Monday, December 14, 2009

Praying for Tiger


This whole thing breaks my heart. If it doesn't yours, something is wrong with you. But, I am resisting the reaction of surprise, because it continues to be clear that no matter how exceptional someone appears, or how firmly someone appears to be standing, they (we) can fall. Kanye West and David Letterman, and Mark Sanford and Bernie Madoff, among others, have already reminded us this year. I never would have imagined that I should have included Tiger in those posts. The fall of Tiger seems different. But it isn't. His recovery seems difficult. But it isn't, as long as you define recovery correctly.

I'm not sure how you've responded to all this. One of my friends, who I don't think would consider himself a Christian, right after the accident and before any of the infidelity was public said, "Show me a human being, and I'll show you skeletons in their closet." A frighteningly true statement. Others have been working on the stand-up bits. The Santa and Tiger joke is funny, I admit. But what I'm going to do is pray for him. Because, as Dr. Albert Mohler says, "Something of far greater consequence than an illustrious career in sport is at stake here. Tiger Woods the human being is of infinitely greater value than Tiger Woods the brand." Mohler continues:

"Tiger Woods now finds himself in a disastrous crisis of his own making. There is no one else he can blame for his trouble and there is no public account that can undo the past. In a truly breathtaking reversal, Tiger Woods has gone from being one of the most universally respected figures in sport to one of the most widely discussed subjects of scandal. Clearly, it does not take long to fall from a pedestal.

"In one of his advertisements for Accenture, the image of Tiger Woods appears along with the words: "It's what you do next that counts." Much now depends on what Tiger Woods does next. If the American people are truly scandalized by his adultery, they must now hope and pray that this marriage and family can be rebuilt and sustained. Something of far greater consequence than an illustrious career in sport is at stake here. Tiger Woods the human being is of infinitely greater value than Tiger Woods the brand.

"For Christians, there is an even deeper concern. The current travail of Tiger Woods points far beyond his need for marital recovery, career consultation, or brand management. Tiger Woods needs a Savior. I am praying that this devastating experience, caused so classically by his own sin, will lead Tiger Woods to understand that he is not so self-sufficient as he thinks. Tiger Woods now faces a problem that he cannot solve. Though he can do much to repair his marriage, his family, and his public image, he cannot atone for his own sins. My prayer is that there is someone who can reach Tiger Woods with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

"In the end, all this must remind Christians of the universal need for the Gospel. We must remember our own sin and our utter dependence upon the grace and mercy of God made ours in Jesus Christ. Without question, this is the most important lesson drawn from the travail of Tiger Woods. On his deathbed, Martin Luther offered these last words: "We are sinners, it is true." Tiger Woods is one of us, after all."

Jesus is not corny, people. We need him. The Gospel is not irrelevant. It is power for salvation. It is what we don't have for something we need. We will try a lot of things in its place to our own destruction. Perhaps the heroic rise, and rapid fall, of Tiger Woods from a place of public fascination and adoration, is setting the stage for an incredible testimony. Even if not, I'm thankful for the reminder that I am the recipient of as dramatic a display of saving grace as what Tiger needs right now. And you are (or can be) also.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Limping and Dancing

Thanksgiving has passed, and now I'm full, and thankful, and excited for Christmas season. Christmas? Really? 2009 went three times as fast as any other year. But that's ok, because I like Christmas season; I just wasn't prepared for it. God is continuing to collide my worlds, decompartmentalize my life, and allow me to live the same way with the same motivation, same joy, and same focus on relationships Sunday afternoon on the couch, or Monday morning in the office, as I do on Saturday night out with friends in Broad Ripple or downtown, or at home with family, or anywhere in between. It is an exhilarating process, and I hope it is only beginning. Drinking beer while praying for and in conversation with both your friends and people you've never met is an amazing experience. Thinking about Jesus and the Cross the same moment you are witnessing a round of shots (or taking one yourself), or decorating the tree with your family, or making a sales call, or having dinner with friends, is awesome. More on that later.

Relevant to all that is this three part conference sermon series by Tim Keller. I strongly recommend taking an hour and a half to listen to all of it. It is vintage, and crucial in understanding the hold on and damage to our lives that idolatry can have; and how the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most helpful message to confront that idolatry with, both in our own lives, and in the lives of those who could care less. None of us are immune.

Gospel Realization

Gospel Communication

Gospel Incarnation

"Once you know that Jesus blesses you unconditionally, at the cost of his life (and now you can know!), it doesn’t matter how much you’re dancing and how great life is going -- you’ll limp; your head won’t get big because you’ll know its all by grace. And no matter how much you’re limping because everything is going lousy in life -- you’ll dance; because you’ll know it will pass, and you’ll have him forever."

I hope to take that reality everywhere I go this Christmas season, and in 2010, and for the rest of my natural life, and into eternity, with a keen awareness to the temptation of idolatry and a humble recognition of the reality of (future) grace. And I hope my awkward and Spirit-led balance of limping and dancing will be a clear demonstration to the world of the gracious person and sufficient work of Jesus Christ.

I'll see you out there.

Monday, November 9, 2009

God's Grace and the Moon


I've recently discovered, with some help, the phenomenon of seeing the moon before dark; sometimes in the middle of the day. I can't explain this entirely, or why I just recently noticed and became fascinated by it. But true enough, on my way to work I stop the car in the middle of the entrance to my neighborhood when I see it, pull over, put my flashers on, and get out of the car and take a picture of the sky. Sometimes friendly neighbors ask if everything is alright and if I need any help. Perhaps you would say that such an action proves that everything is not ok and that I should have accepted the offer. But perhaps you are a jerk. Just kidding.

I'll spare you the science lesson on the cycles of the moon and the Earth's rotation in relation it, and why we can see some of it, all of it, or none of it at various points of the year in the night or day. Because I don't really know. All I know is that the gibbous moon is the best. Period.

Instead, I'll draw some kind of Gospel-centered spiritual conclusion, because that is what I do. You know how different days of the week have different feels? Jerry, Kramer, and Newman discussed this in a conversation you may remember. Monday has a certain feel; it's usually work or school or responsibility related, sometimes gloomy even if the sun is shining (i.e. "Someone has a case of the Moondays", no pun intended). Tuesday and Wednesday feel similar to this, but a bit brighter, perhaps busier with travel or scheduling of mid-week activities. Thursday is the weekend without being the weekend, Friday has a special anticipation and excitement about it, sometimes for no reason. Saturday usually feels like tradition, relaxation, or recreation (football, outdoor activities, family time), and Sunday feels unique altogether; the same things as Saturday but in a different way - perhaps more serious, God-centered, and urgent, knowing the week and its responsibilities is fast approaching. All the days have their allure and their downside. But they feel differently, right? You might be less concerned about not "going out" on a Tuesday night, but feel depressed or anti-social not "going out" on a Saturday night. Why is that? Working during the week seems natural, but over the weekend might be a total drag (depending on your job and required hours). Going to church on Sunday is not a big deal, but anything church-related during the week might just feel totally unnatural. What is wrong with us?

Well, one explanation I would offer is that we compartmentalize our lives to such an extreme, that we are motivated and satisfied differently in different circumstances. And this is dramatically unhealthy. It is unhealthy because we base our hope and joy in many different things, sometimes to our own confusion. When work spills into family life we forget the joy of playing with our kids on a Saturday (PS. I don't have kids), or when our social life spills into work we lose the motivation of a hard work ethic and end up under performing, or when we lose a job, a loved one, or a house, we shut down because we forget that our most lasting, consistent hope and joy should be in Jesus Christ who will never leave or forsake us. It is unhealthy because we delegate the operations of our head, heart and hands separately in our work life, our family life, our social life, and our spiritual life and it does not allow us to bring the controversial, eternal, and transforming reality of the Gospel into everything we do. So our usefulness for the display of the glory of God and the spread of his kingdom becomes a confused mess of half-hearted attempts to do our job, love our family, and live like Christ. Not half-hearted on purpose, but because our heart is divided, nothing gets all of our heart, and likewise, all of Jesus.


And from this perhaps we believe the lie that we are unable to be used by God, or that he doesn't have a purpose for us, or that we can never know what it is. We limp through our professional life, preoccupied with the possibility that it is not what God intended for us (it might not be) because of the lack of "fruit" that it seems to generate. We struggle through our social life, feeling guilty that maybe our actions do not entirely glorify God. We innocently face our family life, unsure what Jesus means when he says to leave father and mother for sake of him. And we insecurely approach our spiritual life, and our Lord and Savior, helpless for him to make us feel meaningful, loved, and whole in the midst of a confusing variety of compartments that seem to have no connection. And all the while God is pleading with us to see him as most precious, and everything else as a gracious gift whereby we can consistently, and simply, live and love according to the once-for-all-time reality of the Gospel: Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead. What this looks like specifically, for you, in every "compartment" of your life, I can not say. I just plead with you, as the Spirit is pleading with me, to be aware of the possibility and the potential of us not having a family life, a work life, a social life, and a spiritual life - but just a life, that is defined and motivated by the person and work of Jesus.

