Saturday, January 30, 2010

Confessions of a Fool

Submission isn't a popular topic or concept in our society. To be honest, I don't really like talking about submission either (unless, of course, the submission in question is someone submitting to me).

But the Bible talks about it frequently. Let me begin with a quote I read this week. Russell Moore is a pastor whose blog I read from time to time and he had this to say to a teenager asking about obeying his parents:
"Submission, after all, isn’t to things one readily sees as good ideas; that’s called 'agreement.' Submission is often in matters in which one thinks one knows better."
Which begs the question which we'll answer quickly - What specifically does the Bible say about submission?

Psalm 81:11 tells us that the fundamental error of God's people is to refuse to submit - "But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me."

Romans 8:7 says to submit to God's law like a man of the spirit, not rebel against it like the man of the flesh - "For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot."

Ephesians 5:20-21 tells us that we are to submit to our fellow Christian brothers and sisters - "...giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ."

Ephesians 6:1 and 1 Timothy 3:4 tell us that children are to obey and submit to their parents.

Hebrews 13:17 commands us to obey our church leaders - "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account."

Submitting is difficult because it requires us to admit we need help. That's not very American, in fact, the American ideal of independence and self-sufficiency only encourages the egomania that already exists within me in the first place. But God commands us to submit to certain people because it is best for us.

(As an aside - if as parents we speak more in this manner, that children are to submit because God loves them and knows what's best for them...and thus has intentionally placed people in charge of their care for their good, we'd probably get far better responses from them. It beats "you'll obey me because I'm your father and that's how it works.")

Which finally brings me back to the Russell Moore quote. I don't struggle with submission mostly because I have self-discipline issues. I struggle with submission because I'm hard-headed and hard-hearted. I think I know better.

When I was under my parents' roof I was often angry at their decisions and "meddling" in my life. After all, if I wanted to go to that party, or that movie, I should be able to. And why did I have to always let them know where I was, and who was there with me, and whether or not parents were present? Why did they need to ask so many questions about my friends?

At the time I despised all of this (as nearly all teens do at one point or another), because I knew better. I knew what was best for me and I knew what level and type of temptation I could handle.

But the fact is that I was a fool. I was immature and arrogant. I thought I was wise, but I was steeped in folly.

And yet now when the Bible commands me to submit to one another, and to his word, and to my leaders, I often make the same mistake I did when I was 16.

I am far more foolish and in need of help than I realize. Thus I need to submit. And not just to the things I agree with - that's called agreement.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Do I Really "Need" an iPad?

I really got a kick out of Dave’s message the Sunday before last where he attempted to pass off a device that weighed food as a new Apple iPad. I have to admit I initially thought he was telling the truth. I know Dave has some acquaintances with connections at Apple and as I already know him to be a “technophile”, it was not out of question that he might have actually acquired an early version of the long anticipated device.

As soon as I saw the photos of him holding the scale up to his ear, I knew I’d been “punked”. Funny stuff. However, I must admit I was checking my laptop over lunch on Wednesday to see what all the fuss has been about over the past six months as a media frenzy has developed around the release of the iPad. You can read about the release here.


You see, I am a tech junkie as well. I love to get the latest electronic toys. I have the option to listen to Pandora radio on my iMac, my iPod Touch, or my Plasma TV through my wireless internet connected ROKU device...yep, I’m certifiable. So, I had to ask myself if this was the next thing on my wish list.

I think it is amazing as a grown man I still filter a large purchase or a big decision through what my parents would do if faced with the same decision. I think we all do that to some degree (I am sure there is a psychiatrist reading this who knows exactly why we employ such a filter). I think my tendencies are related more to the respect I have for my parents than it is to my indecisiveness. When perusing information about the iPad, I could actually hear my dad’s voice saying; “Jeff, remember we always evaluate everything we acquire through the Needs, Wants, Desires Test”.

Did your parents use a similar test? It goes something like this; If you are faced with an opportunity to purchase some pursued entity you must ask yourself “do I need it, do I want it, or do I desire it?” My dad used to add to this advice the anecdotal footnote of suggesting we tend to stay out of trouble when we stay somewhere between the “needs” and the “wants”. As a young adult I assumed this was just another opportunity for my parents to play killjoy. I mean really, the things we actually “need” make for an extremely short list!

As I am now a young father, I think I am beginning to understand my dad’s point. The “trouble” he was referring to may be exemplified clearly in an amazing statistic recently published by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The foudation's survey found the average American kid spends over 7 and 1/2 hours a day engaged in electronic media of some sort or another. That is literally close to half the hours awake! Now consider they are typically multitasking while engaged with the media, that brings them up to almost 11 hours of media content packed into that time span.

Our own Justin Garrett mentioned the Kaiser research earlier this week on this very blog and as I read it I was stunned. I wondered if my kids were living up to the same “averages” defined by the survey. As I came home from work this week I noticed what my kids were doing when I arrived. I quickly took notice of my 9 year old who was playing a game on the computer while my 6 and 3 year old were watching a TV show in our bedroom...well, it looks like it is “average” for the Gamble family after all! I immediately proceeded to plop myself on my couch and catch the last of the basketball game on my new TV! Those apples didn’t fall far from the tree, did they? Here is my point; desires distract.

I know I am treading on some thin legalistic ice here, but I think we sometimes too quickly dismiss good old-fashioned wisdom as legalism. How do you interpret the context of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:23 when he suggests that “All things are lawful”, but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful”, but not all things build up?

I think it to be clearly evident that Paul would say there is nothing wrong with the iPad. In fact, I expect he would have considered it extremely useful to have the ability to wirelessly display a youtube video of his conversion experience on the road to Damascus! However, if my pursuit and enjoyment of the newest techno-fad distracts me from my primary responsibility as a husband and father, then it is not helpful for me to obtain it.

My desire for that thing has distracted me from glorifying God with it. Therefore, I think it can be rightly said the object is not the sin, it is the inordinate desire for the object that leads to sin. Now, if you will excuse me, I have an online rematch to catch with my son on our Nintendo Wii.

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What REALLY helps the poor?

Social justice is all the rage in many churches across America. And rightly so. The Bible is pretty clear on the subject. Last fall I read through the Old Testament and I was (again) surprised by the importance that the Bible puts on helping the poor. In fact one of the main reasons that the nation of Israel was sent into exile was because they turned their back on social justice issues including ignoring the poor.

But anyone who has tried to get involved in helping impoverished people and communities knows that it is incredibly difficult. Maybe the greatest challenge is knowing whether what you are doing is actually helping anyone. If someone approaches you on the street and asks for money, should you give them any? If you do, does that gift of money help them? We've all asked ourselves those kind of questions.

Now imagine what it is like to be in church leadership where we receive countless calls each week from people seeking financial assistance. We all know that we should help as many as we can but what's not clear is how to help them. Each year The Crossing gives out more than 100K in financial assistance to the poor in Columbia. Is it helping?

Or take the recent crisis in Haiti. The task there is enormous partly because of the devastation of the recent earthquake but also because of the decades of poverty that preceded the earthquake. How does the United States, the world community, or a faith based charity respond to that situation?

Well, I've been reading a book that addresses all these issues. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor or Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert is well written, practical, provocative, and challenging. Now I warn you that this is another book that I'm writing about before I've finished it. But this time I promise that I will return to this topic next Thursday.

The basic premise of the book is that there are a lot of ways to help the poor that end up doing more harm than good. Let's start with the definition of poverty. If you are like me and most other Americans, you would define poverty along the lines of a person not having the basics of life. We might disagree on what the basics are but we'd probably all agree that poverty is defined by a lack of material resources.

But the problem comes when you ask poor people about their definition of poverty. It turns out that their definition is not concerned primarily with material resources at all. Instead they tend to define it in more psychological and social terms. Listen to poor people and you find that poverty has more to do with shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.

According to the authors, "this mismatch between many outsiders' perceptions of poverty and the perceptions of poor people themselves can have devastating consequences for poverty-alleviation efforts." When we think of poverty only (or primarily) in terms of resources, our inclination is to give them only (or primarily) money. But that may have the unintended consequence of reinforcing their shame and humiliation.
The principle then is to not do for others what they can do for themselves. This treats people with the dignity and respect that is needed to make long term progress.

