Our Orders are Simple

Please read Matthew 22:34-40 in your Bible.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

label

(Retrieved from http://www.awesomeinventions.com/funny-product-instructions/ on 8/14/17.)

Here are some actual label instructions on consumer goods.  I find myself wondering how anyone thought these were necessary or wise.

On a bag of chips:
You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside.

On packaging for an iron:
Do not iron clothes on body.

On children’s cough medicine:
Do not drive a car or operate machinery after taking this medication.

On most brands of Christmas lights:
For indoor or outdoor use only.

On a child’s Superman costume:
Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly.

On shin pads for cyclists:
Shin guards cannot protect any part of the body they do not cover.

A parking lot sign:
Entrance only. Do not enter.

Rules on a elevated train track:
Beware! To touch these wires is instant death. Anyone found doing so will be prosecuted.

On a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle:
Some assembly required.

On a can of pepper spray used for self defense:
May irritate eyes.

On a TV remote:
Not Dishwasher safe.

On a mattress:
Do not attempt to swallow.

<Retrieved from http://funnytab.net/doomed on 8/10/17.>

Is it possible modern life is just too complicated?  Is it possible that common sense has become so uncommon we really do need these kinds of warnings?

For all our sakes, I want to take a few moments to take a look at Jesus’ version of a “life hack;” the way He simplified the commands of God.  Ten Commandments?  Still too many.  He got the whole matter down to TWO.  Just two commands to keep, and those who do reveal themselves to be His disciples.  This morning we’ll take a brief look at what these commands are and how they serve as our operating instructions for LIFE.

First, let’s note these commands are part of Jesus’ response to a misleading question (vs. 34-36).

Jesus is days from being killed.  He is in the city of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish faith, having entered it with a very public parade and a equally public confrontation in the temple. The religious authorities hate Him and He has racheted up the pressure with these tactics, forcing their hand, so they are trying to find something they can use to discredit Him in the eyes of the people.

Matthew 22 records a series of four encounters where these religious leaders tried to trap Jesus in His words.  Our passage is the third of the four.  In this case, they want to draw Jesus into a long-standing argument about which of God’s commands was the most important.  As this was something godly people had debated for years, they were hoping that Jesus would take a stand that would alienate at least half His listeners, as His answer would not agree with theirs.  They probably didn’t care what Jesus’ answer was, they just wanted him to say something they could use to irritate a percentage of His followers.

Their question was posed by a LAWYER and theologian in one (AN EXPERT IN THE LAW) – need I say any more?  While a theological question like this may sound innocent to our ears, these people lived in an entirely different culture.  In our culture, questions of Bible interpretation have not been a deciding factor in mainstream policy decisions since the Civil War.  But in this culture, these questions had a great influence on all parts of life.  The way a person answered this question guided economic, political, and moral decisions.

Second, let’s see what Jesus’ answer reveals about following God (vs. 37-40).

It reveals something about our priorities.

Jesus said THE FIRST AND GREATEST COMMANDMENT is to love God.  God comes first because of who He is; as our Creator and Savior, He is the most deserving object of our love. God comes first because He is the highest good.  We help others and ourselves more when His love is the foundation of our attitudes and actions.  God comes first because He shows us by Jesus’ example what love is.

He also said the second most important command is to love our NEIGHBOR as we love ourselves.  Love for NEIGHBOR takes priority over love for self but does not eliminate it.  We are to be unselfish but we are not called to be anyone’s doormat.  Love for self is included.  Hatred of self leads to all kinds of disabilities and problems.  Yes, the Bible calls us to self-denial and self-control, but that’s to eliminate selfishness, not self-preservation or self-love.

The point is, we can’t really love God or anybody else without loving ourselves too.  It’s a matter of keeping our priorities in proper order.  There is a place for self-love and it is third place.

Life gets messed up and we fall into sin when we get these priorities out of order. Too often, we have it exactly backwards; we put self first, then others, then God – if we think about Him at all.

Jesus’ teaching reveals something about the nature of love.  Our LOVE is to be all-encompassing; WITH ALL YOUR HEART AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND. Our most common mistake is we love with only part of who we are.  We think it’s OK to give our SOUL to Jesus, but we want to reserve our MIND for science, and our HEART for worldly things we enjoy.  The Bible repeatedly tells us that a partial commitment is really no commitment at all.  Love is not real until it involves all of who we are; no reservations.

LOVE is also “all-encompassing” in the sense that is the motive for all good actions.  This is what Jesus meant when He said in v. 40, “ALL THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS HANG ON THESE TWO COMMANDMENTS.”  Or, to put it another way, “Love is the heart of what God wants from us.  The rest of the Bible is commentary on how to love.”

Our LOVE for each other is shown by taking care of others like we care for self.  Few of us are completely selfish; most of us care to some degree about the welfare and opinions of others.  (Completely selfish people might be called “sociopaths.”  Experts tell us only 1% of the population are currently in that fix.)  Though some of us take better care of ourselves than others, most of us do what we can to be healthy and happy.  Jesus is telling us that’s a rough guide on how to love others.

This is Jesus restating the Golden Rule; “Do to others what you want others to do for you.”  He is telling us the standard of care for our neighbor is the kind of care we normally require for ourselves.  We are to stop being selfish and treat others with the same care and respect we’d treat ourselves.

From Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:29-37) we understand Jesus defined “neighbor” as everyone nearby and in need.  In short, our “neighbor” is everyone else.

There’s an enormous amount of biblical material on this subject, but for our purposes, we can characterize the nature of love by the objects of our love.

Love for God is obedience.

Love for each other is unselfish service.

Let’s Stick with God’s Simplified Instructions

“A preacher was speaking about all the things money can’t buy. ‘Money can’t buy happiness, it can’t buy laughter and money can’t buy love’ he told the congregation.

Driving his point home he said, ‘What would you do if I offered you $1,000 not to love your mother and father?’

“A hush fell over the congregation. Finally a small voice near the front, raised an important question, ‘How much would you give me not to love my big sister?’”

<Retrieved from https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/the-great-commandment-steve-greene-sermon-on-christian-love-87624 on 8/11/17.>

There you go.  Even with good intentions, the preacher complicated this matter of who to love and how to love.

God is so good to us.  In this passage, Jesus made love as simple and as accessible as possible.  Why complicate anything in this life, but especially something as essential as love?

The answer to that question is, of course, that when complicate something we most often have some ulterior motive: we have something to sell or something to hide.  We’re trying to fool ourselves or somebody else.

This kind of love is not just words or sentiment, it is words and sentiment manifest in action.  It is making a sacrifice in order to meet a need, be a friend, redeem our time.  The kinds of sacrifices love may require include:

Time,

Money,

Getting outside our comfort zone,

Forgiving,

Associating with unlovable people,

Changing,

Being inconvenienced.

What we get in return is greater than our sacrifice.  God loves a lover.  Be that lover.

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Which D.Q. for You?

Please read 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 in your Bible.  I have used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

Once in a while a fictional story draws an exceptionally accurate picture of life and you’re pleasantly surprised to learn something and be entertained.  I had that experience recently reading James S.A. Corey’s book Babylon’s Ashes.  Early in the novel he wrote,

“All through human history, being a moral person and not being pulled into the dramatics and misbehavior of others has caused intelligent people grief.” (p. 88)

The rest of the story went on to prove this point.

Lesson learned: the “dramatics and misbehavior of others” can lead us into grief just as much as our own “dramatics and misbehavior.”  My opinion is that life inflicts enough drama, we don’t need to go around creating more for ourselves or others.

I’d better explain this message’s title.  When we think about ice cream, many of us think about “D.Q.” or “Dairy Queen.”  I saw a t-shirt once that co-opted the Dairy Queen logo but used the letters to refer to “Drama Queen!”

DQ

So my question is, which kind of D.Q. do you prefer?  One’s sweet, the other is sour.  Be careful how you answer, lest your life disprove what you claim.

In spite of the feminine noun, a drama queen is anyone – male or female – who acts in an overly-emotional way.  They habitually blow things out of proportion, brewing a “tempest in a teapot.”

