When a Christian dies, we rejoice in the fact that he or she is with the saviour in glory, yet we still grieve our loss. Death hurts even though death is common to us all. The writer of Ecclesiastes bluntly states, “For the living know that they will die,” and there’s “a time to be born, and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2; 9:5).
Death is a major theme in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Some scholars argue that he wrote this play shortly after the death of his own son Hamnet at age 11. It is no surprise that the play Hamlet wrestles with the bewildering and unsettling reality of death and the loss of loved ones. One of the earliest scenes in the play has Hamlet speaking with his mother and uncle about the death of his father. Hamlet’s mother questions Hamlet’s persistent mourning for his father, telling him not to “seek for thy father in the dust. Thou knowest ’tis common. All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity” (I.ii.72-74). Hamlet’s uncle chastises him for his “stubbornness” and “obstinate condolement,” stating that “you must know, your father lost a father. That father lost, lost his…” (I.ii.91-92, 95-96). The argument is simple: death happens to all of us. It is normal, and it is natural. Get over it.
As common as death is, however, it never seems natural or normal for death to be in the world. As human beings, we feel as though we were meant to live forever and never to experience the death of loved ones. If it were natural, then death would feel the same as thirst or hunger, merely natural bodily functions. Yet death is abnormal. The Bible is clear that we were made to live forever; death entered the world as a consequence of turning away from our Creator (Genesis 3:19). Paul writes in Romans, “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Sin and death are our biggest problems in life. We were meant to be holy, alive, and in fellowship with our God.
C.S. Lewis observes in his classic book, Mere Christianity, that “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” We have a desire to live forever, to be good, to be known, and to be loved. Sin and death stand as obstacles to our fundamental desire as human beings. This is because we were made for another world.
Our culture seems to be diminishing death as an enemy. Celebrations of life have replaced funerals. Assisted suicide is considered medical treatment for terminal illnesses and ageing. Abortion is celebrated as a hallmark of freedom. Death is part of the natural “circle of life,” the answer for death given by Elton John and Disney. Treating death as a normal step in life may offer a superficial anesthetic to the pain of loss, but it isn’t helpful in the long run. The Bible says that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). The Christian knows that death isn't right, and the Christian knows that only God can deal with death.
The poem I wrote, “not natural, not normal,” is about death and what Jesus does about it. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Amen!
Creation itself begins as words. In Genesis, God speaks the universe into being (or sings, as C.S. Lewis might have imagined it). With his words, God brings form, function, and meaning into creation. Out of the empty void came all things as God imagined it. The universe, we are told, is “without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). Then God speaks: “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:3 – 4). God’s creativity involved sorting and differentiating one thing from the other. When God created Heaven and Earth, he created order out of chaos.
We are now commissioned to continue the creative process, cultivating the world and making new beauty (Genesis 1:26 – 28). Since we are made in the image of God, we also have a desire to create in the way God himself creates; this does not mean we can create ex nihilo—out of nothing—but it does mean we have been made with the desire to move our surroundings from chaos to order. God’s commission to Adam to name all of the creatures God made is humanity’s first way of ordering the environment and sorting out what is what. It is also humanity’s first creative act (Genesis 2:19). Adam invents the names himself.
Since the beginning, understanding our world through words has been central to our creative and cultural mandate as humans made in the image of God. It should be no surprise, then, to see that poetry has always been a process of creating order out of chaos. Making sense in a seemingly senseless world has a long history in the annals of literature. From Homer’s The Iliad, written as Ancient Greece exited its own dark age, to Virgil’s The Aeneid, which helped usher in “Pax Romana,” to the great period of English poetry as “maker of meaning amid chaos” born in the crucible of WWI. During that frenzied and unstable condition of the trenches, poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves, sought to make sense of the horrors of war and convey these experiences to the English-speaking world. Although WWI was not the “war to end all wars” as was hoped for, it is John McCrae’s Great War poem, “In Flanders Field,” that still resonates with us as we attempt to come to terms with all occurrences of modern war and conflict in countries around the world.
