[Last week, six Maranatha folks attended The Gospel Coalition Conference and shared some of our reflections. Here are some more.]
Doo-doo doo do... At the house, the Cranberries blasted from the speaker. The smell of onions filled the air and the taste of soy sauce and chicken filled our mouths. Garlic broccoli and rice warmed our stomachs. We had just spent the last 24 hours being fed with the book of Galatians on how salvation is not by works but by faith alone. Truths Luther and the Reformers had fought for 500 years ago. And now we were about to return to the Convention Center to divide into smaller workshops of our choice.
While I was at the Gospel Coalition Conference, I attended some wonderful workshops. However, one of my favorite things about conferences is divine appointments. You are surrounded by thousands of like-minded people with the same passions—in this case the shared passions of Jesus and doctrine. Chances are high that you will talk to and meet people who God will use to speak through and impact your life, even significantly, and vice-versa.
On the second day of the conference, as I was studying a map to find my workshop, I overheard a man say to someone what church he goes to.
I approached them. “Oh my gosh! I’m sorry to interrupt but I couldn’t help but overhear that you go to the same church I used to go to!”
He had started going to my old church two years after I had moved out of that state. Out of the over 8 thousand people at the TGC conference, what were the chances that I would bump into the one person from the medium-sized church I used to attend out of all the 50 states that were represented? And that I would overhear him say what church it was??
As transparency is appropriate among those who are from his state, I shared with him the tragic circumstances surrounding my move back to New Jersey.
He responded, “I feel lead to share with you,” some of his significant failures before he was a Christian and what God had done since then. Even after he had become a Christian, his relationship with his family remained difficult. After studying at a seminary, Biblical counseling classes, and other experiences, he “decided to set up an atmosphere in which my family could forgive me. I couldn’t force them to. But I could be faithful and trust God with the results. I decided I needed to allow my family to express all the ways in which I had hurt them in the past and the impact and pain they had felt from it. I decided just to listen and not defend myself or minimize what I had done. And after that they were able to forgive me.” He continued, “I learned that my mom wanted sharing and transparency. My dad didn’t need that. He just wanted respect. We show respect in simple things, like looking at a person and listening when they are speaking.”
“Wow.” I gulped. That was a lot for me to digest. “I think I learn something from that both ways. First, that’s really validating.” It made me realize that while I had forgiven some people in my life as far as it depended upon me, it put words to the idea that the missing puzzle piece to full reconciliation was that I had never felt safe or welcome to express to them just how deeply they had harmed me. “But I think there’s also an application in the other direction as well,” I said. “I’m sure there are people I’ve hurt and will hurt who I could be willing to listen to and not minimize the ways in which I hurt them.”
What an interesting application of the gospel! I’ve often heard people who have been through unimaginable trauma say the things that heal them most are validation (as opposed to the minimizing of their suffering). God had used this conversation to provide validation to some of the scars that remain of past hurts. I really think the Lord had some significant healing for me in that conversation.
While that 45 minute conversation caused me to miss my workshop, I sat down on a bench just to absorb it and take notes on what I had just learned. I saw God in that conversation and it was probably my favorite “workshop” of the afternoon.
I did make it to the next workshop and loved it. Author and award-winning professor at Liberty University, Karen Swallow Prior, taught on the importance of reading literary fiction. Yes, fiction. Who knew such a subject would be considered important enough to be taught at The Gospel Coalition?
With eloquence as beautiful as music she explained:
- That as C.S. Lewis says: we cannot desire what we cannot imagine. We must first imagine what we ought to love. This is how commercials work. Literature grows and exercises our imagination so that we can imagine what we ought to desire.
- There are books that have changed people’s lives. This is a revolutionary statement in post-modernism.
- College kids are resisting the study of literature not because they don’t desire wisdom and guidance towards the desirable life, but because they don’t see literature as the source of these. Because they've mostly depended on Wikipedia and Spark Notes, which diminish the way an author creates an experience for the reader.
- By reading, we learn to experience from another point of view. Only literature offers constant practice in empathy. Escape from the prison house of self.
