Thursday, August 30, 2007

Richard Jewell and the Church

Earlier this week, Richard Jewell passed away at age 44. Jewell, as many might remember, was the private security guard during the 1996 Olympics at Atlanta who discovered a pipebomb in Olympic Park and was instrumental in getting hundreds of people cleared away before the powerful bomb went off. Initially hailed as a hero, he soon became a target of an FBI who believed that he actually planted the bomb in order to gain positive attention from 'saving' people because he wanted to be a hero. Many media outlets nakedly ran with this theory for the next 2 months, conducting a 'trial by media' in which they combed through Jewell's entire life to try and find parallels to match him up with the FBI's profile of the bomber. Eventually, it was determined that Jewell had nothing to do with planting the bomb, and that Eric Rudolph was the actual culprit. As it turned out, Jewell really was a hero. But his life was largely ruined by the excesses of the Feds eager to make an arrest, and a press eager to milk a story.

The case of Richard Jewell is an intriguing and depressing object lesson on so many levels. One can reasonably ask if either law enforcement or the press learned anything from their respectively fantastic failures in this case. The Duke lacrosse case is one recent example that doesn't inspire confidence that any serious due diligence was done by either camp in the 10 years after Richard Jewell. One might argue that both the Jewell case and the Duke case are aberrations. Perhaps that's true. But this leads to an additional object lesson for the church that I'd like to briefly focus on.

Those of us who are Christians need to understand that many segments of our culture are deeply suspicious of us and the church. Their suspicion is not altogether different from the kinds of suspicions many of us have about the government and the press. Many of us, me included, cite the Richard Jewell case as part of a larger argument to justify our often deep distrust of the government and the press. For me, the Jewell case is frightening because it shows just how destructive power can be when it is wielded with the kind of arrogance and elitism that comes when people think the rules can be swept aside for any reason as long as a 'greater goal' is served. This kind of mentality provides all the justification that is often needed for governments and media to destroy people without remorse. And because I see no evidence that such arrogance has been curbed in any way, I, and many others, are rightly concerned that absolutely anybody might become the next Richard Jewell. This is where skepticism leads to suspicion, and where suspicion leads to fear.

It is, therefore, a difficult pill to swallow when I ponder the reality that many people in our society look upon the church with very similar lenses. Like the government and the press, the church definitely has its share of depressing public episodes of failure upon which reasonable people can make the same kind of inferences about us that many make about the press and the government. As Christians, we are too often in the uncomfortable position of having to argue that the church's failures are aberrations and don't accurately reflect the overwhelming amount of good that is done by the church in the name of Christ its head. But if people are going to justify their suspicion of the government and the press primarily by pointing to cases like Richard Jewell, are we really in a position to say that the church's failures are qualitatively different? Can we really argue that Richard Jewell justifies an overarching suspicion of the press, while also saying that Jim Bakker and Ted Haggard don't justify an overarching suspicion of the church? While Christians like me can theologically make the case all day long that the church is fundamentally different from secular institutions, that doesn't hold much water with those who are not inclined to accept my theological presuppositions even for the sake of argument. So what is the church to do?

Most obviously, the church has to be in the business of constant, routine, and soul-searching reform to ever more closely align ourselves with Scripture. The church's failures represent a lack of reform because they represent a willingness to tolerate sin so as not to rock the boat. This is a sure-fire recipe for failure and public humiliation at some point. Unlike the government and the press, which has always resisted authentic reform, a church that truly embraces reform will indeed be able to make an argument even on secular grounds that it is different and should not be greeted with immediate suspicion by its neighbors.

But in addition, we have to handle the church's failures with integrity. That means being upfront about our mistakes, and making a practice of true repentance. This will enable us to truly be able to say that the church's failures are more isolated than systemic. Unlike the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which has fought Richard Jewell's libel suit for the last decade after slandering him over and over again in 1996, the church simply can't afford to be this defensive and brazen in not taking responsibility. Self-serving justifications almost always backfire, and the loss of reputation that results is very difficult to regain. We have to realize that just as many of us don't believe anything the NY Times says because of Jayson Blair, a lot of people don't believe anything we say because we coddle people like Benny Hinn and John Shelby Spong rather than doing the difficult work of breaking fellowship with those who bring disrepute to the name of the Savior. We have to admit our mistakes, and learn from them by choosing our friends more carefully.

