When Indifference to Sin is Sin

Jesus, who was never indifferent to sin, who died for our sins, taught that at the end of history indifference to “the least of these” will be judged as literally damnable. Read Matthew 25:31-46 in light of the darkness of today, in light of an anti-infanticide bill failing to pass in the Senate.

As we have failed to care for and serve “the least of these,” we have failed to care for and serve Jesus himself. This is sin. This is the most egregious sin. This sin in rampant, is epidemic in America: the sin of abortion and now, more and more, the sin of infanticide. Say it: Baby Killing!

If you fail to care about sending this, what do you care about. How is your faith being demonstrated and verified by your good works? Read James again:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder (2:14-19).

We should shudder if we do nothing, shed not one tear, give no money, and pray no prayers for the plight of the unborn and newly born in our sad, sick, and deceived culture.

What you can do.

  1. Master the pro-life arguments and the refutation of pro-abortion arguments.
  2. Teach and preach and debate the truth about abortion whenever possible.
  3. Befriend and help women with unwanted babies.
  4. Pray for godly change. See 1 Timothy 2:1-5.
  5. Pray against ungodly laws and politicians. See Psalm 2 and 94.
  6. Give time and money to pro-life causes, political and educational.
  7. Consider adopting an unwanted baby

Renounce the sin of indifference.

Jesus was not indifferent to sin. He died to atone for sin. Those who confess to belong to him and to have their sins forgiven, must never be indifferent or complacent about sin. How much more abhorrent must the sin of indifference be when it is indifference to the most defenseless and voiceless among us? We cannot and must not be indifferent to the slaughter of the innocents, those unborn and newly born human beings who are killed or left to die in our midst.

God knows and feels all of this–far more than we do. He will settle the score and put the world to rights in the End. Before then, we must work and pray. Then work and pray more.

 

Book Review: Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith

There have been too many attempts to link Christianity to something else in order to jazz it up—as if the Gospel itself was not sufficiently compelling. Those both on the liberal and conserve ends of the theological spectrum—and even those in the middle—have been guilty of this. The “Christian atheism” of the middle 1960s took this to an absurd extreme. Jesus has been likened to a CEO, a therapist, a salesman, and so on, in order to pad his paltry resume. At best, these efforts highlight something in Jesus not previously apparent. At worst, they deny Christianity and replace it with an ersatz religion that has no gospel at all (see Romans 1:16-17; Galatians 1:6-11). Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord of the cosmos, does not need to be jazzed up. Nor does Christianity need a make over.

Robert Gelinas avoids these pitfalls by showing that jazz can teach much about following Jesus. In fact, we should “compose a jazz-shaped faith.” Gelinas, a Denver pastor and graduate of Denver Seminary, neither twists the gospel, nor forces jazz into an alien religious mold. Instead, he finds in jazz deep and fascinating themes that resonate with the adventure and challenge of Christian living. Although he is not a musician, Gelinas discovered jazz in college and loves “the gospel in jazz.” Readers of this revealing book will come to know more of jazz and more about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

After recounting his initiation into jazz, Gelinas briefly explains the nature of the music. Louis Armstrong said, “Jazz is jazz,” but this does not go too far. Jazz grew largely out of the music of African-American slaves. African music was mixed Christian themes learned from their oppressors. “Pain gave way to the blues, and the blues gave way to jazz—they are all connected.” Gelinas, an African American, says that “to talk about jazz it to talk about race”—and the plight of African Americans, who were, in the words of Ralph Ellison, “un-free in a free land.”

The origin and nature of jazz is a deeply contested subject. While one cannot deny that jazz was born and grew up from the African American experience, it has roots and variations that place it beyond any one racial ethos. Gelinas never claims that “jazz is black” or that non-blacks have not contributed greatly to jazz. However, his narrative overemphasizes the racial element somewhat. Later in the book, Gelinas states that “jazz was produced by those who were ‘un-free in a free land,’” thus excluding those musicians who were freer in a free land because they were not black. White musicians such as Benny Goodman (who led one of the first racially integrated jazz bands), Harry James, Dave Brubeck, and many others filled out the multicolored pallet of jazz. Despite this minor caveat, Gelinas explores a vital aspect of the music: jazz as form of life seeking freedom and justice for those wrongly denied it.

Jazz displays many creative, ennobling, and beautiful elements. Gelinas emphasizes its roots in the blues, syncopation, improvisation, ensemble cooperation, and creative tension—all modes of being that should be applied to the Christian life.

The blues are rooted in the pain of living in a fallen world, but refuse to wallow there. The old slave songs and spirituals lamented a life lived in chains, but transcended the bondage through song itself, and hoped for those chains to unbound one day. The blues roots of jazz give it a gritty sense of hope for a fallen world crying out for redemption. We, too, should see life for what it is, lament the losses, but press on with vision for better things through the power of God today and tomorrow and in the End.

Syncopation is what makes jazz swing. The jazz rhythm emphasizes the off beat, and, as Duke Ellington put it in a song title, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” To transpose this to the Christian life, syncopating means emphasizing the off-beat, finding novelty, and having “en eye and ear for that which goes unnoticed and unheard in life,” as Gelinas puts it. Jesus syncopated when he what saw others missed and reached out to the socially invisible or ostracized. A jazz-shaped faith does the same thing: it learns how to swing.

