Encounters of Kindness

I grew up like many others reading picture books that wanted to teach us about kindness. I’ve even heard some in the church bemoan these books because it teaches people to be moral without teaching them about Jesus (the ultimate exemplar of virtue/morality), and it teaches them to care more about kindness than conviction. I’m less concerned about those particular issues when it comes to children’s books in public schools and doctors’ waiting rooms. However, I find it funny that with all these books and lessons that I have grown up with how unkind people can still be. It only takes a few minutes scrolling through social media or flipping through channels on television to learn that lesson. But despite this lack of kindness, there is actually so much around us. In this post, I want to share a point made to me about kindness and a couple experiences that I have recently had.

1. Can you do anything for Christ in an un-Christ-like way?

Without much information and perhaps as an act of faith, I trusted the advice of two people I barely knew (I met one in London and the other in Cambridge), and I reached out to a stranger living in St. Andrews. He welcomed me to his home, shared a pot of tea with me, invited me to stay for dinner with his family, and gave me some great advice and encouragement. I don’t want to rush to judgement, but he was possibly one of the wisest people that I have ever met.

While I met with him, he emphasized kindness as an important virtue for Christians to have. (This was unsurprising because of how well he was treating me.) He had just returned to town after teaching a week-long ethics course at a seminary. There he posed this question to his students, “Can you do anything for Christ in an un-Christ-like way?” It’s a question that hits you like a ton of bricks as you realize how un-Christ-like you have been in many situations where you once felt justified. It’s a question that demands only one answer, “No!” The ends do not justify the means. Jesus approached people with love—even his enemies. We are without excuse.

This question has been on my mind ever since.

2. A Cup of Tea, a Kind Concern, and the Power of Love

With this question deeply on my mind, I got sick. It was a week or so after that meeting (this last Saturday), and I woke-up with a sore throat. I was distracted all day with a day trip to Loch Tay, but that evening it returned. Sunday was rough again. Monday was dreadful. I barely made it through class. Tuesday was better, but when I arrived for class in the afternoon, one of the other students had brought me a green tea with ginger and honey from the shop he was studying in before class. (He commented that the person making the drink really wanted to add whisky to it.) It was one thing that he remembered that I wasn’t feeling well; it showed how thoughtful he was. It was an entirely other thing that he was also kind enough to do something for me. He didn’t just pray, which would have been enough, but he went beyond what was hoped, expected, or encouraged of him.

I have also had an instructor take special care to help me intellectually and pastorally with some of the content covered in class. He has taken the time to meet with me to discuss the content covered, and he has stayed after class and during breaks to ask me about the questions that I brought-up during the class time. He has not only been kind enough to meet with me, but he has also taken the initiative to reach out to me. Again, it’s been a time of seeing people be intentionally kind and loving to me.

I can’t think of anything greater, or more meaningful, than experiencing God’s love, and it can be difficult sometimes to have those experiences. But God has chosen to work through the church, through a community of Jesus-people. When we join in fellowship and discipleship with the Jesus-people around us, we can quickly and joyfully find the love of God waiting for us.

Exploring Scotland

On the advice of one of my undergraduate professors who studied in Edinburgh, Scotland (a mere hour and a half train ride from St. Andrews), I joined the university hill walking (i.e., hiking) club. The club takes several trips throughout the school year, and I was able to attend their first trip for the academic year. It was a day trip to Loch Tay with a small trip to the waterfalls in Killin village. I had a great time walking through some Scottish countryside. After we got back that evening, I was able to attend a concert by Satellite Worship at Holy Trinity church in St. Andrews. Enjoy the pictures!

Living in Scotland

I keep waiting for a good time to sit down and summarize my life in Scotland right now. I keep waiting to get through one more event or activity to end my update with, but alas, things keep happening. If I wait any longer, I may just never write about my experiences. So today is my attempt for you to share in the story so far.

This month has been busy and exciting and nerve-wracking and overwhelming—all in the best possible ways. It has only been seventeen days since my last day in the US, so everything I share about my thoughts and feelings should be taken with a thick pinch of salt. However, despite the “new bike smell”, I do have thoughts and feelings about my lot in life. I live alone in a little studio apartment which will only feel smaller once I marry and get a new roommate. I have cooked nearly every meal I’ve had since moving in here, and I’m tired of washing the terrible pan that everything sticks to. I have two coffee cups which are on constant rotation in the washing because of my fondness for two or four cups of tea in the first half of my day. I ride my bike into town most times because it turns a twenty minute walk into a seven minute frenzy.

I fill my day reading, and watching an occasional Netflix show that isn’t available in the US—they have a better variety except for the devastating lack of The West Wing. I found a nice library and a couple other places to study. I have met kind people, wise people, strange people, and smart people. I have met Scotts, Germans, Indians, and far too many Americans. But I have loved it all.

