Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Day I'm Praying and Working to See

"One day by God's grace we may have churches full of Christians who can discuss, apply, and live the doctrinal teaching of the Bible as readily as they can discuss the details of their own jobs or hobbies--or the fortunes of their favorite sports team or television program."

~Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 14

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Justification by Death

"The prevailing notion of justification in Western culture today is justification by death. It's assumed that all one has to do to be received into the everlasting arms of God is to die."

~ R. C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross, 10

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Justin Bearclaw

Justin so enjoyed the poem I wrote him a couple years ago (he is easily pleased!), I promised him I'd do it again this year, especially since I was out of town this whole week and missed his birthday! We had a little party for him today, at which time I presented him with this new gift. He's been studying American Indians in school, so the setting seemed to fit. Enjoy!

The Indians’ food was running low.
For weeks, no deer or buffalo
Had left a track upon a land
Oppressed by winter’s icy hand.
The chief called all his warriors near,
Each armed with bow, flint knife, and spear.
He greeted them with hardened eyes
And said, “Our people’s hope now lies
With you. Be cunning, swift and strong.
You must not fail. We won’t last long.”

So just before the light of day
A dozen warriors slipped away—
Some through the woods or the long grass
In search of trails where game might pass.
But one young brave, the chief’s son, took
A path along a frozen brook
And through a canyon deep with snow
Until he found a cave below
A cliff. He climbed a nearby oak,
And wrapped tight in his fur-lined cloak.
He waited, silent, on a limb,
Alert to all surrounding him.

The noonday sun had warmed the ground
When down below he heard a sound.
He clutched his knife; he raised his spear,
And crouched as a great bear drew near.
The black bear stopped—a foreign smell…
But just then with a mighty yell
The warrior hurled his spear and leapt
Onto the creature’s back. He kept
Free of its slashing claws and teeth
And plunged his knife in just beneath
Its arm and deep into its chest.
The tribe was saved! They ate the best
Meal that night that they’d had in weeks
With songs and smiles and bulging cheeks.

Now in that land of Indian lore
They sing about a chief who wore
A necklace made from black bear paw—
The chief they call Justin Bearclaw!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Demand and the Promise of Marriage

A Gospel-Centered Wedding Address

NOTE: Last weekend I performed the wedding of two of my favorite 20-somethings, two kids who were in 9th grade when I first became a student ministries pastor. What follows is the charge I brought to them that day.

As many of you know, my wife, Aundrea, and I have known Nick and Meghan for 10 full years. Knowing them has meant growing to love them and enjoy them, and today we are humbly honored and delighted to serve them.

As I considered what to say to them on their wedding day, my mind ran back over a decade of memories—ministry trips, special moments, new developments, long talks, big decisions… 10 years worth of growing up, physically and spiritually. I remember well from 10 years ago the slender young lady with the striking voice and mischievous smile and the dark-complected young man who orbited the youth group like a planet, silent and mysterious. Watching them both grow—better said, watching God grow them—has been a privilege and a delight, and I say again that for me, to know them has been to love them and enjoy them. Now, the rest of what I’m going to say is for them, and you can listen in…

Nick and Meghan, as I pondered what to say to you both today, my thoughts took me back to the very first wedding at the very beginning of time, recorded for us in Genesis 2:

Genesis 2:18 - 25 Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him." So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man." Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his
wife, and they shall become one flesh.

These instructive words about marriage—this phenomenon of becoming one flesh—imply both a demand and a promise.

The demand of becoming one flesh is the demand of love itself, namely, complete and unconditional surrender. Love requires that we freely and gladly give up everything. Unless you are willing to surrender everything—all that you have and are and hope to be, you’re not really in love.

Before marriage, affection convinces two people that they are the most romantic couple who ever lived, that they are perfect for each other, that no two people have ever loved as they love, that they will never face a problem too great or a sacrifice too demanding for them to overcome. And then marriage comes along asks them to prove it.

Marriage asks us to prove that what we have together is something more than mere emotion, mere friendship… Marriage asks us to prove that we are truly, truly in love! How? By the complete surrender that is required for two independent people to become one indivisible unit—one flesh.

Why is it that a wedding involves sealing our love with an oath? Nick and Meghan, aren’t you both completely captivated by each other right now and eager to spend you whole lives together? So why should you bother with all the business of taking a sacred vow “before God and all these witnesses”?

Here’s why… Wedding vows are simply the natural, verbal expression of love, because real love expresses itself in real commitment. Love is less about how we feel and more about what we do. It’s an act of the will before it’s a feeling of the heart. Even though it seems like the emotions of this moment will never change, God knows that our emotions are notoriously fickle and untrustworthy! Therefore, we enter into the marriage relationship by pledging our lifelong commitment. The well-known and traditional “I do” is your affirmation of this sacred oath. It is, in a sense, your white flag of surrender as you yield to the demand of becoming one flesh.

The demand of being “one flesh” is aptly captured in Wesley’s famous line from The Princess Bride: “As you wish.” Nick, being one flesh with Meghan means that from this day forward, your attitudes and actions toward her are one life-long expression saying “As you wish.” Meghan, as you become one flesh with Nick, the banner that hangs over your life must now be “As you wish.”

To put it in biblical terms, we would go to Philippians 2:3-4: Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

The Scriptures are clear about what this means for both of you. Ephesians 5:33 instructs: Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. Nick, becoming one flesh with Meghan demands that you love and care for her in the same way you care for your own body. Meghan, the demand of being one flesh with Nick requires that you respect him. Anything less from either of you will prevent full oneness.

This is the demand of becoming one flesh. But marriage is not all demands and duties. Being one flesh also implies a promise… a great and awesome promise that God makes available to every married couple through His grace.

Becoming one flesh through marriage implies the promise of lifelong blessing from God! Think for a moment of all the blessings that your marriage promises: companionship, friendship, romance, intimacy, security, children, spiritual and personal growth, to name only a few.

Nick, Meghan, do you realize what incredible potential for joy and blessing your future together holds? The metaphor of a wilderness expedition comes to mind… Here you stand, on the brink of a lifelong journey… not a journey into the uncharted territory of some majestic mountain or island paradise—too narrow! Too bland! No, you have embarked on an expedition exploring the single most limitless entity in creation—the soul of another human being, a place of mystery so vast and delights so unimaginable, you have to see it to believe it!

In short, being one flesh is a promise of lavish and undeserved goodness from God! This day is just a foretaste… your wedding day—the day for which you’ve longed and prayed and hoped and dreamed… Is finally here! Just look around you… Isn’t God incredibly good?! And this is just a foretaste, a shadow, these opening notes of the love song of goodness that God means to play through your marriage for the rest of your life!

I think God thought up weddings just so that He could show off His lavish and bountiful goodness! I think God loves weddings. Think about this… the Bible opens with a wedding, in the story we just read of Adam and Eve. That’s quite a statement right there! And then when God’s Son Jesus came to earth, He chose to perform His first miracle at a wedding, when He turned the water into wine. But that’s not all… The Bible also comes to a close with a wedding, as Jesus takes His blood-bought people to Himself and makes them His bride for all of eternity. Weddings form the inspired bookends to all of human history!

Why does God love weddings? Here’s why… because marriage provides a sublime metaphor for the profound good news He wants all people to hear. What good news? This… The paradise of the Garden of Eden, though it was lost by humanity’s fall into sin, has been restored.

At that first wedding God saw something that he said was “not good”—Adam’s aloneness, and so He fixed it by creating Eve and making her one flesh with Adam. But these days the problem is much bigger than Adam being alone. Our whole world is filled with sin and its awful effects.

God looked into this fallen, messed up world and once again said, “It is not good.” Humanity’s sin had destroyed the paradise God intended this world to be, and worse than that, our sin has separated us from our good God, filled us with guilt, and aroused His anger against us. We can see all around and inside us that God is right: “It is not good.”

This time, God’s solution wasn’t to create a woman. It was to send a man into the world, THE Man, His own perfect Son, Jesus. And after 30+ years of living sinlessly, how we were supposed to live, Jesus died painfully, paying the penalty for sin that we were supposed to pay.

God’s verdict of “it is not good” has been reversed in Jesus! Just like He brought Eve to Adam, God brings Jesus to us. And like Adam, we must say, “This is good! This is what we need!” Jesus fixes our ruined world and removes our guilt and brings us back to God so that we can be made one, not with each other this time, but with God Himself!

