My unexpected sabbatical: A look back at Cambridge

Cmglee_Cambridge_Corpus_Clock_night There is a clock in the center of Cambridge, England. Actually there are as many clocks in Cambridge as there are churches in Birmingham, Alabama (where I am from). But the clock I am referring to is a special and unusual clock.

The Corpus Clock draws the attention of visitors and residents alike. For one, there are no hands on this clock. In fact, at first glance, one might not know that it is a clock at all! What draws people to it is its unusual appearance. Amongst a sea of brown and grey bricks and stones sits an encased 3-dimensional circle, almost 5 feet across in diameter, plated in 24-carat gold, and worth at least 1 million pounds if not more.

What is even more unusual about this clock is that the time is accurate only once every five minutes. Sometimes the clock slows down and at other times it races forward. Not to mention that what sits on top of the clock is a strange creature that looks like a cross between a grasshopper and a locust. This creature, also known as the Chronophage or “Time Eater,” opens its mouth as if he is eating time and occasionally blinks to show his satisfaction.

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Although the clock isn’t always accurate it truthfully represents our perception of time. For often time feels as if it has slowed down: when school or a work day feels like it will never end; when waiting for an appointment; or when waiting for test results. At other times in life time feels as if it is moving too fast, especially as a parent when you watch your children grow. Yet, no matter whether time has “slowed down” or “sped up,” it nonetheless passes and what is in the past will never be present again. This is why the Time Eater makes such an impression. For it illustrates this reality in a haunting way: time is eaten until it is eventually all gone, evidenced by the Latin inscription that marks the top of the clock: mundus transit et concupiscentia eius (“the world passes away and the lust thereof”) from 1 John 2:17.

One year ago my family packed up what we could fit in six suitcases and moved to Cambridge, England, for six months for my husband’s sabbatical. I’m crying now as I write this. Those were some of the best months of my life!

My husband teaches New Testament at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, and was up for his first sabbatical since being at Beeson Divinity. He was under contract for a new book, The Acts of the Apostles: Essays in Interpretation, History and Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, forthcoming), which meant he wanted to spend his sabbatical at a good, theological library. Cambridge is home to the world’s largest (and best!) evangelical library, Tyndale House, not to mention that by being at Tyndale House he also had access to the Cambridge University libraries.

When our family of three moved to Cambridge, we did so for my husband’s sabbatical. Sabbatical comes from the Latin sabbaticus, which means to cease or take leave from work. You might also recognize the connection with the word Sabbath.

While Osvaldo was taking a paid leave of absence from his work as a theological educator, he wasn’t ceasing from work entirely. Yet, his reprieve from teaching allowed him to do something else that he loved – research and writing.

Then there was me. At that time I was a stay-at-home mom. Moving to England didn’t mean that I was ceasing from my work. I just carried it with me. His name is Philip, and at the time he was three. This won’t be a sabbatical for me, I thought.

What I soon discovered, about a month after being in Cambridge, was that indeed God was gifting me with a sabbatical of my own. But not in the way that you or I would think.

What moving to Cambridge did for me was that it took me out of my comfort zone and gave me a reprieve from expectations, commitments, temptations, cultural priorities, and even idols that came with where I was living. In this way, I was gifted a sabbatical.

The power of contrast allowed me to see those areas in my life and heart that had been controlled by culture or worldly things rather than by God.

Our way of living drastically changed. We were now living in a place without a car, TV, or 4G Internet access away from Wifi hot spots. Our home had no air conditioner, which surprisingly was a problem during the summer months, and no electronic clothes dryer. Part of my daily routine was to hang all of our clothes, towels and sheets! To get anywhere in town we would mostly walk or cycle and occasionally take the bus. This meant spending more time getting around town, which, consequently, meant more time in communication with my son, reflection, and prayer.

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This contrast brought clarity. The Holy Spirit opened my eyes to see those things in my life back home that were superfluous, that created unrest in my life (the opposite of Sabbath), and that were unpleasing to Him. Like looking at my reflection in the glass window of the Corpus Clock, by living in Cambridge the Holy Spirit allowed me to see myself more clearly. In many ways I had been living like that person for whom the Corpus clock is true – as if time was a limited commodity that I had to utilize before the Time Eater ate it up.

I've heard it said, "That’s the thing with idols: when you think you have a control on them that is when they really have control of you." For me, one of those idols was time.

The ironic twist in my sabbatical was that as life became more difficult (no car, TV, clothes dryer, etc) and thereby in many ways more time consuming, as I spent more time in communion with Him, and as time became less of an idol for me, the more time I had. My days felt longer. I had time for tea. For relationships. For conversations. For adventures. As a result, I experienced more freedom.

Within a month, I noticed a change in my spirit. Burdens that were once there, often placed by me, were gone. Life was simpler. Less time was spent caring what others thought, what others were doing and saying on social media, and trying to keep up with Pinterest, while more time was spent visiting parks. (We visited a total of eight while in Cambridge.)

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We took adventures. My first month in Cambridge, I was invited to a tearoom with other moms and children, whose husbands and fathers were studying at Tyndale. Going would mean cycling with Philip almost four miles one way without having a GPS. I screenshot some maps, packed a backpack and our basket on the front of the cycle, and we were off. With the help of several, kind English people, who gave me directions along the way, that little adventure took us down ivy-grown paths, along a river, past open, green fields, into an apple orchard where I eventually sat down for tea and scones with other women while the children played under apple trees.

