John Stott’s Jesus and mine

I first heard John Stott, recently passed, at the Urbana Missions Convention in 1967. I was a freshman that year and grappling with what it meant to have both an intelligent and a radically passionate faith. Having been raised in a fundamentalist baptist environment, I had the passionate thing down. I was used to and comfortable with the white-hot Christianity of the South. I still am. But it was a faith that fell short of full intellectual assent. John Stott became part of the answer, a big part, to my search.

I can still see him, though far away from where I sat in the cavernous convention hall. With his British brogue, in and of itself magnetic, he preached through the book of 2 Timothy, and the theme was “Guard the Gospel.” I still remember many of the points and I can recall the feelings that coursed through me as the bible started to burn in my hands. Stott was not a man who used pulpit theatrics. His voice alone was his instrument. His humility, reserve, reticence when it came to self-advertisement, and submissiveness to the text of the Scriptures set a whole new pattern of Christ-following for me, a pattern fed by his colleague James Packer years later.

To me Stott stood for mere Christianity. He was Anglican, something I found mystifying as a freshman. That was pretty close to Roman Catholicism to me. He wore the collar and in his clergyman’s garb looked rather whispy and fragile, particularly with his perpetually rosy cheeks. But when he stepped to the speaker’s lectern, there was only the Bible in all of its majesty, ferocity and power. The call was to Christ, not to denomination, political party or sides of the culture wars. He spoke to us in the midst of the upheaval of the 1960s with the Vietnam War and cultural chaos bouncing our country along to where no one knew where. There was rage in the streets, the rise of black power, the 1968 democratic national convention, the Nixon resignation, etc. Stott was not oblivious to it all, but he did not play to it either. He preached Christ – authentically, compellingly, biblically, passionately. That was all.

And then he was gone. I mean gone from the American evangelical scene. Yes, he was still writing and speaking. But he merged into what is called Majority Christianity, that is, the Christianity of Africa, Asia and other developing areas of the world. He moved into the suffering of the world and balanced the preaching of the Gospel with Christian compassion for the left behind, the lost, the never will get ahead, the hungry and the sick. He chose to be a global Christian and the West could no longer have the best of his resources for itself.

I have read his magnus opum, The Cross, I don’t know how many times. It is on my list to go back and read again, as well as his book Basic Christianity. The Cross avoids some of the controversies surrounding the meaning of the crucifixion I wish he had taken on, but in its positive affirmations a better book cannot be found. It is accessible, focused, clear and unswerving in its devotion to Christ crucified as the center of our faith. His theology is cruciform theology, as was the Apostle Paul’s.

Stott was not a monk, but if Protestants had monks, he would be one. He never married for he was married to the church. He seemed to live the life of simplicity and moderation and community. He was not an isolated, ivory tower theologian but was immersed in the life of the church.  He felt safe to me – safe not in that he did not have an agenda of his own but that his agenda was Christ’s very own.

I talked to him once in an elevator at a conference. He was deferring, gracious, kind and without pretense. Actually it was hard to get him to assert himself. While this didn’t make for good elevator conversation, I came away pleased that the man I saw on the platform was the same man I saw in the elevator.

I never liked the name “Campus Crusade for Christ” anyway (and always wanted to shave Bill Bright’s mustache)

I was in InterVarsity when I was in college. It was the one time people thought I was an athlete. All I had to do was say I was part of InterVarsity and people wanted to know what sport I played. The gig was up pretty quick, but for a while I had them on the hook.

The name “Campus Crusade for Christ” always seemed like a “let’s go to a tent revival and get saved” kind of name to me. It didn’t feel right for a college crowd. Their new name doesn’t either. But whatever.

What is bothering some people is that in updating their name they kept the Crusade reference (now calling itself Cru) and dropped the name Christ. I would have thought they would have gotten rid of any reference to Crusade with its rather dark association with the Crusades of bygone times.

