In order to be a church, the people must assemble in the name of Christ. In so doing, they attest that he is the determining ground of their lives; in him they have found freedom, orientation, and power. They come together first of all to call upon him as Savior and to bear witness to him before each other and before the entire world. They hear the proclamation "in his name" (Acts 5.28), call upon his name in faith (see Rom. 10.13), are baptized in his name (see Acts 2.38), and in this way are "washed," "sanctified," and "justified" through this name (1 Cor. 6.11). He is the source of their lives.

Second, people gather together in Christ's name in order to profess faith in him as their Lord and as the Lord of the entire cosmos. He determines the fundamental conditions of their individual and communal lives (see 1 Cor. 1.10; 5.4); they gather together "under his authority and with the intention of acting in obedience to him." It is he who gives their lives binding direction.

Third, by assembling in Christ's name, Christians acknowledge him as the power in which they live. The "power" and the "name" are intimately connected. Jesus Christ is Immanuel, the God who is with them, and in the power of his Spirit they are able to do those works that are commensurate with the new creation and that allow the new creation to shine in the midst of the old.

-- from After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity by Miroslav Volf

The Church is Broken

My church here in Middle Tennessee began this weekend an ugly split. (Actually, I'm learning it began almost two years ago, but the congregation has just learned of and engaged in the conflict this week.)

I attended the service in which our elders, supported by former elders and the entire ministerial staff (minus one), read a statement announcing they had removed our senior pastor from office. The representative reading the statement did so with visibly trembling hands, choking back tears. There was not a dry eye on the stage.
Anyone who thinks these men and women came to this decision lightly, enthusiastically, or with lust for power is either incompetent or heartless himself.

I also attended a rally of sorts held by our pastor and his wife at a nearby park, where he offered to tell his side of the story. They feel betrayed, humiliated, and blindsided.
There were more tears here, much shock and concern.
And lots of anger. Lots.

Please pray for our church if you think about it. There is an opportunity here for a parting that is God-honoring, but unfortunately I am not optimistic about that. There is a lot of hurt and a lot of personal zeal involved. One side has vowed to "fight tooth and nail," and I know both sides are standing firm in their convictions.
And thus may we crucify His Body all over again? I don't know.

I do know, though, that in the same way damaged bones must sometimes be rebroken to be set, that sometimes breaking something is the first step to fixing it.

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
-- Hebrews 12.11

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
-- Romans 14.19


Gospel Helps Self


Call me slow, but when I first encountered the idea that believers ought to be preaching the Gospel to each other -- and to themselves! -- in (Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together), it was like a lightbulb switched on in my head at the same time a sucker punch rocked my gut. What a transforming truth that was.

Here are some neat words along those lines from Tim Challies's recent review of the Jerry Bridges classic, The Discipline of Grace:
Bridges continually takes issue with the unbiblical view that the gospel is solely or even primarily for unbelievers. Rather, he says, the gospel must be the foundation not only of justification but also sanctification. The believer must preach the gospel to himself every day. "To preach the gospel to yourself, then, means that you continually face up to your own sinfulness and then flee to Jesus through faith in His shed blood and righteous life. It means that you appropriate, again by faith, the fact that Jesus fully satisfied the law of God, that He is your propitiation, and that God's holy wrath is no longer directed toward you."

He later says, "This is the gospel by which we were saved, and it is the gospel by which we must live every day of our Christian lives...If you are not firmly rooted in the gospel and have not learned to preach it to yourself every day, you will soon become discouraged and will slack off in your pursuit of holiness."

Good stuff.

Some of us have come a long way through guilt trips and tours of techniques and alliterative outlines and workbook curriculum designed for maximum holiness, through cult and kitsch, through hoakum and hooha, and only relatively late in our Christian walk do we realize that what we need today and tomorrow is what we needed that blessed day Jesus "came into our hearts." We needed -- and still need -- the Gospel.

Shall Not God Have His Own?

