Friday, October 31, 2008

Lewis on Communicating Our Faith

Few modern writers have been able to communicate the truth of the Christian faith as effectively as C. S. Lewis. It only makes sense then, pay attention to a few of the things he had to say on the subject. In an essay entitled “Christian Apologetics,” he offers this observation:
Our business is to present that which is timeless (the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow) in the particular language of our own age. The bad preacher does exactly the opposite: he takes the ideas of our own age and tricks them out in the traditional language of Christianity.
As to how this might be done, Lewis offers the following strategy:
We must learn the language of our audience. And let me say at the outset that it is no use at all laying down a priori what the ‘plain man’ does or does not understand. You have to find out by experience.
It seems to me that Lewis here hits upon a skill—one might even say a virtue of sorts—that many of us often fail to demonstrate: genuinely listening. It's by listening that we learn how the person across the table from us is accustomed to communicate, not to mention what he or she actually believes. And it surely follows that listening therefore helps us to determine both what ideas are appropriate to say in response, but also the most effective manner in which to say them. If we are truly to love our neighbor, then we’ll work hard at listening.

Then again, our neighbor is not the only one who benefits from translating biblical truth into more accessible language. In the essay “God in the Dock,” Lewis explains:
By trying to translate our doctrines into vulgar [i.e., common] speech we discover how much we understand them ourselves. Our failure to translate may sometimes be due to our ignorance of the vernacular; much more often it exposes the fact that we do not exactly know what we mean.
Those of us wishing to test Lewis’ assertion might consider the following question: would you be able, in conversation with someone quite unfamiliar with Christianity, to explain centrally important terms found in the Bible? For example, how might you explain the meaning of words like “redemption” or “atonement,” or even “grace,” “faith,” and “sin”? In asking ourselves these questions, might we find, as Lewis suggests, that we don’t know our faith quite as well as we should?

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Osteen, Shuller, and Thermometers

I've recently been reading fairly extensively on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement and have been really captured by King's personality, convictions, and commitment to endure great suffering for a cause he believed in. While I will probably say more about all that later, this morning there's a line from King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail that seems applicable to a couple of recent news items. In April 1963 while sitting in a jail cell, King responded to white pastors' concerns that the timing wasn't right for protests, "sit ins," and boycotts in the South. In the context of that letter King rebukes the church in his day by comparing it to the church in the first century: "The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society."

Two recent news stories confirm that the modern church, at least in America, often looks more like a thermometer than a thermostat in that it reflects modern values instead of transforming them. The first story, reported in the October 26th and 27th editions of the L.A. Times, informs readers that Robert H. Shuller recently removed his son (Robert A. Shuller) as the teacher on the "Hour of Power" broadcast. According to the paper,

The schism between the Rev. Robert H. Schuller and his son at Orange County's Crystal Cathedral arose over a disagreement about broadening the church's long-running television show, "Hour of Power," beyond a single personality -- a move opposed by the younger Schuller, pastors involved in the matter said Sunday.

But here's the part of the story that I found interesting...

Schuller built his worldwide ministry over a half century on the psychology of positive thinking and appealing to people turned off by the formality of traditional faiths. In contrast, his son's sermons have been full of direct references to the Bible.
"I was called to start a mission, not a church," Schuller told his audience Sunday. "There is a difference. . . . You don't try to preach . . . what is sin and what isn't sin. A mission is a place where you ask nonbelievers to come and find faith and hope and feel love. We're a mission first, a church second."

It seems that the elder Shuller wasn't happy that his son was acting as if the Orange County Crystal Catherdral was a church in which it was appropriate to preach from the Bible instead of focusing on positive thinking and self-esteem.

The second story is from Lisa Miller in the October 20th Newsweek. There she reviews Victoria Osteen's new book Love Your Life with more insight that many Christians have. Of course Victoria's husband is Joel Osteen who is the pastor of our nation's largest church. In an article in which the title (What's God Got to Do With It?) tells you all you need to know, she writes...

"Joel Osteen is one of the most popular pastors in the country, but both he and Victoria seem, from the outside at least, to be spiritual midgets. More than 40,000 people come to hear them preach each week in a sanctuary that used to be the home of the Houston Rockets. Millions more watch them on television. Joel's books are best sellers, and Victoria's new one, though arriving in stores this week, is already high on Amazon's spiritual book list. But the theology driving all this success is thin. Over and over, in sermons, books and television interviews, the Osteens repeat their most firmly held beliefs. If you pray to Jesus, you'll get what you want."
And then later...

"Prosperity preachers are neither new nor unique in America, but the Osteens' version seems especially self-serving. Victoria's book betrays her interest in the kind of small gratifications that rarely extend to other people, let alone to the larger world. She recommends that women take "me time" every day, and indulge occasionally in a (fat-free!) ice cream. She writes repeatedly about her love for the gym. Her relationship advice is retrograde dross: submit to your man, or at least pretend you're submitting, and then do what you want anyway. "I know if I just wait long enough," she writes, "eventually my idea will become Joel's idea, and it will come to pass." When I asked her how she kept her two children interested in church, she answered that even though they were a broccoli and lean-meats household, she gave them doughnuts as a special treat on Sundays. All this is fine, in the pages of a women's magazine or a self-help book. But what has God got to do with it?"
If the church hopes to recapture it's rightful status as change agent (thermostat), then it must first recapture the gospel from those in the self-help movement who have hijacked it and hid it under their message of positive thinking, self-esteem, and self-improvement. What these philosophies have in common is that they put people at the center and depend on human wisdom. They are man's attempt to solve man's problems. The more the church's message blends with this kind of cultural thinking, the more impotent it becomes.

But the gospel of God offers a hope that isn't built on human wisdom or human power. It's not built on human beings at all. In fact it says that human beings are morally and spiritually bankrupt and are therefore unable to fix themselves. The gospel is good news because it doesn't depend on us. It's not about what we do for God but what God does for us in Jesus. This is the gospel that changes individual lives, families, cities, and cultures. By God's grace may we build our lives and our church on God's gospel and not man's.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Elections and Abortion (Version 2.0)

After a week of thinking about and discussing my previous blog post with various people, I concede that my blog was too politically directed. I certainly have a lot to learn about blogging (and being a pastor, for that matter) and, if I had it to do over again, I would word it differently and would not have attacked Barack Obama so directly as I did. I was, as one “anonymous” comment posted on my previous blog said, “thinking out loud.” I had not thought of blogging so much as me presenting a kind of essay rather than just having a kind of conversation. People who are used to having conversations with me know that in such conversations I tend to pose one argument (via provocative questions and statements), then before the conversation is over, I’ll be arguing the other side through asking the opposite questions. To the frustration of many (i.e., my wife and those who have been on our staff team the longest), this has always been my style of thinking through and discussing and deciding controversial issues. I personally like to have my assumptions and beliefs challenged through hard, even provocative questions. That’s my personality.

And I sometimes forget that when I do that to others who view me as an authority because I’m a pastor, they can too easily misunderstand my intentions. In other words, I didn’t mean to take such an authoritative political stand through my positing my statements and questions. So I underestimated how my “thinking out loud” (or, in my case, asking questions out loud) would constitute an endorsement for the opposing candidate in the minds of many, AND the underlying (though unintended) assertion that if you’re a Christian you must not vote for Barack Obama. I understand how that happened, and I admit that it was my miscommunication. But it was not intentional. And it is not what I believe. As I stated in a subsequent comment to the blog, there are good reasons why good Christians want to vote for Barack Obama.

So let me take a stab at it again, but this time worded more responsibly and not so politically.

