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The Gospel and “Brown vs Board of Education”

Today marks the 60th anniversary of “Brown vs Board of Education,” the U.S. Supreme Court decision which struck down state-sanctioned segregation in U.S. public schools and marked a significant turning point in the Civil Rights movement. In many ways, the 60th anniversary of Brown highlights a curious contradiction in American society. It reveals both our knowledge of what we ought to be, and our consistent inability to become it. Although we need just laws to restrain the sin of racism, laws can’t heal the sin of racism. Although this ruling is so many years old, our public and private school systems are more segregated now than they have been in four decades.

But here’s the good news. The gospel heals the sin of racism. The gospel alone gives us power to see one another in a way that the world cannot, and to love one another in a way that the world cannot. Thousands of years before the supreme court ever decided that segregation was unconstitutional, the Church already knew that segregation was unbiblical. And thousands of years before our government ever attempted to unify diverse people by the letter of the law, the Lord had already unified diverse people in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Even the Civil Rights movement, which helped champion desegregation (at a time when it was unpopular do to so) found its fundamental root, support, and guiding orientation within the Church.

During this time, let’s remember that desegregation is not the U.S. Supreme Court’s idea, it is our God’s idea! So let’s thank our God for revealing his intention that people from every ethnicity should “dwell together in unity,” to the glory of His name. (Ps. 133) Let’s thank Him that in Christ He has “torn down the dividing wall of hostility” between the races (Eph. 2:14),  uniquely making this unity a glorious reality. Let’s thank Him that we as the church have access to something that the world does not, a redemptive power that is not from this world.

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Mika Edmondson serves as the pastor of New City Fellowship OPC, a cross-cultural church plant in inner city Grand Rapids.

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Pope Francis, TMZ, and Sainthood

Yesterday, Pope Francis celebrated a canonization mass for John Paul II and John XXIII. There was and will be a flood of glowing accounts of all three, a celebration of their humanity and accomplishments. But behind it all is the unseemly matter of celebrity sainthood in the church, and the doctrine says that some select few are guaranteed to be in heaven because of their good works, and pass along our prayers to Jesus.

It’s important to grasp this: Saints are baptized, not canonized. We are all made holy by faith alone.

Read more from Dr. Brian Lee’s article in The Federalist here

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Have You Ever Had a Pastoral Visit?

Have you ever had a pastoral visit?  What about a visit from your elders? 

The answer to that question is an indicator of whether you belong to a “celebrity church” where the big man up front is too burdened by the size of his congregation (or its “satellites”) to be your shepherd.  He has too many gifts, too many people who acknowledge his gifts, too many burdens and books to read, to be your pastor.

If that’s true, then maybe you’re not really exposed to the rich benefits that Christ has provided in the pastoral ministry.  I grew up in contexts where you sometimes knew the pastor, but in many other cases did not.  He may have greeted you on the way out of the church, but even that’s increasingly rare. By the way, “celebrity church” doesn’t mean that your pastor is well known in the broader church.  It could mean that you’re in a little Reformed, Lutheran, or Baptist church whose pastor is simply out of touch.  He may even use “confessional integrity” as a magic wand to dismiss you from his presence.

One of the things that I love about The Gospel Coalition is that there is frank conversation.  Younger pastors with little background or experience in Reformed church practices are interested in learning about “the old paths.”  Recently, they hosted a discussion where former Covenant Seminary president and now pastor Bryan Chappell talks about this ordinary practice that seems remote from contemporary experience.

When my colleague Kim Riddlebarger and I were ordained in the Christian Reformed Church, our parishioners (nearly all either new Christians or coming from non-Reformed backgrounds) were often surprised when a pastor or elders called to make an appointment for a “house visit.”  It’s not books, but “boots on the ground,” that tell you what really matters when it comes to the shepherding care that Christ provides for his sheep.

Those reared in the medieval Roman church would have understood this anxiety.  “What’s the priest doing at my door?  Do I have the plague?  Is it time for last rites?”  Those today unfamiliar with “house visitation” may offer a similar response.  Why can we do door-to-door evangelism, but we can’t talk to our own parishioners in their homes?  Why can’t we ask people how they’re doing spiritually?  Why is it seen as some sort of threat to “their personal relationship with Jesus”?  I suppose it’s because we have a problem with being cared for spiritually.

