Preach to Mirabelle Mercer

Preach to Mirabelle Mercer

For a writer, reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead can be a bit deflating.

Not because it’s bad, but because her countless perfect sentences—so simple yet so penetrating—are enough to make almost anyone despair of what they’ve written.

In Gilead, we read the letters of a dying pastor (Rev. John Ames) to the young son that he will leave behind.  In one of them, Ames tells of preaching during the carnage of World War 1.

In his attic, there are boxes of old sermons.  Yet:

One sermon is not up there, one I actually burned the night before I had meant to preach it.

THE ONE THAT BURNED

At the time, the Spanish flu had broken out in the midst of the Great War, killing millions. Hence many young men were dying before they even made it to the trenches.

As Ames writes:

It was a strange sickness—I saw it over at Fort Riley. […] They drafted all the boys at the college, and influenza swept through there so bad the place had to be closed down and the buildings filled with cots like hospital wards, and there was terrible death, right there in Iowa.

Now if these things were not signs, I don’t know what a sign would look like. So I wrote a sermon about it.

I said, or meant to say, that these deaths were rescuing foolish young men from the consequences of their own ignorance and courage, that the Lord was gathering them in before they could go off and commit murder against their brothers.

And I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, in contempt of the will and the grace of God

Now the part that I care about:

It was quite a sermon, I believe. I thought as I wrote it how pleased my father would have been. But my courage failed, because I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be and no more approving of the war than I was.

So he burned the sermon, despite the fact that it seemed like the most honest thing that he had ever written.

As Ames puts it:

It might have been the only sermon I wouldn’t mind answering for in the next world. And I burned it.  But Mirabelle Mercer was not Pontius Pilate, and she was not Woodrow Wilson either.

APPLICATION: PREACH TO THE PRESENT

My point here is not whether Ames was right about God’s hand within in the Spanish flu. In fact, I tend to detest such claims to omniscience when it comes to God’s judgement via natural disasters (see here).

My concern is with a more common problem amongst preachers, myself included.

That is:

The temptation to preach to those who aren’t present, rather than the ones who are.

After all, it’s easy to condemn the Woodrow Wilsons and the Pontius Pilates when they do not sit in front of you.

It’s easy to decry those “soft” and “lazy” millennials to a room of aging baby-boomers–or to a room of “superior” millennials (see here). It’s easy to bemoan liberal rot to a room of midwestern conservatives; or conservative fundamentalists to an educated group of East Coast mainliners.

It’s easy.

But what good is it?

It’s like railing to poor Mirabelle Mercer about the Kaiser’s war policy.

To preach to those who are present is more difficult, not least because you might step on the toes that sit beneath the pews. It forces us to ask about our besetting sins, which are always the ones we’d rather ignore.

The well-known Dallas Baptist, Matt Chandler, notes this tendency within his own context:

If I preach the sermon out of the book of Isaiah on justice, my inbox would fill with their glee that I would broach the subject. But if I applied it to the subject of race, then all of a sudden I was a Marxist or I’ve been watching too much of the liberal media.

If I spoke on abortion, I was applauded as courageous, as a ferocious man of God, and yet when I would tackle race I was being too political …

If I quoted the great reformer Martin Luther … never did I get an email about his blatant anti-Semitism. But let me quote the great reformer Martin Luther King Jr., and watch my inbox fill with people asking me if I’m aware of his moral brokenness.

His point is that it’s not just preachers who prefer the sermon to convict the absent, it’s often the parishioners too.  “Lord thank you that we are not like those people.”

CONCLUSION

In the end, if there is a lesson here from Gilead, it’s that sermons must connect, convict, and encourage the audience that will actually hear them—not the one that won’t.

In short: Preach to those present.

Preach to Mirabelle Mercer.


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Why camp matters

Why camp matters

This past week, I had the privilege of serving as the senior high youth speaker at Cedar Canyon Wesleyan Camp in Rapid City, South Dakota.

It was a great experience.

OKWUers
Some of my favorite college students

Admittedly, I have never considered myself to be a typical youth speaker.  I am a college professor, an introvert, and a user of sermon illustrations that ranged (last week) from Soren Kierkegaard to David Foster Wallace.

Still, I marveled at how God used the time, not just in the lives of campers but also in my own life. The thirteen-hour drive home was a worshipful experience—which is saying something.

Cedar Canyon is a special place.

