Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bits and Tidbits, July 2011

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Refreshing your participation in corporate worship

Continuing in the series on refreshing your spiritual life. (For the rest of the series, see "Refreshing your personal Bible study practices, part 1 and part 2," and "Refreshing your personal prayer life.") Remember, this is from a book on transitioning from seminary into ministry-- so some of the content is written toward seminarians; it seems practical, however, for anyone.

Refreshing Your Participation in Corporate Worship

Are you worshiping well? Worshiping while in seminary can present one of the greatest challenges of that season of life. In fact, I knew a handful of classmates who confessed that they felt they had lost the capacity to worship, because (among other things) their seminary education had presented too many stumbling-blocks.

What were/are some of their struggles?
  • Temptation to critique. Often, our own study of things like homiletics and worship leadership will create a default-mode of critical examination for sermons, music selections, prayers, and other parts of the public liturgy. It is easy to think, “I would have preached that sermon differently” when you are not the one preaching it.
    Racing minds. Anyone who has been in seminary for a while has a mind that is in a near-constant state of high-gear. It is tempting to think about everything but the worship of God.
    Burdensome work-loads. The seemingly never-ending state of unfinished assignments presents an ongoing burden of interruption to the worshiper. This is true for everyone, and no less so the seminarian.
    Knowledge distractions. Something said (or unsaid) during worship will spark an idea that a knowledgeable mind wants to engage. We have learned so many wonderful and fascinating things! We want to allow those thoughts to mature right away— even at the cost of our worship.
I’m not listing these to suggest new ways to worsen your worship! Rather, my goal is to point out some of the things that might be preventing you from worshiping well.

What can you do about the struggles of worship?
You can start by seeking to be well-prepared for worship. This subject is worthy of a book in itself, but a few ways to better prepare for worship include approaching corporate worship prayerfully; reading the sermon text ahead of time, if possible; learning to anticipate corporate worship with eager expectation; seek forgiveness from those you have sinned against, and extend forgiveness to others; disciplining your heart and mind for focused, concentrated worship; and getting a good night’s rest. Strive for learning how to worship well as a member of a congregation, even in the face of the knowledge and experience you are gaining.

You should also spend concerted effort on seeking humility. Many of the struggles that I and others faced in seminary(that perhaps you are facing, as well) stemmed from a prideful approach to worship and the pastors/leaders who served us. Remember that they, too, struggled through the studies that you have taken up— and unlike you, they finished those studies! Your pastor(s) have experience, wisdom, and training that you do not yet have; it is nothing short of arrogance that a seminary student might criticize the leadership and/or preaching of his pastor the way that some do.

Remind yourself of the magnitude of the Gospel. We worship God because we are aware of how worthy of our praise He is; how much He has accomplished on our behalf; how dependent upon Him we are, daily; how much He loves us. If you’re struggling with worship, ask yourself how much you are remembering the Gospel during it. Have you forgotten His grace? Have you taken for granted His mercies, new every morning? Have you made little of your sin? Reclaim the place at His feet that He has secured for you.

Ask your professors [or your pastor(s)] how they have learned to worship well. One of the greatest indirect ministries that I received from my seminary professors was watching them worship with their families in our congregation. And one of the most interesting conversations I had with a professor was talking about how he worships with his family: they had arranged to have the hymns for the coming Sunday e-mailed to their house, and they practiced them with their children. They held hands during the congregational prayers, and sang harmonies together. They encouraged one another with what they had heard and learned during the sermons. Most of all, though, my professors (all of whom had been pastors themselves, at one point) came humbly and readily to sit under the leadership and teaching of a man they had helped to train for ministry, and they willingly submitted to their congregation in worship. Your professors may be the best models for you in worship.

Your private and family devotional life will also shape how you worship. If you are neglecting your personal Bible study and prayer during the week, of course you will struggle to worship on Sundays. If you and your wife have unforgiven sin between you, naturally you will not be ready of heart and mind for worshiping God. Attend to your private worship, be diligent in your family devotions, and corporate worship will come more naturally to you.

Commit yourself to set aside the time for worship. Worship and rest are inextricably connected in Scripture, and for good reasons— one of which is that you cannot ably worship with a mind that is not at rest. You must learn the discipline of putting aside the unfinished work that is before you: regardless of how many pages you have left to write, how much reading is still incomplete, or how big the pile of dishes you haven’t yet washed, you will never worship fully and devotedly without learning to turn away from the work and turn to the Lord.
Don’t neglect to pray that you would become a better worshiper! This is a prayer item that you will never exhaust. Pray that the Lord would teach you to worship in spite of yourself. Pray for the humility that you need, and the awe and wonder at Christ’s grace that would move you to worship Him fervently. Ask God to draw you to Him- self and bind you to others in your congregation as you worship together.

Why is it so vital that you worship well? First, because you were created to worship God, and to bring Him glory. You will never enjoy Him more fully than in corporate worship. Second, because our worship is a reflection of what we love— and if we struggle in worship, it means that we have either begun to idolize something else or our love for God has dulled. Third, because it will give you the nourishment and sustenance that you need to persevere through your work as a student (and other work).
And finally, because you may never again be free to worship God in the way that you are now free to do so. Most pastors have some level of responsibility during (or surrounding) the corporate worship that they engage in through their ministries. Many (like myself ) serve in a setting wherein we are leading a central part of worship almost every week. This may be your last season of worship that is unfettered by the responsibilities of ministry.6

Learn to worship well, and delight in the worship that you get to participate in during seminary.

6 Which is not to say that you won’t be engaged with the worship of God in your ministry! On the contrary, it is a privilege to worship God in the way that pastors get to worship weekly. But it won’t be the same— and those differences are significant.

