Monday, September 28, 2009

Being the church for the sake of the world

Shane at The Reformed Reader posts some good stuff from a 1981 essay by Stanley Hauerwas "Reforming Christian Social Ethics: Ten Theses." Though I don't consider myself a "Hauerwasian" I agree with him far more than disagree. I found these two especially thought-provoking.

Thesis Three: “The ability to provide an adequate account of our existence is the primary test of the truthfulness of a social ethic. No society can be just or good that is built on falsehood. The first task of Christian social ethics, therefore, is not to make the ‘world’ better or more just, but to help Christian people form their community consistent with their conviction that the story of Christ is a truthful account of our existence. For as H. R. Niebuhr argued, only when we know ‘what is going on,’ do we know ‘what we should do,’ and Christians believe that we learn most decisively ‘what is going on’ in the cross and resurrection of Christ.”

Thesis Five: "The primary social task of the church is to be itself – that is, a people who have been formed by a story that provides them with the skills for negotiating the danger of this existence, trusting in God’s promise of redemption. The church is a people on a journey who insist on living consistent with the conviction that God is the Lord of history. They thus refuse to resort to violence in order to secure their survival. The fact that the first task of the church is to be itself is not a rejection of the world or a withdrawal ethic, but a reminder that Christians must serve the world on their own terms; otherwise the world would have no means to know itself as the world.”

You can read the entire essay here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fesko on the fourth commandment

As promised:

Israel was to cease from work as a visible recognition that she would enter the eternal Sabbath rest of God by His grace and not by works. So, too, we must cease from our weekday labors to tell our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and the world around us that we enter the eternal rest of God, not by our works, but by the work of Jesus Christ. In this, we see that the death penalty for disobedience to the fourth commandment is still in effect, for the person who tries to enter God's rest by his own works rather than by faith in the work of Christ, will merit the wages of death, even eternal death. So obedience to the fourth commandment is far more than stopping our daily labors. We see that through Sabbath rest we celebrate the completion of Christ's work in His life, death, and resurrection. We see that the Lord's Day is a celebration of our liberation from bondage to Satan, sin, and death. We see that God does not want to rob us of our joy on the Sabbath but rather wants us to rejoice in our God-given, Christ-wrought, Spirit-applied freedom from slavery to Satan, sin, and death. . . . What is the best way to observe the Lord's Day? A simple way to answer this is to ask, Does my activity promote or hinder my celebration of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ?

J.V. Fesko, The Rule of Love (pp. 64-65)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Dawkins takes his best shot

For Richard Dawkins Darwinian natural selection is the ultimate consciousness-raiser, and he does a good job of explaining how it purportedly works in The God Delusion (Bantam Press, 2006). In addition to explaining away the "illusion of design" within the biological world it even has the power to raise consciousness in other areas. Dawkins the biologist wishes that more chemists and physicists would experience this power. As a key to disproving the "God hypothesis" and understanding ourselves and the universe it takes on a quasi-religious significance in his telling. To appreciate its power one must "be steeped in natural selection, immersed in it, swim about in it." (p. 117)

But even if we grant "Darwin's powerful crane" the power to explain the diversity of life on our planet, it can't explain the origin of life, or as it turns out, other equally improbable events. For this Dawkins turns to the anthropic principle. I've read this section of the book several times, and though I understand his description of the concept, I can't see how it's any kind of an explanation. If anything, it works against the case Dawkins is trying to make.

Nevertheless, it may be that the origin of life is not the only major gap in the evolutionary story that is bridged by sheer luck, anthropically justified. For example, my colleague Mark Ridley in Mendel's Demon has suggested that the origin of the eucaryotic cell (our kind of cell, with a nucleus and various other complicated features such as mitochondria, which are not present in bacteria) was an even more momentous, difficult and statistically improbable step than the origin of life. The origin of consciousness might be another major gap whose bridging was of the same order of improbability. One-off events like this might be explained by the anthropic principle, along the following lines. There are billions of planets that have developed life at the level of bacteria, but only a fraction of these life forms ever made it across the gap to something like the eucaryotic cell. And of these, a yet smaller fraction managed to cross the later Rubicon to consciousness. If both of these are one-off events, we are not dealing with a ubiquitous and all-pervading process, as we are with ordinary, run-of-the-mill biological adaptation. The anthropic principle states that, since we are alive, eucaryotic and conscious, our planet has to be one of the intensely rare planets that has bridged all three gaps.

