"All joy...emphasizes our pilgrim status: always reminds, beckons, awakes desire. Our best havings are wantings.” - C.S. Lewis

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Imaging God, Dominion as Stewardship

OK, at the outset of this reflection on Douglas John Hall's book, Imaging God, Dominion as Stewardship, I want to say two things. First, this guy is a "smarty pants". I say that with the utmost respect and in the best possible sense of that label - I mean I am seriously in awe of this guy's brain. It took me about a month to read his 200 pages and I found myself needing to parse each word of many sentences to uncover his intent. Second, once I did uncover it, I think I am now a converted tree hugger. A few years ago, I saw a guy in Tower Grove Park literally hugging a tree that was suffering from some form of disease. At the time I thought - "well...that's...just...whacky!" But now - while I don't anticipate such radical outworking of my new tree hugging sensibilities - I don't think he was all that crazy. Just...well...more responsible to creation than I ever have been and thus a better witness of what it means to be a human bearing the image of God.

Hall begins with a convincing and convicting evaluation of the typical evangelical mindset toward creation - one that I must confess I owned. Namely, that we fundamentally view creation and our relationship to it (as it comes through the narrative and so-called creation mandate in Genesis) as one of king and servant. In other words the creation's purpose was to serve us (and not vice versa). Along with this comes a belief that creation is inherently bad - needing to be subdued - or whipped into shape. And our job is to carry that whip. But Hall redefines this creation mandate as a call to stewardship which thrusts the emphasis decidedly into one of service/care for creation.

This is rooted first in the understanding of God's work in creating creation as well as his ongoing work to repair/renew creation through the work of Jesus. The telos of creation is not to be a sort of roadside stop for we humans on the way to some greater cosmic dimension called heaven, but rather it is the place that God is making new. We then are called into that process (working with God's sovereign hand) as stewards to that telos.

Also we must understand the fundamental relational aspect of our created order. As Hall puts it, we are not just human beings - we are human-being-with's (God, other humans AND nature) and that "does require...that we view all such capacities and endowments according to their function as attributes enabling us to become what we are intended to be: serving and representative creatures, stewards whose complexity of mental, spiritual, and volitional powers makes it possible for us, within the creation, to image the holy and suffering love of the Creator." (p 141)

So, if we are to be true image bearers of God, we must place the care for creation in the same priority as care for our fellow humans. And I don't know about you, but that's pretty convicting to me. Personally, I have lived like a tick on creation, and Hall's work has really helped me to see the vast - and very hypocritical testimony that I have been telling if my identity is that as image-bearer.

Hall sums it up well here: "We mirror the sovereignty of the divine love in our stewardship of earth. This lifts Christian stewardship well beyond the confines of a pragmatic ethic. The motivation for our stewardly acts of preservation, as Christians is not merely utilitarian (as when, for example, it is said that human beings need to preserve forests because we ourselves, or future generations of our kind, are going to need the forests). Rather, as preservers and conservers of all life, we have our commission as a sacred trust that inheres in our new identity - or more accurately, this old identity into which we are newly born through grace and repentance. We are preservers because the creation in intrinsically good, and we are being delivered from the kind of egotism that is able to find goodness only in what is useful to ourselves." (p 200)

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Concert of Worshippers

Concert: verb - to plan or act together.

I went to a concert last night. 56 thousand worshippers – old and young and black and white and rich and poor and gay and straight and extroverted and introverted and happy and sad and healthy and sick – 56 thousand worshippers together in a warm, airless cathedral donning their flip-flops and their fancies with every sense ready to engage in the sights and the sounds and the smells and the tastes of worship.

And did we ever worship.

Arms were held high in unison – waves of arms waving and clapping together – 56 thousand pairs of arms worshipping together. Eyes darting everywhere: taking in the color and strobes and smoke with wonder. Mouths chomped corn-dogs and cotton candy and beer. Ears winced at first and then settled into the thunderous rhythms. And voices sang – they sang liturgies – some 30 years old, some 3 – but all known by 56 thousand voices. Liturgies that cry out: “How long, how long must we sing this song!?!” and “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”. That confess: “I can’t live with or without you,” and “I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside”. That remember “One man come in the name of love,” that remind us that “It’s a beautiful day – don’t let it get away – it’s a beautiful day!”, and that call us to “carry each other, carry each other.”

