Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Election time...

Came across this timely little gem in a used book discarded from the Vancouver School of Theology, the first English printing of a little book called Last Testimonies, by Karl Barth.  The quote below is from an interview and the discussion topic is liberalism in the classical sense, not the political sense.  After appropriate distinctions are made, including Barth's warning to always beware of anything that becomes an "ism", the interviewer asks about political liberalism and Barth's involvement in politics.  Barth describes himself as pragmatically, though not ideologically, socialist.  Then this exchange comes, which may or may not provide small comfort to my American friends. 
Interviewer:  Socialism and liberalism are presented as opposites, at least in Switzerland and just before elections.  I think this antithesis has become historical, to put it guardedly.
Barth:  Yes, at election time and when party leaders speak.  So there are in fact no longer any genuine or clear alternatives.  No great and basic ideas seem to be in conflict any more.  I am always at a loss as to which party to vote for, if any. *
Interviewer:  Would you say that being liberal has nothing or not very much to do with political liberalism but that it is more a human attitude which cuts across all parties?
Barth:  Yes, I could accept that if we are to use the term.  But I do not set much store by the word.  If it is to be used at all I would prefer that it be used, as in our discussion, for basic style, a human posture.  What is called and calls itself liberal today, as here in Basel, could just as well...
          Interviewer:  ...be called conservative?

          Barth:  I am glad you said it and not I.  We know whom we have in mind and
          what paper, don't we?  ...But let them go their way in peace.

 * Emphasis mine

Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Faith seeking understanding...

"I do not seek, Lord, to reach your heights, for my intellect is as nothing compared to them.  But I seek in some way to understand your truth, which my heart believes and loves.  For I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but rather to believe in order to understand."
                                                                           - Anselm of Canterbury

Sunday, 9 October 2016

God's goodness amidst evil and suffering

From Iain Provan's book, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why it Matters:
The author of [Psalm 73] is certainly struggling to hold onto his own faith in God's goodness: "But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked" (vv. 2-3). When the wicked prosper, it is all too easy to interpret their prosperity as indicating a deficiency in God's goodness; it is all too easy to feel foolish about continuing to trust: "surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence" (v. 13). The psalm does not ultimately take this view, however, and it is designed to help others who read it and pray it likewise not to take this view. As we move toward its conclusion, we find that in the course of his prayer the psalmist had processed his doubts, and has arrived at a renewed confidence: "my flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (v. 26).
     This kind of prayer, often referred to as a "lament psalm," is one of the ways of rightly relating to God in biblical faith. God is good, yet his goodness appears to be absent in human experience right now. What is to be done? The answer advocated in the lament psalms is neither to give up on the goodness of God nor to pretend that things are better than they are. In the lament psalms, we see honest confrontation of the fact that there is a gap between theology, on the one hand, and experience, on the other. This gap is brought to God in prayer, and trust is renewed in God's goodness through the process of prayer. The psalms of lament are, therefore, regarded in biblical faith as being just as important for right relating to God as the psalms of praise. In these compositions, lament and trust go together; they are not alternatives. The challenging circumstances of life are neither ignored nor taken as a reason for turning away from God. They are fully described before God, and they issue characteristically in the prayer of those who still trust in his goodness: "turn, O LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love" (Psalm 6:4).
                                                                                       - pp. 175-176, emphasis mine

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Update on Canadian atheist "pastor"

A while ago I talked about Gretta Vosper, an atheist pastor in the United Church of Canada.  That post can be found here.  If you are so inclined, here is an update on the denomination's investigation of her and whether or not she should be allowed to retain her ordination in what is (only nominally, in my opinion) a Christian denomination. 

In a nut shell, the majority of the Toronto presbytery that was examining the matter decided that no, in fact, she ought not be able to retain her ordination.  There was a minority in the presbytery who believed that she ought to be allowed to continue to pastor since the United Church's doctrine has still not been fully decided upon.  I would tend to think that issues like whether there is such a person as God ought to have been sorted out by now at least, but perhaps I am being too hasty for these four minority voices.  [This gives a whole new meaning to "process theology."]  Reasons given by the presbytery committee for why Vosper's ordination should not continue:  such things as the fact that she doesn't believe in God or that she doesn't believe the Bible has any sort of authority in the church's life.  Minor things, to be sure, if you're an atheist.  But if you are a Christian Church, these do seem like non-negotiables.  Apparently Vosper considers such things debatable, even for a Christian denomination.  The article states that she plans to continue the debate with the help of her lawyers. 

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Alexander Schmemman on children in church

Over the last dozen or so years I've read a few works about family worship and training children in the faith as well as works geared toward guiding families in worship or Bible study.  I have also read works about whole-family worship in churches and why we ought not segregate or remove younger children, or other age groups for that matter, from the worship service of the church (by this I don't mean that it is never appropriate to have a space to take young children to look after them during the service - like a crying room or nursery).  I am convinced of the importance of both family worship in the home and the inclusion of children of all ages in the Lord's Day worship service of the church.  Now, just because I am convinced of these things does not mean we implement them nearly as well or consistently as we ought to, either at home or at church.  However, as Chesterton said, "anything worth doing is worth doing badly." In other words, if it is an important thing, don't wait until you are perfect at it before you begin doing it.  And when you fall off, get back on right away.


When speaking of culture, society, the work force, consumer markets, the future of a nation, political view points, and many other things, I have often heard people say that "children are the (fill in the blank) of the future."  Children are the leaders of the future.  Children are the citizens of the future.  Children are the hope of the future.  As true as this may be to a degree in other areas, I have seen this same train of thought in the church as well.  I have often heard Christians and Christian leaders say that children are the church of the future.  This is true in a certain sense:  Lord willing, when we adults have fallen asleep and are awaiting the resurrection, our children will still be part of the worshipping community of God's people on earth, the body of Christ, the temple of the Spirit, the Church militant.  We want our children to grow up and hold fast to the faith and some of them to become leaders in the church.  But there is another sense in which "children are the church of the future" is profoundly untrue.  In fact, in the way this sentiment is often expressed, it is very dangerously wrong.


When his disciples were preventing little children from approaching Jesus, even parents brining their infants, the disciples believing as they did that Jesus was already busy enough with important adult ministry, Jesus rebuked them:  “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  (Luke 18:16-17)  We often read this as meaning that only those who receive Jesus and his gospel of the kingdom with childlike faith can truly be his disciples and that is certainly part of what Jesus is saying.  But that is not all he is saying here.  He also says that the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, belongs to little children.  And if that is the case, there is no good spiritual or biblical reason to pull children out of the worship service, the service in which God's covenant community enters into his presence through the blood of his Son and in the indwelling presence and unity of the Spirit and speaks to God and hears from God and worships God and is blessed and built up by God in the communion of the saints.  They are already citizens of the kingdom; don't forbid them a place with the citizens who only happen to be more chronologically advanced than they. 


If Sunday Lord's Day worship was primarily a teaching time, at least in many churches much of the teaching would not be aimed at young children and so they would miss a fair bit of it (though not nearly as much as we sometimes think).  But Lord's Day worship is not primarily teaching time, even thought teaching plays an important part.


If Lord's Day worship was primarily an entertainment time, admittedly the type of entertainment would not be the most effective for engaging young children.  But Lord's Day worship is not entertainment.  It is interaction.  God's people go not only to receive, and certainly not to be passive observers.  God's people go to be in back-and-forth conversation with their God, to speak to him and be spoken to by him.


