“Danger Will Robinson!”

“The rapid growth of some American churches has carried a deadly danger: not that the church may be overwhelmed by new converts, but that the church will be secularized by fascination with the methods of growth. Jesus did promise an abundant harvest; small may be beautiful, but smallness does not guarantee spirituality. Many church leaders, however, will learn to their sorrow that neither does size impress the Holy Spirit. The great resource in the building of Christ’s church is the gift of his Spirit. The great question before the church is, ‘How can we best seek the Spirit’s blessing in receiving and using his gifts?’ The answer to that central question is never a matter of technique, but always of faith and prayer. Unless the church seeks holiness, unless it heeds the revealed will of God and treasures Calvary above all else, greater size will only erect towers for sounding brass and clashing cymbals.”

Edmund Clowney in his book The Church

A New Site

Finally, after about five years of talking and thinking about it, LetMyPeopleRead.org has been launched. This site is about encouraging Christians and those considering Christianity to think and read as God desirees us to do. We will have suggested reading lists (one of these is already posted), movie reviews, book reviews, articles to help you study the Bible more effectively, and who knows what else.

Make sure you check it out, and happy reading!

Thoughts About Work

Work. Something we all do. We spend the majority of our lives engaged in it, yet we think so little about why we are doing it and how we should be doing it. In the essay “Why Work?” Dorothy Sayers raises both of these questions for us.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about my work. Is this what I want to do for the remaining twenty or so years before retirement? Should I follow a different path? Why am I doing what I am doing? The usual things one asks when things are not going so well at the office. Reading this essay was a timely reality check for me.

Sayers has several main points, first, that we were made to work. God made us in his image, and he is a creative being, working to create us and the universe in which we exist. As beings made in that image, to work is a part of our nature.

Second, we need to do our best, to do the thing we do well in order to be true to our nature. God made what he made for his own sake and for his own benefit. In a similar way, our work needs to be soul-satisfying to us, no matter what it is. Obviously there are limitations on this. For example an excellent thief would not be true to the nature God gave him. Doing what is evil well is not good or moral.

This also means that our primary motivation should not be income, a hard concept in our culture. We should choose our career or job based on our passions and the skills God has given us. This is his plan for being fulfilled in our work.

The implications of this are huge, and provide some important clarifications to how we talk about work. What this all points to is finding your calling, and yes I mean that in the Scriptural sense. Calling is a term equally well applied to pastors, tradesmen, and professionals.

Unhappy with your work? The question to be asking is not about salary or hours or responsibility. The question is really “What’s my calling?”

Thoughts on Sin from Dorothy Sayers

Once again, as I read “Letters to a Diminished Church,” I am struck by the dullness of most of the work of contemporary writers. Yes, it is somewhat about style; Sayers has a wonderful way with words. But it is really the thoughtfulness behind the style that is so engaging.

In the essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” she first laments the modern reduction of the term “immorality” to being equated with lust, referring only to sexual sin. (And today, the teeth are being pulled from that category as well.) What follows is a wonderful exposition of the nature of the other six traditional “deadly sins” and how they build on one another. Beginning with wrath, moving through gluttony, covetousness, envy, sloth, culminating finally in the “head and origin of all sin,” pride, Sayers pulls no punches.

Gluttony makes us drive for more and more of everything regardless of need. This leads us the want what others have that we do not, covetousness. When we can’t get it we turn to envy simply because we see that someone else might be happier or have more than we do. When we see that having more doesn’t satisfy, we abandon hope, belief, knowledge, etc. and fall into the torpor of sloth. Finally we decide that we must be master of our own destiny and judge of our own actions, making ourselves god of our little universes, taking up the original and master sin, pride.

This piece is well worth a thoughtful, brutally honest read. Sayers asks some hard questions about how these sins are applicable to Christians and the Church. We do well to ask them of ourselves in these times.

Creed or Chaos?

It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of
Christian morality unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the
fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma
does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose
that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist
that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is
hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple
and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex
doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism. And it is fatal
to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a
little encouragement to practice it. The brutal fact is that in this
Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the
Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ.

-Dorothy Sayers in “Creed or Chaos?”

Thus begins essay number four in “Letters to a Diminished Church.” This essay was the title piece of a collection of essays Sayers published under the same title in the late 1940s. Yes, that’s right, sixty years ago. (By the way, you may have noticed I skipped over the third essay in he book. Its title is “Creative Mind,” and while it was interesting in its own right, I have yet to figure out exactly what the editor thought it had to do with arguing the relevance of Christian doctrine.)

When I read this over my dinner at the office tonight, I about choked on my chicken finger, and I had to stop work for a bit to write this. And this is only the beginning. Sayers goes on to elaborate on the nature of the ninety-nine percent with a razor sharp perceptiveness and prophetic relevance to us that will take your breath away. She describes three classes of people: frank and open heathens, whose ideas about Christianity are a jumble of “rags and tags of Bible anecdotes and clotted mythological nonsense;” ignorant Christians, whose idea of Jesus is based on a mild, gentle sentimentality combined with “vaguely humanistic ethics” that she associates with the Arian heresy; and, finally, more-or-less instructed churchgoers, who know what the Bible says about some things, but whose battle readiness on fundamentals against a Marxian atheist or a Wellsian agnostic is comparable to “a boy with a peashooter facing a fan-fire of machine guns.”

