Type Positive

icon_pete_paul During the Twilight phenomena a friendly rivalry developed among the fans of the series. Devotees were divided in their preference between Edward Cullen and Jacob Black. Team Edward admired the icy cool of their favorite while Team Jacob preferred the wild strength of theirs. To love the story was to choose a hero.

Likewise, readers of the Bible can find themselves choosing favorites between the apostles. Neither Peter nor Paul are the heroes of ‘the story’, but their stories are so well recorded that we can find kinship with them—at least one of them.

Some feel fondness towards Peter because they can relate to his passion and impulsivity. Like him, they wear their hearts on their sleeves and are quick to express their love for Jesus. These people constitute Team Peter. Across the way are those who feel an affinity for Paul. The Bible describes the apostle to the Gentiles as being thoughtful, deliberate, and determined. Those who bend in that direction are likely to admire him and enlist in Team Paul.

I have been in settings where these teams have lauded the attributes of their champion as though one was superior to the other. Neither side would say it outright, but the unspoken message was that they were members of the better team. As though, between passion and perseverance, one is best.

Spoken aloud it sounds kind of silly, which it is.

Peter and Paul did not consider themselves captains of opposing teams. They did not view themselves as the embodiment of an ideal type. They knew what they were—sinners saved by grace, and in this, they were the same. They knew, all too well, that there was nothing inherently superior about their particular type of person. This awareness made it possible to defer to, and honor, one another. Paul sought Peter out to confirm his calling and Peter proclaimed Paul’s writings to be inspired. Neither type trumped the other.

We need to learn from these men! Churches are full of people and consequently full of different types. This is as God intends. The body is made of many parts that are designed to compliment one another. However, in spite of this being taught to us by the apostles, we are prone to elevate our type to a place of prominence.

The intellectual type views studiousness as the preeminent expression of faith. The effusive type would put religious enthusiasms in the top spot. The servant type reserves first place for acts of mercy. The mystical type gives preeminence to the contemplative lifestyle. The sober type elevates disciplined behavior above all else, and so on, and so forth. There are many types and each of them is susceptible to pride.

Pride persuades us that our passions reflect God’s priorities, that our strengths mirror God’s first love. This is the essence of self-righteousness. We congratulate ourselves for being the ideal type while disdaining the lesser types that surround us. I’m probably overstating the problem, but there is a problem. There is also an opportunity. If we would assume the same humility of Peter and Paul and defer to one another’s strengths we would enjoy less insecurity and more vitality.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
1 Corinthians 12:4–7

Essential health is collective health. The ideal is to have every type fulfilling their function in the church for the common good. This is God’s will. There are many types of people and they are all positively necessary.

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What the Dead Can Offer the Living

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I’m not short on reading material, but I’m still hungrily eyeing the latest biography by Michael Horton. Chances are, I’m going to rearrange my reading list to make space for this new work on an old figure. My fascination with historical characters is that they are historical. I like stories, history is a story—ergo, I like reading about those who shaped history. But reading church history does more than entertain, it informs. Here are 5 reasons why I believe that being familiar with church history is essential for the future wellbeing of the church:

1. It breeds humility.
Every era is susceptible to chronological arrogance. Dismissing early thought as primitive, truth is treated as a recent discovery. But reading the works of history quickly curbs that arrogance—the men and woman of yesteryear were downright brilliant. Reading the works of Jonathan Edwards is enough to make one feel like a minnow. The more time I spend with past theologians, the less likely I am to be prideful of my place in God’s story.

2. It breeds further humility.
Martin Luther is an absolute gem. In an age that got so much wrong in theology, he got so much right. His brilliance is all the brighter because of the darkness that surrounded him. And yet, in spite of his genius, he was completely wrong in his attitude towards the Jews. His blind spot reminds me to keep checking my vision. Like a good carpenter, a Christian should measure twice before cutting their opinions.

