Published in the Pres – July 2015
I just returned from Princeton where I engaged in a theological conference, spent time studying in a great theological library, and spent time around tables and couches having theological conversations. It was a stimulating time, causing me to reflect a bit on my time in seminary as well.
Though it really wasn’t that long ago, my seminary education unfolded at a time where the internet was just beginning to get going. There were no conversations about Twitter or Facebook or the most recent blog post. Conversations about life, faith, God and the church unfolded around round tables in the seminary cafeteria or the Small World coffee shop downtown. These conversations were vital for my own theological development. For, invariably, face to face conversations allowed for respectful discussion as well as vigorous debate. I went from a place of largely avoiding difficult conversations growing up to actually enjoying them very much. For a variety of reasons, in fact.
They helped me articulate what it is that I believe by actually engaging with the positions with which I disagreed in an inter-personal manner. It was easy in the quiet of my own room and the confines of my own mind to be dismissive of a position I disagreed with. Actually sitting face to face with someone requires a whole lot more energy, forcing me to actually listen and, in turn, be able to fairly and accurately represent the position I intended to debate. It also forced me to not be dismissive of the people themselves, as they also engaged in the slow process of Christian formation in light of his Word. They were works in progress just as much as I was, all of us having walked very different paths along the way.
Now, of course, not everyone was up for this kind of discussion. There were those, quite angry with the God revealed in Scripture, who were, in turn, painfully dismissive in conversation. And there were those, quite angry with the sins of the world, who thought the whole discussion was a waste of time and hid in their rooms. I pitied the churches who would eventually employ them as their pastors.
For, to bear witness to Jesus Christ in the world requires one to love God (which means loving his word) as well as actually loving people who need to be changed by him.
I thought about all this last week from the third-floor of the library where I looked out to the world. I’m living now in a world that is changing so rapidly. The internet, as helpful as it can be at times (even in ministry), has actually made ministry far more difficult, particularly in the realm of social media. It’s incredibly difficult to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle, even in the realm of religion. More disconcerting is that we are being bombarded with bad religion journalism from major news sites and disrespectful debate from both non-Christians and Christians alike. What I read these days has no depth. What I observe is remarkable lack of wisdom. Non-Christians have such shallow views of the Christian faith and yet Christians are simply failing to present compelling testimonies in response. It would be easy for me to be continually discouraged if it wasn’t for this: the Christian truth is not a philosophy, it is a person, Jesus Christ, testified to by persons changed by him.
Every person I’ve ever met who believes in Christ and trusts in his word has had a parent who taught them how to pray by their bedside, or a significant mentor who explained the faith to them in a Sunday School class, or a friend who had the courage to tell us hard truths in a loving manner in an old diner on main street.
This is a truth about life that will never change – regardless of what the world does. For Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us. His truth went out to the world not by a news-blast, but in flesh and blood. His followers went out person to person to person in homes. Christianity spread interpersonally – not via a savvy public relations campaign.
This is where we have the edge – this is where real lives are changed. This is how Christianity has survived so powerfully for so long – people bearing witness to Jesus Christ, face to face, speaking the truth in love, patiently, continually, prayerfully.
There still are many faithful churches throughout the world, that are confident in God’s word, that let the Scriptures do the speaking, allowing its people to wrestle with its clear meaning along with their questions, comments, struggles and debate. They understand that the church is a messy place. Yet they know that confidence in Scripture will enable them to address important issues with mutual forbearance. They know that God’s truth has been attacked for centuries – but here it still stands.
For the Bible has been read and preached and believed and followed during totalitarian regimes, in concentration camps, in African villages and in global cities for thousands of years. The religion journalists of the world will not dismantle its power. Our own God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – has never gone silent. He is in control. He is working all things out for the good of those who love him.
We need to be patient and realize that Christian discipleship is a journey. We need to trust in the sovereignty of God to speak and act according to His good will, for our joy! We need to be immersed in His Word, always willing to listen to it and be corrected by it. Also, we need to have relationships with people who disagree with us – for how else will they come to faith?
As for me – I know what I believe. I really do. I’d like to think that I’ve matured greatly since those years in seminary, learning to speak truth in love. Yet I have no intention to be a religious personality with virtual followers.
I’m a pastor, not a blogger. I sit across the desk, and across the coffee table, and across the pulpit, week in and week out, from people that I know, that I care for, that I even lovingly argue with. I have conversations, great talks, with them about faith and life and yes – sin; about grace and truth; about hope and despair. I’ve had to apologize for, at times being wrong, or for my own behavior. I’ve had, at times, had to ask someone to please, for heaven’s sake, change their own behavior. But With them. With God. This, I believe, is where real discipleship takes place. This is the joy of what I get to do – see God really change lives.
So please, if you’re struggling with God, with faith, with Scripture, with the church, with culture, with sin, with talking to your children – let’s go have a cup of coffee, or two. I’ll listen to whatever you have to throw at me, and hopefully respond with God’s grace and truth. I know I’ll learn something important from you as well. Just know, that I take the long view – God alone changes hearts and minds in his time, in his way. I just get to point to him.
Want to have some coffee? I’ll let you buy 🙂