A gospel message for modern America

I delivered this as part of the sermon at church today. It borrows heavily from a passage in Paul Zahl’s ‘Who Will Deliver Us?’. Here in the increasingly post-Christian west, in the popular consciousness today, the idea of sin carries very little weight. I think sometimes, perhaps even often, it is going to be more effective and arresting to speak of the crushing weight of stress, expectations, and performance-ism than the crushing weight of the righteous law. In the end, they are two sides of the same coin and our rebellion against either can rightly be called “justification by works”. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of sin, but when speaking about it directly is going to largely result in miscommunication, than we need to be able to also proclaim news to people that is more immediately recognizable as good. This is one possible angle to take.

Let’s start by considering some of the everyday problems of living. Let’s consider the problem of stress. Talk to any parent of small children, any college student, any one working two jobs or even one job or caring for an elderly parent, any person trying to make it in any business, heck, any person living in the USA today and you will hear about stress. But what is stress anyway? Stress is pressure caused by the convergence of strong and conflicting claims upon the self. If for example, we feel pressure to perform at peak efficiency at work, and to be an attentive partner to our spouses and an engaged parent to our children, we will most certainly experience stress. How can we balance the strong conflicting claims upon our time and energy? Add to this the desire to have time for our own interests or hobbies, or just things that we think are interesting or cool, and we will have a very hard time reconciling the demands. This type of stress is familiar to many of us.

And it’s much worse in a time like our own when what we’ll call the “law of capability” is in force. This is the law that judges us wanting if we are not capable, if we can’t handle it ALL, if we are not competent to balance our diverse commitments without a slip. We have to be good at ALL THE THINGS or we are judged to be losers. We are filled with dread that we won’t be able to keep all the plates spinning.

Back in the 80s, Pulitzer winner Ellen Goodman gave a commencement speech where she described the ideal model woman of today something like this. She gets up at six-thirty in the morning and jogs five miles. At seven-thirty she cooks a totally nourishing breakfast for her husband and two beautiful children. By eight-thirty the children have left for school, her husband to his office, and she is on the way to her incredibly demanding job: she is an advertising director for a major company. All day long she attends meetings and makes important decisions. When she finally arrives home, it is quite late because she had to attend a board meeting for a community-service organization of which she is the chairman. But she does not get home too late to fix her children an excellent supper. She helps both of them with their homework and has meaningful good-nights with each. Yet she still has energy left to prepare a gourmet, candlelit supper for herself and her husband. As the day comes to an end, the model woman has a totally fulfilling yet deeply honest sexual relationship with her admirably sensitive husband.

Whew. Now we may be able to rationally look at that and say it sounds silly, but I think that most of us, most of the time, are under an unwritten pressure to perform like that.

Under the law of capability, the model woman, like any of us, is bound to sicken. We are all simply human. Stress, comes from all these different claims upon the self. Ultimately, stress involves a religious problem. The problem underlying our need to reconcile conflicting demands is this: What establishes my identity? What IS my identity? Who the heck am I? That’s very much a religious question.

Many of us act as if the answer to this question were performance – what we DO. If I can do enough of the right things, I will have established my worth. Identity is the sum of my achievements. Hence, if I can satisfy my boss, meet the needs of my spouse and children, and still do justice to my inner aspirations and dreams, then I will have proven my worth. There are infinite ways to prove our worth along these lines. The basic equation is: I am what I do. It is a religious position in life because it tries to answer in practice terms, the question, “Who am I and what is my niche in the universe?” This popular position says, my place in the universe is in proportion to my deeds.

You ready for this? In Christian theology, such a position is called “justification by works”. It assumes that my worth is measured by my performance – what I do. Conversely, it conceals a terrible and ghastly fear: If I do not perform, I will be judged unworthy. I will be worthless. To myself I will cease to exist.

What is the antidote to this deeply entrenched crushing expectation that the world squashes us with? This is the spirit of our age. It is not something we can work our way out of. It is not something we can think our way out of. It is only something that we can be rescued from by a powerful outside force that is completely independent of ourselves.

The Good News, is that God, the creator of all living things, has done this very thing, this rescuing, in the person of Jesus Christ. He died for us while we were clearly unworthy. And he has promised to deliver us from death for no good reason at all, except that he loves us dearly. That is the good news.

What I think I need is more money, more time, more energy, less sinning, but no, what I really need is Jesus – God himself.

The great Christian philosopher Soren Kirkegaard said: “And this is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity; that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.” That is, the opposite of doing it wrong isn’t doing it right, it’s faith – faith in someone else to do it right. Faith in the only one who can do it right.

You may not understand what all that it entails, but today, whether you are old in the faith, or young in the faith, or on the fringe of faith, or outside of the faith. Put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, your savior, the eternal King.

