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.

Advertisements

1 Corinthians 15:12-19

Last night, I had the worst dream about you.
You decided I wasn't worth the pain.
And like a ship that couldn't wreck, I tried 
To strain against the waves of black and blue.
I just remember screaming through the rain
As you crept back into the tomb and died.
And as your lungs stopped moving, I sunk down
Beneath a freezing sea. But there were none
Now left to lend a saving hand, to drown
The fear. No Spirit to leave death undone.And so we lay there, you, under the ground,And me, under the ocean's depth around
My head. And the salt of my tears became
The sea. We'll have to re-brand and rename.

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…”

I wrote this sonnet today. It’s in iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme:

ABC ABC DEDE FF GG

The lopsided structure of the 14 lines gives it a disorienting feel with rhymes you would expect. That’s intentional to the subject. I’ve always been fascinating by Paul’s playing of the “what if” game in 1 Corinthians 15. If Christ is still dead, then we need to not call this Christianity. In fact, we’re the most pathetic bunch if the tomb still holds his bones. To me, that’s a nightmare. But I thought the passage was worth paraphrasing in order to remind myself of the importance of the empty tomb.

How Andy Davis Taught Me to Memorize Scripture

Spiritual Lighter Fluid

In the struggle to follow after Jesus, there are lots of ways you can put kindling around your heart and trust that the Spirit will spark a flame deep within. We call them spiritual disciplines or the ordinary means of grace. If prayer and the intake of Scripture are the primary fuel for the Christian soul, the memorization of Scripture is like the lighter fluid.

Why not add a little lighter fluid?

Dallas Willard puts it like this: 

“Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life, I would choose Bible memorization, because it is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what it needs. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. That’s where you need it! How does it get in your mouth? Memorization.”1 

Coming from a different tradition, Chuck Swindoll says, 

“I know of no other single practice in the Christian life more rewarding, practically speaking, than memorizing Scripture. . . . No other single exercise pays greater spiritual dividends! Your prayer life will be strengthened. Your witnessing will be sharper and much more effective. Your attitudes and outlook will begin to change. Your mind will become alert and observant. Your confidence and assurance will be enhanced. Your faith will be solidified.”2 

And I think the Scriptures bear witness to the value of memorization.

Well Versed

Psalm 51:6 

Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. 

After his sin with Bathsheba, David acknowledged that such inward truth is antithetical to outward sin and would’ve helped in his temptation. 

Psalm 119:11 

Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You. 

The crucial word there is “treasure.” This is more than memorization. The devil has Scripture memorized. This is treasuring. This is to have it and to love it. And if you love it, you will abide by it. 

The Jews who did not believe in Jesus did not believe in him because they did not have the Father’s word abiding in them (John 5:38).  

John 5:37-40 

37 And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form. 38 You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent.39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; 40 and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. 

John 15:1-7:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

What does it mean to abide? The translated Greek word shows up in some form eleven times here. We get the English word “permanent” from it. It means to continue to believe in Jesus but it goes much deeper than that. It describes a continual union with Jesus. Jesus is saying “step into union with me”, “be apart of me and stay that way”. 

Why is memorization important? If you don’t you can’t do anything. You can’t bear fruit. And if you can’t bear fruit, what happens? You prove yourself to have never been a Christian and you get tossed like firewood. 

So, according to John 15, how do you abide in Christ? 

“If my word abides in you…” 

Now, at the outset, let’s be clear. I’m not merely talking about memorizing the Bible as the secret key to greater intimacy with God. Why not? 

  1. Satan memorizes Scripture. I assume he didn’t pull out his English Standard Version in the wilderness when he tempted Jesus (Matt.4). 
  1. The word of God abiding in a person is linked to that person’s belief in Jesus. John 5:38- Jesus is talking to Jews (people who had memorized the whole Pentateuch (in some cases the whole OT). And he says to them, “God’s word doesn’t abide in you because you don’t believe in me”. So belief in Jesus is unavoidably linked having the word of Christ dwell in you richly. 

