Look To God in Loneliness

Last night I bid farewell to friends and made sure to check the lock as I closed the door behind them. In a matter of seconds, my apartment transformed from a cozy respite warm with laughter and piano music back into a plain living room with empty tea cups scattered about. I unceremoniously put the dishes in the sink and turned off the lights.

Alone again.

Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last. But in a world ridden with change and uncertainty, I suddenly found the weight of my solitude crushing. Even though this week prompted abundant meditation on the of grace of God in my life, my empty home reminded me yet again that being a follower of Christ does not make me exempt from loneliness.

One of my church members noted, “Many of us, by choice or circumstances or some odd blend of both, are facing a particularly poignant season of solitude.” Do you feel it?

As believers and unbelievers around the world prepare for the upcoming holiday season, there seems to be a unique heaviness resting on us all. For some, the reality that familiar faces will be missing from across the table this year has already brought tears. Others will work tirelessly away from their families to help patients on the brink of death. The more pensive among us feel the familiar, isolating melancholy that settles in every time Christmas lights start glistening.

The Lord sees and cares about the various trials we endure. More than that, he ordains them so the testing of our faith may produce steadfastness. Though we may not understand the purpose of these trials, we are promised by our good God that when steadfastness has its full effect, we will be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4). This promise does not mean our struggles will be easy.

Are you enduring the trial of loneliness?

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer expresses why “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer”:

The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God.  Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy.  They receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ.

If you lack this kind of companionship, I implore you not to put on a smile and manufacture cheap happiness. Instead, dwell with the church as you are able and do not give up on connection with the Church if you are not able. Seek to bring the comfort of the gospel to the widow, the orphan, the sick, the refugee. Look to God’s Word to find language of lament. Search the Scriptures and read the praises of people who trusted the promises of God even through confusion and isolation.

I assure you, we can weep over the brokenness of loneliness without cheapening the sweetness of the presence of the Holy Spirit or the work of Christ to reconcile us to the Father.

God in His kindness made a way for us to have relationship with Himself, but He also designed us for relationship with each other. May we pray for and cherish this gift, giving it to others as God allows. And, regardless of our circumstances or feelings, may we cherish the truth that we will soon enough enjoy a glorious eternity of ceaseless communion with the King of Creation alongside brothers and sisters also singing His praise.

Creating A Culture Of Sacrifice In Your Church

If you’ve ever had a physical, you’ll know there are certain benchmarks for determining health. Blood pressure, heart rate, weight, white blood cell count, reflexes – it all goes under review. You get pricked, cuffed, prodded, and interrogated in the quest to measure your health.

A good doctor must be trained to discern the marks of health. If he fails to see them, he fails to help his patients.

If you’re called to pastor a church, you too must be trained to look for the marks of health. A pastor who doesn’t know what a healthy church looks like finds fresh air in every wind of doctrine. He becomes a fad-chaser, often working but rarely building something of substance. Paul describes these types of Christians as, “…children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14).

It’s ironic, but to truly enjoy health, a church must exists for something outside of itself. In other words, a healthy church is a church committed to something greater and grander than itself, and is willing to sacrifice to obtain that thing. A good pastor is a man who can lead a church to make the sacrifices necessary to get there. So, a key to fruitful pastoral ministry is helping a church cultivate a heart to sacrifice.

Losing Much to Gain Much

It’s natural to think that the best way to protect a church is to shelter its resources and protect God’s people from risk. To keep Paul in Antioch or keep the eleven disciples together in Jerusalem. To circle the wagons, strengthen the defenses, and keep everything neat and tidy. We love neat and tidy. It feeds our desire to order and protect what we’ve been given.

But we must remember that the gospel did not emigrate out of well-established, well-endowed, well-protected churches in the New Testament. The backdrop was persecution, and there was a serious cost to mission. Sacrifice became a means by which the mission moved forward.

Church planting is like having kids. There are always good reasons to wait. After all, church planting is costly. We can be tempted to think: It hurts the mother church. We already have enough churches. We’re not ready to start another church. Church planting will hinder our fellowship.

While these statements may have some truth to them, here is the reality: For a local church to have life, it must exist for something outside itself. If you feel called to ministry read that again. It’s a really important thing to remember.

In his Letters and Papers From Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others.” The Great Commission is a claim upon us to sacrifice in order to bring life to others.

In a church that I led, we were experiencing a season of difficulty. People were upset, some had decided to leave, and there was a distinct lack of momentum. In fact, it seemed so bad that we thought only a good dose of mission could solve the problem. So we planted a church! The elders decided that we needed to get our eyes off of ourselves and on to the fields. Our church rebounded, and the church plant took off.

The church exists to reproduce itself, and this only happens by the church pouring itself out. The harvest Jesus spoke about (Matthew 9:37) requires our own incarnation, self-emptying, and self-sacrifice. The testimony of the book of Acts is that the gospel spreads by the power of God through the sacrifices of his people. The people sold their property and gave the money to the mission of the church (Acts 4:34). Stephen was stoned to death for boldly proclaiming the gospel (Acts 7:58). Philip went to the people of Samaria (Acts 8:5), a people thought to be unclean by the Jews. Peter baptized the family of the Gentile, Cornelius (Acts 10:47). Paul endured being arrested, beaten, stoned, and constantly persecuted for preaching the gospel.

The point is, the church reproduces itself through sacrifice.

The Sacrifice of Raising Up Leaders

One of my favorite books of the Bible is, curiously, Philemon. I love it because it offers an isolated snapshot of Paul’s leadership in one particular situation. Onesimus was a slave who belonged to Philemon. Onesimus deserted Philemon and, through the wonderful workings of Providence, ended up in the company of Paul. Through the ministry of Paul, Onesimus was converted to Christ and became a valuable ministry partner to Paul. Paul says of Onesimus, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me” (verse 11).

