Category Archives: Reflections

Further Out or Further In?

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Imagine you are climbing a tree. (Not my thing, but in the imagination one can do all kinds of things.) You go some way up and then decide to go out on a limb, as the saying goes. You make your way, shimmying out from the trunk of the tree, choosing your direction as smaller branches divide. The limb grows thinner and thinner. At some point the limb begins to bow under your weight, but you keep going. Finally you hear the dreaded sound, a small, yet sharp “crack”…  Now, choose your own adventure. Do you go further out, or further in? Do you keep going out on that limb, or do you backtrack and draw nearer to the trunk?

This little thought experiment captures where I am these days concerning the future of the Church and, especially, of my denomination, and my own future in it.

I have begun a new sermon series on the book of Daniel. The inspiration for delving into this challenging book struck me during worship the Sunday after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the nation. We were worshiping at Manteo Baptist Church, in Manteo, NC, a warm and welcoming congregation. During the service the pastor shared a story. He related how he had been headed to the hospital to visit a congregant when, while sitting at a stoplight which had just turned green, the car behind him honked impatiently. Suddenly he was lost. He still knew where he was, but he forgot where he was going, and momentarily didn’t know whether to turn or go straight. Everything was the same, yet it was all suddenly unfamiliar. He said that was how he was feeling in light of the Supreme Court decision. And that is how I am feeling as well. He put it perfectly.

I guess what troubles me is the sense of a shift in the place of the church in our society. Earlier this year, the much discussed Pew study pointed to an increase in those who say they have no religious preference and a corresponding decrease in the number of people identifying as Christians. The legal struggles over same-sex marriage have often been portrayed, no doubt simplistically, as a battle against Christian bigotry. While pinning down national morals is a tricky business, we seem to have passed a tipping point in the acceptance of the moral authority of the Bible and the Christian Church, both outside of and within the Church. In my denomination, we have not rejected the authority of the Bible, but we have steadily broadened the range of acceptable interpretations and likewise permitted more and more in our life together.

The question is, though, when has a church so broadened the range of acceptable interpretations of Scripture and practice that there is no longer anything meaningfully binding the church together? To put it a different way, how many parts of the car do you need to replace until it is no longer the same car, but rather a new one?

One way of responding to the broadening is to reject it. We can refuse to accept other interpretations as heretical and seek to push out those who ascribe to such teachings. Lacking ability to do that, we can break off and join a different denomination or form our own. In my denomination many have done the latter, the former not being possible.

But there is another way. Instead of going further out, we can move further in. To leave the denomination or to form a new one, all in the cause of doctrinal or moral purity, is moving further out on that cracking limb, adding one more branch, a smaller and smaller one, to the tree of the Christian Church. How long before the limb simply cracks off and tumbles to the ground? Instead of dividing, we need to move back toward the trunk, back toward the main stream of the Christian Tradition. We need to be willing to stand less on our doctrinal and ecclesiastical distinctives and more on the central truths of our faith, a faith we share with over two billion people around the world.

I am not advocating leaving my denomination, but rather, while remaining in the branch of the Faith I am in, paying more mind to the main sweep of the Christian Faith, not being so focused on what makes my branch different than everyone else’s, but on what unites the whole tree.

This is not how I was raised or schooled. I was brought up in my church, seminary, and peer group to be a good Protestant, the word “protest” being operative. I am suggesting we become more “catholic”, noting the small “c”, in our work and ministry as the Church, noting the big “C”.

I am still thinking all this through. One thing I know for sure. What we as the Church have been doing needs to change. And the answer doesn’t lie in doing some new thing, but in returning to a different past.

The Peaceful War Waged for the Peace of All Mankind

Eusebius_of_CaesareaWhile reading through Eusebius’ Church History, following the readthefathers.org plan, I read this from the introduction to Book 5, which tells of some of the martyrs in the Church in the mid-second century.

Other writers of history record the victories of war and trophies won from enemies, the skill of generals, and the manly bravery of soldiers, defiled with blood and with innumerable slaughters for the sake of children and country and other possessions. But our narrative of the government of God will record in ineffaceable letters the most peaceful wars waged in behalf of the peace of the soul, and will tell of men doing brave deeds for truth rather than country, and for piety rather than dearest friends. It will hand down to imperishable remembrance the discipline and the much-tried fortitude of the athletes of religion, the trophies won from demons, the victories over invisible enemies, and the crowns placed upon all their heads.

Others before us, and Christians in other places today, are fighting this other war, this peaceful war for the “peace of the soul,” their own and the those of the world.

Here is the Christmas letter of one (via Internetmonk), Pastor Saeed Abidini, a U.S. citizen imprisoned in Iran for his faith:

Pastor AbidiniMerry Christmas!

