Miscellany

♦ I take most of the Barna, Rainer, et al stuff with a grain of salt, but Rainer’s Five Reasons Church Members Attend Church Less Frequently is at least anecdotally true.

♦ If Rainer’s diagnosis is accurate we ought to look for remedies.

♦ As proof that I remain blissfully ignorant of so much tripe in pop culture, I pass on this piece of musical propaganda circa 2013(!). I’m spotty on the details but apparently a portion of this video was worked into a larger presentation on “gender fluidity” that was presented at a Grand Rapids high school.

♦ A memorable passage from Chesterton’s Heretics:

A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization. All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours…

Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.” He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.” He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

Life under ‘the plague’

…they all make haste toward some trivial objective that seems of more immediate interest than God.

This semester I participated in a Worldviews in Literature course with our two oldest. Overall it’s been a good experience–lots of reading, insightful questions to answer, and generally good discussion.

For existentialism we read The Plague by Albert Camus which, in my opinion, turned out to be one of the better books in the course. At one point in the story one of the characters–Tarrou–compiles “a longish description of a day in the plague-stricken town.” Consider how the townspeople react when forced to confront their own mortality [emphasis added]:

“At the start of the great heat, for some unascertained reason, the evening found the streets almost empty. But now the least ripple of cooler air brings an easing of the strain, if not a flutter of hope. Then all stream out into the open, drug themselves with talking, start arguing or love-making, and in the last glow of sunset the town, freighted with lovers two by two and with loud voices, drifts like a helmless ship into the throbbing darkness. In vain a zealous evangelist with a felt hat and flowing tie threads his way through the crowd, crying without cease: ‘God is great and good. Come unto Him.’ On the contrary, they all make haste toward some trivial objective that seems of more immediate interest than God.

“In the early days, when they thought this epidemic was much like other epidemics, religion held its ground. But once these people realized their instant peril, they gave their thoughts to pleasure. And all the hideous fears that stamp their faces in the daytime are transformed in the fiery, dusty nightfall into a sort of hectic exaltation, an unkempt freedom fevering their blood.

“And I, too, I’m no different. But what matter? Death means nothing to men like me. It’s the event that proves them right.”

Camus wasn’t the first to depict religion and pleasure in competition for the human soul. Pascal had made this observation about three centuries earlier and he was more than a millennia behind Paul (1Cor 15:32) who was himself preceded by the OT wisdom authors (Prov 14:12-13; Eccl 2:1-11).

But in spite of wildly divergent worldviews these men all had one thing in common: they gave themselves to books.

What a bunch of dullards.

Explaining the Lord’s Supper through Deuteronomy 6

…we should want to provoke the inquisitive nature of our children by exposing them to things they don’t understand.

There was a time not so long ago that kids sat with their parents during a church service. My history is fuzzy but I think it was in the days after child labor laws but before we discovered the retarding effects of acute pediatric boredom (APB).¹ But societal evolution marched on and our ecclesiology eventually caught up so that programs like “children’s church” have nearly eradicated APB (and similar disorders) from our gatherings.

Of course, societal evolution rarely comes without a trade-off. For us, the boon of children’s church meant the absence of young children when we observed the Lord’s Supper. So, in what I hope was a small, first step, our leadership decided to change the service order once a quarter so that our children’s church kids (K5-3rd grade) could experience the sacrament.

Better minds have attempted to work out their corporate worship according to the text and pattern of Scripture only to reach varying conclusions on practices like children’s church. I have no desire to jump into that discussion here except to make one observation.

It’s interesting to note that a full understanding or appreciation of God’s commands are not prerequisites for obedience. Or, to put it another way, sometimes we obey so that we may understand (Psa 119:100; Jn 7:17). For our current discussion the point is that one of the ways God would have our children learn the faith is by experiencing things they don’t understand.

And that brings us to Deuteronomy 6 where God prescribes a parent’s answer to a child’s question:

Deuteronomy 6:20-25   “When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the LORD our God commanded you?’  21 then you shall say to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the LORD brought us from Egypt with a mighty hand.  22 ‘Moreover, the LORD showed great and distressing signs and wonders before our eyes against Egypt, Pharaoh and all his household; 23 He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He had sworn to our fathers.’ 24 “So the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God for our good always and for our survival, as it is today.  25 “It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the LORD our God, just as He commanded us.

At the risk of stating the obvious [A besetting sin in your teaching ministry. –Shive], this proverbial son is watching, if not participating in, things that seem strange to him; and his lack of understanding is what draws him in. I take it, then, that in we should want to provoke the inquisitive nature of our children concerning our faith by exposing them to things they don’t understand.

To that end we might even consider keeping a fidgety kid in the pew every now and then on a communion Sunday just to pique his curiosity.

