Friday, July 31, 2009

Keeping Pure by Getting Married

I read an interesting article last night in the last issue of Christianity Today, called "The Case for Early Marriage." In it, the author suggests that amidst all of evangelicalism's emphasis on maintaining purity through your single years, we have not encouraged marriage nearly enough. The author makes a good case that our culture encourages delaying marriage to an age (typically mid- to late 20's) which makes abstinence much more difficult and for much longer than any culture ever has done in the past. His take is that at least part of the reason why we get the results we get in terms of Christian single sexuality (i.e., a bare minimum of difference between them and non-Christian singles) is that the church's teaching and expectations regarding marriage are virtually the same as that of the culture, whose message is "Wait until you're older, financially secure, spiritually ready, etc." This creates not increasing maturity, but extended adolescence, since marriage is a marvelously maturing institution. This could be a reason why young men continue to play "World of Warcraft" and X-Box well into physical adulthood. Moreover, people simply will not wait over a decade to have sex, no matter what God says in His Word. We might wish that weren't the case, but the data don't lie: 80% of Christian singles in a dating relationship are having some variety and frequency of sex. Encouraging people to marry another committed Christian before they graduate college, get that great job, finish paying off their car, etc., etc. might make some practical as well as spiritual sense.

Anyway, I was fascinated to find this article in a major Christian publication. It certainly cuts cross-grain with even modern Christian culture. But as a pastor, I'd say that young (early 20s) marriage has a lot to commend it. Read the whole thing...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A night on the town

I spent last night going out on the town (I know, I know, it's Peoria, but still...). I went shopping by myself. At Gander Mountain I bought shotgun shells for Saturday's squirrel opener. At Wal-Mart I bought some field points for my arrows and a camo T-shirt (also for the squirrel opener). I looked at a larger size travel kennel for our dog since she is now full grown and needs a slightly larger one than the puppy kennel she has. I couldn't get happy with any of them, so I left with just the T-shirt and arrow tips. I bought some sushi at the "gourmet" Kroger on Knoxville (well, it's gourmet compared to the one in Chilli where we live) and some gas at their pumps (no, not at the same time!). I also went to see Public Enemies at the Rave, the local stadium seat movie theater.

I came away from all these events with a couple impressions:

Thought Number One - "So this is what's it's like to be a divorced father. Mom and the kids are living somewhere else and I'm alone with nothing much to do and no one to go home to. This is the loneliest I've been in fifteen years!" Seriously, is there anything more lonely than going to the movies and out by yourself when no one is expecting you back home? By all reports, Karen and the kids had a great time visiting old friends over in Iowa, but can you tell I'm ready for them to be home?

Thought Number Two - "Why can we no longer make morally clear movies?" The title Public Enemies is, I think, meant to be deliberately ambiguous. Certainly Babyface Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and John Dillinger are not portrayed angelically. Indeed, it's pretty clear that they are killers who are motivated by little that is more complex than their greed and their glands. But it's the movie's portrayal of Special Agent Melvin Purvis, his mob-hunting crew, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that is especially vexing. Director Michael Mann wants us to see that the FBI, for all the weight of federal law it carries, are willing to do almost anything in the pursuit of justice. Tjhe scene of an agent beating Dillinger's moll, Billie Frechette, while another looks on during the interrogation is particularly compelling in this regard. Mann seems to want us to ask the question, "So who are the real Public Enemies?"

Now let me be clear. I have no doubt that Director Hoover and Agent Purvis were far from being plaster saints. There is far too much evidence to the contrary. And the tactics they sometimes used to "get their man" were at least questionable and sometimes despicable. But it is also true that there is, at some point, a bright line between good and evil. As William F. Buckley once said, "A man who pushes an old woman in front of a bus and a man who pushes her out of the way of a bus should not be equally denounced as men who like to push old ladies around." That seems about right to me. And it raises the question why we no longer make movies in which the line between good and evil is clear. Is it because we no longer believe that good and evil are valid categories for reality? And if we do believe that, then why don't we act like that?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Let him who thinks he stands...

