Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Book Review: “Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul,” by Chad Bird

Tales of fallen ministers have become all too common in our day, and nearly everyone reading this will have been affected personally in some way. Perhaps you know someone who has betrayed his calling or your church has been harmed by such a person. Perhaps you, yourself, are the person who fell into scandalous sin.

Chad Bird fell into the last of those categories. A rising star who joined his alma mater’s seminary faculty at age 31, Bird forfeited it all five years later as the result of marital infidelity. The moral failure resulted in the loss of his family, his teaching position, his ministry credentials, and his sense of psychological and spiritual well being. This book, which is both painful and hopeful, chronicles his journey.

A reader looking for titillating details about Bird’s moral failures will be disappointed. That is not to say that the author skirts those realities. However, he gives enough information so that the reader knows of the author’s failures both before and after his fall from ministry while focusing on what God has taught him over the course of the last decade. He describes a stew of conflicting thoughts and attitudes that will confound anyone who has not walked with someone that has had this experience. Bird can describe himself as so sinful that he knows that God will not forgive him, yet express anger at God for abandoning him. He can be angry at himself for betraying those closest to him while also being angry at his isolation. He can lament his wickedness that got him to this point and hide behind masks suggesting he is really better than what he has received.

Bird does not sugar coat his life, and the feelings expressed are often raw, as when he asks, “Where in the Hell are you, God,” or recounts his teenage daughter tearfully asking why he had cheated on her mother. While all of the discussion is poignant and helpful, a couple of the chapters stood out. Bird effectively writes about how the Psalms provocatively show how pained people honestly cry out to God. Pointing out that churches, just like our biblical forebears, are composed of disappointing people, Bird calls upon us to embrace the church as the right place for us when we recognize we also are disappointing. His commentary on the father’s initiating love in the parable of the prodigal son is moving and encourages hope.

While the book does offer hope through the various topics, it is not arranged chronologically. This is helpful, as the author did not seem to want to give the impression of a steady upward glide (“’The victorious Christian life’ is, quite frankly, a fairytale version of a life no one actually lives.”). Nonetheless a couple of themes emerge through the various topics. One regards the need to give up one’s sense of control of his own destiny and instead learn to look to God in dependence. The other is that God is found outside of ourselves in Christ, not by looking inward.

The church has struggled to know how to minister to those who have fallen. There aren’t that many resources available to those who have fallen into this type of sin. This book can serve both functions.

Monday, January 01, 2018

A New Year's Day Read

Last night, I began reading Rosaria Butterfield's The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, and I finished the page turner today. Ms. Butterfield's story has gotten a great deal of attention since its publication five years ago, as it recounts her conversion (she prefers the term "impact," as in a "train wreck") to Christianity in 1999. Until that time, she was a lesbian activist and women's studies professor in Syracuse, New York. Being claimed by Christ turned her world upside down. In addition to telling of her own conversion, Ms. Butterfield, both in this book and in other forums, has been forthright in drawing attention to the way that various modes of Christian public and private moralizing, including insulting language toward those with whom we have moral disagreements, is unhelpful to the Christian cause.

These are themes that I care deeply about, and I appreciated the way that the author addresses them here..

Having said all of that, I found the most moving parts of the book to be the concluding chapters, which summarize events after Ms. Butterfield's conversion, and that center on family life as the wife of a Presbyterian minister. She and her husband have adopted four children ranging in age from new born to teenager, and they have been foster parents for a number of others, as well. Her passion for adoption and fostering children, with all of the hopes and heartaches entailed, was inspiring, and I wish that this aspect of her story would get more attention. I heartily recommend it to others.

This was a great read.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

A Christian Nation?

When populist Christians declare that America is -- or once was and needs to be again -- a Christian nation, what do they mean? Christians and secularists often engage in debates about this subject without ever defining terms, which is unfortunate since doing so might alter the character of the debate.

