24 December 2009

Reposted emails: The Mark of a Christian?

Okay, I admit it. I sometimes get annoyed by the dozens of emails I receive telling me that I have to forward a post to at least 12 people or I am not a real Christian or that I am ashamed of Jesus. Today, someone's facebook status read:

"They may want to take Christ out of Christmas, but they can never take Christ out of me. If you are proud to be a Christian and are not ashamed of Christ then post this as your status for 1 day as a light to the world. Most people will be to (sic) ashamed or scared to do this. This was posted by a friend. If you agree, copy and paste to your wall."

Before I go on, let me state a few things clearly. I am exceedingly grateful for the gift God offered me that first Christmas. I know that I am nothing apart from Christ. However, on principle, I never forward these types of posts. Here is the reason; forwarding an email or reposting a facebook status is not the mark of a Christian; rather, it is love for others (John 13:34-35).

Francis Schaeffer, who wrote the brief, but influential, "The Mark of the Christian" stated it this way, "What then shall we conclude but that as the Samaritan loved the wounded man, we as Christians are called upon to love all men as neighbors, loving them as ourselves. Second, that we are to love all true Christian brothers in a way that the world may observe. This means showing love to our brother in the midst of our differences
great or small loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving them in a way the world can see. In short, we are to practice and exhibit the holiness of God and the love of God, for without this we grieve the Holy Spirit.

and the unity it attests to is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father."

So, rather than forwarding that email, bring a meal for a co-worker you really don't like, go shovel your neighbor's walk, or spend some time at a youth center. I promise these activities will be more luminous to the world than a mass email.

You can read The Mark of the Christian here.

22 December 2009

Word and Deed

In reading the Gospels, I am regularly struck by the power of Jesus words. As I posted recently, words are powerful and Jesus' are particularly so. But as I read John 6 this morning, I was struck by Jesus' actions. I think a key to understanding this is found in verse 26. "Jesus answered them, Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves." It appears many were first drawn to Christ because of what He did for them. This allowed the opportunity to share His words. He fed them, body and spirit.

The early church understood this message. In Acts 6, the apostles (elders?) called together all the disciples and they appointed 7 brothers (deacons?) to minister to the physical needs of the widows-both Hebrew and Greek. They recognized this as an essential part of the growth of the early church.

We too, are called to minister to others by serving them. Consider Isaiah 58:6-10:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.

The whole book of James also calls us to minister to others. James 2:14-16 reads "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?"

We are to "pour ourselves out" for others. It is true that it is by grace alone that we are saved, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). With that said, although our works do not save us, they may open a door for us to introduce others to Christ and so lead them to a saving faith. So let us serve others as we share with them about the love of Jesus.

16 December 2009

God's Timing

God is in the details- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Tomorrow morning, my mother and I will board a plane for New York City to pick up Tessa who will be arriving on a plane from Africa. We should arrive about two hours before Tessa. We will leave 6 hours after we arrive. Back to Minneapolis--an additional passenger in tow. There are many details, but God is in control of them.

Consider the last several months--God has been ever present. Last summer, we felt a sense of urgency to get our home study done quickly, but God slowed the process. If He hadn't, we would not have been able to adopt Tessa. In October, we were given a much quicker embassy date than we anticipated. Later, because of Heather's cancer, we had to adjust some of our paperwork--in fact, it had to go through 4 different federal offices. We were told that the average time for processing on the second step was 2.5 months. Ours took about 2 weeks. I was told the third step would take 2-4 weeks. Ours took 4 days. We had to rely entirely on God to provide an embassy date for getting Tessa's visa the following day. It was given.

Another unusual circumstance was that our social worker was supposed to come back to the USA last week. Due to unforeseen circumstances (another child's visa not coming through), she stayed in Africa an additional week. We were still unsure because the flights from Africa to the USA didn't fit with our her schedule. In fact, she emailed Heather earlier in the week and said "I just don't know how that I can make this work, I am sorry." Things changed and she adjusted her schedule again. This provided enough time to get Tessa's paperwork through 3 different offices. Barrier after barrier has been knocked down. Heather spoke with a travel agent yesterday who marveled at the rapidity of our process the mercurial changes and asked how it happened. She replied, "we have over 100 people praying for us."

I have been jointly praying for God's timing, but also a December 17th embassy date, fully aware of the hurdles, indeed the earthly impossibility, of it happening. The heavenly irony is that we didn't get a date on the 17th, we got one on the 16th, which I believe was God's clear message to me that He loves me, he loves Tessa, but that He is in control of the clock.

We couldn't do it.
Our social worker couldn't do it.
Only God could.
And He Did.

For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.
-Habakkuk 2:3

10 December 2009

Waxing Contemplative

Wax--to grow or become as specified.

A conversation with some fellow men this morning has had me considering changes God takes us through. As an introvert, one stated that his nature leads him to desire solitude. As a salesman, he does not fit their typical gregarious personality, yet still thrives in the role. Before his conversion, he preferred quiet weekends at home, yet as he has grown in his faith, he has recognized the benefit of social engagement, indeed thriving during busy weekends spent with fellow believers.

I am opposite. Most of my life has been spent in the pursuit of others, of relationships. I have always believed that I grow most in community. Unfortunately, this extroverted tendency has led me to downplay the necessity of social reprieve and contemplation.

Cancer has forced isolation upon me. I have much less opportunity to interact with others, which carries with it a certain sadness. Most of the time, I notice my countenance darken the longer the isolation persists. This feeling is compounded as my mother-in-law helps us out because my wife, an introvert, has many of her social needs met during the day. The mother-in-law/cancer combination leaves little her with little leftover social energy.

An increased desire for contemplation was an unexpected gift. I use this God-given time to mull things over. I am able to process God's word and how it relates to my life. I am able to pray for God's will and his guidance. I pray that God uses these times as a way to deepen my faith and to draw my closer to Him and, somewhat ironically, to others.

Jesus spent much of his adult ministry literally surrounded by people, pressing in from every side. He poured His lives into them. He poured His life out for them. Yet, there is unmistakable evidence that he found time away, time to contemplate and pray. Christ recognized the importance of time alone with His father; I pray that I continue to learn this lesson.

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.-Mark 1:35

08 December 2009

You Never Let Go

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
Your perfect love is casting out fear
And even when I’m caught in the middle of the storms of this life
I won’t turn back
I know You are near

And I will fear no evil
For my God is with me
And if my God is with me
Whom then shall I fear?
Whom then shall I fear?