The very best demonstration of a drama queen is a Dutch TV commercial made about seven years ago.  It begins with mom driving her daughter to school.  Maybe the little girl is moping because she doesn’t want to go to school that day.

A policeman’s lights and siren interrupted the mother’s lecture why the she must go to school.  After she pulled over, the policeman said she was speeding and instructed the mom to get out her license and registration.

As mom pokes through her purse, the policeman notices the girl in the back seat and says, “Mom is in a hurry today, isn’t she?”

The somber little girl quietly replied, “She’s not my mother,” and held up a note she scribbled on her pad of paper which read “HELP!”

drama queen

That is a drama queen.  Regardless of their motivation, drama queens cause a lot of problems at home, work, and church.  They leave behind them a lot of burned bridges and create an area of negativity all around them as they careen through life, feeding on the unhappiness they cause.

Not surprisingly, God does not want us to be a drama queen.  Instead, He calls us to a QUIET LIFE.  We will see this morning God’s way to building healthy relationships.

First, let’s note the context of this passage: Paul explained every disciple’s primary ambition is to please God.  He Paul offered three steps to achieve this ambition.

First Step = Remember your INSTRUCTIONS (1+2).

INSTRUCTIONS in this case being the commands of Jesus Christ to love God first, others second, self last.  This is part of the Gospel that Paul had given them, the foundation of their church and life in Christ.  As there is always room for improvement, he urged them to follow those INSTRUCTIONS MORE AND MORE.

Second Step: Love God by being holy (3-8).

In people and objects, holiness means to be set apart to God, exclusively working to fulfill His purpose.  In people, holiness also means moral purity.  That’s why Paul urged them to practice self-control.  Disciples of Jesus are distinguished from the world by their HOLY and HONORABLE behavior.

Third Step = Love others by avoiding drama (9-12).

God teaches His children how to LOVE EACH OTHER (9-10).  Paul encourages them first, congratulating them on their love.  The love these church folk had for one another was known throughout MACEDONIA.

Though he didn’t NEED to write them about their love, as any good teacher would, that’s exactly what Paul did.  For, just as he said in v. 1, Paul repeated in v. 10, to love MORE AND MORE.  I know we can get tired of hearing that; the call to improvement can become exhausting and discouraging.  But, as Paul observed in v. 8, God gives us HIS HOLY SPIRIT, so we get the power to love from Him; we don’t rely on our own strength.

God keeps calling us to growth in Christ, to become MORE AND MORE like Him.  One benefit of making this our priority is that we keep praying, keep relying on God, keep turning back to Him for strengthening.  Besides, this is the definition of ambition, isn’t it?  Ambitious people never quit, are never satisfied, and are always looking to do more or better?

God’s children enact love in their ambition to LEAD A QUIET LIFE (11-12).  It sounds strange to combine the words AMBITION and QUIET, doesn’t it?  Most of us experience ambitious people as loud or bossy, drawing attention to their self.  How do these words work together?

In general, A QUIET LIFE means an end to “drama.”  Life creates enough drama to satisfy a reasonable person.  It makes no sense to go around creating more strained relationships and negative emotions.  Godly people seek a QUIET LIFE to please God and find out that it is also pleasing to others and themselves.

Paul offers two specifics of what a QUIET LIFE involves.  One, MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS.  Being a “busybody” is identified in the Bible as a sin.  A busybody is not someone with a high energy level or a hard worker; this is someone who involves themselves in other people’s lives without permission.  No matter how we may rationalize it, offering unsolicited advice or comments of any kind is to be guilty of the sin of being a busybody.  God has identified this as a sin because busybodies have a negative effect on relationships and organizations.  Their intrusive and negative spirit makes everyone nervous around them and discourages creativity and/or risk-taking; all behaviors that might be good and necessary but are contrary to the busybody’s sense of the way things should be.

Two, WORK WITH YOUR HANDS.  One cure for busybodies is for them to MIND their OWN BUSINESS, as we’ve seen.  Another cure is to WORK WITH their HANDS because busybodies tend to be idle people.  This must’ve really been a problem in Thessalonica, because Paul addressed this issue again in 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12:

We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive.  They are not busy; they are busybodies.  Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat.

I’ve heard church folk eagerly cite this verse as evidence against government welfare programs and flatly ignore the gossip and complaining they do as busybodies.  WORK WITH YOUR HANDS is a figure of speech for “honest labor.”  This is a cure for busybodies because instead of wasting their time and energy on negative incursions into other people’s business, they fruitfully expend themselves on doing good.

Working together is good for a church.  The old maxim is still true: “Votes divide, service unites.”  Churches that work together build up their unity.  Honest work is a way we can serve God and others and it prohibits us making convenient but sinful distinctions between our “work life” and “church life.”  That’s hypocrisy, bud.

There are two aims with respect to the QUIET LIFE, two good reasons to make it our AMBITION.  One, to WIN THE RESPECT OF OUTSIDERS.  A frequently-used excuse for not being involved in church is that churches are “full of hypocrites.”  There are snappy comebacks and reasonable responses to this excuse, but the most convincing reply is church folk earning the RESPECT OF OUTSIDERS by NOT being hypocrites.

We WIN RESPECT by having integrity; not just making claims of godliness, but by living in godliness.  Some people call this a “Silent Witness” or “Lifestyle Evangelism,” but to Paul, these were simply ways that all disciples were to live.  It is an important benefit to Christ-like living.

Two, to NOT BE DEPENDENT ON ANYBODY.  A secondary benefit to working with one’s hands is independence.  If you can provide for yourself, do so.  If you can’t, then don’t.   Being independent is not getting your own way as it is earning your own way.  Dependency has some negative social effects and God gave Paul the wisdom to see that capable people should be independent as long as they are capable.

This is Paul being practical but also Paul dealing with the culture of the Greek world of that time.  Greeks thought of physical labor as demeaning, while Jews had a strong work ethic they’d received from God.  Paul did not just teach this, he lived it.  Earlier in this letter he wrote;

Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.               (1 Thessalonians 2:9)

Laziness might be described as a lack of ambition.  So we understand two problems related to ambition in this passage.  Ambition for anything outside of God’s will is sin.  A lack of ambition is also sin.

God’s people are to behave in ways that are clearly more moral than people who are stuck on themselves, or in the world.  This passage is one of many in the Bible that sets God’s standard before us and then calls us to live accordingly.

This means deposing drama queens.  It means having as a goal for self first, then at home, in church, and in the community, a practice of life that drains the drama.  Here are some simple suggestions as to how you can do that.  I call them “Bumper Sticker Proverbs;” short, sweet, and hopefully, memorable.

#1 –No criticisms without compliments.  If you must complain or criticize, do not do so without making a genuine compliment before or after.

#2 – No advice without permission.  Unsolicited advice is detrimental to every kind of relationship in every context.  Ask first, and respect a “no” reply.

#3 – Nip negativity, push positivity.  Even if this requires a personality makeover, the peace achieved through positivity makes it worth all effort.

#4 – Pray before you say.  Ask God to set a guard at your lips and take away whatever is hurtful.

#5 – Tone down the teasing.  This is my worst thing.  A little bit goes a long way, even if the teasing is directed at yourself.  Humor with a cutting edge is a drama queen’s tool.

#6 – Follow your guide.  Asking yourself if your reaction is something Jesus would do is a handy way to both slow down our reaction time and eliminate sinful reactions.  Follow His example in word and deed.

#7 – Get in your time machine.  Before you react in any way, take a moment to imagine how important this matter will be in a year or 10 years.  A bigger perspective helps us avoid pettiness.

The Empty Church

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A BOOK REPORT ON

THE EMPTY CHURCH:

The Suicide of Liberal Christianity

by Thomas C. Reeves

(Reviewed by Rev. Brett Best, July, 2017.)

THE BIG IDEA

Reeves writes with an uncompromising but reasonable style to explain how Liberalism has plagued the American mainline denominations almost to death.  The death of individual churches is beyond dispute and happens daily; the effects on the national groups are indisputably taking their toll.  While Christianity isn’t threatened, these denominations certainly are.  For the record, he calls these denominations the “Seven Sisters of American Protestantism” and they are, the American Baptist Churches in the USA, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church.

