Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Choosing Worship Songs Well

As a volunteer worship leader at my church, it’s my job to pick new songs for our worship team to play and for our congregation to learn.  In the past we have set somewhat of a precedent of trying to learn and introduce one song to the congregation per month.  If all goes well, this of course means that we learn and introduce 12 new songs each year.  It doesn’t always go that way, however.  There are some months when the worship schedule is just too busy to be introducing a new song.  There are other months when we do introduce a new song, but it quickly becomes evident that the song will not work with our congregation for whatever reason.

Our worship team is having its usual meeting tonight to look at the schedule for the upcoming summer season, and this is the time when I usually roll out new songs for the team members to be thinking about and listening to, as we will gradually be introducing these songs into our repertoire.  It’s been more of a struggle this season than most for me to find good, quality worship songs for our team to sing/play.  I'm not a huge fan of contemporary Christian radio, so I don't get many ideas from there.  So when I go looking for new worship songs for our church, I usually frequent the CCLI list, songs that are trending on iTunes, and my old stand byes like Sovereign Grace Music.  Usually from these sources I can piece together some songs for us to do.  It's actually quite an involved process and I spend a lot of time on it.  

From time to time people have recommended songs to me that they suggest we sing in the worship service, but when I check them out it seems to me that they would not be conducive for corporate worship at our church.  How do I determine that?  In order for us to introduce a song to our congregation, a worship song has to meet four different standards.  Here they are, in brief:

1. Content.  Is the content of the song good?  Is it biblical?  Does it use the words of scripture as lyrics?  Are the lyrics God-centered?  This is the most important criteria, in my opinion.  If a song has good, theologically solid lyrics, I'm willing to give on the style of it for the sake of communicating the message of the song.  Plus the other elements of the song can be tweaked and changed to fit our congregation more, such as style, rhythm, speed, etc.  If I find a song with good lyrical content, chances are I'm going to try to use it in some way.  Unfortunately, these days in contemporary Christian music, songs with home run quality content are few and far between.  But there are some good exceptions, like this song we recently introduced. and groups like Sovereign Grace Music always make a point of ensuring that their songs have good, biblical, God-focused content.  Kudos to them.  The best words to use in order to sing about God, are God's own words.  The closer we can stick to the message of scripture in our singing, the better.

2. Corporate Appeal.  Does the song lend itself to being sung by 250 people at the same time?  This is important, because in my opinion it's not right for a group of people to be singing songs that were meant to be sung by an individual.  Moreover, there are many worship songs that talk about an individual's (the songwriter's) experiences.  Well, his experiences are not necessarily mine, or that of the other 250 people who attend my church.  I try to look for songs that can be sung meaningfully by the whole body of Christ, not just one member.  Furthermore, there are some songs with intricate melodies that a person could sing by himself or herself, but it would could not be done by a larger group.  I try to avoid these types of songs in corporate settings.  There are some songs with fantastic content, but because of the intricate melody, simply can't be sung by a congregation.  But beyond these reasons, there is a theological reason for choosing songs that can be sung by a congregation, and that is that we are the church.  We join together to sing praise to God and offer him our worship.  Worship leaders should be choosing songs that make singing in large groups as easy as possible so as to accommodate this reality.  

3. Staying Power.  Does the song have the potential to be sung by the church in a hundred years from now?  Think of your most-loved hymn.  Chances are it's at least 100 years old.  We should be looking for songs that we can sing today and a hundred years from now.  This doesn't mean that we never include songs that are more particular to a time or setting, but those are rarities.  Some songs are written in such a way that the time it was written in is very evident.  There's nothing necessarily wrong with this, but when you sing that song it's going to take you back to the time when it was written, such as this song, or this song.  Just something to be aware of.  We want to shoot for songs that we can always be singing and using in worship, no matter the time or setting.  And why do some songs last longer than others?  I would argue it is because the truth they communicate is more clear, biblical, and timeless.  So we should not only be looking for songs that have stylistic staying power, but also songs with content that can stand the test of time (see point 1).

4. Quality.  What is the quality of the songwriting that went into the song?  This criteria is probably the most subjective of the four.  It's quite simple, really: there are some songs that are products of bad, unimaginative, and un-creative songwriting.  How do I know which songs those are?  Well, I guess I'm the judge of that, at least for my church.  I probably have a different standard than you do.  But for instance, I tend to think of songs that are made up of just one verse and one chorus as being bad quality.  Is it too much to ask to put in another verse?  Or if the chorus of a song is the same phrase or words just repeated over and over.  These are what's known as "7-11 Songs."  You sing the same seven words eleven times in a row.  For example, I know two year old children who could write a better chorus than the one in this song.  We can do better.  We can write good and deep songs, and lots of them, because God gave us brains and talents to use in this process.  We do him and ourselves a disservice when we don't engage our God-given talents, abilities, and brains in the process of creating worship music.  

So there you have it, in brief.  Those are the four things I'm looking for when I look at new songs.  And to be fair, songs will meet these criteria to varying degrees.  Some songs are home runs, and some songs are stand-up doubles.

You might notice that none of my criteria include any notes about the style of worship songs.  That's because I don't really care too much about style.  The way I see it, if a song fits these criteria, then we can work with the style.  Plus style is such a fluid thing that changes all the time.  It would be foolish to judge a worship song on its musical style, and a song would never pass the test of having staying power if it were judged by itse musical style.  Plus the body is made up of all different kinds of people with all different kinds of taste.  A change in style is probably for the better most times.  That doesn't mean I'm insensitive to stylistic preferences, but to me it is of secondary importance.

