Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Of Envrionmental Engineers and Their Gospel-Shod Feet

Ephesians 6:14-15: Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.

Isaiah 52:6-7: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."

According to St. Paul, the gospel offers a foundation for readiness. Whether or not we feel ready, God stands prepared to reconcile people to himself through our proclamation of the good news. Greg Arthur gets this.

Greg is one of my favorite people. When I grow up, I hope to be as cool as he is. He's an overseer at our church, with an acute perception of Christ's presence. He loves his wife like Jesus loves the church, and is raising his son in the fear and instruction of the Lord. By day, he's an engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency. He's freakishly smart, though he'd be the last person to tell you as much. By night and weekend, he plays mandolin in a blue grass band with his wife. They'll play anywhere; music festivals, churches, jails, you name it. They have a remarkable ministry.

Last week, Greg was asked by a former Stanford professor to give a talk on Environmentalism to a group of Chinese delegates. The conference room at Stanford was packed with mayors, provincial governors, and even a member of the presidential cabinet. Greg says he spoke about "apple pie American values," much to the delight of those gathered. Afterwards, Greg spoke with the Minister of Construction via a translator. This man is in the Chinese presidential cabinet. He is one of the most powerful people in China. He commented that Greg seemed to be a very happy man. The subject quickly turned to music, as both Greg and the Minister are musicians. "What kind of music do you play?" the Minister inquired. "Gospel," Greg forthrightly replied. The translator paused before trying to translate the response. The Minister's interest was picqued. He wanted to know more. Greg promised to send him a CD so he could listen the music for himself.

Funny how God works. In a few days, one of the most powerful men in a country that has done unconscionable evil to Christians will - Lord willing - be listening to gospel music. Greg was ready, and was faithful with the opportunity God put in front of him. May we do the same. Who knows who God will put right in front of us?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Halloween and Christmas: Separated at Birth?

That rather terrified looking three year old to the right is me on the night of my very first trick or treating excursion. (I think the pillow case treat bag adds a nice touch.) With Halloween coming up in just a few weeks and Christmas right on its heels, I thought I'd post some thoughts about our celebration of both holidays.

At first glance, it seems that Halloween and Christmas couldn't be more different. After all, Halloween appears to celebrate death, evil, and witchcraft while Christmas celebrates the birth of the perfect Savior of the world. But when you think about it, Halloween and Christmas share some striking similarities.

Both have roots in paganism.
The roots of Halloween date back to about two thousand years ago. The Celts celebrated their new year on November 1st. This heralded the beginning of winter, which was commonly associated with human death. The Celts believed that ghosts of the dead returned to earth on October 31st and their presence made it easier to predict the future. During this holiday the Druid priests made predictions and the Celts built huge bonfires where they sacrificed crops and animals and dressed in animal heads and skins. When the Romans conquered the Celtic territory in A.D. 43, they incorporated two of their festivals into Samhain.

For many years, people were frightened that they might encounter a ghost if they left their homes, so they wore masks after dark in hopes that the ghosts wouldn't recognize them and believe they were fellow spirits. People also placed bowls of food outside their homes to keep ghosts from entering.

Pagan midwinter festivals existed long before Christmas. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia the week before the winter solstice and the festival lasted an entire month. This holiday honored Saturn, the god of agriculture, and included drinking, feasting, and the closing of schools and businesses. The Romans decorated their homes with boughs of evergreen to illustrate how Saturn would soon make their land fruitful. The Germans celebrated the god Oden during this time and the Norse held a celebration called Yule.

Both were established by the Catholic Church.
The holiday known as Halloween was actually created by the established Church. Christianity eventually spread to the Celtic lands and in the seventh century, the Church instituted All Saints' Day or All-Hallows on November 1st. This day was set aside to honor saints and martyrs and some believe it was the pope's attempt to replace Samhain. October 31st was referred to as All-Hallows Eve, which eventually became Halloween. In A.D. 998, the Church designated November 2nd as All Souls' Day, a day to remember and pray for souls in purgatory. Some say that dressing up as devils, saints, and angels was a common practice on this day and the celebration also involved bonfires and parades.

The tradition of "trick or treating" most likely stems from All Souls' Day parades in England. During the celebration, poor citizens would beg for food and the wealthy would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in return for a promise to pray for the family's dead relatives in purgatory. Eventually, children took up this practice and traveled to different houses where they received food, ale, and money. This custom was referred to as "going a-souling."

Christmas was first celebrated in the fourth century when the Church chose December 25th as the date of Christ's birth. No one is sure why this particular date was chosen, but some believe it was due to the fact that this was already a public holiday for pagan celebrations. This would increase the chance that Christianity would be publicly embraced. The celebration spread to Egypt in A.D. 432, to England in the sixth century and to Scandinavia by the end of the eighth century.

Both can distort the truth.
Halloween turns witches and the devil into cute and cuddly characters and chubby cheeked toddlers seem to have no qualms about trick or treating dressed as Satan. Christmas takes the frightening, harsh, and beautiful story of Christ's birth and transforms it into a cozy little tale about a cheerful barn, some happy animals, and a little baby who didn't cry.

Check back in a few days for Part 2 and find out what else Halloween and Christmas have in common, including their connection to Linus Van Pelt.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin?

I love lyrics that use unexpected words. Like "For poor ornery sinners like you and like I" in "I Wonder As I Wander." Or "A love as pure as breath, as permanent as death, implacable as stone" in Stephen Sondheim's "I Wish I Could Forget You." Or "I want to tell her that I love her but the point is probably moot" in Rick Springfield's "Jesse's Girl." This great Charles Wesley hymn uses two seldom used words (at least in hymns): antepast and dragon. And the rest of the lyrics are pretty good too. Enjoy "Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin?"

Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire,
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
Or sing my great Deliverer’s praise?

