Struggling with Emotions…1600 Years Ago

Did you know that one of the giants of church history, Augustine (died A.D. 410), struggled with his emotions?  He struggled to keep emotion in its proper place with respect to reason; with respect to truth.  In a day and culture where emotion – i.e. Augustine_Lateran“feeling” – runs rampant as the domineering god of the moment (or rather, the tool of many domineering gods), it’s worth hearing from Augustine again.  Here he is then, from his Confessions,as he reflects on the struggle with emotion (interestingly, through the lens of his conflicting views about church music…indeed, there is nothing new under the sun):

“I notice that the different emotions of my spirit, by their sweet variety, have their appropriate expressions in the voice and singing, by some hidden relationship which stirs them up [My Editorial Note: Meaning, certain church music has a unique way of stirring up Augustine’s emotions].  But this gratification of my flesh, which must not be allowed to take control over my mind, often beguiles me.  My feelings do not serve reason, so as to follow patiently, but after having gained admission for the sake of reason, strive to grab the reins and take the lead. Thus in these things I sin without knowing it, but realize it afterwards…

“Yet when I happen to be more moved by the singing than by what is being sung, I confess that I have sinned gravely, and then would rather not have heard the singing.  See my condition now!  Weep with me and weep for me, you who can so control your inward feelings that good results follow.  For you who do not act this way, these things do not concern you.  But O my God, hear me and look up on me, and have mercy on me and heal me, you in whose presence I have become a puzzle to myself; and this is my infirmity.”– (from The Confessions of Saint Augustine: Modern English Version, Hal M. Helms, page 210).

Now, don’t trip over Augustine’s hang up with church music (though perhaps we should share more of that hang up at times than we often do these days).  Rather, just notice his clear sense that emotion is right, it is good, it is necessary, but it must not be preeminent.  Borrowing from the words of a biblical counseling curriculum titled Unbound (from Truth in Love Biblical Counseling), “A key point to gaining and maintaining emotional stability is by understanding that while emotions are real they simply are not the truth.  Even though our emotions may be based on the truth, they themselves are not the truth…We have to choose: either our emotions will control us and determine the path of our lives, or we will get our emotions under control and allow reason base on the Truth to guide and direct our lives…” [emphasis in the original].  Elsewhere the same curriculum says, “Making decisions based on our emotions is like allowing a drunk to get behind the wheel of a school bus-the bus will be all over the road and it isn’t going to turn out well for anyone.  Emotions can have a ‘seat on the bus,’ just not the driver’s seat.”

It’s good to know that my struggles in life are neither new nor solitary.  Thanks Augustine for giving me some insight into your challenges 1600 years ago…

God is “Right”

I am slowly reading through John Piper’s book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (hopefully I’ll actually finish it at some point).  Today I came across the portion quoted below, and I can only respond with a hearty (and joyful), “AMEN!”:

(From The Future of Justification, pages 63-64) – It is not very satisfying simply to say that God’s righteousness is his commitment to do what is right, because it leaves the term “right” undefined.  We don’t feel like we have gained very much in defining “righteousness” if we use the word “right” to define it.  To be sure, it is not an insignificant thing to say to a child, “God is the kind of Person who always knows and loves and does what is right.”  That is a wise and true thing to say.  But someday that child is going to become a teenager and ask, “How does God decide what is right?  Who tells God what is right?  Is there a book of laws or rules that God has to obey?”  Answering those questions gets at the deeper meaning of righteousness.  What is the “right” to which God is unswervingly committed?

The answer is that there is no book of laws or rules that God consults to know what is right.  He wrote the book.  What we find therefore in the Old Testament and in Paul is that God defines “right” in terms of himself.  There is no other standard to consult than his own infinitely worthy being.  Thus, what is right, most ultimately, is what upholds the value and honor of God – what esteems and honors God’s glory.

 

The Historical Saint Patrick

Last Sunday (Saint Patrick’s Day) I had the chance to do something I’ve been looking forward to for some time, namely give a biographical talk on the historical Patrick.  Patrick’s life is a compelling story of God’s faithfulness in the building of Jesus’ church.  If you care to do so, you can listen to the talk by clicking here: Saint Patrick Biographical Talk (March 2019).  Please bear with some of the sound quality issues and the noise of exuberant children in the background!

 

 

Folks…It’s Saint Patrick’s Day!

