Monday, August 31, 2009

A Few Thoughts on the Story of Joseph

I recently re-read the story of Joseph in Genesis (chapters 37-50) in preparation to teach it. Those fourteen chapters have always had a special place in my heart. And yet, reading them again gave me new insights and reconfirmed past insights. Here are a few random thoughts from my brain:

God is sovereign AND we are responsible. It is often thought that God's sovereignty - his control over events, lives, and hearts - somehow infringes upon our freedom and responsibility as human beings. That may seem like the logical answer if we are trusting in our reason as our authority. But Scripture must be our authority. And Scripture doesn't appear to believe that human responsibility and divine sovereignty are mutually exclusive. Genesis 50:20 says, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." It is telling that Joseph doesn't let his brothers completely off the hook. He doesn't say "what you guys did was okay, because God had a plan." He doesn't say "you're not responsible for your actions because God was in control." No, he says it like it is - what you did was evil, you meant evil against me. But God had a plan that was for my good and for the good of our people.

Being a Christian gives us the ability to interpret suffering. If God is both in control and is good, which we believe, then when we suffer and watch others suffer we have a grid through which we can view those periods of our lives. Joseph suffered immensely. At age 17 he is sold into slavery by his own brothers and by age 30 he's released from prison and brought before Pharaoh. That's 13 years stolen from him. In between those two bookmarks he works as a slave in Egypt, is falsely accused of attempted rape, and is unjustly thrown in prison where he is forgotten by those that he helped. Can you imagine how confusing and frustrating those times must have been? His own brothers, the ones that are supposed to look after him as the little brother, contemplate murdering him but decide against it so they can make a little money. While a slave he does everything right, works hard, is trustworthy, and then he even flees a sin that many of us wouldn't...but instead of being rewarded he's thrown in jail. And then in jail the same pattern recurs. He is trustworthy and diligent and blessed, so much so that the jailers begin to give Joseph responsibilities. And how is he rewarded? By interpreting a dream for a guy who then goes before Pharaoh and completely forgets about him for two years. Talk about confusing and frustrating. That was Joseph's life. And yet, when older, Joseph can look back on all those and say, "I get it. I may not have got it completely then, but I continued to trust that God knew what he was doing. And now, I see what his plan was, I see why I went through all of that. It was so that through me God could save many lives. The Egyptians, yes, but mostly his promised people of Israel." Suffering doesn't make sense to us. But Joseph's story teaches us that God is there and at work, even in our suffering.

God must first work in us before he works through us. This is a common theme through Scripture. David was not anointed king and then immediately put on the throne. Rather, he spent years of his life on the run from Saul. Living in caves, fighting battles, suffering hardship. Joseph, too, was first put through the fire of suffering before he was put in the place God had for him, a place where God would work powerfully through him. We were created for good deeds. Ephesians 2:10 says, "For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." We were created to do good works. But for God to accomplish good works through us he must first work on us. He must develop our character, our faith, our perseverance, our intellect, our relational skills, our ability to love, our ability to serve. He does this in many ways. Through the passage of time, periods of suffering, reading of his word, faithful and diligent prayer, discipline, within small groups, through classes or sermons, etc.

The story of Joseph is one that I've latched on to throughout my life. Maybe these three thoughts will help you as they've helped me.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Prominent Atheist Criticizes Richard Dawkins

From what I can tell, Michael Ruse seems to be an interesting person—the kind of person with whom you’d love to have a long, wide-ranging conversation over coffee. He’s currently a philosopher of biology at Florida St. University, having served as full time philosophy professor for 45 years. Writing a recent guest column for Beliefnet.com, he began a description of himself in this way:

In my seventieth year I find myself in a very peculiar position. Raised a Quaker, I lost my faith in my early twenties and it has never returned. I think of myself as an agnostic on deities and ultimate meanings and that sort of thing. With respect to the main claims of Christianity - loving god, fallen nature, Jesus and atonement and salvation - I am pretty atheistic, although some doctrines like original sin seem to me to be accurate psychologically. I often refer to myself as a very conservative non-believer, meaning that I take seriously my non-belief and I think others should do (and often don't).

Though an atheist, Ruse has a firm grasp of that which the Christian faith stands or falls (as well as little patience for those who fail to see the connection):

But I have little time for someone who denies the central dogmas of Christianity and still claims to be a Christian, except in a social sense. No God, no Jesus as His son, no resurrection, no eternal life - no Christianity.

Ruse’s particular area of interest is the controversy between evolutionists and creationists/proponents of intelligent design. Standing regularly in opposition to the latter, he nevertheless does not believe “that science and religion have to clash.” This position has earned him fierce criticism from members of the “new atheist” camp, including perhaps its most prominent member, Richard Dawkins.

For his part, Ruse has not take the criticism lying down:

Let me say that I believe the new atheists do the side of science a grave disservice. I will defend to the death the right of them to say what they do - as one who is English-born one of the things I admire most about the USA is the First Amendment. But I think first that these people do a disservice to scholarship. Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing. As I have said elsewhere, for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the ontological argument. If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly indignant. (He was just this when, thirty years ago, Mary Midgeley went after the selfish gene concept without the slightest knowledge of genetics.) Conversely, I am indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group.