Natural selection works because it is a cumulative one-way street to improvement. It needs some luck to get started, and the 'billions of planets' anthropic principle grants it that luck. Maybe a few later gaps in the evolutionary story also need major infusions of luck, with anthropic justification. But whatever else we may say, design certainly does not work as an explanation for life, because design is ultimately not cumulative and it therefore raises bigger questions than it answers . . . (pp. 140-141)

In spite of Dawkins' best efforts to avoid the chance v. design dilemma, that's exactly what he's left with. Major infusions of luck indeed. Those bigger questions raised by design that he returns to time and time again revolve around the familiar theme "Who designed the designer?" No matter how improbable the naturalistic explanation, the idea of a designer is always more improbable. Dawkins has faith that science will eventually come up with a Theory of Everything that will explain the origin of life and equally perplexing questions of the origin of matter. He can conceive of a universe with a definite though still-as-yet unexplained beginning that's destined to expand forever, but he can not (or will not) conceive of a creator God without beginning or end. Here also, to appreciate his power and goodness, one must be "steeped" and "immersed."

Burton and Bloom

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (dir. Martin Ritt, 1965)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Right on, Mr. O'Reilly!

Meeting Richard Dawkins

Once in a while it's good to read a book you're pretty sure you will disagree with. In that spirit I've just started to read The God Delusion. Immediately I can see why Richard Dawkins sells lots of books and attracts lots of attention. He's an entertaining provocateur and a facile wordsmith. When he momentarily sets aside his role as "the world's most prominent atheist" he can write beautifully and movingly about the natural world, and even though Dawkins makes it clear he considers someone with my orthodox Christian beliefs to be an ignoramus, or worse, some of his zingers are well-aimed.

It's clear that Dawkins is an absolutist when it comes to the authority of science -- though he admits that "science's entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic, to say the least." (p. 57) He's almost as contemptuous of namby-pamby liberal Protestants and pantheistic new age gurus as he is of the fundamentalists (anyone who believes in that nonsense about "resurrection, forgiveness of sins and all") in "the boondocks" (another of his favorite expressions). He sees clearly the danger to his worldview if the door is left open even a crack to the possibility of the supernatural. This leads him to call British philosopher Michael Ruse (who "claims to be an atheist") a member of the "Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists" because he believes that science and religion can coexist in their non-overlapping spheres (p. 67), and he flogs Stephen Jay Gould who came up with the acronym NOMA "non-overlapping magisteria" in defending the view that science can't speak to the issue of God's existence. (p. 55) Sometimes it seems Dawkins wrote this book as much to question the atheistic street cred of fellow scientists than to disprove the existence of a God.

Dawkins is confident that science can take us 95 percent of the way to explaining "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God" -- the audacious title of Chapter 4. Dawkins knows well that humor can be a powerful tool, and he wields it often. However, much of the time I find the joke is on the author. Aside from snide ridicule his favorite weapon is arbitrary assertion presented as self-evident fact.

Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history, and I shall not consider the Bible further as evidence for any kind of deity. In the farsighted words of Thomas Jefferson, writing to his predecessor, John Adams, 'The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.' (p. 97)

Who are these "reputable" biblical scholars? Of course! They're the ones who share the author's belief that the gospels aren't reliable. The rest are ruled out of school. Dawkins' hero Jefferson is quoted often in The God Delusion, but I'll let you judge whether his "farsighted" prophecy is any closer to fruition today than it was 200 years ago.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The latest on Tchividjian and Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church

You may have read about the well-publicized efforts of dissident members of the congregation at CRPC to oust their new pastor Tullian Tchividjian after only several months on the job. Things came to a head, and hopefully to final resolution, at a congregational meeting this morning where members voted 940 - 422 against a motion to fire Tchividjian.

