Wednesday, April 30, 2008

American Idol & "Shout to the Lord"

I missed the actual show while I was away in Kazakhstan, but I have been interested to see some of the follow-up discussion on it. Check out Josh Harris' thoughts and insight on it here. Right on, Josh...

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sex and the Soul?

You think maybe God knows what He's talking about? Check this out. I'm equally fascinated by people's tendency to lie about their sexuality - both on the college campus and inside the church.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Book Review: The Nine

After my 90-day fast from reading anything but the Bible, I developed a rather large stack of works on my desk that I will be churning through over the next few weeks. I read a fascinating book on a sociologist's perspective on the rise of Christianity on my trip overseas (that I will review later), but wanted to first review Jeff Toobin's book on the Supreme Court called The Nine.

Toobin is a staff writer with the New Yorker and a legal analyst for CNN, and has taken on the branch of government that I think is least known to our country, but very influential. Toobin obviously has done his homework, and is clearly writing about an area of government (the courts) that he is passionate about and enjoys. His work covers the people on the Court from the time of the Reagan administration forward, giving us a good overview of the major cases that have been decided, but more importantly helping us understand the people who have decided them.

Toobin gives us lots of background information on the inner-workings of the justices themselves and the relationships between the justices. I found this part of his work fascinating as I am intrigued by the complexities that make up the human psyche. The other reason I really enjoyed this work is because Toobin gives us clear editorials about his view of the work of the court. While you may not agree with all of Toobin's analysis of the court cases (and I didn't), it is refreshing to read someone who knows their own opinions about the topic and can defend them well. To me, it makes for great writing about a topic that could be extremely boring if kept to just the legal minutiae that makes up most of the Supreme Court's work.

On a side-note, as a pastor of a young evangelical church, I was disturbed by his analysis of Jay Sekulow's organization called ACLJ, which is a hero to many evangelicals. His discussion of how Sekulow's own family has benefited so greatly from their legal work really bothered me. You'll have to read this part on your own and make your own conclusions, but it obviously bothered me enough to mention it in this review.

On a completely different area of case work, the burden to see abortion stopped in this country continues to weigh heavy on my heart. I have a hard time understanding why liberals who claim to have such compassion for those with the least in our society have such a hard time defending the rights of the unborn. I will never understand how a compassionate and just society can mercilessly kill so many unborn children. Toobin does a good job covering the complex abortion issues that the SC faces, but I just pray that one day this terrible practice will end.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Back from Kazakhstan

Many of you know that I just returned last week from a 10-day trip to Central Asia with two other church leaders. The three of us spent one week in Almaty, Kazakhstan working with new church leaders from other Central Asian republics who were there to receive training before heading back to their home countries. We had 10 students and our week with with them was completely enjoyable. We had quite a time getting over there (a story for another day), but after we arrived, we were able to witness how the Spirit of God is moving in Central Asia. It was very encouraging.

After five days in Almaty, we took the overnight train (about a ten-hour ride) to Teraz, a smaller city in Kazakhstan, where HCBC Pflugerville has been partnering with a church for several years. The pastor and the church were very hospitable to us, and we really enjoyed our time with the church. We were able to spend some time on Saturday with their church leaders, and then we spent Sunday morning at their church service, then were able to experience the city of Teraz in the afternoon and evening.

The country of Kazakhstan reminded me a lot of Romania (where I traveled in 2004) in that it has many remnants of Soviet rule. The soviet-style architecture and city design were very similar. After that, however, the people and culture were very different. While Romania felt very European, Kazakhstan felt very Asian. The Russians who live there look European, but the Kazak nationals look Asian (almost Chinese). This led to an interesting blend of cultures, and I really enjoyed my time with the people.

We worked with East-West Ministries, and you can read more about their mission-work here.

As always with international mission trips, you come back with many more observations about your own ministry than you do about the mission work. Being outside your own ministry setting and seeing someone else's church for the first time really helps me refocus on what is important. I brought back a few nuggets that I have been chewing on...

(1) Ecclesiology is very important in the life of the church. Regardless of the model of the church (traditional, cell church, house church), how Jesus leads his congregation is very important. We saw this over and over again as we met with church leaders in Central Asia. In order to lead and handle conflict well, the church needs to be governed well. Great reminder --

(2) Contextualized ministry and mission are absolutely necessary for the proclamation of the gospel and the growth of the church. Looking again at Acts 15 & Acts 17 on the trip home, I was reminded how important contextualization is to our efforts. I saw some very odd forms in Central Asia because western missionaries had taken not only the function of the church with them, but also the forms of the church. This was a good reminder for me at home to make sure that we are not using out-dated forms that will hinder the progress of the gospel in our city.

(3) Boldness with the gospel requires so much less here at home and we do it so much less. I think this is a weird deal, but the Spirit of God seems to really move believers under persecution to boldly share their faith. When I read this article today in the WSP about believers in Iraq, I was again challenged by my own attitude toward evangelism.

Thanks for all the prayers for our trip. It was a truly humbling and challenging time.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

So What Did I Learn?

After reflecting on my 90-day Bible-reading experience, I have a few thoughts about what I learned...

...especially now that I have had a few hours to think about it during my layover in Amsterdam.

So what did I learn?

(1) The God of the Bible is gracious, loving, compassionate, slow-to-anger, and abiding-in-kindness. Both OT and NT are consistent in their affirmation about the character of God. I talk to so many people (and have dealt with in my own life) who doubt the goodness and love of God as they experience the harshness of life. I appreciated 90 days of overwhelming reminders about the kindness, goodness, and graciousness of our God. More than anything, I think my 90-day Bible read reminded why I worship Yahweh - He is truly an awesome God.

