Saturday, May 31, 2008

How to waste your theological education

Very wise thoughts from Derek Brown, a seminarian from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The Only Hope for America, no. 1

[This was a lecture that I gave at Westminster Seminary California in April; the audio can be found here. The full title is "The Only Hope for America: Southern Presbyterians, Billy Graham, and the Mission of the Church." I thought that, in light of this conversation, this might be a helpful historical contribution.]

Many readers of the Southern Presbyterian Journal must have smiled in recognition and hope when they received the February 15, 1950, issue of the magazine. On the cover was an attractive young man, age thirty-one, with piercing eyes and a slight smile on his face, wearing his signature double-breasted suit with garish tie and protruding pocket handkerchief. The only indication of the identity of the young man was a simple line, “Billy Graham; see pages two and three.” It was all that was necessary—for, as the rest of the magazine explained, American newspapers had become preoccupied with the preaching ministry of the young evangelist. Journal editor Henry Dendy was not restrained in his thoughts about Graham: “As we heard him preach there came to us the definite conviction that God had raised up, in this our needy time, a servant on whom rests the mighty power of the Holy Spirit such as is rarely seen.”

Billy Graham represented not simply a gifted preacher who led significant evangelistic meetings; he embodied the hopes of many conservative Protestants, regardless of denomination, for spiritual renewal in America in the 1950s. As Dendy’s praise suggested, southern Protestants especially felt that theirs was a “needy time” for the world as they knew it was under attack. Plagued by social agitation from within over racial integration and from without by infiltrating Communists, worried by the centralizing thrusts of the National Council of Churches and the Federal Government, and convinced that the younger generation was moving toward spiritual bankruptcy and moral confusion, conservative Protestants in the South believed that the only answer was revival. In Graham’s ministry, southern Protestants believed that God once again was visiting his people and turning America to himself.

While Graham and his team sought to lead interdenominational meetings and while he held his church membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, southern Presbyterian conservatives felt extremely invested in Graham’s ministry in the 1950s. Both as a result of their ideology, which merged political, cultural, and religious conservatism seamlessly together in their southern brand of modern American conservatism, and their biblical and theological reflection, Graham represented a symbol of hope both for their nation and their church, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). Convinced that the PCUS was veering off-track by not focusing appropriately on the church’s true spiritual mission of evangelism, southern Presbyterian conservatives used Graham’s evangelistic success and international prominence to bolster their position and make plain their deep differences with progressive fellow-churchmen. They earnestly believed that as the church returned to its fundamental commitment to evangelism, not only would they be in the place of God’s revival blessings, but God would use them to reverse America’s apparent downward decline by bringing spiritual renewal to the entire nation. In this way, God’s remnant people in his “Southern Zion”—and their southern Prophet—would be the means of salvation for the whole of his “Redeemer Nation” and even the world.

What America Needs
As southern Presbyterian conservatives looked at 1950s America, they had a generally pessimistic view. “To all who will consider the handwriting is surely on the wall. To America there must come a spiritual awakening, a revival of faith in the Son of God and a turning to Him in confession of sin,” Nelson Bell proclaimed. W. Twyman Williams asked whether “we really think that as a nation we are less drunken, less immoral, less corrupt in government and in business, more law-abiding, more God-fearing” than the European nations which bore the brunt of two world wars? The only conclusion possible was that God’s judgment was coming upon America. Bell assessed America’s moral decay by noting that “sin in every form is flouted before our eyes. We are a licentious people, an increasingly intemperate people. The Sabbath is more and more a holiday instead of a holy day. Only too often we have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof. There is corruption and bribery and intrigue in high and low places.” Elsewhere he observed, “Soft, loving pleasure, speaking often in terms of religion but living in ease and wallowing in impurity and lust, America is increasingly becoming prey to the inward decay which has again and again destroyed nations.”

The only way to reverse this American decay and so advert God’s judgment was revival. As Bell put it, America needed “a great spiritual and moral awakening which will in turn give that fiber of soul and character which will reflect itself in public and private life and again make our nation great, as God counts greatness.” Others agreed with Bell’s assessment of both America’s problem and God’s solution. Samuel McPheeters Glasgow observed that “the church must have a Revival or sag into deeper depths of failure and false assurance.” J. Kenton Parker held that unless God brought spiritual revival to America, it would experience “some sort of terrible catastrophe compared with which the French Revolution would look like child’s play.”