More details here.

On Friday the Sun-Sentinel published an excellent article by Tchividjian: When Churches Have Disputes

The appeal of Glenn Beck

Rod Dreher:

So Beck is onto something real, though he takes it in crazy directions (Rockefeller, the Soviets, the UN, etc.). It's the leap from a serious critique of corporate oligarchy to presenting a wacky scenario in which it's all linked together in bizarre and totalist ways that unhinges Beck's vision from reality -- but it's what makes Beck Beck.

This is why conspiracy theories are so attractive: they not only focus and channel the fear and anger people understandably feel in times of great stress, but they also return the illusion of control. After all, it's less frightening to believe that somebody is in control, even if it's a sinister cabal, than it is to believe that nobody's really in control. Think about it: is it scarier to believe that a conspiracy killed JFK, or that all it takes to change national, even world, history is a lone gunman with an evil thought sitting in a window in downtown Dallas?

Some thoughts on 1 & 2 Timothy

One of Paul's aims in writing 1 and 2 Timothy was to counsel young Pastor Timothy on how to handle false teachers troubling the church at Ephesus. It seems Paul had heard that these men were running roughshod over his "true child in the faith." Unlike Paul who never shrank from conflict Timothy may have been of a reticent personality, more prone to avoid conflict than confront it. I can relate. There was also the question of Timothy's youth which Paul addresses directly more than once. "Get a backbone, Timothy!", Paul says in so many words, but he says it always in an encouraging manner. "For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control." (2 Tim. 1:6-7)

Running throughout the subject matter relating specifically to this church's context is Paul's view of the church universal which he often described in architectural terms. Keep in mind he's talking about people not buildings! 1 Tim. 3:15 describes the church as "a pillar and buttress of the truth." Perhaps he had in mind the impressive examples of Greco-Roman architecture he'd seen in Rome and Athens. This is descriptive not prescriptive language. In other words the church doesn't define the truth, but is defined by it. The Word of truth creates the church. Where a particular expression of the church departs from the truth it ceases to be part of the church.

Paul returns to architectural language in 2 Tim. 2:19 to describe the church as "God's firm foundation." Despite the success of the false teachers in leading some astray God will see to it that his foundation stands. In the ancient world it was common for the foundation stone of a building to bear a seal or inscription. So we as "living stones" (1 Peter 2:5) of Christ's church have a seal, and on the seal are two mottos. "The Lord knows those who are his" and "Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity." The first quotation is from the Septuagint version of Numbers 16:5.

Numbers 16 tells the story of Korah's rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Do you remember the story? Korah and 250 elders of Israel challenged the authority of Moses. In response Moses challenged them—using the words quoted by Paul "The Lord knows those who are his"—to appear before the tent of meeting the next morning with burning censers of incense. The duel of the censers didn't end well for Korah and his followers. To make a long story short, the ground opened up and swallowed their households, and they themselves were incinerated. Not everyone who names the name of the Lord are truly his. Paul reminds Timothy that the people of God bear the indelible seal of election, which evidences itself in a life of holiness—practical examples of which are sprinkled throughout 1 and 2 Timothy. I especially like 1 Tim. 6:11 and 2 Tim. 2:22!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A dangerous book

Mark Labberton doesn't seem a likely candidate to write such an "in your face" challenging book as The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God's Call to Justice. For 16 years he pastored the venerable (by California standards) First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley -- not your typical mainline church, but mainline nonetheless. I came to this book through my pastor and his wife who were formerly on staff there. But seasons of ministry in far-flung places like Uganda and India, as well as a formative friendship with Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission, gave Labberton a message he was compelled to get off his chest. At least that's how it seemed to this reader. TDAOW reads like a book by a man on fire.

