Friday, March 24, 2017

The Cost

"What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God." 

         - Flannery O'Connor

Monday, March 20, 2017

Essentials

3 Things We Must Believe About God's Word adapted from Taking God At His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me by Kevin DeYoung.

Essentials

In Psalm 119 we see at least three essential, irreducible characteristics we should believe about God’s word.

1. God’s word says what is true.

Like the psalmist, we can trust in the word (v. 42), knowing that it is altogether true (v. 142). We can’t trust everything we read on the Internet. We can’t trust everything we hear from our professors. We certainly can’t trust all the facts given by our politicians. We can’t even trust the fact-checkers who check those facts! Statistics can be manipulated. Photographs can be faked. Magazine covers can be airbrushed. Our teachers, our friends, our science, our studies, even our eyes can deceive us. But the word of God is entirely true and always true:
God’s word is firmly fixed in the heavens (v. 89); it doesn’t change. There is no limit to its perfection (v. 96); it contains nothing corrupt. All God’s righteous rules endure forever (v. 160); they never get old and never wear out.
If you ever think to yourself, “I need to know what is true— what is true about me, true about people, true about the world, true about the future, true about the past, true about the good life, and true about God,” then come to God’s word. It teaches only what is true: “Sanctify them in the truth,” Jesus said; “your word is truth” (John 17:17).

2. God’s word demands what is right.

The psalmist gladly acknowledges God’s right to issue commands and humbly accepts that all these commands are right. “I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous,” he says (Ps. 119:75). All God’s commandments are sure (v. 86). All his precepts are right (v. 128). I sometimes hear Christians admit that they don’t like what the Bible says, but since it’s the Bible they have to obey it. On one level, this is an admirable example of submitting oneself to the word of God. And yet, we should go one step further and learn to see the goodness and rightness in all that God commands. We should love what God loves and delight in whatever he says. God does not lay down arbitrary rules. He does not give orders so that we might be restricted and miserable. He never requires what is impure, unloving, or unwise. His demands are always noble, always just, and always righteous.

3. God’s word provides what is good.

According to Psalm 119, the word of God is the way of happiness (vv. 1–2), the way to avoid shame (v. 6), the way of safety (v. 9), and the way of good counsel (v. 24). The word gives us strength (v. 28) and hope (v. 43). It provides wisdom (vv. 98–100, 130) and shows us the way we should go (v. 105). God’s verbal revelation, whether in spoken form in redemptive history or in the covenantal documents of redemptive history (i.e., the Bible), is unfailingly perfect. As the people of God, we believe the word of God can be trusted in every way to speak what is true, command what is right, and provide us with what is good.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Answering the Lies

Have you believed any demoralizing lies lately? Check out Three Lies We Might Easily Believe by Ray Ortlund:
It is very much in the Devil’s interests that we despair. If he can get us to believe any of these three demoralizing lies that he loves to whisper into our thoughts, our powers for Jesus are greatly diminished. And each one seems to us quite plausible.
Lie #1: “You’re a hypocrite. Sure, you’re serving Jesus. But you don’t really mean it. It’s really all about you. You might as well give up.”
Answer: “Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:19-20). “I do not even judge myself. . . . It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor. 4:3-4).
Lie #2: “You’re a loser. You’ve ruined your life. You’re too damaged by now. You’ll never amount to anything for the Lord. You might as well give up.”
Answer: “. . . the poor, . . . the brokenhearted, . . . the captives, . . . that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations” (Isaiah 61:1-4).
Lie #3: “You’re too small. You’re so buried under the debris of our complex and crowded world today, you’ll never make an impact. You’re making no difference at all. You might as well give up.”
Answer: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:28-29).
Each lie is believable, in its way. So we don’t defeat the lies by pushing back with our own beliefs, which are little more than stabs at truth. We push back by declaring God’s Word, which has a decisive finality our own little thoughts cannot generate.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Both And

