White Horse Inn Blog

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(Late) Summer Reading

The Pleasures of Reading In An Age of DistractionLiving in a housing community that boasts a pool and a spa, and in a city where the beach is a twenty-minute drive away, I have almost no excuse for not finishing my summer reading.  It happens every year—the list gets longer and longer, the titles are more ambitious, and the books go unread.  The reasons why are easily guessed—I have Netflix and an iPhone, and (more to the point) at the end of the day, I’d rather catch up on Mad Men than read War and Peace.  

Earlier this year, at the suggestion of our producer (himself a voracious reader), I read Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  It was a great book, but one point he made stood out to me particularly—the American reading public is under the distinct impression that reading is something that is ‘good for you’; that it refines the intellect and stimulates the aesthetic sense, and that it is primarily for this reason that people ought to read.  While Jacobs agrees with this, and acknowledges that reading for self-improvement is and can be beneficial, he’s concerned about the troubling effects this attitude tends to have on the reading public in general.  He acknowledges the helpful pointers and principles in Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler’s venerable How To Read A Book, but he questions the tone in which they discuss the purpose of reading.  The grave, almost severe manner in which they stress its educational and spiritual value leaves the impression that reading is first and foremost the duty of every intelligent person.  According to Jacobs, this idea permeates the pragmatic American conscious, which has little use for reading per se.  The mindset that reading is something we ought to do for material benefit rather than personal pleasure has, in Jacobs’ estimation, allowed a particular group (the so-called ‘Vigilant school’) to convince readers that they (Harold Bloom and Thomas C. Foster, specifically) ‘are the proper guardians of reading and the proper judges of what kind of reading counts’.  Jacobs believes that their strictures are more of a hindrance than a help:

“There are, it seems to me, only two possible effects that Bloom’s approach can have upon readers: it can make them self-congratulatory—‘Yes, I, and a few others like me, read the proper works’—or it can terrify them—‘How can I be worthy of this high calling?’”

The best reason to read, according to Jacobs, is because you want to.  Read at Whim, he says.

“Don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some fix their attention on the ‘calories burned’ readout.”

There’s a great deal to be said for eating organic greens, and I for one have a deep attachment to my elliptical trainer, but the point is well-made.  While I’m a firm believer in the benefits of intellectual exertion for the sake of personal improvement (as is Jacobs), his exhortation to read books for the pleasure they provide is helpful and timely—there’s a great deal of difference between wanting to read and wanting to have read, and in our competitive, image-driven culture, the lines get blurred very easily and very often.

With that in mind, we asked a few friends of ours to discuss which books they picked up this summer, and tell us a bit about why they chose those books in particular, what they liked and what they didn’t like.  (Whether or not they read them for pleasure, personal edification, or morbid curiosity, we don’t know, but you can judge).  We’ll be posting them successively during this upcoming week, so stop by on Monday for to see what James K. A. Smith, Nancy Guthrie and few other friends have been ruminating on this summer.

Happy Reading!

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‘In Christ Alone’ Didn’t Make the Cut

According to a recent Christianity Today online report, the worship song “In Christ Alone” didn’t make it in to the new Presbyterian Church USA hymnal.

Apparently, mention of God’s wrath being satisfied by Christ’s vicarious death was the sticking point.  The hymnal committee initially wanted to include the song, but asked authors Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend for permission to edit out the offending line.  Instead of “’Til on that cross as Jesus died/ the wrath of God was satisfied,” the committee wanted “’Till on that cross as Jesus died/ the love of God was magnified.”

Despite the fact that the new version still rhymed, the authors refused to grant permission.  Committee chair Mary Louise Bringle told The Christian Century that the “view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger” would communicate the wrong message to worshipers about the meaning of Christ’s death.

The CT report referred to its cover story in 2006 on how a growing number of evangelicals “believe Christ’s atoning death is merely a grotesque creation of the medieval imagination.”  According to critics, it relies on the theory of the 11th-century  theologian, Anselm, who argued that Christ’s death satisfied God’s offended dignity.

The good news is that “In Christ Alone” is widely sung—in its original form—and that the authors refused permission to edit out its heart.  Yet the best news of all is that we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:24-25).  To propitiate is to make satisfaction, to appease.