Oh no, You never let go
Through the calm and through the storm
Oh no, You never let go
In every high and every low
Oh no, You never let go
Lord, You never let go of me

And I can see a light that is coming for the heart that holds on
A glorious light beyond all compare
And there will be an end to these troubles
But until that day comes
We’ll live to know You here on the earth

Yes, I can see a light that is coming for the heart that holds on
And there will be an end to these troubles
But until that day comes
Still I will praise You, still I will praise You

07 December 2009

He knows

She has no idea who we are yet. She lives out her daily routine under the watchful care of her nannies, oblivious to the fact of how her life will change in a few short weeks. I suspect that her life is one of regularity now, encompassed by some interaction with the other orphans and the nannies, but rarely with the outside world, apart from the occasionally annoying flashbulb popping in her face.

We have some idea of who she is. We live out our lives in a daily routine, now occupied by chemotherapy, patient seeing, daily lessons and play, oblivious of how our lives will change. We may feel as though our lives have some regularity (if nothing else, chemotherapy and the additional treatments add a twisted sort of routine). We interact with friends, with our church, and with doctors. We wait with excited anticipation for her arrival, yet not know when that will be.

God, in His omniscience, knows her and knows us...intimately. He knows when she will be here. He knows how our routines will mesh. He knows how she will graft into our family tree. What, for us, is exciting and at times anxiety provoking, He already has planned out for our good. He knows.

All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.-Psalm 139:16b (NIV)

29 November 2009

Faith in Storms

Heather has been reading a devotional entitled Proven Promises by Howard Vanderwell. She received it from my aunt Ann, who had breast cancer many years ago. This morning, she read a devotional entitled "Faith in Storms" (p.27). We were both moved by this reading, so I wanted to share it in its entirety here.

Faith, by its very nature, cries out to be exercised in those times in life when the storms are the most severe. As a matter of fact, faith seems to be more at home in sorrow than in the calm.

Jesus' message to his disciples in this Galilean storm is very simple yet profound. "Yes, I understand you fear. But I expect you to say, 'I see the waves, and I feel the wind, and I know the boat is tossing, and I even observe the water coming into the boat.' And then I call you to say 'but'...'but I see Jesus and I trust his care.'"

And His message to many of us is the same. He meets us in our valleys and says, "Yes, I understand you fear. But you must learn to say 'but'. You must say, 'I heard the doctors reports, and I feel the pain, and I know the threat of malignancy, and I sense the disappointment of it all...but...I see Jesus and I trust His care of me.'"

Faith does not hide from the storms. It does not try to rationalize them away. Faith stares right into the face of all storms and then say "but...I also see Jesus...and I trust Him to care for me."

The devotional may be ordered from:
Dr Howard D. Vanderwell
3770 Black Creek Drive
Hudsonville, MI 49426

28 November 2009

Samson's Weakness

As a young boy, I found great joy listening to the story of Samson and Delilah at my grandmother's side. She would read me tales of kings, and large fish, and a perfect garden, but none intrigued me like the story of Samson. In my memory, Samson was the strongest of the strong, informed partly from the Bible story, but also, I assume from the caricatures presented through Hanna-Barbera renditions of Samson & Delilah or their short-lived series, Young Samson and Goliath. Samson was a long-haired, ultra-masculine body builder type who never backed down from a challenge. He was, in my understanding, without weakness.

As an adult, I have developed a richer appreciation of the story of Samson. His physical strength was indeed without equal. He tore apart a lion with his bare hands (Judges 14:6). He killed 30 men and took their garments (Judges 14:19). He even killed 1000 men with the jawbone of a donkey (Judges 15:15).

Story after story in Judges 14-16 testify to Samson's physical prowess. Intermixed, however, we also read of Samson's prominent weaknesses, which I missed as a child. As I have pondered these two stories, Samson was beset by two significant sins that face many men today--lust and pride.

When Samson first to be married, he saw a Philistine woman and requested her for his wife. His parents asked that he consider someone from his own tribe. Samson is unrelenting, saying "Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes." He appeared to lust for her, which affected his ability to accept wise counsel. Although this experience allowed opportunity for Samson to exercise God's judgment against the Philistines, in the meantime, he was taken advantage of and his wife was given to another man. Later, Samson goes in to a prostitute in Gaza and is nearly ambushed by the Gazites.

"After this he loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah" (Judges 16:4), again a woman not of his tribe. This woman, Delilah, was to be his downfall--first because of lust and later because of pride. Delilah continually pesters Samson about the source of his strength and he continually lies to her. When he finally does reveal to her the source, she cuts his hair and calls in the Philistines. He attempts to rise against them, not knowing that God had left him. They gouge out his eyes and set him as a slave.

His prayer in 16:28 finally reveals a sense of humility, "O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes" and God once again strengthens him because he acknowledged that his strength was from God and from no other source.

I pray that men today would learn lessons from Samson. Not that Samson was an Ultimate Fighting Champion, but that lust and pride led to his blindness and enslavement, and ultimately to his death. Samson's strength, and ours, comes through our weakness and the Lord's strength and good favor.

27 November 2009

For the Moments I Feel Faint

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
-Isaiah 40:28-31

I am not someone prone to weariness. I am an optimist who typically only experiences occasional bouts of the blues and they rarely last long. Yesterday was one of those dark days. Heather has been experiencing wave upon wave of side effects from surgery and chemotherapy including multiple infections, back pain, nausea, and fatigue. Every time it seems that she is getting better, something else comes along.

I was looking forward to yesterday. A day of Thanksgiving. A morning spent in the woods with a good friend. A reprieve. I prayed that I might make it through the morning hunt, that Heather would feel well, that my children would behave, and that I would come home refreshed.

Despite a brisk morning and a deep chill, on the drive home I felt good, but then I found out that a friend had to come to take the kids. Heather could not manage the 6 hours I was gone. I felt irritated, worried, and guilty but more than anything, I felt the weariness that had begun to abate seeping back in. I felt weighed down again. When we went to bed last night, Heather asked me if I was okay. I told her that I felt overwhelmed with all of the responsibility on my shoulders. I was that young man who fell, exhausted.

This morning, I awoke with a renewed sense of calm. I was reminded yet again that I will not make it through this on my own, but only through God's uplifting strength. As I read Isaiah 40 this morning, he reminded me that as I wait on Him, He will be my supply, my strength, my source.

24 November 2009

A Thanksgiving Prayer

Cherished Father,
Thank you for creating in me a heart designed for gratitude
and this year, in particular, for reminding me
to be grateful

I thank you for the undeserved gift of your Son.
I am utterly broken whenever I ponder the cross
and Jesus' sacrifice
and Yours
That saved me from an eternity of despair

Thank you for the gift of my wife
the woman whom you have entrusted to me
who has remained my joy
and my love

Thank you for my children
who live with vitality and passion every moment
and who look bravely to the future
casting a vision unclouded by doubt or fear

Thank you for adopting us as your children
demonstrating that we are true heirs in your kingdom
and allowing us to share that gift of adoption
with one of your precious little ones

Thank you for dear family and friends
who help us, support us, and love us
who we met on this journey
and who walk with us along the way

Thank you for secure employment
and a desire work diligently
to provide support for my family

Thank you for teaching trust
encouraging hope and
deepening faith
through Heather's cancer

Lord, above all
I thank you for your never ending mercies
which remind me forever of your greatness
and instill hope that endures no matter what storms we encounter

16 November 2009

Three healings

Have you ever noticed what a large part of Jesus' earthly ministry was focused on healing? The blind received sight, the deaf heard, demons were cast out, and the dead were raised. Over and over again, He healed. In Mark 2, we read of Jesus healing many. "That evening, at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the city was gathered together at the door" (v. 32-33).