Adapted from From M.Div. to Rev.: making an effective transition from seminary into pastoral ministry by J.E. Eubanks, Jr. (Oakland, TN: Doulos Resources, 2011).

Monday, July 25, 2011

Another book

Earlier this month, my latest book was released: From M.Div. to Rev.: making an effective transition from seminary into pastoral ministry.

This book is a guide and reference for seminary students who plan to enter pastoral ministry upon graduation; it takes them through all of the stages of getting ready for candidacy, finding good opportunities, gathering and providing the right information, making decisions, and beginning well. It is the result of seven years of work, including a research survey, follow-up interviews, gathering case studies, and also plenty of personal experience.

Obviously, it's not for everyone-- but there are perhaps one or two people I know who will benefit from it, I hope.

If you are one of those two, you can buy it at the Doulos Resources eStore; it is also available through the Covenant Seminary Bookstore,, Barnes & Noble, the Apple iBookstore (coming soon, hopefully), and a few other places.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What it DOES mean to "prepare our hearts" for the Lord's Supper

In a post a few days ago, I commented on some common misunderstandings about "preparing our hearts" and "examining ourselves" with regard to the Lord's Supper. Now I want to comment plainly on what it does mean.

To do this, I'll consider the relevant questions and answers from the Westminster Larger Catechism, interacting with each in turn to develop a complete sense of how we might prepare for communion.

Westminster Shorter Catechism question 97: What is required for the worthy receiving of the Lord's Supper?
A. It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord's Supper, that they examine themselves of their knowledge to discern the Lord's body, of their faith to feed upon him, of their repentance, love, and new obedience; lest, coming unworthily, they eat and drink judgment to themselves.

Note a few things of what the Catechism indicates a "worthy" receiving of the Supper consists of: the believer is to examine himself. Examining what? He "discerning" of the Lord's body, his faith, and the fruit of his faith. In other words, to receive the Lord's Supper in a "worthy" manner is to take it seriously, to acknowledge its significance and its weight, and to have a proper reverence and joy in what it represents.

The basis offered for the Catechism's answer-- the sole Scriptural evidence presented-- is 1 Corinthians 11:27-32. Here's that passage, plus the seven verses that precede it and the two after it (context is king!):

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.
So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

This is a full and weighty passage, and there is much in it that sometimes leads to controversy or disagreement. I won't give an exhaustive examination of the whole passage here, but I do want to touch on some highlights, particularly as they pertain to the Catechism question above.

First, note (as should be or become instinctive in Bible reading) that the relevant clause begins with "therefore"-- pointing us to what immediately precedes it. The fact that "a man ought to examine himself" (v. 28) and that he should recognize "the body of the Lord" (v. 29) is directly related to vv. 20-26-- especially vv. 20-22, where Paul describes the conduct of an unworthy participation in the Lord's Supper. "Recognizing the body of the Lord" has as its contrast v. 22's "do you despise the church of God". In other words, the "unworthy" manner is related to the manner of how the Lord's Supper is conducted, not the person participating.

Second, consider "worthiness" as it relates to this passage: could it possibly mean that some are deemed worthy to share in fellowship and communion with God Himself, by merit of their own work (even religious work, i.e., "proper" confessing of sin, etc.)? Or does it more likely mean that "worthiness" indicates a proper awareness of our desperate need for atonement apart from ourselves (and fulfilled in the work of Christ), which this sacrament "proclaims" (v. 26) to us and all around us? Thus, worthily discerning the body of Christ and participating in the Supper means that we long for it, as it represents and reminds us of Christ's great grace poured out for us.

Our Catechism isn't "finished" in helping us with the question about preparing our hearts for Communion, however. There is another helpful question and answer: Westminster Larger Catechism question 171: How are they that receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper to prepare themselves before they come unto it?
A. They that receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper are, before they come, to prepare themselves thereunto, by examining themselves of their being in Christ, of their sins and wants; of the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance; love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; of their desires after Christ, and of their new obedience; and by renewing the exercise of these graces, by serious meditation, and fervent prayer.

Here again, we have a straightforward answer to the question: first and foremost, do you know yourself to be in Christ? To prepare oneself for the Sacrament is to be re-affirmed in faith.

The second part of that first clause, though, is where I think most will be hung up. "Of their sins and wants" might suggest that we should examine our sins and seek to "properly" name them in confession before God, else we should not participate in the Sacrament. Of course, this understanding is the opposite of what I proposed in my first discussion about this topic. Am I contradicted by the Catechism?

Grammatical construction helps us here: notice that, in the answer above, "examining themselves" is set up as the action relating to each of the different sets of things which should be examined. It's as if you could copy that phrase and paste it before each clause, like this: prepare themselves thereunto, by examining themselves of their being in Christ, of their sins and wants; examining themselves of the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance; examining themselves [of the truth and measure of their] love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; examining themselves of their desires after Christ, and of their new obedience; and by renewing...

You get the picture. So, how does the grammar help us? See that the Westminster Divines inserted a comma between "of their being in Christ" and "of their sins and wants"-- but a semicolon after it. In other words, they want us to see the association of the one with the other (by way of the comma) and the distinction of that clause with the rest. So when they urge an examination of our "sins and wants" it is in relation to, and in light of, our being in Christ. We are to prepare our hearts, first of all, by knowing the forgiveness and reconciliation for us in our redemption by and through Christ, and by recognizing our sins and wants as they are forgiven and swept away in Christ.

Likewise, the rest of the answer could be interpreted in a meritorious fashion as well: how much do I love God? How much can I point to the demonstration of my love for the brothers, and charity to all, and forgiveness of those who have wronged me? How much do I desire Christ, and demonstrate my obedience to Him? It's certainly possible to read the Catechism this way, and in so doing make the Sacrament one of two things (which it was never intended to be for us): either we convince ourselves that we do actually measure up to some degree of "worthiness" through all of those things, and it becomes a time of puffing up in arrogance, self-righteousness, and boastfulness; or we see clearly how much we fail to achieve any of those things even inadequately in ourselves, and it becomes a slavish reminder of how far we fall short all the time, in every way, and we loathe to even think of taking it.

