Mountaineering [1], The Enlightenment [2], and the Advent Child [3]

By Ian McFadden

I’m not a mountaineer. But in my head I am.  I’ve climbed enough small mountains and read enough books and watched enough documentaries about expeditions on bigger ones that I feel I know at least something of the culture of the climbing world.  It isn’t exactly what you’d expect.  I would have expected a world of driven egomaniacs, people convinced that if they’d clambered to the top of the world physically, that they’d achieved the same conquest more universally as well.  I’ll concede that such monuments to some Jurassic machismo do exist; but they’re not the norm like I thought they would be among world-class climbers.

Instead I’ve come across (in print, in celluloid or in person) mountaineer after mountaineer who climbs because it makes him feel small.  When they talk about what they’ve achieved in the world’s tallest peaks, words like “conquer,” “defeat,” and “prevail” hardly crop up.  They’ll talk about “sneaking” through a brief gap in the weather, they’ll talk about “surviving this time,” and regularly use words like “humility,” “accept,” and “patience.”  My point isn’t that these climbers are necessarily a lovely bunch of role models  (though some are, to be sure).  What I’m saying is that I think serious mountaineers see in the world’s most difficult peaks a view of reality that rings more true than the prevailing western, post-Enlightenment “can-do” attitude.  It is a strange line of argument, I realize.  It seems counter-intuitive that people who are ostensibly all about achieving a difficult goal would find solace and a clearer vantage-point on truth in being defeated.
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Singleness and the Sufficiency of Christ

by Ian McFadden

I’m not usually a big statistics guy, but some just make you sit up and think.  According to the US Census Bureau, the percentage of the American population that is married has fallen from over two-thirds in 1960 to under 55% in 2009.[1] That’s a pretty dramatic shift and it makes me think about a paradox I’ve noticed in TV shows.  People seem to be perpetually single.  Most TV characters are on a quest for some sort of long-term relationship, but if one ever crops up, the credits roll or the show goes off the air.  Of course, I’m hyperbolizing, but I think the basic point stands.  Marriage’s place in American culture is bending.  Its desirability and significance are relativized in mainstream media like never before.  And in evangelical sub-culture and a couple of narrow genres of movies and fiction (usually targeting people who still ride a school bus and have only recently stopped wearing silly bandz) marriage is being peddled with the wild-eyed zeal of Pampered Chef proselytes.

Singles in churches are left in a weird place.  Singleness is more and more the norm in America and yet sometimes it feels less and less normal, less acceptable in the church.  Historically, the issue of singleness and marriage is one the Western families of the church have polarized on.  The Roman Church, I think, has in the past placed an unhelpful premium upon the single life.  She was certainly helped, if not launched, on this trajectory by some of the giants of the patristic church.  More saturated in Greek culture than in the creation-affirming loam of the Bible, some of the Western Church’s most influential theologians had rather derogatory things to say about marriage.  The Protestant Church, as if the main concern were to differentiate herself from Rome, has rushed to the other pole affirming married family life with such fervor that undue expectations for fulfillment and significance are placed on our spouses and families and Christ-exalting singleness is virtually ignored as a viable, let alone desirable, path of discipleship.   It is high time for some balance.  High time to listen again, a little more carefully perhaps, to what the Bible actually says.

This morning I read Barry Danylak’s new book, “Redeeming Singleness:  How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life.”  It’s a good book.  Note, I didn’t say a good read.  Continue reading

He is Coming

by Jill McFadden

Last November I was driving along the interstate near Baltimore and passed a huge, majestic picture of a lion with the simple words:  “He Returns.”  Immediately there were chill bumps on my forearms and my heart raced just for a second.  After this quick, visceral reaction I registered that is was only an advertisement for the upcoming release of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie.  I did want to see the movie, but Aslan’s second sequel was not firstly what prompted my reaction.  I was fascinated to see that I had unthinkingly, automatically responded out of a deeper anticipation for Christ’s return—for the Lion of Judah to enter into history once again and make all things fully and finally right.

Now, to be honest, I do not regularly think about Christ’s return, nor do I regularly, eagerly pray for it.  Often, when life is going on rather normally, when I don’t experience the world’s wrongs and woes in my day-to-day routine, I don’t long for someone to come in bringing justice and righteousness.  I don’t always understand our world as needing it so desperately.  So I was glad to see that, somewhere deep within me, there is a latent longing for the world’s savior to come again and finish what He started two thousand years ago.  It would be great if this desire and longing were more often in the forefront of my consciousness—if I did eagerly pray and long for Christ’s return.  And that is when the church calendar comes in very handy.  Built into it are periods of refreshment, or conviction, or longing, or celebration, so that every year we have time set aside to focus on different aspects of the Christian story and of our devotion to its God.  And it is this deep-seated anticipation for Christ’s coming that the season of Advent is designed to reawaken and to cultivate.

