A Place to be Loved

I have been reflecting on the church a lot recently. I thought about the church quite a bit before, but for the past eight months, I have really thought deeply about the theological underpinnings of the church and its purpose in Christian life. It has framed the Scripture that I’ve read, and it has occupied my vacant hours. I cannot stop thinking about it: the church.

Church Isn’t Perfect

Many people have bad experiences with the church. I don’t want to discredit those. Sadly, churches as institutions can become prone to institutionalizing sin with drastic, painful, and sometimes truly evil consequences. Other people do not have such extremely negative experiences of church; in fact, they have no “extreme” experiences of church whether good or bad. They have neutral or apathetic feelings about the church. They would rather go to a place where people are just a little friendlier or nicer, where the music is just a little bit better, and the preaching is a little more polished. Or they would rather sit at home avoiding the mediocrity of their local church.

Despite some bad experiences and some apathy-enducing experiences, I remain quite hopeful—some might even say unrealistically optimistic. I rest in God’s gracious decision to give us the church and his desire that we should be a part of it. So what’s the church?

What Is Church?

Without getting too deep into any explanation of how I understand church, I’ll just say that the Greek ecclesia is better translated “gathering” or “assembly” than “church”. Because the term assembly makes me think of grade school assemblies, I opt for the former definition/translation. Simply put, I see the church as the occurrence of Jesus-people being gathered together for any of a number of Christian practices (even practices as simple as fellowship). Again, I don’t want to get into debates about the “true church”. I’ll say simply that I think my idea of church is at least partly, if not wholly, consistent with Calvin’s idea of the true church.

Therefore, the church is Jesus-people gathered. This brings me to the title of this blog, “a place to be loved.” Perhaps a better title for my intention is “a people to be loved by.” Jesus commands his followers to love each other like he loved them, and he said that everyone will know them as his followers by the love they have for each other (John 13:34-35). This theme is apparent in John’s first letter, and it is a major theme in Paul’s letters. The whole New Testament (really the whole Bible) is enamored with the claim that God is love and that we are to be people filled with love and practicing love to everyone! Thus I think the church is a people to be loved by, and when your church meets in a specific building or house or park, that space becomes a sacred place to be loved.

What Is Love?

I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to say what I think about love. I won’t be as bold to say that there is a definition of love in Scripture, but there are plenty of examples.

Love is not just a feeling. Love is active; you might even say love is an activity. In describing love, Paul writes:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

That may be one of the most beautiful paragraphs ever written. It is written in the context of the church. It is written to bring unity to the Corinthian gathering and focus them on the love that should exist at the foundation of their church. Paul does not tell them how love makes them feel gushy or happy or joyful, but he describes it in terms of actions. Love is completely and utterly active; hence, when Jesus tells us to love God, we are to do it by four different acts only one of which could be construed as the act of having an emotion. He also tells us to love our neighbor as we want to be loved. I think very, very few people want to be loved by people who have a passive emotion that is never related to them. They want to be loved by people who make it apparent with the action of love!

A Place to be Loved; or, A People to be Loved by

As James K.A. Smith observes in his book You Are What You Love, humans are at their core loving creatures. We will find something or someone to love whether it is right or not. We also need to be loved by someone else. God loves us, and he often chooses to use his people to show us this love. The gathering of Jesus-people is supposed to be a hotbed for experiencing God’s love. If you don’t feel God’s love in your local gathering, have you considered when the last time you took the opportunity to love the people around you? Start with the man/woman in the mirror. Love one another.


Review of On the Road with Saint Augustine

In his newest monograph On the Road with Saint Augustine, James K.A. Smith introduces the patristic theologian, philosopher, bishop, and—most importantly for this work—a spiritual traveler looking for home. Before reading this book, a warning is in order. This book is not a biography. It is not a historical theology. It is not a contemporary philosopher’s attempt to anachronistically claim Augustine as the first existentialist. It is not an academic book or a devotional for new Christians. It is not a postmodern apologetic for Christianity. It is not a gospel presentation. James K.A. Smith does not set out to do any of these things, but of course, by discussing Augustine, he does all of them. In this book, Smith invites us to get on the road that was traveled by Augustine centuries before us and discover how similar his own journey was to ours.


