Learning the Language of Lament

J. Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. And he has incurable cancer. Billings has just written a piece for Relevant titled, “Are We Missing Something Important About Prayer?” In the article, he talks about learning the language of lament. He writes:

Whether our burden is an illness, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a dream, or fear about the future, laments in Scripture give us a path for bringing our anxiety and confusion before the Almighty.

Over a third of the Psalms are laments. Paul speaks of the whole creation groaning and lamenting, and the Spirit intercedes in “wordless groans.” Jesus laments in protest—turning over the tables at the Temple—and in grief—sweating blood in the garden of Gethsemane, praying for the cup of the cross to be taken away. Jesus even utters a cry that simultaneously expresses our feelings of abandonment, and heals them, in trust of the Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The article is well worth your time.

Also, Billings’ latest book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life with Christ, has just been released. Here is part of the Amazon blurb:

At the age of thirty-nine, Christian theologian Todd Billings was diagnosed with a rare form of incurable cancer. In the wake of that diagnosis, he began grappling with the hard theological questions we face in the midst of crisis: Why me? Why now? Where is God in all of this? This eloquently written book shares Billings’s journey, struggle, and reflections on providence, lament, and life in Christ in light of his illness, moving beyond pat answers toward hope in God’s promises.

I’ve read Billings’ work on union with Christ, as well as his book on theological interpretation of Scripture. Both were tremendously helpful. I plan to work through Rejoicing in Lament very soon. I’m sure it will be a theologically responsible, brutally honest investigation of some really tough questions.

A Parody of Marriage: Evangelicals and Catholics on So-Called Same-Sex Marriage

The March issue of First Things includes a statement by the ecumenical group founded in 1994 by Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson, Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Some of my favorite theologians, such as Timothy George and Kevin Vanhoozer, are members of the group today. The title of the statement is “The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage.” While Evangelicals and Roman Catholics hold somewhat different views on the morality of contraception, the legitimacy of divorce, clerical celibacy, and the status of marriage as a sacrament of the Church, on the fundamental truth that marriage is a union based on the complementarity of male and female, they are fully united. Here is a particularly incisive section of the statement:

The crisis of marriage culture in our times now poses a direct and fundamental challenge to the very nature of marriage. By redefining marriage to allow a union between two persons of the same sex–Spouse 1 and Spouse 2–a kind of alchemy is performed, not merely on the institution, but on human nature itself. In such a world, the distinction between men and women is denied social recognition and marriage is no longer a unique bond uniting male and female. It becomes an instrument created by the state to give official status to the relationship between two generic human beings. In these circumstances, what the state defines as marriage no longer embodies God’s purposes in creation. An easy acceptance of divorce damages marriage; widespread cohabitation devalues marriage. But so-called same-sex marriage is a graver threat, because what is now given the name of marriage in law is a parody of marriage.

If you are interested in engaging this issue intelligently, carefully, biblically, I commend the statement by Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Here is the denouement:

Faithful Christian witness cannot accommodate itself to same-sex marriage. It disregards the created order, threatens the common good, and distorts the Gospel.

Spot on.

“Simul justus et peccator. Simul frozen et unfrozen.”

Over at EerdWord, Rachel Bomberger has written a riveting piece on the Lutheran theology of Disney’s Frozen. Really, this is a fascinating read. Here’s an excerpt:

Elsa is Everyman. She’s you. She’s me. (Only blonder and skinnier and with a flawless complexion. Sigh.)

At the beginning of the movie, she is as innocent as Adam and Eve before the fall. She has the capacity to do great evil but is unaware of her vulnerability.

After the fall — I’m not making this up; there actually is a fall — comes knowledge. Elsa becomes aware of the darker side of her agency — her “sinful nature,” if you will — along with its inherent destructive power.

Like Adam and Eve, she hides — not in the garden but in her room. Like Adam and Eve, she covers her nakedness — not with fig leaves but with kid gloves. Like Adam, Eve, and every other member of fallen humanity, she’s both impossibly beautiful and impossibly broken.

If you have a few minutes, check out the full post here.