In order to bring such spiritual renewal to America, several ingredients were needed. Chief among them was whole-soul surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit. Nelson Bell asked whether “our failures as Christians and as a Church [are not] due to our repeated attempts to accomplish a supernatural task with natural means alone.” There is “supernatural power available to all who come seeking Him in humility and truth. The possibility of world-wide revival will merge into the certainty of such a spiritual awakening when we as Christians and as the Church, go forth in that power alone.” In a 1950 article, Bell passionately claimed, “We must have a revival…we need more than anything else the power which comes alone from the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit.” Only as God’s people humbled themselves and sought God in repentance and confession would the Spirit’s power come and revival occur.

Another ingredient for religious revival in America was a willingness to set aside denominational boundaries in order to foster evangelistic success. What was required was a “bigness of soul and spirit which welcomes true evangelism and evidence of spiritual power wherever it may be found.” Nelson Bell chided his Presbyterian readers for failing to pay attention to the Gospel ministry of “sideline” Protestant churches: “we have looked into the preaching of many of the pastors of these smaller churches and we find that most of them are preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he noted. “We find that God is blessing their ministry and honoring their witness to Him and His Word. We find a fire and a zeal too often lacking in our own pulpits.” The lesson here was that “revival will come when Episcopalians and Pentecostalists, Presbyterians and Baptists, Nazarenes and Methodists and others are willing to get down before God and pray for an outpouring of His Holy Spirit.”

Equally important, perhaps, was a belief that God still used mass evangelism and other evangelistic strategies to win people to the Christian faith. Nelson Bell, for one, pled that people “stop this talk of the day of mass evangelism being past. God yet uses any and every method which exalts Him and His Word. Certainly America needs the impact of this message—the message of salvation for sinners. Let us use and promote any method which brings men to know Him.” John R. Richardson also defended such evangelistic methods, nothing that “the most devoted servants of Christ have never felt ashamed to engage in street-corner evangelism.”

Even as they hoped and proclaimed that revival was possible, southern Presbyterian conservative leaders wondered why revival had not yet come. One elder suggested that the problem could be found in the general worldliness of the church: “The plain, blunt truth is that we church people, year after year, slowly but surely, have been compromising more and more with worldliness until the Holy Spirit simply does not see fit to use us as the human instruments through which to bring about a great revival in the church.” Not only were church people exhibiting worldliness which was preventing revival, but so were church leaders. Nelson Bell claimed that “if the pastors and officers will set the example necessary and with this example earnestly pray for the guidance of God’s Spirit we believe revival and blessing is sure to follow. Worldliness in the church is a symptom of spiritual sickness. Let us seek the cure of the disease, the symptoms will then disappear.” Preston Sartelle noted that “it becomes absolutely necessary to have an awakening and restoration in Christian lives before we can have a successful and sustained evangelistic outreach.” Such awakening meant that Christians needed to “put off sin and put on Christian living and service.”

Tied to the issue of worldliness was a spirit of indifference and complacency within the church that hindered the outpouring of the Spirit. “Why is there so much back-patting and so little getting down on knees and crying out to God for a spiritual awakening?” Nelson Bell asked rhetorically. “We believe it is because indifference and complacency have infected Christians and churches as a canker and we believe only a work of the Holy Spirit can bring about the revival which is necessary.” Such indifference was demonstrated in the fact that so few Christians were willing to pay the price for revival. “If we are to have a revival,” Bell held, “it will have to begin in our own hearts and we will have to open them to the cleansing and filling of the Holy Spirit.” Such a price would include “a total surrender of our minds, our wills, and our bodies.” If Christians would pay the price, revival could and would come.

