On Loving Your Neighbor October 23, 2013

“The Lord commands us to do ‘good unto all men,’ universally, a great part of whom, estimated according to their own merits, are very undeserving; but here the Scripture assists us with an excellent rule, when it inculcates, that we must not regard the intrinsic merit of men, but must consider the image of God in them, to which we owe all possible honor and love; but that this image is most carefully to be observed in them ‘who are of the household of faith,’ inasmuch as it is renewed and restored by the Spirit of Christ.

“Whoever, therefore, is presented to you that needs your kind offices, you have no reason to refuse him your assistance. Say he is a stranger; yet the Lord has impressed on him a character which ought to be familiar to you; for which reason he forbids you to despise your own flesh. Say that he is contemptible and worthless; but the Lord shows him to be one whom he has deigned to grace with his own image. Say that you are obliged to him for no services; but God has made him, as it were, His substitute, to whom you acknowledge yourself to be under obligations for numerous and important benefits. Say that he is unworthy of your making the smallest exertion on his account; but the image of God, by which he is recommended to you, deserves your surrender of yourself and all that you possess.

“If he not only deserved no favor, but, on the contrary, has provoked you with injuries and insults—even this is no just reason why you should cease to embrace him with your affection, and to perform to him the offices of love. He has deserved, you will say, very different treatment from me. But what has the Lord deserved, who, when He commands you to forgive all men their offences against you, certainly intends that they should be charged to Himself?”

~ John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

Posted by Justin Lonas

Of Owls and Earpieces: The Praying Christian as Special Agent July 31, 2013

We don’t watch a ton of television at our house, so please take any sweeping cultural observations I may make with ample salt. Of the few programs I do watch, some of my favorites tend to be of the hour-long crime/investigation genre—I enjoy their taut and entrapping screenplays and the fact that most (due to their themes of good, bad, and justice) still have some moral ballast keeping them upright amid the sewage of pop culture.

One recurring theme of these series is the heroes’ use of a concealed earpiece that keeps them directly connected to headquarters as they go about their derring-do. I suppose Jack Bauer started it, but now such technology is S.O.P.—presumably in real law enforcement and military agencies as well as the fictional. Hackneyed though it is through repetition, it really is fascinating. Of course, in the context of the show, this simple innovation gives them a sort of superhuman knowledge of their location, the enemy’s strength, and available escape routes, not to mention instant access to backup forces.

I don’t think anybody pulls this shtick off better than Jim Caviezel’s Mr. Reese on Person of Interest (shameless plug: this is my favorite show currently being broadcast in the U. S.). With this constant link to his partner and consummate hacker Harold Finch and his surveillance supercomputer (the Orwellian “Machine”), Reese enters the most inhospitable places with preternatural calm. Though often comically outnumbered and outgunned, he almost always manages to turn the tables, rescuing yet another helpless victim while leaving the bad guys crippled. You’d think it would get old, as this scene replays itself with minimal variation at least once an episode, but there is something winsome about watching one man overcome such hurdles simply because he has access to insight hidden from his foes.

The spiritual overtones of this hit me the other day while listening to Josh Garrels’ song, “White Owl” (another shameless plug: his Love & War & the Sea in between is one of the best albums of God-honoring music I’ve heard in years). In a sense, this sort of action goes on each day in the lives of believers through the miracle of prayer. To a somewhat eerie tune, Garrels sings:

When the night comes,
and you don’t know which way to go
Through the shadowlands,
and forgotten paths,
you will find a road

Like an owl you must fly by moonlight with an open eye,
And use your instinct as a guide, to navigate the ways that lays before you,
You were born to, take the greatest flight

Like a serpent and a dove, you will have wisdom born of love
To carry visions from above into the places no man dares to follow
Every hollow in the dark of night
Waiting for the light
Take the flame tonight

Like a messenger of peace, the beauty waits be released
Upon the sacred path you keep, leading deeper into the unveiling
As your sailing, across the great divide

Like a wolf at midnight howls, you use your voice in darkest hours
To break the silence and the power, holding back the others from their glory
Every story will be written soon
The blood is on the moon
Morning will come soon

Child the time has come for you to go
You will never be alone
Every dream that you have been shown
Will be like living stone
Building you into a home
A shelter from the storm

© 2011, Josh Garrels. All rights reserved.

His imagery pinpoints the nature of walking with Christ in a sin-darkened world. The way is treacherous, the light is dim, but the Christian is not walking blind like the worldlings all around, he is an owl—perfectly prepared to thrive in just such circumstances. Because he is in Christ and filled with the Spirit, there is nothing this world can throw at a believer that can compromise his mission.

Unlike the TV “earpiece heroes”, Christians have access not just to a friend or central office, but to the Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler of the universe. Our connection to Him is not restricted by signal strength or distance from the source; it cannot be disabled by power failure or confiscated during a strip-search; it reaches across oceans and through prison walls. This is not some sort of invention or adaptation we can conjure by our own strength, but it was bought at the price of Christ’s own blood and is freely given to us.

It is the power in which Stephen held forth from the Scriptures at his own execution (Acts 7), in which Peter was led out of prison right past the guards (Acts 12), and in which Paul and Silas prayed and sang until an earthquake uprooted the very foundation to which they were chained (Acts 16). It is in this discreet strength that missionaries boldly take the Gospel into hostile cultures, pastors bring the fire of God’s Word to languid congregations, and persecuted families rejoice in the face of torture and incarceration.

These examples and our own experience should convince us that we should never undertake anything without first tuning in to “headquarters” for direction. Why, then, do we so often neglect to pray, doing our best to turn off or ignore the Spirit’s prodding for us to open the line? Why do we insist on plunging headlong into the challenges of life without our most critical and hard-won asset? What is the point of being a spiritual “Secret Agent Man” if you refuse to participate in mission briefings or to bring along the necessary equipment for the task?

