Monday, July 28, 2008

Oh my sweet Carolina

By the time you read this, we'll be on the road heading to western North Carolina for three weeks of vacation time. Week one will be at Ridge Haven, where Covenant Seminary's dean of faculty, Jimmy Agan, and I will be teaching/preaching. Weeks two and three will be on top of a mountain at an undisclosed location outside of Brevard, NC.

I've been collecting some books to read while we are on top of the mountain. Here's what I've got:
Previously started:
Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible;
William Guthrie's A Christian's Great Interest;
Robert Wuthnow's After the Baby Boomers;
Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care.

Not yet started:
N. T. Wright's Evil and the Justice of God;
Garth Rosell's A Surprising Work of God;
Samuel Bolton's The True Bounds of Christian Freedom
I don't know exactly what will get finished (or what will get added to my piles). But it will be nice to meander through these books. I've also been plugging away at the first volume of The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales; that is good put-me-to-sleep reading.

I'm also looking forward to hiking this summer. Over the past several weeks, I've rediscovered hiking again; slowly working my way through 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: St. Louis. We've been building up stamina so that we can tackle some longer hikes. I especially want to hike Mt. Pisgah and some of the other trails off the Blue Ridge Parkway as well as trails off US276 between Brevard and the BRP. My 10-year old hiked with me this past Saturday (in 95 degree heat); all of us hiked a trail last night (in the rain). I'm sure my kids will tell stories of this when I'm old and decrepit.

This year I decided to try to avoid doing any teaching or preaching over vacation (except for Ridge Haven, which gets us a third week in WNC). I'm not very good with "boundaries" (I know for some that is a controversial word; oh well); but I'm trying to communicate to my family that when I'm on vacation with them, that I'm with them entirely (or as entirely as possible). So, very, very limited email; no blogging or facebook; no speaking. Lots of Dutch Blitz, hiking, swimming in the lake. Should be fun; see you all when I get back!

Friday, July 25, 2008

New Wendell Berry story

I don't know if you saw this new Wendell Berry short story in the current Atlantic Monthly, but it is very, very good.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why bother?

Okay, I'm a big U2 fan, but this 30-second video purporting to give me a "peak behind the scenes in Dublin where the band is making their new record" does nothing for me.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Watching Joel Osteen

Last night as I was flipping the channels during a second straight depressing late-inning loss by my Cardinals, I happened onto Joel Osteen's program. As someone professionally-trained as an American religious historian, it was striking to watch Osteen once again and note both the themes of his message and the manner of his method. In both respects, his popularity is not the result of originality, but his skillful repacking of positive thinking/self-esteem and Pentecostal/charismatic elements. [On this particular episode, his wife Victoria was presiding at the Lord's Table. While watching that gave me the shivers, it was also striking how much less skillful and how much more plastic she was compared to Joel.]

While there were a lot of things to critique, I couldn't help but ask the historian's analysis questions: why does this message appeal to so many (upwards of 15,000 attend services at Lakewood Church each weekend)? what are the verbal and facial cues that draw people in? why does it seem that Lakewood is amazingly interracial (a fact that is much more common in Pentecostal-oriented churches than Reformed); how do you account for that?

I think the driving reason that Osteen is hugely popular is that he sells hope. Books like Your Best Life Now and Become a Better You provide a message of hope that my life does not have to be the way it is right now; that God is powerful and able to change my life; that God is profoundly interested in my life and is near to me. And while that message of hope is packaged in the code language of the prosperity Gospel and positive psychology (like the phenomenally successful book by Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier), at the end of the day, people leave Lakewood feeling as though there is a greater meaning and purpose for their lives.

As I thought about all this, though, I couldn't help but think about John Piper's question from God is the Gospel (and other places): do you delight more in the fact that God makes much of you in the Gospel or that the Gospel frees you to make much of God? The fault in Osteen's message is that it overplays and wrongly prioritizes the fact that God makes much of us (and God does make much of us: as I read in my morning worship today, God cried out to a wayward Israel, "How can I give you up, O Ephraim?...My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender" Hosea 11:8).