And yes, I realize that my last two posts have made use of images from animated movies. What can I say? I’m a dad.

If “Being in Love” Doesn’t Last

It’s Valentine’s Day weekend, so a few comments on “being in love” are in order. When in Rome.

If I had to chop down a tree every time a magazine interview, TV show, or movie sent us the message that the moment you “fall out of love” with someone is the moment it’s okay to end the relationship, we’d all be living in Thneedville. (That, dear reader, is a reference to The Lorax. Yes, I have children.) And if we all lived in Thneedville, a hollow of artificiality–no real trees, plants, or flowers–love would lie dormant, because romance cannot exist without roses, of course.

Jesting aside, here’s what I want to say. The message our culture bellows is this: Fall in love. Get married. Fall out of love. Get a divorce. Start again.

As I wrote about last Friday, I’ve been spending some quality time with C.S. Lewis this year. In Mere Christianity (1952), Lewis writes of “being in love” and “loving.” His comments are a far cry from what we often hear today.

Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. There are many things below it, but there are also things above it. You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling. Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last; but feelings come and go. And in fact, whatever people say, the state called ‘being in love’ usually does not last. If the old fairy-tale ending ‘They lived happily ever after’ is taken to mean ‘They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married,’ then it says what probably never was nor ever would be true … But, of course, ceasing to be ‘in love’ need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense—love as distinct from ‘being in love’—is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other … ‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it (Mere Christianity, 108-109).


Preaching Professor Visits His Son’s Murderer

On October 30, 2010, Antonio Maurice Smith was murdered. His father, Robert Smith, Jr., Professor of Christian Preaching at Beeson Divinity School, plans to visit the murderer in prison. And here is what he plans to say:

I asked prayer warriors to pray for me as I prepared to write the young man and to pray that he would respond affirmatively and ultimately add my name to the visitors list so that I could come and tell him in person—”Jesus loves and forgives you and so do I.” After nearly two years, in September 2012 I finally mailed that letter.

He added me to his visitors list in 2014. Soon by God’s grace I will see the young man whose face was the last face our son saw before standing in the presence of the Lord. I will offer the young man the forgiveness that Christ offers to me and to all who will believe.

I encourage you to read the full article here. It’s a powerful testimony of God’s forgiveness.

Reconnecting Theological Scholarship and Pastoral Ministry

Preston Sprinkle has put together a nice blurb for the first Center for Pastor Theologian’s conference, which will be held in Chicago this November. Here are the conference details:

The Pastor Theologian: Identities and Possibilities
November 2-4, 2015

Peter Liethart — The Pastor Theologian as Biblical Theologian
James K. A. Smith — The Pastor Theologian as Political Theologian
Kevin Vanhoozer — The Pastor Theologian as Public Theologian
Todd Wilson — The Pastor Theologian as Pastor
Gerald Hiestand — The Pastor Theologian as Ecclesial Theologian

The Center for Pastor Theologian’s annual theology conference exists to reconnect theological scholarship and pastoral ministry. Toward this end, the conference facilitates conversation between pastors, academic theologians, lay leaders, and ecclesial theologians, with a view to constructing theological proposals for the betterment of the church and her theology. Go here to register for the conference.

What is Scripture? (Book Notice)

Twice in the Pastoral Epistles the author uses the term “scripture” (graphe).

1 Tim 5:18 for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves to be paid.”
2 Tim 3:16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

Does the term refer solely to the OT Law, Prophets, and Writings, or could the author have a wider referent in mind? Could he also be thinking of at least some of the apostolic writings that now appear in the NT? In his recent book, What is Scripture? Paul’s Use of Graphe in the Letters to Timothy, L. Timothy Swinson argues that graphe represents a technical term that referred to both OT and NT texts as early as the late apostolic period. More specifically, Swinson contends that a written version of the Gospel of Luke is the source of the second referent of “scripture” in 1 Tim 5:18. He further contends that “all scripture” in 2 Tim 3:16 includes as its referent the apostolic writings extant in Paul’s day, especially Luke’s gospel and Paul’s epistles.

