A Story of Suffering: My Wife’s Thoughts a Year Later

A Story of Suffering: My Wife’s Thoughts a Year Later

In times of suffering you flee from what brings pain and run to what brings comfort. Suffering, in a way, shows us the core of who we are, where our hope is and where we find security.

This Wednesday, February 27th, marks the 1-year anniversary of my brother, Samuel Ray Sinclair, being diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). I remember exactly where I was when I received the news. My heart sank and my thoughts immediately went to how I could best love and support my brother in this moment. I quickly called him and tried to be the supporting and loving sister that I know he needed, wishing I could be next to him in Houston. Wishing I could be present. I remember affirming him in our shared hoped in the Lord and that God would only bring this upon Sam to lead others to come to know him. Sam agreed, as tears streamed down his face in fear of the unknown. Little did I know how much God would do in the next 72 hours in order to bring glory to His name.

Sam was quickly rushed to M.D. Anderson in Houston, where they started on chemotherapy and a multitude of tests to determine the best treatment plan. It wasn’t long after, that literally hundreds of people started to arrive at the hospital. Sam was one of the most well connected people. His passion for relationships and loving on people is far more than I can ever or will ever know. They were there to be present with him during this time of suffering. I remember calling him again the next day and laughter and joy were in his speech. He was loved on so much by his friends and my parents who were constantly there with him.

Friday morning, March 1st, Sam complained of a severe headache and was quickly rushed to receive a CAT scan of his brain. Shortly thereafter he slipped into a coma, induced by a brain bleed. Mom and dad rushed to the hospital and soon called with the news.

I was stricken with fear of the unknown. “This can’t be happening”, I thought to myself. Immediately, I pleaded with the Lord to work a miracle. Not knowing any specifics or what was going to happen, my husband, JT, and I hit our knees in prayer. We got on the first plane out of Louisville and my other brothers, Chris and Charlie, also got on the first plane to Houston from their respective cities.

The entire way traveling to Houston I couldn’t stop listening to piano hymns while reading Psalms. I started with the first chapter and just read and read and read. I knew nothing could bring more clarity or comfort.

After arriving to the hospital, we quickly realized that Sam’s condition was irreversible. He was going to die. We gathered around his bed, sang hymns, shared memories, talked to him, wept in anguish and prayed. I’ve never experienced such utter pain in my life. It didn’t even feel real. I held his warm, strong hand and pleaded with him to get up. We all did.

At 11:10pm on Friday, March 1st, 2012, my brother Samuel Ray Sinclair, age 31, passed away. The Lord had kept Sam stable just long enough for us all to be together as a family and have a few hours together. Oh, how sweet the Lord is. Even in those moments of gut-wrenching pain, I could see God’s grace.

It was gracious for Him to give us time together as a family. It was gracious for Him to allow my parents to be with him the last 48 hours of his life. It was gracious of Him to surround Sam with hundreds of friends. It was gracious of Him to save my brother from his sins!

As we left the hospital that night and in the days after, I remember repeating to myself over and over, “God is in control. God is in control. He is our only hope.” I just couldn’t wrap my mind around what was happening or going on, but that is the truth I had to cling to. I remember asking my closets friends, “Please pray for joy among the saints as we rejoice at the grace of God in my brothers life. May God grant us peace and grace to face the days ahead.”

This was and is my hope: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

Christ will one day return and he will speak the same words we spoke, “Sam, get up!” and Sam will rise! Oh, that I will be able to see him again!

The suffering of losing my brother has reminded me of my depravity and the certainty of sin’s curse – death. I hate death. I hate the pain and despair it brings. But for me, it does not stop there. I know where I place my hope and in whom I am secure. Christ will come again and restore all things and that is the day that I long for. But until then, I press on and run the race God has laid before me. That I might make much of Him and glorify Him in all that I do so that others may come to know Him.301788_10100532115313633_98222380_n

This past year has been one of much heartache and joy. I never knew how much I’d need my husband, our church, our friends, and our family. They have surrounded me, poured love out on me, been present with me, and prayed for me. Suffering really is meant to be shared among community. They have prayed for the peace of God which surpasses all understanding to guarded my heart in Christ. It has.

