Thursday, December 22, 2016

Remembering Stifter

Several weeks ago I was perusing my Facebook account and noticed that several of my friends from high school were all changing their profile pictures to images of themselves with another former classmate of mine named Andy Stifter.  None of them were commenting on the pictures, but it seemed odd to me that they would all change their profile pictures to images of themselves and Andy.  I later learned that Andy went missing while on his paddle board the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  He had gone out on his own to take photographs of wildlife from the water.  An immense search effort was marshaled, but to no avail, and the worst was feared.  On Tuesday of this week, 25 days after Andy disappeared, his body was spotted by an ice fisherman using an underwater camera to search for fish.  This is the second acquaintence of mine that has died in as many months.

Andy leaves behind a wife, two children, and another on the way.  I can only imagine the depth of their loss and grief, and for the little one yet to be born who will never know his or her dad.  What a tragedy.  Thankfully, a gofundme page was started and as of this writing more than $85,000 has been contributed toward Andy's family.  Although such a large amount of money can never replace Andy, I'm glad that his family is feeling the support of his friends and relatives and neighbors, and even strangers.

I first met Andy in elementary school, I think.  We became acquaintances at that time, and would go on through high school together.  Stifter was an extremely funny guy.  I wouldn't describe him as a class clown, but he was witty and just generally really funny.  I remember one semester he and I were in a class together, and it must have been either a remedial class or just a low-level class that we took to fill up credits, because I think he and I were the only ones in our grade in that class.  I do remember, though, that the class was taught by Ms. Lund, and when she would get on us for goofing off, talking, or laughing, he'd say, "Ms. Lund, we ain't causin' no ruckus!"  I guess you had to be there.  It was always a great time, and I recall looking forward to that class each day because he would crack me up.  He had a dead-pan delivery that was perfect.

But my most prominent memories of Andy are from the summer of 1993 (or was it 94?) - the summer before 7th grade.  He and I ended up on the same baseball team - the Chicago White Sox - and it was a summer to remember (I've written about some of my memories of that team here).  What I haven't mentioned before was that Andy was a huge part of that team's success.  Neither of us made the traveling team that year, but we went on to go undefeated, both in city league play and even when our coach shopped us around to traveling tournaments.  Our team - a city team - beat up on traveling teams.  We were that good.

Two things about Andy's involvement on that team stand out to me.  The first is a practice that we had.  We were scrimmaging and Andy came up to bat.  He hit a single and ran to first base.  On the next pitch he took off for second.  The catcher threw the ball down and short-hopped the covering infielder, and the ball bounced up and hit Andy right above his right eye as he was sliding into the base.  "Aaaaggh!" he cried.  "Why does this always have to happen to ME?!"  I remember him emphasizing the word "me" really loudly, and it was actually pretty funny in the moment.  He seemed more upset that he got hit in the face than hurt by it.  The next day at school - no joke - the imprint of the stitches on the ball was still visible just above his eyebrow.

Another thing I remember about Andy from that team was that he was an exceptional outfielder for a 13-14 year old kid, or however old we were back then.  Contrary to what you might think, measuring and catching a fly ball is actually very challenging.  Looks can be very deceiving, and the ball can easily change directions based on the wind or spin of the ball.  But Andy was great at it.  He would measure the ball perfectly, make a clean catch, and even put himself in position to make a throw to the infield if someone was on base.

I'll always appreciate my time with Andy, even though I haven't spoken to or seen him since graduation.  May God bless his family during this hard time.

Monday, December 19, 2016

3 Reasons to Go to Church on Christmas Sunday

I once heard a presentation from a preacher that suggested that Christians should move their celebration of the Christmas holiday to July.  After all, the celebration of Jesus' birth isn't directly tied to December 25 (Jesus was not born on Christmas day).  His reasoning for this was mostly because it has become to easy to get lost in cultural aspects of the Christmas season and to miss a meaningful celebration of the birth of Christ.  If Christmas were in July, we wouldn't be so wrapped up in gift giving (no pun intended), family gatherings, parties, cookies, and everything else that comes with the cultural celebration of Christmas.  If Christmas were in July, he reasoned, we could focus entirely on the purpose of the holiday - celebrating the incarnation - and save the cultural celebration for December.  