Theoretically, those using "Christian nation" language could be doing nothing more than making a sociological statement, which would in itself be noncontroversial, since hardly anyone would deny that Protestant Christianity, more than any other religion, institutional or otherwise, has had a prevailing influence in the United States and most other western cultures. Even those who are not  Christians of necessity must deal in some degree with Christian terminology and norms in order to participate in American culture. It is part of the air that we breathe.

Nonetheless, when those on the religious right speak of a "Christian nation," they are talking about more than sociology. They mean to say that Christianity is normative to what the United States is, and that departure from that norm is a betrayal of national values. Perhaps even more significantly, they would often say, departure from that norm potentially forfeits divine blessings.

Yet, it remains to further ask about the evidence of such a departure and, perhaps more notably, what would a return to being a Christian nation look like?

Do people that talk this way mean that Americans in mass will begin to worship the triune God of Christian teaching, and be justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone?

No, they don't seem to mean that. Rather, people who talk like this seem to have in mind moral reform: if we "returned to God" by "turning from their wicked ways," then people would stop having sex with people other than their spouses, would stop drinking too much or at all, would not go to vile movies, would be less vulgar in their speech, and so forth. While all of these things may be good developments to some degree or another, what those promoting this vision of "Christian America" have in mind is not really distinctive Christianity; it is moralism. They are not looking for belief in the death and resurrection of Christ, but for moral improvement of the nation.

Thus, it is of more than passing interest that those pressing the idea of a Christian nation set off on the wrong foot by misunderstanding what the word "Christian" means. If they reoriented toward a proper definition of "Christian," they might understand that the matter of bringing about Christian commitments is not something a nation can do exercising the power of the sword, but it is something only a church can do through the preaching of the Gospel.

In a different context, the Apostle Paul warned those who exchanged the Christian Gospel for concerns about law keeping in order to establish a basis for entry into God's kingdom that they had "fallen from grace." Those calling for America to be restored to its status as a Christian nation believe that they are saying something about the status of the nation, but, in fact, they are revealing more about the state of the church. It is the church, not the nation, that has lost track of the basic meaning of terms, and it is the church that needs to hear the Gospel again in order to be called out of its apostasy to the good news of Christ.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Reformation Project: Theses 36-54