These days are very cold here. My small space beside the window is without glass making most nights unbearable to sleep. The treatment by fellow prisoners is also quite cold and at times hostile. Some of my fellow prisoners don’t like me because I am a convert and a pastor. They look at me with shame as someone who has betrayed his former religion. The guards can’t even stand the paper cross that I have made and hung next to me as a sign of my faith and in anticipation of celebrating my Savior’s birth. They have threatened me and forced me to remove it. This is the first Christmas that I am completely without my family; all of my family is presently outside of the country. These conditions have made this upcoming Christmas season very hard, cold and shattering for me. It appears that I am alone with no one left beside me.

The angels declared the birth of the Christ to the Shepherds:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests! (Luke 2:14)

The peace of Christmas comes at a price, the death of the Christ. And the many who have likewise suffered and even died in imitation of Jesus, have continued to wage the war of Christmas, for the Peace of Mankind. Let’s pray for those who suffer in this war, and let us be ever willing to join them.

It’s a War. People Die.

In the midst of every small town in the north, in a prominent spot, is a Civil War monument. Here is the one in Montrose, PA, where I attended a conference last week. A soldier stands atop a plinth, the base of which is surrounded by what look like tombstones, but are lists of the men who died in the “War of 1861-1865”, as the memorial calls it. The list is divided by county and also indicates how many men enlisted from each. This memorial was erected in 1876, when the absence of those men was still felt. They were brothers, sons, husbands, and fathers.  Montrose sent about 165 men to war, of which about 25-30 have their names on this list of the dead. Not listed, though, are the walking wounded, those who lived, but carried the marks, the injuries, the missing limbs, the lead mini balls in their bodies, who bore the sufferings of the nation in their person.

Holes were left in every town. Spaces left vacant by the deaths of men of the town. Future leaders, workers. Fellow citizens. Holes that were not filled til the whole generation joined them in death. Undoubtedly, Montrose, and every small town would have been better off with those men alive, filling those empty places. It would have been better if they had not gone to war…

But…they fought for a cause. “The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved” says the monument. Had Montrose, and every other Northern town, not sent their young men off to war, the Union would have dissolved. And slavery, which this town opposed, being a stop on the Underground Railroad, would have continued. But they did go to war. And the Union was preserved. And slavery was ended. Their sacrifice helped to exorcise the demons of this national subjugation of a race of men. How could they have not taken part in the war. Yet in war people die, even when you win.

And so it is in the church. We too are in a war. We too fight an enemy. It is a real war, even though the victory has been accomplished. And people die. People get injured. Some of the soldiers are debilitated, sometimes less, sometimes more, even when you are the victors. Are we to avoid the fight because there is danger, because some will be hurt, maybe even die? Is our safety and comfort more important than the battle that is being waged? Will we refuse to take our place on the line, and allow the forces of evil to gain a respite? No. For Jesus is Lord. And his Kingdom is come and coming. And God desires all to be saved. And he will do that through us, pushing forward his kingdom, declaring his glories.

It is a real war we are engaged in, with a real enemy. People will be hurt, be debilitated, be killed. But the Kingdom will continue. And the Kingdom is worth it.

We Really Do Need the Same Old Thing

Without knowing our own history as Christians, we are, not unlike when we stop reading the Bible, cut off from the past, doomed to reinvent it as we pursue the new.

While reformation is always possible and is the reason to change anything in the church (“reformed and always reforming”, is the Presbyterian slogan), often the new is 1) something that the Church used to do that we forgot about and were unaware of, or 2) something that Christians tried before and found wanting.

As Lisa Robinson says here, “it is really the old that we need–what God did through his Son, how the church has been established, what God has already spoken.” And, I would add, what Christians before us have already learned about this thing called ministry. Great cartoon too!

Lisa Robinson

I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. But it does seem to me as I observe the evangelical landscape today, that what is tried and trust and true gets overlooked for the ‘new’. So many in the church today are captivated by newness – new trends, new ideas, new innovations, new buildings, new predictions, new words from God, new movements, etc that the old seems irrelevant. But really its the old that we need – what God did through his Son, how the church has been established, what God has already spoken. This is how we are refreshed, by gathering according to what has already been established, by remembering what God has already said and what he has already done to gather a body of people to himself through the work of the Son. But somehow that gets too boring and we get antsy for something new. Why?

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A New Day

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We had the wonderful, yet heart-wrenching joy of taking our oldest daughter to her first year of college last week. There were a lot of tears, a lot of smiles, and both will continue for some time. But overall, it is a great move.

