Friday, December 24, 2010

The Question of The Hunger Games

I finished The Hunger Games trilogy today - a disturbing fiction series set in a future North-America divided into 13 districts, tightly controlled by an authoritarian central government and leader.  The main character of the trilogy is a young woman (ages 16 to 18 over the course of the three books) whose life is destroyed and perspective is distorted by war and unending violence.  Suzanne Collins, the author of the series, is a student of how war and violence impact the lives of young people around the world.  Her three books are a creative way to really ask one question: how does the cycle of violence in our world today impact our youth and how does it stop?  Other questions pop up throughout the series - ones about life and death, love and loss, authority and submission to authority - but they are all (in my mind) subsets of the bigger question about the impact and cycle of violence.

In fact, my favorite paragraph in the whole series comes in the second paragraph of page 186 of the final book, Mockingjay, where Katniss (the main character) is having a conversation with fellow rebels about the weapons they are creating to use against the "evil" central government.  Here's the whole paragraph:

"That seems to be crossing some kind of life," I say. "So anything goes?"  They both stare at me - Beetee with doubt, Gale with hostility.  "I guess there isn't a rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being."

In these few sentences, the author shows her hand.  She is asking a great question about the cycle of violence.  When people are hurt by others, they begin to think about hurting back (the natural emotions of vengeance), and usually they process their pain in such a way that the level of violence increases - "I will hurt them worse that they hurt me."  This is not unique to war (it happens in all of our lives), but it is magnified by war.  The violence and death of so many creates a rationalization to use "whatever means necessary" to get back at those who have caused the pain to us.

These questions are theological questions - why should we not treat each other like animals, hurting those who hurt those we love?  Why should we not respond in anger and hatred and violence?  And while Collins' book does a great job of raising the question, I feel like she does a very poor job of answering the question.  In fact, the resolution of her third book has created lots of debate online precisely because it seems her answer is, "just do what you have to survive, to not be controlled by others, and keep on living."  And while I really don't have a literary argument with the conclusion of the book, I have issues with her non-answer answer to her main question.  In other words, is Collins saying by not answering her own question that there is NO answer to the question of stopping the cycle of war and violence and genocide?  This might be the dominant view of our post-modern generation, but it surely leaves the reader wanting a better life philosophy than nihilism (extreme skepticism that denies meaning and truth).  For those who have read the series, am I reading this right?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

The biblical answer to acts of violence is deeper and harder than the answer of the Hunger Games - forgiveness.  I'm surprised with the level of violence in this series that the characters don't discuss God or forgiveness one time.  I don't expect the book to present a Christian worldview at all, but I would think an honest discussion about this level of violence and vengeance and war would include a discussion on forgiveness and how a person's worldview shapes their response to violence.  The series almost seemed to be going this direction several times (when the characters would talk about the need to NOT be a pawn in the games, controlled by the desires of evil leaders) but then would simply resort to the best way to fight back was to survive at whatever the cost.  While an engaging read, I found the lack of resolution disappointing.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Book Notes: Safely Home by Randy Alcorn (5/5 - one of the best)

On the way home from East Asia in November, I read Randy Alcorn's novel Safely Home.  After my exposure to the underground church in Asia, this book hit me especially hard.  Though written in 2003, the narrative still accurately describes some of the challenges facing the persecuted church around the world.  Alcorn's book captures the tension that I have written about before - a nation whose economy is rapidly growing while the government continues to tightly control all freedoms of expression.  Many in the West have believed that as Asian economies were opened to the world, its people would experience greater freedom.  While the people have experienced growing exposure to Western companies and products, they have not experienced a corresponding growth in freedom - see the recent restriction of house-church leaders from attending the 2010 Lausanne World Evangelism Conference or the recent crackdown on political dissidents in light of the Nobel Peace Prize award to a pro-democracy advocate or the recent announcement that the government had designated all house churches as "cults" as evidence of the government's heavy hand.

Where Alcorn's book succeeds is giving us a person and a face and a story that grips our hearts related to the persecuted church.  It is hard to feel compassion for a number.  When you and I hear that millions of Christians face opposition because of their faith in Jesus Christ, we feel concern, but not deep, heart-rending compassion.  We need a name, a person to move the information from our heads to our hearts.  This was my experience in East Asia - I got to know people who are leading the church and got to spend time hearing their story.  Randy Alcorn has done all Christians a favor by giving us a story that, though fiction, could be the story of any number of Christians in persecuted countries.  A story of joy and victory, loss and pain, and most importantly - an eternal perspective.

Alcorn's ministry is called Eternal Perspective Ministries, and if you have never heard his personal testimony, I would encourage you to visit his ministry website and learn his story.  Through some fascinating life-experiences, Alcorn is required to give away all of the royalties of his books, which he has written keeps him daily focused on his eternal rewards and not his earthly rewards.  This understanding is important as you read Safely Home - you sense Alcorn's desire throughout the book to lift our eyes to the eternal scenes - to see persecution and evangelism and suffering through the eyes of Jesus Christ.  The heavenly scenes in Safely Home are the most powerful - the ones that led me to tears as I read them.

I won't say any more because I don't want to give away the story of the book.  However, I do pray that each of you will read this amazing work.  I pray that I will not soon forget the images that Alcorn has left with me.  And I pray for each of us to live every day in light of what is eternally significant, not temporarily seen as important.

I watched a TV special last night on the president's photographer - an interesting report on the people whose job it is to capture in pictures every moment of a president's term.  As I watched it, a thought hit me that was embedded during my reading of Safely Home - though a photographer tries to capture every moment of a presidency, he can't see everything.  And though a photographer wants to record significant moments for future historians to look back at, most images will be quickly forgotten and never looked at again.  But there is One who sees all and remembers everything.  And one day we will all meet Him face to face.

Are you living your life in light of this reality?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Another Look At Persecution

I wrote last week about some of the insights that God gave us while we were overseas in November.  In response to that post, I heard privately from one of our dear friends who serves in one of the hardest mission fields in the world.  By "hardest," I mean an area where believers in Jesus Christ are most persecuted for their faith.  After sharing my short-term insights on how facing persecution can be good for the purity and simplicity of the church, I wanted to share his insights on how persecution also suffocates the church.  Here where his wonderful insights (which should lead us to pray for our persecuted brothers today)...

Concerning persecution, I wish that believers in our area had room to breathe. It is really tough. The pressure is from government (and this pressure is real--real prosecution, real legal implications). The social and family pressure is also very intense. There seems to have been a little momentum building over the past few years. But after some things happened last year, believers are afraid to even be seen with each other. And they are very afraid to be seen with foreigners in too close of a way. It has been a hard thing to see the very weak and struggling body of Christ, take such a hard set back. I once heard of a group of 13 adults and 7 children meeting together to read scripture. That is a mega church here.
And our work is also very sensitive. The locals who help in our work really feel like if people knew what we were doing, that we wouldn't live much longer. If there is enough of a group then persecution is strengthening, but it seems that without a critical mass of some sort; the effects really are strangling. Satan wants to stop the proclamation of the truth of the good news. There are many tools used to do this.  Here fear is a huge weapon used very effectively. I praise God for the people that find the courage that only comes from the Lord. We realize in vivid ways that the only way that we can go forward is under the protection and care of God every day.  But isn't that always true! What a blessing to be reminded of it so often. Pray that we would know how to be harmless and wise, bold and meek, faithful and fruitful.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What is the Gospel?

I wrote this summary today for our church's website and wanted to share it here.  I hope it stirs your heart reading it as much as it stirred my heart writing it.

The Gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel is "good news" because it answers the deepest needs of every man, woman, and child - the need of sinners to be reconciled to a Holy God.  The Bible teaches that each one of us is a sinner by nature and by choice when compared the holiness of God - the true standard of what is right.  God is perfect and we are not.  Our sin is infinitely offensive to God because God is infinitely glorious.  The Word of God teaches that though God created us and loves us, we have become His enemies.  No one is righteous in God's sight - not even one.

However, God was not satisfied to leave His creation in rebellion.  He sent His One and Only Son, Jesus Christ, to live the life that we could not live and die the death that we deserved so that each one of us could become sons and daughters of God.

Christianity is not a "religion" as man sees religion - a set of rules by which we live better lives, but instead a message of redemption offered freely because Jesus kept the rules that we could not keep.  The heart of the gospel is substitution.  Jesus took our place - both in life and in death.  If we receive the gift of God's grace by faith in Jesus Christ, we can be forgiven our sin and reconciled to our Heavenly Father.  Jesus removes the wall of sin that separates us from God and restores our relationship with Him.

Though the gospel is utter foolishness to the world, it is God’s very wisdom.  The Bible declares that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.  God is working today in the world through the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

As Paul wrote to us in 1 Corinthians 15, the gospel is christological, centering on the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The gospel is biblical (his death and resurrection are according to the Scriptures), theological and salvific (Christ died for our sins, to reconcile us to God), historical (if the saving events did not happen, our faith is worthless, we are still in our sins, and we are to be pitied more than all others), apostolic (the message was entrusted to and transmitted by the apostles, who were witnesses of these saving events), and intensely personal (where it is received, believed, and held firmly, individual persons are saved).

At Hill Country Bible Church Round Rock, we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as the primary message of the whole Bible, as the only hope for a fallen world, and as the source of salvation and life-transformation for all who believe.  We invite all who have ears to hear to believe today on the Lord Jesus Christ for life - both abundant life now and eternal life forever.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Lessons Learned in East Asia

Luke 12:48: "To whom much is given, much will be required."  -Jesus

This verse was on my heart frequently during our trip to East Asia.  We have received much from the hand of God, and one day we will be required to give an account of what we did with it.  I was reminded while I worked with pastors overseas that many of them would give their left arm to have the seminary education I have received, to have to the mentoring I've enjoyed from seasoned pastors and leaders, to have the resources and staff that I get to work with every day.  In short, I have been a giant stewardship responsibility (as have all of you) before God to do something with all that He has poured into my life.  I hope that I can stand before Jesus one day and honestly say that I was a good steward of what I had been given - that I served His global church who did not have access to the many resources I have enjoyed.

Beyond this overarching theme, Barie and I sensed the Lord teaching us several important lessons during our time in East Asia that we pray we will not forget soon...

1- If we are going to reach the nations with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we have to learn how to reach cities.  The urbanization of the globe has been occurring for decades, and it is a phenomenon that I have read about repeatedly.  However, it is hard to appreciate how many people live in cities around the world until you go to some of the biggest cities in the world and see the dense population with your own eyes.  The cities in East Asia are huge, and while the gospel has spread rapidly in rural areas (like it has in other countries), it tends to slow down in urban areas where people are more occupied with career pursuits, wealth accumulation, and their educational goals.  Sound familiar?  If the church of Jesus Christ is going to see the gospel truly go to the ends of the earth, we have to pray that God will raise up missionaries both in our own country and abroad who will live in and take the gospel to people who live in cities.  I think we are going to look back after the next fifty years and say that the cultural transformation that took place in our lifetimes was the complete urbanization of the globe.  How will we respond?

2- Government support and public legitimacy are not important goals for the church as they negatively impact its purity over time.  One of the most interesting conversations with church-leaders in persecuted countries is about their relationship with the state.  While some look at the freedom we enjoy as westerners with envy, others see the purity and simplicity of having a faith that is oppressed by the government.  This insight surprised me, but as a student of history, made total sense.  Throughout history, as the church has received government backing and sought public legitimacy, the church has been taken off-tract from its primary mission of making disciples of all nations.  Why?  Because government support and public legitimacy tends to bring people into the church who do not have a genuine love for Jesus Christ, but rather who want the power, money, and influence that the church enjoys.  This was a helpful reminder to me about my goals as a pastor in America.  As I engage city-leaders in my city, my goal is to be a representative of Christ, not to change my message in order to get their favor.

3- Finally, no work we have as disciples of Jesus will make more impact on the world than raising up children who love Jesus and love the world.  It was bizarre to go half-way around the world with my wife without our kids and find that God spoke to us about our family, but He did!  Barie and I were both reminded by our time with missionary families and national families that our most significant work is how we raise up the next generation to love Christ and to love the people of the world.  Our tendency as American Christians is to protect and separate our kids from the world, but the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to raise up children who love the world that Jesus died for.  Barie and I came back with a renewed passion to invest Scripture and the gospel in our kids, but not just for their sake.  Instead, we feel called by God to impart a passion for Christ in our children for the sake of God's glory among the nations.  May God give us wisdom as parents to raise up kids with a global perspective on God and His work.

There is much more we could share about the trip, from the funny cultural experiences we had to the remarkable people we met.  I hope at some point in the future that we can get some time to show you pictures and share more stories.  But overall, we are just thankful to God for what He allowed us to do in the lives of others and what He showed us and what He did in our hearts while we were away.  We serve an awesome God who is at work around the world and in each one of our lives.

Pray for us that we will have wisdom in knowing how God wants us to be involved in the world in the coming years.  We will pray for you that you will take time out of your schedule in the coming years to get overseas and see what God is doing all over the globe through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Book Notes: Lee: A Life of Virtue (5/5)

Robert E. Lee is one of the most famous American historical figures, especially in the South.  Schools and roads throughout the South today still carry his name, and mythical stories abound about his greatness in war and the strength of his personal character.  John Perry's new biography of Lee in the Thomas Nelson series on The Generals is a short summary of the life of General Lee - one that moves quickly through his remarkable life and his remarkable military service.  General Lee's servant leadership and strong personal Christian faith fill every page of Perry's book.  In addition, this biography brought two features of Lee's life to my attention that have stayed with me long after reading the book.

First, General Lee was a genuinely humble person.  Though he was one of the most famous men in America at the end of his life, he was remembered by all those close to him for his remarkable humility.  As I was struck by this same character quality in the last Billy Graham biography that I read, I was struck by Lee's genuine respect, deference, and graciousness toward others. Jim Collins rights about Level 5 leaders in his book Good to Great, specifically mentioning how the greatest corporate leaders of the 20th century have not been those who are charismatic, flashy personalities, but those who are great servant leaders, well-known for their genuine humility and lack of self-absorption.  This goes against our normal understanding of dynamic leadership, but once again, Robert E. Lee's life story affirms that the greatest leaders of men are actually the most humble (sounds like Jesus' words, doesn't it?).

Second, General Lee experienced his most distinguished service late in his life.  As I have read Civil War histories in the past, I guess I didn't realize that General Lee had served so long as a engineering officer in the US Army before he found his success as a battle commander.  Lee served well, but without distinction, for 40 years in the military before he was called upon to lead the Virginia Army under the Confederate Flag.  Perry does a great job of showing that Lee's faithful service and perseverance through grueling assignments away from his family set the stage for his amazing leadership in the Civil War.  As someone who has grown up in the generation that thinks you have to do everything by the time you are 35 if you are going to do something significant with your life, Lee's story was a great reminder that faithful service over a whole life is makes you ready for opportunities to lead.  God sets the boundaries of a man's life, regardless what modern leaders declare.

Overall, this was a great book about a great man, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Misreading Mercy?

As we get into Amos 2 this week, we will look at God’s words to his own people, the covenant people of Judah and Israel.  Whereas last week’s message (in Amos 1) focused on God’s sovereignty over all the nations, this week’s message focuses on what God has to say to His own people.