Cedar sign

It’s beautiful, set near the Black Hills of South Dakota.  And the Wesleyan camps there are planned and led by some of the most dedicated and enjoyable youth workers I’ve ever met. The music was phenomenal and the college teams served admirably.

band
Our tremendous and servant-hearted band from an unnamed university in Indiana

On many nights, leaders worked till wee hours of the morning prepping for the next day’s activities—e.g., packing pantyhose as powdered “paint bombs” to be used at Rec. time (just like the early church).

I mention all this because I sometimes hear church leaders talk about moving away from camps as a way to engage young people.  I get it.  They can be a ton of work. Some “boutique camps” are so expensive that one practically needs a FAFSA or a trust fund to attend.  And it is often alleged that such experiences trade on emotionalism, a suggestive state, and a lack of sleep to “manufacture” conversions.  That happens.

But it’s not what I saw last week.

What I saw was a group of counselors, youth pastors, and staff that genuinely care about young people, and each other. For days on end they planned, prayed, and worked their butts off to create an environment that was safe, fun, and spiritually rich.

As always, the results are up to God. Yet it was humbling to watch young people come forward to trust Christ, pray for one another, and sign their names on giant boxes to signify a call to ministry.

box

God used our week, and I was thrilled to be part of it.

Here’s a video that only covers Tuesday!

 


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Love in the Ruins

Love in the Ruins

No one ever expects the English to be rascals.

That, at least, is the opinion of Dr. Thomas More, the self-confessed “bad Catholic” in Walker Percy’s strange and brilliant novel, Love in the Ruins.

they got rid of God two hundred years ago and became extraordinarily decent to prove they didn’t need him.

Love in the ruins

Regardless of the truth of More’s statement, it is clear that Percy’s novel desires to explore the relationship between belief and obedience; faith and morality; doctrine and ethics in the modern world.

For his own part, Dr. More is afflicted by Christian belief as by a terminal condition—“God, the Jews, Christ, the whole business”—but as he admits:

I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all. Generally, I do as I please.

I am a Renaissance pope.

Nevertheless I still believe.

LOVE IN THE RUINS

I read Love in the Ruins early this summer and found it enthralling.

It is a dystopian apocalypse set near New Orleans, after the “Christ-forgetting, Christ-haunted” United States has been pulled apart by tribalism, identity politics, racial tension, and technology gone wrong.

It was published in 1971 but reads as fresh as ever.

The main character (More) is an alcoholic psychiatrist, whose daughter died and whose wife “ran off with a pagan Englishman.”

Like all of Percy’s novels, it is filled with theological insights, and like all good novels it resists cliched conclusions.

Despite the dark setting, the book is frequently hilarious—as when the evangelical (“Knotheads”) throw a patriotic Pro-Am golf tournament on July 4th, complete with a giant banner that reads: “Jesus Christ, the Greatest Pro of Them All!”

I’ll let you read it.

A CRATER OF THE GOSPEL 

For now, my interest in the book has to do with that opening quotation (about the Brits), and with what Jamie Smith speaks of as “craters of the gospel.”

Smith’s point (via Charles Taylor) is that while modern culture is increasingly post-Christian, many “craters” of the gospel’s influence remain—like pockmarked impact-zones upon the surface of the moon.

I’ve noticed something like this even in the moral concerns of avowed atheists like Sam Harris and Dax Shephard, who have almost a hyper-sensitivity for certain ethical issues, despite acknowledging that all such “absolutes” are mere human preferences.

they got rid of God … and became extraordinarily decent to prove they didn’t need him.

Far from ridiculing the moral outrage of such atheists, however, I am grateful for it in some cases—even as I ponder the extent to which they realize they are harvesting from vineyards not their own; “plowing craters” so to speak; without fully understanding that “An enemy did this” (Mt. 13.28).

How long can it last?

What will be the longterm results of such selective “worldview-appropriation”?

Likewise, it seems that many so-called “believers” have more in common with Dr. Tom More than with his post-Reformation namesake — even as we cite prooftexts to justify our “doing as we please.”

Which camp does more damage?

NOT PIGS NOR ANGELS

Regardless of the answers, Percy’s novel is both brilliant and hilarious, even as it holds out hope that when “lust [gives] way to sorrow,” we may realize

It is you [God] that I love in the beauty of the world and in all the lovely girls and dear good friends, and it is pilgrims we are, wayfarers on a journey, and not pigs, nor angels.

Check it out (here), if you need a summer fiction read.

 


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Abby’s story

Abby’s story

This week I spend some time with one of my students–Abby Powell–talking about how Christ rescued her from an environment of drugs, abuse, broken marriages, and periods of homelessness.