In his own words, “This study places liberal Protestantism in a historical context, describes its current plight, and makes recommendations for its revitalization.” (p. 1)  As you might guess, it is the first of these three goals that takes up most of the pages of the book, but it’s such a tightly-woven, expertly concise telling of history it makes good and informative reading without bogging the reader down.

THE LITTLE IDEAS

First, a couple words about opinion polls and other statistics: one, I am not a believer in opinion polls.  There’s a certain falsehood that’s built into polling.  Regardless of how much science there is the data collection, it creates a false impression that we’re accurately gauging what people think/feel/prioritize.  Statistics of this sort are a more malleable medium than pollsters care to admit.  Have you ever heard a couple diehard sports fans debating whose team is greater?  Statistics fly about the room as proof that convinces no one.  Numbers are not always objective and they can be selectively used to make a point without ever proving a point.  To me, the most genuine numerical evidence is where people are spending their money and their time.  Maybe how they vote, although that can be too small a sample to be reliable.

Second, Reeve’s statistics are two decades old.  When you rely on statistical data, the other edge of that sword is that it ages.  I do not believe the situation has changed enough to repudiate any of Reeve’s points, but you understand my meaning: when you read the statistical parts of the book, you think, “Yeah, but these numbers are so OLD.”

“As is quite well known, the mainline churches have been shrinking dramatically during the last three decades and appear to be confused and helpless at a time when the nation is crying out for inspiration and guidance.” (p. 9)  “Confused and helpless” is the title of the first chapter and is an apt summary of the condition of the mainline denominations.  Between the youngest adults opting out (it would be another decade or so before we started calling them the “Nones”) and the graying of the oldest members, the mainlines face enough losses of membership.  Factor in the distress caused by liberal denominational leaders and policies, you have an explanation for the hemorrhaging of people, churches, and money.

“The obvious question is, Why do liberals dominate?  As we have seen, liberals have long been prominent in the mainline.  But there is also an important principle of group dynamics involved here: moderate, otherwise busy people are no match of zealous, ideological interest groups eager to attain power.” (p. 15)  He goes on to explain something I’ve wondered about for a long time; why denominational leaders tend to be liberals.  Liberal clergy disconnect from the local church because people in the pews don’t want to hear their nonsense; they tend to be more conservative.  So, when parish ministry isn’t an option, what does a theologically trained person do except go to denominational HQ?  To paraphrase a familiar adage, “Those who can, preach.  Those who can’t, administrate.”

Here’s a sign of the disconnect between liberal clergy and conservative congregations: “Complaints about the political partisanship, character, and competence of clergy are commonplace in many denominations.” (p. 23)

Liberals blame the folks in the pews for the demise of their congregations and denominations.  They cite the anachronistic nature of a faith derived from an ancient book (the Bible) as making them irrelevant to modern audiences.  Reeves will spend the remaining chapters explaining how the liberals’ abandonment of history and tradition in favor of trendiness and cultural accommodation is the real cause.  At liberal and conservative extremes, people are lost when there is an over-emphasis on politics.

Why should anyone bother renewing the mainlines?  If they are dinosaurs, why not let them go extinct?  Reeves offers some good motives.

  • The people in the pews still revere the church’s traditions, history, and doctrines, which can provide the inspiration and guidance our culture needs and occasionally wants.
  • The local church is still important to local people.
  • If denominations fall, what is the alternative? DISorganized religion?  This kind of chaos invites more drop-outs from the faith.
  • The secular culture liberals adore has been clearly proven to be morally poisonous.

With specific statistics and quotes along with sweeping generalizations, Reeves paints an unflattering portrait of the Church in America.  He notes the causes of liberalism (i.e., an uncritical accommodation to culture) and its effects (killing churches).  He explains how the “Seven Sisters” have declined and contrasted how liberals and conservatives explain a decline that is obvious to both.  The situation has not changed much in the 20 years since the publication of The Empty Church, with the possible exception being that liberals are becoming bolder and more inclined to use their media and education system advantages without being limited by nagging details like truth.  Reeve’s analysis is logically more applicable to Boomers than their Millennial grandchildren.  The first chapter is one of the most quotable in a book that fairly blossoms with good quotes.

Popular culture is the bane of true faith in the sense that it has created what Reeves calls “consumer Christianity,” the title of his second chapter.  When Modernism moved the center of the faith to the individual (from its Pre-modern focus on the Church), self-centered manifestations of doctrine and practice began to be codified in how we understand and do church.  The tension between culture and Christianity is a frequent topic in this book.  Liberals accommodate themselves to, and even celebrate secular culture while conservatives resist, even vilify it.

On a parallel track, American Church history is a cautionary tale about how culture (and its fossilized form, government) has related to Christianity.  I don’t think people who argue for a “return” to a “Christian America” or propagate a “secular America, like the Founding Fathers envisioned” really understand history.  Once again, the bias of the extremes fouls the well of truth.  Reeves devotes a lot of pages and statistical evidence to back up a more moderate and realistic view that America has always been a culture of individualism, with individuals who backed or opposed Christianity, as their inclinations lead them.  “Religious individualism, to repeat, is at the core of American Christianity.” (pp. 61-62)

In chapter two, Reeves characterizes American Christianity with these broad strokes.

  • “First, our faith is not tied to our churches.” (p. 61) Think of Billy Joe who insists he can worship God just as well in the woods or in a boat (usually with a six-pack) as readily as in a church.
  • “Second, Christianity in modern America tends to be superficial.” (p. 63) Biblical illiteracy, the statistically insignificant difference between the behaviors of churched and unchurched people, and the gap between claims of faith and acts of faith are examples of this superficiality.

Individualism is something Christian and non-Christian Americans share with each other.  What divides us is the Left’s stranglehold on media and education, which they manipulate to justify their actions and the philosophy that supposedly gives rise to them.

Historically, Reeves blames the Enlightenment for birthing Modernism and Post-modernism, philosophies that establish the individual as the center of all things, relativising morality and nullifying the true authorities of the Church and Scripture.  “The point is, to repeat, that this secular religion tended to focus on the self and its desires.” (p. 74)

Intellectuals are fond of social engineering and, to use Rousseau’s classic phrase, they have little difficulty countenancing schemes that ‘force people to be free.’” (p. 79)  The third chapter is about the three “secular religions” Reeves identifies as the Enlightenment, Marxism, and science.  These three historical movements have been perpetrators of grave persecution of individual Christians as well as Christianity as a whole.  None of their attacks have succeeded in gravely injuring Christianity, but is from their toxic cesspool that Liberalism has spawned.  It has done from within the Church what these secular religions have failed to accomplish by working against us from outside.  What’s especially subtle is how the individualism of these secular religions has been blended into American Christianity, making it the consumer-oriented organization it is today.

Chapter three covers American church history up to 1920, chapter four from 1920 to 1960, and chapter five sees us from the 60s through 1996, when the book was published.  The final chapter sets forth some suggestions on how the mainlines could be reformed.  The Empty Church is well-researched and written, presenting these historical periods with just enough detail to substantiate the author’s generalizations.  Space in this humble review does not permit even a bald listing of the movements and persons of these eras.  Such a summary is not necessary as Reeves has done such a commendable job cataloguing and commenting on them in The Empty Church.

Liberalism in the American Church started the mainlines on their decline in the 1920s, with a brief respite in the fifteen years following World War II.  Remember, one way to scale Liberalism is the degree to which liberals condone the culture of the time, whatever it may be.  “Without a Bible or a church tradition to provide, in their [liberals’] judgment, dependable spiritual or ethical authority, most liberal Protestants went along with the flow of events in the secular world.” (pp. 145-146)  Proving once again it is easier to let the river push you than to row against the river.