Against nostalgia for the parish


I’m tired of being shamed from the pulpit for not befriending/investing in/ministering to my physical block-level neighbors. I literally NEVER see these people – ever. It’s just the reality of the modern city, at least as I have experienced it in the USA. I have circles of acquaintances at church, at work, with regulars at the coffee shop and the park, and with my family scattered around the world. I have precisely zero interaction with the people that live more than one house down the street from me in any direction. I’ve lived in the same house now for seven years and in the same city for 16 years and there has been no variation in this. To engage these physical neighbors would required a forceful awkward action on my part, and to continue to engage them would require heaps of creepiness. I suspect that many with an ounce of tact know this, but yet we often nod our heads whenever the preacher or the latest book on evangelism or non-traditional church community exhorts us to witness to our physical neighbors or conjure up a block party. It’s not gonna happen, at least not with the way our cities, jobs, and families are currently set up.

Some of churches I know of, including several in my town, decided to chop up their small groups by “parish”, that is, by their physical location within town, with lines that are very similar to those used for school district zoning or voting districts. The idea is to harken back to the way parishes effectively existed for centuries in the Christian west. But of course the whole thing is contrived and the people in the small groups will unconsciously resist this sort of (previously natural but now unnatural) grouping. At the end of the day, who are you going to hang out with? The family that shares your interests and who has kids the same age as yours, that likes to watch the Seattle Seahawks and that lives a 5-minute drive from your house, or the single German grad student in Biology who just happens to live in an apartment 3 blocks away and who sometimes attends your church?

For starters, denominationalism has made the idea of a local physical parish a complete lost cause. Forget cars and compartmentalized specialist jobs and everything else Wendel Berry laments. The fact that the people on my block attend at least 5 different churches (some in the next city over) and many take part in no church at all makes any thought of making the parish (Latin ‘parochia’, dwelling beside) meaningful hopelessly broken. I can’t fix this and I can’t push back on it in a substantial way either. I get a hundred times more mileage investing time and energy into the people I do meet naturally day-to-day. For better or worse, in the modern west, the parish is now a web, not a circle. Maybe you live somewhere (an isolated midwest small town or a tiny village in Honduras) where the parish model still makes sense. Great! Maybe you are that one guy ministering to a collective of artists living in an experimental rent-controlled apartment. Cool – whatever. Maybe some day the parish model will work again here, but not today. So how about let’s spend our energy on something other than pining away for this nostalgic model of pre-automotive Christendom. No I don’t really like it either and it’s really too bad that it’s gone, but we have a lot of foundational things to change if we want to recover the parish and it’s benefits. We can’t just dictate them out of thin air.

Misc Notes on Robert Louis Wilken’s The First Thousand Years

I recently finished reading Robert Louis Wilken’s rich overview of church history. It was well written and packed with a lot of core information – very little fluff and very few rabbit trails. Ultimately though, as is the case with most histories, especially ancient ones, it focused a bit too much on kings, emperors, and popes. I’d love to read something that took a closer look at life on the ground level for the average Joe, if such a thing exists or is even possible.

Of the thirty plus chapters, only three dealt with topics that I was familiar enough with personally to be aware of what was cut out for brevity. (Those would be the chapters on Celtic Christianity, Ethiopia, and the development of the Apostles Creed.) Assuming that just as much was abridged from the other chapters (and this was not a short book), it serves to make one aware of how much more there must have been going on behind the scenes.

The following are assorted passage I found of interest while reading.

On the origin of Christian art and how it is nearly always story-telling.

In constructing a catacomb with chapels and altars as well as tombs Christian leaders had more in mind than a place of burial. The dead created for the first time a Christian space that bound the community together over time, knitting the tremulous present to the grander past and forging solid and stable feelings through collective memory. And it is in this setting, where the irresistible ravages of time and mortality were most palpable, where hope was joined to memory, that the first Christian art is found. “Dead,” as Wallace Stevens wrote, “is the mother of beauty.”

Christian art tends toward narrative, the telling of a story, the depiction of events from biblical history. Even if the artist pictured only a single event, such as the denial of Peter, the event was understood as part of a larger story. On occasion Christian artists used symbols, for example, a lamb or a cross, but these are exceptions, and as we shall see later in discussing the controversy over icons, there came a time when symbols were discouraged, even prohibited. Further, unlike later Islamic art with its love of calligraphy, Christian art seldom includes scriptural texts. Though the Scriptures include the poetry of the Psalms, the moral precepts of the Proverbs and Sirach, and the letters of Saint Paul, the Bible is first and foremost a book of history, the history of the people of Israel and of Jesus Christ and the first Christian communities. So it was to this history, and the persons and events who appear in the biblical stories, that Christians turned when they wished to decorate their churches.

Some “Christian bakeries” (as some journalists phrased it) were in the news recently for refusing to bake wedding cakes for homosexual couples. More accurately, these were retail bakeries that happened to be owned and operated by Christians. But it turns out that the church has a long history owning and operating bakeries, to provide food to the poor.

Papyri from Egypt give tangible evidence of the administrative structures that had been set up to distribute aid to the needy. In the city of Oxyrhynchus, twenty-five miles south of present-day Cairo, four memos were issued on one day ordering that the widows of three churches were to receive one diploun (three to four liters) of wine, and widows of another church were to receive five diploun. On another day the “holy church” of Oxyrhynchus instructed Peter, the steward of the church, to provide a widow named Sophia with a coat. Churches kept lists of widows who needed assistance. These provisions were not random acts of charity; they were part of an organized and regular system for providing food and clothing. In these cities the responsibility for overseeing the care of widows was taken over by a group of laywomen known as the “women of the widows”. Significantly, the most common commercial property owned by churches was a bakery.