Personally, I view the issue of abortion as primarily a biblical issue and a vertical issue (i.e., an issue of who we believe God is) more than a political issue. Here’s my reasoning (and I’ll try not to confuse the issue by being too provocative):

1. Every human being is created in the image of God. This is the first and foremost truth the Bible tells us—“So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them” (Genesis 1:27, TNIV). Notice what the Bible emphasizes through repetition and poetic word placement. It is the image of the God of the universe that is imprinted on every single human being. That’s what gives every human being more value and worth and significance than anything else created on earth. And it means that God is the owner of every human life. And this is the crux of the issue of all crimes of human commodity industries like slavery and all human genocide movements like the Holocaust. No one owns another human being except God. This is why murder is so wrong. And this is why suicide is a sin: it is the ultimate action of believing in self-ownership over our lives. (By the way, sacrificing our lives for the lives of others is not the same as suicide. Jesus laid down his life for the lives of others. Suicide is the taking of our own life.) And this is the paramount issue in all our personal sins. We think we own our own lives and have a right to live them as we see fit: in our sexuality, our possessions, our life ambitions, our life expectations, our marriages, our vocations, etc. Of course, this is disastrously untrue. It is not the reality in which we truly live. And eventually that will become obvious to everyone as they stand before their life’s True Owner and give an account for their lives. Because God is the Creator of all human life, and he has created all human life in his image, all human life inherently possesses the glory of God and the ownership of God. A master does not legitimately own a slave, a government does not legitimately own its people, and a mother does not legitimately own her child, even her child in her womb. For that matter, the mother does not even legitimately own her own body to do with it what she pleases. Only God does.

2. God will hold us accountable for the unjust taking of any human life. After the flood, God said to Noah—“And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by human beings shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made humankind” (Genesis 9:5-6, TNIV). This biblical passage tells us three important biblical truths: 1) though very sinful, all humans beings still retain the image of God upon their lives, 2) God takes his ownership over all human beings VERY seriously, and 3) there is such a thing as a just killing of another human being (i.e., those who have killed other human beings unjustly). Now, I feel the need to add that we know from Romans 13 that only governments are given the authority by God to determine and carry out this just killing. Not individuals. The important thing from this passage is that God still emphasizes, even after sin has entered the human race, that every human being is sacred and significant and has value and glory as being created in the image of God.

3. A human being still in the womb is created in God’s image and owned by God and has all the worth and glory and significance as does any born human being. God makes it very clear in his Word, in Psalm 139:13-17, that God is intimately involved with us and lovingly relates with us even while we are still being created in our mother’s womb. In Luke 1:15, it says that even when John the Baptist was in his mother’s womb he was filled with God’s Holy Spirit. And in Luke 1:44, because he was filled with God’s Spirit even in the womb, John’s mother said to Mary, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” Here God is relating to him in such a way that he is filled with God’s Spirit even in the womb and his personality is such already that he rejoices at hearing the voice of Mary.

All of this means that God makes it very clear that human beings are sacred, glorious, significant, and loved by God and owned by God even when still in the womb. The mother may not want this child, but the mother doesn’t own this child. Even if the child is the product of rape or incest (as with the case of many biblical characters), this child is owned by God, and gloriously significant in his eyes.

So, I don’t see abortion—the killing of unborn human beings because they are unwanted—as a political issue so much as a biblical, spiritual issue. No one should seek to expand the legal rights and funding to kill unwanted children created in God’s image.

That’s why my hope is that we as Christians will hold any political leader or potential leader accountable for everything he or she does and says on this issue of abortion, as well as the rights of the infants born alive from failed abortions. We should not and cannot give any political leader a pass on this significant moral and spiritual issue just because he or she says nice things about other things we care about.

As Christians, we of all people should understand that the wrong side of history was often the most popular position at that time. It was unpopular to be against black slavery in the 1850’s. It was unpopular to be for civil rights in the 1940’s and 50’s. It was unpopular to be for Jewish rights in Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s. And it's often too easy to drink the culture's coolaid and be on the wrong side of history.

The truth is, I don’t care who you vote for as much as how you came to that decision biblically. In all candor, my cynicism has reached a point where I’m not sure it really matters as much as we all get told every four years it matters. The younger you are, the more you tend to think elections and politics matter. That’s fine. I was the same way. And maybe it does matter and I’m becoming a crotchety old man. Just like John McCain.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Theology of Art 201

Last week I sent you to a couple links that, for me, are examples of a great and beautiful truth: God is the original Artist and cares deeply about the art we create as well. (Read the first post here.)

As this truth has sunk in more and more over the past few years, my appreciation and enjoyment of different genres of art has grown deeper and richer. One of the main reasons for a deeper appreciation of creative expression and artistic excellence is that I have begun to notice the power art has in my life to "put flesh on the bones" of truth.

Let me explain.

I believe there are different ways to 'know' the truth. We can know a fact is true on a purely intellectual level. But we know things in a different way when we know them on an experiential level - when we feel and experience the truth in the real world - when we live the truth.

For example, my medical school buddies may know that a certain drug cures a certain disease. They read it in a textbook and the facts are corroborated by their professors. They for sure know it is true: it is real knowledge. But they know it in a different, more 'real-life' way after the first time they actually administer the medicine to a sick patient and watch the treatment cure the problem. The more they use the drug and see it work, the more they rest confidently in their knowledge of the drug's power. The experiential knowledge is different from (and deeper than) the cognitive knowledge.

Art, for me, often serves as a source of experiential knowledge. When I read the Bible, I fight to truly believe and know the statements I find there. But when I see a beautifully rendered, creative, artistically excellent depiction of that propositional truth, it is brought to life in a new way. I experientially begin to sense that truth is real. I feel its force. I dont just simply cognitively know it. Art puts "flesh on the bones" of propositional truth.

For example, we watched and discussed the film Chocolat the other night at the Missouri Theater and it was a great night. One scene in that film puts flesh on the bones of Colossians 2:21-23 better than any other artistic depiction I have experienced.
21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

(Side note: apparently it is illegal for me to pull a clip from the dvd and post it on this blog, so the scene I am referring to is buried in this longer clip from Youtube. The scene runs from minute 5:00 to 8:45. Sorry for making you hunt for it.)

The Bible says man-made, self-discipline sort of rules are of no use in changing our desires...desires always win. Alfred Molina, playing Count de Reynold, brings this truth to life comedically, but also poignantly.

Another example, for me personally, is the end of the film Man on Fire. This scene puts flesh on those passages in the Bible that speak of Christ as my ransom (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; Heb. 9:15; etc). It causes those propositions that I already believe cognitively to resonate more and more for me on an emotional, experiential level.

(Again, the scene starts at 2:30 and ends at 7:30.)

There are many Biblically faithful reasons we should enjoy and create good art. The fact that art has the power to put "flesh on the bones" of scripture is just one of them. But it has been a helpful framework for me to begin to interact with art in a more Biblically faithful and personally beneficial way.

What art-experiences have "put flesh on the bones" of Biblical truths in your life?

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Doing Our Husbands Good

As every wife (and husband) knows, marriage can be difficult. At times we can get frustrated with our spouse, discouraged in our marriage, and downright selfish. What can be expected when one sinful person is married to another sinful person, right? But, the Bible calls wives to do our husbands good. It says of the Proverbs 31 woman: “She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life" (vs. 12). (Of course, there are challenging commands and examples for husbands in Scripture as well.) I've recently been encouraged by a series of posts on the girltalk blog about this very topic. If you have a chance, I highly recommend that wives read the posts that begin on October 6, 2008. You will have to scroll down the page to see the beginning of the series. Here is the link.

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Why I Am A Christian (3)

I met a guy in an airport once who was explaining to me his perspective on life. He was saying that it didn't matter what anyone believes about the universe because when we die we will find that all roads lead to the same place. It is like we are all climbing a mountain though it may look like we are all on different paths in life, one day we will meet at the peak and realize that every path was leading there all along. He seemed to be saying that no matter what our preconceptions of the universe is, the reality is such that it conforms to them all. I understand why that model of things makes sense, but I think the reality of the universe is different. The guy in the airport was saying that reality is elastic - it stretches so that no one's conception of reality is actually wrong. I want to say that the universe doesn't stretch - it is what it is. The reality of things is objective - it is one way and only one way. Think of it like a lock that only fits one key.

If that is true, then every worldview is a key that either fits the lock of the universe or it does not. In fact, every day each one of us is making our lives in to a key of a certain shape, as though we were betting without knowing it, that this is the shape of key that fits the lock. I am a Christian because I think that the gospel-shaped worldview is the key that fits the lock.

I believe this because of two things that have to be true of whatever the real key is:

1. The life lived according to the worldview that fits will not necessarily be perfect, but will be spared the friction that comes from living as though the universe is something it is not.
2. It makes sense of every inch of life.

I think Christianity satisfies both of these.

1. If the gospel is the key that fits the lock then the things that the gospel calls sin should really lead to destruction and pain, and things that the gospel calls righteousness should really lead to human flourishing. Morality is more than simply a list of do's and don'ts. Righteousness is a smooth click of the key in the lock. Sin is the painful grinding of trying to live a life against the grain.