(2) The Scripture is full of regular people like me. I was encouraged that God uses people from every kind of background and walk of life to accomplish his purposes. He uses farmers and kings, nomads and writers, shepherds and engineers, governors and servants, slaves and warriors. God uses anyone whose heart is completely committed to Him. He does not prejudice based on status in society, but rather chooses those He uses based on His sovereign grace. There is hope for us all!

(3) The mission of the whole Bible is to reveal to humans that God is working to redeem His people and restore His creation to its original wonderful state out of passion for His own glory among all peoples and out of love for His creation. I learned to continue to study and teach and preach the Bible as a whole narrative, not to rip stuff out of context and make the Bible say what I wanted it to say. I learned that our Bible is one story with God as the major player and Jesus as the hero.

(4) I walked away with greater appreciation for the need to study God's Word deeply. While I had fun reading it quickly and felt like I grew closer to Christ during the process, I also was reminded that great insight from the Scriptures only comes with great labor in them. I can't even remember how many times I said to myself, "I wish I could slow down and spend a week in that passage - I know there is more there than what I'm getting in this quick read." God's Word is a deep well that I am only beginning to understand.

(5) The whole of Scripture pointed me toward that day when Jesus will return with all power and glory. The 90-day Bible read gave me an even-greater longing than I had before for Jesus' second coming. So much of the Bible looks with great longing to that day when the Lord will come in person, execute justice on the earth, demonstrate His great grace and mercy toward those who have trusted in Him, and restore His creation. The longer I live and the more suffering and injustice I observe, the more fervently my heart desires for His return.

(6) Finally, I was reminded of the great treasure we have in the Scriptures. 40 different authors, 66 different books, one God and Father, one great Savior Jesus Christ, and one awesome Holy Spirit. I was challenged by this final thought: if I can read it in 90 days, why would I ever neglect it on any one day? But yet, this is what God tells us we might be led to do - to neglect this treasure. Except for this gift, how would I have ever known the true God of the universe, His great love for me demonstrated in Christ, and His purposes for my life? I ended these 90 days thankful to have the whole Bible in my language and to be able to enjoy it every day.

Why are you thankful for the Bible?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Day 90/90: Esther 6-10, Malachi 1-4, Rev 19-22

Wow - what a journey. I'll have some summary thoughts tomorrow on reading through the Bible in 90 days.
Final blog on today's reading highlights:
  • I love the fact that Esther was bold enough to ask the King for that which she believed to be right in God's sight. She took advantage, as a strong woman of faith, of the high position that God had given her in the kingdom. She made the tough "ask." She was not sure how it would turn out (if the king would kill her or neglect her), but she stepped out in faith. I am realizing more and more how God is calling me to be more bold (not hostile or arrogant), but more courageous. And what I am seeing every day in leading this new church is that God is faithful to show-up regularly when we walk by faith in Him.
  • Malachi is a sobering book for spiritual leaders, because God is taking his priests and Levites to task for not leading His people well. They are bringing inadequate sacrifices to the Lord (their leftovers), they are teaching people wrong doctrine and wrong living, they are making excuses for unfaithfulness and divorce in marriages, they are honoring God only with their words, and despite all of this, they still expect God to hear their prayers. God calls his leaders to repentance and reminds them that He is surely coming. God points forward again to His coming messenger, the Messiah, who will change the hearts of His people and bring healing and justice to a broken world. Awesome end to the OT...
  • The end of Revelation always gives me chills, because it reminds me of two great and awesome truths: (1) Jesus will come back in His full glory, brining with Him the full fury of th wrath of God, and (2) death is the great equalizer as everyone will stand before Him and give an account of our lives. In this terribly broken world, I look forward with great anticipation for that day when heaven and earth are remade and every tear is wiped away and death is completely defeated. I say with the author of Revelation: Amen, come Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Day 89/90: Esther 1-5, Zech 10-14, Rev 15-18

Today's key reading highlights:
  • The story of Esther is such a good reminder that God orchestrates all things for His purposes. While we may not understand His ways all the time (or maybe much of the time), Scriptures shows us so clearly that God knows what He is doing. God says that He holds the hearts of kings and queens in His hands and moves them any direction He wants to. Obviously, this raises all kinds of historical questions, but it does not change the teachings of the Bible. The sovereignty of God is a major theme of Esther - He leads Esther exactly where He wants her to be in order to have the influence that He wants her to have. Incredible thought as we meditate on the directions that our own lives have taken.
  • The end of Zechariah continues the pattern I touched on yesterday, combining Messianic prophecies (about the betrayal of the Messiah and about His crucifixion) with end-times declarations about the Day of the Lord. In this way, I think Zechariah teaches us that Jesus' first coming is a promise that His second coming is sure. I love the powerful imagery at the end of Zechariah, especially the image of Christ as the true Shepherd and those false messiahs as harmful shepherds. Bottom-line: we need to be careful who we follow.
  • Rev 15-18 gives every believer in Christ great hope that one day Jesus Himself will provide His justice and His wrath on the whole world. The message for all those suffering and dying for the gospel all over the world is powerful - don't lose hope. Keep the faith, despite what everyone would tell you and every circumstance would have you feel. God has not left you - He loves you and still fights for you. But, most of all, have faith that leads to hope, because one day, everything that has been wrong will be made right. And we press on, trusting that this day is near.