Did you blink and miss summer? I did. Every year I promise myself I am going to recapture those magical golden days of summer when time used to slow down. Why, in a single day I used to fit in a dozen games of horseshoes, an hour or so of cloud watching, a romp in the woods with my faithful dog, a good nap after an hour reading in the hottest part of the day, a game of kick-the-can with my sisters (played at dusk to maximize stealth), a bit of tire-swinging, and, of course, plenty of watermelon eating. And somehow, I managed to fit in the chores, too!

If you’re like me, you’re wondering where the summer went. You’re already back in the swing of full-blown stress-and-panic mode. How am I going to get the kids where they need to be, do my job, cook the meals, help with homework, clean, cut, fix, mend, shop, build [insert 400 other action verbs of your choice]… do you feel your chest tighten just reading this? Do you have 911 on your speed dial because three numbers requires too much time, time you just don’t have, and when the breakdown comes you have to call the ambulance, arrange a sitter and order take-out before you hit the floor?

Imagine if there were a way to multiply time. Would you believe me if I told you it’s possible? Maybe I should put it on cable in the early morning and offer it to you in three installments of $19.95, but only if you call in the next ten minutes, because those operators standing by? They have to get home to fix breakfast, start a load of laundry, drive the kids to school…

The Bible is full of lessons on different types of sacrifices to make to God: a “broken and contrite heart” (Ps 51), “a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (Ps 116), “of praise” (Heb. 13), our “bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12), and money, among others. In speaking of the monetary sacrifices, Paul said, of the “churches of Macedonia,” that “They gave themselves first to the Lord,” and somehow, then, were able to give “beyond their means, of their own free will, begging earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints” (2 Cor. 8:3-4). Wow!

Jesus has a knack of multiplying that which we first freely give to him for His service. Take the fish and loaves, for example. When I read that story in John 6, I have to stop and think “Only a child would have given his small lunch to Jesus to feed 5000 people.” Someone, probably more like Martha than Mary, had responsibly sent her son out with a small lunch. Which of us would have given it up? I’d have thought “Why should I go hungry so that everyone else can also go hungry, because if I give up this lunch you can be sure of one thing: None of us will be satisfied.”

Not that boy. He gave “first to the Lord,” and the Lord multiplied it, not just until everyone was satisfied, but until everyone was satisfied and there were leftovers to boot! In our frantic, panicked, stressed-out, overwhelmed lives do we dare to believe He can do it with time?

I think the answer is a resounding and emphatic “yes!” I firmly believe that God gives us more than enough time to do the work He’s given us to do, including time to worship, pray, study and fellowship. Sadly, we beg for enough time when He longs to give us leftovers.

Often times in our lives, when it all gets to be too much, the first thing we neglect is our relationship with God. Our personal devotions, our church attendance, and our participation in Sunday school and Bible study (that is, our personal and corporate worship and our Christian education) suffer. Our service is often maintained, because so much of our image is dependent upon it, but it’s often done with feelings of stress and frustration rather than joy and gladness. We forget where our fuel comes from and serve on empty.

Lord knows (and I say that literally without an ounce of irreverence) we need to rest. He knew it when he designed us; He knew it when He instituted the Sabbath; He knew it when He called us and when He commissioned us. We’re the ones who don’t seem to understand.

Christian discipleship has at its heart four action verbs: “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” (Matt. 11:29) “Abide in me.” (John 15:4) Come, friends, take, learn and abide “and you will find rest for your souls.”

If we plan on giving God our leftover time, we won’t have any, and we’ll be frazzled, hurried and stressed, but if we give “first to the Lord,” I bet we’ll suddenly find that we even have time leftover!

Providence, Sin and Prayer

John Piper, a preacher and writer whom I deeply admire, recently wrote an article about the bridge that collapsed which prompted his ministry to ask its readers “Does God Cause Sin or Just Allow It? “If God is sovereign over evil,” the question asks, “can it be said that he causes it? Or does he just allow it? Is there really a difference?”

I have been struggling with just this question for several years now. Americans these days are fond of asserting that everything happens for a reason. Yes. But sometimes the reason is because sin and evil are real powers. I have decided that any theology of providence must begin with two axioms:

1) Sin is not perceptual.

2) Prayer is not purposeless.

