Poor Men Did Not

American Dream
Jason DeParle

In the end-welfare years, poor women went to work in record numbers.  But poor men did not.  And young, low-skilled black men – the sea in which women like Angie swim – continued to leave the job market at disconcerting rates.  Despite the booming economy, the employment rates of young black men fell faster in the 1990s than they did the decade before.  By the end of the nineties, only about half of young black men had jobs, compared with nearly 80% of Hispanics and whites.

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Most Sinners Are Very Nice People

The Contemplative Pastor
Eugene Peterson

The word sinner is a theological designation.  It is essential to insist on this.  It is not a moralistic judgment.  It is not a word that places humans somewhere along a continuum ranging from angel to ape, assessing them as relatively “good” or “bad.”  It designates humans in relation to God and sees them separated from God.  Sinner means something is awry between humans and God.  In that state people may be wicked, unhappy, anxious, and poor.  Or, they may be virtuous, happy, and affluent.  Those items are not part of the judgment.  The theological fact is that humans are not close to God and are not serving God.

To see a person as sinner, then, is not to see him or her as hypocritical, disgusting, or evil.  Most sinners are very nice people.  To call a man a sinner is not a blast at his manners or his morals.  It is a theological belief that the thing that matters most to him is forgiveness and grace…

An understanding of people as sinners enables a pastoral ministry to function without anger.  Accumulated resentment (a constant threat to pastors) is dissolved when unreal – that is, untheological – presuppositions are abandoned.  If people are sinners then pastors can concentrate on talking about God’s action in Jesus Christ instead of sitting around lamenting how bad the people are.  We already know they can’t make it.  We already have accepted their depravity.  We didn’t engage to be pastor to relax in their care or entrust ourselves to their saintly ways…

The happy result of a theological understanding of people as sinners is that the pastor is saved from continual surprise that they are in fact sinners….

Simply to be against sin is a poor basis for pastoral ministry.  But to see people as sinners – as rebels against God, missers of the mark, wanderers from the way – that establishes a basis for pastoral ministry that can proceed with great joy because it is announcing God’s great action in Jesus Christ “for sinners.”

Fear and Pride

The God Who is There Leader’s Guide
D.A. Carson

[3] Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

– John 3:3

Jonathan Edwards asserts that a high percentage of all virtue is common virtue, i.e., the fruit of common grace.  These must be distinguished from gospel grace and gospel virtue.  Two motives commonly lie behind common virtue: fear and pride.  The fear may be of God, law, parents, what others might think, and more; the pride says, in effect, “I am not as others are.”  Individuals who learn not to commit adultery or not to lie refrain from adultery and lying not because of a transformed heart but because of fear and pride.  They do not commit adultery and do not lie, not because they love sexual purity and truth-telling, or for God’s sake, but for their own sake.  They do not have transformed hearts and minds but restrained hearts and minds.  The irony is that a person may lie and even commit adultery out of fear and pride – and another may refuse to lie and commit adultery equally out of pride.  In short, the line between committing explicit sins and the works-righteousness of not committing those sins is very thin: both common vices and common virtues may be nourished by fear and pride.  To preach and teach mere morality may actually strengthen fear and pride within the congregation of the living God.  But where the gospel takes hold of people, where both justification and regeneration have taken place, we understand that we have been accepted and remain accepted out of sheer grace, we receive this by faith, and our ethics springs out of gratitude for this grace.

As Charlotte Bronte wrote in Jane Eyre, “Conventionality is not morality.  Self-righteousness is not religion.  To attack the first is not to assail the last.  To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.”

Scrappy Survivors

American Dream
Jason DeParle

More than most liberals, Clinton also showed an intuitive confidence in the welfare poor.  “Part of it was being a governor for twelve years and going to the welfare office and meeting people on welfare,” he told me.  Plus, “I’d always known poor folks.  I just never thought they were helpless.”  While Moynihan warned that without welfare, “the children are blown to the winds,” Clinton, in my later talk with him, described recipients in the same way that Angie described herself.  He called them “scrappy survivors.”  He had never adopted the apologetic tones of mainstream liberalism.  Perhaps the best speech of his presidency was his 1993 homily in Memphis, urging the black underclass to stop destroying itself.  Speaking from the pulpit where Martin Luther King Jr. had preached his last sermon, Clinton chided the congregation to imagine what King would say to them now.  “I fought for freedom, he would say, but not for the freedom of people to kill each other,” Clinton said.  “Not for the freedom of children to have children and the fathers of those children to walk away from them as if they don’t amount to anything…I did not fight for the right of black people to murder other black people with reckless abandon.”  A black audience in a poor black city interrupted with applause eleven times.

No One in Charge

The God Who is There Leader’s Guide
D.A. Carson

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

– Psalm 14:1a

A little over a year ago the British Humanist Association ran ads on London buses reading, “There’s probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  It is fascinating that the Association felt it wise to insert “probably”; if the person who says there is no God is a fool, I suppose this slogan represents cautious folly.  But why the British Humanist Association thinks that the nonexistence of God should reduce worry is more than a little puzzling.  If there is no God, it is hard to see how there is transcendent meaning.  Worse, no one is in charge, so there is no assurance that justice will be served at the end; there is no one to look after me, no one I can trust.