O how shall I the goodness tell,
Father, which Thou to me hast showed?
That I, a child of wrath and hell,
I should be called a child of God,
Should know, should feel my sins forgiven,
Blessed with this antepast of Heaven!

And shall I slight my Father’s love?
Or basely fear His gifts to own?
Unmindful of His favors prove?
Shall I, the hallowed cross to shun,
Refuse His righteousness to impart,
By hiding it within my heart?

No! though the ancient dragon rage,
And call forth all his host to war,
Though earth’s self-righteous sons engage
Them and their god alike I dare;
Jesus, the sinner’s friend, proclaim;
Jesus, to sinners still the same.

Outcasts of men, to you I call,
Harlots, and publicans, and thieves!
He spreads His arms to embrace you all;
Sinners alone His grace receives;
No need of Him the righteous have;
He came the lost to seek and save.

Come, O my guilty brethren, come,
Groaning beneath your load of sin,
His bleeding heart shall make you room,
His open side shall take you in;
He calls you now, invites you home;
Come, O my guilty brethren, come!

For you the purple current flowed
In pardons from His wounded side,
Languished for you the eternal God,
For you the Prince of glory died:
Believe, and all your sin’s forgiven;
Only believe, and yours is Heaven!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

George Will on the Right's Ultra-Leftist Economic Policies

How Left is the Bush Administration? Here are some provocative thoughts from George Will;

The political left always aims to expand the permeation of economic life by politics. Today, the efficient means to that end is government control of capital. So, is not McCain’s party now conducting the most leftist administration in American history? The New Deal never acted so precipitously on such a scale. Treasury Secretary Paulson, asked about conservative complaints that his rescue program amounts to socialism, said, essentially: This is not socialism, this is necessary. That non sequitur might be politically necessary, but remember that government control of capital is government control of capitalism. Does McCain have qualms about this, or only quarrels?

HT: Gene Veith

More Thoughts on the Church and Worship

Andrew's excellent post inspired me to write some additional thoughts about worship in church. I resonate with his concern that worship services do not afford believers adequate space to minister to one another. Take the Lord's Supper as an example. In almost every worship service I've attended, believers have been encouraged to focus on their personal relationship with God during communion. The focus is personal meditation on the broken body of Christ. Of course it's tremendously important to reflect on Christ's death for us. However, is this what Paul had in mind when he spoke of "discerning the body" during communion (1Cor 11:29)? Robert Banks hits the proverbial nail on the head in his exegesis of this phrase;

Paul says that "all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves" [1 Cor] (11:29, NRSV). Although this has been generally interpreted as a reference to Christ's crucified body, the community itself is almost certainly in view. Members of the community need to recognize their unity and "receive" one another...The fact that there are many members of the community should lead not to the assertion of individualistic attitudes, nor to the formation of cliques within it, but instead to a continuing affirmation of its solidarity.

- Paul's Idea of Community, rev ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994); 59.

The Corinthians are weak and dying because they aren't showing concern for the less esteemed members of their community during corporate meals. Failing to attend to the needs of said community members contradicts the very event the Lord's Supper embodies. This is why judgment has fallen over their gatherings.

Is the Lord's Supper a participatory event today? Do we proclaim the gospel in our gatherings; not simply by partaking of the elements, but by lavishing grace on the needy and broken in our churches? Are we looking to embody the message of the cross by meeting the economic/emotional/spiritual/physical needs of fellow believers? How do we do this better?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Coming to Church to Give, Not Just to Receive: A Response to Greg Peters and Andrew Jones

Pardon a long post here, but a couple interesting posts have surfaced in the blogosphere on our approach to worship in church that I thought I actually might have something helpful to say about. The first is a brief thought from Andrew Jones, which was followed up on/responded to by Greg Peters of Scriptorium. Jones says that church worship should be a time of giving (which it typically isn't unless you are preaching, leading worship, or giving your money) rather than passive receiving. Peters agrees, but says that perhaps Jones' assumption (i.e. that we are all in churches where worship is passive) is unfairly generalized. Peters is an Anglican, and as such, worships liturgically. The liturgy, argues Peters, facilitates active response on the part of the worshipper especially through the prayer-book's responses to the officiant's calls.

I don't entirely disagree with Peters, and I do respect liturgical traditions generally. Most notably I appreciate the unity that is built in. But this very ecclesiological issue is one that has troubled me for a long time: in short, if we set aside Peters' exception for a moment, how come the only people who get to contribute vocally in church are the preacher and worship leader?

But before I get to my answer to that question, there is a prior one: is there a Biblical basis for Jones' felt need and Peters' suggested solution? Does the Bible indicate that we should in fact have more than just the preacher and worship leader contribute vocally in church?

The answer, I am convinced, is a resounding "yes" (indeed it is this conviction that has had me thinking about this for some time). Two passages come to mind.

First, 1 Cor. 12-14 on the whole give the impression that everyone should be contributing in church. Of course, these chapters are correctives to a chaotic, unordered, and thus unedifying church practice. Apparently tongues were overused and congregants spoke over one another. Nonetheless Paul repeatedly emphasizes that the church is a body, and as such the different functions performed by each member toward other members are all necessary for the sake of the whole body (e.g. 1 Cor. 12:7-25ff). The text gives the impression that this is actually a major part of what it means for the church to come together. Excess is possible and should be avoided, but the various contributions of individual members is important. Most of these contributions are specifically for the whole church's regular gathering.

Second, Eph. 5:18-20 indicates that congregational worship should contain both vertical and horizontal elements. Note both the elements of "singing and making melody...to the Lord" (vertical) and "speaking to one another..." (horizontal). What's more, I am convinced that the participles that follow the command to "be filled with the Holy Spirit" (v. 18) are participles of means (i.e. that the way that we are filled with the Holy Spirit is by "speaking to one another...singing and making melody...always giving thanks...submitting to one another...") When we do these things (which are variously directed to God and to each other), we take part in being filled with and filling each other with the Holy Spirit. And to those who would argue that these are participles of result (i.e. that being filled with the Holy Spirit results in those actions), I would ask how a command to "be filled with the Holy Spirit" makes any sense without some guidance as to how we carry that out.

