Thursday, December 20, 2007

Some GCF pictures

TableTalk: a biweekly theology discussion we sponsor. We've been talking about the Nicene Creed this semester.

Ken Myers: Reflection on the Incarnation

I'm a new subscriber to the Mars Hill Audio Journal, and I received a letter from host Ken Myers recently that reflected on the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation in the context of our market-driven economy. Wanting to share it with you, I found the majority of the text posted at the Creedal Christian blog. I hope you enjoy the reflection:

In the past few decades, it has become increasingly common for churches to rely on marketing data to determine the shape of their ministry. It is widely accepted that the Church is like any other provider of a commodity – that the desires, expectations, and assumptions of its potential “customers” or “clients” must be honored. In preparing to celebrate Advent this year, I have been inspired by this model of ministry to imagine what might have happened if God had relied on market research to tailor the form of his ministry to mankind. Given the religious and philosophical assumptions in the world 2,000 years ago, I think it’s safe to assume that consumer-defined salvation would not have involved the Incarnation. At best, we might have gotten something like Good Friday, but certainly no Christmas, and maybe no Easter.

As St. Paul observed in his visit to Athens, the world of his day included many religions, many schemes and strategies to implore deities for mercy and favor. The idea of the necessity of salvation for human beings was not as implausible then as it is for us now. Israel understood the need for salvation, the need for forgiveness in light of human sin. The descendants of Abraham believed in the coming of Messiah, but most likely the idea that their God would enter human history as a human being was not widely entertained, in spite of the fact that one of God’s appellations was Immanuel: “God with us.”

The Greco-Roman world believed in something like the Logos, but the idea that the Logos would be made flesh was repugnant (which is one reason why the apostle John is so emphatic about this reality in the prologue to his gospel). The idea that the Being above all being would become a baby in need of care was metaphysically incorrect. The Greco-Roman mind could not imagine that (in the words of theologian Michael Williams): “The power that called the world into being [could take] on the weakness of creatureliness. Contrary to the universality and changelessness sought by the philosophies of Greece, John declares that meaning and truth are to be found in historical particularity, a specific historical person: Jesus of Nazareth, the Word become flesh. The scandal of the Christian faith is that God became flesh in Jesus Christ.”

If God had been looking for a way to establish a plausible, immediately recognizable religious brand in the region around the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago – a product that would meet the felt needs of the residents of Syria, Asia, Macedonia, and Italy of that period – it would certainly not have included something as humble as the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

A religious program modeled after the natural human expectations may have included something like the cross. It may have included a desire to be right with God, to be delivered from death and judgment and anxiety and strife. Even a “consumer-driven” religion might well require a Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But in God’s own redemptive plan, the Lamb of God is also the Son of Man. The cross which accomplishes our salvation is bracketed by a manger and an empty tomb, which define the shape of our redemption as something with human, earthly consequences. More than just a logical precondition for the Atonement, the Incarnation also establishes the trajectory for our new life as a truly human life. There is a theological link between confidence in the full humanity of Jesus and a recognition of the ramifications of our salvation across the full range of our own humanity, across all of the ways in which we engage God’s creation.

Much of modern culture, with its Gnostic undertones, alienates us from creation and its givenness. Theologian Colin Gunton sees the affirmation of the Incarnation as essential to our enthusiastic participation in creation and therefore in cultural life. “A world that owes its origin to a God who makes it with direct reference to one who was to become incarnate – part of that world – is a world that is a proper place for human beings to use their senses, minds and imaginations, and to expect that they will not be wholly deceived in doing so.”

Christians have the only account of human and natural origins that can give cultural life meaning. But even after 2,000 years of opportunity to reflect on the Incarnation, many contemporary Christians persist in believing in a Gnostic salvation, a salvation that has no cultural consequences. In such a dualistic understanding, our souls are saved, the essential immaterial aspect of our being is made right with God, but the actions of our bodies – what we actually do in space and time – are a matter of indifference if not futility. Salvation is an inward matter only. It affects our attitudes and some of our ideas. But insofar as our cultural activities have any Christian significance it is as mere marketing efforts – things we do to attract others to our essentially Gnostic salvation.

Believing in a gospel that has few earthly consequences is, ironically, just the sort of state our secularist neighbors would wish us to sustain. They, too, are dualists, believing that religion may be a fine thing for people, so long as they keep it private. Their secularism isn’t threatened by Christians as long as they aren’t too “Incarnational.” As long as the cultural lives of Christians aren’t significantly different from those of materialists and pagans, secularism is safe. Christians may pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” but as long as they don’t actually do anything that demonstrates how such a petition should affect their political, economic, and cultural activities, the Enlightenment legacy is safe.

A hearty appreciation of the meaning of the Incarnation could deliver us from serving the interests of secularists. In his recent book Far as the Curse is Found, Michael Williams writes that in his gospel, “John does not conceive of Christ as a Gnostic heavenly Savior who comes from heaven to bring souls trapped in the world back to their home above. Rather, Jesus comes to bring his people eternal life on earth, a life that will mean the resurrection of the body at the last day.” Later in his book, Williams argues that the Incarnation is evidence that in saving his people, God does not thereby abandon his creation. “By participating in our reality, the Man from heaven affirms the goodness of creaturely life, the redeemability of creation and creaturely existence. The gospel is not the fracture of heaven and earth but the wedding of the two, embodied as they both are in the incarnation of the one who is vere Deus (‘fully divine’) and vere Homo (‘fully human’). In the incarnation God declared his intentions not only for humanity but also for all creation. The creation is as much an object of the sovereign love and redemption of God as is the soul of man.” …

I began this letter by suggesting that a religion shaped by popular opinion would not have involved the Incarnation. Similarly, religious practices shaped by raw consumer preferences are unlikely to resist disordered cultural fashions. As long as people assume that religion is a matter of cleaning up their inner lives, of changing only their hearts, they will choose forms of religion that fit the cultural conventions with which they are at home. As long as they are essentially dualists, as long as they think of religion as something detached from their humanity in all of its details, the claim that some cultural forms honor the order of God’s Creation better than others will remain implausible to them. Unless the Church bears witness to this idea, unless the Church takes cultural life seriously enough to be willing to make distinctions between healthy and unhealthy cultural forms, neither seekers nor disciples are likely to get beyond their dualism.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Be ready to save your neighbor's proposition

A quote from St. Ignatius of Loyola:

Let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor's proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.

For a full commentary on this quote, see here.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Religious Nuts

After a long posting hiatus, I'm here to post a joke I got in the mail today. More posting will come soon.

Religious Nuts

There were four country churches in a small Texas town: The Presbyterian Church, the Baptist Church, the Methodist Church and the Catholic Church. Each church was overrun with pesky squirrels.

One day, the Presbyterian Church called a meeting to decide what to do about the squirrels. After much prayer and consideration they determined that the squirrels were predestined to be there and they shouldn't interfere with God's divine will.

In the Baptist Church the squirrels had taken up habitation in the baptistery. The deacons met and decided to put a cover on the baptistery and drown the squirrels in it. The squirrels escaped somehow and there were twice as many there the next week.

The Methodist Church got together and decided that they were not in a position to harm any of God's creation. So, they humanely trapped the Squirrels and set them free a few miles outside of town. Three days later, the squirrels were back.

