Institutions: Around Them, or Through Them?

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Looking for ways to make a difference, younger Americans therefore tend to think in terms not of channeling their ambitions through institutions but rather of going around them. Because our politics has always rewarded those who can successfully claim the mantle of the outsider–now even more than usual–the temptation to approach our institutions antagonistically, or to avoid them altogether, has grown very strong. When we look for solutions, we tend to look not to institutions but to individuals, movements, ideals, or maverick outsiders.

Maybe what we resist most is the idea that we would need to be formed by institutions at all. The liberal idea of freedom, which has often been at the core of our political imagination, is rooted in the premise that the choosing individual is the foundation of our social order. Liberating that person–whether from oppression, necessity, coercion, or constraint–has frequently been understood to be the foremost purpose of our politics. Our parties have argued about how to do it and about what kind of liberation the individual most desires or requires. But they have agreed, at least implicitly, that once properly liberated, that person could be free.

Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream

I feel these tensions, having been formed within them. I value institutions. I value individualism. I’m skeptical of institutions. I’m aware of their failures. Early in my ministry I was drawn more toward movements and mavericks, those seeking to reform or to build something new.

But as the years have gone on, I’ve become more skeptical of radical individualism. It can pull us away from community, history, or tradition. I’m wary of those who build their own cult of personality.

In A Time to Build, Yuval Levin makes the case for our institutions. Levin argues that we should recommit to them, highlighting the positive ways they can be formative. He’s right. They can be. As a child of a stable family, relatively healthy churches, and a vibrant university community, I’ve seen the positive effects institutions can have.

But as an observer of unhealthy institutions, I’ve also seen how difficult it can be to reform a decaying institution from within. There are moments when it is easier, better, healthier, and more generative to leave an institution and blaze a new path, begin a new movement, or chart a new course. A new church, college, university, or other association might be just the thing to renew an existing institutional form. Older institutions see it is okay to try new things, make certain changes, or launch new initiatives. Those who go around institutions and who begin to build new organizations are like a research and development division.

These breaks can be messy. Knowledge can get lost, overshadowed, or put aside. But new expressions of existing institutions can, at times, not only serve to bring forth new life in a new place with new people, but it can inspire older institutions to break free of their ruts and enact needed reforms.

I agree with Levin. We need more people to commit to our existing institutions, to be formed by them, and to make their mark through them. But I’m not discounting the fact that some will need to go around our institutions for the good of us all. We need mavericks, too, who help us not only see how we’re getting it wrong, but where we’re getting it right.

Awaiting a Winter Storm

There is a “historic winter storm” headed our way. We’ve kept an eye on the weather.

The yard is already frozen. We picked up groceries this morning. There was black ice on the roads. We fueled our vehicle while we were out and parked at our neighbors’ place on return. They have a flat driveway; ours is a hill.

Molly and the kids stockpiled firewood in the garage. While at the public library on Friday, Molly checked out DVDs and library books to keep us occupied. We covered our outdoor faucets and pulled out our extra hats, gloves, and coats. We’ve closed the blinds and pulled the curtains in an attempt to keep the cold out and the heat in.

Before today it was already cold. Winter weather moved into our area on Thursday, complicating matters for the region. I moved my class online and decided to cancel this weekend’s spiritual formation retreat. Public schools opened on delay. Area colleges and universities began cancelling classes early on Thursday afternoon. Thankfully, road conditions for most were passable during school pick up hours. In Midway, I gathered our school superintendent took heat. Some residents disagreed strongly with the decision to have school.

I feel for the guy. If you decide to have school and weather conditions worsen to an unanticipated degree, you are held at fault for insufficient clairvoyance. If you cancel school and the weather turns out fine, parents are upset their plans for the day were disrupted. And if you call off school and the weather is as bad or worse than expected, you don’t get any credit for making the right call. “Any dummy could’ve made that decision,” it is reasoned.

Yesterday evening Molly and I began looking at the extended forecast, wondering aloud if we’d have church on Sunday. Current projections call for snow early on Sunday morning, but yesterday it appeared as though precipitation would begin Sunday afternoon. Sidewalks and steps outside the church building were already slick on Thursday. We did not have salt on hand. We could put down kitty litter, but the amount of work that could be done to prepare the facility would be limited. One slip and someone could break a hip. Or multiple someones. That’s just at the building. If road conditions are bad, well, accidents could happen on the way.