Advent is comprised of the four weeks leading up to Christmas.  Derived from the Latin “to come,” it is a season that focuses on waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ.  Like Lent, it is a time of repentance and renewal that precedes a great celebration.  It provides an opportunity and encouragement to cultivate both an awareness of our need for a savior, and a deep longing for that savior.

Advent is a time of waiting, and in it, we inhabit two “waiting rooms.”  First, we remember Israel’s long waiting, her eager expectation for the Messiah to come.  We enter into Israel’s story, focusing on the words of the prophets who spoke of a savior to rescue Israel and make the wrong world right.  And second, we remember that we too are still waiting—waiting for Israel’s Messiah to come again.  Advent is a backward and forward looking time, stepping into Israel’s waiting as we anticipate a celebration of Christ’s first coming at Christmas, and, growing into our own waiting as we anticipate Christ’s return.  He came and acted decisively to make a way for fallen people to be reconciled to God.  But that was only the beginning.  He will return and bring to a glorious culmination the salvation and renewal of the earth that he already set in motion in the Incarnation.  The earth is still groaning.  God’s people are still waiting, still crying out for Him to make all things new.  And the true Lion will return…

This holiday season think about how you and those closest to you can prepare to celebrate Christmas well.  Perhaps spend some time in the Old Testament, remembering Israel’s expectation for a Messiah to come.  Make an Advent calendar at home, and as your children help count down the days until Christmas, talk about what it means to wait and to hope for Christ to come.  If we don’t take proactive steps to celebrate Christmas as Christians, we will naturally celebrate it as consumers and miss a much better celebration invitation.

Caring for the Needy

by Ian McFadden

In our sermon yesterday on Acts 4:32-5:11, we explored briefly how the trajectory of God’s redemptive work among his people arcs toward greater economic parity and communal responsibility to care for the needy.  Today, I thought I’d take a few paragraphs to scrape that surface a little more deeply.

Deuteronomy 14 indicates an ideal of a triennial (every three year) tithe of produce to be stored up for use by the various landless (and thus economically needy) groups including widows, sojourners, Levites and orphans.   In addition to this, every seventh year was to be called a “sabbatical year to the Lord,” because “the Lord’s release has been proclaimed.”  During the sabbatical year (Deut. 15) debts were to be forgiven so that those who had needed to borrow money to stay afloat could be freed from their debt service to start afresh.  The sabbatical was not merely humanitarian, but also ecological and during this year crop fields were allowed to “rest” and lie fallow to replenish themselves.  Of course, the fields continued to produce some adventitious crops during the sabbatical season and these crops, fittingly, were protected for harvest by the poor (Ex. 23:10-11).   Combined, the triennial tithe for the poor, the sabbatical year release and the annual right of the poor to glean from the profit margin of the fields, orchards and vineyards (Deut. 24: 19-21), amounted to a sustainable safeguard against ever-widening economic disparity.

Perhaps our American evangelical ears need to be shocked further.  Deuteronomy focuses the spotlight on this sort of stewardship and generosity towards the poor by making it what Chris Wright calls the “litmus test of covenant obedience to the whole of the rest of the law.”  This is what Deuteronomy 26:12-15 seems to be saying.  It is only once the worshiper has paid his third year tithe to the storehouse for the poor that he can breathe a sigh of relief and say to God, “I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them.”

All of a sudden, Jesus’ interaction with the rich yuppie in Luke 18 makes so much more sense.  Jesus quotes a few of the ten commandments, making a verbal nod to the entirety of the Old Testament law and the self-confidant young chap declares that he’s kept them all from his childhood.  “Oh really?” Jesus seems to say.  “What about the poor; how is it that you are so comfortable and some of your brothers can’t sleep because of hunger pangs and shivers?”  In Jesus’ mind, it seems, one couldn’t claim to be maintaining God’s standards while ignoring the poor and sitting on a fat wallet.

