On April 26th, GRTS is hosting a conference called "Justice and Unity: Toward the Healing of a Fractured Church". It will examine the experience of African-Americans in the church and society, particularly in West Michigan. You can read more about it and register at www.cornerstone.edu/grand-rapids-theological-seminary/events/talking-points/2018-19-spring-talking-points-series/spring-2018-talking-points-conference/
As one aspect of CityFest's One West Michigan efforts, I have been part of planning this event and will be participating on a panel discussion during the day. I was also asked to write a blog post as part of a series leading up to the conference. The blog tells a part of my story of discovery and why this issue has become a prominent one for me in ministry. You can find it at www.cornerstone.edu/blogs/talking-points/post/my-eyes-have-been-opened.
In a striking coincidence yesterday morning, I heard a dietician on the radio talking about "eating the rainbow" while Calvin was reading an article in his 3rd grade class about the very same idea. The notion that we should be eating a balanced, colorful and heavily plant-based diet sparked a good conversation at the dinner table as we enjoyed a colorful, balanced and entirely plant-based meal of cauliflower and chickpea curry over basmati rice. We talked about God's provision and creativity of a wide variety of beautiful and flavorful foods designed to meet the nutritional needs we have. We talked about how in accordance with the creation blessing, humans can use those foods to create combinations that bring out further beauties and complexities of flavor. We also talked about how sin has marred God's good design and how we can corrupt the natural foods God has created and harm our bodies as a consequence. All of this made me think about the parallel realities of our spiritual nourishment and health.
Over the past few weeks I have been writing about the staples of a healthy spiritual life: the spiritual disciplines. So far I have focused on those disciplines related to God's word, which the biblical authors refer to as both "pure milk" as well as "meat" or "solid food". It occurred to me that in my writing I had gravitated towards the disciplines that come most naturally to me, those that my spiritual taste buds most naturally crave. Similar to my own dietary habits, if left to myself, my plate would be heavily weighted with meats and cheeses and not represent the rainbow that is for my best. My practice of the disciplines is no different. I run readily towards the meat and milk of the word, but have to remind myself that the fruit of the Spirit is generated in a two-way relationship as I walk in the Spirit. And this means prayer.
As I think about this idea of a balanced diet as it relates to spiritual disciplines, it occurs to me that even in my prayer life there is the need for balance. Whether we think of an ACTS model (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) or the James model of praise and prayer, or the Psalms' model of Lament and Praise, Scripture presents a variety of ways to pray that are all essential parts of a spiritual diet. For me the Lord's Prayer has been the model I have learned from the most and been challenged by most greatly.
Matthew 6 gives us a model that Jesus gave his disciples to use in prayer. The words themselves are not the model, but rather the types of things included in the prayer. If we think of it as a skeleton we must put flesh on, it prevents it from being the very thing Jesus condemned in the scribes and Pharisees as vain repetition. The requests are: 1) name hallowed, 2) kingdom come, 3) will be done, 4) daily bread, 5) forgiveness, 6) lead not into temptation. Three of these are God-ward requests and three are human focused. I find it much easier to put flesh on the latter three than the first three. That is, I can easily come up with specific items to include under the categories of daily bread, forgiveness and deliverance from the evil one's tests and temptations. It is harder to articulate requests under the first three headings. Yet Jesus, in speaking a short while later about the priorities of disciples, said that rather than worrying about our food and clothes (request 4) we should seek first his kingdom (request 2) and righteousness (request 3) and all these things would be added to us. So we are missing essential components of our diet if we neglect to flesh out these first three requests.