I am most impressed by the stories of the specific healings. These stories reveal desperation, hope, and faith and teach us about Christ's mercy. We meet real people in these stories.

A leader named Jairus demonstrated desperation in Mark 5. A leader in the synagogue and probably a Pharisee, he should have been skeptical even critical of Jesus, yet when it really mattered, he fell at Christ's feet, "imploring" him to come and lay hands on his daughter, who was "at the point of death." We know that by this point, Christ had already been criticized by the Pharisees (Mark 3), yet he agreed to come along. Along the way, Jesus was interrupted, and word came that it was too late and the daughter had died. Jesus immediately intervened, telling the ruler "do not fear, only believe." Jesus made his way into the crowded house, amidst scoffers who doubted the power of God to heal, even defeat death. Jesus cleared the room and raised the girl, solidifying Jairus's faith.

In the story above, Jesus was interrupted by a woman, a woman who bled constantly for a dozen years. Many doctors tried to help her, running up charges, but she continued to worsen. She was clinging to a thread of hope thinking that if she could just get close enough to Jesus to brush his garment, she would finally be healed. She fought her way through the crowd, inching closer to hope realized and she finally reaches out her arm and brushes his garment. Jesus stopped, in the midst of the crowd pressing in from every side and turned because he perceived that his power went out from him. He asked, "Who touched me?" and she falls fearfully at his feet telling him of her hope. Because of her faith, he heals her as well.

One of the greatest demonstrations of faith in Christ's power to heal is found in Matthew 8. A centurion, a Roman soldier, approaches Christ and asks that his servant be healed. Jesus volunteers to come, but the soldier tells him that he does not expect his presence, only his word, knowing that the power that it holds. Jesus marveled at the faith of the centurion and again we see his healing power.

These stories all provide different views of Christ's power to heal, yet with each person, we see Jesus meeting their needs, granting their requests. What can we learn from these combined stories? With each of these people, faith was at the core. They had hope in Christ's ability to heal. His ability to intervene with conditions where medicine yielded little success--chronic bleeding, paralysis, even death--was profound.

In their faith, Jesus healed. Let it be so with us.

09 November 2009

Unfiltered Joy

It has been a frequent occurrence lately that people will ask me how I am doing. I explain that despite barometric emotions, I am largely doing quite well. This prompts the inevitable question, "no, how are you really doing? Are you just putting on a brave face?" to which I answer, honestly, "I really am doing well. God has thus far granted me grace enough to persevere and I pray that it continues."

I admit, though, that today was a trial. Since Saturday evening, Heather has been battling a bacterial infection that has left her nauseous, febrile, and hurting. Because I am a light sleeper and I feel her pain, as she tosses and turns or rushes to the bathroom, I lie there wondering what I can do know that that the answer is "nothing" except to pray. So I pray--for sleep, for comfort, for reprieve, for God's will. So in my fatigued state as I watched my wife wracked by pain, retching, I wondered, "is this what chemo will bring? Are we in for 16 weeks of this? or more?"

Mid-day, Grace spoke with Gen Thul (please check out her wonderful writings here), who invited us for dinner tonight along with the Fugates for a pseudo-small group. Once I felt assured that Heather was comfortable and in the capable hands of her mother, I looked forward with anticipation to the reunion with our dear friends. You see, we had been apart for much too long not just because of Heather's cancer, but also because Gen and Aaron's third daughter, Amelia, was in the hospital for 10 days with encephalitis and only recently returned home.

Grace, Ian, and I arrived first to visit with Aaron for a few minutes followed shortly thereafter by Gen and the kids. Finally, Zack and Sara arrived, nearly completing the reunion as Heather remained home to rest. The excited anticipation was just one of the wonderful feelings I experienced tonight. As our children, who missed each other desperately, fell into their old routines, sounds of excited chatter, laughter, and even happy screaming emerged from upstairs with a greater intensity than we have heard in a long time. I felt their emotions in my own heart as well as I was able to visit and joke with friends whom I cherish dearly.

I think that if Satan wants to attack God's followers, he merely needs to isolate we Christians. We function best in community. I truly feel strength, rejuvenated strength, in fellowshipping with these people. As I watched and listened to our children together, I was struck that they seem to be more than just friends, they are more closely connected than that. In the same way, Heather and I consider these people--Aaron, Gen, Sara, and Zack--more than just members of our Bible study, more than just friends. They are truly our brothers and sisters in Christ and we love them dearly.

John 13:34--"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another."

31 October 2009

Learned Helplessness

In 1967, Martin Seligman conducted one of the most groundbreaking studies in the history of psychology. He described a phenomenon called learned helplessness, whereby dogs repeatedly exposed to shock with no hope for escape eventually learned to just lay down and whine when shocked, even when escape became possible. Learned helplessness was foundational to modern psychology's understanding of depression.

I had not thought of this term in a long time, but a confluence of factors brought it back to mind. At the end of his excellent book A Praying Life, Paul Miller wrote, "Learned helplessness lurks just underneath the surface of [my] prayer time. I simply can't do life on my own. Without God's intervention, I am completely helpless. I need Jesus" (p. 260). I have experienced learned helplessness very profoundly during the month of October. I was co-directing the capital campaign at church. I was helpless. We were awaiting Tessa's court date, not sure of what the outcome might be. I was helpless. Heather was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was helpless. Amelia, the daughter of some of our dearest friends, lies in the hospital in a grave neurological state. I am helpless.

Helpless, Helpless, Helpless

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that I can do apart from God. He is my ever constant help in trouble. These recent situations have all helped me to learn that I am indeed helpless, but I am not hopeless. I serve a powerful God who loves me. Though I may not understand why or how, He will work all things out to His glory. May I never forget that in Him, there is hope.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.

-The 121st Psalm

Choose Your Words Carefully

awe-an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful.

awesome-inspiring awe.

As a child of the 80's, I am quick to pronounce something awesome.
  • "Wow, that was an awesome cheeseburger."
  • "Jason, here is the paperwork you requested." "Awesome"
  • "Honey, the kids and I are ready to leave." "Awesome."
Unfortunately, as a culture, I think we have stripped many words and concepts of their power. Something that is awesome is exceedingly powerful and overwhelming--never a description for a cheeseburger. It is a description for God. In the past when people said they served an awesome God, it meant something. Now, believers and unbelievers alike yawn, shrug their shoulders, and move on.

During the past week, I have sought to stop saying "awesome" unless I am talking about God. Let us choose our words carefully and not lose sight of He who is truly awesome.

The Lord will be awesome against them; for he will famish all the gods of the earth, and to him shall bow down, each in its place, all the lands of the nations.--Zephaniah 2:11

29 October 2009

Stump of Jesse

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.-Isaiah 11:1

Recently, I purchased an audio version of the New Testament and tonight I was listening to Matthew 1. Often, when I am reading Matthew 1, my eyes gloss over when I read "The Genealogy of Jesus Christ." I mean, it is a list of names. How engaging could it be? But tonight, I was excited about this lineage. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was not even Jewish. David was a voyeur and worse. Matthew walked through this colorful family tree beginning with Abraham and concluding with "Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ" (Matthew 1:16).

As I listened to verse 16, something tripped in my mind. The promised Messiah was to be from the Davidic line--a branch from the stump of Jesse. But Mary was not from David's line as far as we know--Joseph was. I thought "that cannot be right." Then I realized that Joseph adopted Jesus into his family, into David's heritage--just as the Father had planned all along. Joseph not only named Jesus according to the direction of the angel of the Lord (v. 21), he also raised him as his own child not as an interloper in his family.

God was intentional in doing this. God could have given Jesus a pristine genealogy, replete with a strong Jewish lineage and no black sheep, but He didn't. A straightforward genealogy could have been useful to the exclusionary Pharisees. They could have used it as yet one more reason to keep the undesirables out of the kingdom.

Instead, Jesus' family history--full of undesirables--demonstrates clearly that all can have a place in His family. What is more, Jesus who was himself adopted, in turn offers all of us--voyeurs, prostitutes, Gentiles, and sinners--the chance for adoption as sons.

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. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.--Galatians 4:4-7

26 October 2009

Stop Doubting and Believe

I am again amazed at how God leads me to passages in His word that address issues in my life. A couple of days ago, I wrote this post about my timidity (or is it fear?) in prayer, yet making an audacious request anyway. This morning, I was listening to an audio Bible sampler that I got from the bookstore, and the narrators read John 11--the passage that describes the death of Lazarus. It became quite evident that God was speaking directly to me again (or as Heather prefers to imply, God is smacking me with a large plank). You may appreciate why in a moment.

The passage begins with Mary and Martha sending word to Jesus that Lazarus, "the one Jesus loved," was ill (v. 3). In verse 4, Jesus responded, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” God allowed this illness in order that Christ would be glorified. Yet even after hearing of this illness, He waited two days longer, by which point Lazarus died so that His power might be demonstrated all the more.

To the outside observer, healing may be one thing, an earthly thing; but raising someone from the dead was divine. This point is clarified in verses 11-15. Jesus tells His disciples, "our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him" (v. 11). The disciples respond, "if he has fallen asleep, he will recover" (v. 13). The disciples are already minimizing, looking for an easy explanation, a logical explanation. Then in verses 14, Jesus is blunt with them--"Lazarus has died" because they weren't comprehending his meaning by "fallen asleep." I believe He says this to confront their logic, their trust in earthly things. People don't just become alive again because that is impossible. In verse 15 Jesus finishes His sentence, "for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe." Christ knew that raising His friend from the dead would be an awesome demonstration of His power and that their belief would grow exponentially by seeing Him work.

In verse 17, we discover that Lazarus has been in the tomb 4 days, so he is really dead. In fact, Martha raised concern about an odor--the smell of death--because of the length of time since his passing (v. 39). In the meantime, however, we see Christ setting up His followers to see something miraculous. Martha says to Him, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (v. 21). This belief is similar to the disciples, however, Martha shows amazing faith by saying to Jesus, "but even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you" (v. 22). Can you imagine? Her brother has been dead for four days. He most assuredly stinks, yet Martha trusts in Christ's power! That's what we all need--to believe that Christ is much bigger than our circumstances--much bigger than death. Christ then goes on to confirm her faith in Him. He tells her, "your brother will rise again" (v. 23), not on the last day, but on that very day because, as Jesus tells her, He "is the resurrection and the life" (v. 25).

The story continues to build. Those early believers, and we today, are getting set up to see a miracle. Jesus prepares His disciples. He prepares the sisters. He is preparing us to see not just a healing but someone raised from the dead. He is preparing us for the impossible.

As He is setting the stage--with utter confidence in His Father's power--we get a glimpse of His humanity. He felt compassion on his friends. They were all crying over the death of a loved one and he was moved (v. 34) by their sorrow to the degree where He also wept (v. 35). He sympathizes with their feelings; He is not an aloof God, not a magical genie, but a man with real feelings for those He loved.

In verse 40, we get to see the climax approaching, the story coming full circle. Jesus tells them, "Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” Then He prays. He prays boldly to His heavenly father. "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me." He demonstrates the confidence that I pray I one day have. He is speaking with His Abba Father, knowing that He is listening. As we know, He then calls Lazarus out from the tomb and many Jews who were there believed. He set the stage, performed a miracle and was glorified.

As I have contemplated Heather's diagnosis of cancer, I realize that God sometimes makes things seem dire so that He can bring glory to Himself by demonstrating His power. That is His supreme goal--to be glorified. Unfortunately, in a society with so many voices and viewpoints calling for our attention, it is too often not the mundane that draws us to God, it is the remarkable. Make no mistake, however, God is in the mundane as well, but too often we miss Him there. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world".

Later in the day, He drove His point home to me. I came across John 20:27. Jesus is talking to Thomas and He said to him, "stop doubting and believe." (NIV).

24 October 2009

Praying Boldly

John 14:13-14--"Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it."

I am scared to write this post. I fear what it says about me because, frankly, it reveals weakness. I struggle with prayer. Specifically, private prayer. I have difficulty with intimacy with my heavenly Father. If an outsider would look at my quiet times, he may see that I desire to know God, but he may wonder if I want God to know me.

Corporately, I have never minded praying. I feel connected with those whom I am praying with and with God, but individually my prayers somehow become apprehensive and awkward. Even when I am able to filter out the intrusive thoughts of a restless mind, many questions enter into my consciousness. "Does God really care about my individual prayers?" "Am I asking for things selfishly?" "Am I praying the right way?" But the question that scares me the most, the one that drives me to tears is this:

"What if I ask for something and God says 'no'?"

Over and over in the book of John (14, 15, 16), Jesus exhorts his disciples to "ask the Father in his name" and "it will be given." That is a bold promise from someone with the power to back it up.

Yet I falter. Those nagging thoughts such as "If the answer is 'no' I must not be faithful enough," "maybe I am not praying right," or "there must be some unconfessed sin keeping this prayer from being answered" assault my assurance.

Recently, I find myself in a place where I am placing an audacious request at the foot of the throne for Heather to be healed completely, but I am also asking God to boost my confidence in His ability to answer my prayers and to deepen my prayer life.

In essence, I am placing my hope in the words of Jesus from John 14--that I ask boldly in Jesus name, that He does it, that His will is done, and that God receives all the glory.

Ephesians 3:20-21 "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen." (NIV)

23 October 2009

More than I can handle

Over the past week, I have heard the phrase, "God won't give you any more than you can handle" many, many times. I have been thinking about this phrase a lot and I began to wonder about it's Biblical origin. Turns out, there isn't one. Nowhere in the Bible, does it say that God won't give us anymore than we can handle. It does tell us that God won't allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear (I Corinthians 10:13), but that is different than God giving us more than we can handle.

On the contrary, I believe that God allows intolerable pain (consider Job). I believe that pain can be so horrific that we cannot handle it. In fact, I think that hurts can be one way He draws us closer to Him. The realization that I am utterly powerless to handle something on my own leads me to cry out to Him. Suffering with God helps us to rely on God during the mundane as well.

The Psalms are full of pain (as Dave Powlison says, most Psalms are written in the minor key). David frequently writes of this.

Psalm 69 begins,
Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire
where there is no foothold.
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with crying out;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.

By the end of this Psalm, however, David is praising God with song and offering thanksgiving. He writes, "for the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are prisoners."

Consider also Paul's description of the thorn in his flesh in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul asked God repeatedly for this thorn to leave him, but God tells Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

From time to time, God allows much more than we can handle--but He never give us more than He can handle.

17 October 2009

The Breath Before the Pain

Yesterday, Ian hit his mouth on a chair, but there wasn't an immediate reaction. He paused for a moment before he began to wail. I have often found that reprieve to be a good indicator of real injury rather than simply a wounded ego. I think back to my own childhood when I experienced this delayed response to pain and the intermediary thought says, "this will soon hurt much worse."

Awakening to the dawn of my wife's diagnosis of breast cancer, I suspect we are gathering our breath. Today, there is no pain and things seem normal. But there is the promise of pain--of suffering to come. I have little concept of how much this will hurt, I just understand that it will.

After that initial reaction, when the real pain started and the blood flowed, Ian's natural instinct was to seek parental comfort. I find myself there as well. The first person I called--the first person I cried with--after hearing Heather's diagnosis was my mother. She did not offer to fix it--she cannot--she just cried with me, which I guess is why I called her.

I have also been seeking my heavenly Father, but I don't know what to say to Him. Words fail me. I believe right now, that is probably where He wants me to be. I am His wounded child and it is He who offers words of comfort. Yesterday, the daily verse from the Faithwalkers devotional was Isaiah 41:13--For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you."

Father help me to remember that you are the God of all comfort.

16 October 2009

Suffering Together

Genesis 2:24--Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

Several months ago, I read John Piper's excellent book, Desiring God. Though I was regularly affected by things that he wrote, I was particularly moved by his chapter on suffering. I said to my dear wife, "as Christians, we are called to suffer. We have a fantastic life, why is it that we don't suffer?" She replied, "wherever you lead, I will follow."

As I sat on the top of that mountain of contentment, I had no idea that God was preparing us for a trip into this valley. The Valley of Breast Cancer. In the past 5 days, which have been a whirlwind, Heather went from "I found a lump in my breast that I should have checked out" to "Heather will require a mastectomy."

I have also been painfully assured of something I have long suspected--the suffering of someone I love, in this case the flesh of my flesh--comes with substantial pain. As social beings, we humans suffer when confronted by the pain of others, particularly our loved ones. A part of me says I have no right to feel hurt, yet another part is reminded that I am one with this woman God has joined with me. Her pain is my pain.

I also know that as we peer into the valley, God has given us the past several years together to prepare for this journey with one another. Taking her left hand in mine and reaching to God with my right, we step out in faith.

I want to build a house up on this mountain
Way up high where the peaceful waters flow
To quench my thirsty soul
Up on the mountain

My faith is strengthened by all that I see
You make it easy for me to believe up on the mountain
Oh, up on the mountain

I would love to live up on this mountain
And keep the pain of living life so far away
But I know I can't stay
Up on the mountain

I said I'd go, Lord, wherever You lead
For where You are is where I most want to be
And I can tell we're headed for the valley
My faith is strengthened by all that I've seen
So Lord help me remember what You've shown me
Up on the mountain

You bring me up here on this mountain
For me to rest and learn and grow
I see the truth up on the mountain
And I carry it to the world far below

So as I go down to the valley
Knowing that You will go with me
This is my prayer, Lord
Help me to remember what You've shown me
Up on the mountain
Up on the mountain

I cherish these times up on the mountain
But I can leave this place because I know
Someday You'll take me home to live forever
Up on the mountain

10 October 2009

What is zeal for God?

I found this quote as I was reading J.I. Packer's Knowing God today.

"Zeal in religion is a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way. It is a desire which no man feels by nature--which the Spirit puts in the heart of every believer when he is converted--but which some believers feel so much more strongly than others that they alone deserve to be called 'zealous' men...

"A zealous man in religion is pre-eminently a man of one thing. It is not enough to say that he is earnest, hearty, uncompromising, thorough-going, whole-hearted, fervent in spirit. He only sees one thing, he cares for one thing, he lives for one thing, he is swallowed up in one thing; and that one thing is to please God. Whether he lives, or whether he dies--whether he has health, or whether he has sickness--whether he is rich, or whether he is poor--whether he pleases man, or whether he gives offense--whether he is thought wise, or whether he is thought foolish--whether he gets blame, or whether he gets praise--whether he gets honor, or whether he gets shame--for all this the zealous man cares nothing at all. He burns for one thing; and that one thing is to please God, and to advance God's glory. If he is consumed in the very burning, he cares not for it--he is content. He feels that, like a lamp, he is made to burn; and if consumed in burning, he has but done the work for which God appointed him. Such a one will always find a sphere for his zeal. If he cannot preach, work, and give money, he will cry, and sigh, and pray...If he cannot fight in the valley with Joshua, he will do the work of Moses, Aaron, and Hur, on the hill (Exodus 17:9-13). If he is cut off from working himself, he will give the Lord no rest till help is raised up from another quarter, and the work is done. This is what I mean when I speak of 'zeal' in religion" (J.C. Ryle, Practical Religion, 1959 ed., p. 130).

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.--Revelation 3:15-17,19

God, grant us a zeal for you!

07 October 2009

Parenting on the razor's edge

To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity;to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth--Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.--Proverbs 1:2-7

Over the past week or so, a confluence of factors has led me to think specifically about how I present Christ to my children. One of those factors was Michael Spencer, the i-monk. I once emailed Mr Spencer and told him that he was the blogger that I hate to love because although I don't always agree with him, he often makes me think deeply about my faith. Over the past few days, he has done a series of posts on young earth creationism, atheism, and abandoning the faith. This post today prompted me to write. Briefly, his essay tells of a young man who walked away from the God of his youth because there was no freedom to think independently or creatively under the umbrella of fundamentalism.

At times, when I read stories like this, I feel absolutely frozen inside. I believe there is no more important decision that my children can make than the decision for Christ, but how do I help them on that journey? Too much inflexibility and legalism can lead to rebellion. Too little guidance and structure can lead to a poorly calibrated moral compass. As I perch precariously along this narrow blade, I fear falling one way or the other, jeopardizing my children's eternal future.

As I think about these issues, I come to a place of wanting to teach my children to think for themselves from a Christian worldview by modeling that very thing in myself. I want them to see me deeply reflecting about issues in the world or in my faith and, through prayerful consideration and scriptural contemplation, coming to what I believe is a Biblical conclusion. When they approach me with questions, I want to provide guidance and wise counsel, but also encourage them to think through the questions for themselves with no hint of judgment in their process. If they arrive at a conclusion that is different from mine, I want to be able to ask myself whether their conclusion jeopardizes their salvation. If it does, I pray God gives me the words as I encourage them to seek Him. If it does not, I pray that I can demonstrate grace and parental pride in their ability to think for themselves.

Above all, I pray that God grants me the wisdom and the courage to teach my children what is truly important--the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Discussions about how the earth was created, whether homosexuality is a sin, or whether Bono is actually a Christian are infinitesimally unimportant relative to the Good News. I also pray for freedom from anxiety about whether I am "doing it right" instead trusting that if God seeks my children, they will be found by Him. I desire for myself and my children to be overwhelmed by the grace of Christ, to love others, and seek God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.

05 October 2009

Positions of worship

Recently at church, we were singing a popular worship song that included the lines:

We stand and lift up our hands, for the joy of the Lord is our strength
We bow down and worship him now, how great how awesome is He.

People often lift their hands as they sing this song (and many other worship songs). Admittedly, it may difficult to continue to sing a lively worship number while genuflecting, but I cannot recall the last time when I saw someone bow down in [a Protestant] church, even during prayer. I suppose I personally don't bow down for fear of embarrassment.

Throughout both Testaments, there is evidence of both raising hands (Psalm 63:4, Psalm 141:2, Lamentations 3:41) and bowing low (Isaiah 51:14, Psalm 95:6), but what I find interesting is what the two positions suggest. From my perspective, in our society at least, raising hands suggests an offering of loving praise whereas bowing low suggests a brokenness of spirit--an acknowledgement of unworthiness--such as we see from the tax collector in Luke 18 who averted his eyes from heaven.

I believe that both positions can demonstrate worship, but to me, happily singing "we bow down and worship him now" seems out of place. The song is joyful, bowing down is contrite. They don't easily fit together.

As we worship God individually and corporately, let us not forget the One we worship is perfectly holy and worthy of our fear (Isaiah 6, Revelation 15). I think that too often we lose sight of His glory in our worship and it simply becomes about singing happy songs to Jesus. God loves us and He sent His son to die for us, but He is also glorious.

John knew this better than anyone. He was the "beloved" disciple (John 21) and wrote effusively about the love of Christ but when he encountered Christ in his Glory, he "fell at as His feet as if dead" (Revelation 1:12-18). For John, it was no stretch to see Christ as both perfectly loving and deserving of fear. We should seek the same.

Phillipians 2:9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

18 September 2009

Cutting off the ladder

As I went through my professional training, I was often struck by the tendency to see one's place on the ladder of professional development as the standard of competence, yet to cut off the rungs immediately beneath saying that those below did not belong or were not welcome in the field of neuropsychology. As someone from a less than optimal background (counseling, rather than clinical, psychology), I merely hoped for a chance to demonstrate my ability, rather than be judged by what I too often presumed to be my second-rate credentials. Once I "made the grade," I discovered in myself a tendency to treat others as second rate if they did not come up to my standard based on some pseudo-arbitrary identifier, even if they had met what our field deemed a standard of competence.

What is even more profound is that we also do this as "Christians", don't we? We hope to make the grade and then once we assume that we have, we cut off the ladder beneath us from those who do not meet our standard. You know who I am talking about--the girl in church who you know sleeps around, that guy at work who pushes off his work on anyone he can, that gay kid at the coffee shop--we all have someone who doesn't make our grade.

But what about God's standard? According to Romans 3:23, every person fails to meet His standard and God has every right to cut us off from Him, but instead, He sent His son Jesus Christ to reach down His hand to anyone who wants help in the climb (Romans 6:23).

As you climb, remember the folly of cutting off the rung beneath you because we all fall short of the standard. Instead, spend your effort on helping people up the ladder into the arms of Christ.

John 1:12-"But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name; He gave the right to become children of God!"

17 September 2009

Who is in control?

I am normally pretty even tempered, but I was downright frenetic. I was pacing around the house without purpose, unsure of how to proceed. I had happily volunteered to write the brochure for our church's capital campaign because I am good at such things. I have always seen myself as a "go to" guy, but right now, I was falling fast.

I spent the better part of an hour engaging in a random string of the following behaviors: I would sit down at the computer to type, move to the table to write, sit in my recliner to read, pace around the house--over and over When I realized I had written nothing, my pacing essentially took over. I then began to consider the deadline impossible to meet and to wonder what I could say to the team, how could I tell them that I had not fulfilled my duty.

I finally reached my breaking point. I sent out a request to the team asking them to pray for God's divine guidance in writing. More imporantly, I got down on my face and prayed to God from my brokenness that I felt completely unable to complete this task and that I needed Him.

Within about five minutes, I was reminded by two Godly women (Debra Holmen and my wife) that my focus was wrong. They gently reminded me that I could not write this on my own, but needed to seek God's wisdom. Debra shared with me Ephesians 3:20--"Now glory be to God! By his mighty power at work within us, He is able to accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare to ask or hope." My first thought was, "duh" followed briskly by "Father, forgive me for not seeking Your wisdom from the start."

I sat back down at the computer and the words flowed. Within a matter of a couple hours, I had the entire thing done. I was again amazed at God's unbelievable power and yet more amazed that I consistently forget about it and true to do life on my own.

Just a day or two later during my quiet time, I was reading Jeremiah 32:27 and I think God brought me to this verse to try to set this in my mind a little more firmly. The verse reads, "Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?"

I am fully aware that it was through God's abundant goodness that the brochure was written, yet I am also fully aware that I will probably forget this again the next time around, and the next. I just pray that God remains patient with me as I learn to trust in His perfect providence.

06 September 2009

Judge one another?

