Thursday, October 27, 2011

I Wish Those Days Would Come Back Once More

What a strange and wonderful providence that this machine that sits on my lap, that is capable of astounding wonders, that employs the latest and greatest of technology and design spends most of its energy as a “Way Back” machine. Sure, I write things, I edit things; I study things with my laptop. But the one app that is operating more than any other is iTunes, playing music from my childhood. Here’s a little playlist confession- when I booted up this morning iTunes started with Stevie Wonder’s hit for which this piece is named, followed by the Four Tops ode to my beloved bride, “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I Got.”

There are, I believe, two great triggers to nostalgia, music and smell. The two come together sometimes for me. If I listen to a few Nickel Creek songs in row, or a certain Alison Krauss album suddenly I detect the scent of my own previous chemo. When I went through Hodgkins lymphoma five years ago Alison and Nickel Creek were on constant rotation.

In like manner nostalgia and music come together when Stevie Wonder sings of the glory of the days of his own youth. One would think, based on our adult obsessions, that what we long for from our youth is health and beauty. I would dearly love to have again a thick head of hair, and would love to be able to run about a soccer field for hours at a time again. What I suspect we miss more, however, is innocence.

I remain committed to the biblical doctrine of total depravity. That doctrine applies to children, babies, even unborn babies. We are all sinners, every one. We all stand guilty before the judgment seat of God. The innocence of youth then isn’t a lack of sin and guilt. It is instead a relative ignorance of that sin and guilt in ourselves and in others. When we were young we didn’t yet know how stained our souls already were. We didn’t know all that we were capable of. We didn’t have a long string of spiritual failures behind us. Nor had we yet, for the most part, experienced the great evils others would pour out on us.

An old friend, who sadly, several years ago, had been excommunicated from the church where I served for many years, made the news recently. With no one closing in on him he went to the police to confess to sexually molesting a mentally handicapped sixteen year old girl. As the father of a fourteen year old mentally handicapped girl I am peculiarly angry. As a sinner my heart breaks for both of them, and for the same reason, she for coming to know how evil and cruel men can be, he for coming to know what an evil and cruel man he is. This is how bad we can become, proving depravity isn’t a doctrine but the very font of evil in the world.

When we were young, unless we had been victimized, we didn’t even know such things could ever happen. When we grow older, one way or another this perversion, or alcoholism, or spousal abuse, or abortion, sooner or later touches us all. And we wish we could go back. We long to again be innocent, like a child.

As I sit with my suffering wife as she battles leukemia I have two great comforts. First, Jesus has gone before her. There is no suffering we can experience that He did not experience before us. Second, because He suffered, those days will indeed come back once more. The specter of death that haunts us wears a leash. Jesus has conquered the Grim Reaper, and so his bloody scythe is the very chariot that carries us home. When we are home we will know sin no more. We will be children again. We stand innocent, in Christ, before His judgment seat now. But then we will be innocent in ourselves. Then we will be back in the Garden, to stay. Those days, for we who are in Christ, are coming again.

Highlands Ministries

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ask RC: Is a Christian school a better or worse choice than homeschooling?

I am, and have been for decades, a strong advocate of homeschooling. The key reason for that is my conviction no child can be properly educated unless they are taught day in and day out the Lordship of Christ over all things. This, of course, is not possible in the public schools that are by law and conviction secular, no matter how many godly teachers and administrators a local school might have.

I have a friend who is rather well know in classical Christian school circles. His conviction is that homeschooling is the best choice for those who don’t have access to a classical Christian school. When one gentlemen sought to get my friend and me into a scuffle over that conviction I told my friend, “When we can get Christian children out of the public schools (roughly eighty percent of evangelical parents send their children to the secular public schools) then we can have a fight over homeschooling versus Christian schooling.” In short, the real issue is the secular perspective of the public schools, more than the methodology of homeschooling versus Christian schooling. I am in favor of, I happily support any educational approach wherein the name of Jesus can be proclaimed at all times.

Within that broad paradigm, unlike my friend in the classical, Christian school movement, however, I am persuaded that homeschooling is the better choice. Not the only possible or proper choice, but the better choice. Here are three simple reasons:

First, God commands that parents teach their children the things of God “when they lie down, when they rise up, when the walk by the way” Deuteronomy 6). When God gives me a job to do I’m not comfortable delegating it to someone else. God could have said, “See to it that someone talks to them of these things…” but He didn’t. I suspect He may have told us to do it because one thing you can’t delegate is learning. Parents learn a great deal through the process of teaching. We, the parents, more faithfully remember the Lordship of Christ as we more faithfully teach the same to our children.