If I do what I do in the power of God, fully submitted to His will, there is nothing for me to boast on those rare occasions when things turn out well. The counterpoint, of course, is that there is no one to blame but myself for all the other failures. The Gospel unburdens us of that crushing defeat, but only at the cost of our pride. Lord, grant us the wisdom to pray, trust, and obey as we navigate this world.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Moviegoing and Ministry April 9, 2013

Distill all the characteristics of American culture into one word, and you’ll likely find grandiosity. “Bigger is better,” “Go big or go home,” “Too big to fail,” and the like are our taglines of choice. Anything we do is bound to be better if you toss a “mega”, “super”, or “hyper” out front.

Neither is the Church immune to this phenomenon (witness “megachurches” and “celebrity pastors” in case you have any doubts). It cuts across theological and denominational lines, to the point that we are not even aware of it or how it colors our ministry. An implicit code demands every event or project we undertake to be thoroughly planned, promoted, hyped, executed, well-attended, and measurable. If any step of that procedure is given short shrift, we question whether anything “really” happened.

Over 50 years ago, novelist Walker Percy fingered the wrist of post-WWII America to find this idea pulsing within.

In The Moviegoer, Percy paints his protagonist, Binx Bolling, as a dislocated individual—lost in suburbia and the art of moneymaking, yet oddly ill at ease with nearly every aspect of existence. Binx seeks significance and transcendence in watching and re-watching popular movies; the shared world of mass culture is more real to him than anything else. Through Binx (and one scene in particular where William Holden’s presence brightens an otherwise dull afternoon in the French Quarter), Percy describes how people and places are authenticated, not by their actual nature, but only when they are acknowledged by the transcendent reality of Hollywood.

This desire for worldly significance, to be on the radar of the kingmakers of politics and mass media, afflicts almost all Americans, and it has only metastasized since Percy first diagnosed it. Only rarely do we see it outright; more often it seeps into our thoughts and actions with hidden designs for otherwise innocent and noble work.

The situation is no better in the Church, and, if I’m honest, in my own heart.

Do we gobble up books, videos, blogs, and conferences featuring the best and brightest pastors because we earnestly desire to grow in appreciation and understanding of the Gospel or because we hope being close to these men & women and their ideas rubs off some “real” ministry on us? Do we rush to donate time and resources to relief after a natural disaster out of genuine concern for the suffering of the victims or because we want great stories about how “we were there” to tell our family and friends? Do we promote our writing and church services through social media in order to benefit others or to pad our own egos?

These are fine lines, and, though we should check our motives often, we should never stop doing good things. Still, these temptations tug at us, urging us to be double-minded. We want so desperately to be noticed, to be certified by our peers and a watching world as “real”.

The problem is that “real” ministry does exist, and it often looks a lot like hard work and patient suffering with few observable results. “Real” ministry often takes place far from the cameras and microphones, away from the chattering hordes of Twitter and Facebook.

Our cultural blinders are so strong that we often miss the work God has put directly in front of us while we crane our necks to see if our true calling might be just around the bend. Even when we recognize the ministry at hand, we might give less than our full effort, treating the people we serve as stepping stones. The local church becomes a training ground where we wait to be called up to the big leagues with a book deal or a spot on the staff of a well-known church. Even if ambition lies closer to home, the chimera of a vibrant and growing church entices many to water down or sideline the Gospel for the sake of “success”.

As the story of The Moviegoer progresses, Binx’s discomfort with life and detachment from everyday responsibilities are upended by a series of events and choices that force him to reengage with the world around him. His catharsis comes as he turns from projecting himself into the illusory world of movies to become a director of sorts.  In the unfolding metaphor, Binx begins producing the project of his life, framing shots and executing takes for the benefit of those closest to him, leaving his former idols on the cutting room floor, and God alone in the theater audience.

In the same way, “real” ministry requires us first to recognize that God alone determines reality. When He calls us, it is according to His plan for His glory—not our plan for ours. There is an artistry to living faithfully and sacrificially among the people God places in our care that, though it is seldom celebrated on earth, “is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).

There is nothing wrong with growing or well-known ministries—God uses faithful people, big and small. The problem is when we see one as more valuable than the other, forgetting that neither is anything but for the cross of Christ. Obey God where you’re at, and if you get noticed, don’t change a thing.

Note: For a piercing look at “real” ministry, I cannot recommend this book enough.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Technopoly, Sourdough, and Worship January 31, 2013

Neil Postman didn’t set out to write theology when he published Technopoly back in 1992, but I’ve seldom read theology that more accurately describes man and his flight from God. His classic critique of the unexamined acceptance and celebration of technology has helped me see just why it is that I find it so difficult to worship, pray, and otherwise give God His proper due in my daily life.

Though I confess to more than a few Luddite sympathies, neither Postman nor I are strictly “anti-technology”—broadly defined, technology (from the shepherd’s staff and the farmer’s plow on up) can be a tremendously useful piece of our mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. Still, he urges caution, reminding us that the things we create to make our lives (ostensibly) easier and better always have unintended consequences, ranging in severity from the annoying to the catastrophic. Even the purported goods of a technology often reshape our world in ways that cause us to sacrifice skills and wisdom to its given mode of operation.

In particular, reading Postman has illuminated three things for me.

First, his idea of “invisible” innovations (i.e. things which once did not exist but now slide below our radar as part of “the way things are”), like the numeral zero, chemical contraception, or antibiotics,  alter our concepts of space, time, reality, and control. It’s easy for us to be wary and skeptical of big, visible technologies (say, atomic weapons), but it’s often the little things that have the biggest impact on our thinking over time. His ideas here have found eerie vindication in recent years as neurological studies have shown how our brains are actually “rewired” by the technologies we employ (see here, here, and here for just a few examples). We have to be careful to consider the implications and consequences of every new technology we allow into our lives, and this takes time, research, thought, and prayer.

Technopoly provides a good reminder that Marshall McLuhan’s warning that “the medium is the message” is as true as ever–in the technological realm, this is expressed in the idea that everything looks like a nail to a man wielding a hammer. We are always tempted to accomplish every task presented to us by means our favored gadgets (or schools of thought–even our categories for ideas are a technology of sorts). This gives Christians wishing to “engage the culture” a warning to avoid doing so through any technological means that demeans the message of the Gospel or reduces it to the same level as trivial things. There is a level at which the Word of God and Christianity as a whole will never be welcome within a fully technological world because the establishment can have no other gods before it.