But -- The Catholic Church came up with the best and most effective solution. They baptized the squirrels and registered them as members of the church. Now they only see them on Christmas and Easter.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Year of Getting Things Done

A year ago, I posted a review of David Allen's Getting Things Done. In the last year, I've stuck pretty closely to Allen's recommendations in that book, and I wanted to share again how wonderful it has been for this head-in-the-clouds guy to finally find a system that can keep my feet on the ground. If you've never picked up the book, do so.

I dare you to get organized.

Monday, October 22, 2007

New Perspective on Paul?

At the recommendation of a friend, I located and read this article at Christianity Today online. Written by Simon Gathercole (senior lecturer at Aberdeen, just accepted an appointment to Cambridge), "What did Paul Really Mean?" introduces the New Perspective on Paul and provides a fair assessment of the thought. Gathercole's work here is very important for people curious about the new perspective, for those who hate it with a passion, and for those who love it with an equal passion. I hope you'll take the time to read and ponder it…

…and post a comment below!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Gamemastering and Theological Language

Some of you know that I'm an avid fan of Star Wars and play the Star Wars Role-Playing Game.

Well, I should be more precise. I don't play the Star Wars RPG. I game master it. As GM, I'm responsible for narrating the world, describing the actions of non-player characters, making sure the game runs according to the rules. For instance, my four wonderful players' characters enter a cantina. I'm responsible to tell them what's special about the cantina, what kind of music is playing, how the tables are arranged, and what kinds of aliens are lined up at the bar. I also have to make those aliens come alive to the players. One of them has been nursing a grudge, for instance, and is looking for revenge. When the Gungan, grudge-carrying, vibro-axe wielding thug finally makes her move, I have to make sure the combat rules are taken into account. And this scene is part of a larger story, one that has its own goals, and is the conjunction of this larger story and the individual stories of the character's involved.

I love GM'ing.

I also love theology.

From many hours of practice in both RPG's and theology, I think there is this similarity worth noting: both GM'ing and theologizing are about narrating an unseen world and encouraging participation in it.

In Star Wars, the unseen world exists in the imagination and provides a context for heroic deeds and epic story-telling. In Christian faith, the unseen world exists all around us (if we have the eyes to see it) and provides a context . . . for heroic deeds and epic story-telling. There is a huge difference, though, since a 'heroic deed' is something far different in Star Wars than in Christianity. In one, the hero (Luke) overthrows the tyrant (the Emperor) through strength and honor. In the other, the hero (Jesus) overthrows the tyrant (Sin, Death, the Devil, and our twisted hearts) through weakness and shame. The similarities illumine the differences.

In the Star Wars RPG, I'm GM'ing, but I'd be bummed if the players just stared at me. I want the players to play the game, to participate in the world we're creating together. In Christian faith, I'm theologizing, sure, but I'd be really bummed if the people I'm around and with didn't have eyes to see the unseen world impinging on their own meager constructions, to really participate in the inbreaking Kingdom of God. In one, I narrate an escape from reality into an alternate, sub-reality. In the other, I want to narrate an escape to Reality, the reality as described, lived, and enacted in the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Again the similarities illumine the differences.

In conclusion, I do want to highlight one similarity as a type of analogical apology for theologizing. Without good GM'ing, the players can't 'see' the world in which they must play. They stumble blindly without guidance. Similarly, without good theology, Christians can't 'see' the world in which they are already playing the wrong game. In both, knowing the 'rules' is not enough, getting together in a gaming 'community' is not enough. Both require clear and evocative presentations of the world in which we play. Without that, both RPGs and Christian faith fall into meaninglessness. Insofar as the GM and the theologian can clearly and evocatively present the world (and are freed by their communities to do that), they will bring life and goodness. Insofar as they do not (or are not free to), they will bring darkness and illusion. Abuse does not bar use. Gamers call for good gamemasters. Christians should call for good theologians.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Faith AND Obedience

I've been struck recently how polemics have upset a tendentious balance in our rhetoric about belief and practice. These polemics see an overuse of a term in their opponents and so overcorrect on the other side (the opponents can be anyone from liberals to conservatives to modernity itself). The problem with these over-corrections is that they ignore a very important logical dictum and its corollary, a dictum, by the way, which I think is more wisdom than logic:

Abuse does not bar use.

The solution to abuse is not disuse but proper use.

In the polemics (generally between liberals and conservatives) there is an over-emphasis on either Faith or Obedience to the point where, rhetorically, it's stated, rather baldly, that one could be had without the other. Such a patently absurd statement is not what most of the polemicists actually believe, but they continue along their rhetorical path because they haven't heeded the above rules. Examples: since all those 'orthodox' talk about is faith, then we can't talk about belief, only practice, or belief subsumed into practice, OR since all those 'liberals' talk about is social justice, we should stay away from talk about justice, only faith, or practice subsumed into faith.

What both sides miss is the inherent relationship between faith and obedience, one that's typified in a relationship of unity and distinction. For the Christian, faith and obedience can be distinguished from one another, but they cannot be separated. Faith without work is dead (see James). Work without faith is meaningless.

And all this was prompted by the Psalm (119) from the Daily Office today:

98 Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,
for they are ever with me.

99 I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.

100 I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Listening to the Mundane

In the Daily Office readings yesterday, I came across the story of Naaman the Syrian coming to Elisha for healing of his leprosy. I was astonished how readily Naaman turned away from Elisha when he commanded him to do something easy. Take a look at this from 2 Kings 5:

9 So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha's house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, "Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed."

11 But Naaman went away angry and said, "I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn't I wash in them and be cleansed?" So he turned and went off in a rage.

13 Naaman's servants went to him and said, "My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, 'Wash and be cleansed'!" 14 So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
Naaman's servant really understood his master (and, I think, us). He understood that we want to really contribute to our salvation. We want to do a "great thing" (v. 13). We want it to count. We don't want to be told to go take another bath. In our case, we don't really want to be told to repent and believe the good news (Mk 1:15), but as we stand at Elisha's door, we are told to do just that. How many of us go away angry from our wounded pride with no one to bring us back? How often do we refuse to listen to the voice of God when He commands the mundane?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

That word...

I've been reading Richard Rohr recently and find myself repeating Inigo Montoya's famous line:

"That word, you keep using it. I don't think it means what you think it means."

Of course, he is a Catholic which doesn't help this Protestant very much. If you want this delightful experience yourself, you can read Rohr, or maybe this guy, for yourself.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups, by Joseph R. Myers

I just finished reading Joseph R. Myer's The Search to Belong (at the suggestion of Dixon Kinser), and I have to say that I found this book extremely helpful in thinking about how communities form and how organizations can help promote community space.

Myers describes four different spaces in which we can experience significant belonging: the public, social, personal, and intimate. He argues (based on the work of Edward T. Hall) that human beings need significant connections in each of these spaces in order to be healthy. Myers contends that the "chemical compound" of healthy belonging is 8 parts public, 4 parts social, 2 parts personal, and 1 part intimate.

Here's how he defines the spaces (142-143):

Public Space
Public bleonging occurs when people connect through an outside influence. Fans of a sports team experience a sense of community because they cheer for the same team. They wear official garb, buy special broadcast viewing privileges, and stay up too late or get up extra early just to see the results of the game. These relationships carry great significance in our lives.

Social Space
Social belonging occurs when we share "snapshots" of what it would be like to be in personal space with us. The phrases "first impression" and "best foot forward" refer to this spatial belonging. You belong socially to your favorite bank teller, your pharmacist, and some of the people with whom you work.

