Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Feeling proud

Karen's old laptop crashed about 2 years ago. It's hard drive had a total, unrecoverable meltdown and hasn't breathed since. I managed to purchase and install a new, much bigger one last night. Word from the home front is that the machine is not only breathing again, but working beautifully now. For a man whose understanding of things technical is, what's the right word...limited, this is a pretty great moment.

His Love Endures Forever

As many of you know, my family has had a rough year. Apparently, we needed to cap it off with something, so when we found out that Karen had two ovarian cysts, and that one of them might be malignant, I thought "Well, that fits with the general trend of the rest of this year." Which is pretty pessimistic. As we waited for results, someone told me "Everything will be all right." Outwardly, I agreed. Inwardly, I thought, "How do you know that? What if it's cancer and my wife dies? I hardly think that will be okay." Well, we found out yesterday afternoon that it is almost certainly not malignant, though Karen is scheduled for surgery to remove them both on 12/31 (Happy New Year!). Still, we are praising God for giving us the best possible outcome in the circumstances.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all this, I've been preparing to preach my last sermon of the year on Psalm 136, whose theme is "His Love Endures Forever." It has seemed to me hat is a tough truth to keep in mind. If Karen's test had come back positive for ovarian cancer, would I have believed it? The simple answer is "I don't know." I know that I'm exceptionally glad that the test came back the way it did. A part of me also knows that it would still be true that God's love for us is still there whether or not I believed it true at that point. And it seems to me that faith in Christ is made of such moments of trusting Him even if... even if my wife had cancer, even if I suddenly became a single dad with four kids, even if I had no answers to why this had happened. Because God's love for us doesn't consist, like we sometimes want it to, in always giving us what we want while smoothing every difficulty, but in giving us what he divinely, sovereignly, and yes, lovingly chooses for us.

And so, while today we praise God for his mercy and grace, I also remind myself that when the dark days come again, God is still gracious and merciful even then.

Politics: The 2nd Oldest Profession

In a continuing thought on yesterday's post, I'd say that, in some ways, you have to have a little bit of perverse admiration for Sens. Landrieu and Nelson. I mean, buying votes in Louisiana has a history which goes back to at least Huey "the Kingfish" Long, and Sen. Landrieu's $300 million price tag for supporting Obamacare is certainly doing her part to uphold that noble tradition. I mean, it used to be that a politician could be had for a lot less, like admission to a private school for one's children, season tickets for a suite at the hometown stadium, or some such. I guess inflation has now come to Louisiana politicians too. And Ben Nelson, I mean, what can I say? Just last week, he was saying that he was pro-life, that he would not vote for a bill that provides federal subsidies to abortion and "My vote cannot be bought." I guess that's Cornhusker for "My vote can't be bought for anything less than the low nine digits."

Which brings to mine something Ronald Reagan said about politics being the 2nd oldest profession and it bearing a close resemblance to the first...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Uphold the Constitution? What Constitution

In their heedless rush to get something, anything which they can label "health care reform" through Congress before the 2010 election season makes such questions utterly irrelevant, it's perhaps wise that someone make the observation that it's entirely possible the bill in question won't survive judicial review. Among the myriad reasons for this are two biggies:
  • The individual mandate: Congress is requiring citizens to purchase a privately sold product, under penalty of fine and/or imprisonment, namely a health insurance policy. States can do this, but it is far from clear that the federal government has such a power, even under the broadest reading of the Interstate Commerce Clause, since interstate commerce in health insurance is actually prohibited by the bill.
  • Equal Protection: Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana got the Cornhusker Kickback and the Louisiana Purchase, respectively, in exchange for their votes for the bill. Landrieu got $300 million in special favors for Louisiana. Meanwhile, Nebraska will get all of its future bills for Medicaid expansion paid for by the rest of us in perpetuity. Somehow, the idea of "equal protection" never entered this Congress' mind, did it? Under the Constitution, citizens of one state cannot be exempted from costs imposed on other states. We are still a nation of laws, and not of men, at least last time I checked.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Grade Inflation

WARNING: This is a political post. If you don't like politics or my take on them, you may want to just skip it. If not, read on.

During his recent Oprah interview, President Obama was asked how he would grade his presidency thus far. He responded that he would rate himself "a good, solid, B+." Now a savvy pol would have said something along the lines of "It's really too early to judge my presidency, I've only been in for a year. It takes time to see the effects of decisions a president makes" or better, "That's really for the historians and the American people to decide." Instead, we got the view that things are almost as good as they could be with him at the helm. This manages to simultaneously convey an attitude of astonishing arrogance and utter cluelessness. Let's review a few relevant facts from the past year, shall we:
  • The unemployment rate when Obama took office was 7.6%, with the real unemployment rate somewhere around 8%. Today, the unemployment rate is 10.2% with a real unemployment rate of around 16% (real unemployment includes those who are still unemployed but whose unemployment benefits have ceased).
  • We passed a $787 billion "stimulus" package which has failed to stimulate anything other than the growth of government employee salaries and the size of union coffers.
  • The deficit has grown from under $400 billion under the heretofore plofligate President Bush to $1.4 trillion today (and in less than 12 months too!). At the present rate of spending, and assuming health care "reform" is passed, Obama will add $12 trillion to the national debt in the next 8 years. To put that in perspective, this is a number that amounts to approximately 80% of annual US GDP and 15% of the total value of all assets in the entire United States (which is roughly $85 trillion). When you consider the existing unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid amount to $65 trillion, it seems clear to me that the Obama agenda will push us very close to national insolvency.
  • Since Obama has come into office, he has managed to bow to the Saudi King, the Japanese emperor, and the Chinese rulers, get chummy with Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, support President Zelaya of Honduras when he tried to unconstitutionally remain in power, double-cross the Czechs and Poles on missile defense, and take the Afghan war from a quasi-colonial policing operation to a state where it generates more casualties in a year than it did in all six years of Bush's war there. On the foreign policy front, in sum, the world has grown more dangerous and we have alienated allies and cozied up to enemies in exchange for nothing tangible.
  • His popularity has declined from 64% approval/25% disapproval on January 20th to 49% approval/47% disapproval. Now all presidents decline in popularity, but this is the fastest decline in history.
  • He is pushing for the Pelosi/Reid health care "reform" to pass even though it will add trillions of dollars to our national debt, require punitive levels of job-killing taxation, and leave approximately 23 million people uninsured at the end of the day. And they are trying to pass it despite 61% disapproval of the bill by regular Americans.
If this is what a "good, solid, B+" effort looks like, I'd hate to see a D-.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Karen's test

My dw has been struggling with intense lower back pain for the past several weeks. We're pretty sure that she has a kidney stone, but on the last trip to the doctor, he didn't do any real diagnostic tests because she wasn't at that moment, having any pain. Well, it came back pretty strongly on Thursday and Friday, so wonder of wonders, she actually got scheduled for a CT this morning. The test went well, even though the tech was a pretty creepy lookin' dude, but we won't know results till Monday. Please hold her up as between our Sunday morning activities and this funeral, I won't be around much the next couple days.

UPDATE: It's not a kidney stone. It's a 6 cm (about 2") ovarian cyst. We have an OB appt. on Thursday (12/17) at 2 p.m. for an ultrasound and, presumably, discussion about the treatment pathway. Meanwhile, Karen is managing the pain with Vicodin.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Matthew's Begats

As you know, I've been teaching through the book of Ruth this past month. I finished up this last Sunday, and as you also know if you are familiar with the book, it ends with a genealogy. Now I confess, I used to be like most Bible readers, who come to the Bible's genealogies, if at all, as a cure for insomnia. But in teaching through Ruth, I came to see them in fresh perspective. I realized that they are all in there for a purpose-to demonstrate to us God's sovereignty over history and to show us that God is working through people, both good and evil, and through human decisions, both good and evil, to accomplish his sovereign good purposes. After all, the genealogy at the end of Ruth begins with Perez, one of the twin sons born to Tamar out of her seduction of her father-in-law Judah. This is hardly a moral example to us, yet God still worked, bringing good out of great sinfulness.

