Evangelism, the church, and you

The outward facing relationship of the church to the world should involve evangelism and pursuit of biblical justice in society. The church is made up of people. What is the relationship which the people in the church have to that broader vision? While the church corporate must be evangelistic and pursuing justice, it is important to realize that each follower of Jesus ought to be evangelistic in their relationship to the world.

Evangelism as a church

The church ought to be evangelistic. If a church gathered is not engaging with the core truths of the gospel regularly and does not have concern for the spiritual welfare of the community it is in, then there’s big problems. The church, as a body of gathered followers of Jesus, ought to be evangelistic.

That means preaching and teaching on gospel truths. That means having programs and activities which are open to people who need the gospel. That means praying for people to put their lives into submission to Jesus. That means all this and more. The church needs to be evangelistic.

Personal evangelism

And the people in the church need to be evangelistic. It is great to be an evangelistic church and our church has lots of room to grow in that. But if we identify the responsibility for evangelism with just the church, we run into a significant practical issue: people who need to be evangelized almost never come to church.

Whatever else we talk and debate about regarding different ways the church should engage with non-churched people and be evangelistic, this practical issue is an issue. There was a day and time in the past when people flocked to massive evangelistic crusades (think Billy Graham), when people would come to evangelistic events at churches, and when people not associated with a church would come into the church with reasonable frequency. Evangelistic crusades and events were fine and good and God did some amazing work through some of those movements and efforts. But the simple pragmatic reality is that today that’s not happening.

Regardless of what we wish were happening, more often than not people aren’t coming to church. We’re a small enough congregation so that it’s pretty obvious when you look around that not a whole lot of new people show up with great regularity.

No matter how evangelistic we are as a church gathered, we have this simple and practical problem that that people needing to be evangelized aren’t showing up. Of course, there may be things we can do and ways we can change to encourage people to come. And those are concerns to pray over. But the fundamental issue remains that for most unchurched and non-churched people, going to church is a non-priority.

If the people around us are going to be reached, they need a point of contact. That point of contact is unlikely to be an advertisement for a church service. It is unlikely to be a neat social media marketing campaign, and it is unlikely to be a mass-mailing. Even though those efforts all are commendable. The most likely point of contact which may jar someone out of spiritual apathy is…you!

What to do

Living evangelistically is harder than not living evangelistically—which is why so many of us do it so little of the time. But it does not have to be that different. Here are a couple ideas:

  1. Pray (and read Scripture). The power for proclaiming the good news of Jesus ultimately comes from God. Nothing better directs and equips our hearts towards evangelism than consistent prayer. Pick a few people or groups and pray regularly that God will give you opportunities to point others to Jesus.
  2. Invite people to church. Sure, many people may not come, and inviting people to church is not the only part of evangelizing, but it is a worthwhile thing to do. Invite people to church events—Pioneer Club, winter reading challenge, picnics, etc. These are a chance to make a connection that may last.
  3. Go out to where people are. Where are you connecting with people in your life? What do you already do? What do you enjoy doing? Who are you connecting with doing what you do? People are more likely to connect with you rather than with the church. You can be a gateway and a guide to bring people in, to share truths, to teach people the basics about God. That can happen when you are with other people doing what you already do.

Moving forward

I don’t have the gift of foresight, but my assumption is that there is not going to be a time in the near future where lots of people in the community will one day decide, “Let’s all go to church.” The evidence suggests that more and more people are concluding, “Let’s not go to church.” To minister to the world around us is going to require more than just being present and having the church building here and open. That is a great starting point. But unless and until we take it upon ourselves to bring gospel hope to where it is needed, it is not going to get there.

“how then will they call on him and whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10.14)

God’s judgement and hell: restorative and retributive justice

painting of the Last Judgement

Is God just? This question is bound to come up when considering what the Bible says about human destiny. After all, the Bible claims that those outside of Jesus will be punished in hell with no chance of change. While the exact scope and form of that punishment is not clear, there is no doubt that it is fearful, awful, and horrifying. How can God be just if he condemns people to hell? That’s a multi-layered question and here I will take a stab at one part of it: the difference between restorative and retributive justice.

At the outset, note that defining “justice” is notoriously difficult. I like to say that justice is “that state of affairs when perfect love of God and love of neighbor will no longer move our hearts to anger or sadness.” While a pretty idea, it is rather vague in practice. Further, most of the discussion about justice in our culture doesn’t give a hoot about theology. As we think about justice, here is a good touch point for how the concept of justice is commonly understood:

The most plausible candidate for a core definition [of justice] comes from the Institutes of Justinian, a codification of Roman Law from the sixth century AD, where justice is defined as ‘the constant and perpetual will to render to each his due’.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Justice as a moving target

To start making sense of how God can be just if he condemns people to hell, we do well to acknowledge that there is no agreed upon idea of what justice is. We have many different options for what we mean by justice today. When we try to make sense of God’s justice, we need to be careful. We can easily decide what justice ought to be and then blame God because he does not act like we tell him he should. It may be the case that our idea of justice is out of sync with God’s justice. Maybe our trouble with hell is due, in no small part, to God’s justice not making sense to us anymore.

We could call this relativity. A quick glance across societies from the past and present shows a wide variety of ideas regarding justice and judgment: do we chop a thief’s hand off, put them in jail, or make them pay restitution? Some people believe that justice demands each one of these judgments (and that the others are unjust). In practice, people tend to operate as though our idea of justice and judgment is both universal and obvious. In the US, we send criminals to jail because it is the just thing to do. Doesn’t everyone agree?

Recognizing that our idea of justice is neither universal nor self-evident is a good start. Knowing that there are different ideas of justice should caution us from absolutizing our current notions and demanding that God conform to them. To make sense of hell demands that we are willing to check some of our own assumptions about what must be right at the door.

God’s justice

To make sense of God’s justice, we need a proper frame of reference. A framework that does not simply assume the way we do things in the US in the 2020s (over which there is much debate in the US) is just. If we are to have any hope of making sense of the biblical teaching on hell, we have to realize that God and hell do not function according to the dictates of the US penal code. God’s justice is not dependent on the standards of behavior, payment, and consequences which our society decides are just at this point in time. God’s justice fits within the special relationship he has with all people as Creator and Covenant-Maker.

The biblical conception of God depicts him as one who is just or righteous, and who as such remains faithful to the demands of a relationship with human beings that is divinely established and constitutive of human well-being. God’s justice may be expressed in deeds that liberate the weak and vulnerable from bondage, as well as in judgment on the unfaithfulness of the people; yet both expressions reflect God’s role as Lord of a covenant relationship. Correspondingly, the justice of human activity is measured by its faithfulness to the covenanting God, who may be identified in creation and history, in the Law and the Prophets, and ultimately for Christians, in the story of Jesus Christ.