It dawned on me that I don't think I've ever shared this process with anyone before, and there are undoubtedly people wondering how I make decisions about which songs to sing in worship, and even some who think that I'm terrible at selecting worship songs.  Well, for better or for worse, you can at least take comfort in the fact that I'm not just arbitrarily coming up with whatever strikes my fancy.  In fact, a lot of times we're doing songs that absolutely do not strike my fancy, but because I think they would be beneficial to the body of the church, we do them.  After all, it's not about me and what I like.  It's about what God likes.  And whatever I can do to lead the congregation toward pleasing God as a group on Sunday mornings is what I'm going to do.  

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cameroonian Connection

I had a fun experience today.

Since September I've been working on losing weight, and have been moderately successful in the endeavor.  This has precipitated a need for newer, smaller clothes, and has rendered my older, bigger clothes somewhat obsolete.  Since clothes for bigger (read: fat) people are, well, bigger than normal sized people clothes, they tend to be more expensive.  Significantly more expensive.  After all, there's more of us to cover, so more raw materials are needed.

Because of the expensive nature of my clothes, I figured I'd try to sell some of the ones I'm not using anymore on Craigslist, and kind of have my very own fat guy's online garage sale.  So I posted an ad with several pieces of clothes that I don't can't wear anymore.

A couple of days ago, I got a bite.  I connected with a gentleman through email and then by phone.  We made arrangements to meet together at my home today.  As I spoke with him on the phone, I noticed he had an accent, but I couldn't place it.  When he came to my door this afternoon, it was obvious that he was some sort of native African.  He was an older gentleman who walked with a cane and a limp, and had a great voice to go with his accent, and an overall very friendly disposition.

After he came in and started to look at the clothes I had for sale, and as the conversation flowed between the two of us, he shared that he was originally from Cameroon.  This tidbit led me to share with him that there were several people in my denomination who either had served as missionaries to Cameroon in the past, or were currently serving there.  We were able to talk a lot about it: why he left his native country, what he did there, his kids, his wife, his desire to some day return to his homeland, the cultural challenges he and his wife face in the U.S., and basically his whole life story.

It turns out that his reason for leaving Cameroon and his limp were related.  He was a journalist by trade in Cameroon, but got caught up in some scrapes with the current governmental regime in the country.  This led to some violence that was perpetrated against him, and in the process he injured his hip and would eventually need a replacement.  Immediately after this incident he left the country and never looked back.  His love for his homeland was evident, and he talked quite a bit about wanting to go back...someday.

As he talked some more about his native country, I relayed a bit of information that I had learned about Cameroon from some of our NAB missionaries when they have visited our church.  I told him about Dennis and Nancy Palmer, and their work at the Banso Baptist Hospital in Mbingo, Cameroon.

When I said "Mbingo" his eyes lit up, and he exclaimed, "You know Cameroon!"  It turns out that he knows all about the hospital and had a lot of positive things to say about it.  It was fun to talk about Cameroonian missions with this guy whom I've never met, who lived half a world away, but was now finding something in common with me in my living room.  It was fun.

As he left, he said, "I hope we meet again someday," and I said the same to him.  It was a fun meeting, and to think, it was brought about by nothing more than fat clothes and Craigslist!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Preschool Problems

Something happened today at my son's preschool that didn't sit well with me, and it's still not settling this evening, almost 12 hours later.

A few weeks ago we received a flyer in Ferg's backpack inviting our family to a preschool picnic after class one day.  All the students were invited to go to the local park with their parent(s), have an outdoor meal, and then play on the playground.  The Mrs. determined to take the day off from work so we could all attend.  Before the event, she told me to ask the teachers if siblings were allowed to come to the picnic too, in which case we would bring Hanburger too if it was OK.

The next time I picked up Ferg from class, I asked his lead teacher if it was OK that Hannah come to the picnic.  She looked at me with a blank stare, as though she had no idea what I was talking about.  "Uh, the picnic?" I said.  "We received a flyer in Jamie's backpack saying that there was a picnic scheduled for this Thursday."

"Oh!" she said, as though the light finally clicked on in her head.  "That's not a school function.  One of the mom's from the class decided to schedule a picnic with the kids, so she sent home the flyer."

"Oh, OK," said I, knowing then that Hannah could go to the picnic too.

Now cut to a week or so ago.  For the past few years my family has hosted a Backyard Bible Club (ByBC) in our home for a week in the summer.  We try to invite as many neighborhood kids as we can to hang out at our house, do some fun stuff, and learn about Jesus.  This year, since Jamie was in preschool, we decided it might be good for him to take some ByBC invitations to school and pass them out to his friends.

This, we thought, would be OK since something of a precedent was set by the mom sending home flyers for the picnic.  But we knew that it would most likely be inappropriate to ask the teachers to insert an invitation into each child's backpack.  So we made sure to stress with the Ferguson that he should pass out the invitations himself to his friends.  We were not asking the school to pass them out - he should pass them out himself.  That way, even though it is a religious event sponsored by a church, the school would not be endorsing it, and it would be completely student-led and initiated.

We planned for Jamie to pass the invitations out earlier this week, but the day he was going to do it he forgot the invitations in the car.  So we had to wait until today, Thursday, which also happens to be his last day of school for the year.  This morning, as I dropped Jamie off at school and put his backpack in his locker, I made sure to point out to him that the invitations were in there, and that when class was over he should pull them out and give them to his friends.  He was all set to do it, and he was excited to do it.

At the time for pickup, I was standing outside the classroom doors, waiting for Jamie to be excused.  The way they excuse the kids from class is to get them all ready (coats on, backpacks on, etc.) and then call them out one by one when their parents arrive to receive them.  I was standing outside the room, looking at all the kids through the window in the doors.  Then I saw Jamie with his backpack.  He looked inside and picked out the invitations, holding them up for one of his co-teachers to see.  He handed them to her, and she looked them, and then handed them off to the lead teacher.  The lead teacher then looked at the invitations, and proceeded to make a phone call to someone, presumably regarding the invitations that Jamie had produced.  After a few second call, the lead teacher handed the invitations back to the co-teacher, who proceeded to come out of the classroom and gave the invitations to me, saying, "He can't pass these out in the classroom, but he can pass them out when the kids have left class."