For PCUS conservatives, the clearest reason for the lack of revival was the church’s failure to maintain a consistent doctrinal witness. In 1952, to make this point clear, a group of ministers and laymen took out a full page advertisement in the Southern Presbyterian Journal. The text of the advertisement made clear the connection between revival and clear doctrine: “The greatest need of the Church and the greatest need in America is a revival of Christian faith and practice; the weakness of the Church centers in her attempt to cater to men, through diluting the Christian faith and watering down the Christian message; the power of the Church stems from the presence of the Holy Spirit and revealed in body of truth which men are to believe and by which they live.” Repeatedly, southern Presbyterian conservatives made the clear connection between doctrinal faithfulness and spiritual renewal. “The one thing which can revitalize the Church, under the power of the Holy Spirit, is a restatement of the content of Christianity itself,” Nelson Bell observed. “The weakness and the failures of the Church in our age are due to a departure from the things which constitute the Gospel message.” At the end of the day, it seemed to be prima facie that “when one becomes committed to the modernistic position he has lost his power to win souls” and hence to see revival.

Central to this message is the church’s traditional emphasis upon the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Bell believed that “maximum spiritual power is in part conditioned on faith in the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures.” Because many in the PCUS were teaching a low-view of biblical inspiration and authority, the church was lacking in spiritual power. This failure of faith in the Bible’s authority characterized most of the Protestant churches in America, explaining both the low-tide of spiritual power and the sense of national decay. And yet, the answer was not simply apologetics that demonstrated the inspiration of Scripture; the final and sole solution was actually revival. “The solvent which will end controversy and restore to our church the emphasis which is paramount and central will be a genuine revival in our own hearts and in the courts of our church as well,” Bell held. “That is the solution and we do not believe there is any other.”

Friday, May 30, 2008

Why bother with Barth?

Carl Trueman offers some thoughtful reflections on why evangelicals should bother reading Karl Barth. I offered similar thoughts in April 2006.

Competing Claims

In my morning worship, I've also been reading sections of Isaiah. One thing that struck me were the competing claims represented in Isaiah 46 and 47. In Isaiah 46, God clearly stakes his claim to absolute sovereign rights: "for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me" (Isa 46:9). This claim stands opposed to Babylon's (and each individual's) boast: "You felt secure in your wickedness, you said, 'No one sees me'; your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray,and you said in your heart, 'I am, and there is no one besides me'" (Isa 47:10; cf. 47:8).

This is the battle in each heart--will God be God for me or will I be? Will I bow to the claims of God the King or will I set myself up as god the King? Will I trust that God will accomplish his purposes for me or will I maneuver in order to accomplish my purposes for me? Will I truly believe that God's love is better than life?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The next Rick Ankiel?

Adam Wainwright was rated the eighth best hitter by Sports Illustrated. Hopefully, he doesn't lose his fastball like Ankiel did.

Language and the Redemption of the Nations

In my morning worship today, I was in Zephaniah and 3:9 leaped out at me: “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord." Several texts connected in my mind and raised larger questions about how God uses language to bring judgment and mercy upon the nations.

Of course, the first text was Genesis 11: in response to the god-like ambitions of the people, God pointed to their common language as enabling their activities. And so, God moves in judgment against the people and place so that "its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth" (11:9).

The issue at Babel was the presumption of the people to gain security and significance apart from God; but gaining independence from God was facilitated by a common language. God in judgment (and mercy) confused their language and dispersed the people over the earth; from this scene, God immediately calls Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) to be the father of the faithful who would rely on God's Word, not their own.

Zephaniah's prophecy comes in the context of the "day of the Lord" in which God brings judgment upon the nations (especially Babylon) as well as Judah. As God judges his enemies, he holds out the hope of renewal, through a "pure speech"--one that he grants as he changes people's language (and hence, their hearts). They move from their words, the confusing language of the nations, to God's Word, the pure speech that enables others to relate rightly to God. And yet, this hope of renewal is tied to "the day of the Lord," the coming of God himself in judgment and mercy.

One of the days of the Lord was Pentecost: after King Jesus has come in judgment and mercy at the cross and empty tomb, he grants his Spirit so that everyone present was "filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4). These who depend upon the King and who are obedient to Jesus' Gospel Word are granted languages that enable the nations to hear God's Word in their own tongues (Acts 2:5-12). And yet, this was a epochal event, a day of the Lord that points forward to the final "Day of the Lord" in which the final form of God's reign is displayed.