“The Thin End of the Wedge”: John Stott’s Wisdom for Everyday Faithfulness

I just finished a little book by John Stott, *Problems of Christian Leadership*, published this year by InterVarsity. It is a collection of talks Stott gave on the subject at a conference some time ago. While a good distillation of Stott’s thoughts on leadership, it was an Appendix that most struck me. It contained two remembrances of John Stott, written by Mark Labberton and Cody Widmer, both of whom worked as Stott’s assistant for a time. It was a portion of Cody’s that struck me most:

I have countless memories of my three years serving as Uncle John’s study assistant, but two anecdotes are the most prominent in my mind. The first occurred after just a few months in the very mundane pattern of our daily life together. Every morning, at 11 a.m. sharp, I would bring him a cup of coffee. I would find him hunched over some letter or manuscript at his desk, consumed with the work before him, putting his un-paralleled powers of concentration to whatever task was at hand. Not wanting to disturb him, I would quietly set the cup and saucer adjacent to his right hand, and oftentimes he would mumble a barely audible word of thanks: “I’m not worthy”.

Initially I thought this comment was amusing, but after a few months I began to find it slightly bothersome. How could someone pronounce himself unworthy of an acidic cup of instant coffee? One morning I was feeling a little cheeky, and when Uncle John mumbled his usual expression, “I’m not worthy”. I quipped back, “Oh, sure you are.”

Uncle John stopped, and I saw the powerful magnetic look of his concentration ease from the papers before him. He slowly raised his gaze, and, with a look of immense seriousness, yet boyish playfulness, he responded, “You haven’t got your theology of grace right.” I laughed, grinned awkwardly, and then said, “It’s only a cup of coffee, Uncle John.” As I turned round and headed back into the kitchen, I heard him mutter, “It’s just the thin end of the wedge.”

It took me days to figure out what he meant by that final rejoinder in our exchange. Though I never discussed it with him, I am convinced that he meant this: if our commitment to Jesus Christ and our understanding of his grace do not impact the small places in our daily lives—the “thin end of the wedge”—then we are not living integrated lives. Our commitment to Christ may be most richly expressed in the most apparently inconsequential moments.

Corey Widmer in Problems of Christian Leadership, John Stott. IVP, 2014, emphasis added

This reflection was originally published in Portraits of a Radical Disciple: Recollections of John Stott’s Life and Ministry. Ed Christopher J.H. Wright. IVP 2011. 

I get into the habit of thinking I deserve all that I have. I do not. It is all grace.

 

 

Study Leave in Western PA

The Quad at Westminster College

The view from the bench where I did my morning devotions.

Last week I was away on what for me was Study Leave, and for my family was vacation. We went to the New Wilmington Mission Conference. Held on the campus of Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA, this was the place I became a Christian. Raised in the church, but never really personally believing in Jesus, it was here in 1985 that God revealed to me that Jesus died for me. So it is a special place for me. I went for 5 years back then, 4 of those with my future wife. We started attending again a few years ago, now with four kids in tow! This was our 4th year.

Today is a different day than when the conference first met 109 years ago as part of the outgrowth of the “Great Century” of Western missions. But you can still feel the vibrancy and energy of those old evangelical camp meetings. Crowds, music, a concern for the salvation of the world, calls to trust and obey, and of course, missionaries sharing their stories are the order of the day. It’s a great place. And my kids have been greatly blessed, as my wife and I were and are.

You can find out more here:  www.nwmcmission.org.

 

Being a Church History buff, a highlight for me was attending a study led by Andrew Walls, the eminent Church History Scholar and Missiologist. He spoke about the spread of Christianity in Africa, specifically in North and West Africa. He himself taught in Sierra Leone for a time. It was fascinating, at least to me. He used no notes, yet talked for 45 minutes each day telling stories and sharing facts. He is one of those teachers who you know has never met a question he hasn’t thought of and hasn’t answered. He is also one of the first scholars to point out the rise of Christianity in the non-Western world and the shifting geographic center of Christianity. This was in the 1970’s. It’s now a commonplace observation.

I got his book, “The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith,” from the library wanting to learn more. In it he tells the story of how he went to Sierra Leone to teach Church History, having studied at Oxford, only to realize that rather than teach about the spread of Christianity in the early centuries, he was actually witnessing the Gospel spreading through Western Africa in the same way. He shifted from teacher to observer. That book, a collection of talks and essays, is the fruit of his observations.

I was also happy to have met Russell Smith, who blogs at horizonsofthepossible.wordpress.com, and taught one of the adult Bible classes. He focused on the current American church context and how we are now in what he calls the Age of Design, passing on from Postmodernism. Go here for a full paper on this. I appreciated getting to talk with him to about church stuff.

And every year they have a big used book sale on the library. I did well this year (see?) bolstering my Greek and Roman section, all for $7!  The best find was “In Defense of History” by Richard Evans. It was highly recommended by book I am currently reading by Carl Trueman, “Histories and Fallacies”.

It wasn’t the same this year, though, because our oldest two daughters weren’t with us. Instead of going to the Missions conference they were off doing missions in Costa Rica, with our local Lutheran Synod.

