24 May 2017

Live as People Who are Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 May 2017

Book Review: Word Centered Church

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

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

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

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

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

"With" Christians

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

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

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

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

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

14 May 2017

Hearts Undivided

I wrote ou my closing prayer for today.

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

11 May 2017

Are you an Ambassador for Christ

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

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



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

You can read more HERE.

04 May 2017

Book Review: The Imperfect Disciple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dream

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

And then I had the dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29 April 2017

Book Review: The Jubilee

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

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

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

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

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

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


27 April 2017

Thank God for Slow Growth


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

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

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

Slowness disappoints

Thank God
for slow growth
and deep roots 

-Mark 4:3-8

25 April 2017

Breathe the Lord's prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 April 2017

How does a poem work?

How does a poem work? It works with the reader. The reader and the poem complement each other. Like a man and a woman, they complete each other. The poem hints, suggests, implies--while the reader takes the hint, fills the suggestion with her own real experience, turns an implication into an open emotion and brings to life what had only lurked on the invited page.

The poem invites the reader to uncover her own truth by telling her but a half truth, the other half of which is hers to find. That's the difficulty and the reward of poetry: it demands so much of the reader. It is not merely imparting information or knowledge. Rather, it wants the reader to fill its tiny frame with her self. But then it gives back to the reader that self, awakened and aware.

-Walt Wangerin Jr, Whole Prayer

17 April 2017

Poem: Rugged Theology

A beautiful script
     upon the page
     a calligrapher's delicate hand
The words themselves
     tell truth
     and love
     and goodness
The insight and the ink
     drawn together
     in flawless form
But it is just gallery beauty
     safely cordoned off
     from indelicate hands
     Look, but do not touch
     Admire, but do not use
     lest the paper become torn
     and the ink smudged
Then this priceless treasure
     becomes worthless
     crumpled, and cast aside

Too often, our theology is like that...
     good on paper but ultimately
     torn
          damaged
                discarded
     a fine vellum
     useless for anything
     except a showpiece
We need a rugged theology
     leather perhaps, but not parchment
     one that withstands
     the scuffles
     and bruises
     of a rough and tumble world
     each scar enhancing its beauty

Book Review: Martin Luther in his own words

Martin Luther was undoubtedly one of the most influential theologians in history. An exceptional communicator who was also committed to upholding God's word, he sought to expose the church's abuses. In combination with a restless people and the advent of the printing press, Luther's challenges started a fire that took the world by storm. When Protestantism traces its roots, Luther is undoubtedly a progenitor. In other words, it is not just Lutheranism that traces its roots to Luther, but Protestantism in general.

Despite his profound influence upon Western History generally and church history in particular, I suspect few casual readers have read him, which is unfortunate. Luther was a keen thinker and worth the effort to read. When I tell people that one of my must read books is Luther's Commentary on the Galatians, I am met with glazed eyes that ask, "why would anyone read a commentary for pleasure?"

Perhaps the greatest service that Kilcrease and Lutzer offer to the church in their new book Martin Luther in His Own Words (Baker, 2017) is a sampling of Luther. Those who are new to wine often benefit from attending a sampling; in the same way, those new to Luther also benefit from a sampling.

The authors give us 12 chapters under the heading of the five solas--sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura, solus christus, and soli deo gloria. For those unfamiliar with these Latin reformation terms, they mean this: faith alone, grace alone, scripture alone, Christ alone, and to the glory of God alone. Under each heading, Kilcrease offers the reader 2 or 3 chapters pulled directly from Luther and offers them a helpful introduction. Sections from a number of Luther's works were included including: his commentary on Galatians, the larger catechism, and Bondage of the Will to name a few.

In an ideal world, this book will serve as an aperitif for more Luther. If this book stimulates the appetites of even 5% of its readers for his Galatians commentary, it will be an amazing success. Even if it doesn't, however, readers will come to know a man of profound biblical wisdom and insight.

I received a review copy of this book from the Baker Books Blogger program in exchange for a review. I was not required to provide a positive review and the impressions given here are my own.

