Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Thus & Such, Vol. 5

1. "As I approach  my 94th birthday, I realize this election may be my last."  Someday, years from now, we may be asking ourselves "How would Billy Graham vote?" as a litmus test to guide us to perceived correct political action.  Well, this very brief statement and article about how he is voting should wrap that question up nicely.  Turns out that Graham has removed Mormonism from his website's list of cults.  One can only assume that he has done so in order to legitimize the idea of voting for Mitt Romney.  While I applaud Graham's belief that Christians should vote for those who want to protect life and marriage, I do not agree that I must be in theological agreement with Mitt Romney in order to vote for him.  To that end, it's very unfortunate that Graham (or probably more accurately, his people) have felt the need to give Mormonism some theological clout by taking them off their list of cults.  Mormonism is a cult, to be sure, and it does not align with orthodox Christianity.  But note, that doesn't necessarily mean that a Christian can't vote for a Mormon.  It's just a shame that, with removing Mormonism from the cult list, Billy Graham could possibly be legitimizing Mormonism in several people's eyes.

2. I posted a few days ago about Twins left fielder Josh Willingham's faith story, and now Desiring God has published more of it, including some video interviews.  While I wasn't too impressed at first (it's very common, and maybe even trendy for celebrities - especially athletes - to have stronger than death stories of overcoming obstacles), I have come to appreciate his testimony and witness.  Maybe you will too.

3. "Poorer blacks and Asians are more likely to be gay than wealthier whites, a controversial study claimed yesterday."  This is one of those articles that I'm not really sure what to do with.  I suppose the statistics are interesting, but I'm not sure one can really pull any meaning from them.  Check it out here.

4. "Tomorrow night my children will hit our cul-de-sac, knocking on neighbor's doors, and looking for candy.  One will be dressed as a lady bug, and the other will probably be crying because she is not matching her sister."  To trick or treat, or not to trick or treat?  That is the question.  Cripplegate gives four reasons why trick or treating is OK.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Thus & Such, Vol. 4

1. "We see idolatry here - man's desperate attempt to find meaning in someone or something outside of God.  We bear his image, but long for something more.  We  are all on a desperate search for meaning and purpose and, ultimately, joy."  This is an interesting article from Tim Challies about how our pursuit of the latest technology can quickly turn into idolatry.  A timely article for someone, like myself, who recently purchased an iPhone.

2. "Having been on the ESV and now on the NIV translation committee, I have met some amazing translators, men and women who love the Lord and his word.  But without diminishing my friends in any way, I have to tell you about the most amazing translator I have ever met."  Bill Mounce tells a story about a Bible translator with no academic accolades, no clout in the academic community, and no recognition for his skill and work, but is one who is doing some of the most important translation work in the world, reaching an extremely unreached people group with the word of God.  Mounce is himself a translator, and his text, "Basics of Biblical Greek" has become the standard in Christian universities and seminaries throughout the country.  His reflection on this particular translator is inspiring.

3. Ever seen those amazing 3D chalk drawings on the street?  Here's a guy who does something similar, except on paper.  These are worth a look.  

4. In a day and age where political campaigns are cut throat, bitter, and full of attacks, this gallery is a welcome bit of comic relief.  Catch the candidates at their weird moments and have a giggle.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Pheasant Season

For the past four or so years I have made a point of joining some other guys that I know in an annual pheasant hunt.  I first went pheasant hunting maybe four or five years ago, and quickly discovered that it was something that I very much enjoyed doing.  I didn't have a shotgun of my own, however, and was always forced to borrow one from a friend.  I have since purchased my own gun, some minimal hunting equipment, and have more than enough desire to put it to good use.  This year's trip was just this past weekend, on October 26-27.  This year I was able to shoot my fill of birds, and as a result I have five smoked pheasants in my freezer as I type.

Pheasants are one of my favorite animals to hunt.  I have tried deer and small game hunting before, but have 1) never had any success, and 2) I am not a fan of sitting around in a tree all day, doing nothing, waiting for the deer to come to me.  There's a lot more action with pheasant hunting, and even if you don't flush any birds, at least your walking and moving around constantly.  This helps with keeping warm, and it just makes the hunt go faster.  I've also had the chance to hunt turkeys a few times, and have been successful once.  Turkey is also a very fun animal to hunt, but for different reasons that I'll save for a post after the next time I go turkey hunting.

Plus with pheasant hunting, there's just more going on at one time.  Pheasants are usually hunted with dogs.  Dogs run through corn and tall grass, trying to scare pheasants out of their hiding spots.  A pointing dog will find one, and when he does, his whole body will freeze, with his snout pointed toward the pheasant.  Watching this whole process happen is incredibly interesting.  It's fun to see these very well trained dogs do their thing.  And by all accounts, the dogs enjoy the hunt more than the people.

Also, pheasant hunting is easy!  It's got to be one of the easiest kinds of hunting out there.  Even people who don't particularly shoot very well can find success in pheasant hunting.  Pheasants are rather large birds (about the size of a chicken) and they don't move very fast, making them rather large targets.

It's a good chance to get together and hang out with other guys who enjoy the sport.  Our hunts usually consist of an overnight trip, which means we stay at the lodge the night before the hunt.  This night is usually full of good conversation, a lots of laughs, and card games.  This year was no exception.  The lodge we stayed at had a game dinner all set up and ready for us when we arrived.  We had pheasant, duck, mashed potatoes, dressing, and coleslaw.  It was fantastic, although I can say that I definitely prefer pheasant to duck.  Even so, very tasty.

Pheasant is very good eating.  There are many types of game that don't taste very good.  We have been conditioned to basically only enjoy corn-fed beef and chickens who have been fattened on quality food.  What an animal eats matters - it affects the way it tastes when consumed by humans.  Pheasants, however, have a naturally very good taste.  They taste like, you guessed it: chicken.  But they are wild animals that taste like chicken, and you don't get that too much when eating wild game.  The club that we hunt with offers to clean and smoke the pheasants we shoot, which I've always taken advantage of.

I enjoy this new found past time of mine, and I hope to keep it up for years to come.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

10 Questions for Pro-Choice Candidates

Trevin Wax rightly observes that media-types love to ask pro-life candidates and supporters difficult questions about abortion.  More often then not, these questions are framed in such a way as to discredit the candidate's position, or to make him or her look inhumane.  Trevin has come up with 10 excellent questions for pro-choice candidates that, in my opinion, are fair and honest.  It would be fascinating to have a pro-choice blogger take on these questions and read their answers.  Here they are:

1. You say you support a woman's right to make her own reproductive choices in regards to abortion and contraception.  Are there any restrictions you would approve of?

2. In 2010, The Economist featured a cover story on "the war on girls and the growth of "gendercide" in the world - abortion based solely on the sex of the baby.  Does this phenomenon pose a problem for you or do you believe in the absolute right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy because the unborn fetus is female?