Clergy were not immune to the siren call of “relevance” achieved by cultural conformity.  Reeves quotes historian Edwin S. Gaustad who captured the feelings of clergy of the day and into our own time; “In the struggle over image, the clergyman unsure of his role as a prophet or moral leader as citizen or therapist, found little reassurance in observing the swift deterioration of his economic and professional standing.” (p. 106)

One trait common to all extreme positions is the tendency to go overboard if left unchecked by anyone with common sense or an actual alternative point of view.  In his chapter “Stuck in the Sixties” Reeves shares a few anecdotes of the excesses to which liberals have gone when they are unfettered by sensible folk.  The “ReImagining 1993” conference held by liberal feminists is one example of the silliness that has been offered in place of orthodox theology and behavior.

In his chapter on renewing the mainlines, Reeves offers several observations and suggestions for ways in which the mainlines might be moved back from extinction.

  • Urbanization is both a bane and a boon to the mainlines. Urban culture seems to favor secularization and liberalism, but statistics show it also increases the opportunities for church involvement.  Urban ministry needs to cease being the domain of the left and moved more toward the center.
  • Educational centers have long been nesting grounds for liberals. But statistics show that more education tends to increase church participation.  Reeves advocates bypassing existing liberal seminaries and other institutions of higher education to create new, more orthodox educational institutions.
  • Liberals and church growth experts have sought to convince us that “outmoded” worship styles and worse, biblical literacy, are offensive to moderns. Again, statistical data tells the opposite story.  Mainlines need to ditch the 50 year-old notion that “relevance” is achieved by simple-minded, uncritical incorporation of popular culture into worship forms.
  • Because the mainline leadership has yawed so far to the left, politics is a subject that should largely be banned from Sunday mornings. The mainline leaders are so thoroughly wedded to the Democratic Party which has been completely dominated by liberals, a stern corrective course needs to be taken.
  • People are opting out of church because they see it as irrelevant. “Irrelevant” does NOT mean, as liberals suggest, outmoded, archaic, ancient, or traditional.  It means – because of the folly of liberals – that it is no different from the world.  The emotional/spiritual felt needs of many people of all ages can be more conveniently found in the world, and so people have reinvested their time and resources in other institutions.  To win them back, the American Church must hew to the right and reclaim our history and traditions and our orthodoxy.  Accommodation to culture is killing us; confrontation of culture will save us.
  • “Here we are at the root of things: the submission of liberal Protestantism to a secular gospel rests upon a failure to accept the essentials of the Christian faith.” (p. 175) We can have a lively discussion of what constitutes the “essentials,” but we can come to agreement if we limit our discussion to the things that are truly important to our faith; the distinctives that we share.  Historically, we have suffered the splintering into denominations because we have allowed non-essentials to be treated as essentials.
  • Reeves calls for “vigorous spiritual formation” on page 178. By this he means rejecting the Pragmatism and Literalism of Science (and all the offspring of the other Secular Religions mentioned earlier), in favor of a return to the miraculous, supernatural, and divine.  Otherwise, church is just another club.
  • Return to a strict moral code will revitalize the mainlines if such strictures are based on Scripture, the spiritual formation previously mentioned, and a dose of common sense. We don’t need a return to the silly fussiness of Fundamentalist prohibitions; that would be an overcorrection.  One thing most people respect is integrity.  The American Church has lost respect because liberals have argued for a dumbing down of Christian morality until church folk are no more moral than unchurched folk.
  • We need to advocate for “common grace” in our culture, genuine respect for all views, not the shallow “tolerance” the left has as its sole virtue and practices with unblinking hypocrisy. We are not in competition with the Secular Religion of Science, but respond reasonably and graciously to those who disagree.  The American Church will earn respect if she sticks to her guns without sticking it to the “other guy.”
  • “Rejuvenated mainline churches must also become engaged actively in evangelism.” (p. 188) This simple sentence underscores the main thing that is wrong with mainline churches.  Evangelism is one of the most exciting and fulfilling aspects of Christian life and is the most neglected aspect of church life, to our shame.  Part of the reason for this is psychological; if there is no real difference between the church and the world, why invite anyone to step across the threshold?  If sin is not a problem and the cross is a myth, why put up with the stuff that accompanies church life?  It’s easier to stay home and more fun to invest our time elsewhere if none of this makes any real difference.  Emptied of the supernatural, we can find better ways to get our coffee on Sunday morning.
  • A return to Scripture and an emphasis on biblical literacy in and outside of the church walls will facilitate both evangelism and discipleship. Liberals forsake the authority of Scripture to exalt reason.  Fundamentalists exalt the authority of Scripture and forsake reason.  We need to find a middle ground between these false extremes and stand firmly on it.
  • “Renewed mainline churches should also take immediate steps to stem the flight of their young people.” (p. 192) Conservative churches raise up young people who generally remain true to their faith.  The liberal near-monopoly on education makes adolescence a vulnerable time and our culture is doing everything it can to extend adolescence.  We need to prepare and undergird young adults by confronting the culture they face and by which they are influenced most of their waking hours.  The proliferation of cell phones has heightened their exposure to media and the Church has done little or nothing to help them sift the good from the bad.
  • “Renewed mainline churches will also accelerate their social and charitable institutions.” (p. 165) This is another aspect of American society that has been abandoned to the devices of liberals who take advantage of their captive audiences.  Charitable institutions in this country began as extensions of the Church, but we abdicated that kind of service to secular and governmental agencies who use them to expand the liberal agenda.
  • Reeves takes a hard line on mainline clergy as well. He urges a return to more traditional forms of pastoral ministry, leaving the political activism and moral relativism predominant among the mainlines behind.

“Finally, how difficult will it be to renew the mainline?  An abundance of evidence suggests that the task is extremely formidable.  For one thing, as we have seen, many liberal Protestants, especially at the leadership levels of the mainline churches, are pleased with the current situation.” (p. 200)  “It is extremely unlikely that efforts to renew the mainline churches will start from the top down.  Meaningful reform will no doubt have to come, as it has in the past, from the rank and file.” (p. 201)

We need to decide whether or not the mainlines are worth saving.  Considering the alternatives, I’d say so.  Then we need to decide that the renewal of the mainlines will only happen with God’s Spirit at work in the pews and work its way out from there.  It then needs to involve the local clergy and skirt the denominational office as a lost cause, working in regions as a leaven.  Person to person, church to church across localities, eventually the tide will turn even the vast rudder of the denominational leaders and the ship may yet avoid the inevitable iceburg.  We can either act or let the inevitable demise happen.

MY GRADE: A.

Strategies for Last Days Living

Please read 2 Peter 3:11-18 in your Bible.  I used the NIV for my research, but there is no compulsory choice.

As if he’d received a diagnosis of terminal cancer, the Apostle Peter dealt with the question, “How would I live if I knew today were my last day?”  In our time, people have answered this question by writing “Bucket Lists.”  It’s become so common we all know that a “Bucket List” is the things you want to do before you “kick the bucket.”

There’s even a website where members can explore over SIX MILLION ideas of things to add to their Bucket List.  You can not only get ideas there, but you can share your own Bucket List items and your experiences crossing them off.

Have you seen the TV commercial where they guy is driving his elderly dog all over, crossing items off the dog’s Bucket List?  Do you remember the product they were selling?  HINT: a dog can’t use it.

Notice that most of the items that make Bucket Lists are possessing worldly items or doing things that excite or please the flesh.  Many are taking advantage of the fact that you won’t be held responsible for some mean-spirited or illegal acts.

How many Bucket Lists have you seen that include something like GROW IN THE GRACE AND KNOWLEDGE OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST?  How about you?  If it became clear your time was drawing to an end, would this make your Bucket List?  Would it be a priority?

REVIEW (See the previous two posts.)

  1. We are called to be Saints among Scoffers (3:1-7).
  2. God’s timing is not your timing (3:8-10).

NEW

  1. Last Days Living (3:11-18).

Number One Last days Living Strategy = Live like it matters (vs. 11-13).  Knowing that this reality will end in fire could just as easily become Nihilism or some other excuse for ungodliness, saying, “The end is near and clear, so it doesn’t matter what I do.”

