Friday, March 27, 2009

The sectarian slough of despond

One thing that we in the PCA-- and in the broader church-- must be careful of is the difficulty of sectarianism. Frankly, it is something that we have been far too careless about, and that must change for the church to move forward in this century in the United States.

When I say sectarianism, this is what I mean: when we are quick to dismiss, divide from, or decry because of a disagreement over ANY issue, large or small, we might be sectarians. When our nuances are different from someone else’s, so we determine that they are wrong by default, we are being sectarian. When we decide that we understand what someone else believes better than they do, and we castigate them for those beliefs, we are acting in sectarian ways.

Let me illustrate: the position of the Westminster Confession of Faith-- our denominational confession-- on the observance of the Sabbath, is fairly straightforward. Essentially, the Sabbath day must be preserved from ALL activities apart from worship and passive rest (the one accepted exception to this being “deeds of mercy”). Basically, a Christian ought to return home from corporate morning worship and retire to his prayer closet until rejoining the congregation for evening worship, according to the WCF.

This raises a lot of questions, like what should a Christian do about meals? Must they be simple and plain, requiring the sparsest of work? Is a parent who attends to the needs of an infant child sinning because of the work involved (or is this a deed of mercy)? How does this apparently strict observance of the Sabbath square up to the New Testament portrayal of the Lord’s Day as a time of celebration, feasting, and delight?

Consequently, I don’t know ANYONE who is ordained who doesn’t take some exception to the WCF’s position on the Sabbath; the classic exception is phrased something like, “I think it’s okay to throw the baseball with my kid in the backyard.” In some (many?) presbyteries, this is not even considered an exception of any substance; in ours, for example, this is normally judged as an exception of primarily semantic nature (although I’m personally confident that the Westminster Divines-- the guys who wrote the WCF-- would not agree).

In other words, we have nuances to our theological convictions. Here’s where sectarianism comes in: when my nuances are different from your nuances, I am acting in a sectarian manner if I say that your nuances are wrong by default, simply because they aren’t just like mine. I am sinning when I do this, in several ways: I am exhibiting pride in my nuances, rather than a humility that acknowledges that I could be wrong; I am failing to exercise biblical discernment in considering the position of the other; I am dividing from my brother over what is (often) an issue that should not break fellowship, rather than preserving the unity the Christ Himself emphasized ought to define us.

Yet, sadly, this happens all the time in the PCA. In fact, it happens all the time in much of the church. It has defined the manner in which several denominational debates have played out over the past decade or so. It has caused harm to the reputation of the church both within and outside of her walls.

Another illustration: a friend of mine was one of the speakers for the
Conversation on Denominational Renewal a little more than a year ago. (Actually, a few of those guys are friends, and I won’t say which one I speak of now.) This same friend had presented the same ideas that he offered at the Conversation at another meeting, where 50 or 60 key leaders in the PCA were gathered. Afterwards, my friend was talking privately with one of the bigger names in the PCA-- known inside our denomination and outside of it as a man of some stature, whose name you would probably know if I offered it (but I won’t).

My friend said to this man, “Whether you aim to or not, you are one of the few people in a position to shape the future of the PCA. Here’s what I want to know: is there room in your PCA for a guy like me?”

After a moment’s pause, this leader responded, “I don’t know.”

This is sectarianism at its fullest. My friend is openly and publicly inviting others to consider with him how the PCA could be better: more biblical, more united, more loving in our presentation of truth, more faithfully living out our theology. Yet for this leader, there might not be room for such a guy-- because my friend doesn’t “look” exactly like him.

This is what causes denominations to splinter over reasons that make no sense a hundred years later. This is why there are more than 44 Reformed denominations in the United States alone. This is what keeps us from having a vital ministry of evangelizing the lost: because we’re too busy killing and eating our own people, and others look on that and wonder why they would ever want to be a part of it.

It’s not unique to the PCA, either. Mark Dever’s recent
rant about things he cannot live with, including Universalism, Racism, and Infant Baptism (which he further qualified by describing what a sinful practice infant baptism is) is another example of rampant sectarianism (not to mention irony).

