Moving Forward: Lessons Learned as a Pastor in Limbo

Yesterday marked my fifth anniversary at East Frankfort Baptist Church. To celebrate the occasion, I want to repost what I wrote then reflecting on what I learned between ministries.

Yesterday I preached my first official sermon as the pastor at East Frankfort Baptist Church. My wife, family, and I are excited where God has placed us and trust we will be on the front line of God’s great work there. Although the full story of how we got here goes beyond the purpose of this blog, I will say that this has been a long, and at times exhausting, trip. But we praise the Lord for bringing us here.

The short of the story is simple. I have applied at dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of churches around the country. I have been interviewed by many of them, assured to be on the short list of most of them, and turned down by some of them. At the beginning of the process, I thought for sure my resume, education, experience, and resources (videos, podcasts, writings, etc.) made me a viable candidate at many of these churches. Viable, yes. But not hirable for many.

I have several weaknesses as a candidate. First, I am young (30) and look even younger. Secondly, I have three degrees from a very Calvinist college and seminary and thus most assume I am a 5-point Calvinists. Thirdly, many smaller churches assume “a guy like him wouldn’t want a church like us.” Likewise larger churches do not see the type of guy they are looking for. Thus I was on everyone’ short-list but never presented as the final candidate.

Looking back, though, I see how the Lord was at work. Here are a few thoughts.

1. God’s Sovereignty Means God’s Timing

I have always considered myself a patient person but through this experience I have learned that I am not as patient as I previously thought. The search process is a test of patience. Waiting for potential opportunities to open. Waiting for committees to receive and go through resumes. Waiting to be contacted by potential churches and ministry opportunities. Waiting for questionnaires. Waiting to hear back again. Waiting for interviews. Waiting to hear back again. Waiting for another interview. Waiting to hear back again. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

At any time one of those stages fall through, you start over. At one point there were at least eight churches in which informed me I was among their final 3. Only one panned out in the end and I turned them down feeling uncalled to that church. It took about six months for each church to finish their search process after I was notified of being a finalists.

This call to patience takes it toll more on the family than it does on the candidate and certainly that was our experience. My children visited a lot of churches with me. My wife waited for phone calls too. We all had to learn patience . . . anxiously.

2. Most Churches are Sicker Than Advertised

The average search committee is reflective of the church they represent. That is a good thing. With that said, many committees are incompetent, poorly led, and reflect the poor situation of their congregation. After one interview with a particular church, I knew almost immediately not to continue the process. Only one committee member came prepared with questions while the rest clearly had given little thought to the process, what they were looking for in a pastor, etc.

All of this is to say that though we all known that the current church is sick, the church is more sick than even I had known. Many churches are grossly unaware of what a pastor is and does, what a pastor needs and requires, or even what the church is and does.

It is imperative that pastors stop playing church and start leading the church for many are in dire straits.

3. Everyone has opinions. Few have answers

How long should one’s resume be? What should it include? How should you answer certain questions? What questions should you ask? How do you determine if you should leave a ministry or transition to another?

Everyone has opinions, but few have answers. At the end of the day, I have learned to listen to those wiser than me, trust in God’s leadership, and always know that God will have His way in the end.

4. Connections are Important, and Not Just For Reasons You Think.

We have heard the old saying that in life, “its not what you know, its who you know.” To a certain extent, this is true in ministry. Its an aspect I’m not a fan of, but it is a reality. Yet there is another side of it. My rejection of that mentality made me a bit of a lone ranger minister. I wanted to “prove” myself and allow my record to speak for itself. I have a reputation I am proud of. Yet throughout this process, God gave me the opportunity to make some connections that has open my eyes to see what God is doing in the church today.

I am excited about what God is doing in the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention. I am grateful for the many ministers and servants in the church I’ve met through this process and am excited about the future of Christianity in Kentucky and America. There are many challenges ahead of us, but I have witnessed God raise great men and women who have an unquenchable passion for Jesus.

So my advice to young ministers would be to simply avoid private ministry and make connections for the right reasons.

5. The Future of the Church is Bright

There is no doubt we live in a post-Christian culture. As a result, the church is suffering from insignificance and a lack of true-gospel vision. Yet I believe our future as a convention and church is still bright. I am excited about what God has in stored for us moving forward. God has raised great leaders locally, state-wide, nationally, and internationally. The seminaries are largely producing men and families serious about Jesus, the gospel, and gospel-ministry.

Though as I type this the future looks bleak. Yet I still see God clearly at work moving pieces that I believe are strategic and prove that He is always a step ahead of humanity. No doubt things will get worse, but I am confident that God is still up to something good.

Conclusion

In the end, I would note that the past few years have been difficult on me and my family for a host of reasons. Yet because we are confident that God is on his throne, we have remained hopeful. I do not know what the next year, ten years, or century will look like for us or for the church. I offer myself only as a vessel of Christ for the glory of Christ. What I do know is that God knows what he is doing and I will continue to trust him with our future.

“Beowulf” A Doug Wilson Rendering: A Review

Image result for doug wilson beowulf

Such wealth can rob wisdom, steal wit from mankind,
Might overcome anyone, all men are vulnerable,
However you hide it – heed this fair warning!