3. It offers foresight.
I recently read a tweet insisting that before any Christian is allowed to post an opinion online, they take a course in church history. Amen. What is so shocking about the recent stress within evangelicalism between conservatives and progressives is that it’s nothing new. We may find the issues before us unique, but the foundational frictions have been felt before. If we want to see how things play out in the future, we should look back into the recent past.

4. It builds courage.
Jesus reminds us that allegiance to him will bring us hostility. More and more, this is proving to be true and it can be tempting to become a Christian wallflower. But when I read about the tenacity and bravery of the church in ages past, I grow bold. In a sense, I find myself borrowing their courage; if they can withstand cold steel, then I can endure cutting comments. Their resilience inspires me to stand firm in my faith.

5. It spurs worship.
Inspirational people inspire me. Inspired people inspire me more. It’s easy to be impressed with those who are brilliant, but when these people praise someone else, their respect becomes your awe. When I encounter the devotion that my heroes had for Christ, my affection for him grows. I love reading Spurgeon’s writings, because when I do, I find my love for Jesus growing deeper. History is never old, and it only gets dusty when we neglect it. Those who look behind, will likely prove to be able guides for what lies ahead.

Noah

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I walked into the cinema determined to enjoy the movie. Even before its release, Noah has been swamped by controversy as pundits have fallen into opposing factions to either praise it as excellent or slam it as profane. I decided to abstain from this skirmish. Like everyone else, I knew that the movie was not true to the biblical account so I felt protected by my low expectations. I was not there to discover truth; I was just sitting through a movie. An admirer of Russell Crowe’s acting abilities, I was going to enjoy this movie. Sadly, I did not.

The acting was good and the CG was impressive, but visually the movie was disappointing. Everyone is complaining about the stone angels as being extra-biblical science fiction, which they were, but I like science fiction and these characters still failed to impress. A curious fusion of Casper and Thing from the Fantastic Four, these good-natured monsters were a constant distraction. More than that, the ‘blighted earth’ look conformed to the worst of the apocalyptic genre—the baddies even looked like they were pulled off the set of Beyond The Thunderdome. As a science fiction flick, Noah wasn’t very good.

But what of the biblical message?

The writers chose to make Noah uncertain of God’s intent and he wrongly presumed that it was his responsibility to obliterate all humanity, his family included. To this end, he refused to find wives for his two younger sons and conspired to kill his grandchildren. It was creative license that turned dark and grizzly. In seeking to be obedient Noah became murderous, leaving the viewers annoyed with the man and frustrated with his God. The biblical account tells a sweeter story. God speaks plainly to Noah and says. “But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you” (Genesis 6:18). The ark was built to secure the future of humanity and Noah was certain of it. The movie misses the extravagant love of God that he has repeatedly and publicly announced to creation.

Ironically, the best part of the movie was the worst. The depictions of human depravity were hard to watch but excellently conveyed. The backdrop may have been far-fetched but the sordid condition of society was utterly believable. Sitting through Noah would tarnish even the most Pollyanna view of humanity. Sin was real and judgment was just. Nowhere in the movie did I get the impression that God was in the wrong, and for this singular accomplishment the makers win applause. The problem was humanity. For this sober depiction alone, the movie is worth watching.

I would summarize Noah like this—‘the bad’ was well presented, but ‘the good’ was too ambiguous.

No, I did not enjoy Noah. In spite of willing myself to like it, I couldn’t. I don’t think it was profane, but it certainly wasn’t excellent.

The Blindness of World Vision

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Yesterday’s surprise announcement by World Vision president Richard Stearns has the internet humming—or rather howling. In an exclusive interview with Christianity Today, Stearns said that the Christian humanitarian organization will no longer bar actively gay people from employment, on condition that those individuals are in a sanctioned marriage.