Scripture memorization is a means to a person. It’s more than just retaining information. It is a way to keep yourself abiding in Christ. And it’s linked to prayer in John 15. “Ask whatever you wish” is not a magic formula. It’s a logical outcome from having Christ’s word abide in your heart. 

Jesus is not saying, “have my word dwelling in you with permanence and let it continually take root in you so that you can ask God for a sweet car or good grades or a nice marriage or a good job”. He’s not a genie. And besides, if Christ’s word abides in you, pretty toys won’t be your main desire anyway. 

Having His Word in you shapes your wishes and changes your desires and influences what you really want at the core level. And when his word abides, it takes root. After it takes root, it produces fruit. Scripture needs to be internalized. 

The Method 

So, how is this best accomplished? 

Andy Davis has written an excellent little booklet available online about how you actually memorize Scripture. His principles are as follows: 

  • Memorize big portions- minimize tendency to proof text (context is king). Shoot for an entire book. Not too long and not too short. Start with one around 90-160 verses long. Make it something that will minister to you. 
  • Survey the terrain:  
  • Count the number of verses in the entire book.  
  • Divide that number by the number of verses you will memorize per week. This is how many weeks the book should take you.  
  • Look at a calendar and determine a tentative finish date.  
  • Add a couple weeks so you don’t feel too much pressure.  
  • Repetition is the key. Memorize with your eyes. Read each new verse ten times, covering each word as though photographing it with your eyes.  
  • Say it out loud, emphasizing different words as you go. Memorize with your ears. 
  • Memorize with the verse numbers! This will help keep you from getting lost and missing verses after reciting large portions. 

Davis’ example: 

Day one: Read Ephesians 1:1 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.  

Day two: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Ephesians 1:1 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Look in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Now, do your new verse. Read Ephesians 1:2 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.  

Day three: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Ephesians 1:2 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Again, you should look in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Old verses next, altogether: Recite Ephesians 1:1-2 together once, being sure to include the verse numbers. Now, do your new verse. Read Ephesians 1:3 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.  

After you’ve finished the entire book, recite the entire book for 100 consecutive days. Ephesians takes 15 minutes to recite out loud. You can do this wherever. It won’t affect your busy schedule. Then recite it every Monday for the rest of your life. If you start to make little mistakes, take a Monday and read the book through by sight to correct those.  

Give it a try.

This is something I’m trying to implement this month. I’m preaching on Psalm 113 on the first day of Advent at our church and would love to have that psalm memorized. And if I fail, I certainly haven’t wasted my time. And I’ll at least have little bits of the psalm lodged into my mind and heart like holy shrapnel. What are you going to memorize?

The Art of Bog Slogging

I’ve had the privilege of having a couple different conversations in the last month about depression. Sometimes I get sad and it doesn’t go away. But I’m also trying to follow Jesus as one of his disciples. I think I can hold these two truths in tension. It’s certainly possible.

I call them “tailspins”. Something can set them up or nothing can happen at all. But when they come (as one did this week), there is this horrible desire to simply soak in it. Maybe it’s just my temperament, but I love it when there’s something big to feel, even if it’s hopelessness. And so there’s an odd temptation to just revel in the darkness. But I don’t think that’s right. Paul Maxwell has been very helpful here in fighting against depression from the perspective of cognitive behavioral theory.

With the people I’ve spoken with recently, the question has been more one of spiritual progress. Or perhaps spiritual regression? It’s at least a question of maintenance. If depression is a bog, then how do we slog? How can we keep dancing through the darkness? How do we tread water when every urge says “give up and sink”? Here’s what I’ve found works for me.

Tell Yourself What You Believe

I have found that reciting the Apostles’ Creed helps. For centuries, Christians have been telling themselves what they believe even when they don’t believe it, perhaps even so that they could believe it.

