Monthly Archives: March 2011

Grieving a loss at UVA

Dear friends and supporters,

I want to inform you about the loss of a first-year student who died on Sunday night (click here for the news article). He was a Christian and a member of Reformed University Fellowship; any death is a loss for all, and, moreover, many of our students (especially first-years, as he was) were friends with him or knew him.

It is often our desire to run from pain and grief and dwell on other things instead but we know that we have to face the grief and not bottle it up. As Jesus says in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” This is the promise for relief at this very moment, when the blessed hope and truth we intellectually know cannot pierce the pressing and immediate hurt. His family undoubtedly is going through unspeakable pain.
Please pray that students and especially his family would experience this powerful comfort both now and through the long road to grief. Pray also that his family (some are traveling to get here now) would have mercies for travel, and that people would rush to serve and comfort them as they bury their son.

Today there was a time of prayer at the Center for Christian Study and obviously many of the students are taking the loss very hard. There is a lot of pain right now, and questions, and shock and there is probably more to follow in the coming days and months. The campus ministers and the staff of the Center for Christian Study have been working hard to give comfort, prayer, and support for those who’ve been hit by this loss. One of the staff mentioned that students were streaming in continually on Monday crying and very hopeless. And of course it is hard for all of us, I feel the shock and awfulness of this loss even though I am not close to him. It is season of serious pain.
Please pray for the staff of the Study Center and for all of us campus ministers that we would gently lead students into the love of Jesus and guide them in their grief.

The timing of this death as been particularly hard for Matt, the ministry intern (like myself) for Reformed University Fellowship. The head campus pastor is out of town this week for a conference and Matt was scheduled to preach at their large group tonight (Tuesday) at 8pm, and moreover is now charged with addressing and guiding the chapter through this tragedy.
Please pray for Matt and the other RUF ministry intern Libbie, as well as the student leaders — that they’d have strength, wisdom, peace, and that first would experience God “who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).

Thank you for your prayers in this difficult time.

Loving our “enemy”: Conversation instead of Controversy

If you’re moderately immersed in American church/Christian culture, you’ve likely heard by now the hubbub (or really, firestorm) related to Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins.” This post will NOT be about the book itself. Rather, I’ll make some brief comments about the nature of the discourse – how it has unfortunately become a controversy instead of a conversation. If you need a brush-up on the details, Mars Hill Church (Seattle) of the famous and hard-hitting Mark Driscoll – funnily enough, Bell’s church in Grand Rapids, MI is also called Mars Hill – published a clear and unbiased chronology (complete with article and video links) about the “Rob Bell and Hell” issue.

Let me start by saying that if it matters in any sense, I extend forgiveness to any figures I find fault with. I don’t mean that in a condescending fashion (that they owe me an apology) – I mean it in a spirit of grace, hoping that we can all speak with one even when criticizing others.

There obviously two things to be considered. First is the substance or content of Bell’s claims. I will address that only briefly at the end because it isn’t the point of my post. Second however is the quality and tone of the conversation. By that I mean it has not been a conversation, it has been mostly anger and disrespect.

I have been largely frustrated by the emotions and tone that many church leaders or opinionators have.  Jesus tells us in Luke 6:27-28 – “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29” But most of what I’ve heard is angry and judgmental.

I was saddened by the original flag-raising post by Justin Taylor from the Gospel Coalition. I don’t actually disagree at all with the theological concerns he raises, but the tone he used was dismissive and self-confident which is implicitly condemning – and nobody at this point had even read the book (Taylor included). Again, I agree (and agreed at that time) with the concerns or questions he had, even about the potentially false doctrine coming from Bell as a pastor. But Taylor’s tone was haughty and conscending. It is unfortunate and ironic to me that on his own info page he discusses the value of comments (from readers presumably) as follows:

I hope this can be a place where we “seek understanding” before critiquing, where we are quick to listen and slow to speak, where we judge others charitably, not critically, where we encourage and build up each other rather than tearing down and destroying each other.” (Justin Taylor’s “ABOUT” page)

He later amended his post by removing some dismissive words – some phrases were softened, and he removed a scriptural reference of 2 Corinthians 11:14-15, calling Bell a servant of “Satan who disguises himself as an angel of light.” He did not apologize for his tone or the condemning weight of the scripture he cited. I find this unfortunate, it makes me very sad.

I was also saddened and somewhat annoyed by the brief and inane post by Pastor John Piper – the renowned and influential man tweeted the extremely condescending preface of “Farewell Rob Bell” to Taylor’s post the same day. Furthermore, I was disappointed and shocked at the asininity from a figure as eminent, respected, and influential as John Piper! Of all men to know the power of words and the responsibility to weigh them according to one’s God-given influence, came the most bizarrely cavalier of comments in the most inane of mediums. He has written and spoken great and Godly things which I have benefited from; I’m not sure this tweet is one of them.

Interestingly enough, Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill in Seattle – typically known as firebrand – was exceedingly calm about the whole issue. His only Twitter update pertaining to the Bell controversy was a question, less assuming simply “Rob Bell: Universalist” with a link to the same Taylor article. Even though Driscoll may have agreed with Taylor and be wary about Bell, at least his publicly-visible commentary was still one of openness. His response was ultimately a webpage explaining a critically-sound Biblical view of life, death, and hell. It is calm, does not fall into name-calling, even as it essentially refutes much of Bell’s content.