It is true that the 11th-century theologian, Anselm, emphasized Christ’s death as the satisfaction of God’s offended dignity, reflecting a more feudal concept of a king’s majesty needing to be defended.  However, the Protestant Reformers grounded satisfaction in God’s justice, righteousness, and love.  This is precisely how Scripture describes it.

So it is wide of the mark even historically to suggest that the doctrine of Christ’s suffering in the place of sinners, bearing their guilt before the face of the holy God, is a legacy of the medieval imagination.  Not only is it evident in the word “propitiation” (Heb 2:17; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10); it is evident in the numerous references in the Gospels and epistles to Christ’s death for/in place of sinners.  Furthermore, this meaning is obvious in the sacrificial system at the heart of the old covenant, of which Christ’s work is the fulfillment.

There are many other things that Scripture says about Christ’s death.  For example, he disarmed the powers of Satan, death, and hell and purchased immortality for his co-heirs, as we are told in Colossians 2:15.  In the sentence immediately before it, Paul explains that is true only because in Christ’s saving work he has “forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.  This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (vv 13-14).

A lot more can be said, but perhaps the most important point is this: If Christ’s death is not a propitiatory sacrifice—that is, if its purpose is not to turn away God’s wrath toward us by his own bearing of our guilt in his body on the cross—then Golgotha cannot be the place where “the love of God was magnified.”

The majority on the PCUSA hymnal committee apparently favor the subjective or moral theory of the atonement: Christ died on the cross to show us how much God loves us.  Surely this display would persuade us to repentance.  To illustrate this view, Leon Morris used the analogy of a person responding to a drowning friend by jumping into the river and drowning himself. The demonstration might express one’s love, but it doesn’t do anything to actually save the friend.

Strictly speaking, Christ’s death has no significance for God according to this view.  He loves and accepts people regardless of their guilt. God has no enemies.  We may need to be reconciled to God, but God does not need to be reconciled to us.  We simply need to be reminded how much God loves us.  Thus, the death of Christ could only serve as an object lesson.  And what a cruel one indeed!  After all, if Christ’s death was unnecessary for satisfying God’s righteous law, then it is the symbol of senseless slaughter.

The Apostle Paul says that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:8-9).  Christ’s death manifests God’s love for sinners only because it actually propitiates God’s wrath.  He took our place— fulfilling the law, bearing our sentence for violating his law—and thereby removed every legal basis for our condemnation.  It is this point that the committee voted to omit, and yet it is precisely what makes the cross the manifestation of God’s amazing love.

In other words, God’s love is manifested and magnified in Christ’s death only if it is more than a demonstration or object lesson.  Christ’s cross can be a demonstration of God’s love only because in it God reconciled enemies to himself forever.  “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom 5:10). Now that’s good news!

 

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A Happy Birthday for the Heidelberg Catechism

I’ve just returned from Heidelberg, Germany, where I joined brothers and sisters from around the world to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism.  In addition to illuminating papers and warm fellowship, we enjoyed one of the city’s several museum exhibits celebrating the anniversary.  Of special note was the Heidelberg Palace exhibit, “The Power of Faith: 450 Years of the Heidelberg Catechism.”

Frederick III, ruler of the Palatinate and imperial elector, was nicknamed “the pious” by fellow princes.  Embracing Reformed teaching, he was distressed with the low level of knowledge of even the basics of the Christian faith in his territory.  Drawing together the best theologians and pastors in the region, he oversaw (and even contributed to) the drafting of a catechism that would be taught in schools, churches, and homes.

Soon after publication in 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism was translated into various languages—including early modern Hebrew and Greek.  It soon enjoyed wide use in the English-speaking world as well.  Students learned this catechism at Oxford and Cambridge.  Today, it is more widely known and used in Asia, Africa, and the Americas than in Europe or even North America.  As my children repeat back the clear teaching of the gospel from this great catechism, I am reinvigorated in my own faith.

Yet in Germany itself, the story is rather different.