The demand of oneness was satisfied—Jesus offered Himself in complete surrender. The blessing of oneness is offered freely to us, if we entrust ourselves to Jesus as our only hope of being restored to God.

Nick and Meghan, this wedding will make you one flesh, and being one flesh extends a demand and a blessing. But remember this: both the demand and the blessing of oneness don’t begin here today, at the altar, in your wedding. They began on the cross, with Jesus Christ your Savior. This day is a reminder of that day.

And this day is also a foretaste of the awesome and final wedding day when we will enjoy being brought into perfect fellowship, intimate oneness, with our Savior, Jesus Christ!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Did God Create Evil?

Another Email Q&A

Got this question in an email earlier this week. Here's my answer:

Well, it’s not a simple yes/no answer. On the one hand, you have the logic of God’s role as Creator and Designer of all things which almost requires us to say that, yes, in some sense, God created/planned the existence of evil in our world. Verses like Isaiah 45:7 put Scriptural foundation underneath that logic: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” Pretty hard to make that go away.

But then you have the truth on the other side that God is not evil, all He does is good, and He couldn’t possibly be the direct cause of something He Himself forbids. You have verses like James 1:13 to support that idea: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”

So my answer is a good, solid “No.” And “Yes.” No, in the sense that He cannot be charged with wrongdoing or held responsible as the direct cause for sinful, evil things in our world. But yes in the sense that all that happens is part of His pre-ordained plan; His plan works in perfect harmony with the personal choices of His free creatures; and ultimately He must be seen as the ultimate reason for all things that have happened, are happening, and ever will happen.

In attempting to say “No, God doesn’t cause evil in any sense whatsoever,” some people suggest that He simply knows what is going to happen and He allows some evil things. I have two questions for these folks.

1) (related to “God knows it”) How is God’s “knowing” that something is going to happen all that different from His “causing” it to happen? To explain what I mean, here’s an example… this morning I had a bowl of grapefruit with my breakfast instead of a banana. God certainly knew I was going to have the grapefruit rather than the banana; and if you think about it, just by KNOWING what I was going to choose, He guaranteed it was going to happen that way. Even though I felt free to choose banana or grapefruit, there was never really any option because the future was already all mapped out in His mind before it ever happened. So the problem isn’t solved by saying “God knew about it, but He didn’t cause it,” because the mere fact that He knew it was coming guaranteed that it would come. Of course, some people object, “Yeah, He knew it, but He didn’t cause it. He just allowed it.” Next question…

2) (related to “God allows it”) If the all-powerful God knows something bad is going to happen and He allows it anyway instead of stopping it, isn’t He guilty of at least negligence, like a police officer who stands passively by while a civilian gets mugged? In other words, saying “He allows it” doesn’t really get Him off the hook in any truly meaningful way. For anyone who disagrees, I would suggest they talk with a skeptic of Christianity and see if the skeptic is really satisfied by an all-powerful God who COULD step in and stop evil but chooses not to. That God sounds like a cold-hearted jerk who acts like it’s not his problem. It’s obviously not a truly helpful answer.

This is still true even when it comes to the “free will” answer that says, “God preserves our free will; that’s why He doesn’t prevent evil things that we choose to do.” That answer doesn’t help, because not all evil is caused by human free will – e.g., the 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, etc. Some really bad things happen without any people involved whatsoever, and so we still have to answer the question, “What did God have to do with this?” Saying “He just allowed it; He didn’t cause it” makes me wonder what kind of God He must be, if He could have stopped it and simply chose not to.

My brother-in-law's cancer is a very personal and very real example here. If God simply “allowed” it when He could have stopped or prevented it all along, I have to ask why He doesn’t love my neice and nephew enough to prevent the horrible pain of losing their daddy. But if in some sense He actually brought it about deliberately as part of His great but mysterious plan to bless and increase their sense of His love in the long run, that’s a God I think I’ve seen reflected in my own experience as a child – suffering short-term pain and loss from my father in order to experience greater joy and blessing in the long run.

If all this seems very troubling and confusing, take heart, because your question deals with probably the largest and most perplexing issue that has faced Christianity for its entire existence—the classic “problem of evil.” We are hardly the first ones to ask the question, and we won’t be the last. And men and women far brighter than we are have struggled and argued and written books by the score trying to answer it.

The ultimate answer is, I think, that He is God and we are not, and we just plain can’t figure out everything about Him or the universe He has created.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Who's Number One in Heaven?

An Email Exchange with a Friend

I've obviously moved blogging down on my list of priorities. I'm a husband, dad, pastor, and friend before I'm a blogger, so what I'm going to have to do is relegate blogging to those leftover corners of my life and write only as the occasion presents itself.

That said, I received an email this morning from one of the high school students at our church following up on a conversation he and I had after my sermon yesterday. He asked:

Stated bluntly, will there be any one person that will be rewarded as the "best" Christian or the like in heaven? I've heard people support or allude to this concept in many places, and it seems to be at least slightly supported by 1 Cor 9:24, which is still confusing me. I don't know if you've ever heard people talk about the whole idea of "everyone's cup running over in heaven, but some people having bigger cups" or something of that sort, but I'd appreciate any insight into it you can give me.

Thanks for discussing this with me!

I answered:
Sure, I'm happy to discuss these things with you. And please understand that I'm a learner along with you. Where the Scriptures are perfectly clear, we can both have certainty. Where they are less clear, we have room to come to our own understanding. I think this issue of rewards or "the best" in heaven is probably one of those latter areas, although we do have some data here and there in the Bible to guide our thinking.

Our labors for Christ are definitely recognized in heaven. Rewards are promised. But ultimately, I understand all of the rewards to be centered on God's glory rather than ours. In other words, the rewards must come to us in such a way that they highlight His grace rather than our own strength or self-sacrifice or spiritual success or whatever.

Notice, for example, that Paul never says "thank you" to anyone directly. He always says "I thank God for you..." or something similar (cf. Rom 1:8, 1 Cor 1:14, 1 Cor 14:18, Phil 1:3, Col 1:3, 1 Thes 2:13, 1 Tim 1:12, 2 Tim 1:3, Philemon 1:4). That’s a subtle difference but a telling one, I think. It's a way of offering praise that doesn't terminate on the person but goes all the way up to God. Why does he do that? I assume it's because Paul recognizes that 1) all praise belongs to God and 2) all the qualities that he is thankful for in these people ultimately come from God. In other words, this is an example of a verbal reward that ultimately brings praise to God rather than to people. They do get thanked, but in a way that emphasizes God's greatness and not their own.

But the question lingers... is there anything about heaven's rewards that actually enhances our own life or reputation? Is there anything meaningful and personal in it for me? I would say "yes" but I would still frame the reward up in a way that ultimately centers on God Himself. Here's how I look at it...

The ultimate good of heaven is God Himself. He's what makes it paradise. If we lost all the streets of gold, the pearly gates, the tree of life, the reunions with loved ones, etc., heaven would still be heaven as long as HE was there. But if He left, all of those other great features would not matter. In other words, being with Him is what makes eternity so awesome for a Christian. In this sense, HE is the ultimate reward.

But how then does one Christian get a better reward than any other Christian? If we all get to be with God, what's the sense in striving to be "the best," as you put it? I would suggest that though we all will be with God forever, some of us will experience Him more deeply and more fully than others will. It's not that He Himself is any different from one person to the next; it's just that each person's CAPACITY to enjoy and experience Him is different.

Analogies exist in this life right now. For example, if you and I were to attend a computer show together, we could see the same presentations, try out the same new software and hardware, hear the same previews of new technology, etc. I like technology, and I have a decent grasp of what it can do. But because you are so much more versed in computers than I am, your appreciation of the whole show would be much greater than mine. You would have a much greater understanding of the programming skill it took to come up with some of this stuff. You would be able to grasp ramifications and uses for new technology much more quickly than I. Overall, the computer show itself hasn't changed at all, but your experience of it would be so much greater than mine because you are much more knowledgeable and skillful in that area than I am.