The major theme that keeps reoccuring as I study Amos 2 is how the people of Israel misread the mercy of God.  God had done many wonderful things on their behalf over the years, but they had not learned from that what God wanted them to see.  I will go into more detail about this Sunday, but it seems like we also struggle with how to understand the mercy of God.  Here’s two common ways that I see in myself and others…

1. We can misread mercy as indifference.  I mentioned this briefly on Sunday.  We can sometimes read God’s patience with us and His blessings on us as though He doesn’t care about the sin that we commit.  Many people I interact with seem to have this view of life – God’s favor toward me simply shows that He doesn’t care how I live.  If He did care about my sin, He wouldn’t have blessed me so richly.

2. We can also misread mercy as worthiness.  In this view, all of God’s blessings on my life are signs of how awesome I am.  God is simply agreeing with me by demonstrating how great I am to the world.  His favor in my life is not undeserved – it is deserved.  I am a good person and take care of others and give money to those in need and that is why God is so good to me.  God’s blessings are an affirmation of God being pleased with my performance.

We’ll take a look at these in more depth on Sunday, but right now I’m curious if you see these beliefs in your own life.  How else do you think we misread the mercy of God in our lives?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

What is the Bible Basically About?

I enjoyed this video that was put together from one of Tim Keller's talks on the metanarrative of the Bible.  His teaching on a Christo-centric view of the Bible has made the Bible come alive to me all over again.  I pray that this blesses you...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Book Notes: What I've Read Lately

Book #1: Humility, True Greatness by CJ Mahaney.  I picked up this little read after deciding in my spiritual assessment this year that I needed to work on pride.  Pride is one of those root issues that is hard to nail down, but is apparent in everything we do.  I love Mahaney's definition of pride - when sinful human beings aspire to the status and position of God and refuse to acknowledge their dependence upon Him.  His shortened definition is one that will stay with me for years - contending with God for supremacy.  I see that in my own life and how God constantly is at work to break me of my pride.  Mahaney has some great, practical tips on growing humility in our hearts - all rooted in the gospel.  I personally appreciated his section on using encouraging, edifying words toward others as a way to cultivate humility.  Also helpful were his encouragements to focus on the doctrines of grace as essential to a heart full of humility.  If everything I have is truly a gift of God's grace, what room do I have to boast?  A great, easy read.

 Book #2: George Whitefield: God's Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century.  Arnold Dallimore was a Baptist preacher who wrote biographies of great figures in the recent history of the church.  George Whitefield was definitely one of those figures.  Originally from England, Whitefield split his ministry time between England and the American colonies.  He was a powerful preacher of the gospel, known for his ability to captivate thousands of people in the days before public broadcast systems.  God apparently gave him a voice that could carry and the physical stamina to preach and teach all the time.  I was stunned as I read through this biography how many times a week Whitefield would preach - sometimes three or four times a day.  I also didn't understand the relationship between Whitefield and the Wesleys before reading Dallimore's biography.  They had a close friendship and ministry partnership even though Whitefield was more Calvinistic in his theology than Wesley.  One of the stranger parts of the book is Dallimore's description of Whitefield's marriage, which almost seemed like a business arrangement.  Whitefield and his wife were apart from each other for very long periods of time as he was traveling for his ministry.  Amazing story - very interesting life - fast read.

Book #3: Patton: The Pursuit of Destiny.  General George Patton was one of the most successful and colorful generals that the US Army ever produced.  From a long line of military heroes, Patton almost seemed destined to make his career in the armed forces.  He was one of the first American generals to see the possibility of mechanized warfare and many of the strategies and training programs that he devised are still used by the military today.  His personal life was a mess, and his military career almost imploded several times because of his lack of self-control.  His career was made into the famous movie with George C Scott in 1970, and the authors spend considerable time talking about how the Hollywood version of Patton compared to the real life Patton.  This book, which is a very recent biography of Patton, is one of many Patton biographies out there.  While I haven't read the others, I would think this one would fit in the introductory category.  Under 200 pages, this book is a quick overview of the life and career of General Patton.  I enjoyed it as an introduction to a very interesting and consequential life.

Book #4: Spurgeon: A New Biography.  Another biography by Arnold Dallimore, this work studies the life of the most famous pastor/preacher of the 19th century.  Charles Spurgeon pastored the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London for forty years in the second half of the 19th century.  His ministry was expansive, covering everything from books to training pastors and teachers to caring for the poor to helping orphans to providing for the elderly.  God definitely gifted Spurgeon as a preacher of the gospel and a trainer of other pastors and leaders.  I pray that God will allow me to persevere in serving Him as Spurgeon did, even in the midst of bad health and the poor health of his wife.  Dallimore's biography keeps the pace moving and covers the amazing breadth of Spurgeon's ministry with ease.  Spurgeon, like Whitefield before him, did an amazing amount of work for the Lord.  I don't think these men would appreciate our modern emphasis on balance and rest, but then again their poor health severely limited their ministry in later years.  A great read - very encouraging and faith building overall for me.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Reply All #3 Preview: Discerning God's Will

This Sunday, we will tackle one of the most common questions that Christians ask as they face the future: what is God's will for my life?  What does He want me to do?  Sometimes we ask this question because we really want to please God.  But sometimes we ask this question because we are afraid and we don't know what to do.  We seem to think that if God will give us the correct path to take then everything will work out great for us - no pain, only success.  But the truth of Scripture is that God uses seasons of pain and struggle in our life to grow us in our faith.  So why would God take us out of all trials?  He has never promised to do that - only to be with us in the midst of our struggles.  So, does God have a specific will for us to follow?  Or do we just make the best decisions we can make each day?  We will tackle this tough and very practical issues this Sunday at church.  I can't wait to share what God is teaching me as I prepare.

Reply All Q&A #2: The OT and the NT

The second question in our Reply All series was, How does God in the Old Testament relate to Jesus in the New Testament?  Jacob, our student pastor, preached last Sunday, July 4th, and tackled this rather large topic.  The main point of his message was the the God does not change between testaments.  God is revealed the Old Testament to be holy, just, and gracious toward His covenant people.  God is revealed in the New Testament to be exactly the same way - full of justice, truth, and grace.  Jacob walked through the major covenants of the Old Testament on Sunday to show us that we cannot fully understand Jesus without understanding His place in progressive revelation.  This truth also works the other direction - we cannot fully understand the God of the Old Testament without studying the person of Jesus.  Hebrews 1:3 says that God has spoken in the last days in the person of His Son, revealing exactly what He is like to us in the person of Jesus.  This means that we can get a full picture of God from looking at Christ, who is God in the flesh.  Here are some of the many questions that came in on Sunday morning...

1. If Israel had obeyed and/or had learned their lessons, would Jesus still have had to come down?  did God have to go to that level because of their stubbornness?  The Bible teaches us that God had established the plan of sending His Son to redeem creation before the foundation of the world (see Ephesians 1), so we can be confident that Israel's action/inaction did not impact God's original plan.  God's original plan was to choose a people to reveal Himself to and then to send His Son through that people to reconcile the world to Himself.  That is exactly what God did.  Everything that God did with Israel in the OT was to teach us about Himself and His character and to show all of the us why we needed Christ to come.  Galatians 3 says that the law was given as a tutor to teach us our need for redemption.  We needed redemption before the Law was given, but we didn't understand that we needed redemption.  Therefore, Israel's struggle to obey is the same as my struggle to obey - we cannot keep the law because we are sinners in need of mercy.  Thank God for showing us our need so that we would turn to Christ.

