Gordon-Conwell Blog

The Call At 2AM: Caring for Devastated Parishoners

August 23, 2016

 By Kenneth Swetland, D.Min.

Pastors tell me that they have never received a call in the middle of the night that was good news. When the 2 a.m. call comes, pastors brace themselves for hearing bad news, and are then relieved when sometimes it’s only a misdialed number or someone playing a joke.

But, when the call is serious, it’s time to act. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen all that often for most pastors, although some say that a younger generation apt to keeping late hours and used to instant gratification or help available 24/7, are often the ones making the middle-of-the-night call to their pastor. An older generation tends to wait until 6 or 7 a.m. unless they are so devastated that they need pastoral care immediately or know their pastor would want to respond quickly.

Pastors can help educate their parishioners by informing them (often more than once) that they are available at anytime if there is a crisis. This kind of availability is part of the call to be a pastor. Not wanting to help when people hurt raises the question of whether one has a genuine call to pastoral ministry, which at its biblical base reflects a desire to minister grace and comfort from a Triune God to people in need. I know a pastor who did not want to be bothered outside of the 9 to 5 office routine and had an unlisted phone number at home. It’s not surprising that he did not last more than a short time at his first church and is not a pastor today.

On an accreditation visit to a seminary in Costa Rica afew years ago, I was touched with the sign on the practical ministry department door: “Pastoral Accompaniment.” That’s what pastors faithful to the biblical model of pastoring do—accompany people when a crisis comes. So, what do you do when the 2 a.m. call comes and it is indeed bad news? First, determine whether you need to go immediately or wait until later. For example, if individuals calling are under the influence of alcohol or drugs and you determine in talking with them that they are safe but would be unable to “hear” what you have to say if you responded in person, it may be best to affirm your love for them and concern for their well being, but firmly advise that it would be better for them and you if you visited later in the day. Then keep your word. You can certainly pray with and for them on the phone. And, when you hang up, hope they do not call right back. It may be wise to phone a family member to report what happened and enlist that person’s help as needed.

Sometimes unstable persons, such as those with Borderline Personality Disorder or in a manic phase of Bipolar Disorder, call in the middle of the night, insist on talking at length and want you to be with them right now. Responding by going along with their request often does not help them towards spiritual and emotional health and it can be intensely frustrating and time consuming, not to mention tiring for you. But, not going along with their request often causes them to become angry and accuse you (often to others) of not caring. And, there’s nothing that strikes pain in a pastor’s heart like the accusation that he or she does not care. It is wise, therefore, to have a plan of action in mind for when emotionally unstable persons call. For example, assure them of your concern on the phone, pray with them, help them recognize that they can make it without seeing you immediately and hold to your decision not to get out of bed to go visit them. You may also need to call a family member to provide assistance. If a person is suicidal, you need to call the police and report what has transpired.

Once a woman I had been counseling who had Borderline Personality Disorder called me to say that she had taken a bottle of pills in order to kill herself. Since she had agreed to contact me if she was suicidal (“suicide contract”), she made the call and told me what she had taken. I then called the Poison Control Center for our region and learned that she had taken a potentially lethal dosage and needed immediate hospitalization. My next phone call was to the police who broke down her door and got her to the hospital where she was revived (and for several weeks hated me). I also called an elder in the church to accompany me to the hospital since I did not want to be alone when I visited her. This brings up the question of whether to see someone alone in the middle of the night or take someone with you.

My rule of thumb is that if the person I am going to see is a woman and is alone, I want someone with me so there is no appearance of anything improper. The same principle holds for female pastors visiting male parishioners. If other family members are going to be present, then going alone may be the best course of action. Here’s where it’s good to have aboard of elders trained and ready to assist you in a crisis.

Other words of advice:

  • Make good use of Scripture in responding to people in crisis: Be so immersed in biblical teaching yourself that reflecting solid biblical doctrine to people in need flows naturally from your mind. Done rightly, there’s nothing more powerful than God’s word to bring healing to hurting people.
  • Pray honestly and gently for people in their presence: People expect pastors to pray; we don’t have to force it on them. There are times when we don’t know what to say, but here is where the Holy Spirit’s ministry is evident (Rom. 8:26). Don’t shy away from prayer.
  • Have a system in place where church hospitality (food, prayer, presence, etc.) kicks in when someone is in crisis:The Bible refers to Christian community as the Body of Christ for good reason. We need every part of the body to be spiritually and emotionally healthy.
  • In the case of an abused spouse or children, act immediately: Get the person/children to a safe place, e.g., a safe home with a family in your church prepared for such possibilities. (Every region of the country has a safe place for women and children. Look in the whitepages of your telephone directory under HAWC, Help for Abused Women and Children. It’s a 24-hour hotline.)
  • Live within your own appropriate boundaries of being “extra-available”—a term used by some to refer to the pastor’s always being on call: If several crises come in a row or you’re experiencing an especially intense emotional period of expending time and energy with someone in need, take the necessary time off with full support and understanding of your elders to recover your own spiritual and emotional balance.
  • Keep notes of what happened: These are for your own record and are your private file; but in this day of easy litigation, being able to refer to notes is better than a poor memory if you need to substantiate anything.
  • Commit your way to God: He is the “cure giver.” We are only the “care givers.”
     

Kenneth L. Swetland, D.Min., is Professor of Ministry and Campus Pastoral Counselor at the South Hamilton campus, providing pastoral care for students and graduates, and served as Academic Dean of the Hamilton campus from 1992-2002. He has pastored churches in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, was a chaplain at Penn State University and for nursing homes in the Cape Ann area of Massachusetts, and has worked as a psychotherapist at Gordon-Conwell Counseling Center, Health Integration Services in Peabody, MA and Willowdale Center for Psychological Services in Hamilton. He has also taught in Eastern Europe, and has an interest in helping European seminaries in their development. Dr. Swetland continues as a supply speaker for many New England churches.

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Is Jesus Really the Only Way to God?

August 18, 2016

By Dennis Hollinger, Ph.D.
President & Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics

In 2009, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a major study on religious affliation, beliefs and practices in the United States. One of the significant findings was that 70 percent of all Americans believe that many religions can lead to eternal life, including 65 percent of all self-identifying Christians. Perhaps the most surprising finding was that 56 percent of all Evangelical Christians believe that there are many paths, other than faith in Christ, to God and eternal life (See http://pewforum.org).

Many were so shocked by these numbers that the Pew Forum went back and did further polling to make sure that by religion, respondents did not have in mind other Christian bodies or denominations. Their earlier results were essentially confirmed. In this most recent study, large numbers of Americans believe that actions or a combination of beliefs and actions can lead people to God. Even among the 30 percent of Americans who say that eternal life depends on one’s belief, nearly half designate belief in God, a higher power or other generic beliefs as sufficient for salvation. Among Evangelical Christians, only 45 percent clearly affrim that a personal belief in, or relationship with, Christ is essential for eternal life.