I had plenty of welcome events the last week to attend, but I finally attended my first week of classes on Monday and Tuesday (16 and 17 September). I listened to N.T. Wright saying things that I completely agreed with and others that I completed disagreed with while I sat by his side. I had a couple Scottish lecturers lead riveting discussions on philosophy’s role in theology and the doctrine of Creation. I met a stranger and shared a meal with his family, and I saw a lifetime of wisdom face-to-face. I wrote an article, I read an essay, and I tried to not talk too much in class. I’ve had FaceTime calls, and I’ve had long messages. I’ve made friends and had fun. I’ve watched lectures (including my first Gifford lecture!). I have engaged great scholars, and I’ve let myself dream.

Picture by Vi Bui. Pictured from left to right: myself (Chandler), and Professor Wright. Edited to remove a fellow classmate.

Without diving into too much detail or boring you too much, this has been my first seventeen days.

What Are We Flying Away From? When the Gospel Meets ‘Gospel’ Music

As someone raised in the church and in the “Bible belt”, I have often heard the famous song “I’ll Fly Away.” It has been the center piece of churches, including my own, as well as secular social gatherings where everyone comes alive to sing that beautiful melody which speaks of freedom from oppression. Although many are likely to have heard this song, the lyrics are as follows (I’ll refrain from rehashing the chorus between every stanza of verses):

Some bright morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away

Chorus:
I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly
I’ll fly away
Oh, how glad and happy when we meet
I’ll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I’ll fly away
Just a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joys will never end
I’ll fly away

Having shared the lyrics, I cannot help but wonder: “What, according to this song, are we flying away from?” It seems fairly obvious that, according to this song, the oppression of which we will be freed is an oppression of our earthly state—more specifically it seems our bodies are the prisons. In this brief article, I will first explore the claims made by this song about the ultimate goal of humanity (specifically referring to its goal after death) and the good news about Jesus (i.e., the gospel), and second, I will provide a more biblical picture of these concepts.

The song speaks of “flying away” from the earth to “that home on God’s celestial shore.” It praises God (i.e., “Hallelujah”) for our flying away once we die, and it speaks of this death and flying away as being freed from the “shadows of this life” and from the “prison walls”, or birdcage of the world. It speaks as if one needs only to leave our earthly bodies and return to our original home in heaven in order to receive the heavenly reward mentioned by Jesus. This flying away is a happy occasion hence the words “how glad and happy when we meet” and “no more cold iron shackles on my feet.” Everyday life for the writer is a persistent survival of these “few more weary days” before going to a “land where joy will never end.” All this is expressed with the constant refrain “I’ll fly away.”

The worldview of this song has more in common with ancient Greek philosophy than the Bible. If philosophy reveals truth previously testified to in the Bible then we say “praise God” and “amen”, but when the philosophy does not match the Bible’s claims, then we must remain willing to let it go (here, I clearly display my Protestant leanings on these matters). The philosophy of this song has more in common with Plato than Paul and more in common with Athens than Jerusalem. It provides its listener with the Gospel according to Plato in which “salvation” becomes a matter of escaping the physical word.[1] N.T. Wright describes the Platonic view with extremely similar language to the song “I’ll Fly Away”; he writes, “It [death] is the moment when, and the means by which, the immortal soul is set free from the prison-house of the physical body.”[2] According to this gospel, our souls need to escape our sinful bodies and evil creation to return to a spiritual realm with God.[3] In contrast, the famed German theologian and minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his work Creation and Fall: “The body belongs to a person’s essence. The body is not the prison, the shell, the exterior of a human being instead a human being is a human body. A human being does not ‘have’ a body or ‘have’ a soul; instead a human being ‘is’ body and soul.”[4] As I will contend below, it is not our bodies or creation that are inherently sinful and evil, and God wants to save them as much as he wants to save our souls. 

The story of being a celestial being in the sky by and by with my harp and colorful robes has always bothered me. As a child, I was scared of death because this did not seem like a fun place. It sounded like eternal boredom. In my daily life, I never desire to sit around and play the harp or anything of the sort. I fill my day with activities, hobbies, projects, worship, friendship, etc. I am thankful that I have since learned that the future described in the Bible sounds more like a continuation of the latter on a far grander scale.

According to the Bible, God creates the world and calls it good (Gen 1). Humans and creation only became sinful and evil once they worshiped the wrong thing by disobeying God and desiring something other than a relationship with him (Gen 3).[5] Therefore, he punishes humanity and creation, but with this punishment, he makes a promise to put the world right-side up again (Gen 3:15). Fulfilling this promise, God takes on humanity (John 1:1-18; Phil 2:7-8; and Col 1:15), and he lives the life and dies the death that we could not for ourselves (Romans 5:8). But the story does not end there because he comes back from the dead, and he comes back in his physical body (Matt 28:5-7; Luke 24:36-49; John 20:24-29). This resurrection is supposed to be the first fruits of the new creation (1 Cor 15:20). The Bible promises that one day Jesus will reappear to fully bring heaven on earth and to bring all the dead followers of Jesus back from the grave, and they will rule and reign over the earth with him continuing the project started in the beginning (1 Pet 2:9-10; Rev 21).[6]

If the previous paragraph is remotely true, then it seems “I’ll Fly Away”, despite its beautiful melody, is false. All Christians should affirm at least three things from the previous paragraph: (1) God created everything, and he called it “good”; (2) God took on physical form as a human called Jesus; and (3) Jesus was resurrected thus becoming physical again and forever (ST III q. 54 a.1).[7] If those three things are affirmed, then “I’ll Fly Away” describes a different gospel than the one proclaimed by Paul or Jesus or any other author of the New Testament.

