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Utilizing the Belhar Confession in the Midst of Turmoil

Belhar Confession Art 2.jpg
"We believe that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right; that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others."--Belhar Confession, Art. 4.7-9

Our university held a rally today in support of the international students, spouses and families at our campus affected by Executive Order 13769.  I was there, standing next to my friends from Iran who are unable to leave the country because they will not be allowed back in, whose families are unable to enter the country to even celebrate the birth of child, and who fear what the future holds in regard to their ability to remain and flourish in our country.  

In the midst of such a tumultuous time as we now find ourselves, many are asking how to parse between the rhetoric and the facts, the truth and the lies, and how the church (and individual Christians) should respond.  Though not the only one, I believe the Belhar Confession can serve as a powerful, practical tool in these days for discipling members of the local church, and in ministering to our neighbors from around the world with the living and acting hope of the gospel.  

A (Discipleship) Challenge to the Church

The Belhar was originally written as an "outcry of faith" and "a call for faithfulness and repentance" by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) in response to the insidious impact of apartheid on the witness of the church in South Africa.  They recognized the disunity and injustice evident both in the church and out in the wider culture.  Furthermore, they recognized the way in which the church's faithfulness to its calling--to proclaim the good news of Christ and the Kingdom in both word and deed--was being hindered.  As a result, the Belhar was a challenge to the church in South Africa to reflect on Christ's reconciling work, its manifestation in the church, the radical call to unity (in the church and the nation), a summons to public action, and the imperative of proclaiming this message of reconciliation to others.  

What a resource for the church! What a wonderful tool for training members in what it looks like to "act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. (Mic. 6:8)".  In this document, we have a resource for discipling those in our churches towards loving, serving, and being with one another in ways that reflect the unifying work of the Spirit among a diverse people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, from various educational levels, political perspectives, and all walks of life.  I think of Article 2.4, which articulates a plethora of scripturally-derived statements on what this unity looks like:

We believe that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, having one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together know and bear one another's burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity.

One could surely spend many Sunday school sessions, one-on-one conversations, or even sermons laying out the implications of each of these with the goal that as the church is so shaped by them, the world sees "that God's lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity (Belhar 3.2)."  This is a refreshing, positive charge to the church in the face of internal divisiveness driven by nationalism, fear-mongering, and political affiliation, and serves as a powerful testimony for those from abroad of the power of the gospel at work in the Church.  

Furthermore, the Belhar serves as a tool for helping church members to process through the issue of nationalism, which is nothing more than idolatry of the nation (similar to statism, which makes an idol of the governing authorities), and the call to submit their national citizenship to that of their Kingdom citizenship under the lordship of Christ.  

A (Ministry) Challenge to the CHurcH

This leads to the second challenge presented to the church in the Belhar Confession; namely, the challenge to be proactive in proclaiming this good news of Christ and the Kingdom by not only our words, but also our actions, to those in desperate need of such news: the prideful and the foolish, the rich and the poor, the privileged and oppressed, the triumphant and the fearful, the neighbor and the other (foreigner, refugee, exile).  In a sense, we have the opportunity today, just as the church in South Africa did thirty-five years ago, to confront the world with an alternative Kingdom and worldview that breaks through both nationalism and statism, as well as a flabby, over-spiritualized form of Christianity that retreats from engagement with the world.  

The challenge before us is to minister to others with tremendous grace and a willingness to suffer, holding firmly to the truth that we, as those united to Christ, belong to His Kingdom.  We are, as the Belhar confesses, called "to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, [and] that the church is witness by both word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells (Belhar 3:1)."  This manifests itself, among other ways, in the church doing what is good and right, in "standing by people in any form of suffering and need (Belhar 4.8)", standing with the Lord against injustice and with the wronged (Belhar 4.8-9), and witnessing against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others (Belhar 4.9).  This may not ingratiate us to those in power, and we may be seen as foolish by those looking to take advantage of our hospitality and compassion, but it nonetheless shows our commitment to Christ and the cruciform life.  

Such efforts work to create an alternative culture--a gospel culture--that reflects the Kingdom of God.  By His grace, such a culture will, like a mustard seed that grows into a bush or a bit of leaven that fills the dough, spread and increase for the good of all people and the glory of God.  In addition, our actions provide a powerful platform for the message of the gospel as that which brings justice and true peace, freedom and reconciliation, restoration and wholeness (Belhar 4).