Increasing numbers of Americans, Christians and even Evangelicals are questioning the long held commitment of the Church that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ. Among all Americans affiliated with a religion, 52 percent believethat Islam leads to eternal life with God, 53 percent believe that Hinduism leads to God and 42 percent even believe that atheism leads to God. Among Evangelicals, the numbers are 35, 33 and 26 percent respectively. Clearly in recent years, in the midst of growing cultural and religious pluralism, large numbers of Christians are troubled by, or ignore, the claim of Jesus, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). What are we to make of all this? Is Jesus really the only way to God? In a pluralistic world, why shouldn’t we accept an inclusivity that embraces multiple ways to salvation? Isn’t it arrogant to believe otherwise?

Our Pluralistic Context

The perspective that there are many ways to God is essentially one variant of universalism, the belief that ultimately all humans will be embraced by God and experience eternal life. To be sure, it is an old belief that was occasionally found early on in Christianity. In the 3rd century, the theologian Origen contended that in the end God would restore the whole of creation, including Satan, to a perfect state. This meant that people who never trusted Christ would be saved. Origen’s beliefs were condemned by a Church council in the 5th century.

Over the years, and in our own time, there have been many arguments for a universalism, or at least religious pluralism, which question the uniqueness of Christ for salvation. Some argue that it is arrogant and triumphalistic to believe that any one way is essential for salvation. Others contend that surely God is a God of love and mercy who will accept people into his presence who don’t believe in Christ. The mercy of God trumps all other characteristics of God.

Some contend that all religions are essentially the same, simply using different names for the divine and different emphases in following the divine path. Still others attempt to articulate a religious pluralism or universalism on biblical grounds, citing texts such as Colossians 1:18-19, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross;” or Romans 11:32, “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” But perhaps the most significant factor for the growing belief in many paths to God is the pluralism of our social context. By pluralism I don’t mean merely the existence of multiple nationalities, races, ethnic groups or religions in a society. More fundamentally, pluralism means that varying worldviews, belief systems and moral frameworks exist side by side in a given culture.

With pluralism, we now rub shoulders daily with people who put their world together in vastly different ways. Thereare varying perceptions of God, the good life, salvation and human nature. There are varying ways of life reflecting these worldview assumptions. As we daily live with a plethora of worldviews, we experience these folks to be exceptionally fine people, who often reflect integrity, high morals and outstanding contributions to our communities. For a democracy to work, we recognize that these multiple frameworks all need to have a voice in the public square, and all religious and moral frameworks need to be assured of essential rights under the law.

In the milieu of social and legal pluralism, it is quite easy to glide into a religious pluralism which questions the uniqueness or truth claims of Christian faith. When we experience people of other religions as good, moral people, it becomes increasingly difficult to entertain any notions other than multiple paths to God and salvation. When we encounter the plurality of the public square, it becomes almost second nature to believe that such plurality must exist with regards to truth and paths to eternal life. Moreover,when we look around us, many who are exclusive in their beliefs often appear to be arrogant and intolerant. Religious pluralists appear to be kind and accepting, and exhibit a tolerance needed for a pluralistic world.The reality of this sociocultural pluralism makes it difficult to maintain a belief in, and commitment to, Christ as the only way to God. Our context of multiplicity tends to undermine the long-held belief that salvation is found only in Jesus.

How Do We Respond?

Given the contexts of our time, what do we do with the question, “Is Jesus really the only way to God?” As we respond to this question, we need first to note that Jesus thought himself to be unique and the only way to a personal relationship with God. In Jesus’ teachings, he made very direct claims about himself and his work which clearly reveal his own identity:

  • All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son…. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Mt. 11:27-28).
  • Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this; to believe in the one he has sent” (Jn. 6:29).
  • I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst…. My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day( Jn. 6:35, 40).

  • I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (Jn. 8:12).
     
  • I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die (Jn.11:25-26).
     
  • I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well (Jn. 14:6-7a).


Such statements may not sit well with a postmodern mindset which is squeamish about truth, and particularlyany claims to truth. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, many are willing to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher but not his unique claims to be God. In Lewis’ memorable words he responds:

"That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God"  (Mere Christianity, p. 41).

Not only did Jesus himself believe that he was the only way to God, being one with God the Father, the early followers and apostles believed the same. Peter, in one of his early sermons, said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The apostle Paul had hated Christians before he became one. After his conversion, he spoke frequently about Christ with clear conviction that he was the only way to salvation. Speaking of Jesus he said, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10, 11).

In similar fashion the apostle John wrote, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah is born of God…God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (I Jn. 5:1, 11-12). Since the days of the apostles, the historic Christian Church has affirmed the uniqueness of Christ in his identity and in his role as the only savior for human sin. There has, of course, been substantial variation regarding particular doctrines among the various families and denominations of Christianity. But Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism have historically been in agreement that salvation is found in no other than the person of Christ. The recent trends are contrary to those convictions.

Conclusion

The growing number of Christians who are troubled by Jesus’ claims to be the single course to salvation indicates how much the world has come to live in us as we attempt to live in the world. We easily allow the push and pull of our culture to define our beliefs, commitments and way of life, even while giving lip service to the name of Jesus. Perhaps the Pew Forum poll will be a wake-up call as to how much Christians have allowed the world to shape their sentiments.

Affirming the uniqueness of Christ for salvation and eternal life does not, of course, answer all our questions.There is much that God has not told us about the mysteries of life, death and eternity. We naturally wonder what happens to those who never had opportunity to embrace Christ. To such quandaries, we must simply trust in a Savior who is both loving and just, and whose understandings are far beyond ours. We must acknowledge that from Scripture we know relatively little about heaven and hell. What we do know is that Jesus, the apostles and the historic Church in all its variations have affirmed that Jesus is the only true way to God. And it only makes sense that if a person didn’t want Jesus as Savior and Lord on this earth, they would hardly want to spend forever with Him.

To affirm the uniqueness of Christ for salvation is not cause for arrogance and boasting. In fact, Scripturally it is exactly the opposite. Our salvation has nothing to do with our attainments, efforts and native beliefs. In salvation we do not find God through our own ingenuity. Rather, God finds us as we respond to his loving mercy in Christ as evidenced on the cross. The embrace of Christ as Savior and Lord can never be touted as cause for human triumph, smugness or self-assertion. It is not a sign of our superiority, or cause for triumphalistic efforts in society. The uniqueness of Christ is a sign that the triune God of the universe cares so deeply for his wayward creatures that he mercifully provided a path to forgiveness—a way to the Father’s embrace. It is in the Father’s embrace through Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that we come to realize that we can never pull the Triune God apart. For indeed to know Christ is to know the Father, and to know the Father is to know the Spirit, who enables us to stay true to the One Savior in the midst of a pluralistic world.

 

Dr. Dennis P. Hollinger is President and Colman M.Mockler Professor of Christian Ethics. He formerly served as President of Evangelical Theological Seminary; as Provost, College Pastor and Professor of Christian Ethics at Messiah College; and as a professor at two additional seminaries. He has also been a visiting professor at seminaries in the U.S., Ukraine, Russia and India, and a full-time pastor at three churches, including an urban church on Capitol Hill. He speaks extensively in the U.S. and internationally, has written or co-edited eight books, and has authored more than 65 articles. His Ph.D. is from Drew University.