Recently Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina was in the news due to his recent "samba in the Pampas" with a woman who was not his wife Jenny. This was sad news to me, not simply because Sanford (politically at least) was a man of principle with whom I agreed on most policy issues and his moral failure is now being used to undercut those principles. And what is worse, another man has irreparably damaged his marriage and his children. Even if forgiveness happens, you can't totally put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. Two lessons emerge from this incident as I've reflected on it.

Number one, as the Scripture says, "Put not your trust in princes" (Psalm 146:3). There's always a temptation to attach too much importance to this world and consequently, to its rulers. We Christians can sometimes look to governors, senators, congressmen and presidents for a kind of secular salvation. While it's good to be involved in the political process, salvation comes neither from Washington nor from the statehouse nor from the governor's mansion, but from God.

And number two, "There but for God's grace..." Now, please understand. I'm not saying that I'm ready to ditch the whole pastoral thing and leave my wife and family for an Argentinian dancer. Far from it, in fact. My marriage is secure and my family sound. But it is true that temptation comes to us all, even if not in the same forms. And Satan can wait a long time to spring his traps. Isn't it interesting how many men fail not in the 1st half of their lives, but in the back half? Years ago, Pastor Tommy Nelson of Denton Bible Church told us seminarians about the Easy Steps to an Affair. They are:
  1. Eliminate the intimacy from your marriage. Be sure to spend a lot of time apart to spend the time you have together talking about only the mundane aspects of life-bills, work, discipline with the kids, dishes, laundry, etc. Stop dating and making romantic gestures of any kind. Stop having lingering conversations. Make sex, when it happens, as purely functional as possible. Before long you will be roommates with kids, a cook/maid married to a gardener/mechanic.
  2. Encounter an intriguing person. Meet a polite, intelligent, good-looking and interesting man or woman. Admire and appreciate their good qualities.
  3. Enjoy the relationship. This is where you start looking forward to seeing this person, working on a team with them, or talking with them.
  4. Expedite the relationship. This is where you start deliberately making plans to encounter this person. You plan your route through the office so that you pass by her desk. You go to the restaurant at the time you know he will be there. You stand in a place at a time you know he/she will walk by and you can talk, etc., etc. The more often you have time to connect, the deeper the emotional hook goes.
  5. Express your feelings. This is where the feelings that are beginning to spring up are becoming too powerful to contain. So you try a an "innocent" verbal volley to him/her to see if they are feeling the same thing: "Can I share something with you? I wish I could talk with my family like I talk with you." "Really?" "Yeah, really." You know, I wish I could talk with my husband/wife like I talk with you?" "Really." "Yeah." "I so enjoy just being with you." "Me too." At this point, you have built the bridge to Fantasy Island. You are hooked emotionally even though you've never touched. Virtually nobody ever walks away at this point. It's too late. The arrow has already pierced your liver (Prov. 7:22-23). All that remains is for you to bleed out. You are dead where you stand. Even if you draw the line here, you have still had an "emotional affair."
  6. Experience. This is where you actually meet in some clandestine location and have sex. This steps feels inevitable, like you were caught up in a whirlwind of circumstances and emotions that were beyond your control. But in reality, you took many little steps along the way that delivered you to the place you really wanted to go and in a way that still manages to confuse you even as you participated willingly in it. Satan's traps are ingenious, and this one is like a "Bouncing Betty" land mine (at right), which doesn't go off when you step on it, but waits until after you've gone one more step, at which point it destroys you completely.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why Be Good? Part 3

Well, it's not "tomorrow" anymore, but here's the rest of my thoughts on this...

So why be good? Why do what is right? If you live long enough, there will necessarily be periods when you simply don't find obedience to God for its own sake that compelling a motivation. Likewise, given time, you will find that life with God isn't composed of one long, uninterrupted period of having every difficulty solved and every rough place made smooth. In fact, though there are blessings, it seems that God quite deliberately does not answer every prayer we pray to rescue us from trials, pain, and suffering. Duty and gratitude aren't necessarily bad, they just aren't sufficient to sustain your Christian life over the long haul, which is why many Christians bail out on the faith over time.

But according to Jesus, the ultimate reason for obedience isn't duty or the fact that obedience sometimes produces blessings and pleasant circumstances in a believer's life. The ultimate reason for continuing to follow him is love. He said,
If you love me, you will obey what I command - John 14:15
I find this statement fascinating. He doesn't say that obedience = love, which is what a good many dutiful Christians seem to think. Neither does he say that our obedience will lead to a pleasurable life for us. Instead, he says that love precedes obedience, so that our obedience should grow out of our love for him. In other words, where we find little obedience to Christ, it's because there is little real love for Christ, or at least that the love we have doesn't outweigh our sinful desires.

And that is what I find most compelling and challenging about the Christian life. We are not forced into obedience through threats, bribed into it through blessings, or even bound to it by duty. We are called to it through God's love and told that if we love in return, we will naturally want to do those things by which He is pleased. We obey God, in other words, not because we must, but because the love of Christ so moves our hearts that we want to obey.

Lord, help me to grow in my understanding of you that I might grow also in my love for you and therefore grow in my obedience to you. Amen.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why Be Good? Part 2

At the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum from the Stoics are the Epicureans, who believed that freedom from fear and the absence of pain were the ultimate in happiness and that happiness was the highest good. Epicurus himself said that the best life was found in simple pleasures and that a person should not pursue those desires which might not always be satisfied (e.g., a desire for rich food or sex), because the resulting disappointment and frustration would upset a person's tranquility and happiness. In sum, he believed that best kind of life was one which maximized pleasures (even if they are small and simple) and minimized pain and difficulty.

It seems to me that, just as certain strains of Christianity lean toward Stoicism, certain other varieties lean toward an Epicurean view of life. I am thinking here of those Christians who believe that it is never God's will for a person to fall seriously sick and not be healed, never God's will for a person to suffer his/her entire life with a chronic illness or handicap, and never God's will for our desires to be frustrated for the greater glory of God. The "name it and claim it" folks probably wouldn't state their beliefs that baldly, but certainly their operational theology seems to veer awfully close to this. It's as though those of us who follow a crucified God can somehow expect to have the king's X over every negative aspect of our lives, with God as some sort of cosmic genie who grants us far more than the three wishes of Aladdin's lamp.

As a pastor, I have known many people over the years who think of God in these terms, and I find this kind of belief system both sad and dangerous. Sad, because it totally misunderstands the greatness and glory of God, who not only uses suffering to accomplish great good (of which the Cross is the supreme example!), but also is present with us in our suffering. Besides which, this kind of theology of God makes Christianity into the kind of mercenary enterprise that Satan accused Job of being involved in (i.e. "Does Job fear God for nothing?...But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face" -v. 1:9-11) It's also dangerous, because when, inevitably, God doesn't deliver in the way that those who follow this line of thinking believe He should, very often it shipwrecks their faith, a situation from which many never recover.

But Christian behavior is supposed to be motivated by more than mere duty (Stoicism) or the continuation of pleasant circumstances (Epicureanism). More tomorrow...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Why Be Good? Part 1

In ancient Greece, there were a number of competing philosophies, religions, and quasi-religious systems. One of the most famous were the Stoics, who felt that the highest good in life was achieved by having one's will aligned with Nature. Thus virtue was achieved, in some sense by doing one's duty irrespective of emotional attachments or feelings. Stoicism was a fairly noble belief system as far as non-Christian beliefs go, as it produced people who were often highly moral. But, Stoicism's inadequate moral foundations (i.e., there is no absolute standard of morality within it) resulted in its eventual collapse and eclipse by Christianity.

Despite that history, a certain form of Stoicism lives on in some ways within the Church that defeated it. I am thinking here of the kind of Christians and churches in which performance and adherence to a given standard are seen to be the markers of spiritual maturity. Thus, to the extent that a Christian reads his Bible, prays regularly, gives to the Church's needs, and keeps the moral code (which may be higher even than God's!), that person is seen as successfully living his/her Christian life, even if the reasons for doing all these things are little more than the meeting of religious obligations.