Social belonging is important for two reasons. First, it provides the space for "neighbor" relationships. A neighbor is someone you know well enough to ask for (or provide) small favors. Second, it is important because it provides a safe "selection space or sorting space" for those with whom you would like to develop a "deeper" relationship. In social space we provide the information that helps others decide whether they connect with us. We get just enough information to decide to keep this person in this space or move them to another space.

Personal Space
Through personal belonging, we share private (not "naked") experiences, feelings, and thoughts. We call the people we connect to in this space "close friends." They are those who know more about us than an acquaintance would, yet not so much that they feel uncomfortable.

Intimate Space
In intimate belonging, we share "naked" experiences, feelings, and thoughts. We have very few relationships that are intimate. These people know the "naked truth" about us and the two of us are not "ashamed."
Having a language to describe these relationships and knowing there might be a "harmony" among them (in that 8:4:2:1 ratio) is extremely helpful in thinking through church dynamics. It helps answer the question about why, if true belonging is every congregant in a small group, the highest success rates for small group participation is somewhere around 30%. Part of the problem is that for many the 'ideal' for small group space is intimate space. But, it's difficult for human beings to handle having so many people in intimate space! Churches that have the "move in or move out" mentality to their small group ministry promote only the Public and the Intimate. No wonder that people get lost--there's hardly any social or personal space for them to connect!

Myers argues that social space is especially important and that we should all try to develop "front porches," neutral social spaces where people feel welcome but safe. Our society creates these spaces in places like Starbucks or some strip malls. They are easy places to be with new people. It's neutral ground, neither entirely public nor private. It's social space that keeps us from rushing headlong into the more personal or intimate spaces of the home.

For me, this has helped me think about GCF's small group ministry. The current "backbone" of our work is small groups and large group. Small groups meet 3x a month, and the fourth week of the month, everyone gets together for large group. Small groups are for spiritual formation and large group is for community. But, I needn't think that small groups have to be either personal or intimate to help with individual spiritual formation. Many of our grad students are adults with established significant personal and intimate relationships. If we can help them connect with other Christian scholars in social spaces, then we'll allow them the freedom and space to grow spiritually and in community with others.

I'm very grateful this book came along when it did, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking through issues of personal or communal relationship. You'll be freed and helped by the discussion!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Following Christ 2008

Mark your calendars. InterVarsity's triennial Graduate and Faculty Ministries conference, Following Christ, has been announced for Dec 27-31, 2008. The convention theme is "Human Flourishing." Here's a brief excerpt from the announcement:
The good news of the gospel brings with it the promise of vocation, a calling to good works that God has prepared for each one of us as we follow Christ. In finding and fulfilling this vocation, we are led to human flourishing, not only for ourselves but also for our neighbors.

If you're interested in learning more about the Following Christ conference, be sure to check out this announcement.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Evangelism and Service: The Alpha Course

InterVarsity and the Vanderbilt Graduate Christian Fellowship are committed to evangelism and service. We believe that people who are being spiritually formed and who are joining in transformative community should be oriented towards sharing the Gospel both in word (intentional, verbal, etc.) and in deed (acts of redemptive service). It's a commitment we believe in but one we struggle with in the university where we fare much better hosting discussion groups around our commitment to the integration of faith, learning, and practice.

Which is why we are so thankful for the body of Christ! In the body, the weaknesses of one part are helped by the strengths of the others. For GCF, this means partnering with others in the body around Nashville.

St. George's Church, starting Sep 12, is hosting an Alpha Course. Alpha was developed in England, and is a safe way for people curious about Christianity to learn more. I'm happy to announce GCF's partnership with Alpha. If you're a Christian grad student who is struggling to share your faith with your questioning colleagues, invite them to an Alpha course. Send me an email ( to get more information.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

InterVarsity Press "Box-o-Guilt"

Every quarter, InterVarsity Press graces IV staffworkers with what I like to call the "box-o-guilt," the "bog" for short. The bog contains new, free books from InterVarsity Press. This is great for us, but it also means that there are a half-dozen new books that we feel the pressure to read or peruse. Hence, the "box-o-guilt."

The quarter's bog contains the following titles. The first four are group discussion guides. Of the lot, I think Gracism intrigues me the most. I'll post book notes on the ones I end up reading.

Who Was Jesus? by Scot McKnight

Can I Trust the Bible? by Darrell L. Bock

What is Truth? by Paul Copan and Mark Linville

Is God Real? by William Lane Craig and Charles Taliaferro

Jesus without Religion: What did he say? What did he do? What's the point? by Rick James

Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus by Timothy Paul Jones

Gracism: The Art of Inclusion by David A. Anderson

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Book Note: Small Group Leadership as Spiritual Direction by Heather Webb

As GCF gets ready for the Fall Semester, I've been thinking a lot about small group ministry. GCF is committed to asking the tough questions about the integration of faith, learning, and practice, and we find that these questions are best addressed in small groups of people gathered around scripture, book study, or prayer.

I picked up Heather Webb's, Small Group Leadership as Spiritual Direction the other day. A quick read, Webb lays a foundation of what small groups tend to look like, talks about spiritual direction as a practice, reviews the interaction of direction with postmodernism and issues like sin and disclosure in small group settings, and offers three models for small group that are "directed" instead of "led."

The three new models are the "story-centered group," the "text-centered group," and the "prayer-centered group." Her descriptions of these are brief but compelling and may be worth the price of the book.

Some salutary quotes:
"On a rudimentary level, spiritual direction involves two people growing in their understanding of what it means to love God and others" (59).

"This is what spiritual direction is all about. It is pointing out God to someone who might not recognize God's voice" (58).

"Many spiritual directors dislike the term 'director' and prefer words that connote coming alongside someone, such as being a 'midwife.' The director is not leading as much as assisting in the birthing of deeper faith. The director is a friend or a wise mentor to the one in the process of rediscovering God. . . . Spiritual directors struggle with the directee, relying on God's Spirit to serve as the catalytic force for spiritual maturity" (64).

"Rather than seeing direction as a movement inward, it should be seen as the process of moving upward and outward toward God and others" (67).

"The art of spiritual direction can help create a bridge between our faith and the world in which we live [and] will have dialogue at its core. . . . The bridge metaphor means we can walk across without abandoning the starting point. . . . To be on a bridge, we must have a starting point. It is, then, essential that spiritual directors know what they believe. . . . In the face of difference, we have an opportunity to enter mystery that reminds us of our need to trust a God who is bigger than our boxes for God. We are reminded of a world larger than our own" (88-89).

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Sermon for July 1, 2007, "Follow Me"

Text: Luke 9:51-62
I preached this sermon the second Sunday of my New Jersey trip I mentioned in my last post. I've included its full text here. The audio for both this sermon and "The Christ of God" are up on MEFC's website here.

“Follow Me”

When Monique and I lived in Princeton, we went with a group of people to a big, free concert in Philadelphia. Being outdoors, it was sticky, hot, and there were people everywhere! I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a setting like this, but it’s kindof like being in laneless, rush-hour traffic. People push and push to get the best seats, or the seats in the shade, or the seats that you’re aiming to get right then just because you’re aiming to get them. With people everywhere, faces pointed in all different directions, how do you keep a group together?

The method we devised was the hand-to-shoulder line. The lead person looked ahead, spotting holes that would allow our movement, but everyone else kept their eyes (and hands) on the person in front of them. With one person cutting the trail, we could make better progress than any one of us doing it by ourselves. But you did have to hold on and stay focused! If you lost concentration, you would be easily separated from the line by the press of the crowd.

