Saved By Barbarians

PatrickMeadMy wife and I just got back from three days at Scotfest, the largest gathering of its kind in the United States. This annual celebration of all things Scottish and Irish (to be fair, it was about 80% Scottish) takes place in Estes Park, Colorado at an elevation of 9100ft. The setting is spectacular in the shadow of Longs Peak and by the east entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. While we enjoyed the Scottish food, goods, and music I kept seeing an illustration acted out in front of me, a morality play that was there to instruct the church if the church is willing to listen. To explain this, I have to delve into historical and personal matters related to Scotland. If such things do not interest you, keep reading anyway — there is a point which is going to be made.

When I was a boy, I was taught by my family that we were Scots. We traveled constantly, working here and there, never staying more than a few years in one place and, usually, much less. We had no home town, no state that claimed us. The roots given us by my family were Scottish roots.

As I grew up, I would sometimes work a job just long enough to buy a ticket back to Scotland where I would often roam alone, staying in downmarket B&Bs, observing, thinking, and feeling at home. I was enthralled with Scotland and loved it…but there was something about it that puzzled me; many of the Scots I met there were not proud of being Scottish and eschewed anything to do with their heritage. They told me they hated bagpipes, had never worn a kilt (and seeing a kilt was as unusual during those years as it would be to see one in America today). School books didn’t speak of William Wallace or Robert Bruce. Most didn’t even mention Robert Burns or Bonnie Prince Charlie. Gaelic was unknown and forgotten.

I remember well the night that this was driven home to me. I was in my early 20s and visiting friends in the west of Scotland when they handed me a census form. The government was taking a census and required visitors to fill it out, too. I was the only one in the house who checked the box indicating I knew and spoke Gaelic. That started a conversation with my hosts who told me they didn’t know a word of it, had never heard it, and weren’t interested. We talked for hours as they revealed that being Scottish to them was nice but a bit embarrassing. I was shocked.

Their money, they explained, was printed by the three major Scottish banks and was often refused by shops south of the border, treated as inferior by the English banks. They were lampooned on TV as kilt wearing idiots – bumpkins, drunks, or worse. After a failed attempt at independence in the early 70s many of the best and brightest emigrated to Canada, New Zealand, and Australia as they saw their options dry up at home.

There was a remnant that celebrated being Scottish but it was reserved primarily for visitors and ex-pats or for the ruling upper class. Those who wore the kilt were looked upon as odd and out of the mainstream, but they looked upon themselves as keepers of an ancient faith. The vast majority of Scottish tartan, kilts, bagpipe music, etc. was sold to Canadians and Americans over to visit the land of their ancestors. If you wanted to wear the kilt, there were lots of rules. There was (and is) even a book with the title “So You Want To Wear the Kilt” that spelled out all the rules. Bagpipe music was locked down and the tunes were not allowed to vary. To advance in the bagpipe world you had to be judged by a huge, arcane set of rules and procedures. Every note had to be played in a very exact way at an exact tempo and your face, posture, and demeanor had to be rigid and unchanging as you went through the very long judging sessions.

They were the few, the remnant, the last of the proud keepers of the Scottish ways…and they were choking the life out of it in the process.

At Scotfest, we spent hours and hours with the barbarians breaking the rules. There was Albannach (a Gaelic word meaning “Scottish”) with their wild hair, tattoos, undisciplined pipes and Celtic drums. There was Celtica whose pipes would take on “Smoke On the Water” or “Thunderstruck” and weave them into medleys with Scottish tunes such as “Scotland the Brave” and “We’re No Awa T’ Bide Awa” and who sent drummers into the crowd waving the Jolly Roger flag. Look them up on YouTube and see what I mean when I say that the barbarians have grabbed the kilt and bagpipe. Also look up Badpiper, Clanadonia, Red Hot Chili Pipers, and Saor Patrol.

When we went to their tents, they were packed and people stood twenty and thirty deep all around the tents in the driving rain or punishing heat of the day (in CO and at that elevation, you get all seasons every day). The pressing crowd was clapping, dancing, rejoicing, and enthusiastic. But…when Kami and I went a hundred yards away from the tents of the barbarians, we found the judging tents for the standard, classical bagpipers. No crowds…not even a single audience member. The only ones there were the pipers nervously fussing over getting every single thing right about their face, kilt, posture, and notes and the few family members who supported them. An unsmiling judge sat at the front and took notes, never reacting to the piper in front of them as they wrote down what they did wrong.

