Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Weekly Roundup

Bush's Reading List
Do you read as many books a year as one of the busiest men on the planet? Sort of convicting, but also inspiring.

Atheist: "Africa needs God"
"In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good."

2008 in Pictures
Incredible.

Gospel Reminders
Here is another blog to keep on your radar... It is simply one quote a day intended to remind and inspire our continuing belief in the gospel. Good plan.

Here is today's post:

“If we spend sixteen hours a day dealing with tangible things and only five minutes a day dealing with God, is it any wonder that tangible things are 200 times more real to us than God?”
William R. Inge

Good point.


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Monday, December 29, 2008

Everything I think about Heaven I got from C. S. Lewis

Heaven can be a neglected hope in the Christian heart, but I think this is just due to a failure of imagination. If we do not long for Heaven, then it may be that we do not understand what it is. C. S. Lewis helps here. So often I have felt a longing for Heaven stirred in me when reading Lewis. He does this because he understood that the joy that is to be found on earth is not an end in itself, but draws us toward some greater consummation, so when he writes about Heaven I find myself drawn on toward the horizon by his giving vague shape to things hoped for but as yet unseen.

He says:
The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds, from us by the very nature of the world; but joy, pleasure, and merriment he has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and be an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with old friends, a bath or a football match have no such tendency. Our father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home

Heaven is the home of every good, true, and beautiful desire. This world, being the curious mix of broken and whole pieces that it is, has good things scattered broadcast for us to find, but never for us to keep. Lewis is saying that this is with a purpose. The posture of the believer is leaning heavily on Heaven. In the meantime, every great joy is tinged with the sadness of its passing, while every great sadness is diminished by the promise of the future homecoming.

As Lewis says, we are never safe, but we have plenty of fun. This is not to say that it is not right to put down roots, but rather, that it is not right to keep the treasures this earth has to offer as the ultimate treasures, nor to mourn their passing as if it was right that we keep them forever. The time for holding treasures forever is coming, if the Bible is to be believed, but isn’t yet here. There is such a tendency for safety in the human heart. This is a world where the good things that bring such joy can be taken from us in a moment, where pain can blindside us without asking if we are ready or if now is a good time or sending a warning that we ought to cherish what we have deeply because we will not have it long. Of course in such a world we will tend to build little circles of security around ourselves as best we are able.

The gospel, however, is not about minimizing risk, and, if the life if Jesus is to be any standard, it is often the opposite. When our hearts hold on the treasures in heaven becomes more secure it frees us to live without clinging to the treasures of earth. The pain of grief still hurts, but mingled with that grief is a supernatural endurance. Christians should love the earth, but long for a home that does not wear out, for bodies that do not fail, for relationships that aren’t scarred by selfishness, for work that is joy andthat creates things that will always last.

This should not take us out of the world, but give us secure grounds to enter it more fully. This does not make Christians miserly, but makes Christians those who most fully experience the joy, pleasure, and merriment that God has sown into the world like seeds of a promise that will one day grow into fruition.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Dollar For A Drink

This is a tough time to talk about money. Our economy has officially been declared "in recession." Unemployment is at a recent high. The stock market continues to be highly volatile, and many have lost thousands, or often hundreds of thousands, of dollars in the past months.

So, at some level, this is not a good time to talk about money.

But, at another level, this is a PERFECT time to talk about money.

When our portfolio is down, or our monthly budget is more tight than usual, God still calls us to use our money wisely. We don't get a break just because the economy is bad. If anything, this crisis only shows more clearly the ways we do not trust God to be our provider.

But we don't want to become hoarders, we want to be cheerful givers, like God calls us to:

"Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." - 2 Corinthians 9:7

God's primary concern isn't the dollar amount we give. For many of us, the amount we are able to give today may be genuinely less than what we were giving two years ago. And that may be fine in God's eyes, because what he wants is a cheerful giver, who gives out of an understanding that God is good and gracious, and that he will provide for our needs.

With all this in mind, I want to call your attention to an organization I stumbled upon last week. A 16 year old boy has taken it upon himself to form a small 501(c)3 charitable organization. For years his family has given money to World Vision, but Joshua Guthrie wanted to make a big splash, and raise enough money ($8,000) so that he and his family could build a well in the Sudan (where over 12 million people do not have access to clean water). He started on October 1st of this year. His goal: to raise the necessary funds by Christmas. As of this morning, he's within $500.

The website is DollarForADrink.org, and his concept is simple: Give up a drink, give that dollar (or $4 if you're a Starbucks fan) to the funding of this well, and be a part of something big that will substantially increase the quality of life of thousands.

So don't give out of compulsion, don't give because you feel guilty. But, if this has struck a cord in your heart, then consider taking a look at the site.

Also, for some other recent wisdom on the topic, see Keith's post from last week.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Abortion and the Incoming Administration

As the presidential transition approaches, the potential impact of the incoming Obama administration on abortion and other life/reproductive issues is pushing its way into the nation’s attention and discussion. While the specific steps the president-elect will take remain to be seen, the Wall St. Journal recently reported on several of the possibilities:
The outgoing Bush administration this week will finalize a regulation establishing a "right of conscience" allowing medical staff to refuse to participate in any practice they object to on moral grounds, including abortion but possibly birth control and other health care as well.

In transition offices across town, officials in the incoming Obama administration have begun considering how and when to undo it.

The regulation is one of a swath of abortion and other reproductive-health issues under review by the Obama team, which is preparing to reverse a variety of Bush measures, according to officials close to the transition. The review is part of a sweeping scrutiny of Bush-era legislation and regulation on issues across the federal government, from environmental and labor rules to defense spending.

On abortion and related matters, action is expected early on executive, regulatory, budgetary and legislative fronts.

Decisions that the new administration will weigh include: whether to cut funding for sexual abstinence programs; whether to increase funding for comprehensive sex education programs that include discussion of birth control; whether to allow federal health plans to pay for abortions; and whether to overturn regulations such as one that makes fetuses eligible for health-care coverage under the Children's Health Insurance Program.

(Read the entire article here.)
The WSJ’s article comes on the heels of a pro-choice coalition sending the Obama transition team a document entitled “Advancing Reproductive Rights and Health in a New Administration.” The Point Blog’s Gina Dalfonzo summarizes:
The document “urge[s] the next President to articulate and implement a vision for a new, commonsense approach to the nation’s and the world’s pressing reproductive health needs,” and outlines the actions they would like to see him take toward that end — including improving access to abortion worldwide, increasing funding for comprehensive sex education and defunding abstinence-only programs, pushing for the Freedom of Choice Act, and appointing pro-choice judges and government officials.
All of this sparks a number of thoughts:

1. Previous discussion on this blog can attest to the fact there is a legitimate and complex debate among Christians regarding which political parties and individual political candidates are, on the whole, more consistent with a biblical perspective on important issues.

2. Likewise, a mature understanding of biblical teaching leads to the conclusion that no individual or entity—whether they be Democratic, Republican, or anything else—will ever move past the need to be corrected at times by the prophetic voice of the Scriptures.

3. For these and other reasons, The Crossing—or any other church looking to follow Christ faithfully—should remain intentionally non-partisan, yet willing to speak out on particular issues and their potential ramifications in light of biblical conviction, rather than political ideology.

4. That being said, I would contend that the biblical evidence forms a rather unambiguous and compelling case against the practice of abortion and the reasoning that would seek to justify it. (For some of the more central biblical arguments, see Dave’s previous post. Also John Piper has this to offer about the ramifications of the pro-abortion position).

5. For that reason, provided Obama and those surrounding him continue their support of pro-abortion policies, this is one area in which Christians—regardless of whether one voted for him or not—have little choice but to stand in respectful but firm opposition to the President-elect. (This despite the fact that that there may be numerous other areas in which it is entirely appropriate to support the incoming administration.)

Practically speaking, this might lead to any number of concrete steps, but I’ll mention just two here. First, you can visit Obama’s website to read and comment on the “Advancing Reproductive Rights” document mentioned above. I would even venture a guess that the voices of those who are willing to identify themselves as Obama supporters will be most effective in this kind of forum. After all, one tends to give more weight to the counsel of friends than criticism of opponents. Secondly, you can certainly intercede on behalf of the unborn before God. I’m convinced that, ultimately, hearts need to be changed for our country to see significant movement in the right direction on this issue. Of course, that’s exactly what God is in the business of doing.

