Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Truth and Meaning

I just finished reading a great new biography of C.S. Lewis by the always brilliant Alister McGrath. I've been really loving McGrath's historical theology work (see "Christianity's Dangerous Idea" and "The Twilight of Athiesm") so I was excited to see that he had put out a Lewis biography.

I find that one of the effects of reading biographies is that they remind me of the brevity of life. They help bring perspective. No matter how great a person was, no matter how great of a legacy they left behind, their life comes to an end.

I need to be reminded of this. I get so blissfully ignorant of the mortality of life. I like to pretend that I'll go on just as I am indefinitely. Those of us in our 30's can still hold on to some faint hope that our bodies aren't failing us. But they are. It's only a matter of time.

Most of us don't like to consider our own mortality. We put so much stock in things that death will take away. But remembering the shortness of life is a practice that brings needed perspective to our lives. It helps us to see which things are really valuable and deserving of our time and effort and which things we could probably stand to worry less about.

Reading biographies is one of those things that forces you to look at life through a different set of lenses. It's as if you were removed from your present location in time and space and given the opportunity to see part of the bigger picture. For a moment, the lesser concerns of life fade away and you are hit with the big questions: What the heck am I doing in this life? Is my life of any worth? To what ought I to devote my fading time, energy, and resources?

While C.S. Lewis was certainly interested in finding truth, he was more interested in finding meaning. In one sense, he devoted his life to finding the synthesis of reason and imagination. And that search led him to Christianity. He found that Christianity engaged both his mind and his imagination more convincingly than anything else.

In these times when we are forced to consider the mortality of life, I find it helps to consider, as Lewis did, the grand story of which our lives are only a small part. Lewis saw Christianity as the great, true "myth." Our lives find their purpose as part of a story, a great drama that is bigger than ourselves, but in which we are invited to play a part. Despite our inclinations otherwise, we are not the heroes of this story. Neither are we the creators of this story. But the wonderful news is that a hero and creator both exist. This means the story has both direction and resolution.

I have found that I live my life in proper relation to the grand storyteller and his great hero, I discover both truth and meaning.




Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Good Books-"Why Men Hate Going to Church"

I like reading. And I like underlining sections that really connect with me when I'm reading. I guess my reasoning is that I may want to come back to a book at a later time and be able to easily find all the greatest quotes of the book. But the truth is, I rarely go back and open up a book I've finished. So, I figured I'd use my blog to 1) force me to go back and see what I loved most about the books I've read and 2) share what I hope are some thought-provoking, encouraging, and/or challenging quotes with the readers of my blog. As I said, I love reading, and when one finds something of great worth and quality (like a good book or a new idea), there's nothing better than sharing it with others and seeing their joy as a result.

So, once a week I am going to post several quotes from a book that I've read. Enjoy!

Today's book is one that was given to me and that I have just finished recently. It's called, "Why Men Hate Going to Church" and it's by David Murrow (who gets extra cool-points for living in Alaska). Here are some of the highlights,

"Of the planet's great religions, only Christianity has a consistent, worldwide shortage of male practitioners" (14).

"Lovey-dovey praise songs force a man to express his affection to God using words he would never, ever, ever say to another guy. Even a guy he loves. Even a guy named Jesus...Men are looking for a male leader-not a male lover" (75).

"Women are just better at 'doing church' than men are, because the rules of church favor women. The natural abilities that help a person become a star in church can be summed up in three words: verbal, studious, and sensitive" (90).

"Pastors, you are the single most important factor in your church's ability to reach men. Not what you preach, but who you are...Men respect pastors who are properly masculine. They are drawn to men who, like Jesus, embody both lion and lamb. They find macho men and sissies equally repulsive" (146-147).

"Generally speaking, the more frank and hard-hitting the teaching, the more men like it-as long as it doesn't stray into condemnation or moralism" (158).

"If the point of going to church is to pursue a relationship, you will draw more women than men. The end. Roll the credits" (166).

