A Christian Response to the Reported Christian Outrage over the Starbucks Red Holiday Cup

•November 8, 2015 • Leave a Comment

At this point, I have yet to see or hear from anyone I know a complaint about the red cups at Starbucks. That may very well mean that the reports of “Christian outrage” over the holiday cups is yet another example of media outlets generating clicks by pretending that a few angry Twitter users represent a trend.

In either case, the story is being reported by multiple media outlets across the spectrum and the outrage seems to exist among some of my brothers and sisters within the faith, and it piques my interest because the response strikes me as pretty wrong-headed, even if well-intentioned. A few, of many, reasons as to why this bothers me:

1. Historically, the Christian church has lived by the liturgical church calendar. Many churches continue this practice to this day, and by that calendar we are not yet in the Christmas season or any holiday season. Rather, November is largely made up of Ordinary Time. This year, Ordinary Time ends on November 29, but even then we will not be in the church’s Christmas season. Rather, we will be in Advent, which stretches all the way into Christmas Eve, and Christmastide begins with Christmas and ends at Epiphany (January 6). Bear in mind that Advent was not just another name for “Christmas season” but instead a time of quiet reflection, simplicity, and humility, geared toward cultivating a desire for Jesus to deliver the whole world from injustices, suffering, famine, selfishness, pride, etc. Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter.

This means that if we want to keep time as the church tended to keep time for most of its history, we are to celebrate Christmas for a little less than two weeks (the 12 days of Christmas) beginning on Christmas.

This is surprising for many of us because we live according to a different calendar, one which was not developed by the church in order to help us live a reflective life of discipleship, but a calendar developed by marketing teams and corporations in order to train us to bump up our consumer spending during a season in which the weather would normally keep people home from unnecessary shopping trips.

If we allow ourselves to be caught up in real or perceived slights in how corporations observe Christmas through November and the first three weeks of December, we effectively indicate that we have adopted the marketing calendar of corporations rather than the theological community calendar of the church.

2. One of the Twitter reactions to the Starbucks cups being reported as representative is this:

“Alrighty then. #starbucks With 74% Christian nation, let them go bankrupt. Screw them.”

It is worth breaking this comment down in order to examine why this attitude is not the attitude that we Christians should adopt.

First, the commenter notes that a super-majority of Americans identify as Christians. 74% may be off by a few percent based on some recent polls, but the point stands that there area lot of self-identified Christians in the US. This fact alone should probably make us skeptical of claims that a coffee chain is declaring a war on Christmas or that we are on the verge of forgetting that Christmas exists and is associated with the birth of Jesus.

But I think there is something more telling here. The 74% comment isn’t just a statistical note, but a threat that there are many of us, that we are powerful, and that we will crush you with that power.

Bearing this in mind, let’s take a look at Mark 10:42-45,
“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus notes to his disciples that the way of the world is to gather power and to lord it over others, and that the way of his kingdom is different, in which greatness comes through serving others.

In a similar vein, 1 Chronicles 21 and 2 Samuel 24 both tell of King David taking a census of the people of Israel, likely to assess their strength for conflict against their neighbors, and in so doing he provoked the judgment of God. A direct explanation is not given, but it would seem to be the case (as it was throughout the Old Testament) that David did wrong by thinking that his security rested in a worldly way of thinking about power and not in the promises of God.

When we, as Christians, threaten our neighbors with our great numbers, we do so at odds with the faith we claim to represent, in which the coercive force of the majority is not regarded as the standard of goodness and truth (remember that it was the coercive force of the majority that put Jesus to death).

Consider 2 Corinthans 12:5-10,
“…I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

In this passage we find Paul saying the same thing taught and exemplified by Jesus, the same thing that showed up in David’s census: God’s grace is sufficient, and God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Christians do not need Starbucks to promote our faith for us; we don’t depend on everyone around us celebrating our holidays; we depend solely on the grace of God.

3. Having already considered the first half of this Twitter user’s reaction (“Alrighty then. #starbucks With 74% Christian nation, let them go bankrupt. Screw them.”), we will look at the second:
“Screw them.”

