In the front pews the old ladies turn up heir hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six-year-old a Life Saver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home for vacation who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand. The vice-president of a bank who twice this week has considered suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her. A high school teacher, who for twenty years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part even from himself, creases his order of service down the center with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee... The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a river boat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this moment he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it... Everybody knows the kinds of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them.
Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth. New York: Harper and Row, 1977, pp.22-23. (Quoted in The Power of Speaking God’s Word by Wilbur Ellsworth, Fearn, Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2000.)
As before, take these dates as tentative, since the twins may come at any point!
October 5 Luke 8:1-21 -- The work of the Word
October 12 Luke 8:22-56-- Wonder-working power
October 19 Luke 9:1-17 -- Power to the people
October 26 Luke 9:18-36 -- What it means to be the Christ
- Slate has compiled a fascinating transcript of last Friday’s debate, complete with redacted fact-checks for every factual statement made (more than 200).
- Everyone seems to be blaming the Bush administration for the economic crisis, but it’s clear that it began during the Clinton administration and was perpetuated by Democrats in Congress. Also, get a better grasp on what is going on. (HT: Leslie, Mark & Adam)
- A fascinating look at the practice of rebaptism-- part 1 and part 2.
- What is business casual? A great line: use the detergent test. (HT: Daily Saint)
- How does Bon Jovi understand worship in a way that most churches don’t? Very good points here.
- Watch the last three minutes of this video for a real laugh. I laughed harder at the end than I have in a long time (and if you know me, that’s really saying something). Boom Chakka-Lakka.
Here is PCA pastor Tim Keller talking about that transformed identity, in a better way than I am able to explain it:
Psychiatric medications can sometimes take the edge off symptoms, but they can't give people what they really need. People need meaning and relationships. Psychiatry can't give that. Medication can't give that.
This is something that is apparently difficult to understand for those who have not had immediate contact with the effects of this kind of medication (known as “psychotropic” medication).
I once had a student whose comment revealed that even those who HAVE had contact sometimes misunderstand. She said in an off-hand manner, “I’ve taken anti-depressants. They make you happy!”
The truth is, they don’t. They might help you to be normal (in a chemical sense), but they don’t make you “happy.” My concern deepened as I counseled this student about this, because she had faced mild-to-moderate depression for so long that she had come to assume that her depressed state was “normal”-- thus, having that edge of depression taken off was “happy” feeling to her.
Here’s my best analogy of what psychotropic drugs offer: Suppose you love running, and have your heart dead-set on running a marathon in a year. In preparation for a training regimen, you visit your doctor, who informs you that the slight pain in your knee is actually a problem that needs to be addressed surgically; in short, if you don’t have your knee scoped, you won’t be able to train for the marathon, let alone complete it.
Here’s the analogy: if you have your knee scoped, is that going to make you ready for the marathon? No. You’ll still have a lot of work to do to condition your body (and your mind) for running the marathon. But if you don’t have your knee scoped, you are guaranteed that you won’t be able to run the marathon.
So it is with psychotropic medication: they won’t overcome your depression for you, but they might address the physical/physiological obstacles that would keep you from being able to do the work of overcoming depression. (Likewise with anxiety and other clinical mental health issues.)
- The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a covenantal meal, which means it is a family meal-- thus, it’s not primarily an individual thing, but much more of a group thing, and in a mysterious spiritual way, it is a time of true, living fellowship with God Himself, through which He nourishes our souls with grace.
- The sacrament is something that we should be devoted to doing: devoted to doing it in the context of worship, accompanied by Word and prayer, because these are the spiritual food that God has given us for nourishment; and devoted to doing it often-- as often as we are able-- because we long to be fed and nourished all the more on the grace of God.
- The sacrament is something for believers gathered together, not for unbelievers: if we know salvation through Christ alone, we are welcomed through the Gate to take part in this spiritual feast; but if we approach it wrongly-- in an unbelieving way, whether because we misunderstand what the sacrament is for, or because we presume on it meaning that it doesn’t have-- then we are warned of the consequences of judgement being increased on us.
