23 December 2016

The Dangers of Book Hoarding...but also not reading

A good friend of mine sent me a link to an article by Jim Elliff about "Book Hoarding". Book lovers, I would commend the whole thing to you.  This will give you a flavor, however. 

Elliff writes, "I’ve spent my life around pastors and church planters. I can tell you that most of them do not eagerly talk about new findings in the Bible, new insights from Jesus’ teachings, how they find Christ in the Old Testament, how passages are coming alive to them because they are finally understood. No, mostly they talk about what others say in the books they read. They speak like hoarders of books rather than lovers of the Bible. For me, correcting this problem takes true repentance. But, in my experience, and the experience of generations of Bible lovers, substituting saturation in the Bible for inordinate hours in uninspired books will do something for your soul that cannot be done otherwise.

Here was my response to my friend: 


Jim Elliff offers a good and important corrective and he expresses something those of us who love books must wrestle with.  First let me say that I agree with much of what he says (I actually felt like he was describing me), but I think there are places where this message may be overbalanced in the opposite direction as well.  Here were a few thoughts/questions I wrestled with as I read:

1) Is having a large library or a hobby necessarily sinful?  I don't believe that it is, thought it certainly can be. I think one needs to ask what is the purpose behind the library. Is it being used for edification and ministry?  

2) What is the purpose of reading outside of the Bible?  One of the things I believe is true is that we learn in the "community of saints." I believe that extends not only to our local community, but to the church historic. We can gain insight by reading folks like Luther, or Augustine, or Lewis. There is a long history of "spiritual reading" in the church. I sometimes see in people who proudly read only the Bible what appear to be false understandings of Scripture that disagree with 2000 years of church history. I suspect this is how some cultic beliefs begin. 

3) Do people who read many books necessarily read less in the Bible than those who do not OR, alternatively, do those who read widely have a more robust devotional life? I can't speak for others, but for me, reading other books has enhanced my time in the Bible. I am more likely to read more Bible when I am reading more books.  Elliff says that collecting books eats away at your desire to read the Bible. For me, at least, I disagree. 

4) It seems to me that much of modern culture lacks the capacity for critical thought and reflection. I believe this is due, at least in part, to a reduced functional literacy (e.g., most people can read, but many cannot read critically). We see this all the time on social media. I frankly believe it would be advantageous to have a stronger community of readers than we currently have. Specifically, most Christians would do well to become better readers, not just of the Bible, but in general. 

5) Do other sources allow us to gain insight into what Scripture teaches? Are books different from sermons? 

Thanks for sharing this. It is great food for thought. I fully recognize that my reflections above may just be my well-defended justifications.  Earlier this week, I went through my library to see which books I have that I still want to read and haven't previously. There are 177.  That's a significant number, but I keep plugging away at them. I also believe that I am a different, and better person not just because of what I have read in the Bible, but also what other books have showed me about what is in the Bible. 

20 December 2016

Raising Immanuel

I'm just a lowly carpenter,
building things of wood;
I put my heart and soul in this,
my buildings firm and good.

I've asked a girl to be my wife,
young Mary, sweet and kind;
a flower so pure and lovely,
I was blessed to find.

With longing anticipation,
I'll await our wedding day;
I'll protect the virtue of this girl
and keep my desire at bay.

The whisperings I hear in town
say "Mary is with child."
"It can't be true" I tell myself
my fears are running wild.

O God, I'm hurt and weeping
this pain, I cannot bear;
she dashed my heart upon the rocks
leaving fragments of despair.

Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace
I cry to you for aid;
the law says I should stone her
but I can't. I am afraid.

I will divorce her quietly
the most mercy I can show;
A woman deserving death
will just be left alone.

I'll buckle down, back to work
forget about our plans;
swinging a hammer is what I know,
not being a married man.

Tonight I dreamed a wondrous dream,
God's angel spoke to me;
rekindling my cooling fire,
he said "let the marriage be."

"Don't be afraid, strong Joseph
to take Mary as your wife;
the life that grows inside her
is the Messiah's life."

I awoke excited and with dread
the Christ will be my son;
what can this lowly carpenter
teach the Maker of the Sun?

I'll take the girl as my wife
we'll raise Immanuel;
"God with us" will live with us
the Savior come to dwell.

13 December 2016

Living wisely as storytellers

We are a storied people. Humans love to hear stories and tell stories. Even before we could speak, our parents read stories to us. We reinforced them by gazing attentively at their faces. As we grew and we began to read, we absorbed the stories that others put down on paper. We began to tell our own stories to people and to listen to the stories that others told about themselves. We are in the practice of living into an ever developing narrative.

But stories are not always happy. In fact, wise storytellers recognize that good stories include tragedy and tension. Difficulties and hardship are true elements in good storytelling because they mirror the realities of life under the sun. Anyone who has lived enough life recognizes that personal narratives contain difficult elements.

Yet so often in our longing for redemption, we try to craft our own stories in such a way that we come out as the hero. When evil enters the story, we edit the script. We set ourselves as victims of an oppressive enterprise. We create scapegoats and villains to become the source of all suffering, and particularly our own suffering. In the end, we draft stories--fictions actually--wherein we are the survivors, Righteous crusaders against the tyranny of family, friends, or institutions that have oppressed us.

In the middle of our storytelling, we believe that our own words are pristine and true. If there is any falsehood, it comes not from us, but from those we cast as villains. Then we workshop our stories to others, believing most strongly those who affirm us and discounting out of hand those with hard criticisms. A primary reason for this tendency is that the human capacity for self-deception is remarkably deep-seated. We become willing to sacrifice others for the sake of remaining the hero in the white hat.

