Wednesday, January 30, 2008

This blog has moved . . .

For all further commentary, please visit the new wordpress blog on our main website:

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Flailing for Relevance

Right now at Pulpit Helps we're in the process of totally redesigning our website (those of you who've seen the current one are probably saying "it's about time!").

This is just one step in a larger plan to bring the magazine back from the brink of closure; in a sense, it's an act of desperation. As the publishing industry continues to contract, more and more periodicals are shifting their focus online. To ignore the facts and remain print-only is a one-way ticket to going out of business these days.

By the same token, however, print offers a level of legitimacy that can't be had by online-only sources - having a print version takes time, effort, expenditure, and a staff. Anybody and their kid brother can build a website and publish information to their heart's content. Incorporating a publication provides oversight and editing that sharpen content and keep a consistent message that enables you to stand out from the sea of sources available to readers. As such, we're grateful to have that foundation as a print magazine - it's not going to go away.

We're stuck somewhere in between new media and old, flailing for relevance in an era when having something worth saying and saying it "in words that aren't half-dead" isn't enough to garner people's attention anymore. You have to sell yourself and explain what makes your work more worth reading than anyone else's, all without intruding into any potential readers' time for more than a few seconds. The trouble is, people who are good at selling the "sizzle" and people who are good at having something to say and saying it well are very seldom the same people. At larger publications this isn't much of an issue, as you can employ all the people necessary to put both faces forward. For our in-house staff of two, it's a huge shortcoming.

When the chips are down, though, I'd rather we stick to making sure we have something to say. We're hoping that a new website with better technology will enable us to tell more people than ever about the work we do without sacrificing our substance in the process.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Remembering Katrina . . .

The following is an article I wrote following a Bryan College relief trip to New Orleans just a few weeks post-Katrina in 2005. I'm posting it here in rememberance of two years of hardship for the gulf coast and as a reminder that God is still sovereign over all the works of men and nature.

Judgment and Mercy in New Orleans
by Justin Lonas

“Everybody keeps saying that God sent this thing as an act of judgment on our city. I think it was really an act of mercy – there are people here who have been praying for something like this for years – just waiting for an opportunity to get out of a bad situation.”

These level-headed words from a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary student’s wife didn’t blend with their context.

She spoke them while inspecting her salt-encrusted Chevy Cavalier to the background noise of six men from Bryan College stripping appliances and furniture from her neighbor’s apartment.

I never associated mercy with destruction. The mold-blackened walls, rancid refrigerators and pervasive stench of flooded homes more closely matched my conception of hell than of God’s love. Pausing from our grim task to hear her wisdom sharpened the meaning of our work there.
Before heading to Louisiana for a week of ministry, I wondered how I could show God’s love to people who thought He Himself had destroyed their lives. The words of the seminary wife caught me off guard with the simple truth that God was behind the whole story of Hurricane Katrina, in ways that I never conceived.

New Orleans needed judgment. The city of gamblers, drunkards, prostitutes and revelers, was ripe for sentence to be passed. Gulfport and Biloxi in neighboring Mississippi weren’t much better. Then again, neither is any place on this earth. What cities and towns don’t play host to people who are financially irresponsible, those who depend on alcohol and drugs, the sexually promiscuous and self-absorbed partygoers? “Normal” places carefully pass over these woes as those who partake of them deftly cover their tracks to avoid condemnation.

New Orleans wore her sins on her sleeve. Did we rush to proclaim the wrath of God on the Big Easy because she deserved it or because we were glad that our own closet hadn’t been blown open by the storm?

Too often we mistake nudges from the Almighty as blows from His sword. We forget that He works in mysterious ways. If He wanted to destroy the city, He could have – beyond the shadow of a doubt. Looking at roofs crushed by trees, windows exploded by 140-mph winds and 10-foot-high piles of trash that were once the contents of a home, it’s very easy to think of judgment.

Looking deeper, mercy overtakes judgment as the theme of this saga. A city of
500,000 people losing only 1,000 to a direct hit by a monstrous hurricane for which it was almost completely unprepared is mercy. Letting people see the church do the work of restoring lives wrecked by the storm because the government bungled its attempt at the same is mercy. Leading National Guard soldiers and Red Cross relief workers to salvation is mercy. Allowing the terrible beauty of a hurricane to thrash our lives so that we wake from the slumber of Christless apathy is mercy.

New Orleans needed mercy. We all need mercy. God loves to show us His gracious care. We’re just slow to pick up His frequency.

New Orleans was not destroyed. Today, it is bustling with the activity of reconstruction. The South isn’t about to let the bosom of its culture wash by the wayside. More importantly, Christ isn’t about to let hurting people go untouched through this upheaval. I’ve never seen as positive an outpouring of energy and resources from the church in my lifetime.