One thing to note: as we move through the fall (even starting in September, though I certainly hope this won’t be the case then), you should take these published texts with a grain of salt. Chances are, the schedule might change last-minute if Marcie should go into labor and the twins arrive. I’m planning to have some guys in the Presbytery “on call” to pinch-hit for me should I need it.
UPDATE: I made a slight adjustment to the last text.
September 7 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 -- What is the Lord’s Supper? Part 3: How is it?
September 14 Luke 7:1-17 -- Great power and humble faith
September 21 Luke 7:18-35 -- Following a prepared path
September 28 Luke 7:36-50 -- How great is the debt?
UPDATE: I’ve adjusted the schedule to reflect Bruce Farrant’s sermon from last Sunday.
Here are the texts for August:
August 3 Luke 6:37-42 -- Dealing with others’ faith
August 10 Luke 6:43-49 -- Dealing with your own faith
August 17 Guest Preacher Bruce Farrant-- Proverbs 18:14; 1 Peter 3:15
August 24 Matthew 26:26-30 -- What is the Lord’s Supper? Part 1: What is it?
August 31 Acts 2:42-47 -- What is the Lord’s Supper? Part 2: When is it?
At another point in the conversation, one of these formerly legalistic teenagers commented on the damage that was done through this oppressive environment. Specifically, she said that she felt like no one was given any sense of their right to read the Bible for themselves. Instead, they were told what the Bible taught and what it meant for them.
This is oppressive-- and brings to mind a significant part of the Protestant reformation, which was to translate the Bible into the language of the people (instead of only into Latin), so that people of than the priests and bishops could read it. There is an essential aspect of the faith that comes from reading Scripture; it is the Word of God for the people of God. And it is important that people know their Bibles so that they can test the teachings of others against the Word of God (remember the Bereans, who were praised for this in Acts 17:11).
At the same time, the approach of the leaders in the legalistic community are a good example of how we tend to take sound principles too far, when there is actually a “middle ground” balance needed.
Christians today too often take the “democratization of the Bible” too far; because the Reformers saw that it was important that people other than only the authorities of the church be able to read Scripture, today we have many who have decided that their interpretation of the Bible is as good as anyone’s-- and maybe better.
In fact, not everyone can interpret the Bible equally. Some have been trained extensively for interpreting the Bible-- learning the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, studying the history, archeaology, and peoples of biblical times, training in methods and approaches of how to study and interpret Scripture, and other ways of being trained. Others have read and studied their Bibles many times over, and they simply know the Scriptures well. Still others are, frankly, not familiar enough with the Bible to make the confident assertions of interpretation that they do.
This isn’t to say that not everyone ought to read their Bibles and, yes, make efforts at interpretation. But it is to say that all of us ought to remain teachable about even those biblical texts that we feel the most familiar with. And when we recognize that an interpretation we have made is at odds with an interpretation that others have made, we ought to be willing to hear the reasoning behind their interpretation with an open mind.
Imagine, if you will, the person who dogmatically insists that his translation of a text, though totally at odds with everyone else, is the accurate one:
Dogmatist: This is what I believe the text is saying...
Elder: I don’t see how you got that from Scripture; instead, I think the text says this...
Dogmatist: You’re wrong. It says what I said.
Elder: Well, let’s consult these commentaries, written by contemporary scholars... and, yes, they disagree with your interpretation, also.
Dogmatist: It doesn’t matter. I’m sticking with what I said.
Elder: Okay, but now I’ve consulted with the historical confessions, and they all assert that your interpretation is incorrect.
Dogmatist: That’s what they think. I know what my Bible says.
Elder: But look here, where the early church fathers wrote about exactly that... and they all say the text means something different.
Dogmatist: They can say what they want, but I still say it means what I said.
