I had the opportunity to preach on James 5:13-18 at Faith Community in Littleton this past Sunday. You can find the service video here.
We live in a touch-starved culture. The church is often no exception, and because touch is such a minefield, we often don’t know what to do about it.
Read this book. It will help you get started in a healthier direction.
What do you do when you have a genuine need going unmet? It’s one of the great tests, and of course Jesus showed us how to handle it. After His baptism, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that He fasted for 40 days while the devil tempted Him. At the end of that time, He was literally starving. He needed food, and there was none.
At that moment, the devil attacked. “If you’re the son of God, then turn these stones to bread.”
First the devil attacked his identity: are you really the son of God? Are you sure? If you won’t even use the power to feed yourself when you’re starving, then what’s the point anyway? God’s supposed to be taking care of you here, and all I see is rocks.
Jesus responds with a line from Deuteronomy, when Moses is teaching a new generation to trust God by reminding them of their history. He says “God humbled you, allowed you to suffer hunger, and then fed you with manna that you did not know, nor did your father know, in order to teach you” — and this is the part Jesus quotes — “that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God’s mouth.”
You see what Jesus is saying? He’s applying Israel’s experience as the template. First we have a need, and it hurts. The need is real. Then the devil shows up and tempts us not to trust God, to try to do it our own way. And if we fall for it, then we end up trying to eat rocks.
Jesus resisted, and when the temptations were over, angels came and fed Him.
Give in, and you eat rocks; resist, and God gives you manna.
But it’s hard. You know what? Jesus knows firsthand how hard it is; He’s been there. Right this minute He is sitting at the Father’s right hand as your High Priest. He has all the resources of heaven at His disposal, and He is ready to give you the help you need to get through it. He is sympathetic, not condemning. He wants you to ask for help. So ask for help, and He will help you.
Being who and what we are, how do we live together? I had a chance to preach on that subject this week.
I had two conversations yesterday about the ways in which the American church has grown like other organizations, and how that has caused severe problems.
In one conversation, we were discussing this article, which compares the traits we generally hire for in a megachurch pastor with the traits comparably-sized businesses hire for in a CEO. Big surprise: same basic profile, and it comes with the same basic set of temptations and problems. Shocking, right?
I’ve written elsewhere about the problems of trying to map business culture onto the church, so I won’t belabor it here. Best case scenario? Your church gets run like a business instead of the house of God. Worst case? Your church leaders misbehave like businessmen do…which happens constantly.
The other conversation was with a church member (different church, far away) who was observing a disparity between pay and productivity. In his church, part-time (i.e., bivocational) staff members do most of the work, but the senior pastor is negotiating for a raise. In my friend’s view, the senior pastor contributes less (doesn’t counsel or disciple parishioners, preaches three times a month), and flatly refuses to be bivocational for various reasons. Offhand, I observed that this sounded a bit like the academic world. As I spun the analogy out, it worked even more closely than I’d thought, and it made me a little sick.
A lot of the necessary grunt work is getting handled by the adjunct grades. In many churches, the youth pastor position is the career equivalent of the guy who teaches the night section of freshman comp at your local community college: entry level, bad hours, but if you put a couple years in you can move up. The logistical heavy lifting (committee chairing, managerial continuity) gets handled by the mid-grades (assistant/associate professors, assistant/associate pastors). At the top of both ladders is a research professorship where you get paid to study the stuff you like and give maybe 2-3 lectures a month.
There is a big difference, though. When the research professor in the academic world comes out to give a lecture, it’s cutting-edge research. When the senior pastor comes out of the study to give a sermon, it’s first-year Bible school stuff: basic Bible exposition, basic doctrine, basic application. Why does it take 20-30 hours in the study to produce that?
The seminary I attended (and for a while, taught for) lives on the fringes of a tribe that calls itself “the doctrinal movement.” Their pastors spend 30+ hours a week in the study (actually, most doctrinal pastors would consider it slacking off to only put in 30 hours of prep!), and deliver long, detailed lectures multiple times a week. I have my differences with their approach to church, but at least they’re delivering a proportional return on the study time they’re putting in.
Other pastors? Not so much.
I do want to carve out some exceptions here. There can be myriad nigh-invisible demands on a pastor’s time, from preparation for a budget meeting with the church trustees to a steady stream of people calling, emailing, or dropping by the church to talk with him about some personal crisis. When everybody wants 20 minutes of your time, that adds up! If the pastor is actually spending time tending the flock that Christ entrusted to him, then all is well. If the pastor is wearing through the knees of his pants praying for his people, then all is well. If a pastor is a newbie, and it genuinely takes him 30 hours to get his sermon prepped — again, all is well, at least for his first year.
