Agony, and Confidence

Man and son at the Wailing Wall, remains of Second Temple, Jerusalem. Courtesy Robert Chroma by Creative Commons licence.

Man and son at the Wailing Wall, remains of Second Temple, Jerusalem. Courtesy Robert Chroma by Creative Commons licence.

Romans 9-11 is my nominee for The Most Difficult Passage in either Hebrew Bible or Greek Testament. Take a look at this opening.

This is the truth and I am speaking in Christ, without pretence, as my conscience testifies for me in the Holy Spirit; there is great sorrow and unremitting agony in my heart: I could pray that I myself might be accursed and cut off from Christ, if this could benefit the brothers who are my own flesh and blood. They are Israelites; it was they who were adopted as children, the glory was theirs and the covenants; to them were given the Law and the worship of God and the promises.

Paul loves his own people dearly. He are one! Jesus also is Jewish, of course. I struggle with the idea that the NT can be anti Jewish, or anti Semitic when racially the supposed culprits are exactly that. Do they hate themselves, then? How could they, in a majority Jewish culture or even in a confident diaspora?

Paul goes on to say what seems clear to me — regular enough reader of Augustine — that God has his own internal “election,” that is, his own internal choice, and if you are in it, you receive mercy. God gives mercy to whom he chooses. Simple. Too simple:

“So it is not a matter of what any person wants or what any person does, but only of God having mercy.Scripture says to Pharaoh: I raised you up for this reason, to display my power in you and to have my name talked of throughout the world.”

Kolakowski the philosopher has a book entitled, “God owes us nothing.” The book is about Pascal’s group of Augustinian Catholics (Jansenists) who said just that, God owes humanity nothing.

The point is that collectively humanity has no claim on God. Our first parents forfeited God’s kindness. His descendants all ratify that stance individually, without exception  — well, one exception, which is the God-man Jesus Christ. Those who belong to Christ regain the favor of God through the Beloved. Sounds good. But what to make of Pharaoh’s fatal appointed destiny?

Romans 9-11 has been discussed by far more able minds than mine. Let me say so up front. Barth the Swiss theologian has an interesting take. Calvin’s take is known at a folk level as reprehensible. Arminius, a Calvinistic Dutch theologian, could not stomach Calvin and came up with his semi-version, sort of God, sort of your human choice. But let’s bypass the polemic. Let’s go back to Augustine who had double predestination — in spades. Augustine said God chooses some for salvation and some for damnation. God elects, and God disposes! Never mind John Calvin versus Jacob Arminius, circa 1600s. From the beginning of the Western Christian tradition!

Note a deep mystery here. Scripture Old or New nowhere forces a choice between God or humanity making things happen. Humans do wrong and they act accountably.  They act against the light of nature. They murder, choose war, practice idolatry or adultery, go in for witchcraft or drug-taking. The choices are wrong. In some sense the choosers could have done other, and should have done other. God did not sin. He did not force sin. He may have allowed the situation to be set up: that is why Christians pray, Lead us not into temptation. If God puts me in a hard place I may fail, and God have mercy and help me. If I do sin, I did it. Not the Devil. Not God. Not my mom. Me. (Psalm 51)

Paul writing about his own race, not about individuals, concludes that God will surely have mercy at the end — see Romans 11. God promised mercy to Israel and he will surely deliver.

Within Israel, not all individuals of Israel are elect — some are his people, some are not. Being circumcised, or baptised, will not place you in or out by itself. God knows the individuals who are his (2Tim). He made them alive. He made them alert. He worked through their life circumstances to bring them to himself.

“Long my imprisoned spirit lay/Fast bound in chains and nature’s night/Thine eye diffused a quickening ray/I woke, the dungeon flamed with light/My chains fell off, my heart was free/I rose, went forth and followed thee.” (C. Wesley’s famous hymn, “And Can It Be.”)

Romans 9-11 reminded me of two things.