In Luther’s home state of Saxony-Anhalt, after nearly a century of atheistic indoctrination, only 19% of the population professes belief in God.  Yet even more tragic is the widespread unbelief in the west, under the auspices of a privileged but largely apostate Protestant Evangelical Church (EKD).  A union of Lutheran and Reformed bodies, the EKD and the Roman Catholic Church claimed 30% of the population each by the end of 2008.  Affiliation, however, may mean no more than having been baptized.  These Landeskirchen (established churches) continue to receive tax money to fund their undermining of the Christian faith.  In recent decades, there have been free (i.e., independent of the state) Lutheran bodies maintaining evangelical convictions, but Arminian Baptist and Pentecostal groups are much larger.

Across the nation, 45% say, “I believe there is a God,” while among the youth the percentage drops to 30%, and 34% are “unaffiliated.”    According to a 2010 Eurobarometer Poll, 55% of the total population claim to be atheists, agnostics, or “non-religious.”   Germany has always been the vanguard of intellectual, cultural, and religious trends on the continent.   What happens in Germany, for good or ill, has repercussions for the whole of Europe.

During my brief time in Heidelberg, I was impressed with the small group of committed believers who are longing and praying for a new Reformation.  Spearheading this event last week was the Free Reformed Church (Selbstündige Evangelisch-Reformierte Kirche) in Heidelberg with the Rev. Sebastian Heck.   I joined North American colleagues Joel Beeke, Lyle Bierma, Jason Van Vleet, and Jon Payne in giving some papers on the catechism, but for me it was definitely more blessed to receive than to give.

Among other speakers was Dr. Victor d’Assonville, an astute Reformed theologian.  He leads a new seminary that holds great promise as a center for sound training of the small but growing band of future ministers, evangelists, and teachers.   Students come from Lutheran and Reformed backgrounds and I had the pleasure of getting to know some of them at the conference.  Many were raised in East Germany, where atheism was the state ideology.   I was deeply moved by their stories of coming to understand the evangelical faith against all odds (including their own churches) and the depth of their zeal, knowledge, and clarity.

In other travels, I’ve seen first-hand the remarkable blessing of God on his means of grace.  There is a hunger for Reformation Christianity around the world.  And yet the land of the Reformation is now largely pagan.  There is a great need for prayers and financial support for small but zealously faithful ministry in Germany.

If you would like to help this work in Heidelberg, or if you know anyone in the area who is looking for a good Reformed church, contact Sebastian Heck at sebheck@mac.com.   The nascent seminary there has enormous potential as a catalyst for long-range gospel ministry, but it is struggling to find the necessary resources in the short term.  If you have an interest in supporting this work, please contact Dr. Victor E. d’Assonville at vicdas@rtsonline.de.

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Modern Reformation Conversations–Paul on The Road To MoMA (Part 2)

If art isn’t meant to fit within the clearly-established boundaries of a well-regulated life, then how exactly do we interact with it?  How do we ‘experience’ it?  If art doesn’t have an explicitly pedagogical or pragmatic purpose, why does it exist?

A common approach has been to verify the artist’s worldview—if you understand the way that Donatello viewed the world, you’ll probably be better able to understand his work.  This method has its merits—if you know that Ernest Hemingway was passionate about truth and honesty in writing, it’s fairly certain that you’ll have a deeper understanding of A Farewell To Arms, and if you can appreciate Jane Austen’s critique of social mores in Regency England, you’ll be less likely to dismiss her novels as chick lit.

But there’s a problem with that approach—it focuses the viewer’s (or the reader’s) attention on the artist, and not the art itself.  Certainly, the artist himself is present (in some fashion) in the work, but that doesn’t mean that the work is absolutely and exclusively self-referential.  As Americans, we have a very strong sense of the pragmatic, and we get very uneasy if what we’re looking at isn’t easily classified.  So, if we can’t make sense of the object, we’ll look to its author for answers.  This can be helpful—the author, after all, knows more about it than the observer—but we must remember that when it comes to art (be it painting, sculpture, or film) the author wants us to interact with the object.  It’s the painting that’s speaking; not the artist, and since its language is that of color, form, light and shadow, we must be prepared to listen a little harder and focus a little longer if we want to hear what it’s saying.

In this interview, Dr. Siedell discusses the role of the Christian art critic, the way to love our neighbor, and how to learn about art.

P.S.  For those of our friends who haven’t ready access to a museum, we’ve picked out a pretty great book to get you started, which Dr. Siedell has kindly reviewed for us—we’ll be posting it soon, so stay tuned!

