Peace of God and Peace of Mind

Text: Philippians 4:1-7

Do you worry? There is so much to worry about, of course. The economy, foreign wars, a collapsing culture, your mother-in-law, his mother-in-law!—there’s no shortage of problems. How do you handle this kind of anxiety? Do you ever worry that you might be worrying too much? Anxiety is everywhere we turn.

Anxiety

Anxiety has been defined as “A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Anxiety has been with us since the Fall, but the aspect of anxiety that is particular and noteworthy today is precisely that we have named it and identify it even among very privileged and otherwise comfortable people. It makes good sense, we say, to be anxious when running from wild beasts or struggling to find the next meal. It strikes us as odd to continue to be anxious when we have a steady a job, a family, and plenty of toys. Of course, this new twist really just shows anxiety in a clearer way. It isn’t simply an estimate of risk and probability. Instead, anxiety is a deep longing of the soul. It is the photo negative of romantic sentimentalism. Just as people can project all sorts of hopes and dreams onto the future, anxiety projects fears and dreads. And both anxiety and sentimentalism, being connected in this way, share the same problem. They look to find satisfaction for the soul in the wrong place. Instead of saying “In Thee, my soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness” (Psalm 63:5), we find ourselves constantly seeking, searching for more, but with no idea of where to look. Continue reading

Citizens of Heaven

Text: Philippians 3:15-4:1

What do you think of when you hear the word citizenship? Is it voting rights, the ability to participate in civic and political activity, or perhaps loyalty in times of war? Perhaps you think of it more along the lines of values and ideals: the American way. In the ancient world there were various understandings of citizenship and different demonstrations and festivals to impart a sense of admiration of one’s city or state. There were those who viewed their citizenship as a mark of honor, virtue, or civilization. They were Roman or Greek rather than a barbarian. Aristotle even thought that the Northern tribes were incapable of civilization. Anyone with red or blond hair, and especially someone with freckles, was thought to be outside the bounds of reason and domestication altogether. You can’t work with those people. Other views of citizenship were more philosophical but they all shared the concept of uniting different people together as one. Citizens were all on the same team, so to speak.

Paul, understanding the importance of this theme, picks up on the idea of citizenship in Philippians, and he applies it to the church. The church, he says, is the gathering place of the citizens of heaven. Heaven was the true homeland, and wherever the Christians might currently find themselves was a sort of outpost or colony. This gave the church a new kind of citizenship ideal. They were to think of themselves as a community of friends with specific concepts of justice and mutual support. In a certain sense they were exactly backwards from the ways of the world, then and now, in that they were people who did not “stand up for their rights” but rather voluntarily relinquished those rights for the good of those around them. This is, again, what Paul calls the mind of Christ, and we can’t understand heavenly citizenship without first understanding the shared mindset that heaven’s citizens must have. Continue reading

When Jesus Lays Hold of You

Text: Philippians 3:8-14

This morning I want to talk about finding Jesus. I suppose this might sound a little bit like trendy spiritualism or even like that old time religion, and it might be a little of both, but it is, nonetheless, one of the most basic issues in any Christian’s life. We not only have to seek after Jesus, but we have to lay hold of him. We have to grab Him and never let go. But there’s a bit of a twist to this.

You see, woven into the Apostle Paul’s message in this section of Philippians is the somewhat topsy-turvy point that you don’t actually find Jesus. He finds you. In fact, what you find is yourself as Jesus finds you. Indeed, you find yourself in Jesus as He lays hold of you and brings you into the fellowship of suffering and conformity with his death. This is the mode of communion with God which we must all realize, and it is the necessary precursor to being able to obey Christ and walk according to His rule. Continue reading

Pastor, Are You Talking About Me?

This post is a sort of detour from the game plan laid out at the end of my last post, and there will be at least one more detour on the way, but it isn’t actually changing the topic at all. You see, I’m not only talking about politics. I have been talking about Christian anxiety and the need to make Jesus your soul’s satisfaction. This whole series is secretly about pastoral theology. I’m trying to sneak soulcare into a conversation about worldview. Don’t tell anyone. And so, to the question at hand. Have I been talking about you?

