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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.

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In Honor of Peter and Vanessa Bugbee (A Poem)

When God at first made man
Having a glass of blessings standing by
Let us (he said) pour on him all we can
Let the world’s riches, which dispensed lie
Contract into a span

But what the Godhead knew
That Adam yet had sight to ascertain
For all the wisdom that he was imbued
There was still left a dark, unhappy stain
For he was one, not two

Amidst the grand review
As all the beasts were made to walk a span
Then Adam felt what God already knew
That lonely virtue did not fit the man
Though all his thoughts be true

And as man felt his need
Resounding loud and deep within his soul
The first few wisps of supernatural sleep
Spoke of provision that would make him whole
A joy to touch him deep

At sight it became plain
As Adam first spied she of fairer face
That spans of blessing often bear a name
And there beneath the canopies of grace
Perfection knew no shame

And though they rent to dust
Every goodness save for God alone
An image still was placed within their trust
A shadow of the love that would atone
And make the unjust just

And we in weakness
Through generations ever passing on
Seek to trace what renders angels speechless
The gospel of our Savior, Heaven’s Son
Who as His bride would claim us

It is of this delight
The present joys would dare anticipate
As bride and groom employ to give us sight
Of our eternal, ever happy fate
And futures ever bright

For the Occasion of Peter and Vanessa Bugbee’s Wedding
Upland, CA
June 16th, 2012
by George Herbert & Nate Brooks

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.

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.

Guilt to Innocence Restored

A couple of weeks ago this blog turned five years old. It began the afternoon of October 1st, 2006 as I sat on our tired war-horse of a couch in Oak Manor, Dorm #5. Blogging was in full swing, and twitter was a word used to describe the kinds of conversations that junior high girls had over lunch. My world consisted of attending class, driving the Oak Manor shuttle bus, and getting involved in something called the Student Life Department. I wanted to be a lawyer, classes like Constitutional Law stoking my desire to work for IJM in rescuing the oppressed from the sex-trafficking industry, slavery, and other forms of illegal intimidation around the world.

I now am sitting on another couch, this one a rather new espresso colored faux leather model. This room is Carver 416, nicknamed “The Slaughterhouse” by the RAs, as students who enter might never return so the joke goes. I now am the junior member of the senior staff for a different Student Life department, but surrounded by old friends and new friends who share the same passion and direction. My world still revolves around taking classes, not for law but for vocational ministry, the one occupation I said I would never pursue.

I can see by comparing my own freshly published posts to those posted five years ago a radical transformation of who I am. The Lord has taken passion and directed it, taken outspokenness and polished it. By grace, he will continue to do so. In the last five years I’ve gained a life direction, and have been amazed at the paths the Lord has brought me on to get me here.

One thing I’ve never done on this blog is explain the name. Indeed, finding a good name for this blog proved to be much harder than I thought it would be. Like a tattoo, you’d better be good and sure that the name will reflect who you are in five years, ten years, twenty years, as it does when you first apply it. “Innocence Restored” is half of a line from Keith and Krysten Getty’s song, Every Promise Of Your Word. They write,

When I stumble and I sin, condemnation pressing in, 
I will stand on ev’ry promise of Your Word. 
You are faithful to forgive that in freedom I might live, 
So I stand on ev’ry promise of Your Word. 
Guilt to innocence restored, 
You remember sins no more— 
So I’ll stand on ev’ry promise of Your Word. 

I do not know how long I’ll write here at this site. I have no intention of giving it up anytime soon, though the frequency always seems to ebb and flow as the Lord brings different ministries and responsibilities into my life. But one thing I know will be as true of me when I am old and grey as when I first began writing at this site. I have gone from guilt to innocence. And this is a statement that makes absolutely no sense. The guilty cannot become innocent yet again, for innocent is not a quality that can be measured by overwhelming generalities like being generous or truthful. A man may be truthful and have lied in the past. But no one could ever be innocent having been guilty in the past.

Except for the appearing of Jesus Christ, God become man to purchase back sinners to himself. It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me.

Ten Thoughts on Missions

1.  Famous missionaries do not have the goal of becoming famous. Rather, their goal and passion is the salvation of those who are unknowingly perishing. I can test John Paton’s words by his lifestyle. When he says he was incredibly reluctant to write his biography, the musket leveled at his head twenty years prior witnesses to his truthfulness. Fame for godliness seems to be bestowed upon those who consider such fame to be a nuisance. Care nothing for your own reputation and influence, Nate. God did not save you to make you famous. God saved you to make Him famous. (Paton, Autobiography)

2. I am much more willing to overlook the doctrinal flaws of a dead man than the doctrinal flaws of a living brother in Christ. A dead saint is a static entity. He has written what he has written and can be divided at will with no opportunity to defend himself. Augustine believed the Apocrypha was Scripture. Dr. Sa’eed believed in perfectionism until later in life. I didn’t know either of these things and rejoiced in their ministry. Now that I know them, I’m simply willing to ignore those beliefs because they won’t talk about these issues unless I quote them as such. It’s easy to find yes-men by employing selective quotations. (Dr. Sa’eed of Iran, pg 73)

