The Beekeeper

I was a beekeeper once. The technical term is apiarist, but we answer to beekeeper as well. I set up my starter hive in the backyard by the creek. It was far enough from the house, but the dog had to learn a few tough lessons. Keep Benadryl on hand.

I landed on Italian honeybees for my first hives. They’re like fuzzy little cows. Very docile and calm. Great producers. A “nuc” colony, I felt, was a good choice to start off. A nucleus colony is four to five frames of brood and bees, plus an actively laying queen. I suggest you buy from a local source. It’s less stressful on the bees with respect to traveling.

Probably the best part about beekeeping was the clothing. You get to dress like a very low-budget astronaut. You always wear the veil. Always. You’re dealing with up to 60,000 of those little girls. You just don’t want to risk it. Gloves and pants that you can tuck in are also essential.

Beekeeping was tough. There’s a lot of hard work before you can see a return that makes it all worth it. And if you’re in the suburbs, there’s only so much expansion you can enjoy before you run into zoning laws and other nonsense.

But all in all, I enjoyed it. Even if it was only in my imagination as I considered it for twenty-four hours. I had a blast conquering my crippling fear of flying insects that sting through the power of fantasy and thought experiment. Nothing’s actually changed, of course. Maybe some day, when I’m old and grey and my nerve endings have numbed, I’ll take it up for real. But for now, I’ll enjoy my honey sans its producers and run like a frightened rabbit if one of them gets too close.

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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.

Of Banquets and Blowhards

You Are Cordially Invited…

I hate RSVPs. Invitations, as a concept, make me uncomfortable. On the one hand, I don’t like being singled out. I never have enjoyed eyes upon me. And then, there’s the inevitable sting of envy. “Oh, Mary Sue is having her thirtieth baby? Well, that’s great, why won’t she just share!” or “Oh, Bobby Ray is graduating from high school? Why didn’t he ask me if I wanted to graduate from high school, too?” They’re little reminders of what’s not in front of me and that bothers me.

But the worst part about invitations is the decision of whether or not to go. Will I miss out on something else by attending? Or will I miss out on attending because of something else? I might not know anybody at this shindig. I’ll have to buy a gift? Oh, it’s on a Saturday. Yeah, Saturday’s are the days when I don’t leave the premises. Sorry. That’s why, for a certain breed, cancellations are wonderful. Even if you absolutely love the person who invited you out for coffee, if they have to last minute cancel, it’s the temporal equivalent of finding $5 under the couch cushion.

Y/N?

I’ve been spending some time in St. Luke’s Gospel, in chapter fourteen, and I notice that a word keeps popping up. In twenty one verses, it shows up in various forms a total of seven times. My training (and also common sense) immediately tells me that word matters in the text. And it’s the Greek word kaleo ( καλέω ). It’s not quite the same as an RSVP because, in that case, you have the option to attend or not. Kaleo is a summons. There’s authority behind it that qualifies it as a summons. It’s deployment orders for a reservist. It’s an audience with the king. It’s a parent telling the child to come here now. It’s less a suggestion than it is a reality.

It’s translated as “invitation” in most English Bibles, but that’s because Jesus is telling stories about wedding feasts and dinner parties while at a dinner to which he was invited. But in those parables, God is the one behind the invitations. And so, they should be seen more as summons. And one’s response to such invitations isn’t a matter of preference, but of obedience.

I’ve been reading Alan Kreider’s excellent book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, and in it, he talks about the types of people that were attracted to Christianity and what that “invitation” to taste the wedding feast looked like in the first handful of centuries after Christ’s ascension. Jesus, in Luke 14, tells those who would host a dinner to invite the poor and the crippled and the sick (v12-14) because that’s what God does (v15-24) when he summons people to the kingdom. The proud and powerful make excuses and dodge the invite (in disobedience and indifference). They bluster and bloviate about why they can’t be there. And the underclasses, instead, get to go to the feast.

Kreider notes that much the same thing actually happened. He notes that Celsus, a great enemy of the faith in the 2nd century, complained about us because the gospel appealed to “wool-workers, cobblers, laundry-workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels.” These were the scum of the earth that brainwashed children and “stupid women” with their doctrine. These were people, in early Greco-Roman culture, who were voiceless. They were the pavement of society. And yet, they were largely the ones that checked “yes, my lord” on the summons.

Just As I Am

They didn’t pretend to be something they were not. Unlike Cinderella, they weren’t magically dressed up in pretentious niceties so that they could appear like they belonged at the party. They come from the highways and byways so that God’s house may be filled. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk.14:11). And the humbled were exalted by being summoned. The expenses of those who were unable to repay were covered. And we can never pay God back for calling us to himself. Instead, we simply offer that same summons to others. And how they respond (exalting themselves or humbling themselves) is between them and the host of the banquet.

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?