Naming a group can be a bummer. My home church is The Tabernacle Church of Norfolk. It is about as nonPentecostal as you can get, but so many Pentecostal churches have Tabernacle in its name one would have thought the name didn’t fit. I wanted to take a friend to church but he at first didn’t want to go because his unchurched family thought that the name for sure meant it was one of those “crazy churches” that spoke in tongues and danced in the aisles. Of course, Tabernacle is a reference to the many kinds of religious buildings being constructed in the early part of the 20th century for revivalistic preaching. They were plain, easily constructed buildings that were designed essentially for preaching. Many Christian campgrounds call their chapel The Tabernacle.

The pastor always wanted to change that name. Not a chance. Today the name means nothing, communicates nothing, stands for nothing. It’s a name hung around the church’s neck and is just there to be explained.

So why do we have Lutherans anyway?

Baptists I know. I am one. Always have been. Always will be. Methodists I know. Never have been one. Never will be. Presbyterians I know. Might have become one. After all, I went to a Presbyterian seminary. Couldn’t do it. Can’t baptize an infant. Assembly of God I know. Found out that two hour services are not quite my thing. Orthodox I know. Can’t stand during the whole service. My right hip disqualifies me from being a true-blue Orthodox. Roman Catholics I know. I just don’t want to sing that awful. It should be about other things, I know, but if a group sings that bad, there must be something else missing, mustn’t there be?

Lutherans I don’t know. Why do we even have Lutherans? They exist. And in their case it seems that existence precedes essence. In my smaller town in Kansas of 28,000 people there were three Lutheran churches. BTW, the only murder that happened in that town in the ten years I was there was by a Lutheran pastor. Don’t be fooled by their quiet ways!!!! They can be packing.

I ran across this interview with a Lutheran. Some good insight into the culture of Lutheranism. The guy likes to read Martin Luther. I love reading Martin Luther. No holds barred with this guy. He is an entertaining as he is biblical. Martin Marty is also a Lutheran. If I had to go to Marty to find out what the Bible said, my hair would spontaneously ignite.

The Missouri Synod branch of the Lutheran movement went through a miracle of sorts in the 1970’s when they took their denomination back from the liberals, somewhat akin to the move of the conservatives of the Southern Baptist Church. But a Lutheran conservative is a totally different animal. Don’t get them mixed up. A Lutheran conservative is no stinkin’ evangelical (even though there is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which, interestingly enough, is not evangelical). They are Lutherans, and their pastors cannot participate as pastors in our ecumenical gatherings. They are Lutherans. Have I said this enough? One more time. They are Lutherans!!!

The fact is that Lutherans make very little contribution to the broader church and struggle to say in what sense they belong on the landscape – other than the fact that Lutheranism just is. Generally most of us don’t think that is a very good reason. They do.

Remember the spontaneous prayer service at Yankee stadium after 9/11. Among the religious leaders on the field leading was a Lutheran pastor. He was rebuked from his denomination for participating in the event. There is some insight there into Lutheranism.

I have gone to almost every type of church there is. Never have gone to a Lutheran service. I don’t know why. I am generally inquisitive and open. But Lutheranism draws a blank from me. It just lays flat and doesn’t get up and stretch.

If you are a Lutheran reading this, I’m just another guy out here who doesn’t get it. Cut me some slack.

Napoleon Dynamite men and Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider women in the church

I recently responded to The Naked Pastor at one of his posts that brought up the issue of fearless women.

I have always asked myself why most of the fearless people I have known in church have been women. I can come up with an evolutionary, genetically based answer – don’t mess with their nest and where they want to raise their young.You mess with the gene pool and you are messing with them. Can’t figure out if this is sexist or not. But one way or another, they take what happens at church as critical to their lives and will take incredibly brave stands to preserve the good. I have seen a lot, and I mean a lot, of “whatever” Napoleon Dynamite men. So many that I just wonder sometimes. Around a lot of pastors who are making it in the war that is the church is a group of women storm troopers who know that the pastor is in a battle. It seems that Jesus had such around him,too, though only male apostles. It would be great to have women chime in on their explanation of why this phenomenon exists.

