With Deliberate Malice

I’m not far enough into Moby-Dick to speak with any authority to its meaning. Nor am I sufficiently advanced in wisdom to untangle the spaghetti-like complexity that is human sin, divine providence, and demonic havoc. Nevertheless, Melville’s Ishmael at one point defends the notion that a sperm whale would, under certain conditions, act with malice.

Again, it is very often observed that, if the sperm whale, once struck, is allowed time to rally, he then acts, not so often with blind rage, as with wilful, deliberate designs of destruction to his pursuers.

As a pastor, I hear about and often witness great acts of harm done by people in the name of the church. The authority and trust given to Christians in general and Christian leaders in particular are often mishandled and grave damage is done. I understand why many fear if not hate the church and the god in whose name men and women in the church often act. And Christians and Christianity come under particular scrutiny for acts of betrayal and abuse and control as these run counter to the ideals for which we should stand. The more passionately we embrace the ideals, the more clearly we see what the church should be, the harder it is to accept the aberrations, and the darker we will paint her when she fails.

And fail she does. She fails because people fail. She fails because she confuses her purpose. She fails for all kinds of reasons. Among these, I am persuaded, is the ‘wilful, deliberate designs of destruction’ of the one who is the enemy of God and of his people. We cannot bow out of responsibility by saying ‘the devil made him/her/me do it’ but we cannot ignore the deliberate malice with which he who stands against all things good will lash out at that which is closest to God’s heart.

With all I know, with all I’ve seen, and with all I’ve experienced, I can’t look at the church with anything but the deepest affection. I know that is hard for many, for those who have been wounded at the very deepest places. I understand. And so to counter those feelings of harm I want any church of which I am a part to be as genuine, and as safe, as possible.

Yes, it is not the church we are to trust, but God. And yes, it is not the church with whom we are in union, but Jesus. And yet the church, as broken and as failing as she will, through acts of goodness, often obscured, be that which will strike the blows that will stir the blind rage and deliberate malice of the enemy. This should surprise us not the least and should only incite us to aim with other saints eager to strike such blows. These blows can only be struck, however, by acts of integrity and genuineness and compassion and sacrifice. Let him rage against that.


Skipping Scripture

I’m skipping church this morning.

Well, not precisely. I’m skipping MY church. I’m skipping the church where my heart is. I’m skipping worshipping with the community I have come to love and appreciate.

I’m skipping because people tell me I must. That I need to be on vacation. That I need to take a break. And so, I, with my family, will worship with others today, in a place where I can be relatively anonymous, which is somewhat contrary, in my mind, to what church is supposed to be.

Because of that, I have a bit more time on my hands – time I rarely have on a Sunday morning. It is the Lord’s day, and so to turn my thoughts in His direction I casually picked up Kathleen Norris’ book Amazing Grace, one which I’ve been working through occasionally over the past few months. Her perspective, different as it is from my own, is often stimulating. (Previous comments here and here and here.)

It only took a few paragraphs (pages 189-190, if you are following along at home) for me to be impacted. She notes the irony that in Protestant churches, especially those of the more evangelical type, worship consists of so little reading of Scripture. In the history of protestant churches men and women died to secure the right to have the Scriptures in the language of the people, died to have access to the Bible. In evangelical churches, we speak of the centrality of Scripture and call ourselves Bible-believing and toss the Reformation slogan Sola Scriptura around like a talisman. But one would be hard pressed to prove that the Bible means anything to us judging from the amount that is read in worship.

Our contemporary services of worship don’t allow for the tedious and drawn out reading of Scripture. We sing about Jesus, but do not listen to his words or the prophets who spoke about him. We read the text given for the sermon, but little more. If the pastor does not preach on the prophet Isaiah, which I’ve not done for many years, a congregation will never hear its promises and warnings and rhythms and tone.

But they can read it at home, no? Perhaps. But that cannot be taken for granted. And what they read, they often do not understand. The Bible was never meant to be a private book. It belongs to the church and needs to be read in the church. I’m saddened and somewhat embarrassed by this lack in my own congregation. It takes time, it may seem tedious, it may seem opaque. But is it not worth it if in so doing we build a growing rootedness in the book from which we learn of life?