Improvisation is also constitutive of jazz. “Improvisation is what allows jazz to exist in a continual state of renewal,” Gelinas notes. A player improvises within the theme of a piece of music, but brings something new and distinctively his or her own to the old. Louis Armstrong went so far as to say, “Jazz is music that’s never played the same way once.” Every jazz solo is an adventure of self-expression that must, nevertheless, harmonize with the self-expression of the other musicians. This collaborative aspect of jazz is what Gelinas calls “life in concert.” Each musician contributes something unique himself or herself, but never in isolation from the larger group. The metaphor from jazz is rich for Christian existence. We must find out own voice (or calling), but never merely for our own sake, but for the sake of the group (the Body of Christ) and before the audience (the listening world of unbelievers).

Thus far, I have been appreciative of Gelinas’s explanation of jazz themes and how they radiate models of Christian living. He gets inside of jazz and pulls out some hip chops. As a jazz lover and Christian, I say, “Pastor, you swing!” However, as a philosopher, I must address a few missed notes found in the chapter “Creative Tension.” Gelinas rightly emphasizes that jazz thrives on tension and does not fear it. Being creative—as genuine jazz always is—means being willing to risk on stage. If one improvises on a melody, one may miss the melody entirely. Wrong notes are hit—and then cannot be hidden or retracted. As jazz critic, Ted Gioia puts it, jazz is “the imperfect art” because it requires composing on the spot during solos; those accompanying improvise as well. Gelinas tells of John Coltrane’s pursuit of musical excellence and the tensions he had to face and overcome in that musical and spiritual journey. So far, Gelinas is solidly in the groove.

But he goes out of key by applying the ideas of tension and especially paradox to Christian living and theology. One the one hand, a tensionmay pull us in two directions simultaneously and to good effect. For example, Christians are to be in the world, but not of it. There is no contradiction here. We should not escape cultural involvement (Matthew 5:13-16), but we should not be defined and defiled by the ways of the fallen world (Romans 12:1-2; 1 John 2:15-17, etc.). As Gelinas notes, a suspension bridge stays up precisely because of the tension supporting it.

Nonetheless, when Gelinas speaks ofparadoxeshe threatens to undermine the coherence and truthfulness of Scripture, theology, and of apologetics. Gelinas writes that “I believe in absolute truth, and I believe that truth can be known.” Moreover, he believes the Bible is true. Yet Gelinas claims that the Bible affirms many paradoxes. He cites James Lucas’s ominously entitled book, Knowing the Unknowable God: “Resist your enemies andlove them; ignore hypocritical spiritual leaders andobey them…” Gelinas calls these paradoxes “impossible possibilities,” which, of course, sounds contradictory. Gelinas writes that “I no longer read books that offer the Scriptures devoid of seeming contradictions. I take them for what they are—the words of the most creative being in the universe.” Yet he affirms that the Bible contains no real contradictions. Can we make sense of this?

A contradiction occurs when one statement is logically incompatible with another statement. Consider: (1) Doug Groothuis can play the tenor saxophone solo on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and (2) Doug Groothuis cannot play tenor saxophone solo on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” If someone told you that both (1) and (2) were true, because this is a paradox (and not a contradiction), you would send them off to the woodshed for more practice in logic. There is no reason to think that the conjunction of (1) and (2) could be true without some plausible way of resolving the oppositionbetween (1) and (2).

Now, if the Bible is true in all that it affirms, it cannot contradict itself (or any truth outside of what is stated in the Bible). One may try to rescue or protect the Bible from apparent contradiction by invoking the category of paradox, but unless there are plausible ways of resolving the paradoxes, they appear more like flat-out contradictions. And if any two statements contradict each other (in the Bible or elsewhere), they cannot both be true. At least one of them must be false. Even Charlie Parker would improvise his way out of that kind of tension.

This issue is tremendously important for theology and apologetics. A necessary criterion for theology is that Scripture must be viewed as a system, a coherent set of truth claims. If any theology affirms that a proposition is both affirmed and denied in Scripture, then that theology is contradictory; and it is, therefore, false. In apologetics (the rational defense of Christianity as true and knowable), noncontradiction is likewise a necessary criterion for truth. In commending the Christian worldview, the apologist must present it as a logically coherent model of reality. For example, the apologist cannot claim that the idea of the Incarnation (Christ as both human and divine) is an irresolvable paradox and hope to draw anyone closer to Christianity through reasoning. Apologetics needs a strategy to argue that the doctrine of the God-Man is logically coherent. (On this, see the section on the Incarnation in Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest’s Integrative Theology.)

One can appreciate Gelinas’s recognition of paradoxes in the Bible and his desire to stay true to Scripture by not imposing a false coherenceupon biblical teaching. One can also agree that the Christian life presents us with some difficult existentialtensions. However, if one is left with a Bible rife with irresolvable paradoxes, then there is no reason to think that Scripture affirms truth that is absolute, noncontradictory, and knowable (as Gelinas commendably does). As the philosopher Gordon Clark said, “A paradox is a Charlie Horse between the ears.” As such, paradoxes should be dissolved, not embraced.

Gelinas does briefly write dealing with paradoxes by finding a tertium quid(third way), but he does not seem to realize that this strategy resolvesthe paradox. (The philosopher Blaise Pascal was a master of this method.) Soon after mentioning the tertium quidstrategy, Gelinas continues to write of “embracing tensions.” But the tertium quid strategy releases tension by providing a logically satisfying solution to the apparent contradiction (that is, paradox).