William Wepehowski, Dictionary of Christian Ethics, 330

In short, justice is whatever God does to set all things right (for more on the idea of justification and righteousness, see justification by faith and the courtroom). Justice is whatever puts things back into the pattern of how God created the world. And human activities are just insofar as they reflect the way God has ordered the world. Judgment and hell fit within God’s justice as the proper response to those who refuse to submit to God’s ways, who refuse to live in the divinely established ways of the world which ultimately lead to human well-being.

Justices observed: restorative and retributive

At this point, I find it beneficial to build upon two different notions of justice and judgment to help us see how judgment—including the judgment of hell—fits within God’s commitment to the world he created and to human well-being within that world. These ideas are restorative and retributive justice.

Restorative justice

In contemporary society, the idea of “restorative justice” is gaining more and more sway. Restorative Justice

is a response to wrongdoing that prioritizes repairing harm and recognizes that maintaining positive relationships with others is a core human need. It seeks to address the root causes of crime, even to the point of transforming unjust systems and structures.

Three Core Elements of Restorative Justice

Restorative justice finds justice in fixing and maintaining rather than punishing. The idea is to bring about a state of justice through releasing the tension, anger, fear, etc. which stands behind the act of violence in the first place. At issue here is the question, “What good can come out of the wrongdoing that happened?”

Restorative justice has been making inroads in areas like how discipline should be handled in schools all the way up to criminal cases.

Retributive justice

Retributive justice is more what we are familiar with in the context of the US legal system. The phrase, “I paid my debt to society” summarizes the basic idea of retributive justice: those who commit certain kinds of wrong acts morally deserve to suffer a proportionate punishment. The punishment is good and right regardless of whether any good comes to the person who was wronged. The death penalty is the ultimate form of retributive justice. The death penalty exacts justice by rendering a punishment deemed proportionate to the crime upon the guilty one, even though there is little to no demonstrable good which comes either to those who were wronged or to society at large. Retributive justice says that the just demands of good and right be upheld because they are good and right even if no one derives immediate benefit.

Of course, there are many ways which society can benefit from the quick and effective execution of retributive justice. They may not be immediately obvious, though, and the benefits may not accrue to those immediately affected by the crime/injustice at hand. The idea of benefits coming from justice is a useful low-level way to distinguish restorative and retributive justice, but it is not the whole story.


Much more could be said on either of these, as well as alternate theories of justice. Note, though, that justice is not the same as punishment. Sometimes justice moves in to restore a relationship; sometimes to restore stolen property; and sometimes to punish more directly. We embrace a mixture of different views of justice and believe that different ones should be used at different times. These different ideas of justice provide a helpful way to see what God’s justice is up to.

God’s program of justice: a both/and

The Bible, I submit, exhibits both these types of justice in action. God remains faithful to the demands of a relationship with human beings on the terms he has established as Creator and for the good of people. Both those must remain true.

God the Restorer: restorative justice

God is interested in bridging the brokenness between him and the world. Even though God is the aggrieved party—after all, humanity rejected and rejects God, not the other way around—he moves heaven and earth to make connection possible again. The good outcome he is looking for is relational connection to people whom he has created.

The entire gospel program is the ultimate program of restorative justice: God aims to bring his kingdom into the world through Jesus. In reaching out to humanity through Jesus, God seeks to short-circuit the system of sin, effect rehabilitation, address the suffering of victims and perpetrators alike, and create an environment where the marginalized are cared for. God exemplifies restorative justice. This is the easier part of God’s justice to deal with.

God the Avenger: retributive justice

However, God’s judgment is not exhausted by restorative justice. It contains a significant measure of retributive justice as well. God will exercise retributive justice most clearly at the end of all things. He will move into the world as an Avenger, bringing punishment where it is due.

What is God avenging in the punishment of hell? I submit that he is avenging his world. And, more profoundly, he is avenging himself by setting all things back to the way he created and intends them to be. For as long as God is reaching out to world in the move of restorative justice, he is choosing to bear with creatures who reject him and his intentions for them and the world he made. Restorative justice aims to redress those harms while there is still time. The attempts at restorative justice, though, have a limit.

The limits of restorative justice

There are at least two reasons why restorative justice is always limited: (1) temporal and (2) the integrity of the person.

Temporal limit of restorative justice

Temporally speaking, once one party in the victim/victimizer set is gone (whether dead or no longer present), any hope for restorative justice is gone. If a thief empties your bank accounts, spends all the money, then dies, restorative justice is simply not on the table. While the factors are a little different in that God is eternal and human beings will have an eternal existence, there is a temporal limitation. As the Bible lays it out, the time to engage with God in restorative justice is now. Not later. Death is the threshold past which all opportunity to turn towards God and engage his restorative justice in Jesus ceases.

There are some who argue for a postmortem evangelization, as if Jesus shares the gospel with everyone after they have died. While I sure hope that is the case, it is pure speculation. Nowhere in Scripture is such a thing revealed.

And so, if God is going to exact justice (set all things back in order)—and he has made it quite clear that he will—restorative justice ceases to be an option when the sinner dies.

Integrity limit of restorative justice

The second limit on the effectiveness of restorative justice is the concern for (2) the integrity of the person. Eventually, attempts at restorative justice will either work and effect change in the relationship between victim and victimizer, or they will not. There is no guarantee that people will change if just given more time. Like the habitual liar whose identity is so deeply wrapped up in their lies that they can no longer admit the truth and also remain true to who they believe they are, people who identify themselves as foes of God seem to lose the ability to enter into restorative justice with God.

In the case of sinful humanity, the basic grievance all human beings have against God is that he exists and that he has rights over us as God and Creator. Unless we are willing to drop our grievance against God, there is no way that he could enter into restorative justice with us. Unless he were to fundamentally destroy some part of us.

It seems possible that God could unmake and remake everyone by force. Then they would acknowledge him as God. But that would involve marring his creation at a fundamental level. God is committed to the integrity of his creation. Destroying our human ability to turn to God in love—which requires also the ability to turn away from God in spite—would be to destroy the very human well-being which God is committed to protecting in his justice.

And so, we reach the crucial point of the matter: God is committed to his creation the way he created it to be. God reaches out to wayward humanity through his restorative justice, but if anyone refuses that, then God must either: (a) give up his claim and rights as God to establish the world as he sees fit, or (b) bring justice through a fitting judgment against the rebel to his will.

