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Posts Tagged ‘piety’


Much has changed in America since I became a Christian during Reagan’s second term in office. The church has had a variety of reactions from assimilation to abdication.

What is a Christian to do? How are pastors to guide and direct people?

In 2016 I prepared my people for a new set of circumstances by preaching through Esther and then 1 Peter. While “evangelicals” seem to have won they battle of the election, they seem to have lost the war for the culture as numerous articles blame Trump’s victory on them. The disenfranchisement many felt has only deepened with new charges of x-phobia.

Image result for faith for this momentRick McKinley’s new book, Faith for this Moment: Navigating a Polarized World as the People of God, caught my eye. McKinley is the pastor of Imago Dei church in Portland, OR. He shows up in Blue Like Jazz as Donald Miller’s pastor for a time. Like Driscoll, he seemed to fall into the Emerging (not Emergent) Church movement that held to historic Christianity applied to new circumstances.

On the surface this book seems to be The Benedict Option for millennials. I haven’t read BO, though it has been recommended to me often. It seems a bit retreatist to me. It sounds a bit too much like abdication. I could obviously wrongly judging that book by its cover. This book, I read.

I appreciated the overall tone and message of the book. I had some issues with the details and some of his analysis. It is not a long book, so it doesn’t flesh everything out as much as some may like. He’s trying to move people in a direction more than giving them detailed instructions. So, what is that direction?

He begins with the Moment in which we live, how we got here, and then how we should move forward as God’s people. That last part sounds the most like BO as he seeks to reclaim some distinctive Christian practices to help us live faithfully in a world, a culture more precisely, that has become hostile to our existence.

The Moment for him was the aftermath of the Pulse shooting. Christians, in the eyes of an unbelieving culture, we known less for Jesus and His sacrificial love than our opposition to homosexuality and defense of firearms. Though a Muslim, many show Mateen as in line with the “God and guns” crowd that President Obama disparaged.

Lost in the moment was the compassion shown by many churches, locally and in other parts of the country. Lost was Chick-Fil-A providing food to responders on a Sunday. Somehow we were at least partially to blame.

And then came the results of the 2016 election. The backlash is still a popular narrative: evangelicals voted for Trump because they are racist, misogynist, anti-immigration and homo-phobic. This is a world without nuance painting all conservative Christians with the same (wrong) brush.

“We are a society that is messy and complicated, and it appears that Christians, whose voices have been drowned out by misrepresentation and misunderstanding, have little to say about the things that matter most to the world.”

Image result for adam and eveChristians have moved from a group with relative power to being marginalized as a minority group. This happened without moving in a foreign country. We’ve lost our sense of identity and place. We’ve also lost our sense of practice: how we live or act, what we do, because we follow Jesus. Most Christians are caught between “denial and despair”. McKinley is not going to lead us in a pity party, however. Nor is he going to encourage us to go with the flow. He reminds us that for significant periods of time God’s people have lived as the marginalized, the exiled, and have flourished despite that.

He begins with the original exile. Adam and Eve were removed from the Garden of Eden because of their sin. Life changed forever, so it seemed. There was no going back for them. The consequences would be disastrous as one son killed another as sin ran rampant. Abram and Sarai willingly went into exile in following the call of God. They had promises and a covenant but they were strangers and aliens in Canaan.

“This shows us that while exile is a place of loss, it is also a place of hope, because the God who is sovereign over the times in which we live is the one who sustains us in exile.”

He continues with Jacob, Moses (what about Joseph??) and the wilderness generation. He identifies Jesus as the True Exile who voluntarily (like Abram) left “home” to come to this far country to live among us, and suffer with and for us. He entered exile to bring us back to the Garden, but better.

McKinley then focuses on Babylon as a real exile and a picture of subsequent exiles. Babylon didn’t make all of Israel slaves. They were invited to partake of Babylon’s prosperity, similar to the materialism and consumerism of America. Prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel were calling them to faithfulness in exile. They were not to abandon their faith and assimilate with Babylon. They were to seek the good of the city and put down roots there. Their welfare was wrapped up with the welfare of the city.