(1) Those who focus on the details of whether BC believers, who never heard, are in or out, are focussing in the wrong area. The big picture is that there are damned (Pharoah) and there are elect. The fzzzzy middle is not the place for focus; rather look at the massive ends of God’s people and non-Gods-people. As offensive as salvation of some not all is, the fact that the Son of God was predestined to die affirms the seriousness of the issue. I had a Book of Revelation moment as I read. I was renewed in my understanding of the seriousness of life and death and God’s amazing intervention.

(2) The second reminder is the urgency of prayer. God moves, and no one can stop his hand. God does not move, and nothing can stop our decline. “Our” can include apparent Christians, also our society, also the world. Prayer is the space God has made for changing world history. No accident that at the cracking of the seventh seal “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Next I saw seven trumpets being given to the seven angels who stand in the presence of God. Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. A large quantity of incense was given to him to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that stood in front of the throne; and so from the angel’s hand the smoke of the incense went up in the presence of God and with it the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 8). The prayers of God’s people make a hinge of history. What an encouragement to be about God’s gracious work.

As a footnote, I had a great supper last month with a Serbian Orthodox nonbeliever who told me the difference between Serbs and Croats, that is, Slav Orthodox Christians and Slav Catholic Christians (same race, different theologies). The Orthodox say, Ah, don’t worry, Jesus took care of it. The Catholics say, We better stay clean. Jesus took care of it but we better do right. The Croats are more rigorous. Maybe the Orthodox are onto something; maybe they “get” the cosmic effects of the death of the Son of God. On the other hand, er, isn’t there supposed to be some life change if you really “get” it? The Bible looks for “fruit.” But the issue we did over supper is the issue we are talking about here. God chooses. God disposes. God hears prayer.


What is a “good” pastor? What is pastoral leadership about?

Here’s a short, short, story. In the later 1980’s I was a small cog in a big corporation. I was a District Manager for the inventory-financing arm of an insurance corporation. Though customer happiness was an aim, the job was to maintain the corporation’s financial security. We (three) twenty-somethings were watchmen, and had credit authority at a non-dangerous level.

At Branch Manager level and up – beyond us – one got ahead by paying attention to routines of management and by influencing others. A manager could rely on numbers to assess good and weak employees. To assess the value of our branch, head office used financial statements. Eventually, head office decided that functions except risk management could be done best from the central office. The local processing staff, whose work did not pay the company well enough, was let go.

A single executive can manage a huge corporation easily because all employees follow a shared culture.  Managers watch employee performances on any number of criteria – daily, weekly, yearly as appropriate. They alter performances by interventions based on numbers. But don’t miss this: Employees know that they must “produce.” All corporate for-profit cultures demand it. Good people produce. Performance is being tracked. The corporate theory of human nature supports it. The results can be sweet V.P. or higher, or they can be dire. The key factor in managing a company is the utilitarian code.

Shared culture is how capitalism works. Capitalism depends on assumed infinite resources, processed by most efficient methods, for output of maximum goods and services. The global reach of capitalism has carried the “modern” mindset – especially utilitarianism applied to people – to the ends of the earth. Any person who shares the utility-maximizing mindset has the primary qualification to work in the office of a multinational in Mumbai, India, or in Canada, or wherever. Capitalism, one of the two major ideologies of human material progress (socialism being the other one; see e.g. author Goudzwaard), is a time- and money-maximizing system.

In a church, however, producing criteria do not apply. Production criteria would be ungodly. No human being can accept personal responsibility for the faith of another person. You cannot program spiritual growth in others as a computer is programmed.

But producing criteria can be made to apply.

Story Two: An executive pastor of a large (“mega”) church talks about how to manage a church staff. Pastors on staff were to be managed by mutually agreed external, verifiable, goals. Staff pastors were accountable to agreed external goals at the risk of their jobs (my typo was goads).

Story Three: A pastor went on the staff of a church-growth minded local church. His performance targets were set at a special meeting, not with the senior pastor but with the senior administrator. The administrator lacked theological background. The question was no longer whether the assistant pastor prompts faith – no longer his role!

Theology is marginal in the now-routinized churches of Stories Two and Three – as, it seems, is faith.  In utility church thinking, current adherents have become the means to production of a larger congregation. If you step forward to lead a small group, you are helping the cause; you have become a means to the end. What is wrong with that? Nothing, except that members can begin to feel that they are valued not as persons but as (unpaid) employees. You might have been manipulated into serving. No matter. The end is being served and the end is justified as overwhelmingly valuable.

If some members begin to feel that the thing is a machine, they would be correct.

Is church growth other than a way of rationalizing the life of a body of believers? Is it more than application of utilitarian principles to church life?

This method of operation is Leadership Magazine incarnated. Leadership Magazine knows nothing of special theological commitments. A leader in any church can read Leadership Magazine, as can leaders in a synagogue, a mosque, or Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Possibly even a Buddhist sangha might benefit. (Why not.)

The insight of this piece is this: In assessing any pastor, the nature of the church becomes the crucial question.

What is valued as good pastoral leadership depends on a church’s self-understanding and her context – at least to some extent.

For examples:

  • For a utility-maximizing church, seeking a pastor means seeking a rationalizer, an effective manager.
  • The pastor in some South American settings would be expected to have planted six or more sister churches. In a setting of relatively easy evangelism – of fields white to harvest – this is a reasonable requirement. Mandatory evangelism applied to North American church leaders after four centuries of Christianity – less reasonable. A pastor who plants one church in a lifetime has an achievement worth noting.
  • Under persecution such as in Pakistan, insisting that the pastor generate church growth is laughable. Merely maintaining a witness in such conditions is paramount.
  • Maintaining the faith is paramount also in France, where the secular landscape renders historically-orthodox Christianity nearly invisible.
  • In a mainstream church dominated by the progressive-liberal mindset, a pastor active in social redemption ministries or initiatives might be highly prized.
  • In Catholic circles, anyone qualified to administer sacraments is sought after.
  • In Anglican circles with inactive homes in a majority, an ability to activate passive members and families by parish missions would be appealing. Alternatively, for liberal-progressive minded congregations again, a social worker, might be appealing.

Does “good” pastoral leadership depend on the church’s self-understanding and context?

Can there be a middle ground between making sure the nursery is well-staffed, and building up the faith of the faithful? Open to hear.


What Could This Church Leader Do?

Case learning about church leadership can help deacons, elders, or seminarians, to develop a strategic ministry mindset. Many boards want to initiate a phase of imagining their church’s future – by looking into identity, by wondering about ministry priorities, or even in the process of searching for a pastor. Image

The case below is inspired by a seminary experience. As part of seminary training, I attended a church not of my denomination for a semester. With a partner, I turned in a report to both pastor and professor. As one of a series of presentations, we presented the report as part of  “Introduction to Pastoral Ministry.” The pastor came and talked to the class about the church’s potential. The presentations enabled seminarians to think about pastoral strategies in a variety of settings, with varying congregational compositions, sociological constraints, and, not least, theological beliefs.

Church leaders need to think about issues facing churches, to see contexts and the nature of pastoral leadership. To develop a strategic mind, case studies as used in management training will be as helpful as presentations of church visits. In discussions of case problems, seminarians, deacons, and elders can learn to think through church problems and issues together by close examination of real-life snapshots. They learn to think of churches as having varying potentials constrained by their social setting, appealing to a certain sociological grouping of possible attenders, etc.

This case, and others to follow, asks you to consider: What is possible for a pastoral agent in this setting? How could a board be creative in this church/social setting? This case is a draft, and if interest develops, it could be one of a series of at least five cases that a board or seminary class could consider together to build understanding of church strategy.

Case 1: Building Bridges of Hope

Phase I

John was the 38-year-old solo pastor of Jared Evangelical Church, a rural congregation in a less-developed but deeply traditional area in North America. The church included 120 adherents, mainly middle-aged or older, few young adults, a dozen or more children. Sixty to eighty persons attended on any given Sunday morning. Young people tended to leave the area for work opportunities, and church attenders were those who had stayed and loved the area. The economic base had not developed in the two centuries that the area was settled. Agriculture remained the direct or indirect source of livelihoods, and pensions were an even larger source. Members tended to be related to other members. With the completion of a new highway, however, people not born in the area were buying property and moving in. The new residents were visible at farmer’s markets and community socials. Though they tended to remain in their work and social circles, as often as not they had children or teens who attended the local all-grades school and who might be directed toward church programming.