We have already highlighted highlighted 2 Corinthians 12:5-10, and would now like to focus in on verse 6,
“Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say…”

Here, the apostle Paul is incredibly instructive for followers of Jesus. He notes in his letters that by worldy standards, his credentials are respectable, and yet he repeatedly emphasizes that those credentials ultimately don’t have anything conclusive to say about whether or not the message of good news he preaches is true. Rather, he says here that he only wants people to judge the truth of his message by the standard of what he says and does, the way in which he lives his life.

This is in line with so much of the New Testament. Jesus told his disciples that they would be known as his disciples by their love for one another. Jesus taught that a tree is known by the fruit it bears. Paul taught a follower of Jesus is known by bearing the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit in their lives “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

Marshall McLuhan, nineteen centuries later, would make a similar point by stating that the medium is the message.

The truth of the Christian gospel is attested to by the lives of those who proclaim it. I don’t want that to be true, but I can’t escape it as it is repeated again and again in the New Testament. If we try to promote Christianity through means that are antithetical to Christianity, than we do nothing but bring shame on the name of Jesus.

We are told to bless those who curse us, to pray for those who persecute us, to love our enemies, to go a second mile when compelled to go the first. If our reaction to a coffee company having red cups near one of our holidays is to threaten their existence with our massive numbers and to curse them with “screw you”, we should be moved to confess the wrongness of our response and to seek to change our ways.

This same thing applies to our response to all sorts of perceived forms of the “war on Christmas”. To my understanding (more on this in the next post) not having a store clerk wish us a merry Christmas by name, or not having City Hall set up a nativity scene, etc., are not acts of persecution against Christians at all. But even if they were, the response of Christians cannot be threats, or reminders of our large numbers, or invectives, but blessing and peace and forbearance and love.

To be a faithful ambassador of Christ (2 Corinthians 5), one cannot try to promote the name of Christ by acting in rebellion to his commands.

4. Finally, the reported outrage in response to the red Starbucks holiday cup is one portion of a larger annual theme in which some people perceive there to be a “War on Christmas”. This supposed war is one in which it is proposed that there are forces at work to cleanse American culture of Christianity, especially regarding the Christian holiday of Christmas.

The same stories are repeated each year, of retail clerks saying, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”; of Christmas being written as X-mas; of governmental buildings either not allow any religious displays (such as a nativity creche) or allowing all religious displays (a nativity crech, a menorah, and a Festivus pole).

It is simple enough to highlight the ways in which none of these things represent a special attack on Christians or Christmas, but more basically and more fundamentally important: the fact is that if we are free to practice our faith without being threatened with imprisonment, fines, violence, etc., while on our own time acting on our own behalf, we aren’t being persecuted.

I would like to go beyond this, though, and to argue that Christians should be in favor of maintaining our society in such a way that corporations are not compelled to specially highlight the Christmas holiday.

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he answered that it was to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and that the second greatest commandment was like the first: to love your neighbor as yourself. In another place, he said, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Given this, we should ask ourselves some questions:
If we feel excluded and upset by a company wishing us generic happy holidays rather than our specific holiday, how would we feel if corporations were wishing us happiness for a specific holiday of a different faith? If we wouldn’t like that, why do we want our non-Christian neighbors working retail to have to wish a merry Christmas or our non-Christian neighbors getting a coffee to be wished a merry Christmas?

Would we want our City Hall to permit a holiday display from another religion on their property, but to exclude our own? If not, why would we want City Hall to privilege our own display at the expense of our neighbor’s?

And finally, taking a slightly different tack, if your neighbors practiced a different faith than you, one that they claimed was a message of good news, of transformative love and grace, of a hospitality that tears down walls of hostility, would you find that faith sincere if they observed one of their most important holidays each year by going out of their way to be offended, demanding that the local coffee shop promote their holiday for them, and threatening financial ruin against those who fail to privilege their religion over all others?

Ideas for Observing Advent

•November 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment

This article is re-posted from my blog at Vineyard Prayer.

This Sunday (November 27) is the first day of Advent and therefore the beginning of a new year in the Christian calendar. While many of us have heard of Advent, we are generally unaware of how to go about observing and celebrating this season apart from the madness of shopping for Christmas. In order to fully appreciate this season, it is helpful to have some understanding of Advent (See Theologia Ordinarius’ “A Theology of Advent” for a helpful interpretation of how Advent fits into the holiday season). Then, consider taking part in some of the practices below or developing your own ideas with the significance of Advent in mind.