Moreover, since Ruth is all about the preservation of family, it's appropriate that it ends with a record of the family line. Something else that jumped out at me was the fact that there was no way Ruth and Boaz could know that they were literally, the two most important people in the universe in their day. Unless Ruth somehow made it back from Moab and married Boaz (who was apparently a bachelor!), the family line that brings Jesus into the world would die out. No Ruth and Boaz = No King David = No Jesus. It was such a close-run thing, and yet God was there, sovereignly working. What larger purposes, I wonder, is God using each of us in this generation to accomplish?

Anyway, in the spirit of Christmas and these thoughts on genealogies, I give you the best musical rendering ever (and perhaps the only one!) of Matthew's genealogy of Jesus. Enjoy, remembering that all Scripture is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16-17):

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Love and prayers

My good friends Josh and Angela lost their little baby today in a tragic miscarriage. If you are reading this, say a prayer for them along with their other kids, two of whom are old enough to understand what is going on.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Samson redux

I spent yesterday helping a friend replace the flooring in his dining room. They bought the house about a year ago, and the person they bought it from was fairly obsessive about making sure everything was over-constructed. At any rate, Mr. OCD put down a variety of that attached pad Berber style carpet that normally retails for about $1-$2 per square foot. Moreover, just to make sure that nothing happened to keep this treasured product from coming up, he glued it down with some variety of contact cement. Approximately 4 hours later, my buddy and I finally had the last scraps of the pad scraped off of the floor and some new foam underlayment put down for his new maple laminate floor. I went home from laying the laminate at 12:30 a.m. We had a lot of trimming to do-4 door openings, 3 floor outlets, a floor vent and part of a chimney to go around plus it has been a few years since I laid any laminate, so it took a while to get back the knack. The important thing is, we did finish the job.

The problem is that I am sore beyond belief today. I don't remember being so sore when I put in the laminate for our attic bedroom at our house in Iowa. My knees and the heels of my hands are very tender and I'm keeping ibuprofen in my system at regular intervals. Worse, when I posted about my condition on my Facebook status this morning, one of my oldest friends had the temerity to suggest that I was experiencing the vagaries of something she referred to as "middle age." I am not amused. Personally, I've decided that gray hair or not, I'm not middle-aged until I'm 50 at least, and maybe not even then.

If that doesn't work, then I've got a fall-back theory: As all of you know, I recently got my hair cut off, and based on my study of the Scriptures, I'm pretty sure that has something to do with it. After all, read this:
...she called a man to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him. - Judges 16:19b
See? Middle-aged? Meh. I just got a haircut, and haircuts produce weakness. Once my hair grows back out, I'll be back to knocking over pagan temples again. Or at least, that's the theory I'm going with.

Post-Deer Season Wrap-up

Well, it's official: The shotgun deer season ended and I got a fat goose egg. I saw a lot of deer (though most were way out of range) and missed the one good shot opportunity I had on the last day. But this is no time for self-pity. I still got to enjoy being in the woods and seeing the sun come up through the trees. I got to watch foxes and coyotes on the hunt, owls ghosting through the trees, squirrels busily burying nuts for the winter, and wild turkeys fly up to roost at night and down in the morning, yelping all the way. I got to do all of this despite thinking that I might not even have a place to go this year, so the fact that I got to hunt at all was a blessing in itself.

On top of that, I got news from Iowa on Saturday that my old friend and former deer slaying partner has finally shot his first antlered buck. He had already shot a doe that morning and had his gun jam when it was time to shoot at a buck a little later. So he was very excited to get another opportunity to shoot this buck that evening. Congrats, old friend, on a very nice deer!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hello...Hello...Is this thing on?

If there's anyone still reading this, let me say thanks and sorry for the lack of posts lately. The combination of deer season, Thanksgiving, and taking some vacation have added up to not much activity in the past couple weeks. I'll try to do a little better now that I'm going to be in the office 4 days this week.

Anyway, here's a quick and dirty update on my activities of late:
  • The first deer season was unsuccessful. I took a marginal shot and missed a good buck and passed on a marginal buck though I had a good shot.
  • I helped a buddy and his son-in-law butcher a deer. It was the son-in-law's first time, and he was excited about the opportunity to eat fresh, organic, hormone free wild game. It doesn't get any more "free range" than this... (Which makes me wonder why the eco-folks and the hunters, who are both fans of natural foods and wildlife conservation, usually aren't friends).
  • I've grown a goatee and my face is now racing my head to see which grows longest fastest. I'm betting on the beard, though I'd be willing to take wagers the other direction if I get any offers.
  • I completely over-ate at Thanksgiving, as per usual and now must re-commit myself to aerobics and tracking my calories.
  • The family time at Thanksgiving was great and very relaxing. I had deep conversation around the turkey fryer and time to tickle my nephew, hug my grandma, and ponder the reasons why my children wake up at least one hour earlier when we put them to bed an hour later than normal.
  • I'm doing marriage counseling with a few couples now and enjoying it. Lives are changing and marriages are improving. It's very rewarding when things go well.
  • I've got one chapter left to preach in the book of Ruth and an outline to finish for the secretary, so I better hop to it!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Behold the hairless wonder!

We started AWANA this fall at our church after a 10-year hiatus. Our "Commander" told those of us on the Elder Board that he was hoping for 30-35 kids on the first night. Since we normally have 20-some on Sunday morning for Children's Church, that didn't seem like a very big goal to me, and I told him that I hoping for more like 50. Well, 60 kids showed up on the first night and it has continued to grow ever since as kids bring their friends who then bring other friends. The second week, I told the kids that, if they would bring enough friends that we reached 100 kids in attendance, then I would shave my head.

Last week we had 96.

This week, 102 kids showed up and it was time to pay my debt. I'm enjoying the results, though it's a cold time of year to go bald, and I'm definitely going to have to find some warm hats to wear this winter. More than that, I'm enjoying the fact that we are sharing Christ with a large number of kids each week, many of whom have never read a Bible, been to church, heard about Jesus, or been presented with the Gospel. So for me, at the end of the day, the loss of my hair breaks down like this:
  1. New Barber Clippers: $23.99 on sale at CVS.
  2. Time to re-grow hair: 3 months.
  3. Sharing Christ with 100+ kids: Priceless

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

New friends

I made some new friends today as I went duck hunting on the Illinois River. Tom and Tony showed me the ropes of the Illinois public duck blind system and got us into a great blind. Not many ducks flying today, the bottom of the blind was filled with 2" of slick river muck, and it rained like crazy for 1/2 the hunt. We shot two ducks and I'm going to have to wash a lot of mud off of my gear. But what fun! Tom and Tony are great guys and fine hunters, and Tony's dog Camo is 75 lbs. of pure retrieving energy. Now if only I could figure out how to cook a bufflehead so that it tastes good...

Reading Ruth in a Recession

I'm currently preaching through the book of Ruth at CBC. I got started on 11/8, after finishing Philippians the previous week. I had the week off this past Sunday, since we had a visiting missionary in town to bring God's Word to us. So this Sunday, I'm back in the saddle for chapter 2. And one of the things that strikes me about the book of Ruth generally, and chapter 2 in particular, is how subtly God's provision is made. In verse 1, we read that Naomi had a relative on her husband's side, from her deceased husband's clan, who was "a man of standing" (i.e., a wealthy and powerful man). In verse 3, the author reports that "as it turned out, [Ruth] found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech." Then we read in verse 4 "Just then..." that Boaz showed up. All of these statements together form a sort of ironic hyperbole, in which the narrator of the story is emphasizing the "chance" nature of these facts to highlight the real nature of God's provision. For the point of the story is that God is always working to provide for and demonstrate love to his people, but subtly, and behind the scenes. In fact, God's provision is so subtle that a person might miss it.

It occurs to me that God often works in similar ways today in my life and in the lives of others. His provision is always there for those whom He loves, but subtly. It is visible to those with eyes to see, but might seem like coincidence to some observers. We always have "too much to deny, too little to be sure," and so we trust God, and see His hand faithfully providing. I think too that books like Ruth have marvelous applicability in these days. Ruth had no social standing, few legal rights, and little hope, but she believed God. That faith made all the difference. God provided in ways she could not have expected, foreseen or imagined.