It's a blunt critique, but Labberton is as hard on himself and the church he pastored as he is on the mainline left and evangelical right. His primary contention is that much of the American church is sleepwalking through worship, preoccupied with stylistic "worship wars" and worried about false dangers in worship (e.g., worship that's not under control or worship that doesn't seem relevant), yet blind to "real dangers". Worship that doesn't change us is a real danger. Worship that lies about God is a real danger.

This book calls on the church to search herself. Do our lives show forth the God we claim to worship? Does worship result in a reorientation of our lives around God's purposes in the world? Do we really believe that encountering the true and living God changes everything? Labberton makes a solid biblical case that the fault line between true and false worship is intimately bound up with the prophet's imperative to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Here's a taste:

Our context is breathtakingly different from the norm for millions and millions around the world. On a trip to India, for example, I remember talking to a pastor about books and reading. He said, "If I save for four months, I am able to buy one Christian book through a discount I am offered. I have never traveled outside India, but I have heard that sometimes people in America buy books and don't read them." He asked with dismay, "Is that really true?" I mumbled something to cover my embarrassment, as I thought of just such books on my shelves at home.

It's not a matter of if we have bought books we don't read, but how many. It's not whether we get our children's inoculations, but whether we can keep track of the paperwork to prove it to the schools. It's not whether we eat, but how much we eat beyond what we need or even want. It's not whether we have a bed, but what color and theme the bed coverings will be. It's not whether we have a chance to hear about the love of God in Jesus Christ, but which ministry or church or medium we like best.

Some people in our own country don't have these choices (a scandal in itself). But most people in America do. Meanwhile, millions in the Southern Hemisphere and in Asia have never lived a single day with choices like these.

This disparity between economics and justice is an issue of worship. According to the narrative of Scripture, the very heart of how we show and distinguish true worship from false worship is apparent in how we respond to the poor, the oppressed, the neglected and the forgotten. As of now, I do not see this theme troubling the waters of worship in the American church. But justice and mercy are not add-ons to worship, nor are they the consequences of worship. Justice and mercy are intrinsic to God and therefore intrinsic to the worship of God. (pp. 37-38)

One of my favorite sections of the book is the chapter on the Sabbath. Paradoxically, "a life that does justice rises out of worship, which starts with rest. . ." (p. 95)

More here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Brooks on the dearth of modesty

From Congressman Joe Wilson to entertainer Kanye West self-indulgent expression is the order of the day. David Brooks looks back to a time when it wasn't.

When you look from today back to 1945, you are looking into a different cultural epoch, across a sort of narcissism line. Humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else, was a large part of the culture then.

But that humility came under attack in the ensuing decades. Self-effacement became identified with conformity and self-repression. A different ethos came to the fore, which the sociologists call “expressive individualism.” Instead of being humble before God and history, moral salvation could be found through intimate contact with oneself and by exposing the beauty, the power and the divinity within. . . . It’s funny how the nation’s mood was at its most humble when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary.

Read the whole thing

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Keeping Christ in the Decalogue

The Old Testament law is a huge and complex subject. There are as many views on it as there are Christian traditions, and even within the same tradition there can be a wide divergence of opinion. The New Testament can seem to not offer us much help here. What does it mean that Jesus came not to abolish, but to fulfill the law? How can the law be good, and at the same time a source of death? If we're not under the law, then what role does the law have in the life of the Christian? Does it have any role? How do we avoid the error of legalism or the opposite error of antinomianism?

Historically, Reformed theology has sought to answer these questions and others by speaking of the three uses of the law. To summarize -- the first use of the law is as a "harsh taskmaster", teaching us about the righteousness of God and our unrighteousness, revealing our sin, showing us our inability to attain God's holy standard, and causing us to flee to Christ for rescue.

Secondly, the law has the common grace function of restraining public wickedness and promoting public righteousness by informing human laws and customs. How far this should go has often been a source of disagreement within Reformed circles. Google "theonomy" to see what I mean.