Why do we always want to break things into dichotomies: Two options only, and only one available. Sometimes we must simply choose YES, both and, rather than either or. For example, check out As A Christian I Favor National Security and Refugee Care by Scott Sauls
All partisan politics aside (truly), I am an evangelical Christian pastor who supports our President’s commitment to national security and who favors doing everything possible to help the world’s most vulnerable refugees get out of harm’s way as quickly and safely as possible. I support both of these commitments because in Jesus, my conscience is bound by both. And, as Luther once famously said, “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
This is not a new subject for me or for the church that I serve. For two years strong, Christ Presbyterian in Nashville has embraced every opportunity availed to us to give a cup of cold water to the least of these, especially Syrian refugees who are out there on the run, as well as the sixty thousand or so who now reside in Nashville. Currently, we have several missional communities and member-led nonprofits focused on refugee care. We have deployed over $150,000 toward relief efforts, partnering with organizations such as World Relief, World Vision, and Preemptive Love Coalition. As for me, I have preached sermons, written essays, and spoken at conferences on this crisis. Our oldest daughter is majoring in Global Studies, volunteering for a refugee resettlement organization, and planning to learn Arabic in the Middle East so she can return to the States and minister among Muslim refugees as a Christian. My wife has recently become engaged in the crisis locally. Finally, I have written about this humanitarian crisis in chapter 18 of my latest book, Befriend, a book about creating belonging in an age of judgment, isolation and fear.
Lest the reader interpret this as some sort of left-wing partisan stance, it is not. I stand for the vulnerable refugee in the same way that I have always stood for the vulnerable unborn. It is a biblically-driven justice and human rights stance, plain and simple. I have no personal beef with President Obama or President Trump. For this reason, my liberal friends sometimes suspect me of being a Republican and my conservative friends sometimes suspect me of being a Democrat. You might say that I am one of those pastors who feels too conservative for his liberal friends and too liberal for his conservative friends. If this is an outcome of following the whole Jesus instead of merely following part of him, then sign me up and so be it.
In addition to being for the unborn and for the refugee, I am committed to a stance of honor regarding any leader, especially when said leader holds the office of President. Our church has supported my commitment not to insult, belittle, or speak ill of either President Obama or of our new President, Donald Trump (I wrote more about this in a previous post, which can be seen here). Instead, our people have joined me in the equally Christian commitment to show respect for all leaders, including those whose policies and personalities may at times stand in contrast to Christian convictions and beliefs. To the church in a decidedly anti-Christian Rome, Paul wrote the following under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1)
This was true of President Obama. It is also true of President Trump.
Thankfully, as an evangelical Christian, I am not alone in my desire to honor our leaders and remain committed to refugee care.
Recently, I joined evangelical leaders across North America including friends like Tim and Kathy Keller, Bill and Lynne Hybels, John Perkins, Ann Voskamp, Sandy Willson, John Yates, Max Lucado, Eugene Cho and many others, by adding my signature to this petition to our President. (Most unfortunately, certain news outlets have attached inflammatory, partisan headlines to the story that have, in the experience of many, caused the actual substance of the petition to be lost. For example, one outlet called the petition a “denouncement” of President Trump. The use of such a word is an inflammatory overreach, to say the least. Please ignore the headlines and read the actual petition.)

Monday, March 13, 2017

About "the Shack"...

I read the book The Shack twice when it first came out. The book has a great emotional impact, and I certainly felt that, but I also had then and have now grave concerns about the theological errors in the story.

Many readers argued "Hey, it's just a story, not a theology textbook." Since then, William Paul Young, author of The Shack, wrote another book called Lies We Believe About God.  This book is not a story, but a clear presentation of his beliefs making it explicitly clear what he believes about God, free will, eternal judgement, etc., and that those beliefs are embodied in the story of  The Shack.  his beliefs and teachings are most definitely not orthodox. I have no plans to see the movie, although I reserve the right to change my mind. However, I most definitely cannot recommend either the book or the movie as accurate theology, or as good things for anyone to read or watch.

 Tim Challies said it better than I could. I encourage you to read his post  What Does the Shack Really Teach. which covers the relevant parts of the new book mentioned above.

The god presented in the book and movie is not the God of the Bible, and not the God revealed by Jesus. It is a god who is not sovereign, does not punish evil, and whose "love" is a limited generic feeling of benevolence.

If you felt power from the story of the Shack, please know that the God of the Bible is more powerful, more loving, but also more Holy.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Love Accross the Divide

Everyone is saying our country is divided more than ever before. I do not know if that is true (Americans from 1860 might have something to say about that). But i do know that a Christians we are called to love across all division. Check out How to Love People Across the Political Divide by J. Lee Grady
Our country has always enjoyed lively political debate. But psychologists and sociologists have noticed that the 2016 election took the United States to a whole new level of polarization. The animosity is hot—and getting hotter. In fact, couples have gotten divorced and families have stopped speaking to each other because a massive chasm separates Red and Blue political platforms.

