Saturday, October 31, 2009

Conditioning and Reputation

About a month ago, John Piper spoke at a conference for the American Association of Christian Counselors.

If you've listened to or read Piper much, you know he's not a funny guy (the audio can be found here, the pertinent section is the first five minutes). I don't say that as a criticism, but simply as a fact. He rarely tells jokes during sermons or lectures. But at this conference a short time ago, Piper got multiple big laughs in the first few minutes of his lecture.

The problem lies in this: he wasn't telling jokes. He was confessing sin. In the first few minutes he talks about his failures as a pastor and particularly as a husband, in some detail. And yet they chuckled.


Because apparently for several days every speaker had been somewhat of a comedian (once again, I'm not criticizing here...I like humor and jokes in sermons, lectures, books, etc.). They had told jokes and got laughs. So by the time Piper got up there, the audience was conditioned to laugh and expect humor. The speakers, over the course of a few days, built that reputation and thus drastically influenced what the audience came to expect of the speakers, even Piper.

The effects of conditioning and reputation are quite powerful. What reputation are you building with those around you? In what ways does that influence what people expect of you?

Are you such a joke-teller and funny man, that people can't take you seriously when you are attempting to be? Have you built a reputation that causes your kids to not take you seriously even in stern moments of discipline? Have you built up a reputation of being quick-tempered so that your spouse hears anger from you even when it's not there? Do your co-workers expect laziness and half-hearted work from you? Do your friends expect you to be aloof because of your consistent pattern of dealing with them?

Conditioning and reputation are powerful things.

I'll leave us with this proverb (Proverbs 3:3-4):

Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute
in the sight of God and man.

Notice that love and faithfulness is "bound around your neck" and "written on your heart." They're ever present, they're noticeable. That's how you build a reputation, that's how you condition people to expect certain things from you.

So what's your reputation?

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is Grumbling That Big Of A Deal?

I've been doing a lot of reading through the Old Testament lately and I've been struck by a consistent theme that is present in both the Israelites and myself: grumbling. A lot of times grumbling doesn't seem like much of a sin at all. And if there were ever such a thing as "respectable sins," I'm sure that grumbling would be on my list. Respectable sins are sins that are so common in both our personal lives and the wider culture that they seem unavoidable. In addition these so called "respectable sins" don't appear to do anyone much harm.

I've been more than a little convicted by both the pervasiveness of grumbling and the seriousness with which the Bible treats it. Here are a few of my observations.

1. All grumbling is against God. After the Israelites had been delivered from slavery in Egypt, they immediately began to grumble against their leaders, Moses and Aaron, becaue of a lack of food (Exodus 16:2). But just a few verses later the people are warned that, "You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord" (16:8).

We think that our grumbling is against people or circumstances but these verses teaches us that all our grumbling is truly against God. That's because God in his sovereignty is the one who placed people in our life and placed us in particular circumstances. So when we complain and grumble we are really grumbling against God's provision. In effect we are saying, "God, I don't like what you gave me. I deserve better."

2. Grumbling makes you stupid. You might recall that in Egypt the Israelites led a pretty miserable life. As slaves of Pharoah they were given unrealistic demands for their work and then beaten when they failed to meet those demands (Exodus 5). God responded to their cries for mercy by delivering them from their bondage. But at the first sign of difficulty the people dreamed up some crazy story about how good they had it in Egypt: "There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted..." (Exodus 16:3).

Really? God delivered his people from misery and promises to take them to a land flowing with milk and honey, but they complain that they have somehow been mistreated. That's what I mean when I say that sin makes you stupid. Sin makes you see wretchedness as attractive while ignoring what will really satisfy your heart.

3. Grumbling can be rooted in envy. Once a person starts grumbling about what he has been given (or not given), then he begins to see every other person as having a better life. And he expects to be compensated for his great suffering. Much grumbling is the result of comparing ourselves to others. That was the case in Numbers 12:2 when Miriam and Aaron were upset that Moses was getting more attention than they were.

Have you ever noticed that when it comes to playing the comparison game, we often only compare ourselves to people who in our opinion have it better than we do?

4. Grumbling is very serious. It isn't a "respectable sin" at all. Paul writes, "And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel" (1 Corinthians 10:10). Like every other sin, grumbling incurs God's judgment. But what's significant about this passage is that Paul puts grumbling in the same list as idolatry, sexual immorality, and testing the Lord. Do we see it as seriously as God does?

5. Grumbling affects leaders. On another occassion the Israelites were grumbling about the food that God had provided them. This time they wanted meat instead of manna. Numbers 11 tells us that the people's grumbling about food that God had given them led to Moses grumbling about the people that God had given him. Kent Hughes points out that in the original Hebrew Moses' complaint (11:11:15) is filled with 20 self-references. That's not a coincidence. Grumbling is the result of self-focus along with thinking too highly of oneself. It's the attitude of "I deserve better."

We need a better prophet.
As a prophet Moses was supposed to intercede for the people before God not turn on them and complain about them. The problem of course is that Moses was a sinful person like the rest of us. We need a prophet without sin so that he can intercede for us before God (Hebrews 7:25). We need a prophet who himself never grumbled (Hebrews 2:15). Of course that prophet is Jesus. He is greater than Moses in every way. He delivered us from sin and empowers us so that we might live a life of thankfulness and contentment.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Why I'm Looking Forward to Hearing Paul Tripp This Weekend

This Friday night (7:00-8:30) and Saturday morning (9:00-12:00), Paul Tripp will be speaking at The Crossing on “War of Words” (a truly life-changing kind of book that has had a pretty big impact on my own faith and life). Along with Tim Keller and John Piper, Paul Tripp is one of those pastor/author/speakers that has so greatly shaped our thinking and teaching as pastors at The Crossing. Some of our “best sermons,” as people say, have used Paul Tripp’s books as a key resource. Ephesians 4:11 tells us that good teachers are Christ’s gift to his church, and Paul Tripp is a gift for which I’m particularly thankful.

Along with other great books Paul’s authored, his book War of Words is one of those books we’ve used many, many times to help ourselves and help our congregation better apply the realities of who Christ is to the realities of our daily lives, relationships, pursuits, and life-goals. And one of my favorite chapters in War of Words is chapter six—“Following the King for All the Wrong Reasons.” Below are some brief excerpts from that chapter that remind me why I’m looking forward to hearing Paul Tripp speak to us this weekend at The Crossing.

To help you understand the context of this chapter, here's what John 6:25–29, 33-36 says...

When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent. …For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe” (TNIV).

Referring to the above scripture passage, here are some brief excerpts from chapter six of War of Words...

If you had to write down your dream for your life, what would you write? What is your “if only,” “if I could just have,” “if God would just give me … then I would be happy”? Maybe a better way to ask the question is, What kind of Messiah do you want Jesus to be in your life?

…It is so easy to buy into the lie that life can be found in human acceptance, possessions, and position. It is so easy to have your life controlled by dreams of success in your career. It is so easy to believe that nothing satisfies like romantic love. It is so easy to fall into pursuing the idol images of Western culture—big suburban house, luxurious car, lavish vacations, etc. When we do this, we quit feeding on Christ. Our devotional life begins to suffer. We pray less, and when we do, we pray more selfishly. We find our schedule doesn’t leave much time for ministry, and we spend more time with our colleagues at work than we do with brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Functionally, we are feeding on the world’s bread, not on Christ. Our entire life will be determined by which bread we pursue.

…What does your talk reveal of the true love(s) of your heart? What is the deep inner hunger that you live to satisfy? Is it hunger for Christ? …Whose bread are we really seeking? What is revealed by our reactions and words? Perhaps many of us, even though we have not physically forsaken [Christ], have lost our enthusiasm for his grace and mercy because following him has not led to the fulfillment of our dreams. In our hearts, we too have left him, like the disciples [in John 6] who walked sadly away when he called them to a commitment of faith.

…John 6 points us to the core issue of our words: Our words are shaped by the dream that resides in our hearts. They are determined by the bread we are seeking.