-Lines, 2766-2768, page 97

I am currently teaching a literature class to middle and high homeschoolers. One of the books we are reading is Beowulf. Thus I am reposting all of my reviews of the book and other resources.

 

My favorite story of all time is without a doubt the archaic English poem, Beowulf which tells the story of the eponymous character’s battle with three infamous monsters, Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, and the gold-hoarding dragon. At its heart, Beowulf, is an exploration – really an indictment – of human nature. We are more monster than man, more Grendel than Beowulf.

Of all the essays, articles, and explorations of the book I have read, the most sightful is Doug Wilson. I was first introduced to his theology of Beowulf in his Touchstone article The Anglo-Saxon Evangel The Beowulf Poet Was a Shrewd Christian Apologist. Years later, this essay was expanded along with a full rendering of the poem itself in his book Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering.

First, what does Wilson mean by “rendering?” In the introduction, Wilson explains that his version of Beowulf is not a translation in the traditional sense. Certainly it is a type of translation. The poem was originally written in Old English and is like reading a foreign language to the modern reader. What Wilson does is not so much translation, but emphasizes the alliteration of the poem.

A few examples will suffice. First is the coming of Grendel with the emphasises underlined:

Till finally a fiend, fresh out of Hell,
Began to give grief with ghoulish, wild haunting.
This grim monster was Grendel, gifted with terror,
haunting marches and moors, marauder of villages,
Malicious and miserable, in marches he lived
For some time with the terrors, the type who were banished
By the Creator, as kinsmen of Cain, who had blood on his hands.
The Eternal Almighty had everlasting vengeance for Abel.
Cain had gotten no good from his grasping in envy
For the Lord of all life from the light drove the kin-slayer. (lines 100-109, emphasis mine)

Typically, these alliterations number three per line. Another example comes from Beowulf dispensing wisdom regarding how the giving of gold and brides are not enough to satiate the greed and envy of men:

The Shielding-king sought this, as it seemed wise to him,
To keep safe his kingdom; he considered it prudent
To make fast a marriage and master the feuds,
Stop the slaughtering. But sledom it happens.
When someone was slain, that the spears may rest,
Though the bride be beautiful, but a brief time. (lines, 2028-2033, emphasis mine)

Preference for this approach is subjective. I appreciate this unique approach. There are plenty of quailty translations and Wilson highlights his favorites in the introduction. This rendering adds to the richness of the poem itself.

Yet the best part of the book itself is not the rendering of the poem, but the essays at the end of the book exploring its structure and deeper meaning. The final essay exploring the poem’s structure will be lost on the average reader but will be worth returning to. It is the essay, entitled “Beowulf: The UnChrist,” is itself worth the price of the book itself.

As explored in the Touchstone article linked to above, Wilson believes that Beowulf is a “shrewd apologetic” for the Christian faith. Embedded between the monsters are human monsters who commit the same grisley crimes. The family fueds, the bloody battles, and the greedy kings are just as wicked as the demonic beasts Beowulf defeats.

Two of the best examples come from Unferth who challenges Beowulf prior to his battle with Grendel and Wiglaf’s lament following Beowulf’s death. Unferth is shown to be guilty of fratricide – the great sin of Cain (the ancestor of Grendel). In Wiglaf’s lament, he mourns the coming onslaught from Swedes who will renew their feud with the Geats once they discover Beowulf is dead.

These vikings are obsessed with gold, power, and wealth. They posess such wealth by feuding and stealing from other nations and villages. This is, what Tolkien coined, “dragon-sickness” and it consumes everyone but Beowulf himself who demands his wealth be given to the people, not hoarded like a dragon with his dying breath. This pattern of blood-spilling and pillaging will continue until a number of monks show up to tell the story of a true and better dragon slayer – Jesus Christ.

This is what Wilson means by Beowulf as an “UnChrist.” Many scholars have argued that Beowulf is a type of Christ, much like Gandalf or Aslan are. Yet in the end, we have a slain hero who could never regenerate humanity – he could not save humanity from the monsters within. Beowulf is unlike most stories which end with “happily ever after.” It opens and condlues with a funeral. Death permeates the story, not because deep in the woods and the marshes lie demonic beasts, but because inside each meade hall (and there are several in the story) are monsters who come to kill and destroy.

For fans of Beowulf, Doug Wilson’s volume deserves to be on your list. It may not be the best version of the poem, yet that is not his goal. It is a rendering that draws out a unique aspect of the poem for modern readers. His essay deserve more serious scholarship acceptance for he hits the nail on the head.

“Grendel” by John Gardner: A Review

“The world resists me and I resist the world,” I said. “That’s all there is. The mountains are what I define them as.” Ah, monstrous stupidity of childhood, unreasonable hope! . . . “The world is all pointless accident,” I say. (Chapter 2)

A cursory search of this website will reveal a real passion for the old English tale Beowulf. It is, by far, my favorite story and I have read several versions of the narrative over the years. The story is rich and its themes even richer (see my theology of Beowulf in the links below). One of the books that continues to appear as a must-read in my continuing research of the book is John Gardner’s novel Grendel. The book is named after the first and most famous monster Beowulf battles.