But listen--in a world of oft-competing narratives and inconsistent stories, God alone is true. Romans 3:4 says that even if everyone else is a liar, God is true. We each find ourselves in the midst of His story, not the other way around. Christ alone is the hero, not us.  Christ alone is the only one who is immune from the remarkably virulent self-deception that plagues all of us affected by sin.

Thankfully, as image bearers whom God has included in His story, He has shown us the way to live in His word. He is not interested in us advancing our own shaping fictions, but in His story being told well. In His word, He has consistently shown us the goodness, truth, and beauty of His Son, the most remarkable story ever told.

Yet He has also given us practical advice on how we should live and relate. He tells us about the importance of living in community even when we disagree or when it is hard, so that we can begin to understand what is true--of ourselves, of others, and of God. He tells us that it is essential not simply to accept as true one person's narrative without also considering  another's (Proverbs 18:17). He hints that it is in a community of storytellers where we begin to get at truth (Proverbs 15:22).

If we choose to live into any story other than God's story, we are following a dangerous fiction. If we choose to relate in a self-centered way just to maintain the false "truth" of our narrative rather than in a way that seeks relational wholeness and redeemed community, God's word calls us a fool (Proverbs 12:15)

08 December 2016

Top Ten Books of 2016

For the last several years, I have put together a list of my ten favorite books from that year. It must be a book I have not read before. This is important because, for example, I read the Great Divorce by CS Lewis at least once a year and that would be on my list every year if I did not set this stipulation. By intention, I read substantially fewer books this year (87, so far) than I did last year (144) and there were several that I re-read.  Despite my more restricted reading, I had no difficulty identifying ten.

A few observations looking back over the past 7 years of these lists:

  • The authors who appear most frequently are Jared Wilson and Jerry Bridges, each three times. Several others including Larry Crabb, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Randy Alcorn, John Ortberg, Tullian Tchvidjian, and John Piper appear twice. 
  • In the first year I did a list (2010), my top 10 was strongly "Calvinistic" (indeed, everyone on my list could be considered at least a soft Calvinist). This year, it would be fewer than half. 
  • Until last year, there was very little fiction on my list. In 2010, Pilgrim's Progress was on the list, but I am not sure if that really counts. My reading is still primarily Christian nonfiction, though I have stretched to reading some fiction as well, thanks largely to my oldest daughter.
  • Interestingly, when I first read The Great Divorce in 2010, it didn't even make my top 10.  I wonder what changed? 
10) Letters to a Young Pastor (Calvin Miller). In this book, Miller shared a lifetime of gathered wisdom with those desiring to minister to others. Miller is an eloquent writer and gifted communicator. Even if you never intend to become a pastor, the wisdom in this book is worth absorbing.

9) You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (James K.A. Smith). Smith offers a unique and informative exploration of why people develop the habits they do. He challenged the notion that what we do is driven primarily by our thoughts, suggesting instead that our desires are a primary motivation. As we think about what we love, it helps shed light on how we think and behave.

8) The Cry of the Soul (Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III). Although previously familiar with Allender, I had never heard of The Cry of the Soul until I attended the Men at the Cross event in February, where the book was mentioned. In the book, the authors help the reader to explore the language of emotion in Scripture and particularly the Psalms, looking at shame, fear, and sadness to help us know God and ourselves more deeply.

7) The Voice Bible (Ecclesia Bible Society). When it comes to Bible reading, I tend to be an ESV guy. I personally have more ESV Bibles than there are members in my family. I recently started into the 6 volume reader's set, which is a joy to behold. Sometimes, though, I like to mix things up. Last year, I read through Eugene Peterson's paraphrase, The Message, in my year of Peterson. This year, I decided to read through The Voice Bible after I heard my friend Ruth read a few passages from it.  The Voice aims to be a dynamic equivalent translation of scripture (thought for thought), but it is presented in a rather unique way, almost as a screenplay format. There are also places where ideas, set apart by italics, are added into the text to enhance the reading. In their desire to remain faithful to the Bible, the editors are clear that these words are not a part of the original text. The Voice is one of the most beautiful translations I have read and it helped me to enter passages of Scripture in ways that haven't happened before. Or perhaps, it allowed Scripture to enter me.

6) The Blessing of Humility (Jerry Bridges). The world lost an amazing author this year in Jerry Bridges. Well, I should clarify. His actual writing skills, while clear and engaging, are not especially remarkable. Perhaps what makes him amazing is the man who seemed to be behind the words. Bridges seemed to be a man full of biblical wisdom, but even more than that, a man of palpable humility. Therefore, to see a book about humility published posthumously by who has always struck me as quite humble was a welcome gift.  We could all use more humility and this a great place to start.

5) World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (Christian McEwen). World Enough is the only book on my list this year that I would not classify as a "Christian" book. McEwen is a poet and professor who explored the topic of slowing down as a way of living a fuller life with specific attention to how a less hurried life can help the creative process. Drawing from a variety of traditions, she writes beautifully (you can tell this book was written by a poet) about noticing the world, something many of us fail to do adequately.  A few of her essays were assigned in a class that my daughter and I took this summer, Writing from Your Roots, which prompted me to read the rest.

4) Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self (Chuck DeGroat). In April, I wrote this about Wholeheartedness: "the best non-fiction book I have read this year by far." DeGroat has a special ability to draw together multiple streams of thought (neurobiology, theology, psychology) to help his readers think more deeply about what it means to be a whole person. He presents a wise way of thinking about living out a restored life, a life of shalom.   

3) A Different Kind of Happiness (Larry Crabb). This book holds a special place in my heart. I hold dear the man who wrote it, considering him a mentor and a friend. I also was privileged to write an endorsement for this book, which appears on the back cover.  Yet those thing alone do not provide a place for this book on the list. Rather, A Different Kind of Happiness is the clearest example of Crabb's current thinking about other-centeredness and the importance of sacrificial love. The second part of the book presents his seven questions of spiritual theology, which also help to formulate his thinking.  This book provides an excellent, Christ-centered approach to relating.

2) Living In Christ's Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God (Dallas Willard and John Ortberg). It seems that in each of the last few years, one writer has had a particularly significant place in my reading. Historically, it has been Eugene Peterson, Larry Crabb, and Francis Schaeffer to name a few. This year, it was probably Dallas Willard. Last year, his book The Allure of Gentleness was also my number 2 book.  Living In Christ's Presence is a unique book. I first came to it as an audio book, which was actually a recording of a conference that Willard and Ortberg did together, Willard's final conference before his death.  I found myself listening to it again and again. I also read the book that was based upon the conference. All told, I have probably consumed this book 10 or 12 times and I fail to tire of it. The sweetness of Jesus is so evident in Willard's words and demeanor one would be hard pressed to dislike this book.

1) The Wingfeather Saga (Andrew Peterson). Technically, The Wingfeather Saga consists of four books: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, North or be Eaten, The Monster in the Hollows, and The Warden and the Wolf King, but this quadrilogy (I may have just coined a new term, though I doubt it) traces a singular story line. In this series of books, Peterson traces the story of the Igiby children, Janner, Tink, and Leeli as they come to discover who they are together with their mother Nia, grandfather Podo Helmer, and friend Oskar N Reteep (a man to whom I bear an uncanny resemblance). This is a wonderfully engaging tale complete with dragons, whistleharps, and fangs.  Though many would consider this a children's book, I wept at the end of the series. I am already finishing my second read through of the series in 2016 and anticipate that The Wingfeather Saga will be a perennial favorite for me as I am undoubtedly a bit of a groupie already.

Here are my past lists:

2015
1) Love Does by Bob Goff
2) The Allure of Gentleness by Dallas Willard
3) The Pastor by Eugene Peterson
4) A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser
5) A Loving Life by Paul Miller
6) Relational Soul by Rich Plass and Jim Cofield
7) Reversed Thunder by Eugene Peterson
8) Prodigal Church by Jared Wilson
9) The Solitary Tales by Travis Thrasher
10) hand in Hand: The beauty of God's sovereignty and meaningful human choice by Randy Alcorn

2014
1) Extravagant Grace by Barbara Duguid
2) Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them by John Ortberg
3) Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi
4) The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ by Ray Ortlund Jr.
5) Joy for the World by Greg Forster
6) Why Sin Matters by Mark McMinn
7) What's Best Next? by Matt Perman
8) Messy Spirituality by Mike Yaconelli
9) Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves
10) Jesus Continued... by JD Greear

2013*
1) One Way Love by Tullian Tchvidjian
2) Grace in Addiction by John Z
3) Becoming a True Spiritual Community by Larry Crabb
4) Tale of the Toboggans by Christian Schmidt
5) Prodigal God by Tim Keller
*I only listed 5 in 2013 for some reason.

2012**
1) Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson
2) The Transforming Power of the Gospel by Jerry Bridges
3) Not the Way Its Supposed to Be by Cornelius Plantinga
4) Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey
5) Think Christianly by Jonathan Morrow
6) Gospel Wakenfulness by Jared Wilson
7) Gospel Deeps by Jared Wilson
8) The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler
9) Shame Interrupted by Ed Welch
**Nine?  Why nine? What a weird number.

2011***
1) Commentary on Galatians by Martin Luther
2) Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints by John Piper and Justin Taylor
3) Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson
4) How People Change by Tim Lane and Paul Tripp
5) Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney
***Apparently in 2011, I didn't actually put out a list. Why? I am not sure.  However, I went back through my list and here are some I would have recommended from that year. Luther on Galatians is an absolute must read for Christians, in my opinion.

2010
1) Chosen by God by RC Sproul
2) The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
3) Ashamed of the Gospel by John McArthur
4) Surprised by Grace by Tullian Tchvidjian
5) Confessions by St Augustine
6) The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges
7) Spectacular Sins by John Piper
8) If God is Good by Randy Alcorn
9) Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl by ND Wilson
10) Family Driven Faith by Voddie Baucham

29 November 2016

Athletae Dei

Ten years ago, I intruded upon a midweek staff meeting at Cedarcreek Church to tell them I would be coming back to worship that Sunday. I explained that I wanted to be a part of a community where discipleship mattered.  I continue to think a lot about discipleship.

What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? What is sanctification? What does growth in Christlikeness involve? What is the link between salvation and works? These questions occupy a great deal of my day-to-day thought life. Let me offer a few rambling thoughts and conclude with a parable/metaphor that came to me on my morning commute. 

First, I am utterly convinced that salvation is a free gift of God. There is nothing that anyone can do to earn salvation nor even to improve their standing with God. Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us: "for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God." Christ's favor is unmerited. Whoever places their faith in Christ will be saved. Period. 

But, unlike the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43), most of us are not immediately headed for glory upon our good confession. God leaves most of us here for some time. In light of that, we are wise to ask, what shall we do with time we are given? How shall we live? These questions place us squarely in the domain of discipleship. 

To be a disciple means that we seek to learn from a teacher, in the case of Christianity, Jesus.  Disciples try to shape their lives to be more like Christ wants them to be, which he demonstrated by his life and teachings. In other words, they seek to grow in Christlikeness. Although stated above, this point is important enough to be restated: these attempts to grow in Christlikeness do not merit favor with God. Those who have placed their faith in Christ are as approved as they will ever be, which is to say fully approved. 

However, even though salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, it does not mean that works are inherently bad or evil. Dallas Willard has famously said, "grace is opposed to earning, not to effort." Indeed, the words of the apostle Paul routinely commend us to to strive for growth in holiness. Why should we do this? Not to earn God's favor, but because it is the best way to live. 

Let's see if this story clarifies this thought. 

A Parable 
Following up on their New Year's resolutions to get healthier, two men joined a gym. Taking advantage of New Year's offering, the first man signed up for the whole year, intent on becoming healthy and strong. The first few weeks, he showed up faithfully. Though he didn't really know what he was doing, he would run on the treadmill and do a few reps on the weight machines. After those first few weeks, life got in the way. His work was busy and after work, he just wanted to come home and crash in front of the TV for a few hours before going to bed. 

Also wanting to be healthier, the second man signed up for the whole year. He had chosen his gym after doing quite a bit of research and weighing out the pros and cons. He knew that the gym he joined not only had a variety of exercise options, there were also staff and more experienced athletes who were able to help him to reach his goals. He knew that in order to be successful, he would need to prioritize his time at the gym. In the upcoming year, he developed strong habits. He consistently came to the gym several times a week. If he missed for any reason, he would get back at it, not shaming himself for missing, but keeping his goals in mind. He sought advice from a personal trainer who also helped him to stay motivated and reach his goals. 

At the end of the year, the first man gained 15 pounds. He regularly complained of new aches and pains. He felt tired all the time. The second man lost 15 pounds. He felt healthier and better able to handle the daily stresses of life. In the Fall, he reached a long time goal of completing a 5K race. Others took notice of his improved health and he found himself instructing and encouraging others. 

Both of these men remained gym members. They both had access to all of the rights and privileges of being a member of the gym. They could take advantage of any of the resources at any time. 

But only one became a disciple. 

Like most parables, the parallels to real life are imperfect and clumsy at times. Yet, they often make a larger point, in this case, the importance of being a disciple. Jesus was the only one to ever live his life perfectly. Dallas Willard argued that Jesus is the smartest, wisest man who ever lived. If we believe that, we believe that Jesus knows what constitutes the best life because he lived it. If then that is true, it would be unwise for us to merely give assent to his claims without also seeking to live a certain way, Jesus' way. 

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul encourages his readers to become Athletae Dei--athletes for God. Athletes, at least those who want to be successful, go into training. They begin to shape their lives to succeed at their sport. They know that progressive training will be essential to continued success. No one wakes up one Saturday morning and plans to win a marathon that day without training for it. No matter how hard they try, they won't succeed. Training is more essential than trying. 

The same holds true for those of us who desire to grow in Christlikeness. We begin to train ourselves to be more and more like Jesus in our thought, word, and deed. We become his students. No one expects an overweight middle age guy to run a marathon, but knows that with training, he probably can. As our teacher, Jesus also knows that we are far from living perfectly, but he is eager to teach us his ways. 

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive an imperishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.-1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (ESV)

15 November 2016

Luke eighteen: Remixed for a unsettled generation

English Standard Version: He [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”-Luke 18:9-14

Remix for an unsettled generation
Jesus told this story to some people who were assured of their own righteousness and believed that their viewpoints were superior and spoke poorly of others. "Three people went onto Twitter to pray. The first, drawing attention to himself said, 'I thank you that I am not like other people, bigoted, racist, sexist uneducated hicks, or even these two over here. I am tolerant, supportive, and safe.'

"The second, also calling attention to herself said, 'I thank you that I am not like other people, lazy, self-centered whiners who have nothing better to do than protest. I work hard, pay my taxes, and love my country.'

"The third, standing far off, would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the others. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

Lord, have mercy.


12 November 2016

Five-fifths human: My reflections on cruelty and a call for confession

Prior to the 2016 election, emotions ran high. People across the nation expressed strong feelings about their preferred candidate and why the other candidates were unacceptable, unelectable, or deplorable. People seemed at least as committed to the defeat of the opposition as to the election of their own person. We now stand five days post-election and tempers run hotter than they did in the weeks leading up to the election.

Since Tuesday, we have been the unfortunate witnesses of so much hatred and violence. Crimes against people of color, gays and lesbians, and different religious backgrounds seem much more abundant than normal, and they already occur entirely too frequently. These incidents are not only happening among adults, but are infecting our children and schools too. The KKK has been circulating and recruiting with increased fervor.

Yet, that's not all. Multiple videos have surfaced of those who have been assaulted for their stance on Trump. One heart-wrenching video of a mother emerged. She packed her elementary-aged son's suitcase and kicked him out of the house amidst his flood of tears for voting for Trump in a school election.  Flags burn. Cities burn. None other than Garrison Keillor, author of the Prairie Home Companion, wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune entitled, Donald Trump won. Let the uneducated have their day. "Don't be cruel" he urged readers--his fellow "liberal elitists"--after he had devoted several paragraphs to maligning the intelligence of who he perceives to be the uneducated Trump voters, or as he suggests, "those without books on their shelves."

My fellow Americans, this isn't okay.

In 1787, a compromise was reached between the Southern and Northern states called the "three-fifths compromise." For purposes of taxation and representation, free citizens were counted as a whole person whereas "all other persons" (in other words, slaves) were counted only 3/5. They were considered less than fully human.

Are we coming again to a place where we have lost sight that human dignity is endowed by the Creator? Are we living in a time when we deem others to be "less than human?" Thankfully, on a federal level, each person (at least each person born alive and at least on paper) is recognized as fully human. One's citizenship is not reduced due to color, creed, or character.

Sadly, as individual Americans, I am not sure that we believe in equality anymore. Recent words and actions betray our beliefs that others are less than human, that there are people less deserving of dignity, respect, and kindness than others.

Again, fellow Americans: This. Isn't. Okay.

I am calling upon all who read this to take an honest inventory of your heart. Ask yourself, which people do I think are inferior to me? Who is less deserving of my respect? Who, in my thoughts and feelings, is less than fully human? Ask yourself, does my disapproval of another's behavior end up infecting my view of them as a person deserving of dignity?

Be honest. Pretending you are sinless in this not only harms others, but it harms your own soul. Healing can only begin with honest confession.  King David reminded us that God doesn't despise brokenness and contrition (Psalm 51).

From there, please stop acting as if you are better than others. In your disagreement, seek to listen and understand. Seek to comfort and restore. And, as Tim McGraw has so recently reminded us, "always be humble and kind."

09 November 2016

Reflections on the Dawn of a New Presidency

The people have elected Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States of America. For over 200 years, our constitutional republic has persisted and we have made it through yet another election.

I want to offer a few reflections on the dawn of the 2016 election to my Christian brothers and sisters. Perhaps your candidate won. Perhaps your candidate lost. Perhaps you didn't even cast a vote. Regardless, how now shall we live?

First, 1 Peter 2:16-17 reminds us, "Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor." Friends, our freedom lies not in our worldly citizenship, but flows from Christ's finished work. Live as people who are free. Yet in that, serve others and, as Peter reminds us, 'honor the emperor." Treat elected officials with honor, even if you did not vote for them.

Second, our sovereign is already on the throne. God was, is, and always will be head over all. God is not surprised by these election results. Nothing falls outside of His plan. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Besides Jesus, nothing has any significance. He alone matters."

Third, pray for the government. Not just today, but as often as you think about it. "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way." -1 Timothy 2:1-2

Fourth, you will meet people who are scared about the election results. There are those who believe that this election signals doomsday, the apocalypse, or the coming of anti-Christ. In light of that, they are frightened. Love them well. As the verse from 1 Peter says above, "live as servants of God." One of the best ways to do that is to love the people around you--friends, neighbors, coworkers.

Fifth, Christians, we remain salt and light. Matthew 5:13-14 reads, "You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. You're the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." We need to continue to boldly proclaim the truth of the Kingdom of God. When those truths are hard, we cannot be unafraid to say them. We need to be those who live with joy and beauty as citizens of God's kingdom. We are ambassadors for Christ. When people look upon us they see what Jesus is supposed to be.

Sixth, be more concerned about God's reputation than your own. Too often, as Christians, we conform ourselves to the surrounding culture or are afraid to speak truth when truth is necessary. In 1 Corinthians 4 Paul basically said, "I don't give a whit what other people think of me. I don't even care what I think of me. What matters is what God says." Don't worry so much about how the world views you; give more attention to how God views you.

Seventh, Micah 6:8 tells us to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God." There is still work to be done. Become advocates for the unborn, the downtrodden, and the marginalized in society. Love your neighbor.

Finally, "whether you eat, or whether you drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."-1 Corinthians 10:31

07 November 2016

fortissimo on tympanum

A never ending drum roll
fortissimo on tympanum
media induced hyperacusis
cacophony demanding.

The Times, the Blaze, and Fox
who can shout the loudest
MSNBCNN
our world is never soundless.

Each clamors for attention
lone arbiters of truth
"The others are deceptive
about the voting booth."

"We alone are honest
you we'll never fail,
We tell you what you want to hear
the 'objective' holy grail."

But train yourself to listen
not to him who talks the most
but to the One who made the world
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

His voice is always present
a legato melody
"Turn down the volume on the world
and you will hear from Me."

04 November 2016

As for me, I shall walk in my integrity

Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and my mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness. I do not sit with men of falsehood, nor do I consort with hypocrites. I hate the assembly of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked. I wash my hands in innocence and go around your altar, O LORD, proclaiming thanksgiving aloud, and telling all your wondrous deeds. O LORD, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells. Do not sweep my soul away with sinners, nor my life with bloodthirsty men, in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes. But as for me, I shall walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me. My foot stands on level ground; in the great assembly I will bless the LORD. -Psalm twenty-six

02 November 2016

Ten questions for my "pro-life" friends

(Before I ask these questions, please know that I am ardently pro-life. There has never been a time when I haven't been, so please keep that in mind when responding).

1. When you think of being pro-life, does that only, or even primarily, mean that you are against abortion?

2. What is your position on issues of life after a child is born? Are you as strongly committed to meeting his or her needs during childhood, adolescence, young adulthood? Not abstractly, but practically, what are you doing?

3. At what point does termination of life become a reasonable option (e.g., death penalty, targeting civilians during war) and, being pro-life, what is your justification for that position?

4. If you are a Christian, you believe that there is also life after death and most of you believe in a literal heaven and hell. Are you dedicating as much time and effort and prayer to a person's eternal life as you are to their physical, earthly life? Are you as committed to sharing the gospel with people as you are to talking about the horrors of abortion?

5. What does a truly pro-life position have to say about issues like caring for the poor, orphan care, pornography/human trafficking, substance abuse, bullying?

6. When you hear of someone who has committed a heinous crime, or when you think about those who are in prison, what thoughts pop into your head? Do your thoughts degrade them, or do you view them as a someone who bears the image of God and as someone who needs Jesus as much as you do?

7. God also speaks an awful lot about widows and the aged? What are you doing to love well those who are older than you or whose minds and bodies are failing them?

8. Do you find yourself judging people of other races or religions, assuming you are better than they are or that you would never do the things that they do or have done? When you see news stories about violence in the streets, is your gut reaction to think, "well, of course, they're black thugs" or "must be a Muslim terrorist"? or is your first response to think, "I should withhold judgment because I don't know the circumstances. What I can do is pray for how to best love right now."

9. Are you cautious with your tongue? Do you use words to build up or tear down? I understand this is not the same thing as the destruction of a physical child in the womb, but an evil tongue damages a soul. Many times, a person who is made to feel worthless or ashamed wishes they had never been born and may even seek to end their own lives. We need to communicate to people, even when we disagree with them: "YOU MATTER."

10. In general, at a deep level, do you view others as less worthy of life and love? Do you think that are other people are less in need of the Christ's saving grace? Blacks, Mexicans, White supremacists, women, drug dealers, pornographers, liberals, Muslims, gays, abortionists? If you were to dig beneath all of your self-protective armor, are there ever flashes of viewing some people as less inherently valuable.

Friends, to be pro-life MUST mean to be pro-human in all of its forms. The Bible speaks about the sanctity of the preborn, but there is a whole lot more evidence for how we care for those who are already here. God's love for the downtrodden is everywhere in the Bible. That doesn't mean that we call good the things that God says are evil, but it does mean we seek to love well even when we disagree. That doesn't mean we shift our responsibility to the government or a relief agency, but it does mean we must ask ourselves, how can I be "pro-life" right now?

25 October 2016

Isaiah Sixty-One: a poem

diamonds reflect light
shining multifaceted
yet they do not change

sprouts emerge from seed
minute, but climbing skyward
branches raised in praise

once saved, always saved
a bride adorned with jewels
effulgent beauty

kept safe, yet growing
tender shoot, reaching for God
sanctified beauty

Isaiah 61:10-11
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
     my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
     he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
     and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
     and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
so the Lord will cause righteousness and praise
     to sprout up before all the nations.

10 October 2016

selling our birthrights for a pot of stew

Yesterday, someone asked me why my only political posts have spoken out against Trump. Although not technically true, I think I understood the nature of his observation. Here are few thoughts that have been rattling around in my head. Consider them for what they're worth.
Voting for Hillary has never been an option for me, not even for the briefest moment. I disagree with her on most policy issues, and especially the issue of sanctity of life. Her desire for protection for abortion even until very late term makes bile rise in my throat. I find her behaviors reprehensible regarding Benghazi and the email scandal to name just a couple. There has never been a time in this election or prior when I have thought that Hillary Clinton is a good idea for our country. I still wouldn't waste the ink to cast a vote for her.
I have voted Republican in every election I have voted in, not because I am a party guy, but because historically, the views of the GOP have generally matched my own. I have certainly had points of disagreement with various candidates, but nothing that I have found to be disqualifying. That has changed this year with Trump. I have enumerated these concerns ad nauseam before and I won't recount them now. If you are a brave soul, feel free to go back into my Facebook or Twitter history and see what I have written.
The reason I have spoken out about Trump so vociferously is that he is supposed to represent MY party. He is supposed to espouse the values that I hold dear. When I have told people that I am a Republican and a conservative, that has traditionally meant something. It doesn't anymore. Now I find that my party's candidate makes a mockery of what I want my leaders to stand for. Republicans, Trump isn't what we bargained for. Or maybe he is, and now I, along with thousands of others, are politically homeless.
I have been particularly disappointed in the dogged support of Trump by several well-known evangelical leaders. These (mostly) men who have historically stood on principle and family values, calling us to a higher moral plane have abandoned principle, often with rhetorical misdirection (e.g., calling Trump's words "dirty talk" or "locker room talk" instead of sexual assault) and promises that he'll get better.
I remain passionate about my resistance to Trump because of what evangelicals have resorted to in his defense. They have overlooked that he has been vulgar and narcissistic sputtering out hateful invectives against anyone who disagrees with him. Too many Christians are selling their birthrights for a pot of stew.
Christian friends, Clinton will be undeniably terrible for the cause of the Republic. I acknowledge that clearly and consistently. BUT, Donald Trump threatens deep harm not only to the nation, but more importantly, to the cause of Christ. When James Dobson says that Trump has accepted Christ but that he is a "baby Christian", he shines a light on Trump not just as a representative of America, but as a representative of Christ. A watching world sees a man who appears unrepentant, hateful, and self-centered and thinks, "so that's what a Christian is." And yet we fail to weep.
So, briefly, there is no risk of people associating Clinton with biblical Christianity, but there is an immanent risk of people assuming that Trump must be what Christians look like. That conclusion is unthinkable.
O how terrible for those who confuse good with evil, right with wrong, light with dark, sweet with bitter.-Isaiah 5:20
Finally, brothers and sisters, fill your minds with beauty and truth. Meditate on whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is virtuous and praiseworthy.-Philippians 4:8



08 October 2016

a better Way, a better Truth, a better Life

I was deeply bothered by the audio clip of Trump yesterday. It seems to be yet another example that his lewdness knows no bounds. I wrote a deeply personal blog post today that I decided not to share. I was concerned enough about the content that I shared it with three people I really trust: my wife, my best friend, and my mother. Ultimately, though what I wrote is important and authentic, the detailed account is unnecessary for a general audience and potentially harmful for a young one. I don't want to risk harming those I love. 

But let me say this. Too often in my life, I have engaged in sins of omission and commission when it comes to women. I have treated women poorly and I have failed to defend them when I should have.

