Fear Not

Fear not

In a culture where fear is ever-present and all-pervasive, we turn to almost anything to find comfort and to find help. There are a million things to be afraid of thanks to the internet and COVID; that number has tripled. 

One of the most repeated phrases in scripture is “fear not” “Do not be afraid.” It’s almost as if the God who created us knows us and knows that much of what we do is driven by the blasphemy of pessimism. This idea is that things are worse than we imagine that things will not end well and that the worst possible thing that can happen will happen. We are plagued by these doubts all the time. Daily we read of people who are being oppressed and killed around the world we know people around us who are struggling with addictions and sorrows. People we love dying of covid, cancer, and suicide takes a toll on our soul. 

The answer that we are given to combat this fear is false optimism. We are told to think happy thoughts, to avoid people with negative energy. In the church, it isn’t much better. Many famous churchmen say that positive confession changes things that our words create in the same way God created the world with his word. We are given the same false optimism the world offers only in attractive wrapping paper called faith. 

The problem with the false optimism the world offers us is that it avoids the difficulty through distraction. The problem with the false optimism the church offers as Chesterton says is that it tries “to prove that we fit in to the world.” We have an idea of how the world should be and to avoid the blasphemy of pessimism we settle for a cheap false optimism. We see the broken world needing mending a world and a life that if not cared for can be lost. We fail to see and understand that this world and this life were never ours they were never our possessions. They are signposts of another world. 

Gerard Manley Hopkins says it this way. 

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Our world is filled with the grandeur of God, charged with his glory. It isn’t great because He created it but because it continues to carry the beauty and glory of who he is from beginning to end. Its job is to point us to what can really help us in the middle of pandemics and pain. We are not citizens of this world. We were made for another world. This world despite the evil that men have done that despite the world bearing the smell of man and his sinful self-inflicted pain. 

Hopkins finishes his poem this way:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Hopkins says despite our best attempts to destroy the world we live in God’s creation is “never spent.” We have hope in two things. The first is that the God who created this world broods over it saturates it with his grace. God is watching over our world he is not distant he is close he is “bent over” not standing afar off and he ordains all things according to the counsel of his will. You are not your own and you are not alone.

Chesterton in Orthodoxy helps us from 100 years ago telling us that we were made for another world. 

 “The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring.”

The second is this world is not our home and our lives are not our own. When I heard I was in the wrong place my soul sang for joy. So powerful. If you have put your faith in Christ you are in the wrong place. So much of the fear we experience comes from a fear of losing was is temporal and failing to see that our lives are eternal. The revelation that this world is not our home and our lives are not our own should produce in us contentment in this life and at the same time discontented homesickness for the next. 

The One Thing the Church Must Change

After twenty-four years of pastoral ministry, I have found the one thing the church in our day loves most is change and innovation. This is because modern culture has had more of an effect on the contemporary church than the modern church has had on our present culture. 

If you have been around church culture long enough, you will have heard pastors talking about Good to Great as if Collins was the replacement for Judas rather than Mattias. You would have heard people say (as I have said myself) the message doesn’t change, but the methods do. This sounds good, but as Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” What we say is of great importance; how we say what we say is of equal importance. There are few things modern Christian leaders fear more than receiving the moniker “irrelevant.” 

I have come to realize that there is something inside of us that fears the steady truth and ministry that is mundane. We want to be known as innovative. For years my drive was to be known as an innovative leader. I spent more time looking forward than learning from the past. I knew what apps were out, read every leadership book I could get my hands on by all the current whos who in the secular world and church world. It wasn’t until my forties that I read a book by some who lived before. I was guilty of what C.S. Lewis calls chronological snobbery. The arrogant idea that what we know today is all we need to know. That modern problem can not find solutions in ancient answers. 

Since graduating from seminary, I can now read books on my list to read that I haven’t read for the past five years. One of those books was from G.K. Chesterton. I don’t see eye to eye with Chesterton on everything but in reading Orthodoxy, my modern mind was challenged by old ideas. Ideas that have stood the test of time, this is why I like reading books by dead people the books that have survived have something to say not only to their generation but to ours as well. Chesterton’s words hit me like a ton of bricks. He was telling me from nearly a hundred years ago how to survive our modern age with our faith intact. He is saying we need a greater capacity for wonder and the ability to exult in the mundane. 

