21 July 2016

that hideous strength

As he sat alone on the island, exiled from the mainland of the empire, John had a vision of what must soon take place. He composed his work apocalyptically – a manner given to those who will have eyes to see and ears to hear a revelation through the Spirit of God. It is not so much that John had a series of dreams that would predict the final days before the end of the world, but rather that John saw a depiction of the increasing conflict between the kingdom of God and the peoples of the world, and all of the evils that challenge divine sovereignty and peace. He does not give us timeless messages, but rather timely truths – a worldview from God's perspective – intended to inspire faithful diligence and evoke terror at the prospect of God removing his presence from Creation.

At a certain point in the vision an evil trinity arrives on the stage: a dragon, a beast from the sea, and a beast from the land (Revelation 12–13). There is no doubt to the identity of the first, for John readily identifies the head of this wicked threesome as Satan himself, and leaves the remaining two to their descriptive traits as they mimic the divine Son and Holy Spirit. The description of the Sea Beast has brought about much discussion, the vast majority of which seems to focus on the wrong parts. Often there are attempted equivalents to some sort of antichrist figure, even though the Apocalypse never once uses that word. But in making this into a particularly sinister figure we are quick to think of the worst of the worst, most typically a figure such as Hitler. And once the figure did not bring about the end-of-the-world scenarios that are woven into these narratives, it is commonplace to think that someone much worse will fulfill the biblical text. In looking for these narrowly-defined super-villains, we are misreading the text and missing out on what is happening right in front of our eyes.

Embedded in this evil trinity is a way of life that has caused all sorts of people to be deceived by that which appears to be divine and good and gospel, but which is, in reality, a grotesque and hideous force that wages war against the Creator and brings destruction upon the earth. There are many who come and worship this Beast, and the one who has given it authority (13:4), and it rose to power and prominence for a season, convincing those many that they were in the right because of that initial success and its appearance of invincibility. All the while, this Apocalypse is working to warn us that something very wrong is taking place.

Of course, we think of ourselves as too sophisticated for mythical dragons and evil cosmic forces (even though our entertainment industry would tell a different story). But our society's saturation with mythological tales, along with our increasing desensitization to vulgarity and graphic violence, has brought the worship of this evil trinity into the center of our culture. We casually dismiss ancient tales of beasts and think they have no relevance for us today. And we who read the Apocalypse may think it absurd that any modern people would be lured into the worship of such monstrous figure as is described in this text.

And that's when the trap springs.

Let us remember that the vision of John's Apocalypse is God's vantage point, not ours – unless we are open to the Spirit to see through the eyes of faith. That is to say, nobody in their right mind would willingly give their worship and allegiance to such a hideous beast, let alone to a figure readily identified as Satan (or even some antichrist figure, if we were to find a description of one). But do we not move our commitment away from the gospel whenever we adopt worldly definitions of victory, success, and achievement? Do we not abandon our faith each time we pursue power and authority through the destructive and self-indulgent means? Have we not each become anti-christ in our lives when we choose to speak and act in ways that betray the sacrifice of the Lamb of God? Indeed, there appear to be many anti-christs among us (1 John 2:18).

And when you look around it appears that indeed the whole world is falling prey to the promises of success through militant power over-and-above the call to character in all things. Men and women are quickly showing their lack of integrity at the prospect of being on the winning side of some political-cultural struggle that, in reality, will lead us further down the path of destruction. Astonishingly, there have been many who self-identified with the kingdom of God grab hold of worldly ideals and methods, driven out of fear and anger rather than love, sacrifice, and compassion. Very few are choosing to stand this day on the characteristics of the kingdom, and are giving the living sacrifices of their lives over to a hideous and horrific evil.

This has become who we are because we did not open our hearts and minds to the Spirit of God, bur rather to the many voices that call us to a way contrary to the gospel. It is the third figure, the Land Beast, that goes out across the world to inspire worship and allegiance to the Sea Beast, that is echoed all over our nation today. We hear this summons from every corner, announced in our news, lauded by our politicians, glorified in our entertainment, and enacted in the brutality of politicized violence. This call to follow invites us each to make a choice; we must decide if we are going to overcome evil by finding ourselves a bigger thug, or if we will have the courage to act on the moral conviction and sacrifice of the Lamb.

Today, this battle is raging with great fury, and it has become difficult not to be swept away from the center of the gospel. The call of the world is loud and persuasive, a temptation not unlike Jesus' when Satan offered him victory without sacrifice (Matthew 4:8–10). Perhaps we believe that, even though we have temporarily suspended our commitment to the gospel (because the times are perilous), we will be able to reenact our faithful lifestyle once we have arrived. This is yet another lie that is woven into the narrative of those who seek to justify the world's means of power. Whenever we willingly align with that which is contrary to the gospel we do damage to ourselves and to others – often in ways that are irreversible – and we show that our trust does not rest in Almighty God alone.

