Winsome Words 7/31/12

I belong to the “Great-God Party”, and will have nothing to do with the “Little-God Party.” Christ does not want nibblers of the possible, but grabbers of the impossible. … C. T. Studd (1860-1931)

I encourage all to read Norman Grubb’s biography of CT Studd, missionary pioneer to interior Africa. Studd was a most angular and irregular fellow, but all zeal and fire in the cause of Christ and of missions. One of my favorite quotes from Studd is:  “Some may wish to live with the sound of church and chapel bell–I wish to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” Studd was not of the modern day positive thinking Christianity. The God he served was the God for others, the God who enables us to overcome the inertia of self-advantage to be used of the Spirit to bring the Gospel to the lost millions.

Winsome Words 7/30/12

To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do — to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst — is by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own. … Fredrick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

Is this not the danger of learning too much from life? Like Mark Twain wrote, the cat that once sat on a hot stove will never sit on a cold stove either. The cat learned too much from a lesson. And so do we. We learn to persevere, be patient, cool our jets, not overreact, bide our time, and keep at the plow. But in so doing, and reaping the reward, we also learn to be cold, unaffected, and isolated. Is this not learning too much?

That softness of heart which is absolutely necessary to Christ-following can disappear under the grinding assault of severe providences, providences which by God’s hand had been calculated to open our heart to the seed of the Gospel. Instead we become a very responsible and a very plodding people who in large measure have shut down the capacity to feel. There is ever so thin a line between that attitude which keeps us engaged and at work in the trench warfare that is the Christian life and that war hardened soldier who no longer can feel the horror and brokenness of it all. We have learned the motions but lost our humanity. We can do our responsibilities but can no longer worship and weep over our lostness and the lost condition of others who suffer under the tyranny of the present evil age.

Winsome Words 7/29/12

It is neither possible for man to know the truth fully nor to avoid the error of pretending that he does.
–Reinhold Niebuhr


Through Christ we know REAL TRUTH, or as Francis Schaeffer was fond of putting it, true truth. Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” If truth was ephemeral and could not be known, Jesus was ephemeral and could not be known.

But he is not “all known.” We know him, indeed, but not all of him. One thing in particular we do not know is how he would do the truth in the our situation. He often, to use a phrase from Emily Dickinson, he told truth “on the slant.” He used metaphor, story, simile to slide past the sleeping lions at the gate of our consciousness. Before we know it, Jesus is through the gate and on the inside of us, on the other side, as it were. The truth got into us and we have not been able to scratch deep enough to erase it.

But, like the disciples, we find that Jesus goes ahead of us and we must hurry to catch up with him. As the Bible often reports, the disciples were dismayed by him. Not disappointed, but caught off guard. “He said what?” This is what we are talking about.

To pretend that I really know, have it down, an expert, with Greek and Hebrew expertise and graduate school credentials, seems as almost as necessary to the human condition as daily good. “To seem to be” is our soul’s food. It is junk good but we get quick energy by means of it. We think we have won an argument when in fact the other person has just stopped talking to us. We think we have made an impression when in fact we have, just not the one we thought we made. We think we have something wrapped up, when in fact it is like old saran wrap that keeps nothing sealed.

It is just this attitude that does even more damage than what we say. Posers are epidemic in the faith. We pose as gods, little gods who speak for the great god. People get the impression they have to get through us to get an audience with the Almighty. Here is the great swamp. Ignorance may be forgiven. But the final sinking is the pretend that all is clear.

If you are a Christian do not shrink back from the declaratory and exclamatory sentence. But their power is just in the humility of the one who so speaks. And we are quick to keep people from sacrificing to us as Paul and Silas did when they were treated as gods on their missionary journey. “We are men just as you are.” Any other perch is not a throne but a plank that we walk and soon are to drop off.

Liberalism within the Western church teetering on the edges of racism to maintain its sexual ethics

The globally connected Western church is finding that to maintain its vision of sexual permissiveness it is running head long into the traditional churches of the second and third worlds. This is particularly true of the Anglican communion as it soon moves to elect its titular head to replace Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. See here.

The churches of the second and third worlds are particularly insistent that homosexual practice and same-sex marriage are contrary to God’s Word as well as to human flourishing. Denominations which are global in constituency and whose policies are shaped through leadership that rises from the continents of Latin America, Africa and Asia are facing hurdles to affirming liberal sexual practices.

It is relatively easy for denominational leadership, which is by and large Western, to accuse other Westerners of being primitive, barbaric, reactionary and shallow when they stand against same-sex marriage. But these same charges will not work when leveled at the non Western nations. They would appear colonial and racist, which would be a sin, in the mind of a liberal, of even a higher order.