There’s another population of pastors, though, that’s spending days in the study preparing sermons that show no sign of needing that much attention. Those guys need to get to work.
Once upon a time, Watchman Nee wrote a little book called The Latent Power of the Soul in which he allowed that various paranormal things are possible for the human soul, but all of them are off limits for a Christian. The argument goes that these ‘soulish’ powers are verboten to Christians because we are intended to draw our power from the Spirit.
This has curb appeal for a lot of people, but on closer examination, it’s pious-sounding nonsense. The nonsense is easy enough to see if we apply the same argument consistently to all such ‘soulish’ powers. You are not allowed to go to the gym and lift weights, or practice doing complex math problems in your head, or learn to tell when someone is lying to you, because you are supposed to derive your power from the Holy Spirit.
The nonsense is easy enough to see there. Of course it’s okay to do all these things. Your job is to take all the abilities you develop and bring them into subjection to Christ.
And that’s the underlying problem with Nee’s view: he brackets out certain admittedly natural human abilities, and then says we are not allowed to bring those abilities into subjection to Christ. Abraham Kuyper articulated a better approach: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'”
So when we’re talking about intuition, specialized powers of minute observation, subtle palpation, manual manipulation, or whatever else, why approach the matter any differently?
“How do we know that these things are even real?” someone will want to know. That is a great question. We should be interested to sift the true from the false.
We may not approach that examination with the bias of, say, a James Randi or a Richard Dawkins. We know something they do not: the materialists are wrong, from top to bottom. The world is not what they say it is. Angels are real. Demons are real. Humans are both body and spirit. God reigns over it all. It is silly for a Christian to approach reality as if all spiritual claims are automatically bunk.
We know better. And whatever human abilities are real, are designed by God to serve Christ’s glory under the direction of the Spirit. Just like physical strength.
Once upon a time, many moons ago, someone asked, “What’s the bare minimum that a person would need to believe in order to be saved?”
Some of us, myself among them, were silly enough to venture an answer to that question. I have since repented.
There are two problems with this question, one exegetical and one practical. The exegetical problem is that the Scriptures never answer the question directly, which makes it very difficult to substantiate a “Thus saith the Lord” answer — which, in this case, would be the only answer worth fighting over. An answer based on theological reasoning isn’t out of the question — logical consequence is fair game in theology — but difficult, in that it’s easy enough to put forth an answer, but very hard to rule out competing answers. Thus far, nobody’s in any danger of decisively winning that argument.
But the practical problem with the question is the real clincher: why would you want to give anybody the bare minimum? Where does the Bible suggest giving no extra? No matter what you think the bare minimum is, you will find very few, if any, biblical passages that present only your bare minimum content. Meanwhile, there will be many, many passages that present additional (from your perspective, “extra”) content, and even more damaging, a number of passages that leave out something you regard as essential.
But over here in the real world, we don’t aim to convert anybody to a minimum understanding. We want them to get all of Jesus that they possibly can. We want them to know Jesus, and the more of His word we can give them, the better.
I had occasion to preach at Faith Community Littleton this past Sunday. When I teach people how to make disciples, I tell them I’m from the “open a vein” school of discipleship: we don’t teach in the abstract, we invite people into our own struggles and let them see God at work in real time. Well, this was an “open a vein” sermon. It may be the least polished thing I’ve ever preached.
When a human man and a human woman make a baby, what kind of baby do they make?
A human baby.
Frogs make more frogs, fish make more fish, and dragonflies make more dragonflies. Like begets like; you reproduce what you are.
The same is true in education. When I was learning to be a school bus driver, all my instructors were school bus drivers. When I went to massage therapy school, all my teachers without exception were massage therapists.
Makes sense, right?
So if you want to be a professor, it makes all the sense in the world to spend years of your life with professors. How else would you learn to be one? It takes a group of academics to make an academic; how else would you get one?
But if you want to be a practitioner, you need to spend time with practitioners. Nothing is sillier than thinking you can spend three to four years in classrooms with professional academics and emerge a fully-formed ministry practitioner. In what other context would you accept such a ludicrous idea?
I had occasion to finally summarize my research and teaching on baptism over the past decade or so. Here it is.