Second, Postman shows how, the more and more technological (vs. physical/organic) our societies become, the more we are governed by the tyranny of statistics. If something is not trackable, quantifiable, and sortable, we are duped into believing that it must be somehow less than real. The dangers of this idea for the ministry of the Gospel are profound. In a world ordered this way, which makes more sense (and brings in more donations)? A ministry strategy that can point to x conversions, y recommitments, and z baptisms or a ministry that patiently wades through the morass of sin in the human heart to bring a handful of men and women to a saving and lasting faith in Christ over the course of decades? Leaving the 99 to reach the 1 doesn’t add up in the statistical realm.

Third, though Postman was not, to my knowledge, a Christian, he understood that people are designed to uncritically trust in something, giving it their full confidence and shaping their lives around its constancy. For much of human history, this trust was placed in the supernatural–whether in the One True God or in various false “gods”–men understood that there were things beyond themselves that they could not subdue, so they worshipped. Once that trust gets dislodged by doubt, desire, or dominion, however, Postman observed that it drifts from place to place. In our present era, it has landed on science and technology–there is no suffering under the sun that a new innovation will not ameliorate, no problem the experts cannot answer.

The trouble is that this new foundation is unstable, being wholly unsuited to the weight of the world placed on its shoulders. Once our technopoly (that is, the reign of technology) collapses, as it someday must, Postman fears mankind’s confidence may collapse with it, leading to despair and desolation.

As with most cultural critics, Postman is far better at diagnosing the problem than prescribing an effective solution, and Technopoly (like many of his other works) bequeaths that task to his readers.

The one thing that gives me hope after reading Postman (and a quick glance out the window to be reminded that his social observations were spot on and the phenomena he described decades ago are now in full flower) is that he doesn’t factor the actual existence and influence of God into his equations. God is not merely a pillar of support imagined by ancient man, but the Creator and sustainer of all there is. That’s why all such secular “doomsday” scenarios seem somewhat hokey to me–if tomorrow the worldwide power grid crumbled, God would still be on His throne, and my responsibilities before Him are still the same.

The challenge of worship in a still-functioning technopoly, however, is to remember that God is on His throne even when the whizbangery of the day wants me to believe that the apparent authority it has over me is absolute. This means shutting down, logging off, etc. is as important a spiritual discipline as anything else because it is a prerequisite of any of the others–I’ve never truly prayed, worshipped, or meditated on the Word while in the thrall of the digital.

A little lesson in this came to me over this past month. For Christmas, my wife contacted an old friend of mine–a baker–and arranged for me to spend the afternoon with him learning the art of sourdough bread-making. Since then, I’ve spent part of every weekend corralling “wild” microbes, kneading them into dough, and waiting for the mythos of fermentation and a 450-degree oven to turn this pungent goo into a loaf of bread worthy of the king’s table.  Once you’ve tasted this stuff, going back to the mass-produced air bubbles we call “bread” in this culture is not an option.

It’s been a visual reminder that the old ways can still be good ways (people have been making bread this way since time immemorial–it is a way to work with, rather than around, the created order of things) and that efficiency is not always synonymous with speed and volume. Just because something is billed as “the best thing since sliced bread” doesn’t make it a net good for your life. Next time somebody tries to sell you that lot, stop and ponder whether you’d rather choke down store-bought simplicity  or something better and more valuable than convenience can comprehend.

Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city the watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep” (Ps. 127:1-2).

Posted by Justin Lonas

N. B. – For a good reflection on technological issues from a Christian perspective (that also takes into account the current digital revolution), I highly recommend Tim Challies’ The Next Story.

Top Ten Books–2012 Edition December 20, 2012

Like a lot of writers and editors, I spend a great deal of my time reading news and opinion articles, essays, books, blog posts, and more. Much of what I read is for the benefit of Disciple readers–it’s hard to know what to publish if you don’t keep up with what’s going on in the world and the Church. Additionally, a huge chunk of reading time is devoted to studying God’s Word and theology–knowledge is not the be-all-end-all of Christian life by any means, but it’s hard to live rightly if you don’t know truth. Finally, some of the material that passes my eyes is simply to gain perspective on the wider world, to find new examples of faith and courage through biography, to see truth and lies played out in fiction, etc. All good writing, should teach as well as delight, and as with nourishment, a balanced diet of reading keeps our minds healthy, active, and productive.

What follows are 10(ish) of the best books I encountered in 2012, in alphabetical order. These books are not all from Christian publishers (or authors), but they each blessed me in some way. Also, most of these books were not published this year, but simply made their way to the top of  my “to-read” list at some point in the year.

1. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy, by Eric Metaxas

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had always lurked on the periphery of my understanding of Church life. I’ve read snippets of Discipleship and Life Together, and some of his ideas therein have given voice to some powerful convictions about what it means to love God and neighbor. Metaxas’ biography opened up Bonhoeffer’s life, giving weight to his words by showing the faithful, heroic, consistency of his commitment to God and His Word. Bonhoeffer’s understanding that belief in God and obedience to Him are inseparable is on full display in the story of his stand for truth and love–even unto death–against Hitler and the evil he unleashed on the world. Full review here. As an aside, Eric Metaxas came to speak for our parent organization’s 70th anniversary in November, and I got to have dinner with this thoughtful, kind, and humorous man.

2. Civilization: The West and the Rest, by Niall Ferguson.

Ferguson examines the triumph of Western Civilization in the last half-millennium, identifying 6 “killer apps” that propelled development in the West above and beyond the other major world powers of the early modern era: 1) Competition, 2) Science, 3) Property Rights, 4) Medicine, 5) The Consumer Society, and 6) The Work Ethic. He analyzes modern history though this rubric, offering example after example of how these phenomena took root in the West, but were ignored or suppressed in the majority world. Today, he argues, the West has forgotten these institutions and begun to decline, whereas the “Rest” have beaten the West at its own game by downloading them. His thesis definitely seems to hold water, and his warning to Westerners to recapture the foundations of their prosperity and culture before it is too late is especially prescient.

3. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Really Matters, by Timothy Keller

I read this at the recommendation of an old and trusted friend, and I wasn’t disappointed. Like other works of Keller’s that I’ve read, this book is short, to the point, and bold in its approach to its subject. He pares away rhetorical flourishes, side-notes, allusions, and deeper discussions to cut to the chase–a bruising theological argument that all sin begins with idolatry. He shows how our sinful hearts can manufacture idols from anything, turning finite things (even, or especially, good things) into ultimate things, the loss of which sends us spiraling into despair. An excellent prompt to reflect, repent, and fix your hope on Christ alone. Full review here.

4. The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness, by Kevin DeYoung

DeYoung’s latest book is an challenging and loving corrective of what he observes as a diminished concern for living according to God’s standards among today’s Christians, particularly those who claim the Gospel message–that we are not saved by works but solely through God’s grace–most deeply. He points out that the Law of God has a much larger purpose than simply to show us God’s standard (though it does), to convict us of sin (though it does), or to remind us of how unattainable perfect righteousness is apart from Christ (which it does very well indeed). He argues the rather obvious point that God’s Law should also give us a direction in which to strive to be like Christ, that believers can and should live in a way that pleases God. Full review here.

5. The Holiness of God, by R. C. Sproul

Somehow, I’d never read this book until this year, but I’m glad not to have attempted it before having some good life experience to properly appreciate God’s power and perfection beyond the “Sunday school” understanding. Sproul mines Scripture to portray God as He is–the infinite, perfect, uncreated God of the universe who created the heavens and the earth and sustains them by His Word, and cannot abide sin. He shows that the great mystery of theology and philosophy rests in the fact that this same God chooses to reveal Himself to sinful men in explicit terms and desires to be reconciled to them. Sproul is at his finest here, inviting readers to come and lose themselves in awe as they contemplate their maker, what He has done for them, and what He asks of them. Full review here.

6. Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry

I’ve long appreciated Wendell Berry’s essays on the nature of life, society, and agriculture. In today’s rapidly-urbanizing world, he offers a voice of opposition, encouraging us not to forget the land that produces our food and to think about what we stand to lose with each technological and political innovation. He has also written a large body of fiction, much of which is centered around the fictional town of Port William, Ky. (modeled on his own hometown). Jayber Crow, is one story in that group, meditating on life and the upheaval that “progress” brings to a community. As powerful a picture as any I’ve read of what we’ve lost as a culture in speeding up our lives and of what we stand to gain by slowing them back down.

7. Technopoly, by Neil Postman and The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion, by Tim Challies

Postman’s Technopoly was a “town crier” announcing the arrival of an age in which mankind began to trust machines rather than gods or even human reason. He makes a compelling case for the dangerous proliferation of information and technology to the point where all power and authority in our lives is ceded to human inventions and the “experts” who operate them. Where Postman’s critique comes up short is in his disbelief in the existence of an all-powerful creator who holds all things, even the man-made doomsday of technology, in His hands. The Next Story is Tim Challies’ effort to echo and amend Postman’s warning  for Christians who, even though we cling to God and His salvation, can be seduced and distracted by technology and information overload. Taken together, these two books give us a healthy skepticism toward technology (which is desperately needed in today’s world), but also a framework to become what Postman calls “loving resistance fighters” for the art of living well in the midst of a changed world.  Full review of Challies here.

8. Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ, by Russell D. Moore

Books on sin and temptation typically don’t “hit the spot” for us–we’d rather focus on the good things Christ brings than the dark depravity from which He saved us. Moore helpfully breaks that silence, delineating between temptation (which even Christ endured) and giving in to its call (sin), and challenging Christians to find strength for the resistance in Christ’s own battle with Satan in the desert. He writes with an uncannily clear vision of the human soul, piercing our false ideas and shining the light of the Gospel into the recesses of our hearts. This is not a  ”how-to” on the “victorious Christian life”, but an invitation to see ourselves daily as sinners in need of a Savior. Full review here.

9. The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell’s social psychology trilogy delves into the nature of how men and women make decisions, find success in their pursuits, and effectively change the world through communication. In each of these volumes, he cautions us not to take the world we see at face value, but to think critically about the ways we process information and act on it. These three books ought to be required reading for any professional, as the findings he discusses have tremendous implications for the way we do business, industry, politics, and even Christian ministry are profound. Gladwell eloquently challenges our assumptions about the world and hopefully urges us learn and grow for improvement of our lives.

10. Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life, by Douglas Wilson

Great stuff for writers here, but good thoughts on human communication in general. We all write at least something on a regular basis–as Wilson put it, without words we’d be left with just pointing and grunting–so it behooves us to do a good job in whatever medium we’re using to say what’s on our minds. If you write (or speak) for a living, this goes on the must-read list, and I’d give it a hearty recommendation for everyone else as well. This short little book is far more than just a manual for better writing; Wilson calls us as Christians to be truthful and winsome in how we tell God’s story (and the millions of little stories that point to it) to the world.

Posted by Justin Lonas

When Silence Isn’t an Option October 31, 2012

I don’t usually use this space to comment on local issues, but something has come up here in Chattanooga that is a microcosm of the larger cultural fault-line of abortion.

This cartoon appeared in Sunday’s edition of our local newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Warning, this is (in my view) a very offensive image.

To be fair to the newspaper’s editorial staff, the local backdrop of this issue is the very unfortunate case of Dr. Scott DesJarlais, a Republican U. S. Congressman representing a neighboring district. DesJarlais was supported by the Tea Party in 2010, winning his seat by campaigning on the pro-life, low tax, limited government platform that most voters in East Tennessee identify with. In this year’s re-election campaign, however, a recording surfaced of a conversation between DesJarlais and a female patient of his with whom he had committed adultery. In the recording, the woman claimed to be pregnant with his child, and DesJarlais pressured her to have an abortion. The hypocrisy that this exposed has cost him all credibility with the people of his district, turned his locked-in reelection into a fight for survival, and given more ammunition to opponents of the Church and Christian values.

