Fire in My Bones

“Without fire, nothing.” I often say this to my students in the context of motivation for ministry. I have felt this fire for over four decades. It has gotten me through many rejections, depressions, and my own foolishness. “Fire in my bones,” comes from the prophet Jeremiah, a man with a rather miserable ministry of declaring God’s judgment. He was “the weeping prophet” and was often in trouble with the rebellious people of Israel. Yet through it all, Jeremiah wrote:

You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived;
you overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, “I will not mention his word
or speak anymore in his name,”
his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
indeed, I cannot (Jeremiah 20:7-9).

The observant reader will note that this prophet was angry with the one who made him a prophet. He would rather do something else, since the cost is so high and painful. But, indeed, he cannot! I have sometimes decided to serve God even when I did not like him very much. He is my Lord, whatever my feelings may be. I’m grateful that I have not felt this way for some time now.

Similarly, when Paul entered Athens, he was upset at their idolatry. While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Athens was not at the height of her glory, but was still a center of philosophy and learning. It was the home of Zeno, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as well as being a center of culture given its architecture, poetry, and more. Yet Paul was more exercised by its idolatry than by its celebrated achievements. As a loyal Jew, he knows that God commanded his people not have no other God besides himself and to not make idols (Exodus 20:4-6; see also Romans 1:18-32; Isaiah 42:8).

But instead of throwing a theological tantrum, Paul channels the first in his bones into courageous and brilliant witness. Luke tells us that because of his “distress,” Paul “reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). He went on to give his classic apologetic address at Mars Hill, in which he continues to reason with his well-educated and philosophically-astute audience (Acts 17:22-34).

Many more examples of “fire in the bones” can be culled from Scripture. Instead of doing that, let me say that this divinely-authorized fire is never bombastic, arrogant, or mean-spirited, since that would mean grieving the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:13-26). Rather, the fire is a holy intensity to explain and promote the truth of the living God, come what may. Let me reflect on what this idea has meant in my life and ministry.

The fire is from God, not myself. I ask God to give it to me and to protect me from vainglory and self-promotion. As a writer, teacher, and preacher, I want to make a wide, deep, long and holy mark on the world. That cannot be done through the work of the flesh and the ways of this fallen world. I have long said that we should pray that our influence would never exceed our competence or our calling.

The fire burns even when all else is dark. At the worst times of my journey through my first wife’s dementia, I still yearned to see God’s truth shed abroad in people lives and in the world at large. Yes, the fire dwindled a bit at times, but it could not be put out. What else could I live for? After many defected from Jesus’ ministry, he asked Peter

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:67-69).

During many years of hardship and fatigue, I would often intone this verse about myself from Ecclesiastes, “The grasshopper drags himself along” (Ecclesiastes 12:5), which is part of a poetic description of the trials of aging. But the grasshopper still had fire in his exoskeleton. Now, thank God, that is no longer my go-to verse; but the fire remains. I used to sign my letters to a good friend as “The Grasshopper” and he would address me as such. Now that I am experimenting with happiness, I’ve asked him to give up that appellation and I no longer use it myself. (See my essay at Christianity Today, “The Risk of Happiness.”)

The fire is a creative spark for ministry. Paul told the Romans: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20). Yes, I teach at a seminary where many other Christians minister. I write for magazine for which many other Christians write. I preach at churches were many other Christians have preached. But I seek to bring Christianity places where it is rare or scares, such as in secular publications, in the secular classroom, and talking to those who may seek quite far from the gospel. Ecclesiastes has encouraged me in this.

Ship your grain across the sea;
after many days you may receive a return.
  Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

Sow your seed in the morning. . . .
and at evening let your hands not be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well (Ecclesiastes 11:3, 6).

What the text advises for finances, I apply to ministry ventures. I ask if I can speak at a Buddhist university. They ignore me (twice). I submit a creative article to a secular philosophy magazine. They say Yes! And so it goes, the first remaining constant in my ventures, however quixotic they sometimes seem. (See my article, “Casting Your Bread on the Waters” from The Christian Research Journal).