So may we take advantage of the resources afforded to us by history, and by our brothers and sisters in Christ from other cultures and contexts, so as to promote the glorious gospel and advance the cause of the Kingdom in our broken world.  Amen.

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Open Our Eyes To See

Jesus, coming in the fullness of time, proclaimed the good news of God, declaring, "The kingdom of God is near...and all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me (Mk. 1:15, Mt. 28:18)"

By virtue of this authority, and in the plan of redemption, Paul declares that through Christ, God is at work "to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven. (Col. 1:20)" Furthermore, the apostle writes that Christ shall reign at the right hand of God until "he has put all his enemies under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25)."

John Calvin presented this challenge to his hearers: "We are called to make the invisible Kingdom of God visible to the world."

In the Heidelberg Catechism, we are asked: What does it mean to say, "Your Kingdom Come?"
The answer:  Rule us by your Word and Spirit in such a way that more and more we submit to you. Preserve your church and make it grow. Destroy the devil's work; destroy every force which revolts against you and every conspiracy against your holy Word. Do this until your kingdom fully comes, when you will be all in all.

The next question further presses the point: What does it mean to say, "Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?"
The answer: Help us and all people to reject our own wills and to obey your will without any back talk. Your will alone is good. Help us one and all to carry out the work we are called to, as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven.

Herman Ridderbos explains, "The coming of the kingdom is first of all the display of divine glory, the reassertion and maintenance of God's rights on earth in their full sense...not only oriented to the redemption of God's people, but to the self-assertion of God in all his works. Not only does it place Israel, but also the heathen nations, the world, and even the whole creation, in the wide perspective of the realization of all God's rights and promises...the one great kingdom of the future penetrates into the present."

Likewise, J.H. Bavinck, with poetic prose, declares, "Wherever Jesus comes, the demons flee, the fever subsides, the sea becomes calm, and the storm obeys. The kingdom of God has come near, and leprosy retreats, the blind open their eyes in utter amazement, the lame start to leap in spontaneous enthusiasm, and the dead rise from their graves. Indeed, the kingdom of God is near. All those shattering, destructive, depressing, and disruptive forces now dominating the universe fly away in despair and anguish as soon as the king appears...[All these] serve as proof that God will not surrender this terrible world to the powers of decay at work in it, but that the great day in which he himself will gather up his world into a harmonious symphony of adoration has begun."

Our World Belongs to God, the contemporary testimony of the CRC, teaches: Made in God's image to live in loving communion with our Maker, we are appointed earthkeepers and caretakers to tend the earth, enjoy it, and love our neighbors. God uses our skills for the unfolding and well-being of his world so that creation and all who live in it may flourish...[And now] restored in Christ's presence, shaped by his life, this new community [the church] lives out the ongoing story of God's reconciling love, announces the new creation, and works for a world of justice and peace. Jesus Christ rules over all."

Even in our own day, J.I. Packer makes it clear: Christians must manifest the reality of Kingdom life" through the work of worldwide witness, disciple-making, and church-planting, as well as faithful Christian living that corresponds to the message of Christ and the Kingdom.  

"Because the kingdom, the time of God's rule, has been inaugurated with Jesus' own coming, we are called to life in the kingdom which means life under his lordship, freely accepted and forgiven," states Tim Keller, "But  we are also committed to Jesus' Kingdom priorities of the new age and seeing them worked out in our own lives and the world in this present age." 

And Joseph Boot writes, "The church as God's kingdom people must not only be concerned with personal salvation, or institutional church affairs, but with the reign of Christ over all things. The church (as such) represents the exalted Christ to the secular order."

If Henry Van Til was right when he said, "Culture is religion externalized," then the question is: What does our culture say about our religion?  What do our lives say about the content of our faith?

Is our culture (and our lives) reflective of the themes we find throughout the pages of Scripture? Does it (and do we) represent the kind of redemptive, reconciling, and renewing faith to which we've been called by the grace of God in Christ Jesus? Or does it (and do you and I) instead reflect a kind of civil religion, a moralistic-therapeutic faith, nationalism, or gnostic indifference?