Going to church is a habit. Hebrews 10:25 exhorts those addressed to not neglect meeting together. The early Christ-followers began gathering on Sunday, rather than Saturday, in remembrance and celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. It was a subtle move, theologically reasoned and practically executed. There is a connection between sabbath keeping and Sunday worship, but it takes work to get there.

In Acts 20:7 we see Paul meeting with the Christian community on the first day of the week, which would have been Sunday by the Jewish calendar. Worship of God with the fellowship of faith is a wise practice, prescribed in the Bible. But when, and how often, and toward what end is up to each local Christian community. With that said, Sunday isn’t a bad idea at all, carrying with it a historical resonance of that first Sunday, where, by Christian reckoning, all of human history hinged and then changed. Resurrection Sunday marks the first day of the new creation.

As I think back over the last two decades of life, the circles I’ve run in have talked a lot about the church. A common refrain has been that the church is not a building. Church is also not an event. The church is a people. The Greek word is ekklesia, or “called out ones.” In the first century this term carried a political connotation. An ekklesia could form the moment everyone was called from their houses into the town square to hear a message, have a debate, or make a public decision. The term still holds that meaning, but it has taken on new shades. The Christian community remains a political body, with an allegiance to Jesus as king, and a way of life that should be distinctive from that commonly practiced among those with allegiance to the kingdoms of this world.

But the church is also a mystical body. It is bound together “in Christ,” sharing in the same Spirit. Ephesians 4:1-32 describes this reality, carrying with it the implication that the church is still the church whether assembled or sent, gathered or scattered. Ephesians 4:4-6 says, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

One way or another, we’re bound. This binding transcends time and space. We are “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” whether we are in the building, or not. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get together. Ephesians 4, again, points us in the right direction. God has given the church “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers can do their work a little easier when we meet together. And if you consider the witness of the New Testament more broadly, the “one another” commands that are given to the church presume a community.

But tomorrow, the course eventually chosen by our church leaders was to remain scattered due to the winter storm. I don’t think it is right to say worship is cancelled, or even that worship is online, even if the order, or service, is facilitated, communicated, and broadcast on the web. Worship takes place wherever the people of God find themselves and, bound together in and by the Spirit, is collectively offered to God as individuals lift their hearts and attribute worth to the One Who is Worthy of All Glory and Honor and Power Forever and Ever.

There is more going on in the spiritual realm, more than we often contemplate, and certainly more than we perceive. It has always been so, but we, as modern people, have had our perceptions dulled to these realities. Perhaps we should humbly ask God to teach us anew, to help us discover and experience the fullness of communion with God and the communion that exists among the saints.

I’m looking forward to the coming days, because I love my family, we are well supplied, there is a fire in the hearth and I have plenty of work to do that can be done remotely, assuming we keep power. I know it is not so for everyone. As the cold has descended, my mind has drifted toward the words of the BCP‘s first rite for Daily Evening Prayer:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or
weep this night, and give thine angels charge over those who
sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless
the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the
joyous; and all for thy love’s sake.

I’ll confess that these words also provide the framework for a book I’ve been reading [affiliate link]. But they connect to the present circumstance. This morning, we prayed for our area shelters, as well as for friends who serve in shelters in other cities.

The storm is coming. We may not gather tomorrow. Nevertheless, offer praise. Worship the Lord. Remember the saints. Anticipate the next gathering, and then savor it when it occurs. Rejoice when meeting resumes–and be there. Frozen conditions may keep us out of the building. But they do not severe the ties of the body of Christ.

The Meaning of Apocalypse

Image by Jeroným Pelikovský from Pixabay

Carl Trueman has written an article at First Things in which Protestant Christians are asked to consider COVID-19 and the meaning of the term apocalypse.

“Apocalypse” is often associated with the end of the world, depicted in films as a cascading onslaught of geopolitical chaos, natural disasters, environmental decay, unstoppable global disease, and, maybe, the unleashing of evil spiritual forces. Think of The Book of Eli, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z, 12 Monkeys, End of Days, Soylent Green, Mad Max: Fury Road, Doctor Strangelove, I Am Legend, The Day After Tomorrow, Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, Children of Men, The Road, The Matrix, 28 Days Later, or Wall-E. Ghostbusters really nailed it. Long live Peter Venkman.