If you have no fire for the things of God, ask him for that fire. Jesus promised:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:7-12).

One way to acquire the fire is to discern and emulate its works in others. Of course, the biblical characters of Jeremiah, Paul, and, of course, Jesus, will warm turn up the heat in our cool bones, but there are many exemplars down through history. I have found that the life and ministry of Francis Schaeffer (1912-84) to be exemplary. He had fire in his bones, but also tears in his eyes. It could write in The Great Evangelical Disaster that “truth demands confrontation,” but add “loving confrontation.” I recommend, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life by Colin Duriez (Crossway, 2008).

Whatever it takes, find the fire—and you will never be the same. Nor will the world be the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Prayer for Those Suffering from Unrequited Love

God of all comfort,
you know the pain of broken relationships.
Many of your own followers left you
at the time of greatest need.
You know what sin has done to us.
That is why you came to save us,
at such a great cost to yourself on the Cross.

 

Grant comfort to your servant [insert name],
who is smarting from rejection.
Give him patience in his grieve
and wisdom for other relationships,
through your life-giving Spirit
and in Jesus’ holy name.
Amen.

Encounter

Essay written in about 1978 for a college course

at the University of Oregon (Eugene). Unedited from that time.

It was the disturbing spring quarter of my first year in college [1976]. The cavorting of the wild ruffians in my dormitory waned as the stillness of the maturing evening guaranteed a lessening of their activity. Having separated myself from them, I was now quite alone in my room, even though on any other night I would have found myself taking part in the activities of my companions. Having dispensed with my more mundane studies, I sat gazing at my imprisoned fish companion as he swam his circuits of impossible escape. The welcome quietness vaunted me to a high level of contemplation. I reached for the volume that had completed captured my interest through my History of Modern Philosophy class: The Portable Nietzsche. The ripening of my mood demanded that I again embrace the deeply disturbing prose of this infamous philosopher.

Existentialism was a word that I could barely define three months previous, but now it had become the object of my infatuation. Nietzsche was the prophet of its most iconoclastic side, screaming of the death of God (whom we have killed) and exhorting the shipwrecked individual to fly above the sickening weakness of man-qua-man and thus aspire to the realm of the absolutely autonomous Antichrist-like “Overman”. This message was hammered into my psyche in no uncertain terms. In relentless fashion this progenitor and personification of atheistic existentialism was dynamiting the last vestiges of my tottering and vague theistic conception one by one. The impediments of tradition were jettisoned. Overman beckoned.

These warring thoughts had made an unexpected entry. They surreptitiously gained power in my thinking. They were new, alien and incorrigible – sucking everything into their vacuum. My journey into philosophy had occurred quite accidentally during my first quarter when, while groping for classes, I captured a Social Philosophy course that fit neatly into my schedule. Most of my present state of being had its origin in this innocuous event. But as the year progressed I could no longer objectively analyze the schools of thought I encountered; I had to live them. After all, they represented some of the deepest thoughts of men concerning the very meaning of existence. This could not be taken lightly. Philosophy was not written solely to fill college lecture rooms or generate opaque dilettantish arguments.

This deepening of my philosophical investigations (no matter how embryonic they may have been) had also lead me into various religious philosophies, particularly those of the mystic East. But these theologies were savagely swallowed up in the urgency of the moment. I was impassioned with anti-theology.