As a follow-up to the post on Contentment, here are some words from William Penn:
In him, his humble, sincere disciples find more than all that they lose in the world. All we have is the Almighty's; and shall not God have his own when he calls for it?

Discontentedness is not only in such a case ingratitude, but injustice. For we are both unthankful for the time we had it, and not honest enough to restore it, if we could keep it.

But it is hard for us to look on things in such a glass, and at such a distance from this low world; and yet it is our duty, and would be our wisdom and our glory to do so.

I appreciate that irony there -- that we who suffer trials and setbacks often wish for justice, as if our trials and setbacks are injustice.
Rather, all that God wills is just, because God himself is just. Better to give thanks for God's amazing grace, which, given our sin and God's holiness, is injustice "at such a distance from this low world."

Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.
-- Job 13.15a (KJV)



The real devil in the details of the prosperity-type teaching overtaking evangelicalism is not really that it skips over the stuff about sin. Sure, it does that too, but the pernicious paradox of this stuff is that it champions "victorious Christian living" yet does not equip believers for sustainable discipleship. It emphasizes feelings and "outlook," not the power of the Spirit, which is hard for some folks to notice since the latter is often conflated with the former (so that being optimistic or a go-getter is ipso facto being Spirit-empowered). The problem over time is that, going from victory to victory, expecting victory after victory, cultivates a contagious form of spiritual greed. (Is it any wonder that this sort of teaching often goes hand and hand with talk of financial riches and prosperity?) The real stuff of discipleship -- what Eugene Peterson calls "a long obedience in the same direction" -- involves hard stuff like discipline and the fruit of the Spirit. In pop discipleship discipline is replaced by steps, tips, and amazingsupercolossal breakthroughs.

There are a couple of Laws of Raising Children active in my house. The first law is that no item in the universe is more interesting than the one a sibling is currently holding. The second law is that no matter where you are (and it could be Disney World), there is some other place you'd rather be.
Getting what we don't have, being somewhere we aren't. That defines the childishness of the children in our house. But they are children, so they have an excuse.

Prosperity gospel then, ironically, breeds discontentment. We are never abiding with God where we are, because we always consider what we have less than what's available (or at least less than what our neighbor has). We always think of today as less than tomorrow. But you cannot get to resurrection day without going through the cross.

There's a fine line between contentment and complacency, also, and I think this implicit confusion is why contentment is rarely spoken of these days. It implies stagnation or laziness. But complacency is about not caring. Contentment is about caring for the needs of the moment. It is about obedience and faith. Paul was not complacent about his repeated imprisonment and torture. But, amazingly enough, he was content.

Contentment trusts God to be God. Discontent evidences our fear of everything but God -- it fears for safety, for financial solvency, for what others might think of us, for even "spiritual maturity." The content soul, however, fears God.

So the great irony of prosperity gospelism -- and more people teach and believe this stuff than the walking cartoons on TBN, trust me -- is that it actually cultivates its own need for itself. It is built on discontentment and greed and desire and accumulating (whether stuff or "spirituality"), and therefore it turns in on itself, self perpetuating, continuing to create the needs it promises to fill. We all know what happens when you try to fill a God-shaped void with anything not God-shaped. We all know that money doesn't buy happiness, etc etc.
But contentment! Being content with what we've got, with where God has us, whether it be on top of a mountain surrounded by beauty or down in a valley walking toward a pit we cannot see -- now that is true gain!

But there are no easy steps to contentment. The word "content" evokes feelings of peace and tranquility, of being carefree. And those things are true, in a sense. But the way to contentment is difficult, and the place of contentment itself may be in a harsh and barren land. That is, after all, how you know you've reached contentment anyway. Being content involves the tough stuff of trust and discipline and obedience and biblical love. As Chesterton said:
True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare.

And to quote Mark Galli, we believe that "God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life."

