Thursday, January 29, 2009

Face in the Crowd

Reading the news is incredibly helpful not only for staying informed to the happenings of the culture around us, but also for conviction to what we are up against and for a challenge to determine how Christ can accomplish and transcend that complexity. Sometimes the stories you find are not expected. The following story, which you probably have heard by now, is a bit appalling.

There are so many things that could be said in an attempt to show what it means to present a Christ-like example, specifically in sports, and how this coach must never have heard any of those things. But for some reason, God directed me to read this story differently. In light of my previous post, and a growing conviction about authentic saving faith, what I was convicted of, and what I would like to point out, is that we, even as Christians, are not incapable of presenting such an appalling picture of Christ. We are vulnerable to the same temptations, and if we don’t counter them with the Word of God and the Spirit of Jesus Christ, we are sitting ducks on Judgment Day, and we are likely to leave a trail of collateral damage that does not honor our Lord and Savior.

In case you have not heard it yet, here is the story:

Unapologetic coach of 100-0 win fired by school

Basically, a high school girl’s basketball team in Dallas demolished their opponent 100-0 recently. The score was 59-0 at halftime. In the fourth quarter The Covenant School (aggressor) was still applying full court pressure and launching three-pointers. With four minutes to play, once they reached 100 points, they apparently let up offensively, and did not score again. Defensively though, they still managed to hold Dallas Academy (victim) scoreless despite diligent effort and hustle on the other side. The Dallas Academy has approximately 20 girls in their student body, 8 of which are on the basketball team. The academy boasts of its small class sizes and specializes in teaching students struggling with "learning differences," such as short attention spans or dyslexia. The team has gone winless for 4 consecutive years.

After the game, The Covenant School released a public statement apologizing for the massacre: “It is shameful and an embarrassment that this happened. This clearly does not reflect a Christ-like and honorable approach to competition. We humbly apologize for our actions and seek the forgiveness of Dallas Academy, TAPPS and our community.”

The head coach of Covenant, however, remains unrepentant. He wrote in an email: “In response to the statement posted on The Covenant School Web site, I do not agree with the apology or the notion that the Covenant School girl’s basketball team should feel embarrassed or ashamed. We played the game as it was meant to be played. My values and my beliefs would not allow me to run up the score on any opponent, and it will not allow me to apologize for a wide-margin victory when my girls played with honor and integrity.”

He was fired.

Say what you will about the legitimacy or correctness of running up the score – there is some place for arguments about teaching your team to play the complete game or to never be complacent to the impossible comeback that seems to happen time and time again – but this incident is by all accounts inexcusable. A team that has been winless for 4 seasons, and who pulls from a pool of talent that includes 20 people, is probably not capable of mounting a comeback, even if the score was 59-30 at halftime.

And say what you will about honor and integrity – arguments make some sense about playing to your full potential and giving 100 percent every time you step on the floor – but this incident is by all accounts dishonorable. Sports allow for almost any possible assortment of scenarios, and you can’t ever be prepared for every one, but even though this type of a game is completely unheard of, it still certainly could have ended differently. If, as the head coach of a girl’s high school basketball team, for a Christian school, you can’t discern that integrity means not allowing this to happen, there is a problem. It would be a problem even for the coach of a NBA franchise, let alone a girl’s high school basketball team, where the girls are neither physically capable, nor emotionally willing, to prevent such an onslaught.

In other words, only he as the coach could stop it, and the fact that he didn’t presents him as a jerk and the losing team as honorable. And he is supposed to be representing Christ. I don’t know if this man is a professing Christian; but as a head coach of a Christian school’s basketball team, he does represent Christianity whether he likes it or not. To the world, it looks like Christianity considers sports and winning and scoring points more important than humility and sportsmanship, from this example. Is that true? Thankfully, the Dallas Academy has acted in a Christ-like manner in all this (though they are not a distinctly Christian school), so their example trumps that of Covenant’s coach, and in the end, the whole incident doesn’t dishonor Christ that much.

Unfortunately, most times our sins and the damage it causes and the people it hurts, is not offset by the willing, Christ-like example of those we hurt. In other words, our bad example is not trumped, and is therefore left as the picture to the world of the Christ we follow.

To make this bluntly personal, allow me to confess. I struggle immensely with pride and laziness. I desire deeply to receive comments on this blog praising my amazing posts and my wit and writing ability. I have to remind myself repeatedly that this blog is all and only for Jesus Christ, and I pray continuously for each post that God would use it for His glory and make me invisible, and I do this out loud and in writing often. Yet I desire the praise anyway. When I listen to a sermon, with some exceptions, it takes a strict discipline to keep myself from daydreaming as to how I would or could deliver (or write about) the same content better. For the record, I have not spoken publicly in more than a year, and so were I given the opportunity, I would probably look pretty nervous and pretty foolish. When I sit in a bible study, I focus most of my attention on how I can be the most profound one in the group, and focus very little on how God might be challenging me or how I can encourage or pray for those present. My pride blinds me to the fact that I am neither witty, nor articulate, nor profound, and Jesus is all that matters.

