My Very Unholy “Holy Week”

I began Holy Week with the flu Sharon and I shared, three very special days together that won’t soon be forgotten, I should say. Then with no appetite or eating there were some more than usual personal responsibilities during the days and three four-hour evening sessions (plus class preps) that each got me home a good bit after 11 PM, I ending up with a two hour dentist visit on Maundy Thursday.

I can’t remember having to drag myself through days upon days with such a feeling of being drained. I had hoped to make this week especially “spiritual.” Then it occurred to me. I had! Holy Week was an onslaught of diminishment and drain for our Lord, sheer weakening and surprising endurance, sweating drops of blood. My affliction was pale and virtually nothing in comparison, but I was constantly being reminded of the Savior’s last week of sheer faithfulness in the midst of drain. Guess my Holy Week was more holy than I had planned for.

Evangelicals Must Resist Mainline Protestant Trajectory

There is no doubt that Evangelicalism is exhibiting some of the same trajectories that have decimated the mainline denominations – American Baptists, PCUSA, the Episcopal Church, United Methodists, etc. What do these churches all have in common demographically? Their theology has led to them being white, old and small.

Now American Evangelicals must grapple with their destiny and either intentionally reverse their downgrade or drift into a an irrelevant blip on the global screen like the mainlines. Mark Tooley has a very insightful piece at Juicy Ecumenism. It seems to cover the territory to me.

I grieve for the increasing signs of instability of Evangelicals. They are too susceptible to theological fads and loose definitions. The skill of defending orthodoxy while rejecting anti-intellectual fundamentalism is diminished. They (we) must seek the middle ground between the safe ground of NeoPuritanism which seems to offer a place of rest in its High Calvinism but which exhibits too many traits of sectarianism and “Christ against culture” tendencies and the mega-church indifference to moral issues and holiness and innate unwillingness to work in a serious theological milieu. The former leads to isolation and decreasing ability to speak to culture while the latter so diminishes the line between the church and the world that a good bit of what it has to offer is already offered by the world.

Why make this effort to right the Evangelical ship of state? Because the options left to us are no options. Historic orthodoxy blended with confessional faithfulness that allows for Evangelical ecumenism is the essential road. No retreat into sectarianism and no surrender to liberalism!!

An interesting read on Richard Roberts

Challies dot com posted this read on Richard Roberts, the son of the famed Oral Roberts. It is from Longread, which posts extended articles. This article on Roberts is titled The Prodigal Prince: Richard Roberts and the Decline of the Oral Roberts Dynasty.

It is replete with insights into the goings on in the Roberts’ household and organizations. I am not a muckraker but a saddened Evangelical.  It is all very unhappy but fits into the culture of celebrity Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is by definition entrepreneurial and populist. It does not long endure the constraints of denominationalism and transcendent authority. Its downside is that it often gives what the people want to hear and to believe, no matter how toxic the ingredients. Its upside is that it is rooted in the people. Like Martin Luther found out, the populism of the Evangelical impulse can have some very sad results. But so can the unfettered power of church authority. Choose your poison!

Wise leaders choose to balance both the entrepreneurial instinct with reasonable accountability and honest openness. Still, Evangelicalism seems not to have taken these lessons to heart in a normative way. Witness the recent episode with Mark Driscoll, Sovereign Grace Ministries, and the continued pattern of large ministries avoiding financial transparency – Joyce Meyers, Ken Copeland, Creflo Dollar, and the many others. Witness the exorbitant salaries and compensation packages for mega leaders and the undisclosed finances of our mega stars. Remember and do not forget Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Tilton, Ted Haggard, and Todd Bentley. Recall the outrageous salary of Franklin Graham, uncovered not by transparent financial discloser but by the Charlotte Observer. The list does go on. 

I am an Evangelical by heritage and choice. I left the Fundamentalism of my youth but was never inclined to move toward theological progressivism or liberalism. I am stuck in the middle! And I have to fight to keep the middle a good place to be, without retreating into the insularity and anti-intellectualism of Fundamentalism or riding the latest waves of faddish Evangelicalism which seems willing to sell our birthright for fame.

Go to Ministry Watch for more information on ministries that fail the transparency test. I have my own list of popular ministries I will not give to until salaries and compensation packages are published. I also have some “heroes” of financial accountability who refuse to be enriched or live a lavish lifestyle. I continue to be amazed by Evangelical Christians who believe that a Christian leader should be paid what his skills would fetch in the marketplace. This to me is insane.

 

Perhaps this is a fool’s errand and I am a throwback to an era that can no longer be recovered, an era before the possibilities of consumeristic expansiveness became clear to Evangelical entrepreneurs. At age 65 the recovery of Evangelicalism won’t be my life-defining mission, but still a voice can cry out in the Evangelical wilderness.