The story is literally told through Grendel’s eyes utilizing the first person style. Gardner doesn’t tell Grendel’s story. Rather, the novel is from the perspective of Grendel telling his own story. Doing so makes Grendel a more sympathetic character whose motives are more complicated than one may presume purely in Beowulf and that, in my opinion, is part of the problem.

I would agree that any serious student of Beowulf should read Gardner’s work I would also contend it is also a deeply flawed volume. First, though Gardner clearly knows his Beowulf history along with a number of its themes (like fraticide), characters (like Scyld Shefing), and historical background (I enjoyed the exploration of the rise of Hrothgar), Gardner turns the story of Beowulf into something it is not. The author utilizes the Grendel character, a demonic monster who embodies murderous envy and is literally a direct descendant of Cain, as a means of exploring the philosophy of Jean-Paul Satre. Beowulf, I believe, is a theological work making an apologetic point about Christianity. It is not a philosophical one. Through the eyes of this monster, we explore the world of fatalism from the greedy dragon and the futility of religion from three priests.

Yet this is not the Grendel of the original tale. Grendel is introduced thus:

Thus Hrothgar’s thanes
reveled in joys,
feasting and drinking
until their foe started
his persecutions,
a creature of hell.
Grendel, they called him,
this grimspoiler,
a demon who prowled
the dark borderlands,
moors and marshes,
a man-eating giant
who had lied in a lair
in the land of monsters
ever since God
had outlawed him
along with the rest
of the line of Cain. (8, source)

Later we see Grendel morbidly laughing while the Danes are mourning the slaughter of their own. Grendel is a demonic and animalistic monster who feeds, not because he is hungry or lonely, but because he is jealous and wicked. Yet this is not the depiction of Grendel in Gardner’s take. To him, Grendel becomes a monster whereas to the anonymous writers of the ancient tale, Grendel is a monster and the difference is very significant. Thus Grendel turns to fatalism – a monster will do monstrous things. Yet the original tale was very different. The story opens and closes with a funeral and thus on the surface, the reality of death and the cycle of violence makes fatalism attractive. Yet in the narrative we discover the opposite: hope. Something (and someone) greater than Beowulf is coming.

In the end I would again say that Gardner has written a story that every Beowulf reader should tole lege but not for keen insight into the original tale. A philosophical take on Beowulf is certainly worth exploring so long as it reflects the philosophy of the original writers. That is what makes Beowulf so rich.Gardner fails o reflect that original worldview in his exploration of the hero’s most famous foe.

“Beowulf: A New Telling” by Robert Nye – A Review

Out in the black fen something stirred. It was cruel and slimy and its eyes shone green. A part of the night it moved through, its wicked heart as darker than the darkest place in that night. Even the moon would not look at it.

A trail of blood was left on the mud where the creature crawled. this was because it fed on living things and had grown so fat and swollen in its greed that bits of the people it had eaten dripped from its scummy lips and crooked teeth. its claws were red and its breath, coming in little gasps, stank like a drain. (7)

My favorite story in the history of stories (outside of the Bible of course) is the old English tale Beowulf. It is a beautiful poem that has experienced a rise in popularity over the last century (largely thanks to J. R. R. Tolkien’s scholarly and fictional works). It is more than a story about ancient monsters and heroes. It is a story about human nature, alien redemption, wise leadership, and the vanity of pagan greed. I have explored a variety of translations the past few years in both poem and prose form and most have been excellent and insightful volumes in the history of this Old English tale.

Recently I picked up Robert Nye’s book Beowulf: A New Telling hoping it would be an easier-to-read prose telling of the story with young readers in mind. The subtitle implies that changes would made to the story and I certainly did not expect a word-for-word translation of the original text. In the note page, the writer explains what he means by “a new telling.”

There are literal versions of Beowulf. I have not tried to compete with them. This is an interpretation, not a translation. Myth seems to me to have a peculiar importance for children, as for poets: it lives in them. I have tried to have this telling as a living thing. In sticking to the text of the original epic, it may be loose. In sticking to the root-meaning of that poem, I hope that it is tight.

So the author is clear that changes were made but the meaning of spirit of the story is preserved. Furthermore, he notes that the intended audience is children. All of this is precisely why I purchased the book in the first place.

Yet, with all due respect, the author fails miserably in his endeavor. First, regarding his “loose” interpretation, Nye offers the reader more of a new interpretation of the characters, the plot, and their motivations. A few examples will suffice.

First, Nye provides the reader with a clear explanation with the origin of Grendel and his mother. Grendel is literally the offspring of his mother and Cain. In the original poem, Grendel is noted as a descendant of Cain and his mother’s identity remains a mystery. The poem purposefully leaves the identity of Grendel’s father out in order to emphasize his ancestry. The reason is theological. Grendel is the descendant of Cain while both the Geats and the Danes are descendants of Abel/Seth. The shrewd reader, however, will take this even farther. Both Cain and Abel/Seth have the same father; Adam. This explains the emphasis on fraticide throughout the poem. Both Grendel and the Danes have the same father: Adam.