After consuming a few hours worth of Nietzsche I laid the book down, bowing to fatigue. Yet any physical tiredness was superseded by the uniqueness of my predicament. How had I arrived at this position? This man, seventy years gone, whose name I could scarcely spell or pronounce, had exacerbated every hidden bit of despair in my consciousness, mixing it with a Dionysian excitement that left me in uncharted regions – regions where God no longer mattered. I faced the abyss, unaided by hope in the traditional sense. Providence could no longer afford me any relief. Everything would not just eventually work out. These sorts of optimistic maxims were destroyed because I was being existentialized. I was looking beyond dependence, for I was totally free to myself and from God. I had quickly arrived at an unexpected crossroads. This “philosophy” had transcended its ordinary title. The pompous aloofness that this definition connoted was obliterated. This philosophy had to be lived, not pondered, experienced not analyzed, embraced and not entombed in the graveyard of inaccessible erudition.

But wasn’t this all too ridiculously serious? Wasn’t I but a freshman just scraping the surface of philosophical inquisition? How could I have arrived at such a position? These thoughts did little to allay my anxiety; in fact, no comfort was allowed whatsoever. This was the existential dilemma. The comforting fluctuation of intellectual agnosticism was no longer permitted, for Nietzsche had adroitly dismantled its shallowness.

Epigrams besieged me with pure poignancy rising up from uncharted depths of thought-colliding and cannibalizing each other, yet all the time miserably failing to integrate into a coherent system. I navigated without bearing, craving stability in a metaphysical wasteland. As confusion and frustration oftentimes manufacture the intellectual recline of a recuperative depression, I was progressively aghast at the incessant insurrection of my psyche. I was granted no rest. My respect for social sanction had been shaken over the course of a few years of interest in radical leftist politics, but now a more iconoclastic mental revolution was underway which avalanched and destroyed the very bulwark of my presupposition: Was there any real order in life? Where was the overriding and underlying purpose and meaning? What is really left when God has vanished? My often clichéd-like questions had disappeared and been replaced by ones which evinced a new earnestness and seriousness. This was no game. Truth eluded me, yet I craved it. Where did it hide? Could life ever vouchsafe enough time for me to discover it? Was eternity long enough? I was choked in the straitjacket of human finitude. Would even the most dedicated emulation of “the intellectual” ever assure me of certitude in any area of my life?

I sat motionless at my desk, prideful of my understanding of such a difficulty philosopher, yet quivering at the consequences of my understanding. I reread the title of the book: The Portable Nietzsche. How fond I was of toting it around with me, letting the unenlightened know my status! This dreadfully misunderstood philosopher, whose core of atheism most people refused to take seriously, had become part of my identity. Yes, I had understood what I had read and it refused to give me rest.

Yet rest is a necessity for a productive college life so, after jotting down a few painfully brief notes in my journal concerning my turbulence, I waited for sleep to remove me from this predicament. It did not comply to my wished; my subconscious was not so easily placated.

After the darkness of the room and my mental and physical fatigue had given me sleep, a strange dream began-one that would continue where my waking thoughts had ended. My feelings of complete solitude were deepened as the scene of my dream was my very room. Surprisingly, my late night ruminations were not directly manifested in the dream, but the subtlety of its content was striking. The extreme lifelike quality of this chimera added intensity to an otherwise commonplace scene. Reacting to a small tapping sound I left my bed and stood before my lone third story window. What greeted me was, by itself, not a particularly gruesome or frightening sight, but its location accentuated the bizarreness of its appearance. My stare had been reciprocated.

A nondescript face shrouded in darkness appeared in the window. But I lived on the third floor. How and, more importantly, why would anyone climb to this absurd position? Or did they have to climb? My questions ended as I awoke from my abbreviated encounter. The terror of discovering this incongruent face was limited to a short few seconds in “dream time” but the underlying bizarre and haunting presence that the face represented was to remain.

I stared at the ceiling. The murky shadings of my box-like room enfolded me in a blanket of terrorizing solitude. I had rejected that presence that secretly sought me. I was completely alone. My conscience, even in its tremulous condition, held back tears – besides, they were useless. That hideous new conscience also halted prayer, for I was commencing the execution of God. In this state self-pity was unattainable. I hated God as a nebulous word, a by-product of weak generalizations, but I dreaded his concreteness, for if he existed he knew all – even this special agony: the agony of an existential autonomy that was rejecting him.

