An Inventory of Victory

This past Sunday, our congregation’s livestream of our morning worship was a failure due to technical difficulties. But ours was not an isolated event. The livestreams of worship services seemed to have problems all over if I hear my fellow pastors correctly. I thought that there was at least a little something saved when the recording of the sermon seemed to be intact. But then when I sampled it on line, the audio quality was atrocious, a drastic departure from what we normally have. So I thought, as an ironic extension of our series of failures (An inventory of victory? Really?!) this past Sunday, maybe I should post the manuscript of my sermon here. So here it is. At the very least, for anyone who tunes into the livestream this coming Sunday, we’ll at least all be at the same place in second Samuel.

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Escapism versus Meditation

Here is a collection of 15 chapters from various published works that have been cobbled together by the folks at the Westminster Bookstore.  While I have only read a couple of the book selections that they have drawn from, the folks at are some of the best curators of faithful Christian literature that I’ve found.  So I commend this collection to you all and encourage you with the director’s words:

“While escapism ignores, meditation, in contrast, orients. Indeed, meditation is more than a helpful suggestion, it is a command for God’s people (Philippians 4:8). Books that expound on the wonderful works of God are perhaps the single greatest tool we have for orienting us towards our creator.”  –Josiah Pettit

You can download those chapters by clicking here:  Read_Slow_Collection_WTSBooks or by going to their website and downloading it there.

The Covenantal Heart of Proverbs

20200302_110931In reading through Proverbs this time, I am, for some reason, struck by all of the assumptions these seemingly universally applicable texts have.  Wisdom literature seems to always be trotted out as some kind of instruction that is non-religious and able to be used in even the most secular, non-religious person’s life.  But this one verse (Proverbs 14:9) jumped out at me this morning as a blaring example of the inescapable covenantal context of Proverbs.  Notice the parallel between “guilt offering” and “acceptance”.  This proverb is implying that there is a need for a guilt offering in order to find acceptance.  But this verse leaves us asking such questions as follows:

  • What is a guilt offering?
  • How can one be “upright” and still be in need of a guilt offering?
  • Acceptance implies there has been a breach in a relationship, so “acceptance” with whom?

In order to answer any of these questions, we have to look to the rest of the Bible.  It’s when we do that that we find that we are all in need of a guilt offering (Lev. 5.14ff; 2 Cor. 5.20-21), whether we are among the “upright” or not.  Or to put it in other covenantal terms that place us within the new covenant with Christ, we all need the cleansing sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the once-for-all guilt offering.  We all need Christ as our guilt offering in order to come to Him the first time (i.e. our conversion), and we all need that guilt offering for the whole course of our lives in Him (i.e. “the upright”).  And we find this “guilt offering” in every worship service where we have confession of sin and an assurance of pardon.  It is there where we renew our acceptance with God in Christ.  It is there where there is a dying to ourselves (i.e. the right to stand up based on our own good deeds) and a rising to new life (i.e. the need to cling to Jesus for each step of every day).  It is there where we are reckoned in a fresh and renewed way to be united to the crucified and resurrected king.

Imagine that.  All this from a supposedly non-religious text.  Whowouldafiggered.

A Review of a Significant Book

I have sat with a young woman who talked of being raped by her step-father from the time she was 14 until she was about 17. Her mother either didn’t want to know or was too drunk to care.

I have been in the emergency room with church members when they were told that their loved one lying before us was brain dead and that only the rescue measures were keeping him alive. They turned and looked at me with the implied question, “What do we do now?”

I have had a neighbor knock on my front door at 3:30 AM to ask me to call 9-1-1 because his brother was lying unresponsive on the bedroom floor. He had died of a drug overdose. The 9-1-1 operator asked me to check and see if my neighbor’s brother had a pulse while we waited for the first-responders to arrive.

I have prayed with a woman whose husband was so verbally and emotionally oppressive toward her that she had to flee their home in order to feel safe. Her church leaders only wanted her to meet with him to work toward reconciliation.

