Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Tribute to Dr. Ed Clowney and "The Politics of the Kingdom"

For good or for ill, the single most influential article on my thinking regarding the question of where a Christian is to stand in relationship to the political arena, would have to be "The Politics of the Kingdom" written by Edmund P. Clowney in the "Westminster Theological Journal" in the Spring of 1979.

Dr. Clowney was my spiritual grandfather, not in that I knew him personally but in that he trained a number of my seminary professors. Dr. Clowney passed away in March of 2005 at the age of eighty-seven. My seminary professor Richard Pratt made the comment publicly that Dr. Clowney was one of the two most influential professors on a generation of Westminster-trained students (if you are interested, Cornelius Van Til was the other). In 1929, Westminster seminary formed in response to the compromising of evangelical standards in the mainline Presbyterian church's flagship seminary, Princeton. A number of my professors, along with Ben Loos' (we attended the same seminary separated by about ten years), trained under Dr. Clowney.

Perhaps the greatest contribution Dr. Clowney made to all of us was his skill in what we now refer to as "redemptive preaching." If you have been to Grace Chapel for any length of time, there is an underlying principle to all of our sermons and that principle is that "God is always the hero-redeemer of the story." So for example, if you ever leave Grace Chapel saying, "look at how courageous Joshua was . . . be like Joshua," then shame on the pastoral staff. In the OT, Joshua was meant to point us to someone greater who would come and achieve for us an eternal conquest and place of eternal rest (Heb. 4:8). Or if you ever leave Grace Chapel lifting up Moses as a hero, then shame on us for so misleading you! The point of the New Testament is that Jesus is a better Moses than Moses (Heb. 3:3)! We mean for you to leave Grace Chapel every week holding the hand of Jesus Christ . . . and no one else- that is redemptive preaching. Thank you Dr. Clowney for teaching us how to preach in such an intensely Cross/Christ-centered manner.

I had the joy of meeting Dr. Clowney once back in 1995. Primarily, I remember how kind he was. Dr. Clowney asked not only my name but about my name, how to pronounce it in Mandarin. And I remember Dr. Clowney mulling over the pronunciation for what seemed like an eternity. I think he wanted to get my name not just as "shoe" but with the proper pronunciation in its native tongue. I was struck with how interested Dr. Clowney seemed to be in this lowly first-year twenty-four year old seminary student.

Regarding Dr. Clowney's 1979 article, while it was never designed to be a thorough treatment on political theory from a Christian perspective, one cannot help but leave the article feeling a sense of awe regarding the high task of Jesus' Church to bear witness in the world and to do so in a way that represents the distinctive nature of Her ideals as members of an other-worldly Kingdom. Dr. Clowney insisted that we must be responsible citizens in this world but do so in a way that would not accommodate too readily to the power structures of the world.

If there is one sentence in the 1979 article that summarizes his thesis, it would be this:

"To the politics of human power the cross is foolishness."

. . . I guess we are two months away from election day and the DNC is going strong currently. Christians should be engaged in the political process as responsible citizens of this country. Yet, we must put a significant amount of restraint in the hopes we place in the political process for our hope is not in the power structures of this world. I leave you with more of Dr. Clowney's article:

"The church is organized for these ends: the worship of God, the nurture and growth of God's people, and the bearing of witness to the world. For each of these ministries the church is endued with gifts of the Spirit by the exalted Christ. First, the Word of God must be ministered to these ends: Christ enables every Christian to confess his name before men and exhort his bretheren in the truth. So, too, Christ grants gifts of order to discipline the church in love. The pilgrim church must also minister mercy, caring for the poor and the distressed among the brethren, and as God grants opportunity, to all men.

Christ has not promised to make us wise in world politics, skillful in technology, or talented in the arts. Love of the Lord brings fruitful living in all his creation. But Christians live as stewards, respecting the priorities of the kingdom. The Christian labors, not to amass wealth but to have to give to the needy; the man who has everything lives only to give it to the Lord in faithful stewardship. He lives as possessing nothing. The man who has nothing is a child of the King, possessing everything. Christ's redemption does not improve our efficiency in worldly living. It is the purchase of the King who claims us for himself and his program. . . ."

