Monday, November 30, 2009

Fighting for Transparency in an Era that Enables Secrecy

As you surf the Web, you might easily make the mistake of assuming that Americans, by and large, live out their increasingly-messy private lives in the public eye. Nothing, it seems, is considered "off-limits" now that everyone with even the most basic computing skills has the ability to create their own Facebook account, blog or Twitter feed. By scanning the headlines of "news" sources, you might even be tempted to think that all this new technology has given us the ability to look into all the dark recesses of someone else's life; witness how often celebrity sex lives are "in the news." And you might reasonably conclude that even the ability to be less-than-transparent belongs to a bygone era.

I would venture to say that the reverse is more often true; modern technology has instead given us more tools than ever to engage in secretive, clandestine behavior, and many of us have deliberately (or inadvertently) fallen into this snare. Cell phones and e-mail provide a great deal of convenience and, while I greatly appreciate both of these innovations, I also see their destructive potential regularly playing itself out in the lives and marriages of family and friends...tools designed for productivity and convenience are used instead for obfuscation and safeguarding our secrets.

I'm as guilty as the next person of wanting to live in the dark; a few weeks ago I wrote about my temptation to "untag" myself in old Facebook photos so as not to be visibly linked to my dubious past. So I'm a fairly-recent convert to total transparency...probably sometime early in 2003. My own first marriage crashed and burned in the Fall of 1996...too much in the way of secrecy clearly took its toll there. By the grace of God, I remarried in May of 2004...but not before a great deal of destructive, secretive and sinful behavior had run its course in the intervening years after my divorce. It got so bad at one point that I actually chose to stop attending church rather than live out my sinful choices "in the light;" such is the logical outworking of one who has chosen to live underground.

In an after-hours discussion with Nicodemus, very likely held at night precisely because Nicodemus didn't want his standing in the Jewish community jeopardized by anyone blogging or tweeting about this encounter, Jesus yet again penetrates straight to the heart of the matter when it comes to the human propensity to duck, dodge, hide and cover:

John 3:19-20 (ESV)
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.

I think it's worth noting right away that Jesus is speaking to an extremely-devout Pharisee and that these two strongly-worded, indicting sentences come almost immediately after The Bible's Greatest Hit (John 3:16) in which Jesus declared in no uncertain terms the all-encompassing love of God for the world. My own reading of this entire passage, then, is something along the lines of "God's love for you could not possibly be any greater...and yet you dopes still want to shrink back into a (more comfortable?!) life of darkness and deceit."

Given my own history and personal experiences with deceit, I find it incredibly humbling when another person comes to me seeking after marital advice. If you think about it, it's kind of like asking the guy who totaled his car to give your teenager driving lessons. However, since God has seen fit to redeem my history of divorce - and that of my wife's - by placing us in the lives of others who are experiencing the same pain, I often start off with a simple question that strikes at the heart of where problems often present themselves in marriages.

"So...is there anything in your life that is outside the grasp of your spouse?" The answer to that question typically reveals much, assuming that the other person is prepared to be honest.

Here's what I¹ve found so far. (Even though this may seem blazingly obvious, it bears repeating.) Within marriage, if there are things about you that your spouse doesn't know, and you don't want them to know, you're living in the dark, plain and simple; sin and deceit now have an excellent foothold in creating any number of additional problems in your life.

Nowadays, I always want to be able to answer that difficult question with, "No, there is nothing in my life outside of my wife's grasp." Sure, there may be things in my life that my spouse may not care to know more about, but absolutely everything is "out on the counter" and available for her to examine should she want to (and vice versa).

This commitment to total transparency became a fairly serious matter in the early months of our marriage when old girlfriends and boyfriends were still calling and e-mailing. You know...mostly just "harmless inquiries" from someone who was "just a friend" wishing us well...or (perhaps) seeking to find out if either of us took our recent vows very seriously. Working together under this kind of pressure, we agreed to share with each other every time this kind of contact was made; we deleted old e-mail accounts and exchanged passwords with each other for all of our new accounts; we copied each other on a ridiculous amount of e-mail, most of it (probably) harmless; we moved all our banking to one location and put both our names on all accounts. Even today, we refuse to open separate Facebook accounts but instead share one profile.

And, fortunately, we steeled ourselves to take a fair amount of grief about it from others. We became accustomed to hearing helpful remarks such as "Your marriage might be pretty shaky if you can't have anything at all that belongs just to you." Well, I actually see the reverse as being true. Having nothing set aside "for my eyes only" is actually a tremendous area of strength and (I think) a testament to a willingness to expose flaws and deal with them. For whatever this is worth, what we've found by "living in the light" is that a tremendous amount of peace comes along with pursuing transparency.

It seems that we as a culture are rapidly losing the ability to communicate openly and honestly with one another. I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard that someone experiencing marital issues is communicating primarily via e-mail or text with their spouse. When we're angry nowadays, it seems like talking "real-time" (either on the phone or in person) has steadily lost favor to carefully crafting a devastating, one-way written message: "No need to reply...I mostly just wanted to upset you."

Within marriage and family relations, though, I think it's absolutely vital to swim hard and furiously against this tide. Honestly, can you even imagine Jesus interrupting His conversation with Nicodemus to check his BlackBerry, smirk at the message received, and then say "Really, Nick, it's nothing...forget about it."

Look, I am a mess. So are you. We all are (Genesis 6:5, Psalm 14:1-3, Romans 3:9-18). But once we get to the point that we can accept the truthfulness of that assessment, it is in fact very liberating. And living in that (often harsh) light makes it so much more comforting to be in relationship with a Savior who already knows how messed up we are...and yet loves us anyway (Romans 5:6-8, 1 John 3:1, Ephesians 2:4-7). One tangible way to show our appreciation for His great love is to fight (and yes, it is a fight) to achieve transparency with those we claim to love.

I'm certainly not saying that transparency is easy. It isn't. What I am saying is that perhaps we should think of it as "practice." (Psalm 139:2-3 and 23-24, Matthew 9:3-4, John 4:16-19, John 6:60-61, Revelation 20:11-12)

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

"You Had to Go in an Outhouse?!?"

I'm thankful for my Thanksgiving lesson this year. While spending time with my husband's parents this holiday weekend, one late night discussion turned to the topic of their childhood. What an incredible difference their way of life was from my current lifestyle! Consider some of the dissimilarities I learned of…

Me: Wake up toasty warm in my memory foam-topped bed.
Them: Wake up freezing under 8-10 blankets with frost in the windows.

Me: Warm, clean indoor bathroom.
Them: Outhouse or bucket on the porch. (His mom didn’t have indoor plumbing until college!)

Me: Simply flick my wrist to turn on the sink knob to brush my teeth or make my morning coffee.
Them: Pump and bring in water to drink, cook with, do dishes, take a bath, etc.

Me: Microwave leftovers for lunch or order pizza for dinner, if I desire.
Them: Cook all meals over a coal-burning stove from scratch.

Me: Change and throw away disposable diapers.
Them: Hand wash dirty cloth diapers. (His mom had to help with this, because she had younger siblings to help care for.)

Me: Turn on my bedside lamp to read at night.
Them: Use a dim oil-burning lamp at dinner and to read by at night. (They didn't have electricity until elementary school.)

The list of dissimilarities could go on and on, and I can’t stop pondering it all. (Having a conversation with a family member about this sort of thing is quite unlike reading about it in a textbook. Why couldn't I have realized that as a teenager?!?) Here are two brief thoughts I’ve had since our Thanksgiving talk:

What do I complain about and why?

“Another potty accident by my 2-year-old! I get so tired of doing his laundry.”
“Car problems, again?!?”
“I don’t get enough ‘me time’.”
“If only we had a bigger house…”

I’ve clearly forgotten many truths. My complaints are ridiculous in light of what God has given me and how easy our life is in many ways compared to a few decades ago. When I find myself complaining, I want to instead be thankful for all that I’ve been given by God (all good gifts come from our Father in Heaven, after all). Additionally, I hope to remember just how hard Nathan’s parents had to work for what I consider “basics” (all things I take for granted—food, indoor plumbing, easy transportation, etc), and in turn keep me mindful of how “good” I have it.

How does modern technology keep me from spending significant relational time with my family and friends?