1. The Color Purple

Advent, like Lent, is given the color purple in the traditional church calendar. In both cases the purple designates both suffering (think of the purple of bruising) and royalty, as purple has long been held as the color of kings in the West. In Lent, the emphasis is on the suffering of penance (that is, sorrow over one’s sins) while considering the approach of Good Friday, when Christ the King suffered the ultimate brutality for our sins. In Advent, however, the emphasis is upon the royal birth of Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, on Christmas. There is suffering as well, as we consider the fallen and corrupted state of God’s good creation and groan as we await the return of Jesus even as the Israelites groaned awaiting the coming of their Messiah. Thus, the purple of Advent is not the purple of penance but the purple of hopeful expectation. Bearing this in mind, consider including purple in your decorations as your prepare expectantly for Christmas Day. Just as you have learned through ritual and tradition that red and green together mean Christmas season, so you can also learn to remember your coming King when you encounter Advent purple.

2. The Advent Wreath

One helpful tradition in observing Advent is that of making an Advent wreath. The Advent wreath is generally composed of mixed evergreen branches (especially pine branches and sprigs of holly) formed into a horizontal circle. Five candles are set within the circle: three purple, one rose, and one white. The candles are then lit one by one as each week of Advent progresses: the first purple candle on the first week of Advent, the second purple on the second week, the rose candle on the third week, the last purple candle on the final week, and finally the white candle on Christmas day.

The make-up of the wreath is rich in Christian symbolism. The evergreen branches represent the eternal life made available through Jesus and their circular form has no beginning or end, representing the eternal nature of God. If holly is included, its sharp points remind us of the crown of thorns that was placed upon the head of the King of Kings. The three purple candles remind us that we are in the expectant season of Advent. The rose candle is lit when we are halfway through Advent, and so its color is a mixture of the purple of expectancy and the pure white of Christmas Day as we rejoice at the approaching return of Christ. The white candle is lit on Christmas and reminds us not only of the purity of the infant Christ, but also reminds us that Christ is the Lord and Savior of all humans (because in the light spectrum, white light contains every other color). All of the candles together also remind us that Jesus is the light of the world, who breaks forth on Christmas Day.

Traditionally, the home Advent wreath is lit just before dinner to help remind all who gather for the meal of their coming King. If you have more questions about the Advent wreath, you might appreciate this helpful article.

3. The Dynamic Nativity Scene

Many Christian homes already contain a Nativity set, but these sets are often treated as a fixed scene in which nothing every happens. Those with children at home may find a more dynamic Nativity scene to be especially helpful in encouraging little ones to observe the season of Advent. Instead of setting up your Nativity scene all at once and leaving it in place, allow it to build up some anticipation. Place the manger and barn (along with any animals) in a prominent position within your house. At the other end of your home, set out Joseph and Mary on the first day of Advent, so that they may begin their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Move Joseph and Mary a little bit closer to “Bethlehem” (the manger scene) each day until they arrive on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, place the infant Jesus into the manger. The shepherds can arrive on Christmas or in the following days according to your discretion. On Christmas, though, start the wise men (Magi) out at another far corner of your home. They will come closer to the holy family each day until they arrive at the end of the twelve days of Christmas. This will put their arrival on January 6, also known as Epiphany, the day on which the Christian church celebrates both the visit of the wise men and the much-later baptism of Christ.

4. An Advent Fast

For many Western Christians, the concept of having “feast days” means very little because we feast on a regular basis. Compared to the diets of most humans who have ever lived, the modern American (or European) diet is one of extravagance. Most people who read this article will never know what it means to not have enough food (and that is a good thing!). One of the best ways to celebrate a feast, though, is to stop feasting for a while beforehand. For this reason, I recommend observing an Advent fast. This fast is not to be the same kind normally undertaken for a day of prayer (no eating) or during Lent (in which fasting from certain things is encouraged as a spiritual discipline). It should instead be in accordance with Advent as a fast of expectation.