Greater capacity for wonder. 

Chesterton, in his typically Cherstertonian way, says this:

“Everything is in an attitude of mind; and at this moment I am in a comfortable attitude. I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you. The world will never starve you for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.”

What Chesterton is saying is profound. To put it in economic terms, we do not have a lack of wonder because of a lack of supply but because of a lack of demand. I have found in my life that the relentless desire for innovative thinking and wondering at what is next leaves me, over time, unable to wonder at what is. I find myself working to make ministry exciting and new rather than taking time to observe and pay attention to what God is doing in others around me and in the world he has made. Excessive innovative thinking leads me to have a soul that is unsatisfied with what God says is “Good” to chase what Collins says is great. 

Often my drive to do and be the next best thing left my soul impoverished and my imagination limited by what is possible. Wonder doesn’t do that. Instead, wonder sees the world God has made the miracles of healing and salvation in the community I serve as what they are products of God’s miraculous handiwork and my faithful service.  

We have to stop with our drive for innovation at all costs. If this pandemic has only taught us to innovate in delivering our religious goods, we have missed the purpose of this trial. We need not think the next frontier in the church is us having church on Zoom. Instead, we need to slow down and wonder. The only way we can expand our capacity to wonder is to begin to wonder and allow God to do his work in our church families and in us. When we “do anything short of sin to reach people,” it is easy to forget the wonder-working power of God, who is the author and finisher of our faith. 

We need to exult in monotony. 

Growing up Charismatic, one of the things we were implicitly taught was monotony was sinful. For example, written or repeated prayers were insincere, and they can be. But it wired me to believe that monotony was to be avoided at all costs, especially in all things having to do with our creative all-powerful spontaneous God. I have come to learn that monotony is not something that should be shunned but something we should aspire to. I learned this from teaching kids for over twenty years and from reading Orthodoxy by Chesterton. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton makes a powerful observation about children and the nature of God that I have been meditating on for days. He says this: 

“The thing I mean (speaking of monotony) can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again,”; and the grow-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.

But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.”

What a powerful picture of what Jesus meant when he said unless we become like a little child, we will never see the kingdom of heaven. Because unlike a little child we will not be satisfied with this life’s mundane plainness, we seek to build our own kingdom, one that has better bells and whistles. To exhult in monotony is something that takes strength of mind, not the simplicity of mind as we often think. 

We think that the goal of life and ministry is to come up with a better version of a daisy a daisy 2.0 if you will. God delights in the perfection of his creation so much that he never gets tired of making them. We think that the way forward for the church is for God to do a new thing. What we really need is for him to do an old thing again. We need him to send his spirit again, we need him to transform our hearts again, we need him to change our desires and our affections to match his…again. 

Our emergence from this pandemic and our new place as a minority status in culture will not be overcome through innovation but rather through a people of God captivated by the wonder of God able to rejoice in the beauty of monotony just like God. 

As the church emerges from the cocoon of this present trial, my prayer is that we do not try to remove our cocoon through artificial means. But allow God to do his work in us, and when he is done, to look with wonder at what he has done and say, “Do it again.” 

The War on Joy.

I love C.S. Lewis. He isn’t perfect. He had a few ideas that were a bit much for protestant me. Overall he was a genius. What made him so brilliant is his ability to take the complex and translate it into words and ideas that others could understand and repeat. When you really understand something, you move beyond the jargon, take the idea apart, and remove the unnecessary, so the truly important can shine through with greater clarity.

I love the Narnian Novels by Lewis. They are brilliant. They have so many themes within his other books and are completely relevant for our world today, almost 70 years later. Lewis fought in World War I and wrote this book only a few years after the end of World War II. He was painfully aware of fighting in the middle of winter without the ability to celebrate Christmas. When Lewis penned one of his most famous lines, he summed up how the world’s enduring suffering faced during the second world war with one line. “It’s always winter, never Christmas.”