There is a reason why the gospel demands sacrifice to self: surrender to a cruciform life is the only way to be conformed to the image of Christ, which will bring about a greater transformation to the world than every political promise could ever hope to achieve. We must learn the message of the Apocalypse that there is a victory much greater than that of politics – namely, the singular call to faithfulness that Christ gives to his church. He cares not that we are successful in the world's estimation, that we are ridiculed and narrow-minded and outdated by our culture, or that the outworking of our commitment is threatened by the laws of our land.

"This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God's people" (13:10). The only evaluation of the people of God found in the Apocalypse (or anywhere else in scripture, for that matter) is whether faithfulness to the gospel alone is their defining characteristic.

As the people of God, let us no longer lay our living sacrifices upon the altar of this evil trinity, adopting the methods and messages that prey on fear and inspire hate, clinging to a vicious cycle of power that unleashes destruction upon the earth. Perhaps we can quiet the noise of a thousand political voices screaming to be heard, enter into the silence of Word and Spirit, and once again hear his still small voice. For the Word spoken in that voice holds the power of Creation itself, bringing the universe into existence, and holding the power to restore all things in peace and love.

And so, John tells us, "This calls for wisdom" (13:18). Will we choose our path because of a thousand worldly voices calling to us, or will we follow along the narrow way that leads to life, to which the Spirit beckons each of us to come? In the vision that John had it was the Spirit and the Bride (church) that work together in saying, "Come" (22:17). It is very much a decision of life and death, and each person must now choose for themselves if it will be the wide road or the narrow path. It is with considerable anguish that I look around and see so many of God's people speaking and acting in ways that betray the gospel of Christ Jesus, all for the sake of winning an ill-fated cultural war – a shortsighted and temporary triumph of evil that will give way to the ultimate redemption of this world by its Creator.

"Whoever has ears, let them hear."

30 June 2016

from here to maturity: a discussion 3

Thomas E. Bergler, From Here to Maturity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. 

"A spiritual discipline is something I can do right now which will allow me over time to receive God's grace so that I will be able later to do something I can't do right now" (61).

Within this simple definition of spiritual discipline is the inherent idea that our faith is meant for us to make progress from a particular starting point. Being a disciple is to move, from wherever we find ourselves at a particular moment, towards the cross of Jesus, being conformed to his likeness. From this perspective, it seems that spiritual discipline ought to be desired among every believer (perhaps every person regardless of their faith commitment), for we all wish to become better at living in some capacity. And yet, the current state of the American church shows a culture that has drifted far from this simple discipleship ideal. In this modern quest for a relevant church experience, the measuring stick has become how many people are in attendance more than how many are being made into disciples.

[A slight rabbit-trail from Bergler's discussion: When the church decided to make the gospel more "relevant," does this mean to imply that the gospel had somewhere become irrelevant? Of course not, they would say. It is not about changing the gospel, but about making the church experience of it more relevant than outdated and outmoded forms of worship. And yet, the shifts that have been made from this perspective seem to have changed more of the gospel message than we care to admit – and the primary work of believers to be disciple-makers is at the forefront of this change. But, once again, we are pointed to the "success" of this newer approach in that many people are attending, regardless of the lack of depth in their experience. Perpetual adolescents indeed.]

Chapter Three of Bergler's text is meant to move the discussion forward about how we can approach the current state of affairs and introduce much-needed change. "Although no one intends it, the result can be that the process of spiritual growth seems complicated and possibly even inaccessible" (57). Here is part of the problem of getting back. It is unfortunate that the culture of discipleship in most churches is so lacking and so twisted that the entire notion of spiritual growth is quickly dismissed upon its mention, for that is something that will require too much from me – it is too lofty a goal. Interestingly, there are many within modern evangelicalism who will often speak and sing and tweet about how they have surrendered their whole lives to Christ Jesus, but will scoff at the simplest of commands to come and follow.

The perception that exists is that spiritual discipline is for popes, monks, nuns, and modern-day saints. Beyond this it is simply too high of a plane for the normal person. But even the encouraging words of Moses speak to the heart of our commitment today: Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. t is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it (Deuteronomy 30:11–14). If we truly have a God that seeks to reveal himself to us, to conform us into his likeness, so that we might be everything that he has made us to be – loving us with an everlasting love – then why would we fall for the lie that following hard after him is too much for us to undertake?