“I wish all this religious warmth and comfort would die”

So said Johann Blumhardt, (b. 1805) a German Lutheran Pastor who was on a journey toward discovering the power of the light of Christ over the darkness and true deliverance from the power of sin. Christian History’s “It Happened Today” highlights Blumhardt’s ministry.

He began to detest powerless religion that he saw in his congregation. Through a series of exorcisms he began to emphasize a revived religion of power in the Christian life. “Having awakened to the struggle between light and darkness, Blumhardt could not return to powerless Christianity.”

I remember many years ago being warned of churches’ tendencies to turn Pastors into Chaplains. I took this to mean the phenomenon of turning Gospel ministry into “make me feel better” potions, delivered on as need basis to troubled parishioners who had no real intent to do warfare for Christ and be faithful carriers of the Gospel. The Pastor was a spiritual version of a chiropractor, a massage here and there for people who ache but with no real medicine for the dying.

Blumhardt was a part of a movement labeled Pietism, whose source was in orthodox and dead Lutheranism. At the root of this movement were people like Philipp Jacob Spener and Johann Arndt, the latter’s chief work being True Christianity, which I have read and enjoyed. The Calvinism of the European continent had devolved into a dead thing. It was strangled by Protestant Scholasticism which dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s but the true conversion of the heart was a mystery and tale told, as it were, about a far off land. Concerned Christians in volunteer societies began to gather together to blow on the dying embers of lifeless Christianity to become “coronary Christians.” John Wesley captured this dynamic in his movement. He owed much to the Pietiests, particularly the Moravians. And in his Pietism he rejected the narrow confines of High Calvinism and insisted on a inclusiveness of the truly converted. “If your heart is as my heart, then take my hand.”

I wonder how much of our “lively” Christianity is simply the presence of an animal spirit that arise from being around “our kind.” Actually I do not wonder. These are assemblies smitten not with the living Christ but smitten with themselves – their unique doctrines that set them apart, their building, their friends, their music, their traditions. Visitors find it hard to belong because the very thing that makes that church what it is, is what it is without the visitor being there – a church for them. It’s a tragedy that Christ’s name would be attached to such an earthly thing.

Let us not insist on comfort and warmth but true battle with darkness and the forces that enslave human spirits. Then we shall find Christ to be all.

11 CHRISTMAS EVE SERMONS THAT OFTEN GET PREACHED, BUT WE DON’T WANT TO HEAR

The Millennial Pastor has posted this compilation of sermons, one of which you are likely to hear on Christmas Eve. That is, even if your Pastor preaches on Christmas Eve. I mean, how could anybody be interested in a sermon on Christmas Eve? The place is filled with C&E people, so let’s delete the sermon! Pastors are constantly dismissing themselves and selling short how God uses a preacher with an open Bible in his hand standing in front of the church. Somehow they have drawn the conclusion that we don’t want to hear from them. WE DO!!

Take the risk, Pastor. Don’t rely on programs and children and music to make up for your retreat from the pulpit.

Yes, it takes work to offer sermons for special occasions. The pressure is up, the communication is a bit more complicated by a mixed audience, the program is already packed full by musicians more than willing to take the Pastor’s place if he has nothing to say, the demands for inspiration seem to be through the roof when the place is packed. Hitting a home run seems against the odds.

But at least get on base, Pastor. You can do it. Prepare for those 15 to 20 minutes or so. Your congregation has brought their non-Christian family, who are willing once a year to darken the doors of a church. They need to get close to the Christmas story. Some people picked you after a Google search and wouldn’t know one church from another. Yours is close by and the service time is right.  Loved ones home for Christmas are there to warm their hands at the fire of memories of your church in years gone by. Families for the first time in a long time are all together in a pew and need a Gospel truth to create harmony at home. Many are hurt, lonely and depressed, filled with regrets at wasted Christmases. And your not going to preach?????

Step boldly into that moment and declare the Gospel of peace the best you can – out of sincerity, out a knowledge of God’s Word, out of full confidence and assurance.

I Don’t Think This Is Our Problem – Thomas Kidd’s Exhortation to Stop Idolizing the Pilgrims This Thanksgiving

Thomas Kidd reviews Robert McKenzie’s “The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History.” Christianity Today published it today, Thanksgiving 2014.

I read the review. Nothing startling. It joins the long line of books which make sure that we radically question our cultural metanarratives and look with greater suspicion on our Evangelical hagiography. Okay, I get it.

Maybe I am just being sentimental, but I wish Christianity Today had held off a day or two. I mean, how many punches are we supposed to take during our festive seasons? Feels like heaping on a bit. I don’t question the scholarship as much as I become suspicious of the motive.

D James Kennedy tacked the Evangelical ship toward hagiography. I quite enjoyed his sermons on George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. He seemed to love the noble in the man and let that stand by itself for something. I begin to wonder who can be allowed to stand above the crowd, or whether or not that is allowable at all.