Luther knocked on doors and discovered that his parishioners didn’t know even the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer.  Some were not even prepared to receive Communion.  What should a pastor do about congregants like these?  Well, he should get to know them in concrete situations.  He should go to them.  He should basically evangelize his own congregation.  When Luther did this, the result was the Small and Larger Catechism.

In Reformed circles, too, Calvin—arguably, a busy guy—taught his Genevan Catechism to the youth.  Consequently, they understood that the faith they were learning from Calvin and other pastors in Geneva was the same faith that their parents and others held in the church.  They weren’t simply passed off to a “youth ministry” that had little connection with the regular life of the church.

Pastors today aren’t as busy as Luther.  Yet Luther said that it was the pastor’s duty to teach the catechism to the people, and he did so.  He did it for the young people. And he taught them on personal visits.

This view of the pastor was carried over into Reformed practice also.  Right down to today, pastors and elders make it a point to visit every family in the congregation—at least once a year.

This is church discipline at the most concrete level.  We’re all under discipline.  I love it when our elders come to our home to ask us how we’re doing in our Christian walk as a family.  In every instance, I see areas where I need to improve as a father and husband.   I need it.  My wife needs it. They encourage me as they read the Scriptures and pray.  Our children speak up about how they are growing in the faith—and what they wish to improve.   “Seriously?” I think to myself. “Why didn’t you tell me that?”  But they told their church officers.  That’s great.  And I learned something in the process.  It’s simply a part of the shepherding that we all need in this present age that seeks to distract us from the story of Christ.

Many Christians today don’t have any idea of this visitation practice.  It’s odd, unfamiliar—to pastors  and to the congregation.  This is especially true where the “preacher” the congregation sees on a Jumbotron screen is someone other than the person they meet and encounter as their own spiritual leader week-in and week-out.  That’s just wrong.

With wisdom and humility, Bryan Chappell, formerly Covenant Seminary president and now a PCA pastor in Peoria, Illinois, challenges the “New Calvinists” to rediscover some of the practices that the “Old Calvinists” knew as a regular part of their ministry.  In an age of celebrity preachers and gifted teachers, the recovery of visitation is a key component of any restoration of office and reformation of the church in our day.

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Mike Horton in the New Issue of Credo

CredoCredo is a relatively new online magazine from a Calvinistic Baptist perspective that is getting rave reviews for its content and design. In their latest issue on justification, they asked a number of theologians for their take on the issues at stake in contemporary debates about justification. Click the link below for answers from Mike Horton, Philip Ryken, J. V. Fesko, Guy Waters, Brian Vickers, and Korey Maas.

Read Credo.

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Charleston Christmas Conference

Friend of the Inn (and frequent contributor to Modern Reformation), Jon Payne, has asked us to tell you about the Charleston Christmas Conference to be held next month in Charleston, South Carolina, where Jon has planted Christ Church,a mission work of the Presbyterian Church in America.

The theme of the conference is “The Glorious Incarnation.” The speakers will be Derek Thomas and Steve Lawson. For more information about the conference, including price, schedule, and location, please visit the conference website.

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How to Help Our Friends in the Philippines

Many of you remember that last year, Mike Horton spent some time in the Philippines teaching and ministering with friends there. Our “man in Manila,” Nollie Malabuyo, has been in contact with us and sent this summary, which includes information on how to help those who have been directly affected by the disaster:

News reports on Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation of our country seem to be getting worse by the day.   Tens of thousands are dead, many of them left unburied. Homes, churches, and buildings are destroyed. Looting and violence are starting to take over the streets. The government is overwhelmed.

From the reports of foreign missionaries who have worked in these areas for years, even decades, their mission buildings suffered great damage, and Christian brothers and sisters have also lost their homes and fields, and many also died.

The news reports focus on the big cities, particularly Tacloban. But there is a big swath of destruction left behind by the typhoon (see enclosed map).

A group of Reformed people in Manila is meeting to discuss how God can use this time of trouble to spread the gospel and assist many in the devastated areas.

Please pray for this effort. None of us has ever been involved in rebuilding efforts after a disaster.

This will be a long-term rebuilding of many parts of the country.  Besides larger relief agencies, the following domestic links are reliable (theologically and financially).