This is something that pastors actually experience frequently. In sermons or other writings we use illustrations or we praise or critique something by description, and so the question arises, “Is he criticizing one person in particular?” I am not here talking about academic, formal, or legal cases. It is appropriate and necessary to name names and cite sources in those instances. But in pastoral contexts, things are different. We aren’t making charges against someone. We aren’t writing a book review. We are using illustrations and examples to prove a more general point about sin and righteousness. These can be tricky and even dangerous occasions, and they are why we have the expression “bully pulpit.” Using a sermon or pastoral essay to “go after” someone is a sort of power-play, and it is hurtful and unfair. Continue reading

Putting Politics in Its Place: Vocation and Dominion

I’ve been talking about politics lately. I know that it appeared like I was talking about not talking about politics, but to do that is to still talk about politics, and so, yeah, anyway, here we are, politics. I got a fair amount of responses to my post Political Talk as Totalitarian Distraction, some of them rational and some of them not, and so that gives me a good opportunity to say more. It would be a mistake to assume that I was talking about a kind of theology per se in that post. I singled out “political talk” as the thing under critique, and I highlighted the immoderate consumption and use of “TV news, talk radio, and online media.” I cannot see how this applies to a specific school of theology directly, but I suppose that if someone wishes to volunteer their feeling that the shoe fits, then I won’t be able argue too much against them. Perhaps some theologies do actively promote such immoderate consumption as a key commitment. Still, we shouldn’t confuse experiential memory and reflex with faithful interpretation of text. What I was addressing was not a theology at all, but rather a pathology– giving the discussion of politics, usually a fairly medium-to-low level discussion at that, a totalizing control over your life and, especially, allowing it to dominate your church and family. That was my actual target, and that is what any responsible reading of my words will substantiate.  

Also, my concluding three points were not presented as an alternative political theology but instead as a pre-political theology, or as a way to “put politics in its place,” as I said in the immediate context. If you understand justification by faith, the biblical doctrine of dominion, and the role of vocation in your life, then you will be free to engage in politics appropriately. But if those things are out of order, as they so often are, then you will be unable to resist a totalitarian political theology. It will fill the void of those more basic things, and you will find yourself enslaved. 

But what of politics itself or political theology? Can we say specifically “Christian” things about it? Yes. But before we get there we need to define our terms. Continue reading

The Righteousness From God By Faith

Philippians 3:1-11

This morning we appear to shift gears a bit. We have been talking about relationships within the church, like-mindedness, and the proper perspective on leadership. Here in the beginning of chapter three, however, Paul seems to revert back to the theological controversy which characterizes his letters to the Romans and the Galatians. He says that he is going to “write the same things to you” implying that this is a topic he has talked much about in the past and one that is familiar to the Philippians. And that topic is, of course, justification by faith alone. It is Paul’s chorus, and even here in this letter to the Philippians which seems to not be interested in theological controversy, the bedrock doctrine comes out.

Now, this observation itself is important. You see, justification by faith alone isn’t so much the center of an axle, with all other doctrines ultimately leading back to it. No, that way of approaching things, though popular in many Reformed circles, is actually a little too simplistic and tends to run roughshod over the particularities of much of the New Testament concern. Every verse isn’t actually trying to get back to that one doctrine, and Paul doesn’t literally repeat it all the time. But, nevertheless, justification by faith alone is a foundational doctrine. Continue reading

Political Talk as Totalitarian Distraction

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is the kind of book that should be read several times throughout one’s life and for a variety of reasons. Most people who read it do so as assigned reading in High School or College. They then apply it to history and politics, respectively, seeing the themes and connections that Huxley is presenting throughout the story. What I would propose, however, is applying it not simply to politics, but to society itself and indeed ourselves, to human nature. While a much better book, Brave New World is less iconic than Orwell’s 1984 and so it does not contribute to our common parlance in quite the same way. Everyone knows what “Big Brother” is, but hardly anyone in the general population would know what I meant if I referred to soma, Fordianism, or “the feelies.” This is too bad, because Huxley much more accurately foresaw the condition of the middle-to-late 20th century, and what he saw continues today. In fact, I think it is a book with immense pastoral value. (Pastors: read it next to Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos and for the same reason.)