Take the example of marriage. If the gospel is true then the list of things that it takes to have a good marriage should match the list of things people slowly become when they believe the gospel more and more. Or, to put it another way, as the gospel grows in a person and they become more patient, kind, joyful, honest, caring and compassionate, having a selfless, sacrificial love - more Christlike, they are growing the exact qualities that it will take to have a healthy marriage. If human relationships and morality are both part of the fabric of life then the worldview that fits the way life really is should create human relationships that flourish.

2. The Christian worldview makes sense of ALL of life. The Christian story is that everything was created good, it fell and was broken, and it is being made good again. This allows for us to take every new thing and know something about where it came from and where it is going. Take sex for example. Sex is something that was created good - it has a purpose and a place and that purpose is a glorious one. That is not the state we find sex in today. The gospel says that there is something wrong with our appetite for sex, as C. S. Lewis writes, "You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act - that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theater by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let the every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop of a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?" The gospel does not leave the issue there, however. It tells the story of sex redeemed, sex made right again, free of its abuses and the pain that comes of them.

That is just one example, but the Christian story makes sense of every area of life. The gospel-shaped worldview is a framework which contains every aspect of the human experience - it is comprehensive. There is a place in the framework for suffering, for happiness, for laughter and friendship, for love and heartbreak, for work, for politics, for every inch of life. It weaves them all together in a whole and makes a tapestry of them. Again, as C. S. Lewis said, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." There is a place for everything in the story; it is the light by which all of life is made visible and understandable.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Your Turn: Christ and Politics

Before we begin I must make a few comments:

1. Of the regular bloggers at EverySquareInch, I am most likely the least politically aware.
2. I'm 26...thus I don't have a wide base of experience and maturity to draw from.
3. I generally lean toward the Republican side, but disagree with the oft-said premise in some circles, that Christians should be "one-issue" voters.
4. I haven't completely made up my mind regarding the upcoming election.

However, I do think that this post (which will be more discussion-boardish than bloggish) will prove profitable for those of you who read it and participate. Here is the basic premise we'll start with: As Christians, one of the foundational beliefs we hold is that Christ is Lord of all of life. Therefore, what we find in Scripture should inform all of life, and frame the decisions we make. Our emotions, opinions, and perspectives, while important, must be secondary in the Christian's decision making, since God's word is primary. This is true in all areas, including politics.

But, well-meaning, intelligent, thoughtful, and prayerful Christians disagree when it comes to politics. This is because in God's word we find a host of things he cares about: the protection of life (abortion, third-world poverty, etc.), caring for the poor, being good stewards (environmentally and financially), honesty, humility, etc., etc. And no one candidate can fully embody God's will across the board. We must have a way to evaluate and prioritize. God might care about all issues, but wouldn't we say that some issues are more important than others? How do we determine which issues are most important?

So here's what I want: let's take a break from debating Obama vs. McCain in specific terms, and set up a general framework for what issues need to be most important for Christians, in all elections, not just this one. I'd love for those of you reading who are wiser and more savvy than myself to give us your top 5 issues from a Christian perspective, from more important to less important. Feel free to give us your reasoning (and once again, I'm not all that concerned about your personal reasoning, but your reasoning based on God's character and Scripture).

And remember, even though discussions on politics can get quite heated and even personal at times, let's remember God's commands to us. We are to be respectful, humble, and gentle with one another. I trust your comments will reflect all of these.

Let the discussion begin.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

An Answer to a Bedtime Prayer?

I would imagine that my family is similar to many who have small kids in that we’ve established a bedtime routine. For most of my son Jack’s twenty-one month old life, his evening has wound down with a bath (toward which he is, as only a toddler can be, alternatively excited, indifferent, or opposed), followed by wiggling into pajamas, at least marginally brushing his teeth, and reading books with Mom and Dad. And right before we put him to bed, we pray.

Almost without fail, my prayer in those instances is that God would give Jack—in fact, our entire family—hearts that would love and follow God. I find myself echoing words of the Psalms: “give us undivided hearts”…“that we might dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” and the like. I would say that those prayers are my most fervent wish for my son and his newborn sister, as well as for Rachel and me.

That leads me to a thought that I find simultaneously to be not a little sobering and deeply encouraging. What if my son's recent health difficulties (I previously mentioned them here) are actually part of an answer to our bedtime prayers?

I don’t by any means claim I know all the reasons why my son is experiencing the trials that he is. And I know that for some, the idea I just expressed is completely counterintuitive, distasteful, or worse. I even find myself typing all this with a trembling soul. And yet, the idea that God brings about suffering for his greater redemptive purpose is not hard to find in the Scriptures. Many of us are familiar with one of the bedrock promises of the Bible, found in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

This verse, along with many other biblical passages, assures us that God doesn’t “waste” anything. Everything that his people encounter in their lives is used by him to accomplish their good and, ultimately, his glory. Couple that notion with stories like Jesus healing the blind man in John 9 or raising his friend Lazarus in John 11. Read Joseph’s story at the end of Genesis. Or consider Paul’s comments in 2 Cor 12:
7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul clearly expresses that his mysterious thorn was a God-appointed means (“there was given to me” is what biblical scholars call a “divine passive”) to humble him, lest he would become proud as a result of what God had revealed to him. In fact, his extreme affliction (he pleads—a strong word—three times for the Lord to take it away) was the way in which he came to a greater dependence on Christ and, consequently, a deeper experience of Christ’s power in his life.

I’m left with the fact that these and other passages offer the sound hope that Jack, along with the rest of our family, will one day look back with profound thanks for what God accomplishes in our lives through this particular “thorn.”

In the meantime, I’ll be praying another prayer found in the pages of the Bible: “I believe, help my unbelief.”

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ten Things I Think I Think About Parenting

Last week I took a stab at ten things I think I think about marriage. Today let's shift to parenting.

1. I think I think that parenting is more difficult than it looks. When my wife and I didn't have kids, it was easy to look at those who did and think, "We'll do it better." Now that we have 4 kids (6, 8, 12, 13) it's easy to see that we've done some things well and at other times we've made some mistakes that we wish we could do over. Parenting is a humbling task that exposes our flaws, sins, and idols. More on that later in the list.

2. I think I think that the best books on parenting are written by the Tripp brothers. Because parenting is such a difficult task, we've always found it helpful to read books on the subject. Here are the best resources that I've found: Ages 0-5 Growing Families International, Ages 2-8ish Shepherding Your Child's Heart by Tedd Tripp, Ages 12-18ish Age of Opportunity by Paul Tripp.

3. I think I think that in addition to good books, it is essential to find at least one person to get advice from who is a bit further along than you in the parenting process. A friend is different than a book in that you can ask your friend specific questions about what you are dealing with at the moment. When Christine and I had kids, we looked for people we respected who seemed to be doing a good job as parents and asked them lots of questions. That's something that we still do today.

But this isn't as easy as it should be. The reality is that parenting is such a personal issue that often we aren't open to other's input. Therefore it is unlikely that someone is going to approach us to give us advice on what we could do better with our kids. If someone does give unsolicited advice to you about your parenting, how do you react? My guess is that even if you are polite on the outside, on the inside you're a bit offended and are left wondering what right they have to say that to you.

So my point is that if you want someone to give you honest, frank, blunt input (and you should want that), then you are going to have to give them permission to say hard things to you. And you'll have to let them know that you won't be hurt, defensive, or offended by what they say.

4. I think I think that it is easy for parents to forget that the real goal of parenting is influencing your child's heart. Trying to manage a busy life and a household of 6, it is easy for me to value order and obedience more than anything else. But when I do that, when I focus primarily on outward behavior instead of what's going on in the heart of my kids, when I focus on them doing the right thing more than wanting the right thing, when I focus on actions and ignore motives, I run the risk of raising little Pharisees. In Matthew 15:8 Jesus said of the Pharisees, "They worship me with their lips but their heart is far from me." In other words, they looked good on the outside while rotting away on the inside. If I'm not careful as a dad, I will promote that kind of dangerous dichotomy by rewarding or praising the outward performance without asking about what's going on inside their heart.