To put it bluntly, we hate each other.

Call it the Trump factor, if you will. But more than two months after the presidential election, nerves are still raw, and blood is still boiling. Longtime friends are avoiding contact or unfriending each other on Facebook. Rage is seething under the surface of our country like a volcano about to erupt.

This anger is also in the church. Believers are at odds with each other over who voted for whom and who supports what policies—and even who drinks Starbucks coffee, shops at Nordstrom's or likes Lady Gaga's Super Bowl halftime show. Everything has been politicized. This divisive spirit burns bridges, erects walls and pushes God's people into opposite camps over even the most trivial matters.

Many white evangelicals view Trump's presidential victory as a miracle of God, and for that reason, some of them rigidly defend every decision he makes. Other Christians—including many African-American, Hispanic and millennial believers—view Trump as a dangerous threat to the country. And somewhere in the middle are Christians who accept the outcome of the election and pray faithfully for Trump, even if they don't support every move he makes.

We are faced with a serious challenge. Either we choose to love each other across this vast divide, or our love becomes cold and our message becomes hollow and hypocritical. I'm praying we will rise above the conflict so we can show America who Jesus is. Only a church full of love can reflect Him. Here are some steps we can take now:

1. Read your Bible and pray more than you listen to news programs. There's nothing wrong with staying in the know when it comes to politics. But if you find yourself listening to countless hours of angry commentators every day on Fox News or CNN, it's possible you have become addicted to this verbal venom. Today's polarized media is fueling a civil war, and many Christians have become pawns in the devil's scheme to divide and conquer. Please hit the mute button when necessary. Tune out the screaming before it poisons you.

2. Submit your mouth (and your social media posts) to the Holy Spirit. I've been shocked by the belligerent tone some Christians take when defending their views. Is it really necessary to blow someone out of the water just because they disagree with you? The Bible makes it simple when it says: "Be kind one to another" (Eph. 4:32). Does this commandment apply to us, or not?

(I'll admit I haven't always tempered my words in this column, and for that I am sorry. I'm learning that grace should season my words like salt. Please forgive me if my tone sounded self-righteous, condescending or judgmental.)

3. Let Jesus adjust your attitude. In the Old Testament, Moses went on top of a mountain and received the Ten Commandments. In the New Testament, Jesus went on top of a mountain and gave His most quoted sermon—which focuses not on outward behavior but on attitudes of the heart. The Sermon on the Mount calls us to show love, mercy, gentleness and forgiveness. And in it Jesus said: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God" (Matt. 5:9).

Reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel. But today we prefer quick-witted comebacks, one-line zingers and downright ugliness to get our points across. Our hearts are full of resentment and hostility. We need the Beatitudes now more than ever.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Gospel Bearings

Feeling worried about the state of culture and society? Feeling distressed by the political and social messes all around us? You (and I) need Gospel bearings!  Pessimistic About The Future? You Need Gospel Bearings by Trevin Wax
Pessimism is surging.

George Orwell’s dystopian tale, 1984, is the bestselling book at Amazon. (I think Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is a dystopian vision that better captures the dangers of our current moment, but alas, it’s only #71.)

Meanwhile, some of the wealthiest people in the world are building bunkers and prepping for doomsday scenarios. The New Yorker covers these efforts in great detail. Apparently, New Zealand is the place to ride out the cultural apocalypse.

Christians aren’t immune to the waves of pessimism in our country.

Recently, I was talking with an older Christian who was both encouraged and distressed by some of what he was seeing take place politically in the initial days of the Trump administration. He was appalled at the celebration of abortion and the vulgar words and signs at the Women’s March that took place just after the Inauguration.

“The gap is so wide,” he said, referring to conservative Christians and so much of society. “I guess I just feel hopeless for our country these days. I’m becoming a pessimistic old man.”

My response? “You’ve got to snap out of that.”

It’s one thing to be weary of earth and self and sin, to be sad at some of the developments in our time. Blessed are those who mourn, Jesus said. Christian tears are real, and necessary, for those who feel the weight of the world’s evil.

But it’s another thing to allow that pessimistic posture to become your default. An overly pessimistic view of the world leads to a defensive posture. A defensive posture leads to defensive decision-making. We start making decisions based on maintenance rather than mission. Holding on to what we have holds us back from moving forward in faith in the power of the gospel.

