Running the Kids out of Church on a Rail

Introduction

It has become darkly humorous to me how the fretting over youth leaving the church has lead to a sort of self fulfilling prophesy. We worry the youth will leave, but are somehow shocked and appalled when they do just that. Fortunately I think there are the rumblings, on the deeper end of the register, that the problem may at least be attributed to a far deeper issue that has taken root in the heart of our ecclesiology currently at large. A while back it began to be commented on that our consumeristic approach, our requirements of church, and then what the church produces to meet the demand, is revealing to us; that we have been floating in a pacific ocean that is only one inch deep across. And this certainly contributed. Shallow theology leads to shallow Christians. Life then happens and suddenly shifts left… Not to mix too many metaphors here but when building a house on sand, don’t be surprised when it collapses. Plenty of churches are like cheap contractors that build mini mansions slapdash. It looks great for a few years then falls apart. However this is not the only problem. A new one has been started to be observed. We have finally begun admitting we ran the kids out of church on a rail, that we hewed ourselves, under the guise of faithfulness. 

Discipling the Kids Out

Recently Jared C. Wilson published an article over on The Gospel Coalition How to ‘Disciple’ Your Kids into Church Dropout Status. All in all, I would commend the article to you. It resonated with me and my own experience. Both of my sisters have left the church and I worry my youngest brother will become a regular attender out of habit, and being a good ole boy, more than out of any real love for Christ and his bride. And several of Wilson’s points are clear markers of where things went wrong for us. But I have a nit to pick. There is one additional point I would like to add to his list: Ignore any and all objections that your kids raise about your church. 

I’ll grant early on that this one is a bit more subjective. And it solidly resides in the realm of extended time requirements, thought, and discernment. However, I do think that there is a solid Biblical ground to stand on with this point. Beginning with Eph 6:4 “Fathers do not provoke your children to anger (NASB says exasperate), but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” If that was too clear let me nuance with the principal that underlies, “You shall not boil a young goat in it’s mothers milk” found three times in Scripture: Ex 23:19, 34:26, and Deut 14:2. The point being not to use something that is meant for the giving of life as an instrument of death. I remember Matt Chandler relating the story of Cameron in Ferris Bueler’s Day Off and how he started kicking his dads restored vintage sports car denting the fender before shoving it out the window off a cliff. The whole time shouting how his father had loved the car more than him. Chandler ended the illustration saying he never wanted to put his own kids in that position toward the church he pastored. How many parents have done this to their kids and they are simply in the laity?

Paving the Way

I am well aware of the cottage industry that is children’s and youth ministry. And I think there is a subtile lie imbedded in them, “Everything is Awesome!” to quote one of the recent prophets of our time. But the reality is that the road to hell is not just paved with good intentions, but as Screwtape reminds us. 

“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Screwtape – Letter 

Youth and kids are more observant than we give them credit for. So despite the smash and sparkle they are surrounded with a good number are very aware that one size fits all is a bad approach to discipleship.* Unfortunately, free childcare for an hour of calm, or a chance to socialize with other adults is a lure great to many parents. And if the church can throw the promise of spiritual instruction into the bargain… well then, regular attendance becomes mandatory. Voddie Baucham has rightly pointed out that children’s/youth ministry is not for the kids, it’s for the parents.

But deeper than that, or better yet, behind all that is my concern over the tendency for parents to be happy in a church and just chalk up objections to kids being lazy, or whiners. Which kids can be. And yet never examining if they are killing their kids souls by requiring attendance in a place that is actively sapping the life out of them.

Some Background

In my life I have been in churches that were dynamite and churches that were a living hell. I remember very fondly a small church near our home that shepherded my single mother and my siblings. This church was underfunded, older, and one of the most loving places I have been. It was the kind of place that never gets any attention from the blogosphere, had clunky traditions, and was still making a snails pace out of the 1950’s. And yet they challenged my sisters and I to fully participate in the life of the body, we grew there. And my mother required our attendance. I think the key was that my siblings and I were not treated as leverage to get my mother in the door, or something to be sent to the children’s wing. We sat in the service. We sat in the business meetings, we even sat in the choir. And at every turn we were welcomed and then patiently and lovingly taught. If one of us didn’t want to go and were forced we never regretted it.

But I can also remember a church that we were required to attend that actively suffocated our souls. I can remember trying to explain the problems to my mother and step father, but because they had friends in the church the answer boiled down to, “we are happy, so deal with it.” Now I don’t think that this church actively pushed my sisters over the apostate edge, the lure of sin is strong, and the desire for it is deeply rooted in all our hearts. But I do think at best that they put the final nail in the coffin. So I wonder, often, would a change of church, would listening to our repeated objections have changed the outcome? And lest I sound petty, I will point out that we were actively barred from participation in church activities because a leading deacon decided my mother and step fathers marriage was sinful. Despite, dear reader what your views on remarriage are. Punishing children and separating them from the body on behalf of the parents is spiritually abusive. I really do wonder if a change of church, though it would have been socially difficult for my mother and step father, would have been worth it? At the very least would the bitterness I see from them toward the faith be reduced?

Parents are not to be slaves to the desires of their children, They are to train them. Wilson rightly uses the word disciple in the title of his article. But proper discipleship requires the ability to assess the disciple. Or  as another Wilson** has said, “Recognize the frame of your children.” In general when I am discipling young men still living under their parents roof, and they object to their parents church, I will stand with the parents. Even if I share the same objections to that particular congregation. However, I would encourage parents to consider if you are discipling you kids right out of church, and using the church to get them out. Outsourcing is not an option, I sometimes want to ask parents, the very rude question of, why did they have kids in the first place. It seems like many parents are constantly trying to get rid of them. Perhaps the Church itself should also remind parents to count the costs when it comes to kids. If you don’t want an bore of a child who is glued to screens then you have to be the kind of parent that teaches them to entertain themselves without screens. I wonder if a lot of parents are like the guy Donald Miller talked about on his book tour years ago. “Like if you think you are the kind of guy who fishes with his kids but you never go fishing with them; then you are not that guy. A character is what he does not what they say.” If you think you are the kind of parent who would have disciplined kids but you never discipline them, you won’t have those kids.

It may seem as though priorities are conflicting here. The hierarchy for parents Biblically is, God, each other, the kids, everything else. And if parents are truly growing from a church then there is legitimate reason to assume the kids might need to hunker down and learn. But far to often I see families staying in churches because of power, control, status, social connections, all things they don’t want to loose. Church is not a country club. If any of the afore mentioned, are reasons a parent is choosing to stay then they are not in that particular church for the right reasons. Church is for the worship of God, and to be fed by His Word. Everything else is secondary. If the kids are not worshiping or being fed and are spiritually dying then it is time to say goodbye to ten wonderful years ruling with an iron fist the handbell choir for the last ten years.

Conclusion

If kids are expected to be spiritual titans then they have to be built up, and that is just not going to happen to them in a place that they hate, or that dismisses them. Parental involvement is required. Kids need to know the why, at some point at least, and it needs to make sense. Even if they don’t understand it at the time. 

Ultimately, time, thought and discernment is required. Kids can be lazy, they can be short sighted, obtuse. But at least ask are they exasperated, being killed with that which was meant to give life?

*And I am speaking on genuinely macro levels here, all curriculum from a publishing house usually a prerecorded DVD or in a slight improvement taught by someone who glanced at the lesson the previous night before bed…

**Douglas Wilson, Father Hunger. I know, I know you are not supposed to say anything about him unless you are throwing bricks in his general direction. But as his has informed us that just means he will be scooting around to corner to celebrate his persecution with a very nice bottle of whiskey.

Yet Another Article on the Proverbs 31 Woman

Introduction 

An excellent wife who can find? Done! Not the brag, but I found one. Seriously, I am not trying to brag. I would like to take this particular post and honor my excellent wife, N*. My goal is not so much instruction as to simply praise the really lovely woman I married. 

First a few ground rules. We are only three years in so there are a few parts of Proverbs 31 that we have not gotten to yet. I take it that the description is of an older women, e.g. not a lot of preschoolers are rising up to call her blessed. Therefore in the areas that we have not reached in our marriage I will skip over. I also plan to revisit this yearly if we have covered something new and I will update. 

An Excellent Wife

10 An excellent wife who can find?

She is far more precious than jewels.

11 The heart of her husband trusts in her,

and he will have no lack of gain.

I already covered this in the introduction, but I found her. She is more precious than jewels and frankly I am surprised her dad didn’t put up more of a fight for her. But I suspect that he actually had a pretty good understanding of the next part in that he trusted her. She is no fool or wilting flower. Her honesty is frustrating sometimes. She has only lied once and that was only a particularly cruel April Fools joke. I have complete trust in her. But to go further here she also meets this standard in her total lack of being manipulative. Elsewhere in Proverbs Solomon talks about wives who use an array of emotional, physical, or verbal weapons to get their way. The emotional honesty of N is an enormous gain. 

12 She does him good, and not harm,

all the days of her life.

Honestly, you could just take this one at face value. The good she does me is incalculable. Even when she is being selfish she announces in advance. Which as Screwtape points out is better than forced unselfishness, “A little real selfishness on your patient’s part is often of less value in the long run…” And frankly that can be lived with because going with the pervious point, it is undeniably honest. 

13 She seeks wool and flax,

and works with willing hands.

Ok so not wool and flax specifically… Though on occasion these things have shown up, and were surprisingly useful. But she works very hard. She works until she is exhausted and doesn’t complain (unless a squirrel was involved but more about that later). Willingness is another point I would like to rave about. The hardness of the work does not deter her. For an example skip down to verse 15.

14 She is like the ships of the merchant;

she brings her food from afar.

When N was serving as a missionary in Taiwan she would find foods that she thought would be fun or good to serve in the Reading Group I host on Sunday nights. We were not even married then and she was literally doing this verse. Since we have been married she helps me, when traveling to keep an eye out for foods we can bring home to serve others. This is one of the little details from this proverb I really get a kick out of. I actually found this person!

15 She rises while it is yet night

and provides food for her household

and portions for her maidens.

Ok the literalness of this one again blows me away. Granted N is a morning person and I am as opposed to mornings as God is to Satan. But still she wakes up early and will begin prep for our dinner and pack up our lunch for work. As well she does the shopping, which I always had a love hate relationship with. In that I hated it. I would shop around midnight so that no one would be in the store for me to have to interact with. Finally, she is currently feeding some maidens. Granted the passage is talking about servants or potentially ladies of the court type hangers on, but currently a dear friend had a husband abandon her and her daughters, and N has been preparing meals for them.

16 She considers a field and buys it;

with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.

We have not bought a field but she was the driving force behind us buying a house and land. I hate change and had burrowed into my apartment like the little tick I am. And the place was perfect for one (The horror on my landlords face when she realized I had painted everything and built floor to ceiling, wall to wall bookshelves was incredible.) That said she also does a lot of planting, we don’t have a vineyard… yet, but she did plant hops which are more valuable in home brewing.