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Made by a Maker to be a Maker

August 04, 2016

By Bruce Herman, MFA

I love that memorable line in the film Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddell’s sister confronts him with his duty as a missionary for Christ in China, admonishing him and scolding him for his “frivolous” participation in the pagan Olympic games in Paris. His reply: “Yes, of course! I am indeed a missionary—but God made me fast, and when I runI feel His pleasure!"

Giving God pleasure—imagine! This has to be the heart of glorifying the Lord—a desire and capacity to give our Maker pleasure. I also love Augustine’s famous paean of praise: “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” It may be a bit cheeky, but I’d revise this just a little for the purposes of my article: “You are our Maker, and You made us to be makers. Our hearts are restless until we make something—something beautiful like what You have made.”

And the beautiful is at the heart of all that God has made. Open your eyes, and even a superficial glance at the night sky or the fields of wildflowers below our feet reveals this: God loves beauty—in its full range, from the awesome raging of the thunderstorm to the fragile petals of a rose. One might even be bold and say that just as God is Good and God is Truth, God also is Beauty—true beauty in all its multivalence and grandeur—God’s kabôd . And this is where I begin as a painter, desiring above all to give my Lord pleasure in the works of my hands.

My heart has been restless since my earliest days—restless to make something that would point toward my beautiful Maker—and by His grace I cannot remember a day when I didn’t feel this way. I have always made art, and I’ve nearly always wanted it to please God. Except for a brief interlude in my life during which I was confused about how to serve God as an artist, I’ve always at least intuited that God takes pleasure in the works of our hands and hearts and imagination—when it is done unto Him and for His glory.

What does it mean, in real terms, to make art to the glory of God?

First, I believe that because God is the author of all things beautiful and significant, it is a natural desire of all children to make beautiful and significant things. Children can, and do, distort this urge in order to simply garner attention for themselves. But adults are always disappointed to see this in their child. And that is because we all value the unselfconscious joy of making that we witness in children. The famous artist Pablo Picasso once memorably quipped, “I spent four years in the academy learning to draw like an old master. I’ve spent the rest of my life learning to draw like a child!” And what he was pointing toward, I believe, is the very principle being discussed: childlike, unselfconscious making—which naturally glorifies God just as the rest of God’s creation does, merely by being what it is.

It is easy for a child to make art to the glory of God—just as the sunrise or sunset, the thunderstorm or wildflowers glo-rify God without vanity or self-consciousness. But how is a fully grown person to do so, much less a professional who is paid and must always be promoting her works in order to gain exhibition space? Are we to copy the work of children and make clumsy, charming little works that show no knowledge or sophistication? No, of course not. This would be to indulge in even greater self-conscious posturing. But I do think there is a principle here to be noted: the child creates art from a place of fearlessness and natural freedom. Art and fear are not good bedfellows. To make art to the glory of God requires that we give our all in the process of making—holding nothing back. But the difference between the child and the grown artist is that knowledge, technique, experience, even a kind of artistic “wisdom” is operating as we mature and practice art over a lifetime.

Yet the requirement that a work of art be free from pretentiousness or self-conscious posturing is a good one—and the artistic act is one that can only be wholehearted. In his seminal work I and Thou , Martin Buber says:

This is the eternal origin of art that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul’s creative power. What is required is a deed that a man does with his whole being: if he commits it and speaks with his being the basic word to the form that appears, then the creative power is released and the work comes into being. - Buber, Martin (2011-05-17). I and Thou, trans. Kaufmann (pp. 60-61), Kindle Edition.

Buber has uncovered something deeply signifcant here. There is in the creative process a certain mystery. His phrase “a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him” indicates that there is a dimension of authentic art-making that involves assent to a certain loss of control, a certain giving in to the form itself. This idea about art might sound at first quite romantic: mysterious forms jos-tling to be made into works of art independent of the artist, etc., etc. But I believe that Buber is simply describing the reality of the artist’s situation.

When an artist truly desires to be a servant of God, she relinquishes some of her autonomy. There is no room for prima donnas or dilettantes in God’s service—nor is there room for the artist to over-determine outcomes. In that case we are not talking about art but something else. Perhaps propaganda? There is at the heart of the authentic creative process a tacit acknowledgment that we are derivative creatures ourselves. We have not created ex nihilo. And the “form” that Buber speaks of here is nothing less than the artwork of God upon which we must draw in order to make our own works.

Moreover, as the Apostle Paul pointed out in his famous Mars Hill speech, there is an echo of God’s own voice in the poetry and philosophy of even the pagans—whose culture was rich with reference and patterning derived from the natural world. Plato’s concept of the pure forms is one of those echoes, and it is fairly obvious that Buber is referencing that platonic idea of form. The sensitive artist perceives those forms that our Maker employs in His own making. And those forms call out to us for a response of praise.

The most fitting praise for the works of our Maker is to be found in our earnest creative work. We were made by a Maker to be makers. Scripture tells us that we are formed in the image of God—the Imago Dei—and the first thing we learn of God from Scripture is that God creates. It should be no surprise, therefore, that we are restless until we engage in creative making ourselves. Buber’s thought is that we must give our all in our making—all our talent, skill, knowledge, feeling, intellect, love—holding nothing back. In this same passage from I and Thou he goes on to say:

The deed [making a work of art] involves a sacrifice and a risk. The sacrifice: infinite possibility is surrendered on the altar of the form; all that but a moment ago floated playfully through one’s perspective has to be exterminated; none of it may penetrate into the work; the exclusiveness of such a confrontation demands this. The risk: the basic word can only be spoken with one’s whole being; whoever commits himself may not hold back part of himself; and the work does not permit me, as a tree or man might, to seek relaxation in the It-world; it is imperious: if I do not serve it properly, it breaks, or it breaks me. The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. - Buber, Martin (2011-05-17). I and Thou, trans. Kaufmann (pp. 60-61), Kindle Edition.

Again, he emphasizes that wholeheartedness is a prerequisite. But an additional requirement is glimpsed: there is a risk and a sacrifice in art making—and the artist must resist the tendency to objectify the form that “wants to become a work” through her. What does this mean? Buber’s entire book is predicated on the idea that human beings always assume one of two postures in relation to each other and to God’s creation: either we treat the creation as objects to be used and experienced (“It”) or we relate to the creation as “Thou”—that is, as being worthy of love, respect and care rather than possession, use and objectification.

We may seem to have wandered far from the question of how to make art to the glory of God. But this is the connection I am trying to make for us: to glorify the Maker, we must become makers. The kind of makers we are to become involves echoing God’s own character in our creative process. Just as God imbues his human creatures with autonomy and dignity and loves them rather than manipulating or possessing them, human artists are to serve the forms they create—endowing them with a certain freedom and autonomy. And this is what Buber is at pains to express, namely that human creativity involves the very same risk that divine creativity engenders: the risk that the created work might break or break the maker. And if there is any doubt that God’s creatures have the capacity to break their Maker, simply remember the Cross.