Both of these results are clearly contrary to Scripture (as I demonstrated in brief in my previous piece). They are also contrary to the clear teachings throughout the rest of the Westminster Standards! Therefore, these other clauses should be understood rather to mean, in light of the first clause (that we are found in Christ, even in all of our sins and wants), we are to seek the fruit of our faith in Christ in these ways.

The final phrases in that answer lends further credibility to this interpretation: "and by renewing the exercise of these graces, by serious meditation, and fervent prayer." Why would we need to renew the exercises if we were already succeeding in them? What is the purpose of serious meditation and fervent prayer for the spiritually worthy and meritorious? But the presence of these concluding remarks expects shortcomings in that which precede them. Even in the assurance of being found in Christ!

I'll do one more part of this series, to wrap up by addressing the issue of assurance.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Refreshing your personal prayer life

Continuing in the series on refreshing your spiritual life. (For the other parts of the series, see "Refreshing your personal Bible study practices, part 1 and part 2.)


Prayer, like devotional Bible reading, can often fall prey to neglect or disengaged routine. Without repeating much of what was covered in the previous section, there is still work to be done in urging and challenging you to give attention to this vital area of spiritual formation. I offer here encouragement to pray, and how you might pray.

Ways to Refresh Your Prayer Life
Pay less attention to length, eloquence, and orderliness. Remember that prayer mustn’t be long to be effective. Sometimes a prayer may take the form of hours-long conversation with the Lord. At other times, an utterance as brief as, “oh, God!” may suffice. Likewise, how precise your language or articulation in prayer can become a distraction if you let it; remember how Paul encourages us that, when we lack words for precision, the Holy Spirit intervenes on our behalf.2 Order in prayer— working through a particular list or making priorities— may also hinder you from praying freely.3 In heart-felt and effective prayer, length, eloquence, and orderliness matter far less than honesty, fervency, and earnestness.
Soak yourself in the Psalms. It is easy to forget that God has provided us with a prayer book: the 150 prayers of the Psalms are themselves a rich resource for both learning to pray and for regaining a renewed vigor in prayer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The Psalter is the great school of prayer.”4 The Psalms contain every emotion that you will encounter, and they engage that emotion prayerfully in a manner that is biblically- consistent— after all, they are Scripture! Learn to pray the Psalms as a tool for prayer.5
Make use of good prayer resources. In addition to the Psalms, we have the blessing of generations of prayers offered before us— many of which have been recorded and offered as both models and aids for our own prayers. You may find collections like The Valley of Vision by Arthur Bennett to be a goldmine of worthy prayers. You might make use of a Book of Common Prayer or something like the Daily Offices. There are many of these available, and almost every tradition has one or more that are both consistent with the tradition’s theology and helpful to work it out in prayer.

Get quiet. It is a challenge today to get away from noise and distraction. Most of us have constant access to music, the internet, and/or television. Few settings and contexts are free of other people to speak with or, at least, to watch. Our schedules are full, and our minds are engaged. You must therefore be deliberate to find times and ways to get quiet for prayer. This may mean setting aside time in your day for undistracted prayer, be it 10 minutes in the morning before you get dressed, some moments before you go to bed, or scheduled in the middle of your day. It might be as elaborate as some hours or a whole day when you will retreat to a quiet, private place for extended prayer. Or it may be one day a week when you commit to leaving your car radio off and spending all of your commuting time praying as you drive.

Meet with others. Committing yourself to an occasional or regular time to gather with one or several others for prayer can be both an intense opportunity for fellow- ship and excellent accountability to pray. There have been seasons in my life when such scheduled meetings were the only consistent time of prayer that I had. (There have also been times when I longed for the fellowship of prayer that these represented, and that was absent from my regular practice.) For two semesters of my time in seminary, I met every week with a classmate to pray for each other in our candidacy and placement; these semesters were, for me, a rich time of fellowship and a season of great spiritual growth in learning to pray for myself and for others.

2 Romans 8:26-27.
3 Don’t get me wrong here: often, making a list of needs for prayer, items of praise, and reasons for thanksgiving can facilitate focused prayer, and may allow you to pray more and longer than just praying off the top of your head. It may also protect you from meaningless repetition and babbling. But these tools, when held too highly, may also keep you from the intimate fellowship with God and means of grace that prayer is.
4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 47.

Adapted from From M.Div. to Rev.: making an effective transition from seminary into pastoral ministry by J.E. Eubanks, Jr. (Oakland, TN: Doulos Resources, 2011).

Monday, July 18, 2011

Recipe #2: Grilled Salad

About a month ago, I mentioned on Facebook and Twitter that I was making Grilled Salad for supper, and at least five people asked for the recipe. Here it is.

This is a great, healthy side when you are already grilling and need something quick.

2 Whole Romaine hearts
4 T Olive Oil
4-6 T Lime Juice
Fresh-ground Pepper (to taste)
1 C Mandarin Oranges
1-2 C Feta Cheese

Cut the romaine hearts in half; be sure to divide the base, so that the halves stay intact. Spread them open-side up on a platter, cookie sheet, or jelly roll pan.

Drizzle the oil across the open lettuce hearts; do the same with the lime juice.

Grind the pepper over the hearts, as much or as little as you prefer.

Set the tray aside until you are done grilling everything else; this will only take a few minutes.

When you're finished grilling your meat and/or other foods, place the romaine hearts directly on the grill (I recommend using tongs). Leave them over the heat for a minute or two-- just until the leaves barely begin to wilt and a very slight char is visible.