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Whereas time before Cambridge was rushed and there never seemed to be enough of it, in Cambridge I was finding more time with the cessation of expectations (i.e., making a wreath for my front door or planning parties), material things, and the need to work and be productive all the time. Whereas my time in prayer and Scripture were rushed and not always made a priority before Cambridge, in Cambridge there seemed to be ample time for me to hear from God through His Word, prayer and Christian friendships.

As I reflect on our six months in Cambridge now that I sit back in our home in Alabama, where we have two cars, a TV, 4G Internet, air conditioner (hallelujah!) and an electronic clothes dryer, I am not the same person. Despite my longing to be back in Cambridge to have that way of life once more, God’s unexpected gift to me (and really to my entire family) of a sabbatical has stayed with me. Although I find myself back in a busier culture with different values and temptations than that of England (which has its own temptations and negative values), God reoriented my mind and heart so that I could discern better and easier between what was important and unimportant, what was good and what was stealing my rest and joy, and what was necessary for life and salvation and what was cultural.

As I think back to the Corpus Clock, it strikes me that the inventor of the clock only put the first part of 1 John 2:17. Either he didn’t know the rest of the verse or didn’t believe it. “The world is passing away along with its desires” would leave anyone depressed. Life is frivolous. Life is just a breath. You’ve heard it said, “Drink, eat and be merry for we may only have the night.” I feel that as Americans we often live in this kind of reality. Live this life to the fullest because we all have just “one life to live.” Perform, do, work. Hurry up! Time is passing, and you only have a short amount of time to accomplish so much before you die. In this way, even for the Christian living in the States, life can be hard, restless and pressed from every side.

Yet this is not how the story ends. In Jesus we have a “salvific but” in this verse. The “but” tells us there is an alternative to the prior reality. For some, there is a period after “the world passes away and the lusts thereof,” but in Christ there is a comma. “But whoever does the will of God abides forever.” What is the will of God? Jesus answers this question for us in John 6:29, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” The world may pass away, but those who do his will – believe – will live forever and will never die.

You see, by Jesus Christ destroying sin on the cross and overcoming death in the resurrection, he destroyed the Time Eater. Those who die with Christ – by faith – will be raised to everlasting life. We won’t need a clock that tells us that time is passing by because time will never end. Instead of a Time Eater, we will have a Time Giver: Jesus Christ.

Before I went to Cambridge, I lived by a clock. Now that I am working outside the home full-time, in some ways, I live by the clock even more! But by the grace and mercy of God, the gift of my sabbatical continues. The reality that Jesus gives us is not one that has to wait until we pass from this life to the next; rather, it is one that begins here and now if we allow Him to be first in our life. You don’t need to go to Cambridge, England, to have this kind of sabbatical. As Jesus continues to reorient our hearts so that it is no longer bent inward toward self, time, and the things of this world, but arched outward to Him, He gifts us with rest, freedom and, ironically, more time.

 

 

 

 

 

Homesick for Home

IMG_8425 Four months and some days ago we returned back to the States from having lived in Cambridge, England for almost six months.

I began missing Cambridge the moment the taxi driver drove us out of the city toward London.

It is funny what a place can do to someone. I am homesick for Cambridge, even if it was my home for a brief moment in time. Her streets, churches, colleges, bicycle paths, foliage, river, parks, and people have all left an impression on my heart and mind, and if I close my eyes I am immediately transported back onto her streets on my bicycle soaking in the sights, smells and sounds.

As I continue to reflect on our sabbatical and specifically our time in Cambridge, I am humbled by the many spiritual lessons I have learned. But this particular lesson is one that the Teacher continues to teach and one that I hope He doesn’t stop teaching. And it is this: Cambridge points to something better – a better home.

I have been homesick before. I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, to pursue a masters degree having no immediate family less than seven hours away. In fact, I had no family east of the Mississippi River. I was alone and missing home.

When we were living in Cambridge, I, also, had moments of homesickness, especially around Thanksgiving. Not only did we not have family to celebrate with us, but since Thanksgiving is an American holiday, it was for all practical purposes nonexistent in the world in which we now lived.

Even though I have had these homesick moments before, this time living back in the States missing Cambridge has been different. For one, I have a deep longing to be there. But what makes this homesickness especially different is that every time I think of Cambridge, God redirects my thoughts to the new heavens and the new earth. It is not as if missing and longing for Cambridge is a bad thing (it’s not!), but longing for Cambridge has been the impetus for longing for something better than Cambridge. The Holy Spirit has used Cambridge to point to something better than itself.

For those of us living in places free of persecution, it is easy to romanticize and memorialize this world as if a particular place will bring about inevitable happiness or as if there is truly heaven on earth. When I have had these types of moments with Cambridge when I only remember the good and not the bad, I will talk to some of my American friends living there. By the end of our conversation I am reminded quickly the things that I hated about living in England: no clothes dryer, a hot and cold faucet, high costs of living expenses, not prescribing antibiotics unless you are “dying,” its often impractability, and leaving dishes to dry without rinsing off the soap. To put it succinctly, Cambridge is not perfect.

If I move back to Cambridge tomorrow, I would not necessarily have a better life. To be sure, I would find many things to complain about and I am sure I would be restless at times. I will not have reached heaven on earth. Cambridge, ultimately, would not be my final home, nor would I want it to be.

