Online Reading (November 9, 2010)

Welcome to reading some of the things I’m finding interesting today:

November 11: While in my present home of Korea, November 11 is “Peppero Day”, back home in Canada, it’s Remembrance day, and there is a debate this year about the white poppy as opposed to the red poppy.

Abortion and Slavery: Thabiti Anyabwile gives some ideas about making the link to abortion while not being disrespectful about one of the millennium’s (other) greatest evils.

Gay Rights and Freedom of Religion: The Daily Mail reports on a case where the two are coming into direct conflict. I have passionate opinions on this one, but it’s a difficult dilemma to say the least.

How to Listen to a Sermon: For those of you who listen to me on the itunes feed, here are some ideas on how to get something out of the preaching of a very fallible human.

The Discipline of Letting Go

I like to be busy.

There are a lot of reasons for this. It makes me feel like I’m needed, as if the world can’t function without me. It means that I do not have to think about future and plans and vision and such, because I’m wrapped up in the now, and of course this is only compounded by the fact that I’m single.

If I spend the day busy, I don’t need to worry about my own questions and insecurities, that I am somehow now too old to start a family, or that I may be failing in part of what God calls me to in not actually finding a family. That’s not to say that I believe I am a lesser pastor or a lesser Christian guy because I’m single, but it’s easier to ignore my doubts when I’m too busy to face them.

As a pastor, it is easy to remain sinfully busy. Yes, I mean that. Sometimes we can be so busy it’s sinful, and as a pastor, it’s actually much worse.

Personally, from what I’ve just admitted about my own doubts and questions and needs, and the desire to avoid them, I’m making my busyness my salvation. Instead of bringing my requests before the Lord, or facing the problems I have squarely, thinking and praying on them, and repenting of where my opinions are sinful, I instead focus on preparing too many Bible studies.

Worse, as the busyness becomes where I get  my value, I place my value less and less in the person and work of Christ. As what I do becomes the measure of my own importance, I am placing less value on God, and that is a form of idolatry. My work, even godly work, becomes the measure of who I am rather than my status as beloved of God, an heir of Christ, and fearfully and wonderfully made by a good God.

And in each of these things, I am training those who watch me to think the same.

So today I’m seeking to let go.

I’m going to do less “churchy” work, and spend more time reflecting and getting to know the God I serve. I’m going to place some responsibility in the gifts of people in my congregation, gifts that God has drawn here in His own sovereign will.

Hopefully, dear readers, this also means I’ll get back to semi-regular postings.  We’ll see how this goes. You’re welcome to call me to account, by asking me if my posts again become too sporadic. :-)

Reflections on my First Year of Pastoral Ministry

This week marks one year since I first arrived in Korea and began to preach at the English Worship Service at Sangdang Presbyterian Church. I have to say that pastoral ministry is greatly different than I had imagined it to be, though I’m betting much of that has to do with the different kind of ministry I’m part of. I also know a little better why pastors give newbies like me the advice that they do. Here at the end of the first year, I figured I would say a few of the things I’ve learned (in no particular order).

1. Carry a pen and paper everywhere.

This has a few reasons, but the biggest is that pastors often get told the most important things as an aside halfway through a conversation. It’s a good practice to be able to write down, as soon as is practical, information you will need to remember so that you can pray for and better love your congregation. It also helps you keep straight the things people are expecting you to do. Remember to sync that information with your day planner.

2. Loving people is work.

Pastors are expected to love their congregation members, and that is not always easy. This is not just because the members of your church are sinners, but because you are at heart a sinner. Myself, I am often struggling with my desire to always be right, and holding my tongue over unimportant criticisms for the sake of the relationship is difficult for me. I often want to defend myself against (perceived) attacks, rather than see the Gospel as central. As a pastor, I am finding I need prayer and repentance more than I had expected. Honestly, it’s easier to see the grace of God now, since I know that any good done through my ministry is going to be Him.

The upshot is that pastors cannot do the easy thing and just hang out with the people who they find it easy to like. That is to be lazy, and is also a bad habit you don’t want your congregation to pick up.

3. Preach the Gospel!!!! be ready for change (and for no change).

It is the pastor’s job to, in season and out of season, preach the Gospel to people who may or may not be willing to hear it and be changed. Sometimes pastors face the difficulty of dealing with hard hearts who will simply show up Sunday after Sunday (or stop showing up). Other times, the Gospel will find soft hearts, but that is not going to be any less difficult. The Word of God changes people’s lives, and repentance can be messy.

