Author Archives: Marc

Why Do We Sing in Church?

(Originally posted November 18, 2017 at malmochurch.ca.)

Tomorrow morning we will gather at Malmo again, as we have been doing faithfully for 125 years or so, to worship together through fellowship, prayer, scripture reading…and singing.

Singing has been a part of Christian worship since the first Christians gathered. In fact, some parts of the Bible are widely believed to be taken from early Christian songs of worship. For example, Philippians 2:6-11 is often referred to as the “Christ Hymn”:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (NIV)

These stanzas contain not only generic praise to God, but they tell a story—the salvation story, in fact: God becomes human, dies on the cross, is raised from the dead and made Lord and Messiah.

But why do we do this? Why do we sing together in church, especially when some people don’t like singing or think they don’t have a good voice?

I can think of several reasons, and none of them have anything to do with being able to sing or carry a tune: singing brings glory to God; it helps us remember the gospel story; it is modelled and encouraged (even commanded!) in scripture; it brings believers together and encourages them (have you ever been at a concert or worship event where thousands of people sing along together? There are few things more unifying and beautiful).

(There are more reasons, I’m sure. In fact, here are a couple of further explanations for Christians singing that I have come across that you might find helpful: “The Three Rs: Why Christians Sing” and “Seven Biblical Reasons Why Singing Matters.”)

So as we gather tomorrow and in the weeks to come, consider: can I choose to participate in worship, including the singing, even if I (think I) don’t sing very well, even if I don’t fully understand why we do it?

Author and pastor Eugene Peterson wrote, “Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship.” Often we talk about worship, and especially the singing part of worship, as an expression of our feelings for God. That may be true, but there are some people who do not express their feelings for God in that way, and there are some days when my feelings for God are not great.

In a much more important way, whatever our feelings may be on a given day, our singing praise, our singing the gospel, plays a significant role in transforming us bit by bit over time, through low seasons and high seasons, as individuals and a community, into the people of God…if only we will open ourselves up—both our mouths and our hearts!

Two roads diverged in a wood and yet I return home.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

~ from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

I seem to recall writing a paper on Robert Frost’s poem in university, in which I argued that there didn’t appear to be any difference in either road the narrator had to choose from.* I can’t remember the details, but my hunch, nearly twenty years on, was that I was pushing against the idea of this being a carpe deum (“seize the day”) poem. Carpe deum being the idea that you should live life to the full, taking adventurous chances, etc.

I’ve tended to push against this idea, which seems to me to be the brainchild of a specific kind of personality, rather than some kind of immutable universal truth. My adventurous friends would dispute this, but I have the personality of a hobbit. I’d rather be at home with my books and tea.**

In recent years I’ve also pushed against this in the context of Christian faith and discipleship. Our obedience and service to God and neighbour begins wherever we are in the hum-drum ordinary of the everyday, rather than on some wild adventure in a strange land among strange people doing what we tend to consider exciting (if not altogether extraordinary) things for God (though we may certainly be called to that). This is important, it seems to me, because for young people especially, the idea of ordinary, everyday faithfulness seems boring—surely faith calls us to more exciting things?

In recent years I’ve really begun to appreciate the fictional work of Wendell Berry. His overriding concern seems to be having a strong sense of place, of being loyal to and faithful in the place you are, of putting down deep roots. His fictional world is one built around a small town community and the farmers and families that surround it and their generations of life, death, simplicity, and faithfulness. I am very much drawn to this idea.

It occurred to me recently that there may be good reason for this: the first seven years of my life were the longest I have ever lived in one location (though I did spend twelve years in the same small town). I have moved many times in my life—not least during my university years, before and after the school year I would move in and back out of an apartment. And the pastoral vocation isn’t one where generally deep roots are planted. I’m well past the average duration for the kind of position I hold at my church and the odds are against me being here for a decade. Pastors in one location for more than twenty years is almost unheard of, and I have deep respect for the one I do know. So I have good reason to be drawn to permanence and connection (to family and friends). And these days, my wife and children are the most permanent thing I know, so being with them is growing ever more important.

And yet.