We the church have a lot of work to do. If you are a Christian who thinks the government and/or the press can be very dangerous, be reminded that many people think of the church that way too. Not all doubts and suspicions are well founded or virtuous. But we've given people reasons to distrust us. Our response should not be to pretend this isn't the case and go on as if nothing happened, as both the government and the press did in the aftermath of Richard Jewell. To the contrary, we need to own up to our stuff and not just apologize, but go to school and learn. If we really do this, we won't have nearly as hard a time convincing secular folks that even though we're not perfect, we are different - in a good way.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Upcoming Events

The following is a short list of events that are coming up that I wanted to broadcast. For anyone who reads this blog who might be interested in coming to any of the below events, please email me at for locations, directions, or if you just wanna discuss the nature of the events. I'd love to hear from you...

1) Helen and I are having our much planned HouseKewling this coming Sunday (9/2) from 1pm-5. As Helen is fond of saying, it's way too hot to have a houseWARMING, so we're doing a houseKEWLING instead, although hot food will be served. We moved into the neighborhood back in June, and we've had the pleasure of meeting a few of our neighbors. But we've invited the whole neighborhood, plus a bunch of other folks we know. We don't know how many people will come, but hopefully we'll get a good turnout.

2) Beginning September 11, we will be hosting our church's rollout of Christianity Explored. For 10 weeks every Tuesday night (except for Thanksgiving week), a group of anyone who wants to come will gather together for a time of fellowship, an evening meal, and a topical though expository walk through Mark's Gospel. By the end of the 10 weeks, we will have gone through the total of the Gospel of Mark, and will have touched on 3 main themes - Who was Jesus, Why did he come, and What does he ask of his followers. The course is intended to provide a relaxed and safe environment for people who have questions and doubts about the Christian faith to come and speak freely without being jumped on. In the process, our hope is that we might learn about them and love them wholeheartedly, and that they might learn about us and our faith and be encouraged to continue exploring and ultimately accepting the Gospel message in God's good time.

3) Beginning in early January of 2008, I will be teaching an 11-12 week Adult Sunday School course at my church on the all-encompassing nature of Christian Hospitality. This is not a course on how to make a better pot roast for our guests (although, if anyone happens to be teaching such a course, please let me know cuz I'll sign up!). This is a course designed to set forth a biblical view of hospitality (Scripture has tons to say about it), as well as discuss how vitally important the practice of hospitality was (and still is) in the life of the church and its witness to the world. Once we've laid the foundation of Christian hospitality, we will then spend the last half of the course discussing how Christian hospitality does (and can) impact some key street-level contemporary issues like worship, evangelism, issues of race, outreach to immigrants and the youth culture, etc. My hope is that hospitality, when biblically understood, will empower us with a whole life perspective that rejuvenates our passion for God's Kingdom and its cosmic renovation of all aspects of creation. My hope is that those of us who attend the course will come away with a richer and deeper understanding of their own role in the Kingdom, and be prepared to graciously extend hospitality to strangers and neighbors in ways that bring enormous credibility to the cause of Christ.

Again, I would encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about any of the above to email me. I'd love to talk with you.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Doubt and Mother Teresa

Shocking. Extraordinary. Startling.

Those are some of the words used by Katie Couric, Time Magazine, and other media outlets in describing the content of previously private letters written by Mother Teresa over several decades that have now been made public. In these letters, we find a woman who is arguably the most admired figure of the last 100 years express torment over her own spiritual condition. Coinciding with what she believed was a divine calling to leave a fairly comfortable life to minister to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, Teresa began to speak of her walk with Christ using terms like 'dryness', 'torture', 'darkness', 'emptiness', 'silence', and 'loneliness'. Over the last half of her life as she outwardly became a beacon of compassion, hope, and sacrifice in a cynical world, she privately lamented what she perceived was an overriding lack of Christ's presence in her life. This affected her prayers, believing that her upward words to God often returned to her as if they were knives to the point where she spoke of no longer praying. She believed herself to be a hypocrite whose outward smiles were a deceptive mask. She lamented a loss of zeal, a tremendous emptiness, a loss of love, and a teetering faith. On a couple of occasions, she seems to flirt with the possibility that God may not exist at all.

Interpretations of these writings already run the gamut. Atheists like Chris Hitchens confidently proclaim that these writings prove that even the most outwardly devout constantly fight against what he believes is the obvious reality that all of religion is merely a human fabrication and nothing more. Teresa's more intimate interpreters believe these letters demonstrate tremendous courageousness and heroism that only comes from faith. The truth is while some opinions are certainly more informed than others, nobody exhaustively knows Teresa's struggles, what brought them on, and whether Teresa ever came to a place of spiritual rest prior to her death.