One of the keys to spiritual growth in discipleship that Bergler points to in this chapter is that of Vision: not focusing on the means of spiritual growth, but rather keeping the goal as the center of focus (cf. 64f.). When we speak about the processes of discipleship it becomes easy for us to become overwhelmed by the daily work unless we see a particular goal. Nobody begins an exercise regiment for the sake of daily tasks, but rather with a mental image of what results can be achieved with the daily commitment that will be required. These many small steps become compelling only when the overall goal is sketched out in front of the individual. The same is true for any spiritual regiment. We need the small steps of discipleship to make Christlikeness attainable, but we need to the image of the risen Jesus to make discipleship worthwhile.

Without going through the particulars of Bergler's suggested approach(es) in this chapter, let me simply point out that what is being advocated, above all else, in a genuine model of discipleship is a change of heart. This is an essential part of discipleship, initiating the process as well as being the end-result. The commitment of the heart is vital to the success or failure of being conformed to the image of Christ. It is a movement away from ourselves and into the presence of Jesus. Maturity in any area of life is when self-centeredness is abandoned and the giving of the heart is sincere. Marriages that have this succeed every time, while those that do not make this change-of-heart end in failure (and sometimes in divorce).

What is keeping the modern church from developing a mature faith? Only ourselves. To this point we may consider the author's words: "Self-deception often stiffens this resistance to change. We deceive ourselves into believing we love God first when in fact we love several other things just as much" (74). Until this change of heart can be introduced into the experience of the church, a generation of believers will be lost in a sea of immaturity and ineffectiveness. Discipleship demands that Christ Jesus is our one thing – not our one thing more. This self-denial is to be crucified with Christ, and sharing in his risen life.

09 June 2016

a liturgy 1


Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness; let the whole world tremble before him.
Psalm 96

Enter into this space and be still. Sit quietly and do not let your mind attend to other matters. This is not a time for our thoughts or our mouths to chatter, going along as though this were a rather ordinary (and perhaps mundane) event in our week. We should not casually enter this space, no matter how austere or plain it may appear to the casual observer. It matters not what this space may or may not be otherwise, this morning it has become holy ground, for this is where God will come to meet with his people gathered together. Do not profane the sacred by arriving in indifference.

The proper response to the anticipation of our gathering and his coming is to remain silent. The deep longings of the spirit should not be trampled upon by casual greetings and shallow conversation; the business we have with our brother and sister will keep until this moment has past, and the weather will remain even if we do not speak of it. There is a time and place for this sort of fellowship, but this is not it. In those brief moments of anticipation to where two or three will be gathered ought to be focused not on the gathering, but on the presence of the One who will come to dwell among them. It is for the Spirit of God that we wait, and the Spirit does not feel welcomed by those who are too distracted by things of a temporal nature – those should be left in the entry, where they may be taken up if they are still so pressing after we have plunged our souls into the depths of this coming presence.

Becoming quiet reminds us that this hour is not magical. We cannot simply choose to experience the supernatural because it happens to be a good time for us. Such thinking does not seek to dwell in the presence of the Almighty, but rather find a familiar-sounding incantation to sprinkle upon ourselves whenever we figure life could be improved. And so we rush from one activity to another, and then take a short detour into this gathering where we think that music is our worship, tithing our sacrifice, and the message our comfort. With the right words and sentiment, this becomes our ritual of magic – not intrusive, but there for when we need it.

Sitting in silence teaches us that we are unworthy to come into the presence of the Almighty. There is a descent of this reality that comes when we turn away from the noise that fills our lives. We do not accept silence very often in our lives – car radios are seldom off, televisions run well into the night, and a thousand advertisements for improving our lives bombard us at every turn. When we are surrounded by such noise we do not see ourselves as we really are, for we can divert our attention to something else. Blending this moment into the noise of culture does not transport us into the Spirit's presence. This is not a rock concert, this is not a circus show, this is not a campaign rally. The silencing of our heart and mind brings us back to reality, where we might hear him speak in his still, small voice.

So, when you enter into this space, be quiet and remain still. Do not come dragging the profanities of your life with you, thinking that this is a simple diversion that covers a multitude of sins that you aren't prepared to abandon. In this silence meditate in the wonderful anticipation that he is coming to meet with those who gather in his name, and that you have been summoned to come, yet cautioned against half-heartedness: worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole world tremble before him.

