Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Invaluable Legacy of the Invisible Institution

The Invaluable Legacy of the Invisible Institution

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, in his now famous, or infamous, depending upon your perspective, speech to the National Press Club on April 28th, declared that attacks on him are attacks on the black church “by people who know nothing about the African American religious tradition.”

Rev. Wright also stated, “Maybe now we can begin to take steps to move the black religious tradition from the status of invisible to the status of invaluable for all the people in this country.”

To that, I stand and shout a hearty “Amen!”

The True Invisible Institution

Of course . . . that requires that we provide historically accurate analysis of the “Invisible Institution.” Historians coined the term “Invisible Institution” to describe the secretive worship services that African American Christians held under slavery. Without these, enslaved black Christians were forced to endure message after message by white preachers telling them repeatedly, “Slave obey your Master. Slave don’t steal from your Master. Slave don’t cheat your master.”

In order to enjoy true worship and biblically relevant preaching, slaves had to slip away into the woods or quietly worship in their cabins—away from the ever-watching eye of the Master or overseers.

Here’s the point relative to Rev. Wright’s insistence that the Invisible Institution must become invaluable. What message was preached? Was it a message of hatred, vitriolic anger, and resentment? Or, was it a biblically-based message of hope through mutual reliance upon Christ and the Body of Christ? Perhaps some eye-witness accounts might help to answer these essential questions.

Eye-witness Accounts

One ex-enslaved African American Christian known to us as “the Preacher from a God-fearing Plantation,” offers us our first glimpse of the Invisible Institution. “Meetings back there meant more than they do now. Then everybody’s heart was in tune, and when they called on God they made heaven ring. It was more than just Sunday meeting and then no more godliness for a week. They would steal off to the fields and in the thickets and there, with heads together around a kettle to deaden the sound, they called on God out of heavy hearts.”

What occurred during these covert worship services? Pastor Peter Randolph, himself an ex-slave, provides the details we seek. “Not being allowed to hold meetings on the plantation, the slaves assemble in the swamps, out of reach of the patrols. They have an understanding among themselves as to the time and place of getting together. This is often done by the first one arriving breaking boughs from the trees, and bending them in the direction of the selected spot.”

Once there, then what? “Arrangements are then made for conducting the exercises. They first ask each other how they feel, the state of their minds, etc. The male members then select a certain space, in separate groups, for their division of the meeting. Preaching in order by the brethren; then praying and singing all around, until they generally feel quite happy. The speaker usually commences by calling himself unworthy, and talks very slowly, until feeling the spirit, he grows excited.”

But that’s not all. Randolph elaborates on the inner condition and the interpersonal consolation they experience. “The slave forgets all his suffering, except to remind others of the trials during the past week, exclaiming, ‘Thank God, I shall not live here always!’ Then they pass from one to another, shaking hands, bidding each other farewell, promising, should they meet no more on earth, to strive to meet in heaven, where all is joy, happiness and liberty. As they separate, they sing a parting hymn of praise.”

The Visible Institution

Of course, in the North, and later after Emancipation in the South, there arose the great African American churches. Historically, what type of preaching of the Word do we uncover? Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, the great pastor, educator, and historian of the African Methodist Episcopal Church speaks about the Word preached in the Church. “So that whensoever the Gospel is preached in this house, it may descend with all its purity, power, and demonstration upon the hearts of the unrepentant, turning them from darkness to light, and from power of sin and Satan unto God; that its sanctifying influences may be felt in the souls of all believers, lifting their desires, their hopes, and their affections, from earth to heaven, and leading back the wandering sheep of the house of Israel, into the fold of eternal life.”

According to Bishop Payne, the Word preached in the church was then to be lived out and depended upon in every day life during the week as daily nourishment and spiritual direction. “An individual man or woman must never follow their own conviction in regard to moral, religious, civil, or political questions until they are first tested by the unerring Word of God. If a conviction infringes upon the written Word of God, or in any manner conflicts with that Word, the conviction is not to be followed. It is our duty to abandon it. The only safe guide for man or woman, young or old, rich or poor, learned or unlearned, pastor or people is the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible.”

Celebrating the Historic Value of the Black Church

Absolutely—the Invisible Institution of the historic Black Church is invaluable—when we understand with historical accuracy the nature of the Invisible Institution. These brief glimpses can only whet one’s appetite. For a full course meal, you may want to consider my work, Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.

