Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Heading North

Today, Part Two of my birthday present has arrived. This is something I’ve been waiting for since, oh, last September. It’s a highly-coveted gift from two very good friends who surprised me completely with it. It is:  North! Or Be Eaten.



If, by the way, you wish to purchase it, you may find it here, at the author’s site. Or you may go to your local Christian bookstore and request it there. Try option 2 first, because your local Christian bookstore is probably desperately in need of your business. Try option 1 if you have no local Christian bookstore. If all else fails, well, there’s CBD.

North! is, in case you do not know, Book Two of the Wingfeather Saga (Book One is On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness). These are, well, children’s books—preteens on up. From one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Andrew Peterson, Proprietor of the Rabbit Room—one of my favorite blogs. His site, and his store, are worth checking out.

I first heard of Andrew Peterson after the death of Rich Mullins. Mullins was probably the greatest contemporary Christian songwriter of his decade, and anything I could say about him has already been said over and over again:  He wrote beautiful, lyrical songs; his verses were passionate and reasoned; they were grand and intimate at the same time. Mullins was something the world of CCM gets every now and then:  A writer who makes his own trail and compels everyone else to follow him. I remember hearing of his death at work, on the local Christian radio station; he died in a car crash about 40 miles from my town.

So when I heard about this guy who was the most original Christian songwriter since Mullins, I had to check him out. I had to dig, too, to hear him. AP has had a few CCM hits, like “Nothing to Say” and “Rise and Shine” and “The Chasing Song,” but most of his music doesn’t get a lot of airplay (I could go off on the Christian radio industry here—K Love, this means you, too—but I won’t—today).

Thankfully, AP has twice played in my area. The last concert was in September ‘08, when his beautiful Resurrection Letters Volume 2 album had just come out. He did the tour “on spec,” with no advance take or guaranteed appearance fees.


That was a special concert for me. It came a few days after one of my daughters had been admitted to a behavioral healthcare institute with clinical depression. I hurt. On the way to the concert, I chatted with the friends who were taking me; I made small talk; and I wondered silently why I was going, and what God was going to do, and whether I could get through the next few weeks, and what my daughter would face.... Anyone who’s been there knows what I thought. I had failed her; she needed help; I couldn’t help her. I couldn’t fix what was wrong. The truth is, I only went to the concert because my wife made me. Wise woman!

It wasn’t the music that made that night good. At least, not the music alone. It was Andrew’s story behind each song on the album. Nothing preachy, nothing heavy; AP’s a pretty low-key person. It was just story after story that reminded me:  God is great. God is love. God knows what he’s doing. His hands are gentle even when his voice is thundering. God will keep those I love, because he loves them a thousand times more.

So I’m looking forward to a few days of, well, rather light reading. I’m going to put Adolf Schlatter to the side for a while. I’m heading for adventure with the Igibys and Peet the Sock Man, going north to the Ice Praires just a few steps ahead of the dreaded Fangs of Dang. And if you want to come along, click the link.

(Images of cover of North! Or Be Eaten and of Andrew Peterson are from http://rabbitroom.com)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Politic Of Believers, By Believers, For—the People

Here’s what’s wrong with politics in the United States.
Joe Wilson does something outrageous, and it pays off politically. And it isn’t just Joe Wilson. Left and right, politicians know they can make points and score cash off of playing to the extremes.
Why be civil, and have actual give-and-take dialogue, when the real action is on the edges? Rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred streetfighting gets news, gets money, gets votes. It just doesn’t get things done.
Where are Christians in all of this? Why are we not, first of all, holding politicians to account for reckless, disrespectful speech? Why are we not calling them out on lies and half-truths? Why are we not guarding our own words and emotions in the debate? Why are we playing this game?
One of the most powerful ways Christians can affect the culture is one of the least-observed:  Through gentleness and meekness as we confront sin (as in, “real sin,” not just opposing viewpoints). In order to do that, we need to follow a few simple steps:

  1. Agree on what real sin is. It’s not socialism, or nationalized healthcare (though I think neither is a good idea). Those things are politics.  Sin, as the New Testament defines it, includes hatred and anger and pride along with things like adultery, homosexuality, theft, lying, witchcraft.... We need a full and honest definition of sin.

