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S0742074

And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing (Mark 12:42)

A few years back, my friend, Ken Pierce, and I were asked to speak at a small conference at Christ Presbyterian Church in Katy, Texas, pastored by another dear friend, Fred Greco, who invited us.  The subject of the conference was the role of the Church in engaging culture.  Ken is a capable scholar and follower of Abraham Kuyper, who famously advocated Christ’s lordship over every square inch of creation, the so called “transformationalist” approach to the question.  I tend towards the “two kingdom” approach which emphasizes the church’s primary responsibility to “gather and perfect the saints” (Westminster Confession 25.3), awaiting our final hope in heaven as pilgrims and aliens here.

We entitled the conference, “Transformers vs. Aliens.”  So who won?  Well, I think both sides did.  By the end of the weekend, we all realized that we were closer to one another than we first thought.  Of course, I affirmed a Christian’s responsibility to be salt and light in this world.  And, of course, Ken affirmed that the Church’s primary responsibility is to preach the substitutionary atonement of Christ for the salvation of souls.  Disagreements remained, but they were far less than the unity we had in Christ and our common adherence to the Reformed faith.

But not all have been able to bridge the divide this way.  For some reason, the issue of how the Church is to relate to culture evokes stronger opinions and emotions than almost any other subject we are now discussing across the Reformed church.  Deep divisions, disagreements, and misunderstandings on both sides appear to remain.

Personally, I think the discussion needs to continue as some of the disagreements are real and fairly major.  They greatly affect what is preached and emphasized from our pulpits.  But there is one area where I think we might find some common agreement – a truce if you will, on at least one front of this little war.  But such a truce will require that we unite together in common cause against a greater enemy.  Let me try to explain.

A few months back I was listening to a sermon by someone clearly on the transformationalist side of the question and his concerns struck me in a new way.  He was bemoaning the pressure that some young Christians feel to go into full time gospel ministry in order for their lives to be meaningful.  I did not find his solution convincing, which in my view was an unhelpful conflation of the secular and the sacred, of creation and redemption (which begs the whole question).  But what I certainly agreed with was that the undervaluing of worthy secular callings is a gross violation of Christian freedom.  Secular callings are from God just as much as calls to the Gospel ministry.  They are worthy simply because they serve society and help people, period.

And so we must reject this kind of “evangelical” legalism which causes plumbers and painters and police officers to doubt their value and worth simply because they are not vocationally involved in teaching God’s Word.  And certainly, this kind of legalism is more likely to be found in churches with a “two kingdom” mindset than those more actively concerned with transforming culture.  It stands to reason.  But it does not stand to reason that every “two kingdom” church violates Christian freedom in such a way.  There is another approach.

Because here is the thing.  This same sort of legalism can be found in transformationalist circles as well.  What do I mean?  I mean that if one defines the Gospel as more than just saving souls, but as including the redemption of all of culture in this era, then our work in this world better be really, really good and influential, or we are just not doing much for the kingdom.  In the same way, Christians in two kingdom circles can be made to feel they are unworthy if they don’t go into full time ministry, so Christians in transformationalist circles can be made to feel unworthy if their work is anything less than excellent and making real changes in their field.

You can see how this works, can’t you?  I have met artists, engineers and others who have been part of such Christian circles who have felt a constant pressure to live up to some culture-impacting standard which they just could not reach.  They were too busy trying to pass their classes, and love their wives, and not be too grumpy when their kids kept them up all night.  And so they too feel a pressure to be something other than they are; and if they don’t, made to feel that they are not doing their part to advance God’s kingdom in this world.

But it does not have to be this way either.  There is another approach.  Both my daughters are likely to enter the arts.  One is pursuing graduate studies in collaborative piano, while the other is a budding young photographer with her own small business.  What am I to tell them?  Well, it is certainly not that they need to go into campus ministry or marry a youth pastor; or only play “Christian” music or take “Christian” photos if their lives are to have worth.  But nor am I to tell them that must have great impact upon their fields, for fear of failing to be part of God’s great redemptive work in this world.  Either of those expectations would be a form of legalism.

No, I am to tell them to enjoy their lives; and whatever their hand finds to do, to do it with all their heart (Ecclesiastes 9:10).  I will tell them to live quietly, to mind their own affairs and to work with their hands (I Thessalonians 4:11). I will tell them to love God and neighbor, to remember the Ten Commandments, and to seek the fruit of the Spirit and the wisdom from above (Galatians 5:22-23; James 3:13ff).  And in terms of evangelism, I will tell them to walk in wisdom toward outsiders; and for their speech to always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that they may know how to answer each person (Colossians 4:5-6; cf. I Peter 3:15).  And in terms of the culture, they are to pursue the welfare of the city in which they dwell, just because that is part of what it means to love their neighbor, all the while knowing that those cities are not ends unto themselves (cf. Jeremiah 29:7; cf. Hebrews 13:14).

That is what God requires of them and nothing more.  They are to walk in the good works which God has prepared for them and no others, no matter what preacher tells them otherwise (Ephesians 2:10).

And so here is the truce that I propose: that we may remember the Widow’s mite.  That we realize that somehow, in God’s economy, those two mites were worth more than the abundance which the wealthy contributed:

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny.  And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.  For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12:42-47).

Now, how is this possible?   Instinctively, we realize that Jesus is talking about spiritual truths, that man looks at outward appearances, but God looks at the heart.  But concretely, surely the wealthier contributions did more practical good.  How could they not?  Unless.  Unless, somehow in God’s economy, He was able to multiply those two copper coins into something far greater, even as He once did with five loaves and two fish.  That somehow, great wealth can build ministries and visible structures that look like they are doing great good, but actually are not.  And that a small offering, but given with great love and prayer, will somehow do far more in the end.

And if we can come to see that – by faith, since eyes will avail not here – then do you see what that does to both sides of this debate?  It causes us to, well, give our people a break. To give them grace.  To stop putting pressure on them to produce as if God or the Kingdom somehow needed them.  It allows us to remind them of their justification; that God has already approved of them through Christ, and granted them peace (Romans 5:1).  Oh, their work may suck eggs at times.  Their evangelistic skills may be utterly lacking.  But God loves them anyway.  They will never be failures in his sight, no matter what they do or don’t do for the Church or for society.   He looks at them and He sees His perfect Son.

