Monday, December 24, 2012

At just the right time: A Christmas Meditation

The following is adapted from my Christmas Eve message:

We wait all year for Christmas to come and now, it’s almost here. Tomorrow is Christmas. It’s time to worship and celebrate the coming of the Son. Since I am tasked with a significant role each year in leading the celebrations that we make at Chilli Bible, I get the magnificent luxury, each year, of spending significant time thinking about the wonder and meaning of Christmas, about why we celebrate and how.

I really can’t quite imagine what it must have been like, all those generations back, to stand or kneel beside a manger in a little barn and, amidst the animals, the mess, and the exhausted but beaming mother and father, knowing that the little child staring up at you with eyes that can’t yet focus is nevertheless the Creator God and Savior of humanity. The awe of being there must have been intense. And the incongruity of seeing God in baby clothes, never mind seeing Him face-to-face, lying helpless in a feed trough, must have been almost literally mind-blowing, a reality too overwhelming for your brain circuits to process.

And yet…And yet, it was the fulfillment of centuries upon centuries of prophetic expectation, given with enough detail that every priest in the land knew the place and family of Messiah. Every pious Jew would have known he was coming and anticipated it with joy. But for many of the years of Israel’s long and troubled history, it must have been like living through a year in which Christmas might come, only to get to the end of the year and find that it didn’t come after all, and to think, “Maybe next year.” And then, finally, it did come, at long last.

In a verse we don’t normally associate with Christmas, the Apostle Paul describes Christmas this way:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. ~ Galatians 4:4-5 
 “When the fullness of time had come” carries with it the idea that Jesus didn’t just show up on the scene in some sort of grand and glorious divine surprise. He didn’t arrive because God had failed to account for humanity’s Fall into sinfulness and so God then decided to intervene on a whim. No, Jesus’ coming was part of God’s explicit plan from before there was a humanity, even before there was time itself. John tells us in Revelation that “the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:18). God knew that given the choice, humanity would reject the path of obedience and continued communion with Him and go its own way. He knew the Fall would happen. He planned therefore for the coming of the Messiah even before He made either people or the universe they would inhabit. And down through the years between the Fall and that first Christmas, the words of the prophets echoed closer and closer, like the footsteps of a man approaching down the tiles in a darkened hallway, until finally, he stepped into the light at just the right time, in accordance with all that God was doing in His grand plan and in a way that would make his arrival both unmistakable and fulfill all the prophecies He had sent to His prophets.

 And Paul reminds us here in Galatians 4 that "God sent forth His own Son." Jesus was not a mere man, specially empowered by God to fulfill certain tasks and purposes, like Moses or Joshua or David or Abraham. No, he was a man, but far more than that. He was the actual incarnation of the Second Person of the Triune God. He is God in the flesh, Deity with a fingerprint and toenails and taste buds. He was "born of woman, just like every human being, so that He might share their nature and thus be capable of bearing their sin, for as Gregory of Nazianzus taught centuries ago, “what is not assumed is not healed.” He had to be fully God to be capable of saving all humanity by his death. He had to be fully human to be a perfect substitute and sacrifice for human sin. Thus God took on a fully human nature.

He lived, as Paul says, “under the law,” meaning he was fully subject to God’s law and the penalties those who violated it incurred. The fact that He is God could allow Him no “King’s X,” no special exemption from the requirements that He, as God, had placed on His creatures once He became one of them. He had to keep the Sabbath, just as He required of His people. He had to be circumcised, observe the feasts, make the sacrifices required on the appointed days, attend worship at the synagogues and the Temple. He had to conduct himself in relationship with others just as He required of us. And when he was falsely accused of blasphemy, which was the crime for which he was eventually wrongfully condemned to death, He had to go the cross. It was the penalty God had decreed, so it was the penalty His Son paid. Jesus lived his life, from beginning to end, subject to God’s law.

And then as you look at this verse, you see that marvelous transition, that magnificent conjunction, which in Greek is the little word “hina,” but appears in the ESV simply as “to” and “so that.” If you’re in a scholarly mood, it’s a conjunction giving the purpose or result of God’s plan being carried out, which is: “to redeem those under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Under the terms of the divine Law, we all stand condemned. We all justly deserve death for the rebellion and treason against the God who made us that we commit every time we sin by word, thought, or deed. So God sent the Son to redeem us, to purchase our lives with His, to satisfy the righteous requirement of the Law in a way that does not result in our death, but in His. And he did all these things, according to His magnificent sovereign plan so that we might receive adoption as sons. God might have redeemed us in order to make us servants. He might have simply set us free to follow our own desires, but freed from the penalty of sin, like a banker who cancels a debt but doesn’t want much to do with you afterward. Instead, he redeemed us to make us His sons! He sent the Son to His death so that we could be joint heirs of all that He possesses and all that He is with His only begotten Son, Jesus.

What can we say? How can we ever exhaust the need for worship of the God who has worked such great salvation for us? Though we celebrate Christmas once a year, every day ought, for the Christian to be in some ways, a Christmas celebration; a life lived in light of the fact that Jesus Christ came into the world to save us from sin and death by becoming sin and tasting death for us. Thus, we have life that is truly life. Thus we have reason to say to one another today, and every day, “Merry Christmas.”

Merry Christmas to you. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas in Newtown

Last week, a murderer went on a rampage in a locked schoolhouse, killing 26 people before turning the gun on himself. And whenever things like this happen, the question is always asked: “Where was God?” That question is often asked, but it is seldom given a good answer. As a Christian, I believe that the Bible provides good answers to many of life's toughest questions, including that one. And one of the answers is provides, believe it or not, is Christmas. I can tell you that I love Christmas as much as the next guy. I love the stockings, the tree, the candy, the spiral hams, the parties, the Christmas music, the gifts, the cold and snow that hopefully will show up then. I love it all! I’m still a big kid, basically, when it comes to Christmas.

But Christmas, as anyone who has listened to Linus each year could tell you, isn’t really about any of those things, nice as they are. What it’s really about is how the God who made us loved us and invaded our world. He came on a rescue mission to put right the world we broke (and continue to break) and to do it in a way that doesn’t involve destroying all of us for the evil that lurks in our hearts. Christmas is about that, about God not only loving us, but loving us enough to wade into the darkness of this world and take that very darkness and the punishment it justly deserves upon Himself so that the world and its people would be healed from it and restored to relationship with Him. Christmas is about how God isn’t removed, watching us from a distance, like some absentee landlord, but willing to wade into the muck and mire of human life as one of us to deliver us from the destruction we by nature bring on ourselves and everyone around us.

Ever since the Fall in the Garden, every single human human being has flung himself or herself headlong into rebellion against God. That rebellion takes many forms, from pride, coveting, lust, greed, and other common, nigh unto "respectable" sins, to the darker ones like hatred, immorality, wrath, idolatry, rage, adultery, murder, and yes, schoolhouse shootings. All of it is fruit from the same tree, which is a twisted heart, bent away from God. Which is why whatever "solutions" we come up with to prevent the next example of this kind of evil may succeed in the short run, but will not eliminate evil from our society. As Solzhenitsyn said, "the line of good and evil cuts through every human heart. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" There are only two solutions: either eliminate all the dark hearted people (which is all of us!) or change the hearts of men.Without changed hearts, we will never run out of tragedies and examples of the deep evil present within human beings. Next week will probably bring another one. In fact, so will a good look in the mirror.

But the joy of Christmas is that Jesus came, just like God promised over and over and over through the Hebrew Scriptures. He is the Seed of the Woman, the son of Judah, the true Passover Lamb, the son of David, the Son of God, who had a ministry that began Galilee and ended with his rejection and death. God used heinous evil committed against His own son to bring restoration from and forgiveness for evil to all who will trust in Him. That is what Christmas is all about. That is the reason we celebrate Jesus’ birth, the certain knowledge that all the things in the world that are not as they should be will not always be the way they are. Indeed, we human beings, who have the most the do with the reason the world is the way it is, have the opportunity to be made right. That is God’s reason for Christmas, His Christmas gift to us.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The pull of the old ways...

Yesterday was my day off. I try as hard as I can to ensure that as little of my life is consumed by ministry on Mondays as possible. I don't usually answer the phone, don't usually go the office, or work on anything remotely pastoral. Instead, I spent the day hanging out with Karen, going for a run, and taking a nap. It's my small attempt at maintaining some helpful "margin" in my otherwise crazy life. As part of the day, we watched a little Michael Strahan and Kelly Ripa, who were interviewing Hugh Jackman (Valjean in the Les Miserables movie) and listening to Richard Marx (last seen in the 80's doing Right Here Waiting for You). Jackman was engaging, funny and, in the clip of film I saw, amazing as Jean Valjean. But what was really interesting was Richard Marx. He sang Casting Crowns' version of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. As long-time readers of this humble blog know, this is my all-time favorite Christmas hymn. The lyrics are based on a Longfellow poem written in 1863 at the height of the Civil War, after Longfellow's own son had gone to join the fight for the Union.