3. In many states, a teenager can have an abortion without her parents' consent or knowledge but cannot get an aspirin from the school nurse without parental authorization.  Do you support any restrictions or parental notification regarding abortion access for minors?

4. If you do not believe that hunan life begins at conception, when do you believe it begins?  At what stage of development should an unborn child have human rights?

5. Currently, when genetic testing reveals an unborn child has Down Syndrome, most women choose to abort.  How do you answer the charge that this phenomenon resembles the "eugenics" movement a century ago - the slow, but deliberate "weeding out" of those our society would deem "unfit" to live?

6. Do you believe an employer should be forced to violate his or her religious conscience by providing access to abortifacient drugs and contraception to employees?

7. Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr., has said that "abortion is the white supremacist's best friend," pointing to the fact that black and Latinos represent 25% of our population but account for 59% of all abortions.  How do you respond to the charge that majority of abortion clinics are found in inner-city areas with large numbers of minorities?

8. You describe abortion as a "tragic choice."  If abortion is not morally objectionable, then why is it tragic?  Does this mean there is something about abortion that is different than other standard surgical procedures?

9. Do you believe abortion should be legal once the unborn fetus is viable - able to survive outside the womb?

10. If a pregnant woman and her unborn child are murdered, do you believe the criminal should face two counts of murder and serve a harsher sentence?

How Not to Campaign for Political Office

UPDATE: As should be expected, Albert Mohler has written on this subject as well, and in a much clearer and better manner than I have below.  I recommend you take a look at his article.

Note to self: if you ever want to tank your bid for a political office, just tell the public that you believe in the providence of an Almighty God - particularly the God of the Bible.  That's essentially what candidate Richard Muordock did when he now famously said, "I struggled with it myself for a long time [the idea that a pregnancy as a result of rape being having intrinsic value], but I came to realize that life is that gift from God.  And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."

Hmm.  Nothing unbiblical about that sentiment.  Why all the hubbub?  Let's break down what he actually said:

1. Life is a gift from God.
2. Rape is an inherently bad thing.
3. God is sovereign over the creation of life, even in despicable situations such as rape.

Hmm.  I still can't find anything in there that I disagree with, or that is offensive.  So why is the media and everyone in the political realm up in arms?  The problem here is that people in the media and political machine are twisting the words to imply that Mourdock meant that the rape that caused the pregnancy (which he describes as a gift from God) is therefore also a gift from God.  This is a deliberate and shameful spin on this man's innocent statement.  The fact that our country has come to twisting people's words in order to assert that they are in favor of rape is disgusting and shameful.

What makes this even more of a non-story is that pregnancies that occur through rape amount o less than one half of 1% of all pregnancies that end in abortion.  But for political reasons, the pro-abortion crowd always likes to know where a candidate stands on abortion in the instances of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is threatened.  Study after study has proven that THIS IS A NON-ISSUE.  There aren't enough statistical instances of these situations to even register on the stat sheet.  But people keep bringing up these questions in order to demonize pro-life candidates through their answers.  It's a lose-lose for those who love life.  If they come down in favor of the life of the child, they look like insensitive jerks because they supposedly don't care about rape and incest, or the lives of mothers who are threatened as a result of the pregnancy.  Again, it's a non-issue, but those who would use these questions and arguments are intentionally and dishonestly twisting words and framing scenarios in order to further their pro-death agenda.  It's absolutely sickening.

Even the President of the United States falls prey to this twisted way of thinking, appearing the Tonight Show just last night.  "I don't know how these guys come up with these ideas..." Obama said.  "Rape is rape.  It is a crime.  And so, these various distinctions about rape don't make too much sense to me - don't make any sense to me."  He went on to say, "This is exactly why you don't want a bunch of politicians, mostly male, making decisions about women's health care decisions."

This response is astounding, at least in the sense that it suggests the president lacks the powers of reason to be able to accurately interpret Mourdock's statement.  If you want to disagree with Mourdock's position on abortion, go ahead.  But for the leader of the free world to play this ridiculous political game and infer that the man endorses rape?  Come on.  Do you honestly think that, Mr. President?  How low have we sunk?  Pretty low, apparently.  Not to mention his reframing of the whole conversation so as to make the debate about "women's health care decisions" instead of what it is and always has been about: human life.

Mitt Romney's response was no better.  He could have made taken a stand by refusing to play in the political game and stand up to clarify Mourdock's statement.  Instead, he distanced himself from Mourdock, saying that he disagrees with Mourdock, and that Mourdock's statement does not reflect his views.  Moreover, Romney has stated that he favors abortions in instances of rape, incest, and the health of the mother (again, a non-issue), so I guess it's not surprising that he played the same cards.

This whole system is hopelessly messed up.

The question is, did Mourdock mean that God intended the rape to happen, or did he intend the creation of life as a result of the rape?  I don't know how Mourdock would answer this question, so I'll only give you my answer: both.  God is sovereign, and either causes things to happen or allows them to happen.  God does not cause sin, but he uses it sinlessly.  For example, God allows rape to occur, for his own purposes, and uses that to create life.  In this, we cannot accuse God of evil, because God did not cause or force the rape to happen.  He simply allowed someone to carry out the wicked desires of his heart.  This is probably what Mourdock was getting at: something terrible happens (like a rape) at the hands of a terrible person, and God uses those bad things to bring about something wonderful: life.  Mourdock's point, I think is that we need to fight to protect life that God has sovereignly created.

The atheistic, pro-abortion response would probably be to ask that, if God is indeed sovereign, then why did he allow the rape?  The answer is that God does sometimes prohibit people from carrying out the sinful desires of their heart.  God does sometimes prohibit people from doing what they want to do, but not always.  Why not?  I don't know.  God has a plan that we are not always privy to.  What I do know is that the Bible says that God is in control of everything, and has a plan and purpose for every action that has ever, or ever will, take place.  Moreover, if God went around preventing all people from doing evil, we would be nothing more than robots, carrying out God's will.  But we are not robots.  We are free moral agents, given the ability to choose right from wrong - to do evil or to do good.  If someone rapes someone else, that is his problem - not God's.  

Assuming this was Mourdock's intended meaning, and even if properly understood, Mourdock's statement is still bound to offend.  People don't want to believe in a God that allows bad things to happen for his own sovereign purposes.  Why not?  Because they want to be their own God, and being able to accuse God with evil justifies their own evil in their minds.  Secondly, because they don't want to admit that their is a sovereign God who is in charge, and to whom they must give an account.  On a lower level, people refuse to believe in a sovereign God because it messes with their worldview, and in particular, their ideas about human life and abortion.  People want to be promiscuous; people want to live convenient lives that aren't "interrupted" with the "burden" of children.  And since belief in a sovereign God would throw a wrench in their worldview, they are willingly self-blinded.  If we could criticize Mourdock in any way, it would be to be wiser than to expect a lost, fallen, and blinded world to be able to discern spiritual truth.  Like I said earlier, this is not going to get you elected to political office.