In the New Testament, the Greek term apokálypsis means an uncovering or unveiling. Revelation 1:1 begins, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.” That word translated “revelation?” That’s apokalypsis.

A hidden thing is revealed. That’s an apocalypse.

Look At All These Rumors

Trueman has been hearing that Protestants fear that the pandemic has not only decimated budgets and worship services, and uncovered stresses and strains which exist in the relationship between church and state, but that online worship services and habituated non-attendance will lead to a massive reduction in church participation. Trueman writes:

In conversation with many ministers, I have noticed one key concern again and again: How many Christians will return to church once COVID has stabilized? It is anecdotal at best at this point, but the figure often cited in my presence is 30 percent: Three out of every ten pre-COVID worshipers might stay away for good. One friend told me that his denomination’s leadership has informed its ministers that a third of its congregations might close within the next few months.

Theology nerds will find Trueman’s claims about Catholic/Protestant arguments for meeting physically together worthy of contemplation. For Catholics, Christ meets with his people in the Eucharist. For Protestants, Christ meets with his people through the preached Word.

But really, it’s the last paragraph which provides the Scorpion uppercut punch:

So what will be revealed if vast swathes of Protestants do not return to physical church when COVID finally settles down? Surely that the theology of preaching as God’s confrontational presence in and through proclamation has at some point been supplanted in the minds of many by a notion that it is merely a transmission of information or a pep talk. And that listening as active, faithful response has correspondingly been reduced to a passive reception, of the kind that televisions and countless other screens have made the default position. To put it another way, it will reveal that preachers have become confused with life coaches or entertainers, and congregations have been replaced by audiences and autonomous consumers. Such a scenario will be apocalyptic. And in both senses of the word.

Let’s say, for a moment, that churches do experience a thirty percent reduction in active participation in weekend services once this storm passes. Trueman may have nailed all the causes.

But has this pandemic been truly necessary to reveal these things to be true? Or will the pandemic only make these matters even more plain, pushing those remaining in denial about the overall health of Protestant Christianity in North America to finally face the reality that cultural forces, including those within the church, have weakened our efforts at discipleship?

No Need for Anxiety

Long ago I gave up hand-wringing over matters like this. I’ve faced the fact that we are in decline, and that there is work to do. The monastics taught me to remember that God draws people unto himself and into community, and while I might be called to intercede for the world and to call upon God to bring the lost to saving faith, I am not called to be anxious about the future of the church. The Father sovereignly prunes the vine to foster future flourishing. I trust the vine dresser.

Dallas Willard once said “The greatest challenge the church faces today is to be authentic disciples of Jesus.” Indeed, that is a great challenge. But it echoes the commission given to all disciples of Jesus. Jesus has been granted all authority in heaven and on earth and has promised to be with us to the end of the age. Those are reasons for confidence, and hope.

Merton’s Life and Holiness

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In 1963, Thomas Merton published Life and Holiness. The book is a brilliant, succinct encapsulation of the Christian vision with five major sections: 1) Christian Ideals, 2) The Testing of Ideals, 3) Christ, the Way, 4) The Life of Faith, and 5) Growth in Christ. There are passages which address matters of relevance in the 1960s which could have just as well been written today. Such is the timelessness of truth.

From the outset, Merton makes clear that the primary emphasis of the book is grace, “the power and the light of God in us, purifying our hearts, transforming us in Christ, making us true sons of God, enabling us to act in the world as his instruments for the good of all men and for his glory.” Merton also stresses “the nature of work and its place in the Christian life” and how “one’s  daily work is an important element in the spiritual life.” Merton well understood that a life of holiness is one that encompasses human activity in every sphere, not only what which we traditionally associate with the sacred.

I appreciate the ways in which Merton exhorts the reader to strive after holiness, or growth in grace. But he balances that exhortation with a reminder that God is the catalyst, the carrier, and the one who grants completion to that work. Merton writes, “If we are called by God to holiness of life, and if holiness of life is beyond our natural power to achieve (which it certainly is) then it follows that God himself must give us the light, the strength, and the courage to fulfill the task he requires of us. He will certainly give us the grace we need. If we do not become saints it is because we do not avail ourselves of his gift.”