A tribute to Dr. Edmund P. Clowney and his article are available in my list of "related links."

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Claiborne, Poverty and Rest, part II.

Especially being an election year, I've been thinking a lot about the role of government in relationship to addressing poverty. A few weeks back, my good friend Ben Davy challenged me with the thought that it was not primarily the role of the government to relieve poverty. I still have a lot of reading to do on the matter but intuitively I think I understand the dangers of a welfare state where those in need become entirely dependent on the assistance of the state for their sustenance.

Kuyper explains it in this way:

"As for . . . state aid-namely, the distribution of money- it is certain that such intervention is not excluded in Israel's lawgiving, but there it is held to a minimum. Therefore I say that, unless you wish to undermine the position of the laboring class and destroy its natural resilience, the material assistance of the state should be confined to an absolute minimum" (p. 72).

I think Kuyper's point is twofold: 1) that it is not the responsibility of the state primarily to give out material assistance and also that 2) the state is called to uphold fair labor laws so that anyone who wants to work and is willing to do so can in fact do so.

But then the question still remains, who carries the responsibility for addressing poverty? Kuyper helps us in two ways here:

1) he says that we have to be careful that we do not create inordinate lust in the poor with the vision that they might "have what we have," that the Apostle Paul says if we have food and clothing we will be content with that (1 Tim. 6:6-8). So inevitably, this first point turns back on the "haves," to measure our sense of contentment with our material things in light of possessing eternal treasures (and to repent accordingly of our own need to learn gratitude, joy and contentment, things often present in larger measure among those with less, the so-called "have nots"). This first point comes home to me every time I travel to Haiti and see how much I have yet to learn from my Haitian friends.

2) to learn generosity and love of the brethren:

"But at least in the circle of those who confess the Lord, I pray that you will allow a more perfect love to drive out all such fear (Kuyper is speaking here about the fear of losing your wealth should you choose to be generous to the suffering). For those who are diverted by fear for their money box have no place marching in the ranks with us. This is holy ground, and he who would walk on it must first loosen the sandals of his egotism. The only sound permitted here is the stirring and eloquent voice of the merciful Samaritan whispering in our ears. There is suffering round about you, and those who suffer are your brothers, sharers of your nature, your own flesh and blood. You might have been in their place and they in your more pleasant position. The gospel speaks to you of a Redeemer who, although he was rich, became poor for your sake so he might make you rich" (p. 76).

Perhaps the point here is to be more courageous with our generosity? that in light of much suffering all around us among brothers and sisters, we should allow perfect love to cast out fear and step out in love.

Claiborne, Poverty and Rest, part I.

I don't know if you had a chance to read my brief 07.09.08 post about Claiborne's book, "Irresistible Revolution," but the short of it is that in that post I said I was "sorting some things out" regarding the content of the book. I'm still sorting. I'm now working through a short reader written by Abraham Kuyper called "The Problem of Poverty." Kuyper was Prime Minister of the Netherlands at the turn of the 19th century and though living a few centuries later, very much a student of Reformer John Calvin. One of Kuyper's key contributions to Christendom was imploring followers of Christ to move beyond merely a privatized "me and Jesus" kind of faith and allow our faith to impact and overflow to "all of life." No wonder Kuyper was very interested in how the impact of faith in Christ, while inclusive of, nonetheless moved beyond "soul-saving" to "community and society rebuilding" (more my summary of Kuyper's thoughts than his own statements).