A few comments in response:

  1. Ruse is not the only person to fault Dawkins’ handling of philosophy and religion/theology. But, coming as it does from a fellow atheist, his criticism has added credibility in a certain respect.
  2. His comments serve as an important reminder for anyone in the debate, including (especially!) Christians, to be fair to those in opposition and willing to recognize the areas in which they have little knowledge or expertise.
  3. That leads me to hope that the Christian side of this debate will have more and more dialog and cooperation between biblical scholars, philosophers, and scientists, to the effect that we have a more coherent and effective voice.

For those wishing to hear more from Ruse, check out the following interview he gave to the Center of Public Christianity.


HT: JT

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Are American Christians Becoming Hindus?

Christians are not exactly becoming Hindus but, according to Lisa Miller in Newsweek, they are becoming like Hindus in how they view religious truth.

"The Rig Veda, the most ancient Hindu scripture, says this: "Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names." A Hindu believes there are many paths to God. Jesus is one way, the Qur'an is another, yoga practice is a third. None is better than any other; all are equal. The most traditional, conservative Christians have not been taught to think like this. They learn in Sunday school that their religion is true, and others are false. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me."Christians are abandoning the exclusive truth claims of Christianity and are drawn to a more eclectic kind of spirituality. Miller cites a 2008 Pew Forum survey that showed that even among white evangelicals (the group with the most conservative religious beliefs) 37% believe that "many religions can lead to eternal life."

Later in the article, Miller turns to Stephen Prothero of Boston University who named this new spiritual perspective "the divine-deli-cafeteria religion" and commented that "it is very much in the spirit of Hinduism." He went on to add...
"It isn't about orthodoxy. It's about whatever works. If going to yoga works, great—and if going to Catholic mass works, great. And if going to Catholic mass plus the yoga plus the Buddhist retreat works, that's great, too."
When churches minimize the importance of teaching doctrinal beliefs, it should come as no surprise that church members don't understand the basic tenets of the faith. But individual Christians need to accept their share of responsibility. Their insatiable desire to have their "felt needs" met at the expense of learning the Bible is at least part of why churches have abandoned doctrine. For example, if The Crossing offered a set of classes on marriage and parenting and another set of classes on the gospel of John and How To Study the Bible, which classes would attract the most people? In case the answer isn't obvious to you, the great majority of people will choose the class that seems more practical.

While there is nothing wrong (and a lot right) with learning how to apply the Bible to your life in a practical way, an exclusive diet of that kind of teaching will leave you denying the faith without even realizing you're doing it. Eventually you will end up with people who call themselves Christians but no longer believe in the Christ of the Bible. "Eventually" may come sooner than you think. It might already be here.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Prayerful Meditation on Luke 18:35-43

Reading along in The Crossing’s Bible Reading Plan, today I came across Luke 18:35-43

As [Jesus] drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” And he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God (ESV).

I think this story is the perfect picture of how I need to pray to Jesus. This man knew his need for Christ—he was blind. He didn’t see reality as it is. He stumbled his way through life. He couldn’t even see who the people around him were. Imagine the darkness of not seeing. The aloneness. The fear. The inabilities. The unknowns. And someone answered that Jesus was near.

And then, in his utter, desperate need, he cried out to Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Son of David was an Old Testament idiom for the promised Messiah, which also means Christ. He couldn’t see Jesus, but already he believed that Jesus was the Christ—the only hope of healing and salvation. As he cried out to Jesus the Christ, those around him tried to silence him. But he would not be silenced. His need was too great, too serious, too hopeless without a Messiah for any more silence toward Jesus. Who cares what others say to me? I will not let them silence me anymore. I need Jesus.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! …Restore my sight!”

That’s my prayer to Jesus today: “Jesus, you’re the only true Messiah. You’re my only hope of restoration and salvation in this world of death and sickness and deformity and fear and worry and insecurity and hate and jealousy and lust and greed and selfishness and idolatry! All deformities from who you can restore me to be in your kingdom. I want to see you as who you really are. I want to see the kingdom of God as it really is. I want you to restore my sight. I want to see that you are my Messiah—my only Hope—my greatest Joy—my surest Love—my eternal Life—my Almighty God. Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!

“And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God.”

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Being God's Masks and A Reason to Keep Going

Most of us are habitual people. We have our schedules, our normal wake up times, our regular meetings. We see the same people at social functions or our kids' ball games. If we're not careful, routine begins to define our lives.

Maybe you're different than me, and I'm not saying that I don't like a routine. I do. But when my life is simply made up of routine, when I go through my mundane days simply going through the motions, it's hard to keep going. The routine that provides me with consistency also drains the joy out of living.

Whether right or not, when I'm bogged down in routine without remembering the larger picture of life, I feel insignificant. Each day's mundane chores, errands, and work don't seem to matter much.

Those are the bad days. The good days are different. On those I wake up and remember that God made me and loves me. I remember that he has given me certain talents, desires, and opportunities. I remember that all of those are to be used for his glory. And I remember that in his grand drama to redeem the world, he has given me a part in the play. The work I do really matters. The lives I come in contact are put in my path for a purpose, a God-given and God-glorifying purpose.

No matter your profession, no matter whether you have kids or not. God has given you a ministry. To your friends, your co-workers, your family, your clients. He has a part for you to play in the grandest drama ever told.