That is the truce that I propose.  That all sides preach Grace, Grace, Grace.  That we take our boots off the necks of our people, and stop pressuring them to join the armies of whatever our particular cause may be.  That we not replace legalistic missionary pressure with transformationalist legalistic pressure, or vice versa.  And that we not allow the pressing need for ongoing sanctification to obscure the blessed peace which justification brings.   (Of course, this can be true only if we maintain a clear distinction between the two, but that is for another essay.)

But you see what this must mean?   If two-kingdomers and transformationalists are to unite on the side of Grace, then we must make common cause against the subtle legalisms of our own sides. We must declare war against all religions of works, including those found within our own churches and our own hearts.

Then if we do that, our discussions and debates can themselves be held with more grace because neither side will be conflating our churchly or social agendas into the Gospel itself.  We will remember that God justifies by faith alone in Christ alone and not by what we bring to the table.  So we are free to get some of these matters about culture wrong, and yet still be justified; still loved of God.  My peace with God does not depend upon me getting my politics or cultural responsibilities just right.  Nor does it depend on my devotion to ministry.

I must give Christ all my heart as He enables, but it still does not feel like very much, like it will make much difference in this world.  But perhaps my two mites are all that I can muster, and all that God asks for.  What grace to remember such a thing.  And so if that is true for me, so it is for all to whom I minister.  If they have trusted in Christ, they are saved no matter what vocation they pursue or how well they pursue it.  What they need is not more law – whatever form that may take – but more Christ and His free grace.  Let’s call this truce, and see what happens.

First published on The Aquila Report on December 24, 2013.

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Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  ~ Philippians 2:12-13

There has been quite the dustup recently in the Reformed world over the doctrine of sanctification. To over simplify things, some are saying that our sanctification primarily comes from remembering our justification, while others want a more rigorous attention to the effort we must contribute. I have no ambition to provide a comprehensive answer that will settle the dispute, but there is one often-neglected paragraph in the Westminster Confession of Faith that I believe can provide some peace to both sides, and thus settle at least some of the dust.

But first, we should not be surprised that there is considerable debate about sanctification among the Reformed. After all, the only remarkable thing about the Reformed doctrine of sanctification is that there is nothing remarkable about it. We are the ones who reject any sort of “golden key” solution to the problem. Other traditions offer a “second experience of grace,” the sacraments, or some one doctrine as offering the ultimate solve-all to the problem of ongoing sin in the Christian’s life. But the Reformed say we need all of the above, and even more. We are precisely in the already/not yet stage of our salvation, and so it must be messy – how could it not? We are already perfect – justified by simple faith in Christ (Romans 4:5); and at the same time not yet perfect – glorification still awaits us (Romans 8:23).

So of course we have discussions and debates about what this messy stage of sanctification looks like. And it may look different from Christian to Christian. A word in season to one believer may be a crushing discouragement to another. That is why we need wisdom – and even more, love for one another, that we might know how to speak in order to build up as each case requires (Ephesians 4:29; II Timothy 4:2).

But in all this, I believe that our forefathers wrestled through this problem well and produced a very helpful paragraph that is not as well known or used as I think it might be in these discussions. And that is Westminster Confession of Faith 14.2, from the chapter on Saving Faith, found just after the chapter on sanctification:

By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

Now to place this section in context, this chapter on saving faith follows the chapters on justification, adoption and sanctification – the three main benefits of redemption in this life (WSC 32).  And so this chapter is written to ensure that we see salvation as full orbed.  True saving faith is more than just a one-time decision to receive Christ, but is a life long and growing faith (cf. I Thessalonians 2:13 and I Peter 1:2, in which we are said to be “saved” by sanctification, which I take to be more than definitive, positional sanctification).

So WCF 14 begins with the reminder that saving faith is the work of the Spirit in our hearts “ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word,” and only then increased and strengthened by all three means of grace – Word, sacraments and prayer. This reminds us of the priority of the Word in Reformed ministry.  The spoken promise of the Gospel is where we must begin all ministry, to believer and unbeliever alike.  Sacraments and prayer assist this ministry, but nothing avails anyone unless they first passively receive the Word – not as actors but as those acted upon.  Justifying faith is always and only passive as the Larger Catechism makes clear (WLC 72). If we lose this we lose any hope of providing a sure and certain assurance of salvation.

But then, unless we think that the Christian life is an entirely passive affair, the divines give us 14.2, as quoted above.  This paragraph reminds us that following on our justification, the Christian life involves life-long repentance and obedience and even trembling.  Every passage of the Bible must be believed and – once properly understood – applied.  The Christian life involves action.  It is Philippians 2:12b, straight up:  work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

So is that it?  Does that settle the debate?  The “effort” side wins?  It is almost as if the divines anticipated our present day dispute. Which, of course they did, since it was a dispute in their day as well (cf. The Rise of Moralism by C. Fitzsimons Allison). And so they went on to write this important sentence:

But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

The authors remind us that even though the Christian life must involve action, that which is principal is still passive – accepting, receiving and resting upon Christ alone.  And note that this is not just for justification, but for sanctification as well.  So the divines state that the principal acts of sanctification involve resting on Christ, not our own actions!  And so now, it is Philippians 2:13:  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Now, I am not sure what that always looks like in any given situation.  We have all known people who “try too hard” to live the Christian life and just end up making themselves and everyone around them burdened and depressed.  I would suspect that most of us have been that person at some time in our lives.  And so our word to them must be to rest.  To remember their justification.  To somehow depend upon Christ for the strength to be more holy.  To slow down and relax a little.  To enjoy their life and remember that in Christ, God has already approved their works and they should not try to be more than they are (Ecclesiastes 9:7; Colossians 2:8-23).

But we have also all known believers who take their salvation for granted and seemingly have little interest in increasing their faith and repentance.  They need to be reminded of the first part of this paragraph; that if they have true saving faith, then they will respond to the Word with particular repentance, change and action, as various passages of the Bible are learned and understood.  This is why pastors and elders must be involved in their parishioners’ lives so that the general Word in sermons may be specifically applied to individual situations through discipleship, with gentleness and patience (cf. Philippians 3:15; II Timothy 2:24-25).