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Modern Reformation Conversations–Paul On The Road To MoMA (Part 1)

It’s a pretty big anachronism, but it’s an interesting question—if Paul went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, what would he think?  How would he interact with Kerstin Brätsch’s Matchpoint?  What would he have to say about Cheyney Thompson’s Chronochrome Set 10?  How would Christians today interpret Alfredo Jaar’s Lament of the Images or Rachel Harrison’s Alexander the Great?

Americans tend to be somewhat befuddled when it comes to art—we understand it as an outlet for creativity (Pinterest!) and readily assent to its therapeutic value, but certain art critics would question our ability to understand and dialogue with modern art on its own terms.  Countries like France and Italy as well as Egypt and Turkey guard their art as priceless national and social treasures; Americans look at the works of Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock and are either confused or appalled that soup cans and paint drops are considered monuments of human creativity.

There’s a reason for this difference (which, for brevity’s sake, I won’t go into here), and it’s a good reason—the question that we want to discuss is, ‘What are Christians to do with modern art?’  Is it OK if it’s not obscene?  What’s obscene?  Is Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus pornographic—if so, is all nudity verboten?  What about violence?  Francisco Goya’s The Third of May is stark and violent, but so are Quentin Tarantino films—is OK to look at the former, but not the latter?

We sat down with Dan Siedell, visiting professor of Christ and Culture at Knox Theological Seminary and author of God In The Gallery (Baker Academic, 2008) to discuss Edvard Munch, Thomas Kinkade, and the importance of listening.  Enjoy!

P.S. If you want to read more of Dan’s work on popular Christian art, you should click this.

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Thank You For Your Support

Please consider a donation of $100 before June 30th to help us begin the next fiscal year with the resources we need to continue to call the church back to the rich resources of the Reformation.

To make a donation, or for more information, please visit whitehorseinn.org/donate2013.

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Indonesia Trip Report

I have to admit that my motive for White Horse Inn trips is partly selfish. I’ve learned that I always receive more than I give of actual learning, challenge, example, and encouragement. Even though Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, there seems to be respect for the minority Christian population. The republic’s constitution, drafted in 1945 after a very tumultuous era, recognizes “one God” as the religious foundation. It’s an interesting experiment: neither completely secular nor sectarian. Perhaps more like the U.S. in 1945, but this civil religion is an essential—and practically implemented—part of Indonesian political life.

Christians communicate God’s Word freely, although there are occasional outbreaks of anti-Christian violence. Tragically, Reformed churches were so closely tied to the Dutch colonial government that they lost much of their authority with the struggle for independence. Today there seem to be few solid Reformed churches left in the islands; the ones that have not caved in to liberalism have embraced the charismatic movement.

Yet for some time there has been a faithful ministry of the Word in various churches of the Reformation and they are still thriving. A key figure behind the “new Reformation” movement in the region is Dr. Stephen Tong. Born and raised in China, he was a remarkably bright and committed Marxist and the son of a wealthy businessman. His father disinherited him when he came to faith in Christ.

I first became familiar with Dr. Tong long ago through James Montgomery Boice. I expected to find a very old father in the faith enjoying a peaceful retirement. Instead, I found an evangelist who is, if anything, busier today than he was years ago. At 73, his set weekly schedule includes preaching two services on Sunday morning in Jakarta at Messiah Cathedral, two Sunday evening services in Singapore, a Monday service in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), a Tuesday evening service in Hong Kong, and a Wednesday evening service in Taipei, Taiwan. In addition, he holds one or two evangelistic meetings in locations throughout Asia, often attended by 10,000 or more people, including many Muslims. The church trains pastors and missionaries (the two are virtually synonymous) at its seminary.

Dr. Tong also designed and oversaw the building of the Reformed Millennium Center, a fixture of the Jakarta cityscape. This massive structure houses one of the best collections of Chinese art in Southeast Asia as well as the largest concert hall in the region. In his spare time, Dr. Tong composes and conducts the Jakarta Symphony and Oratorio Society in the hall, where Jahja Ling presided until becoming the director/conductor of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra.

The impact of this group of churches has a far reach. The group also started a publishing company, TV and radio station, and network of schools—including a major university. A few years ago, in a London cab, the driver told me that he had become a Christian under the ministry of Dr. Tong.

