Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Foolishness of Preaching

Another coffee shop conversation. When I’m out of my turf, I find the questions are more honest and the conversations more challenging. He asked me “So what do you do as a preacher since today’s generation learns differently?” I asked him to elaborate.

It was a familiar riff – today’s generation is multisensory, they can’t sit through an extended sermon, they prefer two way to one way conversation. He admitted that his mind wandered off during sermons. Instead of attending a traditional church, he and his wife met once a week with 10 or 12 other couples (“Oh, you mean you do a house church?” I asked. “Yeah, I guess,” he replied with a sheepish shrug “but I really hate that term. I’d rather call it a bible study.” I understood immediately – house church has become in some circles a gimmick, a trick, a way to be on the cutting edge. My friend is no hipster riding a wave – he and his bible study friends are serious in their commitment to Christ and each other – their fellowship is no gimmick. George Barna talks about these kind of folks in his new book Faith Revolutionaries – read Phil Cooke’s summary and take)

These critiques are nothing new – I read this in all the renewal/church development literature. I read this in the emergent church chatterboxes. Even so, I’m not terribly bothered by it. Nor am I threatened by folks going to house churches. Most of the house church folks I know are passionate for Jesus, committed to the scriptures in a way that “traditional church” Christians are not, and excited about serving the community and one another. Yet this is not a post about the house church movement – it is a post explaining why I’ve not given up on preaching.

Preaching is foolishness – why should I expect anyone to me? I’ll let you in on a secret – I don’t have whatever it is that they’re looking for when they gather on Sundays with their faces, young and old, peering up at me with expectation. Any preacher worth the pennies in his pocket will admit he doesn’t have it. My well of cleverness is shallow and muddy. Few preachers are actually gifted speakers. We are not shiny teeth Guy Smiley motivational speaker clones. We are quirky eccentrics aspiring to be the epic poets of our people. We are klutzy draughtsmen of language aspiring to be troubadour poets for the great king.

God seems to enjoy using foolish oddballs to proclaim His foolish message. Indeed, He orders it so that this company of quirky elders will be the vehicle through which the message is proclaimed. Calvin tells us in Volume 4, chapter 3 of his Institutes that God has ordered the church under care of pastors and teachers not because these people are worthy enough, but because they are the means of structure and continuity in the church: “this human ministry which God uses to govern the church is the chief sinew by which believers are held together in one body. He then also shows that the church can be kept intact only if it be upheld by the safeguards in which it pleased the Lord to place its salvation.” I know that Calvin is not the authoritative word of God – but this seems like a pretty sound application of Ephesians 4 and I Corinthians 12.

Here’s where this applies to preaching – all these leaders, quirky and odd though they are, have been sent to proclaim – not to converse. Conversation is give and take, you share a little, I share a little. We each shape the other. Preaching is proclamation -- pointing to the foundational truths of faith. Preaching states “Here I stand, I can do no else.” Conversation and give and take have their place in the congregation – the Holy Sprit does use such conversation. But scripture presents proclamation, whether to a crowd of three thousand or a congregation of one, as the primary way the Spirit moves to grip hearts and bring sinners to repentance. Of course preaching must be informed by conversation, infused with emotion, shaped by contemporary concerns, and delivered through personality – but at it’s heart is something not negotiated, but proclaimed.

Given that foolishness of methodology and knowing my own inadequacy – I’m driven to prayer and dependence upon the Holy Spirit more than ever. I may work the fields and water the seeds, but it is God alone who will grant the growth.

If you’ve stayed with me this long, you must be interested in the topic – check out David Wayne’s great post along these same lines – he reminds us that even in some of the most pagan cities in the country, God is raising up preachers that attract thousands of young Gen X and Gen Y types to listen to hour long sermons. His post is well worth the read.

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, April 21, 2006

Earth Day -- or Stewardship day -- you pick

Tomorrow is the annual celebration of Earth Day. More conservative readers might gnash their teeth at such granolaish, hippie sounding holiday. But Bible-believing Christians might have reason to celebrate. Not because we worship the Earth or recognize some kind of "planetary spirit" -- but rather because God has entrusted the Earth and all of creation to our care -- and we are accountable to Him.