And yet I find that when I am walking in the woods I am drawn to explore every rabbit trail—where two roads diverge—I come across and I want to keep walking just to see what’s around the next bend. Explain that.

Maybe it’s because even though I am wandering and exploring I know I will soon return home.

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*It was for a class on the early 20th century literary theory called “New Criticism,” which allowed me to write a paper without research, but musing on the text alone. I don’t know how legitimate that was, but it was fun.
**That’s not to say that we shouldn’t make the most of every day, but that the most of any given day is generally very ordinary.

Do evangelicals give Israel a free pass?

Do evangelicals give Israel get a free pass?

I was thinking about this the other day as I listened to a podcast interview in which the guest argued that the gospel Paul presents in Romans is universalistic (we should take heed, she suggested, to Paul’s repetitive use of “all” in reference to both the consequences of Adam’s sin and the effect of Christ’s death). Whenever the subject of universal salvation or reconciliation in Jesus Christ—that is, the idea that in and through Christ everyone will ultimately be saved—comes up, my mind tends to go to the strong and dismissive opposition such an idea seems to get, particularly in evangelical circles. What about judgment? What about repentance? these people wonder.

Yet it seems to me that many of these same people give the modern nation-state of Israel, on the assumption that they are are the same Israel of which the Bible speaks and for (to me) vague biblical reasons, a free pass into salvation. Israel, it seems, will be folded into the Kingdom just for being Israel, whether or not they are doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. For Israel it seems like judgment and repentance aren’t an issue, but for gentiles it certainly is.

I admit I do not pay much attention to Zionism (e.g., John Hagee) and its close associates, so perhaps I am mishearing them, but this is the impression I get.

(It occurs to me now that evangelicals also tend to think of salvation as a community thing when it comes to Israel, but an individualistic thing for everyone else.)

This is not, of course, itself an argument for universal reconciliation. This is simply to point out what seems to me, if my impressions are correct, an inconsistency in evangelical thinking about salvation.

Evolution, Genesis, and Discipleship

I haven’t blogged about the question of how we read and understand the Genesis creation accounts in a while, though it continues to be of interest to me. Today I happened to listen to and watch a delightful moderated dialogue between Richard Dawkins, the famous biologist and outspoken atheist (to be fair, he identifies as an agnostic), and Rowan Williams, the former-but-current-in-the-video Archbishop of Canterbury, the sort of figurehead of the worldwide Anglican communion. (I don’t normally have the patience to watch anything on YouTube that’s longer than 15 minutes, but the whole discussion was 1.5 hours long and I was captivated. I must have been soothed by their English accents, particularly Williams’. Actually, it was a truly interesting exchange, and Dawkins was civil.)

Nothing particularly bloggable was said in the first hour, but just after the hour mark things got more generally interesting for a while in response to a question from the audience. Williams believes that the universe is billions of years old and that evolution, so far as we understand it, is how we got to now—at that level, he and Dawkins agree. Of course, as a Christian, Williams believes God is involved or present in this process (though in the discussion he does not explain how).

Here is a link to the portion of the video that I’m referring to (starting automatically at about 1:08:27 and you can stop listening at about 1:11:39, if you wish), but I will also include a transcript of the relevant bits below.

Moderator Anthony Kerr, quoting an audience question: “Surely if the truth is that the universe is billions of years old and life evolved, it would have been better when the Bible was written to say nothing about how humans began. Did the writers essentially get it wrong?”

Archbishop Rowan Williams: Probably [a question] for me…I can’t imagine that the biblical writers were, if you like, faced with a set of options, including telling the truth that the universe is billions of years old, and saying, “Oh, that’s too difficult.” The writers of the Bible, inspired as I believe they were, were nonetheless not inspired to do 21st century physics.

This is probably the most succinct way of explaining why we should not read the opening chapters of Genesis as a scientific textbook or manual. Williams goes on:

Williams: They were inspired to pass on to their readers what God wanted them to know—forgive the naked theology here, but I might as well come clean—and that means reading the first book of the Bible, what I look for is the basic information—this might be a different sense [of information] from what we were talking about just now: the universe depends on God, God’s freedom, humanity has a very distinctive role in that universe, and from the first measurable moment humans have made a rather conspicuous mess of that role. That’s where the Bible begins, that’s what I need to know, so to speak. And I don’t think that it makes very much sense to talk about the writers of scripture getting it wrong in the sense that there being lots of information available and they happened to get the wrong bits of it.