These texts then speak to the need for mutual participation in congregational worship. Mutual participation is no less than the outworking of Spirit-enabled ministries and filling with the Holy Spirit, among other things. This is the give and take that all members of the congregation should come to church expecting to be a part of when the church gathers.

Which returns us to the original question(s): does the modern method of non-liturgical evangelical church allow for the lay congregant to "give" in church, and if not, does a liturgy adequately cover what's missing?

Taking the second question first, I think not. While there are numerous benefits to liturgical worship, one of them is not freeing up the congregation to give in the NT sense described above. Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that Dr. Peters (or anyone else) is insincere when he responds "And also with you." What I am saying is that, sincere or not, this comes well short of facilitating other members' ministries to one another- of Biblical "giving" in worship. For one thing, it does not matter how God is enabling me to minister when I give my response- I just respond. For another, it eliminates the Holy Spirit's more extemporaneous role in guiding us in our worship, which is apparent in 1 Cor. 12-14. Perhaps a liturgy could include a time for open sharing with one another, but I am guessing that most currently do not.

And this leads me back to the first part of the question. Clearly most (especially large) non-liturgical evangelical churches facilitate this sort of ministry even less. There is little if any space not taken up with some kind of planned presentation, whether for seeker sensitive or other reasons. And this deeply saddens and troubles me, considering the above-suggested weight of what is going on in that time.

There is at least one ecclesiological exception: the charismatic church. Sadly, many charismatic churches fail to heed the clear commands in 1 Cor. 12-14 about what sorts of restraints ought to be placed on mutually participatory worship. But I for one have grown up in a Vineyard Church that did not fail in that regard, so I know it is possible! What always stood out about going to that church was that most members of the congregation came not just to receive, but to give. Worship was anything but passive. There was allotted time for any member of the small congregation (and this is also an argument for keeping congregations small, as this would be frankly impossible in a large congregation) to share with the whole church. And if you wondered, this did not have to be a specifically "charismatic" piece- it could just as easily be a Scripture or a prayer, etc. This practice was consistently edifying to the whole congregation.

Of course if you are cessationist, this will not be a helpful example to you, and I do not mean to make this whole lengthy post an argument for charismatic church (though I certainly am an avid charismatic). But I do think that this is one area where all ecclesiologies could learn from the charismatic movement. Somehow church leaders should be actively making a way for members of the congregation to minister to one another, and I am convinced that this is best for the congregation if it can happen when the whole church is gathered on Sunday mornings.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Forsyth on the Great End of Prayer

Prayer has its great end when it lifts us to be more conscious and more sure of the gift than the need, of the grace than the sin. As petition rises out of need or sin, in our first prayer it comes first; but it may fall into a subordinate place when, at the end and height of our worship, we are filled with the fullness of God. "In that day ye shall ask Me nothing." Inward sorrow is fulfilled in the prayer of petition; inward joy in the prayer of thanksgiving. And this thought helps to deal with the question as to the hearing of prayer, and especially its answer. Or rather as to the place and kind of answer. We shall come one day to a heaven where we shall gratefully know that God's great refusals were sometimes the true answers to our truest prayer. Our soul is fulfilled if our petition is not.

P.T. Forsyth, The Soul of Prayer [Vancouver: Regent, 2002 (originally published in 1916)]; 12.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Christian Elitism

My favorite lunch break pastime is zipping over to the the local deli for a salami sandwich and Diet Pepsi and then getting my political news fix on Real Clear Politics.

Last Monday, I read an article by Russ Smith titled "The Audacity Of Defeat," which explored the affect an Obama defeat might have on the American psyche. Smith recalls the impact of Kerry's defeat in 2004 and references a piece that Joseph Berger wrote for The New York Times the day after that election. In "A Blue City Bewildered By A Red America," Berger interviewed several disillusioned New Yorkers including Dr. Joseph Zito who said:

"I’m saddened by what I feel is the obtuseness and shortsightedness of a good part of the country - the heartland . . . New Yorkers are more sophisticated and at a level of consciousness where we realized we have to think of globalization, of one mankind, that what’s going to injure masses of people is not good for us."

Roberta Kimmel Cohn agreed:

"New Yorkers are savvy. We have street smarts. Whereas people in the Midwest are more influenced by what their friends say. They're very 1950's . . . When I go back there, I feel I'm in a time warp."

In his own article, Smith jokingly adds, "But who says New Yorkers are elitists?"

This got me thinking about the ugliness of elitism. The two quotes above make my blood boil. I hate how they stereotype, demean, patronize, assume motives, and box people into categories. Yet as much as I loathe elitism, I can be quite the elitist when it comes to other Christians.

If someone reads a Christian book that I don't think is up to par, I judge. If someone listens to Christian music that I don't particularly appreciate, I judge. If someone loves a speaker who I don't always agree with, I judge. I display the same pride, smugness, and assumptions about people's motives that I loathe in the quotes above. Although it was a rather light-hearted political piece, Smith's article held up a mirror to my own elitism and I was convicted to the core. And I'm working on putting those elitist thoughts to death when they start flitting about in my mind.

Anyways, just thought I'd share. This is a blog after all. And aren't awkward personal confessions really what blogging is all about?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Feeling Listless

I'm a pretty easy girl to read. If I wear a dress to work, it means that I haven't done laundry in three and a half weeks and have no clean jeans or socks. Or if I start rapidly pushing my hair behind my ears, it means I see a balloon nearby and am terrified that it's going to pop. And if I post a list on this blog, it means that I have nothing thoughtful or creative to say but still feel that I should post something. Thus, here are my TOP TEN FAVORITE HYMNS.