The gospel blows up pessimism. If you truly believe the Word of God has authority—that it will accomplish God’s purpose and will not return empty, if you truly believe that God has a church and that the gates of hell will not prevail against it, then you fortify yourself for spiritual battle, not for surviving a spiritual siege.

In This Is Our Time, I call the pessimistic approach “a decline narrative.” It’s the idea that the world is getting worse, no matter what we may do. We see decline narratives in society on both the right and the left. Yuval Levin shows how liberals believe we have fallen from the heights of the 1960s, whereas conservatives feel like we have fallen from the heights of the 1950s or the 1980s.

In the church, we are tempted to scour the annals of church history looking for the pinnacle of better times, from which we have fallen and now must reclaim. Perhaps it’s the early church, the Golden Age of the ecumenical creeds, the Reformation and Puritan era, or the revivals of North America. Whatever point in time we pick, we contrast ourselves to our ancestors and feel as if we’ve fallen from those heights. The world, and too often the church, is getting worse, we say.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Prayer Journaling

For you journalers - How To Start A Prayer Journal by Richard Foster via Renovare (Excerpted from his book  Coming Home)
Few things can nudge us toward God more than the keeping of a prayer journal. What is a “prayer journal?” Well, if prayer is the ongoing interaction we have with God, and a journal is a record of those experiences and thoughts we deem valuable, then a “prayer journal” preserves those interactions, events, and reflections from our external and internal worlds which track our personal history with God. It is an Ebenezer of sorts—a way of declaring “hitherto has the Lord helped us.”

History is replete with the prayer journals of disciples of Jesus Christ. From Augustine’s Confessions to Lady Julian’s Showings to Pascal’s Pensées to Woolman’s Journal to Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings to Luci Shaw’s God in the Dark, we are privileged to share in some of the finest of Christian devotion. These journals, of course, merely represent and illustrate the myriads upon myriads of unpublished prayer journals of followers of the Way throughout the centuries. It is a long and honored tradition.

Question: What do you do with a prayer journal? Answer: Almost anything you want. There is no right way or wrong way to go about a prayer journal. You are a unique individual before God with special gifts that only God can reveal and special needs that only God can satisfy. Together, you and God will find the prayer and journal pilgrimage that is best for you.

Having said this, it still might be useful to you if I made a few general comments. I encourage you, first of all, to comment freely on the events of your day. This differs from notations in a diary by its focus on why and wherefore rather than who or what. The external events are springboards for understanding God’s deeper workings in the heart. Perhaps a particular encounter stirs up feelings of anger and defensiveness in you, or maybe pride and hope. Why? What is God teaching you through this experience? Remember, his is a scrutiny of love.

As you write, you will discover times when finding just the right word or phrase becomes important. You might begin with a prayer such as, “Jesus, teach me your love.” But as the process of prayer leads you deeper into the reality you are seeking, you will notice the prayer changing ever so slightly—and profoundly; “Lord, let me enter your love,” or maybe “Jesus, let me receive your embrace.”

So when seeking to experience prayer, I think it is wise to allow plenty of free space for crossing things out, changing direction, adding commentary, drawing arrows or other scribbles, and so forth. The same holds true if you are writing poetry—even more so. Time spent discovering the right word or phrase that gives voice to your heart cry is time never wasted. You may even want to set aside a page for a particular prayer or poem and date each time you return to it, making revisions, notes, or additional thoughts.

On the other hand, it is important not to get too tangled up in words. Sometimes it is best to let thoughts tumble forth unedited and uncensored. You may want to write by means of free association or stream of consciousness. (Sometimes I like to doodle!) Throughout, be open to Divine surprises—new ways of seeing, thinking, hearing, feeling.

At times, when I am praying for another person, I will place their name at the top of the page and then prayerfully begin to sketch out a picture. Perhaps a tree with roots going down deep and strong branches reaching skyward. Perhaps a rose opening up to the sunlight. Perhaps a wall of protection surrounding the person. Whatever. And my little picture becomes my prayer on behalf of another.

Above all, a prayer journal has a way of focusing, clarifying, keeping us honest. Self-centered prayers become manifestly so when committed to paper—even to us. Insights that are hazy figures on our horizon sometimes become crystal clear when written down. Vacillating indecision sometimes turns into marching orders.

