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Much has changed in America since I became a Christian during Reagan’s second term in office. The church has had a variety of reactions from assimilation to abdication.

What is a Christian to do? How are pastors to guide and direct people?

In 2016 I prepared my people for a new set of circumstances by preaching through Esther and then 1 Peter. While “evangelicals” seem to have won they battle of the election, they seem to have lost the war for the culture as numerous articles blame Trump’s victory on them. The disenfranchisement many felt has only deepened with new charges of x-phobia.

Image result for faith for this momentRick McKinley’s new book, Faith for this Moment: Navigating a Polarized World as the People of God, caught my eye. McKinley is the pastor of Imago Dei church in Portland, OR. He shows up in Blue Like Jazz as Donald Miller’s pastor for a time. Like Driscoll, he seemed to fall into the Emerging (not Emergent) Church movement that held to historic Christianity applied to new circumstances.

On the surface this book seems to be The Benedict Option for millennials. I haven’t read BO, though it has been recommended to me often. It seems a bit retreatist to me. It sounds a bit too much like abdication. I could obviously wrongly judging that book by its cover. This book, I read.

I appreciated the overall tone and message of the book. I had some issues with the details and some of his analysis. It is not a long book, so it doesn’t flesh everything out as much as some may like. He’s trying to move people in a direction more than giving them detailed instructions. So, what is that direction?

He begins with the Moment in which we live, how we got here, and then how we should move forward as God’s people. That last part sounds the most like BO as he seeks to reclaim some distinctive Christian practices to help us live faithfully in a world, a culture more precisely, that has become hostile to our existence.

The Moment for him was the aftermath of the Pulse shooting. Christians, in the eyes of an unbelieving culture, we known less for Jesus and His sacrificial love than our opposition to homosexuality and defense of firearms. Though a Muslim, many show Mateen as in line with the “God and guns” crowd that President Obama disparaged.

Lost in the moment was the compassion shown by many churches, locally and in other parts of the country. Lost was Chick-Fil-A providing food to responders on a Sunday. Somehow we were at least partially to blame.

And then came the results of the 2016 election. The backlash is still a popular narrative: evangelicals voted for Trump because they are racist, misogynist, anti-immigration and homo-phobic. This is a world without nuance painting all conservative Christians with the same (wrong) brush.

“We are a society that is messy and complicated, and it appears that Christians, whose voices have been drowned out by misrepresentation and misunderstanding, have little to say about the things that matter most to the world.”

Image result for adam and eveChristians have moved from a group with relative power to being marginalized as a minority group. This happened without moving in a foreign country. We’ve lost our sense of identity and place. We’ve also lost our sense of practice: how we live or act, what we do, because we follow Jesus. Most Christians are caught between “denial and despair”. McKinley is not going to lead us in a pity party, however. Nor is he going to encourage us to go with the flow. He reminds us that for significant periods of time God’s people have lived as the marginalized, the exiled, and have flourished despite that.

He begins with the original exile. Adam and Eve were removed from the Garden of Eden because of their sin. Life changed forever, so it seemed. There was no going back for them. The consequences would be disastrous as one son killed another as sin ran rampant. Abram and Sarai willingly went into exile in following the call of God. They had promises and a covenant but they were strangers and aliens in Canaan.

“This shows us that while exile is a place of loss, it is also a place of hope, because the God who is sovereign over the times in which we live is the one who sustains us in exile.”

He continues with Jacob, Moses (what about Joseph??) and the wilderness generation. He identifies Jesus as the True Exile who voluntarily (like Abram) left “home” to come to this far country to live among us, and suffer with and for us. He entered exile to bring us back to the Garden, but better.

McKinley then focuses on Babylon as a real exile and a picture of subsequent exiles. Babylon didn’t make all of Israel slaves. They were invited to partake of Babylon’s prosperity, similar to the materialism and consumerism of America. Prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel were calling them to faithfulness in exile. They were not to abandon their faith and assimilate with Babylon. They were to seek the good of the city and put down roots there. Their welfare was wrapped up with the welfare of the city.

“Exile can be a place of deep spiritual transformation and kingdom advancement if we are willing to step into it with courage and faith.”

It is easy to miss that Israel was in exile due to her sin. She lost her place because she forfeited her faith. It was time to regain her faith in exile. The church in the west, in particular in America to whom McKinley writes, has lost its place because it largely lost its faith. It fell for the American Dream instead of the Kingdom of God. It is time to regain our faith in Christ and His kingdom.

He focuses on that passage in Jeremiah in Baptize It, Burn It, or Bless It?. Here he discusses Christendom, both its rise in Rome and its fall here in America. Christendom is the blending of Christianity with the dominant culture such that you have a civil religion that largely reflects the culture. It is a largely assimilated faith. Racial pride, ethnic price, economic pride etc. are identified with Christianity.

While I agree with him, I also struggle with some of his points. For instance, on the issue of a border wall he sounds reductionistic to me. The threat is not the “other” so much as the lawless for many. He rejects just war theory as if it were the same as “manifest destiny”. For instance, he writes “When our hope becomes misplaced in these things, we begin to see other countries as a threat rather than a neighbor.” We live in a world of sinners so all our homes have doors, with locks. Every home in my neighborhood has a fence because there are boundary lines. I don’t hate my neighbor or fear my neighbor. Many politicians and celebrities who chastise us about a wall live behind walls and travel with armed security. That is wise in a world of sinners. Are nations to eschew wisdom for foolishness?