Yet, coming back from Cambridge reminds me of what it means to long for something better, for something that I love, for a place I want to go. Jesus has redirected my longing for Cambridge to longing for that promised, blessed new earth when all will things will be made right and when all will be at peace and rest because God will be our God and we will be His people. Knowing Jesus has given me a foretaste of what is still to come. His presence has put into my heart a longing for that eternal home.

Cambridge is not my final destination. The new earth, where God and man will dwell together again in perfect peace and love, that is where I am headed. That is where I long. And, until then, I will be homesick for something better than Cambridge. I will be homesick for Home.

"So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil." 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10

"But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city." Hebrews 11:16

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.' And he who was seated on the throne said, 'Behold, I am making all things new.'" Revelation 21:1-5a

Reflections on human-centered preaching

Human centered preaching

When we moved into our rental property this summer in Cambridge, England, our landlord left only a few instructions for us. One of those instructions was how to descale our appliances and how often we should do it.

Descaling appliances? I had no idea what she meant.

It didn’t take long, however, to learn. You see, we have very hard water in Cambridge. So what follows is a simple cause and effect equation. The continuous use of hard water builds up limescale on your appliances.

By the way, I hate hard water. (Just see a picture of our shower head below.)

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Not only does it make the appliances all yucky and green, but also it makes your skin dry, your hair like sandpaper, your clothes rough and your showers difficult to clean.

Another cause and effect at work

Growing up listening to a preacher who preached Christ-centered sermons kept me shielded from what I have since come to experience many times, and that is human-centered preaching. While my dad is not a perfect preacher (who is?), he faithfully preaches Christ week in and week out.

For a long time after I left home and went to college I heard sermons that – from what I know now – were human-centered. It wasn’t until I sat under Dr. Robert Smith Jr. in his preaching class at Beeson Divinity School and read one his required textbooks, Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell, that I could put a name to these types of sermons.

Since then I have purposely kept my ears and eyes open to how these types of sermons were affecting its hearers. When you continuously wash with hard water, you will have limescale buildup. What do you get, then, when a preacher continually preaches human-centered sermons? What effects do these sermons have on people?

What is human-centered preaching?

(Disclaimer: We do not listen to sermons in order to find faults; at the same time we are to listen with discernment.)

Before we go any further we need to know what I mean by human-centered preaching.

First, I believe it refers to a certain kind of hermeneutic used of a biblical text. “Hermeneutic” is a big word, and what I mean by it is how one interprets a biblical text. A human-centered sermon will use the following hermeneutic: “What is in it for me?” This question is the grid through which interpretation and application always flow. And in this way, you and me, are the centerpiece of the sermon; it revolves around us.

Second, human-centered preaching will be heavily weighted with application. If the question, “What is in it for me?” is driving the sermon, then little time will be spent on expositing the text (its context, background information, meaning of words/phrases, genre, etc.) and the majority of the sermon will be application based ("here’s how you should respond"). Also, within human-centered application the responsibility will lie with the person and what he or she should do. It will be heavily works-based. God is not an active participant in the application, and taken in isolation it can be moralistic and secular at worse. Application alone is not bad and sometimes a certain text will be jammed pack with ways we are to respond or things we are to do or not do (just look at the Epistles!). But it is one thing to give application when the text demands it as a response to what Christ has done for us and out of worship of Him. It is another thing to force application void of the gospel and with the intended goal of feeling better about myself or doing it for myself. (As an aside: I wonder if some preachers often feel pressured to jump over the details and the theology of the text because there's an expectation that people would stop listening if the sermon is not mostly about "self-help" techniques.)

Third, connected to the second point, human-centered preaching will have a tendency to use a lot of stories, illustrations and jokes to fill-in space and time. Often, if the time in giving illustrations is longer than the time spent on the biblical text itself, then it is probably a human-centered sermon. I remember very distinctly Dr. Smith talking about the use of illustrations in sermons in our preaching class. Illustrations are to be used rarely and when used they are to be short and to the point. Their purpose is not to be the content of the sermon but rather to reinforce a biblical truth. Often time, however, illustrations can be too much about the preacher. Also, overuse of an illustration is often used to mask a lack of grappling with the biblical text.

Here are some other indicators or tests:

  • Are God and Christ rarely mentioned whereas “I, you and me” are mentioned ad nauseam?
  • Who is the subject of the sermon? Does God take center stage? Is He the object of our worship? Is He the reason we respond in a certain way? Or, is God mentioned as a supporting actor? Is God the means or agent through which we get what we want or become a better person?
  • Is the sermon built around a text from which everything else flows or are biblical texts only used or mentioned to support a point in the sermon?
  • What is the end goal of the sermon? What does the preacher want you to walk away with? If God, the gospel, or Jesus Christ are not a significant part of the goal, application or response then it probably is a human-centered sermon.

What are the effects of human-centered preaching?

First, human-centered preaching feeds into and reinforces a narcissistic, me-centered culture. The gospel cannot co-exist in this kind of culture for it is antithetical to everything that makes the gospel what it is. Denying self is on the complete opposite scale of elevating self, and unless one denies self and acknowledges the sin in our lives then the gospel is rendered insignificant. Preachers, what kind of culture are you creating in your sermons? The effect of human-centered preaching is a culture that is unreceptive to the gospel, and once a church gives into this kind of thinking and living it is no longer particularly Christian. I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to a sermon and thought, perhaps without a few mentions to God and the Bible, this sermon could have been given in any secular context and welcomed.