He goes on to say, in response to a follow-up question from Dawkins, that reading Genesis in this way is “something which isn’t just a 21st century invention, but it’s a way people have read Genesis from very early on.”

What does appear to be a 21st century invention, however, is an insistence on a strictly literal (in the sense of literal six 24 hour days of creation—a sort of reverse scientific literalism, I suppose) reading of Genesis, which I suspect is a reaction to overzealous conclusions about religion and the existence of God drawn by some from the scientific evidence.

In many respects I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I don’t know much about evolutionary theory, nor do I have detailed knowledge of the evidence, so I can’t make an independent decision about its veracity. However, the vast majority of the scientific community, as far as I’m aware, including the many Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christian scientists among them (including personal friends), agree that the universe is very old and that we evolved, so I have to deal with that fact.

At this point I’m not sure it matters what a person believes about this question. I think a person can be just fine believing in a 6,000-year-old earth and a one-week creation; I think a person can be a fine follower of Jesus and hearer of scripture and believe the universe’s age is in the billions of years and that life evolved.

Where this question does interest me is on the level of biblical interpretation and discipleship. I’ve talked about the question of how to interpret Genesis in relation to question of its intent (as Williams addressed in the video) and genre. The question of discipleship comes up from time to time, particularly in terms of teaching our young people in preparation for higher education. What should we teach them about Genesis and science? we wonder Some think that we should teach them to defend against evolutionary theory, that we should make sure we understand the (apparent) evidence against evolution and for a young earth to prepare them when they face all the (mis?)information in university.

I’m inclined to disagree with this approach, and not  because I think that it is true that life evolved (I remain mostly agnostic about this, largely because I don’t know enough), but for two other reasons:

  1. Jesus is the heart, soul, and centre of our faith, not how we read the opening chapters of Genesis. Genesis is very important to our understanding of the faith. I love Genesis. But it’s not the centre or focal point. Jesus is.
  2. I’m convinced that training our young people against evolution will, in the long run, do more to harm their faith than grow it. If we train them with biblical scientific literalism (my term) and then they go to university and are overwhelmed with evidence in favour of evolution, it might bring them to a crisis of faith, having to choose between faith and science. It’s a choice I don’t think is necessary to make, but we may force that choice on them, depending on how we approach the issue in our teaching.

Note that this is not about whether or not evolution is true. It’s a question of whether it’s a battle that needs to be fought, of whether the Bible requires us to believe something other than what the scientific community is (purportedly?) finding out about our world and universe. It’s a question of how we understand the Bible and how we teach our kids in relation to that knowledge.

The reality is, even apart from what we’re hearing from biologists, astronomers, and physicists, the church has historically been okay with not reading Genesis as if it reflects a scientific account of our origins. I can quote (and have quoted in the past) respected and influential theologians and Christian writers through the ages—people like Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and many more from the modern age—to make this point. These men can be wrong, of course, but the point is simply that literalism of the modern sort is not something based in historical theology and interpretation. If this is indeed the case, then why turn the question of evolution into a battle for truth? It seems to me to be entirely unnecessary.

In the end, I suspect the negative reaction is to people who have taken the evidence and the capacity of science farther than it can go, exemplified by the likes of Richard Dawkins and the other so-called “New Atheists,” but also carried forward by many in the general population: namely, that all of this “proves” that God doesn’t exist (or makes it unlikely that he exists or unnecessary to believe that he does). That is perhaps a battle worth fighting. But evolution vs. Genesis? No. It’s wasted effort, as far as I’m concerned, and quite possibly spiritually disastrous.

Comedy of Errors

This was just too funny for me to not record for posterity. As background, Tim Hortons (a popular Canadian coffee and donut shop) has two cold drinks with very similar names that my family likes to order: a Real Fruit Chill and a Real Fruit Smoothie. The Chill is like a slush, just fruit juice and ice; the Smoothie contains yoghurt. My family prefers the Chill.

