A City in Transition: Understanding Raleigh’s Identity

I moved to Raleigh in 2006, and it was obvious to me from the beginning that I wasn’t the only transplant. The “Raleigh native” is somewhat of a rarity. I’m always fascinated to meet such a person. What is it that draws people to Raleigh-Durham? It certainly helps that Raleigh-Durham keeps showing up in rankings of top places to live. But here are a few dynamics behind that.

Small wanting to be big

Raleigh is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. And the growth is accumulating in “growth centers” (Cameron Village/NCSU area, Crabtree, Mid-Town/North Hills, New Bern Ave and Wake Medical Center). Public transportation has not yet accommodated all the new people, but the city is striving to catch up in order to facilitate rapid growth. Still, at this point, most people don’t tend to walk, bicycle, or use public transportation for their commute. Eighty-eight percent of commuters drive their own car.

Conservative wanting to be progressive

This struggle plays out in politics, responses to state politics, desire to attract business to Wake County. There is a felt tension between Charlotte, the more liberal big NC city, and Raleigh the more conservative. Raleigh seems to be trying to break this mold as we have shifted from McCrory to Cooper, and continue to see activists working to repeal HB2 and speak loudly against Trump, among other things.

Old wanting to be modern

Matt Tomasulo running for Raleigh city council at-large in 2015, ran a slick campaign built around the idea of “making Raleigh a twenty-first century city.” There’s a narrative packed into that statement. Tomasula is the Founder and Chief Instigator behind Walk [Your City], an emerging civic platform to help cities put people first and embrace walkability through online tools that boost offline mobility.

Diverse and growing in diversity

The Research Triangle is drawing a diverse array of employees. There is a large Indian population in Morrisville. Refugees have settled in Raleigh and African and Hispanic immigrants continues to fill the Capital Blvd corridor.

Suburban morphing toward urban

The urban area in Raleigh is expanding from within the inner beltline to within the outer beltline. As growth centers expand along the inner beltline, population and business continues to expand between the beltlines. What was once suburban is turning urban, and “suburban” is now being pushed further out into places like Knightdale, Brier Creek, and Heritage.

Highly educated and achievement oriented

This is not a new shift but as with any large city, lots of people means there are lots of people more educated and more advanced than you are which means you will feel challenged to reach down and strive to do better. Home to eight colleges or universities, including NC State, Duke, and UNC, the Triangle will only continue to advance in education.

New subcultures emerging

Besides these big shifts, there are a number of interesting developments at the “subculture” level. There is greater interest in fitness and health (by the way, check out “The Church of CrossFit” from The Atlantic), there is a growing hipster and artist community, local coffee shops and small craft breweries keep popping up, and local t-shirts are a bit of a craze. More people seem to be identifying strongly as North Carolinians or Raleigh-ites, whether they were born here or in the Midwest like me.

Implications

So many people in RDU have relocated from other places, meaning they are far from family, detached from supportive networks, and “separated from extended families and under a great deal of stress.” At the same time, they’re feeling the pressure of a highly educated and achievement oriented setting. All of this means that we’re logistically we’re fast paced, busy. As Mary Bell said, “achievement is the alcohol of our time…these days the best people don’t abuse alcohol, they abuse their lives.” And that’s no less true in Raleigh than in so many larger cities.

Along with this, depression is a big struggle along with anxieties. People are seeking fulfillment in some constructed identity or achievement. At the same time, there is a large and growing international community, many of whom are struggling through the transition to life in a new country. They are also disconnected from family and roots, and struggle with depression, substance abuse and loneliness.

There is huge space for the gospel in the midst of all this. The gospel teaches us that no earthly achievements will ever satisfy the inner-cravings of the heart. That pursuit is like drinking salt-water to sate your thirst. The gospel also bring the indestructible joy of communion with God and the assurance of undoing life with him. This reality is emotionally stabilizing in the midst of life’s vicissitudes. And the gospel brings us into deep community with others, a community shaped by love, humility and mutual acceptance. These relationships are intended by God to make life bearable even blessed. The gospel speaks most fully to the aspirations of the human soul, and that is true in Raleigh as in every other part of the world.

Commit Your Work to God

We usually think of the Proverbs as a collection of sayings about how to live wisely in the world, how to be shrewd and successful in business, the high value of hard work, the practical benefits of honesty. If a business operates according to the proverbs, it will no doubt have many happy customers, not to mention happy shareholders. But where does the practical wisdom of the proverbs come from?