So how do we get it? How do we reach contentment?
We start where we are, not looking ahead to what is next. We begin with a hope for deliverance, provided we are really in need of it, but also with a trust that God is refining us through the circumstances in which He's presently placed us. It just that -- being present. Show up, in this moment, for submission to God. Trust that the cross you are bearing is not the end of His story, but accept that cross as necessary and get everything out of it that is there to get.

There are no steps or strategies. Just the Spirit and the power He gives by His good pleasure. You cannot achieve being discontent with achievements alone.
I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
-- Philippians 4.12-13



Now that "sin" is not spoken of much in churches anymore, and now that inspirational self-help has influenced the church's prescription for our troubles, it occurs to me that the Gospel is now a truly radical proposition in the very community it birthed.

What I'm saying is, we shouldn't necessarily look at the American evangelical predicament and bemoan its state or get into hopeless Critic Mode. Rather, we should be thankful that the message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone has regained the revolutionary power it never really lost. We are in a strange -- but, dare I say it?, exciting -- place where the Gospel continues to scandalize even those sitting in the pews next to us or in the chairs across from us in small group.


Grace and Service

Can I tell you that I hate the folktale of "The Little Red Hen"? I do not like it, for although I know the morals it hopes to teach are good ones (against laziness, for work and cooperation), the climactic delivery actually teaches a very unChristlike selfishness. It's sort of a "one bad turn deserves another"-type thing. Here's the story to remind you:

One day as the Little Red Hen was scratching in a field, she found a grain of wheat.
"This wheat should be planted," she said. "Who will plant this grain of wheat?"
"Not I," said the Duck.
"Not I," said the Cat.
"Not I," said the Dog.
"Then I will," said the Little Red Hen. And she did.
Soon the wheat grew to be tall and yellow.
"The wheat is ripe," said the Little Red Hen. "Who will cut the wheat?"
"Not I," said the Duck.
"Not I," said the Cat.
"Not I," said the Dog.
"Then I will," said the Little Red Hen. And she did.
When the wheat was cut, the Little Red Hen said, "Who will thresh the wheat?"
"Not I," said the Duck.
"Not I," said the Cat.
"Not I," said the Dog.
"Then I will," said the Little Red Hen. And she did.
When the wheat was threshed, the Little Red Hen said, "Who will take this wheat to the mill?"
"Not I," said the Duck.
"Not I," said the Cat.
"Not I," said the Dog.
"Then I will," said the Little Red Hen. And she did.
She took the wheat to the mill and had it ground into flour. Then she said, "Who will make this flour into bread?"
"Not I," said the Duck.
"Not I," said the Cat.
"Not I," said the Dog.
"Then I will," said the Little Red Hen. And she did.
She made and baked the bread. Then she said, "Who will eat this bread?"
"Oh! I will," said the Duck.
"And I will," said the Cat.
"And I will," said the Dog.
"No, No!" said the Little Red Hen. "I will do that." And she did.

What a graceless twit the hen is. I would like to rewrite the story so it ends like this:

She made and baked the bread. Then she said, "Who will eat this bread?"
"Oh! I will," said the Duck.
"And I will," said the Cat.
"And I will," said the Dog.
"Come on in!" said the Little Red Hen. "We can eat it together." And they did.

Of course that doesn't work if you're wanting to teach children if they don't work and don't help, they shouldn't expect to enjoy the fruits of someone else's labor. But it does work if you want to teach children that the world is full of people who don't deserve their charity or help but that we should give it to them gladly anyway.

What graceless twits we are. (Okay, what a graceless twit I am.)
One point I have tried to make to some of the newly married couples in our small group is that they must really work on getting to know the difference between doing good for their spouse in order to get something in return and doing good for their spouse simply because it's the right thing to do. I think lots of the stuff out there on his-and-her needs, love languages, etc. can be very helpful, but too often it somehow sets us up to be yinning and yanging each other. I do this and you do that, and then we will bring balance to the force. I wonder where sin and grace come into play.