4. Sometimes critics are your best friends.

It’s very easy to bask in the good things people say after you preach a sermon that reached them in a good way. That said, not everything you say is going to be golden, and in your congregation may be people who see your errors faster than you do. With my own ministry (with a high turnover rate), catching your errors and misstatements can be more important, since you will have a very small window to correct your mistakes.

This is also why you need to train your congregation to see God as revealed through the Bible as the primary authority, not you. Ideally, people in your congregation should be learning to ask questions of the text and of your sermons, and then seeking the answers in the Bible as they listen to you. This may mean more work in dealing with criticism that may, or may not, be well-founded, but it also means that you get to learn from the congregation and how God speaks to them.

5. Do discipleship for the Kingdom of God, not for your own personal fiefdom.

Since foreigners are only going to be in Korea for a limited time, and the Koreans have a great system of discipleship in place, it’s tempting to simply see the worship service as a stopgap while people are here for a short time. After all, the fruit of work you put into discipling people will not accrue to your own ministry, but will instead be to the various places these people go after they are with you. But the scriptures say that one plants, another waters, and another reaps the harvest. Just because you have no reason to expect to reap the benefits of your work does not mean you have the right to shirk your duty to plant or water.

Besides, unless people are growing under your care, they are dying under your care. There is no 0 movement faith. You will still need to give an account for a short time of ministry with them as with a long time.

6. Make sure you have supports.

A pastor is human. That’s not always realized by the people in your congregation. You have all the same struggles regular believers have, and so like them, you need to have the supports you tell them they need. This means that you have to put time into developing “non work” friendships where you can be real, and where you can be corrected, or just have fun. Ideally, these would be the fellow members of a board of elders, but in any case, good Christian friends are just as necessary for the pastor as for the congregation. After all, a pastor is just an undershepherd, and will sometimes need to be shepherded himself.

7. Family is very important.

This might be a little controversial, but the Bible states that an overseer (or pastor) must be able to manage his own family well. This means that sometimes the congregation will have to take a back seat to your marriage, or to your children. Some say that if you take care of the Church, God will take care of your kids. I don’t see that in scripture, and instead see the command to provide for my family.

A pastor should never model the evil understanding that a job (any job) is more important than the Gospel reflection that is marriage. A pastor must love his wife as Christ loved the Church, or he is not serving his Church well, or the Gospel.

Some would say that’s easy for me to say, as I’m a single pastor. Well, if so, it’s one of very few things made easier by being a single pastor.

8. Pastors should, ideally, be married.

This one hurts to say since I am not married (and given my present ministry am unlikely to be married anytime soon). I am not saying that every pastor must be married, or that there are not benefits to not being married (I am able to place more effort into Christian service than married pastors), but I am saying that a married pastor is probably in a better position in many ways.

In the first place, the pastor can thus better model in his life what a Christian family should look like, and also get the sanctification that comes from being married (having a spouse means having someone who will know all your sin, so you won’t as easily be able to hide it, and thus will have to face it for the sake of the marriage). A wife is also a complement to your ministry, as she would ideally provide the emotional support a pastor will often need, as well as the sympathetic ear and a person who you can be perfectly honest with. Note: I am not saying that she needs to perform ministry duties in the Church beyond what other Church members provide. She should be a committed Christian, and thus a member of the Church, but there is no church office of “Pastor’s Wife”.

I don’t think this is a type of “grass is always greener” syndrome, as I am aware that marriage adds many stresses (and children many more). Nor do I think I am saying that being a single pastor is wrong (or else I’d resign). I am just saying that a godly marriage is usually beneficial for a pastor.

Anyway, that’s all the reflections for the moment. Comments anyone?

The Pharisee Culture

“You know how this wine was blended? Different types of Pharisee have been harvested, trodden, and fermented together to produce the subtle flavour. Types that were most antagonistic on earth…. The wickedness of other religions was the really live doctrine in the religion of each; slander was its gospel, and denigration its litany. How they hated each other up where the sun shone!”

(C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast)

I have made the claim previously that the Gospel is always bad news to an unprepared heart, and that there are two major forms of the “unprepared”. In the first case are the despairing, who know that if there is a just God, that He must have profound problems with them. The Gospel for them is that God does indeed love them, and provided a way for them to enjoy Him in Jesus Christ. The problem is that the despairing cannot imagine that this is for them.

Then I said that there is a second group, a more numerous group, for which the Gospel is anything but good news, and I labelled that group the Pharisee.

Now, many will wonder at my calling the most common modern group pharisees, since pharisees are supposed to be religious people, and modern Canada is honestly a quite secular place. So let me explain what I mean by a Pharisee.

