The Ministry of Listening

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.

So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.

This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 97-8.

Self-Esteem by Self-Deception

I heard recently about an elementary school that begins its day by requiring every student to repeat the following mantra:

“I am the best student, I have the best teacher, and I attend the best school.”

Every student at the school affirms this. Every one of them purports to be the best which, of course, is logically incoherent. Outside of Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average, only one can be the best. Not all. This is self-esteem by self-deception.

Perhaps schools would serve students better if, instead of brainwashing them with illusions of superiority, they actually taught them how to think! Or better yet, maybe schools should be helping kids learn to value other people without condition and that the best, worst, and every student in between is worthy of equal appreciation and respect. People aren’t significant only if they’re superlative. The last thing our narcissistic culture needs is more self-esteem; what we need is more esteem for others.

The Essence of Christianity

B.B. Warfield on the essence of Christianity:

“It belongs to the very essence of the type of Christianity propagated by the Reformation that the believer should feel himself continuously unworthy of the grace by which he lives. At the center of this type of Christianity lies the contrast of sin and grace; and about this center everything else revolves. This is in large part the meaning of the emphasis put in this type of Christianity on justification by faith. It is its conviction that there is nothing in us or done by us, at any stage of our earthly development, because of which we are acceptable to God. We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all. This is not true of us only ‘when we believe.’ It is just as true after we have believed. It will continue to be true as long as we live. Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing; nor does the nature of our relation to Him or to God through Him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievements in Christian behavior may be. It is always on His ‘blood and righteousness’ alone that we can rest. There is never anything that we are or have or do that can take His place, or that can take a place along with Him. We are always unworthy, and all that we have or do of good is always of pure grace. Though blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ, we are still in ourselves just ‘miserable sinners’: ‘miserable sinners’ saved by grace to be sure, but ‘miserable sinners’ still, deserving in ourselves nothing but everlasting wrath. That is the attitude which the Reformers took, and that is the attitude which the Protestant world has learned from the Reformers to take, toward the relation of believers to Christ.”

 

On Proclaiming Christmas

In an Everyday Christian article from last year, my good friend Randy Gruendyke, campus pastor at Taylor University, was asked how pastors can proclaim the Christmas  story year after year in a way that’s still “inspiring and engaging.” Randy’ s response is helpful for pastors and laypeople alike. Here’s an excerpt from that article:

The pastor at this Christian college located 70 miles northeast of Indianapolis, Gruendyke emphasized the importance of not getting overly anxious about the familiarity of the story.

He said there were three key factors to keep in mind:

  1. Diversity.  While there are plenty of Christmas texts on which to preach (and to preach for many years!), thinking beyond the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke can be helpful.  For instance, John 1:1-18 describes one of the preeminent purposes for Jesus’ incarnation – to explain the Father.  Philippians 2:5-11 unfolds the depth of our Lord’s humiliation (the First Advent) and the height of his glorification (the Second Advent).  Isaiah 9:6-7 anticipates the breadth of Jesus reign in time and eternity.  Genesis 3:15 contains the “proto-evangelium”, revealing that the hope of the incarnation is found in one of the earliest chapters of the Bible.  Showing people that Christmas is found beyond the first three books of the New Testament helps bring the story of the whole Bible into sharper focus.
  2. Confidence.  Because the Christmas story is so well known, some pastors feel compelled to embellish it – to “dress it up”.  So, instead of preaching a Christmas passage, there’s a temptation to recount Christ’s nativity from the perspective of a fictitious shepherd boy or wondering angel.  This approach reflects a lack of confidence in the sufficiency of God’s word preached.  When accompanied by careful exegesis, prayerful preparation and the power of the Holy Spirit, the many angles of this well traveled story can remain perennially fresh.
  3. Repetition.  While some think that hearing the same story over and over is a bad thing, it can actually be good!  It can be good for learning purposes – repetition allows the preacher to examine multiple aspects of the Christmas account.  It can be good for retention purposes – repetition helps listeners remember the story and its many facets.  It can be good for evangelistic purposes – repetition builds confidence in a congregation to expect a clear exposition of the Christmas story to which they can bring their unsaved friends.

He added that he thought pastors should rely on the sufficiency of the message’s substances to hit home with all Christians regardless of where they are on their faith walk.

“Paul exhorts the Colossian church, ‘As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him…” (2:6) – that is, the way one begins in Christ is the way he gets on in Christ,” he said. “So, when it comes to preaching, what’s good for the new believer is good for the old believer.  That means a Christmas text preached responsibly in its context can be used by God to mint a new believer or strengthen a seasoned one.”