Contemplate your sacrifice, which is not the money in your pocket, or your service for the church, or anything else that you may bring with you. Your sacrifice is that which you could not produce, nor could you earn for yourself; it is your own life, from top to bottom, that you offer in this moment. And despite all of the cracks and flaws and dirt that tell the story of your imperfect journey, present yourself in beauty before your Maker, and allow him to bring your worship into his holiness. It is when we enter into the silence of this presence that we open ourselves up to where the Spirit desires to take us, which he will do when our gathered worship commences.

The proper response to the anticipation of our gathering and his coming is to remain silent.

23 May 2016

from here to maturity: a discussion 2

Thomas E. Bergler, From Here to Maturity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. 

One of the challenges that has been presented by Bergler is that "a significant number of Christians do not regard growing up in Christ to be an intrinsic part of what it means to be a follower of Christ" (27). We might be tempted to go even further, especially those of us who have encountered this sort of attitude in the contemporary American church: Do very many Christians even know what it means to be a "mature" follower of Jesus? (that is to say, would they even recognize such language?

The data would certainly suggest that many do not have an adequate understanding of the premise of being a mature Christian, let alone the desire to make such a journey. What is worse yet, there has been a large portion of the American church culture that has been pleased to cater to this shallow faith, rather than pushing believers towards something greater. The answer for this is simply: numbers. Our culture values success that is defined in certain terms, and churches that have big buildings with a lot of people in attendance and a healthy budget fit the American Consumerist version of success, which has been plopped right inside the attitude of the local church despite the gospel's incompatibility with such thinking. To this end many churches have been willing to play their part in the market, designing a church experience that attracts the crowds.

Crowds are easily attracted; disciples are hard to find.

Let's stay with this idea for just a moment: if crowds are the measure of success, then wouldn't the churches around Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn be considered the better congregations of our culture? Doesn't their "success" set a template for how the local church should operate? Indeed, many throughout the years have sought this precise course of action, and most church conferences sell the same message with more evangelical names, but the pattern still exists. There is much to say about church size and church growth dynamics, but my point here is that playing to the crowds does not make for spiritually mature followers of Christ – Jesus himself experienced this when the multitudes had decided to walk away: the closer he came to the cross, the fewer were his companions.

The worst case I have personally witnessed to this phenomenon was a billboard church advertisement I once drove past. It had some cool artwork and flashy design, the name of the church in bold letters across the top, with the promise: WE WON'T TRY TO CHANGE YOU. Now, I don't know what it was that this particular message was intended to answer (it seems to me some issue was in the mind of whoever sent that one through), but my initial reaction to this was, "Then, what's the point?!?"

By contrast, the life of the believer is, by definition, a life of transformation. "The proper response to the good news of the Kingdom of God was to become a follower of Jesus. When Jesus called disciples (followers, students, apprentices), he called them to spiritual transformation" (29). There is an intrinsic summons to becoming in this call, and again Bergler's study here reminds us of Bonhoeffer's famous, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." As Jesus said, "Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39). Becoming a mature follower of Jesus is not an optional add-on for the Christian: "spiritual maturity is central, not incidental, to God's plan" (41).

A fellow from the leadership of a local megachurch once spoke to an acquaintance of mine, claiming that they do not spend much time emphasizing discipleship. When questioned on this, the leader claimed that their church was there to "introduce" people to the gospel, and that that's what they were good at doing, but those who were interested in becoming more seriously committed could choose to pursue such an endeavor on their own desire. In other words, this entire church, considered as a national influence on evangelicalism, is structured to the lowest-common-denominator of the church experience. And they are known for putting on a good show, and having some noted programs. But what is lacking from their community DNA is the transformative experience of the gospel. And, as the data would back up, they have a great number of people in attendance who are not becoming mature Christians.

The need for mature disciples of Jesus within the modern American church is great. "The character qualities that the Holy Spirit produces in the mature follower of Jesus are especially oriented toward building loving human relationships" (43). This is a journey on which every believer may embark, if there is a desire to be a disciple. Those who move in this direction are not without flaw, and they are certainly not perfect (42). (And, for those reading out of a Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, there is room to talk on the use of this word, without contradicting the points made here.)

Bergler suggests that The Shape of Spiritual Maturity is built around three elements: 1) it is desirable; 2) it is attainable; 3) it is visible (48–49). These he fills in with good discussion, but I will not take the time to unpack the details here. Overall, his point is simply, "Far from being the end point of spiritual growth, spiritual maturity is the base camp from which ascent of the mountain of holiness can begin in earnest" (48). I must wholeheartedly agree with this perspective, for the movement towards God is a summons to be like him, which means that we must become less like ourselves – this is sanctification, this is maturity, this is losing one's life in order to find it.

Is this still a possibility for the American church?

Do there remain any disciples who are willing to grow up in Christ Jesus?