“Exile can be a place of deep spiritual transformation and kingdom advancement if we are willing to step into it with courage and faith.”

It is easy to miss that Israel was in exile due to her sin. She lost her place because she forfeited her faith. It was time to regain her faith in exile. The church in the west, in particular in America to whom McKinley writes, has lost its place because it largely lost its faith. It fell for the American Dream instead of the Kingdom of God. It is time to regain our faith in Christ and His kingdom.

He focuses on that passage in Jeremiah in Baptize It, Burn It, or Bless It?. Here he discusses Christendom, both its rise in Rome and its fall here in America. Christendom is the blending of Christianity with the dominant culture such that you have a civil religion that largely reflects the culture. It is a largely assimilated faith. Racial pride, ethnic price, economic pride etc. are identified with Christianity.

While I agree with him, I also struggle with some of his points. For instance, on the issue of a border wall he sounds reductionistic to me. The threat is not the “other” so much as the lawless for many. He rejects just war theory as if it were the same as “manifest destiny”. For instance, he writes “When our hope becomes misplaced in these things, we begin to see other countries as a threat rather than a neighbor.” We live in a world of sinners so all our homes have doors, with locks. Every home in my neighborhood has a fence because there are boundary lines. I don’t hate my neighbor or fear my neighbor. Many politicians and celebrities who chastise us about a wall live behind walls and travel with armed security. That is wise in a world of sinners. Are nations to eschew wisdom for foolishness?

Another example, this time of overlooking details. In the context of same sex marriage he mentions that the church has done little to reduce its own divorce rate. I agree that some portions of the church have high divorce rates. But he seems to ignore the movement toward “covenant marriage” in many states in the Bush 43 years. These laws made getting a divorce more difficult for those who chose to enter that kind of marriage.

In response McKinley focuses on piety. He lays great weight on these practices to remain distinctive. He appears to lose the connection between being and doing. Theology informs our being. To be fair, he could have teased more of that (theology) out of his first practice. But he sees theological distinctives are part of the problem.

“The way forward will require us to move beyond doctrinal divides of conservative and liberal. We will need to find a set of practices, born from faith, that can make us distinct in our identity and our way of living in this moment in which we find ourselves.”

Image result for the borgHe is right that cultures make disciples. “You will be assimilated! Resistance is futile!” cries the Borg. Here he brings in some Lesslie Newbegin and contextualization. The gospel is a-cultural. It transcends cultures instead of being culture bound. The church is called to “navigate its relationship to the culture it finds itself in at this moment.” We embrace elements of culture in agreement with biblical norms and reject those in conflict with biblical norms. He breaks out what looks like a triperspectival triangle. The gospel is the norm, the church is the existential perspective (who we are) and we live in the circumstances of a particular culture. The gospel does not change. It is the norm that is intended to transform both church and culture- though in different ways. The church lives out the gospel in culture, and addresses that unchanging gospel to the particular culture it finds itself in a way that the culture can understand and applied to the culture’s problems.

McKinley expresses this in the terminology of “windows of redemption and opposition.” Each culture has ways we can address the culture “in its own space and through its own language and values.” But there are also “values, beliefs, and practices that are at odds with Jesus and the gospel.” If your gospel doesn’t present any offense it probably isn’t the biblical gospel. If it is only in opposition to culture, it probably isn’t either.

He then moves into the history of his congregation to show how this worked out. They needed to repent, often, of their lack of involvement with their community and culture. We often act like strongholds, at odds with those around us instead of seeking their holistic welfare.

“We must be willing to be honest with ourselves, to be broken over the state of our own hearts and the part we played in making the church the way it is.”

The book moves into the final section focusing on the spiritual practices he advocates. It seems strange to me, to compare us with Muslims (or the Amish or Hasidic Jews) as identifiable by dress and customs. I’m not sure about focusing on such externals. He does point us to practices that may standout, but not dress. The goal he notes is to turn us around (repentance) and “fully enter the story of God in our everyday lives.”