But Paul was sending him back to Philemon.

Now, just consider the circumstances around Paul. He was an older man, confined to prison. Onesimus was converted under his ministry. Paul fathered him to the point where he became an effective minister under Paul. “Though formerly he was useless” as an unbeliever (v.11), he became essential to Paul – he calls him, “…my very heart” (v. 12). Onesimus was Paul’s right hand man, a key team member.

Yet, all of these unbelievable assets did not prevent Paul from evaluating whether there may be some prior claim upon Onesimus, or whether he may be more useful to someone else. Paul was so committed to the gospel that he was willing to sacrifice even his most valuable human resource for the gospel mission.

One of the most painful/joyful realities of leadership is that training leaders is inherently sacrificial. This means God has called us to pour into some men so that people in another church, another city, another network, another part of the world will be helped. To expend our time and energy for something outside of ourselves. John Piper once said, “No local church can afford to go without the encouragement and nourishment that will come to it by sending away its best people.”

It’s just another way to say the healthy church exists for something outside of itself.

Onesimus represents sacrifice! In sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul was relinquishing his claims upon Onesimus. He was releasing one of his most valuable gospel-assets. For the sake of reconciliation and the spread of the gospel, Paul was giving up one of his most precious gospel-partners.

The Great Commission invites us to ask not, “What is best for me?”, but, “What is best for the church and the spread of the gospel?” Paul was even willing to sacrifice his own financial stability for the sake of seeing Onesimus used in the most strategic way possible: “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (verse 18).

Sending our best often costs us. It gets charged to our accounts. But God has ways of converting our sacrifices into health.

As a pastor, are you willing to makes sacrifices in order to advance the Great Commission? Are you willing to give up your most valuable, mature believers in order to see the gospel go to hard places? How we relate to these sacrifices reveals much about how far we are able to look ahead and how big God really is to us.

One fascinating twist to this story is that Onesimus may have eventually became the Bishop of Ephesus. Think about it. What if Paul had never released Onesimus to go back to Philemon? What if he had just made it about his ministry, his needs, his thing? But he didn’t. Paul saw that God was glorified in what he was willing to sacrifice.

For a church to be healthy, it must exist for something outside of itself. Does your vision of ministry include the kind of sacrifice necessary to help the church get there?

Editor’s Note: This originally published at RevDaveHarvey.com

The Surpassing Worth of Knowing Christ

Most do not understand the implications and ramifications of knowing Christ. It has a comparative value. Notice what one like Paul will forfeit to know Christ. I’m quoting only part of the long sentence, but it conveys what I want you to see:

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” ‭‭(Philippians‬ ‭3:7-8‬).

To Paul, this word, knowing, speaks of something very lofty and compelling which had a beginning and about which he has ongoing consuming interest not to be set aside throughout all of his earthly life and eons of time beyond. He calls it “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” 

Surpassing what? The answer: “whatever gain I had.” He had lots to boast about in terms of gain. He meant that he had status, reputation, accumulated superior knowledge among his peers, leadership . . . all of which he “counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” It was a wasted status, unfounded reputation, wrongheaded knowledge, and a leadership into a black hole of misunderstood data and religious practice. But it was potent to him. And he gave it up. He experienced the loss of everything in the world of his own comprehension (he counted them as “rubbish”) and among his once esteemed peers (“I have suffered the loss of all things”). 

All this happened in a moment of time, with a vision of Christ, on the road to Damascus. 

Be shocked by this. He didn’t know Christ; he hated all he knew about Christ. And driven by that perspective, he was pursuing in anger those who did know Christ on his way to the Syrian city of Damascus north of Israel. But, in a very short time, he gave up everything he had gained in the Jewish world for the Christ he sought to destroy. 

How do you explain this?

Only one explanation will work—he saw something that had more value. God revealed Christ to him in a vision. After that, he was as gentle and submissive as a newborn. Meeting Christ was just that powerful. It was the surpassing value that turned everything upside down in a moment.

You likely won’t have a Damascus road experience exactly like what God chose to give such a historical figure as Paul, but the knowing of Christ is just as necessary.  The form of the revelation of Christ is not the important thing. Knowing Christ is. And Christ is made known to you in his compelling beauty by the Father revealing him to you. That may come through normal cognition, but it is supernatural and will change everything.

Editor’s Note: This originally published at Christian Communicators Worldwide

If the Birds Seem Enviable: Encouragements and a Prayer for Recent Graduates

In the midst of plague, students of all kinds have graduated into boneyard job markets. Especially seminary graduates, who seek ministry or academic positions like crappie thrashing over a few pieces of bread. My own situation is not dire, but I too struggle to find work to feed hungry bills until student jobs at the university (hopefully) reopen in the Fall. The sparrows, Lord, the sparrows. They seem enviable.

It is true, however, that even birds must vie for territory, must scavenge to build and to feed. The observation is somewhat encouraging. The hunt for a job or program is substantial work itself, so elements of a Christian theology of work—its value, God’s partnership, its essential place in humanity, etc. —can be applied. Of course, the lack of pay is no small difference. As dead ends and rejections mount, as bank accounts dwindle with each sun, the pressures knot our shoulders and thoughts. What encouragement can be given to graduates or students in the midst of historic trouble?

Here and generally, we should be wary of quick and ubiquitous consolations. They are often misapplications or neutralizers of sanctification. The impulse to regulate another person’s response to hardship or suffering is often idealistic or, worse, selfish. Or a consolation may be true and pertinent, but the language is just rubbed to death, scentless and ineffective. For these reasons, my ear tends to resist the trotting of well-trod phrases (though I often fail to keep them from leaping off my own tongue) like “God will provide,” “remember the sparrows,” or “worry isn’t productive.” But maybe I’m alone.