- The act of writing and act of reading don’t just move us. They transfigure us. Reading is by nature spiritual. It is a ministry of reconciliation. It brings order to the chaos of life. A cracked china cup in which meaning is recovered.
- Studies show that reading literary fiction grows a person in empathy.
- How to read well:
- Attentatively, slowly, and literally. Understand what it says literally, not what it means to you.
- Read luxuriously.
What I love most about the ideas above is the notion that fiction teaches you how to understand another point of view other than your own. It teaches you empathy. How can we truly minister to people if we don’t have compassion? And how can we really have compassion if we’re unable to imagine ourselves in their situation? Fiction exercises the ability to see behind another person’s eyes and feel from within their skin.
The other workshop I attended was by former lesbian, now married artist, writer, and rapper, Jackie Hill Perry. She took us to Genesis 1:1 to show us that one of the first things God wrote in the Bible was that He is Creator. He made something out of nothing. And what He made was “beautiful.” Art is our attempt to create something out of nothing.
- Cooking, decorating, getting dressed, even preaching is all creating art.
- But as we at
tempt to create, we should imitate how God creates—
- we should do it well,
- make it beautiful,
- and for the glory of God.
- Does it always have to have a verse in it in order for it to be Christian? Have you ever seen a mountain that says, “Jesus made me?” But Romans 1 says His creation implicitly says, “God made me. And He is a big God.” So, no, it doesn’t have to explicitly say Christian things in order for it to be Christian.
- Artists have an affection for beauty.
Jackie pointed out how Matthew 22 says to love the Lord and love your neighbor. What she said made me think even if you yourself do not do anything that requires you to create, you probably watch T.V. or consume something that someone else made. Jackie asks these questions to help determine if the art is good:
- Does this work of art help me and others love God with all of our hearts?
- With all of our souls?
- With all of our mind?
- With all of our strength?
- Or does this art distort? Distract?
- Does this art induce lust? Gossip?
- Or does this art help others to think on what is good, lovely, and true?
- Or to focus on the flesh?
She believes that a lot of the sin we struggle with is provoked by demonic art made by humans that doesn’t pass the test of the above questions.
God’s creation is good not just because He made it good, but because He is good. Similarly, the level of our submission to Christ will impact whatever we create. Where we are at spiritually will be reflected in our art.
I realize that you can listen to all of these messages online. But there is something about meeting all together with thousands of believers to listen to these preachers and worship together in song (in this case wonderful, theologically deep hymns). There are moments in which you can feel God is there and working in your life for His glory in very present ways.
Another highlight was being lead in worship by Matt Boswell and Sandra McCracken. If you’ve ever listened to any of Sandra McCracken’s music her voice sounds delicate, yet has an endearing vulnerability and honesty to it. But in person, her voice sounds powerfully amazing! All the more reason to attend one of these conferences in person another time!
“Alexa, play some smooth jazz. Alexa, play some John Coltrane. Alexa, play the Cranberries.” You may know of Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated device, and it was my first experience playing with it during TGC.
Technology never ceases to amaze me. It seems like there’s an app or device for everything today. I even thought I had a brilliant idea several years ago, but my wise, non-dreamer friends told me to let it go (ask me about the Teaching Towel, maybe the dream can continue).
While many ideas have flopped, many have greatly influenced our society. I believe this reflects the human desire to be significant; the created reflects the Creator. All of us want to be significant, all of us want to matter, but sadly, we often seek to fulfill this desire in sinful and selfish ways.
I was humbly reminded during Kevin DeYoung’s talk on John Calvin that all things in this life will fade and wither. There is only one thing that will surely remain, and that is the Word of God. Our significance will only be truly significant when we are found in Him who is eternal, God Himself.
DeYoung’s final exhortation really struck me: “The only way that our lives will touch that which is eternal is to admit that our lives in and of ourselves are hopelessly temporal…Let us let go of our vain supposed successes and grab hold of that which will outlast us all, the Word of God.
Isaiah 40:6-8 reads,
“A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ’What shall I cry?’
All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.””
Let this be an encouragement to us all to cling to eternal Word of God, knowing that in Christ, we are more significant in God's eyes than we could ever imagine.
[Listen to some of the great preachers of our day preaching at the conference here!]