14 April 2017

A Good Friday Prayer: The Precious Blood

Blessed Lord Jesus,
Before thy cross I kneel and see
     the heinousness of my sin,
     my iniquity that caused thee to be
     'made a curse',
     the evil that excites the severity
     of divine wrath.
Show me the enormity of my guilt by
     the crown of thorns,
     the pierced hands and feet,
     the bruised body,
     the dying cries.
Thy blood is the blood of incarnate God,
     its worth infinite, its value beyond all thought.
Infinite must be the evil and guilt
     that demanded such a price.
Sin is my malady, my monster, my foe, my viper,
     born in my birth,
     alive in my life,
     strong in my character,
     dominating my faculties,
     following me as a shadow,
     intermingling with my every thought,
     my chain that holds me captive in the
     empire of my soul.
Sinner that I am, why should the sun give me light,
     the air supply breath,
     the earth bear my tread,
     its fruits nourish me,
     its creatures subserve my ends?
Yet thy compassions yearn over me,
     thy heart hastens to rescue me,
     thy love endured my curse,
     thy mercy bore my deserved stripes.
Let me walk humbly in the lowest depths
     of humiliation,
     bathed in thy blood,
     tender of conscience,
     triumphing gloriously as an heir of salvation.
-Valley of Vision

07 April 2017

Union with Christ

Miracle of miracles
     I am in Christ
wholly secure
    in Holy God's eyes.

Miracle of miracles
     Christ is in me
giving me strength
     to become who I can be.

Miracle of miracles
     union with Christ
an oft unknown doctrine
     essential for life. 

04 April 2017

The essence of prayer

Ten million prayers
hover and fly
begging attention
and so I try

to focus my thoughts
to talk with my Lord
but they bounce so fast
it seems I get bored

with each thought that enters
seeking my prayer
they clamor for notice
and then they are

gone in a flash
replaced by another
I reached out to grasp it
but then wonder whether

something more urgent
seeks prayerful release
I chase that thought too
but God whispers "Peace

be still from your frenzy
relax in my presence
time spent with me
that is prayer's essence.

22 March 2017

Disney and corrupted masculine intimacy

I have been thinking a lot about masculinity recently. In preparing a message for this Sunday on sexuality and gender, I have been wrestling to understand what the Bible says. I want to convey biblical truth to our church in plain terms. Thinking about masculinity is a natural extension of a teaching on gender.

The recent Disney release of a live action Beauty and the Beast has also brought masculinity to the forefront of my mind. Ed Vitagliano of the American Family Association wrote an article on March 13 entitled "Protect your children from Disney's gay agenda!", complete with exclamation point to drive home the seriousness of the message. Many Christians will undoubtedly boycott this movie on the warning of Vitiagliano and others with the same message. That choice is each person and each parents prerogative.

I, for one, don't know if Disney was promoting a "gay agenda" with Beauty and the Beast. There are indications that it may have been intended and, if I turn my head and squint my eyes, I can see that. (I will leave it to the pundits, who perceive it's necessity, to wrestle with that question). But as I came away from the movie yesterday (which I loved), I found myself wrestling with another question regarding masculinity. My question was not, "is Disney promoting the 'gay agenda'?", but "what ever became of nonsexual masculine intimacy?"

In today's American culture, men equate physical touch with sexuality. Any suggestion of intimate physical touch--in other words anything except a punch on the shoulder or a high five--suggests sexual desire. To hug another man, face to face, for more than a second, raises questions about motive and repressed homoerotic desire.

American masculinity often eschews deep relationship with women and especially with men. Emotions, apart from anger, are to be quickly suppressed or denied. Men are to be virile, and sexually interested, noticing, and perhaps commenting upon or even having sex with, as many women as possible. Men are supposed to seek power and control. Women and other men are to be used, not loved. In other words, American culture, and too often the American church, wants us to be more like the brutish Gaston from Disney's original Beauty and the Beast than like the sensitive Lafou from the 2017 version.

American men are loners.

But they feel so alone.

Beginning at an early age, boys receive the message that to be masculine is to be tough. Physical touch between fathers and sons all but disappears as they age, if it was ever there to begin with. The judges on the playground court convict boys as gay and sentence them to social isolation if they act contrary to the unwritten rules for masculine touch. Fighting is okay; hugging is not. Confusion ensues and the potential effects are legion.