Take a husband and wife, for example. If each is holding on tightly to a personal dream, feeding on earthly bread, they will inevitably experience frustration and disappointment with each other and much conflict as their dreams collide. Their world of talk will surely be a world of trouble. They will find themselves cursing the spouse God gave them and at times may even utter resentful curses at God.

… In John 6, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” Ask yourself this question: Which bread do I hunger for? What kind of bread do I really want to feed on?”

Just some snippets. If you have not yet registered to attend our Paul Tripp conference at The Crossing this weekend, you can do so online right now here. The cost is just $15 per person (which allows us to pay him and his travel expenses) and childcare is provided for free as long as you sign up for it beforehand. I really do hope to see you there.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

He Says It Better Than I Can

“From the perspective of a Christian, the refusal of an atheist to be a Christian is dismaying, but it is at least intelligible. But what is really disconcerting is the failure of atheists to be atheists. That is the thing that cries out for further exploration.”

So begins Douglas Wilson’s short defense of Christian belief written for the Huffington Post. The full HP article, also containing an argument for atheism by Christopher Hitchens, serves as a taste of the debates captured by the recently released documentary film, Collision. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the film highlights the relationship and debate between these two interesting public intellectuals. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet received the copy I ordered, so I can’t make a full review.

In the meantime, however, I found Wilson’s piece to give a concise and compelling expression of a centrally important argument against atheism. So I thought I’d pass along a further excerpt:
So if the universe is what the atheist maintains it is, then this determines what sort of account we must give for the nature of everything -- and this includes the atheist's thought processes, ethical convictions, and aesthetic appreciations. If you were to shake up two bottles of pop and place them on a table to fizz over, you could not fill up an auditorium with people who came to watch them debate. This is because they are not debating; they are just fizzing. If you were to shake up one bottle of pop, and show it film footage of some genocidal atrocity, the reaction you would get is not moral outrage, but rather more fizzing. And if you were to shake it really hard by means of art school, and place it in front of Michelangelo's David, or the Rose Window of Chartres Cathedral, the results would not really be aesthetic appreciation, but more fizzing still.

If the atheist is right, then I am not a Christian because I have mistaken beliefs, but am rather a Christian because that is what these chemicals would always do in this arrangement and at this temperature. The problem is that this atheistic assumption does the very same thing to the atheist's case for atheism. The atheist gives us an account of all things which makes it impossible for us to believe that any account of all things could possibly be true. But no account of things can be tenable unless it provides us with the preconditions that make it possible for our "accounting" to represent genuine insight. Atheism fails to do this, and the failure is a spectacular one. Nor does atheism allow us to have any fixed ethical standard, or the possibility of beauty.

It does no good to appeal to the discoveries made by science and reason, for one of the things that reason has apparently brought us is atheism. Right? And not content to let sleeping dogs lie, reason also brings us the inexorable consequences of atheism, which includes the unpalatable but necessary conclusion that random neuron firings do not amount to any "truth" that corresponds to anything outside our heads. This, ironically enough, includes atheism, and so we find ourselves falling out of the tree, saw in one hand and branch in the other.
For a more detailed argument along these lines by one of the world’s leading philosophers, check out Alvin Plantiga’s interaction with the arguments of Richard Dawkins in this article in Books and Culture. Also, Tim Keller incorporates Plantinga’s argument, along with corroborating observations from those outside the Christian faith in chapter 8 (“The Clues of God”) of The Reason for God.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

"I'll Be Bummed for Christmas...You Can Plan on Me."

Some quick thoughts on the practical application of Matthew 25:34-40 as we all careen headlong into the craziness of the American holiday season.

Thanksgiving, followed by the relentless insanity of the month-long run-up to Christmas, can be one of the most emotionally difficult and draining times of the year if, like millions of us, your family unit is not exactly "Norman Rockwell picture-postcard" perfect.

Particularly true for those who have recently been separated or divorced, it can seem like all of American culture is ganging up on you, conspiring to vividly demonstrate just how broken and damaged your life really is. Sure, you might have a really lousy day dealing with your ex and/or missing your kids sometime in April, too...but at least in April you aren't getting hammered over and over again with radio, print and television ads that all trot out the perfect (intact) American family with impossibly white teeth, wide smiles, stacks of beautifully-wrapped presents and mugs of hot cocoa with whipped cream. The unspoken message behind these seasonal images is not at all subtle: "Your family should look like this one. Everyone should be together on Christmas Day, interacting as one big, happy family."

This not-at-all-realistic message can be demoralizing to mothers and fathers who are just barely hanging on, just trying to keep the heat and electricity on in their apartment, let alone figure out a way to afford a few presents under the tree for their kids...who they might get to see for a few hours sometime Christmas afternoon. Speaking from personal experience, I can attest to the fact that there are few things more depressing than waking up Christmas morning alone - the first thought of the morning being, "Merry Christmas...I'm in this dingy, one-bedroom apartment by myself."

And the hushed, closed-down nature of the world outside your window can be enough to freak anyone out. Seriously, if you ever find yourself alone on a Christmas morning, you can quite reasonably expect to walk out your front door and film your own version of Omega Man, the 1971 apocalyptic movie which features Charlton Heston as the very last man on Earth, the sole survivor of a worldwide plague. No one is out on the streets. Almost nothing is open for business. The only thing missing is the hooded cult of red-eyed mutant vampires.

All kidding aside, the holidays can be desperate times for many of us and, sadly, the vast majority of those with broken traditions will more than likely choose to "suffer in silence." If you know someone going through divorce, I would urge you to reach out to them and show them the love of Christ in a tangible way. Invite them to share the Thanksgiving or Christmas meal with your family, for example. If they happened to get the short end of the custody/visitation stick this year, your invitation might make the difference between enjoying the day and finally breaking down and trying out the breakfast sausage at the local Breaktime.

Another idea might be to encourage them to participate in an event organized with them specifically in mind. On Dec. 5, The Crossing will host a seminar called "Surviving the Holidays," specially designed for those in our midst who are reeling from a recent separation and/or divorce, and whose holiday traditions have almost certainly been completely scrapped in the process. This Christ-centered event will nonetheless provide practical, immediate tips for anyone - Christian or non-Christian - who has gone or is going through the break-up of the family.

If you are not separated or divorced, but you know someone who is, please consider turning them on to this event as a way of (1) letting them know you care about them, and (2) getting them some real, practical tools for coping during the holiday madness. (Who knows? Maybe they might even enjoy themselves and make a few friends!)

Sharing a meal or attending this seminar will most definitely not "fix" all the problems in the life of someone going through the pain of separation/divorce, but please trust me when I say that the best way to help someone cope with a fractured holiday tradition is to first and foremost take that first step - reaching out - that lets them know they aren't alone. It might (might!) make a real difference in their ability to make it through.

Surviving the Holidays
Saturday, Dec. 5
10:00 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
The Crossing

Cost: $10 (covers workbook, meal and childcare).
Scholarships available if you need one; just ask!
Sign up online:

For more information:

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Being Generous Givers

The bible speaks often of being generous givers. For instance:

Psalm 37:21 - "The wicked borrows but does not pay back, but the righteous is generous and gives..."

Psalm 112:5 - "It is well with the man who deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs with justice."

Proverbs 19:17 - "Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed."

1 Timothy 6:18-19 - "They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life." ('they' are the rich)

Throughout Scripture we see this command to give generously, both to the poor and to God's work. But what exactly does it mean to be generous? provides this definition: "liberal in giving or sharing; unselfish." Okay, so we're supposed to give liberally and unselfishly. Fair enough. But that's still pretty vague, and I can find all kinds of ways to justify my actions as being "liberal" and "unselfish" when they probably aren't.