It was a pleasure to join the many Reformed pastors and teachers who have learned more than they taught during a brief experience of this church’s hospitality, along with my friend and seminary colleague, Julius Kim. There are many there—especially younger folks—who are regular listeners of White Horse Inn and readers of Modern Reformation. In addition, the group’s publishing company has translated several of my books into the Indonesian language.

I was there just long enough to realize my trip’s brevity. After leading a seminar in Singapore, I preached at the English service at Messiah Cathedral. Then I taught a weeklong course on Reformed theology and piety.

A highlight for me was when a young Chinese man from New York City, now speaking with Dr. Tong at these large evangelistic meetings, brought into one of his talks an emphasis on Christ’s active obedience that he had learned in the course I taught. With honest tears, he added, “Jesus Christ was forsaken by God so that you need not ever be again.” I learned later that soon after his conversion he had been introduced to White Horse Inn by a NYC pastor (now teaching at the Jakarta seminary). White Horse Inn was his “pre-seminary education.”

The work that the Lord is doing not only in Jakarta and Singapore but also throughout the region revolves around one man: Jesus Christ. Assisted by a host of fellow pastors, Dr. Tong has led a reformation in that entire region that now has its own next generation of leaders who will carry on the mission.

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Pray For Fikret

A native Turk, Fikret Bocek never imagined being anything other than a Muslim, however nominal. One day in Istanbul, a European couple gave him a Bible and he couldn’t stop reading. After graduating from Westminster Seminary California, he returned and planted a Reformed church that now has planted a number of sister churches in the country. He also started a publishing company, is an author himself, and reflects a profound humility combined with courageous conviction. You may have heard on the White Horse Inn his story of coming to faith in Christ.

Like many pastors in Islamic countries, the Rev. Fikret Bocek is constantly under the watchful eye of the state. Our producer, Shane Rosenthal, recently forwarded a provocative piece in the Washington Post. The article contrasts the consequences of conversion from Christianity to Islam and vice versa. Shane wrote me, “Would love to see you comment on this. If not, perhaps we could ask Fikret to write something up….” Then, just an hour later, I received this message (below) from Fikret.

Please remember our brother and his family in your prayers at this challenging time.


“You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police … yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home — all the more powerful because forbidden — terrify them. A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.”
Winston Churchill, Blood, Sweat & Tears

Fasil Say at his piano.

Fasil Say at his piano.

Last night we watched the movie called “The Pianist,” which is based on the life of famous Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. Szpilman was the most famous of the Warsaw Ghetto “Robinsons,” who lived in hiding in German-occupied Warsaw.

Watching that movie brings home the hatred and wickedness inherent in man, especially toward anything that is “other.” The Germans did not like the Jews, and sought to destroy them. The above quote by Winston Churchill, poignently portrays the desire of powerful leaders to quelch independent thought.

It brings to mind futuristic totalitarian societies such as the one in 1984, where standardized thought was mandated by law. But in fact, places like that exist.

In Turkey, thoughts can be a criminal offense. In particular, thoughts against the government (or a government employee) or thoughts against the religion (or its Prophet Muhammed) are forbidden by law.

The pianist above, named Fasil Say, actually was a bunkmate of Fikret’s during their military service several years ago. Perhaps because Fasil Say is famous his case has hit the news and his thoughts are more liable to be criticized by the government. But in any event, he posted on Twitter an 11th century poem criticizing Islam, and he was charged and convicted of a crime against the State.

1984

“This is not Justice” Fikret’s Case:

As you may remember, a couple years ago Fikret posted a critical comment on an online newspaper regarding the results of a court case against a handicapped young man. He had said, “This is not justice.” The judge he criticized opened a case against all who commented critically about him below that article. Fikret was charged with criticizing the State (through his criticism of the judge), and was convicted of the crime (a pending 3 year prison term).

We appealed the case, and we just heard back from the higher court that the case was sent back to the lower courts. It has to be re-tried with certain “new laws” in mind.

What those new laws are, we are still discovering. Are they in his favor, or against him? Are they stricter judgments (ie: 10 year terms) or are they looser judgments (ie: freedom of speech is suddenly on the books?). We do not know.

All this to say, please pray.

