Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Missing Piece

When I was a kid, my family spent a fair bit of time working puzzles. For whatever reason, working puzzles was a family event and we would all gather round and work on them together until, at long last, the picture was finally complete. Almost always we’d be missing a piece or two at the very end and a frantic search would begin. Had it fallen under the table? Gotten kicked under a chair? Where was the missing piece? More than once, our search ended not on the floor but in someone’s pants pocket as we discovered that one family member, desperate for the great honor of putting in the last piece, had hidden it away there. Regardless, our search did not end until we found it. We looked both because we wanted the sense of satisfying closure that is the goal of working a puzzle and because we did not want the picture we had worked so hard on to be marred by its lack of even one piece.

The Christian life is also like a puzzle in some ways. Not in the sense of being complicated, or even in the sense of having a large number of pieces to make the picture. No the Christian life is like a puzzle because we have a picture we are using as a reference for the result we are trying to achieve. We read our Bibles and in so doing, we find out how our lives are supposed to look and what pieces we need for our lives to look like Jesus’ life. But you know something? The more Christians that I meet, the more I find that many of us are trying to assemble the puzzle with a big important piece missing.

That piece, more often than not, is personal evangelism. While we believe that evangelism is important and even support missionaries to share the gospel in other places, within 5 years of their conversion, most Christians do not have any non-Christian friends. And so, instead of having their life show a beautiful picture of Jesus, many Christians have a big hole where evangelism should be.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

You might be a pastor if...

Those of you who know me well know that I have long enjoyed Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck..." comedy bit. Well, my friend Bill has just posted a few lines about being a pastor in a similar vein. Some are simply funny, others fit into the category of "sad but true."

Check it out here.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A meditation on disqualification...

Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. -The Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:26-27
Evidently, even Paul considered his own disqualification a live possibility. By this, he most emphatically did not mean the loss of his salvation. Instead, he seems to have in the mind the idea that the Christian life is like competing in the Olympics, where the best servants of Christ will be rewarded by God. But failure to master one's sinful passions can cause a person to be disqualified from reward. In other words, an inconsistent Christian life, which is only partially committed to Christ isn't worth rewarding in God's sight.

Which troubles me more than a little bit. In my life (and the life of every Christian I know, committed or not), there is always at least a little bit of a gap between the truths we believe and profess and the lives that we actually live. Even Paul, who was perhaps the greatest Christian to have ever lived, worried at least a little that he might not hear "Well done, good and faithful servant. Come! Enjoy your Master's happiness." If that is true for Paul, then what hope do I have of ever receiving "a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:11)?

Yet the more I contemplate it, the more I am struck by Paul's imagery. What he seems to be saying is that "yes, it is possible to live an unrewarded life as a Christian." But what he is also saying is that this possibility should not cause us to simply resign ourselves to a life of giving into our flesh and its lusts. Rather, that possibility should drive us to keep fighting, knowing that one day our fight will be over. The final bell will ring (or is it last trumpet sound?), and Christ will then hold up the hands of those who fought well and give them victory, a victory that was won not by their effort (though their effort is of course required), but through the power of His Holy Spirit working through them. In other words, as in all things, God's grace is over all, through all, and in all. Nothing I achieve that is worthy of God's reward will have come about through my power and effort, but through God's Spirit working His will out in my life. My job is to submit myself totally to Him, to be an open pipe through which Living Water can flow out to the world and to confess the clogs to Him. If I do that, God will be pleased to call me "good and faithful." And yet, if I am faithful it will be most like (as C. S. Lewis says) a boy who says to his father 'Give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present.' and the does so out of His love for His son.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The perfect and the good, part II

I had no idea that my post on abortion and evangelical politics would generate such a lengthy discussion. At least I now know how to get comments on my blog. However, rather than simply join in with the comments, now that I have (alas, temporarily!) emerged from my Vicodin haze, I wanted to offer a few more comments regarding this subject.