My own, admittedly private, reading of Scripture earlier this morning came from, ironically (or providentially!), Psalm 119. I was struck with this verse:

How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103)

I wondered how one comes to view God’s word with such longing. Perhaps God is pointing me in at least one direction toward an answer.


There is the story of the baseball umpire who would not stay in place, but wandered all over the field during a game. Before his superiors could correct this behavior, he was struck by a line drive, knocked out cold, and removed from the field on a stretcher. And that marked the Fall of the Roamin’ Umpire.

I’m not an umpire, but I’ve been roamin’ widely through the holiday period. I’m not yet ‘fallen’ but I’ve had to grow silent until such time as a normal rhythm returns.

In the meantime, over the weekend a few posts crossed in front of me capturing two of my passions, movies and the church, which I felt merit passing on.

The first comes from Scot McNight, responding to the all too common “I love Jesus; I have no room for the church” sentiment. He suggests that those espousing such ideas need to hear Bonhoeffer reminding us

that we must, must, must surrender our ideals of the church and learn to live with its brokenness and the brokenness of all those connected to it. The fundamental problem is that the person who thinks this way thinks more highly of himself or herself than of others, sets himself or herself apart, and acts if he or she is superior. There is a communion table at the front of the church for a reason — because that’s what brings us together, not our competence in Christian living.

Well put.

Also concerning the church, or at least Christian culture, is the helpful attempt by Mike Osborne of University Presbyterian Church to correct the strange vocabulary of contemporary Christians.

I continue to believe that one of the strangest things about us Christians is our specialized vocabulary. Surely it accounts for at least some of the disconnect between us and our non-believing neighbors.

He takes on a number of phrases, some of which may be your favorites. Curious what you think.

And finally, on a different note, there is this well written review of the movie Her. I found the trailer for this movie creepy, and its premise disturbing. But the review leads me to want to see it. The reviewer, Lauren Wilford, says the central question the movie confronts is not the technological question, but rather, “What is it like to share your life with someone?”

What unfolds as we realize this is a poignant exploration of the questions that come in the middle of any thoughtful relationship. How do you grow without growing apart? Which differences between people are workable, and which are too fundamental to ignore? How do you reveal yourself to someone without scaring that person? And how do you offer grace in the midst of a love you’re losing, a love you’ve lost?

These seem to be the kinds of questions that are good to talk about.

And, as a side piece of the movie, Scarlett Johansson is making quite an impression as a star in a movie in which you never see her. As the reviewer notes:

Yes, my favorite Scarlett Johansson performance occurs in a film where you never see her body. The implication is not lost on me.

This one will have to go on my list.

Hipster dis-Cred

I’m confused, not hip.

I’m confused on the one hand because some, but not all, of the things I read about so-called ‘hipster’ Christianity ring true for me.

What makes a church a “hipster church”? Does it have a one-word name that is either a Greek word or something evocative of creation? Does the pastor frequently use words like kingdom, authenticity, and justice, and drop names like N. T. Wright in sermons? Does the church advertise a gluten-free option for Communion? If the answer is yes to all of those questions, chances are that it’s a hipster church. (Brett McCracken, “Hipster Faith”, Christianity Today, September, 2010)

I answer yes to some of these questions, but not all. Somewhere a few years ago, I took an online ‘hipster quiz’, an unhip thing to do, and scored 78/120. Not sure what that makes me.

I wear sandals, so suspicions are quickly raised. But I wear them because 30 years ago I met a very square and un-hip Scottish pastor who wore sandals and they looked (and are) comfortable. Sandals are hip, but so are the oft mentioned ‘skinny jeans’, and whatever those are I’m sure I’m not going to wear them. Goatees are hip, but they make one look sinister.

The Coen’s are interesting and often brilliant, but they have their lapses. (That’s hip to say!) Wes Anderson is beyond mystifying. (Not hip.) I love liturgy and literary fiction. Mumford and Sons is on my play list and I believe the kingdom certainly includes elements of social justice. (All fit the hip profile.) But I can’t cuss very well, much less in a sermon, I don’t like beer, and, as a Twitter post commented yesterday, intinction works better for cookies and milk than for bread and wine. (Not very hip). And a ‘gluten free option’? Simply sounds loving rather than ‘hip’.

