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Sayonara Social Media

 Impeccably Bad Timing

After a twelve year love-hate relationship with Facebook, I have decided to permanently deactivate my account. Due to my impeccably bad timing, some may view this as a political statement. I assure you it is not. Rather, eliminating social media from my life will result in more in-person conversations with friends as well as contribute to the kind of person I hope to become.

I realize this post might come off as the blogosphere equivalent of a pharisaical sounding of the trumpet. But I share the reasons for my departure so that you hear it from me. Of course, I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope that others would take the plunge with me.

Garden Variety Reasons

My reasons for leaving are the usual suspects.

  • It’s distracting and time consuming.
  • It’s the overtly political, hyperpartisan status updates.
  • It’s the information overload factor.

Beyond this, I believe our souls are withering under the perpetual blast of flickering images, skimmed articles, and click bait masquerading as objective journalism. All this is unhealthy in multiple ways.

To state the obvious, our minds weren’t meant to process this much data. Secondly, scanning blogposts as opposed to careful reading and patient reflection is not only a bad habit but leads people to reach conclusions without deliberate humility and caution.

That increasing numbers of people in our culture—both inside and outside the church—are more excited about their political opponents getting “owned” in a debate than they are about listening well is not a good sign. A steady diet of crude prose, crass arguments, and coarse language will form citizens incapable of self-restraint and rational interchange. Much of the online nastiness (what John Suler calls “the online disinhibition effect”[1]) is spilling over into our public debates, though admittedly it’s a bit of a stretch to call these unedifying spectacles “debates.”

Which brings me to another point: Social media platforms are not conducive to serious conversations—the kind I hope to have. In fact, conversations rarely, if ever, take place. Everyone’s always in Refutation Mode. As the late economist J. K. Galbraith (1908–2006) once noted, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy with the proof.” That’s all I see on Facebook.

C. S. Lewis’s description of hell in The Scewtape Letters sounds eerily similar to what I encountered on social media: “. . . everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement . . . everyone has a grievance . . . everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.”[2]

Prayer Requests

So, would you pray for me?

To cultivate a calm and quiet heart (Psalm 131:2).

To become a better listener (James 1:19).

To restrain my speech (Prov. 16:23).

To encourage rather than tear down (Prov. 18:14; Eph. 4:29–32).

May I be “shorn and purified, as if tonsured.”[3]

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[1] See John Suler, “The Online Disinhibition Effect,” CyberPsychology & Behavior 7:3 (2004): 321–326, as cited in Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (New York: Currency, 2017), 80.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Macmillan, 1962), ix.

[3] Jane Kenyon, “August Rain, After Haying,” in Otherwise: New & Selected Poems (St. Paul: Graywolf, 1996), 181.

A Hospital Visit, the Human Condition, and God’s Beloved Son

His delight is not in the strength of the horse nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love (Psalm 147:10–11).

“For every situation and eventuality there is a parable if you look carefully enough” ~ Malcolm Muggeridge (1903–1990)[1]

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A Parabolic Hospital Visit
While at the hospital for a minor operation on his nose, an incident occurred that took on the force of a parable of the human condition for Eugene Peterson (1932–2018).

After his operation, nurses wheeled him into a double-occupancy room where he met a young man named Kelly. In an effort to strike up a conversation with him, Peterson asked his hospital neighbor what he was in for.

“I’m having my tonsils removed,” the youngster answered.

“What are you here for?” Kelly asked in return.

“Just had a minor procedure on my nose. No big deal,” Peterson retorted.

“So what do you do for work?” Kelly probed, nonchalantly.

“I’m a pastor,” replied Peterson.

“Oh,” Kelly muttered, and turned away.

He wasn’t interested in dialoging with a man of the cloth. Awkward silence ensued.

But Kelly’s tune changed in the morning: “Peterson, Peterson–wake up! I want you to pray for me. I’m scared!” His half-conscious state notwithstanding, Peterson went to his bedside and prayed for him.

After Kelly returned to the room, a nurse gave him an injection to relieve his pain. Within twenty minutes, however, he began to groan. “I hurt, I can’t stand it. I’m going to die.” Next he started hallucinating and shouting: “Peterson, pray for me, can’t you see I’m dying! Peterson, pray for me!”[2]

The point of the parable? Kelly showed interest in God when he was fearful or thought he was dying. When all was well, his interest evaporated.