HT: Justin Taylor

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Illinois Governor, Presidential Pardons, and Biblical Forgiveness

If you have come to The Crossing for a while, you may have heard Shay or Lynn share the tragic story of their friends Scott and Janet Willis. In yesterday's Chicago Tribune well-known columnist, John Kass, interviewed the Willis' in light of the presidential pardon being sought by former Illinois Governor George Ryan. Rarely would I post an entire article but in this case I think that it's well worth it.
Scott and Janet Willis want to visit former Gov. George Ryan in federal prison.

And if they are given the chance to meet with the imprisoned Republican, they told me what they hope to do. They want to forgive him.

"There would be a great joy to say, 'I forgive you,' to be face to face with Mr. Ryan so, ultimately, he can gain a clean heart," Scott said. "Of course, we'd be nervous about it. We'd feel pressure there, but we'd truly love to do it. But there is a burden on him."

"The Bible talks about when we hide our sin, it eats away at us," Janet said. "If he knows he's done wrong, then this would be a tremendous release to him and to us, to personally forgive him, if he's sincere. I can't say he's being sincere. I'd hope he'd be."

The Willis family spoke to me by phone Tuesday in their first interview since Ryan's legal team—as part of a clemency petition to President George W. Bush seeking an early prison release—made a news splash last week by issuing a carefully crafted letter Ryan reportedly co-wrote.

It caught the Willises by surprise. Ryan didn't communicate with them. Neither did his lawyers.

So Scott and Janet want to set the record straight about the requirements and consequences of forgiveness, and the obligations they feel Ryan still owes to the people of Illinois and elsewhere put at risk by his licenses-for-bribes scandal.

They'd love to forgive Ryan, if he's ready to admit to specifics and truly accept the consequences of his crimes. Part of accepting the consequences, they said, is for Ryan to accept his prison sentence and serve his time.

In the Ryan letter, read and promoted in a news conference by Ryan pal and legal adviser James Thompson, Ryan wrote that he was apologizing for "mistakes" he made. There was no mention of guilt for specific crimes. And, for the first time, Ryan acknowledged the Willis family's "unimaginable pain and loss."

"My heart has and always will go out to the Willis family," read the Ryan letter. "They, like all the people of Illinois, deserved far better than I gave them."

But Ryan didn't make any mistakes. He was methodical and willful. A federal jury convicted him on 18 corruption counts, including allowing the deadly licenses-for-bribes scheme to continue under him when he was Illinois secretary of state and cynically quashing an investigation into whether a truck driver paid a bribe for his license before being involved in the horrific, fiery explosion that claimed the lives of six of Scott and Janet's children.

"Look, you're free to read this with all the cynicism you want," Thompson said last week. "If people do that, I hope they're not the same people who've been for the last year demanding an apology and then, upon receiving it, are cynical about it. That's a trap from which no one could escape."

When it comes to cynicism, I suppose we all must defer to Thompson. Yet rather than be angry with him, I felt pity. What came out of his mouth wasn't impulsive, but rather the result of decades of practice. I wondered if the words burned his tongue on the way out of his mouth.

So I called the Willises, and we agreed to talk Tuesday.

"That news conference put us in a difficult position," Janet said. "We were kind of caught. Do we say, 'Yes, we forgive him,' and they get what they want without any accountability? Or do we say, 'No,' and then we're treated as prideful and angry. The burden was put on us. And because Ryan was vague and unclear, we were left in a no-man's land."

"This is not for our sake. The kids aren't going to come back," Scott said. "I don't want to make things emotional here. Really, this is for his benefit. He talked about a clear conscience. But I don't understand how you can have a clear conscience and live with a lie. So if we meet, it's for his sake, to clear his conscience. Not for our sake."

Scott said he and Janet prayed on it, and thought about it some more, and, finally, set down some requirement for their meeting.

"We wanted to talk to your readers and to Mr. Ryan about what forgiveness is about," Scott said. He told me of a book that has given them comfort, "Unpacking Forgiveness" by Chris Brauns, which includes this definition:

"Forgiveness is the commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated."

I asked them to explain.

"It means that there are consequences for our actions," Scott said. "He's paying for those actions. But if he'd truly like to be forgiven, then we'd have to sit down with him and go over the specific counts, like when he killed the investigation into the crash that took our children. And we'd have to see if there is true repentance. There can only be true repentance if he does admit he did all these things and that they were wrong.

"If he wouldn't respond positively, it wouldn't be maddening as it would be pitiable. I'm not going to get into saying, 'I forgive you,' if he doesn't want to admit it. If we meet, I will ask very specific questions. I would like to know he knows he's done wrong. If he doesn't take responsibility, then there is no reason to continue."

Janet and Scott believe, from a lifetime of reading the Bible and practicing their Christian faith, that many of us have it all wrong when it comes to forgiveness. Someone does something wrong, they admit sorrow for some vague offense and we feel pressure to forgive them. It's all wrapped up in a neat package. That's too easy.

"It doesn't work that way," Janet said. "Mistakes are mistakes. Children make mistakes. We all make mistakes. But if a person were truly repentant, then it's not a mistake, it's not an accident, it was deliberate. God doesn't forgive us unless we repent. But how can we humans know? That's the tricky part. You have to be willing to accept the consequences."

The consequence is that Ryan must accept the idea that he serve out his prison sentence, they said, not for any offense against the Willises alone but for breaking his oath to the people of Illinois.

"He should do his time. He did criminal acts," Scott said. "And still we're concerned with him, with his well-being. God does work in people's hearts to change them. This could be a dramatic instance of that."

"If there is a change of heart," Janet said. "If his heart has truly changed."

I'm glad there are people like the Willises to teach us, that there are people who believe that politicians like Ryan can change their hearts, that the door to forgiveness is always open, but that those who truly seek it must repent and accept the consequences that flow from what they've done.

I have read many great reviews of Chris Brauns's book Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds. Here is the endorsement that the Willises wrote for the book:
“Grieving the loss of our six children in a van accident and then being reminded of that loss throughout thirteen years of subsequent battles forced us to search the Scriptures concerning the issue of forgiveness. Chris Brauns not only has confirmed answers that we had but has thoroughly sorted out what it takes to be right with God and man. This is a diligent work with heart.”
You might want to pick up a copy of the book. We are ordering some for The Crossing bookstore.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What Jonathan Edwards would say about the modern American Christian

Over this past weekend I read an interesting book entitled, “The God-centered Life” by Josh Moody. Josh earned his PhD from Cambridge and is now a pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he ministers to the Yale community and surrounding areas in New England. In completing his PhD, Josh did his dissertation on colonial New England pastor, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), and Yale is currently the best library of original letters and sermons by Edwards. So Josh Moody has turned his dissertation and ongoing interest and research into Edwards’ life and ministry and theology into a likable book that’s primarily geared toward other pastors and church leaders. Personally, I found it to be interesting, motivating and encouraging. It was good for me to read this book. Ephesians 4:11 tells us that one of Christ’s gifts to his church is good pastors and teachers. And certainly Jonathan Edwards was a significant gift of Christ to us, his church. And we ignore that wonderful gift to our own loss when we overlook the insights and teachings of Edwards still found in his many remaining sermons and books.

What I’d like to share in this blog entry are some excerpts from the fifth chapter on the current plight in the American church of a human-centered theology and practice. I quote from “The God-centered Life,” pages 92-96:

Edwards’ critique of modernity would be its foundational lack of God-centeredness: that you have the wrong god, or no god, or the true God is sidelined. In his view, life, reality, existence, and therefore all sustainable prosperity and social interaction of whatever kind, are founded upon God, rely upon him and must be given to him as an act of worship. That is, life must be foundationally God-centered. Or, even more, thoroughly God-centered; it is not just about beginning with God (foundationally God-centered), but about having a God-centered view of life influencing all our thinking, feeling, believing and acting.

…[Edwards] would have said, “God is in charge! God is God! Worship him! Bow down to him! Obey him! Do not worship money or power—or even the postmodern idea that there is no truth at all, for that itself is a form of worship. No; instead, worship God!”

…Edwards’ answer to the question “Why did God create the world?” was simply “For his own glory.” This may seem an obvious answer. Yet when we think about it, as Edwards’ book [The End for Which God Created the World] forces us to do, and consider what it means and what the ramifications are or should be of that belief in our everyday lives, the implications are enormous: I am not here for myself, but for God.