What Richard Mourdock said is certainly not popular, nor is it good for a bid for a political office, but it is true.

Thus & Such Vol. 3

1. "...to him, this is about using his platform to help in a political sense and defining himself outside the confines of the football field."  The NFL has pretty much lost me as a fan.  The bounty scandal of last year, the increasing immaturity of the players, and now Chris Kluwe and his vitriolic, vulgar, and disgusting hatred toward those who defend the tradition definition of marriage have left my interest in professional football just about empty.  Kluwe says he's using his platform to stand up for what he believes.  He's also pushing me away as a customer.  But I suppose he'd probably just say I'm a *$&%ing %@&# *%^#&.

2. "That's what happens when a tragedy like that happens.  It gets you back to putting your priorities where they are supposed to be."  From the waste of a brain that is Chris Kluwe, we move on to Josh Willingham, Twins left fielder.  Read his story of tragedy in his life, and how it enriched his faith.  I'm glad this guy plays for the local lads, for several reasons, and now I can add another one.

3. Say what you want about Todd Friel, but you at least have to admit the guy knows his stuff, and has the guts to put his reputation on the line to preach the gospel for the sake of the lost.  It's worth your time to watch this video, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, from one of Friel's times of open air preaching at the University of Georgia, Athens.  It's a good way to learn how average people think, how to answer common questions and objections, and how to talk to people about the gospel.

4. "I'm sorry I puked on you.  Happy birthday."  Here's a good meme that I'd like to see more of: dog shaming.  Check it out.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Thus & Such Vol. 2

1. Christian ministry is very "blue collar."  "There are very few frills.  Rare accolades.  Low hype.  It's jolly hard work that doesn't grab headlines or come off as fascinating to the masses."  This article is a good reminder for all those involved in either lay or vocational ministry: ministry is a very unsexy thing to do.  It's not a good way to receive recognition.  This reality should inform the way we approach ministry and gather our motivation for ministry.

2. Credit those stylish cargo pants or shorts to the military.  That, and 8 other things were invented by the military and are now used regularly in civilian life.  Here's the list.

3. "Pastoral and theological giants of the past went to pain-staking lengths to pen doctrinally rich, gospel-centered songs with the intention of shaping the people under their care."  Why should the church continue to sing old songs and hymns?  Quite simply, because songs teach.  And you probably learn more from songs than you do from any sermon.  Check it out.

4. "It should be no surprise, then, that it's in the seminary where our Enemy is seeking someone to devour, accuse, and deceive."  This is from an article I linked to from the Desiring God blog that provides a plethora of resources for those either currently engaged in, or about to engage in, the seminary journey.  I wish I had these resources before I started seminary.  From what I have read from these articles, and from my own seminary experience, the concerns expressed by the authors (and their subsequent suggestions) are right on.

Plausible Arguments

This past Sunday (and this coming Sunday, Lord willing) I had the opportunity to fill the pulpit at Riverview.  My text was Colossians 2.1-8, in which Paul warns the Colossians against believing the various false teachings that were circulating in their religious culture.  Paul tells the Colossians that he is struggling for the sake of their doctrinal and practical purity as a church, and he says that he's struggling so that "no one may delude you with plausible arguments" (verse 4).

In the Colossian religious culture there were various false teachers who, more or less, subscribed to traditional Christian ideas and theology.  They just added minor differences or made a twist here and there to add some different teaching that added a little spin to what the Colossians already believed.  The problem is that just a little twist to the doctrine of salvation can lead to heresy quite quickly, and it appears that this is something like what was happening in Colossae: minor twists to core doctrines that were leading the Colossians astray.

The difficult thing about "plausible arguments" is that they are often couched in very reasonable and rational terms.  Or they might be delivered in ways that appeal to emotions so as to persuade the hearer because his or her heart strings are being tugged at.  Furthermore, it's possible that people were arguing very sincerely for their particular slant on orthodox theology, and it's always difficult to argue against someone who sincerely believes what they believe.

But none of the aforementioned ways of arguing for a particular point are objective means of determining truth.  Arguments can seem logical, but be completely fallacious; appealing to emotion is also fallacious.  Just because something tugs on my heart strings doesn't make it true.  Nor does sincerity determine truth.  Someone can sincerely believe what they believe and still be very wrong (such as sincerely believing that 2 + 2 =5).

We can probably appreciate Paul's warning against being deluded by "plausible arguments" after having watched the three presidential and one vice presidential debates.  Each man has an agenda that he spins with every word that comes out of his mouth.  There are plenty of half-truths and distorted facts that serve to support each candidate's position.  Candidates also try to persuade voters by tugging at their heart strings and by conveying to voters the fact that they sincerely believe the thoughts and ideas that they are espousing.  In order to balance out the half-truths espoused by the candidates, the media has seen fit to take upon themselves the position of "fact-checker," although I question even the fact-checkers' ability to determine truth.  They are likewise arguing from an interpretation of the "facts."

Probably the most prominent issue in which I have personally heard people attempting to delude others with "plausible arguments" is in the debate surrounding the gay marriage amendment.  But before I explain further, let me say that I don't believe that people intend to delude, or to espouse "plausible arguments" when they present their case, whatever it may be.  That is, I believe that people actually think what they say, and they truly believe their arguments are based on truth and fact.  I don't think people realize the ways in which they are persuaded by emotion and fallacious logic.  I've covered this before on this blog.  To be sure, this is a problem that everyone has - we all have reasons for believing and thinking the way we do, and some of those we have arrived at objectively, and some are more inherent and based on the ways we have been raised, and our particular worldview.  The challenge, then, is to be able to realize these influences to make our thinking as objective as possible.

When it comes to homosexuality and the same-sex marriage discussion, it is my opinion that both sides appeal to emotion when making their points, and that appeals to emotion are the foundation of why people think the ways they do on this issue.  This is not a good place to argue from for either side.

Case in point: a Facebook friend of mine from high school posted the below this past Sunday (I've removed all names and photos).
As you can see, the post generated quite a stir, producing a total of 39 "likes" and 120 comments as of 10:00 AM this morning.

This is an argument based on emotion, even though the Poster claims that it is not his opinion, but is instead a "fact."  The person who wrote this is appealing to emotion by labeling all those who would support the marriage amendment as being discriminatory.  Whether or not this is true is, at this time, irrelevant.  The fact is, the foundation for his argument an attempt to shame people into believing what he believers.  He doesn't realize it but he is, to put it in biblical language, attempting to delude others with his plausible argument.  Furthermore he even admits that this is an issue that he feels strongly about, furthering his motivation to propagate his ideas.  In order for this to be a legitimate argument, he needs to show how voting against same sex marriage is indeed discrimination, and that said discrimination is an inherently bad thing, of which he accomplishes neither - not in the post itself nor in the 120 comments that follow (trust me, I read through all of them).  My purpose in examining this post is not to either agree or disagree with the sentiment expressed therein, but to show how this is not a good way to argue a position or promote an intellectually honest pursuit of truth.