And so this section of the Westminster Confession provides important guidance and balance to these discussions.  To the “rest” side, it reminds us that the Christian life involves effort – God empowered effort, but effort nonetheless.  And effort that at times even trembles at the threatenings of God’s Word.  To the “effort” side, it reminds us that we must not make principal what God’s Word does not – that the principal acts of sanctification remain accepting, receiving and resting on Christ alone, and never our own efforts.

Now no ministry ever gets this balance perfectly and so we must be careful not to pick and pull at each violation lest we devour one another (cf. Galatians 5:15). But if, as a whole, a Reformed ministry does not remind its people that their sanctification involves ongoing repentance, change and trembling, then it fails its own confession at that point.  Believing the Gospel leads to concrete application (cf. Romans 12:1ff; Ephesians 4:1ff).

And likewise, if a Reformed ministry fails to emphasize resting in Christ for sanctification, then it too falls short of the Confession.  I have heard many preachers and conference speakers who have done just that.  I have left such talks wishing that the speaker had first meditated upon WCF 14.2 before burdening their hearers with so many strong, specific and fleshly exhortations.  They had reversed the Confessional order, making effort principal, rather than rest.

So I believe that there is enough in Westminster Confession 14.2 to satisfy and challenge both sides of the discussion. And if heeded, that some of the dust of this debate may peaceably settle, with all sides better able to listen well and balance out what may be imbalanced in their own ministries, rather than everyone else’s.

First published on The Aquila Report on December 22, 2013.

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“If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.~ I Timothy 4:6

Should a Christian minister have a conservative or a progressive mindset?  In asking this question, I am not speaking of his politics, or even his view towards doctrinal orthodoxy.  I am assuming in this essay that we are speaking of Christian ministers who seek to be true to the Scriptures and to the historic Christian faith.

Rather, I am talking about his general mindset.  We have all been to ecclesiastical meetings where men quickly show themselves to be one or the other.  At elders’ meetings, or ministerial associations or in presbyteries, certain men can show themselves either to be adamantly conservative about everything, or as those who constantly want to push the envelope and try things a different way.

So is there an answer to the question?  Should ministers, in general, be either conservative or progressive in the way they view their work in the world?   I suggest that Paul provides an answer to this question in his pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus.  In particular, I believe we find help in I Timothy 4:6-16, as Paul exhorts Timothy to be a faithful minister of the Gospel.

And Paul’s answer to the question in this text is that we should be both.  We should be absolutely conservative about certain aspects of the faith, and open mindedly progressive in other areas.  What do I mean?  Let me attempt to demonstrate this by taking each in turn.

A Faithful Minister is Conservative

A faithful minister should be utterly conservative in three regards, or if I may borrow a term from JI Packer, he should be a conservationist.   We want to conserve that which has been handed down to us and not allow it to be corrupted by the prevailing winds of our age.   So in what ways should a minister be conservationist in his work?  I believe in these three ways:

Conserve the Message of Grace

In verse 6 of I Timothy 4, Paul writes:  “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.”  What is encouraging here is that Paul is not asking Timothy to come up with his own theses statements or original ideas.  All he must do is “put these things before the brothers.”  What are those things?  The “words of faith” he has been trained in, the “good doctrine that (Timothy has) followed.”  He does not need to make anything up or be brilliant but simply pass on the truth of the Gospel to his congregation.  That is all God asks.  Our job is to conserve the message, not add to it or try to improve upon it by our brilliant insights.

That is why Paul twice tells Timothy to “guard the good desposit” of what has been passed down to him.  There was a body of teaching worth preserving and protecting.  Guarding is primarily a passive duty, a duty of conservation.  Doctrine is not to change, but is to remain Apostolic and Scriptural, the same truths embraced by the early church.  Doctrinally, we are to be staunchly conservationist.

Why is this important?  You see, some men take these exhortations to heart and want the Church to remain true to Scripture and for all doctrine to remain the same, without deeply embracing what this doctrine protects:  that God saves us by His grace alone.  That it is a done deal through Christ.  That is why we do not need to add anything to the work of redemption.  It is finished, Jesus said upon the cross.  The whole message of the Gospel is that God has done all that is needed for our salvation already, so that all we must do is to fall on Christ in our need and weakness, and so know that we will be saved (cf. Acts 2:21; Romans 4:5; 11:36).

And those who have come to learn and love this grace of God, of a salvation already accomplished, will guard that grace with their lives.   There is nothing we need to do to add to what God has already done through Christ Jesus.   We must then be conservationists if we love grace.

Conserve the Means of Ministry

But there is more.  It has become commonplace in our day to say that “the message stays the same, but the methods change.”  That we are to “contextualize” the message, becoming “all things to all men” as Paul says he did (I Corinthians 9:22).   Of course this is true to a point. That is Paul’s point in I Corinthians (but notice that he did not say that he would become strong to the strong, and think on that a bit).

But does that mean that we can do things that violate the principle of living by faith, not sight?   That we may do things that ignore or undermine the simple means of grace God gives us to do ministry?  Listen to Paul in I Timothy 4:13:  “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.”   That is it.  Of course, Timothy was to pray (I Timothy 2:1, 8), see to good order in the church (I Timothy 2-3, 5), and administer the sacraments as well (cf. II Timothy 4:5, compared to Acts 8:38; 21:8).

But the point is this.  If we believe that the Word of God is sufficient for the work of ministry, and that God gives us three books in particular addressed to pastors, shouldn’t we believe that the Pastoral Epistles are sufficient to address the means by which we do ministry?  This does not mean that they address every issue – we do have 63 other books after all – but it does mean that there is no need to add to the means by which God promises to grow His church.  Faith comes by hearing, but how can they hear unless someone preach?  That is why Paul tells Timothy to devote himself – not just practice but devote himself – to the public reading, teaching and exhortation from the Scriptures.  That is our primary work, along with prayer and the sealing of God’s promises with the sacraments.

And so we learn that a faithful Christian minister must be a conservationist in regards to both the message of grace and the means of grace.