Second, human-centered preaching results in depressed people. People were not created to turn inward in order to find hope, redemption or healing by looking at self. Rather, just like any other idol, turning inward is destructive. We were made and designed in God’s image to worship God. Preacher, if you believe that salvation comes only from God and by being in relationship with God, then resist the temptation to preach anything else. Unfortunately when people are fed on a diet of human-centered preaching it is like a poison to them and can result in depressed, messed up people.

Third, human-centered preaching gives way to theologically and biblically illiterate people. Pupils of human-centered theology and teaching do not know how to read the Bible any other way. In fact, I have witnessed people under human-centered preaching stop reading their Bibles all together. As a result, they do not know how to think or talk about God anymore, and because of this they are more prone to believing in and spreading false teaching.

To preachers

Preaching every week is a huge responsibility. It can be extremely difficult to prepare a sermon week in and week out in the midst of very busy schedules and needy parishioners, not to mention what’s going on in your personal life. My heart goes out to you, and I pray for you.

Yet, I want to caution you, as a sister who loves the Church and its ministers, to be aware and wary of human-centered preaching. It creeps up so easily because it is in our nature to focus on self.

James writes, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Probably most of us take this warning seriously; perhaps some of us need reminding of it. The effects human-centered preaching have on people is serious, dangerous, and hurtful. To be even more direct with you, I believe human-centered preaching is sinful.

One way to keep us from preaching human-centered sermons is just by being aware of it. Here are some further suggestions I hope will help you to preach Christ, and only Him, instead of a what’s-in-it-for-me sermon.

First, after writing your sermon, review it with the these questions in mind. Circle all the “I, me and you” pronouns and compare their use to the mentions of God in your sermon. Time how long you are spending expositing the text versus giving practical application and illustrations. Is God the subject and object of your sermon or is He just a supporting actor? Is the biblical text so important that you want to spend most of your time there in it or are you trying to move as quickly through the text as possible to get to the application?

If we are honest with ourselves, perhaps part of the problem is that we are not spending time in preparation like we were taught in seminary. Spend time diagramming the sermon in the original language. Read up on different genres. Read reputable (and updated!) commentaries on a particular passage. Read some new biblical theology books that show the continuation of certain themes in Scripture. Spend more time with the text in your preparation than with prepping illustrations and application and it will show in your sermon. What happens in your sermon is a result of the kind of preparation you put into it (another lesson Dr. Smith taught his students).

Second, request feedback. Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C., meets weekly with a leadership team in which he invites and receives feedback on the service and his sermons. Here’s what was written about Dever’s leadership style in The Gospel Coalition:

“Structuring a time into a church leadership's weekly schedule for giving and receiving feedback over Sunday's services teaches men to evaluate, to think, and to love the congregation better. It grows them as leaders. Plus . . .

Be willing to receive criticism. Mark sets the example by inviting criticism. This gives other would-be leaders room to spread their wings. If you never invite criticism, you're teaching everyone around you that they must conform to your preferences or be punished. Leaders don't grow in this kind of environment. They whither or leave.”

Feedback and criticism help keep our sermons and us in check. It is called being held accountable. Listen to your sermon on the following Monday or Tuesday with one or two others and make some notes, just like you would in a preaching class, so that you can be exposed to blind spots where human-centered preaching might exist. Don't be resistant to godly counsel.

Third, Read Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching.

Fourth, instead of asking, “What is in it for me?” ask, “What does the text have to say about God and how does it fit into the story of redemption?” Or, “What can we learn about God and His story of redemption?” Let that question drive your sermons. Don’t approach Scripture with a preconceived idea that you want to impose on it. Rather, in a spirit of humility, submit to Scripture and ask God to show you through His Word what you should say. Then, application should flow naturally out of this.

Lastly, my brother-in-law Alex suggests this question when thinking about application: How is Jesus the solution to the application? He says, "Sometimes I think we can do a great job of exposition and then when we get to the application we revert back to (human) works, which could be just as a travesty as missing the exposition. Our whole sermon should be Christ-centered, not just the exposition."

More of Him, less of us

Parishioners, remember to pray, pray, pray for preachers who communicate God's Word on a weekly basis. Be gracious to them knowing that they are humans like you and will make mistakes. At the same time listen with discernment. From my experience, most preachers preach Christ-centered sermons and are doing a great job of being faithful to the text. However, if you see a pattern of human-centered preaching, then approach the preacher (after lots of prayer!) about this concern, or in some situations, reconsider if you are at the best church. If a pastor preaches regularly human-centered sermons then it is very likely that the church is not being shepherd as a Christ-centered church. In these cases, pray for and seek wisdom and discernment.

Let everything we do, say and preach exhibit the spirit and example of John the Baptist who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn. 3:30)

 

 

God of healing, reconcile!

When the bonds of love are breaking, hands that linked withdraw and hide, eyes that once had met in candor now, distrustful, turn aside, God of healing, reconcile!

When our tongues are silent, sullen, closing doors through which love came, or, when words are fiery arrows wounding others with their flame, God of healing, reconcile!

When the bridges that we travelled have collapsed and left a void, when the chasm seems to widen, separating souls once joined, God of healing, reconcile!