A biblical example of a poet seeking to make sense of his world in the midst of chaos is young David while on the run from King Saul. Fleeing for his life and trying to survive in the unforgiving wilderness as an outcast and outlaw, David hid in the Cave of Adullam and he wrote poems. Many of the poems David wrote appear in the Book of Psalms. Although the Holy Spirit uniquely inspires these psalms, David’s skill of writing poetry was a talent that he likely honed while passing the time as an isolated shepherd boy tending his father’s sheep. Like playing the harp, poetic prayer was one of the ways David used his gifts to manage the challenges of his life. We still turn to the psalms in our present times of challenges and difficulty, to read them, meditate on them, and pray those words back to God.
Poetry is born out of chaos, and it brings us comfort when we are surrounded by the chaos of life. This is why poetry is the oldest form of human writing and has dominated the literary world for millennia, with works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Spencer’s Fairie Queen, Milton’s Paradise Lost—just to name a few. This is also why poetic hymns have meant so much to the church, especially in times of persecution, and why the poetry of Negro spirituals grew out of the trauma of race-based slavery in the United States.
We live in chaotic and unsettled times again. Such times require poets and hymn writers to help us see God’s plan and purpose written into the fabric of our current culture. Poetry reminds us there is still beauty in times of disorder. Poetry also reminds us of the power of words, especially that of prayer and God’s word. We need to continue the creation mandate to cultivate order and beauty amidst the chaos and ugliness of our surroundings. Like David and so many others in times of uncertainty, we need poets to hunker down and write words of comfort. We need poets to once again point us to the Great Poet himself, the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3).
 C.S. Lewis describes the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. In the chapters called “The Fight at the Lamp-post” and “The Founding of Narnia,” Aslan is heard and seen singing the world beyond the wardrobe into existence. I wouldn’t be surprised if God’s voice sounded like “the most beautiful,” “harmonious” and “triumphant” music ever heard when he spoke the universe into being.
 See, for example, Psalm 13; 35; 52; 54; 57; 59; 63; 64; 108; 142.
Over the last ten years or so, one of my pastors, Benno Kurvits, has been a tremendous support to me and my writing. He carefully reads my quarterly arts column that I write for Barnabas magazine, often commenting on the ideas I present, asking further questions, and keeping me sharp. He has also read and reviewed my book All Things New and frequently comments on my blog. The proverbs tells us that "as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17). I thank God for Benno and his unique ministry to me as a writer seeking to serve the church and glorify God with my pen. Having a supportive writing community is essential for developing the writing craft as well as for encouraging writers to keep writing. Throughout literary history, there have been little pockets of writers who offer mutual support, criticism, and encouragement. One of the most famous group is the “Inklings,” which included well-known writers C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien among others.
That being said, I want to give a shout-out to my friend and fellow wordsmith, Benno Kurvits. I am pleased to say that he has recently launched his author’s webpage and blog. It’s well designed, informative, and a good way to keep up with the work Benno is currently doing as a writer. I recommend you take a look at it and subscribe to his monthly newsletters.
I have also included below a review of his book Outrun the Bear: Reflections on the Intersection of Sports and God (Winnipeg: Word Alive Press, 2019). The review was written by my wife Laurie and appeared in Barnabas (Summer 2019).
Outrun the Bear by Benno Kurvits (Book Review by Laurie Johnston)
After the collapse of the Roman empire, many monasteries became hubs of productivity. They would provide skilled labourers, education, food, medical care, and other useful aids to surrounding villages and settlements. They also amassed considerable wealth. Monks aren’t the only productive ones. Historians often speak of the “Protestant work ethic” being a driving force for Western economic growth over the last 500 years. Is there anything wrong with Christians pursuing productivity and trying to be good stewards with the time, resources, and opportunities God provides?
Although I am not always as productive as I would like to be, I confess that I am a productivity nut. I get antsy if I am not doing or making or creating something. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. What I have learned, however, is that I am in danger of making productivity into an idol. Being productive is what a lot of people aspire for in our culture, but it is also rare to identify this as a sin. In this blog post, I explore the dark side of pursuing productivity, showing that if you’re not careful, you can easily slip into Productivity Idolatry.
