In last week’s address to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis brought an eloquent and powerful sermon to the halls of power. Using four great leaders from American history, the pope reminded the leaders of this nation that we do have great ideals. As Francis sees it, Lincoln, King, Day, and Merton each embody certain aspects of the American character, and I enjoyed his unpacking of these four ideals.
In a not so subtle response to criticism over the canonization of Junipero Serra, the founder of the California mission system, the pope stated in his address that we cannot judge the past by the standards of the present. I simply could not agree with him more and let me tell you why.
Every person is a mixed bag.
As a lay theologian, it is important to remember that every person is flawed. We are sinful, and the pope would be the first to assert this truth (I’ll be the second!). At the same time, we do have a measure of good in this fallen world, thanks to common grace (which is a Reformed theological concept). There is good that God blesses society with apart from the salvific work of Christ. Sin is not fully corrosive in the world, thanks to the restraining grace of God. However, when it comes to humanity, we are created good but existentially strained from the righteousness of God.
Serra is a mixed bag, like all people. He did good things and not so good things. However, how does he compare with the rest of his contemporaries? How does other historical figures we admire compare with others of the same time?
Don’t be a chronological snob.
C.S. Lewis has a great section in one of his works where he argues that people who stand in the current century and judge the past are guilty of chronological snobbery. We sit judging other people based on our own “self-evident” truths, when in reality we could very well be just as guilty (or more!!) if we were in their situation. As a friendly reminder: nobody is perfect (see above).
It takes a great person to walk away from power, as George Washington did after the American Revolution, and I might not have done the same thing as he did. Would you have given up all power when it was in your historical right to proclaim yourself as the conquering king? Yes, he did own slaves, but what about his contemporaries? Step away form your Twentieth Century world and into his.
Would you have placed your life on the line over the abolition of slavery? Would you have walked across the bridge at Selma and confront the ugliness of racism? Seriously though, think about it.
Of course I can see the flaws of Lincoln or Calvin or ______, but does that mean I would have done any better in their shoes? Would you?
Judge historical characters by their own present.
If you want to be a good historian, tell a story. Get inside of their world and see what the historical figure saw—tell their story first.
Of course it is impossible to be objective, our own beliefs will always impact our thought process; however, we might learn to see that historical characters have merits and flaws. Reflecting on the past character by their own present reality will show us something new, and it just might make us more empathetic when it comes to listening to others in our own present. Maybe through this exercise we can regain the lost art of listening well before offering our own opinion.
Christianity Today ran a piece that noted 3 heresies* Evangelical Christians were most likely to believe. They were:
Jesus was not truly human
Our behavior does not matter
Racism is gone
The first point was eye opening to me, because it shows how we tend to overreact to certain questions. In defense of Jesus divinity, we imply that Jesus borrowed his humanity for a period of time, like how I borrowed a tux for my wedding. Contrary to this false notion, Jesus became fully man and if we place our trust in him, we are assured that we will be coheirs with Jesus.
The second point is denying that character matters, that we can be saved without any sanctification. In my younger days (perhaps 10 years ago or so), I used to think Jesus could be your Savior (mere fire insurance) but not necessarily your Lord (behavior does not matter). I’ve since backtracked on that idea and find that statement completely idiotic (sorry, 20 year old Jeremy!) because sanctification matters. My character will never be perfect, but it needs to be changed because of my present standing with Christ.
The final point is the belief that we are in a post-racial society. I believe that we have not fully arrived at the peaceful place of racial and ethnic harmony. There is still deep-seated racial animosity, even within the Christian Church, and while Christ reconciled us to God, the reconciliation with each other is not yet complete.
This article made me think, what is our favorite heresy as evangelicals?
For me, I think we are prone to enter into Pelagianism— that we can pull ourselves up with our own bootstraps and make our way into God’s favor. Our national heritage sets us up for this false theology, especially given our immigrant, free-market culture. But the narrative of Scripture is forceful in articulating that we are reconciled to God in Christ out of his abundant mercy. As Paul would say, we were dead in our sins, but God made us alive. We cannot earn or work our way into God’s favor, instead it is an unmerited gift from God.
What heresies do you find evangelicals are prone to fall into?