Retributive justice ultimately acknowledges the integrity of the being who says to God, “Justice cannot be served so long as thou art.” Retributive justice—condemning to hell, in whatever exact fullness of details that means—is God yielding up such people to their own settled choice. In rejecting restoration, they choose retribution.

Hell and God’s justice

As we try to make sense of hell and its role in judgment and justice, there are many difficult questions to balance. It is important to remember that the point of judgment is not to let God blow off a little steam when he gets frustrated with how things are going on earth. The point of judgment is to channel humanity back towards God and the well-being for which he created us.

Judgment is meant to be restorative, bringing about restorative justice. It aims to bring people into relationship with God. Yet, many people refuse to submit to God on his terms and find the human well-being we were created for. Key to the reality of hell, though, is that our refusal does not change God’s commitment to the integrity of his creation. Whatever exactly hell entails, it is the removal of rebels to God’s will from within his creation. God’s retributive justice flows from his commitment to justice (setting the world in order as he created it) and his commitment to the integrity of human beings as he created us.

if we refuse God as God, then justice. And the final act of justice can’t be anything other than retributive.  

On death and dying today

tombstones in french cemetary

God created us to live in bodies. And bodies die. Everyone dies eventually. Barring the imminent return of Jesus, anyone reading this will die sometime in the next few decades. A cheery thought to make your day. While I don’t suppose dying has ever been simple or fun, it has taken on a certain measure of difficulty and complexity in the times we live in. Dying can be really difficult, in many different ways. Being far from an expert on the matter, I wanted to share a couple thoughts on death and dying today.

The most immediate impetus for this came while reading a recent article by R. R. Reno in First Things. He writes:

Over the last few years, Canada has rolled out a program of doctor-assisted suicide. Originally restricted to those facing “reasonably foreseeable” natural death, in 2021 it was expanded to those whose illnesses need not be terminal. the Canadian government is considering an expransion of this program to cover “mature minors,” including those as young as twelve, who are deemed “fit” to make a decision to end their lives. These policies are widely popular. Polling suggests that 86 percent of Canadians approve of a “right” to die. We should not be surprised. As Leila Mechoui explains in Compact magazine (“Euthanasia Is LIberalism’s Endgame), “State-administered euthanasia on-demand is the logical endpoint of a society built on secular himanism and utilitarianism. These frameworks preclude any appeal to an absolute authority beyond the individual. The ultimate expression is as a state-protected ‘right’ to a ‘dignified’ death.” The future of the West: a culture of death under the sign of choice.

R. R. Reno, “The Public Square

A culture of death. A culture where we come to feel that we are not truly alive and not fully human unless we have the right to kill others (abortion) and ourselves (euthanasia) when life is not desired any longer.

There’s a lot that could be said about this. I want to share three resources here that may be helpful in thinking about a culture of following Jesus in the midst of a culture of death.

Look here

Joel Cho, a doctor in San Francisco reflects on the role of a long obedience to Jesus when it comes to death and dying in A Doctor Shares the Secret to Dying Well. I especially appreciate how he talks about many people being “bewildered by death.”

Mélodie Kauffmann, a nurse in France, reflects on the human difficulties of suffering, especially as a caregiver for someone else who is dying, in Job’s Wife Urged Him to ‘Curse God and Die.’ Caregivers Get It. The suffering is real for all involved. We would do well to remember that, for most people, the “culture of death” is driven not by reasoned ideology, but by fear and compassion. Fear of suffering and death; compassion on those suffering expressed in a desire to end the suffering as soon as possible.

Last, check out this paper I wrote on passive euthanasia, active euthanasia, and suicide. It began its life in a seminary ethics class. I have thoroughly revised it and offer it as food for thought.

A farewell to death

The hope in Jesus is that one day we will get to say “farewell” to death forever. We look forward to what Paul writes:

Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ

1 Corinthians 15.54b-57 (ESV)

Until that time, we will live and labor in a world where death is a tyrant and terror. The great hope is that Jesus has blazed a trail through death and can lead us through it into life. But even knowing that doesn’t make it easy to live faithfully in the world of complicated death and dying.

Photo by DDP on Unsplash

Justification by faith and the courtroom

gavel on white marble background

In the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul, a group of words show up frequently that we translate as, justify, justification, and righteousness, depending on the context. This concept comes from the legal world. A key idea in the concept is “to be in the (legal) right.” Recognizing the legal background is helpful. It is also helpful to know that the legal background works a little different than what we assume. This different legal background helps to underscore that justification has to do with God setting things right in the world.

Creation and Covenant in justification

Categories of creation and covenant stand behind justification. The juridical reality of justification is not about God deciding what is right between two different parties, as though that is up for debate. Rather, God has determined a right order for the world, as expressed in creation and covenant. As Creator, he intervenes to reestablish this order, particularly in defense of the marginalized.

Justification and the courts: a legal analogy

Since justification is a legal concept, we do well to consider how the idea in the Bible relates to the legal world.

The modern courtroom

In the modern courtroom, there are three parties: the plaintiff (those suing/accusing), the defendants (those accused), and then the judge. There may be lawyers, witnesses, juries, etc., but these all nuance the three party system, rather than adding a new party. A lawyer serves the interests of the plaintiff or defendant, a jury assists the judge, etc. In this system which we are used to, the judge is a neutral outside party who has the authority to settle the dispute. In a modern courtroom, justice is administered by a non-partisan third party.

The biblical courtroom

The vision of court cases arising in the Old Testament literature is different. Especially in the poetic and prophetic literature, God is pictured not as a neutral third party judge, but as someone involved in the contention.

Let me quote a chunk from New Testament scholar Mark Seifrid:

“It is important to recognize that the modern three-party courtroom is not an appropriate model for interpreting the biblical conception of justification, including that of Paul. The administration of justice always is a two-party affair. A more powerful third party who entered into a dispute took up the cause of one disputant or the other. Therefore, when God enters into a contention, he is not pictured as a judge who stands above the matter, but as a party to the dispute. In effecting justice for the one in the right (‘justifying’ them) and punishing the one in the wrong, he establishes his own cause, as in Psalm 98. His verdict, moreover, does not merely bring salvation, but re-establishes moral order within the world and his authority as creator over it. It is not that might makes right – as one must say, if one reduces ‘righteousness’ to the idea of salvation – but that God’s might restores what is right, especially his right as God. For this reason, we find the occasional confessions by the defeated parties that, ‘Yahweh is righteous, we are in the wrong’ (Ex. 9:27).”