The authors argue that giving money can also hurt the giver because it may
breed arrogance and a "god-like" attitude in our own hearts. ("I'm so smart and capable that I have plenty of money to give to the uneducated and lazy"). Now at first pass it might seem that this book is promoting stinginess--don't give money because it doesn't help anyway. Rest assured that it doesn't. Instead it argues that we should be giving more but doing it in the right way.

There is so much more to comment on but it will have to wait for another day. Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"The Book of Eli" with Denzel Washington

Without wanting to give away too much about the new film, “The Book of Eli,” Denzel Washington plays a kind of Jedi-Christian who is carrying out an assignment he believes he’s received from God, thirty-something years after a nuclear holocaust destroyed civilization. It’s sort of like Luke Skywalker meets Mad Max and the Thunderdome. That said, I actually really liked this film. (But I hated all the Mad Max films. Especially that Tina Turner song.)

What I particularly found so interesting is that I’ve never seen a Hollywood film that had the message that The Book of Eli has. Especially one played by such a notable actor as Denzel Washington. And I really enjoyed watching him in this film. I’ve heard that Denzel Washington is a Christian. Seeing him in this film makes me believe that’s true (update: Scott Johnson sent me a link to a Christianity Today interview with Denzel Washington where he clearly professes his Christian faith: here).

I don't know, but it may be significant that the name “Eli” is Hebrew for “my God.” So, perhaps one way to read the title of this film is “The Book of My God.”

Let me say that to me there are obviously some plot holes and inconsistencies in this story that cannot be filled by reasonable thought. And it has many of the so-called “post-apocalypticstereotypical scenes (i.e., motorcycle bandits coming upon a young, innocent, and weary couple who kill the man and ravage and rape the woman), but if you can get past some of these imperfections and just go with the story, there are some very interesting things about The Book of Eli.

There is no nudity or sex scenes, but there is some graphic violence. So I think it’s a great film to take a teenage son to, or perhaps a teenage daughter may even like it, and then grab a drink or meal afterward and talk about some of the images and truths that the film depicted.

Here are some questions to consider after seeing the film:

1. What did you like or admire about Eli? His character? His faith? His abilities?

2. Is there a spiritual metaphor in Eli’s power to fight evil?

3. Was there an honest, vulnerable reality or moment about Eli that sticks out to you? (Perhaps when he said, "We can get so caught up in protecting God's Word that we sometimes forget to live by it.”)

4. What was Solara's reaction to Eli's prayer? What touched her about it? Did it touch you? What can we learn from his prayer?

5. Was there anything else that struck you as interesting in this film? Any other metaphors or scenes that depicted or illustrated a biblical truth in some way?

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Praying for Haiti, Crossing Volunteers

As Dave mentioned on Sunday, three members of The Crossing are among the many volunteers seeking to help with those devastated by the earthquake in Haiti. Both pediatrician Holly Bondurant and nurse anesthetist Mark Gortmaker are already in country and will be working at a hospital in northern Haiti for the next few days. (For more information on their team, see local news stories here and here.) Additionally, ENT surgeon Matt Page was scheduled to arrive Wednesday as a part of a separate group looking to treat facial traumas in a city called Cap-Haitien on the north coast.

Having some of our own community in Haiti gives us all the more reason to be praying in light of the incredibly difficult situation here. Consider praying for the following things:

1. For God to relieve the overall suffering of those living in Haiti. While accurate casualty estimates are understandably difficult at this point, figures range from approximately 50,000 to 200,000 dead and perhaps even more wounded. To offer some perspective, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. suffered approximately 58,000 dead and 153,000 wounded. Such massive loss of life and injury, in addition to causing terrible pain for family and loved ones, will undoubtedly leave deep scars on Haitian society and culture.

2. For God to use difficulty and tragedy to turn hearts toward trusting in him. In the Scriptures, God repeatedly uses pain, suffering, adversity, as a means to bring people to himself and accomplish his greater good purposes. Pray that many, many people trust in Christ, the only ultimate remedy for human sin and suffering.

3. For the team members themselves. Pray that God would provide safety for them during travel and their time in country. Pray also that he would give them great endurance, compassion, and skill as they seek to meet the needs of so many in a very challenging situation.

4. For the families of the team members. Pray that God would give them ample grace to deal with the absence of their loved ones.

In all of this, I’d encourage you to remember the power of prayer. What we often think of as little more than token involvement can be, biblically speaking, incredibly powerful—not because of our own merit or skill of course, but rather because it involves the God of the universe.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Seeking Christ's Rich Blessing of a Boring Backstory

It's no secret that redemption is one of the most frequently-employed dramatic themes of many successful films and books. Because God has hard-wired all of us to seek redemption, nothing seems to please audiences more than that fateful moment when (for example) the handsome-but-selfish jerk is finally confronted with the error of his ways and suffers a total breakdown, sobbing alone on a rainy street corner as the camera pulls back and the violin-drenched soundtrack swells.

It would seem that we just can't get enough of those moments when the thin facade of respectability is completely torn away from a character and he is left with no recourse and no place to hide. In a well-written story, multiple seemingly-random events will finally intersect to precipitate a lifelong change that is both genuine and far-reaching.

Of course, it's good and right for us to cheer whenever someone (real or fictitious) turns aside from wickedness and wrongdoing and steps into the light of day. In movies and in novels, one effective means of heightening the drama of a character's conversion is to dwell for a bit on how relentlessly evil and utterly without remorse they were prior to the climactic event that finally triggered their about-face. The nastier the villain, the more astonishing it is when they ultimately repent.

Because we are all storytellers at heart, and because we have all had this pattern of dramatic redemption seared into our subconscious by countless films, plays and novels, it's tempting at times to "heighten" the drama in our own stories. I first noticed this as I began attending recovery group meetings in the mid-1990s. Whether I was meeting in a Bible study setting with a small group of men or attending an AA meeting, I more than once found the redemptive language of popular films creeping into the real-life addiction testimonies of others. Worse, on more than one occasion the group started trying to "out-deprave" one another, seeking to assert that their backstory was far worse than that of the person who had just finished speaking.

Believe me, I very well understand the necessity of purging past sins and depravity, getting it all out into the open so we can get past it all and, by God's grace, shut the door on that sad chapter in our lives. As a matter of fact, the Bible commands us to confess our sins to one another and then pray for one another that we might be healed (James 5:16). So one thing I am most certainly not saying is that people should "hold back" when they are asked to share their story. Not at all.

What I am saying is that just as an author can heighten the dramatic nature of a character's repentance by throwing a spotlight on earlier, horrific behavior, we - as real people with actual backstories - can perhaps inadvertently damage others by dwelling on the depth of our depravity prior to conversion. Certainly, the very worst thing we can do is point, almost with a twinkle in our eye, to outrageous moments "back in the day" when we were engaged in all sorts of sinful, degrading, soul-killing behavior.

Confess? Yes, absolutely. Fall into any sort of twisted "nostalgia" for the days when our friends and family members had to pick us up off the front lawn or bail us out? Probably not helpful.

In fact, the tendency to in any way "romanticize" our former failings is (I believe) deadly. It can have the unintended side-effect of teaching others that they actually need something "a little more colorful" in their own backstory before Jesus can adequately rescue them from their sins. Romanticizing egregious sins in any way also tends to minimize the seriousness of "respectable sins," the less-noticeable affronts to God that we commit each and every day. There are plenty of people who survive addiction and yet remain unconverted at a heart level...thereby holding on to their sobriety with white knuckles as they plunge headlong into hell.

To my way of thinking, there is no greater, more dramatic conversion story than that of the Apostle Paul, who was smacked silly and struck blind by the risen Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-9); perhaps - not surprisingly - one of my favorite parts of the New Testament. Saul of Tarsus, as he was formerly known, was so zealous in his defense of what he mistakenly thought to be God's will that he jailed, persecuted and murdered other Christians. Pretty hard to beat that for a sinful backstory...and please don't try! Thus, it was not false modesty for Paul to refer to himself as chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Today, it chills my blood to think of Paul, one of the primary authors of the Bible, smiling while he holds the coats of other Jews so that they would be better able to brutally stone Stephen to death without wrinkling their garments (Acts 7:58). Small wonder it took the first-century church elders at least a day or two to welcome Paul into their fellowship.

