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The Gospel Stays the Same

I haven’t thought about my blog for months. It once was a passion; to be truly honest I must say it was often a consuming passion. The articles written for this site span three major seasons of my life: college, seminary, and now teaching theology at a Christian school. Along the way my ministries have radically changed. My communities have radically changed. My marital status is about to change. (In the good way, not the bad way.)

But through it all, the gospel has stayed the same. I was shot through full of weaknesses seven years ago when I began to write. I still am. But that’s the point of the gospel. I am not perfect. I struggle with sin over and over again. New contexts and new ministries do not change my heart; God does. Slowly but surely he is shaping me into his image. That’s the point of life. More than blogs or ministry footprints or name-dropping, I just want to be faithful. Whatever the context, whoever the people, whatever the mission, I just want to be faithful.

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.

Helpful Words from Further Down the Path

In case you missed it, Scott and Mary Connell led a discussion tonight at Boyce College Dorm Meeting about dating and relationships. Thirteen years of marriage and seven children has a way of qualifying them to speak to us about such things. The last few minutes of their talk were devoted to things girls wish guys knew and vice-versa, followed by a charge of what to do while you wait.

What Girls Wish Guys Knew About Them

1. (Almost) Every girl wants to get married.

2. It’s hard waiting to be pursued.

3. Because of (1) and (2), hearts are very tender and very easily wounded by emotional antics and games. Every action you take in pursuit, therefore, is a big deal and should be treated seriously.

What Guys Wish Girls Knew About Them

1. We don’t understand you. We try, we really do. But we just don’t get it. Be merciful.

2. It’s really really hard to be bold, especially in a culture that does not emphasize courage.

3. We are driven physically and visually in ways you do not understand. This is not a bad thing, but you can bless us by helping us through your dress.

What to Do While Waiting

Work in the power of the gospel to become the kind of person that you desire to attract. Ask yourself this honestly: Would I marry what I am now? 

So Begin the Interviews, Or Not

Tomorrow will see the dawn of Student Leadership interviews for the students of Boyce College. The last two weeks have been a flurry of applications and references and conversations about leadership potential. But now all the forms are in, the times are set, and the interviews will begin.

I remember stepping into the intimidating environment of Jeff Lewis’ apartment in Slight Hall at The Master’s College for my own RA interview, now five years ago. Five men I greatly respected sat in a semicircle, each with pen and paper or laptop in hand, a lonely-feeling chair placed opposite of them. I sat, and the questions began. For forty-five minutes these men sought to leave no stone unturned in my life. Some of their questions left me rejoicing at God’s evident grace in my life; others left me ashamed at the memory of moments when I did not appropriate that grace. I froze, I monologued, I showed them who I was as best I could.

Tomorrow may mark the day interviews begin, but that’s a rather misleading note on the calendar. The reality is that interviews have been ongoing from the very first day of school, and in the case of the references’ responses, often for the entirety of their lives. We would all like to believe that gaining a title in some way changes us. But it doesn’t. A title is a platform that lifts up what you already are. A wedding doesn’t take an apathetic man and turn him into Leonardo da Vinci, and a pastorate won’t make a self-promoter a humble servant. The best it can do for such a man is show him how deficient he is, that he might learn his need for grace. There is no switch in the Christian life, nothing to throw that will instantly transform us into what we wish we were without the work being such would require.

So for those about to interview, take a little piece of advice from one who’s been where you are: Just be honest. We’re all in process, we’re all growing. There will be graces you haven’t seen that will be revealed tomorrow, and there will be strands of sin revealed that you never realized were an issue. Both are acts of kindness from the Lord to you. Praise God we’re being transformed from one degree of glory to another, and he’s promised to complete what he’s begun.

A Demon-Haunted World

Last night I had a dream so real that when I awoke I was unsure which reality was actually reality. I was standing in one of my RAs’ room, talking with him when Satan showed up unannounced. He pounded the walls, broke down the door. In swept the rain and in swept him, standing before us with full intent to kill. Entirely unsure of what to do, we began shouting at him the promises of God we have through the person of Jesus Christ. I don’t think I was audibly screaming as I woke up when he began to approach, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was.

It was a dream; nothing more. It is not prescient of some catastrophe about to strike my life or a shadow of reality that needs to be interpreted back into what might be or might become. It was a dream, not unlike the sort where my seminary final exams prove to be about fertilizer treatments and lawn care.

And yet it struck me that this dream had a far better theology than that which runs through my mind on a day-to-day level in one area. Satan was real, and he was desperately evil. This was no here kitty kitty Satan. This was the roaring lion on a mission to kill, and he was coming for me.

A chapel speaker once asked us the question last year, “If every passage about Satan and the demons was struck out of the Bible would it change the way you pray?” At the time I could only answer no. Because I did not think of the active role the opposers of God play in history and in my own life. Tempter. Accuser. Deceiver. These are the titles of the Devil, and titles we would do well to remember. He is the prince of the power of the air, the ruler of this world in which we live.

Martin Luther captured well the substance of living in a demon-haunted world under the banner of Christ.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

Amen and amen.