Monday, April 27, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

Smoking to the Glory of God?

Smoking to the Glory of God?


Christian Liberty (Pt. 1)

I'm currently teaching through Dr. Michael Wittmer's excellent book Don't Stop Believing on Wednesday nights. In the intro, Mike explains in a fun and engaging way the differences between conservative Christians and what he calls "postmodern innovators." (Most people just call them "emergent," but Mike is more careful than most people.) To that end, he offers a list of the Top Ten Signs You Might Be Emergent. Number 5 is "You honored your pastor with a box of fine cigars and beers on the house."

I had to stop at this point and remind my class that, while I am certainly not emergent, fine cigars would be a most welcome gift. Most welcome indeed. The beer you can keep; I'm a teetotaler.

Isn't it kind of hypocritical (or at least contradictory) for a Baptist minister who abstains entirely from intoxicating drink (save for in the sacrament) to enjoy the occasional (and occasionally not-so-occasional) cigar or pipe?

Not really.

First of all, my position on alcohol is half philosophical and half personal preference. Scripture says that drunkenness is a sin (see), but obviously Our Lord Jesus drank and even made wine, so that pretty much puts an end to the Scriptural argument against any and all alcohol consumption. I just happen to hate the stuff. To me, beer tastes like I imagine urine tastes. And wine is more mediciney than any medicine I've had to choke down. Oh, you have to "acquire a taste for it," you say? Sounds like a lot of work with zero pay-off. I'll stick with my coffee, Jolt Cola, Rock Star, etc. And that segues nicely into reason number two that I avoid alcohol like the swine flu: I've got no interest in depressants whatsoever. (I can think and move slow when I'm old; why force it now?) I don't want any food or drink//much less some pee-tasting bacteria-filled yeast-water\\to counter-act my coffee buzz.

I'm thinking of starting a new pop-Christian movement a la True Love Waits or The Chant of Jabez, called Über-sobriety. Our theme verse would be 2 Timothy 1:7: "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of...a sound mind." (KJV, OoC*) Christians everywhere would be pledging to avoid alcohol; to drink a pot of coffee each afternoon; to supplement said coffee, as needed, with other like beverages (There's a possible marketing goldmine here, as I believe the Christian sub-culture still lacks its own energy drink. My boy Ted Kluck was talking about us starting one a few months ago, but I was never quite sure if he was serious and he eventually stopped talking about it. But if Über-sobriety catches on...I'm in.); and finally to smoke a cigar each week to the glory of God.

Smoke to the glory of God? Blasphemy!..right? Well, not according to the prince of preachers, Charles Spurgeon. Mr. Spurgeon's love of fine cigars is well-documented. One biographer remembers a great little anecdote about a group of students who excitedly visited Spurgeon one morning:
It was a beautiful early morning, and the men arrived in high spirits, pipes and cigars alight, and looking forward to a day of unrestrained enjoyment. Mr. Spurgeon was ready waiting at the gate. He jumped up to the box-seat reserved for him, and looking round with an expression of astonishment, exclaimed: "What, gentlemen! Are you not ashamed to be smoking so early?"Here was a damper!
Dismay was on every face. Pipes and cigars one by one failed and dropped out of sight.When all had disappeared, out came the president's cigar-case. He lit up and smoked away serenely.The men looked at him astonished. "I thought you said you objected to smoking, Mr. Spurgeon?" one ventured."Oh no, I did not say I objected. I asked if they were not ashamed, and it appears they were, for they have all put their pipes away."Amid laughter the pipes reappeared, and with puffs of smoke the party went on merrily.
Williams, William. Charles Haddon Spurgeon: Personal Reminiscences (London: The Religious Tract Society), pp. 30-32.
Of course, even in the 19th Century, Spurgeon's smoking did not fail to stir up controversy. Phil Johnson's Spurgeon Archive retains electronic copies of several documents surrounding the so-called "Daily Telegraph Scandal." The back-story is that Spurgeon had been sharing the pulpit with an American clergyman, the two preaching complimentary material on "little sins"--the kind that draw you in and master you. The American went on at length about the sin of cigar smoking and how it had almost done him in. At the close of the meeting, Spurgeon again took the pulpit and told the congregation that, while he agreed with the principles contained in his colleague's sermon, he did not personally believe smoking to be a sin and, therefore, he intended to go home that very night and smoke his best cigar to the glory of God.

