Category Archives: Topics

The Book of Haggai: In Five Minutes

The Book of Haggai is a short-read, only two chapters. The folks at the Bible Project, give us another installment of visual illustrations, to help us understand this particular book from the Minor Prophets.


Remembering Robert E. Lee, A Plodding Journey Towards Christ

The events this past weekend in nearby Charlottesville, are nothing but horrific and tragic. White supremacy reared its ugly head, and it surely needs to be condemned by anyone who claims to follow Jesus.

But what are we to make of the memory of Robert E. Lee, the chief, military figurehead of the Confederacy? The monument in Baltimore that was taken down last night, ascribed Lee to be a “Christian.” So, the controversy over how we should best remember the Confederacy, with their monuments, like that of Lee, is crucial, as I have written before, and it matters to people of faith.

R. David Cox, is a professor of history at Southern Virginia University, and he has written a quite helpful (and timely) book, The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee.  Cox researched a treasure trove of Lee’s letters, to construct a narrative as to how Lee understood his Christian faith. A couple of examples reveal a lot of Lee’s complex relationship with God.

A Brief Overview of Robert E. Lee’s Spiritual Journey

Robert E. Lee’s father, Henry Lee, suffered a severe injury, dying when Robert was only 11 years old. Henry Lee had been a decorated officer in George Washington’s Continental Army, during the American Revolution, and was otherwise known as “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. Henry (Harry) Lee was a child of the Enlightenment. He embraced a form of Unitarianism, as his faith.

Robert’s mother, Ann Lee, had grown up in Charles City County, Virginia, at Shirley Plantation. Unlike Robert’s father, Ann had become a devout Episcopalian, a Christian with a vibrant evangelical faith. Her husband had branded Ann as an “enthusiast.”

Young Robert E. Lee, though raised in the Episcopal Church, sought to distance himself from the theological and spiritual tension in his home. Like many Southern aristocrats of his generation, Robert mainly sought prestige and honor, and when he grew up, he served in the U.S. Army. In his mid-20’s he fell in love with Mary Custis, also from the Virginia aristocracy stock. But during their courtship, Mary experienced her own evangelical awakening. It seemed as though Robert E. Lee was unable to avoid the influence of evangelical faith in his life.

Mary Custis soon had her doubts about Robert, wondering if her prospective husband was ever really a Christian. Yet Robert persisted, and the two were eventually married.

Robert remained very quiet about his relationship with God, at least in the early years of marriage and family life. His conversion to Christ was evidently slow and prodding. He was not even confirmed as a member of the Episcopal Church until he was age 46. This was anything but a dramatic, instantaneous conversion. Like any Christian, conscious of their sin, Lee’s sanctification was incomplete.

So, it does not surprise me that there were elements in Lee’s character, that were not entirely transformed by the Holy Spirit, later in life. As the writers of the The Atlantic magazine have reported, as late as 1859, Lee had overseen the whipping of several runaway slaves, who were caught and returned to Lee in Arlington.

By the eve of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee’s theological outlook was one that struck some midway point between his father’s Unitarianism and his mother’s and wife’s evangelical faith. Lee emphasized the providence of God, primarily in a general sense, in his ambivalence towards slavery. On one hand, he viewed slavery as a moral evil. On the other hand, he believed that God, in His providential care, would eventually resolve the problem.

Likewise, when Lee was offered the command of the forces of the Union army, to put down the Southern rebellion, he stated that he would gladly liberate “the enslaved,” in order to have peace. On the other hand, he could not bring himself to strike a sword against his native Virginia. So, he declined the offer to lead the Northern army, and took a commission with Confederate forces.

It appears that it was his experience in the Civil War that eventually crystalized his vision of Christian faith, bringing him front and center before his Creator and Redeemer. When it became evident that the South had lost the war, Robert E. Lee saw this, once again, as the hand of providence. But this time, God’s providence was not simply general in nature. It was also personal, as he saw this judgment as being against himself, too. To a captured Union officer, whom Lee had known before the war, Lee said, “Patrick, the only question on which we ever differed, has been settled, and the Lord had decided against me” (p. 198). 

From a letter written to the rector of a church in Petersburg, where Lee worshipped during the last months of the war:

“God has thought fit to afflict us most deeply and his chastening hand is not yet stayed… How great must be our sins and how unrelenting our obduracy… We have only to submit to his gracious will and pray for his healing mercy… Now that the South is willing to have peace, I hope it may be accorded on a permanent basis; that the afflictions and interests of the country may be united and not a forced and hollow truce formed, to be broken at the first convenient opportunity. To this end all good men should labour.” (p. 198).

Lee’s conduct after the war, for me, exemplifies him more as a Christian leader, than anything else in his life. He could have run for public office, written memoirs to establish his name, or anything else that might have secured his reputation as the greatest military leader of the Confederacy.