And I have to believe that in his later years, perhaps as he was writing his letters to Timothy or the churches in Ephesus, Corinth, etc. that Paul himself desperately wished that his own life had been a bit more boring, haunted as he must have been by the bloody, violent deaths of Stephen and other early church martyrs. Even though Paul very clearly knew better than most that he had been completely forgiven in Christ, I have to think that he still saw clearly in his mind's eye the terrified faces of his victims.

Regrettably, my own life of faith does have a dramatic backstory. Christ was exceedingly merciful to me, and by His grace I also have a sudden, undeniable conversion event that I can point to. Volunteering in various ministries, I also now know plenty of other people with horrible, absolutely depraved backstories, some of whom have yet to open their hearts and receive that same grace and mercy that was shown to me...and are therefore much in need of our prayers.

Just in the last week, though, I had the privilege to sit across the table from not one, but two young men; different days, different cities, with zero connection to each other other than a mutual trust in Jesus. Both of them could not remember ever having not been a follower of Christ and, in the context of our conversations, it was right and good for me to tell them how richly and deeply blessed they both were. Interestingly, both of these young men mentioned that their lives to date had been "kinda plain, ordinary" with "not much to tell," and right at that moment God gave me a great opportunity to speak of His great mercy and kindness to them in providing them with "an uninteresting backstory."

Biologically speaking, I am the father of two. In my heart of hearts, though, there are seven kids walking around Columbia today that I claim as my own in one way or another, and who can (if they want to!) claim me as father. My urgent, everyday prayer for all seven is that Christ would be rich toward them in mercy, pouring out His Holy Spirit in their hearts and minds and giving them, if it be His will, an absolutely boring, sleep-inducing backstory. True, sparing seven souls the lifelong effects of sin, folly and rebellion might not make them promising candidates for a reality TV show or a six-figure book deal. Speaking, though, as one who has been forgiven much, I can confidently say that while scars almost always have an interesting backstory attached to them, acquiring them was never unaccompanied by a great deal of pain.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Rickets and Abortion

I read something this week that said every blog post should have a catchy title. So there you go, I've now fulfilled that requirement.

My alternate title was "What I found interesting this week," and I found two topics particularly intriguing, the first one deals with rickets (sort of) and the second abortion.

The Kaiser Family Foundation released a study this week detailing media usage among teens and "tweens." The New York Times discussed it in an article entitled "If Your Kids Are Awake, They're Probably Online." I'd encourage you to check it out.

Here are the basic results:
  • Young people today spend on average 7.5 hours per day engaged in media (cell phones, iPods, TV, computers, video games, print, etc.).
  • Including multi-tasking (listening to music while on internet, for instance), they're getting nearly 11 hours of media per day.
  • The only thing they spend more time doing - sleeping.
  • Of those hours, 38 minutes is spent reading (basically all other specific types of media are more consumed now than 5 years ago...except for reading, down from 43 minutes in 2004).
In a related article, England is reporting a resurgence of rickets in young people. Yes, rickets. The disease generally caused by a vitamin D deficiency found in impoverished countries. Why? Scientists are hypothesizing that it's due to inactivity and lack of sun exposure in teens and "tweens" who play video games, watch TV, and cruise the internet most of the day.

I don't have a huge soapbox to jump on, but here are a few observations.

1. It's quite common for younger generations to exaggerate or take to extremes practices of older generations. Things tend to snowball over time. Is this generation rampantly excessive in their media consumption? I think you have to say yes. But while we (older generations) are not as excessive, surely we got the ball rolling (and continue to keep it rolling) in many ways. How has our modeling in terms of habits, entertainment obsessions, and media consumption, affected the younger generations?

2. Why aren't we teaching discipline, self-control, and time management better to young people? Once again, my hunch is that it's because we tend to struggle (maybe to a lesser degree...but struggle nonetheless) with the same things.

3. This is a big problem. One that can't be fixed overnight, and one that none of us can fix on a large scale. But we can make changes in our little spheres. All of us should model healthy perspectives on entertainment and media consumption. If you have kids, set boundaries and limitations. Teach them good habits, self-control, discipline. An hour a day, 2 hours a day, whatever. Be thoughtful in your parenting. And finally, pray. Keith blogged recently about God working when we pray. This is a big problem in young people that could get worse. Only God is big enough to fix it entirely. So pray that he would.

Now that we've discussed rickets, on to my second thought.

Here's a powerful commentary regarding some working in the abortion industry. I tend to try not to harp too much on being pro-life, both in this blog and in life. I figure that as Christians there are myriad political and social issues we should pay attention to, not just abortion.

But as I read this a few days ago, I was saddened by the fact that abortion had largely faded from my consciousness the past few months. Guess that's what happens when you don't have a big election for a while. But that's not acceptable. No matter where you fall on the issue, as Christians we shouldn't simply forget about it temporarily because it isn't on the news quite as much. Shame on me.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Vitally Important...Yet Not Really a Big Deal.

As the mother of several children, I spend a lot of time in my kitchen cooking, which means that I also "get to" spend a lot of time cruising through the aisles of the local grocery stores. Just a few days ago, I was once again making a "small run" to the store (never less than $150 for our crew). As I stood in line to check out, my eyes were drawn - as they often are - to the magazine racks. I admit that I have a "yet-to-be-sanctified curiosity" about the lives of the famous, an interest that - while diminishing - still ends up drawing my eye to the covers of People, Star, Us...you get the picture.

On this recent grocery outing, "99 Sex Moves!" screamed at me from the top of the magazine rack as I waited my turn in line. Quickly moving my attention away from Cosmo, as if I'd done something wrong, my eyes then came to rest on two scantily-clad bikini bodies pasted across the cover of another questionable rag, its title encouraging potential readers to open it up and discover what these stars had done to achieve such beautiful "beach bodies."

And I sighed.

It's quite literally everywhere in our culture today, this frenzied obsession with sexuality. I find this cultural message to be particularly invasive as it's shouted at me while I'm more or less trapped in the store check-out line with my cart of carefully-selected items. Often, at least one of my teenage daughters is trapped there with me. None of us can escape the bombardment of headlines, and the abundantly-clear message is that "sex is important." And more than that, "Sex is of ultimate importance." Who's having it (and how often)...how to tell if you're having "enough" and - if not - how to have more...how to be better at it...how to tell if you're good at it. In America, having a healthy sex life is very clearly an all-encompassing obsession, a personal value of the utmost priority.

Or is it?

Lauren Winner is the author of "Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity." I'll admit that I have yet to read the whole book, but I'm certainly planning to do so. In it, Winner convincingly asserts that we Americans are being told two very great, very conflicting lies...and we somehow swallow both of them. How can this be so, given that they clearly are contradictory? Winner explains:
Our popular culture sends us some pretty mixed messages about the importance of sex. On the one hand, we're told that sex is the most important thing there is. We find an interpretation of sexuality even in the seemingly innocuous and terribly commonplace phrase, sex life...the phrase is revealing. A sex life is something we have, something we can make and remake, something we can mold. When we attach another noun to the word life - love life, prayer life - we denote something of the utmost importance, something essential, something basic to life itself.

At the same time, the shapers of popular culture tell us that sex is meaningless. In an episode of the hit sitcom "Friends," Monica asks her new paramour, "So, can we still be friends, and have sex?" "Sure," he replies, "it'll be just something we do together, like racquetball." It could be a tagline for our age: "Sex: It's just like racquetball." It's no big deal. It's just a game.
There's no lack of evidence to support this assertion, of course, but based on nothing more than the checkout lanes at Hy-Vee, anyone can see that what Winner is saying is very true. On the one hand, it seems magazines today cannot be printed without at least a few articles focusing on the Great American Idol of sex, the one thing we all ought to be pursuing.

Simultaneously, though, our culture also treats sex like it's no big deal. These days, teenagers can have sex with multiple partners and their reputations aren't even necessarily at risk because, after all, what's the big deal? As Monica's boyfriend reminds us, it's not much different than a game of racquetball.

"The most important thing in life," but then again..."not really a big deal" after all? Completely opposite conclusions and yet, somehow, we as a culture are able to validate both and embrace these two ideas at the same time. I find it amazing that so many in our country are taken down by not one, but both of these great lies. I find it appalling that I, too, was one of them.