For an Advent fast, I suggest keeping what might be called a poverty diet. The average person in the developing world (and the average person throughout history) has not had access to large amounts of meat, sugar, or luxury items. Instead, for most people, a normal diet consists largely of grains and vegetables (this makes sense when you consider that 80% of humans alive live on less than $1o US a day). For many of these people, asking God to “give us today our daily bread” is of obviously vital importance, and the promise of a banquet table in the Kingdom of God is cause for hopeful anticipation.

In order to enter into the experience of the majority of our brothers and sisters and to truly anticipate the feast at Christ’s table, we would do well to abstain from most of our luxury foods throughout Advent. Doing so will likely look like this: a daily meal of rice, beans, and squash, or perhaps: potatoes, eggs, and broccoli. This is not a time for legalism or self-righteousness, but instead a time for building anticipation for the coming of Christ, for the fullness of the Kingdom of God, for the provision of a banquet for all people, for the perfection of all justice. You might even decide to take the money that you are saving by eating a simpler diet and give it away to those who experience hunger daily, or use the time you saved by preparing simpler meals for prayer.

A few caveats are needed as well. First, observing an Advent fast does not take precedence over the need for Christian love. This means that if you are invited to another person’s home during Advent that you should not reject the food that they offer you, but instead accept their hospitality and in doing so re-learn how to receive the generous provision of grace from God. Second, remember that every Sunday is a little Easter and that Sundays are properly observed with celebration that can include breaking your fast (making them a great time to eat those Christmas cookies you have been wanting to bake). Feast days within Advent are other opportunities for mini-feasts, as you may want to celebrate St. Lucia day or the Feast of Thomas the Apostle. Third, don’t worry about missing out on all the Christmas treats that you normally eat throughout December. When you observe Advent, you should also celebrate the twelve days of Christmastide, which means that you will have plenty of treats in the near future.

5. Advent Prayer

Under this site’s Prayer section, you will find weekly prayer guides meant to help you observe the season of Advent. You are invited to join us by using the weekly text to structure your prayer throughout Advent. You will find that the first week’s prayer will help you to focus on asking the Holy Spirit to cleanse you of your sins and bring you to righteousness so that you will have eternal life when Christ returns. The second week’s prayer will help you to focus on paying attention to what the ancient prophets foretold about Christ so that you will recognize him and greet him with joy when he returns. The third week will help you to reflect on the brokenness of this world and to ask God to quickly bring about the restoration of his creation. The fourth week will help you to ask that the Holy Spirit purify you so that you might be a fitting home for your Lord at his return.

It is my hope that these ideas will help you to grow in hopeful expectation of the Lord’s return this Advent. Please tell me about your own ideas below in the comments.

How your Church Website can Reach your Community with Service

•October 31, 2011 • 1 Comment

Recently, I wrote a guest piece for the Theologia Ordinarius blog on a Theology of Church Web Design, which I hope you will consider reading if you haven’t already seen it. In my final point on that blog, I hinted at the possibility of churches using their websites to do more than simply provide basic information on their church to potential visitors and to act as a community-building resource for the congregation.

While it would be foolish for any church to neglect to potential impact of reaching out to others through its website, many churches are content to post logistical information on where and when to find a Sunday morning worship service and to tell visitors that they are “most welcome,” and conclude that they have done as much outreach as can be expected on the web. Realistically, your church website needs that information but the only visitors it will attract are those who are already Christian (note: this is a good thing, but not really outreach). This may not be the case in the Bible Belt where I understand (second-hand) that church-going is a cultural norm for many who have no faith, but it seems safe to say that most people who are not already Christians have no interest in visiting a church unless they are personally invited. This means that your website may be bringing in people who are new to your church, but not people who are new to the Church, those people who do not yet know Christ.

This does not mean that outreach to non-Christians online is impossible; it just requires some creativity. Despite the continuing prevalence of tracts and street-corner prophets, the most effective and faithful way to share the good news of Jesus Christ is to share it person-to-person, with Christians and the church community manifesting the love of God as the Holy Spirit works within them. While it is admittedly difficult for your church’s website to develop a person-to-person relationship with anyone, you can still use it to manifest God’s love for the people of your surrounding community by serving them.