This is unbelievably good, relevant, challenging stuff for us to soak in. Besides Sayers wonderful skill with words, her laser focus on perhaps the most crucial issue for the church of our day make her work must reading for all of us. We have two choices–two ways–creed or chaos. There are no other options.

Testing Ourselves

“In ordinary times we get along surprisingly well, on the whole, without ever discovering what our faith really is. If, now and again, this remote and academic problem is so unmannerly as to thrust its way into our minds, there are plenty of things we can do to drive the intruder away. We can get the car out or go to a party or to the cinema or read a detective story or have a row with a district council or write a letter to the papers about the habits of the nightjar or Shakespeare’s use of nautical metaphor. Thus we build up a defense mechanism against self-questioning because, to tell the truth, we are very much afraid of ourselves.”

– Dorothy Sayers in “What We Do Believe?

This is the opening paragraph in the second essay in “Letters to a Diminished Church.” In this essay Sayers goes phrase by phrase through one of the ancient creeds, expanding a bit on the meaning each phrase contains.

Before beginning the phrase by phrase discussion, she describes those moments when we are forced to come face to face with what we really believe, those moments of crisis where all the fluff is burned away and the real questions of life are forced to the front. Since this essay was written during World War II, the circumstance she uses is sitting in a cellar with a gas mask waiting for the bomb to drop. She says this about faith. “What we in fact believe is not necessarily the theory we most desire or admire. It is the thing that, consciously or unconsciously, we take for granted and act on.”

Her point here is that what we really believe is proven by the way we act when the crisis comes. What is it that we do without having to think? This is the kind of test that Paul had in mind when he told us, through the Corinthians (II Cor. 13:5), to check and see if we are really in the faith. Sadly, we have far too many people populating our churches today that are practical deists or atheists.

I pray that, painful though it may be, God will purify his church, and begin with me.

The More things Change…

“Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine – dull dogma as pepole call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man – and the dogma is the drama.”

– Dorothy Sayers, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged”

A few weeks ago I ran across a book while browsing the bookstore whose title and author intrigued me. The title is “Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine” and the author is Dorothy Sayers. The book is a collection of short essays Sayers wrote on doctrine and its relevance that has been compiled recently, and I think couldn’t be more timely. The quote above is the first paragraph of the first essay, which was originally written in the 1930s.

Dorothy Sayers is perhaps best known for her mystery writing. Her most most famous character is Lord Peter Wimsey.

While the book itself is somewhat poorly edited (a number of obvious typographical and transcription errors), the razor sharp insights of the author make it worth a read. I plan to post some thoughts on each essay over the next several days/weeks as I finish reading them. Here’s more from the first essay.

After a discussion of who Jesus was and how his life, ministry, death and resurrection fit in the big picture, she says this:

“If this is dull, the what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused hiim of being a bore – on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting houshold pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand.”

How prophetic these words were for what we see going on today. It only goes to prove that
the more we think we have changed for the better, the more we find that we never really change. Something about a fallen world and a fallen nature perhaps?

"Mommy, what happened to Aslan?"

Since we were both off work this past week, my wife and I finally went to see the movie “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” the other day. Since it has been out for a few weeks, the theater was not packed, but a high percentage of the audience was families with children ranging in age from4 or5 to preteen. Sitting immediately around us were two families with kids in this age range. As kids will do when watching something they don’t fully understand, the younger ones were asking questions about the action as the movie went on.

It occurred to me as we were leaving the theater that there were questions this movie raised that a parent would find pretty difficult to answer for themselves without an understanding of Christ and the cross. I’m thinking in particular of the scene in which Aslan goes to the Stone Table willingly in place of Edmund. He is ridiculed, his mane is shaved, he is beaten, bound, and dragged to the altar. The White Witch gleefully delivers the deathblow and declares victory. As she and her evil minions go off to what they believe will be the final defeat of the army of Aslan, the scene quiets and Lucy and Susan come to altar to say goodbye to their fallen hero.

It’s at this point where one could imagine a child asking the question I have used as the title of this post. How does a parent explain laying down one’s life for another from the perspective of today’s culture? Then, what does a parent do with what happens after as Aslan is raised to life again in subsequent scenes?

For many children, the standard “It’s just a story, sweetie” answer may be satisfactory, but if tales like this do anything for us, they raise questions of deeper meaning. I hope this question will nag at parents who do not accept or understand, or even know about what Christ did for us on the cross, something that C. S. Lewis surely had in mind as he penned this story fifty-plus years ago.

And for us Christians, what a wonderful opportunity to help our children understand the story of Jesus and the cross. While it is an imperfect analogy, as all analogies ultimately are, when one of our kids asks about what Aslan did and what happened to him, we can use this as an opportunity to tell them how it compares with what Jesus did for each of us.

Of course, the other parallel in the story is plain to those of us who have believed in and accepted the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. We can all say, without hesitation, “I am Edmund.”

Profound lessons from a simple source

As you might imagine from the opening page of our site, we are sheepdog people. Shetland Sheepdogs to be precise. We love them deeply, and they love us in a way that shows us a lot about how we ought to love and trust God.

I have just finished reading a book along those lines. Phillip Keller’s book “Lessons from a Sheepdog” is a beautifully simple, but profoundly thoughtful parable of our relationship to God as played out in the relationship of Keller to his border collie, Lass.

From the story of his rescue of Lass from captivity, to the full measure of the redeeming relationship they live out as they work together on the sheep ranch, there is much to learn about our behavior from Lass. I highly recommend it.