So, let's go to two quick examples of generosity. First, let's turn to Mark 12:41-44. There Jesus teaches us about giving from the example of a widow -

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

A few observations:

1. Giving is not about the gross, it's about the net. Kurt Warner gave millions of dollars to his church in St. Louis while he played for the Rams. That is a large gift, and dare I say, a generous one. But he was giving out of a much larger pool of money. I don't say that to belittle what Warner gave, on the contrary I admire him for what appears to be genuine generosity. However, according to this passage, many people who live below the poverty line could be as generous if not more so than him. That's because it's not as much about the number as it is the ratio. We don't need to be rich to be generous.

2. This woman was commended because "she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all that she had to live on." Why would she do this? Why would she give away what would essentially be her rent money? Because she believed two fundamental things: (1) That she is dependent upon God for her life, whether she can pay her rent or not, and (2) that what she has really isn't hers to begin's God's.

But the most helpful quote I've heard on being generous comes from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. It has shaped my heart in profound ways, maybe it will do the same for you:

I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusement, etc., is up to the same standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our giving does not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say it is too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our commitment to giving excludes them.

At the end of the day being generous is a matter of personal priority. Who is more important, who is more valuable? You? Your friends? Your God? As long as we keep ourselves in the number one spot, it will be impossible for us to be givers who do so with generous hearts.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

What Makes Us Happy?

Imagine if you could observe 250 individuals over the course of 70 years with insight into everything from what makes them mad to what shoe size they wear? The amount of information collected would be overwhelming. Just ask George Vaillant, he should know.

Dr. Vaillant is concluding the longest running longitudinal study of human behavior in history. For 42 years, Valliant has served as the curator to the study of 268 Harvard graduates who are now approaching the twilight of their lives. A review of the findings of this study reveals both insightful and tragic examples of the complexities of life. Joshua Shenk of The Atlantic gives a very comprehensive journalistic impression of the study and how it has consumed so much of Dr. Vaillant’s time and energy. There is a link to that review here.

There is also a 7 minute video interview with Dr. Vaillant below

While the evaluation of 268 Harvard sophomore men doesn’t represent a very accurate sample of the population, the study still provides some amazing statistics. One such statistic that stands out is that nearly one third of the group had, at one point in time, met the criteria for mental illness. However, beyond statistics lies a collection of life stories which rest on the precipice of hardship, teetering between triumph and failure. The failure of so many well adjusted, privileged, successful young men weighed heavily on the researcher. As the study progressed, Dr. Vaillant began directing the study towards an understanding of what caused some of the men to excel, while others wilted into despair, alcoholism, and eventually death.

As I read Shenk’s review of the study, I was struck by the biblical truths that come to life within these stories behind the statistics. When asked to sum up the totality of over 70 years of measurements and interpretations, Vaillant proposed; “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people…A man’s authentic relationships at age 47 predict late life adjustments better than any other variable”. Valiant also lists “education, stable marriage, no smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise and a healthy weight” as other indications to an individual’s well-being.

The items in Vaillant’s list of what make a “successful” life make sense. However, think about what is not on that list. Money, business, fame, status, and admiration are not included (and these are Harvard men!). Maybe there is a connection here between the large number of these men developing mental illness and the fact that so many of them had to learn the hard way that what they thought would make them happy was the very thing that made them miserable.

As I seek to learn more and more about God’s will for my own life, I am beginning to see how my natural responses to my circumstances are the very things that make me most dissatisfied. Likewise, the very things that God both commands and expects from us for His glory are ultimately the path to our own satisfaction. What is surprising me is how God’s truth applies not only in eternity, but also in the here and now.

In the 12th chapter of Mark, a teacher of the law asks Jesus what He believes to be the greatest commandment. Jesus replies that the greatest is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. He then mentions the second greatest is to love your neighbor as yourself. Now, I know we would probably agree that these commands have significant eternal consequences. However, should we be surprised if they also have implications in our mortal lives? If we love God with all our heart and soul, it makes selfish ambition in this world difficult. If we develop our mind in understanding God and his creation, won’t we be educating ourselves? If our physical strength is spent on tasks which glorify God, won’t we have to be relatively healthy? And, if we love our neighbor as ourselves, we may experience the very kind of community and authentic relationships which yield contentment and well adjusted lives. That just happens to be the very thing Dr. Vaillant discovered while observing the human condition for nearly half of a century.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

USA Today Writer Offended By Christians In Sports

Tom Krattenmaker would prefer Tim Tebow and other Christians involved in sports to keep their beliefs to themselves. Krattenmaker, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and author of the new book Onward Christian Athletes, writes in a recent USA Today opinion piece that although Christians "have a right to express their faith," he is offended that Christianity exclusively states that Jesus is the only way to God.

In all fairness to Mr. Krattenmaker he does seem conflicted. He writes...
Having researched and thought about Christianity in sports for the better part of a decade, I am impressed by the good that's done by sports-world Christians. Jesus-professing athletes are among the best citizens in their sector, and they commit good deeds daily in communities across this country.
Evangelical players and ministry representatives in sports aren't out to harm anyone, of course. On the contrary, they see themselves as fulfilling the Bible's Great Commission ("Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," Matthew 28:19). In this sense, their mission is pure altruism: They seek to share the gift of eternal life.
The biggest problem, according to Mr. Krattenmaker, is the exclusive claims of Jesus. And he's more than a bit bothered that Christian athletes use their notoriety to promote these claims. For example he is particularly upset by Tim Tebow, the Florida Gators' Heisman quarterback, and his father, Bob Tebow, whose ministry espouses what the article labels as a "far right theology."

What does the ministry believe that earns this "far right" label? You guessed correctly if you answered, "They believe that Jesus is the only way to have your sins forgiven and have eternal life." In other words Tom Krattenmaker is upset that the Tebows (and other athletes) believe in historic, biblical Chritianity. And he thinks that others should be upset as well...
But should we be pleased that the civic resource known as "our team" — a resource supported by the diverse whole through our ticket-buying, game-watching and tax-paying — is being leveraged by a one-truth evangelical campaign that has little appreciation for the beliefs of the rest of us?
A Few Observations
First, Mr. Krattenmaker is shockingly inconsistent. Think about it. In an article stating that he doesn't like it that evangelicals say other religions are wrong because as Christians they think that they have exclusive truth in Jesus, he states that he knows that Christians are wrong and he knows that because he has exclusive truth in pluralism. In Mr. Krattenmaker's world everyone is entitled to their own beliefs except Christians who believe that Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life."

Second, he seems to hold Christians to a standard that he doesn't hold others to. He doesn't like it that Christians use the platform that sports provides them to share a message that is counter cultural (that Jesus is the only way to God). But couldn't one say the same thing about films or music. Don't actors (think George Clooney and Susan Sarandon) and singers (think Bono) routinely use their notoriety to espouse opinions that are not necessarily held by the majority of Americans? The great thing about America is that if a person's politics or religious beliefs offend you, then you can simply choose to not support them.

Third, if you are a Christian, you might as well get used to being out of step with the culture's beliefs. And there's no part of Christianity more unAmerican than the belief that Jesus is the only way to God. Everyone is fine that you believe in Jesus and that Jesus "works for you," but many get downright nasty when you say that Jesus is the only Savior and the only hope for salvation. But that's what orthodox (think biblical) Christianity has taught for centuries. It's not a secret and neither is it a crime.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Reordering Our Lives By the Reordering of Our Loves

A friend of mine sent me a link to a blog entry that I think is very helpful in providing a memorable kind of terminology for Christian growth: the reordering of our lives by the reordering of our loves. The blog was actually adapted from David Naugle's book, Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness, which I ordered after reading this but have not read yet.

Here's one of my favorite couple of paragraphs from the blog...

To be sure, Jesus “saves” us and promises us a place with God eternally in “heaven” when we die. But this is almost to miss the point, for in reconnecting us to God, one of the primary purposes of the gospel is the reordering of our deepest loves and affections. Those who follow Christ are given new desires and new purposes—for our lives in this world here and now!

Our efforts at Christian discipleship—and even cultural transformation—must first be aimed at the reordering of our deepest loves, affections, and desires. Our restless hearts, as Augustine reminds us, must find their rest in God, or our search for happiness will self-destruct, hurting us and everyone around us.