36. God is pleased with His people because of Christ.  In this regard, our good works do not add to His pleasure in us, which is already complete.  Christian growth and grace occurs in response to God’s work in regeneration, is guided by God’s Word, and is motivated by love and gratitude for God’s grace.
37.Our destiny, as individuals and as the Church, is not under our control.  God alone orders our steps.
38. Churches that by either false emphases or by shrouding the Gospel mislead people into thinking that “God helps those who help themselves” teach a message that is completely opposite the biblical message that “Christ died for the ungodly.”
39. That faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen emphasizes that faith is our empty handed trust in the provision that God freely and completely provides.  Faith is neither a technique of positive thinking nor a weapon by which we force the hand of our sovereign Lord.
40. Encouraging Christians to live simply in order to set aside provisions to support the work of the church and to fulfill the second great commandment is admirable, but it should never be confused with the notion that such giving will guarantee a return of greater material comforts and blessings.  Those who encourage the neglect of family responsibilities on the basis of such supposed guarantees commit great evil in the name of Christ.
41. The notion that the expected ideal Christian life is one of prosperity and material ease is so inconsistent with both the teaching and the examples of Christ, the prophets, the Apostles, and others among the saints as recorded in Scripture, that this way of thinking is utterly irreconcilable to Christian teaching.
42. The term “Christian” is not categorically something that applies to nations.  There is no biblical basis for using the term in this way nor for suggesting that the United States has some unique role in God’s redemptive plan, through which He is creating a people of every people and tongue and nation.
43. God’s means for the church to bring about changed lives and social structures is Gospel proclamation.  The death, burial, and resurrection, as opposed to methods for creating political solutions to social problems or for seeking psychological well-being, form the foundation of the Christian’s hope.
44. Those who claim to speak or who are viewed as speaking for the church should take care not to commit the church, as a matter of orthopraxis, to political positions upon which the Bible does not make a clear declaration.
45. Biblical warnings about the human propensity for self-centeredness and self-promotion should give pause to those who would use the Gospel message as a method for building self-esteem.  That we love self too much, not too little, is frequently the Bible’s message to us.
46. When God created all things, He pronounced His creation good, and since the Fall, creation has groaned while awaiting its final redemption. Consistent with God’s plan for redeeming not only lost humanity, but the creation realm, as well, the goal of the Christian is not escape from the material, but the subjection of all things to Christ.
47. While the image of God in man has been defaced by the Fall, God in His goodness continues to shower His common grace on all.  The contributions in arts and culture of all of those utilizing those creation gifts must not escape the attention and appreciation of believers, who long to bring every thought captive to the Lordship of Christ. 
48. The notion that some people are better used by God due to their spiritual superiority is dangerous to those individuals and the Church and is an affront to the Gospel of Christ. The kind of priesthood of celebrity that has emerged in much of the church needs to be greatly resisted.
49. Neither the charisma nor the perceived spiritual goodness of Christian leaders should inspire a level of trust among Christians that precludes the need for proper accountability with regard to financial and moral concerns within the body of Christ.
50. The demonstrated failure of age based divisions in church structures as an effective means of keeping children, teens, and young adults in the Church must be faced in order for the Church to return to the Bible’s covenantal based pattern of family oriented worship as normative in the body of Christ.
51. Christians who share a common faith in the ecumenical creeds and the doctrine of justification by faith alone should endeavor to find common cause in those things while in no way disavowing other beliefs which cause them to differ.
52. Regardless of one’s eschatological viewpoint, neither the prospect of Christ’s return nor the hope of heaven should preclude one from thinking hard and acting wisely with regard to the issues confronted in this life.
53. Believing that the growth of the church and the spread of the Gospel are dependent on the power of God above all else should compel us to pray first of all, rather than to regard prayer as an afterthought once we have prepared our clever plans.
54.The notion that we are the real actors in a spiritual drama, with God intervening only upon our asking, pervades too much of the way that the Christian life is discussed.  This resembles a deism punctuated by occasional miracles more than it resembles Christian faith.

The Reformation Project: Theses 31-35

31. Building genuine, respectful relationships with unbelievers consistent with the second great commandment can result in opportunities to evangelize our neighbors and is far superior to programs that create artificial and manipulative relationships as the basis for sharing the Gospel.
32. The miraculous healings of Jesus and the Apostles verified the authenticity of Jesus as Messiah and should not be regarded as any indication that physical healing is part of what is offered through Christ’s atonement other than in an eschatological sense.
33. Jesus’ statements about the necessity of the new birth and the teaching of Paul that those apart from Christ are dead in trespasses and sins reveal the necessity of the Spirit’s role in regeneration for anyone to be saved.  While God uses human means to accomplish His purposes, only the work of the Holy Spirit brings the dead to life.
34. The notion that we are the real actors in a spiritual drama, with God intervening only upon our asking, pervades too much of the way that the Christian life is discussed.  This resembles a deism punctuated by occasional miracles more than it resembles Christian faith.
35. Just as our justification is entirely a work of God’s grace, so also our sanctification is entirely a work of the Spirit of God.  While God’s liberated children observe His commands out of

The Reformation Project: Theses 21-30

21. The presence or absence of excitement or other emotions provides no evidence regarding whether a work of the Spirit of God is taking place.
22. In whatever style of worship churches employ, they must always use the Bible as their guide.