While I don't think I'd like to move the celebration of Christmas to July, I think this preacher was on to something: all too frequently we put other things in front of Jesus when we remember his birth each year.  It's easy for us to focus on "cultural Christmas" rather than the true purpose of the holiday.  

No church on Christmas day?

This reality is made apparent every six years or so when Christmas day falls on a Sunday.  Many churches cancel their Sunday worship services so their members can focus their time and energies on family gatherings and all of the things that come with it, such as gifts, meals, parties, and so on.  After all, it's difficult to open the presents, eat a Christmas meal, and spend enough time reminiscing with family and friends and go to church all on the same day.  And so, in order for people to "celebrate" Christmas, many church's Sunday services are frequently canceled when they fall on Christmas day.  

This trend is, in my estimation, a bad one, and one against which we should push back.  Allow me to offer you three reasons why you should go to church this Christmas Sunday.  

3 reasons to go to church on Christmas day

1. It's Sunday!  The main reason you should to to church this Christmas Sunday is because that's the usual day we gather to worship.  Sunday is the Lord's day, and we gather on that day to celebrate, remember, and worship him.  This tradition has existed since the resurrection, 2000 years ago.  Far be it from us to break it for the sake of having more time to open presents.  Even if you're out of town visiting family, find a way to get to church and continue on the tradition of worshipping on the Lord's day, in the Lord's house, with the Lord's people. 

2. Going to church on Christmas day is counter-cultural.  As described above, our culture has mostly appropriated Christmas as a secular holiday.  Taking time to put the cultural celebration of Christmas on the back burner and focus on its primary object (Jesus) is a way for you to buck the trend and speak into our materialistic culture and remind it that there is a reason for this season, and it's not gifts, family, or anything other than Jesus.  Our culture wants us to focus on all of the physical aspects of Christmas.  Instead, be counter-cultural and focus on Jesus by going to church. 

3. Because Christmas is about Jesus, and that's it.  Despite what our culture says or what you may think, Christmas is only about Jesus.  Sure, we gather together with friends and family at this time of year, and we exchange gifts and eat Christmas dinners, but none of those things are what Christmas is all about.  Those things are all good, and when understood correctly they point us to Jesus, but they are not the focus of this holiday.  Christmas is only and all about Jesus.  If we are tempted to put Jesus on pause so we have enough time for the cultural aspects of Christmas, we've simply missed the boat.  Don't let the culture tempt you from taking your focus from where it should be.  

So whether you're at home or you've gone over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house, get to church on Christmas day!  I hope to see you there, this Sunday. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

2016 Books

The end of the year is a great time, because it's in these concluding weeks that prominent bloggers begin to publish their "Best Books of the Year" lists.  Most of the books that I read come from the recommendation of blogs that I read, so this time of year will literally fill up my reading list for the next few months.

In that spirit, I thought I might make my own list of the best books that I've read this year.  Actually, I need to clarify: for the past couple of years, I don't usually read books - I listen to them.  Audiobooks have revolutionized the way that I take in books.  I love listening to books when I'm walking, driving, cleaning, or doing anything else that doesn't require thoughtful attention that will draw me away from what I'm listening to.  That being said, this is a list of the best audiobooks that I've "read" this past year.  Reader beware: some of these books have disturbing content, although I must say that I didn't go into them knowing about that content.  So I can't give a blanket recommendation for all of these books, however, these are the ones that most caught my attention this past year, listed in order from 10-1.

