The letter Screwtape should have written

It is not [the Christian’s] primary task to think out plans, programmes, methods of action and of achievement. When Christians do this (and there is an epidemic of this behavior at the present time in the Church) it is simply an imitation of the world, and is doomed to defeat.

Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom (1967), 80.

 

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If C. S. Lewis lived today he may well have appended one last letter from Master Tempter Screwtape to his apprentice Wormwood (in The Screwtape Letters). In it the old master would have encouraged the young tempter to try to lead his convert down the byway of technique into the cesspool of causation. 

Now in leadership in the church, Wormwood’s quarry would be encouraged to come to think of ministry as something that requires the securing of the correct technique. The right words. The right affect. The right strategy. He would be encouraged to believe that any number of things could be a substitute for personal holiness in the life of the Christian minister. Would it not be better to have a highly relational pagan as a minister than an introverted saint? Ministers are, after all, people persons–like those in sales.

The byway of technique leads to the cesspool of causation. When mired in this desolate place, the Christian comes to believe that having the right technique will (of necessity) bring around a desired result). In so believing he replaces God with an idol of his own creation.

I don’t know if our churches and ministry organizations have moved beyond using planning and training as a tool and into the zone of making it the church’s reason for being. I hope not. The church’s reason for being is to be the incarnate community of God who lives the Gospel in a way centered on the Word and Sacraments by which they participate in the life of God. 

Planning and training can be no substitute for prayer, the word, and the table. To confuse them is to cause the church to lose its uniqueness and to negate its mission.

 

 

 

In the midst of life, we are in death

I was lining up at gate B10 at the Atlanta airport, waiting to catch my flight to Nashville. All of a sudden the silence of the gate area was broken by a cry of “Make way! We need room!” Around the corner emerged some paramedics pushing a large, shirtless man on a gurney. His face was covered by an oxygen mask. He looked less frightened than in great pain. He groaned repeatedly as he was hurriedly rushed to the waiting ambulance. I prayed.

As I continued into the jet bridge, I couldn’t help pondering how mortaliy had invaded that man’s life; how death was trying to push its way into life.

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Certainly, at the beginning of his day that man had not given much thought to that fact that today might have been his last. I know that as I got into my car and drove to the Greensboro airport, I didn’t pause to consider it. Most days, even in Lent, I’m ignorant (or at least only subconsciously aware) of my mortality.

It’s with good cause that many Compline services end with a prayer that acknowledges before God our need of His persevering grace should we pass from this life into the next while we sleep.

Our culture is profoundly afraid of death. We are remarkably detached from mortality. We committed to perpetuating a strong delineation between life and death–we don’t die well, nor do those of us who continue to live do well in experiencing the death of another.

The church must give closer attention to the way it guides parishioners in approaching death and in the way we walk with those whose friends or loved ones die. We need a theology of death.

What is the church?

The gospel teaches us that the Church is the one and only foretaste of heaven now because she alone has a real participation in the life of God on earth…. This divine reality of foretaste and first fruits is the key to understanding the Church’s power and relevance.

Scot Sherman, “Why the Church?” in Looking Forward: Voices from Church Leaders on Our Global Mission. (MTW, 2003).

Why become a Christian?

Mission must spring from a lead back into a quality of life which seems intrinsically worth having in itself. If we answer the question “why should I become a Christian?” simply by saying “In order to make other Christians,” we are involved in infinite regress. The question “to what end?” cannot simply be postponed to the eschaton…the life in Christ is not merely the instrument of the apostolic mission, it is also its end and purpose.

-Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God, 147.

The Gospel in Vigilante Film

Harry Brown (2009) is a remarkable film. It powerfully captures the sad conjunction of individual and societal sin that creates the dark reality of life in many urban centers around the globe. What’s missing from the movie are the twin themes central to Christian belief–grace and redemption.

Harry Brown is an aging pensioner who lives in a central London housing estate. At the start of the film, his aging and infirm wife dies. She is buried next to their daughter who predeceased them. Every day Harry walks to the hospital to visit his wife. Every day he chooses, for his own safety, to avoid a pedestrian passageway that leads beneath a major London road. The reason: it is a hanging out place for part of London’s drug-dealing underclass.

The film is well-made with long shots and minimal dialogue, both of which highlight a major point of commentary in the plot. The England described in Harry Brown is one marked by the breakdown of social relationships. Harry Brown, a former Royal Marine who served in Northern Ireland, lives an isolated and lonely existence shared with two people–his unconscious wife and he best mate Len.

Similarly, the “hoodies” are not only marginalized from mainstream British society but are alienated from one another by their wickedness. As Augustine noted, evil is individualistic and precludes any real relationship–to the evil man all life, save his own, is expendable. Authentic relationships are based on mutuality–mutual self-giving–something  of which evil is incapable.

After Harry’s wife’s funeral Len confides that the delinquent youth of the estate have been bullying him. At the breaking point, he has started to carry a bayonet with him for self-defense and possibly for a last-ditch attempt to vindicate himself by doing violence. The police, claims Len, have ignored his complaints and left him vulnerable.

To make a long story short, Len is brutally assaulted and murdered. Harry’s life has been made devoid of its last meaningful relationship. This unleashes a Harry Brown unknown since the streets of Ulster at the heights of The Troubles. This Harry attempts to avenge his friend by rescuing the estate from the influence of the “yobbos” by tracking down and cold-bloodedly murdering them.

