Wednesday, May 30, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

Once in a Lifetime, Once a Week

I’m not sure why, but I’ve got a thing for significant anniversaries and days set aside to remember important people  and events of ages past.  Yesterday was Memorial Day and on that day I often think back to the Memorial Day observances I took part in as a little boy at the cemetery in Zeeland, Michigan, complete with Scripture readings, gun salutes, and the playing of taps. My enormous extended family (my father has eight brothers and sisters, all of whom have reproduced with gusto) comprised the vast majority of the participants.

After the service, I remember my dad showing me grave markers of family members, including those of his father and his brother who died as an infant. Now that I think about it, it’s entirely possible that this cemetery service only happened once and I’ve just idealized it as what Memorial Day should look like. I tend to do that.

This year, my family went to no cemeteries and heard no one play taps.  That’s because, for us, the day was about celebrating someone alive and full of life—my son, whose birthday fell on the holiday.  We let him set the agenda for the day, which involved playing his new drums (yeah, we got him a drum set for his birthday—no regrets . . . yet), having a water fight, and washing dishes (I’m guessing that won’t last). It was awesome—another day that I will idealize and remember for the rest of my life.

The last few years have been pretty full of significant anniversaries for someone of my persuasion. In the summer of 2009, my hero John Calvin turned 500. And while I attended two conferences and read countless articles surrounding the milestone, I realized three days after the actual birthday that I had missed it, which frustrated me to no end. After all, that’s a one-time thing. Like my son Calvin’s fourth birthday, John Calvin’s 500th will never happen again. And I let it just come and go. 

Then in 2011, we had the 500th anniversary of the publishing of the King James Version of the Bible, one of the greatest steps forward in the history of the Church.  There are a few dates cited as the day of publication, but the most common is May 2, 1611.  Again, I realized a week late that I had failed to so much as give a thought to the day on the day.

This year, too, holds a biggy, since it was in 1812 that my church’s namesakes, Adoniram and Ann Judson made the journey to the other side of the world as part of the first American foreign missionary journey of its kind. They left Massachusetts among the first Congregationalist foreign missionaries from America, but arrived in India the first American Baptist foreign missionaries (upgrade! J).  The date they set sail was February 19, 1812. I realized I had missed this 200th anniversary a few days after it passed. Did I mention it was a Sunday? Yeah, we met together and said nothing about the momentous occasion. Another once-in-a-lifetime anniversary wasted.

Well, we’re not going to let that happen with June 17 (the200th anniversary of their arriving in Calcutta) or September 16 (the anniversary of the day William Carey baptized the Judsons by immersion into the Baptist faith). Seriously, I’m baptizing someone on September 16, volunteer or conscript. Likewise, we’re marking the completion of the Judson’s journey (albeit a week early) by welcoming the president of Judson University to our pulpit to remind us of the legacy our church’s founders took upon themselves when they named our church Judson Memorial Baptist. I’m greatly looking forward to it!

As special as all these once-every-hundred-years type milestones are, however, the most important days of memorial for a Christian recur over and over again. Good Friday and Easter morning are opportunities to remember our Lord’s death and resurrection, year after year.  That the day will come again next year does not make it any less special. Quite the opposite. Even more frequent are our monthly memorials to Christ’s suffering and death, as we receive Christ in the bread and cup of Holy Communion.

But what if this weren’t so frequent? Would we be more likely to attend—to be absolutely sure we made it—if this were a once-in-a-lifetime thing, like baptism? Or if it were only once a year? Probably, but should that be the case? If Christ’s death and resurrection is really at the center of who we are, shouldn’t we grasp every opportunity to follow his command to “do this in remembrance of him?”

And speaking of his resurrection, I’m sure you know that the reason we worship on Sunday and not Saturday (as in the Old Covenant) is because it was on a Sunday (the first day of the week) that Our Lord Jesus came back to life and walked right out of the tomb. In that sense, each Lord’s Day is a day devoted to remembering what he accomplished for us and what that means to us. Sure, another opportunity is coming in seven days, but can we really let any chance to devote a day to the Resurrection pass us by? I submit that a single monthly remembrance of our Lord’s death or weekly remembrance of his resurrection is far more important than the once-a-year or even the once-every-hundred-years anniversaries of births, deaths, and significant events that we make sure we observe each and every time they come around.