Potential new attenders and members of the church were in a ten-kilometer (six mile) half-circle, bounded by a wide river on the west and extending inland. The potential field had a population of 13,000 persons in the early 2000’s, including active and inactive adherents of three other churches. Active church participants who attended at least one time per month, including children, totaled about 2,000 persons. The potential field also included non-attenders for whom any church – especially a long-established church like Jared – was loaded with historical meanings and significances, either unfortunate experiences of disruption with a relative or friend in a past generation or just a negative association with the sometimes rigid Christians of years past.

Jared Church was the first church to which John had given leadership after five years as minister for church education at a medium-sized city church. The city church had members who were evangelical or soft charismatic as well as liberal. At Jared Church, John enjoyed a supportive group of deacons who looked to him for guidance and initiatives and to whom John listened carefully in their monthly meetings. The deacons were four middle-aged family men – sons of the area – plus a retired banker who had passed his career in another province. Church programming was not extensive – perhaps a little less than a neighboring church of the same denomination. However, it included a Sunday morning child-care scheme; Sunday School; a Junior Church program for young children during the service; a midweek program for youth that ran during the school year; and a week-long Vacation Bible School. The church always represented itself in frequent community fundraisers for a neighbor’s illness or anniversary. In times past, when more vacationers attended, the church hosted an outdoor Sunday evangelistic service.

John had been the pastor for three good years. Attenders disaffected after a previous pastorate had returned. Much of his time still went to house visits, plus organization for Sunday morning worship, regular hospital visitation in a distant city, and a midweek prayer-study meeting. Now, from two to five visiting worshippers could be expected on any Sunday.

  • As John sat down to plan for the next year, what should he be considering?
  • Would this church be able to welcome all newco?

Phase II

In his previous pastoral experience John had developed resistance to church growth approaches. These approaches generally emphasized removing roadblocks to church attendance such as inadequate nursery facilities. They boosted community contacts. However, they said relatively little about the beliefs of the faith. John took two deacons to a Sonlife seminar at the two-year mark. The seminar first advocated deep discipleship and then, in a sudden move, equated deep discipleship with evangelism, especially having members work together to fill the pews. John was disappointed. He looked around for other approaches and was also unhappy with Christian Schwartz’s Natural Church Development. NCD was based on empirical assessment of a dozen key aspects of church life, so that churches could try to improve their lowest performing aspects. John knew that value assessments underlie all charts full of numbers. Why did Mr. Schwartz think the churches of the empirical study that founded NCD were healthy? The church John had served as associate was written up nationally for its ministry effectiveness, yet a survey of church members which formed part of the research, available to pastoral staff, told him that 47% of attenders disagreed or were not sure that Jesus is the only way to God. It seemed that theological (or Christological) beliefs are separate from church effectiveness to some analysts. But could a church be called “effective” if the manifestations were disconnected from their shared faith? Would active social work warrant the label “effective”? Lively worship? Being a welcoming congregation? Similar criteria could be applied to a variety of social groups. A church’s life must show the virtues of its beliefs, John thought.

After some digging, John found a program from a group in England called “Building Bridges of Hope.” “BBH” looked for church renewal and effectiveness but did not ignore the theological or faith of the churches. For implementation, BBH required a partnership with a church of another denomination. A team from each partnering church would visit, observe, and report on the other’s church. With fresh eyes, the team would take into account the kind of church they were visiting; if visiting a Pentecostal church, then distinctives of Pentecostalism would be factored into their assessment and recommendations. If Anglican, the same sensitivity would come into play. John does not remember if he presented the BBH method and his intentions to the deacons.