The assumption sometimes is that “ministers” (or ministry majors, as Abby is) come from “safe” Christian homes in which they were taught the gospel at an early age.

Some do.

But not all.

Before feeling called to study ministry, Abby tells how she was homeless, sleeping on a lice-infested mattress, and wondering where God was.

Despite that, she is one of the most joyful and gifted people you will ever meet.

Beyond that, she shares how her encounter with Christ led to a transformation, not only of her own life, but those of her mom and twin sister as well.

Regardless of your story, I hope the interview is a powerful reminder of the radical and all-pursuing love of Christ.

abbypic

(Note: Apologies for some background noise; My university office is not a completely sound proof environment!)

My three words for 2018

My three words for 2018

Since it was New Year’s Eve last night, Brianna and I were up LATE.

Ten o’clock baby!

Just like Charlie Sheen.

Even so, I managed to slip away this morning to scratch out some hopes for the new year.

“Pick a word.”

That was the advice I got recently on how to structure an alternative to New Year’s “resolutions.” But since I preach, I somehow ended up with three words (is that better than three points?)—each connecting with a different area of my day-to-day existence: (1) marriage, (2) kids, and (3) teaching.

Here they are:

  1. Gifts (marriage)

As Brianna knows, I am terrible at presents.

It’s not my (*promised I would never blog this phrase…) “love language.”

In fact, I usually prefer that people give me an Amazon gift card for Christmas–like the magi should have done.

Even so, I’m aspiring this year to become a more frequent gift-giver, and specifically as a husband.

After all, Brianna deserves more than that just for putting up with me.

  1. Softer (kids)

I’m not typically a “yeller”—but having four kids under the age of seven could turn even Mother Theresa into parental parody of Bobby Knight (sans chair-chucking, of course).

That said, I want to work, this year, on disciplining the little ones without raising my voice so quickly.

Hence: “softer.”

Of course, some occasions almost require a good “bellow” if only to be heard above the scrum.  Still, I’ve been distressed to notice how my own propensity to raise my voice unnecessarily has “caught on” with my kids—and they don’t need any help in that department.

  1. Monastic (teaching)

Admittedly, few words may seem less “evangelical” than this one.

To be “monastic” evokes images of cloistered celibates in brown cassocks, chanting Gregorian-ly.

But that’s not what I mean (see points 1 and 2 regarding celibacy).

By monastic, I mean the need to reconnect my work to the embodied practices of prayer and worship. Ora et labora.

In doing some reading this Christmas break (James K. A. Smith specifically), I’ve been convinced that Christian higher education has often failed in this regard.

In many cases, the alternative has been a kind of slightly altered Cartesianism that replaces Cogito ergo sum with Credo ergo sum (I believe therefore I am).

But even demons believe.

In my own teaching, I sense that “information” has sometimes replaced “formation.” And in other instances, a posture of prayerful-worshipful study has been supplanted by a posture of detached analysis (or worse).

To be clear, I have no plans to jettison exams, critique, or careful analysis.  Still I do want to shift the posture of my classes just a bit in reconnecting work to prayer and worship.

CONCLUSION

I may fail terribly at all this.

It wouldn’t be the first time.

But as I said yesterday in a sermon, one thing I respect about still having some sort of New Year’s “word” or “resolution”—is that it shows you haven’t entirely given up on the idea that change is possible.

The status quo is not eternal.

The Spirit still broods and habits can evolve, if only through grace-driven effort.

So what about you?

Do you have a word (or words) for 2018?

May you fail…

May you fail…

An unconventional benediction.

A few folks asked for a copy of the “unconventional” graduation blessing that I delivered for our December commencement yesterday.

Here it is:

I left out a couple stanzas on the spot (remembering something Jesus said of wordy prayers from podiums).

Nevertheless:

Class of 2017, hear these words:

May you fail  [long pause] … to seek significance in the plastic trinkets of this world / things like money, power, and fame. / And may you find significance in this: / that you are a beloved child of God / Etched in the image of Jesus Christ.

May you have enemies / So that you may love them just as Jesus did / and thus turn some of them to friends.

May you be disloyal citizens / to rival kings and rival kingdoms / So that you may prove true to good king Jesus / And see his Kingdom come.

May your life not go (entirely) as you have planned it / And in those moments, may you come to see that, alongside fidelity, God’s other name is “Surprise.”

And most of all: May you know that we, as your faculty, cannot wait to see you go / Not because we want to be rid of you / But because through your lives, our little ministries will multiply a hundredfold.

We love you; Godspeed.