Another example, this time of overlooking details. In the context of same sex marriage he mentions that the church has done little to reduce its own divorce rate. I agree that some portions of the church have high divorce rates. But he seems to ignore the movement toward “covenant marriage” in many states in the Bush 43 years. These laws made getting a divorce more difficult for those who chose to enter that kind of marriage.

In response McKinley focuses on piety. He lays great weight on these practices to remain distinctive. He appears to lose the connection between being and doing. Theology informs our being. To be fair, he could have teased more of that (theology) out of his first practice. But he sees theological distinctives are part of the problem.

“The way forward will require us to move beyond doctrinal divides of conservative and liberal. We will need to find a set of practices, born from faith, that can make us distinct in our identity and our way of living in this moment in which we find ourselves.”

Image result for the borgHe is right that cultures make disciples. “You will be assimilated! Resistance is futile!” cries the Borg. Here he brings in some Lesslie Newbegin and contextualization. The gospel is a-cultural. It transcends cultures instead of being culture bound. The church is called to “navigate its relationship to the culture it finds itself in at this moment.” We embrace elements of culture in agreement with biblical norms and reject those in conflict with biblical norms. He breaks out what looks like a triperspectival triangle. The gospel is the norm, the church is the existential perspective (who we are) and we live in the circumstances of a particular culture. The gospel does not change. It is the norm that is intended to transform both church and culture- though in different ways. The church lives out the gospel in culture, and addresses that unchanging gospel to the particular culture it finds itself in a way that the culture can understand and applied to the culture’s problems.

McKinley expresses this in the terminology of “windows of redemption and opposition.” Each culture has ways we can address the culture “in its own space and through its own language and values.” But there are also “values, beliefs, and practices that are at odds with Jesus and the gospel.” If your gospel doesn’t present any offense it probably isn’t the biblical gospel. If it is only in opposition to culture, it probably isn’t either.

He then moves into the history of his congregation to show how this worked out. They needed to repent, often, of their lack of involvement with their community and culture. We often act like strongholds, at odds with those around us instead of seeking their holistic welfare.

“We must be willing to be honest with ourselves, to be broken over the state of our own hearts and the part we played in making the church the way it is.”

The book moves into the final section focusing on the spiritual practices he advocates. It seems strange to me, to compare us with Muslims (or the Amish or Hasidic Jews) as identifiable by dress and customs. I’m not sure about focusing on such externals. He does point us to practices that may standout, but not dress. The goal he notes is to turn us around (repentance) and “fully enter the story of God in our everyday lives.”

“Too many of us are exhausted from the pressure of the empire, and we find ourselves binging on its pleasures to short-circuit the anxiety we feel, even if those pleasures are only a temporary fix.”

He begins with that story in the practice of listening and obeying. Scripture is to be the story that shapes our worldview. The Story of redemption should shape how we live, eat, work etc.. He then moves into hospitality. He misses the point at times, focusing on how our government welcomes some immigrants and not others. I get that our hospitality is intended to be distinct from the governments, but the government has a different mission and goals than the church does. He doesn’t really develop the differences between the church and the state. This warps some of his statements.

In the chapter on generosity he seems to misunderstand some basic economic principles. Capitalism isn’t built on supply and demand. It certainly honors that reality in a way that other economic theories but it is built on the idea of using capital to create supply to meet demand. He also confused greed with capitalism on that same page.

The fourth practice is Sabbath. The practice of ceasing from work and engaging in rest and worship is contrary to the consumerism of America. We regain our focus and become refreshed so we can be better and more principled workers as a side benefit. He doesn’t want us to complicate it, but some of his quick encouragements seem to miss the point. Like, light a candle.

The last practice is that of vocation, seeing God’s call in our lives in work. God calls us to work and gifts us to work. It is not about money, but the gospel calls us to work out of love for God and others. We flourish, generally speaking, when we work to help others flourish.

As I mentioned earlier, this is more a big picture book than detailed book. I think that the practices are good for us. I do have some concerns with his pietistic bent that in some ways de-values theology. This can be a helpful book as long as one spits out the bones. More conservative readers will find a fair number of bones in his political references and perspectives.

[I received a complimentary copy of this book for the purposes of review.]

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Recently I had lunch with another pastor. Among the subjects we discussed was what I called the bodies in the backyard.

No, I’m not a serial killer though there a quite a few hamsters buried in our backyard.

Image result for cemeteryI referred to the losses we experience in the course of pastoral ministry. Lately the losses have been piling up: deaths, people who moved away, people who slammed the door on their way out or just slipped quietly out the back door. They are losses we feel, particularly if we pastor smaller churches (average churches in the big scheme of things).

As pastors we feel the loss, but often can’t stop to feel or grieve the loss. We must continue to fulfill our vocation. We have to perform the funeral, find the person to fill the holes in the ministry of the church. We have to compartmentalize to some degree to fulfill our responsibilities to God and His people. We can feel like Ezekiel who was commanded not to mourn after his wife dies (Ez. 24:15ff) as a symbolic act for when judgment came upon Judah.

We intend to go back and mourn those losses. But intentions aren’t always fulfilled. Life moves on and there are new plans to make, crises to attend to and people to shepherd (including our own families).

I’ve found it becomes increasingly difficult to go back and mourn those losses. The demands of ministry seem to forever get in the way. Vacations often don’t seem the time to do this. “Sorry kids, Dad needs to go off to a corner of the house and weep for 3 days” isn’t really how to approach it. As a solo pastor it is difficult to take those days off from administration, sermon prep and visitation to do it.