Yet another lie gets stacked up on these first two, and all of them are devastating to the institution of marriage. Our culture then goes on to define the goal ("great sex") as being something that isn't really found within the context of the marriage covenant. Winner continues (emphasis mine):
Amid the contradictory messages about the importance of sex - it is vitally important, but it is just a game - is another message about sex, a definition of what great sex is. Great sex is readily available. It is unyoked from outdated and restrictive moralities. Above all, it is romantic and otherworldly. It happens in an alternate universe, a world removed from the ins-and-outs of daily domestic life. Great sex, which once was assumed to occur by definition only in marriage, is now understood as something that's threatened by marriage. Magazines and advice columnists tell us that the best sex happens away from our ordinary lives.
As a volunteer in The Crossing's divorce ministry, I see this sad error playing itself out over and over again. Marriage typically begins with great hope and expectation, and then "real life" sets in. Jobs, babies, car payments and house repairs drain our energy and change our priorities. The excitement of the new relationship fades, and instead of being replaced with the deep comfort of intimate emotional connection, boredom often sets in. One of the marriage partners begins taking a critical look at their lives and judges it "not good enough," and a less-than-racy sex life seems like one strong indicator that indeed, the marriage is going south.

I don't mean to insinuate that marriages survive or fall largely on the quality of the intimacy between husband and wife; far from it. We all know that when two people marry, two sinners are thrown together under one roof, and eventually conflict will arise. How those two people deal with that conflict leads either to growing intimacy (in and out of the bedroom) or a growing pile of resentments accompanied by a growing distance between the two. But I do think that what we have been led to believe about sex and its role in our lives greatly impacts how we see the relationship as a whole.

I don't think that I can address this issue any better than Winner does, so if this topic concerns you at any level, I would encourage you to join me in reading her book for a much smarter person's perspective on how we, as Christians, ought to look at sex - and perhaps learn to appreciate it as part of the great blessing God has given us in marriage.

Also, as a parent of teens, I think it's worth our time to think critically about what they are being fed about their sexuality - constantly and continuously - in the check-out line, through television and movie screens, and just about everywhere else they look. Not only are you and I being bombarded by these messages, the teenage daughter standing next to you in the check-out line is being bombarded too. I, for one, hope my kids embrace a more biblical view of sex as they come of age than I did, and I want to be armed and ready for those discussions. If Dave can tell everyone to read Wayne Grudem, I guess it's probably OK for me to humbly suggest that everyone add another 192 pages of Lauren Winner to their reading stack, too.

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Can Watching Avatar Make You Depressed?

By now you know that James Cameron's Avatar has made hundreds of millions of dollars both from U.S. box office sales and international audiences. But what you might not know is that many of the movie's biggest fans report that it has sent them into a very real depression. According to an article on CNN, there are numerous sites (Avatar Forums, Naviblue) that host discussions about the film. The topic that has generated the most discussion is how to handle the depression that comes when you realize that you will never live in Pandora.

One commenter named Mike wrote:
"Ever since I went to see 'Avatar' I have been depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na'vi made me want to be one of them. I can't stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all the tears and shivers I got from it." I even contemplated suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and everything is the same as in 'Avatar.'
I guess that this is a good time to say that I saw the movie with my 14 year old son and some of the staff of The Crossing and I enjoyed it. The technical advances were truly amazing and gave the whole film a life like quality that hasn't been possible up until now. In the past 3D has meant something akin to what you might see at Disney World--the headache inducing act of Kermit's tongue seemingly coming within inches of your face. Avatar was my first positive experience with 3D. Sure the politics were a little heavy handed but I've come to expect that from Hollywood.

Why does the movie lead some into depression? Listen to what one person wrote on one forum...
"When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed...gray. It was like my whole life, everything I've done and worked for, lost its meaning. It just seems so...meaningless. I still don't really see any reason to keep...doing thigs at all. I live in a dying world."
Finally a quote by one of the forum's administrator...
"I wasn't depressed myself. In fact the movie made me happy. But I can understand why it made people depressed. The movie was so beautiful and it showed something we don't have here on Earth. I think people saw we could be living in a completely different world and that caused them to be depressed."
While it would be easy to mock these people and tell them to "get a life," I think that we'd be better served by learning from what they are saying. The truth is that in one sense these people's comments are extremely perceptive.

You see their longing for a perfect world isn't unfounded. Whether we articulate it or not, all of us at one level wish that we lived in a world that is far different from the one we actually live in. The reason that we don't like this world is because we weren't made to live in it. The Bible says that we were created to live in the real Pandora. We were created to live in Paradise-in perfect relationship with God, other people, and creation. But when sin entered the world it distorted and corrupted all those relationships so that the world we live in is full of sadness and emptiness.

C. S. Lewis argued that the desire for a perfect world was evidence that one existed.
A man's physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man's hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating, and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a women and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called "falling in love" occurred in a sexless world.
So according to the Bible these reactions to Avatar are "normal" or even "right." The movie stirred in them a desire for something more beautiful, something more glorious than life in a sinful world can ever satisfy. For you it may be something else that stirs that longing. But regardless of what it is that stirs your desire for something greater, know that it will never be found here. Whether a person realizes it or not, our discontentment with life here will only be satisfied by living in the world God intended-a world in which we are in perfect harmony with God, other people, and creation. The Bible calls that place heaven and it can only be gained through Jesus.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

“Business for the Glory of God,” by Wayne Grudem

I had to teach a lesson Monday night to a group of college students at The Crossing about what the Bible teaches about work. I decided that my Discovery Class lesson from week 5 would suit it well, but I also wanted to bring in a few fresh ideas. So Monday morning I read a little ninety-six page book by Wayne Grudem entitled, “Business for the Glory of God: The Bible’s Teaching on the Moral Goodness of Business.” Not only did it provide exactly what I was looking for to supplement my preparation, but after reading it all I kept thinking was, “Man, I wish everyone at The Crossing would read this little book.” So I’m writing this blog to initiate that very thing: I want YOU to read this book.

It’s interesting that Wayne Grudem is also a source in some of the other lessons in our Discovery Class. That’s because he wrote a systematic theology book we consult frequently as pastors and also sell at our bookstore. He’s currently a Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary. He’s a good writer and a good teacher on the Bible and theology. Plus, he has his B.A. in Economics from Harvard. So he doesn’t approach this issue merely from the Bible.

Again, the themes in this book are very similar to the Discovery Class lesson I teach on being redemptive in culture as Christians. But Grudem hones in on the way Christians do that—be that—particularly through hard work and profitable business in which we find satisfaction and advance society and culture.

Grudem’s thesis is that the Bible teaches that profitable, productive, and competitive business is an important way Christians are to glorify God.

Specifically, the Bible shows us that God created the following nine business realities as good
1. Ownership
2. Productivity
3. Employment
4. Commercial transactions (buying and selling)
5. Profit
6. Money
7. Inequality of possessions
8. Competition
9. Borrowing and lending

Grudem is routinely faithful to point out that these nine things are indeed corrupted and deformed by sin, and are therefore real temptations for people, including Christians, to misuse and abuse to their own destruction and the destruction of society. But he also repeatedly reminds us that the misuse and abuse of something God created as good does not mean it’s no longer good and to be used for good. Christians must learn to practice these nine business realities in the good way God intended for human beings created in his image. But when we see these nine God-created good things as evil, or somewhere in between, then the result of either disregarding them or disrespecting them is to truly unleash and entrench the evil of poverty in our society and the world, and to fail to fulfill a key function for which God created us in his image.

Each chapter following the introduction explains the biblical mandate for Christians to see the need to engage in these nine things in a redemptive way, followed by an important chapter on how doing these nine things of business biblically and redemptively is the best means to meet the problems of poverty in our culture and world.

Here are a few excerpts from the Introduction…

As for the relationship of business to serving God, when people ask how their lives can “glorify God,” they aren’t usually told, “Go into business.” When students ask, “How can I serve God with my life?” they don’t often hear the answer, “Go into business.” When someone explains to a new acquaintance, “I work in such-and-such a business,” he doesn’t usually hear the response, “What a great way to glorify God!”

This additional way to glorify God is the key to understanding why God made the world the way he did. It is also the key to understanding why God gave us the moral commands he did. And it is the key to understanding why human beings have an instinctive drive to work, to be productive, to invent, to earn and save and give, and to do the thousands of specific activities that fill our days. This additional way to glorify God is imitation—imitation of the attributes of God.