What followed was an international backlash and back-and-forth between Spurgeon and several of his detractors. I can't summarize and do it justice, so take a moment to sample the material here (scroll down to the pink blocked quotes). Some good arguments on both sides, no?

So, let's get into it. In the comments thread, let's hear your opinion about Spurgeon's habit and how he handled this incident. Then, if you can, implement a little rabbinical "part-to-whole" maneuver and give us the succinct version of your view on Christian liberty as it relates to such "disputable matters."
1. Remember, cigars are just an example here, so don't get bogged down by them. Wine, crime scene television shows, sports, or the aforementioned energy drinks could just as easily become idols if used without moderation.
2. I was kidding about wanting to "start a movement" wherein Christian young people feel compelled to smoke cigars. I would never try to entice someone into an activity that might go against his conscience. I bring the idea up only because it feeds nicely into part two (and because I grab at any opportunity to employ an umlaut).
3. I have purposely not cited any Scripture in this introduction, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't.
I shall post again on the topic when we've gotten somewhere...

*OoC = Out of Context
Saturday, April 18, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

Crucified, Buried, RISEN (2009, Weeks 15 & 16)

These sermons cover the crucifixion and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Click the below links for the audio (right click and choose "Save target as" to save the file on an iPod or other device).

The King Is Revealed - Where is Jesus' glory best seen? At the transfiguration? The triumphal entry? Try the crucifixion. At the climax of his ministry, Our Lord is the last place we'd have expected.

Dead, Buried, RISEN - Every good Easter sermon needs a gimmick, right? With all that pressure and all those extra people around, did I come bursting out of a giant Easter egg? Did I dress up as the friendly fictional shopkeep who watched the crucifixion go down (and then happened to be walking by the tomb on Sunday morning)? Or did I finally realize that this Sunday couldn't be less about me and forgo gimmicks altogether?

As always, you can access all my sermons by clicking here.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

Who Sets the Menu?

There is a relentlessly cheesy network of vaguely Christian, positive hits-type radio stations in Michigan. When it comes to Christian bubblegum pop, I've always agreed with Steve Taylor, who said (via the Newsboys), "I've heard that positive pop you dig; I'd rather be buried in wet concrete."

Still, I'm sure that these affiliates do provide Christian music to a whole bunch of people who otherwise would be listening to the light rock station. Besides, a couple of my good friends were instrumental in starting this network, so I'm not going to knock the stations per se. But the deejays...oh, the deejays are hard to take.

Now, I get to have an opinion here because I worked for a Christian radio station (WTRK the Rock, Bay City/Saginaw) for several years, climbing the ladder from late evening news to drive-time disc jockey to co-host of the Top 20 show to host of my own modern rock phenomenon! Anyway, the deejays on "grin FM" (not its real name) are so bubbly and cavity-inducing that I can't even deal with it. When I do occasionally catch a "positive hit" that I like, I'm very careful to switch the channel before the talking begins.

But a few weeks ago, I was too slow. And I heard an announcer say this:
As you may know, I've been studying for the ministry over the past couple years. And I've got to be honest--I've been pretty disappointed in what I've been learning about today's church. I just don't think we're meeting people's needs. I don't think we're providing the kinds of programs and services that will energize people and get them involved. I don't think we're preaching the kind of message that gives them what they're looking for. What do you think? I want to hear from you. Give us a call at...