There are undoubtedly endless ways that your church could serve the community through the web and I encourage you to ask your congregations to pray for the Spirit’s guidance and inspiration, but I would like to offer a few ideas to get the ball rolling, beginning by highlighting some of the needs that exist in most communities.

The Need for Hyper-Local News

In our day of globalized news coverage and the death of the small newspaper, it is increasingly difficult for people to find relevant news about their own community. When your neighbors tune in to the six o’clock news, they will primarily hear national reports with a smattering of the most sensational stories from their general metropolitan area. While local metropolitan newspapers are capable of better local coverage, they still often miss many stories and certainly are not capable of giving sustained focus to any town of less than 100,000 residents. Even in cities with excellent local journalism (e.g. New York City or Los Angeles) the newspaper is necessarily constrained to reporting on only the most apparently significant events, leaving the smaller communities (like the neighborhoods of TriBeCa and Queens in NYC, or individual cities like Inglewood or Azusa in LA) largely overlooked. Journalism alone cannot make a strong community, but it certainly is capable of strengthening communities.

Meeting the Need

Your church can easily develop a website with a social media presence that serves as a news hub for your community. While such a site will require an overseer to moderate and curate content, the vast majority of the content can easily be submitted by members of the content. The service your church provides in this context is that of serving as a reliable central location for all local news and events. By relying primarily upon reader-submitted content, your church not only has a much easier job but also begins to build a partnership with the people of your community who may begin to recognize their ability to help contribute in service to their neighbors.

A great example of this sort of hyper-local news is offered by Planet Princeton, a local resource for Princeton, NJ. While it is not in any way connected to a church, Planet Princeton serves as a useful model. Not only do they aggregate reader-contributed news and events, they have reliably relayed vital information on road closures, police advisories, and store closings in the recent October snowstorm and Hurricane Irene.

The Need for Easy Access to Community Resources

In the United States, poverty and need are rarely the result of too few resources existing in a community, but rather are rather the result poor resource allocation, ignorance concerning available services, and confusing systems for obtaining those services. For example, there are undoubtedly families in your community in need of an extra bed and other families with a spare box spring and mattress sitting in storage, but neither is aware of the other. In other cases, there are single mothers who qualify for welfare, food stamps, and discounts on heating fuel but who are either unaware of their eligibility or discouraged after trying to navigate the bureaucratic processes required to access these services. Likewise, there are unemployed residents who are in need of proper interview attire, resume-writing skills, and even a ride to their interview who are unaware of your church’s clothing distribution ministry, the public library’s resume workshop, and of the schedule of the local bus system.

Meeting the Need

Your church can empower and enable your neighbors to find and access resources in several ways. First, and most simply, you can provide a website with well-explained links and information on local resources. This might include links to the local unemployment office, city bus schedule, public library, and food pantries. On this level, your service would primarily be that of helping your neighbors to be aware of all the resources available them.

With a bit more effort, your church can provide not only links and information, but also guides to help your neighbors decide which available resources will be of the most use to them and tutorials to help them access those resources.

It is also possible to help connect people with needs to people with resources by providing a community sharing site, such as can be developed with resources like Kassi, Unstash, and NeighborGoods.

The Need for a Newcomer’s Guide to the Community

Whether we like it or not, we live in an increasingly mobile culture that almost ensures your community will constantly be acquiring residents who are new to the area, and those new residents will be weighed down with the stress of driving an unfamiliarly large U-Haul, finding a suitable home, settling into new jobs, meeting their new neighbors, and enrolling their children at new schools. Aside from those non-negotiable stresses, new residents face the strains of building new relationships; finding a grocery store, bank, coffee shop, mechanic, dry-cleaner, and restaurants; picking up local colloquialisms (i.e. the people of your town may have developed nicknames for local landmarks); learning the local laws and routines (e.g. noise curfew times and garbage pick-up days).

Meeting the Need

By this point, you will have guessed that your response to this need could be a website serving as a guide for newcomers. You can organize and neatly present the locations of post offices, city hall, grocery stores, mechanics, gas stations, parks, and much more. Your church might also provide a helpful guide to the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the community: the local jargon, laws, and ordinances that are difficult to pick up otherwise. Of course, you can also extend an invitation to newcomers to find community within your church.