Do we seek to find theological loopholes and convenient alternatives to our covenantal calling--marked by the Cultural Mandate and Great Commission--because it is easier than laboring for the Kingdom in the already-not yet?  

May God open our eyes, that we may see the drama of redemption, the beauty of the Kingdom, and the challenge given us as its citizens; a challenge that is not futile to give your life to, but rather, already assured of its success.  May the Lord help us to see how to live into this calling and glorify His name. So join me in reflection and contemplation, and pray along with me:

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The Parables: Hidden In Order To Reveal

In his book Stories with Intent, Klyne Snodgrass explains that in the parables, "nothing is hidden except that it should be made clear; that is, nothing is placed in parables except in order to reveal. The parables hide in order to reveal."  

Whether it be profound truths concerning the nature of God's character or the function of the Kingdom of God, the hardness of the human heart or the powerful, counterintuitive nature of love, the parables seek to clarify and reveal.   

In an age of confusion, doubt, and a desperate hunger for truly good news, the parables are food for thought.  More than this, these teachings of Jesus are a continuation of the work of the Old Testament prophets, calling the people--calling you and me--to hear and to see.  To recognize our need to turn (again and again) to the Lord God; to reorient our hearts to the Kingdom and its King; and to know what it means to live rightly as God's redemptive, renewing work in the world continues to unfold.   

Though it sometimes takes effort to find the meaning and understand the parables--the answers don't come as easily as a google search--the rewards are great.  Though the answers and truths unveiled in Jesus' teachings are not always easy to swallow, they are for our eternal good, our joy, the flourishing of humanity, and the glory of God.  

This spring, we are taking time to study these parables. I hope that you might consider joining us this (and every) Tuesday at 7PM in the Memorial Union (Room 3517) as we discuss what Jesus' teachings tells us about life, love, and the Kingdom of God.  And I pray that having ears, you may hear, and having eyes, you might see, the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Christ and His word to us.  

If you have any questions, please contact Tyler Helfers at director@isu-areopagus.org or call him at 515.518.6072. 

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A Look Back At 2016

As the year of our Lord two thousand sixteen comes to an end, I wanted to publish a post that both looks back at the year that was and provide some resources for the year ahead.  Below are the top six posts from the past year at From Balaam's Donkey, as well as five book recommendations, and six articles to check out as we approach the new year. Enjoy.

Top Five Posts @ From Balaam's Donkey

1. A Scientist In God's Service: John G. Verkade (from April 11, 2016)

2. Speaking Prophetically Into the Election (from November 7, 2016)

3. That Justice May Roll Down: Christians and Social Catechesis (from July 11, 2016)

4. Persevering in Your Calling: A Fourfold Comfort and Assurance (from September 20, 2016)

5. Transgender: A (Detailed) Review (from October 18, 2016)

6. A Unique Opportunity: Church Planting in University Contexts (from March 2, 2016)

Five Recommended Books

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (James K.A. Smith)

The Complete Stories (Flannery O'Connor)

Talking Points: Transgender (Vaughan Roberts)

Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search For Meaning, Purpose and Faith (Sharon Daloz Parks)

Gospel Culture: Living in God's Kingdom (Joseph Boot)

Six Recommended Articles

Telling Time Differently
Sexuality and the Gospel: My Response to Nicholas Wolterstorff
The Dangers of Echo Chambers On Campus
Separate and Unequal
Cultural Marxism & the Geo-Political Order
Hillsborough: Important Lessons Learned--And Not Just For Liverpool

A Few Quotes For The Road...

"The enduring power of an idea is different from its fleeting expression in any one event."
-Abraham Kuyper

"God the Father has reconciled His created but fallen world through the death of His Son, and renews it into a Kingdom of God by His Spirit."
-Herman Bavinck

"I believe that the time is ripe for contemporary Christians to engage in serious reflection on the shape of our eschatology. This eschatology must be grounded firmly in the entire biblical story, beginning with God's original intent for earthly flourishing and culminating in God's redemptive purpose of restoring earthly life to what it was meant to be--a purpose accomplished through Christ.  We especially need to grapple with the robust ethical implications of this biblical eschatology, exploring how a holistic vision of the future can motivate and ground compassionate yet bold redemptive living in God's world."
-J. Richard Middleton

*Also, check out Dr. R. Scott Clark's great podcast series on baptism, "I Will Be A God To You And To Your Children."  In this series, Dr. Clark presents a robust case built upon history, theology, and Scripture, for a Reformed (covenantal) approach to baptism.   