For instance, when I was in FL one of the elders passed away after a battle with cancer. In some ways that retired Navy captain was a father figure. He had a steady faith thru the trials of the congregation. He was steady as a rock when fighting the cancer that took his life.

But in the moment, I had to be there for his wife. I had to be there for a congregation that loved him deeply. I felt I needed to be the rock (not the Rock) for all of them. When I did go on vacation shortly thereafter I was cranky and aloof. Some old friends noticed and thought I was mad at them or something. No, I was needing to grieve but not realizing it.

This happens. We put them “in the back yard” hoping to get to it.

I once interviewed for a pastoral position that had a manse, and a cemetery behind the church next door. Sometimes I feel like I have one. There are epitaphs on the stones: Here Lies the Elder I loved. Here lies the person who couldn’t forgive me or other people. Here lies a family/co-laborer I was close to that moved away. There they are, calling like the blood of Abel.

Image result for saving private ryanI’m reminded of Saving Private Ryan when Captain Miller confesses with his hand shaking, “Every time I kill a man I feel farther from home.” The burden grows and we seem less of ourselves if we haven’t grieved those losses.

Thankfully the blood of Jesus speaks a truer word, a better word. He knows those losses too. Because of my union with Christ my loss is a loss to Him. He wants to bind our broken hearts.

He’s not condemning or chastising. He doesn’t raise His voice, break the bruised reed or extinguish the smoldering wick. That’s the key: to remember that sometimes (more than I’d like to admit) I’m the bruised reed and smoldering wick. He seeks me out so I’ll entrust that pain to him, and receive His comfort just like I’ve encouraged others to do.

Image result for smoldering wickLately I’ve found that I’m preaching to myself quite a bit, and a roomful of people are listening in. Even if they don’t realize it.

Pastor Appreciation Month has passed. But you can still appreciate your pastor, particularly for the burdens he bears with you, and those you know nothing about. Many pastors have a bunch of bodies in the back yard. They just don’t know how to tell you that. They can feel very alone with their pain.

Ministry includes suffering. The Christian life includes suffering (Philippians 1:29). It is in those moments Jesus invites us to come to Him with those burdens because we weren’t meant to carry them alone.

Considering Led Zeppelin IV


For the 60’s it was hard to choose between Led Zeppelin’s first two albums. Enter the 70’s and the choice was even more difficult. Surely there is plenty of disagreement if you were to poll your table at the pub.

On a rough wall hangs a painting of an elderly man in a field with a large bundle of sticks tied to his back.I nearly chose In Through the Out Door which boasts In the Evening, Fool in the Rain, the very different Carouselambra, All My Love and I’m Gonna Crawl. I think it is an under-rated album.

But the one I ended up choosing should have no arguments- IV. I chose it despite Stairway to Heaven, not because of it. Perhaps it has just been overplayed (the way some people feel about Smoke on the Water). This album has much better songs, as is often the case with a band’s signature song.

This album was produced by Page. The band, driven by the lukewarm response to III took a break from touring to focus on the album. The more relaxed atmosphere allowed them to try out different arrangements for the songs. The release was delayed after the mix didn’t meet Page’s standards. Between short tours he took a month to mix it, for which we are all thankful.

The album rushes out of the gate with Black Dog. A bit of reverb and Plant singing before the instruments flood. It is the blues rock that made them famous with all the expected elements. Including cow bell. Okay, just kidding on that. It comes across as ready for a single but is a tick under 5 minutes which is long for a single. This is in part thanks to the additional Page solo that closes the song as Plant “ooooohs”. It is a song all about sex, so not the most imaginative of topics or treatment. But the music rocks.

Hey, hey mama said the way you move
Gon’ make you sweat, gon’ make you groove
Ah ah child way ya shake that thing
Gon’ make you burn, gon’ make you sting
Hey, hey baby when you walk that way
Watch your honey drip, I can’t keep away

Rock and Roll is good musically. The lyrics are so-so. It was a promotional single rife with double entendres. It could refer to their much-needed lay off, or a lack of sex. It became a popular song in concert.

It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled
It’s been a long time since I did the Stroll
Oh let me get it back let me get it back
Let me get it back baby where I come from

Page wrote The Battle of Evermore on Jones’ mandolin. The instrument dominates the song, giving it a very different feel. But with Plant’s vocals it is also clearly Led Zeppelin. It fits in with the other songs that reflect Tolkien’s Middle Earth mythology, though Plant’s lyrics were influenced by his reading a book on the Scottish wars for independence. It doesn’t break from the mandolin for a guitar solo (though there are sections with acoustic guitar). Oddly enough, Heart did a great version of this song live as they paid tribute to their influences.

The album continues with the slower pace for the beginning of Stairway to Heaven with more non-typical instruments for a rock band not named Jethro Tull. Acoustic guitar and recorders begin the song. People have tried to make sense of the lyrics, usually to make them promote satanism. I still don’t know what in the world the song is actually about.

Finally the song erupts with electric guitar, drums and electric piano. Of course it takes over 4 minutes for Bonzo to start playing anything of merit, and 5:56 until Page begins his legendary solo. The solo was played on a Telecaster that Jeff Beck had given him. This really is a song suited for headphones to catch the nuance. The song became one of their concert highlights. To capture the two phases of the song, from a guitar standpoint, Page would use the now iconic double neck guitar, one of which was a 12-string.

The second side begins with the airy melody and pounding drums of Misty Mountain Hop. Plant alternates between the nearly spoken lines and the nearly screeching ones. The melody is dominated by the electric piano. The seemingly dormant guitar enters for the solo. It is a song of opposites, but it works for me. The title is taken from Tolkien’s The Hobbit but it is about clashes between students and police over drugs. Well, Gandalf like the Hobbit’s weed (tobacco).