Being Unproductive is a Problem
Most of us recognize that being unproductive and lazy are wrong. With YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, emails, Twitter, podcasts, blogs, Netflix, there are so many diversions in life that distract us from getting things done. Unless you are being intentional with your time, the Internet quickly becomes a “black hole” for your energy, focus, and productivity. Not that the Internet is entirely to blame.
A number of years ago (when MySpace was still a fledgling idea), I read a newspaper column cleverly titled “Idle Worship.” The article discussed our culture’s penchant for worshipping leisure and idolizing idleness. Too often we live for the weekend, for entertainment, and for vacations. Although rest is important, we were made to work. Before the “Fall” in Genesis, Adam and Eve had things to do. God placed Adam and Eve in a garden that needed to be tended and cultivated. Work is good for us. The challenge is that our work is often frustrated; this is because sin entered the world and work became much harder. God tells Adam
“cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17 – 19)
Because work is hard, we are prone to shirk our duties and avoid difficult tasks. But the Bible is clear: being lazy is a sin (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; 1 Timothy 5:13). It should be no surprise that the book of Proverbs frequently scolds the sluggard. The master in Jesus’s “parable of the talents” condemns the timid and lazy servant. One of the seven deadly sins identified by the medieval church is slothfulness. In other words, being unproductive is a great temptation and struggle for human beings. This is why our culture longs for self-help books on being more productive. One of the best is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Christian writers have also tackled the topic, such as Tim Challies’ Do More Better. We also are prone to slipping into overworking, and this is also addressed by Christian authors like Kevin DeYoung (Crazy Busy) and David Murray (Reset).
Poorly managing the time, gifts, and resources God has given to us is a stewardship issue, whether you are being lazy or you are burning yourself out. Either way, we need to confess and repent of these sins. In this blog post, however, I am not going to address the problems with being unproductive or the consequences of being overworked. Here’s the point: pursuing productivity isn’t necessarily a righteous antidote for poor stewardship of time, resources, and abilities.
I know this firsthand. In my day job, I work as a full time teacher in a demanding independent school. I also teach part-time at a community college. I write a column on the arts. I blog, I write poetry, and I am currently writing two books. I have four children and we home school our two youngest daughters. I oversee the Audio Visual ministry at my church and I’m involved with teaching and preaching. I am also involved with other ministry tasks, such as discipleship and speaking at other churches and conferences. So what’s wrong with all that?
Here’s the big problem: productivity can easily become idolatry. Idolatry can come in many forms: careers, family, possessions—anything that usurps God’s rightful place in our lives. Timothy Keller defines idolatry simply as “turning a good thing into an ultimate thing.” Taking a good thing—like productivity—and turning it into your ultimate purpose for your life is idolatry. You are validating your existence through how efficient, or busy, or productive you are. In his book Counterfeit Gods, Keller further describes an idol as “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, and anything that you seek to give you what only God can give.”
Productivity idolatry can slip beneath the radar. For one thing, it is not obvious that you are sinning, especially when you are productive at work, at school, at home, or in your church. These are good things. We know being a sluggard is bad, so being hardworking seems justified, no matter how focused you are on being productive. Because it’s a “good thing” it’s harder to recognize it when it becomes an ultimate thing. Another reason why productivity idolatry goes unnoticed is that it’s rarely about pride or seeking the praise of others. Truly productive people do a lot of work unseen. Self-promotion hinders productivity. But here’s the snare. Just because you aren’t fueling your pride with your productivity doesn’t mean you aren’t sinning.
Taking a good thing—like productivity—and turning it into your ultimate purpose for your life is idolatry. You are validating your existence through how efficient, or busy, or productive you are.
Seven Signs of Productivity Idolatry
How do you know when a good thing—productivity—has become an ultimate thing? Here are seven signs that you may be idolizing productivity in your life.