10. Hallelujah! What A Savior. Words and Music by Philip P. Bliss. Of all the hymns in this list, I think I've loved this one the longest. It's succinct and beautiful and I think we should sing it at every Good Friday service.

9. Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. Words by Charles Wesley. Music by Rowland H. Prichard. "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" is one of those hymns with fifty alternate melodies and I think Prichard's lilting tune is not only the loveliest of the bunch but also one of my favorites in all of hymnody. And Wesley's lyrics aren't bad either.

8. And Can It Be?. Words by Charles Wesley. Music by Bob Kauflin. Remember that horrible Michael Jackson song, "Heal the World?" I remember that my mom would always laugh at the lyric, "There are people dying" because the melody was so cheery. The original version of "And Can It Be?" suffers from the same problem: weighty lyrics and a sugary sweet tune. Thankfully, Bob Kauflin fixed this when he inserted a more contemplative melody and the result is incredibly moving.

7. For The Beauty Of The Earth. Words by Folliot S. Pierpoint. Music by Conrad Kocher. I tend to worry about the future, so lately I've tried to focus on the present and relish each of God's gifts moment by moment. A cup of 72% cacao hot chocolate. A crystal clear blue sky. The birds that like to chirp outside my window at 2:00 a.m. "For The Beauty of the Earth" is a wonderful reminder of God's daily blessings and "the beauty of each hour." And it's gorgeous acapella (watch "Little Women" and you'll agree.)

6. I Sing The Mighty Power Of God. Words by Isaac Watts. Music arranged by Ralph Vaughn Williams. This may be my favorite hymn about the sovereignty of God and there are three things I particularly like about it. 1. It's originally from the hymnbook, "Divine and Moral Songs for Children." It's heartening to think of children singing lyrics like "I sing the wisdom that ordained the sun to rule the day; the moon shines full at God’s command, and all the stars obey." 2. The old English tune was arranged by Ralph Vaughn Williams, who's like the king of old English tune arrangements. 3. It ends with this amazing lyric, "While all that borrows life from Thee is ever in Thy care; and everywhere that we can be, Thou, God art present there."

5. The Hymn From "Jupiter." Music by Gustav Holst. All right, so this isn't a hymn in the traditional sense. But the middle section from the "Jupiter" movement of Holst's "The Planets" practically begs for us to write lyrics and sing it in church.

4. Arise, My Soul, Arise. Words by Charles Wesley. Music by Bob Kauflin. Here's another Wesley hymn suffering from "Heal the World" syndrome that's revitalized by a gorgeous Bob Kauflin tune. There's a reason that nearly half of my favorite hymns were written by Charles Wesley. He's a master lyricist and his lyrics in this hymn are poignant without being sappy, theological without being dry, and simple without being trite. It's a brilliant song.

3. All Creatures Of Our God And King. Words by Francis of Assisi. Music by Peter Von Brachel. I believe that a majority of musical problems could be solved if composers simply wrote everything in 6/8. I always liked this hymn, but it jumped into a whole new category when I heard it in 6/8. And I love the concept of all creation praising the Lord.

2. The Master Has Come. Words by Sarah Doudney. One of the most inspiring hymns I know. I'm encouraged to fight the good fight each time I hear it.

1. Hark The Herald Angels Sing. Words by Charles Wesley. Music by Felix Mendelsshon. It's a crime that we only get to sing this song once a year. We should seriously sing it every Sunday. Lyrics don't get much better than "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Diety" and "Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die."

That's my list. What are your favorite hymns?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Erickson on God as the Victim of Evil

A good insight from Millard Erickson's Christian Theology that I had never considered:
That God took sin and its evil effects on himself is a unique contribution by Christian doctrine to the solution for the problem of evil. It is remarkable that, while knowing that he himself would become the major victim of the evil resulting from sin, God allowed sin to occur anyway. The Bible tells us that God was grieved by human sinfulness (Gen. 6:6). While there is certainly anthropomorphism here, there nonetheless is indication that human sin is painful or hurtful to God. But even more to the point is the fact of the incarnation. The Triune God knew that the second person would come to earth and be subject to numerous evils: hunger, fatigue, betrayal, ridicule, rejection, suffering, and death...God is a fellow sufferer with us of the evil in this world, and consequently is able to deliver us from evil. What a measure of love this is! Anyone who would impugn the goodness of God for allowing sin and consequently evil must measure that charge against the teaching of Scripture that God himself became the victim of evil so that he and we might be victors over evil.
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) 456.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Miroslav Volf on the Violence of God and Human Non-Violence

...in a world of violence it would not be worthy of God not to wield the sword; if God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence God would not be worthy of our worship.... My Thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person inclined to dimiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone...Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God's refusal to judge. In a sorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

- Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996); 303-304.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

An Argument for Arguments, Part 2

Allow me to quickly finish what I quickly started last week. If you missed that piece, I argued that perhaps part of the reason the Bible can be so difficult at times is because it forces us to ingest it as a whole person (rather than just mentally). That alone is important, but I also argued that one of the implications of that thought is that we should be ok with arguing about the Bible, because a good, Christian-love-saturated argument should take the whole person to do well.

A clarification of a term is in order before I can go further. "Argument" need not imply "angry and divisive contention." In fact I'm often frustrated by the fact that the Emerg*** camp (among others) has made "argument" into a dirty word, for which we should substitute "dialogue." Good arguments require not only thought, but emotion (and emotional restraint) and humility. Good dialogues require sweater vests and green tea- not that I'm opposed to either, but somehow they seem to come up short of the kind of challenge that the Word of God should present to us.