I didn't (and don't) know these things intuitively. I've only learned them from realizing I didn't know them. The truth is only Jesus can fill the reservoir of needs inside of us. The language of love we all (sometimes unknowingly) have is redemption, and only Jesus can speak it perfectly. As long as we are looking to anyone else to respond correctly to our good works, thereby energizing us for or enabling us to continue doing good works, the thing won't work. For followers of Jesus, the ideal for service is giving without anticipating receipt. Of anything. I don't know that it's even possible for us to give without thinking of receiving, but I do know we should believe that such thoughts are anti-grace.

Grace leaves results up to God. Grace leaves "what people deserve" up to God. Grace leaves the thanks and the reciprocity for your good works up to God.
Because grace is the virtue that, when embodied in us, best enacts the Great Commandments -- it is about God and others and only lastly, if at all, about us.

The painting above is Washing Peter's Feet by Watanabe Sadao, a 20th-century artist who used the katazome stencil method to recreate biblical scenes, combining traditional Christian iconography with a Japanese folk art style.
That's Peter the graceless twit. Peter who sunk, Peter who slept while the Lord wept, Peter who lashed out, Peter who denied. That's Jesus washing Peter's feet. Peter whom Jesus said He'd build His kingdom on, Peter who went to his own crucifixion.

When we serve others without expecting a favorable response, we are actually being the Gospel to them. And we are being the Gospel to ourselves, really, because the Bible says we love because He loved us, not that we love because others will love us back. The Bible does say to love one another, but it doesn't say love one another because you love one another (if that makes sense).

How far our sin separates us from God! And from our neighbors too. It seriously screws up everything we touch, everything we get involved in. It's right there in the beginning, right at the first screw-up -- enmity between man and God, enmity between man and woman.

And that's how radical grace is, how revolutionary the gospel is. It covers us screw-ups and the things we screw up. It is not blind to our laziness, but it might as well be. It welcomes us to the table even though we've done nothing to earn a right there. In our sin we say "Not I" to God's requirements every day, but in our clingy, needy way, we say "I will!" to His offers. It is grace that reserves a place for us at His table and says, "Come on in! We can eat together."

A Tao of Scripture

Dan Edelen has a good post today touching on the recommended bloggy allowance of Scripture. It's for people who count verse citations in posts like the raisins in Raisin Bran.

I link to it not just because it's a good post, but because it reminds me of this one from over a year ago on Shizuka Blog. It's about the difference between wielding the Word and living it, between being a toolbox biblicist and being a lifeblood one.


Predestination Anxiety

Katsumoto: "Do you believe a man can change his destiny?"
Algren: "I believe a man should do what he can until his destiny is revealed."
-- from The Last Samurai
God has given Scripture to us so that we can know what we should and shouldn’t do. He expects us to act on this knowledge. What we cannot know, we should leave to God. We should stick to our responsibilities, vocation, and position in life. God and God alone knows what his predestined. You aren’t supposed to know.

Take for example the time when Joab was being attacked both in front and from behind by
his enemies. He didn’t say to his brother Abishai, “Wait, let’s see what is predestined, and then
we will act accordingly.” Rather he said, “If the Arameans are too strong for my troops, be
ready to help me. And if the Ammonites are too strong for your troops, I’ll come to help you. Be
strong! Let’s prove ourselves strong for our people and for the cities of our God, and the LORD will do what he considers right” (2 Samuel

So we should also concentrate on our duties, not whether or not something is predestined. Because we have no word or light from God on that matter, we don’t know anything about it.
Therefore, we should put the thought of trying to find out whether something is predestined or not out of our mind and heart. Let the future remain in darkness. Let it stay secret and hidden.
In the meantime, we should do what we know we ought to do. We should live by God’s Word and the light he has given to us.