Lord's Day worship is a time of conversation between God and his people, of interaction between the King and the citizens of his kingdom, between a loving Father and his children, between a husband and his bride.  The Lord's Day worship service is where God's people are formed through teaching, yes, but also and much more through the pattern of covenantal interaction with our Lord of the covenant.  The Sunday morning liturgy is a family ritual, not unlike a dinner time routine, wherein God's children, no matter their age, all come into his house and gather together to converse with, be blessed by, share a meal with, and to ascribe glory to their Heavenly Father.


Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox theologian and liturgist, has some good thoughts on children and church here.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Kevin Vanhoozer on John Webster

Kevin Vanhoozer has written a tribute to John Webster (1955-2016) and his contributions not only to theology but to how theology is conceived.  This appreciative reflection can be found here.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Listening for the still, small voice.....is there an ap for that?

Alan Jacobs has written a great article on Christian habits of the mind in an age of constant distraction due to technologies that allow us to be always "connected".  When we are constantly connected to each other, to our audience or community of social-media friends, we can seldom experience the stillness, the quiet and the healthy alone times that allow us to search our hearts or to quietly seek, speak with or hear from God.  Often our connectedness on social media creates an idolatrous technological omnipresence that masks or scrambles our ability to commune throughout the day with the truly omnipresent God.  And the idolatry of constantly being connected on social media through our manifold devices is joined by or enables another form of idolatry, indeed a far worse one:  self-validation.  Instead of looking to God and what he says for our worth, our security, our value, we find our self-image and self-worth in the fact that we are constantly connected to other people.  Many people never want to be in a place where they are alone with their thoughts.  Many people never want to find themselves in a position where the only person they are connected with is their creator. 
Our "ecosystem of interruption technologies" affects our spiritual and moral lives in every aspect. By our immersion in that ecosystem we are radically impeded from achieving a "right understanding of ourselves" and of God's disposition toward us. We will not understand ourselves as sinners, or as people made in God's image, or as people spiritually endangered by wandering far from God, or as people made to live in communion with God, or as people whom God has come to a far country in order to seek and to save, if we cannot cease for a few moments from an endless procession of stimuli that shock us out of thought.
You can read the entire excellent article here.



Tuesday, 7 June 2016

What Evangelical Denominations can Learn from the United Church of Canada's Atheist Pastor


Demolition of the "Shared Church" in Fort St. John, BC
Demolishing Church


I was getting groceries one day a couple of years ago as the demolition of the church building which was shared by the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada congregations of Fort St. John was happening across the street.  It seemed a fitting physical picture of a spiritual reality that has been playing out over the last 80+ years in these denominations and the local congregations that make them up.  These two congregations got too small to afford up-keep on the building they shared.  But the reason these congregations shrunk so small was that the denominations of which they are a part have been on a doctrinally and morally compromising, culturally accommodating trajectory for so long, the vast majority of faithful Christians went somewhere else, somewhere that still believes in and practices what Scripture teaches.  God has vacated the official denominational leadership and most of the local church bodies because the denomination kicked out the Holy Spirit in favour of the spirit of the age.

I've written about certain aspects of the secularization and compromise of United Church of Canada before here.

Now comes this story about an atheist pastor.  If this weren't so tragic, it would be funny.  The best satirist couldn't make this up.  I recommend reading the linked article first, then following up with some further thoughts below. 

Deconstructing God


Well, if you've read the article I linked above, now you see what I mean.  If this is reality, how can a satirist compete?  Below are some quotes from the article, interspersed with some of my own commentary.....I tried not to be too sarcastic....honest.  It's really hard not to be a bit sarcastic, however, when you are writing about a pastor who doesn't believe in God and who wants everyone in the church to quit believing in God too. 
Vosper was ordained in 1993, during which she was asked if she believed in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. She said yes, speaking metaphorically. 
So, was she speaking metaphorically when she told the ordination committee that she believed in God or did she add the metaphorical qualification to the interviewer who wrote the present article?  If the former, shame on them.  If the latter, shame on her.  While most of the ordination committee likely also rejected the bulk of traditional Christian confessional truth (based on how long she has been ministering and the state of the denomination by that point), both they and Vosper had to know that at that point there were still a good number of people in the pews who actually believed God exists, you know, like really, not just metaphorically.  This "confession" of belief in the triune God was dishonest at best, but very possibly out-right deceitful.

A pastor's vocation is to call people away from sin and idols and toward God.  A metaphorical God can't save real people from their real sins.  But Vosper doesn't believe that sin is the problem with humanity.  She believes that archaic notions of God and related old-fashioned ideas like people's need for salvation, and an ancient book containing wisdom and God-inspired revelation still relevant for today are the problems people in the church need to be rescued from.  Vosper seems to have been looking for a platform to voice her own opinions against the very truths this church (at least once) held to.  Now, pastoring is attractive to some folks....you won't get calluses, and you can be part of a big labour union (I'm not kidding - see first link above).  However, I'm guessing that in the beginning, no one in her congregation knew they were getting a minister who didn't even believe that God exists.
Some eight years later, vexed by the archaic language, imagery and stories of the Bible, she delivered an off-the-cuff sermon in which she deconstructed the idea of God. “Our hymns and our prayers and the way that we did things, they all reinforced this idea of a supernatural divine being who intervened in human affairs,” she says. “I just took it apart – I was not willing to continue to let (my congregation) think that I believed in that kind of God.”
It must have been really hard for her to put up with all the "archaic language, imagery and stories of the Bible" for eight years, especially after not having to put up with it in whatever post secondary institutions the United Church pulls ordinands from these days.  How backwards of people to believe in a supernatural divine being who intervenes in human affairs.  I mean, what do these people think this is, a church?  And can you imagine that the prayers and hymns and liturgy all reinforced such ideas?  What kind of unenlightened, backward, superstitious people believe stuff like this?  Good for her to take a stand and make sure her congregation knew she didn't believe that kind of stuff.  I can't believe she ever let those people force her to become their pastor in the first place.  Oh, wait.  They didn't force her.  She purposefully pursued the role of pastor in a (at least to some remaining degree) Christian church.  Well, I almost want to ask her what she expected to find in a Christian church besides notions like God, the Bible, sin, salvation, prayer, hymns, the cross and resurrection, etc.  This is like a nudist submitting a job application to be a clothing model without telling anyone she's a nudist, then being irate when she is expected to try clothes on and pose for pictures.  Or a vegetarian applying to work in a butcher shop.  Or a teetotaler applying to be a sommelier.  Or...well, you get the idea.  I like to think I am not the only one who sees the ridiculousness of this situation.  But seriously, it seems Vosper doesn't believe in sin, except for the sin of believing in concepts like sin.    
She braced herself for a negative reaction (from coming out as an atheist). To her surprise, church leaders said they were intrigued by the direction she was heading and encouraged her to push forward.
No kidding.  Well, those same church leaders had hired all the seminary professors, ordained all the ministers and oversaw the decades-old demise of the United Church up to that point.  Why should the church leaders all of a sudden step out of character and demand that their pastors believe in a literal God who intervenes in human affairs, and other outmoded notions like that?
What followed was years of Vosper and her congregation retooling the service at West Hill. References to God and Jesus became talk of love and compassion and prayer was replaced with community sharing time. The removal of the Lord’s Prayer in 2008 proved to be a critical test, sending attendance plunging from 120 people to 40 and leaving the church’s financial strength in tatters. “The Lord’s Prayer was the last thing in the service that still held them to previous generations of church,” says Vosper. “So it became the lightning rod for all of that loss.”
When Vosper finally got rid of the last thing that held this congregation to "previous generations of church," what she actually did was to finally get rid of the last, (by this time) hollow vestige of the liturgy and therefore, the last remaining tatters of the worship of a Christian church.  The content and substance was already long gone.  She was just chucking the empty wrapper.  When everything that holds a congregation to the "previous generations of church" is gone, it is not a church anymore.  Every other statement from the Apostle's Creed had already been deconstructed, disavowed, dismembered and discarded, some of it through the denomination's long history of self-destruction, and the rest of it since Vosper took over this local congregation.  The historic "communion of saints" with previous generations of the church (2000 years of it) in the praying of the Lord's Prayer is just a leftover, difficult to extract only due to the inertia of tradition and the comfort of familiarity. 