[Page One: Jesus is leaving people behind] From our passage today, there is nothing more ominous than the line from verse 51: “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” More literally, “Jesus set his face for Jerusalem.” The time is approaching for Jesus to be taken into heaven, and Jesus, knowing this, resolves in himself that nothing will stop his journey to Mt. Zion. Whereas Jesus showed patience before, now he is leaving people behind. Jesus is on his way.

The Samaritans cannot stand this. They do not welcome Jesus, because Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Jesus will stand for no complacency here. If the Samaritans will not allow Jesus to stay one night and then depart for Jerusalem, then Jesus will not stay. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and anyone who wants a tame Rabbi is getting left behind.

The man who is walking along the road cannot stand this. He thinks that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes, but Jesus lets the man know that while the foxes and birds have places to rest, there is no rest for the Son of Man. Jesus in on his way to Jerusalem, and anyone who wants comfort is getting left behind.

Jesus pauses briefly to say to another man, “Follow me.” But, the man replies, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus retorts sharply, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and anyone who puts their family first is getting left behind.

“Still another says, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.’ Jesus replies, ‘No one who put his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God.’” Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and cannot stop or look back, and anyone who is hesitant or wants to wait or hedge their bets is getting left behind when they lose their grip on Jesus’ shoulder in the press of their lives. There are too many worries and cares in their world. The people left in Jesus’ wake must be thinking, “What could I have done to be worthy to follow this Jesus?”

[Page Two: Jesus is leaving the world behind] Last week, we talked about Jesus’ command for his disciples to take up their cross daily to follow him. Jesus, though once for all crucified, dead, buried, raised again, and ascended, still is leading disciples to Jerusalem by his Holy Spirit. Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem, and he’s leaving the world behind.

The people of the world want a Jesus who will sit and stay awhile. Like the Samaritans, they don’t want a Jesus who is on his way to Jerusalem. They want a Jesus who will give them pearls of wisdom instead of pain. They want a Jesus who will show them wonderful mysteries instead of their sin. But, Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem, and the world that wants a tame Rabbi is getting left behind.

The people of the world want a Jesus who will give rest for their heads. They want a Psalm 23 Jesus, a Jesus who comforts them when they are sad but never saddens them when they are comforted. But, the Son of Man has no place to rest his head. Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem, and the world that wants peace instead of a spiritual sword is getting left behind.

The people of the world want a Jesus who will put their family first. They want a Jesus that will teach them how to be good husbands and wives, but they don’t want a Jesus who might tell them that they’re loving their spouses or children or friends more than they’re loving God. Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem, and the world that wants a stable society is getting left behind.

The people of the world want a Jesus who will pause a moment so they can say goodbye to their old lives. They want a Jesus who sympathizes with their secret sins, but they don’t want a Jesus who wants to forgive and forget them. They just want to say goodbye to their past, but Jesus is focused on the future. Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem, and the world that wants to hedge its bets is getting left behind.

The world has too many worries and cares, too many broken relationships, too much difficulty with obedience. Left behind by Jesus, the must sometimes wonder, “How could we have made ourselves worthy to follow this Jesus?”

[Page Three: Jesus is taking his disciples with him (even though they don’t deserve it)] Looking back at our passage for today, we might find it difficult to believe that people are actually making this trip with Jesus. This ragtag group of disciples is somehow keeping up a good hand on Jesus’ shoulder as they make their way through the crowd to Jerusalem!

They make their first appearance in verse 52, sent out as messengers in front of Jesus to make a room ready for him in the Samaritan village. Not only are they coming along behind, but they’re being sent out ahead. The disciples seem to be doing just fine, until they hit a bump in the road: the Samaritans want Jesus to stay a while…since the disciples tell them he won’t, they choose not to welcome him. When Jesus walks into the village, the disciples report the indignity and ask Jesus for permission to call fire down from heaven to destroy them. Jesus stops walking only for a moment to turn and rebuke them before walking to the next village. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and the disciples who want righteous anger from their Lord are getting…left behind? No, for some reason they aren’t. For some mysterious reason, Jesus is taking his disciples with him to Jerusalem whether they deserve it or not.

For some reason, Jesus has chosen this ragtag bunch, and he’s not leaving them behind. This point is reiterated over and over again in the Gospels. Jesus is about preaching the Kingdom of God, but his disciples don’t get it. Jesus is about healing the sick, but the disciples are in it for the power. Jesus is about dying for sinners in Jerusalem, but the disciples scatter at the first sign of trouble. When they ask the question, “How can we be worthy to follow Jesus?” they can’t find a good answer. They aren’t worthy in the least, but Jesus persists in bringing them along. Pressed by the crowd, by the concerns of the world, the disciples lose their grip on Jesus shoulder, but instead of getting left behind or lost in the crowd, they find that Jesus has reached behind him to grab their hand. Jesus persists in holding on to their hand even when they persist in letting go of his. Jesus is creating obedience in them, leading them to make the hard decisions, the decisions that hurt.

[Page Four: Jesus is taking us with him] Perhaps the number one evidence of our faith is that people keep on following this Jesus. As he runs ahead, not only our world but we ourselves fall behind. The world loses touch with Jesus and creates images or replicas of him, but some, some of us, even, persist in following Jesus to Jerusalem. What is there to explain this? Only one thing, and it is not a “what,” it is a “who.” Jesus is taking us with him, even though we don’t deserve it, through his free grace.

St. John wrote that Jesus is the eternal Word of God and that the Father created the world through this Word. Human beings were created to follow the Word through his world, one hand on his shoulder on a guided tour of the richness and depth of all that God had created for us. But, there was a test, a test that we failed. At the simple allure of the serpent, Adam and Eve let go of the Word’s shoulder and fell behind and were lost.

All of us their children are also lost. The tempting voice of the serpent has been multiplied thousands of times over as he speaks in other people’s voices. We were lost. But the Word, always moving forward to Jerusalem from all eternity, moved back into our world when he took on flesh and walked among us as Jesus Christ. This time the Word resolved not to let us fall behind. In becoming a human being, he persists in holding onto our hands. In taking us with him to the cross, he has killed the world in us. In taking us with him through his resurrection, he has given us a new start and a promise that he will never let go of us. In taking us with him in his ascension, he has given us the promise of new and eternal life, as St. Paul said in Colossians: we are now hidden with Christ in God.

Jesus is, as the book of Hebrews puts it, the author of our faith. He is the pioneer who cuts the trail ahead of us. This trail leads us necessarily to suffering and a death to ourselves and to our wants in the world, but it also leads us to resurrection and the glory of new life. Hidden with Christ in God, we are now becoming what God has claimed that we are in Jesus Christ. Those things that you know you should do but are putting off are already done and completed in Christ. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus is making you the person that is hidden with Christ in God. You might be scared of asking forgiveness from a person in this room, but in Jesus, you are already the person who has experienced that pain, embarrassment, and sorrow and come through the other side. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus is making you the person that is hidden with Christ in God. You might be hurting others by what you say and do, but in Jesus Christ that part of you is already dead and a new life of love has been raised. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus is making you the person that is hidden with Christ in God. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and, thanks be to God, he is taking us with him, holding on to our hands, and making sure we don’t get lost in the crowd, even though we don’t deserve it. Amen.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Sermon for June 24, 2007: "The Christ of God"

I've been in New Jersey the last week attending a conference and raising money for my work with InterVarsity. While in town, I was given the opportunity to preach twice at Montgomery Evangelical Free Church (; both sermons will be available soon for streaming audio and podcast download on their website under "Sermon Player").