Second, schools tend to promote peer identity. By having children segregated all day every day by age we encourage our children to see themselves not as servants of the King, not as members of their families, but as part of a particular demographic group, with its own dialect, music, style, even ethic. When God mentions age groups He calls for them to come together, not to be separated (see Titus.) Some Christian schools combat this tendency better than others, and no doubt some homeschooling families fall into the same temptation. Overall, however, this problem is far more likely to rear its ugly head in a school setting.

Third, homeschooling allows for far greater liberty. While I might be able to find a Christian school that shares many of my convictions, when I am the teacher I can teach my children all that I believe the Bible teaches. In addition, as a homeschooler my schedule is not set by a larger institution that must take into account the wants and needs of multiple families.

Finally, one bonus reason- we just love doing this. My children delight to have their mom and dad as their teachers, and we delight to have them as our students, to disciple them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We love to be with them, and they with us. We are having way yonder too much fun.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Come as You Aren't

Too many conversations are far too predictable. Praise the sovereignty of God in salvation and someone will inevitably remind you that God didn’t make robots. You will then remind said friend that dead people are passive people, only to be reminded that God is not willing that any should perish. Warn against the dangers of too much wine, and someone will in turn present the biblical praises for wine, and before long in the back and forth you can count on someone pointing out that sometimes oinos means grape juice. As soon as the conversation begins we know how it will end.

It is the habit of my family to dress for church. I have, on more than one occasion, argued in print that we casually worship a casual god because we enter into his presence casually. I have suggested that on the Lord’s Day we should dress as if we were going to meet the King, because we are going to meet the King. I know, from experience, that it won’t take long for someone to point out the obvious, that God looks not at the outward, but at the heart.

This nugget of wisdom is designed to make us comfortable, even in our comfortable clothes. The implicit message is Jesus doesn’t care what you wear, because He can see what a wonderful person you are. Unlike the modern day Pharisees who are always judging people, Jesus has the insight to really understand you. It is true enough that Jesus is far more concerned with what is in our heart than He is with what is on our backs. It is likewise true that Jesus knows exactly what is in our hearts. What confuses me, however, is how this is supposed to comfort me. Would I rather have Jesus judge me on the basis of my recently dry-cleaned suit, my well ironed dress shirt, and my just-so necktie, or would I rather He judge me on the basis of my desperately wicked, self-deceiving, black as ink heart?

What our “Come as you are” dress says about us is that we are meeting a “Come as you are” god. But if we come as we are, because of what we are, we are walking straight into the wrath of God; we are walking straight into hell. The God we worship is not a come as you are god. He is instead the true and living God who cannot even look upon sin. He is a consuming fire, who insists above all else that He be treated as holy.

The glory of the gospel is that God isn’t looking at my clothes when I come to worship. Whether I am dressed to the nines or dressed in flip-flops, He isn’t looking at my clothes. He is, however, looking at what I am wearing. And praise God what I’m wearing not only covers my body, but covers my heart as well. What I wear to worship is what I wear the rest of the week. I do not come dressed for a formal dance. I do not come dressed for a picnic on the beach. I come instead dressed like royalty. I come dressed like a prince. For I wear the righteousness of the Son of God. I do not come as I am. I come as I AM is.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

FROM THE ARCHIVES of Every Thought Captive magazine

All Quiet On the Western Front

It probably says more about what defines our moments, the television, than the moments themselves, that we keep multiplying defining moments. For my parents’ generation, it was the death of John F. Kennedy. Everyone remembers where they first heard, or more likely saw, the news. Since that time we have added a moon landing or three, two shuttle disasters, and 9/11. We no longer can be certain what will follow, “Do you remember where you were when you first heard…” I was not yet among the living when JFK died, and was barely four when Neil Armstrong took his small step. But the rest of them I remember not only the events, but where I was for each of them.

Each of these events, however, was more startling than shocking. That is, while we weren’t expecting these things to happen, neither were we thinking, “It will never happen.” Presidents have been killed before, and technological marvels, and failures, are virtually a staple of American life. What truly shocked me, on the other hand, was the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and all that it symbolized, the collapse of the Soviet Union. There we had the curious marriage of both bang and whimper. The speed was bang-like. The events themselves were but a whimper.