This is why the Psalms are so necessary to us. The collection serves as a prayer manual for God's people, giving us language to pray well. It draws attention to the reality of God's kingdom, and of his anointed king who rules on David's throne (for more on that, listen to the sermon from April 8th). It teaches us what it means to praise God for his rule, to ask for his rule to be made more full, and to lament when we see it absent. As we pray in a accordance with the Psalms, a feedback loop is created. As we pray for His name to be hallowed, his kingdom to come and his will to be done, we start to see our world, nation, city and neighborhood differently. We start to see the lack of God's shalom in them. As a result, we pray more fervently and have more "flesh" to put on the skeleton. Then our eyes are opened further to the realities of God's kingdom and our need to be brought into conformity with it and so we are driven more to prayer. You get the idea.
This is what Tim Keller refers to as "Frontline Prayer" as distinguished from "maintenance prayer". Maintenance prayer is the bottom three requests that most of us equate with prayer. Frontline prayer brings us into God's strategy room and puts us at the tip of the spear of His kingdom. Both are necessary, but there is a reason the Frontline requests come first. In my life, I have never sustained good maintenance prayer without engaging in frontline prayer. Further, with frontline prayer as a priority, it changes how I pray my maintenance prayers. All of a sudden my daily bread and struggles and failures with sin are not merely individual matters of my fate and relationship with God, but have implications for God's reputation and plan in the world.
So I invite you to look at your spiritual plate and evaluate how colorful it is. What our moms told us all growing up is also what our Father would say: "Make sure you eat your veggies." It was good advice then regarding our earthly food and remains good advice now for our spiritual food.
In the best of the Indiana Jones films, The Last Crusade, Sean Connery, playing Dr. Henry Jones Sr. exasperatedly tells his son, when asked why he can't remember the three tests they will have to pass to reach the Holy Grail that "I wrote them down in my diary so I wouldn't have to remember!" The diary is in the hands of the Nazis (I hate these guys!) and thus poses a problem for these latter-day knights of the Round Table in their quest.
It also serves as a statement of how many of us approach our disciplines related to Scripture. We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the written Word here in Western society. We have some 900 printed English translations available to us. Many of us have upwards of a dozen printed Bibles in our homes representing at least a half dozen of these translations. We have Bible apps on our phone and I have a software platform that gives me access to both those translations as well as to the original Hebrew and Greek versions. And this is without considering the legion of commentaries, bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases and linguistic and background resources available to us.
With all of this supply, you would expect that we would be the most biblically literate people in history. In a previous post, though, I drew attention to the fact that for many of us, we haven't even read all of the book we have so many copies and versions of and so many resources to help us understand it. In a future post, I will address the discipline of studying Scripture and using these tremendous resources. Here, though, I want to address how these resources have put us in the position of Dr. Jones where we have so much written down, we feel we don't have to remember.
The plethora of written resources we have for Scripture can discourage the discipline of committing it to memory because we feel it's always there when we need it. This assumes the discipline of memory is intended primarily to allow us not to depend on the written word to have Scripture available to us. This is certainly a benefit of Scripture memorization but in my experience it is not the primary or most significant benefit.
My experience of voluntarily committing Scripture to memory began towards the end of college when I had come across 2 Peter 1 in my study and devotional reading. The immense promise of verse 3 "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness" coupled with the astounding statement that we have "become partakers of the divine nature" deeply resonated with my should at that time of my life. I had struggled with my thought life and this passage offered a promise and expectation of victory in those struggles. I was then prompted to memorize the chapter and proceeded to do so. I found that as I worked to commit the passage to memory, its truths reverberated in my mind throughout the day. When I lay awake at night, reciting the passage calmed my spirit and kept at bay thoughts that otherwise would have tormented me. More than simply being available to me in the same way the written text was, the act of memorizing the passage had brought about the word being "written on my heart", informing how I thought, felt and viewed my world.
I have found that whenever I set to memorize a verse or (as I am more fond of doing) a longer portion of Scripture, this dynamic is set in motion. Memorizing involves numerous recitations that more than simply being committed to memory (the way a phone number or address is) it becomes part of our thought patterns. In ideal moments it is that passage that comes to mind. When I read other Scriptures or hear preaching, I see connections to the text I am memorizing. In memorizing, my study of the text is enriched as I am forced to look in detail at every word. I begin to see aspects of the passage that even studying would not necessarily have uncovered.