 

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Stewardship: Don't Waste Your Break

Class is wrapped.  Exams are done.  Projects are completed. The semester is over.

Now, that we are a week into the winter break (and nearing Christmas), I think a question is in order: What are you doing with your time? How are you spending these three weeks of respite from the rigors of university life?  

Just as we are called to steward our gifts and abilities in ways that reflect our God and His Kingdom, so, too are we called to steward our time.  Words like wisely, fruitfully, efficiently come to mind.  And, yet, in reality, our time is often spend foolishly, unfruitfully, and frivolously.  Often, this happens as a result of either apathy, or not having a plan as to how we will use the time graciously given to us by our Father in heaven.  

So, as (hopefully) an encouragement for how you use your time as you look ahead at the next couple of weeks away from university, I've put down a few suggestions:

1. Take time to rest. Use the extra time you have to find rest not only your for your body, but also for your mind and spirit.  Rest is not simply sleeping.  In fact, too much sleep can be detrimental to actually resting.  So take time to sleep, but also consider taking some time to exercise/play sports, play games with family or friends, enjoy a movie, visit a museum, or read a new book. Refresh yourself through these various gifts of God's grace to us.  

2. Engage SpirituallyMake it a priority to participate in corporate worship.  Attend a Christmas Eve service, a Christmas day service, and rejoice in the wonder of the mystery of the incarnation--God coming in the likeness of man, taking on a human nature to save His people--and the significance of this event for your redemption, as well as in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Additionally, carve out time (even if its only a few minutes to start) to read Scripture, to reflect on it, and pray.  

3. Set goals for the new year. It's hard to believe that 2017 is nearly here.  In these last days of 2016, take some time to reflect on the past year: What have you learned? How have you changed? What were the highlights? The lowpoints? How did you see God at work? After that, consider the year ahead, and set some goals academically, spiritually, and socially.  

4. Reflect the love, grace, and truth of our Lord to those around you. As ambassadors of the Kingdom of God and ministers of reconciliation, called to image our God to the world around you, consider how you might do so in your relationships with family, friends, and neighbors.  Take advantage of the opportunities presented to you during this break to glorify God through volunteering/service, quality time with family, and thoughtful conversations.  

These are just a few ways to steward the time given you well. I challenge you to take on one or all of them this winter break.  And if you have suggestions of other beneficial ways to steward your time, post them in the comments section below.  

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Gospel Culture: A Book Review

Book Cover (1).jpg

Gospel Culture: Living in God's Kingdom
Toronto, Ontario: Ezra Press, 2016
103 Pages

"Culture-making is therefore inescapable for all God's image-bearers, for it is an expression of worship. Human beings will turn the visible and invisible materials of God's creation into culture, either as covenant keepers or covenant breakers, since all people are God's creatures are either obedient or disobedient as they stand in relationship to God. (p. 4)"

In this short, though rich, volume, Dr. Joseph Boot lays out the foundations for working towards a gospel culture; a culture shaped by and outwardly expressing the rule of the Lord Jesus Christ over His Kingdom.  Just as the biblical storyline is one of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation, this first volume in the Cornerstones series takes a similar shape.  Boot identifies the creation of culture (in God's creation), its fall and current failings, the redemptive, renewing work of Christ, and the hope and potential for the world in light of his rule over all spheres of life.  At its heart, culture is, as Henry Van Til writes, "religion (or worship) externalized," and, thus, there are only two cultures one can live in and work towards: either that of the Kingdom of God or of the Creation (Idolatry).  As Christians, Boot explains, we must recognize that the gospel forms a new culture, one in which we are restored to true worship of the Creator, and called to work towards seeing all of life brought into obedience to Christ.  This is the focus of the second half of the book, in which Boot presents a robust critique of Two Kingdoms Theology, while presenting an alternative tranformationalist approach to the idea of the Kingdom and this world, which belongs to God. 