Yesterday, we thought about those who had died, but at my house, we celebrated one who is alive. Each Sunday the Church does the same. I encourage you to begin shifting the way you think about Sunday worship, away from something we just do because we always have, to a priceless opportunity to thank God for what he’s done and celebrate what he’s doing even now in our midst.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach
Monday, May 21, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels


As I was smoothing out some of the wrinkles in the new blog template, I happened upon several unfinished posts in my “drafts” folder.  Actually, they were more loose outlines or reminders to write a post later on (clearly they didn’t do the job, as they were all dated in 2010). One was a partially written review of the YouTube “documentary” The God Who Wasn’t There (which, of course, made the bold choice to refute itself, leaving a bunch of Christian bloggers wondering, “What do I do now?”)

Another of these drafts was simply a copy of a blog comment that referenced me.  It was from the blog Epochalypsis: The Age of Unveiling. I vaguely remember seeing a Facebook ad featuring their glowing chi-rho logo and clicking over to check it out.  What I found was a post that referred to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement as “twisted crap.” I commented on the post, challenging some of the writer’s presuppositions, and got this response:

The Twisted Crap: (that Pastor Bartels apparently teaches his flock) God wanted us all dead for being such terrible sinners and Jesus saved us from his wrath. Also known as "substitutionary atonement" (i.e. Jesus was substituted in our place), this is one of the most vile, unfortunate and common understandings of what Jesus and his death on the cross means for mankind. It basically takes the biblical concept of a compassionate, loving, parent-like unconditional figure of God and warps and distorts God into some kind of blood-thirsty, revenge oriented God of wrath. While this understanding of God may not be true or helpful to growing as a loving compassionate believer, it sure is helpful to make believers compliant and put butts in your church pews. Much of the Empire of Christianity owes it's growth and success to this very lie. How do I know this is crap?

Think about the concept of substitutionary atonement this way: Imagine you were standing on the side of the road watching a mother and a daughter walking toward you hand-in-hand. Suddenly, a car loses control, and careens off the road onto the sidewalk right in the path of the mother and her daughter. With but a moment to act, the mother scoops up her daughter and throws her clear of the out-of-control car and then is killed instantly as the car slams into her. You run over to the scene of the accident to see if you can help. Paramedics, police and other bystanders are rushing around. Some are attending to the little girl, some are checking the mother's vitals, some are just in shock, crying at the horrible scene and the incredible sacrifice they'd just witnessed. Suddenly, out of nowhere, this wild-eyed woman walks up next to you, grabs your arm and says, "God wanted that little girl dead. The car was His wrath, and the little girl's mommy took her place."

I bet anyone of us would look that woman in the eyes and tell her she was nuts. Crazy nuts. And yet that's what millions of Christians the world over hear and believe every Sunday. The term "sacrifice" is not meant like the virgin on the altar, or the lamb at passover. It's not some kind of offering to appease. "Sacrifice" is meant like when we say a soldier "sacrificed himself" by jumping on a mine to save his platoon. Or the mother in the story above. It's an act of compassion and love. Not an act of appeasement. And that, my friends, is what Pastor Bartels finds offensive that I call "a morbid, negative and creepy doctrine" on the blog."

Not sure what I had been planning to do with that little gem. I’m guessing that the reason it just sat there a draft is because, like The God Who Wasn’t There, after a basic critical perusal, there’s little left standing to even tip over. But it might be a useful exercise to see just how many 1. false presuppositions, 2. logical fallacies / unwarranted leaps, and 3. blatant misunderstandings of orthodox soteriology we can find here. Not because it’s fun to tear someone else’s beliefs down (although the author of the above comment clearly thinks it is), but because, despite the fading away of many doctrinal-trends-formerly-known-as-emergent, the fashionable denial of substitutionary atonement is still on the rise among self-professed followers of Jesus.

And when we encounter proponents of such thought, it’s important that we listen carefully, that we search the Scriptures to analyze, validate, or debunk their teachings, and that we don’t let them get away with pulling a record number of “fast ones.”

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

Thursday, May 17, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels
Wednesday, May 16, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

Stay Tuned for the Mind-Blowing Conclusion

If you look to your right, one of the many widgets you’ll see is an ad for our (Gut Check Press’s) on-going, serialized rapture-palooza of a thriller novel. I first told you about this project last February, and we were cooking right along for a while.

As of yesterday, though, the most recent entry was from January 14. But then today, I dropped the Big One.

As we say at Gut Check Headquarters / Pastor Zach’s Basement (while adjusting our wigs and looking deeply into our own souls in the mirror), It’s on now!

The aforementioned Big One:

If you want to know how it all ends . . .

Dear reader-slash-footsoldier in the Gut Check Army,

Yes, it seems that we let this project go by the wayside, as if this serialized end-times thriller is now as irrelevant as The Late Great Planet Earth. But things are not always as they seem.

