Tomorrow I turn 27. Robert Murray M’Cheyne died at 29. M’Cheyne’s impact has been tremendous on the church though most people touched by his work know it not. M’Cheyne developed the most commonly used through the Bible in a year reading program, continuing in use through avenues such as D.A. Carson’s For the Love of God series and the ESV Study Bible.
As I take a break from work to write this, I’m surrounded by piles of books on inspiration and biblical theology to be used in the slow process of writing curriculum for my new classes. The house is coated with a light covering of dust from a half-sanded 1940s maple coffee table that will be reincarnated as beautiful rather than as the final resting place for leaking glitter bottles. Throughout the halls are boxes full of wedding presents from generous friends, some to be stored and saved and others to be used.
As I think of M’Cheyne’s life and legacy, the temptation arises to grow discouraged about my own. “I must do more for the kingdom,” says the siren voice of the success syndrome. ”If I die at 29, I’ll have done nothing noteworthy and die forgotten.”
But the purpose of faithful service in the kingdom of God isn’t for me to be remembered. It’s that Christ may not be forgotten in this generation and the one to come. The world must pant for justification, not my journals. And so if I were to know that I only had two years left, I’d do exactly what I plan on doing for the next two years: I will teach, that my students might know God. I will love my wife, seeking to bring joy into her life. I will actively serve my church, that I might be a blessing to my fellow believers.
This is what M’Cheyne sought to do. He did not set out to be famous. He was a man who faithfully lived his 29 years. He preached God’s word to God’s people, he wrote letters, he studied theology, he sought to order his life to know God more fully, and then he succumbed to typhus. We do not need men who are consumed by grand visions for the kingdom of God that have themselves as the thumbtack which holds it all together. We need men who will be content to put one foot in front of another day in and day out until they finish the course. May God crucify our ambitions of celebrity.
Last Sunday, I began my descent into a world heretofore largely unknown. A world of smashed graham crackers, Brio trains being fought over like a seat on the last chopper out of Vietnam, and detailed conversations about superhero comic picture books that I’m apparently supposed to be intimately familiar with. Welcome to the 3 year old’s Sunday School. I’ve been around 3 year olds before, plenty of them. But it’s always been in numbers of 1 or 2, not a whole herd.
During our singing time, our fearless leader Joe led the kids in a song that I haven’t heard for 15 years but found still imprinted deep within the recesses of my mind.
I may never…
March in the infantry
Ride in the cavalry
Shoot the artillery
I may never fly o’er the enemy
But I’m in the Lord’s Army.
Looking back, I had three distinct thoughts about this song, written here in order:
1) How do I still know this?
2) This is a rather curious song. Following Christ is equated with being a member of an army that is not exactly an army. The etymology of this song would be an interesting study. It bears a marked resemblance to the “muscular Christianity” societies of the early 1890s – 1920s, connected with the Salvation Army and other movements that used militant metaphors to describe spiritual pursuits. Songs such as the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Soldiers of Christ in Truth Arrayed, and Onward Christian Soldiers grew out of this culture milleu, which was also rather postmillennial. What was this song’s sitz-im-leben? (A German higher critical technical term meaning setting-in-life.)
3) What the heck is seminary doing to me, that I’m analyzing a six-line children’s jingle for it’s socio-religious heritage?
As I’ve grown in knowledge of the content of the Scriptures and the various moods of interpretation that have swept Christianity throughout the ages, I’ve discovered just how dangerous knowledge is. Seminary is full of deconstruction. We tear apart a passage, learning the possible translations and the various interpretations of the passage held by those men that we would consider theological mentors. We take history classes and learn how cultural pressures oftentimes drive hermeneutics, giving rise to both good and bad perspectives on the Scriptures. We counsel people from the Scriptures, helping them connect dots within their own lives that they’re not able to connect themselves.We have no reason to wonder that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 8:1? “[K]nowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Last summer I read Black Hawk Down, the account of a failed military expedition deep within the heart of Mogadishu by a large contingent of Army Rangers. Embedded with the Rangers, who are the Army’s elite and specially trained soldiers, were a company from Delta Force, the “D-Boys.” The D-Boys are America’s most highly trained soldiers, the kind who are given a blank check by the government and told “buy whatever you want to carry into combat.” The arrogance of the D-Boys did little to diffuse any sense of competition between the two units. One sentence in particular crystallized the attitude of the camp: In the minds of the highly-trained D-Boys, the Rangers seemed like little more than an untrained rabble fresh from boot camp, a liability in the field who were certain to get themselves killed.