Now, I have a hard-and-fast no-dialing-the-phone-whilst-driving rule, but I almost broke it. Because, in a super-swirly of irony, that whispery deejay had identified exactly what is wrong with the church today: the fact that we try to model the church after what the world wants it to look like.

I'll deal with the "programs and services" stuff in a later post. Let me just focus on teaching and preaching right now.

My job title at my church is "pastor." That word has become the standard title for someone who oversees a church, preaches, teaches, performs weddings, etc. The word "overseer" is used more frequently in the New Testament to describe this office (1 Tim 3, Titus 1), but "pastor" is legit.

Here are the boring--but relevant--facts: The Greek word for pastor is ποιμήν and it is best translated "shepherd." The word is used 17 times in the New Testament. Of those, four are references to literal shepherds (all four in Luke's nativity account), ten are figurative references to Jesus as the Great Shepherd of the Sheep, and only one (Ephesians 4:11) is a reference to the office of pastor/overseer/bishop. The verb form, meaning "to tend sheep" is similarly distributed, with a mixture of literal references to the work of shepherds, figurative descriptions of Christ's work, and a description of the work of church overseers (e.g. Acts 20:28).

So a pastor is a shepherd. I like the term "under-shepherd" that you sometimes hear applied to fallible humans doing their best to fill a Christ-like office in a Christ-like way. And what do shepherds do? They protect their sheep; they guide their sheep; and, most importantly, they feed their sheep. Therefore, a shepherd's (pastor's) prime role is to FEED Christ's sheep (John 21:17), along with guiding them in the faith and protecting them from heresies.

Who, then, sets the menu? Is it the sheep? Does a good shepherd give his sheep a survey and then feed them what they want? Of course not! The shepherd himself sets the menu! He knows what the sheep need, he brings them to green pastures, and he *ahem* determines how long they should remain there to eat. That's the order of things. When the sheep determine their spiritual diet, that's called the Great Apostasy (2 Timothy 4:3). If the church didn't need shepherds, then Jesus wouldn't have set it up that way.

At Christmas time, my son Calvin was about seven months old--still mostly on formula. Yet, one day when I didn't think my wife was watching, I rubbed my finger on a candy cane and put it in his mouth. He got really happy and started beeping like R2D2. It was hilarious until ten minutes later when I tried to feed him. He wanted nothing to do with infant formula (who can blame him? The stuff smells like old cream of mushroom soup); he wanted more peppermint. I could see it in his eyes. He only had like three teeth at the time, but I'm pretty sure that he would have gladly shifted over to an all-candy cane diet. He didn't know what he needed--that formula has vitamins, minerals, nutrients, proteins, etc. He just knew what tasted best at the moment.

Am I comparing the people in the pews to babies? Well, first of all, isn't that less offensive than Jesus comparing them to sheep? And, secondly, Paul also talks about speaking to some believers "as unto babes in Christ." There's nothing elitist about this. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, which means that I'm a sheep too, even while I'm an under-shepherd. And if left to my own itching ears and sweet tooth, I'd rather have an all-Cadbury-egg diet than something substantive that will give me health and strength.

As sheep, we're comfortable with surface-level teaching that doesn't convict us or challenge us spiritually or intellectually. But we need to be challenged to grow and mature. We crave law-lite, "God's little instruction book on..." you name it: finances, parenting, sex, etc. But we need to hear the Gospel. We crave Hallmark services that celebrate mothers, veterans, and America. But we need to be fed from God's Word in order to build His Kingdom. We need to hear the words that give life, not just the words that entertain; we need more than candy cane preaching. I've heard that positive pop you dig; I'd rather be buried in wet concrete.

To try a livestock-free simile, a pastor is very much like a dietitian. Yes, dietitians promote presenting food in a way that is pleasing to the eye (color, texture, etc.) and the taste buds, but their primary goal is to promote a healthy diet, one that results in longevity, vigor, and energy. If most of our pastors today were dietitians, they'd be fired in a heartbeat. "What do you want for dinner?" "Ice cream!" "Okay, I'll make it as pretty and delicious as possible." FAIL.