Here are a few quotes from the first chapter of a great book (Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey) which will help drive this home:

"This means that our vocation or professional work is not a second-class activity, something we do just to put food on the table. It is the high calling for which we were originally created."

"Martin Luther liked to say that our occupations are God's 'masks' - His way of caring for creation in a hidden manner through human means. In our work, we are God's hands, God's eyes, God's feet."
"The metaphor of God's 'masks' presses home the fact that our vocation is not something we do for God - which would put the burden on us to perform and achieve. Instead, it is a way we participate in God's work."

I need this reminder nearly daily. I matter. Not because I'm great or accomplished or talented on my own. But because God has made me that way and he wants me to participate in his work with the gifts he's given me.

Instead of being bogged down and discouraged with our day-to-day lives, may the knowledge that we are God's masks fill us with hope and give us a reason to keep going.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

How Deep the Father's Love for Us

How can we come to a richer understanding of God’s love for us as Christians? Paul’s letter to the Ephesians goes a long way toward that goal. Consider first what the apostle writes at the beginning of chapter two:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
Perhaps you’ve heard these verses before, even many times. If so, it’s easy to miss the shocking thing that Paul is describing. He makes it clear that those who now follow Christ did not always do so. Nor were we in some “neutral” camp. No, we were actually followers of another: the “ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (v. 2). In other words, whether aware of the fact or not, all Christians once showed allegiance to Satan himself. And in doing so we were “gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts” (v. 3) and were “dead” in our “transgressions and sins” (v. 1). We were completely devoid of anything truly alive toward God.

It goes without saying that this is not a pretty description. There was nothing about any Christian that merited God’s approval and favor before we came to Christ. In fact, the situation was exactly the opposite. In one of the most sobering descriptions in the Bible, Paul says that we were “objects of wrath” (v. 3), that is, we were justly deserving of God’s punishment. Far from being people toward whom God was well-disposed, we were his settled enemies.

It is precisely while we were deep this state, when “we were dead in our transgressions,” that Paul says that God “made us alive in Christ” (v.5). Again, make sure that you catch what a surprising development this is. Left to our own devices, we might be tempted to liken this to something like a kind soul taking in slightly unruly stray who nevertheless showed a spark of affinity toward his would-be master. But that was not our situation at all. We had made no move to reconcile with him. We had not acknowledged, even grudgingly, that we were in the wrong, that God was the rightful ruler of all creation, that his purposes and character were to shape our lives. We had not come to realize that our joy and satisfaction were to be found in him. We were still rebels in our ugly defiance. Still dead. Still just as much deserving of his wrath as we ever had been.

And what was the impetus for God to bring us out of our desperate situation and into new life? Paul makes this crystal clear as well. “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy made us alive in Christ” (v. 4, emphasis mine). God loved those who were anything but lovable.

But the way in which God gave us this new life is more shocking yet. It cost him the suffering and death of his own Son. This is another point we’re tempted to gloss over, many of us having heard it more times than we could count. But think for a minute. Here is someone willing to give up his own beloved son to torture and death. For what end? To rescue enemies from a fate they very justly deserved. As Paul says earlier in his letter, our redemption came “through his [i.e., Christ’s] blood.” I can hardly bear to imagine putting my children in a similar position, making their lives the ransom payment for a sworn enemy. It’s horrifying to me.

And yet there is still one more element to the story. And it’s the most shocking aspect of all.

God did not merely give up his own son on our behalf. What is implicit in the passages above Paul and other biblical writers state specifically elsewhere: to reconcile his unfathomable love with his perfect righteousness, God the Father had to pour out his wrath toward our sin on his own Son. He was bound by his own character to lay on Jesus the penalty we deserved. This alone could make him both “just and the justifier,” i.e., allow him to exact the appropriate punishment for sin and give us right standing with him (see Romans 3:23-26; cf. Isaiah 53:4-12, particularly v. 10). The Father did not just give him over to another. He brought about the terrible, ultimate punishment himself.

To give us just a glimpse of how incredible this is, imagine a man who had lost his wife in the 9/11 bombings. Then consider what it would take for him to give up his child to punishment…as act of mercy and love toward Osama Bin Laden, freeing the latter from a death sentence and adopting him as his own (see Eph. 1:5). Finally, imagine him having to carry out the punishment of his child himself.

If you’re shocked at that thought, you should be. Yet that’s in the ballpark of what the Bible tells us God has done on our behalf. That is the extent of his undeserved love for us.

The result of all of this? “The praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Eph. 1:6). Truly and deeply grasping what God has done for us in Christ can’t help but result in that very thing. As the psalmist says, “Let the name of the LORD be praised, both now and forevermore.”

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Wrong Way to Read History and Why You Need a Bible Reading Plan

I love reading all kinds of history. One of my favorite books this summer was Hunting Eichmann by Neil Bascomb. The book summarizes the atrocities of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann during WW2, follows his escape to Argentina as the allies closed in on Berlin, and then leads you on an almost 20 year hunt for him that finally ended with his capture in 1960. It reads like a novel.

So if I love reading history now, why did I hate it so much when I was in school? I'm sure that some of it has to do with the "know-it-all" attitude and the "school is boring" immaturity I had as a high school student. But I don't think that that's the whole answer. I think that a big part of my distaste was due to how history was taught.

