Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Crazy like a fox

Is it just me, or does anyone else suspect that President Obama and the Congressional Dems are laughing up their sleeves the entire time that they condemn the Republicans for supporting the "Bush Tax Cuts" compromise granting another year of federal unemployment benefits in exchange for keeping the existing tax rates in place?

For those keeping score, the so-called "Bush tax cuts" are the nearly decade old reduction in tax rates which brought both a recovery from the last recession (2000-2001), and increased government revenues (though not enough to offset the dramatic rise in spending). They are the tax rates which are in place today. On the other side of the coin, the Democrats got an unprecedented additional extension (is this the 3rd or 4th such extension? I've lost track) of unemployment benefits, paid for by more government borrowing. So, bottom line, Dems got more expansion of government and more deficit spending, despite the nationwide rejection of such things in November, and in exchange the Republicans got the status quo ante? Not a reduction in taxes or spending, but simply an agreement that we all get to keep paying the same taxes we are now and have been for the last 10 years? Tell me again how this was a good deal for conservatives and that President Obama caved? Color me underwhelmed so far.

UPDATE: Charles Krauthammer shares my opinion that this is the greatest trick the president has ever pulled, getting a 2nd stimulus (cost: $990 billion) through a Republican House while only agreeing to a 2-year extension of the status quo on taxes. Paul Krugman and others who argued for an even bigger federal stimulus package? You're about to get it.

Deer season

I got this photo on my phone this morning. It's my old hunting buddy, William "Bucky" Buchanan next to his prizes. His text told me he also got another buck, which isn't pictured.

This photo brought back a lot of memories of long days afield, typically freezing our tails off in the Iowa snow, waiting and hoping for one of those legendary Iowa deer to walk by in range. I shot the biggest deer of my life during the last deer season I lived there, but it could have been Bucky's. That morning, he decided to hunt nearer to the truck while I made the long hike through the snow toward the back fence and walked up on a herd of does and one giant buck. Since then, he's well up on me, shooting several nice deer the last two years.

I also remember a lot of nights in my Iowa kitchen (with its pink countertop and orange flooring!) cutting meat and packing it to the freezer together. We got a lot of deer some years, not much in others, but always there was a lot of fun.

Congratulations, old friend.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Christmas and Gifts

When I was a kid, Christmas was the most magical holiday imaginable. Presents would suddenly appear under our tree. Empty stockings would be stuffed full, with both enough candy to feed an African village for a day and toys suited to each of us children and our interests. For my part, I strongly suspected Mom and Dad's hand in this, but you couldn't convince me that Santa, or maybe even God, had some hand in making it all happen in just the way it did.

I don't recall there being much comparison of how many each person got, and certainly there were no calculations made as to the relative retail values of each person's hoard. Instead, there was simply joyful celebration of what you had received and the knowledge that your gifts were evidence that you were fully known and deeply loved.

What I have learned since is that my parents (and my mother in particular), both of whom are consummate gift-givers, had put a vast amount of thought and planning into the event. They carefully planned out how much to spend on each child, trying to make sure that each one got not only gifts suited to his or her interests and personality, but even that there approximately the same number of packages to open. All that effort and thought made Christmas morning memorable every year.

Since then, I have grown up and gotten 4 children of my own. I still try to make Christmas just as magical for them as it was for me. We have even kept back a significant portion of the presents, hiding them about the house until Christmas Eve comes (shh!!! Don't tell them!), and they can wake up to more than they remembered being there the night before. And just like my parents, Karen and I take a lot of time selecting gifts appropriate for each child, and trying to ensure that everybody has a similar number to open. We're hoping that this Christmas will be great and that our kids will long remember this year's celebration.

I recount all of this because I learned something yesterday as I wrapped all the presents. I was thinking about how silly it was to try to make sure that everybody has the same number of packages. I sighed to myself, wondering when the kids will grow up and realize that not everyone has the same interests, not everything costs the same, and so in an effort to give perfect gifts for each person, the number might not come out even. Then I reminded myself that while they are getting older, they're all still just kids, and it's still pretty tempting to compare.

In that moment, I felt the Holy Spirit speak to me as clearly as He ever has about something in my heart. He said, "When will you grow up and stop comparing what I have given you with what I have given others?" I had to confess right then, because though I am well past the point of wishing I had four boxes of Legos instead of three, I am still prone to comparison and discontentment. I can still look at my wonderfully blessed life: a wife who loves me, 4 growing, healthy kids who still think I'm Superman, a church family to shepherd that loves me in spite of my flaws, a loving extended family, good friends, a warm, dry house, and on and on and still see instead all the things I don't have but wish I did. In that holy moment, I realized that God, as the ultimate Good Father, gives His gifts according to His will, but according also to what is well suited to the person. Just like I would hardly give Polly Pockets to my Nerf sword loving son, or books about space ships to the girl who loves Anne of Green Gables, so God gives His gifts in a way suited to the person. The choice I have to make is whether to receive them with joy, because they are perfectly suited to me, or to compare and wish for a different set, more suited to someone else. This Christmas, I hope I will make the right choice, and then continue making it.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, in whom there is no darkness or shifting shadow. ~ James 1:1

Monday, November 29, 2010

Another Romantic Monday...

I know, those aren't the words to the old Bangles tune, and I'm not sure who Bruno Mars is since my knowledge of contemporary music, like my fashion sense, stopped right around the mid-90s. But if there is a gift that this husband wishes he had, the ability to write poetry and sing well for his lady love ranks right up there. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


When I was a kid, we used to all gather for Thanksgiving at my Grandma Horn's house. All of my aunts and uncles, my mom and dad, and all of us Horn kids would eat cornbread dressing, roasted turkey (which tasted like newspaper, like all baked turkeys-long live the deep fryer!), cranberry salad, lettuce salad, breads, pie, and all the other grand traditions of the holiday. We would eat until we couldn't hold any more, then snooze in various places around the house while football provided the background noise. Later, we'd watch a movie together. (This can't possibly be true, but somehow I remember it being Cannonball Run more than once). Inevitably, one of my aunts (usually Nita) would want to go around the table and have us share what we were thankful for, which I thought at the time was the most painful, irrelevant, and dumb part of the day.

Or so it seemed to me at the time.

Somehow now, with middle age rapidly advancing over the horizon (yeah, sad but true, even my hairline knows it), it has become the part I enjoy more. Maybe I have grown enough in Christ now that I am realizing how much I truly have received from God. I hope so. It's so easy to pray for things, so much easier to forget to praise and thank the God who gives answers. So in honor of God (and my aunt Nita!), here's my list for 2010:
  1. God saved me by His grace a long time ago, and by His grace He is keeping me, staying faithful to me even after a long, often checkered and indifferent level of faithfulness to Him.
  2. God gave me the woman who, while not perfect, perfectly completes me and loves me in spite of me. Who can find such an incredible woman as the one I married? I couldn't and didn't. She is God's gift.
  3. God gave me 4 children, 2 sons and 2 daughters, who still think that they have the best Daddy in the world. Though I'm sure there will be times when that opinion changes, I am still blessed that they are part of my world. They are my pride and joy every day.
  4. God has given me a pastorate with a flock I love deeply and am deeply loved by. I get to do what I love and am called to and get paid for it. Who can ask for more than that in their job?
  5. God has watched over my health. He gave me Crohn's disease 21 years ago, and it has been a hard gift to know what to do with, but He has led me, shaped me, and taught me a lot of lessons with it. All the while, through a multitude of tests (and more to come in January and afterward), God has protected me. I haven't gotten any of the really bad side effects or related conditions (colon cancer, surgery, colostomy, and so on), even though my odds of one of those theoretically keep increasing each year. Somehow I know that, even if one of them should come, God will still be there, watching over and going through it with me.
  6. God provided for all our bills, our repairs, some wonderful new furniture and decorations for our house, and kept us warm, well fed, and healthy.
  7. God paid our church's bills while expanding its ministry, gave us people to share the Gospel with, used us to change other people's lives for good, and led us deeper into fellowship with one another and with Him.
I am truly blessed beyond measure and far more than I deserve.

"God Provided" - Jonah and God's Sovereignty

The book of Jonah is pretty fascinating stuff. Its theology of grace is as good as any New Testament parable of Jesus, and the fact that it is true only makes the story more compelling. But it's also interesting to look at it as a literary product and see some of the features of the way its author has chosen to write it.

One of the most obvious features of the story is it's emphasis on God's sovereign provision and rule, which is underlined with the words "God sent" or "God provided." Here's a list of the things God gave to Jonah:
  1. His commission to go to Nineveh, given by "the Word of the Lord" (v. 1:1)
  2. A violent storm that got fiercer when he and the sailors tried to escape (v. 1:4, 11, 13)
  3. A fish that swallowed Jonah for 3 days and nights (v. 1:17)
  4. A command to the fish that it vomit Jonah out, which was obeyed (v. 2:10)
  5. A 2nd commission to go to Nineveh, also given by "the Word of the Lord" (v. 3:1-2)
  6. A plant that shaded (v. 4:6)
  7. A worm that ate the plant (v. 4:7)
  8. A scorching wind that withered the plant (v. 4:8)
What is fascinating to me about this list is the fact that many of the things on it were not received as indicators of God's sovereign care and love. Nevertheless, they were given by God, and given for Jonah's good rather than his harm. Which reminds me that many of the things in my life which aren't terribly fun are nevertheless gifts from God which are given me for my good, amen?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tim Hawkins on The Sermon Series

I just wrapped up a sermon series on Marriage and I'm starting on this Sunday on Jonah. Still, while it's important to take God, His Word, and the Gospel seriously, we do well not to do the same thing with ourselves:

Friday, November 5, 2010

Disorganized thoughts on the 2010 Election

I have wanted to write a post about the election since Tuesday night, but the results weren't in thoroughly enough then to write coherently. Here are my observations about it, in no particular order:

Which is worse, a "shellacking" or a "thumpin"?

Republican victory was both broad and deep. Republicans will control more legislative chambers and won more legislative seats (680) than at any time in the last 82 years, and won at least 239 U. S. House seats (a net gain of at least 60, while 11 remain undecided at this writing), while picking up at least 6 additional Senate seats (again, a few remain undecided). This is the most significant gain in House seats for Republicans in a single election since 1946.

It is probably better, from a tactical perspective, that Republicans do not control the Senate. This will prevent both Clinton-style triangulation and a Truman style campaign against a "do-nothing" Congress (whose bills Truman vetoed). Moreover, at least a few of the Democratic Senators will have to go along with the GOP to avoid their own shellacking in years to come (Sen.-elect Manchin, Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, possibly a few others).

Why is it that a candidate is often more gracious in defeat than he was in victory, and more likable?

Coming soon to remainder bins at fine bookstores near you: The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tannenhaus and 40 More Years: How the Democrats will Rule the Next Generation. (As an aside, it's creepy when American political figures talk about ruling. Ruling is for kings, despots, and dictators in ill-fitting uniforms, leading is the term for the stewardship of presidents, senators, and representatives. Ruling is a creepy word for an American to use of his own government... and telling, if I may so).

Cap-and-trade is dead, being literally shot through the heart by Democratic Senator-elect Joe Manchin. So, probably, are forced unionization through card check, another "stimulus" bill, and any future attempts to govern Americans from the far left.

Candidates I have the highest hopes for: Nikki Haley, Allen West, and Susana Martinez. It's about time some non-white Republicans beat some white liberal Democrats in close races. It's past time to prove that Republican and racist aren't interchangeable terms (not they ever were, but still...). These candidates are a silent rebuke to all that.

And while we're on the subject, how did the party that was for slavery, secession and segregation wind up being the defender of minority rights? Abe Lincoln was a Republican; Bull Connor and George Wallace were Democrats. What voodoo rite did the Democrats perform to transform 165 years of opposition to blacks and their rights into a perception as the party of the oppressed rather than the oppressors? This will, I'm afraid, always confuse me.

Here in Illinois, the Machine grinds on, unhindered by law or shame to the lasting detriment of the people.

Advice to Democrats: Push harder for what you want. People love full-scale Europeanization and social democracy, they really do. The problem with this election was your marketing, and the nefarious influence of the US Chamber of Commerce. Seriously. Keep doing what you're doing. Americans will see the wisdom of your ideas any day now, despite the fact that they haven't wanted what you are selling (clearly labeled as such) since FDR, and it's debatable that they wanted it then. The next unabashed liberal president with a temporarily large majority will form a permanent center-left majority in this country. Really.

Advice to Republicans: Enjoy this while it lasts. The wheel turns, and it will roll over the unwary. Beware hubris, lest nemesis come for you as it has for Obama and the Dems. Keep your word: Cut spending-really cut it, don't just slow down the rate of growth. Serious about limiting the influence of lobbyists and "special interests"? Reduce the size and reach of the federal government, and fewer people will feel the need to lobby. Don't leave us with debt that my grandchildren will never pay off. Do something great for the country instead of something that will merely ensure your re-election in 2012.

Three words that best describe the election for me: Hope and Change.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Beginning yesterday, we started re-decorating our house. Mom and Dad and my brother Steve brought a couple truckloads of gently used, but new-to-us furniture for our home. At the moment, redecorating proceeds apace, but the house is still a bit chaotic-tools everywhere, mattresses on the floor, lamps with no shades, and trying to find space on the counter on which to eat. But in spite of all that, we are very grateful for the HUGE blessing that all of this is bringing to our lives. We never dreamed that we would be able to do this, yet here we are doing it.

In other news: under our carpet in the upstairs are oak floors. Who knew? Someday, we'll be refinishing those. God continues to pour out His grace in ways we did not ask for and couldn't have imagined. Praise Him!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thursday Morning Humor

One of the biggest problems that men and women have in their relationships with one another is communication. We are like Americans speaking with Brits, two people separated by a common language. While we may be using the same words, we most certainly do not mean the same things by them. I'm not sure if this is a real product or not (my money is on not), but if someone ever does invent this, they will make a fortune...I give you the Manslater:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The fun of raising boys

According to Bill Cosby, you can't really consider yourself to have been a parent if you only have one child because there is so much that's left out. For example, if something is broken, you know who did it. You don't have to go through an interrogation that would make Torquemada proud to discern the culprit. Nor do you have to endure the endless rounds of "He's touching me! He's touching me! Stop looking at me! He's on my side!" and the joy of competition for seats in the vehicle that comes as a part of not only every vacation, but every trip to the store.

As a father of four, I'd have to say I agree with this assessment, but I'd go one better and say you also need to have at least one boy among your brood. Otherwise you miss out on the joys of light sabers, dart guns, dragon slaying, pirate attacks, football, wrestling, and rescuing ladies fair. Every piece of furniture in our house has been climbed on and over, every bed has been jumped on (until Dad intervenes). In the evenings we are reading The Hobbit, and wondering what will happen to Bilbo tonight down in the goblin caverns under the Misty Mountains. (Hint: tonight we meet Gollum and find his "precious"!).

Don't get me wrong. Raising girls (I have two!) has joys all its own. But for sheer adventure, wild risk-taking, and a high probability of broken bones, what can compete with two boys?

Great Day of Service

Saturday was the 1st Annual Great Day of Service here in Chillicothe. The local churches all banded together to donate blood and do yard work and various other projects for needy and/or elderly people here in town. By our estimates, about 47 people participated in various work projects. Of these, 16 were from our church. As a pastor, I am proud of the fact that our church was so well represented in the ranks. A lot of good work got done, and the Church of Christ was seen to have a practical impact by our neighbors. Who knows how this might open "a door for our message" (Col. 4:3) of the Gospel?

Thanks to all who served. To God alone be glory!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dancing in the Minefield

I've been preaching through a series on marriage at church lately and this has, quite naturally, occasioned more than a little reflection on the nature of marriage generally and my own marriage in particular. I have become convinced that there is no human relationship which carries with it the possibility of more intimacy, joy, and deep fulfillment than a marriage. And yet, it is because of those very possibilities that marriage is also capable of causing deeper heartache than any other human relationship. As C. S. Lewis said, stronger angels make for fiercer demons.

I have been married now a few months past 14 years and I've known and loved my bride two years longer than that. I love her more now than ever, and I have grown and matured in my ability to demonstrate that to her more than perhaps every other area of my life. And yet I experience and feel my depravity more in my marriage than perhaps anywhere else. That, I think, is the reality of a good marriage in a post-fall world, a reality that this video captures perfectly.

Beauty from ashes

My parents lost their 30-year-old home building company to the collapse of the banking and housing markets last year. This was as painful a circumstance for them (and for my brother and sister-in-law, the other partners) as I can imagine. 30 years of work, dreams, money and sweat gone in a flash. Their good names tarred in the media. Relationships strained and ruined because the bank couldn't loan money anymore (no thanks to you, TARP and FDIC!) and so vendors couldn't get paid and houses couldn't be finished.

Yet in the midst of deep tragedy, there have also been stark beauties. One of the most beautiful things I've observed has been that their trust in and love for the Lord remains strong and undiminished. Their sense of humor has remained, as has their joy in life. They are looking toward the future and for ways to serve the Lord afresh in the years they have left to them (however many that may be). I don't know how your faith grows to the point where you go face first through the wringer like this and emerge still trusting God out the other side. But though I would never have wished this kind of year on anyone, I'm glad I got to see the outcome.

Government to lay off 500,000 State Employees

In a stunning move that is widely regarded as a recognition of the superiority of free markets and capitalism at creating job, the government has decided to lay off "at least" 500,000 state employees and encourage them to seek jobs in the private sector. These state employees have pay and benefits that the state can no longer sustain, and layoffs are commencing in recognition of that reality.

This exciting news is a reversal of long-held (over 50 years!) socializing policies and desires by the government to centralize an increasing number of formerly private sector functions. "Our state cannot and should not continue maintaining companies, productive entities and services with inflated payrolls and losses that damage our economy and result counterproductive, create bad habits and distort workers' conduct," said a representative of the largest labor union.

Relax, it's not happening in California or Illinois. It's not even happening in Washington, D.C. No, this incredible development is happening in...Cuba (of all places!). One of the world's last socialist governments is finally admitting that socialism doesn't work or achieve anything except the equal impoverishment of everyone ruled by it. Now, if only we could be so flint-eyed realistic here!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rogues Gallery

On Sunday afternoon, I led my Tiger Cub Den on a hike through Forest Park Nature Center. It was fun to see turkeys and look at the changing leaves while we identified trees, nuts, and plants. This was our first hike together, but I'm sure there will be many more to look forward to.

As a side note, my workouts (especially the running) are paying off. When we got to the top of the big hill, I was barely winded while everyone else was grabbing oxygen however they could. It feels great to be in better shape than I have been in since I turned 30!

Centennial Camporee

As many of you know, I've become a Tiger Cub Den Leader for Pack 91 here in Chilli. It's a great, organized excuse to do many of the things I'd like to do anyway, teaching people patriotism, loyalty, honesty, and love for the outdoor life. This past weekend was the Centennial Camporee for the local council, so John and I joined several thousand other scouts down at Comlara Park for a fun-filled Saturday (we did not camp-cold and rainy is hard on a 6 year-old boy). We both got to indulge our boyish selves-shooting paintball guns (John), throwing tomahawks (me), riding the pontoon ferry from one side of the lake to the other, visiting the DNR exhibit, eating tuna salad and crackers in the truck with the heat on, and freezing our tails off while we stood in line to get our T-shirts silk screened.

John also took up the challenge to walk a tightrope suspended about 30" off the ground. There was a rope overhead on a pulley to hang onto, but otherwise, you were on your own. John made it further than anyone else who did it while we were there. He's a tough kid, and I was really proud of him. Giving him a chance to do these kind of things is one of the reasons we are doing scouts together.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Anne Rice on Leaving the Church

Earlier this year, the blogosphere was abuzz with the news that Anne Rice had re-departed the Roman Catholic church. The author, who is best known for her series of vampire novels, had a spiritual experience about 10 years ago which had led her back to the faith of her childhood. But she simply could not live with the contradiction between her most deeply held beliefs and the commitments that being an orthodox Roman Catholic requires. She broke up with her church in that most thoroughly classy, postmodern fashion, via Facebook:
For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always, but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. My conscience will allow nothing else.
Hours later, her "Dear Church" letter continued:
As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.
I read those words back in July and I have been pondering since then how I, as a Christian, ought to respond. My initial reaction is a bit prickly, especially with respect to her second post. It seems that her most significant reason for her departure from Roman Catholicism has to do with the fact that its teachings do not conform to the deeply held convictions of the Democratic Party platform or align with its talking points. She seems to lack any understanding of the fact that the Christ she claims to follow is the Christ who came to set people free from sin and death, and that some of those sins from which we need freeing are nevertheless currently popular. Being gay is not the worst of sins, but sin it remains. I do not see how opposing abortion and embryonic stem cell research gets you labeled "anti-life." I'm not sure what she means by "anti-science," though science does seem to me to be less a sure foundation for certain knowledge than many of its practitioners seem to believe. "Anti-feminist"? Well, I suppose it depends on what you mean by "feminist," but the Church is still the world's leading exponent of the idea of the dignity and equality of women, though it does recognize that women and men aren't interchangeable. And while I'm not a Democrat and believe that their policies, if followed, are disastrous for the future of the country, that belief isn't central, or even peripheral, to the Christian faith I profess. Nor is opposition to birth control. As far as secular humanism goes, I guess I'm not sure how to be both a Christian and secular humanist? That's like being a Buddhist Muslim. The two are competing ideas, not complementary ones. Understanding that not nearly all of these things are biblical ideas, or even accurate characterizations of the faith, I guess I wish she had the courage to allow her thinking to be conformed by the Scriptures rather than trying to do it the other way around. I'm sure that was a frustrating experience, but it isn't an unanticipated one for anybody paying attention to what the Scriptures actually call us to do.

On the other hand, a part of me resonates with her first post. I know what it is to be disappointed with the other people with whom I am in community in the Church. Within the Church I have seen its leaders fall into egregious sin, building for themselves personality cults, ill-gotten fortunes and even personal harems. I have been betrayed and abandoned by people I considered friends. I have seen raging conflicts, nasty divorces, severe addictions, and weird perversions. I have seen every one of the 10 Commandments broken in every way it is possible to break them. Moreover, looking back through history, there are episodes which bring me shame (the burning of Servetus, the witch trials, the 30 Years War, and so on).

But these things have never divided me from the Church. Why? Because within the Church there is also Christ, His Word, and His people. I'd be the last to say that the Church is full of perfect people. Far from it, in fact. To be a pastor as I am is to know that better than most. But in the midst of all the sinning, there also is the reality of the Gospel of the Jesus who came to save exactly such people from sin and death and Hell. The reality of life in the church, in other words, points out the truth of the things we profess: We are all sinners deeply in need of saving. Moreover, there is another side to Church life, which I have also seen more times than I can count, and which Ms. Rice seems to have either forgotten or deeply discounted. And that side is much better: Lives are really transformed, marriages really are healed, addictions are really recovered from, needy people really are served and loved, the Gospel is really preached as really Good News to all people-black, brown, white, rich poor, talented and disabled, Western and non-, to all people of every tribe, tongue, and nation. This is why the Church is worth it; because, despite her flaws, the Church and the Christ who rules as her head really is the only hope of humanity.

One final reaction, this one a question: Is it really possible to be a Churchless Christian? The New Testament seems to think that Leaving the Church = Leaving the Faith and Jesus with it. Are the Scriptures simply wrong at this point?

The Revolution: 5 Years Later

You have to give George Barna credit. He may not be the creator of trends within the wider evangelical church, but he is certainly an early reporter (and frequently cheerleader) of them. Five years ago, in his book Revolution, Barna reported (and cheered for) the phenomenon of self-identified born again people leaving the local church for something else. The book caused quite a stir, mostly because it put a name to a trend that lots of pastors had been seeing all over the country, of people who desired a sort of customized spirituality, devoid of the preaching of God's Word and the possibly uncomfortable parts of living in a community composed of fallen sinners like oneself, light on commitment and sacrifice, but heavy on ideas like being missional, emerging, serving the poor, and "being the church."

Five years on and it seems that revolution is deader than the leisure suit. The Emergent/emerging church is dead. It is now buried under the weight of its own pretentiousness, pseudo-intellectualism, and fundamental unwillingness to actually commit to anything larger than feeling coolly superior to the rest of us benighted members of traditional churches. Even the die-hards among them are starting to realize that two guys having coffee at Starbucks or drinking dark, boutique beer while talking about Jesus and how cool they are doesn't make for much in the way of lasting spirituality.

But what I find distressing is this idea, of a customizable, "feel good about yourself for doing good deeds while not being part of a real local church" version of Christian spirituality retains its appeal for a lot of people. Perhaps it's because we live in the post-iPhone world, such that people now think that all of life should consist of a series of infinitely customizable "apps" and that the local church is an "app" which as as obsolete as Windows 3.1. But whatever the reason, I think that people who take that approach to the Christian life are in serious danger. For the Christianity of the Bible is not one which adapts to suit personal preferences or which it is possible to faithfully live in isolation from the church. Moreover, "being the church" is simply not possible without "going to church," any more than it is possible to consider yourself married to someone with whom you do not live.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Does Prayer Work?

That's the question a friend of mine asked me this week. Well, at the risk of sounding like a certain hillbilly former president, it depends on what the means of "works" is. That is, if by "works," you mean something like "Will God give me whatever I ask for if I pray?" then the answer is pretty clearly "No." Anybody who has ever prayed and not received their request knows this without even consulting the Bible. But does it "work" in the sense of God speaking to us through it and sometimes giving us the things for which we have prayed? The answer to that question is just as surely "Yes." But it's still a little more complex a "yes" than it might first appear (I mean, you even find this question being asked within the text of the Bible itself-just read the Psalms, or Job, or Ecclesiastes). Here's a summary of how to understand the Bible's "yes" answer:
  1. We are encouraged to ask God for what we want. The Bible contains a host of bold statements about prayer, many on the lips of Jesus himself, such as "And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith" (Matthew 21:22).
  2. Persistence is encouraged. Jesus tells two parables that emphasize this, the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8), and the Persistent Neighbor (Luke 11:1-10). Paul also reminds us of the same idea in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, "Pray without ceasing."
  3. Sometimes, God says "No, my grace is sufficient." Even Paul the Apostle didn't always receive what he asked for. Though there is debate as to the specific nature of Paul's "thorn in the flesh," it's pretty clear that it was a painful situation from which Paul prayed for deliverance. Yet according to Paul's account (read 2 Corinthians 12:7-10), despite his persistent prayer, God's answer wasn't simply "No," but also "my grace is sufficient for you." Paraphrasing a bit, that means something like, "I will be with you through this; I won't take you out of it." Which might not be what we want to hear, but is still a magnificent promise all the same, as Paul learned.
  4. We must believe and not doubt. Even in those places where we have a magnificent promise of God giving us what we pray for, faith remains a qualification for actually receiving it. Look at Matthew 21:22 above: even in an otherwise unqualified statement, we still read "if you have faith." The same qualification is given in James, "But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways" (1:6-8).
  5. God's timing and ours are not the same. That is, even things about which God has made unequivocal promises, His timing is "different," to say the least. Consider Abraham: Promised a land, great blessing, and a nation descended from he and his wife. Yet at 100 years old and with a 90-year-old wife, there is still no son, never mind a mighty nation numbering "like the stars or the sand." Even after the child of promise, Isaac, is born, it's hardly an auspicious beginning. Sarah dies a few years later, and all Abraham has is his wealth (such as exists for a nomad in a tent), a cave at the end of a field as burial plot for his wife, paid for at exorbitant cost, and the solo son of promise, whose wife also has a fertility problem. In the same way, Hebrews 11 reminds us that "These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen them and welcomed them from afar..." (11:13; cf. 39). God kept his promises, but not in the timing that the people to whom He made those promises expected. Consider Abraham again: Did a nation of millions ever descend from Abraham? Did they receive the Land that God promised? Were Abraham's descendants a great blessing to all the nations of the earth (not to mention, One in particular)? Yes, yes, and yes. But God's timing wasn't Abraham's, nor was it that of the others of Hebrews 11, nor is it ours.
  6. God's perspective and mine aren't the same. As a pastor, I've lost track of the number of people I've visited in hospital rooms. I've similarly lost track of the number of people with serious and/or terminal diseases for whom I've prayed. I always pray for healing, but a whole bunch of these people have still died. Yet in many of these cases, I believe that God healed. How is that possible? Well, I think we assume that in order for God to heal, he has to heal the person temporarily, as in He must postpone his/her eventual death a bit longer. Yet that isn't necessarily best for the person. Revelation 21 and 22 make it pretty clear that there is no more "mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (v. 21:4). Which is better, to be permanently healed and live in God's presence in a world without pain, or to temporarily healed, only to die again later, as all of us must? Permanent healing is obviously better. So is "departing to be with Christ," as Paul phrased it (Phil. 1:23). Yet that's not how we think of it. I think the same is true of more "mundane" prayer requests too. God's perspective isn't ours, nor are His ways our ways (Isaiah 55:8).

Finding God's Will: God's Directive Will

Now I suspect that many of you have been reading up to now and thinking, “Yes, yes, that’s all true. The Bible does talk about God’s will that way. But what about God’s will for my life?” And if you’re asking that question, then you’re asking about the third category, what I’ve labeled God’ Directive Will. God’s directive will isn’t so much His will about right and wrong decisions as it is about right and left decisions. Does God have that kind of specific will for each one of us? My answer is a qualified “Yes.” It’s a qualified yes because we don’t see very many New Testament examples of God giving specific direction for individual situations. There are a few times when that happened; for example, when Paul had his vision of the man from Macedonia who urged him to come share the Gospel there, and when Ananias had his vision telling him to go see Paul. But remember that these are unusual circumstances, even in the lives of people involved. God doesn’t, as far as I can discern from Scripture at least, normally give people visions about more mundane things like which car to buy, which person to marry, or which school to attend. Having said that though, I do think that God does provide us with his leading for our lives, but that some conditions have to be met for us to have it:
  1. We must not be seeking God’s will about things which He has spoken clearly. Should I attend church? Should I give to church? Should I marry a non-Christian? Should I start dating again, even though I'm already married? These things (among thousands of others) are things about which God has already told us.
  2. We must have a willingness to obey. If we ask God to lead us in making a decision about something, either big or small, we need to ask while being willing to actually do what He tells us. As James says in chapter 1 of his letter (vv. 5-6), “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” You can’t be asking God to do something you don’t actually intend to do anything with. What would be the point of giving it you then?
  3. “Seeking God’s Will” must not be an excuse for laziness. Believe it or not, there are some people who don’t so much want God’s will as they want an excuse for doing nothing. The Christian author Kevin DeYoung put it this way: “our search for the will of God has become an accomplice in the postponement of growing up, a convenient out for the young (or old) Christian floating through life without direction or purpose. Too many of us have passed off our instability, inconsistency, and endless self-exploration as “looking for God’s will,” as if not making up our minds and meandering through life were marks of spiritual sensitivity.” What those things are is the mark of a lazy, immature person who is using “finding God’s will” as a spiritual sounding way of refusing to obey what God has already said to them in His word. So when you ask them to serve, even if they aren’t doing anything else, they say, “Let me pray about it and see if it’s God’s will.” And amazingly, even though God’s word says that each person has received a spiritual gift they are to use in serving others, God never seems to tell them that they should say “Yes” and start using theirs.
  4. We must remember that sometimes, God does give specific leading through His Holy Spirit. God does reveal his will in our circumstances and through the counsel of others. Sometimes He speaks to our hearts directly, and we get the very strong sense that He wants us to make a particular choice. When we have that, we need to follow it and obey it.
  5. God’s directions may not be as clear as we sometimes wish they were. Let me give a couple examples. In 1 Corinthians 7, we find God’s most explicit instructions about finding a mate. He says, first of all, that not getting married is also a good choice. Then he says, that getting married is a good thing, and a person who wants to get married should “marry whom [he/]she wishes, only in the Lord.” In other words, even about one of the most life-altering decisions of life, we have tremendous freedom. God doesn’t say specifically to me if I should marry Betty or Sue, or if a woman should marry Ken or Bob. We get to marry anyone we like, as long as we are marrying an opposite sex Christian person. We are also free to choose to be single, so we might serve the Lord unencumbered by family responsibilities. In the same way, in Acts 15:28, we get this marvelous statement by the Jerusalem Council: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” which I take to mean that they had searched the Scriptures, prayed, and then decided to do what seemed wisest and best, recognizing that the Holy Spirit is working through their decision-making and desires to enact His will.
  6. Remember that God is good, and won’t punish us for making a “wrong” choice when it’s a right or left decision. He doesn’t sit in heaven saying, “Well, if you had married Sue, you’d have had a happy marriage, but since you married Betty instead, you’re condemned to a life of misery. God is good and loves us. Our freedom is real freedom, not an excuse for God to play some sort of cosmic, sadistic, whack-a-mole.
  7. Remember that following God does not mean that there will never be pain or struggles. Just because something winds up painful, does not mean it wasn’t God’s will. How else, but through pain, could we be transformed into the likeness of His Son?

Finding God's Will: God's Desired Will

Another of the other ways that the Scriptures talk about God’s will is in the way that I have called His desired will. God’s desire is that we, as His creatures, would obey Him and walk in His ways. Yet God has also created us as creatures with a will, and it does not always align with God’s will, does it? 1 Timothy 2:4 says that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Yet not all men are saved, are they? This is where the human responsibility side of the divine sovereignty and human responsibility side of discussion enters in. God has a plan and purpose which will be fulfilled, yet we can, and do, choose to either obey or disobey His desired will.

Now when it comes to the Christian life in particular and not just humans in general, we have a huge number of commands from God. The whole Bible is saturated with them, isn’t it? Why? Because God wants us to know His desired will for our lives. If we will obey them, we will not only avoid sinning, we’ll also experience growth in Christian maturity, and all the blessings that come from experiencing the fellowship with God for which we were made. So, just to cite a few examples, God tells us in Exodus 20, “Do not worship any other gods…do not misuse the Lord’s name…do not murder... commit adultery... steal... lie... [or] covet.” There are hundreds of other places, both Old and New Testament that give God’s will in all kinds of moral matters like that. But there all also commands that have to do with how to faithfully live life as a Christian.

We have commands that apply to us all on an individual level. In 1 Peter 2:1-2, Peter writes “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” In other words, if we want to live faithfully as Christ’s followers, then we have to take in God’s Word. We’re also to seek the Lord and trust Him in all our circumstances, just like Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” The intake of the word, by which God speaks to us, and prayer, by which we speak to God, are the basics of the Christian life.

But of course Christianity isn’t a solitary belief system is it? According to the book of Hebrews, we must “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another…” (10:25). In other words, being a Christian necessarily includes being part of a church family and being with them regularly. And of course, there are also instructions about what we’re to do as part of a church family. In 1 Peter 4:8-10, the apostle writes, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” We’re to love one another from the heart, and let our love for one another smooth over the difficulties that we encounter in relationship with each other. We’re to demonstrate that love in opening our homes and lives to each other. We’re to use our spiritual gift or gifts to serve each other. And this relationship we have with others even includes our financial commitments, as 2 Corinthians 9:7 says: “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

And of course, God has a desired will for our family life too. In Ephesians 5:22, He tells wives to submit to their husbands and then in the next verse tells husbands to love their wives like Christ loved the Church and died for it. In 6:1 of the same book, God says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” To summarize then, there’s no area of life about which God has not expressed his will about how we should live. And since He is the Creator and designer of life itself, it seems to me wise that we should listen amen?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Finding God's Will: God's Decreed Will

One of the questions I've been asked most often is this one: “How do I find God’s will for my life?” If the old Campus Crusade tract is true when it says, that “God loves [me] and has a wonderful plan for my life,” then just how do I go about discovering what that plan is?

Well, I'm glad you asked. As you look at the Scriptures and study them, you’ll see that there are really three ways in which Scripture talks about God’s will: His Decreed Will, His Desired Will, and His Directive Will.

God’s Decreed Will is the term we can use to describe those thing in the Scriptures which God has decreed in advance will happen. It’s the term for God’s eternal plan and sovereign purposes. Whether everybody knows it or not, God is completely sovereign, and there is not one maverick molecule in the entire universe. God is the Creator, the King of Kings, and all beings and things in the universe must and do bend to His will. The Prophet Isaiah says it best in chapter 46, verses 9-10: Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.

In the same way, in Genesis 1, God says over and over, “Let there be…” and those things appear out of nothing by God’s sovereign power and word. God says, “Let there be light” and there is light. “Let there be an expanse to separate the water in the ocean from the water in the atmosphere,” and the sky came into being. God said, “Let the water be filled with fish,” and the water had more kinds and varieties of swimming creatures than we can count. And so it goes, all the way to the end of the chapter, when God says, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (1:26). So all these things came into being, including people. Why? Because it was God’s will that it be so.

Moving forward in salvation history a bit, to after the Fall, God speaks of the Messiah's coming (either in the future or the past) in terms of His Will. In Isaiah 53:10, we read about the Messiah that “it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” because the Lord had made his life a guilt offering. Peter picks up that same idea in Acts 2:23 in his great Pentecost sermon, when he says, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” And again, John says about Jesus in Revelation 13:8 that he is “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” In other words, why did Jesus die? Because it was God’s will. Even before God made the world, He knew that humanity would fall into sin and need redemption. And so even before the world was created, the Son, Jesus, was planned to come and die and rise again for you and me.

God has also planned the end of human history. In 2 Peter 3:10, Peter writes, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare…But in keeping with his promise, we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.” There will be an end to all wickedness and wicked people, along with the heavens and the earth in which wickedness occurred. And then there will be a new creation of a new heavens and a new earth, in which redeemed people will dwell face-to-face with God. God’s will is carried out before creation, in creation, in the redemption of fallen creation, and in the new creation. From the beginning of history to it’s end, nothing that He has planned to happen will fail to take place.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Textual Criticism and the End of Mark's Gospel: But is it Bible?

I am an Evangelical Christian pastor. I believe that the Bible is God's Word. So do I believe that Mark 16:9-20 are God's Word even though I believe they were not part of Mark's Gospel originally? Here's my (slightly nuanced) answer:
  1. Believing that the Bible is God's Word does not imply a belief that there can be no additions or updating to what the original author of the text wrote. For example, I believe that it is more than likely that Moses did not write verses 5-12 of Deuteronomy 34, which describe his death and subsequent legacy. Likewise, there are dozens of places in the Old Testament in which place names have been updated or editorial explanation is supplied (e. g., the comment in 1 Sam. 9:9 that "the prophet of today used to be called a seer"). Thus, I don't believe that the authority of the Scriptures is at stake when I say that verses 9-20 may not have been included in Mark's original Gospel.
  2. Canonicity matters. In the history of the canonization of the Scriptures (the process by which the Church identified which books were Scripture and which were not), verses 9-20 were recognized as historic and authentic tradition directly tied to Jesus and the apostles. So even though it is likely that Mark didn't write these lines, they were nevertheless accepted as Scripture at a very early date. So though I'm not completely confident that verses 9-20 should be there, and would advise people against snake handling as part of worship, I'm happy to include them in the Scriptures as the Church has since Justin Martyr's day.

Textual Criticism and the End of Mark's Gospel: Where Does it End?

Based on the manuscript evidence, a lot of debate surrounds the ending of Mark. This is because two of the oldest, best, and most complete manuscripts we have of Mark, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus (commonly abbreviated in scholarly reference by the Hebrew letter aleph and the letter B, respectively), do not contain verses 9-20. Based on the guidelines I shared with you in the last post, the oldest, shortest, most difficult reading seems to be the one which ends the Gospel of Mark at verse 8. Yet verse 8 seems like an incredibly weird place for Mark's Gospel to end, because verse 8 ends with "They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid." This isn't quite the triumphant story of Resurrection presented everywhere else in the New Testament. Adding to the puzzle are these facts: 1) verses 9-20 include a sudden shift of subject (from "women" to a presumed subject of "Jesus," whose name doesn't appear in the Greek); 2) about 1/3 of the words in verses 9-20 are words that either don't appear elsewhere in Mark or are used in a very different way than in the rest of his Gospel; 3)Mary Magdalene is introduced with a descriptive phrase in v. 9 as if she hasn't just been mentioned in v. 1; 4) based on what the angel has just told the women, Mark would have been expected to include a description of Jesus' Galilean resurrection appearances, but he does not; 5) Matthew and Luke follow Mark's account closely until verse 8, but then diverge sharply, suggesting that Mark did not have verses 9-20 originally present.

Four theories have been put forth to explain this, each of which has been defended by serious, Bible-believing scholars:

  1. Verses 9-20 are original to Mark, but are simply missing from Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. In support of this theory is the fact that Justin Martyr (d. 145) and Tatian (in his Diatesseron from about 170) as well as Iraneus and Hippolytus (Church Fathers from the 2nd and 3rd centuries) quote from these verses. In addition, almost all of the other manuscripts from the 5th century and later include verse 9-20. It is thus quite possible that these later manuscripts (from the 4th century) were copying from texts whose last page was missing.
  2. Mark finished his Gospel and it went beyond verse 8, but the original ending was lost before it was copied, so verses 9-20 were added later to finish it. There is almost no way of proving this, but it is a logical possibility.
  3. Mark didn't finish his Gospel for some reason (such as sudden death), and a later writer added verse 9-20. Again, this is possible, but there is no way of proving it.
  4. Mark purposely ended at verse 8, but a later editor added verses 9-20. This seems difficult, though possible, for the simple reason that verse 8 does seem like an odd place for the story to end.
After considering all the possibilities and wrestling with their implications, it seems to me that it's not quite possible to know the answer to this question with certainty. The textual evidence we have, while it is voluminous and reliable, (and far beyond the textual evidence for any other ancient document to boot!), it is not as exhaustive as we would like.

My conclusion based on the evidence we have is that either Mark ended his Gospel at verse 8 or that his original ending (which was more similar to Luke or Matthew) was lost at an early stage of transmission and that verses 9-20 were added by a later editor.

This conclusion may raise an additional question in some people's minds, (i.e., "But if verses 9-20 aren't original, are they Bible?") but that is a subject which merits its own post. If you've made it this far, you can surely hang on for one more!

Textual Criticism and the End of Mark's Gospel: An Introduction to Textual Criticism

One of my purposes in maintaining this humble (very humble) little blog is to provide an outlet for me to offer information to the members of my congregation which might not fit very well into a sermon. After eight months of study together on Sunday mornings, we are wrapping up Mark's Gospel this coming Sunday.

Mark ends with verses that are typically set off with a note indicating that "the earliest and best manuscripts do not contain verses 9-20." This kind of thing causes a lot of confusion among people who love and study the Scriptures, because they rightly wonder: "Is this part of the Bible or not?" Answering that question is a little more complicated than it might initially appear, but I will attempt to answer it as completely as I can in this and subsequent posts. In what remains of this one, I'd like to give a brief, highly condensed overview of the discipline of textual criticism.

First, let me say what textual criticism is and is not. It is not criticizing the text of the Bible, eliminating those portions with which we disagree or find unpalatable. It is instead the determined effort to derive the original text of an ancient document by comparing the various manuscripts of that document. Thus, textual criticism is a discipline which affirms that the original text matters, and since we are talking about the Scriptures, I have to say that I heartily agree. I want to be sure that I know exactly what God said in His Word, because I am shaping my life around it.

There are approximately 10,000 Greek manuscripts (i. e., hand copies) which reproduce all of or portions of the New Testament, dating from approximately 100 AD up to just past the invention of the printing press in 1440. In addition, there are thousands more quotes of the New Testament text in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, thousands more in the lectionaries (early worship guides), and the non-Greek translations of the text in languages like Syriac, Ethiopic, and Coptic. Text critics compare all these manuscripts to derive, as completely as they can, the content of the original. This is necessary because hand copying then, as now, is an imperfect process, leading to frequent variations in spelling, word order, and even subtractions from or additions to the text. All of these variations are called variants, and there are about 100,000 total in the New Testament. Of these variants, only 500 have any textual significance whatsoever, while the remainder are insignificant differences in spelling (e.g., Simon Peter vs. Simeon Peter) or word order (e.g., Jesus Christ vs. Christ Jesus). It is also worth noting for those interested also that none of these 500 variants have any impact on any major Christian doctrine, but that what has been called "Mark's Long Ending" is among them.

Text critics compare the manuscripts and then utilize the following rules to derive the original text:
  1. The oldest reading is preferred. Generally speaking, a variant which appears in a manuscript nearer in time to the original writing is more likely to be original than one that appears later because there is presumably less time for errors to arise. Thus, a 4th century manuscript is generally given more weight than a 7th century manuscript, but a 2nd century manuscript is preferable to either one.
  2. The shortest reading is preferred. The tendency of ancient texts is for them to become longer, as scribes added words to clarify difficult grammar, explain hard sayings, or sometimes even mistakenly incorporate a previous scribe's marginal notes. This is not an absolute rule, as sometimes the shorter text is shorter because the scribe accidentally left out part of the text due to the presence of repeated words (a phenomenon called homoeoteleuton).
  3. The most difficult reading is preferred. This criteria is closely related to #2 above, as scribes had a tendency to "smooth out" things which seemed contrary to piety and then-current ecclesiastical practice, harsh, or superfluous.
  4. The reading which explains the others is preferred. Comparing all the manuscripts, which one seems to be the best candidate for being the source from which the others were derived?
By applying these rules, it is possible to determine with a high degree of probability what the exact words of the original text were.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Hello, Internet chums. It's me again. There have been so many things I've been dying to comment on in the wider culture, but simply have not had time. But good things will come to those who wait, I promise (insert sound of people waiting with bated breath here).

Anyway, here's what's been going on:

Cub Scouts:
I've decided to become a Cub Scout leader because hey, I really needed something to do on the one night of the week which I have always kept open. Seriously, I am always looking for good ways to invest in my sons and Scouts seems to be an ideal way of doing this. And if I'm going to be involved in something, I'd just as soon lead it. So I've been spending a bit of time getting up to speed on how it all works (since the closest I ever came to being a Scout was a subscription to Boys Life magazine), and getting all the necessary certifications.

Karen and I have a modest garden each year: beans, cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes. We've been canning salsa, pickles, and enchilada sauce until we are sick of it, often in the evenings after the kids go to bed.

School started for our oldest three again a week or so ago and we are all still adjusting. I'm going to be the driver for my eldest and her best friend a couple mornings a week, and school is starting an hour earlier for her than last year.

Weight Loss:
I'm in a weight loss contest with Karen and the other two members of the church office staff. I'm reliably in 2nd place these days, after leading for a couple weeks, though the gap between me and the leader gets a little smaller each week. $500 goes to the overall winner on December 30th, so I'm highly motivated. So far, I'm down 19.6 lbs in 8 weeks, and hitting the treadmill very hard as often as I can. A few months back, my dad gave me a book called Die Fat or Get Tough which does a great job of polarizing the choice. I'm trying to make the latter, obviously.

Deer Hunting Prep:
The season doesn't start till October 1st, but I've been busy hanging stands and getting ready just the same. I'm hoping this is the year I tag the Booner that's running on my hunting spot...

My GI doc continues to think that the medication I'm taking isn't doing much to actually bring my Crohn's disease into full remission, though it is keeping a lid on it a bit, and most preventing it from being a lot worse. So I've had a colonoscopy, a number of blood tests and, on Monday, an MR enterography to determine just exactly where we are in the progress of the disease. I won't know for a while yet, but the doc wants to keep me from the negative possibilities, as do I. I'm still not feeling my best due to after-effects of the test, but hopefully those will prove short-lived.

I've been organizing small groups, planning a baptism service, visiting the sick and bereaved, counseling the married but struggling and the single and lonely, trying to minister to the local skateboard kids who visit almost daily, overseeing building renovations, praying over numerous people, building friendships with those who are new to church, studying for two classes and one sermon each week, and trying to encourage the downhearted, spur the wandering to repentance, and lead the lost to the Savior.

Sara is doing well with life right now, though I can already see the beginnings of the awkward years starting to draw near. She has a great group of friends from good families and an easy time with school, but I pray daily for her transition to young womanhood. Ashley is struggling right now with the realization that some of the kids at school are sometimes mean, which is pretty tough for a kid who till recently floated through life without a care. John is still getting used to being a first grader, though he recently proclaimed that he thought it all entirely "too easy." He's well on his way to being sans front teeth and has gotten really into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and kung-fu. It's a rare day when I'm not tackled, karate chopped, or roundhouse kicked by one of the boys. Nate is full of life and feeling a bit lost in the shuffle I think. He's convinced that at 4 he should be old enough for school and he's really missing having his brother and sisters home to play with. I fill in as substitute playmate/kung-fu dummy/Tickle Monster when I come home at lunch every day. And Karen? Well, she's still the woman who makes my heart pound every day I get to spend with her.

I turn 37 today. It's funny to think about that, because I still feel 23, despite the receding hairline, the mid-life paunch, the grey in my beard and what's left of my hair, and the four kids that I can't possibly be old enough to have. I remember my dad turning 37 and thinking he was an old man (after all, I was 14 at the time!). Funny how times slips away, as the song goes. Yet I'm also deeply, overwhelmingly blessed.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What If...

By any measure, the cost of college education has grown far beyond the ability of the average American to sustain it. To cite just one example: I am now not quite 15 years past my college graduation. When I graduated from old TU, the total bill for tuition, room, board, and books was approximately $17,000 per year, for a 4-year total of $68K (a bit less in my case since I graduated early, and that was the senior year price, but still). The total cost for four years at 2010 prices? $144,000. As much as I love my alma mater, you can't convince me that the cost (nevermind the value) of a Taylor degree has increased by 111%. And old TU is far from alone in this: just check out what a school like Wheaton, or even Illinois State, costs compared to 15 years ago.

But what if it was possible to earn your degree in the following way:
  • Take classes from the best, most respected, most learned professors in each discipline.
  • Complete the traditional 4-year degree in 2-3 years, while taking classes at the times of day and/or on the days of the week that work for your schedule.
  • Engage in a learning community with not only the professor, but with other students.
  • Avoid and eliminate the political correctness, bureaucracy, barnacle encrusted processes, and institutional arrogance that infests most major (and many minor) universities and colleges.
  • Get the annual cost down to somewhere around $2,000
  • Never have to leave home.
This, according to some little-known tech revolutionary named Bill Gates, is the future, where most education is done online, and where the vast majority of "place-based" institutions find an ever-diminishing market for their product. Could happen. And I, for one, don't think that would be all bad. In addition to costing less, it would diminish the cultural power of institutional academia, and that would be a very good thing indeed. The various educrats of our world might have to (shudder!) get real jobs, the gifted teachers and profs would find their incomes vastly improved, and the students would get qualitatively better instruction at dramatically less cost. Remind me again: why we haven't done this already?

Helping you prepare for the zombie invasion

Not quite sure how I got started down this road, but I have a buddy who enjoys books and movies about vampires, zombies, and the like. The whole good triumphing over evil thing, I guess. Anyway, if the zombie hordes should ever happen to show up at your door, this is just the thing!

It's a standard AR type semi-automatic, adjustable stock .223 Remington rifle with a 30 round detachable magazine. It also features an attached harpoon quiver for the rail mounted harpoon gun below decks and is equipped with a night-vision scope for precise aiming even in the dark. If this can't handle your zombie problems, well then, nothing can!

Welcoming Ramadan

Today is the start of Ramadan, the Islamic month of prayer and fasting. It is also traditionally known within Islam as the month for visions. Over the last few years, in God's mercy, it has also been the time during which Muslims have had visions of Jesus and become Christians. I have more than one former Muslim friend who came to Christ in precisely this way, and have heard many reports out of the Muslim world that indicate that this is far from unusual. In fact, it may well be the normal means that God is using to draw Muslims to Himself in those places where more traditional forms of evangelism are virtually impossible.

I have two thoughts about this: First, these things are a magnificent testimony of God's grace to those who hate Him. The Islamic world is the most hardened stronghold of the Enemy that remains in the world. The world's animists, Buddhists, Hindus, and even secularists are all being relatively easily reached (by comparison), so God is using extraordinary means. Praise Him for that! My second thought is that the coming of Ramadan each year represents a great annual opportunity to pray with the Muslim world for the redemption of the Muslim world. Why not do something really extremist and pray for the men of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, & the Muslim Brotherhood to find the true God through faith in Jesus Christ? Anybody want to join me in prayer this month (until 9/11)?

Here's a good verse to pray, for those so inclined:
I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, 'Here am I, here am I.' ~ Isaiah 65:1

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why We Need Confession

Karen and I were talking about confession over lunch (I know, I know, it must be agonizingly boring to be married to a pastor!), and while we were talking, I learned some theology from her that is just too good not to share with you.

Consider the act of confession: It seems a little superfluous in some ways, doesn't it? I mean, all my sins have already been paid for at the Cross. Even my future sins are already covered by the blood of the Lamb. And God removes our iniquity from us as far as east is from west. So why confess? The reason is not for God's sake. He has already justified us through Christ. It is for our sakes, because in confession we have to admit that we are sinning. That admission is one of the most humbling acts in which a human can engage. It is also the only act by which we recognize our need to change. Without confession, there can thus be no change. If there is no change, then there will be no growth. God thus calls us to confess not because He is a rather grumpy fellow, who wants us to grovel before he condescends to grant us cleansing, but because He loves us. He loved us enough to send Jesus as the Lamb, and loves us still, too much to allow us to remain as we are in our sin. So confess, for God's sake and because your un-confessed sin erects a barrier in your relationship with Him. But also, confess for your own sakes, for who wants to remain the mess that they are?

Friday, July 30, 2010

My Inner Roman Catholic

I've recently been convinced that, despite my deeply evangelical Protestant beliefs and heritage, inside me lurks a Roman Catholic which is dying to get out. Lest some of my long-time friends or (gasp!) parishioners reading this turn it off and conclude that Pastor Joe has finally gone 'round the bend, let me explain.

This week I was back to leading our Men's Bible study as per usual after several weeks of letting the other men take turns at sharing leadership. We are still reading and studying through C J Mahaney's The Cross Centered Life (which I cannot recommend highly enough, btw). Anyway, we came to my favorite chapter, "Breaking the Rule of Legalism." Mahaney defines legalism as "basing our relationship with God on our own performance" or, as he quotes Sinclair Ferguson stating more eloquently, "assuming we remain justified only so long as there are grounds in our character for justification."

That is what I mean by my inner Roman Catholic. I fall far too easily into this trap, thinking that the more I "do" for God and/or the more my character improves over what it used to be, the more God loves me, because I have earned more "merit" with Him. The Bible is pretty clear that nothing could be further from the truth. It was not from "works of righteousness which [I] have done, but according to His mercy He saved [me] (Titus 3:5)." Likewise, I received "every spiritual blessing in Christ in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 1) not based on my performance, but in spite of it. God chose me as His child quite apart from any merit, before I had done anything, either good or bad, but simply by His grace (Rom. 8-9).

How hard that is for me to accept, yet what freedom and joy fills my heart when I remember to embrace it. Thanks be to Jesus, who saved me in spite of what I have done and do, and who already loves me perfectly.

What's at Stake in Aghanistan

It is to the everlasting shame of the American Left that they can become incensed enough about domestic violence against women here in the West to artificially inflate the reality of it, yet remain silent about the rampant and systemic abuse (including FGM), mistreatment, rape, flogging, and second-class citizenship (at best!) of their sisters in the Islamic world. I'd like to think that it's their multi-culti "different strokes for different folks" worldview which blinds them to their plight rather than racism against brown women, yet the silence of the Gloria Steinems and Maureen Dowds of the world is pretty deafening (to say nothing of their European cousins, who ran Ayaan Hirsi Ali out of Holland even though she was a Dutch MP at the time).

So I was greatly cheered by Time magazine's upcoming, August 9, 2010 cover. The woman in the picture is named Aisha (the same as Mohammed's 9-year-old "wife"), and she was sentenced by the Taliban to have her nose and ears cut off for the "crime" of fleeing her in-laws' abuse. As the photo makes clear, this is what is at stake in Afghanistan-the return of people who think that this photo represents divine justice. So credit where it's due: Kudos to Time for running a worthy story about what we're really trying to accomplish in The Long War.

Here's Jim Geraghty, from his excellent Morning Jolt, who expresses my thoughts on the matter pretty succinctly:
I see that image and think, "Tell me we've killed a lot of these guys. Tell me we're going to kill a lot of Taliban today, and a lot of Taliban tomorrow, and a lot more before we leave, even if we don't leave this country in the state we originally desired." I realize that the problem in Afghanistan is not a lack of firepower or enemy casualties and that the difficulties there are complicated by a mess of local corruption, shifting tribal alliances, consistent suspicions of Pakistani assistance, and some of the toughest terrain on this earth. But clearly the foundation for a better tomorrow for all of our children is built upon a high stack of Taliban corpses. I don't know if God will look into the eyes of a man who disfigures a woman like that and forgive him; I just know that we ought to help arrange that meeting as quickly as possible.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On Sin and Suffering

I've spent a lot of time talking with people about Jesus and sharing the Gospel with them. If the person with whom I'm speaking is a bit resistant to the Word, one of the arguments that invariably comes up is the problem of evil, as in, "Yeah, well if God is so good, then why is there so much evil in the world?" They mean "Why did my grandmother get sick and die, why is there illness, sickness, warfare, divorce, murder, adultery, death, and things like these?"

This is the question which every person deeply feels down the core of who they are. Every one of us, of every type of religion and none at all, intuitively knows the the world as it is is not the world as it should be. And for our Gospel to be coherent at all, it must include answers to this, the most penetrating of all questions. Consequently, I have thought about it a great deal. Here are the best answers I have:
  1. Jesus. God not only knows what it is like to lose those you love to death (John 11), he also knows what it is like to be betrayed, abandoned, forgotten, and rejected. He knows what it's like to suffer agonizing torture and death when you are innocent of any crime. There is no type of human suffering with which God is personally unfamiliar. It's true that God allows suffering, but it's also not as if He doesn't know what it's like or does not promise to be with us in it.
  2. Sin. Since we're sharing the Gospel, what do you think I've been talking about when I mention sin? Do you really think that sin has only personalized and individual results? No, sin has permeated all of creation (cf. Romans 8:19-25), and all of human life and relationships (Gen. 3:14-16).
  3. Patience. To paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, most people think that all God would have to do to eliminate evil from the world is to get rid of all the bad people. But the line of good and evil cuts through every human heart. And who is willing to destroy his own heart? To put it another way, there are not any good people, only people tainted by sin and evil. The snarky version of this is to ask, "What if God decided to eliminate all the evil in the world, beginning with you?" More biblical, and less sarcastic, is Peter's statements that "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some count slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance," (2 Pet. 3:9) and later, that "our Lord's patience means salvation" (2 Pet. 3:15). God is saving a people, and He is not willing to rush the cadence and lose any of the elect whom He has chosen. When the last of the elect enter the Kingdom by grace through faith, then God's judgment will come on all kinds of evil (2 Pet. 3:10-13), destroying wicked people and everything tainted by wickedness utterly, and re-creating the universe (Rev. 20-22).
  4. Mercy. We object to suffering and death because we think that our sins are outweighed by our sufferings when in fact the opposite is true. If the Christian doctrine of Hell is true (and it is), then we deserve an eternity of conscious punishment not later, but now. Yet God does not judge that way immediately, not because He doesn't see us suffering, but because He wants that suffering to produce repentance instead of Hell.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Monday Morning Humor

I don't quite know Miss Jane would think, but I think this is part of what's missing from Regency romance books. I mean, if this kind of thing were in there, a guy wouldn't feel like he has to turn in his man card to read it:

On another, even lighter note, there are also these attempts at making classic literature a little more, shall we say, mass market...

Thursday, July 22, 2010


God's grace is the strangest, most foreign concept in all the world. There is a certain radical unfairness about not getting what I deserve, and receiving what I haven't earned. There is certainly nothing quite analogous to it in my human interactions and experience. I think that's at least part of the reason why I find confessing my sins difficult (other than pride, I mean). I think sometimes it's just hard for me to accept and really believe the idea that God grants forgiveness as soon as I willingly repent and confess. 1 John 1:9 is about as radical a truth as I've ever encountered: "cleanse us from all unrighteousness" if we simply confess?

I confess that there is a big part of me which wants to try to do something after the fact which will clean me up and make me more presentable to God (at least in my eyes), rather than simply coming as I am, a broken and dirty ragamuffin, weighed down by the consequences of my own sinfulness, and deeply in need of cleansing and unburdening. I want to somehow work my way back to where I was before I fell into sin. But that's emphatically not what God expects of me. In fact, He finds my attempts at righteousness apart from Him offensive, because they indicate that I believe such a thing is possible, in spite of my fallenness when His Word says it is not. I can't make up for past failure by better performance in the future. I can simply receive forgiveness-wild, untamed, unearned, unmerited and free, against which nothing in this world compares and to which the only appropriate reaction is awestruck worship and thankfulness.

Sometimes a lyric says it better than I can. Here's some wise words from an old school Christian rocker:
What do I see
You draggin' up here
Is that for your atoning?
I know you're sorry
I've seen your tears
You don't have to show Me
What makes you think you must
Make that go away
I forgot
When I forgave
I wish you would

Just come in
Just leave that right here
Love does not care
Just come in
Lay your heart right here
You should never fear

You think you've crossed
Some sacred line
And now I will ignore you
If you look up
You will find
My heart is still toward you
Look at the sky
The east to the west
That's where I threw this
When you first confessed
Let it go now


I will forgive you
No matter what you've done
No matter how many times
You turn and run
I love you
I wish you'd come