This notion of sainthood is one which Merton addresses directly. It is a common temptation to elevate our exemplars to heights which we believe are beyond our reach. Merton says it well:

The popular idea of a ‘saint’ is, of course, quite naturally based on the sanctity which is presented for our veneration, in heroic men and women, by the Church. There is nothing surprising in the fact that saints quickly become stereotyped in the mind of the average Christian, and everyone, on reflection, will easily admit that the stereotype tends to be unreal. The conventions of hagiography have usually accentuated the unreality of the picture, and pious art has, in most cases, successfully completed the work. In this way, the Christian who devotes himself to the pursuit of holiness unconsciously tends to reproduce in himself some features of the popular stereotyped image. Or rather, since it is fortunately difficult to succeed in this enterprise, he imagines himself in some sense obliged to follow the pattern, as if it were really a model proposed for his imitation by the Church herself, instead of a purely conventional and popular caricature of a mysterious reality–the Christlikeness of the saints.

Merton sees that our efforts to imitate these “plaster” saints is ultimately silly. Rather, God is calling us to become most deeply ourselves in Christ. He writes, “It is the strict truth, and until we realize that before a man can become a saint he must first of all be a man in all the humanity and fragility of man’s actual condition, we will never be able to understand the meaning of the word ‘saint.'” Merton points to Jesus, who “was himself the most deeply and perfectly human being who ever lived on the face of the earth. We must remember that human nature was, in him, quite perfect, and at the same time completely like our own frail and suffering nature in all things except sin. Now what is ‘supernatural’ if not the economy of salvation in and through the Incarnate Word?”

By grace God not only conforms us to the image and likeness of Christ, but while doing so mends and remakes us in the divine image, as God intended for us to be, free from sin, and freed to live for the glory of God.

One of the matters that keeps us from pursuing this kind of life is distraction. In a paragraph that has held up, Merton writes, “We must reflect more deeply than we do on the effect of modern technological life upon the emotional and instinctual development of man. It is quite possible that the person whose life is divided between tending a machine and watching TV is sooner or later going to suffer a radical deprivation in his nature and humanity.” Hello, Twitter. This observation still rings true.

What, ultimately then, is a saint? Merton states:

The true saint is not one who has become convinced that he himself is holy, but one who is overwhelmed by the realization that God, and God alone, is holy. He is so awestruck with the reality of the divine holiness that he begins to see it everywhere. Eventually, he may be able to see it in himself too: but he will see it there last of all, because in himself he will continue to experience the nothingness, the pseudo reality of egoism and sin. Yet even in the darkness of our disposition to evil shines the presence and the mercy of the Saviour.

In my pastoral experience, those furthest down the road to sanctification are the least able to perceive it. They are too busy living a life of holiness, living a life that is focused upon God’s will and work. It is others in the fellowship who note those who shine like stars in the darkness (Philippians 2:15), who most evidence they have been with Jesus (Acts 4:13). They whisper, maybe with awe, “That person is a saint.”

Any person who has believed on and in Jesus Christ, who has placed their faith in him, is counted among the company of the saints. A saint is not someone who has arrived, but someone who is on the way. The further they have traveled, the more brightly they shine. Sainthood is the calling of every Christian, not as a static reality, but as a dynamic relationship with the Savior who sanctifies.

What is our next step? Where do we begin? The answer remains, as Jesus said so long ago, “Come, follow me.”

Creech: To Those Pastoring

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Dr. Robert Creech serves as Hubert H. & Gladys S. Raborn Professor of Pastoral Leadership and as Director of Pastoral Ministries at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. There are several things I like about Dr. Creech. He’s always been friendly to me. He encourages his students to read Wendell Berry and Dallas Willard. He and his wife, Melinda, are restoring an eighty-eight acre portion of their family farm in Floresville, Texas to native prairie. He’s a Master Naturalist. He and his wife also serve as Faculty-in-Residence at Baylor in the North Village Residential Community, and I very much like it that my university has people like Dr. Creech living alongside students. I find this to be a really neat aspect of campus life.