Swinson offers a brief treatment of the authorship issue; his conclusion is that it is most judicious to treat 1 and 2 Timothy as authentic Pauline letters (chapter two). The heart of the work is a grammatical-historical analysis of 1 and 2 Timothy, focusing on graphe and related terms (chapters three to six). In chapter seven, Swinson explores the uses of graphe in Philo, Josephus, the LXX, the NT, and the Apostolic Fathers. In chapter eight, he summarizes his findings and fleshes out implications of his work for the wider discussions of canon and biblical authority. Most notably, Swinson finds an unambiguous sense among the apostolic witnesses that they served as the new agents of God’s revelatory word to his people, an extension of “the word of the Lord.”

This concise study will be of great import for students and scholars working on the Pastorals, the Gospel of Luke, and those investigating the question of whether or not the NT authors viewed their own writings as being on a par with the OT scriptures.

Striptease and Bacon: C.S. Lewis on the State of the Sexual Instinct

In 2015 I am reading as many of C.S. Lewis’ works as I can get my hands on. My sons and I have finished The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and currently we are reading Prince Caspian. In the first few weeks of January, I read The Four Loves, and I am just about to finish Mere Christianity. I’ve also recently completed Humphrey Carpenter’s award-winning biography, The Inklings, which follows C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and others. It’s a fantastic read! In the months ahead, I hope to publish an article or two on Lewis. In fact, I’ve just finished writing a popular piece that brings three of Lewis’ writings, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and The Four Loves, into dialogue with E.L. James’ erotic bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey. Stay tuned for the details of when and where this piece will appear in print. I also plan to post some of my favorite excerpts from Lewis’ writings. Tentatively, I am planning on providing readers with a morsel of Lewis every Friday morning. You will find the first of these below. I couldn’t work this excerpt into my piece on Fifty Shades of Grey, though I really wanted to! It comes from Mere Christianity (1952). Lewis has just made the claim that the sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone terribly wrong. He goes on to illustrate the point:

You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act–that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just  before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?

The Importance of Tech Boundaries for Children

Rick Stawarz, founder of Appinstructor, has written an excellent little piece titled, “Creating Healthy Tech Boundaries for Your Kids.” Here are two of my favorite parts:

The first step in establishing boundaries is to consider how you the parent actively model usage of technology. Kids will simply mimic what they see you doing. Many of us have felt the conviction of our child’s request to put down the phone and listen. If we ourselves do not recognize the addictive nature of technology, then how can we expect to instruct our children along the same lines?

Regularly talk to your kids about what they are doing on their iPad, and invite them to ask you the same thing. Asking what someone is doing on their iPad or smartphone (in a polite way!) can actually be a fun way to open up new conversations with your kids. Likewise, if they learn that Mom and Dad use their iPad for reading rather than social media, it will communicate right usage of these devices. Encouraging these interruptions proves to your kids that you prioritize them over email.

I encourage you to read the full post here. Rick is a fellow Beeson grad. He presently serves as an Academic Technology Administrator at a Christian school in Minneapolis, MN, while also running the Minneapolis branch of Appinstructor.

En Route, in Prayer

24,000 miles. In the last four months or so, that’s how far I’ve traveled. I’ve returned to the U.S. after spending three years in New Zealand. I’ve flown from Birmingham, AL to San Diego, CA and then to Chicago, IL. And I’ve driven from Birmingham to Orlando, FL; Fort Worth, TX; and countless other destinations. Since 2015 hit, the traveling has slowed down. In what has seemed the stationary month of January, I’ve come to learn something about myself: traveling affects my prayer life. I pray much more on the journey, for when I travel the destination seems all important to me.

