From the Archives: To Lay Down The Sword

The following post was originally published on September 20, 2010. As I am currently working on a second post on the subject, I thought I would revisit this one.

Carson T. Clark’s latest blog post has helped to crystallize some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head for a while, particularly this portion:

“I specifically have in mind childhood conflict. (Isn’t this the reason Lord of the Flies  is so powerful?) A college friend of mine recently put up a facebook status about how  his kindergarten daughter defended herself by slugging a bully right in the eye on the playground. As a loving father, his gut response was to be delighted that she stood up for himself. “That’s my girl!” But he later got to thinking about whether or not it’s right to encourage that. He didn’t say it publicly, but I suspect he got to thinking about the incongruity of his response with his professed theological beliefs.”

These thoughts that I’ve had rolling around center on the idea that a devoted follower of Christ has received a call to lay down the sword. This can particularly be seen in Christ’s statement in Matthew 26:52,

“Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

As I work through some thoughts on pacifism, let me start by addressing several things.

1) I have nothing but the utmost of respect for those who serve our nation through military service. My father and uncle both served in the Navy, as did my brother-in-law.  My wife’s grandfather was a decorated Naval officer who dove into the water during the attack on Pearl Harbor to swim out to his ship, and didn’t see his family again for close to two years. One of my best friends currently serves in the Army. Whatever conclusions I may personally come to regarding war and Christians will in no way diminish the respect I have for the courage and convictions displayed by the men and women who serve in our armed forces. I am very mindful that they are risking their lives for my right to even write this blog post and that Jesus also said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

2) The Church, since the time of Augustine, has struggled with the concept of “just war.” The Church’s struggle has been to find a balance between the simple truth that Christians should not take part in a war that is obviously plainly wicked versus the fact that some wars are considered justified even by Christians in order to prevent greater evils.

3) In the United States, church denominations such as the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Hutterites, and (at least up until World War II) the Churches of Christ have historically maintained pacifist positions. The cost of their convictions for some members of these denominations should be troubling to all Christians. During World War I, around 2000 conscientious objectors from these denominations were imprisoned in Federal prisons, where they received solitary confinement, short rations, and in a couple of cases physical abuse severe enough to result in death. Conscientious objectors fared slightly better in World War II, when the Civilian Public Service was established as an alternative to military service (although the cost of the program was placed on the conscientious objectors and their congregations).

One of the difficulties I have personally had in sorting out my thoughts at what I see as Jesus’ command to lay down the sword is that defining pacifism can be a bit like nailing Jello to a tree. There are those who approve a nation going to war, but not participation by Christians. There are others who would approve participation in a war that resists invasion. Then there are those who call themselves pacifists who might agree to a non-combat support role in a war, but would refuse to kill an enemy soldier. Going even further than this are those who object to any violence, whether by police or military personnel. Still others might say they would agree to participate in a just war but not an unjust war. Traditional Christian thought holds that no Christian should participate in an unjust war, but it seems to me that this is something more honored in thought than practice.

As I share my thoughts, I’d love to get a dialogue going. What are your opinions and thoughts on this? Do you agree that Jesus calls us to lay down the sword?

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Book Review: A Shot of Faith (To the Head)

Let me make a couple of confessions right away about Mitch Stokes’ A Shot of Faith (To the Head):

Confession #1:  I get the giggles from the book’s subtitle, “Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists.” Cranky is just a funny word.

Confession #2:  Some of the arguments Stokes presents make my head hurt. A lot. I felt better when Stokes noted that David Hume — one of the Enlightenment philosophers whose work Stokes dissects — also apparently recognized how headache-inducing some of his logic was, as Stokes says,

“After thinking such thoughts, Hume was known to clear his head with a game of billiards amongst his friends. My guess is that he was also amongst beer.”

This being a Nazarene blog, I am endorsing neither billiards nor beer, but this statement simultaneously makes me feel less of a moron and makes me laugh.

All humor aside, A Shot of Faith is an interesting and useful book. Stokes addresses the arguments of the new atheists, those who are not merely disbelievers but are militantly anti-religion and anti-Church — names such as Dawkins, Hitchens, Stenger, and Harris. The purpose of the book is to provide Christians with the intellectual tools to address the common arguments of atheists. This is done in three sections, each of which tackles a prime atheistic argument.