This past year has felt like it is always winter, never Christmas. It feels as though there has been a spell put on the world that has frozen hearts, frozen dreams, and is desiring to freeze our joy. There is a war we are facing in our world today, and it is a war on Joy. True Joy everlasting Joy.

 The Weather

One of the central themes of the life of C.S. Lewis was that of joy. His autobiography is entitled “Surprised by Joy” He had much to say about Joy. It was the hope of what was to come for him and the real enjoyment that comes from understanding we have been forgiven. The Pevensie kids understood this in the gifts they were given. “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still “about to be.” -C.S. Lewis (Interestingly, his wife’s name was also Joy).

The contrast between the Witch and Aslan at this point is one of the central themes of the first Narnian book. A key scene occurs in Chapter 11 when the Witch and Edmund are traveling through the woods in pursuit of the beavers and the other children. They happen upon “a merry party” made up of a squirrel family, two satyrs, a fox, and a Dwarf, seated at a table and enjoying a delicious holiday meal. The Witch is incensed and demands to know, “What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?” When she discovers that the meal was a gift from Father Christmas, she turns the entire party into stone. The benefit of the scene is that it demonstrates that the Witch’s evil is not fundamentally about winter and cold weather, but about a deep-seated hostility to life, joy, and celebration.

Joe Rigney

The witch wanted nothing more than to see winter forever. Like Rigney says, her desire wasn’t about cold and winter. It was a deep hatred of joy of celebration of the newness of life. This wasn’t just about cold weather. It represented her hatred of joy the forward-looking hope even in winter. Which is why she made it always winter and never Christmas. 

Why Our Kids Ministries Should be More Like Mr. Rogers and Less Like Disney.

One of the pressures that kids pastors face from parents, leaders, or themselves, and sometimes it’s all three, is to be like Disney. I have often looked at how Disney engages kids as inspiration in engaging the kids I lead. I have had people suggest kindly to me that we take a look at how Disney does things. I even went to Disney and have sent staff members to Disney for inspiration for ministry. The older I get and the longer I do kids ministry, the more I realize that Walt’s idea of child formation was wrong, and Mr. Rogers was right. (Editorial note I am not a Disney hater, I have taken the required pilgrimage to Orlando with my family.)

When you look at the aesthetics of the two kingdoms they both built, they reflect how each saw the world. Walt’s world was a perfect version of what our world should look like. His world is shiny songs playing everywhere. Every restaurant serves chicken strips and hotdogs. Never any dust, never chipped paint. Excellence and creativity abound. Fred’s world was simple, even plain. His puppets showed wear, and his set grew old along with Fred. Two worlds trying to reach the same kids. 

The two kingdoms they built were the result of two visions of the world. Walt created a world that was an escape from the real world. Fred lived in a neighborhood and showed kids how to navigate through the real world. 

Walt built a fantasy world. Fred lived in a neighborhood.

There is nothing wrong with fantasy. Kids need fairy stories. Tolkien and Lewis were both shaped by fairy stories. They have different takes as to the ontological value of stories. Tolkien believed that fairy stories were reflective of God in that they were an example of sub-creation. Lewis thought that you could smuggle truth in fairy stories and steal past the watchful dragons that would not give faith a hearing. In this debate, I side more with Lewis. Fairy tales are more valuable in helping us escape this world, not for the escape alone but to show us what is broken and how to fix our world. Fairy stores should not be only an escape but should contain truth that entertains our minds but be filled with truth that changes our hearts. 

Walt’s world, on the whole, is an escape from reality, sustained by entertainment. You enter the park, and you enter the world as it should be – no trash on the ground, no gum on the sidewalk, and no tears in any eye. It’s perfect. It plays to our right desire for a better world. It reminds us in miniature form that our world, the real world is a shadow, and our heart longs for a perfect world free of sin and pain. 