The carol's third verse is: "And in despair I bowed my head. 'There is no peace on earth,' I said. 'For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth goodwill to men.' And this is the verse that concluded Marx's rendition for Kelly and Michael. It ended despairing, with perhaps a glimmer of hope in the chorus about "peace on earth, goodwill to men," but without any real basis for that hope. For some reason he left off the final verse, which is: "Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, 'God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth goodwill to men.'" Without God, there is no hope. Without a living God, able to help, desires for peace and goodwill on earth will remain that, simply desires.

I think that in many ways, this rendition of the song is a metaphor for our culture here at the end of 2012. We still love the ancient traditions, the old songs, and the old ways, but without the substance on which they are based. We want "peace on earth, goodwill to men," but without the intervention of the Savior on whom that certain, though yet future, hope is based. We want brides in white dresses and church weddings, but without the chaste living the dress symbolizes. We want a middle class lifestyle, but without the work such a life requires. We want a powerful nation without any sacrifice of life or treasure, liberty without responsibility, and the whole world to bend around our individual desires. These are hopes and dreams that are bound to be dashed because they do not align with truth or correspond to reality.

Yet here at Christmas, the pull of the old ways is perhaps at its strongest, because even as we dash around making merry, we remember what really matters: faith in God, family, and living well by doing good. My Christmas prayer is that the old ways would not be forgotten when the last of the lights are stored away, that the basis for our hope at Christmas would not go unmentioned, and that we as a people would once again "seek for the ancient pathways" and find our Lord and Savior standing at the end of them.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Success at long last

I took up archery hunting  about four years back, mostly as a good excuse to hang out with my dad. We love to be together, and hunting has always been our way of hanging out. (Which reminds me that it's been a year or so since we have hunted together. Time to rectify that).

Anyway, I had been an archer of sorts when I was a kid, but I hadn't ever gotten around to getting a real bow when I became a man. Old reflexes quickly come back, and new bows are easier to shoot with than ever, but I hadn't actually ever gotten to full draw and shot at anything other than targets. For. four. long. years. This was the result despite having places to go and going regularly. There just never seem to be an opportunity when it all came together: seeing a deer, having it in range, and being able to get drawn and make the shot.

Well, all that changed this past Tuesday. It was about 8:45 a.m. and the woods had been quiet except for a coon ambling through at about 6:30, which I had been sorely tempted to shoot. It was not warm, and I was consequently starting to think about all the work awaiting me at the office and why I was, once again, sitting in an empty woods when I could have been getting something productive done. (It's nice to be in the woods, but if you're not seeing anything, it becomes harder to justify doing that when the mercury dips). So I decided I would stay in my stand another 15 minutes, then get down, swap out the disk in my trail camera, and head to work. About five minutes later, I see a grey blur down in the creek bottom. It's too big and the wrong color for a squirrel, but I can't see the whole animal. A minute later there's more movement, and I see a doe, and chasing her, a small buck.

My luck is changing, at least potentially. The doe runs up the hill toward the thicket where my stand is located, followed shortly by the buck. He loses her in the thicket, and for a while, I am catching glimpses of a deer behind me, though I cannot tell which one. A few minutes go by and the buck appears at the big scrape to my right. He is through the brush, and I have no clear shot, but while he is leaving his mark at the scrape, I stand slowly and prepare to shoot him. He hears the movement, and is on edge, but he can neither smell me nor see me move, so he simply stomps stiff legged and begins moving toward me. At 10 yards, he stops behind a small tree. His head is obscured, along with the rest of his body, but I can see his neck and front shoulder, so I get to full draw. After a long wait, he is still standing, unmoved from the spot. My injured left shoulder (long story for another time), is screaming at me to release the arrow. My brain is saying, "Wait. Wait for the lung shot. Aim small. Miss small." Eventually, the shoulder starts winning and tells the brain: "Neck is vital you idiot. SHOOT!" The arrow flies and buries itself nearly to the fletching at the base of the buck's neck. He runs and I see the crash as the laurels shake and the end comes. I wait the requisite 1/2 hour, using the time to text my hunting partner and my dear bride ("We've got meat for the winter, honey!"). We find the deer after a short track through the thicket, piled up near a log and looking for all the world like a trophy.

 I haven't been this excited as a hunter since the first time I got a deer, out with my dad, some 25 years ago now. He's not the biggest one I've ever gotten, but he represents the end of a long road and for that, I find myself both excited and thankful.

Wild pheasants and good friends

Last Saturday, I got the rare opportunity to hunt wild pheasants at one of the state pheasant production areas. On opening day, no less. It's 100 acres of the most beautiful pheasant habitat imaginable. There are standing milo and corn crops interspersed with thick grass and mowed strips intersecting it all to make it easier to control and push. We moved a total of 12 birds that morning, including 6 hens. And here I thought the odds of finding wild birds in Illinois were about the same as finding a wild, free-range T-rex. But no, it turns out that the birds just need a place suited for them to thrive, just like the guys at Pheasants Forever keep preaching. We managed to get two roosters total in the bag, and mine was served at the hunter's brunch at my house on Tuesday morning. It had been a long time, and fried pheasant had never tasted quite so good!

Here's Marty Davis and me, at the end of a long morning's walk:

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Funniest Bible Verse Ever!

You need to watch this for your spiritual health. It will make you laugh, I promise. And "laughter is good, like medicine" (Proverbs 17:22).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A time for choosing

It's quite possible that I am getting curmudgeonly in my old age (though I haven't yelled at any kids to get off my lawn in a while), but I find I have less and less patience with those who say they have come to faith in Christ yet do not seek to obey Christ in any meaningful or difficult way. I seem to be meeting more and more Christians who are content to live with their girlfriend/boyfriend before marriage, who accept homosexual behavior as normal and even moral for some, who see no problem with gossip, or drunkenness, or swearing, or porn, or divorce, or cheating or pride. The only sins they renounce are hypocrisy and judgmentalism. But Christianity is more than being a nice person. It is a personal commitment to following the Risen Savior and reshaping your beliefs, your worldview, and your behavior, bringing them into conformity with and obedience to the Word of God empowered by the Spirit of God.

It's time for choosing. Either yes or no. It's like this famous scene from The Karate Kid, one of the iconic movies of my youth:
Mr. Kesuke Miyagi: Now, ready?
Daniel LaRusso: Yeah, I guess so.
Mr, Kesuke Miyagi: [sighs] Daniel-san, must talk. [they both kneel] Walk on road, hm? Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, [makes squish gesture] get squish just like grape. Here, karate, same thing. Either you karate do "yes", or karate do "no". You karate do "guess so", [makes squish gesture] just like grape. Understand?
Daniel LaRusso: Yeah, I understand.
Mr. Kesuke Miyagi: Now, ready?
Daniel LaRusso: Yeah, I'm ready.
Mr. Kesuke Miyagi: First make sacred pact. I promise teach karate. That my part. You promise learn. I say, you do, no questions. That your part
It really is this simple. We have made a "sacred pact" with Jesus. Some would even call that a "covenant." Part of the deal is that what He says, we believe and do. It's either Christianity do "yes" or Christianity do "no." There is no middle ground, no Christianity "guess so." And it's past time for us who follow Christ to allow that truth to transform our lives and quit pretending to follow Jesus if we aren't going to follow all the way. Either the Bible is true and Jesus is Lord or it isn't and He isn't. If it's not and Jesus is just another religious leader, then why not find something else to do with your life and time? But if Jesus is Lord (He is!) and the Bible is true (It is!), then it's time to get serious and stop wasting your life in "kinda Christianity."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Islam and barbarism

So on 9/11 enraged Muslims have killed a U.S. ambassador and assaulted the Egyptian embassy. This morning brought news that similar groups of the professionally enraged have attempted the same in Yemen. And predictably, we are witnessing the same self-flagellating members of the ruling class here in the U.S. reminding us once more that "Islam is peaceful" and these are "extremists." Apparently, this is to prevent us rubes out here in flyover country from drawing the entirely logical connection between the deepest beliefs of these excitable young lads and their actions. We are supposed to believe, instead, that the same people who insist that women must be subject to FGM and the sartorial equivalent of the burlap sack, that you may convert to Islam but never away from it, that Bin Laden is a martyr rather than a murdering thug, and so on have such finely honed sensitivities (sensitivities which are, evidently, not dissimilar to those of a land mine) that we do well to keep from offending them with provocative films and free speech critical of Islam, its "prophet" and its "holy" book.