On the Rock Ministries, Boracay

Dan and Tori Beaver (Facebook). Serving the Ati people and tourists. Church, school, Bible school

The Hope Foundation, Inc., Tacloban City, Leyte

Larry & Bobby Womack (Facebook). Serving the poor. Bible school/institute

Paul & Margie Varburg (Facebook), Tacloban City

Dennis & Marilou Drake, International Deaf Education Association. They have a website for Bohol Earthquake Relief.

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Words in Season

Our friend, Leon Brown, has written a new book on personal evangelism, Words in Season.

Mike Horton wrote the foreword:

The greatest gift that you and I possess in Christ is reconciliation with God. Chosen in Christ from all eternity, we are united by the Spirit through the gospel to Christ through faith, which itself is a gift. From this union we receive “every blessing in heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). We’ll never be recipients of a comparable gift. And the best gift we can give is that same gospel by which others can be reconciled to God: joined to Christ, justified, adopted, sanctified, and finally glorified. We cannot redeem anyone. Nor can we raise those who are spiritually dead to life by our clever techniques, charisma, or persuasion. Nevertheless, we can talk. We can communicate the terms of God’s peace treaty on his behalf to actual people who are “strangers and aliens” to the commonwealth of God. We can share the message that finally addresses the origin of that nagging but undefined sense of shame, guilt, and alienation and announces the good news that God justifies the ungodly. If the Triune God has chosen this means—the communication of his Word—for uniting others like us to the incarnate Son, a gospel that has brought us such rich forgiveness and peace with God, then we cannot fail to raise our hand with the prophet Isaiah and say eagerly, “Here I am, LORD, send me!” But, alas, we often feel somewhat ambivalent about sharing our faith. It’s not that we do not believe it, revel in it, and want others to hear it. Perhaps it is because we are naturally shy, at least when it comes to matters that are likely to be controversial. Maybe we have misconceptions about what personal evangelism is, with visions of standing on street-corners holding “Turn or Burn!” signs. It’s easy to say, “I’m really glad that others are doing it—somewhere—and I’ll even support them financially.” Some people work in sales and others prefer a desk job. It’s the division of labor, right? To be sure, Christ called pastors and teachers to give their lives full-time to studying, proclaiming, and applying God’s Word. Yet we would never say that this relieves us of any personal responsibility for reading the Bible and prayer. The same is true of personal evangelism.

Raised in churches where personal evangelism was highly programmed, we can often over-react. Especially in a society that is increasingly hostile to any serious claims when it comes to religion, we hear many people say, “I don’t preach the gospel; I live it.” The most serious problem with this statement is that it misses the point about what the gospel is in the first place. The gospel is not something that you can live. It’s an announcement about what someone else lived, died for, and was raised from the dead to secure. We are called to live in the light of the gospel, in a way that commends the gospel. Yet we are ourselves among the sinners who need to hear that good news that we’re called to bring to others. We are always the messengers, not the message. The gospel is an announcement and announcements need heralds. Some of us may be burned out on the constant call to be disciple-makers and the expectation to “save souls.” That can be a paralyzing fear, keeping the bravest among us from taking on such responsibility. But it is a great relief to learn that we cannot save anyone. We cannot bring a single person to saving faith. This is the gift of God. This frees us up to share the gospel in intentional ways as we go about our normal life. One of the privileges of teaching in a seminary is that I am able to encounter many young people who are zealous to bring the gospel to believer and unbeliever alike. It is not only an encouragement but a challenge for me to be more intentional about taking advantage of opportunities to plant seeds or to water seeds that someone else has planted. Leon Brown is one of those brothers whose head and heart have found a cordial friendship, one who refuses to choose between knowing Christ and making him known. For Leon, there is no point to getting the gospel right in our own minds if we don’t get the gospel out to those who need it. His own zeal in personal evangelism during his seminary years, and now as a pastor, has been a great example to many, including me. This book is not another guilt-trip. On the contrary, it opens our horizon to a big God who has a big message that he wants the whole world to hear. Filling our sails with the gospel itself, it leaves us drawing our own conclusion, “Here I am, send me!”

