Friday, September 28, 2012

Why Kids Don't Like Church

A couple weeks ago I read this article on The Resurgence that talks about how parents can teach their children to "hate church."  It makes some good points about how parents can set the tone of their children's process of developing a spiritual hunger by what they say and do regarding spiritual things.  For example, the article says that if you want to teach your kids to hate church, then "pray only in front of people," the implication being that children learn that the place for prayer is church and not in one's personal life.  Each of the "5 ways to make your kids hate church" pretty much has to do with the differentiation between public and private faith.  In other words, our kids will see if we are committed to the faith by how we act in private - not just at church.  If they see that our faith is genuine outside the church walls, they are more apt to explore it for themselves.  That is, the greater likelihood they will develop a spiritual hunger of their own if they see the parent's spiritual hunger being fed inside and outside the church walls.  They are all good points, and I recommend the article.

Today I read this article by a guy who takes on the same topic, except he looks at it more from the church's point of view.  Is there anything the church is doing to teach kids to "hate church"?  He explores the topic from his own experience as a pastor, and I think he makes some good observations.

First of all, kids don't want to go to church because their parents have shirked their responsibility to insist on what is good for their children.  The author of the article points out that parents would never trust their 10 year old child with the decision of choosing what medical doctor to visit.  Nor would they entrust the decision of what kind of medicine to consume to a kid.  Would an adult allow a young child to make investment choices for a 401k?  Certainly not.  Yet when it comes to church, parents are all to happy to let their children make the decisions for them.  And when a child makes that decision, he or she is making it based on the preferences of a child - not a rational, thinking adult.  The kid is going to go for what is fun, not necessarily what he or she needs spiritually.

Certainly the parents bear some of the responsibility in letting their kids take on this authoritative role, but I would expand the blame to include the church in general.  This is something we need to be teaching parents, and especially to fathers: you are the God-ordained spiritual authority in your family.  You are responsible to raise your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  Your children are (in many cases) unregenerate sinners.  Consider this as you make decisions about their spiritual rearing.

Secondly, the author of the article implies that our culture, which is driven by pleasure and instant gratification, has trained children to desire what is the most fun, and if it doesn't deliver on their desires, to move on to something that does.  This means that when a kid isn't having fun at church, he or she is trained to abandon that which does not satisfy (a particular church) and seek out something that does (a different church that is more fun).  David Michael of Children Desiring God gives  fabulous presentation about how to reply to people who call up the church office asking if there is anything "fun" at a church for their children to do, and how this is the last thing we need to be worried about when it comes to children's ministry in the church.  Too often in churches, a child's enjoyment has become the goal, rather than a means to an end.  Do we have fun in Sunday School at Riverview?  Yes, but that is not our goal.  Our goal is to learn about the glorious deeds of the Lord as recorded in scripture, and one of the ways we do that is by having fun as we learn.

Unfortunately, the church has adopted the culture of entertainment, and instead of desiring to teach about God, their main focus usually is to be more entertaining than the church down the road so as to attract more people.  Will it attract more people?  Indeed, because that's one of the major elements that people have been trained to look for in a church.  Is it good?  Absolutely not.  Because what is cool and entertaining now, won't be in a couple months.  The church that seeks to entertain as a goal will always have to change what they're doing in order to accommodate what the culture has defined as entertaining.

Finally, the church has trained both adults and children that serious theology and worship are for adults - not kids.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  But aren't kids a bit young to be learning theology?  Isn't the realm of theology reserved for scholars and pastors, and maybe smart adults?  No!  All Christians - from the most learned scholar to the most humble layman - engage theology on a regular, every day basis.  You may not realize it, but as a believer, every decision you make, deed you perform, word you say, and thought you think, is based upon your knowledge of who God is and what God is like.  The goal of ministry to children in the church is to get them to think theologically - to encourage them to ask the questions "Who is God?" and "What is God like?"  As they ponder these, they will then begin to ask, "How should I act toward God?"  This is learning theology, and it's not just for adults.  Any curriculum or Christian education that does not begin and end with theology is flawed.  It's time for the church to realize this reality and factor it into its ministry.

The author of the article concludes with a poignant point that we have trained children (and adults, for that matter) "to evaluate life the same way they would a theme park."  Are we really that surprised that so many kids are walking away from the church when they leave high school?  Why would we be?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


I seem to be on "Christians threatened with violence for their intolerant religious views about homosexuality" theme today, so I might as well go with it.  My post from earlier today talked about the irony of asserting that pro-traditional marriage views are "stone-age" ways of thinking while reacting to said views with threats or jokes about violence.  Apparently violence against those with whom we disagree is, in fact, not a stone-age way of dealing with people, but is instead sophisticated and modern.

Moreover, I talked just briefly about the hypocrisy of people who will allow (and even endorse) threats of violence against those with whom they disagree, but will cry foul as soon as any a criticism of their point of view is expressed by the opposing side.  I've also said on this blog that public ridicule and even danger is on the way for Christians who dare to voice their religious convictions in the public square.  We're already being classified as a hate group, and pretty soon it will be allowable for our freedoms to be diminished and for our religious privileges to be revoked.

It's going to happen sooner than we think.

This afternoon, as I was doing a random perusal of the internet, I happened upon the Wretched Radio website, and saw the picture to the left.  It was reportedly snapped by someone at the 2012 Minnesota State Fair.  The guy's hair is in the way a little bit, but you can clearly fill in the blanks and read this message: "Exterminate Christians one bullet at a time" (click to enlarge).  A few thoughts here:

1. How does this guy get away with wearing this shirt?  That's a threat!  Couldn't his shirt be considered "fighting words?"

2. Take out the word "Christians" and insert something like "Muslims" or "Homosexuals."  I can guarantee the guy would be arrested, or at least told to remove the shirt and have it confiscated by the police.

3. I have no way of knowing how seriously the guy wearing the shirt believes the sentiment he's broadcasting on his back.  Maybe he thinks it's a joke.  If he does, it's not funny.  See above, and then tell me how funny a Muslim or homosexual would think it is.  I have no reason to believe that he thinks it's a joke.  For all intents and purposes, he truly believes that Christians should be "exterminated."

4. It would be foolish to think that the shirt and the "VOTE NO" fan stuffed into his pants aren't related.  He's got the fan there as an advertisement, not as a convenient place to hold a fan.  He knows what's on his shirt, and he knows that anyone who reads the fan will also read the shirt.  He's trying to connect the two messages.  Mission accomplished.

5. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: our society has moved away from intellectual discourse and is moving toward threats and violence as means of resolving differences.  This should concern Christians and any other religious group that adheres to some form of dogma.

6. Christians need to be thinking about how to respond to guys like this, and groups of people who believe this but don't necessarily wear their opinions on their sleeve.  More and more people will find religious (primarily Christian) beliefs to be intolerant and worthy of violent retribution.  Christian, how now shall we live?  How do we respond to people who want to hurt us (physically, emotionally, politically, etc.)?  This is something we need to be thinking about, because the time when Christians will be forced to decide between quality of life and defending their religious convictions is fast-approaching more so now than ever before.

A Stone-Age Mentality

This morning one of the more than 400 people in my Facebook feed posted this sentiment: "Does that 'Vote YES, one man one woman' sign in your yard that shows your stone-age mentality give me the right to beat you with a stick?"  The post has so far received 19 "Likes"  and four comments that express agreement with the post, one of which reads, "perhaps it would be more appropriate to stone them."  Now there's certainly an element of sarcasm at play here, but I think this is worth thinking about in at least three ways.

First, let me express my agreement that a traditional understanding of marriage is, in fact, a "stone-age mentality."  In fact, it dates back to even before the stone age.  The traditional definition of marriage is, as Kirk Cameron said, "as old as dirt."  Marriage was instituted by God pretty quickly after the creation of the world.  So in a sense, the Poster is correct: one man, one woman is a stone-age mentality.