Obviously there are valid justifications for anger in certain circumstances which may be pertain to this situation, and I want to allow for them. Someone will inevitably state that Bell, as a pastor/teacher, is held to a higher standard (James 3:1, and so on). Thus, if Bell is teaching heterodoxy, other teachers who faithfully uphold scripture have the responsibility to come against Bell’s false teaching. And I agree with that.  Some authors did – Kevin DeYoung of the Gospel Coalition (same site as Justin Taylor) wrote on multiple occasions about the issue, first here (still before the book’s release) and then he does a thorough book review here (20 pages in length).

Both times he is angry and a bit vitriolic, but I do think that at least he presents his direct scriptural reasons for his emotions.  DeYoung’s tone is presented in a clear and unambiguous fashion (always prefaced by scripture and that he is concerned about false doctrine) and he even calls attention to the possible pitfalls of judgmentalism:

It is possible that I (like other critics) am mean-spirited, nasty, and cruel. But voicing strong disagreement does not automatically make me any of these. Judgmentalism is not the same as making judgments.

He explains his anger in a Biblical fashion and tells us that he is attempting to express it correctly for edification and correct teaching. He does the best job possible of explaining a Biblical and rhetorical framework within which his anger makes sense. He has given me his word that he is taking care to avoid judgmentalism and I take it as such. It helps also that he has the presence of mind to explain the issues before we go into the article. And he provides clear evidence from scripture and from Bell to make his points. Thus there is a right and a wrong way to uphold clear teaching in the false of false teachers.

I think that Taylor and Piper have done it the wrong way. Note that Taylor’s caveat or qualifiers come only at the end of his piece and after the firestorm has started – he is backtracking to soften his blows. Moreover, Taylor’s only scriptural reference (calling Bell a servant of Satan, which was redacted ultimately) is not presented to us as evidence to measure Bell by (e.g., scripture that clearly states the meaning and nature of hell to contradict Bell’s divergent ideas) but rather as judgmental justification. And of course Piper might say that he did not mean to be condescending or judgmental, but then he shouldn’t have reduced his words to a tweet in the first place.

All that said, I do recognize that even as we are to be vigilant about our words, sometimes we get carried away or we don’t recognize just how much attention they will draw. While I do hold these men to a higher standard as they are called and presume themselves teachers, I also give them grace for human errors. I am not calling any of these bloggers liars, I just mean that some of them called Bell out properly, and some did not.

Perhaps the most nuanced direct response to the controversy and the book comes from Christianity Today book review. It is not angry. It tries to affirm what is godly. And then it goes and lines it up with scripture and declares it wanting. But the author does so with love and grace even as he writes with truth. This is a right way to speak out against false teaching.

To end this, I quote Justin Taylor’s page:

I would encourage commenters to consider carefully the following commands and principles regarding our speech:

  • “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6).
  • “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37).
  • “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10).
  • “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).
  • Speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:1525).
  • “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26).

I am praying that we all, even with right theology, would clearly and unambiguously explain ourselves but do so graciously. Let these be markers of all of us as we engage in conversation about loaded issues (whether this or any other one) instead of devolving into judgmental controversy.

P.S.
For those who simply must know about my theological stance – I am a traditionalist. The author/proclamation that I ascribe to most closely without deviation is probably Tim Keller’s 2005 article on his Redeemer Church website, called “The importance of hell.” His scriptural highlighting and dealing with counterarguments is clear, concise, and well-constructed around the Bible both specifically in verses as well and overarchingly from the Biblical meta-narrative of who God is. He effectively defangs Bell’s assertions about hell; Bell says God lets people repent in hell and so don’t worry, but Keller points out that hell is the ultimate place for those who don’t want God.  Repenting in hell is impossible, NOT because God doesn’t want them but they don’t want Him.

Lent: Reorder, not Renounce

*NOTE 1: I exempt this commentary from addressing Catholic tradition because, in my experience, Lenten season has greater significance and gravitas for real faithful Catholics, and I respect and appreciate it! I deal with the Protestant (particularly evangelical) experience.
*NOTE 2:
This post is inspired by an article from Christianity Today (mentioned below).

Lent for Protestant Christians is a funny thing. We rarely treat it with the same seriousness as Catholics yet we tend to make a pretty big deal about “giving something up” for Lent. Generally speaking, it’s obligatory behavior more than anything else. Usually it’s some inanity like chocolate, sweets in general, TV for more than 4 hours a week, YouTube or Facebook or something else.  We exercise self-denial supposedly out of respect and remembrance of the self-denial of Jesus. As Eugene Cho recently posted “Jesus didn’t ask you to give up coffee. He asked you to give up your life.” Now I don’t say this with judgment and vim and vigor, but Cho bears a point. So does giving up coffee/TV etc. have any worth with the weight of the true call to denial?

