The Church’s Primary Role

Psalm 150.6
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

From John:
Usually when we say the church shouldn’t “be political,” what we mean is that it shouldn’t disagree with my politics. Politics is a poor substitute for the gospel. We must continually remind ourselves which one we must serve.

Reflection: The Church’s Primary Role
By Steven Dilla

It is easy to forget, in the deluge of political conversations that have consumed the past few months, that although the church’s role in this world necessarily involves politics, it is not itself political.

The book of Psalms spans every possible human emotion, reflects on geopolitics, laments evil, and cries out for godly leadership on earth—yet it concludes with three psalms dedicated entirely to praise.

The psalmist not only calls the Church to worship, but rebukes every earthly system of power and authority that will ultimately prove insufficient to deliver what humankind needs most. N.T. Wright, as he concludes his book Simply Jesus, reflects on how the church can maintain its focus on God’s calling and sovereignty amidst shifting political powers:

We must give full weight to the difficult but important biblical vision of God’s sovereignty over the nations and his determination to shape their fortunes to serve his higher purposes. This belief is so important for any vision of what it means to speak of Jesus’ kingship in the present time that we must spell it out slightly more fully before drawing the threads together.

First… God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic. He intends to bring that order to the world through the work, the thought, the planning, and the wisdom of human beings….

Second, even when the rulers are wild or wicked, God can bend their imaginings to serve his purpose…. Third, then, God will in the end call the nations to account….

Yes, God can and does work in all sorts of ways outside the church. There are many movements of thought and energy totally beyond the life of the church in which wise Christians can discern and celebrate God’s sovereign and gracious presence….

But we do not, because of that, lose sight of one of the church’s primary roles: to bear witness to the sovereign rule of Jesus, holding the world to account. And when I say “bear witness,” I mean it in the strong sense I spoke of earlier. Like a witness in a law court, we are not just telling about our private experiences. We are declaring things that, by their declaration, will change the way things are going.

Prayer: The Greeting
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.
Let none who look to you be put to shame.  — Psalm 25.1-2

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Prayers from The Divine Hours available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Amos 4 (Listen – 2:21)
Psalm 148-150 (Listen – 3:04)

Additional Reading
Read More about The Compelling Gospel of Billy Graham
The true gospel stands apart from political maneuvering and manipulation. We each may attempt to change it to suit ourselves, yet it is in fact working to change us.

Read More about Political Promises
May we not trade our role as ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom for an inferior role as a political party’s “yes-men.” May we speak up for the downtrodden and helpless no matter which party is against them.

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Trust and Self-Giving Love

Psalm 146.3-4
Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.

From John:
Today we take a look back at another post from two years ago that is still sharply relevant to us today. Whether we gloat or lament over a political outcome, we are confessing where our trust truly lies.

Reflection: Trust and Self-Giving Love
By Steven Dilla

There are two significant benefits to following a devotional reading plan. The first could be called an asynchronous benefit: scheduled reading leads us to places in Scripture we would otherwise not align with daily life (minor prophets, anyone?) and we are exposed to the full light and life of God’s word.

The synchronous benefit of reading Scripture along a pre-determined plan is that we see how often this sacred word collides with daily life. At The Park Forum we read a variant of the historic M’Cheyne Reading Plan—expanding the 19th-century preacher’s one year plan over two years. And today we come to a passage which could not be more timely.

Civilizations throughout history have looked to their leaders to save them—and though modernism has secularized this pursuit, it has not managed to mitigate it. Today the political right celebrates while the left laments—both confess their all-consuming trust in the leaders of our world.

In Simply Jesus N.T. Wright reflects:

We treat political leaders as heroes and demigods; they carry our dreams, our fantasies of how things should be. When we find out that they are only human after all, we turn on them, blaming them for the intractable problems that they, like their predecessors, haven’t been able to solve.

Wright then asks the question all too often glossed over in Scripture: “Why did people think that Jesus might be any different?” How is it that Christ offers a better solution?