My main question is why so many people stayed on so long in light of the fact that God himself had already been chased from the congregation.  They had already run the Lord out.  Why did they lose so many people when his prayer finally followed?
Throughout this time Vosper couched her strong beliefs in linguistic gymnastics, describing herself as a non-theist and, later, a theological non-realist. In 2013, moved by the case of Bangladeshi bloggers facing persecution over their reportedly atheist views, Vosper began calling herself an atheist. “I felt it was an act of solidarity,” she says, likening it to the use of the word feminist to in the 1970s. “If I shelter myself by not using that term, that’s unfair to everyone who is being maligned by the use of that term.”
Couple things.  There's a technical term for couching your "strong beliefs in linguistic gymnastics": its called lying.  This "minister" ought to have told her congregation from the start that she denied even the existence of God (not to mention every other point of orthodox Christian doctrine).  And shame on a wayward denominational leadership that would place someone who denied everything resembling orthodoxy in a position of leading a local congregation that still did hold some semblance of traditional Christian belief.  Secondly, any "pastor" (and I use the term about as lightly as it may be used) who cares more about solidarity with atheist bloggers on the other side of the world who are being persecuted for their anti-God blog posts than for the eternal destination of her own flock is a hireling and worse, a wolf in sheep's clothing.  On the other hand, its good to know she has a standard. 

After complaints from other United Church ministers (far too little, way too late, but nice gesture folks) and others, Vosper is going to face a review.  Her opinion:
She sees the review as a betrayal, as the path she has forged is a logical one in a church that has always prioritized moral teachings over doctrinal beliefs. “I’m a product of the United church. It taught me to critique the Bible as a human construction … This means everything that it says is up for grabs, including God.”
First of all, when the United Church quit prioritizing doctrinal beliefs, it didn't start prioritizing moral teachings but immoral ones.  It will always trend this way.  You cannot abandon Christian doctrine and keep Christian morality any more than you can remove a foundation and hope the roof stays up.  But let's be honest.  The reason the United Church has been on the trajectory of removing biblical Christian doctrine is precisely because the powers that be don't really want biblical Christian morality either.  It would have been more accurate to say that the United Church has always prioritized cultural trends and societal values over biblical doctrine and morality. 

Back to the question of the review Vosper is facing.  She sees it as a betrayal, and honestly, she is exactly right.  She really is being consistent with the direction the United Church has been going for decades.  Its been decades since the United Church as a whole believed the Bible was the inspired and authoritative Word of God.  They long ago began viewing it as a merely human work, and one full of bigotry, racism, sexism, classism, and a dozen other nasty isms.  She is only carrying the trajectory of the United Church further toward its logical conclusion.  Her problem is that she skipped a couple steps of gradation.  Most of this denomination and its leaders and ministers expelled God and orthodoxy a long time ago.  As far as I can tell, the real issue with Vosper is not that she went too far but that she went too fast. 

What Can Evangelicals Learn from an Atheist Pastor in a Decimated Denomination?


I think the article speaks for itself and ably demonstrates where a church will ultimately go when they abandon the authority, sufficiency and centrality of the Word of God, exchanging it for every wind of secularist cultural doctrine that wafts along.  It is important to remember, however, that the United Church didn't make one big drastic change overnight.  Rather, this change came over decades of denominational dialoguing, special task forces formed to study the surrounding society rather than the scriptures, standing committees struck to examine an issue, asking how much traditional Christian content can be dropped without the majority of the people leaving for other churches, etc.  Each supposedly small compromise was like poking a little hole in a dam.  The compromises were each a seemingly little accommodation to the cultural and intellectual breezes blowing in their day, and each one was on a subject that the church leaders, each on their particular watch, did not consider to be something essential to the core of the Christian faith. 

There were the questions of big "L" liberal theology (about miracles, deity of Christ, virgin birth, literal creation ex nihilo, inspiration of Scripture, uniqueness of Christianity, inter-faith dialogue, nature of the atonement, bodily resurrection of Jesus, etc.) and there were the questions of the cultural pressures and trends of the day (regarding ordination of men unqualified to minister, then ordination of women, then sexuality, marriage, family order, moral standards, etc.).  But both sets of questions are inseparably linked.  You can't hope to poke holes in biblical doctrine without biblical morality leaking out all over.  Ultimately, all those questions were entertained by a church leadership who had quit caring what God thought and worried only about what man thought.  The leadership didn't worry about God's evaluation of them, but only about what the surrounding culture thought of them.  Their concerns were not over truth, but over intellectually respectability and cultural relevance.  Paul's words to the Galatians (Gal. 1:6-10) comes to mind: 
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
For am I now seeking the favour of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.
The reason denomination leaders, pastors or anyone else doesn't just get to edit or change the gospel message the church is called to proclaim is in the very next verses (Gal. 1:11, 12):
For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
But each compromise poked another little hole in the authority of Scripture.  As all this happens over time, the people who poked the first hole in the dam would likely never have imagined the block of mushy Swiss cheese currently spewing water through a thousand hippo-sized holes.  But there it is.  There is nothing left of the United Church of Canada overall but the memory that this was once a Christian denomination (again, I know there are still some faithful individuals and congregations in the United Church of Canada - I was invited to preach in one once - but I am speaking of the overwhelming trends in this denomination as a whole).  Each change was small and incremental.  Each early change was considered to be on a non-essential point of the faith and by the time the later changes came, no one was concerned with essentials of the faith anymore.  And each change was made for the purpose of cultural relevancy and to bring non-churched people in.  But this is not how the church works.  The church is God's creation and it must by run in God's way.  Denominational leaders on special standing committees are never wiser than God and their cultural surveys are never truer than God's Word. 

People can't be helped if truth is not the main ingredient in the medicine.  People might still go to the United Church, new people may even occasionally show up, but these people aren't being called to repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ.  Those showing up in the pews of the United Church today are typically going to have their preconceived and culturally informed notions affirmed rather than challenged.  This is like showing up for a chemotherapy session for your lung cancer and having the doctor pass you a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Most people sitting through a sermon in the United Church of Canada today may just as well stay home and watch Oprah, or listen to a Rob Bell sermon.