Several weeks ago Dr. Creech published an open letter on his blog addressing those who are pastoring. His exhortations and encouragements are apt, grounded in the witness of Scripture. To summarize, he urges pastors to preach, connect, adjust, practice self-care, share the work, face reality, and to serve in hope (which is distinct from optimism or despair).

He closes with these words:

Pastors, what you men and women are doing has never been more important. Your people need your love, your leadership, and your faithful ministry. The church will need to think carefully about how we do our work in such days as this. How do we preach Christ? How do we demonstrate love for neighbor? How do we serve with compassion? How do we bear witness to a frightened, lonely, world? You, pastors, are called to this. You have been prepared for this. You, with the Spirit’s power, can do this. Be encouraged.

Indeed. Be encouraged.

Is a Livestream a Worship Service?

As we walk through this season of church under quarantine, I think our approach should be much the same as John’s as we instruct our congregations. We ought to pursue continued communication and teaching using the technology available to us. I thank the Lord that we have been able to gather to watch sermons on Sunday morning. Our family has benefited from short updates from our pastors on Instagram and Facebook. I’ve appreciated the chance to FaceTime with students at our seminary. But we all recognize that these interactions are limited.

We can see each other, but we can’t be with each other. There is a big difference, and we feel it every time we log on. I’ve also noticed that many pastors are preaching shorter sermons and sending out short updates. This is because we recognize that a lecture on a screen is, quite frankly, not the best medium for teaching and preaching complex theology or calling people to deep reflection on the gospel. Since we are not gathering as the people of God communing with each other and the risen Christ, I don’t think we should call our Sunday livestreams a “worship service.” We can use a livestream to call our people to worship and to teach from God’s Word, but we have to be honest enough to say that the television in our living room is designed for amusement, not for deep musing on the things of God, let alone a replacement of the means of grace that God has given to his gathered people.

– Chris Bruno writing for The Center for Pastor Theologians, “Real Presence and Social Distancing

Bruno’s underlying point is the correct one: what we’re experiencing now under quarantine is not the ideal means of gathering together as the people of God. The television, the tablet, the screen is a layer of mediation we are better without. But for the present moment, it is the best medium we have.

Contrary to Bruno, I think it is permissible to name what we are doing via livestream or prerecorded webcast a “worship service,” for it is an avenue by which we can be invited to worship God. But it differs from “church” in the sense that the people called church are literally “the called out ones,” the assembly, the gathered fellowship of the saints. Yes, the church is bound together invisibly as a spiritual reality. The church is universal, dispersed across time and space and geography. But it is also expressed locally and personally, physically and tangibly, when bodies come together, joining in one voice, to lift up praises to God and give thanks for the manifold gifts we have received through the gospel.

Some of my earliest forays into writing about church leadership and ministry was to argue against online “church” for the very reasons Bruno cites. I was thinking about this stuff ten years ago. I was a strong proponent of presence as witness, congregation as demonstration, and baptism and the Lord’s supper as vital events for the people of God and in time, acts of testimony, formation, and narration that remind, renew, and root us in the good news that Christ has come, died, redeemed, risen, and now reigns as we await for that day he will return.

In moments like the one we’re in, let’s see online vehicles for gathering and connection as temporary measures that can sustain us until such a time we can once again gather face to face. Let’s develop a deeper appreciation for human connection, for flesh and blood realities, for encountering the other.

Via digital interface, we only see one another in part. When gathered, we see one another face to face, body to body. Via the internet, we know only in part, but when gathered, we are more fully known, until that day comes in which we shall know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). The web helps us to remain connected. When we reconnect, present and in the flesh, let us then rejoice.

What is a Church?

Nearby in Chapel Hill, Ben Williams looked out over the empty pews of Christ United Methodist Church on Sunday and prepared to lead worship, this time into a camera. In living rooms across town, congregants followed along with a liturgy he had sent out.

Maybe, he hoped, by filming the service experience in the sanctuary, complete with music, worship leaders might help normalize things in the midst of things that are not normal. The worship pastor had even written a “Hymn for Handwashing,” to the tune of “Amazing Grace”:

“Amazing soap! How sweet the smell, that keeps our hands germ free! Please wash your hands, and dry them, too, that we might healthy be.”