In the beginning of his address, I was impacted by one of Kuyper's statements connecting the pursuit of wealth to a basic "soul-weariness" (and remember Kuyper is writing over 100 years ago and from the Netherlands, but let's see how relevant his words seem to us today here in the U.S.):

"Standing before the agonizing distress of these times, a distress which at every point is related to the very essence of error and sin, our eye should not be allowed, nor should it be able, to turn away from Christ the Consoler, who assuredly addresses our violently disturbed century with the persistent call of his divine compassion: 'Come to me, wealthiest century in history, which is so deathly weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.'"

Church, let's pray for one another. For me personally, I don't know if it is the pursuit of wealth that makes me so weary (I am in vocational ministry, right?), but nonetheless it is the pursuit of certain things the world says I should be seeking after (comfort, safety and security to name a few) that puts my soul in complacency jeopardy.

I was talking to Tanya the other day about the notion of "danger" (I brought up the subject) and of course the topic came up because I am now riding a motorcycle (have about 1200 miles on it this summer). In light of the many warnings and expressions of concern that have come my way as a result of riding a motorcycle, perhaps this is a little too self-justifying, but I said to Tanya, "riding a motorcycle is no more dangerous than living in the suburbs and standing to lose your soul" (if you live in the suburbs, so do I, so don't feel too judged here). By the way, did you hear Ben Loos' Aug. 10th sermon, "The Fight"? Wasn't it really good? especially in the way it addressed some of these things?

Well, I'm kind of all over the place in this post, but remember what I said in the 07.09.08 post? Claiborne's book did something to me, and I'm still trying to sort it out. If I seem a little confused in this post, . . . blame it on Shane Claiborne.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Margin and Rest (cont.)

"Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for he grants sleep to those he loves."

-Psa. 127:1,2 (NIV)

"I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber."

-Blaise Pascal

"But the saints who have separated their bodies to God have resources not at the disposal of the ordinary person running on fumes and promises, where so many of us find ourselves today. We have to learn how to get where those resources are and to take our bodies into the rest of God."

-Dallas Willard

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Margin and Rest

The preaching sabbatical is almost coming to an end (first Sunday in September, we will be back to Grace Chapel!). Despite my sabbatical from preaching, I think one thing I continue to look for in life is some general margin. This has come to mind because I have been on a preaching sabbatical for three months and one of the more common comments that has been made to me through notes and e-mails has been, "I hope you are finding some time to rest and relax during your sabbatical."

I know this has been what I was supposed to do. Unfortunately, I have not been very good at resting and relaxing. Let me qualify this with a few statements: 1) we have taken trips galore this summer, something we would have never been able to do without a sabbatical (trips to MN, CO, TN, FL to name a few places) and 2) it has been very refreshing to get out and see other churches, what God is doing in those churches as well as be reminded of what it's like to be a "newcomer" in a church setting; 3) last week, my parents took us on a Disney cruise as a "last event of the summer" sort of thing.

All these things listed above were incredible blessings and things for which we are so grateful, but restful and relaxing they have not been! Being in the Bahamas was great fun, but chasing a three and four-year old around the ocean, while fun, was not relaxing.

I don't know all that I will have learned from my sabbatical- I think a great deal; however, I think the art of "relaxing" and being refreshed will be less a product of circumstance and more a matter of the heart. As originally planned, I have been off to Schuyler a few times this summer to retreat on Thursdays. However, how many times have I been in a hurry to get back to check e-mail and get things done and how often have these things occupied my heart and mind while on my "day retreat."

Lord have mercy. I think finding margin in my life and truly resting ultimately will come from a life that is growing and maturing in faith, faith in the Lord who gives us rest (Matt. 11:28), that He sees rest as inherently good (remember the seventh day creation thing?) and that building margin in our lives and recognizing our need for it as representative not of someone who is unproductive, rather as someone who recognizes the finitude of her humanity and is OK with living within its bounds (isn't there something here about "letting God be God"?).

All that to say, the blog postings have been infrequent as of late. I know- life has gotten kind of crazy as of late. I hope to post some more before the sabbatical is over but am not decided if I will continue thereafter.

Well gotta run . . . and check my e-mail.