So then what should Christians do?  Paul's focus in Colossians 2 is on finding truth in Christ, and not in man-made arguments that always come from some personal agenda or set of influences (including my own).  The only objective means of discovering truth is the word of God, and this is where Christians should look to find truth.  In other words, "What does the Bible say?"

Certainly my Facebook friend and several in the comment thread would fire back that my interpretation of the Bible is likewise influenced by my own agenda and influences, to which I would answer, "Absolutely, yes."  To deny this reality would be intellectually dishonest, and would be to turn a blind eye on my own propensity to argue from emotion, to use fallacious logic, and to hold on to wrong beliefs because of my sincerity in believing them.  I fully admit that I am not an objective standard of truth.

But the word of God claims to be an objective standard of truth, and it either is or it isn't.  And even if my interpretation of it is flawed and influenced by my own sinfulness, at least I have something objective to fall back on.  This means, however, that we need to be aware of our tendency to delude others with plausible arguments even when we argue from the Bible.

I think one of Paul's main messages in this text from Colossians 2 is this: don't be confused or persuaded by emotion or fallacious logic, or just because someone believes something sincerely.  Instead, as yourself this question: What does the Bible say?  If we are looking for truth, and especially in light of our own propensity to twist facts to suit our own preferences, at least we are starting in the right place when we go to scripture.  And the more we realize and know about our own tendency to twist things to fit our own agenda, the more we can fight that tendency in ourselves as we search for truth.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Thus & Such, Vol. 1

Another busy week this week, so this post will be short, but at the same time it will give me a chance to do something that I've wanted to do for a while now.

I'm going to be adding a new category to this blog called "Thus & Such."  This category will be in the same vein as Tim Challies' "A La Carte" and Dan Phillips' "Hither and Thither."  In other words, I'm going to start doing some posts that contain things from the internet that I have read, seen, laughed at, gotten angry about, etc., that I just don't have time to comment on in longer form, and that I think readers of this blog might profit from.  Each of the links in this category will lead you to stuff on the internets that I have found compelling or interesting.  So here goes.

1. "The Local church is the front line of ministry.  In the battle against the spiritual forces of evil, the church is the trench.  Christ's bride is dug in, charged up, and ready to die for the freedom of souls.  I relish the trench.  It's messy, at times gruesome, and the noise makes it difficult to sleep.  But I love it."  This is from an article that compares the church's ministry to a battlefield, called "I Want to Die in the Trench."  It's a bit cliche, a tad on the cornball side, but I found myself getting fired up as I read it.

2. "Will there be touchdowns in the new creation?  Grand-slam homeruns?  Three-pointers at the buzzer?  When heaven comes down to earth, we shouldn't expect anything less."  Have you ever though about whether or not there will be sports in heaven?  I hadn't, until I read this article.  It argues convincingly that there will indeed be sports in heaven.  I have some questions about the author's conclusions, but still pretty interesting.

3. "Recently my commitment to consecutive exposition was acutely tested.  I tacked the chapter every seminoid dreads from the day he graduates, namely Leviticus 15 (you know, the heart-warming one about emissions and discharges of various bodily fluids).  The challenges of preaching this sticky wicket are manifold."  When's the last time you heard a sermon on Leviticus 15?  Me, never.  This guy's giving it a shot.

4. "God, in demanding that he be praised, is "not like an old vain woman seeking compliments."  Have you ever thought that it's a bit egotistical for God to demand that everyone worship him?  It's a fair question, and the answer is great.  You begin to see that God demands praise for himself, because praising God is the best thing his creation can do.  Check out this video to hear more.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Should Christians Vote?

Huh.  I haven't posted in almost a week.  Either I've been really busy or haven't had any thoughts worth sharing in a while.  Probably a combination of both, actually.  Well, at least I'm back to it.

I came back to it after reading this article by John Piper about whether or not he is planning to vote in this coming presidential election.  I have several friends (and it's a rather popular nonconformist opinion amongst many right now) that have chosen not to vote in this election.  Their reasons are many - from thinking that both candidates are bums, to thinking that a two-party system is flawed, to believing that voting is actually an immoral thing to do.  I must confess that I have even felt some doubt about whether or not voting is a worth-while thing to do in this election.  After all, my choices are between a totally pro-abortion universalist, or a somewhat pro-abortion Mormon.  Not a great selection.  How then should we vote?  Should we vote at all?

It's been said by many that voting for president is simply a matter of picking the lesser of two evils.  And this has even been enough to persuade some to nix the idea of voting altogether.  People want a genuine man with integrity that they can feel good about voting.  The question, however, is whether or not having this kind of man running for the office is necessary to make voting a legitimate thing to do. 

In the article, Piper interestingly argues that not voting equals not having your voice heard, and that the effectiveness of not voting comes not in refraining to vote, but in talking about not voting.  In other words, if you talk loudly about not voting, people will actually listen.  Not voting, however, is heard by no one.  Piper's solution: talk about how you don't want to vote and how voting has been cheapened, and how you don't like the two party system, but still have your voice heard by voting.

His rationale is that voting inherently effects the outcome of the election, and that even if both candidates are bad, one is certainly worse than the other.  It is the Christian's responsibility, then, to exercise biblical wisdom and vote for what is essentially the lesser of two evils - the one that will do the most amount of good (even if it is small) and the least amount of evil.

Piper admits that this certainly isn't the ideal situation, but it is nonetheless the situation we find ourselves in.  I think it's a convincing, albeit brutally realistic and somewhat pessimistic, rationale.

We also need to consider that the Bible commands Christians to pray for their leaders, and to submit to those in authority.  This is hard to do if we loathe those in authority.  And in our country, we have the power to be a part of the process that selects leaders.  It would be hard for me to pray for people that disgust me so much that I want nothing to do with this process.

The Bible also tells us, however, that God determines kings, rulers, and authorities, and puts them in their place for his own purposes.  Admittedly, this is difficult in a representative republic like ours, where we feel as though we have complete control over the election process.  After all, we think, if we don't like someone, we'll just vote them out.  We assume that we have the final word on who is elected for leadership.  But do we?  According to the Bible, we can at least say that we don't have all the control we sometimes think we do.