That final "Day" is described in Revelation 7: "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!' And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, 'Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.'"

Here is a picture of Babel Undone: people in all of their diversity of language and place coming with the same song--pure speech that centers on God's Word of salvation. The prophecy of Zephaniah comes true through the work of Jesus' Spirit as he uses his Word to renew hearts and "changes their speech" from self-reliance to God-centered reliance, from self-salvation to "salvation belongs to our God."

A Visit to the Temple of Doom

Last night, Bryan Chapell and I went to a Cubs game; it was my first visit to Wrigley Field (aka "the temple of doom"). We left before the beginning of the 9th inning; it looks like we missed the main part of the ball game.

For those keeping track of my life goal, I continue to add ball parks to my list. Here is the update (new ball parks in blue):

American League
Yankee Stadium (NY Yankees)
Tropicana Field (Tampa Bay D-Rays)
Camden Yards (Baltimore Orioles)
Fenway Park (Boston Red Sox)
US Celluar Field (Chi White Sox)
The Ballpark at Arlington (Texas Rangers)

National League
Citizens Bank Park (Philadelphia Phillies)
Turner Field (Atlanta Braves)
Busch Stadium (STL Cardinals)
Great American Ball Park (Cincinnati Reds)
Wrigley Field (Chicago Cubs)
PNC Park (Pittsburgh Pirates)
Dodger Stadium (LA Dodgers)
Petco Park (San Diego Padres)

By my count, that is 14 out of 30 current ball parks; of course, Yankee Stadium will go off the list next year (since the new Yankee Stadium will be online then). Still, perseverance is the key! The ball park that I most want to go to now is AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Monday, May 26, 2008

Cambridge Observations, no. 3

One of the key teachings in the course that I took at Harvard was the importance of "owning your piece of the mess." That is to say, as we operate within organizations, we need to view the whole systemically and to see ourselves as part of that system. Inevitably, we bring attitudes and actions, frequently representing attempts at self-protection and self-promotion, that contribute to the "adaptive challenge" that the system faces. In order to exercise genuine leadership, we must recognize our own failures and resistance to "risk" and possibly experience loss--the loss of our sense of competence, significance, and even security.

As the class members interacted with each other within the system of the classroom, it was striking to watch each person struggle with his or her inability to see how he or she contributed to the failure of the whole; to risk admitting a lack of competence (this coming from those who do leadership training for a living) would have been akin to death. As a result, the class struggled forward to operate as an organization that sought to benefit the learning of every class member.

Watching this, it struck me that while the necessary personal work that lay behind this teaching point was very important, it was also very unlikely that any one would be able to risk their own loss of security and significance outside of a robustly Christian framework.

That is to say: if self-love is embedded in us by our Creator, and if that self-love finds no higher aspiration than self-protection and self-promotion, then it is not rational for someone to act against their own self-love to promote the ends of any group, unless it can be demonstrated that there is some reward or benefit at the end of it all. As most who work within the workplace can attest, there are very few people who are able to subordinate their own self-love for the organization's good (Jim Collins, in Good to Great, calls these Level 5 executives; he also notes how rare they are).

Within a Christian framework, such risk is possible because our self-love finds its highest satisfaction and fulfillment in delighting in God. As a result, it is possible to "count all things as loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil 3:8) and "in humility [to] count others more significant than yourselves" (Phil 2:3). It is possible to live in "one accord" and with "one mind" (Phil 1:27; 2:1-2) within a community or organization and to risk our own security and significance in looking to the interests of others (Phil 2:4; 2:21). And even if we fail and suffer, it is possible to know joy and delight because our highest treasure is not our competence; rather, our highest treasure is being found in Christ with a righteousness not our own and a resurrection that will bring great glory (Phil 3:8-10).

Of course, the question that immediately comes is why Christian organizations (churches, schools, businesses) struggle with the same in-fighting, same inability to risk themselves for the good of the whole, and same unwillingness to own their own piece of the mess. Ultimately, I think it comes down to a failure to live lives worthy of the Gospel (Phil 1:27), in which we truly believe that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil 1:21). And that comes back to a matter of unbelief: that God's steadfast love really and truly is better than life.