When I read some of what Teresa said in these letters, I feel like I'm reading a Psalm of Lament out of the Old Testament. More than once, the Bible itself records the excruciating laments of God's own people bemoaning how distant God seems to be, how terrible life is when God doesn't seem to be there, and how hopeless things seem to be when God seems to allow the chaos and despair of the world to overtake us. Most Christians throughout history have affirmed without apology that suffering and even doubt are often tools of purification that move us closer to God often without us realizing it when we're in the moment, or in Teresa's case, the last half of her life. If one holds a high view of Scriptural inspiration (ie: that the words of Scripture are divinely inspired), one must conclude that God is not scared of having even his most famous, loyal, and devoted followers express full-throated laments about their relationship with him for all the world to see. For those of us who hold a 'high' view of sin, the sufferings of the saints align with the sufferings of Christ because that's how awful sin is. Sin takes a great toll, and sometimes the toll is greatest on those who love God the most. Teresa, as much as any person in recent memory, was excrucatingly intimate with the devastating results of sin. Poverty, hunger, disease, disaster, and death are all the results of sin, and Teresa understood this as much as anyone. Similar to the agony that befell Wilberforce as a result of his intimacy with the slave trade and his advocacy to end it, Teresa also appeared to endure unending agony over the plight of everyone around her and the indifference of most of the world to the crises they embodied. That's enough to make anyone ponder the most basic and difficult questions of life and faith.

One issue that comes out of this is quite disturbing. If someone as devoted to God as Mother Teresa struggled with doubt and spiritual uncertainty for decades, how can any of us lesser people possibly be spiritually sure of anything? While quoting extensively from the Johannine literature tells us that we can indeed be sure of certain spiritual realities, and while this possibly should be enough to settle the question, the fact is, it often doesn't. This normative authority is essential, but it's not the only perspective that weighs in on the question of credibility and belief. If we don't believe or feel something in our hearts, it often doesn't matter how many times John 3.16 is repeated - we still won't be able to own it as our own and embrace it in belief. Having confidence in spiritual realities is at once both simple and complicated, and we will likely search in vain to fully understand why Teresa had the doubts she did.

If we're honest, many of us as Christians will likewise confess that we have had periods of doubt in our walk with Christ as well. I certainly have. But in the end, to say that none of us can be sure just because someone like Teresa may not have always been sure is fallacious reasoning. It's like saying that because a great philosopher like Berkeley wasn't sure if objects actually existed, neither can we (he believed we could only know if an object can be perceived by the human mind, not that we can actually know that it exists). If God didn't want the world to know that his people struggle with doubt, the Christian Bible would weigh a lot less. That doesn't mean that God is okay with us living in constant doubt and constantly questioning his existence or power - he's not okay with that. But Scripture does seem to leave a place where doubt, to some degree, is something that God uses for good purposes for those who still pursue after him even in the midst of doubt. Teresa's life of good works and worldwide inspiration are certainly consistent with this. And in this respect, I agree with her chief postulator that these letters demonstrate not only human heroism, but the sovereign work of God in assigning the strongest of his people with the often gruesome task of curbing the most naked scourges of sin in front of a watching world. Doubt motivates us either to seek after God all the more, or to run away from him all the more. It is indeed a tool of refinement.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Postmodernism and the Church

The following is partly an extract of an email conversation I had with a pastor at my church regarding postmodernism (PoMo) and homiletics. As will be seen, I'm among those who believe we have already entered into what some have called 'postpostmodernism'.

I think the culture has begun moving beyond PoMo in many ways. PoMo's radical emphasis on individual story and truth has begun to run its course. While the unassailability of individual experience remains dominant and is something that we must preach to prophetically, there is a real hunger in the culture to embrace something transcendent. People have done the 'it's true for you but not for me' thing, and the result has been complete factionalism that has left people lonely, isolated, and without any sense of larger belonging - and they don't like it. People are beginning to see what radical individualism is doing to us as a society, and the all-out factionalism we are seeing in our politics, discourse, and even our own families is scaring us. We sense that something very basic has changed for the worse, and people are ripe to latch onto something better, such as a sense of community working towards a shared purpose that is real and substantive rather than merely superficial cheerleading.

This is where Biblical preaching and teaching can really strike at the heart of a very real cultural hunger and gain real traction in ways we couldn't achieve 20 years ago. That's what Keller has done in NYC, and it's what Hoburg is trying to do in downtown DC. These preachers have reintroduced metanarrative to folks who have gotten bored and disillusioned with their own narrative, and people are listening and responding. Our job as preachers and lay teachers is to help steer this hunger for the transcendent squarely toward Jesus Christ and demonstrate that Christ alone satisfies this hunger and redeems it for eternity.