Mark A. Seifrid, “The ‘New Perspective on Paul’ and Its Problems,” Themelios 25, no. 2, 15.

Let’s unpack that a little.

God as disputant enforcing the standard

The key point is that God is not a neutral judge. God has a vested interest in the cause of one party against another. God enters the courtroom as the “muscle” to accomplish what is right. And “right” is what is in line with God’s character and covenant promises.

Key in this whole arrangement is that God moves to enforce the standard. That is, he steps in to establish righteousness. We might summarize righteousness as “conformity to the way things are supposed to be.” Within the worldview of the Bible, that means “in line with how God created them to be.” Thus, living in love toward God and others, living in conformity to God’s will, etc. At the center of righteousness is God. He, as the Creator, establishes what righteousness is.

God enters into the dispute with his power to act on behalf of the one being wronged. And he shows up as a force for righteousness, a force to restore his world to order and deal with anything that stands in the way.

God the Adversary or Lover

Taking this background into the New Testament, we can more readily see that the problem humanity has is not to somehow convince God to judge in our favor, but to somehow avoid being destroyed by God. When God moves in to establish righteousness in his world, we will be destroyed. Unless we can someone be put to right before God moves as a righteous adversary against us.

The Law, the promises, God’s work in the world, these are how God has moved in history to provide a way for people to be righteous. That is, for sinful humanity to fit in once again with the pattern of the world that God made. That way, when he approaches us, it will be an embrace of love rather than destructive judgment.

When we talk about judgment, it is not as though God has a personal vendetta against you, me, or anyone else. He is not sitting in heaven with a divine axe to grind, just waiting to smite you. Instead, the picture in Scripture is of a God entering into humanity. But his approach will either destroy or give life. And the difference is whether we can find a little piece of righteousness to hide ourselves in. That way, God can be just to himself and also just to us, because we would be righteous, we would belong to the pattern.

Justification by faith is how God provides a little piece of righteousness for us hide in. Actually, it is an enormous piece of righteousness. It is Jesus, the Righteous One.

The grand story of the Bible is the story of God reaching out to humanity in a way to bring restoration, rather than destruction.

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

The rest of the pattern: keeping Sabbath

Sabbath. God says, “Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy” (Ex 20.8, NIV), so it must be important. What is the Sabbath? When is it? Should we keep it? Maybe you have a moment to think about those questions. More than likely, though, you’re just too busy to even know or care. In a world of restless and relentless busyness—with more piling up as you read—what should we do about the Sabbath?

The word “Sabbath” is just an English version of a Hebrew word. It means “rest,” or “cessation.”

The Sabbath in the Bible

Before considering some of our own time and culture, let’s take a moment to consider a little of what the Bible tells us about Sabbath. In the Old Testament, Sabbath is incredibly important.

  • Sabbath is a weekly reminder that God completes his work, teaching the people to hope that God will do it again.
  • Sabbath is a holy time in the best interest of the people and the animals in God’s Kingdom.
  • Sabbath is a sign that God set Israel apart for a special relationship with him.
  • Sabbath is a reminder that Israel was slaves in Egypt but have been redeemed from servitude into life that involves rest.
  • Sabbath is a day to celebrate that there is rest and cessation within creation, not just endless stream of more; that while there is much still to be shaped and done, there is much that is done and requires no more work.[1]

For reasons that I don’t want to delve into here (too long of a discussion), I don’t believe that we as followers of Jesus today are mandated to keep the Sabbath in the sense it’s talked about in the Old Testament Law. However, that doesn’t free us from considering the centrality of the Sabbath within God’s revelation of himself in this world. The Sabbath was not an afterthought or an accident. Sabbath is part of the foundational pattern of creation and of the way that time is meant to be marked, measured, and experienced. Within the order of creation, within the order of the way that God marks time, rest has a central role.

The Sabbath and Us

While we may not be mandated to keep the Sabbath as an expression of keeping God’s Law, we’re also not free to ignore the Sabbath as part of the pattern of creation. It may be fine for us to mark a different day than Saturday as holy (the Old Testament Sabbath), or to set aside different times within the week rather than a whole day, but for us to reject God’s pattern of setting aside time from the normal rhythm of work is to suggest that God’s plans and intentions are wrong.

Instead of equating Sabbath to Sunday (which is not bad, but not entirely necessary, either), let’s think of Sabbath instead as a pattern of working God-honoring rest into our lives. In a lifestyle of constant busyness and achievement, this pattern is not just about getting us some time to breathe, but teaching us to realign our hearts towards God and towards others in the right way.

You see, our hearts are desperately prone to idolatry, to fooling ourselves, and to avoiding the work of maturing in Christlikeness. Sabbath fights against all three of these issues. Sabbath puts us at rest before God and with others. Sabbath guards us against many key idols of the current era.

What idols? Consider with me 1) demi-god syndrome, 2) busyness as a distraction, and 3) busyness as self-worth.

demi-god syndrome

Demi-god syndrome is the belief or lifestyle which states that God needs me to be busy all the time because he can’t quite handle it without me getting things done. Whether driven by anxieties and fears, or by an overinflated sense of self-worth, or by having many abilities and needing to make sure things work great in different areas, demi-god syndrome is second nature to so many in our time and place. Well not said in so many words, those living with demi-god syndrome are laboring under the conclusion that God can’t hold things together without their constant input.

busyness as distraction from significant problems

Another destructive way that busyness functions in our lives is as a distraction from significant issues. There is a time and place for being busy in helping us through challenging times. But when busyness becomes a habitual way to escape the gospel and heart work needed to grow us in Christ-like maturity, we’ve got a major problem. When we start looking to busyness to give us what our hearts crave instead of turning to God who gives us rest and teaches us the path to wisdom, we are rejecting God’s work in our lives. For many of us, through habituation or difficulties in life, busyness has transformed into the normal way in which we get what our hearts crave—release from various burdens in life. God calls us to a much more challenging task than being busy. He calls us to the task of surrender and grace.

busyness as self-worth

Busyness also is a convenient way to judge your self-worth: “I’m busy, so I must be valuable.”

  • I must be important because I have so many people with so many claims on our time.
  • I must be important because I have visited so many neat places and done so many neat things.
  • I must be important because I never have a moment to rest when there isn’t something else to think about.

And the logic of this delusion is so simple: people who are important have lots of demands on their time and have lots of people looking to them and often are busy doing many neat things in neat places. When our sense of self and value becomes tied up in being busy and in the many things that we do while we’re busy, though, we’re flirting with idolatry.