The reason most people have now abandon these churches either for conservative Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Churches, or for the local branch of the Rotary Club, is because a church that will sacrifice any of its little convictions and beliefs until all their big ones are gone too can't possibly minister to people's "little" day-to-day needs.  And if you can't help them walk through the little day-to-day things, you will never help them walk through the big things of life in a truthful and wise way either, things like vocation, marriage, children, death, etc.  The world is full of sin, and so are people.  People need to be told the truth about sin and the cross of Christ.  They don't need the church to change to become just like them - sheep without a shepherd.  They need light, they need truth, they need a shepherd, they need a saviour.  And they need churches to faithfully proclaim that Saviour and to help them follow that Shepherd. 

The truly sad thing is there are many evangelical churches and denominations today that are making the very same small compromises to the culture that the United Church has made over the years and they are doing it for many of the same reasons.  "Is this really an essential point of doctrine?"  "Isn't traditional Christian morality on this point just a bit harsh considering our unchurched and post-Christian culture?"  Many of the questions that evangelicals are asking today are just another way of asking, "has God really said.....?"  Today formerly biblically faithful denominations and individual churches are compromising on the clear biblical standards for pastoral ordination, on whether Adam and Eve were historical people created by God out of nothing, on the biblical definition of marriage and context for sexual relations, and on many other clear teachings of historic Christianity.  Each issue seems to be its own debate, but in reality all of these issues are really one, foundational debate - is the Bible God's authoritative Word for all of life and doctrine for all people for all time or is it not?  Those who are trying to morph the church into something else completely (like Vosper) recognize this is the real issue.  Hopefully more evangelicals will come to recognize this also, and soon.

Deconstructing Scripture

Now Vosper is working on something she calls revisioning Scripture.  Basically, she is taking her favourite passages of Scripture and removing all the stuff she doesn't like....you know, like God, for example.  Good thing the Bible isn't copy written. 

Unfortunately for her, the Bible actually is copy written:  "...if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city..." (Rev. 22:19; see also Deut. 4:2; 12:32).  And no, I don't take that to apply only to the words of Revelation but also to the whole canon of Scripture which Revelation closes.  "If anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy...."  How much worse if the person taking away words from Scripture is a minister in the Church; how much worse if the first word that minister takes away is "God"?

There is, however, more than one way to deconstruct Scripture.  It can be done by removing all the pesky words we don't like, like Vosper.  But it can also be done even when we retain all those words.  It can be done simply through reinterpreting all those pesky words so that they don't mean what they have always meant or what God inspired them to mean.  This is the Inigo Montoya (from the Princess Bride) school of hermeneutics:

"This word you keep using...I do not think it means what you think it means."

This is often where evangelicals begin eroding the authority of Scripture.  Usually evangelical churches and denominations don't start snipping words out of the pages of Scripture, like a bunch of Thomas Jeffersons.  They usually begin by questioning the plain meaning of those words and suggesting perhaps the church has always misunderstood what certain passages mean.  Perhaps we've not taken into account some key context or we've missed some nuance.  I'm not saying these types of questions can't be asked of the text of Scripture legitimately, but usually compromising evangelical churches find all the nuance in the areas of biblical teaching that the unbelieving culture is pushing hardest against.  And soon enough the stuff that embarrasses us or that makes us sound harsh when we simply take the Bible at its word is redefined, relegated to a historical context which is no longer applicable, or some such thing.  Pretty soon, some key area of Scripture has been redefined to the point where the truth it used to communicate can be abandoned.

But God's Word is made up of words, words that God himself inspired.  The church may not simply abandon those words or the concepts they describe without jettisoning some of the very language God has used to make the church what it in fact is:  a people formed by God's own self-revelation through the gospel of Jesus Christ as communicated by the words of Scripture and applied to the church by the Holy Spirit.  We are what we read, in a sense.  And if we effectively rewrite the Scriptures, we remake ourselves in an image God never intended for us....much like the United Church of Canada.






Friday, 3 June 2016

Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain...

Keep reading to see why this photo is relevant
Ligonier has a good article on what it means to take the Lord's name in vain.

I remember doing a corporate confession meditation several years ago which focused on this broader aspect of keeping the third commandment and what it means to take the Lord's name in vain.  Some illustrations might be helpful when thinking through the fuller sense of what it means to take God's name in vain - it is more than just using God's name as a cuss or frivolously speaking of God, though it certainly includes those things.  I encourage you to read the article linked above, then read my illustrations below.

Marriage

In marriage, traditionally a bride takes her groom's name.  She is then known by the last name of her husband.  That bride may be a faithful wife, keeping her marriage vows in both letter and spirit, never wavering in her faithfulness.  In this way she would be rightly taking her husband's name.  But, the wife may also take her husband's name in vain.  She has really taken his name upon her in the marriage vows of the wedding ceremony, covenanting to be his "lawful wedded wife", but if she then lives a life of infidelity to her husband (even despite his faithfulness to her) she has taken his name in vain.  This does not mean that her wedding vows meant nothing - they were and still are a binding covenant - but it means that she has vowed them in vain, for she is not living up to the vows she made or the new name she received by covenant.  It is like this for God's people.

The church corporately is the bride of Christ (Rev. 21:9), promised to one husband (2 Cor. 11:2), the Lamb (Rev. 19:7; 21:2), and we are wed to Christ by covenant.  As such, we have taken his name.  We are Christians, "Christ-ones", after all.  So if we have been baptized into the Triune name of God, if we have put on Christ in baptism and are united to him by covenant, yet live in such a way that the watching world sees no discernible difference between the church and the unbelieving world around us, we have taken Christ's name in vain.  Therefore, as people bearing the triune name of God upon us, we ought to live in a manner worthy of the one to whom we are wed.

Children

As well as being described as the bride or wife of Christ, God's people are also described as his children (Rom. 8:16; John 1:12; 1 John 3:1).  God is our Father, and when God places the family name, the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, upon us in baptism, we are pronounced to be sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father.  As such, we are now charged with the high calling of being imitators of our Father (Eph. 5:1), to bear the family resemblance and to obey the will of our Father.  This obedience to God our Father is a major aspect of our gospel witness in the world (Phil. 2:15; 1 John 3:10; 5:2). 

Now, we've all seen children who were a disgrace to their parents...perhaps we can recall a time when we ourselves were a disgrace to our parents...at least in an isolated episode.  We can look at the life of David, who, along with some good sons, had some real stinkers.  We look at David who, although not perfect himself, is described by God as being a man after God's own heart.  Then we look at some of his immoral and ungodly sons.  They were the type of men that bore their family name in vain.  They should have acted like sons of David, the God-praising, fearless warrior, wise ruler, etc.  Instead, these sons of David were disgraces to him, some even seeking to kill him.  They bore their family name in vain; they were not a blessing to their father but a curse to their parents (Prov. 10:1).  Like a child reflects either negatively or positively on his or her parents, so the church may either bear our family name as a positive witness or a disgraceful and inaccurate reflection of our Father.