For instance, Nathan and I often spend a whole evening after the kids go to bed on our computers. One of the only interactions we might have is, “Is the internet slow for you, too?” Sad, I know. On Thanksgiving Day, Nathan’s mom’s siblings all got together and clearly enjoyed one another’s company for hours on end. I’m sure much of their affinity for one another was due in part to the uninterrupted quantity and quality of time they had together as children. I want to create time like that for our family, too--time when we close our laptops, ignore phone calls, and turn off the television. Although these modern advances are certainly good gifts from God, I don’t want to misuse them and ultimately lose precious relational time with my husband, kids, and others in our lives.

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Preaching the Gospel (Part 2...sort of)

Last week I shared a video clip of Penn Jillette from Penn & Teller, in which he uses the phrase "How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?"

You can check out the post here.

But sharing the gospel is difficult. It’s uncomfortable. I’m afraid that I’ll be thought a Jesus-freak, or too pushy, or arrogant, or offensive. I’m afraid that I won’t know what to say, or that I’ll say something wrong. I’m terrified of the awkwardness.

So I shy away from it. Yet, the Bible says that it is commanded of Christians to do exactly that, get out of our comfort zone and spread the message of the gospel, the good news of Christ.

The Great Commission in Matthew 28 says this: “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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

Now, before anyone misunderstands me, I am NOT saying the only way to share the gospel is by handing out tracts or walking through Romans Road or talking about the different states of man. It is not only preaching on street corners and in the public halls.

Preaching the gospel is more complicated than that, it is more comprehensive than that. Here are three ways I think we need to preach the gospel as Christians:

With Our Lives – A famous quote goes like this: “Preach the gospel and if necessary use words.” While maybe not theologically perfect, the message is crucially important for us to understand. We are supposed to preach the gospel with every step, every breath, every facial expression, every conversation, every task performed at work, etc., etc. Our daily life is a canvas which is supposed to beautifully declare the truth of the gospel.

1 Peter 3:15 – “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” The assumption within this verse is that the Christian’s life is to look different. More hopeful, more peaceful, more joyous, more fulfilled. And if we live in such a manner, people will wonder why. That is the preaching of the gospel with our lives.

With Compassion – The end of 1 Peter 3:15 says this: “But do this with gentleness and respect…” We must present the gospel with gentleness, with a respectful tone, with compassion. Francis Schaeffer once said that we should see unbelievers not with contempt or disdain, but we should see them as people “dying while they live.” He goes on to point out that if we see them this way, we will have a deep compassion for them.

Keith shared an illustration in a sermon not too long ago that hits this point home. A talk show host of sorts in Chicago (who wasn't a believer) often would ask religious leaders, pastors, etc. if Jesus was the only way. He would then ask something like – “so does that mean that you think I’m going to hell?” He got the same answer often – “Yes.” But what really affected him was a man who answered his question with more than just one word. This man’s eyes welled up with tears, several of them running down his face. That man answering “yes” to that question, with tears and compassion, spoke powerfully to the host.

With Words – This is where the quote from above falls a little short. Preach the gospel with your life, sure…but it will undoubtedly be necessary for you to use words as well. Paul puts it this way in Romans 10:14 – “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”

Understanding the gospel for ourselves enables us to preach it with words and clarity so that others too might understand it. This requires bible study, thought, and knowing what bible verses to point to.

We all need help here. More wisdom, more boldness, more graciousness. But the Bible commands us to be preachers of the Gospel. May our lives and our words do just that.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Religious Beliefs in the Public Square? It Apparently Depends...

Consider the case of a professing Christian law professor, by way of a master’s thesis completed at a divinity school and employing extensive biblical and theological argumentation, mounting a case to change an important aspect of public policy. Consider also the state governor, himself a Southern Baptist, not only thoroughly backing said change, but making appeals to garner support that were transparently tied to following Christ. Finally, toss in the fact that the professor’s divinity school and several church denominations also overtly backed the reform.

This the real life scenario detailed in the final chapter of Hunter Baker’s The End of Secularism (a book I previously mentioned here). And given all the above, you can only imagine the streams of protest that were let loose by various groups and individuals regarding improper interaction between church and state. Well, as it turns out, you can only imagine them…because they didn’t happen. Baker elaborates:
No legal or academic commentators leaped into the fray to speak of the need for independent secular rationales or for public appeals to be secular appeals. Fears of theocracy simply never played a significant role in the public debate. The ACLU, People for the American Way, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State steered clear. The governor of the state of Alabama, guided by a professor at the state’s largest law school, worked to redistribute several billion dollars from one group of persons to another because of the moral imperative they saw in Jewish and Christian holy writings. The guardians of secularism did not make enough noise to interrupt the song of cicadas in the warm Alabama nights.
Why? Baker suggests the answer lies in the particular issue involved and a larger double standard. The public policy area in question was the state’s tax code. The plea of the professor and governor was to change it in such a way as to remove the unreasonable burden Alabama had placed on its poorer citizens. Baker goes on:
Intuition check: does anyone think that this story would have been treated similarly by the press and church-state watchdogs if t had involved an equally religious program aimed at hampering the proclaimed injustice of abortion? We know it would have been treated differently. The charge of theocracy would be loud and frequent. Accusations would fly. Turn the facts around again and the crusade is aimed at establishing greater civil rights for illegal immigrants working for low wages in an underground economy. No worries of theocracy. Turn them around again and see religion aimed at solidifying the traditional understanding of marriage. Theocracy threatens again!
Referring to observations by Stephen Carter, Baker sums up the situation this way:
Carter’s main point is that social elites seek to marginalize the religious influence whenever it expresses a worldview with which they disagree. Thus, the left-wing nuclear freeze or poverty rights group speaks in frankly religious terms, and it sounds like music. The right wing abortion protester or marriage advocate speaks, and it is frightening theocracy all over again.
The point is persuasive, and it’s only one important contribution Baker’s book makes to the discussion of religion’s role in the public square. A handful of individual chapters are each worth the price of the book themselves. “The American Model, The American Controversy” offers a compelling examination of the significance of the religious clauses in the First Amendment (with conclusions that were surprising, at least to me). “The Legend of Warfare” examines simplistic myths regarding the relationship between science and religion. And “Secularists Sit One Out in the Bible Belt” further elaborates on the scenario mentioned above.

For anyone who wants to think more about whether and how religious beliefs should participate in the public square, this book is well worth the read.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Developing a Preference for the Everyday Manifestations of God's Power

As a brand-new believer (circa 1997, before I had actually bothered to read through the entire Bible), I rather blithely thought it would be pretty cool if God would "seal my salvation" somehow via the supernatural. I'd heard of people praying in tongues, miraculous cures brought about in answer to prayer, and so I ignorantly figured that "something like that" would be just the ticket for me! Always the ladder climber, my sinful human heart sought to "go varsity" with my Christian faith and set myself apart somehow. (How utterly misguided!)

I wasn't exactly sure what going varsity meant, or what my life would look like should Jesus (or perhaps "just" one of His angels) show up and perform some kind of inexplicable parlor trick for my benefit, to help strengthen my individual Christian confession. All I can say is that my immature faith foolishly cried out to be fully confirmed somehow, preferably in a manner that would be totally inexplicable to the naturalist...beyond further human argument.

With me so far?

I figured if the Apostle Paul could take a beating from the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (and survive), I probably could, too. Besides, I had accrued enough vacation and sick time at work to accommodate being struck blind (or something like that) for a few days.

What I have since come to understand is that God, in His mercy, very rarely works that way, choosing most often to enact His will via human agency (1) and that, by and large, we are all much better off that He doesn't show up in our living room in a whirlwind of fire. The author of Hebrews (10:31, ESV) says it very well indeed when he writes that "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." My understanding of this verse is that it is yet another manifestation of His great, unsearchable mercy that God (for the most part) chooses not to reveal Himself to us as He did to Moses and the prophets.

If you read through all of the Old Testament accounts, you can't help but notice that a lot of people tend to die (some horribly) whenever one of God's holy angels actually shows up to intervene in human affairs. I think it's also noteworthy that the first words spoken tend to be "Do not be afraid," implying that tremendous terror is the natural first response to any visitation. But I also like how the Bible dramatically understates the power and might of God's holy angels...it's assumed!

