Sacred or Secular?

28 10 2013

I’ve always balked at the idea of posing the question, “How’s your spiritual life?” I know there is a time and place to ask it, but in the larger scheme of life, it seems not a helpful inquisition for the cause of Christianity. Such strong hesitation, some may say is from my cynicism (or jadedness even), but in this particular case, they would be wrong. It is a result from a strong desire to oppose the detriment that have been seen when people, Christian or non-Christian, create a division between the sacred and secular in their lives. Brian J Walsh and J Richard Middleton seem to agree,

We are called to serve the Lord and acknowledge his kingship in the whole range of our cultural activities. There are no sacred/secular compartments here. Our service to God is not something we do alongside our ordinary human life. The Bible knows no such dichotomy. In the biblical world view all of life, in all of its dimensions, is constituted as religion. From our economic choices to our recreation, from our prayer life to the way in which we bathe our babies, in every cultural action and deed, we live only in response to the cosmic, creation law of God. This is God’s universe throughout. And we are called to be responsible respondents to his overarching Torah.

This false dichotomy is also perpetuated when pastors over-emphasize serving the church, particularly, over and against serving people in general. Regardless of intention, it instills in people a hierarchical worth in service, that being on the praise team or helping out at a church run event is more valuable than picking up the trash in your neighborhood or a service done outside the walls of the church building. Yes, there is the other side of the coin where only the few serve the many in church functions, and in the desire to motivate the lackadaisical, there is a pitting over against categories that should exist together. I suspect, such encouragement is largely due to fear. Fear that one cannot fill the necessary role within the church for minimal function. This is a realistic fear and a worthy need to chase. But if I have learned one thing, it is that fear (and pride) is never a good motivator, and of course, the sacred/secular dichotomy that results is never healthy, even if it seems innocuous at first.

What are the marks of the church?

9 09 2013

We often say that the church is not the building, it is the people who gather. Then why do the answers to the question ‘What are the marks of the church?’ often seem to be impersonal concepts? Church 01One of the more extensive lists out there are Mark Dever’s nine: Preaching, Biblical Theology, The Gospel, Conversion, Evangelism, Membership, Discipline, Discipleship, Leadership. Of course, it would be unfair to say these ‘marks’ are all strictly impersonal as many of them have personal qualities embedded in them, but I look at the list and wonder, where is love, where is service, where is sacrifice? It can be said that love, service and sacrifice and anything else is subsumed under one of the earlier categories, but in the nine marks, where is the sense of hospitality and inclusion, where is the sense of imperfect beings walking together in repentance and faith? Brueggemann comments, in Peace, on possibly what we may have been missing.

This is what it means to take Jesus seriously as Lord. And. of course, we have forgotten that. We have made the mark of the church the right tag words of doctrine or of piety. Or we have preferred a certain social ideology of the left or of the right. But to love the brothers and sisters enough to raise and include them, that is a mandate of another dimension that comes to us with pain.

And he gives a possible prescription as to how the church can receive and take on this mandate that threatens our status quo theology. How to raise the lowered and include the excluded.

Clearly the only church that can practice such ministry is the one so sure of its own identity that it can confidently be a servant. The only church that can practice such a ministry is one so sure of its security in the face of its Lord that it can take a role not defined by competence and achievement.

The marks of the church. It is something necessary to identify and distinguish, batmanbut maybe with it’s emphasis we are falling into the trap of false batman theology, that is, “…it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” Maybe it would be better to stop focusing on trying to figure out who we are and how we are different and to start figuring out who is out there, lowered and excluded, and how we can serve them, not because that makes us into a church, but just because, that is what happens when one is secure in the face of her Lord.