Citizenship

I was on a backpacking trip to the big island of Hawaii once with a friend.  I had a Canadian flag sown onto my backpack and in my past travel experience, this has always given me a fairly warm reception in foreign countries (south America and Europe feel much more foreign than Hawaii did, mind you).  Well, one day my friend and I were sitting on a beach in Kona, resting after a lengthy multi-day hike to view some active volcanoes.  We heard a loud disturbance coming from across the water and looking up we noticed a Zodiac full of naval servicemen being taken back to their frigate anchored off shore.  We listened as the very obviously plastered soldiers cursed, swore, shouted and puked their was across the water to the waiting ship.  Looking out at the ship we noted that it proudly flew the flag of our own home and native land from the stern of the vessel.  I have to say that, along with the entire beach of tourists and locals watching this production, we judged these service men to be a pretty poor reflection upon the nation they represented.  In fact, for nearly the first time in my life (at least since the last time Canada lost to another nation in an international hockey tournament) I was embarrassed to be wearing the Canadian flag.  They were being very poor ambassadors of their nation in this foreign port.  My friend and I got some dirty looks from people who likely suspected we too belonged on that ship.

As Christians, we are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20).  More than citizens only, we are also soldiers serving in the cause of the gospel (Phil. 2:25; 2 Tim. 2:3).  Even more than that, we are ambassadors for Christ in the cause of the gospel (2 Cor. 5:20).  God makes his appeal to lost people through the message we bring, the message of Jesus Christ crucified, risen and reigning.  But if those who are supposed to be ambassadors for Christ, his representatives in and to a lost world, are themselves poor pictures of what citizens of God's kingdom ought to live like, then we are bearing Christ's name in vain, taking God's name in vain.  We are like the disgraceful soldiers who gave a bad name to their country.  If people can't look at us and see a faithful (albeit imperfect) reflection of Jesus Christ, we bear his name in vain.

As the Bride of Christ, as children of our Heavenly Father, as Ambassadors of the Triune God ministering in the power of the Spirit, do not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.



Thursday, 26 May 2016

John Bainbridge Webster, 1955-2016

John Bainbridge Webster went to be with his Lord yesterday.  He was only 60 years old. 




I remember how I felt when John Stott died in the summer of 2011.  I felt sad that the church militant had lost a great warrior, that the pilgrim church had lost a great under-shepherd.  I felt that I personally had lost one of my literary mentors.  I feel that way again. 


I regret that I came to Webster's work only relatively recently, but I have been immensely blessed by his writing in that short time.  Webster's work is rigorously intellectual but serves a practical ministerial purpose: to magnify the glory of the triune God through exploring the gospel of Jesus Christ in God's written Word, given through the Holy Spirit for the people of God whom he indwells, the church. 


"Dogmatics is often caricatured as the unholy science that reduces the practices of piety to lifeless propositions. But far from it: dogmatics is that delightful activity in which the Church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ. Set in the midst of the praise, repentance, witness and service of God's holy people, dogmatics - like all Christian theology - directs the Church's attention to the realities which the gospel declares and attempts responsibility to make those realities a matter of thought."
                                                                                            - Holiness, p. 8 


"The matter to which Christian theology is commanded to attend, and by which it is directed in all its operations, is the presence of the perfect God as it is announced in the gospel and confessed in the praises and testimonies of the communion of saints."
                                                                                            - Confessing God, p. 1


Here is an anecdote posted by Alan Jacobs.  This is my kind of theologian!  This account relates better than any explanation why Webster was just the sort of theologian to combat Liberal and unbelieving theology, something which he did without ever being shrill or alarmist.  He saw error for what it was and wasn't afraid of being looked down upon by ivory-tower types in the academy.  Webster was the right kind of theologian to combat error, not because he focused his efforts on fighting the errors but because he focused on expounding the truth in all its layered magnificence and power.  This he did in a winsomely articulate way, able to tailor his writing to the audience he was addressing.  And from the testimony of others and from my own experience of his writing (regrettably limited thus far), he did this from the ground of a deep, personal and humble faith.


What is our loss is Webster's gain. 


"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." 
                                                                                           - 1 Corinthians 13:12



Saturday, 14 May 2016

J.C. Ryle - General Reason #3 for Exhorting Young Men

(3)  For another thing, what young men will be, in all probability depends on what they are now, and they seem to forget this.

   Youth is the seed-time of full age, -- the moulding season in the little space of human life, -- the turning-point in the history of man's mind.

   By the shoot, we judge of the tree, -- by the blossoms we judge of the fruit, -- by the spring we judge of the harvest, -- by the morning we judge of the day, -- and by the character of the young man, we may generally judge what he will be when he grows up.

   Young men, be not deceived.  Think not you can, at will, serve lusts and pleasures in your beginning, and then go and serve God with east at your latter end.  Think not you can live with Esau, and then die with Jacob.  It is a mockery to deal with God and your souls in such a fashion.  It is an awful mockery to suppose you can give the flower of your strength to the world and the devil, and then put off the King of kings with the scraps and leavings of your hearts, -- the wreck and remnant of your powers.  It is an awful mockery, and you may find to your cost the thing cannot be done. 

   I daresay you are reckoning on a late repentance.  You know not what you are doing.  You are reckoning without God.  Repentance and faith are the gifts of God, and gifts that he often withholds, when they have been long offered in vain.  I grant you true repentance is never too late, but I warn you at the same time, late repentance is seldom true.  I grant you, one penitent thief was converted in his last hours, that no man might despair; but I warn you, only one was converted, that no man might presume.  I grant you it is written, Jesus is 'able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him' (Heb. 7:25).  But I warn you, it is also written by the same Spirit, 'Because I have called, and ye refused, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh' (Prov. 1:224, 26).

   Believe me, you will find it no easy matter to turn to God just when you please.  It is a true saying of good Archbishop Leighton: 'The way of sin is down hill; a man cannot stop when he would.'  Holy desires and serious convictions are not like the servants of the centurion, ready to come and go at your desire (Matt. 8:5); rather are they like the unicorn in Job, -- they will not obey your voice, nor attend to your bidding (Job 39:9).  It was said of a famous general of old, when he could have taken the city he warred against, he would not, and by and by when he would, he could not.  Beware, lest the same kind of event befall you in the matter of eternal life.

   Why do I say all this?  I say it because of the force of habit.  I say it because experience tells me that people's hearts are seldom changed if they are not changed when young.  Seldom indeed are men converted when they are old.  Habits have long roots.  Sin once allowed to nestle in your bosom, will not be turned out at your bidding.  Custom becomes second nature, and its chains are threefold cords not easily broken.  Well says the prophet, 'Can an Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil' (Jer. 13:23).  Habits are like stones rolling down hill, -- the further they roll, the faster and more ungovernable is their course.  Habits, like trees, are strengthened by age.  A boy may bend an oak, when it is a sapling, -- a hundred men cannot root it up, when it is a full-grown tree.  A child can wade over the Thames at its fountain-head, -- the largest ship in the world can float in it when it gets near the sea.  So it is with habits: the older the stronger, -- the longer they have held possession, the harder they will be to cast out.  They grow with our growth, and strengthen with our strength.  Custom is the nurse of sin.  Every fresh act of sin lessens fear and remorse, hardens our hearts, blunts the edge of our conscience, and increases our evil inclination. 

   Young men, you may fancy I am laying too much stress on this point.  If you had seen old men, as I have done, on the brink of the grave, feelingless, seared, callous, dead, cold, hard as the nether mill-stone, -- you would not think so.  Believe me, you cannot stand still in the affairs of your souls.  Habits of good or evil are daily strengthening in your hearts.  Every day you are either getting nearer to God, or further off.  Every year that you continue impenitent, the wall of division between you and heaven becomes higher and thicker, and the gulf to be crossed deeper and broader.  Oh, dread the hardening effect of constant lingering in sin!  Now is the accepted time.  See that your flight be not in the winter of your days.  If you seek not the Lord when young, the strength of habit is such that your will probably never seek him at all. 