10. If At Birth You Don't Succeed by Zach Anner.  Sometime this past year I stumbled upon the Youtube channel of Zach Anner and was instantly hooked.  Zach is a comedian who lives with pretty severe cerebral palsy, which he flawlessly works into his act.  His comedy is great.  So when I heard that he wrote a book describing his life and experiences, I jumped into it.  I always appreciate hearing from people who have overcome challenges - especially people with disabilities - and this book is a great example of someone doing just that.  Zach has a great outlook on life and on his disability, and his attitude and spirit are worthy of emulation.  Zach isn't a Christian, but his reflection on his life and disability almost presupposes a sovereign order to the universe, which I found interesting.  That being said, Zach is a raunchy comedian, which is a shame, and his book is also quite raunchy (but still very funny, and would probably be much funnier without the raunchy jokes).  His Youtube channel, however, is clean for the most part.  If the book had been less raunchy, it would occupy a much higher spot on my list.

9. The Revenant by Michael Punke.  One of my favorite genres is history (see In the Heart of the Sea for great historical book) or historical fiction, or books that are a little bit of both.  The Revenant fits into that latter category.  I got turned on to this book because the movie came out, and the book was in the iTunes bestseller list, I think.  After reading a short description, I was intrigued.  While based on historical events, the book is rather farm from factual.  Hugh Glass was a real man, and he he did have an encounter with a bear, and he was left for dead by two supposed friends, and he did have a plot for revenge...but it was never carried out.  According to his Wikipedia page, by the time he crawled his way back to the nearest fort, he was too tired to seek out his betrayers and exact vengeance.  But that's a much less exciting ending for a book, so Punke took it in a different way.  Although it's not true to history, it's still a good story of survival.

8. The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken.  This was a recent listen for me.  This book details what it's like to be a Christian in "hard" parts of the world where the Christian faith is either severely frowned upon or outlawed altogether.  Ripken (not his real name) travels all over the world to talk to believers in these hard places to see how they do it - how they live as Christians in hostile environments.  What he encounters are some remarkable people and stories.  While the stories are interesting, challenging, and convicting all at the same time, I had some theological quibbles with Ripken throughout the book.  For instance, in his own mission work, he acknowledges that many times the message of the gospel was not given (in favor of providing humanitarian aid).  He notes that this was a problem and that it troubled him, but he never addresses it beyond noting the problem.  He also seems to favor a strong continuationist theology that I think can get out of hand very quickly.  From a practical standpoint, I thought the narrator of this book left something to be desired as well.  But aside from these concerns (odd title notwithstanding), it's a very good book.

7. Fortunate Son by John Fogerty.  Another favorite genre of mine is biography or memoir.  I really enjoy reading about peoples' lives - even people I don't like!  Thankfully this wasn't true of John Fogerty, although he's got some pretty polarizing political views.  I read the book mostly for his reflections on the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival (Note: If you don't have "Chronicles Vol. 1 by CCR, stop what you're doing and go get it).  While Fogerty seems to be a bit of a self-important head case, hearing him talk about his influences, how he learned to sing, the guitars he likes, and so on, was a great listen for me, considering my own interest in music.

6. Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace.  I bought this book for my dad for Christmas last year, and then I got the audiobook for myself.  It's a good read, and a great introduction to Christian apologetics.  Wallace, a former homicide detective, examines the evidence for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity.  It's fascinating, and I learned a ton about evidence in general and the different kinds of evidence that can and should be used in forming a conclusion.  There's also a lot of great stuff about inductive versus deductive reasoning, the power of circumstantial evidence, and a lot more.  This book is well worth a listen/read.

5. God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens.  Confession: I really enjoy Christopher Hitchens, and interestingly, this isn't the only time he'll show up on this list.  In addition to this book, I also listened to his memoir, Hitch 22 this year.  Not only could I listen to his deep, British-accented voice for pretty much forever, I think he's actually intellectually honest (see number 2 below).  Even though the title of this book is rather provocative (as is the subtitle: "How Religion Poisons Everything"), Hitchens, I think was open to other views (see the fantastic documentary "Collision" for more on that), and he was open to thinking through good arguments and weighing them for their merit.  That being said, this book was not written to engage arguments.  It was written to be a polemic against Christianity, which is mostly what made him famous.  If nothing else, it's good to read things like this to know where people are coming from (an ever-increasing number of people in our post-Christian culture).  Why is it so high on my list?  Not necessarily for the book itself, but for the character of the author.  Reader beware: Hitchens can be crass and vulgar, and that is evident in this book.  

4. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  When I was in seventh grade a friend of mine was really into the Tolkien books.  I picked up the hobbit and started reading it, but never made it too far, as the opening chapters are...well...slow.  Now as an adult, I figured it was time to give it another go via audiobook.  I also listened to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy this year, but didn't enjoy them as much as I did The Hobbit.  For one thing, it's narrated by the great Robert Ingliss, whose reading and style simply can't be outdone (at least for these Tolkien books).  Secondly, I think the Hobbit is just a more engaging story (at least in book form - the movies on the other hand...ugh).  I plan to read this one to my kids in the next year or so.

3. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi.  I'll be honest: books on the Muslim religion don't hold a lot of draw to me.  It's not that I don't care about the evangelization of Muslims - I do - but more so that I just don't see it as a front-burner kind of issue for me and my life at the current moment.  In other words, when I picked up this book I didn't have high expectations that I would be significantly engaged by it.  I'm happy to say that I was very wrong.  This is a phenomenal book.  Qureshi comes from a Muslim family and was steeped in Muslim religion and culture throughout his childhood and young adulthood before becoming a Christian.  For this reason, he is able to provide fascinating insight into Muslim culture and tradition and belief, which sheds a very helpful light on why many Muslims think the way they do (for instance, why a caricature of Mohammed is so offensive, or how Muslims regard authority, and so on).  Qureshi also explains in detail why Muslims have a hard time believing that Jesus died on the cross, and in the process provides a fantastic apologetic for the Christian faith.  Moreover, through this book, we can see a very clear picture what it means to count the cost of following Jesus, as Qureshi basically left everything to become a Christian.  You should get this book and read it.

2. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton.  If you read the Amazon reviews for this book you will find a lot of angry atheists who hate Taunton for writing it.  Hitchens was, of course, a vehement atheist, and many of his disciples despise the notion that Hitchens was potentially open to considering other points of view.  They see it as the deepest betrayal by one of their heroes, so rather than engage what Taunton says of his relationship with Hitchens, they simply respond with blind anger.  That is unfortunate, because this is a wonderful book.  For a long time, this was - hands down - the best book that I read this year (until I read the book at number 1).  The story of the friendship between Taunton and Hitchens in the closing months of Hitchens' life is endearing, real, deep, heartfelt, and any other number of adjectives.  This book really demonstrates the spirit of Hitchens that I described above in number 5.  It also serves as a great example of how and why we should be ready, willing, and able to talk to people about the Christian faith.  While Hitchens himself downplayed the possibility of a "deathbed conversion" for himself, this book reminds us that we have no idea what God can do in a person's life (even at the point of death).  Even if you know nothing of Christopher Hitchens, you should read this book.  And if you do enjoy or appreciate Hitchens you simply must read this book.

1. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.  This is the only book on this list that I have read/listened to twice this year, which is one of the main reasons that I figured it should occupy the number one spot.  It was so good (and so complex that I wanted to make sure I heard and understood the story correctly) that it required a second listening, and I'm planning on another read-through in the near future.  On second thought, I'm not sure "good" is an adequate description of this book.  Perhaps "intriguing" or "thought-provoking" is more accurate.  This is another work of historical fiction that is based on historical fact, but many of the details have been significantly indulged to the extent that it is categorized as a novel.  The story takes place in the pre-Civil War American Southwest, and details the terrible crimes of the Glanton Gang, through the eyes of the main character, known simply as The Kid.  The Glanton Gang made their living by collecting bounties on Indian scalps, the owners of which were known to terrorize white settlers.  Soon, however, the gang realized that the scalps of violent Indians looked the same as the scalps of peaceful Indians, and the bounty was the same for either kind of scalp, so they began to mercilessly slaughter any Indians they encountered.  Not long after that, drunk with bloodlust, they turned their violence on anyone and anything that got in their way.  The main antagonist is a character simply known as The Judge.  I'm not sure I've encountered a character anywhere else in literature as intriguing as The Judge, even though his character is utterly depraved and unspeakably evil.  There have been many interpretations by readers of who or what The Judge represents (my own interpretation is that his character represents unchecked human depravity), but you'll have to read it yourself to form your own opinion.  Another thing I thoroughly enjoyed about this book was its narrator: Richard Poe.  There cannot be a better voice for the narration of this book.  Reader beware: this book is a story that will take you to the depths of human depravity.  This book is exceedingly violent, as it details the account of the reprehensible men of the Glanton Gang doing horrible things (let's face it: scalping Indians isn't a pleasant activity), however the violence therein is stated very matter of factly and isn't sensationalized.