This cartoon exemplified for me the harsh, anti-conservative and anti-Christian turn the pro-abortion forces have taken this election year. The local situation notwithstanding, I thought the cartoon was totally uncalled for. I haven’t written much about this issue as it has played out at the national level this year, but as a firm believer in Tip O’Neill’s observation that “all politics is local”, I undertook to write to the Times Free Press editorial board and register dissent with their choice to display such a hateful image. Please note that being a Christian should never be equated with being a Republican, but the Republican platform on abortion has been consistently shaped by Christians seeking to restore a respect for and protection of God’s image-bearers in our culture.

Below is my letter to the editor, which may or may not show up in the paper, but which I want to share here to encourage Christians around the country not to take such attacks from the media lying down.

To the TFP editorial staff,

Sunday’s editorial cartoon by Clay Bennett was predictably left-wing, more tasteless than usual, and untruthful to the point of libel.

As a longtime reader of the Times Free Press, I’m well familiar with Bennett’s style and politics, and very little that he produces surprises me. He is a talented artist, but I’m sure I’m not the only Chattanoogan who finds his relentless ax-grinding for Democratic Party politics and liberal social issues a poor fit for this community. Still, he is entitled to his opinions and I fully support his right to express them.

When a cartoon so deliberately crafted to goad many (if not most) people in your readership area to anger is run on the front of the Perspectives section with no comment from the editorial staff or space given to an opposing viewpoint, my beef is with the TFP editorial board, not with Mr. Bennett. Cartoons are by nature stand-alone pieces not requiring further commentary, but this absolutely humorless depiction of Republicans as supporters of gruesome back-alley woman mangling and child murder crossed a line that should exempt it from the usual “free pass” afforded to a cartoon. I have trouble believing that the TFP or any other major news outlet would run a written editorial expressing those ideas with the same level of vitriol at all, and certainly not without running a corresponding piece from a pro-life source.

More than the tactlessness, Bennett’s complete misrepresentation of a conservative position on life prompted me to write. The insinuation that political action toward the end of protecting children from abortion must mean 1) that proponents of life wish unspeakable harm to women who become pregnant against their wishes or when they feel helpless to care for a child, and 2) that pro-life conservatives have no compassion whatsoever is hateful and uninformed. Conservatives, particularly Christian conservatives, do so much to protect life (both of mothers and babies).

If the staff of the TFP cared to look, Chattanooga is filled with examples of people giving of their time and resources to help women break the cycle of unintended pregnancy and abortion. The wonderful people at Choices Pregnancy Resource Center (who provide counseling and assistance with prenatal care) and Bethany Christian Services (who work tirelessly to place children with loving foster families and adoptive parents) spring immediately to mind, and I’m sure there are many other smaller organizations and church ministries striving for the same goals. In my own circle of friends at church and at work, I know many families who have sacrificed tremendously to adopt and care for the “unwanted children” that might have been killed in the womb but for the intervention of the same conservatives Bennett skewered in his cartoon. The liberal establishment and the Times Free Press may believe that opposing legal abortion is simply an ivory-tower moralistic position that doesn’t stand up to reality. The truth is that the pro-life movement is filled with people who live out their beliefs at great personal cost to give every member of our society a chance to live their life and have their voice heard. This is apparently a privilege that Bennett takes for granted.

The TFP’s promotion of Bennett’s unanswered attack amounts to nothing more than a gleeful sucker punch of your host city by an editorial staff increasingly out of touch with the needs and values of the Chattanooga region. I offer this as a word of caution. A city of Chattanooga’s caliber deserves a thoughtful, thoroughgoing, and well-managed media presence. If the Times Free Press chooses to become a mouthpiece of only the liberals in the city, another media outlet will grow to fill the middle ground, taking more and more readers out of your circulation and making it more and more difficult to provide the services you promise. It would be a very sad end for a publication with such an august history.

Sincerely,

Justin Lonas
East Ridge

Posted by Justin Lonas

Politics and Faith on Election Day October 10, 2012

Originally published in Pulpit Helps, November 2008, and updated for Disciple Magazine, October 2010.

It seems as though many who’ve encountered Christ, from the very beginning, have confused His mission with political solutions to the world’s problems. From Herod’s violent reaction to the perceived threat of the King’s birth (Matt. 2) to the crowd Jesus fed who then sought to make Him king (John 6:15) to the general perception that He had come to establish an earthly kingdom (exemplified by the disciples misunderstanding of His death in John 20:9-10), men have misinterpreted the Kingdom of God according to their own vision.

Through the centuries, we see this pattern repeated—in Constantine, the aggregation of power in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, the Crusades, the alliance between Church and state through most of modern European history, etc. While in America the relationship between religion and politics was designed to be more distant than in the nations of our forebears, there is still significant overlap. In this heated election season, both sides are quick to invoke God and reach out to the Christian community. The tendency to assign God to a political party and vote accordingly is pervasive—but that’s not what He calls us to.

While there are certain issues never to be compromised on (i.e.—protecting the sanctity of life), almost all political positions involve man’s ideas and plans and therefore are likely to be fundamentally flawed. When we passionately identify ourselves as a Church with any party, we can cheapen our witness by allying ourselves with unbiblical policies and programs. Such a commitment detracts from our ability to reach the lost by creating additional stumbling blocks for unbelievers. Those uncomfortable with being confronted about their need for a Savior will be that much more resistant to that message delivered by someone who is perceived as a political opponent. “The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” (1 Cor. 1:18a)—why would we want to make it more difficult for someone to come to the Truth?

At the risk of oversimplification, Americans tend to take one of two approaches in this arena, both of which are damaging to the Gospel. 1) We cherish our religious freedom and we believe that it is the government’s job to enforce morality in the culture, or 2) We cherish the work of Christ and we believe it is the government’s job to do justice and love mercy.