Strengths

Boot's understanding of culture and its foundation in the creation mandate is well articulated, and, while similar in its thrust as that presented by people like Richard Middleton or James K.A. Smith, does well to come at the subject from a covenantal perspective.  In fact, this is something I appreciate throughout the book (as well as his other works).  Boot also shows his cultural nous, carefully and, in my opinion, accurately diagnoses the philosophical ideas underlying the cultural decay and existential confusion we face today.  In rejecting God, humans assert their own autonomy and create their own gods (idolatry) and means of salvation.  The section on the State as savior is particularly insightful, as Boot describes the view of many students I've talked to on the university campus via an illustration from Canadian politics:

"One MP and key speaker began his presentation by saying that the core problem is that the Labour Party needs a robust return to the conviction of the essential goodness of man. This illustrated the recurring theological-political illusion concerning the human person: people are born without sin, and so we can change people by doing away with the evil in society by getting back to an unspoiled condition that humanity supposedly lived in in his primitive past--a condition of absolute social equality. (18-19)"

Thus, Boot explains, our fallenness is plastic, and the solution to the problems facing our world is not related to living as covenant keepers to the Triune God, and changing our governments and social institutions to be in line with his ways, but rather, is by eliminating all distinctions and hierarchies, as well as redefining ourselves as we will.  In a clear and convicting way, Boot calls us to recognize that the true nature of the culture problem is one of worldview and those things that we have allowed to shape us in ways antithetical to our calling as human beings created by God (especially Christians and the institutional church). 

Another strength is the book's critique of Two Kingdom (2K) Theology, which asserts that there exists two completely separate kingdoms (the common and the redemptive).  Drawing on the writings of Brian Mattson, Evan Runner, and John Frame, Boot presents a three-pronged case against the 2K view.  He identifies philosophical, theological, and sociological problems with the 2K approach, and shows how such an understanding of "kingdom" leads Christians to be confused and, ultimately, apathetic (or impotent), towards the task of culture-making.  Specifically, I appreciated his interpretation of the Noahic covenant and the rooting of human ethical conduct in God and our role as image-bearers and witnesses (testifying to, unfolding, and occupying creation in accordance with our created purpose, as James K.A. Smith writes in You Are What You Love).  

Finally, I found the all-encompassing, full-orbed presentation of the gospel in chapter five to be both refreshing and hopeful.  Boot begins with Creation and the effects of the Fall before turning to the person and work of Christ in redemption and the Kingdom of God.  This gospel is holistic and cosmic, and the grand picture presented by Boot shows the tremendous power of the gospel of the Kingdom, challenging the personal, reductionistic, escapist gospel popular in much of contemporary evangelical Christianity. 

Weaknesses

All that being said, there are a few weaknesses with the book.  First, though chapter one does a good job of introducing the idea of culture, I would have liked to have seen more on its rootedness in Creation.  Second, while Boot's critique of Two Kingdom Theology is great, I think it is too long for such a short book (34 pages).  Furthermore, because of its length, this negative argument somewhat overshadows the positive one Boot makes in the following chapter (which is only 20 pages long).  Which leads to the final weakness of the book: not enough application.  After some heavy philosophical, theological, and cultural lifting, Boot presents a stunning, and all-encompassing vision of the good news of the gospel, but fails to deliver much by way of how to practically engage/change the culture around us.  Perhaps this is what the following volumes in the series will seek to do--apply this gospel of the Kingdom to various spheres of life--but I was anticipating more of that in this book's final chapter.  

Conclusion

In Gospel Culture, Joseph Boot presents a compelling case for Christians to reconsider their understanding of the gospel, and the implications of Kingdom of God on our callings to live as ministers of reconciliation; ambassadors of the new creation, a new culture.  He does some fantastic cultural exegesis, exposes the flaws in the philosophical underbelly of our contemporary culture, and presents a truly beautiful, cosmic picture of the hope that comes through Christ and His Kingdom as all things are renewed and brought under His reign.  I wholeheartedly recommend this book for anyone interested in better understanding our culture, the grand scope of the gospel, or how the Kingdom of God relates to Christian living in the here and now.  I would further recommend this book to anyone interested in an intelligent, extended critique of Two Kingdom theology.  
 

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The Morning After: A Response To The Election

Photo credit: Capitol Hill Hotel, Washington D.C.

Photo credit: Capitol Hill Hotel, Washington D.C.