Yet, Jesus’ admonition about greed and anxiety in Matthew 6 allows no wriggling out of this truth: God is a Father that cares. He listens, he responds. If God provides for robins, jays, and chickadees, Jesus said, then he will provide for us. Sometimes we must humble ourselves to receive a stale truth because it is the substance that will sustain us another day. Sometimes we must wrestle with old clay in order to make it usable again. Indeed, we often are like that.

Other encouragements are available, too. Here’s another from the same sermon: narrow your vision. No, not to Jesus (directly, at least). “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own”(Matt. 6:34). Every so often we need to wear the ol’ horse blinders so that yesterday and tomorrow don’t spook us. Focus on today. What sanity! On the other hand, what insanity—tomorrow will take care of itself? I think Jesus includes actions we do for the sake of tomorrow in a daily focus. He isn’t suggesting inconsideration of tomorrow, but that worrisome energy be devoted to immediate agency. Write that statement of purpose, send that resume, make that phone call, contemplate that theological or pastoral idea, mow your neighbor’s lawn, pray. Tomorrow (or some future day) will take care of itself because you took care of today.

Today’s work may mean that you apply for that cashier job or (God forbid) that night stock position, or whatever else that you can find. Perhaps you feel a little bit of embarrassment or shame at the thought of doing some kind of work. You would never think less of someone else, but you think that you should be past (or if honest, above) a certain kind of job or position. Of course, disappointment or dislike are acceptable feelings. But if you feel shame, be careful that your value hasn’t entwined with your professional aspirations. Not all jobs dignify humans, but all humans have dignity in their jobs. Even if you don’t prefer a certain job, you can trust that your work there matters because God has entrusted it to you.

May I suggest one more encouragement? While you pursue your goals, be open to the possibility of transfigured dreams. We pursue work that we love and/or that God has gifted or called us to. The poet Christian Wiman has written that “God doesn’t give a gift without the obligation to use it.”[1] As an aspiring writer, I have taken great encouragement from these words. But Wiman follows up that statement: “How one uses it, though—that’s where things get complicated.”[2] Without the healthy realism and ambiguity of the second sentence, I suspect that what we instinctively embrace in the first sentence is not purely the obligation of a calling or gift but also our ideal form of its expression. As disciples, we must be open to the possibility of God’s redirection. Perhaps the pursuit of a particular career or ministry is difficult because of Divine friction. We are creatures of inertia, and redirection is grating. The only thing to prepare us for it, I think, is regular prayer and surrender, small acts of undesired obedience. Difficulty may mean the opposite, of course. Endurance and grit may be the correct response to resistance. Nevertheless, we must maintain pliability.

These few thoughts are mostly spoken to myself but offered to you with this prayer: Father, may these words have their intended effect. Be tangibly present to new graduates and forthcoming ones in their heightened challenges. May they say with a psalmist that you have granted their heart’s desire. May you fulfill their petitions. Guide them into positions of service and guide their wills to serve where you position them. Let them be like babies who do not concern themselves with too much. Pray for us, Jesus, as we pray in your name. Amen.

[1] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), 42.

[2] Ibid.

The Culture of Theology: A Book Review

I count myself among the many students of theology, past and present, who are indebted to John Webster. Of the lessons I’ve learned from Webster’s pen, the preeminent is the need and necessity for theology to remain theological (I’ve reflected on this lesson from Webster here). Students familiar with Webster’s work have come to expect a God entrenched vision for the theological task that both convicts and instructs. In this way, The Culture of Theology fits right in with the remainder of the Websterian corpus.

Providing the introduction, Ivor Davidson’s opening is instructive for setting this particular volume in Webster’s chronology. Davidson, writing about the “neglected jewel in [Webster’s] literary legacy” informs that the piece was constructed during the second year of Webster’s tenure as the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. Furthermore, Davidson helps set the occasion for the writing, saying, “Webster wrote and presented the material as a series of six lectures, the Thomas Burns Memorial Lectures at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, in mid-August 1998” (2).

In order, Webster’s six lectures cover Culture, Texts, Traditions, Conversations, Criticism, and Habits. With these six lectures, Webster zooms out from walking the streets of theology and helps readers understand instead the larger contours of the neighborhood. Ultimately, Webster declares his aim, saying, “My proposal is that much can be gained by thinking of Christian theology as part of Christian culture—as one of the practices which make up the disturbing, eschatological world of Christian faith and life” (44). Webster continues, “Christian theology flourishes best when it has deep roots in the region, the cultural space, which is constituted by Christian faith and its confession of the gospel.” Webster, as he puts it, is concerned that modern theology is in a “disarray” for a variety of reasons, one of which is the “dislocation from its cultural place” (44).

As one who spent the entirety of his theological career in the university setting, Webster is familiar with the danger of theology being dislocated from a Christian culture with the living God utilizing the living texts to reveal himself as they are being studied and practiced among the eschatologically minded people of God. When describing “the culture of Christian faith,” Webster states that he has three things in mind:

(1) “Christian theology, like any other form of reflective activity, takes place in a culture, that is, in a public or social space.”

(2) Theology is such that it needs to be “cultivated.” Proper theology, according to Webster, must entail “certain interventions” to promote spiritual practices. Webster here gives the example of textual practices such as habits of reading, both the Scriptures and a renewal of classical Christian texts.

(3) The final aspect of the culture of Christian faith entails the theologian who has “specific habits of mind and soul.” Webster summarizes the third point, saying, “To put the matter in its simplest and yet most challenging form: being a Christian theologian involves the struggle to become a certain kind of person, one shaped by the culture of Christian faith” (45). Being a Christian theologian involves the struggle to become a certain kind of person, one shaped by the culture of Christian faith.

Webster contrasts his proposal with that of the Enlightenment project. Whereas in the age of the Enlightenment intellectual life and activity was to happen divorced from cultural realities and treated on the bases of reason alone, Christian theology should happen within real space and time, with real participants who have real names and stories. In fact, it is the placement of Christian theology within culture which gives it form, shape, and substance. In this way, the intellectual life is not merely a matter of understanding but of practice. Webster calls this the reality of intellectual activity being regional.