23. The use or non-use of liturgical forms neither quenches nor indicates the movement of the Spirit of God.  The clearest evidence of the Spirit’s presence and work is the clear proclamation of Jesus as Lord.
24. While joy and celebration are certainly one aspect of the Christian life and Christian ministry, the Bible confronts us realistically with God’s presence and providence through every type of circumstance of life.  The notion that all worship leads to celebration should be shunned along with superficial forms of praise and gladness, even if a Christian can maintain joy in the Lord in hard circumstances.
25. In preaching the Word of God, the minister has a responsibility not only to expound biblical truth faithfully, but also to model the proper manner of reading and interpreting Scripture.
26. Rightly dividing the Word of Truth requires a proper understanding of the Covenant of Works and of the Covenant of Grace, as found in Scripture, seeing Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of both.
27. Preaching and teaching the Bible requires expounding its themes in proper context.  The Bible must never be used as a kind of book of quotations used to provide ancillary support to the things that we wish to talk about.
28. Belief in the authoritativeness and accuracy of Scripture does not require viewing it as a technical manual on every subject that it addresses. 
29. The bumper sticker maxim that “Jesus is the answer” is not true unless the correct questions are being asked.  The minister has an obligation to point his listeners toward concerns for which the church has unique importance, principally the proclamation of the Gospel.
30. Worship services and sermons that focus most of their attention on what we are doing, and that have as their goals to get congregants to do something, rather than to believe something, are inherently legalistic, even if such legalism takes a softer form than that sometimes promoted in churches of a prior generation. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Reformation Project: Theses 16-20

16. Because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, those delivering the Christian message must not do so in a way that tends to bring believers back under a burden of condemnation.

17. While those engaged in the “worship wars” have focused on matters of style, the far deeper concern relates to the increasing lack of biblical substance in corporate Christian worship, whether traditional or contemporary.

18. Any discussion of both the content and style of Christian worship must take as its beginning point the will of God regarding these matters as revealed in Scripture.

19. Worship needs to center on God and to glorify Him, not focus on ourselves or our experience.

20. The clearest evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence and activity is that Christ is glorified and proclaimed as Lord.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 15

15. "He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ."

This thesis is in quotation marks, as it is directly pulled from Martin Luther's Heidelberg Disputation. Those theses, published two years after the more famous 95 Theses were nailed to the Castle Church door at Wittenberg, represent a maturing of Luther's Protestant convictions.  As others have noted, the Heidelberg Disputation furthered Luther's break with the medieval church by setting forth a relentlessly cross centered understanding of Christianity, of justification, and of the Christian life. Put another way, it was a theology of the cross, in contrast to the Roman church's theology of glory.

It is also liberating, because the person who believes much in Christ believes in work that is done. The one who does much, instead of believing, never can be sure that he has ever done enough.

Do Christians understand the liberty and rest that is found in cross centered Christianity? American Christians are known not for their relentless cross centeredness, but for their relentless activism. Yet, Paul said that the one that has been justified by faith (past completed action) has (present possession) peace with God.

This is the result of preaching that is cross centered.

Table of Contents for The Reformation Project

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 14

14.   That the world is passing away along with its lusts while the Word of God abides forever means that God’s Word is proclaimed in contrast to the dying world and should not be attached to it.

Is the mission of the church to proclaim law and gospel in order to give people a leg up in this life, or is it to do so in order to prepare them for the world to come?

Of course, the Bible has much to say about how we are to live in this world, but thinking about that in the context of the redemptive work of Christ is crucial. We live in this world as people who belong to the next. That is not to say that we are to take on a mentality of escapism, but it does mean that the verities that we live by in this life while inhabiting the kingdoms of this world reflect the reality that we hold a dual citizenship as emissaries of the kingdom of God's dear son.

Further, we should distinguish between the work of individual Christians and the mission of the church. While Christians will use their individual gifts and interests in pursuit of a whole range of vocations and hobbies, the church's focus is on proclamation of the mission of Christ.

Thus, while the Bible has much to say about living in this world, we should not take that as a means for finding our best life now or increasing our attachment with what is passing away, nor should we engage in a bait and switch with unbelievers by acting as though the keys we offer relate to a dying kingdom. The church's message is much too practical to stay focused on a world that is passing away. We speak of law and gospel, sin and grace, guilt and forgiveness, in order to deal with matters of ultimate, eternal importance.

Table of Contents for the Reformation Project