God, in Christ you crossed the chasm when our hearts were far from you! Grant us grace to reach to others, broken bonds repair, renew! God of healing, reconcile!

(Hermann G. Stuempfle Jr., 1923-2007)

What is the love that we Christians have to offer to the world?

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He opened his arms of love upon the cross And made for all the perfect sacrifice of sin.

 

It was my first brush with real hatred.

 

We had stopped at an international supermarket to pick up some plantains on the other side of Cambridge. Osvaldo had gone into the store to pay while I stood outside with Philip and our bikes.

 

“Who built the two towers?” an older gent asked me. He had darker skin tone, and a scarf decorated as his country’s flag hung about his shoulders. I knew he wasn’t English, and, given some peculiar behavior he had already been exhibiting, I assumed he was probably not all there in the mind.

 

“I don’t know,” was my reply. “Who built the two towers?” he pressed again. “I don’t know who built them, sir.” “Your government, that’s who! The same government that has invaded and destroyed my country.” “What country is that?” “Pakistan. You know, us Muslims.” He walked away just as Osvaldo was coming out of the store. I guess by the look of my face Osvaldo could tell something was wrong.

 

It wasn’t just the mere words that shook me up; it was more than that. It was his expression that wore anger and the way he directed his hate for the States at me. He didn’t care who I voted for President of the United States. He didn’t care to know that I couldn’t control the decisions being made by the heads of state. In fact he didn’t care about his hypocrisy as the all-American brand, Apple, was displayed on his body with earphones hanging around his neck, which connected to a device buried in his pocket. He hated America and Americans. He hated me in that moment simply because of my nationality, a factor out of my control. I saw firsthand for the first time the same kind of hate that has wreaked havoc on so many people, and which has caused the death of many.

 

The world needs love.

 

I have been watching, along with many other Americans, what has been going on in Ferguson, Missouri. While some facts are still unclear, it is obvious that there is a hate problem disguised as racism in that city. A white policeman kills an unarmed black teenager shooting him six times from a distance. A police force, which is 97 percent white in a majority black town, uses rubber bullets, tear gas and militarized weapons against its people, who again are mostly black, protesting. The rhetoric used by Ferguson’s police chief is reminiscent of rhetoric used in the 60s by racist Alabama leaders (read here).

 

Just like this Pakistani hated me simply because I am American, so too many people in the States hate people simply because of their race. Some whites hate those who are black, and there are blacks who hate those who are white. Being married to a Hispanic, I know there are many who hate Hispanics.

 

Those who hate are nonsensical; they don’t listen to reason. Those who hate do not care whether or not a person could control their circumstances, because really it isn’t about them anyways. The problem is with the person who engages in hatred. It’s a massive heart problem, a cancer really, that eats away at and eventually kills the person who has it, and unfortunately, can kill those at whom it is directed.

 

The world needs love, but not just any kind of love – the love of Jesus Christ.

 

I wrote last week about the persecution in Iraq, how ISIS members are killing Christians. Even though I didn’t mention them, there are others, most especially Yazidis, who also are facing death and persecution by ISIS members. Again, there is so much hate.

 

Hate. It was there in the beginning when Cain killed Abel. Hate. It knows no cultural, race, language, sex, or age bounds. We live in a world drowning in hate.

 

Love seems almost too obvious an answer to the problem of hate, but it is an answer held by both Christians and non-Christians alike. We sing the catchy lyrics, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of,” but is the love that the world speaks of the same as what Christians have to offer? In fact, what is love?

 

In 1993, an artist by the name of Haddaway asked the same question in his song, “What is love?” Made popular by Saturday Night Live, the song went like this: “What is love? Baby, don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me no more.” (Thanks to me, the song is now stuck in your head, isn’t it?!) What is love? Love is how you treat someone. It’s the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do onto you. It is, “Baby, don’t hurt me.”

 

These examples (and there are many more!) assume the answer lies in man, that somewhere deep inside is enough goodness and strength to overcome hate and produce love (Oprah, Dr. Phil, Ellen). Yet, the world cannot answer for us what compels someone to love unconditionally. The love the world speaks of is easy enough for their friends but is it powerful enough to love his/her enemies? From where does the power come to turn hate into love?

 

For the Christians, the traditional love answer has been 1 Corinthians 13. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” Equally as important to the Christian are the two greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with all of you and love your neighbor as yourself.

 

The problem when these Scriptures are our starting point for defining love or when we isolate them from the rest of the canon is that we might begin to think that love is determinant on the actions of humans alone. Taken alone, the emphasis on love focuses on our response and behaviors we are to exhibit. And in isolation, this definition of love is not all that different than the world’s. Our definition and their definition collide making it difficult to tell which is which.

 

This is why, then, we must start our definition of love with this: “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).

 

We can love God and others because He showed us what love is first. He teaches us what love is, and He enables us to love. When we read Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees about the greatest commandment, we must go back to Deuteronomy where the commandment was originally given. What we find there is, “Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. … You shall therefore love the Lord your God and keep his charge …” (Deut. 10:15, 11:1). (See also Deut. 7:7-11.)

 

We love because he first loved us.

 

And how did God first love us? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him will have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16). It’s the most quoted verse in Scripture for good reason. God’s love for us was not just a lofty idea or principle. It took on flesh. It became concrete. It was active and not passive. It was sacrificial.

