Tuesday, January 24, 2012

More classic Machen

The stirring conclusion to the chapter simply titled "Christ" from Christianity and Liberalism:

The liberal Jesus, despite all the efforts of modern psychological reconstruction to galvanize Him into life, remains a manufactured figure of the stage. Very different is the Jesus of the New Testament and of the great Scriptural creeds. That Jesus is indeed mysterious. Who can fathom the mystery of His Person? But the mystery is a mystery in which a man can rest. The Jesus of the New Testament has at least one advantage over the Jesus of modern reconstruction—He is real. He is not a manufactured figure suitable as a point of support for ethical maxims, but a genuine Person whom a man can love. Men have loved Him through all the Christian centuries. And the strange thing is that despite all the efforts to remove Him from the pages of history, there are those who love Him still. (p. 116)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Parenting in the Pew

If you're a Christian parent of young kids I highly recommend Parenting in the Pew by mother and pastor's wife Robbie Castleman. As with any book on parenting there are a few things I have reservations about, but I wholeheartedly endorse the main thrust, which is that training our children how to worship is a Christian parent's most important job. Worship is the one thing we get to do for all eternity.

Our oldest son is almost three, and at the point where my wife and I want to begin exposing him to what goes on in "big church." We want to begin exposing him to the rhythm of worship as expressed in the songs, creeds, and prayers of God's people. It's amazing how much he picks up! Needless to say to those who have experience with the Pre-K years, there are some big challenges to this. Honestly, it's much easier to drop him off at the nursery with his baby brother instead of struggling to keep him quiet and reasonably contained in a pew. Not only that our "worship experience" is much better without the distraction. But, and here we get to one of Castleman's best insights, that attitude betrays a typical contemporary mindset that worship is primarily for my benefit.

Here is how she explains it:

There is a big difference between worship B.C. and worship A.D.—worship "before children" and worship "after diapers"! I have heard more than a few parents confess, "I used to get more out of church before I had kids."

But the bigger issue is, what does God get out of worship? Worship is good for God. Worship concerns itself with his pleasure, his benefit, his good. Worship is the exercise of our souls in blessing God. In the Psalms we read or sing, "Bless the Lord, O my soul!" However, our chief concern is usually "Bless my soul, O Lord!" (p. 23)

Children can infringe on our worship experience. I know more than a few parents who have resented the distractions ushered into the pew by the presence of their children. Many just give up. However, children do not have to interfere with God's experience of worship! Worship is first a blessing to God, and he values the presence and praise of children (Matthew 18:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16). (p. 24)

Castleman suggests that often our reluctance to include children in worship is because we're worried about how their behavior will reflect on us as parents. While not minimizing the importance of teaching our kids how to be quiet in church, the highest priority is teaching them how to worship in church. Many adults learned how to be quiet in church, but they never learned to worship. No wonder so many of our worship services are cold and lifeless!

I really appreciated this book's focus on keeping children, even young ones, with their parents as much as possible during Lord's Day worship. This goes for the teenage years too, when your kids might rather sit with their friends than with you. Castleman isn't totally against children's church, but I think she calls it like it is when she writes: "Too many children's churches are cut-and-paste times to keep children occupied until the adult service is over." Instead, Sunday School and children's church should be "designed to train children in worship." (p. 60)

Sprinkled throughout this warmly written book are anecdotes from Castleman's own experience of parenting her two sons in the pew. Reading this book has inspired me to try and do the same with my two sons, despite the potential for frustration it could bring. Here's one more quote. . .

Parenting in the pew can be a hassle. Or it can be holy. It depends on who we are and how we see ourselves. Do we sit with our children "in church" or "in worship"? (p. 30)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Soccer is boring (and I love it)

Brian Phillips gives one of the best descriptions of soccer you'll ever read. . .

There are two reasons, basically, why soccer lends itself to spectatorial boredom. One is that the game is mercilessly hard to play at a high level. (You know, what with the whole "maneuver a small ball via precisely coordinated spontaneous group movement with 10 other people on a huge field while 11 guys try to knock it away from you, and oh, by the way, you can't use your arms and hands" element.) The other is that the gameplay almost never stops — it's a near-continuous flow for 45-plus minutes at a stretch, with only very occasional resets. Combine those two factors and you have a game that's uniquely adapted for long periods of play where, say, the first team's winger goes airborne to bring down a goal kick, but he jumps a little too soon, so the ball kind of kachunks off one side of his face, then the second team's fullback gets control of it, and he sees his attacking midfielder lurking unmarked in the center of the pitch, so he kludges the ball 20 yards upfield, but by the time it gets there the first team's holding midfielder has already closed him down and gone in for a rough tackle, and while the first team's attacking midfielder is rolling around on the ground the second team's right back runs onto the loose ball, only he's being harassed by two defenders, so he tries to knock it ahead and slip through them, but one of them gets a foot to it, so the ball sproings up in the air … etc., etc., etc. Both teams have carefully worked-out tactical plans that influence everything they're trying to do. But the gameplay is so relentless that it can't help but go through these periodic bouts of semi-decomposition.