Sabbath as a trainer

In all honesty, our hearts are really deceitful. The old Greek dictum, “know thyself,” is easy to say but hard to do. Busyness is an easy pattern of life to fall into, because most everyone else around us is also busy. Whether you have already turned busyness into an idol like those above or not, the busy lifestyle we tend towards trains our hearts toward these types of idolatry. How do we counteract this idolatry-in-training? Sabbath comes to mind.

Sabbath is rest. It is meant to be a time of realigning our hearts toward God and toward others. In putting it in these terms, I want us to see that Sabbath is not meant as a personal spa day in which we get to take it easy and cater to our every whim. Sabbath is a gift and practice given to us from God to challenge the idolatrous tendencies of our hearts. It a time—whether a day or split up around the week—of worship and wonder, of celebration and joy. It should be a day to learn what is important, not just what is urgent and significant. Sabbath should rekindle our hearts with love towards God and love towards others.

How to Sabbath?

It probably won’t look like sitting in an uncomfortable chair all day long, trying not to talk to anybody or avoiding doing any sort of work at all. Here is one general principle:

If you work with your mind, Sabbath with your body; if you work with your body, Sabbath with your mind.

Do something which connects your heart back to God and others in a joyful way. This should involve Scripture, truth, and worship; this will probably involve some sort of Christian fellowship; and it can involve more than that as well.

But one thing Sabbath should not involve: being busy about things that you are normally busy doing. After all, Sabbath means cessation. It is hard to turn to the new possibilities of life with God in this world if you never stop trudging along, head down, endlessly focused on the next task in front of you. God invites us to take a break and find our bearings again. That is Sabbath.

[1] Summarized from Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredericks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 71–73.

Post Photo by Jessica Delp on Unsplash

The Strength of Tradition

Tradition is strong.

Tradition is strong like a straight-jacket, rigidly holding everything in place and constraining flexibility and innovation.

Tradition is strong like a brace, supporting a joint so that it can perform beyond its enfeebled ability.

That it isn’t, can’t be, strong in just one of these ways is what makes tradition such an insightful and challenging companion on the journey. Tradition is an endlessly inventive sparring partner.

The answer to who we are emerges in the discussion of the present and the past. Tradition is the major voice from the past.

The historic Baptist tradition

At the beginning of our series “Core Beliefs: Where Are We?”, we talked about our core beliefs and what they do for us. You can check that out here. In the preamble, we say that as a church we stand in the historic Baptist tradition.

There are good, bad, and ugly things about the historic Baptist tradition, itself a subset of the historic tradition of Christian orthodoxy (that is, right following of Jesus). The Preamble of our Core Beliefs summarizes a few aspects of this historic Baptist tradition. But here, I want to meditate for a little while on the value of standing in a tradition: tradition speaks into the present to help us better understand where we are in the midst of the fog. We will see that the historic Baptist tradition speaks with a helpful voice into current political questions.

Note that this post is longer than usual (~ 2,500 words, or about 2-3x longer than usual). Reader, you are warned.

Origin of the tradition

The historic Baptist tradition holds two important political values: liberty of conscience and separation of church and state. These two values are two sides of the same coin, answering the question, “What role should governing authorities have in the religious life of people being governed?” In the modern American context, we are used to the idea of separation of church and state.

What we may not have thought so much about, though, is that these values grew up in a very different time and place. When Baptists were first coalescing as a recognizable sub-group within Christianity in the early 1600s, basically everybody believed that the government should enforce “proper” worship in a state church. The point of separation of church and state within the Baptist tradition was that the state should not only tolerate different churches (or denominations) but that it also must not privilege a certain church. This is a long and interesting story involving many colorful people that can be read elsewhere.

These values which Baptists, among others, championed eventually—and often slowly and unevenly—made their way into the mainstream and are now enshrined in the US political system. The current multi-cultural, multi-religion US is the fruit of that legacy. People in the US generally believe that the system of government exists to regulate the well-being of how people relate to one another, but not to enforce or oversee the good of their souls by attempting to enforce religious observance.

Is our system the perfect solution to the problem of living together within a diverse society? No. But, looking back through history, I think it’s probably right up there at the top of ways that complex societies have yet come up with to enable diverse people to flourish together.

While the historic Baptist values of separation of church and state and soul liberty have largely gone mainstream in US culture, within the Baptist tradition they derive from certain theological convictions. Most importantly, the biblical convictions that 1) each person stands in direct relationship to God as an individual and 2) that true faith in Jesus cannot be legislated or coerced. Because of this understanding, we believe in tolerating members of other faiths so that their hearts can be turned to God through evangelism.

A contemporary conflict

Why belabor these points? Because in our current moment, the historic Baptist tradition speaks with a voice many Christians (and people who identify as “Christian” for political reasons) need to hear. In the current political moment, many conservative people—especially white Evangelicals, broadly construed—are talking about “Christian Nationalism.”

Paul D. Miller, an Evangelical sociologist, writing for Christianity Today, describes the movement this way:

Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation”—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have made a similar argument: that America is defined by its “Anglo-Protestant” past and that we will lose our identity and our freedom if we do not preserve our cultural inheritance.

Christian nationalists do not reject the First Amendment and do not advocate for theocracy, but they do believe that Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the public square

Paul D. Miller, “What is Christian Nationalism?

Whatever the particular merits of Christian Nationalism are—and for full disclosure there are people whom I deeply respect who describe themselves and their ideals as Christian Nationalist—we are wise to listen to the voice of the historic Baptist tradition we stand in as a church. The Christian Nationalist movement seems poised to try to push aside the values of liberty of conscience and separation of church and state. Giving special political privilege to Christianity and seeking to legislate Christian values on people who don’t want them looks like a rejection of the historic Baptist insight that the government’s job is not to enforce religious observance on people.

There is an important discussion to have about the degree to which Christian values represent values which are good for human society to follow in general. Some who fly under the Christian Nationalist banner appear to argue nothing further than this point. I agree in principle. When the Baptist tradition was solidifying, most people in “Christendom” broadly agreed to a general moral code that approximates many aspects of biblical virtues. That is clearly not the case today. But I would hasten to add that it is possible to labor for generically good social values and conditions without pursuing Christian Nationalism in the sense described above.