Throughout this book we learn that African American Christians—pastors and lay people—unlike the caricature displayed in Rev. Wright’s recent comments, lived Word-based lives that focused upon applying biblical truth to their horrific suffering. Never minimizing their suffering; instead they maximized God’s grace and the healing power of salvation from sin and the hope-giving power of a caring Savior and a connected congregation. Indeed, these are invaluable lessons of the Invisible Institution!

[1]Johnson, God Struck Me Dead, p. 73.
[2] Randolph, From Slave Cabin to Pulpit, pp. 112-113.
[3] Ibid., p. 113.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Washington, James, ed. Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans, p. 36.
[6] Payne, Daniel Alexander. Recollections of Seventy Years, pp. 233-234.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Church Racism

Church Racism

Let’s be clear—there is no “typical” African American church. Just like there is no “typical” white church. Any statement coming from any person of any color that suggests there is one, monolithic, stereotypical style of “doing church” that represents and summarizes all black churches, is quite simply wrong at best, and racist at worst.

So, what has my dander up today? The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former Senior Pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (Barack Obama’s home church), launched into a diatribe at the National Press Club on Monday, April 28. Now, lest someone label me “racist” for taking on the Rev. Wright, please realize that even Barack Obama, who until recently tried to give his former pastor the benefit of the doubt, has now expressed outrage at Wright’s recent comments.

My outrage is directed primarily toward one specific claim in Wright’s speech to the National Press Club—that his fiery denunciations of white America and his radical accusations against the American government (which Barack Obama disavows) are par for the course for the typical African American church, and that historically, the African American pulpit has always spewed such vitriolic, hateful, and angry messages.

As just one example of many that counter Wright's contention, consider Charles Babington's (of the Associate Press) interview with John Overton of Chapel Hill, NC. Overton noted, "I was the only white person" for about a year at a black church in Beaufort. "I never heard anybody talk like that."

Rev. Wright claims that disagreements with him are an attack on the black church. Such could be the case only if one viewed Wright as representative of the typical black preacher.

Having studied in detail the historical African American church (please see my book, Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction), having worshipped and preached in scores of African American churches, having trained hundreds of African American pastors, and being friends with scores of faithful African American ministers, I can tell you authoritatively that many pulpits in black churches historically and today have focused on rightly dividing the Word of truth. When they have exhorted America and/or white Americans, it has been in a humble spirit of biblical and prophetic ministry, calling all Americans, including blacks, to salvation in Christ and social justice for all.

But the Rev. Wright is not the only man of color who has recently stereotyped the black church. In an otherwise excellent book (The Decline of African American Theology), the Rev. Thabiti M. Anyabwile declares that the stereotypical black church has moved from biblical faith to cultural captivity (for my full review go to:

Again, while respecting the Rev. Anyabwile, I respectfully disagree with his stereotyped assessment. Many black pulpits historically and currently highlight the biblical preaching and teaching of the Word.

Honestly, I’m confused what value people think it may bring to offer one-sided, stereotypical, inaccurate views of the black church and the black pulpit. If we are ever to heal racial divides, then we must start with facts and with truth. And the facts are clear—the black church, just like the white church, comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors—many remain faithful to the Lord and to the Word. To say otherwise is, frankly, church racism.

Sunday, April 20, 2008



This Sunday I spoke at the three morning services at Faith Baptist Church in Lafayette, Indiana on 2 Corinthians 1:3-11. Before each message the song Held written by Krista Wells and performed by Natalie Grant was sung.

Here's the link to the powerful song and here are the words themselves.

Held, Written by Krista Wells, Sung by Natalie Grant


Two months is too little. They let him go. They had no sudden healing. To think that providence would Take a child from his mother while she prays Is appalling. Who told us we’d be rescued? What has changed and why should we be saved from nightmares? We’re asking why this happens To us who have died to live? It’s unfair. Chorus: This is what it means to be held. How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life And you survive. This is what it is to be loved. And to know that the promise was When everything fell we’d be held. This hand is bitterness. We want to taste it, let the hatred know our sorrow. The wise hands open slowly to lilies of the valley and tomorrow. (Chorus) This is what it means to be held. How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life And you survive. This is what it is to be loved. And to know that the promise was When everything fell we’d be held. Bridge: If hope is born of suffering. If this is only the beginning. Can we not wait for one hour watching for our Savior? (Chorus) This is what it means to be held. How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life And you survive. This is what it is to be loved. And to know that the promise was When everything fell we’d be held.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bitter or Better?