Beyond the motivation, Words in Season helps us with the nuts and bolts of evangelistic conversations. Many of us know what we believe, but are not quite sure how to say it or how to take advantage of opportunities— indeed, make opportunities—to present it. The author brings to bear his own experience, working through his own weaknesses and anxieties as well as the approaches that he has seen to be effective. Combining biblical wisdom with common sense, he knows that personal evangelism is a team sport. It is not something that we do alone, as if we could “close the deal” in every encounter. Furthermore, he knows that the goal of personal evangelism according to our Lord and his apostles is not adding a notch to our belt but adding neighbors to the church. We are understandably wary of programs that promise to revolutionize the world and trigger mass conversions. This is not that kind of book. But if just one reader—perhaps you or I—became more prepared to give to the next person we encounter a reason for the hope that we have, then Words in Season will have been worth more than its weight in gold.

For more information, please visit WordsInSeasonBook.com or purchase the book on Amazon. Read Leon’s articles in Modern Reformation magazine. Watch Leon discuss common objections to Christianity.

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Can Christianity Survive Gay Marriage?

Our friend, Gene E. Veith, links to Rod Dreher’s recent article in American Conservative on the death match between Christianity and the changing sexual mores of America.

This raises a critically important question: is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?

Dreher’s entire article is worth a read. But Veith’s conclusions are stellar:

If Christianity becomes radically marginalized, having no cultural power at all, perhaps Christianity will have to return to its essence:  Christ, the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins.   Because no matter how much people wish to erase anything that restricts them and makes them feel guilty, if Christianity is true (and it is), the moral reality remains.  It’s like thinking we can destroy nature; nature always destroys us.  Sin kills.  People in a society that give itself over to sin will feel those sins.  The Gospel will become good news again.  Christ will save them.  And, ironically, once the Gospel predominates again in the Church, cultural influence–including the Christian view of sexual morality–may well come back as a byproduct.

Read the whole thing.

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A Review of ‘To The Wonder’

The following is by filmmaker Anthony Parisi and is used with his permission. It was originally posted for the Cinema & New Media Arts at HBU. Visit him online at http://www.anthonyparisifilm.com

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In The Tree of Life, director Terrence Malick crafted a grandiose yet personal theodicy through a family story against the cosmic backdrop of creation and redemption. His new film To the Wonder is equally existential and autobiographical but focuses its attention on marriage. As in Scripture, the institution is explored as a mysterious analogue of Christ and the church.

Like much of his work, the experience may be challenging for casual audiences. It is impressionistic in style and visually driven. There is almost no dialogue aside from the glide of prayerful voice-overs. Malick rigorously avoids explaining character motivation and lets the silence serve as a blank canvas for our own introspection and reflection. Though it can be frustrating, the patient and adventurous will find some of the most beautiful cinema on screen this year.

The opening images are of a couple caught up in the sweep of love in Paris. Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) playfully explore France as Marina whispers the heightened poetry of a lover, “You lifted me from the ground. Brought me back to life.” They visit an ancient cathedral at Mont Saint-Michel nicknamed the Wonder of the West. “We climbed the steps … to the Wonder,” she proclaims, their feelings of passion momentarily aligned with the grandeur of the architecture.

Marina and her daughter Tatiana move to America and begin living with Neil in Oklahoma. The flatlands are beautiful and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki hovers adoringly over every inch of creation. Marina visits a church, where the priest’s sermon is on the divine love our marriages are meant to follow. “The husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and give his life to her,” Father Quintana preaches, “He does not find her lovely, he makes her lovely.”

Meanwhile, Quintana is a man haunted by the fragility of his religious feeling. As he walks the streets to visit the poor, he laments that his heart is cold and he doesn’t feel the presence of God as he once did. He mournfully prays, “Why don’t I hold on to what I’ve found?” In the next scene at a local pool, this question begins to emerge as the central concern of the film. Marina looks up at Neil and finds him attentively watching another woman in a swimsuit nearby. A series of scenes quickly move us forward to show love fading and hearts hardening. Voices are raised. Fighting begins. The gloom setting in over the house matches Quintana’s somber face after performing a local wedding.

Neil is noncommittal and absently lets Marina returns to France when her visa expires. Over the next several months he begins a relationship with an old acquaintance (Rachel McAdams) but this too comes to a dead end. “What we had was nothing,” she laments. “You made it into nothing. Pleasure. Lust.”

In To the Wonder, everyone is haunted by the fleeting nature of their affection toward God and each other. The rapturous images of hands outstretched to the sky become hollow and repetitive. This may be a romantic filmmaker like Malick at his most self-critical, ashamed by his own failure to live up to the beauty his camera uncovers. The glory of the created order seems to testify against the ingratitude of his characters rather than lead them to transcendence.