This is not a way to sweep depression or doubt under the rug. This is how I strangle those hobgoblins to death each day. When I say “I believe,” it functions as a verb and as a command. And I believe the Spirit uses something as simple and ordinary as this to strengthen my failing faith.

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

Eugene Peterson’s famous description of discipleship is apt. Some people say that the Christian life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. I have no doubt that is true for some people. For me, it is more like an uphill crawl through barbed wire while getting shot at.

That’s why I pray the Daily Office as I can, when I can. This was Thomas Cranmer’s attempt to get an entire country of people reading the same Bible passages together. I value it especially for the sheer amount of Psalms it pours into you. There are lots of places to start using it online. The point is to be able to read lots of Scripture everyday because “the voices in your mind are anything but kind,” to quote Andrew Peterson. It’s the Protestant answer to the question of how one “prays without ceasing” (1 Thess.5:16).

Our Father

It’s sad how many evangelicals view the Lord’s Prayer as some piece of biblical trivia to memorize or, worse yet, as a rote and mechanical ritual that has been ruined by the smells-and-bells high church crowd.

I even heard a substitute Sunday School teacher for me once refer to it as “the Disciples’ Prayer.” I almost threw up. This is how Jesus spoke to his Father and, remarkably, this is how he invites his brothers and sisters to speak to their adopted Father as well (Mt.6:9-13; Lk.11:2-4).

The Lord’s Prayer functions as simply as a prayer to pray that puts you fully in line with the heart of Christ. It can also serve as a pattern of prayer, as we paraphrase the various parts of it. The Church has historically gotten endless mileage out of this one way of speaking to God and it has been of limitless help to me in the middle of the night, no matter the hour of the day.

Slog On

Keep going. Whatever trauma has wrap itself around your legs, keep going. Even if your progress is inches and you find yourself going backwards some days. Whatever dryness has settled into your heart, keep going.

You cannot bottle the wind and demand that the Holy Spirit suddenly strike lightning in your life. But you can cover your soul with kindling and all of this spiritual fuel and trust that the Lord uses ordinary means of grace to build his Church.

Keep going. Dawn is coming. Slog on.

How to Not Spend Money Like a Fool

Let’s Talk About What We Feel Weird Talking About: Our Luxury

Spending money is the American way of life. Saving and giving might not be, but Americans have been known to drop a trillion dollars on things we don’t actually need. Of course, consumer spending is a huge chunk of the economy and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. Spending is something we do and it helps keep this country afloat. But you can spend money foolishly or you can use it wisely.

With respect to money, we are simply holding on to what God has given us. My favorite book on stewardship is Randy Alcorn’s little book on managing God’s money (even if I don’t agree with all of his strategies). And that’s an essential starting point. You are holding on to your wealth as a caretaker. 
And you are most certainly wealthy or you belong to a wealthy family. But what are you going to do with that wealth?

Saving and giving are essential concepts to understand and implement, but even if we don’t all do those things, we all spend money. Does the Bible say anything about how we should spend our money? Not surprisingly, it does. It equips us with very tactical wisdom to show us how to spend well and spend wisely.

The Proverbial Dollar

The book of Proverbs has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to money wisdom. Embedded in the overall pattern of save-spend-give there is the two part step of pursuing righteousness first and then enjoying wealth as gift from God. Proverbs 14:24 says, “The crown of the wise is their wealth, but folly of fools brings folly.” If you are wise, you likely will have wealth. And that wealth is a crown. It functions as a visible indicator of your wisdom. This crown is to be seen so that others might see the allure of wisdom. If we wear ourselves out to get riches, we miss the point entirely. It has wings and will fly away anyway (Prov.23:4-5). The point is not to have it. The point is to use it (saving, give, spend). And the way you spend your wealth can function as a beacon for fools that you are wise in how you go about your business as a consumer. 

There’s a difference between spending and squandering. Proverbs 23:19-21 indicate that we ought not squander our money simply on temporary physical excess:

19 Hear, my son, and be wise,  and direct your heart in the way.20 Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat,21 for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.