What to do? What to do? How about trying to jerry-rig denominational leadership so that non Western nations don’t have a place at the table in such a way that they can continue to vote down the sexually permissive resolutions spilling out of the Western church? This is exactly what the African Anglican communion is suspecting the white, liberal Anglican establishment of doing.

The United Methodists just went through this in their 2012 General Conference. The second and third world presence kept the Conference from redefining marriage to include same-sex marriage. American Methodism would have affirmed it hands down. One hundred and fifty years after Methodism planted the church across the globe, those very churches are reprimanding their parents in the faith for their sexually promiscuous ethics.

White churches don’t know what to do. They are dangerously close to a new colonialism if they don’t submit to the general will and they are too close to using words that demean and raise the old ghost of imperialism.

Winsome Words 7/28/12

“I often think of the set pieces of the liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.”   Annie Dillard

The older I have become the more I uneasy I am around extemporaneous worship where words are thrown around all over the sanctuary without rhythm, harmony, thoughtfulness or the beauty that comes from “deep looking.” These careless words get into the people’s souls. Words are not nothings, expendable, airy and evaporative. They move into souls, produce thoughts – thoughts are not nothings. They are somethings. And with enough carelessness and number they soon become like driving through the blight of an urban landscape. They assault the soul with ugliness.

Liturgy, in its best sense and use, is nothing other than the attempt to be good stewards of words so that at the end of the service we have prayed aright, asked for that which should be asked and not sought the Lord for that which is forbidden and harmful without even knowing it. It is an attempt to give God glory due his blessed name and exalted him before the invisible principalities and powers. It is a recognition that the only thing that matters in worship is not the state of the heart but the words of our mouths, that they be acceptable in his sight.

Churches that are used to slopping praying, slopping preaching and disordered affections will find a blight of spiritual diseases for which there are no antibodies. These will run through the camp and leave parishioners weak and without confident leading and strong hope. Parishioners will leave service less mindful of God’s glory and more aware of the state of being of others.

A sincere heart is the root of acceptable worship, for sure. We must worship in spirit, from the inside of a man. But we must also worship in truth, not worship filled with human desirings run amuck and with random chaos and short attention spans. Well chosen words, patterned, harmonious, rhythmic, and designed to mesh with the soul, not to be weighted by the pound and dropped or spilled on lives already teetering.

My response to the Chick-fil-A Brouha

I don’t have one. These kinds of moments pop up so many times and so many places that if I chose to go to the internet every time there was an episode, I would grow old (older, shall I say) without ever leaving my desk chair. This is a passing moment. The serious work of culture transformation occurs at deeper and more invisible layers. Both the gay community and those of contrary opinion are wearing themselves out with flash storms. Generally very nice and very kind people on both sides waste their credibility by shouting too much and doing too little real good.

Here is a great archaelogy lecture on the Philistines at Ekron

One of my great regrets academically speaking is not spending significant moments in actual archaeological work in the Ancient Near East, particularly Palestine. It didn’t quite fit in with my student finances at the time and then didn’t fit in with the finances of family life with children came along. But somehow I should have done it. My OT prof, Palmer Robertson, warned students about coming up with all their reasons not to do it, pressing upon us the difference it would make in our preaching and teaching ministry. He was right.

As an example of archaeology’s contribution to the biblical study here is a most fascinating lecture complete with all the obligatory photos of archaeological digs and discoveries. But this isn’t your normal “dry as Middle East sand” presentation. Very well done.

It focuses on the Philistine site of Ekron. For many years the very existence of the Philistines was doubted by archaeologists and the more liberal Bible scholars who saw their absence from the evidentiary record as proof that the Bible is unreliable. Therefore, the story of David and Goliath is necessary untrue, because the Bible says Goliath was a Philistine. But lo and behold! Evidence for the five cities of Philistia was unearthed. But their history was brief, a mere 200 years or so of archaeological finds. Where did they go? This video answers the question.

I really enjoyed the presentation. In almost every church I have served there are at least one or two biblical archaeology nuts, men and women who read about and investigate new discoveries uncovered in ongoing digs.
Ben Witherington, New Testament scholar, spends a great deal of time himself in archaeological investigation and reporting. From time to time at his blog he has reviews and articles on the discipline, such as here.


A Suspicious Protestant

I am a Protestant, but often I am one under protest (which makes me a good Protestant!!)

There are chinks in my Protestant armor. I know it. I can feel it. I live with it.