I'm all for acting like a civilized person and not deliberately sticking a finger in anyone else's eye. Why unnecessarily provoke the perpetually provoked? War is a dirty business best avoided when possible, etc. That being said, it is better to die for freedom than to live in slavery and sometimes all some people understand is the business end of a gun. With such people, treading lightly is seen as weakness rather than forbearance and begets more of the same.

Moreover, it seems to me that the sort of people doing these atrocities are doing them specifically as expressions of Islam. Not being an Islamic scholar, who am I to tell them they are wrong? Moreover, Islamic institutions, such as Al-Azhar University (located, not coincidentally, in the recently much more Muslim Brotherhood friendly confines of Cairo) which are presumably full of Islamic scholars are telling them they are correct. So who is the fool here? It's past time to stop telling ourselves pretty lies and recognize that the views of the embassy raiders and ambassador killers have become the mainstream of the Middle East. That may be a scary reality, but at least it has the benefit of being reality rather than hopeful wishing.

Love and judgment

I read something an old friend wrote the other day. She said, "Love with judgment isn't love." I respectfully diagree. In fact, I think love without judgment is a good definition for indifference, which is first cousin to hatred. Who loves their child more, the parent who imposes boundaries, standards, and rules, even if they are temporarily hated by their child, or the parent who simply says, "Hey, whatever blows your hair back kid, go for it"? Absence of standards equals absence of caring about the other person at all. Reminds me of one of my favorite exchanges in Casablanca, where Peter Lorre's Ugarte asks Humphrey Bogart's Rick, "You despise me, don't you Rick?" Bogart answers, "If I gave you any thought at all, I would, yeah."

On to my larger point: My friend is a practicing lesbian who evidently believes that it isn't Christian love to warn people about the dangers of that life (spiritual, emotional, and physical). To this there are a couple possible responses: 1) Jesus frequently warned people against sin in the strongest possible terms (cutting off limbs, plucking out eyes, brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs, etc.), so doing as he did minus the graphic verbal images isn't non-Christian or unloving, at least not obviously so; and 2) Which is more loving, telling a friend you love that the road they are on is the broad highway leading to their destruction, or simply standing back and affirming them in their choices as you witness the train wreck their life becomes? How much do you have to hate someone not to warn them away from self-destruction?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Ministry Parable

This little poem by Charles Osgood used to hang on my paternal grandmother's fridge back in the day. Worth remembering when it comes to ministry in the church...

There was a most important job that needed to be done,

And no reason not to do it, there was absolutely none.
But in vital matters such as this, the thing you have to ask
Is who exactly will it be who'll carry out the task?

Anybody could have told you that Everybody knew
That this was something Somebody would surely have to do.
Nobody was unwilling; Anybody had the ability.
But Nobody believed that it was their responsibility.

It seemed to be a job that Anybody could have done,
If Anybody thought he was supposed to be the one.
But since Everybody recognized that Anybody could,
Everybody took for granted that Somebody would.

But Nobody told Anybody that we are aware of,
That he would be in charge of seeing it was taken care of.
And Nobody took it on himself to follow through,
And do what Everybody thought that Somebody would do.

When what Everybody needed so did not get done at all,
Everybody was complaining that Somebody dropped the ball.
Anybody then could see it was an awful crying shame,
And Everybody looked around for Somebody to blame.

Somebody should have done the job
And Everybody should have,
But in the end Nobody did
What Anybody could have.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

What is sin? A Meditation.

This may seem a quite basic question, and you may think this particular pastor has spent a bit too much time in his office. Doesn't everybody, even non-Christians, have a pretty solid idea what sin is? I mean, a whole lot could list at least 4 of the 10 commandments, and that would get you started at least, wouldn't it? That's true, but the question I'm asking is less "What kinds of things are sin?" and more "What makes sin sinful?"

A lot of people, including a lot of Christians, think of sin as being roughly equivalent to "breaking a rule." That is, life is something like a baseball game with God as Cosmic Umpire. Everybody knows the rules, knows that there are penalties for breaking them and, if they believe the Bible, understands the penalties for rule-breaking are ultimately severe. But there is a great sense that God's "rules," like the rules of baseball, are finally arbitrary, rooted in not much other than God's personal preferences. For example: There is no particular reason why a base runner should have to "tag up," why the strike zone should be where it is, why the distance between bases is precisely 90 feet and not, say, 150 feet, why there are three outs per team, per inning, or 9 innings in a standard game. The reasons are located in the essentially arbritrary decisions of Mr. Doubleday back when, added to 150 plus years of baseball tradition since. Likewise, many people think, there is no good reason beyond God's personal preferences why non-marital sex in all its forms,  drunkenness, coarse talk, pride, taking what isn't yours instead of working, rage, "and things like these" are all sinful instead of acceptable.

But such thoughts are off base in more ways than one. First, and most subtly, it is the very influence of sin upon us that leads us to think that God's moral laws are abritarily, rather than transcendantly, founded. We think "Well, I know I shouldn't, but since 'nobody's perfect,' isn't all this wrath and judgment business over my little indiscretions really all a bit much? Why is God so worked up about things?" But God's moral laws are not, in the final analysis, arbitrary. They are rooted in His character, in the kind of being He is and in the manner in which He as the Triune God exists and relates between the Persons. His moral law is based not on arbritary decisions: e.g., "I think I'll declare non-marital sex sinful instead of holy." Instead it is based on the facts of God's own character; the way that He behaves and the kind of being He is requires those specific commands be given to creatures who, after all, are made in His image to be like Him and partake of His nature (2 Peter 1:3-4).

Moreover, because sin is not simply the breaking of some arbritary rule, we need to see it for what it is: An attempt to declare revolution, dethroning God and putting us in His place. When we sin what we are saying is that we are sufficient bases to determine the true, the right, and the good, that our character exceeds that of God, and that we, rather than God should ultimately be followed and obeyed. It is, in all of its varieties an attempt (to borrow a phrase from D. A. Carson) to "de-God God." It's not just rule-breaking; it's rebellion, treason, sedition, a miniature revolt against our Creator in whose image we are made. Thus when we sin we aren't simply choosing to do other than God would want; we are setting ourselves up as God and telling the real one to shuffle off. That act of traitorous war-making on God, which we repeat every. single. time that we sin is really sinful and why its just penalty is death.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Holding the line

It seems to me that the hardest thing in the world is to preach and believe the Bible as it lies on the page. It is quite easy, by contrast, to depart either to the right or to the left. If we depart to the right, we become one or another variety of fundamentalist, who seek to make the Bible say more than it in fact does, or make it speak clearly about issues on which it either has little to say or leaves freedom for the individual believer's conscience. Thus, fundamentalists warned us against the evils of coffee, games played with cards (even if there was no money involved), Bible translations other than the KJV, songs other than the ones in their hymn book, even non-intoxicating levels of drinking, playing games on Sundays, interpretations of eschatology other than pre-trib/pre-mil, and so on. These warnings elevated matters of either personal choice or conviction to matters of "biblical" obedience, often out of good motives, but nevertheless restricted people's freedom to follow Jesus as He might lead.

We are not, thankfully, in much danger of the evangelical church re-embracing the excesses of fundamenatlism. To do so would be a serious departure from Gospel and one from which I am glad that evangelicalism has largely escaped. But we are, I think, in danger of an equally serious one: departing from the Gospel to the left. By that, I mean all the variety of the ways that we remove from our beliefs that which we no longer wish to discuss or affirm. In some churches, this means not preaching through books of the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament, because that might bring up things we'd rather not discuss. This has led, unsurprisingly, to staggering levels of biblical ignorance as people with no sense of the broad sweep of the Bible don't know how it fits together or why the Old Testament is even there. It can also mean ignoring or minimizing passages that teach contrary to what we want to do. One particular favorite in this regard is 1 Timothy 2:12, which seems to offer a pretty much unconditional prohibition on women having teaching authority over men. Worst of all is the tendency to reduce the Gospel by making it more about serving people and doing nice things than warning them to flee the just wrath of God and embrace salvation and new life by grace through faith in Christ.

Thus the challenge is to hold to the line, proclaiming all that God says with fidelity. It means preaching and obeying the whole of Scripture, not just the parts we find most congenial. It means helping people understand how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament and why that matters. It means neither adding to, nor taking away, by either deliberate oversight or ignorance, what the Scripture has to say. It means especially that we keep the Gospel which saves people from death the center of all things and that we show how living in obedience is connected to that message no matter where we are in Scripture.