Conserve a Single Mindedness

But there is one more thing about which we must maintain a conservative mindset if we are to be faithful to our callings.   And that comes from what Paul says in verses 7-8:  “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”   Here Paul speaks of discipline; of refusing to be distracted from godliness.  Now in the original context, this had to do with particular heresies that had arisen in the early church.  But it fits an overall pattern in the Pastoral epistles in which Paul exhorts Timothy and Titus to avoid foolish controversies and distractions (cf. I Timothy 6:20; II Timothy 2:16; Titus 3:2, 5).  They are to be single minded about their mission:  preaching the Gospel of Christ and building up His church.

And so in our day, various controversies and fads may serve to distract us from our primary calling.  It does not mean that we cannot have some interest in them, but we must not quarrel, we must not be drawn away into projects and programs that will take us away from preaching the Gospel and discipling our members.  The distractions of our day take many forms in my view.  To name just a few:  political misadventures, church sponsored art galleries and wine parties, and the constant drone of internet controversies.  As Solomon wrote, “of the making of many blog wars there is no end.”  We may have an interest in all of these things, but we must constantly ask if they are taking us off our main task as preachers and pastors.

And so we must remain conservationist here as well.  The faithful Christian minister will discipline himself to remain single minded about his work to preach the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

A Faithful Christian Minister is Progressive

And now we flip to the other side of the coin.  It is not enough to say that a Christian minister must be conservative.  About some things, he must be progressive – someone who seeks change and expects progress in his life and his ministry.  What do I mean?  Again, let us to turn to see what Paul says in I Timothy 4.

Pursue Progress in One’s Godliness

In verses 12 & 16, Paul encourages Timothy:  “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”  Here Paul calls on Timothy to make progress in his character, in his growth in grace.  He is not to remain the same.  We are not to be conservative regarding our own sin; we must root it out, continually repenting and returning to the goodness of God (cf. Romans 6-7).  We are to set examples in our conduct, and where we fall short, make a full-hearted effort to amend our ways and reflect the character of Christ more.   Ministers cannot afford to be stuck in our ways, but must in humility seek to become more and more godly.  And when we fail – as we do daily – we must learn what it means to believe the Gospel even more somehow.  We must be progressive in terms of our character and godliness; all the while resting in Christ and basking in His love.

Pursue Progress in One’s Gifts

In verses 14-15, Paul tells Timothy:  Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”  Paul cannot mean here that Timothy was in some risk of losing his salvation (cf. Philippians 1:6; John 10:28).  But what it means is that the same way Timothy is to be saved is the same way his hearers are to be saved, by hearing and believing the Gospel.  And he needs to grow in his ability to preach this Good News so that his ministry may be as effective as possible.

So, Timothy is not to be conservative about the gifts given him; he is not to stay the same in terms of his practice.  Paul even uses the word, “progress,” here!   So, surely, a Christian minister is to pursue growth in his gifts.  We do not know precisely what gift Paul is speaking of in verse 14, but it is a good guess that it was nothing particular to Timothy.  It sounds like Paul is describing a regular ordination service and that Timothy was there given the gift to be an evangelist and pastor (cf. II Timothy 4:5).  And so now he is to grow in his abilities, to immerse himself in them, so that his progress is evident to all.

This takes work and discipline and, at times, heart wrenching suffering.  Ministers must progress in their abilities if they are to be faithful to their calls.  Study, prayer and humility are all in order and necessary if they are to remain effective in the pastorate.  Ministers must be progressive in the development of their gifts, nourishing them in the gratitude of the Gospel.

Pursue Progress of the Kingdom

Finally, Paul says this in verses 9-11:  “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.  For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. Command and teach these things.”   Verse 10 contains a notoriously difficult phrase to translate, but I believe Paul is saying that Jesus “is the Savior of all kinds of people, namely (Greek: malista) those who believe.”  In other words, the Gospel is worldwide in scope, saving people from every nation, tribe, people and language as the Gospel is preached and believed.   This is one of the trustworthy statements of the Pastoral Epistles that are to be “accepted” and “taught” (I Timothy 1:15; 3:1; II Timothy 2:11; Titus 1:9; 3:8).   And it indicates that Timothy is to be about the progress of the Kingdom.  As God blesses, the church is to prosper and grow under his watch.   The Gospel must get out, and those whom God calls must hear, believe and join the Body of the Christ on earth.  But it does not just happen magically.  Paul says “to this end, we toil and strife.”  We work hard to plant and water all around us, even as we depend on God to grant the growth (I Corinthians 3).

We must seek the progress of the Gospel so that people of all different sorts become saved and get to live forever with God in His heaven.  And we seek to see the Gospel break down barriers, reaching new peoples – people different than us – bringing us all together in One Church (Ephesians 2:11-22; 4:4-6).  This requires progress, work, and a mindset that is open to change.  In this regard, a Christian minister is certainly not to be conservative, but the most progressive person around.  He must set an example of welcoming new and different kinds of people into the church, helping his members to love them and accommodate the changes which will of necessity occur (cf. Acts 7, 15; Galatians 2).  A minister will generously welcome new folks in with the same welcome he himself received from Jesus.

And so we see that a faithful Christian minister is to have both a conservative and a progressive mindset all at once.  He is to conserve the message of grace, the means by which that message is communicated, and to maintain a single minded focus on the Gospel.  At the same time, he is to pursue progress in godliness, the development of his gifts, and the growth of the Kingdom around him, breaking down barriers as God’s grace is proclaimed.  May God help each of us to be faithful ministers of His Gospel that we too may be found to be good servants of our Lord Jesus Christ.

First published on The Aquila Report on January 16, 2014

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“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith…. became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight…. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. ~ Hebrews 11:32-34; 12:1-2

David as Example

In Part 1, we found Jesus all through the story of David and Goliath.  And yet is that all?   Is the only application of this story a call to come to Christ for justification?  Does David set no example for us to follow at all?  Well, I believe he does.  Why else would the author of Hebrews remind us of the great company of Old Testament saints and exhort us to emulate their faith (cf. Hebrews 11:32 – 12:2 above)?

But as Hebrews 11 makes plain, what we are to emulate is not so much David’s courage or skill or office, but his faith.  And faith looks different in different situations.  None of us will literally be called to single combat as a champion of God’s people.  But there are aspects of how David displays his faith that we can imitate.  In other words, David is not just a type of Christ, but is also one of us – a saved sinner struggling to live by faith, not sight.  And so we must be like him where he succeeds and avoid his example where he fails.