Both Sundays, I preached the Gospel text from the Revised Common Lectionary. It's fun, and just a little demanding, to hear God's Word for a specific situation from a text you didn't choose. My experience the last two weeks reemphasizes to me that the whole Gospel can be found in all the Bible's parts.

Note: There was a commissioning service for Stephen Ministers this Sunday. Stephen Ministries is a lay pastoral care program. Also, the brackets indicate the sections of the sermon. I follow very closely Paul Scott Wilson's The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (I think this is a must have and highly practical guide to preaching well; I read it through again in preparing my sermons this year, and, 2 years after preaching class, I love it even more).

Luke 9:18-24

“The Christ of God”

[Introduction] From time to time, we all say things that we don’t really understand. The boy who sees a girl and says, “I’m going to marry that girl” will only proudly remember he said that if he marries her. “For better or worse ‘til death do us part,” sounds poetic until the worse comes and we realize what we really said. The quick-spoken and short, “I hope you have children just like you,” from an exasperated parent hangs like a curse over the child when, as nature seems to have it, they DO start having children just like them. We say these things, they almost slip past our lips, and then, only later, do we really realize what they mean. This is the hidden power of our cutting words, promises, and confessions.

[Page 1: The disciples had to lose their lives]“‘But what about you?” Jesus asked the disciples. ‘Who do you say that I am?’”

Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”

When the other Gospels record this event, Jesus makes a much bigger deal out of Peter’s confession, saying things like, “Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven,” or, “You are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church.” In other words, he couldn’t have come up with this on his own. Our reading from Luke today highlights the same reality in a different aspect. Luke highlights that Peter didn’t realize the full import of his confession. He didn’t realize that in proclaiming Jesus the Christ of God, he really was signing his own death sentence. For this confession, he would have to lose his life.

For Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”

Verse 18 sets the stage. Jesus is praying in private and his disciples are with him. He asks them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” Up to this point, he has been healing and ministering and preaching, and it’s time for the quarterly evaluation of the congregation and the leadership.

The disciples respond quickly. “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.” The crowd, apparently, is only saying good things, or the disciples are editing. It doesn’t seem to matter to Jesus.

“But what about you?”

“The Christ of God.”

Peter is right, but he didn’t understand what his confession really means. This is why Jesus commands them to be silent. If the people who have been with Jesus day in and day out don’t understand yet, then surely the majority of the crowd will not either. Jesus tells him that the Christ MUST suffer and be rejected, killed, and raised. Not only that, those who want to follow the Christ of God have to follow the same path. The disciples MUST deny themselves and take up crosses daily to follow. In the other Gospels, it’s here that Peter rebukes Jesus, and where Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.” Peter doesn’t want to have his glorious dreams of a Messiah torn down into this divine MUST. Peter wans a glorious Christ, but Jesus tells him that he MUST have a broken, torn, and defeated Christ. He wants a glorious place beside Christ, but Jesus tells him that he MUST lose his life in order to save it. In the end, Peter has become so focused on his life goals and expectations that he wants Jesus to conform to his expectations. But instead Jesus says to Peter that he must lose his life if he wants to save it.

[Page 2: We have to lose our lives] And the same is true for us: We have to lose our lives if we want to save them. You see, our problem is much like the disciples’. When Jesus puts the question to us about what the world is saying about him, we can say all kinds of things. “Well, Jesus, the world thinks you’re a great moral teacher, a political revolutionary, an advocate for the poor, a path to mystical enlightenment.”

“But who do you say that I am?”

By now, we expect this question and well up with pride because we know the answer: “You’re the Christ of God, only begotten Son of the Father, the Word incarnate, one Person with two Natures, God’s Revelation and the path to Reconciliation, our Salvation and our Promise of everlasting life.”

But, Jesus says to us as he said to his disciples, “I may be all those things, but my path isn’t one of glory but one of a cross. My path will lead you to participate with me in my cross. My path will cause you to lose your life in order to save it.”

The costs are steep. Hate your father and mother, Jesus says at one point. Pluck out your eye if it’s causing you to sin. Seek first the kingdom of God. Leave family and friends for the sake of the Gospel. We have to lose our lives. This is the divine MUST that we come up against as disciples. Jesus must suffer and die. We must participate in that suffering by laying down our lives as well. We must lose our lives if we want to confess him as the Christ of God.

But, like Peter, we don’t want to. We like to hold on to our Messianic dreams. We want to be successful. We want to be rich and powerful. We want to be recognized and respected (and, by the way, will break relationship with almost anyone over the smallest slight, compounding sin with sin until we get what we deserve). We will hold on to institution and power even at the expense of others. But Jesus says that we must lose our lives.

Since we want glorious lives, we seek to follow successful people, and we event twist our confession of Jesus to make him the kind of person we want to be ourselves. We want Jesus to be a great business person. We want Jesus to be a great counselor. We want Jesus to be an All-American athlete or a biker or a hip, relevant, Birkenstock-wearing yuppie. We want Jesus to lift weights at God’s Gym or cast ballots, depending on who we like at the time, either for elephants or donkeys. In the end, we have become so focused on ourselves that we don’t want to participate in Jesus’ life. We want Jesus to participate in ours. But, Jesus says, we must lose our lives if we want to save them. But, we don’t want to.

[Page 3: God saved Jesus’ life] Verse 22: “And he said, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

Thanks be to God: the end of Jesus’ life is not the end of the story. His disciples expected a Messiah to come in glory, but Jesus knew that he MUST suffer and be killed before the glory of the Resurrection. Jesus gave up his life, but God saved it on the third day. God saved Jesus’ life.

This is an important thing to consider. Jesus, fully God and fully human, walked among us for a short time. In that time, he lived in complete obedience to the Father, even to death on the cross. He lived in that divine MUST with his face pointed to a cross and walked the road from his birth to his death in humility and righteousness. When he submitted himself to this final death, he submitted himself as the Christ of God, the Messiah who everyone felt was supposed to be a hero, but instead was a servant. After he was killed, God raised him from the dead. God saved Jesus’ life.

So, when Jesus told the disciples’ that they had to lose their lives in order to save them, this was in the background. He was losing his life. The disciples were to take up their cross and follow Jesus. The life of the disciple is the life of walking with Jesus into Jerusalem at the end of his ministry, into pain, suffering, and death with a joy, a peace, and a confidence that God is in control. Jesus promises that if they would participate in his death by taking up their cross and following him in faith and obedience, then they will also be raised together with Christ in his resurrection. God saved Jesus’ life from the tomb, so also will God save their lives from shame, suffering, and death.

And from what we know, the disciples trusted God in this. They embraced Jesus’ cross and lived their lives as lost for his sake and the Gospel. It is said that some were crucified like Jesus, others were fed to lions, still others were flayed alive. But, first, because they lived their lives as lost, they experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and saw God saving thousands of people’s lives all over the world. The Scripture tells us about the communion of saints in which these apostles’ now live, and it promises for them and for us the final resurrection from the dead. It’s interesting that many tradition churches when they come to the part of the Nicene Creed that mentions the resurrection from the dead, they cross themselves. The path to resurrection is through the cross.