The biblical priority is that God in the Gospel rescues, delivers, frees and sustains us to make much of God. He is the great good in the Good News--and it truly is amazing: that God would save his wayward children for the fame of his name; would shape worshippers who will find their deepest satisfaction in making much of God; and would gather together a worldwide body of worshippers who hallow his name!

And that is the great hope: not that our material position would be better or our relationships grow stronger. Rather, our great hope is that the steadfast, committed love of our God is transforming us into worshippers who find their hearts satisfied in God himself.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Coalescing Conservative Dissent

I gave a paper for the Westminster Confession for Today conference at the 2007 PCA GA in Memphis entitled, "Coalescing Conservative Dissent: Southern Presbyterians and Confessional Revision in the 1930s." Those who want to hear the talk and the Q&A can find it here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

10 Reasons Gen Xers are Unhappy at Work

A fascinating take from Harvard Business Publishing; the ten reasons:

1. X’ers’ corporate careers got off to a slow start and many are still feeling the pain.

2.When you were teens, X’ers witnessed adults in your lives being laid off from large corporations, as re-engineering swept through the business lexicon. This engendered in most X’ers a lack of trust in large institutions and a strong desire for a life filled with back-up plans, just in case.

3. Most corporate career paths “narrow” at the top – the perceived range of options diminishes as individuals become increasingly specialized in specific functions or roles. X’ers crave options, which assuage your concerns about being backed into a corner, laid off from one path.

4. Just your luck – the economy was slow when you entered the workforce and now its slowing once again – just as you are standing at the threshold of senior management.

5. And then there are those pesky Gen Y’s. Many X’ers are charged with “managing” Y’s which – let’s face it – is an impossible task, at least if you define “manage” as controlling their channels of communication.

6. X’ers are, in fact, surrounded by a love fest – and not feeling the love. Boomers and Y’s are learning from each other – and enjoying their interactions. It’s easy to feel left out.

7. X’ers are the most conservative cohort in today’s workforce – and you’re surrounded by “shake ‘em up” types on both sides.

8. Many X’ers’ are guarding a closely held secret: you’re not all as comfortable with the technology that is changing the way things are done as everyone seems to think you are.

9. And if Boomer colleagues are annoying, the Boomer parents of your Y reports are down-right over-the-top.

10. Finally, your own parenting pressures are at a peak.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008

Not sad to see this

Billy Packer, notable apologist for Kansas, UNC, and Duke, is leaving CBS to be replaced by Clark Kellogg. Whenever Packer is doing a game, I generally turn the sound down, especially during the Final Four. Now if only Dick Vitale, the other Duke apologist, would retire...

Friday, July 11, 2008

Resurrecting Excellence

Over the past few days, I've been posting quotes from L. Gregory Jones and Kevin R. Armstrong's book, Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry (you can find these here, here, and here). This morning I finished the book and found it a valuable piece of work and useful for a variety of applications.

The book appears as part of the Pulpit and Pew series, a publishing partnership between Eerdmans and Duke Divinity School's Pulpit and Pew: Center for Excellence in Ministry. The books in this series are important investigations into the lives of clergy from a variety of angles: historically (Brooks Holifield's new book God's Ambassadors), sociologically (Jackson Carroll's God's Potters and Dean Hoge's Pastors in Transition), and theologically (Resurrecting Excellence). The entire series will repay thoughtful reading and reflection by church leaders, sessions, and theological educators.

Resurrecting Excellence not only plays a role as the theological statement for the series; it also serves as the key book summarizing initial findings in Lilly Endowment Inc.'s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program (SPE). As I've noted previously, Covenant Seminary has participated in SPE and recently received a major re-grant to sustain the programs associated with our programs. As a result, this book is vital for developing a theological understanding of what the endowment (and its major partner, Duke Divinity School) hoped to accomplish through the program.

