26 April 2016

competing for allegiance

the stuff of earth 
competes for the allegiance
I owe only to the
Giver of all good things

rich mullins

In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul is discussing the church and spiritual gifts. He more or less interrupts himself in this discussion to talk about that which is greater than everything else – love. He does not disparage spiritual gifts, or say that they no longer have relevance in the church. But he recognizes that he is speaking to a community of believers that have perhaps put too much emphasis on spiritual gifts, especially those gifts that have an outward appeal.

What happens in the church when the community becomes overly focused on the gifts of the Spirit is the emergence of a self-serving and individualistic Christianity. When we are more interested with the gift than we are with the Giver, then our faith has certainly taken a wrong turn. This, I believe, is why the apostle Paul takes the opportunity to emphasize love as the most excellent way. He will say, in 1 Corinthians 13, that spiritual gifts and service without genuine love is nothing more than the reverberations of a hallow vessel.

So much for spiritual gifts, and it might be easy for me to think that I do not overemphasize them in my own life. Is this because I have truly achieved a certain amount of spiritual success, or because I am too willing to allow this discussion to be left at the doorstep of somebody else's problem rather than opening my own heart to the Spirit's conviction? Am I satisfied with my compliance with scripture because I see more of the speck in my brother's eye, ignoring the plank in my own?

If I were to widen out this discussion, I might wonder how many times in my own life I have focused on the gift more than the Giver. Maybe I think I am safe because I do not think about speaking in tongues, nor do I boast in my placement as a teacher and preacher. But what about the other areas in my life where I do not adequately recognize God's provision? I seem to be prone to live in such a way as to see only the gifts around me, and critique them as though I am in a position of authority over the goodness in my life. And so I see that I become focused on the goodness he has placed around me, discovering that this is the reason why I can be so devoid of love.

This is the reality to which the poet was pointing: the stuff of earth competes for the allegiance I owe only to the giver of all good things. I have been summoned to a wholehearted commitment on this path of faith, what Eugene Peterson has called a long obedience in the same direction. But if the most excellent way for my journey is to love, then I must be connected to the source of love, because my life is not able to love in the manner to which I have been called. I cannot embody what passages like 1 Corinthians 13 describe, unless I make room in my heart for the Spirit to convict, inspire, and lead me forward.

If I am to do this, then I must recognize that the stuff of earth must be cleared out of my life, and I often feel as though my Creator is more-than-eager to help me with the purging. The Giver knows that his stuff, no matter how good and blessed, is no comparison to himself – and that is what I truly need. And he also knows that for me to embrace this sort of love is too hard a thing to ask of me, for I am too broken and preoccupied and weak. So, he asks me to do the only thing that I can do – he bids me come and die. It is only then that a new life can begin within me, and I can embark on this way of love.

This is a struggle in my own heart, and it leads to further heartbreak when I look around and see a world that is so consumed with the stuff of earth. I live in a politicized world, where stuff is thrust into the middle of the conversation, as though it were the most important thing. It is why I see so many in the church lowering their eyes to the powers that be today, instead of lifting their eyes to the hills. And the drive for stuff, especially among the people of God (who should know better), has succeeded in pushing out the divine presence from our midst, for we have given our allegiance to the gift over the Giver of all good things.

22 April 2016

The Sickness unto Death – a brief reflection

"Sin is – after being taught by a revelation from God what sin is – before God in despair not to will to be oneself or in despair to will to be oneself" (Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death).

I felt as though this post should begin with this statement, not because I think that Kierkegaard is right without challenge or nuance in what he said, but that it is a definition of sin that speaks to the gaps in our modern understanding. It is good for us to place a definition of sin in front of us, since it appears that ours is a culture that is quickly losing its ability to tell its right hand from its left.

In his book, Kierkegaard works through an understanding of despair, but I am not interested in reviewing that here. The piece I wish to point to is his emphasis that sin happens before God. Interestingly, his words contrast the "older dogmatics" with the newer trends of a spiritual life. The same contrast remains true for us today, though with slightly different nuance. But sin is what happens as a result of our actions before God. Our inability to recognize sinful thoughts or behavior is thus connected to our recognition of life before our Creator.

It is easy to escape the dark clouds – the guilt – of sin by ignoring the presence of the Almighty. If we do not wish to make the demands of the gospel too much for our neighbors, then we simply do not speak about those things that are bothersome. And this is how humanity can be free from despair, and uninhibited by the weight of an external conscience. After all, we can all make decisions for ourselves, and there is no point in us living an unhappy and frustrated life.

This problem is not confined to the world, we now see the fruits of a generation of believers who have been told that sin is outdated and outmoded. Even among those who can give lip service to the theoretical presence of sin, there is a diminishing number in the church who would dare advocate for a universal standard of truth. In short, we no longer speak about sin – to ourselves or anybody else – because we no longer understand sin. This is where Kierkegaard's definition needs to be inserted: a reminder that our lives, every piece, are lived before the Almighty.

