Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Necessity of Words

I was pleased to see a piece by St. Francis biographer, Mark Galli on Francis’ famous dictum that we "preach the gospel: if necessary use words." This sentence is often used to suggest that the gospel can be preached without recourse to language. For the most part, this is a misunderstanding of Francis who was the kind of hellfire and brimstone preacher that would shock most of us today.

Galli writes, "’Preach the gospel; use words if necessary’ goes hand in hand with a postmodern assumption that words are finally empty of meaning. It subtly denigrates the high value that the prophets and Jesus and Paul put on preaching. Of course we want our actions to match our words as much as possible. But the gospel is a message, news about an event and a person upon which the history of the planet turns. As blogger Justin Taylor recently put it, the Good News can no more be communicated by deeds than can the nightly news."

While I’m strongly in support of actions that prove our preaching, the fact is, it is always necessary to use words.


Christian Freedom

A friend recently gave me a copy of Steve Brown’s book A Scandalous Freedom. The Radical Nature of the Gospel. Maybe he thought my life was confined by too many ‘don’ts’ and wanted me to discover afresh the gift of freedom in Christ. 

Brown’s thesis is quite basic — Christians in North America have lost the true sense of Gospel freedom that they possess. Instead, Christianity has become another religious system, using rules and other pressures to provoke its followers to moral living and good deeds. In succombing to this less than Gospel understanding of  Jesus’ message, believers remain "afraid, guilty and bound." Legalism, wrong teaching, abusive leadership, false expectations all conspire to rob believers of their freedom.  "There is so much more to being a Christian than obeying rules, doing religious things, and being ‘nice’."

With considerable wit, insight into ‘churchianity’, personal transparency, pastoral care, and theological acuity, Brown challenges us to be free. His goal is to help Christians recapture true Christian freedom and  become the potent Kingdom force that God intended them to be, living with joy, courage, and peace. They will know God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s forgiveness and it is deeply liberating.

Brown’s objective is admirable and in many instances needed. It is important to grasp and build into our lives the wonderful liberty that Jesus has purchased for us. Conversely, we have to reject pretense, tradition for the sake of tradition, the paralysis generated by fear, and attempts by some Christians to control. However, I have my reservations about Brown’s presentation.

1. Paul revels in the freedom Jesus provides from sin’s power and the burden of generating our own righteousness. Brown rightly emphasizes this. In Galatians 3 to 5 Paul describes the astonishing transformation — believers are no longer under the power of the Law, the curse of sin, the weak and beggarly cosmic powers. But just as much as he celebrates this significant liberation, he emphasizes that God’s invitation to live in his freedom means "walking in the Spirit," "keeping in step with the Spirit," and recognizing that "I no longer live, but Messiah lives in me." The freedom we have in Christ is not autonomy; it is a freedom to be one of the Messiah’s "Kingdom of Priests", the Messiah who is our Lord. As Paul says in Romans 6:22 that we "have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God." I did not perceive this side of the biblical freedom equation in Brown’s presentation.

2.   Paul also emphasizes that our freedom is exercised in the context of Christian community. Brown places significant emphasis on the believer as individual, but does not seem to balance this with the biblical reality of believer as part of the body of Christ. As a believer I am not free to be me without restraint. The three great commandments — love God, love neighbour, and make disciples — sets each believer in a new relational network that shapes the nature of Christian freedom. God has not purchased through the Cross my freedom so that I can sin and harm Christ’s body, bring disrepute to the Gospel, and advance Satan’s cause. Of course, Christians sin and God still loves us. In his extensive discussion on the boundaries of Christian freedom, Paul concludes "Everything is permissible—but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible — but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others" (1 Corinthians 10:23-24). For Paul the best way is the way of love and this gets worked out in the community of faith primarily. Jesus warned us about causing one disciple to sin. For him this was an important issue.

3.   Christians are to be and do good. Whether you read 1 Peter or Titus (or the Sermon on the Mount), one of the outcomes of Kingdom living is goodness — expressed in our being and our actions. We do not manufacture this ourselves, but are dependent upon the Holy Spirit for its production (note the imagery Paul used about the "fruit of the Spirit"). However, we also have responsibility, as Jesus put it, "to seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). Peter said that Jesus sacrificed himself "so that having died to sins we might live for righteousness" (1 Peter 2:24). Brown is right to point out that this should result in a "holier than thou" attitude or a self-righteous, judgmental spirit. Doing good flows out of the love the Spirit gives us for others. Being good arises from the Spirit’s consist guidance and empowerment to resist evil.

There is both spiritual freedom and spiritual discipline in Christ. While believers no longer live under the authority of the law’s tutelage, they are indeed "slaves of Christ."  As a Christian I am born again into God’s family, but He is the Father and as Peter reminds us the "one who judges with impartiality." Peter urges us "as obedient children…to be holy in all that you do" 

More could be said, but space does not allow it. By all means read Brown’s book. However, I do not think his presentation provides an adequate, nuanced biblical understanding of our freedom in Christ"(1 Peter 1:14).