But one must have eyes to see what God is doing and the faith to trust Him in the how and why and when.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Election 2010 wrap-up

So it turns out that rumors of the GOP's demise were greatly exaggerated after all. Bob McDonnell, the Regent University grad and "extreme" social conservative (I read in in the Washington Post, so it must be true) wound up winning the Virginia governorship by the largest margin of any governor in Virginia history, and sweeping all of the down ballot R's in on his coattails. Meanwhile Chris Christie beat Jon Corzine's re-election bid despite being outspent 5-1 and President Obama campaigning for a Corzine victory in a state which hasn't elected a Republican to statewide office in 12 years. Christie won everywhere, in the largest margin of Republican victory since 1985. Doug Hoffman the insurgent Conservative Party candidate nobody had ever heard of until August narrowly lost to Democrat Bill Owens in a district that leans center-left, with RINO Dede Scozzfava winning 5% of the vote. What does all this mean? I think it means:
  1. Obama-mania is officially over. The places where Obama campaigned (both Jersey and Virginia) both gave their votes to the Republican by historic margins, despite Obama's large margins in both places in 2008. Whatever the current state of the president's popularity, it isn't transferable and this isn't 2008 anymore.
  2. Anti-Bush fervor has run its course. Time was, a politician could win re-election by simply making the case that he was not George Bush and declaring that he hated Bush and all his works. Having had their say about Bush, voters now blame the current problems on the current occupants of political office. Last night's vote had a strong anti-incumbent flavor. Since Democrats are now the incumbent party, this does not bode well for their electoral future.
  3. The "blue dog" Democrat is an endangered species. If Republicans can win in true-blue states like New Jersey, what must a red-state Democrat be thinking this morning? There are 80 Democratic Congressmen and 20 Democtratic Senators representing states that John McCain won in 2008. Personally, I think this election fundamentally alters the health care, cap-and-tax, son-of-stimulus passing calculus substantially. Pelosi and Reid may not have the votes they think they have, massive Democratic majority or not, because while Democrats favor all of these things, they like getting re-elected more.

The newest addition

I've added someone new to the blogroll: Jean, the Aussie blogger homemaker/theologian who writes In All Honesty. This is a lady who is the real deal-an authentic follower of Christ who thinks deep thoughts about God and writes them well for others' benefit. I encourage the legions of Bullhorn addicts out there who await each of my posts with bated breath (both of you know who you are!) to add Jean to your RSS too.

Making Peace

In an earlier post, I talked about how my pastoral calling sometimes necessitates being the "responsible adult" who acts to call people back to reconciliation and peace. Not that this always works, but it does come with the territory. In fact, Paul's letters deal with church problems and conflicts virtually exclusively, teaching correct theology largely in response to the errors being spread rather than as an end in itself.

As I have preached my way through Philippians, I was certainly not unaware of these things, but I was somewhat surprised to find both a great example of pastoral peace making and good principles for peace maintaining, all wrapped up in the little section that has to do with Euodia and Syntyche (v. 4:2-7). These two ladies were engaged in a very public fight. It had become so bad that the church had exhausted itself and appealed to Paul, who was several hundred miles away and imprisoned besides, for relief and counsel. Here's the wisdom of Paul in response:

For Peacemakers:
  • Address the combatants tactfully. Paul is very kind and diplomatic as he addresses these ladies. He doesn't claim his apostolic authority, though he obviously could. He doesn't order. Instead he writes, "I plead with..."
  • Encourage reconciliation privately. In his pleading, Paul tells them "agree with one another in the Lord." Even though the situation has become public, he still encourages private peacemaking.
  • Affirm commonalities as more important. In 4:3, Paul mentions their past partnership with him (literally, "fighting alongside me") in spreading the Gospel and the fact that both of them are "in the book of life." He is reminding them of the eternal things that bind them together, and the fact that the both belong to Christ and ought to act like it.
  • Involve others if necessary. Paul asks for someone he calls "loyal yokefellow" (possibly a name, but more likely an elder or the pastor of the church) to assist these two ladies in making peace. Sometimes, a mediator has to step in. Peace in the church is more important than worship (cf. Matthew 5:23-24), so peacemaking is an essential part of church leader's task when necessary.
For Maintaining Peace:
  • Rejoice in the Lord. Generally speaking, when we're in conflict, it's not only evidence that we're failing to rejoice in the Lord, rejoicing in the Lord is the last thing on our minds! We're thinking about winning, not about how we can glorify Christ as Lord. We've got our defenses and emotions up, and we're sure of our own righteousness. But if we are rejoicing in the Lord always, it's just possible we would be in conflict less isn't it?
  • Let your gentleness be evident to all. The word that's rendered "gentleness" (Greek epieikes) is often translated "meekness" and has to do with keeping one's power under good control. Here in context it means keeping a rein on your emotions, your temper, your reactions (and even your body language), so that you deal kindly with others, even those with whom you have strong disagreements.
  • Remember that the Lord is near. I believe that is a reminder that the Lord is personally (as opposed to eschatologically) near to us. This is a healthy reminder, since when we're in the midst of a fight, we forget that God is near. And his nearness means that he is both still sovereign over our situation (meaning we neither need to win or worry) and that our conduct is happening in full view of the Lord (which ought to temper it a bit).
  • Don't worry. Instead pray and thank God. It's easy to forget at times that we don't need to worry about anything, but in everything to pray and go to God with our needs and then to thank him for his answers. It seems like Christianity 101, but it's still hard to do when we are in the center of the storm.
  • Let God's peace descend upon you. When we pray and trust God, he promises to give us his peace. It's amazing, but it is still wonderfully true.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Peterson on "new ways of doing church"

By my count, I have a dozen books about practical ministry in the local church. This is exclusive of books about pastoring, books about the theology of church, and books about evangelism, discipleship, missions, church leadership, small groups, etc. These dozen books are simply about the topic of what the local church is designed to be and do and how that should look in a contemporary context. Titles include: Simple Church, Breakout Churches, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, The Deliberate Church, The Connecting Church, Effective Church Growth Strategies, Vintage Church, and books both pro- and con on the Emerging Church (is that still around, by the way?). Many of these books have helpful information, but we do well to remember that every church is both populated with, and led by, a gaggle of sinners. Here's Peterson's Unpredictable Plant again:
A bare sixty or seventy years after Pentecost we have an account of seven churches that shows about the same quality of holiness and depth of virtue found in any ordinary parish in America today. In two thousand years of practice we haven't gotten any better. You would think we would have, but we haven't. Every time we open up a church door and take a careful, scrutinizing look inside we find them there again--sinners. Also Christ. Christ in the preaching, Christ in the sacraments, but inconveniently and embarrassingly mixed into this congregation of sinners.

It is to be expected in these situations that with some frequency certain persons will come forward with designs to improve matters. They want to purify the church. They propose to make the church something that will advertise to the world the attractiveness of the kingdom. With few exceptions these people are, or soon become, heretics, taking on only as much of the gospel as they can manage and apply to the people around them, attempting to construct a version of church that is so well behaved and efficiently organized that there will be no need for God.

They abhor the scandal of both the cross and the church. They will have nothing to do with a congregation in Nineveh. They are going to sail to Tarshish and start fresh, clean, and gloriously.

But it is the very nature of pastoral work to embrace this scandal, accept this humiliation, and daily work in it. Not despising the shame, and not denying it either.

Listening to many pastors talking to other pastors when they are away from their parishes, you would think none of this was true. Every congregation features wonderfully glowing stories about successful programs and slick conversions. I used to hear such stories and read such books and be impressed. After some years of careful Bible reading and congregation watching, I am no longer impressed. I think it far more likely that these pastors, insofar as they are telling the truth, are presiding over some form of Greek mystery religion, or Baal shrine, or Babylonian religous parade.

