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Archive for March, 2010

I read recently that John Piper has taken an 8 month leave of absence, do do battle with the sins of his heart, by the sound of it, particularly pride – see here for the report.

Three things struck me about this:

  1. What an interesting thing for him to do. As you read the article, you get the impression that both him, and those amongst whom he holds himself accountable, talk about this sort of thing in an open and regular way. I don’t know of anyone who does that.
  2. What a generous thing by the church – they insisted on paying him during the time, and he’ll think about how much of it to give back. It’s a big church, so I guess they will all handle it – and in a solo or small staff team church it would be a very different story – but still, impressive.
  3. Third, what stands out is just how much they all – Piper, his friends, the church – think it matters: enough to do something like this.

So the question that struck me was – do we really think church – and holiness –  matters like this, and what would constitute a demonstration of that?

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On Sunday, we had a go at tacking the issue of how to handle the parts of Scripture that are least comfortable!

We showed a clip from the West Wing, which has Jed Bartlett challenging a Republican broadcaster on a bunch of Old Testament laws that call for the death penalty. And then read Deut 21, which has the same thing. Here’s how I approached it – any thoughts?

  • it seems to me that there are 3 things that we have so say about this:
    • The first thing is that there is a profound concern for what Moses calls the reality of the evil in your midst, an evil that needs to be purged. We find it very difficult to have any sense of evil except in so far as we suffer; we know that the earthquake in Haiti is a form of evil, natural evil, in the sense that we have a deep gut sense that things ought to be different, the earth should not shake and destroy us like that. But, as a culture we find it almost impossible to articulate evil in moral categories which requires that something be done about it. And in this, we are morally poorer and weaker than these Scriptures. What Deuteronomy’s fierce and violent laws teach us is that evil is real and it is deadly. It is real because the holiness of God is real, an objective supreme standard against which our actions are to be measured; and it is deadly in that evil is depicted as releasing the powers of death in the midst of the community, a power that can only be kept at bay by an equal power, that is by an equal death. The one thing you know when you deal with Deuteronomy is that disobedience to God is not something to be laughed off, not even something to integrated into your life as a mistake, not something merely to be regretted but moved on from. It is an objective reality, a transgression against the law and holiness of God, and it stands against you as the power of death released into your life, and can only be purged, cleansed, dealt with effectively, by an equivalent power. And this is something that we must never give up on. The only alternative is the moral relativism of Dawkins and his crew – they deny the deadly objective reality of evil, and instead redefine it as the subjective product cultural standards, fluid and flexible and ultimately without consequence, except perhaps evolutionary consequence. What’s interesting about that is the glorious contradiction of a position which on the one hand denies objective moral reality, and on the other hand, criticises Biblical faith with moral outrage, suddenly not nearly as interested in the cultural standards of the Bible as it should be. No, the first thing to say about these laws is that they teach us that disobedience to God is a deadly reality. It’s the first, but as we’ll see in a moment, it’s not the last.
    • Second, and although a smaller point, also challenging, one of the things we see here is the the communal nature of this community. Personal matters, even matters that are as intimate as marriage and family, are not just personal and are certainly not private, but are included in the life of the community. That’s why personal actions provoke community response, especially personal evil actions which release the power of death in the life of the community. We drink the milk of an ideology of individualism, where the possibility of seeing the community implications of personal decisions and actions is almost impossible, let alone the setting to one side of the personal for the sake of the community. And one of the challenges for us here is to question that ideology of individualism. What Deuteronomy says is that your actions and decisions, your time, your money, your gifts and abilities, your capacities, your problems – they are not merely your own; they belong to all of us, the way that they do in a well functioning family. And if anything, the new covenant only strengthens this conviction as we are sisters and brothers to one another because we are children together of our Heavenly Father.
    • Third, and most importantly, Jesus fulfills this law – what does this mean? It’s a very slippery word, ‘fulfill’, and can be used to cover a whole multitude of confusions. What it means here is this – what Moses could not see was that the evil would never be purged from Israel’s midst. There might be sacrifices of atonement from day to day, week to week, month to month and year to year, but they would never actually do the job in a transformative way. It was only Jesus, the Son of God, Messiah, who could do that; God himself bearing his own wrath, God himself purging our sin, God himself under our curse. He went where not even the worst criminal was to go, v. 22:

22 When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.

  • God demands that sin be purged, God demands atonement, and God provide atonement, his own Son, who redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. What Deut demands is not watered down, not explained away, it is fulfilled, fulfilled to the absolute limit. When God came to his world, he came not to mete out the judgment on human evil, but to bear it. You think Deut is bad – brutal, violent, intense? It’s nothing compared to the cross – an utterly innocent man, though of course that’s far too thin, the Son of God, God the Son, the one through whom the worlds were created, the one through whom that Roman soldier who nailed him to the cross was created, utterly sinless, the only one who ever lived from whom no sin ever needed to be purged, the Beloved of the Father – that one went to the cross. And it makes no sense whatsoever unless you get the spiritual reality which underlies Deut’s commandments to purge the evil from your midst. You’ll never understand the cross, you’ll never cling to the cross, you’ll never love the God of the cross, unless you see the reality which Deuteronomy reflects.