One great example can be found in 2 Kings 18:13 to 19:37 (ESV), which tells of the reign of King Hezekiah. Sennacherib, king of Assyria, sends his Rabshakeh (or "chief cupbearer") to besiege Jerusalem with a great army. In a passage somewhat reminiscent of the naughty French soldiers taunting a very frustrated King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Rabshakeh stands outside Jerusalem with his entire army and makes all kinds of horrible threats against the people of Judah. (Interestingly, he even tells the frightened people inside the walls that he knows for a fact that God is with him in the destruction of the city!) I am not a Bible scholar by any means, but as I read through this account, I tend to think that Sennacherib's undoing comes when the Rabshakeh brazenly compares the God of Israel to all the destroyed, false gods of the many other nations vanquished by the Assyrians. (Discuss.)

For his part, as completely impossible as the situation looks in human terms, King Hezekiah does not panic...but instead puts all his trust in the Lord to deliver Judah from Sennacherib. He calls in Isaiah to prophesy; he takes Sennacherib's letter of ultimatum to the temple and opens it before the Lord. And then there's this from 2 Kings 19:35 (ESV): "And that night the angel of the LORD went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies."

Yeah...did you catch that?

185 thousand soldiers felled. One night's work. And it doesn't even sound like the angel broke a sweat! This astonishing angelic intervention merits a single sentence in the Bible.

Perhaps understandably, Sennacherib subsequently decided that attacking Jerusalem was, perhaps, not such a great idea after all. He heads back home to Nineveh...only to be killed by two of his own sons as he worships the false god Nisroch. (You know, this sort of thing can really put one off from a desire to worship false gods...)

And, of course, this account in 2 Kings is by no means unique or an isolated incident. God showed up and struck Moses' sister Miriam with leprosy (Numbers 12); he sent an angel throughout Egypt to strike down every firstborn (Exodus 12:29-30), he killed a man for touching the Ark of the Covenant in an unrighteous manner (2 Samuel 6:6-7), he opened up a fiery pit beneath Korah, Dathan and others after they rebelled against Moses in the camp of Israel (Numbers 16:31-33)...on and on and on it goes.

Yet again, though, it is Jesus Himself who has the final word on signs and wonders (Matthew 16:1-4) when He very plainly says that "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign..."

For the longest time I could not logically connect the tension between the many signs and wonders that Jesus Himself performed during His three years of ministry...and this statement from Matthew 16. If only "evil" and "adulterous" people seek after signs, why perform any at all? Does that not just feed the human desire for "parlor tricks?"

So Jesus labels us "evil and adulterous" for seeking after signs. That seems like a "discussion-ender" to me. In our weakness of faith, though, many of us (secretly?) crave after them anyway.

But here's the real kick in the pants: Even if you did personally witness a miracle or supernatural sign, the Bible seems very clear that (ultimately) it would do absolutely nothing toward either causing you to believe on Christ or strengthening your confession of faith.

Don't buy it? Think a pillar of fire would do it for you? Well, again, the Bible is bursting at the seams with appalling displays of unbelief, even in the face of the miraculous. Here's just for starters: Matthew 8:28-34 and 9:32-34, Luke 6:6-11, John 5:2-10, John 9, John 11, John 12:9-11, John 18 and that's just a quick sampling of the New Testament!

So as I consider the often-surprising and unexpected manifestations of God's visible power in the Bible, my desire for signs and wonders has fallen off considerably. The more that I meditate on the holiness of God and my own inability to fully comprehend His love or wrath, the happier I am to say that God has already confirmed His ability to perform the miraculous in my own life.

No, He did not audibly speak to me. No, He has not appeared to me in a dream or vision. Instead, God chose to reveal His awesome power in my life by removing from me, all at once, the entrenched-for-decades desires for alcohol and drugs. And He caused the sun to rise again this morning. My heart is still pumping blood, my lungs are still taking in oxygen. No, none of these are pillars of fire, nor are they a parting of the Red Sea, but if you had the misfortune to interact with me prior to July of 1997, you would quite rightly recognize these "everyday events" as nothing short of miraculous.

(1) Many thanks to Jerry Bridges for his simple-yet-profound book, "Trusting God."

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Penn Jillette on Preaching the Gospel

Penn Jillette is from the well-known magician duo Penn and Teller. He’s rather famous and rather outspoken. Through radio, television, and even print, Penn’s opinions are made known to many. Penn is also an atheist, and holds to that view quite forcefully and with conviction. Thus, when I saw this video it sort of floored me.

Before this particular clip he is relaying a time when a gentleman waited outside one of his venues after a show. As Penn walked out the man struck up a conversation, commenting on his enjoyment of Penn’s work but he also did something else – handed him a Bible with a note inscribed in it. The whole story is worth watching, and you can do so here (Penn further discusses how the man’s gentleness and sincerity impacted him…definitely worth checking out if you have the time). But the video below is an excerpt from that fuller 5 minute clip. I’ve attached the transcript below it.

Beware that Penn uses some intense, possibly offensive language (not swearing…just wordage that might catch you a little off guard). My point is not that I wholeheartedy agree with him, I’d have to think about it more. My point is that an atheist, a really outspoken atheist in this case, understands the vital importance of sharing the gospel (what he calls proselytizing) with those that we love.



“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?

“I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”

Next week, we’ll take a deeper look at what it really means to “preach the gospel.” I’ll argue that if you’re not handing out Bibles and not preaching on street corners you can still be faithfully preaching the gospel. But there’s not enough time for that today…check back next week. But for now, let us consider how fundamental preaching the gospel is to our lives as Christians.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

The Search

While watching football this past weekend with my brother-in-law, my attention was drawn to a new commercial. It was immediately apparent this commercial bore a serious message. The ethereal chime of the background music and the hushed tone of the narrator drew me in fully. I was convinced by the 15 second mark this was indeed a spiritual message. Had the Christian community finally invested the time and resources to develop a quality media production? Well, in short...no.

As the commercial progressed in a crescendo of culmination, it became apparent the production was sponsored by none other than the church of scientology. My brother-in-law and I looked at each other with that classic “you have got to be joking” expression written across our foreheads. It was as if you were expecting cookies when you see the girl scouts at your door, only to find out they are now selling magazine subscriptions. However, as I thought about the emphasis of the commercial, I was struck by how a cult consisting of such superficiality could identify, and target, a cultural reality which runs deeper than the christian church has been willing to recognize.

I have included a copy of the commercial below.




C.S. Lewis carried a consistent theme through his writings regarding his concern for what evangelism looks like in a culture that rejects a moral code. What effect does it have on a nonbeliever when describing how God took our “badness” and made it “good” if the hearer has no innate definition of “badness” or “goodness”? A common reaction to the sharing of one’s faith story or conversion experience is as follows; “I am happy for you as you have clearly found something that has created an opportunity for you to be a better person.” The barrier lies in the thousand “somethings” that get you from point A to point B.

Faith stories and conversion experiences in and of themselves seem to feed the proverbial agnostic monster in a culture of relativism. The atheist and agnostic love to hear us tell our personal stories about how God saved us from alcoholism, pornography, adultery and greed. They stand and applaud our efforts of becoming more productive citizens. We will hear them congratulate us on finding Christianity as our “something” that provides a means to achieving a better balance and a happier life. However, they will tell us definitively that our personal experience has nothing to do with any ultimate truth.

That is what is so surprising to me about this most recent emphasis of the Scientology movement. The scientologists have recently fallen on hard times. There have been scandals, arrests, and prosecutions, and the spin machine is working overtime. However, in this 60 second plug we experience a very appealing call to discover an ultimate truth, an ultimate reality that satisfies a deep longing we all share. I think the technique is attractive to our truth starved culture, and I am sure the agnostic elite is thinking; “wait a minute, I thought you were one of us?!?”

I would like to suggest the church of scientology borrowed their methodology from none other than the Word of God. And I think the church of Jesus Christ may do well to “take a page” out of that old L. Ron Hubbard Dianetics book your crazy aunt from Tupelo gave you for Christmas 15 years ago.

Consider one of the most well know testimonials in the bible. In the 26th Chapter of Acts, Paul is brought before King Agrippa (a king with a pedigree for killing Christians) to defend himself. We see Paul clearly describe his conversion on the road to Damascus, but he doesn’t stop there. In fact, I think Paul uses his conversion experience to expand on a radical truth claim. Paul challenges his audience to see the very reason they wake each morning, the very essence of history, and the call of their long dead fathers and prophets is the source of that light on the road and the reality of that source demands a choice. Do you, or do you not believe the truth?