   I fear this, and therefore I exhort you.

                          - J.C. Ryle, Thoughts for Young Men, Banner of Truth Trust, p. 9-12

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Review: Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Adam J. Johnson

From my Amazon and goodreads review of Adam Johnson's Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, published by Bloomsbury.

You don't have to be perplexed to benefit from this very good discussion of the atonement.  In a nut shell, Adam Johnson advocates for a comprehensive view of the atonement which focuses on how each of the attributes of the Triune God are displayed and/or satisfied in the atonement. Johnson focuses not only on the traditionally anthropocentric aspects of the atonement (aspects directly affecting humanity's sinful and lost condition) but also draws the reader to look at the creation-wide purposes and effects of Christ's atoning work. He points not only to what God is saving humanity and the whole created realm from but also what he is saving it for, both the negative and positive aspects of God's atoning work in Christ (redeeming/rescuing as well as restoring). Johnson purposefully avoids favouring one theory of the atonement over another, seeing that as a tacit favouring of one (or some) of God's attributes over others, as if certain aspects of who God is could be more important than other aspects of who he is.

Those who view penal substitutionary atonement as the one true understanding of the atonement over against all others will certainly dismay over this work. Those who view penal substitution as the commanding or central theory among many legitimate and biblical but lesser facets of the atoning work of Christ will have good reason to rethink the balance. [For example, Johnson argues that God's wrath is not an essential characteristic of God.  After all, there was a time, pre-creation and pre-sin, when this was not part of God's attributes and, as all things will one day be restored to perfection and peace, that time will come again. Wrath is a reaction of God's holiness to sin, not an actual attribute of God.]  Those who would like the church to abandon all thought of substitutionary atonement (with or without "penal") will also be dissatisfied with Johnson's treatment. He fully recognizes that Scripture speaks of Christ taking the place of sinners - substitution - and suffering the just penalty for sin. However, Johnson (if I recall correctly) prefers to steer clear of language of the Father pouring out his wrath upon or punishing Christ, favouring instead that the Father judged and punished sin in Christ while simultaneously magnifying the obedience and self-giving service of Christ.

Johnson argues ultimately that only a holistic view of the nature, character, purposes and works of God will give us a full view of what God has done in/is doing through the atonement. Toward this end, Johnson sees Christ's atoning work as not merely what he did on the cross, or even in the cross and resurrection, but what he did from incarnation to ascension and outpouring of the Spirit. This work is not that full-orbed view of the atonement that the author advocates for (its less than 200 pages of text). Indeed, such an expansive view of the atonement will continually grow as theologians expand their exploration of the eternal and inexhaustible glories of the person and works of the triune God. However, this work is a call to and a brief pattern of what the ever-expanding theological exploration into the atonement could look like.

I highly recommend this work. I hope to see more studies like this, exercises in theological maximalism, which seek not to prove one view or aspect of theology by arguing against all competitors but rather which examine the many aspects of a given point of theology from the various perspectives afforded when one considers the multifaceted nature, character, purposes and interactions of God with himself, with humanity, and with all creation.

Monday, 25 April 2016

N.D. Wilson on the virtues of scary stories for children

Monsters can give children nightmares.  Some parents will go out of their way to shield children from stories about scary things.  But children will have nightmares about monsters and goblins anyway.  Kids know, both inherently and from their (limited) experience, that there are nasty things in the world.  But the right kind of monster stories will set kids up with the tools to deal with those frightening things in the right way, and I'm not only talking about imaginary monsters, but the kind in the real world as well.  Good monster stories can give children courage and peace of mind; such stories can nurture their faith. 

Thanks to Justin Taylor for pointing out a very good article by N.D. Wilson on why the right kind of scary stories are good for children.

Here is Wilson's article in the Atlantic.

Some of our family's favourite "scary" Wilson stories are Leepike Ridge, Boys of Blur, the 100 Cupboards series, the Ashtown Burials series (still waiting for the rest to be published!), and his latest, Outlaws of Time: the Legend of Sam Miracle, is bound to be good too.

Wilson mentions some of the books that shaped him in his childhood reading, like C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  These stories have evil characters in them and frightening confrontations with darkness.  However, I agree whole-heartedly with kids reading these stories.  There are many other "dark" stories that some parents shy away from but which I think are good at imparting the very things Wilson speaks about in his article.  Some of our family's favourites are by Neil Gaiman: Coraline, and The Graveyard Book.  Certainly every parent should find out if their kids are ready for some of these darker-leaning books and I would suggest that parents should either read these tales to their children, or else read them along with their children, in order to be able to discuss the very themes Wilson talks about in his article (at least the first time the child experiences these stories).  But I most ardently advocate that these types of stories should be a regular part of a child's, and family's, reading diet. 

If you are unconvinced by Wilson's reasoning about why children should read scary or dark stories which teach them about virtue and courage and good ultimately triumphing over evil in the end, be sure to check out the blog post by Taylor mentioned above, which includes some quotes by authors arguing for the same thing.  Quotes like this one by G.K. Chesterton: 
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
                                                                                                 - The Red Angel

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Good place to start for biblical leadership wisdom

The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership that Matters, is very, very good. Most books on leadership are all about methods and management, and while the author admits those things are important and he speaks to them in this volume, Al Mohler very correctly explains that solid and effective leadership begins and ends with the leaders convictions. For leadership to truly seek and result in the success of the cause or organization being lead, that leadership must be based upon, nurtured through, and be measured against the truth-based convictions of the leader(s). If leading your organization or movement doesn't start with, persevere in and point toward firmly held convictions which are themselves based solidly in reality and in transcendental or "timeless" truths, no amount of pragmatic methods or strategic management will matter. While this book would benefit any leader at any level, it is particularly beneficial to those at the very top of their organizations and also those in some form of Christian ministry or endeavor as Mohler's biblical Christian worldview is the basis for his own firmly held convictions and comes out in all he writes. The reader benefits from Mohler's own experience as a successful leader in a few different contexts as well as from the wisdom he has gleaned from his own prodigious and varied reading. This book is (thankfully) devoid of corporate-speak, pop-culture and self-improvement jargon and is written clearly and argued plainly, making it accessible for anyone, including those for whom this is their first entry into leadership literature. This book will remain as relevant and timeless as the truths it is based upon. Very highly recommended.

(Originally reviewed on amazon.ca, May 20, 2014)

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Easter has come and (not) gone

The Easter season of the year of our Lord 2016 has come and gone, but the reality of Easter has not gone anywhere.  The reality of Easter has come and remained. 

What happened at the first Easter, the atoning death and triumphal resurrection of Jesus Christ, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2), is a reality that we continually live within.  For those whose trust is placed in Jesus as Saviour and Lord, all of life is now lived in the transforming light of his redeeming death and restoring resurrection. 