“Re-regionalizing” the Christian faith, as Webster puts it, allows us to move through the theological enterprise not from a position of skepticism against those people and institutions who came before us. Instead of fancying ourselves as being set free from the obligation of history and culture, theology allows us to press into these spheres knowing that our subject matter has something to say to the hearts, minds, and hands of those who surround us. For Webster, this approach to theology allows for the death of the dichotomy and bifurcation between “Christian theology and the life of Christian communities” (51).

Webster concludes the opening, and perhaps most important, lecture by describing both the location and dislocation of Christian theology. He utilizes two words, building off of Simone Weil and Karl Barth, to describe the task of Christian theology—roots and astonishment. He first calls for the theologian to be rooted. Rooted “into the troublesome, contrary world of the Christian gospel” (60). Within this discipline of location comes texts, co-laborers, mission, eschatology, and more. However, the theologian is to also work from a place of astonishment. Webster writes, “Christian astonishment is the amazed realization that all human life and thought is undertaken in the presence of Easter, for Jesus the living one makes himself into our contemporary, startling us with the face that he simply is” (61). The rest of the lectures are working out the significant vision of Christian theology taking place within the Christian culture of faith set in this critical first lecture.

In his second lecture, Webster continues surveying the contours of “local” theology. He begins with the habits of reading the Christian texts. Contrasting a “local hermeneutic” with that of modernity’s interpretive method, Webster writes, “When the situation of reading the Bible is no longer Christianly construed as an episode in God’s dealings with God’s people, as part of the process whereby God arrests our ignorance of his ways and savingly communicates with us, then theological description is superfluous: it doesn’t take us to the heart of what is happening when we read this book” (67). The Christian is not just to understand the words of this text but is to also cultivate a habit of reading such that the text is utilized in the faithful eschatological living in light of the gospel. In line with Webster’s theological vocation, he roots this lecture in the doctrine of the Trinity articulating that the “proper doctrinal location for a Christian theological account of Scripture is (primarily) in the doctrine of the Trinity and (secondarily and derivatively) in the doctrine of the church” (70).

In his third lecture, Webster writes contra “a number of recent accounts of the theological task.” These theological accounts, according to Webster, take a number of “extreme” views of tradition. Webster’s aim, in this third lecture, is to right-size our concept and role of tradition, which balances well with his previous emphasis on the eschatological dimension of theological method. In summative fashion, he states, “my suggestion…is that a distinctively theological account of the public covenant of Christianity undermines the de-eschatologizing potential of tradition; in fact, a theological account of tradition is a matter of tracing the permanent revolution to which the gospel gives rise” (84). Webster describes two faulty views of tradition—“tradition as play” and “effective history”—and conclude that both misunderstand Jesus’ relation to history and the present day. The each, in their own way, “perpetuate the assumption that there is, indeed, a distance between Jesus and ourselves, and that the distance has to be bridged, as it were, from our end” (87).

Moving from deconstruction to construction, Webster suggests that we move from understanding the leading metaphor for tradition as “embodiment” to contemplating it as “apostolicity.” “Tradition is the apostolic form of the life of the church” is where Webster in defining his view of tradition as apostolic; there is an undeniable ecclesial element and the public covenant which is important for the culture of theology. Bringing the lecture to a conclusion, Webster articulates an understanding of culture which is thoroughly apostolic in the sense that it “[is] a set of human readings of the gospel which , like everything else in the life of the church, is a space in which Jesus Christ announces and presents himself in the power of the Spirit as one who is indefatigably alive” (96).

The final three lectures—Conversations, Criticism, and Habits—all address an anxiety Webster assumes his interlocuters will have with his proposal. Namely, that Webster’s eschatological depiction of the culture of theology will lead to a sort of homelessness for theology. Webster writes that some may see his proposal as “exotic” and leading theology to lack any “stable set of practices, let alone in any regular institution” (99). Webster puts it another way, asking if any conception of theology which is “governed by faith” is not by necessity “anything other than literally outlandish, never to be naturalized or acclimatized, and therefore, in short, an impossibility” (100)? Webster uses the concluding three essays to address this anxiety and in doing so address areas of theological politics and the university, critical theology and theological method, and the proper ethics that ought to be found in the Christian theologian.

In the first lecture, Conversations, Webster tackles theology in the life of the University. He begins, to my dismay, by owning that what he has thus far presented, and will present, come not with a handful of pedagogical nor curricular implications per se. Webster gives this caveat at the outset of his fourth lecture and, in his own way, gently lets down the “hard-nosed realists.” This may leave the reader, even readers who are not entirely committed to pragmatics, wanting as we can be sure that the brilliance of Webster’s articulation of the culture of Theology could be match by his spending time on the curriculum of theology. He gives one piece of curricular advice: begin theology by reading the classics.

Yet, we know from the whole of Webster’s career, that his work is nothing short of a clinic on theological curriculum. Webster’s insistence that the proper starting point of Christian theology is the doctrine of God has been instructive for a generation of theologians following him. It is wrong, in a book review like this, to critique a writer for not writing a book they did not intend to construct. However, it is hard not to desire a work examining the curricular and methodological implications for what Webster has outlined in The Culture of Theology.

Describing theology’s role in the university, Webster, running against the grain of modernity, suggests that what university theology needs is “nonconformity.” Webster here means to propose that theology has something unique to contribute in university life and need not be define solely by its relationships to other disciplines. Webster, opines that the unique contribution theology stands to make is summed up with just one word: “Christianness.” Continuing on the theme of theology’s unique role to play in the university life, Webster makes an interesting and important move—he calls for the theologian to be a Christian. In some contexts, this may sound like an obvious observation. However, in the context of many modern universities, this just simply is not the case.