56 thousand worshippers at the U2 concert at Busch Stadium last night.

What were they worshipping? Only each heart knows. I’m sure there were some that were worshipping the music, some pastor Bono, some the technology both on stage and in their hands as the whole arena was lit up by the light of smart phones. Perhaps some were worshipping their beer, some their nachos, some the stars. Maybe some were worshiping humankind and the concepts of freedom and justice and love and peace that came from so much of U2’s message. And yes, perhaps there were some, who were just worshipping God – who were reminded through the laments and the lights and the smiles and the wonder and the hope that He sits above it all – orchestrating it all – the author of beauty and grace and music and love.

Admittedly I’m not the biggest U2 fan. I grew up with the “Unforgettable Fire” and “Joshua Tree” albums during my high school years but haven’t really followed closely since. I went, mostly, for the experience. And I wasn’t disappointed. My senses were filled and amazed. But it was much deeper, wider, richer than I expected – so thoughtful – lights for the sake of wonder, sounds for the sake of joy, and the whole liturgical concert for the sake of the story: to tell the true story of life under the sun.

The truth about the way it is – both broken and beautiful. The truth about the way we want it to be – unified, free, honest. And the truth about the way it will be too. U2 drew 56 thousand worshippers into this story last night. And perhaps the church can learn a thing or two from them.

Friday, July 15, 2011

My Story in His

I grew up in the church the son of a Presbyterian (USA) pastor, and while I admired my father and felt his profession was most noble, I also never heard the gospel. I knew all the Bible stories, was the star pupil in catechism class and even sang a solo or two in front of the whole congregation. But when I was about 12, my Dad left the church amidst a bitter dispute and I followed right behind him. The lines between God and my Dad were so blurred and confused at that point that I had no real concept of the Christian life apart from Dad. Church, without Dad, was merely a place of rules and restrictions and construction paper and flannel-graphs – not the most compelling place to be. So after Dad left, I rarely went to church again. In fact, I can count on one hand the times I went in the 14 years that followed.

It was when I was 26 and working for an apparel manufacturer in the Southeast that I finally found my way back. I was living a relationship-less life as a traveling salesman and had immersed myself so much into my work that I spent only 17 days at home that year. I was so lonely, and Sunday’s were the worst because all the stores who I sold to were closed so I couldn’t work. It was during those Sunday mornings… completely alone…that I began to consider church again. At least I would be around people there. So I would drive down to main street USA and go into the first church I saw. I didn’t care (or know any better) what denomination it was…I just cared that there were people with smiles on their faces. Needless to say, God showed me a very wide variety of worship styles, sermons and liturgies…and smiles…and began, at that time, bringing me back to Himself.

Fast-forward 4 years. I had long-since quit my job as a traveling salesman and had moved out to California to chase a girl. God providentially moved me into a garage apartment of a wonderful Christian man, Buck Murphy, who had a ministry to alcoholic and homeless young men in the community. He would rescue them from the streets, move them into the guest bedroom of his home and help them find their way out of the gutter…and into the Bible. As I look back, I realize that I was just as desperate for a savior as each of the homeless men he helped. And while Buck wasn’t my savior…he led me to my savior, Jesus Christ. He invited me to a men’s retreat one weekend, and much to my chagrin, he made sure that I went. I had been attending his church since I had arrived in California (mostly to impress the girl), and while I definitely wanted a closer relationship with God, I still thought that the majority of Christian teaching functioned much like a cattle prod to get me acting in a righteous way. But then, that weekend, I heard…and saw…the gospel for the first time in my life.

The Friday night of the retreat weekend was the “Convict Them of Their Sin” night. And I was convicted…so much so, that I literally got physically ill over it. Then the following night they read the medical report of what Christ endured, physically, on the cross and then showed a fairly graphic video depiction of the crucifixion. For the first time I got it. I understood, for the first time, that he endured all that for me. Then Buck and I prayed together and immediately I felt the Holy Spirit come into my heart and make a dramatic overhaul. I walked out of that room, that night, a changed man forever. I knew, immediately, that I was a child of God and the lines that were once blurred between my earthly father and my Father in heaven became instantly distinguishable. Six months later, I was attending my first class at Covenant Theological Seminary here in St. Louis.