"Here's a mind bender: What if we canceled the children's ministry and put that effort into building up the men of the church? I firmly believe that such an approach would, in the long run, win more youth to Christ. I would also save more marriages and produce happier women. Children's ministry and youth ministry are good things-but spiritually healthy male role models are the best thing" (190).

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Honesty in Church

Recently, I have been having some conversations over email with a friend and fellow worship leader about what congregational singing should look like. Here are some thoughts that have come out of that discussion.

Is there a place for acknowledging pain, sorry, doubt, etc in congregational worship or should this time be restricted to celebration and thanksgiving?

I feel like these two areas need not be at opposite ends of the spectrum. What I mean is, we should be completely honest to God and to others about our situations and feelings, but then we should also allow the reality of God and what he's done (and is still doing) to determine how we respond to our situations and feelings. Personally, I want songs that allow me to express myself with brutal honesty while also consistently leading me to Jesus, encouraging me to see my situation in light of the gospel. I think many contemporary worship songs do a very poor job identifying with the human condition and quickly jump to "happy-go-lucky, everything's fine cause God loves me." Mark Driscoll calls them "prom songs for Jesus."

Casting Crowns sing a song called "Stained Glass Masquerade."  It talks about how many of us in church put up fronts to make it seem like we've got it all together. We "put on painted grins" and "play the part again." I think a great way to fight against this temptation is to corporately sing scathingly honest songs about the human condition and our great need for Jesus.

A big reason I feel this way is that I firmly believe that to the degree we recognize the depth of our sin, brokenness, and need, we also recognize the greatness of God's love, mercy, and satisfaction. Tim Keller puts it like this, "We are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope – at the very same time."

I think that it's possible to make too light of our sin and think that we need only focus on the positive aspects of God's love and mercy. I believe that this is what many contemporary worship songs do and I think we are missing out on a lot if the songs we are giving our congregations are a steady diet of this.

I had a conversation with a guy recently about this. I did a song for special music at church that spoke about our "crooked" nature. This man didn't think this song was appropriate for church. He didn't think it was a worship song. Now, I certainly don't think we should sing a whole set of songs that turn our focus inward and focus only on the negative aspects of our sin and need. But I told this man that in my observation most of our worship songs are on the far other end of the spectrum and quickly skate past sin and brokenness and jump right to God's goodness and love. But we can't fully grasp God's goodness and love unless we first grasp our desperate need. They have to go together. I don't think we should dwell on our sin just for the sake of dwelling on our sin. The purpose is to get us to see God's love and glory in all its fullness.

One last thought. Many rock and country songs do a wonderful job probing the depths of the human condition and speaking honestly about it. This is a big reason we find these songs attractive. We can relate to "I had a bad day." Where these songs fail is offering the true hope of Jesus. If the people in our churches are finding something that relates to them in these songs on the radio, shouldn't our church songs do at least equally well in speaking to the human condition? And having done that, to then lead them to see Jesus and how he helps them right where they are?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Confidence

One thing that I like to regularly remind the church before we begin a service is that we are not accepted before God today on the basis of our having, or not having, a mostly morally upright week, or on the basis of our keeping, or not keeping, a consistent devotional or prayer time, or on the basis of our feelings of worthiness or unworthiness. The only reason we are accepted and received by God today is that Jesus died for us and we simply agree with God that His sacrifice, not ours, is enough.

I love Jesus' parable of the pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus begins,

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.

 Wow! This is me. This is most of us, religious or not. Jesus knows that we tend to put our confidence in ourselves. We compare ourselves to others (usually those worse than us) in order to justify ourselves. Though we may not think it, we try to be our own little "saviors."

Jesus goes on,

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

This is the religious one. This is the one who actually lived a pretty good life. This is the one who was certain that he was in a right standing with God. He was confident in his righteousness. Jesus continues,

 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

Jesus concludes,

 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

How convicting! How often I am like the pharisee. My confidence rises and falls on how I perceive myself to be doing in relation to others. I am either doing good and am proud or doing poorly and am devastated. 