At the same time, where we see David succeed, he is imitating Jesus – not so much as a unique type, but rather as a redeemed sinner, just like us.   Thus, as we imitate David’s faith, we imitate Christ.   It is exactly as Paul says in I Corinthians 11:1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

So how do we see David display his faith in this story?   I believe in at least five ways, which also serve as examples for us.   Let us consider each one briefly:

1) David went first as a servant.

And David rose early in the morning and left the sheep with a keeper and took the provisions and went, as Jesse had commanded him   (I Samuel 17:20).

We saw this first in chapter 16 when David used his musical talents to comfort Saul, even though David knew that he was in fact the true King of Israel, having been anointed by Samuel earlier.  But David was patient, waiting for God to elevate him in His time (cf. Luke 14:7-11).  This took faith.  So before David was a champion in battle, he was a table server.  So it is with Christ and so it is to be with us, as Jesus Himself tells us:  But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).  We must imitate David as someone who was first a servant; for such a life is what flows from believing the Gospel.

2) David was motivated by God’s glory alone.

And David said to the men who stood by him, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (I Samuel 17:20; see also David’s confession of faith in verses 45-47).

David’s first motive was not to promote himself or even to defend Israel.  There was an army for that which Saul was allegedly leading.  What motivated him to take on Goliath was a defense of God’s name and glory.  And since no one else was stepping up, he had to, knowing that he had been anointed for that very purpose one chapter earlier.  (This is important; we must know our own office and to what tasks God calls each one of us.)  But in the face of such a formidable enemy, this took faith.  So it was with Jesus.   When He first overturned the money changers’ tables in the Temple, practically sealing his arrest three years later, his disciples recalled that it was written of Him, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:17).  So it should be with us, even in the difficult areas of Christian freedom:  “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God  (I Corinthians 10:31).  To be motivated by God’s glory alone takes living by faith, not sight, since living in such a way has no certain earthly reward.

3) David was undeterred by worldly discouragement. 

Now Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spoke to the men. And Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, “Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.”  And David said, “What have I done now? Was it not but a word?” (I Samuel 17:28-29).

This also took faith.  Few things are more stressful or discouraging than having your own family members turn against you.  Now Christians are those who are open to criticism and correction as a host of Proverbs make plain.  But in this case, Eliab was clearly making an ad hominem attack against David, which likely arose out of pride and jealousy.  And it took faith for David to brush it aside and get on with the work at hand for God’s glory, embracing the way of the Cross.

So it is with Christ, and so it must be with us:

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’  But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’  Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (Matthew 16:21-24).

Resisting worldly discouragement is not moralism; it is living by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us (cf. Galatians 2:20).   It is siding with the Gospel of God’s goodness over against Satanic suggestions and accusations.

4) David resisted worldly means.

“Then Saul clothed David with his armor. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, and David strapped his sword over his armor. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.’ So David put them off” (I Samuel 17:38-39).

This example is a bit harder to apply to us, but I still think there is something here.  It was not wrong for David to try on Saul’s armor and sword; after all, he was going into combat.  The problem was that he was not trained in them and so he quickly realized that they “just weren’t him.”   So in order to trust God in this situation, he needed to be the man whom God had made him and not try to be someone else.  To compare himself with other warriors and to try to look like something he was not would be a form of worldliness, showing a lack of faith.  Rather, David trusted that if God was calling him to this battle, he should fight in the way he already knew – with the sling and staff.

Likewise, Jesus resisted worldly means.   He trusted His father to deliver Him after His work of redemption was done, rejecting the temptations of both devil and man to forsake the cross (Matthew 4:1-11; 27:39-44).  He resisted the worldly means of power and prestige.  And so must we, particularly resisting the suggestions of others that God has not been faithful to us and that we must somehow reinvent our lives or be more than He has made us.   For whatever God calls us to, He equips us: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).  We must only do the good works God has prepared for us, and no others.  That takes faith in the God who saves us by His grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9).   We do not need to justify ourselves, for in Christ we already have all the power and prestige we need (Ephesians 2:4-7).

5) David did not presume but used the means God did provide.

“Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine….  And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.  So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him” (I Samuel 17:40, 49-50a). 

David was certain that God would deliver him from Goliath (I Samuel 17:37).  And he must have known the stories of how God used unlikely weapons in the past, such as Shamgar’s oxgoad and Samson’s jawbone (Judges 3:31; 15:15-17).  But those were weapons nonetheless, and so David did not presume upon a supernatural miracle but relied in the training and weapons God has provided him.  (And by the way, a Jewish sling armed with a smooth stone was nothing to scoff at.)  At the same time, it was not the glorious Greek weaponry with which Goliath was armed. And so David uses all his skill and strength to fell Goliath. But what killed Goliath was his own sword, as the text goes on to make clear:

“There was no sword in the hand of David.  Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him and cut off his head with it” (I Samuel 17:50b-51).

This was so that Goliath should fall by his own glory, his pride; a pattern we see repeated throughout Scripture (cf. Luke 14:11).

So it took faith for David to first resist what would have been worldly means for him (Saul’s armor), and then secondly, to use the means which God had provided him.  It would have been folly and perhaps even cowardly to go out empty handed, calling on God to do it all apart from the means of David’s efforts.  So Jesus used the means of grace available to Him as a true man, even as divine.  He learned the Scriptures, prayed, and created a community called the Church.  And so must we, if we are to live by faith, trust the means God provides to us.  He gives us His Word, He gives us prayer and He gives us His sacraments as seals of His promises.  If faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen (Hebrews 11:1), then we must live that way.  To grow in faith, we must trust that God knew what He was doing when He gave us these simple means of grace.  To live by faith, not sight.

And so following David in this, as well as all the examples he sets for us is neither to embrace moralism nor legalism, but an effort to grow in our faith – to look to God to save us and work through even as David did.  Insofar as David demonstrates the spirit of Christ, he sets an example for us to follow; for to follow David in these things is to follow Christ.  And to follow Christ means simply this: to rest and receive Him as our Savior, our Captain, our Friend. Then when we do that, He gives us further tests and tasks that will cause us to trust Him all the more.