That was 11 years ago now. After meeting my amazing wife in 2002, getting married and graduating from seminary we began South City Church in 2005 (“particularlizing” in 2008). It has been a labor of amazing grace. We have had the privilege of walking alongside so many beautiful souls in these last few years, and while there are days when we are overwhelmed by the brokenness and pain in our city and in the lives of those we love, we are all-the-more encouraged to see how our savior has healed wounds, lifted chins and encouraged lives of great wonder and purpose. We are so thankful to God for bringing our lives into his Story, and for you – for sharing your stories with us in this glorious ruin called South City Church.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work

There’s a lovely and very meaningful spot in Estes Park, Colorado – a little mountain in the middle of a valley called, “Bible Point” where lots of people go to take in the view of the “Grandfathers” – the mighty snow-capped mountains of the Front Range which surround it. When reading Cosden’s work, I felt – much of the time – like I was on top of Bible Point – my senses filled with grandeur of God’s plan/purposes for creation. Cosden paints a beautiful and true picture of the nature of the cosmos as it fits in God's grand story which ought to inspire Christians to think more deeply and meaningfully about their callings in life and be excited about them!

But along the northern and western edge of Bible point is a pretty severe drop that the climber must be aware of, and I felt – at times – that Cosden was dangerously close to leading us off that ledge, especially as he unpacked Romans 8, saying that in Christ…

“we cannot be thought of as sub-workers with God. We are now, and forever will be, genuinely God’s co-workers (and co-heirs) with more freedom and more status than even the first Adam had. This passage suggests that, in Christ, the apprentices have now become full members of the guild, qualified masters in our own right”. (pp 121-122)

Yes, ok. I'm all about seeing and appreciating mankind as creatures created in the glorious image of God and Christians as those who are fully redeemed - given the righteousness of Christ. I have tried to grasp that glorious truth daily in my life and communicate that hope to our congregation. And admittedly I realize that my own struggle with the sin of cynicism often gets in the way of me seeing and tasting this glorious side of the Gospel! That said, there were times that I felt Cosden was neglecting other aspects of the Gospel (namely that we are sinners in desperate daily need of God's grace) and so giving us a bit of a lop-sided view.

To be fair, he does recognize that we will all still flub up our callings to image God in the world sometimes and that we still need Jesus. And he cautions the reader well (p. 108ff) that an elevated view of our work can easily undermine the Gospel. And I completely resonated with his emphasis that it’s the Gospel of Grace that enables us to have the freedom to see work not so much as part of our identity, but as part of our God-given purpose. But still I felt he was pushing to places that could be dangerously misunderstood and misappropriated. See, one of the greatest glories of Bible Point is not Bible Point in itself, though it is a pretty little mountain and beautiful in its own right. The main glory, in my opinion, of Bible Point is the view it gives you of the “Grandfathers”, and that is something I think Cosden downplays too much. I found myself wanting him to interact with Psalm 8, where David marvels at the glory God has given to mankind but then confesses that "you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings."

That critique aside, I loved Cosden’s wonderful question on p. 78: “Is there not, in God’s purposes, a reason for our existence in pertaining to us?” I think this is a question many (all?) are asking, and one we long to answer – or better, have God answer – with an unequivocal “YES!” Often I am asked if God loves us not just because of what Christ did for us but who we are in and of ourselves. And Cosden does an incredible job of helping us see not only our dignity but our God-given glory as image bearers.

Along those lines, I think this book would be an incredible encouragement to anyone who is in a vocation which seems petty or unimportant. He does a great job of exploding the sacred/secular delusion that says that if you really want to matter - become a preacher. No, changing diapers matters to God AND to the Kingdom so change them well!

I also very much appreciated his expansion of salvation to the whole of creation (p. 114), our need for community as image-bearers (p. 88), his encouragement and diagnostic questions for self-evaluation of our callings (pp. 116-119) and his exhortation to teaching a broader, more dignified view of all work (p. 130). His “New Kind of Missionary” application of the theology was sobering and wise (p. 135).