5. I think I think that reaching a kid's heart is very hard thing to do. There are only a few tools that parents have available to them that will actually affect their kid's heart: prayer, the Bible, and a relationship.

6. I think I think that in today's society many parents substitute driving kids to events for a real relationship. I know from personal experience that that's easy to do. With four kids involved in a variety of activities and then them being responsible for doing their homework, it's easy for me (and them) to just "get through the day." It's easy to look at a day and say, "Sure I'm with my kids a lot. I drove them to soccer, piano, and made sure they did their homework." While all those things may be necessary and even important, they aren't the same thing as a relationship. I want to be a dad not a taxi driver. I think that I'm afraid that I will wake up one day and realize that I don't know my kids as well as I want to. They will have found someone else to share their deepest thoughts with. They will have asked their questions of someone else.

Maybe one practical step is when you are in the car, consider turning off the radio and not talking on your cell phone. Instead talk to your kids.

7. I think I think that one of the hardest things for parents to deal with is how their relationship with their child changes. As kids grow up, a parent becomes less and less of an authority figure and more and more of a coach. Now I don't mean to say that a parent of an older kid doesn't have authority because of course they do. But I've found that as my kids get older, I need to use my authority differently. If I treat my 13 year old the same way I treat my 6 year old, then there's going to be some significant problems. To oversimplify a bit: I need to transition from telling my kid what to do to helping him want to do the right thing. I've got to help him make the transition to responsible adulthood so that he's prepared to make the right decisions whether or not I'm around.

I've found that this is difficult because often kids aren't responsible with their freedoms. In that moment, it's tempting to "crack down." While that might be the right response, it's more likely that the parent should be patient and help the kid learn from their mistakes.

8. I think I think that parents expect their kids to have the maturity of an adult. Most kids aren't going to see the importance of homework in quite the same way their parents do. They aren't going to possess the self-control of a mature adult. Growing up is a process and parents need to have the right expectations.

9. I think I think that if you don't remember what it's like being a teenager, then you are going to have a difficult time raising one. What were you like when you were a teen? I sure didn't value education like I do now. I didn't see the wisdom of my parents like I do now. I didn't appreciate all that I had like I do now. So it seems a bit silly for me to expect my kids to see the world like I do now as an adult.

10. I think I think that when I get frustrated with my kids, it says at least as much about me as it does them. In Age of Opportunity, Paul Tripp lists several idols that exist in parents lives and are revealed by how they respond to their kids. The idols are comfort, respect, appreciation, and control. When my idols are threatened, I tend to see my kids as enemies of what will make me truly happy. If you have kids 12 and up and haven't read this book and discussed with other parents, you're missing a great opportunity to develop as a parent.

The more I think about this topic, the more I think there is to say. Maybe I will come back next week and add a few more to the list. In the meantime what are some things that you've learned from your parenting experience?

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hard Questions About Obama and Abortion Every Christian Should Ask

I can’t stop thinking about it. Up until fairly recently I’ve listened to Barack Obama talk about how he wants to find ways to have less abortions in our country—that, while deciding exactly when a baby becomes a human life is “above his pay grade,” in essence he shares common ground with those who see abortion as a horrible solution to “unwanted” pregnancies—that he can be trusted as a reasonable, middle-ground, only lightly "pro-choice" president. And I wanted to believe him. I for one tend to like middle-ground solutions to divisive issues.

But I can’t stop thinking about it. In a democracy such as ours, am I just a kind of supporter of a favorite "horse in the race," or am I morally responsible for my vote for who should lead us?

Here’s why I’m asking this question. I’ve read some very informative and challenging blogs and articles within the past few days by some very respected thinkers. These men are not radicals with a right-wing political agenda. They’re simply evaluating the potential presidency of Barack Obama based upon what he has actually said his agenda would be as president, and what his voting record has already been as a senator.

I'd like to share with you some links to the best of these blog posts, then I'd like to discuss with you the questions I personally can't stop thinking about.

The blog and video that was the tipping point for me was this very informative YouTube video of Barack Obama’s speech at Planned Parenthood, then, and this is very important, the listing of the details about the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) that Barack Obama said he'd sign as his first act as a new President of the United States. View it here.

Here’s a brief but thought-provoking article by Robert P. George (Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University). Along with Yuval Levin (Senior editor of The New Atlantis), Dr. George takes Barack Obama to task for, well, …lying in the debate about his vote for opposing the Illinois Born-Alive Infants Protection Act. Read it here.

Dr. George of Princeton also writes another challenging blog on Sen. Obama’s extreme pro-abortion agenda here.

Gerard Bradley (Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Law School) has an insightful essay online entitled “When Is It Acceptable for a 'Pro-Life’ Voter to Vote for a ‘Pro-Choice’ Candidate?

Then there’s this blog by Randy Alcorn. He’s written several books I’ve used in my own devotional reading, as well as an insightful reference for some sermons I’ve preached in the past. I’ve always respected Randy for his reasoned, clear, and biblical thinking. He’s a very normal Christian guy who’s not extreme in the wrong things, but committed unto death to the right things.

By far the most disturbing blog and video is this one right here. WARNING: if seeing video footage of aborted babies may be too emotionally disturbing for you to watch, please do not feel the need to view this video. Just read the blog, but skip the video.
So, here are my questions—
Is it possible that we’re about to elect a president who, in spite of what he seems to be saying so well in nationally televised debates, in reality will have the most aggressive pro-abortion agenda of any president in our nation's history? And if his planned agenda succeeds, doesn't it seem more likely that there will be more abortions in our country, not less.

Let me tell you what I’ve been asking myself these past two weeks—Could this be that all-important, paramount moral issue of our time, like black slavery was in our country just 150 years ago—when an entire class of human beings was allowed to become a commodity of convenience for a dominant majority? Human beings were actually seen as the property of another, to be dispensed with at their desire. That was their legal right. Just like babies are seen today—the property of another just because they happen to be living in a mother’s womb—to be dispensed with at that mother’s desire as her legal right. Where would you have stood on black slavery then? Where do you stand on abortion today?

Could this be the moral issue of our time that defines who we are and what we’ll accept as a people? Like Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s under Hitler (a very popular leader in Germany!)—when an entire class of human beings was allowed to be killed simply because the majority deemed them as undesirable. A nationally accepted genocide of the undesirable. Where would you have stood on exterminating the Jews in 1940? Where do you stand on abortion today?

Would you vote for a pro-slavery president? What if he was a better economist, a better global diplomat, a younger, hipper, more intelligent communicator who unashamedly spoke of his Christian faith? Would you vote for a pro-genocide president? What if he was a more winsome speaker, a more reasoned debater, a more popular leader on a national and global scale?

These are the hard questions I’m asking myself before I vote in this election. In all candor, I'm not 100% sure I have the right answers to these questions. But maybe you should ask them too.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Theology of Art 101

I ran across a GREAT blog post at rootsrain: Everything’s Bigger than You Can Imagine (or, Why I Love Astronomy). Take a couple minutes to check it out. It is worth your time.

Many qualities of God are immediately impressed upon me as I watch that video and view those images, but 2 jump out more than others: (1) God is an incredibly powerful God and (2) God is an incredibly artistic God.

Not only is His creation mind-blowingly large, but it is mind-blowingly beautiful. We don’t even have to travel beyond the walls of our own miniscule little planet to find the most incredible examples of God’s artistic eye.

The Earth From Above is a exhibit of photographs taken by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, an environmentalist working to raise awareness about the sustainability of our planet. The images he has collected are some of the most incredible photos I have ever seen. Check out a small sample here, or visit his website and peruse more closely here.

The astronomy video and the Earth from Above exhibit both cause me to read verses like the following with more weight and understanding:

“For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” –Colossians 1:16-17

“The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.” —Psalm 19:1

The point is this: our God is the original artist. He is deeply concerned with beauty and aesthetics and creating things that move the soul. We know this because it is exactly what He did.

The great part is that His artwork is not the end of the story. We are not merely curators in God’s grand museum. We are that, but we are more too. When he told Adam and Eve in the garden to “fill the earth and subdue it,” he was not just commissioning humanity to take care of His planet, but to make it better. He called us to co-create: to use what He had already created to continue to create and build a beautiful thriving world that brings glory to him.