…In that book Edwards made the simple point that the questions we all ask about the meaning of life can be answered satisfyingly by realizing I am not the center of the universe, but God is. “Why am I here?” we ask. “What is my purpose? What should I be doing? Where should I be going?” All these questions about destiny and purpose are biblically, and only satisfyingly, answered by the belief in God’s glory being the end of all existence. This may seem selfish on the part of God, but, as the Creator, only he is the center of everything. His self can be the center and not be damaging to other selves. He is the rightful heir and ruler. When we focus on our selves, we are narrowly selfish; when God is glorified, the universe vibrates with a wonder and beauty too awesome to be described.

Again, this approach is crucial. All that “soul searching” and trying to find “meaning” and “purpose” is rightly and truly satisfied only when we turn our attention away from ourselves and focus on God. I am confused about who I am because I think about myself more than I think about God. It is only in him that I find my true orientation. That sense of meandering, pointlessness and fatigue derives from the same central issue. It is not about me, but about God. Seeing that makes my life wake up and move from practicing off-tune scales to playing with the divine orchestra. I am a part of something larger than life. I am made for worship. Anything less disappoints.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Weekly Roundup (Snow Day Special)

Looking for some quality content to digest while stuck inside today? We thought so. Here is a roundup of a few worthwhile links from around the web. Enjoy and stay warm.

Time. Redeemed.
CJ Mahaney points us to what RC Sproul has to say about time management.

List of Lists
Here is an (overwhelming) collection of top-10 books of the year lists from various publications. Happy hunting.

Visual Bible
Here is a visual representation of all the times the Bible references itself. As one of its creators commented, “[The Bible] almost looks like one monolithic volume.”

What has John Piper learned about God this year?
John Piper, pastor at Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis, does a Q and A a few times a week. The questions range from practical ministry questions to tough theological questions to pastoral life advice to personal-Piper questions. Here, he answers a question about his own faith journey in the past couple years. (Check out some of the other Q and A also.)


Tim Keller on the Gospel, Religion, and Irreligion
Here is part of an interview with Tim Keller from a conference a couple years ago. The distinctions he makes here are at the heart of his ministry and have been very helpful to me in thinking about how to teach and share Christ with others.



Star of Bethlehem Theories
What was the mysterious celestial event that caused the astrologers from the east (probably Babylon) to trek 800 miles across a desert to find the King? It is a fascinating story. Here is a summary of the main theories.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Why Theology?

I was talking with a friend this week about theology; not about any aspect of theology, but about the importance of theology itself. The conversation began with me telling a story about a time in my life when my idea of theology changed from stuffy intellectuals sitting in a room of dusty books and using words that no one else knew to the very place where the rubber meets the road in everyday christian life (or anyone's life for that matter). Without going into the details of the story, skip ahead to some of the morals I took from that time in my life:

Sometime last year I was in a class and the guy up front asked for any theologians in the room to raise their hands. Of course no one raised their hands. I didn't think it was a fair question and started thinking about what exactly a theologian was. It seems like there are at least three ways to think of it. 1. A theologian is someone who has plumbed the depths of every mystery and whose knowledge is much more vast than yours... in fact, any day now they will probably figure out the last answer (and probably not tell you)(if they did you probably wouldn't understand anyway). 2. Another possibility is that a theologian is anyone with any picture of God at all. 3. Or perhaps a theologian is simply someone who wrestles with trying to understand themselves, God, the universe... someone who doesn't have it all ironed out and never will, but struggles for the answers anyway because they believe the process itself is one that is good for the soul.

These three definitions stuck with me and I mulled them over in my head and came to a some conclusions about them. The first was that if definition #1 is true then we should quit the whole business of theology, but I don't think it is. No one has all the answers. Everyone is somewhere along the way and they will always be. Definition #2 I like better because it is true. I realized that I already am a theologian in this sense and that everyone is, even if they would never use the word theologian on themselves. Everyone has some understanding of God and it is already severely affecting their lives. I didn't realize this for a long time, but now I think it is true. I agree with A. W. Tozer, who said "what a person thinks about God is the most important thing about them." He is saying that a persons theology is the most important thing about them. But the definition I like the best is #3. I like it because it is humble, an association which the word theologian could use more of. If I must be one of them I want to be #3. I want to wrestle with the things of God. Yes, I know the God is not a finite being like me and thus at times understanding him will simply be beyond me, but I want to engage in the struggle anyway. Why? Because if my theology is really the most important thing about me then I want to stop at nothing to make it like Christ's theology, that I might live a life like Christ's too.

I remember having several conversations with people in the past couple of years when the topic would turn on to one of the more tricky, messy aspects of theology and someone in the room would jump in and say something like "Hey, can't we all just love Jesus?" thinking that they were closing the topic and doing the group a favor. I can understand why a person would want to say that and I know there are many times when it is exactly the appropriate comment, but I have reservations about it too. It is a good thing to say because in a sense we CAN just love Jesus.... after all, there won't be a quiz on predestination at the gates of heaven. But at the same time I can see how that might not be the most helpful thing to say. I say that because implicit in that statement is the idea that all this doesn't really matter anyway... but I think that it matters very much. Why? There are dangers out there. Think of it like a glacier. When a glacier moves downhill giant crevasses - cracks in the ice that can be hundreds of meters deep - open up and sometimes when the glacier flows over a level surface again all of the crevasses don't close completely. Then it snows and theses deep pits in the surafce of the glacier are covered beneath a foot or two of snow and disappear until you step on one. What does this have to do with theology? Saying "can't we all just love Jesus" can be kind of like standing on the edge of the glacier and looking out over it and seeing only a level, unbroken field of snow and believing that because no danger readily shows itself no danger exists. All the while traps lurk beneath the surface, invisible until stepped on. That's the thing... from the edge theology looks like you can take it or leave it, then you go out walking through the Christian life and fall into a crevasse and all of a sudden theology looks like what it always really was... a matter of life and death.

Another reservation I have with "can't we all love Jesus" is that it really does affect your life. Theology isn't just for seminary students and professors, it is for fathers, mothers, kids, artists, lovers, preachers, friends, etc. In any walk of life or stage in the game, as ones theology takes in more of the Truth ones life will reflect more of the Truth. A quick example: I always used to nod my head when ever anyone said anything about God being in control, but I didn't really pause to think how in control is he really? and what does it mean either way? Then I started thinking about it and searching the Bible for its answer to that question and talking to people about it. I still nod my head when people speak of God being in control, but now I mean more by it... that truth sank further into my heart as it worked further into my head. The funny thing I noticed is that as I learned more about what God's sovereignty really means I found that my life could not remain the same. I could no longer pray the same way or do almost anything else the same. My changing notion of God's sovereignty changed the way I worry, the way I love, the way I speak to people, the way I deal with suffering, the way I date, the way I hope, the way I read the Bible, and probably a hundred more things I am not observant enough to see. Tozer was right. The way we think about God is the most important thing about us. I suppose if there is a moral it is that when the questions find us - like Jacob in the desert - we wrestle with them as honestly as we are able, and when an opportunity to find them first shows itself we take it.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Weekend Browsing

Here are some interesting things I've stumbled upon this week, which you should check out as you surf the internet:

Five-Figure Bonuses - If you're frustrated with the financial crisis or the greed and selfishness we see all around us, read this article. If only all bosses were this generous.

Parenting 1 and Parenting 2 - A couple helpful articles on parenting. The first has a lot of really practical stuff (just for the record, so we're clear...posting a link doesn't mean I agree with everything said).

10 Reasons I Don't Like Most Christians - Written by a pastor. Good for my heart for two reasons. One, like many lists of sins we find in Paul's letters, I went down the list and saw my own actions in just about all of them. Instead of accusing other Christians of being rotten, I need to be humbled from time to time. Two, it was a good encouragement to be mindful of being "salt and light" to the world.

Something That Probably Has Nothing To Do With Your Spiritual Growth - But worth reading anyway, at least if you're me.

A Remedy For Our Busy Lives - We're on the go, we're busy, our lives are full of responsibilities and noise. The biblical model may have something else to add -- which will be a net subtraction. Confused? The article will clear things up.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Newsweek on Gay Marriage

Newsweek, on of our country’s most prominent and widely read institutions of print journalism, has jumped headfirst into what is already a volatile cultural/relgious debate. Both Lisa Miller’s December 15th cover essay and John Meachem’s accompanying “From the Editor’s Desk” column argue for the legitimacy of gay marriage and seek to dispute the conservative Christian notion that it is prohibited on biblical grounds.