Could it be that the paradoxical call of servant leadership, demonstrated through the moral character Jesus outlines in the Sermon on the Mount, offer a better way—a way in which God can be seen, known, and restore the brokenness of our world? Wright concludes:

When God wants to change the world… he sends the meek, the mourners, those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice, the peacemakers, and so on. Just as God’s whole style—his chosen way of operating—reflects his generous love, sharing his rule with his human creatures, so the way in which those humans then have to behave if they are to be agents of Jesus’ lordship reflects in its turn the same sense of vulnerable gentle, but powerful self-giving love.

Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Send forth your strength, O God; establish, O God, what you have wrought for us.  — Psalm 68.28

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Prayers from The Divine Hours available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Amos 3 (Listen – 2:11)
Psalm 146-147 (Listen – 3:09)

Additional Reading
Read More from N.T. Wright on Political Allegiance
It is impossible for genuine faith not to influence a person’s politics. Paul explains that Christian faith does not result in a doubling down on political ideology as a means toward “peace and security,” but in radical commitment to Christ.

Read More about Beginning of Righteousness
Spiritual maturity grows the immature curiosity of, “what would Jesus do?” to, “how will Christ live through what I chose to do?” This question presupposes freedom in Christ and demands intimacy to answer.

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Each month over 22,000 Park Forum email devotionals are read around the world. Support our readers with a monthly or a one time donation.

The Church, Politics, and the Future

Amos 2.11-12
“I also raised up prophets from among your children
and Nazirites from among your youths.
Is this not true, people of Israel?”
declares the Lord.
“But you made the Nazirites drink wine
and commanded the prophets not to prophesy.

From John:
Christians living faithfully will always suffer under governments—regardless of political promises, regardless of party affiliation, regardless of political alignment. If our political goals are to ease our own suffering, they have nothing to do with living out the gospel.

Reflection: The Church, Politics, and the Future
By Steven Dilla

“Christians in the first-century were a minority in a hostile world,” observed John Howard Yoder. A theologian and ethicist, Yoder believed that ancient Christianity’s minority status was radically different than the posture every Western Christian after Constantine would embrace. This historic standard is part of why the rapidly diminishing power of cultural Christianity in the U.S. has been so traumatic.

The Church, prior to Constantine, was defined by outward character and practice. Constantine effectively conscripted the West into Christianity—demanding they appear as Christian, or face brutal consequences for defiance. Because everyone essentially held the same external practices, the identity of a true Christian shifted inward, to the transformation of the heart and soul.

Over time the external signs of faith became less and less valued—until even the efficacy of an external sign was questioned. Yoder follows the logic of a modern Christian debating giving away all of his wealth:

What would happen if everyone did it? If everyone gave their wealth away what would we do for capital? If everyone loved their enemies who would ward off the Communists?

This argument could be met on other levels, but here our only point is to observe that such reasoning would have been preposterous in the early church and remains ludicrous wherever committed Christians accept realistically their minority status. Far more fitting than “What if everybody did it” would be its inverse, “What if nobody else acted like a Christian, but we did?”

In many ways, the faithful Christians celebrated throughout history are the ones who defied Yoder’s calculated control of external works of faith. “Anyone who has read Eberhard Bethge’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography knows it is impossible to distinguish between Bonhoeffer’s life and work,” writes theologian Stanley Hauerwas:

Bonhoeffer’s work from beginning to end was the attempt to reclaim the visibility of the church as the necessary condition for the proclamation of the gospel in a world that no longer privileged Christianity.

Hauerwas notes that, not only was Bonhoeffer’s faith deeply integrated into his life, but, “Bonhoeffer’s life that was at once theological and political.” Quoting from The Cost of Discipleship, Hauerwas continues:

According to Bonhoeffer sanctification, properly understood, is the church’s politics. For sanctification is only possible within the visible church community. “That is the ‘political’ character of the church community. A merely personal sanctification which seeks to bypass this openly visible separation of the church-community from the world confuses the pious desires of the religious flesh with the sanctification of the church-community, which has been accomplished in Christ’s death and is being actualized by the seal of God.”

Bonhoeffer saw that the holiness of the church is necessary for the redemption of the world.