And such a recognition brings us to repentance and renewal and finally hope: because God delights in receiving us back to delight in himself and because such delight is the only hope that we will gain small foretastes of the final form of God's Kingdom here in the present age in our churches, workplaces, and families.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cambridge Observations, no. 2

I'm back home after a week at Harvard University where I attended a course on "the art and practice of leadership development." The course was led by Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz, who co-authored Leadership on the Line. It was a fascinating week: the course served to model teaching leadership development through "case-in-point" methods. Throughout the week, the students (mainly professional leadership/organizational development trainers and faculty) struggled to figure out what "the work" was--in many ways demonstrating the same disequilibrium and disorientation that many face in the work place.

What was even more interesting was the range of people in the room. It was an international group with people from Israel, Dubai, Denmark, Wales, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Austria, Chile, Argentina, and Australia. There were three people from explicitly religious organizations (Alban Institute; the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts; and me). There were people who worked at universities and in national and state governments.

There were a number of good conversations outside the classroom. One recurring theme that came up when people starting talking religion was a fairly common distinction between "religion" and "spirituality." Once people discovered a little bit about my background--as a Presbyterian minister and Seminary dean--some would invariably say, "Well, I don't like religion because it puts me into a box; it judges me. But I value spirituality highly."

My public response, since we were engaged in polite conversation, was that the best of the Christian tradition has sought to distinguish itself from "religion." Religion typically comes with a message of moralism--do this and you will live. Biblical Christianity comes and says, your only hope and comfort is believe in Jesus Christ and you will live. Even when this was said gently and kindly, it was enough to lead them to change the conversation.

But my more thorough response would be to raise the points of Ludwig Feuerbach against their conception of spirituality. After all, Feuerbach argued strenuously that God was simply the projection of human ideals. If "spirituality" is merely a projection of myself, then it seems more intellectually honest to admit the fact, give up the charade of "spirituality," and move toward a thoroughly closed-box universe with a concomitant behaviorist psychology.

One reason most people can't make that move is because, as Calvin pointed out, there is a "seed of divinity" or a "sense of the divine" that points to something truly beyond ourselves. Feuerbach's attempt to rid the universe of reality in itself (i.e. God) fails to account for this. Even more, Christianity stands or falls on the fact that, as Francis Schaeffer put it, God is there and God has spoken. This objective reality beyond ourselves has moved toward humankind through Scripture. And this revelation offers as a comprehensive, coherent, and compelling worldview that makes sense of reality.

Another reason most people can't move with Feuerbach is that a closed-box universe supported by a rigorous Hegelian philosophy and evolutionary science can't produce an account of the apparent "randomness" and "purposelessness" of human existence. All it can logically come up with is the "will to live"; but why do humans have the will to live? And why do bad things happen? Where does evil come from? Why do we seek justice? And scores of questions besides. Only Christianity through biblical revelation can provide a compelling account of these questions.

It strikes me that if those who want to reside with "spirituality" were to take Feuerbach's challenge seriously, it would force them to reckon with the real choice: not between religion and spirituality, but between a biblical account of the world and our place in it versus a purposeless, meaningless, and deterministic universe. But these are hard things to say in polite conversation.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Cambridge Observations, no. 1

I'm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a week-long class at the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School of Government. I got here a few hours early to wander around (after a fiasco with the cabbie; yo, Holmes, smell you later); one thing that struck me immediately was when I walked past First Church (Unitarian Universalist) and wandered through the church yard.

First Church is clearly struggling--it just called a new senior minister on April 20, but it currently had interim senior and associate ministers. Even more, it was striking to see the former church of Thomas Shepherd as a Unitarian congregation. Of course, the Unitarian division occurred 150 years after Shepherd, but I wonder whether the moralistic approach that he took--grounding justification in sanctification--contributed to the eventually move to moralistic Unitarianism.