After reading both articles, I admit I’ve struggled with where to begin. To put it plainly, I’ve rarely been so frustrated with—and even saddened by—a major media outlet. A few of the more arresting excerpts from Meacham will help illustrate some of the important problems with the magazine’s approach:
No matter what one thinks about gay rights—for, against or somewhere in between —this conservative resort to biblical authority is the worst kind of fundamentalism. Given the history of the making of the Scriptures and the millennia of critical attention scholars and others have given to the stories and injunctions that come to us in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, to argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt—it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition.
Meacham’s strong words spark a number of thoughts. First, from what does the “great Judeo-Christian tradition” arise if not the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament? I’m quite confident that any historical attempt to suggest that the Christian church and its theological tradition are not inextricably bound up with these documents is hopelessly doomed to failure. To argue that appealing to the Scriptures as authoritative is “unworthy” of such a tradition—a tradition that has consistently done exactly that for the overwhelming majority of the last 2,000 years—is surprisingly myopic and plainly inaccurate.

Meacham’s other charge is more substantial. He suggests that “millennia” of critical scholarship has rightfully disabused any thinking person of the notion that the biblical texts can be considered as trustworthy and authoritative for modern readers. Leaving aside the notion that the “critical” approach to the biblical text (or any other text for that matter) is a predominantly modern phenomenon, Meacham is either ignorant of or choosing to ignore the huge chorus of past and present scholars that ably and comprehensively commend the integrity and authority of the biblical text, as well as historically orthodox interpretations of the same. No doubt intellectual/theological giants Agustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards, as well as formidable modern scholars like J. Gresham Machen, Carl F. Henry, J. I. Packer, D. A. Carson, and Craig Blomberg would raise an eyebrow at their efforts being characterized as “unserious” and “intellectually bankrupt.”

All of this raises the question of whether it is actually Meacham who is open to the charge of something like the fundamentalist outlook he so vigorously calls into question.

………
This argument from Scripture is difficult to take seriously—though many, many people do—since the passages in question are part and parcel of texts that, with equal ferocity, forbid particular haircuts.
Yes, some (but by no means all) of the biblical prohibitions toward homosexuality are found alongside Old Testament laws that no Christian observes today. But any number of scholars—conservative or otherwise—recognize that while the New Testament maintains many of these Mosaic commands are clearly abrogated by the significance of Christ’s, life, death, and resurrection, it also affirms the continuing viability of many others—including, for example, commands to love God and neighbor and to abstain from murder, theft, and yes, homosexuality. Though it’s possible, I’d be genuinely surprised that someone of Meacham’s background—he’s work has often dealt with matters of faith—is ignorant of this rather basic biblical concept. But to be aware of it, yet continue to imply that Christians who believe the Bible prohibits homosexuality must adopt a kosher diet or get their hair cut in accordance with Mosaic law is to argue with a straw man.

………
In this light it would seem to make sense for Americans to look anew at the underlying issues on the question of gay marriage. One can decide to oppose it in good faith, but such opposition should at least be forged by those in full possession of the relevant cultural and religious history and context.
With this I could scarcely agree more. But, frankly, the excerpts listed above would cast doubt as to whether Meacham has followed his own advice.

There are any number of other things I’d like to address in both articles, but time and space will for the moment limit me to a few closing comments:

1. Christianity Today’s editorial response to Newsweek is appropriately candid when it states, “While we do not expect Newsweek to excel in theological or biblical argument, we do expect that respected magazine to practice good journalism—like presenting the actual arguments of one’s opponents, and being fair to the context of quoted sources.” This is something, in this particular case, Newsweek clearly did not do. And that is simply a failure to love one’s neighbor, a moral maxim (and biblical command) that, to my knowledge, no one seems willing to do away with.

2. All of this serves as a healthy reminder to those of us who count ourselves as conservative or historically orthodox Christians. If we expect to be fairly represented by others, we need to do the same for those with whom we disagree, whether they are gay, Muslim, Hindu, Mormon, atheistic, etc.

3. Finally, I want to make plain that none of this is meant to promote any kind of contempt for or mistreatment of those who maintain the moral legitimacy of gay marriage in particular or homosexuality in general. While I’m firmly convinced that the Scriptures argue against such a perspective, I’m just as convinced they maintain those that don't agree (some of whom, in my own case, are family and friends) are made in the image of God and therefore worthy of genuine respect.

Other noteworthy responses to Newsweek:
Albert Mohler
Steven Waldman

HT: Justin Taylor

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Dangers of Prosperity

In Deuteronomy 8 Moses warns us that we must be careful that prosperity doesn't ruin our spiritual life. At first glance that doesn't make sense. It's easier to see how hardships and trials might harden our hearts toward God than blessing ever would. But both are equally dangerous. That's why you find this prayer in Proverbs 30:8-9
...Give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, 'Who is the LORD ?'
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

Christianity Today's recent cover story is entitled "Scrooge Lives: Why we're not putting more in the offering plate. And what we can do about it." In the article we read that although Evangelical Christians are more charitable than any other religious group, they don't even come close to observing the Bible's command to give 10% of their income. 36% give away less than 2% and only 27% tithe.

The lack of giving sure isn't due to a lack of wealth. A new study called Passing the Plate and published by Oxford University Press says that committed American Christians-those who say their faith is very important to them and those who attend church at least twice a month-earn more than 2.5 trillion dollars every year. On their own, these Christians could be admitted to the G7, the group of the world's seven largest economies."

If these committed Christians gave 10% of their after tax income, they would add another $46 billion to ministries around the world. What could that money do? Quite a bit. "$10 billion would sponsor 20 million children for a year, and just $330 million would sponsor 150,000 indigenous missionaries in countries closed to religious workers. $2.2 billion would triple the current funding for Bible translation, printing, and distribution. $600 million would be enough to start eight Christian colleges in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia."

Now you might think that those who make the most money give the highest percentage of their income away. You might think that but you'd be wrong. Those with lower incomes give away greater portions of their earnings. The study reveals that "Americans who earn less than $10,000 gave 2.3% of their income to religious organizations whereas those who earn $70,000 or more gave only 1.2%." When Americans made less money following the Great Depression they gave more. When income went up, they began to give less of it away.

The article goes on to give some reasons for the lack of giving:

1. The purchases of homes and cars lock people into debt so that they don't have as much disposable income.

2. Christians believe that all giving is supposed to be cheerful and spontaneous instead of planned and intentional. "This attitude translates to giving from our wallets instead of our paychecks. When the offering plate comes by, we dig into our purses or pockets and freely, joyfully give of what we find. Meanwhile, nearly all of our income is spoken for."

3. Churches and pastors avoid the topic of money in their preaching and don't challenge people to give.

I recently read a C. S. Lewis quote on giving that I thought was both helpful and convicting. I can't find it right now so you will have to live with my paraphrase. "The only safe rule for giving is that it should make you uncomfortable. By that I mean that it should impinge on your lifestyle. There ought to be things that we would like to do but can't because you've given too much of your money away."

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Good Insights of Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com

Last week, US News & World Report published brief interviews with those on their list of America’s Best Leaders. I was particularly interested in what Jeff Bezos had to say. He’s the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, a company that Bezos has helped lead to become the largest retailer on the Web. You can read Bezos’ pithy comments here.

But below is my summery of what Bezos believes are the keys to Amazon’s success:
  • Being customer focused rather than competitor focused.
  • Being long-term focused (“getting through the difficult short-term desert by believing in the oasis on the other side”).
  • Being able to ignore the vocal, and often well-meaning, critics who will try to get you off your original course by adopting their agenda for your company.
  • Being willing to repeatedly fail.
  • Being able to be serious and fun at the same time.
  • Being willing to be misunderstood by those who won’t understand your vision.
  • Being willing to have your core leaders create the culture of your business, rather than adjust your culture to new people’s desires.
  • Being committed to gut-decisions more than decisions driven by data.

When I read this, I couldn’t help but find many parallels to the story of The Crossing. I think I recognize within every one of these principles reasons why I like being a part of this church, and why I think a lot of other people like being part of it as well. We want to be a theologically-based, Gospel-driven, Christ-centered, biblically-nourished church where our leadership is not so easily responsive to a new agenda, no matter what form that other agenda may appear in trying to get us off our original track. And as The Crossing gets bigger and more established, it seems like more of a fight to me for us to keep our original course we started out on 8 and a half years ago. Whether by the fairly frequent criticism or advice we receive from new people (sometimes well-meaning), or the pressure for short-term returns at the expense of long-term investments, or our fear of failure and embarrassment before a larger congregation that would increasingly restrict our boldness or creativity, or the inclination to be guided more by financial or statistical data that has the look of certainty while we ignore what our spiritual “gut” is leading us to do (our spiritual guts were pretty strong back in those early days when we first started this church)—there are always so many things that can get us off the course that we believe God marked out for us as a church back in 2000.