“It will feel somewhat strange, right?” Mr. Williams said. “What we’ve said is, you are still with us.”

– Elizabeth Dias in The New York Times, “A Sunday Without Church: In Crisis, a Nation Asks, ‘What is Community?’

Sunday did not pass us by without church. The church chose not to gather corporately in their designated buildings for services of worship and witness. The buildings are important. The liturgy is important. Face to face gathering is important. But the church is a spiritual body, called together in Christ and united in the Holy Spirit.

The nation could ask, “What is a Church?” For answers, the church will need to give witness to the nature of community, thinking carefully about the spiritual community God has constituted it to be, testifying to Christ, telling the gospel story, keeping eyes open for the needs of the neighbor, demonstrating love, caring for those who are ill and home bound, sharing resources, praying, offering spiritual leadership within households, showing mercy, seeking justice, and deepening faith in God. Washing hands should be done–that’s wisdom. We can even sing songs about it. But grace has even greater cleansing power, and is the necessary fuel the church will need in order to be faithful to her God-given mission in the world.

Times of crisis serve as times of testing, revealing character, raising critical questions, and creating occasions for radical displays of creativity, innovation, and the depths of the human spirit. Seize the opportunity. Rise to the challenge. And don’t miss the moment. We’re faced with a problem. If you, like me, are part of the church, let’s work at solutions, dispel darkness, and lift high the light of Christ.

Reading George Herbert

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Lord, who hast formed me out of mud,
And hast redeemed me through thy blood,
And sanctified me to do good;

Purge all my sins done heretofore:
For I confess my heavy score,
And I will strive to sin no more.

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charity;
That I may run, rise, rest with thee

– George Herbert, “Trinity Sunday”

“Trinity Sunday” was published in Herbert’s The Temple in 1633. Each morning I read the Bible, a psalm, the daily entry from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and a few pages from one (or more) books that I’m slowly, presently working my way through. Herbert’s poetry is a recent selection. I read at least three of his poems each morning.

“Trinity Sunday” is a very short poem, but contains a vast survey of Christian doctrine, beginning with creation and concluding with eschatological, ultimate hope. Herbert brings to memory that the story of the Bible begins with God bringing order from chaos. In Genesis 2, God forms the first human being from the dust of the ground. In the final line of the poem, Herbert asks for the blessing of union with God. What began as mud now runs and rises and then finally rests with God. Humble origins, and a heavenly hope.

Between Herbert’s mention of first and last things, we encounter the doctrine of salvation. God is the redeemer, having justified Herbert through the blood of Jesus Christ. God is also the sanctifier, the one who sets the priest and poet apart, making him holy for a purpose: “to do good.”

God is then petitioned: first to purge, then to enrich. Herbert repents, asking God to do the cleansing work. He considers his sin a “heavy” thing. Sin, transgression, wrongdoing before a Holy God most certainly is. Yet God removes the weight. Herbert vows to “sin no more.” There is a turning. Only then does he asks God’s blessing, that his “heart, mouth, hands” (his whole person) be strengthened for God’s purposes and in accordance with the classical Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (charity is the traditional rendering; we’re more familiar today with love being mentioned here).

The poem begins and ends addressing the same subject: “Lord” and “thee.” “I” and “my” appear three times; “me” is used four. There is an interplay between Herbert’s “I” and God’s “Thou.” Formed from mud, burdened by sin, Herbert looks to God as Creator, Redeemer, Justifier, Sanctifier, and Sustainer. Herbert looks upon himself, confesses his insufficiencies and inadequacies and faults, and yet he offers himself as a servant, knowing that is the reason God has redeemed and now sanctifies him. He has been caught up and brought into God’s eternal story. He can only play his part with God’s grace, God’s help. The same is true for any who would call upon God today.

I have seen the last three lines of this poem quoted. But those lines become so much richer when they appear alongside and after the first six. To ask God’s help is all the more profound when considered under the full scope of God’s person and work, and to state one’s one weakness, burden, and sin simultaneously serves to humble and uplift. Apart from God, we are quite small and frail, very lost and exposed.