This is hard for us to hear (author included).  We Americans pride ourselves on being the biggest donors behind global charities.  For many of us these gifts come out of huge margins—we give high dollar amounts but we never feel the pinch of sharing.  For others of us we run our accounts with such slim or negative margins that we can’t afford to share—even though our annual income is many times that of Christians in the majority world and some in our own neighborhood.  That’s why I’m glad we have the example of David, who refuses to make offerings that cost him nothing (2 Sam 24:24).  That’s why I’m glad we have the example of the penurious widow in Luke 21 who gave despite her circumstances.  That’s why I’m glad we have the rest of the global church who helps us to recognize that our evangelism cannot be divorced from social and economic responsibility (Lausanne Covenant, article 5).

If you’re interested in reading more, a good place to start—given our series in Acts—might be with Lukan passages dealing with economics.  Here are some options:

Luke: 4:12, 7:41-43, 10:29-37, 12:16-21, 16:1-8, 18:18-23, 19:11-27

Acts:  2:42-47, 4:32-37, 5:1-11, 6:1-5

Is Jesus Just Another Option?

by Ian McFadden

Today, the UN is going to dub some squirming infant “living human #7,000,000,000.”  A) That’s a whole lot of people and, B) I can remember when Adnan Mevic was dubbed the 6 billionth just a few years ago.  The world is changing.  And one of the changes is the speed at which it is changing.  Culture is shifting faster than it has before.  One way to see that is to check out a history textbook that’s a couple decades old.

My great aunt is 89 and she’s more alert than I am.   She told me last week that when she helps a granddaughter with history homework, she’s pleased to find that history textbooks no longer treat the barbaric displacement of Native Americans as unquestioned manifest destiny.   Others are troubled to find that in religious textbooks Christianity no longer enjoys pride of place.

We live in a poly-religious society

Your kids will go to school alongside many friends of other religions; probably already they know more about Islam or Hinduism than you ever learned.  And that’s great.  It’s helpful and healthy that they develop an informed understanding of other religions.  Hopefully they’ll develop friendships with kids of other religions and find some of their stereotypes challenged and their horizons broadened.  It could be they’ll wonder or ask you whether Jesus is really that different.   Does it really matter whom you launch your prayers toward?  After all, the other kids might be better students, better behaved.  That was my experience going to school in London where a high percentage of my friends were Muslim or Hindu or Jewish or Sikh.  Where their lives looked different than mine, often it seemed for the better.   Maybe it didn’t make any difference which god you worshiped so long as you played nicely. 

That mindset–let’s call it theological pluralism—is the worldview du jour in the West.  And Christians are increasingly enticed to it.  Every dolt knows there are tons of smart phones out there.  They all have the same basic functions, the same basic purpose.  Some are flashier than others.  Some cost more than others.  Some can respond more thoroughly to verbal questions than most American males.   But at the end of the day it is just another smart phone.  No one other than a narrow-minded Steve Jobs acolyte is going to insist otherwise.  Why should it be any different with religions, with the gods we worship?

Maybe it’s time we recognize that we live in a poly-religious world and stop being so insistent that Jesus is different.   Times have changed and so should our theology.  These are common thoughts to have in Baltimore today.  Our times, though, are not quite as unique as we might think.  Religious pluralism, to the extent that we now experience it in our urban centers, might be new in the West, but it isn’t new.  Not by a long shot.
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Reflections of a Kid in Church

by Jill McFadden

Every Sunday morning I sat with my little sisters on the first row of the sanctuary, feet not yet touching the floor, dressed in some variation of floral print, fold-down laced socks and dress shoes.  Sometimes getting ready for church on Sundays was the most stressful part of the family’s week–everyone getting ready at the same time, hogging showers, digging the desired outfit out of the laundry basket.  But eventually we made it, Mom and Dad in their shiny blue choir robes with red collars, choir members’ children lined up on the first crimson pew, nearest the choir loft.

Our church had children’s Sunday school but not children’s church, so we all attended the worship service as families.  I’m sure this wasn’t always easy for my parents, as I was not necessarily the model child, and even when I wasn’t behaving badly, I was, still, a child.  For example, I went through a stage, before I could follow sermons well, in which I determined to join in whenever the congregation was cued to answer a  ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.  It made me feel very grown up.  Problem was, I hadn’t yet grasped the concept of the rhetorical question, so I answered loudly to anything that remotely resembled a question, arbitrarily guessing whether it was going to be a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, mortified when mine was the only voice in the room.

Or there was the time I was banned from playing with my fake furry mouse during church because I had almost caused a heart attack somewhere in the soprano section.  Or that time I tried to pass the offering plate backward over my head, dropping the metal plate full of coins onto the tiled floor with a succession of loud clangs (Mom really didn’t like that one).  When I wasn’t doing something to unintentionally attract attention, I had to do things like restrain little siblings from sticking their tongues into the tiny communion cups as they passed by.

