Category Archives: Gospel

LAMENT FOR LAS VEGAS

From my forthcoming book, God, What on Earth are You Doing?

How Should We Live in this World?

As mentioned earlier, a proper understanding of trusting God through suffering does not preclude enjoying the good things of God.  We can and we should.  Since God does not need us, our celebrations, our hobbies like golf or woodwork, and our love of travel, can be tangible demonstrations of trusting in God’s grace.  Unfortunately, these good things can also become unhealthy diversions that keep us thinking about the most important issues of life.  Even gifts from our gracious God can lead us astray.  We must guard against “perishing inch by inch in play at little games.”

We live in a world with easy access (thanks to media) to the never ending news of injustice, suffering, and evil.  How do we process this avalanche of sadness without going mad?  Years ago, I heard theologian David Wells say that only God is able to handle all the suffering and evil in the world.  We were not designed for the constant bombardment of bad news, so it would be wise to consider how much we ingest on a daily basis.

Perhaps we should take the popular option of doing what Voltaire prescribed many years ago: simply hunker down and only “tend our own gardens.”  Tending to our own affairs does seem to be a good way to maintain some semblance of sanity.

Recently, I preached in various churches from the book of Lamentations.  Towards the end of my sermon preparation I spent some time reflecting on the common responses people have to suffering.  I’m sure there are others, but I came up with three “D words”: detachment, diversion, and depression.  My wife later added desensitized which could easily fit as a characteristic of those who detach.

The idea of “detachment” from pain is gaining popularity in everything from business books to popular books on spirituality.[1]  Diversion is also something we’ve already addressed.  Again, diversions in and of themselves can be welcome respites from the constant onslaught of grief, but it is unhealthy to never face your struggles.  The response of depression is something many of us can identify with.  We look at our broken world in all its chaotic mess and we despair.   Another “D” came to my mind later with diminish, where we downplay how bad things are.  I think those as well could be plugged under the detachment option.

Jesus provides us the perfect example of how to handle the devastation that comes from acute suffering.[2]  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’s “soul was deeply grieved, to the point of death.” (Matt. 26:38)  Jesus was deeply troubled, yet willing to submit to the Father’s will.  If it is okay for the Son of God to be so troubled, we too are given much space to cry out to our God.  Being baffled by what God is up to and yet still trusting Him can coexist.  In fact, these are signs of spiritual health.  Lament underscores that we are not at peace with the brokenness of our world, but we can still experience “the peace that transcends human understanding.” (Phil. 4:7; J.B. Phillips New Testament)  What good is peace anyways if we only experience it when circumstances are to our liking?

The glorious news is that the ultimate lament of all time was given by Jesus on the cross.  I like to say that because Jesus gave the only upper case L, lament, we now can “lament with hope.”  Our laments can come from deep within.  These visceral cries are not just allowed by our great and gracious God.  They were modeled by Him! 

It may feel like our world is crumbling before us, but the worst possible lament was already offered by Jesus.  His lament on our behalf gives us confidence that our weeping will not last forever.  The older I get I find myself offering two laments on a regular basis: “God, you know how difficult it is to live in this world, right?” and “Please come back soon and make things right!”  I’m comforted by the fact that I have the full freedom to offer these prayers of lament to God.

Tragically, the cynic’s posture is one many take.  It is important to realize that all cynics share a common, but terribly misguided belief: they think they are omniscient.  This may sound very strange to you.  How in the world does a cynic think he is all knowing?  Let me explain.  A cynic has determined that he knows everything, and concluded that all indeed is bleak.  Nothing or no one seems to be able to change his gloomy assessment.  Here is where theology gets practical.  Only God is all-knowing.  He is the only one who is fully aware of all the pain and suffering that goes on in our world.  As we saw, God’s Son gave the ultimate lament for sin.  Sin is the reason for all the grief in our world.  The irony is that things are actually worse in one sense than the cynic can appreciate for cynics rarely consider their own sin.  Fortunately, this is not the end of the story.  The cynic has missed a massive truth:  God is the author of hope.  Biblical hope does not mean our life will be smooth sailing.  This is clear from our study of Habakkuk.  We can find rest, however, in the hope-filled promise that the “sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18)  Lest you are tempted into a cynic’s mode by saying these words are unrealistic, keep in mind who penned them.  The apostle Paul experienced great suffering.  He was no mere theoretician when it comes to pain.

Christians can stare honestly at the brokenness of the world, their world (!), yet be steadied by a God who offers real comfort in Jesus.  My prayer is that this study brings greater wisdom, joy, and confidence in the only One who is worthy of our trust.  May we be like Habakkuk who learned that nothing or no one can take away “the God of his salvation.”