I waste a lot of time. I have found that laziness is a dangerous thing. The things I sometimes occupy my time with instead of seeking, serving, or honoring Christ are ridiculous. My balance between relaxing and staying busy is not all that healthy. I have more trouble waking up in the morning than you could possibly imagine. I press the snooze for well over an hour most mornings (10 minute increments). I have to diligently and creatively manage my time in a way that allows me to truly be a living sacrifice for Christ. I get lost in movies that I have seen a hundred times and spend unneeded minutes on the internet. The time I don’t spend on helping other people or building relationships is much more damaging than the time I do spend doing basically nothing.

Pride and laziness are gateway drugs, so to speak. Greed is another. All this to say that I try to be very conscious of the end result of my indwelling sinfulness. In other words, to put myself in the position of this head coach, if my pride - in winning and coaching a flawless basketball team - or my greed - in accomplishing a feat that few, if any, have ever accomplished, or reaching a milestone (100 points) that is unthinkable in girl’s high school basketball - went completely unchecked, it could easily lead to the embarrassment of a hard-working, commendable group of young girls and a tarnished witness to Jesus Christ. Such an outcome is not inconceivable in my context. But I am conscious of that fact, and I trust Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and not myself, to prevent it for His sake. And He promises as much. But He commands a fight.

My prayer for our culture is that such an example as this coach would be exceedingly rare, because of the clarity in our profession that does not associate those without saving faith to our Lord; because of increasing awareness of sin and diligence in killing it as much as possible by those with saving faith; and because of more and more people coming to saving faith in the first place.

Our biggest problem is not the sins we commit, but the sin we have, and until we realize that, the sins we commit will continue to destroy us. My prayer is that Jesus Christ would be as much (if not more) represented by His revelation in the Bible than in human beings, who have always been and will always be miserable sinners in the hands of an angry God. Finally, my prayer is that we miserable sinners would trust the battle cry from Micah 7 and be amazed and transformed by the past and future grace of our God.

I leave you with the lyrical theology of Shai Linne:

This story starts at the climax, we find that
time’s lapsed- don’t mind that
It’s kind of like a night cap filled with divine acts
We zoom in the lens, on Christ's agony in the garden
Doomed for His friends- it had to be for the pardon
And delivery from misery of kids who speak wickedly
Sinfully, inwardly slick with the iniquity
We see disciples sleep and mock today with a lot to say
But we do the same thing when we don’t watch and pray
Like Judas, we sell Christ out to get the treasure
Whether it’s the cheddar or forbidden pleasure
Like the chief priests, we want Christ to surrender
But we want Him out the way when He doesn’t fit our agenda
Like Peter, we have misplaced, fleshly confidence
But we’ll deny the Lord when faced with deadly consequence
Like Herod, we’re curious about Christ because He’s famous
But we quickly get bored with Him when He doesn’t entertain us
Like Pilate, we see Christ and find nothing wrong with Him
But when the world chooses the wicked, we go right along with them
Despite His kindness, we seek to do our Maker violence
The fallenness of humanity at its finest
So now He stands before the crowd doomed to die
An angry mob who’s yelling out “crucify”
The way they treat the Lord of glory is debased and it’s foul
But you miss the point if you don’t see your face in the crowd.

This story starts at the climax, we find that
time’s lapsed- don’t mind that
It’s kind of like a night cap filled with divine acts
We zoom in the lens, on Christ's agony in the garden
Doomed for His friends - His tragedy for our pardon
Foreseeing the Father’s cup of wrath- it has Him stifled and weak
He’s sweating blood with His disciples asleep
The Prince of Peace knows the beef shall increase
Since the thief approaches with the soldiers and the chief priests
His arrest is not just- neither is the trial
While Jesus is being treated foul, he sees Peter’s denial
He’s sent to Pilate, to Herod, back to Pilate
The violence of humanity at its finest
So now He stands before the crowd doomed to die
An angry mob who’s yelling out “crucify”
The way we treat the Lord of glory is debased and it’s foul
Ashamed, I bow, because I see my face in the crowd.

“Before we can begin to see the Cross as something down for us, leading us to faith and worship, we have to see it as something done by us, leading to repentance. Only the man or woman who is prepared to own his share in the guilt of the Cross may claim his share in its grace.”