"God blessed them and said to them 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Genesis 1:28) Now some have taken this verse to mean that humans are to dominate -- and many critics of Christianity say that's what the verse teaches. But it isn't. In the context of a story of very orderly creation of all things very good -- mankind has been placed as caretakers of God's good creation, not plunderers. Additionally, Genesis 2 shows that mankind has been placed under God's authority, so we are accountable for our obedience -- and a part of that obedience is our care of what has been entrusted to us.

Finally -- look at the pattern of Biblical rulership -- God establishes the king as a servant to the people, not as master (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), Jesus says that whoever would be greatest must be a servant (Matthew 20:20-28). Even so, mankind in being established as ruling the earth is set up as caretaker.

Some Evangelicals have stirred a lot of flap by entering the public policy arena on the issue of the environment. However, I'd like to shy away from politics because it distracts us from Jesus calling upon our own lives. What are the things we can do up close and personal regarding environmental stewardship.

When I posted on this topic in August I talked about composting, the battery powered Neuton mower (perfect for small yards), and properly disposing of household hazardous waste (such as batteries and paint cans etc -- Hamilton County has a great program for this).

Now I'd like to add one more thing to the list -- freecycling. Rather than sending reasonably useful stuff to the landfill -- consider freecycling. The freecycle movment is one where when you're done with something, you pass it on to someone who can use it -- when you need something, simply ask. Cincinnati Freecycle operates a Yahoo group with a bulletin board. You simply post an Offer for your item, and people will email you to arrange to pick it up. I posted an offer for our old microwave and received 4 replies that same day -- easy as can be. No landfill -- no worries.

Now the next big challenge -- living more simply -- using less stuff so that we just don't have as much junk around the house -- that will be a lifetime project!

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Handouts -- do they help or are they a hinderance?

I’ve gotten to know him through one of my coffee shop “satellite offices”. He and his wife live in Over-the-Rhine (for you non Cincinnatians, that is the hood – the hoodiest of the hoods in Cincinnati).

He told me that over the months that he’s been there, he’s watched from his window as churches from the suburbs came in on the weekends and handed out free food in the park – people from all over the neighborhood lined up to get their handout. And then these well meaning church folks pack up and head back to the burbs. “It does more harm than good” he said. He told me that it perpetuates a culture of dependence upon the handout. It enables folks to use what discretionary money they have to waste it upon alcohol and drugs. “You should see the cars these people drive” he said. He once challenged a homeless guy why he didn’t get a job and work – the homeless guy was honest in his response “I can make more money by begging than you can in your job.”

Now bear in mind, my friend who was venting isn’t some rich venture capitalist. He’s not a lawyer or doctor. He’s a barrista – he and his wife work hard and live simply to make ends meet – and they’re being thrifty, frugal and industrious to do it.

I listened and asked questions (a skill that I’m still working on learning). He talked about how Christians needed to learn to examine their motives – are they actually trying to help – or are they trying to make themselves feel better? If trying to help, why not invest themselves in relationships with the poor. Why not challenge them to step up and do for themselves – equip them – teach them. He told of when he was a missionary in East Africa during a time of drought. Every day people came to ask for water – and every day he wrestled and agonized with saying “no” – he just couldn’t give water to one person while the rest of the village went thirsty. And then he learned that there was plenty of water available. The Chineese government had come in and drilled hundreds of wells all around the region in which he served. They taught the locals that all they had to do to assure their continual supply of water is to keep the wells oiled and maintained. And the locals neglected to do it. They simply refused to help themselves.

This ties in a bit with my previous post on microlending. Reader John Jensen challenged the idea in a gentle way – questioning whether it is a viable business model, or whether it is simply a more sophisticated way of doing handouts. He is a real proponent of programs like JobsPlus (“Jobs Plus is a non-profit organization that helps break cycles of poverty and unhealthy dependencies for individuals in low-income communities by providing job opportunities and a network of support and accountability leading to healthier lifestyles”) or Smart Money (“SmartMoney Community Services will be the leading provider of comprehensive affordable financial services and economic education, empowering families to achieve their financial goals while enhancing the quality of life in our community.” )

These are programs that teach job skills and the disciplines of personal finance. They equip people with the tools to help themselves. I agree with John, those programs are great and very effective. Check out their websites – they are eye opening. However, I’m not quite ready to write off microlending as a business model yet – mainly because as with any business model, you’ll find that there are more people who fail at it than succeed. Reader Michael Kruse pointed me to a really innovative microlending outfit called Kiva – they allow you as an individual to participate in a loan to an individual in the third world – read the info on their website, it’s pretty fascinating. Interestingly, Kruse has a really good post on the biblical concept of Jubilee up today. But back to the main point – for both microlending and the teaching model to succeed, they require relationship – something above and beyond drive by handouts.