As a way to launch a vision-casting phase early in his third year, John arranged for a denominational leader to lead a generic vision-casting workshop on a Saturday morning. The workshop asked general questions and raised awareness of the future of a church that were not connected to BBH specifically. John needed attenders and members to attend so that a genuine sense of need would propel vision-casting phase in the new year. From the pulpit, he asked all members and attenders to make the particular Saturday morning a high priority. He placed the snappy graphic of “BBH” in the bulletin – especially appropriate because the church was located next to a huge new bridge over a wide river. The bridge had been in construction all the time John pastored there and was then nearing completion.

On the day, only the long-term members of the church appeared, with no exception. John felt he had failed. He was so discouraged that further initiatives were held in abeyance until assessment could be made. John left the church eighteen months later, and new leadership pursued new priorities.

Possibly no one else knew how much John believed was riding on the initiative. No area minister or friend coached John in the lead-up or debriefed me him on the failure. It is striking that in the ten years since that initiative, John has never thought about what went wrong – other than that he should have phoned and buttonholed attenders and members more persistently.

  • Can you suggest advantages and disadvantages of any “packaged” approach to church development such as NCD, Sonlife, or BBH?
  • Do you agree that theology needs to be connected to church effectiveness?
  • Is “growing” always a sign of a church doing what a church should do? From what you read here, is Jared Church living out the Good News as well as it can?
  • Is the Good News sufficient for a church to grow?
  • Why did John think he had failed? Were any oversights due to lack of experience? What could he have done to resume the visioning process?
  • Were board members able to see what was going on, do you think?

Rob Parsons and the prodigals

Rob is a lawyer, organization starter, and church leader in the UK. What he describes started a series of conference centre events at which 50,000 people came to pray for their very varied prodigals.

Rob Parsons and the prodigals


Can Christian faith stand up to intense unfair suffering?

I’ve been writing an article about the human tendency to suppress uncomfortable truth, and how that suppression affects teaching situations.

Shoshana Felman wrote two decades ago that two aspects mark every educational situation: things we want to know, and that which we absolutely cannot let ourselves know.

As research, I watched the nine-and-a-half hours of Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust film.

This blog entry is me trying to figure out how God could be fair.

The film centers on interviews with survivors and perpetrators of the Polish Nazi 1942-45 death camps, with contemporary on-site footage. The viewer is led to imagine the scenes that the witnesses describe.

Lanzmann’s Shoah is definitely not a mini-series. The filmmaker gives one break at the half-way mark. No photographs or 1940s film footage appears. Shoah is all testimony.

Holocaust deniers point out that the film’s philosophy allows that strictly literal truth is not its only concern.

Myself, I found the testimony compelling from beginning to end.

Self-deception by culprits to bystanders – even most victims – is in the film in every nook and cranny.

Then I went ahead and read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, Shadows on the Hudson.

Singer tells the story of the grown children of Eastern European Hasidic Jews who are somehow in America.

Their strictly-observant mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, grandparents, were reduced to ash by the Nazi murderers.

Can the children still believe in their parents’ God?

How can the God of Abraham be worshipped with integrity?

In dramatic form, Singer’s book does the metaphysics. Five-hundred-plus page-turner pages work out the possible character of God in the lives of the characters.


Why is America and Europe fascinated by the Holocaust? After all, there is a Holocaust industry.

What accounts for the Holocaust’s continuing reception by media outlets and in the public?

How weird was the Holocaust really?

Is German racism more or less horrific than Rwandan racism or Serbian racism? Is it the cruelty of Nazis who play with infant skulls? Is it the Nazi practice of having fathers dig graves for their families? Shooting one in three in a lineup?

What happened in the Holocaust has happened since.

In Europe, Serbs, Croats and Romanians outdid German cruelty in the same period – check it out.

Westerners expect African and Balkan barbarity.

Is it a reverse racism that advanced white European Germans should never have been capable of such viciousness?

They were so advanced: Look at their Goethe, Beethoven, Schiller.

As Singer’s characters say, there have been Nazis since forever. Look at Genghis Khan.

Is the Holocaust fascinating because the modern German industrial approach made huge-scale killing possible?