- C.J. Mahaney

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Pickle for the Church

On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.' – Matthew 7:22-23

I’m trying to discern an important reality within the American Church with this post, and I acknowledge it may sound confusing. Thanks in advance for reading! I appreciate you. In the midst of my quest to help us navigate through a complex culture, and yes, help better understand how to work the Christian faith into the political sphere, I have come to an important point. I wouldn’t be surprised by, and wouldn’t be unhappy with, comments of all kinds with all kinds of emotions (assuming anyone makes it through this, my longest post to date). But before you do, please understand that this post is not about politics, and so I would prefer any comments not to be either. It is about my heart to see the openness to the Gospel not be reduced, the effectiveness of the Gospel not be complicated, and the truth of the Gospel not be compromised.

The most influential pastor, teacher, and author in my life to date has been John Piper. He has spent much of his last few years preaching on, and now publishing a book, Finally Alive, on a subject that is very sensitive. It is not talked about in many churches and Christians overall probably are in a dangerous position of misinterpreting or neglecting it as a simple command and reality: You must be born-again.

Not like Will Farrell in the Saturday Night Live skit (pictured) where he comes out of the womb as a grown, sweaty man with a mustache. But spiritually, like the Bible talks about in passages like “I will turn their heart of stone into a heart of flesh." This actually happens; it’s not just weird religious talk. Regeneration is a fancy theological word that scares most people away, but it is a truth taught in the Bible, and it either has happened to you or it hasn’t. I hope it has and I hope you have assurance of this.


At the risk of sounding controversial, I’ll present an example that brings this issue to the forefront in our country. Barack Obama was inaugurated into the highest office in the land this week. And that is exciting and historic. He follows in the shoes of George W. Bush, the most hated man in the history of the mainstream media. According to the worst, most exaggerated analysis, Bush ruined the economy, created a reputation around the world of distrust and manipulation, and invented a war for no good reason that cost 4000 American lives and a lot of money. By the best analysis, he created an environment and an approach to terrorism that has protected the American people from another attack on our soil.

Whatever you think of the man, whether you are a conservative who is frustrated with unfilled promises of initiating pro-life measures or irresponsibility with government spending, or a liberal who is appalled at his appointees to the Supreme Court or stance on stem-cell research, or a moderate who believes he and his cronies forced a war on the American people using bad intelligence and an obsession with power, or a ordinary American who doesn’t understand why he couldn’t secure your job or pay your bills; one thing is true: He is a professing Christian. According to Karl Rove, he read through the entire Bible every year, and though he never publicly declared the exclusivity of Jesus Christ for salvation (to which it is not his duty), he never publicly denied it either.

A new article in The Economist, of which I am a loyal reader, would have you believe that his evangelical faith contributed to his personality as an “inverted snob”; that he overemphasized emotion – “particularly the intensely emotional experience of being born-again” – over “ratiocination”, which means the process of logical reasoning. This is a strange thing to say, however, because the experience of being born-again has very little to do with emotion, and it is such an experience that is enhanced and quickened by a healthy process of logical reasoning. I truly believe that the claims of Christianity are perfectly logical and relevant, and so such “ratiocination” is what people should be doing and if they do, it will lead them to the experience of regeneration if they search with their whole heart. Said experience may release intense emotions that are real, but the experience itself is much bigger, more lasting, and more significant than what we can express through emotions. Perhaps that is why the reality of new birth is misinterpreted and neglected in the Church today – people think being born-again is emotional, and therefore misread emotional experiences that they may have had in a church service for the necessary, authentic heart change that only the Holy Spirit can complete. And when the emotions leave, hypocritical lifestyles and confusing proclamation is the result.


It was my older brother who first pointed me to the argument that the hugely popular movie The Dark Knight, intentionally or not, is a portrayal and defense of the Bush Administration and their policies and governing style. Such an argument asks: is protecting people at any cost (i.e. violating their privacy to catch the bad guy) forgivable if it works, and the people are in the end protected? Could the real hero be the guy that everyone loves to hate, who abandons his reputation for the physical and emotional protection of the people? Is it better to take the fall and be looked at as a villain even if that means a hypocrite will be misrepresented as the hero? If so, is President Bush a hero disguised as a villain? Maybe.

Probably though, history will judge the President with more sophistication and factual analysis and not with the allegory of a superhero comic story. What is important for us in all this talk about heroes is the fact that George W. Bush does not claim to be or want to be the hero. And he won’t be misrepresented as that. This is important because he is not the hero. Jesus Christ is. And Jesus is not a hero disguised as a villain or a hypocrite misrepresented as a hero. He is sometimes a hero disguised as a good man, or a moral teacher, or a prophet. But whatever he is disguised as, it doesn’t matter because he is what he is. And that is God. And he gave up more than his reputation; he gave up his life, and suffered incomprehensibly for our salvation, so that we could, through faith in Him, experience new birth and enjoy eternity forever in His presence. He did more than protect us. He saved us from a force and a power more destructive than one million terrorist attacks: the holy wrath of God. And he is able to keep us from falling and to present us before His glorious presence, without fault and with great joy. Any other hero will disappoint us or ultimately fail in their protection of us.