This sounds a little far-fetched-- but I’ve actually met people who were so convinced that their interpretation (and it always seems to be a “new” take on something) is right that they are willing to disagree with pastors, scholars, and others over 2000+ years of church history and interpretation of the Scripture. A wise pastor once said to me, “if your interpretation is in complete disagreement with 2000 years of church history, you’re very likely wrong.”
This is one of the reasons why I find the presbyterian approach to “doing church” so helpful. As presbyterians, the default position is that my voice alone is not the final word, nor is anyone else’s. Instead, we constantly defer to one another with humility. As presbyterians, we trust that God is at work in the others in our congregation, our presbytery, our synod, or our assembly, at least as much as He has been at work in us to reveal the truth. There will always be times when it is possible that the larger bodies are wrong-- but then we turn to the greater history of the church and test our perspectives against that. The deference to the higher bodies is always present, and always keeping us accountable for our interpretation.
We must read our Bibles, and we must work at interpretation. But we must also be ready to be shown that we are wrong. If we aren’t, then we have made ourselves the author of Scripture-- for only the author can be utterly certain of the meaning of a text.
One person commented on the fact that I should get a lot of sermon illustrations from these stories! (He was right...) That got me to thinking about what the real applications really were. I’d like to reflect on two broad applications here, over two posts.
At one point I asked the question of this group: how did your parents (who were all Christians) continue to believe that it was good for you to be a part of this? After all, I said, you would surely come home and tell them all about it.
Their first response demonstrated how powerful the authoritarian environment was:
No, we were told that if we reported on them we would go to Hell.
[Note, by the way, the similar nature of this environment to a classic abusive relationship-- where the victim is told that THEY (the victim) would get in trouble if they told.]
But as they went on, something else became clear. One of them said:
I was glad to be there. I needed a place where I could belong, and this place felt safe-- partly because of the rules.
And there I saw my first sermon illustration: when it comes down to it, we all gravitate toward legalism. We are all legalists.
When we’re offered an environment where the rules are known, it becomes very easy to settle into that. We know where we stand in the pecking order; we are then able to proclaim with confidence precisely why we have merited the favor of God and men.
I think this is what makes grace so threatening, so terrifying to all of us. If the work that earns us favor isn’t our work (through legalism) but Christ’s work imputed to us (by grace), we are actually dependent on something (grace) and someone (Christ) other than ourselves.
This also illustrates why even communities that are defined by Christ’s grace (namely, churches) quickly return to legalism. Dependence is very uncomfortable. Dependence is often humbling, sometimes awkward, and frequently at odds with pride. Someone who is dependent has just reason to lose some confidence in themselves.
Here’s the irony in it all: we are always dependent. Even when we think we have every reason for confidence (as with the group of teenagers who knew exactly their place in the social order of that legalistic community), we are still dependent on something: for the legalist, it is the rules and laws that we subscribe to, and the authority who creates and enforces them.
Legalism-- that idea that “I can earn merit/favor/righteousness through obedience, and take confidence and pride in myself”-- is a lie.
Amazingly, both of these writers appear to have written their words even during their experiences. Their words are as beautiful as they are tragic, in part because they are so vulnerable and exposed in them. They are also beautiful because they seem to be inviting others-- not to share their pain, but to understand it.
So many Christians I have known are afraid of pain, many because they have been so sheltered from it. But our world is full of pain, and it is quite likely that more than half of the people you encounter today are facing suffering of some sort. What would you do if you knew of it? How would you come alongside them in their pain? As one friend (who pointed me to one of these posts) wrote, “I am currently working on a doctorate in biblical studies... a Ph.D. does not address this.”
I think the heart of these two ladies is right: to come alongside them, we must understand their pain. We don’t have to share it-- I think many who are the midst of suffering feel strongly that the only way others can understand IS to share it, but I disagree-- but we must understand it. I’m grateful for the vulnerability of these two who, in the moment of their suffering and pain, invite you and me to have a glimpse of what pain looks like, that we might understand.