Despite my philosopher’s complaint against about five pages of this 218 page book, I applaud Pastor Gelinas’s creative, knowledgeable, and winsome way of bringing jazz and Christianity together.

 

What is This Thing Called Love?

Originally posted on 7/13/2015

What is this thing called love?
This funny thing called love?
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?

Cole Porter wrote the lyrics. Frank Sinatra sang the song. This gem out of the great American songbook captures something of the age-old quest for the meaning of love. Yet today love is nearly the most vexed word in the English language, taking second place only to the word God, which has been the most defiled by ignorance and arrogant redefinition. Given that love now supposedly justifies same-sex marriage and other sexual engagements outside of heterosexual marriage, let us consider its meaning.

Love is love, we are told, as if this argued in favor of same-sex marriage. Love is a human emotion, but that does not ground it in moral reality. As St. Augustine argued long ago in The City of God, our loves are warped by sin. As he writes in The City of God, chapter 28:

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.  The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.  For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience.  The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.”

We may love the temporal more than the eternal, the flesh more than the spirit, the world more than God. Our loves are confused and untrustworthy when left to themselves. We may even love deviancy over morality.

God is love, teaches the Apostle John. God’s character is holy love, not mere sentimentality or an endorsement of all human attraction or affection. God is perfectly good and free from all ignorance and distortion. He is holy in that he is above and beyond his creation, living in perfect righteousness. Hence, when God revealed himself to the prophet Isaiah, the angels worshiped him.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke (Isaiah 6:1-4; see also Revelation 4)

Isaiah’s response was not to rejoice that a tame God of had shown up. Rather, he cried:

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5).

God is holy, holy, holy. The threefold description is a Hebrew figure of speech meaning the uttermost, the maximum, the zenith.

Many know Jesus’ statement of his mission in the Gospel of John. But let us look at it again in its fuller context to understand what love really means. Jesus said to Nicodemus:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God (John 3:16-21).

Jesus came to demonstrate love in the darkness—the darkness of evil. He did not come to ratify our preferences or to confirm our wishes. As God incarnate, he came to shine light into darkness, to condemn sin as sin (rebellion against God and his creation order), and, in love, to offer forgiveness and new life. Love has an object; it does not bless the darkness. That is what the denizens of darkness do.

The darkness not only rejects Jesus, it also paints him in false colors, making Jesus a chameleon for cultural trends. This is not the Jesus who is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8; see also Malachi 3:6). This is not the Jesus who can reconcile us to God and make us his servants. This is a counterfeit Christ, who is heralded by counterfeit apostles. Listen to Paul:

For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough (1 Corinthians 11:4).

These false teachers must be exposed:

And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (1 Corinthians 11:12-15).

These purveyors of falsehood will have their reward. There error is not small. As the prophet Isaiah declared:

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight (Isaiah 5:20-21).

Good and evil are determined by the character of God, the Creator and Designer of the universe and of human beings. We are not free to improvise on the principles of morality. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his classic The Abolition of Man, “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.”

But what, more specifically, is this thing called love? Paul, again, tells us in clear terms:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

Out of his own matchless love, Christ died to forgive and restore sinners. Love is God’s response to human sin. If we deny acts and thoughts that are truly sinful, we deny God’s claim of love to forgive and renew sinners. Let us listen again to Paul:

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4).

It is God’s kindness that reveals and condemns human sin, which issues from within a woman or man. As Christ said:

What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person (Mark 7:20-23; see also Romans 3:14-26).

If it were not for the God of the Bible, we would not know who we are and what we have done in rebellion against God. God is kind, not cruel, to disclose this to us, his wayward children.

What, then, is God’s response to the slogan love is love when meant to endorse same-sex marriage and non-heterosexual activity in general? God cannot love what cuts against his character and the order and design of his creation. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. As the crown of creation he made women and men in his image and likeness, male and female, and God commissioned them to have dominion, cultivate the earth, and come together as husband and wife (Genesis 1-2). Sexual error is due to the fall of humanity. When creatures took it upon themselves to heed the voice of the lie and promote themselves above their Creator (Genesis 3).

God’s authoritative pattern for human sexuality is not open-ended. It is not a matter of subjective feeling or of cultural condition or of legal ruling. Jesus ratified the Genesis norm when he proclaimed:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:1-6).

God joins together male and female in marriage. No other arrangement is God-ordained, and no other pairing has his blessing

God’s love is demonstrated in sending Jesus to atone for our sins and set us right with God. God’s love is further revealed in his judgments of our sin as sin, so that we may repent and embrace God’s ways on earth and in eternity. God’s love, then, will never endorse, sanction, or bless anything that goes against his holy nature or against the nature of human beings he created in his image and likeness. However, when erring mortals turn against God and make themselves the authority, horrible things happen, as Paul teaches:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.  In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:18-32; see also Leviticus 18; 1 Corinthians 6:9-12).

The desires of these God-rejecting people suffered corruption, no matter how strong the desires may have been. Intensity of attraction—erotic or otherwise—does not morality make.