Peter wants to deny the SCOFFERS this excuse by asking the pertinent question: “Since the end is coming some day, how should we live today?” (11)  And then he immediately answers it; “We should live HOLY AND GODLY LIVES.”

The word HOLY describes a spiritual condition.  It means that my existence is set apart to God.  I no longer live for myself, but for God’s will.  The word GODLY describes a moral condition.  It means that with God’s help I am going to do the right thing with all the days given me.

Peter gave two good reasons for living HOLY AND GODLY LIVES in v. 12.  Firstly, AS YOU LOOK FORWARD TO THE DAY OF GOD. The Second Coming of Jesus is an event only His followers will anticipate with relish, because it is the day on which all the promises of God are realized, our faith is vindicated, and we go to our eternal home in new bodies, heavenly versions of our bodies.  Verse thirteen elaborates on this PROMISE God, adding that we have a new HOME to which we can look forward.  It is nothing less than a new reality (a NEW HEAVEN AND EARTH).  It is a place characterized by RIGHTEOUSNESS.

Secondly, in the phrase AND SPEED ITS COMING.  He didn’t need to, but God has chosen to partner with us in bringing about the DAY OF GOD!  We learned last Sunday that the Second Coming was being held back to give everyone every opportunity to repent and be saved.  As you and I participate with God in helping people come to faith, then we move God’s timetable ahead if the people who are going to be saved are saved sooner.  If anyone who claims to follow Christ but has never had the experience of leading someone to Christ, then they have not participated in speeding the Day of the Lord and need to be serious about their claim.

Number Two Last Days Living Strategy = Live blamelessly and biblically (vs. 14-16).  The phrase SO THEN in v. 14 might be paraphrased, “Now that you’re properly motivated, here’s where your part comes in.”  What will be true of people who are headed for heaven is their daily choice to MAKE EVERY EFFORT to live the HOLY AND GODLY LIVES mentioned in verse eleven.

Heaven-bound believers will MAKE EVERY EFFORT to live that way beyond all accusations of falsehood or hypocrisy.  Peter describes this EFFORT in terms of the EFFORT put into our relationships.

SPOTLESS and BLAMELESS refer to our relationships with one another.  We want our moral and spiritual life to give evidence that our claims of faith are true and give form to our witness to those who’ve not yet believed.

AT PEACE WITH HIM refers to our relationship with God, that we have accepted His gift of salvation and been forgiven our sins.

Verse fifteen reminds us of what we learned earlier; the “delay” of the Second Coming is a demonstration of God’s PATIENCE.  As we are the beneficiaries of God’s PATIENCE, it is fitting that we patiently await the fulfillment of all God’s promises.

In verses fifteen and sixteen, Peter supports this teaching by referencing the writings of his fellow Apostle, Paul, noting how the two of them were in agreement on this issue.  This is interesting, because Peter and Paul weren’t always on the same side of issues and Peter had to bear Paul’s rebuke at least once.  What Peter does in these verses is also important because it is Scripture verifying itself as the word of God, His revelation to us in written form.

Peter wants to protect the truth, especially the truth about the Second Coming, from the SCOFFERS.  One way he goes about that is to say, “Paul’s had to deal with his own scoffers and we are both in agreement about this teaching concerning the Second Coming to refute their false teaching that it’s not going to happen or has already happened.”

Number Three Last Days Living Strategy = Live guardedly, growing in Christ (vs. 17+18).  The word THEREFORE warns us that a summary and/or application of the previous teaching is about to occur.  In this case, we’ve been served notice: a WARNING has been given.  Peter warned his readers that this reality and all the people who have – by rejecting God – declared their allegiance to it, will be destroyed by fire.

Part of what makes this teaching so crucial is that it is a warning we all need to hear repeatedly.  Unbelieving people need to hear it so they will repent and be saved.  Believers need to hear it to renew our commitment to follow Jesus in the days we have left.

Peter’s warning is to the people in the church, as indicated by his salutation – DEAR FRIENDS – in verse fourteen.  That church people can be believers and unbelievers may come as a shock to some.  As much as we try to honor the doctrine of regenerate church membership, experience, reason, and Scripture combine to demonstrate that every local church has some degenerate members.

First, he warned the unbelieving church folk (the degenerates) that they need to be on GUARD lest the false teaching of the SCOFFERS cause them to fall away from what otherwise looked like a SECURE POSITION.

Second, he warned the believing church folk (the regenerates) to confirm their true standing in Christ by GROWING IN THE GRACE AND KNOWLEDGE OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST.  Science teaches that growth is part of the definition of life; things that are alive grow.  Peter sets forth two signs that we can use to judge whether we are alive in Christ or just faking it.

First, the phrase GROWING IN GRACE means that the temperament and character of a true disciple will be in the process of becoming more like Jesus.  We need to acknowledge that aging and maturing are two different things.  In fact, it may be observed that the majority of people “freeze” at a point of maturity and though they continue to age, they do not mature.

Second, the phrase GROWING IN KNOWLEDGE means that a true disciple is always a learner, always humble about what they know.  Humble people know in their hearts and say aloud that the more they learn, the more they realize they have more to learn.  Humble people acknowledge the biggest “room” in their home is “room for improvement.”

So believers and unbelievers are both being warned, but to different ends.  Peter is NOT warning the believers that they can forfeit their salvation.  Instead, he is giving church folk (both believers and unbelievers) a warning that simply claiming faith is not enough.  A genuine faith is not merely assumed or claimed; it is proven by how we live in these LAST DAYS.  Since God already knows our hearts, we are proving our faith to ourselves and others by the maturing of our character into Christ-likeness.

Believers are NOT given this warning to undermine our confidence in our salvation, but to give us signs we can see on our own, to verify our confidence.  This warning was given to humble us and cast us back on the grace of God and stand on that alone.  In this understanding Peter was again in agreement with Paul, who wrote; SO IF YOU THINK YOU ARE STANDING FIRM, BE CAREFUL THAT YOU DON’T FALL! (1 Corinthians 10:12)

Peter ends this letter giving GLORY to OUR LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST, which is the happy task of all His followers and the best use of our LAST DAYS on earth.

In his book, The Quest For Character, Charles Swindoll wrote about a little blue box held in the Library of Congress.  A label on the box reads: CONTENTS OF THE PRESIDENT’S POCKETS ON THE NIGHT OF APRIL 14, 1865.  Here’s what was in Abraham Lincoln’s pockets on the night he died:

  • A handkerchief, embroidered “A. Lincoln.”
  • A country boy’s pen knife.
  • A spectacles case repaired with string.
  • A purse containing a $5 bill — in Confederate currency!
  • Some old and worn newspaper clippings.

The clippings were concerned with the great deeds of Abraham Lincoln. One of them reported a speech by John Bright which said Abraham Lincoln was “one of the greatest men of all times.”

John Bright was a British statesman who was quite right in his assessment of Lincoln, but in 1865 many others had a contrary opinion. The President had fierce critics.   It is touchingly pathetic to imagine this great leader seeking comfort from a few newspaper clippings.

<See https://bible.org/illustration/little-blue-box.&gt;

True believers will, like Lincoln, face adversity in this life.  God promised that following Him would be worth it, but He did not promise it would be easy.  Peter faced his SCOFFERS and Paul opposed false teachers in the churches he founded.  Without bowing to opposition or compromising to the world, the promises and the warnings will be held dear by those who are true.  It is worth it.

Timing IS Everything

Please read 2 Peter 3:8-10 in your Bible.  I’ve used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

In a message entitled “Timing is Everything” Rev. Bruce Goettsche wrote, “You have probably heard the phrase many times, ‘timing is everything’. There is a great deal of truth in that statement.

“The difference between a good joke and a bad one is a person’s sense of timing.  An appropriate pause makes a joke . . . an inappropriate pause can kill the same joke.

“Timing is essential when dealing with people. You don’t ask for a raise when business is not going well or when things are tense around the office. You don’t try to correct someone who feels threatened by you. You don’t ask for a favor when someone is under a lot of stress or angry.

“Timing is important in cooking.  The juicy hamburger on the grill is raw meat if cooked for too little time and a clump of charcoal if it is cooked too long.