It is the lack of these necessary elements for a good argument that probably turns many people off to arguing about the Bible at all. Too often "argument" does end up meaning "my attempt to, without any honest look at my own case, convince you of what I believe, often while getting angry at/condescending towards you and inhibiting our ability to have future loving fellowship." And it's understandable that we would want to avoid that.

But it's important to me that we don't throw out the baby with the bathwater on this one, probably because arguing about the Bible has often been formative for me. I currently live in a house with six other men who take the Bible seriously, three of whom have graduated with or are graduating soon with degrees in Biblical Studies. Naturally we do not always agree on our theological positions, but we talk about them often. One fellow (Trey) and I in particular tend to disagree often, yet enjoy truly deep Christian fellowship (to be sure, Trey and I are both orthodox, which is important).

Dare I say that my disagreements with Trey have often been formative in my Christian development, both in terms of general sanctification and theological growth. Regarding theology, he is always thoughtful and tends to specialize in areas that I do not. Regarding sanctification, our sharper disagreements coupled with our mutual desire love for one another and desire to maintain unity have often forced me to learn what it means to love someone with whom I disagree- which is a quite valuable lesson. These are not the only lessons, of course, but they are major ones.

And these are lessons learned that can only be learned by caring about the Bible in community. Rather than avoid hard discussions, Trey (among others) and I tend to embrace them because we are both able to enter the discussion with genuine desire to grow in our knowledge and faithfulness to the Lord. The underlying assumption is that I don't know everything, and so I need my ideas (even when I think they are good ones) to go through the refinement that only other members of the community can offer. This has almost always been fruitful on multiple levels for me.

So don't just dialogue. Argue. Argue thoughtfully, peacefully, and lovingly. But argue. It's good for you, and the very nature of the Bible teaches us to do as much.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Musings on Creation, Theodicy, and C.S. Lewis

When discussing the problem of evil, I tend to get tripped up on the issue of natural disasters. The created order appears to take lives indiscriminately. Moreover, we have no recourse to standard theodicies when addressing natural disasters, since most explanations of evil have to do with free will and human personhood. These sorts of explanations seem unhelpful when discussing natural evils. God could - in theory - override nature without "violating" anyone's will or personhood. Yet, God permits natural disasters which kill millions of people. Why does he do it?

Paul says that creation is groaning because of human rebellion, and the curse such rebellion ellicits (Rom 8:18-25). Humans are integrally related to the world God created for them, though the exact nature of this interelation is not clear. Our sin introduces systemic flaws into the created order. However, while we know this to be the case, we can't explicate the precise cause and effect relationship between human rebellion and systemic imperfection in creation. "Why" and "how" questions still linger. Is there anyting more we can say about natural disasters, humanity, and theodicy? I think so.

Last week, my dad preached a great sermon on the problem of evil. After the sermon, someone commented to him that Adam and Eve would not have survived the fall unless creation fell with them. If creation remained untainted by human rebellion, it would have been too glorious for humanity to endure. Imperfect humans could not exist in a perfect creation, since the resplendency of such a world would surely obliterate them. C.S. Lewis made a similar point in The Great Divorce. The protagonist happens upon heaven, and realizes that it is almost unbearably solid.

It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison.
[The Great Divorce (New York: Touchstone, 1996); 28-29]

It appears the only "hospitable" earth for treasonous sinners is one with imperfections. Once we concede this point, we realize that natural disasters and other systemic flaws go part and parcel with living in a habitable world. We are not yet ready for the "realness" of the world Lewis describes.

No doubt many have made the point I am making. However, it has helped me to view our deeply distorted world through a whole new set of lenses.

Apples, Shamrocks, and Eggs, Oh My!

One of the delightful aspects of my job as a children's director is discussing kids' questions about God. Some recent gems include, "Was Jesus married while He was on earth?", "Why did Jesus have to die?", "How many gods are there?", "Isn't God loving? Why would He give the Israelites power to demolish complete cities?", "Is Jesus married now?", and "What country does God live in?" But of all my students' thought provoking queries, their most common question remains, "How can one God be three people?"

Now there's a whole grab bag of object lessons available to explain the Trinity to kids. Like the apple analogy: Just as an apple is made up of a peel, pulp, and seeds, so God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And if apples aren't your thing, you can do pretty much the same analogy with an egg: Just as an egg is made up of shell, white, and yolk, so God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or how about the rope example: Just as this rope is made up of three strands, so God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or the shamrock: Just as this plant has three leaves, so God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Personally, I was raised on the water analogy: Water can exist as steam, liquid, and ice just as God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This made perfect sense to me in elementary school and contrary to fears about the dangers of Trinitarian object lessons, I did not embrace modalism.

Confident that the water analogy was clearly superior to the rest, it became my automatic reponse whenever kids asked me about the Trinity. But a few years ago I began thinking about the implications of using objects lessons to explain this concept. As far as I can tell, the Trinity isn't like anything else in creation and comparing it to an egg or shamrock (or the creative process - yeah, I'm talking to you, Dorothy Sayers!) doesn't begin to do it justice. And while I doubt that most kids will fall into heresy due to an imperfect fruit analogy, I do wonder if telling them that the Trinity is like an apple reduces their view of God's mystery and power.

So here's my current stock answer to the Trinity question: God is one God, but He exists in three persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is like nothing else in all creation. We can't understand it, but that's ok. God is so big and amazing that there are things about Him our minds just can't comprehend right now. Surprisingly (at least to me), the kids don't seem to need any more explanation.

What do you think? Have you come across any good Trinitarian object lessons? For those of you who have (or work with) kids, how do you explain the Trinity to them? I covet your thoughts and ideas.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

These Are a Few of my Favorite Links (Add your links)

With this Sunday's link post, Christians in Context officially forays into uncharted linking territory. That's right ladies and gentlemen, we are hereby introducing a new way to link.