Final Thoughts

Every one of these needs may not exist in your community, but without doubt at least one of them does. Your church can choose to meet one or all of them, alone or in partnership with other local churches. By simply serving your community in this way and honestly acknowledging on the site that it is supported by your church, you will be fulfilling Jesus’ commandment to love others while simultaneously helping the people of your community to recognize that your church is interested in loving them.

I’d love to hear what your churches are doing or hope to do along these lines. Please let me know about what you come up with below.

Are church plants actually factions? A response to Jamal Jivanjee’s article

•October 22, 2011 • 3 Comments

Editor’s Note: This post has had one line edited as it presented a critique of one of Jivanjee’s arguments in the language of an attack on his character. The author is sorry to have been irresponsible with his words and for any harm caused to a brother in Christ.

This post is written in response to Jamal Jivanjee’s article, “Faction-planting or church-planting?” per his request.

In his article, Jivanjee makes several commendable points:

  • The first, and most obvious, of these is that there exists in some American churches a sort of factionalism that fails to recognize the extent of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood across denominational lines or even across the street. Where such prideful division exists, it is certainly sinful and an impediment to the Gospel.
  • The second point to note is that churches can easily become personality cults in which the congregation’s life comes to center on the charismatic leader. This can easily lead to straying from the authority of Scripture and foster a division between the “ministers” and the “members” that denies the priesthood of all believers.
  • Third, there is a helpful emphasis on the concept of a “city church.” While I am not sure that I agree with Jivanjee’s exact understanding of the city church, I certainly share his enthusiasm for a certain type of unity and Christian love exhibited in the city church.

Going from Anecdotes to Universal Indictments

While I appreciate the above points, I find Jivanjee’s stance to be both overly cynical and simplistic with regard to actual church congregations in the United States apart from the abstract concept of American Churches. Continue reading ‘Are church plants actually factions? A response to Jamal Jivanjee’s article’

A Definition of Evangelism

•October 18, 2011 • 4 Comments

For the sake of keeping my blog active, I am willing to serve leftovers.

In a course of evangelism, my group partner and I were required to compose a definition of evangelism in ten minutes. The following is the product of our ten-minute toil:

“Evangelism is the Christian’s participation in the Holy Spirit’s work of proclaiming the good news of salvation and the in-breaking of the kingdom of God made available through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Just as the Word was made flesh, so the gospel is contextually-spoken while simultaneously transforming its context.

The goal of evangelism is the making of disciples who, through the empowerment of the Spirit, live as holy citizens of God’s kingdom by worshipping the Triune God, proclaiming the good news, and loving one another as they love themselves.”

We wanted to make sure that our definition incorporated the foundational Christian doctrines (the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection) and that it defined evangelism as the proclamation of the Gospel message, distinct from the necessity of “witnessing by lifestyle.”

How would you define evangelism or tweak our definition? Please join the conversation below.

A Short Response to John Piper on Stuttering

•October 15, 2011 • 2 Comments

Let’s be clear up-front: I am not one of those people who is generally antagonistic to John Piper. While I have not yet read any of his books, I generally appreciate his tweets and blog posts (at least those that I come across). With that said, two tweets of his have particularly irked me today:

John Piper's Photo @JohnPiper
Preachers, beware whom you hear. Academic stuttering, and the ubiquitous “um” and “ah” do not make for prophetic utterance.
John Piper's Photo @JohnPiper
The prophets give no evidence of ever using “um” or “ah”. These are weak, learned fillers and can be unlearned for Christ.

Although I want to be charitable, I am having a hard time understanding what could be behind these tweets (side note: if you have an idea or agree with Piper, please drop me a note below). The best motivation I can conceive of is a desire to see the Gospel proclaimed as clearly as possible, but this good desire should not be universalized or lifted to the position of the highest priority for one very important reason.

The Power of the Gospel is Made Manifest in Human Weakness

While it is important for preachers to hone their rhetorical skills for clear delivery of God’s word, Scripture consistently emphasizes the power of the Gospel itself rather than the importance of the preacher (except, of course, for the necessity of a preacher).