You can read this fairly short but thought-provoking blog for yourself here.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Wrestling with "Doubt"

Last Friday, we featured the movie Doubt as the latest installment in our Talking Pictures series. Since I regularly hear from people that express a desire to come to one of these events but can’t make a particular showing, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the film in this space.

(WARNING: If you haven’t seen the film, there are spoilers ahead.)

Few movies lend themselves so easily to further thought and discussion as Doubt. Carefully constructed and brilliantly acted, the film centers upon an allegation of sexual abuse in a Catholic school/parish in the 1960s. Spurred by circumstantial evidence, the school’s stern and austere principle, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), accuses the charismatic, progressive Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of molesting the school’s first black student.

And yet the film isn’t ultimately about whether Father Flynn is guilty or innocent. Rather, it’s about the verdict you as a viewer give him…and whether you’re really justified in doing so. In describing audience reaction after screenings, writer and director John Patrick Shanley had this to say in an interview with Christianity Today:

Every audience is different. People get up and say with utter certainty that they know the priest is guilty, and that they know everyone in the audience knows that, too. And then other people say, “Actually, no, we don’t feel that way at all.”

A quick poll of the Talking Pictures audience more or less confirmed this phenomenon. About half raised their hand to indicate they were convinced of Flynn’s guilt. By my eye, a slightly smaller number were willing to argue he was innocent. The ambiguity, according to Shanley, is quite intentional:

What I’m hoping is that people will at first feel confirmed in their prejudices, and then have their prejudices explode and then go, “You know what? I don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong in this story. But it’s a compelling story, and I think I want to talk about it.

But is there more going on than a glorified “I gotcha”? I think so. I’ll mention just two important clues. First, the film’s first significant scene is, not coincidentally, Father Flynn’s sermon on doubt. It includes the memorable line, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” Second, the film’s most doggedly certain character, Sister Aloysius, reveals she also has great doubts in the film’s climactic scene (thought, interestingly, we’re not specifically told what it is she doubts).

Where is all of this meant to leave us? With the idea that doubt, not certainty, is a virtue. To quote Shanley once again, this time from an interview he gave to NPR:

Certainty is a closed door. It’s the end of the conversation. Doubt is an open door. It’s a dynamic process.

This is certainly provocative, and it begs us to ask: how might a Christian respond to such a view? I think the answer lies in the framework of “yes, but….” In other words, from a biblical perspective, we should be very conscious of both our finitude and fallenness in regard to views we bring to the table. We’re limited by our knowledge and vantage point, as well as skewed by our self-interest and biases. And this can play havoc with our ability to grasp reality, things as they really are. And yet no one lives in constant skepticism. We all act as if there are things that we can truly know and truly communicate to another.* And if, as we Christians say, we’re fallen creatures who still retain the image of a God who can both know and communicate, doesn’t that make sense?

*In my experience, people who agitate against things like certainty or what they would consider “dogmatic” positions are often selective in their efforts. Consider Shanley’s quote about certainty and doubt above. Sounds pretty certain, does it not? To be fair, in response to a question as to whether it’s okay to be certain about some things and uncertain about others, Shanley offered, “Yeah, but I’m not going to go there.”

So, should we be careful and humble in our pursuit of the truth? Absolutely. But can and should we have confidence to believe some things over others? Yes again. How all this fits together involves a much larger discussion, to be sure. For now, though, I’ll close with on more quote, this time from G. K. Chesterton: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Solve One Serious Unleashing 1,000 More

Divorce is a lot like a cluster bomb.

Here's what I mean. When a couple decides to divorce, they are initiating what they believe to be the best solution to their biggest problem (namely, the spouse they no longer enjoy being married to). What they typically don't realize, however, is that they unwittingly unleash a series of unforeseen explosions that wreak havoc and create pain not only in their lives, but in the lives of others around them.

The key word here is unforeseen.

Everyone knows that divorce is unpleasant. What everyone doesn't know is that its destruction is much more far-reaching than most anticipate, particularly those that are operating out of intense, tunnel-visioned anger at their spouse (or trying to make the jump out of marriage into a newer, more-exciting relationship). Let's just look at the sheer number of people affected by a single divorce.

One couple divorces. (That's two people affected.) They had, let's say, three kids. (Now we're at five.) Add in the in-laws...just the parents of each former spouse. (Now we're up to at least nine...without even breaking a sweat.) When you start to consider the extended families, friends, pastors, employers and so on, the number of people impacted by just one divorce can get pretty steep, pretty fast. People who don't want to be dragged into it...get dragged into it. A single divorce affects an entire community of individuals to one extent or another, and most of those affected have little or no control over the changes brought into their lives.

I can speak to this because I am a divorced (and remarried) man; I speak from personal experience. Humor me for a minute.

Seeking to "just" get rid of an unwanted spouse, the first (expected) bomb goes off. Then it's followed by another (kids impacted in unpredictable ways), and another (finances inadvertently destroyed), and another (other relationships severed unintentionally) and another (unanticipated job loss). On and on it goes, for years...for decades. And typically, a newly-divorced person who doesn't seek God's will in their now-single lives can make many poor choices in new relationships, and the bombs continue to go off as they live out sinful choice after sinful choice in front of the watchful eyes of their impressionable young children. The bombs continue to go off long after the signatures on the dissolution papers have dried.

As I write this, my wife Shelly and I have just begun our second round of facilitating DivorceCare (a Christ-centered recovery curriculum produced by Church Initiative) as part of the Night Crossing series. Having both lived through divorce ourselves, we can attest to the absolutely devastating effects that divorce has had not only on us, but (worse) on our children. None of our kids (at least as far as we know!) is out looting, setting vacant buildings on fire or drinking themselves into oblivion, thanks entirely to God's mercy in their lives. Nevertheless, it is still an incredible understatement to say that the lives of five children have been "adversely affected" by divorce. And we can both say, unequivocally, that the pain and difficulty we've seen lived out in those five lives alone come from things we never once considered might be a consequence of the breaking apart of our prior marriages. I suspect many (perhaps most) divorced people would say the same.

Having been involved in divorce ministry for less than a year, both of us have looked into many faces distorted by anguish and have heard stories that would strike terror into the hearts of most married couples who might think, "My spouse would never do that..." In short, not only have we lived through our own self-ignited cluster bombs, we've had a ground-floor view of the destruction wrought in many other lives when one or more marriage partners decide that they have "had enough."

Speaking from personal experience, I can say without fear of contradiction that not one, not one, person who decided to get a divorce foresaw all of the effects that this decision would have on their lives 10 years down the road. (I know I didn't.)

Maybe it seems that, now that I'm happily remarried, it's a bit hypocritical for me to be railing on about divorce. I know that in some ways, my remarriage can be a dangerous example that people can point to: "Look at them; they divorced and found each other, and they seem perfectly happy." To anyone who would say that without benefit of knowing some of the deep, deep losses and pain we have experienced because of divorce, even since our remarriage to each other, I would say, "Yeah, you really don't want to walk in our shoes if you can help it."

It's not my "happy remarriage" that has soured me on divorce; it's having lived through the "unanticipated cluster bomb-effect," and seeing how the sin of my life has created pain in the lives of many people I love, most keenly my children. So, I'd just like to throw a warning flag on the track for anyone who thinks that divorce is going to solve their problems. I won't even argue that it may solve one problem, at least in practical terms; I'll instead suggest that you have no idea what other kinds of hell you may be preparing to unleash in your life. Wouldn't it be nice if, before you got too far down the road to dissolving your marriage, you could get some insight into what you are doing to yourself and everyone else around you?

The Crossing is now able, on a limited basis, to facilitate Choosing Wisely: Before You Divorce for anyone who thinks that divorce is "the answer." This program does just that; it attempts to show, simply from a practical perspective, the extensive damage caused by divorce, damage that is rarely foreseen. I urge anyone considering divorce to give it a shot. My own life, and that of my wife, would testify to the fact that "divorce as the answer to marital problems" is roughly analogous to "fire-bombing your home as the answer to termites."