Paul then proclaims in verse 29 that belief in the source of that light brings freedom, even while he is bound in chains. Paul knows that a changed heart and life can only give testimony to God’s grace and power when combined with the challenge to see the truth for what it is...the very thing we are all searching for.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dead Aid: How Aid Hurts Africa

While Dave was watching television and posting on a news story, I was reading a book by an African woman entitled Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working And How There Is A Better Way For Africa. I haven't finished the entire book and thus wasn't planning on posting on this topic quite yet but Dave's post and the ensuing comments prompted me to share some of what I've learned so far.

As I alluded to earlier this book was written by an African so it can't be disregarded as a white, western, racist view of the continent's problems. The author, Dambisa Moyo, was raised in Zambia and only after graduating from college did she leave for the United States where she worked for 2 years at the World Bank, completed a masters at Harvard, and then travelled to England to earn a PhD in Economics at Oxford. I'm not saying that her African heritage and first class education make her right, but I am saying that she can't be dismissed too quickly by the "good intentions makes all things right" crowd.

There are so many interesting and provocative paragraphs in this book that it will difficult to limit my quotations. But here's the thesis of the first part of the book as laid out in the introduction.
Deep in every liberal sensibility is a profound sense that in a world of moral uncertainty one idea is sacred, one belief cannot be compormised: the rich should help the poor and the form of the help should be aid.

But has more than US $1 trillion in development assistance over the last several decades made African people better off? No. In fact, across the globe the recipients of this aid are worse off; much worse off. Aid has helped make the poor poorer, and the growth slower. Yet aid remains a centerpiece of today's development policy and one of the biggest ideas of our time.

The notion that aid can alleviate systemic poverty, and has done so is a myth. Millions in Africa are poorer today because of aid; misery and poverty have not ended but have increased. Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.
Moyo's point is that aid actually leads to poverty. Now it is important to point out that there are different kinds of aid and she is not addressing all types in this book. There is emergency aid in response to a natural calamity such as the 2004 tsunami, charity-based aid, and systemic aid which is transferred from government to government or through the World Bank. Moyo says that while emergency and charitable aid are not without their own problems, her book is specifically addressing the "billions transferred each year directly to poor countries' governments."

Chapter 2 of the book gives a history of foreign aid that I found interesting. The concept of international government aid traces its roots to a meeting that took place in July 1944 in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. As WWII was nearing an end representatives from 44 countries met to discuss a global system for financial and monetary management. One key idea that the participants agreed on was the need to rebuild Europe after the war was over.

Then in 1947 U.S. Secretary of the State George Marshall proposed the radical idea of America giving Europe $20 billion ($100 billion in today's terms) to revive their economy. At the end of the five years and with Europe well on the way to recovery, attention turned to Africa. If aid had helped Europe, then why couldn't it do the same for other places?

But aid was soon co-opted as a political tool by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union with both governments giving large amounts of money to countries that would align with them in the Cold War. Aid wasn't dispersed to countries with good leadership or good economic plans but as a bribe to turn the world either "capitalist or communist."

Since then each decade has produced a different aid emphasis but what they all share in common is that none of them worked. Moyo refers to our current decade as "the rise of glamour aid" where the advocates are not African but cultural pop stars playing upon "western liberal guilt-tripped morality."

Moyo again...
So there we have it: sixty years, over US $1 trillion dollars of African aid, and not much good to show for it. Were aid simply innocuous - just not doing what it claimed it would do - this book would not have been written. The problem is that aid is not benign - it's malignant. No longer part of the potential solution, it's part of the problem - in fact aid is the problem.
The book gives many reasons why aid doesn't accomplish its objective of giving people an economic future some of which are too technical for this post. But here are two that I found interesting.

First, aid encourages graft and corruption. With so much money flowing into a country people will do anything and everything they can to get a piece of the action. She provides numerous examples.

Second, aid discourages business and investment. For example, she imagines a mosquito net maker who manufactures 500 nets a week. He employs 10 people who each support large families. The demand for the nets is great so they want to invest their money into expanding their business. Now enter a Hollywood do-gooder who rallies both individuals and governments to donate 100,000 mosquito nets at a cost of $1 million. When the nets are distributed, everyone feels good.

But what happened to our mosquito net maker? Well he's out of a job and so are his 10 employees. Not only that but all the investors who contributed to expanding the business have lost their money.

Moyo concludes that "In nearly all cases, short-term aid evaluations give the erroneous impression of aid's success. But short-term evaluations are scarcely relevant when trying to tackle Africa's long-term problems."

Part 2 of the book explains Moyo's solution to Africa's economic crisis. The problem is that I just started that section. Remember I told you at the beginning of this post that I hadn't finished the book. Maybe I'll post on the second half when I've finished it or maybe you will be motivated to read it on your own.

At the risk of over clarifying: my point in this post is to share an interesting and provocative book that I've been reading. I'm not saying that the author is correct nor am I saying that Christians should stop partnering with African churches and ministries. In fact members of The Crossing should know that as a church we are very engaged in many such partnerships.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Have You Seen This on ABC News?

Let me throw this out there for thought...

In a recent story on ABC News entitled, “Refugee Aid Dependency,” the question is asked—“Are people in refugee camps becoming dependent on humanitarian aid?” I watched this story yesterday and was surprised by their analysis. After viewing it for yourself here (you may have to watch an ad first, sorry), then return and read on…

It reminds me of the blog entry I posted on September 16, where I discussed the surprising (to some) biblical command for Christians NOT just to give money, food (i.e., material aid) to those who are unwilling to work. And I think this is a big lesson our society needs to relearn (I say “relearn” because past cultures seemed to understand this principle better). Somehow it has become politically and socially vogue in our culture to believe that the most compassionate thing for governments and individuals to do is simply provide people what they need for however long they may need it. And if we don't do that, we're said to be hard-hearted, selfish, and stingy. But the scriptures teach otherwise (see previously cited blog), and now, it appears, so does this story on ABC News.

Now, admittedly, I'm the last person to think I'm any kind of expert on actually how to solve such problems in Africa, let alone in impoverished communities and lives here in our own country. Thank God there are smarter people in this world than me. But it seems to me that one thing that needs to at least be in the mix of how we help people is that we require them to work in some way for long-term material aid. This is primarily for their benefit as well as the benefit of society. Is there a way that refugees can begin to work for their aid so that they do not become lifelong dependent refugees? I don't know. But it seems to me that that's an important question that needs to be explored.

Now, what surprised me in particular from the ABC News story was that the same people who came to the realization that the U.N. is creating a society of people dependent upon humanitarian aid do not also seem to understand the same principle when it comes to the various welfare and food-stamp programs in the U.S. Certainly there is a role for some kind of short-term government assistance, but I think it's clear to most people that we've created a society of people dependent upon humanitarian aid right here in our own country. And it just seems to me that the solution to the prolongation of their dependency is NOT to give them more aid. Might it be better, somehow (again, I'm certainly no expert), to require people to work for any assistance they may receive? And should there not be a cut-off time when material aid is over and material necessity forces those who are able to work to work? Because, as the Bible says, often the compassionate answer is not more aid.

And so I believe there are implications for this not just for governments, but for individuals and churches too. Sometimes the most compassionate thing is NOT to give someone money who asks for it. That's controversial today, I know. But sometimes—oftentimes—most of the time, the most compassionate thing is to require someone to be forced to work hard to find and keep a job so they can earn their own living. I realize it may not always be as simple as that. But I also realize, as did the ABC News story, that it's certainly not as simple as just continuing to give people more money either.

Your thoughts?

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Small Victories

As a parent, I’ve begun to look for small victories.

My son Jack is approaching three years of age. His sister Hannah turned one in October. As you might imagine, their interaction with one another doesn’t always ooze peace and love. Two things contribute a great deal to the problems: Jack has developed typical toddler self-centeredness and possessiveness and Hannah engages in the regular activity of a baby, i.e., crawling around and messing with all the things she can get her hands on. This leads to regular cries of “NOOOOOOO HANNAH!!!!”…which are usually followed by some phrase that includes a first person possessive pronoun and the name of a toy. Sometimes, these episodes are punctuated by Hannah’s normal method of protest: wailing. The sense of moral injury is almost palpable. I’m sure some of you can relate.

As you might imagine, Rachel and I grow regularly exasperated in telling our son that he does not need to play with every toy in the house at the same time and that there are much better alternatives to swiping them away when his sister is playing with them. Nor is it any fun when he persists and we have to discipline him for what seems like the gazillionth time.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to see Jack occasionally turning the proverbial corner, saying to his sister in a cherubic voice, “Here you go, Hannah,” as he presents her with an alternative toy.