At this frozen moment time succumbed to ego and perished in thought. All existence ceased but my own. This anguished, fragmented self was infinitely separated from all. It despised its own company but had no other. It loved its despair; it clung to it with desperation. The brute reality of this situation could not be avoided. It was zero hour.

Shivering out of bed I hit a light. Then, grabbing a pen and paper, I began the impossible task of recording these maddening thoughts. The pen, squeezed by clutching fingers, began its jagged flight over the blankness of white. Fearing the dissipation of this bothersome brain-work I wrote with frenzied determination. The blankness of a few pages was conquered, the blankness of my soul was not. No degree of descriptive elegance could manifest the ineffable. The visceral danced with the cerebral in a desultory dirge. Heightened emotions which had gone unvented tore me asunder. Could this ever be explained – should it? Would I ever want to promote such horror in another? The danger of sleep now equaled the confrontation of wakefulness and my bed was as much of an enemy as my writing pad.

Emptiness. The avenues were blocked. Things had become existentialized to the supreme degree. I was my only real audience – and my only motivation. But I remembered that man hidden in a book I had tried to forget. Shelved in a dark corner of my room was a work by Kierkegaard. I had previously ridiculed him in a philosophy essay with gleeful abandon. He was in the other camp, like the face in the window. Though an existentialist, like Nietzsche, he had nothing more central to his philosophy than the belief in, and the encounter with, God. My scorn for him went beyond a personal animosity over a philosophical position; it went to the core of his message. My antithetical attitude toward him was more a protection from his disturbing thoughts than a judicious analysis of them.

A slim volume was now in my hands, one from which I had previously fled. Its title, alienating to most at first blush, characterized my condition: The Sickness Unto Death. I leafed through to a random page and began reading. My reading was of a queer nature. It was not the vicarious enjoyment received through the admiration of the author’s style and/or message. After reading a few sentences I knew at the roots of my being that I must not sink into that merely aesthetic trap. This was not the breed of book that could be read for aesthetic gratification. Nor could it be read simply to add another title to a list of books read which supplies the dilettante with another piece of pseudo-intellectual baggage. I could not so maliciously insult the author by adopting any of these positions. Instead, I listened to the sermon, a sermon unlike any that I had experienced. The moral prodding did not come from the sententious admonishments of a dogmatic moralist, but form the profound observations of a perceptive and honest man. The pages became mirrors luminously reflecting and magnifying the exactness of my precarious posture.

The book spoke of a despair so acute, so piercing, that the God-rejecting individual internalized his despair by putting it onto the singularness of his being. He cherishes his despair because it is his and his alone. His pride drives him to unheard of heights of suffering. In this state, even if God in heaven would make himself directly known, offering to banish the suffering, the individual would reject him, opting instead to cultivate his odious despair. A reversal had occurred, the book was reading me, picking me apart with scrupulous exactitude.

I was laid bare – dissected and amazed. Was this newly discovered vital message a disclosure of Providence or a mere chance occurrence activated by my self-made freedom in a random universe? Legions of interpretations besieged me. I could not escape them, but I could escape the box that enclosed me.

It was early morning now. A time of roaring silence for me. Stark aloneness followed me out my door, down the three flights of gray stairs and on into the street. The hint of a new day loomed. I walked without direction as a physical automation possessing a mental maelstrom. Was I free to respond to this call to decision? What could I do with this awesome moral prodding? Yet I continued to love my autonomous despair with nauseating stamina. I had discovered the unthinkable: God was dead. Or was he? What was causing this crisis? Why was I thinking what I was thinking? No one could answer my query, no one except myself, or… God.

An occasional jogger broke the dawn’s quietude. The melodious tones of freshly awakened birds filled my path but failed to provide even an ounce of inner harmony. My gait was hulking but constant. The gravity of my thought had seemed to increase the gravity on my body. I carried too much to bear.