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“The number one reason why pastors ethically fall in ministry is their failure to differentiate between their role in the church and their person as a child of God.”

We heard the story of a Bishop who insisted on being called My Lord Bishop by his family at the dinner table! Ended in tears!

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I have spent the first 5 days of March at an Arrow Australia leadership conference.

It’s a fascinating – and refreshing – experience. 40 people, from across the states, church and para-church, across the denominations, and across the evangelical spectrum – super conservative, conservative, charismatic, pentecostal, etc.

And what I’ve been struck by and challenged about is this – it is a fantastically positive, encouraging, believe-in-other-people, hopeful-about-people context.

In one sense, that’s not too hard – it’s a temporary community, so you only have to engage with others for a week at a time (3 conferences over the 2 year program); very little is at stake, since we all just go our separate ways, and no one has much influence over anyone else; and it’s a deliberately up-beat environment.

That said, it is incredibly different, and incredibly powerful. The language is simply different – overwhelmingly positive, constantly looking for the upside, expecting really good things from people, articulating the gifts / potential / opportunities / successes of people, highly pro-active about people. And I wonder too whether the heart is also different – that it’s not just a language thing, but a heart thing. It’s a very attractive picture of Eph 4.25-32 lived out.

It seems to me that in the tribe in which I hang out, we have a long way to go in precisely this matter. I know that there’s all sorts of reasons why we are more guarded, but the more I reflect on it, the more I think those reasons don’t need to mean we sacrifice thie language and this heart.

It’s led me to a new month’s resolution (which will hopefully last beyond March!) – to very deliberately work on being far, far, far more proactively positive – both in the way I speak, and in my heart. The danger is naivete; but it strikes me as a danger well worth it.

P.S. I’m aware that I spent last week’s blog critiquing the Trellis and the Vine. Was that a blatant violation of this new month’s resolution? Maybe; I’ll mull more about it. I guess the challenge is this – since I thought the issues I raised were important, is it possible to ‘critique positively’? Three markers would be that you play the ball, not the man; that the positives are highlighted as much as the negatives; that you are completely aware that you are just a player like anyone else, not an expert, and are therefore thoroughly open to the same kind of critique, and have never spoken the last word, or thought the last thought, and need to keep learning.

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This post could also be titled, ‘the gift I most wish I had more of”!

It increasingly strikes me that what you might call ‘people discernment’ is one of, if not the, most crucial gift for a pastor. I say gift, because gospel faithfulness and character are not gifts, and are non-negotiables.

But in terms of gifts, the ability to see a person – to understand their strengths and weaknesses, their gifts and capacities, their energy and their passion – and then to be able to to inspire and evoke them – if I could nail that, things would be different.

I have some friends who have this gift in spades. Sometimes they can sound a bit yoda-like, speaking gnomically about the depths of another person’s heart. But they are right – amazingly, infuriatingly right, so often. People love being with them, because often they learn more about themselves, even painful things.

I am more and more convinced that inspiring and releasing people to serve God with their gifts in the area of their passion (inside and outside the church structure) is the single greatest need – and weakness – in our churches. So I’ve started praying more passionately for the most important gift for a pastor – people discernment.

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I’m in Melbourne this week, at an Arrow Australia conference, so typing time is limited.

But I wanted to start a new series of posts exploring a theme; namely, highlighting some pressing pastoral issues that need substantive theological answers. We start at the beginning.

I was struck again – during a recent conversation with some church members – by just how deeply infected out culture is with the view that science represents a problem for Christians, especially in relation to Genesis 1-3. The irony is that both the most defensive Christians and the most aggressive secularists share the same assumption – that Genesis 1-3 speak to the issue of science. And it really troubles people – for some, it necessitates a compartmentalisation; their science views are in one part of my brain (where they can reject the ‘science’ of Gen 1-3), and their religious ideas are in another part of their brain; for others, it just stops them in their tracks.

It is unbelievably freeing for such people to hear that Gen 1-3 is a text to be read literarily, not literally. On the surface of the text is the fact that Genesis quite self-consciously intends to be understood as a narrative that teaches truth, but not historic or scientific truth. Gen 3.8 has God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Now, the one thing that every Bible writer knows is that God doesn’t walk (since he doesn’t have legs) and God certainly doesn’t wait til the cool of day for fear of getting too hot (since he doesn’t have sweat glands). In other words, this is a profoundly true story, but not true in the particular way of history or science. It is true about relationships and meaning and purpose – actually, far more significant issues.

Gen 1-3 is true the same way that the parable of the good Samaritan is true. I don’t know whether there was a man on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell among thieves, and I don’t really care. I don’t care because I don’t think it matters, nor did it matter to Jesus. (Notice he doesn’t introduce it with a heading, “This is a parable”. He just says, “there was a man”) That is, it is profoundly true, but at an entirely different, and more important level, than truth and history.

Now don’t get me wrong – when a text is of a genre for which the history is of its essence – say the resurrection accounts or the personal circumstances of Paul in Ephesians (which is why I think arguments that it wasn’t written by Paul fail) – then the history matters. But that’s not the Good Samaritan, and nor is it Gen 1-3.

For people coming out of a secular / science mindset, this removes one of those unnecessary roadblocks to faith.

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