Thirdly, the law functions for the Christian as a guide to growing in Christlikeness. For those "in Christ" the law loses it's power of death and becomes instead a gracious tool of the Holy Spirit for our sanctification.

Reformed theology also teaches that the moral law of God is summarized in the ten commandments, and further that "the sum of the ten commandments is, to love the Lord our God, with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind; and our neighbor as ourselves." (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 42) This brings me to The Rule of Love: Broken, Fulfilled, and Applied by J.V. Fesko, a minister in the OPC and professor at Westminster Seminary California. The Rule of Love is a clear and concise Reformed treatment of the ten commandments that grew out of a sermon series on Exodus. This is a practical little book that I'll undoubtedly refer to often. I recommend it.

Fesko begins by writing that part of the motivation for the book was his vexation at Christians who get more upset about the absence of the Decalogue from the public square than from the public worship of the church, or parents more concerned to have the ten commandments on the wall of the public school than impressed upon the hearts and minds of their covenant children. Also, much discussion of the ten commandments today completely omits Christ. The result? "They go from the Ten Commandments straight to its application to life, never asking the question: What about Christ? That inevitably leads to legalism, or the belief that we are able to fulfill the Law." (p. 3)

Fesko attempts to remedy this in two ways -- by stressing the importance of keeping the Decalogue linked to its prologue, and by considering each commandment in light of its historical, covenantal, and redemptive contexts. I found this a very fruitful way of opening up the ten commandments in new ways that I'd never seen before. The author contends that too often the commandments are decoupled from their prologue in Exodus 20:1-2. They thus become merely a set of abstract ethical principles, neither Jewish nor Christian. The prologue is essential for it "reminded Israel of her gracious redemption and directed her to the coming redemption of Christ. . . . Divorced from the prologue, the Ten Commandments are disconnected from their historical (the Law delivered at Sinai), covenantal (the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant), and redemptive contexts (the deliverance from Egypt)." (p. 15)

With the prologue in place we can better see the ten commandments in these three complementary contexts. I'll be sharing some excerpts from the chapters on specific commandments over the next days or weeks, but I hope you'll check out for yourself Fesko's Christ-centered treatment.

You can listen to the author interviewed about the book here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

On the boundary with Calvin

The Calvin Quincentennial rolls on with this month's Christianity Today cover story by Timothy George -- John Calvin: Comeback Kid. I like George's analysis of why Calvin's ideas have been gaining traction in recent years.

First, postmodernity has placed us all "on the boundary"—on the border between the fading certainties of modernism and new ways of understanding the world and its promises and perils. Calvin, a displaced refugee, speaks directly to the homeless mind of many contemporaries looking for a place to stand. "We are always on the road," Calvin wrote. Like Augustine, Calvin reminds us that our true homeland, our ultimate patria, is that city with foundations that God is preparing for all who know and love him. In the meantime, believers are "just sojourners on this earth so that with hope and patience they strive toward a better life."

Second, while Calvin is often depicted as an intellectualist and theological rationalist, in fact his theology is pervaded by mystery. No less than Luther, Calvin recognized the supreme paradox of the Word made flesh. He is a theologian of both/and, not either/or: divine sovereignty and human responsibility, written Word and living Spirit, the church invisible and the church congregational, already and not yet. Calvinists are willing to live with tension and even antinomy in this world, seeing through a glass darkly in the hope of the glory that shall be revealed. This is what it means to live faithfully in a broken world, one still yearning for full redemption.