Without fail the last three or four times at a local Tim Hortons, we’ve order a Real Fruit Chill and received a Real Fruit Smoothie instead. So I’m particularly sensitive to getting the order correct the first time. In addition, this was after our year-end youth party, during which I, out of shape and overweight, had been running around for a water fight and a giant slip-n-slide. The year-end party also marked the symbolic end of a really long busy stretch. I was exhausted at this point.

My encounter with the lady at the Tim Hortons counter:

I order two medium steeped teas, 1 milk, 1 sugar in each.

I order a small real fruit chill. “Chill, not smoothie,” I emphasize.

I notice that she has punched in a fruit smoothie, so I correct her, with an edge in my voice.

I order a chocolate glazed donut. She punches in sour cream glazed. I try to correct her several times. She keeps nodding and saying “yes”, but does not change her mistake.

I order a double chocolate. “Marble chocolate?” she asks.

Double chocolate,” I enunciate.

I order a bagel, buttered and toasted. She does not add a bagel to the order, but adds “toasted” and “buttered” to the double chocolate donut order.

I correct her. She adds the bagel.

We get our teas. She moves on to the next item and mumbles something that sounds like “smoothie.”

“Chill,” I say, just to make sure.

She brings us a Real Fruit Chill.

She comes back a moment later and says, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any sour cream glazed donuts.”

“No, we didn’t order a sour cream glazed,” I say. “I ordered a chocolate glazed.”

She then spends an inordinate amount of time rummaging through the shelves where the chocolate glazed donuts are not. Eventually we get our donuts.

We sit down.

There is cream in our teas.

*sigh*

I shouldn’t go to Tim Hortons in town when I’m tired.

Coincidence: God’s Sense of Humour (more walking on water)

Just over a week ago, I was at a Jesuit Retreat Centre for a 5-day silent retreat. It was an Ignatian retreat and as such included daily meetings with a spiritual director. My director asked me about my prayer life, in reply to which I made some necessary admissions. He’s particularly fond of Gospel contemplation as a form of prayer. Gospel contemplation is an Ignatian practice of taking a narrative from the Gospels and then contemplating it by mentally entering the story and getting a sense of the sights and sounds of the story, placing oneself in one of the characters’ shoes, and talking to Jesus about it.

My director suggested I try Gospel contemplation and I was more than happy to do so. I started looking through his files for a sheet of paper that had a number of different suggested passages for contemplation. He had a particular sheet in mind, but he couldn’t find it. So he grabbed a different sheet and handed it to me, saying, “This is a bit random, but try this…”

Of course, it was not random at all. I didn’t look at the paper he had given me until I got back to my room. I laughed as I looked: it was Matthew 14:22-33, Jesus and Peter walk on water. Of course it would be. God has a sense of humour.

(The next day I was praying through Psalm 43. This Psalm has been on my heart and mind a lot lately, mostly because of Sandra McCracken’s beautiful interpretation of it, but also because its words hit home for me these days. The Psalter I use includes short devotionals on a handful of the Psalms. As it happened, there is a devotional for Psalm 43…and as it also happens, that devotional references Peter’s words to Jesus as he sinks into the water: “Lord, save me!” I just can’t see this a coincidence!)

Long-time reader—I use the singular intentionally—of this blog will be aware of the history I have with the story in which Peter walks on water (Matthew 14:22-33). It began in 2007 with John Ortberg’s book If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, which is based on the event. Reading only a small portion of this book precipitated a personal funk and may ultimately have been one of the catalysts to get me to step out of the boat, as it were, and pursue my calling. Since then I keep bumping into this Gospel story. For example: in an interpretation of the story that seems more true to the details (2012); in a preacher who went to the popular interpretation, which always gets me agitated (2014 and other times).