 

 

+ Credit to Neil Plantinga for the idea that “God’s other Name is Surprise.”

On Protests

On Protests

In recent weeks, social media has been ablaze with opinions over what does or does not constitute an “appropriate” protest.

This piece, however, is about a much older controversy.

Exactly five hundred years ago (this month) an act of dissent began that was far more incendiary than a few athletes kneeling for an anthem.

In the heart of Germany, a young monk named Martinus Ludher (Martin Luther) felt compelled to speak out against the abuses of his church—and particularly, against the unjust selling of indulgences.

Yet while many celebrate Luther’s legacy this year, it bears noting that he was hardly a hero to many at the time.

Protests, it seems, can be variously interpreted.

MEDIEVAL MEMEs

Thanks to J. Gutenberg’s 15th century invention of “social media,” one can still access a plethora of medieval memes depicting the Reformer in all manner of unflattering ways.

There was Luther as the beast of Revelation; Luther as the devil’s bagpipe (below); and Luther as a sex-crazed infidel who wanted only to satisfy his lust and break his vow of celibacy.

Lutherdevil

Like and share if you agree!!! –proclaimed the Hapsburg troll farms.

On the other side, the pope was also lampooned in a variety of viral .gifs, er… pamphlets.

The holy father was here depicted as a bare-breasted dragon with the head of an ass; and  as a decrepit pseudo-Jew riding a pig while holding a pile of steaming excrement.

Popeonsow
In the period, Jews were often erroneously slurred as riding pigs.

Apparently, the poop emoji is hardly new.

Nor, sadly, is anti-Semitism.

IMPERIAL REBUKE

In response to Luther’s protest, the Holy Roman Emperor himself decided to weigh in.  And in 1521, at the Diet of Worms (not a .gif), Charles V pronounced a somber “SAD!” over the idea of justification by faith alone.

Oddly, however, the interjection of a world leader only fueled the fire.

Luther’s protest spread.

BLOOD AND SWORD

In the wake of such polarization, one might hope that the following decades would bring a return to civility between the factions—both claiming to be Christians.

It did not.

So while the fruit of the Reformation is now seen in ideas like sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura (grace alone; faith alone; Scripture alone)—the more immediate fruit was  the Thirty Years War: the deadliest religious conflict in European history.

Many cite this bloodshed today as a reason why Europe became aggressively post-Christian in the years to follow.  The idea was that strong theological commitments invariably bring bloodshed.  And while the twentieth century would show that atheists can wage jihad even more effectively (#Marxism), the damage was done.

WORTH THE TROUBLE?

So was Luther’s protest worth it?

I think it was–although I don’t agree with all his tactics.

As a Protestant myself (though one with great respect for Catholicism, and for my Catholic brothers and sisters), I tend to think that the Reformation was necessary, not least because the gospel badly needed a retrieval from the tentacles of medieval tradition.

Even so, Martin Luther was a terribly imperfect activist.

IMPERFECT ACTIVIST

Believing that all his adversaries were literally in league with Satan, Luther often chose the most profane words and images imaginable.  (I’ll let you Google it.)

He had seemingly never met an ad hominem—or a reference to the human G.I. tract—that he disliked, and he shared more than his share of “fake news” stories, especially against the Jews.

His treatment of “law” and “gospel” sometimes verged toward anti-nomianism.  And his anti-Semitism made the Holocaust more possible in modern Germany (though most of the blame for this lies elsewhere).

Partly to shore up political connections, he once commanded that the “murderous, thieving hordes of peasants” be slaughtered in the most inhumane of terms.  And while some of these peasants were indeed both murderous and thieving (see Münster), others were just poor farmers who had been frightfully oppressed by local lords.

Apparently revolts against an over-taxing monarchy can also be variously interpreted.

LESSONS LEARNED

What then is the point of this history lesson?

To be sure, every act of protest is unique–as is every “protestant.”

Thus it would be wrong to equate any of them, just as it would be wrong to declare every protest praiseworthy. Some are not.

Even so, we fool ourselves if we think that any act of dissent was ever deemed “appropriate” at the time.  That’s just not how it works.

Just ask the other Martin Luther. In 1966, Gallup registered MLK’s disapproval rating at 63%, while only 32% of Americans approved of him. Yet in 1999, MLK ranked #1 amongst U.S. citizens to be voted on.

Apparently it takes more than flash polls or “gut feelings” to discern morality.

And perhaps in one instance, it took a chronically cussing and perpetually constipated monk to get a needed conversation going.

Happy (early) Reformation Day.