It applies to just about all areas of life. You might picture it like little storage boxes in our heart and mind with little labels on them: "Computers," "Music," "Sports," etc. The more experience and knowledge you have in each area, the bigger your storage box gets. Ultimately, when you have a new experience in some category, the bigger your box is, the more of that experience you can take in and enjoy. Objectively, it’s the same experience for everybody, but subjectively each person's appreciation of it differs based on the size of their internal box.

Same with heaven... those who have given their whole life to serving and knowing Christ will get to heaven and enjoy God SO much more deeply than others, not because God is different from person to person but because the way they lived their life has given them a much bigger "God box" than other people have and so they can take in much more of Him than others can. This understanding of rewards fits together three things: 1) each person gets rewarded based upon how he/she lived, 2) the reward is still very satisfying to us personally, and 3) the reward brings glory to God since He Himself is the ultimate object of our satisfaction.

That's how I see it anyway. What do you think?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Waiting... [updated]

RE: Ordinary People Making Extraordinary Claims

I have a flurry of new posts I'll probably put up on the blog tonight... posts I wrote earlier this week but I've been saving in the hope that I'll get a few more comments on my question from Friday.
[UPDATE: This has been done, but they are all postdated to the day I originally wrote them. Check 'em out below. 11:29 PM MST]

Special thanks to everybody who has commented thus far. It's been helpful for me to think through your answers as I try to formulate my own. I'm not sure I'm there yet, but I'm going to posit my answer tomorrow.

So... what would YOU say if a skeptic of Christianity asked you: "If your Christ has not succeeded in making you better men and women, have we any reason to suppose that he would do more for us, if we became Christians?"

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Bedtime Stories and the Bible

Why Christianity Requires Storytelling

One night when I was putting my boys to bed in their little one-room barracks (4 boys + 2 sets of bunk beds + 1 dresser = huge mess), I heard the inevitable plea: “Dad, would you tell us a story, PLEASE?” It had pretty much become part of our bedtime routine: lights out, prayer, kisses, story. Usually, it took me a minute or two to work one up because they didn’t want just any old story. They wanted a “Grandma and Grandpa Story”—a story about my life as a kid, complete with appearances by my brother and sisters, our various pets, the places we grew up, and on and on. It had to be true, and it had to be new.

Apparently I had fallen into a boring and predictable opening for my G&G stories, but only one of my boys noticed it: our four-year-old jokester, Braidin. But he didn’t just come right out and tell me I was getting dull. Instead, on this particular night when someone asked, “Dad, would you please tell us a story?”, his quick little wit went into action. Before I could launch into my latest and greatest tale, he butted in and, lowering his voice like mine, he began with my predictable line: “Well, one time…”

He stopped right there, but the other boys were already giggling and wiggling under their blankets. Of course, I laughed, too, appreciating both his keen observation and his comical style. He was funny, and in his own little way, he was making a good point: “boring” and “story” shouldn’t go together.

Everybody loves a good story. Postmodernism, with its schmaltzy enthusiasm for “narratives” over against propositions, hasn’t stumbled upon anything new or profound here. People have always been this way. No matter where or when they live(d), people of all ages love stories. Yesterday I picked up three new books at the library—all fiction. Why? Because I, too, love a good story.

I’m pondering storytelling for a couple reasons. First, I’m having a very hard time preaching these days. We are studying through the book of Acts at our church, and I’m finding it very tough to write good sermons on the great stories in this book. I think a major part of the problem is my badly conceived notion that a sound, expositional sermon has to frame up the text in a number of distinct propositions that make a nice outline. “Point one: Jesus sees the lame man. Point two: Jesus speaks to the lame man. Point three: Jesus heals the lame man. Conclusion: A poem about lameness.” How lame. (This isn't a real outline of mine, but the point is I need some help badly!)

I bought four books today about how to preach narratives. Hopefully, help is on the way! I need to get this figured out, because well over half of God’s word has been revealed in narrative form. Theological storytelling is what it is really, and I believe it calls for a type of preaching that honors the form in which it was originally given. God could have revealed all our theology in abstractions like an encyclopedia of systematic theology, but He didn’t. I think good preaching will honor that, not only in how the passage is interpreted but also in how it is presented. That’s my theory anyway; I just need help working it out practically.

The other reason I’m interested in storytelling right now is that I’m seeing more and more how the whole Bible is one big story. One conflict: sin ruined God’s good creation. One plot: God redeems a people for Himself. One Hero: Jesus Christ. One resolution: the cross.

In other words, the Bible isn’t a collection of nice little tales about heroic feats and noble characters. It’s not like Aesop’s Fables—a bunch of random stories each with a helpful little moral at the end. No, the Bible tells one unified Story—the Story of redemption. Sometimes the Bible’s main Story develops in a straight line, as new details are revealed and the plot slowly moves forward. And sometimes the Bible’s main Story moves in a circle, retelling the same plot with foreshadowing or typology.

Many narratives in the Bible actually do both: they move the main Story’s plot forward (in a line) and rehearse its basic features (in a circle) at the same time. For example, the story of David defeating Goliath does both: it shows us a little bit more of what Jesus will be like in the person of David (moving the Story along a line), and it also retells the main Story where God’s people are delivered from their enemy by a single Champion (moving the Story around a circle). It adds to the Story and retells the Story at the same time.

If this is all just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to you, I’ll try to clear it up by offering this excellent analogy from professor Bruce Waltke:

The Rainbow Bridge spanning Niagara Falls began as a kite. Those building the bridge flew a kite across the majestic waterway, until it came down on the other side of the gorge, linking the two sides with a thin string. Using the string, its builders pulled strings, then ropes, and eventually steel girders across the gorge. The more the bridge changed, the more it became what it was always meant to be.

The kite string represents, you might say, Genesis’ description of salvation, while the rest of Scripture represents the developing bridge—first strings, then ropes, then steel girders.

So, I hope you’ll learn to approach the Bible as one great story, THE great story, the Classic of all classics. And if you tend to shy away from fiction as somehow less spiritual than theology, let me encourage you to reconsider. Read good stories. Tell great stories.

I believe we love stories because we were hard-wired by God that way. He put a love for stories within us because He Himself is the Great Storyteller, the Master Author who wrote the ultimate Story, the Creator who designed us in such a way that we cannot help but be captivated and changed by the greatest Story ever told.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Dessert Discipleship

How Ice Cream and Good Questions Help My Parenting

I love being a dad. My kids are one of the clearest ways God has shown His lavish kindness and blessing to me. Now please understand, Aundrea and I have five children—four boys and a girl—so you can be sure that having kids doesn’t always make us feel lavishly loved and blessed by God! Sometimes it’s pretty rough going, but we know by faith (cf. Ps 127:3) and by experience that children are a gift and parenting is a privilege.

About once a week I take one of my sons out for ice cream after supper. We usually head over to Carl’s Jr. or McDonalds, where we get a booth and just hang out for 45 minutes or so. It gives me a chance to affirm my love for them verbally and nonverbally, to praise them for areas of growth Aundrea and I have seen in their life, to talk with them about concerns we have about their character and behavior, to ask them about their relationship with us and with the Lord, to counsel them about significant issues in a young boy’s life (like choosing friends, honoring girls, respecting adults, working hard in school, etc.), and just to make sure we’re still connected as father and son. I think it’s an important habit even with our three-year-old, because even though my discussions with him don’t get much deeper than how cool it is that hot fudge sundaes can be both hot and cold at the same time, we are forming the habit of talking one-on-one on a regular basis; and I think that is going to be a really crucial foundation for us when he’s older and we really do have some important things to discuss.

I want to make these little chats as meaningful as they can be for my boys, so I’m always looking for tips and ideas. Last weekend at the DG Conference, John Piper mentioned a list of questions for drawing out your kids and shepherding their heart. The list was originally developed by Rick Gamache, a friend of Piper’s who also pastors in the Minneapolis area. Here’s the list, for those interested:

• How are your devotions?
• What is God teaching you?
• In your own words, what is the gospel?
• Is there a specific sin you’re aware of that you need my help defeating?
• Are you more aware of my encouragement or my criticism?
• What’s daddy most passionate about?
• Do I act the same at church as I do when I’m at home?
• Are you aware of my love for you?
• Is there any way I’ve sinned against you that I’ve not repented of?
• Do you have any observations for me?
• How am I doing as a dad?
• How have Sunday’s sermons impacted you?
• Does my relationship with mom make you excited to be married?