The most impressive evidence of the presence of Christianity in ancient China is a large stone monument discovered in the seventeenth century on the precints of a temple in Sian-fu, not too far from Xi’an. The monument of black limestone is ten feet high and three and a half feed wide, with seventeen hundred Chinese characters, interspersed with Syriac words and Syriac names with Chinese characters indicating how they are to be pronounced. It was erected in 781 on the site of a monastery of the Church of the East.
Besides this… a cache of Christian documents was found in a walled-up chapel in Tunhuang early in the nineteenth century. These include writings in Chinese by Christian monks, some translated from the Syria, others original contributions. There is a hymn in adoration of the “Transfiguration of our Lord”, a work entitled Jesus Messiah Sutra that outlines the fundamental teachings of Christianity, a Discourse on the Oneness of the Ruler of the Universe, and another on almsgiving. According to those who have studied them, these writings are difficult to understand because they were written by someone who did not know Chinese well. Nevertheless, they show that Christian monks were consciously attempting to present Christianity in a way that would be intelligible to Chinese. For example, they emphasize virtues such as ancestor worship, filial piety, even veneration of the emperor. Other documents written 150 years later display a surer knowledge of the Chinese language, a more accomplished literary style, and skillful presentation of Christian beliefs.

I love that we have records of some early missionary trying to hack his way through learning a foreign language. If you were trying to learn Chinese from scratch with no reference materials, of course you would suck! But these monks kept trying and it paid off. They got better over time. It’s also interesting that in their early attempts to communicate the gospel, local beliefs and ideas (or at the very least vocabulary) was mixed in to try and get the point across. This resulted in syncretism of course, but a temporary and fading syncretism – the best kind! It’s unfortunate that this strain of Christianity was wiped out in a later century.

A keen early observation regarding Islam:

The earliest recorded comment of a Christan reaction to Muhammad dates from ounly a couple of years after the Prophet’s death. When tales of a prophet amont the Arabs reached Christian Syria, someoe asked an old man, “What can you tell me about the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens?” The old man groaned deeply and said, “He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword.”

[Alcuin’s] most enduring achievement [around 800 AD] was the introduction of a new and more uniform script, what is known as the Carolingian or Caroline minuscule. In the ancient world, Latin manuscripts had been written soley in capital letters, without punctuation or divisions between words and sentences. To read aloud publicly required great skill and preparation. The new script used small letters, called minuscules, as well as capital letters, majuscules, to mark the beginning of a sentence or a new train of thought. Clearer and more legible, simpler to write, friendly to the reader, it quickly became the standard for the copying of books. Punctuation was added, including commas and periods, and the question mark appears for the first time. Manuscripts from this time begin to resemble the printed page of a modern book.

I guess if you have studied printing at all you know all about the monk Alcuin, but this was new to me. The idea that centuries of early writing happened without spaces between sentences or words is kind of mind-blowing.

A funny anecdote about Christianity’s inherent friendliness to drinking:

An account of Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity is told in a colorful story in The Russian Primary Chronicle, a work made of different sources from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. According to the chronicle, Vladimir received visits from representatives of the several religions practice by neighboring peoples. First came a group of Muslims from the Bulgars. When Vladimir asked them to explain their faith to him they said they believed in God, practiced circumcision, ate no pork, and drank no wine. When he hears what they had to say, the told them that circumcision and abstinence from pork were disagreeable to him. As for drinking, that “is the joy of the Rus. We cannot exist without that pleasure.”

On the broad cultural expressions of Christianity – only the core of it is monolithic:

The global outreach of Christianity in the early centuries is a testimony to its cultural adaptability and diversity. Christianity as practiced among the Armenians differed from the ways of the Greeks or Ethiopians. Of course, the Armenians, Greeks, and Ethiopians had much in common: they were governed by bishops; they fostered monastic life; they baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit; they confessed the Creed of Nicaea. But the difference in language, customs, liturgical practices, architecture, and art gave birth to distinctive spiritual and cultural forms of life across the Christian world. When the Crusaders arrive in the East to free their fellow Christians from the yoke of Islam, they had great difficulty recognizing and understanding the way Easter Christians lived and prayed.

Textbook accounts of Christianity preset its history as a tale of continuous growth and expansion. By a selective choice of periods, events, and geographical regions the conventional account (seen from the perspective of Europe and North America) gives the impression that Christianity is always moving forward. Seen in global perspective that picture is illusory. If on injects in this sanguine narrative the spread of Islam, things take on a different coloring. Set against the success of Islam and its staying power, the career of Christianity is marked as much by decline and attrition as it is by growth and triumph.

At one point ~50% of Christians lands had been conquered by Islam, but then it bounced back. We should not be dismayed if we have to live through some kind of decline. The acceptance of Christ as Lord among the nations has always been in a combination of small growth, lurches, and occasional setbacks.