The other sign of struggle was the church yard. Compared to well-maintained church yards like First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina, the church yard at First Church was a mess--unmowed, broken head stones, trashed. Even more, the graves of several early Harvard presidents were poorly maintained. I was shocked that a school with a $19 billion endowment couldn't contribute a little coin to maintain the graves of early presidents.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Graduation Benediction 2008

This is the benediction I will give tonight at Covenant Seminary's baccalaureate service on May 15, 2008; it was drawn from 1 Peter 4:7-11:

Friends, families, graduates of the Class of 2008:

As those who have received God's varied grace
And as those who have been called as God's stewards,
May God grant you to be self-controlled and sober-minded,
To love God's people earnestly, and
To serve God's people with divine strength
So that in everything God may be glorified
Through Jesus Christ
To whom belong glory and dominion
Forever and ever, Amen.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Preaching the Gospel to all sorts of voices

Many readers of this blog are familiar with Martyn Lloyd-Jones' instruction to preaching the Gospel to ourselves. In his book, Spiritual Depression (pp. 20-21), Lloyd-Jones said:

Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problem of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man's treatment [in Psalm 42] was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself, 'Why art thou cast down, O my soul?' he asks.

My colleague, Anthony Bradley, has also written well about this reality: these voices in our head, often the voice of our Enemy, often speaking to us with dark and negative words ("you are a loser; no one cares about you; why should you bother? etc.). I wonder, though, how often we have thought about preaching the Gospel to ourselves with the voices that we hear inside ourselves are praising, flattering, and/or boastful.

This whole line of thought--our/my great need to hear the Gospel cutting through voices of self-pity or boasting--struck me in my morning worship as I read Psalm 34 and John Piper's What Jesus Demands from the World.

From Psalm 34, the Lord confront me with my self-pity. There the singer declares, "O fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack! The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing" (34:9-10). I thought immediately of another text that has been kicking me in the pants recently, Psalm 23:1, "The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want (lack)."

How often I have sat in my study in the early morning complaining to God because I lack! Calling, reputation, finances, family, and a host of other issues have caused me to complain in self-pity--yet here again, the Lord challenged the voices in my heart. He called me the preach the Gospel to myself, "O heart, you think you lack security and significance because you are wrestling with these things; but as long as you seek the Lord, you'll lack no good thing because the Lord gives you himself! Isn't that enough? Be content, rest, find your satisfaction in him--taste and see that he is good!"

The Lord used Piper to confront me from a different direction. Talking about the "righteousness of the Pharisees" which was really "tragic and ugly," Piper noted that the Pharisees really loved money, praise, and sex--that was their "righteousness." It was the middle issue--praise--that arrested me (p. 194):

The reward they sought for what they did was not the enjoyment of God’s fellowship, but the admiration of others. Jesus said, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others” (Matt. 23:5-7). This love affair with the praise of man made genuine faith in the self-sacrificing Christ impossible. So Jesus said to them, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). Their hearts were not drawn to God as their reward, but to the praise of man.

It struck me with great force that at those times when I feel my heart being drawn to the praise of men rather than God as my reward, when I hear the voices telling me, "You are a rock star; you are the greatest ___ (fill in the blank); there is no one greater than you," it is another occasion to preach the Gospel to myself: "O heart, the praise of men is ultimately a drug that cannot satisfy. You know that--you've experienced the emptiness that comes from longing for praise, receiving it, and feeling empty at the end. Run to Christ--make your boast in him! Taste and see that the Lord is good, see and savor him alone! Only then will you find rest, contentment, and joy."

At the end of it all, the Spirit must use his word of gospel grace every day to confront my heart, to kill this sin of pride that manifests itself as self-pity and boasting, and to silence the voices. Only then, only then, will I hear the sweet voice of the Spirit say, "You are not a deserving servant; you are a beloved son. Rest in that and find in me the satisfaction, security, and significance for which your heart longs."

Friday, May 09, 2008

Ministerial Students, Calling, and PhD Studies

Every year, I meet with a number of seminary students who are interested in pursuing PhD studies. Usually, the first question I ask them is: "Why? Why do you believe that doctoral studies are part of God's calling for you?" And the most frequent answer falls into a pattern that I have seen at the three seminaries where I have been privileged to work.

You see, most (male) students come to pursue an MDiv degree because they believe that God has called them to ministry in the context of the local church. Most frequently, that has some connection to preaching, teaching, administering the sacraments, praying, leading, and counseling--the basic functions of either a senior, solo, or staff pastors.