1) Inflexibility with the unexpected: Is your time so full that you are thrown into a tizzy when something unscheduled happens or there’s a setback to your productivity? The Apostle Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit, among which is peace and patience (Galatians 5:22). The fruit of idolatry is anxiety, frustration, bitterness, and unrighteous anger. Few people enjoy hiccups to their plans. But if your idol is productivity, then even the slightest inconvenience or impediment to your plans will send you into a tailspin.
2) Impatience with others: Are you annoyed when others seem to take “advantage” of your time? If you have set aside a couple of hours to do a project with someone, and they are late, or cancel last minute, or “slough it off” entirely… does this disproportionately rankle your feathers? Are you struggling to love your neighbour? Productivity can make you very impatient with people you might deem to be less productive. You may grumble when others don’t pull their weight. I confess that my family has felt the brunt of this, either by me having high expectations for what they ought to be doing or hearing me gripe about others. God has called you to love your neighbours; productivity idolatry is another obstacle to your ability to obey God in this.
3) Obsessive multitasking: Do you “multitask” while you are doing seemingly non-productive tasks? I admit that while watching a cartoon that my daughter wants me to see, I have surreptitiously responded to emails on my smartphone… I am not being honest with her nor am I honouring her time with me. It's debateable whether people can truly multitask anyway. Most research seems to suggest that you either do all the tasks poorly or you are really doing only one thing while pretending to do something else. Either way, spending time with my daughter is getting the short-shrift. If productivity has usurped God's place in your life, it has also usurped the place of other important people in your life.
4) Avoiding regular responsibilities: Are you shirking your boring or mundane tasks for more interesting or fulfilling productivity tasks? Are you often annoyed by the ordinary tasks of helping out at home, at school, at church, or at work? I confess that I have often struggled with marking student essays or making burgers for the family supper when I would rather write or blog or do research for a project. We are seeking to be productive for our own gratification, which is a hallmark of idolatry. What other responsibilites are you shirking? Do you struggle to pray, or do you sacrifice all other needs—family, friends, responsibilities—for the god of your idolatry? If nothing else matters except being productive, then you have a problem with idolatry.
5) Penchant for control: Productivity obsessed people desire control. The most important thing is to be productive, so the temptation to overemphasize “quality control” is a sign of productivity idolatry. We should want to do things well, but not at the expense of love or ministry to others. We need to remember that even our best efforts fall short of the glory of God. If you are reluctant to allow others to do things differently than you would have done, you may be slipping into idolatry. Productivity has become an ultimate thing in your life.
6) Productivity tunnel-vision: Do you neglect your health or times of leisure? Do you neglect exercise? Do you work over lunchbreak? Working hard is a very important concept in the Bible, but so is recreation and rest. Think of Jesus’ short three year ministry. He spent time preaching, performing miracles, disciple making, and teaching—all productive stuff. But he also spent a lot of time reclining at dinner tables, travelling with his disciples, retreating alone to pray, and even sleeping! Author Paul Heintzman observes that Adam and Eve’s first full day in the universe was a day of rest. Resting is an important need often overlooked in the Christian life. This topic is worth a post on its own.
I confess that I skipped many breakfasts and lunches in order to maximize my output. I rarely watch TV or watch films. I often put leisure reading on hold while reading other books for a productivity purpose, whether I’m teaching the book, or I researching for a writing project. I need to ask myself whether I am sacrificing myself on the altar of productivity? If so, then I need to confess my idolatry.
7) No Satisfaction: Idols offer us only destruction and misery. If you aren’t really satisfied—no matter how hard you work or how productive you are—then this is a sign of productivity idolatry. God declares in Jeremiah 2:13, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” The idol of productivity is yet another broken cistern offering no refreshment or satisfaction. So, after toiling away, you say “Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content” (Ecclesiastes 1:8). God is the only source of true and lasting satisfaction (Psalm 107:9; Isaiah 58:11).
We are seeking to be productive for our own gratification, which is a hallmark of idolatry. Do you struggle to pray, or do you sacrifice all other needs—family, friends, responsibilities—for the god of your idolatry? If nothing else matters except being productive, then you have a problem with idolatry.