Appeal of Christian Nationalism

Christian Nationalism has some obvious appeal. In a cultural moment where Christian and conservative values—which are sometimes, but certainly not always, the same thing—seem to be on the retreat everywhere, people are looking for some way to hold on to what they believe America should be. I myself would be happy to see a conservative turn in the national moral landscape, regardless of peoples’ politics. Kevin DeYoung, a prominent theologian within the Evangelical movement, helpfully  describes the appeal of Christian Nationalism against the backdrop of major social change:

“We have to realize that people are scared and discouraged. They see America rapidly becoming less and less Christian. They see traditional morality—especially in areas of sex and gender—not only being tossed overboard but resolutely and legally opposed. Of course, we should not give way to ungodly fear and panic. We should not make an idol out of politics. We should not fight like jerks because that’s the way the world fights. But people want to see that their Christian leaders—pastors, thinkers, writers, institutional heads—are willing to fight for the truth. You may think your people spend too much time watching Tucker Carlson, or retweeting Ben Shapiro, or looking for Jordan Peterson videos on YouTube, or reading the latest stuff from Doug Wilson—and I have theological disagreements with all of them (after all, some of them aren’t even Christians)—but people are drawn to them because they offer a confident assertion of truth. Our people can see the world being overrun by moral chaos, and they want help in mounting a courageous resistance; instead, they are getting a respectable retreat [from Evangelical Christian leaders, NJE].

Kevin DeYoung, “The Rise of Right-Wing Wokeism

A confident assertion of truth. That is key. Christian Nationalism, in its various forms, is confident that it is right and is willing to stand toe-to-toe with the forces of cultural chaos, as it sees them.

The wise voice of the tradition

This is neither the time nor place for a robust discussion of Christian Nationalism. As I’ve mentioned above, it is a complex phenomenon with good, bad, and ugly motives and expressions. Having come this far in the post, I want to take a minute to converse with the voice of tradition which we stand in as First Baptist Church of Manistique. While our tradition does not answer all of our difficult questions about politics, it does give us some clear guiding considerations to help us in our disorienting times. As various voices clamor for some version of Christian Nationalism in an attempt to bolster up or recapture a culturally conservative America, we can ask some pointed questions drawn from our tradition.

How has Christian Nationalism worked in the past?

Baptists “came of age” in a time and place where the government sought actively to enforce some version of Christian values and church life upon all citizens. That is, most every government in Europe and in the American Colonies could be classed under some version of Christian Nationalism. And a lot of people didn’t like that. At all. Including lots of Christians who lived in those countries.

In fact, the modern, liberal form of government which we associate with the West rose partially in response to the devastating consequences of the wars of religion which shook Europe. Christians killing Christians in the name of Christianity.

While Christian Nationalism sounds like an appealing idea, especially when compared to the cultural chaos of the moment, we have to honestly acknowledge that it hasn’t worked well in the past. The historical record of countries where Christianity was politically embedded is quite terrible on a lot of fronts. When you mix politics and religion, you end up with politics. More on this below. That is one of the great insights enshrined in the Baptist tradition.

For a good contemporary example of the problems of religious nationalism, see the violent excesses of the Hindu Nationalist movement in India. For instance, consider the use of violence and social ostracization against non-Hindus to force conversions in the name of nationalism, or the increasing violence against any who report on Hindu Nationalism and religiously motivated violence.

Are the aims and values of Christian Nationalism Christian?

This question should always be on our minds whenever we see an attempt to mix politics and religion. One of the clear patterns of history is that when religion is a powerful social force people use religious language and symbols to achieve their own political ends (see next point). If we take a long and hard, or even short and cursory, look at Jesus in his ministry, one thing is evident: he did not organize a political force to take control of the government, the culture, or the world. He will do those things, in his own time, but it will be through his power as the Reigning King of the Universe, not through shrewd political machinations.

Are the aims of Christian Nationalism Christian?

That is a question which we must never stop asking. We can see from history that Christian Nationalism produces many social goods by enforcing a thin version of biblical ethics upon society. There is benefit there. But what Christian Nationalism obviously doesn’t do it build robust followers of Jesus. And, it is worth noting, it has not proven to be a sustainable model of society in the long run. The US Colonies and the Modern European Countries were all Christian Nationalist at one point. What happened? The very values needed to sustain Christian Nationalism grow up from people following Jesus, not from legislating morality.

The Baptist tradition also invites us to ask a more focused question about the role of the church in society. Is the church pursuing following Jesus, or is the church becoming enmeshed in trying to become the government? In a zeal to preserve vestiges of Christian culture from the ravages of militant “progressivism,” is the church living in such a way as to show hope and light of the gospel of Jesus to the world, or living in such a way to punch political opponents in the mouth? Attempting to force people to be Christian, or to live like it, never has worked in the past. Why would it now?

Do we suspect that we are being used for political ends?

Finally, dialoguing with the idea of the separation of church and state (and remembering that it arose out of a desire for Christians to not be forced to support other state churches), should alert us to the possibility that people may just use us for their political goals. In history, the church was intimately united with the state in the West. Why are some politicians interested in reviving this arrangement at the current moment? Might it have less to do with piety and theological convictions, and more to do with political power? That is always a concern to keep in mind.

Leaders can rise up and speak words that sound Christian for political purposes. Of course, there are politicians who are followers of Jesus. But when politicians speak the language of Christianity without actually showing a consistent devotion to growth in Christ-likeness, beware. As like it as not, they are trying to use the language of Jesus to gain earthly power for themselves—something which Jesus himself did not do. Remembering the tradition of separation of church and state serves to guard us from being swept away in the headiness of the moment.

Standing in our strength

The current interest in Christian Nationalism is complicated. There are many threads involved to consider in making sense of the tangled knot which we have. One thread we should hold to is the strong voice of tradition. Knowing the tradition in which we stand can help us ask important questions. Certainly, asking the questions doesn’t give us the answers of the good, bad, or ugly ways we can interact with the Christian Nationalist movement. As followers of Jesus, we need to be reminded that victory doesn’t come through politics. We serve a king who surrendered himself to an earthly government, yet who then, as now, is exalted over it.

How we vote or where our political allegiances fall will always be complicated. What our tradition helps us with, though, is to resist being drawn off course in our fervor for or against certain political events and movements. The course of a follower of Jesus is to follow Jesus. This may lead to places and governments that look decidedly Christian, or it may not.

In making these few remarks, I want us to see just how relevant even the preamble to our Core Beliefs is for us as we try to live together as followers of Jesus. There are lots of complicated forces pressing us in many different directions in life. These Core Beliefs, even if not always giving easy answers, at least can help keep us from being blown away by the storms around us.

Core Beliefs: Where are We?

Where are we? How can we tell? How can we know where we are going if we are not sure where we are?

As we begin a new sermon series looking at our core beliefs week by week, I wanted to reflect a little on the front end about the sermon series graphic that I’ve put together.