A month or so ago, it was the curriculum topic for my Sunday school class. When I saw this, sitting in my living room preparing, I literally yelled, “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and then said something about hating this particular story. I don’t hate the story itself, of course, but my own history with it and the common misuse (as I see it) of the story continued to agitate me. I decided to dispense with the curriculum material and just work through the passage with my junior high class. It turned out to be a great lesson: the youth didn’t immediately go to the popular interpretation and had some good and helpful things to say about it, and I made a degree of peace with the story.

Back at my retreat: I did try contemplating that particular story, but I had difficulty entering in. I’ve always been fascinated by the disciples who stayed in the boat, since they get little attention, but I couldn’t see things from their perspective. All I could imagine was water and wind and blank faces on all the people involved in the story. All that I got out of it was further confirmation that Peter is not a hero in this tale. I suspect there was too much baggage, too much history, with the story for me to really enter into it with an open heart and mind. The next day in conversation with my director I had some more clarity on what the story may have to say to me (ironically, it’s Peter, the one I always think that gets too much attention in this story, that I identify with).

It deserves further contemplation and as I make my peace with the tale and my reading of it (and other people’s reading of it), I’m sure I will keep learning things about myself and about Jesus.

(And then today I’m watching some interviews of Stephen Colbert, a devout Catholic. In one of them he’s talking about how Jesus must have laughed and as an example he references Peter walking on water, which he compares to Wile E. Coyote running too far off a cliff.)

Defragmenting mind, heart, and body

“How does an apple ripen? It sits in the sun.” ~ Thomas Merton

Today is the beginning of my first sabbatical—a three-week period for rest, recreation (play), and reorientation (study, prayer, silence). This sabbatical is a gift our church gives its pastors after every four years of ministry. It is a gift that will give back to the church, a gift with returns.

Another phrase sometimes used instead of “sabbatical” is “ministry renewal leave,” which is probably a more helpful term for people these days. An image that comes to mind is defragmenting the hard drive of a Windows PCs, which, back in the day at least, I would do from time to time to get my computer running more smoothly and faster. After a long period of use, system files get moved around—the system gets fragmented—because they’re shared with various bits of software, and so it takes more time for programs to gather their files and start up and they may run more slowly. Defragmenting is the process of putting the files back in the places they’re meant to be so that the system can operate at its best.

Similarly, after a period of years of ministry my mind, heart, and body gets fragmented as I leave pieces of all of them with people, situations, problems, ministry concerns, busyness, frustration, and so on. Some bits get lost altogether somewhere in the “system.” And I start to run more slowly, with less clarity, with less compassion and more grumpiness. A sabbatical is meant to defragment my life, to reset things, put my mind, heart, and body back together—or at the very least more together—so that I can operate at healthier levels.

That, at least, is the intention and the hope.

So I will spend a number of days resting and studying, and visiting with my mom and brother. And then I’ll spend five days at an Ignatian Retreat, being silent, praying, listening. Then the whole family will have a bit of vacation time. And I’ll have stints at home in between.

In some ways it sound idyllic, but things won’t go perfectly or as planned. I won’t accomplish all that I hope or expect to accomplish. I may get sick—that wouldn’t surprise me at all (in fact, I may feel it coming on right now). Five days of quiet retreat sounds fantastic—and I’m very much looking forward to it—but who knows what God might say to me when I actually take time to stop and listen? The mind can go to terrifying places. Perhaps more terrifying: what if I hear nothing?

Whatever happens, I hope this month to spend some time sitting with God and just being.

It’s time to sit in the sun for a while.

Post-US election thoughts

This is an old post now, written mostly a couple of days after the US election, with some edits today. My thoughts are still the same. Since then, however, I’ve seen numerous videos online of people uttering hateful things at ethnic minorities and just this morning I saw a video of portions of an “alt-right” leader giving a speech of filled overtly white-supremacist rhetoric—in fact, it sounded not unlike a speech Hitler may have given earlier in his ascendancy and individuals in the audience were giving the Nazi salute, saying “Hail, Trump!” This gives me pause. Trump may not personally endorse this stuff and may not be personally responsible, but it seems that the election of Trump has empowered individuals and groups with these tendencies and from what I hear, Trump has appointed some far-right men with white-supremacist associations. It remains to be seen if this stuff is coming to light because people are aware of those tendencies in Trump’s campaign platform and are highlighting what’s out there anyway, whoever is in the White House. It’s not time to panic (I’m not sure it ever is, given what I say below), but awareness, a willingness to speak out for the poor and oppressed, and prayer are fitting responses.