And you know what will happen? God's grace with show up. And it will be consistent, and sufficient, and life-saving. God through Jesus does not only wish to save us by his grace, though he desperately does. He also desires to keep on saving us by his grace, which he can and will do. And it will come in unexpected, but constant, ways - if you believe and trust in its coming and in its sufficiency. This is what I think our heart and soul needs, and what will connect all aspects of our lives into a glorious, realistic, fruitful witness where we can freely enjoy family, friends, work, and everything else, and in the process glorify our Father in heaven.

For me, the most visible metaphor of this consistent and sufficient grace has been the moon. It is not always visible, but it is always there. And when it is visible, it is beautiful. Sometimes, it is only a glimpse of the complete beauty that I know is coming, and sometimes even in its fullness I long for more. As some of these pictures hopefully show, the "face" or "man" that can be seen on the moon has such a relevant and helpful expression. It is one of awe (kind of looks like the Scream face). Every time I see it, I feel the same thing in my heart: awe that the God of the universe would supply such grace to me. And every time I see it, especially during the day, I have new hope that even when I can't see it, it is still there, and nothing will change that, unless I stop looking for it. So, I do need help, and if my neighbor asks maybe that is what I will say. I will say thanks for asking, but the moon that I am taking a picture of is to me the experience of God's consistent and sufficient supply of grace, and now that I have seen it, I am much better. Maybe that will lead to a conversation or friendship that will allow the display of that same grace in community, i.e., in life.

















Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Gospel is About God, Not Us

And that is good news.

Last Sunday night at Peppers in Broad Ripple, at Pub Theology, the topic was "why do bad things happen to good people." A familiar one, and a very identifiable one. During the text message version of Q & A time at the end (which is always the best part), Daron Earlewine who leads it each week, completely took me aback by calling me out and asking if I would help him and another member of the band field the questions, that would no doubt be hard. Not my comfort zone, but I obviously wasn't going to say no. Later, a friend would tell me that if I really wanted street cred in a bar environment with many people who had little experience with church or God, that I needed to lose the glasses, get some ink (tattoo), and wear skinny jeans. Not likely, but duly noted.

I didn't say much, but definitely could have. God has not yet given me the discernment on how to speak the unchanging and eternal message of the gospel in a bar. But maybe he is working on that? In short, my answer to the general question of why do bad things happen to good people (or any people), would be something like this: God feels about sin the way we feel about the suffering in our lives. In other words, the same anger, sadness, and confusion we feel when something terrible happens to us or someone we love, is how God feels towards our sin. Even the really horrible stuff. Sin is that bad (actually its worse). But in Jesus Christ, we see God, who not only lived a sinless life that we could never live, but he died, in our place, and endured the most powerful and profound suffering, which we could never endure, so that we would not have to. And he rose from the dead assuring the forgiveness that he promises and the freedom from all kinds of sin and suffering that we will experience in time. For now, these light and momentary afflictions are producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison. And all of that is not just so that we can feel better (though we can, and do), but so that God can get the ultimate glory and we can forever praise the glory of his grace, seen in the gospel, which is the whole point of the universe.

Next time, hopefully, if given the opportunity, I will say something to that effect - in a bar, or wherever.

"God has done everything: election, predestination, creation, adoption, manifestations of wrath, power, justice, wisdom – all of it – to solidify and intensify your praise for the glory of His grace."

– John Piper, Ephesians 1

"Lord, I'd like to start by saying I can hate where I'm at
When this life is hard and situations take me aback
The fight is hard and I can hardly face it in fact
In life it's hard to get up like a bar with weights that's attached
It really seems the situations that I'm facing is wack
I been awakened but now I'm feeling forsaken and trapped
With no hope and I'm broken open for Satan to trap
I been bothered since You Father put this weight on my back
So please erase it's wack, cause when this pain it attacks
My weakness is at it's peak and I'm feeling strained and I lack
The trust in You I struggle through the ways that I should come to You
Lord, what am I gonna do? It's true this pain it distracts
But I see my only hope when my backs on the ropes
Is in You so I read through the facts that You wrote
The pain may fade away, but if that's my only hope
Then You don't get the glory alone not even close

Lord, it may get better but it may not
So when I pray God, I pray I
Would trust You whether or not the pain stops
So when the the pain falls, coming down like rain drops
I just gotta cling to You

Heavenly Father, in Your Word You say we can build
Because of Jesus and the blood that He graciously spilled
Lord, I thank You for real, cause my Dad's always there
I can cast all my cares plus the weight that I feel
My situation is ill, I ain't asking to be making a mill
But is all my money for paying my bills?
It gets crazier still, my soul's on dangerous hills
A target for the world, flesh, and Satan aiming to kill
While the wicked who be hating your will
Sit by the lake as they chill, taking in sensational thrills
Lord, Your Son I admire, He's the one I desire
I'll run through the fire if You say it's Your will
But at times it's hard to hear You, the world doesn't fear You
Lord, give me a clear view Your face is concealed
Help me to be patient until Your grace is revealed
And in the mean time, between time, be praising You still

Lord, it may get better but it may not
So when I pray God, I pray I
Would trust You whether or not the pain stops
So when the the pain falls, coming down like rain drops
I just gotta cling to You

Lord, You know I'm hoping that my situation will switch
That You'll show me You're amazing by erasing it quick
But I've noticed that my hope was in You changing it quick
Instead of knowing You're enough Lord I was chasing Your gifts
But then I opened up Your text and looked at David and them
Their situations was grim, but it ain't change them within
They prayed You'd take it away but sought Your face in the end
And found comfort in Your justice and the grace You extend
So in this life full of strife if my days get grayer
I'm content with the fact that You'll stay my Savior
No change in my King, man, it ain't no greater
Comfort than what's found in You that's so major."

- Cling to You, Trip Lee and Shai Linne

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Gospel is Relevant!


I have good news for Kanye, who almost cried on the Jay Leno show a couple weeks ago and is taking time off to "analyze how he's going to make it through this life and improve", and David Letterman, who through nervous joking admitted to his confrontation with (some of) the frightening consequences of his mistakes. I wanted to pass it along. I hope they see it:

God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. That while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.

That's all. By the way, it is good news for all of us too.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Fellowship of the King


As with all my blog posts, this subject really matters. And this post title is pure awesomeness. To my new readers, yes, I am really that arrogant. To my old readers, do you really exist? My blog traffic has been less this summer, and coming into the fall, maybe that will change, maybe that won't. Either way, I'm not convinced that anyone has noticed. You should prove me wrong with a comment. :) On an unrelated note, I joined Twitter recently, and I can guarantee that if and when I ever "tweet", it will be sarcastic and probably won't matter. Per the commercial:

"I'm sitting on the patio."
"Dad, I know you're sitting on the patio!"
"Hehehe."

Not really. In all seriousness, as Tim Tebow says, God has already tweeted everything he needed to (its called the Bible), so why do you care what I would say at any random point in the day? On the other hand, the purpose of this blog is to try to articulate what God has already said in a way that is helpful and meaningful given the complexity of our culture and the complexity of what you might be tweeting about right now. So that is why it matters. But, knowing my initial hesitation and now affection for facebook, I will also probably make the same transition with twitter, and will probably tell you about how comfortable my couch is on a Sunday afternoon, hope you care, and also follow how comfortable your couch is, and definitely care. And I will probably try to tweet the Gospel in less than 140 characters, if that is indeed possible. So I'm not hatin' on twitter, just making sure our priorities are straight. Are we cool? My favorite "tweet" so far is by John Piper: "In Christ, the best is always yet to come. Always. No exceptions. Forever."
Wow.

FELLOWSHIP REDISCOVERED

So, fellowship. What the heck does this word mean, and why does it matter? To bring you up to speed, for most of the year, my posts have been working through and dancing around two main questions:

1. What is church, how should it work, and why does it matter?
2. What does it mean to be a Christian, and why does it matter?

I went to a pivotal conference in April called Entrusted with the Gospel, which was a exposition of 2 Timothy put on by The Gospel Coalition. I then began the journey of leading a "Life Church", or a unique version of a small group bible study that is meant to de-compartmentalize our lives so that all of our worlds can collide into a glorious mixture of Christ-like living that is both natural and transforming. And I was, and am still, committed to keep the balance of gospel word and gospel community in this journey, trusting that the transforming power comes from the gospel; not just any word and not just any community.

Four months in, I'm excited and challenged. We have not yet answered the question about how exactly to "do church" and we haven't yet found the passage in the New Testament that outlines it perfectly for us (a combination of Acts and 1 John is a great start). We have not yet walked and lived a perfect balance of biblical and relational communion. Some would like to have more fun and some would like to have less (that was partly facetious). We have not yet served with our hands and our lives the less fortunate in our community to the degree we need to. And we have not yet seen hundreds of people come to saving faith in Jesus.