Smith invites the reader, a traveler like himself, to journey on the same road that Augustine went down centuries ago. We travel to find ourselves and become authentically us, and for someone living in a culture so distant and long ago from ours today, it may shock us to learn how similar Augustine’s journey is to our own. This book tells stories within stories. Every chapter is composed of a series of vignettes taken from Augustine’s life or connect with his experiences and ideas. These brief stories can seem random in their placement, but it does not take long to see how each stories connects to form a carefully-woven narrative. These chapters can feel similar to mind-bending films (such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento) wherein things may feel unsettled and random until one reaches the end and feels the satisfying (or unsettling in Nolan’s case) conclusion that brings the pieces together.

The ‘Idea’ Chapters

These chapters feel like a journey through life’s most prevalent topics. After setting the stage for Augustine being our contemporary in thought and deed as we, like him, are refugees looking for a place in this world to call home, Smith walks us through a series of topics. He opens this series of chapters by introducing the problem of freedom without end or without a goal. He then moves to address how ambition, though maligned in some parts of contemporary culture and worshipped in others, cannot be put into either category so neatly. When our ambition is rightly ordered for God’s sake, it becomes a great good, but this is difficult when the line between God’s sake and our own is rather fuzzy. Smith remarks that Augustine clearly admits that he still does things out of selfish ambition while still maintaining the desire to do them for God alone, and this does not make them entirely selfish or immoral or inconsistent—it just makes them honest. Throughout the book Smith address other topics of broad and sometimes theoretical significance such as enlightenment, story, and justice, but he also moves to some practical topics as well.

The Practical Chapters

Concerning the practical and everyday topics that connect with Augustine, Smith discusses family, friendship, death, and homecoming. Smith’s chapter on sex does much good in moving past some of Augustine’s hang-ups and misgivings almost certainly brought on by his own checkered past. For those familiar with some of Augustine’s claims concerning this topic, Smith gives a refreshing reinterpretation of Augustine that is honest and charitable.

In this book, we also glimpse at Augustine’s parental relationships. The chapter on Augustine’s mother relates the story of his rebellious emigration from her faith and home until he returns after experiencing her faith from another place in his life. Many people have similar experiences in scorning the faith and beliefs of their parents. Augustine finally realizes that, the whole time he left his geographical home to find one of rest, his mother was there pointing him to the proper home of peace. Augustine had an absent father like many others today, so Smith, in sharing that part of Augustine’s life, uses it as a platform to discuss our brokenness and the longing many feel for the place in their lives abandoned by absent fathers. Smith also talks about important topics such as friendship and death which have great significance in our lives as we seek loving companionship from others and await the fate that will reach us all.


I quite enjoyed On the Road with Saint Augustine. I had the typical experience of reading Confessions for the first time. As a college freshmen with no real idea who Augustine was, I was shocked when this bishop from Africa told my story. His struggle with sin and wrestling with God could not have described my own story better. His heartfelt pain and tears came through so clearly even though he originally wrote in a different language and different century. It opened my eyes to the universal journey of fighting sin and evil and finding God and grace. Smith writes like a master-weaver, bringing Augustine’s story together with ours. For those interested in a faith that may seem foreign yet oddly familiar, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly. My one personal caution is that this book is not your typical narrative.

Like those mind-bending films mentioned before, every piece is essential even if you may not enjoy it while it happens. Many of those films have moments that seem to drag on or seem to not contribute enough to the story to warrant their inclusion, but again I believe they all have their place. The same is true of Smith’s work. Is it superbly written? Does it demonstrate a well-seasoned writing career? Yes, but it may not always feel like it. This critique, my only critique, may also be a strength. I will let the reader decide. Take up and read.

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

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.


[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.


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.