Friday, September 20, 2013

Confounding them like Jesus did

In Center Church pastor Tim Keller writes about missional churches that confound the traditional categories of "conservative" or "liberal", "fundamentalist" or "progressive" -- churches that are harder for outsiders to write off because they don't fit with some preconceived notion or bias. Keller describes one mark of this kind of church:

A missional church will be more deeply and practically committed to deeds of compassion and social justice than traditional fundamentalist churches and more deeply and practically committed to evangelism and conversion than traditional liberal churches.

 I thought of this in relation to the latest round of media coverage concerning Pope Francis' interview with America magazine. The coverage follows the pattern seen a few weeks ago in reaction to the Pope's off-the-cuff remarks on homosexuality, particularly his comment "Who am I to judge?". The pattern goes as follows. The Pope says something about hot-button issue x, y or z that sounds like he's changing church teaching. Media jumps to the conclusion that he's a liberal like them. Then other interpreters jump in to point out that he isn't saying anything different than what the church has always said, just saying it in a more winsome and effective way.

Writing at the First Things blog here's Matthew Schmitz arguing for the latter.

The Pope’s approach is one familiar to any reader of the gospels. Pharisees try to discredit the gospel by trapping its teacher; the teacher refuses the terms of their question and raises the spiritual stakes. The point here is not to compromise on or back away from truth, but rather to reject its caricature. This is good practical guidance. If it’s what he meant in his broader remarks, then those remarks offer wise advice well worth taking.

Perhaps Francis is an example of a church leader committed to busting up the traditional categories like Jesus did -- neither liberal or conservative but confronting dogmas of both the right and the left with the subversive claims of the gospel.  If so, he's an example that Evangelical Protestants would be wise to emulate.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


I once heard John Piper say that in forty-some years of marriage he had never been attracted to a woman other than his wife. I remember thinking that Pastor John was either lying or was a most unusual man. Holding him in high esteem I choose to think the latter.

Nevertheless, I think Wendell Berry's writings on marriage and sexuality (recent comments on same-sex marriage excepted) present a more realistic and profound picture of marital fidelity. For in the context of deep rich community advocated by Berry the probability exists of attraction between men and women rubbing elbows in the warp and woof of life together. In a society that worships the values of personal autonomy and self-fulfillment this might be a recipe for disintegration, but in Berry's vision the virtue of fidelity protects the sacred particularity of marriage and the generality of the community. If none of that makes sense read on.

The following is a slightly condensed quote from pp. 122-3 of The Unsettling of America (Sierra Club Books, 1977).

At the root of culture must be the realization that uncontrolled energy is disorderly—that in nature all energies move in forms; that, therefore, in a human order energies must be given forms. It must have been plain at the beginning, as cultural degeneracy has made it plain again and again, that one can be indiscriminately sexual but not indiscriminately responsible, and that irresponsible sexuality would undermine any possibility of culture since it implies a hierarchy based purely upon brute strength, cunning, regardlessness of value and of consequence. Fidelity can thus be seen as the necessary discipline of sexuality, the practical definition of sexual responsibility, or the definition of the moral limits within which such responsibility can be conceived and enacted. The forsaking of all others is a keeping of faith, not just with the chosen one, but with the ones forsaken. The marriage vow unites not just a woman and a man with each other; it unites each of them with the community in a vow of sexual responsibility toward all others. The whole community is married, realizes its essential unity, in each of its marriages.
Another use of fidelity is to preserve the possibility of devotion against the distractions of novelty. What marriage offers—and what fidelity is meant to protect—is the possibility of moments when what we have chosen and what we desire are the same. Such a convergence obviously cannot be continuous. No relationship can continue very long at its highest emotional pitch. But fidelity prepares us for the return of these moments, which give us the highest joy we can know: that of union, communion, atonement (in the root sense of at-one-ment). . .
To forsake all others does not mean—because it cannot mean—to ignore or neglect all others, to hide or be hidden from all others, or to desire or love no others. To live in marriage is a responsible way to live in sexuality, as to live in a household is a responsible way to live in the world. One cannot enact or fulfill one's love for womankind or mankind, or even for all the women or men to whom one is attracted. If one is to have the power and delight of one's sexuality, then the generality of instinct must be resolved in a responsible relationship to a particular person. Similarly, one cannot live in the world; that is, one cannot become, in the easy, generalizing sense with which the phrase is commonly used, a "world citizen." There can be no such thing as a "global village." No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible embrace of one's partiality.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Good words on worship

The Presbyterian church where I serve as an elder is in the middle of a spirited conversation on worship. Issues include how long the service should be, what style of music to have, and how often we celebrate Holy Communion. Emotions often run high when discussing worship, and they should, for it's the most important thing a Christian participates in. Worship is our eternal destiny!