-- Martin Luther, Faith Alone: 365 Devotional Readings


Stretching My Legs

Two weeks ago, the couple who lead our couples small group at church said they were going out of town, and they asked me if I wouldn't mind filling in for them. Feeling a bit put on the spot, I said yes. I'm glad I did.
So last week I facilitated our group study. It was no big deal, really -- just going through a Bible study guide, nudging folks to answer some questions, cracking a joke here and there, offering a few meager insights when the silence grew too long. You know, being my normally winsome self. ;-)

Honestly, though, it wasn't a big deal, but every time I go so long without doing something like that, it feels like a big deal. After the session, I received many thank-you's and smiles. It was very nice and, again, to be honest, good for the ego. (Not quite as good a stroke as when I was leading a trak in our church's new members seminar and one participant told one of the pastors, "I could listen to him all day." But still pretty good.) It reminded me that exercising my spiritual gift(s) can and should be energizing, fulfilling. Not that you don't get tired; but that it's not a "going against the grain" of sorts. There is validation, even in the fatigue.

If you have gifts or talents you haven't used in a while, for whatever reason, take them for a brief spin sometimes. I know there are seasons in life where we need to just sit a spell, and I think that's okay. I didn't used to think that, but now I do. But even if you're in a sitting down period, get up every now and then and stretch your legs.


On a Sabbath day during one of the Jewish feasts, Jesus went to Jerusalem. By the Sheep Gate there was the Bethesda pool, which was said to heal all manner of infirmities if entered when the water stirred. The place was big enough to require five roofed colonnades. All around the pool waited a multitude needing healing. The blind were there, and the lame and paralyzed. One guy waiting by the pool had been an invalid for almost 40 years.
Jesus saw him lying there and knew he’d been there a long time. “Don’t you want to be healed?”

The man said, “Yes, but I don’t have anyone to put me in the pool when the water starts stirring. And when I try to get in by myself, people push their way in front of me.”

Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.”
And at once the man was healed and he obeyed.

-- paraphrased from John 5

I love that story. It means the world to me for reasons I can’t fully explain. That the man was too weak to help himself resonates with me. That he needed help but nobody would help him resonates with me. That he’d been waiting 38 years for healing resonates with me. That everybody was pushing in front of him to get theirs in the pool resonates with me.
That all it took was Jesus resonates with me.

I am finding it harder and harder to put up with self-helpy preachers. I don’t get it. I want to be charitable — and for once I won’t name names, but you know who I’m talking about — and part of that is because these guys at least carry the pretense of evangelicalism. They aren’t all-around discounted like the Armani-clad cartoons on TBN. They still maintain supporters as long as pragmatism, Church Growth Movement ideology, and feel-good spirituality entertainment holds sway in American churches.

But that only makes them more gross. For the life of me I can’t figure out what makes them so appealing. Because when I watch some preacher talk about the power of me and about being positive and speaking blessings into existence, I have no idea who he’s talking to. Am I the first person to say I can’t do it? I can’t do it by myself. I’m incapable. I’m cynical, sure. Negative, yes. I’m a pessimist. But those aren’t my problems.
Sin is. I’m being honest with myself. And until they can be honest about themselves — and until they can be honest about me — I have no interest in discovering the champion inside of me. Because he ain’t in there. I checked.

I consider myself fairly spiritually mature. I trusted Jesus for salvation, and I keep doing that every day. But spiritually speaking, I’m a lame dude watching everyone else push their way into the foamy waters, waiting on something I can’t manage on my own. No amount of rush or maneuvering or special pool-entry techniques are cutting it. I’m waiting on Jesus to show up, to make the pool irrelevant.

Look, either grace is sufficient or it isn’t. Either the joy of the Lord is my strength or it isn’t. All the rest is b.s.
I wish I was living my best life now, but I’m not. I’m wandering (as if you couldn’t tell just by reading this post). And I’m wondering how to continue, day in and day out, loving scavenged manna. I mean, I’m scraping the stuff off the side of rocks and whatnot. But I know the dude in the gigantic arena saying he’s got lobster and caviar for me to eat is a liar.

Knowing that is no consolation. But knowing Jesus is.

(cross-posted at Thinklings)


I hope to resume regular posting here.
We'll see . . .