This was strange, I thought.  Why?  What's the difference?  "Oh well," I thought, "no reason to make a big deal out of it.  I'm sure they will let Jamie out first so he can stand by the door and hand the invitations out to the other kids as they exit the room."

But this was not the case.  Jamie was not the first to be excused.  Nor was he the second, or third, or fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh.  I didn't keep an exact count, but there were at least seven kids to leave the room before him.  By the time he got out of the room and I gave the invitations to him, more than half of the kids in the class had left.

But the bigger problem was that, by this time, he had become so frazzled by all of the drama surrounding the invitations, that he had completely lost all of his gumption for handing them out.  In fact, he refused to do so.  He wanted me to hand them out.

By this time, I was starting to get perturbed - not at Jamie, but at how the whole situation was unfolding.  Here was a kid who was excited to invite his friends to his Backyard Bible Club - of his own volition - and he was being thwarted and discouraged from doing so at every turn.  By the time we left, I was an unhappy pappy.

As I have reflected on the situation throughout the day, I have some questions regarding the situation.

First, was I wrong to assume that my child could independently hand out invitations to something at his house?  I know that some school districts don't allow any children to distribute any literature for any event or reason.  This could clearly not be the case at our school, though, since we were invited to a picnic by a mom from the class.  And more than that, that invitation came in our child's take-home folder.  Why is it OK to invite kids to a picnic via the take-home folder, but it's not OK for a kid to independently (not via the take-home folder) give out invitations to a Backyard Bible Club?  I would submit to you it is that the invitations Jamie was handing out contained four peculiar words: "Bible," "Jesus Christ," and "God."

Second, who did the lead teacher call?  And why did she feel the need to consult the higher ups?  I don't know.  I'd like to assume the best in this situation, but that's getting harder to do the more I think about how all this went down.

Third, why is it OK for Jamie to hand out the invitations outside the classroom but not inside, as the co-teacher told me?  How does a change of 10 feet make it permissible to invite people to a private religious function?

Fourth, how does a father explain this to his child?  This is a particularly tough situation, because Jamie really wanted to pass out the invitations, and he is wondering why his marvelous teachers (really, they are great) wouldn't let him pass out his invitations.  It's a sticky wicket that I'm still working through.  I'm sure we'll end up talking about it for a couple more days.

It would appear that my experience was not peculiar, as a quick internet search reveals several news stories and forums that talk about this same issue.  Take this one, for example, and be sure to read the comments.  It would seem that the majority of those commenting believe that as long as a religious flyer is distributed by the student and not by the school then there's no issue.  Hence the reason we told Jamie that he should be the one distributing the invitations and not giving them to his teachers to stuff into backpacks.

But it was not to be for us.  What a shame.  I feel bad for my son.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Those Who Mourn

I had the chance to fill the Riverview pulpit this past week and expound upon Matthew 5.4: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."  You can catch the sermon audio here.

Coming up on 8 years ago - and it's strange to say that, because it doesn't seem that long ago - my wife's father ended a long battle with various illnesses and infections that had plagued his body for years.  He had been in and out of the hospital for years, and had even had several brushes with death, but he was always able to pull through.  But not this time.  An infection took his life in his mid 50's.

The Mrs. and I had only been married for about two years at the time, and we were living with her parents and helping them to manage the house, so we were especially close to them.  I'm not sure if I knew how to handle it at the time, let alone lead my young wife through the grieving process of losing her father.  But those are situations that you don't really get practice for, and there are no do-overs after they are over.  You're just thrust into those situations.  You're not prepared for it, and it's hard.

This is something like what I think Jesus is talking about when he says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."  There are all kinds of things that cause people to mourn: death, unexpected and early death, disease, terminal illnesses, accidents, and so on and so forth.  All of these things cause us to grieve.

But Jesus says that in our grief is blessedness.  That's somewhat of a paradox.  We would prefer to have the blessedness without the mourning, but that's not what Jesus says.  When we mourn, our mourning can lead to comfort, and in this process we experience blessing.

Jesus would know.  He experienced all kinds of suffering in his life that caused  him to mourn.  In fact, Isaiah 53 describes him as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.  When Jesus arrived at the graveside of his friend Lazarus, the Bible says that "Jesus wept."  Ecclesiastes 3 says that there is "a time to mourn."  Life is hard.  Things happen, people die, accidents happen, terminal illnesses are diagnosed; relationships are severed, children rebel, kids have terrible debilitating diseases, etc.  All of this is suffering, which causes us grief.

But one thing that we need to remember when we think about suffering and grief is that the Bible links all of the things listed above to the existence of sin in the world.  Adam and Eve sinned, thereby transmitting their sin nature to all subsequent generations of human beings.  The world is a broken place full of broken people doing sinful things.  It's a recipe for someone to get hurt, and people do.  Ever since then, all suffering and disease has been either the direct or indirect consequence of sin.  People die because of sin, indirectly, because sin brought about death.  And some people die as a direct consequence of sin.  We sin, and the consequence of the sin is damaging, sometimes even to the point of death.

People die because of sin; accidents happen because of sin; we become discouraged and lonely because of sin; we experience illness and disease because of sin; relationships are severed because of sin; there is unrighteousness in the world that causes suffering and grief because of sin.  Sin exists, and the effects of sin are real.  Sin is why we mourn.

But Christians do not mourn as the world mourns.  No, we do not grieve as those who have no hope because we believe that Jesus Christ died and rose again.  This is the comfort that Jesus promises in Matthew 5.4.  If sin is the root cause of our suffering and our grief, then the comfort that we must receive must deal with sin.  There is a gospel of hope that tempers our mourning, and in this hope is true satisfaction and joy - the blessedness that Jesus says will come to those who mourn.