Monday, December 5, 2016

A Savior, Who Is Christ the Lord

Several years ago I heard about a big church that was on the cutting edge of Christian culture.  They were experimenting with different ways of "doing" church, and a lot of those ways were hip, trendy, and cool.  They were very much what you would call "seeker sensitive."

One of the new things they were doing was changing their terminology for Jesus.  We commonly refer to Jesus as "Lord and Savior," after all, he's our Lord because he rules over us, and he's our Savior because he died to save us.  This particular church, however, thought that the titles "Lord and Savior" were either too technical, too old fashioned, or sounded to much like "Christianese" speak, so they decided to change the language they used in reference to Jesus as "Life Leader and Forgiver."  While this change in language may create a more palatable image of Jesus that is more welcoming and inviting to "seekers," it is a potentially dangerous change that we should be very slow to make.  There are certain ideas and images that are given by the term "Lord," for example that are not necessarily communicated by the term "Life Leader."  And "Forgiver" does not encompass the meaning of the term "Savior."  But what's the big deal?  Do we really have to insist on certain language in reference to Jesus?

As we consider Jesus' first coming this Christmas season, it is a good idea to full understand just who it was that was born into the world, and the language that describes him.  In Luke 2, when the angels announce to the shepherds that Jesus had been born, they use three specific titles to describe him: Savior, Christ, and Lord: "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2.11).  This is who was born: Jesus the Savior, Jesus the Christ, and Jesus the Lord.  Let's briefly consider each of those three titles.

Jesus the Christ
The Greek word for "Christ" is "Christos," which literally means "anointed one."  And "Christos is the Greek word for "Messiah" in Hebrew.  So when the angels announce Jesus' birth and that he is the Christ, they are literally saying that God's anointed one has been born.  But what does that mean?  What does it mean that a person has been anointed?

In the Old Testament, certain people were anointed (set apart) for specific jobs or roles.  For example, prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed - that is, they were set aside for a particular role.  Jesus was anointed as well.  He was set apart to be the Savior of all who would trust in him.  But with him, the title of "Christ" or "Anointed One" is more than just a title or a role that he is to play - it is the essence of his being.  He exists to be devoted to the service of God and performing the will of his Father.  He has been separated from all other humans for this purpose (Philippians 2.7-8).  So when the angels tell the shepherds that the Christ has been born, they're referring to the Son of God, sent into the world for the specific purpose of dying for the sins of the people.

Jesus the Savior
Jesus is only referred to as "Savior" twice in the gospels - once in Luke 2.11 and once in the gospel of John.  The church I referenced earlier had changed their terminology for Jesus from "Savior" to "Forgiver."  What's the difference?

The Greek word for "to save" is "sodzo" and it literally means to deliver or protect.  Salvation is more complex than just forgiveness, but don't get me wrong: you must be forgiven in order to be saved.  But you don't just need to be forgiven - you need to be saved and delivered.  Why do you need a Savior?  From what do you need to be saved or delivered?  The answer is that you need to be saved and delivered from the punishment your sin deserves.  That's why Jesus died on the cross.  he bore the punishment for your sin, thereby saving you from punishment and delivering you from having to bear God's justice for yourself.  That's more than just being forgiven.