It’s a sticky conundrum – especially when you have to look someone in the eye and tell them “no, I won’t give you any money”. I’m still chewing on this one – any thoughts (John, I expect to hear you chime in on this one)

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Now Playing -- Dekalog

Erwin Goedicke recommended "Dekalog" to
me -- a polish filmmaker's 10 part TV series that
dramatizes the 10 Commandments. Set in a single
dreary apartment complex, the series follows the lives
of people who wrestle with, struggle, break, and keep
the commandments.

Just watched the first installment last night. Thou
Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me is the first
commandment. This is a story of a man who has come to
enshrine systems, science, and technology over God.
However, he's not a cold man. He and his son have a
loving and affectionate relationship -- they are very
close. But his idolatry will cost him.
Interestingly, the cost is portrayed not as the
results of divine judgment, but of human hubris --
even so there is a strong faith presence in the film
through the character of the man's sister.

And then there's this interesting figure who looms
throughout the episode -- apparently he appears in
almost all the episodes. Some commentators call him
"the angel" while others think he's a Christ figure.

If the rest of the series is as touching, haunting,
and profound as episode one, this will be brilliant,
if heart wrenching, cycle of films.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Ancient Egypt and the Exodus -- what really happened?

As sure as the tax man cometh, so comes the annual Easter airing of Cecil B. Demille's classic film, The Ten Commandments. Each year we can delight in Yul Brenner’s Rameses II facing off against Charlton Heston's Moses – both actors chewing up the scenery with their delightfully overacted bluster – egged on all the way by DeMille’s penchant for the extravagant (which sadly, makes his movies feel horribly dated). The exodus has been on my brain of late as Tammy and I have been viewing the Teaching Company’s course on the History of Ancient Egypt (see earlier post about Joseph).

Dr. Brier, the course lecturer, lingers on Pharaoh Akhenaten, the "heretic pharaoh" who ditched the pantheon of Egyptian gods and subsequently enforced monotheistic worship of Aten, the sun disk. Akhenaten moved the capital and religious center to a new city that he built in the desert; for 17 years, he ruled Egypt as a Howard Hughes like recluse, his neglect of administration leading to a period of confusion and decline. Following his death, his son, Tutankhamen (yes, THE king Tut), probably under the influence of the grand vizier, restored polytheistic worship. Soon Tutankhamen died (possibly murdered) and the Vizier, named Aye, took over as pharaoh. Aye died after 3 years and general Horemheb became Pharaoh -- and he undertook a campaign to erase the whole history of Akhenaten -- destroying monuments, erasing names, and eradicating traces. He restored the ancient traditions of Egypt.

Now Brier, and a good chunk of other scholars, consider Akhenaten to have “invented” monotheism. According to this evolution of religion school of thought, no-one had ever conceived of a single god -- the Hebrews in captivity liked the concept and adopted it for themselves. As the Hebrews came out of Egypt during the reign of Rameses II, they brought their adopted monotheism with them, forging a brand new national identity. They even loosely based one of their psalms (104 to be exact) on Akhenaten’s “Hymn to the Aten”.

However, there might be a different read of events. I Kings 6:1 tells us: “In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites had come out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, the second month, he began to build the temple of the Lord.” The fourth year of Solomon’s reign is generally accepted to be around 966 or 967 BC; this being the case, the exodus may have occured around 1446 or 1447 BC, well before Rameses II, who reigned in the 13th century. Indeed, this would place the Exodus before Akhenaten’s revolutionary changes in Egyptian religious structure. Some suggest that the Pharaoh of the Exodus might be Thutmosis III or Amenhotep II.

So the radical idea might be this – what if Akhenaten got the idea of monotheism from the Hebrews? What if he heard stories, or actually as a boy witnessed the wrath of God poured out upon Egypt and his heart was melted. What if he became convinced that the God of the Hebrews was the true God, but having little knowledge of them, he expressed that faith in the best way he knew how – by essentially saying “Men of Thebes, I see that you are religious people – you have a temple to a formless god – let me tell you about that god.” (the allusion to Paul’s Mars Hill dialogue is intentional). What if the Hymn to the Aten wasn’t the inspiration for Psalm 104, but derived from it?