The proverbs are wise precisely because they view the world as God’s world, created and directed by him. God is the Maker, the Creator. The world in which we live and act belongs to him, and the rules by which the world operates flow from him. So to live well in his world a person has to constantly acknowledge God as Creator and then submit to him; this is what it means to fear the Lord.

But even as a person works diligently in God’s world, still the outcome of all work rests with the Lord. This is how the proverbs view the sovereignty of God, his absolute right to rule in every aspect of his world. So that even though a person is expected to make plans and work hard to accomplish them, the outcome is always from God. “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (19:21).

First Implication: Work Hard

God’s work matters more than my work, but this doesn’t diminish the meaningfulness of my work. God expects us to plan, strategize, and work hard. In fact, he accomplishes his purposes through our diligence, not apart from it. Therefore, do not lessen your ambitions, but heighten them. Rather than being slothful or idle, we should work all the harder knowing that God intends to integrate our efforts into his purposes. Work for him and not for yourself. Labor so that he might be exalted, not you.

Second Implication: Commit Your Work to God

“Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established” (16:3). The most appropriate response to the primacy of God’s purposes is the daily recommitment of myself and my work to God. I am his, I am living in his world, my energy and my opportunities are from him, and the eventual result of all my labors today is completely in his hands.

All our daily work, both the mundane and the monumental, must be committed to the Lord. I may prepare a business plan, yet the success of the business is completely dependent on God. The same is true with parenting, developing ministry strategy, resolving conflict, working at a good marriage, or anything else. Pause at the beginning of each day, and throughout the day, to give your work to God. “Father, these efforts are enabled by you, and I ask that you might use them for your purposes.”

Third Implication: Leave the Outcome to God

“The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord” (21:31). Do you ever finish some project or presentation and then immediately begin to guess at how it will be received by others? Will they be impressed? Will it have an enduring impact? The anxiety of self-interest. Or have you ever despaired over the meaningless of your work? Perhaps at the end of a long day you wonder, was it worth it? The proverbs remind us that as we work diligently, giving our work to God, that our work is meaningful and God will accomplish his purposes through it.

A prayer of daily commitment might look like this. Father, you are the maker of me and all things. I am yours and I want to be useful for your purposes today. Please give me the energy that I need to do the good works that you have prepared for me. Please help me to steward with wisdom the opportunities you have given me, for I have nothing but what I have received from you. Please make my plans and efforts successful in the economy of your kingdom. I am yours and my work is yours so please use me to make your glory visible in the world today.

God’s sovereignty over our work in the book of Proverbs, a non-exhaustive sampling:

  1. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths (Prv 3:6)
  2. The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens (3:19)
  3. The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked (10:3)
  4. The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord (16:1)
  5. Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established (16:3)
  6. The heart of a man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps (16:9)
  7. The lot is cast into the lap, but its decision is from the Lord (Prv 16:33)
  8. Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand (19:21)
  9. The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will (21:1)
  10. The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord (21:31)

 

 

The Church is a Lion Tamer: Importance of Precision in Theology

In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton has a chapter on the paradoxes of Christianity. At the end of the chapter he points out that the beauty of these paradoxes demands accurate proportion. To shift the proportion is to ruin the paradox altogether, with disastrous results for humanity. For this reason, he calls the church the “lion tamer” of bad doctrine.

I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of irregular equilibrium.

It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer.

The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, anyone can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious. The smallest link was let drop by the artificers of the Mediterranean, and the lion of ancestral pessimism burst his chain in the forgotten forests of the north. Of these theological equalizations I have to speak afterwards.

Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, Even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties.

The church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.

God’s Promises are His Insurance Office

Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646) writes in The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment about how to claim the promises of God as your own in order to develop contentment. He says the covenant of grace in general and the promises of God in particular are like “a great insurance office for the saints.”

Here is an insurance office indeed, a great insurance office for the saints, at which they are not charged, except in the exercising of grace, for they may go to this insurance office to insure everything that they venture, either to have the thing itself, or to be paid for it. In an insurance office you cannot be sure to have the very goods that you insured, but if they are lost the insurers pledge themselves to make it good to you. And this covenant of grace that God has made with his people is God’s insurance office, and the saints in all their fears may and ought to go to the covenant to insure all things, to insure their wealth and to insure their lives… It is a special sign of true grace in any soul, that when any affliction befalls him, in a kind of natural way he repairs immediately to the covenant… If you find that your heart works in this way, immediately running to the covenant, it is an excellent sign of true grace.