Regarding 1, I believe that the “law of sin and death” is every bit as real as the laws of physics. Sin causes. It has real world consequences apart from our perception. In other words, sin won’t disappear if we just look at it differently. It’s true that sometimes what we perceive as sin isn’t. It’s also true, however, that Sin really exist.

Just as God is sovereign over the laws of nature, but does not often interfere with them (at least as far as we can tell), so the law of sin and death also operates as a real force in the natural world. God can and does intercede in nature with miracles, and He also intercedes in the law of sin and death through the redeeming work of His Son and transforming work of His Spirit.

However, just as He does not “cause” each “leaf to fall to the ground” (as Luther asserted)[1], so He does not cause each sin related event, such as abortion (which would make abortion part of His plan for the aborted child.)

Regarding 2, prayer is not without purpose. If God actively exercises His sovereignty over each and every event, that must include the speech/thought event of prayer, meaning that even what we pray is predetermined by Him. If true, this seems to make prayer powerless because we will only pray for what He has already foreordained us to pray for and He will only do what He already determined to do before the creation of the world.

Hebrews 11 tells us God is proud to be the God of people of faith. Why would He be proud of puppets who can not even choose what to pray for? Further, God relented when Moses prayed (Exodus 32). And the “prayer of faith” James writes about and Solomon’s prayer for wisdom are senseless if God’s chooses all events, including speech events. When Solomon prayed for wisdom, Scripture tells us that “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this” (1 Kings 3: 10).

If God preordained that Solomon would pray this, and God is sovereign (with sovereign having the meaning, here, that Solomon could not refuse) then why would Solomon’s prayer please Him? Was God like a little child who suddenly realized he could really make the world respond to his wants and needs? I don’t think so. I don’t think ‘sovereign’ has to mean that God chooses each and every event in the space/time continuum.

I believe that it is within God’s sovereign power and choice to limit His choice. In Hebrews 6 we learn that God made a promise and swore by Himself, so that by “two unchangeable things” we have hope.

If God promised Himself that He would not interfere with the ordinary effects of both the laws of nature He created and the law of sin and death that we brought into the world, except when it came to His choice as to whom to call (justification) and when He chooses to answer the prayers of the faithful, then He could willingly limit His sovereignty without changing His character and nature.

This is why prayer is the most vital and important work of the Church, and must not be neglected. I believe God has chosen not to act sometimes until and unless we pray. This also is why God is still sovereign and not the author of evil.

  1. “[W]ith God there simply is no contingency, but it is only in our eyes.  For not even the leaf of a tree falls to the ground without the will of the Father.” Lectures on Romans, Works Vol. 25, p. 373 []

Faith Statements

On Fresh Air, Terri Gross recently interviewed Michael Farris of Patrick Henry College. PHC make each of their faculty sign a faith statement. I don’t have a lot of problem with that faith statement in general. I do wish they would add “inerrant in all its teaching.” No one does, though. I just have a problem with faith statements in general. I was unable to volunteer with Prison Fellowship in MS because I couldn’t sign one, over the inerrancy issue.

I believe the Bible is the only infallible guide to faith and life, and I believe it is inerrant in all it teaches. However, I can’t accept that the mustard seed is the smallest seed, for example, because others have been found since that are smaller. Does it change Jesus’s teaching? Not one bit. Inerrancy isn’t a very useful word. Of course God is right, but do I understand his meaning?

Likewise they focus exclusively on only one of the four established doctrines of the Atonement, substitutionary. I agree with that view, but I don’t think it’s all there is too it. It was much to wonderful to be contained by that vessel alone. I would need a faith statement that developed Atonement more fully.

In general, I think faith statements are problematic for several reasons. First, those without integrity and those who view them as just a hoop to jump through or a formality or expediency would sign one any way to get the job, regardless of whether or not they even bothered to read it. It wouldn’t even slow down someone who wanted the job to subvert the institution. The only people who might not sign one are principled people who disagree in some small way with something not essential. These might be the very people one needs to be hiring, especially at an institution of higher learning.

I do think Christian organizations, institutions and churches need to ensure that sound doctrine and Biblical principles are upheld and maintained, but creedal orthodoxy should be sufficient. Making the holes in the sieve too small is reactionary, and this is my second problem with faith statements. They are often a reaction to societies which no longer reflect their once Christian roots, and I think we can’t be reactionary.