One usually sees the more extreme forms of this kind of "Christian Stoicism" within what I would call more "fundamentalist" churches, but it is a danger even for those of us who broadly identify with the "evangelical" label. How many of us, after all, have at least periods of our lives when we are simply "going through the motions" of godliness, doing our religious duty, avoiding all the "big sins" (on our self-defined list) and hiding all the little ones? If we're not careful, the joy our salvation can get replaced by this kind of desperate forced march to eternity, of doing good without really being good or even experiencing following Christ as good.

When that happens, we have replaced Christianity with Stoicism.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


As I contemplate the passing American political scene, it occurs to me that a great many people voted for Mr. Obama thinking he was John Kennedy reborn. It's too bad then that, as is becoming increasingly apparent, he is actually Jimmy Carter minus the Sunday School teaching.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Welcome to the Gun Show

I didn't want to risk putting any more photos into my last post, but I didn't want to leave out this one, perhaps my favorite photo of me and the kids from Monday.

Here we are, showing off what we look like after hiking approximately 5 miles over hill and dale and through a creek multiple times. Our courage is undaunted, our strength undiminished, our will unbowed. We are the Horn Herd, hear us roar...

Family fun day

Monday was family fun day. Since I, as a pastor, don't have a "weekend off" in the same way that most people do, we try to make my day off on Mondays as much like the weekend as possible. So we went out hiking, ate a picnic lunch out of our cooler and then went hiking at another park. We ended our hike at a 100' waterfall, which was absolutely beautiful, and ended the day tired, slightly wet, smelling of salt, sweat, and creek water, and deeply contented with life. Here's a couple of the photos:

This is Karen and I, doing our traditional, "You hold the camera and we'll both smile" routine.

Here's the kids, just after they told us this was the best "vacation" of their lives...

Worth reading

Pastor Kevin DeYoung and an old friend, Ted Kluck, have written another book I'm hoping to read. It's called Why We love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion. Their previous collaboration, Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) was a 2009 Christianity Today Book Award winner and is one of my favorite books dealing with the Emergent/emerging church movement. I'm hoping that this new book is a good as the previous one. All the signs are pointing toward "Yes!"

Recently, they were featured in an article for the Washington Post called "Church: Love It, Don't Leave It." Here's an excerpt from the article:
Here's what Bono, Oprah, and the guru speakers on PBS won't tell you: Jesus believed in organized religion and he founded an institution. Of course, Jesus had no patience for religious hacks and self-righteous wannabes, but he was still Jewish. And as Jew, he read the Holy Book, worshiped in the synagogue, and kept Torah. He did not start a movement of latte-drinking disciples who excelled in spiritual conversations. He founded the church (Matt. 16:18) and commissioned the apostles to proclaim the good news that Israel's Messiah had come and the sins of the world could be forgiven through his death on the cross (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 2:14-36).

For almost two millennia, it was axiomatic that Christians, like, actually went to church (or at least told other Christians they did). From Cyprian to Calvin it was believed that for those to whom God "is Father the church may also be Mother." But increasingly Christians are trying to get more spiritual by getting less church.

Read the whole thing. It will be worth your time.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The latest thing...

I'm not quite sure what possesses a person to do this, but I will say that I never cease to be impressed by human ingenuity. This photo was taken outside an Alabama Wal-Mart. If you look closely, you'll see that this, truly, is an idea that should never be repeated.

Government and the "safety net"

From the inimitable Mark Steyn:
There is a phrase you hear a lot in Canada, Britain, an Europe to describe the collection of positive "rights" (to "free" health care, unemployment benefits, subsidized public transit) to which the citizens of Western democracies have become addicted: the "social safety net." It has always struck me as an odd term: Obviously, it derives from the circus. But life isn't really a high-wire act, is it? Or at least it didn't use to be. If you put the average chap-or even Barack Obama or Barney Frank-in spangled leotard and tights and on a unicycle and shove him out across the wire, he's likely to fall off. But put the average chap in spangled leotard and tights out into the world and tell him to get a job, find accomodation, raise a family, take responsibility, and he can do it. Or he used to be able to, until the government decided he needed a "safety net."

What do you think? True or not? Should government be providing such a "safety net?" If so, how big should the net be?