And if your son asks you, “What is the Lord’s Supper and why are you doing this?” then maybe you could say something like:

 ‘We were slaves to sin, and the Lord freed us from the curse with a mighty hand.  Moreover, through his death and resurrection Jesus Christ has shown us great and distressing signs and wonders against death, the devil and all his works;

God brought us out from the domain of darkness in order to bring us in to the kingdom of his Son, to give us an inheritance which He has promised to us.’

“So Jesus commanded us to observe the Lord’s Supper, to fear Him for our good and for our salvation, as we are doing today. “It is a sign of our righteousness when we keep this command before our LORD and Savior, just as He commanded.

 


¹We now know that APB is merely the symptom of bigger problem–excitement deficit disorder (EDD).

Sometimes Scripture is like your Facebook feed

Sorry for the delay. I had to go take a long, hot shower after that title. Let’s cut to the chase–I have a confessional booth to find.

On Sunday morning our adult Bible study is working through Joshua. We’ve reached the point in the narrative where Israel has taken possession of the land and all that remains (supposedly) is to parcel out the land to the various tribes.

Now the conquest portion of the book takes up eleven out of twenty-four chapters. But on closer inspection, the military campaign doesn’t actually begin until Joshua 6 which means that the conquest is contained in the span of six chapters and two of those chapters (7 & 9) are spent detailing failures that threaten the long-term success of the military campaign. So all told, Israel’s conquest of Canaan is relayed in the space of four action-packed chapters. The reader is left with the distinct impression that the conquest is a seamless sequence of victories–swift, thorough, and thrilling.

But is this an accurate picture?

The question is important for at least two reasons. First, we don’t just want to read Scripture; we want to read Scripture well. To that end we should remember that first impressions often fade in the light of sustained study. Second, the impressions we draw from the Bible’s story line shape our expectations for the Christian life. For example, the conquest motif in Joshua is certainly analogous to the spiritual battles God’s new covenant people must encounter before we enjoy our promised rest (2Cor 10:3-5; Gal 5:16-17; Eph 6:10ff). But what, exactly, should we expect in our conflict? Will ours be the inexorable blitzkrieg we see in Joshua?

Not exactly. But don’t be discouraged–that wasn’t Joshua’s experience either.

Several passages tip us off to the fact that Joshua’s life didn’t consist of one thrilling victory after another, but two will suffice for our purposes:

Joshua 11:18 “Joshua waged war a long time with all these kings.”

14:7, 10  “I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land . . . Now behold, the LORD has let me live, just as He spoke, these forty-five years, from the time that the LORD spoke this word to Moses, when Israel walked in the wilderness; and now behold, I am eighty-five years old today. {NAS}

Say what you will about a long time but a long time isn’t quick. [Call your local seismologist. I feel an epistemological earthquake coming on! –Shive] More specifically, Caleb’s statements in 14:7 & 10 turn the supposed Israelite blitzkrieg into a mundane five year campaign.

So the short story consisting of action-packed moments in a tightly ordered sequence actually stretches out over a span of at least five years. Additionally, when we compare the list of kings conquered in Joshua 12 with the kings previously cited in Joshua 6-11, we’re surprised to find that multiple battles occurred for which we have no record at all.

The point is that the biblical authors almost always give us the highlights rather than an exhaustive account. And highlights are, by definition, not normal. We’re not told about the hours spent returning to camp, gathering firewood, preparing food, and sharpening blades. We have no mention of sore feet and irritating co-workers. The story gives no thought to what transpired for the women and children as they waited for the men to finish the job. How did the families cope with boredom or burnt food? What happened when the kids in the next tent got too noisy? Terrible two’s anyone?

There’s nothing wrong with skipping over those details. Just like there’s nothing wrong with withholding from Facebook the details of a lunch order, traffic update, or every inconsequential thought that transverses our little synapses (seriously, people). Just the highlights will do. Just remember that no one’s life is uninterrupted highlights.

All of biblical history is written with an agenda, with a message to convey. As such, whatever doesn’t “fit the narrative” doesn’t see the page. By keeping this principle in mind we go a long way to guarding ourselves against unrealistic expectations in the Christian life. More often than not the Christian life is about meeting the seemingly uneventful with simple faithfulness with the occasional crisis and/or climax thrown in.

Not so long ago what I just described was considered “normal.” Then social media came along. Now we call it disappointing.

A convicting word on contentment

There is nothing in heaven or earth that can satisfy me, but yourself.

…the peace of God is not enough to a gracious heart except it may have the God of that peace. A carnal heart could be satisfied if he might but have outward peace, though it is not the peace of God; peace in the state, and his trading, would satisfy him. But mark how a godly heart goes beyond a carnal. All outward peace is not enough; I must have the peace of God. But suppose you have the peace of God. Will that not quiet you? No, I must have the God of peace; as the peace of God so the God of peace. That is, I must enjoy that God who gives me the peace; I must have the Cause as well as the effect. I must see from whence my peace comes, and enjoy the Fountain of my peace, as well as the stream of my peace. And so in other mercies:  have I health from God?  I must have the God of my health to be my portion, or else I am not satisfied. It is not life, but the God of my life; it is not riches, but the God of those riches that I must have, the God of my preservation, as well as my preservation.