Evangelicals and the closet

A thought experiment regarding the current direction of our culture:
  1. Try to think of all the places outside of the evangelical Church where "coming out" LBGT would hurt your career prospects.
  2. Now try to think of all the places outside of the evangelical Church where "coming out" as a Bible-believing evangelical Christian would hurt your career prospects.
It is at least interesting to me to note that there are, if you think about it,  many more places where coming out evangelical would hurt your career advancement than coming out gay, lesbian, etc. We as a society no longer frown on what used to be defined as immorality. Now we celebrate that, and what we now condemn are what are seen as immoral and/or retrograde beliefs. Thus evangelicals are closeted and people engaged in all sorts of immorality no longer feel any shame: from fornicating to adultery, from porn to "friends with benefits" and all the variations of being gay, lesbian, etc., whatever blows your hair back is good, baby. Let your freak flag fly! It's a weird world, to say the least. Put more biblically, I am grieved to see non-Christians (and some Christians!) on the one hand becoming hard-hearted and calloused toward sin (Eph. 4:18-19) and on the other hand see Christians so afraid of the disapproval and jeers that we will not "come out of the closet" to share the Gospel with people who need most to find freedom from their slavery to lust.  

Be bold, my friends! A world gone crazy needs the life and freedom granting power of the Gospel now more than ever.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

All the Single Ladies

I have been a pastor now for close to 11 years. In that time, I've had my theology of sin regularly affirmed by both my own behavior and that of my parishioners. We truly are a depraved race of rebels, me included. But for whatever reason, there are some sins that I find more troubling than others. And one of the ones that bothers me a lot is the number of young Christian women I see who are willing to make serious compromises in their romantic lives for the sake of a relationship with a dude. I've dealt with this so often that I practically have a speech prepared. The speech itself doesn't usually work, since most people who are "in love" don't have ears to hear a rebuke, even if it is one delievered in love and with their long-term future in mind. But in the possibly vain hope that I will save someone a lifetime of heartache, here's the guts of "The Speech."
  1. Don't date and don't marry a non-Christian. Despite clear Scriptural teaching, lots of Christian girls wind up married to non-Christian men. This is because they so deeply long for a man to pursue and love them that his faith, or lack thereof, is deemed a non-issue. They may rationalize dating him on the hope he will come to Christ later. Some do. But most don't. And a man who says he is a Christian but who doesn't go to church is simply a liar. So is a man who can't articulate his faith in Christ-what he believes about Jesus. If I had a dollar for every woman I know who married a man who wasn't a believer and who wasn't interested in church when they were dating who now comes to church alone, I might not be rich, but I could definitely take Karen to a very nice dinner. Ladies, don't underestimate the value of common faith. It's a Scriptural command and that should be sufficient to obey. But please consider this too: if you want a deep connection at the heart level, you won't have it with a man who doesn't share the deepest commitments of your heart. Instead you will be frustrated, sad, and continually praying for God to break through to the man you love while you try to raise your children to know the God their father rejects. It's painful and God wants to spare you from it because He loves you.
  2. Don't date and don't marry a man who isn't a real man. I don't mean you need a guy who can rip a phone book in half with his bare hands or pull nails out of the wall with his fingers. I mean you want a man who is responsible, who can not only get, but also keep, a job and who works hard at the one he has. I mean you want a man who opens doors, pays his bills on time, doesn't live beyond his means, doesn't live with his mother beyond a year out of college, doesn't blame others for his failures, and who is a leader instead of a passive follower who lets you decide everthing. You want a man who treats you as a prize to be won and who will lay down his life for you, since daily doing that is what Scripture requires of him (Eph. 5:23). You want a man who has put away both childish things and immoral things. If some of these things aren't true, he isn't worth your time. You should walk away before you wind up married to a man who frustrates you for life.
  3. Keep your sexuality pure. Perhaps no commitment is harder to keep than that of reserving sex for marriage, especially when you are deeply in love. But keeping sex (in all its forms!) out of the equation actually helps your relationship immeasurably. First and foremost, doing so honors God, who set it up and blesses marriage and marriage alone as the appropriate context for that fire to burn. Second, purity keeps you from thinking you have more than you've got, mistaking committed love for emotions, hormones, and temporary passion. Third, it also guards your heart, so that do you do not wind up feeling used when the relationship ends (as most will). Fourth, godly men aren't attracted to ungodly women. A man who is really following Christ with all his heart won't find appeal in a woman who is only following Him with half of hers. Finally, when saved for marriage, there is a security, a depth of passion, and a freedom that comes from sharing sex with just your spouse that the promiscuous will never know.
  4. Be willing to wait. Lonely married is far lonelier than lonely single. Lonely single people have hope. Lonely married people are often hopeless, having long since resigned themselves to the idea that this is as good as it will ever be. Don't be one of them. Wait for the Christian man who truly is a Christian man.

Apostasy and Apologetics

Apologetics begins out of a genuine heart for lost people and a deep desire to see them embrace the faith in Jesus Christ which will give them new life in both the present and eternity. And it also begins with the recognition that a great many things Christians believe are confusing, hard to swallow, or otherwise totally alien to average unbeliever in general and to the apologist's non-Christian friends in particular. And underlying all apologetic efforts is a passionate conviction, even if left unarticulated, that if the faith can be sufficiently clarified, explained and rightly presented, then the non-Christian(s) that the apologist loves will intend place his/her/their trust in Christ and be saved from sin, death, and hell. In other words, apologetics begins with noble motives of love for the non-Christian.

However, it can and often does turn quickly toward apostasy. It frequently proves a short jump from "clarifying and explaining the faith correctly" to softening it down to a level felt to be more palatable, removing hard teachings, sharp corners, and rough edges. The apologist's motivation often leads to simply eliminating or explaining away scriptural statements that, on their face, are pretty clear and don't require much explanation. For example, no one reading the New Testament, and in particular Jesus' teaching on the subject, can come away from that concluding that Hell is something other than a place of eternal conscious torment away from God's presence or that consignment to that place is anything less than permanent. Likewise, there is no biblical evidence supporting women as elders/pastors or having teaching authority over men, the holiness of homosexual relationships of whatever label or type, or a view of Scripture as less than the authoritative, divinely inspired, inerrant Word of God.

Yet today, we find evangelical pastors and leaders espousing all of these views. Why? I think in most cases, it is because they find the actual teaching of Scripture in these areas too hard, presenting too high an obstacle for the unbeliever to clear to come into the Kingdom of God. To put it as charitably as possible, their apologetic desire for people to come to Christ stands in the way of faithfully preaching the Word of Christ. And though their love for people and desire for them to enter God's Kingdom is commendable in itself, it is loaded with serious problems.

Number one, it rests on the assumption that God didn't really mean it, or that the Bible isn't "fully" (i.e., in every place) inspired, or that there is some "trajectory" or arc from Scripture to the current day from which we can infer a different teaching about hard passages than the Bible itself presents. That is problematic in itself, since the Scripture's unreliability about "hard" teaching doesn't exactly fill a person with confindence about "easy" teachings like Jesus' death and resurrection as the hope of forgiveness and eternal life. But the bigger problem is that it sets up the apologist himself or herself as the final arbiter of truth, determining what is truly biblical and what isn't. And as a basis for building a new life, that's a pretty shaky foundation.

Number two, it assumes the apologist is "more gracious" or "more loving" than God. If it is true that the Bible is indeed God's Word (and if it isn't, then the whole debate is absurd!), then the apologist's feeling that softening hard truths is better than leaving them hardened presumes that God is less interested in seeing people converted than the apologist. Yet the idea that humans love their fellow humans more than the God who sent His Son for the rebellious is not just wrong, it's blasphemous. Moreover, if God is really loving, then we must conclude that He gets to define what love is, and apparently, it includes telling people the real truth, hard edges and all. After all, which is better, telling a man with stage 4 cancer that he needs aggressive chemo, radiation, etc. or that he should go home and eat a fudgsicle and he will be fine? One is "harder" for sure, but that road is also the one that leads to life and freedom, while the other feels better but leads to death.

Number three, it does not produce what it promises. The dirty little secret of almost every effort to round off the corners of the Christian faith is that they do not produce converts. The people who bought Rob Bell's books, and Brian McLaren's, and countless others, from Schleiermacher's on back through time, were largely the disgruntled children of the orthodox and evangelical. They aren't reaching new people so much as helping people who find their parents' faith distasteful to still call themselves Christians. But such efforts lead not to a revitalization of the church, but to its decline. The last 20 years, which have witnessed the rise of both the megachurch and the "emerging church" as major influences in evangelicalism, and which have both sought, in divergent ways, to make Christianity "easier" have also witnessed a declining percentage of actual Christians.