The Church in our culture today should take note and be careful not to let a fundamental truth that Barack Obama is hazy on be thrown out with the garbage. Understand that I could never say that President Barack Obama is not a Christian. By Christian, I mean a person with a regenerate heart, who has confessed Jesus as Lord and Savior, possesses eternal life, has been justified once and for all through the atoning blood of Jesus, and lives a life that testifies to their profession. To say someone is not that is a presumption that is arrogant, ignorant, dangerous, and absurd, especially if that person says they are.

But, I am realizing now that I cannot comfortably say that Barack Obama is a Christian. And that is a problem when he claims he is. I have read lots of speeches, and heard lots of things that are greatly encouraging and inspiring, and get me excited. His selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration is great, but not as big a deal as either those who are furious about it or those who are excited about it would have you think. The fact that Warren, as a Christian pastor, opposes gay marriage is not shocking or newsworthy, especially seeing as how such a stance is in line with Obama himself. Warren’s prayer (video here) at the inauguration was strong and refreshingly God-honoring, which is a bit shocking (and glorious!), even though few news stories will cover it that way. Obama’s selection of Bishop Eugene Robinson to deliver the pre-inauguration prayer at the Lincoln Memorial is admirable in that it confirms his pledge to reach out to people of all faiths and lifestyles. But to Evangelicals it discredits any claim by him of desiring to hold up the authority of the Bible or of Jesus Christ, as a professing Christian would. So all this does not undoubtedly convince me that, as the Bible would define it, he is a Christian. So, I will opt not to comment on his faith, one way or the other, because, I (obviously) could never truly know his heart (though I’m convinced he’s not a Muslim, for what its worth).


All of this doesn’t really matter politically. In other words, the point where Christianity intersects the political culture should never be at the Presidential level. A President would never, and could never, defend policies and decisions ONLY on the grounds that the Bible says so, and expect or force the country to support those decisions and policies on ONLY the same grounds. Hopefully, the country will support most of the policies and decisions anyway, apart from faith, and the evangelism and Christ-like example that is seen will be more from the supporters than from the decision-maker himself. The President is not the Pastor in Chief. Christians and non-Christians should certainly have other reasons besides his professed faith to vote for or support him. As Martin Luther says, we should rather be governed by a “competent Turk than an incompetent Christian”. President Obama is clearly not incompetent (the oath slip was Justice Roberts’ fault, right?), and that is good.

We, as Christians, fight for causes like the sanctity of life because we believe that such things like abortion are not consistent with the teachings (proclamations and actions) of Jesus, and have no place in the kingdom of God. But we support such things not expecting unbelievers to agree with us on the basis of a book that they don’t believe in, but (hopefully) on the basis of a consistent love and support for not only the baby but also the woman and the family that we demonstrate. That such an approach is also consistent with the teachings of Jesus will, God-willing, become apparent to an unbeliever after the fact, not by our proclamation, but our demonstration. Of course, like I’ve said before, this at no point requires the abandonment of our proclamation – it’s just that the proclamation likely won’t be the persuasive part, from a political standpoint.

So we pray for and support our President, and don’t expect him to defend the sanctity of life, for example, only on the basis of biblical faith, but on the basis that it is more consistent with the innate rights of all Americans (and humans) according to the Constitution (the rights of the unborn do not negate the rights of a woman, so you can support both, but I’ve covered all that before). If it just so happens that such a stance can also be supported by a biblical Christian faith (which in this case, it can) – that’s a bonus, and hopefully, a perfect opportunity for Christian citizens to share that faith in the context of a particular issue and create the question that only the reality of Christ can answer.


Theologically, and missionally (concerning the church), though, the professed faith of Barack Obama is significant, and it goes back to the #1 reason I did not vote for him. It is not significant because it disqualifies him one way or the other for the highest office in the land; it is significant because it presents a man in the highest office in the land professing a biblical Christian faith that may not be that biblical, or that Christian, according to the traditional, understood definition. This doesn’t make Obama a bad person or a bad President (and he may even be a Christian, he just doesn’t explain it very well). But what this does is not only expose a major problem in the Evangelical Church today – namely, people who profess new birth in Christ without really having it – but also it justifies a vague, inclusive, warm and fuzzy definition of a faith that is anything but. It would be much better, in my opinion, for the Church and the advancement of the kingdom, if such a high profile individual was crystal clear either way, not vague enough in his faith for the question to be the subject of the blogosphere.