But! We have been faithful to the Bible, and we have been patient with and sensitive to the Holy Spirit. We have offered a community to Christians and non-Christians alike where they can be welcomed, loved, convicted, and presented with the most precious and important message in the world. While prayer is being taken out of the schools, it is being brought in to the bars in Indianapolis. "Pub Theology" is opening the door for biblical and spiritual conversations to those who would never set foot in our churches. If you like beer, but not church, come hang out. We want to party with you. Christians are working out their salvation together across the city in authentic, consistent communities, and people are mutually encouraging each other's faith. God's word is speaking actual grace into people's lives. I am excited about what God is doing, and challenged about what more he could do with our faithful proclamation and demonstration of the gospel, and our gracious engagement into our culture.

MISSING OUT

But still I think that we should fully understand and practice the biblical concept of fellowship so that we don't miss out on what God desires for us. We could miss it, and I don't want that for anyone. At a recent "Life Church", the conversation in our group led me to ask the following questions (which of course, led to several other questions):

1. Are Christians generally more comfortable going to a bible study where they don't know anyone else, or to a social event (i.e. a cookout) where they don't know anyone else? What about non-Christians? Why?

2. Can a community of people who have nothing in common physically, emotionally, socially, professionally, financially, or culturally, but share a passion and unbreakable faith for Jesus Christ, experience fellowship?

3. If so, can a person who does not share a passion and unbreakable faith for Jesus Christ experience fellowship? If not, how should they fit into a Christian community?

Consider those questions. I won't answer them directly because I don't really know, and the answers no doubt vary. But I will follow them with some truths that I have been convicted of and that I think can be foundational in our experiment with and experience of fellowship.

In short, my main concern is mistaking fellowship as the casual, comfortable, perhaps shallow, social interaction that references the Bible instead of feeds on the Bible; or mistaking fellowship as starting with our relationships with other people instead of our relationship with God; or mistakenly excluding non-Christians because of their lack of experience, belief, or comfort level with the Person and Work of Jesus Christ or "churchy" things; or mistakenly welcoming non-Christians into community without ever making any mention of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the foundational and transforming power that makes fellowship authentic; or mistakenly never going deep and being real with our Christian communities and likewise missing out on the experience of on-the-spot grace from the Word of God; or mistakenly serving each other only (which we must do!) without ever serving the outside world. Basically, my main concern is getting fellowship wrong and in turn, doing a disservice to Christians and non-Christians alike, and bringing dishonor to God.

WHAT'S SO AMAZING ABOUT GRACE?

So, simply put, I have been convinced that authentic, biblical fellowship is the experience, proclamation, and demonstration of saving grace, not just common grace. Without getting too theological (that would be terrible!), what I mean is this: our fellowship should start as fellowship with God (this is what 1 John is about). Our fellowship then should be based on, and exist through, our love for people. Our love for people should be based on, and exist through, the love of God for us. And the love of God for us is amazing. God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son. God's love for us is seen most fundamentally in the cross. God also loves the world so much that He allowed the sun to rise this morning; He gives us mouths to breath and eyes to see and ears to hear the wonders of His creation. He certainly didn't have to do any of that. The latter is common grace, and the former is saving grace. If we base fellowship on common grace only - that God loves you because He created you and created the world for you to enjoy and steward - and not base fellowship on saving grace - that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us - than we will not be basing it on the complete love of God, and people will likely not be transformed, and God will likely not be glorified.

Do you agree? I think it's going to be hard for Christians to love each other in fellowship the way God desires unless we understand His love first. And His love is not touchy feely; it is bloody. I've been convicted that anything but cross-centered love (and fellowship) is going to ultimately be self-seeking, temporary, and lacking. Because anything not centered on the cross leaves room for boasting because it is about what you are doing, and not what Christ did. In no other context but cross-centered ministry can you love others and do good deeds out of complete selflessness, knowing that you don't deserve ANYTHING; but God loved you anyway and died for you, which makes you want to love others the same, not necessarily so that you can die for them and so glorify yourself, but so that they can better see Christ who died for them and so glorify Him and save their souls.

IS THIS PRACTICAL?

Is this kind of cross-centered love practical? Yes! Of course. I posted on The Cross and Swine Flu a little while ago that took some ideas from Mark Driscoll's book Death By Love, and elaborated on them. Some of these were extreme cases. In more everyday life, what does it look like? Well, I've never liked the phrase "doing life together", and I'm starting to embrace the phrase "working out our salvation together" in its place for this Life Church model. The reason I don't like this first phrase is that I always wonder, what is it we are doing?

Life! you say. Well then, what is life? Is it your job? Is it watching football? Is it having people over for a cookout? Is it having conversations with friends? Is it having a family? Well yes, in your life you do all these things. But is life not most fundamentally sanctification, or growing closer to Christ's likeness, by seeking His Spirit through His word for guidance, and by leaning on other people for encouragement? Is it possible that practicing fellowship as "doing life together" could fall short of what God desires for us? Is it possible that "doing life together" gives an insufficient read on the eternal life that John was so passionate about describing? I think it is possible. Unless, of course, we are more specific about what "life" means, which is why I think a more helpful, biblical phrase is "working out our salvation together". This also allows fellowship to be practical without everyone in a certain group or church spending every waking moment together.

I still struggle a little with what it looks like for a non-Christian to easily transition into this type of fellowship. I think though, that if they see and understand our love for them that is based on the cross, where there can be no boasting, and where God offered his most precious treasure (Jesus) for the likes of our undeserving souls, and where they realize that they are undeserving also but that we (and God) love them anyway, than that love will not only be appealing, but also transforming (because it will not just be common grace; it will be saving grace). In this way, our bible studies should be such that anyone off the street should be at least as comfortable coming in to a group of people they don't know, as they would coming to a cookout of the same. Because they will see both love through us (that is common) and love through the Bible (that is saving). Love that is based on anything else but the cross (Jesus's life only, good works, spirituality, social togetherness, etc.) will not stack up. At least that is my conviction.

So stay tuned as I continue to wrestle with and experience this type of fellowship, that is first and foremost about, and with, the King. Please help me wrestle if you'd like, just try not to be like Gollum. That guy is messed up.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Poetic Paraphrase

I love Christian rap. Here is a taste, without the music:

2 Corinthians 10 - 13

I’ve boasted of your readiness for a year.
Give them your heart and not the pressure of your peers.
They say I’m bold in letter, meek in face,
If I begin to boast, I boast in grace.
If they can boast then I can boast in position.
If they can boast then I can boast in tradition.
I can boast in my physical con-dition,
Stoned to beaten but to God’s glory my affliction.
I can also begin to boast in the vision
Of glory and paradise that I saw with precision.
But if I saw the vision
God made a decision
To put a thorn in my side but His grace is sufficient.
So if I’m unimpressive it’s for the glory of the Lord,
Me being humble is the whole purpose of the thorn.
And if you want evidence of my power in the Son,
Next time I come, I will not spare anyone.
Test yourselves, to see if you are of the faith,
‘Cause the runner knows he’s running, if they’re runners in the race.
Finally brothers, be complete and like minded,
The love and peace of God, will keep us united.

Artist: 116 Clique
Song: This is My Heart
Album: 13 Letters

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

God is Big and I am Small

I've had writer's block. No big deal. So, back at it, the headline is as profound as I could get. Also, God is beautiful and I am ugly. God is good and I am not. As John Newton says, "Although my memory is fading, I remember two things quite clearly: I'm a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior."

There is not anything I know of (besides the Bible) that reminds me of these simple yet profound truths, and keeps them as the central and Spirit-led source of my sanctification, like breathtaking scenic landscape. I thought I would share some with you from my recent trip to Colorado Springs. Sorry that they don't do the actual firsthand view justice.


I am pretty small indeed.


Great reflection of the rock island and trees surrounding the Lost Lake off Cottonwood Pass, just West of Buena Vista, and at about 11,000 feet.


For some reason the dead tree absolutely makes this picture for me. Still working on the spiritual analogy.

This Fourteener (14,000 feet above sea level) was staring us down on the drive out to Lost Lake, and I was scared.


On top of Pikes Peak. The air was dry, thin and brisk, and it was awesome. I tried to take the whole mountain with me, but all I could fit in my carry-on was a small souvenir stone. Not the same.

With friend and fraternity brother Matt Jackson marking our climb....er....ride up to the summit via the Cog Railway.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Get Rid of Your TV

What?! Prude! Legalist! Religious Pharisee!

I know. I was thinking the same thing. It seems ridiculous, indeed impossible, in our day and in our culture. But oh man is it convicting, especially to someone who struggles with laziness to the degree I know I do. I so want to be “jealous for my evenings”. And I’m not even married, and have no kids. If and when I do I hope I can be exponentially more jealous for my evenings, and my time in general, so that I can savor the time with them, and the time with God with them, instead of watching my brain be sucked out by Alec Baldwin on a commercial for Hulu.