Here is the basic idea: rather than peppering you with a daunting list of ten or so links that, by nature of their being linked, it appears you must read all of, we will be presenting you only with a few links. But not just any few links. Each contributor to Christians in Context (or at least Jeff, Jenny, and I) will be giving you the one link from the last week or two that we think is an absolute must-read.

If you're anything like me, you already feel like you're reading enough blogs for the week and don't feel it necessary to tack on a whole lot more. Hopefully this will provide you with a sort of "best of the best" list that will actually be helpful. So without further delay, here are the first few of our favorite links (note that some of us didn't find links worthy of placement here for the week!):

Andrew: D. A. Carson discusses how to discuss abortion.
Jenny: Charlie Gibson's Gaffe.
Damian: Distractions from Orthodoxy.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Dan Kimball's Balanced Analysis of Emergent

As if I didn't like Kimball enough after reading They Like Jesus But Not the Church, he has now begun a series of posts at his blog discussing some of his thoughts on the emerging church five years after his book on that movement. IMO, Kimball is the best voice from that whole camp. He is wonderfully balanced: committed at once to the authority of Scripture and orthodox Protestantism, but willing to critique what needs to be critiqued and constantly rethink how to be truly missional on all levels.

I recommend the whole post, but here are my two favorite excerpts. The first is on the need to stay focused on evangelism:
But I began missing the conversations I had which were the reasons I was originally in all this. Evangelism - as in seeing "lost" people (using that word in a healthy way) come to a saving knowledge of Jesus, repenting, experiencing grace and recieving [sic] new life by the Spirit and joining in on the mission. We can do alternative worship, but what about non-Christians being saved? We can talk about theology, but what about non-Christians being saved? We can talk about feeding the poor (and absolutely should), but what also about the non-Christian next to us in the office who isn't saved? I got into into the emerging church world because of dreaming and praying for them to experience grace and salvation and then not just being converted but being a disciple of Jesus. But a lot of the discussions I was in was understandably leaning more towards disgruntledness. Which can then have us spend more time on discussions Christians have with each other (ironically kind of like this one!) than on the mission.
The second is on the emerging/emergent terms and his reaction to the movement(s) generally (this one really shows how sane and balanced his approach is):
But... the terms have changed since 5 years ago. You say "emerging church" and it means almost anything any more. So using the terms "emerging church" now have to define it, explain it, correct a lot of misperceptions. I am not wedded to any term and I don't think most people are. I am wedded to the gospel and to Jesus' command of making new disciples not a term. It is incredible thinking back 5 years as I would have had absolutely no ideas that these kind of questions would ever be coming up about "emerging church". I understand why they come up, as the internet has a dark side where it can spread inaccurate reporting and people don't check sources quite often. I also understand because part of the emerging church world does raise theological questions and even make proposals that understandably cause questioning. I have found myself at theological disagreement in the emerging church world in significant ways and with what I feel are very central doctrines. And I want to personally be back to what I was originally in this all for. So, the terminolgy [sic] seems to have been very helpful, but now it is not as helpful if not distracting from that.
Praise God for Dan Kimball's wise voice in the midst of this often heated discussion. We need to listen to people like him who really get why the emergent movement started and what we should learn from it, but who also are unwilling to throw away so much that is so important.

Friday, September 12, 2008

An Argument for Arguments, Part 1

Sometimes it seems inconvenient that God gave us the kind of Bible that He did. Wouldn't it be easier or His people to understand what He wanted of them if He would have just dictated a series of propositions that clearly say, point by point, who God is, who we are, and what He wants from us? Probably. But then, most of us who read the Bible realize that "easy" is rarely in the job description.

In his commentary on Colossians, N. T. Wright deals with the problem of figuring out the relevance of an anciently conditioned text to a modern audience, saying, “It is part of God’s plan for his people that they should wrestle, in reading the Bible, with puzzles and problems that a library of mere timeless truths would never produce, and thus to grow into a maturity appropriate for fully human beings.” (41)

This, I think, is insightful. The reasons that God has not given us a collection of propositional timeless truths are probably manifold, and certainly more than I can handle in full in one blog post. But one element in Wright’s analysis seems absolutely correct and quite helpful, namely that God is not so interested in developing a bunch of merely well-informed folks. The Bible is a book that is meant to challenge not just our understanding, but our character. God’s Spirit uses His Word to form each part of us.

So God acted within history and guided His people to record the results and reflections thereof. The result is that we are confronted with an array of difficulties in figuring out how to be His people as we read His book. There are plenty of implications for this, but let me briefly note just one (though I’d be interested in your comments on others): we should argue about the Bible.

Arguing presupposes a community of faith. If we were saved as individuals, perhaps we could get away with not arguing. I would go to my room with my Bible and try to figure it out between me and God. But that is not, in fact, how he saved us.

Wright says that we should work at our interpretations of the Bible “…in the context where they can be worked at with faith and hope and (especially between disagreeing parties) love.” (41) It seems to me that within these bounds and for these aims, arguing about the Bible is, well, Biblical.

If arguing about the Bible is done well, it will take the whole person- or rather, the whole persons. I and my arguing partner should think seriously, love deeply, and be genuinely open to correction (Proverbs informs us that it is only the fool who refuses to listen).

I hope this has helpfully introduced a topic that I will finish discussing in my next post, which will probably be next Wednesday. In that post I will go into some more detail about some specific ways that God has used arguments about the Bible to draw me to Him and to my brothers and sisters in Christ, including some lessons I’ve learned about how to do this well. I’d be glad for your input at any point.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The 10 Reasons to Plant a Church in the Bay Area

It's time for a shameless plug. I want to plant churches in the Bay Area, and I'm in search of those who share this vision. Thinking about where to plant? Why not come to Nor-Cal? Consider the following 10 incentives...

Let's start with some frivolous (and delicious) reasons to plant a church here.