But with God we are united to the source of an unsurpassed and unequaled strength, a strength that works through frailty and weakness and woundedness to make manifest the beautiful gifts of faith, hope, and charity. We are known, and found, and protected, and sent. We are lifted and carried, welcomed and restored.

Putting Our Remarkable Minds to Use

It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us. We need to put our remarkable minds to use and pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.

– A. O. Wilson, Better Living Through Criticism, 12

This brings to recollection a recent conversation with a friend who said that listening to a sermon is one particular time during his week in which he brings the full measure of his mental focus to bear upon an occasion, an event, noticing every word, the tone, nuances, and inflection. He listens, deeply and carefully. The stakes are high. That is why, for him, it is so important that the sermon contain a thread he can follow, one he can learn from. In doing so, not only is he seeking to take the sermon and the person delivering the sermon seriously, he is also putting his mind to use and paying his own experience the honor of taking it seriously.

He’s engaged in criticism. Criticism notes what is lacking, but it also elevates what is worthy of attention, lest we miss it. It is possible to engage in the practice of criticism while being charitable, civil, and even kind. In other words, everyone can be a critic, and in some sense should be. But criticism must be accompanied by other virtues if it is to be Christian.

The sermon is art. So is the essay, the blog post, the photograph, maybe, also, the caption. The job of the sermon, as well as these other art forms, is not only to fill the mind or inform the soul, but to offer and invite us toward freedom–to think, to change, to grow. To be serious.

Once that freedom is received, what we do with that freedom is up to us. The possibilities begin when we put our remarkable minds to use, when we get serious.

I can think of no other subject about which we should be so serious, as well as so joyful, as that of contemplating God and the things of God.

Must Secularism Increase?

On a recent flight I finished reading Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in Distracted Age, which is a really smart book that addresses ways modern American evangelicalism has been shaped by the forces of a rising secularism, and outlines how Christians can respond.

Noble’s analysis draws on the philosophical work of Charles Taylor, who in his mammoth, classic work A Secular Age examines our movement in the past five hundred years or so from living in an enchanted world where most people took God’s existence for granted, to now living in a disenchanted world, where thoughts of God are almost unnatural. Modern life places us in a “default mode” where God is obscured. Taylor calls this “the buffered self.” Modern rationalism, materialism, and scientism form in us ways of thinking that marginalize, if not outright exclude, the spiritual.

As Noble explains the challenges “a secular age” presents for the church and Christian witness, he makes an offhanded remark: “Rather than reverse secularism (which I don’t think is possible until the Lord returns), our task is to identify the harmful outcomes of secularism and reject them.”

While I agree with the task Noble identifies, my larger question is this: Must secularism increase? If it cannot be reversed, can it be checked? And if it can be checked, is it then possible that it could, in fact, be reversed? Theologically speaking, is our only eschatological option one that sees Christianity becoming further embattled (as Noble seems to suggest)? Or is it possible for Christians to realize, once again, that we have the resources to be patient, to wait on the Lord in the midst of the grandest of cultural and intellectual challenges?

Taylor’s observations in A Secular Age show us that the world over a five hundred year span has become less religious, at least in a formal sense. And much of our intellectual and cultural undertakings are now conducted without an acknowledgement, or even a quiet acquiescence, to God or “gods.” But it should be remembered that it took us centuries to get here. Ideas have coalesced in such a way as to cut out the realm of the spirit from public and intellectual life. It has not always been so.

And it may not be so forever. God is steadfast, faithful, and constant, and Christians have all the time they need to continue working out our collective calling as disciples of Jesus. Who is to say what America, not to mention global Christianity, will look like in another five hundred years?

It may be the case that our epistemology, or way of knowing, may shift in such a way as to make room for the concession that there is more to reality than the material. This premise, if accepted, may shift the paradigm, exposing cracks within the prevailing hegemony that dominates intellectual life. And whether by a slow, rising tide or by the in-breaking of a torrent, our way of thinking and experiencing reality may shift. Suddenly, it may not be secularism that is Christianity’s greatest challenge, but rival spiritualities.

In either case, the calling of Christians will remain constant: to continue giving faithful witness to the reality of God as revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not only in our preaching, but in our habits, demonstrating holiness in heart and life.