Moving from theology in general, to the theologian in particular, Webster says, “The process of learning itself is utterly demanding. It sets before us the devastating imperative of holiness, the transformation which is so basic to living the apostolic life.” He continues, “sanctification leaves nothing intact; there is little that is comfortable about the new creation. Yet without participation in the passion of regeneration, the theologian will be less than likely to have much to report when it is his or her turn to speak up in the colloquy of the sciences” (114).

The concluding lecture in the Burns series is Webster’s lecture on habits and cultivating the theologian’s soul. In this sixth lecture, Webster strives towards an “anthropology of the theologian” and in doing so gives us a “sketch of the human striving and suffering which are involved in doing theology well” (131). Webster repeats a refrain in this lecture, “Good theology demands good theologians.” These “good theologians” are those who, as Augustine articulates, are those who work diligently to sharpen the tools need for faithful Christian theology but also recognize that theological reasoning and articulation are gifts from the Lord. Moreover, these “good theologians” are thoroughly made new by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Webster, in what is arguably the most oft quoted portion of the book, writes, “Good theologians are those whose life and thought are caught up in the process of being slain and made alive by the gospel and of acquiring and exercising habits of mind and heart which take very seriously the gospel’s provocation” (133).

Keeping in step with the first five lectures, Webster, in his sixth lecture, demands simply that the Christian theologian be Christian. Recognizing theology as a gift received as opposed to something cultivated in the human mind, Webster informs his hearers that often the greatest theological tool, for the Christian, is simply prayer. He writes, “There is no technology of the Spirit, no moral or intellectual or even spiritual performance which will automatically make us into theologians. What there is—much to our disappointment, usually—is prayer. At the heart of theological existence is calling upon God” (143). After an inspiring definition of prayer, Webster concludes, “To pray is to be human in the theatre of grace.” Webster finishes his concluding lecture by urging the theologian to pray for three things: (1) fear of the Lord; (2) a “patient teachability or deference; and (3) freedom from self-preoccupation.

In these six lectures, John Webster offers a treasure trove of theological perspective. The Culture of Theology affords readers an eschatologically informed, ecclesially rooted, textually reasoned, piety cultivating, and uniquely Christian view of the person and work of a theologian. Although brief, there is much in these six lectures for the student of theology to sit under and receive. Ultimately, like Webster so often does, he has in this short volume pointed our attention Godward and reminded us that the task of theology is a gloriously gracious activity aimed at the good of others and the glory of our Triune God.

Editor’s Note: This originally published at Credo Magazine. Additionally, you can purchase The Culture of Theology by John Webster here.

Is God Unsafe?

We live in a world full of unspeakable sorrow and cruel injustice. Sometimes the waves of hardship seem unrelenting—smacking you into another chaotic swirl before you have time to catch your breath. This constant battering leaves anyone tired and disenchanted, if not deeply wounded.

Those who hope in Jesus are not immune to these feelings. In 2 Timothy, the Apostle Paul writes to his “beloved child” in Christ from the depths of a Roman jail shortly before his death. Personal experiences with betrayal, abandonment, and persecution penned hundreds of years ago by this messenger of the gospel help us understand that even the believer experiences pain in this life.

A few weeks ago I spoke with a woman in anguish. She walked me through her life, tearfully recounting various trials she endured. As I sat beside her listening with empathy, she suddenly looked up and asked with piercing earnestness, “Is God unsafe?”

As I pondered the woman’s question, the conversation between Mr. Beaver and Susan in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. played in my mind.

Upon discovering that Aslan, the ruler of Narnia, is a lion, Susan asks Mr. Beaver if he is safe for her to meet. Mr. Beaver responds, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.”

This sentiment is not Scripture. But this excerpt does help us understand a theme throughout the Bible: our God is holy. And there is genuine danger in not taking seriously the holiness of God.

In the beginning, Adam and Eve were able to dwell peacefully in the presence of God until their disobedience broke their relationship with the earth, with one another, and with the Lord (Genesis 3:1-24). God’s wrath towards sin was evident in the curse he bestowed to those who offended His holiness.

God’s wrath towards sin is seen in numerous passages in the Old and New Testaments, manifesting in judgment (Rev. 20:11-15, Rom. 2:1-5) and death (2 Sam. 6:5-7, John 8:24, Rom. 6:23). The Lord is the King of kings—the one deserving of all reverence and the one in whose presence all must bow in worship. Certainly, this King is not safe.

Yet as I sat beside my friend whose heart ached with the weariness of this world, I was reminded of this remarkable truth: God provides refuge to those in Him. While we were dead in our sin and deserving of judgment, God the Father graciously saves us from His wrath and offers us life through the work of God the Son (Eph. 2:5). As faithful preacher Charles Spurgeon says:

“Behold the divine justice gleaming [in the death of Jesus], for God wakens his sword that he may sheath it in the heart of the great Shepherd, and that the sheep may escape its keen edge. See there the love of God, who spared not his own Son. See all the divine attributes marvellously blended on the Cross in the bleeding person of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father.”[1]

For those in Christ who are battered and bruised—who have been betrayed by the world and feel unprotected by God—I must tell you: God is safe. God is safe in the sense that He is trustworthy. He is safe in the sense that He is your protector. Your safety in God was secured when Christ bore the wrath of God on the cross in your place (Isaiah 53:4-6).

People who are victims of abuse can open the Psalms on sleepless nights and find unparalleled solace in the promises of a God who protects them (Psalm 4:8). Children who are adopted may rest in the knowledge that their Heavenly Father holds them securely in his arms (Psalm 121). Those without an earthly home may find belonging in the family of God with a Father who cares for them.

Even when Christ bids us come and die, there is comfort in His promise, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:25). Though following Jesus is not a safe calling, He is the only true place of safety.