10. Fenton's Creamery - It's been around for 114 years, so it has to be good. The portions are absolutely ludicrous. You will hurt yourself if you try to finish some of these sundaes. My Personal favorite is the Black and Tan . I'm still debating whether I can eat this and not (of necessity) commit the sin of gluttony.

9. Barney's Burgers - Tons of selection, and everything is good.

8. Zachary's Pizza - This place is a little slice of Chicago (or perhaps heaven) in the middle of the California. The Zachary's Special is my personal favorite. If I had to be stuck on a stranded island with just one pizza, this would be the one.

And now, some slightly more substantive reasons to plant a church here.

7. The Weather - Winters are a tad drizzly, but not too cold. In the summer, the fog keeps everything nice and cool in the morning/evening. In the early fall, the weather warms up...to around 85/90. There's generally a cool breeze coming in off the bay. Moreover, the air quality is outstanding.

6. The Variety - If you like urban, you can't do much better than San Francisco. If you like lots of local flavor, Santa Cruz and Berkeley provide it in abundance. If you like the ocean, Half Moon Bay is just 30-45 minutes down the coast. If you like the mountains, Tahoe is about a 3 hour drive up I-80. It's tough to find activites you can't do here.

5. The Cultural Diversity It's definitely a difficult place to get bored.

4. The Relaxed/Communal Atmosphere. I've found people to be quite approachable in the Bay Area. There are real neighborhoods in various places, despite the fact that this is an urban center. This appears to bode well for the prospective church planter.

And now, some very substantive reasons...

3. Cities Influence the Rest of the World. As Tim Keller has noted, cities are what propel cultures forward. Cities like San Francisco and Berkeley have exerted tremendous influence on our cultural milieu, and universites like Cal and Stanford have helped to shape academia. When the gospel infiltrates cities, it seems that whole cultures are transformed.

2. The Bay Area is in Desperate Need of Good Churches. This is one of the most unreached places in America.

1. Jesus Wants You to. I'm not saying that Jesus is in fact calling you to plant a church in the Bay Area. Rather, I mean that if Jesus were calling you to plant a church in the Bay Area, this would constitute the single best reason to plant a church in the Bay Area.

Well, there you have it. If you don't feel the slightest inclination to plant a church here, I'm not offended. However (in all seriousness) if this is something you'd like to do, I'd love to talk with you about it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Abortion in Hard Cases

I am not impressed by the anti-pro-life argument that makes the exception the rule. Not only is this a bad idea for public policy consideration in general, but abuse and rape cases (the exception) make up a minimal percentage (less than 1 is what I last heard) of all abortion cases. When pro-choicers appeal to this argument as a way of retaining all abortion rights, I want to respond quite simply by proposing a pro-life bill that will allow for abortion in such exceptions. Problem solved.

Well, problem mostly solved. The thing of it is, that would only be a partial victory as far as I see it. It would be a great victory, but a partial one nonetheless, because I cannot understand how abortion is at all helpful in those cases.

Maybe that sounds insensitive. I don't pretend for a second to understand the unbelievable pain of not only being abused or raped, but becoming pregnant as a result. I won't even try to speculate as to what that must feel like, and before I begin to discuss how we ought to react to that, let me first offer the exhortation to Christians to, before anything else, meet women in such horrible situations with overwhelming love and support. And I'm not just saying that so that no one gets mad at me- it's important.

HSAT, why shouldn't abortion be allowable for a rape victim? Because you can really only think that it is ok if you actually don't think that the fetus is fully human. If the fetus is fully human, than s/he is an innocent third party, having never done anything to hurt the mother. There is no self-defense issue, except that a woman would, perhaps understandably but still wrongly, not want to deal with the increased painfulness of her situation. Put simply, how would murdering a fully human and fully innocent third party be a reasonable response? Allowing for abortion in such situations is a tacit (or maybe not-so-tacit) admission that you do not think the fetus is fully human.

Adoption is probably the best possibility for most mothers in this situation, and again, I'm really not trying to minimize the amount of pain such a situation must cause. But pain inflicted upon me does not give me a right, no matter how great it is, to treat an innocent third party unjustly. That's the bottom line.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Solving all the World's Problems...or at Least Some of Them

If you yearn to waste more time on the internet, you can't do much better than pay a visit to www.ted.com. Here's some info on TED...

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader.

The annual conference now brings together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).

This site makes the best talks and performances from TED available to the public, for free. More than 200 talks from our archive are now available, with more added each week.

There's a veritable cornucopia of lectures to choose from at TED. In about an hour, you can learn about poverty in Africa, urbanization, mind control, and how to listen to music.

Recently, I've been mulling over a lecture by Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomberg (his handsome visage is pictured above). Lomberg asks how we should prioritize solutions to the world's biggest problems. What problems confronting the world are actually solvable? Which problems can be dealt with most efficiently/effectively? Where can the most good be done? After extensive research with the Copenhagen Concensus, Lomberg concludes that these are the 4 most profitable areas we can focus on (1 being the most profitable);

4. Malaria - decreasing its incidence
3. Free Trade - removing barriers within the market
2. Malnutrition - providing more micronutrients (esp. for people in the developing world)
1. HIV/AIDS - focusing more on prevention than treatment

I appreciate Lomberg's realism. Since we can't solve every problem, it makes sense to focus on the most promising solutions. So here's my question; should this influence how the church uses its resources? Are we stewarding our money wisely? Are we contributing to workable solutions, or are we giving simply to assuage our consciences? I wholeheartedly believe that each Christian is obligated to help anyone who comes in his/her path (Lk. 10:25-37). However, we have gobs of resources in this country, and perhaps this Danish economist might offers some great ideas on how to expand the reign of Christ.