[Page 4: God will save our lives] Because God was faithful to raise his Son Jesus from the dead, he will raise everyone who believes. God saved Jesus’ life, and God will save our lives, too. If we make the confession that he is the “Christ of God,” we will of necessity find ourselves in pain, sorrow, and suffering, but we will endure these things for the joy set before us. St. Paul put it this way in Philippians 3: “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead.”

We cannot earn the resurrection—there is only following Jesus along his way to the cross. First we believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose again on the third day for us and in our place. Our first step along the path is to lose our lives to God in faith.

Second, by God’s grace, we have to lose our lives in service to God and others. Faith is followed necessarily by obedience. God has saved our life already, so we need to let God worry about the results of our obedience, about the clothes on our back, about the hairs on our heads. Trust and obey, the old song says, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.

It’s appropriate at this point to mention those who are being commissioned today to the Stephen Ministry. In an intense training period, they have learned to see themselves as caregivers to people in need. They are people who seek to care but not, interestingly enough, to cure. They have been taught to live in the reality that since God saved Jesus’ life, he is the one who will save all our lives. They know they are only caregivers, and God is the cure giver. For those of you receiving the commissioning, you are today promising to bear a cross. You are promising to bear with and listen to people in their grief, in their sorrow, and in their pain. You are promising to lose yourself in service to God by serving others. I pray that God shows you his peace and joy along the path down which he has called you.

Following Jesus on the way of the cross is what we all do, whether we realize the import of our words or not, when we with Peter make the confession that Jesus is the Christ of God. It’s not a comfortable trip, but it is the trip to which God has called us and by which God will save us. Montgomery Evangelical Free Church, hear the good news of the Gospel: God raised Jesus from the dead; therefore we too will be raised if we lay down our lives in faith and obedience to the Christ of God.

Let us pray.

[The prayer included some of these thoughts] There are resentments here, some petty, some serious, that have broken relationships in your body. There are people here too caught up in themselves to realize that the glory and respect they desire is due only to Christ, who died for them that they might die to their pride. Break hearts, dear Lord, that you might mend them. Break silences, dear Lord, that you might heal wounds. Whatever is the reason for these problems, Holy Spirit, cause these people to lose their lives at this point so they may experience your reconciling power.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Clearing the way for a theology of relevance

This post is a follow up to the previous post along with its resulting comments. I'm very happy that such a lively discussion developed, and I need to clear the ground before moving on to give a theological account of relevance.

1) So far, I have been sketching a non-theological, analytical argument about relevance. I, being a theologian, have not been able to keep theological language completely out, but I have attempted to do so.

2) Thanks to Travis' and Tim's comments, I realize that I need to make a distinction between objective and subjective relevance. Objectively, the claims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are relevant to each and every individual because their lives forever have been determined by the Person and Work of Christ. Subjectively, the claims of the Gospel are relevant only to those people who have the ability (read: have been given the ability) to see themselves as addressed by it. They have made themselves (read: have been made) relevant to the Gospel (they have been changed to see themselves as addressees) and in so doing, the Gospel "has become" subjectively what it always already is, something that matters.

3) Given this, subsuming subjective into objective relevance is something we should avoid for it makes us both less aware of ourselves and less aware of the other. As the Gospel becomes more subjectively relevant to us, it matters more to us; that is, as we come to see ourselves and our lives as being encompassed by this story, then we find that the story has more importance than we thought it did, and because we have been changed to fit the story, we are more open to seeing how the story (in Tim's words) might be shown to be relevant to the people around us. But, to show the Gospel's objective relevance is the same as making space for the change in the other individual that establishes the reciprocal, subjective relevance I was referencing in my last post.

Before moving to a sketched theological account, are there any other clarifications I need to make?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Relevance begins with you

Several weeks ago, I posted about two types of relativism, one that I consider truly humble and the other I consider to only have the appearance of humility. Inside that post there is some definition given to the word "relevance," that I would like to readdress and work out some implications for the way Christians lead 'relevant' lives, lives that really matter.

Point 1: "Relevance is a two-place predicate." This means that the sentence "That song is just so relevant" is actually not a sentence at all. Relevance is an idea that links two other ideas. Something cannot be just "relevant." That something must be relevant to something else.

Point 2: "Relevance is reciprocal." In other words, relevance is a two-way street. If A is relevant to B, then by definition B is relevant to A. The person I heard this from first (Professor James Hall in his Learning Company Philosophy of Religion course) used the analogy of a street. So, for example, if there is a road from Nashville to Franklin then there is also a road from Franklin to Nashville. If you cut off Nashville from Franklin, then you have also cut off Franklin from Nashville.

Now, that is about as far as I got in the last post. But, given these two points, I think there are some interesting implications that we need to deal with in relationship to the way we as Christians think about relevance.

Implication 1: There are three ways to establish relevance. 1) You can change A to make it relevant to B. 2) You can change B to make it relevant to A. 3) Or, you can change both A and B to make them relevant to one another.

With relevance, we are dealing with ideas, not roads. We can't just 'build a road' from A to B and leave A and B unchanged. If A and B are not already relevant then something must change in them in order to make them relevant to one another.

And, given our definitions, doing any of these three things will establish relevance both directions, for if A is relevant to B, then B is relevant to A.

Implication 2: If A is unchanging, then B must change in order to establish relevance, and vice versa. And, as we've already stated, if B changes to establish relevance with A, then A is relevant to B.

Now, I was raised with the battle cry, "The Gospel must be made relevant!" Let's do a little analysis. First, this is an incomplete sentence. Let's add the second predicate: "The Gospel must be made relevant to our culture," I think is what these people meant.

Now in order to establish relevance, one of three things can happen. 1) The Gospel can change to be made relevant to the culture. 2) The culture can change to be made relevant to the Gospel. 3) Or, both can change in order to be made relevant to one another.

Can we establish relevance through any of these procedures? Can we change the Gospel? Can we change our culture? I'm going to assume the answer is "No" to both of these questions. As we've seen in previous centuries, especially in Europe, the attempt to change the Gospel to be relevant to the culture ended in the pseudo-Gospel of classical Liberalism (there goes #1). As we've seen in the last century, we can't assert enough influence over even our own nation to change it to be relevant to the Gospel (there goes #2). If we can change neither of the predicates, then we can certainly not alter both in order to establish relevance (there goes #3). For us, this means that there is no direct way to establish relevance between the Gospel and our culture. We either need to make our goal smaller, or give up.

Since, I still think relevance is a good goal to shoot for, let's try a bit smaller: "The Gospel must be relevant to our communities." I think we're starting to get there with this statement. In our communities of faith, we can begin to see how the community might be changed in order to make them relevant to the Gospel (and thus establish relevance between the Gospel and the community). Norms of common life can be established that allow a community to see themselves as part of the Gospel story, that understand the language of sin and redemption, that reach out to others in the name of Jesus Christ. When communities change themselves to become relevant to the Gospel, the Gospel becomes relevant to them and through them may become relevant to people entering the doors.

But, that's still probably not enough. Any church leader can put structures in place that should, in theory, make a community relevant to the Gospel, but that leader will only be frustrated if the liturgy is perfect but the people aren't paying attention. So, one step smaller again: "The Gospel must be made relevant to you." Or, better, "You must be made relevant to the Gospel." Relevance begins with you. When you take the time to pray, for instance, you are probably doing more for the relevance of the Gospel to the world than any kind of hemhawing with systematic theology.