Where have we come to in our attempt to investigate the connection between human art and God’s glory? I believe that the spark of divine creativity that is within the human imagination is deeply connected to the principle I have been attempting to elucidate. It is in our very capacity to make works that outlive us—works that seem to exist independently of their author’s interpretive grid—that we most echo our Maker. The element of risk and sacrifice is also at the core of that resemblance to our God. In a very real sense, the Lord engaged in a cosmic risk by creating human beings. The possibility that we might rebel and refuse God’s love was there from the beginning. And that very capacity of the created thing to resist its creator is what eventually calls forth a sacrifice.

To make art to the glory of God, the human artist must imi-tate this “deeper magic” of God’s own creativity: risk and very real sacrifice must accompany our making process. If we avoid these and play it safe in our art making, we will always fall short of glorifying our Maker. To conclude let me recount a passage from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings :

‘Are these magic cloaks?’ asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder. ‘I do not know what you mean by that,’ answered the leader of the Elves. ‘They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are Elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lórien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make. - Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-02-15). The Fellowship of the Ring (p. 482). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

So then, as the Elves put the thought of all that they love—all the beauty and mystery and majesty of Lothlórien, their lovely land—we are called to put the thought of all we love of our own dear Lord’s handiwork into all that we make. Perhaps then He will be glorified and we will feel His pleasure
 

Bruce Herman, MFA, is the Lothlórien Distin-guished Chair in the Fine Arts, Department Chair, and a professor of painting and drawing at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. He joined the faculty in 1984 and became the first Chair of the Art Department in 1988. His primary focus as a teacher and artist is figurative painting. He received the Junior Distinguished Faculty Award in 1992 and was awarded the first fully endowed Distinguished Chair at Gordon in 2006. His art has been exhibit-ed internationally and is housed in museums such as the Vatican Museum in Rome, the Armand Hammer Collection in Los Angeles and the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

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Deconstructing Jesus: Separating Fact from Fiction

July 26, 2016

By Rollin Grams, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of New Testament


These are exciting days in Jesus studies. Much is being written on the historical Jesus, and intriguing studies in New Testament Christology have recently been published. Yet some of the works making it to print are intentionally trying to deconstruct the Jesus of orthodox Christianity. This article intends to address a few such challenges while recommending recent publications worth reading.

Deconstructing the Jesus of faith has been around in Modernist and now Postmodernist forms for some time. Herman Reimarus’s
Apology or Defence of the Rational Worshippers of God (1778) argued that Jesus was a pious Jew who called people to repentance and got himself killed in Jerusalem. His disciples then decided to steal His body and claim that He had risen from the dead so that they would not have to go back to work. Secrecy, conspiracy and scandal are not new to studies on Jesus. For those denying Jesus’ resurrection, such theories are standard fare (cf. Mt. 28.11-15).

Deconstructive Postmodernist scholars, however, seem willing to float theories primarily for the results they produce. The game is to construct alternative scenarios and see what happens: move Gnosticism into the 1st century, argue for different dates of manuscripts, imagine that Jesus’ tomb has been discovered, and so forth. New theories— ones touting secrets, conspiracies, and scandals—also sell well, as authors, publishers and bookshops have discovered. A number of works, such as those by Bart Ehrman, are aimed at undergraduates to unsettle their faith. His titles promote hype around secrecy, conspiracy and scandal, using words like “lost,” “battles,” “betrayer,” “misquoting Jesus” and “Bible fails.”

Consider how one deconstructs Jesus in a Postmodern age. First, argue that orthodox Christianity is less credible and perhaps even later than certain heresies because there were contending views on Jesus from the start. It is, of course, quite true that from the very beginning there were any number of responses to Jesus. The idea that Christianity first had a solid, orthodox trunk and only afterwards developed branches reaching out in heretical directions is clearly false. But the correct picture is not of an upside-down tree, with branches in all directions at the beginning and then a particular branch emerging from the mix asorthodoxy. There was a “normative Christianity” from the beginning. 

Five lines of argument are worth considering:

1. Orthodox churches in the 2nd century could trace their lineage back to their apostolic foundations (cf.Tertullian, Prescriptions Against Heresies; Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus (Eusebius,H.E. 5.24.2-7)).

2. Our canonical Gospels present the testimony of eyewitnesses.

3. Normative New Testament Christology is built out of its Jewish, especially Old Testament, roots.

4. Orthodox Christian tradition was preserved with due care for accuracy. Consider the important role of teachers in the community, the likely memorization of sayings of Jesus, the role of eyewitnesses in the community and the community’s high value of accurate memories of Jesus. Also consider the importance placed on apostolic custodians of the Church’s tradition, the assumption by New Testament authors that the churches knew traditions about Jesus, the Gospels’ historical interests in their choice of the genre of biography, the tendency to check prophecy with tradition and the control that a community exercised on the right telling of a story.

5. The early Church held a high Christology (e.g., Jesus seen as divine) from as early as we can tell. It did not develop from low (e.g., Jesus seen merely as a prophet) to high Christology over the rest of the 1st century. The evolutionary view is inherent in the title of Maurice Casey’s book, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God. Key 20th century works assumed it: Wilhelm Bousset’s Kurios Christos, John Hick’s Myth of God Incarnate and James Dunn’s Christology in the Making. 

Recently, however, strong challenges to this evolutionary view have appeared. Larry Hurtado notes that the earliest Church’s devotion to and worship of Jesus testify to its high Christology. Richard Bauckham argues that the earliest Church held a high Christology through its interpretation of the Old Testament. Gordon Fee argues exegetically that the New Testament’s earliest author, Paul, consistently held to a high Christology that was already in
the Church tradition. And Sean McDonough of Gordon-Conwell argues that the often neglected miracles of Jesus explain the early Church’s view that he was the agent of creation.

A second way to deconstruct Jesus is to rearrange the evidence from primary sources. What if one could argue that 2nd century Gnostic sources were either from the early 1st century or that they represent an early version of Christianity? What if the 200 or so verses that Matthew and Luke have in common, called ‘Q’, were taken as a complete perspective on Jesus held by a community, and then one focused on what was not in this imaginary document—Jesus’ death and resurrection! What if the Gospel of Thomas was actually written around AD 50—before the canonical Gospels? One essential feature of Postmodernist deconstruction is to see truth as communally (or locally) constructed. So, why not put forward 2nd
century Gnostic works, even if one does not subscribe to such views oneself, as an equally true or even preferabler epresentation of Jesus?

All this requires some discussion of the dating of documents. Consider, for example, the date of the Gospel of Thomas. Craig Evans has argued rather convincingly that the GT should be dated after AD 170, over against the view that it predates the canonical Gospels, as key scholars in the “Jesus Seminar” have maintained. Two of Evans’ arguments might be noted. First, to state the obvious, the GT quotes or alludes to various New Testament works, including the four Gospels! One must assume that there was an earlier version of the GT—but we have no such document. Second, the GT’s units of Jesus’ sayings are linked by Syrian catch words, and it often depends on Tatian’s Syrian Diatessaron, which was compiled around AD 170. It is surely a late 2nd century, Syrian work that shows Gnostic influences—hardly an early, reliable source for the historical Jesus.