“Timing is important in your spiritual life as well.  Jesus was very conscious of timing. He lived His life with an acute awareness of God’s timing for His life. The gospel of John records these words of Jesus,

  1. John 2:4 ‘My time has not yet come’
  2. John 7:6 ‘The right time for me has not yet come’
  3. John 7:30; 8:20 ‘His time had not yet come’

“Peter tells us that the second coming of the Christ is a matter of timing. God has not sent Christ back to earth yet because ‘he wants everyone to come to repentance’.  God is waiting until everyone who will come to Christ, does.”

REVIEW

  1. We are called to be Saints among Scoffers (3:1-7).

NEW

  1. God’s timing is not your timing (3:8-10).

God is eternal; we are stuck in the present (8).  This is one of Peter’s rebuttals of the SCOFFERS – a theological one – God relates to time differently than we do.  All discussions of timing – including the arrival of the Second Coming of Jesus – need to account for this.  Peter is referenced Psalms 90:4, which says, FOR A THOUSAND YEARS ARE LIKE A DAY THAT HAS GONE BY, OR LIKE A WATCH IN T NIGHT.

The word “eternal” does not mean an unlimited amount of time; it is not exactly a synonym for the word “forever.”  Instead, “eternal” means timeless.  God is eternal in that He transcends time; He is not affected by the passage of time nor limited to any one time.

In a sense, God is always in the present moment; He exists in all times simultaneously.  We say that God is present in all places simultaneously (“omnipresence”) and we can also say God is present at all times simultaneously (“omnitemporal…?”).

Back to verse eight.  Peter is saying, “These SCOFFERS who accuse God of being late don’t know God.  He is never late because he is always present.”  That’s why Peter urged his readers DO NOT FORGET this important truth.  Because God is who He is, no one can accuse Him of lateness.  So the gap between the promise of the Second Coming and its fulfillment cannot be explained as some failing in God or something lacking in our faith.  Peter offers the true explanation in verse nine.

God is patient; we want it done yesterday (9).  God is neither late nor slow; instead He is PATIENT.  God is neither unwilling nor unable; instead He is giving people opportunity to repent so the Second Coming will be a day of life, not death.  The fact that the Second Coming has not yet happened is not to be misinterpreted as the SCOFFERS have done (AS SOME UNDERSTAND SLOWNESS).  Instead, it is a demonstration of God’s patience. There is a lot of biblical evidence for the patience of God; see Exodus 34:6; Numbers 13:18; Psalm 86:15; Jeremiah 15:15; Romans 2:4; 9:22 as examples.

The reason God shows patience is bound up in His desire to see all people repent and be saved.  The will of God is made clear in this verse; God’s will is for all people to be saved.

However, God is not going to save anyone against their own will.  He has delegated authority to us in the form of free will.  We decide for ourselves whether or not we accept His gracious gift of salvation.  I explain it this way: Salvation is 99% God’s action and 1% our reaction.  However, our 1% is the deciding factor.  With our one percent we either accept God’s salvation in Jesus Christ and have eternal life or we reject it and suffer eternal death.

This means that God cannot be accused of sending anyone to hell; people send themselves by the choice they make.  If God had His way all of us would be saved.  But then that free will thing is toast.

The Lord is coming; the world is ending (10).  Peter issued two warnings to the SCOFFERS.  One, Jesus’ second appearing will be something they won’t see coming while in their present frame of mind: it will surprise them LIKE A THIEF in the night.  Two, it will have a deadly outcome where they are concerned; they will be destroyed with FIRE.

While the Second Coming is something we are to anticipate every day, when it happens it will be without any obvious warning.

We install locks and security systems to guard against thieves, but they don’t call ahead to schedule their appearance at our homes.  Similarly, the SCOFFERS will be surprised at Jesus’ sudden reappearance.  Their decision not to have faith will mean that they did not see this coming.  The expression AS A THIEF is one Peter borrowed from Jesus’ own teaching on this subject (see Luke 12:30, 41).

The phrase DAY OF THE LORD tells us that the Second Coming is a single event that unfolds a series of consequences.  For example, the DAY OF THE LORD is the same event as Judgment Day, as judgment being one of the reasons Jesus will reappear in this way.  Judgment Day is implied in the phrase EVERYTHING DONE IN IT WILL BE LAID BARE.

The other part of this that is hard for the SCOFFERS to wrap their heads around is that reality as we have known it will come to an end.  What is bound by time will be replaced with what is eternal.

THE HEAVENS WILL DISAPPEAR WITH A ROAR is another way of describing the suddenness with which the Second Coming will occur.  Both heaven and earth will come to an end on that day; Peter makes it clear everything will be destroyed by FIRE: THE ELEMENTS WILL BE DESTROYED BY FIRE.  THE ELEMENTS are what we call “atoms” and “molecules,” the basic building blocks of reality.

– In the Bible, FIRE is a symbol of three things.

One, it is a symbol of purification.  Like gold, which is purified by fire, our faith and moral nature are purified by trials and tests (see 1 Peter 1:7).

Two, as the Apostle Paul used it in 1 Corinthians 3:13-15, FIRE is a symbol of judgment.  What is not of God does not survive the fire, revealing its true nature.  On Judgment Day, each person’s life will be LAID BARE, the truth of our decision exposed in the way we have lived our lives.  All that survives the fire will survive in the new, eternal heaven and earth.  What is burned up is destroyed.

Three, fire is a biblical symbol of destruction (see verse eleven).

In a message entitled, “Don’t Blame The Judge,” Tim Smith wrote, “God has done everything He possibly can to keep you out of Hell and still leave you as a person with free will. Some Christians argue otherwise that it is in fact God who sends people to hell. But when a criminal is sent to jail, we don’t blame the judge, do we? We blame the criminal. The judge isn’t responsible because he’s just following the law. It was the criminal who broke the law and that’s why they were sent to jail. Likewise, God is bound by who he is, a holy, loving, righteous and just God and by His decision to give us free will and then not violate it by keeping us from making bad decisions. So it’s not God who sends us to hell but our decisions and the repercussions that we must live with.”

<Retrieved from https://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-tim-smith-stories-hell-83766?ref=TextIllustrationSerps on 7/14/17.>

God’s timing is not ours.  Unless we step into Scripture and see things from God’s perspective, we see everything through this very limiting lens of time.  We must understand that things are NOT going to continue forever the way they have been.  Understanding this motivates us to appreciate the urgency of preparing today for an event that will happen tomorrow.  Preparation begins with deciding to accept God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.

The Contemplative Pastor

A Book Report on

THE CONTEMPLATIVE PASTOR

Eugene H. Peterson

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Reviewed by Brett Best, 7/17/17.

THE BIG IDEA

Based on the subtitle, “Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction,” one might conclude that Peterson attempts to restore spiritual direction to the job description of Christian pastors.  That is undoubtedly the intent of the author.  However, as the greatest portion of the development of his thesis does NOT involve things of the past, one has to wonder, “How is this a return to the art of spiritual direction?”  It may seem picayune to note this, but we are attempting to identify the central idea of the text, and something as obviously stated as a subtitle merits a closer look.  “Reexamining” would, I believe, be a better choice of words and more reflective of Peterson’s methodology.

“Art” is an aptly-chosen word, given Peterson’s obvious affinity for poetry, emotionally expressive prose, and a wordsmith’s fascinations with turns of phrase.  More importantly, it conveys Peterson’s sensitivity to the spirit of a thing and knowledge that expressing the spirit is not a formulistic science, but an art form to which one brings imagination and intuition.

There is a great deal that can be said about “spiritual direction” that has been more aptly stated than I can.  It’s possible that Peterson may not define the term in the same way as those who make a ministry out of spiritual direction.  In his book, spiritual direction is more of a general heading than a specific destination.  That is not to say that it is formless, just that sufficient flexibility is required to fit individuals with the steps they need to take to bring God into the gaps of their awareness and action.  I suspect Peterson’s definition is more process-oriented than product-oriented.