What does it look like to become relevant to the Gospel? It means that when you read Scripture, the words are ever becoming more relevant to you. Because the Scripture contains the apostolic witness to the Gospel, we must continually go back there to find the place where we might change. When biblical words like 'justice,' 'righteousness,' 'holiness,' 'sacrifice,' 'sin,' 'judgment,' and 'Jesus' become living realities to you, then you know you are becoming more and more relevant to the Gospel since, interestingly enough, the Gospel is becoming more and more relevant to you.

And, since you are a being made up of the world you live in and the communities you thrive in, when you become relevant to the Gospel, the Gospel reaches through you to become relevant to your community and to your world. Only you know what it means to be relevant to the Gospel in your 9-to-5 at Bank of America. As you grow (another metaphor for relevance) in the Gospel, the Gospel will become more and more relevant to Bob, June, and Julie down the hall. We can't make the Gospel relevant to anyone, but we can make ourselves relevant to the Gospel, and in so doing, we will find the Gospel doing its work in the places we live, eat, work, and play. Relevance begins (but certainly doesn't end) with you.

P.S. for my theologian friends: this is not ultimately a theological account because 'relevance' isn't a theological word. A theological account might look slightly different, with obviously more emphasis on the living work of the Spirit in the individual, community, and the world.
P.P.S. This account should continue back up through the individual to the community of faith to the world, but it's just a blog. Please don't hear me preaching an individualistic gospel of moral improvement!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

TableTalk (an experience in fine theology)

For this week's update, I want to share about TableTalk, a monthly, summertime group we're doing with Graduate Christian Fellowship.

The idea for the group came from reformer Martin Luther's Table Talk series, which are (I've been told) a series of books that are nothing more than notes taken on Luther's and his friends theological conversations around the table.

While we're not taking notes, GCF is having TableTalk about once a month during the summer where we get to sit, eat, drink, and imbibe some fine theology. Last month's topic was "Augustine and Pelagius Revisited: Free Will and Determinism in Christian Theology." Sound like too much? It might have been, but the atmosphere at the San Antonio Taco Company (where we're holding these) put us all at ease as we hashed out some of the basic issues in the classical debate over grace, sin, human nature, and free will. Much fun was had by all.

This Friday we're hosting our second TableTalk with the title, "What's God got to do with It?: The Incarnation through the Creeds to Chalcedon." We're going to cover the development of the idea of Jesus' humanity and divinity all the way through the fifth century of the church, spending a little bit of time on St. Athanasius' controversy with Arius and the implications of Chacledonian orthodoxy for the ways we tend to talk about Jesus today. Sound like too much? Well, if you're in town come Friday, come join us at SATCO on the porch at 4:00pm to find out. We'd love to have you join the conversation.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Christian "stuff"

Having grown up in the heyday of American evangelicalism, I know all about Christian "stuff." You know what I'm talking about: the bookmarks and key chains and books and music and bubblegum. I used to ask my mom to let me stay in the Family Christian Store while she browsed the mall. You could get everything there, I mean everything!

Sometime while I was in college, things started to shift (or, perhaps more likely, I started to notice a shift) in regards to how Christian "stuff" was sold to us. The Prayer of Jabez was the first I really noticed. Not only was the book cute and hugely popular, but all of a sudden you could get all kinds of "stuff" to go with it: calendars, bookmarks, study guides, even Bibles! You could have Prayer of Jabez wall-hangings and refrigerator magnets, journals and stationary. No longer just Christian "stuff," there was some kind of shift towards branded "stuff." (I'm still kindof miffed that I've never seen a Mere Christianity Bible, but I bet I could find one if I looked hard enough).

All of that said, this shift in Christian marketing has made me wary of Christian "stuff," especially the stuff that goes on the wall and becomes nothing more than decoration. Consider this passage from Deuteronomy (11:18-21):

18"You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 19You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 20You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

Having gotten jaded to Christian stuff because it had become merely stuff, this passage reminds me that things like hanging Scripture on the wall can have a purpose: to teach us and our children to treasure the promises and commands of God. But, woe to those who hang God's Word on the wall merely to look at it or to mark themselves Christian over against the house down the street. Instead let us use them as tools to be reminded daily of God's saving acts on our behalf so that we might prosper in obedience along the way of the cross.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Humility and the Appearance of Humility

I was doing some musing the other day about two types of 'relativism' in relationship to truth claims, one which is humble and one which merely has the appearance of humility.

One is the suggestion that what I think is "true for me." This can be used both offensively ("This is true for me and how dare you question it") and defensively ("That may be true for you, but this is true for me"). It's defensive use has the appearance of humility.

But, while it doesn't question another's experience, it also doesn't allow another's experience to touch its viewpoint at all. Relevance, I've been told by a philosopher, is a reciprocal term. That means that if A is relevant to B, then B is relevant to A. In this case, the person who dissembles with the "true for you" statement cuts off their interlocutor from the conversation by saying basically, "Your experience led you to that conclusion, but mine led me to this one. Your experience is irrelevant to what I believe!" In the end, though it seems humble, the "true for me, not for you" line is as dogmatically close-minded as the worst types of fundamentalism, except instead of a fundamentalism based on centuries of accumulation in a sacred text, this fundamentalism is based myopically on an individual's experience.

A silly illustration: Jane points at a cup and says, "That's red." Joe responds, "No, that's closer to salmon." Jane retorts, "It may be salmon to you, but it's red to me!" This may seem of no consequence in talking about a cup, but it becomes even more important when we're talking about God, society, politics, morals, and all the things that effect people every day.

There is a second type of 'relativism,' however, that I think is truly humble. Instead of saying, "This is true for me," it says "This is my best guess." Any "best guess" is going to be based in personal experience, but instead of being dogmatically closed to the experience of others, it is open and assumes that it is attempting to describe a Reality that will either validate or invalidate its claim. By being open to other's experiences, it learns to describe the reality better and better. "My best guess," at its best, is a refining process.

Back to the cup, Jane says, "That's red." Joe responds, "No, that's closer to salmon." Jane replies, "Oh, really? How can you tell the difference?" Instead of maintaining her 'right' to call the cup red, Jane enters into a larger 'reality' of color differentiation.

In this second form of 'relativism,' one holds one's ideas about the world tentatively, and allows them to be questioned both by others and the thing being observed. So, Jane allows her ascription of 'red' to the cup to be challenged and enters into something deeper than she started with. But, the cup itself will also govern the conversation. If the cup were actually green, then the whole conversation above is a farce. While in the first conversation, Jane seeks to push her will onto the cup and uphold her will over against Joe's description, in the second, she submits herself to the reality she finds in the cup through Joe's description. That is the proper ordering, and we would all (especially us believers) do well to remember that when we seek to describe the One who revealed Himself through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Shrek the Third

On Friday, a small group of GCF'ers went out to see Shrek the Third. This is the first in our summer GCF Trip to the Movies series. Other movies we're seeing this summer are Ocean's Thirteen, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and The Bourne Ultimatum. It's a summer of sequels!

As far as sequels go, the newest Shrek installment was a lot of fun. The jokes were jam-packed and replete with pop-culture references. When Shrek and Donkey go to a medieval high school to find Arthur Pendragon, everything is fair game. There's a cheerleading squad in dresses and tall hats using "thee's" and "thou's." Nerds get their heads dunked in chamber pots. Lancelot is head of the jousting team, and Guenevere is the coolest girl in the school. Shrek breaks into a school gathering right after a "Just Say Nay" speech has ended. There's all of that and a lot more in the mix, especially since Arther is the one who will take the throne of Far Far Away.