Sectarianism is the real sin here-- and I believe it is a sin that we ought to exercise church discipline for.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Prayer 7: a primer on fasting

Our Session has determined that we will have a congregational day of fasting for all who feel led to participate, on March 28th. I wanted to take an opportunity to answer some questions and offer some guidance about this.

Why do we fast? This basic question occurs to all of us at some point. A writer named Scot McKnight defines fasting as, “a whole-body response to a grievous sacred moment.” This definition helps us understand why we fast: we are responding to something that is spiritual enough, and grievous enough, to merit such a response. We are spiritual beings, and often respond to grievous occasions in a spiritual way (prayer, for example); but we are also physical, body-dwelling creatures, and we can and should respond with our bodies as well.

On this occasion, the Session has recognized that there have been many “grievous sacred moments” over the past several years, some of which still linger in the hearts and minds of our members. We want to respond appropriately, with fasting and prayers for repentance (both personal repentance and congregation-wide repentance) and forgiveness.

Some may ask, “Should I participate?” The answer is, yes— if you believe that you should. Fasting is something that some people incorporate into their spiritual lives on a regular basis— even weekly for some. Others seldom, if ever, fast. If you have never fasted— or if it has been a long time since you did so— you might try it, keeping an open mind. You may find that it is a practice you would like to continue.

There are some people who should NOT fast because of health or medical reasons; if you aren’t sure about this, it might be worthwhile to call your doctor before you decide to fast. Some will find that fasting can become something they approach in a legalistic way, and these people should be careful about whether they should fast, and what their motives are for fasting. No one should feel compelled to fast if they don’t feel led to, nor should they feel judged by others if they choose not to fast.

What is involved in a fast? Strictly speaking, a fast is giving up all food for a period of time. Some people do what is called a “liquid fast” which means that they do not eat solid foods, but they still allow themselves liquids such as juices and other drinks. Another type of fast is called an “absolute fast” which is when the one fasting gives up all food and drink for the duration of the fast. In most cases, a fast involves no solid foods and no drinks but water.

Sometimes people will speak of giving up certain foods for a time— during Lent, for example. This is not technically a fast, but an “abstention,” as they are simply abstaining from certain foods. This can be a good exercise, too, in a similar way to fasting. Some who are not able to fast due to medical need might find that they can participate in a group or congregational fast by abstention.

A natural question is, “How long will we fast?” In this case, the Session has called for a “half-day” fast to start on the 28th. What that means is that we ask those who participate to fast from after lunchtime on Saturday until a congregation-wide breakfast on Sunday. We aren’t asking you to give up ALL meals on Saturday! Eat breakfast and lunch, then eat nothing more until breakfast the next morning, at the church, at 10:00am (instead of Sunday School).

Someone asked me, “What do I do during the fast?” This, like fasting itself, is largely up to your conscience. However, I am glad to offer some suggestions. You might spend the time you would normally take for meals in prayer, reading the Bible, or singing hymns. You may decide to calculate what you would normally spend on those meals and snacks and give that amount of money to the Deacons’ Fund at HWPC, or to a charitable cause.

In this case, because the Session has called for both fasting AND prayer about a specific topic— repentance for our personal and corporate sins— you should spend some extra time in prayer. One “cue” that I have used in the past is that, whenever my stomach growls or I feel a hunger pang, I take that as a prompting to pray. You should pray in your own way, and as you feel led to do so.

Jesus tells of how we should NOT spend our times of fasting: flaunting it before the world. When we fast, he says, we should not do it like the hypocrites, making a big deal about it and drawing attention to ourselves (Matt. 6). Thus, if you choose to participate in this fast (and/or to fast at other times), you should be cautious that you don’t do so hypocritically or in a manner that draws attention to your fasting.

Finally, we understandably ask, “What does fasting DO?” Sometimes we feel we must “get something out of” an exercise like fasting. And truthfully, God does, at times, bless our fasting with a response of granting us something— He will answer our prayers in the manner that we asked for, or will begin (or continue) a work in our midst that represents a blessing. But (like prayer and so many other spiritual activities) we must be careful not to approach fasting with wrong motives, or to view it as some sort of special tool that will help us to get our way with God. Fasting is not a spiritual crow-bar for leveraging our desires into the will of God.