Overall it is a bold and much needed work and I am thankful to have read it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Desiring the Kingdom

About 8 years ago one of my esteemed seminary professors was preaching at our church and he asked the congregation this question: “What is the central message of Jesus?” The answer: “The Kingdom of God.” I remember feeling about 6 inches tall in my pew that day, not because there was anything that rubbed me wrong about that true answer but because that would have not even been on my list of possible answers. The Kingdom of God? Really? That’s what Jesus is all about?

That day began a journey for me in trying to understand, see and live out my life in the Kingdom of God – with that as my ultimate vision or telos for life under the sun. I have had times over the last 8 years where I have grasped it in new ways and have been thrilled and motivated by it’s boundless revelation for this cosmos and my life. And then there have been times where I forget – where I seem to lose it all together – where life becomes so one dimensional and flat and shallow.

Also during this journey I have attempted to communicate the vision for the Kingdom of God to our church with decidedly mixed results. I’ve learned that it’s sometimes hard to communicate in concrete ways. It’s a nice thought but so what? How does the Kingdom motivate me when I’m so tired and overworked? How does the Kingdom help me when I’m stuck in this abusive relationship? How does the Kingdom matter when I’m stuck here changing diapers all day long?

“If only,” I have often bemoaned, “we had a stronger desire for the Kingdom! Then we might see its relevance and live our lives out of its grand and glorious vision!” And into that prayer comes James K.A. Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom: a book with the stated goal being “the formation of radical disciples who desire the kingdom of God.” (p. 19). Amen!

Foundational to Smith’s book is his thesis that “Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly – who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love.” (pp. 32-33) We are created as people who love, first and foremost (vs. people who think or believe first and foremost) and so what we love ultimately will be the thing that governs how we live our lives. And so if we love, ultimately, the Kingdom of God our lives will be oriented and directed by its grand vision for the redemption of the cosmos.

But how? Smith doesn’t stop at theory. The aim of this book is to give a practical pathway to a Kingdom driven life. So, he says, a desire for the Kingdom “becomes operative in us (motivating actions, decisions, etc.) by becoming an integral part of the fabric of our dispositions – our precognitive tendencies (aka habits) to act in certain ways toward certain ends.” (p. 55) So, when the Kingdom gets into our souls it begins to form habits of action which become part of our dispositions. Whew! OK, then but how does the Kingdom get into our souls? Ah – here is where the rubber meets the road. Smith’s take is that it happens through liturgies.

Let me explain (or at least try): The world is full of liturgies – these repeated stories, mantras, visions that fill our senses and drive us to love and worship. If these are things like the mantra that we need to be accepted (told to us by marketers of fashion, body image, etc…) we will worship the mall or the gym, etc... The more we feed our souls with these liturgies the more they will drive us to our ultimate love – acceptance – and then our lives will be oriented to that vision/telos. Conversely, if our lives are filled with the liturgies of the Kingdom, they will drive us toward that ultimate love – and then our lives will be oriented toward its vision. Smith then goes on to give practical help to educators/pastors on how to develop and deliver these liturgies to God’s people.

I was greatly helped by this book, so much so that I’m asking some of the leaders in our church to interact with Smith’s ideas and to think through integrating them into liturgies that make sense for us. Some of his directions – at the end – did seem like they came out of the Kingdom liturgies that make sense to him/that he likes and therefore didn’t leave much room for those who do church differently or in very different contexts (like ours). That said, though, the ideas are a very helpful launching pad for us to work through those contextualizing questions for ourselves.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

DMin? Como - say - wha?

Well, yes - right - it snuck up on me a bit too! I have decided to enter into the Doctor of Ministry program at Covenant Theological Seminary for the sole reason that all my life I have wanted people to call me Dr. J. The thinking is that despite the fact that I can't dunk or even touch the rim (I might be able to catch a little net if I lost a few pounds), I could still pretend my way through that childhood fantasy.

OK, maybe not. But I will tell you that I began the program back in mid-May and it isn't until now that I can tell you why I'm really doing it. And those reasons, I'm pretty sure, will change multiple times along the way.