Could it be that the living God would harden on Pharaoh, yet soften another – all to the praise of His glory?

Soli Deo Gloria

As a postscript – for similar type of divergent read on ancient religious development, check out The Parthenon Code – no endorsement of the site implied, but certainly interesting reading!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter Sunday

Christ is Risen!
He is Risen Indeed!

What more need be said...

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, April 14, 2006

Good Friday and the Atonement

On this day we commemorate Christ's death upon the cross. That death was a real death, with blood and pain and agony. None of this stuff, hinted at in the gospel of Judas, about Jesus being only a spirit that "seems" to die. None of the "swoon theory" silliness that posits that Jesus simply passed out on the cross, but didn't die. Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ gets it -- this was messy suffering and dying.

I'm astonished at how many Christians then don't get it. I don't expect understanding from pagans -- after all the cross is a scandal, a stumbling block, and foolishness. We shouldn't expect them to get it (though we should long for it). But then I hear amazing things coming out of the mouths of Christian teachers. One teacher I had at a local institution said outright that she didn't believe in the Atonement. She claims to be all about grace -- she believes that God understands that we're just human. Her analogy was her cat -- when her cat pees on the floor, she says "that's just a cat being a cat -- I don't expect her to atone for it." And the murmurs of assent that bubbled up in the room showed me that I was a stranger in a strange land (and how ashamed I am that I didn't have the quickness of mind to speak up).

Then there was an article in City Beat newspaper that talked about liberal Christianity. I could spend a lot of time working through the article, but there was one section that just floored me. It quoted a local pastor on the atonement:

"Often what has happened in Christian orthodoxy is it's turned into a sacrifice of an innocent one to satisfy an angry God, a substitutionary atonement...The whole notion of a god who requires a sacrifice to be happy runs contrary to the life of Jesus." He goes on to say that Jesus' death was a result of the establishment's resistance to his revolutionary message: "The reason that Jesus died was not to make God happy and save us from God's wrath. The cross is a symbol of integrity. He died because he stood up for what he believed and wouldn't back down. We don't see the death of Jesus as a good thing." The article says that this pastor regards Jesus as pretty much a mystical activist human "I don't view Jesus as the son of God, but rather that is more metaphorical. Jesus is a gateway, an approach to God. We're much more like Jesus than we are different. I believe that Jesus did not want to be worshipped and Jesus did not see himself as God, and the parts of scripture that say this are layers that were added later."

I guess I see things differently. The cross is the amazing intersection of holiness and compassion, justice and grace, divinity and humanity. It is the punishment that brings us healing. Indeed, by His wounds, we are healed. I certainly wouldn't have come up with it as a solution -- but I'm not God. Accepting the cross and the atonement as it is, blood and all, I suggest is a great act of humility. We don't fully understand God's ways -- but we trust this Jesus who died, and who rose.

As a wrap up to this, check out this article Michael Kruse linked to on his website: Mark Dever exploring the various "theories" of the atonement and showing why they all, especially the substitution, are necessary for Christians.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, April 13, 2006

More on the gospel of Judas

Just a quick post to link you to Ben Witherington's resources about the gospel of Judas (nicely summarized on Michael Kruse's website). Ben is a supurb scholar, I've used his commentary on John and have his commentary on Mark in the wings for my upcoming series on Mark later in the year. Take a look at how he handles this whole Judas flap.

And for you conspiracy theory types Ryan Gabbard points us to an article in Slate magazine that brings to light some of the seedy history behind the "recovered" manuscript. Well worth a look-see.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The gospel of Judas -- everybody's talking about it...

Over the weekend, I received a couple of emails asking about the Gospel of Judas – I did some sniffing around – a Technorati search this morning revealed that over 3000 blog posts have been made about this subject in just the past few days. The buzz is tremendous. Thus, for my own benefit, I thought I'd think through this document aloud here at the Eagle and Child.

The first place to go is the National Geographic society website for this “lost gospel” – there you’ll find an actual text that you can read for yourself – you’ll find the whole story of the recovery of this gospel. This is the fountain of data that feeds the buzz – a media engine beating the drum to attract attention to its TV specials and book offerings. All the usual suspects are on board – Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman – pitching their case for the Gnostic tradition as a faithful expression of Christ’s teaching.