Today the sun rose just like it did yesterday, and, God willing, will again tomorrow.  Last night, I was extremely surprised to witness a Donald Trump victory.  It was an election of change; one of fear, anger, and frustration.  The results cannot be narrowed down to one cause, or one single issue.  And, likewise, the solutions to the problems we face as a country are not simple, but complex and multi-faceted.  

I did not vote for Trump, and I am not enthused about his victory. However, while I have my concerns about what a Trump presidency may bring, I refuse to give into the vitriol of some and the fear of others, for to do so would be to subvert the need we have to find ways to come together, and forget that this world belongs to God (not to democracy, not to the president, nor any other human institution).  

Though this response may seem unsatisfactory to some, I stand firm in it.  No matter what successes or failures, joys or sorrows, blessing or suffering may lie ahead, my confession and prayers for our president elect and government as a whole are as such:

I obey God first; 
I respect the authorities that rule, 
for they are established by God:
I pray for our rulers,
and I work to influence governments--
resisting them only when Christ and conscience demand.
I am thankful for the freedoms
enjoyed by citizens of many lands;
I grieve with those who live under oppression,
and I seek for them the liberty to live without fear.

I call on all governments to do public justice
and to protect the rights and freedoms
of individuals, groups, and institutions
so that each may do their tasks.
I urge our government and pledge myself
to safeguard children and the elderly
from abuse and exploitation,
to bring justice to the poor and oppressed,
and to promote the freedom
to speak, work, worship, and associate.

Followers of the Prince of Peace
are called to be peacemakers,
promoting harmony and order
and restoring what is broken.
I call on the government to work for peace
and to restore just relationships.

My hope for a new creation is not tied
to what humans can do,
for I believe that one day
every challenge to God's rule
will be crushed.
His kingdom will fully come, 
and the Lord will rule.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.*

Thus, as a citizen and servant, this is what I will devote myself to seeking on the university campus.  This is what I will seek to do in my community of Ames. This is what I pray the Church will seek to do as an agent of change across the country.  And it is what I pray you will do as you consider what the future holds.  Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord God.  Reflect His truth and justice, goodness and grace to a disbelieving, dismayed, and divided people.  

Last night brought about tremendous, perhaps shocking, change.  However, it need not, nor should not be the end of change.  And it will not be the end of my hope.  

 

*Adapted from the contemporary testimony of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, which can be found in its entirety, here

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Speaking Prophetically Into The Election

Photo Credit: TED website, "Talks to Restore Your Faith in Politics"

Photo Credit: TED website, "Talks to Restore Your Faith in Politics"

 

PROPHETIC VOICES

On the eve of Election Day, the words of Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper echo in my mind:

What characterizes our particular age is the belief in (self)will...This worship of the will has displaced God so completely that the idea of God as the fundamental Will of the universe is viewed as silly.  And whenever we believe we've toppled God from his throne, disaster results. We're in bad shape, because without God the world appears to exhibit very little wisdom and far less love.

"Thus says the Lord!" declared the prophet in times of old.  Calling out the idolatry, hypocrisy, and injustices of the day, the prophet's message was often met with indifference and hostility as it collided with the prevailing views of the nation.  Though they were God's appointed mouthpieces, the prophets' messages were subverted by the competing messages making inroads into the hearts and minds of the people of Israel, bringing with them devastating consequences unless they returned to the Lord.  

Which brings me back to Kuyper's words.  Though written over one-hundred years ago, they still speak prophetically to us today.  There is nothing new under the sun, and the struggles we face are no different than those faced by people throughout history.  Though the packaging may have changed, the method of delivery evolved, the basic struggles are the same.  Wherever God is displaced from his throne, someone or something else will take its place.  It is not a matter of whether you will love, whether you will worship, but what you will love, what you will worship. That is the nature of idolatry, and, as Calvin so imaginatively illustrated, our hearts are oh so good at creating idols.  

A GAME OF THRONES

What are the idols before us today?  I would submit that they are as follows:

1. The Libertine Idol
   Human autonomy and self-will in which everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes has
   yielded the fruit of moral and ethical decay.  Along with such decay is a suspicion (or rejection)
   of authority, including government, which God ordained as a means of common grace--to
   establish justice and maintain order. This has, in part, fueled the rise of Donald Trump, as many
   of those captivated by the god of individualism (self-will) align themselves with his anger and
   suspicion of the establishment.    