So, I commend you to God as you begin a prayer journal. Who knows. Perhaps, just perhaps, through the process of prayer journal writing you will, like Moses, catch a glimpse of the backside of God. But even if you see nothing and hear nothing, you can still rest assured that you too are hidden in the cleft of the rock.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Out of Context

This is probably on of the most misused verses in today's American Christianity - Stop Taking Jeremiah 29:11 Out of Context by Thomas Turner at Relevant
It’s written on graduation cards, quoted to encourage a person who can’t seem to find God’s well and doled out like a doctor explaining a prescription: Take Jeremiah 29:11 a few times, with a full glass of water, and call me in the morning. I think you’ll feel better.

“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” Jeremiah 29:11 tells us—possibly one of our most beloved, yet most misunderstood, verses in the entire Bible.

Sure, it might make a person feel better, but this verse as we often prescribe it is being taken completely out of context. It doesn’t mean what people think it means. It’s time to back up and see what the author of Jeremiah is actually saying.

When it comes to reading the Bible, we can sometimes be so familiar with the words on the page that we read them, but we don’t really understand them. We see the words and hear the words, but we don’t make any sense out of them. Familiarity can breed laziness, and so many of our misunderstandings about the scriptures happen because we are too familiar with the passage to look it with fresh eyes. If we would come to the Word of God with fresh eyes more often, we would realize that some of our most common interpretations of Scripture passed down to us don’t make much sense when viewed within the context of the passage.

Like any author worth his salt, the writer in Jeremiah begins by stating the subject of the passage: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon ... “ (Jeremiah 29:4).

This verse, quoted to countless individuals who are struggling with vocation or discerning God’s will, is not written to individuals at all. This passage is written to a whole group of people—an entire nation. For all the grammarians out there, the “you” in Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t singular, it’s plural. And you don’t have to be a Hebrew scholar to realize that “one” versus “many” is a big difference.

And the verse just before it is perhaps even scarier. For in Jeremiah 29:10, God lays down the specifics on this promise: that He will fulfill it “after seventy years are completed for Babylon.” In other words, yes, God says, I will redeem you—after 70 years in exile. This is certainly a far cry from our expectation of this verse in what God’s plans to prosper us really mean. He did have a future and a hope for them—but it would look far different than the Israelites ever expected.

So what? Some of you may be thinking. Even when the verse is taken out of context, it still offers value, right? God does know the plans of individual people, so it’s just as well to keep prescribing Jeremiah 29 for those seeking God’s plan for their life, right? Well, yes and no.

We need to let the Bible speak to us, not allow our own personal bent to speak into the Scriptures. If Jeremiah 29 is speaking to the nation of Israel, and not just one person, then we should start with the truth in the Scriptures. Context matters—God speaks at a particular moment in time, to a particular people group, for a reason.

What this means is that God has plans for a whole group of people, namely the nation of Israel. And if we read on in the Scriptures we find that this promise was fulfilled: those in exile returned, and the nation of Israel was restored for a time. God made a promise through the prophets, and that promise came true.

But that’s not the end of the story, either. There is something to the out-of-context prescriptions that so many make using this verse. God is a God of redemption, after all, and He wants to redeem people and put them on a path of wholeness, just as He wanted the nation of Israel to be redeemed and whole again.

As John Calvin says about this passage, the prophet is speaking not just of historical redemption, for that period in time, but also of “future redemption.” For the Israelites, God listened to their prayers when they sought Him with all their heart, and in His time, He brought them out of exile.
But how does any of this apply to us today? Can we still take heart in such a beautiful promise—even though it was spoken to people long ago, people in a far different situation than ours?

First and foremost, we are all in this together. This verse does not apply to isolated individuals or to a broad community. It applies to both, together, functioning as one. The image painted here is one of individuals in community, like the Body of Christ which Paul talks about. Here are a bunch of people, worshiping God together, hoping for a future redemption.

The theologians Stanley Grenz and John Franke explain in their book Beyond Foundationalism just how a community “turns the gaze of its members toward the future.” The future in Jeremiah is one that is bright—one that everyone in the community through prayer and worship seeks as their collective future hope. Many of us want to desperately know the plan that God has for each one of us as individuals, but let the prophet Jeremiah remind us that it’s not all about us, and it might not look like what we think.

Even more important than our decision about which college to attend, which city to move to or what job offer to take is the future hope of the Kingdom of God foretold by the prophets and fulfilled in the reign of our now and coming King. In this way, the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 is bigger than any one of us—and far better.