So let me tell you what I’m going to try to do. If you watched this video exchange with John Piper and Mark Driscoll, and then hopefully read this article clarification of Piper’s heart in this matter, you probably find that you agree more with Driscoll. So do I. I don’t think I’m going to get rid of my TV (s) or stop going to the movies. It would be great for extra cash, but not necessary I don’t think. However, I do feel convicted to get a hold of myself and not let my TV watching push me over the cliff of wasting my short life, or lead me in the opposite direction of seeing and experiencing the beauty of Christ. No entertainment is worth either.

I’m going to gage everything I watch through the filter of Philippians 4:8 in an effort to discipline my mind. Is that reasonable? Is it ridiculous? Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, excellent, praiseworthy; this is what I should think on, and if what I am watching on TV is making me think about other things, it doesn’t make the cut. Help me, please. This is going to be crazy hard, but it’ll be worth it. Let’s see how this plays out in my normal TV watching habits:

SEINFELD

This is, and will always be, the best situational comedy on television. The simple brilliance of this show can hardly be described and will never be replaced. The casting of characters and raw acting performances were historic. I became somewhat obsessed with this show in high school, right around the time it was ending. Now, having seen each episode about ten times, I find myself referencing lines on the show in any and all circumstances. The comedy and timing of Jerry Seinfeld alone has had a huge impact on my communication style, for good or for bad. Certain parts still leave me on the floor. To me, it makes it all the more funny to know that maybe I’m the only one who thought that particular line was funny enough to leave me on the floor. Oh the subtlety.

As you know, this show is now known for the fact that it was about nothing. Essentially it was about four thirty somethings living life in New York City hardly working, complaining, drinking coffee, and screwing people over (as was so brilliantly culminated in the Finale). The nothingness of the show has been rightly described as a dangerous and ungodly portrayal of our culture and the meaning of life. Living anything like any of the characters on the show will surely be considered a wasted life when it’s all said and done. The little mention of the most glorious being in the universe (Jesus Christ) was only as a few punch lines (some fairly hilarious ones, though).

Still, it was a television show, so what would you expect? If viewed with the right amount of wisdom and discernment, lots of material from this show will present itself for use in biblical gospel presentations. I'm serious. Take for example the following dialogue between George and Kramer in the episode The Keys:

Kramer: Do you ever yearn?
George: Yearn, do I yearn?
Kramer: I yearn.
George: You yearn?
Kramer: Oh yes, yes, I yearn. Often, I sit, and yearn. Have you yearned?
George: Well not recently. I crave. I crave all the time; constant craving. I haven’t yearned.
Kramer: Look at you.
George: Oh, Kramer, don’t start!
Kramer: No, no, you’re wasting your life.
George: I am not. What you call wasting, I call living. I’m living my life.
Kramer: Oh ok, like what? No, tell me. Do you have a job?
George: No.
Kramer: Do you have any money?
George: No.
Kramer: Do you have a woman?
George: No.
Kramer: Do you have any prospects?
George: No.
Kramer: Do you have anything on the horizon?
George: Uh, no.
Kramer: Do you have any action at all?
George: No.
Kramer: Do you have any conceivable reason for even getting up in the morning?
George: I like to get The Daily News.
Kramer: George, its time for us to grow up and be men. Not little boys.
George: Why?

If you know this episode, you know that Kramer’s yearning led him to California to “find himself” after a key dispute with Jerry. Perhaps you’ve had a similar trip or period of life. I used this scene at a talk for Greek Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at IU once. My talk was on the relevance of Jesus in our joy, and my point was to tell the narrative of the Bible, to see the final accomplishment in the cross of Christ, and the final completion in the second coming of Christ, where we will have complete joy. I said that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the only complete source of joy now, and the only source of complete joy in the future. And then I asked them the same questions Kramer asked George, and I said, even if your answers were yes, how is your joy? Is it on a trajectory of completion in Jesus, or is it precariously jumping from one temporary pleasure to the next, waiting, desperately, for something to cling to, perhaps in California like Kramer? His challenge is valid and relevant to us: are we wasting our lives?

So I will continue to watch this show, when the opportunity presents itself, and trust that God can use it to expose the gospel in my life and through my life. There is value in humorously viewing our brokenness in a way that leads to the glory of a blood-stained cross, and amazingly, I think Seinfeld can be the context for that.

THE OFFICE

So far I have not found any sermon illustrations in The Office (I'm still looking). As you probably know, this show is all kinds of awkward and usually outright inappropriate. But I think it is excellent, and so as per Philippians 4:8, I’m going to watch. It has its issues, and some episodes fall short of the description of “classic”. But some greatly exceed that description. The characters alone (most of them) just make me so happy. So I think, by the grace of God, I can watch this show (and you can too!) through the filter of Philippians 4:8. Plus I work in an office so surely some of the lessons transfer over. Wish me luck. Good luck.

SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE

Yes, I watch this show. Does that surprise you? I’ve mentioned that I do before, and even showed a clip of my personal favorite audition. I’ve said that if the title of the show were a question addressed to me, my answer would unequivocally be NO. Sadly. In my book, though, it’s the best entertainment on television. And when I say entertainment, I mean the full spectrum: funny, creative, exciting, suspenseful, breathtaking, intelligent, glamorous, and professional. I’ve personally become very intrigued by the choreography. Not being an artist, I would say that it seems to be one of the most creative, difficult, and comprehensive forms of art. It showcases story-telling, technique, beauty, emotion, and creative expression in a way no other art form I can think of does. And it captures all that in a fleeting moment that you can’t hang on a wall. And it brings out parts of the creativity and brilliance of another, related, art form - namely music - that may not otherwise have been seen. I usually like a song a lot better after I have seen a brilliant routine danced to it.

Anyway, you should watch the show, because I think you will be amazed. Unlike Dancing with the Stars, which you may know, it features talent and diversity in style and training that is beautiful and unpredictable. Unlike American Idol, which you certainly know, it actually becomes more entertaining, instead of less so, once the auditions are over. Unlike just about any other reality show, it has purpose beyond the TV ratings, and seeks to expose to the world a unique art form and develop the industry that displays that art in a healthy way.

But it is not perfect, and its purpose is not primarily to display the beauty of Jesus, so viewers (like me) who care about not wasting their lives should take caution. What it does do, purposefully or not, is display beauty that only a Sovereign and intricate God could create. If you’re not moved by the elegant, and sometimes freakish, dancing in some of these routines you need to check your pulse. So in that sense, it displays the common grace that God has lavished on all his children by creating us in His image and giving us skills and abilities that show His glory in very unique, creative, and irreplaceable ways. That is praiseworthy.

Of course, the instant that beauty is attributed to the people and not the God that created the people, you are on a slippery slope. I’m not na├»ve – the show is also entertaining because of the beautiful people. They don’t have to be moving to be beautiful, but indeed the moving makes them more so; in some cases scandalously. If you grew up in a legalistic, strict church culture that didn’t allow dancing, you know what I’m talking about and I’ve either already lost you at this point or started to articulate for you finally your opposition to the rules all these years.

Perhaps if all this could be true about the beauty of the people without the costume design, or lack of costume design if you know what I mean, that is featured every week, than it wouldn’t even be an issue. But it isn't true without that, so it is an issue, and I’m totally aware of it and totally vulnerable to it. But with anything, there is a thin line between appreciating the beauty in order to praise your Father in heaven, and worshipping the beauty because of the temporary pleasure of eye candy. And walking that line and coming out closer to Christ in the end is honoring to God. But knowing that you are going to fall off the tight rope the minute you start walking, and still get on it anyway, is not honoring to God. I intend to walk the tight rope and come out praising my Father in heaven. But I am aware of the risk, hope you are too, and pray that together we can encourage each other to keep our balance.

NEWS

To me, watching the news is the classic example of balancing being in the world but not of the world. It is a very difficult balance. I watch, probably, not enough local news and too much national news. I don’t know why this is. When something “breaking” is going on, I’m pretty much hooked. The death of Michael Jackson, September 11, presidential debates, the plane that landed on the Hudson; the stories they talk about for days and days are usually the ones I watch. And I think that is good. Its good to know what’s going on, good to see the emotions and perspectives of people, good to be educated on what excites and affects our culture. But I have found, specifically with news of a political nature, that there is a point in my watching where it is no longer healthy. Have you experienced this? You know you are watching just to get mad at somebody or something. Even if your (my) anger is justified, I think this is the point the TV should go off, or at least changed, to Seinfeld, The Office, or So You Think You Can Dance (among perhaps other things).

But the news is important, and, I would say, mostly noble. It is not always true, but the more professional networks don’t mislead intentionally. So it makes it through my filter, but I will be careful. And I’m convicted to be aware of more local news so that I can more easily relate with my immediate community.