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In time Marina returns and marries Neil at the courthouse. They are happy again but still find that their passion comes and goes. Eventually they pace the house on different floors, avoiding each other. They kiss with a mournful quality. At their church ceremony, the exchange of rings becomes a tortured image of failure. “This sign I give you is a sign of our constant faith and abiding love…”

Like the psalmists in Scripture, Quintana’s spiritual struggles also persist, “My soul thirsts for you. Exhausted.” “Will you be like a stream that dries up?”

The story marches on toward catastrophe and adultery. Marina’s ominous walk up the stairs of a motel is painfully drawn out. The man she sleeps with has a tattoo of a skull on his chest. Sin as suicide. It is the final failure in a long series of failures. It is as if Malick is recapitulating the narrative flow of Old Testament history. The covenant community was frequently described as God’s unfaithful bride; repeatedly taking one step forward and two steps back over the course of millennia. As recognized in the film by Quintana, “The prophet Hosea saw in the breakdown of his marriage the spiritual infidelity of his people. In that broken marriage we see the pattern.” Like the Mosaic economy of old, this story has steadily driven us toward a confrontation with covenant unfaithfulness and final breakdown.

For the first time we hear the words, “Forgive me.”

What follows is startlingly unambiguous and Christological. Aching music from Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 begins to play as we watch Father Quintana visit the poor, the diseased, the dying. Even Neil, who prior to now has had no faith, walks alongside him. Marina asks God the question we’ve been asking the film up to this point, “Where are you leading me?”

A flood of images pour over us as Quintana walks with the disabled, holds shaking Alzheimer’s hands, and visits hospital beds. He touches the outcasts and the broken. He meets them in their weakness. We hear his voice recite the famous prayer, “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in my heart.” Back at home, Neil moves toward Marina and kneels at her feet, kissing her hands in a flooding moment of grace.

This climax has crashed us upon the shores of the gospel. Sacrifice and forgiveness.

In the film’s closing moments, Malick resists simplistic resolution to the lives of the characters. Their marriage is not suddenly restored. The primary thrust here is eschatological. We end with prayer and with hope. “Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.” We’ve glimpsed a partial redemption already breaking in but not yet fully reached. The Sabbath rest is still beyond this wilderness.

But the final image points us to “the Wonder”, the cathedral of Mont Saint-Michel standing tall after centuries. The skies are stormy but it stands tall; a symbol of the covenant-keeping Christ whose care for his bride never changes. The only hope for fainthearted lovers like us.

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Baby Mama or Bride?

Our friend, Matt Marino (of “Cool Church” fame), has written another great post on the church: The Church is Christ’s Bride, Not His Baby Mama. Here’s a preview:

In case you are not up to speed on the last decade’s slang, a baby mama is someone with whom you made a baby, but have no commitment to and little contact with.  In other words, someone objectified, used, abandoned, and now mocked for being dumb enough to think the guy would actually be faithful to her.

If you are a Christian does that remind you of anything?

I hear similar attitudes towards the church expressed in Starbucks every week. People waxing eloquent about how into ‘Jesus’ and ‘spirituality’ they are, but not so much ‘religion’ or the ‘Church.’ It is why 24 million people watched Jefferson Bethke’s spoken word video “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” last year.

I am most amazed when I see Christian leaders encouraging people to use the church as their ‘baby mama’ –  for their own desires and preferences, and when she no longer ‘does it for me’ to ditch her for a younger, sexier model. What I am whining about exactly? Here are a few examples:

  • Checking to see if the “good preacher” is on before going.
  • Having one church for worship, one for small groups, and one for preaching.
  • Changing churches because you just aren’t “feeling it” anymore.
  • Driving so far across town for a church you like that your unchurched friends would never think of coming with you.
  • Picking your church, not on beliefs, but simply because your friends all go there.
  • Criticizing the church you didn’t go to from Starbucks on Sunday morning.

I especially felt the sting of, “Driving so far across town for a church you like that your unchurched friends would never think of coming with you.” You will find the rest of Matt’s post equally discomforting, but necessary even for Reformation Christians who can be guilty of the same consumerist mindset that plagues our evangelical friends.

Read the rest of Matt’s post here.

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