Why can we have hope in the midst of grief?  Not because of a naturally cheerful disposition; not because time heals all wounds; not because someone empathized with me and said some kind words.  No, we are comforted because we have a risen Savior who has defeated death and conquered the grave, and the same power that accomplished that is at work in those who believe.

Seriously, read 1 Corinthians 15.55-57 and Romans 6.6-11 for yourself.  2 Corinthians 7.10 says "godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death."  Why does godly grief lead one to salvation?  Because it points you to Jesus!  The one who can deal with your sin and eliminate its eternal affect on you.

When we mourn the effects of sin in the world, our grief is tempered by the knowledge that we have a Savior who has overcome the power of sin.  Sin can no longer have a permanent effect on us.  It can still hurt us in this life and give us reason to be sorrowful and weep.  But it cannot damage us eternally.  We do not escape the effects of sin in this life when we trust the Savior, but the reach of sin is limited.  There will come a day when it will all be done away with and there will be no more suffering, no more tears.  There will be no accidents; there will be no disease or terminal illnesses; no one will ever be given a window of time in which to live; people won't get hurt; there will be no pain, no suffering, and no mourning.  That knowledge alone should bring comfort to those who mourn.

A family at the church discovered several weeks ago that their youngest child had Leukemia.  Understandably, this news rocked their world, and many tears were shed.  The young boy's prognosis is good and hopeful, but he has a three year treatment plan ahead of him, much will be unpleasant.

So how does this beatitude speak to them?  It is good and right for them to mourn, and they have a hard road ahead of them.  They mourn the reality that they live in a fallen and broken world that has sickness and disease in it.  They mourn the pain that will be brought about by this disease; they mourn the pain that will be brought about by the remedy for the disease.  But they also have faith in a risen Savior who has power over all sickness and disease, because he has the power over the sin that brought the disease into the world in the first place.  And the affect that this disease has on their family can only go as far as God lets it.  Moreover, God has ordained that there will come a day where all sickness and disease will be wiped out.  It will be done away with.  There will be no more leukemia, no more cancer.  No more tears, no more diagnoses or treatments.

Do you think that knowledge brings this family a measure of hope?  Imagine going through something like this without know that Jesus has defeated death and sin, and that he is sovereign over disease.  That is hopelessness.  But we know that Jesus is who he says he is, and that he can do what he has said he can do, and so we are blessed even when we are grieving.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

How to Bring Biblical Ideas to the Public Square

I've never claimed to be on the cutting edge when it comes to current events of cultural commentary, and this post is more proof of that.  A few weeks ago, Jason Collins of the Washington Wizards came out as the first openly gay professional basketball player.  His coming out created quite the hubbub in the sports world and in the media.

Even more of a stir was created when Chris Broussard, an analyst for ESPN, called homosexuality a sin on live TV while talking about Collins' coming out on a live show on the network.  Calls were immediately made for Broussard to be fired, and my Facebook news feed was clogged up with outrage about Broussard's comments.  The entire interview is below.  I highly commend it to you.  Broussard's comments on the biblical view of homosexuality begin around 8:30.

Even though this is old news by now, it's worth some attention here, I think, because what we see in this interview are the marching orders for how Christians should bring biblical ideas to the public square.  Chris Broussard masterfully brings the biblical worldview to bear on this discussion, and does so politely, lovingly, and yet firmly.  Let's think for a few minutes about what he does right in this interview.

1. He appeals to the Bible as his authority.  This is something that most Christians have failed to do in this debate, and when it has been done, it has mostly been done poorly.  Unfortunately most Christians are quick to run to Leviticus and misuse Old Testament passages as proof that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Broussard does not do this.  He just says that the acceptance of homosexuality as a biblically viable way of life is an affront to the message of scripture.  Why does he hold these views?  Because the Bible tells him so; not a study, not some statistics, but the Bible.  The eternal, never-chaning word of God upon which we base our salvation.

2. He identifies sin as being open rebellion toward God.  Not only does Broussard appeal to the Bible, but he unapologetically identifies homosexuality as sin - as something that separates people from God.  Not because they are unlovable or because they are somehow worse than other people, but because it is sin.  Welcome to the human condition.

3. He mentions the name of Jesus Christ.  While this may seem rather insignificant, you won't find many Christians in venues like the one Broussard was in who will actually insist on the exclusivity of Jesus Christ.  This, in a roundabout way, opens the door to the gospel.  More on that in a minute.

4. He does not differentiate between homosexual sin and heterosexual sin.  This is important, and something that Christians should be emphasizing when they enter into the conversation on homosexuality.  Ray Comfort always said that when he witnesses to homosexuals he doesn't even bring the issue up.  Why not?  Because there's enough to convict people of their sin without even having to bring it up.  In other words, people are big enough sinners that they can be convicted for their lies, theft, murder of the heart, lust, dishonoring of parents, etc., that you really don't even need to bring it up.  Or if we do bring it up, we need to make sure to stress that homosexuality a deviation from the biblical prescription for sexuality, as is lust, fornication, adultery, promiscuity, etc.

5. He promotes tolerance - true tolerance.  What is tolerance?  Two people disagreeing with each other in a civil manner.  It is not forcing people who disagree with you to abandon their convictions and adopt the status quo and then calling them bigots when they disagree with you.  When we speak about tolerance in the public square, we should openly reiterate what tolerance actually is.

Another interesting thing to note is what I believe to be Broussard's very fair and unbiased assessment of this situation during the first half of the interview.  It's interesting that Broussard's comments caused such a stir, considering that most of them were fair and unbiased.  He only offered his views because it was relevant to the conversation the guys in the interview were having.  And yet his head is being called for.