Where, you ask, is the Gospel in a vigilante movie? Vigilante movies communicate the Gospel in at least three ways:

  1. They bring us into a world we otherwise might not experience. For many success in life is defined in physical and economic distance from housing estates. It is, however, often that we see ourselves and our situations most clearly when we see ourselves in a foreign context. A movie like Harry Brown reminds us of our common humanity with all manner of people.
  2. They honestly portray the ugliness of sin. Sin in the suburbs is often “respectable sin” or “white collar sin.” In the eyes of a righteous God, sin is sin. Contemporary Christianity has lost much of a sense of the ways in which the holiness of God is offended by the ugliness of sin, yet the heart of the Gospel requires that we confront our own weakness and wickedness in order to see the beauty and the glorify of the new way of life offered to us in the Gospel of the KIngdom.
  3. They show the futility of the Law. Eye for eye and tooth for tooth (lex talionis-the law of retaliation) stands at the heart of the vigilante genre. Every wrong exacts a price–the life of the wrongdoer. There is no forgiveness. There is no grace. Mercy never makes an appearance. As we watch, we realize that there’s much appealing about such a system–when we’re not a part of it. In reality come to know once again how deeply and frequently we need the forgiving love of God in Christ and the forgiving love of others.

So while other vigilante heroes (think Charles Bronson in Death Wish and Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino) aren’t types of Christ, ironically they do help us see the Gospel more clearly for the miracle it is.

The danger of blogging

When you think about it, the advent of blogs has been a huge development in the life of our society. I’m no historian of technology, but it seems to me that blogs are the tracts or pamphlets of the 21st century–they provide a wonderful way to unite passion, and ideas with a cheap (free) means of communication.

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Blogs have some draw backs too. Because they occupy “virtual space,” there is no (or very little) limit to who or what you interact with on a blog. I can respond to something written by someone I do not know and who is writing in a context quite different from my own. In this sense, blogs create an artificial flatness to interactions and deprive them of the rich texture that can really only come about by knowing something of the writer and her context.

There is also something of a tribalism around bloggers. They run in packs–sometimes more closely resembling a pack of rabid dogs than a herd of placid deer.

Tim Challies provides some insightful reflection on some of the dangers I have outlined above in this post, which is worth a read.

Hearts and minds on fire

by Jeff Gissing | @jeffgissing

Lauren Winner is interviewed at Comment, a journal of Cardus (a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture). It’s an interview that’s worth reading. I’ll pull out some highlights below. Thanks to Andy Byers (@Byers_Andy) for the link.

Two Qualities of a minister…

 I teach future pastors at a divinity school because I believe that thinking well matters—I want my students’ future congregations to be guided by pastors who know how to think clearly, think well about (among other things) theology, politics, and history.

-Lauren F. Winner

Two qualities ought to be present and mutually-reinforcing in a minister: vital piety and a well-formed mind.

Parts of the church have elevated piety and made it to stand alone. A heart of fire is enough for these people, and they do not trust the mind. Others have emphasized the life of the mind and have come to distrust the heart.

In reality the two must go together–a heart burning with love to God and others as well as a keen mind with which one worships God and seeks to know God through His self-disclosure in Scripture. 

Five books you should read…

Reading is indispensable for those in leadership, especially for those whose leadership is in the church. Guiding a community of people is a complicated task at the best of times, especially when that group of people are “strangers and aliens” in the midst of a culture that no longer (if it ever really did) understands its story in the story of God.

The minister has an essential task of being rooted in the redemptive history of God and, at the same time, interpret and apply that story to a people who are also located in the world (which has a competing story). It’s impossible to do either of these things without reading. The Biblical world requires both knowledge and understanding. The contemporary world also requires hermeneutical skill and tools. The minister is, as John Stott’s book puts it, between two worlds.

In what ways do you think it important for ministers to be trained?

Why bow ties are better than traditional neckties

by Jeff Gissing | @jeffgissing

I first encountered a real living person wearing a bow tie in 1994 as a freshman at Samford University. Since that time, I’ve periodically worn bow ties (I currently own six or seven) and have flirted with making bow ties my exclusive neckwear choice. Every guy should consider owning and regularly wearing a bow tie. Here are five reasons.

  1. Bow ties are easy to tie. There is a common misperception that tying a bow tie is difficult. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you tie your shoes on a regular basis then you can tie a bow tie. If you don’t wear shoes that requiring tying then you probably shouldn’t be wearing a tie to begin with.
  2. Bow ties exude confidence. Fewer than five percent of men wear bow ties. Nothing says, “I am confident of my manhood,” like rejecting the herd, the 95% of men, who stick to a regular tie.
  3. Keep company with great minds and great men. Think about men known for wearing bow ties: Winston Churchill, George Will, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Dennis Sansom (for a more complete list go here). Consider: no recent president has worn a bow tie on a regular basis. Could this be the cause of our national malaise?
  4. Bow ties are eminently safe (yet risky). No man wearing a bow tie was ever sucked into a shredder or mutilated in any other office accident on the basis of his neckwear. The bow tie is safe yet fashionable, but with an edge (think Indiana Jones).
  5. Bow ties offer a classy critique of “business casual.” Growing up did you ever seriously aspire to wearing a golf shirt and dockers to work? The bow tie is technically less formal than the traditional tie but offers a classier and more formal look than a polo shirt–embrace it.

Do you wear a bow tie regularly? Why? Why not?