Section One addresses the chief objection to belief in God, an objection which Stokes identifies as the notion that religious belief is irrational because of the utter lack of evidence for God’s existence.

Section Two addresses the atheist claim that science has shown that God doesn’t exist. Stokes reviews the numerous ways that this claim is supported, and addresses the most significant ones. This section is well-done and if nothing else, Stokes demonstrates that science actually gives us some very compelling reasons to believe in a divine Designer.

Section Three deals with one of the most difficult-to-handle objections to belief in God: the claim that the existence of evil and suffering show that He doesn’t exist. Stokes answers to this are some of the parts that make my brain work very hard to keep up, but here is the gist of it:

  • “There are two versions of the problem of evil, the logical problem and the probabilistic problem.
  • In the case of the logical problem of evil, the existence of God and the existence of evil allegedly result in a full-blown logical contradiction. This problem was solved by showing that there is a logically possible situation in which God and evil exist simultaneously. In particular, it is possible that God couldn’t make free creatures who refrain from evil.
  • In the case of the probabilistic problem of evil, the existence of evil makes it highly unlikely (but not impossible) that God exists. After all, we can’t think of any good reason that he would allow evil. But even though we can’t think of a reason, for all we know, God has very good ones.”

As you might be able to tell from the preceding quote, some of what Stokes has to say is going to be beyond the casual reader. Stokes has a doctorate in philosophy and it shows; much of the book concerns itself with the root philosophical basis of modern atheistic thought and its origins in the Enlightenment period. Yet he has done an excellent job in demonstrating the fallacies that are part and parcel of modern atheist claims. In his conclusion, Stokes is careful to note,

“… the notions of design, rationality, and absolute standards cannot exist in a naturalistic world, the world of the atheists. Without absolute standards — of which there must be many — their worldview would entirely collapse.

And this poses a serious problem for any atheist who claims that belief in God is irrational. In fact, it takes the legs right out from under such a claim. If there is no designer, then there is no proper function, and therefore there is no such thing as irrationality. But then there’s no such thing as rationality either. There’s only a sterile, impersonal “desert landscape. Beliefs are neither rational nor irrational. They just are.

But if the Christian story is true, then there is such a thing as irrationality. And as we saw, those who don’t believe in God are suffering from it. After all, unbelief is caused, in part, by the malfunctioning of the sensus divinitatis.”

This last bit, the mention of the sensus divinitatis, is a significant theme for Stokes. Sensus divinitatis means “sense of the divine,” the term that Calvin used for the inborn tendency to believe in God; Stokes explains that Thomas Aquinas set this in terms of a proclivity to believe in God that was “implanted in us by nature.” While Stokes touches on the reason this innate sense doesn’t function as it ought to in humans — the ravages of sin — he unfortunately doesn’t explore what re-awakens the sensus divinitatis in humans. From a Wesleyan perspective, such an explanation might lead to discussion of prevenient grace, and one of my few real criticisms of the book would be that while Stokes does make clear that restoration of the sensus divinitatis only comes by embracing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he fails to so much as mention the prevenient work of the Holy Spirit.

Lest one might think that A Shot of Faith is nothing more than an attack on atheists disguised as apologetics, be assured that Stokes reveals his heart in the final words of the book:

” … all of us are damaged goods. Sin has caused some degree of irrationality in us all. And given the extent of the damage, it’s no wonder atheists don’t believe. The real wonder is why anyone believes. The explanation of course, is that God has begun to repair humanity, at an unimaginable cost to himself. And this is really good news.”

 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Sowing Seeds, Sowing Hope

There’s been some exciting things happening in my life, ministry-wise, recently. The chief among these is that I took a position as an associate pastor at Madison Church of the Nazarene in Madison, TN. The church is located in a community with a lot of brokenness and a lot of needs, and both I and my wife are very excited about helping to grow the Kingdom and the church.

Other exciting things happening outside of ministry include a project I started. Anyone in my family can tell you that I am fairly vegetable crazy, especially when it comes to cucumbers and tomatoes. This year I decided I was going to have a good supply of both by growing my own. I turned for advice to my dad, Brook, who is an expert on gardening, especially when it comes to heirloom varieties. In fact, if you are traveling near or live close to Lexington, Kentucky, I encourage you stop at Fort Boonesborough State Park and say hello to him. He maintains the garden at the Fort — make sure you tell him I sent you!