These experiences don’t make me an all-star. They just mean I was the one placed in the path of those who were suffering. No amount of training can make one prepared for the gravity and gut-wrenching nature of these situations. No book that one can read or course that one can take or counseling cohort one can participate in could ever fully deflect the emotional impact of being asked to bear these burdens. But knowing that one is going to be involved in some form of helping field (e.g. pastoral ministry, hospital/hospice work, military chaplain, etc.) and not receiving any training or not preparing oneself for the impacts that are sure to come only means one of two things (if not both): 1) you will be wounded more severely by hits you didn’t see coming because you didn’t expect them and should have; and 2) you will worsen the trauma of those you are seeking to help. There is help to be found. One can begin to prepare. One should begin to prepare.

Dr. Diane Langberg’s book Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores is an amazing step forward in preparing people for what to expect if working with traumatized people (i.e. abuse survivors, rape/trafficking survivors, etc.). Dr. Langberg has worked with trauma-related issues in the counseling field since the 1970’s and has traveled globally to study, as she puts it in several places, “the litter of hell” that is left scarring our fellow humans.

This book is not enjoyable. There were days I tried to read it while eating my lunch, and I couldn’t because it was making me nauseous to read of such evil being perpetrated on other people. However, it is quite possibly the most important book I’ve read since I finished seminary in 2006, and it is my hope that this book will have a broad readership, especially in the Church, since it is the Church’s calling to be a minister of mercy to the oppressed and afflicted (James 1.27) in whatever community She finds herself. And rest assured, they are in every community. We will meet them if we are being faithful.

What follows is a kind of review, but not really. Really all I’m doing here is listing my recommendations for various people groups that would derive benefit from this book.

  • Recommendation for men preparing to become ministers: Read this whole book. You and I will most likely never be an expert in trauma or even counseling, but we are often called upon to be like a spiritual first-responder. Dr. Langberg has stared into the face of horrible evil both within the church and without. This isn’t just evil that has marred people who show up at church. Some of this is evil perpetrated by church leaders … self-deceived, self-justifying, sheep-devouring church leaders. Yet Dr. Langberg still loves the Church. This is your calling, so learn from her. You will enter into the lives of wounded, raped, abused, and oppressed people in your community, some of which have been victimized by church leaders or other people who claimed the name ‘Christian’. You must help the wounded; and when their trauma infects your days and nights, when their wounds make you want to hate the Church, you must realize your own need for the risen Christ. And you must remember that it is the same Church that Christ shed his blood for.
  • Recommendation for Church leadership/elders: Each Church session/consistory/board of deacons should have at least one person who is conversant with this book. I would go so far as to say that every single church elder should read the chapter “Understanding Domestic Violence”. Many are quick to say that the words “abuse/abuser” don’t appear in the Bible. But the words “oppressed/oppressor” are prominent words (Pss 9.9, 12; 12.5; Prov 31.8-9; Jer 22.3 to name a few). Study those words and you will see that the Church is called to look like the Lord in defense of the oppressed. This includes demanding more than a few tears from the oppressor/abuser. Dr. Langberg’s words about self-deception and repentance in this regard (both below and elsewhere) are worth the price of the book:

“Anyone who engages in abusive behavior has practiced self-deception. They have practiced avoiding the truth. To think that someone can practice a sin pattern for years and simply say “I am sorry” and be all better is to fail to see sin as our God does… True repentance is consistent change demonstrated over time and is shown to be real when the cup is bumped again and again and something new spills out indicating a new pattern.” p. 265 {emphasis original}

  • Recommendation for Church members: Read chapters 1-7 and 11. These chapters will teach you much about the mind of Christ, his heart for the oppressed and the suffering, the nature of sin and self-deception, and our own proclivities to avoid suffering and grieving people because their suffering and grief make us uncomfortable. However, what did the Son of God do for us? He set aside His glory. He entered our darkness. He laid down His right to comfort to enter into the human condition. He was the Word of God made flesh… the Word of God applied to suffering, despairing, grieving humanity. This was no glib and light-hearted jaunt in applying the Word of God to humanity. So just as Christ didn’t glibly apply himself (the Word of God) to His people, but rather entered into our state of grief and pain, so we need to learn to apply ourselves (embody the Word) thoughtfully and carefully to those who have survived/are surviving oppression, pain, trauma, and grief. Dr. Langberg is master instructor in this area and your church will be better equipped if you sit at her feet for a while.