Because we are such an a-historical people, we tend to forget that empires come and go. Greece and Rome, because they were both so long ago and so long lasting, are given virtual immortal status. Because we can still find Greece and Rome on a map, we think they’re still with us. The Ottoman Empire, along with the sundry dynasties of China, are just too far east to really count. What we are left with then is the Soviet Empire, and the American Empire. As a child of the Cold War, this was the very air that I breathed, the very water in which I was swimming. Until we woke up one day to discover that the evil empire was no more. We watched the hammer and sickle brought down as hammers and chisels chipped away at that wall. And like the good Americans we are we thought, “Wow, I wonder what those little pieces of the wall will sell for?”

We tend to make one of two mistakes in contemplating our corporate cultural future. For a small few of us, being hip to the rickety nature of our economy, and understanding something of the destructive power of the state, and perhaps even hoping that those who reject the wisdom we have to offer will get their comeuppance, and who ironically have an optimistic view of the long term future, we lean toward Chicken Little. In the 1970’s we were certain that inflation would destroy us. In the 1980’s, we learned to fear AIDS. Then in the 1990’s we feared a far more deadly virus, the millennium bug. Yet here we are, still alive while waiting for the Muslims to overrun us. And with our president’s fiscal policies, the ghosts of phantoms past haunt us again.

The other mistake is more common. When I was busy warning folks (with all due decorum and hedging) about the potential dangers that came with the turning of the clock a few years ago the strangest objection I heard was this, “Don’t you believe in the sovereignty of God?” The unspoken assumption there corporately is the same one that messes us up individually. God is in control. Everything is supposed to be comfortable for me. Therefore nothing bad will happen. Well, there is a difference. It is true for the Christian that God is in control, and that nothing bad will happen to the Christian, understanding that “Bad” should be defined as anything that isn’t helpful in the believer’s sanctification. Comfortable is another matter altogether. But when it comes to this nation, things are different. God is in control still. But everything isn’t supposed to be comfortable for this nation. And of course bad things can happen here.

With both of these mistakes, however, comes a third mistake. Whether you are waiting for judgment, or are sure it will never come, in both circumstances what you have missed is the judgment that has come and continues to come every day. What might cultural judgment look like? Would it look like growing sexual insanity as described in Romans 1? Would it look like a culture where thousands of people each year are murdered by their neighbors? Would a culture under judgment be one where tens of thousands of people each year take their own lives? Would it look like a culture where over a million moms murder over a million babies every year? We keep waiting for God to judge us for these things, and miss the obvious truth, that these things are His judgment against us.

That the economy continues to teeter along, that foreign powers do not rule within our borders, that you can still go out and enjoy a fine meal and a play in turn isn’t a mitigating of the judgment, but an exacerbating of the judgment. Because He has not yet chosen to topple our idols we are fooled into thinking we’ve avoided His judgment, and so we continue down the path of destruction. We miss the opportunity to repent, and that is judgment at its most severe.

When He was but a boy, Jesus performed the first anti-exodus. God’s people had sinned so deeply, that the only safe place for the boy was in the nation of Egypt. Then He returned, and over the next sixty years or so systematically drove out the children of Israel, just as they once drove out the Canaanites. The world was turned upside down. In like manner, not long after the demise of the evil empire, where do we find ourselves, but at home and at peace in the evil empire? We now impose our will not over a few satellite nations in Eastern Europe, but over the whole of the Middle East. We now impose our own cultural decadence on nations that haven’t bowed the knee to our particular utopian scheme. They spread communism, while we spread consumerism. Which is more dangerous to the soul?

Judgment has come. Judgment is here. And judgment will come. The only escape is repentance, recognizing that we are Egypt, a stubborn and foolish nation of hardened hearts.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Patience, NOW

Patience, right now, is in short supply. As so many have been faithful to pray for my wife’s health, and for the emotional weight on the rest of the family, I find my own peculiar weaknesses growing worse. My fuse, which in the best of times is measured in inches rather than yards has gone metric, and is now measured in millimeters. I have a house full of eight children whose lives have been turned upside down. They are struggling with fear and uncertainty, but most of all they miss their mom. They aren’t thinking, “Wow, this must really be hard on dad. We will bend over backwards to make this difficult time for him easier. We will play quietly, get along like angels and put away our toys the moment we finish with them.” No, they’re thinking, “Our lives are being turned upside down. And to top it all off, Dad’s fuse has shrunk to a new low.” Which is a decent approximation of what I’m thinking. Someone needs to find more patience, and as strange as it may seem to me, I am the most likely candidate.