2. Do the old covenants apply today or does the new covenant replace them?  This is the real debate between "covenant" theologians (who believe that the new covenant replaces the old covenants) and "dispensational" theologians (who believe that God is not done with the old covenants and will fulfill them along with the new covenant in the future).  As a church, we tend to lean toward "progressive dispensationalism" which teaches that the answer is both/and.  The new covenant replaces some facets of the old covenants in the sense that Christ fulfilled the demands of the old covenants and earned our place as recipients of the promises of God.  However, there are parts of the old covenants that have not been fully realized yet and will not be fully realized until Christ comes back again.  In other words, in his first advent, Jesus fulfilled parts of the old covenant promises - defeating sin and death - but we are waiting on his second advent before he fulfills the rest - when he will reign on the earth as the physical King of all nations.

3. When/where was the Holy Spirit introduced in the Bible?  The Holy Spirit, as on of the three co-equal persons of the eternal Trinity, has always existed.  His presence is seen throughout the OT, from Genesis 1 to key passages of the prophets.  The full revelation of his unique personhood and work were not given until the New Testament, but His presence and ministry are seen repeatedly in the Old Testament.  Jesus did the most teaching on the person of the Holy Spirit in the gospel of John (see chapters 14-17), and then the Holy Spirit started His unique ministry in the life of the church in Acts 2.

4. Should the entire OT be interpreted through the lens of Jesus?  That is, does the OT only always have meaning through the NT?  The short answer is no - the Old Testament has meaning on its own.  The Jewish community has interpretations of the OT based solely on the OT text.  However, the Christian community believes that the revelation of Jesus Christ has shown us the fullness of the meaning of the OT passages.  In other words, as we study the Old Testament, we need to look first at the micro-context - what does this passage mean in its original context?  Who was it written to originally?  What would it have meant in that time and place?  But, as Christians, we should not stop there.  We should also look at the text in its macro-context - what does this passage mean in the context of all of Scripture?  How does the whole revelation of God give more meaning to this passage?  For example, Genesis 3 talks about the seed of the woman stepping on the head of the serpent.  From reading that in its original context, we can get that a descendant of Eve is going to crush Satan.  But without the NT, we don't know who it is or how they are going to do it.  With the NT, we can see that Jesus is the seed of Eve who crushed Satan through His death and resurrection.  Thus the OT has meaning on its own, but we don't see its fullest meaning apart from Christ.

5. How can God and Jesus be the same when Jesus even refers to God as His father?  Jesus never refers to Himself as God.  Even in Revelations when the heavens are opened, God and Jesus are described differently.  This is why it is important to understand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  The Bible does NOT teach that Jesus and God the Father are the same person, but that they are of the same essence.  This is why (as the question above mentions) Jesus can talk to the Father as a separate person, and this is why the three persons of the Trinity can all be present at the same moment (at Jesus' baptism) - they are unique persons.  However, Jesus is fully God.  Jesus does claim to divinity for Himself - He says that He can forgive sin (which he says only God can do) - He says that before Abraham was, "I Am," using the Divine name of Exodus for Himself.  Jesus does and says many things in the gospels that demonstrate his divinity, and the NT epistles repeatedly affirm his divinity.  So the question is wrong when it says that Jesus and the Father are the "same" - they are not the same person, but they are equally divine in their essence.  Well, then, you might say, are we saying that there are three gods?  No - the Christian doctrine of the Trinity affirms what the Bible affirms - that though the Father, Son, and Spirit exist eternally as three divine persons, their is only One God.  This is mystery, but that does not mean it is untrue.  It is what Scripture teaches and what we affirm.

Reply All Q&A #1: Christianity Among Other Religions

On Sunday, June 27th, we started a new series called Reply-All, where we are attempting to answer five questions that we received in response to the Letters series that we did in May and June.  The first sermon I preached was in response to the question, How does evangelical Christianity compare to other denominations and other religions?  In order to answer that question on the 27th, I went over the essential elements of the Christian gospel - the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and salvation by faith alone in Christ.  I then went on to describe how different denominations and religions tweak different elements of the Christian gospel.  I discussed how liberal Protestantism tweaks the Bible's teaching on the nature of man (saying we're basically good, not basically sinful), how Catholicism tweaks the Bible's teaching on the means of salvation (saying we are saved by accumulating grace through the sacraments of the church), how the cults tweak the Bible's teaching on the person and work of Jesus (saying that He was just a created being and not fully God), and how the other religions in the world tweak the Bible's teaching on the nature of God (the Trinity, etc.).  Here are answers to some of the text message we received in response to that sermon:

1. Which denominations/religions, other than our own, follow our message and teachings?  Most evangelical churches that believe in the authority of the Bible will be aligned with us on the essentials of the gospel.  We may disagree on forms of worship, ecclesiastical structure, how the gifts of the Spirit work inside the church, etc, but these are all secondary issues (what we call "open-handed" doctrines) compared to the core gospel message.

2. Is the Catholic tweaking of the gospel a question of salvation or is it a secondary issue?  Can someone be a devout Catholic and still be saved?  This is a very important issue to discuss openly and honestly.  The question is one of trust - where is their confidence?  I think people can be Catholic and be saved if their trust is in Jesus for salvation and not the church.  One of the challenges that flows from Catholic ecclesiology (that has a very high view of the authority of the church) can be that people are not encouraged to have a personal faith in Jesus as their Savior, but simply to trust in the institution of the church.  We believe that the Bible is clear that salvation does not come from membership in an institution, but through faith in the finished work of Jesus.  Most Catholics believe rightly about the person of Jesus, but also believe that their salvation is dependent on the sacraments of the church.  I think this is adding to the gospel of freedom in Christ alone and confuses people about the source of their salvation.

3. For those who have never heard the gospel message, is it for lack of faith in Jesus that they are cast out of God's presence forever?  Is there any hope for them?  People are not cast into hell because they have never heard of Jesus.  People go to hell because they are sinners who have rebelled against a holy God and turned to their own idols to save them (see Romans 1).  That being said, I understand the heart of this question.  We all can hope that God will save those who never hear of Jesus, that God in His wisdom and mercy has some other way to redeem those who never hear, but we can't have certainty on this position.  If you want to believe this, you have to defend this view from a position of Biblical silence.  The Bible doesn't explicitly say anywhere that God will save those who never hear the gospel.  Because of that, I cannot hold that position confidently.  I must believe and live as though the name of Jesus is the only one by which men, women, and children can be saved.

4. Which category does the Unity church fall in as far as beliefs that are not consistent with the Bible?  The Unity church tweaks the Bible's teachings on the nature of God, denying the Trinity - that God is One in essence and three in person.  Orthodox Christianity over the last 2000 years has understood the Bible to teach that God is eternally One, but that in His One Essence, He exists eternally as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  To deny the Trinity, Unitarian churches tend to have low views of the Bible and thus fall into other unorthodox teachings on the nature of man and salvation.  But the original change the Unitarian church made was on the nature of God Himself.

5. Why is it impossible not to sin?  The Bible teaches that we are under the curse of sin as human beings because our original parents, Adam and Eve, rebelled against God in the garden of Eden.  The Bible tells us that we have inherited a sin nature from Adam and Eve, that our very beings are marked by the impact of original sin.  Christianity teaches that all men and women are fallen creatures, having dignity because we are made in God's image, but also being depraved because we are part of a fallen creation.  Therefore, we are born into sin, both because we are decedents of Adam and because we choose to sin on our own.

6. Are practicing Jews still covered under the Old Covenant?  The Old Covenant did not say that the Jewish people were saved by keeping the law or doing the sacrifices.  They were saved by faith in God.  The apostle makes the strongest case for this in Romans 4 when he says that the Bible is very clear that Abraham was saved by faith and not by his works.  Therefore, salvation has always been by faith, even if the Jews of the Old Testament did not know about Jesus or his work on the cross on their behalf.  That being said, today's Jews do know of Jesus and his work on their behalf.  Today, Jewish people are saved just like Gentile people - through faith in the finished work of Christ.  The Old Covenant does not provide another way to salvation - it simply pointed people to their need for Jesus Christ.  Therefore, all people around the world today need to repent and place their faith in Christ for salvation - Jew and Gentile alike.