Finally, it assumes that becoming a Christian is actually easier than it is. It is true that our message is so simple that even a child can understand it and believe it. But there is simply no easy way to tell someone that he or she is a sinner deserving of God's wrath, and that Jesus' death and resurrection is the only hope of eternal life. Nevertheless, those who try to cushion the blow for the non-Christian act as if the only thing separating  him/her from fully embracing the Gospel and the new life that flows from it is a good presentation of the right information and a decision to embrace it. But that's not actually true, at least not fully. What actually separates the person from God is the very sin we proclaim as part of our message. And that sin makes the transformation of a non-Christian into a Christian the most miraculous thing that can occur. Indeed, it is an impossible thing, apart from God's own power. We must therefore not forget our role: we are to proclaim the Gospel, hard edges and all, and God who is rich in mercy and love, will save those whom He has called.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Mission Oak Inn

A post or two back, I mentioned that Karen and I had a belated anniversary celebration at the Mission Oak Inn. It's probably the loveliest B&B, with the best food and most beautiful setting, that we have ever stayed in. Plus, Denny and Jan, the proprietors, are some truly delightful Christian people. We are already making plans to go back there every year as a way to celebrate our marriage together. If you live in the area, it's well worth the money.

My Extreme Run

Saturday was my first attempt at an "extreme" run, which is basically a 5k cross country run, with obstacles. The obstacles were:
  • a 100' slip and slide
  • a 14' ladder wall
  • a 20' military crawl through sand under ropes
  • an 8' wall climbed using a rope.
  • crawl through two 3' diameter culvert pipes, half submerged in a muddy pit
  • run though 50' of muddy field
  • run 4 up/down sand hills
  • go over, under, through, and over 4' walls
  • race through a maze of 55 gallon drums
  • walk a 100' balance beam, consisting of 2"x8"s balanced on edge in a zig-zag pattern
  • military crawl through 100' of mud pit under ropes (glad it wasn't barbed wire!)
  • swim 20' under ropes through a muddy water pit
I finished the race 63rd overall, with a time of 37:34. It was a LOT of fun, much more so than your typical road race. I am definitely going to sign up for another one. I hear that the Spartan Race is pretty amazing, and the Warrior Dash looks like a good time too. Any compatriots out there looking to join me at the next one?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cub Scout Day Camp

As I mentioned in my last post, the boys and I have spent the last three days at Cub Scout Day Camp, which means we have had three full days of all the BB guns, archery, leather work, knots, human foosball, crafts, drag racecars, DNR visits, flag ceremonies, Scout skills, and Slip and Slides that we can handle. Nathan and I got to be together all day every day, while we only saw John at lunch and the beginning and end of the day. It was a total blast, but they were some long, very hot, days. Below are some pictures:

 Nathan with Animal Jim's Mammoth Mercury: 2000 horses under that hood...

 We missed the balloon, but we hit the target, Dad. That's good isn't it?

TWO Bullseyes, Dad! Woot! Woot!

 John with the Mammoth Merc. He is probably more interested in how to make the car that fast in the quarter mile, whereas Nate would be the one who would want to actually drive it...

 John got to lead the flag ceremony one evening, giving the commands to the color guard in front of him.

 Nate and human foosball.

 Nate and BB guns. He has already put in his request for a Red Ryder to come his way this next birthday. I think he's pretty sure he could resolve Mom's rabbit problem.

Nate got to be part of the color guard raising the flag one morning.

Where you been?

Contrary to what may have been the impression that I have left of late, I have not traveled to the edge of the earth and fallen off. Here's what I have been up to:

Immediately after the kids' school year ended, Karen and I cut out with them for parts South, specifically 7 days at Walt Disney World and two days at New Smyrna Beach. We were one exhausted, tanned, happy, sandy bunch on our return, which was good because...

Our church's associate pastor had resigned his position to become a senior pastor at a church in Washington state and his last Sunday was just four days after Karen and I returned, sans kids from Indiana, where we had left them for the next week-and-a-half to party while we got caught up with life, laundry, and each other. I had just enough time to wade through approximately 250 emails, send some belated birthday and anniversary cards out to parishioners, open the mail, and write a sermon before Sunday came and we said tearful goodbyes to Jim, Darci, and Lucy.

That Sunday night, Karen and I checked into the Mission Oak Inn, finally making use of a gift certificate for that place which we had been given for Pastor Appreciation back in '09 (I think! It's been a while in any case). It was also something of a belated anniversary celebration for us since we were enjoying the actual day with our kids rather than alone. We ate field green salad with garden tomatoes and peach balsamic vinaigrette, linguini with alfredo, garden peas, giant scallops, and shrimp followed by chocolate cheesecake. The  next morning was cool and beautiful, with a mist rising over the lake and fields, and a breakfast of good strong coffee accompanied by southwestern eggs and stuffed French toast. We spent the day up in Bolingbrook shopping and hanging out together, ate lunch at Ikea and shared crackers and cheese with something bubbly that night. The next morning was another elegant breakfast then back to work and home, hitting the ground running, especially since we started leading youth group until we find a new associate for our church.

That Thursday we picked up my truck, which finally had its bumper repaired (don't ask), and we packed for Indiana again to get the kids. We left on Friday, returned with them Saturday, at which point detox from their long vacation began. Sunday was ministry and worship, and Monday started a new whirlwind week. Monday-Wednesday was Cub Scout Day Camp for the boys and me, with stops by me along the way to do Skype interviews with the Elders and a couple of our leading candidates for our new associate pastor, and lead the morning men's Bible study and youth group. Meanwhile, Karen has run Sara to summer sectional flute lessons, and Ashley to World of Wonder classes down at Bradley, where she is learning all about drama and acting (skills I hope she keeps confined to the stage and doesn't bring into the house!). All of which brings me up to today and this humble blog, which if you are still reading, ought to give you a reward of some kind, because I am freshly tired again from thinking about the whirlwind of life we have been living. But all of that to say, here's where we've been, I'm hopeful life will settle a bit in weeks to come, and there's a lot of things I've meant to write about that I haven't yet, so stay tuned...

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pinky, are you pondering what I'm pondering?

It's time to take over the world!

I've been pondering Pinky and the Brain lately for a couple reasons. One, we bought the complete 3rd season for our family entertainment on our way to Florida. And two, I have lately been seeing a lot of the Brain in my children. Two of them in particular have developed the attitude of "Let justice be done, though the heavens fall!" And in their minds, justice always involves their vindication as being right and life, from the distribution of Power-Ade to the age at which a person can be compensated for mowing the grass must come out perfectly fair, lest the parental unit be accused of injustice. Moreover, since life is inherently unequal, the cry "It's not fair!" has become a relative constant at our house. Thus the similarity to the Brain, who thinks that all would be right with the world, if only he were King over it. My kids really do think that and long for the day "When I am grown up..." so that life will always bend their direction.

On further reflection though, I find the same dynamic at work in most of us. It's an election year, which means we are in the process of choosing which particular megalomaniac we like best, and which world altering vision we find most compatible with our own. Closer to home, we think that if only our vision for our homes, or our churches could be fully enacted, then all would be right and good. The problem is that all of us are like Kramer and George playing Risk in the classic Seinfeld episode: "Two people playing a game of world domination who can't even run their own lives." None of us is really capable of being fair or has any real sense of justice. Instead, what we are really after is a way of regularly tilting life our direction, of taking the world over and remaking it so that it pleases us.

But what's funny in a cartoon or a sitcom is frustrating and sad when I see it in my children and terrifying when given free reign in a government. Indeed, the desire for that kind of power goes back to the Garden and the Serpent's original lie: "You will be like the Most High." For that reason we must put to death the pride within us that drives us to make life bend our way and instead bend the knee to the only One who is truly just, and who set each person in the place He designed, according to his gracious and loving, but not fully "fair," plan and purpose.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Warning for my Reformed Brethren

I'm a reformed pastor. I use the small "r" because I do not find myself fitting comfortably in the capital "R" reformed tradition, since I believe in believer's baptism, pre-tribulational, pre-millennial eschatology, and a future for ethnic Israel as the restored "natural branches" who will return to God after the times of the Gentiles are completed (Rom. 11).

That said, I find a lot to enjoy among my "big R" brethren. I find their commitments to the inerrant Scriptures, the doctrines of grace, and the revelation of Christ in all the Scriptures refreshing in our mushy evangelical world. I love their appreciation for church history and the consequent realization that the Christian life did not begin and will not end with them. I love the emphasis on expository preaching as the way which brings the Scripture to life such that God is allowed to speak old words to new days. I have attended and deeply benefited from their conferences (Together for the Gospel and the Gospel Coalition) and look forward to going again the future for soul refreshment and the encouragement that only comes from the Word of God faithfully preached and the fellowship of the saints.