Nye ignores all of this. He provides the reader with a bizarre, mythic reworking of Grendel’s genesis. He writes (through Unferth):

“Grendel is thew wickedest fiend who ever crawled in darkness. He lives with the wolves and the mists. Some say that when Cain killed his brother, Abel, he ran away on all fours, howling, like a dog, and did not stop until he found a den at the end of the earth. And in that den, cast out and damned by God, Cain joined with a loathly snake, as black as jet, that drank the scum that comes on liquids bubbled up from the bowels of hell. One of their children had three heads, and vipers instead of fingers. Another was mouthed like a shark, but could fly through the air. The most hideous and evil of all was Grendel. The earth quaked at his birth, and stars pitched into the sea. he is made of hate, greedy for men’s blood, the archenemy of all god things, the vilest -” (11-12)

What is this? Who were these other two children? How was Grendel more vile than they? None of this is faithful to the original text and does little to serve the story. Regardless, all of this misses the point the original author(s) make regarding Grendel.

And since Unferth is speaking above, let us consider what Nye does with this important character. Unferth is the loan Dane that does not initially welcome Beowulf to their kingdom. Remember that Beowulf is a foreigner who is self-righteousness coming to solve their problem for them. Hrothgar is their great king and having this Geat walk in and fight their battles ought to be an insult. Unferth seems to be the only character to understand this. Thus when we first meet Unferth, who is guilty of kin-slaying himself, he opposes the story’s hero. Later, however, the two men make amends after Beowulf manages to slay Grendel. Unferth gifts the hero with a special sword prior to him descending to Grendel’s mother’s hall.

Yet Nye tells a very different story. Unferth is not only Beowulf’s enemy, but he is Grendel’s sympathizer. In one shocking scene, Unferth shouts:

“Murder!” [Unferth] snarled. “You killed him! He ws beautiful, and you killed him!” And he began to sob and rock, cradling his knees in his hands.

The astonished Geats roared disapproval. “Beautiful! He says eh beast was beautiful!” Some of them wanted to take ungrateful Unferth out and hang him from the nearest tree. But Beowulf told them to leave the wretch to himself.

“To Unferth, Grendel was beautiful,” was all he would say when his men asked him why. (44)

What a shocking change to the story. Having Unferth mourn the death of Grendel who was slaughtering Danes left and right is unacceptable. The author then has Unferth sneak away to Grendel’s mother’s lair only to have him slayed himself. We last meet him with his head on a pike for all to see.

Furthermore, we see here (and elsewhere in the story) Beowulf’s moral relativism. He refuses to condemn Unferth’s wicked morality. Nye presents Grendel as Cain’s vilest of offspring and then presents his hero as being unwilling of condemning anyone who refers to him as “beautiful.” Earlier, Nye has Beowulf suggest that “things aren’t so simple, so black and white. Even the wickedest person can do good for someone. The truly good man finds good where he can.” (28) No doubt the wicked can do good, but what we have here is a moral relativism that completely rewrites the entire narrative. Grendel, his mother, and the dragon are indictments on human nature and the human lust of greed, jealousy, and revenge. Beowulf is a moral story that Nye puts at risk by turning the hero into a modern relativists thus robbing it of what makes Beowulf the classic it is.

Even worse is Beowulf’s dialogue with Grendel’s mother. The author has noted that Grendel’s mother is also Cain’s wife (not surprising given Grendel’s genesis). In this pre-fight dialogue, Beowulf confesses his own internal darkness by stating that he holds a Cain in himself and that a “man is truly good who knows his own dark places.” (69) This is a different Beowulf who walks in humility, wars in righteousness, and rules with integrity. He is a dragon-slayer in the biblical sense. He is an almost-Christ for theological reasons. But Nye is intent on bring Beowulf down to our level even to compare him to Cain – the father of Grendel and the husband of Grendel’s mother.*

Then there is the way in which Beowulf slays the dragon is utterly ridiculous. Being the “bee hunter” (which is Nye’s loose interpretation of Beowulf’s name), Beowulf destroys the dragon with his collection of bees by having the great firedrake swallow the queen bee first. This makes Beowulf clever, not brave while at the same time Wiglaf’s original role is utterly ignored.

This leads to my final criticism; the ending. The original story opens and closes with a funeral dirge. At the end of the poem we find Wiglaf, the brave soldier who fought the dragon alongside Beowulf, lamenting the vanity of the world. He brings the poem to a conclusion by drawing the reader to the story’s moral arch. The monsters are not just outside the meade halls or living in caves, but are found in our hearts. What good is possessing the dragon’s gold when the kingdom next door will attack to steal it for themselves? The dragon is not the only greedy creature on God’s earth. We are all sons of Adam . . . like Grendel.

Yet that is not how Nye ends the story. He has Wiglaf emphasize the uniqueness of Beowulf. “Beowulf was Beowulf” is all Wiglaf would say (103). The end. And thus we are left asking what is the point of the story? What makes this a great narrative? Are we merely to marvel at how great Beowulf is? Surely it is more than that.

