24 May 2017

Live as People Who are Free

I wonder if we believers give enough thought to our identity in Christ. Though we cognitively assent to our justification by grace alone in Christ alone, I wonder if that truth has taken up residence in our hearts. Our fears often get the best of us. We are burdened by the judgments of others, threatened by their words. Our own thoughts may accuse us as well, telling us that we are somehow less than others, so we try to hide. Even if we claim to be Christian, we imagine God shaking His head in disappointment at how messed up we are.

The belief that we are not enough affects how we view ourselves and how we relate with others. Because we don't feel the freedom of justification, we respond in relationally distancing ways. Some of us are conflict avoiders. When interpersonal difficulties and conflict arise, we seek escape, preferring to sidestep--and even flee--any relational discomfort. Others of us are fighters. When we face criticism or strife, we fight back with anger, sarcasm, or blame-casting. In both cases, fight or flight, we look for ways to justify ourselves and our responses.

Christians have another option open to them. We are not limited to fight and flight; we have the option of living out our freedom in Christ. Romans 8:1 reminds us that for those who are in Christ, there is no more condemnation. We are fully approved by God and nothing can take that away. Because of our union with Christ, the Father is able to look at us and say, "That's my boy. That's my girl. I am so pleased with that one." Because of Jesus's finished work, we no longer have to avoid conflict with others. We don't have to resort to sarcasm, or anger, or attack, or deception even when we are being treated poorly. We don't have to respond to haughtiness with anger; nor do we have to respond to anger with haughtiness. We can live with true other-centeredness because we have already been set free in Christ--radically free.

The apostle Paul knew this freedom. He told the Corinthians, "It is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I don't even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me" (1 Corinthians 4:3-4). How was he able to take comfort in the fact that it was God who judged him? Because he knew that the judgment had already taken place and that Jesus bore the entire penalty for his sins and failures. In other words, he was free--gloriously free.

What would our relationships look like if our identity in Christ truly took hold of us? Perhaps we would show a sacred curiosity about others, entering their suffering and their celebration without feeling threatened. Perhaps we could serve others with our words and our works without grumbling about their apparent lack of appreciation. Perhaps we would address conflict humbly and directly without fear of retribution because we know who we are. Perhaps we wouldn't feel the need to justify ourselves based on our education, our possessions, our appearance, or anything else because we are already fully justified in Christ. Perhaps we would not feel the need to make too much or too little of ourselves. We could simply rest in the knowledge that we are Christ's.

Live as people who are free. -1 Peter 2:16

If you are interested in exploring this concept more deeply, consider Tim Keller's brief, but excellent, The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness.

15 May 2017

Book Review: Word Centered Church

I was drawn to Word Centered Church (2017) by Jonathan Leeman for a few reasons. First, the book is a product of 9Marks, an organization committed to what they describe as the 9 marks of a healthy church (preaching, biblical theology, The Gospel, conversion, evangelism, membership, discipline, discipleship, leadership). Last year, they put out an excellent journal about Authority. Second, in a world that has 10,000 ideas about what constitutes Christianity, a book titled "Word Centered Church" brings us back to the centrality of the gospel message. Third, as a preacher of The Gospel, I want to make it my business to share God's word accurately.

This book did not disappoint. Leeman had three sections--the word, the sermon, and the church--each containing a few chapters. He was unapologetically focused on the centrality of the Bible and the proclamation of the message contained within its pages. What is absolutely necessary for the church? "God's Word working through God's Spirit" (p. 18). Other things have value, but apart from the proclamation of the Gospel, all of the rest is chaff.

I was convicted by the "Sermon" section. Leeman shared an experience where his board of elders confronted his "creativity," gently but firmly reminding him that he missed the point of the text. I was reminded of my conviction that I want to understand the whole story of God's word and communicate it clearly. It is far too easy to make Scripture fit our own preconceptions and we must guard against that tendency.

On the whole Leeman is clear and concise in his communication of his message. He bolsters the main points with examples from his own life and ministry that help to provide useful context. If you are interested in understanding the importance of the centrality of the Word, this is a great place to begin.

I received a free copy of this book from Moody Publishers in exchange for my review. I was not required to submit a positive review. The impressions offered here are my own. 