2. The State Idol
    In the absence of the true God, something else must serve as the de facto god of the secular
    state, namely its government.  We live in an age in which many have fallen prey to the notion
    that our hope lies in the government and its ever increasing role in our lives.  On the
    progressive side, the answers to our deepest problems can be solved by government oversight,
    increased education and egalitarianism.  And on the conservative side, such answers come in
    the upholding of tradition, and for those who identify as evangelicals, increased Christian
    power in the political process.   

3. The American Idol
    No, not the television show (although it did captivate many, and prompted a cult-like devotion
    via participation).  Rather, the American idol is one that has become ingrained in the hearts and
    minds of people on both sides of the aisle through our own national pledges, hymns, and
    scriptures.  This idol has made a god of America, or at least made it out to be the New
    Jerusalem--a city on a hill especially blessed by God to be a blessing to the world.  As a
    result, this election has been made out to be one of cosmic proportions.  If either candidate
    wins, the sky, as Chicken Little cried, will fall (uh-oh) because our hopes are so intertwined with
    the fate of our nation.      

RESTORING ORDER

On the one hand, I feel compelled to say that this election is a reflection of what we've become as a nation.  As Kuyper writes, "without God the world appears to exhibit very little wisdom and far less love."  This cycle has been one centered on anger, hate, suspicion, and slander.  The issues and each party's trajectory for human flourishing have been virtually non-existent, replaced by emails, pageant winners, racism, and fear-mongering.  Perhaps we are reaping what we have sown, the chickens are coming home to roost, and it is high time for repentance.  

Yet, on the other hand, I cannot help but have a sense of hope.  Not hope in the American people, in either candidate, or the government, but rather, hope in the true God and his Kingdom.  A hope that Christians will recognize the ways their hearts have been co-opted by these various idolatries and return to the Lord.  A hope that throughout history, the church has flourished in tumultuous times--in times it is most at odds with the prevailing authorities--and seen tremendous growth.  A hope in the possibilities for the Church to serve as an outpost of the already-not yet Kingdom of God in the world while simultaneously working at a local level to bring renewal and flourishing to communities by way of mercy, grace, and promoting justice and peace.  And a hope that, even if our nation should tumble and fall (which I don't believe will happen in this election cycle), I belong body and soul, life and death, to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and, therefore, have infinitely more than I could ever imagine or deserve.  

May the God of grace fill us all with wisdom and grace, discernment and hope, in the power of the Holy Spirit, as we set about the task of choosing leaders to guide this country and serve the common good.  And may our Lord remind us of the surpassing glory of the Kingdom we belong to above and beyond any other as we work in service to Him wherever He has placed us.  In the name of our mediator, Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.     

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Transgender: A (Detailed) Review

"The world is changing. Fast...Christians have often failed to discern the difference between our own cultural values, and those that are demanded by Scripture. We are as prone to bigotry as others. We have much to repent of in our attitudes towards the freedom and role of women in society, and in our lack of compassion and understanding towards, for example, those who have wrestled with same-sex attraction...Now, again, we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory and ill-equipped to deal with it.  Sometimes it's easier to protest and rage against the tide of history than to go back to our Bibles and think carefully about what God is saying--holding up society's views, and our own, to the truth-revealing mirror that is God's word."
-Tim Thornborough 

Tim Thornborough does well to introduce this series, and this volume by Vaughan Roberts (Rector of St. Ebbe's Church in Oxford, UK), Transgender.  In just 70 pages, Roberts provides a helpful introduction to the terminology and underlying assumptions surrounding this complex topic, and a guide following a pattern that will prove familiar to Reformed Christians.

Rather than provide his own definitions--undermining (silencing) the voices of those identifying with one of a range of experiences under the umbrella of transgender--Roberts defers to those put together by the LGBT organization, Stonewall.  If for no other reason, Christians should buy this book (just $4.99 at Amazon) for this handy summary alone.  

From here, Roberts lays out his position, describing the two primary responses of people to those who identify as transgender--"Yuk!" or "Yes!"--and challenging Christians to refrain from either of these responses.  Rather, he believes Christians have been called to "remember that they (transgender individuals) are made in God's image and deeply loved by him (p. 19)" and, therefore, should "share his compassion for them in their pain and confusion (p. 19)."  