The contrast was so stark it took my breath away. I went to talk to the wild haired, tattooed members of Albannach and Celtica. They could not have been more friendly, open, and warm to me — a 56 year old short haired man dressed in American casual clothes. Their kilts were all over the place — ancient, philebeag, wild, disordered — and, therefore, their own. Their music was their own. And their passion for being Scottish and for all things Scotland dwarfed my own. They spoke of the upcoming vote on Independence next year in September (spoiler alert: it failed) with an excited, hopeful light in their eyes. They came from parents and grandparents who wouldn’t have considered such a thing (the Scottish National Party got barely 10% of the vote during most of the 80s and 90s). They spoke sadly of parents who told them they were ruining the kilt and Scottish music. I told them, “No, my friends. You haven’t ruined them; you’ve saved them.”

You see, now the main purchasers of bagpipe music are Scots and their people in the diaspora (Australia, Canada, and America). The kilt is seen daily on Scottish streets and it isn’t the kilt you would have once seen only at a military parade or, perhaps, an upper class wedding. No, now it is made of leather, or canvas and it comes in solid colors like black and tan or brown or blue or it is a standard kilt worn in a nonstandard way. It has become something embraced by the average person, not the old, stuffy class. It bunches about the waist or sweeps over the shoulder and far down the leg.

Gaelic is now seen on signposts and taught in schools (though, to be honest, it is still fairly rare to hear it spoken). Scots who once tried to moderate their accent and speak in more English or BBC tones are now thickening it up and using Scots words that had been dropped by their grandparents. And they’ve saved their national identity while older folk or those in the traditional remnant fear they have destroyed it.

When churches try to regiment everything and require lockstep obedience, they lose their kids. When their kids find Jesus, they react with incredible joy and great abandon. They seem like barbarians to their parents, but they are not ruining the church any more than Albannach and Celtica are ruining Scottish music and culture. While it might look – to those of us in our nearly empty tents – that they are ruining the faith it may very well be that they are saving it.

[Originally posted in 2013]

Francis Schaeffer on the Politics of Peace and Affluence

“With such values, will men stand for their liberties? Will they not give up their liberties step by step, inch by inch as long as their own personal peace and prosperity is sustained and not challenged, and as long as the goods are delivered? The life-styles of the young and the old generations are different. There are tensions between long hair and short, drugs and non-drugs, whatever are the outward distinctions of the moment. But they support teach other sociologically, for both embrace the values of personal peace and affluence. Much of the church is no help here either, because for so long a large section of the church has only been teaching a relativistic humanism using religious terminology.

I believe the majority of the silent majority, young and old will sustain the loss of liberties without raising their voices as long as their own life-styles are not threatened. And since personal peace and affluence are so often the only values that count with the majority, politicians know that to be elected they must promise these things. Politics has largely become not a matter of ideals–increasingly men and women are not stirred by the values of liberty and truth–but of supplying a constituency with a frosting of personal peace and affluence. They know that voices will not be raised as long as people have these things, or at least an illusion of them.” – Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?, 227

howshouldwethenliveSchaeffer was on to something 40 years ago it still rings true today. When the church melds with the world the church loses its distinctive voice (which is an essential voice in a society that rejects absolutes). The church has everything to lose in this game and nothing to gain. The reason we have been so easily drawn in is partly because the church lost its view of itself as distinctive from the world. Being part of a pseudo-Christian nation we didn’t think twice about adopting worldly values because we took it for granted that American values overlapped with Judeo-Christian values and so what harm could really be done in not maintaining our distinctiveness from society?

The answer is a lot…maybe even everything.

How sad it is when values are exchanged for goods and services and when ideals are traded for peace and affluence. How much will we give up in order to maintain our quality of life? How much of our faith will we be willing to compromise? How many of our values will we willingly flush down the toilet in the name of maintaining our stuff, our position, our power? Who do we and those who come after us become as a result of this sort of thinking and behaving?

These are sobering thoughts and we see the effects of this kind of thinking playing out all around us today. May we be the generation that stands up for what is right and holy and just. Let us be willing to check our comfort, our peace, even our affluence at the door if it means God is glorified, wrongs are righed and godly principles and values are upheld.

Modernism, Postmodernism, Deconstructing Authority, the Church and Politics

flagsIn a recent post I mentioned how the naivete of modernism was shattered when the dream of a logic-driven, rationalistic utopia was dashed to pieces when that same logic and reason and produced something as deadly effective as the atomic bomb. It turned out logic and reason did not always take us “higher” (that came in the 60s!).