And so we preach David and Goliath, both to see Jesus in the text and to find application that we might love and serve Him more, as those saved solely by His grace:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:1-3).   Amen.

First Published on The Aquila Report on January 23, 2014

S0892089

“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith… became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight…. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. ~ Hebrews 11:32-34; 12:1-2a

In the past couple of decades, there has been a helpful return to an emphasis of finding Christ in all of the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament.  The idea is to make sure we are preaching the Gospel from each text, and not reducing our messages to mere moralism.  Much has been written advocating this approach, and more has been written pointing out some of this approach’s potential overreach and imbalances.   For example, David Murray, in his recent book, Jesus on Every Page, presents an excellent balanced approach in his chapter on discovering Jesus in Old Testament characters.

I do not have the expertise or the zeal to address the question as a whole.  However, I believe that a simple case study can do some good in showing this balanced approach to preaching from the Old Testament.  Let us consider the famous story of David and Goliath and different ways we might approach this text (I Samuel 17).

It has been said that the “old” approach to this story was to preach David as an example of courage; that each of us must find the “giants” in our lives, equip ourselves with “five smooth stones” of some sort and then go into battle in the name of the Lord to conquer our giant.  I suppose such sermons have been preached; a sort of “dare to be a David” approach.

The answer, it is said, is to find Jesus in the story.  And clearly then, David is a type of Christ in that he is the King of Israel who conquers Israel’s enemy in single combat just as Jesus conquered the devil.  Surely, this is correct.  But does that mean there is no application in the story, no sense in which David serves as an example for us?  Why can it not be both?  And moreover, why must we see Jesus only in David?  Is He not present elsewhere?

And so I want to take up this text as a case study to demonstrate two things:  1) where we might find Jesus in this story, so as to approach it in a gospel-centered way; and 2) in what ways David serves as proper example for us to emulate in a manner that is not moralistic.

Finding Jesus in the Story

So, first, where do we see Jesus in this story?   I want to suggest we see Him in at least three ways, not just the one mentioned above.

1) A Community of Types.  We do not just see the spirit of Christ in David, but in others in the story as well, notably in Samuel, the prophet of God; and in Jonathan, who, in the wake of David’s triumph, cheerfully surrendered his claim to the throne in favor of David:  “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.  And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt” (I Samuel 18:3-4).

Now, I suppose one could argue that Jonathan here represents the Church and her love for Christ, but that comes close to allegorizing the story in my view.   But what we clearly see in Jonathan is the attitude of Jesus as Paul describes in Philippians 2:  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.   And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  And in fact, Jonathan not only surrenders the throne, but later risks his life for the sake of his friend and for righteousness, exactly after the spirit of Christ.  Then he dies in battle, never seeing the full fruit of his love.  And so we must see Jesus in Samuel and Jonathan as well as David.

Why is this important?  Because no one man can fulfill all of Christ’s offices or reflect all of His character except Jesus Himself.  In Genesis 22, we see Jesus in Abraham, in Isaac and in the ram caught in the tree.  In the Exodus, we see Jesus in Moses, Aaron and Joshua.  This is perhaps why almost all of Paul’s letters are from a small team of men and not just Paul himself.  That is why we see a community of apostles, some of whom got things wrong at times (e.g. doubting Thomas in John 20; and exclusivist Peter in Galatians 2).  So, with David.  In I Samuel 25, it is Abigail, more than David, who at first displays the wisdom of Christ.

And so if we insist on seeing Jesus only in David, then we promote an unhealthy “hero” approach to the Christian life, rather than embrace the doctrine that the Body of Christ on earth is always a community, each part with various strengths and weaknesses as I Corinthians 12 describes so well.

2) Jesus as Victor.  This is the most obvious example, the one we mentioned at the beginning.  It therefore does not need much elaboration.  But clearly, as Israel’s first real king, David serves as a clear type of Christ as Scripture makes plain in abundance.  And as David acts as the singular champion to defeat the Philistine champion (which was itself an Ionian tradition the Philistines had imported with them from Greece), so Jesus acts as the singular Champion who Alone defeats our enemies.

Therefore, the main point of the text is not so much for us to be as brave as David, but to flee to Jesus who will fight and win for us, as Paul states: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:10-11, understanding that the armor of Ephesians 6 is that of the Messiah, cf. Isaiah 11, etc.).  We perhaps find ourselves not so much in David then perhaps, but in his doubting and scoffing brothers; precisely those who need a Savior.

3) Jesus as Sacrifice.  And yet, how does Jesus conquer the devil?   Is it by might alone?   We know that it was precisely the opposite – that is was by the Cross, by dying in humiliation as a common criminal.   So then, is it proper to see Jesus only as Victor in this text?  After all, who dies?   We perhaps have a small hint of this in I Samuel 17:54 (as suggested by Gordon Hugenberger):  “And David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem, but he put his armor in his tent.”  For reasons too involved to explain here, I take this tent to mean the tabernacle as a way for David to honor God.  But why did David take Goliath’s head to Jerusalem which had not fully been conquered by the Israelites yet?  It therefore must have been placed “outside the gates,” likely on a stake on a hill; perhaps a hill that became known as the Place of the Skull, Golgotha.

After all, where is Christ later in David’s life, during Absalom’s rebellion, as David’s son is surrounded and killed by Joab’s men?  Is Christ with David, who cried out, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (II Samuel 18:33)?  Absolutely.  But who actually did die, surrounded and humiliated, caught in a tree by his hair?  Cursed indeed is everyone who dies upon a tree.  Christ is also found in Absalom, as He dies in our place as if He were the rebel deserving death.

And so with David and Goliath, it is not David who dies as a substitute, but Goliath.   Dare we find Jesus in Goliath as well as in David?  If not, I suggest that we may not understand the depth of the substitutionary atonement, of how for our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (II Corinthians 5:21).  Perhaps then, in the story of David and Goliath, Jesus is not only found in David, the victorious King, but in Goliath, the blasphemer deserving of death.   What grace this is that Jesus should die in our place!

And so we clearly see Jesus foreshadowed in this dramatic story in a multitude of ways.  That alone will preach.  But there is yet more.  In Part II, we shall see what it means that David serves not only as a type of Christ, but also as an example of faith for us to imitate.