Going back to McKnight’s definition of fasting: what fasting does is to serve as an appropriate response. We don’t fast to get something; we fast to be something— or someone: specifically, a child of God. When we are grieved by our sin, by the lack of repentance in our hearts, by our neglect of the poor, by a tragedy or loss, or by any of a number of other reasons why we might be grieved, fasting is a natural and proper response for the children of God. If we get anything from it— if fasting DOES anything in these moments— then the most important thing it does is to help us to draw closer to the God who we call Father.

I hope you will search your hearts and pray about whether you would participate in the day of fasting that we have scheduled. May the Lord be with you as you do.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Update on Abbey

We just got back to the hotel room from a long day, and I wanted to give you all an update.

In case I/we haven't been very good at keeping you in the loop, Abbey was accepted into the Shriners' Hospital Program for treatment of her cleft palette. The local (Memphis) Shriners have taken care of getting us up to Chicago(!) to visit the Shriners' Hospital up here, and we spent all day today in clinical assessment and evaluation.

We got to the hospital at 8am, and between then and mid-afternoon we saw 13 different specialists and team members, including a Nurse, a Speech Therapist, an Audiologist, a Social Worker, a Psychologist, an Ear/Nose/Throat Doctor, a pediatric Dentist, a pediatric Orthodontist, a Nurse Practitioner, and a team of two Cranial/Facial Plastic Surgeons. After that, we met with the whole team (including some that we didn't meet with individually) for a summary of their assessment.

As of now, the plan is to do corrective surgery when Abbey is between 9 months and 1 year old. At that time, they will also put tubes in her ears. These procedures will take place in Chicago also, and she'll be in the hospital for probably 2-3 nights (the night before and 1 or 2 nights after). After that, she'll have a recovery time of about 2 weeks before she can return to regular feeding, etc.

The whole team was/is top-notch, and we were so impressed with all of them and the care they offered. We were very encouraged about where things already are, and we are so grateful with what is to come with this program. 

Thanks so much for your prayers and concern, and please continue to pray for our safety as we return home tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On a trip...

We’re traveling this week-- part of “we” is, at least...

Most of you know that Abbey was born with a cleft palette-- which means that the hard roof of her mouth (in her case, only part of it) is not fully formed, and there is a gap in the back. This has all sorts of implications, the most prominent of which currently is that she isn’t able to suck on a normal bottle.

A few months ago, Marcie found out that the Shriner’s Hospital cares for this, and through a series of providential encounters (which include my step-father and his neighbors) we were fast-tracked through the application process and Abbey was accepted. This means that she will receive some of the best care available, and 100% of her care for this issue (including even the most incidental costs) will be covered by them, until she is 18.

So today it all begins: they are shuttling us up to Chicago (where the Shriner’s Hospital that treats these is), and tomorrow we’ll see 12 specialists who will begin to assess and plan her treatment needs. Then we return on Thursday.

Please pray for us, and especially for Abbey as we attend to her care. Pray for the rest of the kids, who are staying with our mothers in Oakland. And for the doctors and others who will assess her care. Finally, give thanks with us for God’s provision in this.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Family Man (again)

I’ve actually posted this video before. It’s an amazing video-- both because the song is so great, and also because the video is so creative (and fitting).

The song is “Family Man” by Andrew Peterson, and I’m planning to use this song as an illustration in my sermon on Sunday. I’m only planning to read the lyrics, though, and songs always have more impact if you’ve heard them before. Therefore, if you’re planning to be in worship on Sunday (or if you’re not!) then I offer you here the opportunity to hear/see Andrew’s fine song visualized:

Friday, March 6, 2009

Prayer 6: Carson on pettitionary prayer

If a boy asks his father for several things, all within the father’s power to give, the father may give him one of them right away, delay giving him another, decline to give him a third, set up a condition for a fourth. The child is not assured of receiving something because he has used the right incantation: that would be magic. The father may decline to give something because he knows it is not in the child’s best interests. He may delay giving something else because he know that so many requests from his young son are temporary and whimsical. He may also withhold something that he knows the child needs until the child asks for it in an appropriate way. But above all, the wise father is more interested in a relationship with his son than in merely giving him things. Giving him things constitutes part of that relationship but certainly not all of it. The father and son may enjoy simply going out for walks together. Often the son will talk with his father not to obtain something, or even to find out something, but simply because he likes to be with him.None of these analogies is perfect, of course. But it is exceedingly important to remember that prayer is not magic and that God is personal as well as sovereign. There is more to praying than asking, but any sustained prayer to the God of the Bible will certainly include asking. And because we slide so easily into sinful self-centeredness, we must approach this holy God with contrition and confession of our sins. On other occasions we will focus on his love and forbearance, on the sheer splendor of his being and approach him with joy and exuberant praise. The rich mixture of approaches to God mirrored in Scripture must be taken over into our lives. This rich mixture is, finally, nothing more than a reflection of the many different components of the kind of relationship we ought to have with the God of the Bible.