Thought One: According to the New Testament (e.g. Rom. 13:4-5; 1 Pet. 2:13-14), the purpose of a human government is to punish evil and uphold righteousness. Thus, it seems to me that where Christians can influence the direction of their government toward the upholding of righteousness and the diminishment/punishment of evil, they should do so. To me, that means voting for the candidate who is 1) likely to win and 2) whose election will have the actual result of diminishing evil and upholding good while 3) recognizing that the candidate who meets criteria 1 might not diminish evil as much as one who does not, but who might nevertheless diminish evil more than the other alternatives on the other side of the aisle.

Thought Two: Comments regarding the issues that Jesus and/or Paul did not address to me miss the point. As the leaders of miniscule movements and subjects of an imperial monarchy, neither Jesus nor Paul were in any position to alter the direction of their government. Thus, when they speak of government, they speak of giving government its due and obedience to governing authorities. A government situation in which Christians can not only vote, lobby, and give money to candidates but also hold high office is a totally different situation, which might merit slightly different theological emphases.

Thought Three: While my theology does teach me that things will trend from bad to worse, it also tells me that this does not grant me an excuse for doing nothing or doing counterproductive things. We celebrate Wilberforce, but no Wilberforce could have arisen granted the assumption that slavery was a permanent fixture that would always expand. Where evil can be beaten back, it should be. Moreover, though our Kingdom is not of this world, it does not mean we should allow the one in which we live as "aliens and strangers" (1 Pet. 2:11), to inexorably slide toward evil without any intervention from us. Anyone we love, we prevent from harming themselves. How does inaction (or minimal action) demonstrate love for our lost neighbors?

Thought Four: As Christian voters, our job is to work for the reduction of evil in our society. Abortion is a vast evil that should be eliminated to the degree possible. If it is only possible today to get a small reduction (i.e., by electing a pro-choice conservative like Guliani), that is still better than getting an increase in abortion (as would likely happen under any of the Dems). It is more important, IMHO, to preserve what children's lives we can than to take a stand on principle and indirectly be responsible for increasing the unborn death rate.

Thought Five: Though Christian's political positions on issues like homosexuality and abortion get a ton of press, Christians actually devote comparatively little time, energy and money to politics. For example, one missions organization (Campus Crusade) has an annual budget of $300 million+. That is more than the Bush and Kerry campaigns spent combined in 2004. By the time you factor in all of the money, time, and energy spent on all of the other kingdom causes (other missions organizations, churches, camps, etc.) it vastly outweighs Christian involvement in political causes. I believe this is as it should be, yet a little money spent on politics at this stage might help us with our goals rather than placing us in the odd position of shouting from outside the tent about what we want to happen inside it.

My latest trip to the ER

Shortly after my last post, I started feeling sick. I struggled through it for a couple days, but by Tuesday night, the abdominal pain was so intense that I had Karen see me off to the ER down at OSF. This proved to be a good decision, as there they were able to track the problem back to a set of gallstones that were supposedly asymptomatic a couple years ago that have now decided to make their presence felt. A couple shots later, I was on my way with a prescription for Vicodin and an appointment to see a surgeon today.

One of the shots was a pretty healthy dose of morphine, which sounds a lot better before the shot than after. It's a pretty gross medicine that made me nauseous (which required another shot to counteract), and I think somewhere between the shots and the Vicodin I started taking just afterward I saw the Purple Haze that Jimi Hendrix sang about.

I have subsisted on Triscuits and orange Gatorade from Tuesday night until lunchtime today, when I got to have a turkey sandwich with lettuce and bread, but no mayo. I also stopped taking the Vicodin sometime last night, so I would be reasonably coherent today when we met the the surgeon. So far, so good.

Surgery will be tomorrow at 2 p.m. I like the surgeon and he tells me I will be fine once my gallbladder comes out. Full recovery should be about 2 weeks, but I should be back to work within a week or so.