Over the past several weeks, I have struggled with understanding Christian judgment or perhaps more accurately, loving correction. There are reasonably clear admonitions against judging one another, most memorably (to me anyway) in Matthew 7:4 "Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?" and Luke 6:37 "Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned." I understand this admonition. What I have trouble figuring out is when, and how, are Christians to lovingly correct one another. Here are some things to keep in mind:

God is our Judge. He loves His people, but make no mistake, He will pass judgment on all. Ecclesiastes 12:14 tells us that "For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil." In fact, in reading through the Old Testament, we frequently see evidence of God's judgment. It is only through Jesus' sacrifice that we are washed of our sins. So God the father is a righteous judge, but what about Jesus?

Considering that the Father and the Son are one, Jesus clearly has a role in judgment, which is evident in Revelation. During His earthly ministry, though, He stated that His role was not to judge, but to save. John 12:47-48 "If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day." With that said, He did not encourage people to sin freely. Consider the woman at the well. After all of her accusers left, "Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, 'Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more'" (John 8:10-11). He acts with incredible mercy, but does not let her off the hook to continue in a sinful lifestyle.

But what about us? Admittedly, that whole plank-eye thing is pretty convicting, yet we are also called to sharpen, confront, even rebuke, one another (e.g., Proverbs 27:17, James 5:16, Titus 1:13). Jesus instructed His followers "Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment" (John 7:24). So we are called to "judge", but how do we do that? I think Jared Wilson provides two worthwhile recommendations (p. 134):
  • We're responsible for our brothers in Christ, to bring discipline and conviction to each other in the hopes of making the body of Christ holy as God is holy.
  • We have no business judging people who are not Christians.
So how do we "bring discipline and conviction to each other"? I shared my difficulty processing this balance with one of our pastors who said to me, "well you know Micah 6:8 right?" Ummm....no. It turns out that Micah 6:8 tells us to "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." I read this to mean that, if we feel the need to confront a Christian brother or sister, we should examine ourselves and our motivations, humbly and prayerfully seek God's guidance, and only then mercifully correct, recognizing fully that we too are sinners completely dependent upon the grace of Christ.

(I liberally consulted the chapter "Jesus the Judge" from Jared Wilson's Your Jesus is Too Safe in writing this post. I would highly commend the book).

05 September 2009

Reading Christians

I suppose I could have gone in several directions with this post. For example, I could have written about the practice of discerning or understanding other Christians, about Christians who read, or about reading things written by Christians. Although all worthy blog fodder in their own right, it is this final point I am interested in right now.

In the past several months, I have ramped up my reading, always hungering for more. In a desire to know more about God and His will for me, I spend much of my free time searching out and reading books, blogs, and articles about God in addition to His holy word. I have become increasingly aware, that despite my frequent encouragement by Christian writers, I am too often frustrated by what I read, so I started asking myself why.

I have pinpointed a few things that have contributed to my annoyance. Fundamentally, I often forget that, unlike God's word, Christian writers are fallible. Even those attempting to elucidate God's word with the utmost care are fallen sinners who write with error. In today's information age, anyone with Internet access has a pulpit, without a requirement that they actually think or analyze scripture (I say this, fully recognizing the irony that I am writing this in an un-reviewed blog). In ages past, writers faced scrutiny by their peers and if their writings did not pass muster, they did not persevere, if they even managed to see the light of day. I also see evidence of people pursuing worldly agendas before God's will and subsequently bending God's word to fit their desires.

I initially came up with several rules to circumvent my annoyances:
  • 1) Read only books put out by Crossway publishing company--Crossway is the primary publishing portal for such thinkers as John Piper and Mark Driscoll, dubbed the leaders of New Calvinism. They write in a refreshingly direct way, leaning strongly on the Bible, which they recognize as inerrant.
  • 2a) Avoid any book written or endorsed by Brian McLaren--McLaren is a leader of the emergent movement and is most recently notorious for his decision to celebrate Ramadan this year to demonstrate solidarity with the nation of Islam.
  • 2b) Avoid any book with "emergent" in the title--See point 2a above. There is a tendency, I believe, for the emergent church to place a strong focus on re-interpreting God to be cool, hip, and relevant and in the process, twisting the Gospel.
  • 2c) Avoid any books published by Windblown Media--Windblown Media is most well known for publishing The Shack, a piece of Christian fiction which has exploded with massive readership and has led people to say such things as "this book has been life changing and caused me to re-think God." More recently, Windblown has been recognized for their book So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore?, which suggests that the Bible does not recommend involvement in any kind of institutional church (for those who agree with this, I would encourage reading the New Testament).
  • 3) Be selective in which blogs I read and never read the comments--There are many Christian blogs out there with no editorial oversight (you are now reading one). Some of them show deep thought, some are political soapboxes, and some are just poorly written. Even worse, the comments often demonstrate no humility or wisdom, but much venom.
As I pondered these "rules," I believed they had some merit, but are mostly absurd. Rather, I think a different approach is beneficial.

First, the Bible should be pre-eminent as it is the inerrant, infallible Word of God. We need to read the Bible first and read it most. It is to be our primary source of information about God and our lives in Him (2 Timothy 3:16). Use a literal translation (e.g., ESV) rather than a paraphrase (e.g., The Message) for most of your Bible study. Second, pray for spiritual discernment (Ephesians 5:6-11), seeking to understand what is consistent with the Bible and what is not.

I like how John Calvin described how to deal with the world (including its writings) in his Institutes:
  • For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written, are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly.
In other words, we are to use God's word as a lens through which to view our world, including the things that we read about God written by others. Put another way, we should act as the Bereans who "received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so." (Acts 17:11).

In sum, I believe there are worthwhile Christian writings out there, but I also believe that we need to carefully consider the veracity of what we read, consistently praying for discernment and regularly checking what we read against the scriptures.

31 August 2009

A "better" God?

I read an interesting article from the Washington Times over my lunch hour today entitled "On Seeking a 'Better' God." The premise of the article, as I read it, was that twenty-somethings today often favor atheism because 1) they don't like the Christian God they see and 2) in many ways, feel morally superior to God because they see Him as vengeful and vindictive.

As I drove back to Eau Claire, thoughts raced through my head. I wondered to myself, "how could anyone adopt such an egregious, heretical view of God, to the point where they feel that they are better than Him?" Below, I fleshed out two possible reasons why I think today's young people adopt this dangerous viewpoint, fully acknowledging that there are likely other contributing problems as well (e.g., moral relativism, poor theological & philosophical education).

First, I believe that young people today do not understand God's holiness. God is utterly and completely without sin; He is perfect. As sinful beings, we could not even stand in His presence. Consider again Isaiah 6:5 "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” This chosen prophet was filled with dread having simply gazed upon perfection--God's holiness. Isaiah did not respond in this way because God was vindictive or because God was morally inferior, he responded because he was, in an instant, tormented with his own utter depravity. Even a whisper of imperfection (i.e., sin) falls far short of God's magnificence, or as Romans 3:23 reads, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." As imperfect beings, we all miss the target and deserve separation from God. This is not malicious or vindictive, this is justice. Furthermore, God fairly applies the same standard to every human.

This leads to my second point. Today's 20-somethings were raised by a generation of parents who were probably more influenced by modern psychology than they were by their church. They grew up in a child-centered culture that promoted self-esteem and well-being. They were regularly fed a diet of "you're OK just the way you are" or "you can do anything you want to do" without any call to discipline and responsibility. They received this message from their parents, their friends, their teachers, and from television. Because they grew up believing that they were something spectacular, to even speak of their sin, much less their depravity, is unthinkable. As they matured became adults, they adopted worldviews that reinforced their sense of excellence and self-importance. When confronted with the God of the Bible, they simply reject Him saying, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, I'm better than God." They then become atheists, without ever pondering what it actually means to come to the conclusion that there is no God.

Unfortunately, by rejecting God out of a sense of their own self worth and God's perceived inferiority, these young people prematurely miss out on God's grace, demonstrated through Jesus's sacrifice. Even when they do learn of Christ's crucifixion, they reject Him as a fool because to accept Him would involve a) admitting that they are not perfect and b) that God is. We don't need to seek a better God, we need to seek a better understanding of our sinfulness and the only way to life--Jesus Christ.

John 1:12-- But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God

(To be fair, I later discovered one of these points fleshed out by Skye Jethani, but I decided to proceed with my analysis anyway, but included his for consideration. It is worth the read).

HT: Zach

30 August 2009


I appreciate sarcasm. I also employ sarcasm, at times when I shouldn't. In fact, when Heather and I first met our small group, there was concern about the integrity of our marriage because Heather and I are prone to freely joking with one another. I began to wonder what role humor and sarcasm should play in my life, if any. I do not believe that God created us to always be dour and serious; rather, I believe that he not only created us to laugh, but that He provides examples in his word of sarcasm.

Consider Isaiah 44:13-18 "The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, 'Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!' And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, 'Deliver me, for you are my god!'"

God, through His prophet Isaiah, points out the absolute folly of a man making an idol of wood and in so doing, employs sarcasm. Imagine this carpenter. He takes a block of wood, carving it into an idol and then lights the scraps on fire! I believe God is pointedly demonstrating how foolish this man is.

Although I believe God makes a place for sarcasm and in His perfect design and delights when we laugh, we also need to be cautious with our words. Although words build up and bring joy, they may also tear down.

Psalm 73:8-9: They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth.

God gifts us with language. Words have the ability to entertain, comfort, rebuke, educate, and praise, but they can also harm. Therefore, if we choose to use sarcasm we should be "slow to speak" (James 1:19) attempting to glorify God and love one another consistently.

26 August 2009

Abdication of responsibility

Genesis 3:6 "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate."

A couple of days ago, I wrote about Genesis 3:1-5 and how in original sin, Satan convinced Eve to conform God's word. In verse 6, we read of the sin itself, but there is something else here too, something that may inform our understanding of previous verses.

It reads, "she also gave some to her husband who was with her." It doesn't say that Adam was off somewhere else living righteously; he was at her side while the deceiver spoke with Eve. And he did nothing. Nothing, that is, except follow her into sin. It was, as my friend Joel said, "the first abdication of responsibility by a man" and you can see how well it went.

The Bible is replete with examples of the Biblical headship of man and how that looks. In today's society, saying that man is the head of the wife is not popular, which I suppose is true of much of God's word. But it works because God designed it that way. He designed us to live in complementarity with each other.

Churches today are plagued by a remarkable lack of men. In fact, in the UK, woman make up about 2/3 of congregants and the gap is widening. Of the men in the church, too many of them act like Adam; they stand by and watch like a bunch of emasculated weaklings. That is, if they show up at all. Many of them are too busy with their hobbies or their work to lead their families.

The church needs men to stand up and be men, to not relinquish their duty. That's what real men do. They don't leave it to their wives, assuming that women will figure it out. Whether they voice it or not, women in the church are desperate for men to lead--in their families and in their church. And if men don't take the reins, they will be called to task.

Genesis 3:9 "But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, 'Where are you?'" In standing by, Adam was not let off the hook, he was called out. Men, when you meet God face to face is he going to call to you and say "where were you?"

(For a free copy of Piper and Grudem's Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, go here).

25 August 2009

Guest post-Pushing People Away without Knowing

My friend, Jon, asked if he could write a "guest post" here. Given my recent writer's block, I welcomed his offer. He writes:

I was struck recently after talking to two individuals about coming to church by how they both expressed feelings of fear about what people will think of them when they do come. Both of these individuals are already Christians but are coming back after a certain period. One stepped away from the church for a while due to some struggles in their life that caused them to go off to some not-so-good things, and the other rarely comes because of their job requiring them to work most Sundays but was now nervous about bringing her new boyfriend to church after a recent divorce.

I think you can tell what each is worried about. Both are worried about people judging them because of their past actions.

Whether these are legitimate concerns on their part or not, it got me thinking about how most people, even those who are Christian, think that everyone in the church is very judgmental about them. It's sad because they shouldn't worry about that judgment since there is only One who has the right to judge them. What's even worse, though, is that as a broad generalization, I think they tend to be right about the church casting judgment.

How often do we see someone come into church who maybe looks a little different or who we know has strayed from God recently and immediately think, “Why are they here? Their heart can't really be in this. I bet they don't even want to be here and are just doing it for looks.”? Who are we to say where a person's is heart just from how they look or the past that they've been through?

I'll admit that I'm just as bad at this as others. I try not to show it in front of those people, but I think we all show it just by not being open and friendly with them. They become outcasts because no one approaches them. Everyone is afraid to say the wrong thing and offend them, and in the process we say nothing at all. I think this is what causes the feeling of judgment in them.

There's a problem in the church when we don't welcome people in or welcome them back realizing that we are in just as much of a broken state as they are. Not one of us has the right to judge when none of us have actually had to pay the full price for the mistakes and sins in our lives. Sure, we all feel like we have, but none of us has actually paid the price of death that just one of our sins is worth.

The flip side of this situation, which I mentioned above, is that we as Christians actually let the judgments of others affect us and affect how we feel about ourselves. We know that others' thoughts about us really have no affect on us except to the extent we let them; for there is only One who can actually judge and change and mold us in that way. We go through our lives seeking the approval of other people, especially other Christians, because we feel like we need to look good in their eyes.

We don't.

Live your life seeking the approval of God each and every day, not man. Don't cast judgment and don't let unwarranted judgment cast on you change who you are.

"Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye?” - Matthew 7:1-4