(HT: Justin Taylor)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Monday Quotables

From Mark Dever's The Gospel & Personal Evangelism

"I think many times we don't evangelize because we undertake everything in our own power. We attempt to leave God out of it. We forget that it is his will and pleasure for his gospel to be known. He wants sinners saved." (p 24)

"We share the gospel because we love people. And we don't share the gospel because we don't love people. Instead, we wrongly fear them. ...We protect our pride at the cost of their souls." (p 27)

"When we don't sufficiently consider what God has done for us in Christ—the high cost of it, what it means, and what Christ’s significance is—we lose the heart to evangelize.” (p 28)

“The good news is that the one and only God, who is holy, made us in his image to know him. But we sinned and cut ourselves off from him. In his great love, God became a man in Jesus, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross, thus fulfilling the law himself and taking on himself the punishment for the sins of all those who would ever turn and trust in him. He rose again from the dead, showing that God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and that God’s wrath against us had been exhausted. He now calls us to repent of our sins and to trust in Christ alone for our forgiveness. If we repent of our sins and trust in Christ, we are born again into a new life, an eternal life with God.
“Now that’s good news.” (p 43)

“The love that the New Testament community of believers shared is presented as an integral part of their witness to the world, as we see in John 13:34-35. …In fact, the outworking of faith through the community of a local church seems to be Jesus’ most basic evangelism plan.” (p 50)

“It’s not manipulative or insensitive to bring up the urgent nature of salvation. It’s simply the truth. The time of opportunity will end.” (p 58)

“Clarity with the claims of Christ certainly will include the translation of the gospel into words that our hearer understands, but it doesn’t necessarily mean translating it into words that our hearer will like.” (p 64)

“It is important to remember that the message you are sharing is not merely an opinion but a fact. That’s why sharing the gospel can’t be called an imposition, any more than a pilot can impose his belief on all his passengers that the runway is here and not there.” (p 70)

“An account of a changed life is a wonderful and inspiring thing, but it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ that explains what it’s all about and how it happened. And it's the gospel that turns sharing a testimony into evangelism.” (p 73)

“We don’t fail in our evangelism if we faithfully tell the gospel to someone who is not converted; we fail only when we don’t faithfully tell the gospel at all.” (pp 81-82)

“As we so experience the gospel, we find ourselves loving others more, and we want to share this good news with them.” (p 100)

“Ultimately, our motive in evangelism must be a desire to see God glorified.” (p 101)

“As one Puritan said, ‘Outside of Christ, God is terrible.’” (p 103)

“You and I aren’t called to use our extensive powers to convict and change the sinner while God stands back as a gentleman, quietly waiting for the spiritual corpse, his declared spiritual enemy, to invite God into his heart. Rather, we should resolve to preach the gospel like gentlemen, persuading while knowing we can’t regenerate anyone, and then stand back while God uses all his extensive powers to convict and change the sinner.” (p 109)

“When the message of the cross captures your heart, then your tongue—stammering, halting, insulting, awkward, sarcastic, and imperfect as it may be—won’t be far behind. As Jesus said, ‘Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Matt. 12:34).” (p 112)

In an appendix to pastors at the end: “Certainly, we pastors sacrifice personal opportunities to do evangelism when we work full-time in ministry. We are, in a sense, willing to be pulled behind the front lines in order to equip others. We realize the front lines of the contest, the ‘skin’ of the church, if you will, is represented by the members of the local congregation after they leave church on Sunday. It is then, throughout the week, that the church presses in on the kingdom of darkness as believers live out their callings around hundreds or even thousands of non-Christians each week. It is our task as pastors to lead all believers in accepting, embracing, and using the opportunities that God richly gives them. In all of this, we should work not so much merely to implement programs as to create a culture in our church. We want our congregations to be marked by a culture of evangelism. In order to do that, we are going to have to watch how many nights we encourage our members to be doing some program at church. We must give our members time to develop friendships with non-Christians.” (p 118)

Friday, October 05, 2007

Ordinary People Making Extraordinary Claims

What Is a Real Christian?

A while back I was troubled to read a certain exchange between a Christian missionary and a Hindu. The Hindu complained: "You Christians seem to us Hindus rather ordinary people making extraordinary claims."

When the missionary replied that the extraordinary claims are made about Christ, not about us, the Hindu replied: "If your Christ has not succeeded in making you better men and women, have we any reason to suppose that he would do more for us, if we became Christians?"


My original plan with this post was to launch off into a discussion of the essence of real Christianity. Is it just about being made "better men and women"? Is that the heart of our faith, the irreducible minimum of what it means to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth?

But instead of pontificating away and pretending like I've got it all figured out and you need to learn from me, I think I'm going to leave the question unanswered. It will be far more thought provoking for all of us that way.

I'm going to take some more time and just ponder. I'd love it if you'd think along with me, reflect a little bit about your own life, and consider some ways this Hindu's comment is about you. And I'd really love it if you'd leave a response in the comments section about how you would answer this criticism that Christians are just ordinary people making extraordinary claims.

Come on, be brave! Leave your first comment EVER on a blog right here, right now, today!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Being Relevant

Why “New” Just Doesn’t Cut It

“I have always loved this particular hymn [‘Fairest Lord Jesus’], and though written in 1677, its message is still relevant today.”

I balked when I read those words in the booklet of a recently released hymns CD. What is it about our Christian culture that equates “new” with “relevant”? Just listen to the voices in the Christian market. We are obsessed with everything novel, fresh, different, innovative, and original. The ads, the local church promotions, the programs… Last week I heard a Christian radio DJ gush: “Coming up next, a sizzling set of hot new releases so fresh, they will rock your world for Jesus.” *yawn*

The conference Aundrea and I attended last weekend reminded me once again that relevant isn’t always new. Helen Roseveare is 82. Jerry Bridges is 77. John MacArthur is 68. John Piper is 61. In my assessment, the relevance of each speaker’s talk increased in proportion to their age. Perhaps we should suspect that the newer a thing is, the more risk it has of being irrelevant.

Reminds me of a book by Os Guinness I read a couple years ago: Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance. Just three pages into the Introduction, he writes:

After two hundred years of earnest dedication to reinventing the faith and the church and to being more relevant in the world, we are confronted by an embarrassing fact: Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant.

Ouch! Tough words. But if newness isn’t the answer, what is?

Guinness isn’t just a stone-throwing critic. He’s also a man who deeply loves the church and wants to offer remedies, too. He answers the question of how to find relevance with one word: faithfulness.
By our uncritical pursuit of relevance we have actually courted irrelevance; by our breathless chase after relevance without a matching commitment to faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine ourselves in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ, we have lost not only our identity but our authority and our relevance. Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant.
In context, he is talking specifically about faithfulness to the gospel message. In other words, redefining and recasting the gospel in new and “relevant” ways is not the key. Relevance is not found by emphasizing those elements of the gospel that resonate with the culture and then excluding the rest—for example, making Jesus out to be the missing ingredient to a life of peace, joy, and prosperity and neglecting to mention that He demands repentance and He promises suffering.

It’s hopeless for us to try to sound relevant by singing a little harmony to the world’s same old melody. But that’s exactly what we do when we try to make Jesus the answer to a godless person’s same old idolatrous pursuits. When we reduce the gospel to “Want happiness? Try Jesus,” we’ve basically paraphrased every single product ad on the market. We’ve just swapped Jesus in for cosmetic surgery or a new condo.

How about if we offer them new goals entirely? A whole new paradigm to live from? A paradigm where they live for God rather than self, motivated by His grace rather than by their emptiness or guilt, and pursuing His awesome goals rather than their trivial ones.

Only the real, whole, unedited, unadulterated, unmodified, old school message of the gospel offers people something that relevant.

The gospel is relevant because it tunes people in to a Person bigger than themselves, and everybody longs to get themselves around true greatness. The gospel says, “It’s not all about you. It’s about God.”

It’s relevant because it turns people on to a cause bigger than their own happiness, namely, the unstoppable advance of God’s eternal kingdom on this earth; and everybody longs to live for something truly meaningful. The gospel says, “Forget your pitiful attempts at empire building, and come live for a cause that even hell can’t stop and even eternity won’t erase.”