Some Questions on Wisdom

13 08 2013

“…but wisdom is knowing what to do in the 90% of all life situations where the moral rules don’t really apply….”
- Tim Keller in his May 22, 2011 Sunday sermon

wisdomDietrich Bonhoeffer states in his tome on Ethics that the Christian life is not about being overly concerned about the right and wrongs of life but rather living in the commandment of God expressed in the permission He gives. This somewhat seems to align with the above quote by Tim Keller. Many conservative Christians paralyze their lives by over stressing the moral laws. Of course, morality is important, but if Keller and Bonhoeffer are correct in their interpretation, it seems natural to ask the question: What is holiness then?

If 90 percent of all life situations isn’t directly about figuring out the strict right and wrongness of our actions, what does it mean to do righteousness in that 90 percent? What does it mean to be holy in that 90 percent? What is wisdom’s relationship to holiness?


Sex at Penn

28 07 2013

It seems that the female perspective on sex and emotion is changing. Though one article and a study on one campus filled with upper-class, affluent, driven students is not quite representative of the female species of the entire nation, but nevertheless, it does illustrate some shift in perspectives. Kate Taylor, in a NY Times article titled “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too“, describes the variousUpenn opinions of female students and their perspectives on the culture of sex, highlighting among them the surprising shift in the female perspective on the one night stands. An excerpt:

These women said they saw building their résumés, not finding boyfriends (never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn. They envisioned their 20s as a period of unencumbered striving, when they might work at a bank in Hong Kong one year, then go to business school, then move to a corporate job in New York. The idea of lugging a relationship through all those transitions was hard for many to imagine. Almost universally, the women said they did not plan to marry until their late 20s or early 30s.

In this context, some women, like A., seized the opportunity to have sex without relationships, preferring “hookup buddies” (regular sexual partners with little emotional commitment) to boyfriends. Others longed for boyfriends and deeper attachment. Some women described a dangerous edge to the hookup culture, of sexual assaults and degrading encounters enabled by drinking and distinguished by a lack of emotional connection.

Within the article, there are surprising portrayals of perspectives, anecdotes and the like. One even as alarming as the following:

In November of Haley’s freshman year, a couple of months after her first tentative “Difmos,” or dance-floor makeouts, she went to a party with a boy from her floor. She had too much to drink, and she remembered telling him that she wanted to go home.

Instead, she said, he took her to his room and had sex with her while she drifted in and out of consciousness. She woke up with her head spinning. The next day, not sure what to think about what had happened, she described the night to her friends as though it were a funny story: I was so drunk, I fell asleep while I was having sex! She played up the moment in the middle of the night when the guy’s roommate poked his head in the room and asked, “Yo, did you score?”

Only later did Haley begin to think of what had happened as rape — a disturbingly common part of many women’s college experience. In a 2007 survey funded by the Justice Department of 6,800 undergraduates at two big public universities, nearly 14 percent of women said they had been victims of at least one completed sexual assault at college; more than half of the victims said they were incapacitated from drugs or alcohol at the time.

The entire article is a worthy read, when keeping in mind the narrow sampling of interviewees. But as much as the perspective on sex seems to be of much interest, something else is at the core of the issue. Sex is only the filler of the void. The article, itself, hints at the void made visible through the oddity of the driven nature of current culture, a culture of striving toward a career for success, independence and glory. More than rules of ‘do’s’ and ‘dont’s’, the concluding question of the article is rather appropriate. As the question turns the focus on what is really important to us: people or pleasure, success or joy, quality or quantity, it asks, “What else do you really have at the end of your life?” or better yet, “What will you have beyond the end of your life?”

The Denial of Death?

20 05 2013

1895Ernest Becker wrote in his Pulitzer Price winning book, The Denial of Death, many profound things about how man copes with the fact of death. In Christian circles, idolatry (making anything else but God one’s ultimate significance) is often seen in illegal or immoral categories, but Becker’s interpretation is insightful, idolatry is a coping mechanism, to intoxicate oneself by indulgence to forget the fact that the moment we are born, we are all dying:

Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget. In the mysterious way in which life is given to us in evolution on this planet, it pushes in the direction of its own expansion. We don’t understand it simply because we don’t know the purpose of creation; we only feel life straining in ourselves and see it thrashing others about as they devour each other. Life seeks to expand in an unknown direction for unknown reasons…..

Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self-consciousness that goes with it. They merely act and move reflexively as they are driven by their instincts. If they pause at all, it is only a physical pause; inside they are anonymous, and even their faces have no name. They live in a world without time, pulsating, as it were, in a state of dumb being. This is what has made it so simple to shoot down whole herds of buffalo or elephants. The animals don’t know that death is happening and continue grazing placidly while others drop alongside them. The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one’s dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that’s something else.

It seems he was picking up on a fact that was given to us even in Ecclesiastes 9:

It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the su, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

D.A. Carson, the NT scholar, said once in a talk that the last taboo in our current culture is the subject of death, that we can openly talk about sexually explicit content without a blink, yet when you mention that someone is dying, everyone begins to squirm and silence feels heavy in the air. This may be because we are creatures of hope, we don’t realize that hope is something that cannot last in things that are seen. Even people who think they place hope in unseen things, many times don’t believe it, they don’t live it. And as Becker observed, we start to indulge ourselves, whether with alcohol or shopping, to forget our finitude. Hope is an interesting thing; it is only as strong as what you place it in, and lasts as long as its object. 

Though Becker’s description was correct, I do not think he gives a proper prescription for the problem of death. He says that we often are in denial of it, yes, but, I think, the solution is not so distant, which is, we deny death. Of course, not of our own accord or power because, again, we all die. But we deny death through one where death could not consume, where death was left impotent, where death was only a marker in time. Hope in such changes death from the end of all things to the beginning of the rest of everything.

Here is a story (from SOULPANCAKE) of a man who died today, of Zach Sobiech, who I want to believe, had this kind of hope. No, more importantly, I want to believe, he placed his hope in someone that is greater. But regardless, we can affirm that he left something respectable, something great behind for the rest of us, who will all sometime, somewhere, somehow face our death.

(seen first on “Upworthy“)

The Wisdom of Walking

15 05 2013

rjWbKIt’s been conservatively calculated that at the end of an 80-year lifetime, a person would have walked 220,000,000 steps (7500/day). That is a lot of steps. A college student by the name of Andrew Forsthoefel, after being fired from his job three months after graduation, decided to take a lot of steps, 4000 miles of it (go hear for the entire podcast: This American Life: “Hit the Road”). From Philadelphia to New Orleans to the Pacific, he walked on foot across America with one rule: no rides. But the fascinating thing about his trip was not merely the feat of feet, but it was what he heard along the way. He narrates what he was doing on this long trek:

And as for why, well, I wanted to listen. After all, I was wearing a sign that said, walking to listen. And people told me about their lives, what they’d done, what they wish they’d done, whatever they thought I needed to hear. In Louisiana, a guy who let me camp out behind his trailer told me, all you’re doing is reading a book, just with your feet.

The thing is, we are all walking, somewhere, with someone. Every one of our feet has a story (or stories) to tell, and the longer they’ve walked, more likely that they have much more to say. It kinda reminds me of a blog post by a friend of mine, where we may speak different languages, but there is always a story. So then, what stories do your feet tell? Or better yet, do you care to hear where other’s have gone?

Along the way, Forsthoefel asked many people a similar question, taking all of what they have learned in life, what they would tell their previous twenty-three year old selves. My favorite response came from an elderly Southern belle.

Yeah, I wouldn’t worry so much. I used to worry myself to death. And then now I realize the things you worry about, how many of them come true? Very seldom.

I’d go barefoot more. I wouldn’t be nice. I wouldn’t be the nice little Southern girl. I’d be a bitch.

I wasn’t passive aggressive. I was just passive.

There is, more often than not, wisdom in walking. There is wisdom in age (though age doesn’t necessitate wisdom). But I wonder for us 4Feet.35122825younger folk, how much we are listening. How often do we consign the elderly to obsolescence? More often than not, perhaps? It may do our generation some good to stop running as if we are running alone, to stop and listen to the feet that have walked before us. If we do, we may just not have to take as many useless steps anymore.

Stop Talking

19 03 2013

In a casual conversation with two friends, the topic of preaching length arose. In their comments they pointed out the correlation they noticed between the length of sermons and the age of the preacher. They, interestingly, pointed out that many of the preachers who give lengthy sermons tended to be the younger ones. Of course, this claim was merely a claim of individual observation, but one comment my friend made particularly seemed to resonate: ‘When you’re older, you just understand that what you have to say isn’t really that important.’

At first glance, one may think that this friend has a hardened heart or is just immature to sit through a sermon of forty-five minutes plus. raul-calla-al-now-campBut that is because, of the two italicized words in the comment, most of us find the stress in the latter: ‘say’. That is, when we find the stress in ‘say’, we are believing that preaching is important, and rightfully so, but the above comment wasn’t stated to mean that preaching isn’t important. The actual stress was on the ‘you’, meaning, older preachers seem to have a better sense of their place in influencing change in people’s lives. They understand that 15~30 more minutes will not necessarily be of positive impact (or sometimes it’ll be of negative influence). Theologically speaking, they have a better sense of God’s sovereignty. It was interesting to notice after pondering upon my friend’s comment how much young leaders (me including) preach in our prayers. There is a level of guidance that is good in group prayer, but sometimes as one leads, they start to preach again, a prayer topic becomes a sermon as if the listeners must pray in a very specific manner, almost countering the sovereignty of intercession we can find in Romans 8:26. Ed Welch, in a CCEF blog (titled “Edit Your Counseling“) about understanding that more words are not necessarily a good thing, corroborates the goodness of brevity with an anecdote:

I submitted a chapter for a book. The editor suggested that I should aim for 8-10,000 words. After I submitted it, the publisher pulled rank and mandated that all chapters be 5,000 words or less.

I labored to cut it back but it was still over the word count. I told the editor I was at bare bones—there was nothing else I could cut. I assumed (hoped?) that he would say something like, “Oh, don’t worry about that silly word count from the publisher. Your chapter is so good they will make an exception,” or something like that.

What he actually said was, “No problem, I will edit it down to 5,000 words for you,” which he did, and the chapter was better than before. As you might guess, this word butcher is a highly skilled editor. Greater editing skill produced a chapter that is more succinct and clear.

But this is not only true in writing; the same principle applies to preaching and counseling.

David BeckhamWelch’s concern in the post is practical for the listener as his main point is “The more words you say, the less people understand – at least as a general rule.” But my concern, though also practical, is for the speaker. Preaching a long sermon is not inherently wrong or bad, but the concern is the heart and mentality of the preacher, where if the length of his/her words becomes a safety net for that person’s ability to change. If that is the case, maybe we place too much weight on the ‘your’ of ‘your words’. Maybe in our minds we think the words are important, when in fact, WE have become important. Again, this is not a post to say that hour long sermons are in it of themselves a negative thing, but it seems healthy to ask, “Do I have to say everything?”

At the same time the other side of the issue is not to stop talking. The Word must be preached, it must be known. But maybe the issue is that we have far detached listening from our talking. We have assumed all the questions, and forget to ask ‘one more question’ as Welch teaches in his class lectures. Harvie Conn, in Evangelism, puts it this way:

Maybe it’s time we stop asking, “Would you like to come to our church?” and begin constructing surveys around the sincere statement, “We’d really like to know why you’re not going anywhere.”

And he quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together,

207d544bca3a110df4f6a9749695568The first service that one owes to others… consists in listening to them… Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening…. Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they would share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.

This is not to say that young preachers must replace speaking with listening altogether, as listening by itself is rarely useful, but rather to put them together. For some this may mean that they listen more and talk less, for others it may even mean that they begin listening. Whichever it may be, behind our behavioral change it may be good to remember my friend’s earlier quote on the wisdom of old age, that it’s quite ok NOT to say everything, all at once, every time.


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