Of all the Beowulf books, comics, and children’s renderings I’ve read (not to mention movies I’ve watched), this version is most disappointing. I do not recommend it to anyone. There are better versions of the story. Just pick up the first one you come across and it will exceed this one.

* I would add here my criticism of how Nye describes Grendel’s mother’s death. In the original story, Beowulf finds a magical sword and slays here, but in this “new telling,” she is strangled by the hero while Beowulf shouts odd incantations to himself.

 

Beowulf: Resources and Links

My favorite book is the epic English poem Beowulf. I am currently teaching through it with high school homeschoolers. Below are a number of documentaries and other resources associated with the classic that I believe are worth your time and investment.

Clash of the Gods – Beowulf (History Channel)

 

 

 

 

In Search of Beowulf  – This is a good BBC documentary that explores the world of Beowulf and interacts with the Christian vs. pagan themes in the book.

Beowulf (2007) Movie Trailer

 

 

Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney

 

 

 

J. R. R. Tolkien – “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” – The person that has shaped modern Beowulf scholarship the most in the last century is without a doubt JRR Tolkien. This article, based on a lecture he gave, is the reason why.

Should We Preach Harmonies?

At the start of each year, I preach through one of the Gospels. Since moving to Frankfort, I have dedicated the opening months walking through the Gospel of Mark. This year we work our way through Mark 11-13. Preaching through the Gospels always brings me back to a predicament: should we preach harmonies? I explored that question after finishing my sermon series on Matthew years ago. I am republishing it below.

After more than a hundred sermons, I have finally completed preaching through the entire Gospel of Matthew. Each week I turned to some of the same resources to aid my exegesis. John MacArthur is, without a doubt, at the top of that list. I utilized all of his sermons, four-volume commentaries, and numerous books.

Throughout the series, I noticed a trend in his preaching that is consistent throughout all of his sermons of the four Gospels: MacArthur has a tendency to harmonize the Gospels in his preaching and he is not the only preacher.

This tendency is most prevalent in his handling of the passion of Christ. Though there is a general flow of the Gospels, at times one Evangelist will include a detail that the others leave out. For example, Matthew includes the strange account of bodies being raised from the dead, Luke includes Jesus condemning Israel while carrying his cross, and John is perhaps the most unique. MacArthur’s tendency was to pause his exegesis of one Evangelist in order to “fill in the gaps” provided by the others.

Here is my question? Should an expositor adopt this practice?

After having preached through an entire Gospel I want to propose that though there might be times when “filling in the gaps” or harmonizing the Gospels might be necessary, the preacher should avoid this approach to preaching the Gospels.

My reasoning is simple. Expository preaching has as its primary objective to proclaim to the congregation the author/Spirit’s original intent. Therefore, isolating one’s interpretation and presentation of the text to the author allows the expositor to proclaim that message. Matthew is unique from the other Evangelists. Each bring to the table a unique perspective of the same story. By isolating each Evangelists, the preacher can better handle the text.

Perhaps a few examples will suffice. At certain points throughout Matthew’s Gospel, the Evangelists interrupts the narrative with a short vignette. In chapter 26, for example, the conspiracy against Christ is interrupted with the story of a woman (unnamed in Matthew’s account) pouring an expensive perfume on Jesus. The purpose ought to be obvious to the reader: Judas and the scribes are conspiring to Jesus’ death while an unnamed, humbled woman is in worship preparing Jesus for his burial.

Similarly, in Matthew 27, the narrative of Jesus before Pilate is interrupted with the vignette of Judas’ suicide (found only in Matthew’s Gospel). It seems to me that Matthew’s purpose is theological. By interrupting the flow of the narrative, Matthew is juxtaposing a number of things including two acts of repentance (Peter and Judas) and two deaths upon a tree (Jesus and Judas).

This unique style of storytelling is lost when we spend as much time harmonizing the Gospels as opposed to allowing Matthew to be Matthew. The Gospels are deeply theological and it is important to allow the theology of each to speak. Though we might turn to the other Evangelists for help occasionally, we must not let them draun out the voice of the author before us. If an Evangelist leaves out a detail or adds a detail, let the interpreter make note because it is (not) there on purpose.

This is why I prefer to isolate a book and author and allow them to speak. Each biblical writer are competent theologians in their own right – a lesson I learned from exegeting Matthew.

So preacher, preach the text, not the harmonies.

4 Things to Look for in a Church

As a pastor, I meet people weekly who are looking for a house of worship to call home. With so many  denominations and varying churches, the decision can be difficult. Too often the decision is based on programs, opportunities, nurseries, music style, and other conveniences. Certainly these are issues worth considering, but that is not where we should begin.

It is imperative Christians not approach the local church as a consumer. The church is not a place where I am to be perceptually entertained with little to nothing expected of me. The church should call us to holiness, worship, and spiritual growth. Consumerism cannot produce that.

Therefore, let us consider four (we could add more) of the most important things to look forward in a church.