“Too many of us are exhausted from the pressure of the empire, and we find ourselves binging on its pleasures to short-circuit the anxiety we feel, even if those pleasures are only a temporary fix.”

He begins with that story in the practice of listening and obeying. Scripture is to be the story that shapes our worldview. The Story of redemption should shape how we live, eat, work etc.. He then moves into hospitality. He misses the point at times, focusing on how our government welcomes some immigrants and not others. I get that our hospitality is intended to be distinct from the governments, but the government has a different mission and goals than the church does. He doesn’t really develop the differences between the church and the state. This warps some of his statements.

In the chapter on generosity he seems to misunderstand some basic economic principles. Capitalism isn’t built on supply and demand. It certainly honors that reality in a way that other economic theories but it is built on the idea of using capital to create supply to meet demand. He also confused greed with capitalism on that same page.

The fourth practice is Sabbath. The practice of ceasing from work and engaging in rest and worship is contrary to the consumerism of America. We regain our focus and become refreshed so we can be better and more principled workers as a side benefit. He doesn’t want us to complicate it, but some of his quick encouragements seem to miss the point. Like, light a candle.

The last practice is that of vocation, seeing God’s call in our lives in work. God calls us to work and gifts us to work. It is not about money, but the gospel calls us to work out of love for God and others. We flourish, generally speaking, when we work to help others flourish.

As I mentioned earlier, this is more a big picture book than detailed book. I think that the practices are good for us. I do have some concerns with his pietistic bent that in some ways de-values theology. This can be a helpful book as long as one spits out the bones. More conservative readers will find a fair number of bones in his political references and perspectives.

[I received a complimentary copy of this book for the purposes of review.]

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Is there a reasonable hope for godliness for the Christian? Can we please God?

In the 5th chapter of The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung addresses this very question. He starts with the qualifications for office. The standards can seem so high that most men feel unqualified. They humble us. Taken absolutely, they disqualify everyone but Jesus. How are we to sort this out?

“It’s one thing to be humble about our piety. It’s another thing to think piety is impossible.”

At times we tend to flatten out holiness. We see it as static, not dynamic. It is part of our dynamic life with God. As we affirm our depravity, and the remnant of indwelling sin, we can start to think that we can obey God. We start to think we cannot please God.

But Scripture doesn’t talk that way.

And if we don’t think carefully and biblically, our lives are stunted.

He wants us to consider Zechariah and Elizabeth. They were righteous, walking blamelessly before God. That is not justification. That is sanctification.

Consider Job. He was called blameless and upright. Again, sanctification.

It isn’t just the Old Testament. Jesus expected people to put his words into practice (Mt. 7:24). James basically said the same thing (James 2:22-25).

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In the third chapter of The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung looks at the pattern of piety found in Scripture. It is not enough to know we are called to holiness, but we also need to know what it looks like, and doesn’t look like.

Holiness means separation. That is the bottom line. God sets us apart from the rest of humanity in two ways. First, we are definitively set apart at justification. We are set apart as Gods’ people. So, every Christian is sanctified. But God continues to set us apart from the world morally. This is progressive sanctification. You don’t have one without the other. Both of these are a result of grace.. The first is an act of grace (one time event) and the second is a work of grace (a process) according to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

What Holiness is Not

It is not rule keeping. Holiness certainly includes obedience. People often get off course by thinking about non-biblical rules. We are set apart for God. We are to obey his law. Jesus was not too keen on the Pharisees for neglecting God’s law from man-made traditions. It is not about dancing, whether or not you drink a beer with dinner, or have the occasional cuss word slip out when you smash your thumb with a hammer. It is about gentleness, not getting drunk, and having lips used to edify and express gratitude.

“Holiness is more than middle class values. … checklist spirituality is highly selective.”

It is not generational imitation. Some people think it is having the standards and practices of an earlier generation. It could be the 1950’s in Amercia, Calvin’s Geneva or the Puritan’s England. This is what got the Amish in trouble. DeYoung notes that the 50’s may have had a better standards of sexual decency. But when it came to race relations, not so good. Just an example. We are trying to apply the timeless law in our time, not recreate another time.