Because the book is written for these purposes, it is written in a style that may turn some readers off. For those of us in the academic world and especially the world of the Association of Theological Schools and other accrediting agencies or the world of various endowments (whether Lilly, Pew, or Luce), the style is familiar. However, if one simply sticks with the book (I read a chapter a morning for six consecutive mornings), there are enough jewels (as I've already posted) to justify the effort.

At the center of the book is the multivalent metaphor, "resurrecting excellence." Playing off the theological theme "resurrection," Jones and Armstrong note both the power of the resurrection is necessary for pastoral excellence as well as the need to resurrect excellence in ministry, especially among mainline Protestants. The way to see such a resurrection is through a vision of pastoral ministry that "inhabits the intersections" between faith and life (chapter 2); an embrace of a richer and more thoroughly developed sense of Christian and pastoral vocation (chapters 3 and 4); a focus on lifelong learning to sustain pastoral ministry over the long haul (chapter 5); and care for those institutions and resources necessary to support pastoral ministry (chapter 6).

For pastoral leaders who often don't spend much time thinking about their callings from a macro-perspective, this book would be a brief yet useful conversation starter. In addition, for pulpit committees or sessions who are thinking through pastoral leadership or for struggling congregations that need to move from ministry mediocrity to excellence, there were a number of helpful thoughts here that would stimulate greater reflection and creativity. I particularly profited from the stories (especially the final story on pp. 175-6) which stirred the imagination or gave voice to my own pastoral longings.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Necessity of Institutions

In a day when people question whether institutions (whether denominations, seminaries, or so-called "big-steeple churches") are worth sustaining, I found these words helpful: from Jones and Armstrong, Resurrecting Excellence, 127-8:

Too often, and particularly in recent decades, Christians in America have taken the wrong things for granted: the existence of religious institutions, for example. We have presumed that their permanence is a given and that our key task is to manage them as the regrettably necessary structures for the practices and friendships that really give life to Christian community. The unfortunate result is that many of them have lost their Christian vitality, their Christian focus and direction. This is true of congregations as well as judicatories, of seminaries and colleges as well as health care institutions--indeed, whole networks of religious institutions whose ecology has been crucial to shaping Christina life and imagination.

Part of the problem, as we have already suggested, is that we have too often accepted the romantic view that real vitality is to be found in practices and friendships, and institutions are at best necessary evils...We carry with us a mistaken myth that institutions are at best the necessary chaff that we must winnow in order to find the pure wheat of the gospel. But that is not faithful to Scripture (it ignores Israel and its institutions, among other things), and it is not faithful to the empirical realities of our life together. We need to reclaim an understanding of what is involved in the creation and renovation, sustenance and extension of institutions that do need criticism from time to time. But the romantic notion that we are somehow going to find a purer community apart from the reality of institutions is fallacious.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Spiritual Ministry of Administration

From Richard Lischer, "The Called Life: An Essay on the Pastoral Vocation," Interpretation 59 (2005): 173.

Administration, so despised by the high-minded and neglected by the seminaries, takes on real meaning when it is understood as an extension of the most important administrative work of all, the administration of the sacraments. The unproductive hours and busy work that all pastors complain of can be traced to the broken connection between administration as a secular tool and the administration of word and sacraments as a spiritual discipline. Pastoral administration, or stewardship, begins with stewardship of God's mysteries.

Pastoral vocation and the ministry of the Word

From Richard Lischer, "The Called Life: An Essay on the Pastoral Vocation," Interpretation (2005): 168:

Today we find the church cautiously distancing its ministry from the word of God. It does so under the modern pressure of professionalism and the postmodern impulse to pluralism, both of which are offended by spoken affirmations of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As a matter of public policy, the wider culture still wants something like ministry, much in the way it encourages volunteerism and philanthropy, but it thinks it can have it without the word of God. Faith-based initiatives are welcome; preaching is not.