All of this to say, it may be a few days between posts, though I am going to try to post at least once more before I enter "Vicodin world" again and can't be held responsible for what I say and do.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The perfect and the good

Dr. James Dobson and some of his allies recently announced that, should only pro-choice or squishy pro-life people (Mitt Romney, call your office) become the Democratic and Republican candidates for President in 2008, they will support a third party candidate who is consistently pro-life. A few thoughts on this:

Thought One: If what they are looking for is a consistently pro-life candidate, why isn't Gov. Mike Huckabee positively rolling in campaign cash? He only has c. $600 k on hand even though he is solidly pro-life and a committed evangelical Christian. Could it be that perceived "electability" is more of a factor than Dr. Dobson and friends wish to admit?

Thought Two: What would happen if Dobson and company actually made good on their threat? Any of the following scenarios could play out, though none would be a healthy social development in my view-
  1. The least harmful scenario is that Dr. Dobson and friends aren't able to convince the majority of the evangelical voting population to support a 3rd party bid. If that occurs, the "evangelical" candidate "succeeds" in occupying the same electoral space as Ralph Nader-enough voters to swing a tight election, but not enough for more impact than that. The other bad effect of this scenario would be that it would convince many people that evangelicals are a fringe group (like voters for Nader or Lyndon LaRouche), who can be safely ignored without electoral consequences, thereby freeing politicians from both parties from paying even lip service to the sanctity of life.
  2. A slightly worse scenario would be signficant numbers of evangelicals defecting to a 3rd party. That would ensure a win by the solidly pro-choice Democratic candidate and have the additional "benefit" of tempting the Republican Party (evangelicals' natural home) to throw them overboard as unnecessary baggage since, after all, evangelicals would be the reason why there is now a Democratic president instead of a Republican one.
  3. As I see it, the worst scenario is that evangelicals do all defect to a third party. Since they currently make up only 30% of the Republican base and considerably less of the Democratic base, there are clearly not enough voters there to actually elect the 3rd party candidate. Which means effectively contributing to the election of a committed pro-choice president, who would then have a "mandate" for enacting his (or her!) policies, of which one would undoubtedly be the confirmation of additional justices in the mold of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (former pro-abortion attorney and current very liberal Supreme Court justice). This would effectively enshrine Roe v. Wade and Casey as the law of the land for another generation.
Some might read the analysis above and conclude that I am simply offering a "lesser of two evils" argument in support of whomever the Republicans nominate. And to an extent that is true. But my larger point is that it should be our goal to actually reduce the amount of real evil in the world, and I wonder if we are danger of letting our principled opposition to voting for even a squishy pro-lifer stand in the way of saving babies. After all, it is almost a certainty that a liberal president = more liberal justices on the Supreme Court = more abortion for the forseeable future. On the other hand, it is far more likely that a conservative president (even a pro-choice conservative) would do less in real terms to advance the abortion agenda because of the constraints placed on him by his electoral base. In other words, while a pro-choice conservative is unopposed to abortion in theory, the number of abortions would likely be less than under a pro-choice liberal in reality. And reality is what we need to focus on, for babies die in reality and not in the realm of principles and philosophy.

All of which is to say, in sum, "Dr. Dobson, please be careful what you wish for. You might get it and that would be a disaster."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Big Fear #2

Though I am not that old, I have lived long enough to see men build a ministry that is a monument to their gifts, their drives, and their vanity. I have also seen the disaster that awaits them at home in the form of a passionless "ministry marriage" and children they do not know. What a tragedy for both that family and the Church! I pray that God will protect me from succeeding at all the wrong things, for in the words of the great philosopher Ferris Bueller:
Life comes at you fast. You don't want to miss it.

Date Night

Last Friday, Karen and I got to go on our first real date in a good while. Our gym dates continue, in fact we went on another one of those today. Friday one the other hand, was a date of the more old-fashioned variety. Since I was responsible for planning the evening, I picked a place that is now my new favorite restaurant, Johnny's Italian Steakhouse. Dinner was pricey, but well worth it, especially considering the fact that we hadn't had a date alone since before we moved to Chilli.