Turn them over and repeat-- just a minute or two, at most.

Remove them from the heat; return them to the tray open-side up.

Now add the mandarin oranges and feta cheese on top of the open hearts. If you like, work the cheese into the folds of the leaves slightly.

Serve them warm.

Serves 4-6.

I use white pepper, because Marcie and the kids don't like the "bite" of black pepper.

You may substitute lemon juice for the lime juice; whichever is handier.

Also, you can substitute orange juice for the mandarin oranges; the sweeter citrus flavor is the non-negotiable part.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A few thoughts about Netflix

So, Netflix-- the DVD-in-your-mailbox service (OR the "stream-movies-and-TV-shows-online service) announced that they are raising their rates-- six whole dollars a month! Really, six dollars isn't really that much, but it does represent a 60% increase for the same level of service. Here are some thoughts about it:
  • First, they aren't so much "raising" their rates as they are exploding the current offering of plans, and replacing them entirely. A typical Netflix plan (the one WE have, for example) allowed one DVD at a time by mail, plus unlimited streaming content. No such plan is available any longer; now, if you want both, you sign up for two separate plans-- one DVD-by-mail, and one streaming.
  • These rate increases are realistic-- in fact, you could (and should) think of it as Netflix finally catching up to where they should have been on rates. While Netflix was started at the end of the last century(!), as recently as three years ago one could sign up for a $5/month plan for 2 DVDs by mail per month-- OR, an $8/month plan for unlimited DVDs per month. These prices did two things (one inadvertent, the other, um, advertent?): it caused the market to become complacent about very low prices for DVD rental, and it drove the existing competition out of business. (Blockbuster Video, the absolute dominant force in video rental through the 90s, is laughably irrelevant now.) Now Netflix is the victim of their own success, as customers are balking at prices that are, frankly, quite reasonable: if you had suggested in 1995 that someone could watch a nearly-endless amount of movies and archived TV episodes, in their own home, without having to even visit a brick-and-mortar store, for the price of three Blockbuster rentals per month, they would have said, "where do I sign up?" But now-- 15+ years and plenty of inflation later-- we expect to get all of that, for much less.
  • I'm no insider, but I suspect this is the real reason behind the rate increases: contract renewals and internet costs. First, contracts. There's a company called Liberty Starz (previously Starz Entertainment) that basically controls all of the market for movies when they are "broadcast" in any form. Netflix contracted with them in 2008, when streaming was still relegated to low-quality YouTube videos; it was difficult to predict then how soon high-quality streaming would be available, and impossible to foresee how easily one could get devices to watch streaming content on your TV. Starz probably undercharged them, figuring that streaming wouldn't catch on-- who wants to sit at their computer to watch a whole movie? That contract was set to expire sometime in 2011, from what I understand. Thus, one part of the rate increases are likely due to a contract renegotiation, or at least in anticipation of one: surely the Netflix execs are thinking, "it's been a good run, but Starz is going to ream us for streaming content the next time around."
  • Second, internet costs. Netflix single-handedly accounts for almost 25% of ALL internet content. This represents a huge and growing cost in server capacity and usage. I can't imagine that this is coming cheap, nor that their costs here are dropping. If anything, that kind of bandwidth is only increasing in cost, at the same time that usage is in an always-increasing pattern. Perhaps the change in plan structure is an effort both to better cover these growing costs, as well as to stem the increase of bandwidth demand a bit.

Friday, July 15, 2011

What it DOESN'T mean to "prepare our hearts" for the Lord's Supper

One of the areas where, as a pastor, I consistently notice misunderstandings is with regard to the sacraments. Really, there is misunderstanding left and right in that area. A particular part that is misunderstood, however, is what it means when church members are encouraged to "examine themselves" and/or "prepare their hearts" for the Lord's Supper.

One common (mis)perception that to prepare one's heart or examine oneself is simply to think, "hmm... now, what sins have I failed to confess to God, that I need to be sure to confess and ask forgiveness for before I can rightly take Communion?"

This is a wrong view, for several reasons. First, it implies that the barrier (or fence, if you will) between someone and communion with God is a matter of a work of their own-- in the form of a particular confession! In other words, the thing we must do to receive God's grace through Sacrament is the act of confessing. In fact, however, no work of our own, however religious, spiritual, or even biblical can or will gain us entrance to the table of God's Communion. This is a sacrament of grace, not of works; in order to obtain God's grace, we must be given it freely and mercifully.

Second, it implies a belief that our sins are not forgiven-- and therefore, we are not reconciled to God-- unless we have particularly confessed them. In fact, those who are in Christ truly have their sins forgiven before they even commit them. Our sins are known to God without our confession, their punishment has been paid by Christ on the cross, and they are wiped clean from our record, having been accorded to Christ. Receiving Communion is not contingent on our confession; it is contingent on Christ's finished work on our behalf.

Third, it implies that we are actually aware of all of our sins and able to confess them. Yet how often have I, by the maturing work of the Holy Spirit, come to realize an act-- or even a pattern-- of sin years after its commitment? You do, too. In fact, God knows the depths of our sin far more than we, and His forgiveness extends fare beyond our awareness. This is why Jack Miller so aptly stated something to the effect of, "You are more sinful than you ever dared to admit! But Christ is more gracious than you ever dared to dream!" As we mature in our faith, the cross becomes bigger and bigger-- though never big enough, in my eyes or yours, to truly account for just how gracious Christ is and has been with us.

Does this mean we shouldn't confess our sins? No-- we should confess our sins: to God, to those we've sinned against, even to one another. What it does mean is that there is not some measure of adequate confession that admits or forbids us to the Table.

Another common (mis)perception is that we must have sought reconciliation in every broken relationship before properly partaking in the Lord's Supper.