Photo by Artur Aldyrkhanov on Unsplash

Since coming here to FBC Manistique, I’ve been making sermon series graphics. First, I’m not a graphic artist by training or disposition. While not unartistic, it is not an area of my skills which I have developed with any rigor. In fact, if anyone is gifted in the realm of graphic art, I’d be more than happy to engage your valuable services in designing sermon series graphics which can serve as a pictorial guide to engaging the sermon series.

This post is a reflection of what I am thinking in choosing this particular picture for the graphic for a series on our core beliefs.

An inheritance to stand on

As you can see above, the picture is of a person sitting on a lichen-covered rock up in a foggy, mountainous area.

Core beliefs are the firm and settled rock on which we stand. Core beliefs have to do with what we are certain of; the truths we base our lives on; the realities which serve as our firm foundation. They are solid. They are a rock.

We did not make up these core beliefs. While they are in some ways distinct to the particular church tradition that First Baptist Church happens to be in, within our core beliefs dwell the core teachings of the followers of Jesus across the millennia. They serve to sketch out the field and how we stand in it. They are solid.

An uncertain surrounding

But the most arresting part of this image is what you can’t see. The blanket of fog obscures everything else. The man in the grey-hoodie is on a solid rock, but we can only guess where he is in relation to anything else. The rock is firm, but the world is mist.

One of the difficulties which followers of Jesus are facing, and will continue to face, is that our surroundings are increasingly misty. It is getting harder and harder to locate just how the solid rock of beliefs we stand on relates to the rest of the world around us. Knowing the firm foundation even creates a bunch of further difficulties and questions that evade easy answer.

We live in a time and place which, to use a helpful scheme developed by Aaron Renn, is a culture that is hostile to the existence and message of followers of Jesus. I don’t mean by that to imply we face anything like the hostilities in many other countries of the world where Christians struggle and are persecuted. But what I do mean to imply is that holding the beliefs and values of followers of Jesus is increasingly looked upon as odd, socially backwards, and perhaps even threatening to the well-being of people and society around us. And, as a result, we are less certain how our solid rock relates to the world around us. We are increasingly wrestling with uncomfortable realities as our core beliefs become an island in the fog.

In a lot of ways, Manistique is a shelter from these broad cultural trends…so far. Who knows what the future will bring? It is shadows and fog.

Where are we?

What do we do in this situation? If I had a definitive answer to that, I’d happily share it—not to mention embrace it definitively in my own life. But I don’t have a definitive answer. We’re certainly not the first followers of Jesus in history to face the rolling fog enfolding our rock. Many real difficulties are here and coming. Yet, also, many opportunities.

One thing I am certain of: we must become more familiar with the rock we stand on. We must become more familiar not just with what we say we believe, not just with a set of social values generally conservative in nature, not just with an association to certain political movements, but an actual living and vital connection to the truths which have been passed down about who God is, who Jesus is, and the way that God’s spirit is at work in this world.

Our core beliefs are a touch point. They’re certainly not an exhaustive description, nor do they include everything that we need to stand and live and flourish, but they establish a core. And it is a strong enough core to answer the question “where are we,” even if we are never quite sure how that relates to the rest of the world. But, in a world of swirling mists, maybe it’s less relevant for us to be able to answer who other people are, and more important that we can show and say who we are; that we can display the truths which we stand on, live through, and live for.

The church and the hope of the world

On the off-ramp from the Christmas season, reflect on Christmas and hope. Christmas is a season of hope. The season where we remember the hope of the world. And that’s refreshing.

In a discouraging time recently, hearing about someone I knew who has done damage to the church, I heard a message of hope. A message noting that the church is not the hope of the world; Jesus is. The church exists to be a witness to the hope of the world, even when that witness is imperfect.

The church as a stained sign

There’s a lot going on and there’s been a lot going on in the church. By the church, I mean First Baptist Church, yes, but more broadly the church gathered within we’ll just say America. This last year has been a rough one when it comes to negative news (most often justly deserved) about many churches, Christian leaders, and Christian institutions. Institutions which aim to point towards Jesus, yet in the same gesture ended up pointing toward fallenness.

There’s ample evidence and testimony that the church fails in many ways. That people within the church fail in many ways. That the church presents a very disunited front to the world regarding social issues, political questions, and even often on questions of morality and ethics.

At best, the church is a stained sign.

Hope beyond the church (and through it)

But this Christmas season I am reminded to be hopeful. I’m reminded to be hopeful because hope is not found in the church. Hope is found in the church’s savior. Jesus is hope Incarnate come to the world.

And so as the church wrestles with all kinds of issues—sexual abuse, abuse of power and prestige, how to deal with charismatic leaders who lead for their own good rather than the good of the church, the quest to stay in control, infighting (and outfighting), the role of the church in nationalistic visions, with this that and the other thing—we can at least take hope and remembering that the church isn’t God’s salvation program.

The church is not the hope.

The church is a testament to the multifaceted wisdom of God (Ephesians 3.10-12).

The church is a testament to God’s grace.

And the church is woefully and sadly imperfect.

We could dwell on those imperfections forever and never run out of faults to highlight how the church today and in the past fails at living up to its mandate of being like Christ. We could point to so many ways where the church, and the people in the church, profess to know and follow Christ and yet live lives that run against the grain of who Christ is and what he did. Indeed, it takes very little creativity, insight, or effort to come up with ways that the church and people within the church fail.

And that’s sad. And it’s appropriate to be sad over the failures in the church. And yet, we must remember that the church is not Jesus; Jesus is not the church. While Jesus and the church are intimately related and God deeply cares about the church being like Christ, in the final analysis, the church and Jesus are not the same. The church is saved by Jesus. The church is rescued by Jesus. The church is founded upon Jesus.

Jesus is the hope…and the church needs to grow

This Christmas season, I’m reminded that it’s not in the end my responsibility to explain or atone for or justify the various failures and struggles in the church. Jesus came to take care of that. That is far to heavy a burden for me, or anyone else to lift.

This Christmas season, I’m reminded that it is my responsibility to follow Jesus, to walk upright, to pursue godliness, in short, to live in the hope which Jesus brings so that hope is evident to everyone in the world. We might say, it is our responsibility to try to not add more stains to the church than it already has. But remembering that a stainless church—if that could even be achieved—is not the hope of the world; Jesus is.