Four Sticks is dominated by the guitar riff. The percussion is more subdued. For the interlude the electric guitar drops out and the acoustic takes over. Bonham played the drums with 4 sticks, and hence the name. It is a song about needing to leave a relationship in the past and put some geographic distance between you.

‘Cause you know I gotta get away from you babe
Oh baby the river’s red, ah baby in my head
There’s a funny feelin’ goin’ on
I don’t think I can hold out long

Going to California features the acoustic guitar and a broken heart. Plant sings as a man who has lost a love who taken him for all he has. But he hopes to find new hope there.

Spent my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine.
Made up my mind to make a new start
Going To California with an aching in my heart.
Someone told me there’s a girl out there
With love in her eyes and flowers in her hair.

Then Bonham’s drums hit the forefront, joined by a moaning harmonica. We’ve back to the blues with When the Levee Breaks. This is one of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs. Impending doom is captured well by the music and lyrics. For some reason the remastered edition, the transitional guitars are muted and the guitar solo too loud. Perhaps my settings are messed up but this seems to have a very different mix than the rest of the album.

The album was well received by critics and fans. It hit number 1 in England but only peaked at No. 2 in America. But it was their best selling album and continues to sell well for the band. It would be difficult to top the success of IV, and they wouldn’t. But they were the biggest band in the world that could only be derailed by substance abuse issues after a series of smaller tragedies. Thankfully we can still enjoy their music.

 

 

Considering Born to Run


Born to Run (Front Cover).jpgThe other day, at the beginning of Sunday School, I asked the group which was better: Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town. Most of them were clueless.

My brothers were Springsteen fans. I began to listen to my brother’s Springsteen albums. I’m torn between BtR and Darkness. Born to Run was the first album that didn’t sound like a 60’s Dylan album that took about $100 to make. That’s because the label give it a big budget in the hopes Springsteen would finally find commercial success. Darkness is … darker and more aggressive. But BtR is more consistent.

Springsteen is a story-teller with a great back up band. He’s not a singer. He’s one step above Tom Waits. He stays in tune but his voice is rough, very rough. These are great songs though.

The album, thanks to the big budget, took 14 months to write, refine and record. The title track consumed 6 months alone. Springsteen had a vision that he struggled to bring to life. His manager and producer just couldn’t understand and would soon be replaced.

While Darkness is darker, this is still dark. It has a fair amount of nihilism and despair. While they were born to run he laments an American dream the characters can never achieve.

At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines…

I wanna die with you, Wendy, on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss…

Yet, like George in Of Mine and Men he holds out the hope of a better future. He’s a man confused and torn by despair.

The album starts with Thunder Road. This time her name is Mary. She’s not a beauty but she’s alright enough for him. That is one of the interesting things about Springsteen. He uses lots of names, adding to the authenticity that helps him connect with his audience.

Again it is about soul-eating poverty, hopelessness. He longs to escape with Mary. The lyrics are long and meandering, like Dylan, instead of following the more typical pop song structure. It’s like he’s talking to you, sharing his fading hope for a promised land (and having a song by that title on Darkness on the Edge of Town).

The lonely harmonica begins the song to set the tone before the piano kicks in. It is a strange way to start a rock album. Finally the guitar kicks in and the song builds with his urgency. The sax solo is the crescendo and the song fades.

The is a big shift to Tenth Avenue Freez-Out. The more upbeat music hides the danger of the main character who has his back to the wall running on the bad side. Bad Scooter is looking for his groove as a musician seeks to find a place to play, a way forward. More isolation. All due to a 10th Ave. Freeze-Out. No gigs?

It all changes when the Big Man joins the band. Scooter and the Big Man bust the doors and take the city by storm. You are left to wonder how autobiographical this song is, or isn’t

In Night Bruce is writing about what he imagines a working man’s life is like. In a concert he tells the story of working for his uncle when he was 14, just long enough to get the money for a guitar. Hasn’t worked a day since.

This person lives for the night when he looks for the nameless woman with whom to share his life. There is no meaning in work, and love is elusive. This is a man looking for meaning, desperately. It explodes musically, and keeps up an aggressive pace.

Backstreets speaks of young love at the beach. But this isn’t Grease. Or is it just friendship. Terry is one of those names. But there is talk of slow dancing, studying movies to get the strut right. And finding life on the backstreets where life is a little dangerous.

It starts slowly, piano and organ until the sax, guitar crank up the volume. Ringing chords fill the verses. Finally a guitar solo. For a guy who showed up in a book on great guitarists, he sure didn’t play many solos, focusing on the band. I like guitar solos. At the end he repeats “hiding on the backstreets” about 20 times too many. Yeah, we get it. Play guitar!

Image result for dancing in the darkThe second side begins with the title song. Remember, I was listening to vinyl. This is the song that broke it up for him. Yes, it all went to another level with Born in the U.S.A. but Born to Run made him a star ready for superstar status in the mid-80’s thanks to MTV and Courtney Cox. Cars, a girl, despair. Oh, yeah I said all that already. But the song is full of hooks and they catch you.

She’s the One begins with the power chords and swirling piano. She’s the one who will steal your heart. She’s nameless, ethereal. The song is surprisingly aggressive musically. The sax really kicks in in the last part of the song.