The pain is not gone, and at times Sam’s death doesn’t feel real. But the one thing I know is real is my constant comfort and hope.

Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

“What was lost, God will restore.” – John Piper

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Peter Brown on Augustine

Peter Brown makes this fascinating comment in his landmark biography on Augustine.

“Yet I think that those who gained most from him were those who had been able actually to see and hear him as he spoke in Church, and, most of all, those who had some contact with the quality of his life among men.”

Augustine typically receives most notoriety for his contributions in the Donatist and Pelagian controversies, his work on De Trinitate and the Confessions.  Also, his time as the Bishop of Hippo was quite influential on African and Roman Christianity.  Yet, Brown observes that none of those things were his greatest contributions.  His greatest contributions were to his church. Those who gained the most from Augustine were those who were closest to Augustine.  They saw his life, they heard him speak, they watched him live and love, they were able to observe the quality of his life among men.

 

 

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Protestants, Sola Scriptura, and Peter Leithart

Peter Leithart in a recent blog post on sola scriptura.

“Converts from Protestantism often despair that Scripture is a wax nose that can be made to mean anything at all.  It is so ambiguous that we need another authority to limit the scope of interpretation, whether it is a Confession or a magisterium.

Of course, Scripture, being a piece of human language, is subject to the slippage and ambiguity that characterizes all human language.  But if ambiguity is characteristic of human language, then it’s also characteristic of the human language of Confessions and magisterial decisions.

Nicaea didn’t resolve the Christological disputes; it just started a bunch of new ones, and once those were out of the way, Nestorius provided a new flashpoint.  Even today, people still debate over the exact force of homoousios and whether or not Chalcedon is Cyrillian.  Catholics are still debating the import of Vatican II.  No criticism of Catholicism there; it’s simply the human condition.  We are historical beings; we speak in time, and what we say is interpreted later, sometimes centuries later; later interpreters interpret from a different historical and cultural moment.  There is no way to jump this process – not sola scriptura, not Confessionalism, not magisterial decrees.”

HT: Patrick Schreiner

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RetroChristianity Interview: Part 2

Yesterday we heard from Dr. Svigel in Part 1 of our interview series on his new book RetroChristianityIf you missed Part 1 you can read it here.  Today, the final installment from Dr. Svigel as he answers questions on the severity of the evangelical crisis, how we can become better evangelicals, the role of the pastor-theologian in evangelicalism, and some suggestions for further reading.  Thanks again to Dr. Svigel for taking the time to give such thoughtful and thorough responses.

Q: According to many, evangelicalism is in a crisis.  Are things really that bad?  And if so, what are the greatest indicators of the crisis?

This is actually an area of some controversy. As with most descriptions of evangelicalism (positive or negative), nothing we say can be equally applied to every part of the tradition. Whatever generalization we make, many people can appeal to anecdotal evidence to the contrary. With regard to statistics, some point to data that suggests evangelicalism is doing just fine . . . others that it’s at the verge of a collapse.

Last year Probe Ministries (www.probe.org) tried to get to the bottom of the debate between those who have been warning that “the sky is falling” and those who replied that “we’re soaring on eagles’ wings.” After looking at the data from a much more confessional evangelical perspective (rather than merely a sociological perspective), Probe concluded, “Unfortunately, what we found convinced us that things are not only worse than what [positive assessors] Wright, Johnson, and Smith concluded, but they appear to be worse in some ways than our prior assumptions from the existing [negative assessor] Barna surveys” (http://www.probe.org/site/c.fdKEIMNsEoG/b.7498017/k.7BC6/The_True_State_of_American_Evangelicals_in_2011.htm).