~ First published on The Aquila Report, January 19, 2014

Chill

I am the Very Model of a Modern Super Pastor

I am the very model of a modern, super pastor
I have information tried and true, hip and new and faster
I know all the reformers, and I quote divines historical
From Augustine to Teilhard, in order categorical

He knows all the reformers, and he quote divines historical
From Augustine to Teilhard, in order categorical

I’m very well acquainted too with matters psychological
I understand dysfunctions, both the simple and fanatical
About depression syndrome, I’m teeming with a lot o’ news —
With many cheerful facts of how to diagnose your spouse’s blues

I know our mythic history, St. Whitefield’s and ol’ bonnie Knox
I answer apologetics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox
I quote in bullet form the vision thing of Willow Creeker
With power point I highlight serving Starbucks to Joe Seeker

He quotes in bullet form the vision thing of Willow Creeker
With power point he highlights serving Starbucks to Joe Seeker

I can tell undoubted Warhols from Lichensteins and comic books
I know the midriff well of Spears although my dear I never looks
Then I can hum a tune of which the choir has sung just once before
And whistle all the airs from every hymn and song in time four-four

Then I can write a consultant’s bill in Hebrew hieroglyphics
And tell you every detail of my neighbors’ demographics
In short, in matters tried and true, hip and new and faster
I am the very model of a modern, super pastor

In short, in matters tried and true, hip and new and faster
He is the very model of a modern, super pastor

~~~~~~~~~~

C.A. Hutchinson, May 2003 with thanks
and apologies to Gilbert & Sullivan, 1879

New England

Farm House

 

by C.A. Hutchinson, 1999

Out of my window at the church, I can see cotton fields. School children run between my office and the sight, but there they are. Actual cotton fields, white unto harvest. This astounds me. I once interviewed in Vermont at an old red brick church, called by that very name in fact. Instead of a pastor=s chair up front, it had three overstuffed Victorian couches faded with age. But what I really remember was the smell. The smell of cows and what cows leave behind. They came right up to the brick walls of the church. I wondered what it would be like to have to preach over the noise and smell of those cows. But I can only wonder, for cotton offers no noise, and to my knowledge, no distinct smell either. What it offers is a culture, a culture once at war with that same small town in Vermont.

On our dining room wall hangs a painting. It portrays a white clapboard Congregational church, box-like in shape, and typical in its rows of regular rectangular windows. It could be set in any New England town square, except for the gray mass of tangled Spanish moss which hangs from the looming trees around, framing the church in its Southern setting, a study in paradox. Which is, I suppose, why I like the painting so much, for it is a metaphor of my own life. It is in fact the Congregational Church of Midway, Georgia, established by New England puritans who emigrated first to Dorchester, South Carolina in the late 1600s, and then to Midway the century after that. It supplied Georgia with some its finest statesmen, soldiers, and preachers. The singular impact of this little church is incalculable. It now lies empty.

 

~~~~~

 

When I was a young lieutenant in the Army, one of my sergeants lived just down the road from the Midway church, that is until his house burned down. I still remember his kids being let off the school bus to the sight of their smoldering house, his little girl at first yelling, ACool!@ to impress her friends, and then bursting into tears. It was also while tooling around the Midway church graveyard that I met a man who invited me to the church that would eventually, after marriage and war, reverse the studied pilgrimage and sent me off to New England to myself prepare for the ministry.

I know this will sound strange, but New England has been to me something of a promised land. As a native born Southerner with traditional leanings, this sentiment expressed in the waning years of the twentieth century sounds something akin to heresy, I know. But there it is. What is more, I find myself ministering in a denomination directly descended from one once populated with unrepentant and unrebuked slave owners, a denomination whose de facto theological leader once described all abolitionists as “atheists, socialists, communists, red Republicans, (and) Jacobins.” Perhaps this is why I feel an unnatural sympathy with those whose only route to the promised land was by an Underground Railroad, for I too have felt the secret pull of New England on my soul as the place where I might find freedom and rest, my promised land.

My father was born and raised near old Dorchester, South Carolina, in the town of Summerville, so named because it was where the wealthy were able to escape to from Charleston, where I myself was born. My father was there stationed as a naval officer, an elite submariner, always to be pronounced correctly — emphasis on any but the first syllable. His ship was in fact a submarine tender, named the Hunley after the first submarine to ever a sink a ship, a Union vessel which was too busy blockading the rebel port to notice the Confederate sub sneak up with a mine attached to the end of a long pole on its bow. The pole was in fact not long enough, and down went the Hunley as well. That never happened to my father’s ship. He speaks in an accent unique to Summerville, instantly recognized the world over by those experienced in it, and downright confounding to all the rest. There are those who have thought that he was English, to which apart from being reared Episcopalian, my father bears no resemblance.

I, however, am of mixed race, for my father married a Connecticut Yankee whom he met at a dance while stationed in New London. His first words to her were to be careful not to eat too many peanuts, lest they give her the runs. They were engaged within two months. His parents agreed to it, seeing that her folks were originally from Richmond and Baltimore respectively, both fine Southern towns. My wife and I began our lives together later in a small Georgia town near the coast named Richmond Hill. The only thing Hill about it was that it was not under water. It was named that only because Henry Ford, who used to winter there, wanted it named that, and who could argue with that? Especially since not much money made it down those ways, not since the war. It was a few miles from Richmond Hill where Sherman=s army first made contact with the sea in the march named by that fact.

When I was little, during Sunday dinners in Summerville, we children were placed apart at a separate kids’ table on one side of my grandparents dining room. I remember once saying the word, “Sherman,” as loud as I could just to see the reaction. I remember something about utensils dropping along with the jaws, and receiving a lecture about what was and wasn’t proper language on the Lord’s Day. So even then, my mixed blood showed itself discontent with its Southern element alone, a hint of this unseemly longing for New England.

Or perhaps it is those summer months of my youth, when we would tumble out of our station wagon sleepy-eyed onto the fresh white pebbles of my grandfather=s driveway, fourteen car hours away from our home in the South. We would run into the kitchen shouting hello while looking for presents. My grandfather was nicknamed Bootie, after the nickname that he tried to pin on my older sister, on account of the baby shoes she wore. He kept a paddle above his workbench in the garage for spanking. It was nothing more than one of those ball-and-paddle toys except for the ball. Usually those balls just snapped off in mid-bounce, as I remember them, and thus, a new paddle. They were the equivalent of the missile submarines on which my father worked, more for deterrent than actual use, guarantors of the peace, at least we prayed so, for they looked like they would do a pretty number on our behinds.