What was so certain with modernity, an upward climb on the back of reason to a better society, came burning down in flames in the middle part of the 20th century. The 40s brought WWII and the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. The 60s brought Vietnam and the Civil rights movement. But there was something new going on that had the power and potential to shift the entire culture and that was the media. Television media was a catalyst that fanned these flames because prior to this time in history the images of war were left to the battlefield. Past wars brought about patriotism and support of all that was right with America. Now, these images were brought into living rooms across America which left people questioning many things about America: American particularism, values and beneath all of that and even more important than that, authority as a whole. With so much violence and bloodshed out there people were quick to deconstruct absolutes and positions of authority (including the church).

All three of these events and movements brought about a questioning of authority and authorities that we had done before but not in this form. For instance authorities had been questioned before. The Revolutionary War is the prime example of questioning authorities but everyone expected a new system of authority to take the place of the King. Now it wasn’t authorities that were being questioned it was authority as a whole. We were not even just questioning WHO was in authority but whether or not authority should be a thing at all.

Christianity had institutionalized itself and incorporated itself so thoroughly into the authority structures of the day that when cracks began to show in the “system” the church was too enmeshed to be immune from the fallout. A politicized and institutionalized Christianity has been in steady decline and Christianity as a whole has suffered from an identity crisis ever since.

The unfortunate bi-product of this cultural shift away from corporate authority to individual authority (they are in charge and I must follow to I am in charge and will do what I want) was a discard of absolute truth and the ability to truly know. Absolute truth and certainty is not something we get, however, from modernism. It is something we get from God, that modernism happened to value. Absolutes were one more casualty on the way to a society that values freedom over absolutes but in the process our society became a slave to the new system that sprung up in place of the old and all the consequences that come with self as the sole arbiter of truth and authority with no obligation or responsibility to the community.

When authority was unquestioned and unquestionable, the church got a pass and operated as an integral part of Western society and culture. You used to see politicians playing the Christian voting block or pandering to the Christian Right, which really had more to do with getting votes than actually being ideologically in line with anyone in particular. I don’t see that anymore. People aren’t concerned what Christians think when things are said publicly anymore or what repercussions will come from turning off the Christian voting block. Christianity lost political and cultural hegemony partly because we were really good at playing the game only to have the rules changed on us and we were left playing Monopoly while everyone else had switched to solitaire.

In the later part of the 20th and now the 21s century the church was in the cross-hairs along with everyone else who hinted of authority or absolutes. The pass we were used to getting had passed. This was not something we were used to. It left us dazed and confused. We were not used to a diminished role in society but that is what we were handed. If you ever want first century Christianity then you better get used to a world that looks down on Christians because that is what they experienced. First century Christianity did not operate out of a place of prominence and influence. It operated on the margins and underwent persecution. It just so happens that Christianity thrives from that position in the world and so we shouldn’t fear it.

From a worldly point of view that left Christianity in a vulnerable position. We had lost our voice, it seemed. From a spiritual point of view it actually positioned us to be more effective if we were paying attention because for the first time in a long time we had to pay attention. We had to learn to adapt. We couldn’t take things for granted but had to focus back on what was most important. That meant coming to grips with the fact that much of what we had considered important for a few hundred years were not the games the church should have been playing all along. The emperor had no clothes. We had to get back to Jesus.

The church now has an opportunity it hasn’t had in a long time. It is the opportunity to operate out of our own weakness. It is an opportunity to operate from the margins. It is an opportunity to put Jesus first again and submit to His lordship and stop feeling the need to play by the world’s rules…embedding and enmeshing our views and values into things like the political system. It is an opportunity to stop measuring the way the world measures and start making disciples. It is a time to reach out to the disaffected and disenfranchised and show them the love they have been searching for that is found in Jesus Christ. It is an opportunity to put first things first and to truly trust in the Lord because for the first time in a long time, if we are going to make it…really make it…we are going to have to trust God more and ourselves and our society less.

We are poised for explosive kingdom growth.

Let us not be fooled by the next sham tailor who promises us a nice new suit to replace the old one that wasn’t there to begin with.

We Preach Christ Crucified

markpowellChristians today are constantly bombarded with the latest ministry strategies, cultural and generational studies, and theological controversies.  It is important to pay attention to these proposals, but without a strong theological compass these varying voices can easily lead to uncertainty, frustration, and exhaustion.

 

With the approach of Good Friday and Easter it is helpful to consider how Paul summarized his ministry.  In 1 Corinthians Paul emphasized “we preach Christ crucified” (1:23, NIV).  Later, when giving instructions for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Paul states “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (11:26).  Yes, Jesus is risen from the dead, he reigns, and he is coming back.  But it is also important to pause and reflect on the cross.  Why exactly was it so important to Paul to proclaim Jesus’s death?  And why should Christians ritually recount Jesus’s death week after week in our worship?