Spiritual junk food is leading us to churches full of brittle-boned, sluggish, spiritually unhealthy Christians. And what do we think is the solution? More surveys asking, "What do you want to eat? What do your itching ears want to hear?" More life advice, less Gospel, and the ridiculous notion that Christ's sheep need to become "self-feeders."

What the Church needs is under-shepherds who care enough about their sheep to give them what they need. To hear the occasional complaint ("too brainy," "too long," "not enough application") and lovingly answer, "You need this more than you know."

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach
Thursday, April 9, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

No Salvation Outside of Her...

Her name is ecclesia, meaning 'the assembly'
Bows to the Trinity, no other divinity
A body: family and community--she's all one
But on earth you see her in congregational small ones
A microcosm or a small scale example
But it is the church even though it's just a sample
Invisible spiritual; Physical visible
Not a brick temple; never that simple
This a not a building; She is not bricks
She's a world changer but ain't about getting rich
Perpetrating fakes cause a lot of folks to hate
Plus her hands get dirty and her feet get scraped
And sometimes her body parts start acting out of place
Legs trying to be arms; arms thinking they're the face
But she'll never be replaced with a one man band
Or a small taliban with nobody in command
               -Lecrae, The Bride

I love the Church and I love churches. I mean this in almost every possible way. I love going to church. I love churchy church. I love hearing preachers and I love preaching. I love singing hymns. I love the sacraments. I love the sanctuary. I love the chancel. I love the altar. I love the pulpit. And, yes, I know that all these things aren't really "the church"--that the church is the people, the assembly. And I love them even more.

I was to three churches today. Actually, my whole family was. I started the day at my home church, Judson Baptist, where I am the pastor. At noon, I went up to First Presbyterian Church, where I preached a noon community service as part of our Holy Week series. Afterward, we shared a lunch of soup and bread. I worked on my Easter sermon the rest of the afternoon before heading to St. Paul's Episcopal (a beautiful church across from the Capitol). There we (along with the Episcopal church and Central United Methodist) shared an incredibly meaningful joint service, which consisted of a fellowship dinner, the Lord's Supper, a foot washing service, and the ceremonial stripping of the altar. There was a great emphasis on how Christ's church spans denomination and tradition. We got to meet some new friends and reconnect with old ones. It was an incredible day.

I've never understood Christians who don't love church. I've been even more confused by professing Christians who don't love the Church (and, in fact, have nothing but complaints about her). This Lent, I've realized that I've let my love for her become somewhat jaded. Sometimes it seems I'm more likely to point out any error that I perceive in an assembly of believers than to thank God for their strengths and pray for them. I need to re-discover that historic Baptist tension of debating our differences while embracing each other on account of our common Lord and faith...the tension present in that wonderful saying, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

There is much within these other three churches with which I take exception. But there is more that we can celebrate, affirm, lament, and pray through together. And when we gather together to do just that, our shared essentials massively overshadow our (significant) differences. And what better day to come together like this than Holy Thursday, when we remember our Lord's High Priestly prayer, "I do not ask for these [the disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 17:20-21, ESV)
Friday, April 3, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

Two Sermons (2009, Weeks 13 & 14)

These sermons cover the religious and civil trials of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Click the above (or below) links for the audio (right click and choose "Save target as" to save the file on an iPod or other device).

Mocked and Denied When His soul was overwhelmed to the point of death, Jesus the King of Kings was mocked by His worst enemies and denied by His closest friend. Peter had made a promise to his rabbi and he actually kept it. It was just the wrong promise. Have you made the wrong promise too?

The Crowd Prevailed Were you there when they crucified my Lord? asks the old spiritual. The truth is that we were all there as active participants. My sin and yours cried "crucify" louder than any voice at the Praetorium.

As always, you can access all my sermons by clicking here.