We would all admit we fall short of that commission everyday. But our failing does not negate God’s call. We are called to be artists because He was one first. We are called to identify and appreciate beauty wherever it can be found because our God was a God who cared deeply about beauty first. Art matters to God and that is exactly why it should matter to us.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Why I Am A Christian (2)

We live in a culture that hates judgment or condemnation towards any person or group of people based on objective standards of right and wrong. The solution we have come up with is to get rid of the idea that such standards exist. There is the implicit belief in Western culture that once this is accomplished we will then know the harmony we are seeking.

But this falls short in two ways:

1. No one can ever really jettison their moral standards.

I can remember a few conversations that start like this: "I don't like Christianity because it implies judgment. It proclaims a fixed and absolute morality which I don't believe in. Who am I to say to a person that their sexual preference or life choices are wrong? We each must decide right and wrong for ourselves."
Then I want to ask if there are any examples of people doing things that are wrong regardless of what the person of their action. Hitler and the Holocaust come to mind. The person says that yes, the Holocaust was wrong. I ask why? Because it is. Hitler's acts are unjustifiable even though he believed them to be moral. Then there really is an absolute moral standard. If you take a step back and look at it, people who say that are really advocating their own moral platform. They still have an idea of what is good for everybody and what is wrong for everybody, but that is the very thing they are seeking to avoid.

2. Getting rid of the idea of standards doesn't actually lead to the harmony it is seeking.
The idea is that if everyone is free to determine their own morality and no one is free to condemn anyone elses morality then that kind of tolerance will eliminate condemnation and judgment and create community and love. But the opposite is actually the case. That kind of tolerance will never lead to real love or real community, but only to politeness. The goal is to eliminate conflict, but the prescribed remedy is to ignore it. But if there is really an objective right and wrong, and none of us can escape the idea that there is, then this is not a loving act. Nor are the conflicts between people resolved by not addressing them because they will only fester. The true route to what our culture wants lies through the very kind of judgment that it outlaws. To retain the concept of wrong is the only way to ever have the possibility of real community and real love. The first layer is mere manners, politeness. The second layer is conflict and resolution. The third layer is community. We live in a fallen world, often it takes passing through the second layer to come to the third layer. A harmony that is achieved through remaining only on the first layer is only superficial. A love that is reached through retaining the idea of wrong and overcoming it, resolving it, loving people despite profound disagreement, is real love.

What does this have to do with why I am a Christian?

The things we desire have their home in Christianity. Our culture believes that absolute moral standards inevitably lead to judgment, condemnation, oppression, and intolerance, but when you look steadily into the heart of Christianity you see that belief does not hold together. At the heart of Christianity lies a man who, holding uncompromisingly to absolutes, gave his life for his enemies. The picture of a God who is holy and yet loved his people so much as to die for them should enter the heart of every Christian and explode there. Christians ought to be more uncompromising in their adherence to what is good, true, and beautiful, and more loving, more sacrificial toward those who disagree.
Christianity has the greater resources for providing the good things our culture wants. It says that all people were made in the image of God, they are his masterworks, they are cared for, provided for and loved by their maker. Because of this each individual has dignity, deserves respect, concern, and love regardless of distinctions society puts on them. It has greater resources to impel believers to sacrificial service for their fellows. This is the path to the love and community and harmony our culture wants.
In Western culture it is a chance preference, a moral taste which has no grounding, no foundation (because we do not believe in absolutes, so how could such a preference be absolutely true for all people?). In Christianity, however, it is an absolute which flows from the wounds of God made by his enemies for their sakes.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

God Has Been Shouting...

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” - C.S. Lewis

I always thought this was an interesting quote, but until recently I didn’t really understand what C.S. Lewis fully meant by it. As Nathan mentioned in his blog post on Friday, October 10, our little boy, Jack (age 21 months now) has been quite sick for the past several months and recently diagnosed with what is most likely Crohn’s Disease (a rare thing for a child his age). In addition, we just added a new member to our family about a week ago—Hannah Grace was born last Saturday (she is a sweet joy of course!). These past few months, though, have been full of more sadness, joy, sleepless nights, hopeless and hopeful moments, stress, and blessing than I've ever known in my 30 years on earth. In the midst of all this, God--in his great mercy--has been shouting some rousing truths in my deaf ear. Although I’m still processing much of this, two things stand out so far.

1) God has been shouting: Depend on me and I will give you hope and peace.

When life is easy, I find it's also easy for me to minimize who God is, the importance of His Word, and what role He has in my life. Spending time with Him becomes something to check off for the day. I become deaf to what He is saying to me. However, feeling completely out-of-control and hopeless during Jack’s illness and now with his diagnosis has drawn me closer to Him and His Word than I’ve possibly ever been. The promises in Scripture have new meaning, new weight, a realness that I can taste and feel. Some of the promises below (many of which I’ve read numerous times over for years) have brought hope and peace to my heart the like of which I’ve never experienced before.

The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (2 Corinthians 4:17)

He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. (Isaiah 40:11)

Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; 
they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:30-31)

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

2) God has been shouting: Depend on me and I will provide for you.

God has provided for and blessed us immeasurably more than we could have imagined through this trial. The grace of God has come alive to our family through all the prayers, words of encouragement, medical guidance, meals, financial help, and so many other tangible means of support that our friends, family, and church has provided. We couldn’t do this alone and the Lord knows that. I want to thank our church body for physically showing us who God is and His faithfulness to us during this time. More than ever, I’m so proud and grateful to be a part of The Crossing.

With Jack’s diagnosis (which is a life-long disease), I imagine Nathan and I will have many more opportunities to depend on God and turn to his promises of hope and peace and provision. I know there will be—as there have already been--times of belief and unbelief through it all…but we’re praying (and thank you for praying) for our family’s perseverance in the faith.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fighting Our Fear of People

Christ gives us a parable in Matthew 12:43-45 that I often think of whenever I am fighting a sin (this is essentially the second part of a two-part blog. For the first part, click here.)

“When an evil spirit comes out of anyone, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there.” - TNIV

You see, we were meant to be fearful people. Fear, in this sense, doesn't necessarily mean being frightened, words like worship, awe, and reverence are closely tied to this idea of fear. So we were created to worship and to fear, and there is no use trying not to, because we will fear something. Therefore, we must learn to place our fear in the place it was meant to be if we are to ever make progress in fighting our fear of people.

Just like a 102 degree fever is only the outward symptom of something going on inside the body, our fear of people is an outward symptom of something going on inside our hearts. We are struggling with a wrong belief which is causing the symptoms we see. So, in this case, what is that wrong belief?

At the end of the day, I'm convinced my inward faulty belief is essentially Justin-worship. You see, I care about what others think and say about me not primarily because I am worshiping them, but because I'm worshiping myself. I am the one who is important, I must garner the praise, adoration, and respect of those around me. So, when I worry about what a given person thinks of me as I write this blog, it's more about me then them. If people think I'm clever, witty, and profound then they'll make much of me. I'll be thought well of, I'll be important, I'll be the center of attention.

This is idolatry, plain and simple. I want to be made much of, I want to garner people's attention. But biblically, this is only a place God should hold. I should be concerned about making much of him, of glorifying him, not me. John says in his gospel, "He must become greater; I must become less.” This is the firepower we need. Quick fixes and how-tos might help for a day or week, but real lasting change in this area will come as we seek to make more and more of Jesus, and less and less of ourselves.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Choosing a Career

Yesterday, Keith offered some great biblical direction regarding a fundamental human relationship: marriage. Today, I thought I’d pass on a few things that speak to another core aspect of most of our lives: work.

I use the term “pass on” intentionally, since this list originates from Dan Doriani, head pastor at Central Presbyterian church in St. Louis and professor at Covenant Theological Seminary. It’s in the latter capacity that Dr. Doriani taught Life and Teachings of Jesus, our current Seminary 101 class and the occasion for him to share the following biblical principles about choosing a career. I’ll list them along with a few thoughts of my own.

1. You should choose a career that takes care of your basic needs. 1 Timothy 6 defines basic needs as food and covering (that is, clothing and shelter).

This may seem obvious to some, but it does speak to what appears to be a growing number of younger adults that seem more content with remaining at least partially dependent upon parents or other relatives rather than providing even for these basic needs.