I’m sure there were weeks when I retained almost nothing from those services.  Week after week, in the box labeled “My Picture of the Sermon” in my children’s activity bulletin, I meticulously drew the same picture of our pastor speaking at the huge wooden pulpit.  Not reassuring if looking for evidence of information retention.  Yet, somehow, through those years of childlike but growing understanding, I learned a lot about God, about our faith, about the Bible.  In fact, those weeks in church with my parents greatly shaped me.  I saw that worship was important to my parents.  It was something they actively participated in and expected me to participate in–sitting, standing, listening, singing, praying, eating.  I began to see, over time, the importance and meaning of communion.  And, importantly, sitting in a worship service with other kids, with my parents, with older people whose children were grown, helped me to see that worshiping with the body of Christ is something I am called to for my entire life.  It is not something just for adults, nor is it something I would grow out of.

I guess it is because of what family worship services have meant to me that I am very eager to see families worshiping together whenever possible.  I know that many churches offer tremendous and effective children’s programming, where children can learn in a way tailored specifically for them.  But as wonderful (and as convenient) as children’s programming is, I urge any parent to supplement that–even periodically–by bringing their children with them to corporate worship.  Give your children the opportunity to familiarize themselves with corporate worship so that their transition out of children’s church is a smooth one.  Give them the chance to see you worshiping–singing, praying, listening, reading.  Even when it seems hard, or your kids seem apathetic, seeds will be planted that can flourish into life-shaping, God-glorifying faith, in time.

Preparing for Corporate Worship

by Jill McFadden

Every week we Christians get together to talk and to sing about how wonderful our God is, how worthy He is to have all of our devotion.  Every week He himself meets us there- encouraging, sometimes convicting, teaching, molding, comforting.

It is, to be sure, the ultimate calling of our lives: to worship God.  Everything else we do- how we work and play, how we relate with our husbands or wives or parents or children or neighbors or coworkers, how we serve people- is part of this ultimate calling.  The worship (not just the music!) that is the focal point of our attention on Sunday mornings is to be the backdrop of every single thing we do throughout the week.  We are to live out the story of His worthiness in the day-to-day, ordinary things.

But, if we’re honest, even those of us who intellectually understand the importance of worship don’t always live as though we understand it.  Sometimes it’s easier and more appealing to sleep in on a Sunday morning or to go out on the river than to get up, get the kids ready, and get to church.  Sometimes when we do get there we’re so hurried, so tired, or so preoccupied with the normal details of life that the last thing on our minds (as we slip into the back of the sanctuary with our cup of coffee) is the very thing we are theoretically there to do.

This is, for our frenetically-paced society made up of sinners like ourselves, pretty normal and natural.  The unnatural (or supernatural) thing is to come ready and willing.  To come to worship on Sunday morning prepared to fully engage in praising the Lord takes extra effort.  To view the rest of your week as countless small acts of worship also takes work.  If we are to come to corporate worship and fully participate- with our minds, hearts, voices, bodies- it helps to come prepared.

To that end, below are links to a few free resources that you can use to prepare your heart for Sunday’s worship on Saturday or throughout the week.  We prepare in order to be able to give our praise wholeheartedly and to be ready to receive what He has to give us.  And, the more we prepare for corporate worship throughout the week, the more we’ll understand how those other six days can also be worship-filled.

Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.  Their “Preparing For Worship” page has links to short paragraphs and questions to help you prepare to sing, to hear scripture, to pray, to take communion, to actively participate, and to serve.

“Worship God” free lecture downloads.  For further investigation into the meaning of worship, download free talks by John Piper and others from the latest “Worship God” Conference with Sovereign Grace Ministries.  Topics include the God of Worship, the Heart of Worship, Worship in the midst of suffering, and others.

Psalm 84.  “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!  My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.”  This is a good psalm to read and meditate on in preparation for worship.

One more note–another way to prepare for worshiping with your local church body is to take advantage of the few minutes before the service starts.  Get there early (sounds impossible, I know!).  If your church offers pre-service music or a prelude, take two or three minutes and tell the Lord that you want to receive whatever He would give you this morning.  Ask Him to work in your heart.  Ask Him to meet His people as they worship.  Read a few verses of scripture.  Come ready to bring your own offering of praise, and ready to receive whatever words the Lord would have you hear; then, watch Him work!