This is a wrong view, though it is frequently perpetuated by pastors. The appeal is made to Matthew 5:23-24:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift."

At the risk of stepping on the toes of fellow pastors, let me point out a few things about this as it applies (or doesn't) to Communion...
  • Notice that the verse begins with "therefore"-- which implies that we're missing at least a few verses if we want to gain understanding of this text. The immediate context is the two verses preceding these, which say, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell." In the larger context, Jesus (in the beginning portion of the Sermon on the Mount) is teaching about how he came to fulfill the law, and challenging the religiosity and formalism of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Jewish law. In brief, these verses are not rebuking someone who is otherwise properly worshiping, but demonstrating how the so-called worship offered under these pretexts is false.
  • The Communion Table is not an altar. No sacrifice is being made there; we are not re-crucifying Christ every time we celebrate Communion. That analogy is both poor theology and pastorally deficient. The death of Christ as recognized in "remembrance" in Communion (Luke 22:19) and which is "proclaimed" in Communion (1 Corinthians 11:26) is a finished work, not one that we must re-create each Lord's Day (or once a month/quarter/whatever).
  • The Sacrament meal is not something that WE are offering! Rather, it is something offered TO us. By its very institution, Christ offered the Sacrament to His disciples; this was, as at least part of the meaning of the Supper, a replacement of the Passover feast (which was ALSO a gift of mercy and grace offered by God to His people). By this point, we should be starting to seriously question the usefulness of this text as it is sometimes applied to Communion.

Is there no use or application of this passage with regard to the Lord's Supper? Yes and no. The setting Christ describes is worship-- so really, we ought to apply this text to our whole sense of corporate worship. Insofar as the Lord's Supper is a part of that (which, of course, it is inseparable), we should apply it appropriately. Yet, orthodox theology of corporate life together as the Body also teaches us that reconciliation is only possible through Christ, which is the very nature of the covenant renewal that takes place week by week. So the application to the ordinary life of the church-- and her individual members-- is limited in its scope. (See the above contextual comments.)

As I have said, these are common-- but they are certainly MISperceptions about the Lord's Supper. In a future post, I'll address what it DOES mean to "prepare our hearts" for the Lord's Supper.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Warfield on qualifications for baptism and membership

I love this quote from Benjamin B. Warfield on baptism:

If we demand anything like demonstrative evidence of actual participation in Christ before we baptize, no infant, who by reason of years is incapable of affording signs of his union with Christ can be thought a proper subject of the rite….The vice of this system, however, is that it attempts the impossible. No man can read the heart. As a consequence, it follows that no one, however rich his manifestation of Christian graces, is baptized on the basis of infallible knowledge of his relation to Christ. All baptism is inevitably administered on the basis not of knowledge but of presumption.

This is the heart of one of my core points with regard to church membership in general (after all, your baptism IS your admission into church membership): that no qualification beyond the public profession of faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ can or should be required. (See my booklet, Grafted Into The Vine: rethinking biblical church membership, for more on how this is developed in Scripture.)

Good stuff, B.B.!

Monday, July 11, 2011

And they should...

In a recent article in The Daily ("Body Politics: No Choice At All," originally published February 12, 2011), writer Jessica Valenti argued that many writers, activists, and general thinkers of the "Pro-Life" cause need to change their position: it is troublesome, says Valenti, that some think that the women who have abortions should face some sort of judicial consequences for their choice.

Let's give Valenti credit for this: she is consistent with her "Pro-Choice" view that the abortion of an unborn child is not, in fact, the taking of a life-- and thus bears no criminal penalty.

Let's give her credit for this also: she is right in pointing out the general inconsistency that many on the "Pro-Life" side exercise when they ignore the need for judicial consequences for all involved parties.

The argument against an criminal charges for aborting mothers is that they are "victims" of a coercive and manipulative system. They are the prey of cruel, heartless baby-killers masquerading as doctors, and they don't really know what they are doing. It would be unfair, the argument goes, to bring any charges against those who were functionally ignorant of the biological or ethical consequences of their acts.

It only took a couple of semesters in college for me to know better. I began college majoring in Theater, and my fellow Theater students were about as diverse as I could possibly imagine; I was quickly exposed to a variety of alternative views on politics, ethics, and relationships. Some of my classmates were surprisingly promiscuous-- yet some of the female students I knew found birth control and contraceptives to be inconvenient and troublesome. Thus, I knew of at least a few women who elected to gamble with unprotected sex, and abortion was the ideal solution to any unwanted consequences of their choices. They weren't unaware of what this procedure entailed; some had been through it more than a couple of times.

This may not be the normal course of events; indeed, my friends and acquaintances may be quite exceptional. In actuality, I believe that the women I knew and described above are not nearly as exceptional as most of us would prefer to think. Either way, I believe we are far too condescending toward women when we treat them as "ignorant" victims.

As a counter-example: the "Pro-Life" movement (such as it is) sometimes uses terms like "holocaust" in association with the large numbers of babies that are aborted annually. Of course, those numbers are horrifying, and insofar as a holocaust (in strict definition) is "destruction or slaughter on a mass scale," then surely, if unborn babies are living humans (which I believe they are), the high rates of abortion amount to a holocaust.

In the wake of the event known as "The Holocaust" we quickly learned how unambiguous our ethical stance on this question should be: those who participated at some level in the killing of millions were not allowed to plead that they were ignorant, nor could they cast the blame on those in positions of authority or superior knowledge. As participants, they were deemed to be accessories to murder or, in fact, murderers.

Why do we view aborting women as if they are uniformly blameless? Surely a functioning justice system would weed out those who were/are, and would determine fair punishment for those who were/are not. Regardless, however, we must have a higher view of life-- especially the lives of the women making the choices about abortion-- than the inconsistent position of a typical "Pro-Lifer" seems to espouse.