Risking the loss of the title in the sub-title’s examination, it’s a good time to remember that the title of this book is The Contemplative Pastor.  The work was written with Peterson’s colleagues in pastoral ministry in mind.  It is “contemplative” in the sense that it urges the parish pastor to transcend the “scientific/professional” approach that has dominated the field in the last century to embrace a cooperative search for meaning; pastor and people.

THE LITTLE IDEAS

Chapter 1 – The Naked Noun.  In modern usage, nouns have been weakened by the excessive use of adjective in order to specialize or just “sell” the thing.  Pastor is an example of a noun so miserably used with adjectives that it has been bleached of any meaningful identity.  Peterson purposes to correct this loss by offering unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic as three suitable adjectives to use in modifiying the noun pastor.

Chapter 2 – The Unbusy Pastor.  It is blasphemous to attach the adjective busy to the noun pastor because it indicates a sinful state in which the clergyperson is unavailable to the people paying for his/her availability.  We allow ourselves to become busy because we are vain or too lazy to say “no.”  The unbusy pastor attends the things that are really important, not just the stuff that mollifies his desire to please people or herself.  Pastors need to be unbusy enough to pray, preach, and listen.  If they would recover biblical priorities, they must wield the cultural icon of a schedule to squelch opposition, appealing to the fiat, “My schedule does not allow this.”

Chapter 3 – The Subversive Pastor.  (This is where I came into this project.  Thirty years ago – the last time I bothered to read Leadership magazine, I read an article by this name that was taken from this book.  The concept hung with me all these years and inspired me to read it now, thirty years later.)  Popular culture has denigrated the office of pastor to such a bland, pasty-faced character who offers smiles and hugs in the vain hope of acceptance or at least relevancy.  Peterson sees the pastor’s role as playing that caricature for all its worth, the whole while undermining the errors and confronting the sins of our arrogant culture and the Church that has been co-opted by it.  Ours is a guerilla war, making no fiery clashes we cannot hope to win, but concentrating on the power of the truth to influence and win converts from the “Kingdom of Self” one at a time.  Vanity and naivete have influenced pastors to commit themselves to logistical campaigns destined to futility.  The Kingdom of Self cannot be assaulted directly; the Kingdom of God works through parable and other forms of misdirection that advance our cause in a way that makes victory possible.  It is an interesting paradigm and has encouraged me a great deal over the years.

Chapter 4 – The Apocalyptic Pastor.  This adjective would be contrary to subversive if “apocalyptic” meant what we usually think it means.  Peterson takes the word away from its usual, sensational, sense, to emphasize the revelatory aspect.  The pastor’s job is to reveal God to the people.  This seems patently obvious until we take stock of how deeply we have perjured ourselves where God is involved.  To the degree that secular culture sanctions God, we have misrepresented Him.  To Peterson, the apocalyptic pastor must be patient because God does not change and people stubbornly resist Him.  To honor God and to overcome sin’s resistance, patient adherence to the truth is needed.  In my reading, this was the weakest of the three adjectival chapters, the paradigm a bit stressed by being stretched too far while possessing less substance.

Chapter 5 – Ministry Amid the Traffic.  It is a trade secret that clergy wish there were more Sundays in the week.  It is the time between Sundays that is the most stressful for us.

Chapter 6 – Curing Souls: The Forgotten Art.  To write of “curing” souls is a fascinating turn of phrase and I am coming around to it.  However, the chapter is based on Peterson’s “because I said so” kind of reasoning, with support from other sources conspicuous by absence.  His point is that pastors can either “cure” (mature/improve) souls or run a church, but not both.  As is the case whenever someone presents a false dialectic that requires a choice (“either…or”), I encourage people to ask “Why not ‘both…and’ instead?”  Peterson is so eager for his new turn of phrase he isn’t willing to address the possibility that both activities (curing and running) may be redemptively used for the Kingdom of God.  A pastor may engage in more curing than running if first he seizes the initiative to define what ministry and congregational life is really about.  Second, he/she must consciously use language that is descriptive (by which I suppose he means story, parable, and idiom) over against prescriptive language (which either commends or condemns).   Third, the pastor is usually busied solving problems and counts these as progress in ministry.  Part of curing souls is seeing past problems and looking at the larger, more important, issues of relationships and beliefs which no doubt contribute to the problems anyway.  Again, process trumps product.

Chapter 7 – Praying with Eyes Open.  Most of this chapter is an homage to writer Anne Dillard.  It really only serves the reader as an over-long emphasis on the “art” of spiritual direction and a call to spirituality that is more abstract.  I would advise the reader to skip this chapter.

Chapter 8 – First Language.  Peterson wants so badly to argue for the primacy of prayer as the pastoral task that this chapter almost descends into anti-rationalism.  I suspect it is a point that must be made as it is the greatest weakness among clergy and laity alike.  Prayer is the most vital thing in a truly spiritual life and yet it is the most neglected thing.

Chapter 9 – Is Growth a Decision?  Prayer leads to providence as surely as sowing to reaping.  The question is one of will – divine and/or human – and how they intermingle to accomplish anything in prayer.  Peterson’s solution is to offer the middle voice of English grammar as a symbol of the mutual participation of human and divine will in accomplishing spiritual maturity in the believer and in the local church.

Chapter 10 – The Ministry of Small Talk.  The definition of “small talk” is very much in the eye of the interpreter and we tend to make such decisions very selfishly.  However, not everything a lay person has to say is a worthy use of a pastor’s time.  “Art” will always require sensitivity to context and may also require participation (usually active listening) in moments that might seem otherwise trivial.  Pastors can easily see walk-ins as intruders on their more important (read: “more spiritual”) activities.  Such an attitude will obviously cast a shadow on trust and will provide fewer opportunities to provide spiritual direction.  In a sense, pastors earn the right to be heard by listening.

Chapter 11 – Unwell in a New Way.  This chapter is Peterson addressing some of the symptoms of postmodernism in our culture without necessarily intending to do so.  From his point of view, adolescence is a model for understanding the sin nature.  It is immature and committedly so.  (I agree and have thought so for years).  There are two aspects of this cultural adolescence; a sense of inadequacy (especially in spiritual matters) and a lack of context that comes from expunging tradition and history.  This is “new” in the sense that in the 50s pop culture began a cultural shift from respecting age to respecting youth.  Postmodernism is part of the process and the product of this shift.

Chapter 12 – Lashed to the Mast.  Here’s another trade secret: pastors have a complex relationship with their churches.  In Peterson’s case, this is manifest in his contention that lay people have low expectations of their pastors because it makes less work for them.  Contrarily, pastors have an overly-high view of their work and exaggerated expectations of themselves.  The latter makes pastors irrelevant and the former depresses them.  The epitome of this state of disrepair is pastors offering to baptize Cabbage Patch dolls at the height of that craze.  Hilarious but true.  Being a pastor means having the job at which it is easiest to placate one’s clients but hardest to live with one’s self.  If that sounds like a prescription for failure, it is.

Chapter 13 – Desert and Harvest: A Sabbatical Story.  If you’re not considering a sabbatical, this is the most important chapter of the book.  If you are considering a sabbatical, this is the most important chapter of the book.  Otherwise, there’s not much here for the between-Sundays pastor.

The final two chapters are an ode to poetry as a means of becoming “artsy.”  Unless you need help getting in touch with your feeling side, there’s little to be mined in these pages.

THE FINAL GRADE: B+

Peterson’s task was to restore spiritual direction to its rightful place as primary among the pastor’s tasks.  That achievement is no less necessary today than it was in the nearly thirty years since the book’s publication.  I award this grade on the basis of a good try made with insufficient methodology and evidence.  In the art vs. science dialectic, it errs on the art side.

For example, you can’t hue and cry about the current culture’s adolescent lack of moorings to history and then substantiate most of what you write with personal observations and subjective reflections that lean more to the “art” than “science” side.  While pastoral ministry still needs the course adjustment Peterson advises, he method of making his point seems too “micro” in scale to achieve that correction.  But that may just be Peterson being a subversive.