Perhaps being “customer-focused” is not the right way to put it in regard to a church. We don’t want to be “consumer-driven,” that’s for sure. But there is a truth here that I think we should keep in mind. The Crossing is not called to meet the wants of the congregation, but we are called to meet people’s true needs. There is a difference. And a good church’s leadership must never confuse the two. As a church, we must be intentional about helping people want what it is that they truly need. Learning to want what we need is what Christian maturity is all about. That’s what God’s Spirit does in our hearts through his Word, through his church, and through the lessons he teaches us along the course he’s marked out for us.

That’s our calling for everything we have and do as a church—everything we teach and every service we plan and every program we implement and every small group we equip and organize and every class we lead and every event we do—helping all of us (me included) to want more and more what we truly need—to move the hearts and minds of more and more people to believe the gospel and treasure Christ in greater and deeper ways.

That's our calling as a church. And I think Jeff Bezos has some wisdom we can garner in order to keep on this course.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Gospel According to Facebook (Part 2)

As I mentioned last week, Facebook and the Bible share the same gospel…sort of.

The gospel according to Facebook is designed to promote community. Godly community is a major theme throughout the Bible as well. The question, then, remains: Does Facebook’s version of community help or hinder us when we try to live out the Biblical version of community? Does it encourage us live more in line with the Bible’s vision for human interaction or less?

I propose that some aspects of Facebook naturally promote Biblical community, others naturally do not.

I submit to you 3 ways I believe Facebook helps us live more Biblically and 3 ways I believe it tends to distract us from the Biblical call to “love others as ourselves,” and instead, like Joshua Harris said, “encourages me to think about me even more than I already do.”

The Good
1. Lost is Found
Just this week a friend from a different chapter of life I had not talked to in 4 years ‘friended’ me and we had the chance to catch up. Facebook encourages a long-term connection between people - even if that connection is not deep and intimate in all instances, there is surely value in the “reconnections” after seasons of silence. Facebook, for me, helps me think of myself as connected to more people in a long term way.

2. Now is Better
The instant, and 24/7 nature of Facebook CAN be a good thing in promoting Biblical community (see #2 below for the flip side of this coin). We have the ability to communicate at any hour to anyone in our network. The potential for encouraging, edifying communication has been taken to the next level. Whether it is as simple as planning a time to hang out next, or as inspiring as an encouraging wall-post or message, or as necessary as a friend’s reminder that we will always be there, the instantaneous nature of Facebook allows for our human interactions to be more immediate and timely to our friend’s needs.

3. Common Ground
Facebook is the #4 most visited website worldwide, the #1 picture sharing site online, and already has more than 130 million active users. That is a cultural force. Christians, as a general rule, ought to be intentionally looking for these kinds of places in our culture – places where many different kinds of people interact, share ideas, stories, and life. We are called to move beyond our Christian bubble, our holy huddle. Christians are called to be “in” the world, to engage, to get messy, to care deeply for our cities, countries, and planet. Facebook seems to be the exact kind of place we should be running TO, not from.

The Bad
Again, I think these criticism flow out of the most natural use of Facebook. They by no means MUST be true of your Facebook use, but an unthinking, undiscerning engagement will, I believe, lend itself to these 3 things that hinder Biblical community.

1. Edit Yourself
Facebook is a 100% edit-able version of you. You can choose the image that people have of you in every category from interests to pictures to who your friends are to what you do with your time. If you don’t like a particular picture, replace it with a better one. If you don’t like the way a sentence sounds, re-type it. The editable nature of facebook simply heightens what we try to constantly do in our lives anyway: put forth a face or front so others think we are better / different than we really are. This seems to encourage a two-faced version of ourselves and may promote dishonesty, hypocrisy, or simply a tendency to dwell on our self-image far too much.

2. Now is Worse
While the instantaneous nature of Facebook has an upside, it also has a downside. Constant connectivity does not necessarily translate into commitment and, in fact, may discourage it. You see, if we can tune INTO our friend's lives whenever we want we can also tune OUT anytime we want. A Facebook page is not a person and with one click of the mouse whatever frustration or anger or boredom we are experiencing can disappear. Facebook seems to encourage “on my terms” relationships. It is there when we want, but gone when we don’t want it anymore – instantly. The Biblical picture of community, however, is much messier, much more engaging, and much more long term. The immediacy of Facebook, I think, works against these virtues.

3. What you DON’T see on Facebook
Have you ever paused to take notice of the kind of chatter you DON’T see on wall posts or updates on Facebook. The conversations, while legitimate and real, also tend toward the superficial side of life. I have never seen anyone explain that the defining struggle of their life is ____. Or that the deepest fear that drives them is _____. It is ok that Facebook does not encourage these conversations, it wasn’t designed to, and frankly, would be kind of weird if it did. BUT, we cannot allow Facebook, then, to set the standard for our communication and involvement in one another’s lives. It has its place, but we must go farther, deeper, and more intimate than Facebook will allow if we are to thrive as a Christian community.

CS Lewis wrote:
Friendship (as the ancients saw) can be a school of virtue; but also (as they did not see) a school of vice. It is ambivalent. It makes good men better and bad men worse.

I would add: ditto to Facebook. Human selfishness and the default tendency to think of ourselves before others is not a fundamentally Facebook problem, it is a fundamentally human problem. Facebook can be used to encourage that selfishness OR as yet another arena in which we, as Christians, can fight to love others as ourselves. It is ambivalent.

Learn to love others as yourself in all areas of your life, including your Facebook page.

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Save Bodies or Save Souls?

I heard a speaker at the L’abri conference tell a story about something he saw while spending some time in Africa. He went to a missionary compound and it was obvious to see the quality of the facilities there that they had invested many resources on their bright buildings. He also saw that just outside the missionary compound there were Africans living beneath tarps strung up between trees. His point in telling that story was that often when the gospel has gone out it has focused solely on spreading a message of spiritual redemption and any kind of physical redemption has been completely neglected. The story is made particularly poignant (and tragic) by the fact that the missionaries had been there for thirty years. In thirty years their faith had driven them to do many things (and probably most of them were very good things) but had not compelled to provide a better shelter than tarps for the people within arms reach.

Another story (that I can’t help but think of paired with the story of the missionary compound) happened one night after a friend and I saw Blood Diamond and we got into a long conversation afterwards about what the responsibility of Christians was in light of the fact that there is so much injustice and suffering happening in the world, like the things going on in the film. He was frustrated with the fact that sometimes Christians can act like physical things don’t matter and said that it was pointless to act like all the problems were fixed if you share the gospel with someone who is starving and then walk away without giving them any food. “They don’t need Jesus,” he said, “they need food!”

Both stories illustrate a message of what the Christian’s priorities should be in the world. One message is that the spiritual is what is most important, and the gospel should heal people’s greatest needs, which are first and foremost spiritual needs. The other message is as the gospel goes out it should focus on the physical needs and have the healing of those as the first and foremost priority of Christians, as it is the foremost priority of the gospel.

I want to say that both viewpoints taken to the extreme are distortions of the gospel and in danger of committing opposite errors. It should never be a choice between either physical or spiritual needs and, in a sense, we have already gone wrong if the debate is even going on. It is a false dichotomy and an unbiblical one. But before I go on, let me add that in saying that I don’t mean that it is never appropriate to correct the one with the other. That is, perhaps, what is needed in cases where Christians have gone so far down the one direction they are completely neglecting the other. For example, what whoever makes the decisions in that missionary compound needs is to see is that they are misrepresenting the gospel by only caring for spiritual needs at the expense of the physical and begin to repent of that distortion of the gospel, starting with doing what they can to provide those people living in tarps with four walls and a roof. But that does not mean that it would be best for them to turn 180 degrees and commit the opposite error, neglecting people’s spiritual needs. What they need is to return to the practice of biblical Christianity!