A third way to deconstruct Jesus comes through archaeology. We should expect that archaeology will continue to provide us with further helpful discoveries to assess events in the Scriptures, including those in Jesus’ time. There is a lot more digging still to do in Israel! Yet archaeology’s revelation of “secrets from the earth” can also play into the deconstructive agenda. Some speculationis relatively innocuous, such as the discovery of a cave supposedly used by John the Baptist in Suba in 1999. Other speculation intends to deconstruct Christian faith, such as the claim that Jesus’ ossuary (bone box) has been discovered, along with family members, in a tomb in Talpiot. Judaism practiced a two-stage burial of the dead: an initial burial over the first year until only the bones were left, and then a second burial of the bones in a stone box. If Jesus’ bone box were to be discovered, that would be the end of Easter for most of us. Numerous problems with such a view have ably been pointed out by Craig Evans and Ben Witherington.

In conclusion, the peculiar arguments in recent deconstructions of Jesus are not simply the rehashing of views met already in Reimarus in the 18th
century as the Enlightenment was coming to a close. They come in new packaging for a consumerist, iconoclastic age, but also with new arguments. Yet more credible analyses of Jesus in the light of ancient texts and archaeology are providing us with exciting evidence about Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of all creation.

Dr. Rollin G. Grams is Associate Professor of New Testament and Director of the Robert C. Cooley Center for Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus. He served for many years as a missionary in theological education in Kenya, Ethiopia, Croatia and Singapore, and lectured and tutored at the Oxford (England) Centre for Mission Studies. He iscurrently a lecturer/doctoral program supervisor at a seminary in Prague, and SIM-USA theological education coordinator. He holds a Ph.D. from Duke University.

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Solid and concise work Dr. Grams. Thank you for this summary of the deconstruction tactics of recent scholarship.
Ryan Donell 10:52PM 08/23/16

Our Creative God

July 21, 2016

By Tim Laniak, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament and former Dean of the Charlotte Campus

Let me begin this brief (and therefore audacious) refection on God’s creativity with a short summary of what the Bible says regarding creation. Genesis leads with a bold idea that only Yahweh is the Creator— He alone created everything in this world. In the context of rival worldviews, this likely constituted a polemic against any claims to the contrary. Nothing else is to be worshipped because, after all, everything except God is derivative. Genesis 1 describes God’s creative acts as issuing from a divine word. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible,” (Heb. 11:3). A succession of powerful, life-creating words is at the heart of the panoramic description of creation.

Genesis 1 is also characterized by order, and perhaps more to the point, ordering. God orchestrates the creation in a succession of days, beginning with the domains for all things and then the respective inhabitants of each domain. The puzzle pieces fall into place, one by one, until the humans are created and given a sacred, royal trust to rule over God’s world. Genesis 2, the “zoom lens” view of the sixth day, provides a different angle of vision on our Creator God. He creates a world that is, in all of its diversity, pleasurably beautiful. This may already be hinted at in the simple words, “it was very good,” repeated in Genesis 1. Chapter 2 goes even further to stir the senses. The trees are, “pleasing to the eye and good for food.” You can virtually hear the bubbling streams that led from Eden to the four great rivers. You can smell the “aromatic resin” and perhaps catch a glimpse of shimmering gold and onyx.

Adam takes the invitation to name the various animals that are living with him safely in this stunning paradise. And then God creates Eve to join Adam in their shameless, naked enjoyment of God’s created world—an expansive garden of delightful differentiation of life forms, sizes, colors, textures and elements. Think of the garden described lyric after lyric in the Song of Songs. Who wouldn’t, while looking and smelling and tasting in this exotic garden, admire the creative mind behind it all?

That gives you a sense of what a fairly quick read of Genesis 1 and 2 says. Taking the rest of the Bible (and a bit of Ancient Near Eastern background) into account, you can also recognize some implicit analogies about this Creator God. Before I mention them, let me assure you that I’m not trying to turn God into a human. That’s the last thing the biblical creation account allows for! But the Bible does engage in what we call “anthropomorphisms.” That is, we are invited to think about God in terms of human qualities and roles. This is a massive accommodation to us created beings, but one that graciously makes an invisible God more understandable and more accessible.

First, God is the Divine Architect who fashions the world according to his predetermined design. In the prophets and wisdom literature we hear about God “laying the foundations of the earth.” He asks Job if he was there when he “marked off the earth’s foundations” and “stretched a measuring line across it.” Job wasn’t there when the footings were set and the cornerstone was laid “while the morning stars sang together and the angels shouted for joy” (Job 38:4-9; cf. Prov. 8:27-31). The heavens were filled with the sounds of astonishment and delight when the Architect took what was in his mind and made it visible in space.

God is the Divine King who chose to create and order a kingdom. The Kingdom of God is not just a New Testament concept. It is a notion of life the way God intended, grounded in this initial design. His Sabbath rest hints of “sitting down” on his throne in a cosmic realm over which He alone reigns— a realm where all his enemies are “under his feet.”

God is also the Divine Craftsman who “makes” (‘asah) and “forms” (yatsar) things that he calls into being. Forming Adam from the ground (‘adamah), in particular, is the result of God “getting his hands dirty.” And Eve’s creation equally engages God in an intimate, personal way. He, literally, “built” her from a rib taken from Adam. We are, as humans, a mix of divine breath and the dust of the earth. God continues to create each one of us and to “form” every day of our lives (Ps. 139:13-17).

It isn’t hard to spot the Divine Gardener at work in Paradise. “The Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed” (Gen. 2:8). God brought Adam and Eve into the creative project that he had begun. They would oversee and contribute to the fertile productivity of this garden. This was not only the organic environment where they would work. Eden was a covenantal farm, with one tree that brought perpetual life and another tree that brought an end to that life.

Finally, God the Divine Father is here in Eden as the spiritual parent of the first humans. You find a hint of that when the same language of “image and likeness” is used as Adam has his own son, Seth. Luke will later trace the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam, “the son of God.” Sonship is perhaps as “creative” as any analogy. Reproduction is the most direct way that any person contributes to the creation of another.

Have you forgotten just how creative God is? Look around at the world he created. Do you see the fingerprints of a master Architect? A sovereign King? An engaged Craftsman? An imaginative Gardener? Your eternal Father? I certainly hope so!

Dr. Tim Laniak (M.Div.’89) is Professor of Old Testament and former Dean of the Charlotte Campus. He has served as a missionary in 15 countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East; as the Director of the International Fellowship House in Boston; and as a welfare housing manager for elderly immigrants in Brookline, Massachusetts. For more insight on topics addressed in this article, see his book Finding the Lost Images of God (Zondervan, 2012).

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Pastoral Burnout: A More Common Problem Than You Might Think

July 21, 2016

By Kenneth L. Swetland, Ph.D.
Senior Professor of Ministry


While burnout is not a common experience of pastors (although some observers think it is on the increase), it is by no means completely absent either. In my involvement for the last seven years with Gordon-Conwell’s Oasis ministry, a counseling support ministry for our alumni, I have observed what seems to be a growing phenomenon that I call “general malaise.” Sometimes it is manifest as depression or anxiety; but more often it is simply a weariness of the soul, wondering if what one is doing is effective, or matters. From this soul weariness, it’s a short step to burnout.

When we speak of burnout, we usually refer to being extremely tired and in need of a few days of rest in order to rebound with our usual energy and vision. But, when the medical community refers to burnout, it is a physical and emotional phenomenon that takes six to 12 months of rest to recover from. I know whereof I speak.

