Armed With Steele

Andrew Peterson (whose new book on creativity is out and amazing) has spoken about art as a blending together of honesty, beauty, and truth. If you put together honesty and truth without much thought for beauty, you get most of what passes for Christian music on the radio. If you have honesty and beauty, but no clear expression of the truth, you get something like Coldplay or Brian Fallon. When you get all three, you get someone like Rich Mullins. But when, Peterson says, when you have truth and beauty, but no honesty, the result is most hymns.

Now, on principle, I suppose I would’t disagree too much. But two of my favorite hymnists break that rule. Perhaps they are the Rich Mullins (Mullinses?) of hymnody: William Cowper (pronounced “cooper”) and Anne Steele.

 “Dear Refuge of my weary soul, 
On thee, when sorrows rise, 
On thee, when waves of trouble roll, 
My fainting hope relies. 
But O! when gloomy doubts prevail, 
I fear to call thee mine; 
The springs of comfort seem to fail, 
And all my hopes decline.”

That’s a hymn by Anne Steele. Sandra McCracken has popularized it, but Kevin Twit of Indelible Grace has really been at the forefront of bringing her poetry back into the conversation (let alone adding incredible music to her words). You can read about her life here. But the lines of her hymns have been such honey and moonlight for me because they combine honesty, beauty, and truth in a way that speaks to the wreck that I am.

How oft, alas, this wretched heart
Has wandered from the Lord,
How oft my roving thoughts depart,
Forgetful of his word!
Yet sovereign mercy calls, “Return!”
Dear Lord, and may I come?
My vile ingratitude I mourn;
O take the wanderer home.

That’s a Tuesday for me. My prayers are usually some inelegant, muttered version of “O take the wanderer home.” I wander often. My heart is a rover. And yet the unstoppable love that keeps me from going off the cliff calls me back. Even in my “vile ingratitude,” he calls me back because I am his.

She knows what it’s like to have a fainting hope and to breathe sorrows. She teaches me to ask of God, “Unveil thy beauties to my sight that I might love thee more.” I hope you can find her on Spotify or Pandora or wherever you get your earfood.

If you’re walking through this world, it’s nice to be armed with Steele.

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Church as Suicide Prevention

Every suicide is a tragedy. Particularly and uniquely, they are tragic as individual ends to individually beautiful images. Outside the death of an infant or child, I cannot think of a more tangled web of sorrows and regret. But that’s one of the reasons I’m thankful that God gave us the Church. The Church has a tremendous opportunity to function as suicide prevention at a time when “deaths of despair” are reaching epidemic rates in my generation alone. 

The Philippian Jailer in America

In my state, the average suicide rate is one person every eight hours. Three people a day is a horrific prospect. That said, 77% of adults in Missouri profess to be Christians. I’m approaching this as a confessional Protestant. In my state, 77% of the population claims to be Christian and yet three people a day commit suicide. I wonder if one could help the other.

I know that not everyone who says they are a Christian know what Christians believe or attend a church with any regularity. But what if churches could function as suicide prevention? Christians are prone to depression and dark thoughts (myself among them), but what if the communities of faith were vigilant in the detection and the prevention of suicide in their own spheres of influence?

In the book of Acts, chapter 16, the apostle Paul and Silas are imprisoned in jail in the Roman colony of Philippi because they were proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Around midnight, the other prisoners are listening as Paul and Silas are singing hymns when a massive earthquake hits. But there’s a miraculous element to the quake in that the doors are opened and everyone’s bonds are loosed. The jailer wakes up (because who can sleep through an earthquake?) and sees that the prison doors are open. And what does he do? He prepares to commit suicide. 

Knowing that shame, unemployment, and probably death would be waiting for him with the sunrise, the Philippian jailer draws his sword and is prepared to fall upon it. In a single moment, he is utterly devoid of hope. He has no chances of making it out of this situation on top. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was on his last strike. We’re not told. But his immediate response to a hopeless situation is to end himself. But then what happens?

Acts 16:28- ” But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer is converted and baptized. Now, I know that, in context, “we are all here” referred to Paul and Silas and the other prisoners. But it strikes me that this is the perfect word for the Church towards those who struggle with the darkness and contemplate snuffing out their own lights. 