 

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us …” (1 Jn. 3:16).

 

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8).

 

What is the love we preach and give to the world? It is that while we were God’s enemies fully deserving of death Christ died for us so that in Him we might be reconciled to God and be forgiven. This is love! How can we love God with all we got and love our neighbor as our self? Because we have been transformed by His love. His love compels us to love. His love is at work in our lives giving us the power to love, to love our neighbor as ourselves and to love those who hate us. And once clothed with Christ, the Holy Spirit dwells within us transforming our inability to love to an ability to love -- the love that we see in 1 Corinthians 13.

 

The world knows hate. That’s why they must be given and see love as it is defined and personified in the person of Jesus Christ from Scripture: We deserved to be hated by God; we choose to sin and to be His enemies. Yet when we least deserved it, Christ died for us. A love that the world gives will only go so far because we humans cannot find the power to overcome hate and sin within ourselves. We humans can love the lovable on our own – our friends and family – but we do not hold the power to love the unlovable, those who hate us.

 

No amount of good deeds, social justice, and United Nation meetings will solve hate. People need to hear the love of Jesus.

 

This is why, Christians, we are commissioned to preach the cross and are bequeathed a ministry of reconciliation:

 

“For the love of Christ controls or compels us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

… Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:14-15, 17-21)

 

Let’s preach this love to the world. Let’s show this love to the world. Let’s practice this love with one another, knowing that the ability to love doesn’t reside in ourselves but in the power of God who has shown us what love is all about. A love that is preached or demonstrated devoid of the cross is only a poor attempt at and a poor representation of love.

 

I want to conclude with the words of this beautiful Christian hymn:

 

The world’s only loving to its friends,

But you have brought us love that never ends;

Loving enemies too,

And this loving with you

Is what’s turning the world upside down.

 

 

Should we critique where there is heresy?

(For the Introduction, read it here.)  

Does what you say matter? Are your words of value or importance?

 

I'd like you to think about this. Can we ascribe any weight to words or the people behind the words?

 

I would like to think so! Otherwise I have no reason to talk or to expect anyone to listen to me. When I look at history, I find that this is most certainly the case that words do matter. When we elect a president of the United States, we do so mostly based on words (promises) spoken. We follow authors, speakers and preachers because we like what they say or how they say it (style). Whether for good or evil, nations and thousands of people are led one way or another by words, just look at Hitler for example. And it is their words that tell us something about who they are. Words, among other things, are someone's ideas verbalized; the origin of words spoken is with the person who speaks them. What someone says is a window into his or her beliefs, heart and personality. Agree?

 

So why is this important? And, how is this relevant to me (our favorite post-modern question!)?

 

A few weeks ago a young evangelical tweeted, "Rarely critique people, even if you think their ideas are heretical. People are eternally more valuable & treasured by God than their ideas."

 

This tweet is not just a random, thoughtless belief. Rather, I have been reading this kind of rhetoric and sensing this attitude for quite sometime among many in the young so-called evangelical camp. This tweet is a great, concise example of the idea looming that there is a dichotomy between people and their words. I remember reading a blog once where the author wrote a response to all the criticism she had been receiving about something she said. She was complaining that in their critiques people were missing that she was a good person. She was in fact a different person than what her ideas portrayed her as. What she said was thus different from the person she was.

 

This is an Enlightenment idea, and it is a dangerous idea to hold as it relates to truth.

 

Let's look at this tweet closer, not to pick on the person who tweeted it, but because, again, it serves as a great and concise example of what is being said and taught by many others. So here it is again:

"Rarely critique people, even if you think their ideas are heretical. People are eternally more valuable & treasured by God than their ideas."

 

Questions raised:

1. Are our personhood/identity and our words/ideas two complete and different entities? According to her, they are. She makes a dichotomy between someone's ideas and his or her personhood. It does not matter what someone says, even if it is heresy, because of their value to God. What someone says and thinks can stand apart and alone from who the person is, and who we are trumps what we say and think. How can she make this case?

First we must ask, What is heresy? Heresy, in church history, was a word used to describe those who subscribed to beliefs contrary to orthodox Christian beliefs. I mentioned two examples in a previous post, but will mention them again. There was Arius, who argued that Jesus was not fully God or divine, and then there was Marcion who argued that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God of the New Testament. Marcion wanted to cut out half of the New Testament. These men were called heretics. Modern examples of heretical beliefs are those held by Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, which would include beliefs that contradict the deity and humanity of Jesus and the gospel of salvation that says salvation alone is in Jesus Christ and in his death and resurrection. Heresy thus speaks to ideas that debunk the identity and personhood and work of God as found in Scripture. Heresy is anti-triune God beliefs.

Second, What does it mean to be "eternally valued and treasured by God"? Since this language isn't used in Scripture, I am unsure as to what she means by this phrase. But if I were to take a guess, it would speak of someone who is a child of God through faith in the resurrected Jesus Christ. The word eternal means forever, so if God holds someone as his eternal treasure then this is someone who will spend eternity with Him. So how can someone who speaks and holds to ideas that are heretical be someone that God eternally treasures? Wouldn't this mean then that God is comprising or contradicting Himself?