Stripped of its word, however, the ministry disintegrates. Without its organizing principle of acknowledgement, the pastor's calling relapses into the chaos of busywork. The minister is sliced, diced, and cubed into a thousand contacts and competencies but left without a heart of passion in the word, without a vocation.

Discerning Who (and Whose) We Are

One of the hardest things for me, as well as the students whom I serve, is to discern accurately our own gifts and callings. Attending to God's own guidance in that process of discerning is particularly challenging. However, it is far more important to be able to move from our own (perennial?) confusion about our gifts and callings to rest in the confession that "whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine" (Bonhoeffer).

These helpful words focused my heart this morning; perhaps they will yours. From L. Gregory Jones and Kevin R. Armstrong, Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry (2006): 100-1

We human beings tend to be a complicated mixture of self-assertion and self-abnegation, caught in webs of self-deception of which we are unaware. So also do we tend to fail to discern accurately our own gifts and calling. We often get the discernment partially right, but also partially wrong. Over time, we seek to learn how to narrate our lives truthfully in ways that will enable us to discover the life that is really life.

We do so by locating our relation to God. Only God knows fully who we are. As we seek to identify how God is calling us to live by patterning our lives in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we discover how the particular, distinctive story of each of our lives can be returned to us redemptively.

Holy Friendships

From L. Gregory Jones and Kevin R. Armstrong, Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry (2006), 65:

Why do we call them "holy" friendships? We do so for two reasons. First, these relationships are often unlikely to be developed apart from a mutual attraction to the gospel life. They bring people together from different backgrounds and histories, with diverse hopes and fears. And, second, they are oriented toward discernment and deepening of Christian vocation, as well as nurturing growth in the Christian life, toward our learning how to live as holy people. It is not that these friends must already be holy; indeed, given the shape of Christian life, that would be impossible. Holy friends are our companions on the journey of learning to desire and love God truly and faithfully.

How do holy friends shape us in our discernment, and in our growth? Holy friends are those who, over time, get to know us well enough that they can challenge sins we have come to love, affirm gifts we are afraid to claim, and dream dreams about how we can bear witness to God's kingdom that we otherwise would not have dreamed.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The "Good" in the "Good News"

From Jonathan Edwards, "God Glorified in the Work of Redemption," in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach, et al (1999): 74-5:

The redeemed have all their objective good in God. God himself is the great good which they are brought to the possession and enjoyment of by redemption. He is the highest good, and the sum of all that good which Christ has purchased. God is the inheritance of the saints; he is the portion of their souls. God is their wealth and treasure, their food, their life, their dwelling place, their ornament and diadem, and their everlasting honor and glory. They have none in heaven but God; he is the great good which the redeemed are received to at death, and which they are to rise to at the end of the world.

The Lord God, he is the light of the heavenly Jerusalem; and is the "the river of the water of life" that runs, and the tree of life that grows, "in the midst of the paradise of God." The glorious excellencies and beauty of God will be what will forever entertain the minds of the saints, and the love of God will be their everlasting feast. The redeemed will indeed enjoy other things; they will enjoy the angels, and will enjoy one another: but that which they shall enjoy in the angels, or each other, or in anything else whatsoever, that will yield them delight and happiness, will be what will be seen of God in them.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace

One of the great joys of the past couple of weeks of "summer break" has been all the books which I've had a chance to read. It has been like PhD studies, where one book led to another book which led to another book. An example of this kind of reading is the way Andrew Purves' Reconstructing Pastoral Theology led me to read (and finish before Purves) James B. Torrance's Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace. I found the Torrance book to be thought-provoking and useful when read with a certain measure of discretion.