17 She dresses herself with strength

and makes her arms strong.

N does far better than me at making her “arms strong” She works hard at exercise, which I hate. With a passion. Beyond this, and I know this is a bit outside of the direct point, N has a strength of character and conviction that is intimidating to others. I hear pastors talking about wanting their daughters to, “grow up to be a beast.” Well I got one of those. Not only is she physically strong but she has the character to match.

18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.

Her lamp does not go out at night.

19 She puts her hands to the distaff,

and her hands hold the spindle.

N doesn’t really sell stuff. We buy more from Etsy than we sell. But in our particular line of work she is a hard worker. I would argue she currently works two jobs. One for our local office as a teacher and helping me as a teacher trainer. But also as a translator for our organization’s offices in Taiwan. (N does insist that all of our lamps go out at night, the utility bill is a big concern of hers.)

20 She opens her hand to the poor

and reaches out her hands to the needy.

I would refer you to the above section about our abandoned friend. But also I would submit to the record an evening when I has meeting with an old friend, and as he and I sat on the porch with cigars and an scotch a rain storm blew in. As we enjoyed the exciting weather from the relative comfort of our smoky porch I saw a neighbor woman walk by, soaked to to bone and barefoot. My first thought was it was a typical midtown hipster out for a euphoric walk in the rain. But then she walked by a second time, on the third she turned up our driveway and walked weeping onto our porch. As I seated her and offered her water to drink she tried to apologize for walking up so suddenly, she had fought with her new husband and walked out upset. This was something of a bind. While this poor woman needed care, I didn’t want to kick out my friend who I had not seen for several years. Saw this predicament and came out. She comforted the woman for a while then welcomed her into our house. She subtly seated the woman so that they were still in eye sight, just in case, and cared for her while I was able to continue catching up with my friend. At the end of the evening he told me how he had never seen anyone spring into hospitable action like that or a married couple being so in sync on how they did it. It would not have been so smooth or even so effortless if it were not for the excellence of my wife.

21 She is not afraid of snow for her household,

for all her household are clothed in scarlet.

22 She makes bed coverings for herself;

her clothing is fine linen and purple.

Ok, I am a ginger so not a lot of scarlet is being worn by me. I’m gonna take this one to talk about how N is modest in her dress. She does not come off as the kind of homeschooler that sews their own gingham dresses. Nor does she follow every wind of fashion. N does a good job of presenting herself publicly. She is never ostentatious not shabby. With the occasional exception of a particular grey hoodie she won’t let die making an appearance, she is never an embarrassment to be seen with. Also she does a great job with bed linens, buying, cleaning, rotating seasonally… I feel like that goes with the, “Bed coverings” bit.

23 Her husband is known in the gates

when he sits among the elders of the land.

There was a book a while back that was particularly stupid, and in this particularly stupid book there was an especially stupid section. The author, who will remain nameless, attempted to take the most at face value, heavy handed approach to living out a year Biblically as a woman. This author knew better but had an ax to grind. So she took this section of Proverbs and decided to literally make her husband known in the city gates. She stood at the border of their town, right next to the “Welcome to…” sign holding a pasteboard reading “Dan is Awesome.” I contend that is the exact opposite of what this text is talking about. That is shaming, it is embarrassing. No man wants colleagues coming into work talking about how they saw his wife out there waving a pasteboard sign around with his name on it. You can be known in the city gates for good or for ill. In the providence of God where I am known I am respected in large part to my wife. I don’t make great first impressions, she does. We both work hard not to embarrass the other. We have had long conversations about how she feels loved and how I feel respected. When I sit with elders my wife is not a liability but a blessing.

24 She makes linen garments and sells them;

she delivers sashes to the merchant.

25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,

and she laughs at the time to come.

As I said before we are more shoppers of crafts than maker/sellers. But I would point out that this section is about financial responsibility. Which admittedly my wife is great at. I am considered something of a spendthrift. Payday and a sale at Thompson Cigar, or Banner of Truth renders me, ‘temporarily devoid of ready cash.” N, handles our money. And despite my desire to make it to the platinum level at Best Cigar Prices or purchase enough books that Sinclair Ferguson calls on behalf of Banner to thank me for being their biggest supporter; she toes the line of giving me freedom to spend and also requiring that we do the dull stuff like pay bills, save money, etc. (I can never let her read this article now) In one of the biographies of Teddy Roosevelt I read*, there is a story about how every morning Edith would put a twenty dollar bill in his jacket pocket, which at the time was closer to two hundred dollars today. And by the end of the day she never knew what he had spent it on. And she never asked. I find that to be very respectful. For all of her tightfistedness on the Roosevelt family accounts she understood it was his money too and he had a right to it.

26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,

and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.

This one is kind of N’s job description since we teach kids together as our work. That being said she teaches wisely with the young women she disciples. And though she does not like or always follow southern social mores she is very kind. Even when someone has been insulted they heard the truth in what N meant as a kindness. 

27 She looks well to the ways of her household

and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Full disclosure N is not into housekeeping, she is not even into organizing, she has a piling system. But she loves the outdoors. She loves to mow, and weed, and be out in nature. I am an avid indoorsman. So this works out. She is rarely idle. She works from sunup to sundown. Our skills and likes are quite complementary, but she is not lazy about any of her work.

28 Her children rise up and call her blessed;

her husband also, and he praises her:

29 “Many women have done excellently,

but you surpass them all.”

Rounding third and heading for home I want to expand on the previous section a bit with a story. We live on a street surrounded primarily by older couples. With the exception of some newlyweds directly across from us. This new couple is something of a topic among the men on the street that I will occasionally have a scotch and cigar with, primarily the fact that they seem to have a complete and total inability to mow their lawn. After much kavitching that I sit through they bring up how often they see N out laboring in our yard. And after the wife of the new couple gave mowing their lawn the old college try to very mixed reviews they all again praised how well N kept our lawn. Now this is trivial in the extreme. But it does show how my N does excellently and is praised by those around her. 

30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,

but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

Matt Chandler is fond of reminding young couples that are, for lack of a better description, horny and driven by attraction that, “Gravity wins.” Beauty is like chasing after the wind, even outside of human beauty which ages and fades, or even vogues determine what kind of girl is beautiful. Beauty in general is fleeting. Think of the flower in bloom that withers and dies and then in striving to hold on to the beauty is replaced with a fake version that gathers dust, cobwebs, and if left in the sun fades to one monochrome shade of yellow.*** Charm likewise can cover many flaws early on. But character, which is rooted in the character of Christ only grows and becomes more attractive. In the summer N and I work at a camp for three weeks and each week we have a new batch of young high school age volunteers. Many of them are in the bloom of youth and are attractive people, they are drawn to each other. But it always fascinates me working with the boys how at the end of the week the most beautiful girl can become unattractive because of how camp brings out the worst in people. It’s hard labor, and frankly always being outdoors in the mid south, in July, quickly renders the ability to remain dolled up impossible. Tempers can flare, irritation grows more quickly, 80 kids put a real harsh on romantic vibes. But the girls with character… They become more interesting to the boys, because they consistently manifest the fruits of the Spirit, even under pressure. Camp provides these young men with a perspective I have known for some time now. A woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. And pursued.

31 Give her of the fruit of her hands,

and let her works praise her in the gates.

I love how this proverb returns us to the gates, where a person is held in honor. It is an exposition on a Biblical principal. Authority flows to those who take responsibility; not to those who grasp and grab for it. The modern thought is that respect should be demanded by women, they have to force themselves into the boys club. And many current writers trying to exegete this extended proverb assert this thinking. But the flow of the passage shows that the authority and respect are earned. After all of the other works are accomplished the public acknowledgement and reward comes at the end. Like everything else in life what matters most is not the first day, but the last one. Whenever N and I travel up north to her home it always stuns me how respected she is everywhere she goes. Churches bend over backwards to come have her speak about missions. She spent her entire life (up until I drug her down here) building up the kind of reputation where she is praised everywhere she goes. And she has started doing it here. Her work and character make praise naturally flow to her.

*Following Lewis example in his personal letters I am using first initials. 

**I think it was Edmund Morris’s Theodore Rex. My favorite of his trilogy. 

***Stole that idea from Bekah Merkle.

The Confession

Editors Note: T.S.has come down for a visit and I am trying to guilt her into actually writing something for this blog that she was all “yeah let’s do this.” As such, this weeks post is a bit shorter than usual, I crave your forgiveness for producing less content for the same amount of no money. 

If there is a particular area of my sanctification in which I lack charity, it is in relations to book dealers. Book sellers, would probably be the correct term but with my insatiable appetite for books, dealers is the correct term. I get my book fix from my two local used emporiums when Amazon fails me and is media mailing to me. I dread the day Randy tells me he is cutting me off and I need to go home and be thankful for such books as I have. 

But back to my lack of charity. I have yet to be wooed by the digital book. Logos Bible software made some initial progress with it’s ability to topically index an entire library. Then failed to have digitized any of the books or authors that I rely upon as primary sources. Lewis and Spurgeon may as well be the fourth and fifth members of The Trinity as far as I am concerned. Perhaps now they have been added but they lave long been residing on my shelves as close friends; and I am hesitant to pay exorbitant all over again for a digital license version which may be required of me one day. The Logos giveth and the Logos taketh away. Neither the Kindle nor the Nook ever held any charm to my eyes, and to the touch they hold all the comfort of a sheet of aluminum. Also I remain resistant to the charms of the audio book.

But I have not yet explained my lack of charity. I love physical volumes. I love everything about them. Ironically books are written on books, and naturally, I have many of them. I won’t run on too long about the rapturous experience I go though with a new (to me) book. The smell, texture, of both cover and pages, the weight in the hand. I love format and fonts. I love the names of all the book parts (frontispiece, fly leaf, colophon) and and the terms for how it ages (foxing, chipped, trimmed, dampstained). And of course binding is king. A paperback should be utilitarian exactly the good friend you the along for pints. But it is fragile, I abhor creases on the spine. I tend to delicately crack them open and leave them at home. A sturdy hardcover is my constant companion. Heavier, yes but they travel with me. With a dust jacket removed and preserved on a corner of my desk with his fellows, whose fillings are also out and about; a sturdy hardcover is the workhorse. They can suffer some minor bumps and still remain presentable when redressed in their slips upon completion. The Cloth Over Board, however, is a work of art. *Fortunately for me publishers have rediscovered this presentation, and O glory! These are books to be savored. Not only do they satisfy the tactile, they delight the eyes. Usually bound with heavy creamy paper and printed in Serif fonts, these are books that were written and designed with love. And they adorn my shelves bringing glory to the shelf and to the possessor. 