The first century church was founded in a hostile environment, amongst people who had just had Jesus killed and who were not receptive to His teachings, teachings which both the Jewish and Roman governments feared were subversive. God never promised us a Christian government or a moral society. If we are defined in reaction to what’s not Christian we are being defined by the world and not by our mission in it. Our commission is not to create Heaven on earth.

You can’t close Pandora’s Box, and if the 21st Century church is to survive we have to learn how to live amidst radically different worldviews and with less sure foundations. I don’t mean the Church’s One Foundation, that never changes; rather, I am talking about the philosophical and historical foundations that have been used to secure Christianity’s primacy in the West.

In his essay “The Uncertainty of Science,” Feynman writes about how uncertainty and doubt are essential to science. I think it is as true for religion. One has to be willing to extrapolate into the unknown. He writes that “to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to admit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right.” This is my point about inerrancy. God has it exactly right, but do I? John Robinson, Puritan minister and pastor to the Pilgrim Fathers, said “the Lord had more truth and light yet to breake forth out of his holy Word” and I agree.

The freedoms that Patrick Henry College want to preserve include the freedom to doubt, which is essential in the process of “faith seeking understanding,” as Anselm put it, and to education. Faith statements that are too precise and inflexible, that go way beyond the clear, agreed upon core truths essential to Christianity (triune nature of God, bodily resurrection of Christ, need for Atonement, etc), and that don’t allow for Christians of good will to disagree are not productive, in my opinion.

I can’t help but wonder which comes first at PHC, a Biblical worldview or fidelity to the American founding? What happens when they conflict? I think the college is probably an excellent one, and I admire and share many of their goals, and it’s excellent that such a first rate center of learning was created specifically for home schooled Christian children, but I doubt I could sign their faith statement.

Religious Freedom

Recently this tribute to veterans came in an email from a fellow Christian. The first line is “It is the veteran, not the preacher, who has given us freedom of religion.” This bugged me, not because I don’t appreciate my freedom and those who defend it, but because it’s just another example of how our thinking is determined by and our values derived from things other than Scripture.

Where was the veteran to protect the religious freedom of the first church from the Jewish and Roman governments? Where was the veteran when Daniel defied the most powerful king of the age? Where was the veteran to protect Luther from the Holy Roman Empire and Catholic Church? The Puritans and other dissenters in England?

I admire and respect veterans; I’m married to one, one who’s been to Iraq twice, and I am deeply grateful to them and to God for their blessing, but my true freedom is only and ever given me by God through Christ Jesus.

I know the point is not that veterans give me the freedom to worship God per se, but they do help keep me from being persecuted for worshiping Him. I understand the point, and deeply value it, but persecuted or not “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for [He] alone makes me dwell in safety” (Ps 4:8), and “the nations…are but men.” (Ps 9:20) Persecuted or not my life and freedom are given and preserved by Him alone. Daniel He saved from death; Stephen He didn’t. No matter which, “Christ in me is to live and to die is gain.” (Phil 1:21)

It may sound like I’m taking this too far. “It’s just a nice tribute to those who help keep us safe,” one might say, “don’t spoil it.” It’s not my intent to try and minimize veterans as a means by which God blesses us. It’s just that it goes too far. Amazingly enough, the Spirit of God has always managed to work in and though His worshiping people without the U.S. Army, and if the sentiment in this tribute is followed to its logical conclusion it sounds a bit like Stalin when he asked Roosevelt “And how many divisions does the Pope have?” That is, it sounds as if our freedom and security is dependent upon armies of men rather than the Spirit of God.

It’s true I’m politically conservative, but I am rather dismayed by the trend in American Christianity towards seeing the problems and solutions to our times in political terms (i.e. The Leftist are destroying us and a return to true Constitutionality will save us.) A non-Christian, Gandhi, once said “You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilization to pieces, turn the world upside down, and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of good literature.” And may I add, more admired and talked about than read.

And Gandhi wasn’t talking about the US Constitution, but American Christians seem more concerned with protecting and defending the Constitution than they are living the Word of God. If we took His Word seriously and used it to establish our world-view and course of action rather than social norms, economics, how we were raised, class status, pop culture or any other value-instilling process then we’d turn the world upside down rather than rest on our laurels.

It’s sad to observe that Christians in other times less politically free, less physically safe, and less economically prosperous did more to advance the Kingdom of God than we have done with all our political freedom, physical security and economic resources.