Likewise, Proverbs 29:3 (He who loves wisdom makes his father glad, but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth.) says we ought not squander money on temporary sexual pleasures. Again, God seems to be anti-squandering, not anti-spending.

“Whatever Your Appetite Craves”

In perhaps the most revealing text about how God views his people and their relationship to money, Deuteronomy 14:24-26 reads, 

24 And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, 25 then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses 26 and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. 

In describing the tithe, God tells Israel that when he blesses them, they give back in worship. But if it takes too much effort to take the tithe to the place of worship, they could sell it and spend the money for whatever they desired. Strong drink, oxen, whatever. “Whatever your appetite craves.” That’s how the Bible describes discretionary spending. But even this is not squander because notice that it is enjoyed “before the Lord” and that there is rejoicing in his presence. It is spending with an eye toward heaven, knowing that he has blessed and so we enjoy spending a portion of our wealth before the Lord.

“The Rich in This Present Age”

 At the end of 1 Timothy, Paul describes two different types of wealthy people: those who want to get rich (1 Tim.1:6-10) and those who happen to be rich (1 Tim.6:17-19) for whatever reason. For those who desire to become rich, the apostle gives a warning. With that desire comes temptation that can easily lead to ruin and destruction. For those who are wealthy, he gives a responsibility:

17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

Spend your money. But do good. Be wealthy in good works. Maybe spend some of that lovely green on an amenity for those who have few. Perhaps bless someone with a book. Buy someone a coffee. And enjoy it there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. 

Four Mistakes That Are Derailing Your Quiet Time

A Handful of Quiet

One of evangelicalism’s great contributions to the historic Christian tradition is the development of the “quiet time” or personal devotion. By that phrase, all we mean is a specific time set apart (made holy, if you will) in which we can commune with God primarily through Scripture reading and prayer.

Quiet times are such a staple in the lives of hundreds of thousands of American evangelicals and I’ve no doubt the Lord will be pleased to continue to grow his people through this particular method. But without meaning to, we can fairly easily derail our quiet times with God. A little negligence can leave us feeling rudderless and frustrated, or (worse yet) guilty because our time with the Lord wasn’t “good enough.”

Thankfully, there’s always grace for God’s people. And with a little bit of tactical wisdom, we can build a better strategy for putting ourselves directly in line with those conduits of grace. So, here are four mistakes that might be derailing your quiet time with God.

Place: Wherever Works

When I first became a Christian, I would wake up early, grab my Bible, and stumble downstairs to the living room. Then (to my parents’ chagrin), I would turn up the heat. Next, I would take a blanket and pillow and cocoon myself over the floor vent. Wrapped in a that warmth, I would begin to read my Bible. More often than not, my mom would come downstairs to start the day and find me drooling on the page. The allure of warmth in the early morning was too great.

This may seem like common sense but pick a spot where you won’t fall asleep. Don’t lie down. Don’t read in bed. The goal is not to be as comfortable as possible but as alert as possible. I have no doubt that our Father is patient and doesn’t hold us a grudge when we nod off reading his word. I don’t think his feelings are shattered. But what benefit does it do for us if we set aside the time only to lose out because of the place?

Time: Whenever is Convenient

Speaking of, we can have a space picked out to read and prayer, but the time of day might set that against us. My own spot is at my desk in the basement in the early morning before the rest of the family wakes up. But if I go down to this desk in the evening, when my wife and child are home, then I sacrifice family time in the name of piety. And if I go downstairs to be alone with God after the little guy’s bedtime, I miss out on time with Joanna.

Pick a time that works for you. Your schedule is not my schedule. Lunch break. Commute in the car. An hour before bedtime. The point is that you swing for consistency over convenience. Honestly, the time will never be convenient. And if you factor in our three great enemies (the world, the flesh, and the devil), even convenient times can be made to appear inconvenient.