We may now turn to my lack of charity. It should, by now, be apparent that not only the books themselves, but their condition matter greatly to me. I must confess to have written more than one, a great many in fact, emails to online booksellers filled with venom at having received a book in a thin plastic baggy that is torn and the book so bad damaged I felt the book should be buried with full honors for it’s valiant effort to make it across the postal lines to me. I fills me with rage to have a book sold to me by a vendor that has no idea how to rate the condition of a volume. There are actual guidelines for this, google it! By far my most frequently asked question, and coincidentally first line, in many of these emails of rage and despair is, “Why are you selling books if you so clearly hate them?!” I keep a list of online bookstores that have burned me in one way or another which I have entitled: NEVER BUY FROM. 

As an aside: Recently I have been stymied in my pursuit of the beautiful. And here I hope to rouse a call to action. Would that publishers make searchable on their websites the binding of books. Granted this is something of a nit to pick. Most search for content. But sometimes a man just wants to purchase a damn good looking volume and find out what is inside later. 

I am not yet charitable. As I said I must grow in my sanctification, but I do rather hope I am not the only one with this struggle. I must confess to a concerted effort to convert others to my high standards of aesthetics. Traveling across land and sea to make one proselyte. For good or ill though I have yet to make anyone twice the son of hell I am. This is probably a good thing but I long for market forces to satisfy my desire for the beautiful, cloth over board, gilded, bound with hand stitching…

I have begun to wonder though if the frustration that I am met with in does not somehow make the pleasures sweeter. For every poor abused book that arrives near death, crammed in a tattered green sleeve of plastic, boasting of it’s eco friendliness, in my mailbox; there is a box of Banner books, each individually wrapped in brown paper, nestled in a box of layered packing materials, everything ship shape right down to the pattern of the logo on the packing tape. Would I notice the care that went into shipping these beauties to me if there were not the rage inducing monsters or ignoramus who slap dash list and ship? I might but probably not as much. Perhaps this is a small glimpse of God using what one meant for evil and turning it to good. Either way, prayers are appreciated, I need to grow in charity.

* I would point out that secular publishers have been putting out cloth bound works of good or notable literature, The Folio Society and Overlook Press immediately jump to mind. But sadly Theology books were, until recently, seen as a utilitarian and necessary endeavor and languished in the doldrums of the paperback or hardcover if the book were of sufficient size. The exception to this rule was the magnificent Banner of Truth. For some time now Crossway has been hot on their heals with particularly gorgeous editions. I wish Eerdmans would jump back on the bandwagon, My old set of Barclay’s New Testament Commentary is a true delight (minus the denial of Jesus’ miracles).

From the Ground Up

Irish comedian Dylan Moran has a bit where he challenges the construction of the human body. Indeed this is something of a trope among atheistic comedians, that they find humans to be poorly formed. And indeed there are foibles in life, age and infirmity, increase these. But the simple answer to these disparagement is the Fall. Sin brought sickness, frailty, and death to the earth. Christians readily admit our fallen nature and all that it entails. However, we also hold to the truth that we are intricately designed, planned, made with distinction. 

For you formed my inward parts;

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.a

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance;

in your book were written, every one of them,

the days that were formed for me,

when as yet there was none of them. – Psalm 139:13-16

So for all of the kvetching about biting the insides of our mouths it is helpful to realize that it really is a bug and not a feature. For the atheist comedian, the inversion may make for good  humor but after the laughs are over a sense of cold nihilism creeps into the soul. 

For the Christian, we have great joy found first in our creator, and then in how he created us, “fearfully and wonderfully.” There was nothing slap dash about our creation, or any part of creation. God wrote every single line of your DNA and every word of your story. And in all of that is revealed is loving and generous attention to detail. Consider petrichor, the wonderful earthy fresh smell right before rain. God did not have to create that, it is just a delightful detail of the world that comes to us as a free gift. There is no reason for us to have foods with different flavors, and the tastebuds to experience those flavors, then there is texture. And even on that the minutiae of being able to feel the textures of smoke form different cigars, or the tasting notes on whiskeys. God made all of these tiny details that make the greater creative whole. And over all of that he has charted out all these pleasures, unfolding into eternity.

“I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam does not move an atom more or less than God wishes – that every particle of spray that dashes against the steamboat has its orbit, as well as the sun in the heavens – that the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered as the stars in their courses.” – C.H. Spurgeon

I have previously written on how we can overlook that God has predestined the good things in life. Those good things and good moments all come from the hand of God and were prepared for you by Him before He even made you. But consider all of the little things that God brought together to craft a great moment, for you. He harmonizes innumerable factors, and delights in doing it, from the friends present, to the smells, tastes, weather, insect count all of it was put into motion that we might delight and give glory. 

This was further impressed upon me the other night in what would seem merely a series of random factors came together to produce a most exquisite evening. Beginning in the morning with Hudson suddenly feeling the desire for company and we two making a plan. Out of the blue the weather shifted from a standard hot and humid Memphis summer to the first cool crisp day of autumn. Hudson grabbed the last bottle of Lagavulin 16 at Buster’s. I discovered a five pack of Montecriso Platinum Series toros tucked away in my collection. My wife decided she was going to make tacos, other friends began dropping by, a motion was made that we move to the back deck and light a fire in the pit. It passed unanimously. A tasting of Johnny Walkers took place. Music was played in the background. The evening cooled and the fire grew to combat the temperatures. More cigars were called for. Amber ales flowed. And conversation was had. We discussed eldership in the church, the good gift of friends with broad age ranges, what spiritual maturity should look like, and we committed to memorizing the book of Ephesians. In a moment of wild enthusiasm I threw my phone and chipped the corner. And now I have a reminder of that particular evening, and every bit of it was orchestrated by a grand master of the ceremonies. 

Obviously gratitude is one way in which God would receive glory from the enormous blessing that he bestowed. But glory is also given in enjoying the gift. Any gift giver is most happy when they see what they give is cherished, enjoyed, used. God also wants His gifts to be received and enjoyed and He delights in our delight. Because, at the end of the day, pleasure was created by God. It was his idea, along with all of the small innumerable little parts of creation that come to us by sheer gift. 

You make known to me the path of life;

    in your presence there is fullness of joy;

    at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. – Psalm 16:11

As Screwtape, and you should have seen this quote coming, reminds us, “He’s a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it… He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures.” God is the author, perfecter, and giver of delights. It all flows from Him. 

I will leave you with an illustrative passage from Robert Farrar Capon:

“Let me tell you why God made the world. One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations. From all eternity, it seems, he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things — new ways of being and new kinds of beings to be. And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, “Really, this is absolutely great stuff. Why don’t I go out and mix up a batch?” And God the Holy Spirit said, “Terrific! I’ll help you.” So they all pitched in, and after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Spirit put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs; pine cones kept dropping all over the place and crazy fish swam around in the wine glasses. There were mushrooms and mastodons, grapes and geese, tornadoes and tigers — and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them and to love them. And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and said, “Wonderful! Just what I had in mind! Tov! Tov! Tov!” And all God the Son and God the Holy Spirit could think of to say was the same thing, “Tov! Tov! Tov!” So they shouted together “Tov!” And they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for beings to be and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing, and for ever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the Son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.

It is, I grant you, a crass analogy; but crass analogies are the safest. Everybody knows that God is not three old men throwing olives at each other. Not everyone, I’m afraid, is equally clear that God is not a cosmic force or principle of being or any other dish of celestial blancmange we might choose to call Him. Accordingly, I give you the central truth that creation is the result of a Trinitarian bash, and leave the details of the analogy to sort themselves out as best they can.  – R.F. Capon

In Which C.H Kicks the Hornets Nest

Introduction

When I began in ministry, a common part of the application process for any volunteer was a full page sheet on the dress code of that particular church or para-church. From camps to outings and on a rather rigid guide would be enforced on what was acceptable sartorially. Fortunately I came on the scene in my particular organization after the standard Mormon look for young men had been ditched. Jeans and t-shirts were no longer considered rebellious. And it was in process of being relaxed for the girls too. Floor length skirts were no longer required, though still encouraged… Over time we chipped away more and more of the draconian bits and basically settled on something resembling a relaxed but clean look. The rule of thumb being public speakers should dress better than their audience. But while we were whipping the dress code into shape an interesting thing happened consistently no one had even read the dress code or was even aware it existed. And upon having it brought to their attention confusion ensued. Modesty it seems was a new concept to them.

Understand these were Christians, some very conservative in their views, all wanting to teach Scripture and evangelize. And yet here was a scriptural principal that was strange and foreign to them. Reactions were all over the board, everything from accusations of legalism, to incredulity that something like that was even in the Bible, to charges of a double standard because the boys didn’t get called out on their outfits as often. But buried beneath all of this was a genuine ignorance of the concept of modesty. Having now been in this particular arena for some time now I would like to engage the issue and address the sin compounding the sin.

Intelectual Laziness

“You do realize that intellectual laziness is a sin?” That question opened a whole new world for me. A friend had said it in a devotional and thought he had read it somewhere in Tozer. But the implications were enormous. Up to that point I had been thinking of laziness strictly in terms of the physical sluggard whose only strong muscles where his thumbs. But here was finally the term for what Screwtape had been fighting for when he constantly encouraged Wormwood to keep his patient, “ignorant,” and “in the dark.” Kevin Vanhoozer had spoken of how sloth seems the least deadly of the seven sins and yet now in a moment of clarity I had it. Part of being made in the image of God is to be thinkers. John 1 tells us that Jesus is the “logos” Christ himself claims to be the truth, Bereans were praised for being noble minded and examining scripture. Christians are not to sit on their brains, counting zoning in and out through a sermon once a week as engaging their faith. We are to be thinkers, we are called to meditate on Scripture to teach it as we go about our day, and you can not teach that which you do not know. 

Intellectual laziness, like all sins, is deceptive. It lies saying that you know enough. It keeps your boat from being rocked, and should a troubler of Israel arrive it swats him aside with straw man arguments. It causes you to be drowsy and ignore rebuke, correction, exhortation, and training in righteousness. It is indeed a comfortable theology. “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”*

Intellectual Laziness and Immodesty

Historically the objections to the Biblical instruction on modesty have been out of pure and simple rebellion. “I want to dress how I want to and I don’t care one way or the other what God says.” In a sense you can almost appreciate the honesty. It is also very clear that the root of the sin is pride. And that kind of thinking is still with us. But for the professing Christian so blatant a rejection of the commands of God causes some sticky problems. Therefore a way around those commands must be found. Hypocrisy is a perennial favorite. I have noticed when talking or teaching on this particular issue certain parties become more conservative in their dress around me for a week or so or until we bump into each other at a Target and I find the old man is alive and well in them. But increasingly I see it has been discovered that that the sin of intellectual laziness covers a multitude of other sins. Unfortunately we must go deeper down so as not to broad brush too much. I see that there are two distinct camps that fall under this heading. The willfully ignorant, and the simply lazy. 

In the first instance the sin has been brought to the attention of the person, and they brush it aside and forget the instruction as quickly as possible.  Ultimately they know what is right, they are smart enough to put the pieces together, and yet when standing before the wardrobe the application never takes root. It is ultimately a habitual unrepentant sin. 