3. Historical context is important. Men of old would rise early to pray and read the Scriptures. While their Bible reading and prayers certainly are exemplary, their rising early doesn’t make those prayers any more fragrant to the Lord than mine. Lifestyles are radically different today. These men went to bed early, for there was no electricity! It’s easy to manufacture sacrifice by taking normal life in a different time period and placing it in modern culture. God looks at the heart, not at the hours on the clock. (Robert Chapman)

4. My life may not be 80 years long. Eric Liddell died at 44 of an inoperable brain tumor. I’m 24 right now. There is no such thing as a future in ministry. Oh, plans may be made for the future. I’m currently training for the future. But I cannot live in the future.  I must live in the present. I wonder how many young men have been surprised to waste their lives by preparing only for the future, not turning their eyes to those around them now, only to have their lives cut short by accident or health? (Pure Gold: A Biography of Eric Liddell)

5. I am invincible until Christ calls me home. John Paton said something along those lines. I fully believe it. The vaunted “Sovereignty of God.” And yet my life does not bear fruit of this truth as often as it should. God controls the minds of others. Paton was protected miraculously from those who were consumed with killing him and who had every opportunity to do so. And yet he never suffered a scratch. Radical ministry flows from understanding the depths of my sin, the heights of God’s grace, and the width of His sovereignty. (John Paton, Autobiography)

6.  A good spiritual leader and godly Christians on the whole are genuinely excited about things which—apart from a gospel-driven care for his brothers and sisters—do not interest or excite him. Many people take delight in and worship through activities or objects that I find uninspiring. Don’t mock what other people are doing as an expression of or medium to worship.

7. “My wife knows I’ll be killed one day for the work that I do,”—a current missionary to Muslims in London. I heard this in a sermon by Al Mohler. Mohler followed this up by saying that many young men come and ask him how to find a girl who will be a good minister’s wife. He responded by saying ‘how about finding a girl who is okay with being a minister’s widow.’ Missionaries and Ministers are the first targets when persecution strikes. Marry someone like Elizabeth Bunyan. (Al Mohler—Shepherd’s Conference 2007)

8. Missions life takes a hard toll on family life. Rob Liddell’s father saw him for a total of 6 months over 10 years. Nowadays it certainly is easier to keep the family together. However, culture shock and other issues still exist. Appreciate the cost missionary parents are willing to accept for the sake of spreading the gospel.

9. Sickness is an often overlooked aspect of missions. You don’t see Paton complaining in his autobiography or Martyn stopping because of disease. They pushed through it, counting it as part of the all-too-worth-it cost of spreading the Gospel. Physical comfort was nothing to be grasped in their minds.

10. Throughout the centuries—and even today—many Christians have precious little of the Bible in their possession. God is pleased with their simple faith in Him to save their souls, even though they know little of His Word to them.

Gamma Wolf

Today I lost my desk chair, my work computer and my office. My name has been erased from the bulletin as the leader of the youth ministries at Cornerstone and the website will no longer direct all inquiries about youth ministry to my personal email. I’ve gone from being Beta Wolf to being Gamma Wolf.

Our church has been waiting excitedly for quite some time for our new Associate Pastor of Family Ministries, Curtis, to join us. My internship has about eight weeks left before I pack up and move to Kentucky to attend Southern Seminary. During these eight weeks of overlap, we’ll be team-teaching our youth group as he gradually takes over the helm of youth ministries.

As I’ve gone from being the director of the youth ministries to someone working under the director of youth ministries, I’ve been forced to wrestle with a question of ministerial identity the last couple of days. Do I define myself by what I do for the kingdom, or by the kingdom itself? Or put another way, do I find my identity, standing, and joy before the Lord in what I do for Him, or in what He’s done for me? Am I working for my kingdom or the Kingdom?

Sin is seductive and my heart is wandering, naturally turning its gaze from the Giver of all joy, all purpose, all meaning, all fulfillment, and all blessing to the things He has given for me to enjoy but never worship. And that can include ministry. It’s easy to build a kingdom. It’s much harder to remain dedicated while working for a Kingdom where the glory isn’t yours to have and hold. Oftentimes ministry begins with the best intentions, but jumps the track of worship into self-worship by failing to be ruthless with your own motives.

Curtis’ arrival has been a good heart-check. If there’s any resentment, if there’s any “my turf” mentality, then ministry has become an idol and I’m finding my identity in what I do for the Lord rather than in the all-sufficient atonement found in the cross of Christ. And anything other than finding my identity in the work Christ has done for me is idolatry. Thankfully, that has proven not to be the case.

It’s also a good reminder that I am entirely dispensable. God’s work in others’ lives is not dependent upon Nate Brooks ministering to them. People come, people go, and God works on. As the traditional “Who Will Weep When You Leave?” SLS Retreat Saturday morning message says, our job is to carry one brick in the lives of those around us. God is building a house of sanctification. It is He who does it, and He chooses to use his frail and battered creatures to aid in the process. But we’re not often called to be there for every aspect of construction. Our job is to faithfully carry one brick so another can lay yet another piece of clay on top of it.

I don’t think anyone is happier to see Curtis come than I am. Leading the group for the last year has made me painfully aware of my own glaring shortcomings as a teacher and a leader. My grasp of the Bible is limited, my ability to counsel shallow. I’m excited for them to sit under a man who can give them what they need much better than I can. And it’s exciting to commit them to the grace of God, knowing that He is faithful to complete in His children what He’s been faithful to begin.