Or it will be…on Sunday, March 17th.  Saint Patrick’s Day is my second favorite holiday (that isn’t really a holiday) next to Christmas.  I’m looking forward to celebrating it this year on a Sunday, an altogether appropriate day of the week to remember God’s work in the life of a pioneer Gospel missionary.  Below is an article that I wrote for one of our “small town” newspapers here in Santa Cruz County.  As I understand, it should run tomorrow for publication purposes:

Saint Patrick: Truth Stranger than Fiction

There is an old adage that says, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”  Sometimes this worn-out trope is actually correct. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.  Come March 17th, the strangeness of truth will once again impress itself on our consciousness, even if we miss it altogether.  Consider this: On March 17ththere’s a good chance that you’ll remember to dress yourself with at least one article of green-colored clothing.  You might even take strange delight in buying bottled root beer, labeling it “Guinness,” and then serving it to your family and friends with an odd sort of triumph. Not that I’ve ever done such a thing…every year…multiple years in a row.  Why such a buzz for March 17thin particular?  Hello!  It’s Saint Patrick’s Day of course!

Perhaps you’re one of the millions in America, like me, with a strange affinity for a small island nation because of your ancestral background (however distant and remote).  Or maybe you’re the type who will gladly accept any excuse for a good party – New Year; Valentine’s Day; Chinese New Year; Saint Patrick’s Day; Cinco De Mayo; Memorial Day; Fourth of July; Labor Day; Halloween; Veteran’s Day.  If you look hard enough, the party can continue year-round.  Or maybe you just have bad childhood memories of too many unsolicited pinches on the arm every March 17thwhen you went to school forgetting to wear green. Whatever the reason, there’s a good chance you’ll at least be aware on March 17ththat one of those unofficial annual holidays has come again.

Regardless of how you experience this strange little “holiday” of shamrocks, leprechauns, Lucky Charms cereal, and the corned beef you eat once a year, it’s worth knowing just a little of the real history that undergirds our frivolity. Because, as I noted above, sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction.

In the case of Saint Patrick, the story begins in the Roman-British town of Bannaventa Berniae, probably located somewhere on the west coast of Britain, perhaps “during the reign of the Roman Emperor Theodosius” (Philip Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland, 2).  Patrick grew up in a well-to-do family of British landowners and churchmen (of a sort), though even into his teenage years he himself had no interest in spiritual matters.  Before reaching the age of sixteen, Patrick was taken prisoner during an attack by raiders from Ireland.  Sold into slavery, he spent the next six years of his life shepherding sheep, apparently on Ireland’s west coast.  During that time, Patrick awakened to a new faith in God.  He eventually escaped slavery, clearly guided as he understood it by God, and made his way back to Britain.

The strange part is what came next.  Inexplicably, through a series of dreams, Patrick came to realize a God-given call on him to return to the land his captivity and abuse.  He began to burn with an irrepressible desire to share with the Irish the Christian gospel about Jesus Christ; about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and God’s great love for people – especially the Irish.  After an undetermined period of study, Patrick did exactly that…he went back!

Space precludes me from telling Patrick’s tale in full, but, undoubtedly, he spent the rest of his life sharing the story of the Bible with his persecutors, the Irish. We know of his work through two primary source writings – a scathing letter of protestation and mourning against the actions of a British warlord named Coroticus, and Patrick’s semi-autobiographical defense of his ministry commonly titled, The Confession.

So why is all of this worth reflecting on in the lead-up to Saint Patrick’s Day 2019? Well, if you’re a Christian – a Bible-believing follower of Jesus Christ – you may be encouraged by reading Patrick’s words.  If you do, you’ll recognize a brother you’ve never met, and you’ll be stunned all over again by the rich history of our ancient faith.  Whether you’re a Christian or not, Patrick’s story, when told in full, presents us with a remarkable challenge.  It is, undeniably, a tale of deep humility, fabulous grace, and genuine love in the face of hurt, exploitation, abuse, and real evil.  How could a man so poorly-used live so well? How can we partake of the same spirit and genuine authenticity that so captured this saint among saints?

Indeed, truth is stranger than fiction…

(P.S. Please consider joining us at Felton Bible Church at 5:00 pm on Sunday, March 17thfor a biographical presentation on Patrick.)

In, But not Of the World…

Recently, a representative from a secular organization working to address poverty approached Felton Bible Church asking to use the church’s facility space in order to host a community meeting.  The individual who came was courteous and respectful, and the request was certainly reasonable.  Unfortunately, the organization he represented was not one with whom FBC could partner, even through something as seemingly benign as allowing the use of our space.  Below is FBC’s response to the request (with names redacted, so as not to make this post inflammatory or otherwise inappropriate):

 

January 7, 2019

NAME,

Thank you for stopping by yesterday morning at Felton Bible Church.  You are welcome anytime.  Thank you also for the question about using our space for a meeting of the ORGANIZATION. Unfortunately, we cannot offer our space as a meeting place for the ORGANIZATION’s gathering in Felton.  I apologize in advance for the length of this response. What follows is my effort to respect you and your request by giving a thoughtful and considered answer.