The simply lazy is a variation on this theme. They actually will engage in the moment of correction, but no change is made, they just can’t be bothered. The instruction never went any deeper than if you had been commenting on the weather. They don’t want to think about it then and they don’t want to think about it later. Ultimately there is overlap, obviously these are rebellion or hypocrisy just with a fun new twist. 

Modesty

Up to this point I have been writing as if Modesty were a settled issue. But in case there are doubters Let us look to the Scriptures. 

“Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” 1 Timothy 2:9-10

“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” 1 Peter 3:3-4

“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 1 Peter 5:5

“Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.” Proverbs 11:22

“The Lord said: Because the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet, therefore the Lord will strike with a scab the heads of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will lay bare their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; … Isaiah 3:16-23

Wether you like it or not God has opinions about how his people dress. He has many good reasons for this instruction, not least among them that He actually wants his people to look different from the lost and dying world. As Wilson has suggested, we should be strangers and sojourners in a foreign land to such a degree that the average christian should wonder why we are not required to have a green card. At some point it really should be considered that as far as picking up a cross and following Jesus is concerned, a little more fabric is not that big of a burden to bear. 

Now the world has armed the intrepid Christian with many arguments and justifications in an attempt to explain to God that somehow He got this wrong. Women are free agents and it is wrong to control a girls body and dress to keep a man out of lust. It’s victim shaming to point out that if you display something that you shouldn’t be surprised that others look at it. Fundamentalist groups have used modesty to abuse and control women. The problem with all of these arguments boils down to a failure to understand how guilt works. If a woman is wearing an outfit where her neckline and hem line meet and she get ogled at by a man, it is not as though one party is guilty alone, or one has a greater share of the blame. Guilt does not operate on a 60% 40% scale rather it is 100% 100%. He is 100% guilty of lust. She is 100% of immodesty. Excuses of who lead whom into sin will not work now just like they did not work in the garden after the fall. Like Aslan God is only interested in telling people their stories, not someone else’s.

The Paradox 

To simplify matters modesty is a command from God that the church at large has been ignoring for some time now. We had better start obeying.

To complicate matters. There is a point where we have to recognize with live in a time and a culture and we have to exegete the principal not the method laid out in Scripture. Just as we understand the principals in 1 Corinthians about long hair and head coverings and most of us would have to try really really hard not to smirk at one of those little congregations with men in Hitler youth haircuts and women wearing doilies on their heads. Which is in itself a cultural moment that is not found in the Scriptures. As Driscoll pointed out, “Every church is on the cutting edge, it just depends what century.” Contextualization is an issue when it comes to modesty. Legalism is always the ditch on the other side of the road. We should not want to be like Luther’s drunk who falls off the donkey on one side, “license” and simply makes sure to fall off the other side next, “legalism”.

Many formulas have been suggested to help untangle this particular knot. I am tempted to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewarts rule, “I know it when I see it.” But this is clearly nebulous and would only work in contexts where I had any authority. I am also drawn to Paul Washer’s “If it brings attention to your face it is modest, if it brings attention to some other part of your body it is immodest.” But I can’t quite get on board. Because the root of the issue is pride and modesty is actually more than just showing some skin.

Root of the Problem

At a ground floor level of any sin you will find that pride is the foundation. The idolatry of self, the ultimate “me first” attitude. It is the declaration that man is on the throne and God, along with His law, is subject to his rule and judgment. 

As I suggested before modesty is actually a larger concept than merely inappropriate clothing.

Modesty; Mass Noun: Behaviour, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency. – Oxford English Dictionary

Modesty is larger, it is ultimately about the character of a person. Our behavior, manner, and appearance all say things about us. And in case you have not noticed cultures have dress codes. And I am specifically wanting you to pay attention to subcultures. They will present themselves very carefully to display allegiance. Many are far more willing than your average American evangelical to divide from friends and families over their beliefs. Should we Christians not pause and ask why we are so unwilling to do likewise for the case of Christ. I have quoted before and will again quote Francis Schaffer: “What is loyalty to Christ worth to you?” Is loyalty to Christ worth evaluating your clothing and rejecting some? 

A Final Turn

Overwhelmingly when Scripture speaks of modesty it is directed toward women. But we live in such a confused day that our confusion on gender now leads to a confusion of sins. Men historically were more prone to lust and pornography, now according to statistics women have nearly as high addiction rates. And now I would suggest that more men are increasingly prone to the sin of immodesty. If the root is pride then I would argue that the shirtless man out on his run is more concerned with being admired for his discipline or physique than he is over wind resistance. 

Conclusion

The ultimate answer is to humble ourselves before our God. We may experience discomfort, we may miss out on the latest fashion or vogue. But if our hope is in the kingdom to come, and we are ambassadors of that kingdom we should display it. Wether you like it or not modesty matters simply because God says it matters. How that plays out is an issue of discernment. In the past people have handled it badly. But that does not mean we throw out what God has said. It means that failure in the past requires the pursuit of a higher fidelity today. Of the many crosses Christians are called to bear modesty is not the heaviest one. What is loyalty to Christ worth to you? Do you love your comfort, your clothes, your body, or the attention these things get you more than you love Jesus?

*Screwtape XII I know, I know, I quote Lewis too often. 

Hospitality for the Long Haul

Hospitality is a long term commitment. Anything that is a command of God is a long term commitment. Sanctification slowly changes and improves us, forming us into the image of Christ. All of God’s commands are given for His glory and our good. Hospitality comes with numerous blessings from God to us, and is also one of the ways that we reflect him by being welcoming and generously giving. Also, I would argue, it is part of our worship, and one of the ways that we keep God’s good gifts to us from terminating on ourselves. Hospitality is one of the immediate ways that we, “put shoe leather on the Gospel” as the old preacher would say. It is incredibly practical, but also deeply spiritual.

All of this said. The lofty spiritual language that often gets attached to “Biblical Hospitality” sometimes belies the hard realities. While I, in no way, hope to give excuses or discourage anyone from jumping in to being a hospitable Christian. I do hope to set out something of a roadmap for what is ahead of those taking up this charge. My goal will be to balance the joys with the disappointments, but there is a part of me that says you can go get any number of books about the joys, and I would kind of like to get down to the brass tax.

You Must Give Generously

If you are not generous then brace yourself, you will be. Food alone costs money, though it sometimes does literally grow on trees. In being hospitable you must be willing to give nearly everything. We give our, homes, food, furniture, linens, dish wear, time, emotions, and money. All things that God has first given to us. Francis Schaffer once told the story that after the first year of operating L’Abri all of the house-wears that had been wedding presents to he and Edith were destroyed by use. At one point someone had even set bedroom curtains on fire with a lit cigarette. Whenever a guest breaks something, I consider it my gift to them. This isn’t to say that I hope people will come and break my things. Part of stewarding what God has given me is taking care of those things. But I am not to hold them in too tight of a hand. In practical terms, if you are able, just buy two of everything the first time knowing that at some point that thing will get broken. And if this seems a steep price keep in mind the principal: Christ gave everything so that He could host you in His Father’s house… You can loose a few dishes or allow a throw pillow to be squished.

Don’t Overthink it

This one comes from my friend Lauren. She has been coming round my place since she was in high school. She met her husband at the weekly Reading Group I host. And we two disagree quite a bit on the nuances of what counts as overdoing it. But Lauren is a master at being hospitable on a budget. She knows the difference between what needs to be done to be welcoming, and what is just icing on the cake. She knows how to stay in budget. And frankly I have to credit her. If you are just starting out, or happen to have a passel of kids, high end hospitality for you may look like paper plates and napkins, full stop. I can remember growing up with a family with five kids and a tight budget, out in the middle of nowhere Mississippi; but they had my singe mom and us three kids over once a week for the day, lunch was always, ALWAYS, boiled hotdogs. And you know what? I loved it. 

Put in an Effort

There is a time to stretch yourself. Laziness is a sin. Garrison Keillor* once told a story of being a young man who tried to cook a goose for Christmas dinner and have real candles on his tree. Only to burn the top of the still frozen goose and then inadvertently getting shards of glass in it, right before the entire tree burst into flame. And if anyone has overreached the first time in being hospitable then that story is not so funny. But there is something admirable in the aspiration. Good hospitality, like sanctification, should be progressive. Fine china may not be possible but aspire to dishes that match and are not disposed of at the end of the evening. Be prepared to invest, and do so with others in mind. Honoring guests by giving an evening or event that, “little extra oomph” communicates that they are valuable to you.

Think Long Term

Going with my previous point, while you have to start somewhere, as you learn and plan think ahead. As opportunities present themselves make a part of your decision making a filter of future hospitality. Invest in dishes and flatware that is durable and can be replaced easily and affordably. So guests are not afraid it will break if they hold it wrong. If you are looking to purchase a new piece of furniture consider it’s functionality and sturdiness, can it handle a lot of use from guests, perhaps white is not the best color because someone WILL be spilling food or drink on it. If a new home is being considered, think through things like sufficient parking, are there places for people to congregate? Perhaps delay purchases and save up for the more long lasting item than what IKEA just dropped the price on.

Consistency Matters

Nothing makes hospitality function like regularity. One of the frequent problems with hosting people on a consistent basis is the tyranny of the urgent. Everyone is busy, and finding a time to have someone over can sometimes take over a month when schedules sync. Rhythm is a solution. If you can create a time when it becomes known that, not only are your doors open, but there is a regular function it becomes something that people begin to rely on. Paraphrase the Post Office motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these hosts from the faithful opening of their doors.”

The Church has know this for years. We gather regularly on the Lord’s Day to worship. The Clapham Sect then added Sunday School. It is interesting to me to notice the long run that the institution of Sunday School has had, as well as it’s large numbers. And then to contrast that to the current small group in the home. These groups seem to flounder more often than not. They always seem a struggle. I wold suggest that part of the problem is the fit of starting and stopping, or constant moving of location. I think these things contribute to the maxed bag of results we are seeing. The most successful groups meet with regularity, typically because the host has prioritized it. Modern conveniences like Groupme or Facebook are handy for when emergencies arrive and the cancellation decision must be made. But I suspect it is also makes it easier to cancel for lesser reasons. For the last fifteen years I have hosted a reading group in my home on Sunday evenings. Cancellation is rarely an option because people will still show up regardless. I can even remember when I had left the state for my wedding, being called by two people who rarely showed up and were at my door wondering why no one was home. I have people who left because of moving, or life, and come back years later knowing that we would still be meeting. 

Brace for Low Moments

Hospitality is not all fun and games. Even if you are hosting a game night. Sometimes things fall apart, you work hard to prepare and hardly any one shows up, or they don’t appreciate it. I have had people come to my house eat my food and then tell me how inferior it was, or that they had wanted something else. Guests have used my welcome as an opportunity to simply begin going through my cabinets and refrigerator. And we have even had to endure the guy who ruins a perfectly good gathering by bringing his guitar, and a banjo… People can be rude or selfish. If you stick with it for the long haul you will have different groups or, “generations” as I refer to them, some will be better than others. Or you will be tempted to compare your current generation to a previous one that you loved dearly. There will even be times when you will feel left out. Back when I was in my old apartment there were many nights when people would say their goodbyes and walk out the door, but while I was cleaning up after them I could see out the window into the courtyard that the whole group was standing in the quad talking and laughing. Those were lonely moments. 