[1] See for example, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, The Daily Stoic: 366 Mediations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (New York, NY: Random House, 2016) and various writings of the popular writer on spirituality, Anthony de Mello.  A profound book demonstrating the impossibility of mixing Stoicism and Christianity is C. Kavin Rowe, One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

[2] For the suffering of Jesus, I am grateful for a conversation I had with our son, David.

GOSPEL PATRONS

Image result for gospel patrons
My friend Lyle gave me a copy of Gospel Patrons.  I have never seen a book quite like it, though I was already familiar with some of the stories.
The author highlights those who gave generously so others like Tyndale and Whitefield could do the ministry God had called them to.
Being the beneficiary of many “gospel patrons” throughout the years I am thrilled that the author honored these faithful men and women. 

POST ELECTION WRAP

A friend asked for my thoughts on things like the “lesser of two evils” argument which have been widely used along with a number of other arguments in favor of Trump.  My brief response:
The common refrain that our forefathers fought for “the right to vote” misses an important point. People like Madison et al. believed character was non-negotiable to good governance. As one pol sci scholar told me in a recent interview, Madison and his ilk would tell me to vote according to my conscience which is not seamless with the need to have to vote
Additionally, I don’t share how powerful the president is going to be. Both the left and right make this mistake. I think the next administration if I were to predict (and my historical sense tells me to steer clear of the prediction business!) will be quite ineffectual and hamstrung. 
Last, I think a good argument can be made by Christians that Trump is much worse because he has confused many over the gospel. I’m not voting for Hillary but at least she does not confuse people over the gospel. 
P.S. I did vote, but bypassed voting for any presidential candidates.

ONE SENTENCE IS WORTH THE PRICE OF THE BOOK!

My subject line sounds ridiculous, but one sentence is full of so many implications I felt comfortable putting it down.   I have never read anything quite like it in my thirty plus years of reading theology books.   The sentence comes from the author’s doctoral supervisor, Donald MacKinnon: “He speculated what Christian theology would been have like if in its formative centuries it had paid more attention to the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides than to the philosophies of the Stoics, Plato, and Aristotle.” Chew on that for a few moments.

Fortunately, David Ford’s book, The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit, is full of many arresting insights that you still ought to consider reading the entire book.

Ford has two conversation partners in this book: the Gospel of John and the poetry of his dear friend, Micheal O’Siadhail. It is a lively exchange throughout this marvelous work.

I should say up front that my high praise for this book does not mean I agree with everything Ford writes. When it comes to working out a distinctly Christian theology, Ford strikes me as too deferential to other religious traditions. Granted, we can learn much from those with whom we disagree, something that Ford has modeled himself. However, the scandal of the cross gets lost amid Ford’s irenic and inclusive approach. Nevertheless, there remains much to gain from a discerning read of The Drama of Living.

Ford models what he talks about with respect to lingering over important texts.   Words should not be consumed (here Ford quotes Paul Griffiths), but we should “savor the words on the page…return to them ever and again.” It is akin to the point C.S. Lewis made in saying we have not read a book until we’ve reread it. Spurgeon reading Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress a hundred times is a good example. Ford’s book is written in such a way that I found myself wanting to slow down from my usual pace.   Having O’Siadhail’s poetry peppered throughout was a constant reminder that The Drama of Living is unwise to speed-read.

Though Ford is a well-respected Cambridge professor, his interaction firsthand with the suffering gives him an added credibility. Ford does not escape from wrestling with this thorniest issue of all. Indeed, David Ford and his wife have been closely involved with the L’Arche community for several years. The Fords love and care for the “least of these” is beautiful and adds a deeper layer to this terrific book.

Another dimension to suffering is wonderfully laid out: that of aging and our eventual dying. Here he shares poignantly about his own father-in-law who happened to be a well-known theologian himself. Ford also shares insights from the death of Micheal O’Siadhail’s wife to Parkinsons. The insights on the power of love in these sections are truly breathtaking.

Even though I find Ford exaggerating the multiple layers of meaning in John’s Gospel due to his underscoring its “dramatic” presentation, and even though I think Ford underestimates the scandal of the cross, reading his book was indeed time well spent.

SELECTIVE OUTRAGE ON THE LEGALIZATION OF HOMOSEXUAL MARRIAGE

Let’s get one thing quickly out of the way.  I believe homosexuality is contrary to God’s design.  I also believe marriage is between one man and one woman. 