Know Your Persecution Gameplan

Preaching through First Peter, I have been thinking about how Christians face persecution. Peter is writing to believers in Jesus who are suffering because of their faith. And he is trying to encourage them to endure in holiness and in hope.

Millions of Christians around the world today face severe persecution, even to death. It is commonly said that there have been more Christian martyrs in the past 100 years than in the whole of Christian history before the 20th century. Such persecution is a reality today.

But not really for most of us, Christians in America today. We face what I think of as soft persecution; the persecution of exclusion and derision, not of physical or mortal harm. In a nation in which about 77% of the population says they are Christian (1), we don’t face persecution for calling ourselves Christian, but rather for the way we live out that faith. For Christians who don’t adopt the ways of our culture at large, who stand out in the midst of it, persecution is rising. 

To take only one example, I am writing this on the day after same-sex marriage became legal in Pennsylvania(2), the 13th state which has taken that step. For Christians like me, the pressure to approve of same-sex marriage, and of homosexuality in general, will be increasing. My understanding of homosexual acts as sins will no doubt get me in trouble at some point. I doubt I will be physically harmed, but I will probably be maligned, and my pastoral work called into question by some. It is this persecution of exclusion and derision that Peter’s readers faced too. What does he tell them?

Be holy, as God is holy. As Christians who seek to follow Jesus in everything in our lives, we are going to stick out.  We won’t be able to agree with everything our culture does. We will find ourselves on the fringe a lot. Not in everything, of course. But our measure of what we should believe and do is God’s holiness, not the opinions of the world.

Endure suffering, whatever it is. Jesus was maligned. He was killed. Yet he endured. Why? Because God was up to something greater. Jesus’ goal was not his own life or reputation; it was to do the will of his Father. And oddly, that meant Jesus’ death of the cross. Our goal in our own lives is likewise that of the Father, not our own lives or reputations. We are to take the offensive in being faithful, not becoming defensive of ourselves.

Hope. Jesus died, but he also rose. And as he rose, we too shall rise. As Christians, our lives have opened up to eternity. We see far more ahead than behind. We live, even though we die. Yes, our faithfulness may bring us trouble in this life, but we do not need this life as do those who only have this life. Though we may suffer today, there is a vast tomorrow in which there will be no suffering, but only glory.

Enduring in holiness and hope. That is how we stand in persecution. Let’s begin practicing today, so we are ready for what is to come.

3 Lessons Learned from a Busy Christmas Season

christmas-rush“Phew!”, sighed the Pastor after the final service of the Christmas season which, in my church, is the New Year’s Eve service.  After that, the schedule begins to return to normal…and I have a moment to write a blog post.

My aim with this blog is to reflect on ministry by learning from the history of the Church. That’s harder than it may appear, which I guess is why it doesn’t seem to be done too much.  Over the last month or so, a flurry of activity has taught me a few things about trying to join history and ministry.

1)  Reflection is a luxury.  It takes time to stand back and to reflect on what we do.  And if you have no time, there is no reflection.  This is why we often don’t learn from history.  It takes time from our busy lives to learn what has been done before and then to try to connect it to what we are doing today.  Since we don’t have the time, or at least don’t take the time, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, instead of learning from it.

Lack of time is a fact of life, and always has been.  So we see that Church history tends to repeat as well, as it tends to be only those who had the luxury of peace and time who have been able to reflect.  That is why, of the reformers, John Calvin is the one who wrote the most thorough explanation of the theology of the Protestant Reformation.  He had the relative peace and security of his position in Geneva, while Martin Luther, being the pioneer of the Reformation, was mostly on the run from the Church authorities.  And the Anabaptists wrote very little in the way of reflection since they were hunted by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformers.

2)  The things we always do are living history.  Every church has its holiday traditions that have always been done.  The way we decorate; when we decorate; what the worship is like…  We just think this is the way to do it.  In reality these traditions are history alive today.  Every tradition is rooted in the past.  So often we just do it, not realizing why.  And sometimes those traditions become unmoored from our present and we have no idea why we do them today.  It’s a little like the woman who always cut the ends of her roast before putting it in the roaster because her grandmother always did, not  realizing that her grandmother did it because she did not have a pan big enough to fit a whole roast!

3)  We bend history to suit our purposes.  I love learning about why we do the things we do, especially with holidays like Christmas.  Why do we have Christmas trees?  Why is Santa like he is?  Why do we have Advent Wreaths, Nativities, and other decorations?  While all of these have their history, such practices demonstrate how we change history to suit our purposes.  A great example is the Nativity display, which anachronistically includes the Magi, even though the Gospel of Matthew says they came later, and came to a house, not the manger.

Though a luxury, it is important for us to reflect on what has been done before.  That way we can move things forward, instead of just repeating the same mistakes over and over.  At least, that is why I study the history of the Church.