1. Our low ecclesiology – In general we have a dim view of the Church. This is particularly true of those parts of Protestantism affected by Dispensationalism with its paranoia of the institutional church. Deep down in our DNA is the Reformational era experience of the corruptions of the medieval church. We continue to hold on to a very privatized version of salvation that assures us that we can be right with the Lord no matter what happens to the Church.

2. Our diminishment of church tradition – in our “Bible alone” paradigm, one with which I concur, we often slip into ahistorical faith, as if we can ourselves, by ourselves, slip back into the Book of Acts, unaided and without guides. Of course, what we often end up with are strange “missing link” church forms that are more imaginative than historical, more preference than fact. Many Protestants act as if there is no such thing as valued theological reflection, wisdom, and necessary elaboration. It is as if over 2,000 years we have learned nothing and all lessons are be discounted as the traditions of men. Therefore, Protestants are continually reinventing the wheel. If you look at the American Protestantism of the 19th century, you see this in spades. Whole denominations were constructed on “new insights” that no one ever saw before until a “Bible only” figure recovered the lost Gospel. This was certainly true of groups such as the Mormons, who taught that the church between the Apostles and the founding of the Mormon movement were thoroughly corrupt. But it also true of those groups that remained within the Protestant fold, howbeit at a distance, such as the Millerites and Church of Christ movements.

3. Our uncharitable views of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy – In many Protestant minds, especially of the Fundamentalist and Evangelical camps, there is virtually nothing redeeming in these denominations. What they see is sacramentalism and mindless liturgy stripped of personal heart religion. What I see is something much different. I see the preservation of the supernaturalism of Christianity even as Protestants in bucketfulls abandon the miraculous that is at the center of the Faith. I would even be willing to say that without Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy Protestantism would be theologically unchecked and without serious challenge to some of its skepticism and eagerness for new ideas. I have a serious commitment to conversionism and an equally serious protest against the mystical views of baptism that RCs and the Orthodox hold. But I also realize that both groups maintain the Christianity of the Apostles Creed without reservation, which is more than I can say about most Protestants, many of whom have no definite idea of what Christianity is. Protestants could stand to have a higher regard for the stewardship that these two groups have exercised in preserving the supernaturalism of New Testament Christianity.

4. Our inability to resist fads – Protestants  owe much of their “success” to their quick response time to cultural forces and tastes. With a market savvy that totally escapes the RCs and Orthodox, the Protestant movements can change on a dime. Totally new forms of worship overnight! New music overnight! New programs overnight! We are constantly chasing the crowd shouting “we’re what you are looking for.” There is a serious upside to this. Protestantism’s ability to be chameleon-like means that it can quickly get into the nooks and crannies of culture. It can create cowboy churches, biker churches, surfer churches, and loads of new ministries that have nothing to do with a church. In Protestantism we go to them. In RC and Orthodox churches they come to us on our terms. The downside of that is obvious. Not too many reflect on the upside. I have lived and ministered through four very different models of doing church – the charismatic movement that was all the new rage in the 60s and 70s; the Jesus movement model; the seeker driven model; and now the ??? model. This last model is developing, fueled by Emergent Church paradigms, house church dreams, Paleoorthodox models (one that I particularly find attractive), prosperity driven models, and more. It is quite a mix. And smack dab in the middle of it all, unmoved and seeming not even to care about all the cultural change, are the RC and Orthodox communions. I must admit that there is something attractive in a movement that purports to know the truth acting as if it actually does know the truth, and the truth doesn’t change. I am not so attracted to it that I would commit to it. After all, I have chosen to be a Protestant. But I must say that as a Protestant I grow tired of all the fads that sweep through the church promising to be the recovery of apostolic Christianity. We have produced churches where multi-generational families can hardly worship together. There is usually a mix of the traditions of the WWII  generation, the boomers, and now millenials, all with very different music tastes and radically different opinions of what real worship should look like. It all gets a bit much and before you know it we are spinning so fast chasing our own tails we collapse in exhaustion. Church as Protestants have developed it is always a young man’s game because, theoretically, only the young can interpret the youth culture. Actually the more prevalent models in the church today are church youth group models. You gotta know this spells trouble.

I could go on. Bottom line – I remain and am committed to remain a Protestant for all kinds of reasons I have not outlined here. But I am suspicious Protestant who does not wear Saul’s armor easily. Sometimes it really does not seem to fit and chafes me in ways that don’t just irritate but often actually hurt. While I have not chosen to ditch it like John Henry Newman did, neither do I choose to act as if Protestantism in all its guises is so obviously right.

We don’t get to choose the perfect church in this world. Adjust. Get used to it. Make your choice and do the best you can do. And in the meantime how about some humility in it all. You don’t have all the answers either.