*Heresy can be defined this way: Ideas achieve status of heresy in Christian tradition because they are thought by the Church to be wrong rather than right teaching (doctrine). A heretic is a baptized person who obstinately denies or doubts a truth which the Church teaches mut be believed because it is part of the one, divinely revealed, and catholic (universally valid) Christian faith. (From Heresies and How to Avoid Them)
I must confess, the only things I knew about David Livingstone prior to this past month was his quest for the source of the Nile River and the famous line, “Dr Livingstone, I presume.” I thought Livingstone was a mere explorer and had no idea that his deep faith shaped him in tremendous ways.
Jay Milbrandt’s “The Daring Heart of David Livingstone” painted a wonderful picture of this complex man who embodied the spheres of science, exploration, and missionary work so well. Livingstone was a driven, complex man who was painfully aware of his own deficiencies. Often times he would not yield to counsel, but instead would press on out of his driven (or perhaps, stubborn) nature. After initial triumphs, he experienced setback after setback, ultimately dying in the land he loved. His drive to expose and abolish the East African slave trade ultimately cost him his life and his family.
One of the major themes that struck me was how Livingstone did not live to see the fruit of his life’s ambition. He instead died nearly penniless and separated from his family. He never saw the abolition of the slave trade in East Africa, never discovered the source of the Nile, and had only one convert to his missionary goals. Like Moses, he never entered into the promised land he so desperately wanted to see.
Milbrandt’s work was well done and thoroughly researched. The book was riveting and full of lively descriptions of the expeditions. Upon closing the biography, I felt like I knew Livingstone better and understood in part the East African slave trade. I also appreciated how Milbrandt brought out the imperialistic vision of Livingstone and let him argue for this movement, allowing history to be its judge. Overall, Milbrandt is an excellent biographer.
If you are into biographies and want to learn about a relatively under-the-radar historical figure, I recommend Jay Milbrandt’s “The Daring Heart of David Livingstone: Exile, African Slavery, and the Publicity Stunt That Saved Millions.” His narrative style and honest portrayal of a flawed yet heroic man is certainly well worth the read.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <http://booklookbloggers.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
During my time at seminary, I grew to love the historic creedal confessions of the faith. One of the creeds that I wholeheartedly affirm is the Nicene Creed. If you look at it, the Creed unpacks the Trinitarian nature of God quite explicitly. There’s God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Three distinct persons and one God at the same time [insert mind explosion].
While there is unity in diversity within the Trinity, the Church can mirror this Trinitarian reality in our cooperative diversity. There can be profound beauty within the broad spectrum of the faith.
But what unites Christians must always be lifted up higher than the things that might individually distinguish us. The good news of Jesus the risen Messiah is so much bigger than the squabbles between Roman Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, and Orthodox Christians.
So where is a uniting element of the true Church? Perhaps it’s wherever people can be forgiven of their sins and united to God through Jesus.
Pray for unity within the Church
Today is Fat Tuesday, the day where you and I can get so much sin out of our lives that we can rightly prepare for Ash Wednesday and 40 days of preparation for Easter. While not getting into the questions surrounding why an individual should go overboard before a time of repentance, Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday was originally begun to get in the last bit of rich food and celebration before the more somber time of fasting arrives on Ash Wednesday.
Now it seems like a lot of Protestant churches are now taking part in Ash Wednesday and remembering the Church Calendar period of Lent. Why, when I was a kid, Lent was just for Roman Catholics, not for Protestants of many different stripes. But after my time in Church History classes in my undergrad education at Vanguard University and my time at Fuller Seminary, I have come to the conclusion that it is a helpful practice for the Church as a whole.
There will be people who take part in the time with little thought, that will always happen, but the focus on sin, repentance, and the cross will make the victorious resurrection and vindication of Jesus that much sweeter on Easter.
If you feel called to give up something for 40 days, then that is great. But please, don’t go flaunting it around everywhere like a martyr. Fasting from something is meant to be between the individual and God, not a regular Facebook post about the desire to eat chocolate or drink coffee again. As Jesus said in Matthew 6:16-18,
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Whether you do or do not begin the fast in the Lenten season, I hope you would at least commit to remembering God’s mercy through his action in Jesus. As I have said in a previous post years ago, “we should participate in Lent not out of superstition or thoughtless ritual. Lent ought to be a time of contemplative thought upon Christ and His salvific mercy.” While Christmas reminds us that God came to us, Lent and Good Friday will remind us that God brought us back into the fold at great cost by bearing our sin.