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In the 3rd chapter of Recovering the Reformed Confession, R. Scott Clark tackles the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience.  In this chapter he addresses inroads of mysticism into Reformed practice.  It was here that I learned that I am part of the problem.  He lays much of the problem at the feet of … Jonathan Edwards.  As a result, people like Tim Keller, John Gerstner and R.C. Sproul (under whom I studied the Theology of Edwards’ Sermons in seminary) are unduly influenced by this quest and part of the problem.

But first, he mentions Reformed people seeking God’s moral will through listening for the “still small voice.”  It seems illegitimate to make a crisis out of a few people who might do this.  I’m more familiar (though not supportive) with people “listening” for God’s will in matter upon which Scripture does not speak: this person as a spouse? this job or that one?  I would disagree that this is a widespread problem in Reformed Communities.  There are no data to substantiate his view of the “crisis”.

“If someone asks, ‘What is God teaching you these days?’ one has the sense that the expected answer is not to be a summary of this week’s sermon or reflection on the significance of baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but an insight derived from a special experience or private experience.”

This troubles me.  First, because it unfairly represents the person who asks this question.  Second, it neglects one of the ordinary means of grace- personal reading of the Scripture (I also find prayer conspicuously absent from his discussion).  He bases his criticism on what “he feels”, subjectivism.  From my subjective experience, when I ask someone this question, I mean “what is God teaching you from His Word.  When someone asks me this, that is how I answer.  As we read God’s Word, the Spirit is at work.  Themes emerge from Scripture that we need to pay attention to.  This is not private revelation, but the illumination of the Scriptures (which we see in WCF I).

He then lets his personal agenda take control regarding the worship service.  Since the Scriptures contain 150 Psalms, there should not be a problem with a church that wants to sing to God (I’ve never been anywhere where there was not some introduction, Scripture or liturgical element to break up the songs).  Is there something wrong with Power Point in a context in which people don’t read music?  Must we cling to the form of hymn books and paper when the point is to actually sing?

Where are all these Reformed churches with dramatic presentations?  Where is the liturgical dance?  Have they happened?  Yes, these examples happen.  But I find no reason to think that they are now common place among Reformed Churches.

While I agree that the quest for an unmediated encounter with God is illegitimate, I’m not convinced how prevalent this is in our community.  But that is because of how differently we view revival.  He seems to  equate revival with revivalism.

I have been influenced by Iain Murray’s book Revival and Revivalism ( which Clark criticizes).   Murray argues that revivalism is grounded in Pelagianism and the use of illegitimate means for coerce a “decision” and the focus on the subjective experience.  Many people, like Murray, use “revival” to describe what Clark terms reformation.  Revivalism is a technical term for a movement which has been, and should continue to be, rejected by the Reformed community.  But Reformed Communities have witnessed, and affirmed, revivals.    Clark’s unfortunate use/change of terminology clouds the issue.  But he also takes issue with how a large segment of the Reformed Community, through Jonathan Edwards, has seemingly been bewitched into holding a type of mysticism.

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In listening to some Tim Keller sermons there were a few leads I wanted to follow up. If you are like me, you might think “I really need to find that”, but aren’t really sure where to find it.

Tim is fond of mentioning Martin Luther’s Large Catechism in connection with idolatry.  I’ve been wanting to read it for myself.  I figure there is quite a bit I could learn.  Perhaps you are like me and aren’t sure where to look.  Well, it is part of the Book of Concord.  So, here is the Large Catechism.  Enjoy!

Keller also mentions a Thomas Chalmers’ sermon, The Expulsive Power of a Greater Affection, in connection to sanctification.  I’ve been wanting to read this sermon, but was not aware of any Thomas Chalmers’ collections.  He’s not the most famous of the Puritans.  Thank God for the internet.  Someone has put The Expulsive Power of a Greater Affection online.  Justin Taylor notes how Sinclair Ferguson makes use of this same sermon.