2. Your career should be one that allows you to use your gifts, even if it’s not the most lucrative.

I would wager that not a few people trip up at precisely this point when considering their career, in part due to pressure from the expectations and values of our society. For example, it’s more prestigious and usually more financially rewarding to be a doctor, lawyer, or the like than, say, a landscaper or kindergarten teacher. Of course professions like law and medicine are wonderful (my family’s been grateful many times for the latter recently). However, God simply doesn’t equip or call everyone to follow those paths. Still, the fact that he does give gifts suitable to the entire range of human occupations underscores the value he places on them, regardless of whatever career hierarchies that we might have developed in our culture. Another way of saying this is that we’re to steward the entire creation (Gen. 1), not just parts of it.

Another important factor needs to be mentioned here: many people in occupations that they’re not gifted for don’t really enjoy them. And while no job is without frustration—we do live in a fallen world—we tend to like jobs that we’re better suited for.

3. Your career should allow you to do good to others. It should be an honest career, doing something constructive to help people.

“Doing good” here should be defined from a biblical perspective. So things like thievery and pornography, as well as other things that intentionally harm or exploit others, would obviously fail to satisfy the criteria.

4. Your career should give you and opportunity to manifest some aspect of God’s kingdom, God’s reign. Somehow you should have some opportunity in your career to move this world at least a little bit closer to the form that God wants it to have. “Your kingdom come” is a prayer that is relevant for your career choice. In other words, “May your kingdom come in what I do.”

The scope of God’s reign, with its innumerable creative, sustaining, and redemptive facets, is stunning. This means that there are any number of ways in which this criterion can be satisfied in most jobs. The landscaper mentioned above, for example, brings forth and shapes the beauty of God’s creation. An accountant allows for integrity and order in financial transactions. A doctor fights against injury and disease, aspects of a fallen world that God will ultimately put aright, etc.

As an aside, I’d note that it’s a good idea for anyone to consider carefully the ways in which their occupation can further God’s reign. You might even consider talking with others (pastors or mature Christians in your profession) who are able to give you more perspective on how your job might “fit” in God’s purposes.

5. If you get rich by accident, it’s okay, but don’t choose your career in order to get rich. “Watch out; be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

The context of Dr. Doriani offering these principles was a discussion on the parable of the rich fool—the self preoccupied farmer who enjoyed a bountiful harvest then planned to build more barns to store it, reasoning he would then live an easy life and enjoy himself for many years. As the parable progresses, however, God unexpectedly requires his life that very night, leaving his wealth for another.

The warning that Jesus ends the parable with is worth repeating here: “This is how it will be for anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (read the whole passage at Luke 12:13-34). Likewise, Paul adds this in 1 Tim 6:6-10: "6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs."

(You can find the audio files and lecture transcripts for Life and Teachings of Jesus, as well as many other courses here. These principles came from lecture 17.)

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ten Things I Think I Think

A while back the Jolly Blogger posted "Ten Things I Think I Think About Spiritual Warfare." I thought that I might borrow the idea but change the topic to marriage. So here it goes...

"Ten Things I Think I Think About Marriage."

1. I think I think that we pay much more attention to the state of our marriages than the Bible does. Listen to people talk, walk through Barnes and Noble, find out why most people seek counseling, observe the best selling Christian books and most attended Christian conferences and what you find that they have in common is the topic of marriage. We are consumed by the pursuit of having the ideal marriage. What seems a little odd to me is that marriage isn't discussed that much in the Bible. Make a list of the passages that deal explicitly with marriage and I think that you'll be surprised how short it is.

2. I think I think that the reason that the Bible doesn't speak about marriage as often as we'd expect it to given our interest in the topic, is because we've put the cart before the horse. Let me explain. When the Bible does speak about marriage, it's usually near the end of a letter (see Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3). In both instances the apostle Paul spends the first half of the letter laying out key doctrines and then in the second half of the book he applies that doctrine to various life issues. I understand that to mean that knowing and believing solid doctrine and theology is foundational to a good marriage. Believing good theology is the horse that pulls the cart of marriage.

3. I think I think that we've substituted technique and skills for Christian maturity. Much of the "counsel" about marriage whether it be found in books, seminars, or the advice of a friend, seems to deal with "how to's: How to argue, How to divide up roles and responsibilities, How to budget, How to show love, etc... All the emphasis on skills leads us to think that we are good people who just need a few pointers, but it misses the important point that in reality we are selfish sinners. The main problem in any marriage is the sin of each spouse. While learning certain skills can surely be helpful, those skills don't address the core problem.

4. I think I think that we might be better off focusing less on our marriage and more on becoming the right kind of Christian. When Christine and I had been married a very short time, a friend who was recently engaged asked what advice we'd offer. I remember saying that I'd found that my main job was to focus on growing in my relationship with God. If I was living out the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23 (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control), my marriage, like all my relationships, would go well. And of course if I lived out of my sinful nature, none of my relationships, including my marriage, would go well. There's not much I believed when I was 22 that I still believe today but that's one piece of advice that I'd stand by.

5. I think I think that we expect marriage to be something that God never intended it to be. Many of us think marriage is supposed to fulfill us but I'm not sure that's a biblical perspective. I do think that a good marriage can be a a great source of joy, encouragement, and companionship but maybe that's not God's ultimate intention for marriage. Marriage doesn't appear that often in the gospels but one place it does show up is Mark 10 where Jesus addresses the issue of divorce. What's interesting to me is that Mark places this passage in a section of his gospel that deals with discipleship. It almost seems out of place until you realize that he's put it there because marriage is for many people a key part of the discipleship process. Marriage is meant to refine you and change you so that you become more like Jesus. Sometimes that's a painful process as you see your sin, confess it to God, and ask him to make you into the person that he wants you to be.

6. I think I think that when I get frustrated or angry with my wife, it says more about me than it does her. I'm learning that in those situations my first response needs to be self-examination. Usually I find that I'm the one with unrealistic expectations or a selfish agenda. But even if I think that she's wrong on some issue or that she's at fault in some way, maybe that's a time for me to be patient with her and love her instead of attacking and accusing her.

7. I think I think that we might be better off treating our spouse as our neighbor or even our enemy. It's funny that Jesus said to love both our neighbor and our enemy but many Christians can't love the person they are married to.

8. I think I think that in Jesus famous saying, "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate" we've focused all our attention on the wrong half. The reason that we are not to separate is because God has joined us. Think about that. God brought you and your spouse together. That's pretty amazing. It means that behind your story of how you met, fell in love, and decided to marry, the God of the universe was at work. Your story was (and still is) part of his greater story. Meditating on this truth should give us confidence that God is at work in each of our marriages. It should give us great comfort to know that the God who loves us is using our marriage to make us into the person he wants us to be.

9. I think I think that the most helpful passage on marriage is found in Luke 7:36-50. While you should read the entire passage, the key verse says "Therefore I tell you , her sins which are many, are forgiven-for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little" (Luke 7:47). Jesus' point is not that some are forgiven much and some are forgiven little. His point is that some sense and feel how much they have been forgiven and some don't. When you realize how much God has forgiven you, you become a person who loves much, serves much, and forgives much (to just name a few of the changes believing the gospel makes in our life).

10. I think I think that a person who forgets they are a great sinner is the hardest person to be married to. As soon as you think that you're a great husband, you start finding fault in your wife. But if you can remember that you are hard to live with, that you have great sin in your life, that you do and say a lot of dumb and insensitive things, then you will find it much easier to extend grace to your husband/wife when you see his/her faults.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The ESV Study Bible is here!

I often get the question—a very good question—“When I read my Bible, is there something I can also read alongside to help me better understand certain things I’m reading?” It’s an important question because the Bible is such an ancient text—written in such ancient languages anywhere from 1,900-3,400 years ago, depending upon which book of the Bible you’re reading. The Bible is a collection of 66 ancient smaller books written by about 43 different authors on three different continents. So it’s not always straightforward what such an ancient author meant when he wrote to his ancient readers, all of whom had in common languages and cultures and customs that are so uncommon to us today. So it’s a very legitimate question—“How should I understand what this ancient Bible is actually saying?

Up until now, my answer was to purchase and use an NIV Study Bible or the TNIV Study Bible. I think for the average Christian who is starting out in reading their Bible on a more committed basis, these are excellent Bible translations with very informative and helpful study notes alongside (actually below) each page of the biblical text. I still think these two translations are the easiest to understand for the less biblically knowledgeable (i.e., it is loose enough of a translation to read like very common English), while also being translations that are faithful to the ancient biblical Hebrew or Greek text. They are very fine study Bibles indeed.