As with the other disciplines, it is easy to approach memorization as a box to check and an accomplishment to either take pride in or to feel guilt over. I would encourage you to link your memorization to your reading or studying. Don't just pick verses at random, memorize something that God has used to speak to you recently. As daunting as memorizing a longer passage might seem, it can be easier to memorize a 10 verse passage than 10 individual verses because you all have context and other triggers that will call to mind what comes next. The bottom line though is that we remember what we are passionate about and what we are passionate about, we remember. Memorization is its own positive feedback loop. Start with what you love and you will find a deeper love of the text that motivates further memorization. May His word be written on our hearts and minds to conform us to the image of Christ!
It's Good Friday. Around the world today, people claiming the name of Christ will gather to commemorate His death nearly 2000 years ago. Whatever our denominational differences or various traditions, we today proclaim in faith that somehow His death is good news for us. It is one of the Christian faith's distinctive features, this doctrine of the vicarious atonement of Jesus of Nazareth. No other faith system has deity bridging the gap between infinity and humanity through suffering and death. At the cross justice and mercy meet as sin is dealt with as truly abhorrent and mercy makes a way for grace to restore the sinner to life when we deserved death.
In Jesus' own teaching he said repeatedly that there was a connection between receiving forgiveness from God and extending it to others. In one such instance he rebuked Simon (not Peter) for his attitude toward the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet, saying "Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven-for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little." (Luke 7:47) Those who are the beneficiaries of the lavish provisions of Christ's death cannot help but deal with the sins of other in the same way, by absorbing them themselves.
With this understanding of forgiveness and the meaning of Christ's death, it would be well of us on this day to reflect on Western evangelicalism's emphasis on individual responsibility where sin and salvation are concerned. There is a tension in Scripture that must be observed between individual responsibility and corporate solidarity and identity. We see both taught clearly whether it is in the OT prophet Ezekiel saying "the soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4) alongside the first of the ten commandments in which God says he visits "the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me" (Ex. 20:5), or in the NT Ananias and Sapphira being held to account individually for their sin while the church in Corinth suffered corporately in sickness because of the congregation's sins (1 Cor. 11:30).
We have tended to emphasize individual responsibility and minimize corporate realities that are taught by Scripture. This becomes apparent when we try to distance ourselves from sins of the past by saying that we are not responsible for what went on before us. On one level this is true, but the Psalms give us examples of God's people collectively confessing the sins of their ancestors and Nehemiah acted on that example in leading the people of his day in repentance and confession of the sins of their fathers going back 1000 years (Neh. 9). Indeed, the very need and possibility of the cross is rooted in the idea that one individual can stand in for the actions and fates of others. We stand condemned in Adam, being counted as guilty participants in his sin. Because of the cross we stand justified in Christ, being counted as righteous participants in his death and resurrection. So if anyone has a basis to claim appropriate and meaningful responsibility for historical sins, it is believers. We have a prophetic opportunity furnished by the gospel to lead in confession and repentance of our nation's sins and in so doing, "bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ."
On this Good Friday I am grateful that "by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous." (Rom. 5:19)
That clip is from one of my favorite movies, the 70s screwball comedy "What's Up Doc?" It takes place in the courtroom scene at the end of the film where Ryan O'Neil's hapless character is trying to explain the unbelievable (and hilarious) series of events that have transpired over the previous 90 minutes. The judge's wish to "skip over this part" became a catch phrase in our household growing up whenever we encountered something unpleasant or confounding.
As I continue this series of posts about the spiritual disciplines, this clip reminds me of our approach to Scripture. The Bible, in its two Testaments, 66 books and no fewer than 2 dozen different types (genres) of literature, can be a bewildering read. Many of us, influenced in large part by the preaching we have received, gravitate towards the New Testament and Psalms. Fully 2/3 of our Bibles are darkened to our minds as we rarely (if ever) look at them.