Burroughs then goes on to consider the particular promises:

  • Psalm 91:1-2, He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty…For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence
  • Isaiah 43:2, When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers they will not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you.
  • Isaiah 54:17, No weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment.
  • Joshua 1:5, I will not leave you or forsake you
  • Hebrews 13:5, Keep your life free from the love of money and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
  • Psalm 34:10, The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
  • Psalm 37:5-6, Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.
  • Isaiah 58:10, If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

But Burroughs reminds the Christian that when considering the promises of God, we should always “consider their connection to the root, the great covenant that God has made with them in Christ.” He reminds his reader, “Now if I had lived in the time of the law, perhaps I might have been somewhat more confident of the literal performance of the promise, than I can be now in the time of the gospel.” Or again, he says we “ought not to lay too much upon the literal sense,” but rather remember that “all the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20). In other words, we must be careful how we make use of the old covenant promises.

But they are nonetheless for us. “Every time a godly man reads Scripture (remember this when you are reading Scripture) and there meets with a promise, he ought to lay his hand upon it and say, This is part of my inheritance, it is mine, and I am to live upon it. This will make you contented.”

By recalling the promises of God, connecting all the promises to their ultimate fulfillment in Christ, and turning to these promises as our insurance policy in the midst of any affliction, we will grow in obtaining the rare jewel of Christian contentment.

B. B. Warfield’s Avalanche of Inspiration

warfielddrawingI recently finished reading B. B. Warfield’s classic The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. My dad actually gave me the copy from his own library, which he purchased just after its sixth printing in 1970. I’ve often heard the book cited, but now it was time for me to read it. I usually do my reading between 5:00-8:00am, so Warfield was like a strong shot of caffeine for me each morning. Over breakfast I would tell my wife what I had read from Brain Blowing Warfield that morning. He blew my mind.

But one of the most memorable parts of the book for me (there were many) was his illustration of the quantity of textual evidence for the inerrancy of Scripture. The Bible speaks all over of it’s own inerrancy. In the words of Jesus, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). To describe the ubiquity of textual evidence, Warfield uses the illustration of an avalanche. Here it is…enjoy:

But no grosser misconception could be conceived than that the Scriptures bear witness to their own plenary inspiration in these outstanding texts alone. These are but the culminating passages of a pervasive testimony to the divine character of Scripture, which fills the whole New Testament; and which includes not only such direct assertions of divinity and infallibility for Scripture as these, but, along with them, an endless variety of expressions of confidence in, and phenomena of use of, Scripture which are irresistible in their teaching when it is once fairly apprehended.

The induction must be broad enough to embrace, and give their full weight to, a great variety of such facts as these: the lofty titles which are given to Scripture, and by which it is cited, such as “Scripture,” “the Scriptures,” even that almost awful title, “the Oracles of God”; the significant formulæ by which it is quoted, “It is written,” “It is spoken,” “It says,” “God says”; such modes of adducing it as betray that to the writer “Scripture says” is equivalent to “God says,” and even its narrative parts are conceived as direct utterances of God; the attribution to Scripture, as such, of divine qualities and acts, as in such phrases as “the Scriptures foresaw”; the ascription of the Scriptures, in whole or in their several parts as occasionally adduced, to the Holy Spirit as their author, while the human writers are treated as merely his media of expression; the reverence and trust shown, and the significance and authority ascribed, to the very words of Scripture; and the general attitude of entire subjection to every declaration of Scripture of whatever kind, which characterizes every line of the New Testament.

The effort to explain away the Bible’s witness to its plenary inspiration reminds one of a man standing safely in his laboratory and elaborately expounding—possibly by the aid of diagrams and mathematical formulæ—how every stone in an avalanche has a defined pathway and may easily be dodged by one of some presence of mind. We may fancy such an elaborate trifler’s triumph as he would analyze the avalanche into its constituent stones, and demonstrate of stone after stone that its pathway is definite, limited, and may easily be avoided. But avalanches, unfortunately, do not come upon us, stone by stone, one at a time, courteously leaving us opportunity to withdraw from the pathway of each in turn: but all at once, in a roaring mass of destruction. Just so we may explain away a text or two which teach plenary inspiration, to our own closet satisfaction, dealing with them each without reference to its relation to the others: but these texts of ours, again, unfortunately do not come upon us in this artificial isolation; neither are they few in number. There are scores, hundreds, of them: and they come bursting upon us in one solid mass. Explain them away? We should have to explain away the whole New Testament. What a pity it is that we cannot see and feel the avalanche of texts beneath which we may lie hopelessly buried, as clearly as we may see and feel an avalanche of stones!