Imagine reading a history of the United States by starting with the civil rights movement, then bouncing to the revolutionary war, examining FDR's presidency, and then surveying the founding fathers. It just wouldn't make sense. None of those events is understandable unless they are placed within their historical context. But my recollection is that is exactly how I was taught history--in short little segments that never seemed to relate to one another.

And I'm afraid that that is exactly how too many of us read the Bible. Maybe today I read a psalm, tomorrow a chapter from one of the Old Testament prophets, and the next day I read a section of John. No wonder we don't enjoy it or feel like we are understanding much of what we read.

The Bible is a story that starts with Genesis and continues through Revelation. Reading parts of the story without knowing something about the larger context leads first to confusion and then to frustration. Now that doesn't mean that you can't read one book of the Bible--say the gospel of Luke--without reading the entire Old Testament. But there is a case to be made for at least trying to start at the beginning of a book and read through til the end.

In January of this year we preached a series of sermons on the importance reading the Bible for yourself and declared 2009 to be the Year of the Bible at The Crossing. Our goal was to help each person read through the entire New Testament along with Psalms and Proverbs during this calendar year. Some of you are still on track to do just that while others started but got distracted at some point and of course there are others who never quite got started.

The Bible Reading Guide is designed to help you stay on course by providing bite size chunks of Scripture to be read each day. It also helps you read through entire books in order so that you can get the big picture of what's happening and avoid the confusion and frustration that comes when you just get pieces.

If you aren't participating in the program, I'd encourage you to get started. You can either start at the beginning making today January 1 or you can just pick up with the August 20th reading and continue on through the end of the year.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Julie & Julia

Here’s another film tip for you—go see Julie & Julia. It’s currently showing at the Hollywood Theaters, although probably not for much longer. So see it soon.

Jeannette and I went to see it last night, and both of us agreed that it was one of the most enjoyable films we’ve seen in a long time. From beginning to end, both of us sat there and delighted in every moment of the film—especially the fantastic acting by Meryl Streep as Julia Child. My guess is that most people are thinking of this as a chick-flick (I’m pretty sure I was the only guy in the theater, unfortunately). But it’s not a chick-flick. I will joyfully tolerate chick-clicks (my favorite is Return to Me—a must-rent, by the way). But Julie & Julia is not a chick-flick. It is the kind of entertainment that enriches you for having watched it. Great acting. Great directing. Great dialogues. Great cinematography. Fun to watch, with some good messages in it. So I hope you get a chance to see it for yourself if you have not done so yet. And it’s relatively safe for preteens and up (if I’m remembering everything in it, and not in it, correctly). You can always check these kinds of things out for yourself at Kids-in-Mind.

I wanted to see this film in particular because I had read a brilliant, thought-provoking piece in The New York Times Magazine about it a couple Sundays ago, specifically regarding some unfortunate trends in cooking and meals in our changing society. I had read it and so enjoyed it that I shared it via email with some close friends. My hope was to encourage them to read it and then have a meal together and discuss the article afterward. Hasn't happened yet, but will soon hopefully. Then I later discovered, ...well, actually just now as I retrieved it for this blog posting, that it was written by Michael Pollan, the author of Omnivore’s Dilemma (a book I recommended in a couple previous blogs a few weeks ago) and In Defense of Food. Now I realize why I liked it so much. Regardless of what you think about either of those books, I do think you’ll enjoy this article (which you can get here). It’s rather long and so you’ll need to print it and read it when you have some time to relax and enjoy it.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

A Sin You May Be Hiding

Keith's sermon yesterday really caused me to consider the things in my life that I've been content to let slip. I hope it did something similar to you. If you didn't get the chance to hear it, I recommend it highly (you can podcast it on iTunes...http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=73801297...or check out our website and find it there...www.thecrossingchurch.com).

As Keith mentioned, most of us, if we're being self-reflective and honest at all, probably came up with 3 or 4 plus sins that we've become content with. I was not any different.

But one that creeps in to my life regularly is this: spending time reflecting upon and learning God's Word becomes less and less of a priority.

So many other things seem more important on a daily basis...yet they clearly are not. Working out, resting, email, etc. All good things. But are they really more important than God's Word?

A passage like this one expresses what I wish my heart felt, but doesn't most of the time (Psalms 119:97-104):

Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes. I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts. I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path.

How often does your heart feel that way? How often do you long for God's word like that? I longed to play golf at Eagle Knoll this morning. I long to be a father. But do I long for God's Word that way right now, at this moment? Not really. And that's not right.

Here are a few resources that have helped me in the past, that I'm committing to enlist once again. Maybe they'll help you too (all of these are found in our bookstore...and they're as cheap as you'll find them anywhere).

Bible/Devotional Reading:

ESV Study Bible - We talk about this a lot at The Crossing. So I apologize...actually no, I don't. It's just such a wonderful resource. The free online bible that comes with it is a tremendous resource as well.



Morning & Evening - A classic by Charles Spurgeon. Morning and evening reflections and devotions from God's word. Great a hundred years ago. And still great today.


Pierced by the Word & Life as a Vapor - Two small devotional books by John Piper. Clear, short, saturated with Scripture. Each entry is generally 4 pages or less.


Prayer:

Face to Face & Handbook to Prayer - Two prayer books from Kenneth Boa. I'll be honest, I've not used Handbook at all, and only used Face to Face some. But they're recommended highly by people older than me. Which is why they made it into our bookstore as well.