As I said, I think it is a false dichotomy that is not present in the Bible. Look at the life of Jesus, who alone lived perfectly in line with God’s agenda for the world. What do we see him doing with his life on earth? We see him healing lepers, restoring sight to the blind, raising up people crippled for their whole lives, feeding thousands, casting out demons, having compassion on the pain of others, and showing that God cares for the physical hurts, afflictions, and suffering of all people. We also see him correcting people’s theology. He calls 12 men and travels everywhere with him for 3 years and teaches them about the kingdom of God. He gives sermons to thousands proclaiming the truth and correcting their false beliefs. He gets into countless conversations with people who come to him with questions and challenges them (with narrative AND propositionally…) to believe more truly. He shows that God cares about the landscape of every individual’s beliefs and the kingdom of God is one where people are growing in their theology and learning the truth more and more.

The two ways of thinking of the kingdom of God are really part of one whole, and to divorce them from each other is to distort the truth. Jesus can be used as a banner for each side of the debate. Those most concerned about the spiritual side of the gospel will make sermons that show Jesus trouncing the Pharisees and telling people that the he is the Good Shepherd and meditate most heavily on the passages where he preaches against he lies he encounters (a good thing). Those on the other side of the debate will make sermons showing that Jesus was deeply moved to compassion at seeing people hurt and basically walked around the countryside looking for people to heal and will pray to be more like Christ in this and try to reflect it in the way they live (a good thing).

The danger is not that there are no good aspects of either one; the danger is that neither is a complete version of what the kingdom of God is. They are Biblical in the sense that both of them site parts of the Bible as sources, but not Biblical in the sense that neither represent the unity of what the Bible teaches about what the kingdom of God looks like, nor how Jesus embodied it.

The task before the Church is to fight all the brokenness and injustice in the world and to do it zealously, as Jesus did, while not forgetting what our greatest enemy really is. Our greatest enemy is the sin that separates us from the source of all good, God, and we desperately need to be reconciled to Him and we need that infinitely more than we need food. The truth is that Christians are called to fight sin wherever it appears, whether that means institutional sin (injustice, poverty, homelessness, slavery) or confronting false belief in individuals and proclaiming the truth against the lies that set themselves up against God. The Bible does not give room for the church to abandon either front, and the world suffers when it does. The truth is that the kingdom of God is where the will of the King is done, and where that kingdom grows all things will begin to be aligned to that will. God cares about every inch of creation. God cares about every facet of what it means to be human. God cares about our struggles, our suffering and pain, our confusion, the lies we believe and our mistaken theology. There is not one inch of it over which he does not say “Mine.” And as the church does not care about any of those things it falsely represents God to the watching world.

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Do I Need to Say This?

I’m sure I’m alone in this, but I struggle with what comes out of my mouth. Not that this is an excuse by any means, but, as an extroverted person, a “mouth filter” is hard-pressed to come by. One might call my condition “diarrhea of the mouth” (a crude, but apt term). Or, another description might be “diarrhea of the heart," since the Bible says the heart and the words of our mouth are intricately linked. I’ve recently felt convicted about my speech again (since God has to remind me of this pretty often) while reading through the book of Proverbs.

One area I’ve recognized that my words aren’t lining up with what Proverbs describes as godly speech is in the way I talk to my husband. Ever notice how it’s so much easier to let loose of our tongues around those we love the most? What’s up with that?!? Often my words--ever since I was a little kid and would tell my younger siblings what to do--take a demanding tone, especially toward Nathan. Don’t get me wrong…he does NOT respond well to me when I speak that way. In fact, most of the time my bossyness has the opposite effect I desire. But, I somehow think over and over that talking to him in that way will help the situation, whether it’s driving, taking care of the kids, driving, our finances, home projects, driving, etc (did I mention driving?).

God has a high standard for our speech (i.e. honesty, kindness, calmness, gentleness, wise words, helpfulness, and much more), as you’ll quickly see while reading Proverbs. I’m sure I violate all of His commands at some point or another, but in particular I struggle with two areas of godly speech that the Bible describes. Perhaps you can take some time to read Proverbs and consider what areas you need to work on, too. For me they are:

1) Fewness of words:

Proverbs 10:19, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.”

Proverbs 12:23, “A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself, but the heart of fools blurts out folly.”

Some questions I need to ask myself in light of these verses are: Do I need to say this? Would it be wise to say this?”

2) Aptness or timing of my words:

Proverbs 10:32, “The lips of the righteous know what is fitting, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse.”

Proverbs 15:23, “A man finds joy in giving an apt reply—and how good is a timely word!”

Some questions I need to ask myself in light of these verses are: Is what I’m saying suitable or pertinent to the situation? Am I speaking this at the right time?

Jesus says in Matthew 12:24, “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” Again, for those few people out there who struggle with words like I do, it’s important for us to ask ourselves what is going on in our hearts when we speak sinfully. What lies in my heart behind my demanding words is some pretty ugly stuff—namely pride and selfishness. Pride comes in when I start telling my husband how to do things because I think that I am better than him at whatever it is he’s doing. Quite honestly and ashamedly that thought creeps in more than I care to admit! Secondly, selfishness comes into play when I’m being bossy because I want what I want when I want it. I’m certainly not thinking about what is best for him at the time.

Now, we all fall short of God’s standard of excellent speech. Try as we might on our own, we can’t change our words or what is going on in our hearts for the long haul. So what do we do? As with all our sin, we have to repent and pray for forgiveness (which God graciously grants us because of what Christ has done for us on the cross). We need to keep God’s promises and His truth about our speech in our minds and hearts. And, we must work at acting on those truths. Perhaps most of all, though, we must ask and trust God to change us from within. Thankfully, He is the One who helps us battle our sin and makes us more and more Christ-like. Whew, because otherwise I’d be doomed.

Now, go work on your speech! Oh man, there I go again bossing others around. Pray for me!

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Hopping in the Wheelbarrow

Here is a story recounted to me last week, which the story-teller attributed to Billy Graham. Christians all over the world, as well as business professionals and motivational speakers, have retold this story, so if it's old to you, I apologize. It appears to be based on at least some facts from a 19th century tightrope stunt artist professionally known as the "The Great Blondin." Either way, it's a good story, and it illustrates something about all of us that we would be wise to pay attention to.

The Great Blondin - the man who invented the high wire act, announced to the world that he intended to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. More than five thousand people gathered to watch. Halfway across, Blondin suddenly stopped, steadied himself, back flipped into the air, landed squarely on the rope, and then continued safely to the other side. Blondin crossed the Falls again and again; blindfolded, carrying a stove, in chains, and on a bicycle. Just as he was about to begin yet another crossing, this time pushing a wheelbarrow, he turned to the crowd and shouted, "Who trusts that I can cross pushing this wheelbarrow?" Every hand in the crowd went up. Blondin pointed at one man:

"Do you trust that I can do it?" he asked.

"Yes, I trust you can." said the man.

"Are you certain that you trust me?" said Blondin.

"Yes" said the man.

"Absolute trust? Absolutely certain?"

"Yes, absolute trust, with absolute certainty."

"Thank you," said Blondin, "please get into the wheelbarrow."

There is a difference between saying you believe and actually believing. For instance, I say I believe that my beloved Tigers are going to pull off the big upset tonight. But am I putting money on the game? Granted, I'm not a sports better. But even if I were, this isn't one I'm touching. I'm not really willing to hop in the wheelbarrow.

The Bible goes to lengths to be clear on this point. The book of James would be a good place to start when you want to learn about true belief, we'll read from chapter 2.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them?... 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

James' point is not to argue whether we are saved by faith or by works. His point is that our belief, which saves us, is only true belief if it is confirmed by our actions, if it is confirmed by hopping in the wheelbarrow.

And all of us who proclaim belief in God have a hard time acting out our faith from time to time. Why is that?

Maybe I can't speak for everyone, but I will speak for myself. I have a hard time hopping in certain wheelbarrows because I don't really believe in God's promises. When my belief needs to show itself in my financial life, through giving, being generous, being a good steward, it's hard to jump in that wheelbarrow. I say I believe God, and what that really means is that I trust that what he commands for me is best...for me. But what I really believe is that hoarding my possessions will make me happy, not God. Spending my money on myself with every new gadget or car, not God will satisfy me, not God.

Maybe you don't struggle with trusting God in terms of your finances. Maybe you believe selfishness will make you happy, and thus you act on that belief. Maybe instead it's your belief that vengeance will fulfill you, or sex, or power, or success...the list goes on and on.

Two things have given me encouragement as I've struggled in this particular fight. First, Dave Cover has often reminded me that we're all mixed bags of belief and unbelief. It doesn't make it okay, but it does encourage me that I'll have some fellow strugglers to help me along the way. And second is a plea found in Mark 9, from the father of a demon-posessed boy: "Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, 'I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!'"