Meeting Across the River begins with trumpet and piano reminiscent of a meandering river. A jazzy feel is a surprise. We meet Eddie and the two of them have a meeting about a “job” across the river. He wants to turn the tables on Cherry who claims she’s going to walk out on him. He wants to strike it big and walk out on her. It is a sad song. A vindictive song.

I don’t know what Jungleland is about. At points it seems like a brawl to settle debts but then boys wield guitars like switchblade knives. It is a mystery that begins with strings and piano. Then the piano begins the familiar riff that sets up the song. He throws in all kinds of details like a Dodge, the Magic Rat, a band or gang called the Rangers.

At the word jungleland the guitar strikes the chords and the song picks up steam. One of the astounding things is how Springsteen can remember all of these lyrics for his marathon concerts. Frequently there are tons of lyrics to the stories he tells. There are two instrumental breaks featuring the sax. They are quite lengthy as the song takes up over 9 minutes. The second winds down to the piano until Bruce sings again. It returns to a sense of despair. The Rat’s own dream guns him down. It was not a good night in jungleland. Bruce groans in lamentation as the song winds down. As does the album.

A number of these songs still fill his concerts. This is one of the best albums of the 70’s. Springsteen’s vision came to life and it was worth the struggle.

Considering Gospel Reset


It arrived at the church for free. I’m curious about free books. Sometimes they are important books that the publisher wants to put into the hands of pastors. I’ve gotten a few of those and appreciated them. Sometimes they are fringe-type books that contain some idiosyncratic ideas.

IGospel Reset: Salvation Made Relevant by [Ham, Ken] wasn’t sure which Gospel Reset: Salvation Made Relevant by Ken Ham would be. It was a small book (I read it in three sittings, but it could have been two) and I had just finished a few books. I had a gap in my reading. This fit into that gap without setting me back.

This book isn’t exactly what I had hoped it would be. It did have some important ideas. It also had some idiosyncratic ideas.

Cards on the table time. I am a 6-day young earth creationist. I am therefore not taking issue or colored negatively by Ham’s view of creation, or of Scripture. In some ways, I guess I’m part of his choir. Not fully, because I used to adhere to the Framework Hypothesis and don’t consider the allowable views of creation in my denomination to be heretical though I disagree with them. My friends and co-laborers in the gospel have different views from me. One playful gives me grief for mine. I’m good as long as they hold to a real Adam (and Eve) and a real fall. Anyway …

Image result for paul on mars hillHam starts with the premise, a correct one, that western culture has changed significantly in the last 30 years. This shift should mean that how we evangelize needs to change. He discusses this in terms of an Acts 2 Jewish culture versus and Acts 17 Gentile culture. The first had a (generally) biblical worldview and knowledge of Bible content and terminology. The latter came from a pagan background with no biblical understanding. There was plenty of pre-evangelism that Paul had to do.

Paul didn’t merely have a different style of evangelism but because his audience was very different needed to get to the gospel in a very different way. They knew of gods, not God, and had a different concept of sin and its penalty, what an afterlife was about etc.

I grew up in a time when most people had some basic concepts down. Events from the Bible were common knowledge even if people didn’t go to church. That isn’t the case anymore. So we need to talk about these elementary ideas so that our evangelism is meaningful to the person even if they don’t convert.

It was the why our culture is this way that made the book idiosyncratic. There was mention of the indoctrination in evolution. This is a real struggle and problem. Ironically, I became a Christian, in part, while studying evolution in college. Put into the context of the possibility of extraterrestrial life, this seemed fantastical and required more faith in accidents of nature.

HeImage result for barack obama devotes a chapter to another cause of this shift: Barack Obama. Yes, it was going okay until this point despite the frequent mentions of the Ark he built. While Barack Obama was a pluralist and post-modern, those were both issues long before he was elected President. He’s a result of the problem, not the cause of the problem. I’m no defender of President Obama, but he isn’t the devil and didn’t move us from an Acts 2 culture to an Acts 17 culture.

In terms of the solution, he’s essentially arguing for a more redemptive-historical approach than a systematic theological approach to evangelism. He doesn’t say that since it is taught in those “Greek seminaries” like the one I went to. “Greek seminaries” are those that views on Genesis 1-3 that are in addition to Ham’s (and my) view.

I wish it was fleshed out more. Compatible methods of evangelism would be one focusing on Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation including Two Ways to Live. This connects us to God’s great Story instead of zipping us in at redemption. You could do that in a culture that had general knowledge of the Bible.

Ham uses a form of presuppositional apologetics. I agree with that methodology and theological commitment. It is not just about evangelism but also helpful in theological debate/discussion. For instance, I find that differences of opinion on the proper subjects of baptism come from different assumptions or presuppositions about other subjects like ecclesiology. In apologetics you don’t simply discuss their views, but try to get to the root of their view and challenge that. It inevitably gets to the question authority (just like in theological debate).

At the end it is essentially an advertisement for Answers in Genesis’ curriculum. Other ministries have ads in the back, but not usually pages of book text. The effect is a little different.  Or at least struck me differently.

Keep in mind that I share his views on creation and apologetics! How he expresses them, and seems to discredit other Christians, can lend itself to cultic type thinking. That is the not only are we right, but we’re the only ones who are right kind of thinking. Having firm convictions is good! Placing everyone else on the outside can be dangerous depending on how small you draw that circle.

Image result for spidey-senseFor instance, the exclusivity of salvation in Jesus is a good and biblical circle. To draw the circle around the issue of baptism- only those who have our understanding of baptism are saved- is to draw the circle too tightly. And there are groups who do that- cults like the Church of Christ Boston did.

