answer is that those deep friendships are built not so much upon what we do, but upon doing it together — even when we are not doing anything in particular.
God could have taken Abraham on a trek that extended across the breadth of Africa or into the mountains of Tibet and it would not have mattered so long as they were making the trip together. Sherlock Holmes, apart from John Watson, was depressed and bored with life, even to the extent of experimenting with mainlining cocaine to free him from his boredom. It was Watson who kept Holmes grounded, focused, and (in most cases) clean from his drug use. It was nothing Watson did, it was Watson’s mere presence. Husbands and wives often do many romantic things as they are building their relationship, but ultimately there comes a point (because life otherwise gets in the way and struggles arise), where they are forced to realize that what really matters is not so much those romantic episodes, but that they are living life together, facing trials together, hurting together, and loving together.
Moses said to God that what made God’s people distinct from all of the other nations of the earth was his presence with them (Exodus 33:16). That indeed is true of the church in a corporate sense and of Christians in a personal sense, but that is also true of friendship as well. What makes your friendship with me genuine friendship is your presence with me and vice-versa. The deepest friendships are marked by presence — a presence that is needed, desired, and even yearned for — and as a result of that common presence, our stories become so intertwined together that from a distance they almost seem to be one and inseparable.
Cogito Ergo Sum
Descartes made his famous statement, “I think; therefore, I am,” to communicate what he held to be the most fundamental and irrefutable truth: his thought about whether or not he existed was proof that he did exist. He argued that everything else could be an illusion, but that this was the one principle that he could not deny. He would go on to argue that logically, the only way we can have any confidence that the things we believe to be true are true is to posit the existence of a good and all-powerful God, for without such a God, one could logically have no confidence that what he perceived was not part of a grand deception. In addition, combining elements of Anselm’s Ontological Argument and Aquinas’ Proof from Degrees, he posited that the idea of an all-powerful good God was inherently greater than that of an all-powerful demon, it must be that of an all-powerful God of good that we ought to expect to be in reality.
Whether one is compelled by Descartes’ logic or not, my purpose here is to raise the question about existence and non-existence in relationship to God’s creation. God, of course, is the one self-existent being that was necessary to bring into being all that is. Prior to God’s work of creation he existed in perfect blessedness and in perfect relationship within his Triune self. His creation was done not because of a need within him that had to be filled; his creation was done as a revelation of his glory and he created us to be in fellowship with him so that we might enjoy the fullness of his glory.
One of the key elements in medieval logic, that drove Anselm, Aquinas, and Descartes was the principle that existence is greater than non-existence. For most of us, that seems to be more or less a common sense position as a pound of meat in the hand of a hungry man is more valuable to him than the idea of a pound of meat. Yet, later on, there would be philosophers like Immanuel Kant who would challenge that notion, arguing that existence is not so much a quality of something that could be found cumulative with other qualities, thus making that which existed better than that which did not exist, but that existence simply was a reflection of an item’s state of being. It either does or it does not exist, with no value statement assigned either way.
Despite Kant’s insistence to the contrary, I would put forward that the medieval view that existence is greater than non-existence is closer to the Biblical standard. Certainly a God who does exist eternally and is self-existent beyond the created order is greater than one who exists only in our imaginations, for who then brought creation into being? The naturalist would argue that nature is self-existent and has always existed, but nature is un-thinking and un-reasoning and how could an unthinking and unreasoning entity produce such uniform design throughout the cosmos? From the smallest genome to the largest stellar body, complex design is evident and design demands a reasoning designer. Hence, there logically must be one who is self-existent and transcendent from nature from whom nature receives its design — once again returning us to the necessity of a self-existent God who is existent.
As we then reflect on the nature of this self-existent God, we must first note that the God of the Christian Bible is the only God that fits the description of being both transcendent and self-existent. The Hindu gods, for example, are part of the created order and are not considered to be self-existent. Similarly, one can say the same of the many spirits worshiped in various forms of shamanism and new-age philosophy. In each case, the gods are understood to exist within the natural order, not outside of it. The one potential exception to this would be Islam, which holds to a transcendent god, yet their god presents himself as a great deceiver, which of course would eliminate him from being a candidate for being absolutely “good.” Thus, as Descartes points out, without an absolutely good God, we can know nothing for sure — even the faithful Muslim will have to confess that he does not have any confidence as to whether he will go to heaven or enter into judgment. The Christian Bible would go further in its claim about a god who is a deceiver and clearly point out that he is the Devil (John 8:44) or serves the devil (2 John 7).