Why vote, then?  If God has already determined who the next president of the United States will be, does he really need me to vote for the guy?  The answer is no, but I think at the same time that the question is flawed.  God does not call Christians to elect leaders.  Rather, he calls them to be obedient to what he has called them to do in his word: to love and protect life in all its forms, to love justice, and deal fairly with everyone.  This call should be reflected in the ways that we vote, whether or not the "right" man wins or not.  I equate the idea of voting under the reign of a sovereign God much to that of my view of evangelism and God's sovereignty: the end results don't ultimately matter to me, since God is responsible to do as he purposes.  The only thing that should matter to me is obedience to his word.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Thoughts on Turning 32

Today is my thirty-second birthday, or as I like to put it: I'm thirty-two years closer to the grave.  The Mrs. always gets on my case for putting it this way, presumably because it focuses on death rather than life, which I guess I can understand.  It's interesting to think though, assuming I live to the average male life expectancy - 72 years of age - that I am only four years away from having lived half my life.  Aging adds perspective.  Or as I've heard it put, birthdays are reminders to get busy.

What's it like to be 32?  So far it's a lot like being 31.  In fact, the thirty-second anniversary of the day of my birth has been rather uneventful, and that's fine with me.  I woke up at the usual time and got the young'ns some vittles, then brought the oldest to preschool and dropped the youngest off at her play date.  Then I went home and did some cleaning up around the house.  Went and got the kids and had lunch.  Now they're napping and I'm posting.  Pretty normal.

I was made aware today, however, that the date of my birthday is 10-11-12.  So that's kind of neat.  On the other hand, I also learned that the day of my birth is National Coming Out day, so I guess that's pretty special too.  

As far as the spiritual implications of turning another year older are concerned, I was doing some reading this afternoon and came across Psalm 71.17-18.  Seems like a pretty good prayer for my thirty-second year: "O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.  So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come."

These verses have been increasingly played out in my life up to now in one way or another.  I have definitely learned of the glorious deeds of the Lord, even from my youth.  And so now, with an increasing number of gray hairs, and an ever-increasing experience of the faithfulness of God, I pray that he does not forsake me, and that he might extend my life for the sake of his glory amongst the next generation, particularly my children.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Bad Reason to Support the Marriage Amendment

This commercial has been airing in the Twin Cities of late, in support of the proposed amendment to the Minnesota constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman.  I've seen it a few times, and in my opinion, it offers a bad reason to support the marriage amendment.  If you haven't seen it, take a look.

Why do I think this commercial does not offer good reasons to support the marriage amendment?  First of all, it offers a pragmatic solution to the threat against the definition of marriage.  The woman in the ad says: "Who should decide the definition of marriage?  We think it should be the people - not judges or politicians."  While there is some merit to the idea that activist judges and politicians legislate their own view of morality instead of allowing the people to have a say, I reject the notion that we decide what is right and moral based simply upon the majority opinion.

If, as the woman in the ad says, the definition of marriage should be determined by the majority opinion, then technically the definition of marriage is a fluid thing, and changes with the tide of public opinion.  This is a notion that Christians should flat-out reject.

Think of how crazy this would get if we allowed all of our laws and moral decisions to be left up to the majority opinion.  This same approach would allow whatever the public wanted, as long as 51% of the population felt the same way about something.  Furthermore, this is not an honest and fair approach to dealing with the issue of gay marriage.  If we really want to leave the definition of marriage up to the people, then we shouldn't be amending the constitution in order to do so.  Certainly the demographics of the public change over time, and at some time in the future the people might (I think will) decide that they actually do want to allow gay marriage.  So according to the logic espoused by the commercial, as soon as 51% of the people want to allow gay marriage, then it should be allowed.  After all, we wouldn't want judges and politicians deciding it (even if they're conservative judges and politicians), right?  What will be our argument then?

Instead of thinking pragmatically about the marriage amendment, Christians and other supporters of the amendment can only appeal to the word of God as why marriage is only between one man and one woman.  We can cite statistics and protest that the majority rules till we're blue in the face, but those are ultimately pragmatic and subjective reasons.  The only objective reason we have to insist on the sanctity of marriage is because the word of God says so (Genesis 2.24, Matthew 19.4-6).  If people disagree with this, fine.  At least they can't argue against it by citing a statistic or percentage of people who think their way.  Their problem is with the word, not with me or my personal opinion, nor the opinions of the masses that are on my side.

Furthermore, what people in this country need to accept - be they liberal or conservative, Christian or otherwise - is that the government has been and is involved in marriage.  In fact, we (Christians) invited the government into marriage when we encouraged it to offer tax breaks and other benefits to married couples to encourage and promote marriage among the public.  Since then, the government has increasingly been involved in marriage, for better or for worse, so to speak.  At the present time, we can't escape government involvement in marriage.  They are in it, and they aren't getting out.  It might even be possible that it's not possible for them to get out of it.  It just is the way it is.  The ad says that if politicians succeed in redefining marriage, then voters will have lost their voice.  I'm afraid that ship has already sailed.  The government has power over marriage, and we gave it to them.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Having "A Peace About It"

How do we determine God's will?  How do we know what we should or should not be doing?

I ask because I have several acquaintances who, in the past few weeks, have each told me that they ultimately decided against a decision they were faced with in their lives.  Each experience was unique, and ranged from the seemingly rather mundane to a significant life decision.  The common factor in each of these occurrences was that the individual ultimately decided against whatever was presented to them because they felt that God had not given them "a peace" about doing what they were presented with.  This got me to thinking about how we determine just what exactly God has called us to do.  Does he give us "a peace" when he wants us to do something?  And if he does, what does "having a peace" about doing something look and feel like?  Ultimately, I'm asking if relying on a feeling of peace about a certain situation or outcome of a decision is a valid way of seeking and understanding God's will.

First, I think we need to take into consideration some doctrine about how our emotions work.  The Bible says that our hearts are wicked, self-serving, and are unknowable.  So in one sense, if we are relying on an internal feeling of peace as a verification of God's direction in our lives, we also need to realize that it is possible for our emotions to be deceptive when it comes to the decision making process.  That is, I think we need to be honest about the fact that we have a tendency to serve ourselves and pursue our own desires - not God's.  This is not to say that the Spirit doesn't guide us, and that we always make self-centered decisions.  It is to say that, although we are in Christ, those tendencies still exist.  We need to recognize them, and admit the possibility that a need for a "peaceful easy feeling" might be born out of selfishness.

Second, I think there's a good chance that most of the things God has called us to do are not easy things.  That is, God usually calls people to do the kinds of things that don't necessarily inspire feelings of peace.  Just ask the Apostle Paul how much peace he felt about all of the things God had him do.  So if we gauge what God has called us to do by how much peace is inspired in our innermost emotions by the circumstances of what we are faced with, we may come to wrong decisions.