Some misguided scholars have attempted to blunt the force of this passage by claiming that Paul is only condemning some kinds of homosexuality. This is alien to every English translation and to the Greek text as well. Further, no biblical text outside of Romans endorses any homo-erotic behavior, let alone same-sex marriage.

By now, the reader should discern that God’s love does not extend to practices or institutions that God explicitly forbids in the teaching of the Bible, which is his living and active word (Hebrews 4:12). Rather, those who come to Christ and name him Lord must repent from their former ways of living in sin. The first word of the Gospel is repentance. After Jesus was tempted by the devil, he began his public teaching by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus charge to his followers after his resurrection and before his ascension into heaven stress repentance as well:

He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:46-48).

In the first of his 95 Theses (1517), the Reformer Martin Luther wrote:

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent,” He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

In the name of Jesus Christ, no Christian is allowed to condone what Christ himself condemns—all sexual immorality. One aspect of sin-causing behavior is sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual monogamy. When men and women are drawn to repent and confess Jesus as Lord, they will live lives of repentance as they seek to please the One who saved them from sin, death, and hell. This is a life of love. But not all that claims to be love from God is love from God. Paul’s famous love passage clarifies this:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:1-7).

Love is paramount. If so, we must get it right, lest love is drained of its glory. Love is positively shown in patience and kindness; negatively, love does not envy, boast, is not proud, does not dishonor others, is not selfish, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, and does not delight in evil. But there is one more positive statement about love that puts everything else into context: Love “rejoices with the truth” (v. 6). The Message translation says that love “Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth.” The majestic King James Version says, that love “rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.”

Love’s rejoicing in the truth of God about sexuality forbids rejoicing in what God forbids. We cannot stand with God when we stand against God’s truth about love.

Ministry Defining Moments

Some events solidify your understanding of who God made you to be. They crystallize a sense of mission and personal meaning. When the shepherd boy, David, killed the Goliath, the Philistine giant, David’s ministry was defined by zeal for God and courage. His reputation was grounded in his God-given abilities.

Another such moment was when Saul of Tarsus encountered a sorcerer named Bar-Jesus, who was trying to stop Saul from preaching the Gospel, Saul stared him down, got him out of the way, and won the leader to Christ (Acts 13:1-12). From now on, in the Book of Acts, Saul is known as Paul and takes the lead in the nascent Christian mission to Jew and Gentile. Again, his reputation was grounded in his God-given abilities.

For me, as a teacher and writer, two ministry-defining moments stand out. In the spring of 1977, I wrote an apologetic letter to the editor of the University of Oregon newspaper. One of my professors, an embittered religious studies scholar named Jack Sanders, wrote a letter in response saying I didn’t know what I was talking about and that I should have known better since I had taken his class on ancient religion. I then realized that my Christian witness would be contested by people in authority. I wrote another letter. My calling as a defender of Christianity began to be grounded in my God-given abilities.

In about 1981, I was preaching on a passage in Malachi at Orchard Community Church. During one point of the message, I sensed that a lot more was going on than what I had prepared to say. The Holy Spirit was applying the text in a palpable way. That changed my preaching forever, as did commendation from the congregation on my preaching. My preaching were further grounded in my God-given abilities.

There are more, of course. But consider events in your life that have shaped your identity as a Christ-follower. Ask the Holy Spirit to continue to reveal to you the truth of your calling and his glory in your calling. Perhaps you need a ministry-defining moment. Seek God. Seek the well-being of his church, for whom Christ died. See the expansion of his Kingdom. May God ground your ministry as you find your God-given abilities and a place and time to use them.

Who we Lost and What they Gave

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. -Psalm 115:16, KJV

As one year turns into another, much is made of those we have lost. Death has no victory for those who entrusted their lives to Jesus. Because of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul can taunt death itself by writing, “Death where is your victory? Grave, where is your sting?” We do not grieve our losses in the same way as those who have no true hope.

Still, we grieve, and we reflect. Two people died this year who gave me immeasurable assistance as a writer: James W. Sire and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. Let me eulogize both with a literary focus.

James Sire was editor of InterVarsity Press for many years. He was instrumental in getting the likes of Francis Schaeffer and Os Guinness into print. No writers in recent memory have influenced me more than these two. They gave me knowledge and courage to defend and apply Christianity in the world of ideas, culture, and politics. I am grateful to Dr. Sire for this. He was not only an editor. His own books, particularly, The Universe Next Door profoundly shaped thousands of readers. Through five editions, it addressed the ins and outs of the Christian worldview compared with other worldviews such as deism, atheism, and existentialism.

Dr. Sire read a book proposal from a young campus minister in 1983, who proposed a book critiquing the rise of Eastern religion and the occult in American culture. That young man had few credentials beyond a philosophy degree, a few years of campus ministry experience, a smattering of graduate classes in theology, and a few book reviews. But the well-seasoned editor sensed a need for such a book and took a chance by offering Douglas Groothuis a contract. My book was originally entitled, The One for All: The Convergence of Pantheism in the West. This rather pedantic title was wisely changed to Unmasking the New Age (1986), although that phrase was never used in the book. It was my first and my best-selling book. It is still in print.

Jim and I interacted on book projects over the years. He would comment on my manuscripts and I would comment on his. We appear in each other’s footnotes often. The few times I was with him face-to-face were delightful.