Read the whole thing

This month's CT also includes admiring essays by non-Calvinists Ben Witherington and Roger Olson.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

$636,687.75 or How American Health Care Killed My Father

Recently I'd seen several commentators (both liberal and conservative) write that this article by David Goldhill was the best single thing they had read on the problems of the American health care system. That got my attention. So today I printed it out and sat down and read it. It's a lengthy piece. It took me a good 25-30 minutes to read it, but it was time well spent. Provoked by the death of his father by a preventable hospital-borne infection Goldhill undertook a personal investigation of the in's and out's of the current system. The result is this piece, a comprehensive critique that gives no comfort to either supporters or opponents of the legislation now taking shape on Capitol Hill. Goldhill believes that "the 'comprehensive' reform being contemplated merely cements in place the current system—insurance-based, employment-centered, administratively complex. It addresses the underlying causes of our health-care crisis only obliquely, if at all; indeed, by extending the current system to more people, it will likely increase the ultimate cost of true reform."

Depressing? Yes. But the more Americans educate themselves to the true hidden costs of the current system, and the terrible return consumers are getting for what they're paying, the more chance there will be for meaningful reform the next time around.

Live free!

When Christ went to the cross, he set millions of captives free. He unmasked the devil's fraud and broke his power. That's what he meant on the eve of his crucifixion when he said, "Now will the ruler of this world be cast out" (John 12:31). Don't follow a defeated foe. Follow Christ. It is costly. You will be an exile in this age. But you will be free.

John Piper, Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came To Die (p. 59)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Happy Labor Day

Agrarian Wendell Berry stirs it up:

From an economic point of view, a society in which every school child “needs” a computer, and every sixteen-year-old “needs” an automobile, and every eighteen-year-old “needs” to go to college is already delusional and is well on its way to being broke.

HT: Russell Moore

Sunday, September 6, 2009

One of the best paragraphs I've read on prayer

From J.I. Packer:

Does God, then, really tell us things when we pray? Yes. We shall probably not hear voices, nor feel sudden strong impressions of a message coming through (and we shall be wise to suspect such experiences should they come our way); but as we analyze and verbalize our problems before God's throne, and tell him what we want and why we want it, and think our way through passages and principles of God's written Word bearing on the matter in hand, we shall find many certainties crystallizing in our hearts as to God's view of us and our prayers, and his will for us and others. If you ask, "Why is this or that happening?" no light may come, for "the secret things belong to the Lord our God" (Deuteronomy 29:29); but if you ask, "How am I to serve and glorify God here and now, where I am?" there will always be an answer.

Growing in Christ, p. 156 (Crossway, 1994)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Looking for a church in the Palm Beaches?

Our church's website has been undergoing a facelift, and your's truly is one of the surgeons. Disclaimer: we are not professionals and it's still a work in progress.

Check it out.

Better yet, come and worship with us!

Friday, September 4, 2009


In his viewer's guide to Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours Trilogy—part of the BFI Modern Classics series—Geoff Andrew wrote that:

Kieslowski belongs to that small number of filmmakers—most notable are Dreyer, Rossellini, Bresson, Bergman and Tarkovsky—who have attempted to explore, through a medium that is by its very nature materialistic and confined to the visual reproduction of physical surfaces, a world that is obscure, metaphysical and transcendental. . . . And while Kieslowski fully deserves to be acclaimed as a humanist, as a chronicler of contemporary mores, as an expert storyteller and an accomplished technician, it was, first and foremost, his ability to evoke those mysterious, unseen forces and our reactions to them, that made him one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema. (p. 68)

Two scenes from The Double Life of Veronique (1991) will suffice. You may want to try an experiment. First, listen to the scene with your eyes closed trying to imagine what is going on. Then watch it. A Kieslowski film is as much a listening exercise as a seeing one.

Listened to any good movies lately?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Giving and keeping

"If I leave behind 10 pounds, you and all mankind bear witness against me that I lived and died a thief and a robber."

John Wesley

I'm re-reading Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road by Tim Keller. It's challenging me again as it did the first time I read it 4 or 5 years ago. Keller asks if it's possible for comfortable American Christians to do the ministry of mercy without radically altering our lifestyle. And should Christians live a "simple lifestyle" in order to give more away?