It’s relevant because it confirms that haunting sense that we are not what we should be—it tells us we are sinful rebels against our Creator King. The gospel says, “Those whispers you hear inside are correct; you are guilty.”

It’s relevant because it assures us that our Creator King freely offers amnesty to all His rebellious subjects who will turn from their sin and flee to Him for mercy. The gospel says, “Full forgiveness, a clean conscience, and peace with your King can be yours… for free.”

And it’s relevant because it explains how the laws of the universe have not been violated by this stunning offer of forgiveness, but instead God’s justice was satisfied in the death of His Son so that His mercy can flow to His blood-bought children. The gospel says, “God’s wrath against you was fully spent, not withheld, but on His Son instead of upon you.”

Is it new? Nope. Been around for several thousand years. It’s just the old, old story that (as Mark Driscoll puts it) people suck, but God saves us from ourselves. And you can’t get much more relevant than that!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Power of an Indestructible Life

A Meditation on Hebrews 7:16

This verse has captivated me for a long time. The paragraphs around it aren't easy reading, but they aren't total misers with their spiritual treasure either. They will yield and yield richly, if you read and think and pray long enough.

The subject in view is the priesthood, those men who mediated between God and His people. Granted, it's not exactly a common topic in our culture, but the point is still very relevant: namely, if we have any sense of God's transcendence, we innately sense the need for help when we have to deal with Him. Mysterious things can be attractive and intriguing, but when they possess awesome power and present potential danger, they can be very frightening. It's very nice to know we have a representative, an advocate, a defense lawyer, if you will.

And when it comes to priests, Jesus is the best of the best.

Here's the writer's argument in a nutshell: He points out that Jesus is from the tribe of Judah, which is an aberration on the Old Testament pattern: Levi was the tribe of the priests, not Judah (7:13-14). But that's OK, because Jesus is from a different order of priests. He doesn't follow Levi; he follows a guy called Melchizedek (7:11-12, 15-16). The writer of Hebrews finds it very significant that Melchizedek has no recorded birth or death—he just appears out of nowhere like an immortal (7:3). (More on that in a moment.)

I just love the wording of verse 16, where the writer brings his point home:

Jesus has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent [like the Levitical priesthood], but by the power of an indestructible life.
Like Melchizedek, our Priest had no beginning or end, but the writer uses this great language to convey that image: "the power of an indestructible life"!

In other words, when it comes to priests, Jesus is the best of the best. What an awesome Christ!

Hebrews 7 conjures up in my mind some sort of tryouts or a kind of "Priestly Application Station." I have this picture in my mind of some sort of check-in area with a booth, a sign-in register, a guy behind the counter, and stuff like that. All these men are coming in and signing up to be priests: "Yeah, I'm here to sign up..." "Descendant of Levi?" "Yep." "Sign in below and take a number, please."

Then Jesus walks up: "I'm here."
"Family of Levi?"
"I'm sorry, sir. Priests must be from the family of Levi."
"Oh, I'm not here for that line of priests. I'm here to sign up with the immortal, eternal ones. The ones like Melchizedek. Some Roman soldiers slaughtered me three days ago, but I'm back."
"Uhhh... How's that again?"
"I can't die. They tried to kill me, but my life is indestructible."
Long pause. "Thank you, sir."
Turning to the rest of the room: "You all can return home. The priesthood isn't accepting any more applications. We have the One we need, thank you."

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Unrelated Thoughts of Debatable Coherence

I thought about shutting down the blog today, but my wife talked me out of it. One of the effects of last weekend's conference was to cause me to examine how I am using my time. I judge blogging to be of low relative value; she judges it to be high. She wins. I blog on.

Speaking of blogging and last weekend's conference, I'm intending to do a "Monday Quotables" of lines that caught my attention - verbal incendiary bombs, if you will. Stay tuned.

Still speaking of the conference, it was very encouraging to see former classmates from college (and even two from high school) there. It caused me to reflect on what a work of grace God has done among my friends. It's amazing and wonderful to me that so many of my classmates are still walking with the Lord and serving Him faithfully.

We're heading up into the mountains again later this week. A couple friends are visiting, and we're going to show 'em a good time, Colorado style!

Speaking of little ventures into The Wild, I posted some new pictures of our last trip in the post from a few weeks ago. Check 'em out! ...and then get yourself some plane tickets out here for your own visit!

Still speaking of our last visit to the mountains, here's another picture. Although I refuse to turn this blog into a family photo album (not that I have anything against blogs like that - this just isn't that kind of blog!), I can't help but post this one of me and my precious little girl. We were hiking along a trail at an elevation of 12,000', and it was pretty cold and windy so I tucked her inside my coat and zipped her in. Must have been pretty comfy in there, because she fell right asleep and dozed all the way up and back! Special thanks to the friendly photographer we met along the way who snapped this picture (and the ones I added to that other post below).

The sky is incredibly clear here today. Because our church building is perched atop a sizeable hill, I can see the mountains all the way from the Fort Collins area in the north nearly to Pueblo in the south - around 175 miles. It's stunning. Did I already say something about plane tickets and a visit?

My son got his stitches out yesterday. We're working hard to keep his forehead from scarring (no scratching, daily applications of Vitamin E oil, etc.), but it occurred to me today that he might grow up looking a bit like Harry Potter. That's cool with me, as long as the resemblance ends right there.

Earlier today I sent my wife a text saying, "Callify me when you canify." Weird, I know, but at the time of the text I was working over a memory from my college days. Student Activities Director Rich Akins pointed out to me that you can turn any noun into a verb - and sound rather intellectual in the process - by adding "-ify" or "-ize" to it.

"Honey, would you please bagify my lunch?"
"This room is dark. We'd better chandelierize it."
"Someday I'd like to bookify all these great thoughts of mine."

Friday, September 28, 2007

Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints

My Plans for the Weekend

Aundrea and I are headed to Minneapolis for the Desiring God National Conference this weekend, and are we ever looking forward to it! Want to know why? Here are a few reasons for starters:

1. The theme. Endurance isn't applauded much these days. The method of choice for 21st century Americans to improve their lives is to change something: upgrade, trade in, relocate, divorce, enhance. Who ever lists endurance as a personal value? As John Piper writes in his conference invitation: "A long, hard, steady, hold-the-course obedience is a rare and wonderful thing."

2. The speakers. John MacArthur, who has persevered at a single church for almost four decades; Jerry Bridges, who has suffered the illness and death of his first wife; Randy Alcorn, who has endured significant cultural oppression for his pro-life activism; Helen Roseveare, who has served in missions ministry and recruitment for over 50 years; and John Piper, who has endured a thing or two in his own 60+ years and still seems to speak to whatever subject with heated, Christ-centered passion.

3. The corporate worship. Desiring God's lead musicians and worshipers always help us see and savor the supremacy of Jesus Christ.

4. The opportunity to enjoy some spiritual meals together as a pastoral team. Pastors need to be pastored, too, and Bret and I are anticipating some rich nourishment this weekend!

5. Continuing something of a tradition. Aundrea and I have attended this conference three of the five years it has been held. I know many pastors who have never attended a conference with their wife even once. I pity those men.

6. Three whole days with my wife and without kids. Enough said!

Pray for us! We'll tell you how it went when we get back.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

What I Do vs. What I Believe, Part 2

The Alluring Alternatives to Everyday Faith

In last Friday’s post I asserted that we all show exactly what we believe by how we live. It’s a mistake, in other words, to try to change what we do to match up with what we believe. What we do already matches what we believe. Our actions never contradict our real beliefs; they simply manifest them.

Suggest whatever example or hypothetical scenario you’d like. Let’s say a pro-life couple decides to get an abortion for financial reasons. Are they really and truly pro-life? Hardly. Their actions prove what they believe: that they value financial security more than their baby’s life.

Or the guy who sings to God, “Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that you’re my God, you’re altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me” and then never cracks his Bible or prays for the rest of the week. Does that dude really believe God is completely lovely and worthy and wonderful? Not if he doesn’t even have the desire to seek God outside of a church building.

So far, so good. We live what we believe.

But here’s what has me really puzzled. Why do my actions so often show that I don't really believe what I say I believe? What are the greatest hindrances to believing, and thus living, what I say I believe? There are probably lots of answers, but I’ve been especially convicted about three.