One way this is possible is by believing that what you say and think stands apart from what you believe or who you are in God. Thus your words and ideas do not change the relationship you have with God through Jesus because your words and ideas take a life of their own. The other way this would be possible is if you accept a universal doctrine that says everyone, no matter what they say, believe or do on this earth, will ultimately be restored to God, i.e. obtain salvation. Therefore it doesn't matter if someone speaks heresy or if someone preaches a different gospel; what matters most to God is that these are people "eternally valued and treasured" by Him.

The problem with this view is that this is not the view of the Bible (not to mention it is self-contradicting). The Bible describes people as complete beings whose words are a mirror of what is in the heart and therefore what one believes. And what one believes affects the way one lives, and the way one lives gives proof whether he or she is a child of God. In Psalms and Proverbs the one who speaks lies and deceit is a fool. The Bible doesn't say that the person is "eternally valued and treasured by God" even though what they say is destructive to truth. Rather, what they say is an indictment on who they are -- fools!

"The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near." Prov. 10:14 "The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool." Prov. 10:18 "The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of sense." Prov. 10:21 "The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse." Prov. 10:32 "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight." Prov. 12:22 "A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly." Prov. 12:23 "A wise son hears his father's instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke." Prov. 13:1 "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer." Psalm 19:14 "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good." Psalm 14:1 and 53:1

Clearly words matter in the Scriptural witness. Does calling someone who speaks lies, deceit, and slander a fool, fit within this belief that we shouldn't critique someone because they are valued by God? Does calling someone who is wicked and a scoffer fit within this belief? No! I bet if we called someone today a fool or a scoffer because of what they were saying, we would receive public shaming. Scripture's directness does not fit well in our "politcally-correct" world.

The view of Scripture is that we are complete human beings, whose words reflect what is in the heart and what kind of relationship we have to God. If we speak lies and deceit, if we do not listen to rebuke, if we preach something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are fools and fools do not know God (Ps. 14:1, 53:1).

2. Should Christians critique each other's words and ideas? According to this tweeter, the answer is no. She commands to "rarely critique" because by doing so we are hurting or contradicting the value and relationship he or she has with God. (Actually by tweeting what she did makes it difficult for anyone to critique her or what she said because then we would be opposing God who values and treasures her above what she says or tweets. And I wonder what situation would allow for a critique since she doesn't say never but "rarely"?) But what does Scripture say?

Scripture makes clear that it does matter what you say, that it is not OK to speak heresy and that we are to constantly rebuke, critique and reprimand in love when what someone is teaching is not in line with the truth and is leading others astray. Let's look at a few examples.

  • Matthew 16:21-23. After Jesus told his disciples that he would be killed but on the third day raised, Peter rebuked Jesus. But Jesus turned the rebuke around to Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man."
  • Acts 13:4-12. While Barnabas and Saul were out preaching the gospel they encountered a false prophet, Bar-Jesus, who "opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith." But Saul "filled with the Holy Spirit" rebuked him and said, "You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?"
  • In 2 Timothy Paul mentions two men by name and references others who are preaching different gospels and trying to  deceive others. "Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some" (2:17-18). And later in 3:8, "Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith." In the middle of these two references, Paul tells Timothy, "And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will" (2:24-26). Although Timothy is to correct in love and kindness, he is still to correct. And these men who are leading others astray, preaching something contrary to the gospel, are captured and enslaved by the devil, doing his will. Just like the two above examples, anytime someone is opposing the work or Word of God by what they say that person is associated with Satan and his work.

There are many other examples in Scripture of correcting, rebuking and "criticizing" the ideas, words and teachings of others that are contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ (see the book of Jude and 2 Peter). What this young tweeter says is actually contrary to the teaching of Scripture. So either you can rarely criticize because you believe that everyone no matter what they say is "eternally valued and treasured by God," or you can offer critiques when necessary because you know that those who claim there is no God (i.e., Jesus isn't fully God, there is salvation outside of Jesus) are fools and need to be rebuked.

2 Timothy 3:16 says, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." And, "Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths" (2 Tim. 4:2-4).

 

3. Does it matter if someone teaches or speaks something contrary to the Word of God, especially when he or she claims to speak as a Christian with biblical authority?

As you read about how Christianity spread after the resurrection of Christ in the New Testament, you will soon notice that it spread as the Word of God went out. Prayers were not necessarily being offered for people to come to know Christ. Rather the prayers in the New Testament centered around the Word of God, that the Word of God might find open doors and go forth (e.g., Col. 4:3-4, 2 Thes. 3:1). For the early church understood that as the Word, which is "the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18) and "breathed out by God" (2 Tim. 3:16), went forth people would be saved.

So to teach something other than this Word or to contradict His Word is to oppose the One who breathed out the Word and who is the Word.

(For other references about the Word of God going forth or the warnings against false teaching, see Acts 4:3, 29, 31; 6:2, 4; 8:4; 12:24; 13:44, 48-49; Col. 2:8; 1 Thes. 1:5-6, 8; 2:2, 8-9, 13; 2 Thes. 1:7-9; 2:1ff; 1 Tim. 1:3-7, 10-11, 18-20; 6:3-5. This is not a comprehensive list, but rather a sampling.)

 

Concluding thoughts:

Near the beginning of this post I said that the ideas in this tweet are dangerous to hold as it relates to truth. I hope you see now that this tweet, the ideas implied in it and what it represents is a post-modern belief of relative truth. Truth is relative; in fact it is so relative we shouldn't critique what anyone says or thinks. Truth is not what matters most to God; we matter most to God. There is no place for judgment, exclusion or harshness in God's love for us.