Though Bonhoeffer saw American theology as superficial, he has many followers currently echoing his ethos for Christian praxis. A New Yorker profile on the Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore noted, “he says that Christians in America must learn to think of themselves as a marginal community, struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile secular culture.”

Moore tends toward introspection, admonishing Southern Baptists to think first—and often—about their own sins. The denomination was formed, in 1845, by white Southerners who split off from a national Baptist movement that was growing increasingly intolerant of slavery. Moore sees in his theological ancestors a cowardly and catastrophic willingness to ignore the uncomfortable. “If you call people to repentance for drunkenness, or for adultery, or for any number of personal sins, but you don’t say anything about slaveholding or about lynching,” he says, “you’re just baptizing the status quo.”

Though leaders change and the appearances of majority diminish, the call and foundation of the Church remain. Hauerwas, again quoting Bonhoeffer, concludes:

The church names that community that lives in radical hope in a world without hope. To so live means the church cannot help but be different from the world. Such a difference is not an end in itself but “automatically follow[s] from an authentic proclamation of the gospel.”

Prayer: The Greeting
Our of Zion, perfect in its beauty, God reveals himself in glory.
Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause; for God himself is judge.  — Psalm 50.2, 6

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Prayers from The Divine Hours available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Amos 2 (Listen – 2:12)
Psalm 145 (Listen – 2:19)

Additional Reading
Read More about A Different Kind of Exile
Living as outcasts in society has nearly always brought healing to the church through suffering. The historical church that suffers, tightens its grasp of the Gospel as it loses worldly influence and power.

Read More about being Undefiled at Heart
At times, like Daniel, we must beg for permission from governments and employers to follow our consciences. That the government may not relent, and we may be forced to eat what is given is a part of being an exile.

Articles:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Political Theology. Stanley Hauerwas for The University of Waterloo.
The New Evangelical Moral Minority. Kelefa Sanneh for The New Yorker.
A White Church No More. Russell Moore for The New York Times.
The Priestly Kingdom (pp. 42-45, draft provided by Duke). John Howard Yoder in Christian Ethics.

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Each month over 22,000 Park Forum email devotionals are read around the world. Support our readers with a monthly or a one time donation.

Breath, Reconsidered

Psalm 144.3-4
Lord, what are human beings that you care for them,
mere mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath;
their days are like a fleeting shadow.

John 3.5-8
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Reflection: Breath, Reconsidered
By John Tillman

We rightly think of the psalmist comparing us to breath as humbling. But not everything that humbles humiliates. When humbled we are prepared to be lifted up, by God.

In Aramaic and Greek the word for “Spirit,” “breath,” and “wind” is the same word. This makes Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus one in which we must carefully attune our ears to context. Jesus is purposefully mixing his meanings. As Eugene Peterson rhetorically asks in his book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, “What’s being talked about here, breathing, or weather, or God?”

Although the length of a breath may be a humbling downside, perhaps, there is also an upside.

Breath, Reconsidered

Lord, what are we that you care for us?
We are like a breath.

Like a breath, Lord, we pass from the earth.
Like a breath, Lord, insubstantial we seem.
Like a breath, Lord, some deep and some shallow.
Like a breath, Lord, we dissipate in the breeze.

But you gave us breath,
Your mouth on Adam’s lips.
And you redeemed breath
When Christ first drew it in
And you received his breath,
When his Spirit he released
He gave that Spirit to us
When on the disciples he breathed…

We are Adam’s first breath,
His first breath, re-breathed.

We are like a breath, we are a beginning
We are like a breath the first sign of life
We are like a breath, divine inspiration
We are like a breath, a baby’s first cry

We are the breath, of a worker,
drawn to take strength
We are the breath, of a mother,
that can warm frigid hands
We are the breath, of the preacher,
whose voice carries a dream
We are the breath, of a singer,
whose song fills the land

Breath sustains symphonies
Breath extinguishes candles
Breath ignites embers
Breath powers prophets
Breath connects lovers
Breath fills balloons
Breath is life

Breath serenades
Breath enlightens
Breath enlivens
Breath laughs
Breath shouts
Breath prays
Breath fills
Breath comes
Breath goes

Lord, what are we that you care for us?
We are like a breath.