The legalization of homosexual marriage to some degree makes me feel like Marshall McLuhan who went to movies not to watch the movie, but to observe how other people watch movies.

Some good things have been said by Christian leaders.  Unfortunately, there are too many other Christians depressed over what all this portends for America.  This declinist narrative focuses like a laser beam on how the sin of homosexuality is to blame for a myriad of societal ills. 

My concern may be best stated by using an illustration.  Imagine that you want to start a landscape company.  You eagerly knock on your neighbors’ doors and announce the new venture.  The responses you receive range from amusement (“you can’t be serious”) to outright anger. Why?  The answer is simple.  Your yard is terribly overgrown and quite the eye sore.  You’ve received regular warnings from the Homeowner’s Association.

I’m not a cynic about the church, even here in America.  It is God’s primary means of accomplishing His will.  Some of the best people I know go to church on a regular basis.  And that includes some pastors!

However, I do have grave concerns about our laser-like focus over the horrors of legalizing homosexual marriage.  Yes, we need to say something, but I’m afraid our quickly cutting to the chase on this issue leaves many important things unsaid.  

My suggestion would go more along these lines:

We believe homosexuality is a sin.  We also believe that gluttony, gossip, adultery, sex outside of marriage, racism, unscrupulous business practices, the love of money, divorce, and a whole host of other things are sin.  Unfortunately, we have not done a very good job in communicating a comprehensive view of sin.  We have been selective.  Too many times we have been motivated by fear.  We have avoided addressing certain sins for fear our giving at church will plummet.  Too many of us have come across as both hating the sin of homosexuality and the homosexual.  We could go on with other specifics, but hopefully you get the point.  Our selective outrage has made us not act like Jesus.  We have been rather poor at modeling the “grace and truth” approach of Jesus. 

In our quest to proclaim the righteousness standards of God, I’m afraid our selective outrage presents a gospel which is no longer the gospel.  Consider another illustration.  Picture that you are driving a car.  In the passenger seat is a non-Christian.  You tune into your favorite radio station.  The problem is that you are not fully tuned in.  You are so accustomed to the static that you fail to hear it.  You turn to your non-Christian friend and expectantly ask what he thinks about the “amazing” music.  Surprisingly to you, he is not impressed.  You are baffled by his lackluster response but your habitual listening to music cum static has dulled your ears. 

I’m afraid many Christians in America love listening to music cum static and therefore think it worth telling others about.  Our penchant for focusing on some sins and not others (especially those which are common in the church) has made us tone deaf to what we believe are courageous and prophetic pronouncements, but could more accurately be labelled Pharisaical. 

During my years of doing radio interviews, I had the chance to interview Cal Thomas.  Thomas was one of the major leaders in the Moral Majority.  I was interviewing Thomas on a book he co-authored with fellow Moral Majority leader, Ed Dobson.  The title gives away the thrust of what the authors were trying to address: Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America.  It was a courageous and candid confession of zeal gone awry.  Among other things, the Moral Majority would purposely give prominence to certain social issues knowing these would increase their financial giving. 

I’ve been reading through various statements on the recent ruling about homosexual marriage by the Supreme Court. In the pages of Christianity Today Mark Galli reflects the tone that should be more widespread in the Christian church:

Another temptation now is to point the finger at the forces—political, social, philosophical, spiritual—arrayed against the church and its moral teaching. Without denying the reality of “principalities and powers” (Eph. 6:12), we do well to ponder this: What actions and attitudes have we imbibed that contribute to our culture’s dismissing our ethics? Our homophobia has revealed our fear and prejudice. Biblical inconsistency—our passion to root out sexual sins while relatively indifferent to racism, gluttony, and other sins—opens us to the charge of hypocrisy. Before we spend too much more time trying to straighten out the American neighborhood, we might get our own house in order. Blessed are the poor in spirit who mourn their sins (Matt. 5:3-4).  (Emphasis added)

In the same vein, my dear friend, Pastor Jeff Teague, likes to expose how much we Christians tend to be insensitive to our own sin.  Utilizing his considerable acting abilities, Jeff asks with faux disdain, “Why is it that Jesus only hung around sinners?”  Many bite and respond with something like, “Yeah, that’s right.  He did hang around with a lot of unsavory types.”  By their response, many reveal that they feel different and therefore distant from the sinners Jesus regularly spent time with.  Then Jeff answers his own question, “Because sinners are the only people who exist!”

So yes, be ready to share about God’s design for marriage, but realize your answer may cloud more than clarify if it does not come with some honest comments about the sins which many times find safe harbor in the church.