Jessica Valenti challenges that a consistent application of the Pro-Life position means that women who have abortions should face criminal consequences: "If abortion becomes illegal, women will go to jail." She is right... and they should.

Refreshing your personal Bible study practices, part 2

This is part two; read part one here.

Strategies for Bible Reading

If you’re stuck in a Bible-reading rut and need some un-sticking, here are some things to consider.

All Study Is Devotional
The odds are good that even in your last year of seminary, you have one or two exegetical and/or theology classes left. These may be the key to jumpstarting your devotional Bible reading.
“Wait,” you say. “Those classes are part of the reason I feel so stuck!” It’s understandable that, when studying the Bible for a class, your devotional approach to the Bible might seem to dry up. That can be true especially when you’re asked to do things like making an analysis of the keywords in the original language or consider the text-critical differences of the early manuscripts. What do you do about the very technical and academic approach to the Bible that you are asked to regularly assume in seminary?

You must learn to embrace the spiritual value of those things, and you must learn that a division of the academic from the devotional— of the head from the heart, so to speak— is a false dichotomy. Everything that a seminary asks of you has devotional value, no matter how academic.1 Remember, what you are doing in those classes is learning how to more closely and accurately determine the meaning and intention of the text— which means that, through the most minute details, you will learn more of what the Bible says and how it says it.

Seminary is an opportunity to learn how to connect head and heart more fully in Bible study. Like so many aspects of seminary, this is vital preparation for real ministry. You will be faced with the same kind of work on a weekly basis, if not daily, and whatever difficulty you have with this now will carry over then; it won’t get easier, it will get harder. What is more, if you cannot connect the study you are doing for sermon and lesson preparation with the devotional, heart and soul-oriented application, you will rob your congregation of the truths the Bible has for them.

Start learning how to approach your academic study devotionally. As you work through the assignments and exercises, ask yourself what application each assignment draws out for you. Consider how the information you gather through the exercise may aid in explaining the meaning of the text to others, and how it helps you understand the text on a personal level. Think about how this new knowledge might affect the way that you would preach or teach that passage. Determine whether the conclusions you draw lend clarity to the meaning, and decide if those conclusions are necessary and/or useful in a devotional sense.

Finding Time
Approaching your academic work with a devotional spirit is helpful, not only because it re-shapes the way you do your assignments, but also because it means that you’ve done some devotional reading already that day!

But you don’t have those assignments every day, and there are times when you may have trouble finding time to do the devotional reading you want to do. It can be a lot easier to find time than you might think.

You probably own more than one copy of the Bible. Try keeping copies in different places all over your house. A Bible in the kitchen, another in the bathroom, one in the living room, and a copy by your bed— suddenly, anytime you have a few spare moments, you can grab a Bible and read it. Keep one in your car, too; how many times are you waiting in a drive-through line and could read a verse or two?

Remember that we must be careful not to be legalistic in how much time we must spend reading the Bible to consider it “devotional” reading. Is 15 minutes enough? How about five? How about just one minute, reading just one verse two or three times through? The length of time is not as important as how much God’s Word is hidden in our hearts where we might meditate upon it. If you use a calendar to organize your day, look over it for occasions when you have small windows of time spent waiting. Maybe in the moments between when you get to class and when the lecture begins, the few minutes after you’re ready but before your carpool picks you up, or the time in the grocery store line as you await checkout, you could grab some quick devotional reading.

Routines (Good & Bad)
Sometimes we can find help in routines for our devotionals. At other times, they can become a prison.

Perhaps, like me, you have struggled over the years with the warring desires of rising early for a lengthy and satisfying time spent reading God’s Word, and the lure of a comfortable bed during the sleepy moments of waking. I have tried time and again to develop this discipline, to no avail.

I want to be careful not to fall into a mystical or legalistic concept of morning devotionals. I don’t believe that rising early for devotional time is inherently any more special or powerful than Bible reading at other times during the day. But I love the thought of rising early and spending the waking moments in God’s Word and in prayer.

Your routines, or desires for them, may be different. I had a friend in college who didn’t feel like her devotionals were complete if she didn’t have a cup of coffee with them, sitting in a certain place, and with absolute silence in her apartment. I knew someone else who felt like their time had been violated if they had an interruption— and he would bark at his wife or children if they spoke to them, “I’m having my Quiet Time!” How contrary!

Familiarity can be good, and the routines you establish for devotionals may be a great aid to you for their regularity. But they might also become enslaving, preventing you from any sense of having communed with God in His Word unless things were “just right.” Or they could become mystical, where the very practice of certain activities (like nestling into a favorite chair with a cup of coffee at your side) take on voodoo-like ritual qualities. Use routines well; be careful that they don’t begin to use you instead.

If you have fallen out of the habit of reading the Bible, all you have to do is start again. I once had a member in a congregation I served who came to talk to me about feel- ing distant from God. I asked her if she prayed regularly; she replied that she did, but that her prayers felt repetitive and dull. Then I asked her if she read her Bible. “Oh, yes,” she said. “I try to read all the way through my Bible every year!” “That’s wonderful,” I said. “How is your progress lately? How far have you gotten?” She thought about it, and she couldn’t remember. I asked her if she had read it that week, and she said no. I asked if she could remember the last time she read it, and she thought for a moment before replying that she couldn’t. After a few more minutes of interrogation, it turned out that she had begun her reading plan in January, but had gotten bogged down in Leviticus sometime around early February and had stopped reading then. (It was June when we spoke.) After a few weeks of unfulfilled good intentions, she never started back up again, because she was so far behind she knew she would never finish her reading plan within the year. She figured she would just wait and start again next year.