I understand why this is the case. The laws of Moses, especially Leviticus, can be horribly perplexing when they aren't downright boring. They strike us as antiquated and in some cases unjust. The prophets use imagery that is alien to us, speak of nations and kingdoms that no longer exist, and their oracles often seem like unsolvable riddles. The wisdom literature is oftentimes little better and while we know the story of Job, his dialogue with his friends can seem repetitive and inaccessible to us. Even the historical books, which contain narratives that should be easier to grasp, can be challenging with the complicated stories of political intrigue that often seem far removed from having very much to do with God and His plan, to say nothing of the genealogies of Genes and Chronicles and the land distribution registry that takes up 10 chapters of Joshua. All of this leads us to have Bibles that are well-marked where Paul or John is the author, but that have huge sections where the pages have never seen daylight.
When it comes to the discipline of the Word, there are numerous ways to interact with it. I broadly think in terms of contemplative disciplines and cognitive disciplines. Cognitive disciplines seek to fill our minds with the truths of Scripture to inform our thinking. Among these disciplines are reading, study, memorization, preaching and teaching (providing and hearing). Contemplative disciplines seek to fill our hearts with the truths of Scripture to inform our affections and wills. Among these are meditation, prayer and praise, life application, and devotional reading. Simple reading is one of the cognitive disciplines and is, of necessity, our starting point for any of the others.
Paul, in his farewell charge to the Ephesian elders reminded them that as an essential feature of his ministry he "did not shrink from declaring to [them] the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). In other words, God has made known His will, purpose and decrees throughout history and particularly preserved much of that revelation in what we refer to as "The Bible". To expose ourselves primarily to less than 1/3 of it is dangerous as we will certainly miss some things. We will also become prone to be selective in what we choose to hear God say to us. In other words, we reach a point where we want to "skip over this part".
I have taken this charge from Paul directly to heart in how I plan my preaching calendar each year. The Word is always about Jesus in some way, so each year we spend the time between Advent and Resurrection Sunday in a Gospel. The rest of the year we spend time in one Old Testament narrative (going through them chronologically), one non-narrative Old Testament series (Wisdom, Law, Prophet, etc.) and one New Testament epistle. This "balanced diet" is complemented by the fact that, other than the gospels, I will not preach a book twice until I've from every book at least once. This has produced the "12 year plan" for my preaching that we are now four years into. My goal is to remove some of the obstacles to our grasping of certain parts of Scripture and to equip us to be confident to hear God's voice from every part of His book.
So let me encourage you to evaluate your discipline of reading. It is not necessary to understand fully everything you read, that is for the discipline of study. It is not necessary that you immediately make sense of how to obey what you read, that is for the discipline of application. It is not necessary that you feel your heart warmed to God by what you read, that is for the discipline of devotion. It is an act of humility to yield ourselves to His word simply because it is His word. We should expect that it will often not be immediately appealing to us. He had to speak precisely because we are in error. So regard the difficulties as an invitation to look closer rather than looking away. If there are portions of Scripture you have never read, or only read once or twice, consider starting there. Consider a one year plan to read the whole Bible through (there are numerous options for this, and I have created my own if you are interested). Whatever you do, I encourage you to read the Book and don't be surprised if there is something significant in the parts you may have been tempted to skip over before.
May God add to the reading of His Word!
I woke up praying this morning. I do not say that piously, this is not a normal occurrence for me. It's just that this morning as I opened my eyes, I felt my spirit groping towards my heavenly Father with an awareness that I needed to start the day with some acknowledgement of Him. After a few stumbling attempts at formal prayer, the phrase came to mind "This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it." I expressed my heartfelt desire to God that whatever else might come after my feet hit the floor, I would approach it with joy, knowing the day was His and not mine.