Secondly, the Poster implies that people who believe in the stone-age idea of traditional marriage should be beaten "with a stick."  Huh.  Yeah, that sounds like very sophisticated and modern way of dealing with disagreement.  "I don't agree with you; time for me to beat you with a stick."  How is that mentality any less "stone-age" than a belief in the traditional definition of marriage?  I thought beating people we have disagreements with with sticks would have been a trait we left in the stone-age, and not something we brought with us into the twenty-first century.  But apparently some people are still in the stone-age.

Third, I think it's important to point out the extreme hypocrisy of this post and the general way that the pro-gay agenda works.  For example, I wonder what would happen if the post went something like this: "Does that 'Vote NO, don't limit the freedom to marry' sign in your yard that shows your immoral mentality give me the right to be you with a stick?"  What would the public response to that be?  And what if someone similarly commented on such a post, "perhaps it's more appropriate to stone them"?  I imagine that if a person posted such a thing he or she would be accused of threatening violence to gay people.  Maybe even be charged with a hate crime.  Why is the same standard not applied to those who threaten violence (either legitimately or jokingly) against people who oppose gay marriage?  It's extreme hypocrisy, and it's astounding to me that people can't see it for what it is.

As I've said before, we can disagree about the issues - let's just do so in a civil and respectful way.  Can't we talk about this stuff without joking about violence against the other side and accusing each other of hate?  Here's to hoping people can get their brains out of the stone-age.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Grocery Shopping, Mountain Dew, and Sanctification

I had an interesting experience today that gave me hope for my own process of sanctification and simultaneously showed me how sinful I still am - or in other words, how much work God still has yet to do in me to make me more like Jesus.  It's an odd sensation to be sure, to have awareness of both parts of my nature so instantaneously and at the same time.

I've become the procurer of groceries around our house, and Sunday afternoons is my time to grocery shopping.  This week I went to Rainbow, since they had more of the foods that we like to eat on sale than Cub Foods, which is the food jobber I usually patronize.  One of the deals I took advantage of was the three Pespi product twelve packs for $10.99, which is a decent deal.  I placed the three twelve packs of pop on the bottom of my cart, underneath the rest of my groceries which were in the main basket.  After I collected my items, I proceeded to the checkout line.

When I got in line there was just one person ahead of me, so I proceeded to put my items on the conveyor belt.  When the cart was empty, I was able to see through the basket and saw the pop.  I had temporarily forgotten about it.  Usually you can have the cashier just scan one of the cases of pop and they will multiply it by three on the register so you don't have to lug up all three cases for them to scan each one.  Since I was behind someone else in line, I determined to just wait to bring the pop up off the bottom of the cart until it was my turn to check out.

When my turn came, I immediately moved the cart to the end of the checkout lane and began to bag the groceries the cashier had already scanned, while I waited to pay.  All of the food went through, and as the cashier gave me my receipt she happily told me that I had saved twenty-some dollars during my visit.  I was pleased.

I finished bagging the groceries and brought the cart out to my car and put the bags in the trunk.  As I lifted the bags out of the cart, the cases of pop were once again revealed, and I realized that I had never given the pop to the cashier, and was not charged for it.  I double checked the receipt to make sure.  I had indeed not been charged for the pop.

The notion of loading the pop up into my car and going home flashed through my mind for a fraction of a second.  "No," was the thought that came to mind just as quickly.  "I can't do that.  That's not honest."  I very quickly decided to take the pop back into the store and pay for it.  As I walked one of the twelve packs back into the store I was proud of myself for doing the right thing.  I reveled in my obedience to God.  "Some people would have just taken it without paying," I thought.  "Especially since no one is the wiser.  But I'm not like those people - I'm better than that."  I took the pop into the store, explained the situation, and paid for it.  The cashier I talked to said it happens all the time.

After reflecting on this experience, it's interesting to see the range of thoughts that I had, and what this reveals about my spiritual growth.  In one sense, it shows that I'm still a sinner even though I'm a Christian.  My very first thought was to just load it up as if it never happened.  I'm sure Rainbow wouldn't ever notice that it was gone.  It's a huge company that moves tons of food and dollars every day.  What's 36 cans of pop to them?  But that, of course, is not the point.  I still struggle with sin.  I still am tempted to do that which I know is wrong.

Secondly, this experience shows that I am being changed.  At one point in my life I would have taken the pop without a second thought.  It wouldn't have bothered me in the slightest.  I would have counted myself lucky.  Not anymore.  I know what is right and wrong, even if no one is there to keep me accountable.  Jesus has given me the ability to choose the right.

Thirdly, it exposes the painful slowness of my sanctification (my lifelong process of becoming more and more like Jesus and less and less enslaved to sin).  Even after I had determined to do that which was good and right, I took pride in my decision to do what was right.  I commended myself for being such a good person.  I also somewhat looked down on those who would not do the righteous thing I had determined to do.

It's interesting to see how little, seemingly insignificant situations like this expose the spiritual battle that's going on inside me.  I am justified before God and have the righteousness of Christ imputed to me.  In other words, in God's eyes, I'm righteous.  I am legally declared "not guilty" of sin.  But I do still sin.  This is what Martin Luther called "simul justus et peccator."  It's a Latin phrase which means something like "at the same time justified and sinning."  It's the paradox of the process of sanctification. We are justified before God - given a right legal standing - and yet we still sin.

Certainly my experience today wasn't monumental or earth shaking to any extent, but it was significant to me.  It shows me who I am, what I was, and what is still going on inside me.  There's still a lot of work left to be done in making me more like Jesus, and thank God that he's faithful to do it.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Hate Map

Wow.  That's about all I can say.  I'm almost speechless.  I'm certainly disheartened.

I sat down this evening and saw this article on Yahoo News, about how Chick-Fil-A in fact did not flip-flop on their commitment to financially support pro-marriage organizations.  Earlier this week a Chicago Alderman claimed that Chick-Fil-A had told him that they would no longer support antigay organizations.  This was greatly disheartening to me, as I saw it as a colossal defeat for the freedom of speech.  Needless to say, I was happy to hear that the restaurant company in fact did not make such a statement, and is continuing to support the same organizations it always has. (Which makes me wonder what the alderman was doing - he clearly knew that Chick-Fil-A did not make such a statement committing to not support "antigay" charities.  Was he trying to discredit them in the media?)

Anyway, my speechlessness came not from the news about Chick-Fil-A, but from this line in the article, as it delineated Chick-Fil-A's support of the Family Research Council: "The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the Family Research Council as a 'hate group,' as displayed on the group's 'hate map.'"

"Southern Poverty Law Center?  Hate map?  What are these?" I wondered.  I followed the links and was absolutely flabbergasted by what I saw.  According to their website, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is "a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society."  OK, fine.  But I really wanted to see this "hate map" and know why the Family Research Council was considered a "hate group."

On the left hand side of the site there's a link for the Hate Map.  I followed it and was brought to the map you see below.  The numbers on each state are representative of the amount of those groups the SPLC considers to be hate groups.  Living in Minnesota, I noticed that our state has 12 of those groups.  I clicked on our state to find out who they were.
The site goes on to name each of the "hate groups" in the state, and tell why each group is included on the Hate Map.  The listing is full of several racist and supremacy groups, and fringe religious groups  - groups that are certainly worthy of the label "hate group."  In fact, most of them would probably brag about their hatred for a certain segment of the population, be it white, black, Jewish, etc.