But how freeing! Jesus is saying that Christianity is unlike any other religion. You are not accepted based on the merit that you bring to the table. Your good deeds, your sincere devotional life, your vast knowledge of the scriptures: none of this is the basis of your salvation. 

No matter how good we've been this week, we are not beyond the need for God's mercy in Jesus. Yet no matter how much we've screwed up this week, we are not beyond the availability of God's mercy in Jesus. 

God wants our humility and repentance. He desires us to come, like the tax collector, and cry, "God have mercy on me, a sinner." God is glorified and we are made joyfully alive when we live dependent on his mercy.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Washington, church planting, uncertainty

It has been a few weeks since I've blogged. Anlee, Ezra and I were on vacation for two weeks in Georgia and Tennessee visiting friends and family and then on top of that, we are currently in a time of transition with lots of changes coming. This blog will be a little more personal than usual.

I am currently reading a biography of Jonathan Edwards (along with about 4 other books). At 46 years of age, Edwards was removed from the church where he had been a pastor for most of his life. A portion of a letter he wrote to a friend during this period resonated with me.

I am now, as it were, thrown upon the wide ocean of the world, and know not what will become of me and my numerous and chargeable family. Nor have any particular door in view that I depend upon to be opened for my future serviceableness...We are in the hands of God, and I bless him, I am not anxious concerning his disposal of us.

While I am not being removed from my current ministry position, I am leaving it and will be without a job in two weeks (unless something comes up before then). Two years ago, when Anlee and I moved back from South Korea and I took a position at this church in Midland, TX, I didn't figure I'd be looking for work again so soon or that I'd be considering going back to a non-ministry job, at least for a time.

But here I am. God has done a lot of work in my life over the past two years. I have changed and grown in ways that I never expected. Two years ago, I felt peace and confidence about getting back into a ministry job. I was completely content to serve in the areas of leading music/worship and leading youth. I had little to no desire to teach, preach, or serve in other leadership areas of the church. But God had other plans. I now find myself chomping at the bit to get all the experience and training I can get in the areas of teaching, preaching, and church leadership.

Furthermore, I have been having lots of thoughts of planting a church, another thing that I never wanted to do two years ago.

Let me make this clear. These are all things that I had no desire for two years ago. Nothing in me liked preaching. I would have been content never preaching again. I told this to the elders at my church this when I was getting hired. Now I think about preparing and giving sermons all the time. I've even had dreams about it. It's clear that this is a work of God and not just me deciding to change the nature of my desires and the course of my life.

Five months ago I communicated all of this to the elders of my church. I also told them that I felt something of a call to plant a church in my hometown of Stanwood. I didn't know if or when this would happen. I'm hesitant to say "God told me this", as I don't have an infallible ear. But I haven't been able to shake this sense that God is leading me to at least pursue the training and experience necessary for planting a church down the road.

So, that's how I find myself with two more weeks to go at my current position and a move to western Washington soon after that. I have no job prospects as of yet. We'll be living with my family for the time being. I have a wife and kid that I have the wonderful responsibility of providing and caring for. It is a somewhat unnerving time. As I said, I didn't expect to be here. I never could have planned this.

But like Jonathan Edwards, I hope in this: We are in the hands of God, and I bless him, I am not anxious concerning his disposal of us.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Tolerance in The Humanist

Every Friday my wife has a meeting at Barnes and Noble to go over some work stuff with her boss. I usually tag along and push Ezra, our six-month-old, around in his stroller while browsing the books and magazines. Last week a front cover article in the magazine The Humanist caught my attention. The article was titled "Free Speech Aflame." Ezra was sleeping so I decided to check it out. It turned out to be an interview with Greg Lukianoff, who is the president of FIRE, a nonprofit educational foundation that supports free expression, academic freedom, and due process at U.S. colleges and universities.