 

Hauerwas on Faith and Suffering (and Christmas)

Stanley Hauerwas is one of my favorite theologians–not because I agree with him on everything (or even most things), but because he communicates in a way that’s as compelling as the subjects he considers: theology, philosophy and ethics, the social sciences, political theory, and medicine. A bricklayer from Texas, Hauerwas has become known for his “rough speech and pointed views.” He’s been called “contemporary theology’s foremost intellectual provocateur” and was named by Time Magazine as “America’s best theologian” in 2001. His characteristic edginess often stems from frustration with Christians who “take the best story in the world and make it so damn dull.”

About a year ago, Hauerwas was invited to lecture at the Fuller Symposium on the Integration of Psychology and Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. His talks, which were based on his memoir Hannah’s Child, reflected on his 24-year marriage to his ex-wife who suffered from severe bipolar disorder. He simply told his story which, like all of ours, is determined by God’s story.

Following Flannery O’Connor, Hauerwas affirmed the view that suffering in life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured. And so he cautioned against making Christianity into an answer that sets out to make sense of suffering. Faith that functions as little more than a rationale–a means of demystifying the mysterious–is no faith at all. We must learn to be Christians, Hauerwas said; which, at very least, means this:

“Learning to be a Christian is learning to live without answers. And learning to live in this way is what makes Christianity so wonderful. Faith is about learning how to go on without knowing all the answers … Being a Christian makes life so damn interesting … The only remedy for [suffering] lies in the good news that we may and we must have, what Paul calls, ‘hope beyond hope’ that’s found in the kingdom of hope that takes its residence here in the body of Christ but ends beyond the bounds of this world.”

While God’s story determines our stories, it also sweeps us up into his life. Because he came to us in Jesus, the gloomy clouds of night, death’s dark shadows, and all suffering were put to flight. As Owen said, in the work of Jesus, death has been put to death. And so rather than seeking to solve the problem of suffering, we should (faithfully) endure it in hope that the kingdom inaugurated on that first Christmas morning will one day come in full, and suffering will be no more. “On that day,” writes Carl Trueman, “it will truly be Christmas everyday.”

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.


Christopher Hitchens, RIP

Days after reflecting on “the measure of [his] inevitable decline” in Vanity Fair, well-known writer Christopher Hitchens has died.

Over the years, Hitchens had earned quite the reputation for himself. He was described by one journalist as a “combative and caustic critic, intellectual, atheist and self-defined ‘conservative Marxist'” whose passions were “words, alcohol, and cigarettes.” He was perhaps best known for his contempt of all things sacred; he wasn’t just satisfied with being known as an “atheist”, he made it a point to label himself an “anti-theist.” But even for as much as he despised religion, I always liked him and was sad to hear the news that he had been diagnosed with cancer a while back (see my post On Hitchens and Cancer).

Much has been written about his life and writing, his illness, and now, his death. Even a lot of religious folks have been compelled to comment since his death last night. Along with Doug Wilson’s  article in Christianity Today, Russel Moore has, in my opinion, written something on Hicth’s death that’s really worth reading:

Christopher Hitchens was a blasphemer, true enough, and a nasty character. Aren’t we all, in our different ways. Christ Jesus came for nasty characters like us. And the same blood of Jesus that can deliver us from wrath could do the same for Hitchens had he, if he, at any point, embraced it. It’s not likely, but it’s possible, and, if he did, then Christopher Hitchens’s past atheism would be no barrier to communion with God. It would be, like my sin, crucified with Christ, buried, and remembered no more.

I don’t know about Christopher Hitchens, about what happened in those last moments, but I do know that, if he had embraced it, the gospel would be enough for him. I know that because it’s enough for me, and I’m as deserving of hell as he is …

I don’t know. But I do know that the gospel offers forgiveness and mercy right to the edge of death’s door. And I know that the kingdom of God is made up of ex-thieves, and ex-murderers, and ex-atheists like us.

 

On the Incarnation

From Thomas Watson’s A Body of Divinity:

”He was poor, that he might make us rich.
He was born of a virgin that we might be born of God.
He took our flesh, that he might give us His Spirit.
He lay in the manger, that we may lie in paradise.
He came down from heaven, that he might bring us to heaven …
 
That the ancient of Days should be born.
that he who thunders in the heavens should cry in the cradle;
that he who rules the stars should suck the breast;
that a virgin should conceive;
that Christ should be made of a woman,
and of that woman which himself made,
that the branch should bear the vine,
that the mother should be younger than the child she bare,
and the child in the womb bigger than the mother;
that the human nature should not be God, yet one with God …
 
Christ taking flesh is a mystery we shall never fully understand till we come to heaven.
 
If our hearts be not rocks, this love of Christ should affect us .
 
Behold love that passeth knowledge! (Eph 3:19).”