Are things like profit, competition, money, and ownership of possessions always tainted with evil? Or are they merely morally neutral things that can be used for good or for evil? In contrast to those two views, this book will argue that they are all fundamentally good things that God has given to the human race, but that they all carry many temptations to misuse and wrongdoing.

You can buy the book this Sunday at our bookstore at The Crossing. In my opinion, every adult Christian needs to read this book, not just those in business. It corrects a destructive, anti-business movement today in our culture in a helpful, practical, theological, biblical way that’s so needed. Otherwise, we will see more poverty in our world, not less. And Christians will miss out on real opportunity to be redemptive in our culture in a way that truly leverages their engagement in business for the good that God intended.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What Do Pat Robertson and President Obama Have in Common?

Seriously!? What could a charismatic conservative Christian commentator and former Republican presidential candidate have in common with a former participant in the progressive Chicago political scene and current Democratic President of the United States?

Well, perhaps not much on the whole. But they do share one thing: less than stellar comments on the Haiti earthquake disaster.

If you haven’t already heard, Pat Robertson recently offered this on the Christian Broadcasting Network:
And you know, Christy, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it, they were under the heel of the French, uh, you know, Napoleon the third and whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the devil, they said, we will serve you, if you get us free from the Prince, true story. And so the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free, and ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor. . .
To be clear, the idea that disasters (natural or otherwise) are from the hand of the Lord and at times in direct response to sin and rebellion is, in fact, a biblical one. But as John Mark Reynolds has ably pointed out, Robertson’s particular comments are not only suspect historically, but theologically dubious and pastorally inappropriate as well. I’ll include two substantial quotes here. The first deals with theological problems:
Robertson has proposed a bad theology, because he too easily equates any natural or man made disaster with Gods’ will. The Lord Jesus points out that God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust. As Saint Augustine points out when some Roman era pagan Pat Robertsons blamed Christians for the fall of Rome, God’s providence and will are not easy to see.

Even some seeming blessings can be curses.

He specifically addressed the issue of whether natural disaster [sic] are because the victims are somehow worse than others when he said (Luke 13):

1There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

All of us are broken and will die. Nobody is safe and nobody should take their righteousness for granted.

Even if we grant that sometimes a prophet in the Bible (Amos) could, by divine revelation, equate a natural disaster with God’s judgment this should be done carefully. This kind of insight is available to few of us and Robertson has not demonstrated a track record (prophetic accuracy) that meets the Biblical standard for accuracy (Deuteronomy 18).
The second quotation touches on Robertson’s lack of pastoral sensitivity:
Robertson has been inhuman in two ways.

First, even if he were right, he has picked a horrid time to pontificate. When my friend is suffering from cancer, even if it is his fault, it is the wrong time to remind him that I told him he should have stopped smoking. It is ugly and useless.

Heal the sick, bury the dead, feed the hungry and then deal with root spiritual causes. Safe to say every nation, and Haiti is surely one, has made philosophical and practical decisions that help cause tragedy. We can talk about that when the people of Haiti have been helped by the Church.

Second, even if his theology were sound, he has stated it in such a way and at such a time that it will be misunderstood and will be mocked. He has pronounced a “truth” that (he must concede) would be hard for our culture to hear in a way and at a time that brings that “truth” into derision.

If Robertson were right in his theology and philosophy, his timing has fed his pearls to swine on a silver platter.
President Obama’s reaction to the crisis has been far different, and in many ways laudatory. From what I’ve seen, he has attempted to act quickly to bring our nation’s resources to bear in caring for those who desperately need it. But near the end of an otherwise solid Newsweek piece outlining the importance of U.S. involvement in the current crisis, the president mentioned this:
In the aftermath of disaster, we are reminded that life can be unimaginably cruel. That pain and loss is so often meted out without any justice or mercy. That "time and chance" happen to us all. But it is also in these moments, when we are brought face to face with our own fragility, that we rediscover our common humanity.
Now, I don’t know how much of a biblical Christian worldview/theology President Obama ascribes to. For that reason, I certainly don’t want to fault him for being inconsistent with something he doesn’t necessarily believe. But the fact does remain that these comments are noteworthy in that they apparently presuppose an impersonal naturalistic universe. Such a picture, by definition, has no place for a sovereign God ordering the events of the universe in ways that, if often inscrutable from our current limited perspective, are ultimately consistent with his good, just, and even merciful purposes. In other words, it leaves no room for God as he really exists.

Practically, this makes a great deal of difference. If the universe really is blindly cruel, if we all are simply helpless before the merciless effects of time and chance, then there really is precious little hope to be had. Rediscovering our common humanity offers little consolation if, in the end, it amounts to understanding we’re nothing more than debris caught up in the impersonal, inexorable forces of nature.

Thankfully, that's not the biblical picture.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Staying Faithful to the Author's Intent

Back in the late 1980s, I developed a strong interest in the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes. This borderline obsession was initially sparked by the consistently-brilliant performances of Jeremy Brett in the title role, originally aired in 1984 on Granada Television in the UK. Ever the purist, Brett's filmed performances had the effect of driving me back to the source material. My older sister had given me the complete works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and I rewarded her excellence in gift-giving by very quickly devouring every single page. My affinity for Holmes stayed with me for several years.

This past Friday, my daughter Mary and I made a rare trek to Forum 8 to see the new Sherlock Holmes film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. I don't get out to see many new movies these days, soaring ticket prices and lack of spare time being my primary stumbling blocks. To be honest, I was not hoping for much when I learned that Jude Law ("What?!") was cast in the role of Dr. John Watson. Okay, look...everyone knows, without being told, that the role of Watson should quite rightly be played by an older gentleman...don't they? Admittedly, it took a few minutes for me to get past having a "pretty boy" cast in that role, but Law's performance was winsome enough, and thus I managed to set this objection aside fairly quickly.

Having read all of the original stories, I could easily punch hole after hole in the screenplay and carp unpleasantly about its lack of faithfulness to the source material, but I'll happily leave that task to the ever-vigilant army of 20-something bloggers wearing Star Wars jammies and living in their mom's basement.

Despite my purist tendencies, I found I very much enjoyed the film, and I walked away with a healthy appreciation for the incredibly-detailed set design, "sooty London" cinematography, snappy dialogue, special effects and slow-motion action sequences. I found all of these elements to be top-notch, but let's face it...any attempt to render a story featuring Sherlock Holmes will succeed - or fall flat on its face - with the portrayal of its central character and, to my mind, Robert Downey Jr. gave a stellar performance. Despite his legendary personal problems and substance abuse issues, it seems like a no-brainer to admit that Downey is obviously very talented. His ability to inject characters with odd mannerisms and personal ticks makes him the perfect actor to take up the daunting task of portraying Holmes.

But what caught my attention on the drive home was the realization that I had been very carefully judging the worthiness of the entire film by its "broad-stroke faithfulness" (or lack thereof) to the central character as originally penned by Conan Doyle. The character of Holmes as rendered in the original stories is absolutely riddled with bizarre behavior and less-than-desirable traits, extreme social awkwardness and a debilitating morphine addiction being just two of the more obvious. Had the more difficult aspects of Holmes' character been missing, I doubt I would have enjoyed the film, "top notch scene design" or no. The true fan of Sherlock Holmes embraces the totality of his character, astonishing brilliance and social awkwardness.

And it occurs to me that there is a strong parallel between my inner desire to somehow "protect" the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes against error...and a growing desire within my own heart to protect the person and work of Jesus Christ from the inaccurate caricature of Him that many of us have been exposed to, up to and including the present day. Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle has written and said plenty about the American evangelical tendency to turn Jesus into "some sort of sissified flower child," so there's really no need to stoke that fire of controversy to make my point. I'll just simply affirm Driscoll's assertion that men, by and large, aren't really engaged at a gut level by the "soft" Jesus that tends to show up in older Bible films and on Sunday morning flannelgraphs.

So I find myself appalled by how, as I watched the movie, I was so internally vigilant to protect and defend the established, "truthful" image of a fictional British private detective against all error and heresy...when I have historically tended to be quite passive in what I was hearing and reading with regard to the person and work of my eternal Savior, Jesus Christ.

Pause for just a moment. Let the complete stupidity of my priorities sink in for just a minute.