When I received my contract for the book, I had begun dating Becky Merrill, who joined the same campus ministry with which I was involved, The McKenzie Study Center in Eugene, Oregon. Becky said that she would edit my chapters before I sent them to InterVarsity. I accepted, with more than a literary interest in mind. Although I resisted some of her edits at first, I came to learn that she made my writing and thinking better. She also made my whole life better. We were married in 1984.

Becky, or Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (her author name), came to write two superb works on gender roles and relations in the church: Women Caught in the Conflict (Baker, 1994) and Good News for Women (Baker, 1997. She co-edited a major academic volume called Discovering Biblical Equality (InterVarsity Press, 2004). She also contributed several chapters to my book, Christianity That Counts (Baker, 1995). We co-wrote a number of essays as well. She wrote many popular and academic articles, mostly on biblical egalitarianism. Arguably, she was the leading thinker on biblical egalitarianism in her prime.

Becky edited all my books up through my magnum opus, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011), which was my tenth. She had an uncanny ability to get the heart of things; she clarified and beautified my writing. If anything was unclear to her, she would put the dreaded question mark in the margin. She also corrected not a few errors, bad judgments, and verbosity. There will never be another editor like her for me. My last two books have been written without her. My last book was about losing her: Walking through Twilight (InterVarsity Press, 2017). I read part of Philosophy in Seven Sentences to her shortly after it came out in 2016. After reading a passage I thought was clever, she looked at me with an expression I learned to recognize without any attending words. “It’s too cutesy, isn’t it?” I asked. “Yes,” she moaned. Her editor’s sense was there, but her words were not. I take some of her editorial sensibilities with me as I write and rewrite. “What would Becky think?” But it is not the same.

In 2018, we lost two superb editors and writers: James W. Sire and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. I lost a friend and I lost a wife whose contributions to my writing were inestimable. Therefore, I give thanks and I grieve. And I will continue to write, God helping me.

 

 

 

Who Reads? Why Read?

“I should read. But I don’t have time.” I heard this while browsing a bookstore (as I often do on Sunday afternoons). His expression was sad and resigned—wistful. Here he was, bobbing in an ocean of books—perhaps to buy a gift—and wondered if he would read. Notice he did not say, “I need to read more.” I can say that.  A young person confessed to me that he doesn’t read at all. Sadly, I wasted a gift of one of my books to him before I knew this. This soul expressed no regret or longing in his declaration of ongoing illiteracy. In fact, this individual has a college degree. I guess that reading thing was now out of the way.

At the end of final’s week in the spring of 1977, I saw a student who lived in my apartment building walking down the hall carrying about two feet of books which he held in both of his cupped hands. I said, “What are you doing?” He replied, “I’m throwing them out. The term is over.” I countered, “No you are not. Please give them to me.” He did, thus sparing a walk to the dumpster one floor down. I’ll never forget the stupefied expression on his face.

In recent years, many bookstores are not primarily book-stores. The Barnes and Noble chain stores now have knickknacks, puzzles, games, and more. This is not true for The Tattered Cover bookstores in Denver. Their non-book items fit the feel of books—cards, pens, journals, and so on.

People do read. . . what is on their phones. Yesterday, I saw a man crossing a busy intersection while both walking his dog and looking down at his phone. I felt sorry for the dog. But reading a text message or a Facebook post is not the same as settling into a book, that ancient and low-tech object. Screens change words and images endlessly. They are restless. Books have one set of messages per page. They stay put so you can stay focused.

Books have an embodied history as objects in space and time. I treasure my first copy of The God Who is There by Francis A. Schaeffer, which I bought at the University of Oregon bookstore in the fall of 1976, shortly after becoming a Christian. Schaeffer’s intellectual courage and range of interests captivated me and helped chart my own calling. I own another edition and have heard the book on audio, but that is not the same. Books like this are part of the furniture of our homes and of our souls. My home decoration theme is books.

Christians, of all people, should be readers. If we are going to outthink the world for Christ, we need to be knowledgeable about what matters most.

Christians, of all people, should be readers. If we are going to outthink the world for Christ, we need to be knowledgeable about what matters most. As Vernon Grounds said, “We should be masters of one book (the Bible) and readers of many books.” Time alone with a significant book can transform you for the better by opening your mind to truths about history, theology, philosophy, culture, geography, painting, and architecture that you will not simply pick up on Facebook or Instagram.

Can you sit still long enough to make headway through a book? A teenager confessed to me that he could not do so. He had just heard me give a lecture at Summit Ministries. I said, “Get J. P. Moreland’s book, Love Your God With All Your Mind.Then sit in a quiet room by yourself for one hour and read the book. Just one hour. If you do this, you can develop a discipline of reading.” The young man warmed to this and said, “You are good at talking to people.” I relished that comment and hoped that he would become a reader.

God has given me more discretionary time to read and study than most humans. I do what I love. I have time to read. I have time to write. It is easy for me to say, “Read more!” Still, with only a few changes to your life, you can read more and read more deeply. Try an hour by yourself with no distractions. This time, take Philosophy in Seven Sentences in with you, and let me know what you think.

 

 

Brief Social Commentary: Radio Lab

Public radio has a program called Radio Lab. Today, they took up artificial intelligence. But the form of the program is odd, interruptive. Speakers are often interrupted by other voices. The interjected comments may be parenthetical or substantial.

