Archives For Discipleship

Professor Bob Dylan

February 24, 2015 — 13 Comments

dylanCan you imagine having singer Bob Dylan as your high school history teacher?

According to a recent interview,* it could have happened.

Still actively touring in his seventies and considered an American musical icon. I was stunned to hear what he said about another path his life may have taken. The interviewer posted the remark this way:

Bob Dylan: His True Calling

“If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a schoolteacher—probably teach Roman history or theology.”

I didn’t realize he and I had so much in common! When I did my undergrad studies in history, I took every Roman history course the University of Washington offered. As for theology . . . well, having become a pastor, my interest in the study of God’s revelation of himself to the world is a given.

Can you imagine Dylan lecturing on apotheosis in the early empire? [Apotheosis is the elevation of a person to godhood, and was a formal event after the death of some emperors. The emperors themselves knew it was a farce, of course. Seneca wrote that emperor Vespasian, on his deathbed, actually said, “Alas, I think I’m becoming a God.”]

Bob Dylan’s interest in spiritual matters is genuine. He has high praise in the interview for Billy Graham. “This guy was rock ‘n’ roll personified. He filled football stadiums before Mick Jagger did.”

In 1979, Dylan released the first of three “Christian” albums, “Slow Train Coming.” It has a number of great pieces, and I listen to the album at least once a month. One song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” won him the Grammy that year for “Best Male Vocalist.” It’s lyrics are sobering, and everyone should hear it at least once.

And, Speaking of C.S. Lewis

Well, we weren’t actually. But, here at Mere Inkling we usually do.

These two men bear some obvious parallels. They are masters of words. Poets extraordinaire. Lewis and Dylan both possess enviable creative imaginations. Each has accumulated a vast legacy in their work, which will continue to inspire for many generations to come.

I also learned this on the internet—they share the same Myers-Briggs personality type. At least, this site claims they are both INFPs. (I’m an ENTJ myself, a common personality aggregate for pastors.)

And, they had at least one more thing in common. They knew that in this life, there is no such thing as spiritual neutrality. When we ultimately stand before the throne of our Creator, it will not suffice to say, “Well, I didn’t do anything truly evil.”

In a moment we will listen to Dylan’s ballad about the choice before us. First, though, consider how Lewis uses the imagery of the war engulfing the world in the 1940s to describe this truth.

Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have thought much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side.

God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world.

When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature.

It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it. (Mere Christianity).

Now, as promised, “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

_____

*You can read the entire interview in the current issue of AARP The Magazine, available here.

Boot Camp Religion

September 23, 2013 — 20 Comments

drill instructorShould pastors be more like cheerleaders, or drill instructors? That’s an interesting question recently posed by the president of World Vision United States.

While flying to Saint Louis, I brought along several magazines I hadn’t had an opportunity to read. (The opportunity to read for an extended period is about the only thing I still enjoy about long distance travel.)

One of the magazines included a review of Unfinished: Believing is Only the Beginning by Richard Stearns.

It included an interesting comparison which intrigued both as a pastor and a military chaplain.

The great commandments of Scripture have now become just great suggestions, offered like fortune cookies, to take with us or leave behind in the pews. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). If churches are going to lead a revolution to change the world, then our pastors need to act and speak less like spiritual cheerleaders and more like drill sergeants.

It’s a valid question. But, the truth is that we are talking about a spectrum, not an either/or dichotomy. A pastor should never be a mere cheerleader. Nor should a minister ever be a simple drill sergeant.

Being a pastor is much more complex than either of those labels. Far better to use the metaphor of shepherd.

The author’s point is well made though. In our current “feel good” age, with its divinization of the notion of self esteem, many clergy seem to think their primary role is to “encourage” the saints. They forget that we should be encouraging them to do something. Something, perhaps, like running a race.*

That’s actually the theme of the book—Christian discipleship. Following Christ more closely each day, as we correspondingly come to more and more resemble our Father.

Disciples are not expected to just “talk the talk” of obedience; they are to “walk the walk.” Studying the blueprint in Scripture means that we follow its instructions. It requires that we obey what Scripture teaches. Anyone seeking to truly know God’s calling on his or her life must be serious about obedience. Do we really think that God is going to give a critical kingdom assignment to someone who hasn’t been faithful in day-to-day obedience to his commands?

There’s even a passing C.S. Lewis reference in Unfinished, albeit not a particularly flattering one. The author doesn’t actually speak ill of the Oxford don, but he does criticize the way that some preachers tend to “proof text” their message with pertinent quotations. (I avoid taking personal umbrage at the criticism, since the point Stearns is making is quite valid.)

Far too many Sunday sermons bat around theological ideas like badminton birdies for half an hour. They quote a few verses of Scripture, tell a few stories, throw in a line or two from C.S. Lewis or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but never challenge the congregation to change anything in their lives.