Mark the Important Moments

The Hebrews were commanded to build monuments to remind their children and their children’s children what God had done. And while I am not recommending setting up a pile of stone, one stone for everyone in attendance, every time something great happens; you should at least do something. Some people take pictures, figures in history would keep a diary, for my group on Sundays we keep a record book. We record the date, who was present, what was read and the author, we also include drawings or witty quotes from those in attendance or mark down important occasions. One of my little joys is when new attendees find the books from years ago and leaf through them.

For myself I will write out or memorize events that are personally special to me. Such as one night after a particularly good evening and most everyone had to leave at a reasonable hour. But my friends Carol and Julie didn’t want to leave yet, and since I had not been able to eat dinner before people arrived we boiled some Oscar Meyer weiners, warmed up a can of chili in a sauce pan, shredded a block of extra sharp cheddar cheese and piled it all on white bread slices. Since I didn’t have a proper table we spread out in the living room easting a very late, terrible, dinner. Julie perched on the steamer trunk, Carol, managing to curl up but also take the entire sofa, and I in my grandfathers chair. We ate, talked, and then Julie went off to get married and Carol moved to New York. It was a special night because since all three of us have grown and changed, and I haven’t had a moment with the three of us together like that since.

There are other special moments that still occur and I mark. Where the formalities of the evening are over and the group migrates outdoors for cigars and whiskey. On a cool evening around a campfire, clouds of smoke billowing, Hudson sneaking in to get a bottle he really wants, Aaron going on about some current issue he is all hopped up about, and his wife puffing on her pipe smiling wryly. Or when four people have ended up crammed into my hallway trying to figure out the math required for a heatsink on a Star Destroyer to make lasers functional in space. How they wound up in that space, why the stay, and where the topic arose from I will never know. But I loved being there for it. All of these moments may pale in the grand scheme of the universe, but they are personally important and spur me on to continue in season and out.

Offer Something Unique

This may require a little extra research on your part, but assess your friends, church, community and find what is lacking, then provide that. I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a small/community group, Bible study, men’s group, or women’s prayer circle. And I am not in any way besmirching those things. I do lead a Bible study, I am part of a community group, I love these things. But rather than go with the status quo look around and see if you aren’t capable of providing hospitality that reveals the Kingdom of God in an aspect that is not commonly seen. This could be anything from a dinner club, to a game night, to a work out group, baking class, book club, historical society… It doesn’t really matter just so long as you are leveraging the gifts that God has given to you to bless others. Frankly, the “purpose” is merely a cover to welcome others so you can love and serve them well.

The Irish comedian, Dara O’brain tells the story of preforming at Cambridge University and afterward a student came up to him and asked if he would like to attend a meeting of “The Cambridge Whiskey Association” Dara said, “Ooo that sounds fancy!” and the student said, “It isn’t”** as it turns out it was five guys who would all go in to purchase a bottle of mid range whiskey and then nerd out on comedy. That is the idea, find the thing you can do, and do it. Then use that to show Jesus to others. 

Brace Yourself

I tell you a story: If you become hospitable for the long haul you will see some… stuff. Jesus came to give us not just life, but life more abundant. And as Mark Lowery*** pointed out that means life in overdrive. Hospitality will bring in drama, drama you want, and drama you don’t. I have stood in my yard sending people home because they were an ass-hat cage-stage Calvinist who was making girls cry because, as usual, this moron failed to understand the grace part of the Doctrines of Grace. I have stood with brides and grooms or attended weddings of members of our group. I have done discipleship and counseling in my library, front porch, back deck, kitchen,  and back in the apartment my bedroom because the living room was full of people. I have had people crash on my sofa, rent my spare room, in one case deposit three Frenchmen who spoke no English onto an air mattress in my living room. Furniture has been broken, guns have been banned, banjo’s have been played (much to my dismay). Hospitality, brings into your home all kinds of people, but if Jesus can love them. So can you. You are called to be faithful, and your reward is in Heaven.

Conclusion

To the non believer this world is as close to Heaven as they will ever get. To the Christian, this world is as close to hell as we will ever get. We are called to make visible the invisible aspects of the Already/Not Yet Kingdom of God. One of the ways we do that is hospitality in out homes. But just as that Kingdom stretches into eternity, we are to, in a pale reflection, reveal that over time in our hospitality.

*Yes, I know, he has been cancelled. I don’t care.

** Since hearing this I have wanted to have a whiskey group, but scotch is expensive and as much as I love my friends, to a man, they are mooches. I can not foot that bill. 

***Yes, I just dated myself.

Idols Fit for Destruction

Introduction

A couple of years ago the second largest house of worship in Memphis was built. 271,000 square feet, and cost 64.3 million dollars to build. And it was constructed next to the largest church in Memphis, Bellevue Baptist Church. This new place of worship also has a name, it is open on Sundays, and it calls to me: IKEA. 

All jokes aside I think Memphis has done something incredible, two of our largest places of worship are next-door to each other. The third, is downtown and is the worlds largest Bass Pro Shop.* This city has managed to bring into stark relief a theological principal that all christians should be aware of. We are made to worship, and we will worship, something. Either we will bow the knee to Jesus, or we will live is pursuit and service of something else. And all idolatry is ultimately futile. It makes many demands of you and ultimately never pays out. There is no better illustration of this principal than IKEA. Every trip there requires more financially of me than my tithe to the LORD and nothing is as fleeting as a piece of IKEA furniture. 

The Matter at Hand

The principal I want to discuss is a serious one. What I would like to convey is that we live in a spiritual world. Cheap home furnishings, or pontoon boats are not bad things but they are terrible gods. So are sports teams, bbq grills, friends, entertainment, celebrities, celebrity pastors… I could go on. Idols are good things that have become, God things**. 

“Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” Romans 1:25

God gives good gifts, he gives them for our enjoyment. Solomon speaks of good food, good drink, and good friends as a salve God has kindly given to us doing our tiresome days on the earth. But he also warns us that they are vanity, and chasing after them is akin to chasing the wind. The good gifts of God are simply and only that. A gift from God, full stop. The good that comes through them has a fount. Idolatry on it’s face is absurd, but the sin is constant with all others. Satan can create nothing, he can only twist and corrupt the good things God has made. As Screwtape puts it:

“Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.” Screwtape, Letter XXII

And up to this point idolatry seems pretty straight forward and even avoidable. We imagine the sad person prostrate before their god, say friends, with their arms outcrying “Love me?” and like the Pharisees of old thank God we are not like that. But I am sorry to say the tells of every man’s idolatry reveals that we all have our little pet gods. Like the man*** with the little lizard of lust on his shoulder in The Great Divorce we don’t want to kill the thing that we love more than we love God.

Honest Questions

Obviously there are many ways to run a self diagnostic on idolatry. Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods has an excellent detailed tool. But to simplify things I would like to lay out three questions that I have found useful to get the ball rolling. 1. What is demands the majority of my, time, energy, emotion, and money? 2. Have I built any alters or shines? 3. What am I becoming more like?

1. What is demands the majority of my, time, energy, emotion, and money?

This is the simpler but easier to cheat, or justify away, but I would encourage honest assessment. For example I read a study a few years back that found the average American male plays two and a half hours of video games daily. This means in a week the typical young man has probably spent seventeen and a half hours on one activity. That is more time than a typical work day. Now I am not picking on video games. Or any hobby for that matter, agin enjoyment of an activity was God’s idea. I merely use this as an example for the sake of assessment. Does that young man then find it impossible to wake up for church? Does he pursuit of Christ have the same devotion? Is he discerning in the content he participates in? Does this particular activity move from rest to the sin of laziness (sins often run in pairs…)? Now as I said, this one can be cheated on. I know have argued with many christians trying to weasel out of conviction that has them dead to rights. Trying to justify away the nudity in a television show. Claim they church will misuse their monies so they are spending it for themselves. Explaining that she really is that bad of a person so it’s not gossip to let everyone know about her… Honest assessment may be painful but it is a necessary part of the Christian life.

2. Have I built any alters or shines?

Immediately this sounds archaic. “We no longer build temples with statues inside.” Modern man snorts, “That is what the ancients did we are far more advanced than them and know better!” Lewis would call this Chronological Snobbery. Our current methods may be different, more nuanced, but they are still the same. As I mentioned in my introduction, temples exist around us. They may not be a blatant as the ancients were, or other cultures are. But the tale tale signs are there. Pilgrimages are made, attire of the faithful is worn, in some songs of praise are sung, or arms raised, liturgy, ritual, and ceremony can take place. And again many of these things are good things that have become God things. A sports stadium is filled with those wearing the attire of the faithful. A tithe is taken up by vendors. Voices and hands are raised in praise, defeat lays the adherents as low as an ancient near east culture watching their champion and, thus, representative of their God fall in combat. And for some the entrance of their team may as well begin with, “Behold your God!” In my own city, a brewery and tap room was built from the ground up in the form of a cathedral, right down to the altar where you pay, the seating looking towards the holy of holies where the beer is brewed, and etched glass over the door radiating the glory of beer. Temples can be large or small akin to a devout adherents in a cult-like primitive baptist gathering. Stores, concert venues, political gatherings, Comic Con, Reformed Conferences, family gatherings, all you can eat buffets, all can become a place of worship. But even in our homes we can build shrines to our gods. One of the interesting developments in home architecture is shrine for a flat screen television. Homes used to be built with the gift of hospitality as central to their structure with dining rooms, parlors, full porches in the front for neighborly interaction, living rooms for informal gatherings, and kitchens with built in seating. But now walk into any empty new house and immediately you will know the implied furniture layout for the living room. All directed to the alcove for a television. Or walk in closets, sometimes with closets within closets. Shrines for shoes, clothes. Again not bad things but terrible god things.

3. What am I becoming more like?

Finally the inexorable principal that reveals idolatry: You become like what you worship. Allow me to present some scriptural background:

Their idols are silver and gold,

the work of human hands.

They have mouths, but do not speak;

eyes, but do not see.

They have ears, but do not hear;

noses, but do not smell.

They have hands, but do not feel;

feet, but do not walk;

and they do not make a sound in their throat.

Those who make them become like them;

so do all who trust in them. – Psalm 115:6-8

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord,e are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:18

To put it in practical terms, if you worship your television you will become like it, ultimately just sitting there, doing nothing, collecting dust. Clothes, a surface level human that only cares about the outward. Friends, a clone that looses all purpose, self direction, and meaning when apart. Sports, you will look like a pale sad reflection of your god, garbed in their apparel, theologizing about their actions. Reformed theology, lovers of a systematic over the God it seeks to glorify and enjoy forever become cold, cruel, inflexible, Pharisees.  