The more confusion and speculation without a clear answer opens up the possibility for people to want to become a Christian to be like Obama, instead of to be like Christ, which in the end may not be saving faith at all. (“Obama is awesome! That is what a Christian is? Ok, I’ll be like that.”) Better to not ask the question at all and allow people to come to faith authentically, savingly, apart from the example of a person who, whether he is a Christian or not, does not represent or speak for the faith in the appropriate way. This of course does not imply that he does not represent the country well – that is yet to be seen, and so far, I am pretty optimistic despite my thoughts pre-election. It also does not mean that Barack Obama can not indirectly be a witness for Jesus Christ. He can. It also does not imply that Obama using his faith, whatever it may be, to influence his decisions is a bad thing and is altogether outside the Sovereignty of God or a biblical kingdom agenda. It is a good thing and it is not outside these things. But if it’s his intention to do this in the name of Jesus (which I don’t think it is), than he should rethink the way he articulates some essential doctrines of the Christian faith. If it’s not his intention, than he should not out rightly say that he is a Christian and also say that there are multiple roads to salvation. That is confusing.

It is better to say you are not a Christian (even a Muslim) than to say that you are a Christian but don’t believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. To say you are Christian and believe things that haven’t, or not believe things that have, been understood to be included in the definition since the time of the early church, is hopelessly confusing. I really hope that makes sense despite the fact that the previous sentence may have been itself hopelessly confusing. To put it more simply, it is better to, like Bush before him, avoid the conversation about the exclusivity of Christ in your profession of faith. As President, he is not obligated to defend such a doctrine; but as a Christian, he should never out rightly deny it, or his profession will be confusing and suspect.

Barack Obama is obviously not the only person that raises this concern. There probably are church members and even pastors all over the country, tragically, who fall into this category. But it just so happens that Obama is the most visible, and so I am calling him out. He probably will have no say or even exposure to the conflict in the Church that I am indicating – and he shouldn’t – he has a country to run. But, the conflict will continue and escalate nonetheless. What I care about is that Christians proclaim and demonstrate the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that is complete, true, and saving, so that no one would perish, including the President. I care that people who claim they are saved, are really saved (for their own good), and that people who are unsaved, know what it is and what it looks like to be saved, so there is no confusion and so that their road to salvation can be clear and undisrupted by deception from the enemy (which is real).

The cleverest trick the devil ever pulled was convince the world he doesn’t exist (Usual Suspects) – and then the next most clever was to convince people they belong to Christ when they don’t. The Desiring God Conference for Pastors is going to address this problem and the challenge of evangelism to professing Christians in a talk called A Shepherd and His Unregenerate Sheep, by Matt Chandler. And then finally, I care that we as Christians would trust our Sovereign God with the outcomes and to be faithful with our boldness and courage and sacrifice, knowing that He works together all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.


Barack Obama essentially explains the human condition (and later his own faith) in his Call to Renewal address in 2006:

“If we're going to do that then we first need to understand that Americans are a religious people. 90 percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves with an organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed Christians, and substantially more people in America believe in angels than they do in evolution. This religious tendency is not simply the result of successful marketing by skilled preachers or the draw of popular mega-churches. In fact, it speaks to a hunger that's deeper than that - a hunger that goes beyond any particular issue or cause.

“Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds - dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets - and they're coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They're looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them - that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness.”

But he does not make it clear that the answer to this condition is the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. A church, doing good things and helping people without the Lordship of Christ, is not enough, and will not ultimately save anyone from anything.

“You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away - because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.”

Jesus Christ is more than our “ally”. As a politician, it is not his role to make this clear. As a Christian, on the other hand, it certainly is, and so if the purpose of this address was to defend his Christian faith, I find it wanting. Please (this is a humble plea) understand though, that all this talk does not take anything away from the positive change that even non-Christians can initiate, and it does not give Christians an excuse to lose grace at the expense of the truth. Remember the pendulum. As a politician, much of what Obama says in this same address generates an “Amen!” from me, as it relates to faith in politics:

“More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical - if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address without reference to "the judgments of the Lord." Or King's I Have a Dream speech without references to "all of God's children." Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny…….

“In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they're something they're not. They don't need to do that. None of us need to do that. (

“But what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”


From a political perspective, it probably is better to have an effective leader who speaks this way who leans center-left, than an ineffective leader who leans center-right (though don’t think I’m going to budge on the issues I’ve defended up until this point!). So in that sense I’m ready and excited to support Barack Obama as President. From a Christian perspective, however, Obama presents a pickle for the Church. He seems to speak more about his God than the God of the Bible, and often his use of Scripture is taken embarrassingly out of context (the inauguration speech was no exception). That is not what professing Christians should be doing.

My point with this post is not simply to say that many professing Christians (like Obama) are not actually born-again and so shame on them (though that may be true). My point is to avoid such confusion at all costs. My point is to reveal that the statistics showing that professing Christians care more about their retirement accounts than they do the poor, and in general live morally very similar to the rest of the world; and the speeches confusing the person and work of Jesus Christ, and not acknowledging Him as unique and necessary for salvation, point out a problem in the Church, and call for a reprioritization of truth and grace that is much closer to the Bible and much closer to Jesus than what we see now. My point is to use the new President Obama as an example to make the plea that professing Christians everywhere should understand what they are professing, and faithfully defend it with proclamations and actions that are biblical and that look and sound like Jesus. Otherwise, evangelism and discipleship is going to be very difficult in this generation mostly because it will be immeasurable, and many will perish simply because they didn’t know any better.