These are tough questions - theologically and emotionally - but I want to be clear and I want to faithful to Scripture.  Please let me know if I need to clarify my answers on any of the points above....

Book Notes: Matterhorn (5/5)

Matterhorn is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read.  I've read many nonfiction books about war over the years, but this is one of the few fiction accounts I've read based on actual events.  Karl Marlantes spent thirty years writing this novel after his own experiences in the Vietnam war.  His writing is thoughtful, emotive, and clear.  The list of characters is long and the military language is unfamiliar to me, but after about 200 pages, I was enveloped into the story.  Marlantes does a brilliant job of covering the minutiae of jungle life in the war of Vietnam while also getting us inside the heads and the internal conflicts of the men who served.

As a novel, the book is fascinating because Marlantes places pages of beautiful prose right next to pages of dialogue that is full of profanity.  It took me about 100 pages to get over the fact that almost every third word in the dialogue between the soldiers is the f-word.  But later I realized that this was not only Marlantes' attempt to show us the way the Marines actually talked to each other, but is a picture of the war itself - vulgarity right next to beauty, valor, and honor.  More than any war account I've ever read, Matterhorn made me feel the conflict from the soldier's perspective - the brutality, the hate and love right next to each other, the boredom and the intensity, and mess of emotions related to the chain of command and the war itself.

In one particularly gripping section, the most "religious" character in the story shares with his friend his own internal struggles with faith in the midst of so much pointless death.  This paragraph moved my heart like few others I've ever read:

Cortell was silent for a moment.  Then he said, "Ever'one here think it easy for me.  I be this good little church boy from Mississippi with my good little church-goin' Mammy, and since I be this stupid country nigger with the big faith, I don't have no troubles.  Well, it just don't work that way."  He paused.  Jermain said nothing.  "I see my friend Williams get ate by a tiger," Cortell continued.  "I see my Broyer get his face ripped off by a mine.  What you think I do all night, sit around thankin' Sweet Jesus?  Raise my palms to sweet heaven and cry hallelujah?  You know what I do?  You know what I do?  I lose my heart."  Cortell's throat suddenly tightened, strangling his words.  "I lose my heart."  He took a deep breath, trying to regain his composure.  He exhaled and went on quietly, back in control.  "I sit there and I don't see hope.  Hope gone."  Cortell was seeing his dead friends.  "The, the sky turn gray again in the east, and you know what I do?  I choose all over to keep believin'.  All along I know Jesus could maybe be just some fairy tale, and I could be just this one big fool.  I choose anyway."  He turned away from his inward images and returned to the blackness of the world around him.  "It ain't no easy thing."

This 4th of July, I'm especially thankful for the men and women who have descended into the depths of hell on earth to ensure the freedom we enjoy, knowing that their service wasn't "no easy thing."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My Bride At 31

I married the girl of my dreams 10 years ago, and this past Sunday (June 20th), my bride turned 31 years old.  We were laughing the other night remembering what we were like when we met in 7th grade, full of junior-high awkwardness and adolescent energy.  I have known Barie Sue since she was 12 years old, and she has turned from an fun-loving friend into a fun-loving wife and mom.  Who could have imagined that the girl sitting next to me at the lunchroom table in middle school would end up being my lover and partner for life?  I'm sure if I went back and talked to 12 year old Keith, he would think I was crazy. But the 31 year old Keith who has had the privilege of knowing Barie for two-thirds of her life knows that God was being incredibly gracious to him when He put Barie Sue in his path. 

I am kind of a serious guy (some people call it gruffness - I like to call it intensity), and Lord knew that I needed a wife and best friend who could make me smile.  And if it is one thing that Barie does extremely well (among many), it is smile.  I mean, check out the picture that I posted with this entry.  Barie's bright, big, beautiful smile, and her penetrating eyes can soften the heart of the hardest person.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard Barie say over the years, "I know you can't look at me without smiling."  And it is true.  When I think of her, I smile.  Her laugh is infectious and her most commonly noted quality is her joy.  The fact that she has come from the places she has been and still exudes seemingly endless genuine joy from her heart is a daily evidence of the gracious love of Jesus in her life.

Which reminds me of another facet of Barie's life that nobody could have guessed when she was 12 - her hunger and passion for God.  She was passionate about boys when I first met her (which was good for me), but today she is most passionate about honoring her Lord with every aspect of her life (which is really good for me).  She has struggled to figure out how spending daily time with God fits into a life with four small kids and a husband who moves slow in the morning, but amazingly, she has still managed to grow in her knowledge of and love for Jesus Christ.  This year at church we have made it our focus to work at growing in Christ-likeness, and to that end, we filled out spiritual assessments on each other so that we could see what other people see in our lives.  When I filled out Barie's, I was reminded what a godly woman she has become.  When you know somebody a long time, it can be hard to see how they have changed because the process is so slow.  But when I stopped to think about the woman that Barie has become, I was thankful for not only her love, but her example.  I want to be the kind of Christian that she is.

Beyond her spirituality, she has worked hard to be more physically fit at 31 than she was at 21.  In 2009, she completed her first triathlon and her first half-marathon.  I mean, who are we kidding?  We're talking about the year after she had her fourth baby!  I can't speak from experience, but I've heard that having kids can be tough on your body.  I got to watch first-hand how her short body struggled to hold those big babies.  But she did it with joy and ease (and quite a few TUMS - but that is a story for another post), and now she looks like she hasn't even had any babies.  She is in the best shape of her life.  I remember trying to first get her into running and working out after I found out about my diabetes five years ago - it took some arm-twisting.  But now, I can't even keep up with her.  My bride at 31 can out-run, out-bike, and out-swim me.  I personally don't think that is fair.

Most of all, though, I wish all people could know the giant heart of compassion that grows in my wonderful wife.  Every person she meets is the most interesting person at that moment.  She never meets a stranger, though she has met some strange people, and her tears flow freely when she sees someone in need.  If God ever makes her rich, I know that she will give all that money away.  She simply feels so deeply for others.  I am thankful that God has grown my own heart of compassion over the years, so that now I can see people and feel for them with deep love.  But Barie feels that deep love for everyone, not the handful that I care about.  Almost every day when I come home, Barie starts off her first paragraph of conversation with these words, "you won't believe who I met today..."  And then we're off to the races.  And while it is funny to me - it's not funny to her - she is genuinely concerned and every new person she gets to know.  Over the years I've known her, that deep love for others has only grown.

When Jesus was asked in Mark 12 what the most important commandments were in all of the Torah, He answered with two - love God with all that you are and love others as yourself.  As I read those words, I can't think of any better description for my amazing bride at 31.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book Notes: Ford County (2/5)

I've read a lot of John Grisham books over the years, enjoying the earlier legal thrillers better than his later books, and so I picked up a used copy of his newest work, a collection of short stories, before we left for vacation.  The book is a quick read and the characters that Grisham introduces us to are interesting.  In spite of this, I didn't really enjoy the stories.  I tired of the combination of similar features in every story - lots of drinking, unethical small-town lawyers, frequent divorce, and time in prison.  I just couldn't get involved in any of the stories in any kind of meaningful way.  Maybe it was the fact that I just read Gilead a month ago, but either way, I found Grisham's writing in these stories to be repetitive and uninspiring.  Sin may be the universal point of contact between human beings, but stories without any redemptive value wear down the soul.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Book Notes: Billy Graham (5/5)

I read Billy Graham's autobiography, Just As I Am, about 10 years ago when I was first considering a life of ministry.  His autobiography is long and detailed, but extremely moving.  Graham has preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to more people in person than anyone in history and has influenced a whole generation of Christian leaders around the world.  When I received David Aikman's biography of Graham, I was excited to read about his life from an outsider's perspective.  Aikman, as a senior writer for Time magazine earlier in his life, is well versed in world religion and world politics.  Because of this, Aikman brings a unique perspective to covering Graham's ministry and life.