But that leads me to my gripe for the movie. It feels like I can't see a movie whose moral isn't "Be yourself." Shrek's be-your-self-ness dripped all around the film, especially when Shrek is trying to convince Arthur to take the throne. It seems like the movie exists in a moral universe in which the only good is sincerity and the only evil is insincerity.

But, of course, it doesn't. Prince Charming is full of hubris and is entirely sincere about it. On the other hand, Shrek's character develops as he grows out of being-for-himself into being for his wife and children. The latter is obviously the better path for the Christian (and humanity in general), yet that real gem of selflessness is hidden under the 'moral' that creates Prince Charmings in the first place.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Wrapping up the semester

The semester is over, and the summer is beginning. I wanted to share the photos of our GCF End of the Year Party.

We're getting ready for the summer...more to come on that later. GCF is going to see Shrek the Third on Friday!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Profile: Matthew McMahon

Matthew graduated from Vanderbilt in 2006.

1. Tell us about your life. Are you married? Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in the Hartford, CT area, the oldest of ten children. My father is a Pentecostal pastor, Christian school principal and music teacher, and my mother has been a teacher as well as full-time homemaker (emphasis on full-time!). My home church started a Christian school in our basement when I was starting second grade; the school added a grade level each year until I completed high school. (By that point, thankfully, we had a building!) I married my college sweetheart Carissa in 2002, before my second year of graduate school. We have two children, Bethany and Andrew, both born while I was completing my Ph. D.

2. Tell us about your education. Where, when, and in what have you done coursework?
My undergraduate work was done at Drew University in New Jersey, and of course I attended Vanderbilt for grad school. I majored in physics at Drew and achieved my doctorate in physics at Vanderbilt.

3. Tell us about your faith journey. How did you come to faith in Christ, and how has your faith been strengthened/challenged by your academic calling?
I was raised in the church, and am thankful to say that I can't remember a time when Christ was not a part of my life. I "asked Jesus into my heart" at five years old after listening to a Jimmy Swaggart tape for kids, famously telling my father that I was not going to bed that night until I had done so.

I found that my faith was challenged much more directly in undergrad than in grad school. This is partly due to the fact that we studied such virulently anti-Christian writers as Carl Sagan as part of a course on pseudoscience at Drew. It is also partly due to the fact that my graduate adviser is a religious man and encouraged me quite a bit in my faith during graduate school. While we would disagree on quite a few particulars of doctrine!, we had some basic metaphysical common ground. I would say that most of the faith-challenging features of the academic world came from sources outside Vanderbilt, in the wider scientific community, where philosophical materialism is rampant.

4. Tell us about your involvement with GCF. How has GCF encouraged you in both your faith and your calling?
GCF was a critical part of my spiritual life in graduate school. I became involved right from the start attending the Friday night meetings and attending a book study. I was greatly encouraged to find a community of serious Christian scholars who were unflinchingly committed to Christ and their education. It provided at once a place to think deeply about Christianity and a place to retreat from the pressure of grad school, especially in my first couple of years while I was taking a full courseload. It also provided a regular musical outlet, as I led the singing for those first couple of years.

5. If, based on your journey in faith and academia, you could tell the Church one thing, what would it be?
We must remember that Jesus did not come to save the smart; at the same time, we must remember that we are called to serve the Lord with all our minds.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Would you like to host a dessert?

As I've already shared with you, I'm currently raising support for the 2007-2008 academic year. GCF's projected budget is $70,300. Currently, we've estimated $31,900 in committed support for the year, which means we're still trying to raise the remaining $38,400.

One of the ways we raise support for the Graduate Christian Fellowship is by hosting desserts in people's homes or churches. GCF provides coffee, cheesecake, toppings, cookies, and a presentation aimed to introduce people to the work GCF is doing at Vanderbilt. Generally, hosts help put together a guest list, follow-up on the invitations we send, and offer a few words both before and after the presentation. These can be wonderful times of fellowship and are a great way to introduce others to what God is doing among graduate students and faculty at Vanderbilt University.

If you'd like to host or are curious about hosting a dessert in your home or church anywhere in the continental US, please post a comment here or email me at We want to see students and faculty transformed, campuses renewed, and world-changers developed. Let's partner together to make it happen.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

An action-packed week

Graduate Christian Fellowship and I were really busy this past week! It went something like this:

Monday night: Graduate Christian Fellowship Fundraising Dessert--we raised $1200 toward next year's budget. Thank God!

Thursday morning: GCF Prayer Meeting on campus--it was our first, large prayer meeting, and we hope it will be a model for regular (bi-monthly or monthly) prayer meetings starting next semester. A student and her husband (I haven't asked their permission to publish their names) led the prayer time as a reflection on God as the source and giver of wisdom. We prayed with Scripture in hand for ourselves, for the campus, and for the world. Two pictures made it out of the event, and they're in this album on Facebook (There are also pictures of other GCF and InterVarsity events in that album).

Thursday afternoon: Office Hours at Panera Bread. I had a couple of students drop by, and we had a lot of fun.

Friday afternoon: Lecture and Lunch discussion. We took a group to hear the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson (Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire) speak at Benton Chapel on campus and then retired to Panera Bread to have lunch and discuss the talk. I might post more extensive comments on the talk in a later post, but I wanted to share some of the pictures that I took at the lecture and then at the lunch afterward.

Saturday night: GCF Game Night! We had dinner together and then played Pit, Go Fish, I Doubt It (think B.S.), and the Great Dalmuti. We got to meet new students and were joined by some friends from NW Arkansas. The pictures are hiding here.

Needless to say, I'm looking forward to slowing down a little bit this week! Thanks for supporting GCF through praying and giving!

On Conspiracies

Today, I spent some time watching a movie (posted here) that explains how 9/11 was not ultimately planned and executed by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists but by the lease holders of the WTC somehow sponsored by the U.S. Government. It is a wickedly interesting conspiracy theory that makes a haunting amount of sense.

Until, I think, one hears the 'other side' of the story as told by Popular Mechanics. I listened to their podcast that aired around the time their book Debunking 9/11 Myths hit the market. While there are always ways to wrap rebuttals back into the tight circle of the conspiracy (see the comments on the podcast), I feel they answer some of the biggest questions that the original movie raised.

That said, one thing struck me about the whole affair. At the end of a movie that implicates people in orchestrating a conspiracy to murder thousands in order to either make money or gain grounds for launching an attack on the Middle East, the question arises naturally, "Who would do such a thing?" I think that is one of the psychological effects of conspiracy theories, that we feel better about ourselves because we believe we could never do any such thing.

As Christians, however, we must stand back. One point of the Christian doctrine of sin is that, all other things being equal, every human being is capable, in and of themselves, of committing any sin. It is only by God's free grace that the majority of people in the world are born into circumstances in which they are not able to commit vast and damaging sins (only those petty sins that destroy the lives in their immediate vicinity). The result is that, if there really was a vast American conspiracy to destroy the WTC and attack the Pentagon, if you or I were put into the same situation as the conspirators, only the grace of God would keep us from making the same decisions they did.

St. Paul, talking to the first century conspiracy theorists who were concerned about the inclusion of the Gentiles, put it something like this: For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God... (Ro 3:22-23). The Jews felt righteous because they kept the Torah better than the Gentiles. How sinful we must be to gravitate to gigantic theories that maximize others' sinfulness in order to minimize our own.