Fred’s world had fantasy elements in it. But Fred never lied. He said we are going to the land of makebelieve. His fiction was grounded in reality and founded in faith. Fred lived in a neighborhood like you and me. His set was old, his puppets were tired, but he connected with kids in a way few others have. Mr. Rogers had friends come by who struggled with difficult issues like divorce, physical disability, and even race. He didn’t create an alternate universe by which he could escape reality. He lived in a house and told kids when makebelieve was happening. He used fairy stories to smuggle truth.  

Walt Entertained Kids. Fred Empowered Kids.

Walt’s world is all about connecting kids to fun to entertain them. This is a trap I fell into early in my years of children’s ministry. For years I would ask kids if they had fun at the end of the service. I wanted the church to be an escape for kids from the difficulties of home and school. The problem with entertaining kids is you have to out create yourself every week. Kids go to Disney once to a few times a year max. They come to church once to a few times a month. Entertainment may bring them, but we don’t have the budget, creativity, and time to create programs for kids that rival or compete with Disney’s magic. 

Arrogance is Not Equal to Murder

I have nothing but love and respect for Dr. Piper. His books and preaching have challenged me for years and still do. I appreciate his willingness to address difficult issues of the day. One of the sad realities of our day is how we have lost the art of disagreement. I have seen on social media people blasting Piper and saying they won’t read his books because of his most recent article.

My disagreement with Piper in regards to his piece on the upcoming election is substantial but not final. We must not judge a person by what they tweet alone. We must not form opinions of them by a single blog post. My disagreement with Piper is based on what he wrote in this most recent blog post but it in no way changes how I feel about him. As a culture in general and within the church in particular, we need to learn how to respond when we disagree. Cancel culture is not Kingdom culture. 

Where we agree.

Dr. Piper and I agree that the national coarseness of our dialogue is sinful and deepening. The things that are said in political ads, political debate, and Twitter have consequences. As a culture, we have shifted from a post-modern you have your truth I have mine to fundamentalism that says I am right and you are wrong. I have seen families no longer speak to each other because of who they will vote for or what policies they defend. I have seen friendships end because of the perception of disagreement without even a conversation. Donald Trump has done much to hasten the coarseness of our political discourse and create fractions.

Secondly, I know that Dr. Piper believes in the sanctity of life and the created order that informs our biological gender and our social roles in light of that biological difference. Finally, Piper believes that man is made in the image of God. This is crucial because it is the framework the supports how we live and interact in a sin-filled world.  

Where we disagree 

Coarseness, fractions, and vulgarity are not only a Trump problem. They are a political problem. More broadly, they are a sin-filled human heart problem. 

Piper states,

“In fact, I think it is a drastic mistake to think that the deadly influences of a leader come only through his policies and not also through his person. “Flagrant boastfulness, vulgarity, and factiousness are not only self-incriminating; they are nation-corrupting.”

This statement seems to assume that one leader is virtuous, and one is corrupt, or one is less corrupt. In the first debate, Trump consistently interrupted, name called, and demeaned Biden. Biden likewise called the President a clown, scoffed, interrupted (less so), and disrespected the governing authority. Both have been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior. Given the fact that both leaders have exhibited behavior that is fractious, vulgar, and boastful, what is left is their policies. 

Policies matter. 

Our job as Christian voters is not to try to create a political kingdom in some theocratic sense. After all, our citizenship is in heaven. Our job here on earth is to demonstrate God’s kingdom and promote good and limit harm. There can be disagreement on policies. The idea by one political party that those who vote for the other candidate are no longer Christians is foolish. As Christians, the challenge for us is not to blindly follow one party to the point we conflate politics and faith. What politicians say they are going to do matters, and what the policies they actually enact matters more. 

My good friend Scott Klusendorf explains the importance of policies perfectly. 

“It’s July of 1860. You’re a Christian slave buried deep in the bowels of a ship destined for Savannah where, if you survive the journey, you’ll be auctioned to the highest bidder. The presidential election is coming up. What do you pray your fellow Christians will do on election day?

Option #1: Vote for the candidate and party that promotes slavery wholesale because slavery isn’t the only issue and the candidate and his party are good on other topics that matter.

Option #2: Vote for the candidate and party that will limit the evil of slavery even though the candidate himself is rude and arrogant.