Fleeing to Tarshish

I've been a pastor now for almost 8 years. That impending anniversary has occasioned in me a lot of thinking about my pastoral calling in both its joys and disappointments. As I noted in the previous post, I re-discovered Eugene Peterson in this process. I can't say it better than he has, so I'll let him speak about the perennial pastoral temptation to flee to Tarshish...
And why Tarshish? For one thing, it is a lot more exciting than Nineveh. Nineveh was an ancient site with layer after layer of ruined and unhappy history. Going to Nineveh to preach was not a coveted assignment for a Hebrew prophet with good references. But Tarshish was something else. Tarshish was exotic. Tarshish was adventure. Tarshish had the appeal of the unknown furnished with baroque details from the fantasizing imagination. Tarshish in the biblical references was "a far off and sometimes idealized port." It is reported in 1 Kings 10:22 that Solomon's fleet of Tarshish fetched gold, silver, ivory, monkeys, and peacocks. Semiticis C. H. Gordon says that in the popular imagination it became "a distant paradise." Shangri-la. (p. 15-16)

It is necessary from time to time that someone stand up and attempt to get the attention of the pastors lined up at the travel agency in Joppa to purchase a ticket to Tarshish. At this moment, I am the one standing up. If I succeed in getting anyone's attention, what I want to say is that the pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation and that Tarshish is a lie. Pastoral work consists of modest, daily, assigned work. It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds. This is not, any of it, bad work in itself, but if we expected to ride a glistening black stallion in daily parades and then return to the barn where a lackey grooms our steed for us, we will be severely disappointed and end up being horribly resentful (p. 16).
What can I say? Like all pastors that I know, I have felt the pull of a trip to Tarshish. I have read the "ecclesiastical pornography" (Peterson's term) books and articles of "successful" congregations, provocatively posed and the "How I Did It" books by big-time pastors. And there is that thought, however fleeting it may be at any one time, which nevertheless persistently lures and calls to you, saying, "Why not you? I will give you all the kingdoms of the world..." And it is a lie, a persistent one, but a lie nonetheless. For part of a pastor's calling consists of cotentedly working the field God has given rather than lusting, like Ahab, over another man's vineyard.

Books I read in October

I'm really behind on my blogging of late. Leaf raking, bowhunting, a friend's funeral and the rest of life have consumed a lot of time of late. So by way of catching up, here's the skinny on what I finished reading lately:

King Me by Steve Farrar. I became a fan of Farrar's back in the early '90s, the "men's movement" was just getting started and he published Point Man: How A Man Can Lead His Family. This book is an attempt to use the accounts of the Hebrew kings (the failures as well as the rare successes) to talk about how fathers train their sons to be men of God. I found it practical, helpful, and hard all at once. Bottom line: it's a good book on parenting that isn't written for women. That alone makes it a treasure in this man's estimation.

Ten Question to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health by Donald Whitney. This is the book we just finished in our Band of Brothers men's study group. The chapters are short, but the questions are hard, and force you to take a hard look at where you are growing in Christ and where you aren't. For example, "Are you a quicker forgiver?" "Do you delight in the bride of Christ?" The questions seems simple on the surface, but they are deceptively so. In reality, there is a penetrating quality to each chapter which will leave you wondering, at times, where the fruit of your Christian life is after all this time. If you really want to grow, this book will open the doors of your heart to conviction and change.

Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness
by Eugene Peterson.
This is a book for pastors. It's actually the 2nd time I've read it. The first time was back in my Spiritual Formation group at DTS though, so it didn't have the same impact ("When the student is ready..."). In it, Peterson uses Jonah as a springboard for talking about being a faithful pastor in Nineveh when all of us want to heed the siren call to go to Tarshish, fleeing both our calling and the presence of the Lord, trading in being a pastor for being "successful" like Aaron in Exodus 32. If there is a book written by a pastor that commends fellow pastors to be content with obscurity and faithfulness to Christ over methodology and marketing Jesus, this is probably it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Home is the hunter...

Sorry for lack of posts since last week. The mighty hunter has returned, obviously, with... wait for it...1/2 a duck! How exactly does a person shoot 1/2 a duck you ask? Well, it's like this: All together, the four of us shot four ducks-a hen shoveler, a drake bluebill, and two drake mallards. Two of the ducks were shot by Gerry Lancaster (they were on his end of the boat), while one was shot by Gerry's brother Jack (on his end of the boat). My friend Steve and I were fighting it out in the middle. I shot the one mallard I had a chance to shoot, though Gerry also shot, so we both claimed 1/2 of it. In the end, I wound up taking all of the ducks home, where they are now resting comfortably in my freezer, awaiting the day of duck a la orange, which is yet to come this winter.

It was not the most stellar day from a duck shooting perspective that I've ever experienced on the marsh. On the other hand, between the raindrops, I got to witness the morning flight, saw some ducks work to the call, watched sandhill cranes and geese flap by at a distance, ate grilled and buttered cinammon raisin bagels, followed by ham and eggs, and sucked down coffee with good men. We talked, we razzed each other, we stood in the rain and the wind and watched for circling birds coming to the call and the decoys. And it's these things, as much as the actual shooting, that make for a good duck hunt. And it's for them, as much as the other, that I love going and am looking forward to the next time.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ducks, marshes, and old friends

I'm going to Iowa on Thursday night so that I can experience the joy of sitting in a camouflaged boat out on the marsh while the sun comes up with some old friends and waiting for the ducks. In the last few minutes before the dawn, we'll all be silently praying that shooting hours and duck flight closely coincide. I'll be hoping for teal screaming by, crusing low over the dekes, mallards coming in with their orange feet up, and maybe a shoveler or a gadwall just to liven things up.

Of course, it's also possible that no ducks fly near or at all. That the marsh is quiet except for the sounds of eggs and bacon frying, coffee pouring out of thermoses and into cups held by cold fingers, and of friendly voices razzing each other about one thing or another. And that too is a good way to spend a morning. Since I haven't done either one in a couple years, I don't much care.

Fight! Fight!

When I was in high school back in the day, it always seemed that every student knew of a fight about 5 minutes before any responsible adults could intervene. This meant there was always time to witness the circling, the cussing, the few thrown punches of a fight between boys, or the rolling around the floor, hair-pulling, eye-gouging action of a girl fight, all without being late to class. Personally, I always found these things part of the entertainment provided free while I served out my 12 year public school sentence.

Now that I am a grown man, my prospects for viewing really good hand-to-hand combat have shifted to other venues like Sunday night football and the occasional household spat between my children. Oh, and occasionally within the Church, as part of my pastoral calling, like my calling as a father, has involved maturing beyond being a side-picking spectator and becoming the neutral, responsible adult.

Not that there is any hair-pulling or punches thrown in church, of course, though that would certainly be cleaner. Church fights take the form of offense deliberately (and sometimes accidentally) given which turn into grudges lovingly nursed, negative votes cast, and angry words spoken and written. A disagreement hardens into a fractured relationship, which grows into a faction as sides are chosen, which then metastasizes into a split, a new church, a new denomination, or even "a new way of doing church" (Rob Bell, call your office!).

All this is hardly new, as even people promising "new ways of doing church" have a long pedigree. Because no matter what happens when a new church starts (for whatever reason), eventually the sinners make it through the filters and take up residence there, just like they were present in the old place. And yet, hope springs eternal for some way of "doing church" in which all the sinners will somehow always get along and never have to swallow their pride, confess their sins to one another, and be reconciled. We think, naively, "Well, if we just had more people like me, then things would be perfect." Which are the thoughts of prideful fools. The only way the Church becomes the Church in the way it should be is as it grows to be more like Jesus. And the only way that happens is if we learn to humble ourselves and "agree with each other in the Lord" (Phil. 4:2).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Losing a heavyweight...

I first met Wally Cold when he came to hear me preach back when I was the Pastor of Evangelism and Community Groups at Faith Bible Church. He was part of the Chilli Bible search committee, and he had to come incognito, since I hadn't yet told the church I was looking for another position. After the service was over, Karen and I joined him and the other members of the team at Chili's for a long lunch. I liked them all instantly, but I felt the deepest connection with Wally. He struck me as a wise man who had come to his wisdom the hard way, but who nevertheless had a strong love for Christ and His Word.