  2. Confess and repent of “over-the-top” rhetoric. God will judge what we say as well as what we do. We can’t cop out with the excuse that our angry words were in the heat of the moment, for the cause.

  3. Make repentance both personal and public. It is personal when it is face-to-face, and New Testament reconciliation is always face-to-face. It isn’t a statement issued to the press, or my people giving a message to your people. It is me coming to you and confessing that I have sinned against you. How would politics change if one politician went to another and said:  “I sinned against you in the way I criticized you”? And it is public when the sin is confessed before the nation as sin. If the whole world knows you did it, then the whole world should know that you see you were wrong.

  4. Humbly hold all sides to account for this standard. I believe that if Christians did this one thing especially, we’d change the way politics is done in the nation. We could change the debate from what scores points to what is right and reasonable and effective. The world would see that we are willing to forego partisanship for Christlike conduct. And if we show this, those who hear us will take us seriously even when they disagree.

  5. Pray for all politicians, even when we think their politics is wrong. This is a Biblical must; it’s up there with “Do not lie, do not steal.” Paul ordered churches to put it into practice even for rulers who arrested and beggared the people he told to do it. If Roman Christians could pray for Nero, we can surely pray for our president, whatever his/her political party. And we have to.
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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

God of Wrath

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men….” (Romans 1:18, ESV).

I wrote that I was reading Adolf Schlatter’s commentary on Romans, and I was struck by his handling of this verse. I read his comments a few days ago, and then this morning, separately, read Romans 1 again. In the back of my mind were Schlatter’s comments, and as I read this morning, they made sense.

I used to take this verse, and the rest of the chapter, to mean that God was showing wrath towards humanity. This probably wouldn’t surprise most unbelievers,  because they think that’s what “fundamentalist” Christians believe; and when they use the label “fundamentalist” they throw in groups of people who are, in fact, not at all fundamentalists. But the churches I grew up in were gracious bodies led by gracious (and somewhat iconoclastic) pastors. They preached about wrath and hell and God’s final judgment; but this was balanced with preaching about the love of God for all humanity (in high school, I couldn’t figure out why we were stereotyped as Christ-haunted, Bible-thumping killjoys—the people I went to church with weren’t like that).

How has God revealed his wrath? I used to think (like most people) that it was in the “acts of God,” the  cataclysms and disasters that rocked the earth with no warning; and in wars and depressions—the man-made catastrophes. I would read these into Romans, as if I were instead reading Revelations—the “Revealing” there was the revealing here. Yet, at the same time, I came up against Jesus’ words to Nicodemus:  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him. This puts two things at odds:  Active judgment vs. active salvation. How can you have both?

The New Testament makes clear that, for the most part, God is not now actively judging the earth—that’s a future event. He is now at work saving rather than condemning humanity. Yet his wrath is also being revealed. What can that mean? If “the day of God’s wrath” is an unknown, future day—if Christ is not condemning, if God is not willing men to perish—if the time for judging the world of its sins has not yet come—then how is God’s wrath being revealed?

Paul, as it turns out, seems to have a somewhat different view of how God’s wrath acts now than I had. First, God’s wrath is shown in that God “gave [humanity] up . . . to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies. . . .” (Rom. 1:24). He further “gave them up to dishonorable passions” (1:26) and “to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (1:28). This isn’t just about sexual immorality, though that’s where Paul starts; a debased and dishonorable mind includes covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, slander, gossip, pride, ruthlessness—even disobedience to parents. When God took away his restraining hand and allowed us to wade (not sink; we were choosing to go there) deeper into sin, he revealed his wrath. And men and women received the natural—but also supernatural—fruit of their sins. In letting us have our own way, letting us give free rein to the cruelty and the greed that lurked in us, God was judging the world with a punishment greater than the natural calamities that we call “acts of God.”

But God was also showing his wrath toward unrighteousness in another way. He showed it at the Cross, through the death of his Son. There, God showed what he thinks of unrighteousness. He showed that he hates it; that he will do whatever it takes to get rid of it. The Triune God did not balk at taking sin upon himself (as the Son) so that he might deal it the blow that would kill it. This is the second, and the greatest, way in which God’s wrath was revealed from heaven against unrighteousness. Grace shows what God thinks of sin:  He hates it so much that he will do whatever it takes to save us from it. Any message about the wrath of God has to include the Cross as God’s act of wrath; a message that sees God’s wrath only as calamity now, and Hell in the afterlife, is telling only half the story.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

You Don’t Own Me (And Vice Versa)

The other day, I picked up my unread copy of Adolf Schlatter’s commentary on the Book of Romans:  Romans: The Righteousness of God, translated by Siegfried Schatzmann. It’s apparently hard to get, because when I tried to find a link to the book through either CBD (christianbook.com) or Amazon, I came up with. . . nothing. Out of print, perhaps? Check with Hendrickson Publishers, of Peabody, MA; there might be a spare copy lying around somewhere….

Anyway, I’ve had this commentary for about 6 years, since I read a brief intro to Schlatter’s theology in a class. Last week, I decided the time had come to delve into the book (some things take a little time getting around to….). It’s been a good read, though a bit stilted (this is a translation, after all).

Early on, I came across a little statement Schlatter slips in as he discusses Paul’s reasons for writing to the Roman church:  “From the Corinthian letters we gather how earnestly Paul refuted the notion of a Pauline church” (p. 12). This little sentence, slipped in as a little background fact while Schlatter is on his way to his main point, caught my attention because of what it implies about leadership, ministry, and (to a certain degree) ecclesiology.

In my notebook, I wrote this comment:

“This little statement says volumes about the church (local) and the Church (universal), and how we all, leaders and laypeople, are to look at the church/Church. The Corinthian assembly wasn’t Paul’s possession or work or ministry; it was Christ’s alone. Whatever put Paul’s (or Peter’s or Apollos’) own stamp on it was wrong. Whatever was a personal mark of ownership was wrong. This is different from saying:  ‘As an apostle, I know that Christ has ordered this; and I hold you to account to do this.’ There is a difference between the owner and the one delegated by the owner.

“No pastor or staff gives a church its form or its message or its mission. The most leaders can do is pass on to the body what Jesus Christ has commanded and what Jesus Christ has brought into being. If we shape the assembly into our own image, we desecrate it. If we proclaim Christ’s ownership of the body, and mean it, then we are trusting him to maintain it.”

It strikes me that a lot of the abuses I’ve seen in churches are simply because leaders think of the churches as theirs. The church is the group of people they are trying to influence in one way or another—for good, of course; that goes without saying. But the pastor’s job is not to make his mark on the body or to leave it imprinted with his stamp. His job is to preach the Gospel, and that means to proclaim Jesus Christ in all his fulness. The only mark that should be left on a body is the imprint of Jesus Christ; and only the Holy Spirit can make that mark.

We all want a sphere of influence. I want people to know my name and to quote me, and to think I’m wise and good. I want the chance to lead—in other words, to make people into me. I want to leave my mark on people. Don’t shake your head at me; I know you do, too. You’re not that different from me. Just as I’d shape you into my own image if I could, so you’d shape me into yours.

What’s the point of ecclesial leadership? All of Christianity—the work of the Cross, the Resurrection, the coming of the Spirit, the infilling of the Spirit, the ordination of the church—is about one thing only:  “Those God foreknew, he predestined to be conformed to the likeness of Christ, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” That’s the point of ecclesial leadership; that’s why there are pastors. If a leader sees anything else as the reason for ministry, that leader is being misled. That Christ be formed in us is why the gospel is preached and why the Spirit is given. Not that we be educated, relevant, influential, prominent, or counter-cultural. Only that Christ be formed in us.

There are plenty of tools for this—prayer, fellowship, the Scriptures—but there is only one agent who does the work. That agent isn’t the pastor, nor is it the believer. People don’t do this, not in others nor in ourselves. People are no more than tools in the hands of the one who does the work. If we look to people to do all this shaping, we’ll fail. If a pastor looks to him/herself to do the work, he/she will fail. Only the Spirit (“the presence of God on the Earth today,” as Gordon Fee wrote) can do the work.

Here’s what Schlatter’s little statement meant for me:  In a New Testament church, only God has ownership. A true leader sees this and emphatically rejects any notion that he/she owns the body or shapes the body. Only God shapes the body, in the person of the Holy Spirit who conforms us into the likeness of Christ. Leaders will be tempted to forget this, especially in a culture that thinks leadership is ownership and that ownership is proof of worth. But in God’s kingdom, it’s the humble whom he exalts…the ones who know who the owner is.

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