Patience, I believe, comes with self-awareness. That is I will be more gracious toward the hardships of others as I note how hard the hardships are for me. The very shrinkage of my fuse is a clue to tell me why my almost two- year old keeps having these fingernails-on-a-chalkboard meltdowns. Moments ago he was in his highchair, well equipped. Dry pants- check. Milk cup- check. Delicious quiche made by friends- check. So why was he crying, screeching, skipping rope on my last nerve?

The devil had a good laugh at my expense. I responded with all the grace of a Steeler linebacker. I told the crying toddler through clenched teeth, smoke streaming out of my ears, to quit the crying, and now. I gruffly filled his mouth with quiche, and that, of course, calmed him right down. He saw that he was in sin, and contrite, became as quiet as a church mouse and spoke his first complete sentence- Thank you father for the delicious breakfast, ever so sorry to be troubling you with my crying. Will try harder. Pip pip.

Well, no, that’s not what happened. Instead Donovan looked deep into his reserves and found the strength to cry harder, despite a mouthful of quiche. Now what? How can I possibly fix this? And that’s when the Holy Spirit stopped the braying laughter of the serpent. The Spirit reminded me of what we are to do when we sin against a brother. I drew near to my son, and I repented. I asked Donovan, and our Father, to forgive me. It was as if He were trying to teach me something because as soon as I repented, Donovan became quiet.

Repentance, I am persuaded, is good for what ails us. It heals strained relationships. It cultivates patience. It taps into the infinite strength of God most high. It teaches me who I am, not the helpless victim of a crying toddler, but the source of the crying of my child, a helpless victim of an impatient father. God have mercy on my children.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Ask RC: Is it a sin to celebrate Halloween?

I don’t know. And what’s more, I don’t care. First let me quickly deal with I don’t know, before moving on to the far more significant I don’t care.

The Bible does not say, “Thou shalt not celebrate Halloween.” It certainly doesn’t say, “Though shalt not dress thy little girl as a princess, walk with her through the neighborhood and collect tasty treats.” It does, however, far more than we Christians, take very seriously the supernatural realm. When God established Israel He commanded that witches there be put to death. The same for necromancers. He understood that these are not games to play with, but deadly serious matters. To the extent that celebrating Halloween means playing fast and loose with such things, I would strongly discourage it. That said, even if we confess that this was its origins, it still doesn’t mean dress up and candy are sins. As long as we stay clear of the macabre, I’d argue it’s a meat offered to idols issue. If your conscience is troubled, steer clear. If not, I won’t fuss at you about it.

That said, this is a question I’m not in the least concerned to answer. In my family this is a non-issue. We do not celebrate Halloween, but not because we’re certain doing so is a sin. We don’t celebrate Halloween for this simple reason- because we’re far too busy and far too giddy celebrating something far more significant. No, it’s not a harvest festival. (Indeed I would argue that the sanitized Christian substitute version of Halloween, wherein we call it something else, and dress up as Bible heroes may be the worst possible choice. We copy the ways of the world, badly. It’s the October 31st version of what goes on every Lord’s Day in happy clappy churches, a third rate copy of the world’s inanities.)

We don’t celebrate Halloween because we are too focused on celebrating the Reformation. October 31st marks the anniversary of Luther nailing his 95 these on the church door in Wittenberg. We rejoice that God in His grace emboldened Martin Luther to stand on the promises of God. We give thanks to God for recovering for His people the clarity and simplicity of how we might have peace with Him through the finished work of Jesus Christ. We celebrate the recovery of the Bible as our alone final standard of faith and practice, the ending of the Babylonian captivity of the church. This is not some bland Christian substitute for Halloween. This is the real deal.

Saint Peter Presbyterian Church holds a wonderful three day celebration starting with a bonfire and s’mores party, then a day-long festival, complete with crafts, booths, food, games, contests, the reading of the 95 theses, the retelling of the story of Martin Luther, music and dancing and then a joint worship service on Sunday. The puny and pathetic parties of the world won’t hold a candle to ours. Halloween is a dead issue. The Reformation, that’s life.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Ask RC: What is wrong with the church?

What is wrong with the church is what is wrong with Christians, sin. Because of our sin, however, we tend to think of sin as something we do, rather than something we are. Because of our sin, in turn, we are more interested in covering our sin than fighting it.