If you disagree, I would ask, do you at least agree with my definition of what it means to be a Christian? If not, let’s talk about that more and put politics and everything else completely aside for a bit. Just to give you a fair warning though, my defense of my definition of what it means to be a Christian will essentially be a defense of the Bible, and any other source of a definition I will not entertain for long. If that makes me a fool, I will die on that hill. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about me.

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. – Romans 9:1-3

Despite that wish, the Apostle Paul knew that he could not be cut off. Like Paul, I’ll entrust that truth into the care of a Sovereign God, and pray for President Obama and others accordingly.

God can and will perform miracles both in our private lives overcoming hard hearts, and in the public arena overcoming previously insurmountable obstacles. In the same week a plane safely landed in a river and an African-American became President of the United States. God, as always, is up to something.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Quiet Strength, Deafening Humility

Usually, December through March is my favorite time for sports. College football is winding down and reaching its climax in the bowl games; NFL playoffs are in full swing and the Super Bowl is played; and my favorite sport, NCAA basketball, is really starting to pick up and will culminate in the Road to the Final Four in March. Usually, I have some options of teams to root for. With college football I have always acknowledged that the Hoosiers are not going to be playing for the Rose Bowl, or at least not yet, so my expectations are low, and my energy as a fan shifts towards the game in general and the Florida Gators, the alma mater of my great uncle. This year, the season was thrilling from that standpoint, as the Gators took the title and through the leadership of their quarterback, symbolized toughness, character, and ridiculous speed and talent in a way that was encouraging and exciting.

Indiana Basketball has always and will always be my first love in sports. This year is a bit painful, but far better than the tortuous end to last year, and gutting of the program that resulted. I would liken the debacle to a bad trip to the dentist that starts off nice but suspicious with some tasty fluoride, gets a little prickly with the ice pick they take to your mouth, and then by the time they are finished flossing your teeth with the force of a weed-eater, you are left bleeding and wondering what you just paid for. Or like a coming storm where an absolute downpour comes out of nowhere, and before you know it, a raging wind has taken away your house and destroyed your whole town, and you’re left in the sunshine wondering what happened. Like this, the Hoosiers are now at the bottom, rebuilding, and moving up. And the sun is shining. That is not the worst situation to be in.

The Indianapolis Colts, most notably in the last several years, have been the pride and backbone of the city of Indianapolis. Consecutive winning seasons and playoff appearances, a Super Bowl Championship, records broken, and a new massive stadium have provided much for fans, including myself, to be excited about. Again this year, though, we have been confronted with the reality that such a streak of success can not always be void of disappointment. And as an NFL football fan in general, if you were excited at the beginning of the season (Titan fan) you are now probably beside yourself, and if you were frustrated at the beginning of the season (Arizona fan) you are now probably running circles around your cubicle dressed in a Cardinal uniform and making everyone you know crazy. Such is the joy and agony of sports.

At the height of this joy for some, and agony for others, we see the retirement of a man that has done a remarkable job being one of the most successful football coaches in history, while also building a legacy that is more about God than football. In other words, when people think about Tony Dungy, they will think about a faithful man who lived and spoke the truth of Jesus Christ, and also happened to be a darn good football coach. They will not just think of a great football coach who happened to speak and live the truth of Jesus Christ. That is remarkable. Though he was immensely successful, that part of his legacy is secondary. And it will become less primary as the years go on, I’m sure. But, all the while, you can never take away the fact that he went to the playoffs every season with the Colts, he coached through six consecutive 12 win seasons (are you kidding?) and won a Super Bowl. Very few can say those things. But for Dungy, all that is secondary, and such a mentality is not just a personal conviction, it is also publicly recognized as who he is. To not have your life characterized by what you do for a living is extraordinary, and it is even more extraordinary if you do this while actually being successful at what you do for a living.

Some will laugh and mock his legacy. Some will cheer at his departure from Indianapolis and pitch for aggressive, outspoken, mildly inappropriate leadership to compete with the rough and tough nature of the National Football League. Some will say the Super Bowl was a fluke and Dungy was never a Game Day coach. Some will say that his defense mentality was weak and naïve, and that he never prioritized a running attack because of his reliance on do-no-wrong Peyton. Some will criticize his use of challenges and his conservative approach to not going for it on fourth down. Some will write him off as a good man who had some success but was never hard-hitting enough for the NFL. Some will ridicule his profession of Christ and say that it held him back from greatness. Some will ignore his example and focus on football. Some will see his example and forget his brilliance with football. Some will celebrate his career now in light of his retirement, while their support for him before his retirement was lackluster if not nonexistant.