When we succumb to the first approach, we show a watching world that Christianity is not as important in society as general conservatism and that we don’t trust God to redeem men from the inside out as He has always done. When we fall to the second, we show the world that Christianity is less about personal sacrifice and more about making sure someone else takes up their cross and gives involuntarily to the poor and needy through taxes. We show that we don’t trust God to move His Church to live out His kingdom. In either case, we show a willingness to compromise certain key teachings of Christ in order to advance a temporal agenda.

Both approaches belie a fundamental distrust of God’s view of things—if there is one theme that Jesus hit over and over again during His ministry, it was that His kingdom was not of this world. He had eternity in view in everything He did, and Christian involvement in politics can easily devolve into idolatry of the present and visible over the permanent and invisible.

Politics is, fundamentally, about gaining and leveraging power. It revolves around the ability to make others do what you want them to, the desire to protect your interests, and a belief that we must solve our own problems rather than allowing God to work in His time. Christ calls us rather to settle offenses personally and quickly (Matt. 5: 21-26), to graciously accept persecution and go the extra mile (Matt. 5:38-42), to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48), to trust God to reward righteousness practiced in secret (Matt. 6:1-6), and to treat others as we would like to be treated (Matt. 7:12).

Most of all, He has called us to be fishers of men and to make disciples. Men’s hearts are not changed through political action, but by the work of the Spirit. Accordingly, that should be the focus of our lives and work. If we focus on political solutions to the problems facing the world, we forfeit opportunities to show Christ through service. Governments can provide many services, but without the ability to address the base-level need of humanity, they can never make men whole.

As dangerous an animal as politics can be, it is important to distinguish it from governing authority. Though it is difficult to separate the two in our country, there is an important distinction—governments are instituted by God to preserve order, punish evildoers, and protect the weak. As such, we are told to submit to them (Titus 3:1, Rom. 13:1) to pay our taxes (Rom. 13:6-7) and to pray for our leaders (1 Tim. 2:2). These passages assume the absolute despotism of the day as the norm and that citizenry has but two choices—obedience and disobedience. The concept of representative government of, by, and for the people (cherished though it may be by most Americans) is not given a category in Scripture. We struggle with this, in short, because we are torn between the submission and prayer commanded of us and the very tangible ability to change things through political action.

As in all professions, God has placed many of His servants in the realm of government. Working with authorities to achieve godly goals is noble and right (as we see in Daniel and Esther) when it is a part of our primary goal of following Him and spreading His Truth. Through such action, William Wilberforce was able to lead the movement to eradicate slavery in the British Empire and stir a revival of true Christianity in that nation. Christians working within governments have helped save untold thousands of lives around the world through disease prevention, aid programs, and peace negotiations, giving men the opportunity to live to hear the Truth. In our own day, believers fight valiantly for the right of unborn children to live, both politically and practically (through adoption and crisis pregnancy centers).

These two temptations—to believe that politics can solve all our problems or to believe that God never uses political action to advance His plans—are always knocking at our door. Even as we seek to focus on our primary mission as His Church, we must be careful to recognize that God’s will and the authorities He set over us are not always in conflict. As we head into the voting booth soon, let us strive to vote according to scriptural principles, but remember that no party or candidate has a platform that wholly conforms to God’s commands. No matter the outcome, our responsibility is to trust the Lord’s sovereignty, submit to and intercede for those He places over us, and be about His business in all aspects of life—not just in the ballot box.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Book Review: A Great Missionary Biography August 23, 2012

The Yankee Officer and the Southern Belle: A Journey of Love across Africa, Nell Robertson Chinchen, 2012, Christian Focus Publications, Faern, Scotland, ISBN 9781845509217, 175 pages, $12.99, softcover.

Serving as a part of a missions organization, my coworkers and I have the opportunity to hear so many firsthand stories of the incredible power of God to use individuals, families, churches, and institutions to proclaim His Gospel and redeem people from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. This is a source of great joy, but also a danger—if you’re not careful, you can grow numb to the eternal significance of this. This can happen even in wonderfully missions-focused churches, and every Christian should be on guard to keep themselves uncalloused.

A good missionary biography can be an excellent tool to refresh the sheer wonder at the work of God that we as believers should enjoy. Nell Robertson Chinchen’s The Yankee Officer and the Southern Belle serves admirably for this. The Chinchen family’s story of spiritual growth from complacent churchgoing to pastoral ministry to pioneering missionary work across Africa offers example after example of God’s radical faithfulness to His obedient servants.

In the book, Chinchen recounts her family’s journey into a lifetime of missionary work over the course of dozens of short stories. It would be impossible to miss the Lord’s guidance of every step of their move to the jungles of Liberia, the establishment of the African Bible College there and (later) in Malawi and Uganda, and the blossoming of their radio ministry, and Chinchen is careful to make sure readers know that He deserves all the glory.

Though the book’s anecdotal format seems to leave some gaps in the larger narrative of the Chinchens’ life and ministry (there is enough material there, to be sure, for a much longer book) and doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of their experience as one might hope, what shines through is the mighty hand of God in every facet of their work.

Chinchen shares how God opened doors for ministry by bringing “men of peace” to guide them through red tape and dangerous situations, how He miraculously provided land, equipment, and funding for every ministry need, and how He protected them through disease, fire, political unrest, and war. Her frank and funny style resonates well, and punctures the notion that missionaries must somehow be extraordinarily somber, hyper-spiritual people to be effective.

The reason I picked up this book is largely personal—I grew up in a church that supported the Chinchens. They were regulars at our congregational missions conferences, and I remember them coming over to my family’s house for meals when I was 9 or 10 years old. It seems like yesterday that we were praying for their safety during the Liberian Civil Wars and rejoicing with them at the Lord’s provision for a new African Bible College campus in Malawi. I can attest to their faith and infectious zeal for missions, and that comes through in the book.

The Yankee Officer and the Southern Belle should be a great encouragement to all believers to look up and see what God is doing, and perhaps even to respond to His call to “ go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). 