The other interviewee, who is openly gay, has nothing but respect for Chris Broussard, even though they are on opposite ends of the spectrum on this issue.  But yet (gasp!) they get along!  They can have a conversation peacefully without accusing one another of being hate-filled bigots!  The relationship that these guys have is one of tolerance - true tolerance - not the kind that says "either agree with me or shut up."  Apparently the openly gay guy on the other end of the interview wasn't offended.  Why were so many others?

If Broussard's presentation on this program could have been improved in any way, it simply would have been to reiterate that, although the Bible does say that homosexuality is sin, and that sin separates people from God, there is good news: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief.  He saves homosexuals and heterosexuals who are steeped in sin.  But let's not be too hard on Broussard for this omission, because it is one that Christians have made almost every time they come into the public square.  It seems that we are very quick to denounce homosexuality as sin, but are less quick to affirm that Jesus saves sinners.  This must be a part of our conversation.  After all, we're gospel people.  We revel in the forgiveness of sin and application of grace to our lives.  Let's talk about how Jesus made us new, even though we were utterly hopeless and lost in sin, and how he can do that for anyone who comes to him.

I should know, he did it for me.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Turkey Shoot

Last fall I posted about my recent enjoyment of pheasant hunting.  About four years ago that interest expanded into turkey hunting as well.  So, for the past four years I've had the pleasure of pheasant hunting in the fall, and turkey hunting in the spring.  As time has gone by, I've equipped myself more for both sports, and I actually have quite a good turkey hunting setup going, including my own ground blind, call, camouflage, and pretty much anything else one needs to hunt Ben Franklin's favorite bird.

So far, in my four years of turkey hunting, I have been successful once - my first year - which definitely set a bad precedent for each succeeding year.  But that's the way it goes.  I still enjoy the idea of potentially shooting a turkey even if I don't get one.

My trip this year brought me to Black River Falls, WI.  A friend of mine has some land there, and it turns out that out of state turkey licenses aren't too expensive.  After making our preparations, we took off and set up the blinds on a cold and wet Thursday evening.  As I mentioned previously, I was able to get my own blind this year, purchased with a gift card that I had received for my previous birthday, leaving the cost of the blind to me to be no more than $2.50.  I was pleased.

The first morning was cold and windy.  Temperatures were forecast to be around 70 for that day, so I dressed lightly - too lightly.  It was a cold morning, but thankfully things warmed up throughout the day - so much so that I was able to take a nap between 2-3 PM.

A tom turkey fanning out as
he walks with his hen.
Click to enlarge.
On the first day I saw a total of seven turkeys - three groups of two, and a lone hen who wandered by my blind in the afternoon.  Hens are off limits in the spring season, so I couldn't take her.  Four of them were approximately 150 yards away from my blind - much too far away to attempt a shot.  And when I tried to lure them with my slate call, most of them just looked my way but didn't find the sound tempting enough to investigate.  I did get one tom turkey to fan out though, which is always fun to see.  The picture doesn't do it justice, as like I said, I
was about 150 yards away.  I could see it more clearly in person.  But even though he fanned out and showed off for what he thought was an interested female, he didn't come my way. Another two were about 200 yards away from me in the late afternoon.  They likewise were more interested in the prospect of finding food than in a hen, so they kept walking.

My big break cam early on Saturday morning.  I thought it couldn't get much colder than it was on Friday morning, but it was.  And a lot more windy.  It's funny how, when you're hunting, you're trying to pay attention to the landscape around you, to watch for movement, and to become familiar with the land.  Hunting in a blind is a peculiar thing.  The goal is to blend in with the environment to the extent that the wildlife regards the blind as just a regular part of the land, and is therefore comfortable enough to walk on by.

It also needs to be noted that hunting can be a rather boring activity.  There are hours and hours spent being alone and quiet, with nothing much to do.  You can't really do anything else, actually, because you want to be focused on your surroundings.  On Saturday morning, it was around 7:30 AM, and I had been in my blind for about two and a half hours by then.  I took a scan of the area around my blind, and then began to day dream and look around at things, as is want to happen.  Throughout this time, I just casually looked in front of me, and there were three turkeys, right next to my hen decoy, directly in front of me.  I quickly grabbed my range finder to see the exact distance: 25 yards.

By this time, the turkeys began to wander away, seemingly realizing that my hen was just a pretender and not interested in mating.  I rummaged for my call, and began to squawk.  They froze, put their heads up and looked around.  Then they all began to come back to my decoy - back into my sights.

I had set up my blind next to a wood line overlooking a food plot, facing east.  This was a great spot, except it had one drawback - I was looking directly into the sun.  This meant that I was seeing more turkey silhouettes than actual turkeys.  With the bright light in my eyes, I wasn't able to notice any distinguishing features on the birds that would clue me in to whether or not they were male or female.  Tom turkeys (mature males) have what's called a beard - a long tuft of coarse hair protruding from their chest.  Hens do not have this.  Jakes (immature males) have very little beard, if any at all.  The older a turkey gets, the longer his beard grows.

What I knew for sure was that none of the three turkeys I was looking at had beards.  This meant that they were either hens, which were off limits, or jakes, which were fair game.  But with the sun the way it was, I just couldn't tell.  I decided not to take the shot rather than risk shooting a hen.

The trip ended that afternoon, and I left empty handed.  That's OK.  It was still fun to go, and it was a thrill to see the turkeys, especially those three up close.  I really enjoy turkey hunting, and hope to make it a regular part of my year.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Thus & Such, Vol. 28

1. "The fact that Psalms [don't] include a soundtrack or notation clues us into what God values most in our worship songs."  Bob Kauflin on the use of words in worship music.

2. "Seeing my children struggle with sin makes me squirmy."  Here's a thoughtful reflection on trusting God with the salvation of children.  

3. How do you end a prayer?  With the word "amen," right?  What does that mean?  Why do we do that?  Kevin DeYoung answers the question.