Reading the book has made it clear to me that discipleship/spiritual direction is a part of ministry I have personally neglected.  While Peterson’s introductory tract may have been surpassed by more recent entries in the field, it served me well as an introduction and incentive to spiritual direction as a means of moving people closer to God.

Saints Among Scoffers

Please read 2 Peter 3:1-7 in your favorite Bible.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

(This is the first in a series of five messages on 2 Peter 3.)

The upcoming Second Coming demands godly living now.

Starting with Jesus Himself, people of faith have endured the scorn of people who, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, think themselves so much smarter.  Let me offer as an example a few quotes from notorious scoffers and Bible quotes that answer their objections to the Christian faith.

            Author Gore Vidal stated, “Christianity is such a silly religion.”

1 Corinthians 1:18 = For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but unto us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Gore Vidal died in 2012, after a decade of decline in which he fell into alcoholism and dementia and had painful feuds with family members and friends.  Maybe his words aren’t so trustworthy after all.

            “Christians are losers.” — said Ted Turner, media magnate (Between this quote and CNN, Turner has a lot to answer for!)

In Matthew 16:25 we read Jesus’ words; “For whoever want to save their life will lose

it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (So we are “losers,” but what we gain in trade is so infinitely more valuable!)

            The French philosopher Voltaire stated plainly the task of opponents of Christianity: “If we would destroy the Christian religion, we must first of all destroy man’s belief i/t Bible.”

In response, the Bible teaches such a plan is doomed to failure.  In Matthew 24:35, Jesus said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”

Voltaire never married but lived as a husband to his niece until his death in 1778.  You could say the Church got the last laugh on Voltaire; he refused to recant and was refused a Christian burial.  However, some friends had him secretly buried in a rural church outside of Paris.

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In all these examples, men who achieved worldly success thought they could do better than Christianity.  They were scoffers, more impressed with their big brains than anything else, vain rebels against God, whose truth goes marching on.

  1. We are called to be Saints among Scoffers (3:1-7).

Peter’s aim in writing two letters to them: STIMULATE WHOLESOME THINKING (1).  The Greek word for WHOLESOME meant “pure when examined by sunlight” or “sincere.”  In this case, the purity in question is theological; it is to have a correct under-standing of the truth.  It means to have a faith that is not compromised by worldly views or falsehood of any kind. This is the opposite of the SCOFFERS, who’re thoroughly compromised.

WHOLESOME THINKING meant to have a “pure disposition.”  It is a worldview informed by, and is in accord with, God’s revelation.

Peter attempted to achieve his objective by reminding them of God’s word (2).  Peter is not just sharing his opinion with them.  These WORDS have come from HOLY PROPHETS and from OUR LORD & SAVIOR THROUGH YOUR APOSTLES.

THE HOLY PROPHETS refers to the Old Testament prophets specifically and generally to all the books of the Old Testament that aren’t histories.

THE COMMAND GIVEN BY OUR LORD AND SAVIOR THROUGH YOUR APOSTLES refers specifically to His two commands to love and generally to all the actions and teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.  I love how Peter refers to himself and the others as YOUR Apostles.   They were put in authority to pass along the faith as they received it directly from Jesus.  Their testimony is verified by the fact that though 100s of years of history separated them, they spoke with one voice: the APOSTLES preserved what Jesus said and His teaching fulfilled what the PROPHETS predicted.

Further, this is the WORD that had been SPOKEN IN THE PAST.  It is not the latest trend, the popular notion, it is the faith as they had received it from the beginning.  In practice, this means that our faith is based on the word of God, the Bible.  At the beginning of our life of faith, it is especially important that our own beliefs be in accord with the traditions of the Church.  Finally, as we mature in faith, we apply experience and reason to Scripture and tradition to affirm a faith that is our own.

This is NOT to say that we are free to make it up.  That approach is too individualized and subjective to be trust-worthy.  A made-up faith is not true; it is not powerful to save us, nor is it powerful to help us overcome life’s challenges.  A made-up faith is easy prey for the world and our Enemy to corrupt.  It easily becomes a way to make excuses.  Instead of confronting our culture it capitulates to trendiness: “pop faith.”

“Saints” is a New Testament word that refers to all who truly believe and are thereby part of God’s family.  We are to be characterized by purity in thought and action.

Even more important (ABOVE ALL) than WHOLESOME THINKING, he needed to warn them that SCOFFERS would come, trying to confound their WHOLESOME THINKING (3-7).  This creates a couple questions.

One: when are the LAST DAYS (3)?  The LAST DAYS is the span of time between Jesus’ Ascension (when He went back to heaven) and His Second Coming.  All saints, including the New Testament writers, thought that Jesus would come again during their lifetime. The SCOFFERS have been quick to ridicule saints on this basis, as we see in v. 4.

Two: who are the SCOFFERS?  They are identified by their choices: FOLLOWING THEIR OWN EVIL DESIRES (3).  This is often what motivates people to make up their own faith or reject faith entirely; to justify doing what they please.  Remember, these are the SCOFFERS.  The word EVIL is more appropriate in their case because they actively promote falsehood.

They are also identified by their words.  (It’s a little amusing to read, SCOFFERS WILL COME SCOFFING.  What else would they do?)  They scoff at the notion that Jesus will come again.  They deny or sow seeds of doubt about Jesus’ Second Coming (4).  They ignore the facts of creation and history to replace the truth with their own narrative.  Instead of trusting God to reveal Himself accurately, they trust their own intellect, imagination, and/or experiences.

It’s essential to know the truth about the world as a guard against counterfeits.  First, we affirm that God is our Creator (5). It amazes me, for example, that people want to find “laws” of nature without acknowledging the Law-maker, God.

Second, we affirm that, as Creator, God has the right to do anything He wills with creation, including destroying His it.  The history the SCOFFERS are eager to ignore affirms that has already done so – on a limited scale – by means of flood waters (6).  Peter mentioned the world-wide flood to note the historical process:

Warning    =>     Scoffers    =>     World

Delivered            Appeared           Destroyed

This process is being repeated here in the LAST DAYS.

The prophecy the SCOFFERS are eager to ignore warns us He will destroy this creation – on an unlimited scale – by means of fire (7).  There are numerous Old Testament prophecies that connect FIRE and the DAY OF THE LORD (PSS 97:3; ISH 34:4; 66:15-16; DNL 7:9-10; MCH 1:4; JOL 2:30; ZPH 3:8; MCI 4:1).  So this is an example of connection between the PROPHETS and APOSTLES as mentioned earlier.

Peter warned THE PRESENT HEAVENS AND EARTH ARE RESERVED FOR JUDGMENT AND DESTRUCTION OF THE UNGODLY.  In other words, it’s going to happen, but God the Father alone knows when it will happen.  No matter how familiar or how enduring things of this world seem, the truth is that everything is just temporary and will one day be destroyed by fire.  So our job is to focus on the certainty of the end and get ready for it.

Both history and prophecy support the truth that God is in charge and He will decide when reality as we’ve come to know it will cease.

The upcoming Second Coming demands godly living NOW.

“On August 30, 2005 Coast Guard Lt. Iain McConnell was ordered to fly his H46 helicopter to New Orleans and to keep that machine flying around the clock for what would turn out to be a heroic rescue effort.

“None of his crew were prepared for what they were about to see. They were ahead of every news crew in the nation. The entire city of New Orleans was under water. On their first three missions that day they saved 89 people, three dogs and two cats.
“On the fourth mission, despite twelve different flights to New Orleans, he and his crew were able to save no one. None! They all refused to board the helicopter. Instead they told the Coast Guard to bring them food and water.

“They were warned that this refusal to leave was extremely dangerous. The waters were not going to go away soon. Sadly, many of those people perished because of their refusal to be rescued.”
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Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has mounted the greatest rescue effort of all time.  But He will not save anyone without their consent.  Giving our consent means giving ourselves to Him, accepting what God has revealed to us by means of WHOLESOME THINKING.

As Peter warns us scoffers will scoff.  We don’t need to be intimidated by them.  We don’t have to argue with or answer them. The proof of our faith is found in godly living.  It is up to us to speak the truth and live the truth and all the more so in these LAST DAYS.