I invite you to read the stories of:
Rae (AKA SmockLady) who faced her first miscarriage
Denny (AKA Songstress) who lost her husband at age 33
My guess is that many folks “chose” somewhat arbitrarily. Maybe they were given a nice Bible as a gift, and they decided that would become their main Bible. Maybe a friend showed her a study tool in his Bible, and she thought she would like to have those tools as well. Perhaps they’ve simply used the same Bible since they were a child-- and they can’t even remember where they got their Bible!
When I was first beginning at Hickory Withe PC, one of the members asked me, “which Bible translation will you be preaching from?” It turns out that he and his wife wanted to do their devotional reading in the same Bible that they would use on Sunday mornings-- which they wanted to be the same translation that the preacher would be using.
This is a great idea-- and an easy way to make what is becoming a more and more difficult decision: which Bible translation should I use?
There are a lot of factors that go into a Bible translation, and there is an increasing number of useful and good translations. Evaluating them can be tricky.
Thankfully, there is a new website whose intended purpose is to guide people through understanding the different translations: Best-Bible.org. Whether you’re looking for a new Bible, curious about the differences between your translation and others, or wondering what translation philosophy went into the Bible you love, you’ll find a great amount of helpful information over there.
[Full disclosure: I had been meaning to mention this helpful tool already; however, by linking to them today I’m entered in a drawing to win a free copy of the forthcoming ESV Study Bible.]
So far, I’ve spoken twice; tonight, I’ll speak on the idea that we are saved by grace alone. During the course of the week, I’ll be presenting the essentials of reformation theology-- the “Solas”-- over the course of nine talks. I pray that these are useful for the Spirit to work truth into the hearts of these students.
Needless to say, I won’t be blogging much this week. If you don’t hear from me again, this is why!
Please pray for our trip to be both restful and a good ministry to those around us. See you soon...
UPDATE: I won’t have a guest preacher on the last Sunday after all.
UPDATE #2: I adjusted the text for this Sunday!
July 6 Luke 6:1-11 -- Sabbath Restrictions? Or Sabbath Freedom?
July 13 Luke 6:12-16 -- Appointing Twelve
July 20 Luke 6:17-26 -- Blessings & Woes
July 27 Luke 6:27-38 -- Love for others
At any rate, here are the couple of books I read in June:
Effective Small Churches in the Twenty-First Century by Carl S. Dudley is a very helpful book that is based on thorough and useful research. Dudley deals with the data and concepts that arose from his study, so many of the ideas here are fresh and not found elsewhere (in other words, this one takes you beyond the "conventional wisdom” about small churches). A bit of a slow read at parts, but generally good stuff. (8+)
“The Vision Thing” by Don K. Clements. Clements is a retired PCA Pastor who now does consulting through Metokos Ministries, working with churches in helping them develop a useful vision for their congregation. He freely admits that he has borrowed heavily from Aubrey Malphurs’s Developing a Vision for Ministry in the 21st Century, but he does a good job of summarizing that book in this small volume. Clements clearly knows how to coach churches in this process, and his knowledge comes through in the book. He writes with a conversational style, and it’s not difficult to get a fair grasp of what is needed for vision-casting through this little book. (8)
First, unlike the rest of Scripture the numbers don’t represent chapters; they represent the Psalms themselves. Thus, it is not correct to say, “I’ll read from Psalms 23, verse 2” because that would connote that you’re reading from chapter 23 of the Psalms. In fact, you are reading from Psalm #23, or simply Psalm 23 (note the lack of a plural “s” on the end). By the way, it’s the same in your hymnals: you aren’t turning to page so-and-so, but hymn # so-and-so.