For the Church in general and for those who are involved in helping fields in particular, we are involved in stepping into the litter of hell when we minister to the oppressed, the suffering, the grieving, the abused. But their pain, rage, grief, addictions, fear, obsessions, despair, twisted thinking, volatile emotions, etc. are not the enemy. Sin and death are the enemy, and the Lord Jesus has already conquered them. He calls us to join him in his work of turning back sin and death. Dr. Langberg makes this point beautifully as she relates the ministry to the suffering to the raising of Lazarus from the grave in John 11. I’ll let Dr. Langberg have the last words here and invite you into this work:

“[Jesus] engages human beings in the resurrection process. Now, someone who can raise another from the dead is surely not troubled by a little stone being in the way. It was not necessary that people remove the stone, but he catches them up in his resurrection work. He calls Lazarus out and engages humans again. “Unbind him.” Lazarus… cannot see, is bound with clothes that restrict him, and he stinks. Jesus calls people to assist…He could just as easily have Lazarus come out free of grave clothes. Stones and sheets are not a big deal if you can raise the dead. God has called you and me to participate in his resurrection work. We do ordinary things like move stones and remove grave clothes. He has called us to go with seemingly ordinary methods into the place of death and darkness… [But] no matter how good you are at rolling stones, handling stench, and removing grave clothes, you cannot raise the dead. He is the resurrection and the life.” pp. 75-76 {emphasis original}

Enduring Alarm Moments

“Think about when you accidentally set off an alarm and you hear a sample of what people in crisis are experiencing. There is a lot of emotional noise in their lives; there is chaos… If people seek you out during their alarm moments, they will bring you their noise… We are uneasy in the face of unadulterated terror and pain. When an alarm goes off, we want it stopped… When an alarm goes off, fleeing is a normal response. Alarms mean things are not okay. How can we have staying power in alarm moments like these?”

Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores

Nothing New Under the Hood

I’ve been doing some reading recently pertaining to counseling and the “cure of souls”, and I keep running into the idea that the same problems we’re facing today are the same ones humanity has always faced.  This jumps off the page and smacks me in the face when I read books that are hundreds of years old.  This might become more apparent in our modern conversations if our chronological snobbery wasn’t so deeply rooted.  But we know who we are and scoff at who they were.  We think we are so much smarter, wiser, clever, etc. today than the smartest of the smart from, for instance, the 1600’s.  With our more developed understanding of how our biology affects our thinking and emotions, what could a pastor from the 1600’s teach us?

How about this?

And pride also, with a desire of liberty, makes men think it to be a diminishing of greatness and freedom either to be curbed, or to curb ourselves. We love to be absolute and independent; but this, as it brought ruin upon our nature in Adam, so it will upon our persons.  Men, as Luther was wont to say, are born with a pope in their belly, though are loath to give an account, although it be to themselves, their wills are, instead of a kingdom to them, mens mihi pro regno [my mind for the kingdom].  –Richard Sibbes, The Soul’s Conflict with Itself

Notice how the author skewers the impulses common to all of us.  There are those of us who hate controls from outside of us, “…to be curbed…”.  We say, “I will not lay down my rights for the sake of another.  For that would be to give away my freedom, to submit to tyranny, and diminish me as a human.”  But there are also those of us who hate to exercise control on the inside, “…to curb ourselves.”  On this end we say, “I will not lay aside this thing inside that feels so right.  For that would be to deny myself this freedom that I desire, to submit to tyranny, and diminish me as a human.”

Someone might object that this is just common sense.  “Of course pride is a problem for everyone.  Thank you so much for that, Captain Obvious.”  But what does it say about us if we’re so proud of our intellectual accomplishments as a culture and yet forget, for all practical purposes, the common sense that by-gone eras practiced so much better?  Maybe the author above didn’t know anything about chemical imbalances in the brain or PTSD.  But I think he might be able to take us to school on the basics of what it means to be human, to deal honestly with our own hearts, to be willing to lay aside one’s rights in service of others.  I know this author has been taking me to school.

Reading through the Institutes

I got pointed to a “Read Calvin’s Institutes in a Year” schedule about 3 months ago and it is proving itself very refreshing. Here’s a great quote I ran across this morning:

For each man’s mind is like a labyrinth, so that it is no wonder that individual nations were drawn aside into various falsehoods; and not only this–but individual men, almost, had their own gods.  For as rashness and superficiality are joined to ignorance and darkness, scarcely a single person has ever been found who did not fashion for himself an idol or specter in place of God. 