The Pastor’s Role as Spiritual Coach:

See also the  follow-up article: Pastor’s Role as Spiritual Coach II

Helping people trade their lives for significance

Our home church is searching for a senior pastor.  My wife is on the search committee and so we have been discussing the type of pastor we would like to see come and serve in our church.  Our preferences seem to be at odds with some of the accepted and assumed pastoral roles.

Since my church experience has been primarily with the Fellowship, my perspective has developed out of that environment. As I understand the usual practice, formulating the vision and direction of the church is considered to be the responsibility of the church leadership, primarily the pastor. Many hours are spent in meetings talking and praying for God’s leading as they develop a vision that is then presented to the church. Some discussion and minor adjustments are made, a vote is taken and the vision is adopted.

Unfortunately, a positive vote does not necessarily result in commitment to the vision.  A “yes” vote can mean one of four things:

  • Unspoken Dissention (I don’t like it, but I don’t want to be a wet blanket or be viewed as divisive)
  • Permission (not my thing, but go ahead.)
  • Encouragement (I like that, but I can’t be involved) OR
  • Commitment (Count me in, I want to be part)

leadership-developed-vision1The hope of the leadership is that a “yes” vote indicates commitment to a new direction. But I have seen many times when the actual result is frustration, with the pastor trying to convince people to believe and participate in the adopted vision. A key concern is “will enough people support this new vision?”  The pastor has to create “buy-in” so that they will get involved – often with a plea that it will take minimal commitment (“only a couple of hours a week”). Many people will still participate even though the projects do not fit with their vision.  They are willing to cooperate, but the lack of ownership can be detrimental to their sense of connection to the church.  In this paradigm, a church is identified by its overarching vision.

The concept of “church” and the pastor’s role that Karen and I prefer is somewhat different. The pastor and leadership do not develop, create or control the vision.  Instead, they facilitate and network the visions (plural) of the believers.  Based on a conviction that the Holy Spirit indwells and guides each believer, the pastor’s role is not to cast an overarching vision, but to help people integrate their lives with their Christian faith, while guiding them to meaningful engagement in Kingdom service.  The leadership, and primarily the pastor, encourages and facilitates each believer’s desire for service, significance and expression of Christian faith according to the believer’s personal vision.  This requires an ability to relate to people in significant ways in order to discover where God has given them a passion and conviction.  This could be connected to their business or their favorite form of recreation.  It could arise from a concern for their family or from a desire to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate.  But it is their vision.

member-developed-visionsThe role of the pastor in this scenario is to cultivate such visions and coordinate their efforts with other people and organizations.  The pastor networks believers who have a common vision and passion and acts as a spiritual coach guiding them to explore how their Christian faith can be intentionally lived out.  The leaders’ key concern is then “how can I help people fulfill their vision?” In this paradigm, the church is identified through the relationships people develop as they minister to others.

According to this view, the essence and vision of the church community is the establishment of each believer in their God-ordained role as intentional Christ followers in all of their day-to-day relationships. The pastor facilitates, coordinates, networks, guides and teaches from a biblical perspective to ensure all believers have the connections and support they need to fulfill their purpose as God’s people.  The pastor initiates, challenges and supports believers to discover and pursue the opportunities God has given them to serve and to fulfill the call of Jesus in their lives.  The pastor’s orientation towards the congregation is to ensure that people feel connected, cared for and that their contribution to the kingdom is valued. Recognition and support for each person’s ministry goals together with the collaboration of others will lead to fulfillment of the congregation as well as significant engagement with the community.

“If you want people’s hearts, they need to know what they are exchanging their lives for.”1 The kind of pastor Karen and I would like to see in our church is one who guides people as they exchange their lives for what is significant to God’s mission.  Rather than being satisfied that people are cooperating with a leadership driven vision, the pastor acts as a midwife to the Holy Spirit’s promptings in the lives of believers and helps bring to reality their vision and passion as the people of God.

1 Rusaw R. & Swanson E. 2004. The Externally Focused Church. Loveland: Group. P. 179.


Saving a World that Doesn’t Want Saving

This past weekend, Rita and I went to see The Soloist (2009), a movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. It is the chronicle of a true story of friendship between LA Times columnist Steve Lopez and street musician Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. The movie is an adaptation of Lopez’ book entitled: The Soloist: A Lost Dream, An Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music.

A Lost Dream

Lopez is transfixed at his first meeting with Ayers in the park at Pershing Square as he listens to the latter playing a violin with only two strings. As the story unfolds, we learn that Ayers had been an immensely talented child prodigy. His talent and determination eventually opened the way for him to study at the famed Juilliard music school in New York. But why was Nathaniel Ayers now living rough on the streets of L.A., all his worldly possessions loaded into a shopping cart, playing a two stringed violin in the park and in the 2nd street tunnel near Hill Street?

