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3 Year Olds and Mogadishu: How Smashed Graham Crackers Compel Me to Love

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.

Long Grey Valleys

One of the beauties of reading old books is that they dispel the ridiculous notions that somehow the people of yesteryear were fundamentally different than we are today. For all our internal combustion engines, polyester and rayon laced clothing, and penicillin, human nature never changes.

Samuel Pearce was an English pastor who died at the age of 34 from tuberculosis. While he died at an age that few today die, of an illness few today will die of, Samuel Pearce was no different than you or me. Writing to his good friend William Carey (yes, that William Carey), Pearce’s pen cries out:

I think I am the most vile, ungrateful servant that ever Jesus Christ employed in his church. At some times, I question whether I ever knew the grace of God in truth; and at others I hesistate on the most important points of the Christian faith. I have lately had peculiar struggles of this kind with my own heart, and have often half concluded to speak no more in the name of the Lord. When I am preparing for the pulpit, I fear I am going to avow fables for facts, and doctrines of men for the truths of God. In conversation I am obliged to be silent, lest my tongue should belie my heart. In prayer I know not what to say, and at times think prayer altogether useless…

I frequently find a backwardness to secret prayer, and much deadness in it; and it puzzles me to see how this can be consistent with a life of grace. However, I resolve, that, let what will become of me, I will do all I can for God while I live, and leave the rest to him; and this I usually experience to be the best way to be at peace…

My labours are acceptable and not altogether unprofitable to the hearers; but what is this to me, if my own soul starves whilst others are fed by me? O my brother, I need your prayers; and I feel a great satisfaction in the hope that you do not forget me. Oh that I may be kept faithful unto death!

Our heroes are flawed heroes. They fell into times of deep distress, long grey valleys where the sun did not seem to shine and the landscape afforded no glimmer of joy. They lost courage, held back their tongues when they ought to have spoken, found themselves grasping to the same promises of God in the midst of doubt and despair.

The difference with them is that their struggles exist in the greater context of a race finished. I read of Samuel Pearce and see that indeed he was faithful to the end, and the faithfulness at the end casts a brighter hue across the dusty grey trails they often trod. Yet, this is why we have the Scriptures, the same promises that have been clung to for generations upon generations of men and women fighting for faith in a world intent upon undoing such steadfast hope. He who began a good work will be faithful to complete it. Samuel Pearce proved it, and we are proving it for the next generation.

What to do Amidst the Fray?

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.

Not As Homeless As We Thought

It has become rather trendy to portray Jesus as a homeless indigent whose radical bent towards the kingdom of God led him to pursue a life of poverty and transience, eschewing any touches of comfort. Such interpretations of the life of Jesus might have problems with the rather innocuous verse of Matthew 9:1:

And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city.

Jesus was from somewhere. Certainly he was well travelled, but he had a city that he called his own. This reality doesn’t make Jesus any less driven to break forth the kingdom of God in a new way into human society. It does mean that we must be careful not to take our own self-conceived notions of what the most radical expression of kingdom looks like and attribute them to Jesus. Jesus was the most faithful expression of kingdom living, and Jesus had a home.

 

An RD, A Witness, A Minister, A Servant

1. No ministry position will ever satisfy. Three days ago I was named Resident Director of Carver Hall at Boyce College, the undergraduate program of Southern Seminary. Being an RD is something I have pursued for several years, knowing how much the Lord has shaped who I am by the faithfulness of my own RDs at The Master’s College. Your passions reflect what and who has shaped you. And yet, despite the joy and thanksgiving for being entrusted with this position, it does not satisfy. I have gained what I have striven for, and discovered through experience what I already knew to be true: Nothing other than Christ will satisfy. If I expect to find my joy and happiness in a position where I am able to mediate Christ rather than Christ himself I may taste faint echos of presumed blessing, but those presumed blessings will be the ghost-like wisps of self-delusion. RA, RD, Dean, Pastor. It does not matter. Man. Boyfriend. Husband. Father. Grandfather. It does not matter. If I try to find my identity and joy in anything other than the wonder of salvation, then I will never find what I’m looking for. Or worse I might think I have, only to discover at some sad moment in the future that my life was spent on the triviality that is myself.