So thanks, Christianity Today. I already had the scoop on the realities of the Pilgrim fathers on Thanksgiving Day. I have read the books and get the point. There are plenty of people ahead of you on this one. However, there aren’t many in the line ennobling some pretty impressive people. Just because David Barton’s scholarship and motives are suspect doesn’t mean you have to stand in the echo chamber of skepticism.

Evangelicals and Ferguson

I have rather seriously tracked Evangelical responses to Ferguson. This is my tribe, and I take fairly seriously what happens among them/us. Here are some of my responses.

1. Evangelicals are more seriously engaged with racial justice issues than in the years I was in college in the 60s. Evangelicals were then newly disengaging with the Fundamentalism of the first half of the 20th century and some of the more turbulent reaction to the integration movements of the 1960s. They did not have the developed skill sets to do that well. Times have changed.

2. Evangelicals have not allowed the left to monopolize the language of love and dialogue. There was a time when Evangelicalism seemed to be simply the counterpoint to the left’s point. Evangelicals have learned that the contribution of the church is redemption and forgiveness as what it primarily brings to the table. The church is not the state and not the court system.

3. Evangelicals are not even flirting with Fundamentalism. The Evangelical right wing is hardly showing up in the cultural dialogue though it does make theological waves on such issues as inerrancy, theological debate and NeoCalvinism.

4. Evangelical blogs, articles and Facebook postings hardly even mention law and order as a cultural good. Some of this is ministry positioning, for sure. But I think some of it can be laid to Evangelical mantras and shibboleths making the rounds as of late. They have turned everything into Gospel. This is increasingly being offered as a critique, even among concerned Evangelicals. The message of free forgiveness through God’s grace in the act of justification has increasingly edged out the place of sanctification as a cooperative work between the redeemed and the Redeemer and has questioned the use of the Law in guiding spiritual growth. Witness the critiques of Tullian Tchividjian of Coral Ridge Presbyterian and his Liberate conferences. Many have asserted that he has turned sanctification into a remembrance and meditation upon justification. In my mind this is a weakness of High Calvinism in general. The spectre of Antinomianism is raising its head, and this is a very serious concern to me.

5. Evangelicals do not know how to engage hot button issues for fear of being accused of being Bible thumpers or feeling like Bible thumpers. We have learned that just quoting Bible verses at a culture has little impact. But what else to do? Evangelicals need a new engagement with Natural Law Theory (NLT). In Natural Law Theory transcendent morality is an absolute good that can be reached and determined by reason. We are not limited to Bible verses. We can utilize the tool of the common grace of reason that allows people to argue and agree to some common definition of moral absolutes. Natural Law Theory continues to be used in our courts. Not every case can be decided by an appeal to some legal code or regulation. Rules cannot cover everything. So what happens when a case comes before the court where there is a gap in the legal code or where the legal code does not address the issue of two competing goods? They utilize Natural Law Theory. NLT is rooted in Aristotle’s Virtue ethics and shaped by Thomas Aquinas of the 1200s.

Evangelicals are stuttering when it comes to defining cultural goods if they cannot quote John 3:16. And they do not know what to do if they can’t quote it. What are their options? To engage human reason. People can be intellectually persuaded. It’s hard work, slow work, patient work. And it takes people who are willing to go beyond mantras and banners. But over time it can win the day. Note the arguments of the Founding Fathers in the Federalist Papers and other pamphlets. Eventually carefully constructed arguments with an appeal to rationality won the day. It is true that large numbers of people either do not care to be reasonable nor trust reason as a tool, particularly in this time of postmodernism where all institutions and literature are seen as an exercise in power rather than objective discourse. I wonder if the subjectivity that characterizes much of Evangelicalism actually buys into the postmodern paradigm. Still, our choice is between the rational and the irrational. The rational must win hands down.

We must train our leaders in the use of reason and the skill of intellectual engagement in order to establish cultural goods. They must be smart and prepared. Christians are not only concerned about the Gospel as deposit of truth. We are also concerned about cultural supports that both reduce human suffering and give the Gospel more credibility.

For an example of NLT, read and view Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, where he lectures on constitutional interpretation, civil liberties and philosophy of law. His defense of the heterosexual definition of marriage is an excellent example of NLT in practice. See here and here.

6. Evangelicals will face a loss of credibility with the masses if they cannot speak the language of law and order as necessary goods, even primary goods, for cultural flourishing and the means to reduce human suffering. There is no doubt in my mind that many American, most Americans, are angry at the mayhem on display at Ferguson, both on the streets and at podiums where the non-sensical is obvious and flagrant. Order and law, the necessaries for cultural dialogue and understanding, appear to have no value. People intuitively know that true religion must value these goods, and where they are absent “street guy” will be distrustful. As I check blogs and articles this is hardly showing up in the Evangelical response. This is alarming. And it will work against the church as a pillar and foundation of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:15)