We act according to our beliefs...but sometimes we don't believe what we wish we believed. May we be the type of people James speaks of, those who believe and act -- so who's up for a wheelbarrow ride?

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Friday, December 5, 2008

The Part of the Christmas Story Nobody Reads

I would imagine that most people reading this blog have been at a few Christmas Eve church services or other church services this time of year. And you’ve probably heard the Christmas story read from the Bible several times. And so, if you were to open up a Bible to the gospel of Matthew and start reading in chapter 1, verse 18, you’d find what is probably a pretty familiar story. It starts like this:
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.
And you’d go on to read that an angel visited, Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, wise men came to visit him, and so on. All crucially important, but most likely pretty familiar stuff to you.

But notice that all of this starts at v. 18. Interestingly enough, Matthew doesn’t start his account of Jesus with the actual details of his birth. No, he actually starts his gospel with a genealogy, which, unless I miss my guess, most of us give about about .7 seconds of a attention to before we skip on to what we view as “more important stuff.”

So this leads to a couple of questions. Assuming Matthew’s purpose is not to waste paper or bore his readers, why does he start his gospel with what seems to be just a long family tree? And how in the world does it relate to the Christmas story?

Well, I think the answer, in large part, has to do with the fact that this list of names is actually a shorthand way for Matthew to remind his readers of some very important information. It’s a shorthand way for him to tell an amazing back story—the history of what God had been doing and unfolding for hundreds, even thousands of years before Jesus was born.

I say that because Matthew’s first readers—who were most likely Jews like himself—would have been very familiar with that history. And so, when they heard many of the names that Matthew lists, they would have been instantly reminded of what God had done in the lives of those people, through those people, sometimes even in spite of those people.

So, for example, let’s think for a minute about the two most prominent names on the list, names that Matthew draws particular attention to. The first is Abraham. Mattew’s readers would have been reminded that God had called him to be the father of a great nation, but also that through him, God promised to bless all the families of the earth (see Gen. 12).

And then there’s David. His name would have reminded people that God had made promises to Israel’s greatest king as well, promises to establish his throne and his kingdom forever.

In fact, as time unfolded, God revealed more about that promise. Many years after David reigned, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah about a person he would raise up to sit on David’s throne. In Isaiah 9, we read something else that Matthew’s reader’s might well have remembered:
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as men rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
And then a few verses later:
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.
In the midst of all these names, Matthew also makes mention of something he refers to as simply the exile to Babylon. Again, his readers would have known exactly what he meant. As much of the Old Testament reveals, the Jewish people proved to be stubbornly disobedient, despite the Lord showing them a remarkable degree of patience and sending them warning after warning through his prophets. And so he finally punished them, sending a foreign nation to conquer them and force them into exile.

Because as grim as those days were, that whole episode was also linked with great promises from God. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God pledged that he would not only to gather his people back from that exile, but also to establish a new covenant with them, one in which he will forgive his people’s wickedness and remember their sins no more.

Matthew’s genealogy hints at all of this—and that’s just the highlights. We could go on to reflect on other names and other stories that also reflect the grace and faithfulness of God.

It’s to this back story that Matthew very consciously connects Jesus. In doing so, he’s saying that Jesus is part of the plan that God had been unfolding for literally thousands of years. In fact, he’s directly hinting that Jesus is God’s most amazing gift of grace, the final and greatest part of the plan, the fulfillment of all those incredible promises.

For example, by noting that Jesus is the son of Abraham, Matthew is foreshadowing that Jesus will be the means through which God’s blessing for all the families of the earth will come about. He also makes plain that Jesus is the son of David. He will be the one that that will sit on David’s throne, ruling over all things, bringing about peace and justice and joy.

And by calling to mind the exile, Matthew hints that Jesus is bound up with those events as well. In fact, later in the chapter, he makes this connection clear, relating that God commands Mary and Joseph to name the child Jesus—meaning “the Lord saves”—because “he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). Jesus will be the one who will bring about the promised new covenant and the forgiveness of sins for his people.

All of this points to just why it is that Jesus’ birth is such a big deal. And all of it is hinted at, packed in, a family tree.

So, with those first few verses, Matthew sets the stage for Jesus. And if we keep reading his story, we find that what began in that dirty little manger, by way of a bloody cross and an empty tomb, will one day end in a completely renewed world, where God himself will dwell with the people he has rescued from their sin. There, they will no longer struggle, with “death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (see Rev. 21:1-4).

That is why the Bible calls the birth of Jesus “good news of great joy.” My hope and prayer is that you will understand Christmas to be exactly that.

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

How The Economy Affects Our View of God

This past summer Beth Moore and Kay Arthur, two wildly popular Bible teachers, spoke at a series of Christian conferences designed for women called Deeper Still. At some point during the summer an email began to circulate via the internet that was attributed to Beth Moore and referenced a message given by Kay Arthur at the Atlanta conference that was held in late June. It turns out that the email was a forgery in that it wasn't written by Beth Moore and Kay Arthur denied having said what the email attributed to her. Snopes has a full accounting on its site.

What I'm mainly interested in is why this false email garnered so much attention, why it was passed on, and believed by so many. What does all of this tell us about how our culture affects our view of God? But first here is the email. Remember that it is untrue but at the same time many believed that it was written by one of the nation's most well-known Bible teachers.
BETH MOORE, LIVING PROOF MINISTRIES

Dear Ones,
On June 27th and 28th I attended a conference in Atlanta called
Deeper Still. I was one of three speakers - among the others being Kay Arthur, well known author and Biblical teacher, I looked forward to a special time of worship and having God convict me of my sins and lead me to areas in my life where I need to change. I have been to similar conferences for years, although none this large and with so many well-known speakers. There were over 20,000 women in attendance at the Phillips Arena in Atlanta - they said it was the largest crowd ever.

I had an idea of what to expect from the conference, but nothing
prepared me for what actually happened. I feel led to share my
experience with family and friends. This is important, so stay with me!

When Kay Arthur took the stage you could just tell that her
spirit was heavy and there was certain 'heaviness' in the atmosphere
even before she started to speak. She said that she had been literally
physically sick to have to bring us this message and right out the gate she said, 'We are in grave danger.' She said that God had revealed to her that a literal famine is coming to America -Physical, not spiritual. She said that God is moving in judgment against our nation. I know I can't describe this well enough, but the atmosphere was ominous.

Kay is a seasoned speaker and she had to BATTLE to get through
her message. She stumbled over scriptures and had an extremely difficult time. At times I was almost expecting her to collapse. At one point she just had to stop and pray. There was no person, myself included, that I could see who did not have tears streaming down their faces. As you may know, Kay Arthur is normally a very confident, composed speaker, but she was literally in a spiritual battle and it was taking place right before my eyes. I have never seen anything like it.

She went on to give 7 things that Christians must do during this
time and I am going to give those to you now:
1. Return to God. Jeremiah 4:3 - Break up the fallow ground -
return to Me. Repent. Get on your face before God and ask him to break your heart with the things that break His heart.
2. Mourn. Jeremiah 9:17-18 and Ezekiel 9- It is time to weep
because our nation's sin is incredible.
3. Pray. Jeremiah 36:7 - Pray fervently, passionately for
America.
4. Love God's Word. Jeremiah 20 - You MUST love the Word of God and be in the Word of God.
I was particularly convicted here because I know I have not been
as deeply in His Word as I need to be. She said we must get serious about this.
5. Love others as Jesus loved them. Jeremiah 31:3 and John13:34.
6. Introduce people to Jesus Christ. It's time to get serious
about this. This is no time for timidity. Jeremiah 31:31; Jeremiah
33:1-9, 15, 17.
7. Rest. If you will do these things, then rest in the fact that
you have done God's will. She said that it is going to be vitally
important for us to get enough physical rest. She went on to say that
God has not given us a spirit of fear and that if we are obedient to
Him, we will be protected. She said to read Ezekiel 14 over and over until you understand it.

This is what God will do if a country turns against Him. She said
that this is going to be a calamity (she used the word calamity in such a way that you knew this is going to be no small thing for our country), and gave many more scripture references, but what I have given you are the main points that she made.

I hope you know that I would not have sent this to you if I had
not been profoundly affected by it and feel it is of great importance to share it. Thank you for taking the time to read this and I hope you will do with this information what you feel led by God to do.