1. A Church That Faithfully Preaches the Logos and Gospel

If the gospel is not preached, then go somewhere else. Only a church that is Christ-focused and gospel-centered is worth joining. Without Christ and his gospel there is no church. Period. Observe the songs that are sang, the preaching that is delivered, the goals that are set, and the prayers that are offered. If Jesus is rarely mentioned and if the gospel is barely recognizable, please, for the sake of the church, go somewhere else.

But if Christ is the focus, then go and grow in the gospel.

 

2. A motivated church ready to reach its community

Strong leadership will be short-lived if the congregation is complacent and unmotivated. I am convinced many churches have lost great pastors simply because they were unwilling to be led by either the Spirit or by their pastor. The church must reach its community. This work requires each member to engage its immediate context.

When visiting a church, survey the church’s annual and monthly calendar and its budget. If it spends all of its time focused on itself, then it unlikely is very engaged or motivated to become engaged with its community. But a church that cares more about reaching its neighborhood than regular potlucks is one worth joining.

 

3. Genuine joy and worship throughout the congregation

The gospel establishes genuine, unshakable joy in the believer. Thus a congregation serious about the gospel is evident in how they interact with one another and with guests. A lifeless church is a joyless church. A joyless church is a loveless church. A loveless church is a dead church.

If you see very few smiles among the people, look elsewhere, but if their joy is contagious, then it might be a community worth joining.

 

4. Strong servant-leadership

All “church growth experts” will emphasize the importance of strong leadership from elders, deacons, and pastoral staff. Weak leadership produces a weak church. That much is true and the pastor (along with other leaders in the church) are called to lead the congregation.

Yet leadership is described in servant-like terms. Jesus’ model of washing his disciples feet makes this evident. Look for a church that models servant-leadership from its recognized and unrecognized leaders. If the people lead by serving, then that is a church God may be calling you to join.

“Beowulf”: A Review

Listen. We have learned the song of the glory of the great kings of the Danes, how those princes did what was daring.

Never while in grade or high school would I have ever desired more assigned English classical reading. Certainly after reading a number of Shakespearean greats along with other literary classics, the last thing I wanted to do in high school was to read an ancient poem from the Middle Ages. However, when it comes to Beowulf, such adolescent conventional wisdom has proven wrong.

After watching a History Channel special on the story and a similar documentary on works that influenced J. R. R. Tolkien I became interested enough to go to my local library and read the epic poem for myself. I chose William Alfred’s translation of the tale included in the book Medieval Epics which, in addition to Beowulf, includes three other ancient tales none of which I read or are familiar with.

The challenge in reviewing a classic like this centers around my status as an amateur fan of the poem. In other words, I always kept a copy of SparkNotes next to me for help. Needless to say, if you are looking for rare insight into a classic that scholars have poured over, debated, and dedicated entire thesis’, dissertations, and academic articles to, you’ve turned to the wrong place. However, as a pastor and theologian, a number of things stuck out to me worth sharing on this blog.

First, the story. The plot centers around three epic battles that Beowulf, a Geat, fights. He is an outsider who has heard that a demon is murdering innocent civilians of Hrothgar’s kingdom. He comes as a hero[1] seeking glory for the avenging the Skyldings. The first villain is Grendel, a demon the anonymous author describes as a creature beyond salvation (14). No physical description of Grendel is ever given and the reader is left to their own imagination as to what he looks like.[2] Nonetheless, Grendel is a demonic being who merciless murders anyone and everyone (but the king) at the mead-hall where there is celebration. Singing and glad tidings seem to conjure up the vile beast, that devil to mankind (15).

Beowulf’s first battle is with Grendel and he wins by severing the beasts arm. The victory over that hateful stalker (15) leads to more celebration until Grendel’s mother, a descendant of Cain (she is not given a name), avenges her son’s death. She too is vile, demonic, and merciless. Beowulf is absent during her rampage against the Skyldings, but seeks her out later for vengeance. The hero, as before, wins over the she-wolf (46).

The reader is left to assume that now that both mother and son are dead, the narrative is completed. Yet the story quickly skips fifty years and now Beowulf is king who is faced with one last challenge – a challenge that will lead to his death. This last battle is against a dragon who mortally wounds the hero before being killed himself.

The poem ends with the burial of the fallen king/hero. And that is the tale. But as a Christian, why it matters goes deeper than the mere plot.

The story is clearly written by a Christian – perhaps even a monk. There are countless allusions to  “God” and the “Lord God.” Yet this is not a Christian tale. The story is actually pagan and the narrator at times makes that clear. Consider for example a few lines before the epic battle against Grendel:

From time to time at heathen sanctuaries, they came right out and promised blood-sacrifices, put into words the prayer that the Demon-Slayer should be of help to them int he face of this disaster striking at the whole people. Such was their religion, such was hope among the heathens. (15)

On the very next page, we are more clearly told that the Skyldings had no knowledge of the Lord God. (16) Many scholars, in my brief research, have highlighted this tension. As Britain was Christianized (if you will), many of the pagan stories of old were modified and it seems that the story of Beowulf went through the same revision.