Thankfully we’ve started seeing small victories in another area. Most mornings, either Rachel or I will read to the kids from one of the Read Aloud Bible Stories books or something similar. Jack is currently fixated on the story of David and Goliath from that series, requesting it almost every day. I’m happy to report that the Read Aloud book doesn’t fall into the misinterpretation of this story I mentioned a few weeks ago, but instead emphasizes that God was the one who helped David win his battle, just as he earlier had helped him save his sheep from a lion and bear.

Like all of these stories, the final page asks, “What did you learn?” It states clearly that God helped David and gives me an opportunity to ask Jack who his helper is. Interestingly, my son’s favorite answer to that question is currently someone named “Nas.” Who is Nas? I’m not completely sure. It sounds uncomfortably close to some kind of ancient pagan idol, but I’m fairly confident it’s just my son’s way of messing with me.

Despite this, there are signs that the message of this story (along with the ideas in some of similar books and songs) is starting to sink in. For example, I’m encouraged when Jack tells himself “God is my helper” in the midst of being frightened by the large and menacing fan (?!) at Wal-Mart. Or when he comments that God is the helper of a character in one of the books we read at bedtime. Am I saying he has a well-developed concept of God’s power and faithfulness toward his people? No, after all, he’s not even three years old. But I do think he’s taken some of his first steps down the path. Like I said, small victories.

All of this leads me to a place where I feel both challenged and encouraged as a parent. I’m challenged because of what seems like all the effort and time that it takes to make little starts and fits of progress. I’m left with reality that I’m profoundly in need of God’s grace for perseverance in training up my children in the way they should go. On the other hand, I’m significantly encouraged because of the fact that God so often uses, not the spectacular, but rather simple and mundane efforts to shape and mold kids’ hearts to love and follow him. So "let us not grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Expressing Deep Gratitude for God's Merciful Gift of...Entropy?

Have you ever, even once, been motivated to give praise and thanks to the Lord when battling back against the physical effects of entropy on your home, your car, your other possessions...even your own body? Most of us, I suspect, would probably have to say no. In fact, we are probably far more likely to regard anyone who does respond with worship to the effects of entropy to be, well...at least a bit peculiar. For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, Webster's offers the following definition:
entropy
the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity; a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder; chaos, disorganization, randomness
Simply stated, entropy can be thought of as the stubborn tendency of absolutely everything in our earthly, physical lives to break down and require maintenance. In an oft-cited passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Himself had something very practical to say on this subject:

Matthew 6:19-21 (ESV)
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Many of us (me included) are nevertheless quick to express frustration when things break down, as if it's a surprise when they don't last forever. Lately, though, by God's grace, I have found myself reflecting on the above passage at increasingly-odd moments: I find a new dent or scratch on my truck, perhaps; a steel tool accidentally left outdoors becomes rusted beyond repair; a much-used appliance stops working as it should. While I have not yet learned to receive entropy with immediate thankfulness, I am grateful that occasionally I am seeing earthly decay in a whole new light.

It goes something like this: How great the Father's love for us, indeed, that He offers us the merciful (though almost always unwelcome) gift of entropy. Without it, I suspect we would all be sorely tempted to build bright, shiny, impregnable new castles for ourselves and - to the greatest degree possible - wall out the rest of humanity.

Nowhere, though, is the outward revelation of decay (often accompanied by human forgetfulness and neglect) rendered more poignant than in the realm of human achievements.

Since August of 2004, I have been employed by the Missouri School of Journalism, the world's first and (many will say) best. In 2007 and 2008, a regular feature of my work responsibilities was to assist in the development of a Web-based timeline of the School's first hundred years, officially celebrated in Sept. of 2008. During the course of this project my colleague and I were given access to (literally) thousands of images stored in University Archives; our job was to pare that number down to a manageable representation of the key events which took place in any given era. Many events deemed noteworthy at the time they occurred did not even register as significant when viewed from the perspective of historic review; in other words, what seemed important then...isn't now.

Over and over again as this project unfolded, I was struck by the manner in which nearly all people, places and events lose their significance as time goes by.

The photos at right highlight my point. In 1926, before the Second World War, it was considered something of a "big deal" that Japan presented the School with a stone lantern as a token of friendship between our two countries. "The lantern, still standing today near the arch connecting Neff and Walter Williams Halls, consists of five pieces of granite quarried in the province of Mikawa in Japan." (1929 A. Kimura image courtesy University Archives, C:11/15/1.)

Pretty cool, right? And sure enough, the Japanese stone lantern still stands on the MU campus, right next to where I work, but nowadays it's covered with moss...and very few foreign dignitaries trouble themselves to dress up and stop by Columbia for a stone lantern photo op.

If you've seen the movie Dead Poets Society, you will doubtless recall the scene wherein Robin Williams, playing a new instructor at an academy for boys, takes his young students to view the school's class composites and casually mentions that everyone staring back at them from those old photos is now "worm's meat." The oh-so-clever instructor then advises these impressionable young men to "seize the day," and with that bit of existential wisdom ringing in our ears, millions of annoying "Carpe Diem" bumper stickers and T-shirts were marketed.

So when I was helping to put together the Centennial Timeline, I actually found myself cursing the day that Dead Poets Society made its way into my VCR. Literally, every single work day for a couple of years, I was looking at the accomplishments and achievements of hundreds of souls that were once young, vibrant, and could all be easily classified as top-notch achievers, the "go-getters" in their respective fields. These people had been making things happen, grabbing headlines and receiving honors decades before I was even conceived. Now, of course, they too stared back at me just like the men in the school composites from the film, relics of an era long since gone.

An even more disturbing cinematic example of our collective heart for eternity shows up toward the end of the 2001 film Artificial Intelligence: AI, when the "boy" robot played by Haley Joel Osment is recovered from an ice deposit after thousands of years, only to be flown past what are obviously the uppermost portions of the World Trade Center towers. The image was intended to give those of us alive in this millennium a point of reference for a world completely devoid of human life; "Yeah, sure, humanity's been wiped out, but look...at least some of our buildings are still standing!" Living as we do now, on the other side of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the image is far more disturbing than the filmmakers probably intended. Intended to show how humankind would certainly leave its mark on the world even after thousands of years, the iconic image chosen to convey this thought would tragically disappear the very same year this film was released.

We just can't help it. Even though we know it's impossible, humankind is relentless in its quest to find, buy or build something (anything!) that will never, ever be subject to wear and tear or the ravages of time. In His great mercy, though, the Lord has lovingly subjected the entirety of Creation to futility (Romans 8:18-25), that we might somehow register the obvious truths of death and decay...and yet contrast all this with the deeply embedded sense of eternity that has been knit into our souls. We buy a new car and get an adrenaline rush...then freak out when it gets its first scratch or ding. God's mercy. We pluck gray hairs out of our head; they multiply. God's mercy. We make millions and invest them with our good friend Bernie Madoff, only to watch them vanish into thin air. Again, viewed from eternity, God's mercy in our lives.

The timeline project ended a year ago, but one obvious after-effect on my own heart is that each and every day I now sincerely thank the Lord whenever my wife and kids sit down with me at the dinner table. Far from my thoughts being morbid as I consider that these days are clearly numbered, I find instead an immense gratitude to a God Who would ordain that I get to enjoy even one meal with my family...let alone thousands.

We worship a risen Lord, a triune God Who has been gracious enough to set eternity in the hearts of mankind (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and yet, mercifully, given us no other place to find that desire ultimately fulfilled than in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Something to consider, perhaps, the next time you're dealing with the entropy in your own life, whether scraping rust off your outdoor barbecue or replacing a dead battery in your car?

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

I Will Rise

Singing is an important part of the believer's life. We don't simply sing praises to God for thirty minutes of a worship service to distract, entertain, or fill time. It is an integral part of worship as is the preached word of God.

But there is a particular power within music that is difficult to explain. Corporate or individual singing has the ability to influence, shape, convict, and encourage our hearts in a specific way.

This is why the Bible is full of songs and full of commands to sing them, particularly to the Lord. The command to sing to the Lord is everywhere (Exodus 15:12, 1 Chronicles 16:9 & 23, Psalm 33:3, Ephesians 5:19, and these are only a few). And songs are everywhere (Exodus 15, Numbers 21, Judges 5, 2 Samuel 22, etc., etc.). Heck, the Psalms are a book of songs to be sung.