I thought about this the other day when I decided to retire another element of possible hipster cred. After having completed the massive bio of Winston Churchill (The Last Lion) I moved on to read the popular fiction of David Balducci. Terribly unhip. Perhaps that stirred the hipster demon in me, for after finishing Balducci I had this uncontrollable urge to read Flannery O’Connor. Flan and I started out well, but the more she spoke the harder it became for me to grasp what she was saying. It dawned on me that I was reading her because I thought I was supposed to. Cool pastors read and quote NT Wright AND Flannery O’Connor, I guess. But not this one. Not now, anyway.

I certainly hope I’m not trying to be hip by claiming to be unhip. It can become all very mystifying.

I’d finish by quoting a pop music lyric (a hip thing to do) but the lyrics I’m most familiar with are over 40 years old. Not hip.

Oh heck (a hip pastor would have phrased that more strongly), I’m going to do it anyway:

But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see, you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.
(Rick Nelson, “Garden Party”, 1972)

How Good and Pleasant It Is

Last night I and several other ministers from the Oviedo area met in the chapel of Reformed Theological Seminary for a time of prayer. For an hour we prayed for unity and revival among the churches, for our civic leaders local and beyond, for the cities we inhabit and care for, and for the particular issues of justice and racial tension sparked by the beginning of the trial of George Zimmerman, charged in the murder of 17-year old Trayvon Martin.

We prayed not to make any kind of social statement and we prayed not to create a public relations event. We prayed because we wanted to pray. We prayed because we have become friends who share a common concern for the issues that this trial in particular highlights. We prayed because we are encouraged to see God work among us despite our differences.

Gathered in that room were men and women who bear clear external differences. Some of us were white. Some of us were black. Most of us were men. One was a woman. Press in the right places and you will find some clear internal differences among us as well – theologically, politically, culturally.

But those differences did not matter, and I found the time, for whatever other value it might bear, to be a wonderfully encouraging time. Somehow praying with others clearly different than I who had no other motivation for meeting than to pray made me believe in prayer more than I might on other occasions. I don’t know if that is theologically defensible or not. Jesus tells us that by the love we have for one another people will know that we are his disciples. Is it possible that by the unity we seek with others, despite our differences, that we ourselves will better know Him as God?

What was critical, I think, to the value of our prayer time last night was that prayer arose out of genuine relationships. These others were people whom I’ve come to know and to love over the past three years. I know them by name. And so though a crisis situation brings us to our knees together, we gather together not as colleagues, but as friends, and more than friends, as fellow pilgrims. Perhaps such a gathering suggests greater power because it reveals to us what heaven will be like.

It is in such unity that “the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” (Psalm 133:3)

Center Church and the Pastoral Call

I was blessed recently to have been invited to participate with a small group of fellow-pastors in a two month reading and discussion of Timothy Keller’s textbook on church ministry, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. It was a blessed time, not so much for the book itself, as these things often go, but for the privilege of hanging out with men aiming to do ministry well.Center Church mini

I had some reflections on the book to share at our last meeting, but, sadly, I got called away and was not able to be a part of that final discussion. So, I post those thoughts here as an open letter which may, perhaps, be helpful to more than just that temporary ‘band of brothers’ now dispersed. I hope I am correct.



I’ve enjoyed the sessions we have spent over the past few months reading and discussing Keller’s book. I am honored to have been invited to participate, feeling quite often as the ant among the giants. I’ve been blessed.

As we conclude I wanted to make a simple observation and plea: that as helpful as Tim Keller has been to all of us and as insightful and comprehensive as Center Church is, if it is read alone in isolation, it can be harmful in its effect. That is, Tim Keller should never be read without a healthy balance of Eugene Peterson (or others who, like him, champion the pastoral call).

Having finished Center Church, some, as I do, may feel overwhelmed. The complexity of leading a church with wisdom and vision in our current age may be within reach for some, but it is overwhelming to ordinary pastors like myself. One can be moved by reading this to reconsider many of our practices, to implement significant redirection, and possibly to even move to the city. But one also might be moved to quit, to give up ministry altogether, crushed by the sheer weight of all the pieces to be held together to stay centered.

It is because of these tendencies that I believe Peterson needs to be kept close as a healthy counterweight and antidote.