"With" Christians

I fear that far too much ministry operates from an "at," rather than a "with," mentality. Christians, in our desire to communicate biblical truth, talk at people. We spend our time crafting arguments and learning the Bible so we can give people all of the information they need to choose Jesus. There seems to be an assumption that if I just communicate the right information in the right way, then everyone will turn to Christ.

And indeed, proclamation is essential, but we mustn't stop there. We must purpose ourselves to roll up our sleeves and join people, not simply instruct them. In other words, we must be with people.

I fear that too much ministry is unbalanced in favor of imparting information and I wonder if that is especially true of youth ministry, though perhaps it is not exclusive to the young. We operate from a mindset that says, "if I can just get them to be quiet and listen, I can get these Bible facts in their heads!" When real life issues disrupt our teaching, we can get irritated.

But what if treated the disruptions, digressions, and distractions as the heart of ministry? What would it look like to follow the questions and conversations where they lead?  What sort of transformation would we observe if we entered the mess and confusion of people's lives with the love of Christ, not just teaching them, but actually apprenticing them? How many more teenagers would stick around the church when they not only heard about, but actually experienced, the love of Christ? What would be the effect upon people to hear and experience that they matter and that they are valuable? What would our churches look like if we recognized that the Bible is ultimately relational, rather than merely informational?

Proclamation of the good news is a must, but without love we are just clanging symbols. Let's become "with" Christians.

14 May 2017

Hearts Undivided

I wrote ou my closing prayer for today.

God, sometimes we are so scattered and incoherent
We run 10,000 directions, chasing after the wind
We try to cobble together a sense of wholeness apart from You
Forgive us these sins
Teach us Your ways, O Lord
That we may walk in Your truth
With hearts, undivided

11 May 2017

Are you an Ambassador for Christ

Yesterday, I was reminded about the importance of presenting a well-informed, biblical worldview to those we encounter on a day to day basis. Each of us, as believers, have multiple opportunities every day to represent Christ.  Paul calls us ambassadors for Christ in 2 Corinthians 5:20.  We carry the message of our King.

One of the tools that has most deeply informed my understanding and approach has been the Ambassador Model described by Stand to Reason.  Greg Koukl, founder of STR, reminds us that we are to be people of knowledge, wisdom, and character.



If you've never given this much thought, let me encourage you to do so. Print out the Ambassador's Creed and read through it regularly.

You can read more HERE.

04 May 2017

Book Review: The Imperfect Disciple

When I saw Jared Wilson's The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can't Get Their Act Together (2017) on the list of available books from Baker Books, I tweeted with excitement. Wilson is one of my favorite writers, one of only two authors whose books have made my yearly top 10 list more than twice (Eugene Peterson is the other). Earlier this year, I suspected a fourth appearance would be likely after I read The Pastor's Justification.

The Imperfect Disciple did not disappoint. It is a book about Christian discipleship, but it didn't read that way. The signs were there--references to prayer and quiet times, mentions of Dallas Willard and John Ortberg--but it felt different, more Wilson that Willard. Wilson employs captivating writing that showcases justification, grace, and a big Christ. Wilson has the remarkable skill of sharing his own (often painful) narrative in a way that highlights not him, but Jesus.

I was particularly fond of chapter 3, "staring at the glory until you see it." He writes about learning how to behold the glory of Jesus and its superiority to simple behavior change. Chapter 6 (The Revolution Will Not Be Instagrammed) was also particularly good. It dealt with what Christian community could be, a place of confession, grace, prayer, and real life.

But chapter 9 wrecked me. In chapter 9, Wilson dealt with living in the midst of suffering and disappointment, showing us that God's grace meets us in the depths of our pain. But it was second paragraph on page 210 that did me in:

"When you are in the pit of suffering--on the verge of death, even--Jesus isn't up in heaven simply blasting you down below with some ethereal virtues. He's not "sending good thoughts"--or worse, "good vibes"--your way. No, when you are laid low in the dark well of despair, when the whole world seems to be crashing down on you, when your next breath seems sure to be your last, Christ Jesus is down in the void with you, holding you. He keeps your hand between his own. He offers his breast for your weary head. He whispers the words of comfort a whisker's breadth from your ear: 'And behold, I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20, emphasis added). Grace is all-sufficient for weakness and for suffering because Jesus is all-sufficient." 