Review of “Imagination of God” by Brian Godawa

(full disclosure: I was provided a free e-copy of this volume by the author for the purpose of writing an honest review.  All page numbers will be from the electronic edition, epub format.)

I had graduated seminary and been involved in ministry in the local church for a few years when the book Word Pictureimagination-of-gods: Knowing God Through Story & Imagination (2009) was first published.  I had been struggling to figure out how to communicate about the Christian faith and biblical content in better ways in our image-driven culture.  I had wrestled with the question, “How do I excite people about a word-and-text-based way of viewing their world (i.e. Christianity) when everywhere else in their lives they are goaded and stimulated by images, videos, and little glowing screens.  So Word Pictures‘ content was like a fresh breeze to me.  Much of what was written I had already learned in various places, but Godawa was able to bring all the pieces together in such a way that it just clicked.  So when this book was republished this year under the title The Imagination of God: Art, Creativity and Truth in the Bible (2016), I was very much pleased.  And what follows is my attempt to help show how works like Godawa’s Imagination of God can help Christendom in the West bridge the gap from being captive to modernity over to a faithful and satisfying engagement with an image-driven culture without falling into the chasm of postmodernity.

After centering the reader in the personal dilemma out of which Godawa’s Imagination of God sprung, he moves on in chapter 2 (pp.19ff) where he lays out a very non-technical discussion of the nature of the Bible as a literary feast.  And like any good diagnostician, Godawa pinpoints the problem that necessitates volumes like his, namely that the study of the Bible had been hamstrung by the 17th-18th century Enlightenment’s preoccupation with precision and empirically-verifiable data.  In his words, “the biblical narrative became eclipsed by the pursuit of factual empirical verification of the text: a modern scientific obsession (pp.21-22).”  This obsession of understanding the Bible in such a literal and mechanistic manner ironically led to a widespread inability to see the Bible’s text in all its rich fullness, robbing people of their ability to fully know the true and living God.

The next two chapters, “Word versus Image” and “Iconoclasm” take the readers into the battle of ideas and its corresponding history.  Godawa demonstrates quite cogently how “…the structure and method of theology affects the content of theology…” and that any theology that neglects “…story, image, symbol, and metaphor… is not being strictly biblical in its method (p.57).”

But in this reviewer’s personal opinion, the real heart –  the real meat and potatoes – of this book is found in the next three chapters titled, “Incarnation,” “Subversion” and “Cultural Captivity”.  It is here where Godawa’s strength really shines through.  Here is where he applies the previous chapters’ argumentation to our own cultural context and helps us see how it isn’t postmodernism that gives superior tools for communication but a fully biblical Christianity.  In the chapter “Incarnation” he makes the point that the power of story and imagery are so potent because they embody truths that would otherwise be abstract and elusive.  But when “[n}arrative imagery incarnates truth (p.70),” readers/viewers can see the truth dramatized, creating an openness and an ability to identity with the truth portrayed — an openness that would have otherwise remained distant if the truth had been communicated through propositions and/or logical argumentation.  And Godawa rightly points out that at the center of all good Christian doctrine is the Truth Incarnate, the Word made flesh.  Not a mere proposition, but a person.  And it is this Person, this God-in-the-flesh Person, who enters the story of humanity and, with the drama of his life and teaching, punctures the pretensions and the feigned ignorance of humanity, subverting the truth claims of any and all-comers.  And “Subversion” and “Cultural Captivity”, the titles of the next two chapters, is where Godawa shows how — following sound, biblical precedent — we can use the “narrative, images, and symbols (p.93)” of our cultural context and subtly appropriate and redefine them within the superior system of a Christian worldview.  This is not a capitulation to the non-Christian mores and alternative worldviews of our day. This is, in fact, the conquest of them.

The remainder of the book  and its appendix, though not of as crucial a nature as the preceding three chapters, are a valuable read for any Christian who feels hamstrung or without the cultural vocabulary to engage these issues that swirl around us.  And any church leader who doesn’t have a firm handle on the use of story and image in the communication of the gospel today could do a lot worse than beginning with this volume by Brian Godawa.