2. Hotel employees can easily recreate everything that you do inside your room. Just trust me on that one. I’ve seen multiple incidents in the past three months that would curl your toes, sicken your stomach, and incite your rage. None of these ordinary people thought about the witnesses to what they were doing or about to do. Not just divine witnesses, but human as well. I can give you names, days, and times of porn watchers, adulterers, drug users, and spouse abusers. I’m just the face that checked you into your hotel. But if I knew you were a pastor and you came down to pay for that fifteen minute long movie in cash, let’s just say your secret wouldn’t be safe with me for the sake of the kingdom of God. Maybe we’re most tempted when we travel because there is the illusion of anonymity. I can tell you that just isn’t true.

3. All authentic ministry begins with servanthood.

4. Servanthood is most simply defined as “You’re in it for them.” Not for what you can gain from the exchange, not for status or reputation or a surge of dopamine, but for their benefit. Be it the awkward pursuit for the sake of better brotherhood, the ease of hard-earned camaraderie, or the stunned silence of confrontation, it is all for their sake, not your own. This is what it means to consider others better than yourself. It’s easy to read; it’s hard to live.

Do You Keep Your Pastor From Evangelizing?

Many Christians, especially those who serve in some from of full-time vocational service, experience a unique bias toward those who do not know Christ. Christian people who are trying to grow in their faith surround themselves with other Christian people. They read Christian books, listen to Christian radio, and have Christian symbols displayed on their person and workspace, if possible. For those in Christian service, their primary responsibility lies in taking care of the flock of God. They work with Christians, have a Christian coffee mug from which to drink, have Christian paraphernalia decorating their offices, and fellowship primarily with other Christians. As a result, most Christians have very little contact with those who do not know Christ.

Truthfully, most Christians probably do not like being around non-Christians. Once Christ has transformed an individual, that person will often become very aware of the behavior of others. People outside of Christ become offensive in the language they use, in the attitudes they demonstrate, and in the behaviors they accentuate. As a result, many Christians isolate themselves from non-Christians.

If one truth can be communicated at this point, it is this: the reason that lost people act the way they do is because they are lost. That statement is not meant to be pejorative. It is meant, however, to arouse Chrsitains to examine their lifestyles and to discover why they are not more engaged with people outside of Christ. Evangelism must become a priority for believers if a Great Commussion Resurgence is to take place. For pastors, that level of primacy must begin with them. . . .

One of the reasons pastors are not witnessing is because they are responsible for a plethora of activities. They have administrative duties to handle including budgeting, staffing, planning, and programming. They have ministry to be done, from visiting Aunt Susie because her bunions are hurting to ministering to a family who has suffered an untimely death. They have visits to make, from hostpitals, to nursing homes, to the homebound, and to new members. They have discipleship to accomplish, from prayer groups, to personal mentoring, and to preparation for weekly Bible study. And they have sermons to prepare…lots of sermons. . . .

In the end, little time is left for evangelism. The most unfortunate issue in this entire scenario comes form the fact that the pastor will be criticized if he does not visit Aunt Susie, or if he misses seeing a church member who just needed a visit, or if his sermons are not as exciting or uplifting as that guy on television who smiles a lot. Rarely do people become upset if he has not done any evangelism….If we really beleive in evangelism, then churches must release their pastors from activities that members of the church can accomplish…

from The Great Commission Leader: The Pastor as Personal Evangelist by William D. Henard
in Great Commission Resurgence (ed. Chuck Lawless and Adam Greenaway)
pg. 273, 274, 278

MacArthur, Patrick and the Tribal Identity

In case you missed it, the sun arose today on yet another controversy in the conservative Christianity blogosphere. I usually don’t even bother to read these, as they come and go and are almost entirely based on soundbytes that are irresponsibly pulled from a larger context. You know what I mean: YouTube videos with names like “PIPER PREACHES THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL” or “DRISCOLL DENIES THAT GOD IS MERCIFUL.” But this controversy struck me in a way others haven’t. Namely, the responses of the men in question have widely differed from those who follow these men and count them as heroes.