Yesterday was a weird day. The previous day had begun at 5:30am, ran through a long but productive board meeting that was over at 11:00pm, and then at home some tossing and turning in bed until 2:00am while my wife and son watched the US election results come in. To be honest, I didn’t have much vested interest in the election. Trump wouldn’t have been my choice, but mostly from a character and lack of experience perspective, as I don’t know much about his policies (or Hillary’s, for that matter). My mind was not active because of the election, but because of the business of the day and because what I anticipated happening online the next day as a result of the election. My Facebook feed would be filled with friends and acquaintances celebrating Trump as God’s gift to the world and with other friends and acquaintances weeping over the worst possible election result imaginable, and the two were not likely to speak kindly of each other. I spent some time wrestling with what, if anything, I could speak into that divisive cacophony.

So yesterday I was exhausted and felt a great heaviness. I also felt a bit lost. I couldn’t figure out why. I can understand why people are surprised and upset at Trump’s election. I don’t understand why others think Trump is God’s gift to the US and the world, but I can understand the fact that many people for whatever reason voted for him and so were happy that he won. But neither of those things were weighing me down.

By the end of the day, it became more clear to me. I am generally speaking an even-keeled person. Not much ruffles my feathers, not much gets me either upset or excited. Life is good and it goes on. All shall be well, one way or another. But—possibly as a result of my even-keeledness—I also don’t do drama. I don’t like the wailing and gnashing of teeth over election results; neither do I like the rejoicing and triumphant glee of the religious far-right in response to this particular election. Both sides, it seems to me, overdo the response. The world hasn’t come to an end because of this and it likely won’t; they have not elected the Chosen One, the Saviour, and they never will.

But there is a lot of that kind of drama going on and I find myself caught in the middle and struggling with whether to keep silent or speak up. In the morning I did speak up a bit and it got me more frustrated, mostly because it caused more drama, but also because later I realized that what I should really do is turn it all off and pray, contemplate, be with God.

Late on election night I posted these words from Scot McKnight’s blog:

“I went to bed last night with Jesus as Lord. I go to bed tonight with Jesus as Lord. And every day from now into eternity Jesus is Lord.

Participation in our election dare not be seen as the lever that turns the eschatological designs God has for this world. Where is our hope? November 8 may tell us.” (link)

This is true. But I also realized that Christians on both sides may say or hear similar things but interpret them very differently. Other people have said things like, “God is in control,” but that can mean vastly different things, too.

When I say “Jesus is Lord” and when I agree that “God is in control,” I don’t mean that God wills the election results (whatever they are) or that people and nations cannot make wrong, even devastating, choices. That we can seriously mess up and that God is at the same time in control is abundantly clear from the biblical narrative.

To say, “Jesus is Lord” or “God is in control” is not to say, “It’s okay, don’t worry, this is the way it’s meant to be.” It is to say, “Fear not, Jesus is Lord, God is in control beyond and above this election.” God can and will redeem, fix, justify, restore what needs those things, and even the stupid things we do cannot thwart God’s plans.

To say “Jesus is Lord” is also to remind us that as Christians we are called to allegiance to someone who stands far above whoever the president—or prime minister or premiere—elect may be. To say that “Jesus is Lord” is a reminder that we are called to live lives that reflect Jesus’ lordship over us, which means we must seek after the protection and care of the most vulnerable, the young, the poor, and oppressed, and call our governments to their responsibilities in that regard.**

This is where it tends to get tricky for Christians on the political right (at least the far right). I’ve seen a number of comments on Facebook where Christians suggest Clinton would have been a better choice. In response, inevitably other Christians say, “Well, the unborn that are being murdered wouldn’t think so!” or “Not if you value the life of the unborn!” For some this election is once again a one-(or maybe two-)issue decision. Unfortunately, these kinds of comments don’t reflect the reality of how political (and legal) systems work, nor complexity of the issues themselves. And the fact that we live in a world shot through with sin makes these kinds of issues especially tricky.