That said, I am deeply concerned about some of the things I see in the broader Cool Calvinists movement:
  1. The inability to disagree in an irenic way. I see this in everything from John MacArthur's well-publicized theological shiv for those who disagree with him on alcohol use to the commenters on the average theology blog, most of which comments I can no longer read for this very reason. There simply has to be some setting between "not a big deal" and "bury the needle." The sky is not falling nor is someone a hypocrite, a false teacher, or a heretic simply because he or she disagrees with you. This is closely related to #2, which is...
  2. Pride. We who hold to the doctrines of grace are right about many important things, but it is simply arrogance to assume we are personally correct about them all. We do well to remember that we are not the definition of theologically orthodoxy, nor does disagreement with me (whoever "me" is) equal departure from "the faith once for all delivered to all the saints."
  3. Exclusion. I never cease to find it odd that while Reformed Charismatics like C.J. Mahaney and Mark Driscoll are welcomed, Reformed Dispensationalists are the treated like the proverbial red-headed stepchild. Chuck Swindoll, Chip Ingram, Tommy Nelson, and others of like mind do not appear anywhere, but James McDonald was a headliner prior to that unfortunate Elephant Room business. Which is weird, to say the least. We shun those who could be reliable friends when we need them and we are limiting the potential unifying effect of what could be a much broader and deeper movement to renew evangelicalism.
These are worrisome not just because they involve sinful attitudes and behaviors, but because, if they are not corrected, I fear that the broader movement will fall apart just as it begins to have real influence and is most needed. Indeed, I fear it is already happening.

Finishing the race

I finished my first 1/2 marathon on May 5th. It was the 500 Festival Mini-Marathon in Indianapolis, which is the largest half-marathon in the country with over 35,000 runners. I finished in the middle of the mob, not the fastest, but neither was I among the very slowest. But when you run for over two hours (again, I was not among the fleet of foot!), you get a lot of time to think. Some random thoughts:
  1.  It's not an accident that running is used as a metaphor for the Christian life. Both are marked by pain, trials, training, and being pushed beyond what you think you can endure. Both are also battles which are primarily fought in your mind even more than in your body. Moreover, there is great reward and a sense of godly pride (if such a thing exists!) which characterizes finishing well (1 Cor. 9:24; Heb. 12:1). And finally, there is extra baggage which must be shed to run well, a bit more 'round the middle physically, and a lot more in my heart spiritually.
  2. Success or failure for most of us doesn't come down to who came across the line first, but who came across the line still hittin' it. I'll never be a slim-hipped Kenyan who jogs across in just over an hour breathing about as hard as a me watching Swamp People on my couch. If I work really hard and get a whole lot sleeker (say 40 lbs. or so), I might get to where I could finish in 1:40. Likewise, from a spiritual perspective, I'd say I'm not a five talent pastor, but probably a two talent guy on my best days (Matt. 25:14-30). Recognizing that, I'm going to do my best to earn the Master a good return while not being envious of those to whom He has entrusted more since I don't have more for the same reason my running isn't not sponsored by Nike: lack of capability.
  3. There is value in learning to say "No" to what your body desires. Just before the race, I visted by GI doc, who told me that my liver enzymes and blood pressure are down, my kidney function is up, and he didn't need to see me again for 6 months. As a Crohn's patient, finding out that my health has turned around is nothing short of miraculous. Yet even now, many times when I am running, I want nothing so much as to quit. But quitting does not help me become a more healthy person. In the same way, indulging every desire we have does not help us become more spiritually healthy. In fact, it does the opposite, plunging us further into slavery and death.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Slow martyrs

When I sat in the crowd at the latest Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference in Louisville a few weeks ago, my heart was filled with conviction and joy listening to David Platt talk about God's sovereignty and death-defying missions. He made the thoroughly biblical point that, if we really believe in God's sovereignty, then we ought to have more courage as we confront difficult and even dangerous situations. We ought to willingly face down the prospect of martyrdom with both confidence and joy no matter the outcome. And I couldn't agree more. In fact, as I sat in that stadium, I was ready, not simply on an emotional high, but actually ready, I think, to lay my life down for the cause of Christ and the spread of the Gospel.

Not gonna happen.

Oh, it's not that I know the future. I am neither a prophet nor a prophet's son. But living as I do in the United States, and being called to pastoral ministry here, I think the odds are not in my favor. I won't, in all probability, have one of those great do-or-die, renounce-Jesus-and-go-free-or-stay-faithful-and-lose-your-head moments that make for such inspiring reading later and which serve as pungent testimony to the reality of one's faith. I probably won't have the words of my sermons sealed in blood to be read and heard by future generations of the faithful.

You probably won't either.

Instead, what will most likely happen to me is that I will face, like most of you, a different set of challenges in being faithful. It won't be renounce Jesus or die, it will be the smaller, daily challenge of being faithful to Jesus in renouncing sin and pursuing Him. Of trusting Jesus not to stand with me as the fire is kindled, but to stand with me as I go through chronic disease, disappointing and painful relationship conflicts, raise my children to (hopefully!) fear God and love Him with all their hearts, keep preaching though I wonder on many Mondays whether it works, keep loving dear Karen sacrificially even when we are in conflict, and so on until death or Jesus comes. It's not fast martyrdom, in other words, but slow martyrdom, learning to daily put to death the deeds of darkness and my old man, put on the new self created to be like Christ, and trust Jesus to work in and through me to make me wholly his. This too, is a sacrifice, this too, a form of dying for Jesus, albeit a more normal, less spectacular one. But still, it is a sacrifice, and one I pray that God finds acceptable in His sight and glorifying to Him.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

It's not the kissing, it's the fights....

...and what you do afterward, that makes a marriage. Obviously, love and sex are big parts of the equation, for no one would get or stay married without love, and sex is the great gift which not only bonds, but also heals wounds, protects, delights, and comforts in addition to producing children. But I think that at the center of God's purpose for a loving marriage is that it would serve as a tool to make us holy. And making us holy means love mixed in with fights. 

If you really think about it, the reason that we fight with our spouses is because of sin, either theirs or ours, and often some of both. Our wounds, inflicted by their sin, lead us into conflict, and seeing the hurt we inflicted on the one we love, when we are repentant, leads us to change so as not to hurt them in the same way again. Meanwhile, forgiveness and grace extended after the fight do their work to bring healing from pain and the elimination of the wall that would otherwise be built between husband and wife, so that further hurt is a possibility, but so is deeper love. Over time, repentance, healing, forgiveness, and love make us look more like Jesus than we would have if we had never loved, and fought with, our beloved. 

Thus I can truly say, with Martin Luther, "Marriage did for me what no monastery could."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The End of a Ministry

I got the official word today. The rumors are true. Another husband and wife team whose ministry I respected and from which I benefited greatly are separated and probably headed to divorce court. That theirs was a marriage and family ministry only makes it worse. And I am sad. I'm not shocked. It no longer surprises me when seemingly great marriages flame out or crash on the rocks of sin and rebellion. But I am still grieved. I am grieved because I hope that Spirit empowered love and romance will conquer sin, betrayal, lust, and foolishness. Yet more times than I'd like to count, seemingly "good examples" fall and fail. I can count the examples of people I personally know in the church and only have a couple fingers left. Among them are people who taught me, mentored me, and served as pastor to me.

Sadness therefore grips me again today, reminding me of old scars even as fresh ones are inflicted. Yet from these things, I also gain a warning and renewed commitment. The warning echoes back through time, from an older man who taught me about David (and later fell into David's sin) that "Satan is willing to wait 50 years if he has to, in order to take a man down." Our Enemy is indeed patient, and unrepentant, private, "little" sins and darkened corners of the heart have a way of revealing themselves publicly if the wait is long enough. I remember too what the Scriptures say: "Let him who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall." And I tremble with fear, knowing that many better men than I have fallen victim to selfishness, pride, and sin. So I, like Billy Graham said, "run scared" and try never to put myself in a situation where temptation can run wildly into life destroying sin. And I also renew my commitment, both to my bride and my Lord and King. There is no greener grass, and I will rejoice in the wife of my youth until the day we die, till we are no longer young, till we can't see, hear, or eat with our own teeth. By God's power and through His great grace, we will make it, loving each other before the Lord until the last breath.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Eschatology and the Mission

Over the past decade or so, the American Church has spent enormous energy pursuing theological renewal in the areas of soteriology and ecclesiology. Movements like the emerging/Emergent church have challenged traditional notions of what it means to "do church" and to be the church in a postmodern culture. They have also brought renewed clarity to our understanding of the Gospel, both what it is and isn't. Through movements like the Gospel Coalition, we are now discussing issues like the place of what is rather inelegantly labeled "social justice" in our gospel proclamation. These debates are all healthy and contribute, I think, to the renewal of the Church.