Am I ever thankful for that!
Are you observing Lent this year?
(This post was originally seen in 2013)
Last week, I wrote about the importance of finding hope in a story. The story that I referred to started even before the foundation of the universe was in place, before any cataclysmic Big Bang. This story simply started with the Word. As John told us, the Word was with God and the Word was God.
However, the story took a turn for the worse when humanity decided to walk into sin and chose death over life. Yet while humanity was broken “in sin and error pinning,” God chose to rescue us and provide a path for restoration. He provided a means for humanity to be put to right order and eventually for all of creation to be restored (see Romans 8).
Humanity needed a champion, one who could loosen our chains and raise us from the depth of our sins. The Fourth Century bishop and defender of the faith Athanasius would write,
What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father. 
Jesus, the Word who took on flesh (the Incarnation), chose to restore our brokenness. To borrow from an analogy I used a few weeks ago, we broke a lamp and he not only chose to forgive us, but he also paid for the lamp that we broke. Athanasius would further this point when he wrote,
For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. 
The hope of this story is seen in how God chose to rescue his creation. He chose to restore the broken and mend their wounds. The Word, the one who created it all, chose to have the final word by redeeming us. He not only created it all but he also caused the renewal of all. He stooped to our level in his love and revealed himself us. And like a great epic, at the perfect time, Jesus came and fought for us.
 St. Athanasius (2009-08-19). On the Incarnation (Kindle Locations 145-148). Kindle Edition.
 St. Athanasius (2009-08-19). On the Incarnation (Kindle Locations 142-145). Kindle Edition.
To end this series on the excellent book Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas we will move into the church setting. A politician, an athlete, and a pope walked into a bar. Er, I mean, walked into the blog post…
While the first two men highlighted this month were giants of their respective arenas, this next man was a powerful man who was remarkably different from his peers.
Karol Wojtyla was 58 when he was selected as the next pope, which is a baby by papal standards. Pope John Paul II was quickly seen as different because he was Polish, an outdoorsman, wrote plays and poetry, and jogged. This jogging pontiff was also friendly, optimistic, and was devout without being a sour religious type. Quite frankly, he seemed to know God while also remaining full of life.
Born in 1920, Karol lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland. However, he managed to get through WWII while holding onto both his faith and life. Through much sorrow and suffering early in his life (his mother, father, and brother all died before he hit 20), the future pope began to see that God’s hand was at work in his life. He realized that there were no coincidences and that every event in his life helped him on the path God had in store for him.
Young Karol had a full life, he attended a secret seminary away from the prying eyes of the occupying forces, while also maintaining his involvement with theater and work at a chemical factory. He worked hard and eventually would become ordained in 1946.
Karol would rise in the Roman Catholic Church quickly, moving from a subordinate to the bishop of Krakow to archbishop to cardinal in a decade. A man who never aspired to a life of politics, Karol was well liked and he was placed in positions of great power out of this genuineness. When Pope John Paul I died unexpectedly (after a month in office), Karol was elected to the papacy. Here the incredibly down to earth man was cut off from his previous life with no possible exit to his former life. Still, Karl did not hesitate to accept the call, even if it meant his life would irrevocably change.
John Paul II addressed the crowds with such vulnerability and grace that people gravitated to him. He humbly communicated with clarity and he was charming without any sort of guile. His lifetime equipped him for this moment, his devotion, trust, humility, and service empowered him for this leadership.
What stuck out to me was his generous, broad minded nature while remaining seriously orthodox. Metaxas pointed out that the views of John Paul II flowed out of a place of love. His theological views were rooted in the belief that we are created in God’s image and that everything flows from this place. Our rights, freedoms, and responsibility flowed from this love. Even in the last stage of his life, he demonstrated that in suffering and weakness, God still provides strength. Once a strong man, Pope John Paul II would rely on Christ for strength. His grace, humility, life of prayer, and intellectual prowess help show that John Paul II was truly a man worth admiring.
The first figure I wanted to highlight from Eric Metaxas book Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness is a great baseball player. Ask any baseball fan who is the greatest player of all time and you are likely to get a variety of opinions. Names like Ruth, Mantle, Mays, Aaron, and Williams would come out from several different people. While there were great players with integrity and some with a mixed nature, one man stands out as a phenomenal player and a deep man of character. This man is none other than the great 42, Jackie Robinson.