More than this, the reality of Easter has come, has remained and is still extending.  Whenever the gospel is preached from a pulpit or from a kindness done in Christ's name, whenever a dad patiently loves his (noisy) kids at the end of an exhausting day at work in imitation of our loving and long-suffering heavenly Father, whenever a person sacrifices their own preferences and interests to put another ahead of self in imitation of Christ, whenever a mom shepherds her little (perpetually dirty) children around the home with a melody of praise to the Lord Jesus in her heart, whenever a husband, in imitation of Jesus, gives himself and his desire to be first up for his bride (and does the dishes for her when he'd rather be watching the game), whenever a wife submits to and respects her husband and models the love of church for Jesus, whenever we speak of what Christ has done for us to a neighbour or co-worker or soccer mom, whenever a child obeys their parents in the Lord, whenever an artist or a craftsman or a cook or a tradesman creates something with their God-given abilities and magnifies God's nature through their sweat and blisters and imagination, whenever a teenager refuses to cave to the pressure to live like a fool as part of the crowd and stands firm in the wisdom of God's Word, whenever someone in obedience to Jesus does not return evil for evil but loves those who persecute them, whenever someone prays for their enemy, whenever the church gathers before the elect and fallen angels and puts the unity of the body of Christ on cosmic display in our worship and our participation in the Lord's Supper......whenever any of these things happen, and much more besides, the reality of Easter is extending. 

Each act of obedience to Jesus Christ and his Word is a tiny ripple in the water of eternity, a small wave on the surface of history.  Each act of Christian love and obedience is a small death to sin and self and a choice to instead live and walk in the resurrection life of the indwelling and empowering Spirit of Christ.  The ripples began when Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.  The waves on the still surface began when Jesus rolled away the stone that sealed his tomb and cast that stone into the waters of time.  And from that moment, the waves have gone out, the concentric circles have widened, and the ripples continue to broaden, spreading the triumph of Easter to every corner of the earth and every area of human experience.  The ripples will spread by the working of the Holy Spirit, until all things are brought under the dominion of the Lord Jesus Christ, all to the glory of God the Father.  Easter will continue to send out waves until every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Physician Assisted Death and the conscience of a nation

Thanks to Tim Challies for pointing out this thoughtful response to the recent legislative moves in Canada to make Physician Assisted Dying (PAD) legal and available to suffering patients. 

There is much more to say on this issue, some of which I've said here.  The church is going to have to be aware and engaged on this issue, prepared to give an answer for why we stand against human beings dictating the time and circumstances of how to end their lives. 

Who should have the final word about when and under what conditions an individual's life ends? 

If we say, as secular humanism does, that humans are the ultimate and highest beings in the universe, then I suppose the circumstances of death is our call to make.  Of course this is the argument of those who say that it is up to the individual to decide when their life ceases to be worth living.  Unfortunately, many calling themselves Christians (especially from the liberal mainline denominations) are lending support to this perspective. 

However, a thoroughly (socially) Darwinian perspective within secular humanism would not give that decision to the sufferer themselves.  A consistent secular humanist Darwinian would likely assign the decision to the strongest members of society, those in positions of power, rather than those who, by definition, are the weakest and most vulnerable: the suffering and sick.  For now, it is the sufferer that the Canadian government says should make the decision about when to end their life.  But in a secular worldview, there is really nothing other than the inertia of current cultural acceptance and moral opinion (as well as the remnants of a lingering Christian moral ethos) holding us back from having people other than the suffering individual themselves make this decision.  Recall Nazi Germany, where the decision to end the lives of the sick, weak and handicapped was left to a state funded and supervised medical system.  It was seen and justified not only as a benefit to society as a whole (not having to expend precious resources on such sub-par, and therefore subhuman, lives) but defended as an act of mercy toward the "patient" as well. 

If, however, we are created by a sovereign God and all people are made in his image, than all people, even those who are suffering or handicapped, have value.  And if God is always working out his redemptive purposes in human history, which includes his working in the lives of every particular individual, this puts the this question in a very different light.  This means that human suffering is not arbitrary and meaningless or that those who suffer are less important or less fully human or less capable of contributing to human flourishing and interrelationship. 

In light of these (and more) considerations, we best leave matters of when a person dies in God's hands.  We better focus on relieving the suffering of the hurting, caring for the sick and dying, and ministering to the aged and infirm, and we should strive toward curing and treating disease and illness.  These are things we have specific Scriptural warrant for.  We do not have any warrant to end the lives of those who are suffering, even if it is their desire to do so, and not even if we are the ones suffering and it is our own lives we are talking about.  For we are not merely our own and we are answerable to a higher authority than ourselves.   

Friday, 8 April 2016

When connecting with people online means disconnecting from actual people...you know, like the one who just asked you for a snack

Tony Reinke interviews Kevin Vanhoozer over at Desiring God on what it means to be a disciple of Christ in a culture of short attention spans, media spectacle, constant and global cyber-connectedness, virtual reality, gaming, and the fear of being disconnected from our virtual communities or missing out on the next big news. 

Always Connecting but Disconnected 

There are some very important observations here on  technology-related habits and patterns that all too often get an automatic pass and go completely unexamined by large numbers of Christians.  If, for example, you find yourself spending significant amounts of time reading Christian blogs, or texting, tweeting, facebooking, emailing or chat-rooming about Christian subjects online (like how to be a better, more effective Christian) instead of fellowshipping or interacting with people in the same room as you, you may be hurting yourself and your local church body far more than you are benefitting anyone you may "connect" with online.  In other words, while there is a healthy place for online Christian ministry and resources (this is a blog post linking to an online interview, after all), if it comes at a cost to our own marriages, families, neighbours or brothers and sisters in Christ in the local church - actual real life, face-to-face relationships and interaction - we may be bowing to a cultural idol rather than following a living Savior. 

Multiplayer Interactive Gaming as Anti-Social Behavior

There are also some critical cautions to parents here regarding "screen time" and in particular, gaming.  And I'm not talking about the content of what our children watch or play, but rather the formative power over time of the media and technologies they use regardless of the moral content of the applications.  Don't hear me wrong: content is important as well.  (A brief reflection on content can be found here.)  However, I would argue in the long run content is of lesser lasting importance to the formation of children's patterns of thought and life than the technologies themselves that children spend large amounts of time exposed to, even if the moral content of what they are playing or watching is "G" rated.  I would say this for the same reason I would say that children who grow up in a home where the parents are always arguing and at odds with other will be harmed and maladjusted even if the parents always use proper English and never use four-letter words when they argue.  The real (de)formative part for the children is the consistently broken relationship, the constant conflict in the parents' interaction, more than the cutting remarks themselves that the children overhear their parents yelling at each other.  We are formed by what we do, especially by what we do often because we desire doing it.  We are formed far more by the patterns and habits and time-uses of life than by what we claim to think or say we believe or by what we give mental ascent to.  Gaming, especially frequent and prolonged, can be training your child to disconnect from real life relationships in their preference for virtual characters.  And gaming can be forming them to dislike real world activities in favour of virtual accomplishments - completing the quest, getting to the next level, achieving the high score.  These are things that have no significance in this life or in the world to come and they can keep you from things that have eternal significance.  Are your kid's screen-time habits feeding or starving their eternal souls?  For that matter, what about yours and my screen-time habits?

I would encourage setting aside about 25 minutes or so to thoughtfully read and ponder this insightful piece of theological cultural engagement and critique.  Pouring yourself a good strong coffee might not be a bad idea either. 