I think it is time for a renewal in eschatology as well. Among many of my brethren, the study of the last things is regarded as either the province of weirdos with charts or among the "things indifferent," about which Christians may disagree but which really don't matter. But in the New Testament, it is the in eschatological passages in which we most often find exhortation toward both mission and personal spiritual renewal. And so, as we approach the time when there are fewer American missionaries than there once were (as many are now old and starting to retire), I believe it is time once again to remind people of the Bible's great teaching about the last things and motivate a new generation to sanctify themselves and complete the task of world evangelization.

I believe it is simply true that:
  • If we don't really believe in Hell as the Bible teaches, then no one will sacrifice the comforts of home to make sure people they've never met don't wind up going there.
  • If we don't really believe in the coming of both King Jesus and His Kingdom, then no one will be willing to suffer martyrdom to reach the Muslim world (which is most likely the price that will have to be paid to do so). 
  • If we don't really believe that Jesus could return today, then no one will ever develop any sense of urgency about repenting of their sin and reaching their neighbors with the Gospel.
  • If we don't really believe in the Tribulation and God's wrath, then we will never warn anyone about it or share with them the Way of escape.
And that, I believe is the problem. Many of us affirm these things, but we don't really believe them enough to allow their truth to transform our day-to-day lives. So we sleep in comfort as the world quite literally goes to Hell.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A woman like you...

This year marks 16 years of marriage to my favorite feisty redhead, and as this song says, "honestly I don't know what I'd do, if I'd never met a woman like you." I'd probably have a lot more guns and take a lot more out-of-state hunting trips, but my life would be immeasurably poorer in all the ways that matter. I'd have missed the joys of loving and being loved by the one person one earth who always "gets" me, to say nothing of the delights of being Dad to the four best kids that ever walked. I am blessed far beyond what I deserve:

Friday, March 2, 2012

On politics and religion

Jonah Goldberg is not a Christian. I don't know what his faith commitments are, though my guess would be some variety of Conservative (as opposed to Orthodox or Reform) Jewish. Regardless, his comments from today's G-File are among the best and most reflective that I've read anywhere about the role politics currently plays in modern American life. Here's the meatiest part:
 If you clear the public square of what we traditionally call religion -- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism etc. -- we will not have a public square free of religion. We have a public square full of religion fighting under the false flag of "secular values" -- with no opposing sources of moral authority to resist it.

The utopianism, millenarianism and radical egalitarianism at the emotional core of liberalism are fundamentally religious in nature. That doesn't mean liberalism is evil or totalitarian. But it is less than totally self-aware. The nice thing about traditional religion is you know where it comes from. The unwritten faith of liberalism masquerades in the costumes of modernity, progress, social justice and the like without recognizing that liberalism requires leaps of faith, too.

Liberalism's lack of self-knowledge about its nature makes it very powerful and very dangerous. Liberals can simply claim -- without seeming like they're lying, because they actually believe it -- that they are cold, rational presenters of fact and decency. Comte's "religion of humanity" has forgotten that it is a religion at all. But forgetting something doesn't make it any less real. Wile E. Coyote forgets there's no land underneath him. His ignorance doesn't keep him aloft.

This is how the New Class of experts and helping professions become secular priests of a wholly political religion. We confuse credentials for ordinations, regression analyses for consecrations. And without a conception of a higher authority, without a more enduring and transcendent dogma to inform our consciences, we are left following the captains of rudderless ships leading us to ruin.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Fairness and the Cross-a meditation

"It's not fair!"If I have heard that charge come forth from one or another of my children's lips once, I have heard it 500 million times (I exaggerate only slightly!). Each time, I have had two standard responses: 1) "Life ain't fair, so buck up and get used to it" or if I'm feeling more patient, 2) Extended explanation of how such-and-such circumstance the offended party was involved in was favorable to him/her and thus this circumstance brings the universe into rough parity. I'm getting more inclined toward Option #1, because somehow, Option #2 never seems to quite satisfy, for no matter how eminently reasonable my explanation is, one's child never feels they have received justice.

I'm sure that every parent out there can empathize with my exasperation, trying to reconcile a child's sense of justice with a world that is fundamentally unfair. It's an impossible task, at least partly I think, because part of being made as humans in God's image is precisely the awareness of right and wrong, fair and not, and the deep sense that things in this world aren't the way they are supposed to be. Moreover, who among us hasn't similarly cried out "It's not fair!" about many more serious problems in our adult world? Thus, one of the lessons we try to impart to our children is precisely that truth, that this world ain't fair and you better tighten your chinstrap and get used to it, because that's life.

On the other hand, I think a certain "unfairness" is also at the very heart of the Gospel. It certainly isn't "fair" that God laid the sins of deeply sinful people on His only begotten Son, enabled those who believed in the Son to trade their sins for the Son's righteousness, and by the Spirit's power to be adopted as sons into God's own family. It isn't fair that Jesus was flogged and we were healed. It isn't fair that Jesus bled and we were cleansed. It isn't fair that He was crowned with thorns that God might reverse the curse that brought forth thorns. It isn't fair that the Innocent died in place of the guilty, or that the Creator died instead of the creature. It isn't fair that He cried out "I thirst!" so that none of us would have to cry "I thirst" from Hell.

It isn't fair. But it is grace. And it is ironic and unexpected, but nevertheless gloriously true that God is using the supreme act of unfairness to put this unfair world full of unjust people back to right. And there is coming a day when "justice will flow down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream..." Until then, I rejoice in the fact that God has not been fair with me and does not treat me like I deserve.


I had breakfast the other day with a friend who is a new Christian. One of the things which greatly bothers him and hindered his own coming to faith is the hypocrisy he sees among Christians. I assured him that the problem is not news. In fact, it's worse than he knows: It's been my experience that all Christians (including this one most assuredly!), are hypocrites. We all profess to believe better than we live. But I hardly think this is discrediting as much as some people seem to think. In fact, I think it affirms one of the central truths of the Gospel--that all humans are sinners in need of forgiveness and salvation. Thus, the issue then is not whether people will be hypocrites, but whether their hypocrisy will be forgiven by God along with their other sins.

That being said, there are a number of warnings against hypocrisy in the Scriptures and seven biblical reasons why a professing Christian might be guilty of it:
  1. False Profession. In the American church, we tend to think that anyone who claims to be a Christian is one. Yet biblical warnings against false profession abound as do warnings that those who claim to be Christians should examine themselves to ensure that is indeed the case. (Cf. Matt. 7:21-23; 13:24-30; 22:11-14; 2 Cor. 13:5; 2 Pet. 1:5-11; 2:20-22; 1 Jn 3:8-10).
  2. Rebellion. Though it does not speak well of them or the depth of their Christian faith, it is nevertheless true that even true sons sometimes wander from their Father and need to repent (Cf. Jas 1:13-15; 1 Jn. 2:15-17; Heb. 12:10; Lk. 15:4-7; 11-32).
  3. Treating Sin As If It Isn't Serious. We sometimes act as if sin isn't that big a deal because, after all, our sins and their penalty were already paid at the Cross. Yet this is a serious presumption on the grace of God and abuse of the Savior whose blood paid that price. It is so serious that God sometimes judged even his own people with premature death for engaging in it (Cf. Matt. 5:27-30; 1 Cor. 10:5-13; Heb. 12:4; 1 Jn. 5:16). 
  4. Failure to Confess. Though I don't affirm the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession as a "means of grace," confessing sin to each other is a biblical practice and I personally know no one who has overcome serious sin who has done it solo (Cf. Jas. 5:15-16, 19-20; Gal. 6:1-2).
  5. Failure to Repent. True repentance includes confession, but many Christians "confess," and do not repent, and thus continue in the same sin(s) they were entangled in before (Cf. Ezek. 33:10-11; Zech. 1:3; 2 Cor. 7:10; 12:21; Jas. 1:22-24). 
  6. Weak Faith. Sometimes sin is committed unintentionally simply because someone new or weak in their knowledge of Christ was deceived and led astray (Cf. Eph. 4;13-14; 1 Jn. 3:7). 
  7. God Allows Sin to Persist to Serve His Purposes.  I have the hardest time with this one, but it is true. God could (and one day will!) eliminate the sin nature immediately from all who trust in Christ. Yet He chooses not to do so, that He might be glorified even through our struggle to trust, obey, and follow (Cf. Rom. 7:21-25; 11:32; 2 Cor. 12:7-9; Rev. 22:14-15).

Friday, February 17, 2012

Live quietly and get a job!

