Category archives: reading

“We Are Not Enough in Awe of God”

In support of his new book Miracles, an interview in Christianity Today with Eric Metaxas.

I began with the parting of the Red Sea, healing a tumor, curing blindness—things that aren’t fluffy like a kitten in the sunlight. People say life is a miracle, and yes, this can be a cliché that doesn’t mean anything. But if you look at it in a different way, it’s a miracle and maybe the most hard-to-fathom and mind-blowing miracle.

H/T: E.M. on Twitter.

Tab Sweep – Small Groups, Hitchens, Mainline Planting

A quick list of some things I’ve read lately that are worth sharing:

First, the short but provocatively-titled “Taking Our Groups Off Life Support.” Key graf:

If we are going to take our groups off life support, we are going to need permission to re-imagine what gospel-centered community looks like. We will not change the preconceived view of groups by making participation a requirement for membership or by changing the names of our programs from “ministries” to “groups.” Small groups will thrive when they become the place where we experience life-giving transformation.

Second, “Learning from Christopher Hitchens,” an appraisal by Albert Mohler that is less a eulogy than, well, what it says: “Lessons Evangelicals Must Not Miss.” Mohler lists five such lessons, such as this one:

4. Hitchens did not hide behind intellectual scorn and he did not fear the open exchange of ideas. … Hitchens … was willing to debate evangelical Christians and to allow the debates to be publicized and published. He did not attempt to shut down debate by insulting his ideological and theological opponents.

Very much worth reading. If an outspoken atheist were admirable in so many ways, should not Christians be equally so, if indeed, not admirable in many other ways as well?

And finally, Landon Whitsitt tells young mainline pastor types to plant a church:

Am I the only one who sees a problem here? Not only do we want to “screw up the church,” but we also want the little old ladies pay for it? And then we have the audacity to be aggrieved when it doesn’t pan out? Come on. I thought we were smarter than this.

I’ve had concerns about the local-church-as-fixture (you know, “First XYZ Church of Anytown, U.S.,” celebrating a hundred years of doing the same thing) ever since I read Alan Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways. I’m not sure convinced a local congregation was ever meant to survive for more than a brief season. Our expectations to the contrary seem to me to be baggage we’re carrying from Christendom. See also Whitsitt’s follow-on.

Stumbling and Stumbling Blocks

Here’s an encouraging thought:

It is difficult, I admit, not to stumble frequently, and even sometimes to fall, when stumbling-blocks without number lie across our path. But our minds ought to be fortified with confidence; for the Son of God, who commands his followers to walk in the midst of stumbling-blocks, will unquestionably give us strength to overcome them all.

This from Calvin’s commentary on Matthew 13:41, part of the Parable of the Tares.

(The history of this parable’s interpretation may be nearly as interesting as the parable itself. What people seem to do is to read “the field is the world” as meaning “the field is the church. Then they read “let both of them grow together” to mean “go ahead and root out the tares immediately.” And I’m not talking about theological lightweights, either. I mean people like Augustine, Calvin, and Wesley.)

Truly Dead

Usually when I read the crucifixion and resurrection accounts in the Bible, I notice how they are at pains to show how the risen Lord Jesus was truly alive and not a phantasm. Today, however, these verses leapt out at me:

When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.Luke 24:48-49.

What are they there for? To be sure, they allows us to share in the pain and loss of the people who grieved, particularly the women. But is that the only reason Luke told us that those who stood at the cross were “all who knew him”? I doubt it. Those verses remind us it was truly Jesus who was crucified, not someone else. Then the crowd left as soon as the spectacle was over. But the eyewitnesses, who knew him well stayed longer — long enough to eliminate any idea that he might have “fainted” or “swooned” or any such nonsense.

Glimmers of Hope (Even in Jeremiah!)

For the past several weeks, my devotional reading plan has had me in Jeremiah. And, you know what? That’s not the most uplifting book in the whole Bible. (Yes, I’ve read the “good bits” in chapters 29-33.)

The readings for the past week or two haven’t been much fun, with all sorts of threats (“oracles”) being directed at (lately) Babylon.

Even here, though, you stumble across these odd little glimmers of light, like Jeremiah 51:36:

Therefore thus says the LORD:
I am going to defend your cause
and take vengeance for you.

That’s not very far from “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ says the Lord,” we see in Romans 12:19 (and Hebrews 10:30), but there’s a difference in tone. Instead of being an injuction–don’t try to repay because it’s not your job–it’s a promise of assistance by someone more competent to do the job. If we try the case ourself, we’ll make a mess of it and the perp will walk. But God will take on the case pro bono. That’s a lot more likely to get us justice, because in addition to being a great attorney, God is also the judge.

Pastoral Tensions

My reading plan brought me two verses this morning that highlight a tension pastors must maintain. The first is Paul’s well-known call to proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ:

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” —Romans 10:14-15

That’s the pastor’s job. It’s what people come for on Sunday. It’s in our job-title: Minister of Word and Sacrament. That’s what I need to focus on.

Except…. Every day I also read a chapter of Proverbs, and today this jumped out at me:

Know well the condition of your flocks,
and give attention to your herds
Proverbs 27:23

It’s not enough for a pastor simply to proclaim Jesus. You have to proclaim him in a way that people can experience as Good News. And to do that, you have to know the condition of your flocks.

Dealing with the Devil

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
John 10:10

As a rule, Presbyterians don’t talk much about the devil. But this month, we’re going to begin reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters in the pastor’s Bible study. The book imagines a correspondence between a senior demon and a younger apprentice, as they plot the damnation of their “patient.”

Pop culture tells us how people make deals with the devil. It says people sell their souls and obtain worldly success in exchange for eternal damnation. These stories are often accompanied by convincing details: the contract is signed in blood, or is executed at midnight at a crossroads.

Scripture paints a more complicated picture than pop culture. While there are some points of agreement, the picture is certainly nuanced. On the one hand, Psalm 10:5 says the ways of the wicked prosper at all times. On the other hand, the Psalmist recounts in Psalm 32 how his body wasted away before he confessed his sin, but now God has become his hiding place and preserver. He concludes with the observation that “many are the torments of the wicked.”

We may share the Psalmist’s mixed feelings. We, too, can think of successful people who, if not utterly wicked, seem to live lives far from the will of God — and yet they seem happy and fulfilled. This can drive us to discount the present and focus entirely on the afterlife. “They’re living high now,” we think, “but someday they will be brought low.”

True as that may be, it isn’t really helpful. First, Peter reminds us the Lord “is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). We can hardly desire damnation for those God wants to be saved.

But second, God doesn’t want us to be focused on our eternal reward. Instead, God wants us to change our definition of success. If the wicked seem to prosper, our definition of success is false. “What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matt 16:26)

The danger, though, is that we should turn our backs not on the world but on the present. If we focus all our effort and our obedience on a reward we only be able to enjoy in heaven, we have become like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, who complains he has “worked like a slave” for the Father, but lived miserably (“you never gave me a goat to celebrate”) (see Luke 15:25-32).

God doesn’t want us to be miserable. Jesus came that “we might have life, and in abundance.” My prayer is that as we read Screwtape together, we can gain a better perspective about that kind of abundant living. I hope to see you there!