Let’s NOT use it to teach real self-denial
I think it actually does, but it requires some clarification about what the “self-denial” of mundane things is really FOR. I want to sort out this mis-targeted act. For one, if the thing in question is REALLY a distraction, shouldn’t this level of self-denial be exercised for more than 40 days? I think obviously yes but anyway let me get to the real point. I wonder if Lent (and the “giving up” of something) isn’t a spiritual way for Protestants to “make up” for all kinds of disordered living in general. Instead of dealing with the real issue (lack of regular self-control), they try and overcompensate to “catch up.”
An analogy: People feel guilty about not exercising regularly, so they use a vacation day or weekend to work out EXCESSIVELY (run 8 miles, bench 200 pounds 1000 times and the like). Particularly near summer (read: swimsuit season) they’ll freak out and then hit the gym hard. But then they’re so over-sore from the overexertion that they can’t work out for the next 6 days. By the time the soreness passes, they’re back to making excuses to not work out regularly yet again — “Oh I’m still kind of sore, and I wanna make sure I’m really fully-recovered.” I think Lent is the “oh crap I need to lose weight for swimsuit season” of Protestant Evangelicalism, except when it comes to self-denial to Jesus.

Instead, faithfulness in little things
What is the real problem though? Daily faithfulness in little things; our mundane life is disordered! Obviously we may have big discipleship/denying ourselves issues, but that is often of a different nature or caliber than the little things we face every day. And aren’t we called to be faithful with little before we’re faithful with much? Don’t burn me at the stake for being heterodox though, I know we are called to discipleship and to die here and now. Jesus in His grace however tends to cultivate us in stages. Nobody starts out praying for 4 hours at a time, but we begin with 4 minutes and grow from there. Thus, as far as a reflection/change ritual is concerned, let’s target the real thing here – faithfulness in little things.
Moreover, Jesus’ Himself was the suffering servant in order to bring the Kingdom of Heaven through propitiational sacrifice on the cross.  The cross brought us into a tension period where the Kingdom of Heaven was already come and not yet come too, bringing the “end of time” into the “middle of time” as Tim Keller puts it. While the Kingdom of Heaven is built on continual service and sacrifice of Jesus’ disciples, it is about a new vision of life lived in celebration.
Even in the midst of sacrificial living, feasting, celebrating, and joy are still valuable and validated things. The epistles talk about both sacrifice and celebration and so should we. Jesus’ images of the Kingdom of Heaven are of servitude/suffering for us disciples as well as new life, feasting, and joy where people are welcomed into the banqueting table of the King because we HAVE ACCESS to the King and are restored (and yet being restored) to full conformity and relationship with Him.

The inspiration for this post & thoughts about what to do instead:
All this was brought on by reading an article from Christianity Today. Author Devin Brown applies some good C.S. Lewis thinking to the Lenten season. You can read it here: Lent in Narnia: Would C.S. Lewis have renounced Turkish Delight from Ash Wednesday to Easter? Brown discusses Lent and C.S. Lewis’ understanding of consecrated denial as well as celebration.
I felt… comforted (?) by the way Brown accents that in an ideal Christian life, “feasts are as Christian as fasts.” Which is to say, asceticism and abstention has a place! But so too does feasting. I like how Lent is then to be (re)understood as “re-ordering” instead of “renouncing.”
So often, Lent gets reduced to “giving up (coffee, sweets, YouTube, Facebook, whatever [relatively harmless] vice is relevant)” as if this itself is helpful or sufficient in teaching us the real cost of total discipleship and self-denial of Jesus. Without overstating, I think it’s disrespectful at best, and we either need to do away with this “giving up of little things” or to re-understand it as the something else that Devin has outlined and I’ve exposited. I am all for reflecting on real self-discipline, self-denial, and sacrifice, but let’s not glibly call the 40-day abstention from Snickers’ that.
If we do want to continue dealing with mundanities and daily substance as sweets and social networking, the idea of Lent as “reordering” is exactly right. In this fashion, giving up or re-ordering coffee, TV, sweets etc. can help us learn faithfulness in little things.  Indeed, as Lewis is quoted in the article: “you can get second things only by putting first things first.” Let’s celebrate Jesus as our first thing and use Lenten “giving things up” to reorder our second things accordingly.
Whatever you do, I hope that Lent is a season that encourages you to immerse yourself more in the life, sacrifice, and already (and yet to) come Kingdom of God, whatever way you choose to do so.

Some appropriate pictures from Google Image Search about Lent…

The typical approach to Lent

The more recent variant of the vice to abstain from.

A better approach to the Lenten self-denial; it's about MANY things and re-ordering life to be more faithful

And if you really want to emphasize self-denial, reflect on this

SIDE NOTE: I’m really tired of pugnacious low-church [I’m not judging them as inferior, I mean this in the term of ecclesiological style] that do silly things like “I’m giving up religion for Lent.” I guess it’s well-intentioned but can’t you make a point about Jesus’ saving grace (not works) without trampling on other Godly Christians’ traditions that are valuable, valid, and generally Biblical? I know we have to meet ex-Catholics or ex-high-church-ers and address whatever negative experiences they have but I can’t help feeling this is mostly contradistiction to create hype, which seems excessively divisive.

This seems silly at best, divisive at worst.