But — and here's the obvious answer to the "Why are we doing this?" question — those same two qualities, difficulty and fluidity, also mean that soccer is uniquely adapted to produce moments of awesome visual beauty. Variables converge. Players discover solutions to problems it would be impossible to summarize without math. . . . In sports, pure chaos is boring. Soccer gives players more chaos to contend with than any other major sport. So there's something uniquely thrilling about the moments when they manage to impose their own order on it.

Phillips notes that the Big 3 of American team sports have rules that limit the amount of chaos players have to contend with ("baseball constantly resets to the same starting position, football does the same while adding 29,384 rules about who can and can't do what on which plays, basketball breaks itself into discrete timed segments, etc."). I'm a fan of all three -- and all three have their own unique charms and potential to amaze -- but speaking as a fairly recent soccer-loving convert those sports don't get inside your head like soccer does. Which is why the only football I'll be sitting down to watch this weekend is played on a pitch with a spherical ball. Bring on the boredom!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Two views on Jesus vs. religion

You may have heard about the "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus" video making the rounds. In it Jefferson Bethke, a young Christian from Seattle, gives a terrific spoken word presentation contrasting Jesus' message of love and grace with religion. The video has been viewed over 12 million times and generated an amazing amount of discussion on Christian websites and blogs.

The distinction between the gospel and religion is one I've written about more than once (see here and here). Properly understood it's helpful in understanding how the Christian gospel is utterly unique from other major religions. Some of the push-back to Bethke's video argues that he overplays the Jesus vs. religion theme and betrays his generation's anti-institutional church bias. Interestingly, criticism has come from the evangelical right and the evangelical left.

The most interesting response that I've seen is "Why I Love Jesus But Hate Religion - A Catholic Response" by someone going under the name Makeafriar. This guy makes some great points. Both videos are below. If you haven't seen the original video, watch it first, then watch the Catholic response. This is a worthwhile dialogue to be having.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

CT on the dying art of pulpit prayer

Here's an excerpt from a post by Carl Trueman on the importance of pastoral prayer from the pulpit.

Often Protestants concentrate so much on the sermon or the singing as the contact point between God and the congregation that we forget the importance of prayer. Yet corporate prayer is surely a means of grace (Shorter Catechism 88) and it thus requires that those leading worship pay as much attention to what they say in their prayers as they do to their sermons. The congregation should come away from the service believing that they have met with a holy and gracious God; and public prayer is a key element of that.

To listen to a lot of public prayer in churches is too often like listening in to a private quiet time -- and that is not meant as a compliment. The erosion of the boundary between public and private and the relentless march of the aesthetics of casualness have taken their toll here. It seems that unless somebody prays in public precisely as we think they might do in private, we all fear that this might be a form of affectation which prevents the prayer from being `authentic' -- whatever that might mean. Yet oftentimes there are people in the congregation on Sunday who have come from a week of pain, worry and confusion; they may be spiritually shattered; they might barely be able to string two words of a prayer together; and at this moment a good pastor can through a well-thought out and carefully expressed prayer draw their eyes heavenwards, lead them to the throne of grace and give them the words of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and intercession which they cannot find for themselves.

As an antidote to this lack, ministers should spend some time each week reading the prayers of others. The Valley of Vision is a great little collection of Puritan examples. Spurgeon's The Pastor in Prayer is simply amazing -- that he could pray spontaneously like that speaks volumes of his private devotions. Matthew Henry's A Method of Prayer is also invaluable as providing guidelines on public prayer. And not one of them contains or recommends ever having a sentence in a public prayer which contains the phrase `we just want to....'

I'm thankful that my pastors put an emphasis on this, and that our church's liturgy gives a prominent place to the pastoral prayer. Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit helps us when we don't know how to pray. Some times that help comes in the form of listening to the prayers of others.

That other (Christian, Heisman-winning) Gator Quarterback

Here's a good CNN story on former Gator and NFL quarterback Danny Wuerffel. In his way Danny is just as much of a positive Christian role model as Tim Tebow. He reminds us that God is as much there in the losses of life as he is in the victories.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Douthat: "Return of the Repressed"

Once again Ross Douthat proves to be one of the few conservative pundits who gets it re the economy. Granted, he writes for The New York Times which gives those living in the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh alternate universe an excuse to dismiss him as a RINO.