It was 50 years ago when I was a pastor in Rockport, MA, and had just completed my first year of ministry. On a beautiful June Saturday in 1965, I decided to get in shape in one day after a winter of little exercise, and had a vigorous bicycle ride up and down the hills of the town. When I sat down for lunch, suddenly I could not speak (except in gibberish), and this was followed quickly by loss of vision and paralysis down one side. I was rushed to the hospital where I spent a number of days at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.

The initial diagnosis was that I had experienced a stroke, but the usual tests did not confirm this. One of the top neurologists at Mass General would bring the interns around to see me and ask them for their diagnosis. When they said “stroke,” he called attention to the test results that did not confirm a stroke. They were silent and did not know how to properly diagnosis me. After a few days, however, the doctor came to visit me and revealed that he did not know what the problem was either!

This doctor thought I had a “stress-induced stroke” due to the heavy physical exercise of the bike ride, and that if my body could be rested suffciently, I would recover. Further, he pointed out that he thought I was carrying the burden of the church myself when that was really God’s job. “There is a God, and you are not God,” he said. His analysis was right. Although I believed firmly in the sovereignty of God, I was behaving as though if anything good were to happen in the church, it was up to me to make it happen.

So, the doctor prescribed a pill to make me sleep 12 hours a night, and another one to wake me up in the morning, thinking that if the body was suffciently rested, full function would return. Fortunately, the paralysis had gone away in a day or so after the initial episode, but speech and vision were slow in returning. After several weeks, I slowly began to re-engage in pastoral work, but it took about a year to completely recover. My doctor today said what happened 50 years ago was likely what is now referred to as a “neurological migraine variant,” rather than a “stress-induced stroke.” The cause was the same—not pacing myself, but behaving as though I were God, thereby pulling my body under stress that resulted in a physical breakdown.

In his classic book The Stress of Life, Canadian medical doctor and researcher Hans Selye describes what stress and burnout are. His research indicates that ev-eryone has a “baseline” and a “threshold” in dealing with life. Defining stress as “the nonspecific response of the body when any demand is made on it,” he focuses on the physical responses of the body when we hit the thresh-old too often without returning to our baseline. Calling it the “General Adaptation Syndrome,“ Selye says that there is a natural “alarm phase” which is triggered whenever we get close to the threshold in dealing with the stuff of life. This sets up a physical process (interaction of the brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, norepineph-rine and melatonin) that is automatic and brings the body back to the baseline (called the “resistance phase”). If this is not done, then the “breakdown phase” begins.

Some people have high thresholds for handling stress; others have low ones. And, unless we stay within our natural God-given parameters, we can push our bodies into the burnout phase. That’s what happened to me 50 years ago.

The primary cause for burnout is unrealistic expectations, both those we place on ourselves, and those we allow others to place on us. Living into these expectations, which are often unconscious, results in burnout by exhausting the body’s natural defense line of knowing that “too much is too much.” Overwork without suffcient rest is the result. (It should be noted that being under-challenged can also contribute to high stress, with the result being what is dubbed “rust out.” But this is also attributed to inner stress.)

Here are the classic signs of approaching burnout:

- Cognitive function slows down: We are not able to think clearly for long periods of time; the mind just seems to be mush.

- Sense of helplessness and hopelessness: the sense that “nothing will work,” a loss of hope. This thinking is the single most debilitating factor in battling stress.

- Regression to a more comfortable behavior experienced in the past: We often ignore important tasks, and are indifferent to significant relationships.

- Become locked into destructive patterns of thinking and behaving: A spiral downward.

- Depression: mild to moderate, often unrecognized.

- Physical illness (not attributed to a “medical” condition): colds, ulcers, headaches, backaches, nausea, weakened resistance system, etc.


The characteristics of people who are susceptible to burnout are those who:

- Over plan, perhaps reflecting a fear of not having enough to say or do;

- Have multiple thoughts and actions simultaneously;

- Have a high need to succeed (as the individual defines it for himself/herself);

- Have a desire to be recognized (often masked in surface humility);

- Easily feel guilty when there is no real cause for it;

- Are inordinately impatient with interruptions or delays; overextend in taking on more responsibilities than their threshold will allow;

- Have a sense of time urgency (“This must be done now!”);

- Exhibit an excessive competitive drive (“I must be the best!”);

- And have a tendency to be a workaholic.

If there is “bunching” of the symptoms, it is time to take stock of one’s way of dealing with life. Studies suggest that there are only two ways of dealing with stress in order to avoid burnout. One has to do with deliberate efforts to reduce stressors by recognizing that the threshold is being pushed and making a conscious decision to “cut back.” This works best when perspective and counsel from others is engaged. Making a decision to “cut back” is not easy, but it can and must be done.

The second way of avoiding burnout is increasing one’s tolerance level for handling stress. Here are the common, and proven, methods for doing this:

- Maintain an active devotional life: Read and reflect on Scripture, practice regular prayer, trust God in all things, even those that are frustrating or baffling.

- Hold fast to your original call from God. Trust God to continue to lead you.

- Take a sabbattical if needed: Time away from regular duties can be restorative in experiencing renewed vision and energy for the work of ministry.

- Deliberately seek out a “soul friend,” one with whom you can be totally honest and who can be a means of support in talking about your inner life and tasks of ministry.

- Work to secure a happy home life for you, your spouse and children. Family problems often contribute to high stress.

- Eat a healthy diet in order to maintain good health.

- Maintain purity of mind in selections of recreational reading, movies, TV, etc.

- Be intentional about taking a Sabbath day in doing things that restore the soul.Learn to laugh and enjoy life. “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Prov. 17:22).

- Have one or two hobbies that bring enjoyment and a change of focus from daily tasks, and be disciplined in pursuing the hobbies appropriately.

- Learn how to deal with conflict and do not avoid it when it happens. 

This is not an exhaustive list, and in many ways is “what your mother taught you.” But research shows that practicing these behaviors can help to ward off burnout. The words of Richard Baxter in his classic work,The Reformed Pastor (1656), are relevant: “If you are burnt to the snuff [the end of the candle], you will go out with a stink.”

And, Robert Murray McCheyne, the early 19th century Scottish pastor who died at age 30, said to a dear friend as McCheyne lay on his deathbed, having “burnt himself to the snuff,” “The Lord gave me a message to deliver and a horse to deliver it with [by which he meant his body, not a literal horse], but, alas, I have killed the horse and can no longer deliver the message.” Burnout can be avoided. It must be avoided. Not doing so exacts a high price.