If I water the flowers when it’s convenient, they will die. And they have. But if I stick to a schedule, they will flourish. There are enough gardening metaphors in the Bible to describe the spiritual life to help us connect the dots there.

Text: Whatever I Can Find

But what do we read? There are a billion devotionals out there. Some of them are even worth buying.

And there are some fine reading plans out there. My personal favorite is The Bible Reading Plan for Shirkers and Slackers. While not a reading plan exactly, I’ve also found the Book of Common Prayer Daily Office to be very helpful.

But if you have just your Bible, you’re 95% of the way there in terms of reading. The other 5%, I would argue, is a helpful practice called the Swedish method. I first found it in One-to-One Reading. It’s just a matter of asking the text you read three different questions:

-what’s the idea here?

-what questions do I have about what I just read?

-what am I called to belief or do considering what I just read?

When I worked as a youth pastor, I would use this method all the time. It’s a simple means to interrogate the text and then let the text interrogate you. And you walk away with something to belief and/or something to do. In either case, it connects faith with deeds.

Mindset: Why Ever Would I Do This?

Your mindset goes a long way on your end as to whether a daily quiet time will be a helpful discipline for you. Let me say now that if you miss your quiet time or it’s short or feels useless, God is not angry with you. It’s not as if you skipped your devotion this morning and now the Lord is going to curse you with a bad day and a flat tire and multiple hangnails. That’s not what the Father is like.

But neither do you have to “get something out of it” every time. I heard Jen Wilken talk about daily time with the Lord and thought it was an excellent insight. View your daily time with God like a savings account. You’re depositing something each day (or rather, the Lord is). And later, when you need it, he will bring to mind what you’ve read and what he’s taught you. You will have reserves to draw on in times of need.

But if you view it as a checking account from which to withdrawal daily, you’ll eventually overextend yourself and be left in the red, exhausted and frustrated. Sometimes you won’t “get anything” out of your reading. That’s okay. If his word never returns to him void but always accomplishes what he desires, then God is the only one who always “gets something” out of your reading his word.

Get After It!

So, you have your place. You know when you’re going to be there. You have something to read. And you have a pretty healthy mentality about what you’re doing. The next step is simple. Do it! Keep an eye out for these little spiritual derailments so that you can make the most of the time you have with God. Get back and track and go spend some time with your Father!

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 Marginal Church

If American Christianity returns to the margins, it might help the American Church. Jesus was born in the margins, as was his Church. And the Church has usually flourished (or at least improved her health) in the margins of society. This is not a call to embrace victim status, but a reminder of the hope and resilience of Christ’s Bride.

Democratic candidate, Beto O’Rourke, caused a stir last week by stating, without hesitation, that congregations and religious institutions that “oppose same-sex marriage” should lose their tax exempt status. Smarter folks than me have already piled on the think pieces and I have no intention of adding to the noise. If the polls are to be believed (and when have they ever been wrong?), O’Rourke won’t be sitting in the Oval Office in 2020. However, it got me thinking. Election years tend to make me ponder the apocalyptic. What if we were to lose tax-exempt status? Aside from how devastating that would be to our churches and colleges (not to mention to traditional mosques and synagogues and charities), I wonder if some good would come of it? Might it not return Christianity to the margins, where it has always done well?

When I say, “the margins”, I mean the segments of society that are powerless, voiceless, and despised. In first century Roman Palestine, the margins included:

  • the poor
  • the needy
  • the widow
  • the orphan (and children, generally speaking)
  • the sojourner
  • the refugee
  • the outcast (lepers, disabled, demon-afflicted)
  • those in prison
  • the persecuted

If the American Church were suddenly pushed back into to the margins, would she be alright? Well, yes. She would. The gates of hell will not prevail against her. But I think she would also do well (even as she suffered) because her Lord was born in the margins, she was born in the margins, and she has grown well in the margins.