The early 90’s were truly the golden age of computer games. I spent many an afternoon attempting to uncover “Where in the USA is Carmen San Diego?” (Given that I can’t locate anything in Eastern Europe, “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” might have been a better option.) I took daily journeys down the “Oregon Trail” and always named my passengers John, Laurie, Jenny, Jeffrey (after my family) and Cassie (after my rabbit.) Sadly, it pained me much more to read that my rabbit had cholera or diphtheria than my brother or parents. Seeing “Cassie is dead” emblazoned at the bottom of the screen brought a little lump to my throat. The one game I never liked was “SimCity” (I’m not a big civil engineering enthusiast), but my brother and cousins spent hours constructing residential areas, factories, and parks.

Well, for your enjoyment and edification, I’ve constructed a little game called “SimChurch” (and by "game" I mean "question you can ponder and then comment about on this blog.")

The more I read the New Testament, the more I realize how much freedom we have in conducting large group church meetings. So what would you do if you got to design a service from the ground up? What traditional elements might you exclude? What new elements might you embrace? How long would it be? How often would it be? Would you include kids and teenagers?

Here’s my tentative SimChurch plan:
11:00-11:10: Personal Testimony/Open Praise and Thanksgiving Sharing
11:10-11:20: Corporate Prayer Concerning Community, Nation, Church Members, Missionaries, Persecuted Church, etc.
11:20-11:40: Sermon
11:40-11:50: Questions and Discussion About the Sermon
11:50-12:00: Music and Communion
12:00: A Hearty Lunch and Sports/Games

I think we'd include all ages in this gathering and then have a midweek synagogue school style meeting for the kids.

I'd love to read your ideas. Post away!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Saving Righteousness of God (ch. 8)

At long last we reach the end of Dr. Bird's monograph. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and interacting, and feel a renewed desire to go back to the sources. In summing up his work, Bird offers (1) some reflections on post-New Perspective scholarship, and (2) N.T. Wright.

As regards the former, Bird desires that we go beyond reformed and revisionist readings of Paul and arrive at a new synthesis. The basic tenants of the reformers need not be eschewed, but neither should salient points of the New Perspective be dismissed. Henceforth, all scholarship must engage with Sanders, Dunn, Wright and their ilk. It is naive to think that revisionist readings of Paul add no clarity/correction/focus to those of the reformers. We must test everything, and hold to what is good. Bird conceives of himself as painting a portrait of Paul; one with more historical color than others. I concur. Paul is a superb theologian, able to articulate different facets of a single event (i.e. justification). His theologizing is complex and multi-textured. Because Bird appreciates this multivalence, he is able to paint a more robust portrait than the reformed and revisionist hardliners. While I might quibble about his wording at times (e.g. what does it means that justification is "equally soteriological and social in Paul"? (182)), I feel Bird's project is a success. It's time for those of the reformed persuasion (including myself) to appreciate the social thrust of Paul's teaching. Conversely, I believe it's time for revisionist scholars to affirm that the reformers said something profoundly right about St. Paul.

Concerning N.T. Wright, Bird wishes to show that he is within the pale of reformed orthodoxy. If one defines reformed orthodoxy as adherence to the 5 solas, then Wright is ostensibly orthodox. Moreover, Wright has expressed a belief in something similar to the imputation of Christ's righteousness (though he has at times been needlessly critical of the traditional Protestant formulation of the doctrine). It should also be remembered that there is diversity within the reformation on the issue of justification. I appreciated Bird's attempt to defend Wright against some of the vitriol directed at him. Denouncing Wright's views on just about anything takes a good deal of prudence; something his detractors have sometimes lacked. He has written extensively on New Testament Theology, and any attempt to refute his position on justification should be undertaken with a healthy measure of humility. Still, I find some things in Wright's work disconcerting, not least his ambiguity on the role of works in justification. It seems that a little bit of clarification on Wright's part could go a long way in resolving this controversy.

In light of this chapter, here are a few final questions for Dr. Bird...

Tom Wright is due to write his definitive book on Paul. What does he need to do in this work to...(a) clarify his views on justification, and (b) gain adherents to his position?

Dr. Bird, thank you so much for your willingness to dialogue. It has been a privilege and a blessing discussing Paul with you. We at Christians at Context look forward eagerly to how God uses you to advance His Kingdom.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sit Down, You're Rocking The Vote

I love voting. I love driving to the polls on a clear and brisk Bay Area morning. I love wearing my "I Voted" sticker all day long. I love watching as the votes are tallied throughout the day. If voting for our next president was structured like voting for the next American Idol, I would seriously vote one hundred times in a row.

Whether you're a voting junkie like me or pondering not voting at all in the upcoming election, I thought Fred Sanders' article on Voting As A Spiritual Discipline was particularly insightful.

Vote early and vote often!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sex is Fun, So Abortion is Legal

I should tell you from the start that none of the following comes from my own head. I was listening to a John MacArthur sermon on the radio one day and he made the below point that I think is darn near incontrovertible.

Here is the basic thesis: the abortion debate is about sex, not abortion. The reason that there is any question about when a fetus becomes a real human being (and thus, whether it is ok to kill it or not) is because sex is so fun. The baby is seen as an unfortunate side effect of the romping good time of copulation.

Think about it like this: if human procreation happened through, say, an adult male and adult female running a mile together while holding hands, there would be no question about whether the resulting fetus was a human 3 months into pregnancy or not. Or take it a step further and imagine that the female had to swiftly kick the male in the groin for conception to happen. If the process was no fun, the result would be no question. The abortion debate is thus not the abortion debate at all; it is the sex debate. (NB: these counter-examples are not from MacArthur!).

Obviously I've made no scientific argument here and my only appeal is to human conscience. But it is intuitive, right? Sinful humanity wants to have sex, and they do not want any consequences or limits. All of this serves as one more reminder of the utter pervasiveness of sin in our world. It is a stark realization that if we must kill babies so that we can have more sex, so be it!