What’s the solution?
Step one… Repent, confess, and turn to God. Find your joy, purpose, and life in him alone (Acts 3:18 - 19). Step two, seek to focus on fewer things that are excellent. Doing fewer tasks will result in better quality work. This means you will need to share the load with others, whether at work, at home, or at church. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. Allow others to exercise their gifts by taking on some of the productivity tasks you've been hoarding! Thirdly, cry out to God, asking “What would you have me do, O Lord?” Be led by the Spirit, not by your desire to be satisfied by your productivity. You will discover that a lot of things that filled your day really aren't necessary or God-honouring. Fourthly… Go for a walk in the woods. Enjoy a game of chess with your daughter. Read a good book for fun. Spend two hours sitting on the deck listening to your wife. In other words, make time for rest. Be intentionally unproductive! Most importantly, “my dear friends, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14).
Many monastic orders had a "no talking" rule. One of the reasons for this was to curb complaining. Stand by a 21st century watercooler or hang out in the parking lot outside an office building and you will quickly learn that complaining is still a problem. Even church parking lots after Sunday service can be a hotbed of complaining. Human beings complain. The Bible is full of complaining people. A monastic gag order doesn't solve the heart of the problem, which (ironically) is our own hearts! So, as scary as it sounds, the best person to complain to is the only one who can change our hearts. In this blog post, I talk about why we need to complain more... to God!
Why we should always bring our complaints to God
My pastor recently preached on Psalm 13, a psalm of lament. Lamentation prayers are helpful to teach us how to navigate difficulties in life; the lamenting psalmist brings his complaint to God and implores the Lord to take action on his behalf. My pastor noted that one-third of the inspired psalms are in a “minor key.” It is astonishing how few of our hymns and prayers are laments. Clearly, God is showing us that we need to lament more! Oddly as it may sound, we are exhorted to learn how to complain to God.
I have been reflecting this week on why we struggle to bring our complaints to God. One reason is that we know that much of our complaints are often rooted in wrong motives! We complain to ourselves or others because we think we deserve better, or we feel undervalued, or we feel some people aren’t doing their share, or we are envious of what others have. We complain to our friends, co-workers, spouses about our friends, co-workers, and spouses to justify ourselves in the eyes of others. We may even complain about chores or extra work to get out of certain responsibilities. Such complaints are rooted in a sinful mindset. Should we bring these complaints to God?
Wrong motives, right prayer
The answer is yes. Even these sorts of unfounded complaints should be brought to God. Here’s why: when we bring to God what’s bothering us, such complaints will inevitably become confessions! We begin to see all of our circumstances in light of God’s will for our lives. Praying to God is a powerful way to change our prayers and change our perspectives. Always, always, always go to God. Don’t reserve time with God for so-called “holy” prayers on “holy” topics. It is Christ who makes our prayers holy (Ephesians 2:18); it is the Spirit who interprets our groaning (Romans 8:26 – 27), and it is the Father who answers our prayers according to his good will and purpose (1 John 5:14). Complain to God and see what God does. He will answer your prayer by first changing you, the complainer.
Complain to God and see what God does. He will answer your prayer by first changing you, the complainer.
Petty problems? No problem
Another reason we don’t complain to God is that we think that the things that bother us are too small or too petty for God. We feel we should be complaining to God about important matters like our unsaved friends, family, or neighbours; we should be complaining about the evil in our world, or the persecuted church, or the lack of glory and praise given to God. Yes, we should be crying out to God for these things! But we need to remember that we are still growing in the faith, still being sanctified, still being made more like Christ day-by-day. We end up spending ten minutes in prayer for “spiritual concerns” and then spend the rest of the day worrying and complaining about the things that bother us. Here’s the key: when we are open to complaining to God about everything on our hearts and minds, we begin to learn to lament for the things that really matter. A child will bring her small problem to her mother, maybe a misplaced toy or mismatched sock. To a child, these seem like weighty matters. To a mom who is juggling 101 things, these concerns are like a “grain of sand.” Still, the mother will gently and kindly respond, assisting where she can but also teaching the little girl to “see the big picture” and not get “worked up” about the small setbacks in life. As the child grows, she learns this lesson and becomes mature. But the way the little girl started to learn this lesson was by complaining to her mom and then listening to how her mom responded. How much more can we learn from the Lord?