Before we go further, know two things:
  1. I'm not really a "music person." In other words, it's not something I naturally gravitate to.
  2. I'm not a "Christian music person." I don't really listen to that much Christian music.
So this recommendation isn't coming from a worship director, a music connoisseur, or a Christian music junkie.

But there is a specific song that has encouraged my heart and soul in profound ways the past months. In that time I've had a friend's infant die, a friend of my high school students committed suicide, several friends have miscarried, several friends have been diagnosed with cancer, a relative of one of my high school students passed away, my sister got diagnosed with M.S., and several other mini-tragedies have occurred in and around my family.

My hunch is your story isn't that different. Life gets us discouraged, depressed, defeated.

And that's why we have songs.

Here's the song that has encouraged my heart so deeply - it's by Chris Tomlin and it's entitled "I Will Rise." We sing it at The Crossing frequently, but I've been listening to it a lot more than just on Sunday mornings.

The promise of the future resurrection, that all our tears and sorrows and pains and agony will be wiped away. Gone! My heart can sing to that.

May we find hope and strength in the promises of the Gospel. Listen to the song, listen to the words, and I think you'll benefit.



"I Will Rise"

There's a peace I've come to know
Though my heart and flesh may fail
There's an anchor for my soul
I can say "It is well"

Jesus has overcome
And the grave is overwhelmed
The victory is won
He is risen from the dead

[Chorus:]
And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles' wings
Before my God fall on my knees
And rise
I will rise

There's a day that's drawing near
When this darkness breaks to light
And the shadows disappear
And my faith shall be my eyes

Jesus has overcome
And the grave is overwhelmed
The victory is won
He is risen from the dead

[Chorus:]
And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles' wings
Before my God fall on my knees
And rise
I will rise

And I hear the voice of many angels sing,
"Worthy is the Lamb"
And I hear the cry of every longing heart,
"Worthy is the Lamb"
[x2]

[Chorus:]
And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles' wings
Before my God fall on my knees
And rise
I will rise

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Season of Life

Like a lot of boys I learned important life lessons from playing sports. Through sports I learned about how to be a part of a team, the importance of developing a strong work ethic, and how to handle both winning and losing. Yet on the football team that I played on in high school those kind of lessons were secondary to the main goal of winning football games. But I recently came across a story about a very successful football team that made winning secondary to developing men.

If you are a man who enjoys sports and especially if you are a dad of young boys, I would highly recommend Season of Life by Jeffery Marx. It is a short, easy read that is packed with a lot of important insights in manhood. The book tells the story of the relationship between Joe Ehrmann, former all pro on the Baltimore Colts defensive line, and Jeffery Marx, the author of the book.

The two first met when Marx was the ball boy for the Colts during summer training camp. They stayed in touch until Marx went to college. When they were reintroduced twenty five years later, Ehrmann was no longer the free spirit he was during his playing days but a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and a minister at a Grace Fellowship Church in Baltimore.

Always possessing a heart for the city, Ehrmann was not only a pastor but also an assistant coach for the nationally recognized Gilman football team. Along with his friend Biff who served as the team's head coach, Ehrmann had an agenda beyond winning football games. Together their passion was building men. To accomplish their mission they instituted a program called Building Men For Others that is still active today.

Biff and Joe believed that the culture was sending out the message that what made a man was athletic performance, girls, and financial success or Ball field, Bedroom, and Boardroom. But these false definitions of manhood lead men into isolation and disappointment. As coaches they built into their players that being a man is defined by relationships, working for a transcendent cause, accepting responsibility, leading courageously, enacting justice on behalf of others, and empathy.

According to Joe, "It's going to come down to this. What kind of father were you? What kind of husband were you? What kind of son were you? What kind of brother were you? What kind of friend were you?" A man's relationships with others will end up determining the impact of his life.

Marx spends a season with the Gilman team watching the coaches interact with the players, having discussions about life with Joe, and leaning a lot about his own relationship with his father. While it would be impossible to call this a Christian book-Jesus or the gospel is never mentioned-I think that it is safe to say that many of the principles are based on Christianity. My guess is that in an attempt to gain a wide readership, the author stayed away from using specifically Christian language.

In my opinion there are a lot of important lessons in this book that would help men of all ages but especially those that are in the important position of helping boys become men.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Quick Thought (again) From C.S. Lewis...

Those who read this blog often know by now that I like to read C.S. Lewis. And as I've already stated many times, I certainly don't agree with everything he's written. But for me, at least, he has a way of putting things that resonates with me and motivates me toward a greater faith in and faithfulness to Christ. There are so many of his writings that I'd like to share in this blog from time to time, but today I'll just share one of my favorites from Mere Christianity:

What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’—could set up on their own as if they had created themselves—be their own masters—invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.

The reason why it can never succeed is this. God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other.
The point is obvious, and probably the more I say about it the more I'll detract from it. But there is no other but Christ that can truly satisfy my heart's longings, my soul's thirst, and my mind's quests. But whenever I choose to sin—whenever I choose to be my own master—invent some sort of happiness for myself outside God, apart from God—I'm actually rejecting Christ as my greatest satisfaction.

But repentance is when I reject and reverse that choice—when I say that I'm right now choosing Christ as my greatest satisfaction—my greatest glory—my greatest hope for now and my future—and I'm rejecting trying to find something other than God which will make me happy.

(Then it is good to read, pray through, meditate on God's Word, like Psalm 16 or 27, or Colossians 3:1-17—to make these scriptures my prayers.)

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

You, Me, and a Guy Named Mephibosheth

Anyone called on to read the Bible in public knows that it can quickly humble you. One of the big reasons for that has to be the names. Biblical genealogies are particularly intimidating. They are the scriptural passages where both one’s confidence and verbal competence go to die. But genealogies aren’t the only problem. Difficult names lie in wait at nearly every turn. And so it is with 2 Samuel 9, where we encounter a man named Me…Me-phib…Mephibosheth. (Go ahead, try saying it five times fast.)

On top of his difficult name, Mephibosheth doesn’t appear to be a particularly compelling character at first. 2 Samuel first mentions him—somewhat parenthetically—in chapter four. There we learn that he was the son of Jonathan, who was himself the son of Saul, the latter having been Israel’s first king. But in Mephibosheth’s case, his lineage was far from a blessing. As a result of repeatedly disobeying God, Saul eventually met his demise at the hand of the Philistines in a battle that also claimed the life of Jonathan. This took place when Mephibosheth was five years old. To make matters worse, when his nurse received the news, she took him and fled in haste, causing him to fall and become lame in both feet.

Things likely didn’t improve much for Mephibosheth in the years that followed. The death of Saul paved the way for David, the man God himself had chosen, to become king. His ascent to the throne was not without conflict, however. Another of Saul’s sons, Mephibosheth’s uncle Ish-bosheth, attempted to keep the kingship, a decision that resulted in a long and ultimately futile war with David and finally his own death.

Being a member of Saul’s family, Mephibosheth may very well have feared David’s revenge. History is littered with triumphant kings exterminating the descendents of their rivals. Saul, being threatened by David’s success, had tried to kill him multiple times. Ish-bosheth had warred against him.

So one can only imagine what was going through Mephibosheth’s mind when, as we read in chapter 9, was summoned before David. If he feared the worse, what happened next had to be a shock. We pick up the story in v. 6:

6 When Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, came to David, he bowed down to pay him honor.
David said, “Mephibosheth!”
“Your servant,” he replied.
7 “Don’t be afraid,” David said to him, “for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.”

This leads to a few additional observations:

1. 2 Samuel 9 makes it a point of emphasis that Mephibosheth was lame, repeating the fact in vv. 3 and 13. This underscores Mephibosheth’s helplessness. He is completely at David’s mercy, powerless to change his situation.

2. As v. 7 makes clear, David’s kindness to Mephibosheth is for the sake of Jonathan, whom the reader of 1-2 Samuel knows was David’s best friend. Jonathan aided David even when his father Saul desired to kill him. (See 1 Sam. 18-20.) In what I find to be an interesting choice of words, David also states in v. 3 that he wishes to show “the kindness of God” to Mephibosheth.