True, we did have a bit of a lag there—so much so that we're having to re-work the clever “whoops, the Mayan calendar really runs out in 2011” sub-plot—but we’ve also been working on this project behind the scenes. There are now four more chapters, each building this story to a ludicrously dispen-sensational climax.

Where are these chapters, and why aren't they posted, you ask? Because we’ll be wrapping this story up as a committee in the next few weeks (somewhere in a smoke-filled back room or spark-and-steam-filled alley) and offering the whole deal as an e-book for, oh let's say, three bucks.

Stay tuned at

Honestly, this thing is a hilarious collaboration and it’s getting funnier as it gets more absurd. I’ll let you know when it’s all shrink-wrapped and ready for delivery to your Kindle or Nook.

Friday, May 11, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

New Look!

Check it out! I’ve got a new look here at Dispatches.

It occurred to me that, since my blogging career has involved more “comebacks” than John Travolta’s acting career, I needed to do something drastic to prove to the world that I’m really back on the blogging horse in earnest. So here it is: I actually updated my horribly ’90s-looking blog template with something (hopefully a little bit) less outdated looking.

Let’s all just take a moment to bask in the heat of the smile now spreading the mandibles of the Calvinist Gadfly.

-Pastor Zach

P.S. This is also a good time to follow my blog on blogger (or Google Friend Connect or whatever) or on Facebook (via Networked Blogs).

Tuesday, May 8, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

The Mother of All Preaching Problems


My fellow preachers,

I need some advice here.

The Background: I have never been the kind of pastor who lets Hallmark determine my preaching calendar. I’m singularly unwilling to allow 10-20% of my precious opportunities at the pulpit to be hijacked by secular/cultural/sentimental holidays which are not rooted in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus.

When such a holiday comes along, I simply continue preaching through whatever book I was working through. More often than not, I’m shocked by the clear providence involved, as the “special day” in question (particularly days that touch on biblical themes, like Veterans Day, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, etc.) fits together with the text hand-in-glove—totally unplanned, of course. Sometimes, I can even throw a bone to the holiday via a sermon illustration that serves the text.

But with Mother’s Day . . . well, let’s just look at my record . . .

  • My 1st Mother's Day at Judson: Preaching through Sermon on the Mount, I landed on, “If you look at a woman to lust after her, you've already committed adultery in your heart.”

  • My 2nd Mother's Day at Judson: Preaching through Joshua, it happened to be about Rahab, the harlot.

  • My 3rd Mother's Day at Judson: Preaching through Luke, the text was the woman of bad reputation (prolly a prostitute) who anointed Jesus' feet. (Some finding this less cute, and perhaps beginning to wonder if it’s by design . . . )

  • My 4th Mother's Day at Judson: I had just finished 63 weeks of preaching through Luke the week before and took it as a providential sign to preach a one-off expository sermon from a Mother's-Day friendly text. Okay, fine; it was a topical sermon. (Does Act of Contrition). I actually heard more negative feedback for this move than positive.

  • My 5th Mother's Day at Judson: Preaching through John's epistles, it seemed that the curse was lifted, as I was able to expound on love and truth.

  • My 6th Mother's Day at Judson: Didn't want to mess with it, so I took the week off and called in a real professional (Mikey Gohn) to deal with preaching on Mother’s Day.

  • My 7th Mother's Day at Judson (this coming Sunday): Preaching through Revelation, and have arrived at this text . . .
  • Revelation 2:20-23  “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.  I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.  Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works,  and I will strike her children dead.” [Emphasis mine, natch]

    Seriously? On Mother’s Day! Come on!!

Part of me thinks it’s a test or something. Either, way (if I put it off a week or not), it'll be a great intro. But what to preach? And how to address it? 

I realize that many pastors do not choose their own text each week, or do not preach through books in an expository fashion, but let’s do a little inter-denominational-clergy-colleagues-take-part-in-a-Baptistic-style-vote a la bad ecclesiatical reality show action on this one. I’m thinking maybe going with whatever one of the major lectionaries has scheduled this week . . . ?

What say you?
Wednesday, May 2, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

The Jets, the Sharks, and Jesus

“They’re like Romeo and Juliet.” 

I’ve heard that said when two people are deeply in love.  What is meant, of course,  is not that the two people in question are star-crossed lovers, destined to crash and burn as a result of their passionate feelings for one another. No, it means that they epitomize the timeless, starry-eyed ideal of the romantic love story.

But is Romeo and Juliet a timeless, romantic love story?  I was reminded the other day that this uber-famous play is actually about “a relationship that lasted three days between a 13-year-old and a  17-year-old, which resulted in six deaths.” Well, when you put it that way . . .  Romantic? No.  Timeless?  Only because we’ve made it so.