Bitter or Better?

The “buzz” of late has focused on one presidential candidate’s statement that during times of hardship, bitterness leads people to turn to God. Whether taken out of context or not, perhaps it will be helpful to reflect on someone in Church history who faced hardship beyond imagination, and instead of turning bitter, turned better—by focusing on God’s-perspective.

Olaudah Equiano, a Christian and an enslaved African American, began his life story with these words, “I acknowledge the mercies of Providence in every occurrence of my life.” His words might seem trite until we realize that they introduce the narrative of his harrowing kidnapping and enslavement.

Equiano was born free in 1745 in the kingdom of Benin on the coast of Africa. The youngest of seven children, his loving parents gave him the name Olaudah, signifying favored one. Indeed, he lived a favored life in his idyllic upbringing in a simple and quiet village where his father served as the “chief man” who decided disputes, and where his mother adored him dearly.

At age ten, it all came crashing down. “One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both; and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, tied our hands, and ran off with us into the nearest woods: and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night.”

Bathed in Tears

His kidnappers then unbound Equiano and his sister. Overpowered by fatigue and grief, they had just one source of relief. “The only comfort we had was in being in one another’s arms all that night, and bathing each other with our tears.”

Equiano and his sister were soon deprived of even the comfort of weeping together. “The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other’s arms; it was in vain that we besought them not to part us: she was torn from me, and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continually; and for several days did not eat any thing but what they forced into my mouth.”

It was during these evil circumstances, and many more to come, that Equiano acknowledged his heavenly Father’s good heart and Christ’s merciful providence in every occurrence of his life. He makes the sweeping affirmation that, even in the face of human evil, God is friendly and benevolent, able and willing to turn into good ends whatever may occur. He believed that God squeezes from evil itself a literal blessing.

By Observation We Become Better and Wiser

Equiano ends his narrative with these closing words of counsel. “I early accustomed myself to look at the hand of God in the minutest occurrence, and to learn from it a lesson of morality and religion; and in this light every circumstance I have related was to me of importance. After all, what makes any event important, unless by it’s observation we become better and wiser, and learn ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God!’”

Oluadah Equiano moved beyond the suffering. He faced his suffering candidly reminding us that it’s normal to hurt. He suffered face to face with God, recognizing that it’s supernatural to hope. He turned from bitterness because he choose a better perspective—God’s eternal perspective.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Future of Biblical Counseling: Dreaming a Dozen Dreams, Part III

The Future of Biblical Counseling:
Dreaming a Dozen Dreams, Part III

Note: Please read my April 17, 2008 blog for Part II of this post.

Dream Number Eight: Biblical Counseling Will Be Holistic in Theory

Biblical counseling will focus on the full range of human nature created in the image of God (imago Dei). A holistic biblical understanding of the imago Dei includes seeing human beings as relational beings who desire (our spiritual, social, and self-aware capacities), rational beings who think, volitional beings who choose, emotional beings who experience, and physical beings who act. Biblical counseling models of change will focus on each of these areas, seeing the human personality as holistically united.

It will not deny the interplay or the complexity of our mind/brain and body/soul connection. Such biblical counseling will take seriously the role of the brain (in a fallen world in an unglorified body) and its impact on healthy human functioning.

Dream Number Nine: Biblical Counseling Will Be Holistic in Methodology

In Christian counseling today, there seems to be a great divide between models that focus on suffering and those that focus on sinning. Biblical counseling will treat both suffering and sin by recognizing that God’s Word is profitable for dealing with the evils we have suffered (soul care) as well as with the sins we have committed (spiritual direction). True biblical counseling offers comfort for the hurting as well as confrontation for the hardened. It provides sustaining and healing for those battered by life as well as reconciling and guiding for those ensnared by Satan.

Sustaining and healing (soul care for suffering) are classic terms in the history of Christian pastoral care.
[1] Through sustaining and healing, biblical counselors will offer parakaletic care (called alongside to comfort—like the Holy Spirit our Divine Comforter, John 14:15-31; 2 Corinthians 1:3-11).[2]

Reconciling and guiding (spiritual direction for sin and sanctification) are equally historic terms.
[3] Through reconciling and guiding, God will use biblical counselors to empower repentant and forgiven believers to apply principles of growth in grace.