Think of it like this: imagine that you're standing in a court room and you've committed a terrible crime and you've confessed your guilt.  The judge is about to pass the sentence: death.  But before he does, you say to him, "Your honor, I know that I've done wrong, and sir, I ask your forgiveness."  The judge is moved by your plea, and he looks at you with compassion and says, "I believe that you are sorry for what you've done, and that you regret your actions.  I forgive you."  And then, BANG!   He slams his gavel down and you are lead off to your execution.  You can be forgiven, but justice must still be satisfied.  What you need is to be saved from justice - you need someone to deliver you from the punishment that you deserve.

God can forgive your sins, but that will not satisfy his justice.  In order for justice to be satisfied your sin-debt needs to be paid.  You need someone to pay that debt for you.  But even that won't be enough.  Not only do you need your sins forgiven and your penalty paid, but you need to be perfect in order to be with God.  This is what Jesus does.  He earns your perfection through his life, and he takes the deserved punishment for your sins and he pays the price on your behalf so that justice can be satisfied, and in the process, your sins can be forgiven.  And to be saved is to throw yourself on those realities - to put your faith in them - and to trust in them as you would trust in a parachute on a crashing plane.  And through your faith, God applies the righteousness that belonged to Jesus to your account, and transfers all of the sin from your account to his, as he hung on the cross.  So now you can stand before him as innocent - fully forgiven! - fully justified! - fully righteous! (2 Corinthians 5.21)  When the angels tell the shepherds that the Savior has come, that is what they mean.  Not just a Forgiver, but a Savior.

Jesus is the Lord
The Greek word for "Lord" is "kurios," which can mean "sir" or "master," or a title or respect.  But in reference to God, it is a title that refers to one who is in supreme authority.  The angels said that Jesus - the tiny baby born in Bethlehem - was the Lord, the one in supreme authority.

Over the past several years, many people have enlisted the services of life coaches.  Life coaches come alongside a person and help him think and work through decisions, though processes, behavior patterns, and so on.  Life coaches certainly serve a purpose, and maybe you have even enlisted a life coach to help you in your day to day life (I have!).  At the big church I described earlier, they had replaced the term "Lord" for Jesus with the term "Life Leader."  When I hear that term, what I think of is a life coach - someone who will walk alongside me and help me think through decisions, etc.  But Jesus is not a life coach.  He is Lord.

Jesus is not merely someone who comes alongside us and offers suggestions - he's not just someone who gives advice - he's not just someone who comes alongside and encourages his followers.  Does he do all of those things?  Indeed, but that is only the beginning of his power and authority.  Instead, the Bible paints a picture of Jesus not as a life leader, but as the supreme sovereign of the universe, to whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, and that his name is above every other name.  Consider Colossians 1.15-18: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him al things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  

Does that sound like a life leader to you?  Not to me.  Jesus is the Lord!

We use a phrase a lot in Christian circles in which we tell a person, "You need to make Jesus Lord of your life."  We need to stop using that phrase, in my opinion, because it is quite simply impossible.  You can't make Jesus Lord of your life - he already is.  To say that I can make Jesus Lord of my life implies that his lordship relies upon my permission.  Jesus isn't sitting at your feet, imploring you, "Will you please make me Lord of your life?"  No!  Jesus isn't Lord because you call him "Lord."  He is Lord because he is the sovereign ruler of the universe, and that has nothing to do with whether or not you want to acknowledge his lordship.  The laws of gravity don't apply because I believe in them, but because they simply are.  Jesus is not Lord because you confess him as Lord, but because he simply is Lord.  The question is not whether or not you will make him Lord of your life.  The question is whether or not you will bow then willingly or by force.  One way or another, you will submit to his lordship.

As we gather together in this Christmas season to remember the One who entered into the world as a tiny human being, I think it's important to realize just who it is that is lying in the manger: the Savior, the Christ, the Lord.   Let us come and worship him and give him the glory that is due to the sovereign, self-sacrificing, Deliverer.