If you find yourself watching ashes of the life you once longed for drift pass you on the wind, remember your security in the Rock upon which you stand (1 Cor. 10:4). When you doubt the Lord is keeping you, remember with the Apostle Paul and daily preach to your soul: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (2 Tim 4:18).

Oh, what a glorious day that will be! When “night will be no more” and we “will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be [our] light,” radiating glory for all eternity (Rev. 22:5). What once would have undone us will, in Christ, become our light and dwelling place. We will dwell in eternal and complete safety, united with Jesus forevermore.

[1] The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Vol. 61, pg. 6

Secularized Pluralism: A New Opportunity for Christian Witness?

The Evangelical Missiological Society’s 2018 national conference addressed the question: “How does the process of secularization impact the task of Christian mission in the modern world?” A year later, the society published some of the conference’s key papers in a helpful little book called Against the Tide.[1] The book’s central inquiry is an important one, not just for your missions pastor, but for everyone in the body of Christ. Drawing on recent developments in sociology, nearly all the contributors point out that secularization has actually not pushed modern people to abandon their spirituality or their belief in transcendence. Rather, the secularist creed of today really just commands that we keep our religious thoughts and convictions to ourselves.

Steve Thrall is a missionary pastor in that bastion of European secularism: Paris, France. In his chapter of Against the Tide, Thrall writes, “Secularism casts religion as merely private and personal, a question of conscience and personal reflection with no bearing on any public role.”[2] The urban pastor touches on one more element of secularization though, which I think may have some even deeper implications for our Christian witness in the modern world. He says that according to the secularism he sees all around him, “No particular religious belief is perceived as truer than another.”[3] Not only should we refrain from getting into any dialogue about religion, says secularism, but we could never find any universal truth there even if we tried. Ultimately, Thrall’s pastoral analysis of this secularized pluralism is pretty optimistic, and he is not alone.

The idea here is that when religion was privatized it was also subjectivized – every religious claim is as true as the next. In our secularized society then, religion is still something of a private entity, but it has effectually “gone public,” and its shares can now be hawked freely on the trading floor. In his chapter of Against the Tide, the linguist and former church planter in eastern Europe, Marc Canner observes that “secularism allows the free public expression of religion and has contributed in the West to a greater degree of pluralism.”[4] Raphael Anzenberger, a French national, makes essentially the same observation in his own chapter, insisting that religion’s privatization is exactly what has allowed for genuine religious dialogue in many societies today.[5] The very force that made religion private, in other words, is exactly what ended up taking it public. Secularism has given birth to true and unfettered religious pluralism, and some in the church are seeing this as a new opportunity for Christian witness. The contributor to Against the Tide who makes the most of this opportunity though, is the historian of Christian missions, Shawn Behan.

“I propose that secularization in a society is a good development,” Behan announces, “because it provides a pluralism of belief options. This pluralism, then, is an opportunity for the church to engage culture (and its members) on equal footing with other beliefs in the public sphere.”[6] Behan’s rationale here is that “differing religious options push and pull each other, forcing these beliefs and their choices to be defended in the public spheres, where they can interact with one another. In this, they refine each other.”[7] In my mind though, everything seems to hinge on whether this secular pluralism really will force our differing religious convictions to interact with one another in public spheres. After all, only relatively recently have the world’s preeminent sociologists, Peter Berger[8] and Charles Taylor[9] finally agreed that a public muzzling of religious discussion is the very essence of secularism! Either way though, this secularized pluralism can mean only one thing for our duty as Christian witnesses. Whether our society tells us to keep our religious convictions to ourselves or invites us to showcase our beliefs on the open market, we still have the same commission we have always had. Let us be about sharing the gospel of Christ tenaciously no matter what. And just imagine what might happen if this moment of secularized pluralism really ends up affording us the opportunity that many in the Evangelical Missiological Society think may be in store.

[1] https://missionbooks.org/products/against-the-tide

[2] Steve Thrall, Against the Tide, Chapter 6, “Reconnecting with Secular,” paragraph 8.

[3] Steve Thrall, Against the Tide, Chapter 6, “The Roots and Development,” paragraph 16.

[4] Marc Canner, Against the Tide, Chapter 8, “Where the East Does Not Meet the West,” paragraph 3.

[5] Raphael Anzenberger, Against the Tide, Chapter 3, “Telling the Story Correctly,” paragraph 3.

[6] Shawn Behan, Against the Tide, Chapter 2, “Embracing Plurality,” paragraph 3.

[7] Shawn Behan, Against the Tide, Chapter 2, “Reexamining Secularization,” paragraph 9.

[8] https://www.eerdmans.com/Products/4691/the-desecularization-of-the-world.aspx

[9] https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?content=reviews&isbn=9780674026766

If Moses Had An Instagram Account

“The Lord wanted a people

for his own name…

The people wanted a tower

for their own fame…”

The music teacher sang out, leading our Sunday school in worship. But as I sat with my class, listening to this musical rendition of the Babel story, lessons from Genesis 11 flooded my heart.

“Come,…let us build ourselves a city and a tower…and let us make a name for ourselves,” the people said. (See Gen 11:1-10).

It’s the serpent’s enticing call to “be like God” in the garden. It’s Satan’s alluring offer to rule “all the kingdoms of the world,” in the desert. It’s the pride of life, mentioned in 1 John 2. But in this day of platforms and followers, the temptation to “be somebody” and “make a name for ourselves” hovers in our own backyard. 

As Christians, we want to share about him, even on social media. But with every post immediately judged by a self-validating show of likes and hearts, it quickly gets complicated. We’re rightly skeptical of the danger on the internet. We know about the idolatry of self-worship. Maybe we’ve tasted (with disgust) the pride and ambition that too easily mix with our sharing. 