 

The answer is simple.  God decided to reconcile us to himself through the cross.  God decided to change us through the cross.  God could have chosen any number of ways to redeem us.  In his infinite wisdom, God chose the cross.

 

Paul told the Corinthian church: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.  My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest of human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:2-5).

 

Paul was highly educated, and he often indulged in rhetorical flourishes in his epistles.  The foundation of his ministry, however, was Christ crucified.  Paul’s desire was for the faith of the Corinthian Christians to rest on the Spirit’s power, not Paul’s abilities.

 

One popular interpretation of “the Spirit’s power” here is to suggest that Paul’s message was empowered by miracles, but surely this is not Paul’s point.  It makes no sense for Paul to say, “I did not convince you with wise and persuasive words, but with miraculous fireworks!”  Furthermore, the biblical accounts suggest miracles have limited value when it comes to lasting spiritual change.  Rather, Paul simply notes that when we preach Christ crucified, God’s Spirit empowers the gospel message and uses it to transform lives.

 

Paul’s words are a great comfort.  When we preach a sermon, teach a Bible class, or have a spiritual conversation with a friend or loved one, we can trust that the Spirit empowers the simple gospel message to change lives.  We do not have to know all the answers.  It is not up to us to persuade others of the truth of the gospel.  God often works in spite of us and through our mistakes.  We are simply called to proclaim Christ crucified.

 

Paul’s words are also a great challenge.  Too often Christians think Paul’s strategy is inadequate and outdated.  We think we know better than God; we think the gospel needs our help.  So we supplement the gospel and exchange our birthright—the message of Christ crucified—for the latest best-seller.  Just as we are tempted to save ourselves by works rather than grace, so we are tempted to minster by works rather than grace.  To a world that is estranged from God and dying in sin, we offer self-help rather than God-help.

 

In the 1976 Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School, Gardner Taylor warned, “The preacher can set out to prove that God is great or that the preacher is clever.  However, you cannot do both in the same sermon.”  What is true for the preacher is true for all Christians.  Our words and our lives can show that either God is great or we are clever, but not both at the same time.  We have to choose.

 

Human ability can have impressive results.  Cleverness can fill a building, wisdom can increase a budget, and eloquence can incite powerful emotional experiences.  But God wants far more that what human ability can achieve.  God wants to demonstrate his love for a lost and dying world.  God wants to reconcile all people to himself.  And God wants to nurture deep and lasting spiritual change in our lives.  God has decided to do all this and more through the preaching of the cross.

——————–

Mark Powell is professor of theology at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tennessee. His latest book is Centered in God: The Trinity and Christian Spirituality.

Ain’t No Rock

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This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday.
The week before Easter.

For those who don’t follow the Christian calendar, Psalm Sunday may not mean as much as the Sunday that follows.

But Palm Sunday is important.  And maybe more so than you realize.

Where I preach, we will be handing out palm branches. They have symbolized victory in a span of time that reaches far, far back into the ancient world–to a period even before the Christ.

Indeed, palm branches are ancient history and they proclaim victory!

We all want to be victorious in some avenue or endeavor.
We want to win the game.
We want to win the girl/ boy.
We want to win the job.
We want to win the prize.
We want to win the election.
We want to win at life.

Nobody likes being a loser!

For those Jews some 2000 plus years ago, they were tired of losing–politically, socially, and economically. And so the palm branches represented the victory of the conquering King they dreamed and hoped for.

Today, we can understand those branches in a more meaningful way. We no longer have to be subjected to wishful dreaming. We no longer have to wait and wonder in breathless expectation.

Victory?  Yes, to be sure!

But the victory we celebrate is not the winner of the oval office or any other political manifestation. No, the victory we celebrate is the ultimate triumph of hope! It is the accomplished work of the now Reigning King! And that is hope I can live with!

In Luke’s version of Palm Sunday (Luke 19), Jesus is asked to quiet His disciples for their affirmations were disturbing and offensive to the political and religious power structure of the day.

I love Jesus’ response: “If they were to keep silent, the stones would cry out.”

This Sunday and every day as the song says…

Ain’t no rock, gonna cry in my place

 As long as I am alive I’ll glorify His Holy Name!

On to the victory only Jesus can bring! May every day be a triumphant march of the soul!

Palm branches indeed!

Les Ferguson, Jr.
Madison/ Ridgeland, MS