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Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Lesson On Worry

I worry about things. I worry about situations.

For instance, when my wife and I got pregnant months ago, I worried that we might miscarry. And then last week we had to go in for an extra ultrasound because a few warning signs had popped up. I worried that something horrible had gone wrong (for the record, everything is fine).

And it got me to thinking that worry doesn't appear to be driven much by situations. Situations bring out worry, but they do not cause it.

This is why I think that's true: There's always something to worry about it. When he's born I'll worry that the umbilical cord might get wrapped up, or he's going to have a defect, or the delivery isn't going to go as planned. And then when he's a little over one year old and isn't walking, I'm going to worry that something's wrong. Then he's going to get his driver's license and his mother's going to freak out. And then he's going to go to college and his mother's going to cry and worry. Then he's going to get older, and get serious with a girl, and we're going to worry about that.

I struggled with worry all last week. But I kept coming back to the logical conclusion that worry, while brought out by my circumstances, is not caused by them. I'll always have something to worry about. So worry is, at its root, just like all other sins - in that they're heart issues.

So the remedy is the same - we attempt to fight sin at its root - our heart. And we do that by believing in the promises of God. For me this week, that meant believing that God is both good and in control. He doesn't have any oops...even with my yet-t0-be-born child. And he loves me and knows what is best for me.

May we fight all sins, including worry, at the heart level.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Did You Say That?

Besides breathing there isn't much we do we more in this life than speaking. Our lives are filled with words: we joke, tell stories, teach kids, interact with our spouse, complain, encourage friends, work in our profession, and much, much more. With Paul Tripp coming soon to The Crossing to speak on this subject, I thought it might be worth thinking about the significance of our words.

First, Jesus says that words are important because they reveal our spiritual condition. In Luke 6:45 Jesus says, "For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks." What Jesus is saying is that our words are a picture of what is happening within our hearts. Angry words, complaining words, grumbling words, gossipy words, selfish words, reveal a heart with the same problems. If this is true (and Jesus sure seems to think that it is), then that means that if we are going to solve our word problems, we will have to first work on our heart and only then on our tongue.

Second, words are important because they are so powerful. James, the half brother of Jesus, explains the power of the tongue by making comparisons to bit on a horse's bridle and a rudder on a boat (James 3:1-12). His point is that just like a bit and rudder are small things that control much larger objects so the tongue has power disproportionate to its size. The words you speak have the power to build up and tear down.

When I think of things that I regret in my life (and by the way the list is pretty long), almost all of them have to do with things that I've said. My guess is that you are like me and wish that you could retract words that you've spoken in anger or sarcasm or at another's expense or selfish words or complaining words. But just like you can't put toothpaste back in the tube, you can't put words back into your mouth. Even after you've apologized and sought forgiveness, you can't take away the sting and hurt caused by what's already been said.

Paul Tripp wrote a book called War of Words that all of our pastors and most of our staff have read and highly recommend. That's why we've invited him to come speak on this topic at The Crossing. Tripp has a way of speaking and writing that penetrates my heart. He seems to know what's going on inside of me and is able to both challenge and encourage me in the everyday issues of life. I hope to see you there.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

C.S. Lewis on Whether We Should Have Women Pastors

My wife, Jeannette, and I took a long weekend trip to her family's lake house on the beach of Lake Michigan. Just the two of us on a private, off-season beach with nothing but Lake Michigan as our view off the back porch. That's the setting in which I love to get my C.S. Lewis out and read one of my favorite thinkers. After all, Michigan just off the lake feels so Englandy in October.

This trip I read from "God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics." It's Walter Hooper's collection of various writings and speeches by C.S. Lewis. There's an online copy of it here. Click the contents and you can access most of the essays in the book online, just as they appear in the book. Pretty cool. The first three chapters are some of my favorite chapters of Lewis. Definitely worth reading.

Now to my main point: I came across an essay this weekend while reading God in the Dock (Part II, chap 11) where C.S. Lewis gives his answer to the question as to whether qualified women should be excluded from being pastors (Lewis was part of the Church of England, or what we call the Episcopal Church, so he uses the term priests/priestesses instead of pastors, but he means the same thing). For some reason, this particular chapter is unavailable to read in the online copy of the book linked above. But you can access it here. It is worth a read for anyone who is either concerned about this controversial issue in churches today, or who is simply curious about what Lewis believed, and why he believed it.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Science and Faith in The Wall St. Journal; "Collision" Now Available

It’s encouraging (to me, at least) to find well-known media outlets giving voice to ideas and arguments that we’ve offered here at ESI. Regular readers of this blog will recognize that we’ve often addressed the charges of those who would claim that science necessitates the marginalization or abandonment of religious faith. And in his latest column for the Wall St. Journal, William McGurn touches on a couple of important points related to this many-faceted discussion. One example:

In 1997, for example, an International Academy of Humanism statement in defense of human cloning—whose signatories included scientists such as E.O. Wilson, Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins—went out of its way to attack the special dignity of human beings. "Humanity's rich repertoire of thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and hopes seems to arise from electrochemical brain processes, not from an immaterial soul that operates in ways no instrument can discover." They concluded "it would be a tragedy if ancient theological scruples should lead to a Luddite rejection of cloning."

Here's the problem: Almost no one really believes this. Not, at least, when it comes to how we behave. And the dichotomy between scientific theory and human action may itself have something to tell us about truth.

That's not to deny electrochemical brain processes and the like. It is to say that much as we may assent to the idea that we are but matter in motion, seldom do we act that way. We love. We fight. We distinguish between the good and noble and the bad and base. More than just religion, our literature and our politics and our music resonate precisely because they speak to these things.

This isn't an exhaustive presentation of an argument by any means, but McGurn is here hitting on one of the more important questions that need to be addressed in the debate.

On a related note, the film Collision, a documentary of the debate and relationship between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson, is now available for purchase. The question at issue: “Is Christianity good for the world?” I haven’t yet seen the film, but I just ordered a copy. From the extended preview that I have seen and what I know about the principles involved it should be well worth watching. An outspoken contributor to various periodicals and an author of a handful of books, Hitchens is a prominent figure in a group of public intellectuals commonly referred to as the “New Atheists.” Wilson is a pastor of Christ Church in Idaho and Senior Fellow in Theology at New St. Andrews College. From what I understand, the two men have significant personal regard for one another, despite being diametrically opposed on the question of Christianity.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Trophies of Grace in the Facebook Era

It would seem that I've got a lot to learn when it comes to using what remains of my life to glorify God. (How's that for an understatement?) A couple of weekends ago (Sept. 25-27), my college fraternity held an anniversary celebration, complete with a reception and banquet to commemorate 45 years of Theta Chi Fraternity at Adrian College. My wife and I had previously made conflicting plans, so we were unable to attend. I would have liked to, actually. My love for many of these guys is deeply-rooted, as college-era friendships tend to be, though admittedly I have stumbled quite a bit in recent years as to how I can best display my friendship and good intentions "in a revised context."

To put it bluntly, I stopped drinking. Christ grabbed hold of me. A bit of social awkwardness has ensued, mostly of my own making.

Depending on your theology, I "got saved" or "made a decision for Christ" on July 23, 1997, when (after decades of hardcore abuse) I made a vow to abstain from all forms of alcohol and illicit drugs as a tangible sign of my desire to have a meaningful relationship with God. By His grace and mercy, I have been enabled to keep that vow right up to the present day; I hope to be buried having never once gone back to alcohol, drugs or "that way of living."

Lately, however, "the guys" have begun posting more pictures on Facebook, along with scanned images from their collective photo files. While I had zero problems with them posting photos of their weekend together (I hadn't been there, after personally incriminating could it get?) the images and artifacts being dug up from our collective past briefly caused me to panic...a bit.

Facebook allows you to remove photo tags that others use to identify you, and I have to admit that for the better part of two days I wrestled with the urge to "un-tag" myself from a few relatively-tame remnants of my own history, a past that was now showing up in electronic format, available to everyone on the planet (my children included). You can probably guess how the justification ran: "Well, after all, I am a believer now...and what will the guys in my Bible study think if they see these?" Pathetic.