We cover it in at least two ways. The first is misdirection. That is, if we can define sin as that which we are less apt to struggle with, we miss the real problem. So we vow not to drink, smoke or chew and not to go out with girls that do. We behave in nice, respectable ways, and mistake this for growing in grace and wisdom. We show our brothers our sparkly white teeth as if this is how one recognizes a shiny white soul. My business is successful, my wife is happy, my daughter is on the honor roll and my son captains the football team, and because I am a successful American, I must be a faithful Christian.

The second thing we do is baptize our real sins, framing them in the best possible light. Our real problem is our pride, but we call it “protecting our reputation.” Our real problem is our malice, but we call it “zeal for righteousness.” Our real problem is envy, but we call it “encouraging others toward humility.” We devour each other, jockeying for position, hungering for accolades, all under the guise of service to the Suffering Servant.

The bizarre fruit of our sin is that though the church is made up of those who must profess to be humble we are the very picture of pride. We enter in through confessing how utterly unworthy, unable, unattractive we are. We are the body of the base, the weak, the foolish (I Corinthians 1). The very core of our message is, “I can’t possible please God. Only Jesus can do that.” And yet we pretend to do just that, please God, and in pretending gravely displease Him. We cry out to God not to look at us, but to look at Him, then turn around and try to get the body to look at us.

Perhaps worse still, what defines us is that we have precisely what we not just foolishly long for, but what we sinfully pursue. The way in is confessing our unworthiness. But what is on the inside is a banquet feast in our honor. We are the children of God, loved as deeply as He loves Jesus. He is ordering that the robe and the ring be brought forth, that the fatted calf be killed in our honor and we are down at the bunkhouse conniving and backbiting to secure the “Employee of the Month” pin and parking space.

What is wrong with the church? We don’t believe the gospel. We don’t believe that we were dead in our sins, desperately wicked. We don’t believe that He, not we, made us alive, nor that there remains much in us that needs to be put to death. We don’t believe that He suffered the wrath of the Father for us, and that therefore the Father embraces us as His sons. We’re such a mess, there is no program, no book, no preacher, no strategy that can fix us. Only the gospel will do.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ask RC: How does one learn to suffer well?

I want to suggest two points that relate directly to suffering, and two that do not. First, you learn to suffer well by watching others suffer well. When we weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn we are not merely offering comfort to others, but are receiving instruction from them as well. We can’t do this, however, unless we enter in. If illness makes us uncomfortable, if we refuse to visit His own who are poor or in prison, if we insist on spending our time exclusively in the village of the happy, pleasant people, we will learn precious little. Visit instead the oppressed outside your local abortion mill. Go where the suffering is, and enter in. God has peculiarly blessed me in giving me a beautiful example to witness in my precious bride. As she is assaulted once again with chemo in an attempt to push back her leukemia relapse I watch her both fight and fear. Through it all, however, there is a bedrock trust in her heavenly Father. Seeing her strength, I am strengthened.

Second, practice. When Denise was first diagnosed with leukemia eight months ago some seemed to fear that after battling breast cancer, after it later metastasized to her back, that her stamina in suffering, and that of our family, might somehow run out, as if God grants us a finite amount of faith, and then bleeds it out through suffering. No. Suffering is like a muscle. The more we use it the stronger it gets. Ironically, each time our family suffers some sort of setback my biggest fear isn’t the setback itself, but wondering, “What future hardship is God trying to get me in shape for?”

The first key to suffering well that isn’t directly related to suffering itself is this- we have to know our Bibles. Because the Bible is the autobiography of God what we find there is God revealed. In His relations with us what stands out most is hesed, the Hebrew term for “loyal love.” When we are steeped in a biblical understanding of these twin truths, that God is all-powerful, and that God loves us unchangeably, we enjoy the peace that passes understanding. When we know our Bibles well we know our purpose isn’t ease and comfort, but to be conformed to the image of the Son, which brings me to the last point.

The second key is to know well Jesus. He, the Bible tells us, is a man well acquainted with sorrow. As we have been dealing with Denise’s battle with her leukemia relapse I am constantly turning back to this precious truth- Jesus was here before me. There is nothing we are going through that He hasn’t been through first. Though the famous Footsteps poem surely has it right, that there is only one set of footsteps because He is carrying us, from another perspective there is only one set of footprints because He is walking in front of us, and we walk in His blood stained footprints. If we know Him, then we know that wherever He goes, we want nothing more than to follow. The Valley of the Shadow of Death is both where He walks and is the very pathway to heaven.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Judging With Charity

I was scheduled tomorrow to meet with my professor, the man overseeing my Ph.D. studies. He called this evening wanting to know if I wanted to postpone. “That depends,” said I, “on whether you want to yell at me or not for not getting more of my reading done.”” He, gracious man that he is acknowledged, “You have had a lot on your plate lately.”