Do we do this as we complain about how many seminary students are at a church, then proudly proclaim we go to a “real” church, intimating that the reality of a church is defined by the lack of formal theological education in the pew rather than the one being worshipped? Do we do this as we contemplate how much more deserving we are of accolades than the man or woman who is recognized for their service to the Lord, cynically attributing their success to inside-track relationships? Do we do this as we write people off mentally for their weaknesses, believing them to be little more than barely-cognizant rabble fit for only the thirty-five person church that is simply delighted anyone would want to come and minister amidst the cornfields?
Love builds up, says Paul. Sometimes it’s harder to rejoice with the rejoicing than weep with the weeping, especially when they’re rejoicing for something you want but was given to them instead. A great test to see how much we truly love our brothers and sisters is to see how easily our heart bursts forth into praise when the Lord uses them in some great opportunity that we were not given. A competitive heart will seethe with envy, though the lips may be smiling. A Christlike heart actually feels those statements of congratulation that are necessarily being offered.
I looked it up, and I’m in the Lord’s Army was written anonymously and has no known copyright. I can’t prove it’s origins. And a wonderful thing of working with the 3 year olds is that they don’t care. They want me to untangle their hair from their nametag, give them their graham crackers, and help them memorize their verse. They want me to read them a story about Jesus, play with the Hot Wheels with them, and demonstrate that I care. There is no theological arms race in the 3 year old classroom. It’s kind of nice. And it calls me to be better than I usually am.
Right now there are…
- Abortions being performed in Louisville
- Tomato pickers being oppressed in California
- Brick masons being enslaved in India
- Girls being raped for profit in the Philippines
- Husbands who are forced to work on fishing boats in the Atlantic and Pacific who will then be shot and thrown overboard after the fishing season closes
- Coffee growers being exploited in Bolivia
- Families being killed in Sudan because of the tribe they’re from
- Orphans being made in South Africa by AIDS
- Retiring missionaries not being replaced because there is not enough financial support for replacements.
- Believers being martyred in Saudi Arabia
- Political prisoners being used as lab rats for poison gas testing in North Korea
- Scientists refining nuclear fuel in Iran to be used for evil
- Homeless wandering the streets of Atlanta
- Teenagers driven into drug trafficking by poverty and peer pressure in Detroit
- Children being taught in schools in Berkley that homosexuality is as normal as heterosexuality
- Power players swinging dirty deals for political gain in Washington
- Murders happening in Tulsa
- Children sorting through heaps of garbage in Phnom Penh to keep from starving
- Kind hearted husbands and wives who want to adopt but cannot because of a lack of money
As much as they all break my heart, and the heart of every Christ-follower with me, the sad truth of the matter is that I am utterly powerless to influence almost every single one of these evils. I can tear up at the videos of starving children and be outraged at abuse and horrified at corruption, and yet none of those actually work towards any kind of solution. None work toward alleviating the suffering experienced by those who share God’s marred creation with me.
So what do we do when we stare across the landscape of our 21st century world and realize the shockwaves of the curse have crumbled to pieces far more than we could ever piece back together? Withdrawal is always an option, an option embraced at different times by different Christian groups. “If the world,” they say, “is going to hell in a handbasket, then let them go.” But this does not seem to capture the spirit of Christ declaring that what is done to the least of these is done to him. It does not seem to explain his meals with prostitutes and tax collectors and consistent seeking out of those marginalized by society.
It is here in acts of Christ we see how we might seek to both roll back the curse and not lose our sanity as we stare down the enormity of evil clutching our world. Wherever Christ went, he did good. He did not journey to Rome and topple the pagan Roman government. But he did cast out demons from Roman soldier’s sons. He did not topple the corrupted Sadducee’s stranglehold on the temple economy. But he did clear them out twice with a whip when he was in Jerusalem.