I believe her problem is an all too common one: when we think about our aspirations for Bible reading, we often aim too high. We set a goal that we cannot reach, and therefore we are always discouraged. As I told my congregant, I think that reading through the whole Bible in year is a wonderful goal; but I also think that abandoning Bible reading altogether when it becomes clear that the goal won’t be attained is a tragic consequence of too-lofty ambitions.

When you haven’t read the Bible for a while, just pick it up and read. Open to a Psalm and read just one, or if you’re ready for more then read two. Or go to one of the smaller epistles toward the back of the New Testament and have the satisfaction of reading all the way through a letter in one sitting! (Nevermind that it was only 15 verses.) Try the same with one of the Minor Prophets. Or just read the opening chapter of Genesis, John, or Acts.

In other words, ease back into Bible reading; don’t approach it with a level of ambition you won’t yet have the stamina to sustain. Work up to those larger goals.

1 I acknowledge that this is true more often in evangelical seminaries than in others; nevertheless, even in a theologically-liberal seminary where the authority and integrity of the Bible is highly challenged, there can be devotional aspects to the most critical exercises. Those men I know who came through a more liberal theological education with their faith intact did so because they saw every note of criticism and every challenge to biblical accuracy to be an opportunity for them to strengthen their own understanding and belief in Bible truths.

Adapted from From M.Div. to Rev.: making an effective transition from seminary into pastoral ministry by J.E. Eubanks, Jr. (Oakland, TN: Doulos Resources, 2011).

Friday, July 8, 2011

Refreshing your personal Bible study practices, part 1

In my just-published book, From M.Div. to Rev.: making an effective transition from seminary into pastoral ministry, I have a chapter that focuses on encouraging the spiritual life of the seminarian who is preparing for pastoral ministry. A friend (a non-seminary person!) who was reading a draft of the manuscript encouraged me to consider that this material might be useful to more than just seminary students; therefore, I'll post portions of that chapter on the blog for a few weeks, edited for a more general audience.

Bible Study

You need to be reading your Bible. This always strikes me as an almost-silly thing to say— yet, I find it easy to neglect my own Bible reading, and I know many other pastors who also struggle to read the Bible regularly. I knew a lot of classmates in seminary who were very disciplined about their devotional life, but I also knew plenty of others who, like me, have struggled with the spiritual disciplines.

If you are already disciplined about reading your Bible, I commend you, and congratulate you on a gift from God that not every Christian receives. You will still find some suggestions applicable to you in this post, hopefully.

On the other hand, if you struggle with Bible reading then I want to offer encouragement for you, as well.

Things to Remember about Christian Devotional Reading

We don’t read our Bibles as a form of penance. Most protestants will zealously reject the Roman Catholic idea of penance in the form of atoning for sin by repetition of certain prayers a prescribed number of times, etc. However, many of us do the same thing in our own way: if we missed a devotional yesterday, we’ll try to do penance by reading twice as much today. If we haven’t read our Bibles for weeks, we’ll demand of ourselves that we read for a half-hour every day without missing one.

We’ll do this for other things, too: if we were mean to our wives, ignored someone’s pain, or wasted time when we should have been working— and we feel convicted about those things— we might turn to Bible reading as a way to make up for them. Whatever our sin is, we frequently turn to self-flagellation of some sort to attempt to make atonement for it. Bible reading can be done as a form of such flagellation.

We don’t need to atone for our sins, through Bible reading or anything else. Christ has already atoned for our sins! If you are in Christ, then you are free from the guilt of your sin, and free of any need for self-atonement. (Good thing, too, because self- atonement isn’t possible anyway!) God doesn’t love you any less because of your sin, and He doesn’t love you any less because you missed a devotional, or a dozen devotionals in a row. God’s love for you is constant because Christ has atoned for all of your failings.

Likewise, we don’t read our Bibles as a way to gain God’s love. Too often we approach God as if His grace and love for us is one-dimensional: He is gracious and loving toward us in our sin, but in all other ways we have to gain His favor. This leads to a life spent in attempts to earn God’s love and favor, to gain His blessing through meritorious acts.

This can be our motivation in our devotional time, also. We may think, “If I spend my time reading God’s Word, He’ll love me more! He’ll give me more blessings! He’ll be glad He bothered to save me!”

Just as God doesn’t love you any less because of your sin, neither does He love you any more because of your obedience, your service to Him, or your piety. God already loves you as much as anyone can be loved— and He demonstrated that love 2,000 years before you were born, when He sacrificed His own Son to pay the ransom for your soul. God’s love for you is never-ending, and it is already as great as it can possibly be. You do not need to earn God’s love, even through your devotional life, for it is already yours.

Life Expressing
We read our Bibles because we will grow spiritually from reading the Bible. We read them because God communicates with us through His Word, reminding and teaching us of our need and His provision. We read them because we need the truths that the Bible contains. We read our Bibles because of our identity.

We have an identity through our faith in Christ: we, who were strangers and aliens in a foreign land with no home-country, who were orphans without a family or inheritance, who were enemies with the living God— WE are now the opposite of all of these. We are citizens of a holy nation, and part of the celestial city. We are no longer enemies with God, but are reconciled to Him, so much so that He has adopted us as His own and called us children of God! We have an identity, and it is in that identity that we do all that we do— including reading our Bibles.

We read our Bibles because, as children of the living God, we need to hear the words our Father would say to us. They are life-giving, strengthening, faith-building words, and they teach us of ourselves and our identity. They instruct us in what it means to be who we have become in Christ, and in how we might properly live ac- cording to the name we have been given.

Our Bibles are worth reading, not because doing so makes God overlook or forgive our sin, and not because reading them earns His pleasure; either of those perspectives subtracts from God’s sovereignty and places the determination for our spiritual well- being on ourselves. Our Bibles are worth reading because the Word of God is good for our faith and for our spiritual health.