In short, I was strongly tempted to deny my past, lift myself up in the eyes of others, protect "my image" (whatever that means!) and pretend to be someone I am not.

In John 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman, despised and abandoned even by her own people, an "outcast among outcasts." After shooing the disciples away (ostensibly to find food), Christ proceeds to engage this discarded woman in heartfelt evangelism, never once minimizing her sins...or her deep need for salvation. Overcome by the sincere love of our Lord, the Samaritan woman runs to the people in her town (the very same people who were likely shunning her) and tells of the great love of God for sinners: "Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?" (John 4:29, ESV). One can only imagine some of the guys in her village setting down their mugs of Samaritan Lite, raising an eyebrow and asking "Really? Everything you ever did?! Dang...and He still spoke to you?!"

I think the lesson (for me, anyway) is pretty clear. It would seem that I am far too "underwhelmed" by the forgiving love of Christ; this shows itself whenever I set about to clean up my image or somehow try to deny the horrific sins of my past. In His great and unfathomable mercy, Christ has allowed me to redeem many of the sins of my past to help others, both in addiction recovery and divorce ministries. And yet, somehow, I still feel like I need to run around making myself appear "better" than I really am. Augh! With the disciples, I find myself crying out "Increase my faith!" (Luke 17:1-5)

After two days of wondering whether or not I should try to "scrub myself clean," mercy ultimately arrived in the form of a conversation with someone else struggling through divorce. And it dawned on me that my best and most effective means of "talking to the people in my village" was the very fact that my own life had been redeemed from the pit (Psalm 103:1-5). Who was I to minimize the power of Christ in my own life by making any effort to pretend that I was "better" than I really was? Along with the Samaritan woman, I should be so overwhelmed by the mercies of Jesus that I no longer worry what others may think: "Yes, I am a very foolish person, but take your eyes off me; look at Him instead."

Jesus Himself tells us that there is great joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7). And yet, here I am, planning to snatch a Trophy of Grace off the fireplace mantle and commit it to the flames. Where did I get the ridiculous idea that somehow I needed to separate myself from the people in my past when Christ, in His great mercy, is really only interested in separating me from the sins of my past?

I can only hope that in 2014, by God's grace, I'll perhaps be better equipped to love and serve my fraternity brothers when the 50-year celebration rolls around. Beyond that, I will try to do a better job of trusting the Lord to use, as He sees fit, any and all details of my past to minister to others. So if you are out on Facebook or randomly Google-ing and you happen to find graphic remnants of my own life of sin, I guess I'd ask you to lovingly forward it to a friend who is currently enslaved: "Does Jesus really save people out of addictions and divorce?" "Uh, yeah, He does...and look, here's one dope He's working with even today."

"Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did." This is the Christ. The loving, merciful, cleansing, forgiving Christ.

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Monkey Business

You may have read this past week about the recent scientific discovery of the oldest known fossil skeleton of a human ancestor. If not, you can read about it here.

This news is considered extremely important within the disciplines of anthropology and paleontology. However, I would like to know what a discovery like this means to you personally? How do you react to news like this?

If my observations are true to the norm, you will either consider this news to be a mixture of falsities and propaganda or dismiss it entirely as irrelevant to your life. I would like to suggest both of these responses are counterproductive. Reactions such as this fuel a contentious and growing minority within the scientific community to dismiss Christianity as absurd and those who hold to its tenets as out of touch with reality.

My educational background is in biology and chemistry. I have spent most of my life around people in the scientific community and I can tell you that these people are smart and they have an ardent passion for uncovering the truth. I have no doubt there are those within the scientific community who would love nothing more than use science to expose religion as a psycho-social fabrication of the primitive mind. However, we cannot accuse the entire discipline as evil and full of malice towards all things spiritual.

Most people I know who are in scientific fields are just like you and me. They are full of wonder and awe about the world we live in. Why do we, as Christians, anxiously pounce on every crumb that falls from the table of research? When we denounce the very existence of someone who would question “our” version of events, we simply look silly. It is akin to the annoying guy behind you at the football game who (having never played past pee wee football) is calling on the coach to get a clue. So, to those who seek to accuse all science as fraud, I would recommend letting the good scientists determine good science. The next obvious question is; “where are the good scientists?” That brings me to the next likely response.

It appears the Christian community is only too willing to allow a separation between the sacred and the secular where science rules the secular. For years we have failed to include science under the umbrella of God’s truth. Quite frankly, I think it is because we are scared what we may find. Science is only too willing to return the favor. Most intellectually honest scientists will admit science will never disprove, nor prove, God. We frequently see researchers propose a “truce” between science and religion. An all too common plea in the literature is “don’t bother us and we won’t bother you.”

This proposal is a dangerous one for Christianity. How will the next generation of scientists approach their discipline if Christians are comfortable excusing ourselves from the scientific realm? I am afraid a shortage of good scientists, those whose worldview submits to mutuality between institutions, will only widen the credibility gap. Science is by definition the study of natural processes and God is clearly supernatural. However, our confidence as Christians is in the one true God and His word. His word tells us that He maintains authority over His creation. When religion is divided from other disciplines, we are only one step removed from full blown relativism.

Let’s take, for example, a naturalist who claims nothing supernatural can exist because it cannot be shown to exist through the scientific method. We then have a Christian who argues that all one has to do is look at creation and see the handiwork of a creator God. Obviously, they cannot both be right. However, a postmodern thinker would say they are both indeed right in their own way. The naturalist is arguing science and the Christian is arguing religion. This appears to be a clear contradiction to me, but that is how the debate is now framed. It is as if religion is only real if it applies to the personal and science is only real if it applies to the universal. This dichotomy filters down to us on the sidelines, permeating everything from educating our kids to politics. Just last month, the editor of our own local newspaper based a complete editorial on that very relativistic presupposition. You can read that here.

We have taken a look at two of the common reactions Christians have to scientific discoveries. So, how then should Christians respond to advances in science and technology? My hope is that we embolden ourselves with the same confidence I see Christians currently expressing in culture, arts, philosophy, and sociology. Do you believe God’s word as revealed in nature will always align with His word revealed in scripture? Won’t God’s word remain true regardless how many humanoid bones are found along the southern tip of Africa? I hope we can replace anxiety with anticipation as new science uncovers more about God in all His creative majesty and His incredible plan for His people. I want my kids to know that our God is the same God that created that creature in the jungle and I want them to know that everything created from then to now is His too. Who knows? Our children may become the next good scientists, allowing us to get even yet a clearer image of God reflected in the design of His creation.

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Grace In Relationships: A Test

The verse in the Bible that has made the biggest difference in all my relationships (including my marriage) is Luke 7:47 "Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little." You can read the whole story (7:36-50) at your convenience but what has been so helpful to me is to understand that my belief in the gospel--that in Jesus I'm absolutely forgiven of a massive debt that I could never hope to repay--has a tremendous impact on my relationships.

In the story I think that Jesus is saying that those who know, feel, understand, grasp, and otherwise genuinely get how much they have been forgiven in Jesus, love, serve, and forgive others. Here's the take home point: the health of my relationships isn't so much affected by other people's behavior as much as it is affected by my belief in the gospel. I know that's counter intuitive but I'm confident that it is biblical.

Lynn Roush (counselor at The Crossing) and I put together a short list of ways the grace of the gospel affects relationships. You might want to read through it as a personal test that reveals whether or not you truly get grace. Whenever I read through this list, it encourages me to pray and ask God to increase my understanding and faith in the gospel.

Grace in Relationships

1. When we understand grace, we fight against the temptation to minimize our own sin. Often we downplay our sin or we think it pales in comparison to the sin of others. But grace encourages us to not rate ourselves against others, but against God and His holiness. Grace helps us understand Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”

2. When we understand grace, we are more bothered by our own sin than the sin of those around us. If we are being driven by pride, we can be critical or judgmental towards those whose sin is perhaps “more obvious.” Grace helps us grieve deeply over the wickedness that we see in our own hearts and we are far more concerned about dealing with our own sin than dealing with the sin we see in others (James 4:6-10).