SPORTS

For me, my engagement in sports is simple. I play golf and tennis and basketball (and occasionally wiffleball, as of late). I watch NCAA basketball religiously, NCAA football consistently, NFL football moderately, golf and tennis on lazy Sundays, and everything else sparingly. I get emotionally involved in IU basketball. I get really excited for March madness and college football bowl season. I root loyally for the Colts. I like the Pacers and the Chicago Cubs, but my heart is not with them. After that, my amount of sports intake and knowledge is probably less than most men my age.

So probably I don't need to say much about this category. Two things I should mention though. First, some athletic stories are so inspiring and miraculous that watching them on TV may be one of the best things you can do with your time. People like Jimmy V., Tony Dungy, Tim Tebow, Tiger Woods, and others whose names you wouldn't recognize, give performances and examples that are certainly praiseworthy beyond words. I think it would be hard to understand the emotion and drive of people without being aware of and experiencing many sports stories like this. So you should.

But second, I know the danger of having a favorite team that you prioritize above everything else in your life almost on accident. I know what it is like to be actually depressed after a devastating loss and not want to do anything or talk to anyone. I am an IU basketball fan, so if you're needing to feel sorry for someone, feel sorry for me (until the program recovers and we dominate again...). I still am not quite over the loss to Minnesota that added insult to injury after the debacle of Kelvin Sampson. I try to read this post frequently to maintain my perspective on the bigger picture.

Moral of the story is there is a lot more I could say about sports; more about the value and more about the danger of obsession. But I think you understand my point. Moderation. No team can die for your sins and no championship will satisfy your soul. So go Hoosiers, and praise Jesus.

MOVIES

This is a hard one for me because sometime in college I made the decision that I either was going to have a DVD collection, or I wasn’t. There was no reason to go halfway. So I began one, and now 300 movies later, I could easily spend the majority of my leisure time watching morally suspect content on a 50” plasma television. Over the years now I have been careful as to the content of my collection, and I very seldom watch a movie by myself, even if it is Shrek. I just have found that my time is better spent elsewhere. There is an All State commercial that talks about the wisdom of caring more about who is around your TV, rather than how big it is. So when I don’t have solid company around, the bigness of a TV is not reason enough for me to watch a flick in my spare time.

But I still do on occasion, and I still have a mammoth collection. So in the context of this post I have a fresh motivation to be intentional about this part of my life. And to quote John Piper, who says he hasn’t been to a movie in like 30 years (I don’t intend to do that):

“Being entertained by sin does not increase compassion for sinners. There are, perhaps, a few extraordinary men who can watch action-packed, suspenseful, sexually explicit films and come away more godly. But there are not many. And I am certainly not one of them.”

There are so many movies that give a glorious occasion to present the gospel, like Seinfeld, and there are so many movies that demonstrate the brilliance and beauty of artistic talent, like So You Think You Can Dance. I will look for them, and by God’s grace use them for His glory (and enjoy them along the way, which is also just fine). But for now, the quote above will suffice to share my heart about the discipline I believe God is calling me to. For me it will specifically apply to movies on television – I spend absurd amounts of time watching parts of movies I have seen 100 times. Although this is fun, I’m determined to find a more productive form of relaxation. As a wise man once told me, it is quite embarassing as a Christian to know more movie lines than bible verses.

WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL?

If you don’t believe and find your treasure in Jesus, this post no doubt sounds ridiculous (it is a little). In your mind you might be trying to imagine how much more fun you have, how much more happy you are, and how much more fulfillment you receive from watching television than anything else you can conceive of doing with your evenings, especially anything of a “religious” or “spiritual” nature. You might be trying to compare the relaxation, amusement, entertainment, or escape you get from TV, with the unknown pleasure or satisfaction from anything else. And because it is unknown, you easily can feel perfectly content continuing with your habits and not feeling guilty or worried about what you might be missing.

What I’d like to try to convey to you is that what you are (and what I am) missing is infinitely more valuable, entertaining, relevant, fulfilling, enjoyable, lasting, and in some ways relaxing than what you are envisioning in your head right now regarding television. And I’m not telling you to give that up or to feel guilty about watching what you watch. My goodness, why are you even reading this blog if I made such ridiculous contentions as that? What I am telling you is whatever good it offers, it does not offer forgiveness of sins, or escape from righteous wrath, or reconciliation with the God of the universe, in whose image you were created, or authentic gospel community. Without those things, a lifetime of relaxation and entertainment will be little consolation to an eternity of separation and misery. And above that, it does not offer the giver of those things (Jesus), who is more precious than all the gifts combined. The separation from him because of our sinfulness and obsession with the temporary pleasures of television will be horrible, conscious, and forever. I’m not trying to be mean or scare you; I’m trying to rescue you (and me) from a wasted life.

Television is not the point, and neither are the things portrayed and glorified through it, namely greed, violence, drunkenness, sexual immorality, etc. These things are symptoms, and vessels, by which the real problem manifests itself. The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but righteousness, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit. Whether you (we) agree that these symptoms, or the vessel by which they come, are wrong or should be avoided is irrelevant. What is relevant, and indisputable, and the real problem, is that these things draw us away, and distract our attention, from the most glorious and infinite reality in the universe, namely, the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Television is an idol (and a killer) if it, and the entertainment from it, becomes ultimate, and not an additional, undeserved blessing from the treasure of our life (Jesus).

Please at least consider the risk you are taking unwinding your stress, losing your mind, and devoting your precious time to the unrealistic and fleeting world found broadcast through our television sets. You can still watch. Just consider. I know I am.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Confused Culture and a Clear Christ

Writing on a blog is hard. I really try to be clear and helpful, engage the culture in a timely and relevant way, and tie my posts together enough so that if you are a faithful reader, you can really see the connection and direction of my thoughts. But then I also want them to be independent and simple enough that if you are a first time reader they will make sense to you and be worth your time. And of course I try to be brief, but so far that has been a futile effort (sorry!). I guess for me, life is too short to be brief. I want to use the words in my brain and on my heart while they are still there. And then of course I try to be humble, knowing that my words are temporary, not original, and come from a highly imperfect man. But by the grace of God I know that they might possibly lead people closer to the infallible and eternal word in the Bible, and the irresistibly desirable and infinitely perfect Person of Jesus Christ found in it.

The last year or so on this blog, within the overall theme of offering the Gospel of Jesus Christ as simple and profound truth for a complex culture, I have been trying to do two things:

1. Discern and participate in the nature and developments of the “church” in America, and understand and live what the church really is and what it should look like. Why should I go to church? What church should I go to? What does “church” mean?

2. Discern and participate in the nature and fruits of a “Christian” person, and understand this in order to live and explain it in such a way as to be confirming for the Christian, convicting and loving for the non-Christian, and effective for all so the increasing reality of loving our neighbor in an authentic and God-honoring way is realized.

These two things are starting to come to a head in my life, and in current events, which is encouraging, complicated, and a bit convicting. Encouraging because it confirms that questions, answers, and insight I have experienced in the last several months have not been without purpose, and have been from God. Complicated because what it means to be a Christian in community, and individually, is messy, and not neatly outlined in the Bible to be understood and experienced without effort. And convicting because it is real; there really are churches that are unbalanced and unbiblical in a way that is detrimental to the kingdom of God; and there really are people who profess to be Christians but defraud the name of Christ by their unbiblical proclamation or hypocritical demonstration of the gospel. The Bible commands us to be aware of and respond to both these realities.

So what I am absolutely convinced of is that as followers of Christ we have to be clear, so that we can be helpful. We have to be clear in our truth. We have to be clear in our community. We have to be clear in our love. We have to be clear that God is holy, that we are sinners, that the Bible is preeminent, and that the cross is central, to all of life and human experience. We have to be clear that if we have not love, we have nothing. It sounds simple (even if you disagree). Alas, our sinful nature has made it horribly confusing, so much so that non-Christians aren’t even listening to our message and some Christians don’t understand its power, and too many are choosing a temporary, functional savior instead of the eternal savior who went through a bloody cross to the right hand of God.

SEXUAL SAVIOR

I'll spare you the news update on the fallen Governor of South Carolina, except to say that it is clear we don't seem to be at the bottom of his failure yet. He is not the first to fall in this way, and he will surely not be the last. Such a shame that he confused some into believing he was worthy of being in the 2012 presidential conversations. Such a shame that many trusted and respected him to lead them in a confusing time in our country, and for his party. Such a shame that the adultery was not the end of this story; deception was and is there also. Such a shame for his wife and children. Such a shame that there was a spiritual component to this journey, yet little true repentence and little mention of the cross of Christ.

But we shouldn't forget about those who have fallen before him: United States presidents, popular and influential pastors, and Old Testament heroes. Let anyone who thinks he stands firm take heed lest he fall! We scorn and rebuke his actions, as we should, but we also should appreciate the gut check. In our wordly hell of loneliness, tension, and unquenced desire for companionship, do we above all else seek for sexual escape and romantic fairytales, or do we seek the crucified and exalted Christ? Mark Sanford went through spiritual boot camp looking for an answer to his condition, but in the end, the escape and romance he found in Argentina was his functional savior, and look where it led him.