The rest of the book is an apologetic for his position, beginning with an analysis of the foundations of our contemporary culture's profound individualism and the exaltation of human reason: the Enlightenment. And from there, he traces the evolution of thought through to postmodernism, explaining:

The Enlightenment began with great confidence that reason could lead us to the truth, but that optimism gradually disappeared. Even the greatest human thinkers can't agree on fundamental issues. And so, having rejected revelation and lacking confidence in reason, our culture has now largely rejected the concept of objective truth, at least when it comes to big issues, such as meaning and morality. [This leaves us with] ourselves as individuals. If we think that truth is subjective, then we certainly won't let any external authority tell us what to think or how to behave--whether its the government, religion or family. Its up to us to draw our own conclusions and live our own lives.  

Drawing on pop culture, John Stuart Mill, Jonathan Grant, and several feminist authors, Roberts argues that people living in such a self-expressive society will inevitably define their own identities on their own terms (casting off the outdated, constricting, binary, male-or-female understanding of gender). Thus, what it comes down to is a fundamental clash of worldviews. Both acknowledge the reality of gender dysphoria, but they disagree on how it should be understood and addressed.

The next three chapters are Roberts' attempt to lay out the pattern of the biblical story of Creation, Fall, and Redemption (Rescue).  In the Creation chapter, he describes how humankind is God's masterpiece, embodied and sexual beings (male and female).  He does well to succinctly describe these terms, as well as warning Christians not to go beyond what the Bible actually says about what it means to be a man or a woman.  In the Fall, Roberts argues that sin has left us as "flawed masterpieces" marked by three things: disordered minds, disordered bodies, and disordered hearts.  This has affected all of us (not just transgender individuals) and has a profound impact on all aspects of life.  Finally, in the Redemption chapter (entitled Rescue), Roberts lays out the hope of the gospel, revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ (not to mention the new creation to come):

We will always be insecure if our identity is based on something within us: our feelings, assertions or achievements. But this new identity in Christ that he offers us could not be more secure. We will often fail God, but our relationship with him remains unshakeable because it is founded not on anything we do but on what Christ has already done for us.

As well as the challenges that come with the Christian life:

The modern idea is that we have to affirm the feelings we have and that we can only be authentic as we fulfill our desires. But the Bible teaches that some of our desires should be resisted. We are to measure our desires and feelings against the will of God...That means that those who experience gender dysphoria should resist feelings that encourage them to see themselves as anything other than the sex of their birth. They will sometimes fail, whether in thought or deed, as we all do, but they are called to persevere. That may feel agonising at times--as if they are putting themselves to death. But that is the way of life to which Christ calls all of us...But when we kill the desires that lead away from God's will, it brings life, not death (2 Cor. 4:11).

And this is something Roberts is well acquainted with himself, as a celibate, same-sex attracted individual.  In a couple of instances throughout the book, he references his own struggle, and, yet, commitment to pursuing obedience to God as revealed in Scripture.  

Roberts closes with a short chapter entitled, "Wisdom," in which he tries to address various questions Christians may ask, pointing the reader numerous times to the example of Christ. Christians, writes Roberts, should be gracious, caring, compassionate, patient, loving people who warmly welcome transgender people into their homes and churches, and listen attentively to their stories, experiences and feelings.  All the while, we should long for them to come to a saving trust, just as we did by the grace of God, in the Lord Jesus Christ, and journey along the way of faithfulness that leads to the Kingdom.  

I believe this book is a wonderful, and necessary, resource for the church. It manages to be clear, concise, and compassionate, while also exalting the authority of God and the hope of the gospel. Because it is short, it does not get into the nitty-gritty details, but does give enough to provide a starting point for more in-depth conversation and research.  I would have liked it if Roberts would have gone more in-depth about the created order, or addressed at least a few of the challenges that those who disagree with him may pose, but these are minor quibbles.  

Overall, I would commend this book to individuals, churches, and ministries seeking to better understand and begin having, conversation about sex, gender, and contemporary issues surrounding them, as well as those who may disagree with Roberts perspective but would like to read a gracious, well-articulated argument from a well-respected, principled, and, yet, empathetic source.  More info about the book can be found, here.        

For those at Iowa State, we will be studying this book over the course of a three weeks in the spring semester.     

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