We cannot each individually address all of the evils in our world. But we are placed in unique situations with unique interests, meant to channel our God-given abilities, gifts, and resources toward the redemption of that sphere of life. I live in a dorm of college men who aspire to be preachers. And so talk of fellowship and purity and community and doctrine and love of the brethren will dominate my time and energy. Evangelism will not. But you are in a different place. Be faithful there, and I will seek to be faithful here. And as we go and you meet the Indian refugee whose family escaped from the brick masonry slave pits, you will throw yourself into that cause. And I will meet someone else with a different past, and we will concentrate on that evil to be unwound.
We’re not individually called to address every single issue that we might within the world. Rather we’re called to do good, preach the gospel, and live out gospel implications in a contagious manner to whomever the Lord would have us meet. And I will delight in your ministry and pray for you, as you delight in mine and pray for me. Let us all seek to be faithful in our tempestuous world. We’ll see you in the fray.
Does theology ever make you miserable? Torn between the poles of opposing positions where biblical and historical evidence seems to lie on both sides. Should I believe that the miraculous gifts have ceased, dying out as the apostle John yielded up his last faithful breaths? Or should I believe that those gifts have continued and the ghost-town nature of modern faith in such has stymied the miraculous? Should I believe that the spikes and the nails and the full cup of the Father’s wrath was poured out upon the Son for the elect only? Or did Christ offer himself as a sacrifice for the entire expanse of the human race, but applied only to those who turn in humble belief in their own ability to save themselves? And what do we make of the wonderful and labyrinthine words of the Apocalypse of John, scene upon scene that bedazzles and befuddles? Is Jesus coming back to rule for a thousand years? Or is the millennial kingdom marching forward towards completion as you read this?
These are hard questions, questions that I myself often struggle to answer. The texts and philosophies and hermeneutical models stack up in convincing piles, only to be countered by the next view in rational and compelling ways. In an environment where theology is valued, where careful analysis of the text is prized, it is easy to begin the ever-so-subtle drift of heart from worshiping Christ for who he is to worshiping Christ for the theological system his death and resurrection created. If we’re miserable when we wrestle through theological questions, it’s because we’re worshipping systems instead of a Savior.
Christ died to save us from our theology. And the misery we often feel as we pressure ourselves to “get it right” is a product of us finding our identity in theological perfectionism rather than the perfection of a Person who is our intercessor. I believe in believer’s baptism. I could be wrong. I believe that miraculous gifts have ceased. I could be wrong. I believe that believers will go through the tribulation, after which the millennial kingdom will begin. I’m praying that I’m wrong. But my identity before the men and before the Lord is none of these things. My identity is Jesus Christ crucified. Not my theological system.
Who do we run to when the well is dry and the heavens are as brass? The Valley of Vision, or Psalm 42 and Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones?
When the money flow ebbs and the pressure mounts what path do we trod? Psalm 23 or the Gospel According to Dave Ramsey?
When someone dares reproach our treasured doctrine of election who is our chief advocate? John Piper or Ephesians 1?
Too often we trade the gasoline for exhaust and then grow angry when the car of our delight in God won’t start. All of these men have wise words, words that comfort and teach and correct. But all their words are exhaust, by-products of a heart consumed with the God revealed in Scripture. Why are we content to trade the white-hot flame of a heart fed by Scripture for the wheezing engine trying to run off the passion and joy of another man? Enough of the pre-processed. Give us the raw meat of the Word of God, and let us prove our doctrine by our Scriptures.
If we ignore our Bibles for the sake of words about the Bible, we will grow miserable. The heart will be consumed by what its time is spent imbibing. A boat always takes on the water it’s floating in. I pray for you and I pray for myself that as our time is spent reading wonderful things about the Bible – history, languages, nuances, hermeneutics – they wouldn’t become our pagan gods. No matter how pure my theology is, it will never reconcile us to God. Only one man was perfect. And our identity rests in him and him alone.
I’m in seminary; help me. The ability to determine that a verb is a Pi”el Active Participle in no way guarantees that I am able to parse my own discouragements. That I’ve read 2,500 pages of Jonathan Edwards in 3 months doesn’t mean that I’m actively, intentionally, and currently delighting in the God who is much more than the sum total of all my theology. The fact that I have a pair of letters after my name that designate me the leader of a dorm full of 118 good men doesn’t mean that I don’t fight many of the same battles they do daily.