To Know One is a Fool

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Lyman Frank Baum

By good luck you came along and pulled me off the stake, and from what you say I am sure the Great Oz will give me brains as soon as we get to the Emerald City.”  “I hope so,” said Dorothy earnestly, “since you seem anxious to have them.”  “Oh yes; I am anxious,” returned the Scarecrow.  “It is an uncomfortable feeling to know one is a fool.”

The Language of Intimacy

The Contemplative Pastor
Eugene Peterson

Descriptive language is language about – it names what is there.  It orients us in reality.  It makes it possible for us to find our way in and out of intricate labyrinths.  Our schools specialize in teaching us this language.  Motivational language is language for – it uses words to get things done.  Commands are issued, promises made, requests proffered.  Such words get people to do things they wont do on their own initiative.  The advertising industry is our most skillful practitioner of this language art.

Indispensable as these uses of language are, there is another language more essential to our humanity and far more basic to the life of faith.  It is personal language.  It uses words to express oneself, to converse, to be in relationship…

Language I is the language of intimacy and relationship.  It is the first language we learn.  Initially, it is not articulate speech.  The language that passes between parent and infant is incredibly rich in meaning but less than impressive in content.  The coos and cries of the infant do not parse.  The nonsense syllables of the parent have no dictionary definitions.  But in the exchange of gurgles and out-of-tune hums, trust develops.  Parent whispers transmute infant screams into grunts of hope.  The cornerstone words in the language are names, or pet names: mama, papa.  For all its limited vocabulary and butchered syntax, it seems more than adequate to bring into expression the realities of a complex and profound love.  Language I is primary language, the basic language for expressing and developing the human condition.

Language II is the language of information.  As we grow, we find this marvelous world of things surrounding us, and everything has a name: rock, water, doll, bottle.  Gradually through the acquisition of language, we are oriented in a world of objects.  Beyond the relational intimacy with persons with which we begin, we find our way in an objective environment of trees and fire engines and weather.  Day after day words are added.  Things named are no longer strange but familiar.  We make friends with the world.  We learn to speak in sentences, making connections.  The world is wonderfully various and our language enables us to account for it, recognizing what is there and how it is put together.  Language II is the major language used in schools.

Language III is the language of motivation.  We discover early on that words have the power to make things happen, to bring something out of nothing, to move inert figures into purposive action.  An infant wail brings food and a dry diaper.  A parental command arrests a childish tantrum.  No physical force is involved.  No material causation is visible.  Just a word: stop, go, shut up, speak up, eat everything on your plate.  We are moved by language and use it to move others.  Children acquire a surprising proficiency in this language, moving people much bigger and more intelligent than themselves to strenuous activity (and often against both the inclination and better judgment of these people).  Language III is the predominant language of advertising and politics…

Informational language (II) and motivational language (III) dominate our society…Meanwhile Language I, the language of intimacy, the language that develops relationships of trust and hope and understanding, languishes.  Once we are clear of the cradle, we find less and less occasion to use it.

Less Awesome

The Contemplative Pastor
Eugene Peterson

Prayer is not a work that pastors are often asked to do except in ceremonial ways.  Most pastoral work actually erodes prayer.  The reason is obvious: people are not comfortable with God in their lives.  They prefer something less awesome and more informal.  Something, in fact, like a pastor.  Reassuring, accessible, easygoing.  People would rather talk to the pastor than to God.  And so it happens that without anyone actually intending it, prayer is pushed to the sidelines.

“This is My World”

The God Who is There Leader’s Guide
D.A. Carson

[1] Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” [2] And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, [3] but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” [4] But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. [5] For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” [6] So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

– Genesis 3:1–6

A young schoolteacher in Northern Ireland once told me how she taught the substance of these early chapters of Genesis.  Fresh out of college, she found herself a job teaching “religious education” (still common in the United Kingdom) to young boys in a rather rough school.  She was making no headway at all.  She decided to try another approach.  Using plaster of Paris, she got them to create their own little creatures (one imagines that some of them were pretty grotesque) and then, over the next days, their own world, complete with a village, animals, a little lake, fences, and so forth.  She had the boys make up the “backstory” behind each little creature and begin to weave the accounts together.  Eventually she asked them to pool ideas for some rules or laws that they thought they should impose to preserve some order.  The boys came up with quite a number, including a prohibition against going to close to the edge of the “world” lest they fall off and break, and a prohibition against going into the lake, where of course they would dissolve.  These and other “laws” were grouped together to see if they could be boiled down for simplicity.  The boys decided that the one law “Do what I tell you” was the most comprehensive.

The next day, the teacher came into class and asked them to imagine that one of the little creatures the boys had created stood up and said to his maker, rather defiantly, “Leave me alone.  This is my world, not yours.  I’ll do what I want.  I certainly do not want you telling me what to do.  Get out of here and leave me alone!”  how, then, should the boys respond?

There was a moment of stunned silence, and then one of the boys volunteered, “I’d break his bloody legs!”

That is how the teacher introduced Genesis 3.  And of course, the degree of culpable betrayal and defiance that we human beings display against the perfectly good, wise, and sovereign Creator is infinitely greater.