What if the Church were to call out, with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we all here”? In my time as a youth pastor, I’ve seen teenagers wrestle with depression. Some have fought daily and triumphed. Some have rolled the stone away, only to be crushed under its weight in a weak moment. Some have cut themselves to feel something, even if it’s pain and shame. Many have starved themselves to feel valuable. I’ve seen death claim the image of God. And who knows how many countless others totter on the edge, doing the dark math of a cold cost-benefit analysis? 

Do not harm yourself, for we all are here. We are all here. The scared and scarred, the addicts and the recovering, the self-righteous and the prodigals. We are all here and we are here for you, to support you and hold you and shield you from the night. So do not harm yourself. If the Church is the Church, you are never alone. Never without hope. The dawn will always break upon you in the arms of Christ.

Do Not Harm Yourself

If you are considering ending your life, immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and just start talking.And then find a church. There are multiple ways to find a local church that will love you and take the time to be there with you:

The Church can be priceless shelters of prevention and you need only reach out.

We Are All Here

Reach out. If you feel that someone is fighting against the darkness, reach out. Even if are utterly untrained, just say something. Trained professionals can always (and should) be contacted later. But the first step is to keep your eyes open and be the Church enough to see how someone’s really doing.Depression often wears a smile. Don’t be fooled by the masks. Make sure that your church is a safe place where people can admit that they are not doing well and that they sometimes consider removing themselves from the equation. We are all here- those who cry without knowing why and those with shoulders to cry on. Christ died for all.

Do not harm yourself, for we are all here. And we are all here for you.

The Social Gospel is Reformed

Let’s face it: Evangelicals of a conservative nature sometimes feel uncomfortable with issues of “social justice.” I remember once, upon suggesting that white Christians could be helped by reading the works of African American Christians, a local pastor told me, “Well, screw that! Just preach the gospel!” While his might have been an extreme reaction, I don’t think his sentiment is uncommon, especially among non-denominational evangelicals. If we simply preach the gospel, those injustices will work themselves out as hearts are transformed. At least, so the reasoning goes.

Aside from the fear of misplaced energies and distraction, there’s also the association of “social gospel” with those faithless liberals and mainliners. Doesn’t care for the poor and the oppressed a confusion of the fruit for the root? Isn’t that what derailed American evangelicalism after the 2nd Great Awakening? If we would be faithful, surely, we must simply focus on doctrine and let the implications of the gospel providentially have their affect.

It’s on questions like this that I am thankful to be a Reformed Protestant. Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch theologian and father of Reformed theology, delivered an address in 1891 to the Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam pithily titled General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Moasaic Law for the Social Question Today Drawing on the third use of the Law (moral use), Bavinck demonstrates that God’s people are called to ministries of mercy.

Loans to the poor were freely and willingly given in ways that wouldn’t crush them (Dt.15:7; 24:6; Ex.22:26). Wages were paid on time (Dt.24:15). The vulnerable (widows, orphans, the poor, the stranger) were treated justly in court (Dt.14:7; Ex.22:21-22). They have rights to glean after the harvest (Lev.19:9; Dt.24:19) and to entire harvests during the Sabbath year (Lev.25:5). The disabled were not mocked (Lev.19:14; Dt.27:18) and the elderly were honored (Lev.19:32). Conscious of the New Covenant, Bavinck reminds us that God’s law has now been written on our hearts, not only on tablets of stone.

Lest we yoke him under an anachronism and suspect him of being a social justice warrior, Bavinck rightly states at the outset that “the first order of the day is restoring our proper relationship with God. The cross of Christ, therefore, is the heart and mid-point of the Christian religion. Jesus did not come, first of all, to renew families and reform society but to save sinners and to redeem the world from the coming wrath of God.” Yes, and amen. He understands the gospel. But now that that’s made explicit, what else needs to be said?

“Redemption does not set aside the differences that exist thanks to God’s will but renews all relationships to their original form by bringing all of them into a reconciled relationship with God.” The poor, Christ said, we will always have with us. The gospel doesn’t flatten society into an egalitarian utopia. And that’s where justice is called for. Bavinck observes that while relationships are renewed, disparities are not eliminated. Therefore, there will always remain a large place for mercy ministry and for social justice.