Dr. Kenneth L. Swetland is Senior Professor of Ministry. Since joining Gordon-Conwell in 1972, he has served in a number of capacities, including Professor of Ministry, Academic Dean and Campus Pastoral Counselor. Now working part-time, he counsels pastors through the seminary’s Oasis program and has taught in a D.Min track. He has been a pastor and chaplain in various New England churches, and a psychotherapist for several counseling centers on Boston’s North Shore. He is ordained in the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference 

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Great article, Dr. Swetland! I'll never forget the help you were to me during my studies at GCTS! Thanks for being a blessing to so many thousands of students over the many years of your tenure there!
Bob Hallman 3:52AM 07/27/16

Weep with Those Who Weep

July 11, 2016

By Dennis Hollinger, Ph.D.
President & Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics

Last week the tragic murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile unleashed a wave of distress, anger and fear. The trauma continued as five Dallas civil servants were killed with seven others maimed by a vengeful sniper. Our hearts go out to the numerous families suffering and mourning the loss of loved ones as a result of these violent and senseless actions. Clearly as a society we have much work to do in balancing social justice and order.

This past weekend, many of you led and participated in prayer vigils, sensitive dialogues and communal worship experiences where you prayed for the families who are in mourning and prayed for peace and justice across the country. In times like these it can be challenging to make sense of the anxiety that is sweeping the land. As leaders who have accepted God’s challenge to “think theologically, engage globally and live biblically,” I encourage you to pray, engage in meaningful dialogue and to continue to lead God's people in communal worship seeking shalom.

As a seminary, we remain committed to encouraging opportunities for formal and informal dialogue within our diverse and inclusive campuses as we continue to train leaders for the 21st century Church. To that end, over the coming months you will hear about our new Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience (ISBCE) which will lead conversations on race relations and racial reconciliation, one of ISBCE’s goals. Led by Drs. Emmett G. Price III and Patrick Smith, the ISBCE will further empower our comprehensive training for seminarians and our robust resources for prospective and current students as well as graduates.

Please continue to pray for those who are mourning and suffering, and for the Church as it seeks to comfort, bring hope and embody justice in this time of turbulence and great loss.

Dennis P. Hollinger, Ph.D.
President & Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics

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Dr. Hollinger, I appreciate your comments and your desire to promote peace and racial reconciliation. I must respectfully disagree however with your characterization of the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile as murder. Though their deaths were certainly tragic and perhaps unwarranted, they are not categorically the same as those of the five policemen who were killed by a sniper. An investigation and perhaps a jury will determine if Sterling and Castile were in fact unjustly killed (murdered) or if they were tragic victims of their circumstances and our gun obsessed culture.
margaret 10:30AM 07/13/16

Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: A Gordon-Conwell Blog Series

June 15, 2016

By Dennis Hollinger, Ph.D.

President & Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics

Gordon-Conwell joins the global community in mourning and praying for the victims and families of the terrible tragedy that took place in Orlando this past Sunday. The following is a seven-part series Courtesy of the C.S. Lewis Institute, www.cslewisinstitute.org, Knowing & Doing, Winter 2001.

 

Part 1 | Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: An Introduction

The events of September 11, 2001 triggered a paradigm shift that brought terrorism to the dinner table. Within all of us, this shift produced a broad array of conflicting emotions that had to be dealt with. Since 2001 and through today, terrorism continues to sadly make its mark. We still struggle to know how to think, feel and respond to these attacks.

Of course as Christians it should not come as a total surprise, we know the world is not the way it’s supposed to be. The words of CS Lewis at the outbreak of World War II are applicable to the current situation: “The war [attack] creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice..... We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal” (The Weight of Glory, p. 23). But as Christians, despite a world view that predisposes us to understand such evil, we are still left reeling within ourselves.

As we think about our responses to the continued threat and impact of terrorism, it is helpful to recall that our emotions and cognitive processes are ultimately good gifts of God to help us navigate our way in the face of danger, evil and uncertainty within the world. But of course there’s a problem. We are fallen creatures, and thus our emotions and cognitive responses aren’t as God intended. While they are still fundamentally good gifts of God, they are twisted, distorted, and miss the mark of their original intention. As those redeemed by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we need to allow our emotions and thinking to also be transformed. Thus, terrorism through the eyes of faith needs a clear understanding of our natural emotions and thinking, in contrast to the redeemed perspective. Yes indeed, terrorism now battles for a seat at our dinner tables. In the coming days in this series, we will explore this reality together.
  

Part 2 | Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: Righteous Indignation, not Unbridled Anger

Likely, one of our immediate reactions to terrorism is anger. When attacked physically or psychologically, resentment and belligerence often arise within us. Anger is a good gift, as it enables us to deal emotionally with violations, injustices, and evil that threatens our life and integrity. But anger is also fallen, and hence it can turn to unbridled anger that will eventually control us. In its fallen state, unbridled anger tends to build a pattern that imprisons us, one that won’t let go and perpetuates disgust, disrespect, and eventually violence. As Horace, the Roman poet put it, “Anger is a short madness.”

It’s because of the safeguard against the brutal impact of anger upon both the victim and the offender that the Bible provides this wise direction, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,” (Ephesians 4:26). Thus our natural unbridled anger needs to be transformed into righteous indignation, a holy wrath with strong feelings directed towards the evil, sin and injustice perpetrated. Righteous indignation moves us beyond the uncontrollable outrage directed against individuals to a more principled anger focusing on the evil done. Such redeemed anger is perhaps akin to God’s own holy wrath, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). Such anger arises from

God’s own holiness, sin and evil are direct contradictions to God’s own nature and actions.
 

Part 3 | Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: Hope, Not Fear

After anger, the next emotion many of us feel in response to terrorism is fear. As we experience and hear of more potential terrorist strategies, fear proliferates. After all, terrorism is the attempt to overthrow and control others by instilling intense fear or terror in the hearts and minds of people. Fear is an emotion of distress in response to impending danger, pain or evil. It helps enable us to become aware of these realities as well as respond to them. Fear is a natural emotion and one of God’s good gifts to us. 
But fear also has great dangers. Most visibly - its sinister ability to immobilize and cause paralysis of action. It often prevents us from performing responsibilities and engaging new opportunities in life. Thus, there are parts of fear that need to be redeemed. 
We might think that the antidote to fear is courage, since it is a classical cardinal virtue. But the more appropriate Christian response to fear is actually hope. While courage tends to reside within our own natural proclivities and self-discipline, hope is supernatural in its source and nature. For Christians, hope in perilous times is not ultimately in nation, military power, or our own ability to cope. Our hope is in a God who is ultimately in control. In the midst of terror and evil, Christians have hope because we believe God is nonetheless there turning human desecration into good. This is illustrated in Romans 8:28 which says, “We know that in all things God is working for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to his purposes.” Hope is a true reality because we can have confidence in the One beyond the immediate, finite and sinful realities of this world. Therefore, in a troubled dangerous world, it is that ultimate hope that motivates and sustains us.
 

Part 4 | Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: Justice, Not Revenge 

Following the emotions of anger and fear, terrorism tends to breed an emotional response of revenge. This is a natural response, wanting to hit back, get even, and take out vengeance on the evildoers. Revenge is the innate desire to make the wrong right. It has roots in our created being. But as fallen creatures, that deep impulse becomes twisted, excessive and misguided. On the basis of emotional outrage, revenge often wants to strike back without principle or limitation. Largely originally triggered by the events of September 11, 2001, we’ve often heard the language of revenge in the form of contempt towards Muslims, Arabs, and people of middle-eastern descent. Even Arab Christians in the United States have had to fear for their lives. This is not helpful.