As I am currently putting together an article on the nature of tolerance in our culture, several statements by Lukianoff caught my attention. Here are some snippets of the interview.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that supports free expression, academic freedom, and due process at U.S. colleges and universities. - See more at: http://thehumanist.org/may-june-2013/free-speech-aflame-the-humanist-interview-with-greg-lukianoff/#sthash.mhGqq23Y.F1tCUudt.dpuf
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that supports free expression, academic freedom, and due process at U.S. colleges and universities. - See more at: http://thehumanist.org/may-june-2013/free-speech-aflame-the-humanist-interview-with-greg-lukianoff/#sthash.mhGqq23Y.F1tCUudt.dpuf
  
The Humanist: FIRE periodically defends students’ religious beliefs that some humanists—or non-humanists—would find hateful. Why? 
Lukianoff: Personally, I’ve been an atheist since seventh grade. And FIRE was founded by two non-religious civil libertarians. All of us believe in the entire First Amendment, and that includes the establishment clause and free exercise clause.
So we’ve defended Muslim student groups and evangelical Christian student groups, some of whom are being kicked off campus because they believe that homosexuality is sinful. I don’t agree with that point of view, and I both hope and believe that such views will eventually be abandoned. But I challenge my friends who support expelling such groups: Do we really want to live in a society that can try to coerce somebody into changing their theological point of view just because it’s unpopular?
Our founders learned from Europe’s religious wars that the government should stay out of establishing a theocracy, deciding matters of theology, or interfering with people’s faith.
I understand the frustration on campus—some people want evangelicals to change their minds on issues like sexual morality. But you’re not doing that cause any favors if your solution is to kick those students off the campus. It probably hardens their point of view, and turns the narrative from “We have an idea that many people find objectionable” into “We’re being exiled for our points of view.” So, in addition to the strategy being wrong, I think it can backfire. 

The Humanist: Intolerance—say of another’s code of sexual morality—is assumed to be a bad thing on campus because supposedly it creates an environment that makes other people uncomfortable. 
Lukianoff: Yes. The question of making people uncomfortable versus discriminating against them is a distinction that I draw all the time. There’s a big difference between discriminating on the basis of an immutable characteristic, and opposing on the basis of a belief. Discriminating on the basis of an immutable characteristic like skin color or sexual orientation is something that should be challenged, as this discrimination prevents others from exercising their rights. But belief is intertwined with expression and civic integrity. Democratic societies need to nurture and protect people’s right to believe anything they want, no matter how distasteful it may be to others, even if those others are in the majority.

See the full interview-Link

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Tolerance, pt. 1

I am working on a larger article on the subject of tolerance. I am beginning to find sources and quotes and thought I'd put a few of them up here as food for thought. I would love comments on these, especially if you find yourself disagreeing with them. As these quotes convey, our culture is losing its ability to discuss differing opinions with respect and reason. We need more of this.

Here is a quote from Meic Pearse's book, "Why the Rest Hates the West", as quoted in D.A. Carson's recent book, "The Intolerance of Tolerance."

“The currency of the term tolerance has recently become badly debased. Where it used to mean the respecting of real, hard differences, it has come to mean instead a dogmatic abdication of truth-claims and a moralistic adherence to moral relativism-departure from either of which is stigmatized as intolerance…Where the old tolerance allowed hard differences on religion and morality to rub shoulders and compete freely in the public square, the new variety wishes to lock them all indoors as matters of private judgment; the public square must be given over to indistinctness. If the old tolerance was, at least, a real value, the new, intolerant “tolerance” might better be described as an antivalue; it is a disposition of hostility to any suggestion that one thing is “better” than another, or even that any way of life needs protected space from its alternatives.”

And a couple more quotes from Carson's book.

In this tolerant world some things are intolerable-especially those judged to be intolerant. (30)
Genuine pluralism within the broader culture is facilitated when there is a strong Christian voice loyal to the Scriptures-as well as strong Muslim voices, skeptical voices, Buddhist voices, atheistic voices, and so forth. Genuine pluralism within the broader culture is not fostered when in the name of tolerance none of the voices can say that any of the others is wrong, and when this stance is the only ultimate virtue. (35)
What is unhealthy is derisive criticism that does not engage with the views of a particular party, but merely dismisses them and tries to expel them from the discourse on the ground that they are intolerant. (43)