Sometimes we make the mistake of substituting other things for it. Favorites here are activity and learning. We become active in the service of God ecclesiastically (we gain the positions once held by those we admired and we measure our spiritual growth in terms of position achieved); we become active evangelistically and in the process measure spiritual strength in terms of increasing influence; or we become active socially, in moral and political campaigning, and measure growth in terms of involvement. Alternatively, we recognize the intellectual fascination and challenge of the gospel and devote ourselves to understanding it, perhaps for its own sake, perhaps to communicate it to others. We measure our spiritual vitality in terms of understanding, or in terms of the influence it gives us over others. But no position, influence, or evolvement can expel love for the world from our hearts. Indeed, they may be expressions of that very love.

Others of us make the mistake of substituting the rules of piety for loving affection for the Father: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Such disciplines have an air of sanctity about them, but in fact they have no power to restrain the love of the world. The root of the matter is not on my table, or in my neighborhood, but in my heart. Worldliness has still not been expelled.

The basic point is that our desire for particular sins will be lessened or removed only by having a greater affection for something or someone else.  We must love Jesus more than we love our favorite sins.  This is what Samuel Storms discusses at length in Pleasures Evermore.  It is what lies underneath John Piper’s Christian Hedonism.  Some great stuff- as I shared with someone caught in an addiction.  Avoiding our addiction can be a new idol- a mere replacement idol.  This person needs to meditate upon the work of Christ that he might grow in his love for Christ and be able to put this sin to death.  Otherwise we are using worldly means to deal with our sinful desires and habits.

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The rather lengthy Gods and Generals (216 minutes) is part of an even lengthier trilogy of films about the Civil War (aka the War Between the States and the War of Northern Aggression, depending on where you went to school).  This first installment focuses on the life and role of Stonewall Jackson.  It concludes 2 months prior to the battle of Gettysburg with his death after taking friendly fire.

It focuses primarily on the Southern perspective of the war, though Lt. Colonel Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) provides a brief glimpse of a Northern perspective- and a far more philosophical one.  The Southern perspective was that the North sought to violate their land and oppress them.  Jackson’s allegience was to the State of Virginia, and what she decided he would do.  They neglect to mention anything about the initial aggression of the Confederates at Fort Sumter.  They think the Republicans as war profiteers, and Abraham Lincoln as a war monger who seeks to disrupt their civil, gentle lives.

Very surprising was an exchange between Jackson and his cook, a free African-American, after they prayed.  Mr. Lewis prayed for the freedom of the rest of his family.  Gen. Jackson told him many Conferate leaders wanted the slaves freed.  Hmmm.  So which state right were they fighting for?  Wasn’t it the right to maintain the enslavement of others?  The cook could see the contradiction.  The cook could see the gap in Stonewall Jackson’s piety.  But Stonewall couldn’t see it.

Chamberlain expressed these very sentiments.  The South saw itself as fighting a second war of independence.  But that freedom was limited to white citizens, what people like President Lincoln where trying to change.

Chamberlain talked about God periodically, but there was not glimpse into his personal piety.  Jackson would pray at the drop of a hat.  He had a very warm piety- but the acting of those scenes seemed outside the realm of my experience.  I just have to wonder if the writers and director were people of faith- because the way it was written & directed made it feel foreign to them.  Like a white guy trying to be black- it just doesn’t work.

The movie had 3 lengthy battle scenes: the battles of Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancelorsville.  They were not gory.  You certainly got the impression that the Union leaders had no concern for their men.  In battle men will die, but you should implement a strategy that gains victory at minimal cost of life.  They would march their men into strongly fortified killing fields.  God shall hold them accountable too.

If you are interested in a movie about the Civil War, there are better.  This was long, laborious and leaned toward propoganda.  I had to watch it in 3 sittings, and though some scenes were quite touching, overall it seemed too much like Gone with the Wind with flowerly language and bold statements.  Having said all that, I may now be forced to return north of the Mason-Dixon line.

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