In keeping with all of Scripture, Psalm 147 paints a different picture of the relationship God intends to have with his creatures––a relationship more honoring to him and more befitting our humanity. Psalm 147 evokes our worship by extolling the splendor of creation, the goodness of God, and the exquisiteness of his providence. Because God is all-powerful and ever-faithful, he is worthy of our wholehearted trust at all times, not only when we are fearful or passing through seasons of turmoil.

Two Precious Truths to Ponder
We can trust God because he is all-wise and all-powerful. Our God numbers and names all the stars (Ps. 147:4), adorns the skies with clouds (v. 8), and waters the earth with rain (v. 8). “He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly,” the Psalmist declares (v. 15), underlining that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1): “And here in the dust and dirt, O here, the lilies of His love appear,” is how Henry Vaughan (1621–1695), poetically expressed it.

Our unreserved trust honors God and befits our humanity. God designed human beings for a blessedness that exists outside themselves. As creatures who are fragile, finite, and fallen, we are neither self-originating nor self-sustaining. Consequently, self-trust is culpable folly, the height of sacrilege, and the pinnacle of headstrong arrogance. Lifting our gaze heavenward and leaning on God for all things pleases him because it acknowledges him as our provider and requires a posture of dependence. Only the one who is himself the “true and complete life,” bestows, sustains, and blesses our lives.[3]

Well-Pleased with His Beloved Son
Ultimately, our hope is neither in ourselves, nor in the intensity of our trust in God, which often ebbs and flows. Our only hope in life and in death is our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, the beloved Son of the Father, with whom he was and is always well-pleased (Matt. 3:17). The wonder of our salvation is that we participate in the Son’s relationship with the Father by grace. We are sons in the Son. And this shall be our joy for all eternity.

To knead these truths into our hearts, here’s a closing prayer from Bishop Miles Coverdale (1488–1569):

O Lord Jesus Christ, draw thou our hearts unto thee; join them together in inseparable love, that we may ever abide in thee and thou in us, and that the everlasting covenant between us may stand sure for ever. Let the fiery darts of thy love pierce through all our slothful members and inward powers, that we, being happily wounded, may so become whole and sound. Let us have no lover but thyself alone; let us seek no joy and comfort except in thee; for thy name’s sake. Amen.[4]

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[1] Malcom Muggeridge, “Rapture,” in Seeing through the Eye: Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith, ed. Cecil Kuhne (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 41.

[2] This is my paraphrase of the story as recounted in Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 161–162.

[3] Augustine, Soliloquies, trans. Kim Paffenroth, ed. John E. Rotelle (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), 21.

[4] Cited in John Webster, “A Reawakened Affection,” in Christ Our Salvation: Expositions and Proclamations, ed. Daniel Bush (Bellingham, WA: Lexhem Press, 2020), 12.

Top Ten Books of 2020 (with a Look Ahead to 2021!)

One of my favorite posts of the year! Enjoy and happing reading! Note: Not all of these books were published in 2020, and I am not ranking them from favorite to least favorite.

Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution. If you want to understand how our culture has arrived at its current moment, this is a must read. Anyone who reads this blog, knows that Trueman is one of my favorite authors. This book may end up being his magnum opus.

Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents. An informative and inspiring book. Dreher surveys  how certain segments of the church have responded to, and lived under, totalitarian regimes. He draws upon these insights and shows how Christians might respond to the coming wave of “soft totalitarianism” in the United States.

Scott R. Swain, The Trinity: An Introduction. If the Trinity controversy of 2016 taught us anything, it’s that most Christians—including some professors at evangelical seminaries—need some remedial training on the doctrine of the Trinity. Look no further than Swain’s volume. This is a beautifully written, concise, thoroughly biblical, classical treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity. A must read for every Christian, in my judgment.

Lewis Ayers, Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology. For those wanting a deep dive in understanding pro-Nicene Trinitarian theology, then this is for you. Note: This is an advanced treatment that goes well beyond Swain’s volume above.