Our menu that night consisted of the following (Steve B., if you are reading, this part is for you!):
  • Salad: Karen had the house salad with balsamic vinaigrette. I had the field greens salad with gorgonzola and balsamic topped with a piece of freshly fried goat cheese. (Which sounds gross, but was actually tasty).
  • Appetizer: Maryland style fried crab cakes with remoulade
  • Entree: Karen had the crab & spinach lasagna and I had the filet oscar (i.e., topped with crab, steamed asparagus spears, and bearnaise). While Karen's lasagna was delicious, my steak was superb.
Altogether, I think this ranked as one of our top 5 dining experiences ever. We followed dinner with some casual shopping (both New York & Co. and Dick's Sporting Goods) and coffee at Gloria Jean's, then some serious shopping for barstools for our counter at Target and Wal-Mart (The children are no longer allowed to sit at our new table for snacks or meals other than dinner).

It was a great evening, one that reminded me why Karen and I have been happily married for so long. We really enjoy each other's company and doing even mundane things (like stool shopping) together. I am a blessed man.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

On writing a sermon...

Sometimes people wonder about the best way to write a sermon. I myself have become a student of the process. Follow the link below to the best description of the best process I have located to date:

Cup O' Joe with Bill: On Capturing a Sermon... the Caffeinated Way

By the way, this link takes you to the blog for Bill Allison of CADRE Ministries, a godly man with a Christ-honoring ministry to "regular churches" (like mine!).

Don't forget...

My friend Greg has been blogging of late about his big fears. Reading his posts over at holmesblend has inspired me to write about a few of mine.

One of my biggest fears is not that I will ever deny Christ (or worse, that He will ever disown me), but that I will simply drift in my relationship with Him and lose my desire to know Christ. And because it is a more subtle danger, I think it is actually more likely to be a problem. The crush of life seems to conspire against deep devotion until my faith seems more like a surface commitment than a life-altering covenant. And most people that walk away from Christ don't do so in one giant, dramatic leap of faith abandonment. Rather, they simply start to drift a little until a little becomes a lot. And the tough thing is, often you can't recognize how far you have drifted until you are very far away indeed, at which point it becomes easier to simply continue to drift.

And the problem is, it is easiest to drift not when things are hard, but when they are like I want them be, which is comfortable and prosperous. I have spent my morning turning the following passage over in my mind:
When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws, and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your flocks and herds grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. -Deuteronomy 8:10-14

Where's your country?

The story goes that years ago, when Henry Kissinger was serving as the Secretary of State, he used to call all newly appointed ambassadors into his office. Once they were seated he would tell them, “Before we send you out on assignment, I have one final test you need to take.” Then he would point to a globe and say, “Using that globe over there, show me your country.” Almost invariably, the new ambassador would point to the nation they were going to move to, perhaps Cameroon, or Ireland, or Australia, or even, back in those days, the Soviet Union. At which point Kissinger would turn to them and say, “I’m sorry to tell you that you have just failed.” Then he would walk over to the globe, spin it around, and pointing to the United States, Kissinger would say, “This is your country. Never forget that.” After that, they were dismissed to their new post.

You know, I think that little test displays a lot of wisdom. Kissinger knew that a long time of living in a foreign land can diminish your loyalties to your home country. You can get sucked into the culture of the place you are living and pick up its attitudes, prejudices, morals, and ways as you make contacts and friends among the local people. And all of that diminishes your ability to remember which country it is that you are supposed to represent. And all too often, it happens that an ambassador begins to represent his host country to his home country. So an ambassador can’t ever become confused about which country is his.

And you know what? A lot of Christians have the same tendency. The longer we live in a world that’s not our home, the easier it is "go native" and begin to reflect the attitudes, morals, and ways of the place we are living in and to forget which country is our home.
…they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better countrya heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. – Hebrews 11:13c-16