Early this morning, as I was considering the connection in my life between traveling and praying, I was reminded of a book written by the late Calvin Miller, The Path of Celtic Prayer. In the book, Miller tells of the peregrini, seafaring Celtic pilgrims of old. World-travelers they were. And great people of prayer. Unlike the Spanish conquistadors, the peregrini weren’t after earthly riches, but the treasures of following Christ and participating in his plan for the world. In their tiny boats called coracles, the peregrini were often rudderless, so that God might let his tides take his servants to whatever distant shore he had in store for them. These Celtic missionaries prayed as they went, wherever they went. For them, the pilgrimage was the prayer, and since they were always en route, they were always in prayer (1 Thess 5:17). This doesn’t mean that every moment in his coracle a peregrine was uttering words to the Lord. The point, rather, is that these mariners remained in a state of prayer–always mindful of the fact that they journeyed in the presence of the triune God.

Our God is a traveling God. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Bible is teeming with pilgrim tales. Abraham journeyed to an unknown land (Gen 12:1-4). The apostles were sent to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). And today, Christ bids us: “Come, follow me.” My prayer life would be profoundly altered if I would stop thinking in terms of physical destinations reached. Instead, I should view life as an ongoing journey. A hike through new summits of discovery. Or for the slightly less adventurous among us, a walk on a luminous street, where at each lamppost God reveals something more of his person and his plan. To borrow a line from Tolkien’s Old Walking Song, “The road goes ever on and on … ” So, too, the prayer.

A Glaze-Free Approach to Ministry (Book Notice)

The last thing we need is another Church, Inc. book. Today’s bestselling books on church growth, preaching, and pastoral leadership promise to improve our ministries by promoting popular business models. Pastoral success, we are told, is only one strategy away. Apparently, all the twenty-first century shepherd needs is savvy.

The remnant that resists the professional approach to ministry will be encouraged by Doug Webster’s two-volume work, Living in Tension: A Theology of Ministry. Webster currently teaches pastoral theology and preaching at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. He served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Diego for fourteen years, and has also served churches in Colorado, Indiana, and Canada. In Webster’s own words, ministry is not his profession; it is his passion. Webster is not interested in turning to Krispy Kreme to find a marketing plan for the church. His is a glaze-free approach. He opens the Bible and explores the nature and practice of ministry, and he trusts that the Word and the Spirit will produce resilient servants who are faithful to the very end. This sets Webster’s work apart from the fluffy ministry books that mar our bookshelves. But Living in Tension is just as different from the meaty pastoral theologies on the market, such as Thomas Oden’s work, Pastoral Theology and T.F. Torrance’s work, Royal Priesthood. Where pastoral theologies tend to focus on the pastor and his office, Webster widens his gaze to the entire congregation. In essence, Webster’s book is a sustained argument for the priesthood of all believers. He insists: “Books on pastoral theology that target the pastor inevitably and unfortunately split up the ministry into clergy and laity categories. We need to hold the ministry of the church together and resist the clergy-laity divide” (xi). Webster’s goal is to develop a theology of ministry that strengthens the authority of the pastor without diminishing the responsibilities of the congregation.

Webster is not afraid to go after the Christian leadership gurus, and those in the entrepreneurial camp may find him too harsh on some points. In my view, however, his criticism of the corporate approach to ministry is warranted. Though I do not agree with Webster on every point, this important work helps balance the scales that have been tipped to the clergy-do-it-all side for far too long. Webster’s work is a wonderful reminder that every member of the church is called to salvation, service, sacrifice, and simplicity.

A Family That Doesn’t Do Sleepovers

Tim Challies and his wife, Aileen, have set what I think is an excellent rule for their children. Challies writes about the rule here. And here is a short section of his post:

Before my children were even old enough to ask, Aileen and I talked it through and decided we would not allow our kids to do sleepovers. Now let’s be clear: there is no biblical command that forbids them, so this was not a matter of clear right and wrong, but a matter of attempting to act with wisdom. We determined we would make it a family rule: Our children would not be allowed to spend the night at their friends’ homes. We believed they would face a particular kind of vulnerability if they found themselves alone and in bed outside our care, and we wanted to protect them from it. So they have stayed at their grandparents’ and have stayed with my sisters when we’ve visited the South, but they have not stayed at friend’s homes.