[D.A. Carson,
A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his Prayers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1993), pp. 31-32.]

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Losing our view of "office"

An acquaintance recently pointed out that she has noticed the tendency for the news anchors to refer to our President as “President Obama.” This wouldn’t be that peculiar, except, as she noted, they preferred to call President Bush simply, “Mr. Bush”-- though they were thick with “President Clinton” before then. She noted this as possible evidence of media bias, but asks, is she being paranoid?

She isn’t paranoid; neither is this phenomenon something unique to the media, nor to "liberals" in general. What she has noticed is simply the fruit of the degrading of the concept of "office" in American culture: we (the people of the United States, not necessarily “we” as individuals-- though it certainly can and does include some of us as individuals) no longer have respect for the Office of the Presidency; now we only regard the man who occupies that office.

This is a problem that, i believe, can be traced back to two primary (and probably surprising to many) sources: Charles Finney (and the Second Great Awakening), and Rush Limbaugh (and like-minded talk show hosts).

Finney's teaching on the church-- and particularly the pastor-- led to a predominant mindset in Christianity that the pastor is no one special, that he is no different from anyone else, and that he isn't due any particular regard or respect simply because of his role as pastor. This is only a small fraction of the problems that Finney introduced into the evangelical church, but it is a substantial one.

In the 80s and 90s, a number of Finney-esque pastors (self-appointed, often with no theological education or training, following Finny's very teaching about what a pastor is and should be) rose to prominence nationally, largely leading revival-style meetings that were much in the way of charismatic/pentecostal churches (though they are in no way a fair representation of charismatic/pentecostal faith and practice, any more than they are representative of pastors in general). The multitude of scandals involving these men led to the broad-spread acceptance of Finney's view of the pastorate. No longer could we trust someone implicitly, because of the office they held; not even pastors were properly due a certain amount of trust or respect.

Limbaugh, and others like him, indirectly took this concept to ALL offices in the 90s. To hear Rush Limbaugh speak of President Clinton was to hear contempt. Period. There was no restraint in his discussion of the man or his politics, simply because of the fact that he held the office of President of the United States of America. I remember Limbaugh railing against President Clinton after the truth of the Lewinsky stuff came out, saying that the media ought to always refer to him thenceforth as, “known liar Bill Clinton.” Whatever you believe about the man Bill Clinton, surely the fact that he then occupied the
office of the President should have reigned in the vitriolic language from Rush. I quit listening to him with any regularity back then, but from all I know and have heard, he is still a source for the same sort of contempt.

Now, we are reaping what we have sown. Ironically, so much of this originated under banners that are historically conservative-- but it comes back around to bite us in the end. Almost no one values offices any longer-- even within the church, and even though the concept of “office” is literally ALL OVER Scripture. While there are still latent acknowledgements of it-- for example, my recent reference to how frequently people recognize my clerical collar as an indication that I am someone they can turn to for spiritual counsel-- the active, intentional, and thoughtful acknowledgement of an office is diminishing.

This is a shame, at very least because it means that a new pastor has to work from scratch to begin his ministry to his flock. More than that, however: if and when it truly diminishes completely, many of our social structures that we now take for granted (such as our system of elections in a democratic republic, order within our churches, even basic leadership among groups like civic service groups) will begin to fall apart due to implicit lack of trust.