3. When we understand grace, we give the same benefit of the doubt to others that we give to ourselves. We always have “reasons” or “excuses” as to why we have sinned like “I’m sick…I’m tired…I’m under a lot of pressure…I’m just responding to how they’ve hurt me…etc.” Grace allows us to extend the benefit of the doubt to someone who has fallen into sin and try to understand their struggle from their perspective and attempt to restore them with a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1-3).

4. When we understand grace, we will always deal with our own sin first before going to confront someone else’s sin. Grace will always cause us to deal with the log in our own eye before helping someone get the speck out of theirs (Matthew 7:2-6).

5. When we understand grace, we do not feel the need to defend ourselves when someone points out sin in our lives. We do not need to fear being “exposed” because we realize that there is abundant grace available at the cross to cover our sin. Knowing that we can be cleansed from all unrighteousness gives us motivation to walk in the light of God and be truthful about our sin (1 John 1:5-10).

6. When we understand grace, we are freed up to love others without condition or fear. Grace operates out of a spirit of humility and sacrificial love. We are not looking to someone else to make us feel good about ourselves, but we can fulfill the law of Christ to “love, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:17-21)

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Interpretive Resources for Revelation

I recently received this email from a member of The Crossing:

"I am enjoying the sermon series on the Book of Revelation and wanted to thank all of the pastors for not stopping at the end of Rev. 3 and continuing on through the more controversial material in the rest of the book. This is another Bible book that is not covered all that often in churches I have attended. If you have time, I would appreciate having some additional material posted on the church blog regarding your particular interpretive framework for the Book of Revelation. Shay's sermon last week was the clearest example of how you collectively depart from the views used by many Bible church pastors, particularly those trained at Dallas Theological Seminary. Since many of us have spent time in churches with DTS-trained pastors, the interpretive view that you, Keith and Shay are using is a bit new for us. ...I'm not at all implying I disagree with your view, I would just like some more background on it and perhaps a balanced assessment of other methods that have been or are used for interpreting the book."

Well, I'm not going to take the time here to provide "a balanced assessment of other methods." But you can read what I think is a good, informative, and balanced assessment of other interpretations in the ESV Study Bible's Introduction to Revelation.

But this observer is exactly right in his email: we are very different in our approach and interpretation of Revelation than, as he wrote, "the views used by many Bible church pastors, particularly those trained at Dallas Theological Seminary." We are very different from the interpretations of Revelation that inspired the "Left Behind" book series. We are very different from those who would put on a Bible Prophecy conference or write a Bible Prophecy book on how things now are lining up with the Bible's prophecy of the end times.

But how do we define our interpretation? Where can one find resources on it to read further?

A quick identification as to what theological camp I fall into in regard to Revelation (and I believe Shay and Keith do as well, although I can't completely speak for them) is the Idealist, Amillennial view. The ESV Study Bible describes the Idealist view as follows:

Idealism agrees with historicism that Revelation's visions symbolize the conflict between Christ and his church on the one hand, and Satan and his evil conspirators on the other, from the apostolic age to Christ's second coming. Yet idealist interpreters believe that the presence of recapitulation means that the visions' literary order need not reflect the temporal order of particular historical events. The forces and conflicts symbolized in Revelation's vision cycles manifest themselves in events that were to occur “soon” from the perspective of the first-century churches (as preterists maintain), but they also find expression in the church's ongoing struggle of persevering faith in the present and foretell a still-future escalation of persecution and divine wrath leading to the return of Christ and the new heaven and earth.

This is rather technical in language, I admit. But the bottom line is that we believe Revelation is not a chronological history, nor a chronological, literal prophecy of the end times. Rather, it is a repeated (recapitulated seven times) description of the spiritual struggle that primarily takes place between the time of Christ's first and second coming. But it also describes some things before his first coming, and after his second coming. This is the basic framework for Revelation that I was taught at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, and Keith and Shay were taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago. So it's not our own made up thing, just FYI.

The resources I'm using most to study and prepare my sermons on Revelation are:

1. The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation, by Vern Poythress. This is an easy one for the average Christian to use and appreciate. It's small and inexpensive. It is also available to read online here (you need to scroll down until you see the book, then the chapters are all there for you to click on and read). It's very convenient and it's free! This would be the first place I recommend you go to read further on our interpretive framework for the book of Revelation. Read the Introductory sections titled "Schools of Interpretation" and "Structure" as a quick start.

2. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, by G. K. Beale. This is by far the most helpful resource to me as a pastor preparing a sermon on Revelation. It's so very insightful and biblically informative, but not one I'd recommend to the average Christian because it is also very expensive, very large, and very technical. But if you can tolerate expensive, large, and technical, this one is the gold standard for Revelation as far as I'm concerned.

To me, our interpretive framework for Revelation makes the most sense theologically, biblically, and pastorally. It snatches the book of Revelation out from being applicable to only the last generation of Christians, and brings it back to where it was meant to be: God's perspective of all the difficult and tempting and trying earthly realities all believers face in all generations: from the first-century Christians it was originally written to, all the way through to the last generation who will see Christ coming in the clouds of heaven.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mary Eberstadt on "What Does Woman Want"

Every once in a while, I start reading a magazine article that initially appears to hold only limited interest for me, only to get drawn in by what turns out to be its very engaging material. In other words, I move from “I’ll give it a few paragraphs” to “okay, you got me." Occasionally I’ll even reach “maybe I should mention that in a blog.”

This happened recently with Mary Eberstadt’s "What Does Woman Want?" in the October edition of First Things.

Eberstadt begins with an interesting recap of what she terms the “summer marriage wars”—a controversy centered upon the opposing essays of Caitlin Flanagan (“Is There Hope for the American Marriage?”) and Sandra Tsing Loh (“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”) in Time and The Atlantic respectively. While this account is interesting in itself for a number of reasons, Eberstadt uses it as a platform to explore what appears to be a increasingly common (and public) confession of at least some women in today’s culture: that their “marriages—that is to say, marriages made among enlightened, older, educated, sophisticated people—are a sexual desert.”

Why is this? Eberstadt engages in an intriguing survey of several possible factors, but lingers near the close of her article on “something else [that] lurks under the rocks picked up by fashionable writing about marriage these days—something that crawls away from the light even as it squirms just under the surface of the new confessionalism.” She continues:

“Don’t eat too many snacks, or you’ll ruin your dinner.” Every woman issuing the new literature of complaint and heartache will understand just how meaningful the saying is—at least when it applies to kids and dinnertime. Yet sexual satiety, of the kind that oozes by other names from so much female confessional literature these days, is almost never recognized the same way. In particular, pornography is the invisible ink of many of these essays and lives—obvious one minute, unnoticed the next, and the bearer of a message no one apparently sees. Understood or not, however, it appears to be leaving a mark on at least some of these publicly lived lives.

In Loh’s essay, for example, a husband—as it happens, one of those husbands no longer interested in sex with his wife—bookmarks his pornography on the computer; his wife knows all about it, even reports it to her friends who are also commiserating about their sexless marriages—and no one seems to connect the dots at all. Another writer for Salon, reflecting on Loh’s essay, similarly nudges up against this obvious if missing piece of the puzzle (in a piece called “Why Your Marriage Sucks”), noting, “I write this article from a hotel room in New York City, where nearly a dozen porn movies are on offer”—a fact the author uses to highlight what she thinks of as an irony, when it might instead suggest something else: a possible causal relation between all those movies on the one hand and, on the other hand, a loss of romantic interest on the part of those who think them inconsequential.