First, let's talk about the structure and style of the book.  While Graham's autobiography is primarily written chronologically, Aikman's biography is written categorically, covering Graham's crusade ministry, his relationship with other Christian leaders, his teaching and example on racial issues, his friendships to American presidents, and his legacy one at a time.  I really appreciated this approach as it allowed the reader to think about Graham's ministry in larger terms than simply one-time events.  Aikman's book is much shorter than Graham's autobiography (about 300 pages compared to 800 pages) and moves quickly.  Graham's life, experiences, and relationships gives the biographer plenty of material to work with, and Aikman doesn't get bogged down in too much detail.  Rather, Aikman tries to interpret the impact and influence of Graham's life and ministry.  Also, as an insider to the Christian community, I can testify that Aikman understands the inner-working complexities of the community very well and writes about them lucidly.

Second, let's talk about the content.  Aikman is obviously a big fan of Billy Graham, and it is hard not to be.  Very few people are this faithful to their calling over the course of 70 years in the public eye.  So many ministers in the public eye have fallen prey to the temptations of power, money, or sexuality.  Yet, Graham has stayed true to his original call to preach the gospel for seven decades.  Aikman carefully examines Graham's missteps along the way, most of them the result of Graham's desire to be liked by those around him.  The part of the book that grieves my heart the most (as a pastor with four kids) is Aikman's discussion of how Graham's traveling ministry impacted his five children.  Three of the five have been divorced, and they have all talked publicly about their struggles with their dad being gone so much of the time for his crusades around the world.  At the end of the day, however, we all have much to learn from the example of Billy Graham - most clearly from his faithfulness and his humility.  The last paragraph of Aikman's book is so poignent that they are worth quoting in full:
Some of the results of Graham's ministry may become clear in time; others may not be known until - if we believe in its existence - we are in eternity.  But we do know that Billy Graham, evangelist, one of the most successful men in America of the second half of the twentieth century in any conceivable endeavor, was also one of the most humble.  When speaking of how people would recognize his followers, Jesus taught, "you will know them by their fruits."  What fruits?  The fruits of moral virtue in their lives, sometimes referred to as "the fruits of the spirit."  by that criterion alone, Billy Graham, world-famous evangelist, sometimes called the Protestant Pope, a seven-decade long servant of the call to preach the gospel, has been singularly and to the end a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Questions About Perseverance

I preached yesterday on our call as believers in Jesus Christ to persevere (look at Galatians 6:9, Hebrews 12:1, and Matthew 5:33-37).  I had never preached on that topic, and I found it especially challenging and helpful to my own maturity.  I've talked to many people since yesterday who said they had never heard a sermon on that topic and were thankful to hear what the Scripture teaches.  We only answered questions after first hour since we baptized after second-hour yesterday.  As I've done other weeks, here are some answers to questions that came in...

1) How do you discern when to pray and wait, or pray and take action?  This is really a question about discerning God's will.  My general rule of thumb on discerning God's will is that we pray (try to discern His voice), we read Scripture (to make sure that we are not missing something that is obvious), we listen to godly counsel (a lot of Scripture encourages us to seek wise advice), and then we act.  Sometimes we can use "I'm praying about it" as cover for procrastination and laziness.  We need to make sure and guard against that temptation.  If my Bible teaches it and godly men and women around me encourage it, I should seriously consider it.  All that being said, we do need to make sure that we don't over-commit ourselves to the urgent at the expense of the important (a major point in my sermon yesterday).  If we say 'yes' to everything, we will eventually say 'no' to something.  We have to be discerning about what is most important for us to give ourselves to, commit to those things, and then follow-through.  This raises other questions...

2) What do I do if I have already over-committed?  How do I respond to this message to persevere if I am already over-committed and I simply can't keep up this pace without killing myself?  The first answer to this question is to remember NOT to get in this situation again.  Remember that you can't please everybody all the time and that each of us have to make priority decisions every day.  If you get trapped into being a people-pleaser all the time, you will constantly find yourself over-committed.  That being said, the question is what to do when I'm already there.  First, I would say that you have to realize that your lack of perseverance will impact somebody else.  If you are going to back out on something you originally said you were going to do, you need to make sure and help find someone else to do what you had previously committed to.  Don't just drop the ball - hand it to someone else.  Second, consider if you can keep your commitment if it is short-term with the knowledge that you will not re-up your commitment after you are done.  It is easier to be out of balance for 8 or 12 weeks if you know that at the end of your commitment, you will have learned your lesson and can stay balanced for a longer period of time.  Finally, if you absolutely have to break a commitment to someone, don't act like it doesn't matter.  Own your own faults and commit to learn from your experience.

3) How do you cope with other people’s failure to keep their promises, when you are the one who was let down?  What if you are on the receiving end of someone not persevering in their commitment?  What if you end up carrying the weight of the family, your job, your ministry because someone else did not follow through?  This is a very real situation that we all face from time to time.  In my response, I think we need to hold two principles in tension: grace and truth.  First, we need to be gracious - we should realize that we have let others down before, and that if Jesus had waited until we persevered in all of our commitments before He rescued us, we would still be waiting.  In other words, as with all sin, we are called to reflect the forgiveness that we have received from Christ.  In addition, however, we need to be people of truth.  We need to challenge other believers to keep their word.  We need to let others know how their lack of commitment will impact our life.  When we don't persevere, other people are hurt - that is the simple truth.  And as a Christian community, we need to do a better job of having honest conversations with each other about follow-through.  We can be gracious and still call others to a higher standard of integrity and perseverance.  Ultimately, I think we should learn from our painful experiences with broken promises to not break promises ourselves.  May God help us all to be men and women who keep our word.

Minor Prophets

While I was away on study-break last week, I read through the Minor Prophets (the 12 smaller prophetic books at the end of the Old Testament).  This was a great exercise for me and reminded me of God's greatness, holiness, and compassion.  As I read, I summarized the message of each book.  Here were some of my thoughts...