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, (Philadephia; Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 1948), Sixth Printing 1970, 119-120.

Hope in God’s Kingdom Ultimately, but Embody that Kingdom Presently

DOH | Matthew-KingdomThe day after the election I noticed that my Christians friends posting on Facebook tended to highlight one of two things. Some posted reminders about God’s sovereignty and how the Christian hope is always in God, not in rulers. Others lamented what the Trump election indicates about America, and also fears about what his presidency may mean for America’s future. But these two dynamics are actually twin truths that the Christian must hold together.

The eternal throne is occupied (Revelation 4:2). There is no vacancy. Therefore, we do not trust in princes (Psalm 146:3). In God we trust, because God alone reigns forever. He is King, and that is not saying anything political, and at the same time it’s saying everything political.

And yet, God’s reign is unfulfilled. “At present we don’t yet see everything in subjection to him” (Hebrews 2:8). He is already reigning, but the world is still broken. So while we can rejoice the eternal throne is occupied, there is still much reason for mourning the state of things here, and longing for something better. The Old Testament prophets believed God was sovereign and yet wailed over the condition of Israel.

These twin truths guide Christian thinking about our situation. And the application for the church is this:

The church both hopes in God’s kingdom ultimately, but also works to embody God’s kingdom presently.

We can’t hope in God’s kingdom later while failing to reflect the kind of reign he will bring now. If we aren’t working toward embodying the kind of kingdom he will bring, what does that say about how much we really love his kingdom?

I joked with a friend this past week that after reading Psalm 146 it looks like God plays his political cards. God votes Democrat. It was a joke, but what I mean is this. Psalm 146 says we shouldn’t trust in princes, but we should trust in God who is King. And as king, he cares for the poor, the widows, the orphans and the prisoners. The socially marginalized and voiceless. And the Democratic party has carved out an identity as the party of the marginalized. So at least that element of the Democratic identity should resonate with Christians.

At the same time God is grieved by so much of what Donald Trump stands for. The media will want to show that Donald Trump was elected by evangelicals. In one sense they are right. Exit polls showed that four out of five white evangelicals voted Trump. But, we need to prove that Donald Trump does not represent Jesus followers.

We must speak to the good and the bad in a leader or a party. As Francis Schaeffer said, we would be “cobelligerents” to both parties but not allied to either. Thabiti Anyabwile in the Washington Post yesterday said we should “celebrate what we think is good while also protecting against what we think is bad. Having a chance to appoint Supreme Court justices should not be touted as a grand, unqualified victory if we also suspect the freedoms of ethnic groups will be restricted or ethnic peoples mistreated.” Whether you voted Trump or Clinton (I didn’t vote for either major party candidate), so much of what they each stand for should leave you very disappointed. Speak to the good and the bad.

But we must also act according to the best of the policies we support. Evangelicals are often guilty of wanting legislation that reflects Christian morality (e.g. pro-life), but at the same time, not wanting to deal with all the issues behind those policies (e.g. what drive women to abortions, like racial disparities, poverty, low-education and low income). So evangelicals vote for Donald Trump because he says he’ll defend pro-life causes, and yet evangelical haven’t done a great job caring for the poor, championing racial reconciliation, etc. We are pro-life in policy. But are we good at supporting those in need of help raising the child they chose to keep? And whatever your immigration policy preferences are, how are you doing at loving refugees and immigrants in your city? What steps (even if small) have you taken to actively work against racism toward racial reconciliation?

I was talking with a pastor once who pastored back in the 1960’s when there were some blacks in town who were moving to integrate the local elementary school. Members of his church went with guns and torches to intimidate these families and the children. I asked the pastor how he responded to his members. He replied, “As their pastor I was there to point my people to Jesus, not to get into the issues with them.”

Sadly too many evangelicals are still acting like that. We want to preach Jesus and emphasize personal piety but refuse to get into the messes around us. We should pray that the church in America will work to eliminate these discrepancies. May we hope in God’s kingdom ultimately, while still working to embody the kingdom presently.