Being in seminary in no way decreases my need to be reminded of the gospel daily. There is no pedestal that elevates any man above the unsheathed claws of the roaring lion, the seductive calls of the alluring world, or the foul beast of his own resurgent former nature. The second a pedestal is considered to be a shield is the second a pedestal proves itself to be rather opposite in function.
As I look at myself and my own hesitations to extend the kindness of counsel, I realize that the greatest fear is being perceived as patronizing. I don’t want to be like the driver’s ed teacher who insistently told me that maintaining a four second gap between myself and the car ahead is critical to my survival as a driver and entirely possible reality. I don’t want to be advocating something that we all know and believe, but obviously doesn’t have any power in your life because you’re in seminary and therefore know the gospel and gospel implications.
If we believed the gospel perfectly, we wouldn’t ever be miserable. We wouldn’t get stuck in ruts where we grow discouraged, grow imbalanced in our theology, grow harsh or timid or selfish or insensitive or gluttonous or myopic or proud or lustful or gossipy or demanding. We wouldn’t spiral from the lush gardens of self-sacrificial servanthood to the desert of entitlement where any sense of joy has evaporated into the ever-thirsty air. The fact that we don’t live as Jesus shows our blindness, our inability to take information and process it to lifestyle perfection, our desperate need for other pairs of eyes to scout our lives and the humility to actively invite and embrace correction.
So I am in seminary; please help me. Help me remember the gospel, help me remember the faith given once for all the saints, help me remember that the truest thing about me is Christ standing in heaven as an intercessor whose intercession has absorbed all wrath and guaranteed all favor. Help me remember that the Lord is my shepherd, that I shall not want, that his rod and staff correct and comfort. Help me remember that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. Remind me that young men are to set example in faith, hope, purity, and love, and that God will be faithful to complete what he has begun.
My sanctification is a community project. So is yours. God give us boldness and humility.
As the twisted and broken body of good king Josiah entered back through the gates of Jerusalem, slain upon the swords of Pharaoh Neco’s mighty army, Jeremiah knew what was about to befall his nation. Good king Josiah spent his few years of kingship restoring the nation of Israel to its worship of Yahweh. Over and against the traditions of his elders, the falsely assumed religion of his people, good king Josiah hacked to pieces the Asherah poles and the statues of the Baals. He carried them out of the the temple of Yahweh, deposed the pagan priests who were not priests, destroyed the houses of fertility-cult prostitution. He had the people read the Law and taught the Law. And he died defending his covenant land from an invading army, playing the man to the last.
But Jeremiah knew what course the nation would take after the mourning horns finally fell silent and the steady creep of decay consumed the body of their godly king. “Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares Yahweh.” (Jeremiah 3:10)
Pretense. That’s was the nation’s religion.
When the leaders fell and the people in the pews were reliant to draw up the waters of worship from their own hearts all they found was pretense. The words were right. The forms were right. But the heart was distant and cold. What happens when the iPod falls silent and all you have is the quiet ticking of the clock and your Bible? What happens when there is no Piper or Washer or Chandler to enliven your emotions? What happens in the quiet hours when you must pray? Can you do it without the Valley of Vision in your hands? Can you sing without the band? Can you witness without the assignment?
Who lives your worship of God? Is it you, or are you a vicarious host for the Christianity of someone else that’s never sunk into your heart?
The second she walked through the door I knew that we might a problem. I was working as a math tutor, she was a high school junior who had been assigned to me weeks before. Except that particular day she must have dug through the closet and assembled her outfit from the clothes haunting the dark recesses of the closet – clothes that somehow didn’t get donated with the rest of the shirts and shorts she had grown out of a few grades ago.
Five minutes into the tutoring session I did what any red-blooded human male should do. I excused myself to the restroom, pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and lit up my friends’ phones with emergency “here’s the unescapable situation, pray for me” texts.
They did. And the strength given to my heart for the next hour was noticeable.
For some reason this episode from almost a year ago has been in my mind today. I share it as an idea in the war on sin. Joseph’s exit strategy isn’t always possible. But there’s always the text. What better ally than fellow brothers in the battle standing beside you as you seek to murder your sin? Depression and sins of the tongue and bitterness and anger and jealousy and lust and sluggardry and lasciviousness and self-promotion and paralyzing fear haunt us as believers. Pull out your cell phone and enlist the body of Christ for immediate aid. God’s mercies are found in strange places sometimes. Even in technology.