 

This definition of love, although not new, is spreading like gangrene among many younger so-called evangelicals. I've seen it heavily in Rachel Held Evans, for example. (By the way, my husband comments to me that the sermon preached at that liberal church that I mentioned in the Intro., sounded an awful lot like Rachel Evans. She acts as if her ideas are something new, but they are just really old liberalism.) This definition assumes we are lovable and deserved to be loved and nothing can change our standing with God. It is pleasing to the ears and fits well in our post-modern understanding of truth, but it is not the truth. I don't know if the person behind our tweet knew what she was saying or if she holds to relativism or universalism. But when we accept pithy sayings without thinking through them carefully or when we put together pithy sayings without thinking through them carefully, we can put forth ideas that are contrary to Scripture and that are life-endangering. Relativism and universalism are gospel killers, and we must expose and oppose them when we see them creeping into our churches and greater Christian community.

 

As Christians, we need the greater Christian community to challenge, correct, critique and sometimes rebuke us in order to keep us -- all of us (our ideas, words, beliefs, and actions) -- in the center of truth. We need to be sharpened, iron to iron, so that the Word of God might go forth unhindered to those in desperate need of the gospel of grace. We need to be wise sons and daughters who submit to correction and rebuke. Let's not be fools who refuse to listen or to be reprimanded.

 

We also need to resist the urge to say whatever it is we want to say through social media without carefully thinking through it and examining it according to Scripture. We must be aware that social media is a breeding ground for thoughtless, off-the-cuff soundbites that can spread to thousands within seconds with Retweets (RTs) and Modified Tweets (MTs) here and there. Last time I checked, this tweet had many RTs within minutes by people who, without thinking, thought it sounded good.

 

If what we say matters and if we truly believe that our words carry importance, then we must submit to correction when what we say is not founded in truth. We must resist this desire to be able to say whatever we want to say without ramifications or consequences.

 

Rather, critiques, if given and received well, have the potential to protect us from spreading false teaching, from becoming puffed up or conceited, and from error. Positively speaking, critiques help sharpen us, make us better communicators, and protect us from leading others astray. 

 

For in the end, y'all, it's not about us. It. Is. Not. About. Us! It is about Him and His gospel of forgiveness of sins, and if we are misrepresenting either of these two then let's stand corrected. Instead of worrying about being valued and treasured, let's be called the fools we are when we say foolish things so that we might become wise sons and daughters.

An Intro: Should we critique where there is heresy?

The morning started out hopeful. It was our 2nd Sunday to be in Cambridge, England and we could hear the bells of a nearby church ringing from our 3rd floor bedroom alerting us that the worship service was about to begin. We left our home to walk two blocks over to the parish church. Once at the church, we filed singly behind each other on a little stone path that took us to the church door through its small church graveyard. We were hopeful that this parish church so close to our new home would turn out to be a gospel-centered Anglican church.  

The service was pleasant as we read liturgy, sung songs from the hymnal, confessed our sins and listened to an Old Testament reading, a reading from the Psalms, and a New Testament reading. All was well until the preacher stood up to give a homily on the Gospel reading -- Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, also known as the parable of the weeds. As is well-known, this parable speaks about the eternal destiny of human beings. Those who accept the kingdom of God through Christ go to eternal rest; those who reject, go to eternal torment.

 

She began with an apologetic attitude, that is apologizing for the seemingly harshness of the text. She then gave two possible readings or interpretations of the passage. We could either take an "individualistic" reading and take the text to mean that some are saved and others are not and destined for hell, which she called an "elitist approach," or we could understand it symbolically that weeds and wheat exist in every person. She took this second reading and said we are to accept the weeds in our life and know that when the Lord comes he will get rid of these weeds. It doesn't matter then how we are to live but rather we are to live in the knowledge that He loves, forgives and one day will redeem us. In the end, she said we will all be OK, regardless of our beliefs or actions in this life.

 

There we sat witnessing for ourselves what we have read so much about -- a truly liberal, universalist church teaching experience. So people like Hitler are saved no matter that he lived like the devil and died unrepentant?, we wanted to ask. So what's the purpose of church or of Christianity if everyone is saved and if it doesn't really matter how we are to live? What is the motivation of being a minister? It took everything within me not to storm out or to speak up. After all, according to her label I am an "elitist" because I take Jesus at his word. She can incorrectly label me all she wants, but what burned me up the most was the way she treated God's Word and twisted it to make it say what she wanted to say. She destroyed the gospel, and she was leading people to hell right along with her. And you know what? That church is dying, because liberal theology destroys the life-giving gospel and takes a road away from God to hell.

 

I just finished writing a blog post that I intended to post today. In God's perfect timing I would experience for myself the very thing I address in this post! Now more than ever I am determined with fire flowing through my veins to call out liberalism when I see or even sense the beginnings of it. My heart is burdened for the Church that false teaching and doctrine will be brought to light. Brothers and sisters, join with me in praying that we would be protected from this doctrine that teaches that YOU are the gospel, that you are not in sin, that it doesn't matter what you say or do, that there is no truth but the truth of love that saves you in the end no matter what you believe.

 

The post to follow is long, but it speaks to an issue that God has burdened my heart with greatly and, as I experienced today, is indeed relevant.

 

A Fool Says There Is No God and Many Other Things