MONDAY, June 3 (ie: Sunday night, June 2 PST) Fikret will appear in court here in Foca Izmir to give a statement regarding this new “thought crime” case.

While people in Turkey are free to have religious beliefs other than Islam, people are not free to think anything critical of the State or Islam. It’s a typical double-think conundrum.

In fact, as I write this I am being careful of how I word things, because it is quite probable that this email will end up in the hands of the Turkish authorities, and I will have to give account.

It’s no fun to know the First Amendment laws of the United States, and to be subject to a different scheme of laws.

And yet “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” True freedom is something that cannot be taken away. For this we thank God.

PLEASE PRAY:
**That the Spirit guides Fikret’s thoughts and words as he prepares and gives his statement to the courts.
**Pray that truth and reason will trump doublethink.
**We want the best for this country, and we hope that the judges will do what is right and good for the people.
**Pray for just judges and upright law-makers in Turkey.
**Pray that the light of Christ reaches even into the heart of Turkish judges, that they will be called from darkness to light.

Thank you for your faithful prayers.

Praise the LORD! We are grateful that God has provided transportation for us for our furlough. If you are currently in a position wondering if your needs will be met, and are waiting on an answer to prayer, remember this verse: “And my God shall supply all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” Phil 4:19

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Message to Graduates: “You Are All Going to Die”

It’s Commencement time again. Many of us can’t remember the address at our college graduation. Occasionally, though, there are some zingers. This year the buzz is Joss Whedon’s speech on Sunday, May 26 at Wesleyan University.

The full address may be found here: youtu.be/Wn866ryQ5RY. An accomplished screenwriter (“Toy Story” and “The Avengers”) and creator of the series “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer,” Whedon astonished graduates and well-wishers by announcing, “What I’d like to say to all of you is that you are all going to die.”

Whedon recalled that in 1987, at his own Wesleyan University graduation, Bill Cosby took aim at the usual “change the world” speech that has become the staple of such events. “You’re not going to change the world, so don’t try.” The best thing you can do is to live each day with integrity and responsibility, not expecting everyone to exist as props in your own life movie. Stop being narcissistic about your “dream,” getting everyone else to fit into it, Cosby also told Temple University grads in 2012. “You’ve got plenty of time, but don’t dream through it. Wake up!”

All of this is sort of jarring talk from Boomers. But, happily, it has struck a nerve. Judging at least by the media attention, Whedon’s daring mention of death to largely healthy, eager, young Americans is like a glass of cold water thrown in the face to wake us from our slumbers.

Much of the talk in Christian circles turns on various projects for changing the world. You can’t just be a disciple. You have to be committed to radical discipleship. You can’t just strive to make good choices, form healthy relationships, and do countless little things that add up to loving service to others. You have to be radically counter-cultural to show that you really mean business with God, which is sometimes tough because there are a lot of non-Christians who say and do those things too. Especially in years past, radical discipleship meant embracing private spiritual disciplines. When that was judged too individualistic and self-oriented, others saw radical discipleship as giving up the lifestyle of American consumerism and helping those less fortunate.

There are plenty of calls in Scripture to prayer and meditation on his Word—in private as well as in public. There are also many exhortations to loving those around us: in marriages and families, in the household of faith, and in our wider callings.

But growth in anything important takes time. Etymologically, “radical” means “going to the root.” The way it’s used today, though, it more likely means “pulling up the roots.” If by “radical” folks mean immediate, visible, and measurable, there are no New Testament calls to this sort of discipleship. The repeated analogy used by the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles is organic. Growth in Christ is often imperceptible—especially to us. When planting a garden with Mom, young children expect a strawberry after a few days. They sit and watch it. After a few days, the children stop asking about it. They pass it each day without any notice. “A watched pot never boils,” to change metaphors.

Only as we get older do we begin to realize that the most fruitful things in life take a long time—and a lot of care—to mature. If we’re impatient, overly enthusiastic, and over-confident, we easily become disillusioned or disinterested. Sure, there are some big events in our lives that provoke major turning points. For the most part, though, it’s the minutes, hours, days, months, and years that tell the tale. It’s not rallies and revivals, but God’s weekly meeting with his people that transforms them by his Word. Sure, there was a major turning point at Pentecost. Cut to the quick, Jews heard that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Abraham story, believed, and were baptized. But they weren’t looking for a spiritual high. They weren’t eager to discover the Next Big Thing—a program for radical discipleship. What happened next? “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

Everybody wants to experience something radical and to do something radical. The tougher thing is to be justified before God and transformed in the depths of our character through the ordinary means of grace. It’s hard work to grow up in Christ, bearing the fruit of love and good works, in ordinary ways through ordinary means in ordinary moments over time.