FINANCIAL SAVIOR

In all likelihood, Bernard Madoff will die in prison. 150 years is a long time. Most of us are glad and acknowledge that he deserves it. And he does. He deceived and stole untold amounts of money from people of all kinds and manipulated the system in ways I am certainly not bright enough to explain or understand. His crimes will trickle down and affect generations of Americans. 150 years doesn't seem that long when you think about all that.

Yet we shouldn't be quick to judge. What was at the bottom of Madoff's motives and deception? Was it not greed? In his worldly hell of fear and insecurity, he sought after the functional savior of monetary gain and financial wealth. Are we so different? What Madoff, and all of us, actually deserve is far longer than 150 years. And no amount of money will save us from that plight. Only a crucified and exalted Christ can. Bernard Madoff escaped a life of poverty to become one of the riches men in America, and look where it led him.

PHYSICAL SAVIOR

Breaking the trend of the two men mentioned above, this doesn't seem to be the time to discuss the controversy surronding the life, nor the confusion surrounding the death, of Michael Jackson. I grew up in the 80s and for my money entertainment does not get better than the gravity-defying lean in the Smooth Criminal video. He was an amazing talent and entertainer. I will not paint a picture of his sin and brokenness and then say look where it led him. Like some, I would like to believe the Sovereign God of the Universe opened the eyes of his heart and gave him the strength to believe in his last days. It is certainly possible.

But I think it is helpful to look at his life as an example and warning of the insufficency of functional saviors. Dan Phillips says it this way:

"What Jackson did to himself is what we all do to ourselves outside of Christ. The difference is that Jackson's failed attempts were all worn obviously, in public view, on the changing tapestry of his face, while we may mask ours better. As you shrink from the Frankenstein shock of Jackson's visage, reflect: mankind was created in God's image, and still bears that image. But in seeking to take God's place and make themselves gods, our foreparents did to their whole beings what Michael Jackson did to his face: they horridly disfigured themselves and all of us, leaving a repulsive mockery of what we were meant to be. The only solution for us is not a succession of endeavors to remake ourselves. Each attempt leaves a worse spectacle than the previous, and moves us further from what we truly need. We do not need new faces. We need new natures. We need the miracle of regeneration, not the tragedy of manmade makeovers."

In our worldly hell of confused identity, low self-esteem, and ridicule from men, do we seek the temporary, functional savior of glamour, physical makeover, and external beauty, or the eternal savior of the crucified and exalted Christ?

RELIGIOUS SAVIOR

Continuing to break the trend from the first two people mentioned, I am using Obama here merely as an example of what so many in our culture do. Obviously Barack Obama is not in the same category, and actually, in many ways, doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with these three men, certainly not the first two. But because of the timing and relevance of his journey as outlined in this article, I included him in this post.

The Obama family is looking for a church. Can you relate? There are mixed reports on whether they have found one, but I'm not sure that is the point. The point is that so many in our culture are in the same situation, and don't seem to think it is a big deal. Some never stop looking. Some stop and find one, but it becomes a religion only to them. In their worldly hell of legalism and self-justification they seek the functional savior of religion, and accomplish their salvation when they find a building to go in every week or so. But then when life gets hard, or the church changes the music, or real trial and tribulation come, they leave the church or become angry and confused as to why their religion did not bring constant reward. Like the elder brother in Luke 15, they (we) demand a celebration because of our goodness. And if we our lucky, we realize that our goodness is detestable to God (and not really that good), and our only hope is the eternal savior of a crucified and exalted Christ.

CHRIST THE SAVIOR

There is nothing uniquely special or uniquely immoral about these men. We are all human and are all sinners, so even the President (and certainly you and I) could be included in a list such as this to illustrate the relevance of the gospel to our broken condition. We all resort to confusing functional saviors when a clear everlasting savior beckons. Rebellion against the beauty and all-sufficiency of Christ for salvation, as a talented and legendary (but disturbed) pop star, or as a crooked and deceptive scam artist, or as an adulterous governor, or as the President of the United States, or as a middle-class Joe Sixpack, or as a well-meaning social worker, (etc.), results in the same separation from the desire of our souls and purpose in creation. If you don’t agree with that statement, not much else on this blog will make any sense to you. And that is not because it is confusing. It is because it is foolishness. But it is gospel.

Because repentance and trust in the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, for a talented and legendary (but disturbed) pop star, or for a crooked and deceptive scam artist, or for an adulterous governor, or for the President of the United States, or for a middle-class Joe Sixpack, or for a well-meaning social worker, (etc.), results in the same reconciliation with the desire of our souls and purpose in creation, and everlasting joy. That is the gospel.

So as the culture challenges its expectations and desires for “church”, and the “church” challenges structure and style with new ideas and programs and manages the reality of hypocrisy and false proclamation in its midst, ultimately the gospel and the fruit and love from it is the only thing that matters. My deepest hope and conviction is that focus on the gospel will reveal (and increase) those with saving faith, and organically create and maintain the biblical, effective, God-honoring concept of “church”, namely people living the gospel word in gospel community; until He comes back and establishes forever the reality that authentic Christians living in gospel community (church) have always meant to foreshadow.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Who Do You Say that I Am?





Jesus asked this question to his disciples after his initial inquiry about what the general public thought of him. I ask it now to anyone reading this, or anyone not reading this, about what you think of me (or what you think of Christians). I am (and we are) not Jesus, clearly, so I do not expect your answer to be “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But I hope through me, that is how you would answer this question about Jesus. I actually don't really care what you think of me (real nice, huh?), unless what you think of me affects what you think of Jesus. So the reason I am asking it is to give myself and fellow Christians a gut check as to the impression we are leaving with the people we interact with, and whether they are seeing more of Jesus or more of us in our example. If they are seeing more of us, that is very bad, because we are sinners who are completely bankrupt spiritually.

Ultimately this question cuts to the core of much of what I have been talking about. The church, or the “universal church” made up of all authentic believers in Christ, represented locally in the form of local congregations and communities of people, should be to the world a personal presentation of the holiness, preeminence, love, and community of the Triune God of the universe, who reveals and reconciles himself to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the Body of Christ does not look like this to the world, it is not because the biblical vision of the church is inadequate or that the absolute truth of the gospel is powerless; it means that we have not been faithful to either and thus confused a broken world as to what we are really even trying to say and do.

It is quite obvious that most non-Christians look at Christians in a negative way. Whether it is because they perceive us as hypocritical, closed-minded, selfish, intolerant, arrogant, ignorant, bigoted, violent, boring, weak, uncool, etc. depends on who you ask and what topic you are considering. Somehow, I want to try to boldly respond to some of these perceptions in a way that hopefully is not only loving and sincere, but also reassuring and honest enough to maybe lead some to reconsider their negativity. And if nothing else, what I hope to do is make us decrease, so that Christ can increase, and so that I can present the irresistibly desirable Person of Jesus Christ to both Christian and non-Christian alike. If you have a problem with Christians, I am very sorry, and please know that your feelings are justified. If you have a problem with Christ, I am very sorry for you, because He is the only one who can ultimately justify you. I don’t say that to be mean. I say it because I love you.

UNCOOL WEAKLING?

The primary category of perceptions that I want to humbly respond to (in this post at least) is that Christians are ignorant, boring, weak, and uncool. In other words, I think it is fair to say that many in the outside world look at the typical Christian as Ned Flanders. I didn’t really watch the Simpsons much until college (what?!), and still am no expert, but Ned Flanders was the devout, overbearing Christian neighbor of Homer Simpson, who in reality was a really good person. Only he was a dork, a weakling, timid, and was to others so smart that he was dumb, especially considering his profession of Christianity. Whether we are actually like this (especially men), or we rollover whenever we are excused of being like this instead of defending ourselves, or we are not really like this at all, doesn’t much matter to those who perceive us this way.

Somehow, though, we have to humbly and lovingly kill this perception because it is not the way Jesus was, or is, and it is not the way his disciples were after they received the presence of the Holy Spirit, and it is not the way that God intends us to be. I think the easiest way to do this is in our sacrificial, bold, faithful, and compassionate love for others we have to leave people with more of Christ than we leave of ourselves. In other words, somehow in our service and proclamation and demonstration of the gospel in authentic community we have to get out of the way and let Jesus Christ remain. This way, even if we are ignorant, boring, weak, and uncool, it won’t matter because they won’t see us; they will Jesus, and He is none of those things. He is the Alpha and the Omega, Savior of the world, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

UNSUNG SOLDIER


I recently starting catching up on the TV Series The Unit, starring Dennis Haysbert (“That’s Allstate’s stand, are you in good hands?”). It is based on the books Inside Delta Force, and traces the life and missions of the elite Special Forces of the United States Army. I really get into this stuff, and as I’ve gotten through multiple episodes I can’t shake the fact that I really want to be like these guys. A real life, red-blooded, legit, (I’m going to say it) Bad - Ass.