NOTE: Even though I’m writing this to you, I’ve left these musings in the first person because this post is a sort of journal entry for me. Hopefully, you might catch a glimpse of yourself here, too, as you peer over my shoulder while I look into the mirror of God’s word a bit…

1. I live by feelings more than by faith. More often than I care to admit, I am "feelingful" instead of faithful. Some of these "feelings" are genuine emotions; others are just plain old desires. For example, if I don't feel like (read: "want to") reading my Bible, I'm easily tempted not to. The point is, it’s easier to live by what I feel rather than what I say I believe. Or, to put it another way, I tend to believe my feelings more than I believe God. The problem lies in what I believe.

2. I also tend to live for the present more than the future. Sure, I am aware that God says sin is bad for me, but that seems so doubtful when I'm caught up in the dailyness of life. After all, sin doesn’t usually bring immediate consequences. That means I can sin and seem to get away with it—no retribution from God, no apparent consequences in my life… all is well. Or so it appears…

Why? Because when I say “all is well,” what I really mean is “all is well right this moment, at least as far as I can tell.” But what I fail to realize is that all is NOT well in the bigger picture. For example, my sinful coveting is setting me up for financial disaster, or my sinful anger is fracturing my relationships, or my sinful laziness is beginning to get noticed by my employer, or my sinful lust for approval is weakening my ability to stand for the truth. Disaster is right around the corner; but since I can’t see it, I don’t really believe it. The present seems so much more real to me than the future. Or, to put it another way, I tend to believe my experience of the present more than I believe God’s prediction of the future. Once again, the problem lies in what I believe.

3. Finally, I live by my assessment of myself more than the Bible's assessment of me. In other words, I tend to rationalize away verses that correct me, rather than see them as indictments of me personally. I’m quite an expert at this game of making excuses for myself and slowly squeeeeezing out from under the pressure of conviction.

I apply some verses to other people: "Give money? That's for people who actually have some extra." Or I excuse myself on the basis of a good heart: "Disciple my kids? Well, I really want to do that. Is that good enough?" Or I postpone my obedience: "Witness? I will, when unsaved people begin dropping into my life." Or I present God with conditions: "Ask for my wife's forgiveness? OK, I will, right after she asks me for mine."

In other words, I often fail to live out what I say I believe because I excuse my behavior as “not the real me.” Or, to put it another way, I tend to believe my own excuses for my sinful actions more than I believe God’s indictment of my sinful actions. Yet once more, the problem lies in what I believe.

If you’re still reading, I’m impressed. I’m also indebted to offer you a solution. What should we do if any of these false beliefs have captured our own soul?

Three suggestions:
1) Get in the word. To paraphrase Romans 10:17, “True belief arises in our heart through hearing the word of God.”
2) Pray for faith. Be like the man who asked Jesus for a miracle, and when Jesus asked if he believed, he pleaded: “I believe! But help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24)
3) Connect to others. As Hebrews 3:13 recommends: “You must warn each other every day, while it is still ‘today,’ so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God.” It’s much easier to be deceived along the way when you’re walking it alone.

Do you really believe that what you believe is really real? If not, what are you believing instead? And more importantly, how do you plan to change it?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Temporal Suffering vs. Eternal Joy

Viewing the Pain of Earth Through the Eyes of Heaven

I had a different post planned for today, but this afternoon I read through tears the news of a young couple who lost their full-term daughter the day before she was due to be born. I only met this young father once at a conference a few years ago, but I have prayed for him earnestly because I know very well the expectant hopes and joys of fatherhood. And since yesterday’s mishap with my own son, I’ve been especially aware of the fragility of our lives and the importance of grounding our joy in something other than prosperous circumstances.

One of the very first subjects I addressed as a new pastor was suffering, not because I want to ruin people’s joy but precisely because I want to strengthen it. Life shreds thin joy, and if yours isn’t rooted in something stronger than your circumstances, it will be very thin indeed.

Because I do not have much time to give to writing today, from this point I am simply going to reproduce part of my sermon manuscript from the last of three messages I preached on the book of Job. These are the kind of thoughts that help me when my imagination runs away with scenarios about what could happen to my children or my wife in this wretched, fallen world. I hope they are thoughts that will help strengthen your hope in God in the face of your own (future?) suffering as well. What follows is from that sermon.

As we come to the end of the book, we find that Job is a broken and changed man (42: 1-6). He affirms God’s freedom and sovereignty, and he repents of his reckless and reactionary words. He forgives his three friends and prays for their forgiveness by God (vv 7-9). And then we find an amazing and complete reversal of Job’s fortunes (vv 10-13). Here we learn the sixth theme of the book of Job:

Someday God will right every wrong and repay every hurt.

Should we conclude that this restoration here is normative and means that all of our sickness will give way to healing, all of our loss will be regained, all our hurt will be soothed in this life? Not quite. Job’s restoration in his lifetime is, I think, an accommodation to the era in which Job lived, before the Scriptures were given in their full form. Job’s restoration is God’s way of vindicating him and demonstrating what we know from the revelation of the rest of the Scriptures, which Job and his friends did not have.

The rest of the Scriptures reveal that God is just, He will right every wrong and repay every hurt and make every trial worthwhile.

How? Well, we’re not quite sure, but what we do know is that He is the God who imagined and carried out the details of the gospel. And in the gospel we see that our God wounds, but He also heals and will someday welcome us to His everlasting joy.

Rom 8:16-18 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs--heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Oh, how glorious is the good news of the gospel for those in suffering! The final answer to the book of Job and the ultimate consolation for all of the Jobs who have suffered like him is that our Lord Himself embraced and absorbed all the undeserved consequences of sin and evil in this wretched world!

If you are not a believer in Jesus Christ, let me urge you to please repent and trust Him today! And for those who are in Christ, rejoice that eternity will make sure that not a single moment of patient suffering is wasted or lost. Psalm 56:8 indicates that God keeps every one of our tears in a bottle and records our sufferings in a book. And someday, the first nanosecond after we cross over the river to heaven’s shore, in that single instant the suffering will be over. But not only over—also worth it, for the eternal weight of glory that will be revealed to us!!
2 Cor 4:16-18 16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Did you hear those last two verses? “Our LIGHT and MOMENTARY troubles are achieving for us an ETERNAL GLORY that FAR OUTWEIGHS them all…”
Behold the mercy of our King,
Who takes from death its bitter sting,
And by his blood, and often ours,
Brings triumph out of hostile pow’rs,
And paints, with crimson, earth and soul
Until the bloody work is whole.
What we have lost God will restore—
That, and Himself, forevermore,
When He is finished with His art:
The quiet worship of our heart.
When God creates a humble hush,
And makes Leviathan his brush,
It won’t be long before the rod
Becomes the tender kiss of God.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Boys and Heights and Trips to the ER

Giving Thanks for God's Kind Providence

Until this month, we hadn't been to the emergency room much at all, especially considering we have four boys age eight and under. But on Labor Day our 3-year-old got bumped off the porch by his three brothers and landed right on his arm. After lots of tears and howls, a trip to the hospital, and a few x-rays, we learned that we had our first broken bone. But a few days ago he abandoned his little sling, and all was well.

Until today, that is, when our 5-year-old tried to climb a tree with the aid of a bungee cord. He hooked it on a branch above his head, grabbed on tight, and started to pull himself up. (Go ahead and cringe now, because you know what's coming next.) Just as he started to lift himself off the ground, WHAM! That deadly metal hook slipped off the branch and nailed him right between the eyes.

It was pretty gory there for a while: a trail of blood through the house, a jagged hole in his head, blood in his eyes and running down his nose… Once again my truck became an emergency vehicle, carrying one of my precious little treasures toward rescue. Ironically, he had just been at his doctor’s that morning for a scheduled visit, so they were all ready with his chart and insurance info.

I’m amazed at how tough these little boys of mine are. Our youngest didn’t take another drop of pain medication for his broken arm after leaving the hospital, and this little guy today took four shots of anesthetic directly in his torn forehead. Phew! Six stitches and a vanilla shake later, and we were on our way home again, not too much the worse for wear.

But what amazes me more than anything is the goodness of God that watched over both my boys during their mishaps. All the way to the doctor’s today, I couldn’t help but imagine what would have happened if that metal hook had hit him an inch or two to either side. As he himself said at the doctor’s office: “Yeah, then I would have needed to get a wooden eye!”