Those of us who could go offer tangible help did, some more than once. Those who could give to the cause gave generously; so much so that there has been an overabundance of supplies for the refugees. The hand of the Lord has been active the whole time. It touched refugees herded into shelters with hot meals and listening ears. It touched uninsured homeowners by preparing their homes for reconstruction free of charge. It touched people living in makeshift trailer parks with welcoming embraces and simple services. It touched relief workers from Bryan with the strength, patience and generosity we needed to be that hand to the people of southeast

Years from now, when we look back on this incredible story of God’s redeeming mercy, no one will think of it as a judgment from on high. We can’t waste the gift He has given us. If we allow our lives to return to “normal” after the dust of all this settles, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina will not be the destruction of the Gulf Coast but the destruction of spiritual fervor by comfortable circumstances.

The words of the prophets linger in the background. “‘I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not turn to me,’ declares the Lord.” (Haggai 2:17). God got our attention and allowed us to rebuild His body with a righteous work ethic. To Him be the glory, even (or, should I say, especially) when we can’t immediately see His purposes.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Book Review: Nouwen's "In the Name of Jesus"

For those of you not familiar with Henri J.M. Nouwen, you are missing an incredible opportunity to deepen the spiritual understanding of your faith - his writing has a prophetic, soul-piercing quality seldom found in modern Christian authors.

The Dutch-born Nouwen studied for the Catholic priesthood and spent nearly 20 years teaching theology and psychology at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard before moving into the Daybreak L'Arche community for developmentally handicapped persons near Toronto. Much of his best theological writing comes from this experience caring for those the rest of society had abandoned - L'Arche gave him a unique perspective on the broken, childlike spirit that Christ requires of his followers.

In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership is just one of about 40 works Nouwen published. This short book (at barely 80 pages, really more in the pointed tone of an essay) was printed from the transcript of a speech Nouwen gave to a conference on 21st Century Christian leadership in 1989 (the speech was actually delivered while Bill Van Buren, one of the L'Arche residents sat on stage with Nouwen as a testimony to the ministry he was calling them to). In it he lays out, quite bluntly, that for the church to be effective in the future, its leaders must follow the example of Christ in resisting the three temptations Christ faced in Matthew 4:1-11: The temptation to be relevant, The temptation to be spectacular, and the temptation to be powerful.

The book is divided into three chapters (each dealing with with one temptation).

Chapter one, "From Relevance to Prayer", likens Satan's tempting Jesus to turn stones into bread to the believer's temptation to meet the felt needs of society, to become vital to the culture by obtaining knowledge of its workings and pointing out its failings. Nouwen asserts that Christ's repeated question, "Do you love me?" (John 21:15-17) is a challenge to the Christian to maintain our focus on Him through the discipline of contemplative prayer. He maintains that our goal should be to show Christ as He is (the suffering servant) to all people, regardless of their position, in such a way that allows us to diminish and Him to shine through.

"The leader of the future will be one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there," he says on p. 22.

The second chapter, "From Popularity to Ministry", addresses the temptation to be spectacular (as illustrated when Satan urged Jesus to leap from the temple spire and be caught by angels); to make a difference in the world and to appear stoic, resourceful, and driven while doing so. This, Nouwen says, is a twisted perspective on ministry that flows both from the Western business model of church organization and the age-old distinction between clergy and laity. As he points out on page 39, "Stardom and individual heroism, which are such obvious aspects of our competitive society, are not at all alien to the Church. There too, the dominant image is that of the self-made man or woman who can do it all alone."

He counters that by extrapolating on Christ's repeated command to "feed my sheep" in response to Peter's confession of love in the aforementioned passage. Nouwen's perspective (heavily influenced by his years at L'Arche) is that real Christian leadership involves caring for the flock from within, from a position of honesty and commonality developed through the disciplines of mutual confession and forgiveness. He rejects the notion of a pastor or church leader "maintaining his distance" from the congregation or reveling in authority over them. He says that "a new type of leadership is asked for in the church of tomorrow, a leadership which is not modeled on the power games of the world, but on the servant-leader, Jesus, who came to give his life for the salvation of many."

The final chapter, "From Leading to Being Led" is based on John 21:18 "Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself, and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you to where you do not wish to go." Nouwen uses this verse as a rebuttal of the temptation to be powerful; that is the temptation to own and rule rather than to love and serve. He reminds us that it is not our place but the Lord's to guide the steps of His followers. This temptation is particularly attractive because it appeals to our weakness. As he says, "What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life."

The antidote to this is what Nouwen calls theological reflection; not a study of God's person but a meditation on it. Only when we draw near to Christ and allow His spirit to fill us, he says, are we humbled enough to shepherd the flock. He says that the Church's greatest need is "a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love . . . people who are so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever he guides them, always trusting that, with him, they will find life and find it abundantly." He adds "If there is any hope for the church in the future, it will be hope for a poor church in which its leaders are willing to be led."