But that’s a post for another day. For now I’ll just say that if we are going to vote based on “Christian values,” there are more than one or two issues that should be considered and other issues that need to be reconsidered, and some some issues with which we have to struggle with and remain in deep tension.

________________

**Patrick Franklin and N.T. Wright both made similar comments on their Facebook pages (I’m sure Wright, at least, as previously influenced me on this):

“God is sovereign. Is this comforting? On one level, yes. But let’s remember that God has sovereignly given human beings freedom and calls upon us to exercise that freedom in ways that honour what God cares about. When we fail to do that, people suffer. And God has special care for “the least of these” – the poor, the suffering, the marginalized, the ‘alien’, the hungry, the outcast, the homeless, the sick, . . . as Jesus and all the prophets passionately insist. To those who are in despair over the Trump win, have hope. To those celebrating: remember that our job is to hold government accountable to be just, fair, benevolent, peacable, and dedicated to the flourishing of all human beings (all of whom bear the divine image).” (Patrick Franklin)

“Whenever the question of national leadership comes up, my mind goes to Psalm 72. It provides a stunning vision of what God wants all leaders and rulers to be like, especially in prioritizing the needs of the poor. Christians believe three things about this: first, that the vision was fulfilled in Jesus himself; second, that with Jesus already enthroned, all rulers are called to imitate this model; third, that those who faithfully follow Jesus have the responsibility to share his rule by reminding those who exercise worldly power of their calling.” (N.T. Wright)

Three Books that Profoundly Influenced Me: Book 2

I was going to title this series “Three Books Every Evangelical Should Read,” but that seems more than I can rightly say. “Three Books I Wish Every Evangelical Would Read” is a more accurate title. But ultimately this is about books that have influenced me, so we’ll leave it at that.

I’ve read a number of good books over the years, but these three books were so profound to me that I think others could benefit too. I’ll point out the obvious: this is a subjective list. However, these books cover issues that I think can have deeply positive influence in the evangelical church.

Book 1: The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N. T. Wright (HarperOne, 2008)

I put off writing this second entry because I needed to think through what it was that was so profound about this book. It keeps creeping up in conversation and thoughts and even sermons, but it has been so long since I read it that I couldn’t remember the specifics without giving it some thought. But here is my conclusion: Surprised by Hope gave me a theology of creation, which in a way also saved my faith. This is not what a person would think they’re getting when they pick up the book, but that is what I received in the end. I think the process for me actually began when I read Paul Marshall’s Heaven is Not My Home, but it was really brought home in Wright’s book. Our theology of creation has ramifications on various different aspects of life and faith, so this books influenced has cropped up in all sort of places.

I was brought up in a conservative Christian home and my parents as well as the circles in which we lived worshipped were also conservative Christians. That can mean a lot of things, and not necessarily bad things (in many ways I’m still a conservative Christian), but I mean something specifically: dispensationalist Christianity. This is a (relatively) new understanding of scripture particularly in relation to prophecy, the book of Revelation, and the end times. The Left Behind series of books is deeply dispensationalist. Dispensationalism in my experience is almost obsessed about prophecy and the end times, and the core element is the rapture: the idea that at some point in the future, Christians will be whisked away from earth to an eternity of disembodied (“spiritual”) existence in heaven. In one way or another this is what it meant to “go to heaven when you die”: you either go when you die or when Jesus comes again.

At the time I didn’t have a problem with this theology per se, but there were other things I was thinking about in life that had me wondering. In dispensationalist thinking, the earth and creation in general are not something to be concerned about since it will all be destroyed someday anyway at the final judgment. I have always loved nature and there was a part of me that thought it was a shame that in the long run it would all disappear. As I got older I started wondering about why God created the world in the first place: if he knew it was going to fail, or if it was a mistake, or if it was just intended to be temporary. Why not just go straight to eternal disembodied bliss? Why the hassle with physical creation?