Ham is holding to what I believe is a biblical view. But at times I wonder if he’s drawing that circle too tight. Is only the “fundamentalist” branch of the PCA “in” or do we recognize those who hold to the other acceptable views of creation “in” too? I’m not sure from this short book, but I have some red flags going up. My spidey-sense is tingling.

What I am afraid of (or concerned about if you prefer that terminology) is that people who affirm where he is right will also affirm the idiosyncractic and begin to disrupt the peace of the church because their understanding of the purity of the church permits no disagreement on how the Creator created.


I first heard of this book from Tim Challies’ blog. It piqued my interest. I thought it may prove a good resource when I preach through NT epistles.

This book is Sexual Morality in a Christless World by Matthew Rueger. Rueger is a Lutheran pastor who was asked to teach a lesson “on the other side” at a university class on ethics. The argument by cultural progressives is that Christianity is morally regressive. Rueger explodes this myth/fallacy by showing what the world was like before the Christian sexual ethic took root in the Roman Empire with the spread of the gospel. The sexual morals of societies before the spread of Christianity looks like where the progressives are trying to bring society. Rueger then moves to the present and discusses the current debate over homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

“My desire in writing this book is to help Christians engage the world around them in reasoned discussion.”

In a sense this feels like two books at times- or perhaps three. There are historical sections, theological/expositional sections and then sociological sections. They all work together to build a compelling case.

In many ways this is not an easy read, or one that should be read by everybody. In particular, some may struggle with the early chapters discussing the sexual morality of Greece and Rome. It made me very glad I was not born in that time and place. People who have suffered similar victimization may be troubled by it. However, this is an excellent book to offset the views students are taught in public schools and centers for higher learning.

The first chapter is The Roman Context, which necessarily includes Greece too. At the time of Christ, much of the Roman Empire had once been part of the Greek Empire and Hellenized. There were not really differences of practice, but there were differences of rationale behind those behaviors.

He begins by noting that orientation is a “modern phenomenon” which seems to be lost on most conservatives. Orientation is slippery, in a sense, because some gay activists freely acknowledge that orientation is a concept of recent conception, and some would not agree with the way orientation is defined by the courts. They see orientation as fluid, while the courts have defined it as immutable (he notes Varnum v. Brien, Iowa 2009).

The ancients, therefore, including the early Christians “did not understand sexuality in terms of orientation.” For Greek culture, “sex was about the pursuit of beauty”, and they took it where they could get it. The ideal of beauty in their culture was young boys. In Roman culture, sex was tied to their idea of masculinity which was domination. Men were honored for dominating others sexually, and ridiculed if they were dominated sexually. It was an ethic very much like what we see in prisons today. This shaped their view of rape in the legal system. It was only rape if it involved a free Roman citizen. Slaves and non-citizens could be raped without consequence, particularly by free Roman citizens (talk about privilege!).

Greeks made no such distinction between citizens and non-citizens. Pederasty was common among Greeks and Romans, though there was some taboo in Rome where freeborn boys were concerned. Young male slaves were vulnerable. You were expected to take advantage of them.

“Our early Christian ancestors did not confess biblical chastity in a safe culture that naturally agreed with them.”

Marriage was not between equals. Male privilege ran rampant in these “progressive” cultures. Marriage was for status and heirs and the Empire, not love. Sexual pleasure was sought elsewhere. Seeking sex from a boy or man was viewed as a higher form of sexual relationship which included intellectual love.

He discusses the role of the gymnasium in Greek and Roman life. The word meant ‘naked’ for it was where the boys and young men exercised naked. One of the more popular sports was wrestling. Clothes, inhibitions and modesty were all shed together. Generally slaves were prohibited from entering the gymnasium. These teens were watched, and pursued, by older men in this environment.

Family life was twisted by their diminished view of women. Greek wives were virtually prisoners in their homes. They would leave for some religious rites, but that was about it. Roman wives had more rights and mobility. They could conduct trade. Since their “job” was to produce children for the Empire, women were often married once they were able to have children to maximize the child-bearing years due to infant mortality rates. For the population to grow, you needed to have at least 3 children survive to adulthood (it’s all about the Empire)so you needed to have at least 6 children. Expectations were different for the wealthy (you can’t have too many elites), and infanticide was a problem in Rome.

Husbands had rights over their wives, but not wives over her husband. He was free to sow his oats outside of the marriage. She was not. If caught, she and her male partner could be prosecuted (assuming the husband was a free man with means). In keeping with the twisted view of sexuality in Rome, the husband could “rape the male offender and then, if he desired, to kill his wife.” This was a brutal and depraved society.

Image result for escherIt was a world of promiscuity and perversion into which the gospel of Jesus Christ was first preached. Paul called it a crooked and twisted generation (Phil. 2:15). The Gentiles who converted came from a background of pornography, prostitution (including temple prostitutes), homosexuality/bisexuality, and rape. Like those around them, they had been given over to their disordered desires. The Gospel called people out of this perverse way of life, confronting the sexual mores of Rome.

Rueger then addresses the Jewish Context, which should not be assumed to be the same as the Christian viewpoint because it wasn’t. Judaism did not permit homosexuality like the Gentiles did. It prohibited prostitution. It did, however, permit polygamy and concubines. There was also a double standard concerning adultery. Wives were to produce heirs.

The sexual abuse of children was considered punishable. But it was merely a fine in the Mishnah. Generally, Jewish culture was less perverse than Greek and Roman cultures. But we see it was still warped by sin. The Gospel and subsequent definition of holy living would confront aspect of Jewish sexuality and marriage as well.