Instead, Lee took the opportunity to try to revitalize the run-down Washington College, in Lexington, Virginia. There, Lee would spend the remaining years of his life, educating young men in what it meant to be “Southern gentlemen,” encouraging them not to revel in a “lost cause.” Rather, he sought to establish a school whereby the next generation would promote healing and reconciliation. It is still difficult to consider Lee’s ambivalent beliefs about slavery, but certainly, in the aftermath of the war, Lee gained moral clarity that he did not have before.

In the days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, he had encouraged his soldiers:

The Confederacy has failed… As Christian men, … we must consider only the effect which our actions will have upon the country at large.… there is time to plant crops and begin to repair the ravages of war. That is what I must now try to bring about.”

In my mind, this is the description of a man, who understood his sin, and sought to commend himself to the mercy of God, pursuing a path of peace and reconciliation.

Making Sense of What Happened in Charlottesville

What makes this all the more poignant about what happened in Charlottesville last weekend, is that this is not the portrait of Robert E. Lee that the “alt-right” demonstrators were trying to display. As I understand it, James Alex Fields, the young 20-year old man, who drove his car into a crowd, killing one person, and injuring others, grew up in a father-less home. His disabled mother sought to raise her son, despite the anti-social struggles this young person had in making something of his life. Through his anger, he wrapped himself up in extreme white identity politics.

What a contrast this is with the vision of Robert E. Lee, after the war! Lee sought to take young men like this, model for them what it would be like, to live as a Christian, to try to work towards peace and reconciliation. It is recalled that Robert E. Lee, at what is now Washington and Lee University, abolished the mandatory requirement to attend Chapel services at the school. However, Chapel services still went on, and students still attended those services on a regular basis, knowing that Robert E. Lee would be there, too.

I can understand why so many people now want to see statues of Robert E. Lee removed from so many public places. The hurt caused by the continued legacy of racism runs very, very deep. We need to tell the stories of those who suffered under the Southern regime of racial slavery, a regime that often invoked the Bible as a type of defense, for this sin. At the same time, I wish there was a way to rehabilitate the memory of Robert E. Lee, that promotes healing, instead of firing up anger.

Perhaps, instead of having statues of Lee, with his sword, in full military regalia, mounted on his horse, Traveler, we should have something different. Perhaps, our monuments of Lee should show him as an educator, with young men, encouraging them to follow the path of Jesus.

I do not exactly know what that would look like. But perhaps it is worth thinking about.

 

The following lecture by R. David Cox was recorded at the Virginia Historical Society, June, 2017.


Moving Beyond Confusion with the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” (#7)

Fired up by enthusiasm, the theology of “the baptism in the Holy Spirit,” is taking over the globe. But what is it exactly? (photo credit: Getty Images, Economist magazine)

The seventh (and last) in a multipart blog post series

Let me share with you some of my personal journey. When someone says “charismatic,” with respect to the Christian faith, it can evoke a lot of different reactions….

I have had a number of friends who would consider themselves as “charismatic,” as well as friends who are “non-charismatic.” I have helped to lead worship at a Pentecostal church, back in college, as well as church fellowships that take a rather dim view of all things “charismatic.”Some friends really look forward to worshipping at a “Spirit-filled” church. Others will not touch anything “charismatic” with a 10-foot pole. I even had a girlfriend years ago who dumped me because she said I was too “charismatic,” which was strange, particularly since I do not think I have ever genuinely “spoken in tongues,” and certainly never around her!

Like British Bible teacher John R.W. Stott was, I consider myself open to the charismatic movement, but I am cautious. Like Stott, I do not believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit can be turned on and off at will, like a water spigot. Sure, there is the whacky stuff associated with many TV evangelists that drives me crazy, but my main concern is theological. It all started with that awkward conversation with my high school friend, some thirty years ago, that I mentioned in the first blog post in this series. I lost track of her over the years, but the theological conundrum she left with me has stayed with me:

Clarke, have you received the baptism in the Holy Ghost?

In one sense, the inner turmoil turned out for the best. I had to search the Scriptures for myself, seeking God deeper in my prayer life, asking that I might be filled more with His Spirit, in obedience to His Word. I still desire that, today. For that, I am most grateful for that conversation.

But in another sense, the question left me in a state of needless confusion. I read books by John R. W. Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones on this topic, and both had very different conclusions. Which one was right? I would have conversations with various pastors, all sharing conflicting views on the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.”

How was I to make sense of it all? What does the Bible really teach about the “baptism in the Holy Spirit?” Continue reading


Power to Witness in the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” (#6)

Fired up by enthusiasm, the theology of “the baptism in the Holy Spirit,” is taking over the globe. But what is it exactly? (photo credit: Getty Images, Economist magazine)

Continuing on, with the sixth in a multipart blog post series

Revival: The church’s greatest need.

So reads the back cover of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic Joy Unspeakable…. and Lloyd-Jones is still right!! How can the church accomplish her God-given mission without the inward, transforming power of the Holy Spirit?

Once you observe how Old Testament prophecy works in the New Testament, regarding the Holy Spirit, such as in the narrative portions of the Book of Acts, then the whole framework of “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” falls into place. But not only does “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” in the Book of Acts fulfill prophecy from the Old Testament, it does so for a purpose, namely, that the believer might experience the power to witness for the sake of the Gospel. Continue reading


Why Facebook Can Never Be the Church … (and Why Christians Need to Think Differently)

Mark Zuckerberg, the enterprising CEO of Facebook, is a young, successful (wealthy) man with a mission. Social media on the Internet in the 21st century has done what the printing press did for Martin Luther in the 16th century. Both are communication platforms that enable the exchange of ideas, at a rapid rate, over long distances, drawing like-minded people together.

Zuckerberg, however, sees social media as being more than that. For technologies like Facebook, the Internet can be a vehicle for positive, social change. In fact, social media is replacing forms of community, that have traditionally held social structures together, such as civic volunteerism. Zuckerberg also places churches in that category, from a speech he made in Chicago recently:

“It’s so striking that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter. That’s a lot of of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else…. A church doesn’t just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation, makes sure they have food and shelter. A little league team has a coach who motivates the kids and helps them hit better. Leaders set the culture, inspire us, give us a safety net, and look out for us.”

Zuckerberg has a point. When it comes to civic volunteerism, I have seen it drop off, right here in my hometown, Williamsburg, Virginia. Just this past week, it was announced that the annual First Night celebration, that has brought in the New Year in our community, for 24 years, has been canceled for this year. First Night directors cite a lack of volunteers to run the family-friendly event.

But what about the church? Zuckerberg believes that social media has the answer. Facebook recently exceeded 2 billion online members. They are bound together by no creed, no mutual statement of faith, but only by a high-speed Internet connection.

Compare that to some 3 billion professed Christians. Christians all say that they believe in Jesus, but many appear to be divided along denominational lines, or otherwise, having conflicting agendas. Jesus called all believers to fulfill the Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20), but, sadly, other priorities can easily distract us in our God-given task.

But this is just the start. More and more believers are choosing their churches, not on the basis of what a church teaches, but rather, on the quality of their online presence. I even know of people who go to church “virtually,” choosing to worship “in” a church in another city, because they like what the pastor says in the virtual church, more than the church just down the road. Streaming the Sunday sermon down to your iPhone has more value than actually getting up on a Sunday morning, and going to worship with other believers, and physically shake hands with them.

Is this what the church is moving towards?

I hope not.

Evangelical leaders have been critical of Zuckerberg’s comments, that suggest that Facebook is trying to replace the church. But I think the problem is more here at home, in the church, and not with Mark Zuckerberg.

Remember the “Day-Timer?” It was all the rage in the late 20th century, for time management, but now replaced by the folks at Google, Apple, and Microsoft. Does the church get taken captive by the latest trends in the corporate world?

The Zuckerberg-erisation of the Evangelical Church

Back in the late 1980s, decades before iPhones and Microsoft Exchange Internet calendars, I served in a Christian ministry, where we were required to take a time-management class, using the DayTimer system. The seminar was taught by a Mormon, who was a successful business person, and he was an expert in tailoring the DayTimer to meet the challenges faced by those in full-time ministry. I learned a lot from that seminar, lessons that I kept sharing with others for years afterwards, only finally ditching my DayTimer a couple of years ago, in favor of Google Calendar.

But why a Mormon, teaching evangelical ministry leaders?

I am not entirely sure why we took that class. Perhaps someone higher up in our ministry mission personally knew this Mormon, the DayTimer expert. Perhaps this was an attempt by our leaders to build a relationship, in which to share the Gospel with this man, by allowing him to educate my fellow ministry staff members and I, with leadership principles we could readily apply to our day-to-day tasks, that do not compromise doctrinal issues. When framed like that, it sounds like a good thing.

But what bothered me is a joke my fellow ministry staff members would tell, even years after the class. We were a lot more aware of how many people we had “converted” to the DayTimer system than we had “converted” to Christ.

That was a rather sad joke.

It showed me how easily it is to be taken in by the things of this world, without totally realizing it. We see this in too many churches today, where the pastor is often viewed more as a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of an organization, rather than a shepherd of souls.

Now, I am all for helping people with time management, promoting excellence within church ministry structures through leadership seminars, and even using technology, like Facebook-style social media, to facilitate better communication and community building. But at the end of the day, all of these elements that drive the corporate business world and the movement towards globalization, do not matter that much in God’s Kingdom.

When it comes to the business of the church, it is all about loving God first, and then loving your neighbor into God’s family, one soul at a time, imparting the Word of God into the lives of people around you. This is the stuff that lasts.

The grass withers, the flower fades,
    but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:8 ESV)

So, let us be people of discernment, not being drawn into the ways of the world. Allow the Word of God to set the agenda for the people of God, and not the corporate spin of Mark Zuckerberg.

 


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