Guys who are so brilliant that they can decipher in multiple languages the best way to resolve a crisis with nuclear implications. Guys who are so street savvy that they can cope with a broken mission and escape from a foreign country with no prior plan by talking their way through international barriers and police in pursuit. Guys who are so disciplined that they can endure physical and psychological torture without compromising their country or their mission. Guys who are so fearless and reckless that they accept life-risking missions every week for the thrill of the ride and the love of country. Guys who are so multi-talented that they can start a broken-down car, diffuse a nuclear bomb, and successfully navigate through an unknown South American town in the same day. Guys who are so decisive and accurate that they eliminate the danger for a baby being used as a shield held in the arms of a terrorist. Guys who are so confident that even when all the forces seem against them and their doom seems imminent, they trust their training and their strength, and a power and a will beyond their control, and return home.

I want to be like that. Reckless, fearless, disciplined, brilliant, sold out to a cause, at the risk of my life. Ned Flanders was not one of those guys. And as I’ve watched this series, it has become painfully clear that the nature of this “unit” is that it doesn’t exist. If they succeed in their missions, they get no credit. If they fail, the government does not claim knowledge of their existence.

That’s kind of how I want to be. That’s kind of how I think Christians should look and act. No, we are not all brilliant, fearless, disciplined (whose fault is that?), navigational and mechanical geniuses, charming, or mentally and physically chizzled – shoot, I struggle changing a flat tire, or getting a bartender to wait on me at a crowded pub, or running from one end of the basketball court to the other, or navigating myself around a shopping mall. But His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by his own glory and goodness. We are fully equipped and have been deployed on a mission that will never generate credit or glory for ourselves, but will fulfill the promises and plans of a holy and gracious God and give Him all the glory He deserves. And our mission is not going to fail, despite the wars and rumors of war. It is not our mission, it is His. We fight the battles in the strength He provides and defer the glory. We need to start acting like the badass that God created us to be, knowing that we are nothing so that Christ can be everything. Then maybe the world will see us that way and praise our Father who is in heaven.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Power of Community





This is Part 3 in a series I’m trying to put together that is essentially a summary of the book Total Church, and a plea for balance with both gospel word and gospel community. The first part was about the power of words, the second part was a link between the two, and this part is about the power of community. The ultimate goal is to see the power of the gospel. You may find it interesting (I did) that the video above is created from a different book, The Tangible Kingdom, which I have already said is less balanced. Well, be that as it may, it is a really good video, and probably the best available to demonstrate the power of community in the context of the gospel. So there you go.

I always get ahead of myself when I preview my blog posts. There is no way I could summarize the power of community in anything close to a concise form. There is no way I really could even do it from the perspective of the book Total Church, which I finished and highly recommend still. It is kind of something that you could easily talk about without ever doing, which is what I want to avoid at all costs. Just to give you a little background, my church is experimenting with a house church model and neighborhood initiative that most fundamentally is an attempt to take the church to the people, instead of assuming the people will come to church. From the beginning, I have been cautious and concerned about the lack of emphasis on the centrality of the gospel word, namely the message of the cross, in this model, as well as the negativity towards the institutional church that seems to be the driving force behind it. But all that I have said enough about in previous posts. I find myself now engaging in the concept myself as a leader of a “Life Church”, and am very excited to work through what it means to be the church in all aspects of life, and to experience and proclaim the gospel in the context of authentic community, different from any small group or bible study I’ve been a part of before.

I wish I could just say this and be done: gospel community is not only powerful, but it is essential, and through the local church it is the way God intends for his people to experience, preserve, and model His gospel word, which is the power of God for salvation and the hope of all mankind. We are at a time in our country, and our culture, where this gospel community with a healthy focus on the gospel word is certainly not automatic, and requires our intentionality.

I wish I could just say that and have you understand and experience yourself the same passion and clarity that I have on this topic through the books I have read, sermons I have listened to, conversations I have had, and illumination from the Bible I have experienced. I am overwhelmed right now with resources like this that say I lot better than I am now the ins and outs of this reality. When I started this blog, my original idea was just to lead people to these resources, in a hope that those resources would lead them to the Bible, which would lead them to Jesus. So that’s what I want to happen, ultimately. What I say is going to burn someday, whereas the Word of God will last forever.

But then I realized that if you’re reading this blog you might be utilizing all the extra time you have, and expecting you to dig into other resources is a bit of a stretch (though if you’re reading this in place of reading the Bible, stop! Go read the Word and forget about me). But anyway, I have felt convicted to summarize these things for you the best I can. This has made my job harder and discernment through the Holy Spirit all the more crucial. Much of the below is verbatim from Total Church; I pulled out quotes from each section that seemed to summarize the theme in different aspects of what we consider roles of the "church" (community, not building). My words continue at the bottom with the explanation of the Gospel of the Cross.

EVANGELISM

"In view of contemporary culture, we should not underestimate the need for authenticity among the people of God. Perhaps this need is greater when cultures are being introduced to Christianity for the first time. The Western world has advantages from a Christian influence stretching back hundreds of years. But this longevity has also brought disadvantages, including a lack of credibility. People have rejected the gospel word in part because they have not been exposed to credible gospel community. Churches have often stood aloof from society. Evangelicals have tended to run away from marginalized urban areas to populate more comfortable suburbs. Christians are often perceived as irrelevant and self-righteous. If these perceptions have any basis, we should not point the finger too quickly at people's spiritual blindness. Jesus gives the world the right to judge the sincerity of our profession on the basis of our love for each other. In other words, we should face with humility the challenge of unbelief. Our response should be one of repentance and faith resulting in lives of authentic corporate existence lived boldly before a skeptical and apathetic world."

SOCIAL INVOLVEMENT

"God has a strategy to exalt his Son and magnify his grace. That strategy is to chose the foolish, weak, and lowly people of the world as his own.....The big question is, why is the church in the West failing to reach the poor and the marginalized in our society? If our churches do not reflect the reality Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 1, then we have to ask ourselves, concerning the message we have proclaimed, the way we have proclaimed it, the church cultures we have created, the expectation we have of church members, whether in some or all of these ways we have been untrue to the message of the cross. We have left room for boasting."

CHURCH PLANTING

"It is sometimes said that those committed to church planting fall into two camps. The first camp includes those whose primary concern is mission and who see church (in the form of church planting) as the most biblical or most convenient way to pursue their commitment to mission. The primary concern of the second camp is the church. They see mission (in the form of church planting) as the best way to pursue their radical view of the church......There is a third camp - those whose primary concern is gospel-centered communities, whose priority is the gospel, and who see Christian community as the natural expression of the gospel. The New Testament pattern of church life implies a regular transplanting of churches. This creates a missionary dynamic in which new leaders can emerge and the church can re-invent itself. Church planting is part of normal church life. At present church planting carries a certain mystique. Church planters are portrayed as a unique kind of rugged pioneer. But we need to create a culture in which transplanting is normal. Every local church should be aiming to transplant and raise up church planters."

WORLD MISSION

"At present the military and economic might of Western nations is struggling to counter the threat of international terrorism. It is proving difficult to defeat an enemy made up of local cells working towards a common mission with high autonomy but shared values. They are flexible, responsive, opportunistic, influential, and effective. Together they seem to have an impact on our world far beyond what they would if they formed themselves into a structured, identifiable organization. Churches can and should adopt the same model with a greater impact as we 'wage peace' on the world."

DISCIPLESHIP AND TRAINING

"Let us make a bold statement: truth cannot be taught effectively outside of close relationships. The reason is because truth is not primarily formal; it is dynamic. The truth of the gospel becomes compelling as we see it transforming lives in the rub of daily, messy relationships.....Our lives, individually and corporately, are all too often indistinguishable from those who are strangers to the grace of God. Jesus commanded his disciples to go and and disciple the nations by teaching them to obey all that he commanded. The reason we fail to respond to that exhortation is not that the commands of Jesus are hard to comprehend. The most significant obstacle in the interpretative process is sin! That is precisely why discipleship is essential. In becoming a Christian, I am a disciple, but that is an identity, not an event. I never stop being a disciple, and I never reach the point where I no longer require daily discipleship by the gospel word in gospel community."

PASTORAL CARE

"Marriage and self-harming are just two examples that reflect the myriad of issues faced by broken people in a fallen world. Often it is at these points of "crisis" when life is painful, difficult and messy, that the hiding places of our confidence are exposed.....In a community where the Holy Spirit is at work through the gospel, there is no better place to be than among the people of God when the word of God is skillfully applied by the Spirit of God."