I will say to the LORD, "My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust."
Psalm 91:2

Monday, September 24, 2007

Monday Quotables

From R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God

“We tend to have mixed feelings about the holy. There is a sense in which we are at the same time attracted to it and repulsed by it.” (p 42)

“God is the ultimate object of our xenophobia. He is the ultimate stranger. He is the ultimate foreigner. He is holy, and we are not.” (p 45)

“It is one thing of fall victim to the flood or to fall prey to cancer; it is another thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (p 53)

“Holiness provokes hatred. The greater the holiness, the greater the human hostility toward it. It seems insane. No man was ever more loving than Jesus Christ. Yet even His love made people angry.” (p 68)

Commenting on the death of Uzzah when he steadied the Ark of the Covenant with his hand: “An act of heroism? No! It was an act of arrogance, a sin of presumption. Uzzah assumed that his hand was less polluted than the earth. But it wasn’t the ground or the mud that would desecrate the ark; it was the touch of man.” (p 108)

“The Old Testament list of capital crimes represents a massive reduction of the original list. It is an astonishing measure of grace. The Old Testament record is chiefly a record of the grace of God. How so? …In creation all sin is deemed worthy of death. Every sin is a capital crime.” (p 114)

“God put Adam and Eve on probation and said, 'If you sin, you will die.' Sin brings the loss of the gift of life. The right to life is forfeited by sin. Once people sin, they forfeit any claim on God to human existence.” (p 114)

“Sin is cosmic treason. Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward the One to whom we owe everything, to the One who has given us life itself.” (p 116)

“We become false witnesses to God. When we sin as the image bearers of God, we are saying to the whole creation, to all of nature under our dominion, to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field: 'This is how God is. This is how your Creator behaves. Look in this mirror; look at us, and you will see the character of the Almighty.'” (p 116)

“…the most mysterious aspect of the mystery of sin is not that the sinner deserves to die, but rather that the sinner in the average situation continues to exist.” (p 117)

“[God] is indeed long-suffering, patient, and slow to anger. In fact He is so slow to anger that when His anger does erupt, we are shocked and offended by it. …Instead of taking advantage of this patience by coming humbly to Him for forgiveness, we use this grace as an opportunity to become more bold in our sin.” (p 117)

“The most violent expression of God’s wrath and justice is seen in the cross. If ever a person had room to complain of injustice, it was Jesus. He was the only innocent man ever to be punished by God. If we stagger at the wrath of God, let us stagger at the Cross.” (p 121)

“As soon as we talk about deserving something, we are no longer talking about grace; we are talking about justice. Only justice can be deserved. God is never obligated to be merciful. Mercy and grace must be voluntary or they are no longer mercy and grace.” (p 127)

“God is not obligated to treat all people equally.” (p 128)

“Access to the Father is ours. But we still must tremble before our God. He is still holy. Our trembling is the tremor of awe and veneration, not the trembling of the coward or the pagan. ...We are to fear God not with a servile fear like that of a prisoner before his tormentor but as children who do not wish to displease their beloved Father.” (pp 153-4)

Friday, September 21, 2007

What I Do vs. What I Believe, Part 1

A Distinction Without A Difference

"Do you really believe that what you believe is really real?"

So ended the first session of The Truth Project, a DVD-based worldview study from Focus on the Family which we are beginning at our church. Dr. Del Tackett, who incidentally is one of the most effective and inspiring teachers I've ever heard, concludes his first lecture with this haunting question; and I've been pondering it ever since.

It reminded me of a thought that first came my way about 15 years ago, in a course taught by one of my favorite college profs, Dave Hershberger. He opined, "We don't need to live what we believe. We already do. We can tell exactly what we really believe by how we live."

At first I thought he was loony; but after about 5 minutes of raising and answering objections in my own mind, I concluded he was absolutely right. …and brilliant.

About 10 years later I read John Piper's Future Grace, with its central thesis that sin gets its power from the pleasures it (falsely) promises us and so the way to fight for holiness is to believe the promises of superior satisfaction from God. That book literally changed my life. (Someday I would like to write about the five books that have changed me the most and why. Interested? Stay tuned. Maybe I will.)

Suddenly, I saw that the key to fighting sin was not the gargantuan effort required to deny myself pleasure and "Just say no" to sin. Sure, the Bible exhorts us to say no, but a more biblically complete approach requires us to say "yes" to the promises of a far surpassing joy and fulfillment that God offers in His word. So once again, I was pointed back to the ultimate question: "What do I really believe? My feelings? The siren song of sinful desire? The culture? Or God's word?"

For example, Dr. Tackett suggested that if he himself really believed all that the Bible says about the fatherly nature of God and the power of prayer, he wouldn't have a problem NOT praying. The difficulty would be getting himself to stop praying!

I think he’s right. Do you? I think his question is one that’s well worth asking.

Do you really believe that what you believe is really real? …about God? …heaven and hell? …the Bible? …the final judgment? …the gospel?

Prove it. Live it.

(coming next week: why we tend not to live what we say we believe)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Living in Colorado

...Means We Occasionally Hit the MOUNTAINS!

I'm bummed that I missed posting for a day or two, but we've been visiting family in Granby, which is up in the mountains not too far from Rocky Mountain National Park. We came up to go hiking, enjoy the sights, and watch the elk bugle. The elk watching was pretty amazing. We were often within 20-30 feet of whole herds - usually a bull and his harem, along with several calves.

The kids loved it! Along the way we also saw several moose, deer, and a red fox.

It's been a wonderful couple of days. Hiking, four-wheeling, relaxing, and being amazed at the handiwork of our God:

O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise
because of your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet:
all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Psalm 8

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

I, Harlot

Another Look at How a Christian Reads the Psalms (and the rest of the Bible)

My friend Jeff asked a really good question about this post from last week. Specifically, he gently challenged the notion that OT saints didn’t (or couldn't) have the same level of awareness of their sinfulness as we do. I had written:

…these men and women didn’t have Romans 7 or Ephesians 2 to help them understand how truly awful they are without Jesus. Thus, we should not expect them to have the same level of intimacy with the wretchedness in their own heart as we have, viewing it through the lens of these later Scriptures.

In response, Jeff asked, “Even without the New Testament, shouldn’t these people have had a good grasp of their own sin anyway just from what they could read in their own Scriptures?”

It’s a great question especially when we remember that, when Paul wants to prove that the whole world is desperately sinful in the early chapters of Romans, what does he do? He quotes the Old Testament extensively! Romans 3:10-18 is a collection of OT quotations all demonstrating his point that Jews and Gentiles are alike under sin. He writes (with OT references added in parenthesis):

10 as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside;
together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:1-3)
13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” (Psalm 5:9)
“The venom of asps is under their lips." (Psalm 140:3)
14 "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness." (Psalm 10:7)
15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known." (Isaiah 59:7-8)
18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes." (Psalm 36:1)

So obviously, these readers of the OT had plenty of material to show them their sinfulness. Paul sure thought so anyway! But I still contend that they failed to see the depths of their depravity clearly, even with passages like these right before their eyes. Why? Because the average believer—both Old Testament era and New Testament era alike—would read these passages and assume that these words do not apply to them.

Why not? Context. If you’re an especially diligent sort, go back and read the OT passages I referenced above, and notice who these descriptions are applied to in their original context. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to go read them all yourself, I’ll give you one example.

The very last line Paul quotes is from Psalm 36:1, which says: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes.” Who has no fear of God before his eyes? "The wicked.” And this example from Psalm 36 is representative of the context for every one of these OT quotations: a description of “the wicked” or “evil men” or the writer’s “enemies” or those in outright rebellion against God.

Interesting then, isn’t it, that Paul takes these passages and applies them to everybody, not just those we would traditionally consider “the wicked”? In Romans 3, Paul is writing to moralists and lechers alike. He’s got the whole world in his sights, and he’s spraying inspired buckshot from the Old Testament all over everybody! In other words, Paul calls ALL OF US the wicked, evil men, and the enemies of God.