This macho masculinity is a more recent phenomenon, I believe driven in some ways by a media culture that promotes a strong, even pathologic, male independence that eschews all need for affection and especially physical touch. It hasn't always been that way. Even in the Bible, we see evidences of physical intimacy between men that would make many of us modern men squirm.

  • When Jacob sees his brother Esau, whom he has not seen for a long time, he runs to him, falls on his neck, and kisses him as they both weep. (Genesis 33) 
  • As Paul left the Ephesians and would not see them again, they wept and embraced and kissed him. (Acts 20)
  • Though he didn't need to, Jesus often touched the people he healed.
  • In the New Testament, believers greeted one another with a kiss. 
  • On his last night before the crucifixion, Jesus had an intimate dinner with his disciples that involved not only foot washing, but John leaning back into Jesus at the table. (John 13) 
I don't fully know what recovering biblical masculine intimacy looks like. I do know that one of the most healing moments in my life involved an intimate and extended hug from a man. So in closing, I offer a few thoughts:
  • American men and boys need to be seen, valued, and yes, even touched. 
  • Explore your own assumptions about touch. As you read through this essay, what stirs in you? Are you questioning my agenda, or perhaps my sexuality? 
  • If you don't know where to start, dads you can begin by hugging your sons (and your daughters). Many adults never knew loving touch from their parents growing up. 
  • Don't equate touch with sex. They are not the same thing. 
  • Men, seek intimate relationships with a few other men. 
  • Consider reading this article that a male friend of mine posted: The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men's Lives is a Killer
Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.--Luke 5:13

06 March 2017

Dark is a disguiser of truth

In both my prayer book (Valley of Vision) and my Psalm reading this morning, the theme of light and dark showed up. Whenever I see the same theme in multiple sources in close proximity, and I notice it, I wonder what God wants me to see.

Dark, it seems to me, is a disguiser of truth. In it, one cannot see things as they actually are, so we make assumptions. But assumptions based upon what? Fears, for one. Evil whispers in the dark; sometimes it shouts.

"It doesn't matter what you do. God doesn't care."

"God doesn't really love you."

"If you were a true Christian, life would be easier."

"If you really believed in God, you wouldn't sin so much."

But listen...don't live in the dark. Choose to live in the light. Light is a revealer of truth, of goodness, of beauty. Only in the light can we see texture and color and shape. We begin to see things as they actually are.

God is light. In Him, we not only see Light Himself, but we are able to see all things illumined by Him.

Send out Your light and Your truth,
let them lead me. 
-Psalm 43:3

26 February 2017

He's chosen for us the hard road

God has chosen for us
the hard road.
Bumpy and uneven,
steep and dark.
Parts washed out by life's difficulty.

As we walk
bodies litter the ditches.
People broken
and bleeding
and alone.

We ask,
"Why this hard road, Lord?
Why not the easy way,
Bright and level,
...and uncomplicated?"

"Because, my children,
I too am on this path.
My heart is for the broken
and alone.
If you seek me,
you will find me here, in the darkness.

"The kingdom path is not around
but through suffering.
So grab a lamp
and bring light
to the dark path.

09 February 2017

Unaware of the Wellsprings of Life

I am currently reading an anthology of George MacDonald entitled Discovering the Character of God. For those who are unfamiliar with MacDonald, CS Lewis counted him among his greatest influences. I read this page this morning, a passage from his fictional The Curate's Awakening, and I was deeply struck.

The morning which had given birth to the stormy afternoon had been a fine one, and the curate had gone out for a long walk. Not that he was a great walker, his strolls were leisurely and comprised of many stops. He was not in bad health and was not lazy. Yet he had little impulse for much activity of any sort. The springs in his well of life did not seem to flow quite fast enough.

He sauntered through Osterfield Park and down the descent to the river. There he seated himself upon a large stone on the bank. He knew that he was there and that he answered to "Thomas Wingfold;" but why he was there, and why he was not called to something else, he did not know. On each side of the stream rose a steeply sloping bank. on which grew many fern brushes, now half-withered. The sunlight upon them this November morning seemed as cold as the wind that blew about their golden and green fronds. 