Although I give a nod to this discussion in RetroChristianity, my approach was a bit different. Through biblical, theological, and historical considerations, I adopt the marks of the historical body of Christ—oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity (pp. 162–172)—and I establish a descriptive model of the essential marks (orthodoxy, order, ordinances) and works (evangelism, edification, exultation) of a legitimate local church (pp. 173–218). With this model in place as a standard against which to measure broad attitudes, priorities, and practices within evangelicalism as a whole and among individual local church communities, one cannot help but conclude that, yes, things are pretty precarious. There are, of course, stunning examples of wholesome and healthy churches. But the reality is that many of the star churches and celebrity pastors we set up as models to emulate (or at least privately envy) don’t actually measure up to a biblical, theological, and historical model (see, for an example, my essay, “7 Church Ministry Models from Ideal to Awful” at http://www.retrochristianity.org/2012/02/13/7-church-ministry-models-from-ideal-to-awful/).

 
Q:  You say that careful biblical, theological, and historical reflection should make us better evangelicals, not former evangelicals.  Can you explain this a bit further?

There’s sometimes a fear among “nothing but the Bible” evangelicals that too much theology will turn a person away from the faith . . . or that too much history will drive a person out of evangelicalism toward Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or one of the more liturgically-oriented traditions. There is actually some truth to this. Since about the mid-twentieth century, modern evangelicalism tended to lose touch with its deep theological and historical roots in the conservative protestant (classic evangelical) tradition. When that happened, modern evangelicals began to engage in a hasty marriage to modern popular culture to regain an identity they lost when they forgot their theological and historical ancestry. The result has been a redefinition of what it means to be evangelical Christians in the modern world—reinterpreting the Bible in ways that conform to individualism, consumerism, pragmatism, and American ideals.

Many of our seminarians who have been exposed to a more theologically balanced and historically informed faith have often become frustrated with the modern evangelical turn. This is understandable. To illustrate this, just remember poor Luke Skywalker raised on that barren moisture farm of the arid planet Tatooine. Although he didn’t know it, Luke was the heir of an unbelievable legacy—the son of a queen and the most powerful (and infamous) Jedi ever . . . and the brother of a princess. As he was progressively exposed to the truth about his roots, he began to feel deceived and betrayed by those who had kept it from him. Similarly, young evangelicals exposed to the depth of their historical and theological roots can strongly react against the simple “stand alone on the Word of God” confession and the shallow “read your Bible, pray every day” spirituality. They can feel deceived and betrayed by the churches that hid this from them. As a result of this, instead of working within the movement to steer it back toward its original theological and historical course, they abandon ship, joining with traditions that have their own problems with the marks and works of authenticity. They become former evangelicals instead of better evangelicals.

Our evangelical movement needs young, energetic, and idealistic pastors and teachers who are firmly grounded in Scripture as the final authority for Christian faith and life . . . in history as a source of wisdom, insight, and guidance . . .  and in theology as a balancing, stabilizing force for doctrinal and practical reflection and engagement.
Q:  What role do pastors play in encouraging this retrieval of the Christian tradition within evangelicalism?  What role to academics/professors play?

First, these two groups need to be reunited in our colleges and seminaries. In Ephesians 4 the ministries of the pastors and teachers were to be united, not divided. Yet we’re living in a day when entrepreneurial pastors have forsaken seminary training (or encouraged hiring pastoral leaders with little or no training) to help pilot their churches into the unknown waters of the future. Simultaneously, evangelical scholars have often neglected the church for purely academic pursuits, desiring to engage in higher level scholarship rather than “stoop” down to minister to the church in a confessional context. So, a first step in this retrieval would be to actually breach this gap. A pastor of a church who has no seminary training simply has not been adequately discipled in the biblical, theological, and historical spheres—at least not in a balanced way. They will continue to reproduce the same mistakes of the past because they will be unaware of their own blind spots. I’d encourage such pastors to engage in a serious “continuing education” program that will help fill holes in their biblical, historical, and theological equipping. I would also encourage more academic types to consider pastoral ministry. I know we describe our Ph.D. programs as means of preparing graduates for academic pursuits, but I’m not as eager to maintain this kind of dichotomy as others are. I’m actually thrilled when Ph.D. graduates enter pastoral ministry. In fact, I wish it would happen much more.

Second, academics and professors can help by actually engaging in the task of preparing pastors in areas of weakness. They can provide easy access to biblical, theological, and historical resources for those in ministry  in a way that keeps these in balance. This would require our biblical scholars, theologians, and historians to think and work together—something that the modern departmentalization and fragmenting of the disciplines has been working against for some generations. New Testament, Old Testament, biblical theologians, systematic theologians, historical theologians, philosophical theologians, and pastoral theologians can’t afford to be competing with each other for the hearts and minds of seminarians and pastors. It ends up producing pastors who are enamored with biblical exegesis but disinterested in history . . . or infatuated with theology but unconcerned about homiletics . . . or excited about history but bored with the Bible. That won’t do anybody any good.

Finally, pastors need to begin gently exposing their churches to a deeper understanding of Scripture, theology, and history. They can do this in league with professors and teachers—inviting them for conferences or seminars, engaging in studies in the church that explore doctrine and history, and drawing on resources that will better stabilize church members who were raised on or initiated into a shallow or one-sided tradition.

 


Q:  If there was one book, besides RetroChristianity, that you would have every evangelical read to become more engaged with the Christian tradition, what would it be?

In the back of the book I recommend several books that engage various aspects of this discussion. I would say, though, that the best place to start is in the primary sources themselves, taking care not to jump to conclusions and to approach them with humility. So, a good English edition of The Apostolic Fathers would be the place to start. The edition by Michael W. Holmes is excellent. I often tell my students, though, that this volume should probably come with a label on the front cover that says: “Warning: After thoughtful study of these writings you will not be able to read your Bibles the same way again.”

We bring to the text of Scripture a lot of presuppositions about what they mean, what they’re emphasizing, and how they should be applied. Where do these presuppositions come from? Our own experience, culture, traditions, or preferences. When we expose ourselves to the actual beliefs, practices, and emphases of the earliest Christians—whose writings either immediately preceding, are concurrent with, or immediately following those of the New Testament—our own presuppositions will be irreparably challenged. We might hold to the same basic theology and continue in the same basic practices, but how we think about these things will be illumined by a different set of emphases and questions.

From The Apostolic Fathers I would encourage a chronological reading through the early church—keeping in mind the developments of doctrine and practice that one perceives through the centuries. We will better understand our own history, tradition, and denominational distinctives . . . including why Protestants reacted the way they did to some of the later patristic and medieval developments.

On my website, www.retrochristianity.org, I list a number of recommended resources graded for beginner, intermediate, advanced, and expert students. They are broken down by category. Any of those would be helpful to begin gaining a balanced biblical, historical, and theological appreciation of our evangelical tradition.

 

 

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RetroChristianity Interview: Part 1

Michael Svigel, Associate Professor of Theological Studies, at Dallas Theological Seminary has graciously agreed to answer a few questions regarding his most recent book RetroChristianity.  He also blogs frequently at retrochristianity.org.  Dr. Svigel is a very popular professor on campus due to his teaching ability, theological acumen, and certainly his spontaneous accordion sessions.  I am thankful for him and his insights into evangelical theology.  Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview.

Part 1:

Q:  Can you tell us a bit more about your experience within evangelicalism, noting some of its greatest strengths and weaknesses?

I converted to Christianity as a teenager after having strayed from my liberal denominational background and after spending a couple years involved with the Church of Scientology. The man who shared Christ with me and eventually baptized me as a believer was a bi-vocational Baptist minister who was pastoring at a small non-denominational community church. So from the beginning of my Christian life I’ve been part of the “low church” or “free church” tradition, never really a Baptist but as close to Baptist as you can get without being eligible for tuition breaks at their colleges and seminaries.

This is the tradition in which I grew in my faith. Mine was a pretty eclectic experience, though. I spent about two years “dating” the Pentecostal movement, a couple years in the large church or mega-church movements, one year in a very small Baptist church, and then, for the last seventeen years, at home in a single non-denominational Bible Church. Most of my church experience has been in Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas. So I think I’ve had a chance to personally observe some of the varieties of evangelicalism from within over the last twenty or so years.

I believe the greatest strength of my evangelical tradition is its ability to reflect a catholic “unity in diversity” similar to that envisioned by the apostles and actually experienced in the early church. Originally the term “catholic” didn’t mean monolithic and uniform. It embraced diversity of traditions, which I evidence in RetroChristianity  (pp. 109–112). At the same time evangelicalism is a dynamic interdenominational movement that has the potential to easily accommodate changing cultural realities and challenges. Unfortunately, some non-evangelical traditions are like massive ships almost impossible to maneuver, while the diverse denominations and congregations that make up evangelicalism are like an fleet of small vessels that can almost turn on a dime.

However, these strengths are also evangelicalism’s weaknesses when they aren’t guided by biblical, theological, and historical reflection, including the classic marks of orthodoxy and the marks and works of the local church. Diversity has often deteriorated into divided and conflicting independent churches and denominations. Doctrinal coherence and practical unity have been lost to squabbles over non-central matters shoved to the core of orthodoxy. And the ability to change quickly has led to radical pragmatic changes without carefully biblical, theological, and historical reflection. 

Q:  What specifically has caused so many former evangelicals to find their ecclesiastical home in traditionalism?

Besides being fed up with the lack of theological and historical depth in many free churches, many people have explained to me, “I became [Roman Catholic/Greek Orthodox/Anglican] by reading the church fathers.” In fact, most of the converts to the high liturgical traditions that I’ve spoken with defend their decision based on the church fathers. I have to say, though, that these decisions are often hasty and uncritical.

See, there’s what I call a “twilight zone” between ignorance of the fathers and expertise in the fathers in which novice readers experience ecstatic exuberance. It’s a very, very dangerous place in which to make any kind of major decisions about one’s core convictions and church alignments. I personally went through this twilight zone back in Bible College, when I first started reading the fathers (and have since been reading them about an hour and a half a day on average). Thankfully, I pressed on in my study and began asking critical questions: “What are these church fathers really saying? When were they written? Did they believe everything the Orthodox (or Catholic) churches today believe? Did they believe in things that the modern Orthodox or Catholics don’t?” But some people, unguided in their pursuit of the fathers, just don’t make it through the twilight zone of ecstatic exuberance. They read into these fathers a uniformity that didn’t exist. Or they interpret their doctrines or practices (such as the eucharist, episcopacy, tradition, etc.) in categories that didn’t come until centuries later. In the twilight zone, ignorance and zeal result in anachronism, reductionism, and recklessness.

So, most people I’ve spoken with say they became part of a classic liturgical church because they wanted to go back to the church of the fathers—with a fixed liturgy, the Christian calendar, the observance of Lent, an episcopal polity, a sacramental theology, etc. In other words, a “high church.” The problem, though, is what they call the “classic” or “patristic” church with those developed structures actually took centuries to develop. They want to go back to the church of the fourth century. But why not the church of the second? Or the third? Or the twelfth? In many ways this is like an American saying, “We need to return to the America of the founding fathers—the Carter Administration!” A lot can happen in 200 years. Without a careful consideration of the continuities and discontinuities in the history of the church, readers stuck in the twilight zone end up making hasty and unwise decisions.

(By the way, this twilight zone lasts about five years or so. I believe any decision to switch traditions between 0 to 5 years of intensive [and preferably guided] study of the church fathers is hasty. Sadly most of the converts I know make their decisions at the worst point in their study of the fathers—between 6 months to 3 years. Frankly, this is pure folly.)

Q:  Is the supposed dissatisfaction with evangelicalism as broad as some have claimed?  In other words, is this a phenomenon that is occurring among the masses, or is it merely occurring among a select few groups?

This is a great question, but I’m not sure it can be answered easily. I think it depends on where you are. There are a lot of satisfied evangelicals—satisfied, that is, with their own particular way of doing church. They are the common church goers who were either raised in a particular way of thinking about church or who have converted to a particular tradition. They just live with its strengths and weaknesses. That’s commendable.

Because of our modern mobility as well as our access to information, more people than ever are able to be exposed to the diversity of the evangelical tradition. This has led a lot of people to start asking questions about their own particular branch of the tradition and to ponder the differences in theology, ministry philosophies, and methods. When we do this, it can often take the form of dissatisfaction with one’s own branch of the tradition.