Stearns insists that the move is nothing more than a narrow policy change that reflects the diversity amongst churches today. “I want to be clear that we have not endorsed same-sex marriage, but we have chosen to defer to the authority of local churches on this issue.” Of course, this reasoning is deplorably thin. By setting World Visions standards to accommodate those of the most radicalized denominations, the organization is counted in their number.  How can their policy change be anything but an endorsement of same-sex marriage? I am deeply disappointed, no—I am grieved. This is another death.

Because of World Vision’s illustrious past, the reactions have been swift and numerous. Here are some:

“When World Vision says “We cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue,” here is the side they do in fact jump onto: We forbid fornication and adultery as acceptable lifestyles among our employees (which they do), but we will not forbid the regular practice of homosexual intercourse. To presume that this position is not “jumping into the fight on one side or the other” is fanciful.”
John Piper

“World Vision has decided that to be a practicing homosexual and a practicing Christian is no contradiction in terms. Despite the claims of neutrality, Richard Stearns and World Vision are not neutral. They believe what the Bible calls an abomination is not a big deal, not a serious issue like adultery, not a life threatening concern like malnutrition, not something that the Bible addresses clearly or warns against urgently.”
Kevin DeYoung

“There’s an entire corps of people out there who make their living off of evangelicals but who are wanting to “evolve” on the sexuality issue without alienating their base. I don’t mind people switching sides and standing up for things that they believe in. But just be honest about what you want to do. Don’t say “Hath God said?” and then tell us you’re doing it to advance the gospel and the unity of the church.”
Russell Moore

“No matter what you think about this decision, I hope you feel a sense of grief… for the children. This is a story of deep and lasting significance, because there are children’s lives at stake in how we respond. Children will suffer as evangelicals lose trust in and withdraw support from World Vision in the future. It will take time for evangelicals to start new organizations that maintain historic Christian concepts of sin, faith, and repentance. In the meantime, children will suffer. Needlessly.”
Trevin Wax

This issue is effectively sifting the chaff from the wheat within evangelicalism, and while each capitulation hurts, the church will be stronger for it. Those willing to bear their cross and follow Jesus will never walk alone. I do not fear the future, but I do grieve for today. I lament the loss of a venerable institution and I mourn over lost opportunity. Mostly, I’m sad for the children.

Sex and Power

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The story may no longer dominate the headlines, but the interest in the Duke student who is paying for her education by making porn continues. This fascination, I’m guessing, is due to the bizarreness of an elite student willingly participating in society’s most notorious profession. Personally, I don’t share the fascination. I simply haven’t had the stomach to follow along. All I know is that a young woman has chosen to sell sex for money. Money and power, that is, for she claims that her current employment is “empowering”.

And it’s this claim that selling sex makes her feel powerful that has left me thinking. I have no reason to doubt her; performing in these films may make her feel very formidable, but that’s not a good thing. Sex is not meant to bestow power, for if it does, it has become a weapon. A very dangerous weapon at that, because it wounds everyone it touches—including the one doing the wielding.

This newest porn star may willingly participate in acts that countless others are enslaved to do, but her choice does not protect her from its costs. The sex industry is no friend to women. For a time, some of them may feel dominion over the men that hungrily watch them, but they will soon discover that they are seen as objects not to be prized, but to be preyed upon. Horror is coiled to strike. This course she has started down might make her feel powerful now, but in the end it will leave her broken.

Men also make the mistake of treating sex as means of power. The charming cad, who woos women to his bed only to abandon them in favor of another, fancies himself as a champion of virility. For him women are simply trophies to be won, but what he doesn’t realize is that this hunt will cost him his dignity. While his friends may congratulate him for his many conquests, his soul cannot not join in the revelry. Overwhelming evidence informs us that men who hunt for sex are generally consumed with self-loathing. They use sex to seize power only to discover that in the process they have crippled their masculinity.

When women and men use sex for power, they always and only reap pain.