Dream Number Ten: Biblical Counseling Will Be Holistic in Equipping

Many training models for biblical counseling tend to focus either on content (biblical truth), competence (relational skillfulness/counseling techniques), character (the counselor’s spiritual formation), or on community (connecting as the Body of Christ). Future equipping in biblical counseling will make no division between content, competence, character, and community.

Scriptural insight, learned in the context of intimate Christian community, and applied to the spiritual character development of the counselor-in-training will result in the relational competency necessary to interact soul-to-soul and deeply impact others for Christ. This holistic, four-fold model, applied in lay, pastoral, and professional Christian counseling training, will produce maturing wounded healers.

Dream Number Eleven: Biblical Counseling Will Be Universal

The Apostle Paul insists that all mature, equipped believers are competent to counsel (Romans 15:14). Therefore, biblical counseling is universal—it is what lay people do as spiritual friends, what pastors do as soul physicians, and what professional Christian counselors do as caregivers.

Put another way, biblical counseling and Christian counseling are synonymous. That thought is sure to surprise some and raise objections from others. However, biblical counseling is a mindset, a perspective, a worldview, a way of looking at life that informs how we understand people, problems, and solutions. It is universal in that it shapes our view of the universe based upon the view of the universe revealed by the Creator of the universe.

Sometimes we fail to grasp that all counselors counsel out of some worldview. The Bible provides the worldview out of which Christian counselors minister. It doesn’t imply an endless stream of Bible quotes thrown at a counselee or parishioner like a lucky charm from our toolbox of canned verses. Instead, it results in unique, person-specific, situation-specific, naturally-flowing spiritual conversations and appropriate, relevant, shared scriptural explorations built from a comprehensive worldview.

Dream Number Twelve: Biblical Counseling Will Be Multi-Cultural

The fact that biblical counseling is universal in no way excludes the truth that biblical counseling should be and will be multi-cultural—integrating into its universal worldview the unique Christian perspectives of both genders, all races, and all nationalities (Revelation 5:9).

The day of exclusive theory-building by white males (I am one) and of history-making by dead white males, thankfully, is over. Historical and contemporary insights and practices derived from Christian women and men from all people groups must be integrated into our biblical counseling worldview. Otherwise, it is hypocritical to call it a worldview.

Conclusion: Daring to Dream

I dream of the day when I speak on biblical counseling and someone says, “When you say ‘biblical counseling,’ do you mean lay, pastoral, and professional Christian counseling that is scriptural, theological, historical, positive, relational, relevant, transformative, holistic in theory, holistic in methodology, holistic in equipping, universal, and multi-cultural?” Together, let’s make that dream a reality so that when we place “biblical” in front of “counseling,” pastors, seminary students, professional Christian counselors, and lay spiritual friends respond with joyful anticipation.

[1]William Clebsch and Charles Jaekle. Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective. New York: Harper & Row, 1964, p. 8.
[2]See Tim Clinton and George Ohlschlager, Competent Christian Counseling: Foundations and Practice of Compassionate Soul Care. Colorado Springs, Waterbrook, 2002, pp. 54-61. See also, Robert Kellemen, Spiritual Friends: A Methodology of Soul Care and Spiritual Direction. Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 2007, pp. 39-57.
[3]William Clebsch & Charles Jaekle. Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective. New York: Harper & Row, 1964, p. 9.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Future of Biblical Counseling: Dreaming a Dozen Dreams, Part II

The Future of Biblical Counseling:
Dreaming a Dozen Dreams, Part II

Note: Please read my April 16, 2008 blog for Part I of this post.

Dream Number Four: Biblical Counseling Will Be Positive

The modern history of biblical counseling has all too often become enmeshed with negativity, biting criticism, territory-protecting, camp-building, and “againstness.” Biblical counseling has often defined itself by being anti-this or anti-that. That’s not biblical counseling; that’s “Corinthian counseling” (1 Corinthians 1:10-17), a carnal caricature of the truth.

In the future, biblical counseling will be known as “Berean counseling” (Acts 17:11). Biblical counselors will have a critical mind minus the critical spirit. They will seek to focus positively on rightly understanding the Word (2 Timothy 2:15), on searching the Scriptures to evaluate human theory with discernment, and on graciously interacting with those with whom they disagree, while emphasizing the affirmative attitude that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).