Included with neo-Nazis, white supremacist groups, black supremacist groups, and the like, are "anti-gay" groups as well.  These groups are essentially evangelical Christian organizations.  There are two "anti-gay hate groups" in Minnesota.  One is You Can Run but You Cannot Hide, a ministry that I have financially supported in the past. (I have discontinued my support of this organization mostly for political reasons, not because of theological reasons.  They are also very hard-lined "King James Only" people, which is a view of scripture that I do not support.  I can guarantee, however, that this ministry is not "anti-gay" - at least in the sense that the SPLC declares - nor are they hateful.)

The other Minnesota organization listed as being an "anti-gay hate group" by the SPLC is the Parents Action League, a group of parents in the Anoka-Hennepin school district.  Their website defines their identity as "citizens of Anoka-Hennepin School District 11 who want to ensure that our schools remain focused on core academics and that parental rights are respected and upheld in the school environment."  Yeah, that sounds pretty hateful.

If you click on other states, you'll find groups that the SPLC defines as "generally hateful."  Some of them are churches and Jewish organizations.

What is most concerning to me is that the SPLC associates Christian groups (and non-Christian groups) that support the traditional understanding of marriage with neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups.  To them, there is no distinction between a Christian who is against the legalization of gay marriage and a white supremacist who wants to annihilate a whole race of people.

Really?  I mean, REALLY?  Christians who support the traditional understanding of marriage are on par with white supremacists, black separatists, and neo-Nazis?  REALLY?

This is truly frightening for anyone who names the name of Christ.  I've known that Christians have been labeled as hateful and bigoted over this issue before (I've posted about this before here and here), but this is the first time I've ever seen Christians equated with racist groups.  Take note, Christians: you will be increasingly labeled as hate mongers and compared to neo-Nazis and white supremacists.  You will be ostracized from public positions and your voice in the public square and market place of ideas will be increasingly silenced.  Your right to the free practice of your religion and to speak freely without fear of reproach is being slowly eroded away.  The SPLC is only the tip of the iceberg.  There is more coming.

"If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you."  -Jesus

In Search of a Good Reuben

I love Reuben sandwiches.  They're easily my favorite sandwich, and most times I will take a Reuben over a hamburger or something similar.  I really like corned beef, and I'm a huge fan of sauerkraut.  Put them together and, in my opinion, you've got magic.  I don't usually visit delis, though, so I have to find my Reubens at regular restaurants, which is not always the best.  I'm always on the lookout for a good Reuben, though, so if I'm ever somewhere obscure or somewhere I've never been before, I'll get the Reuben.

Today's Reuben came from Champps in St. Paul.  I haven't been to Champps in years.  I forgot how cool of a place it is.  The Reuben at Champps is actually very good.  It comes with a side of waffle fries, which were also very good (side note: if you're having a Reuben, you've got to have waffle fries).    Positives: 1) the Reuben was served on Russian Rye bread, which was a first for me; 2) the beef was cut very thick; 3) there was plenty of dressing.  Negatives: 1) the beef, while thick, was not very "corny."  That is, there wasn't much of a corned beef flavor; 2) the sandwich could have used about twice the amount of sauerkraut - I barely noticed it.  Final score: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Another Reuben that I've had and liked quite a bit was from Milty's in Lansing, Iowa.  Milty's has a good amount of sauerkraut, and their beefy is corny.  There's only one problem: the meat is sliced too thin, and I think it often times gets a little overcooked.  Score for the Milty's Reuben: 3 out of 5 stars.

Getting High at Church

Here's an interesting article that's worthy of some thought.  It's a report on a study that examines the emotional and biological response of people who attend worship services at megachurches.  The study finds that people who worship at megachurches experience something of a natural high while worshiping.

Part of this is just due to the fact that when you get a lot of people together in one room for one purpose there's just a different emotional tone to everyone involved.  Ever been to a big concert?  A big sporting event?  There's just a different emotional energy that rises when people are together in one place for one purpose.  The difference, the researchers say, is that Christians gathered at megachurches interpret this energy as a transcendent or divine experience.

Before I go any further, let me say that I don't go to a megachurch, and the times that I have been at a megachurch have not necessarily made me want to go back.  I guess I didn't catch that high.  But I will say that there have been times when I've attended conferences that have been pretty amazing times of worship - more so than "regular" worship on Sunday mornings at my church.  The most recent being a conference I attended last year with about 5,000 other pastors.  It's quite an experience to be singing praise to God along with 5,000 other voices.  I remember thinking that that experience was just a small glimpse of what heaven would be like: uncountable voices singing praise to God.  Would I describe my feelings as transcendent or divine?  Probably not.  Was I excited about it?  Definitely, yes.  Did it make me feel good?  Give me a "high?"  I suppose you could say that.

But there's an important distinction that I would make, and that is this: the emotional elevation I felt at that time was not determined by the setting, but the reality of what was happening at that moment, and what that event foreshadowed.  That is, I wasn't just jazzed because there were a lot of voices singing the same thing at the same time (although that was pretty cool), but more because there were 5,000 voices united in praising God.  I'm used to only about 200 voices (Maybe more like 180, since it's a Baptist church and not everybody sings!) united in praising God.  There's a difference between 5,000 and 200.  There just is.

So that was part of it.  The other part was the glorious image the experience brought to mind of millions of voices being united in praise to God in heaven, and that some day I would be one of those millions of voices.  Again, I think I wasn't so impressed even by the idea that in heaven I will one day hear millions of voices singing in unison.  Rather, I was (and still am) impressed by the thought of millions of voices singing together in unison to a God who is worthy.  That's what gives me shivers.

One study participant comments on his experience: "God's love becomes...such a drug that you can't wait to come get your next hit....You can't wait to get involved to get the high from God."  This sentiment is absolutely nothing like what I have experienced in the past, nor is it like what I've described above.  What is this guy experiencing at church that makes him feel like this?  The study gives some answers.

" and appeals to emotion to create a shared experience in congregations....The upbeat modern music, cameras that scan the audience and project smiling, dancing, singing, or crying worshipers on large screens and an extremely charismatic leader whose sermons touch individuals on an emotional level...serve to create these strong positive emotional experiences."

Huh.  That doesn't sound like anything more than emotional manipulation to me.  Do we go to church just to get an emotional high?  To feel good?  Isn't there something more involved in worship?

The study goes on to describe pastors of megachurches as "energy stars" whose messages are practical and emotional rather than analytical or theological.  In other words, he's a spin doctor who is whipping the people up into an emotional frenzy to make them feel good about themselves.  And what we've seen in American churches for the past 10 years or so is that when the high wears off the people leave, exposing the fact that they were never there to worship Christ the King, but were there for their own selfish purposes.  People go to church for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with worship.

To be fair, this isn't just a problem with megachurches.  I've seen it happen in several different ministries and settings throughout my life and ministry career, and even in my own church.  In fact, I'm not sure there's anything surprising or new about the findings of this study.  This is something that a lot of people have known for quite a while: people go to church to get high.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Was Jesus Married? Um, No.

This past week a significant find was made public of an ancient text fragment from the fourth century.  The text is supposedly from a gospel (given a loose understanding of the word) that contains the words, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'"  For some this has reopened questions about whether or not Jesus was married.  If one were to only use the mainstream media as the sole source of information and reporting, it would seem that it is an open and shut case that Jesus was, in fact, married.  This is absolutely not the case, however, and those in the media should be ashamed of how they have reported this story.  Let me state emphatically that this ancient fragment does not prove that Jesus took a wife for at least two reasons:

1. The text is very similar in content and date to several Gnostic texts and gospels, which have been shown to be inaccurate and unhistorical, and have been rejected by the church as legitimate sources of information about Jesus and his life and ministry.  There are other Gnostic gospels that assert similar conclusions, like Jesus being married.  One even says that he killed a young boy for stealing some food from him as a child.  Again, these texts have been shown to be not trustworthy, and this one is no different.