Ronald Sider answers a resounding yes and advocates a "graduated tithe" in his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. This is where the percentage given increases as income increases, and all income above a certain point is given away. Also, "Sider urges families to live communally, to buy no clothes for two to three years, and to radically lower their lifestyle so that they can give 20-50 percent of their income to the Lord and to the needy." (p. 68) Is this too radical? Keller appeals to prominent evangelicals from the 18th century to demonstrate that the teaching of a "simple lifestyle" is not a radical, new fad.

The pastor and hymnwriter John Newton advised choosing a standard of living which is "barely decent" and that "we are to spend a penny on the poor for every penny we spend on ourselves." (p. 69) Jonathan Edwards chided those who adopted a standard of living (i.e. "just enough for myself and my family") based on the expectations of their social class. He saw that the amount thought "just enough" will invariably be calculated to maintain the lifestyle an individual or family has grown accustomed to. Edwards believed that if an individual's giving didn't burden one, or cut into one's lifestyle, then they weren't giving enough. (p. 74)

Perhaps the best example is John Wesley. Keller cites a sermon Wesley preached on Matthew 6:19-21 in which he "flatly states that any Christian who has more than the 'plain necessaries of life lives in an open, habitual denial of the Lord; he has gained riches and hell-fire.'" (p. 71) I'm guessing this kind of preaching wouldn't go over well today, even in churches that count Wesley as their doctrinal forebear and hero. Wesley lived what he preached. At the height of his fame he earned as much as 1,400 pounds a year from the sale of his sermons and books, yet his spending remained modest in the extreme throughout his life, and when he died "his estate consisted of a coat and two silver teaspoons." (p. 69)

These examples aren't confined to those well-known figures. "Rather, it was common teaching in the evangelical churches of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries." (p. 69) Wesley and his contemporaries might well count it a symptom of deep worldliness that the majority of Western Christians today are as preoccupied as the world with ever-larger well-appointed homes, new cars, leisure activities, and retirement portfolios. More typical of today's thinking is a Christian finance writer quoted by Keller who writes, "God's simple requirement is that we give ten percent of our income; once we have paid that, we know that no more is demanded." By that rule the man who earns a million dollars is free to spend $900,000 on himself. But how does that jive with the teachings of Jesus on money and possessions, as well as the many apostolic admonitions and warnings? Not well, Keller believes. He calls it "a form of Phariseeism." (p. 75) I see it as an example of ignoring the weightier matters of the law -- justice, mercy and faith.

I'm the first to admit I have far to go in this area. Keller suggests three principles to guide our giving that I believe are Biblical and worth pondering.

First, we must give so that we feel the burden of the needy ourselves.

Secondly, we may only keep whatever wealth we need for our calling and ministry opportunities.

Thirdly, we must not be generous in such a way that we or our families become liabilities to others.

"Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." Galatians 6:2

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The case of Cameron Todd Willingham

I confess I'm deeply conflicted about the death penalty. Several years ago I sat through an excruciating week of jury selection in a capital murder case here in Palm Beach County. I made it to the final cut, but was finally dismissed after I told the state attorney under questioning that I personally couldn't vote to give someone the death penalty. The defendant in that case (who was a silent presence that week) was ultimately convicted and sentenced to life without parole. Most likely he avoided death row because he had the services of one of the top defense lawyers in town, whose skills I was able to witness first hand -- something most defendants in death penalty cases do not have.

What surprised me most about that experience was the inability of the vast majority of potential jurors to articulate why they were for or against capital punishment. The ones that did have a clear point of view were often off the wall. I vividly remember one woman of the "fry 'em all" camp who said she didn't believe in giving life without parole because prisoners could watch cable TV, work out and (I kid you not) "have sex". I walked away relieved not to have been picked, and troubled that so many of my fellow citizens seemed not to understand or have thought about what a serious thing it is to take a human life, even if it's justified.

This piece by David Grann is either the story of a man who committed an unspeakable crime and got what he deserved, or it's the story of an innocent man executed a mere 5 years ago. Either way it's an unsettling piece of investigative journalism.

"There are lots of distractions in this church."