18 May 2016

from here to maturity: a discussion 1

Thomas E. Bergler, From Here to Maturity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. 

In 2012, Thomas Bergler published a historical summary and critique of the adolescent factors that have impacted the contemporary church: The Juvenilization of American Christianity. While the study has gained a good amount of attention, the glaring question that remained following the study was, "Where do we go from here?" Thus, he has published a second volume in the discussion, one that I would like to interact with on numerous points. (The reader will notice that this book was published about two years before this discussion, highlighting the well-known fact among pastors and scholars that you can't always get through your 'book stack' a quickly as you would like.) In 2012 a summary-review of JAC was published on this blog.

In the first volume, Bergler established that, "Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life which can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity" (JAC, 4, emphasis in original). Simply stated, this means that a culture-shift began to take place in the generations especially after WWII, changing the way American Christianity is envisioned and put into practice. Although these changes were initiated by those with noble goals and desires, there has been another (mostly unintended) set of consequences: an emerging of Adolescent Christianity, with the expectations that faith ought to be "fun and entertaining" (JAC, 14).

We're All Adolescents Now

With this discussion in mind, Bergler begins this second volume with an outline of the current situation – namely, that we are all caught up in an adolescent Christianity. For those who may have missed the full significance of The Juvenilization of American Christianity, the weight of the current situation is reiterated here. The impact of making Christianity "relevant," especially in playing to the components of youth culture in our society, have been enormous. And this is why discussions around this set of cultural circumstances in the church need to become more frequent, and more serious. "Today, there is less shared understanding of what 'growing up' should include" (4). And, since there is a lack of understanding of what 'growing up' should look like, the church simply isn't seeing much maturity among its membership.

Bergler reviews various factors that impact youth culture and, in conversation with other studies and data, shows that our society is not adequately preparing young people for the demands and responsibilities of adulthood. Even without social-scientific numbers, the casual observer ought to be able to get a sense of anecdotal evidence that this is indeed the case (my observation). In teaching at the college level for the past ten years I have seen many students come vastly ill-prepared for what will be asked of them, often far beyond the scope of academic work. Our nation is seeing an increasing number of young adults who, especially after college, return home, in many cases lacking desire, motivation, or direction to become a responsible adult. What impact is this having on the church? Or, what impact has church-life had on this growing societal trend?

But ours has become a culture of "I'm never going to grow up" rather than stepping up to the responsibilities of living well. In the generations before WWII it was quite common that young boys and girls would take upon the tasks of adulthood for the sake of family survival. In those days a formal education was more of a rarity (no "right" to a college experience), and teenagers were often found taking on the mantle of cultural leadership as quickly as they could – a reflection of the culture. Perhaps there was a bit of growing-up-too-fast mixed in, but if that was the case then the pendulum has definitely swung too far the other direction.

Within the American church this reality is stark: Bergler, citing Smith, refers to modern belief being less of a mature Christianity, and more of a "Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism" (13). Adolescent faith is about emotion and feeling, more than it is about discipleship and transformation. "To keep things in perspective, it is important to note that it is quite amazing that any emerging adults are seriously religious" (15). Indeed, the demands of discipleship are high, but the lack of seriousness by which most within our churches are engaging the endeavor is startling. Bonhoeffer's famous line, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die" seems very much out of place in our context. What is expected of a mature Christian is lost in our culture – left undefined – and therefore an invisible path even to those who appear to be serious about their faith.

And I have seen more than one church that is satisfied with this reality, so long as it means that their numbers and giving are up, claiming that their work is more directed to "introducing people to Jesus" and leaving the work of becoming more serious disciples up to the initiative of the individual (and probably some nod to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, so as to sound spiritual). At the end of the day, this is the culture that defines American Christianity, and the clanging gongs of gifts without the presence of God are becoming deafening and chaotic in our world. What is more, this present generation of American Christianity has now come into its own, and many of our current leaders have never known anything except the entertainment-based, individualistic reassurance that has had such an impact.

"In short, American Christianity looks a lot like we would expect it to look if many Americans were stuck in a Christianized version of adolescent narcissism" (25).

This is a strong challenge, but one that, in many ways, characterizes the current state of the American church. Sadly, the current cycle of political discourse has not only proven this adolescent presence in the church, but has pushed it further along the path – more Christians today seem to be willing to be shaped by culture than by Word and Spirit. This is not the case throughout the world, which is why spiritual revival is happening outside of this country, and a maturing faith is being fostered elsewhere. The Spirit, it seems, will not wait around for us to get on board when there are others who are willing to be participants in the gospel. But adolescents rarely, if ever, see this far beyond themselves.

It is time to move towards maturity.