When you consider the agony of losing – and I do mean agony - losing in overtime because of stupid penalties, a ridiculous sudden death format that should only be for children trying to get home in time for dinner, a subhuman performance by a punter; after winning 9 games in a row down the stretch and having to travel across the country as a 12 win team to play an 8 win team - that is agony – when you consider this, how could any emotional-health conscious person actually not be enamored by the example of a man that lived and coached for more than that, and also happened to be really good? Why would anyone depend only on the success that is so elusive, and ignore a hope that can get you through the agony, and is deeper and more meaningful and more relevant and more satisfying than a bottle of Jack Daniels or a temper tantrum through the streets? If someone was a great football coach and was able to confidently and boldly characterize his life with something else, with someone else, why would you mock or ignore that? If someone could win, do it the right way, and when he didn't still be able to talk and think clearly and not be dominated by anger or regret or disappointment, wouldn't that be pretty ideal? Wouldn’t you like to have that? If winning is everything, after you win, then what?

Such ignorance is fortunately hard to find, yet is out there. Most see, appreciate, and will follow the Christ-like example of Tony Dungy. What I am taking from his legacy (which will continue to grow as he models “retirement” through prison ministry instead of collecting sea shells) is that it is possible to be hugely successful at your career and not sacrifice any of the witness or Christ-centeredness of you life; and it is possible in the end to make Christ more visible than your accomplishments, even if they are many.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Warrior for Christ

Have you heard of this guy?

If you have, then you'll know he is a warrior. And not just on the football field. He is not perfect and he is not deity, and he even gets unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the heat of the moment. But he is worth our attention if but only for the Savior he points us to. You might also know then that he (not accidentally) has a bible verse under his eyes during games for all to see. Usually, it is Philippians 4:13. Last night, it was John 3:16 - and it is causing a google search stir. For those who would be offended by such a display, and for those who would be encouraged by it, allow me to give you the context:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God."

My simple defense and explanation of Tebow, who understands this well I'm sure as the son of missionaries, is that everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Putting a bible verse under your eyes for a big game where you know TV cameras will have your face in their zoom lens, is an easy thing to do for someone in his situation. But it is also bold and it is not surprising that some are confused or offended by it. There are also many who tried last night with their football buddies to remember the one verse they thought they actually knew, and maybe placed bets or organized drinking games surrounding who knew what it said. And maybe they even read the whole chapter or book of John this morning.

In any case, it was a positive integration of the Gospel in our culture, and I am encouraged by it. What can we do that is equally easy, bold, and strategic to invade people's lives and conversations with the Gospel, knowing that some may not like it, and that is ok because it is evidence that we are living a godly life in Christ Jesus?

Go Gators.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A New Year with New Eyes

I have a new year’s resolution for you (and me). Read the Bible. Seriously. Every day. Every other resolution we probably won’t actually do, and so our effort is futile and wasted on anything else. So, my challenge is to resolve to read the Bible, with a plan, every day. It is true and very helpful. There is not much I can or will say that makes any sense outside of the perspective, story, and truth laid out in that timeless book. And there is not much of a chance that I can function without a daily intake of its power. I'm serious. I've tried.

2008 is over. By many accounts, it was not a great year. There were definite highlights, as with any year, but the feeling seemed pretty universal that it was time to send the year into the history books. Personally, it was a year of loss and some confusion. Economically, it was chaotic and not profitable. Politically, it was divisive, exhausting and historic. Theologically, it was exceedingly unbiblical and culturally violent. And now we look with optimism and hope into 2009, and are confident it will be better.

And it will be. But in many of these ways I just mentioned it will be much of the same, and even worse, and that is wonderfully and gloriously OK. Because the Gospel is all that matters, and the Gospel will continue to be true, and the person and work of Jesus Christ will continue to be our only hope, and come what may; loss, depression, persecution, chaos, war, compromise; that will never change. In fact, my great hope and prayer is that the Gospel will continue to become more relevant and compelling and glorious as our culture battles, our economy collapses, and our world manages the inevitable chaos of a race plagued with overwhelming sin. The Bible is true and Jesus is everything. Let me say that again: the Bible is true and Jesus is everything. Do you really believe that? If you do 2009 will be amazing no matter what.

I haven’t posted for awhile and that is not because nothing has happened worth writing about nor that my conviction and passion to unload what God is revealing to me everyday has waned. It is because somehow December and Christmas and January happened. And the fact that the weather in Indianapolis since our last time together has varied from below zero temperatures, to incapacitating ice, to fog, to tornadoes, to 67 degrees, is very appropriate to the pace and nature of the last few weeks.