2. Secondly, and perhaps more unfortunately, there's nothing even in the ancient fragment that would indicate that Jesus was married.  People have arrived at that conclusion after a significant amount of interpretation, and more unfortunately, after they have listened to the media reports on the subject, which are completely inaccurate.  In other words, people have taken the words "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'" and have built a whole hypothesis on Jesus' marital status on those six words.  That's a pretty big leap to take.

So take heart, dear Christian.  There is nothing here that threatens our faith.  There is nothing that should alarm us or cause us to question the validity of scripture.  If anything you should be dismayed that people involved in this find have been so sensationalistic in their reporting about what they have found.  It doesn't speak very highly of the academic process.  

Sunday, September 16, 2012

God's Foreknowledge

This week's Sunday School lesson was about God's foreknowledge, particularly in relation to his providence.  God knows everything that ever has happened in history, everything that is happening now, and everything that will happen.  How does he know these things?  Because he planned them.

In order to illustrate this, before the lesson I went to the church kitchen and got two kettle covers and hid them behind one of the bulletin boards in the classroom.  After class began, I welcomed the students as I usually do, and we reviewed the content of the previous week's lesson.  Then I calmly excused myself from the table and walked over to the counter where I had previously placed a pair of earplugs.  I proceeded to put the plugs in my ears, in full view of the students.  I then reached behind the bulletin board to retrieve the kettle covers, and they watched me do the whole thing.  I proceeded to bang them together, making a loud crashing sound, at which a couple of the students jumped in their seats, and all of the students covered their ears quickly to guard themselves from the loud sound.

After I took the earplugs out we talked through the scenario.  Did the students know what I was doing? No.  Were they surprised by what I did?  Yes.  Was I surprised?  No.  Why not?  Because I had planned the whole thing.  I cannot be taken by surprise by what I have planned.  Also, I'm the one doing the action, so I can't be surprised by it.

After we talked through this process, I illustrated the point again by dipping my fingers in a cup of water that I had stashed near my chair and flicked the droplets at one of the students.  She jumped back and let out a squeal.  Was she expecting me to do that?  No.  Was I expecting me to do that?  Yes.  Why?  Again, because it was I who had planned in my heart and mind to do it.

This can help us understand what God's foreknowledge is like.  God knows the future because he has planned it.  And it unfolds exact in the way he has planned for it to unfold, so he is never taken by surprise.

And when it comes to our plans as compared to God's plans there are significant differences.  For instance, I can plan to do something, but there are several external factors over which I have no control that can effect my plans, and can even negate what I have planned.  For example, if I plan to play a game of baseball with my friends, the weather can change my plans.  So could an injury to my foot on the way to the game; so could the possibility that although I have planned the game, none of my friends want to play.

This is nothing like God's plans.  What God plans always happens.  He always achieves what he sets out to do.

This should offer those who trust in God a certain measure of security in life, no matter what they face, especially when we consider that everything that God does is for the good of those who love him.  First, we can take heart that God is never surprised by anything that happens to us.  Although we might be caught off guard, he never is.  He is therefore always able to help and support us in our hour of need.  Second, if God is truly working all things together for our good, this means we can look at even trying and difficult times in life as times when God is doing something good for or to us.  Third, we can more readily identify those times when failing to trust God when we doubt the fact that he has the future always in view.

I think I am instructed and encouraged by this Sunday School class as much, if not more, than the students!

How Are Christians to Regard the Government?

I was perusing the archives at Tim Challies' site recently and came upon this fantastic article on how Christians are to regard the government.  These are some important things to think about, especially considering that our country is on the verge of either electing or re-electing a president.  But even if there were no impending election, I think it's a very profitable exercise for Christians to think about how they are to regard those in authority.

Challies posted some reflections on the Christian's responsibility to pay taxes, and to do so with honor and respect to those who are collecting them.  That sounds like a strange and even foreign concept to most of us, considering that nobody's really excited to give up their hard earned money at the end of a sword.  Nevertheless, scripture has some important things to say about this issue.  For that, I commend you to Challies' site.

What I wanted to think about here for a minute is something else that Challies' post brings up in a roundabout sort of way, and that is how Christians regard the government in general.  Challies writes this about the historical context of Romans 13:
He [Paul] was writing to people who lived in Rome, people who were under the authority of a government that worshipped idols, that was systematically out to conquer and subjugate the world, that made death a form of entertainment, that promoted slavery, that was utterly ruthless and actively opposed to God.  This was the government that was always on the verge of breaking out in persecution against the church.  It was the government that had put Jesus to death.  Paul was telling these Roman Christians to give honor, respect, and taxes to the very government that paid the wages of the men who crucified Jesus, who mocked him, who spat on him, who rejoiced in his death.  
The opening verses of Romans 13 go on to say that the very authorities Challies describes in the paragraph above have been placed in their position and given their authority by God.  Furthermore, resistance to these authorities is resistance to God, since God is the one who has put them there.  In fact, those who resist the authority of earthly rulers will incur the judgment of God upon themselves (probably through the very rulers that one intends to resist).

Two things come to mind when I think about this

1. 21st century America sounds a lot like first century Rome.  When compared to Challies' description of first century Rome, we likewise have leaders that worship idols; we likewise have leaders that are set on systematically conquering the world; we likewise have leaders that are obsessed with death, slavery (of other sorts), and who are actively opposed to God.  Furthermore, our government is (I believe) largely opposed to the Christian faith.  We can't claim that it's just a different context than what the Roman Christians experienced, because in many ways it's quite similar.  We also can't use an excuse like "I respect the office, not the man," as a reason for ragging on elected officials (which I've heard many times, almost always from Christians).  I don't think this is a biblically tenable position to take.

2. A proper understanding of these concepts is difficult in the context of a representative republic form of government.  C. S. Lewis once commented something to the effect that he appreciated the fact that he lived in a monarchy, because it was always clear who was in charge.  There was always someone that was clearly defined as the ruler, and the knee was to be bent to such a person, regardless of his or her decisions or decrees.  Here in America, if our rulers don't do what we want, we vote the bums out.  We are perhaps inclined to show less respect to our governing officials simply because of the nature of the way our government is structured.  This is something I think we need to be careful about.  It can be easy to disrespect, belittle, and dishonor those with whom we disagree politically - even on very important issues that we would consider to be crucial.  If nothing else, rest assured that the Christians in Rome likewise had to deal with authorities that held unbiblical positions on important issues, and Paul commanded them to show honor and respect.

The crux of the issue is how I actually go about showing honor and respect to someone who believes differently than I do, say on the issues of abortion and gay marriage.  These are big issues that I feel strongly about.  Nevertheless, respect and honor is due to those whom God has put in this position.  How do I do this?  A few things come to mind.

1. Recognize that each leader is in place by the authority of God and nothing else.  God has placed leaders where they are for his purposes.  They have not achieved their end by their own means.  Realize that God is still sovereign, no matter who is on the throne or holds the office of the presidency (or governor, or senator, etc.).

2. Realize that in honoring leaders, I am honoring God.

3. I can hold elected officials in prayer, always seeking their best.

4. I can pray for myself, that God would help me to view all people in love and give me a desire to reach the lost with the gospel (yes, even those elected officials that we can't stand).

5. I can read the Bible to study the ways in which God has ordained leaders in the world for our good in order to gain a better understanding.

6. I can watch the way I talk about these people in public discourse.

7. I can realize that there but by the grace of God go I.

Friday, September 14, 2012

How do We Determine What Should be Legal or Illegal?

In the mail today I received a sermon manuscript from John Piper.  It is a manuscript of a sermon that he delivered on June 16, 2012 on the topic of homosexual marriage.  Also included was a letter of response to the Star Tribune after they reported that Piper refused to direct his congregation on the issue of gay marriage.  You can read Piper's response to the Star here.