For a helpful resource in sorting through all this mess, check out Mark Roberts’ wonderful Q&A page – it's chock full of data to help through thinking about this issue.

Here’s my quick take on the whole thing. This new gospel (which is only 7 pages long) is a typical example of the later Gnostic gospels (like the gospel of Phillip and the gospel of Mary). They posit special secret revelation to an elite inner circle. Now here’s the rub that the scholars don’t tell you. The secret revelation doesn’t build upon Jesus' public teaching in the gospels; it blatantly contradicts it. The secret revelations indicate that the physical body of Christ is unimportant – he is a pure spirit. They indicate that all our material life is illusory – that we’re spirits trapped in a material world and through the special revelatory teaching we can be reunited with the higher plane to which we belong. This is the stock and trade of New Age thinking – but there’s very little harmony with anything in the canonical gospels at all.

Here’s how New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik describes this secret teaching, as revealed in the gospel of Judas “The true mystery, as Jesus unveils it, is that, out beyond the stars, there exists a divine, blessed realm, free of the materiality of this earthly one. This is the realm of Barbelo, a name that gnostics gave the celestial Mother, who lives there with, among others, her progeny, a good God awkwardly called the Self-Generated One. Jesus, it turns out, is not the son of the Old Testament God, whose retinue includes a rebellious creator known as Yaldabaoth, but an avatar of Adam’s third son, Seth. His mission is to show those lucky members of mankind who still have a “Sethian” spark the way back to the blessed realm. Jesus, we learn, was laughing at the disciples’ prayer because it was directed at their God, the Old Testament God, who is really no friend of mankind but, rather, the cause of its suffering.” (Gopnik has a good critique, you should read the article, but his conclusions are ultimately disappointing – perhaps in a future post, I’ll take a look at what he has to say in more detail)

Truth be told, the secret teachings sound more like Scientology (read the incredible Rolling Stone expose that talks about the secret teachings of Scientology) than it does like Christianity. Clearly the gnostics and the orthodox gospels cannot both be true -- it's either one or the other.

Go ahead and read the gospel of Judas and read it side by side with the canonical gospels – the points of contact are minor – it seems obvious to me that the gospel of Judas was written by someone familiar with the existing gospels and wanting to use their stories to advance their private point of view. While it may help us better understand the milieu in which the early church operated, it does little to shed light on what Jesus actually taught.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, April 10, 2006

Treasures from Thomas Manton -- and more

It took travelling through three different blogs, but I finally came across these treasures of Thomas Manton at Anablepo.

Kudos to Ruminations by the Lake who picked up on it, where it was seen by Historia Ecclesiastica -- and now passed on to you -- thus demonstrating the viral nature of ideas on the web!

Another great resource I came across this week -- Biblical Training, a website that offers free education and leadership development resources -- courses by John Piper, Doug Stuart, Ron Nash, and others -- all very good stuff. And very free. Well worth taking a look.

And still another resource. The Mt Zion Church Literature page. This church has taken it on themselves to offer free material from the saints of the past. They send out a quarterly magazine featuring articles from the Puritans, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, and others. They also send out quarterly reprints of AW Pink's Studies in Scriptures. And it's all free. Every so often they'll send out free offers for booklets, books, and pamphlets -- all free (though I'm sure they're willing to receive any donations that you're willing to give.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Longing for Revival: Resources for Revival

Over the past few days, I've been doing a theological jazz riff on Mike Walker's call for prayer and fasting for the PC(USA). I'll try to wrap this up today with a few thoughts on resources for revival:

Of course, any talk of resources for revival is bound to sound absurd. As we saw yesterday -- revival isn't an event to be planned or orchestrated. It is a gracious move of the Holy Spirit. Certain writings and resources have softened my heart; they have chiseled in my brain what it looks like to long for revival; they have impressed upon me a deeper dependence dependence upon the Holy Spirit. They have driven me back to the core disciplines of prayer and being in the Word. These resources are not textbooks on how to do revival; they are garden tools to break up the clay of our hearts that we might be receptive soil for revival:

As mentioned yesterday, Iain Murray's Revival and Revivalism is a must read on this topic. See yesterday's post for more info.