As a result of the Fall heaven and earth have been pulled apart. This isn't a geographic statement, as many people think of today, but rather a spiritual reality as consequence of sin. Of course, we need simply to remind ourselves that the sin in the garden was a willing rejection of God that took place before God. The fusion of heaven and earth that was intended by the Creator was now severed, and humanity is now cut-off from the divine presence. We no longer see God on our own, and we thus fail in our memory that we are still before God in our lives.

There are various concepts and definitions of sin that float around our world. Some of these are helpful, and some of them are stupid; some help us catch God's revelation of himself, while others are simply ways of escaping the burden of despair. Those who do not have God in their lives are not bothered by the notion of sin. Perhaps the church, somewhere along the way, became jealous of this perceived freedom, and decided that we too would be unbothered (with the additional benefit of putting away the unpopular suggestions that the church was too overbearing).

Thus, we have become a people who, by and large, have given up one freedom for another – forsaking liberty from our sin in exchange for a happy relief that we simply don't have to think about sin anymore. In this way sin may be likened to a cancer: ignoring the sickness does not make it disappear from the body, one must embark on the long and difficult road of treatment to eradicate the problem. The church in our culture is trying to ignore the presence of sin because we want to avoid the trouble (and embarrassment) of dealing with it. And as we do so we move further away from the presence of God, before whom we live and move and have our being.

Our way back is found in our coming before God once again, acknowledging the truth that he is the Creator of all things, and that we exist for his pleasure. Our despair at life is the means by which we can know that he has called us, and that we were made for a purpose that transcends the shallowness of an unspiritual life. Our despair leads us to his presence, and we must make a choice of whether we will seek self-gratifying pleasures that will cover up the longing, or if we will embrace the hurting, confess the sin that we carry out before God, and receive his new life.

The final piece to this that must be acknowledged is best taken in Kierkegaard's own words: "Very often, however, it is overlooked that the opposite of sin is by no means virtue. In part, this is a pagan view, which is satisfied with a merely human criterion and simply does not know what sin is, that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith, as it says in Romans 14:23: 'whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.' And this is one of the most decisive definitions for all Christianity – that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith."

Our warring culture is the result of trying to advance our own vices and virtues. The stark truth of life is that nothing we bring is good enough, for we are a broken humanity living in a broken world. Our world needs the external character of holiness to break in and give to us a way forward. Indeed, that holiness has come, but we are failing to surrender ourselves to the truth of the gospel, which bids us come and die. Even the best of our virtue falls short of the glory of God, causing us to lose sight of our Creator, and leading us down the path of self-destruction. Indeed, ours looks like a world that can no longer see God at the center, and is thereby blind to the wreckage of individualism.

21 April 2016

the splendor of holiness

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

I was moved by these words not long ago, for I believe it to be both a sentiment that lifts our eyes to heaven, and also a challenge that will shake even the most sincere and faithful worshiper. The psalmist knew this also, which is why the elegant opening line is quickly followed by the admonition for the earth to tremble before the presence of the Almighty. In Hebrew poetry couplets interpret one another, and that is what is intended with this verse. To worship is to come into the presence, and to come into the presence is to be found quivering before a great intensity.

Together these two lines form an imperative verse: it is a command to come and worship, but not to make the mistake of Cain and offer whatever is most convenient and self-satisfying. In worship we come before the divine presence, and we enter into holiness – something we might wish for, but that we can never truly achieve for ourselves. Images of holiness are quite unsettling, for they make us aware of the chasm that lies between humanity and its Creator. From our vantage point holiness, among other things, is otherness.

Whenever humanity catches a glimpse of divinity, in dramatic outpourings or whispered prayers, we are left trembling, for this is the natural state of the world. Angels must always quiet the composure of those they greet, offering assurances that all is well. Those who worship are summoned to this reality on their own, to join all of creation in finding their proper posture before the throne. This is a challenge that, if we truly understood what was being asked of us, will leave us, at first, trembling.

It has become commonplace for the church to gather in worship, though centered around style and genre and performance and convenience. And these are equally applied across the whole of our gatherings, with unsophisticated and uncouth critique of all things, masked with the thin veil of self-centered spiritual speak. We think little of our coming together as an assembly of the saints, for that sounds overly pious, and we'd rather not have to change our lifestyles to accommodate a few moments with others.

And so, I am afraid, we have lost the sense of beauty in our worship, in spite of how masterful the music, how elegant the space, or how mystifying the message. We have lost the sense of beauty when we decided that our lives would be acceptable as they are, because we think that's all that God ever wanted from us in the first place. Yet, sanctification is not a burden but a delight, for although we might rejoice in knowing that our Creator meets us where we are, there is no hint given to us that he would not take us on a transformative journey.