I would say, though, that while there is a general dissatisfaction and malaise among many evangelicals—especially younger evangelicals who are leaving Christianity completely—the percentage who are leaving evangelicalism for Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, or Episcopalianism over the issues mentioned in the last question are still relatively few. It is clearly noticeable—and enough for people to write books about the subject. But I would say it’s just one symptom of a more general dissatisfaction.

Another evidence of a widespread dissatisfaction with evangelicalism is the phenomenon of church hopping within the evangelical tradition—not leaving evangelicalism itself, but leaving one evangelical church to go to another church. Like butterflies fluttering from flower to flower, large portions of our congregations are lingering for a matter of months or a few years, becoming uncomfortable, disillusioned, or dissatisfied, and then moving to another church. Repeat hoppers don’t seem to know what they’re really looking for, but they keep looking for it. I can’t help but see an underlying dissatisfaction with evangelicalism driving the church hoppers.

Q: In your view, what is the greatest lesson that Evangelicalism can learn about itself from its brief history?

In RetroChristianity I trace the history of modern evangelicalsm—that is, the made-in-America form that took on a distinct identity since the Modernist-Fundamentalist divide in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (an identity, by the way, which has been exported and duplicated around the globe in the last century.) Of course, evangelicalism has historical roots that go deep into the Reformation, through the Colonial Era, including the First and Second Great Awakenings. But my focus in Retro was not to present a history of conservative Protestantism form its beginnings to the present, but to look back from our current vantage point in modern American evangelicalism and try to understand where our particular mutation came from. Just like antebellum America is a “different” America from the United States after the Civil War, modern evangelicalism after the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy is a “new” kind of evangelicalism. At least that’s my thesis.

I think modern evangelicalism needs to look back at the circumstances of its own birth out of the classic evangelical tradition of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. They especially need to realize that in many regards modern evangelicalism is retracing the steps of nineteenth century critical liberal theology. When I describe nineteenth century liberal theology in my Th.M. course, “Church in the Modern Era,” I summarize classic liberal theology with a slide entitled “Seven ‘Fundamentals’ of Liberal Theology.” These are:

1. Christian theology has to adapt to the scientific, cultural, historical, and philosophical world.

2. The individual Christian thinker is free to criticize and reconstruct traditional beliefs and practices.

3. The emphasis must be on practical, ethical, and social change, not doctrinal speculation, creed, or other dogma. Living is more important than believing.

4. Theology must be based on something other than the Bible, which is rejected as the inspired, inerrant Word of God.

5. God is immanent in the evolutionary processes of nature, humanity, modern thought, and cultural development.

6. The research universities, not the confessional seminaries, are the proper place for theological inquiry.

7. Scientific inquiry has a progressive nature—“newer is better.” Modern scholarship and theology are more trustworthy than that of our predecessors.

As I point these out, my class grows silent, because many evangelical pastors, scholars, teachers, and leaders today are retracing the same path of nineteenth century liberal theology. No, history doesn’t repeat itself. It’s much worse than that. It approximates itself. We foolishly claim, “Yes, the liberals took these things to an extreme. But we’re must smarter now.” In the end, the anthropocentric turn (today seen especially in individualism, pragmatism, and consumerism) will be our undoing.

This is a lesson we must never forget.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview with Dr. Svigel!

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The Danger, Labor, and Advantage of Theology

In De Trinitate, Augustine, while describing his purpose for writing the book, explains the task of doing theology.  He argues, “Nowhere is a mistake more dangerous, or the search more laborious, or the discovery more advantageous.” (68)

I have never read a statement filled with more truth.

There is nothing more dangerous than the creature believing wrongly about its Creator.

There is nothing more laborious than the finite thinking about the infinite.

Yet, there is not a task in the world that is filled with more advantage and joy than being a theologian.

As we are theologizing let’s remember these simple truths: Our work is dangerous, our work is hard, but our work is indeed joyful.

Peace be with you.

 

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