Sex is not meant to be about power. In God’s beautiful design, sex is devoid of dominion. Rather, it’s the willing ‘giving away’ of oneself to a spouse in the bounds of marriage. There are no acts of coercion involved, but in mutual submission the husband and wife entrust themselves to each other. The two become one flesh. It’s a union forged in shared vulnerability. The generosity in this joining establishes trust and binds them together. When this happens in sex there are no losers, no vanquished parties, for both man and woman have been honored by the other. In God’s design nobody wields sex, it’s a gift given and received between loving spouses. This is the way sex is meant to be, for when power plays are kept from the marriage bed there is ample space for love.

To Thine Own Self Be True

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A long time ago in a country far, far away, a younger version of myself watched the gyrations with growing unease. Sunday night worship was being lead by a talented youngster, whose gifting was completely overshadowed by his crazed movements. As his behavior sped past peculiar and into bizarre, I resolved to speak with him. The conversation that happened later that evening sounded something like this:

I said, “Dude, that wasn’t cool!” Be nice, I was younger and it was the 90’s. “What were you trying to do?” He said, “Ah, man. I was just being true to myself!”

I don’t remember my response but I imagine I suggested that he aim higher. And yet, in spite of my failing memory, his answer remains indelible. The whole encounter, the gross performance and the disappointing conversation that followed, were all wrapped up in this…”I was just being true to myself”.

The phrase takes self-indulgence and makes it sound noble. Gratifying oneself without concern for others is deemed ‘true’, as though selfishness is synonymous with honesty. In this thinking the best of us really don’t care about the rest of us. It’s supremely self-centered. But pride aside, the perils of this course are greater still. The Christian needs to think about which ‘self’ is being accommodated, because confusion here can lead to real trouble.

But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:20–24)

The Christian is a new creation, a man or woman who has been essentially reconstituted in their inner being. This is more than hyperbole—the Christian is made new, as Jesus put it, they are ‘born again’. But even with this new identity and potential, much of the old person remains. This means that in the heart of the Christian is a conflict that cannot be ignored. The Christian needs to repeatedly reject (put off) their old identity while practicing (put on) their new one in Christ. Idleness in this area will result in a slow slide that ends in a return to past ungodliness. Victory is won when the old self is repeatedly crowded out by the new life.

Reminded of this we return to that fateful statement, “I’m just being true to myself”. If we could strip the selfishness from the phrase, it may still hold some value for us. If we use it to explain that our behavior is consistent with our inner self then it speaks of integrity. But even then, we need to be clear as to which self we are being true. For the believer, who is being true to whom they are in Christ, they are going to prove their identity through selflessness.

“Put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:10)

In A Better World

globeI don’t believe in purgatory but group texting is tempting me to reconsider.

Group texts have this unique ability to conjure up all kinds of unpleasantness inside of me. It begins with the incessant buzzing that emanates from my phone. As scores of people dutifully respond to the electronic summons, my phone reverberates with every addition. Now that my focus has been disrupted, I feel obliged to respond to this pestering.

What could possibly account for so much activity?

There, at the top of this eternal dialogue, is a simple message. It’s not altogether unimportant but somehow I feel altogether unimportant in the way the news has come to me. This is no personal conversation; it’s an announcement to the herd, to which I apparently belong.  Group texting is as personal as those infernal planes that buzz by the beach dragging banners advertising cheap shrimp. If this offence was limited to a convulsing phone and some injured pride I could bear it, but what comes next is unbearable…

Apparently, everyone has responded. Now begins the internal dispute over my response. If I do respond then I am complicit in this electronic kidnapping, but if I don’t I could be perceived as indifferent. Actually, I am quite indifferent but I don’t want to be perceived in that way. Folding under the digital peer pressure I consider my response. To my chagrin, the early responders have used up all the pithy retorts, and all I have left is a limp “yay”. Shameful!

Thanks to this ghastly process I have been disturbed, diminished, and enfeebled. In a better world group texts would require the same emergency threshold as 911 calls and responses would be limited to a simple acknowledgment.

OK?