The flip side is that those who worship Christ become like him. They move from one glory to another until they see him face to face. The Christian, the little Christ, reflects Him. Like Moses descending Sinai they radiate Christ. I have often explained it as a family resemblance.

Sons of God

If you were to observe me with my parents and siblings, it would become immediately apparent that we are a family. One of my sisters has for years been confused as a twin with me. My other younger sister has the same strawberry blond hair as me, yet she has a bizarre combination of both my mother and fathers temperaments. I possess the mannerisms of my father with the build and hair of my maternal grandfather. The resemblance between us in, form, stature, language is undeniable. For the follower of Christ, the growing resemblance to Him should be equally undeniable. As Paul instructs in 1 Corinthians 11:1 “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” The confidence of that statement is astounding. If the church in Corinth simply copied Paul with fidelity, they would be copying Christ. Can that be said by you? If your words and actions were simply repeated by a disciple would that person look and sound like Christ or something else entirely? Obviously on this side of eternity no one will be a perfect representation, but we should be increasingly like Christ in an observable manner. We should increasingly have a family resemblance to our big brother Jesus and our Father in Heaven. 

And just as a side note, just as God gives other good gifts to us for His glory and our pleasure. God has given to us His Holy Spirit to help us in conforming to the image of God. We are not called to go it alone. And if that weren’t enough God and graciously given His Word, which is illumined by His Spirit. Taken together those two gifts create in the Christian the image of Christ. A simple sign of our worship is the reading and spirit filled obedience to The Word.

Conclusion

The Word we live in is not merely flesh and blood, it is also filled with powers and principalities. Those have molded to us over time, which is why we must always be more conformed to Christ. We are surrounded by other deities, shrines, and temples. We must see them for what they are good things with the potential to become god things. The way out is to worship Christ and become like Him.

“Oh to behold the Glory of Christ! Here in would I live, Here in would I die, here on would I dwell in my thoughts and my affections until all things here below become as dead and deformed things, and in no longer, any way, calling out for my affections” ~ John Owen

*It is housed in a giant silver pyramid with a log cabin foundation… I really don’t know how this happened, but it did. 

**I am pretty sure I first heard this phrase from John Bryson, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he lifted it from someone else.

***Or indeed all many of the ghosts from the Grey Town. Each one that remained a ghost had an idol they refused to let go of. 

Two Opposing Pastors

Part Three

Editors note: This is the final of a three part series the previous posts can be found here and here.

Introduction

When a Puritan minister ascended to the pulpit it was heavy with intent. He was a dying man preaching to dying men from behind, “The Sacred Desk.” Preaching was no light matter, they came to their congregations with a word from the Lord. Gravity would be the operative word. 

Though not grave or morose, it was understood that this was a serious job for serious men. Richard Baxter opened one particular sermon with an aside to the ignorant or careless listener/reader wherein they were entreated to engage with sober consideration what he was preaching. 

Now depending on who you are the preceding two paragraphs elicited probably one of three possible reactions. 1. Excitement, “this is how it is done” you thought and started thinking fondly of your Banner of Truth account. 2. Exasperation, “here we go again” and began thinking of another uptight Calvinist who doesn’t care about peoples feelings. 3. Disinterest, “I am not a preacher, I have no interest in preaching” you would rather read something else.

To the third person, thank you for stoping by. We appreciate your being here but understand if this article is not your cup of tea. Perhaps you would enjoy another article, like this one on cigars whiskey and Calvinism. But for either of the other two, thank you for your responses you have really teed up the ball for me excellent work.

The common assumption is that a pastor can either be theologically rigorous, or pastoral. He can either preach solid (if dull) Reformed sermons or he can encourage and comfort saints. It is presumed that there is a natural dichotomy between “Preachers” and “Pastors” one who loves theology and one who loves people.

How we got here is a subject of great debate, many have taken a crack at this particular chestnut. And I am not going to presume to give the authoritative answer. Outside of sin. But sin comes in many flavors and I want to bring one of those particulars to light and suggest how to mortify it.

Recap

My goal here is not to kick any faithful pastor, or to suggest that if you, dear reader, disagree with your pastor on some issue of theology that he has no good reasons for holding his position. Rather I am attempting to be an equal opportunity exhorter. Last week I took a few cracks at the young arrogant man who possess a little knowledge, has gotten puffed up, and is looking to to kneecap the man of God who has charge over his soul. To possess knowledge should not preclude being a man of grace. A young man who has read more theology books than his elder can still be intellectually lazy as he fails to apply his learning and become Christlike. 

With this consideration in place let us return to the observation leveled at men of the church by John Erskine:

“In the Middle Ages the theologians carried the art of thinking further than any other group of men… but theology of any kind is now somewhat neglected, and the Church is not primarily concerned with teaching men to think. Unless we are a lawyer or a scientist we develop our heart and neglect our mind. Our heart is considered fully developed when our emotions are so strong that intellectual processes are for us impossible.” – John Erskine (emphasis added)

Erskine is addressing himself to the common man, or in a church context, the man in the pew. Very often congregants perfectly fit his charge. They are considered mature christians when their emotions are strong but their intellectual processes are impossible. I have personally lost track of the number of times I have clashed against a fellow member of my church and the chasm between us was widened by the distance between an objective truth and a felt need. I have frequently found myself wanting to quote John Adams, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” But doing so would not resolve the issue, as I have said the truth must be communicated with grace. This requires closeness, friendship, the person knowing that even while you disagree with them you are still for them. The process takes time, and is certainly part of Paul’s instruction to “Spur one another on.” And yet…

You will notice where Erskine, I think rightly, places the fons et origo. Pastors are to teach and I would argue that it is simply not happening in our churches today. Even in our reformed circles, the proof is in the pudding.

The Command to Teach

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, Ephesians 4:11-12

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 1 Timothy 3:2

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 1 Timothy 5:17

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. Titus 1:9

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. James 3:1

I know the last one can seem the odd man out but I included it to elevate the seriousness of teaching. What if we truly took teaching the truth of the Word of God so seriously that our seminaries prided themselves on their drop out rates instead of high enrollment. Let us consider, would it be so bad if we had less church buildings but the congregations in the ones standing were, to a man, intellectual, theological, and spiritual giants. What if we valued the knowledge of The Truth (Christ himself John 14:6) over programing? The church should be primarily concerned with teaching men to think.

And it is here that the conflict arises. Teaching men to think can seem cruel. It strike many of us wrong that a pastor should in any way condemn a person. If pushed most would say he should condemn sin. But we live in a world where people are identified by their sins, by their idolatries. For a short while it was popular to call out young men for laziness, but that has since been shut down and I can not remember the last time I heard a sermon on immodesty. To do so would be considered shaming someone. And these days shaming someone (unless it is over a politically unpopular stance in which case the gloves come off) is considered more sinful than satan himself.

There has been a play run on the church. We have pastors with their hands tied. Perhaps it is the speed of the world in that a preacher can wake up Monday morning to a full and angry inbox of people who all consider themselves experts due to their internet informed theology. And J.C. Ryle, for example, had the advantage or requiring people to meet him face to face, at his office, during the office hours, probably later in the week. Or Bunyan really only had to worry about the critics with badges and shackles. Bunyan had obvious restraints placed on him. But today’s preachers (American 2020) have allowed their own fetters by catering to acceptable society, under the guise of being loving or “all things to all people”. The occasional sermon might rock the boat a little, but as of late it usually tends to rock toward the port side. One Anglican once commented, “Wherever the Apostle Paul went there was either a riot or a revival. Wherever I go, they serve tea.”

Churches must be taught, teaching a child does not mean the children are always happy. Discipline is required, lessons must be learned. The Man of God is called to teach and he must do so faithfully in season and out. A loving pastor does not lie to his congregation, he grows them a thick theological skin. He trains them to think for themselves so that when the rebuke comes from the pulpit it is considered and received.

 

Christian Worldview

The phrase teaching men to think can be misunderstood. It could be objected that the role of the pastor, and his congregation by extension, should seek only to preach Christ and Him crucified. Which I would agree with. I am not trying stop set one against another. I am arguing that one naturally follows the other. If Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Then what should flow from that is rigorous intellectualism. When the Word is preached men’s minds should be expanded. They should marvel at the glories of God but those glories should not terminate in the moment. It should be meditated on, reflected, considered, thought through, and applied. The ability know truth and to reason from it begins in Scripture. And from that font all understanding flows. Here Herman Bavinck is enlightening:

“All intellectual knowledge begins with sense perception. To acquire knowledge, Scripture refers man not to his own reason but to God’s revelation in all his works. Lift up your eyes, and see the one who has created all things; [lift them up] to the teaching and the testimony; otherwise they shall perish. Whoever rejects the word of the Lord cannot have wisdom. The truth of empiricism: being is a reality to which sense perception of the subject corresponds.” – Herman Bavinck, Christian Worldview

God reveals Himself in Scripture and from that firm foundation we reason, we think, we learn how to rightly view all of creation. But this does not come devoid of the ability to logically and rationally follow the revelation of God. I sometimes wonder if topical sermon series are a result of the failure of pastors to teach their congregation how to think. In a sense they are teaching their people to cheat by skipping that hard work of thinking and just waiting for the pastor to get around to (or directing them to previously recorded sermons) giving the answers to current questions. If I may muse a bit further, how many pastors not having built in their people a Christian Worldview have fallen into the error of constantly having to address what seems currently pressing, or has been slap dash labeled, “A gospel issue” and what gets lost is the consistent balanced preaching of the Word. 

“The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers when there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.” – C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters 

The Jewel Observed

No one exemplified teaching men to think, to having a Christian Worldview, like the Puritans. To a Puritan pastor every text of Scripture was akin to a precious jewel in the hands of a jeweler.* They would hold it up to the light and examine and scrutinize it, then turn it slightly to explore the next facet in the same detail. They taught their parishioners to do the same. In a typical Puritan family the father would transcribe the Sunday sermon, then discuss it with his family that day over dinner. Later in the week the sermon would be re-read aloud, rediscussed, and applied. It was understood that a sermon was to be more than considered in the moment then forgotten by the parking lot. It was to be mulled over, integrated into the lives of the hearers. Puritan pastors taught to teach and to “stir the affections.” to them a moving sermon cam from the truth of the text they were preaching and how that objective truth stirred the congregation to change their lives. 

Puritan pastors sought to lead people to salvation but that meant that they could not remain ignorant once they had been introduced to The Truth.

Knowledge in a natural man’s head is like a torch in a dead man’s hand. True knowledge animates. A Godly man is like John the Baptist, a burning and a shining lamp. – Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture

True knowledge of Christ brings us from death to life. But life, especially eternal life, involves more than just existence. It is not fire insurance. It is as J.I. Packer titled it, “Knowing God” or if I can put my own spin on it, knowing truth. This requires the engagement of the brain. We must think and we must be taught to think. Here Richard Baxter is most helpful.