Here are two excellent articles I've come across recently that address two essential aspects of biblical worship -- singing and the sacraments.

From Baptist minister Brian Hedges "Growing Your Appetite for the Lord's Supper"


Here is N.T. Wright's call to "Save the Best Worship Songs".

What are the best worship songs? You'll have to read it to find out.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A prophetic word from inside Syria

Like many I'm skeptical of the wisdom of taking military action against what is undoubtedly a barbaric regime in Syria. For one thing, if Assad fell, would his successors be any better? Secondly, all the talk of a "limited response" -- and our so-called ability to carry out "surgical strikes" -- tries to obscure the fact that limbs will be blown off and innocents will perish with the guilty. War isn't a video game, though our technology can make it seem so. And for what it's worth, I'd have the same skepticism if the President's name was Bush, McCain or Romney. I'm amused by the "against anything Obama does folks" who are suddenly born again non-interventionists.

As our leaders consult and posture for the TV cameras I hope they take the time to consider these words of a letter from the Trappist nuns of Azeir, Syria dated August 29, 2013.

We look at the people around us, our day workers who are all here as if suspended, stunned: “They’ve decided to attack us.” Today we went to Tartous…we felt the anger, the helplessness, the inability to formulate a sense to all this: the people trying their best to work and to live normally. You see the farmers watering their land, parents buying notebooks for the schools that are about to begin, unknowing children asking for a toy or an ice cream…you see the poor, so many of them, trying to scrape together a few coins. The streets are full of the “inner” refugees of Syria, who have come from all over to the only area left that is still relatively liveable…. You see the beauty of these hills, the smile on people’s faces, the good-natured gaze of a boy who is about to join the army and gives us the two or three peanuts he has in his pocket as a token of “togetherness”…. And then you remember that they have decided to bomb us tomorrow. … Just like that. Because “it’s time to do something,” as it is worded in the statements of the important men, who will be sipping their tea tomorrow as they watch TV to see how effective their humanitarian intervention will be….

Will they make us breathe the toxic gases of the depots they hit, tomorrow, so as to punish us for the gases we have already breathed in?

The people are straining their eyes and ears in front of the television: all they’re waiting for is a word from Obama!

A word from Obama? Will the Nobel Peace Prize winner drop his sentence of war onto us? Despite all justice, all common sense, all mercy, all humility, all wisdom?

The Pope has spoken up, patriarchs and bishops have spoken up, numberless witnesses have spoken up, analysts and people of experience have spoken up, even the opponents of the regime have spoken up…. Yet here we all are, waiting for just one word from the great Obama? And if it weren’t him, it would be someone else. It isn’t he who is “the great one,” it is the Evil One who these days is really acting up.

The problem is that it has become too easy to pass lies off as noble gestures, to pass ruthless self-interest off as a search for justice, to pass the need to appear [strong] and to wield power off as a “moral responsibility not to look away…”

And despite all our globalizations and sources of information, it seems nothing can be verified. It seems that there is no such thing as a minimal scrap of truth … That is, they don’t want there to be any truth; while actually a truth does exist, and anyone honest would be able to find it, if they truly sought it out together, if they weren’t prevented by those who are in the service of other interests.

There is something wrong, and it is something very serious…because the consequences will be wrought on the lives of an entire population…it is in the blood that fills our streets, our eyes, our hearts.

Yet what use are words anymore? All has been destroyed: a nation destroyed, generations of young people exterminated, children growing up wielding weapons, women winding up alone and targeted by various types of violence…families, traditions, homes, religious buildings, monuments that tell and preserve history and therefore the roots of a people…all destroyed. …

As Christians we can at least offer all this up to the mercy of God, unite it to the blood of Christ, which carries out the redemption of the world in all those who suffer.

They are trying to kill hope, but we must hold on to it with all our might.

To those who truly have a heart for Syria (for mankind, for truth…) we ask for prayer…abounding, heartfelt, courageous prayer.

Read more here.