But as William G. Scroggie explains in his masterpiece, The Unfolding Drama of Redemption, “God’s messengers come when the time is ripe for them.” The Roman roads constructed to conquer Europe became the very thing needed to help Paul, and the early church spread the good news. The universal language established by an immoral Greek empire, came just in time for the earliest preachers to share the gospel in a way more easily understood. Our God used roads constructed for evil purposes, and languages created for dominating a people to spread his word. Can he not use us to glorify His name in this questionable word of social media? 

The Example of Moses

The Bible calls Moses “very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.” [2]. The man who saw God’s glory, multiple times. The man trained with “all the wisdom of Egypt,” [3] who stood before one of the greatest leaders of the ancient world. He delivered “600,000 men, plus women and children” [4] through the Red Sea and witnessed miracle upon miracle. How was this man, with such a “following,” and such great success, kept humble, wanting nothing for himself? 

1. Moses built according to the pattern.

“Moses built according to the pattern shown him on the mountain…” [5]

As you read through the instructions for building the tabernacle, we see this phrase repeatedly. In every detail of the Lord’s house, Moses constructed just as God showed him. He could have said, “but God, this won’t be popular with the people” or “this will cause many to turn back.” But he followed God’s instructions, faithful to build everything according to the pattern God revealed. 

“What do we have that we have not received?” [6] Paul says to the Corinthians. When we share, especially in public, and especially if we are talking about our Lord – are we sharing something that has been shown to us by the Lord? Or are we sharing to get more followers, more likes, and more praise from men?

If we know that everything we receive comes from him, “Where then is boasting?” as Paul says to the Romans[7], and responds, “it is excluded.” When we share only what we have received from Christ, we have to come back and give him the glory if any good comes from it. If 1000 people are blessed by something the Lord showed us, praise Him. If only five people see, praise Him. And then, lift your eyes to him, with whom we have to do[8]. If he says, “well done,” it is enough.

2. Moses prayed for his brethren. 

Whether Israel was stranded by the Red Sea, or falling into idolatry, or grumbling about their circumstances, with each conflict that came, Moses prayed. If there was one thing that marked this man, it was his absolute reliance on God. There was never a hint of boasting, “Hey, I’ve led two-million people around the desert” Of course not. Moses knew these were God’s people, entrusted to him by the Lord, a fact he often reminded God in prayer.  

Moses kept a shepherd’s heart for his people. When they were going astray, he fell on his face and pleaded for them. When God wanted to wipe them out, he said, “No Lord, not unless you take me.” And as he interceded time after time, he knew what message to deliver. His response to God’s people came as a direct result of prayer and time before God. 

Pray as you share, for both your audience and for the receiving of the word. Many of the burdens for writing and sharing will naturally come as you serve and travail in prayer for God’s people.

3. Moses went through hidden dealings and breaking before being used by God.  

When many of us envision Moses, we see a man talking with God, or standing before Pharaoh. We remember a great warrior, triumphantly leading the Israelites into the Red Sea. It’s easy to forget this same man spent forty years in the wilderness herding sheep. The same man who received all the training of Egypt walked away, with no expectation to return. And when God appeared to Moses at the burning bush forty years later, the formerly eloquent prince says, “I don’t know how to talk.” The son of royalty had been brought to nothing.

Through broken wilderness years, God prepared a vessel for his use. A vessel who later told his people, “God led you in the wilderness these forty years, that he might humble you” [9] He was speaking of the Israelites, but he shared as one who had learned this same lesson. And he knew, deeply: if any good came from him, it was because God lived through him.

Often we forget that our Lord’s most beautiful work comes after years of deep suffering and breaking. If you long to be used by God, but just feel crushed, limited, and forgotten—you’re in good company with scriptures’ most famous men. When you know that everything you’ve received is from him, you can share boldly, to quote the Chinese preacher, Watchman Nee, “wanting nothing for yourself, but everything for the Lord.”

A final encouragement:

Our Lord Jesus chose just twelve, one of whom unfollowed. He revealed himself to 500 after his resurrection, yet only 120 came back to pray as he asked. But our Lord wasn’t concerned about his numbers. He desired only to be obedient to his Father’s will.

Obedience may mean stepping away at times. It may mean yielding to the limitations of our local church, our family, and those in our immediate real-life circle. 

But as we seek to go forward (because his life does long to be expressed and flow out from us!), just share what the Lord has given. He knows how to watch over your words and use them according to his need. Our hearts can then stay in their rightful place, as stewards of his eternal life, those entrusted with the most precious gift. What do we have that we have not received? What can we build that was not already shown on the mountain? May our Lord have His way as he leads our sharing on the internet.

[1] John 7:38 NASB

[2] Numbers 12:3 NASB

[3] Acts 7:22

[4] Exodus 12:37

[5] Exodus 25:9, 25:40, 26:30, 27:8; Numbers 8:4, Hebrews 8:5, Acts 7:44

[6] 1 Corinthians 4:7

[7] Romans 3:27

[8] Hebrews 4:13

[9] Deuteronomy 8:2,3

Translating the Message to the Military

Jesus conducted his earthly ministry in Aramaic, yet the New Testament was not written in Aramaic, nor Hebrew, but in the language of the people – it was written in Greek. This language, which was the langue franca of the Roman Empire, was a language that transcended multiple nations, people groups and, in part, allowed for the early proliferation of the gospel and the spread of Christianity in the early church. This happened because the very pages of scripture carry with it the presupposition that the message of the gospel was and is meant to be translated.