Enter Paul Marshall and finally N.T. Wright. Surprised by Hope made sense of the world because it affirmed creation as good. When God created he said that it was good and when he had created humans and finished it all, he said it was very good. When God entered his creation as the Word-made-Flesh—as Jesus—he affirmed creation again taking on the embodied existence of human creatures. When Jesus died and rose again, creation is once again affirmed as good because Jesus rose again bodily (albeit a new body). What Wright’s book made clear was that creation was meant to be and will continue to be. The hope of salvation is not “going to heaven when you die”, but resurrection in the new heavens and the new earth. The story of salvation is not just about forgiveness of sin, but of renewing and restoring all of creation.

This put the pieces together for me again. Suddenly the world and the cross made a great deal more sense to me, and I was given a vision of creation and hope that was clearly consistent with scripture (where dispensationalism seemed to me to do a lot of weird and unclear things with scripture). Suddenly we all had a reason to be here on earth—we aren’t just biding time until we get to heaven; we aren’t just passing through, this world is our home.

All kinds of other things have been unfolding from this: work is good; creation needs our stewardship; our bodies are good and are essential to being human (mind, soul, spirit, body are not independent things), and the list will continue to grow.

Wright’s intention, as I recall, was to correct our understanding of heaven and the afterlife, but in doing so he also showed how and why this life matters, too.

The Challenge of Preaching Jesus

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to guest speak at a local church. The pastor is a friend of mine and he asked me to fill in for him one Sunday while he was on holidays. His church is going through a series on the Sermon on the Mount and the passage assigned to me was the one about not taking oaths (Matthew 5:33-37). It was an interesting challenge to speak in a context where I had little to no connection. I was able to attend a service there at the end of my holidays and catch a bit of my friend’s approach to the Sermon on the Mount, and a couple of their young people attend our youth program, but otherwise I had little context for this community.

But the biggest challenge was the text itself. There is a long history of trying to explain away the Sermon on the Mount, finding ways around Jesus’ challenging commands to the point of some suggesting that the point of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount was for his followers to recognize how impossible the demands of Jesus’ teaching are so that they would fall back on his grace rather than their own effort. I’m okay with falling on God’s grace instead of my own effort, but I’m not convinced that that means I am just a passive agent with no responsibilities to act. Jesus, after all, calls us to obey his commands. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, he identifies his followers as the light of the world, whose good works the world needs to see, and he ends the Sermon with the parable of the wise and foolish builders, imploring his followers to do what he says.

But what does this mean, practically speaking? Even asking this questions feels a bit like trying to get around the commands, but it’s a relevant question given his command about not making oaths. One commentator says that Jesus is speaking specifically about a court of law: Christians should not “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” but just let their “yes be yes.” Jesus’ teaching is about nothing else, said this commentator. Other commentators suggested the much broader category of honesty and being people of our word.

With some hesitation, I went with the broader approach. But when it came to applying Jesus’ teaching, I experienced some serious inner turmoil. What could I honestly call us to? And what does “honestly” mean, when I wasn’t sure I completely grasped Jesus intended point? The general truth of being people of our word can be found in the text, but is that really what Jesus was intending? On the other hand, was I comfortable telling people not to take oaths in court, when in some sense that kind of nitpicking seems akin to the legalism Jesus challenged the Pharisees about?

Afterwards some people asked me about the implications for court, etc. I was honest and said I wasn’t sure, but that I wasn’t comfortable giving blanket statements about how to apply this teaching in every situation.

The week before I had preached at my own church and faced a different challenge: how to preach a truth scripture is pretty clear about that will challenge some of my church’s deeply-held values. It wasn’t an issue of sin, but about belief and values. Evangelicals hold family (that is, parents and children, and sometimes extended family) very dearly, only less important in life than God himself. But the New Testament fairly clearly envisions a new family created in and through Christ that demands a loyalty over and above the nuclear family, and marriage itself is not the bedrock of God’s kingdom.

How does one preach that reality in a way that can be heard and understood? It’s difficult. Both of these recent sermons were probably the most challenging I’ve prepared for and preached. I’m not sure how well I did (in terms of content).