Dream Number Five: Biblical Counseling Will Be Relational

In the future, the Trinitarian roots of our faith will blossom as biblical counselors will be known by their fruit—the fruit of compassion and passion. As the God of the Bible is the eternal Community of intimate Oneness, so biblical counselors will eschews aloofness in favor of what one African American friend describes as “real and raw counseling.”

While techniques, skills, and tools of competency will not be ignored, soul-to-soul relating will be emphasized. When put into practice, those skills will highlight neither directive nor non-directive counseling. Rather, they will birth collaborative counseling where the counselor, the counselee, and the Divine Counselor form a trialogical relationship.

Dream Number Six: Biblical Counseling Will Be Relevant

The pejorative stereotype of biblical counseling as “take two verses and call me in the morning” will be replaced with the constructive identity of “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). When people think of the biblical counselor, they will think of “Jesus with skin on” and be filled with words of hope like, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

It is not enough to promote the sufficiency of the Word if we do not also minister in such a way that demonstrates the relevancy of God’s Word. Problems in living that most people label only as psychological disorders curable only by psychological methodologies will be seen as spiritual, relational, mental, volitional, and emotional issues addressed in the Book of Life by the Author of Life so that we can live the abundant life (John 10:10).

Dream Number Seven: Biblical Counseling Will Be Transformative

Biblical counseling applies the principles of progressive sanctification to the daily lives of believers. It does so through spiritual formation which cultivates communion with Christ and conformity to Christ through the practice of the biblical/historical individual and corporate spiritual disciplines. Historically these two fields of biblical counseling and spiritual formation were one. It is our dream that they once again become synonymous—hence our BCSF Network name and mission.

Such transformative biblical counseling will highlight God’s role and our responsibility in spiritual growth through its emphasis on the cultivation of the disciplines that connect us to Christ’s resurrection power. It will underscore the inner life through its emphasis on forming the character of Christ in us—our inner life increasingly mirroring the inner life of Christ. It will accentuate the Body of Christ by encouraging the corporate spiritual disciplines and by equipping believers in the individual spiritual disciplines.

Transformative biblical counseling will require the development of a comprehensive biblical theology of the spiritual life that provides the basis for a relevant biblical methodology for spiritual growth. Biblical counseling and spiritual formation will offer a theological and practical approach to sanctification that is effective in the “real” world where people hope, dream, stumble, fall, and live everyday.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Future of Biblical Counseling: Dreaming a Dozen Dreams, Part 1

The Future of Biblical Counseling:
Dreaming a Dozen Dreams, Part 1

As I speak around the country on biblical counseling and spiritual formation, I’m frequently asked the question. “When you say ‘biblical counseling,’ you don’t mean ___________ do you?” Various people fill in that blank with different labels—all negative to them. What a shame that placing the word “biblical” in front of “counseling” causes so many in the church to recoil in fear. Something has gone terribly wrong.

What Makes Biblical Counseling Biblical?

But there’s good news—the tide is turning. Warped caricatures of biblical counseling are being replaced by scripturally and historically accurate portraits of counseling that are truly biblical—and attractive (Titus 2:10). While no one can provide the final, authoritative definition of biblical counseling, I offer for your consideration this summary understanding.

Biblical counseling depends upon the Holy Spirit to relate God’s inspired truth about people, problems, and solutions to human suffering and sin to empower people to glorify God by cultivating conformity to Christ and communion with Christ and the Body of Christ.

Given this working definition, envision with me the nature and shape of the future of biblical counseling—twelve dreams of one possible future for biblical counseling as practiced by lay spiritual friends, pastors, and professional Christian counselors.

Dream Number One: Biblical Counseling Will Be Scriptural

Biblical counseling will cling tenaciously to the supremacy, sufficiency, and profundity (depth of wisdom) of the Scriptures. God has provided us with all that we need for godly living (2 Peter 1:3). The Scriptures, rightly interpreted and carefully applied, offer us all-encompassing insight for life.

The Bible provides us with the interpretive categories for making sense of life experiences from God’s perspective. By building our counseling models on Christ’s gospel of grace, we obtain wisdom for bringing people healing hope, the stimulus for change (God’s glory), and the understanding of human motivation that energizes these God-honoring changes.