This same man, from the time I was a boy, has belabored to me the importance of seeking to judge others charitably. Because there is always a speaker and a hearer, and doer and a receiver, because we are all tempted to put ourselves in the best possible light, it is critical, he explained to me as I grew up, that we put ourselves in the other guy’s shoes, and judge what he has said, or done, with the same compassion and understanding with which we judge ourselves.

Which is precisely what he was doing in noting the fullness of my plate. I teach at Reformation Bible College, which while relatively new, is normal for me. I work for Ligonier Ministries and Highlands Ministries, which is normal for me. I am seeking to raise eight children, from 17 to almost 2, which is normal for me. And my wife is in intensive care, fighting for her life against the brutal enemy leukemia. That, of course, is not normal for me.

As we as a family confront this great challenge one of the immediate challenges we face is seeking to keep our lives as normal as possible. My children still have their studies to tend to. I still have students and co-workers that are counting on me. We have soccer matches, piano lessons, hockey games for the children. I still have papers to grade, errands to run, checkbooks to balance, appointments to keep. And we need to visit my dear wife in the hospital not only because it blesses us and her, but because we may not be able to be with her for long.

My professor, who is, of course, also my father and my boss, is well aware of my circumstances. His compassion, which runs deep in ordinary conditions, is more than sufficient for my circumstance. Others, however, do not know. Others grow impatient because I don’t answer their emails quickly enough, because I am not as attentive to their needs as I might normally be, because I am slower to stop and pass the time of day. These, however, if they knew, I am sure would understand.

Which in turn makes me wonder about what I don’t know. How often have I grown irritated with another who is going through a hardship that would immediately douse my frustration, if I only knew about it? We don’t, rightly so, go through our days wearing signs to warn others- “I have been out of work for nine months;” “My husband prefers images of woman on the computer to me;” “My wife is battling an aggressive leukemia.” Without the signs all we are left with is compassion as the default position. Should we not assume the best, especially of our brothers and sisters in the church? Should we not seek to mirror the compassion of Jesus who would not break a bruised reed?

All of us, quite naturally, call for greater compassion when we are the one going through the hardship. How many of us remember, however, to be slow to become angry, when things are going our way? There is a time to stand, to be bold, to call others to account. And then there is most of the time. My hardship is utterly banal. There is nothing new under the sun. Millions of men have found themselves where I now find myself. One Man, however, showed us how to respond. Pray for my wife. Pray for my children. And pray for me, that I would learn grace.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Dust to Dust

FROM THE ARCHIVES of Every Thought Captive magazine

My father and I agree on many things. There are few we disagree on. But there may be no issue over which we disagree with greater passion than this one- snow. I am not only a pro-snow club member, I am the founder and president of the pro-snow club. I write odes to snow, and fret that they fail to convey the depths of my love. My father, on the other hand, is Mr. Heat Miser, he’s Mr. 101. He literally lives in a land where, each time you step outside, at least nine months of the year, you get this nearly audible message from God, “I did not shape people to live here.” Yet he turns a deaf ear, and continues on his merry way.

I live where we get snow. He lives where there is no snow. But there is another difference as well, more evidence that Florida was not designed for human habitation. If you dig your heel into the ground here, you kick up dirt. If you dig a hole in the ground in Florida, however, before you get down to trowel depth, you will hit sand. And if you can manage to keep the sand in place, and keep digging, all you will find, all the way to China, is more sand. The entire state is nothing more than a sandbar. And imported strips of crab grass sod gently placed on top won’t change that. One could make the case that there are places where there is no snow, that yet make appropriate homes. But you are always far from home when you are far from the dirt.

That we find dirt unpleasant, or even repulsive, is a sign of our sin, our rebellion against our Maker. Christians struggle with the story of Uzzah the Koathite. You remember that when the Philistines sent the Ark of the Covenant back to the people of the covenant, that the priestly line, whose job it was to tend to the sacred things, first failed to obey the law of God. He had given instructions for the transport of the Ark. Those instructions did not include an ox drawn cart. But as the oxen dragged the Ark toward home, one of them stumbled, and it looked as if the ark might fall into the mud. Uzzah, perhaps instinctively, reached out his hand to steady the Ark. God killed him on the spot.