Ayers dropped out of Juilliard in his second year because of schizophrenia. In following decades, he experienced the harsh consequences of this disease in severe social dislocation and impoverishment. He battled his mental illness–sometimes with medication, but mostly not–finding consolation and a measure of personal peace in making music on the streets.

An Unlikely Friendship

For Lopez, the combination of Ayers’ brilliant talent and his homelessness and poverty are an absolute contradiction and an offense to what is right. At first, Nathaniel Ayers is a story to be told to the readers of Lopez’ column. But it strikes a chord. Many want to help Ayers, including Lopez himself. A cello is donated for Ayers to play; Lopez arranges to get Ayers an apartment; he presses to get Ayers connected with members of the L.A. music community; and he even explores the possibility of forcing Ayers into a mental health facility so that he can receive medical and psychiatric help. Every effort and attempt by Lopez is frustrated by Ayers, however. Sometimes spectacularly so!

At one point in the movie, Lopez sits on the sofa in his ex-wife and fellow-journalist’s apartment. He laments his consistent failure as protector of his family during the earthquake, committed husband, and helper to Nathaniel Ayers and others like him on the streets of L.A.  Through tears of frustration he declares, "I resign! I resign! I resign!" His ex-wife replies that he is not a savior. Lopez couldn’t stop the earthquake and he can’t save Los Angeles or even Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. But he can be a friend.

The movie is a thoughtful piece and is bound to cause many, and especially Christians, to reflect upon the soaring joys and deep sorrows of human compassion and friendship. Its exploration of the boundary between genuine help and oppressive control and coercion in the actions of Lopez is wise and sensitive.

…and the Redemptive Power of Music?

Which brings me to the movie’s canvas of several avenues of redemption. How does one save people who don’t want to be saved?

Redemption is decidedly not to be found on offer in the hostility and heavy-handedness of the police , in the promises of slickly-portrayed politicians, nor in earlier bullying forms of Lopez’ activism the moviegoer is told.  The character of the director of the Lamp Community in L.A. offers a sensitive counterpoint as he counsels a frustrated Lopez at several points. The consistent advice in every conversation is helpfulness that is intensely personal and practical, respectful, and filled with patience and genuine friendship.

Over and over again, the moviegoer is encouraged to find "redemption" in the music. It leaves Lopez dumbstruck and awed, it soothes and relieves the troubled Ayers, and it deeply affects moviegoers. I would be the first to suggest that the music offers a kind of transport–but redemption? What happens when the music stops, as it always does?

The movie turns a disappointingly jaundiced and hostile eye toward the church in the cliched, objectionable religiosity of one musician character from whom Lopez seeks help. There are certainly places to look in justification of that shot–lamentable examples of empty, shallow, and generally inadequate Christian response to crushing physical, psychological and spiritual need.

Sadly, moviegoers will be tempted to write off the genuine article on the basis of a facile generalization.

In fact, it is Jesus with whom Lopez, in this writer’s opinion, seems most closely to want to identify, though the movie does not trace a connection. It was he who, "while we were yet sinners, … died for us." (Romans 5:8). Jesus is the astonishing demonstration of God’s love because, while desperately needed, he was unwanted; while offered without sham or hypocrisy, he was unforced; and while possessed of a quiet self-assurance and the power of majesty, he astonished the world by engaging in a "buy  back" that was appallingly costly to him. 

Those who have been thoroughly captivated and transformed by that love can be found. And they furnish in their own selfless love and practical helpfulness a foretaste of redemption in present experience which is the respectful context for gospel conversation. It is also a powerful witness to the hope of redemption’s ultimate realization in God’s Son.

A Sense of Expectation

Here’s a quote from my book, Choosing to Preach, pages 250-51…

"We just don’t expect much from God when set to preaching. Many preachers believe that God will speak through his Word but that it will happen in some muted sense. We don’t expect our skin to tingle. We don’t imagine that the hair on the backs of our necks will be raised like Isaiah’s was when he met God in the temple. Perhaps our sense of God is too hypothetical. We have preached too many sermons in which nothing seemed to happen. We no longer anticipate God’s powerful presence. We don’t expect the ground to move or the doorposts to shake."

"This is to our shame. Preachers are far too tentative far too often in our expectation of God and in our expectation that people will actually respond. Ideas are floated and propositions are posited without our ever describing a specific expected result. Or if a result of the sermon is described, it is suggested as a hypothetical possibility of what could happen someday if we ever found ourselves in the situation described by the sermon – one day, maybe, perhaps… It is always about what we will do at some other time – at work or at school – when faced with the problem or the opportunity that the preacher has in mind. It is always about some other time and some other place."