I don't remember the last time I began crying reading a non-fiction book, but reading that paragraph, I did. Jesus is with me always. Wilson has the ability, rarely matched, to make me rest in Jesus' arms.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my review from Baker Books. I was not required to submit a positive review. The views expressed here are my own.

The Dream

In 1992, I had a dream. I was a sophomore at Northwestern College, trying to work my way back from an abysmal first year when I nearly failed Chuck Hill's Biblical Faith class. I was enjoying the college life including friendships, "dorming," and even working in food service. I had discovered psychology during my freshman year and had decided that was a good fit for me.

And then I had the dream.

I rarely remember my dreams and when I do, they slip from consciousness quickly. If you pressed me, I could probably recall the details of fewer than five dreams I have had. This one, though, this one I remember.

In the dream, a good friend of mine was carrying a stack of books. I could not tell what any of them were except one. One book, in glowing letters, read "Hebrews 5." I awoke startled. I could not remember ever having read or heard Hebrews 5 before much less recalling what it might say. I looked for my Bible and found Hebrews 5. I read this:

For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifices for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. (1-4)

To say that I was unnerved would be an understatement. I recall talking with Pastor Ray back home and with people at NWC asking, "what could this mean?" Wisely, they told me to pay attention to the dream, but also to look for confirmation. I still recall the first sermon I gave at First Reformed Church in Oostburg after the dream. I talked about Ecclesiastes and meaninglessness and how meaning was found in Christ.

I continued in my psychology major, but also began to take classes that would be helpful in seminary, should I choose to go that route. I found myself back with Dr Hill for four semesters of Greek. Thankfully, my grades with Dr Hill had nowhere to go but up.

After finishing college, I began work on my master's degree at Mankato State University where I met my wife. Although I was pursuing training as a counselor, I shared my dream with her and again for a time, we talked about seminary after my master's degree. But I continued in psychology instead. Heather and I moved around the Midwest until finally settling in Eau Claire, where I began work as a neuropsychologist.

Shortly after we moved to Eau Claire, we began attending Cedarcreek Community Church, which has been our church home for 11 years. Relatively early on, I began to talk with the pastors about pastoring. They shepherded me well, helping to buff off some of my rough edges. I began to teach several times per year and about a year and a half ago, we began to make more serious plans about moving into a pastoral role. The process has made me feel Hebrews 5:2 much more deeply: "He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness."

So here I am, twenty-five years hence, responding to the call. Lord willing, I will be appointed as a pastor at Cedarcreek this coming Sunday, May 7. I begin with an awareness of my weakness and a need to lean into Christ with all of my weight.

I share this with you in the hopes that you will pray for me.

     Lord, grant me the insight to know my weaknesses
     the courage to deal with them
     the wisdom to rest in your Holy Spirit
     the humility to lean upon trusted brothers and sisters
     and the confidence to never shrink from proclaiming Your word. 

29 April 2017

Book Review: The Jubilee

I've not written many book reviews in recent months--certainly not on pace with the number of books that I have read. But I would be a poor friend if I didn't tell you about this one.

I wish I could tell you where I encountered the poetry of John Blase, but I cannot. What I can tell you is that someone, for now unnamed, shared his poem "Actually, Scratch That." Though I do not remember the giver of this gift, I am grateful because Blase's poem captivated me. A quick Amazon search showed a book of his poetry, The Jubilee: Poems (Bright Coppers Press, 2017). I immediately ordered his book having no knowledge of the book, or its author, based on 14 short lines.

Blase's poetry did not disappoint. Good poets have eyes and ears tuned to creation's details. As Blase wrote, "the poet notices the world's curves." They are gifted in teaching their readers to take notice.  Blase certainly accomplished that in The Jubilee. At several points, I needed to stop and ponder what he wrote, not due to complexity, but because he fosters a creational awareness so well.

An unfortunate truth is that many people avoid poetry, finding it confusing, boring, or perhaps overly sentimental. As a poetry lover, I am never sure where to direct those who might have a spark of interest in poetry. Mary Oliver is certainly good and so is Wendell Berry, yet if I am to be honest, this might well be the first book I recommend now. It is both accessible and fosters sacred wonder.

I will look forward to more and if they never arrive, I shall cherish these.

LOVE IN THE TIME OF PARANOIA
If love is for real
and not just a word 
then show me.
I know you're frightened. 
I am too. 
But that is the feeling
imperfect people
always have as they
row closer to home. 