In part two, we'll consider some strategies for refreshing your Bible study practices.

Adapted from From M.Div. to Rev.: making an effective transition from seminary into pastoral ministry by J.E. Eubanks, Jr. (Oakland, TN: Doulos Resources, 2011).

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Thoughts about Why It's Wrong to Be Sorrowful at the Lord's Table

My (online) friend Valerie recently posted these 14 "stream-of-consciousness" thoughts (man, I wish my streams of consciousness were as cogent!) on her blog. I asked if I could repost it, and she graciously granted permission.

1. When we confess our sins at the beginning of the service, the pastor or elder declares that we are forgiven. That means our sin has been removed as far as the east is from the west. It doesn’t exist anymore. Therefore there’s nothing left for us to be sorrowful about. If we are sorrowful at the Lord’s Table, we cast doubt on the efficacy of His forgiveness.

2. What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. My tears can add nothing to the cleansing process. He didn’t miss any spots that I still need to scrub away on my own. If we are sorrowful at the Lord’s Table, we are trying to accomplish our own salvation by our work of mourning.

3. Self-flagellation accomplishes nothing. By His stripes we are healed, not by ours. If we are sorrowful at the Lord’s Table, we deny the efficacy of His vicarious suffering.

4. The Lord’s Supper should draw our attention to those with whom we commune—the Lord Jesus and His body, the church. Being sorrowful over our own sin means our attention is consumed with ourselves. If we are sorrowful at the Lord’s Table, we are being self-centered at the worst possible moment.

5. Godly sorrow produces repentance without regret, leading to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10). If we are sorrowful at the Lord’s Table, we are engaging in worldly sorrow that leads to death.

6. One day a little boy refused to obey his father, threw a tantrum, and talked back in a rather egregious manner. The father took his son aside to apply some tender loving care to his nether region. A few swats, a few tears, a few words of apology and forgiveness, and a few hugs and kisses brought about a general change of attitude, and they abode in peace together for the rest of the afternoon. But that evening at the dinner table, the little boy wept and wailed about how sorry he was for misbehaving. Pretty soon his brothers and sisters were weeping and wailing, as well, over their past transgressions, and the whole family had a rather miserable meal. If we are sorrowful at the Lord’s Table, we are denying the Father’s forgiveness, and we are tempting our brothers and sisters to do likewise.

7. (Same scenario, take 2) One day a little boy refused to obey his father, threw a tantrum, and talked back in a rather egregious manner. The father took his son aside to apply some tender loving care to his nether regions. A few swats, a few tears, a few words of apology and forgiveness, and a few hugs and kisses brought about a general change of attitude, and they abode in peace together for the rest of the afternoon. But that evening at the dinner table, the father recounted the boy’s misdoings and went on at length about how disappointed and ashamed he was of his son. While he was at it, he reminded all his other kids about their past transgressions, and the whole family had a rather miserable meal. If we are sorrowful at the Lord’s Table, we are slanderously saying that the Father’s forgiveness is not sincere, neither for ourselves nor for our brothers and sisters.

8. One day, a wife was quarrelsome and disrespectful to her husband. Later, she was sorry for what she’d done. She apologized and he freely and gladly forgave her. They made up according to the time-honored custom of lovers everywhere. But as he kissed and caressed her, rather than joyfully receiving and returning his affection, she started weeping and kept saying over and over again, “I’m so sorry. I was such a witch today. I can’t believe the way I behaved. You must be so upset with me” and so on. If we are sorrowful at the Lord’s Table, we are faithlessly rejecting His love for us.

9. (Same scenario, take 2) One day, a wife was quarrelsome and disrespectful to her husband. Later, she was sorry for what she’d done. She apologized and he said that he freely and gladly forgave her. They made up according to the time-honored custom of lovers everywhere. But his kisses and caresses were accompanied by reminders of what a witch she’d been that day, how badly she’d behaved, and how he upset he still was about the things she’d said and done. If we are sorrowful at the Lord’s Table, we are slanderously saying He hasn’t truly given us His forgiveness and love.

10. Some people need persistent reminders that their sins have been forgiven, that Jesus loves them, that they are clean. If we are sorrowful at the Lord’s Table, we are throwing an anvil rather than a life preserver to weak-faithed people who are already drowning under a burden of shame.

11. The gospel is like well-functioning toilet. Forgiveness flushes away the contents, and they are gone for good. Why would we want to remember them? Why would we want the pipes to back up so we can continue to gaze upon and smell our filth? Why would we want to keep using (and never emptying) a chamber pot when we’ve got perfectly good indoor plumbing? If we are sorrowful at the Lord’s Table, we are clinging to our sin and showing that we still love it more than Jesus.

12. Jesus has borne our sins on the cross. The devil wants us to believe that we still bear them ourselves. If we are sorrowful at the Lord’s Table, we are making it out to be the table of demons.

13. He preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies. He doesn’t do so in order to hand me over to them to be tormented with shame and guilt. And He doesn’t do so in order to perpetuate His enmity with me. If we are sorrowful at the Lord’s Table, we make the good Shepherd out to be a wicked trickster of a wolf.

14. The Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the Lamb’s wedding feast in the new heavens, where every tear is wiped away. If we are sorrowful at the Lord’s Table, we are bringing hell into heaven.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Books for June 2011

A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect PianoA Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano by Katie Hafner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wonderful book. The consideration of Glenn Gould is, itself, delightful and highly readable. But the "biographical" look at a particular Steinway piano is a fascinating and artful way to approach this material. The book is, in all fairness, a good biography-- or at least a memoir-- of both (or all three, considering the attention given to the primary technician behind the grand). Highly recommended.

View all my reviews