My wife is away at the moment and so I am parenting our kids solo for a few days. This means that one of my responsibilities is making my children presentable before taking them to school each morning. Kelsey ensures that their wardrobe is set in advance and Calvin (our 9 year old) takes care of his own grooming. Eva and Zoe, our twin 7 year olds, however, still need someone to do their hair each day, and right now that means me. On my best day there are basically two things I can competently do with my daughter's hair: a pony tail and a half pony tail. Involved in any attempt at styling their hair is the task of brushing it. For whatever reason, it seems that if I am brushing their hair, my girls feel that I am scraping glass shards across their scalps based on their screams and tears. I know about brushing from the bottom and brushing slowly and that I have no baseline for understanding the pain that girls experience since my hair has never reached below my ear lobes. For all that, I think our neighbors have been tempted to call CPS on more than one occasion based on the howls coming from the upstairs bathroom at bedtime when I'm on duty.
So this morning was no different for one of my daughters, who was already in a tender spot because of some unmet expectations in her morning. The tears and cries came which inevitably delayed the whole process of getting everyone ready and out the door for school. Patience is a virtue in such cases, just rarely one of mine, and so I ordinarily would respond with frustration and abrupt words to move things along. This morning, though, the words of my waking prayer came back to me in that moment and so I paused, held my daughter, and prayed aloud over her that she would know that this was God's day and that he had made this day from eternity past and known everything that would happen to her and her brother and sister in it from the beginning. I prayed that she would be able to rejoice in that reality no matter what came her way. She calmed down and our day proceeded as planned.
I just got a call from her school that she had a fall on the playground that resulted in a bloody nose but was nothing serious and that she is OK. It occurred to me that God knew that would happen in this day He had made and I prayed again that my daughter would be able to rejoice in spite of such an unwelcome thing in her day (which I will no doubt hear about when I pick her up). As I said, this is not my normal way of engaging with God or my kids, but it served as a teaching moment for me (more so than for my daughter I think), that I often think of prayer as asking God for things rather than as positioning myself in a posture before His throne. My prayer this morning didn't "fix" anything and was't "answered" in the sense we usually think of. Instead it put me, and I hope my daughter, where we needed to be to face the day. It put us in the care of the Shepherd of our Souls. It made me conscious of His reality as the day unfolded. Like I said, not a normal day. But then I think, why shouldn't this be my normal?
This past Friday, we said good-bye to arguably the most influential follower of Christ of the past century as Billy Graham was laid to rest in North Carolina. In the days between his passing and the services on Friday numerous reflections were offered on his life and ministry and there was a remarkable consistency to them. They all emphasized the integrity of his life and message, his gracious yet consistent presentation of truth, and above all, the simplicity of his message. Many of those who wrote or spoke of his passing would not have agreed with, or believed in the gospel that Rev. Graham preached, but they all articulated what it was clearly, just as he had done.
Such a testimony and life raise the question of how it was achieved. I do not profess to be excessively knowledgable about Billy Graham's life and habits, but it was clear that he was more than a student of the Word, he was a lover of it. The simplicity of the message he presented could easily be dismissed as an unintellectual faith, or as a rote formula. However, to maintain such a simple message so consistently over so many years suggests not a rigid dogma but a deeply planted reality that informed all of who he was.
I posted a couple of weeks ago about the significance of the spiritual disciplines for our growth as the first of a series that would explore the various disciplines as they have worked in my life. So often we approach the disciplines as ends in and of themselves, rather than as a means to achieving our ends. For instance, many of us have inherited the idea of maintaining a regular devotional practice, if we have been steeped in the American evangelical tradition. This regular time spent in God's word is a noble and necessary pursuit for the follower of Christ. Oftentimes, however, the task itself becomes the goal, as though the measure of how spiritual you are is how faithful you are with your "quiet times". This has the effect of producing either crushing guilt or unbearably smug self-righteousness. It's safe to say that if a spiritual discipline has these sorts of results, we are probably doing it wrong. Billy Graham's use of the Word reflected someone whose heart had been captivated by it as a great love, not enslaved by it as a great burden nor elevated by it as a badge of pride.