Love in Christ Jesus,
Beth Moore

Notice how different this message is from the incredibly popular book The Prayer of Jabez that taught us that God wanted to increase our blessings if only we'd pray and ask him for such blessings. Why are Christians so quick to believe a different message now? I think that it has something to do with the fact that The Prayer of Jabez was released in 2000 before the events of 9/11 and more importantly before the economic mess that is now reported daily from virtually every media outlet.

In 2000 life was good, the economy was strong, and stock portfolios offered the promise of early retirement. Of course none of that is true today. Our circumstances have changed but God hasn't. Here's the point: I don't think that this false email would have been written, believed, and passed on during strong economic times. This email made the rounds because in a weak economy people are more likely to buy what it's selling.

I can't help but wonder if the culture (in this case specifically the economy) is what is really driving our view of God. When our life is going well, we see God a generous grandfather giving us what we want, and when our life isn't going so well, we see the same God as an angry grandfather harshly disciplining us by taking away our toys and sending us to bed without any supper.

But has the unchanging God changed? Whether or not you personally prosper or the country prospers, God's promises are true and trustworthy. It is not wise to view God through the lens of GDP or the unemployment rate.

As a side note: Does it seem a bit odd to you that Americans are only now concerned about food shortages and famine? It seems that the only time we Americans really care about the lack of food is when it’s our families that are suffering. Shouldn't we be concerned when that same thing is happening to people in other places around the world?

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Now Two in One!

In recent blogs I've been strongly recommending that you purchase two great Bible reading and Bible study tools: The ESV Study Bible (which we are selling at our bookstore at The Crossing at our cost) and a good Bible for your iPhone. Well, on December 1, it became possible for you to have both in one program: the ESV Study Bible for your iPhone (or iPod Touch).

I purchased mine the day in came out (for review purposes, of course), and I'm impressed with it. Admittedly, it shows the signs of being rushed to market so to speak, with certain words and text lines being a bit messy and less tight and organized as I'd hope. Hopefully that will be fixed with future updates. Still, it has the entire biblical text of the English Standard Version (the Bible translation I use for personal reading), as well as all the Bible study notes and all the excellent articles, charts, and maps of the ESV Study Bible, all with the ease of quickly clicking here and there, back and forth, to and fro whenever you want and wherever you are, right in the palm of your hand on your iPhone. Very cool and very useful.

It costs about $30. Unfortunately, if you took my advice earlier and purchased the ESV Bible for your iPhone, you're still going to have to pay the full $30 for the ESV Study Bible as well. Irritating, I know. But I think still worth it.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Gospel According to Facebook (Part 1)

On Sunday I mentioned that “cultural gospels” bombard us with their version of what we need on a daily basis. This is obviously true of the internet and all the latest trends being developed in this sphere as well. So today, (as I promised in my last blog) lets ask the question, What is the gospel according to the most dominant internet trend in the last 5 years? What is the gospel according to Facebook?

Here is Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook:

Our whole theory is that people have real connections in the world. … What we figured is that if we could model what those connections were, [we could] provide that information to a set of applications through which people want to share information, photos or videos or events. But that only works if those relationships are real.

Facebook was established with the assumption that we live in community and it’s goal, its gospel, is to enhance the level of that community by bringing it into a new sphere with new possibilities: the web.

So the gospel according to Facebook is that we need to promote community.

Actually, now that we speak about it in those terms, that doesn’t sound too dissimilar from God’s statement in Genesis 2:18, that “It is not good for man to be alone.”

The Bible, from the very beginning, makes it abundantly clear that we were intended to live in community with other people. God is a community within himself and, being made in His image, we carry the same innate need for intimate connections with other people. Many passages in the NT, in fact, are devoted to developing and enhancing the quality of our human community.

Consider all the “one another” statements we find there:
“Love one another.” (Rom. 12:10)
“Pray for one another.” (James 5:16)
“Be kind to one another…Forgiving one another.” (Eph 4:32)

One continuous thread that runs from the beginning of the Bible to the end is that we must fight to promote Biblical community.

So that is interesting…. Facebook and the Bible share the same fundamental assumption: we must promote human community.

I guess the question, then, is Does Facebook promote a Biblical version of community? Does it help us live more in line with the Bible’s vision for human interaction or less? Is it a help or a hindrance?

Before we answer that it would be helpful to know what, exactly, the Biblical picture of community is.

Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind and that the second is like it: to love others as our self. (Matt. 22:38,39).

To love others as we love ourselves is an interesting command. How do we love ourselves? We don’t always like ourselves. We aren’t always filled with happy feelings about ourselves. We do, however, always want and hope for our best.

Likewise, Christ is calling us to have an other-oriented view of relationships, to be concerned about the BEST for the other person, not just ourselves.

So how does the Facebook version of community match up to the Biblical version?
Some thoughtful Christian men and women have already chimed in on this very question. Here are a couple of opinions:

“The problem with the Facebook/myspace community is that it lives in cheap abundance, not invaluable scarcity. It provides the illusion that by being constantly in touch with a person, you can know them more.” -Requiem for Holy Moments, Brett McCracken

“I found that it encouraged me to think about me even more than I already do--which is admittedly already quite a bit. Does that make any sense? Without any help from the internet I'm inclined to give way too much time to evaluating myself, thinking about myself and wondering what other people think of me. If that egocentrism is a little flame, than Facebook for me is a gasoline IV feeding the fire. I need to grow in self-forgetfulness. I need to worry more about what God is thinking of me. I need to be preoccupied with what he's written in his word, not what somebody just wrote on my "wall."
-Josh Harris, Pastor

Though there are definitely deficiencies in the kind of community that Facebook encourages (as these guys point out), but I am wary about giving up on it too quickly. I think, like everything in our world, Facebook has some features that naturally DO promote God’s design for us to live in Biblical community and others that naturally hider it. Facebook is a mixed bag.

Next week, I will lay out some of the specific ways I think the gospel of Facebook helps and hinders the Biblical command to promote other-centered community.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Cutting up the Bible

Thomas Jefferson thought it was hard to read the Bible because there were so many unbelievable things in it, so he made a new one. He took the 4 gospels and literally cut everything supernatural out of it, creating his 46 page book Morals and Teachings of Jesus of Nazereth. He said this in a letter to John Adams in 1813:

In extracting the pure principles which [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled…I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently [Christ’s], which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”

Jefferson liked the morals of the Bible, but didn’t really like the Bible itself. I think this is a problem for lots of reasons, but this is the one I want to address in these three posts: Jefferson thought it was hard to read the Bible because it was wrong and he needed to cut things out of it to make it right, but the Bible’s answer is that it is hard to read because we are wrong and it needs to cut things out of us to make us right. You might say, of course that is what the Bible’s answer is, it is speaking of itself. But look at what Jefferson did closer and it begins to unravel.

The prerequisite for doing what Jefferson did was attaining a certain height of knowledge from which he can look down and discern right from wrong as he looked at the Bible, from which he would be able to separate that “diamonds from the dung.” That is exactly what he was claiming with his scissors, that he had reached this height of omniscience. That is what every culture thinks, whether it be 18th century Enlightenment, Easter Buddhism, the worldview of the American New Age spirituality, Postmodernism, etc. Every worldview and every culture thinks it’s finally hit on the truth, and every culture is wrong.

No culture in any time period has had a stranglehold on truth. If this is true of a culture, it is certainly true of an individual. Jefferson wasn’t speaking out of omniscience, he was just speaking from cultural arrogance. He was a product of humanistic (counting man as the center of all things), rationalistic (all things can be known through the reason) Enlightenment thinking which discounted the supernatural from the beginning. He made the mistake of assuming the boundaries of his knowledge were the boundaries of all knowledge and he cut out what didn’t fit his preconceptions.

What of the Bible’s answer to the question “Why is it hard to read the Bible?” It says that the Bible itself is not what is wrong, but it is we who read it that need correction. The truth of this answer is in its humility and its realism. It’s humble because it recognizes that no one culture or individual is omniscient. If we are too see beyond the horizon we need someone from that country to return from there and describe it to us. There is always much we do not know. It is realistic because it assumes that we don’t want to hear what we don’t want to hear. The engine of censorship doesn’t’ stop just because we are reading the Bible.

So what needs to be re-thought? Rather than scissors, we ought to approach the Bible with that same humility and realism, living with the questions and holding out the possibility that it may be we who are wrong, not the Bible.

[Series: Rethink the Bible (2), Rethink the Bible (3)]