I also humbly propose that as you read the interview with Vanhoozer, if you find yourself tempted to tweet catchy phrases or to check your email or texts part way through, or to put on a movie or video game for your kids so you can get some quiet time to read this without interruptions (from real people), you may be self-authenticating some of the key observations in this interview.  And that's not really a good thing.  If you really want to be counter cultural, read this and then get together with someone, you know, like, face-to-face, and discuss it.  Perhaps then a second cup of coffee is in order.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Review: The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, by Alan Jacobs

"Speak now or forever hold your peace," "till death do us part," "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust," "the world, the flesh, and the devil." If you aren't Anglican and yet any of these phrases sound familiar, you will begin to realize how influential the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) has been. A quick trip to Google will show these and more phrases which long ago became stock phrases in English conversation and which originated with the BCP.

Anything I've ever read by Alan Jacobs has been enjoyable and reading his biography of the Book of Common Prayer  was no exception. In his usual clear, informed, wise and witty prose, Jacobs takes us through the development and evolution of the BCP as well as the history of the Church of England which first birthed it and then in turn was formed by it. We meet all of the major actors and many of the colourful bit-players in this centuries-long drama. There is much solid scholarship that stands behind this work: Jacobs is familiar with each iteration of the Prayer Book as well as the authoritative studies of the subject. Something I found particularly enjoyable was Jacobs' inclusion of bits of personal conversations he had while conducting his research, conversations with people such as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. I confess I found my mind wandering, curious if Jacobs and Williams perhaps talked a bit about C.S. Lewis on the side, seeing as they have both written fine books about Lewis and Narnia (Jacobs here and Williams here).

Having been in the Anglican Church of Canada in the past, our family is familiar with both the Prayer Book services and those of the Alternative Book of Services. It was therefore of personal interest to learn more about how the "high" and "low" services came to be. But even for those with no previous personal connection, this entry in Princeton University Press's Lives of Great Religious Books series richly repays the read.

If you ever find yourself in the market for a home, it is an eye opening experience to be taken through the same home first by a realtor and then by the people that have lived in the home for the last 40 years. The realtor can point to a small gouge in the hardwood or a hole in the wall (or perhaps hang a picture in front of it so you don't see it) but the longtime owner might half apologetically, half affectionately point to that same blemish and tell you a story about how it first happened and why it's never been repaired. Jacobs certainly knows the BCP, but he is no mere professional guide. He also knows the ins-and-outs of the BCP from his own experience in the Anglican Church, both through corporate worship and personal devotion. He spends only a little time in scattered places telling us directly of his personal experience with the BCP, but the tone of the whole book is made richer by his relationship with it. For sympathetic and open readers, this tone projects (not overbearingly) a sense that Jacobs is introducing us to one of his closest friends, one who is somewhat quirky but whom Jacobs knows will enrich our lives if we will only make the effort to spend time with them. This doesn't mean Jacobs closes a blind eye to the oddities of his friend. He introduces us to these as well. However, this personal factor, as well as Jacobs' eminently readable and always enjoyable style, ensures that this is not a dry or difficult read - quite the contrary - so don't be sacred away by the fact that it is published by a university press. Also, this beautifully crafted book is a relatively quick read and has wide margins for those who like to annotate. For those who normally skip reading the end notes, let me encourage you not to in this case. Here they are more than mere reference citations, frequently giving little trips down side alleys of history or narrative, maintaining the same care for readability as the main text.

I highly recommend this book to anyone even remotely interested in the history of the CoE, or in English politics from Henry VIII on, in liturgics or the reformation and subsequent broader church history, or even those who may be interested in the development of the English language in the modern era. Unlike the limited appeal of most historical works, I would also recommend this book to people who have no previous interest in any of the aforementioned areas. Jacobs is just that good at telling a story. You may have no current interest in the BCP or the CoE but you will find this an interesting story anyway largely because you will find Jacobs a great story-teller.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Conversion in Malaysia

Christianity Today reports on a landmark court case which upholds the rights of people to convert from Islam to Christianity in Malaysia.  Malaysia has two parallel governing systems:  a democratic government with constitution, administrated by secular civil and criminal courts, and the Shari'ah law of Islam, administrated by Shari'ah tribunals.  In a nation which constitutionally recognizes freedom of religion, the Shari'ah tribunals in practice often make it very difficult or nearly impossible for people to legally convert.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

John Webster on Jesus' resurrection life and ours in him

It's only in the last year or so that I've begun to read John Webster.  I never had anything against him, just wasn't aware of him.  Now that I've begun to read him, I realize that I have been missing out on one of God's good gifts to the church today.  Webster is a theologian's theologian and an advocate of theological theology (see the first paragraph of this article by Derek Rishmawy for what Webster means by this). 

I am currently working through a volume of his sermons, Confronted by Grace.  It is excellent.  As Michael Horton says on the front cover blurb, "in reading these sermons: one forgets the preacher and hears Christ."  That about says it. 

Too often even decent expository or exegetical sermons are light on doctrine and leave the hearer inspired, edified or convicted (worthy things though they are) but not necessarily more aware or convinced of their own rich confessional heritage and resources.  On the other hand, theology is sometimes so systematized, compartmentalized and theoretical that, although it feels like it might have been born to the same mother (the biblical text) as preaching, they long since grew up and moved to different cities and they seldom visit each other.  Sometimes it feels like theology is the domain of the professionals but has no regular place in the life of the church.  And unfortunately, where theology was once queen of the sciences, for some generations already it has been relegated to justifying its existence in the academy by morphing into and partnering with other fields of study in a sort of parasitic existence, trying to justify its continued seat at the table, the same table over which it once presided from the head. 

In Webster's sermons, the theological treasures of the biblical text are exposed and expounded and the reader's heart and mind are fed with wholesome fare.  One gets the sense that, even as he approaches the Word (and therefore the Inspirer of that Word) with humility, he does theology and exposition with a confidence that could only come from a person fully convinced of the truth and importance of God's written revelation and its ability to form the Church in the here and now. 

John Webster has a wonderful post on Christ's resurrection and its implications for individual Christians, the church, and the whole of the creation over at Reformation 21.  For those used to taking their theology a tweet at a time, this may seem long but I promise it will repay the 15 or 20 minutes to read and ponder it.  This is one of the best brief treatments of the resurrection I've ever read.

I trust you will find, as I have, both your heart and mind ignited by the precious truth, as well as the subsequent and contingent truths (read it to see what I mean), of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Leithart on the resurrected Christ as our life

Ok, so I said that it was a final meditation last time...how was I supposed to know there was more?

Here is Leithart again on the resurrected and living Christ as the life of those whom he indwells by his Spirit and whose lives are hidden in him. 

One caveat:  when Leithart says, "We died with Christ, and Christ lives in us by the Spirit so that our lives conform to His life, repeatedly dying and living again", he doesn't mean that Christ repeatedly dies and lives again, as though he is proposing some perpetual or repeated sacrifice of Christ.  Christ died once to accomplish salvation:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit    (1 Pet. 3:18)
 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.    (Heb. 9:24-28)
Rather, Leithart is talking about our lives and the pattern of life we are called to live in imitation of Christ.  We are called to a pattern of dying to self, sinful desires, temptations of the flesh, remnants of the old person, the world, and living to Christ and living for others.  That is the repeated pattern of dying and living again.