The kindling for this brush fire arose from an interview between Phil Johnson and Dr. MacArthur. In responding to a question, Dr. MacArthur chastized Darrin Patrick’s book Church Planter for encouraging pastors who are undertaking church planting to design their own doctrine and theological beliefs.  Here’s the passage MacArthur was referencing:

One of the common errors of young men who surrender to ministry is to simply adopt the model of a church they have experienced or idolized. A similar mistake is to blindly accept the ministry philosophy and practice of a ministry hero. The man who is experiencing head confirmation is thoughtful about his own philosophy of ministry, his own ministry style, his own theological beliefs, his own unique gifts, abilities, and desires. In short, there is a uniqueness to the way  he wants to do ministry (page 37, italics in original).

I watched the movie Luther the other night, the third time in five years. You know what? Tetzel plied his damnable trade again. Luther discovered justification by faith again. Katie showed up and they got married again. And the conversation between the followers of John MacArthur and the followers of the Acts 29 movement have been just as predictable as the movie Luther was the third time through. A quick survey of the comments left on Tim Challies’ blog runs the average to about 3-1 against MacArthur. The comments are exactly what you’d expect:

“I love MacArthur’s teaching, but he’s so ungracious towards his brothers in Christ. I wish he wasn’t so divisive.”

“Such a blatant violation of the biblical principles found in Matthew 18. Someone needs to call MacArthur out on this for not speaking to Patrick privately first.” (Which is a really ironic comment when you think about it…)

“MacArthur probably hasn’t even bothered to read Patrick’s whole book.”

“I haven’t read Patrick’s book, but I really trust and respect Dr. MacArthur. And I don’t know about those Acts 29 guys.”

Have we as the church become the same as our nation? Have we become an assortment of pundits each with an opinion based  upon nothing more weighty than which tribe we most readily identify ourselves with? We recognize these evils in politics and the incessant squaking of Fox News and the New York Times. But do we recognize it in ourselves?

Who in this conversation are you most likely do give the benefit of the doubt to – Patrick or MacArthur? There’s nothing wrong with that per se, as we all have to constantly weigh small snippets of words against the greater whole of an individual’s work and ethos. It becomes wrong when we make a particular style or ministry our own personal identity.  When our appreciation for and natural identification with one minister’s or ministry’s particular style eclipses our identification with the gospel and truth, we have ceased to think as the redeemed choosing rather to content ourselves with petty partisanism. When we hear of our heroes squaring off with another minister are we willing to seriously consider and ponder the critiques, or do we blindly grab our banner and lance and ride forth to do battle with the dark knights of the enemy’s blogging horde?

Shortly after the critique of Patrick’s book, Johnson asked MacArthur if any of his doctrine had changed in the middle of writing his commentary series. MacArthur responded by reminiscing about Michael Horton “catching [him] and taking [him] behind the woodshed” about an improper distinction between imputed and imparted righteousness in his volume on Romans. And MacArthur was thankful for it, for it improved his understanding of God and corrected an underdeveloped aspect of his theology. When a man writes a book and publishes his thoughts, he is inviting his peers to critique him. Matthew 18 is about personal sin, not a discussion about proper ways of addressing theological concerns in the Christian publication world. If it was, I’m not sure the blogging world could exist.

We have much to learn from the humility of these two men. As their followers have been sharpening their knives and preparing for blood, they’ve been planning to sharpen each other. MacArthur published a follow up article, clarifying that he wasn’t attacking Patrick or accusing him of being unorthodox. And Patrick tweeted “Dr. MacArthur you are a hero to me. Period.” And “Dr. MacArthur, many young pastors like me didn’t have dads. We need godly, established men like you to father us.” And “I would be happy to fly to SoCal on my own dime to be mentored and coached and get to know you.” To which the men agreed to do so.

I haven’t said anything about the actual content of the disagreement. In short, MacArthur’s probably right in identifying something that should not have been said in Patrick’s book. From knowing and participating in both ministries, I can say that Patrick isn’t talking about designing your own doctrine. But that’s how the book reads and that point needs to be modified and communicated better. And Patrick’s probably right in saying that it’s disaster for one pastor to try and duplicate the ministry of someone he idolizes, for God has made us all unique. Each tribe needs the others, for they challenge each other to clarify and purify both the content and the communication of our doctrine and ministry philosophies.

God make us all men like MacArthur and Patrick.