4. "When the law makes no sense, and is capriciously applied in a lottery-like fashion, the underlying logic of the whole system is totalitarian."  Doug Wilson offers a poignant (as usual) reflection on the hypocrisy of charging a kidnapper who induced miscarriages in his victim with murder, while abortion is not only allowed, but celebrated.

5. Everyone has a story about "When I was a kid, my mom shoved us out the door until morning and didn't expect us back until supper time."  We usually tell anecdotes like this as we bemoan the new overprotective parenthood that has gripped parents in my generation.  Now kids have to wear helmets everywhere, have a GPS strapped to them, and can't do anything even remotely risky.  We all say we appreciate our loose upbringing, but then why don't we raise our own kids that way?  Turns out there's a website that's encouraging you to do things like drop your kids off at the park and tell them to find their own way home.  They claim that worries about danger are over-exaggerated.  Check out this whole website devoted to "Free Range Kids."

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Time to Mourn

Today was a landmark day in Minnesota, as it was the day that the state senate voted to legalize same-sex marriage.  The bill has only to be signed by Governor Dayton, which he will do within the week, and the law will take effect August 1, 2013.

This news comes during the week in which I am preparing a sermon on Matthew 5.4: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."  And in Ecclesiastes 3.4 it says there is "a time to mourn."

There is reason to mourn in Minnesota on this day, I believe.

There is reason to mourn, because the mayor of St. Paul apparently has the free reign to do this, an utterly and blatantly divisive and irresponsible thing to do, regardless of how you feel on the issue.

There is reason to mourn, because so many professing Christians are either falsely converted, or are so ignorant in the faith, that they believe homosexuality is a biblically viable lifestyle, exposing what seems to be a significant lack of good teaching (or an abundance of bad teaching) by the church.

There is reason to mourn, because I can't talk about this issue without my peers thinking I'm a hateful bigot.  There is reason to mourn, because this reality is discouraging me from bringing my opinions to the marketplace of ideas - something that should never happen in a free society.

There is reason to mourn, because our society has come to the point that it believes that moral truth is decided by a majority opinion, and not by God.

There is reason to mourn, because this issue has become such a political hot button that it was shoved through the legislature as quickly as possible while other issues, many of which are arguably more worthy of the time and attention of our lawmakers, remain unaddressed.

There is reason to mourn, because the people of our state (and our country) seem to be less and less able to think rationally and logically, and instead are prone make decisions based on pragmatism and emotion.  There is reason to mourn, because at recently as 5 years ago the vast majority of our state and country were vehemently opposed to gay marriage.  What happened?  How was such a drastic change accomplished in such a short period of time?  I suspect it has something to do with the reason listed above.

There is reason to mourn, because it has become increasingly clear that God is removing his hand of grace from the collective mind of our country.

There is reason to mourn, because this legislation is further proof that much of the modern American church has failed in its job of proclaiming the gospel of grace.

There is reason to mourn, because the legalization of gay marriage will have untold and largely unknown effects on the worldview development of children, including my own.

There is reason to mourn, because the legalization of gay marriage is the first step down a slippery slope toward the validation of other sexually deviant practices, further confusing the idea of marriage and further encouraging people to venture deeper and deeper into depraved and destructive lifestyles that hurt the people in them, spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

There is reason to mourn, because the legalization of gay marriage is the a new frontier for the infringement of religious liberty in our land.

There you have it.  I think there are several reasons why this is a time of mourning, and not just as Americans or Minnesotans, but as Christians - as the church.

At the beginning of this post I referenced Matthew 5.4, in which Jesus says, "Blessed are those who mourn..."  But he doesn't end there.  He speaks a word of comfort as well.  But for right now I'm going to let the sting of the reality that is gay marriage sit with me a while, and allow it to sting.  It needs to sting all of us: the church, the world, and everyone in between.  There is a time for mourning, and this is it.

And let us all take heed of James 4.8-10 - me, you, and everyone else in our state and our country: "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Be wretched and mourn and weep.  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you."

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Rob Bell and the Couch

In an earlier post I described an experience I had in our youth group meeting a few weeks ago when a student realized just how influential factors in her life were in the process of her reading and understanding the Bible and thinking about God.  The example I used was that of a couch: we see the world in a certain way because our culture has couches.  Yeah, that sounds strange but I'm not going to rehash the whole post here.  You can read it for yourself, and you should if you want to understand anything else I'm going to say in this post, as I'll refer to the couch from time to time.

In the mean time, Rob Bell has recently endorsed homosexuality as a biblically viable way of life, and has recently engaged in a debate with a Brit named Andrew Wilson (see video below).  I have no idea who Wilson is, but he is posed against Bell on the topic, and believes that the Bible condemns homosexuality (as it does with all deviant forms of sexual behavior, such as lust, adultery, fornication, promiscuity, etc.).  The two go at it on this particular issue for about 20 minutes.

I must say that it's not a particularly entertaining bit, nor is there much of any positive nature to take from it.  Rob Bell is so incredibly vague in his answers that there isn't much takeaway.  And his use of vulgarity isn't much appreciated either (warning: Rob lets slip a "BS" in the middle there somewhere).

But there is a very important part of this debate that has to do with my couch story that I began with.  Around 11:30 in the video, Bell appeals to his experience with gay friends, and says that same-sex relationships are not sinful, and are, in fact, part of how life is and how the church is.  His challenger responds by calling Bell on his appeal to anecdotal evidence and instead asserts that God gets to define what is OK and what is sinful, and that he tells us so in the Bible.

Bell comes back by basically stating that Wilson's view of same-sex relationships is based on his own interpretation of scripture, and is therefore flawed and invalid.  Wilson says it's not just his interpretation of one or two passages of scripture, but also the whole "sweep" of scripture that informs his opinion.  And Bell comes back again with another question: "Your interpretation of the 'sweep' of scripture?"