Thomas felt rather cold, but the cold was the sort that comes from the look rather than the feel of things. With his stick he kept knocking pebbles into the water and listlessly watching them splash. The wind blew, the sun shone, the water ran, the ferns waved, the clouds went drifting over his head--but he never looked up or took any notice of the doings of Mother Nature busy with her housework. 

His life had not been particularly interesting. He had known from the first that he was intended for the church, and had not objected but accepted it as his destiny. Yet he had taken no great interest in the matter. 

The church was to him an ancient institution of approved respectability. He had entered her service, and in return for the narrow shelter, humble fare, and not quite shabby garments she allotted him, he would perform her observances. 

Thomas did not philosophize much about life, nor his position in it. Instead, he took everything with an unemotional kind of acceptance and laid no claim to courage or devotion. He had a certain dull prejudice in favor of not telling a lie, and yet was completely uninstructed in the things that constitute practical honesty. He liked reading the prayers in church, for he had a somewhat musical voice. He visited the sick--with some repugnance, it is true, but without delay--and spoke to them such religious commonplaces as occurred to him.

He did not read much, browsing over his newspaper at breakfast with polite curiosity sufficient to season the loneliness of his slice of fried bacon, taking more interest in some of the naval intelligence than in anything else. Indeed, it would have been difficult to say in what he did take much interest. 

Could he in all honesty have said he believed there was a God? Or was this not all he really knew--that there was a Church of England which paid him for reading public prayers to a God in whom the congregation was assumed to believe? 

It was not a question Wingfold had yet considered. 


02 February 2017

Night Reflection

There are places where
           stars still frolic
     and the Cheshire moon
          wryly smiles.
The wind plays
     amongst the trees
          howling softly. 

26 January 2017

If...

This is a poem from Rudyard Kipling, entitled "If..."

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

24 January 2017

Longing for the pony express

Certain days find me longing for the return of the pony express. As a man in mid-forties, I of course cannot remember the pony express which ran for just 19 months during the 1860s. But I do remember a time when correspondence was slower. Letters were delivered by postal carriers across the country and around the world. I've always lived with telephones, but they didn't always fit in my pocket and were typically attached to the wall.

The rapid acceleration of information technology has also hurried our communications. What once took days or weeks to convey can now be done instantaneously. I can receive a year's worth of correspondence in a day on a computer little bigger than a deck of playing cards.

To be sure, there are clear advantages to faster communication. I can carry on a conversation throughout the day with my wife who is currently 50 miles from me if and when I need to. Not only can I can send words, but also pictures and videos if I wish. I can sign legal documents and fax them directly from my phone to an office on the other side of the country. I can hear someone's bad news in a moment, and send my condolences and prayers straightaway.

Yet, like all things, the rapidity of communication has problems as well. Who of us has not regrettably sent a text or email that has not been carefully pondered? Who of us wishes that we weren't omniaccessible?

With social media and rapid communication, on a relational level, we end up trading depth for quantity. I have 686 "friends" on Facebook, some of whom I have never met personally and many fewer to whom I would send an actual Christmas card. The type of Trinitarian relating that Jesus prayed about in John 17 is essentially lost in cyberspace.

Further, belonging to an instant-access global community retards our ability to engage in active problem solving for ourselves. One hundred years ago, when someone faced a problem, they did not have the option to text their six nearest friends to seek advice; they had to sit with their problem alone or actually seek out a neighbor or family member for assistance. I believe this is especially true in the world of soul care. The opportunity to sit over a cup of coffee with a real person whom you know and who knows you carries with it a palpability not available on the web. Presence matters.

Finally, our always connected world limits our opportunity to be alone with ourselves and with God. Shutting out electronic distractions is physically uncomfortable for many of us, so we live always in their presence. Whistles and bells and notifications constantly beckon us away from ourselves and from God.

In sum, I am increasingly aware of the potential harm of constant availability. I don't want you to be able to get ahold of me in a moment's notice (and expect my response) unless there is truly an emergency. Its not good for you and its not good for me. So when I don't immediately respond to your text, email, Facebook message, or voicemail, do not fret. Enjoy the time alone.