Are we prepared for the long haul? That’s something to ask not only in commencement addresses, but each day. And though we might differ in the details, that’s why Joss Whedon’s question to the graduates is so genuinely helpful.

Death puts life in perspective. It reminds of the things that matter most. In the prime of our life, we want to change the world. Too often, we lose big dreams and the zest for life precisely because we’ve figured out that we can’t change it. But freed up from impossible dreams and demands, we can finally love and serve our neighbors—not as abstract objects for our life project or instruments of our self-identity-creation, but as God’s gifts.

Godly wisdom is to be found in realizing that faithfulness is not ultimately about how well we’re doing, but how well our neighbor is doing—and what we can do to help. It’s not about changing the world—or even loving the world—but about changing the way we relate to actual people today and loving specific neighbors with whom we live, work, and whose paths we cross each day. More deeply—radically, even—it’s about accepting God’s condemnation and justification in Christ and being renewed each day by his Word. As we’re shaped by his gospel and guided by his law, we discover that godly wisdom is not finally about the sprint but about finishing the race. Death has a practical way of putting all of this in perspective.

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Outsourcing Our Job Description? A Plea to Fellow Ministers

“Given all the demands on my time every day, it’s really hard to invest a lot of hours in preparing my sermons.” I hear this sentiment a lot out there these days. It’s expressed in a series of clips for a new service. The ad invites pastors to take advantage of an energetic team of researchers who help do a lot of the legwork for sermon-writing. Explaining “what we do,” the site offers the following services: “(1) Research Briefs (stories, statistics, quotes, connections to culture, theological insights, exegetical analysis of Scripture)”; (2) book summaries: “content you need to know but don’t have time to read”; (3) book projects, including “research, editing, and collaboration.”

I understand the challenge. There are many demands on a pastor’s time—even distractions that are part of the legitimate calling of a minister. However, are we turning to a Wikipedia-style of ministry? Some pastors in recent years—even in our own circles—have been brought up on charges of “borrowing” sermons verbatim from well-known preachers. I suppose this new service isn’t as bad as outright plagiarism. But what does all of this mean for the ministry?

I’ve been asking that question as I run into aspiring pastors who don’t think they need a seminary education. After all, there are so many on-line resources. Apparently, we’re way beyond that now.

It’s not just that people think they can teach themselves the languages, the art of biblical interpretation and biblical, systematic, and historical theology, or the practical insights from God’s Word in how to preach and apply God’s Word. You can even refer to the Hebrew and Greek of a passage without ever having actually studied the languages. Ironically, we teach students to study a passage in the original languages without showing their work in the sermon; increasingly, ignorance is being passed off as skill. It’s one thing to Google-search a figure or date; quite another thing to write a doctoral dissertation as a web-surfer. You wouldn’t go under the knife of a surgeon who learned medicine from Youtube clips. Why would you entrust your knowledge of God and his truth from someone who didn’t actually know how to “rightly handle the Word of truth” for himself?

The deeper question is this: What has become of the pastoral office when many who hold it seem to think that they are too busy to study, pray, read, and deepen their own understanding of God’s Word so that they have more to dish out?

Do we really believe, as the apostles and the reformers did, that the church is the creatura verbi—”creation of the Word”? That faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ as it is proclaimed by those who are sent? That the heart of sanctification is the renewing of the mind by the Word?

Pastors would never tell their congregations to outsource their discipleship to others: to pay someone else to pray, read the Bible, and witness for them. Why do some think that it’s fine for them to do this, especially when—unlike their parishioners—pastors are called to devote their full time to this work?

The tragedy is that pastors are often overwhelmed even by important things that are nevertheless subordinate to their ministry of the Word and the sacraments. Too often, elders are taken from the ranks of leaders in business, industry, and other professions, even if they lack the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. Not surprisingly, the church is run like a corporation, with the pastor as the CEO. Or in other contexts, the pastor is the young and independent entrepreneur—more like Mark Zuckerberg than St. Timothy. He has to keep reinventing himself and his ministry and this requires enormous energy. But what really matters?