“We live in a culture that has a vested interest in misinterpreting the passages about sex and morality.”

He then moves into the expositional section of the book. Rueger looks at particular passages that are central to these discussions. He discusses context, briefly, to help people understand how to interpret texts. He includes some passages about marriage to indicate the equal rights and responsibilities of spouses in sexual matters. He then moves into sexual immorality and homosexual sex. In 1 Corinthians he notes the two words used for homosexual activity which indicate both the penetrator and penetrated are guilty of breaking God’s Law, which is quite contrary to Roman ethics.

“It should be noticed that Paul does not treat homosexual sins differently than heterosexual sins when it comes to the application of Law and Gospel. Both are addressed side by side as equally contrary to God’s Law and both are spoken of as equally forgivable.”

He then moves to the present with “Mom, Dad, I’m Gay”. As a Lutheran pastor, he applies Law and Gospel to this situation. He also challenges the basis for those who challenge traditional/biblical teachings on homosexuality. In our culture, objectivity is laid aside and subjectivity is embraced. He discusses the many reasons why someone could be homosexual.

“It is important for us as Christians to understand that not all homosexuality is the same. … Christians do a great disservice to those who seek Christ’s grace and mercy by lumping all same-sec attracted people into one group.”

In that application of Law and Gospel, he draws a big distinction between those who seek to normalize homosexuality and those who believe it is wrong and struggle with their same sex desires (as well as other sexual sins). The former need the Law to convict them of sin, and the latter need to Gospel for forgiveness and sanctification. Too often I hear Christians speak of people struggling with same sex desire as one big group, as if they are all activists. There is a quiet majority (?) of those who are conflicted in themselves between what they experience and what they believe is right.

Additionally, the Church needs to remember that heterosexual desire also creates sinful desires (such as for adultery, fornication, pornography, polygamy etc.). I’ve had pastors say to me that it is different because same-sex attraction is unnatural. But we need to put those desires to sin to death because they are just as deadly & dangerous, just as sinful, as same-sex desires. Until we do that, we will treat them as lepers.

He stresses the role of the Church as making the pardoning and purifying grace of Jesus Christ known to its members who struggle with these desires. Being Lutheran, he stresses the sacraments. As a Reformed Christian, I hold a high view of the sacraments and their being means of grace. But not as high as Lutherans. He seems to disconnect their efficacy from faith. But the Table is a place to bring disordered desires of all kinds to Jesus and receive His help through our union with Him.

“Temptation is not the same as sin. Temptations play on those elements of our inner being that have a weakness for a certain sin, but in and of themselves temptations are not sins.”

He moves into an area of debate among even conservative Christians. He distinguishes temptation from sin. His statements are similar to those of Nancy Pearcey, Rosaria Butterfield and others (though Rosaria then seems to put homosexual temptation in a separate category in the next paragraph). The gospel does teach us to say ‘no’ to unrighteousness, which means we are mortifying our temptations. As Christians our temptations, while real and present, should not define us. He includes three paragraphs from Luther’s Larger Catechism in which Luther differentiates temptation and sin. Luther further distinguishes temptation from desire (or what we call lust), in which we are entertaining or giving way to temptation rather than mortifying it, but have not yet committed the act in question. This is likely what Owen means in his phrase “entering into temptation.” I find this a helpful distinction.

Tempted? Mortify it! Lusting? Mortify it and repent! Done it? Repent!

“Christians are not less sinful than non-Christians, but they do have a Savior who both forgives sins and fights within them against the temptations in their path.”

He returns to the question of orientation. It usually refers to the idea that sexuality and attraction are essential elements of a person resulting from their individual biology which cannot be changed. This “immutability” is an accident of their birth. This is how the courts have spoken about this. As Rueger notes, real life is not some simple. For some people, “orientation” or attraction is more fluid. They shift between heterosexual and homosexual at points in life (as opposed to bisexuality). The claims of the courts, and activists, don’t fit reality. Instead of orientation, he advocates talking about sexual identity or gender preference. These leave room for the gospel to be at work, while the language of orientation is misleading and fatalistic.

Rueger then addresses “A Mixed Bag of Objections”. He brings up objections to the Christian understanding of homosexuality and refutes them. We see objections like “inconsistency in applying the law” to which he responds with the three divisions of the law. He brings up racial prejudice and slavery, genetics and brain studies, and twin studies. He explores them, affirms where there are real concerns (Christians have been guilty of prejudice and advocated for and against race-based slavery rooted in man-stealing). He examines those studies and mentions other studies that sought to correct methodological flaws.

The next chapter focuses on same-sex marriage. He builds a case against it from natural law and reason since most people (especially the courts) aren’t concerned about what Scripture says. He brings up studies indicating that children thrive to a greater extent with two parents of the opposite sex. They do better in school and get into less trouble with the law. Where traditional marriage decays (including through divorce and never-married parents), state funding to support children increases greatly. He recognizes the limits of these arguments. Most people, while appealing to reason, often don’t listen to it. Their hearts want what their hearts want. Only God, by His Spirit can change that.

“Sexual promiscuity leaves a trail of broken people and regret. It also tends to go hand in hand with an attitude that sees people as objects for one’s own sexual gratification and not as beings worthy of committed love.”

This was a very helpful book. It is not a long book. Rueger is generally succinct and gets to the point. He does make a number of good and necessary distinctions which often trip up discussions by their absence. This would be a helpful book for pastors, youth workers, teachers, parents and students facing pressure to conform to worldly standards.