When we find ourselves attending an elegant affair, we make every effort to dress for it. We collectively frown on those who show up at a wedding in poor attire, for we believe that it takes away from the beauty of the moment, and that everyone ought to respect the sacredness of this event. At the same time, for us to worship is to enter into a splendrous moment, and we should all approach with the best of ourselves – and who we are working to become in him – not a casual and callous whatever-I've-thrown-together offering. (And do not mistake this to be a discussion about dress codes.)

The psalmist has called us to offer our worship in a beautiful place – namely, from the holiness that exists in the presence of the Almighty. We are to come in his holiness, and not our own. We have no holiness – the word itself connotes an otherness that we do not have, nor can we muster for ourselves. This is why he does not delight in sacrifice, but in a contrite heart that will approach him humbly and dependent, shaking like a leaf floating on the winds of eternity.

Those that enter from this place will find the grace, peace, strength, and love that they need to walk forward. It is when we brazenly walk into the sanctuary of his presence that our lives declare that we are good enough on our own. And we offer a half-hearted worship that reflects our self-righteous ugliness, instead of a worship that has been transformed by his holiness. There is no beauty when we turn aside from his truth; there is no splendor in playing games with his Spirit.

All the earth is challenged to tremble before the holiness of the Creator, and this invokes a terrifying image to those who consider the weight of this image. And yet, all the earth is summoned to come and worship – to approach the Almighty, humbly and awestruck, but expectant and trusting that those who come with pure hearts will be welcome into this place of splendor. This is what he wants from us, after we have put away our own righteousness, piety, and achievement. To be people who come with clean hands and innocent hearts, whose worship cannot be defined or contained by a few moments on a Sunday morning, and yet who are very glad when they hear: let us go to the house of the Lord and let us worship in the splendor of his holiness.

04 March 2016

of preachers and politicians

(Or, The Gap Between Jeffress and Lucado Explained by a Pastor Who Has Met Neither of Them)

I can still remember quite vividly the encounter I had when, in the church entry after the morning service, a visibly upset woman moved towards me with a determined look on her face. Her words were clear, "I am so often blessed by your sermons. But, let me tell you, don't get political up there." In that moment I could not for the life of me figure out what she was talking about, at least in a way that would call for such a reaction. We spoke for a few moments, though I was unable to convince her that I do not, as a rule, preach politics. I did make it clear, however, that I would preach the gospel, and if our overly-politicized culture steps onto that road, then it would probably get run over.

I would find out later that this particular woman, who was a retired school teacher, had been actively involved in some tug-of-war that was happening between the teacher's union and the school board. I didn't even have children in that school district, and was unaware of the issue. But I made a reference to education as a whole and she simply thought the two were connected. That conversation was an important reminder that no matter what the preacher may say, there is always a translation of sorts as it is heard and understood through the filter of everyday life that any particular listener may have.

There are always a multitude of variables and factors to consider in the preaching experience, and I have had many moments where public discourse, political positioning, and cultural issues have been a part of the gospel message I have sought to convey. However, I stand in a firm commitment that I will not endorse (publicly or privately) a political candidate on any level, nor will I share my personal opinion on legislative or judicial issues. (Since I have strong opinions on such things, there are days when this can be more challenging than others.) But I will speak the truth of the gospel in love, and I will understand that it will get me into enough trouble without become a political mouthpiece or commentator.

This is why I have difficulty with pastors, mostly in large churches, making their political endorsements known, often going so far as to use the pulpit as a soap box – either themselves, or by inviting candidates to stump during morning worship. It is not hard for us to understand why pastors do this: it reinforces themselves as culturally relevant and influential and successful. Such activity masks the desire to "win" with doing a good work for the kingdom. And, for some reason, it viewed as an extension of the work of the gospel – even it is not.

Robert Jeffress is pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, TX, and has had no problem telling his congregation of about 10,000 that they should vote for Trump in the upcoming election. This is ludicrous on two levels: first, the body of believers who gather for worship should not be subjected to a campaign rally, even if it refers to scripture; second, it is highly questionable that a Christian minister should openly endorse someone who is as devoid of character as Donald Trump.

When people endorse candidates they are signing-off with what that particular person stands for, and when a pastor endorses there is, attached to this, a sense of moral and ethical agreement. So, Mr Jeffress endorses a man who has openly and publicly demeaned women, is advocating that our military engage in illegal actions (war crimes), repeatedly threatens those who question his "facts," belittles others with crude comments while dodging discussions of substance, and most recently sought to clarify the size of his anatomy in the last presidential debate. (This list could continue, but that is far enough to make the point.) I might question what sort of a congregation Mr Jeffress is leading, or what it means to be a "Values Voter," since he speaks at their events. Instead, I will keep to my primary point – this is the sort of man he has chosen to use his position as a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ to endorse to those who are under his spiritual care.