Recently, as I was asking Dad some questions about the seeds I planted, he stunned me with something he said. Dad is not a person of great faith of any sort, so I took particular note when he said,

“Watching a seed sprout and grow is an affirmation of faith, because to plant a seed is to believe that tomorrow will come.”

There’s a whole world to be mined there, from the perspective of this pastor. Naturally, when we’re talking seeds, I think of the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:3-9.

“And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

The application of the parable is pretty obvious when it comes to planting seeds of the Gospel into people’s lives. That is the job of every Christian to do, regardless of whether they are “in ministry” or not. And just as the parable says, when we plant seeds they will sometime take deep root in peoples’ lives and other times those seeds will wither away without the Gospel taking root. But when I consider Dad’s statement about believing that tomorrow will come, it leads to think about Hope, which gives me cause to remember one of my favorite verses in the Bible.

“I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Planting a seed is indeed the affirmation of faith my dad labels it as. To believe tomorrow will come is certainly to hope. But to believe that your future Hope lies in Jesus is to trust in the promises of God.

Question: Who has planted seeds in your life?

Book Review: 1000 Days – The Ministry of Christ

Jonathan Falwell is the senior pastor of a church and the vice-chancellor of spiritual affairs at Liberty University. He also happens to be the son of Jerry Falwell (yes, that Jerry Falwell),  but he’s certainly not riding his father’s coat-tails anywhere in 1000 Days. Falwell begins with the premise that almost universally, human beings have an inner restlessness that drives them. Some are driven by such restlessness, opines Falwell, to climb mountains, others to search for the perfect relationship, while others seek to quench their restlessness through eating. Yet the only answer to this, notes Falwell, is one that Augustine observed in his Confessions: “Thou has formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”

1000 Days starts with Jesus as the solution to humanity’s restless heart. But Falwell observes that Jesus could have calmed the hearts of men and brought them salvation without doing anything else. However, for the course of three years — the titular 1,000 days — Jesus had a public ministry. And Falwell wants readers to know why that is important:

“He didn’t need to provide this ministry, yet He did anyway, and that is key for us … This intentionality of Jesus’ ministry implies that there is a lot of information in the Scriptures worth grappling with. We need to understand what Jesus said and did during his 1,000 day public ministry so that we can apply His teachings to our lives today.”

What follows is a well-written, easy to engage study of the high points of Jesus’ ministry. It’s obvious that Falwell did his research and scholarship, not being afraid to occasionally discuss the meaning of a Hebrew or Greek word, yet the book goes nowhere near the lofty heights of academic writing that might scare off a reader who is just learning more about Jesus and the Scriptures. Falwell illustrates his points by sharing how he has seen the applications of Jesus’ teachings in his own life — particularly in his role as a father to his children.

One of the most useful parts of 1000 Days is at the end of each chapter. Each chapter ends with three to five questions for individual reflection or small group discussion. These are not shallow questions by any means, not when they are asking for reflection on items such as: “In your most honest moments, where are you spiritually right now, and where do you want to be?” The true goldmine of this book is in the appendix; Falwell provides a Bible Study Guide with Leader’s Helps that makes this ideal as a small group or Sunday school study (particularly, I would think, for a group that may not have a deep foundation the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry). There is also a breakdown of 100 main events in Jesus’ life, making 1000 Days a very practical resource.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 

Blogging Hiatus

Lamentation at the Tomb, 15th century.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lent season, which begins a 46-day countdown to Easter Sunday. Although many associate Lent with Roman Catholicism, it is also celebrated by Protestant denominations such as the Church of the Nazarene, Methodists, and Lutherans. Lent is traditionally marked by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. As someone who grew up in a Jewish household, I find these traditions familiar. They remind me of the practices which Jews engage in during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as we daven (pray) and fast; they also bring to mind the Jewish practice of tzedakah, obligatory acts of charity.

Lent is more than simply traditions. Lent is a time which spiritually prepares us to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. Spiritual preparation can often come through exercising spiritual disciplines, practices which aim at bringing Christians into a state of holiness and purity. I think it is safe to say that throughout the history of the Church that such practices have not been necessarily easy to engage in, nor have they always enjoyed popularity. My friend David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus, has for years engaged in the spiritual discipline of reading one chapter from Psalms each morning and meditating upon it. I have tried this discipline myself on and off over the years since he first shared it with me, and cannot say that I have had the discipline to maintain it.