Dream Number Two: Biblical Counseling Will Be Theological

Too often, current models of biblical counseling start and end at the Fall—focusing almost exclusively on human depravity. As a result, they often counsel Christians as if they are still unsaved—apart from the justifying, redeeming, regenerating, and reconciling work of Christ.

Biblical counseling will unite Creation, Fall, and Redemption. In studying a biblical theology of Creation, biblical counseling will examine people—God’s original design for the soul (anthropology). In probing the Fall, biblical counseling will examine problems—how sin brought personal depravity and suffering (hamartiology). In investigating the Bible’s teaching on Redemption, biblical counseling will examine solutions—the gospel of Christ’s grace which offers eternal salvation and provides us with daily victory in our ongoing battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil (soteriology).

Creation, Fall, and Redemption also have psychological correlates. Creation is biblical psychology—the biblical study of the soul. The Fall is biblical psychopathology—the biblical study of the sickness of sin. Redemption is biblical psychotherapy—the biblical study of God’s healing of the soul through Christ.

In the minds of some, the use of these psychological terms is invalid. How sad that we have allowed the world to steal these solidly biblical, theological, and historical terms. It is time that we took back our heritage and redefined these terms. Franz Delitzsch, writing in 1861 (before the advent of modern secular psychology), noted that “biblical psychology is no science of yesterday. It is one of the oldest sciences of the church.”[i]

Psychology is native to our faith. Not secular psychology, but biblical psychology—understanding and ministering to the soul designed by God, disordered by sin, and redeemed by grace.[ii]

Dream Number Three: Biblical Counseling Will Be Historical

The future of biblical counseling is the past. During the last twenty years we have witnessed the Christian community returning to its proper respect for that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1-3). History, Chesterton reminded us, is “the democracy of the dead.”

I vividly and sadly recall the “counseling wars” that occurred while I was in seminary—wars pitting competing modern counseling “camps” against each other. I also recall thinking, “Surely the Church has always helped hurting and hardened people.” That sentence sent me on a quarter-century search for the legacy of Christian soul care and spiritual direction. Simultaneous to that, God’s Spirit was moving many others along the same path.

Biblical counselors of the future will return to the ancient paths (Jeremiah 6:16). They will seek and apply the ancient legacy and consensual wisdom for living found in the writings of great historic Christian soul physicians.

Note: Future Blog posts will continue sharing further dreams for the future of biblical counseling.

[i]Franz Delitzsch, A System of Biblical Psychology. Second edition. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1861, p. 3.

[ii]See Eric Johnson, “Christ: The Lord of Psychology,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 25(1), 1997, pp. 11-27. See also, Robert Kellemen, Soul Physicians: A Theology of Soul Care and Spiritual Direction. Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 2007, pp. 131-141.

[iii]G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2004, p. 3.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

American Idol Shouts to the Lord . . . Without Jesus . . .

American Idol Shouts to the Lord . . . Without Jesus . . .

Last night the most viewed TV show in America, American Idol, hosted its second annual "Idol Gives Back" in hopes of raising over 100 million dollars for world-wide charities.

The shocker? The show's grand finale featured the eight remaining Idol contestants singing the Christian praise song, Shout to the Lord. America was shocked. Check out blogs and YouTube, etc., and you'll see quite the discussion. Much of the discussion relates not simply to Idol highlighting such an overtly Christian song, but to the Idol producers' decision to change the lyrics from "Our Jesus, Our Savior," to "Our Shepherd, Our Savior."

What to Make of This?

On the one hand, searches for Shout to the Lord are up exponentially on the Net. And, from the buzz, most people are finding the version with the original lyrics. On the same hand, clearly the One who is Shepherd and Savior is Jesus. Still on the same hand, the discussion alone is causing enough of a stir that millions are having conversations they otherwise would never engage in.

On the other hand, the song was written about Jesus. If the producers wanted to share a generic song, they could have chosen from any number of "inspirational ballads." What a blatant watering down and seeking to appeal to the masses.

Still, all hands considered, I'm glad the song was sung. Millions know exactly who was being praised. Millions of others are now hearing about the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the only exalted Savior.

As Idol judge Simon Cowell might say, "Well, other than offending millions of Christians by blotting out the name of Jesus in a song written to worship Jesus, I think . . . (pause for theatrical effect and said with a heavy English accent and a heavy dose of sarcasm) . . . artistically, this was . . . amazing!"