A Pharisee is someone who honestly believes that they are the ultimate definition of the moral, and set their lives to hatred of that which they see as immoral. A pharisee is by definition self-righteous. They define what is true and good and moral, and rage incessantly against what they see as “evil” (whatever that evil is, whether ignorance, or meanness, or irreligiousness). They gain their joy, not from the beliefs they hold, or from God, but from the fact that they are right and some other group is wrong. They are happy that they are righteous and they pity or hate those who are not precisely like them.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what the main object of your beliefs is. If you think that all Montreal Canadiens fans are evil, and rejoice in their comeuppance, you are in danger of phariseeism. You can be a religious nut who rejoices in the damnation of whatever particular group you do not like (such as atheists, or the gays, or whatever), or you can be an atheist that gains your jollies by laughing at the silliness of those terrible religious people.

In both cases, you are quite assured that you are righteous; that you are a “good” person, and that the world would be much better if everybody else was like you.

Terribly enough, this is the common plight of the modern west. We have spent the last 30-50 years telling our young that they should have “self-esteem”, and that they should be more into expressing themselves than learning to be accurate, or even learning from others from whom they disagree. A necessary corollary of this is that you believe yourself to be the definition of what is good and worthy of expression. You yourself are righteous. Thus we have spent more than a generation telling ourselves that “we’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like us” (twisted aside: anybody else find it ironic that the comedian that played Stewart Smalley is now a U.S. Senator?), and so telling them that they are righteous in themselves, they SHOULD BE self-righteous. It is good to be a Pharisee.

Of course, its sometimes hidden in “tolerance”, where we are called to tolerate all opinions, save those anachronistic troglodytes that are not tolerant, and the world will be so much better when they stop clinging to god and guns…… Or maybe it’ll all be good when those terrible people who believe in a religion are gone, or those irreligious atheists are gone, or <insert your favourite whipping boy here>….. You can see what I mean.

The gospel to a pharisee is far worse than to a despairing person. For the pharisee, the intimation that they are not actually as good as they imagine (and are in fact evil), since the ultimate definition of goodness isn’t them, but is God. Worse, this good God is actually so good that He really does hate evil, and thus hates our pharisaic tendencies.

The problem we Christians face is that this is a) cultural, so we have trouble catching this evil in ourselves and purging ourselves of it (and so people rightly see many of us as hypocrites) and b) a positive roadblock to the Gospel.

This isn’t helped much since we tend to focus our evangelism on the despairing sinner who knows they need mercy (God loves you), and actually adds strength to the pharisees, who need to know that the God who rules really hates evil, and we really are evil. We place our righteousness in us instead of in Him, and so honestly deserve the just wrath of God.

This is not good news to people who honestly believe they are good, or at least better than that group they hate. So far from seeing their desperate need for mercy, the pharisee culture reacts to the reign of God by demanding what right God has to define righteousness, or by claiming that God is evil, or by imagining that God hates all sin except mine.

The Pharisee is actually the most openly in rebellion to God, and rebels are rarely happy to be told of the rule of that which they rebel against. As a result the good news is very bad to this unprepared heart.

A Danger of Preaching a Substandard Gospel

Recently I’ve been reading some of the critiques unbelievers have about Christianity, and have been struck by a commonality that I have found in many of them. People began to read the Bible, found that the God of the Bible did not square with their beliefs in a loving and good God, and so they figured that there was no support for the Christianity they had believed, and thus they rejected it.

To be a little surprising, I agree with their assessment of the modern Christianity they were taught.

Like many of them, when I first became a Christian after the confused atheism of my high school years, I was taught a version of the Gospel that accented the love of God and the close friendship of God to the total exclusion of the wrath of God. The cross of Christ was seen as a sign of love in some kind of abstract way (I’m not sure how it can be a sign of love without a real wrath that we face, but there it is).

The problem is that such is only a half-measure of the Gospel. It is true, but is not the whole story as the Bible has it. Thus, if someone who believes like that actually reads the entire Bible, there is an awful lot about God that they have no method of dealing with. They have no category for a wrathful and angry God, and so they assume that such a God in the Bible cannot be true. They will thus either reject God, or reject the Bible (or both).

This rejection is, of course, where I part company with them. I know myself to be a sinner, and honestly, I actually believe that I deserve to go to hell. Not because I’m worse than other people, but because if God really fills the role in the universe that the Bible says he does, my sin is honestly disgusting (not just a mistake, not just a minor infraction, but disgusting and evil). I honestly wonder how God can stand the people he has called, including me. The ways I have thought about those around me, and about God, even in the 2 hours I have been awake today, if you could see into my mind should make you sick. In my best times it makes me sick. My repentance is not just because I am afraid of the wrath of God, it is because my sin is sickening.