Chalkboards were filled and erased in my mind. A regiment of seminal thinkers fought to gain my attention. Their ideas, which had only recently gained my attention through the classroom, cartwheeled in my head. Karl Marx frowned and jabbed me, reducing the sum total of my experience to economic factors. My thoughts of God were nothing but a bourgeois illusion to him. Sigmund Freud appeared and spoke of my overactive superego. He labeled my thoughts about God as neurotic. Nietzsche doomed me to atheistic freedom. He instructed me to rebuke the God I could not destroy… And there was that melancholy Dane, Soren Kierkegaard. There was an infinite chasm between he and the others. He urged me to seek God with all of my heart and to stand naked and pleading before the creator, free from excuse. He was a Christian.

It was now nearing sunrise.

After an indeterminate period of time I discovered myself at the highest point on campus: the top of a hill next to the Student Union Building. I awaited the sunrise with passionate expectation. Feeling unalterably drained I desired renewal. Sunrises had always reminded of the beauty and intensity of the cosmic drama: the drama of creation and of its helmsman. I was dwarfed by the spectacle. Awe and mystery colored my perceptions as a tiny bit of red grew into a radiant orb of transformation. The final instant of night gave way to the newness of day. Tingling with a vague feeling of reverence, I signed deeply. My quest had not ended. Resolution had net yet appeared because the agony remained, but something had been beheld in a new and stunning way, something that I could never deny or rationalize into oblivion. My moral existence was not to gather any more strength from the defiance or denial of the divine.

Testimony

At some point in a life deeply lived, one cannot go back. The tracks are laid and now set in concrete that cannot be broken or laid once again. To rethink it all would be a betrayal, and a betrayal of this sort is unthinkable. One simply is what one is—and more so than before, since the weight of the past increases daily on the present.

Innovation is not excluded or anathema, but it can only occur within the framework of the given. Nothing else can be taken, but the given. Repentance is required, but has its limits, given the weight of one’s past. Still, Christ is the supernatural Lord.

One’s unique life must press itself on itself and on others—or the life is not gaining gravity and force. One wants to be “a force for good in the world” (Coltrane), and one cannot relive the past and make a new self.

This is not fatalism; it is providence, the sculpting of the self and presented to one’s world—before the face of God.

Jesus for the Nominal Christian

Nominal means “in name only.” Some politicians, rightly or wrongly, are called RINOs: Republicans in name only. That is, they are not true Republicans. If there is a true and normative Christianity, then not everyone who says she is a Christian may be a Christian. Jesus warned that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” knows the living God.

We name ourselves many things, rightly or wrongly—a friend, a father figure, a good citizen, and a Christian. Before discussing what a true Christian is, let us consider some nominal versions.

A nominal Christian does not self-identify as anything other than a Christian. She is not an agnostic or Buddhist or Muslim or anything else.

She may consider herself a Christian because she believes in God. Perhaps she thinks Jesus was a master teacher, and she wants to love people. She prays, she was raised as a Christian, and she has spiritual experiences. She even becomes involved in religious events occasionally, such as church attendance or Christian concerts.

A genuine Christian will believe in God, esteem Jesus as a master teacher, want to love people; she will pray, have spiritual experiences, be involved in religious events, and more. However, she will not rest on how she was raised to define his identity. She might have been raised in an aberrant form of Christianity or no longer believe the true Christianity in which she was raised. She will certainly not deem herself a pretty good person, whose works are pleasing enough to God to merit heaven, since no one can be saved by the works of the law.

Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, called his followers to repent of their selfish sinful ways and turn to him as Lord. This was no small thing, no mere addition to life, no mere religious preference. Jesus’s first disciples rightly called him Lord and Master. Jesus cannot be domesticated. He issued radical statements. Anyone who wants to be his disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow him. His disciples worshipped him. A nominal Christian merely compliments or salutes Jesus.