Hosea – 14 chapters – Hosea is asked by God to marry a prostitute (Gomer) so that he will know what God’s experience with Israel is like.  God addresses Israel’s repeated adultery (idolatry with other gods) and their presumption of God’s continuous blessing.  The book ends on a positive note with God promising to renew and restore a repentant Israel.
Joel – 3 chapters – Joel announces the locust plagues against the people of Judah (a terrible judgment from God), then in 2:12 begins to call God’s people to repentance and healing.  God promises to restore His people, pour out His Spirit on them, and to defeat their enemies.  He does all of this so that His people and the nations will know that He is the true and reigning God.
Amos – 9 chapters – Amos speaks of God’s judgment on kings/nations that oppress other peoples with violence and cruelty (see 2:6-6-16 on Israel).  The Lord has brought warnings from prophets and plagues on His people, but they failed to return to Him.  Amos if the reluctant shepherd prophet who confronts the leaders of Israel with the visions that God has given.  Amos’ vision of God is intense and awesome in His judgment and wrath against sin.  Only the last 5 verses speak of God’s future restoration of Israel.
Obadiah – 1 chapter – God promises to bring judgment on the people of Edom because they stood by and watched as the nation of Israel was invaded and conquered by foreign fighters.  They turned on Israel when the going got tough, and now God has promised to destroy Edom and restore Israel.
Jonah – 4 chapters – God calls Jonah to announce judgment on Nineveh.  Jonah refuses and runs away from God’s calling.  God stops Jonah and gets his attention through a storm and a fish.  Jonah repents and delivers the message to Nineveh.  The people of Nineveh repented and God relented.  Jonah became angry at God’s mercy toward Nineveh and God confronted Jonah about his anger.
Micah – 7 chapters – Micah prophesies the Lord’s judgment against those who abuse their wealth and power (especially the leaders of Israel) to take advantage of the weak and poor.  He condemns the false prophets who are saying everything is okay when it is clearly not okay, and he looks forward to the coming reign of God on the earth (the coming Messiah – Jesus).  In the day of the Coming King, peace will finally reign and all nations will worship the true God.  More than sacrifice, God wants his people to do right, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him.  God is faithful to His promises.
Nahum – 3 chapters – God announces coming judgment against the Assyrians in Nineveh, proclaiming His great and awesome power to wipe out a people with one word.  This book is full of powerful imagery of what Nineveh will experience as God brings judgment – it is terrifying language.  The Assyrians were the most powerful and wealthy nation of that day, and yet God brings them to their knees.
Habakkuk – 3 chapters – Habakkuk questions God’s plan to use the Babylonians to bring judgment on Judah.  God pledges to destroy all those who worship idols, who put their trust in their wealth.  This book is a call to faith – Habakkuk ends with a prayer declaring his trust and joy in God his Savior.
Zephaniah – 3 chapters – Zepheniah prophesies against Judah for their indifference toward God’s ways and the nations for their pride in scoffing at God’s people and God Himself.  The prophet recognizes that God’s continued threats of judgment are not changing the people and looks forward to that day when their hearts will be changed because the Lord, the King of Israel, will live among them in person.
Haggai – 2 chapters – Haggai confronted the governor and high priest with the message that the Lord’s house was in ruins while the people were building their own houses.  The people and the leaders repented and God spurred their hearts to rebuild the Temple.  In response to their obedience and faith, God promised to bless them richly.
Zechariah – 14 chapters – Zechariah is full of apocalyptic imagery – flying horses, lampstands, baskets, chariots, scenes of heaven and earth – all pointing to the restoration of God’s people, God’s judgment against all of the nations (images pointing to the four corners of the earth), and the coming of the royal Branch (who will reign in Jerusalem as God’s representative).  The main message is that God has not forgotten His people in exile and that He will restore them through their coming King (9:9-17).  When the King comes, He will bring dancing and rejoicing for His people.  This book is more hopeful than the others and more focused on the coming Messiah, his betrayal and death for the cleansing of the people.
Malachi – 4 chapters – The Lord is angry with His people because they show less respect to His name than the other nations who have no covenant.  Malachi’s role is to call the people of Israel to respect and honor the name of the Lord, to not give Him empty, left-over sacrifices, but their best.  The Lord is angry at His people for breaking their vows, stealing their tithes, and ignoring His warnings.  The book ends with a group of God-fearers renewing their vow to God, and God promising to send the Son.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Book Notes: Three Books

I have been behind in posting about the books I've been reading, and before I dive into several books this week, I wanted to put out some quick reviews of three books I've read recently.  I read the first two while I was on my 10-year wedding anniversary trip to Cancun in May, and I am working my way through the third one right now with my family.

Book #1: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer-Prize for this fiction book in 2004.  I had heard some great reviews by other pastors who read it, so I picked up a used copy before I left for vacation.  The book is a compilation of first-person letters written from an elderly dying pastor to his young son.  The letters cover a wide range of topics - everything from family history to his professional life as a pastor to personal struggles.  I really enjoyed this book - probably more than most since I could relate to many of the ups and downs that the pastor faced over the years of his ministry and because I loved the quick interludes of American history throughout.  The writing is beautiful and moving throughout, and Gilead made me want to write a yearly letter to each of my children on their birthday so that I could leave them with something from me when they get older.  I don't know if I'll do it, but I should.

Book #2: With the Old Breed by EB Sledge
EB Sledge's memoir of his fighting on the front lines in the Pacific during WWII has been out for almost three decades now.  The book continues to sell well and has been introduced to a new generation of readers as the basis for HBO's WWII series called Pacific.  I have read several books about the World War II era, so nothing in Sledge's book was new to me, but his close personal encounters with war, death, disease, friendship, and honor made for incredibly gripping reading.  As we just celebrated Memorial Day 2010, book like this remind me of how blessed we are for the freedom that we enjoy.  Men like EB Sledge and many others who did not come home have served our country so bravely and sacrificed so much.  I am thankful to EB Sledge for writing his story down for generations to read.

Book #3: Training Hearts, Teaching Minds
I have always struggled to know the best tool to use to help my kids get an accurate understanding of God and His ways.  We have used different kids' Bibles and devotional books over the years, but this one by Starr Meade is my favorite (by far!).  Training Hearts, Teaching Minds is a daily family devotional guide that gives six devotions for each question in the shorter catechism.  The catechism questions are updated into modern English (which is great), and the daily devotionals are short (which is also great).  The devotionals guide your family into one or two passages each night that help the family understand the question that you are current studying as part of the catechism.  If you are in the midst of raising up kids to know and love God, I would highly encourage you to pick up this awesome tool.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Letters Topic #3: Perseverance

I like to preach about risk-taking, about being a radical disciple of Jesus Christ.  Early in my pastoral ministry, I used to think that everyone's problem in their relationship with Jesus was their lack of willingness to make sacrifices and take risks for the sake of the gospel.  Now, I am beginning to wonder if I only had part of the story.  While risky faith is important, perseverance is equally important.  It is not enough to set sail, we have to finish the journey.  The Bible has much to say about God's faithfulness toward us and His desire for us to be faithful to our commitments.  As I lead a group of Christ-followers in 2010, I notice that one of the major challenges that we face in our journey toward maturity is persevering in our commitments and being faithful to our word. This Sunday, June 6th, I will preach on how Jesus Christ can help us become a people who regularly persevere.  In anticipation of that topic, I thought I would throw out a few reasons we fail to persevere...

1) Lack of Clear Priorities - when we are not sure what is most important in our lives, we can tend to say "yes" to every opportunity that comes along.  And of course, if we say "yes" to everything, we are really saying "no" to what is most important.  We all know this in general terms, but if we have not written down explicitly what our most important priorities are, then we don't know how to evaluate all the opportunities that come our way.  In order to persevere in our commitments, we have to limit our commitments to what is MOST important.

2) Fear of man - as a follow-up to point one, we need to admit that we all struggle to say "no" when someone asks us to help.  Most of the time, it is driven by compassion and a desire to help, but sometimes it can be driven by the fear in our hearts that the person asking us may reject us and not like us anymore.  In this way, a fear of not getting man's approval can cripple our perseverance.  We are usually less willing to say "no" on the front end that we are to say "yes" at the front end and then follow it up with a "no" when we realize that we have over-committed.  I think this is because we believe other people will be more understanding if we tried to say "yes" but had to back out because of other commitments.

3) Boredom - we are an entertained people, aren't we?  It drives me crazy when one of my children goes from one activity to another and then asks me, "what's next?" as though I were their personal entertainment machine.  Yet we have all been impacted by immediate-gratification culture.  We want to enjoy something, and we want to enjoy it now!  If something bores us over time, we move on to something new.  This seems harmless when it is a video-game, but what happens when it is a spouse?  Our limited endurance for boredom has had terrible consequences in the area of personal perseverance.

4) No Vision - another reason that we give up so quickly is that we forget why we are doing what we are doing.  If we lose vision and feel like we are just going through the motions, we will quickly grow weary with the follow-through.  How many of us have signed up to do something or said 'yes' to something when we very excited only to see the passion and joy leave as we got into the long-haul?  This is so common that we even have a name for it - "burn-out."  Why does a fire burn out?  Because it loses it fuel (the wood) or can't get any more oxygen.  The fuel for perseverance is vision - remembering the big picture while we are faithful in the small details.