For the next several months, I had many other opportunities to speak with him, both in interview contexts as well as later, after I had been offered and accepted the call to CBC. We talked about the church and the hopes and dreams of its people. We talked about fishing. We talked about friends of his that he was hoping I could influence toward Christ. We talked about a lot of the mundane details involved in moving a pastor from one church to another.

In all this talking, we built a friendship. We always talked about going fishing together, catching bass out at some private pond. We never made that trip, but he did take my sons and I for a ride in his bass boat out on Lake Thunderbird, even letting the boys drive sitting on his lap. He always had a kind word and a firm handshake for me each Sunday and always sought to encourage me in my ministry. When criticism came my way, he was quick to gently point out the truth and help me to reject anything that was false. He believed in me, loved me like a brother, and held me up in prayer. Who could ask for more than that?

Two months ago, Wally got cancer. Or more accurately, the doctors discovered cancer after he had been struggling with illness for months. Lately, he had asked me to send him copies of the sermons in the week after I gave them. He and Clarice couldn't come to the services anymore with his health failing, but they would get the sermon and listen to them on Sunday mornings so they could feel like they were worshiping with us. Then he would send me a long email offering critique and encouragement. He worried that I would get puffed up with too many compliments, but he loved me and God's Word, so the criticisms were small and few while the compliments overflowed.

This week, after his 2nd round of chemo, his health failed. He was in and out of consciousness, but I was able to tell him that I loved him and hear "I love you too." When I told him that he would have to tell me what the City looks like, he told me I already knew (it's there in the Scriptures!). Now he knows far better than I do. This good and godly man turned his final lap today. He passed through the door and into the presence of the Savior this afternoon at 1:05 p.m. Rest in peace, my friend.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Prayers for Padang

Here in the US, with our 24-hour media, we hear about disasters every day. And then the news cycle turns, and we forget. But look at this photo. These are real people who are still living in a real disaster area. They need help. More than that, they need Jesus. This area has been one of most hardened and resistant to the gospel in all of Indonesia. Which, considering that it's the world's largest Muslim nation, is really saying something.

My prayer is that this tragedy will crack the hardened shell of Gospel rejection and that there would be a fresh openness to the life-giving words of the Scriptures. Will you join me in continuing to pray for Padang?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Binge and Purge

No, I'm not bulimic. It just feels that way with reference to our house. We buy things and accumulate junk until we get to a point where the junk seems overwhelming. Then we pitch it out with extreme prejudice, wondering where it all came from.

I spent this morning cleaning with Karen while the kids play with some friends. That keeps them nicely distracted while we purge the trash, accumulated ancient school papers, broken and/or unplayed with toys, and pages that have been well colored. We threw out three 33-gallon garbage sacks of this stuff this morning and we're well on our way to filling a fourth. And that's just from downstairs!

Where did all this stuff come from? Who knows, but it feels cleansing to pitch it. I can already feel a sense of calm descending on my soul...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Political resurrection

President Obama has done the virtually impossible: He has brought the political Right and with it the Republican Party back from the wilderness and into the fight in just 9 short months. For any politicians out there who'd like to know to replicate this remarkable achievement, just follow these 10 simple steps:

Step One: Shortly after Inauguration, embark on the worldwide apology tour. Temporize America's accomplishments and highlight her past sins of "imperialism, sexism, and racism," all while granting America's past faults equal moral footing with dictators who currently murder and imprison their opponents and oppress their people and cultures that stone women who are victims of rape.

Step Two: Cozy up to and negotiate with Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez and that nutball who rules Iran, What's-his-name, while selling out our friends in Israel, Honduras, Columbia, the Czech Republic, and Poland.

Step Three: Outsource health care reform to Reid, Pelosi, and Co. so that the resulting bill is a 1,000 page monstrosity which will raise taxes by $200 billion, increase the deficit by trillions, all while decreasing the quality and speed of care for everyone except the congressional mandarins who won't have to live under the system to which they are going to subject the rest of us.

Step Four: Heedlessly push for ever more expansive and expensive government, even though most Americans don't want it. See also, the health care debate, aka "more cowbell."

Step Five: Spend $787 billion on a "stimulus" bill which does nothing to stimulate the economy but a lot to pay off various supportive constituencies like organized labor.

Step Six: Take over GM and Chrysler, while continuing to support legislation that makes it impossible for them to compete (i.e., CAFE standards).

Step Seven: Do nothing to encourage job creation, like lowering taxes or increasing business capital investment credits. Instead talk a lot about the higher taxes that will be necessary to fund all the social engineering programs you want to fund. Let real unemployment hit 16%(!) while speaking constantly about how you're going to help us all by expading the national debt by $9 trillion over your (presumed) 8 years in office.

Step Eight: Get your surrogates to denounce anyone who opposes you or your policies as a racist.

Step Nine: Staff your office with various limousine radicals, tax-cheats, and corrupt Chicago cronies.

Step Ten: Talk a lot. When you start to think people don't support your policies, talk some more. Be on prime time all the time. Make more speeches and have more press conferences than Bill Clinton. And when it's clear your popularity and the popularity of your policies are dropping like a stone, then: Talk. Some. More. Give 'em more cowbell. That's what they really need!

See how easy it is? It's so simple even an audaciously hopeful upper class dude who went to private school his whole life and never accomplished anything much of significance can do it.

No time for half-measures

I have no qualifications as a military strategist. I have never fired a shot in anger, or stared down at a jihadi through the peep on my M4. I will likely never know what it is to march miles through hostile territory with only the rifle in your hands, the pistol on your hip, and the training you share with your buddies to protect you.

Nevertheless, it does seem obvious to me that Gen. McChrystal's request for more troops should be honored. Now that our brave soldiers have defeated Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the front has shifted to Afghanistan, if the general says he needs more troops to win, I think he should get them. After all, Stanley McChrystal is hardly George McClellan-he fights and wins counterinsurgencies when he has the resources he needs, having just come off doing so in Iraq. And yet, the delays and stalling continue.

Meanwhile, the president continues to do his best Solomonic split the baby routine. He can't send more troops without infuriating the Left, who have already had to face up to the reality that his rhetoric about closing Gitmo, no more wars, and universal health care were mostly just that. All hat and no cattle as they say. So to have to swallow expanding a war the Left hates would simply be a bridge to far. When the Left is all he has left, Obama can hardly burn them again. On the other hand, Americans don't like to lose wars nor do they kindly remember presidents who do. Who looks back fondly on that old liberal pioneer of "the Great Society", Pres. Johson? ("Hey, hey, LBJ..."). So he can't very well deny a successful general his request, lest he be blamed for the inevitable defeat. Yet what he seems not to remember is that Solomon's strategy was just that: a strategy for identifying the real mother of the child, not a serious policy. Actually splitting the baby wouldn't have been wise, but disastrous, in the same way that giving McChrystal less than he is asking for will simply mean that more brave men will needlessly die .

Mr. President, it may be distasteful, but the time for splitting the difference is over. It might work as a campaign strategy, but it's a terrible idea for actual governance. It may be hard to jump all the way over the chasm, but suggesting we can safely jump halfway is pure foolishness masquerading as prudence.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bowhunting with Dad

I went bowhunting with my dad on Monday after spending Sunday afternoon hanging stands in a couple likely locations. We didn't see a deer, but I still had a good time. Time with Dad, especially time to be together in the outdoors, has become much rarer now that I am a father myself with a variety of responsibilities. So it was great just to be together, eat bacon cheeseburgers at ratty restaurant in Henry, and watch the sunrise over the mist in the fields and forests of central Illinois. I'm hoping for a deer this season. It would be great to connect with my bow. But even if not, I'm hoping for more days with Dad.

Fun fact of the day

Apparently, Nestle is the manufacturer of both Hot Pockets and Alpo.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Rejoice

Our church publishes a newsletter every month called The Mustard Seed. I try mightily to actually publish something in it each month, though I am not always successful. Here's my latest submission:

Rejoice

The world at the end of 2009 can seem like a much less hopeful, happy place than the world of last year. The global economy went into meltdown, with millions of homeowners and credit customers suddenly going into default. Unemployment across the country stands at near 10%, and locally around 12.5%. The Middle East seems to be heating up again, with Iran desperate for a nuclear bomb with which to threaten us. The Aghan War is going poorly. Even the weather seems to reflect the nation’s mood with a cooler, wetter summer than usual and a fall that is quickly turning gray and cold. In the midst of all this bad news it’s easy to be depressed and discouraged.