At the same time, however, we can indeed have peace, even when it comes to hard things, because of who and what God is.  He is the all-powerful God of the universe who sustains life and works to serve and protect those whom he loves.  In this sense, we can rest assured that even when we do hard things we have the support of the Almighty God.  This should bring us a certain sense of peace - even when facing death.  Think about it: the resolve of Daniel's friends as they faced the fiery furnace was steadfast.  They had "a peace" about being burned alive.  Daniel himself went to the lion's den with "a peace."  The apostles no doubt had "a peace" about defying the government and preaching the gospel to the masses.  From whence did their peace come?  From a warm fuzzy feeling in their bosom, or from the knowledge that the God of the universe was going before them?  If any of these had waited for "a peace" before acting on what God had led them to do, they probably wouldn't have done it.  Rather, their peace came from their knowledge of who God is and what he can do.

In this sense, there really isn't anything that we should not have "a peace" about.  If God is indeed for us, then who can be against us?  Whether I am called to something life-changing, like flying to the other side of the world and enter the mission field, or to "just" serve in a seemingly mundane ministry in the local church, God is with us equally in both cases.  And his limitless resources are available to us no matter what we are doing.  In this sense, one should never not do something because one doesn't have enough "peace" about it.  The God of the universe being on your side is all the peace you need.

This is the problem with trying to determine what God wants us to do by using feelings and emotions.  Emotions are ultimately unverifiable and can even lead us astray at times.  Kevin DeYoung's book, Just Do Something: how to make a decision without dreams, visions, fleeces, impressions, open doors, random Bible verses, casting lots, liver shivers, writing in the sky, etc., while having perhaps the best subtitle of any book ever, talks about how we can often end up doing nothing when faced with decisions because we're waiting for some mystical feeling or sign.  Rather, he argues, God has told us what we are to do.  We just need to do it.  And when we've started to do it, to continue to do it. This is often a harder process than trying to get the right feeling or sign, and it's usually why people don't do anything.  They wait around in limbo, perhaps because they simply don't like what God has called them to do.

So how do we determine what to do?  Todd Friel offers a framework for discerning God's will for your life that I think is helpful:

1. Determine what you want to do.  It would be foolish to say that our own desires, preferences, and talents don't factor into the things we do.  After all, God has made us who we are for a purpose.  We should allow those things that make us unique to guide us in the process of determining what God wants us to do.  So step one would be to figure out what you want to do.  If you don't want to do something, it's possible that God may not want you to do that, but don't scratch something off your list just because you don't want to do it.  God still may give you what you need to see it through.

2. Read the Bible.  The Bible is God's direction for all of life.  Every question is answered the Bible; every directive is given in the Bible; all information about what people should be doing with their lives is written in the Bible.  In order to know what I should be doing with my life, I need to be reading the Bible.

3. Pray.  Ask God for wisdom about what you want to do.  Confess sin and your tendency to seek your own desires first.  Repeat steps 2 and 3.

4. Seek godly counsel.  Think you might know what God wants you to do?  Run it by a few other older, wiser people and see what they think.  This is an important step, and is one that should not be avoided.  One of the most important parts of my own call to ministry was receiving affirmation from other people that they likewise believed that God had called me to ministry.  Seek godly counsel, and listen to it.  After all, someone wiser than you may have a different idea about what you're about to do, and God could be using them to guide you away from a particular action.

5. Do it!  Once you've determined what you want to do, read your Bible, prayed, and sought godly counsel, then just do it!  Make sure you do whatever you've committed to do well, and that you see it through to the end.

Note that a person could go through these five steps and still feel rather uncomfortable about what they have determined God had called them to do.  For instance, becoming a missionary and going to a foreign country to live, work, and preach the gospel is something that would scare me to death.  My fear and lack of peace, however, is no indication that God has not indeed called me to do it.  So then, should I wait for God to give me "a peace" about something before I do it?  Maybe, if the peace we're talking about is knowledge of his greatness and power.  We just need to be careful about personal feelings and emotions when it comes to decision making and claiming God's will for our lives.

And I should know, because I have a peace about that.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Going to Church in Jail

Every six weeks our church sends a group of guys to the Dakota County Jail in Hastings, Minnesota.  The guys go down to minister to the inmates there.  Dakota County Jail is essentially an interim holding station for inmates.  In other words, guys go to Dakota County if they are awaiting sentencing a court date, or something else in their legal proceedings.  Because of this, there is a high turnover rate, and most of the guys we minister to won't be there the next time we come down.  They will have either been sentence and therefore moved to a different facility, or perhaps even released after their court date.  It's always a special privilege for me to go with the guys to the jail and minister.

Dakota County Jail is remarkably similar on the exterior and interior to a mid-sized high school.  The exterior of the building looks almost identical to the building where I attended high school, and the interior is very much like a high school.  There are classrooms, a library, and even a gymnasium.  The only thing that makes it feel like a jail is the jump suits the inmates wear, and the fact that all the doors lock behind you.  The color of the jumpsuits worn by the inmates is determined by the level of security they are under.  In other words, guys in minimum security will wear a certain colored jump suit.  Guys in maximum security will wear a different color.  There are, I think, five different levels of security in the jail, and guys from each level come to "church" on Sunday mornings.

The service is held in the gymnasium, and about 100 of the jail's 250-280 inmates attend the service which, when you think about it, is a pretty significant percentage.  Most of the guys look as though they have lived a hard life, and that is because they have.  A lot of the guys have stories about why they are where they are, that they are more than willing to talk about.

I've had the opportunity to preach at the jail several times now, and I have to say that it is one of the most unusual places where one can preach.  For one thing, I am never sure how to present my message.  This is an audience with whom I have little in common - at least externally.  I have never been to jail, nor have I ever been arrested or even in significant trouble with the law.  The worst I've ever been through was a court date for a traffic violation (which I was acquitted of, I might add).  I'm also concerned that, because of the seeming disconnect that I have with the inmates, I might lose authenticity with my audience.  That is, they might see through me, that I am a goody-two-shoes.  Thirdly, whenever I preach I am worried about being too technical when I say things.  Most of the guys in the jail have either never set foot in a church or haven't been since childhood.  So I usually try to keep my words and concepts pretty simple.  Thankfully, every time I've had the opportunity to preach at the jail, none of my fears have been realized and I think I've been able to communicate in an authentic, real, and understandable way.

Today I was asked to preach once again, and I chose Psalm 139 as my topic.  I had planned to talk about what God knows about each of us, and to go into issues about thoughts and attitudes of the heart, and how they condemn us before God.  This wasn't quite how it went down, however.  A lot of the guys who go with the church down to the jail have been to jail themselves, and have great stories to tell the inmates about how God can reform and change lives - even lives that have been in jail.  Needless to say, as great as these testimonies are, they take time, and sometimes the preaching time is cut a bit short.  That's fine.  I think those guys from Riverview who share their testimony have just as - if not more - important things to say as I do.