In fact, Romeo and Juliet has been told and re-told in countless different ways with as many different settings and backdrops (from Nazi Germany to wherever Porky Pig lives).  One of the most famous re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s tale is the 1950s musical West Side Story (cue snapping), which is set in contemporary New York and involves street gangs, knives, and zip guns (zip guns!). Another well-known retelling was a film called Romeo + Juliet that came out when I was in college, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and set in a fictional modern-day location called “Verona Beach.” Car chases and gunfights ensue, but the story of two star-crossed lovers remains the same.

It seems that the setting is incidental to this story. It’s really about the relationship between these two families (or gangs or whatever) and how it affects two young people and their budding relationship. The rest is just backdrop, which can easily be replaced with another backdrop without harming the story.

Many other stories also remove timeless tales from their original settings: Clueless is really just Jane Austin’s Emma plopped down 180 years later in a Beverly Hills high school and O Brother Where Art Thou is a loose re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey. Both work because these timeless stories can play before any backdrop.  Georgian England or 90210 in 1995, the Trojan War or Depression-era chain gangs—these are just details not essential to the plot. Now, there certainly are stories where this doesn’t apply (for instance, Orwell’s 1984 ceases to make sense if you remove the backdrop of a tyrannical dystopia), but Romeo and Juliet easily survives a split from its historical setting.

Why do I even bring this up? Because our culture is viewing the world around us more and more in terms of narratives—stories. This is good news for Christians, since we have always viewed the world through the lens of the meta-narrative—the one Big Story of how God created us, we fell into sin, and He redeemed us through an incredible plan that climaxed with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we speak in terms of stories, then, we’re speaking both the language of Scripture and the language of the culture, which can make for some pretty effective preaching and some rather naturally occurring evangelism in the workplace, the family, or among friends.

But we have to be careful how we tell the Story. I’ve previously shared with you the best advice I ever got about preaching: my homiletics professor told us, “Gentlemen, when you’ve finished your sermon and think it’s just about ready to preach, read it over and ask yourself this . . . Could this message still be true and make sense if Jesus had not died and risen again for our salvation? If the answer is yes, then throw it out and start over, because it’s not a Christian sermon. It’s self-help or life-coaching or tips for family dynamics, but it’s not a cross-centered message, which is what we are called to proclaim.”
In other words, if you’re about to deliver a sermon or teach a lesson that is supposed to be rooted in the cross of Jesus, but you could swap out the cross of Jesus for the Koran or a book on etiquette or a self-esteem or productivity seminar (just as easily as swapping out Fair Verona for 1950s New York), then there’s something seriously wrong.

Well, the same thing applies to our very lives—our narratives.  How is it that Jesus and his cross fit into your story? Is He part of the backdrop, a detail not essential to the plot?  Is He a set-piece that could be removed or replaced without harming the overall story? Is the cross of Jesus like the setting of Romeo and Juliet (incidental and unessential) or is he more like the shark in Jaws? No shark, no story.  Then again, we could replace the shark with a tiger or a huge snake or even a hurricane (after all, it’s a basic “man-versus-nature” story) and not lose too much. The story of Scripture, though, is man-versus-God. And God Wins through His coming down in flesh to dwell amongst us and His dying for our sins, only to rise again. It’s the tale of God, in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. You remove that and plug  anything else in its place and you’ve lost the whole story.

Rather than being part of the background or a supporting character in our story (a character who might be written out at any time), God calls us to become a supporting character in His story, the Big Story of redemption that he is writing. That means that our whole existence is only meaningful in relation to the plot of the Jesus Story. To remove us from that and try to find any meaning apart from it would be meaningless, like trying to create a spin-off series for the Close Talker or “Frightened Inmate #3.” When we realize that our lives have meaning only because they are part of God’s Story (and not because He is part of ours), then we can say goodbye to much of the uncertainty and doubt that so often plagues us as Christians—doubt that we’re doing enough, doubt that our story is compelling enough. It’s not. But His Story is.

Just as a sermon should pass the “Would it make sense without the cross?” test, so should our lives. When we prayerfully reflect on each day, perhaps we should ask the question, “Would today have looked any different if Jesus hadn’t died for my sins and risen again for my justification?”  If it would have been the same, take heart—God’s story carries on.  Let’s repent of our attempts to make Jesus part of the scenery and ask him every day to make us part of His Story, which is timeless—not because it can be re-imagined in a number of different times and places, but because it spans all of time. And he’s cast you in the role of disciple.
How could we possibly pass that up?

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach