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


Summertime Highlights

One of the big reasons for my relative lack of posts lately is that, well, it's summertime and I want to enjoy it, since I know that there are six months of winter coming soon. Here's a few highlights from this summer in our family:
  • Karen and I celebrated 14 blessed years of marriage while on The Horn Herd's excellent western adventure: We saw family in Wichita, got our kicks on Route 66, saw the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon, walked across Hoover Dam, drove the "fabulous" Las Vegas strip, hiked Zion National Park, toured Salt Lake City, were inmates (briefly!) at the Wyoming Territorial Prison (including Butch Cassidy's cell there), counted pronghorns, lizards, elk, and jackrabbits, and visited old friends.
  • Sara is rocking red, white, and blue braces, cut her hair short and is growing into a young lady before our eyes. (Which basically freaks me out, but has led to a lot of fervent prayer).
  • Ashley is stylin' in her new glasses, and reveling in the natural world. I'm trying to encourage her love of rocks while being truly mystified by the fascination they hold for her.
  • John learned to ride a bike without training wheels (at long last!) and got his tonsils out. He is also reading like a fiend and taking frequent trips to "John World," where Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, pirates, and cowboys and Indians dwell in prosperity, and where it seems even radio transmission is impossible.
  • Nathan is still as rambunctious as can be, and continues to indulge in his love of the heroic. He has most costume changes than a Broadway play-cop to fireman to cowboy to football star to soldier of fortune, Luke Skywalker to Buzz Lightyear-all in the same day and often in the same hour. I'm just happy we're keeping clothes on that boy and that he still loves to pounce on and then wrestle with the Big Dog every chance he gets.
  • We've been blessed to see my sister Kristen and her husband James and their daughters this summer. Two years in China and three months home is too short, but we tried to make the most of it. Family is precious, and we've gotten to be at home, all of us, together at Mom's several times this summer.
  • We've been going to the movies a bit this summer, which isn't typical for us. So far, we've enjoyed Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me as a family and Karen and I really liked the new A-Team (I know what the critics say, but I still think Liam Neeson is better than George Peppard as Hannibal).
  • I'm in a weight loss contest with Karen and a couple friends. The winner will take home a little over $500. I'm winning so far, with 3.4% lost to this point, but it's a long road between here and December 30th.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Bob Newhart, counselor

I've been doing a lot of counseling lately. Mostly, I really enjoy doing this, in that I get the privilege of helping people integrate the Scriptures into their lives. But this is just about the most hilarious video about counseling EVER. I wonder what would happen to my counselees if I started offering this advice?

Soup Kitchens and Salvation, Part 3 (of 3)

I am passionate about evangelism. I don't apologize for this because I believe that people really do have the opportunity to either receive the new life that is found through faith in Christ or else spend eternity separated from Him. And if God is using me as a herald, warning people to flee the wrath to come, then I'm happy to shout loud for Him. As a result, I've spent a lot of time not only thinking about how best to share Christ with others, but also doing it. I've tried a lot of different forms: door-to-door, street preaching, congregational messages, small group evangelistic studies, and eyeball-to-eyeball over a cup of coffee. I have also been able, through my role as a pastor in two different churches, to distribute a substantial amount of money and material resources to needy people in Jesus' name.

And as I thought about it, I realized that while I have had people (in some cases dozens) come to faith in Christ by the Spirit as He spoke the Gospel through me, I've yet to see even one person come to faith in Christ through material assistance. And so, while I don't think Christians have no calling to improve the culture and society around them through material assistance and similar ministries, I do think that Gospel proclamation (in all of its forms!) take precedence and should do so even in "compassion ministries."

And since this is my last post on this topic (at least for a while), let me conclude it with a few stray thoughts about the whole interplay between Gospel proclamation and "good deed doing."
  1. The Gospel is primarily a message not an act or even a lifestyle. While the Gospel certainly has implications for our lifestyle and our actions toward others, it is not seeing/experiencing those things which saves people, but believing the words of the Gospel. Thus, where the message is not proclaimed, the person draws no closer to Jesus and saving faith.
  2. There are far more people who will take our money than will hear our message. This is perhaps a somewhat crass way of putting things, but most of the people who have ever approached one of the churches I have served are simply looking for "any port in a storm," and aren't interested in the beliefs of the people who offer such ports. There is far more of a sense of expectation (i.e., "You should help me, because you're the Church") than there is gratitude, nevermind any curiosity about why strangers should be so generous and kind. Compassion ministries are good in themselves, but let's not deceive ourselves into thinking they are good substitutes for meeting people's deepest needs, or even particularly helpful in getting them to recognize them.
  3. Many Christians use money to assuage their guilt over their lack of evangelism. Okay, no here's where I know I'm going to step on some toes. But my observation is that there are far more people happy to pay their "atonement money" to a foreign missionary who will go overseas and share the Gospel with a distant people group than there are people willing to walk across the street and befriend their non-Christian neighbors in hopes of leading them to Christ. I suspect the same is true of a great many young evangelicals who are now championing compassion ministries (at least in part) to soothe their guilt over the fact that they've never personally shared the Gospel with anyone.
  4. "Woe to you when all men speak well of you" is still true. Jesus knew that being approved of by society and cultural leaders was not the highest goal. A lot of evangelicals lament that we are not held in higher esteem by the wider culture. I wonder if that's as much a problem as we think it is, and if getting that approval should ever be a goal. I am not willing to compromise Scriptural moral standards ("Be holy as I am holy" along with all that is involved therein) nor Scriptural mandates ("Preach the Gospel to all creation") in order to win the temporary applause of the crowd. Yet increasingly, that seems to be the direction that the evangelical church is leaning, to its shame and detriment.
Your thoughts?