The Scars That Have Shaped Me

full_the-scars-that-have-shaped-me-8mx0s41nI just finished reading a friend’s newly released book, The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Our Suffering. I can’t think of a better way to have spent my Monday. My wife Stacy read the book as well, so as we went for a long walk on Monday afternoon, we reflected on our reading.

The personal tone of the book and the short chapters make it a perfectly suitable gift to give someone in the midst of suffering. This is no abstract, academic approach. It’s raw and revealing (as is her blog).

Embracing Lament

In numerous places Vaneetha highlights the importance of not glossing over our suffering with plastic happiness. “Lament highlights the gospel more than stoicism ever could” (33). “Deadening our desires may make us stoics, but it won’t make us passionate followers of Christ” (87-88). Don’t encourage those who are suffering to simply think positively. The Christian can fully acknowledge the pain of life, and in fact, this leads all the more to casting ourselves on Christ. She points to Spurgeon’s saying, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages” (94).

She points out that we are often uncomfortable listening to the lament of others (35). I know this is true of me. I confess this as my own sin, and was reminded that both in my marriage and in ministry, I am called to acknowledge the full reality of suffering in order to help others suffer well.

Her counsel for the one suffering is to avoid a positive thinking facade and embrace grief fully (141). Don’t cover up your grief with happy stoicism. Only those who can lament and grieve understand their need for God.

Personalities and Suffering

Vaneetha describes how personality types can multiply the experience of suffering. She suffers from post-polio syndrome, which severely limits her physical stamina and capabilities. This often renders her unable to serve others in ways she’d like to. This would be difficult for anyone, yet its even harder for Vaneetha who is very much wired to serve others. She sees herself as a “helper personality.” This is hardwired into who she is, which only heightens the grief of her inabilities  (87). Although her suffering has opened up opportunities to serve that she never imagined, it also limits her capability to serve in so many other ways.

Individual personality and desires can intensify the experience of suffering. Some losses are felt more acutely based on pre-existing desires. For someone who loves the outdoors and enjoys exercise, it will be extremely difficult to deal with physical limitations like chronic joint pain. Whereas for someone who likes being inside and would rather read a book than go for a walk, physical limitations while still difficult, might be easier to bear.

This is important to remember in walking with someone through pain or suffering. If they seem to be “blowing things out of proportion,” we should remember that what might seem like it should be small or manageable to us may be of much greater significance to another person. We should avoid dealing with problems by offering solutions, and rather deal with individual people by listening to their experience of suffering and how they are processing it.

Pray for Healing?

“In the midst of broken dreams and reinventing pain, how should we pray? Should we pray for healing and deliverance, believing that we just need to ask because God can do anything? Or should we relinquish our desires to God, trusting that even in our anguish he has the perfect plan for us? Yes. When life falls apart, God invites us to do both.”

In this section and throughout the book, Vaneetha strikes a helpful balance in encouraging prayer for healing without putting hope in the healing itself. Our hope is in God and not in his gifts (66). Abraham’s faith wasn’t in the promise alone. His faith was rooted in the Promisor (80). God’s refusals remain his mercies (82).

In this sense she says we can consider the future and ask God for healing. There is no need to fear the “what if” of the future. What if the healing doesn’t come. What if the suffering doesn’t end. Rather, we can pray for change, and yet remain confident in God’s mercy “even if” the change never comes. “Replacing what if with even if in our mental vocabulary is one of the most liberating exchanges” (118)

Where to Go in Suffering

At one point, Vaneetha says that the best place to go in the midst of suffering is the Bible and prayer. “Read the Bible even when it feels like eating cardboard. And pray even when it feels like talking to a wall” (123). These answers might sound simplistic if they didn’t come from someone  who has walked through so much suffering and has found through the experience the reliability of this counsel.

Throughout the book she shows how God’s Word has ministered to her in the midst of her suffering. It was instructive to me to see many familiar passages from “the sufferer’s perspective” (71-72).

The Word and prayer are deep wells. I should encourage the sufferer to return to these wells even when they seem dry. And then I should pray that the Lord would give refreshing through these means of grace.

Seeking to minister to a friend in suffering will include asking God to bring them comfort and hope through his Word and through their prayers. While it may not always be right for me to instruct a sufferer in truth (as in the ill-timed exhortations of Job’s friends), I ought to pray that God would speak to the heart of my suffering friend through the Spirt and by the Word.