Amid these obvious extremes there are the faithful pastors who are wearied by parts of their job description that are in fact mentioned in Scripture. They may have godly elders who rule well and generous deacons who look out for the temporal needs of the sheep. Yet even with such blessings it’s difficult to avoid the constant interruptions.

What are those “other things” that have pastors so busy? Are those other things as explicitly mentioned in the job description laid out by Christ and his apostles? Or are we—even in “gospel-centered” and “Bible-believing” circles—coming to recast the office in terms more aligned to the managerial, entrepreneurial, or therapeutic styles of leadership that our culture prizes? A minister friend recently quipped, “The most embarrassing question you can ask a group of pastors in our circles today is, ‘What’s the latest book you’ve read?’”

Last week, after explaining my symptoms, I asked my doctor about a prescription that I saw advertized. The ad sold me. Sounded like my symptoms and promised to solve them (with the appropriate qualifications at the tail end). My doctor said he had prescribed that very medication many times, but after reading a ground-breaking report he was taking all of his patients off of it. I’m glad he keeps reading.

Imagine your pastor exhorting the congregation next week to stop coming to church and simply visit websites to become “self-feeders”? Well, perhaps that’s a bad illustration, since it’s actually happening today.

It takes a long time to become a craftsman, a skilled expert, and a wise steward of natural gifts. If pastors expect Christ’s sheep to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ,” then are they exempt from first-hand study? Who are these people writing up the quotes, cultural connections, and even theological points and exegesis? Are they seminary-trained? According to the site I saw, yes—they have Master of Divinity degrees or more. If so, then why not attend their church instead of the one where the heavy-lifting is farmed out?

Even after seminary, habits of lifelong study and prayer are essential. Pastors are spiritual craftsmen, not the equivalent of busy guys who buy a Home Depot book to construct their patio. Even the best seminary education can merely equip ministers with tools that they can use and develop in their own ongoing study.

We typically invest our time in things that matter to us, things that we’re called to. And we typically appreciate—and patronize—those specialists who focus on the quality of their work. Comedians and other entertainers might have other people write their material. But if we farm out our sermons, aren’t we assuming with the world that there is some other story that’s more ultimate than the new creation that God is summoning into being by his Word and Spirit?

Isn’t there something a little contradictory about shepherds touting the virtues of truth, spiritual maturity, and knowing God through his Word while they outsource their own study? If a pastor is too busy to mine Scripture to distribute Christ’s treasures to his people each week, what does that say about the priority of “the ministry of the Word and prayer” that Peter identified as the pastor’s primary job description (Acts 6:4)? That’s why deacons were appointed: to take care of the temporal needs of Christ’s flock.

Paul was absorbed in his calling, which he defined with laser-sharp focus:

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph 3:7-10).

What a calling!

The prophets actually served those who now bring the good news, “in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Pet 1:12).

Those who labor in preaching and teaching are especially to be honored (1 Tim 5:17), though they are also held especially accountable (Jas 3:1). “Until I come,” Paul counsels young Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the presbytery laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:14). Don’t get entangled in “civilian pursuits,” he exhorts. Teach God’s Word and then “entrust [it] to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:1-4). “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (v 15).

Bottom line: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching…[D]o the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim 4:1-2, 5).

In his last reported conversation on earth with Peter, Jesus asked solemnly, “‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep’…And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me’” (Jn 21:15-19).

To follow the Good Shepherd as his emissaries is to feed his sheep. It’s a calling not to be taken up lightly. If we’re going to take it up, we need to prepare for it. And then we need to keep ourselves in his Word and in whatever resources that can help us deepen our own wisdom rather than outsource it to others. Great numbers of pastors out there are fulfilling this calling “in season and out of season” today. Nevertheless, there is a troubling proliferation of preachers who are not so much lazy as distracted by expectations—either their own or those of others—that turn the pastor’s study into an office, building their own ministry rather than serving Christ’s. Here, as always, we all need to be reminded that Christ is the only head of his church. We didn’t write the job description and he knows best what his people—and we ourselves—need most.

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