I’ll end the post with one more extended quotation, one that highlights an irony that is both more substantive (and tragic) than that which was suggested by the Salon writer above:

The kind of feminism these women have so unthinkingly imbibed has come at a great cost. It has rendered many of them ideologically if not personally blasé about something they cannot really afford to be blasé about. In Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy chronicles the steady infiltration of pornography into female society. The pressure on women to accept pornography as an inconsequential and entertaining fact of life rises by the year—and outside the circles of the conservative and the religious, there is little cultural ammunition for any woman who wants to resist it. In fact, one of the few tony writers who does seem to grasp the destructive role of pornography in modern romance is Naomi Wolf, who chillingly observed several years ago that “the onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as porn-worthy.” Almost none of her feminist sisters have followed suit.

All of which brings us back to the enigma of this summer’s marriage wars. Perhaps some of the modern misery of which so many women today authentically speak is springing not from a sexual desert but from a sexual flood—a torrent of poisonous imagery, beginning even in childhood, that has engulfed women and men, only to beach them eventually somewhere alone and apart, far from the reach of one another.

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Monday, October 5, 2009

Astounding Predictions

Last week it seems that Nostradamus took the form of a Seattle Mariners baseball radio analyst. In this video you'll see the evidence that Mike Blowers predicts, in detailed specificity, a home run for rookie Matt Tuiasosopo. Watch and enjoy:

So let's recap the details of the prediction:

  • He'll hit a home run in this given game (his first as a major leaguer).
  • It will come during his second at-bat.
  • The count will be 3 balls and 1 strike.
  • It will be off of a fastball (he didn't specify cutter, 2-seam, or 4-seam...slacker).
  • It will be to left field.
  • It will be hit into the second deck.

Pretty amazing, huh? I mean, what do the odds have to be on making that specific of a prediction and actually having it come true?

With that in mind, how amazing are the predictions in the Old Testament that concern Jesus? I recently heard a well-known preacher point out that no other religion has such prophecies. Mormonism doesn't have prophecies of Joseph Smith finding the golden plates. Islam doesn't have prophecies concerning their prophet Mohammed. Christianity is unique in this sense.

Here is a short list of some of the prophecies foretold in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Christ in the New, and remember - the Old Testament passages were written somewhere between 700 and 400 BC, while the New Testament passages were written between 50 and 85 AD:

  • Born of a virgin - Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:20-23
  • From King David's line - Isaiah 16:5 and Matthew 1
  • Born in Bethlehem - Micah 5:2 and Matthew 2:1
  • Be a Galilean - Isaiah 9:1-2 and Matthew 4:13-16
  • Rejected and despised - Isaiah 53:3 and any of the passion accounts
  • Will perform miracles - Isaiah 35:5-6 and Matthew 11:3-5
  • Someone will prepare the way - Isaiah 40:3-5, Malachi 3:1 and Luke 3:3-6, Luke 7:24, 27
  • Will enter Jerusalem on a donkey - Zechariah 9:9 and Mark 11:7-11
  • Betrayed by a friend - Psalm 41:9 and Luke 22:47-48
  • Payment for betrayal will be 30 pieces of silver - Zechariah 11:12 and Matthew 26:14-15
  • What the silver would be used for - Zechariah 11:13 and Matthew 27:3-7
  • Would be silent against the charges brought against him - Isaiah 53:7 and Mark 15:3-5
  • Would be beaten horrifically - Isaiah 52:14 and John 19:1-3
  • Feet and hands pierced - Psalm 22:16 and Luke 24:39-40
  • Clothes will have lots cast for them - Psalm 22:18 and John 19:23-24
  • No bones will be broken - Psalm 34:19-20 and John 19:33-36
  • Buried in a rich man's tomb - Isaiah 53:8-9 and Matthew 27:57-60

I tip my hat to Mike Blowers, but the Bible wins by a nose on this one.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Learning to Pray from Biblical Prayers

How do we learn how to pray?

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of learning how to pray happens by listening to and praying with others. And that can be a great thing, so long as those people are themselves good modelers of prayer that is consistent with God’s purposes and perspective.

Given that, I’d suggest that nowhere do we find better examples of such prayer than in the Bible itself. By allowing those prayers to shape the outlook and direction of our own, we’re much more likely to be praying in manner that is honoring to God and beneficial for our hearts and lives. In doing so, we’ll often find our prayer moving beyond the set of concerns we limit ourselves to mostly without thinking.

So I thought I’d just give a brief example of how we might let a biblical prayer, in this case Psalm 25, shape our own. The psalms are in fact a rich treasure of prayer expressed in poetry/song—prayer that has rightly shaped the people of God since they were first written. In looking for ways that this psalm can be a model for us, we’re traveling a road that many have gone before. With that in mind, the following is meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive:

25:0 Of David.

1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul;

2 in you I trust, O my God.

Do not let me be put to shame,

nor let my enemies triumph over me.

3 No one whose hope is in you

will ever be put to shame,

but they will be put to shame

who are treacherous without excuse.

As I read David’s words in these opening verses, I’m reminded that God is indeed worthy to be trusted. Not only am I encouraged to think back to all the instances recorded in Scripture in which God proves faithful, but also to the many instances in my own life where he’s proven to be the same. This might lead me to praise God for his trustworthiness and ask God for a heart that lives in light of it.

4 Show me your ways, O LORD,

teach me your paths;

5 guide me in your truth and teach me,

for you are God my Savior,

and my hope is in you all day long.

These verses remind me of my need for God to teach me, calling to mind the fact that, left to my own devices, I lack the eyes to see and ears to understand. No other god can or will do this. But God, my genuine Savior and hope, is pleased to do so. This points me to acknowledging my need for him to teach me and asking that I might be willing student.

6 Remember, O LORD, your great mercy and love,

for they are from of old.

7 Remember not the sins of my youth

and my rebellious ways;

according to your love remember me,

for you are good, O LORD.

These words are of great benefit in helping me see clearly the character of the God I worship. Every one of us is tempted to construct a view of God that we’ve gotten from some other source that God’s own revelation of himself. So not only might I pause to confess sin here, but I also will want to ask God to shape my view of him according this passage: that his goodness includes great love and mercy toward his sinful people, including me.

8 Good and upright is the LORD;

therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.

9 He guides the humble in what is right

and teaches them his way.

10 All the ways of the LORD are loving and faithful

for those who keep the demands of his covenant.

11 For the sake of your name, O LORD,

forgive my iniquity, though it is great.

12 Who, then, is the man that fears the LORD?

He will instruct him in the way chosen for him.

13 He will spend his days in prosperity,

and his descendants will inherit the land.

14 The LORD confides in those who fear him;

he makes his covenant known to them.

15 My eyes are ever on the LORD,

for only he will release my feet from the snare.

This stanza can spark a lot of thoughts, but one theme running through it is how the Lord deals with those who fear him in the proper sense, who are humble and obedient (though always far from perfectly so). This encourages my own plea for the grace to be transformed into that kind of person more and more.

16 Turn to me and be gracious to me,

for I am lonely and afflicted.

17 The troubles of my heart have multiplied;

free me from my anguish.

18 Look upon my affliction and my distress

and take away all my sins.

19 See how my enemies have increased

and how fiercely they hate me!

20 Guard my life and rescue me;

let me not be put to shame,

for I take refuge in you.

21 May integrity and uprightness protect me,

because my hope is in you.

22 Redeem Israel, O God,

from all their troubles!

Here David models the action to take in the midst of distress and difficulty: seeking the Lord for forgiveness and grace. These verses are an encouragement for me to pour out my own heart to God in the midst of similar circumstances and to seek the same.

One more thing I want to briefly mention: at each point, it would be wonderful to pray these things not only for myself, but also for others. After all, I want God to open the eyes of my family and friends as well, that they also might better understand who he is, his worthiness to be trusted and served, his willingness to pour our forgiveness and mercy in the lives of his people, etc.

Over the next few days, try praying through a psalm or two yourself. You could also look for other occurrences of prayer in the Bible: Solomon in 1 Kings 8, Daniel in Daniel 9, Jesus’ own model prayer in Luke 11, Paul’s prayers for churches in Ephesians 1 and 3, or Colossians 1, etc., and many others.

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