In the Name of Jesus should shake your understanding of what it means to lead, and draw you into the deeper fellowship with Christ that will give you the grace to follow Him into servanthood. This is a must-read for pastors, church leaders, and anyone called to ministry.

To learn more about L'Arche, click HERE. To learn more about Nouwen, read his books! Some of his other well-known titles include The Way of the Heart, The Wounded Healer, Compassion, Intimacy, and Making All Things New.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Nature and Aim of the Church

by Justin Lonas – 7/16/07

The Church as we know it in Western society is such an established institution that it is often ignored by those who are not a part of it and taken for granted by those who are.

If we are to recapture the vibrant, living nature of the Church (as Christ created her) from the staid and self-conscious organization it has become in our culture, it behooves us as believers to understand our purpose in the time we have on earth—not simply our individual callings, but the reason for our collective existence as the body of Christ this side of heaven.

In recent decades, the question of church identity and purpose has been answered by what we do. We who call ourselves Christians wage the culture wars on the battlefields of life issues, sexuality, morality, freedom for public expression of faith, etc., and we wonder why the fight is so hard and the victories so sparse. We provide a wide array of social services to the needy and misguided, and we wonder why we can’t seem to break through to non-believers. We faithfully teach and study the Word to further our knowledge of God, and we wonder why our own children are slipping away from the Church in droves as they grow up.

While our actions give voice to our identity, in and of themselves they are not who we are. If our beliefs only entail our outward displays of Christ, they are hollow and incapable of producing real change in our lives. The returns from our deeds are often more visible than the returns from our quiet devotion to Christ, but the long term result of performing works instead of striving after God’s heart is a Church with neither purpose nor passion. All the great achievements of the Church are for naught if not part and parcel of walking with Christ.

In a nationally syndicated July 7 column by Helen T. Gray of the Kansas City Star, Barna Group president David Kinnaman is quoted as saying, “Most Americans do not have strong and clear beliefs, mainly because they lack a consistent and holistic understanding of their faith…They say they are committed, but to what? They are spiritually active, but to what end? There is increasing pressure on Christians to bend and shape their views into something that’s popular, something that fits the pop culture’s view of what spirituality ought to be…And why would so many Americans—seven out of 10—say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus but show so little evidence in their lives? For one thing, the church has failed to teach young people to think as Christians, so that many of them put Jesus on the shelf after they reach adulthood. (emphasis added)”
What is the “holistic understanding” of our faith that Kinnaman speaks of? Micah 6:6-8 holds the answer. In contrast to the astounding acts of worship and repentance listed in verses 6 and 7, verse 8 shows that what the Lord really wants of us is “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly” with Him. The New Testament restates that, painting “walking humbly” as knowing the person of Christ. In John chapter 6, several Jews who were fed by Jesus multiplication of the loaves and fishes asked Him what they must do to “work the work of God.” In verse 29, Jesus responded, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”

Believers know that the whole of our faith lies in knowing and following God, but many of us cannot grasp the profound simplicity of that. We recite Micah 6:8, but we focus on the concrete nature of doing justly and loving mercy rather than the not-so-defined walking humbly with our God. To know Christ and to walk humbly with Him requires the sacrifice of doing things (even the “work of God”) in our own strength and according to our own plans.

If that individual calling is rightly applied to the body as a whole, it seems as though the purpose of the Church has been largely missed—lost in a sea of policies and programs.
As a pastor, what is the church to you? Is the body of Christ (whether local or global) simply a source of social interaction? A provider of services to the sick and poor? A force for good in culture and politics? A counselor to the wayward souls that call it home? None of these models inherently has anything to do with the calling to know and walk with Christ. They are useful only as facilitators of the primary purpose, and should be pursued only as they flow from it.

The nature and aim of the Church is a single-minded devotion to Christ and bearing Him in all things. When we focus only on that, our actions then become truly the work of God. True revival can only come when we find that it is not our responsibility to bring it about. Few of us would admit that that our churches do not function as if this is their true purpose, but collectively walking humbly with God is often not our top priority. Until it is, the life that is Christ will continue to escape our grasp.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Sex, Lies and Symbolism in the Culture Wars

By Justin Lonas

Christians these days are all too aware of the grave social issues that revolve around sexuality in today’s world—abortion, promiscuity, homosexuality, pornography, etc.—and all too unwitting about how they attempt to stem the tide.

We gird up our loins to combat the egregious sins of our culture, but we fail to gather the necessary intelligence to fight the right battles. We say abortion is inhumane, promiscuity immoral, homosexuality unnatural, and pornography unloving, selfish, and conducive to unfaithfulness. All those arguments are correct, but they fail to target the core issue, a world so lost it no longer understands the purpose of sexuality.