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—And Why This Harms Everybody. Written by two self-described “left wing academics”—one of whom identifies as an atheist (James Lindsay), the authors lay out, in great detail “how activist scholarship made everything about race, gender, and identity—and why it harms everybody, as the title suggests. A fairly depressing read that doesn’t give me much hope for the future.

Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society. Former Marxist turned conservative intellectual, Sowell does it again. He unveils why left-wing intellectuals think as they do. Again, if you want to understand the academic guild, the media, and why trust in these institutions is at an all-time low, read this.

James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism. This volume sparked my interest in classical theism, which eventually lead to my lengthy essay that I posted earlier this year. While it requires some background knowledge in theology and philosophy, I think his points are sufficiently clear for all readers. His chapter on the substantial unity of the divine persons is worth the price of the book alone.

Brandon J. O’Brien, Writing for Life and Ministry: A Practical Guide to the Writing Process for Teachers and Preachers. O’Brien demystifies the writing process, providing a helpful guide for me to follow. You don’t have to be a preacher or teacher to benefit from this book.

Thomas Watson, All Things for Good. If you know me, you know I love me some Thomas Watson (1620–1686). This is him at his best: Theologically weighty and practically pungent.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, God and Creation. Simply a masterpiece. Given the size of the book (600-plus pages), most Christians will not read it. However, you should seriously consider reading the section on God and feel free to skip over his section on creation. I say this not because his treatment of creation is poor—Bavinck leaves no stone unturned!—but to point out that readers do not need to feel pressured to read the entire book.

Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2021:

Joshua Mitchel, American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of our Time.

Carter Snead, What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics.

James Eglington, Bavinck: A Critical Biography.

Peter W. Wood, 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.

Allan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead.

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. 

Craig A. Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism.

Winn Collier, The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson.

Eric Peterson and Eugene Peterson, Letters to a Young Pastor: Timothy Conversations between Father and Son.

 

On Carl Lentz’s Moral Failure and the Need to Recall the Sacredness of Ministry and Rethink the Nature of Success in Church Life

A Cautionary Tale Waiting to Happen

When I learned of Carl Lentz’s moral failure, I was saddened but not surprised. The little I knew about him left me feeling uneasy. He ministered to celebrities—artists, athletes, and actors. He came off as flamboyant and overly concerned about his appearance—tight-fitting shirts, flashy clothes, and low rise bathing suits (the latter image induced an unwanted reflex ).

I feared he was a cautionary tale waiting to happen.

Lest my assessment seem unduly harsh, please know that I see Mr. Lentz as a symptom of a larger problem. Because here’s the dirty little secret: The notoriety and popularity achieved by Mr. Lentz is craved by nearly every pastor.

If you’ll pardon my cynicism for a moment, I think it’s what’s behind the Yoda-tweets that pastors publish on their social media accounts (nod to the boys over at the Happy Rant). It’s why some pastors crowbar the size of their church into nearly every conversation. It’s what’s underneath the heavily curated personas on Facebook designed to attract the attention of Christian publishers.

And it’s made its way into our seminaries. Consider the following anecdote.

Yes, This Really Happened

During my first seminary class, the professor began by having us introduce ourselves to each other and describe our future ministry plans. “My goal is to be a pastor,” the majority of the students declared, with a few aspiring missionaries and counselors interspersed throughout the classroom. Half way through the formality, one young seminarian—without pretense, I might add—announced magisterially, “My goal is to speak at conferences like R. C. Sproul.” Assuming the young seminarian was joking, our instructor chuckled and asked incredulously, “So, you just wanna skip the whole local church ministry thing and go straight to selling out conferences?” “Yeah,” responded the aspiring conference headliner—again, without pretense.

We may regard the young man’s ambition as a bit unseemly, but it remains in all of us. We want admiration and recognition. We want our family, friends, peers, and the untold masses, to acknowledge our existence. We want fame.

Maybe I’m wrong—and I hope I am—but I see a connection between the inordinate thirst for fame and the rising numbers of pastors succumbing to moral failure.

We pastors need to disavow the desire for fame and celebrity and reconsider what initially drove us to ministry. To that end, in this post I’m calling pastors to . . .