In the course of the 2000s, under a tax-cutting, business-friendly Republican administration, middle class paychecks grew much more slowly than the economy as a whole, upward mobility for the poor continued to lag behind parts of Western Europe, and the combination of unfunded tax cuts and deficit spending worsened the country’s fiscal picture just as the Baby Boomers were poised to retire. Then came the financial crisis, touched off in part by gross recklessness on Wall Street. Then came the Great Recession, which threw millions of Americans out of work, hit downscale workers much harder than it did the college-educated, and sent the deficit spiraling upward to unprecedented heights.

It was a sequence of events that seemed to call into question certain commonplace Republican assumptions — that what’s good for Wall Street is good for America, that marginal tax cuts are a sufficient method of generating broadly shared prosperity, and that supply-side economics usually pays for itself. And many of the candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination have made halting, tentative attempts to respond to these developments. . .

Read the rest

In defense of doctrine (Machen)

I'm re-reading Christianity and Liberalism and finding it astonishingly relevant to the church today -- especially the Presbyterian branch. Some of the secondary issues and nuances have changed, but the fundamental conflict continues to revolve around differing views of Christ, the authority of Scripture, and the nature of salvation. The sickness of theological liberalism that Machen saw as diametrically opposed to Christianity results in a variety of symptoms.

Part of what Machen was responding to was an attempt to "rescue" Christianity from so much emphasis on doctrine, and to rehabilitate Jesus as the founder of a non-doctrinal religion that was later hijacked by the apostles and church fathers with their creeds and councils. The battle cry of the modernists was "Christianity is a life not a doctrine." Read Machen for yourself, but I think he succeeded in demonstrating that any such effort doesn't fly, and that the pitting of deeds against creeds results in something other than the New Testament gospel. In a sad irony it removes the fuel for changed lives.

Even if you get rid of John, that most doctrinal of the Gospels, and limit yourself to only those statements of Jesus that even the most critical scholars accept as authentic, one is forced to conclude that Jesus was more than a teacher of timeless moral truths. His Messianic consciousness is everywhere apparent. He proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God and began to explain to his disciples what that meant. It was left to the Apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit, to explain the full meaning of Christ's life, death and resurrection.

Here's Machen in his own words from Chapter 2 of Christianity and Liberalism:

From the beginning, the Christian gospel, as indeed the name "gospel" or "good news" implies, consisted in an account of something that had happened. And from the beginning, the meaning of the happening was set forth; and when the meaning of the happening was set forth then there was Christian doctrine. "Christ died"—that is history; "Christ died for our sins"—that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity. (p. 27)

"Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried"—that is history. "He loved me and gave Himself for me"—that is doctrine. Such was the Christianity of the primitive Church. (p. 29)

Jesus was certainly not a mere enunciator of permanent truths, like the modern liberal preacher; on the contrary He was conscious of standing at the turning-point of the ages, when what had never been was now to come to be. (pp. 31-2)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Friday, January 6, 2012

Have you begun to follow?

More than once Christians have been scoffed at as "poor, ignorant, and easily led." Christianity, indeed all religion -- so the argument goes -- is for weak-minded folks who don't want to think for themselves. It creates followers not independent thinkers and doers. My Dylanesque rejoinder to the man who prides himself on his autonomy and independent thought is. . . you gotta serve somebody.

The critics are partly right. The essence of being a Christian is to be led. It's to be a follower. That's what a disciple of Jesus Christ does. He follows his master. One of the most common biblical pictures of this is that of a sheep following a shepherd. Not very flattering is it?

Jesus: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." (John 10:27)

Douglas MacMillan (The Lord Our Shepherd) unpacks some of the implications that "hearing" and "following" have for the Lord's sheep -- those who can say with David: "The LORD is MY shepherd." In this post I shared some of MacMillan's insights on hearing. Now here is Scotsman MacMillan on following.

I suppose if you asked everyone here what a Christian is, they could give you a different definition and still be within the framework of Scripture. But here is a very simple definition. A Christian is a person who follows Jesus. Do you remember the story of blind Bartimaeus? He was healed, and the last thing that we read of him is this: 'he . . . followed Jesus in the way' (Mark 10:52). This phrase 'following Jesus' is so descriptive of what a Christian really is that on the west coast of Scotland, the Gaelic-speaking regions, we use it to denominate a Christian. If you were on the Isle of Lewis, for example, and somebody was gloriously converted, you would say, 'So and so has begun to follow', and nobody in Lewis would misunderstand you. . . . Often when we are asked to say what a Christian is we do so in completely unbiblical terms. 'A Christian is someone who goes to chapel or church; or they are Baptists or Presbyterians; or they wear certain clothes or do their hair a certain way; or they don't smoke or drink; or they don't dress like this or listen to that kind of music.' You know, an awful lot of it is sheer rubbish! A Christian is a follower of Jesus. . .