Type: Missions/Biography
Target: All
Take: Recommended

Posted by Justin Lonas

Theology, Thin-Slicing, and the Perils of Prejudice July 31, 2012

In his 2005 bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Canadian journalist Malcom Gladwell wrote about the neurological phenomenon of “thin-slicing”–the ability of humans to make remarkably accurate snap judgments about people, objects, and situations based on very little information. Thin-slicing, Gladwell says, helps us navigate daily life by equipping us to recognize friends and acquaintances, avoid danger (like visiting run-down buildings or eating spoiled food), and generally speed up our cognitive process (in essence, bypassing deeper thought about simple matters). Of course, like the rest of human nature, it has its drawbacks too: stereotyping and subjectivity to subliminal advertising messages come to mind.

Our propensity to thin-slice can make a muddle of social discourse. It is difficult for us to see the individual merits of someone who is from a different social class, race, or political party than we are or to rightly judge the merits of a specific action or argument because it is espoused by someone with whom we have profound disagreements in completely unrelated areas. These are not conscious decisions we make, but we can choose whether or not we allow our automatic thin-slicing to drive our slower, more reflective thought processes. We have to be willing to question our snap judgments, to “test the spirits” before we reach conclusions or take action.

In the Church, likewise, thin-slicing can be a blessing (quickly recognizing the fruit of the spirit in a believer’s life, having a “nose” for phony charities, etc.) and a curse (assuming guilt based on circumstantial evidence, interpreting Scripture out of context, etc.). Unchecked thin-slicing leads us into a host of theological, ecclesiastical, and personal prejudices that can often impede spiritual growth and provide justification for sin. I mean “prejudice” here in its classical sense (to pre-judge, to make decisions before gathering sufficient evidence), not, despite its modern connotations, “racist”, “hateful” or simply, “bad”. Neither is it prejudice to have many things settled in advance of evaluating a person or an idea. To hold to the authority of Scripture, for instance, in judging thoughts or behaviors as sinful is not prejudice but prudence–you are simply obeying the “ground rules” for debate and discussion set by the Maker of the universe. By contrast, however, it is indeed prejudice to impute sinful motives to a fellow believer simply because they hold to a position you don’t.

Christians need to be mindful of this tendency and the ways it influences discourse, both between the world and the Church and between believers within the Body.

I. Outside-In
In a culture given to ever more truncated communication, the substitution of cliches and sound-bites for dialogue is the rule of the day. The truth of the Gospel interrupts the noise, forcing everyone to engage with the person of Christ. The world recoils from that intrusion, quickly recognizing both Christ’s difference from itself and authority over it. There have always only been two options–repentance and submission or rejection and assault.

It should never catch us off guard when the world and those in its thrall pigeonhole Christians. We should more or less expect them to do everything possible to shut us down, drown us out, and keep us from applying the truth to their lives. We can either walk back our faith, kowtowing to their side and turning our backs on the God who saves, or we can stand firm. When we do that, the world’s next move is always to attack, and it should not take us by surprise in the least (see Matthew 10).

Nonbelievers often fail to think beyond their knee-jerk association of Christians with “badness”, hurling quick quips and distortions at the Church from a safe distance. They seldom engage in actual reading of the Bible or relationships with actual Christians in effort to discredit us–exposure to those things for many, as we are well aware, can have the unwanted side affect of conversion. Among their favorite tactics is to extrapolate the motives of every Christian’s heart from any example they can find of a “Christian” behaving badly or sharing views that run counter to the fruits of the Spirit. Nevermind that many of their favorite whipping boys were not Christian in any biblically recognizable sense and that most of the worst opinions ever held by Christians are the result of insufficiently sanctified minds (that is, Christians taking their cues from the world rather than from Christ).

In the world’s construct of reality, a Christian who lives out the love of Christ with the greatest of devotion (reaching out to the lost with the only thing that can truly make a difference in their lives: the offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone) is at best “intolerant” and at worst a bigot. Christians are only tolerated by the world when they dance to the world’s tune, pushing aside the demands of Scripture whenever the two are in conflict. Christians are told that we are only being “Christ-like” when we perform duties that any humanitarian would approve of (providing food, water, shelter, education, etc. to the poor or those in crisis). If we try to combine mercy ministries with the proclamation of the Gospel, we are marginalized and called hypocrites for offering those in need a “bait and switch” of some sort. If we focus our ministry on the truth of the Gospel, we are openly derided and constantly reminded about how Jesus was more concerned with actions than “doctrine”.

How should we relate to those who prejudice Christians and seek to tear us down? First, we have to remember that the people who attack us are acting in sin and have been made into agents of the Enemy by their rebellion against God. Our quarrel is not ultimately with them, and when we respond in kind to their thin-sliced judgments and catty harassment, we’re ceding Christ’s hard-won ground and souring them on the hope of redemption. Second, we cannot overemphasize personal holiness–the things we affirm as we seek to honor God and follow Him are going to raise the ire of the world, and it is of crucial importance that we maintain a standard of righteousness in our walk with God so that those who assail us in tearing down the truth cannot find any extra ammunition lying around.

II. Inside-Out
Far more dangerous is the often bitter infighting between Christians over theology, ecclesiology, politics, and the like. Too often, when we feel we have something important to say, we get on an ideological high horse and ride roughshod over anyone who disagrees on that particular point, brushing aside the 10,000 things we hold in common (most importantly the blood of Christ). When that happens, we show the outside world that their convictions are correct–Christians are just a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites on a succession of power trips who have nothing useful to contribute to “society”.

A distinction needs to be made between two types of Christian “infighting”.  The first kind is often just a covert operation of the larger tension between the world and the message of Christ. That is, the fight is not between two branches of Christianity, but between Christians who want to honor Christ above all and people who want to submit Christ to the world’s system and are using the Church as a tool to that end (the conservative/liberal divide in theology is a good example of this). By wearing the mask of infighting, such conflicts are among Satan’s best tactic for tearing down the faith in the world’s eyes. The second strain, squabbling between Christians over issues that are in fact important when both sides are genuinely trying to apply God’s Word and give Him glory, is where I’m addressing these remarks.