Uzzah’s act demonstrated the twisted hierarchy of the sinful mind. Better, he thought, that the ark should touch a human hand than that it should touch the dirt. The trouble is, Uzzah, like the rest of us, was a sinner. His hand had performed countless acts of rebellion against the God of the Ark. Dirt, on the other hand, has only been obedient, from creation to this day. Every time you take the water out, it becomes dust. Every time you add water, it becomes mud. It obeys God.

That difference, like the differences between my father and me, does not undo the connection, however. The real reason that we cannot be home when we are not near the dirt is because we are dirt. That is, what separates Uzzah from the dirt beneath the Ark is that the dirt is obedient dirt, and Uzzah is rebellious dirt. From dust we were made, and to dust we shall return.

When we come to these biblical truths we show ourselves to be as dumb as dirt. We think, “Oh, this is poetic language.” And then we proceed to ignore the poetry. God is indeed speaking poetically when He tells us, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground.” But in saying this God is speaking the truth. We are made of dust. We get our dander up, however, because like Uzzah, we look down our nose at the dirt. We think we’re above the dirt. And in some sense we are. The text goes on to say, “and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” “Here,” we say, “is where man’s value comes from. This is where God stamps us with His image. It’s our souls that make us men. Our bodies make us but brutes.” And so we, once again, show ourselves to be the poster children of the Gnostics.

It is true that God has no body. But that doesn’t mean that our bearing His image relates only to our souls. Our bodies show forth His glory. They manifest His beauty. They display His power. All that we are is His image, which means…get ready… God is dirty too.

For the glory of the dirt is in its fecundity, its fertility. There we all twirl together in a living poem, a kaleidoscope of reflective glory- man, woman, dirt, life and God. It is good and right that we should be overawed by the power of God in creation. We ought too to stand in wide eyed wonder as we consider His providence. But it is God’s delight to work through means.

Consider, for instance, what may be my favorite scene in what is my favorite chronicle of Narnia. Digory, Polly, the cabby, his horse, Uncle Andrew and Jadis find themselves in an empty land, “And really it was uncommonly like Nothing. There were no stars. It was so dark that they couldn’t see one another at all and it made no difference whether you kept your eyes shut or open. Under their feet there was a cool, flat something which might have been earth, and was certainly not grass or wood. The air was cold and dry and there was no wind.”

Lewis then begins his description of creation, “In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing…Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes [Digory] almost thought it was coming from the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard…Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. If you had seen or heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that is was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.”

Lewis goes on to describe the creation of the sun, the trees and the grass. Each time the song changes, but the constant refrain is that Aslan’s song brings life. Then we get more clearly to the dirt, “The Lion was singing still. But now the song had once more changed. It was more like what we would call a tune, but it was also far wilder. It made you want to run and jump and climb. It made you want to shout. It made you want to rush at other people and either hug them or fight them…But what the song did to the two humans was nothing compared to what it was doing to the country.

“Can you imagine a stretch of grassy land bubbling like water in a pot? For that is really the best description of what was happening. In all directions it was swelling into humps. They were of different sizes, some no bigger than mole hills, some as big as wheelbarrows, two the size of cottages. And the humps moved and swelled till they burst, and the crumbled earth was poured out of them, and from each hump there came out an animal.”

The dirt in Narnia brought forth life. It was, in fact, so fecund that Lantern Waste is born when the queen hurls a lamp post crossbar leftover from a fracas in London at Aslan. It bounces off His royal snout, and up pops the lantern. Later in the story, Uncle Andrew is buried upside down in the mud. The coins in his pockets fall out, and there grows a tree of silver, and another of gold.

And here, as we do with the poetry of God, we write this off as fantasy. But it must be true. For we live yet under the shadow of the curse. And even now the dirt brings forth abundance. Consider the paper you are holding. It used to be dirt. The seed ate the dirt and grew into a tree. The tree became the paper. Even the ink is the same, processed out of the ground. The computer on which I write was likewise once nothing but dirt. And then there is our food. Productivity, even in our post-industrial age, is the process of taking dirt, and making stuff with it. As such, it is the imitation of God.