Having a hunger for the transcendent is an improvement over the death of truth movement that banished any overarching explanatory narratives in favor of individualized truth, individualized meaning/purpose, and individualized responsibilities. But longing for the transcendent is not sufficient on its own. Scripture is replete with object lessons of how an unfocused and misdirected hunger for transcendence results in false and misdirected worship of gods that do not satisfy our hunger or deliver what they promise, and leave us no better off. Christian preachers and teachers can rejoice that increasing numbers of people are willing to give transcendent metanarratives a hearing once again. But we can't be satisfied with this. The yearning for transcendent significance and purpose must be directed to the lone object who can fulfill and redeem it.

This requires courageous yet humble, patient, and compassionate preaching and discipleship. Part of the reason why the American church has mostly failed to reap the harvest from society's increasing misgivings about PoMo is that too many of our preachers and lay teachers lack at least one of these characteristics. To embody all of these characteristics is a tall order indeed, and probably not realistic. But what ought to be realistic is for our preachers and teachers to be cognizant of the environment they're in, and what they personally need to do to maximize the cause of Christ in the sphere God has placed them in. To be loyal to God means being consistent with the fruits of the Spirit, and also being consistent about repenting when we fail. The two 'R's of Reform and Revival will never happen without the third 'R' - Repentance. Anyone who wants to know how to get the PoMo generation to stand up and take notice will make a point of getting themselves very familiar with the practice of repentance. After all, it's no accident that 'Repent' is included in the first recorded words out of Jesus' mouth in Mark's gospel.

In a society that is becoming ever more fearful that our common cultural fabric and purpose is unraveling, the church is uniquely positioned to speak prophetically to the masses about the comprehensive nature of Christ's Kingdom and its cosmically transformative power. As one of my preaching professors was fond of saying, "That'll preach!"

Friday, August 17, 2007

ECUSA Rescinds Its Own Mafia Tactics

For the moment at least, the Diocese of Virginia and the national ECUSA organization have backed off their shakedown tactic of targeting unpaid church volunteers for civil litigation as part of their attempts to gain legal control over church property occupied by 11 breakaway congregations in Virginia. In a preliminary hearing last week, these volunteer laypeople were no longer considered 'defendants' by ECUSA.

As I had blogged about not too long ago, such tactics represented a naked departure from anything remotely related to Christian ethics. Instead, it seemed clear to me that targeting laypeople in civil court was a form of intimidation that was of the same order (albeit more culturally correct) as the way mob bosses, their capos and their soldiers do business. I don't know the reason why the ECUSA regime retreated on this. My hope is that they were shamed into it. Why? Because an organization that 'has no shame' is an organization that is often beyond the reach of reason - the very thing ECUSA claims to cherish. By momentarily backing away from such non-Christian folly, perhaps ECUSA has momentarily rediscovered the purpose behind having Christian crosses on their churches.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hospitality Article Published by 3Mil

As I noted on the CiC blog earlier today, I submitted an article for publication to ThirdMill back in June titled, "Hospitality: The Apostle John, Jacques Derrida and Us". This article has now been published in their online magazine, Reformed Perspectives. Interested parties can access the article either by going to and pulling up their weekly online magazine, or they can follow the 'My Published Papers so far' link on the right side of this blog page.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Adoption Update

Things are proceeding positively on the adoption front. We have settled on Kazakhstan as the country, and our home study has been approved by our adoption agency. Next comes our dossier to Kazakhstan, which we are hoping to complete in September. Our agency program coordinator has indicated that we could conceivably be traveling to Kazakhstan as early as next March, though that's probably optimistic. There are still a lot of significant steps to go through before the adoption is completed. But we're definitely moving in the right direction and feel better about things on this front than we have in a while.

Kazakhstan is a very interesting country with an interesting history. Islam is the majority religion in the country, but many Muslims in Kazakhstan are fairly nominal in their religious observance. One result is that the Christian church is growing in Kazakhstan. It's not growing like wildfire as it is in places like India and China, but the church in Kazakhstan, while still small, is absolutely crucial given its strategic importance. I had the pleasure of spending some time with a Kazakh church elder who was visiting in the US last month. He is an absolute delight, and he reports that wonderful things are happening in Kazakhstan. The country is fairly tolerant when it comes to religious freedom, though some would probably disagree. He reports that a person can reliably find at least one Christian church (and usually several churches) in virtually every city in the country. Perhaps most importantly, his church considers itself to be something of a beachhead to conduct missionary activity in other Muslim countries. His church has sent missionaries to Iran and Turkey in particular and because of their ancestry, they are given a hearing in these places in contrast to Caucasian Christians. The Holy Spirit is on the move in this part of the world, and it is very exciting for us to have some connection with this movement.

Continued prayers are appreciated not only for a successful adoption for us, but also for God's continued blessings on his church in Kazakhstan.