Today my time was cut to about 12 minutes, and I tried to take advantage of it.  I spent a bit of time on sin and God's knowledge of our sinful condition, but I also wanted to spend some time on verses 7-12 of Psalm 139.  These verses talk about how we cannot escape God's presence, no matter where we go. God is present everywhere - in the highest heights and the lowest low.  And I think this applies not just to our physical circumstances, but also to spiritual ones.  When we are as low as we can get - which a lot of guys are, being in jail - God still can and does occupy those spaces, and he is able to hear and respond to the cries of those who would trust in him.

Can you imagine being in jail?  Cut off from loved ones, from the outside world, from any kind of gainful employment, from any kind of "normal" life, not to mention the damage to one's reputation that a time in jail can incur.  I can imagine how it would be easy to lose hope very quickly in such circumstances.  In the context of jail and what inmates are feeling while they are in jail, I think it's important to communicate that even these guys where they are have access to God.  They are no less able to call out to God because they are in jail, or because they may have committed serious crimes for which they are or will be punished.

My evidence of this was the story of Jonah and how he - even from the belly of a fish swimming around in the ocean - was able to call out to God.  If jail seems like a hopeless place, imagine being in the belly of a fish!  It certainly can't seem too much more hopeless than that.  But even though Jonah was in the belly of a fish, God heard his prayer.  God was able to meet him even in that place, as God is able to meet anyone in any place they are - even in jail.  All you must do is call out to him in repentance and faith.

I really like going to the jail.  In some ways, it's a forgotten mission field.  Let's face it: most people don't consider inmates as being a very desirable group of people, and indeed, most of them aren't - at least on the outside.  Plus, I think we are predisposed that prisoners are either "too far gone" to be interested in the things of God, or that they have displayed by the actions that landed them in jail that they aren't able to believe the Bible.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  These guys are looking for answers.  They are looking for hope.  After all, most of them are at the lowest points in their lives.  They are dying for something solid to hold on to.

Ministering to prisoners isn't easy.  Sometimes ministries aren't even allowed access to prisoners.  In this sense, Dakota County is great.  They let us come in and do whatever we want with them, with very few restrictions.  It just takes time and a lot of faith that God will do something.

These inmates are who they are: sinners in need of the gospel.  Their hearts are no more wicked than mine was, and God did something with that.  He can certainly do some amazing work with prisoners.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Thinking About Bullying

This video has gone viral, and several of my Facebook friends were posting it in their feed as recently as last night, all with positive comments for the woman in the video.  It got me and The Mrs. thinking about the topic of bullying last night.

The focus on bullying as a social behavior is a more recent trend.  Certainly bullying is not new, nor has it just recently come into existence or into the general knowledge of the public.  Bullying has been around as long as there have been people on earth, and everyone has known about it.  In recent years, however, the topic of bullying has garnered more and more attention in the public realm.  We hear about it on the news, and there are even movies and documentaries being made on the subject.  I think it's safe to say that the level of attention bullying has been given in schools and even in the public square has increased dramatically since I was a kid.  While I was taught to respect others and their differences when I was in elementary school, kids nowadays are going through all kinds of education on bullying and its sometimes devastating results.  Why the shift?  Why has bullying become such a prominent and public issue?

First I think we need to know what a bully is.  The online Merriam Webster's dictionary defines a bully as "A blustering, browbeating person; especially one habitually cruel to those who are weaker."  By this definition, everyone in the United States of America either is, or at least has been, a bully.

Think about it: did you ever make fun of kids when you were a kid?  I certainly did.  I was even "habitually cruel" to some kids.  Maybe you're even a bully now.  Ever experience road rage?  Ever yell at a driver for doing something you think is stupid and then retaining that anger for a while?  Is there a co-worker of yours that is nerdy and weird, and you and other co-workers talk about him or her behind their back?  Do your kids ever irritate you so much that you are irrationally angry with them and give them a punishment they don't really deserve?  If you've answered yes to any of these questions, then you, my friend, are a bully.

But if the definition of a bully is so broad as to encompass all people in the country, and if we all either have been or currently are bullies by definition, then why is there such an intense focus on bullying at the present time?  It can only be that the type of bullying that is being brought into focus through the news media and in schools is something different than what I've just described above.

In one sense, bullying has become an issue that has been brought to the forefront for the simple reason that the way people (children and teenagers in particular) respond to bullying has changed drastically.  Rather than crying, being a loner, or enlisting the help of friends or adults to take a stand against a bully, kids nowadays respond to bullying with measures of their own violence, cutting, or even by taking their own lives.

Furthermore, the things that kids are bullied for nowadays are different from even when I was child (which I like to think wasn't that long ago).  When I was in third grade, I was made fun of quite a bit for wearing a Super Man belt.  I told my dad what had happened, and he told me kids were making fun of my belt because they were jealous of it.  That explanation worked for me at the time, and I wore my Super Man belt with pride.  In my later elementary years I was teased more for my size.  I was larger than most other kids (horizontally and vertically) and they pointed it out to me quite a bit (although not too much, as size does have its advantages!).  And let it be known that I did my own share of teasing as a kid, even on into my teenage years, and the objects of my scorn were those who were different, dirty, weird, or undesirable in some way.  Nowadays kids can not only be bullied for the same things I was bullied for, but also for sexual orientation, weight, race, etc.  The stakes seem to have been raised, and kids (and adults, for that matter) are responding differently.

But while this may be true, and I do agree that bullying is a serious issue worth addressing, there are also some elements of the current conversation around bullying that I think need to be thought out, spoken about, and taught more.

1. Bullying can be a two-way street.  It's perhaps not surprising (at least not to me) that those who are victims of bullying can also become bullies themselves by the way they respond to bullying, and often times their bullying is directed toward those bullies who bullied them (wow, there's a lot of bullies in that sentence).  That is, while I believe it is right and good to stand against bullying, I think we need to have a careful and measured answer for how to respond to bullying.  The proper response to a bully is not to disparage him or her publicly, or to return the bullies actions or words in kind.  I even wonder if the newscaster in the video linked to at the beginning of this post was crossing the line by addressing the issue publicly on television.  Obviously she was using the occasion as a spring-board to launch into a speech about how bullying is serious and detrimental, but at what cost?  Did she become what she was speaking against by calling out the man who bullied her in front of thousands?  Or was it really wise for her husband to post the letter on the man's Facebook page?  I'm not saying she did become a bully by doing these things, but I think it's something worth thinking about.  I just wonder if it wouldn't have been a more effective stand against bullying if she had simply deleted the email as soon as she received it.  If we are teaching kids (or adults) to respond to bullies with scorn, disdain, and general hatred, we are doing a disservice to our children, and are, in fact, teaching them to be bullies.  What we need is a good dose of Matthew 5.21-22 and 38-42 taught to our kids, but let's not hold our collective breath.  If nothing else, I think there needs to be some careful thought about how we respond to bullying.