Rather than worrying about how to get on in life (with a dab of religion here and there), Jesus told us to seek first his Kingdom of love and service to our neighbor. We are to love our enemies and be eager to help the least, the last, and the lost—just as Jesus was.

Jesus summons us to deny ourselves and die to sin because he died for us on the cross. On that cross, he said, “Father forgive them.” Jesus’ true followers cast themselves on God’s mercy by having faith in what he has done for them through his death and his resurrection from the dead. They do not trust in their own goodness to earn salvation or lean on their own strength to do good works.

If we name the name of Christ as the Jesus and Bible intend, we will be born again and become a new creation, eager to do what is good and to worship God with his church in spirit and in truth.

 

Dave Barry, Dogs, and Holy Week

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! —Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:16

Dave Barry is a funny writer who has made me laugh for years.

I seldom laugh out loud when I read, but I did so many times when reading Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Rock Songs. I love dogs. So when Dave Barry writes a book about dogs, Lessons from Lucie, I want to read it. When Dave Barry gives an author event in Denver, I want to see him.

Kathleen and I drove to the historic Trinity United Method Church (built in 1888) in downtown Denver for the event. We both received copies of Dave’s new book, which came with the ticket price. She read portions of the book to me as we waited for Dave to appear. We both laughed. We were impressed by the old and large sanctuary and its gigantic pipe organ, which is still in use. Thank God for that.

I predicted Dave would make a comment about it being strange that he was in a church for the event. He did, saying it made him a bit nervous. Why would that be? Maybe he was thinking that a holy place was no place for hilarity (not true) or perhaps he has bad memories of a church. Dave then spoke of several life lessons he has learned from his old mutt, Lucie, such as its good to make friends and to let go of anger. Kathy told me she was so happy that I got the tickets for us. Me, too. But that is really not why I am writing this essay.

Before Dave Barry took the stage, the pastor of the church came to introduce himself and welcome us. Before he said anything, I wondered how he would make the most of this time to address this audience of about three hundred people, who were in church, but not for a regular service of worship. I thought of what I would say. It was not what he said.

After introducing himself, he said that having Dave Barry was a great way to begin Holy Week. Why, I thought? He did not say. He could have said that laughter is a gift from God or mentioned a cause of laughter in the Bible. He didn’t. Then, like a good pastor, he invited people to the Easter service, but said nothing about the resurrection. He only made a lame joke—a case of bad humor. He also invited us to the Good Friday service, which would feature Mozart’s Requiem. I heard some sounds of delight and expectation from the crowd. But nothing was said of Christ’s death on the cross. That is the meaning of Good Friday. That was the occasion for Mozart’s work.

While the pastor skipped over the significance of Good Friday and Easter, he did make clear his church’s stance on LGBTQI issues. He asked if people had heard about the controversy in the United Methodist Church. I raised my hand along with many others. I knew what would come next. The denomination of which he is a pastor recently ruled to affirm traditional standards in sexual conduct and marriage. This pastor assured us that his church, on the contrary, opened its doors to everyone. That meant more than letting LGBTQI folks in the door. Every church does that. He meant not taking a stand for traditional morality. I did not applaud, as did most of the others there. Then, finally (after about three long minutes), Dave Barry appeared.

As much as I enjoyed the evening of Barry’s humor, I could not shake the Pastor’s comments. What an opportunity to invite people to his church and to say something about the incomparable good news of the Gospel! It would not have to be a sermon. In just a few minutes, he could have said something like this:

Welcome to our historic church, built in 1888. We are happy to host Dave Barry tonight. God knows how to laugh and Dave helps us laugh with him. I’m not here to preach a sermon, but we warmly invite you to remember Christ’s death for us this Friday at our Good Friday service, which features Mozart’s Requiem. On Sunday, we will celebrate Christ’s glorious resurrection from the dead. You will hear that wonderful organ behind me. Now, let’s welcome Dave Barry.