Not that long ago, some poor soul might have said something outrageous to me like "Sherlock Holmes never once visited a Chinese opium den!" and I would be instantly on my feet, running to retrieve my Complete Works of Arthur Conan Doyle and frantically turning to read aloud from "The Man with the Twisted Lip."

But let someone spout utter nonsense like "Jesus was not God, He was just a good moral teacher..." and I might have been tempted to let the remark get by unchallenged perhaps because, at the time, I did not know where to look in the Bible to refute it, but also because I had no idea how to respond to a worldview that sought only to discredit Christ without providing the necessary, alternate explanations for the four major categories of Origin, Meaning, Morality, and Destiny (per the apologetic argumentation of C.S. Lewis).

If we will just simply ask God to grant us both the willingness and the enthusiasm to go back and study the source material, the Jesus of the Bible comes alive. Studying the attributes of Jesus as documented in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John provides us with all the apologetic we need, as Jesus Himself was constantly called upon to defend His character. Though He often did it indirectly, the four gospels give us example after example of how Jesus responded in situations where He was challenged, and clearly presents an overall sense of who He is.

Jesus says a lot of unpopular things. At the very beginning of His earthly ministry, after reading Isaiah 61 aloud in synogogue, His high school buddies back in Nazareth tried to push Him off a cliff (Luke 4:16-29). Disciples leave him in droves when He testifies that they can have no part in Him unless they drink His blood and eat His flesh (John 6:50-69). Whenever I read Matthew 23, I always find it difficult to visualize the Pharisees holding off on rock-collection duty long enough to hear Him vilify them so thoroughly, so the big question for me is not "Why was Jesus crucified?" but "How did Jesus manage to remain alive as long as He did?" The scribes and Pharisees instinctively start looking around for baseball-sized stones whenever He shows up (John 8:48-59, John 10:22-33)! Multiple times He is accused of having a demon in Him (Luke 11:14-15, John 10:19-21) and despite all this...He never once "waters down" His message to please the crowd.

Thanks to the Internet, you can quite easily find people fighting viciously over the most nuanced trivialities as they relate to the lives and careers of Batman, Luke Skywalker, Captain Kirk or Wolverine. As a former Sherlock Holmes nutcase, I understand the appeal that well-written characters have, yet when considering the person and work of Jesus Christ I have to thank God that in His great mercy He ultimately "drove me back to the source material," where the nature and character of the greatest Man Who ever lived is so lovingly revealed.

There really is nothing wrong with getting wrapped up in the minutia of a favorite comic book character, TV series or rock star. Neither do I think anyone should feel guilty because they have memorized the earned-run average of a major league pitcher down to four decimal points. All I am saying is that, for myself, I very much look forward to the day when I will know more about Jesus than I do about my favorite fictional character, and I know exactly where to find the passage that talks about Jesus as the Author and Perfecter of our faith without having to look it up using Bible Gateway's keyword search (Hebrews 12:1-2). The best I can say right now is that the scales have begun to tip, and my prayers for God to sweep the clutter out of my soul and replace it with His Truth have clearly been heard. I now have a reasonable hope that I will be quoting the Apostle Paul from my deathbed...not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

ESPN Salary Crunch

I stumbled upon this link on ESPN.com's site earlier this week. The premise is this: they've taken a handful of the most lucrative recent contracts in sports, then averaged those annual salaries against the individual's notable statistics. The fun part is this - you enter a salary in the calculator and it tells you how long, per statistical category, it takes that particular player to make what you make in an entire year. Have fun with it here (by the way, Mark Teixeira has the biggest annual salary, so his number's are the most ridiculous).

Just for instance, let's take $50,000 as a salary.

Mark Teixeira makes that every (he's the 1st baseman for the NY Yankees):
  • .39 hits
  • 1.28 at bats (he gets 3-5 at bats per game
  • .07 home runs
  • .27 RBI
And if you make $50,000 a year, it will take you 450 years to earn what Teixeira pulls down in just 1.

I don't have one cohesive point regarding this, but I will share a few bulleted thoughts.
  • From a fiscal perspective, these athletes are worth what they make. Before you argue, this is what I mean: in a free-market economy the market (i.e., the consumers) essentially sets prices and value. Baseball owners, athletic directors, etc., aren't idiots. They've been doing this for a while and each have general managers and economists who are extremely proficient at what they do. They know how much they make, and they know how much signing Mark Teixeira or Pete Carrol is worth in terms of dollars made. My point - they don't often pay someone an amount of money that they won't recoup in revenue brought in because of that player/coach. The same principle could be said for movie stars, TV stars, musicians, etc.
  • Are you a little (or a lot) angry when you look at the numbers these people make? I am. But we must remember that we're part of the reason for this. Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis, Kurt Warner, and Drew Brees make millions of dollars per year in part because I have ordered my day to ensure I'll be watching them play this afternoon and evening. They're entertainers and I like to be entertained. So we can't entirely cast the blame elsewhere. And why am I really angry? My hunch is that I'm probably angry largely due to envy of what they have that I don't. I can act like it's because I stand for certain principles, but I'm far too sinful for it not to have something to do with simple jealousy.
  • But it does point to the fact that we live in a culture obsessed with entertainment. Think of the amount of money and time spent in the entertainment industry. Movies, television, TV commercials, sporting events, etc. This entertainment-obsessed culture results in many of the things we despise such as bloated salaries, gossip TV shows and periodicals, paparazzi, etc. But our desire for entertainment and these hated cultural phenomena are inter-related. The reason that Tiger Woods is as popular as he is (or was) and makes the amount of money that he does is the exact same reason all the vultures were circling when he was caught in scandal.
  • The next question is the most important one, yet it is much more difficult to answer than simply making cultural observations. Why are we so entertainment obsessed? Part of the answer is probably that we are prone to laziness and gluttony. We can often be undisciplined in our time spending hours being entertained by blankly staring at our flat-screen TVs. And we are notoriously gluttonous. We love to take good things (like entertainment) and over-indulge in them. Entertainment is clearly no different. Do we use it as an escape from mundane life? Do we like to look up to celebrities and athletes because something in us is designed to hero-worship (I think that we are designed in this way...but we often worship the wrong hero)?
There's my random thoughts for the weekend. Hopefully they're of some value.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Parent's Love - 8000 Miles Away

I have always considered adoption as the most tangible sense of God’s grace exhibited by His people on earth. It is the best example of unconditional love and acceptance I believe we are capable of providing as humans. Sue and I have friends in Wichita, Kansas who are currently in the process of adopting a child from Ethiopia. The process has been unbelievably tedious for them. They are compiling their experience on a blog that is updated regularly with details of the adoption process. I have included a link to their blog here.

I have been amazed at all the phone calls, the paperwork, the interviews, and the background checks required of them over the past year and I read this week they will still wait up to an additional year after the paperwork is done as the Ethiopian authorities match them to a child. All the while they are left to anticipate the day they finally see the face of a child who will someday be their own.

I am sure you are aware of the devastation in Haiti after a 7.0 magnitude struck Port-au-Prince on Tuesday of this week. I was instantly reminded of the tsunami from 2004 and all the personal and public tragedies surrounding that event. Similarly, we are bombarded on the internet with stories of numbers of the dead, cost of damages and pictures of pain on the faces of the local people. I think we too often have a tendency as a distant people to disconnect from such a tragedy.

I saw an article on MSNBC describing a story of a couple waiting to adopt a brother and sister from Haiti. You can read the article here. For me, this story really brought home the reality of the people who are suffering in Haiti. Here is a couple who have worked for years to adopt in Haiti. They have endured 5 trips to the country, countless hours on the phone, miles of paperwork. They have met the children and have established a relationship. In their minds, and in their hearts, these children are theirs. You can read about the concern and angst these parents endured as they sought out information regarding the well-being of their children.



I cannot imagine how hard this week has been for this couple, but I think our friends from Wichita can relate. Imagine being thousands of miles away from your children and having no way to communicate with them. You are entrusting their care to strangers who may or may not have their best interests in mind; An amazing testimony of faith.

Those who God has called to adopt paint an incredible picture of God’s grace in our daily lives. I think the experience of this couple brings the image even clearer. Imagine God, our heavenly father, seeking us out in a foreign land, ravaged by death and destruction. In the midst of the pain and suffering, I can hear Him say; “I have come for my children, they are mine, and I am taking them home”.