But we as believers in Jesus Christ have a lot to be encouraged by and a lot in which we can rejoice. First and foremost, we can rejoice because our sins are forgiven (1John 2:12). Our names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev. 21:27). We are the sons and daughters of God himself (1 John 3:1) and possess already the eternal life which God promised to those who follow his Son (1 John 5:11-13). Our salvation is ours forever because we are kept in Christ not by our own efforts at righteousness, but by the perfect holiness of our loving Father (Jude 24-25). On top of these things, God chose us before the foundation of the world to give us his glorious grace in redemption, adoption, sealing and empowering through the Spirit, and blessing us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms (Eph. 1:2-14). And now, since God has already done the most for us in our glorious relationship with him, He can only do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20).

I believe that in the midst of what has been a very challenging year for our church that we are still seeing God work to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine. For example, we have seen God use our congregation to reach four adults on our Evangelistic Relational Sphere of Influence (R.S.I.) wall of prayer. We had 60+ kids come and participate in VBS over the summer. There are 20+ women involved in MOPs, many of whom do not attend our church. We have 60+ kids coming to AWANA each week, learning God’s Word and hearing the Gospel faithfully proclaimed. We baptized 10 people at Great Oaks in August and have added 7 new members as of the end of September. God provided funding for the L****** (name withheld for security) people group prayer guide to be printed by our Missions Team so that people all over the world can begin using it to pray for a people without the Gospel. We have distributed dozens of Bibles to prisoners across the US. We have given food and financial assistance to a large number of our community’s families, touching their lives at the point of their need so that they might “see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Kids are continuing to come and hang out, study, and play at the CafĂ©, experiencing Christ in the love they are shown there and our Youth Ministry is reaching out to all types of students in our community – rich and poor, band kids and skateboarders, athletes and academics.

For none of these things can we take credit. It is God, after all, who did the work through us and deserves and glory for the results (Phil. 2:13). But in these things, as well as all of the other things that God has already done for each of in our salvation, we can rejoice. And we have plenty of reasons to do so. So even as 2009 winds its way toward 2010, let us not forget in the midst of all the challenges that we can (and should!) REJOICE!
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” – Philippians 4:4

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Happy Birthday Steven!

My younger brother is 29 today. Hard to believe that he is still that young, when he has accomplished so much and has so much less hair than me. Still, 29 is a great year. Happy Birthday, bro!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

When the Frost is on the Punkin'

Years ago, when I was a student at Taylor, our much loved president, Jay Kesler, would recite this old James Whitcomb Riley poem at the first chapel in the October. He knew it cold from memory, and it was such a tradition at TU that I can hardly feel the first crispness of fall in the years since but my thoughts return to chapel at Taylor and these lines.
When the Frost is on the Punkin'
WHEN the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,
And the clackin' of the guineys, and the cluckin' of the hens,
And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it's then the time a feller is a-feelin' at his best,
With the risin' sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

They's something kindo' harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer's over and the coolin' fall is here—
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossoms on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin'-birds and buzzin' of the bees;
But the air's so appetizin'; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur' that no painter has the colorin' to mock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin' of the tangled leaves as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries—kindo' lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin' sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below—the clover overhead!—
O, it sets my hart a-clickin' like the tickin' of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the cellar-floor in red and yaller heaps;
And your cider-makin's over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With theyr mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and sausage too!...
I don't know how to tell it—but ef such a thing could be
As the angels wantin' boardin', and they'd call around on me—
I'd want to 'commodate 'em—all the whole-indurin' flock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I Spy

My son Nathan has gotten into playing "I Spy." He makes his fingers into little glasses and then says, "I spy, with my little eye, something [red, or blue, or black, or whatever]." If you don't guess what it is on the first try, he can't contain himself and tells you what it was immediately. Clearly, we need to work on the helping him understand the rules of the game a bit better. But it's still fun to play with him, especially when he gets to laughing and blurting out the answers before you've had a chance to even guess.

I was reminded of this as I was reading the chapter for tomorrow's men's group meeting. We're reading Donald Whitney's Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health. It's a little book, with short chapters (a prerequisite with some of the guys), but each one is packed full of profound insight and deep probing of your spiritual life. This week's question is "Are You More Sensitive to God's Presence?" At one point, Whitney suggests that we briefly stop reading and quickly identify everything blue that we can see. Our eyes quickly filter out everything else to see only the blue objects in the room. In the same way, as we grow spiritually, we need to develop "God eyes" as it were, so that we filter out the noise of our world to see God's presence with us in every situation.

The more that we remind ourselves that God is present with us everywhere at every time, the more it seems that we see His hand at work, and have the sense of His presence. The more that we meditate on His word, the sharper the focus of our spiritual eyes. But the less we practice the presence of our Lord, the more we act like Moses in his pre-burning bush days:
"Glancing this way and that and seeing no one..." - Ex. 2:12 (NIV, emphasis mine)
Yet God is always there, is He not? Oh Lord, open my eyes that I may see You.

Navigating the middle passage

There are two opposite, but equally dangerous traps into which Christians can fall. One of them is legalism, which is identifying standards for yourself, either biblical standards or extra-biblical ones (legalism often includes both!), and then simply gritting your teeth and working hard to obey with all your might, but with little reliance on God’s grace coming to you through the Holy Spirit. The other danger is the sort of “let go and let God” folks, who think that somehow they will advance toward holiness without any conscious effort on their part. Neither is true, and both of them are destructive to the authentic spiritual life.

But if you look closely at Philippians 2:13, Paul gives the truth. He writes, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to act according to his good purpose. God is so sovereign that his purposes are accomplished both in what we choose and what we do. But it is still we who do it. Instead of divorcing God’s sovereignty from our responsibility, as a lot of people try to do, Paul stitches them tightly together here. As the commentator John Murray wrote,
God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of cooperation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the desired result. God works and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is a the effect of God’s working in us…The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God.
God is working in us by His Holy Spirit. The fact that we even have the desire to change and grow to be like Christ is from the Spirit. Moreover, the harder we work to change, the more we realize that any growth we experience isn’t our doing, but God’s. God will accomplish His purpose in us, but He chooses to do so through the effort we put forth toward change in response to His Holy Spirit, which is already working in us.

Fear and trembling

A week ago Saturday Karen and I took the kids to the Peoria Zoo. While we were there, we stopped by the lion cage. Within a span of 5 minutes, both of the lions walked by within inches of us. All that separated us was 2” of heavy-duty glass and 4” of air. And I’ve got to tell you, there was an aspect of that which was pretty exhilarating. I could see the muscles ripple under the skin, the power in their stride, the length of their fangs, and the deep predatory gaze of their yellow eyes staring back into mine, unblinking. I was in awe of these creatures, but I was also just a little bit afraid, and very glad that we were separated by that heavy-duty glass. If I were inside the glass, I strongly suspect that the mixture of awe and fear would be radically reversed, with the balance heavily tilted toward fear. The reason, of course is that while a lion truly is an awe-inspiring creature, it is also one which is fully capable of destroying you. Those 3.5" long claws and teeth aren't decorative, after all.

And something like that healthy fear is, I think, what Paul has in mind when he writes:
continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling - Philippians 2:12b
A lot of people want to downgrade the word “fear” in this passage to something like “reverential awe.” But I think that when we do that, we are somehow trying to domesticate God, cutting Him down to a size where we can deal with Him. We know that the wild, untamed God of the Bible really exists, but a God who is smaller, less fearsome, and more cuddly seems to be...well... so much more comfortable than a God we ought to have a healthy dose of plain old fear of. Because after all, we don't need to be afraid of God as believers, do we? I mean, God loves us, doesn't He? Which is of course true. God does love us and He will never destroy us as He will destroy the wicked one day. But I suspect at least part of us wants God to be less fearsome, to be less the Warrior who treads the wine press of God's wrath (Rev. 19:15) than the gentle shepherd who carries the lamb on his shoulders. We want less the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and something more along these lines...