When we let our discussion and decision-making begin and end with our thin-sliced assessments of each other, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the intellectual laziness we’re engaging in. When we set up certain trigger words as our shibboleths, beyond which no discussion can pass, we close our hearts to what the Lord may be trying to teach us through debate and disagreement. When we surround ourselves with an echo chamber of only like-minded voices, we deprive the Body of Christ of the challenge of learning and growing, and the joy that comes from submitting our differences to our shared worship of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

Again, there are two primary points we forget at our peril.

First, no one is perfect. I know we’ve heard that before, but I don’t think we believe it–we expect our cohorts in the Church to attain a standard of personal and intellectual purity that is simply impossible this side of glory. When we remember this, however, we can move forward in a more honest dialogue that honors God who alone is holy. The fall means that every good gift of God is distorted, every solution has a dark underbelly, but also that many bad things can be redeemed. If we’re hoping for anything better in our churches than repentant, forgiven sinners, we’re bound to be disappointed. Paul’s words to the Corinthians (about church members suing one another) are instructive: “Actually, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren” (1 Cor. 6:7-8).

Second, remember how Scripture tells us to handle disagreements and sins. Jesus outlines a very specific process (private confrontation, confrontation by a few witnesses, public confrontation in the church, and excommunication if unrepentance persists) in Matthew 18:15-17. Paul, as fierce a contender for the truth as the Church ever produced, urges us in familial terms to rebuke one another in love (1 Tim. 5:1-2) and places very strict standards on how such charges are brought against church leaders (1 Tim. 5:19). What we see is that patience, thoroughness, and charitability are to be the defining features in our public responses to disagreements.

Conclusion
Both these lessons are crucial in today’s high-tech world. The walls between the world and the Church have been dissolved when it comes to online debates. Accountability is replaced by anonymity and darts are hurled from all sides. The pace with which controversies explode in the age of the internet pressures everyone with an opinion to weigh in within a day or two–why? Because they know that if they wait a week to pray, reflect, and research, no one will care anymore. If that is truly the case, we should always wait at least a week before we respond to anything–if we’re still confused, angry, and convinced someone was wrong, then we’ll have firm ground to deliver a well-formed response. If we’ve forgotten about it, it probably means that we should have–it wasn’t important enough to get our knickers in a wad over after all.

The reason this matters is wrapped up in the classic injunction to peace in the Church: “This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). I fear that we may be so angry, even if righteously, that we turn from God and bow to a favorite idol of modern man–being right, understood, and acclaimed. I fear that this idol is worshipped more than the God we all desire to serve and worship, and that is on full display when we fight in public. May God have mercy on us all.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Doc, Gospel, and the Gospel May 30, 2012

Growing up in Watauga County, North Carolina, you inevitably hear some really good folk and bluegrass music. It just seems like the natural soundtrack to green mountains and mist-filled valleys. In Watauga, especially, one name always epitomized the gold-standard of mountain music: hometown legend Doc Watson. Doc was a fixture on the nationwide folk circuit for the better part of 5 decades, winning 7 Grammy awards (plus a lifetime achievement award)  and the National Arts Medal. He was completely blind from early childhood, but made his way in the world quite capably with his other senses.

Doc passed on yesterday at 89, still picking and singing joyfully in his old age. It feels close to home for me, as his family homestead was just across the highway from my parents’ “homestead” (since 2006) in the little farm community of Deep Gap. The few times I crossed paths with Doc (more often at the grocery store than any place music-related), he seemed like a genuinely humble and grateful man–the simple fact that he was still living on his family land in Deep Gap after his fame attests to that.

Like many of his folk, bluegrass, and country contemporaries, Doc wrote or recorded a lot of spiritually themed music, what could broadly be termed “gospel” songs. It’s difficult to separate the biblical content from those genres, even in songs not explicitly about Christian concepts. The music, is, as Flannery O’Connor might say, “Christ-haunted” because of the deeply Christian culture that birthed it. I don’t know if Doc trusted Christ for his salvation or not, but I sincerely hope so. If the testimonies of those who knew him better and the frequency and passion with which he sang about the Gospel and the Church are any indication, my hope may be well founded. If so, he’s now living what he said once at a concert: ”When I leave this world…I’ll be able to see like you can, only maybe a bit more perfect.”

Can “gospel” music be simply a superficial nod to the Christian roots of our culture that doesn’t have anything to do with the true Gospel message? Of course, but I think it also can be an ember that keeps the cultural memory of God’s sovereign grace from fading completely. Satan loves to have nations relegate the truth of Scripture and the influence of the Church to their history or to certain subcultures. Even more, though, God wills to see nations transformed by His Gospel, and He uses even the histories and subcultures of those nations to plant seeds that can fan those embers into a flame once again.

I don’t want to be in the business of over-spiritualizing popular culture, but I do see a bright lining to the customarily dark clouds of American entertainment in the resurgence of traditional (or “Americana”) music over the past decade. Of course, the music itself doesn’t qualify as preaching. The seeds of the Gospel contained in that music won’t do much to change hearts and lives unless they are watered by clear, faithful teaching of God’s Word and modeled in the faithful witness of believers. We can appreciate the music as the creative spirit of the image of God, but we should also never forget that the message of all the best gospel songs needs to be delivered in person and expounded to take root.

If Doc was indeed a follower of Jesus, I’m sure he could think of no better legacy than that his music would be used to stir the calloused soul of America to seek her Creator. As he sang in a recording of an old hymn (below), so also we can know that our hope doesn’t depend on our culture or, thankfully, on our own merit. Ironically, perhaps, it is this knowledge of the end of our faith that makes the redemption of our culture and the salvation of our fellow men our greatest goal.

“Uncloudy Day”

O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,
O they tell me of a home far away;
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.

Refrain
O the land of cloudless day,
O the land of an uncloudy day,
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.

O they tell me of a home where my friends have gone,
O they tell me of that land far away,
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the uncloudy day.

Refrain

O they tell me of a King in His beauty there,
And they tell me that mine eyes shall behold
Where He sits on the throne that is whiter than snow,
In the city that is made of gold.

Refrain

O they tell me that He smiles on His children there,
And His smile drives their sorrows all away;
And they tell me that no tears ever come again
In that lovely land of uncloudy day.

Refrain

Posted by Justin Lonas

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