We must use all the means we can to instruct the ignorant in the matters of their salvation; by our own most plain familiar words; by giving or lending, or otherwise helping them to books that are fit for them; by persuading them to learn catechisms. – Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor

If I may suggest to pastors, a college degree does not make an educated congregant. Simply because a man is learned in the disciplines of his own field does not mean he has plumbed the depths of fealty to Christ. The ignorant can have graduated summa cum laude and and still be ignorant. Confidence in a wide range of opinions does not a Christian of understanding make. 

To Expound on Baxter

There are three things Baxter points to that deserve our consideration for a pastor to adopt.

1. “Instruct by our own most plain familiar words.” Plain vocabulary is not hard to come by in sermons today. Yet plain truth is. Pulled punches, death by preface, obfuscate the truth because of fear from “felt needs.” Instruction is clear, and direct. Lying to a congregation is not loving. Sin is sin if the weight of it is never felt, if the man is never broken over his own depravity he will never see the glory of Christ. Instruct the commands of Christ as commands. Preach the law so that it becomes like honey on their lips

The law of the LORD is perfect,

reviving the soul;

the testimony of the LORD is sure,

making wise the simple;

the precepts of the LORD are right,

rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the LORD is pure,

enlightening the eyes;

the fear of the LORD is clean,

enduring forever;

the rules of the LORD are true,

and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,

even much fine gold;

sweeter also than honey

and drippings of the honeycomb.

Moreover, by them is your servant warned;

in keeping them there is great reward. – Psalm 19:7-11

A congregation that despises the law of God will despise their pastor and will despise God. Instruct men how to think. To work our their salvation.

2. “By giving or lending, or otherwise helping them to books that are fit for them” Get good books in their hands. Recommend them from the pulpit,** give books away, sell them at cost from a table after services. Give reading lists, introduce them to good theologians. Learn what your people are reading and if a bad theology (ex. Jesus Calling) begins to grow in your church correct from the pulpit and direct them to better books (ex. Morning and Evening). Typically a reading church is a strong church. 

3. “Persuading them to learn catechisms.” Rote learning is the beginning of all learning. Until the foundation is laid nothing can be built. Westminster, Luther’s Small, 1689 Baptist, New City are all readily available catechisms. Dear pastor why would you not want your people to know and be conversant on the very basics of what you all claim to believe? Memorization is work, but simply because a thing is hard does not mean it is bad. If you do not catechize your people in the basics of the faith they will be catechized in the ways of the world. Set forth a question every Sunday in your liturgy with a response. Give them to new parents. Persuade your parishioners to catechize their children and to be catechized themselves. 

One Last Objection

I began by highlighting the apparent opposite routes a pastor may take, being warm and pastoral or being a theologically rigorous preacher. And have leaned heavily on the Puritans to help make my points. And the objection may be raised that they were in a meaner context and men are different today. I disagree, men at all points of history are sinners, and the Gospel is the same yesterday, today, and for always. The Puritans were hated for their fidelity to the Gospel, and yet they stood firm and they also were a perfect example for todays pastors in not giving an inch intellectually but also loving their congregations with tears. They loved their people so much that many died for them. The characature of the cold hard puritan is exactly that a lie. It is because many of our pastors and theologians have failed to read our histories, and biographies, and those who have come before us (and I man read not cherry pick a sermon for quotes) that we have failed to let the “clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds” and our churches that we create the binary of the loving or the intelligent pastor. If you doubt this try it. Take Baxter’s advice and read for yourself. Read Bunyan and see how he pleads with men to come and be welcomed to Jesus Christ. Read the sermons of the Great Ejection and observe how men served there people until they were forced out. And though it might be considered cheating since he was not a Puritan read Spurgeon. Read how he wielded both his sword and trowel to cut down sins in his church and built up the saints under his charge.

Conclusion

Teaching men to think is work, but it is necessary. The common assumption is that church members are in constant need of comforting or coddling. And sadly that may be the current situation, but I would argue it is directly a result of a years long, cross denominational misnsterail malpractice of comforting and coddling when what was really required was gospel preaching that struck them like Ardbeg straight from the cask. As Lewis highlights:

“Everyone has warned me not to tell you what i am going tell you… They all say ‘the ordinary reader does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion’. I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means ‘the science of God’, and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children?” C.S. Lewis, Beyond Personality Chapter 1

Do not think your congregation full of fools. Challenge them, teach them to think. The work will be hard, but dear pastor why did you go into the ministry of word and sacramnet if you were not willing to wage war? Again Richard Baxter:

“To bring them into higher and stricter opinions, is very easy; that is, to bring them from the truth into error, on the right hands well as on the left: but to increase their knowledge and gifts is not easy” – Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor

Take your people beyond the opinions and fads of the day. Teach them truth, and how to think in that truth. Cease believing the lie that you must be one or the other, letting a parishioner continue in sin for the sake of his feelings is neither loving or kind. Do not settle for an intellectually lazy congregation. 

*I stole this description from either Mark Dever or J.I. Packer I can’t remember which but don’t quote me on it.

**In the future I hope to expand on this topic. Obviously. 

The Puffed up and the Invisible Rabbit

(Part 2)

Introduction

Screwtape calls it, “The blessed word, adolescent.” It is one of his favorites to conjure up and distract from actual immaturity. The idea that Lewis, though Screwtape, wishes to convey is that posture in which a, usually young, man takes to task a person or an idea that he believes that he has outgrown and now finds quite wrongheaded or banal. It is a mark of pride. The over assumption of one’s own intellect and maturity due to the contrast one feels over and against a person or issue that is being condescended too. A lack of humility, the inability to admit current faults, or even accept that they may currently be wrong, are all telltale signs of the self perceived mature. 

Previously on “The Blog”

I bring all of this up to serve in exploration of some ways how the preceding article The Sin of Intellectual Laziness can be misunderstood and abused in application. If there is a singular truth about readers of blogs it is that you lot can misread, misinterpret, and misapply what is written. This can be done selectively or wholesale. Just as easily, I can misspeak or fail to be clear. While I want to encourage Christians to have high intellectual standards. And I would encourage them to spur on their pastors to teach with a high standard. At the same time I do not want to encourage an arrogant echo chamber of young men who have a longer list of things their pastors can do better, than a list of things they thank God for in the man.

The Puffy Congregant

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. – 1 Corinthians 8:1

Paul presents us here with a perfect example. The believers in Corinth knew that idols are merely statues. They had knowledge of the truth. Idols are blind gods, deaf god, mute gods. They have no power in and of themselves and are pointless blocks of wood, stone, or metal. Food sacrificed to them was a waste of perfectly good food and could be reclaimed by the believer and eaten with no issues. But there was a clear sect in the church that had reservations of conscience over eating that food. Over and against them was another group that seemed to be very Ben Shapiro like with their, “facts and reason” about why the food could be received freely. Paul calls the latter group to love, not be logic driven bulldozers.

There comes a point when knowledge makes a man cold, hard, and uncaring. Or to put more Biblically, arrogant, puffed up, prideful. And while pride is a equal opportunity sin. There is a certain kind of young man that raises arrogance to an art form. I have met some of them. In Reformed circles the stereotype is called a Cage Stage Calvinist. Stereotypes exist and they exist for a reason, it is an earned moniker and perception. The Cage Stagers are an obnoxious bunch that have gained a little knowledge of the Doctrines of Grace but failed to understand the word Grace. Their words may say it is all of Christ, but their tone and actions declare what they really think, that when Jesus picked them He picked a winner. They love to talk more than listen and the vast majority of what they say exposes a rote knowledge rather than understanding. When I disciple one of these young men I always start them on a pipe, or a Cage Stage Pacifier. Unlike a cigar a pipe requires constant maintenance and attention to stay lit. It is perfect for them. If they can’t say anything edifying they shouldn’t say anything at all. 

More to the point, if intellectual laziness is sin, faux intellect, graceless intellect is as well. But it is those who have garnered a little knowledge that have the most potential to become the kind of congregant a pastor endures rather than enjoys. In a healthy church there is always room for a pastor to receive feedback. And indeed if he is too aloof, arrogant, or remote himself there are problems; just as if he were on the other end of the spectrum being to soft, milquetoast, or feminine. There is a ditch on either side of the road. However, there are a great many good pastors who dread their Monday morning inbox because of those in the congregation that have never served a day in pastoral ministry, never the less they know exactly where he went wrong. Last week I quoted John Erskine, and I will do so again to sum up the thinking of most brow beaten pastors, “The ignorant are full of opinion.”

The Full Christian

So to nuance this all a bit let us consider how to be like Christ.

The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. We have seen his glory, the glory he has as the only-begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 14:1 (Emphasis Added)

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. – 2 Peter 3:18

The idea that you must either be a truth person or a gracious person is a false dichotomy. We are to be both. This is not a new idea, I have no illusions of it being a massive revelation. Yet in the church today I see very little grace, and to be totally frank, very little truth. Both have been missed entirely instead I see a lot of opinion masquerading as truth. We are to be a people of the truth, and the root of all truth is found in The Full Counsel of God. The key being The Full Counsel. Christians have been a people of the book from day one and we can not cherry pick the word for expediency. As one pastor has noted the Bible has angular texts, passages you wish weren’t there because your position must be reconciled to them. Not the other way around. When we submit, are humble, before God grace flows to us and through us. Truth flows to us and through us. Grace and truth are not virtues that hold off until we are glorified, they are put into us as we are being sanctified. 

Illustrating the Point with a Large, White, Invisible, Rabbit

I have previously cited Mary Chase’s play Harvey* and obviously I plan to do so again. For the uninitiated, The protagonist of the play isElwood Dowd a kind, pleasant man. His only flaws are the excesses of his kindness, his consistent drinking, and his best friend Harvey. Harvey is a Pooka, “from old Celtic mythology – a fairy spirit in animal form – always very large. The pooka appears here and there – now and then – to this one and that one – a benign but mischievous creature – very fond of rumpots, crackpots, and how are you, Mr. Wilson?” Taking the form of a human sized, invisible, white rabbit. Harvey is, he exists, and the contention of the play is that everyone but Elwood denies this truth. Elwood remains absolutely firm in his convictions, never wavering on what he knows to be fact. Yet as everyone around him is reduced to hysteria Elwood never becomes condescending, or cruel, or even angry, he is a model of charity, kindness, and grace. At one point he explains.

“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.” – Elwood P. Dowd

The beautiful irony of this quote is that Elwood never ceased to be smart. Throughout the play he is the only one who knows exactly what is happening and he gently walks though it all. Despite all the P.H.D.’s running around him Elwood is the only one with intelligence and plain horse sense. Yet he also never ceases to be pleasant, gracious, kind, and charitable. Elwood is never flustered because he has faith in his friend, and he is “Oh so smart.” Ironically he has proved his mother wrong, he is the living embodiment of being smart and pleasant all at the same time. Fiction allows us to see, albeit though extremes on occasion, our potential. Christians should strive to be Elwood like, so firm in the truth that they can be gracious, charitable, and pleasant wielding it knowing that truth will stay the same no matter the objections.