Alternatively, it would be more helpful to replace revenge with a need for justice. Even as Christians are called to a spirit of forgiveness that ultimately seeks restoration, it is appropriate that life in a fallen world calls for justice. A voice for justice in a world that seeks unrestrained vengeance is a voice for fairness, not just emotional outrage. Justice seeks to limit our passions and feelings and respond from principle and wisdom rather than just internal sentiments. Justice does not belong in personal hands and should be supported by evidence. The blindfold on “lady justice” has often symbolized the importance of ensuring that justice, not revenge, is our response to evil.

 
Day 5 | Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: Mortality, Not Invincibility

Up until September 11, 2001 the United States mostly thought we were invincible. Thus, one of our first responses was, “How can this happen to us?” Since the industrial revolution, the Western modern world has mastered nature, natural resources, reproduction, the human genome, life, death and much in between. As moderns we assumed that we could solve all problems, set things right, and determine good outcomes according to desired ends. We had become accustomed to thinking of ourselves as all powerful and in control.

Then came the terrorism on September 11, 2001. Amazingly the terrorists used our own instruments of control, our technology, back against us. With a handful of people and a few hundred thousand dollars, the terrorists were able to do what no other nation or army on earth could do. This forced us to realize– we were not invincible.

If there is anything we have learned from tragic terrorist attacks around the world, it is awareness of our own mortality. This is the biblical perspective. God is Creator; we are creatures. God is infinite; we are finite. God is eternal; we are temporal. As C.S. Lewis noted, events such as war or terror in the past made death real to humans, for,

they thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Not the stupidest of us knows.... If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon (The Weight of Glory, p. 32).
 

Part 6 | Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: Global, Not Parochial

By nature we seek to preserve ourselves, our own group, and our own nation. Particularly in time of crisis, when our very existence is threatened, we turn to that which is safe and familiar. Our natural tendencies are in one sense good, as we strive for familiarity which eases discord. Thus it makes sense that our natural response to terrorism is often to be parochial, and to shrink into being self-focused. Though a self-focused stance can be viewed negatively, there’s also good reason to believe that moral responsibility always begins at home. 

But as we know too well, parochialism (the restriction of concerns to the narrow and limited– to those like me) stifles humanity through prejudice, ethnocentrism and racism. Parochialism teaches a mindset of only “my group” and “my nation” as the center of reality and the bearer of good. With this all else is deemed to be evil. 

In stark contrast, God calls us to be global Christians. Globally-focused Christians know that while national, racial, and ethnic identities are important, they are not the defining marks of a Christian. It is important that factors such as these are always viewed secondary to both our humanness and our identity as members of the universal Church, the Body of Christ. World-focused Christians recognize that we have brothers and sisters in Christ in almost every nation and tribe. Thus, we can never look out just for ourselves. Therefore, being a global Christian reminds us that we must be concerned for terrorism not only on our own turf, but all over the world. Because of this we become painfully aware of the global terrorism that has relentlessly ensued. Global faith always keeps Christ’s Great Commission central, recognizing that some national (national as in what? Nations? Government? Individual responses from a nation?) responses can have dire consequences upon our attempts to invite men and women across the globe to experience God’s grace in Jesus Christ.


Part 7 | Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: Mystery, Not Certainty

…If God is good and all powerful, then why are there terrorist acts within the world? All humans have wrestled in some fashion with that question, and a whole book of the Bible is devoted to it– Job.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001 many have yearned for certainty regarding God’s actions on that day. Where was God and what was God up to? It’s only natural to seek certainty in the divine realm. It brings consolation in the face of threats of and evil which has now become normalized in our world. As a result some believers have felt the need to make pronouncements regarding God’s involvement in this terrorist act, and with certitude assert judgment, causality or other kinds of divine action. These difficult questions have been constant struggling companion to faith amidst the world’s growing familiarity with terrorism.

Clearly there are many things about God’s actions and character we know with confidence. For example, we know that God is personal, triune, and simultaneously transcendent and immanent. We know that He is a God of mercy who wants to redeem us and who has taken the initiative to reveal himself to us in the written word, the Bible, and the incarnate word, Jesus Christ.

But clearly there are some things about divine actions we just do not know. This is especially true in attempting to understand God’s ways in human history– his judgments, actions and permissions within the world. As Isaiah the prophet put it, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:9). Thus, we need to affirm some degree of divine mystery that we will never fully comprehend and capture within the limits of finitude. Let’s explore three such mysteries that are pertinent for our times.

First, there is mystery regarding human suffering and evil within the world. If God is good and all powerful, then why are there terrorist acts within the world? All humans have wrestled in some fashion with that question, and a whole book of the Bible is devoted to it– Job. Interestingly in the biblical drama after all of Job’s loss, suffering, and anguish from his “friends,” he never gets an answer to his question. God never answers the philosophical, theological or practical life questions surrounding suffering and evil. What Job receives is a new vision of God: “I had heard of you, now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5). The reality of evil, suffering and terrorism in our world cannot be attributed to God, but clearly God has the power to intervene. Thus, the why’s and wherefore’s of God’s action in the face of the evil of September 11 and all terrorism today remain a mystery.

Second, there is mystery in God’s judgments in history. Some were of course quite certain that the terrorist acts were divine judgment against America and thought they knew the reason for them. It is quite clear that God’s judgment comes in history; it is less clear how it comes. For one thing, the judgment of God is always at work against human sin and injustice, as there are continual reverberations from actions and character that fly in the face of God. And likely the list of why God is judging us is more extensive and closer home than we think. Moreover, it is hard for us to comprehend what is clear in the biblical story, that judgment and redemption are sometimes mingled in ways that defy human imagination.

Third, there is mystery to God’s work of redemption in the midst of evil situations. God’s ways of awakening, of vindicating justice and righteousness, and of drawing humans to himself are always beyond our limited perceptions. If redemption was limited to our preconceived notions of how God can or must work, such redemption would hardly be worth the time.

A sense of mystery in our understanding of and relationship to God is significant for deep spirituality. After all would we really want to entrust our lives to one we’d figured out? We would be trusting in the finite. Would we really seek to glorify one we fully understood? G.K. Chesterton with great insight once wrote: “We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear” (Orthodoxy, p. 160).
 

 

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COMMENTS

Thank you for the compassionate plea. My concern is how some Christians target other religions demanding submission to the Word Incarnate. It is as if the Head is demanding that the butt is not part of this earthly body. We are fed images of ISlamic InfideLs with automatic weapons shooting "their own people." Love for the innocent requires worship the Father in the Spirit. This holds for infidels of any religion.
Rey Blanco 6:36PM 08/10/16
I find this thoughtful and challenging and very, very good. Thank you. In Christ, Deacon Chris Anderson, Corvallis, Oregon
Chris Anderson 5:45PM 08/08/16
???? ???????? 6:15AM 07/30/16
Indeed. I believe that now, more than ever the Christian message of redemption through the cross of Christ must be proclaimed in its fullness. The rise of Islamic extremism has exposed the human depravity and continually poses questions in the mind of the skeptic and believer, questions only the cross can answer. I love the simplicity of language and clarity of writing.
Joseph Byamukama 2:41PM 06/24/16