(No, there is no morally perfect candidate, which might even give us that much more of a reason not to endorse from our pulpits.)

At the same time, another pastor in Texas, Max Lucado of Oak Hills Church, a San Antonio congregation of about 4000 people, has published a challenge to the words and behavior of Trump, asking for "decency" to be a part of this political process. He does not make this a political discussion, but rather a cultural critique that rises from the standards in scripture. Based upon the reactions of Trump and his followers, I can only imagine what sort of angered responses Mr Lucado has received. But such is the work of the gospel – not to endorse or defame a candidate, but to bring the values of the kingdom to the discussion, even when (especially when) they run against the grain of culture.

There is a gap that exists between these two approaches, and the state of our nation makes the difference stark. Of course the gospel message will divide – Jesus was straight with us on that. But it divides as it reveals one kingdom coming against another; and it divides, oddly enough, when the followers of one kingdom work out God's love, not cultural anger and frustration. Considering Jesus' mission we see that he intentionally did not seek political change – he was too radical for that, and he knew that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. His followers have always done best when they have followed on the path of changing hearts and minds rather than candidates and court cases.

The Founders themselves were always cautious that we should keep our priorities in order, and this is why you find God atop anything that is Country. Yes, they had a synthesized faith and freedom understanding that looks different that ours today, but theirs was a calling to follow the Almighty in their quest of patriotism. What has happened instead is that the modern preacher who seeks to conform to the image of the patriot has forgotten that we are to be conformed instead to the image of Christ. This is true for all of us. We cannot shroud the church with the flag, making the radical message of the gospel subservient to the whims of election cycles. In so doing we damage the work of eternity which has already been placed in the human heart. Shrouding the church with the flag is tantamount to laying it to rest in the ground, for the true work of the church is, at that point, done.

There are many pastors who are choosing to break their silence as I have just done, and the temptation to take this too far is going to be great. But let us remember the role of the pulpit and the congregation to facilitate transformation through the work of the Spirit upon human hearts. All that we gain or lose outside of that wither away, like the flowers of the field when the breath of the Almighty blows upon them.

22 February 2016

review: philosophy in seven sentences

Douglas Groothuis. Philosophy in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic. Downers Grove: IVP, 2016.

I might suppose that the title of this book is, at the same time, intimidating and intriguing – it is intimidating to those who have learned a default reaction to run away from the word "philosophy" as a difficult and dry enterprise; it is intriguing in that here is a volume that wants to open the doors of such a big world simply by looking at seven sentences. Hopefully the latter reaction will overcome the first, because this book is certainly worth recommendation.

Let's be as clear as the author's introduction (and even the subtitle): there are vast amounts of philosophical thought that will not be addressed in this book. The intention here is to provide the individual with a primer to philosophy. But Groothuis here accomplishes more than giving us a concise survey of broad ideas. These are engaging discussions that seek not only to take the reader on a journey through history, but to demonstrate how relevant these ideas remain in our modern world. It is quite surprising, even for those more familiar with philosophy, just how timely these seven sentences can be.

Each chapter gives some biographical and historical context to a particular philosopher, which enables consideration of a particular line of thought. Sometimes this thought is focused rather tightly on the one sentence that has been chosen, and other times the sentence is a starting point to opening up broader philosophical thought (even showing contrasts and comparisons with other philosophers and philosophies along the way).

Stated simply: this is a good primer on philosophical thought and history. There is a constant eye on questions which are theological in nature (10), though the primary focus of the book remains on these seven philosophical sentences in their own context, and in interaction with the world around them – both then and now. For the believer especially, however, this short study is an introduction to reason and thought that will not be an assault on theological inquiry; this is constructed as a safe place where thinking about faith can be strengthened rather than attacked. In this regard, more in the church should take notice of this book.

This book is well-written and engaging, a welcoming to a topic written by someone who knows it well. In reading it I was reminded just how much I enjoy philosophical thought, something that began the first time I sat through my college introductory seminar, and was fueled in various courses I was fortunate enough to take along the way. Since then, I have focused in other directions, and this little exercise renewed my enjoyment for engaging the work of these historical thinkers. What is more, Dr Groothuis presents them in such a way as to remind us just how important these voices might be for our world today, yet another gift to the modern work of the church.

Books such as this are a helpful reminder to step away from the noise of contemporary society and think. And pray. And think some more. For, as Kierkegaard said (and this is Sentence Number Seven in the book), "The greatest hazard of all, losing one's self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all."