Scripture Memorization:

Verse Card Maker - Here's a website that I stumbled upon that allows you to make customized memory cards. Full disclosure: I haven't used it yet, but it looks pretty neat.

We also have memory packets in the bookstore as well.

One more note. Make time for this. Make a commitment to bookmark off 15 minutes, 45 minutes, whatever, out of your day for something this vital to your life as a Christian. If you're like me, if you don't do it in the morning, you rarely do it. Some of you aren't that way. Check out Rachel's recent blog and comments for a little more perspective on this.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Voices in the Public Square

I’m thankful that, amidst the boisterous conversation in the public square, there are many compelling voices that are shaped by and encouraging to Christian faith commitments. This week I wanted to draw your attention to a few recent articles I’ve found helpful in thinking through current hot button issues as well as the larger, ongoing debate over the role of faith in public life. Though not the last word on any of these debates, they’re worth the read.

First, the highly decorated professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and distinguished Catholic intellectual Robert P. George recently authored an opinion piece in the Wall St. Journal speaking to the current debate over gay marriage. “Deeply embedded in our law and its shaping philosophical tradition,” George argues, is the idea that marriage is
a union that takes its distinctive character from being founded, unlike other friendships, on bodily unity of the kind that sometimes generates new life. This unity is why marriage, in our legal tradition, is consummated only by acts that are generative in kind. Such acts unite husband and wife at the most fundamental level and thus legally consummate marriage whether or not they are generative in effect, and even when conception is not sought.

Of course, marital intercourse often does produce babies, and marriage is the form of relationship that is uniquely apt for childrearing (which is why, unlike baptisms and bar mitzvahs, it is a matter of vital public concern). But as a comprehensive sharing of life—an emotional and biological union—marriage has value in itself and not merely as a means to procreation. This explains why our law has historically permitted annulment of marriage for non-consummation, but not for infertility; and why acts of sodomy, even between legally wed spouses, have never been recognized as consummating marriages.
He goes on to discuss the implications that would result from abandoning this traditional definition of marriage:

If marriage is redefined, its connection to organic bodily union—and thus to procreation—will be undermined. It will increasingly be understood as an emotional union for the sake of adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play. But there is no reason that primarily emotional unions like friendships should be permanent, exclusive, limited to two, or legally regulated at all. Thus, there will remain no principled basis for upholding marital norms like monogamy.

A veneer of sentiment may prevent these norms from collapsing—but only temporarily. The marriage culture, already wounded by widespread divorce, nonmarital cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing will fare no better than it has in those European societies that were in the vanguard of sexual “enlightenment.” And the primary victims of a weakened marriage culture are always children and those in the poorest, most vulnerable sectors of society.
Secondly, the current issue of First Things contains an article by George Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, entitled “Intolerant Tolerance.” Some excerpts:
Some secularists seem to like one-way streets. Their distaste for Christianity leads them to seek to drive it not only from the public square but even from any provision of education, health care, and welfare services. Ironically, intolerance of Christianity and Christian culture is proclaimed most often in the name of tolerance. Christianity must not be tolerated because of the need for greater tolerance.

At present, the most preferred means for addressing the perceived intolerance seems to be antidiscrimination legislation. …Until relatively recently, antidiscrimination laws usually included exemptions for churches and other religious groups so they could practice and manifest their beliefs in freedom. That word exemptions is actually a misnomer, suggesting as it does some sort of concessions from the state to eccentric minorities. These provisions are better described as protections of religious freedom—and such protections are increasingly being refused or defined in the narrowest possible terms in new antidiscrimination measures, with existing protections eroded or construed away by the courts.
………
How should Christians respond to this growing intolerance? Clearly, there is an urgent need to deepen public understanding of the importance and nature of religious freedom. Having the freedom to search for answers to questions of meaning and value and to live publicly and privately in accordance to our answers is an essential part of human fulfillment and happiness. It also gives rise to other important freedoms, such as the rights to freedom of expression, thought, and conscience.
………
Christians have to recover their genius for showing that there are better ways to live and build a good society—ways that respect freedom, empower individuals, and transform communities. They also have recover their self-confidence and courage. The secular and religious intolerance of our day needs to be confronted regularly and publically.
Finally, my thanks to Crossing member Cami Wheeler, who alerted me to an article on the Christian Medical and Dental Associations website regarding HR3200, the health care reform bill currently proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives. The article briefly lists the principles the CMDA uses to evaluate health care reform proposals and subsequently expresses significant concerns over the implications of the bill as it now stands, including government mandated abortion coverage, potentially forcing doctors to participate in abortion despite objections of conscience (which unfortunately would be precisely the kind of thing Pell warns against in the article mentioned above), and marginalizing the neediest patients by rationing care.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

What I've Been Praying For Lately

For me, prayer has always been one of the most difficult Christian practices. I know it shouldn't be that way. And yes I'm a pastor so I can reel off a list of biblical, theological, and practical explanations to why and how I should pray. But none of that makes prayer easy for me. Talking about prayer is easy. It's the actual praying that's hard.

One of the things that has helped me is that over the years I've developed the habit of looking for prayer "guides." These "guides" are passages of Scripture or prayer books that help focus my mind and heart on God, the gospel, and the right kind of requests. They help keep my prayers balanced, biblical, and God centered rather devolving into a laundry list of only my personal needs.