I'd also commend Martin Lloyd-Jones' Preaching and Preachers. In this volume, Lloyd-Jones talks practical ministry, but he paints it as a vocation deeply saturated in the word and in prayer. This book is where he tells of his encounter with a medium who started to attend his church -- many years later he asked her what led her to give up speaking with spirits of the dead. She said that for months she watched people walk past her shop to go to his church -- so one Sunday she decided to visit. When she arrived in the sanctuary before worship, the congregants were gathered in silent and personal prayers of preparation and she said that she felt power there "Not unlike the power I felt communicating with the spirits, but this was a clean power." Worth reading for the story alone.

Then I'd go to Jim Cymbala's Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire -- a bit on the pentecostal side. Overall it has very solid material. Cymbala decided that his church would begin measuring success not by the attendance at the Sunday worship service, but by participation in the weekday prayer meeting -- and the Holy Spirit began to move powerfully.

One I read in seminary was Spirit Empowered Preaching by Arturo Azurdia. It's a plea for us reformed types to not forget the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching. Two quotes that stuck with me enough to make it into my notes: "The oral side of our career is visible, but it is never the source of spiritual power. In fact, our devotional life ... is the secret of real clout. A friend of mine long ago reminded me that I could not help people if I was always with people.... Preaching from the silent center is the evidence that we who preach on trust are also living it. Preaching, in one sense, merely discharges the firearm that God has loaded in the silent place. The successful volley does not mean that we have passed homiletics, but rather that we have been with God."

and also

"Dutch pastors often recite a familiar saying to their congregations. Though it defies exact translation into English, it can be summarized as follows 'If you pray me full, I'll preach you full.'"

Either of the Transformations videos from the Sentinel group will give you a powerful sense of what God is doing throughout the world right now. Marvel at God's work in Colombia, among the Innuit, and in Fiji.

I could go on -- but I've probably lost most readers by this point anyway -- any inspiring resources you'd like to share -- comment away!

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Longing for Revival: A Reminder from History

Yesterday, I spent some time building on Mike Walker’s call for prayer and fasting (and yesterday was my day of fasting). But as we talk a little bit about revival, it helps to look back to the past to understand what we’re talking about.

The Great Awakenings
Ian Murray’s Revival and Revivalism is a very readable and humbling treatment of the nature of true revival. He compares and contrasts the First and Second Great Awakenings (the first he sees as mostly good, the second as a mixed bag of true revival and emotional manipulation).

Murray quotes the great Samuel Davies from 1757 speaking of his experience of revival “…when all religious concern was much out of fashion, and the generality lay in a dead sleep in sin, having at best but the form of godliness, but nothing of the power; when the country was in peace and prosperity, free from the calamities of war, and epidemical sickness; when, in short, there were no extraordinary calls to repentance; suddenly a deep, general concern about eternal things spread through the country; sinners started out of their slumbers, broke off from their vices, began to cry out, What shall we do to be saved? And made it the great business of their life to prepare for the world to come. Then the gospel seemed almighty, and carried all before it. It pierced the very hearts of men with an irresistible power. I have seen thousands at once melted down under it; all eager to hear as for life, and hardly a dry eye to be seen among them.”(5)

Murray makes the point that revival isn’t something we declare – it isn’t an event that we promote with flyers and banners. True revival is a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit that with extraordinary power brings people to conviction of sin and turning to Christ as their sole hope for salvation and healing. He contends that these periods of revival were marked by several characteristics:

1) Catholicity of spirit – by which Murray means that we don’t let lesser points of theology divide us (here he means the classic Calvinist/Arminian divide). That doesn’t mean that they’re not important, but it does mean that they’re not as important as proclaiming the sinner’s inability to save himself and calling the sinner to repent and turn to Christ.

2) Experientially living the faith – not just having the dry bones of doctrine, but beseeching the Holy Spirit to work sin out of our lives and helping us to live rightly. This is especially needed in the lives of preachers, Murray contends. We should expect the gospel to work a change in our lives.

3) A concern to discern true repentance – revival is not about getting the sinner to sign on the dotted line, but to have the individual truly search his heart. It is usually accompanied by solemn and serious attention to the proclamation of God’s word.

4) An emphasis on prayer and preaching of the word as the means through which God works upon the hearts of hearers.

Our Connection
It is likely that if we look into the histories of many of our congregations and many of our families, we’ll find that we were touched by the First or Second Great Awakening.