How long would that have taken? How difficult would it be to at least mention the whole point of Good Friday and Easter? But to this pastor, stating his unbiblical view of sexuality was more important than speaking of the founding and constitutive events of Christianity. But that moment has passed. Dave Barry was funny, but said nothing about the Gospel. Who would expect him to do that? He was not there for that, but if he was a Christian he might have said something. The pastor said nothing. He only tried to make people laugh, come to church, and proclaim his views on gender. I can only wonder if the church services themselves would be true to the events of Good Friday and Easter. At least Mozart on Friday would be good.

This eats at me. May I never miss an opportunity to confess the faith given once for all to the God’s people, never miss an opportunity to insinuate biblical truth in unlikely settings, and never miss a chance to witness to the only truth that can set anyone free for eternity.

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!—Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:16.

Television: Agent of Truth Decay

This is excerpted from Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay(InterVarsity Press, 2000).

First, television emphasizes the moving image over written and spoken language.  It is image-driven, image-saturated, and image-controlled.   …When the image overwhelms and subjugates the word, the ability to think, write, and communicate in a linear and logical fashion is undermined.  Television’s images have their immediate effect on us, but that effect is seldom to cause us to pursue their truth or falsity.  …As Kenneth Myers stresses, ‘A culture that is rooted more in images than in words will find it increasingly difficult to sustain any broad commitment to any truth, since truth is an abstraction requiring language.’

Second, [television brings] a loss of authentic selfhood…the self is filled with a welter of images and factoids and sound bites lacking moral and intellectual adhesion.  The self becomes ungrounded and fragmented by its experiences of television.  …Postmodern illiterates live their lives through a series of television characters (better: shadows of characters), and changing channels becomes a model for the self’s manner of experience and its mode of being.  Moral and spiritual anchorage is lost.  The self is left to try on a pastiche of designer personae in no particular order and for no particular reason.

Third, television relentlessly displays a pseudo-world of discontinuity and fragmentation.  …The images appear and disappear and reappear without a proper rational context.  …This is what Postman aptly calls the ‘peek-a-boo world,’ – a visual environment lacking coherence, consisting of ever-shifting, artificially linked images. …Without any historical or logical context, the very notion of intellectual or moral coherence becomes unsustainable on television.

Fourth, the increasingly rapid pace of television’s images makes careful evaluation impossible and undesirable for the viewer, thus rendering determinations of truth and falsity difficult if not impossible.  With sophisticated video technologies, scenes change at hypervelocities and become the visual equivalent of caffeine or amphetamines. …This means that one simply absorbs hundreds and thousands of rapidly changing images, with little notion of what they mean or whether they correspond to any reality outside themselves.  …Habituation to such imposed velocities tends to make people intellectually impatient and easily bored with anything that is slow-moving and undramatic – such as reading books…experiencing nature in the raw, and engaging in face-to-face conversations with fellow human beings. …The overstuffed and overstimulated soul becomes out-of-sync with God, nature, others, and itself.  It cannot discern truth; it does not want to.  This apathetic attitude makes the apprehension and application of truth totally irrelevant.

Fifth, television promotes truth decay by its incessant entertainment imperative.  Amusement trumps all other values and takes captive every topic.  Every subject – whether war, religion, business, law or education – must be presented in a lively, amusing or stimulating manner.   …Even off the air, people now think that life (and Christian ministry) must be entertaining at all costs.  One pastor of a megachurch advises preachers that sermons should be roughly 20 minutes in length and must be ‘light and informal,’ with liberal sprinklings of ‘humor an anecdotes.’  Just like television, isn’t it?  The truth is that truth, and the most important truths, is often not entertaining.  An entertainment mentality will insulate us from many hard but necessary truths. …Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles held the interest of their audience not by being amusing but by their zeal for God’s truth, however unpopular or uncomfortable it may have been.  They refused to entertain but instead edified and convicted.  It was nothing like television” (p. 283-292).

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.

 

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.