2. The negative impact of bullying is directly related to the victim's propensity to be bullied.  In other words, bullies only have as much power as is given to them by their victims.  When my dad told me that other kids made fun of my Super Man belt because they were jealous of it, I couldn't have cared less about their derogatory comments toward me and my belt.  I refused to let them bother me about it.  Now, it would be too simplistic to say that we can cure bullying by instructing kids to not take offense at the words and actions of those who wish to do them harm.  There are some bullies that will be relentless in their bullying, even if no acknowledgement is given by the victim.  But I think this is an important point to consider in the conversation: bullies are only as powerful as we allow them be.

3. We need more thorough definitions of terms.  In one sense, the anti-bullying campaigns are somewhat unsettling to me - not because I endorse bullying, but because I'm not really sure what bullying is.  As homosexuality and other issues become more culturally acceptable and mainstream it will become increasingly unpopular to oppose them.  As schools and other public forums increasingly embrace a "tolerance" mindset that prohibits any dissension from pro-gay norm for example, will my children be labeled as bullies if they speak out about their belief that homosexuality is wrong (see point number one above)?  In a world where Christian organizations are openly labeled as hate groups for being "anti-gay," is it really a stretch to think that my kids will some day be labeled as bullies for supporting the biblical view of marriage?  Again, something to think about before we jump on the anti-bullying bandwagon.  In a lot of ways, the anti-bullying message sounds a lot like the tolerance nonsense we hear in media and in culture.  This is why we need a better definition of terms before we go about branding people with the bully label.  Who is a bully?  And what must one do to be a bully?  Physically harm someone?  Verbally or emotionally harm someone?  Disagree with someone?

It should be noted that in order for me to watch the video that I linked to at the beginning of this post, the website the video is hosted on popped up a window on my screen that had a survey question on it.  The site wouldn't let me watch the video without looking at the question.  It said this: "I support equality for all.  I believe everyone should be treated equally, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation."  Below the statement there are two options to choose from: either "Agree" or "Disagree."  That's the most loaded question I've ever heard.  I, for one, absolutely agree that everyone should be treated equally, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.  But I do not agree that "treated equally" means allowing homosexuals to marry.  So I can either agree with the statement or disagree and be labeled a bigot (bully?).  Take your pick. I just hope the current conversation about bullying doesn't go the way of the tolerance insanity that we're currently dealing with in our culture.

So how should we think about and respond to bullying?  I'm certainly not saying I have all the answers, but I am saying it's something we should keep thinking about, as it is a topic that has far-reaching implications - both for me as a person and also as a parent.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Challenge of Christian Community

I recently read this though provoking article over at The Resurgence and it brought to mind some of the discussions I had while implementing Riverview's current small groups ministry that just kicked off about a month ago.  I had the opportunity to preach and teach on the topic of fellowship, both in the context of a month-long Sunday School class and through a three-week sermon series.  I think I was able to communicate somewhat effectively what Christian fellowship looks like in the church.

There are some realities that we all need to recognize before we even try to have fellowship or community with other people.  For example, we all need to realize that we are all different people with a different set of desires, influences, and preferences, and we bring a virtually limitless set of ways of thinking to the table.  Secondly, we all need to realize that we are all sinners in need of grace - both from God and from one another.  Thirdly, and most importantly, we are all sinners saved by grace who have been adopted into a new community - a new family - that sets us apart from the rest of the world.  In essence, we have fellowship with one another in this community - we find commonality in Christ.  The gist of the article linked to above is that our fellowship - our community - is found only in Christ and in nothing else.  In fact, if we try to find commonality with one another in anything but Christ, then one of two things will happen:

1. We won't experience true, biblical fellowship.  Why not?  Because we are finding commonality in something that is not foundational and eternal.  Say, for example, that I like bass fishing.  Throughout the course of several church or small group meetings, you and I get together several times, and as we come to know each other over time, we discover that we both are absolutely enthralled with bass fishing.  We have found common ground.  We even schedule a few trips to go bass fishing together, and our friendship deepens.  Is this biblical fellowship?  Nope.  But we're friends, and we're hanging out together - we're fellowshipping!  It's still not biblical community.  Why not?  Because our common ground is bass fishing - not Jesus.  In order to have biblical fellowship with people, it must begin and end with Jesus.

2. Our efforts toward fellowship will fail.  Let's continue on with our bass fishing scenario.  Let's say that you and I have been fellow bass fishermen for a few years now, and we've enjoyed several trips together.  But over time, as we've learned more and more about each other, I've discovered that there are some things about you that, actually, really irritate me.  For example, you talk when we're trying to fish.  You also have a totally different philosophy from me as to where the best bass fishing takes place.  Not only that, but as we've been out on the water together and have talked more, I've discovered that our political preferences are actually quite different.  We think rather differently.  And the more I think about it, I don't really like you.

Fellowship that is found in anything but Christ will ultimately fail because the worldly things that we can have in common are not transcendent enough for you and I to accept our differences and love one another.  We may have some things in common, but there are also several things we don't have in common, and if we're honest, those differences have the potential to divide and separate us.

This latter point played itself out after one of my Sunday School sessions on the topic.  After each Sunday School session and sermon on the topic I was approached by members of the congregation who were thinking through what I was saying, and had some follow-up questions.  One of the questions was, I thought, intriguing, and it took me a while to figure out at the time.  The question went something like this: "There are some people that are just so different from me that it is impossible to have fellowship with them.  How can I have fellowship with people who seemingly come from another planet than I do?"  The answer is, you can't.    You simply cannot build community with people when you are trying to find something in common with them, because at some point, your similarities will break down and your differences will be exposed, and you will find that those differences will be enough to drive you apart.  Every time we try to find fellowship with people based upon earthly commonalities, it is doomed to failure.

But, if I have Jesus in common with people - even those who are seemingly from another planet - we have something to talk about!  If you and I come together and share no similarities or preferences with one another, we won't even bother.  But if we both have Jesus, then even those things we don't share or agree on become secondary issues.  Yours and my commonality in Christ can't be disrupted by our different preferences in fishing holes, nor our different political persuasions.

This becomes so important to remember, especially in church contexts.  If intellectual Christians who like to ponder the complexities of theology try to find commonality in that regard with the layman, they're doomed to failure.  If older people who prefer organ music try to base their fellowship with younger believers who like music with guitars, drums, and keyboards, on their common bond of liking worship music, it's obviously not going to work out.  Christians come together in community - in fellowship - not because they are similar, because they like the same music, because they think the same way, because they're of the same ethnicity, or anything else.  Christians come together in community because of and through Jesus.

This is why the article I linked to says that as soon as we become focused on "doing community" (having fellowship) with one another, our fellowship is actually killed off.  Having fellowship becomes the end-all.  Instead, we can have fellowship with one another because we have fellowship with Jesus.