3. The account goes on to tell us that Mephibosheth ate at David’s table “like one of the kings sons” (v. 11).

All that said, what’s this got to do with you and me? Is the account of David and Mephibosheth merely an interesting note to David’s reign as king, or is there perhaps another point to the story? I’m betting on the second option. Consider that you and I were also once identified with a King’s enemies. And whereas we don’t know if Mephibosheth was guilty only by association, we know that we certainly weren’t. We were in real rebellion (see Eph. 2:1-3). Consider that we also were completely at this King’s mercy, powerless to avoid his punishment and unable to earn his favor. But instead of giving us the sentence we deserved, he showed us—for the sake of another—almost inexplicable kindness, giving us an inheritance (Col. 1:12) and a place in his own family (Rom. 8:15-17; Heb. 2:10).

As the Old Testament does so often and in so many ways, 2 Samuel 9 gives us a picture of what God would later do in Christ. And like Mephibosheth (see v. 9), we might rightly respond to such kindness with great wonder.

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Monday, November 9, 2009

What Causes Fights Among You?

I grew up something of a brawler.

This is incredibly embarrassing to admit, but the truth is that I was so hot-tempered and prone to schoolyard fighting that I attended three different elementary schools within the same district...and not because my parents moved around a lot - or at all. Kindergarten through 2nd grade was spent at Adams Elementary School; my social skills at that institution earned me a one-year sentence to a program for "kids with special needs" (in my case, "juvenile delinquents") at another school a few miles away from our home. A third grader! After a year there, the school district (perhaps unwisely) readmitted me to the general population, this time across the railroad tracks at Pembroke, where I somehow managed to finish three years of elementary education. I can vividly recall my parents interacting with Pembroke officials on multiple occasions...not good.

Sometimes I lost the fights that I got into, sometimes I "won;" most of the time, winning or losing was not really the point. The point was to take as many shots as I possibly could before the adults intervened or the other kid managed to put me down. This tendency toward physical problem-solving stuck with me in junior high but mercifully tapered off as I made the transition to high school. Still, I can recall at least three occasions as late as college where I attempted to settle a dispute by throwing a punch or otherwise causing another person bodily harm. These days, my kids are amused by the story wherein I once punched a fraternity brother in the head for having the audacity to take a few French fries off my plate without asking. Obviously, I am very quick to confess it to all of them as a textbook demonstration of my own sinful heart.

It would be nice to say that the absence of physical fighting has been the result of a changed heart, but prior to 1997 (at least) that was not really the case. In fact, up until just a few years ago, I still wore my brawler past as something of a (pathetic) badge of honor; I was quick to let people know that I grew up in Detroit, and even now I still enjoy seeing the response whenever introductions are being made: "Detroit? Really?"

Most Christians I know just can't relate to my story, and I envy them for that. I really do. But even if you have never laid a hand on another person in anger, surely most people can relate to the idea of lashing out in rage, anger or even impatient frustration, using what James called a "restless evil, full of deadly poison" - their tongues (James 3:8). I don't know anyone who can claim not to have used their words as a weapon against another.

So it is that I have really come to appreciate the straightforward approach employed by James, the half-brother of Jesus. James wastes no time in identifying what is going on in the hearts of those who struggle with pent-up anger and aggression, no matter how it is ultimately expressed.
James 4:1-3 (ESV)
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
Once more, I want to strongly emphasize that the mere absence of physical brawling does absolutely nothing to exonerate any one of us from the heart-truths that James is writing about. In less than one year of serving in the arena of divorce ministry, I have had occasion to watch an appalling amount of fights and quarrels (almost none of them physical) in which the combatants have done serious and permanent harm not only to their "enemy" but also to those who have the misfortune to be sitting ringside, typically their own children. And yes, I am sadly aware that the ministry my wife and I serve in exposes us to a mere fraction of what is really going on behind the closed doors and neatly-manicured lawns of Columbia.

If you missed hearing Paul Tripp when he spoke at The Crossing over this past Halloween weekend, and if, like me, you sometimes struggle with anger issues, I'd like to strongly recommend that you dig in to his books; start with War of Words, perhaps, or How to Be Good and Angry (available on CD) and listen to what he says about the deeper meaning our anger carries. Ultimately, our human anger does nothing to glorify God (few of us get angry because God's name has been besmirched), and it exposes a deep-seated core of unbelief, namely that we do not trust our God to settle accounts, as He has promised to do (Romans 12:17-19).

Sure, not everyone's first response to a minor infraction is to ball up their fists and start swinging; honestly, I hate it that I was that way for so long. But can't everyone relate to the idea of passions at war within them? I have to think so. Most of us battle with trusting God to bring justice to situations; and because we don't trust, we take our fists or our tongues and we rush to execute justice ourselves.

Maybe progress looks something like this: Whenever we feel the anger begin to rise up within us, instead of asking "Who can I slug...or slander...and how hard?" we begin to ask ourselves "Which promises of God am I failing to believe?" For what it's worth, this tactic has actually worked for me on multiple occasions, though admittedly this is "a work of Christ still in progress." I'm just grateful beyond words that by His grace the remodeling job on my heart has (finally) begun.

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Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Budgeting Tip: Mint.com

I blog about money quite a bit here at ESI. In fact, I just posted something on giving two weeks ago. But there's a reason for that: the Bible is intensely concerned with the role of money in the Christian's life.

There are many things that could biblically be said on the topic, and one of the basic premises of the biblical ideal on money is the idea of stewardship (see Matthew 25, Luke 12, among others). The basic idea is that God gives us gifts, and those gifts come in the form of talents, skills, opportunities, and also money. As a good steward, we use those gifts wisely, prudently, and for the glory of God.

One practical tool which many use in an effort to be a good steward of their money is budgeting. Now, you’re not talking to Dave Ramsey or Clark Howard here. My wife and I have been married for five years and have planned out and actually kept track of a budget for exactly one month of those sixty plus.

I, personally, have always disliked personal budgets (this is admittedly, a me-problem not a problem with budgets in general). To do one well, it would require a ton of ongoing tedious book-keeping and detail-tracking (once again, a me-problem). So I gave up years ago.

But there are an abundance of benefits in having a personal budget. It gives you parameters, it gives you a detailed look at where your money is actually going, etc. And I have recently stumbled upon a tool which makes budgeting, for me at least, simpler, less time consuming, and more fun.

The tool I speak of is Mint.com. Mint is a recently formed company which compiles all your financial accounts in one place (checking, savings, retirement, credit cards, investments, etc.). Once you've signed up for your free account, you have to enter your account information so Mint has access to the balances. Once you've done that, every time you log-in to your Mint account, each of your financial accounts updates automatically. This is a read-only service (i.e., you can't make balance transfers, payments, or anything like that....), so you're just seeing the balances and activity.* (Mint has endorsements from Money, Kiplinger, the NY Times, and more)

There are tools to track net income, net worth, monthly spending, monthly budgets, month-to-month comparisons, your spending vs. national average spending in particular categories, etc. I've enjoyed using it greatly, and while I can't go into all the features, here are the ones I've appreciated:

  • Receiving weekly updates via text with all my account balances
  • Receiving text messages alerting me when I'm close to being over budget in a particular category
  • Customizing my budget by naming each category and placing particular retailers in each category automatically
  • Being able to change specific purchases to whatever category I wish
  • Receiving alerts regarding unusual or high spending and large deposits
  • The iPhone app (duh)
  • The graphics, charts, tables, etc. which help me "see" the budget in a refreshing way
There are two downsides that come to mind immediately. First, I did spend a decent amount of time (several hours) figuring out the system and customizing the details. For instance, I have created a rule which sends all Walmart purchases to my "Groceries/Household" budget and all Chipotle purchases to "Dining Out." Additionally, I had to specify how many sub-categories within my budget I'd have, and then assign each normal retailer to one of those. Second, I don't make many purchases with cash, I generally charge or debit everything, but if you are a cash person, there obviously isn't an automated way to track those purchases.

This tool has showed me where my money goes each month. And that's been a little convicting (who knew Kaldi's coffee and smoothies cost that much...I mean it's only 4 dollars a pop...but boy that adds up). It's been very helpful in my endeavor to be a better steward with the money God has given me.

Maybe it'll help you too.



* As with any online banking service, there are security risks. Much internet ink has been spilled on this issue, and I'd encourage you to Google search some of those topics. However, Mint has the same security and privacy features and encryption that banks have. Additionally, they don't actually have your name, social security number, and address, just your logins for your accounts. Is it a risk? Sure. But all online banking is. But after reading about it, I'm comfortable. Plus, if unusual activity showed up on one of my accounts I'll see it much quicker on Mint.com than through Discover, Visa, or my bank. If you'd like to read more about this, check here.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Which Son Are You?