God’s wrath against me is just. Outside of Christ, he does see my mind, he does know how evil my desires can be, and how much I belittle Him. He sees it every time I do it, and without the fact that I stand in Jesus Christ, he would be wholly right to punish me for it, and I have no reason to believe that anyone is righteous enough in themselves to avoid this.

“Wretched man that I am! Who is to deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a)

The danger of preaching less than this is simple. Without the wrath of God against our sin, we are simply not being honest about God, or ourselves. We thus end up teaching a Gospel that places us at its centre rather than Jesus Christ. That Gospel is not true.

People who see that anemic Gospel are right to reject it. But in so doing, they are not necessarily rejecting the Gospel of Jesus Christ, though it can lead to that.

What Christians are Not.

I know, I know, a big topic, and I’m being a little arrogant in claiming to understand the whole of one of the largest religious groupings in the world. Keep in mind that you’re reading a conservative protestant evangelical.

These are just some things I would like non-Christians to keep in mind when talking to me.

1) Christians, by definition, do not think they are better than you. If somebody seems to, you know that he is being a very bad Christian if he is one at all. We get saved by grace. The main point of the entire religion is that we are so seriously messed up that we couldn’t save ourselves and needed God to do it for us. That means we think WE are sinners.

2) Christians (remembering the above proviso) do not think that morality is adherence to a set of moral precepts contained in a code (even the rules contained in the Bible). Morality is a heart issue for Christians, it is about the character of the person performing the act, not the act in itself. Thus talking about moral actions is non-sequential to our faith structure. While actions may be evidence of moral character, Good actions in themselves are simply not sequential to the issue of being good.

3) That said, Christians (if they are being Christian) do have some actions that they should be doing. If the person that claims to be Christian does not do them, you have a right to question their claim to be Christian. If you do not like what they are doing because they are acting in accordance with Christian expectations, then you can say it’s a problem with Christianity.

4) Christians, like every other belief structure in the world, has adherents who have not thought about the implications of their beliefs, and people who have. Do not assume that Christians are all unthinking, because you only talk to the former. Similarly, some Christians are not very rational in their thinking, but some are.

5) There are bad Christians. This is not an amazing revelation that upsets my entire faith structure, nor should it. The actions of people are actually independant of the belief structure and are relevant insofar as the specific actions you find abhorrent fit the belief structure.

6) Christianity is a big religion. Do not assume that you understand what the specific Christian you are talking to believes. He is a different person from all the other Christians you have met. Indeed, given point 5, despite his claims, he might not actually be a Christian. If you want to know if a Christian believes something, ask him. You can attack a belief that he’s claimed to believe after he’s claimed to believe it, not before.

7) No Christian, not even fundamentalist Bible thumpers (save the most extreme groups which most other Christians think are nuts), think that you can understand the Bible’s teaching on ANYTHING by looking at isolated verses. So, God’s teaching on slavery is not completed by looking at Leviticus, the nature of God is not explained by looking at the genocides in Exodus, and our opinion about social concerns is not exhausted by John 3:16. We have to look at the whole of scripture (because scripture interprets scripture). You may think that’s a dodge, but it’s the way we actually roll.

8) Christian beliefs are pretty central to the lives of Christians. It is the way we see the world. To ask us to put aside Jesus for a second is like asking you to put aside your understanding of reality for a second.

9) Christians are not inherently opposed to science. I am not a scientist, so I usually recuse myself from such debates because I’m probably better to be listening at those points. This is not because I think that science is of the devil. The statement “Some anti-science people are Christian” is not a logically equivalent statement to “All Christians are anti-science”.

10)  Christians (at least of the type that I am) do not believe that forcing you to “become Christian” is even possible, much less permissible. In fact, in my experience the attempt is unbelieving and counter-productive. When I tell you what I believe, it is because a) I think what I believe is true and would benefit you or b) I feel the need to correct your erroneous understanding of what I believe. I would like you to believe, because I would like you to enjoy God as I do, but if you don’t, I can’t force you.

Online Reading (January 29, 2008)

Religion and Science: Pope Benedict again wades into the debate.

Faith and Brains: (from 2 weeks ago) John Stackhouse publishes an impatient response to the questions about education and faith.

Newfoundland and…. Poland?: The local paper of record makes very superficial links between Poland and Newfoundland. Gee, maybe I should apply for a reporting job. I can ignore substantive cultural differences too!!!!

Christian Teaching: Tim Challies has a good piece on seeking good teachers as Christians.