Prayer: The Greeting
The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined from ore and purified seven times in the fire.  — Psalm 12.6

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Prayers from The Divine Hours available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Amos 1 (Listen – 2:38)
Psalm 144 (Listen – 1:56)

Additional Reading
Read More poetry from Accepting Jesus
From woman, formed of man
And formed of earth
God takes on flesh.
Though prophets are dumb
Profound cries of God
Are heard within the creche.

Read More about poetry and Walking the Way of Pain
Poetry has a way of putting into language that which we are unable to speak on our own. It communicates poignant, intentional thoughts, feelings, and expressions of all that we hold dear, but, perhaps, have never uttered aloud.

Support our Work
Each month over 22,000 Park Forum email devotionals are read around the world. Support our readers with a monthly or a one time donation.

Rend Your Hearts

Joel 2.12-13
Even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Rend your heart
and not your garments.

From John:
This weekend we read through the short book of Joel. Some books of the Bible are like towns off the beaten path that you only go to if you really want to. One of the benefits of a whole-Bible reading plan is not skipping over these uncommon destinations. Thank you for being a part of walking through God’s Word with our community.

Reflection: Rend Your Hearts
By John Tillman

Joel may be one of the least read books of the Bible, but other biblical authors certainly knew it well. In fact, Joel’s most famous passages are familiar because other biblical authors quote them or allude to them.

Joel is thought to be one of the early books of prophecy chronologically, and many other prophets pick up on Joel’s language, repeating the themes he introduces…
He speaks of The Day of the Lord as a dark day of judgement…
He speaks of the pouring out of God’s Spirit on men and women…
He foretells drought, a consuming fire, and a swarming, undefeatable army pictured as locusts, with God riding at the head of their columns…
He speaks of beating plowshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears. (A phrase which 100 years later Isaiah and his contemporary, Micah will reverse.)

Historians debate whether Joel’s locusts were allegorical or literal, but there is no doubt that the destruction comes from God in response to sin, and that this same God “relents from sending calamity.”

Joel tells people throughout Jerusalem to mourn and repent in traditional ways, which included to weep and to wail, to rend their garments and wear sackcloth. Then in chapter two he pivots, saying, “Rend your heart and not your garments.”

In ancient times, rending one’s clothing was a public sign of mourning or repentance. This formalized mourning might be due to the death of a family member, a personal crisis, or in response to more widespread events such as a national emergency or natural disaster.

Our modern world has nearly eliminated traditional social norms of mourning. Yet, we still use social media to engage in an approximate modern equivalent of rending one’s clothing. On many platforms our “cover” photos and profile photos are the outer garments that cover us and show the face we choose to the world. Like garments, they conceal and reveal. We can use them to feign happiness or signal our virtuous struggles and suffering.

Joel’s admonition is to go beyond public signals of mourning or confession. It is our heart that we must rend in mourning and confession, because God looks at the heart, not our outward appearance. When we rend our heart in community with others, we invite God’s power to work in us for redemption and restoration. As God speaks through Joel, “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten…”

God will replace what is lost—including replacing our hearts of stone with the pierced-heart of Jesus.

Prayer: The Request for Presence
I call with my whole heart; answer me, O Lord, that I may keep your statutes. — Psalm 119.145

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Prayers from The Divine Hours available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Joel 1 (Listen – 2:59)
Psalm 140-141 (Listen – 2:44)

This Weekend’s Readings
Joel 2 (Listen – 5:26) Psalm 142 (Listen – 1:01)
Joel 3 (Listen – 3:20) Psalm 143 (Listen – 1:34)

Additional Reading
Read More about The Radical Procedure of the Gospel
It’s lovely to think of God giving us a new heart and putting a new Spirit within us. But it is terrifying to admit to the diagnoses that would lead to such a radical procedure.

Read More about Where Our Hearts Are
No matter how distracted we become, and no matter how often we misplace our hearts—serving gods of mammon, fashion, and culture—God won’t forget us. He stands ready for us to return to him.

Support our Work
Each month over 22,000 Park Forum email devotionals are read around the world. Support our readers with a monthly or a one time donation.

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