What are your thoughts on why perseverance is so hard?

Book Notes: Jesus Manifesto (4/5)

Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola have teamed up to write a new book about Jesus Christ.  Their work is an attempt to call the Christian community back to a exalted view of Jesus as all in all and to correct the Christian community for all the other pursuits that we have made primary over the years.  In many ways, their words are encouraging and powerful as they stirred my heart to reconsider my devotion to and connection with Christ.  In other ways, their book felt uneven (co-authorship can do that) and unnecessarily polemical (attempting to refute those who emphasize other things in their preaching and teaching).  I would have enjoyed their exalted vision of Jesus more had they not repeatedly attempted to correct the teaching of others.

As a guy who attempts to preach Christ in all that he does, I was saying "amen" to many passages in the book.  All of us can be reductionistic in our teaching (trying to say that all we need to teach is ______), and the Jesus Manifesto says that if we are going to be reductionistic in anything, it should be toward Christ.  The Scriptures do say that He is all in all, so we have justification for putting our whole attention and devotion and affection on Him.  However, Sweet and Viola don't go to the next step (which I understand is not the focus of their book) and show how an all-consuming devotion and love for Christ then impacts all the different areas of my life.  In other words, if we are not going to preach legalism or moralism or social justice or mission, then we need to show people how a passionate walk with Jesus produces morality and justice and evangelism.

Overall, this book is an attempt at a modern-day updated Christology.  How do we talk about Jesus in today's language so that we are faithful to the Bible and yet also help introduce people in our day to meet with the living Christ?  Sweet and Viola make a strong case against dry doctrinalism (just talking about Jesus instead of talking to Him), and yet their book is a doctrinal book - making the case for the biblical view of Jesus in all of His glory.  I think this is needed - I just wish they had not dogged the doctrine of Christ as less important than knowing Christ.  They are equally important.  Most cults in our culture today speak of Jesus and their relationship with Him, but they are not talking about the Jesus I know and meet with every day.  They are making Jesus in their own image, according to their own doctrine.  In order for our worship and devotion and love of Christ to not lead us into the ditch (to use the authors' language), we have to make sure that we are worshiping and loving the true Christ.  I'm afraid that most people in my generation use the name Jesus without any idea who they are talking to.

All this being said, I do want to sincerely thank Sweet and Viola for calling us back to the center of all things - Jesus Christ.  My heart is stirred to love Him more and to allow Him to live fully through me.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Questions About Sex

We had a great Sunday yesterday at church.  We usually have less people in attendance over Memorial Day weekend because so many families are traveling, but we were up yesterday - most likely because we were covering the tough topic of sex.  It seems everyone could use some help in maturing in this area of our lives.  Here are some of the many text messages that came in after I preached yesterday and my best attempt at a quick answer...

1) Will we be condemned before God if we have had sex before marriage?  Sex outside of marriage is the same as every other sin in God's economy, meaning that it does bring condemnation and death, but not any more than stealing or lying or gossiping does.  Sin is sin, and the grace of God poured out in the blood of Jesus Christ covers all sin.  Sexual sin is unique (as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:18) in some of its consequences in our own lives, but it is not unique in its consequence for our relationship with God.  When we trust Jesus as Savior, He saves us from all sin - sexual sin included.  As I said Sunday, sometime the most difficult part of moving beyond our sexual past is forgiving ourselves - in other words, believing that God's forgiveness is real.  Be encouraged - His forgiveness covers all our sin.

2) Does it cause men to struggle with purity when ladies in their life dress immodestly?  The short answer is yes.  The Bible speaks to how women dress in multiple places because women can use their physical beauty as a source of trust (an idol) that they can use to manipulate men and get what they want in life.  Men are attracted to women by sight, and since women are not attracted to men by sight (as much), they can fail to understand and appreciate how their dress can impact men.  All this being said, men cannot wait for all women to begin to dress modestly to have a mental life of purity.  Even if most of the women in our lives dress modestly, there will still be women around us (at the store, the bank, at work) who don't, and we have to develop the discipline of not lusting over those women.

3) Is adultery the only free pass to unforgiveness and divorce?  Jesus said that divorce was acceptable in situations where adultery had been committed, but He didn't say it was best or even desirable.  Divorce never fixes the situation - it simply changes the difficulties that you are dealing with.  I believe that couples can reconcile even after adultery occurs if repentance is sincere and life-change occurs.  Also, everyone needs to recognize that adultery is not a free pass to unforgiveness.  Unforgiveness is deadly to the person holding on the pain and hurt and bitterness, not the person who has hurt us.  Regardless of what someone has done to us (even including adultery), we cannot live with unforgiveness in our hearts.  We must forgive by the power of the Spirit in us.

4) What if you try to confess and talk about your past with your spouse but they don't want to hear it?  This is a great question, and actually, a very common one.  Because most of us bring sexual issues with us into our marriage relationship, we have to be wise about how we handle our past.  In my personal opinion, we need to confess in broad terms what we have done and/or experienced that will impact our sexual relationship in marriage.  However, I don't think we need to confess every detail of everything we've ever done sexually.  That would be unnecessary and painful to our spouse.  Our spouse does need to know if we've been sexually active or if we have struggled with pornography addiction, etc., but they don't need to know that on October 4, 1998, I went out with this person and we made out at the movies.  It is pointless to go into that much detail unless there is something in a specific experience (where sexual abuse or date rape, etc.) that continues to cause you pain and hurt in your sexual relationship with your spouse.

5) What is God's view on homosexuality?  Does God love his gay children as well or are they going to hell?  I am really thankful to be able to attempt an answer to this question.  I know that this is a difficult question for many people either because of their own sexual struggles or because of friends and family who have shared that they are gay.  First, we need to recognize that all people are created in the image of God and given significance and worth and value by God.  Rather than label people based on their sexual desires or orientation, we need to label all people as just people first.  I am not a straight man first.  I am just a man, created and loved by God.  Second, we need to apologize for all the terrible things that people in our tribe have said toward homosexual people.  We have many stupid, unloving people in our tribe who have held signs that have said terrible things like "God hates fags."  I hope and pray for the day that homosexual men and women can forgive us for that and take a new look at Jesus Christ.  Finally, we need to confess that the Bible does say that homosexual activity is outside the will and plan of God.  The Bible doesn't condemn homosexual desire, just like it doesn't condemn heterosexual desire.  The question is what we do with that desire.  If we use our heterosexual desire inside of marriage, then we are honoring God with it.  If we use our heterosexual desire outside of marriage, then we are not honoring God with it.  If someone has homosexual desire, then they are challenged by Scripture to live a celibate life in order to honor God with their desires.  I understand that this is difficult, but all men and women are challenged to submit their sexual desire under the lordship of Jesus, and as best as I can understand Scripture, this is what it means for men and women with homosexual desire.

6) Finally, what can we say about David and the OT kings who had all those wives?  Is God okay with multiples wives?  Another great question!  From the very beginning of the Bible (Genesis 2), God set up marriage to be between one woman and one man for life.  When Jesus and Paul speak to the issue of marriage, they go back to Genesis 2 to show that God's design and intention for marriage has never changed.  Within this bigger biblical narrative, we can see that David and the other OT kings were outside of God's plan by taking on multiple wives.  In fact, the Scriptures never glorify what they did or tell us to follow their example.  Rather, the text tells us that it was their multiple wives that led their hearts astray from the heart of God.  As they added wives from different lands who worshiped different gods, they brought idols into their homes, and their allegiance to their many wives eventually led them astray spiritually.  Instead of exalting what they did, the Bible tells that what they did was foolish and did great damage to them personally and the nation of Israel.