A Spoken Thing

 

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“The gospel is heard not seen” 

As a preacher, I am not opposed to using overstatement to emphasize a point. It is, in my opinion, a valid rhetorical device, but the above quote is not an example of this. When I included these words in a message this past weekend, I was speaking quite specifically. The gospel is heard and not seen. The good news is a message that can only be delivered in words. As Paul reminds us, the gospel needs to be spoken and heard so that it can be believed. (Romans 10)

My insistence on this is due to some confusion prevalent in current evangelical speech. Often, I hear or see written, an encouragement to ‘live out’ the gospel in front of a dying world. The intent in this is to encourage believers to perform good works towards the lost. While this encouragement is good and needed, it blurs the meaning of the gospel and that’s not a good thing. The subject of the gospel is the person and work of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the good news that God saves sinners. It’s a historical truth with an immediate opportunity. This announcement cannot be conveyed by actions—words are needed, and these words need to come from our lips.

Am I participating in the age-old dispute between words versus actions? I certainly hope not. Doing good works is an imperative for every follower of Jesus. The man who served the least and lonely expects no less from those who call him master. If we love Christ then we had better be diligent in good works because he takes our efforts personally, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40, ESV). Insisting that the gospel is a spoken thing does not imply that our actions are unimportant—we need more charitable effort not less.

Is this simply semantics? Does it really matter that we get the categories right and define our words exactly? I think so. The danger is that many can come to think that they are fulfilling their gospel duty by acts of service alone.  Acting benevolently is noble and necessary but unless we direct people to Jesus we risk making people more comfortable in their sin. Our task is only complete when we have invited our neighbors to call on Jesus for forgiveness.

But do good works have any relation to the gospel? Yes, indeed.

The gospel ought to be accompanied with generous deeds. As heralds of the king, our behavior must be consistent with our message. Those who speak of Jesus’ love are more likely to be believed if they demonstrate that love. Good works serve to validate the message; they bridge the credibility gap and win a hearing. We could put it this way, “Good works adorn the gospel, but words are needed to explain it.”

So this is not an either/or scenario that sets one against the other. Both works and words ought to come freely from the faithful. The reason I want us to get our language right isn’t an effort to diminish either responsibility. It’s because I fear that category confusion has already done this. I worry that when we call our works the gospel, the witness falls silent. Too many Christians love their neighbors and are loved in return without the name of Jesus being spoken between them.

Let your good works gain you a hearing, and then please speak the gospel.

Dark Horse

Quarter Horse PortraitYesterday I received an email enquiry about perseverance. The focus of the question was the future of Katy Perry.

Perry, as most know, is an extremely popular performer. She is as gifted as she is popular. I may have cut my teeth on the rock scene of the 80’s but I nevertheless find her music quite enjoyable. Her lyrics less so. Perry’s songs are filled with the kind of sexually charged nihilism that has defined the pop industry. The messages she performs are diametrically opposed to her upbringing as a preacher’s kid. Therein lies the question about her future. Will someone, like Katy Perry, who claimed to be a Christian but has since strayed from the faith, be saved in the end?

It all depends on where they are in the end. For this reason we cannot know Perry’s fate since she has not finished her journey.

Let’s put Perry’s condition aside for a moment and consider the biblical truths involved. There are many biblical texts that state that those who are truly saved will persevere in their faith until their death. Jesus says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”” (John 6:38–40, ESV) Here Jesus explains that he keeps those who believe in him until the last day. Salvation is held by God and this makes it secure.

Commonly this truth has been described as ‘once saved—always saved’. The unfortunate effect of this phrase is that it can imply that the life and conduct of a person is irrelevant to their final destiny. Comforted with this illusion, scores of people have relapsed into the ways of the world without fear for their souls. But these people misunderstand the doctrine. The promise of Jesus is that those who are truly saved will persevere in their faith until the end. Wayne Grudem defines it neatly in his signature work, Systematic Theology.

“The perseverance of the saints: The doctrine that all those who are truly “born again” will be kept by God’s power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have been truly “born again.””

So when Katy Perry announces in a Marie Claire interview that she is not a Christian and she does not believe “in a heaven or a hell or an old man sitting on a throne” there is reason for concern. Such apostasy brings into question if she ever had a genuine faith to begin with or if she was merely mimicking the faith of her family. But we cannot and will not know her destiny until the end. Until then we will join her parents in prayer—God please rescue Katy Perry.

The Do’s & Don’ts of Talking with Preachers

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I like to think that most people love and respect their pastor, and yet it seems that in spite of this admiration many find speaking to the preacher a daunting prospect. Members of the clergy can seem wholly ‘other’ and engaging them in conversation sometimes feels like an expedition into strange lands. Let me assist you in this endeavor by offering ten boundary markers to help you speak to your preacher without perspiration or regret.

1.  Do talk to him.
Pastors, even introverted ones like myself, enjoy good conversation. Cross the room, say “Hi”, and ask him about the merits of juicing. Okay, there’s probably a better opening line, but my point is that he is most likely as interested in you, as you are of him. He’s probably more accessible than you think.

2.  Don’t try to talk to him through his wife.
Venture here at your peril! Those who seek to relay their messages via the pastor’s wife will find their message lost and their relationships strained. A happy pastor is an effective pastor. A happy pastor with an unhappy wife does not exist. Cherish his family and he will devote himself to loving you.

3.  Do remind him of your name.
There are a few preachers who have an uncanny ability to remember names. The rest of us despise them! Personally, I suffer from selective amnesia and I have a doctor’s note to prove it. That’s a lie. Like many others, I’m just horrible at remembering names. Take pity on us; remind us of your name. We’ll learn it…eventually.

4.  Don’t assume that your failures will unnerve him.
Here’s a trade secret—pastors presume that you have some ugly baggage. If he’s at all seasoned he’s likely to have heard your story numerous times before. That doesn’t mean that he’s going to be callous, but he’s not going to recoil in shock either. Tell him your failures and you will likely find him compassionate.

5.  Do burden him with your problems.
Look, all human interactions are an imposition on somebody. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. So when life is unmanageable and you approach your pastor for help, don’t apologize for being a burden. He’s happy to help. Of course, if you’re looking for help to move a piano, he may not be so happy. Just saying.

6.  Don’t critique his message minutes after its delivery.
Criticizing a sermon right after it’s been delivered is like telling a new mother in the recovery room that her child is ugly. It’s not kind, don’t do it. Give the man some time before you correct his misstep. Chances are he’s already identified the mistake and five others you missed.

7.  Do speak well of other pastors.
Telling your pastor about the merits of another preacher is not a breach of loyalty. There is unholy competition in the ministry but it’s less prevalent than most people think. Now, if you tell your preacher that you would like him better if he were more like another, be prepared, he may return the favor.

8.  Don’t bring him a concern just as he’s readying to preach.
Yikes! The man is about to step into the pulpit (or behind the iPad stand) and he’s informed of some grave concern. Now he’s trying to explain propitiation while his mind is convulsing. By the time he is done, the message is murky, the body is bewildered, and the preacher is discombobulated. Get hold of him first thing on Monday and everyone wins.

9.  Do tell him you’re praying for him.
You have had a great encounter with the preacher and now it needs to end but you don’t really know how to exit. The conversation feels like landed fish—someone needs to end it. Conclude your words with the assurance that you are praying for him. That pledge is like jet fuel for preachers.

10. Don’t limit conversation to weighty matters.
I love to talk theology. I also like to talk about the perfect cup of coffee, the glories of charcuterie (look it up), and the many ways cricket is superior to baseball. Looking at my list, I wonder why anyone talks to me at all! Let your conversation with the preacher veer into the inconsequential, he’ll enjoy it and you might too.

I hope that helps. Love you.