Winter Reading Challenge, 2022

Stack of leather bound books

At the beginning of this Winter Reading Challenge, consider for a minute this question: Why read books? There are lots of reasons, some personal, some societal, some relational, some intellectual, and so on. Here are a couple thoughts about the role which reading can play in our lives not just as people who can learn from reading, but as followers of Jesus. Sometimes someone just says something well. Here I’ll pass on a few ideas about why to read.

Reading gives perspective to see

Think for a moment about the way that good writers become windows through which we come to see things we did not see before.

“C. S. Lewis regularly emphasized that great writers sought to share something with their readers – something which they themselves had grasped or seen and wanted to pass on to others, so that they might benefit. The best writers are not self-promoting narcissists who demand that we look at them, but those who invite us to look through them at what they have seen, enabling us to share in their experience. They are thus windows to something greater. Lewis himself saw authors not as spectacles to be admired, but as a ‘set of spectacles’ through which we can look at the world and see it in sharper focus and greater depth.”

Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer: His Life and Thought, 2.

Reading brings challenge to certainties

One aspect of good writing, especially fiction but also non-fiction, is that it provides an arena in which to challenge our certainties. Now, we must be careful. There are many things in life which we should be certain of and stand on. However, we are always in danger of becoming certain about what is merely our own limited vision of things. And when we become certain, we tend to demand others to live according to what we are certain is correct. This can cause all sorts of problems. Literature can bring us into another world and there unmoor us from what we were so certain about so that, when we come back to the real world, we are forced to ask questions of ourselves we would otherwise stay blind to.

“One aspect of this capacity to be multifaceted means that reading a good novel, or seeing a great play, we are conscious again of the complexity of human life, the ambiguity of so much behaviour, the mixture of qualities and motives in all of us. All this is a very healthy and important antidote to moralism. There is a human tendency to divide the world up into goodies and baddies. This can be so if religion is brought into it, though moralism certainly isn’t the preserve of religion. One of the great themes of Jesus in the Gospels is the way he tries to shake us out of all easy moralizing. We are directed to look at ourselves, at the great plank in our own eye before we call attention to the speck of dust in our neighbour’s eye. So literature, in bringing home to us the complexity, ambiguity and thoroughly mixed nature of human behaviour spells out and reinforces one of the central elements in the New Testament.”

Richard Harries, Haunted By Christ: Modern Writers and the Struggle for Faith, ix-x.

Reading can challenge staleness

And finally, perhaps at the farther reaches of what literature does for us, is that it helps give us categories of thought and belief which make sense in a fresh way to us. It helps us to think about the questions of life we have in language that makes sense to us today.

“At a time when so much religious language has become either unbelievable or alien to many people it is in works of literature that we can begin to discover what the Christian faith is about and what is at stake.”

Harries, Haunted By Christ, x.

There are many wonderful works of literature and theology from years gone past. Being a fluent and dedicated reader requires at least periodically venturing into the great tomes of bygone years. Yet, even spending a short amount of time in a book of a different century often feels like venturing into a foreign land. While the great authors of the past are writing about universal human issues, they do so in a way that often is foreign to us. Indeed, sometimes so foreign that it evades our understanding entirely.

In a similar manner, sometimes the religious and moral answers to life’s questions which we rely on belong to a different dialect, a different time and place, and have lost some of their forcefulness. Literature can shake up our thinking and help us keep speaking the language of our hearts in this day and age, rather than the language of peoples’ hearts from 100 years ago.

Finally, and related, literature is one of the means we can become aware of the ways Christ minsters to us in this time and place, and the ways we need to be broken out of this time and place:

“To every age Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man. This is why he could be a paragon of rationality for eighteenth-century England, a heroic figure of the imagination for the Romantics, and exemplar of existential courage for writers like Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. One truth, then, is that Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which means that his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs, or what humans perceive to be their needs. A deeper truth, though, one that scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present.”

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, 11.

To live now means to be hyper-aware of certain realities of the human experience and to be hyper-blind to others. There are whole ranges of the human experience which we see as half-shadows, or in various degrees of light. The first way we turn to Christ for rescue is doubtlessly in terms of one of the hyper-aware realities of human life in this day and age. Those are the types of brokenness which constantly smack us in the face. But Jesus came to rescue and restore not just those aspects of human life which our day and age lionizes. He came to redeem humanity in its totality, with all its endless complexity.

Reading can help us see the depth, the greatness, the height, the bigness of just what it is that God is doing in restoring the world through Jesus. And to see how he is doing that in our lives.

Happy reading, and may your journey through books bring you to places you never would have dreamed you could go, but to the very places your heart has always been restless to find.

More Stuff for Christmas

Why does Christmas involve so much stuff? I suppose where you are in life, especially regarding whether you have younger children or not, or grandchildren, presses this question more or less into your psyche at this time of year. But why does Christmas have so much stuff?

One could go on an endless rant, site endless studies, give endless statistics about the amount of stuff at Christmas time. I just wanted to briefly share thought provoking comments I came across the other week in thinking about this question.

I find great resonance with the thoughts of this writer, who says:

“The question for me is: how do we confront the dichotomy between the true meaning of Christmas and our learned behavioural norms? I know my two young children have enough – more than enough – of everything. Even they think they have enough. However, ingrained in my psyche is that Christmas morning should herald a lounge bursting with gifts and stockings that take the whole morning to open. If the most sustainable choice is a gift not manufactured, not transported, not purchased, not wrapped, not opened, not sent to landfill, or discarded in some toy box, why do I seek to find ways to fill up my children’s Christmas lists?”

This writer mainly has issues of environmental sustainability in mind. I share these concerns, to a large degree, but I also struggle over questions of materialism, greed, entitlement, the deadening effect material plenty can have on the soul, and the good old fashion desire to just have less junk in the house to have to deal with.

I wonder just what it is that makes it so hard to change. There are so many desirable reasons to be less involved in “stuff” around Christmas time, and most people could cite a good many of the reasons, but the stuff train keeps on rolling. Why do we often feel powerless to do anything but pass on to our children/grand-children the same as we received, even when we are uncomfortable with it and see problems in our own ways of living?

Maybe the difficulty is that stuff is so ingrained as part of life that it blinds us to its idolatrous influence in our lives. Maybe.

Consider today Jesus’ words of caution to two brothers arguing with each other about their inheritance:

Take care and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12.15 ESV)

I doubt I’ll ever have an answer to these questions that feels right. But I’m dedicated to trying to chip away bit by bit at the materialist/consumist streak which runs through my heart. Indeed, if we ever get to a point where our hearts are comfortable with what is one of our culture’s greatest and most obvious sins, then we have lost a key part of the faithful life and prophetic voice we should have as God’s people living in light of KOG values.