The useful emphasis is Torrance's repeated insistence that "Christian worship is, therefore, our participation through the Spirit in the Son's communion with the Father, in his vicarious life of worship and intercession" (p. 15). By insisting repeatedly that Christian worship is Trinitarian (not unitarian), that the movement in worship is two-fold (from the Father through the Son in the Spirit to us; and from us in the Spirit through the Son to the Father), that the sole priest is Jesus Christ himself who mediates God's Word and presence to us and our prayers and praises to the Father, Torrance offers a richer theological framework for Christian life and worship.

In addition, I very much appreciated Torrance's emphasis upon baptism and the Supper in the context of worship and how his theological framework enriches our understanding of these sacraments. Especially important was his connections among water baptism, Christ's water baptism, and the Cross (pp. 74-81). I did wonder, however, how the ministry of the Word fit into all of this, especially with his strong advocacy of the Supper as the centerpiece of Christian worship ("The trinitarian view sees the Lord's Supper as the supreme expression of all worship" [p. 23]).

Discretion is needed at times. For example, while I agree that repentance is always a response to(and never the cause of) God's grace (as it is in our Standards; repentance follows effectual calling--God's move toward us is always first), I wondered a bit at the presentation (pp. 54-7). I also wondered when Torrance observed that "God is always the subject of propitiation, never its object" (p. 60). This seems to tie with his negative assessment of penal substitutionary atonement, but his own theological structure undercuts this. After all, if Christ is a priest who offers himself on behalf of his people, then to whom is Christ's offering himself? Whom is Christ propitiating? With whom is Christ an advocate (1 John 2:1-2)? Isn't it God himself?

Still, in the first 100 pages or so (the final chapter on gender, sexuality, and the Trinity seems a bit out of place), Torrance manages to provide a very important corrective to our understanding of Christian worship, enabling us to bear the name of Father, Son, and Spirit in a more consistent and authentic way. This little book will bear repeated re-readings and would provide good fodder for a conversation among those responsible for planning weekly Sunday worship.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace

I admit it--I'm a big Martyn Lloyd-Jones fan. As I've already noted previously, his Spiritual Depression was life-transforming, a book that God used to lead me into a deeper sense of assurance of God's love for me personally. I've also waded through Iain Murray's two-volume, authorized biography of Lloyd-Jones (hereafter MLJ), which I enjoyed thoroughly, and sundry other books. So, it was with great excitement that I bought the new Iain Murray book, Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace.

Though a collection of odds and ends (including an analysis of MLJ's sermons on Ephesians and an inventory of MLJ sermons), the emphasis in this book is on MLJ as "messenger." This is particularly the case in the first four chapters, which along with chapters 7 and 8 (the one on MLJ's book Joy Unspeakable, which has been a bit of an embarrassment for some Reformed types, and the other on the 1960s fracas with John Stott and J. I. Pakcer) justify both the existence and purchase of this book.

I found the chapter on the "Lloyd-Jones Legacies" particularly insightful; Murray noted that MLJ's legacies included:
  • an example of what a Christian minister ought to be
  • the truth that Christianity is a God-centered religion
  • local churches are always the primary means of evangelism
  • true preaching of the Word has life-changing power
  • the key to the times is the state of the church
  • the growth of the church depends on the power and presence of the Holy Spirit
Pretty good legacies all. Would that all of our ministries be characterized with similar legacies! Also valuable was the chapter on "preaching and the Holy Spirit," which focused on MLJ's thoughts regarding "unction." Woven through out this and other chapters was an emphasis upon prayer as the great necessity of effectively pulpit ministry; there is a reason why the apostolic commitment and order was to "prayer and the ministry of the Word" (Acts 6:4).

All in all, this is a valuable book, especially for those who find encouragement from the ministry of MLJ. One of the most valuable parts is the inclusion of a MLJ sermon on CD, enclosed in the back cover. Hearing MLJ made me want to purchase more Lloyd-Jones sermons from the MLJ Trust and to download regularly the MLJ broadcast from