Those of us who have read Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor know that he takes a cautious if not disdainful view of the idea of ‘running’ a church. He acknowledges that the institution needs to be managed – that a certain amount of ‘running’ a church is inevitable and necessary. But if running a church overwhelms the primary pastoral callings then something monumental has been sacrificed. It is easy to allow that to happen.

There is no one doing a better job of helping pastors think through the maze that “running” a church is than Tim Keller. Someone must lead, decisions must be made, the institution must be governed. And yet, is that the primary pastoral call? Peterson challenges that notion with a relentless drum beat calling pastors to pastoral ministry, to the time consuming realities of prayer, of preaching, of listening, of community building.

As a pastor I live with a very real tension. I want to grow a church and I want to use all the tools at my disposal for doing so, even though, truth be told, the motive for this is a volatile mixture of concern for the glory of God and the health of my own resume. At the same time I’m tugged by the compulsion to sit with people, to hear their stories, to be with them when they are suffering, and to challenge them when they are wandering.

Five SmoothWe need to hear Keller’s challenge to lead the church well, but not without Peterson’s balancing caution that “nothing in pastoral work is more liable to Pelagian tendencies than the work of giving leadership to the community of faith” (Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, page 211). (I think, by the way, that Keller would probably agree.)

I understand that there are those (though, thankfully, not among us) who believe that the idea of ‘shepherd’ is a harmful metaphor for thinking about pastoral ministry. I’m puzzled by that – as I see myself as primarily a shepherd. Peter Wagner once distinguished between pastors who are shepherds and those who are ranchers. I’ll never be a rancher; Peterson never aspired to be so. He resolved to never pastor a church in which he could not know the name of every member.

I’m of that school, and so either by gifting (or lack thereof!) or calling or conviction or the humbling hand of God, I’ve come to the reality that I will always pastor relatively small churches, and those churches will, more likely than not, NOT be in the city. And I want to say, on behalf of the vast majority of pastors for whom this will be true, that this is not only okay, but that it is GOOD.

Keller should be read, but NEVER without Peterson, or someone like him. Not by those who feel that being a good shepherd is still the primary call of pastoral ministry.

Thanks for the time,


Dark Night Rises

Eugene Peterson, in reflecting on the longing for intimacy with God, often elusive, of which I wrote yesterday, speaks these hopeful words:

“The appetites that God has created in us lead to the satisfactions he has promised.”

That is hopeful, but it does not promise immediate satisfaction. And so Peterson reflects on the role of pastoral ministry in guiding struggling Christians through what has been called such ‘dark nights’ of the soul. The counsel he gives pastors is applicable to all Christians as we come alongside of others who are struggling.

Too often all we know to offer those struggling spiritually are trite and simple “fixes” to their struggle of doubt and loneliness. Rather what they may need are friends comfortable with walking with them through the valley of the shadow doubt and even death. They need friends who understand that such spiritual struggles are not abnormal and cannot be rushed.

Peterson’s words are not only wise and refreshing, but counterintuitive in our technocratic age. It is good for us to hear them.

5 Smooth Stones

“The accounts of saints who tell of the ‘dark nights’ of the soul are familiar. Their search for God seems endless and futile, but is broken into by moments of ecstasy when they find (or our found by) the one they sought….”

“Pastoral work acknowledges the difficulty and the pain of the quest and shares it. It does not attribute the agony of longing to a neurosis, it does not search for a cause in moral deficiency, it does not try to ‘cure’ it by working for an adaptive adjustment to ‘reality.’ It honors the quest. The difficult painful moments of unfulfilled longing are integral to the nature of the relationships.

“It is not the pastor’s job to simplify the spiritual life, to devise common-denominator formulas, to smooth out the path of discipleship. Some difficulties are inherent in the way of spiritual growth — to deny them, to minimize them, or to offer shortcuts is to divert the person from true growth. It is the pastor’s task, rather, to be companion to persons who are in the midst of difficulty, to acknowledge the difficulty and thereby give it significance, and to converse and pray with them through the time so that the loneliness is lightened, somewhat, and hope is maintained, somehow.”

Eugene Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, pages 49-51

The History Channel Bible

I heard about the History Channel’s broadcast of a Bible mini-series through predictable channels – the buzz through evangelical church culture that we should all watch this so that major media outlets would produce more like it.