But back in verses 10-11 of the same chapter, Paul said that something pretty fearsome would happen to all humanity one day. One day, the Day of Christ, we will stand before God in all of his glory and bow our knees before the Lord Jesus. And even though God loves us, even for us who know Jesus, standing before the ascended and glorified Son of God will be awe mixed with a healthy amount of just plain old fear. After all, if being in the presence of a lion, which is just one of the host of creatures that God was powerful enough to create ex nihilo is enough to cause us to (quite rightly) get that tightness in the pit of our stomachs, then why do we think standing in the presence of THE LION will be somehow less mixed with fear and even trembling? God does love us, and those of us who love and follow Jesus don’t need to be terrified that God will destroy us, but a healthy dose of what the Bible calls the fear of God is not a bad thing, but a motivator to flee from sin. Because who wants to stand before God and give account for rebellion? Not me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What is marriage?

This Sunday I start leading a small group study on marriage with my friend Josh. So I've been looking for good video clips for each week to kick things off. Here's a pretty good, rough and ready description of a healthy marriage from your furry friend Grover:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

This is redneck, but classy redneck

Pastor Jim, my ministry partner at CBC and a good friend, has been building friendships with the skateboarding kids in our community since his arrival here last summer. A case of Mountain Dew combined with a warm welcome to our property for 3 or 4 boys has now grown to include 10-15 skaters and their buddies hanging out here after school on most days of the week. Which is great. They get a place to skate and hang out; we get to build friendships with kids most people don't really like. But all the skateboarding has meant that the carpet on the north porch is getting pretty fatigued and probably in need of replacement.

So Jim and I took it upon ourselves to get a couple rough estimates for replacing our carpet with something similar. Which, it turns out, is harder to do online than it should be. But, wonder of wonders, we did find something completely unexpected: camo carpet.

Now as a dedicated hunter, I find this a revelation. I literally had no idea! It comes in all my favorite camo patterns, from Realtree AP and MAX-4 to Mossy Oak Break-Up and Obsession. Clearly, this will make a classy addition to any hunter's home. I haven't talked it over with Karen yet, but since she has been talking about wanting to replace our upstairs carpet, I'm sure she won't object...

Something lighter...

There are times when I simply don't have the emotional energy or the introspective qualities to write a decent blog post about spirituality or anything too deep. This week is one of those times. Meanwhile, since the big news of this week is President Obama's speech "explaining" to all of us yahoos out here in flyover country how nationalized health care won't be anything like visiting the doctor at the DMV but will instead deliver better care at less cost than we have now. Since everything else the government is involved in is such a model of thoughtful, caring, efficiency, I'm sure that this is surely going to be the result. Anyway, I'm getting the sneaking suspiscion that the President, along with a number of other members of his party, have a very different vision of what kind of country America should be, and want to wield their power to create in reality the country which has heretofore existed only in their heads and at Renaissance Weekends. So I found this little video, of Jack Webb giving "just the facts" to Pres. Obama, amusing and enlightening.


P.S. The age on this video reminds me that the case for liberty versus collectivism must be made anew, every generation. There are no permanent victories, for every society is always 20 years from barbarism.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Something cool

This fellow from Norfolk, England has spent the last 30 years building a 1:100 scale model of the Temple as it was in Jesus' time. He is still not finished, and probably won't finish in his lifetime since he is now 78, but the total area of the model is 20'x12' and contains over 4,000 individually hand-carved 1/2" tall figures (those little figures are people, which gives you an idea how massive this thing is). Each one of the clay bricks are hand made and fired. Apparently, this is most historically accurate model ever created.

I don't know what would inspire someone to spend 30,000+ hours of their life doing this, but I do find the end result thoroughly inspiring.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Whattya got worth living for?

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Princess Bride. It is the story of how a poor farm boy named Westley leaves his true love Buttercup to go seek his fortune. Along the way, Westley gets captured by pirates and is presumed dead, only to be reunited with Buttercup after she is already betrothed to Prince Humperdinck, who is trying to have her killed as a pretext for war with Guilder, a neighboring country. Westley rescues Buttercup, and leads her through the Fire Swamp and safely past its lightning sand, random flame spurts, and Rodents of Unusual Size, only to be captured by Humperdinck and his men, and killed in the Pit of Despair.

Now you would think that getting killed would pretty much put an end to any hopes Westley had of marrying Buttercup and rescuing her from evil Prince Humperdinck. But you would be wrong. Because Westley’s friends Inigo the alcoholic Spanish swordsman and Fezzik the giant from Greenland find him and take him to Miracle Max, who tells them that Westley is only “mostly dead.” “And there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is still slightly alive. With all dead there’s only one thing left to do – go through his pockets and look for loose change.” With the aid of a bellows, Miracle Max inflates Westley’s lungs and asks, “Hello in there! What you got worth living for?” Westley answers, “True love.” And of course, with the help of Miracle Max, a chocolate coated miracle pill, and his own true love to live for, Westley is miraculous healed to rescue the princess and ride off into the sunset on white horses, kissing passionately.

Now my point in all this is not simply to tell some of the best parts of a movie I enjoy, but to suggest that Miracle Max's question is one well worth answering? What, at the end of the day, do we have that is worth living for? Paul answer is simple: "Christ" (Phil. 1:21).

What Paul means is that Jesus is life; everything else is just details. In this, Paul is kind of like an Olympic athlete. Athletes competing for the Olympics are totally defined by that pursuit. Their schedule each day is determined by what will make them the most successful competitor when the day comes for their race. Their diet is determined by what will help them succeed. Their sleep pattern is determined by the needs of their body for rest to succeed at competing. If they have a job, it is chosen with respect to their need to train. In the same way, Paul’s relationship with Christ is the defining characteristic of his life. It is the center of who he is and what he does. His relationship with Christ is what gives his life purpose and meaning, the thing which reigns supreme over every other concern, need, relationship, and consideration. Christ and Paul’s relationship with him determines what Paul will say, how he will act, and what and how he thinks about every other issue. He is completely dedicated to exalting Christ as long as he lives, and he knows that even if he dies, death is not really a loss but a gain, because in death a Christian passes out of this broken-down life and into the very presence of the Living God.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Down in the River to Pray...

This past Sunday was a great day in our ministry at CBC. Together, Pastor Jim and I baptized 10 people. This was the largest number of people I have ever personally baptized at one time. In fact, I think it's more people than I have personally baptized total to this point in my ministry career. It is so exciting for me to help people take the next step in their discipleship and follow Jesus in this kind of dramatic, public fashion. Though it is sometimes under-emphasized in our evangelical tradition, there really is something quite significant about being publicly baptized.

What a day! We worshipped together at church, ate and talked together at the local Christian camp in whose pond we baptize people, and heard testimonies from all 1o of their conversion to Christ. The weather was unseasonably crisp for late August (must be "global warming") and the water was therefore quite invigorating, but what is that compared to the glory of serving Christ like this? I feel blessed to be a pastor and to have God use me in people's lives. What an amazing privilege.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

New toys

Now that I am, according to my dear wife, edging toward geezerhood, I probably don't have as much use for this as in my younger years. But nonetheless, despite the encroachment of "old age" I'm very excited to have a super deluxe new deer stand to go bowhunting with this fall. Karen and the kids did a great job of conspiring together to keep it a secret for weeks and gave it to me with much fanfare. All of which was great.

Now all I need to find is a landowner with an overpopulation of deer and a heart sympathetic towards deer hunting addicts...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

36

I turn 36 today. I celebrated the morning by going out to a driving range to hit golf balls with a friend, there to discover a sport that I am even worse at than tennis. Seriously, who knew that hitting that little white ball could be so challenging? I'm hoping another 47 buckets of balls might make it so that I don't totally embarrass myself were I to actually go with a friend to an actual golf course.

Anyway, turning a year older always makes me turn reflective. Since I'm a Crohn's patient, I always consider myself lucky to turn another year with no major complications to life, but I'm realizing that it's highly possible I'm at the halfway point, which hardly seems possible. Life's days often pass slowly, but the years race by. And so I'm thinking today about what the next 36 years will bring.