Many come to seminary with a very romantic view of the ministry--having grown up in churches, many of which were strong and stable, it appeared that the senior pastor's life offered security and significance. In addition, these students may have had someone who impacted their lives in a profound way: perhaps a youth minister, campus minister, or senior minister who took time with them and discipled them in the basic practices of the Christian faith. In a response of romance, gratitude, and epiphany, these students come to seminary desiring to be used by God in a similar way.

Until they get to seminary. And then they discover several things: one is that seminary can be difficult. They struggle with Greek and Hebrew; they find that their wives and children serve as sanctifying agents in ways they hadn't before (amazing what an 800 sq. ft. on-campus apartment can do); God begins to peel back their hearts in ways that had never happened before. Their wives may go through a period of questioning them--why did you lead us away from Egypt (or Atlanta, Birmingham, Houston, Los Angeles, or wherever) to bring us to the wilderness?

Another is that ministry can be difficult. Through field education, as these students begin to spend time as interns or directors of ministries in the context of the local church, they see the other side of ministerial life: the grace-filled thorns that the Apostle Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 12. They are exposed to infighting among ruling elders or among church staff members; they engage in the less glamorous parts of ministry (one internship I had at a church led to hours spent in the church's tape room making copies of sermons for distribution to the congregation); they sometimes feel a bit ignored.

A final discovery is this reality: as one friend put it, that while they were the rising star at their local churches--the one surrendered to vocational ministry--when they come to seminary there are hundreds (at Covenant Seminary, 350 MDiv students) just like them. Suddenly, they don't feel so special any more, which can lead to profound doubts and questions about calling.

Suddenly, they begin to look at their seminary professors in a whole new light. They seem suave, secure, significant; they have time to read books and write learned essays; they control the classroom and have no one to say them nay; their families seem protected, isolated from churchly toil, struggle, and infighting--plus, the seminary profs get paid for all this. The sense of calling with which the students came--an internal call matched by the church's approbation that they had pastoral gifts for local church ministry--begins to shift.

This shift coincides with the particular interest that academic work can bring: for example, they have a faculty member whose class opens a whole new world for them in their class or discipline; they write a paper that brings genuine satisfaction, a satisfaction that the internship just doesn't match; they serve as a teaching assistant for a favorite faculty member, doing grading and even a taste of teaching. Maybe, maybe, God really called them to ministry in general and is now calling them to the academic life in particular.

All of this adds up for them and brings them to my office. Now, there are those who come for whom it seems that God may have an academic career in mind. For these, I try to be as honest as possible--you do have academic gifting, but you have to recognize that there are a glut of PhDs in the job market; that competition for jobs is ruthless; and that you are probably more likely to find a job at a college or university, which is why you should target your students as widely as possible (instead of OT or NT, go to a university for a PhD program in religious studies; instead of church history or historical theology, go to a university for a PhD program in history; etc.). In addition, I have to tell these people how unlikely it is for them to teach at a seminary that is serious about training pastors if they themselves do not have some pastoral experience (which, for some reason, always seems to surprise them). Still, for these, I encourage them, write references for them, and try to provide appropriate guidance as they walk along the path.

For others, I try to raise as many questions as possible--are you really sure you have the academic gifting or interest (for these, I usually ask them to tell me what books in the field of interest they have read outside of class in this past semester. That is an excellent barometer for gauging whether they will succeed in a PhD program)? What has happened in their lives to cause them to reevaluate their sense of calling? Do they really understand how unlikely it is for them to find a job--would they really be willing to go through the pain of PhD studies if they knew they didn't have a job at the end? Do they really understand how insecure academic life is? Will they listen to me tell them how unsatisfying academic significance turns out to be? These students tend to leave my office discouraged; some still try to do PhD work, but very few complete their programs and/or find teaching posts.

There are a (very) few who want to do a PhD in order to equip them better for pastoral ministry. For these, I simply rejoice and try to encourage them not to allow the apparent blandishments of academic life to sway them from the God-given trajectory they are pursuing. For what our churches need are pastors who can bring the critical thinking skills that PhD studies teach to their tasks. Notice that I didn't say pastor-scholars: I fear that all too often we say that and the mental picture that forms includes academic (biblical or theological) essays for sermons; thirteen hours in the study each day; and a focus on the call of the academy instead of the needs of the church. But what PhD studies do provide are critical thinking skills--the ability to discern and divide issues, the larger and more sharply honed knowledge base, and the writing skills which should translate into preaching--all of which strengthen pastoral ministry, all of which strengthen the church of Jesus.