Next: someone was telling me about what they do in their worship service (as far as readings go), and they said, “we have an Old Testament reading, a reading from Psalms, and a New Testament reading.” I’ve also heard before someone describing their devotional practice thusly: “I read a chapter from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a Proverb, and a chapter from the New Testament daily.” Here’s the thing, folks: Psalms is a part of the Old Testament! (So is Proverbs, incidentally.) So it is redandant and unclear to say, “we have an Old Testament reading and a reading from the Psalms.” I assume that these are two separate readings; one from the Psalms and one from another part-- perhaps the historical books? Or the major or minor prophets? It’s great that your liturgy includes two Old Testament readings, and that there is a weekly reading from the Psalms. And it would also be helpful to more accurately describe the other reading. (If it sounds like I’m nit-picking, realize that this person said something about this several times in the conversation, leading me to believe that it wasn’t just a semantic mistake.)
Finally, the Psalms include a peculiar aspect that isn’t present anywhere else in Scripture: they have verses that aren’t numbered. At the beginning of many Psalms, there will be a comment that reads something like, “a Psalm of ascents” or “to be sung to the tune of ‘Doe of the morning’” or somesuch. These comments are part of the original text, and are a part of the inspired Scripture just like the rest of the verses. During my vacation I heard a sermon on one of the Psalms, and this pastor included this unnumbered verse in his reading; but I have heard many other people (including some pastors) read a Psalm in its entirety, only skipping over this opening comment. It’s part of the text! So it should be read and considered just like the rest of the text. (The numbers to the Psalms are NOT part of the original, inspired text.)
In fact, we’ve just returned from the wedding a few moments ago (or from the reception, actually). My dear friend who was married today is someone I knew since before she was old enough to be in my youth group, and part of a family that considers me to be something of an adopted member. Her father, also a PCA pastor, and three other pastors-- including me-- officiated in the wedding today, so we tied the knot really tightly. Congratulations, Suzanna and Johnathan.
I’m delighted to report that my small part in the wedding went fine. I was asked to do the prayer of invocation only, which is an admittedly straightforward and fairly simple portion. Still, ever since seeing Four Weddings and a Funeral I’ve been concerned that my first wedding-- or part of a wedding-- might possibly present similar problems. Not so today, so perhaps I’ve avoided the “first wedding jitters” or what-have-you.
And so, in honor of the bride and groom, Johnathan and Suzanna Stenbeck; in honor of my first wedding being behind me; and as an effort to apologize for not blogging this week; I offer you the following, for your viewing and laughing pleasure:
UPDATE: I’ve changed my text for Sunday, 6/22.
June 1 Luke 5:12-16-- A Gospel for Outcasts
June 8 Luke 5:17-26-- Spiritual Healing
June 15 Luke 5:27-39-- A Call to Sinners
June 22 James 5:19-20-- Wandering souls
June 28 Guest Preacher: Justin Westmoreland
After some substantial discussion (and some interesting moves of parliamentary procedure), the primary overture (and the rest as well, as related overtures) was answered in the negative (in other words, we voted against it) on the grounds that:
...the presbyteries should work through the implications in their own local contexts.
Their response was centered around the basis that the overtures were intended essentially to amend the Book of Church Order, and they pointed out that there are processes to amend the BCO that don’t require the time and resources of a study committee.
Already there is quite a bit of stir about this decision. Some will continue to debate the matter in a way that suggests that the vote hasn’t yet happened. Others will continue to insist that the questions being asked are such simple matters that the motives of the questioners must be suspect. (For a glimpse of some of this, you might read some of the responses to ByFaith’s report of the decision.)
While I’m disappointed with the vote, I don’t think either of these responses is the most helpful or appropriate. Part of our presbyterianism-- a large part, actually-- is that we acknowledge that God works through His body, at least as much as (if not more than) through individual believers. So we need to trust that, if the assembly voted against this overture, God has good purposes for that.
What’s before us, then, is to receive the advice and instruction of the assembly and take up study of the issue in the lower bodies. I’m sure many are already beginning to do exactly this-- I certainly am-- and I’ll be curious to see how many overtures are presented next year with, not just questions about the issue that MIGHT lead to an amendment, but actual amendments.