Two of my favorites are the Handbook To Prayer: Praying Scripture Back to God and The Valley of Vision: A collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. Both are available in the church's bookstore.

But lately I've been using the apostle Paul's prayer in Colossians 1:9-14 as my guide to pray for myself, my family, our church, and other people that I know. It starts this way:
"For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you."
I don't think that "not stopped praying for you" means that Paul has taken the life of a monk who literally does almost nothing but pray. Instead I think that Paul is saying that he has regular set times that he intercedes with God on their behalf. He isn't trying to work prayer into his schedule. No, he's set aside times to pray and everything else on his "to do list" will have to fit in.
"We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding."
This is the one thing that Paul asks God for in this prayer. He continually, repeatedly, and often asks God to fill these people with the knowledge of his will. Paul is NOT asking God to give them clues about who they should marry, which job they should take, or whether they should make a major purchase. Paul's prayer about God's will is more like David's prayer "Teach me to do your will" (Psalm 143:10). In the Bible God's will is not something in our future that we are trying to figure out but something that has already been revealed in the Scripture.

The means that God fills people with the knowledge of his will is "through all spiritual wisdom and understanding." Spiritual wisdom and understanding are neither natural nor automatic which of course is why we should follow Paul's model and continually pray that God would give them to us and others. It is not natural to see that God is in control over all things. It is not natural to believe that the promises of God are far more satisfying than the pleasures of this world. It is not natural to believe that we will be far happier if we store up treasures in heaven rather than on Earth. By definition spiritual truth is unnatural (see 1 Corinthians 2:6-14) and so we pray that God would give us eyes and ears and hearts that see, hear, and believe Truth.

So that's been my prayer as of late. "God, please give me, my family, this church eyes, ears, hearts that see, hear, and believe the truth so that we will want to do your will in every area of life."
"And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way..."
The reason that Paul prays for them to know and do the will of God is so that they will lives lives that are fully pleasing to God. As you pray this for yourself or another person stop and think through each area of life and ask God to make that area pleasing to him. God, I ask that my conversations would be fully pleasing to you. God, I ask that how I spend my money would be fully pleasing to you. God I ask that I would please you in how I talk to my wife, kids, co-workers, etc....

This is plenty to chew on for today. Hopefully I'll finish walking through the prayer in a post next Thursday. But one last thing: Praying portions of Scripture is much, much, much more motivating to me than just asking that God would "bless" someone or give them good health. When I pray through the Bible, I have the confidence that I'm praying about things that God cares about.


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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Learning from Dead People

To me there's something mysteriously wonderful about reading books written long ago by people dead for centuries. When you stop to think about it, when you read an old book, you're actually learning from someone who lived many, many years ago. You're actually hearing them speak to you! Since reading the biography on Martin Luther, I was inspired to purchase some books that contain his writings, and I've enjoyed being taught a fresh by such a devoted and devout Christian who lived 500 years ago. Pretty cool, when you really think about what's actually happening. I'm being taught by someone who lived 500 years ago! Reading is such a wonderful, magical thing!

And that leads me to my main point in my blog entry today: Yesterday I read from my little devotional book by Charles Spurgeon, a baptist pastor who lived in the mid-1800's in London. He is a fantastic teacher with excellent theology and practical insights, and whenever I read from his "Morning and Evening," I'm sitting at his feet and listening to him teach me from his own walk with Christ. I'm actually learning from a guy who lived over 150 years ago! Wow, I think that's really cool. And Spurgeon is a true gift of God to the church. We sell his "Morning and Evening" devotionals at our bookstore, and I highly recommend you give it a try. It's a great way to kick-start your quiet time/devotionals with solid biblical doctrine that stirs the heart.

(You can also buy it for your Kindle here. Or you can buy another revised kindle version that is based on the ESV Bible and nicely laid out for daily readings here. But it's more expensive. I bought the former and the latter, and the latter one looks very nice.)

Here's the daily reading I read from Charles Spurgeon yesterday. As you read it, don't take it for granted that you're being taught the scriptures by a Christian dead well over a century now. What a gift he left behind for us.

"And of his fulness have all we received." John 1:16

These words tell us that there is a fulness in Christ. There is a fulness of essential Deity, for "in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead." There is a fulness of perfect manhood, for in him, bodily, that Godhead was revealed. There is a fulness of atoning efficacy in his blood, for "the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanseth us from all sin." There is a fulness of justifying righteousness in his life, for "there is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus." There is a fulness of divine prevalence in his plea, for "He is able to save to the uttermost them that come unto God by him; seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them." There is a fulness of victory in his death, for through death he destroyed him that had the power of death, that is the devil. There is a fulness of efficacy in his resurrection from the dead, for by it "we are begotten again unto a lively hope." There is a fulness of triumph in his ascension, for "when he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and received gifts for men." There is a fulness of blessings of every sort and shape; a fulness of grace to pardon, of grace to regenerate, of grace to sanctify, of grace to preserve, and of grace to perfect. There is a fulness at all times; a fulness of comfort in affliction; a fulness of guidance in prosperity. A fulness of every divine attribute, of wisdom, of power, of love; a fulness which it were impossible to survey, much less to explore. "It pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell." Oh, what a fulness must this be of which all receive! Fulness, indeed, must there be when the stream is always flowing, and yet the well springs up as free, as rich, as full as ever. Come, believer, and get all thy need supplied; ask largely, and thou shalt receive largely, for this "fulness" is inexhaustible, and is treasured up where all the needy may reach it, even in Jesus, Immanuel--God with us. (
Morning, January 27)