In the Parable of the Sower, it is the seed of the Gospel that holds the power to grow and bear fruit, not the skill of the sower. Likewise, in the Parables of the Mustard Tree and the Leaven, it is the power of the Gospel itself that is emphasized with no mention of a preacher at all, let alone oratorical ability.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul makes this statement,

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

Here we find Paul claiming to have intentionally avoided eloquence and rhetorical flair when proclaiming the Gospel so that the Corinthians would not mistake the messenger for the message and that their faith may be nothing but a result of the Holy Spirit at work.

Similarly, when Moses was called by God to be His prophet, he objected because of his rhetorical inability (and possible speech impediment) but failed to change God’s mind:

But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him. And take in your hand this staff, with which you shall do the signs.”

Now, one might argue that God relented by allowing Aaron who was a gifted speaker to be Moses’ mouthpiece, but note that the Lord’s anger was kindled against Moses for claiming that he could not serve as God’s prophet because of a stutter.

Finally, let us return to Paul’s words in his second letter to the Corinthians,

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

Here, Paul emphasizes that the Gospel’s glory is made manifest by shining in the midst of our own mortal imperfection. When a congregation hears the Word of God proclaimed and is transformed by that Word despite the preacher’s own flaws and imperfections, it is evident that the Holy Spirit must be at work, not the pathos of a rhetorician.

So, should preachers constantly seek to improve their preaching for the sake of clarity? Of course. Should they feel guilty for their rhetorical imperfections? Should young people sensing a call to the preaching ministry abdicate their calling because they are not a capable speaker? Of course not. To say otherwise is to emphasize the work of humans over the power of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Can God make a Rock so Big that He cannot Lift it?

•October 3, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Before I move on to answering the title question, please allow me to explain why I am answering this question when the answer is by no means original to me. When I was in middle school, this sort of question did not wreck my faith in God but it did shake me a bit. In working with middle school students today, I find that this type of question still holds resonance for junior high students (and others, no doubt!) and that while a simple answer exists, it is not particularly easy to come across unless you know where to look. By tossing this answer into the “inter-webs” I hope to make it that much easier to find. So, with that said…

Can God make a rock so big that He cannot lift it?

Large Granity StoneThe answer, in a word, is no.

Whoops, I guess you caught me in a trap. Now you will say, “If God cannot make such a big rock that He cannot lift it, then there is something that God cannot do, which means that God cannot be all-powerful.” Of course, if I has said yes, you would argue, “If God can make a rock He cannot lift,  then He cannot lift it which shows that there is something God cannot do.” It would seem as if you had just proven that there cannot be an all-powerful God.

It would seem that way, but unfortunately, this question poses an illogical question that cannot have an answer.

When we say that God is all-powerful, we mean that God can do anything that can be done. Very often people express this by saying that “God can do the impossible.” What we mean by that statement, though, is that God can do those things that are impossible for anyone else but God. For example, it is impossible for a human to spontaneously sprout wings and fly, but it is not impossible for God to make a human sprout wings and fly.

The problem of the rock is a different sort of impossibility though. For example, you could just as easily ask whether God could make a three-sided rectangle, understanding that the definition of a rectangle is a four-sided object. So, the question is basically: can God make a three-sided four-sided object? The answer is once again, no, but it is helpful because the reason for the “no” is clearer than in the example of a rock. The English language allows us to pose questions that are actually complete nonsense: there can be, by definition, no three-sided rectangles, no objects that simultaneously exist and do not exist, and no possibility of both an immovable object and an unstoppable force co-existing. In the same way, there cannot possibly exist both a rock too large to be lifted by anything and a God who is all-powerful.

You might still object that God seems to have limitations, and you would be right, except that you must note that God is only limited by Himself. For example, God is eternal, which means that God has existed forever and will always exist. This puts a certain type of “limitation” on God, because God must be who He is. So, God cannot stop existing, because He is eternal and if He stopped existing He wouldn’t be the eternal God. God also cannot make a creature that existed before God, because God has, by definition, always existed and so nothing could have existed before Him. Likewise, God is perfectly holy and righteous, so it is impossible for God to do something evil, because a perfectly holy and righteous being cannot do evil.

Although this can all be pretty confusing, the key thing to remember is that our language allows us to say some things that actually make no sense, and that it does not rob God of any glory to recognize that He cannot do meaningless or logically contradictory things.