Scripturally, we should understand our sexuality as a gift of God, perhaps one of His most generous (and least appreciated). Our very masculinity and femininity are, by design, portraits of different aspects of the nature of God. As a psychologist friend of mine put it, masculinity answers the questions “Is God powerful?” and “Is God going to do something?” Femininity answers the questions “Is God good?” and “Is God beautiful.” This is seen from the very beginning in Genesis 1:27: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

You see, God created men and women separately to tell different parts of His story. Marriage, then, brings the two together to reveal a fuller depiction of the God’s character to the world. Not only that, the unity of a husband and wife is further picture still—that of Christ’s redeeming relationship with the Church (Eph. 5:22-32). Some even construe the marriage relationship as symbolic of the unity of God’s being within Himself in the form of the Trinity.

Our sexuality is important precisely because it is symbolic. Even the act of sex is a portrait of love, given as the receiver needs it in complete unselfishness. It is beautiful because its every aspect is filled with the mark of the Creator (see Song of Solomon, Proverbs 5:19, and many other passages for details). Outside of God’s model, however, it is utterly hollow because it ceases to serve His purpose.

The world for many years now has confused the symbol for the substance. They’ve adopted the radical theories of Sigmund Freud and others who assert that the wonders of life are merely symbols pointing back to sexuality rather than the other way around. They read erotic overtones into all things and glorify sexual gratification (in any form) at the expense of all other things. That’s why sins of the flesh are ubiquitous and even the murder of our most vulnerable fellow humans through abortion is thought of as a “right”. When sex becomes their god, they will allow nothing to impede their ability to “worship” at that altar. They don’t listen when we tell them their actions are repulsive to God because they have no god but self.

That’s why the so-called “culture wars” are not being won—they’re being waged on grounds that our combatants don’t understand. We can’t fight such obvious, external transgressions on a national scale without first engaging people at the base level of their sin. We’ve got to meet them at a personal level and confront their ignorance, self-centeredness, and pride. In short, we need to impress upon them the falsity of their core beliefs and introduce them to the saving grace of Christ Jesus. Fighting these battles from the outside in is simply ineffective—they are ultimately a matter of the heart.

In order to transform the fight, we have to see our Christianity as so much more than just “sin management.” The Truth of God is so much deeper and more winsome than than we want to allow it to be. In framing the battle for righteousness in our time, we should take a page from the playbook of legendary British abolitionist William Wilberforce. Before he could tackle the slave trade, an entrenched vice that was extremely financially profitable and politically active (much like today’s abortion lobby), he knew he had to first change the minds and hearts of the people. Doing that, he knew, required that Christians think deeply about their faith and fight for the right as much as against the wrong. Wilberforce understood that Christianity is something ever more valuable than “a scheme of mere morals.”*

If we are to fight a good fight in this arena, we must seek to understand the surpassing beauty and purpose of God’s plan. As with all other aspects of our Christian walk, this one begins with the Great Commission. Unless Christ changes the hearts of sinners, righteousness will not come about. Unless we share Him and His truth with them, how can they be expected to change?

*From A Practical of View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity by William Wilberforce, 1846 ed. Page 100.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Major Morality

by Justin Lonas

It's interesting that the passing of Jerry Falwell would come on a day when I've been thinking a lot about my own personal application of Christ.

I think we all, to some degree, struggle with a balance between the private, relational nature of our faith and the need to exercise it in the public arena. The confusion comes because the public application of Christianity often depends on black and white responses to the issues of the day, whereas the personal application is wrapped up in the gray of listening to and following the Father's bidding. Obviously, God has unchanging standards of morality. On the same token, our public actions are carefully weighed on a case by case basis. Too often though, the public (and political) aspect of Christianity seems like little more than a reincarnation of the very law that Christ came to free us from.

The list of Falwell's achievements in the public sphere is long - he arguably reintroduced Christianity to public policy with more fervor and effectiveness than anyone since Wilberforce. He also arguably sacrificed grace on the altar of principle in terms of how he chose to deal with sinners.

The lesson to us is to be always on guard against the easy (taking sides in the public debates of the day), and not to lose sight of the arduous (earnestly seeking God and treating sinners as people rather than opponents). We have to always remember that moral principles cannot save anyone (indeed, without Christ, they can only convict) - if they could, Christ died for nothing (Galatians 2:21). Our public Christianity (and treatment of fellow men) has to flow out of the grace we know as sinners redeemed. Otherwise, we are very much in danger of letting the rigid stances we take in public alter our personal view of God.

It's a fine line to walk, but one that we are asked and expected to. Thank God for His indwelling guidance that makes meeting the expectation as simple as submission to Him.