The Holy Family in the Margins

Just as the Israelites “were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex.22:21), Jesus spent time as a refugee fleeing to Egypt with his parents. Jesus was a displaced person (Matthew 2:13-15). John Chrysostom observed that Jesus was homeless “even when he came in swaddling clothes. Thus you see even at his birth a tyrant raging, a flight ensuing, and a departure beyond the border. For it was because of no crime that his family was exiled into the land of Egypt. Similarly, you yourself need not be troubled if you are suffering countless dangers. Do not expect to be celebrated or crowned promptly for your troubles Instead you may keep in mind the long-suffering example of the mother of the Child, bearing all things nobly, knowing that such a fugitive life is not inconsistent with the hidden ordering of spiritual things. You are sharing the kind of travail Mary herself shared. So did the Magi. All of them were willing to retire secretly in the humiliating role of fugitive” (Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 8.3).

While we shouldn’t seek or pray for persecution, when if comes, we are in good company. “When you flee in Egypt, you come to these steep ascents of faith and action. You face a tower, a sea and waves. The way of life is not pursued without the waves of temptation” (Origen, Homilies on Exodus 5.3). And it was because Jesus’ family fled as refugees from King Herod’s infanticide that Jesus could one day, voluntarily, seek out the cross and not flee death, but taste it for all of us.

If we are to be of the margins, we are not going anywhere Christ has not been. And neither, for that matter, would it be new ground for us.

Born in the Margins

Most Christians in the world live in or near the margins of the world. But a particular comfort for the American church is look back at the early church. According to the historian Rodney Stark, by the year 350 there were an estimated 33 million Christians in the Roman Empire. That’s 56.5% of the Empire that claimed Christ as Lord. By the end of the first century, Christians made up 0.01%. By the end of the second century, they made up 0.36%. Emperor Constantine skewed the numbers for us after this, but the Church was certainly a marginal people early on. Some historians even put the percentages lower than Stark does before Constantine.

Nevertheless, as Alan Kreider points out in his excellent research:

  • “Christian numbers were growing impressively in the first three centuries.
  • This growth varied tremendously from place to place. In certain areas (parts of Asia Minor and North Africa) there were considerable numbers of Christians. But in other areas there were few believers. And some cities, such as Harran in Mesopotamia, were known to be virtual ‘Christian-free’ zones.
  • By the time of Constantine’s accessions, the churches not only had substantial numbers of members; they extended across huge geographical distances and demanded the attention of the imperial authorities.”

A cynic might suggest that Constantine hitched his chariot to a winning horse as he saw Christian populations exploding. At any rate, before it was made legal, Christianity was flourishing (though not everywhere) even though it was despised as atheistic, incestuous, and secretive (see Justin Martyr’s First and Second Apologies). But that’s alright. We’ve done well in such environments.

Thriving in the Margins

Like a flower growing up out of a sidewalk crack, Christianity seems to increase through confines. From the modern example of the Chinese church growing even as the government destroys their buildings to the distant past, she has grown with an almost reckless exuberance.

After the death of Stephen in Acts 7, a massive persecution breaks out against the Christians in Jerusalem. But what happens? What happens when you blow on a dandelion and the seeds scatter all over your yard. Acts 8 begins by telling us that as the persecution spread, so did the church.

In Tertullian’s Apologeticus, he says that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” “We not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood (Heb.12:4), but we have no had cause yet. If anything, we have cozied up to power in a manner reminiscent of those religious leaders who feared to lose their position and their place (John 11:48). But Christianity thrives in the margins, not in bed with the state.

Conclusion

Will the church in America lose her tax-exempt status? Will we lose our religious liberty as the country continues to bow to Venus in worship? Will our sense of conviction and character crumble as we seek to clutch at our fading influence? I don’t know. But if the track record of Christ’s Bride is any indication, she will be fine. And it’s not because she is inherently bulletproof. It is because her Lord conquered death. And though I do not welcome it, I think we will be alright in the margins. That’s where this all started, after all.

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.