So though it would be farce to suggest that Beowulf is Christian, there are certain themes in the story that medieval, and even modern, Christians can (and should) resonate with. Beowful, in essence, is portrayed not just as a hero who has won many battles, but as a slayer of demons and dragons. He is alien (Geatish) who comes to save a foreign people from the demons Grendel and his mother and eventually a hellish dragon. And he does so alone.

Near the end of the poem, the narrator tells us simply, yet profoundly from the Christian perspective, that after the death of the dragon that Now the serpent lies dead (74). That is the hope of the Christian story and the reference to Grendel’s mother and Cain is by no means an accident. Beowulf is a fantasy that reflects the battle of the seeds narrative of Scripture from Genesis 3:15 to the end of Revelation. As a Christian pastor and theologian, this is why I love this tale so much. Though Beowulf is a flawed character who suffers death (an enemy he cannot defeat), his story is similar to that of Christ who comes as more than a hero, a Savior who conquers demons (see Mark 5:1-20) and the dragon – the serpent of old (Isaiah 27:1; Revelation 12:9; Revelation 20:2).

The poem, then, is not just great literature, it reminds us Christians why we live by hope. Our hope is not that a hero might come and protect us from one of many enemies, but that in the end, God Himself will conquer the enemies of death, depravity, and the dragon himself. That process began at the incarnation of Christ and will be finished at the parousia.

Come Lord Jesus quickly!

[1] In the movie, Hrothgar actually says that what they need is a hero.
[2] The connections between Beowulf and J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales from Middle Earth are many. I will highlight only a few. First, Tolkien has written one of the most important scholarly articles on Beowulf called Beowful: The Monster & the Critics. Furthermore, the phrase “the lord of the rings” appears on page 65 of the book cited above. The Hobbit is a story about a dragon, just like Beowulf. Finally, some have suggested that Tolkien’s schizophrenic character Gollum was inspired by Grendel. More could be added, but these stick out to me.
[2] We have clear evidence of this. In 797 AD, theologian Alcuin wrote a letter to Bishop Higbald of Lindisfarne questioning the interests among monks with pagan, heroic legends. He asked simply, What has Ingeld to do with Christ? Ingeld, interesting enough, is mentioned by name in Beowulf.

 

This is a repost of my first review of Beowulf.

3 Basic Arguments Against Jehovah’s Witnesses When They Show Up on Your Doorstep

Not long ago I was visited by two members of our local Jehovah’s Witnesses chapter. This is nearly an annual event that almost always comes at the worse time. As time goes on, I find myself engaging my Jehovah’s Witnesses neighbors with three basic arguments at my doorsteps of which I share below.

 

1. The Father is Eternally Father

This is always my go-to argument because it is theologically sound, historically significant, and consistent with the biblical record. Both Jehovah’s Witnesses and orthodox Christians believe that God is eternally and immutably Father. That is to say that God has always and will always be Father. The term “father” implies the existence of a child and in the case of God the Father, we have in mind God the Son. Thus, since God the Father is eternally and immutably Father then, by definition, Jesus is eternally and immutably Son.

This argument is significant because one of the major errors of Jehovah’s Witnesses is their Christology. Borrowing from ancient Arians, they believe that Jesus was the first of creation – literally the “firborn of creation” – and thus not eternal. In the Old Testament, Jesus was the archangel Michael who became Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament.

This is a heretical teaching. The argument put forward in the first paragraph demonstrates that within the Trinity, we find the eternality and immutabilty of not just the Father (which Jehovah’s Witnesses hold) but also the Son. If this can be demonstrated, then their entire Christology crumbles.

 

2. The New World Translation is a Sham

Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to believe in the sixty-six books of the Bible but have published their own translation of the Bible that does not reflect the original language. It is clearly a document written to reflect their preconceived theology.

To put it another way, Jehovah’s Witnesses make KJV-only fundamentalists look like Bible scholars of the highest rank.

First published in 1950, (years after Armageddon was supposed to commence as we will see), the Watchtower proclaimed the New World Translation was free from pagan influences of pagan Christianity (i.e. orthodoxy). Yet what it lacks is any serious, scholarly proof of validity.

Frederick W. Franz, who once served as the Watchtower Society’s fourth president and served on the translation committee, admitted under oath he could not translate Genesis 2:4 from the original Hebrew. While under cross-examination in a Scottish court case in 1954, Franz was asked to translate Genesis 2:4. What follows is the pertinent transcript:

Cross: “You, yourself, read and speak Hebrew, do you?”

Franz: “I do not speak Hebrew.”

Cross: “You do not?”

Franz: “No.”

Cross: “Can you, yourself, translate that into Hebrew?”

Franz: “Which?”

Cross: “That fourth verse of the Second Chapter of Genesis?”

Franz: “You mean here?”

Cross: “Yes.”

Franz: “No. I won’t attempt to do that.” (4)

Add to this incompetence are clear changes like using the word “Jehovah” for the name of God, even in the New Testament. The name of God in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament is YHWH (note the lack of vowels). The etymology of “Jehovah” is at the burning bush but nervous Jews who took the vowels of “adonai” and added them to YHWH to get YaHoWaH, or “Jehovah.”