In fact, if you take the time to listen to/watch/read Piper's sermon, it's very clear what his stance is, and what the stance of the Bible is.  It makes one wonder how the Star Tribune could have goofed it up so badly.  The sermon is an excellent, biblical defense of why marriage is only between one man and one woman.  I highly commend it to you.

What interested me the most about the sermon, however, were Piper's comments about how we as a society determine the legality of things.  This is an issue that was recently raised on this very blog by a commentor to this post.  The commentor says:
My question to you is, why should our law for the country need to be based upon the word of God when our country does not have a national religion and many of its citizens do not believe in God?  I am a devout Christian, but many in America are not.  Why do you believe it is fair or permissible to have American laws which affect everyone based upon your particular religious beliefs?
In essence, the commentor asks, "Why should laws be based on your (the Bible's) morality?  It's a fair question, and one that I think has a logical answer.  I responded thusly:
The reality is that all of our laws are based on some form of morality.  The only question is who's morality we base our laws upon.  Most of our laws are based on Christian principles.  So we can't say that we don't or shouldn't base our laws on religion, because all laws are based on religion.  Again, the question is, upon which religion's standards should we base our laws?
What I am trying to communicate in this answer is that all laws have a moral foundation.  That is, we always base our laws on some model of morality.  The question comes down to which system of morality we keep in view when making our laws.  So to argue that Christians shouldn't legislate morality is not a good one, because all laws essentially legislate morality.

This is an idea Piper expounds upon in his sermon, although he does it more wordily and sounding much smarter than I do.  He makes the point that "Deciding which actions will be made legal or illegal through civil law is a moral activity aiming at the public good and informed by the worldview of each participant."  What follows is him expounding on this statement.

How should Christian citizens decide which of their views they should seek to put into law?  Which moral convictions should Christians seek to pass as legal requirements?  Christians believe it is immoral to covet and to steal.  But we seek to pass laws against but we seek to pass laws against stealing, not against coveting.  One of the principles at work here seems to be: the line connecting coveting with damage to the public good is not clear enough.  No doubt there is such a connection.  God can see it and the public good would, we believe, be greatly enhanced if covetousness were overcome.  But finite humans can't see it clearly enough to regular coveting with laws and penalties.  This is why we have to leave hundreds of immoral acts for Jesus to sort out when he comes.

Laws exist to preserve and enhance the public good.  Which means that all laws are based on some conception of what is good for us.  Which means that all legislation and all voting is a moral activity. It is based on choices about what is good for the public.  And those choices are always informed by a worldview.  And in that worldview - whether conscious or not - there are views of ultimate reality that determine what a person thinks the public good is.  

Which means that all legislation is the legislation of morality.  Someone's view of what is good - what is moral - wins the minds of the majority and carries the day.  The question is: which actions hurt the common good or enhance the common good so much that the one should be prohibited by law and the other should be required by law?  

So how do we determine what should be legal or illegal in our society?  We vote in ways that represent our morality, motivated by our worldview.  In this sense, all laws are religious laws - Christian or otherwise.

Brace Yourself

I don't often post about pop culture stuff or popular music, so you know that when I do, it's something that has really got my attention.  I've said for a while now that some of the most theologically rich Christian music that's coming out these days is being put out in the medium of rap and hip hop.  A few years ago I discovered this song by Christian rappers Hazakim.  It's one of the most detailed musical accounts of the crucifixion that exists.

Today I discovered the song "Brace Yourself" by Hazakim, and it likewise blew my socks off.  While it's not necessarily new (2009) it is nonetheless profound and theologically rich.  It's basically a paraphrase of Job 38-41, one of the most humbling sections of scripture in the whole Bible.  The chapters consist of a dialogue between Job and God, as Job basically asks God "Why?" and God basically says, "because I AM WHO I AM."

Even if rap isn't your thing (like it isn't my thing) you should enjoy it.  I've transcribed the lyrics below.  There's even a goofy endorsement by Ken Ham at the end of the song, which seems a little out of place, but I guess I'll role with it.

Then the Lord answered out of the whirlwind and said, 
"Who is this who darkens council by words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man.  I will question you and you will answer me."

Who is this being that questions me?
I am the Lord God, who makes all things
I was there when the morning stars sang together
I spoke nothing and it all came together.

I dwell in unapproachable light
My mercy and grace - the only hope for your life
Brace yourself - everything you see, I created all that
And when I return again, I'm gonna take it all back

Who questions my wisdom with ignorant speech?
Brace yourself and listen as the Infinite speaks
Before who do I stand corrected, discredit my record?
To the man who things he can, this question's directed

Brace yourself!  For an answer, I'll be waiting
Where were you at the extravanganza of creation?
When I marked the earth's intricate measurments,
And I fiddled with dirt, minerals, sediment, chemical elements?

Should I have started with the core that burns, or the crust?
Tell me, that the Omniscient Lord might learn from the dust
I cause fire to fall, then I send rain to quench the flame
Then I quiet the storm

I'm the beginning and the end, the all in all
Who wrote the code of cosmic law
The very rules that govern your reality, time and space
Earthly formalities that I can break

I'm with Gideon as he fights the Midianites, while
At the same time, I'm in this millenium right now
Can you feed the cubs that crouch in the lion's den?
Or put a hook through the mouth of leviathan?

The skin on his back, I tightly sealed it
With bare hands try to pry the shields that his hid is filled with
Better yet, try to muzzle his face
If you survive you won't forget the struggle that takes place

Can you read from the constellations in their seasons?
Can you make legions of angelic beings?
Construct them with brilliant wings?

Deep in the sea there's creatures human eyes have never seen
Past your galaxy there's things your puny mind could never dream

Can you make waves behave
And direct all of their motions?
Who put gates up in the ocean 
To keep water from overflowing?

Far beyond, way past the Orient
I can make the morning come
By simply speaking to the scorching sun

Who keeps it shifting distance 
Merely by a few inches?
Further from it, you freeze,
Closer, you melt in an instant

But where were you when I measured the galaxy's dimensions?
Spoke planets into existence, positioned them in suspension?

Lightning won't flash unless it asks for my permission
Thunder won't crash unless it passes my inspection

In a lifetime you can't get out of your galaxy's section
Even if you traveled at 22 million miles per second

I hold the earth; can you school me on the universe?
I knew you from birth; one day I'll lead you back into the dirt

But way before you were born, I showed love in the truest form
Took upon myself the uniform of a human form

I am lofty and high, with an all seeing eye
So don't be haughty with pride against God the divine king!

I bring low all the proud
If you come to me humbly, I can call you my child

Who is this being that questions me?
I am the Lord God, who makes all things
I was there when the morning stars sang together
I spoke nothing and it all came together.

I dwell in unapproachable light
My mercy and grace - the only hope for your life
Brace yourself - everything you see, I created all that
And when I return again, I'm gonna take it all back

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Is Worship About Reaching Out to the Lost?

Each week in my email I receive a newsletter from Don Chapman called "WorshipIdeas."  Don runs a couple of websites that have to do with issues around worship leading, providing new and creative ideas to worship leaders, and also providing new and fresh arrangements of hymns and instrumental numbers.  We've used a few of his arrangements in the past, and his original instrumental band medleys are fantastic.  I hope he writes more of them that we can use in our worship services.

In the WorshipIdeas newsletter, Don always links to several online articles that have to do with worship, and most of them are very interesting, even if they present a view of worship other than my own.  For example, this week's issue linked to articles like "Listening to Complainers is Bad for Your Brain," and "Beware of the Stage."  Very relevant stuff for those of us who participate in leading worship.