I see this phenomenon at every church I have ever been in. My pastor friends have, too. There are just some women who incredibly care and are incredibly powerful in commitments and loyalties without compromising their femininity. (spell that last word five times in a row quickly – I can’t). I have talked to plenty of males about whom I conclude that they may care. They just don’t care enough.

We are all familiar with the strong, silent type male. We are all familiar with the gabs-a-lot-doesn’t-show-up-on-workday male. We all know the I’m-too-busy-with-my-career male. And we certainly know the typical-show-up-at-board-meetings-and-have-my-say male who can’t be counted on to lead a ministry, take an initiative and actually do the work of the church.

When I was in seminary I remember one of my profs telling us about “pillow elders”. These are the wives of the church leaders who remind their husbands before they drift off to sleep what has to be done in church. The prof was reminding us how critical these women were to the health of the church and to remember how important their role is.

I do know after 40 years in church ministry that women are incredibly aware of this phenomenon and that most of them would not be caught dead on a church board. They don’t want to waste all that time. Their appetite for work, advancing the cause, culling out slackers, and taking risks is amazing to behold. Putting them on a board is like putting a lion in a cage. The men can show up and act like they are in charge. The women are already used to that. Their end game is to change things, not get credit for who is important.

The other thing that impresses me is that most of these women don’t care much about the “women in leadership” thing. They are not ideologues. They have no doubt they would do a better job than what is being done. But it is the doing of the job that fills the field of vision.

Obviously, this is stereotypical and the readers should not draw unwarranted conclusions about what I believe from these observations – as in, all men are Homer Simpson neanderthals and all women are Linda Carter Superwomen. But as I look back over my years in ministry, one of my memories is the incredible number of strong women I have met in ministry. And, unfortunately, the incredible number of weak men.

And you are right – I have used the word “incredible” an incredible number of times in this post.

What’s a body to do?

Protestants have a problem when it comes to worship – what to do with our bodies.

Most Protestants won’t kneel, genuflect, cross themselves, bow the head, wear a head covering, clap or in general move. They sit (mostly) and stand.

My observation is that the body wants to embody what is in the heart. It wants to do something with what is believed. But Protestants won’t let it. We put reins on “brother ass”, as St. Francis so termed it, and keep it in check.

Thus some of the attractiveness of some of the liturgical traditions and even of Islam to some cradle Christians. They all embody the truth. They want to use the body to express the heart or maybe even to train and remind the heart. There is something appropriate and even rightfully humbling to use the physical to submit to the spiritual. Praying five times a day on one’s knees and bowing, wearing a certain kind of clothing, especially in worship (I go crazy every time a church thinks it is being accepting by announcing on its website its casual dress code), kneeling or standing in God’s presence (but by no means relaxing by sitting) all seem to me more of an embodiment of worship that express the Creator-creature distinction.

Yes, I know that one can do all these things and not mean it. Does that prove that therefore they should not be done? Surely it does not follow.

In my tradition the only use of the body that indicates a heart change is walking the aisle during the invitation at the end of the service. At that point, it is no longer okay to just sit or stand. Now one must walk. After one walks, for the rest of his or her life they can only sit or stand.

The use of the senses in worship needs to be revisited in my tradition. There are some things in my tradition I am not willing to abandon in order to adopt a more liturgical community – the singular authority of the Bible and the heavy emphasis on preaching, the priesthood of all believers and a rightful suspicion of a clerical class, a plain-spoken “everyman” religion that does not put undue confidence in rite and ceremony, and others. But these things do not mean that I abandon every desire to bring my body into the act of worship. I utilize the sign of the cross in my devotional life and observe the divine hours to order my day. I utilize read prayers in my worship to teach me to be more careful in my speaking to the Divine Majesty, lest my careless and thoughtless words end up being noise and offensive. One religious ceremony I cannot bear, however, is the baptism of children. I passionately reject this practice. If I ever baptized an infant I fully expect my hand to wither and become leprous right in front of me. It actually physically hurts me to witness a child baptism. I guess that is how baptist I am. That is also one of the reason I cannot pastor in a nondenominational church that will accept infant baptism, even if it does not practice infant baptism, as a proper baptism for church membership. My own home church many years ago offered me an opportunity to pastor a new church plant, something I would have loved to do, but I could no longer accept its acceptance of infant baptism as a valid expression of New Testament Christianity. This does not mean I do not accept Christians as Christians who differ from me. It only means that I cannot participate in their offering the sign of faith to infants.