I’m not moved by such marketing ploys. I did feel some sense that I SHOULD watch the first installment so as to be able to responsibly review what I believed others would be watching. But I didn’t even do that.

However, my friend Bill is a much more fair and honest critic of culture and of the contemporary religious scene than I. He has done us a favor and issued a generally favorable review of the first segment of this series. Bill has the background and grace to do this well. His wisest point was his reminder that we live in a biblically illiterate age, so that ANYTHING that in a reasonably accurate way tells the bible’s stories is going to be a helpful thing.

Much more critical was a review published in the NY Times. Interesting to me was that this review did not, as we might expect, take shots at the series’ attempt to be biblically faithful. Rather, the reviewer felt that the series falls short of really capturing the grand flow and passion of the whole bible. The series gives snapshots of biblically reported events but fails to root them in an overall narrative. That seems like a fair critique, as Bill as well compares the series to the bible story books of our collective youth.

The NY Times reviewer notes that

By taking on the entire Bible, even at 10 hours in length, Mr. Burnett and Ms. Downey force themselves into a clumsy “Bible’s greatest hits” approach. This doesn’t serve the source material — so rich in interconnections across time — very well, and it doesn’t make for very involving television.

and then suggests

Those looking for something that makes them feel the power of the Bible would do better to find a good production of “Godspell” or “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Well, in my mind, perhaps not. Rather those looking for something that makes them feel the power of the bible arising from is marvelous interconnections across time would do better to find a good church and a faithful pastor/preacher whose goal it is to do just that.

Oh, Starbucks

Starbucks, you’ve done it again.

As much as I try to fault you when thinkgs are not quite up to my hopes, you have a way of reclaiming my affection.

Today I was working in my Willasprings Starbucks corner office waiting for the line to shrink to a stage which would allow a quick trip to the bar.

I ended up in the line behind the store manager, Helen. That she was in line like the rest of us said something in itself. We spoke a bit about her plans for the day and about the busy-ness of the store. When her turn came to order, I joked to the clerk behind the register, “I’m with her.”

I was joking, Helen. We were supposed to laugh and go about our business.

She wouldn’t leave it there. She turned to the clerk and said, “He’s with me” and then to me said, “What do you want?” I protested, but the clerk already knew that I order the same thing every time, and so she rang it up, and that was that.

Small acts of kindness, to be sure. But it’s the small things that keep us coming back. To Starbucks, yes. But also to the church.

UPDATE: Of course, just because you’ve been kind does not mean that we can’t still have some fun at your expense. Here is SNL’s take on your new Verismo machine. Classic.

All the Least of These

I just finished reading Mike Beates’ helpful book Disability and the Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace. The book is important and necessary, and is disarming in its direct honesty. It is a disturbing challenge to consider how the Christian church has successfully excluded the ‘different’ and the ‘imperfect’ from her community.

Disability and the gospel how god uses our brokenness to display his graceThe book stimulated two tangential thoughts which I think call for some more long term thinking.

Once again I’m struck with how God has used the non-Christian to shame the church. If any should be the champions of the weak and powerless, it should be Christians who have a deep appreciation for the gospel of grace. And yet the most forceful, effective and prophetic voices in fighting for accessibility in the broader culture have come not from Christians, but from those outside the church. Our blind spots have been legion (see slavery, civil rights, poverty). When will we have eyes to see the causes worth championing and the courage to champion them?

One cause that we have championed has been a concern for the unborn. But labor in this field, while producing local and individual victories, has not produced much in the way of a fundamental shift in public concern. After 40 years, abortion is still legal and prevalent.

And so I wonder if there is a connection between our embrace of the ’cause’ of life for the unborn and our lack of embrace of the actually disabled all around us. Causes are always easy to embrace, but broken people are not. Letter writing, petition signing and sign carrying are all fairly easy and antiseptic. But actually engaging our lives with those whose brokenness makes us uncomfortable is all so much more difficult.

Perhaps what this exposes is hypocrisy in our camp. We OUGHT to care passionately about the unborn and the women who carry them. But the reality of our caring is tested and measured by our lack of concern for the born, but different. Perhaps God withholds his blessing until we learn to love in deed all the least of these.