What Rob Bell is basically doing is saying that Andrew Wilson can't get an objective view of what the Bible says about homosexuality because of the couch he's sitting on.  In other words, Bell would posit that Wilson can't know what the Bible says about homosexuality because of all of the influences that are constantly pushing and pulling him one way or another.  What is astonishingly ironic about this is statement is that Bell doesn't realize that he's in the same boat.  That is, if Wilson can't get an objective handle on what the Bible says about homosexuality so that he knows it is condemned, how does Bell assume he has such an objective means by which to declare it righteous?  To put it in my couch language, if Wilson's knowledge about couches has skewed his understanding of homosexuality, hasn't Bell's couch skewed his view as well?

Don't get me wrong: I affirm the reality that we are pushed and pulled in all kinds of different directions as a result of being linear, cultural beings.  Things affect us.  We change based on our environment.  Our ideas and thinking are shaped by the people and events around us.  Even the way we read and understand the Bible is affected by these influences.  I get it.  But the question we're asking here is this: do those variables preclude us from being able to grasp objective truth?  Wilson would say no; Bell would say yes.  To which I would follow up by asking, "How do you know that Rob?  Is it true that a person can't know truth?  If it is, then your argument is invalid.

Rob Bell is basically stating that his position is right.  If you disagree with him, he will say that you are wrong because you have been influenced by your culture and your opinion is shaped by those influences.  Rob, if we're going to play this game, we all have play by the same rules.  If my view is flawed by my influences, so is yours.  Let's at least be honest.  If we have to play this game your way, then at least abide by your own rules.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Supremacy of Christ

This is worth 19 minutes of your time.  Seriously.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Couch Makes All the Difference

 A few weeks ago in our youth group Sunday School class we were talking about how the different influences in our lives shape and form the way we think about God, the gospel, and the way we read scripture.  The kids went through some exercises to try and identify the things in their lives that have shaped their thinking and reading of the Bible.  As the kids sorted through things like their family influences, the way they think about money, their parents, etc., I would constantly follow up on their reflection with this question: "And do you think that is going to influence the way you read the Bible?" The answer was always "Yes," to the point where one of the students said, "You keep asking that question, and the answer's always 'yes.'"

"That's the point," said I.  "If nothing else, it's important to realize how everything in your life shapes and influences the way you think about God and read the Bible."

"Evertyhing?" said another student.  "Not everything.  This couch doesn't influence the way I think about God and read the Bible."

"Oh, but it does," I said.  "Compare your experience of living your whole life sitting on couches to someone who lives in a culture where couches don't exist.  The two of you would have a drastically different worldview.  One sits down whenever she wants to, and always knows there's a soft, comfortable place to sit.  The other doesn't have this luxury, and always has to sit on the floor.  Your worldview is going to be different than hers.  Yours includes the existence of couches.  The other's doesn't.  The simple existence of a couch is enough to shape your worldview and influence the way you see the world."

It was fun to see a wave of understanding wash over the students I was with.

What does a couch have to do with the Bible?  Nothing, directly, but it's a good example of how we are shaped and formed in ways that we don't even realize.  Things that we have taken for granted - that we don't even realize exist because we've become so used to them - play a huge role in our understanding of who God is and what he is like, and in our comprehension of his word to us - even couches.

It's like the old story of two young fish swimming up the stream and they come across an older fish who says to them, "Hey boys, how's the water?"  The two young fish go swimming a little further, and then one says to the other, "What's water?"

In the same way that a fish doesn't realize he's swimming in water because it's so common to him, we don't realize we're sitting on couches, driving cars, eating three meals a day, living in a house, having indoor plumbing, drinking clean water, using the internet, exercising religious freedom, talking on a cell phone, listening to music, watching TV, enjoying close family relationships, eating at McDonald's, going to school, going to work, wearing clean clothes, playing video games, running on a treadmill, mowing the lawn, playing baseball, or any number of other things. 

All of these things influence the way we see the world, and influence the way we think about God and understand the Bible.  But for the most part, we just don't realize it.  

Having kids brings a whole new appreciation for the ways in which we are formed.  My kids are picking up all kinds of influences in nothing more than the little things that I don't even notice, such as, couches.  Or candy.  Or whatever.  It's amazing what kids pick up, and it's probably even more amazing (and scary) when you think about what kids pick up that the don't even realize they're picking up.  

The main goal of practicing good biblical hermeneutics is to have a knowledge of those things we are bringing to the text when we read it.  In other words, when we read the Bible, we need to remember all of the ways we have been formed and do our best to not allow those things to skew our understanding of the Bible.  This is a losing battle, to be sure, and try as we might we will never be able to complete separate ourselves from all of the influences that dominate our worldviews.

In seminary I learned that the big word for this is self-differentiation - the ability to step outside of oneself and see oneself in truth.  That is, how things really are, and why we think the ways we do, and to see those things in our lives that have shaped us and formed us through our experiences.  If you take all of these influences, you can, I think, easily be discouraged into thinking that everything in your life is skewed by your biased view of the world.  This is true and admittedly it doesn't offer a very true and honest appraisal of life.  

But the Christian can find hope in the reality that God plans and ordains our experiences, and is even sovereign over the ways those experiences form us.  So are we influenced by couches?  Yes, but no more or less than God intends for us to be.  There are also some things that God has put in our path in order for us to be formed or shaped in a certain way that is good for us.  To be sure, some of the things that have influenced us are good, and some of the presuppositions we bring to our thinking and reading of the Bible are good (such as the presupposition that the Bible is God's word and that everything in it is true).  

So in a sense, as we think about the ways we have been formed and are influenced by the world and everything around us, and as we endeavor to shed those things as we seek to worship God in spirit and in truth, we also need to realize that God has given us those experiences uniquely and sovereingly.  

In other words, we can praise God for the couch as we think about how it has shaped our worldview.  