Growing to maturity as a Christian requires more than simply proclaiming oneself a Christian. One must engage in spiritual disciplines designed to focus one on Christ, rather than on the things of this world. John Wesley devoted his life to the practice of such disciplines in his personal life, and to teaching others to engage in such practices themselves. Among the spiritual disciplines Wesley practiced and taught were: public worship of God, regularly searching the Scriptures, regularly participating in the Lord’s Supper (communion), private and family prayer, fasting or abstinence, feeding the hungry, welcoming in strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, and sheltering the homeless.

I think it’s interesting to note that some of these disciplines directly benefit us in our walk with Christ, while others of the disciplines seem to directly benefit others (feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, etc.). Perhaps the message in that is that it isn’t about us, rather that it is about Jesus and doing the things He did, and treating others the way that He did. As Lent begins, I am beginning a fast from social media such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as placing this blog on hiatus. God has laid some exciting ministry opportunities (or may they are challenges) before me recently, and I choose to take Lent as a time to remove distractions in order that I might focus fully on Him, and on preparing myself to celebrate the Resurrection of His Son.

Whether you fast during Lent or not, I pray you too will engage in some sort of spiritual preparation. See you after Easter!!

Review: Erasing Hell, Chapter Seven

We’ve come to the final chapter of Erasing Hell, titled “Don’t Be Overwhelmed,” a feeling that Chan admits is easy when it comes to the subject of Hell — in fact, he says thoughts of Hell can be paralyzing for some people.  All the more reason, asserts Chan, for us to have a sense of urgency , and not go on with life as usual.

A sense of urgency over the reality of hell should recharge our passion for the gospel as it did for Paul, who “knowing the fear of the Lord,” persuaded people to believe (2 Cor. 5:11). We should not just try to cope with hell, but be compelled — as with all doctrine — to live differently in light of it.

This is a stance that Chan points that Peter is in agreement with, noting Peter’s descriptions in 2 Peter 3 of the Lord’s return, the day of judgment, and the destruction of those that are not godly. Peter, remarks Chan, does not implore people to throw up their hands in defeat at this news, but rather instructs them to live holy and godly lives.

 

In other words, we need to stop explaining away hell and start proclaiming His solution to it.

A GREATER URGENCY

Chan further stresses Paul’s sense of urgency towards saving people from Hell by quoting Romans 9:2-3, in which Paul wishes himself accursed if it would accomplish the salvation of his fellow Jews.

“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. “

Chan’s motivation in quoting this passage is to point out that while Paul had some terrifying things to say about the final fate of those who rejected Jesus, he loved those same people on a level that seems crazy to most. Paul devoted his life to seeing that those people got right with God so that they would not end up in Hell.

MORE REASON TO REJOICE

Chan points out what seems an incongruity in regards to Paul. While the apostle had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart, he also commanded Christians to “rejoice in the Lord always.” (Philippians 4:4) How is it possible to reconcile what seem to be such paradoxical emotions as grief and rejoicing? According to Chan, this is a tension we are bound to live with when we follow Jesus. It is a tension between the joy we feel at knowing Jesus and the salvation He brings, and the burden we should feel for loved ones who don’t know Him. And Chan wants to point out that while can — and often is — a paralyzing doctrine, it is one that also magnifies the beauty of the cross.

Hell is the backdrop that reveals the profound and unbelievable grace of the cross. It brings to light the enormity of our sin and therefore portrays the undeserved favor of God in full color. Christ freely chose to bear the wrath that I deserve so that I can experience life in the presence of God. How can I keep from singing, crying, and proclaiming His indescribable love?

Chan closes the chapter (and the book) by asking another question: “Are you sure?” In this case, the question is asking whether or not the reader has embraced the God who can save them from Hell. “Do you know Him?” Chan asks. Are you secure in Him and in love with Him?  Chan closes by pleading once more that the reader be reconciled with God if they are not already, quoting 2 Corinthians.

 “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 … behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 5:20-21; 6:2)

Review: Erasing Hell, Chapter Six

In this brief, penultimate chapter, Francis Chan addresses Romans 9, a passage he claims has caused him more confusion than any other. In this passage, he says, “Paul asks a necessary question: What if?”