Thus, if the Christian God is the only candidate for a transcendent and self-existent God, we will use the Bible (God’s self-revelation) to be our rule for understanding the characteristics of this God — namely that he is not only all-powerful and self-existent, but that he is all-knowing. This attribute is essential to our discussion of existence and non-existence. For, when we state that God is all-knowing, that means that God can learn nothing — he knows and has always known from the beginning all that will ever take place. This is a position that even most Wesleyans and Calvinists can find agreement on. The Wesleyan would argue that God knows all things because he is outside of time and thus looks down upon the whole of time and observes the events of man from beginning to end, a view popularized by the philosopher Boethius. The Calvinist would argue that God knows all things because he has ordained them to take place, a view that is arguably more consistent with Paul’s use of terms like election and predestination in his epistles.
Thus, regardless of which side you may fall on the Reformed/Calvinistic vs. Wesleyan/Arminian debate, there is agreement that God knows all things within orthodox Christianity. God knows all things and in turn, can learn nothing. The implication of this is that before God entered into the act of creation, the idea of his creation and of all created history existed in his mind. Surely, were God to have thought like Kant, there would have been no need to create, for existence and non-existence are simply states of being, not qualities of value. Instead, God does not simply let the idea of a created order exist in his mind, but he chooses to create and bring into existence all that is known.
This raises an interesting thought. While there was nothing lacking within God to cause him to create, it may be suggested that there is something lacking in non-existence. The lack is not in a sinful way, for sin did not enter into the world until the fall and sin can certainly not abide in the presence of a holy God, but the principle that existence is better than non-existence implies that that which exists in reality is better than that which exists only in the mind. Thus, in creating, God redeems non-existence by bringing creation into being. In a very real sense, this makes the entire creation account a redemption story. God begins by redeeming non-existence by making it exist then continues by addressing the formlessness and void. God redeems the formlessness by giving it order in the first three days of creation and then redeems emptiness by filling it in the latter three days of creation. Existence to non-existence, order to disorder, and fullness to emptiness, God redeems each and makes them “good.”
Turning the Model Around: Mentoring Evangelism
For about 5 years I have been teaching High School students how important it is to have a mentor and how to go about seeking someone to mentor them. We talk about setting goals, knowing what you would like to achieve, and about looking for a man or woman who has achieved those goals already who might be willing to serve as a mentor. We also talk a great deal about the character of the person sought as a mentor and how that character reflects that person’s commitment to Christ. And we also talk about how to approach such a candidate for mentoring purposes without making that person feel like they are tying themselves into a long-term relationship.
All of this is fine and good. We need mentors at every level—I seek out mentors myself. Of late, though, I have realized that I have concentrated primarily on the ascending relationship of finding mentors and that I have not focused much on looking downward (if you will allow me the analogy)—the looking for someone to mentor. And, to be more specific than that, as a Christian leader, I have been reflecting on the principle of looking for people to mentor for the express purpose of evangelism, not just to replicate the successes you have had in the lives of others.
Usually, as we walk though life, we are all pretty self-centered. Sorry to offend if I have stepped on toes, but all of us can be pretty-self serving if left to our own devices. We want people to mentor us so that we can get ahead in business or in other personal goals. We even want to mentor others so that we can replicate ourselves in them…sometimes even living vicariously through the person we have sought to mentor. We do it as Christians and we even do it in the Christian church. How often we attract people to the church by attracting them to the pastor (his messages, his vision, etc…). I am suggesting that the model needs to be rethought.
The Apostle Paul told the church that they should seek to imitate him, but he did not end there. Paul said that the church should imitate him so that they may imitate Christ as they see Christ in him (1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). In addition, both Paul and the writer of Hebrews affirmed that we ought to watch believers who are more mature than we are to learn about Christ from them (Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 13:7). The principle is that we attract to ourselves with the purpose of turning to Christ.
So, what model am I proposing? To begin with, I propose a mentoring model that is driven from the top, not from the bottom. Highly motivated people will always seek out mentors above them; those who are Christians and leaders in the community ought to start aggressively looking for those they would like to mentor and then invest time and resources into that person. Take them out to lunch several times, learn their goals and aspirations, and build a relationship with that young man or young woman. Then, use that relationship as an opportunity to evangelize those who you are mentoring.
To take that and apply that to a church context, pastors ought not stop at attracting people to themselves, but should attract people to themselves for the purpose of pointing people not only to Christ but also to those in the congregation who are mature in their faith. Thus the pastor functions as one who creates mentoring opportunities between two others within his congregational context.