Some may call this overprotective behavior. I prefer to call it discerning parenting. I have often said that the job of the Christian parent, simply stated, is to prepare your child to leave your home and go out into the world as a participant in the Triune God’s plan of redemption. It seems to me that one of the ways we prepare our children to leave our homes as devoted disciples is by keeping them in our homes when they are young. Of course, I don’t mean for you to keep your child in your home all the time. Just this morning I was trying to think of a way to get my two boys out of the house so I could get some work done in peace and quiet! What I mean is that the more opportunities for families to eat together at the dinner table, the better. The more gatherings for evening family worship, the better. The more words prayed by a father and mother over their children as the children are tucked in at night, the better. You get the idea. Overprotective? No. Loving? Caring? Wise? Yes.

Thorin Oakenshield’s Last Words

Last night, my wife and I went to see the final installment of The Hobbit. It was a great film, and we were especially pleased to see Matt Landreth (son of Chris and Glenda Landreth) mentioned in the credits. The Landreths are friends of ours from New Zealand. Congratulations, Matt!

My favorite part of the movie was the powerful scene where Thorin Oakenshield utters his final words to his friend, Bilbo Baggins. Here are Thorin’s last words, as originally written by Tolkien:

“Bilbo knelt on one knee filled with sorrow. ‘Farewell, King under the Mountain!’ he said. ‘This is a bitter adventure, if it must end so; and not a mountain of gold can amend it. Yet I am glad that I have shared in your perils—that has been more than any Baggins deserves.’ ‘No!’ said Thorin. ‘There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world’” (The Hobbit, 272-273).

Peter Jackson slightly altered Thorin’s last words for the movie, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies:

‘If more of us valued home above gold, it would be a merrier world.’

Words worth remembering!

Churches Die in Manhattan. Or So They Say.

Kate Bachelder of The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed Tim Keller, Yoda-smart pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. You can read the full interview here. It is interesting to hear that, of the thousands of people attending Redeemer on a weekly basis, most of them are under the age of 35. This seems to support my conclusion that, if churches want to reach the younger generation, dumbing down everything in the church is not the way to go. In my experience, the next generation is not looking for Christian cliches or platitudes; rather, they seem to be searching for opportunities to engage in intelligent conversations, specifically within the context of authentic communities. If you have some free time, read this short version of the Redeemer story. It’s encouraging. Christ is building his church.

“We’ve All Been Indoctrinated”

Currently, I am working through Kevin Vanhoozer’s newest book, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Only three chapters in, and already I recognize that this will be a book to which I will return again and again in my own ministry. In fact, since I have been engaged in the job search as of late, I have had a number of people ask me: “What is your philosophy of ministry?” In the future, my answer (at least in part) will be: “Read Vanhoozer’s, Faith Speaking Understanding.”

At one point in the book, Vanhoozer rightly says: “Doctrine is inevitable. We’ve all been indoctrinated: everyone has absorbed some system of beliefs and values” (53). He then proceeds to summarize Christian Smith’s work, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Vanhoozer writes:

[Smith] discovered that the majority of American teenagers are still religious, believers active in their churches. However, they are ‘incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives.’ This does not mean that they do not hold to certain doctrines. On the contrary, Smith says they have an implicit theology: ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,’ or MTD for short (an apt acronym for a socially transmitted disease). Adherents to MTD are often affiliated with traditional faith communities, unaware that they are practicing something very different from their historic faith communities. It has also infected people who no longer go to church, so much so that it may be ‘the new mainstream American religious faith for our culturally post-Christian, individualistic, mass-consumer capitalist society.’ If those who hold this faith could articulate it as a creed, it might go something like this:

I believe in a creator God who orders and watches over life on earth. I believe that God wants people to be good: to act nice to one another [the ‘moralistic’ tenet]. I believe that the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself [the ‘therapeutic’ tenet]. I believe that God is not involved in my life except when I need God to solve a problem. I believe that good people go to heaven. Virtual worlds without end. Amen.

This, too, is doctrine, but alas: it expresses an unbiblical, non-Trinitarian faith (54-55).