In you the orphan finds mercy. Hosea 14:3

For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” Romans 8:14-16

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When We Pray, God Works

Last Sunday we started our new series on Acts and I preached on Acts 1:1-9 but focused mostly on verse 8. There we saw that God has called the church in each generation to share the gospel with those around them (Jerusalem), those different than them (Samaria), and those far away from them (the ends of the earth). When you read a verse like Acts 1:8 (or Matthew 28:16-20 or Luke 24:46-49) the obvious question that arises is, "How can I help take the gospel to the ends of the Earth when I live in Columbia, MO?" How can I possibly make a difference for the gospel on the other side of the world?

Perhaps the most obvious (but also most overlooked) way to be a part of what God is doing around the world is prayer. God loves to move in response to the prayers of his people. For example look at Matthew 9:35-38...
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."
Problem: There are a lot of people who would come to faith in Christ but there are not enough Christians talking to people about the gospel.

Solution: Pray and ask God to send Christians into the world.

Of course one problem with telling any of us to pray is that we are wired by our culture and our sin nature to work more and pray less. We have a sense that if we want something done, we're better off just trying to get it done ourselves. There's an old saying that kind of puts that attitude in its proper perspective...
When man works, man works;
When man prays, God works.
Anyone who looks at the spiritual needs of the world and contemplates addressing those needs is profoundly aware of how much we need God to work. If God doesn't raise up people to go to the world with the gospel, if God doesn't soften people's hearts to believe the gospel, if God doesn't open "closed" countries so that Christians can worship with some degree of freedom, then none of this is ever going to happen.
John 15:5..."I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."
There are at least two great resources that will help you pray for the world. Operation World is a book that we stock in our bookstore at The Crossing. It lists countries in alphabetical order and then explains the spiritual condition of those countries and give specific prayer requests. The Joshua Project makes the same kind of information available on the web and gives you a people group to pray for each day.

If you are ready to take the next step in becoming involved in world missions, if you are ready to take the next step in becoming a world Christian, you might want to take advantage of these resources and pray even once a week for the people of the world. If you have kids, I think that they'd love to learn about other countries and pray for them with you.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Twelve Important Questions Every Christian Should Ask Themselves Each Year

It's the middle of January, so it's still a good time to be proactive and intentional about your life this year rather than merely reactive to situations and events as they unfold.

Of course, if you are a key decision maker in your business or organization, you know that you need to ask and answer indicating questions to focus your attention and intentions where they need to be each year. Likewise, every Christian should in some way ask themselves indicating questions to help focus needed attention and intentions to be purposeful in their lives each year. Otherwise, an important chance is wasted and our lives drift aimlessly, more or less. We react to life instead of focus our lives—something we would never tolerate in any business or organization that was important to us.

So, what do you want/need to be intentional about in your life in order to become more the person you want/need to be this year?

Lynn Roush recently provided some good insight on this here. But I recently saw these questions listed by a Christian blogger named Don Whitney that I think is a great list of twelve important questions Christians should ask themselves every year. Perhaps pick four or five that you want/need to be intentional about for this year. If you’re part of a men’s/women’s group or a small group, maybe devote one session to discussing and sharing your answers with one another.

1. What’s one thing you could do this year to increase your enjoyment of God?

2. What habit would you most like to establish this year?

3. What’s the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your family life this year?

4. What’s one thing you could do this year to enrich the spiritual legacy you will leave to your children and grandchildren?

5. In which spiritual discipline do you most want to make progress this year, and what will you do about it?

6. For whose salvation will you pray most fervently this year?

7. What one thing could you do to improve your prayer life this year?

8. What is your most important financial goal this year, and what is the most important step you can take toward achieving it?

9. What book, in addition to the Bible, do you most want to read this year?

10. What one thing do you most regret about last year, and what will you do about it this year?

11. What skill do you most want to learn or improve this year?

12. What single thing that you plan to do this year will matter most in ten years? In eternity?

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More on Hume

After last week’s post on the flap surrounding Brit Hume’s suggestion that Tiger Woods embrace Christianity, I’ve run across two excellent columns dealing with the same subject. Since both Ross Douthat of the New York Times and Michael Gerson of the Washington Post are (a) prominent and accomplished opinion columnists, (b) better, more imaginative writers than I am, and (c) professing Christians, I thought I’d be worthwhile to interact with both pieces a bit this week. In doing so, I want to highlight a few points that time, space or a lack of insight precluded last week, as well as allow both writers to underscore previous observations.

I’ll include a few quotes followed by my own comments. We start with Douthat:
Liberal democracy offers religious believers a bargain. Accept, as a price of citizenship, that you may never impose your convictions on your neighbor, or use state power to compel belief. In return, you will be free to practice your own faith as you see fit — and free, as well, to compete with other believers (and nonbelievers) in the marketplace of ideas.

That’s the theory. In practice, the admirable principle that nobody should be persecuted for their beliefs often blurs into the more illiberal idea that nobody should ever publicly criticize another religion. Or champion one’s own faith as an alternative. Or say anything whatsoever about religion, outside the privacy of church, synagogue or home.
This gap between theory and practice is precisely the problem, playing itself out in a thousand conversations in the public square every day. And the idea that undergirds this kind of thinking—that a secularist approach to public conversation is ideologically neutral and therefore superior—is the myth that our society would do very well to move past.
…......
Somewhat more plausibly, a few of Hume’s critics suggested that had he been a Buddhist commentator urging a Christian celebrity to convert — or more provocatively, a Muslim touting the advantages of Islam — Christians would be calling for his head.
I think this is a fair observation. While I still maintain that, if roles were reversed, Hume would not have received the same level or even type of criticism from media members that he did, I do think many Christians would’ve gotten upset. Douthat ably goes on to explain why that kind of reaction is problematic:
But these believers are colluding in their own marginalization. If you treat your faith like a hothouse flower, too vulnerable to survive in the crass world of public disputation, then you ensure that nobody will take it seriously. The idea that religion is too mysterious, too complicated or too personal to be debated on cable television just ensures that it never gets debated at all.
…......
When liberal democracy was forged, in the wake of Western Europe’s religious wars, this sort of peaceful theological debate is exactly what it promised to deliver. And the differences between religions are worth debating. Theology has consequences: It shapes lives, families, nations, cultures, wars; it can change people, save them from themselves, and sometimes warp or even destroy them.
I couldn’t agree more with what Douthat’s saying here, but what I found to be even more encouraging was the fact that I could read this paragraph in one of our country’s most prominent news outlets. Here’s hoping that we see more and more people in such places acknowledging that such discussions should not be considered taboo, but rather vitally important. Theological beliefs, or the (supposed) lack thereof, do indeed have consequences.


Now we turn to Gerson, who (rightly) points out that Hume is incorrect in saying that he was not proselytizing. However, he’s quick to defend the validity and even vital necessity of Hume being able to engage in such activity:
The assumption of [criticisms leveled at Hume] is that proselytization is the antonym of tolerance. Asserting the superiority of one's religious beliefs, in this view, is not merely bad manners; it involves a kind of divisive, offensive judgmentalism.

But the American idea of religious liberty does not forbid proselytization; it presupposes it. Free, autonomous individuals not only have the right to hold whatever beliefs they wish, they also have the right to change those beliefs and to persuade others to change as well. Just as there is no political liberty without the right to change one's convictions and publicly argue for them, there is no religious liberty without the possibility of conversion and persuasion.
That such a fundamental principle of religious liberty is either so poorly understood or simply ignored is alarming.

Hume's critics hold a strange view of pluralism. For religion to be tolerated, it must be privatized -- not, apparently, just in governmental settings but also on television networks. We must have not only a secular state but also a secular public discourse. And so tolerance, conveniently, is defined as shutting up people with whom secularists disagree. Many commentators have been offering Woods advice in his travails. But religious advice, apparently and uniquely, should be forbidden. In a discussion of sex, morality and betrayed vows, wouldn't religious issues naturally arise? How is our public discourse improved by narrowing it -- removing references to the most essential element in countless lives?