As it has been previously established, truth is a person. 

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. – John 14:6

Our commitment to truth, our commitment to being intelligent, well reasoned, knowledgable people is Biblical. It is at the core of our faith. But we should never forget the end of the verse. We are going to the Father. We can be humble, gracious, charitable, kind, “Oh so pleasant.” because we have the larger view. We have confidence in the truth itself, we have all of eternity to explore and delight in it. And since eternity is quite an extended period of time, I doubt we will ever arrive at the end of this exploration. It will all be, further up and further in.” At the Fathers right hand are, “Pleasures for evermore.” We delight now in them but what shadows that will be when we are brought into that high country? 

With this in view then let us now consider then how the truth can make us, “Oh so pleasant.” While to a lost and dying world I will absolutely concede that the gospel is an offense. Just consider Matthew 10:22; Galatians 5:11; 1Corinthians 1:18; 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 2:7-8 for starters. We worship a man who was so hated he was murdered. However, among ourselves the unifying factor is this very same gospel, this same truth. From there we have many things to disagree about under that truth and it is here that we absolutely must not be intellectually lazy, and at the same time we must not cease to have grace toward one another. 

Retuning to the Circle

Pastors should be and in many cases are gracious toward their parishioners. But among a certain set of men, usually young, but not always. It is not a two way street. Theological hobby horses can be fun, but should not be ridden into battle against a pastor who is frankly already defending himself on multiple fronts. Rather members of a church are to position themselves to defend their pastor, they fight for him not against him. As the Puritans direct us:

The Church is to remain loyal to the pastor and to stay at his side in all the trials and persecutions that may arise because of the world. – John Owen, Duties of Christian Fellowship

Richard Baxter then reminds us to be humble because we are not all employed in that position. There are things a pastor is aware of we are ignorant of. A faithful pastor oftentimes has good theological reasons for how and why he does things that the congregation has never even thought through.

“Understand first the true ground, and nature, and reasons of the ministerial office, or else you will not understand the grounds, and nature, and works of ministerial office… it must not be left to all in common.” – Richard Baxter, The Christian Directory

Knowledge met with humility on the part of a congregant recognizes that you are not privy to every bit of information about what is happening in the church. Knowledge, acknowledges the truth of the finiteness of man. You are not omniscient. The thinking Christian sees this and thus tempers his thoughts with grace, and kindness as they are recommended to a pastor. This in no way softens truth, but it delivers that truth in such an agreeable manner that a wise pastor will listen. If the end goal is doctrinal fidelity, both the congregant and the pastor are striving toward it. Sometimes church members are wrong, sometimes pastors are wrong, Jesus, the truth, is never wrong. We pursue him in grace, not arrogance. If you find yourself at odds with your pastor then filled with humility and and actual Biblical knowledge bring to his attention your objections. As a friend once reminded me, “there is a difference between confidence and arrogance.” But the confident, the actual thinker is never afraid of the words, “I don’t know.” Pastors sometimes know more and have very good reasons for doing things the way they do. Be humble, be humble but do not compromise the truth, you both are fighting for that. Do not abort a conversation before it begins with arrogance.

Conclusion

My concern remains that many Christians, and sadly many pastors have become comfortable with the sin of intellectual laziness. But let us not fall off the other side of the mule into the sin of arrogance. As Screwtape reminds us those who love to consider themselves very mature are usually the most adolescent of all.

*In the interests of full disclosure I should admit that I played Elwood in a college production of Harvey. My love for this play runs pretty deep and my interpretation is based on my personal read of the character and how I played him. 

The Sin of Intellectual Laziness

Introduction

There has been no small amount of hay made over the apparent dichotomy of feeling vs. thinking. In the wider world we have Ben Shapiro telling us that the facts don’t care about your feelings. In the Christian world Alan Jacobs is something of an intellectual darling for his book How to Think. Piper even has taken us to task with his exasperated sounding title Think! And yet if we survey the world around us it seems pretty clear that the feelings don’t care about your facts.

In Which I Fashionably Arrive at the Party

I would now like to come late to this particular party with a small observation that may spur a few more on. In short I would suggest that we are reaping what we have sown. Intellectually Lazy parishioners make intellectually lazy pastors, and intellectually lazy pastors will continue to make intellectually lazy parishioners. It becomes a cycle of lowering the bar and I fear that we have gotten this particular one quite low.*

This is not to imply that all pastors are lazy. I specifically laid the charge of intellectual laziness. I realize that pastors are pulled in many directions. And with the increase of technology are made now more available than ever before. Pastors are always on call, they are considered second responders in disasters and emergencies. They have an emotionally draining job. The expectations placed on them are far too often impossibly high. They are required to paradoxically be deeply empathetic and emotionally sensitive, yet have a thick enough skin to receive the cruelest of criticism. If a pastor is striving to do these things and any innumerable other tasks put upon him he is not lazy. And yet these are merely obstacles to being intellectually rigorous. The crushing pressure comes from being looked to for the immediate response to whatever current cultural issue has reared it’s ugly head. He must be more than informed and but an instant expert, general knowledge of humanity is insufficient. His response and thinking must be sensitive, non offensive, yet somehow authoritative, culturally relevant, and not platitudinous. And the last point is the most damning. Platitudes are considered canned answers and therefore cold, unfeeling, and insensitive. God forbid that real repentance is called for unless that repentance is in line with the current cultural thinking. All of this can cow, overwhelm, distract, or beat down a faithful pastor into becoming intellectually lazy. Depending on the man this process can take time, or he may be primed fresh out of seminary. However, it is not new, the cycle of intellectual laziness has been with us for some time.

“In the Middle Ages the theologians carried the art of thinking further than any other group of men… but theology of any kind is now somewhat neglected, and the Church is not primarily concerned with teaching men to think. Unless we are a lawyer or a scientist we develop our heart and neglect our mind. Our heart is considered fully developed when our emotions are so strong that intellectual processes are for us impossible.” – John Erskine (emphasis added)

Allow me to repeat, “The Church is not primarily concerned with teaching men to think.” This is a damning statement if I ever read one. Erskine wrote this in 1943 one year after his influential essay The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent. I believe he was on to something. One factor that Christians rarely consider is that truth is a person. It is not just objective, it is a person.

“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6 (emphasis added)

All truth comes from God. John 1 tells us that Christ is the Logos, the word, reason, plan; He gives form and meaning. He was in the beginning with God and is God. Truth is inescapable though it is everywhere denied and suppressed. That denial will end in ultimate condemnation. 

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” – Romans 1:18-25

The Simple Truths Always Matter

But all of this brings us back to platitudes. The Scriptures hold truth, lead us to truth, fill us with truth. And that truth applies to every situation in life that may arise. Scripture is sufficient for all scenarios. But it is not specific. We are required to be sanctified, and to think. A mature Christian is a thinking Christian. Wisdom can not be attained by simply cruising to a ripe old age. It requires long, hard thought and application. An intellectually lazy Christian should be considered an oxymoron. More so for an intellectually lazy pastor. And the kicker to me is this. A wise pastor knows that while his congregation may want one thing they need another. They may want him to be conversant on the current big issue, but what they need is him breathing Scripture. We may not like platitudes, but we need them. only when the simple questions are asked and answered can we move beyond. Here again, and you knew had to know it was coming, Screwtape is most illuminating.

“The Enemy loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going? they will neglect the relevant questions.” – Screwtape Letter XXIV

Unfortunately the idea of, is it in accordance with general movement of our times? Exerts enormous pressure, both on parishioner and pastor. And since we have failed to read our biographies and histories, and been trained to selectively read our Bibles for supporting points as opposed to letting them read us. To teach, reprove, correct, and train us in righteousness. And this brings us back to truth, which brings us back to the necessity to be thoughtful. What I find most fascinating is that while truth is simple, and platitudes seem rote. Thinking well is both difficult and intensive. People must be trained to think. The tools are before us, but pastors must pick them up and use them, they must pass them on to their congregants. And none of this will be easy. But at the end of the day Christians are called to be wise. Wisdom is the end result of rightly applying knowledge to life. Wisdom is platitudes come alive. What seemed dull and repetitive blossoms into a flower of great beauty and value. 

Truth, thinking, wisdom. All of these are a necessary journey in sanctification. We begin with Jesus, the truth. We grow as 2 Timothy 3:16 instructs us, and we should end as Solomon wise, and perhaps a little frustrated with the foolishness of youth. But to do this is, as one of your own prophets John Stewart has whined, “That sounds like a lot of work.” And indeed it is. But Christians are called to pick up their cross and follow Christ. Nothing about a cross is easy. It even makes death out to be work. Just as Christ’s reward was on the other side of death, so is ours. When we mortify laziness, and ignorance, and pride we receive life, truth, and freedom. Above all we give glory to God. 

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.” – 2 Peter 3:18

As Westminster points out, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Knowledge of a good thing increases our enjoyment of that thing. To evade truth and thinking, to run from wisdom, to be intellectually lazy is foolishness, sin and death.

“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” – Hosea 4:6

Let us consider that the church has gone from being a small powerful movement to an enormous impotent one because we have failed to think. Is it possible that by expecting our pastors to present a comforting TED talk over and against a sermon that convicts, and trains us, we have been destroyed? I would propose that we humbly do the hard work of learning to think, pursue wisdom, love truth. And the work will be hard but what spurs me on are the questions of Francis Schaffer in his excellent A Christian Manifesto: “What is loyalty to Christ worth to you?” Is He worth the hard work, is he worth the scorn of a society that shames you for not falling in line? And if not the second question then, “Why are you a Christian?” If Christ is not worth labor, if He is not worth the mortification of sin then why do you profess Him? As Matt Chandler succinctly put it, “Church is a terrible hobby, you should buy a boat.” Christ is not a weekend pastime, He is savior, he is God, He unites us to Himself, and we are to conform to His image. Intellectual laziness will not do. Let us make ourselves lovers of truth, and pursue rigorous thought. Let us become wise. And may we pray for, encourage, defend, and humbly call our pastors to do the same and to become concerned with teaching men to think.

*But, you may want to point out, what about the Young Restless and Reformed movement? Wasn’t that a return to deeper doctrines, with books flowing out of Crossway like a river? And I would have to say that the early days may have been a reprieve, but unfortunately very little seems to have stuck outside of a few Calvinistic buzz words and an affinity for craft beer. I would challenge you to walk into any “reformed” non denominational church randomly and see if you can really tell a strong doctrinal difference from that and the standard Armenian SBC mega church down the street. Is the Lord’s Table fenced? Is the pulpit treated as a sacred desk where with great reverence the pastor brings to his people a message from the Lord? Are the songs of worship trinitarian, doctrinal, and instructive or happy clappy? The Young, Restless, and Reformed have become the Middle aged, Comfortable, and Compromised.