At the outset, let me affirm what I see as our areas of common concern, and common cause.  First, we share a common concern for the flourishing of human life and human community. Poverty – especially poverty that results from systematic injustices and exploitation – is a pernicious blight on our society.  Like you, we share a concern to see such poverty addressed.  Like you, and even through your efforts, we are challenged to consider how we should be part of working to encounter and address poverty.

Second, we share the ORGANIZATION’s emphasis on morality. We applaud the choice to frame such an effort in moral terms, taking seriously words like “good” and “evil.” Doing so evidences a commendable sensitivity to core issues.

But, beyond these areas of common concern, FBC’s understanding of the world, its problems, and the solution to those problems is markedly different than the ORGANIZATION.  Our differences are substantial; substantial enough that we cannot make common cause with the ORGANIZATION itself.  Let me see if I can explain by first briefly describing the Gospel, and then by describing our view of the common concerns noted above – poverty and morality:

The Gospel – At Felton Bible Church, we give ourselves to the worship of God who made all people; God whose being, character, purposes, and work are revealed to us, and for us, in the Bible.  The Bible’s testimony is one of God’s gracious and loving work to free human beings from the terrible consequence of our sin; our rebellion against him.  That consequence is, ultimately, impending judgment in Hell, the very definition of “death.”  God accomplished this work by sending his Son, Jesus Christ – who was God himself born as a human being – to live the life of perfect obedience we cannot live, and to die on a Roman cross to pay the debt of sin we cannot pay. This account of God and his work of love on our behalf we know as “The Gospel,” or “good news.”  Felton Bible Church exists to enjoy God in love by worshipping him.  We exist to share the Gospel with all who will hear, inviting them into a life of following and worshipping Jesus Christ.  This is what makes us “Christians.”

Poverty – Now, poverty (as we understand it), and especially poverty that stems from systemic injustice and the exploitation of others, is first and foremost an issue of sin. This does not mean that all poor people are poor because they are sinners.  Not at all!  Rather, poverty arises because we live in a world broken by sin, inhabited by people enslaved to sin and Satan.  Indeed, we who follow Christ are nothing more (nor less) than former slaves rescued by Jesus from bondage to our own sin – to its presence in our lives; to its consequences, now and in eternity; and to the first sinner, namely Satan.  Therefore, we view the “fight” against poverty as a matter of Gospel work.  It is a matter of introducing people to the God who created them, who loves them in Jesus Christ, and who offers them the blessing of being his child.  This work includes demonstrating that love in tangible ways, by doing what we can to address physical realities and physical needs in this life now.

Morality – Let me borrow from my online Webster’s dictionary by defining “morality” as “conformity to ideals of right human conduct.”  Morality is the decision, the choice, the effort to do what is right, and reject what is wrong.  Our ability to talk in moral terms depends on the reality of truth; truth that defines that which is “right” and that which is “wrong,” that which is “good” and that which is “bad.”  There can be no such thing as “morality” apart from “truth.”  Among the members of Felton Bible Church, we know that God is the source of all truth.  That which is “true,” is that which conforms to his character and commands; that which reflects his love, his justice, his joy, and even his righteous anger over sin. God describes himself for us in his Word to us, the Bible.  For this reason, we look to the Bible in order to discover God’s truth and then live our lives accordingly.  Any fight against poverty that is really concerned for morality must begin with truth. It must begin with God and God’s Word.

Flowing from the Gospel, we at Felton Bible Church have a strategy for fighting poverty, though I freely admit the ongoing challenge of actually living it out.  Our strategy is first to believe the Gospel ourselves and follow Jesus as his disciples. Then, we seek to live in loving, generous unity with one another in the church, wisely giving of ourselves, our time, and our resources wherever and whenever we can, as God leads and provides. Finally, we want to overflow in generosity outside the walls of our building, and beyond the relational boundaries of our community – again, as God leads and provides.  This can and should happen in a thousand different ways, according to the individual life contexts and work given to us by God.  This strategy is, as I understand it, decidedly different than the strategy advocated and employed by the ORGANIZATION.

Let me note here that differences in “strategy” alone will not always preclude our making common cause in areas of social good alongside organizations with whom we disagree.  But, as I review the information you provided this morning, and further information available via the pertinent webpages, I find cause for concern.  It seems to me that both the ORGANIZATION generally, and the LOCAL chapter specifically (under the umbrella of the ORGANIZATION #2), define themselves socially, politically, and even religiously in ways that Felton Bible Church cannot condone and support.  My sense of this comes not only through the specific positions articulated in the ORGANIZATION’s material, but also through the partners listed and viewpoints described on the flyer, and on the webpages of the ORGANIZATION/ORGANIZATION #2.