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Ammas: Spiritual Mothers

Ammas: Spiritual Mothers

Admittedly, hearing the word “Amma” can be puzzling. We’re more familiar with the word “Abba” from Romans 8:15 where we learn that through the Spirit of sonship we cry, “Abba, Father.” “Amma” comes from the same cultural context. Both Abba and Amma were terms of family endearment conveying honor and closeness. Calling a woman “Amma” communicated that she was a spiritual mother loved and respected by all her spiritual children.

Desert Spirituality: Experiencing the Geography of the Heart

Hearing the phrase “Desert Mother” or “desert spirituality” can also sound odd, ancient, foreign, and irrelevant to anything we experience today. And for some, these terms can even seem “unbiblical.” Yet, we will find that the desert spirituality of these Desert Mothers was scriptural and is relevant.

“Desert” did not necessarily mean a barren wasteland. Some of the Desert Mothers that we learn from in this chapter simply moved away from the city to rural, less-inhabited areas. Others did not move at all, instead selling most of their possessions in order to acquire enough land and lodgings to house a spiritual community of women and to accommodate the frequent spiritual pilgrims who sought them.

Regardless of location, the motivation remained the same. The Desert Mothers believed that the greatest enemies of the inner journey were hurry, crowds, and noise. They sought to create an environment that quieted the inner noise which kept them from hearing God’s Spirit speaking to their spirit through God’s inspired Word.
[i] Desert Mothers like Amma Syncletica focused on the geography of the heart. “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”[ii]

To further understand and relate to their movement toward desert spirituality, we have to understand two characteristics of the early Church—it was a city-centered faith and a home-centered faith. The book of Acts tells us that the Apostles shared the message of Jesus in the urban centers of the day. The Apostles targeted the mass of hungry, hurting people in thriving cities like Jerusalem, Antioch, Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, and Rome.

The destruction of the temple in 70 AD and the persecution of the church in ensuing years resulted in domestic dwellings becoming the place for community meetings. Local believers gathered in homes for the Lord’s Supper, baptism, worship, and teaching. Lay men and women were involved in personal evangelism and works of mercy to the poor, the orphaned, and to prisoners.

Desert spirituality sprung from this city-centered and home-centered culture. The movement away from urban centers was motivated by the belief that the church in the city was compromising with the culture of the secular world. The Desert Mothers and Fathers believed that the church was losing its prophetic voice as it yielded to cultural and political pressures and became organized more like the government than like a living organism.
[iv] Sound familiar? Sound relevant?

As patriarchs and matriarchs of extended families became more and more disenchanted with the political correctness of the church and the spiritual expediency of its leaders, they left the cities (or at least the secular attitude of the city), but rarely did they leave alone. The first “desert communities” usually included relatives, dependents, and household slaves (then considered family members). This inclusiveness had a deep impact upon desert spirituality. Life was centered around times of communal prayer, the group study and application of Scripture, joint ministry to the poor, and the collaborative application of the writings of the leaders of the movement.

The Desert Mothers based their decision to leave the worldliness of the secular city upon Christ’s model. They read and desired to apply passages like Luke 4:1, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert” (see also Matthew 4:1). “At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place.” (Luke 4:42). “Very early in the morning while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place” (Mark 6:31-32). “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone” (Matthew 14:23).

The Desert Mothers noticed and applied at least two major lessons from passages such as these. They saw the need for God’s people to find a respite from the worldliness of the world. Reading the verses that followed the ones quoted above, they also recognized the call for God’s people to return from their rest refreshed and renewed to be Christ’s servants in the world. The Desert Mothers that we study in this chapter were not secluded hermits. They were remembered as much for their public ministry to the poor and hurting as they were for their private spirituality. Their communal retreat away from secular urban centers was for the purpose of growing closer to Christ so that they could be empowered to share Christ’s truth in love to a lost and lonely world. While we might respond to our increasingly secular culture differently, while we might apply these passages differently, at least we can relate to their social motivation and biblical conviction.

[i]Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers, 15.
[ii]Kraemer, Maenads, Martyrs, Matrons, Monastics, 121.
[iii]Swan, 6-9.
[iv]Ibid., 9.
[v]Ibid., 8-9.