Left-wing progressives planned and carried out catastrophes. In China, Russia, Cambodia – and not against others, but against their own people who thought or lived in “non-revolutionary” ways.

Any of us discover irrationality in ourselves at the highest level of refinement. Ask Woody Allen.

But recognizing that any human is a potential barbarian does not vindicate God.

Could a good God allow horrors to happen?

Maybe, as Singer’s characters sometimes say, he allowed human free will and this means the possibility of catastrophes.

The Hebrew Bible already shows the faithful recognizing, “We were like sheep to be slaughtered.”

There is no shortage of Hebrew psalms anticipating or working through some horror or other.

“Sing us the songs of Zion,” say the Babylonian captors, against the backdrop of a God who has ripped his people from the land of promise.

Yet monotheism means that the one true God controls time and space.

In the final analysis, he at least allows all that happens.

If God is good, could he allow a Holocaust horror?

Maybe he is not good. Maybe he is not all-powerful.

Apologists could reply that life on Earth is nowhere near as bad as it could be. Human life is sustained all the time and we are mostly unaware. Disasters are aberrations.

I flew onto a runway recently. The plane made it from 35,000 feet at 600 miles an hour, with all tires intact. A miracle! To one passenger, anyway.

That there might be even more disasters is an abstract thought, not gripping.

A Holocaust is big enough to raise the question about God.

The walking dead of Singer’s books and short stories must have it right.

Post-Shoah, his characters cannot without such a god, and cannot live with him either.

If God is good, could he allow a Holocaust horror?

If an irrational, unbelievable, literally incredible return to a traditional Judaism is impossible for Singer’s characters, the answer must be a flat “No.”

The Holocaust was so massive and so vicious that the only right response seems to be silence.

The injustice to his own people does in worship of a god uninvolved in such suffering.

Without a God who enters into suffering – somehow – his chosen people bear the pain.

Does a crucified Son of God somehow vindicate God’s silence?

Isn’t the resurrection –a space-time historical event – God’s once-and-for-all hopeful answer?

The skeptic says that the Christian answer has not proven more livable over the centuries. Christian horrors are on display: Crusades, residential schools. From the beginning forced conversions were acceptable.

A skeptic could say that violence is in Christian faith at the very root. Take the Joshua/Judges command to annihilate the Canaanites, always taken as part of the Christian Bible.

Another skeptic might add: A millennium-and-a-half of European Christian anti-Semitism made the Nazi work possible.

Most of occupied Europe was complicit – even after one grants heroic exceptions.

The recent Kristen Scott Thomas film “Sarah’s Key” nails this, not to mention Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity” from 1969.

Claude Lanzmann’s documentary – and Raul Hilberg’s research on which it was built – make complicity crystal clear. In the Polish interviewees the anti-Semitism is barely concealed.

A believer in Christ can only affirm: Christianity too stands under the cross.

Perhaps Christianity stands under the cross most of all.

Christians should start by admitting abject failures in all branches of the faith as our own failures, from the get-go.

Christian life must be a repenting life. Now, more than ever.

If repenting tends to go to seed in the second generation, that is a call for strenuous catechesis and evangelism – at least.

The unfair suffering of others – and our complicity – is a call to admit again that Christian morality is only worth the living faith it draws on.

Anyone’s righteousness is only filthy rags.

God is not unfaithful.

Singer’s characters see the options to be mysticism or nihilism. “We don’t know what’s out there,” or, “Life has no meaning.”

Renewal at the foot of the cross is an option considered once, in mockery of a born-again character.

The only way to reconcile the justice of God with his complete final power is this: Only a crucified God as enough.

The theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote as much. Bonhoeffer’s tortured reflections that led to a religionless or churchless Christianity must have pivoted on the vindication of God.

The triune God is just – despite what we see in our own lives, in current affairs, in history.

That’s why the Cross is a deep enough symbol to sum up the whole faith.

The alternatives are bleak.

God came. Suffered. Rose again.

Hold onto it.

June 5/July 1, 2013