To the degree that I get out at times and experience the larger family of evangelicalism, I can see some of these same concerns popping up in evangelical church services. I think the old days of thinking everything liturgical is Roman Catholic are fading. I believe there is a growing suspicion that for something to be true it must be spontaneous and extemporaneous.

This a good metaphor on how we are handling our national debt.

“It’s like you and your missus announcing you’ve set your new credit limit at $1.3 million, and then telling the bank to send demands for repayment to Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s kindergartner next door.”    Mark Steyn

That about captures what is going on. Aside from all the complications when economists get involved, everyone knows one should not spend money that is not there before it is spent. I actually lived before the days of credit cards, so this was quite an easy lesson to learn growing up. It was much harder to get into debt. It should be something that is hard to do, not easy to do. This year, the federal government borrows 43 cents of every dollar it spends, a ratio that is unprecedented.  As Steyn notes, in the book, “Financing U.S. Debt: Is There Enough Money In The World – And At What Cost?”, the authors’ answer is yes, technically, there is enough money in the world – in the sense that, on current projections, by 2020 all it will take to finance the Government of the United States is for the rest of the planet to be willing to sink 19 percent of its GDP into U.S. Treasury debt. Which Kitchen and Chinn say is technically doable. Yeah. In the same sense that me dating Scarlett Johannson is technically doable. Unfortunately, neither Scarlett nor the rest of the planet is willing to do it. It’s not 2020, and we’re not yet asking the rest of the planet for a fifth of its GDP. But already the world is imposing its own debt ceiling. Most of the debt issued by the Treasury so far this year has been borrowed from the Federal Reserve. That adds another absurd wrinkle to the D.C. charade: Washington is negotiating with itself over how much money to lend itself.

Now we have figured out that we don’t have to pay it back at all. We can have future generations pay our bills. What an idea!!! Unless you are an adult and actually think that adults should take care of children. Stop me if I am wrong here, but humans are the only animal life on the planet that will actually take care of and raise grandchildren. There is a reason we have been given this DNA. But we are doing our best to go against the natural and instinctual.

If we have enough politicians that want to tell the truth rather than simply get re-elected, this kind of game is over. It is the same in the church. If we had enough pastors that simply wanted to teach what the Bible teaches as true, rather than keep their incomes rolling in, how much better off the church would be. Sure, lots of pastors would lose their heads. What’s new in that? Actually, what is new is that the numbers of pastors who believe it should never come to that is increasing.

Same-sex marriage, rampant divorce and multiple marriages among church leaders with very lost children, the doctrine of eternal lostness and Jesus Christ as the only way to God, the authority of the Bible, the confrontation with militant Islam are all topics that most pastors avoid like a third rail. And churches sit idly by while their pastors offer gruel for spiritual meals while the church anemically wastes away. The very consciences of the congregations get no spine-supporting, courage-building, conviction-stirring assistance from pastors.

No one wants to be professionally mean. And it can turn into that, if one is not careful. It is necessary to do that soul work, as a pastor, which keeps the heart soft with the miseries and ills that afflict us and which the eternity before us will seal. It is necessary to have a whole-hearted satisfaction in Jesus as glorious and most excellent. We are to go amongst the people not as their severest critics but with the greatest of good news, satiated with the awareness of what the gospel can do to someone who believes it.