The military can be thought of akin to an under-reached or unengaged people group. It possesses its own sub-cultures, languages, acronyms, rank structures, slang, and even its own system of governance. The sum of these degrees of separation from their civilian counter-parts act as obstacles to traditional church outreach. Where these barriers have been erected as a by-product of a recognizably distinct culture, the military is in dire need for the message of the gospel to be translated into its own domain. The need for this translation work is evident in many facets, but the alarmingly high suicide rate among veterans should create the greatest urgency. Many veterans are dying among us, in our communities and towns, and by their own hand. In this arena, the translation work has been one-sided, depending upon the veteran to come out of their previous context and culture rather than the church doing the work to enter into their environment and story in need of redemption. How can the church orient themselves to reach this large and under-engaged group?

Learn the dialect of that person you are reaching

The military does not have a singular language, but rather, it is a language family with a host of dialects that pertain to that person’s MOS (military occupational specialty; their job). These are jargon laden and virtually indecipherable to an outsider, even someone in the military but in a different branch. To learn that dialect, you need to enter their story. There is no substitute for time spent in relationships with military personnel. Your curiosity and presence, armed with the translatable message of the gospel, is what will reach someone.

Ask better questions

Often, to our own discredit, our American culture is enamored with the wrong aspects of military service. Don’t ask, “did you kill anyone? Do you have PTSD? Did you see a lot of action? Did you lose anyone over there?” This barrage of misaimed questions projects a certain image upon our servicemembers. The majority of military personnel are not in combat roles, and even among those that are, does not mean they have necessarily experienced combat. Rather than asking conversation-killing questions, direct your inquires in this fashion: “what’s it like being in the military? What do you like most about it? What’s the best part of your job?” Asking better questions doesn’t merely gather better answers, it wins a second hearing, and a second and third hearing wins you a relationship.

Choose better settings

Avoid asking any big questions in passing. If you do this, you will likely get a canned response that is cordial but not intended to unpack the question. This is like walking by someone in the hallway who is in the midst of crisis and asking, “how are you?” At best you’re going to receive a curt reply. Instead, aim for long settings. These can encompass conversations spent over meals, an open-ended coffee, and small groups where you can collect a longer and more measured response. The context of your questions will often dictate the depth of response.

Go back to the beginning

A veteran’s story doesn’t begin with them deploying or leaving active duty. If you start here, you will miss the context and the subsequent meaning of their story. The sum of a veteran’s background includes, at least, seventeen years of growing up in a context prior to enlisting. When we miss these pieces of a person’s life, we can narrowly interpret and the get the wrong impressions of a person’s character. Go farther back to collect a greater context and assemble larger pieces of their background. “Where did you grow up? Why did you join the military? What was it like the first time you went home after joining? What was different? What was the same? How do you relate to your military experience now that you’re out? What would you like to do after you leave the military?”

Nurture the relationship

Like any other relationship you have in your life, it takes time to build through faithfulness and attentiveness. You will notice the first time you sit and ask to hear a person’s story that clarifying questions will arise, especially for veterans. What does that mean? What does that acronym stand for? How does this relate to this other job? Allow your desire to understand their vocation guide the conversations and help cultivate the relationship. As the relationship builds, so will your vocabulary of what was once a foreign language or peculiar dialect.

Look for Gospel Bridges

The military is replete with borrowed capital from a Christian worldview. The high view of duty, honor, courage, faithfulness, and sacrifice, to name a few, derive their ultimate meaning from the pages of scripture. As you learn that person’s military dialect and build that relationship, the more about their need for Christ will inescapably arise. The more a person borrows capital from the Christian worldview, even if unwittingly, the more their indebtedness to God will be made known. It requires wisdom to know which bridge or on-ramp is best to cross at any given time, but often these on-ramps will prioritize themselves as a person’s brokenness before God is exposed and laid bare.

To reach the under-reached sub-cultures of the military requires time spent in relationships with others, with Christ, and time in the Word. Christians can possess a confidence that their message, which been translated hundreds of times across hundreds of languages and cultures, is meant to be translated. This fact can encourage us to stay on task with bringing the only message that saves to minister to our military and veterans.

Psalm One And The Ideal Bible Reader

In the book of Psalms, the reader finds that by mixing poetry with lyricism, the psalmist seems to have a line for everything. The first psalm is my personal favorite. This text is rich and the vivid imagery helps the reader understand the point the psalmist is making. Psalm One lays out what the ideal reader of the Bible is like through each of the six verses. This ideal Bible reader is one we can aspire to be like.

The book opens in Psalm 1:1-2 by stating that the blessed man is the one who does not walk with the wicked, stand with sinners, or sit in the place of scoffers. Here we see three actions that the psalmist exhorts the reader to avoid. First, avoid behaving based on the advice of the wicked. Second, avoid giving too much honor and respect to the journey of the sinner. Third, avoid dwelling in the habitation of the scoffer. Overall, the believer is called to avoid living as the world does and avoid the influences of those who are wicked, living in sin, or scoffers.

The blessed person instead delights in God’s law and in following God. The result is found in verse three and the psalmist states that it is like being a tree planted by streams of water. The imagery here tells of a tree that is right near its source of nourishment. For the believer, our main source of nourishment must be scripture. The person who is rejoicing and delighting in God’s way is planted right by the very nourishment that they need which means that this person will never run dry. This also means they will never have to wonder from where their satisfaction will come. Furthermore, this person yields fruit at the appointed time. Not only is this individual right by the nourishment they need, but they are also fruitful in their life.

Contrasting this person in verse four is the wicked who are described as being like chaff that the wind drives away. I think of a tumbleweed here. While the tree is immovable because of its roots, the tumbleweed floats wherever the wind takes it. Not only is the wicked person moving from place to place by the movements of the wind, they also do not share the same future as the righteous person. Verses 5-6 state that the wicked will not stand in the same place as the righteous and that the Lord knows the way of the righteous. The question that arises from the text is “Which person am I?”

Do you rejoice in God’s Word or is it a burden to you? Do you enjoy following God or is it sometimes a hindrance? Christian, we must rejoice in the Word. This is the way the sovereign God has chosen to reveal Himself to us and we must take full advantage of this medium.