23 January 2017

Becoming Present

A week or so ago, I wrote this poem based upon Daniel Siegel's "Wheel of Awareness" exercise. In his work with Interpersonal Neurobiology, Dr Siegel encourages this daily practice which enhances awareness of self and relationship.  One starts with the basic senses, progresses to the body's interior, mental activities, and finishes with interconnectedness. As you walk through this poem, I hope you will be able to appreciate the movements taken from my observations on a mid-January's day.

First movement

Breathe
Subtle breeze
Quiet sigh
                        Repeat
Awakening awareness
Becoming present
                       
Listen…
Muffled voices tumble
Through the ambient mask
Of white noise
Designed to deafen

Look…
Tan walls
Visual muzak
Overrun
            By muted watercolor
            And too many diplomas

Smell…
Inhale deeply
            And hold…
Hints of chili
            And coffee
            Beloved beans

Taste…
Tongue discovering
            Consulting the nose
Coffee
            Treasured companion
            Yet bitter when she leaves

Touch…
Fingers lightly
            On the keyboard
Body heavy
            Upon the chair

These five
Reveal the world
Creation’s prime explorers
Yet they’re not alone

Second Movement

Breathe
Subtle breeze
Quiet sigh
                        Repeat
Awakening awareness
Becoming present

Come inside
Hidden interior
Body’s magnificence
            Knit together
            Indwelt

Crooked teeth
            Barely touching
Once broad shoulders
            stooped
            Incurvatus en se
Vertebrae
            Some barely holding hands
            Others squeezing too tight
Arms and legs
            Like a Victorian parlor chair  
Overstuffed and underused
Internal organs
            Harmonizing ad infinitum  
            Until life’s end

The sixth sense
Reveals the world
Inside
Yet it is not alone

Third Movement

Breathe
Subtle breeze
Quiet sigh
                        Repeat
Awakening awareness
Becoming present

Blue hues of sadness
Splashes of yellow
Blooms of red
A canvas of swirling emotion

Thoughts dancing
            Never settling
            Upon one thing
Twirling around the mind’s dancefloor

Hopes and longings
            But for what?
            Peace on Earth?
            That’s quaint
How about peace in me?

Memories and dreams
Images and intentions
            All in the mind’s eye
            Effervescent mental activity
It’s time to mind your mind

The mind too
Reveals the world
Inside
Yet it is not alone

Fourth Movement

Breathe
Subtle breeze
Quiet sigh
                        Repeat
Awakening awareness
Becoming present

Turning outward again
Not to what
But to whom
            Interpersonal interconnection

People surround me
            Yet disconnected
            Living compartmentalized
I hear their voices
            Giving clues to location
            But not to their hearts

Four souls at home
            My bride
            And my littles
I imagine their lunch break
            Four sandwiches
            Four bananas
            Four screens
Same space, different worlds

One planet
Seven billion souls
            And counting
            Yet loneliness abounds
            On anti-social media

Our relationships
Reveal the world
between
that we are not alone
            …or at least should not be

Reprise

Becoming present
Awakening awareness
                        Repeat
Quiet sigh
Subtle breeze
            Breathe

20 January 2017

Book Review: Shalom in the Psalms

According to the front cover, Shalom in the Psalms (Baker, 2017) is described as "a devotional from the Jewish heart of the Christian faith." When quickly scanning the text, one quickly sees that the devotional first presents a psalm in its entirety in the Tree of Life Version, followed by a brief reflection or meditation by one or more of the three authors: Jeffrey Seif, Glenn Blank, and Paul Wilbur.

Reading through the book, I had a few observations. First, I was grateful that this book was approached communally by a D.Min., worship leader, and literary editor. Each presents a different perspective on the Psalms and their varying voices were welcome in the book. Although most of us who have come to love the Bible have benefited from our individual meditations, there is real strength in communal study. I particularly liked that some of the meditations were co-authored because one then hears different voices.

Second, I have not been familiar with the Tree of Life Version of the Bible, a translation initially developed by the Jewish Publication Society in 1917. I always find it interesting to read translations with which I am unfamiliar. The TLV version is no different. One of the things most Christian readers will find with this version is that various Hebrew words are retained. This forces one to slow down and not simply gloss over the reading. Poets know that word choice can intentionally slow a person down and that is certainly true here. There were a few times when I found it distracting, however.

Finally, I appreciated the commentators' willingness to ask questions of the text. In his reflection on Psalm 51, one of my favorite Psalms, Paul Wilbur wrote, "I don't really understand verse 6, because the sin was not only against the Lord and His righteousness; David also sinned grievously against Uriah his friend and Bathsheba, Uriah's wife" (p. 124). Too often, when reading the Bible, we assert our understanding, rather than seeking to listen.  Wilbur reminds us that it is good to do that.

On the whole, I would recommend this book. I suspect it will be a resource for me as I continue to explore the Psalms.

I received a copy of this book for review from Baker Books. The views presented here are my own.

18 January 2017

T.H.A.G.S. and the Beauty of Sacred Clutter

"For as long as they could remember, Nia had taught the children what she called T.H.A.G.S.* Janner studied writing and poetry. Tink spent his time painting and drawing. Leeli learned to sing and to play the whistleharp. Tink had asked his mother once what was so traditional about learning the T.H.A.G.S. when not one other child in Glipwood was forced to spend hours upon hours drawing the same tree over and over from different angles. 

"'You're an Igiby,' she said as if that answered the question. 

No other boy in Glipwood had to read as many old books or write as many pages as Janner and no other girl in town knew how to play an instrument. All three of the children had some proficiency in each of the T.H.A.G.S. but spent the vast majority of their time perfecting only one. 

*Three Honored and Great Subjects: Word, Form, and Song. Some silly people believe that there's a fourth Honored and Great Subject, but those mathematicians are woefully mistaken. 

-Andrew Peterson, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, page 78


If you've spent any time in our home, you might describe it as a beautiful mess, or just a mess. You might think we own too much stuff. Perhaps we do. The vertical spaces are covered with guitars and artwork and shelves and fingerprints. Books and animals and tablets and pencils occupy the horizontal. Sacred clutter.






As I look around our home, I am reminded that beauty matters here. Sometimes, there is an overgrowth of unwashed dishes, unfolded clothes, and unpaid bills, but almost always, creative blooms continue to break through.











I am thankful to Andrew Peterson who gave us the term T.H.A.G.S.--Three Honored and Great Subjects. Before I ever read the Wingfeather Saga or knew of the acronym, our home was a sanctuary where the T.H.A.G.S. were valued.


 If you ever stop by on one of our "family create nights," I'll show off my wife's paintings because she's too humble to show them herself. If you're lucky, Grace and Tessa will show you their artwork as well. Ian will gladly play you a song on his ukelele and sing just a bit off tune.

My writings are coming along nicely, though my paintings are further behind. But, with time, I'm learning the process matters more than the product.

Let me encourage you as well.
Get a little bit messy.
Make some mistakes.
Create your own sacred clutter.
Trust me, its beautiful.










15 January 2017

fifty books

On the way to church today, I was talking with my kids today about simplification. I made the whimsical claim that someday, I intended to live in a small cabin with no television, a stockpile of art supplies, and 50 books. My daughter Grace quickly replied, "you could never survive with only 50 books." Recognizing my folly, I said, "alright, 5000."

Upon sharing this story, my good friend Mark, a missionary who knows the realities of trimming the excess, challenged me to write a blog post sharing my list of 50 books. I thought it was a wonderful idea and I accepted his challenge. Before sharing my list, I want to share a few relevant details about my reading life as well as a few guiding principles that I used when constructing my list.

First, the relevant details. I am an avid reader. My current library has somewhere between 4000 and 5000 books and occupies one level of our home. I typically read 100 or more books each year. Last year was light at 93, whereas 2015 was more productive at 144. So even on the light end, with only 50 books, most would be read twice.

Second, to the guiding principles. As I was walking through my library, I tried to keep a few things in mind. I wanted books that had staying power, in other words, that I would want to read them repeatedly, year after year. The intention in coming up with only 50 is that these would be THE 50 and that I couldn't exchange them out. I would be stuck with them. Also, as long as they were available in a single volume, that would count for me as a book. Some of you may think that is cheating, but I don't care: my list, my rules. I also wanted sufficient variety to keep myself interested. If I chose 50 books that all dealt with systematic theology, I would probably get bored quickly. In other words, I wanted a 50 book library that contained a variety I would want to read again and again.

So, without further ado, here are my 50.

04 January 2017

Christmas Eve Evanescence

I didn’t see you come in, but there you were all the same. Right side, fourth row, standing in front of me. Were you there as we sang, “God rest ye merry gentlemen?” If you were, I didn’t notice you. Forgive me. While singing “tidings of comfort and joy,” I failed to offer them to you.

When the band ceased, I stood to offer a Christmas welcome. I tried to look upon the gathered crowd, but the spotlights blinded me. I encouraged everyone to really listen to the lyrics of these familiar carols. Familiarity breeds contempt, but it can also breed forgetfulness.  These songs tell the most amazing story if only we would properly tune our attention. Were you able to hear?

I first noticed you when we stood to sing “Silent Night,” our candlelight anthem. Along the aisles, the ushers lit the candles. One by one, flames leapt to life. You were on the inside of your row, sitting alone, a chair between you and Izzy. Forgive me again; I initially thought you were a child. You were barely taller than Izzy and thin. You held your unlit candle, standing stone still, a charcoal shadow in a pool of lights. With whispered encouragement from her mother, Izzy brought her light to you. Trembling, trembling you tilted your wick to meet her flame. And we sang,

            Silent night, Holy night,
Son of God, Love's pure light,
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Did you sing? I couldn’t tell. You were a statue in front of me, the only movement the anxious flame in your folded hands. Perhaps you were heeding my request--listening, listening.

With candles extinguished, the music continued telling us that old gospel story: 
            “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.”  

As I fumbled with the harmony, I continued to watch you. You drew your dark peacoat around your slumped shoulders and you gripped your purse tightly. Your private thoughts were nearly audible: “Am I safe to leave? If I go now, perhaps no one will notice me.” You nervously shifted from foot to foot. You briefly surveyed the congregation calculating your escape, questioning, questioning. With surprising swiftness, you disappeared.

I longed to stop you, to put a hand upon your shoulder and invite you to stay. Like normal, my logic prevailed. What woman, especially one so afraid, wants a strange man three times her size to bar her escape? Like the smoke from your candle, you were gone in an instant. Christmas Eve evanescence.

I returned my attention to pondering Immanuel, God with us.  Forgive me, forgive me, thrice forgive me. In pondering Immanuel, I forgot to show you Immanuel. I forgot that in His church, Jesus is more than lyric; He is life. 

02 January 2017

A plea for greater discernment

Tune your ears to the world of Wisdom;
set your heart on a life of Understanding.
-Proverbs 2 (MSG)

Many Americans felt that 2016 was a particularly terrible year. A political changing of the guard, oft-publicized episodes of violence, and the loss of many familiar celebrities dominated our thinking and emotion.

In our social media world, one of the things that often seemed evident was our national lack of discernment. Too many of us have abandoned scalpel-sharp insight for bludgeoning hammers of information, even when that information may be false. We convince ourselves of the truthfulness of what we read when it conforms to our narrative without bothering to discern what is true. Whether on the political right or left, we allow truth to be determined by our preferred media outlets while at the same time castigating those who oppose us. And it is to our shame.

Unfortunately, for many of us this lack of discernment shows up in our every day lives as well. We have a narrative for life and we actively seek sources that support our narrative. Psychologists call this a confirmation bias. We favor information that bolsters our preconceptions while either ignoring or flat out denying incongruous information.

Sadly, this can have profound effects upon relationships as well. In some cases, people are more willing to abandon relationships, even long-standing ones, than to try to apply wisdom, insight, or discernment into determining what is true. Rather than seeking after wisdom and truth, they seek counsel from those who will parrot their preconceptions.

Considering this, here are a few things to think about:
1) Seek humility. We should develop the habit of asking the question, "is it possible that I'm wrong?"
2) Actively listen to those with whom you disagree. Even if you ultimately continue to disagree, a willingness to listen serves you well.
3) Pursue long-term relationships. Acquaintances often cannot provide informed counsel because they know neither you, nor the situations you are facing. If the people you are listening to never disagree with you or challenge you, they are not a friend, they are an echo chamber. Seek deep relationships with people who are willing to pursue both truth and love with you.