27 April 2017

Thank God for Slow Growth


Parents fear
strangling thorns
that threaten to choke
the life out
of their tender shoots

They fear 
world-worn paths
that seek to 
consume 
and corrupt
their seed

Yet they foolishly
cast their tender buds 
upon the rocks
and pray for rapid growth
of unrooted sprouts

Slowness disappoints

Thank God
for slow growth
and deep roots 

-Mark 4:3-8

25 April 2017

Breathe the Lord's prayer

Our Father
Who art in heaven
hallowed be Thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
on earth, as it is in heaven
give us this day 
our daily bread
and forgive us our debts
as we forgive our debtors
and lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil
for Thine is the kingdom
and the power
and the glory
forever and ever amen

Recently, I have been reading about prayer, listening to teachings about prayer, meditating on prayer, and, perhaps surprisingly, actually praying. I have been listening to a series of lectures by one of my favorite authors, Eugene Peterson, entitled Jesus and Prayer. Naturally, he spends quite a lot of time discussing what we know to be Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). Many of us learned the Lord's prayer from an early age, or at least a version similar to the above, but I wonder how many have given thought beyond recitation. Specifically, what did Jesus teach his disciples to pray?

Our Father--Jesus encourages us to begin our prayers with "Our Father." There is much richness even in these two words. "Our" reminds us that when we pray, it is not just an individualistic endeavor. Our voices, even when we pray alone, join with all of the saints. We are members of a body. Yet our relationships are not just horizontal (saint to saint), but vertical (us to God and God to us). Jesus used the word "Father" to teach us that when we pray, it is not a formal address to a Master, Sovereign Ruler, or all powerful Creator. It is that, but it is more. When Jesus taught to pray to the "Father," he was highlighting the intimacy and connection we have with God. We are a part of his family. We belong.

In heaven--Because so many of us think of heaven as somewhere "out there", somewhere inaccessible, we think that God too is inaccessible. I don't think Jesus meant that. When Matthew writes about heaven, he is writing about the kingdom of God. Heaven is where God dwells and God, by His Spirit, dwells with His people.

Hallowed be Your name--Hallowed is not a word we use very often in modern parlance. To be hallowed means to be treated reverentially and with honor. Jesus was telling his disciples to pray in a way that does not dishonor God, but also to live in a way that God is treated reverentially and honorably. He was teaching them to pray, "Father, may Your people make much of Your name."

Your kingdom come--Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God. A lot. God's kingdom is where His will is accomplished, where God rules and prevails. Jesus is teaching them to pray for God's will and God's rule to invade everywhere.

Your will be done--This is directly connected with prayer for God's kingdom. It is a request to see God's desires to happen. It raises the question, can God's will be thwarted? Ultimately, no. Yet teaches us to pray that we would enact God's will, God's plans in all of creation.

On earth as it is in heaven--In God's kingdom, shalom rules. Yet, brokenness still affects the world and the people who live in it. Jesus teaches us to pray that creation would increasingly reflect the characteristics of God's kingdom and God's glory.

Give us this day our daily bread--It is a request to give us what we need for the day, not for yesterday or tomorrow, but for today. But for today.  This phrase recognizes our ongoing dependence upon God's grace for all things, physical and spiritual.

Forgive us our debts--We are sinners, desperately in need of God's forgiveness. Jesus teaches his followers to go to the place where forgiveness and mercy are freely given, God's throne. None of us has lived a sin-free day. Each day, we accumulate debt, yet each day, God stands ready to forgive.

As we forgive our debtors--Yet Jesus reminds us that although God forgives sinners (vertical relationship), his followers are also to forgive one another (horizontal relationship). We must be cautious about presuming upon God's forgiveness when we refuse to forgive another (see verses 14-15). Forgiveness is a high and holy calling and it can be difficult and painful, but it is not optional for the believer.

Lead us not into temptation--Jesus teaches us to pray that God will keep us from unbearable temptations from the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is a request for God's protection.

But deliver us from evil--BUT...when we find ourselves captured by evil--our own or another's--God can and will deliver us.

If we have put our faith in Christ, it is our hope and prayer that we grow in Christlikeness. We desire that God's shalom will increase while evil retreats. We pray that the effects of the fall become less and less upon God's creation, broken relationships, and human hearts.

This is not a one time prayer; it must become our breath.