There’s another very important lesson for us here in how to read, not just the Psalms, but the entire Bible. In every passage we read, we need to see ourselves as the wicked, blind, broken, and helpless. We are the lame man in need of healing. We are the bloody mess by the side of the road in need of a Good Samaritan. We are the harlot, the tax collector, the Pharisee, the complaining Israelites, the wicked kings of Israel. In the story of the crucifixion, I am Judas, I am Pilate, I am the religious leaders, and I am the angry mob. In Genesis, I am Cain when he murders and Abraham when he lies and Jacob when he deceives.

It is the gospel itself that tells us to read the Bible this way. Paul shows us this by how he applies these passages from the Old Testament. In essence, he is saying, “There is no fear of God in the eyes of the wicked, and that means YOU!” The gospel reminds me that I am a sinner in need of a Savior. It commends to me one attitude and one alone: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Only when I begin there can I even hope to emulate, by God’s grace, the Good Samaritan or the great King Josiah or the faith-filled harlot Rahab.

This matters to me right now because I am studying for a sermon on the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the deceivers in Acts 5 whom God struck dead for their hypocrisy. I am convinced that the first way to read this passage is to see myself as the hypocrite, and the first way to preach it is to help my church family see themselves that way, too. And then, enter the gospel of God’s grace, where not all hypocrites and liars are stuck dead (a la, Peter, who stood there with these dead people at his feet, knowing that only months earlier he himself had lied three times about being a follower of Jesus Christ! Incredible.). Breathtaking justice forms the perfect backdrop for breathtaking mercy.

All this reminds me of Caedmon Call’s great song “Mystery of Mercy”:
I am the woman at the well, I am the harlot
I am the scattered seed that fell along the path
I am the son that ran away
And I am the bitter son that stayed

I am the angry man who came to stone the lover
I am the woman there ashamed before the crowd
I am the leper that gave thanks
But I am the nine that never came

My God, my God why hast Thou accepted me
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty King?
My God, my God why hast Thou accepted me
It's a mystery of mercy and a song, the song I sing
(lyrics by Andrew Peterson and Randall Goodgame, from the album Back Home)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Monday Quotables

From John Stott's Between Two Worlds

“Seldom if ever do I leave the pulpit without a sense of partial failure, a mood of penitence, a cry to God for forgiveness, and a resolve to look to him for grace to do better in the future.” (p 9)

“Preaching is indispensable to Christianity. Without preaching a necessary part of its authenticity is lost. For Christianity is, in its very essence, a religion of the Word of God.” (p 15)

“Our worship is poor because our knowledge of God is poor, and our knowledge of God is poor because our preaching is poor. But when the Word of God is expounded is its fullness, and the congregation begin to glimpse the glory of the living God, they bow down in solemn awe and joyful wonder before his throne. It is preaching which accomplishes this, the proclamation of the Word of God in the power of the Spirit of God. That is why preaching is unique and irreplaceable.” (p 83)

“The kind of God we believe in determines the kind of sermons we preach.” (p 93)

“We should never presume to occupy a pulpit unless we believe in this God. How dare we speak, if God has not spoken? By ourselves we have nothing to say.” (p 96)

“More often than we like to admit, the pew is a reflection of the pulpit. Seldom if ever can the pew rise higher than the pulpit.” (p 115)

“Preachers are not to invent [the message]; it has been entrusted to them…. It is impressive that in all these New Testament metaphors [for preaching] the preacher is a servant under someone else’s authority, and the communicator of somebody else’s word.” (pp 136-7)

“Jesus Christ, we believe, is the fulfillment of every truly human aspiration. To find him is to find ourselves. Therefore, above all else, we must preach Christ.” (p 151)

“When we proclaim the gospel, we must go on to unfold its ethical implications, and when we teach Christian behavior, we must lay its gospel foundations.” (p 157)

“The best preachers are always diligent pastors, who know the people of their district and congregation, and understand the human scene in all its pain and pleasure, glory and tragedy. And the quickest way to gain such an understanding is to shut our mouth (a hard task for compulsive preachers) and open our eyes and ears.” (p 192)

“Humble listening is indispensible to relevant preaching.” (p 192)

“Supposing that a pastor has this support, what else could keep him from study? Let me be frank. Only one thing: laziness.” (p 208)

“So we need, as I find myself, constantly to repent, and to renew our resolve to discipline our lives and our schedule. Only a constantly fresh vision of Christ and of his commission can rescue us from idleness, and keep our priorities correctly adjusted.” (p 209)

“To search for [the text’s] contemporary message without first wrestling with its original meaning is to attempt a forbidden shortcut.” (p 221)

Commenting on why it is necessary to write out every word of the sermon: “Not because we shall read our sermons, nor because we shall memorize and recite them, but rather because the discipline of clear thinking requires writing…” (p 231)

“Hypocrisy always repels, but integrity or authenticity always attracts.” (p 271)

“A congregation learns the seriousness of the gospel by the seriousness with which their pastors expound it.” (pp 278-9)

“The main objective of preaching is to expound Scripture so faithfully and relevantly that Jesus Christ is perceived in all his adequacy to meet human need.” (p 325)

“The most privileged and moving experience a preacher can ever have is when, in the middle of the sermon, a strange hush descends upon the congregation. The sleepers have woken up, the coughers have stopped coughing, and the fidgeters are sitting still. No eyes or minds are wandering. Everybody is attending, though not to the preacher. For the preacher is forgotten, and the people are face to face with the living God, listening to his still, small voice.” (p 326)

“Why, then, does the power of the Spirit seem to accompany our preaching so seldom? I strongly suspect that the main reason is our pride.” (p 330)

“Self-forgetfulness is an unattainable goal, except as the by-product of preoccupation with Another’s presence, and with his message, his power and his glory.” (p 340)

Friday, September 14, 2007

If Sports Builds Character…

Where'd All These Villains Come From?

I loved sports. Past tense. There was a day when I was pretty well married to basketball, and football and baseball weren’t far behind. But these days, I can take ‘em or leave ‘em.

It started when I realized how much more prone I was to sin when competing—anger, pride, bitterness, selfishness, disrespect to authority, the whole depraved nine yards.

But what really has me aggravated lately is the recent deluge of immoral and contemptible behavior among professional athletes, coaches, and officials: the NFL’s infamous thug list, the doping scandals in baseball and the Tour de France, Nick Saban’s lies, NBA official Tim Donaghy’s gambling, and now Bill Belichick’s cheating. Nice. Quite frankly, I’m disgusted.

As a result, you can imagine my delight when I ran across this article entitled “Obviously, Sports Do Not Build Character,” by Anthony Bradley, assistant professor of apologetics and theology at Covenant Seminary. He begins:

If you are one of those people who believe the old adage “sports builds character,” you have some explaining to do.

Why are so many professional athletes, who have spent their entire lives in organized sports, masters at cheating, serial adultery, drunkenness, compulsive gambling, drug abuse, and thuggish fighting (to name just a few of the vices)? The truth is that sports no more builds character than attending Clemson University football games qualifies you to replace Tommy Bowden as head coach.

In spite of my irritation, however, I’m reluctant to give up on sports altogether. True, sports do not build character, but they provide a very helpful context in which character can be built… under the right circumstances. What circumstances? Well, I think Bradley gets it right near the end of his critique:

Sports do not build character in young people but virtuous adults do. In one sense youth sport is simply a medium for adult mentoring within the context of challenging situations. Character is bestowed – or not – from one generation to another.
Reminds me of a post I read a while back by CJ Mahaney. CJ loves sports, but he values biblical masculinity and godly character far more. In this post, he lists specific behaviors he commends to his son, Chad—practices which make sports a means to the end of developing godliness. Here’s CJ’s perspective:

There is nothing original or profound about this list. But helping my son apply it to his heart and life can make a profound difference. So after each game, I review the above list with my son. I go over the game with him and celebrate any and all expressions of humility and godly character. I tell him that this is more important to me than how many points he scored or whether his team won the game (although we do play to win!). Remember, fathers, what you honor and celebrate, your son will emulate. Therefore, we must celebrate godly character more than athletic ability or achievement.
If you’re a parent or a coach or even just a Christian sports fan, I’d encourage you please to read CJ’s entire piece. It’s absolutely excellent.

I want to conclude by offering my sincere thanks to the many Christian parents and coaches and fans out there who approach sports this way. Keep up the good work! If only there were a couple thousand more of you, perhaps we might have something to cheer about.