My prayers are that they will bring...

36 more years of faithful service to Christ in which He is exalted in my speech, thought, conduct, and ministry such that when the final day comes, I hear "Well done."

36 more blessed years with Karen of learning to love her as Christ loved the Church and growing grey and soft physically while we grow stronger in love for each other.

36 more years of seeing my children embrace the faith of their father as their own (as I did), of doing each child's wedding ceremony, and of seeing my grandchildren raised to know the Lord from infancy.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The mini-church and the megachurch

I've been doing some thinking lately about the American church (unusual for me, I know) and wondering whether or not it has been good for American Christianity. Now please understand, I am trying to be as objective as possible here, since I am not a mega-church pastor and most likely never will be, so I am concerned that people not hear my words as proceeding out of envy and jealousy. But since we tend to assume that large church = good church, I want to offer some research that may support my conclusion that we aren't necessarily benefiting as the Body of Christ from the rise of the megachurch.

The overall growth of the American church has flatlined during precisely the same period as more and more megachurches get planted and the existing ones grow ever larger. At a very minimum, this is an interesting correlation. According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey of 50,000 adults, the number of people who self-identify as Christians has dropped 10 points (from 86% to 76%) between 1990 and 2008, while the number who identify with the category "No Religious Affiliation" has nearly doubled (to 15% from 8%) over the same period. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who identify as Born-Again/Evangelical has remained constant at roughly 34% (of a much larger population). Which means that there has been a fall-off among nominal Christians, but no increase in true Christians above the rate of population growth.

According to the research published in Natural Church Development (p. 46-48), the smallest churches won the most converts (percentage-wise) and evangelistic effectives declines precipitously in direct correlation to an increase in attendance. For example, over a five year period, the average church with less than 100 worshippers (i.e., average 51 people in attendance) won 32 people to Christ. By contrast, the average church of 100-200 people also won 32 people, churches with between 200-300 won 39 people, and churches with 300-400 won an average of 25. Capping this off, megachurches (avg. attendance 2856) won just 112 people in the last five years. This means that, while in raw numbers, a single megachurch won 2x the number of people as a single "mini-church," they did so while being an average of 56x larger. So, the mini-church is 16x more effective at reaching people than the megachurch. To really break it down, if we broke up the average megachurch of 2,856 people into 56 "mini-churches" of 51 people, then over a five year period, 1,792 people would be reached vs. 112 for them if they remain assembled as one megachurch.

All of these stats and figures seem to say this: Perhaps our American assumption that bigger = better is wrong. Perhaps by growing larger, what we have accomplished is simply an increase in the number of people who can be passive Christians who don't reach their neighbors and friends with the Gospel. Perhaps we are due for a reconsideration of our basic assumption that the best way to reach lost people is by aggregating as many of them into a room to hear an evangelistic message as we can. I know these things cut cross-grain with our evangelical heritage and American culture, but maybe those things are inhibiting, rather than contributing to, the expansion of God's kingdom in America. Maybe we need to have the vision to think small if we want God's kingdom to be large?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Now for something really different...

When my dw and I lived in Dallas, we made several trips over to the Mesquite Rodeo. We used to watch the PBR Championship series on TNN before it became Spike TV. We even watched a bucking stock ride/auction at the Fort Worth Stockyards. So you would think that I would be prepared for this, but I'm not. I give you: The 20th Annual Japanese Pig Rodeo Championship!


Actually, this reminds me of a story my dad tells about he and a cousin riding a family member's pet goat until he (the goat, that is!) laid down and wouldn't go any further.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A meditation on Love and Knowledge

Those of you with whom I serve at CBC have already heard this, but it's still something I've been chewing on since last week, so perhaps others might benefit. Regardless, here are my thoughts on part of chapter 1 of Philippians...

In Philipians 1:9, Paul prays “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” I find that interesting because a lot of times among Christians, you see people trying to divorce love and knowledge. They’ll say things like “I don’t need to know theology, I just need to love and follow Jesus.” Or they say, “Well dude, doctrine divides, but love for Jesus unites us all, so let’s just not worry about all the complicated stuff and just love Jesus together.” And in a certain, very limited sense, there’s some truth to that. Sometimes we Christians do put all of our beliefs into the same category such that the only person we can serve and worship Jesus with is our husband or wife (and we’re starting to have doubts about them!). But, even if there’s some truth to that, let’s not miss Paul’s point, which is that love and knowledge always go together, even and especially when it comes to Jesus. After all, we expect somebody who loves us to actually know us, right? That’s why we love it when our spouse brings us coffee with 2 creams and no sugar, just the way we like it. Because that little bit of care taken to first of all learn what we like and then to act on that knowledge communicates love at a deep level. It’s why when we’re looking for someone to marry, we look for somebody who “gets” us, who knows us deeply and loves us anyway. We want those who love us most to know us best. And so Paul’s prayer is for their love to increase in knowledge and depth of insight, so that they might love better the One whom they know more.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Political ironies

Isn't it strange that the very same people who have for years been endlessly whinging about the lack of "engagement" by the average American in the political process are now lamenting the high level of engagement by average Americans when it is going against their preferred policies? I mean seriously, if a fired-up citizenry, passionately committed to seeing a particular political issue (in this case health-care "reform") be decided in a certain way is a good thing, then it is a good thing even when it goes against your particular political principles. Protesting citizens are not by their nature a mob (Yes, I'm talking to you, Sen. Boxer!) nor are nicely dressed people necessarily fronts for some evil corporation (You too, Speaker Pelosi!). What they are is my fellow Americans, with just as much right to express themselves and peaceably assemble to protest as left-wingers from Berkeley or Madison. Or is it possible that some believe only left-wing protest is truly "authentic"? If so, that is intellectual base-stealing on a high level.

American citizens deserve to have their voices heard and to neither be lectured to by their political leaders about the supposed "ignorance" of their opinions nor pejoratively referred to in a way that makes them seem like goose-stepping fascists (Yes, I'm talking to you again, Speaker Pelosi!). Moreover, we deserve to have major political issues robustly, openly, and vigorously debated, not to have one side's policy preferences railroaded through without even a perusal of the massive bill which will reorder 1/6 of the economy and significantly alter the relationship between citizen and state. This is what living in a representative republic is all about.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Where have you been?

Since I didn't give any kind of a status update in the past week or so, some of you may have been wondering what happened to me. Well, to quote Mark Twain, rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Karen and I had the blessing and privilege of spending the last week (Sunday night thru Friday morning) at Cedarly Retreat in Delafield, Wisconsin and after a week of no cell phones, no TV, and no computers, I am only just now getting back to my regularly scheduled life. It was simply way too relaxing to go on Sabbatical for a week, and I wasn't quite ready to "break the spell" until today.

Anyway, we spent the week simply being refreshed. The Cedarly folks took care of all of our physical needs so that we could take full care of our spiritual ones. So we slept (a lot! I finally got rid of the dark circles under my eyes), swam in the lake, went kayaking and walking and biking, studied the Bible together, prayed a lot, read, played Baggo, hearts, and Scrabble, and hung out our hosts and the other 5 pastoral couples who were staying at Cedarly with us. God met with us there in a special way, and showed me several areas that I need to address in my spiritual life and I gained a lot of encouragement for my ministry here at Chilli Bible. One of the areas I need to address is my practice of Sabbath. I know that since I am not under the Law, I don't have to keep the Sabbath, but it has become clear to me that I need to, lest my life and ministry break down utterly.

So, one of the things I am recommitting myself to is taking the Sabbath days the Elders have graciously given me and taking Sunday afternoon through Monday morning as a Sabbath. While I know I will sometimes have hospital visits or other ministry requirements then, I still can plan to rest, study, pray, and play during those hours, normally speaking. I've got to do this, so that I can serve God and His people out of the overflow from my life with God, rather than out of the substance of it (Don't know if that makes sense or not, but I hope so). Anyway, I am coming back encouraged, revitalized and recharged, and grateful to my congregation for letting me get away.