I do wish that we had more of this last group. What I find, however, is that even these students are open to a particular struggle--the divided mind of the pastor-scholar, the tug-and-pull between pastoral ministry in the context of a local congregation on the one side and academic ministry in the context of a college, university, or seminary. As one friend has told me, for most of these students, to have to resolve the division on one side or the other often feels like death, having to close off one part of themselves to engage the other side of their gift mix and calling (there are very few churches like Tenth Presbyterian or Bethlehem Baptist, which see their senior minister's writing ministry as a significant part of his calling; and on the other side, most seminaries generally frown on extended, weekly preaching ministry on the part of their faculty).

All of this makes the Jeremiah Burroughs' quote just below this post even more apparently elusive--how to be sure of God's call in whatever engages our hands to do? I think it is probably by taking another part of Burroughs' direction for contentment to heart: "Exercise faith by often resigning yourself to God, by giving yourself up to God and his ways. The more you in a believing way surrender up yourself to God, the more quiet and peace you will have" (Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, 219). Regularly returning to the Lord and offering up our hearts to him, saying again and again, "Lord, I serve at your bidding. Guide your servant as you see fit," will grant us quiet, peace, and confidence in God's calling in our ministerial lives.

Contentment and Calling

From Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Banner of Truth, 1964), 217:

[Directions on how to attain contentment] 3. Be sure of your call to every business you go about. Though it is the least business, be sure of your call to it; then whatever you meet with, you may quiet your heart with this: I know I am where God would have me. Nothing in the world will quiet the heart so much as this: when I meet with any cross, I know I am where God would have me, in my place and calling; I am about the work that God has set me. Oh, this will quiet and content you when you meet with trouble. What God calls a man to, in that he may have comfort whatever befalls him. God will look to you, and see you blessed if you are in the work God calls you to.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

How they are to hear without someone preaching?

Today, in my morning worship, the section of scripture was Romans 9-11 and smack dab in the middle of it, of course, was these words from Romans 10:14. There were a number of thoughts that struck me:

1) While we rightly must think through all sorts of issues regarding contextualization in order to speak God's Word into this moment in time; and while we must coupled together appropriate deed ministry to incarnate the love of Jesus; and the end of the day, the Gospel comes to people through the preaching of God's Word. That was the mission that Jesus had (Mark 1:38); that is the mission that he has given to his followers (Luke 24:45-46). We are witnesses to the reality of the Gospel and we must preach that word of witness.

2) These words again confirmed for me the importance of theological education. God's means for bringing his good news to the world is through the ministry of the Word; his way of doing this is by sending preachers; and the way to equip those preachers is through theological education. That doesn't necessarily mean that we must have degree-granting seminaries to do theological education; but that does mean that we have structures to provide essential biblical, theological, historical, and pastoral knowledge that can be used and shared with others.

3) And these words come again to me and challenge my sense of calling. My heart has always been for the church and for the ministry of the Word. Am I doing the right thing as a Seminary administrator? Should I be involved in the regular, weekly ministry of the Word in the context of a local congregation? Will God send me to a particular people for this work at some point? How will others hear without someone preaching?

What NOT to buy for Mother's Day

For all of you who struggle with holidays, the top five things NOT to give to wife/mama.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Don't Waste Your Pulpit

This is a very, very good Desiring God video. Lord, send us more men who will not simply take God's Word and preaching serious, but who see it as the only means by which God sets people free and causes them to delight in God's own self.

[HT: JT]

Monday, May 05, 2008


Finally joined. It is like getting an 8-track tape player after everyone has iPods. But there you go.

Continuing Proof that Good Triumphs Over Evil

Cards take two out of three from the Cubs (or as we call 'em in our house, "The Devil's Team").

Friday, May 02, 2008

Neologism for Commencement Exercises...

From my colleague David Jones, professor emeritus of systematic theology and ethics: mortarboarding