Call me peevish, but I loathe being interrupted when I speak, even if it is an accident. I try hard to never interrupt anyone else—unless that is the only way to say anything to them. This program often does not allow speakers to complete their own sentences—or at least much of the time.

If this is the new normal, I want to stay abnormal—one voice sentences. Why do they do this anyway? Perhaps because we are an interruptive, conversationally impatient, and rude culture.

The audio technology allows these interruptions to be seamless, which almost sounds like a contradiction. No voice is talking over another voice, at least I don’t think so. I did not–could not–listen to the whole program, even though the topic, artificial intelligence, was fascinating.

These digital interjections depersonalize those “interviewed,” if we could call it that. Sound data is collected and manipulated by Radio Lab. If they ask me for my sound data, I shall decline. I will sometimes even pause to start or finish a sentence correctly. And I don’t want my voice completing someone else’s sentence.

Philosophy of Technology in Six Ideas

As I prowl around bookstores, I find a gaggle of books on managing technology overload. One after another fall of the presses and make their way on the shelves and into my hands. Some, I buy; most, I pass over. Often, I think, “I noticed that twenty years ago.” I did not predict Google or Facebook or Wikipedia, of course; but in my unread book, The Soul in Cyberspace, I did exegete the medium qua medium, noted some of the internet’s strengths, but warned of ways it could diminish the good life that God wants us to live. Here are six words that capture some of the insights I find repeated again and again in these new books.

  1. More is often less. Humans can profitably interact only with a limited amount of data and sensory stimulation. We must limit our exposure to internet (and all) electronic media because, unless we are careful, it will addle and unravel us. It may even stupefy us, even as we twitch and click away.
  2. The medium is the message. As Marshall McLuhan wrote 50 years ago, each communications media shapes its message according to the dictates of the form of communication. An image communicates differently than the spoken word, the spoken word, differently than the written word, and so it goes. Attending a worship service cannot be translated truthfully by watching it on line.
  3. Efficiency is overrated and may be dangerous. Many good things come slowly, such as strong and vibrant relationships, handcrafted furniture, and skill in playing a musical instrument. All too often, modern technology accelerates without regard to quality. Downloading a PDF of a book can be done quickly; but perhaps finding a hard copy and enjoying its un-electrified slowness is what you should do. It is more efficient to use a program to put comments on students’ papers. However, writing with pen and ink is more personal and embodied. Yes, it is slower—and better (if you have the time).
  4. Resist quantification over qualitative concerns. Technologies trade on numbers. How many likes did your Facebook post receive? People may like it for the wrong reasons. How many people follow your tweets? How can you maximize exposure to your blog? What is left behind, too often, is the quality–the objective nature–of what is available online. What might God think of your essay, your poem, or your cartoon? Does what you put on line contribute to human flourishing.
  5. Virtuous engagement online requires abstention. We often give too much of our time to the on line world. Our very souls are shaped by its speed, its fragmentation, its instantism. Thus, we are wise to retreat, to unplug, to desist, to desert it. Leave your phone in the car when you go shopping or when you meet a friend at a coffee shop. Designate hours and days when you are off line entirely. You will gain a new perspective on your on line life by going off line. You will notice what slipped into the background: friends, pets, nature, the Bible, prayer needs, and more.
  6. Every new communication technology gives and takes away. There is no sheer advantage. The telephone and radio extend the voice, but take away the physical presence. Early users of telephones were rattled by a disembodied voice coming from far away. The internet opens up the world to us, but may separate us from the people in our midst. Hence, “the absent presence” of much of life today. How can someone listen to you when they are texting someone elsewhere? Electronic music files make music available nearly anywhere, but the sound quality is worse than a record. And when you can listen to music through your ear buds in public, you will not be as aware of the world around you. You may not see the tears in a stranger’s eyes or hear a sound of distress in your midst.

My miniature essay fails to address the evil algorithms out there, the good and evil of big data, and other empirical matters worthy of concern. Nevertheless, my six ideas cover much of what is being written about today, twenty years after I warned about the down side of technologies. My inspiration was and is thinkers such as Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan, Malcolm Muggerridge, and Jacques Ellul. Take some time away from Facebook, Instagram, et al, and read them, please.

 

A Prayer Guided by the Lord’s Prayer

Our Father in heaven, I come as your child.

May your name (all that you are) be hallowed—deemed holy by me and by all your creatures.

Your Kingdom be manifested here and now as it is eternally in heaven.

Give us today what we need, physically, spiritually, economically.

Forgive us when we do not hallow your name, when we use your hallowed name in vain or with malice.

In humility, since we sin and are forgiven through Christ, let us forgive those who hurt us, ignore us, and use us.

You alone will keep and settle the score.

Give us wisdom to not dwell where vice is contagious nor where virtue is mocked.

Deliver us from compromise with evil, from that which makes you, O Present One, seem absent.

We pray this because you have all power to establish your glorious Kingdom forever.

Amen.