So how do we imitate that sort of discipline? For me, I have found that it starts with our goal. The goal of Bible reading is not to read the Bible. Jesus said to the religious leaders of His day: "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life." (John 5:39-40) Scripture is a window that reveals God to us. Our goal in approaching any of the disciplines must be to encounter and know the living God so that we too might have life. Any other goal will result in dead religion. Scripture in this approach is the "living and active" word that becomes written on our hearts. It keeps our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. The result is that the more we know of Scripture, the simpler our message becomes and the surer we are of it.
In order to experience this powerful ministry of the word, we must move beyond simply reading to engage the person of Jesus in the word. In my next post, I will examine the different ways in which we can engage with Scripture that prevent it from being merely a dead letter, but rather the vehicle through which we hear and know the voice of our Shepherd.
"If we as followers of Jesus can help make it harder for another human being to take a life, ... should we as followers of Jesus not be in favor of that? I mean, if we are truly pro-life?"
This question was posed by a friend of mine in a Facebook conversation last week surrounding the shooting in Florida. It got me thinking (again) about how we as citizens of heaven might be able to speak into this debate in redemptive ways.
To be sure, the conversation regarding how to address mass shootings, and particularly those occurring in schools, is complex and fraught with challenges. It is not made easier by the fact that deeply held convictions loom large on all sides. As I have observed and engaged in the discussion in the last 5 days, I am concerned by how followers of Christ speak into the discussion. What follows are three types of statements I have seen Christ-followers make both in recent days and in other similar discussions in recent years that I feel in some way betray our responsibility to present grace and truth as ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven. My prayer is that we will take these observations to heart such that our conversation "might be always gracious, seasoned with salt, so [we] may know how [we] ought to answer each person" (Col. 4:6).
1) It's a heart problem, bad people will disobey laws. This line of thought is often accompanied by some analogy: vehicle deaths, opioids and illegal drugs, box cutters on 9/11, Hitler's use of cyanide gas and Cain's use of a rock or club to kill Abel (by the way, Genesis is silent about his weapon). There are three problems with this approach. First, it suggests that laws are useless unless they perfectly prevent crime, which is to argue against laws at all. Of course the root problem of crime is the human condition of sin and only the gospel will ever perfectly address that. However, Romans 13, among other passages, establishes laws as means of common grace to restrain sin, albeit imperfectly, in the meantime. Second, in all of the instances I mentioned above, we do have laws to restrain the lethality of the objects by controlling them (we license drivers, register cars and have a legal drinking age; prescriptions are required for legal drugs; we now screen for any sharp objects on airplanes). Third, it ignores the fact that while evil people will find a way to kill someone if they are determined to, not all weapons are equal in their effectiveness. In the case of mass shootings, the weapon used absolutely impacts the number of lives claimed (the Vegas shooting demonstrated that emphatically). Ironically, Hitler turned to cyanide gas after finding that guns were too time consuming and expensive to achieve his purposes. At the end of the day I'd rather face an evil person armed with a rock than with an AR-15.
2) Our culture has abandoned God and that's why these things happen. There is no question that we live in a culture that is distant from God and resistant to His truth, but there are a few problems with this type of statement. First, it implies that God is absent and uninvolved in the affairs of our nation, which misrepresents his sovereignty and grace. More significantly, it implies that there was a time in which our nation and culture were somehow broadly aligned with God's ways. It is beyond dispute that institutional Christianity used to occupy a more central place in our nation's life, but that is not the same thing as a heartfelt commitment to God and His ways. If tolerance of violence or a disregard for life is a barometer of our nation's godliness, it would have to be observed that we have never had a robust moral character. We actively endorsed the wholesale enslavement of Africans and slaughter and dispossession of Native Americans until 100-150 years ago. Following that we endured a century of segregation that was accompanied by a culture of lynching without consequence in which thousands were killed as a spectacle to which children were often brought and of which postcards were made to send to family and friends with pictures of the event (for a detailed history of this check out this link https://eji.org/reports/lynching-in-america). In the midst of that we fought a war against tyranny and genocide but employed the targeting of civilian populations with firebombs as an acceptable strategy. We then legalized abortion and now witness not just homicide (which has always been present) but indiscriminate mass killings. To suggest violence and disregard for human life is new in our country is to ignore our history. All nations have sins for which God will hold them accountable and all nations serve to restrain the worst of our evil by the existence of their cultures and governments. No country is perfectly wicked, none is basically righteous, some nations are worse than others, but all nations are weighed in God's scales of justice and are found wanting. All nations at all times need to hear the gospel call to turn to God, not to return to some mythical moment in their previous history.