Plateaued Churches

Recently I read a heated discussion about Reviving a Plateaued Church Without Ticking People Off stirred up by an article by Rick Warren in which he writes:

“If your church has been plateaued for six months, it might take six months to get it going again. If it’s been plateaued a year, it might take a year. If it’s been plateaued for 20 years, you’ve got to set in for the duration! I’m saying some people are going to have to die or leave. Moses had to wander around the desert for 40 years while God killed off a million people before he let them go into the Promised Land. That may be brutally blunt, but it’s true. There may be people in your church who love God sincerely, but who will never, ever change.”

I think it’s important to ask: “What defines a plateau? Who gets to decide that a particular church has plateaued?”¯ Is the pastor alone in his view that a church has plateaued? Is he defining the plateau simply in terms of numbers? If you read the whole article, it seems Warren is talking only numbers, especially since the article is adapted from the Rick Warren resource “How to break through the 200-300 attendance barrier.”

I imagine a lot of the feedback on this quote comes from Christians in cities. I live in a large rural farming area. There will never be huge numbers at the churches out here, but the people still need to worship God. Are they worshiping God in Spirit and Truth? Do they seek His kingdom first? Are they helping the weak, serving the poor and lifting the fallen? Are they seeking to put everything in their lives under the Lordship of Christ? Are they fulfilling the Great Commission?

If the answer to these questions is yes then the numbers are irrelevant, but these issues aren’t even discussed by Warren. He talks about three things for the pastor to do when his church has plateaued: 1) Realize it will take time. 2) Love everyone but move with the movers, and 3) Be prepared for conflict. It may be telling that the only time he mentions prayer is in step one when he advises pastors to pray for patience.

Equally telling is that the “movers” he refers to are the “E. F. Huttens” of a particular church. There is one and only one real Mover of the Church. He doesn’t mention praying for the Spirit to do the moving. If the Holy Spirit isn’t doing the moving then it’s best to sit still. The fact that Warren believes that “some people are going to have to die or leave,” indicates, to me at least, that he sees church growth as something to be accomplished by people and not the Spirit.

The transformation of God’s people is one of the primary purposes for which the Spirit was sent into the world. To argue that people who “love God sincerely” (Christians specifically for who else truly loves God?) and who have received the Spirit (unlike the wandering Israelites) as all Christians have “will never, ever, change” and they “are going to have to die or leave” before any change can take place is bad theology indeed!

Numbers can, if fact, mean exactly what the quote implies is true of churches without numerical growth. Again: “There may be people in your church who love God sincerely, but who will never, ever change.” First, as I argued above, if you truly love God, there will be change, transformation. One can not come into the presence of God with a humble and broken heart and not be changed. Second, if the church is growing because of “market”¯ forces rather than the genuine transformative and reviving work of the Holy Spirit then people may be coming just so they don’t have to change. A church that’s changing on the outside but not on the inside is worse than one not changing at all for it leads even more people into a stale, shallow, nominal understanding of our Lord.

I am not opposed to large para-churches. After all, the first church added 3000 members the first day, but that was after a sermon calling them to repent and in the face of sure persecution. The Founder of that church had just been executed a few months prior and the preacher was a mere fisherman. How many people who decide to go to churches with a mime ministry, contemporary music and plasma TVs would choose to join that first church? If all, great—I don’t want to minimize any of those ministries–but if not then one has to question if that “growing,” rather than plateaued, church is not really, in fact, in a downward spiral.

I’m Reformed through and through, but one of the unfortunate effects of the Reformation is that we now have dozens of churches per square mile competing with one another for members using models of competition borrowed from economics and entertainment. If a church’s numbers come from people who want church without transformation, sacrifice and a willingness to suffer and that has been facilitated by a staff focused on numerical growth then that church is in a state far worse than a plateau.

If the church is growing in numbers but the members aren’t growing in Christ then one has to question if the numerical growth is a result of the Spirit’s work. Evangelism and outreach are extremely important, but they can only truly be accomplished by those equipped by growth in Christ. The only thing some of the people at large, hip, numerically thriving churches would be willing to change is the church they attend.

My last problem with the quote is it says a plateau can be as short as six months. There’s no way one can determine that a church has plateaued in that span. That church may be in a period of preparation, like Jesus in the wilderness or Paul in Antioch or the disciples prior to Pentecost. If one is quick to judge a six month period of no change (read: numerical growth) as a plateau then his definition of plateau is probably seriously flawed.