Friday, May 3, 2013

Reflections on the Children Desiring God Conference

Every two years Children Desiring God holds a national conference that draws attendees from all over the world.  People come to learn and be encouraged by speakers and seminar presenters, all driven by a desire for the glory of God to be passed on to subsequent generations.  There are plenary sessions and seminars covering dozens of topics.  Unfortunately I'm only allowed to attend four seminars, although I would have liked to be able attend them all.  The seminars I attended today were very informative, and I have one more to go to tomorrow which I'm looking forward to.

Anyway, here are a just a few brief reflections from this day at the CDG conference.

1. Being 1 of 2000 people singing worship songs is an amazing experience.  Each day of the conference begins with music and a plenary session.  It's phenomenal to hear 2000 conference attenders singing to the same Lord with passion and conviction.  It makes me think of this albeit on a much smaller scale.  It's something everyone should experience this side of heaven, because once you get to heaven it'll be all you know, except infinitely better.

2. The church is an amazing thing.  If you're not a part of the church (i.e., not a Christian) you'll never know what it's like to walk into a room full of 2000 people and feel rather at home.  I didn't know anyone else at the conference personally (flying solo this time around) and yet there's an automatic identification with everyone else, if for no other reason than that we were united under the banner of Christ.  We were there because we love him, we love people, and we want to see his name made great in our times and places.  Is there any other entity on earth that can boast such a reality?  I can't think of any.  What a marvelous testimony to the world, when people from different backgrounds, countries, and experiences can have nothing in common, but yet have everything in common.

3. God has blessed the church with faithful, amazingly brilliant people.  One of the great things about attending a conference like this is just soaking up the wisdom of godly people who are in the process of going before you.  They have much wisdom and insight to share, and it behooves people like me to sit at their feet and learn.  David Michael, one of the main movers and shakers of CDG, was talking about some thinking he was doing regarding family ministry in his ministry context, and I was just blown away by the depth, yet simplicity, of some of the ideas he was sharing with our group.  Why hadn't I thought of that?  Another guy, Bruce Ware, led a seminar on leading children to know and love God by knowing and loving theology.  He led us through a simple formula he had adapted from scripture which was a simple, yet an astoundingly profound observation.  Thank God for the brains he has blessed people with, and their willingness to share their wisdom.

4. God's providence is an amazing thing.  One of the seminars I attended today was on including children with disabilities in the classroom.  It was led by a woman named Mary Horning.  Her oldest child was born with a rare syndrome (I can't remember the name of it), and she shared how this absolutely devastated her.  She shared quite a few of her struggles and ways that she has grown and learned to trust God throughout this process.  Her daughter is now 25 and has written a book on God's sovereignty in disability.  Mary then went on to lead a session on how to love like Jesus when ministering to people and families touched by disability.  It was not lost on me that when she gave birth to her disabled daughter, she probably never saw herself as leading seminars on loving like Jesus and facilitating disability ministry, blessing the people who were there listening.  But there she was.  Coincidence?  I think not.

5. I have much to learn, and a long ways to grow.  There is a tendency in ministry (at least with myself, and maybe this is true of all professions) to feel like you've arrived.  We get our degrees, do our studying, put in our time, and think we know it all.  It's a humbling thing to rub shoulders with people who can wipe the intellectual floor with me, not to mention with people who are so deeply passionate about the things of God it makes my faith look like a tiny pebble.  It's good to be humbled, and it's one of the ways that God uses people to encourage us and challenge us.  For example, David Michael was telling our group about a five month sabbatical he was given a couple years ago in which he had decided he would use to memorize the book of Ephesians.  Yes, memorize.  Put bluntly, memorizing Ephesians would not have been at the top of my list for a five month sabbatical.  But then I have to ask myself: why not?  That's a pretty remarkable thing.  I remember him reciting at at the last conference, word for word.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Thus & Such, Vol. 27

1. As an introvert, I appreciated this thoughtful reflection on introversion.  I can identify a lot with what the author writes: "But I need to remember why I'm wired that way [as an introvert].  It's good that I enjoy being an introvert, but my enjoyment is not the highest goal of my existence.  God's glory is.  And that often means doing things that are uncomfortable, unexpected, and desired, working against my wiring when necessary as a (hopefully) faithful bearer of Gods image in the world."

2. One area that I've been thinking about recently is about how parenthood changes parents.  So often parents are only concerned about forming their children through their parenting, but they often neglect the reality that they are also being formed by their parenting as well.  In fact, God uses parenting to make us more like Jesus.  "God uses parenthood to strip away our independence and the sin that keeps us from abiding in him.  My true need wasn't to find the perfect 'get your child to sleep' system or the best potty training program or even the top ten ways to get my kids to clean up after themselves, rather it was to see my desperate ned to rely on the grace of God."

3. In our house, children's Bibles are everywhere.  We have plenty of storybook Bibles that we use to teach our kids basic biblical stories and truth.  I've always been wary of these books though.  I don' want to trivialize the Bible, or present stories as fairy tales, which some of these books can often do.  I think our favorite children's Bible is the ESV Family Bible, which has magnificent illustrations, and includes the actual words of scripture, rather than an author's paraphrase.  Anyway, here's a very long and thorough article that addresses the positive and negative aspects of using children's Bibles to teach stories.  As the author points out, there are always parts of the Bible left out, and the author's view inserted in.  Not that that's necessarily bad, but it's at least something to be aware of.

4. "Great amounts of time get invested in helping young people negotiate the choppy waters of early adulthood, middle-aged people work their way through the challenges of marriage, family and career, and older persons figure out meaning late in life sometimes without much-loved spouses, declining health, and shrinking numbers of living peers.  Pastors and elders mistakenly think they must become masters of each stage of life, counsel people through every opportunity and difficulty, and be there in every circumstance.  But, actually, the Bible instructs the pastor to teach the congregation to be there for one another and does so by tying the generations together so that the built-in expertise of old age gets leveraged for every younger generation.  It's a beautiful thing."