In Psalm 73:25, ‘Whom have I in heaven but thee, and there is none upon the earth that I desire beside thee.’ There is nothing in heaven or earth that can satisfy me, but yourself. If God gave you not only earth but heaven, that you should rule over sun, moon and stars, and have the rule over the highest of the sons of men it would not be enough to satisfy you, unless you had God himself. There lies the first mystery of contentment. And truly a contented man, though he is the most contented man in the world, is the most dissatisfied man in the world; that is, those things that will satisfy the world will not satisfy him.

-Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

Worship in ‘the age of authenticity’

Philosopher Charles Taylor has called this period of Western secularism “the age of authenticity.” From his explanation in A Secular Age:

I mean the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.

Unless you’ve been in a coma for the last 10 years it’s hard to argue with Taylor’s assessment. But we Christians are adept at dichotomizing the secular and the spiritual so that we attribute the authenticity quest to the godless while we saints float above it all. Of course, this is naive. We’re shaped by our culture more than we like to admit–even in the church.

In an early chapter of You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith depicts Christian worship as a formative process that is especially effective when encountered through a traditional liturgy. The problem, according to Smith, is that too many of our churches think of worship as an expressive endeavor:

…we also assume that worship is basically an expressive endeavor. This is why we now constrict “worship” to the song service of our gathering, the time in our service when we can express ourselves. . . When we think of worship in this way, then we also assume that the most important characteristic of our worship is that it should be sincere. If worship is expression of our devotion to God, then the last thing we want to be is a hypocrite: our expression needs to be honest, true, fresh, genuine, “authentic.”

We might protest that Smith paints with too broad a brush but his basic point rings true. The discomfort of having our foibles exposed becomes slightly unnerving when we also consider how neatly an expressive worship fits in with Taylor’s “age of authenticity.” One would be forgiven for connecting the dots and concluding that secularism has seeped into the church more than we like to think.

In one sense, Smith is suggesting that we do exactly what our culture tells us not to do–surrender to conformity with a model imposed on us from the outside. But maybe what the culture sees as surrendering to conformity is actually submitting to the Creator’s design. As Smith explains:

If worship is formative, not merely expressive, then we need to be conscious and intentional about the form of worship that is forming us. This has one more important important implication: When you unhook worship from mere expression, it also completely retools your understanding of repetition. If you think of worship as a bottom-up, expressive endeavor, repetition will seem insincere and inauthentic. But when you see worship as an invitation to a top-down encounter in which God is refashioning your deepest habits, then repetition looks very different: it’s how God rehabituates us. In a formational paradigm, repetition isn’t insincere, because you’re not showing you’re submitting. This is crucial because there is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as a good in all kinds of other sectors of our life–to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth?

Maybe real authenticity comes not by expression but by submission. Maybe surrendering to conformity isn’t always a bad thing (Rom 8:29).

John Newton on Christian growth

The Christian oak shall grow and flourish forever.

The work of grace is not like Jonah’s gourd, which sprang up and flourished in a night, and as quickly withered, but rather like the oak, which, from a little acorn and a tender plant, advances with an almost imperceptible growth from year to year, till it becomes a broad, spreading, and deep-rooted tree, and then it stands for ages. The Christian oak shall grow and flourish forever. When I see any soon after they appear to be awakened, making a speedy profession of great joy before they have due acquaintance with their own hearts, I am in pain for them. I am not sorry to hear them afterwards complain that their joys are gone, and they are almost at their wits’ end; for without some such check, to make them feel their weakness and dependence, I seldom find them turn out well; either their fervour insensibly abates, till they become quite cold and sink into the world again (of which I have seen many instances), or, if they do not give up all, their walk is uneven, and their spirit has not that savour of brokenness and true humility which is the chief ornament of our holy profession. If they do not feel the plague of their hearts at first, they find it out afterwards, and too often manifest it to others. Therefore, though I know the Spirit of the Lord is free, and will not be confined to our rules, and there may be excepted cases; yet, in general, I believe the old proverb, “Soft and fair goes far,” will hold good in Christian experience. Let us be thankful for the beginnings of grace, and wait upon our Saviour patiently for the increase. And as we have chosen him for our physician, let us commit ourselves to his management, and not prescribe to him what He shall prescribe for us. He knows us, and He loves us better than we do ourselves, and will do all things well.

-John Newton, “Letter to Miss M. Barham,” September 3, 1776

What do rejected people need to hear?