I went in thinking I had something to say. Typical freshman. Let - me - tell - you - what - I - know! And then I spent a week with with mentors Donald Guthrie and Steve Garber and fellow classmates Warren Mayer (an I.T. guy at Mizzou), Mike Hsu (Pastor Grace Chapel in NE), Richard Vise (RUF pastor at Auburn), Cristano DeSousa (Navy Chaplain) and Don Johnson (Pastor Hanna City Presbyterian Church in IL) and I realized - more than anything - how much I had to learn. How vast my blind spots are. And how probably I needed to just shut up and listen if that weren't a futile endeavor for real growth given the fact that I am a freakishly verbal processor and if I didn't blather on I would never come to any conclusions about anything other than the fact that if I don't blather I can't "integrate" very well which leads me to the uncomfortable reality that I'm just going to have to apologize often for saying stupid stuff in run-on sentences like this one.

Doctor Jay - oh yeah.

Here's why I'm doing it...as of today. First, I love the Gospel and I really, really want to understand it better - make it matter more in my life - and, hopefully, in the lives of those I serve and love in this world. This is really what this DMin is all about. The Gospel deeper, richer - more transforming - more glorious - more lovely. That's reason enough.

Second, because I love our church and as one of her leaders, I have been entrusted with the great and glorious responsibility of helping her navigate this crazy life and give her a vision of the beauty of God's love and purpose and glory available to her in the diapers and in the classroom and in the cubicles. Believe me, it's not like I came into this gig (a pastor) with everything figured out! If we as leaders don't continue to stretch and grow, we cannot lead our people in like manner.

Third (and in the same vein), we all need mentors to help us see our blind spots and to guide us out of them and this DMin gives me the opportunity to learn from two of the very best I could dream of - kindred spirits who are well on down the path of grace and Gospel integration into life and the church that I long to travel. In one short week they've already shown me so much - given me massive new perspectives - and glorious new dimensions of the Gospel.

Enough said on that for now. In the coming weeks/months/years, in addition to the infrequent blogs on real life and ministry I occasionally post, I will be using this space to talk about some of the books I'm reading on this Gospel journey.


Sunday, June 26, 2011


Have you ever been so close to something glorious that you blush? Perhaps a brush with someone famous or a front row seat to a one-in-a-lifetime concert. You think to yourself: "Wow, really? Am I really experiencing this? Is this really this cool?"

I had one of those moments today.

I held little Jack McKenzie in my arms for a good 10 minutes, and it went by way too fast. I feel myself - even now some 9 hours later - wanting to hoist him up again - see his glorious, God-reflecting smile so close to mine. I just wanted more of him. That's all I can say. I wanted more of him because little Jack McKenzie gave me the gospel today in all its glory and in ways no ivory tower theologian could have. The whole time I was baptizing him, all I could think about was 2 Corinthians 12 when Paul says that "God's power is made perfect in weakness."

See, Jack has Downs Syndrome. But that's not what defines Jack McKenzie. What defines Jack McKenzie is what he showed us all today - in all his 2 year old glory: An ability to receive God's grace, and by doing so - by taking it in - by soaking it up - he showed us the way to be such bold recipients ourselves. There were, I know, lots of amazing witnesses to Christ's love across the globe on this Sabbath day, but I will put Jack's up to anyone - anywhere.

And I got to hold him for 10 minutes! Minutes I will never, ever forget.

Before the service we prayed that God would visit Jack, by His Spirit and break through his brokenness and somehow let him know that what we did today - in baptizing him - was not some religious exercise devoid of real meaning. Nor was it something he had to do to get saved. But I asked that God would - through it - bless Jack. "Whatever that means, however you do it, please God - please - just show this glorious kid your grace."

And he did. And Jack took it all in.

I sprinkled the water. The words were said. A prayer was prayed. And then we began to sing - as Jack's new Covenant family - the doxology over the act.

Jack's eyes were bright - he looked at me and his mama, Brandi. And then he communicated in the clearest way he knew how - via sign language - one word. "More!"

Yes, Jack, "more." God bless you little one. Thank you for showing your pastor and the church and your world the way today - the way to soaking in unmitigated grace. More is coming, little one. More is yours every day. I will pray that you will see it tomorrow. And I will pray that for myself too.