But this week something new has just arrived—a study Bible I’ve been anticipating for a while now. It’s the ESV Study Bible.

First, a quick word about the ESV vs. the NIV/TNV: The English Standard Version (ESV) is a fairly recent translation by a very well respected team of gospel-believing biblical language scholars, and their goal was to have a less “loose” of a translation than the NIV or TNIV, while also keeping an easy enough to read, contemporary feel. The ESV tends to be the Bible translation I use for personal reading and study, while I tend to preach and teach using the NIV or TNIV, because it’s usually easier for the average person to understand.

I’m particularly enthused about this week’s arrival of the ESV Study Bible because, while being a good contemporary English translation, the study notes on the bottom of each page are written by many of the teachers and scholars who are the seminary professors that have influenced us pastors at The Crossing the most. In other words, said plainly, the theological and biblical teaching of the notes on each page of this study Bible are very much in line with our teaching as pastors at The Crossing. Many of these scholars either taught the classes or have written the books and Bible commentaries that have contributed to our own understanding of the Bible the most. So this is a study Bible that we’d very enthusiastically recommend to you for your own reading and study of the Bible.

In addition to these helpful notes and introductions that accompany each book of the Bible, the ESV Study Bible also includes more than 60 articles on important biblical and theological topics that will be a significant resource for the more serious Bible student. And again, the list of authors of these articles is a very impressive list. They are the pastors and seminary professors that have written the books and Bible commentaries we use as pastors at The Crossing.

Plus, one huge plus for the ESV Study Bible is that, after you purchase your own copy, you are given a code to use to allow online access to all of its content, including the study notes, charts, and articles. I was even able to access all this from my iPhone! But be sure not to throw away your code. It's a scratch off at the right bottom corner of what looks like an advertisement brochure in the back leaf of your new Bible.

I really do think that this ESV Study Bible will be the kind of resource that is a “must-have” for any and every member of The Crossing desiring to become more biblically and theologically knowledgeable. That’s why starting this Sunday, we will have many copies of this ESV Study Bible available for you to purchase at cost. We have several different bindings available at different prices (from $30-$60): hardcover, Trutone, and genuine leather in brown and black. Personally, I purchased the hardcover because that way I can have it open in a coffee shop without looking like I've got the big, black, family-sized, leather King Jimmy out. But that's just my own hangup. So visit our bookstore in the Lamppost Café at The Crossing this Sunday and pick up an ESV Study Bible for yourself.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Refresh Button

In today's post I just want to ask one simple question and hear what you have to say:

What do you do to hit "refresh."

I am not talking about the left click a the top of your browser. I am talking about what you do when you feel dry, uninspired, passionless, bored, and distant from God. We all slip into seasons like this - it is simply part of the deal this side of heaven. We find ourselves burnt out, not caring about the things of God, withering spiritually, not thriving.

So the question is not if it will happen, but what do you do when it does?

I have found there are a few things that tend to re-awaken my soul to spiritual life, that help me see things in a fresh way again, that give me new ideas, new vision, re-inspired passion for what I do. Here are just a few:

1. Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 5. Of course the entire Bible is the fundamental re-centering and re-inspiring force. But there are certain chapters and passages in the Bible that I find especially inspire me to faith and belief. Both these chapters are 'go to' ones for me. Romans 8, to soak in the promises of God, 2 Corinthians 5, to soak in the mission and purpose that God has passed on to me as a believer.

2. The Valley of Vision. This collection of Puritan prayers has been an incredible resource for my faith journey.

3. Piper or Driscoll sermon. Both these men have a knack for speaking the message of the Gospel in a language that inspires me nearly every time.

4. Buddies. Cigars. Deck. God has blessed me with an incredible community of friends that I have lived with for a long time now. One of the most refreshing, inspiring, and centering events in my life is sitting around a table on my back porch and sharing our lives with each other.

5. CS Lewis. Lewis is one of the most original thinkers I have ever read. The way he frames his discussions about any topic, but especially Christianity, allows me to see the same life-changing truths of the Bible in a fresh light. He is brilliant and Godly. He has been one of my largest influences.

6. World Section of the New York Times. This one might seem like a stretch to some of you (or for those of you who aren't fans of the NYT, even blasphemy) but this news outlet does world news like no other. As I spend a few minutes of my morning scrolling through the events that are happening worldwide, my perspective slowly widens and (sometimes) I am slowly drawn out of my funk into a greater story. God is doing things in this world, the world is big, there is much suffering but also much beauty. God is a big God with big plans and it is inspiring to be on his team, contributing to His redemptive story for this world.

7. TED Talks: Ideas Worth Sharing. TED talks are a series of short lectures given by some of the leading experts in various fields. Check it out here. These are people dreaming about the future for our society, culture, technology, etc. Listening to dreamers inspires dreaming.

8. Iron and Wine. Dispatch. Over the Rhine. Just to name a few great bands that for one reason or another stir me more than others.

9. Pray for other people. Praying for anything, everything, other than myself tends to awaken my soul more than praying for me and only me. Praying for my wife, my son, my friends, the church, the world, or anything else outside of my own head, for one reason or another, jump-starts my spiritual awareness more than praying for only my own concerns.

10. A long bike ride. Cranking out 30 or 40 miles on the bike on a beautiful fall day, no wind, sunny, a few clouds, leaves changing: God's creation itself has proven to be one of the most inspiring influences thus far in my life. Bike rides are one of my favorite access points to His incredible creation.

Of course, my list will be different from yours. what are a couple things you do to hit "refresh?" I would love to hear them.

(HT: I stole the idea for this post from Steve McCoy at Reformissionary read his list here.)


Why I Am A Christian (1)

Every now and then I get asked the question "Why are you a Christian" from friends. It is a good question to be asked and to ask yourself. When I take the question seriously I come away with a greater confidence that the Christian faith is the truth, and that there are good reasons to hold to it. I want to take some time and put a few of my answers to that question up on the blog, starting with this one:

One of those reasons is that the gospel tells a story that reconciles God’s justice and his mercy without resulting in a world that is unlivable.

The Bible depicts God as both perfectly holy and perfectly loving. His holiness means that all his actions serve justice. His love means that there is infinite mercy to be found in him. This is fine as long as there is no sin, but that's not the world we live in, so we have a problem. At this point the question enters: which side of God's character wins out?

It seems there are three options:

1. God's love trumps his holiness. His mercy wins out and nothing is unforgivable. We do not get the justice out actions deserve. There is no judgment for evil.
2. God's holiness trumps his love. Justice is done and only the people who are holy like him escape getting what they deserve. There is only judgment for evil.
3. God denies neither part of his character, but both his love and holiness are upheld and fulfilled in through reconciling them both.

People often wish for the first option and become angry at God that he is not more lavish with his love, and then reject him. When there is anything which carries even the slightest hint of divine judgment God is often also painted as the second option, and then rejected. The real Christian gospel tells a story of how the third option miraculously came true, and when I understood this, rather than causing me to reject God it became an anchor to my faith.

1. The God Who Is Only Mercy.
The wish for a God who is only mercy goes hand-and-glove with a culture who hates judgment and who defines tolerance as never saying anyone else is wrong. At first it is logical to long for this (isn't unconditional, all-encompassing mercy a good?) but when you look closer the wish for God to be like this is wishing for God who is terrible and a world that is unlivable. This is to wish that God were not holy, or wish that his holiness did not matter to him so much. But who wants to live in such a world? Aren't we all secretly banking on God's holiness and his justice in the end? That there would be equality in the scales? That all the unpunished evil that has wrought such havoc and suffering throughout history did not go unseen by Heaven? That there is someone who has the power and goodness to make it all right again? Who also saw all the unpraised and unthanked goodness that has gone on in the world and will not forget it? Of course we are. If you have a God who is only mercy then there is an infinitely elastic line between right and wrong. God saves, but he does it by a shrug - by sweeping it under the rug of his mercy, which is there for the taking. It would go against his very nature to condemn evil in any real way that would amount to more than just shaking his finger at it. Who wants to live in this world?