3) There's nothing to be done. While I have not seen anyone say this directly, it is often the implied conclusion of the previous two types of statements. This is inexcusable as followers of Jesus. If we have nothing to offer to our neighbors who suffer from these events and fears that benefits in the here and now we deny the truth of the gospel. The gospel is not only a matter of the heart and is not only a matter of hope in eternity. The hearts transformed by eternity give space for God's spirit to break forth in the here and now and produce foretastes of the Kingdom. This line of thinking is denied by our posture towards other things. Those who suggest there is nothing to be done legislatively or practically to mitigate mass shootings would never suggest that we not strive to see abortion restricted (although that is a heart issue as well), or that laws preventing racial discrimination have not improved things and shouldn't have been passed (although there is still work to do), or that while we will always have the poor among us that we should not seek to alleviate their suffering.
In short, the pessimistic fatalism that we often present with these lines of argument is in contrast to our calling to be beacons of joy and hope. People without Christ can be expected to cast shadows but we should be the light of the world.
For the last few years at least, our society has been increasingly discussing the virtues of "organic" products, particularly where food is concerned. We are coming to an increasing awareness that our ability to industrialize, chemically engineer, or genetically modify what we eat does not always produce the healthiest outcomes. At some point in the last couple of decades, the word "organic" became prominent in discussions among Christ-followers in describing authentic expressions of our faith. As terms go, it is a good one to apply to the realm of spirituality. It simply means that things work together harmoniously and produce beneficial results. It is the absence of foreign elements that produce discord and confusion. Like the use of the word associated with food, when used of spirituality, I sometimes feel like Inigo Montoya: "You use that word a lot, I do not think it means what you think it means." The term does bear some reflection if it is to profit us.
About a decade ago, I felt compelled to explore the possibility of planting a church in our home town of Orange, CA and drafted a document describing what my vision was for such an undertaking. I identified core values of the congregation I hoped to plant and among those was "organic". Here's how I defined it then:
We believe that since Christ established His body as a family, He intended for it to be an organic entity that does not exist in hard and fast structures. Just as families are established primarily in a context of relationships rather than rules (although rules are a vital part of any group’s life, especially a family’s), we reject an institutional and formulaic approach to ministry and community, without rejecting order and organization. We believe that Scripture teaches us to reject man-made religion based on human effort and rules and to pursue the abundant (but often unpredictable) life of the Spirit as we submit to His filling work in our lives.
There is a tension in what I expressed in that statement that is core to Christian spirituality. It is a tension that many Christ-Followers are trying to articulate when they use the word "organic" to describe the Christian life. It is the tension between obligation and grace, law and gospel, flesh and spirit, works and faith. As in any tension, our tendency is to drift towards an extreme and the way of Jesus is found in the balance. So it does not surprise me that the term organic has been increasingly used to emphasize the grace/spirit end of the continuum. This is often a reaction against a previous generation's emphasis of the law/works end of the spectrum. Unfortunately, a debate is now framed between two things that are both essential for true Christian growth. When organic is used to mean "free of effort" the impression is given that spiritual growth happens haphazardly, accidentally, independent of our activity. Such a view, while an understandable reaction to a legalism that seems to formulaically domesticate spirituality, robs the Christian life of its power.