If you are following it means that you are being led. It's like a rowboat being pulled by a large yacht. Suddenly, the tow-rope goes taut, and you're moving out of the harbour. This "simple definition" of what a Christian is assuages our doubts and strengthens our assurance that we are indeed a child of God.

No matter how you feel or what else is true of you, if God in His grace has brought your life under direction and made you follow Christ, then that is one of the best signs you can have. If that is true of you, then you have nothing to be afraid of.

That's great stuff, and this is a great book!

Quotes from J. Douglas MacMillan, The Lord Our Shepherd (pp. 39-41)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A look at Santorum

My wife grew up in a Catholic working-class family in Pennsylvania so I know something about the environment that produced Rick Santorum. I always liked him as a senator and I'm happy to see him emerge as an alternative to Romney -- though I think his chances of beating Romney are slim to none. Santorum is the closest to my own political ideology which if I had to label it would be "social conservative" and "economic populist", or, if you insist, economic liberal.

On the one hand Santorum is a principled defender of the sanctity of life and the traditional definition of marriage -- stands which are grounded in his Roman Catholic faith. And by all accounts as a faithful husband and father of seven children he practices what he preaches. In the Senate he was a leader in the fight against AIDS in the two-thirds world and supported funding for community health centers here at home. He has a concern for "the least of these" that isn't evident in a lot of conservative politicians.

On the other hand Santorum isn't a cheerleader for Randian trickle-down economics that has become Republican orthodoxy, and he's not afraid to bring up issues the rest of the field won't -- issues like stagnant social mobility and growing inequality. Unlike the buffoonish Herman Cain and his 9-9-9 plan (admit it some of you took him seriously), Santorum offers a tax policy that would benefit struggling families -- a tripling of the child tax credit. He understands that you can't have limited government without strong families.

Here's more from Rich Lowry writing at National Review Online:

Santorum’s calling card is his social conservatism, and he’s competing for Iowa’s evangelical voters with Texas governor Rick Perry and Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Santorum is more knowledgeable than Perry and more careful than Bachmann, and he has demonstrated more swing-state appeal than both by winning two statewide races in heavily Democratic Pennsylvania. His 18-point reelection shellacking in 2006 is his albatross, although Ronald Reagan himself might have lost in Pennsylvania in that GOP annus horribilis.

It didn’t help that Santorum’s outspokenness on social issues — especially those related to homosexuality — made him a figure of hatred and vulgar mockery on the left. But he’s not a thoughtless culture warrior, in it for the bombast. Santorum links his social conservatism to the struggles of the working class in one of the few thematic departures in a Republican primary that has been more about personalities and past heterodoxies than substantive differences.

In the debates, Santorum has constantly talked about increasing economic mobility. In a heresy for a Republican, he’s acknowledged that some countries in Europe are more mobile than we are, and he has noted the disparity between the unemployment rates of college-educated and non-college-educated Americans. Santorum proposes zeroing out the corporate tax rate for manufacturers to provide them a boost as a source of blue-collar jobs. “We need to talk about people at the bottom of the income scale being able to get necessary skills and rise so they can support themselves and a family,” Santorum said at the CNBC economy debate. He’s right, although he is one of the few Republicans who seem determined to have the conversation.

He’s always clear that the breakdown of the family is an inescapable factor in limiting economic aspiration. He cites the widely divergent poverty rates of two-parent and single-parent families. “You can’t have limited government,” he says, “if the family breaks down.” He speaks powerfully of how, when he was growing up in a very modest home, a mother and father were “the most important gift I was given.” He wants to triple the personal deduction for each child, making his tax-reform proposal the most pro-family of any on offer from the GOP candidates.

I'm sure there are many flaws one could find in Santorum as a candidate and individual -- and he'll be getting a lot more scrutiny now -- but that's the case for all of them. He deserves a serious look.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Comfort for a New Year

Since New Year's Day fell on Sunday this year it was beautifully appropriate to be reminded of Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 1. This isn't exactly a New Year's resolution, but living one's life in light of these truths is transformative.

Q. 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

A. That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

Q. 2. How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?

A. Three; the first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.

I'm not one to make resolutions, but if I was Psalm 34:1 would be a good one.

I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.

In other words: I'll bless God even when I'm not feeling "blessed" -- which in American Christian parlance often means "my life is going so great right now." The Psalms turn the language of blessing upside down, where it's more about God's people blessing him by loving and fearing him, than about God blessing us.

Happy New Year, dear readers!