My great great grandfather was RY Russell. He was born in 1800 in County Antrim, Ireland. His parents, William and Isabella, brought him to the United States in 1801 and settled in the upstate of South Carolina. He had a visionary experience at age 10, and at age 20 he gave his life to Christ during one of the camp meetings being held near his home. He abandoned his pursuit of a law degree to become a minister. He spent his entire life as a reasonably obscure pastor of the small farming community of Bullock’s Creek, SC.

But while a pastor, he saw revival happen in his church. His biographer Gerry West tells the story: “Under his leadership, the church grew in numbers and spirit. Preceding the Great Revival of 1832, a fervent spirit was stirring York county, and reverend Russell became the man-of-the-hour for the area. Russell had a wonderful ability in delivering a sermon in a most forceful manner and people came from all over the area to hear him preach. During the great revival, it is said that vast crowds flocked to God; believers rejoiced in their salvation, and sinners cried aloud for mercy.” (From the book “Star over Bullock’s creek” – self published by West).

In our own congregation here at Covenant-First, we experienced a prayer revival in 1828. The elders began to meet regularly each week to pray for revival. They encouraged congregation members to do the same. Note this – they didn’t pray that God would increase the numbers of the church – they simply prayed for revival. By the end of that year, the church membership rolls had shot up from around 200 to over 600, and our congregation (then First Presbyterian) became a major force within the city during that era.

Both Great Great Grandpa Russell and Covenant-First experienced the fruits of the Second Great Awakening. Look into your own histories to see what you might find – and then let’s set our hearts to prayer for yet another Awakening in our time.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, April 03, 2006

Longing for Revival in the Presbyterian Church

I received the latest issue of Presbyterians for Renewal’s quarterly magazine, RE News. Mike Walker, the executive director, tells how at a conference he was leading a workshop on prayer. This workshop was competing with only two other workshops – one might have expected a third of the people at the conference might attend. Only three people showed up. Mike points to this as a troubling sign, and I agree. He concludes his article by calling us to prayer and fasting: “…I urge you to extraordinary prayer and public fasting – beseeching God to be merciful to the PC(USA), granting us a time of renewal.”

I’ve ground my teeth at our Presbyterian propensity to pay lip service to prayer. In our circles, I hear the phrase “pray like it depends on God and work like it depends on you.” Which I translate to: “pray for three minutes at the start of a meeting, and then spend two hours working out your strategy.” We enshrine process, systems, procedure, strategy and centralized planning, all of which are good things, but not the most needful things. I am chief among all sinners on this one. I know that earnest prayer before the throne of grace is our greatest resource, yet how little time I actually spend there; how little time I actually take our church leaders there.

How far we have come from our antecedents, who saw a vital prayer life as an expression upon dependence upon God. Consider the Moravians who held the longest prayer meeting on record – over 100 years straight. They didn’t shun action – from this ongoing prayer intercession the fires were kindled in hearts that went all over the world. Earnest prayer doesn’t impede action, it submits our action to the direction of the Holy Spirit.

So I join my heart to Mike’s plea – let us pray and fast (an almost forgotten discipline in our circles). I’ll do my best to make the weeks leading up to the General Assembly a season of prayer and fasting. I’ve never been great at fasting (see my previous post on this one). One day a week, I’ll give it a shot – sunup to sundown (which with the long days of summer approaching, should be a sufficient enough stretch for me in this time and season of my life.

I do have one nit that I would like to pick with Mike’s article – he says that we ought to pray for “a time of renewal”. While I admire his subdued tone, I suggest that we be bolder. A time of renewal is something that we reasonably could engineer ourselves – hold a few of the right meetings and events – have a few of the right pep rallies – bring in a few of the right speakers – reorganize a few of the right systems – voila, you have something that feels like renewal.

No, let us be audacious. We do not have because we do not ask. Let us unite our hearts and pray for revival – for that incredible outpouring of the Holy Spirit that rends hearts with conviction for sin and drives sinners to the cross. Let us hunger and thirst for a Great Awakening unlike any that has been seen for a century or more. Let us cry out for such a movement of the Holy Spirit that our churches will be humbled, our communities will be healed, and that the watching world will take notice and say “Surely God is in their midst!” Let us pray for such a dramatic transformation that it could only be attributed to God’s almighty hand.

And then let us say together with all the saints….Soli Deo Gloria