But worst of all: our understanding of the gospel itself will be threatened. How can we grasp what Christ did for us as Prophet, Priest, and King, if we do not understand the very concept of
office itself?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sermon texts for March 2009

March 1 No services due to snow
March 8 Guest preacher Doug Barcroft -- Prayers of lament
March 15 Luke 12:13-34 -- What do you treasure?
March 22 Luke 12:35-53 -- Ready to finish...
March 29 Luke 12:54-13:17-- Being set free

Lent in the Bible & early church

A friend and I began something of a debate (via e-mail) over the weekend about Lent. He wondered, where do you find Lent in the Bible? Here are my thoughts on this important question.

There is no doubt in my mind that Christ observed the feast days of the Old Testament (Mark 14:12; Luke 2:42; 22:1; John 2:23; 7:8, 14), and that he expected His disciples to do so, too (John 7:8). And, of course, the feast days of the OT had corresponding days of fasting (Lev. 23:28-32). Certainly, no one can dispute the presence of sacrifice-- personal and corporate-- in the OT, and while Christ is the fulfillment of the ceremonial law, we nevertheless glean a good bit of our worship practices from these portions (such as fellowship offerings, thank offerings, etc.). Christ commanded this, too: just as the Israelites were commanded to deny themselves (Lev. 23:32), so too Christ demanded a spirit of sacrifice from His disciples (Matt. 16:23; cf. Mark 8:34; Muke 9:23).

There is also the model of Christ Himself fasting for 40 days (Luke 4:1-13); why did He fast? To prepare for His public ministry, in which He would bring "the good news of the kingdom of God" (Luke 4:43). This was unique because it was Christ, but it wasn't original: Moses, also, fasted for 40 days (Ex. 34:28) for what? In preparation for the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments-- if you will, the good news of the kingdom of God. The pattern of a time period of "40" is imposed upon Israel in their desert wandering, as well; to what end? To prepare them for entrance into Canaan-- in other words, for preparation for the fulfillment of covenantal promise of good news of the kingdom of God.

Scheduled/patterned days and times of fasting were never rejected by Jesus; rather, when He taught about the patterned fasting of twice a week by the Pharisees (Matt. 6:16-18), He was pointing out their hypocrisy as the problem, not their patterned fasting. He assertion, "when you fast..." (Matt. 6:16, 17), implies that He expected them to continue in a patterned fasting. If you want to argue that He opposed regular fasting in this way, you also set the stage for His opposition to giving to the poor (Matt. 6:2) and prayer (Matt. 6:5)! In fact, in His only other teaching on fasting, Jesus stated outright that, after He had ascended, we (his disciples) WOULD fast until His return (Mark 2:18-22).

It is clear that, by the time of the
Didache [which is the collected teachings of the Apostles], the expected routine fasting was a normal practice of Christians, refraining from the hypocritical patterns of the Pharisees. Didache 8:1 says, "But do not let your fasts coincide with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Monday and Thursday, so you must fast on Wednesday and Friday." And this sort of patterned, scheduled fasting continued well into the Reformation and beyond-- with only our more modern era rejecting regular fasting as a way of Christian experience, probably because we are much more gnostic than we dare to admit.

Furthermore, the earliest Christians (that we have any records of, apart from Scripture) apparently observed Lent because they believed that the apostles themselves had commanded it. It is mentioned in
The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles (similar to the Didache) Book V, section III-- “On Feast Days and Fast Days”:

Brethren, observe the festival days; and first of all the birthday which you are to celebrate on the twenty-fifth of the ninth month; after which let the Epiphany be to you the most honoured, in which the Lord made to you a display of His own Godhead, and let it take place on the sixth of the tenth month; after which the fast of Lent is to be observed by you as containing a memorial of our Lord’s mode of life and legislation. But let this solemnity be observed before the fast of the passover, beginning from the second day of the week, and ending at the day of the preparation. After which solemnities, breaking off your fast, begin the holy week of the passover, fasting in the same all of you with fear and trembling, praying in them for those that are about to perish.

Did the New Testament church observe Lent as we see it today? No, because they were essentially continuing to follow the calendar of the Jewish tradition. Neither did they observe Christmas, Easter, or any other of our calendar observances as we have them today. Did you remark anything about it being Christmas on December 25 at your church? Will there be mention of Easter on April 12? My guess is, of course! If not, then I would suggest that, at least in MOST churches (that don't follow a liturgical calendar), they still have a calendrical pattern; it just happens to be dictated by Hallmark instead of church history!