All we need to do to see this is to consider the ways Scripture speaks of spirituality and how growth occurs. Almost every image and metaphor used in Scripture, and especially in the teachings of Jesus, is centered around the growth of living things. The gospel is ultimately a message about how life can be brought to dead things (us). So if we want to understand spirituality we do well to contemplate how living things work. Immediately we are struck by two facts: 1) people do not make things grow and 2) things do not grow without human effort. If that sounds like a paradox, good! Most of the truths in Scripture are mysteries because the God we serve is above and beyond us and following Him requires embracing a level of mystery that appropriately humbles us. But my own limited experience of gardening and my limited knowledge of farming confirms that much work goes into making things possible for which we still can take no credit.
The passage that for me has been the most formative in defining the process of growth in Christ has been 2 Peter 1:3-11. It begins with the stunning statement that God's divine power "has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness". The purpose of this enormous gift of grace, according to Peter, is that we would "become partakers in the divine nature" and so escape the corruption of sin. All of this breathes the grace of God that is necessary and available for the disciple to grow. Then in verse 5 Peter says "For this reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue..." That's astounding! The immense and utterly sufficient grace of God in giving us His power to conquer sin serves as a reason to exert ourselves fully to add virtue to our faith. Talk about holding on to both ends of the tension with both hands!
So over the next few weeks, I'm going to write a series of posts about what have traditionally been called the spiritual disciplines. I will share what Scripture and my own experience have taught me about these valuable tools that we either abuse or fail to use all too often. My prayer is that God will work in us and that we will work in Him to grow and mature...100% organically!
A pastor addressing a group of seminary students uttered that phrase Monday afternoon and it has been swirling in my mind ever since as I have tried to distill my feelings and thoughts in the wake of the horrendous events that unfolded this past Sunday in Texas. It has been a challenge for me to give voice to everything in my heart regarding this tragedy, In this post I don't intend to offer a theology of suffering or a recommendation of what a practical "gospel" response to the threat of violence looks like.
When the shooting at Sandy Hook happened I was a school teacher and I couldn't help placing myself in that situation and realized that, given how I knew I would have responded had it been my school, Kelsey would have been a widow that day. That event hit close to home in a way no other tragedy ever has. Until Sunday.
I couldn't help but think of my congregation and to put myself in the place of the Pastor Frank Pomeroy. I can easily imagine the special variety of survivor's guilt he will struggle with. Shepherds always feel that they are responsible to be present with their flock, especially in times of great trial. He is simultaneously mourning the loss of his daughter and 25 members of his church. He is simultaneously juggling his personal grief, the ordinary burden a pastor carries when ministering to a grieving family times 25, and a national spotlight as the country's attention asks him to already render decisions about the future of his facility.
So while there are many thoughts I have regarding many theological and practical matters, none of them are clear because I can't shake the thought of what that pastor is experiencing and what I would be doing if in his place. Because whether we like it or not, what was said to me on Monday is true: the sanctuary is not secure. For centuries it was true that church buildings served as physical sanctuaries from violence because even the most lawless brigand respected the sanctity of the church. That has not been true for some time and Sunday was just the most recent reminder. And yet it is important for all of us to lean in to the other truth I encountered Monday from Isaiah 49:16 - "Yahweh has engraved you on the palm of his hand." In an insecure time, we as his people, sheep and ungdershepherds (aka sheep), are always and ultimately secure, carved into the hand of our heavenly Father. So we can say with another sheep: what can separate us from the love of God? Shall terrorists or madmen, trucks or guns, hurricanes or wildfires? No! In all these things we are more than conquerors through Christ.
See you all Sunday at the sanctuary.
Marcus Little is the Senior Pastor of Berean Baptist Church. This blog is a place where he can share his thoughts and reflections on how Scripture intersects with life, work, community, culture and the events of our times.