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Distinguishing Between the Gospel and Its Consequences

I’ve recently run across some helpful comments penned by New Testament scholar D. A. Carson regarding the necessity of distinguishing between the gospel and the fruit that springs from its acceptance, namely, deeds of service and mercy. Carson is a longtime faculty member of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (from which our own Keith Simon and Shay Roush received their seminary training), and it’s no stretch to say he’s one of the finest biblical/theological scholars in the world. As such, virtually everything he writes is worth at least a careful hearing. This short piece was no exception.

Though I’d encourage you to read the whole thing (it’s short), here are some thought provoking excerpts:
I’d like to underscore another distinction that is still worth making. It was understood better in the past than it is today. It is this: one must distinguish between, on the one hand, the gospel as what God has done and what is the message to be announced and, on the other, what is demanded by God or effected by the gospel in assorted human responses.
………
The first two greatest commands—to love God with heart and soul and mind and
strength, and our neighbor as ourselves—do not constitute the gospel, or any part of it. We may well argue that when the gospel is faithfully declared and rightly received, it will result in human beings more closely aligned to these two commands. But they are not the gospel.
………
We may even argue that some…list of moral commitments is a necessary consequence of the gospel. But it is not the gospel. We may preach through the list, reminding people that the Bible is concerned to tell us not only what to believe but how to live. But we may not preach through that list and claim it encapsulates the gospel. The gospel is what God has done, supremely in Christ, and especially focused on his cross and resurrection.
He concludes his thoughts by identifying the overriding importance of making the above distinction:
Failure to distinguish between the gospel and all the effects of the gospel tends, on the long haul, to replace the good news as to what God has done with a moralism that is finally without the power and the glory of Christ crucified, resurrected, ascended, and reigning.
This are timely thoughts, given the debate taking place particularly among different groups within the big tent of American evangelicalism, broadly. In an earlier, related editorial (also short and worth reading in full), Carson framed the crucial contemporary question this way:
In many parts of the evangelical world, one hears a new debate—or, more precisely, new chapters in an old debate—regarding the precise place that “deeds of mercy” ought to have in Christian witness. I am not talking about the perennial debate between left-wing and right-wing economic solutions…. I am talking, rather, about the debate between those Christians who say that we should primarily be about the business of heralding the gospel and planting churches, and those who say that our responsibility as Christians extends to the relief of oppression, suffering, and poverty in all their forms.
Carson goes on to touch on historical examples in which, on the one hand, great social progress resulted from movements that kept the preaching of the gospel in primary focus and, on the other, Christian social action that eventually obscured or replaced such preaching. With the remainder of the essay, he recounts a recent discussion among about fifty pastors in which the participants sought to answer the following question:
Granted that we ought to be engaged in acts of mercy, what safeguards can be set in place so as to minimize the risk that the deeds of mercy will finally swamp the proclamation of the gospel and the passionate desire to see men and women reconciled to God by faith in Christ Jesus and his atoning death and resurrection?
Carson mentions two suggestions that arose in the discussion:

1. Distinguish between the responsibilities of the Church as the Church and those of Chrsitians. In line with the example of the apostles themselves (see Acts 6), “Ministers of the gospel ought so to be teaching the Bible in all its comprehensiveness that they will be raising up believers with many different avenues of service, but they themselves must not become so embroiled in such multiplying ministries that their ministries of evangelism, Bible teaching, making disciples, instructing, baptizing, and the like, somehow get squeezed to the periphery and take on a purely formal veneer.”

2. Preach hell. “By adopting this priority we remind ourselves that as Christians we desire to relieve all suffering, from the temporal to the eternal. If we do not maintain such a panoramic vision, the relief of immediate suffering, as important as it is, may so command our focus that we fail to remind ourselves of Jesus’ rhetorical question, “What good will it be for you to gain the whole world yet forfeit your soul?”

You can find more thoughts from Carson on this topic here.

HT: Between Two Worlds

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought"

I just finished a short (230 pages) biography on the life and doctrine and ministry of Martin Luther (1483-1546). I read it as a participant in a staff book discussion initiated and led by my son, David. I'm glad and grateful that I did.

When Luther was born, Europe was under a pervading spiritual darkness of a very corrupt and, frankly, demonic controlled Catholic “Church.” It was a time when the gospel was completely lost, Scripture was utterly obscure, and anyone who sought to resurrect either was punished by death (often by being burned at the stake). Then in 1517, an ordained Catholic monk, Martin Luther, nailed his history-revolutionizing Ninety-Five Theses to a Catholic Church door inside the Wittenberg Castle. While these ninety-five theses didn’t really, in and of themselves, recapture the scriptures and the gospel, the events that transpired subsequent to that did. And it’s a very interesting story that you can read in many church history books and biographies. But the one I just read, Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought, by Stephen J. Nichols, is short enough and straightforward enough and inspiring enough for me to personally recommend it to you. It's a nice introduction to Luther and his teachings. And I just ordered ten copies to be available this Sunday in our bookstore at cost if you want to pick one up for yourself.