I will use what actually is not that significant of a thing to set the tone for the theme of this post and hopefully this blog for 2009 (not replacing but enhancing the established theme of simple truth for a complex culture): I got contacts. Not contacts as in connections (i.e. "my people". You got people?); but contacts like glasses. I could no longer manage with the eroding vision that I have been struggling with for too long. So I now again see 20-20. I have new eyes, so to speak. Good thing, too, because the old ones were not sufficient. And oh my goodness is the clarity refreshing – and convicting.

After Christmas, as has been the routine for as long as I can remember, my family headed to Florida for a relaxing and gluttonous (is it possible to use that word positively – because that is what I mean to do) vacation. It not did start off well. Apparently, the combination of severe fog, power outages in Atlanta, general incompetence, and bad management, results in cancelled flights and no viable alternate options to get to your destination. Except, of course, to drive. Old eyes saw an idiotic airline, a sweet but unhelpful flight attendant, and a professional but clueless manager, who could do nothing to help get us to Florida and were therefore unacceptable as people. New eyes saw the handicapped older couple who were devastated and in potential real trouble by the news of a cancelled flight, as a bigger problem than our situation. Old eyes saw an 18 hour drive to Florida, through the night, as terrible and agonizing. New eyes saw a rare and adventurous road trip that could be a lot of fun – and a great story.

First night after we arrived we went to one of our favorite restaurants – famous for crab and with a beautiful view of the Ft. Lauderdale intercoastal. The experience was not ideal. Old eyes saw a hopelessly disorganized wait staff and kitchen, who could not come even close to compensating for a delayed shipment of fish and an unexpectedly large crowd, and who seemed to let a bad situation become worse into the night, without any kind of control. New eyes saw the tall, slender waiter (he looked like Chris Bosh) who went from outgoing, confident, and witty, to humiliated and insecure, because of forces completely outside his control, as a bigger tragedy than the fact that I received clam chowder instead of lobster bisque.

In the middle, the trip was wonderful with immaculate weather, time with family, beach football, amazing meals, New Year's celebrations, and some unique action on the beach that included possible pagan rituals, animal carcass, CSI Officers, bird rescues, and bikini models engulfed by a miniature tsunami on the bank of Port Everglades. But all of that is neither here nor there.

Fittingly, the bookend for my trip home also proved ridiculous. Seems as though planes must fit a certain weight number before they can take off, and this number does not assume a full flight with lots of luggage. So, without a passenger voluntarily removing themselves from the aircraft, accompanied with the self-esteem assault from assuming that their weight made the difference, the plane would wait on the tarmac until the "numbers" balanced. In the meantime, burning fuel was recommended just in case a little less of that would get the weight where it needed to be. Until, too much fuel had been burned and the plane could no longer reach its destination, even if it could leave the ground, and so must return to the gate to refuel. This was all 2 hours after the scheduled departure time. I will spare you the comedy that was the experience on this same flight the next day (my aunt and cousins were on it). It didn't get better.

Old eyes saw an incompetent airline and dispatch tower that raised so many unanswered questions with this ordeal that a thousand comment cards would not suffice. Old eyes saw a wasted day on a crowded airplane in the middle of the Ft. Lauderdale runway. New eyes saw the sweet, professional, frustrated female pilot who about flew the plane anyway despite lack of clearance from the powers that be, and who apologized and sympathized in a way that almost made the debacle totally forgivable. New eyes saw the opportunity to read, pray, and get to know the passenger sitting next to me, who, thankfully, was even more even-keeled than myself. New eyes saw a mutual laugh with a stranger to the explanation that our plane was blocking traffic for the entire runway in route to refuel at the same gate we taxied from 2 hours ago, as a once in a lifetime experience (hopefully).

Old eyes saw a year that will forever be identified with the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression as damaging to our security and not memorable. Old eyes saw the erosion of cultural norms such as Christmas trees in schools and the phrase "So help me God" in the Presidential inauguration as reason for anger and worry. Old eyes saw the escalation of the so-called cultural wars surrounding the election and the eventual conservative defeat as causes for doubt in the Sovereignty of God. Old eyes saw the terror, war, and suffering in the Congo, India, Iraq, and beyond through the lens of an already fatigued compassion.

New eyes see all these things as groans of childbirth of a creation that is being liberated from its bondage to decay and being brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. New eyes see Jesus Christ and the promises of God in the Bible as much better security than retirement accounts. New eyes see the possibility of defending truth while not sacrificing grace and love, and see the actual difference in helping people and caring for the poor. New eyes see a spiritual context and hunger in our culture and generation that absolutely requires the urgent and unswerving preservation, proclamation, and demonstration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by God's people.

New eyes no longer make the assumption that our neighbors, friends, and family are too busy, too cool, too rich, too happy, or too far gone to be gripped by the simple and profound message of the Gospel. It has been entrusted to us, and the God of the Universe has chosen to use us to speak truth and love people to the glory of His name. 2009 is going to be the year of the Gospel, if I have anything to say about it, because that's really all that matters. Everything else is periphery, and a bonus.