Review of The Prodigal God by Tim Keller

If you are reading this blog, it is likely you are relatively familiar with The Crossing and understand that the leadership of the church emphasizes reading good books and good authors. The name Tim Keller may be familiar to you for that reason alone. Tim Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. His book The Reason for God has been recommended by the leadership at The Crossing as a very sound and intellectually thought-provoking work on why we should believe in God, or more appropriately, believe God.

Keller has recently written another book titled The Prodigal God which I just finished after it was suggested by a friend. You can view a website dedicated to the theme of the book here. The book addresses what many believe to be a cancer in the church today; self-righteous moralism. However, the author does so by challenging the reader to reassess one of the most common parables in the bible. Keller’s makes the accusation that we are missing the entire point of the parable of the prodigal son from the very beginning, and in doing so, we are missing the point of the gospel as well.

Hopefully, you can recall some of the basics of the parable. The story is found in Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32. The typical interpretation asks us to identify ourselves with the wayward son, and God (the loving father) who gives himself to his wayward son. The wayward son then carelessly spends his inheritance and eventually recognizes the error of his ways and returns to the father hoping for a chance to be hired on as a servant in his father’s household. However, the father joyfully receives his wayward son, reinstates his position and invites him in to a celebration of his return.

The argument Keller makes in The Prodigal God is that we mistakenly leave out the role of the elder brother in the story. Keller proposes the elder brother is actually the focus of the original parable. Keller suggests the elder brother, who angrily accuses his father of not recognizing the hard work he has done for his father, is equally as lost as the younger brother.

Keller strives to bring us the context of the original parable by thinking about its audience. It is the pharisee who Jesus confronts with the parable, those more likely to be elder brothers. The elder brother refuses to join the feast based on his faith in his own record, his pride, and his selfishness. We begin to see both the younger brother and the elder brother wanted the same things; control, freedom and reward. The younger son pursued these things by fleeing and the elder brother pursued these things by staying. The motive for both brothers was to manipulate the father for their own desires. The frightening thing for those who should be identifying themselves with the elder brother is that the story ends with him being outside of the feast! His own stubborn will and self-righteousness keeps him from receiving his father’s grace.

I think we can all begin to see Keller’s point here. Is the church today filled with younger brothers or elder brothers? There is a cry from the book and the parable for elder brothers to recognize how their “goodness” is causing them to miss the gospel. Keller takes the point further in proposing that Jesus was the true elder brother as he should have been. Substituting himself for the return of the younger brother and giving his inheritance to the younger brother. In doing so, he reminds us that Jesus is the perfect example for us to follow as a church, full of true elder brothers, who are willing to share our inheritance and invite the younger brother into the feast. If we recognize the seriousness of our own sin of self-righteousness, accepting that Jesus died for our goodness as well as our badness, we will not be angry at our father as he runs out to meet the younger brother.

A few years ago a co-director of college ministries at The Crossing, Ryan Wampler, taught a Sunday morning class on art and Christianity. I distinctly remember him talking about Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. After reading this book, I thought I would go back and view that painting. I was struck by how it appears Rembrandt really understood the meaning of the parable. I remember Ryan talking about how Rembrandt used lighting to portray the meanings in his paintings. Look at the elder brother on the right in contrast to the father. He is distant, arms are folded and an air of indignation is on his face. Through the lighting and the position of the three men in the scene, you can tell that Rembrandt knew the elder brother was an important part of this story.

I hope you get a chance to read Keller’s new book. But if you don’t, I hope you remember this painting when you hear the parable of the prodigal son. When you do, think about how the elder brother should be depicted in the painting; close to the father, arms around his wayward brother, inviting him into the feast.

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

3 Crucial Ingredients In A Teenagers Faith

Studies confirm what we sadly already know to be true from our own experience: many kids that grow up in the church leave after they have finished high school. The reasons for this seem obvious: they are no longer under parental authority, personal ambivalence toward the faith, the more libertine values on most college campuses to name a few.

For decades, parents and churches have been trying to keep their kids from becoming a statistic by offering more relevant programming, taking students on retreats and conferences, and even adding on specially designed "youth buildings." But are those the most important factors in determining whether the faith of a high school student survives the transition into adulthood?

Christian Smith is a sociologist with the National Study of Youth and Religion located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Along with a group of researchers he has published the findings of a massive study of adolescents and their spiritual beliefs in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of America's Teenagers. The research shows that there are 3 incredibly important factors that determine whether teenagers retain their faith once they are out of the house and on their own.

1. Parents. The number one factor isn't how many times a week the kids went to church or how many missions trips they went on. The number one factor is whether they had parents that modeled genuine Christianity. In most cases students aren't rejecting their parents' faith but only reflecting their parents' low level of conviction and commitment.

2. Devotions. Teenagers who establish the pattern of praying and reading the Bible for themselves are much more likely to continue the practice into adulthood. This makes sense because spiritual devotions are one of the ways that a person really begins to own their faith. And if a student can make their faith their own-instead of always leaning on parents or other adults-before they leave home, they will be prepared for the challenges that they will surely face.

3. Other Adults. Students need to have relationships with adults other than their parents who say the same things their parents do and also model genuine Christianity.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Few Thoughts On a Few Things Lately…

1. A vote in Maine, as reported by MSNBC.com (click here to view the article), where voters repealed a state law Tuesday that would have legalized same-sex marriage. What’s surprising to me is that this is in New England, the northeastern corner of the country most supportive of gay marriage. And voters in the "left-coast" state of California did the same thing last November.

The MSNBC article states it this way—

“Gay marriage has now lost in every single state — 31 in all — in which it has been put to a popular vote. …At issue was a law passed by the Maine Legislature last spring that would have legalized same-sex marriage. The law was put on hold after conservatives launched a petition drive to repeal it in a referendum. The outcome Tuesday marked the first time voters had rejected a gay-marriage law enacted by a legislature. When Californians put a stop to same-sex marriage a year ago, it was in response to a court ruling, not legislation. Five other states have legalized gay marriage — starting with Massachusetts in 2004, and followed by Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Iowa — but all did so through legislation or court rulings, not by popular vote. In contrast, constitutional amendments banning gay marriage have been approved in all 30 states where they have been on the ballot.”

2. Jeannette and I went to see “This Is It” last night with some friends. It’s a film put together from 50 hours or so of footage taken from the rehearsals for Michael Jackson’s concert tour he would have performed had he not died suddenly last summer. I have never been a Michael Jackson fan. In fact, there is not one song I have ever liked of his, except “I’ll Be There” from the Jackson Five of course. But I enjoyed watching “This Is It.”

I was impressed by several things:
  • How very perfectionistic MJ was toward how his songs were played by his band.
  • How very kind he seemed to be toward people he worked with (even while correcting them, which he did quite often). Even when correcting his band and dancers and technicians, he’d go out of his way to say it “in love.” At the same time, he didn’t back down on what needed to be said and what needed to be corrected. It was interesting to watch.
  • How much he seemed to have a kind of God-awareness spirituality (his most common phrase in the film is “God bless you”), while at the same time occasionally dancing in such sexually degrading ways (i.e., boldly performing his infamous hand-grabbing-crotch moves).
  • How much he seemed so relationally isolated from everyone else (it definitely seemed that everyone tried so hard to please him as if he were the emperor or something, but nobody could relate to him or he to them—he seemed very alone).
  • How much it was clear that there is both a glory and a wretchedness to Michael, just like in everyone else. But it seems more obvious in him. He was so talented and, well, so obviously gloriously made in the image of God. And he was also so deformed and decrepitated by his own idolatries of fame and money. You could actually see the very physical toll his idolatry took on his appearance. I felt so sorry for him. Yet I’m sure God sees me the same way. My heart’s idols ruin me in so many ways that are clearly visible in my relationships, my emotions and attitudes, and yes, my own appearance.
  • How much that man can dance! I saw his talents in a fresh way I’d never appreciated before seeing this film.

3. I just finished Tim Keller’s newest book entitled, Counterfeit Gods. Although being very familiar with his teachings on this concept (in fact, members of The Crossing know I’ve preached on this many times), I found this book to be a thought-provoking challenge to me—I am so easily inclined to this destructive tendency. It gave me some fresh insights and helped me see some ways that my own idols in my heart keep hijacking my life.

Here is a pretty good little video you can watch where Tim Keller gives a brief explanation of this book. We have several copies available right now at our bookstore at The Crossing. I highly encourage you to pick one up. It’s also available on Kindle here.

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