"I keep thinking that if God were truly present, we ought to expect more and see more in the act of the sermon itself. Do we really believe that this sermon could change things? Do we really believe that God is present and will work powerfully even in the moment of the sermon? If we did, we might be a little more aggressive."

"We could afford to be more aggressive in our preaching. Not in a threatening way. Listeners don’t want their preacher to get in their faces and pound on the pulpit. That’s been done, and not so effectively. But listeners do want to be challenged. Listeners love the idea that something critical could happen here and now as we listen to the Word and put it into practice. Could we gain a greater vision for the preaching event? Could we push a little harder and be a little more pointed in directing our objectives?"

Does the Ending Matter? Mark 16

After Mark 16:8 the New International Version adds the bracketed statement "The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20." But then they print some additional material (vv. 9-20). What are readers to do? Should they ignore what follows and consider Mark 16:8 as the ending of this Gospel? Should they pay some attention to vv. 9-20 but not really regard them as part of the Bible, an interesting but non-scriptural accretion? And have the NIV editors really described the textual evidence regarding these verses appropriately? What’s a pastor to do who’s preaching Mark’s Gospel? How do you explain what all this is about? Tricky stuff!

There is no question that this Gospel’s ending is a textual challenge. But so are other parts of the Bible (e.g. the ending of Romans, the double text in Acts, etc.). We have to deal with the data honestly and carefully.

1. The earliest evidence we have for the ending of Mark’s Gospel comes from the latter half of the second century. In the writings of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus there seems to be allusion and quotation from Mark 16:9-20, suggesting that their copies of this Gospel included the longer ending. It also seems that Justin’s protégé, Tatian, knew the longer ending when he created his Gospel Synopsis (Diatessaron) in this same period. Whether these early church pastor-scholars knew of a short form of Mark’s Gospel cannot be determined. So the earliest references to Mark seem to know a form of this Gospel that ends with 16:20.

2. It is true that two notable and valuable codices dating to the 4th century (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) do not have the longer ending in their current form. It is their evidence primarily that leads the NIV and other modern translations to make the kinds of statements they do after Mark 16:8. However, this is not the whole story.

First, in the case of Vaticanus, the scribe at the end of Mark’s Gospel leaves a column and half empty, beginning Luke’s Gospel on a fresh page. Although the scribes who wrote Vaticanus left gaps at the end of other books, these gaps correspond to the end of sections (i.e. Nehemiah (2 Esdras) and Psalms; Tobit and Hosea). Two scribes produced Vaticanus and these breaks correlate to the division of their labours or the division between the Old and New Testaments (i.e. Daniel and Matthew). However, in the case of Mark’s Gospel, the gap at the end does not correlate to such a division. One scribe copied the New Testament materials in Vaticanus. This gap between Mark and Luke does suggest that the scribe knew something was missing and perhaps left space for it to be added. Although the scribe did not mark this textual alteration in his usual manner, leaving a gap in the text seems to have been the signal that something was omitted.

In the case of Sinaiticus, it is interesting to note that precisely where Mark ends, the pages in the original manuscript has been replaced with different pages produced by another scribe. This scribe is one of those that produced Vaticanus (but not the one that produced the New Testament section of Vaticanus). H.J.M.Milne and T.C.Skeat in their publication Scribes and Correctors of the Codex Sinaiticus  (1938) hypothesize that this replacement occurred because the original scribe "must have duplicated a long passage in the course of writing [Luke]" (p.10).  While they argue against the original scribe’s inclusion of Mark 16:9-20 (because in their view this ending cannot fit in the space available), they still have to conjecture that the original scribe made a massive textual error of some sort that had to be remedied. I would conclude that we cannot tell what ending for Mark Sinaiticus may have had originally. To postulate some massive corruption at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel that has no basis in the textual history of Luke’s Gospel rather then attribute this folio change to known difficulties with the ending of Mark’s Gospel seems odd.

3. Some argue on the basis of language usage that 16:9-20 is by a different hand or that 16:8 forms a very dramatic and suitable ending to the Gospel. There are some linguistic and lexical differences between Mark 1-16:8 and 16:9-20. However, we have to be careful not to exaggerate them. Further whether 16:8 is an appropriate ending depends on how one understands the narrative purpose of the writer. For example, if this Gospel story, which emphasizes discipleship, ends with all Jesus’ followers abandoning him and paralyzed by fear, what hope does this give subsequent believers that they will succeed where others failed? 

 We cannot solve such difficult questions in the short scope of a blog. My point is simply this — let us be careful to state the evidence clearly so that biblical readers can make a truely informed decision. The cryptic statement by the NIV editors after Mark 16:8 fails in my opinion to serve the readers adequately. The ending of Mark’s Gospel is too important and needs more careful consideration.