We would eat from the endless bounty of butterfly pretzels my grandparents kept stored in glass vials on the counter, and then plunder their supply of sugar cubes whenever we could find them. We would put them straight in our mouths whole, sucking them into nothingness. Those sugar cubes were magic, you see, for these could not be found anywhere in our house down South. One time my younger cousin was not seen for hours but instead of eating sugar cubes, we finally discovered him in the dog kennel, sitting contentedly on the grooming table, having stuffed himself with all manner of dog biscuits. Red, green, brown and yellow crumbs littered his face. He was New England in the Fall.

All of this took place on my grandparents’ country property, where they lived in a white clapboarded farmhouse first built in 1742. There was a hole in one of the upstairs floorboards so deep and so mysterious that we once lost a toothbrush down it and never saw it again. Tumbling stone walls laced across the acres, through field and woods alike. We would adventure atop these walls, rocking back and forth upon the loose stones and scaring the wits out of one another whenever we caused a black snake to slither out. One time I found small old rusty nails and pieces of china within part of a wall, and I was sure I had discovered an actual Continental Army camp site, a tribute to those brave Yankee Doodles who had thrown tea into the sea and freed our country from the mean Lobsterbacks, all the while wondering why they thought their hat feathers were a kind of pasta. Other times we’d venture into the old barn with its mysterious black cats, and the weathered yellow cow skulls below. The dust itself in that place was mystery and history swirling around our cautious foot steps.

On occasion we’d visit for Christmas, and when snow graced the rolling fields around, it was as if the clouds of heaven itself had fallen as a blanket upon the earth. When we would awake and see the glistening magic outside, immediately we would whoop and run downstairs to don our snow suits kept for us there each year. They were thick and bulky and swished when you walked. Then we would carry our aluminum flying saucers and trek to the nearest hill and spend hours carving race paths into the snow. Only when enough snow had gotten underneath our scarves and mittens, and melted against our skin, soaking us, would we surrender to the elements and retreat back inside, craving cocoa. New England.

After a few years of living outside of Charleston, my father got transferred to Washington DC, where we moved into a suburban house where I spent the rest of my childhood years. I graduated high school and somehow got it into my head that I wanted to go to college in the South, where I reasoned I might find a more civil culture. The place I attended was considered one of the most prestigious in the South. There the future leaders of America smashed their BMWs into lampposts after drinking too hard because the several girls they had hit on all turned them down. Life alternated between dark, throbbing parties and classes where we were taught by the most respectable of authorities that there was no such thing as truth to pursue. I still remember the way my sneakers smacked down the dorm halls from the dried, sticky beer any given morning of the week. The Methodist chaplain whom the school kept on as a veneer of civilization called it a pagan place. Then again, the chapel over which he presided counted among its statued saints such heroes of the faith as Thomas Jefferson, whose belief in the Bible involved a generous use of scissors.

After college and before the Army, when I was laboring in the Southern summer to train my body for war, I visited some friends on the Massachusetts coast. There as I ran, my lungs filled with fresh New England air, and I ran not as a man afoot, but as a seagull, light as air, flying across the expanse of Kettle Cove. I ran through a small hamlet, past a gray, three-story building with a cafe. Though I did not know it in the least at the time, I was surveying the very place my wife and I would inhabit years later, the place where our daughter, named after my grandfather from Richmond, would first call home.

Some years passed before that, however, in our first home of Richmond Hill, down south, selected because it was near my first duty station, Ft. Stewart, eleventh on a list of ten preferences I had requested from the Army. When they sent me to war, two months after getting married, I longed for nothing more in the deserts of Babylon than to return home and make a quiet living in some small, green place. Though I could not yet articulate it, I was longing for New England. The war over, my duty done, our church sent us to seminary there, and it was there that our marriage finally discovered a home, a place to prosper. It found a home not only in the beauty and the weight of the place, but in a small, Congregational church on the edge of the world, a small Scandinavian fishing village called Lanesville. There zeal met authenticity, and precision met love.

It became my dream to stay in New England and find some poor, floundering Congregational church to pastor, one steeped in history, but slouched against modernity, and I would become its reformer, reviver, messiah. It was my dream. It was my idol. I did preach once in exactly one of those churches, founded in 1642 in the suburbs of Boston, and now sporting a huge, ornate sanctuary they had built in the late 1800s to sit over 1,500 people. It had a pulpit so high that it took two levels of stairs to reach it, and standing in it that morning made me almost dizzy from the heights I had ascended. The morning I preached, all of thirty people were left to worship. And they each sat in the different far reaches of the sanctuary, so that as I preached, it was as if I was addressing thirty different congregations. Which I was. That is largely the story of New England Congregationalism, and not even one of the sadder parts.

 

˜~~~~~

 

As for the Midway Congregational church in Georgia, they died out it seems for two distinct reasons. The first is that they planted a number of churches in the surrounding towns, all Presbyterian, as the antebellum spirit between the two groups was charitable, for they agreed in almost every detail of the faith. And there being no other Congregational churches in the region, it seemed most fitting that the daughter churches take a new name and flesh. The second reason seems to be that after Sherman’s army came through, there was not enough of an economy to sustain the town or church, and so family after family moved away, until finally, the building stood empty, a monument to its forbearers, North and South.

If one visits the old Midway church and takes careful observation of its pulpit design, the place where God=s redemptive Word was proclaimed each Lord=s Day, and then one happens to worship in the church where I currently serve as associate, one might notice the deliberate imitation between the pulpits, we trust in all respects. I am told that our church wanted to duplicate the Midway architecture whole, but were informed that such ancient architecture would never hold up today.

My wife and daughters and I went back to New England a couple of summers back, I thought for a vacation. I realize now that it was to say good-bye. Not good-bye to a region, nor a people, and certainly not to friends. But good-bye to a dream, an idol. Good-bye to a time which belongs in the past, if yet its legacy lives on, even now, even here, under the gray tangles of Southern trees.