Over the week, here are a few things that I’ve noticed, heard, or been a part of that I’ve found delightfully surprising (I’ll update this list as the week goes on):
- I served on the Committee of Commissioners (which essentially serves to audit the minutes and reports of the agencies of the denomination) for Covenant Theological Seminary. Our committee invited Bryan Chapell, who is the president of the seminary, to share with us any personal and pastoral needs and concerns that he, his family, and the community of the seminary may have. Let me add, this was a sweet and touching time. Here’s the surprising thing: Dr. Chapell said that no one (which I take to mean no committee) had ever asked him about that.
- Friends old and new: I’ve seen three friends that I’ve known since high school or earlier, two of whom are pastors and one is the wife of a pastor. I’ve also seen and met with two friends who I have gotten to know over the past months and years only through my blogs and through e-mail exchanges.
- Gary Campbell, who is the director of the PCA’s Retirement and Benefits, Inc. agency, was extended a pay increase that was reported on in the assembly. Here’s the surprise: Gary actually asked the board to REDUCE the pay increase that he was offered, out of concern that the resources of that agency be best utilized. The good news also is that the board refused to reduce it, recognizing that this act was a microcosmic representation of why Gary deserves a pay increase in the first place.
- Presbyterians eat, right? And I’ve shared every meal with a friend, classmate, or new acquaintance. Here’s the fun surprise: my generous and hospitable friends have bought most of my meals, and I’ve actually only paid for one meal so far (as of Thursday morning). For that one, I took the opportunity to buy my companion’s meal, so that I could pass along the goodwill and hospitality. UPDATE: well, the trend continued. All told, I bought three meals all week. May I take this opportunity to say, THANKS! to all my friends who were so gracious.
- Dr. Kooistra (who served as moderator for this assembly) is quite witty, and was able to bring an element of fun and lightheartedness even to some of the more serious discussion. It was wonderful to see this man of such stature and accomplishment not take himself too seriously (while not belittling the tasks or discussions before him, either).
- Good thoughts on listening to a sermon can be found here (dealing with action) and here (dealing with reaction). Go forth and do likewise.
- A problem I just don’t have... yet?!?
- There’s been a bit of interesting stuff about transracial adoption lately. For one, there’s this piece from the NY Times on de-emphasizing race. Here’s another, from Touchstone magazine, discussing how the Gospel affects the issue. The Washington Post chimes in about it, and Thabiti Anabwile offers his thoughts on the Times piece and others. Thoughtful stuff. (HT: Between Two Worlds for some of these.)
- John Piper is starting a seminary at Bethlehem Baptist Church. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? Will there be any other professors but him?
- Thoughtful ideas about both sides of the now-FINALLY!-decided Presidential race: is Barack ready? Is McCain ready?
- What are Christians NOT allowed to say? Here’s one piece on “cussin’” and foul language. Here’s another piece on the same topic, with a slightly different take. Here’s an entirely different idea-- with some surprising responses-- on what ideas Christians aren’t “allowed” to say. (I’ll come back to this soon, I think.)
- From Will Smith... who knew? Here’s some great marriage advice from the guy who brought us “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” as well as Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Independence Day, Hitch, and The Pursuit of Happyness. I’ve always known he was a great talent; now I see that his talent extends into understanding people, as well.
- An interesting way to express yourself... create your own fonts. What’s so fascinating about this is that, 20 years ago, this artform was so obscure and difficult to accomplish that those who actually did it could be counted by the hundreds, if not the tens.
- Is your favorite ice cream in this list? Here are the top six most-fattening ice creams in the U.S. I’m so glad someone finally did that study.
- My friend Dane has some good questions for the emerging church. Very thoughtful-- I’d like to know that too, Dane.
- Okay-- 10 is enough for this week.