For about the past six months, I've been a subscriber to gotandem, a ministry of "Back to the Bible". They send me daily devotions to read through my email or phone and I've found a number of them thought provoking and encouraging for my daily walk with Jesus. Here's a selection from one of messages I got today:
I've been just as guilty at times of equating and encouraging enthusiasm and initiative as evidence of a genuine heart for Jesus. I have urged people to find a way to "change the world," to "be on fire for God," and to "give 110 percent." (Okay, I've never said that last one. It's just mathematically impossible.)
Maybe it's a noble impulse to give our lives for Christ with some kind of all-or-nothing initiative to convert continents or get an ad on the Super Bowl or "storm the gates of hell," but this verse always brings me down to the earth I think God means for us to walk on as we follow Jesus:
"Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. Then people who are not Christians will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others" (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).
Wow, that's counter-intuitive when you're on fire for God and trying to change the world. It won't look very good on the inspirational posters we're hoping to sell down at the Christian bookstore: "Live quiet!" "Leave people alone!" "Get a job!"
It's a long-term strategy: Live like Jesus for years in your neighborhood, being a respectable citizen, and people will notice over time.
It might not sound as exciting, but it's as real as it gets.
Agreed. Too many of those who want to "change the world for Jesus" can't get moved out of their mothers' basements. And even more have Christian lives which don't evidence much maturity or long-term faithfulness. So live quietly, get a job, leave people alone, and live like Jesus in your neighborhood is as timely a set of instructions as ever.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Repentance or retirement?

I ran across this idea from Jay Nordlinger, who writes "Impromptus" for National Review Online. Writing about Newt Gingrich, who apparently asked his 2nd wife for an "open marriage" so he could pursue his relationship with his current wife Callista with less guilt, Nordlinger wondered whether Newt had truly repented  of his past evil ways (as he has claimed), or simply retired, having decided that he's too old to chase another skirt. Who knows which is true in that case? I surely don't.

But I bring it up because I think that the same dynamic is at work in a lot of us Christians. We don't really mature so much as simply get too old and tired to sin in the same ways. We aren't less angry, we just don't have the energy to spend expressing it like we used to. We aren't less lustful, we just had our testosterone levels drop. We aren't less greedy, it's just that we already have most of what we want, and don't see a good opportunity to be truly rich and get the rest of it.
Oh gracious Lord, preserve me from confusing repentance with retirement, turning from sin with contentment at our current level of it. Help us to truly change our hearts. Amen.

Valentine's Celebration

So Karen and I have taken to celebrating Valentine's Day on virtually any day except the actual holiday. Who wants to fight that crowd? Yesterday was the harmonic convergence-our kids were at school, Karen didn't have any daycare kids, and it was my day off. So we went to Hobby Lobby and Michael's for knitting supplies for Karen and poked around the new Bass Pro in East Peoria for me. We ate at the bowling alley/restaurant at Bass Pro, because nothing says romance like a deep sea themed restaurant. The food was pretty good-I had a bacon cheeseburger and onion rings, Karen a barbequed chicken flatbread pizza, and we split an order of deep-fried crawfish. After 15 1/2 years of marriage, she's still the one who makes my heart beat fast, still the one person I'd rather spend a free day with, and still the biggest blessing God has given me as His adopted son.

Comforting Fictions

The human heart is desperately sinful. And one of the implications of that truth is that each of us comes fully equipped with a magnificent capacity for self-deception, believing what we wish were true rather than what is. Consider the following comforting fictions, which sooner or later will be revealed for what they are:
  • The United States can borrow more money than any nation ever has, while promising benefits to future generations of Americans that will require more than the sum total of world GDP to satisfy. Yet the US will never go bankrupt, nor will anyone get left holding the bag when it all finally collapses.
  • An Iranian nuke will not be a problem, even though their current President believes that the coming of the 12th Imam (The Mahdi) necessitates world war and Iran is currently the world's leading terrorism sponsor. 
  • Illegal immigration can continue unabated with no ill effects on our nation's existing poor and their ability to find and keep jobs. 
  • Homosexual marriage will not be devastating socially, nor will it be a Trojan horse for those wishing to drive the Church and its teachings from the public square. 
  • Scaling back American defense spending won't ever lead to instability and an increase in warfare. Nor will cutting back aid to Israel, Taiwan, and South Korea. 
  • Negotiations and, failing that, economic sanctions always serve to contain rogue states. 
  • The rising number of Muslims in Sweden, France, Holland, and England, will never lead to Islamic revolutions in those countries. 
Comforting fictions, all. Without a change in direction, all of these things will one day lead to disaster in one form or another. Yet it is not only in the realms of politics and foreign relations that pretty lies are hawked as truth. We all also tell pretty lies to ourselves in our spiritual lives. Consider these:
  • "No one will ever know." Yet God will, and you will. And the Holy Spirit within in you will fill your heart with guilt until you repent. Moreover, it's still true that "truth will out," and even the secret things have a way of becoming public. 
  • "Everybody sins." This is true, but too often this is not a recognition of what the Bible says, but an excuse for my behavior of which I'm unwilling to really repent.
  • "You're young. I thought that back when I was young too." This is insidious, because while there really are passions and ideas we mature out of as we grow in the faith, it's also true that sometimes our supposed "maturity" is really spiritual coldness masquerading as such.
  • "I can do this, and it won't hurt me." This is the driving idea behind prayerlessness, absence of Bible reading, refusal to attend church, and similar ideas. We do them and wonder why our spiritual life soon is as dry as the Sahara.
  • "I'm the exception." I hear this one expressed, usually implicitly, but sometimes explicitly by people in premarital counseling all the time as professing Christian men and women try to explain why they are okay with living and sleeping with their affianced. Yet it is a lie. God is not mocked, his commands are given for our good and His glory, and ignored to our destruction. 
I'm sure there are more. Maybe some of you can supply some others. But the point is not to simply recognize the lies we tell ourselves, but having seen them, to flee and live in the truth. What pretty lies are you living under?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Fear Not

This video really hits home. As a pastor, I spend far too much time worrying what people think and too little worrying what God thinks, too much time worrying that my sermons are not good and not enough worrying whether they are of God. What about you? Do you fear the right things?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Shooting with the boys

Since I was on such a roll with Sara, I decided to take the boys shooting on Monday. It was holiday, it was warm for January, the club I recently joined is minutes from my house, and the boys have been begging to go, so I was all out of excuses (Not that they exactly had to twist my arm). So we loaded up two BB guns and my new .22 rifle, my target stand, ammo, enough BBs to keep Red Ryder supplied for 3 years, earplugs, eye protection, a stack of targets, plus the necessities-three bottles of pop and two theater size boxes of Swedish fish. It wasn't quite as much stuff as the Special Forces took to get bin Laden, but we were close.

That gathered, we shot till I ran through 2 boxes of .22 shells and we ran both BB guns dry. They had a blast. We stuck some old 12 gauge hulls through the holes in the target boards set up at 25 yards, and Nate actually hit one of those nickel sized target with my .22, though I'm still not sure how that happened, since we won't be nicknaming him "Deadeye" any time soon. Then it was time to shoot the now-empty pop bottles, which they throughly enjoyed shredding. Hollow point bullets, even in a .22, really do a number on whatever they hit. So of course we had to take pictures and bring the bottles home to Mom to show off.

Total cost of the day? I think I'm out roughly 20 bucks including ammo, targets, and food. But the memory? Priceless. And giving the boys something they can always enjoy doing with their daddy? Beyond measure.

A hunting we will go...

So my eldest and I went hunting for the first time this past Sunday. I had been waiting for the complete end of deer season so that I would not spoil my hunting partner's chances at a last-minute deer. Also, I didn't think there was any great hurry since the place seems to have a squirrel in virtually every other tree during deer season.

Alas, such was not the case the day we went. I think it may have had something to do with the fact that we went out mid-afternoon rather than either at sunrise (my preferred time) or sunset (which can also be good). I was hopeful that Sara's first squirrel would fall, but we actually did. not. see. a. single. one. Which was kind of sad and disappointing. I consoled her with the thought that "sometimes you get 'em and sometimes you talk your shotgun for a walk." Which is what we wound up doing. I think I can talk her into going with again, but we should definitely go in the morning next time. Still, I think if nothing else, she and I got time alone to just talk and be together (a rare thing in a house with three siblings), and we got to be in the woods together (and collect my trail camera, by which this photo-among others-was taken).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Scenes from a deer stand

My dear wife Karen loves me deeply and so she encourages me in my passion for hunting. For Christmas, she gave me a Wildlife Innovations trail camera, which I promptly installed at a large scrape about 10 yards from my favorite tree stand. Here's a few of my favorite pics I've gotten so far: