31 May 2016

A Traveller's Blessing

In his wonderful little book, To Bless the Space Between Us, priest and poet John O'Donohue shared this gem.


Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that you know well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening a conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart
Would love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

21 May 2016

Real Life is Local

In the past couple of years, I have attended a few different events that were transformative in my spiritual and relational life. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that. The School for Spiritual Direction (SSD), the Next Step School for Spiritual Direction, and Men at the Cross were life changing.

At both SSD and Next Step, I was able to spend a week with Larry Crabb and about 30 other folks exploring relational theology, for lack of a better term. There were excellent teachings by Larry, but also some important small group work applying the ideas. During each of those weeks, I also had time to spend one on one with Larry. As a Christian psychologist, I consider him a mentor, but he has also become a friend.

Men at the Cross was similarly valuable. On the recommendation of my friend Eric Johnson (another Christian psychologist), I attended MATC in Kentucky with my friend Brad. We explored who we are in Christ in a very experiential sense. Whereas SSD/Next Step are more of a long soak in a warm tub, MATC was a fire hose.

Both required difficult, but important personal work. If you have the time, inclination, and resources, I would heartily recommend either of them. This rather long introduction brings me to my actual purpose.

A few instances recently have reminded me that real life is local. I did really hard, really important work at MATC. I wouldn't trade it for the world and I hope to be involved with the ministry for years to come. I cannot thank God enough for the lessons learned and the friends made through SSD.

But they are not my church. My church is an old waterbed store, repurposed for the worship of Jesus. Every Sunday, we come together. We talk and we drink coffee and eat "Nancy Z Bars". We gather into the sanctuary together, sit in pink (!) chairs, and we sing songs and pray and listen to teachings from the word of God. Throughout the week, we gather for AWANAs, life groups, and Thursday coffees. Conversations may be mundane or they may be deep, thoughtful, and challenging.

Although some will disagree with me, I don't think God's prescriptions for New Testament churches are that detailed. There is no direction given on the size of the building, how they should be decorated if at all, or what type of instruments to use. The picture of New Testament churches, it seems, is about life lived together. Read 1 Corinthians. That church was messy. Just like ours. Just like yours.

The thing about Larry Crabb is that he is not my pastor. He is a friend and I value his counsel and his prayers, but we don't see each other on a regular basis. He doesn't watch me parent, work, worship, or try to love my wife well. He doesn't observe me close enough to know which of my spiritual and relational vines need pruning. That can only occur with people who actually see me regularly.

Real life is local. But real life is also hard sometimes. If you go to church with me, if we actually live in relationship, at some point I will hurt you. I promise. You will hurt me too. Because we live in a broken world, sometimes I will injure you unintentionally. Other times, because we are walking together toward relational holiness, the wounds will be deliberate. Proverbs 27:6 says, "faithful are the wounds of a friend." Exhortation is uncomfortable, but ultimately God-ordained and for the benefit of the body of Christ.

Living in the information age, we are part of a global "community." I can binge on sermons from a famous pastor in another country and even benefit from them. I can email people in a different city for counsel or advice. I can share my frustrations with online chat groups. But it isn't real. Real life is local.

In Romans 8:22, Paul wrote, "For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now" (NET Bible). Don't expect heaven before you get there. Be cautious about making your primary spiritual influences people outside of your local body. A distant pastor, friend or counselor, even a godly one, cannot offer the same insight as someone living with you, life on life. God calls us to be a part of a local church, a body of broken people who can encourage and uplift but also challenge and exhort as we walk together on the road to holiness.

17 May 2016

Should Christians vote for Donald Trump? A response to Todd Starnes

A dear friend emailed this morning and asked my thoughts about an opinion article on Fox News by Todd Starnes entitled Should Christians vote for Donald Trump? On the counsel of another dear friend, I have intentionally backed off on my #NeverTrump rhetoric, though I still hold to that viewpoint--I've just not been as public about my opinions. In response to my friend's brief question this morning, I ended up writing a 1500+ word essay about Starnes's opinion piece and some of my current thoughts. For those interested, here's what I wrote, adapted slightly.

Thanks for linking to this article. My answer will probably be much longer than you bargained for, but I had an hour to think on my way up to Rice Lake this morning.

[Another friend] and I have had some long conversations over the issue of “never Trump”. About a week or two ago, he and I spoke for over a half-hour about this issue. His primary concern was that I was getting too focused on the #nevertrump idea. He was right and so I have intentionally backed off on posting much stuff about Trump, though I do keep up on what is happening politically. 

I would also want to say that who we vote for isn’t a jar one issue. Believers on different sides of this issue can be thoughtful and perhaps come to different conclusions. It is not something I am willing to divide with people over and, in confession, some of the things I have said about it have been divisive.

So, to the article. I have many thoughts about it, which I will try to communicate clearly, though I will also probably follow some rabbit trails.

First, the article was posted on Fox News, which for several months has been very pro-Trump.  It is not necessarily a bad thing for them to take a position, but I think it is important to recognize that this pro-Trump piece is coming from what has seemingly become a pro-Trump organization. The Drudge Report, another conservative bastion, has also been very pro-Trump. On the other hand, several other conservative sources have been generally opposed to Trump such as the Daily Wire, the Federalist or National Review. So, there are different opinions amongst conservatives on whether or not casting a vote for Trump is a good idea. 

Starnes stresses his concern that evangelicals will stay home on election day. There will be some who stay home; there always are. However, many of the people that I know that are #neverTrump still plan to vote, certainly in elections other than the presidency (e.g., congress), but even in the presidency but perhaps for a third party candidate.  The author asks whether our only option is to throw in the towel, and I don’t think that is what any of us would say that we are doing. Citing Samuel Rodriguez, he wrote “it is silly to not talk of voting for either candidate, every single Christian should vote.” Perhaps. I know some Christians who would say that we don’t need to vote. I believe I should and so I will, but I also don’t feel limited to voting for one of the two candidates currently in the front running.  

The author also cited Charles Spurgeon who famously said “of two evils, choose none.” I think those are wise words from probably one of the most respected gospel preachers in history. We need to pay attention to Spurgeon’s idea here, even if we disagree with it.

Franklin Graham is cited in this article, who also tells us to vote, reminding us to vote for the candidate who best supports biblical values and then goes on to say, “in some races, you may need to hold your nose and choose.”  I wonder which biblical values he is speaking of? A commitment to life? At best Trump has been an inconsistent supporter of the pro-life movement. Building a wall to keep out foreigners? That seems to be less grounded in a biblical worldview, at least as far as I read it. Or targeting family members of terrorists. Also, from my vantage, not really a gospel-centric value.

But what about biblical character? Is Graham concerned about those biblical values or just the ones that fit the conservative-Republican agenda? For me, character matters, even if it seemingly hasn’t to some conservative commentators.

Interestingly, when he arrives at the question of “should Christians vote for Trump?” he speaks of an “all star panel,” though the entire panel is made up of those who are in support of voting for Trump. What about Russell Moore? Or Charlie Sykes? Or Ben Sasse? When a person seeks to put together a panel like this, it is unfair to stack the deck without any dissenting voices, in my opinion.

I agree with Richard Land (one of the all-star panel) who said that it is up to each Christian to decide who to vote for, but I disagree that we cannot consider a third party vote. Will it be successful? Probably not, but it will be a principled response.

Rodriguez said that he is voting “life, family ethos, religious liberty, limited government.” I admit those are important issues, but I don’t think that Trump has consistently supported them. For example, does Trump's support for religious liberty extend to Muslims or just Christians whom he is trying to woo to his campaign.

Huckabee? Ugh.  I have been a fan of Mike Huckabee for a long time. I have a signed copy of one of his books on my shelf at home. But…but. First, the choice to include him on this panel when he is a “potential running mate” certainly is biased in favor Trump. If he thinks he might be chosen as a potential running mate, why would he speak against Trump? He wouldn’t. Huckabee described Trump as open to dialog. I haven’t really seen it, frankly. I’ve seen him attack the character of those who oppose him.

Further down in the article, the author asked this question, “what’s a good Christian to do?” (Interesting question, choosing to include the word good--who is good except God?). He then goes back to Graham who says “pray.” Indeed. Graham indicated that part of their “decision America” campaign is not to support a candidate, though earlier comments he made in this article would hint that he means Trump. I agree with Franklin about the necessity of prayer, while I still disagree about Trump.

Even though the author’s bias shines through the article, the final two paragraphs are frankly uncalled for. He wrote, “Donald Trump could walk the aisle at a Billy Graham crusade, while waving a King James Bible and singing ‘amazing grace’ and it still wouldn’t be enough to convince the holier than thou club.

“And for all you folks quoting Spurgeon—I would offer this rebuttal: not to vote is to vote.”

This conclusion is simply unnecessary. To refer to #neverTrump people as “holier than thou” is mean-spirited and does not help the case he is trying to make. I told [our friend] recently that the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. Not only does Trump have a history of concerning characterological and political viewpoints prior to the election, many of them have continued through the campaign cycle. 

Regarding the statement “not to vote is to vote”: I’m getting tired of hearing it, frankly because it isn’t true. I understand what the author (and anyone else who has said it) is trying to communicate, but there is a difference between a principled decision to not vote and actually casting a vote for Hillary. The phrase is offered to shame those who, like me, are choosing to abstain from voting for either one of them. 

Romans 1:29-32 says, “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” As Christians, I think we need to give heed to what Paul is saying here. Trump has shown himself to be malicious, slandering, insolent, haughty, boastful, an inventor of evil, and ruthless at least. I full admit that I have done these things and more. But Paul is pretty strongly criticizing those who “give approval to those who practice these things.” When we cast a vote affirming a candidate, we are giving approval, even if we say we are just choosing the better of two evils (a point I am not convinced to be true). For me, I will not be a party to that.

One of the statements that has repeatedly come up for those who are planning to vote for Trump is to state that he isn’t perfect, but that we are all sinners. I fully acknowledge the truth of that statement. Reluctant Trump supporters also rightly point out that we will never elect a perfect president. Again, I agree. But as I was driving today I was struck by this fact—I am not comfortable casting my vote for someone I am not comfortable calling my president.  Although I disagreed with Mitt Romney on a number of things in 2012, I was still comfortable enough to accept him as my president, as the one who would represent me and my nation before the world, that he earned my vote. I cannot say the same about Hillary and I cannot say the same about Trump. 

08 May 2016

To all of the women I've ever loved--A Mother's Day Reflection

Mother's day is a time to remember
a heart poured out,
a life lived for others
in service and nurturance.

This morning I was graced to visit with my mom
a woman of perseverance
     and beauty
          and strength.

Mom, I love you
and I love the way you love me
but also the way I see you love others.

Although I have but one mom
today reminds me also of the feminine beauty
I see in so many of you,
a beauty that is open and inviting
welcoming and nourishing.

So, to all of the women I have ever truly loved
or rather who have truly loved me
     selflessly and graciously
whether you are 7 or 97
     whether you have children, will have children,
          have lost children, or will never have them:

I am so grateful for the ways in which
you have shown me the invitational beauty
and sustaining love of God.

My deepest appreciation and, to all of you,
a most sincere Happy Mother's Day

07 May 2016

The Land is Extraordinary

Twelve Scouts (to Moses): We checked out the land, just as you’d instructed us to do, and here’s what we discovered: It is rich, very rich. One could say that it flows with milk and honey; and look, here is some of its fruit. The land is highly desirable, but the people who already live there are really strong. Their cities are enormous and fortified. What’s more, we saw the Anakites there. In the Negev, there are Amalekites; and in the high hill country are Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites. As for the seacoast, Canaanites live there and along the Jordan River too.-Numbers 13:27-29 (The Voice)

In Numbers 13, we learn that Moses sent scouts to search out the promised land. These twelve men went and learned about where God was sending them. When they came back, they told Moses and the rest of the Israelites, "the land is truly amazing. It is lush and beautiful and plentiful, but...BUT...the people who live there are really strong. They're huge." Caleb, one of the scouts said, "let's go! we should go in right away and take it over." The rest of the dejected scouts replied, "No way. We can't do it. The people who are already there are two strong for us." (13:31). 

As the story continues in Numbers 14, we find that the Israelites are groaning and weeping. They are hopeless. They told Moses and one another, "it would be better if we were dead. It would be better if we just went back to Egypt." And again Joshua and Caleb responded and said, "the land is extraordinary! the best ever! Let's go." 

As believers, we still do this, don't we? We see the beauty of the promises of God, yet we become more concerned that we can not overcome the strongholds. We look at the threats and think, "I might as well be dead. I might as well just go back to a life of misery." 

Friends, though there are strongholds to overcome, let's go! The land is extraordinary!

06 May 2016

If I had a penny...

If I had a penny,
for every selfish thought;
all the copper in the world
would overflow my pot.

If I had a nickel,
for every angry word;
I could buy a house,
whose size you'd think absurd.

If I had a dime,
for every bad decision;
I could rule an empire,
much larger than you'd envision.

If I had a buck,
for every lustful notion;
the ink upon the paper,
could fill the largest ocean.

If I had a Savior,
for every heinous sin;
His blood alone's sufficient,
to set me right with Him.

05 May 2016

Book Review: Unparalleled

I ordered this book on Jared Wilson's reputation. I first read his book Your Jesus is Too Safe many years ago and was a fast fan. Since then, I have followed his blog and read nearly all of his books. Admittedly, I did not know what to expect apart from Wilson's record for quality.

But how to describe Unparalleled: How Christianity's Uniqueness Makes it Compelling (Baker, 2016)? As of now, it is the #1 new release in "comparative religion" on Amazon. Wilson also described it as an apologetics book. Yet, Unparalleled defies easy categorization. As I read it, my first thought was that it belongs in a class with books such as CS Lewis's Mere Christianity, Chuck Colson's The Faith, and NT Wright's Simply Christian in that it is an "apologetic" for the Christian faith. Wilson lays out why Christianity is unique and, therefore, compelling.

Weaving together his gospel-saturated prose, careful thinking, and honest narrative examples, Wilson draws us into Christianity's unique story. Specifically, he addresses God's relationality, the beautiful necessity of the Trinity, the sanctity of all human life, as well as the exclusiveness of Christ's life, death, and resurrection to name just a few topics.

This book is part theology, part apologetics, and part storytelling, but it is all Wilson and that is a very good thing. Though I would compare Unparalleled to other well-vetted Christian classics, this book is unique enough on its own to merit my emphatic recommendation to believers and non-believers alike. In a word, Unparalleled is...well..."unparalleled."

I was provided a review copy of this book from Baker Books in exchange for this review. I was not required to write a positive review of this book. The viewpoints presented here are my own.

02 May 2016

Beautiful and True

This morning, for well over an hour, I ruminated upon an idea blossoming in my mind. Trying to construct the "perfect tweet" is often a more difficult task than one might imagine. One cannot express nuance in a mere 140 characters. At least I cannot. How does one meaningfully fit a morning's contemplation into a sentence or two?

Perhaps sharing a few of my abandoned lines will provide some background.

  • Christianity is true, but it is also beautiful. 
  • Christians have a responsibility to show the world that Christianity is true, but also that it is beautiful. 
  • We need ministries like @STRtweets to show us that Christianity is true, but we also need those like @TheRabbitRoom to show us that its beautiful. 

 Each fully true, but incomplete. Let me explain.

I believe Christianity is true. Objectively so. I believe that Christ really walked the earth, really died on the cross, and really rose again from the dead. It is not simply wish fulfillment, It is not merely my subjective impression. It is not one truth in a sea of competing truths. It is what Francis Schaeffer called "true Truth". Furthermore, I believe that reason leads us to God. Christian philosophers and apologists (those who purpose themselves to defend the faith) have described numerous and robust arguments in support of the truth of Christianity.

Though there may be disagreement about what exactly Christianity teaches, I doubt most Christians would take issue with the Truth of Christianity. When we tell others about Jesus, we operate from the assumption that he is not merely true for us, but that he is true for them as well. Church and parachurch ministries often seek to teach Christians about how to present these truths.

Yet, as much as we talk about truth, too often we expend little effort on beauty. Yes, Christianity is true, but it is also beautiful. Too often, I fear, Christians minimize beauty as distracting, or worse, harmful. They renounce beauty as a sinful preoccupation that takes away from the "real purpose of Christianity--making disciples converts."

It hasn't always been so. One look at the towering cathedrals of medieval Europe, Michaelangelo's Pieta, or the icons of the Orthodox church reminds us that beauty matters. Basking in the cantatas of Bach, who routinely signed off his compositions with "SDG"--Soli Deo Gloria/Glory to God Alone--brings to mind that God inspires beauty. God Himself stresses beauty in His word. From the instructions for the temple to the Psalms to the descriptions of the New Heavens and New Earth, we see that beauty is important to God. Indeed, God is beautiful.

I suspect that the tendency to downplay beauty in modern Christianity finds its roots, at least in some measure, in 20th century evangelicalism. I am fairly confident that supposition is not new to me. Evangelicalism, for all of its benefits, promoted a detrimental imbalance. As evangelicals, we encourage evangelism, [right] giving, service, and biblical morality. These are all good things. Yet, we are suspicious of things deemed too "impractical," like art. We encourage our congregants to read their Bibles and come to church and talk to people about Jesus, but we are less likely to encourage them to paint. We encourage our children to pursue "practical" majors. We become uncomfortable when their university programs require them to take courses in the arts. The words "liberal" and "arts" both make us suspicious. When the two words are combined, our suspicion grows exponentially.

Unfortunately, this imbalance has been detrimental. We try to intellectually muscle people into the Faith, but put no effort into demonstrating the breath-taking beauty of God. In a recent discussion with Eugene Peterson, Bono said that Christians need more honest art. He's right. Yet Andrew Peterson also correctly responded (Twitter, April 29), "I get where Bono is coming from, but the fact is, there's TONS of honest art by Christians. Lot's of it. It just isn't mainstream." We need to promote a culture where beauty is not only acceptable, but encouraged.

Church, let us be people who show the true beauty and the beautiful truth of Christ.

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord.-Isaiah 62:3

As Andrew Peterson pointed out, there is a lot of honest (and I would add beautiful) Christian art. His body of work testifies to this truth. Start with his most recent album "The Burning Edge of Dawn" and move out from there. Let me also offer a few other recommendations and know that I would love to hear yours as well!

  • Truth and beauty intersect in Eugene Peterson's writings. I especially love The Pastor
  • An online community of Christians committed to art and beauty exists at the Rabbit Room. There is so much good there. Go and poke around. 
  • A difficult, but important step for me was to read more fiction--CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Marilynne Robinson, and Walt Wangerin. Add Andrew Peterson's Wingfeather Saga to the list as well. 
But don't simply consume. Go forth and create!