2. The God Who Is Only Justice
So if we do not see (and should not wish for) a God who is only mercy, then does Christianity present a God who is only just? No. You can have a relationship with the Christian God, and you could not with a God who is only just. Why? If that were true of God then you would only be left with a judge. If he is an omniscient one, then he would know all the ways you have fallen short, even more than you know. If he is an infinite one, then even the smallest cruelty you commit against your fellow man is an infinite rebellion. Our sin would fit his magnitude, not ours. And if he is a just one then we would receive from him only punishment, for that is justice. Our sin does not seem to us to be such a terrible thing to merit such a judgment, but that is because we are handicapped by the fall. We are unable to see clearly either the ugliness of our sin or the glory of God's holiness. If we could see our sin as God does, we would see that if God were any kind of holy at all he would have to be infinitely removed from that kind of darkness. But infinitely distant from a God who is only justice is not where the Christian gospel leaves us.

3. The Something Unexpected
Either of the first two options leads to God denying part of who he is, but this is not how any true mercy or justice is achieved. God is one. He cannot deny himself or any part of himself. If there is to be mercy or justice at all it must be in both his holiness and his love being upheld simultaneously, and that is exactly what the gospel says took place on the cross. As C. S. Lewis said, "On the Cross justice and mercy kiss." God himself, in Jesus, pays the penalty his justice requires, which his creations earned for themselves but could not pay for themselves. Now his love is lavished on those very creations and his mercy is achieved at the price of his own wounds.
Christianity tells a story that errs neither to the left or to the right. It is neither only justice nor only mercy because it is both. And this makes a world that is worth living in. It is one where there will be judgment for evil, where there is a moral standard higher than ourselves and all will bow before a holy God. Then when that moment comes the hammer of judgment does not fall because God, in love, took the hammer's blows on himself. This makes Christians both uncompromisingly moral and lavishly, radically loving.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

God or People. Which Do You Fear?

I read (check that - I listen to) a lot of books throughout the year. Commuting back and forth to St. Louis for my seminary education affords me this opportunity. My usual custom is to visit the public library, once at the beginning of the semester, and once at about mid-term. Last spring I went to the library to grab my usual supply of audiobooks. However, my wife had requested a certain book, so I placed a hold on it, intending to pick it up while I was getting my audiobooks.

I walked to the check-out desk and handed over my four audiobooks to the man behind the counter. He looked over my choices, commented on them, and we had a brief but nice little conversation over them. As he checked the final book, I mentioned that I had one on hold. He slowly walked away to retrieve it. I saw him grab it off of the shelf, examine it, and slowly turn back towards me. As he approached, I noticed a puzzled look on his face. He held the book up, looked at me, and with pity said, "you know this is a real book...right?" His question sent me into a frenzy. For about 30 seconds I stumbled, bumbled, and stuttered, justifying myself. "I really can read, in fact, I've read lots of books before....audiobooks are just convenient, because you see, I'm in my car a lot and..."

Of course, this is a humorous personal anecdote. However, I am passionately concerned with what people think of me. Do they perceive me as intelligent? Funny? Talented? Hard working? Or do they see me as lazy? Stupid? Inept? The theys are different for all of us. Mine include my wife, my friends, my bosses, my peers, my professors, the students I minister to.

I am discussing one of the crippling sins we face as humans: the fear of people. We care what others think of us. We order our lives, make decisions, dress in certain ways, use certain phrases, all because we are living for other people's approval. But clearly, as Christians, this is not our calling. God wishes for us to be concerned about his perception, his desires. And yet, our struggle is neither a new nor uncommon one. The Bible mentions it on many occasions.

John 12:42-43 - "But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God."

John 5:44 - "How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?"

The life of faith demands we live for God's glory and for his will and for his attention, not others. We know, both from Scripture and from our personal experience, that living out of a fear of people only leads to despair, disappointment, and enslavement.

I ask that you look at your lives. Do you struggle with this like I do? Hopefully I've painted a picture that convinces you that you do. If you indulge me again next Saturday, now that we've established we have a problem, we'll explore together how to fight it.

A good resource, one I've consulted repeatedly, is When People are Big and God is Small by Edward T. Welch. It is also available at our bookstore.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Fathers and Sons

Some of you are aware that the last three months or so have been a rocky road for my twenty month-old son, Jack. After an unusual period of what I’ll call “loose stools,” Rachel and I grew concerned. An initial visit to our pediatrician led to a battery of tests. Meanwhile, Jack got sicker; he lost appetite and weight, evidenced abdominal pain, and developed a significant limp. Our first visit to a GI specialist led to more tests, conversations with other medical professionals, medication, and eventually a trip to Kansas City to get a second opinion. After yet more tests looking for both gastro-intestinal and orthopedic issues and only marginal improvement from the medicine, we eventually returned to Kansas City. There Jack underwent an endoscopy/colonoscopy, a procedure that led to the better part of three days in the hospital and an initial diagnosis of Crohn’s disease.

Crohn’s is an auto-immune disease that leads to inflammation of the GI track. It is evidently extremely rare in children of Jack’s age. It is also not currently curable, though it is treatable with medication. I’m told that the severity varies from person to person. And while many people do very well with the disease, it can be associated with a number of complications.

Needless to say, the entire process of watching my son grow sick and struggle with such serious symptoms, deal with a range of what are for a little boy frightening tests and procedures, and ultimately receive a diagnosis of this sort has been extremely, extremely difficult for both Rachel and me. We’ve found ourselves deeply mourning the possibility that Jack will have to battle, to one degree or another, this disease for the rest of his life. We’ve repeatedly been left overwhelmed, physically and emotionally exhausted.

And yet…

Throughout this process God has demonstrated himself to be incredibly gracious and faithful. I don’t mean to imply that he’s removed all the difficulty with a wave of his hand. He hasn’t. Far from it in fact. But he has encouraged and sustained our family in a surprising number of ways. (And I should mention that probably several of you who are reading this blog have played no small part in that.)

I mention all of this in order to share a simple thought that has been particularly encouraging to me in hopes that some of you who—especially parents—might be encouraged as well, either now or at some point in the future. It’s simply this: that when I as a father who loves his son cry out to God in prayer, that when I beg him to pour out his grace on Jack, even perhaps to heal him, with whom am I speaking?

I've come to realize that I’m not only praying to the God who has repeatedly revealed himself to be “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” I’m not only petitioning the one who promises ultimately to wipe every tear from his people’s eyes. I’m also crying out to a Father. A Father who knows what it is to see his own Son suffer.

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Did You See the Demonstration on Tuesday?

The video of antihomosexual demonstrators I showed last Sunday during the sermon seemed like something that happens in other cities but not in Columbia. The video might have even felt a little bit exaggerated or "over the top." But after what we saw Tuesday I don't think that anyone can say that anymore. I first got wind of it when my wife called saying that as she was driving my oldest son, Nathan, home from Jeff Jr. they saw a group of people at Stadium and Providence holding up anti-gay signs. While she hadn't seen the signs clearly, Nathan had and said, "Hey, that's exactly what dad was preaching against on Sunday." (Parental note: I guess he does listen to the sermon more than I thought.) Not long afterwards others from the church called the office confirming the story. Then later that evening, I received an email from a guy who attends the church. It seems that he was so saddened by what he saw that he pulled his car over, approached the demonstrators, and struck up a conversation with them. He had a CD of my sermon in his car so he gave it to them and asked them to listen to it. And then he took the pictures you see.

All of this gives us just one more chance to reflect on the kind of church and the kind of Christians that we want to be. What message do we want to communicate? Do we want people to hear from us that God hates them or that God loves them? Which message did Jesus communicate when he was on earth?

If you read back through the gospels, you'll definitely find that Jesus does have harsh words for people. But the key point to notice is that Jesus only has harsh words for the self-righteous or those who are confident in their own goodness. When a person already knows their sinfulness, when a person already knows their own brokenness, Jesus is always compassionate toward them. He never compromises the truth about their sin but the truth is shared mercifully.

So here's the ironic truth. The demonstrators with their judgmental signs and attitudes are more like the self-righteous Pharisees than the homosexuals they are protesting. If Jesus were ministering on earth today, he'd probably have some pretty harsh words for them. And the people the demonstrators are attacking are often just the kind of people who Jesus had the most compassion on.

Which group do you identify with? Are you more like the self-righteous demonstrators attacking people who sin differently than you do? Or are you more like the sinners who know how dependent they are on God's grace?

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