Our premise matters–especially when we intend to prescribe a remedy for suffering souls.

I came across this line in the promo for a Christian book study. File under MTD, therapeutic:

Rejection steals the best of who I am by reinforcing the very worst that’s been said to me.

Even if this kind of existential theft were possible (it’s not), consider the implications. First, the best of who I am–whatever that is–is assumed. I may not be told how much ‘best’ is part of me but it exists. It’s who I am. The very worst, on the other hand, isn’t me but what’s been said to me. Is it true? Again, I’m not told but I have no reason to assume a factual basis for it.

None of this is to cast aspersions on those who suffer from personal rejection and long for acceptance. We were created for meaningful fellowship on a number of different levels and the loss of that blessing is part of our groaning under the curse. In Christ and in Christian community we should be able to offer the comfort of personal acceptance through reconciliation (Rom 15:7).

But the Christian media complex has flooded the market with spiritual placebos complete with glowing endorsements and customer reviews. Maybe the prescription isn’t thoroughly biblical but it’s awfully hard to argue with success.

Thankfully, American Christianity hasn’t degenerated to bald pragmatism. I haven’t yet heard of any Christian author adopting ‘the end justifies the means’ as his ministry mantra. No one is that crass. But ‘Jesus justifies the means’ is a much easier sell and it keeps one in the mainstream of Christian ministry. And so we’ve come to a point where we’ll forgive almost any content or delivery method so long as the people get a little Jesus in the end [see Exhibit A].

And this brings me back to the blurb on rejection. Our premise matters–especially when we intend to prescribe a remedy for suffering souls. Assuming that Jesus is the remedy that follows the premise above, it’s hard to see how Jesus doesn’t become a  supplement to boost your emotional well-being. ‘The best of who I am’ is a pre-existing condition that just needs a booster against hurtful words. My best + Jesus is the cure for rejection because he sees what my haters don’t (or won’t). So sing it loud & proud:

True to who You are
You saw my heart
And made
Something out of nothing.

But beware the side effects of a quick fix. When everyone has a little best no one is “a wretch like me.” And yet it’s the confessing wretch with no good (let alone best) to speak of who finds acceptance while the man praising God(!) for the ‘best of who I am’ ends up rejected (Luke 18:10-14).

Maybe the first step to finding acceptance is hearing that I’m actually worse than the worst that’s been said to me.

Carson on the ‘encroaching roots of self-esteem’

…the continued drift toward privatized religion is a fertile soil in which to water the rapidly multiplying and universally encroaching roots of self-esteem . . . The drive to sort out life’s problems and my happiness along the axis of self-esteem banishes truth questions, makes feeling good about yourself more important than having a clear conscience, insists that your opinion of yourself is more important than God’s opinion, and fails to deal with objective guilt. In the Scriptures, a right knowledge of yourself is contingent on having in the first place a right knowledge of God.

-D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God

Death & distraction

We can’t escape death but that doesn’t mean we have to think about it.

As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, Or if due to strength, eighty years, Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; For soon it is gone and we fly away. Who understands the power of Your anger And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?  So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.{Psa 90:10-12, NAS}

For the longest time I’ve been struck by the melancholy wisdom in Psalm 90. Forget swimming against the current, this kind of thinking doesn’t even appear to be in the stream of our modern consciousness. Say what you will about today’s society but I doubt ‘wisdom’ and ‘sobriety’ are tags for our day.

But the truth of the matter is that human nature remains unchanged. At some point the stupefying sparkle of the iPhone and FaceTwit will be eclipsed by the lengthening shadow of our mortality. Distraction cannot drive away death.

What distraction can do, however, is offer a sort of palliative care for the soul. Absent an inoculation for finitude we choose to be anesthetized. At least this was Pascal’s contention in the 1600s. Reading this portion from Pensees it’s hard to decide if the man was an astute philosopher or a prophet for the technological age.

166 Diversion. Death is easier to bear without thinking of it, than is the thought of death without peril.

167 The miseries of human life have established all this: as men have seen this, they have taken up diversion.

168 Diversion. As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all.

169 Despite these miseries, man wishes to be happy, and only wishes to be happy, and cannot wish not to be so. But how will he set about it? To be happy he would have to make himself immortal; but, not being able to do so, it has occurred to him to prevent himself from thinking of death.

170 Diversion.-If man were happy, he would be the more so, the less he was diverted, like the Saints and God.-Yes; but is it not to be happy to have a faculty of being amused by diversion?-No; for that comes from elsewhere and from without, and thus is dependent, and therefore subject to be disturbed by a thousand accidents, which bring inevitable griefs.

171 Misery.-The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this it the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves, and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously  to death.

On the bright side, there’s a market for this kind of biblical wisdom in late night comedy sketches. Use it well.

debbie-downer