The sermon is offered like a piece of gum for congregants to chew on for half an hour, but as soon as they get to the parking lot, most will spit it out. The job of the church is not merely to explain the truth but, rather, to use the truth to bring about life change.

I’ve never been accused of preaching chewing gum sermons myself, but I know exactly what he is alluding to.

Unfinished doesn’t actually object to quoting Lewis, just to a shallow, formulaic approach to sermon preparation. The book, in fact, includes several Lewisian citations of its own, referencing no fewer than four of his works.

As a fellow writer and theologian who loves quoting C.S. Lewis, I’ll forgo pointing out the irony.

_____

* The role of the coach, as in training athletes for their competition, is a useful image. Note 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”

Also, Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

On Burying One’s Father

January 29, 2013 — 22 Comments

marine flagI just buried my father yesterday. Well, not literally, since the service was held in a chapel at the cemetery, but my family and I said goodbye to him in a traditional Christian service. Because he was a combat veteran Marine Corps sergeant major, he received also very impressive military honors at graveside.

It was quite nice. Although he had passed rather quickly, and completely unexpectedly, he had lived a long and full life. That sounds cliché, but during his 84 years he had a successful career in the Corps, enjoyed a long and peaceful retirement, was blessed with a loving and faithful wife, and found great joy in his three children, nine grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.

Best of all, though, after what some would call a rather misspent youth, he became a good man . . . and ended his days with faith in Christ and with virtues such as repentance, forgiveness and charity evident in his life.

As the day of the funeral was approaching, I recalled one of Jesus’ conversations with several prospective disciples.

As they were going along the road, someone said to [Jesus], “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another [Jesus] said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-60, ESV).

To some, Jesus’ words here sound harsh. However, the Messiah was not encouraging people to cease honoring their parents. After all, that would be in direct disobedience to the Commandments God delivered to us through Moses. No, Jesus affirmed our call to respect and care for our parents. What he was condemning was the excuses we make to delay accepting his invitation to follow him.

While we might offer a truly important reason for our procrastination, we often push back the spiritual “season” of our life with far more lame reasoning. “I’ll settle down after I get married, but right now I just need some time to “enjoy” life.” or “I’ll start going to church once I have kids and they can benefit from it.”

On Sundays we rarely think twice about disobeying another of the Commandments by ignoring the Sabbath and not preserving it’s holiness. Years ago Keith Green wrote a song “Asleep in the Light,” which featured the convicting lyrics:

How can you be so dead

When you’ve been so well fed

Jesus rose from the grave

And you, you can’t even get out of bed.

Most of us live long enough to suffer the loss of a parent. It’s something, perhaps, that you don’t really understand until you experience it yourself. Even then it’s difficult to console others by saying we’ve shared their loss. After all, every relationship is unique, and each human being processes grief in a unique manner.

C.S. Lewis knew well what it was like to lose his parents. His beloved mother died when he was quite young. In Surprised by Joy, he describes the pain. With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.

Alas, Lewis does not describe his father’s passing in his too-brief autobiography. What he does say, reminds me of my own father’s vast reservoir of humor and encouragement as his health waned. Lewis simply writes: “My father’s death, with all the fortitude (even playfulness) which he displayed in his last illness, does not really come into the story I am telling.”

Many of you who have lost your parents can empathize with me, and with the journey I am facing as I adjust to life without either of my parents. Because I loved them, I miss them. And the love makes the pain worth it. Besides, as Paul reminded young Christians in his first letter to the Church in Thessalonica, we “do not grieve as other do who have no hope.” Our hope is secure, resting in the very One who said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

C.S. Lewis on Xmas

November 28, 2011 — 17 Comments

Advent has begun! As the Christian Church celebrates its “New Year,” it’s fun to look at C.S. Lewis’ essay, “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus.” He describes the predicament of secularized western civilization. Reversing the spelling of “Britain,” Lewis points out how a new holiday has displaced a profound holy-day.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound, [the Niatirbians] have a great festival called Exmas, and for 50 days they prepare for it (in the manner which is called,) in their barbarian speech, the Exmas Rush.

When the day of the festival comes, most of the citizens, being exhausted from the (frenzies of the) Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much as on other days, and crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas, they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and the reckoning of how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine.

A few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast.

But as for what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, this is not credible. It is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and so great things (as those involved in the Exmas Rush), in honor of a god they do not believe in.

Niatirb might just as well be the Setats Detinu. We see the same signs all around us. One shocking fact is how the secular seasonal movies now do not even feel compelled to offer the slightest nod to the true meaning of the season. Santa, for many, has utterly eclipsed the Babe in the manger. And “Christ” has literally been crossed out of Xmas.

May this entertaining portrait remind each of us of the true significance of the approaching season. And, may God also use the season of Advent to prepare our individual hearts to receive the most priceless and precious Christmas gift ever given.