Or consider the parallel passages of Matthew 27:50 and Luke 23:46. In both passages, Jesus yields his spirit to God. In Matthew 27:50, the NWT re-translates spirit with breath yet in Luke 23:46 keep spirit. The reason is because “breath” would not work since Luke uses a different Greek word and the wording would be odd. “Father, into you hands I entrust my breath” simply does not make sense. So which is it?

More examples could be given. The point remains, there are many quality translations, the NWT is not one of them. It is a sham translation that reflects their poor theology.

 

3. Multiple False Prophecies

Like most nineteenth century cults, especially those originating from the Burned Out District, the womb of Jehovah’s Witnesses is eschatological prediction. Charles Tate Russell, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, taught that Christ’s invisible presence on earth began in 1874 and he would end human government restoring paradise to earth by 1914. The spiritual presence of Christ’s coming is a convenient ploy to argue that Christ has come but you – you blind sinner! – cannot see him. He later shifted the dates of paradise to 1915 and then to 1918 (Russell died in 1916). Much of his calculations were rooted on measurements of the Great Pyramid in Giza, Egypt.

Joseph Rutherford, Russell’s successor, moved the eschaton to 1925 even proclaiming that “Millions Now Living Will Never Die!” So confident in his prediction, he built a house in Sand Diego, CA waiting for the return of the Old Testament patriarchs. Instead, Rutherford died in 1942 proving to be a false prophet.

This doesn’t even begin to depict all the false end times prophecies from Russell and Rutherford. In The Harp of God, the Watchtower predicted that “1799 definitely marks the beginning of ‘the time of the end.” It was later changed to 1914. Russell predicted the battle of Armageddon would end in 1914 in The Time is at Hand. The prediction was later changed to “still future.” In a Watchtower publication in 1984, Jehovah’s Witnesses suggested that anyone born by 1914 would live to see Armageddon. For those still counting at home, that was over one hundred years ago.

Scripture is clear, false prophets are not from God and should be rejected.

 

Conclusion

When interacting with Jehovah’s Witnesses, these are the first three arguments I go to. I rarely am able to go beyond them before I am rudely interrupted and the “witnesses” are on their way to another house. Regardless, I recommend beginning here for defending orthodoxy with your JW neighbor.

 

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“A Companion to Beowulf” by Ruth Johnston Staver: A Review

The oldest, and I believe one of the best, works in English is the anonymous work Beowulf. Since J. R. R. Tolkien made his compelling case for why it is more than just ancient superstition, Beowulf has been the subject of much scholarly study and interests. Since my first exposure to the book (just a few years ago) I have been intrigued by its narrative and theme.

Recently I cracked the spine of Ruth Johnston Staver’s book A Companion to Beowulf in a pursuit of expanding my understanding of this Old English classic. Staver offers a wonderful book that those who are both new and familiar with the story will enjoy and find beneficial. I have read the story and done some research on it. Thus I am more familiar with it than the average reader, yet Staver showed me how little I actually understood and how much I had missed.

Consider the following regarding the lair of Grendel’s mother:

Scholars have noted the similarity between the description of Grendel’s mere and the description of hell in a tenth-century sermon. “Blickling Homily 17” describes hell in terms very different from the way modern culture depicts it. . . . one that is instantly familiar to careful readers of Beowulf. It is worth quoting in its entirety (translated here by Liuzza, 2000):

As Saint Paul was looking toward the northern part of this world, where all water descend, he also saw over the waters a gray stone. And north of the stone had grown very frosty groves, and there were gloomy mists, and under the stone was the dwelling – place of sea – monsters and evil spirits. And he saw that on the cliffs many black souls were hanging in the icy groves, bound by their hands, and devils in the shape of sea-monsters were clutching at them like greedy wolves. And the water was lack under the cliff below, and from the cliff to the water was about twelve miles, and when the boughs broke, the souls that hung on the twigs fell down, and the sea-monsters seized them.

What a horrifying vision! It has all the elements of nightmare: cold, helplessness against the pursuit of monsters, and a terrifying fall into water from which there is no escape. If we allow ourselves to believe in this image for a few moments, rather than remaining distanced by the antiquity and quaintness of the vision, it becomes a terrifying idea. Imagine the horror of Anglo-Saxon audiences to find that Grendel and his mother lived, literally, in a miniature hell. The banks are haunted by wolves, and the water is haunted by sea monsters who hunt victims like wolves. The overhanging trees are frosty, even in summer, the cliffs are high and a torrent of water falls from them. Where the “Blickling Homily 17” left out the fires of hell, Beowulf supplies them, in the fires that burn on the water at night. (86)

It is insights like this that draws me to conclude that Staver succeeds. The author provides a helpful guide of the book exploring its themes, history, and language. It also offers insight into some of its important aspects including it literary style, the influence of Tolkien and others, the role of religion in the book, an annotated bibliology of modern adaption of the story, etc.

In the end, I would highly recommend this book for students and scholars alike. Staver has clearly done her homework and has produced a book that is simple to read, follow, and learn from.