One particular article caught my eye today, however: "Rethinking Worship Wars."  The term "Worship Wars" refers to the seemingly never ending battle that churches fight between stylistic preferences in the congregation.  One segment of the congregation wants worship to be like this, and another segment wants it to be like that.  It's a serious issue that involves my own church as well.

The author begins by saying that we've blown the issue of stylistic preferences way out of proportion, which is probably true, as the New Testament is remarkably silent on the issue of how worship should be conducted in the Christian church.  As the author points out, there's 100 times more teaching in the NT (and OT for that matter) about the importance of a right attitude in the heart of the worshiper than the way worship is actually conducted.  In fact, the author rightly points out, two churches can have identical worship services and one can be not worshiping in truth while the other is.  Style is not the issue.  The heart of the worshiper is the issue.  He says, "The litmus test for a faithful church is not observing the worship leader to see if he wears a three-piece suit or if he wears skinny jeans and toms.  Worship has nothing to do with music, but everything to do with the posture of the human heart."

Amen.  Preach.

But then the article takes somewhat of a strange twist.  In the next paragraph the author states, "The correct question for church leaders to ask isn't, 'Which style do I like best?' but rather, 'Which style will help me engage non-believers with the truth of the gospel?'".

Cough!  What?

Since when did worship become reaching out to non-believers?  I thought worship was... well... worship.  Don't get me wrong: any non-believer should be able to enter a church and feel welcomed, and this should include our worship, and particularly our music.  That is, every person should feel welcomed into a church and to participate to whatever extent he or she is spiritually able.  But the purpose of worship, and particularly worship music is not to reach out to unbelievers - it is solely to exalt God and declare truth about him in a spirit of praise and thanksgiving.  Perhaps worship can be considered evangelistic in the sense that any unbelievers who are in a worship service will hear the truth of God and his gospel proclaimed in song, but the conversion of unbelievers is by absolutely no means the focus or point of worship.  Again, the point of worship through music is to give glory to God - that's it.

He begins to wrap up the article by saying that when it comes to worship styles, a lot of people in churches are concerned only with their own desires and preferences, rather than the desires and preferences of others.  To this I offer a hearty Amen once again.  The difference between my view and the view of the author of this article, however, is that the "others" he is speaking of is lost people, while the "others" I am referring to are brothers and sisters in Christ.  We should not alter our preferences or style of worship in order to appeal to those outside the church for the sake of making the Christian faith more attractive to them.  We should alter our preferences for the sake of unity within the church.

He concludes by saying, " God's grace His Spirit will change the focus of the congregation away from themselves and out to a lost and dying world in need of Jesus."  Again, Amen.  I don't think our worship music comes into this equation though, if we're talking about preaching the gospel to the lost.  Worship is for Christians - for Christians to worship God - not to evangelize the lost.  Let's pray that God, by his Spirit - when it comes to how we worship - will change the focus away from ourselves and onto him.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Should Christians Use Medicine?

Over the past few years I've become increasingly convicted that we as a society too quickly look for a quick fix when we undergo physical difficulties.  For example, there's a medicine or surgery that will prevent or fix just about anything out there, and it seems that people are ready and willing to receive everything a doctor says as gospel truth.  But are we missing something when we run to medical science to cure or treat something?

I've been convicted in that, while I don't believe medicine and medical science are inherently bad things, they can be used unwisely and even sinfully.  Our society - Christians included - seem to have forgotten that God is sovereign over illness and suffering.  So rather than attempt to discern God's purposes in an ailment, disability, or time of affliction, we instead just run to the cure as fast as possible.  We hurt, and our sole focus is to alleviate our suffering.  While we may feel better physically by taking medication or receiving treatment, relieving our suffering so easily and adequately may not be what's best for us spiritually.

This morning I saw this video posted on the Desiring God blog.  It's just a short treatment of some of the ramification of being dependent on medicine.  There is certainly quite a bit more that could be said on the topic, but this is an interesting place to start for those who have never considered the ramifications of living in a society that has prescription drugs on demand.  The video focuses on the topic of treating depression through drugs, but the principle is applicable to all ailments (for example, Ed Welch rightly says that depression, as well as cancer - and I would add any ailment - are spiritual issues).  Take a look.

Monday, September 10, 2012

How Should We Dress for Church?

The Worship, Music, & Arts Committee at Riverview recently sat down to reevaluate our current dress code for those who serve in worship (note that the code applied to those who serve in worship, and not to those who simply attend services).  The dress code that we had revised and adopted in 2005 seemed out of date, and was based more on what was considered socially acceptable dress at the time (although it actually reached back even further to, I think, 2001).  Basically the old dress code prohibited a lot of styles of dress that have, since that time, become acceptable forms of dress.  In short, the dress code was not realistic.  We decided to revise it yet again.

But this time there was an important twist.  We decided that rather than creating a dress code based on present day styles and trends, that we should be looking to answer the question: what does the Bible say about how we dress?  We found three significant themes in scripture that guided our thoughts on the issue:

1. Modesty (Matthew 5.28, 1 Timothy 2.8-10, 1 Peter 3.3-4, 1 John 2.16)  Scripture teaches that we should not draw attention to ourselves by what we wear, and that our primary concern should be for inner beauty and not outward adornment.  Therefore, we determined that we should not dress so as to attract attention to ourselves or cause others to stumble be wearing revealing or provocative clothes, or clothes that draw specific attention to the one wearing them.

2. Conscience (1 Samuel 16.7, Romans 14.5, 22, 2 Corinthians 9.7)  The Bible explains how many religious attitudes and observances are matters of conscience, and therefore that different Christians can have different understandings about what is, and is not, acceptable apparel) assuming that it meets the requirement for modesty).  Therefore, we encourage all people to determine for themselves what manner of dress is or is not appropriate for them, based upon their own examination of scripture and conscience.

3. Consideration of the sensibilities of our brothers and sisters in Christ (Romans 14.15, 19, 15.1-2, Ephesians 5.21, Philippians 2.3-4)  Scripture teaches us to be constantly looking for ways in which we can submit to one another in love and humility.  Moreover, we are commanded to consider the desires of others before ourselves.  Furthermore, it is our desire to be obedient to scripture by conducting ourselves in ways that lead to peace and not ton incite quarrels or divisions.  Therefore, we believe that the individual's process for determining appropriate dress for worship should take into consideration the sensibilities of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Notice that these guidelines don't appeal to personal preferences or cultural standards.  Our authority is scripture, and we should appeal to that.  If we simply appeal to trends or preferences, we'll always have disagreements within the church about what is or is not acceptable dress.  That being said, these guidelines don't eliminate all differences of opinion within a congregation, and they certainly won't do so in ours.  The point is, though, that our standards are based on scripture, and not on any individual's or group's man-centered opinions on what is or is not acceptable attire.  I really like this approach.

Another good thing that I like about it is that it encourages people to take into considerations the preferences of their brothers and sisters.  I had the chance to share these guidelines with our worship team last week, and I essentially told them that if they think these guidelines give them freedom to dress however they want, they've missed the point.  We do have freedom to dress however we wish, but not to the extent that it causes quarrels, divisions, or to lead other people to sin.  That being said, those who hold a more conservative view of how people should dress for church likewise need to take the same approach toward doing and saying things that lead to peace.  We all need to realize that we think differently on this issue - and are even convicted differently on this issue - and be willing to extend grace to those with whom we disagree.

If our only standard is what is popular, or is what one group of people prefers over the other, that's a sure recipe for fighting and disagreements. But if we all appeal to scripture, and we realize that people can be convicted in different ways, then we have a grace-filled common ground to start from.  Will there be disagreements?  Yes.  Will some people insist on wearing a three piece suit?  Yes.  Will some people insist on jeans and a T-shirt?  Yes.  The point is, they can all do whatever they want, as long as they've considered the three principles listed above.