To a degree, churches that are building small groups are accomplishing something like this model—groups of people living life together. I am not knocking small groups, they are necessary for building community, but where the small group model can fall short is in two ways. First, small groups typically do not exist to spawn other small groups; the purpose of a small group is to live life-on-life together in a relationship that grows deep over a long period and is not necessarily focused on growing wide. The small group model essentially takes a group of people who are at roughly the same point in their spiritual walk and grows them together. Sometimes small groups will grow and spin off other small groups; this happens best as an organic division (a younger leader is rising up and is ready to “spread his wings”) and not as a programmed split (if you tell people that they will be part of this small group for two years and then split off, the relationships will never grow vulnerable, transparent, or deep).
Mentoring, though has a different goal in its sights. Mentoring’s purpose is to take someone and assist them in reaching a specific goal. There are markers and the relationship is designed to be temporary. My role as a mentor, typically, is to help identify untapped potential in you and to help you grow in your gifts to a certain end; either to accomplish a specific goal I have already achieved or to exceed the plateau that I have reached. Mentoring relationships are deep, but in a very limited respect in that the depth is focused not on life in general, but upon the specific goal and purpose that is in sight.
The second area in which the small group model sometimes falls short is that small groups can become disconnected from other small groups within the church body—especially when the church is larger. There may be unity within groups “x” and “y” respectively, but many times, not unity between those in groups “x” and “y.” Some of this “inter-group” unity can be achieved through group projects or if co-workers, family, or friends are spread between multiple small groups. Also, said connections can be found when people in various small groups serve in the larger church fellowship—fellow Sunday School teachers, on the music team, etc…
Yet, to use the analogy that Paul employs in 1 Corinthians 12, the body is not made up of a bunch of isolated parts or parts that only occasionally come together. In the body, all of the parts exist organically together and in harmony. We are accustomed to reflecting on this passage in terms of individuals, but the analogy also applies to small groups. The reality is that none of us are a hand or a foot or a kidney unto ourselves, but we are individual cells that are part of the hand, foot, or kidney. In a small group model, the groups as a whole are the body parts and need a means by which they can be bonded together. The “coming together” of the church body on Sunday is part of that equation, but body parts do not occasionally come together; they exist together in connection as a whole.
The model that I am suggesting pictures the church body as a giant, interconnected network—a giant constellation per say—where everyone is connected to one or two mentors and one or two people they are mentoring. This is not meant as a replacement for small groups, but an addition to. To continue with the body analogy, the network of mentoring relationships being like the network of nerves or capillaries that transport life-giving blood to every body part and provide an inter-connected network by which the small groups never become isolated from the whole. And that the mentoring process be used for the intentional purpose of evangelism and discipling (Great Commission) as well as be designed to grow intentionally outward into the community around us and not inward. In other words, while typically small groups exist to serve the church, the mentoring network not only connects the church parts internally, but connects the church externally to the community.
If this model is done well, you will even find mentoring relationships between local church bodies. This is not for the purpose of stealing people from one local fellowship to another, but to build up the kingdom. Remember, Christ has one body (now we are applying this to inter-Church relationships), there needs to be an interconnectivity between Bible believing churches that runs deeper than the local pastors’ association. Surely we would all agree that any one of our towns or cities are large enough that no one church is big enough to effectively be salt and light for the whole. Getting on mission means getting out and being that witness in our community, but it also means that those who are not against us are for us (Mark 9:40; Luke 9:50).
In this context, part of the role of the pastor is to know existing members well enough that new people to the church can be introduced not only to small groups, but to members that will reach out to them and provide them with mentoring. Also, it is his job to know the community well enough that he can connect mature Christians in his church to those who could use mentoring (and evangelization) in the community…kind of like a spiritual match-making service (though I detest the analogy).
It should be noted that this model is almost impossible to monitor. In a church that is large enough to support a connectional pastor, perhaps he can facilitate such relationships, but for most of us who pastor either single or small-staff churches, it is not realistically feasible to know who is mentoring whom throughout your church network. At the same time, that is the organic nature of the church. We are not simply a mechanical organization with rules and guidelines that can be easily charted, but we are a living and breathing entity—structured indeed, we are not a blob from outer-space—and just as a medical doctor does not always know everything that is going on within you, but will have a good sense of your overall health, so too the pastor and leadership of the church will have a sense of what is going on, but may not be able to map out the ever changing network of mentoring relationships.
Yet, is this not the relationship we find in the Bible and in the early church (one where having large buildings and facilities was not possible ala Roman law). Barnabas saw what God was doing in Paul and facilitated Paul’s connection with the Apostles in Jerusalem. Paul identified Timothy for the purpose of mentoring him. Timothy was instructed to find others to mentor who would hold fast to the faith handed down from person to person, generation to generation. We are part of that giant mentoring network through history and mentoring happens within our churches in ways that none of us are aware. But where I believe our churches need to go is to the next step where we become intentional about creating the network of mentoring relationships inside and outside of our church body with a specific aim of evangelizing those whom we have sought out to mentor.