Men, we CANNOT continue to be party to a culture that debases women. We do not have the luxury of justifying ourselves by saying "all men do it." To all of the girls and women I have ever known, forgive me for the ways in which my thoughts, words, and actions have harmed you.

Dads, we need to teach our children that women are not sexual playthings. We live in a culture that tells us they are. If you listen to the culture, and even to our current presidential candidates, you will begin to believe it. Too often, I have failed to stand against the tide of sexual indecency. Forgive me for not consistently demonstrating what God calls men to be.

Men, Trump's words and behaviors have given us an opportunity. We can fail to speak out because we know we have done the same things. We can tacitly support Trump by laughing at the things he says and does.

Or we can humbly confess that we have failed to honor women and take a stand. We can say that we will not be part of a culture that continues to degrade and demoralize women. We can choose to move strongly against a hypersexualized culture. We can give ourselves in love and service to those who have no voice in a culture that tells them their beauty lies only in their sexuality. We can show by word and action, that there is a better Way, a better Truth, and a better Life.

Men, let's take a stand.

17 September 2016

Monochrome

Feeling gray in a sea of colors
your sadness monochrome;
shiny, happy, joyful others,
yet you feel so alone.

How can they grin and laugh
while you are sad and low?
You hate their smiling masks,
they see you, don't they know?

You force a smile and put on cheer
'tis better to pretend,
if they can't join your misery,
you'll act like one of them.

A world full of actors,
portraying joy unshaken,
meanwhile 10,000 hurting people
feel utterly forsaken.

06 September 2016

what is the counsel of the ungodly?

Reflecting upon Psalm 1, John Ortberg said,

"Now, what is the counsel of the ungodly? I grew up in a Baptist church, so I would think the counsel of the ungodly is someone encouraging me to go smoke a cigarette or have sex or be an atheist or something like that. Dallas [Willard] says that the counsel of the ungodly is just the way most people talk. It is the counsel to live as though it were not true that you are unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God's glorious universe. The counsel of the ungodly is 'Live as if it matters what people think of you.' The counsel of the ungodly is 'Live as if the outcomes of your life are on your shoulders and you control them.' The counsel of the ungodly is 'Live as if aging is something to worry about.' The counsel of the ungodly is 'Live as if satisfying your desires and appetites is central to your well-being and a wise strategy for living.' That's the counsel of the ungodly. It goes on all the time, and we rarely even see it."

--Living in Christ's Presence, page 46

01 September 2016

should I wonder any less?

Eight legs upon the web
weaving in unison
I watch in awe that God would allow such precision
Then I button my shirt
fingers dancing together upon the fabric
          should I wonder any less?

Storms rage
Winds blow
The power of God in whirlwind
Then I sneeze
such force from within
          should I wonder any less?

Squirrel dancing upon the wire
twitching tail for balance
God's meticulousness in this frolic
Then I walk
Feet and eyes and ears and neurons cooperating
          should I wonder any less?

Sunflowers looking to the heavens in praise
Sunset genuflect
The created worshiping Creator
Then I write
   and speak
      and sing
         and dance
            and breathe
all things in worship of my King.

should I wonder any less? 

29 August 2016

Words

Words.
I love words.
Because God loves words.
When He created the universe, the Word Himself spoke it into existence with words.

"Light," He whispered and, at His word, light awoke for the first time. And God was delighted. He spoke again and again. "Heavens. Earth. Life." Each utterance shaping His creation just as He intended.

In the beginning was the Word.
The Word was with God.
The Word was [is] God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

The eternal Word that used words to speak creation into being Himself entered His creation in the flesh. And He spoke words to His creation.

His words gave life to the universe.
His words gave life to the hurting.
They still do.

As those who were created in the image of the Word, our words can also give life to creation. Cherish them.

23 August 2016

Write into deeper reality

I came across a wonderful section in Eugene Peterson's book Under the Unpredictable Plant. (If you haven't read Eugene Peterson, he is the artist's theologian. He respects words. His eyes are trained for beauty better than most). 
Consider this: 
"My son, a writer, gave me a story that clarifies the distinction between culture-prayer and psalm-prayer. He was teaching a creative writing course at the University of Colorado. Students typically enroll in such courses because they want to be creative. As they hand in their early attempts at creative writing, the poems and stories reek of self-absorption. They are narcissists one and all and suppose that writing is a way of becoming better narcissists. Everything is reduced to and then recast in terms of their own experience. 
"Real writers know that this is not the way it works. While personal experience often provides the material and impetus--how can it be otherwise?--the act of writing is primarily an exploration of a larger world, entering into more reality, getting away from ourselves, moving beyond ourselves into other lives, other worlds. It is, precisely, creative: bringing into being something that was not there before. Meanwhile, my son, reading these stories and poems, was getting thoroughly bored. 
"In a moment of desperation, he took them out of the classroom one day and marched them across the street to a cemetery. They spent the hour walking over the graves, among the tombstones, reading the epigraphs and taking notes on what they observed and what they imagined. They were then instructed to write stories or poems out of the cemetery. It worked. There were glimmerings of genuine creativity. The writers were imaginatively entering into a world other than the self, an immensely larger world, even though it was only a cemetery. They wrote themselves into more reality." 
This. 

21 August 2016

Daily prayer for transformation

In Romans 12:2, Paul admonishes us to avoid being conformed to the world, but to instead be transformed by the renewing of our mind. The difficulty for all of us is that we have to live in the world and are thus pressured into the world's mold. Passivity will not work; transformation takes intentional practice. Bible reading, silence and solitude, worship, and prayer are but a few examples. One of the practices I've more recently developed is that each morning, I try to pray through a list of traits I want to see growing in my life. The list started with Paul's description of the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23, but I have expanded it from there. Here is what I try to daily. Some days I am too distracted. Some days I only get part way through the list. Some days I simply forget. But God is gracious and patient.

I begin by spending a few moments trying to settle my mind. I am one of those people whose mind chases 10,000 thoughts and I have to purpose myself to be in the moment. It is so easy to find my mind wondering and wandering. Typically, I can calm my mind some before I begin this prayer, never perfectly, and sometimes not at all. On those days, quite frankly, I try to spend my time simply quieting my mind, which in and of itself is an important practice.

After I quiet my mind some, I begin to pray through a list of character qualities I want to develop in my life together with their opposites. As I am slowly inhaling, I will pray, for example, "make me more loving." As I exhale slowly, I will pray, "rid me of hate." I do that for each of the traits, or as many as the morning allows.

Here is my current master list.
  • Love--Hate
  • Joy--Pessimism 
  • Peace--Anxiety
  • Patience--Hurry
  • Kindness--Mean-spiritedness
  • Goodness--Evil
  • Faithfulness--Disloyalty
  • Gentleness--Harshness
  • Self-control--Impulsivity
  • Presence--Distraction
  • Truthfulness--Dishonesty
  • Humility--Pride
  • Other-Centeredness--Selfishness
  • Curiosity--Disinterest
  • Compassion--Cruelty
  • Wisdom--Foolishness
  • Justice--Unfairness
  • Passion--Indifference
  • Mercy--Callousness
  • Godliness--Ungodliness
  • Hope--Despair
  • Generosity--Selfishness
  • Beauty--Ugliness 
  • Thankfulness--Demandingness
  • Settledness--Frenzy
  • Perseverance--Apathy
This is a fairly long list and if you do not rush, it will take a while. In addition to taking a few moments to settle my mind, I have found a few other things helpful.
  1. Try to do this everyday, even if it is just a part of it. 
  2. Write down the list on a note card to reference as you are praying. The words will eventually begin to take root, but it takes some time and help. 
  3. Visualization can help. As I am praying each of the words, I will sometimes picture a color I would associate with each word. For example, peace may be white; cruelty, black. It can also be beneficial to picture plucking fruit from a tree associated with each word. 
  4. Listen.  If you are praying slowly enough, you can listen for and begin to hear the Holy Spirit. As you pray, what is He telling you? Sometimes, a certain word will trigger me and I will sit and ponder it for a bit--sometimes with curiosity, sometimes with confession. 
  5. Choose a word to bring with you for the day. If you are going to be interacting with difficult family, perhaps you meditate on patience. 
  6. As you conclude, thank God that He promises to sanctify you by His grace and ask Him to carry these characteristics forward into your day.
Finally, like all spiritual practices, you will not be perfect, but you will grow. Fruit does not appear on a tree fully grown. It takes time. Someone who is out of shape does not get up and immediately do an Ironman triathlon. He works up to it. We also train ourselves for spiritual growth. Dallas Willard introduced me to the concept of "training versus trying." Too many believers, myself included, try to do right and when we fail, we give up. Training expects failure as a part of growth. According to Proverbs 24:16, "the righteous falls seven times and rises again."

Train yourself for righteousness.
Train yourself to watch for the Spirit's movement.
And above all, thank God for His continual grace toward you.

If you want a Google Docs printout to put in your Bible, you can follow this link.

17 August 2016

Abandoned beauty


An image came to me this morning.
An ancient church
     standing alone
     the wilderness fast overtaking the church yard.

Once a place of sanctuary
     a place of worship.
Sans people, is it any less beautiful?
The majesty of man's design overtaken by God's?
     Human creation divinely recreated.

Is God any less in this place?
     Do the stones sing any less than we do?
     Do the trees fail to lift their arms in worship?
     Does the moss fail to appreciate the warmth of its Maker?

God brings beauty wherever He presents Himself.
     Give us eyes to see.

13 August 2016

the intermingling of tragedy and beauty



We moderns have been trained to decouple tragedy and beauty. We view suffering and worship as incompatible truths. Mourning and loss may come to us, but when we experience the discomfort of sorrow, we seek escape as quickly as possible. With comfort upon comfort available to us, in the United States anyway, we flee from hardship. We are unapologetic escapists consuming alcohol, pornography, food, or exercise to numb our pain. We use whatever means available to help us to “feel better”.

The Bible paints a different picture. Mourning is a given reality of life and when we read God’s Words, we see real people dealing with honest emotion. When writing lament, the psalmists leaned into their pain and brought it before the Restorer Himself. In the first chapter of Job after hearing of the loss of his children, servants, and livestock, Job shaved his head, tore his robes, fell to the ground, and worshipped. Too often, we escape. 

Early in Mel Gibson’s movie Braveheart, we see “the gift of a thistle.” We see beauty in tragedy. A young boy stands alone looking upon the rocky graves of his father and brother. Trying to be strong, his body shakes, almost imperceptibly, as shovels full of dirt fall upon the only family that he knows. 

 
A young Murron turns back and pulls away from her mother. She breaks the stalk of a single purple thistle, a perfect image of beauty intermingled with pain, and walks to William. Her innocence and beauty carrying light to a lost boy.

Their eyes meet as she hands him the flower. For a moment, he looks upon the flower and then back to her. Tears fill his eyes, but he holds her gaze, and her his. A simple gesture bringing beauty to sorrow, bringing connection to loneliness.

Not a word was exchanged in the scene, but James Horner’s music speaks clearer than any tongue. It is the music that makes this scene transcendent. It is the music that helps me to see the beauty of tragedy. Many of us are too far-sighted to see God’s beautiful work in the midst of sorrow.