To a big God, there are no small problems
Even to adults, what seems big to us, isn’t really big. Take a grain of fine sand, which is 1/8 of a millimetre (0.125 mm). Compare that to a grain of table salt, which is 1/3 of a millimetre (0.333 mm). Salt is twice as big as a fine grain of sand, yet to us, both are small. Sometimes specific problems seem twice as big as other daily woes, and therefore, more “worthy” of bringing to God. In truth, all of our issues are small compared to God. We need to bring all of our complaints to God, big or small! When we bring our problems to him, we begin to learn that our God is much bigger than we ever imagined. All of our difficulties and setbacks are small compared to him! Yet—and here’s the most astonishing part—he is big enough to care about the little things. Our big God is sustaining the universe—planets held in orbit, stars kept ablaze, comets guided through space—as well as watching the lowly sparrow in a beech tree and clothing the blooming lily in a meadow (Matthew 6:25 - 34). He is so big that nothing is too small! Sorting out grains of sand from salt is too much for us, yet God numbers each grain of sand, each star in the universe, and each hair on our head (Ecclesiastes 1:2; Psalm 147:4; Luke 12:7). There is comfort in this glimpse of divine perspective. Our Abba Father has infinitely broad shoulders, so he can handle our biggest or smallest woes.
Remember that God, like a loving parent, also knows how small we are and how big our problems seem to us. Remember that the incarnated Jesus came to earth with a cosmic mission to bring salvation to the world and all human history. And yet, he took time to chat with a woman at the well, to heal a leper, to raise a man from the dead, to turn water into wine, to feed a crowd of hungry listeners. There are no topics of genuine prayer that God deems not worthy of his time. True, we need to continue growing in our understanding of prayer and how to pray. But to believe there are unworthy complaints is an idea that comes from a wrong view of the world, as though God separates things into “worthy” spiritual matters and “unworthy” earthly matters. Complain to God. See how much bigger he is compared to your biggest or smallest problem, your most spiritual or earthly concern.
Remember that God, like a loving parent, also knows how small we are and how big our problems seem to us.
Complain because God cares about you
Peter tells us to cast our cares on God because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). He cares for you! He cares about your struggles with your co-workers, and your debit card that stopped working, and the unexpected brake repair, and the cold snap that wiped out your spring tulips. As you “complain to God,” the Spirit will work in your heart. You will be less preoccupied with these matters because they are cast on his infinitely broad shoulders. You will begin to care more and more about the things that should matter more and more to you. He knows what you need and he knows what is bothering you. Prayer is really about changing us, encouraging us, and awakening us to God and his purposes in our life. Through these sorts of prayer, the reality of Romans 8:28 begins to sink in, and we can say with confidence that "we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."
Complain for the Glory of God?
When we are complaining to God, we are truly being honest with him and with our feelings of frustration and despair. In Jeremiah 12:1, the prophet writes, “Righteous are you, O Lord, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you.” When difficulty comes, we are often at a loss. We don’t understand why things are happening as they are. When we come to God with our frustrations, we are declaring that only he knows the answers, that only he acts righteously, that only he has the power to make things better. In short, our complaints to God bring glory to him. Such is the case for how so many lamentation psalms end. The complaint isn’t necessarily resolved, but God is exulted and the complainer is transformed. David writes,
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Psalm 13:5 – 6).
"In Pursuit of Excellence" Here is an excerpt from a two-part guest blog I wrote for H&E Publishing in Peterborough, Ontario (Feb 19, 2020 and May 4, 2020).