My personal position is this: dress however you want, as long as you're not dressing so as to bring attention to yourself, you've thought about the spiritual ramifications of how you dress, and you've considered what your brothers and sisters think.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Studying the Doctrine of Providence with 5 & 6 Graders

It's my high honor to be able to teach the fifth and sixth grade Sunday School class at Riverview.  We use the Children Desiring God material, which I've said quite a bit about before.  This year we're studying the providence of God, encapsulated in the curriculum called "My Purpose Will Stand."  I've also posted about this study before, particularly its presentation of a theodicy for 5th and 6th graders.  I've decided to make my Sunday posts during the year a recap of what we studied in each week's Sunday School lesson.  And don't make the mistake of thinking that you can't learn anything from a 5th and 6th grade Sunday School lesson.  These are complex lessons that cover a lot of heavy-duty theology that most adults don't know.

Since I'm catching up this week after not posting about last week's lesson last Sunday, I guess I should start there.  The lesson began by basically exposing the weaknesses and limitations of the kids in the class.  For example, we had a couple kids try to hit a target on the wall with a balled up piece of paper.  As kids moved farther and farther away from the target, their accuracy waned.  Nobody could hit the target from the other side of the room - not even the teacher!

We then looked at scripture that told us how God always hits his mark - he never misses.  Job 36 says as much.  The point?  There is no one who can compare to God - no one who can do what he does.

Next, I had the kids look out the window using a fancy pair of binoculars that I borrowed from my dad.  Since our church is located in West St. Paul, I asked one of the kids to look over to downtown St. Paul and tell us all what was happening.  Didn't work.  Then I asked them to look over to Minneapolis and tell us what was happening there.  Still couldn't do it.  Why not?  Because we can't see that far.  Our vision, and therefore our knowledge, is limited.

When contrasted to God's knowledge and vision, we look pretty weak, and that's because we are.  God can see everywhere and everyone, however, and so his knowledge is unlimited.  he knows all there is to know.  This is the God of the Bible.  He's a big God.

Then we read Job 38-40, which is a good thing to do on a regular basis, especially if you need to be reminded of your standing before God.

Today's lesson followed up nicely.  We started out by looking in the Bible to define the word "providence."  We said that providence has to do with God's eyes and God's hands.  We went to the Bible and read such passages as Psalm 11.4 and Hebrews 1.10, which talk about what exactly God sees, and what his hands do.

Our very basic definition of providence was this: "God's eye is watching over the universe; God's hand is working in the universe."  It may be a bit on the light side, but it will suffice for our students.

The basic lesson from this definition is this: God is constantly watching over the universe, so he is always knowledgeable of what is happening in it.  Furthermore, God is always at work in the universe.

It's like this: if you were to prepare and cook food, there are things that you need to do in order for it to work out well.  First, you obviously have to be involved in the preparation of the food.  There are things you need to do before you even pop it in the oven.  Once it's in the oven, there are things you need to do to make sure the dish comes out the way you want it to.  If you're baking a cake, you need to check it as it bakes, and maybe even stab it with a knife to ensure that it's cooked all the way through.  If you're scrambling eggs, you need to constantly move the eggs around in the frying pan to make sure they don't burn.  This is something like the way God watches over and is active in the universe.

One thing that occurred to me as I was preparing for and teaching this lesson is that there is absolutely no biblical case for Deism.  Deism is the belief that there is a God, but after his creative activity, he effectively stepped back from creation and is letting it play out in whatever order it may.  Not only does this scenario not "work," in that the world would destroy itself save for God's common grace, but more importantly, that is not at all the picture we get of God from scripture.  We see a God that is intimately involved with his creation, sustaining it and directing it.  The God of the Bible is not a complacent God who is sitting in the background, twittling his thumbs.  No, he is absolutely involved in everything that happens.  This conversation will grow increasingly important for our students as we begin to think about God's role in causing and allowing even bad things to happen.  It's sure to be a fun year!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Gospel in 7 Words or Less

I read an interesting post this morning that I've been pondering all day.  It has to do with the challenge to summarize the gospel in seven words or less.  In other words, are you able to communicate the message of the gospel - that all people have willfully sinned against God and deserve the punishment of hell but can receive forgiveness for said sin by grace through faith in the Christ God sacrificially gave to die on your behalf, thereby accepting the punishment you so richly deserve, but being raised from the dead on the third day, all of which was for the glory of God - in seven words or less?  Seven words?  That's a challenge.  Even the sentence that I used to (inadequately) summarize the gospel contains 63 words.  Good luck with seven.

Apparently this question was posed to people in the form of a survey, and the attempts from several people to summarize the gospel in seven words are interesting, to say the least.  In most cases, the summaries fell far short.  But given the immensity of the task, I have sympathy for those who perhaps came up short.  The author of the post says that the summary he believes to be most adequate is actually a quote from 2 Corinthians 5:19: "God was in Christ, reconciling the world."  Some of the other attempts completely miss the essence of the gospel.  Some don't even mention Christ.  And some are downright legalistic. (Such as one person who attempts to summarize the gospel as "Love your neighbor as yourself."  Uh, that's no gospel.  That's a law.)

Like I said, I've been thinking about this all day, trying to come up with my own summary.  But each time I come up with something, I quickly find a reason that it's not enough - there's just too much to communicate in seven words.  The author of the post seems to think that it's important to also communicate a sense of God's sovereignty in the statement - that it was God who instigated the gospel story for his own glory.  I agree.  This just makes it harder, however!  I like the approach of using scripture to summarize the gospel, because I certainly can't come up with something adequate.

I guess the point is that it would be a good exercise to think about how we would share the gospel succinctly, briefly, and adequately in a short amount of time or words.  Preach the gospel, in season and out of season - not just when it's convenient, or when we're prepared, or when we've done enough studying.  What would you say if you had limited time and limited words to communicate the truth of the gospel?  This is something I'll continue to ponder.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Where's the Tolerance?

I fight a continual battle with my Facebook account.  I am friends with several people I went to high school with, and a lot of them don't share my political views or religious beliefs.  There's nothing wrong with that necessarily, but it does mean that they clog up my feed with vulgarities and extreme political views that mock my own.  When I see these posts, I basically have two options: 1) ignore it, which sometimes feels like validation, or 2) reply to what I see, which almost always sparks a fruitless Facebook argument, which I can't stand.  I suppose I could just chop these folks off my friends list (I'm not a fan of blocking people - if you're going to cut off all communication with a person, why be friends with them?).

Case in point: there's a guy I went to high school who has extreme liberal political views.  He's also an atheist and rags on Christianity quite frequently.  I couldn't be silent, for example, when he said on his feed that anyone who holds to creationism should be arrested.  Seriously.  This spawned a long debate that went nowhere, of course (mostly because he seems to not be able to respond to my objections).  And just last week he posted a video of Bill Nye the Science Guy talking about how not teaching evolution to children is harmful to them.  I simply commented that the strength of the argument comes into question when Bill Nye the Science Guy is your only reputable source.  My high school friend responded with accusatory language and called me names.  You see my dilemma?

Anyway, today I logged on to my FB account and saw this comment (I've removed all the names).  I literally had to read it twice to make sure it said what I thought it said.  The irony and hypocrisy of this comment is unbelievable:
Later this evening I plan to post, "Hey man, where's the tolerance?"  That should lead to a fun discussion.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

2012: A Space Oddysey

Yesterday, on Labor Day 2012, my son, my dad, my wife and daughter, my sister, and I went to Awesomeville to launch some rockets.  One of the rockets my son and I built during our time at Family Camp.  We're going to send that one up again.  We also bought a second rocket that he assembled with my dad.  This one had a clear payload section where you could put a little traveler and launch him into space as well.