Before his death, Jesus once said that “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…” (John 4:23). How can Christians maintain this duality of worship if they knowingly sing untruth? Many people even sing it with the assumption that they are singing the gospel itself! No small number of sermons, blog posts, and books can convince our people that this song is not the gospel truth because the message has been engrained through repetition and melody in a way that propositional truth cannot be communicated. James K.A. Smith writes that “We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love.”[8] If we want to correct this error, we will need to do so through several greater means.

To eliminate the teaching of false doctrine in our churches, we will have to make several difficult decisions. First, we must stop singing songs that falsely portray God, the gospel, and the human condition. The target song for this blog post is “I’ll Fly Away”. Second, we must correct for these erred ways of understanding Christianity by instilling new repetitions into the life of the local church via intentional liturgies. James K.A. Smith writes that liturgy “is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”[9] If local congregations would combat the liturgies and narratives of our cultures and intentionally replace them in the worship service with the recitation of creeds and confessions and practices like the Lord’s Supper, then we would have congregations being informed by biblical truth instead of 20th century constructions that have more in common with Phaedo than Scripture. Third and finally, we must specifically teach against these philosophies especially those that cloak themselves in Christianity. We should point out music, literature, films, and other cultural artifacts that claim to present a vision of the world contrary to biblical truth. 

Although each Christian has a personal responsibility to act on these issues (not singing false songs, alerting leadership to these issues, and not presenting these songs as good sources of knowledge for young Christians or non-Christians), the primary responsibility lies on the leadership of the church to teach truthfully and avoid letting our people’s hearts and minds be shaped by false doctrine. It can be difficult as a worship pastor or senior pastor or whatever pastor/leader/minister to shirk our responsibility or to assume that someone else takes the blame on this issue, but we must stand up and represent Jesus well to the world. Many will read this and still sing “I’ll Fly Away” on Sunday mornings. I entirely suspect that the habit and the tune will live on despite the contrary evidence (humans are often bad on acting on the knowledge they gain). We still love this song more than we love truth, which is why we need to instill new habits, new songs to replace the ones that we must reject for the sake of the truth of the gospel.

Citations

[1] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3) (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 48. For a discussion on competing views of the human person, see Paul R. Williamson, Death and the Afterlife: Biblical Perspectives on Ultimate Questions (New Studies in Biblical Theology) (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 33-38. In his discussion of human anthropology, Williamson compares the views from Ancient Greek philosophy, such as Plato’s, and from the Bible for the purpose of explaining the post-mortem fate of the dead. 
[2] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 48. 
[3] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 74.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Exposition of Genesis 1-3 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 76-77.
[5] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, 77, 99, 101-103. 
[6] This Christian understanding is articulated by the Athanasian Creed wherein it states, “He [Jesus] will come again to judge the living and the dead. / At his coming all people shall rise bodily to give an account of their own deeds. / Those who have done good will enter eternal life, those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.” https://www.rca.org/resources/athanasian-creed 
For a discussion of how humanity is to rule/reign after Jesus’s death, see N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, 160-167.
[7] This citation ought to be read: Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, third part, question 54, article 1.
[8] James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), 22.
[9] James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love, 46.

Bibliography

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004.

Smith, James K.A. You Are What You Love: The Power of Habit. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016.

Williamson, Paul R. Death and the Afterlife: Biblical Perspectives on Ultimate Questions (New Studies in Biblical Theology). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Wright, N.T. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016.

_. The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003.

How You Can Support My Year Studying Abroad

In just a couple short weeks from now, I’ll be finally  making the move to Scotland. Less than six months ago, I accepted an offer to study at the famed University of St. Andrews with some of the world’s greatest scholars in my field. I will spend one year there (from September to August), and at the end of my time, I will be awarded a Master’s degree in Analytic and Exegetical Theology. To afford this once in a lifetime opportunity, I have relied on loans, personal savings, and the generosity of many who have chosen to support my studies and my work for the kingdom. If you would like to join those people, I still have money that I need to raise.

I’m praying for God’s faithfulness through people like you. I hope you join me in prayer and can contribute to my future. If you would like updates on my fundraising goals or to know how you can give electronically (Cash App, Venmo, Go Fund Me, etc.), please contact me personally or use the form below.

Thank you so much for your time, your prayers, and your gifts.