He ends his address with this beautiful summary:

“In the same way that Jesus the compassionate High Priest is always deeply moved by those in need, so, too, directs his follows especially to clothe themselves with the Christlike virtue of compassion ([Mt.5:43-47]; Lk.6:36). Having received mercy from Christ, his followers are expected in turn to show mercy to others (1 Pet.2:10; Mt.18:33). It is for this reason that the church has a distinct office for the ministry of mercy.”

The wonderful thing about unlocking the resources of the Christian tradition (and the Reformed stream is not necessarily unique in this) is that I don’t have to fret about whether the gospel and justice are mutually exclusive. I don’t have too poo-poo mercy because it is merely or only an effect of the gospel. It is not merely an effect. It is a command and an expectation and a mode of being for the Church. Which wing of the airplane is more important, the right or the left? We need not be forced to choose the gospel over against the social obligations of God’s people. They go together hand in glove.

In Defense of Unread Books

What’s the difference between a hoarder and someone who buys books and keeps them stacked like termite mounds in the basement? This isn’t a joke. I’m actually wondering.

Solomon said (to the “amen’s” of countless generations of students), “Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc.12:12). This is one of the most bewildering and, dare I say, even offensive verses in the Bible. Of the making of many books there is no end. Praise the Lord! That means that of the buying of many books there is no end. And of the reading of books there is no end. Solomon, it sounds like you’re describing paradise.

Now, of course, Ecclesiastes is a back and forth between two ways of looking at life. You can look at life “under the sun” and what you see is what you get. That can make life tiresome (even in studying what you love). Or you can enjoy life “from God’s hand” and look along the sunbeam (as Lewis would say) back to the source of the gift and, thereby, see everything else properly. And Incidentally, that’s why the phrase “nothing new under the sun” isn’t a truism for how a Christian should see the world, but rather, how the folly and exhaustion and diminishing returns of a life without God is repetitive. But if nothing else, his mercies are new every morning (Lam.3:22-23).

But I digress. Back to my hoarding problem. Or is it hoarding? Is it because I need to have a plethora of books? (“Jefe, what is a plethora?“) No. When I changed professions this summer, I gave away or sold about 30-40% of my book because of storage space and it didn’t kill me. And yet, three months later, here I sit with lovely, wobbly skyscrapers of knowledge climbing to the ceiling around me. I’m flanked at my desk. I’m surrounded from behind. They loom over me from above.

And while I sip from twenty or thirty books on a monthly basis like some sort of lazy hummingbird, I know that I will never read them all. But that’s not the reason. Why do I have so many unread books? Why will I (without doubt) buy or trade or borrow more unread books?

I love meeting new people. It increases my empathy. It expands my experience. My favorite C.S. Lewis book is An Experiment in Criticism. In it, he talks about the interaction of multiple writers. “But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

I love the pleasure of potential. Why is the waiting for Christmas better than Christmas day? Longing and joy mix together in a glorious anticipation that is invulnerable to letdown. There is a sweetness in an unread book because it could be the next Wind in the Willows to me. It just might be as good as Supper of the Lamb.

I love not being the smartest person in the room. This is an implication of Lewis’ above point. Wendell Berry is a wiser man than I am. Augustine was a genius on par with Plato. Don’t even get me started on Tolkien. But if I can experience life through the eyes of Tom Sawyer or Lucy Pevensie or Martin the Warrior, then I can also learn from them. I can be kept humble while I hear what Gandalf has to say. I can take notes as Dumbledore opines about true greatness. I can beat my head against the wall as Karl Barth shows me how I’m wrong even if I know he is also wrong.

So, as long as I can have a handful of change, it’s a good bet you will find me in a use bookstore. The allure is so strong and I can now justify it with at least three reasons. These stacks might grow a little higher yet.

To Love as Humans Do

Sometimes we think we love too deeply. Billions of hearts are broken and reformed and rebroken every year. The silver screen and mp3 pour out the tears and the tears refill them. There is such much riding on the girl next door, the spouse in your bed, or the friend across the table. We are so desperate for closeness and so tired of loneliness (beggars, all of us) that we make each other the whole world in paraphrase.

“You’re the moon.”

“You are my everything.”

“You have my heart.”

“One soul inhabiting two bodies.”

Deep, thick, resilient love is a wonderful thing. But it can also be the most fragile thing in the world. In my job, I’ve learned that if the roof is too vast, it cannot support itself. It needs to be sustained by structure, by unyielding steel. Otherwise everything will collapse around our ears. And until the end credits roll, what is more unyielding than death?

The bored graves gnaw down every one of our friends. All our loves eventually will blend into the dirt and the dark. And our hearts, worn once on our sleeves and perpetually held by all those irreplaceable people, will fray like flags in a thunderstorm. Who can withstand that weight? What soul can stand up under the immeasurable banner of another human creature’s love? O Lord, what can we do?

An African Wolf of Wall Street was once ambushed by the living-again Lord of his mother’s homespun and simple faith. But before the wolf could live again himself, he lost his beloved friend (Confessions, iv/7-x/14). Augustine had to leave the city to escape his friend’s memories that were attached to the streets. He was afraid of death because to die would be to snuff out all that was left of the departed.

Flipping through the pages, years later, Augustine recognized that he failed to love his deceased friend humanly. He had loved his friend as if he were immortal, as if his shoulders were immovable and the burden of life-giving love as weightless as sunlight. In Rowan Williams’ excellent study on the church father, he discusses that we need to learn how to grow in our capacity to bear loss and absence. That’s what it means to love as humans. We are leaves in autumn and we love each other’s beauty because we know that winter is coming.

“Our great temptation,” Williams says, “Is ‘inhuman’ love, loving the finite for what it cannot be, loving people or things for magical symbiotic relation they have to my sense of myself, my security and self-identity.” Tom Cruise, telling Renée through tears, “You can complete me,” is beautiful, but ultimately an inhuman love. It’s a hope for an eternal autumn without bare branches. Augustine, latching onto his friend and splitting asunder when his friend died, loved outside the bounds of his own creatureliness, his own humanity.

Sometimes we think we love deeply. But perhaps we only love too wildly, like fire spilling out of the fireplace. But when we remember that we are like grass, that we flourish like day lilies, love finds its parameters. And love finds its depth.

Do We Need Rome to Truly Be at Home?

I love my Roman Catholic friends and family deeply and I disagree with them sharply. And I think that’s a classically Protestant stance to take. After preaching a sermon in which I called Roman Catholics “our friends,” a good brother in the church took me aside and mildly rebuked me for that phrase. It might communicate, he told me, that we don’t have many great differences with them, that we’re one big family that occasionally shouts across the room at each other. But again, I think I can hold deep love and sharp disagreement in both hands. And I think I’m well within the Protestant and catholic (“universal”) stream of the Christian faith in doing so.

When you read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, he takes a rather generous approach to Roman Catholics (even if does call the pope “Anti-Christ”). While he wouldn’t go so far as to call the Roman Catholic church an actual “church”, he concedes that there are vestiges of God’s Church that remain in those parishes.

Book IV, chapter two, of the Institutes is one of the clearest and most elegant defenses of the oneness and wholeness of the Church. There are certain Roman Catholic doctrines that I simply cannot hold to (their Mariology comes to mind). But Calvin shows us that the Reformers actually stand rooted in the Great Tradition, and it was Rome that took the wrong turn at Albuquerque. As a result, I don’t feel the need to swim the Tiber and go “home to Rome.” As a Protestant, I never left home.

Nevertheless, Calvin thought that Roman Catholics could very much be true Christians for two reasons. First, he believed Baptism and the Lord’s Supper remain what they are, despite the people administering or receiving them. But secondly, besides the “marriage rings” of the covenant promise we have in the sacraments, his own strong providence keeps his people from completely perishing from Roman Catholicism. When buildings are torn down, the foundation can remain. In the Protestant Reformation, God “allowed a fearful shaking and dismembering to take place.”

So, there are genuine believers in Roman Catholic churches. But Calvin went further than most evangelicals are willing to go today. He thought that there were entire Roman Catholic parishes that were made up of true Christians. Just as in apostate Israel, there were faithful groups of Jews (Israelites from the heart), so in Rome there were true believers, even whole churches. God deposits his covenant people all over the world and in places ruled by other religions. In other words, just as Christ has his elect among the Muslims and the Hindus and the Jews, he has his beloved Church scattered among the Roman Catholic church.

In one word, I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the church still remain—symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate church” (IV.II.xii.).

So, whereas a devout Roman Catholic might look at me and sadly declare me lost, I would look at a devout Roman Catholic and think, “Yeah, you could be my brother or sister.” So, I have no need to cross over to Rome. I just need to love them and wait for my God to claim his own within Rome.

Calvin knew that he stood in the Great Tradition of the catholic (meaning, universal) Church when he resisted papal authority and conceded salvation to any of God’s elect under that papal authority. And in doing so, Calvin wasn’t in danger of breaking the unity of the Church.

Calvin knew the fathers well, and followed Augustine in saying that Church unity was held together by two chains: agreement in what sound doctrine and brotherly love. As Augustine put it, heretics break the first chain with false doctrine and schismatics (dissenters, stirrers of strife) break the bond of unity, even as they hold the same faith. But the point is that united love must reset upon united faith.

This is right in line with the apostle Paul (Eph.4:5; Phil.2:2,5). Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop of Carthage, put it beautifully:

The church is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strong trunk grounded in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although a goodly number seem out poured from their bounty and superabundance, still at the source unity abides undivided.…So also the church, bathed in the light of the Lord, extends its rays over the whole earth: yet there is one light diffused everywhere. Nor is the unity of the body severed; it spreads its branches through the whole earth; it pours forth its overflowing streams; yet there is one head and one source.

All members of Christ’s Bride have this connection with each other, whether they were saved by grace in a Protestant church or a Roman Catholic church. So, I don’t need to be a Roman Catholic to be at home in the Church. The Church persists, whether God places her people in Rome or elsewhere.

Light sunlight through a prism, branches from the tree, and like streams from the spring, the one faith of the Church unites us in Christ. And the Church is then able to spread light and fruit and water to those who hunger and thirst in darkness.

“I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

*Clarification: I believe that salvation is contingent upon repentance. True Christians come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. Protestantism stands in concord with the early church in proclaiming this.

Looking Differently

Our pastor encouraged us to regularly be in the New Testament book of Philippians. It’s a letter to the church in ancient Philippi from St. Paul, pleading with them to find their joy and unity with each other through the joy and unity they commonly have with Christ Jesus. I got snagged on verse four of chapter two this morning:

Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (KJV).

I took some time and cradled that word “look” in my arms for a good while. It’s the Greek word skopeîn (σκοπεῖν) and Paul uses it twice in Philippians. In 3:17, he commands the church to “keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (ESV). In other words, notice carefully what we do, he says, and imitate us. The other use is here in 2:4- “let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (ESV).

Yes, we get our English word “scope” from this word, but that doesn’t mean Paul was telling the church to scrutinize the needs of others as under a microscope or get the big picture as with a telescope. As Don Carson has told us, that’s just silly. It’s a root word fallacy. You can’t work backwards from how a word is used today to better understand how its ancestor word was used back then. The two don’t necessarily draw such a straight line.

But we can see in Philippians 2:4 is that the way Paul uses it is in the present tense, in an active voices, to more than one person, and in a participle form (those –ing words). A participle is a verb masquerading as an adjective. All that to say, Paul is encouraging this Christian church to look out for others as an active, ongoing way to live out the fellowship we have with Christ and each other (see Philippians 2:1-3). “For one another” is actually an adjective, suggesting that the way we look carefully should be in an “otherly”, others oriented manner.

How can we be concerned about others in an ongoing default way? Two ideas come to mind. And both of these ideas sting as I think about how I don’t and how I could implement them.

  1. Through love. By learning to take a genuine interest in the day to day living of other people, I become genuinely interested in the people in my day to day life. As Uncle Jack said, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did, As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
  2. Through prayer. If the show Cheers taught me anything, it’s that it’s nice to be where everyone knows your name. It’s good to be a regular in some places. If you make someone a regular in your prayers, they soon become a regular in your heart. Prayers for others keep them in front of our eyes.

How can you look differently at those who look differently than you today?