There are so many little things that inspired me from reading Luther’s story. Just a few things that particularly stuck out to me are:

First, we all owe a great debt to Martin Luther (even the modern-day Catholic Church, which is different in so many ways today precisely because of Luther!). He was someone who stood for the gospel, and with it the centrality of Christ and the cross and scripture, and at an incredible personal cost. The Catholic Church had put out a death warrant for him (their proclamation that anyone who found a way to kill Luther would be forgiven of all their life’s sins), and that death warrant was never lifted. So Luther was constantly in danger and a religious fugitive for 25 years until his death. But he kept preaching, kept writing, kept teaching, and eventually Christianity regained its biblical, Christ-centered, gospel-driven power that swept the world again. And you and I are part of it today, and enjoying it today, in human terms, entirely due to Luther’s profound trials and sufferings and determination. And I was struck just by how much that really is true.

Second, Martin Luther was a Calvinist. Well, that sounds stupid because Martin Luther never met John Calvin, and the bulk of Luther’s teachings, writings and ministry superseded, chronologically, anything ever written by Calvin. And it is indeed a stupid statement. Just as stupid as it is to call anyone a Calvinist. It’s true, Martin Luther definitely believed and taught on predestination and unconditional election. And Luther did so well before Calvin ever did. So why do people associate this doctrine with Calvin, but not Luther? Of course, the reason Martin Luther believed in predestination is the same reason John Calvin did (and it's the same reason I do): it’s because of his belief in the centrality of God's word, and the Bible so clearly teaches predestination (for example: Romans 8:28-30, Romans 9, Eph 1:4, 11, just to cite a few scriptures—see my past blogs on Romans 8:28-30). That’s why I actually hate being called a Calvinist, anymore than I don’t want to be called a Lutherist (the term “Lutheran” has already been taken by some people). I don’t believe in the doctrine of predestination because John Calvin did, nor because Martin Luther did, but because it’s what we are taught to be true in Holy Scripture. And that’s the only reason anyone should ever believe and teach it. But a Christian today should take note that, if they do not believe in predestination, they are very much separating themselves, doctrinally, from the likes not just of John Calvin, but also of Martin Luther. And that should at least give one pause.

Finally, I was struck by how much Luther put his money where his mouth is. He believed in the Bible alone being our foundation of truth about God and salvation and life, and he would read it entirely through twice a year! And then he sought to live and teach as if it was true. Even if that meant his death. And he even translated it from the Hebrew and Greek into the common German language of his day (at that time the Catholic Church only allowed the Latin translation, and any exception was punishable by being burned alive at the stake). He preached from the Bible five separate times a week, and lectured on it daily. And he taught that what every believer should strive toward most in their faith is Christ—to love Christ and to love others for/with Christ. Life was not worth living if it meant to compromise loving God and loving our neighbor in any way. And he put his money where his mouth is there too. When the black plague hit Wittenberg, Luther opened up his own home, where he and his family lived, as a makeshift hospital for those struck by the plague. Now that’s love for Christ and love for others. He truly lived the words he wrote in his famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.

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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Being a Blessing to The World

What does it mean to be a Christian?

A simple question with any number of correct answers. But one of the repeated descriptions of believers in the bible has to do with the impact we have on the world around us.

In the Old Testament, believers are to be "a blessing to the nations" -

Genesis 12:2 - "I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing."

Genesis 18:18 - "Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him."

In the New Testament, believers are to be "salt and light" -

Matthew 7:13-16 - "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."

But I don't think we always consider the aim of our faith in such terms. We think more in terms of being good enough, or doing enough to get by. But that's not the attitude we're called to have.

This is a common biblical malady. In Luke 10 when Jesus instructs an "expert in the law" to love his neighbor, the man's follow up question isn't "how?", but "who is my neighbor?" He was asking the wrong question, not striving to be salt and light, but just wanting to get by with the minimum.

In Matthew 18, Peter asks Jesus how often he has to forgive someone. Jewish custom said three times was enough, so when Peter suggests seven he was feeling quite generous. But Jesus replies with not seven, but seventy-seven. Peter just wanted to get by, but Jesus wouldn't let him, and he won't let us.

In ministering to high school students, a common question in terms of their sexuality is "how far is too far?"

I always tell them, "you're asking the wrong question." And I say the same to us. When thinking of giving, we shouldn't simply ask "how much must I give?" Don't just shoot for not being selfish, strive for utter and total selflessness.

I'll leave you with a shining biblical example of what this looks like.

It's found in the book of Ruth, chapter 2. Ruth is gleaning discarded grain in a field owned by Boaz. Old Testament law required farmers to leave some of their crops to help the poor. ("When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner." ~ Lev. 19:9-10)

But in verses 15 and 16 this is recorded: "As she got up to glean, Boaz gave orders to his men, 'Let her gather among the sheaves and don't reprimand her. Even pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up, and don't rebuke her.'"

He didn't do just enough to get by, but went above and beyond what was required because Boaz was concerned about being salt and light, about being a blessing to the world around him.

If Christianity is to have the reputation that it should, if people are to see Christianity as attractive and worth following - it will require the church and its members to exhibit a heart like Boaz's.

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