  1. Recall the Sacredness of Ministry. 

“If anyone aspires to the office of overseer,” Paul instructs Timothy, “he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1). The nobility of the task is evidenced by the sacredness of the labor: As stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1), pastors proclaim the inspired Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16–17), shepherd God’s flock (1 Pet. 5:1), and nurture his sanctifying work among his people (Gal. 4:19; Col. 1:24–2:5). These are not trivial matters.

But the initial thrill wears off. The sincerity of our devotion to Christ mutates into a thirst for recognition.

We wouldn’t identify it as such and would deny it if confronted, but worldliness has slithered its way into our hearts. After all, we know our culture defines success in two ways: prosperity and notoriety. If we have neither, we must be failures. Somewhere along the journey we bought in to the lie that success and obscurity were mutually exclusive.

So what do we do? We aim to quiet our feelings of inferiority by using people—including the precious souls in our congregation—on some grand quest for self-validation. Only we sanitize our sin by mislabeling it gospel ambition.

Rejoicing in Our Splendid Insignificance

I have not escaped the clutches of this bloodthirsty beast, which is why I need pastors from previous eras to awaken me from my ministerial slumbers. My go-to’s as of late have been Francis Grimké (1850–1937) and Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892).

One of the leading African-American pastors of his day, Grimké warned ministers not to prostitute their calling to the “unworthy purpose of self-laudation.” He insisted that the self-seeker has no place in the pulpit and that pastors must oppose the “desire for praise” and “the wish to be complimented for our pulpit ministrations.”[1]

In his Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon told aspiring pastors that the pulpit should be the place where a man senses his own “insignificance and nothingness.”[2] According to the Prince of Preachers, God aids us in this process by catechizing pastors through a larger dose of trials, challenges, and afflictions. Instead of chafing against these hardships, we must learn to “kiss the wave that throws us against the Rock of Ages.” God will have his way: patience, humility, docility, and tenderheartedness will slowly drown out the jingling bells of publicity that so easily entice us.

Brothers, we are not rock stars, empire builders, or celebrities. We are expositors, soul physicians, and intercessors.

Secondly, we need to . . .

  1. Rethink Our Definition of Success (and Leadership)

English poet John Donne (1572–1631) insightfully noted that there’s a snake in every path and unique temptation in every line of work.[3] In my judgment, the snake in our ministerial path and unique temptation in our line of work is using ministry as a platform to catapult us into the limelight, to take us somewhere other than where we are, to somehow escape the ordinary.

In this we’re like the Sons of Thunder: “We want you [Jesus] to do for us whatever we ask of you. . . . Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35–37).

This unslaked desire for recognition can lead us to bulldoze our people in order to accomplish our supposed vision of ministry. “Get on the bus or get run over by the bus,” as one alpha male pastor put it.

We would denounce this kind of leadership tactic, I know. But are our models any better?

From my reading, most books on church leadership are embarrassingly banal. They are all reruns of the same formula: cast a vision, get buy-in from the congregation, and chart a course toward accomplishing specific objectives. But pastors sometimes feel that everything hangs on the sheer force of their larger-than-life personality. Plus, we know that if we accomplish the goals and “drive results” (to use the language of corporate America), the congregation will crown us a success. If we fail to meet the objectives, they will deem us a deficient leader.

It seems that both pastor and congregation yearn for some way to measure results. We need some tangible way to assess effectiveness. But rather than equating competent leadership with the proverbial killer Bs—buildings, bodies, and budgets—we need to conceive of it in terms of service.

Genuine spiritual leadership serves. It doesn’t use people. We all want numerical growth. No pastor wants to lead a dying church. (And trust me: No pastor wants to tell a future search committee that he was pastoring a church when it closed its doors.) But sometimes churches die. And those dying churches need pastors to shepherd them through this heart wrenching process.

What I’m saying is this: We need to bend our definition of church leadership to the Scriptural pattern. Maybe our definitions of success and leadership need to take God’s providence in a church’s life into account. Maybe not every church needs to grow to five thousand. Maybe not every pastor is equipped to lead a church of that size.

Conclusion

We pastors need to surround ourselves with friends and fellow strugglers, not fans. We need actual people to journey with us through this beautiful and broken world, not admirers who applaud us from a distance. We aren’t heroes or celebrities, but unworthy servants whose lives will be taken up with praying and repenting until we see our King face-to-face.

Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21).

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[1] Francis James Grimké, Meditations on Preaching (Madison, MS: Log College Press, 2018), 72, 77.

[2] Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), 37.

[3] John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel (New York: Vintage, 1999), 5.

The Fatherhood of God Is Primary, Unique, and Transcendent

As you may remember, back in May I wrote an article titled, “Why Evangelicals Struggle with Classical Theism.” One of my concluding observations was that evangelicals fail to appreciate the accommodated nature of Scriptural language. When we petition God to “make his face shine upon us” (Num. 6:25), we know better than to assume that God has a face. “God is spirit” (Jn. 4:24), we say. God is not literally a “rock,” “fortress,” or “shield” (Ps. 18:2). Neither does he have feathers or wings (Ps. 91:4). Even though these two examples seem simple enough, we struggle to  make sense of those passages that attribute human emotions to God. Since God dwells in the bliss of his Triune life, he doesn’t experience emotional fluctuations like finite, sinful human beings. Yet we’re befuddled when we read that God “repents” (Gen. 6:6; Exod. 32:14), or that he “restrained his anger often” because he “remembered that they were but flesh” (Ps. 78:38–39). The classical understanding of this language is that while it communicates something true of God, it does not denote the way God is in his being or essence. Nothing outside of God activates his perfections. Nothing outside of God makes him loving, gracious, merciful, or wrathful. He is who he is (Exod. 3:14).

With some help from my former seminary professor Scott Swain, I’d like us to see what this means for the Fatherhood of God. Here’s why: In my conversations with well-meaning Christians, I have noticed that we often speak and think of God the Father as if he shares our limitations. We say or think things like, “We know what a good father is; therefore, if God is a good father, he must be like X,” or “he would do X.”

In the following quote, Scott Swain shows that since God’s fatherhood is primary, unique, and transcendent, we should exercise more caution in this regard.

First, the fatherhood of God is primary. The fatherhood of God is the first form of fatherhood, preexisting all other creaturely forms of fatherhood. Before the existence of creation, and thus before the existence of creaturely fathers and creaturely sons, the Father and his only begotten Son dwelled in eternal, mutual delight in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (John 1:1; 17:24–26). Moreover, just as God’s fatherhood is primary in the order of being, so also is it primary in the order of meaning. Every creaturely fatherhood in heaven and on earth is patterned after his divine fatherhood, not vice versa. He is “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:14–15). All creaturely fatherhood is an image and likeness of his divine fatherhood (Gen. 5:1–3).

Second, therefore, the fatherhood of God is unique. The fatherhood of God is not modeled after the fatherhood of creatures. Nor does the fatherhood of God belong to a larger class of fatherhood of which divine fatherhood and creaturely fatherhood are members. God’s fatherhood is holy, set apart, and singular. It is the fatherhood of the one God. Its meaning, therefore, is not defined by the measure of creaturely forms of fatherhood or by some generic sense of fatherhood that might apply to both God and man. The meaning of God’s fatherhood is determined by God’s fatherhood alone. He is who he is (Ex. 3:14). His fatherhood is one (1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:6).

Third, therefore, the fatherhood of God is transcendent. Because the fatherhood of God is primary, first in the order of being and first in the order of meaning, and because the fatherhood of God is unique, determined by God’s fatherhood alone and not by an external standard of fatherhood, the fatherhood of God transcends all creaturely limitations. Unlike the fatherhood of creatures, the fatherhood of God is not dependent, not composite, not changing, not limited, and not temporal. It is self-existent, simple, immutable, infinite, and eternal. God’s radiant fatherhood is “above” all other forms of fatherhood; he is “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

The preceding discussion helps us appreciate why there is a family resemblance between God’s fatherhood and creaturely forms of fatherhood—the latter are patterned after the former. It also helps us appreciate why there can be no one-to-one comparison between God’s fatherhood and creaturely forms of fatherhood—God’s fatherhood is unique and transcendent.

(The Trinity: An Introduction, 70–71)

The late Nicholas Lash (1934–2020) used to say that theology is the practice of learning to watch our words before God. Immersing ourselves in Scripture and church tradition will enable us to know and speak well of God and all things in relation to him.

On the journey with you . . .