True tolerance consists in engaging deep disagreements respectfully -- through persuasion -- not in banning certain categories of argument and belief from public debate.
Amen all around. We very much need to respect those with whom we don’t see eye to eye (Christians are even commanded to love them!). But “tolerance” is not a synonym for “agreement and/or endorsement.” In fact, the exercise of tolerance presupposes disagreement. Perhaps the definition of the word and its proper practice would be another good subject for a Sunday morning opinion show.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pursuing Faithful Parenting...with Zero Guarantees

Like most parents, I very much hope to see all of my kids in Heaven, all of us living together in perfect harmony with Christ throughout eternity. I'm willing to tolerate a lot in the meantime, but it really would be nice to know - right now - that "the fix is in" and they will all receive life everlasting. And I'm completely sympathetic with other Christian parents who are prone to wonder "How can it be Heaven without one (or more) of my children?"

This past Friday, my wife contributed an article to this blog in which she tried to put words to what we both see as the overwhelming flood of undeserved grace that God has unleashed in our lives, particularly as she now sees it reflected back to her every single day from an 11x14 family photo hanging in our living room. (If you want to read that article, you can find it here.) Of course I am horribly biased, but I honestly think she did a really good job of sketching out how abundantly merciful God has been to both of us and to all of our children. Amen to that thought, and all glory to God.

Still, it seems to me that many (perhaps most) family photos can reveal to others how we might wish our families to be...as opposed, perhaps, to how they really function, day after day, at the level of the heart. I know I can certainly see some unwanted disparities between our own framed image, forever frozen in time, and the lived-out reality.

And I know for a fact that our family is not alone in experiencing this phenomena.

More often than not, it really breaks my heart to see the "image-versus-reality" scenario playing itself out in the lives of others. For instance, I have had occasion to visit several friends in their homes (or newly-leased apartments) as they sift through the ashes of their former lives, shipwrecked either by the end of their marriage, the estrangement of a family member or perhaps some other "domestic altercation." Invariably, my eye is drawn to the framed images hanging on the walls, propped up on tables or staring back at me from within a curio cabinet. Many times, these images tell a story of "what used to be," back in the days when everyone was still willing (or able) to occupy the same frame.

I'm really not trying to be gloomy, just realistic. The American family is under siege as never before, with all kinds of new and exciting avenues opening up for those of us who would rather not deal with each other anymore. Truly, as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11) and yet there are still times when, as a frustrated father, I can be heard giving vent to my deeply-held conviction that Facebook and cell phone text messaging are "twin tools of Satan" in the lives of American teens. I will typically calm down after a short time, remembering that as a teenager I used to regularly sneak out of the house and head down to the local record shop or video game arcade. So while the mechanisms of staying alienated from each other may have changed, surely the heart issues are identical.

In this season of life, the ongoing battle for my own heart shows itself most clearly, consistently and immediately within the realm of parenting. Despite all of my good and perfect plans for their lives, all of my kids have had the audacity to demonstrate (in one form or another, most of them very mild) that they are individuals, with ideas of their own as to what their lives should look like - though certainly sometimes to their own detriment. What has become painfully clear to me is that I had foolishly assumed that once I gave my life to Christ all of my problems would take care of themselves, especially in the area of parenting. Surely once I assented to and implemented the concept of biblical parenting, my kids would escape the many mistakes I made. Perhaps I didn't fully grasp the meaning of passages such as John 16:33 and Mark 8:34-38?

As always, it helps to gain some perspective from others more experienced than ourselves, and I think this is particularly true as we seek to raise kids who love the Lord.

This month, Christianity Today published an excellent article entitled The Myth of the Perfect Parent by Leslie Leyland Fields. If you are a parent but have not already read this article in its entirety, I'd like to strongly urge you to do so. A few excerpts (added emphasis mine):
We must assume, then, that there is serious error in our beliefs about parenting. We have made far too much of ourselves and far too little of God, reflecting our sinful bent to see ourselves as more essential and in control than we actually are. It's also our heritage as good Americans, psychologist Harriet Lerner observed in her 1998 book, The Mother Dance: We believe that we can fix every problem, that we are masters over our fate. The root of much of our pain in parenting, she writes, is "the belief that we should have control over our children when it is hard enough to have control over ourselves."
Toward the end of her article, Fields shows how, even though he may not have had any biological children (Scripture is silent on this point), the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel nevertheless provides a model for us in his "parenting" of the nation of Israel:
This was Ezekiel's responsibility: to speak and embody God's words before the people in such a way that they might know who he was, a righteous prophet of God, and that they might know who God was. Ezekiel wanted more than this, of course. He desperately wanted to turn the people back to the living God and prevent the impending and appalling judgment and death. The record does not tell us if anyone repented as a result of his words, but Ezekiel was never accountable for the repentance of others. He was accountable only for his steadfast obedience.
In a related article (Parents and Prodigals) at the Christianity Today Web site, first published in 1978, Virginia Stem Owens vividly affirms the truth that kids raised in the most Christ-exalting of households sometimes fall away, greatly strengthening the argument that faithful obedience on the part of the parents does not guarantee what we might call "successful parenting" in this life (added emphasis mine):
And failure is inevitable. Despite the manuals, the self-help guides, the democratizing or tyrannizing of the family, despite even our most sincere efforts at searching the Scriptures and the mind of God in prayer, we fail. Every day, children from Christian families with the best sort of spiritual and moral instruction and example run away from home, become alcoholics, get or are gotten pregnant, become addicted to drugs, wreck cars, cheat in school, break windows, commit suicide. Like cancer, it strikes indiscriminately. Being a Christian offers no immunity from family tragedy.

It is not simple cause and effect that is at work here nor only a sociological pathology. Although our society creates a climate for domestic disaster, we all know of instances where the most creditable parents inexplicably turn out deplorable children.

Originally published in the June 23, 1978 issue of Christianity Today.
In our own lives as Christians, it seems that many of us make the mistake of misunderstanding our God-given responsibility in the lives of our spouse and/or children for God-given control over those souls. I've read the Bible in its entirety only a couple of times, but it seems to me that we will labor in vain to find passages where God gives us sovereign control over the heart of anyone else. Instead, it is becoming clear to me that God gives us clear instruction to draw near to Him (James 4:7-10) and to make faithful decisions in our relationships. He calls us to be responsible in how we parent and the decisions we make, but we are not ultimately responsible for the results.

Living from one day to the next, I can find it very easy to get discouraged by a lack of full reconciliation in this life, but that makes it all the more powerful (I think) to trust Him to reconcile all things to Himself (Colossians 1:15-23) and to remember that the images we hang on our walls do not reflect the work of our hands, nor the reality of the life, the true life, that is yet to come (Revelation 21). Thankfully, building that final kingdom was, is and always will be the work of God (Hebrews 11:10).

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Downside of Love

This won't be all that profound, so if you're looking for profound wait a couple more days for someone else's post. Just wanted to share a quick lesson I've been reminded of the past few weeks.

There is a downside to love. Some might see that as an oxymoron. After all, love is wonderful and freeing and makes you feel valued and warm and cuddly. All you need is love, right? Whether you give or receive, love is easy and will make the world better...right?

We're all tempted to think that way sometimes. Maybe it's because of music, movies, or literature. Romantic comedies and novels are as popular as ever, and many of the lyrics to the Top 40 songs that crowd the airwaves make me want to pull my hair out. Or maybe it's from cherry-picked bible verses. Song of Songs is awfully rosy and romantic. Proverbs 31 was one of my favorite passages as a young lad.

But love is not easy, there is a cost. I believe Keith has said before in a sermon something along the lines of "truly loving someone will cost you." There is a cost to love, there is a downside. When a loved one goes through a difficult time, it hurts. It's emotionally exhausting. When a loved one is in need, it requires your time, effort, energy. Truly loving someone is going to really cost you.

But a love like that will not be foreign to a Christian. We've heard of it before. Several verses found in the Gospel of John:

13:34 - "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another."

15:9 -
"As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you."

15:12-13 - "
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends."

And of course that is the point. For us, love costs us something. For Jesus, it cost him everything. God the Father willingly sacrificed his Son. His Son. Don't skip past that so fast. Do you have kids? How many? The Father had one, and he loves us so much that he gave him up. And Jesus was literally God, yet he gave up some of his rights and powers, and died an agonizingly painful death - and not just the physical pain, although crucifixion is about as bad as it gets, but the spiritual pain to be forsaken by his Father and to take on the guilt, shame, and wrath of your sin and mine - because he loved us.

If you are committed to loving others, be prepared to hurt, be prepared to sacrifice. We're only following in our Savior's footsteps.

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