The video begins with a "press conference" with the Chief Engineer.  Getting him to talk about the upcoming launch was like pulling teeth.  Then the video moves on to both of the launches we did yesterday.

I have a lot of memories of launching rockets with my dad when I was a kid.  Hopefully this will stick in Ferg's memory too.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Thinking Through the Sin of Gluttony

I did something perhaps somewhat out of character for me this week.  I started Weight Watchers for Men online.  It's definitely not something I'd normally do, nor am I super excited about doing it.  In a round about way, which I hope to explain in this post, it's gotten me thinking about the sin of gluttony.  And any time I can think about sin and its potential for me to be a part of my life, it's a good thing.  So if nothing else, joining Weight Watchers has been a good excuse for me to think about some things I haven't thought about in too much depth before, such as gluttony.

One of the members of our summer Bible study group has brought up a few times how she believes that one of the prevailing sins in the U.S. is the sin of gluttony.  This is significant, if for no other reason, than that it seems to be a more "acceptable" sin in America, as opposed to infidelity, homosexuality, or abortion, or whatever sin you want to fill in the blank with.  Put simply, we Americans are for the most part, OK with gluttony, even though it is clearly sinful behavior.

While I think this is accurate, I also don't think that the sin of gluttony applies only to food, nor do I think that anyone that is overweight is automatically guilty of gluttony.  I've been overweight literally since the day I was born (just a half-ounce shy of ten pounds at birth).  I've always been big for my age, and this continued on into adulthood.  I've never been particularly obsessed with food, nor have I ever felt as though I had to eat, or that I eat for emotional reasons.  Some people are just bigger - that's just the way it is.  There are ton of factors that can come in to play when it comes to a person's weight.  So to simply label someone as a glutton because he or she is overweight is neither wise nor accurate.

Furthermore, I don't think the Bible is always speaking about about food when it refers to the sin of gluttony.  So then what is gluttony, biblically speaking?  The Bible never directly defines gluttony, but it gives several pictures of what it looks like, which is basically overindulgence in something, commonly described in the Bible as an over-indulgence in food or drink.  Why is it bad to overindulge in food and drink?  It's certainly not wise, for one thing.  If someone spends all his or her time and effort on eating and drinking, there won't be much else to life.  Moreover, a person could spend all his livelihood on food and drink and have nothing left over (Proverbs 23.20-21).  Being obsessed with eating and drinking is certainly not a way to eat and drink to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10.31).

But there's something else going on with gluttony, as there is with all sin.  A certain action is not only sinful, but the action reveals the condition of the heart, and this is where the main problem with gluttony lies.  Gluttony has a feeling of idolatry to it.  In other words, gluttony is also described in scripture as the practice of being obsessed with food.  Not so much in eating it necessarily, but worrying about it; thinking about it; being consumed by it.  I think this probably applies to wanting food all the time, overeating, or worrying about food (such as not having enough, and worrying where the next meal is coming from, or even obsessing over not eating food so as to meet the requirements of a diet plan or to attain a certain body image, etc.; see Philippians 3.19 and Matthew 6.25 and 31-33).  The sin of gluttony manifests itself in the action of eating, but what's going on in the heart is either a worship of self (wanting to have all my physical needs filled), or a disbelief in God's provision, leading to overeating and constant worry about food.

Strangely enough, perhaps, I think joining Weight Watchers has shown me how gluttony can also take place by way of becoming obsessed with avoiding food.  This is, I think, a type of gluttony.  Being on a diet plan can cause one to think about food all the time - what I'm eating, how much I'm eating, how much I'd really like to eat something else, or making sure I save enough "points" so that I have enough leftover at the end of the day to indulge in something I really want.  For example, now that I'm watching what I eat, I realize how much I want pizza.  Not that there's anything wrong with wanting and enjoying pizza, but there is something wrong with constantly thinking about how much I want pizza, and finding my satisfaction in enjoying pizza rather than in enjoying God (again, this concept applies to more than just food, but that's the stream I'm on right now, so I'll stick with that).

This is not to say that there's anything inherently sinful about Weight Watchers, but it can be sinful to obsess over food, even if it's obsessing over avoiding food.  What's interesting is that I'm not sure I had this much of a problem with gluttony until I joined Weight Watchers.  Or maybe it's just being exposed in me as I see what I'm eating and not eating, as some of my true attitudes toward food are coming to the surface.  Either way, it's a good reason to examine my heart, motivations, and attitude about food.  If nothing else, it's helpful to ponder how one actually does eat and drink to the glory of God.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How Does God Know What He Knows?

I'm was pretty amped up today because it was the first week of Sunday School in the new season at Riverview.  This not only meant that I had a lot to for my job in getting things organized for all the new Sunday School classes, but it also means that my own class with the 5th and 6th graders kicked off again.  This year we're studying God's providence, and we opened the study by talking about what God is able to do.  We looked at several scriptures that describe how God does whatever he wants because he's the Creator, and there is no one that even comes close to comparing to him.

We also looked at God's knowledge, and how no one else knows what God knows.  For example, the Bible says that God knows the hairs on every person's head.  There's certainly no one else that knows this.  To show this in class today, I had one of the girls in class start counting her hair.  She got up to about 6 before we all got bored.  This got me thinking, though, about how God knows what he knows, and what it really means for him to have numbered the hairs on my head.

Think about it: God knows the hairs on my head at this very moment.  This number is different than it was this morning, though, since I brushed my hair and some hair undoubtedly came out on the brush.  Also, I'm sure a few hairs came out when I scratched my head throughout the day.  God knows the changes in the number of hairs on my head throughout a certain day.  How does he know this?  It's not as though he has to take a new count every time I lose or gain a hair or three.  So how does he know?  The best answer I can come up with is he just knows.  But we can also say that he knows what he knows because he is everywhere at all times, viewing and observing all things.  So when a few hairs fall out in the mornings when I brush my hair, he knows.  He subtracts that number from the tally.  When a new one pops through my scalp, he's there, watching it happen.  He knows because he's always watching.  Always.

It's kind of silly to think about, because when we think of something like keeping the number of hairs on a person's head, we think of a tally or a running count.  I don't think this is what God is doing, even though I used that kind of description for it in the preceding paragraph.  Rather, God just has a continuous awareness of all knowledge in the universe.  Whatever can be known in the universe is known by him.  And not because he's studying or taking notes or doing his best to keep up on someone's process of male patter baldness, but simply because he can't help but know everything.  This idea is the same that I tried to communicate in my most recent sermon on Psalm 139.  God knows everything there is to know.  This is a hard idea for us to understand, though, as we are linear beings who live in the bounds of space and time.  Nevertheless, it is what the Bible tells us about God, and we should believe it.

This idea should have a significant impact on the way we think about our lives and the ways in which we relate to God.  In a sense, there is nothing we need to tell him about ourselves, our lives, or our situations.  He's already completely aware of everything.  Scripture even says as much.  There's nothing hidden from his view, and there is nothing that he cannot do in light of his knowledge.  He is able to intercede in any situation in the universe precisely because he is aware of every situation in the universe.  As R.C. Sproul says, "There is not a maverick molecule in the universe."  Nothing is outside of God's view, and there is no situation that he is not able to effect.  We can rest easy, then, that God knows everything about everything.  What a blessed thought!

Unless, of course, you're not saved.  If that's the case, it's not a blessed thought that God knows everything about everything - it's a terrifying thought.  Because that means that God knows the depth of my sin and wickedness.  But even in the case of a lost sinner, God is still able to intercede by way of his Son.  No sinner is so far away from God that God cannot intercede on his behalf.  And no sinner is so far away that he is out of God's view, or cannot be seen.

I'm looking forward to a year of exploring these ideas in more depth with our 5th and 6th graders, and engaging the gospel with them in light of God's providence.