Imagine then the power of the dirt in Eden. Then there was no curse. Its abundance makes the astounding productivity of our day appear positively miserly. That superabundance, however, is not only behind us; it is yet before us. For Jesus is redeeming all the earth. He is taking us back to the garden. He will birth a new heavens and a new earth, and there will be no more groaning. Our labors in the dirt are a part of that process. For God, again the great poet, beautifully calls the dirt to call the dirt to productivity, in reflection of His glory.

But we, of course, because we are no longer simple, miss all this. We, like our fathers at Babel, are more impressed with the fire than the dirt the fire cooked for bricks. We are in awe over our technology, and miss the glory of the simplicity of the ground on which we stand. If we were simple, we would, with our brothers the rocks, cry out the glory of the Son of David. If we were only as dumb as dirt, then we would know better our Maker, the Potter.

We are neither separate, because we don’t know where we are connected. We are united Gnostics, with rationalists, with Babel-onians, because we don’t remember that we are sons and daughters of the earth. Like a loose woman, we lose our connections, and start hooking up at random. We miss the beauty of our being, wanting to separate ourselves from ourselves. We are dirt, and so we are beautiful.

We, of course, miss this beauty because we are not deliberate. We are rushed, hasty, thoughtless. We do not take the time to stop and smell the compost that feeds the roses. We foolishly miss the wisdom of our wise Uncle Andrew Lytle who wrote, “It is in fact impossible for any culture to be sound and healthy without a proper respect and proper regard for the soil, no matter how many urban dwellers think that their victuals come from groceries and delicatessens and their milk from tin cans.” While the fools on our left disrespect our mother by worshipping her, we disrespect our mother by dismissing her from our thoughts.

And so we frantically seek to build the kingdom in our back room deals, in our seditious plots to take over the culture that surrounds us. We think we must cut deals with the powers that be, and so miss the power that Is. We want to sit atop our corporate towers, and rule, forgetting that we are already seated in the heavenlies, where no tower can reach us. All the while we are missing what was right under our fingernails. If we would rule the earth, we must simply rule the earth. And we must do it for the everlasting glory of our King, the Rock of our salvation.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ask RC: Do the Creeds really matter?

Of course they do. Reformed theology has always held to a balanced view of the value and importance of church history and historical theology. Unlike Rome and eastern Orthodoxy we deny that tradition is a second source of infallible information, or even that church history can give us an infallible understanding of biblical revelation. Contra the Anabaptists, however, we affirm the great import of the wisdom of our fathers. To turn aside from what the church has always taught is fraught with danger. We affirm that God purifies His church in space and time, and that especially the ecumenical creeds can provide for us guidelines for what constitutes orthodoxy.

Consider the doctrine of the Trinity. Even the most ardent defender of the doctrine must confess that the Bible is not crystal clear on the matter. Does that mean, therefore, that we can take it or leave it, nuance it or deny it? Of course not. When the church in history affirms that God is three in person and one in essence, the key issue isn’t whether you are smart enough to come up with another perspective that has some level of plausibility. The issue is whether you are willing to humble yourself before the church, before the bar of history. Are you willing to say, “The church has always affirmed this. The church has always not only denied but condemned the contrary. The church certainly may err. What, though, is the likelihood that I have found wisdom that the church missed from the beginning? If the church has always condemned my position as heresy, how likely is it that they have always been wrong, while I alone am right? “

The creeds are the voice of our fathers. Of course our fathers were not sinless, nor inerrant. But are we more likely to find blessing by honoring them, or by spitting on their graves? Our problem in the contemporary church is that we think we are smarter, more earnest, more missional, more compassionate, more godly than our fathers before us. They got hung up on such petty little things, theological minutia. We, on the other hand, have received a fresh outpouring of the Spirit of broad-mindedness, the Spirit of inclusivity, the Spirit of tolerance.

We have indeed received an outpouring of this spirit. I fear, however, that this spirit did not descend on us from on high, but ascended from the depths to confuse and weaken us. Our fathers in the church gave us a precious inheritance in the creeds. They placed boundary markers around orthodoxy, to keep us from wandering off. Fools that we are, we think ourselves too clever to need such markers, and so move the ancient boundaries. We value not orthodoxy, but effectiveness. We value not honoring the dead, but seducing the living. And any man who can do that well, well, we can obviously learn a great deal from him.

The church’s very first creed was its most basic- Christ is Lord. As Lord, He commands that we honor our fathers, that it would go well for us in the land He has given us. Our fathers taught us that God is one in essence and three in person. We honor God as we honor them.