May I conclude by saying thank you?  Thank you again for stopping by today, and for inquiring as to the use of our facility.  Thank you also for your personal commitment to our community, especially as it is expressed in your willingness to serve on the NAME OF POSITION.  That’s a tough job, and I’m sure often a thankless one. I’m grateful that you are willing to give of yourself on behalf of others.  Please let me know if you would ever like to talk further.  I’d love to take you to lunch sometime.

Respectfully,

NAME

JOB TITLE

Felton Bible Church

Luke’s “Oh So Clear” Testimony of Jesus

I love how clear God’s Word, the Bible, is about the deity of Jesus Christ.  Even without considering explicit passages like John 1, the New Testament oozes the divine nature of God the Son.  At Felton Bible Church we are currently studying through the Gospel of Luke on Sunday mornings.  Today, while working on Luke 8:26-39, I came across this statement in Luke 8:39:

“[Jesus, speaking to the man whom he has just delivered from horrific demon possession] ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’  And he [meaning the man] went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.”

Ha, ha, I love it!  Luke is so profoundly subtle.  Jesus tells the man to go and declare how much God has done for him.  And the man does precisely that…only he declares how much Jesus has done.  The point is not lost on us as Luke’s readers.  This man wasn’t confused or disobedient.  He knew precisely who it was that had freed him from sinful bondage to demonic powers – it was God himself; God in the person and work of Jesus Christ!

Depend on it, Luke’s gospel is a carefully written, methodical, intricately constructed work of art.  Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, this historian par excellence makes no mistake with his choice of words.  Luke absolutely means for us, his readers, to arrive at the same conclusion as the man of the Gerasenes: Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is fully God, and fully man.  He was then, is now, and will be for eternity, God clothed with humanity.

Preach Christ! – President Bush’s Funeral

I recently wrote this article for our monthly newsletter at Felton Bible Church.  Let me caveat what’s here by noting my respect and appreciation for President George H.W. Bush:

I wonder, did you have the chance to watch President George H.W. Bush’s state funeral ceremony on December 5th?  It was, for a host of reasons, a fascinating and moving event; and that regardless of one’s views about President Bush as a leader and political figure.  Despite the fascination, I found myself troubled by one line in particular that made a repeat appearance during the service itself and/or during the news coverage.  Repeatedly, newscasters or eulogizers reflected on President Bush as a man who lived according to this principle: “Preach Christ at all times and, if necessary, use words.”

Now, let’s acknowledge from the outset that there is a measure of truth inherent to that statement.  Certainly our Christian action – specifically the love we exude for God and people – ought to speak loudly, even apart from words.  No doubt such truth undergirds James’ thought when he writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?…For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:14, 26, ESV).  But, despite a measure of truth, the phrase, “Preach Christ at all times and, if necessary, use words,” is deadly.  It is fundamentally flawed and marks a dangerous pit in which Satan would love to entrap Jesus’ people and Jesus’ church.

For starters, notice how this pithy slogan privileges action over words in a way the Bible does not.  How does one “preach” Christ apart from words?  The very idea of “preaching” necessitates speaking (Note: Think here of proclaiming God’s words in everyday communication, and not only of our Sunday morning worship).  There is no preaching that does not involve language; that does not involve words which engage our rational minds and sink into our feeling hearts.  God communicates not only with action, but also with words.  Communicating the Gospel (“Preach Christ”) is never an “either-or” juxtaposition of action and words, but always a “both-and” proposition.

The phrase, “Preach Christ at all times and, if necessary, use words,” is precisely the sort of statement that an idolatrous, syncretistic, “tolerant,” society like ours loves to hear.  It takes the “bite” out of the Christian message.  A world which cannot stand the name of Jesus is nonetheless quite happy to enjoy the “good works” of Jesus’ followers.  After all, what difference does it make if the school gets painted by a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Wiccan, a Mormon, an atheist, or a Christian?  A phrase like, “Preach Christ at all times and, if necessary, use words,” becomes a subtle way of subsuming “Christian” religious expression into a non-offensive, “ecumenical” statement of spiritual “faith” – one palatable to all.  A church that lives according to this will slowly sink into the morass of Gospel irrelevance; a bog of so-called “social justice” disconnected from the actual person and work of Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus died not only for what he did, but also (and maybe particularly) for what he said!  Consider those who, in John 10, attempt to stone Jesus to death.  They say to Jesus, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10:33, ESV).  It was Jesus’ words that led to the cross, not merely his actions.  If Jesus needed words to preach the Gospel, why would we expect anything different?  No wonder Paul says this, in Romans 10, after his famous statement about salvation itself (see Romans 10:9-10, ESV): “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent?…Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-15a, 17, ESV).

We are the sent ones; sent from God into the world with a message of reconciliation between God and man.  That message emanates both from our actions and from our words.  May we never drive a wedge between the two!