Option #3: Refuse to support either candidate, especially the arrogant one, because the character of the candidate matters as much or more than his policies.”

Trump is not Herod. 

In his polemic against Trump Piper seems to equate Trump with Herod “They (sins of pride) destroy persons (Acts 12:20–23)” To be clear, I don’t believe Trump to be a Christian. He may be, but I have not seen evidence that is convincing to me. This being said, Trump is also no Herod. Trump has consistently called for prayer, protected unborn lives, has actively fought to protect those persecuted for their faith in other countries as well as protect the religious liberty of all faiths here in the US. Even if you think these things are contrived, no Herod would do these things. He may be arrogant, but he is not evil and depraved, as was Harrod. 

I actually think a closer example of Herod’s arrogance and evil in New York State’s Governor Cuomo. After the first abatement of the COVID-19 disease, Governor Cuomo said, “The number (covid cases) is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Fate did not do that. Destiny did not do that. A lot of pain and suffering did that.” When Cuomo says, “We” did this, it seems like political speech to say “I” did this. This is arrogance, the same man exulting God-hating arrogance that marked Herod’s life. Cuomo’s belief that babies can and should be allowed to be aborted after 24 weeks, what science has told us is the age of viability even if the mother’s life is not threatened, is also a very Herod move. If we want to start calling National political figures, Herod lets start with Cuomo. 

Arrogance is not worse than murder.

Towards the end of his, article Piper says the following. 

“I think it is baffling and presumptuous to assume that pro-abortion policies kill more people than a culture-saturating, pro-self pride.”

This seems to place arrogance not only on par with murder but above it. I could not disagree more with this statement from a philosophical or theology standpoint. 

Theologically 

Natural law and God’s law both explicitly prohibit the taking of innocent life. The same is not true for arrogance. In Exodus, God says in no uncertain terms, “Thou Shall not Kill” While this does mean more than physical death as Jesus explains in the sermon on the mount, it never means less than killing. There is no explicit prohibition on the same level as this for arrogance. Is arrogance a sin? Yes. Will the unrepentant, arrogant fractious man go to hell? (Galatians 5:19-21) Yes. Is arrogance one of the ten commandments? No, it isn’t. This is no small matter. The ten commandments are foundational to law by which any nation Christian or not being able to function.

The ten commandments were not alone in its condemnation of murder; most Ancient Near East codes of law condemned murder as well. After the fall, the first sin that is punished is fratricide, not excessive sinful boasting. The evangelical lie that our culture loves most is that all sins are the same. This is a lie of damning proportions. All sins are the same in that the smallest lie to a planned genocide both separate you from a Holy God. All sins are not the same in how they affect us and those around us. I would much rather you be an arrogant jerk in the most sinful way possible than that you kill me. Murder is worse than arrogance. 

Philosophically 

It seems in John Piper’s reasoning that pride leads to murder, and the case for that can be made, but here is where I would differ from Piper philosophically. I believe that pride, fractions, arrogance are all the byproduct of murder rather than its source. In Romans 1, we see that the actions of sin that Paul addresses are the evidence of God’s judgment more than its cause. He gave them over to their own sinful desires is not an act of divine capitulation but an act of divine judgment.

In Dante’s Inferno, it is violence that leads you deeper into rings of hell the include fractions, hypocrisy and deception, all of which issue from a hardened heart created by a culture of murder that is pervasive in America today. The prohibition against murder was for the preservation of God’s image in humanity and the protection of the heart and affections of humanity. God knew that when you murder, you destroy two lives. One life is ended; the other is hardened and numbed by an act that was never supposed to be. So we then protect ourselves from exposure through arrogance and pride. What has led to our national discourse’s coarsening is not pride but the pride resulting from the hardness of a collective culture that sees murder as a right to be protected and celebrated. 

Finally, I join my brother in Christ, Dr. Piper and say this we are exiles we are aliens and that both “abortion and arrogance can be forgiven because of Christ (Ephesians 1:7). ” And I invite you to become an exile — “to a kingdom that will never be shaken, not even when America is a footnote in the archives of the new creation.”