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory? (Romans 9:22-23)

Chan identifies Paul’s “What if?” as a probing question —

“forcing us to face our inflated view of our own logic. It’s another way of asking: Just how high is my view of God?”

What Chan wants his readers to consider here is how deep their loyalty to God actually runs. If this is correct, if God has indeed created “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,” for the purposes of showing his wrath and making His power known … then it means He is showing those He saves just how magnificent his glory and mercy are. This forces each of us to answer the question of “what if?” with another question: what shall I do? Do we refuse to believe in Him, or refuse to be a vessel of mercy, asks Chan. And would it be wise to refuse to follow Him?

THE POTTER AND THE CLAY

Chan uses the Romans 9 passage to return to the question regarding Hell that he initially raised in Chapter One: could you believe these things, if in fact God says they are true? He points out that Paul doesn’t categorically state that God destroys sinners in order to show how mighty He is, but that the apostle does raise it as a valid possibility. The importance of acknowledging this possibility, in Chan’s view, is that it allows us to allow God to be who He is.

“We need to surrender our perceived right to determine what is just and humbly recognize that God alone gets to decide how He is going to deal with people. Because He’s the Potter and we’re the clay. This, in fact, is the analogy that Paul gives earlier in Romans 9.”

That these are difficult statements Chan acknowledges, especially in light of Paul’s earlier statements in Romans 9 that God will have mercy on whom He wills, and harden whomever He chooses. Chan submits that all of this leads one to ask that if all of need mercy and God grants that to some but not to others, then who is truly responsible — you and I, or God?

It’s an excellent question, and one that Chan answers using the same passage. Paul’s declaration is that the Potter has the right to do whatever He wills with the clay.

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (Romans 9:20-21 )

Chan appeals as well to Isaiah 55:8-9, where God Himself declares his own Otherness, His essential differentness from you and I.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,  neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9 )

When it comes to the subject of Hell, Chan implores that people recall that we think differently than God thinks, and that God hasn’t asked any man or woman to figure out why He does what He does. More pointedly, Chan opines that we can’t — because our very way of thinking is inferior to God’s!  Rather, Chan argues, the gap between our thoughts and His is so immeasurable that our energy is better spent in submitting to Him than in overanalysis of His ways.

I WOULDN’T HAVE DONE THAT

Chan points out that sending people to Hell isn’t the only thing God does that is impossible to figure out. He notes that there are many acts of God that don’t make sense by Man’s logic.

  • God regrets that he created men and women, due to their evil, and with the exception of 8 people, He drowns them all with a flood. (Genesis 6-8)
  • Moses comes down from Mount Sinai to find the Israelites worshipping a golden calf, and God commands the Levites to sharpen their swords and slaughter everyone worshipping the idol — some three thousand people. Once the massacre is finished, God blesses the Levites for their obedience. (Exodus 32:27)
  • God commands the Israelites to slaughter every man, woman, and child inhabitating the land of Canaan. (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)
  • When the Israelites are conquering Jericho, Achan disobeys the command of God and retains some loot. When challenged, he lies, then discloses his sin and returns the treasure. Despite his confession, Achan and all his family are stoned to death. (Joshua 7)

To all of these, Chan declares, “If I were God, I wouldn’t have allowed that, let alone commanded it.” I have to agree with him.  That is precisely the point he is trying to make here; there are divine actions and commands throughout Scripture that don’t mesh with our standards of morality or even logic. Chan reminds the reader that we are the clay, while God is the Potter. Yet Chan also points out that the God whose logic in sending sinners to Hell confounds is also the God who thought to send his Son to take on human flesh. He is the same God who entered creation through the womb of a young Jewish woman, and was born in a feeding trough. He is the same God who thought to allow His created beings to torture His Son, lacerate His flesh with whips, and the drive nails through His hands and feet.

“I’m almost sure I would not have done that if I were God. Aren’t you glad I’m not God? It’s incredibly arrogant to pick and choose which incomprehensible truths we embrace. No one wants to ditch God’s plan of redemption, even though it doesn’t make sense to us. Neither should we erase God’s revealed plan of punishment because it doesn’t sit well with us. As soon as we do this, we are putting God’s actions in submission to our own reasoning, which is a ridiculous thing for clay to do.”

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