SPIRITUALITY

"The invitation is to become part of the new people of God, the bride of Christ. It suggests a spirituality with much more communal orientation. Here is a spirituality in which we grasp the amazing dimensions of Christ's love 'together with all the saints' (Ephesians 3:18). We model and embody God's love for one another (1 John 4:12). I have a relationship with God because we have a relationship with God. There are persons of God because there is a people of God. What does this mean in practice? First, it means we should prioritize prayer with others over prayer alone. Second, we must not separate our relationship with God from our relationship with others. Third, we need to exhort and encourage one another daily."

THEOLOGY

"In Ephesians 4:11-16, Paul affirms the role of teachers, but suggests their role is 'to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the Body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.' Notice that we reach 'knowledge of the Son of God' together. Our understanding progresses as we grow together. My growth as a Christian is in some sense linked to your growth. Only together do we attain maturity."

APOLOGETICS

"Modern Christianity has developed a rational apologetic. We engage modern society with rational proofs of God's existence. We provide scientific data to defend divine creation. We have developed logical responses to the questions raised by suffering. All of these presuppose that modern people find the Christian faith intellectually weak. But the problem is not an intellectual problem. The problem is hearts that refuse to live under God's reign. We reject God. It is a relational problem. And if it is a relational problem, it requires a relational apologetic. What will commend the gospel are lives lived in obedience to the gospel and a community life that reflects God's triune community of love. People will not believe until they are genuinely open to exploring the truth about God. They become open as they see that it is good to know God. And they see that it is good to know God as they see the love of the Christian community. As Francis Schaeffer said, 'Our relationship with each other is the criterion the world uses to judge whether our message is truthful. Christian community is the ultimate apologetic.'

"We need to persuade people that our story, the story of God, is true. But they will only explore its truth if we can first persuade them that it might be a better story. We need to address their hearts before we can begin to address the questions in their heads. We have a better story than any of the alternatives. We need to awaken a desire for God. We need to make people want Christianity to be true. Then we might be able to persuade them that it is true."

CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE

"Mutual responsibility between the generations is normative for family life and the way in which values are transmitted. Should that not be normative for church also? As those relationships develop and grow over the years, and as the child moves into adolescence, the strength of those inter generational friendships can be powerful means of grace. In the purposes of God they can be ways of keeping the young adult from becoming one among the hundreds who leave our churches each week never to return."

SUCCESS

"On the final day, what is unseen will be revealed (Mark 4:21-23), and what is small will fill the earth. But in the present, God's kingdom is secret. It grows unseen. It is small in the eyes of this world. We need to trust God's word and God's reign. Success is not defined in terms of what can be seen, for God's kingdom is unseen. The crown of righteousness is given not to those who have led large congregations, but to those like Paul who can say, 'I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.' (2 Timothy 4:7-8) Success is to be faithful to Christ and his word.....The future of mission does not lie in grand strategies or meta structures. Christ is building his church, for the most part unseen, in the shape of thousands of small congregations. This is the future of the church - the sovereignty of the risen Christ and the 'church of the poor'."

THE GOSPEL OF THE CROSS

(Back to my words) As I have been reading all these books and articles, and going through this journey with other Christians about how to balance the gospel word and authentic gospel community in a way that brings glory to God, joy and transformation to people, and a glimpse of God’s Kingdom on earth, this has become my prayer:

Lord, please do not let the problems I have with some of these approaches to or presentations of community (which you have convicted me are legitimate), become an excuse for me to avoid the challenges in these approaches and presentations that will make me whole and gain people access to your presence and the reason they were created.

For example, many definitions of “the gospel” in emerging and incarnational community literature are confusing, which is the same as saying they are inadequate. I do not believe that the gospel is salvation in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone, and anything else. The Gospel is not of Jesus Christ and. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Period. I believe in social justice and kingdom community and morality (etc.), but these things are not the gospel. They are the fruits and implications of the gospel, without which the gospel has no impact. But they are not the gospel. If they become the gospel, we lose the gospel; the fully sufficient work of Christ will be mixed with our own works (Mark Dever). We are saved into community; we are not saved by community. We are saved by Jesus. We are saved into a life of love towards others; we are not saved by our love of others, or their love towards us. We are saved by Jesus. We are saved into the Spirit-led process of holiness and sanctification; we are not saved by our holiness. We are saved by Jesus. The reason it is important to distinguish between the gospel and implication is that the gospel is most fundamentally about the cross of Jesus Christ. And if it is most fundamentally about anything else, it leaves room for pride.

Only the cross ultimately removes all boasting and leaves us helpless at the feet of Jesus. Only the cross completely destroys our pride and self-reliance and conquers our sin. Only the cross offers a sufficient answer to and hope for the question of suffering. The cross shows us not just touchy feely love for our neighbor, but sacrificial, radical, offensive love that enables us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Only the cross completely saves us from both younger brother rebellion and elder brother religion. Preaching the message of the cross builds a culture of confession in churches and communities instead of an environment where hidden sin destroys from the inside out (Matt Chandler). Without the cross, how can love be anything but self-centered and works-based? Without the cross, the rock that Christ is building His church on will not be centered on the true character and nature of His person and work, but on our good deeds (which aren’t that good). As Ed Stetzer says, the church is not the Kingdom of God, but it is birthed by the kingdom and in its wake. The church exists, he says, to be a sign and instrument of the kingdom, so that when people look into your church (not the building, but the community) they see what the kingdom is like. But if this is centered on us and not the person and work of Jesus, than what they see will be just sinful human beings making an inadequate effort at love and good deeds.

The less we talk about the cross, the more confused the outside world becomes between the gospel message and the peace corps message. The less we talk about the cross, the more confused and crippled the Body of Christ becomes in the preservation and proclamation of the power of God unto salvation. Paul said he resolved to know only one thing: Jesus Christ and him crucified. He talked about other things, yes, but never in any direction other than towards the centrality of the cross. Why aren’t we talking about it more? Are we really worried about what the world will think? Are we trying to please men or please God? Do we think that God’s word will come back to Him empty?

Turning the Gospel into anything more than the substitutionary death and supernatural resurrection of Jesus Christ and resulting grace for those who believe, completely apart from works, will inevitably and eventually lead to works-based righteousness. If we bank our life on anything other than the unmerited gift of God through Jesus Christ, which destroys all pride and removes all boasting, then we are too sinful to prevent any alternative or additional hope from becoming self-centered and therefore devastating. I believe this deeply. It is not an assault on community or evangelism or mission to our culture, but it is a clarification so that our community, our evangelism, and our mission isn’t missing the most important thing, which is the only thing that leads to authentic conversion and reconciliation with God, and as implication, to kingdom community. The Kingdom of God is not people just doing life together without an understanding and experience of the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross. I’m sorry. It just isn’t.

NOT A PLACE TO HIDE

But!!! I don’t want my issue with confusing gospel explanations to become my excuse to ignore the biblical and profound challenges of living an incarnational and missional lifestyle. The Gospel of the Cross is not a place to hide, it is a place to live. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, and if I don’t account for that in my posture and proclamation, than I am beating at the air. Many have articulated this differently, but a full understanding of the human condition as presented in the Bible shows that people do not reject God out some kind of intellectual obstacle, but because of a moral resistance to live other than the way they choose. If I ignore the heart issue of unbelief, and only focus on the head issue, than my hearers or readers (you) will never want to believe, which means they will never be able to believe. The way they will want to believe is when they see an authentic gospel community that embraces them and loves them without any pretense, the way God loves us and demonstrated to us in the sacrifice of His Son on the cross. Jesus told the church in Ephesus to repent of their aspiration for truth that didn’t affect their heart, or He would remove their lampstand. I am very convicted by this.

I don’t want to remain in my comfort zone of books and blogs and sermons and not go across the street or downtown or overseas to help and love people who are searching for God. I don’t want to not listen to people at coffee shops because I am too busy writing and reading about theology. I don’t want to not live among people who are sinners, as if I was not a sinner myself. I don’t want to not love others unconditionally, or only love them when I think it will benefit me, because of my obsession with sound doctrine, as if the implication of sound doctrine was not love. I don’t want to neglect the relational aspect of communion with God, and miss out on the insight and transforming power of witnessing God working through others. I don’t want to eat meals by myself in a hurry so I can finish a book or go to a church service or watch a game or go to bed, and miss the fellowship and presence of the Holy Spirit when people gather over food. I don’t want to spend all my time at home and at work, and miss out on the spontaneous and authentic community that is experienced at a “third place”. I don’t want the time I do spend at home and at work to be any less intentional in my expectation of gospel community than at church events or meetings. I don’t want to excuse myself from mission and service out of selfishness, or busyness, or cowardice, and miss out on the front row seat to the coming of God’s kingdom that is seen by taking care of someone who is hurting.

I hope I can maintain my vigor for the gospel word and the centrality of the cross of Christ while experiencing the balance with, and power of, authentic gospel community. If I can’t, than I don’t think I’ll be the person God created me to be, or the living sacrifice He intends to use for His glory. I’ll just be either another religious hypocrite or another heretical peacemaker. Neither honors our Lord or models His grace for our dying world.