The difference between Huxley’s vision and Orwell’s lies in the nature of coercion and repression. Orwell’s presentation is of the classically totalitarian sort: traditional-style propaganda, the military-industrial complex, and top-down control. Huxley sees things from the opposite direction. True, there is still a “program” which is enforced on society, but in Brave New World, the powers that be have figured out how to make the people impose this program on themselves, voluntarily and without ever feeling discomfort. This is achieved through a strict class stratification, the disestablishment of the family, free sex, ubiquitous prescription drugs, and an entertainment industry which keeps everyone constantly distracted. Where Orwell depicts the old-style statism of Nazis and Soviets, Huxley captures liberal-progressivism of the sort that the modern West, including the US, embodies today. We have largely entertained and distracted ourselves to death. Continue reading

Thoughts on Suicide

In the wake of Robin Williams’s suicide, there was an initial and distasteful response to the effect of, “This was not a disease. He made a choice to die.” This was couched in terms of being “supportive” of those still in the struggle, but it certainly seemed to carry the implication that Williams’s was more or less responsible for his decision in the way that any of us are for ordinary moral decisions and that we shouldn’t try to explain it away. As a Calvinist, I already have a bias against treating these problems merely as “choice,” and not just from the standpoint of predestination. No, Calvinists also believe in the comprehensive corruption of the world and the person brought about through Adam’s sin. Additionally, as a pastor and one who has spent time with both “normal” depression and clinical conditions like bipolar disorder, I have also learned from experience that these issues are complicated and often mysterious. Thankfully, other more thoughtful articles have begun to come out. Continue reading

Hold Such Men In Esteem

Text: Philippians 2:10-30

So far in our Philippians series we have talked about relationships in the church in a general sense. We have looked at how we are called to relate to other members of the body. Today we will sharpen our focus a little and look at the topic of leadership. What exactly is a “leader” in the church? What is he made of, and how should he relate to the rest of the body? And finally, how should the body relate to him? In this section Paul is primarily talking about pastors, but lest you think I am being self-serving here, I want to point out that the principles which inform how we are to relate to our pastors also inform how we are to relate to our elders, whether the office of elder or elders in life, and these principles also teach us how to relate to anyone who has a sort of leadership role in the faith. Everyone in this room has leaders in their lives, and, in a different sense, everyone in this room will be leaders to others in the faith. So this message is for everyone. Continue reading

And the Culprit is… Libertarianism!

As a pastor and armchair-theologian, I get to live in two worlds. I hear the ordinary anxieties and complaints of people in the pews, and then I read the complicated books and articles on theory, whether theological, philosophical, or political. What is simply unmistakable is how at odds the two stories are.

The lay-narrative is the most common. It says that things were more or less happy in the 1950s and early 1960s, due to the long legacy of a traditional Christian worldview and culture, but then “liberalism” or “progressivism” hit the scene and we have lost both our morals and liberties ever since. On the other hand, the academic narrative says that we lost our morals at the same time as and precisely because of the new definition of liberty which emerged in the 17th century (though some folks try to pin the tail a bit earlier, on Scotus or Ockham). The current “crisis” we are experiencing is thus not a departure from a “good” America, but instead the logical outworking of the original project.

Both of these narratives are partly right and partly wrong, and they both suffer from the same sort of idealism. They are looking for big culprits or master ideas in the form of ideology. Some “worldview” is to blame here, and if we can just critique the wrong worldview and extol the right worldview we will be well on our way towards a solution. The problem is that worldview, used in this way, is inconsistent with reality. As I never tire of saying, “Ideas don’t have consequences. People with ideas do.” And those people often act upon a variety of more or less consistent motivations and impulses, some rational and some visceral. Pretending that this isn’t the case and that we can solve societal problems with ideas is the surest way to never find a solution to any particular problem. We can’t let worldview, whether religious or political, become a new opium for the people. Continue reading