God is exceedingly excellent in every way. His character is excellent, his Word is excellent—everything he does is excellent! Surely this is why the Psalmist calls us to “praise him according to his excellent greatness” (Psalm 150:2). But if God is excellent, and Christians are called to “be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1), doesn’t that mean we should strive to be excellent at everything we do? At first glance this might seem like a terrifying thought; after all, most of us certainly aren’t excellent at everything. It shouldn’t be terrifying, however, when we realize that the pursuit of excellence is ultimately about using the gifts and opportunities God has already given to us.
Here is Part 2 of a three part series on Christianity and architecture. Click here for Part 1 "The Art of Architecture."
As New Covenant believers, it is easy to consider our present places of worship, ministry, and living as temporary and even fruitless investments. Architecture is often viewed as a distraction from the real business of heaven. Besides the often monumental costs of maintaining facilities, the investment in material spaces may seem too worldly. Throughout the history of the church, there has been a constant struggle between these two extremes: establishing too many earthly roots on the one hand or living only for heaven on the other hand. This conflict is plainly seen in the first century heresy of Gnosticism, where disembodied and esoteric “spiritual knowledge” was celebrated, whereas the importance of the material world was diminished or denied. The incarnation, however, is a powerful reminder that the material world matters to God. Jesus did not condemn creation; instead, the Son of Man was a carpenter who understood life in “flesh and blood” terms. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, feasted with friends, and suffered on a real, rough-hewn cross. There isn’t a dichotomy between the spiritual realm and the physical realm in God’s economy.
So what does this mean for architecture? By ignoring beauty in our surroundings and by not being intentional with our aesthetic vision, we are promoting a kind of “architectural Gnosticism.” This is further exacerbated by a pious desire to avoid “storing up treasures on earth.” We eschew beauty in architectural design, seeing it as unspiritual, dated, and decadent. We exchange aesthetic vision for contemporary and practical relevance. The result is that we turn our worship spaces into human-centric facilities prized for freshness, functionality, and flexibility. Apologist Francis Schaeffer often criticised the proliferation of “ugliness in evangelical church buildings,” arguing that Christianity had adopted the world’s anemic view of beauty. Our God is beautiful, and that beauty should be seen not only in our lives, our worship, and our preaching, but also in our surroundings. Christians ought to reject the pseudo-spirituality of monastic-like Spartan aesthetics; blandness is not biblical. Bland buildings, bland worship, and bland preaching show the watching world that our God is bland. He is no such thing! Blandness and mediocrity are the opposite of who God is and what God is calling us to. God is excellent in every way, in his character, his creation, and his Word. Why would he expect anything less from us?
"Our God is beautiful, and that beauty should be seen not only in our lives, our worship, and our preaching, but also in our surroundings. "
God is also interested in sanctifying us fully—in mind, soul, and body—and he does this through countless means at his disposal. Since we are creatures of time and space, our environment impacts and shapes us. Attractive and meaningful meeting halls can be as inspiring as attractive and meaningful worship music. High ceilings, well-crafted woodwork, effective use of natural light, symbolic artwork, and other architectural features can awaken us to the wonder of God and his ways. If we are going to resist architectural Gnosticism, then God’s truth, beauty, and goodness should be seen in our buildings and interior designs. Beautiful spaces should represent and surround the Living Church. Though there is an even better place being prepared for us in glory, this does not preclude the need to be faithful stewards of our earthly resources here and now. This may not mean that we need to build new church buildings; it could mean that we need to better care for existing buildings, reclaiming older structures and meeting halls from dying denominations and dwindling congregations, both for the gospel and for the glory of God.
This essay originally appeared in Barnabas, Vol. 12, No.1 & 2 (Winter/Spring 2020): 18
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WORDS FROM THE WANDERINGS:
I recently had a chat with Chance Faulker, Executive Director of H&E Publishing. Here is the podcast of our conversation about art, creativity, and Christianity!
On this episode we talk with Jeremy W. Johnston, the author of All Things New: Essays on Christianity, art & culture. Here are a few things we discuss:
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Jeremy's current reading list: The Temple by George Herbert and Confessions by Augustine of Hippo (Chadwick trans.) Check out more of Jeremy's work at www.JeremyWJohnston.ca
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Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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