Lessons from Seven Churches

I found my home in Evangelical Anglicanism in early 2007. My denomination is the Anglican Church in North America (ACNC). I visited Wellspring Anglican Church and never left. As I reflect on my church life, I am grateful to several churches for their faithfulness to God. My list is not inclusive of all the churches I have attended. Having been a Christ-follower for over forty-two years, I will recount a few ways in which God has led and sanctified me for worship and service. Perhaps my reflections will edify you and stimulate you to enter deeply into the life of the church that Christ bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

I cannot remember my first church experience. My parents had me baptized as an infant at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Anchorage, Alaska in 1957. I am grateful for my parent’s concern and the church’s faithfulness to its doctrine. My first memory of this church was of attending a Sunday school class for a short time. I went a few times, but my parents didn’t insist on it. I was involved in a junior high school group with First Presbyterian, but don’t remember any biblical teaching—at least nothing that made an impression.

The church conducted my father’s funeral in November of 1968 after his death in a small plane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska. The pastor, whose name I forgot, said that Dad served those who “worked with their hands.” Indeed, he did. He was Business Manager for Labor’s Local #341 at the time of his death. He had been the first president from 1958-1968. In the summer of 2008, I attended a fine service at First Presbyterian and had lunch with the Pastor and his family. It was a sentimental time for me. However, I did not come to know God in Christ through this church.

During my first year of college, God opened my soul to this truth through reading and witness. When I returned to Anchorage from Greeley, Colorado, half of my friends had become Christians. Both sides wondered what I would do. After many conversations with Christian friends and some remarkable experiences, I professed Christ in a public meeting and was soon baptized at Abbot Loop Community Chapel, the first church I knew well. Abbot Loop was a large and growing Pentecostal church. Nearly all my Christian friends attended there.  It was part of a movement that affirmed “the fivefold ministry” of Ephesians, chapter four. As such, the church had an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, and a teacher. Given my nearly non-existent church background, I had no other ecclesiology to compare this with.

From Abbot Loop, which I attended in the summer of 1976, I learned the importance of evangelism and expressive worship. When my friends converted, they gave up drugs, sex outside of marriage, alcohol, and secular rock music. So did I. I heard preaching for the first time and began to learn the Bible. The first sermon I ever heard was an exegetical and theological disaster, however. We were told that Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins referred to two kinds of Christians: regular Christians and those who were “in the bride of Christ.” The bride-Christians, because of their zeal for the Lord, would be spared the Great Tribulation. The others would have to suffer through it, but could be saved in the end. The preacher said that he was not yet “in the bride,” but sought it out. It was a dramatic moment in the message and one that, most likely, made nearly everyone nervous about their eschatological status. I was, and I had just become a Christian a few days before that. I questioned my salvation much that first summer of my Christian life, despite my desire to live as a committed Christian. It seemed that my spiritual experiences did not match those of others, and I wondered—and worried.

In the fall of 1976, I began my second year of college in Eugene, Oregon. I attended First Baptist Church. There I heard excellent preaching and grew in the knowledge of Holy Scripture. I made friends with serious Christians and was involved in church every way I could. First B (as we called it) was not just non-Charismatic, but anti-charismatic. So, I left tongues and the quest for the miraculous behind in favor of Bible study, strong involvement in the college group, and a growing interest in apologetics and all aspects of Christian belief and practice. Jack MacArthur was our senior pastor and preacher. He was a grand orator and read his hour-long sermons. I ate it up. He had a capacious vocabulary and strong opinions, like his more well-known son, John MacArthur. Dr. Jack preached a series on the charismatic movement and one on cults. From Dr. Jack, I learned the confrontational nature of Christianity. If the Bible is true, then the defining doctrines of Mormonism and Christian Science are false. The Bible was the guide. If something was unbiblical, it was untrue. I will forever be grateful for First B and Dr. Jack, despite my later re-embrace of the charismatic dimension of Christianity.

After graduating from the University of Oregon in 1979, I attended Orchard Street Community Church, a small congregation that grew out a house church that started in the early 1970s as part of the Jesus Movement. We met in another church on Sundays. Many of the members lived in community homes, although I never did. Orchard was part of no denomination, but was strongly Evangelical. The ethos emphasized simple living and community. Coming Together in a World Falling Apart was a book that influenced the church. Our service included worship, a sermon, and periodic communion, sometimes served by non-leaders. (I led communion once, but am trying to forget that.) After the sermon, we took a short break and came back and were seated in a circle. Our repertoire for this largely unstructured time was prayer, silence, singing, and saying what was on our heart. The Quakers inspired us in this. Sometimes, people thought they had “a word from the Lord.” My anti-charismatic days were over  and I began to learn the meaning of silence.

The leadership asked me to join the preaching team in 1980. In baseball argot, I was the equivalent of the fourth starting pitcher. I was assigned a text to preach exegetically. I learned to submit myself to the text and was critiqued formally by other preachers. I also received encouragement from others in the church. During a sermon on a text in Malachi, I felt the power of God in preaching. There was a holy hush that was filled by God himself. I then knew that when I preached the Bible after careful study, the Spirit could work far beyond what I anticipated. My aspiration is to preach “as an oracle of God” (1 Peter 4:11).

Stuart Smith was one of our pastors and became a lifelong friend. He was an able teacher, a gentle spirit, and a man whose cheerfulness and determination continues to amaze and inspire me. Stuart suffers from a rare degenerative condition that progressively robbed him of his physical strength, but only deepened his spiritual strength. My chapter, “Rejoicing in Lament,” in Walking through Twilight, is about my dear friend.