Jackie was born in 1919 in Georgia to a large family. When his father left the family, his mother Mallie moved her five kids to Pasadena, CA where she sought to bring her children up to value “family, education, optimism, self-discipline, and above all God.” His childhood was rough, he worked to help support his single mom and siblings, and Jackie encountered racism in his neighborhood early on. However, his mother taught him a lesson that would help him years down the road. When Jackie retaliated against a white man’s racial slur by tarring his lawn, Mallie forced Jacked to repair the damages. Mallie believed that Christians are called to bless those who persecute you, and undoubtedly that would have been tough amid racial injustice.
Jackie was a gifted athlete and he was phenomenal in nearly every sport he played. Though he was remarkably talented, his skin color prohibited him from joining white teams. As could be imagined, racial injustice would bring Jackie’s fierce temper to the surface. His explosive anger landed him in jail and in conflicts throughout his early life. He was not a trouble maker though, he simply wouldn’t take the garbage people threw at him.
A life changing moment occurred when Jackie met a Methodist preacher named Karl Downs. Karl taught Jackie that explosive anger should not be a Christian’s answer to injustice. Instead, the answer was to demonstrate heroic type of love modelled after the life of Jesus. This conversation marked a big turning point, because injustice would be confronted on the playing field.
After a great career at UCLA and in the military, Jackie would see the racism he frequently encountered through the lens of his deep religious faith. This belief would help get through the tumult and prepare him for the worst when he entered professional baseball.
This is where the executive for the Brooklyn Dodgers Branch Rickey comes into the picture. Rickey wanted to change the face of the MLB by integrating his team for his devout faith told him that injustice was meant to be fought, even in sports. His position on the team would provide him the chance to fight racism by recruiting an athlete to break the color barrier
While the story is too long to cover here in one post, Rickey found Jackie in the Negro Leagues and offered him the chance as a partner to change the moral fabric of America. Their common, robust faith rooted both men in this monumental undertaking.
As a result, Jackie was threatened, harassed, abused, and mocked at every turn, yet he turned the other cheek and quietly let his superior athletic ability do the talking. Both Rickey and Jackie knew that if God was calling them to this task, then God would strengthen Jackie in the endurance through this incredible opportunity.
In Jackie’s play, he demonstrated to the crowds that black men could indeed compete and excel alongside whites. Not only was he one of the greats, but his conduct under hostile racial persecution won people to his side. Jackie and Ricky demonstrated that devout Christian faith is not just reserved for the pews, but is lived out in real life. Robust faith confronts injustice and leads to reconciliation and peace.
As I wrote last time, dwelling in the past will not get you anywhere, in fact, it won’t make you a better person. Quit being a conservative, become reformed instead!
Should we be rooted in the past? Of course!
We need to preserve the past and the many lessons it provides us (both cautionary and wise ones), the wisdom of the past generations can still help us in modern times.
Unfortunately, false conservatism can become too nostalgic, where they uncritically glorify the past as a golden age. Theologian Michael Horton warns against the dream of a golden age, even the Reformation or Early Church days. Instead, we need to return to the “founding events of Christ’s saving work [so] that each generation can experience the liberating power of the gospel for its own time and place.”
The vestiges of Modernism cuts away the power of God’s Word and false conservatism is admittedly lazy and shallow, holding onto the remnant of a shattered heritage. Churches today do need a new reformation though; however, they don’t need to return to the era of Calvin and Luther, but need to return to the gospel of Christ.
We need to uproot the ignorance of Scripture and return to the source. We need to recover a robust orthodoxy that is founded in the work of Jesus: recovering a faith that is rooted in the work of Christ and is sustained by the sacraments. According to Horton, this orthodoxy “refuses a dead repetition of dull routine, but asks what it believes and why it believes it. It returns to the source of its life, not only for the Church’s sake, but also for the benefit of the world.”
Dear friends, we are not caretakers of a cemetery or guardians of a heritage. We are ambassadors of the ever-living King who will one day return to put the world to rights. As ambassadors, we are called to our families, neighborhoods, and countries so that we might point others to this life giving message.
The truth is greater than stale progressive or conservative though. The good news it that sin and death do not get the last word, this life giving King will instead bring life in abundance.