Geneva Chapel was the Christian Reformed Church that Rebecca, my departed wife, and I attended during my two years of graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin (1984-86). Although I have a Dutch last name, I am half Italian and had no history with this fine denomination. When we visited, we both sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit through the worship. People were friendly and liked my last name. At Geneva, we found stability and dependability in both the leadership and in the church members. I was introduced to liturgy, although less involved than what I now experience at, Wellspring Anglican Church. One Sunday, I served as “liturgist,” which meant that I selected a few hymns and Bible readings. I liked that. Little did I know how significant liturgy would become. Geneva also asked me to preach several times. After one sermon, a man said, “I think you missed your calling. You should be a pastor.” I was encouraged by this but continued to pursue a more academic and campus-ministry-based service. However, I would continue to preach over the years in many churches. Besides preaching, the Spirit has made me more pastoral over the years of study, suffering, and living.

While on sabbatical from Denver Seminary in 2006, Becky and I lived in Sun City West, Arizona. At this time, I served as a part-time pastor at Covenant of Grace Fellowship in Phoenix, a nondenominational, charismatic church.  The pastors, Len and Sharon Griffin, are long-time friends and earnest servants of Christ and his church. I served this fellowship through teaching, preaching, and mentoring. Sadly, Becky was too ill to attend the services or events. Covenant of Grace was a haven for many African immigrants, particularly those from Liberia. I was impressed by the church’s willingness to adapt to a new people group who unexpectedly began to attend about fifteen years ago. Their worship was expressive and charismatic. At the time, I was more reserved. Len and Sharon reviewed my time of service there. Two things stand out. First, I could improve my introductions to sermons. True enough. Second, I should be more expressive in my worship. True enough—although this took some time to learn. Now I endeavor to throw myself into worship as much as I can, regardless of how I feel.

I will unfairly skip several churches which benefitted Rebecca and me over the years and conclude my ecclesiastical journey with my present fellowship, Wellspring Anglican Church, in Englewood, Colorado. After returning from my sabbatical in Arizona, I visited Wellspring because of my growing interest in liturgy and because it was pastored by two outstanding Denver Seminary graduates, Billy Waters and Rob Paris. While in Sun City West, Becky and I attended the Saturday afternoon service at Crown of Life Lutheran Church, which was only a few blocks from where we stayed. We appreciated their liturgy and welcoming spirit. One of the pastors quipped that when we attended, it lowered the average age in the congregation to eighty. (Sun City West is a retirement community.) After my first visit, I have never attended any other church, unless I was traveling, sick, or preaching elsewhere. I found my home after a long sojourn through many churches with many strengths and some weaknesses. Let me explain, starting with preaching.

As an intellectual Evangelical, preaching is essential to my appreciation of a church and my spiritual growth. The truth of Scripture should be carefully and convincingly expounded. This is nonnegotiable. Many years ago, Becky and I visited a reputable and large church in Seattle. The pastor was renowned as a superb preacher. He was not. He was an excellent speaker, but we referred to his messages as “balloon sermons.” They were colorful, but quickly floated up in the air and out of sight; they lacked gravity. I have heard some of the best preachers, and I have heard not a few bad ones. (One message I heard contained five logical contradictions.) For a time, I felt almost a spiritual obligation to dislike most sermons, because my standards were so high—and, often, because I was so arrogant, thinking that I could do better. This is never true at Wellspring, except for the occasional visiting preacher coming from outside our denomination. The sermons (or homilies—I’ll explain that shortly) are biblically based, exhorting, and encouraging.

Rob Paris planted a new church a few years ago, so our regular preacher is Billy Waters. Billy is the best preacher I have sat under. In his messages, I always feel the warm urgency of the gospel. He encourages and exhorts; it is not one or the other or neither, but always both. Pastor Billy casts a consistent vision for the church and, by God’s grace, Wellspring is glorifying God through worship, formation, and mission. We want to serve our local community and plant churches throughout Denver in gospel-deficient areas. We serve the underserved in Englewood through our food bank and medical services.

But why did I use the word homily and refer to my Pastor as Father Billy?  A homily is one aspect of the church’s liturgy. It is vital, but it is not necessarily the most significant part of the service. Since the enactment of the liturgy happens in several well-orchestrated stages or movements (and never without the Eucharist), the homily cannot go on forever without robbing the other aspects of the service of their sacred significance.

I have written a short primer on liturgy called, “Liturgy for the Low Church,” which can be found on line, so I will not belabor the elements of it here. The homilies in my church usually last no longer than twenty-five minutes. These are not “sermonettes for Christianettes.” However, as my pastor says, “Even if I preach a C- sermon, I know that the Gospel is proclaimed throughout the whole service.” (He never preaches C- sermons, by the way.) Everything of spiritual significance does not depend on the skill of the preacher or the quality of the sermon, as it often does in non-liturgical churches.

Rebecca noticed that for several years that when I returned from a Sunday service, I was often angry. (She was usually too ill to attend with me.) Much of my dismay was due to my own arrogance or judgmentalism, but not all of it. I never feel that way now. Thanks be to God!

Each church along life’s way has helped sustain and deepen my Christian existence. I am grateful for all of them. Perhaps this recounting of my journey will encourage you to find and commit to a godly church. Church involvement for the Christian is not optional. How can you believe that Jesus said that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18) and not be a living, growing part his unstoppable church? Christ bought the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Since it is that important to God, should it not be important to you?