To return to his thesis: Christianity is not affirming regressive sexual mores, but continues to call people out of the regressive sexuality that results in rampant promiscuity, sexual abuse and assault, societal instability and misogyny.

 


Recently, two of our members decided to join the core group of a church plant in another part of town. I hated to see them go, but we want to support church plants and see our people engaging in mission. As we commissioned them to this task (I didn’t want them to simply change churches but be actively engaged helping grow that plant) I gave them two books. One was a little book by Rico Tice (with Carl Lafterton) called Honest Evangelism: How to Talk About Jesus Even When It’s Tough.

Rico is now Senior Minister at All Souls Langham Place, and founded Christianity Explored Ministries. He used to be the Minister of Evangelism at All Souls when John Stott was alive. He relates some of his experiences as a new Christian sharing his faith while in high school as well. He has decades of experience sharing his faith and helping other share their faith that he brings to the table in this books.

He is honest; about evangelism and himself. For instance, he begins the book this way:

“I find evangelism hard. The problem with being an evangelist is that people assume that you find evangelism effortless; but I don’t find it easy, and never have.”

We see something of his conception of God on the opening page: “God is the great evangelist, the great seeker and finder of people…”. Made in His image, and restored in that image by the work of Christ, we are to be seekers and finders of people too.

In the first chapter he discusses what he calls the painline. To share the gospel we must be willing to cross the painline, willing to risk discomfort and the loss of relationship. Being an evangelist involves grief and loss (as well as gain and joy!). His belief is that this unwillingness to cross the painline is what keeps so many of us from doing evangelism. We don’t like pain. We don’t want to lose friendships. We want to see all of our family and friends slid into the kingdom without us having to risk anything, without us having to enter uncomfortable space with them.

He refers to the parable of the Tenants (Mark 12) in making his case. He moves this from Jesus’ original meaning of Israel to the world. He explains that shift by noting that we share the same DNA as they do. It isn’t as if the scribes and Pharisees had different spiritual conditions from the average unbeliever. Those who threaten the spiritual status quo of rebellion risk being attacked. He notes the context of 1 Peter 3:15 as one of a persecuted church. The church is to be ready to give an answer for hope in the midst of being attacked for its faith in Jesus Christ. Rice is being honest about the hostility we can expect to experience.

Image result for asking a girl outThere are also people who are hungry for truth, love and salvation. He’s honest about that too. There will be gain and joy when we evangelize. When we shrink back we’ll get neither. “Until you cross the painline, you don’t know what response you will meet with.” I thought of my years dating. Or trying to. To ask a girl out you have to cross a similar painline. In many ways it is easier to ask out a girl you just met than risk ending a friendship by asking out one you’ve known for some time. You have to ask, is there more to be gained than lost. Will it be worth it?

And that is the topic of the second chapter. He spends some time pondering the glory of Jesus. The other side of that is grieving over the rejection or denigration of Jesus. Our union with Christ means that when Jesus approached Saul on the road to Damascus, He asks Saul “Why are you persecuting Me?” Conversely when people attack Jesus they are also attacking us (even if they don’t realize it).

“It is because I am one with Christ that I am thus dreadfully wounded.” quoting Henry Martyn

It was this grief over seeing Jesus robbed of glory, not being adored, that caused Paul to cross the painline. This is reflected in the Lord’s Prayer- our desire for God’s name to be hallowed should result in crossing the painline. Here he also discusses the reality of hell, and the motive of love in warning people on the highway there.

The painline is not the only reason we don’t evangelize. He discusses some others too. He talks about idolatry. The fact that we don’t talk about Jesus more than we talk about x, y or z means that we may love those things more than Jesus. Another reason we don’t evangelize is our lack of love for Jesus.

He is honest with us, and that honesty can hurt at times. Most of us should feel some conviction as we read the early portions of the book. May God grant repentance to us.

The second part of the book moves into how to evangelize (I keep wanting to type ‘evangelise’ since he uses the British spelling throughout the book).

“Part of any pastor’s job is to help people proclaim Christ in whatever circumstances God has placed them.”

Image result for evangelismHere he brings in God’s sovereignty. I’ve been pushing this in my preaching over the last few years with respect to evangelism. God has placed us in homes/families, neighborhoods and work places for particular reasons. We don’t have to go looking for people to evangelize, He’s already put us in contexts with plenty of people to evangelize. We are also greatly loved. We don’t earn God’s love by evangelism but evangelize because we are greatly loved. Though people’s fleeting affections may fail us, God’s never will. He is with us for the long run. He also reminds us that our job is bearing witness. The hard work, conversion, is God’s work. Success for us is speaking the truth about Jesus, saying enough that they can know who He is, what He’s done and how they can be saved. That might not be a single conversation, but many. And that is the subject to which Rice turns.

But we need to be honest too. People are not to be evangelism projects. We are to enjoy them for who they are, genuinely care about their interests (see Philippians 2). That is revealed in asking more questions of them- listening to them more than speaking to them. We also “chat our faith”, bringing it up in normal conversation when appropriate. That can be discussing what you did on the weekend, why you made particular decisions, address ethical questions at work etc.

In what we say, Rice talks about it in terms of Jesus’ identity (who He is), mission (why He came & what He did) and call (what he wants from us). This could have made for its own book, but he handles them briefly. That is the way we’ll likely have to handle them in our conversations. We need to be focused, and he is in this chapter. Jesus is the Messiah who came to save sinners and calls us to faith and repentance.

Image result for paul on mars hillHe then asks us to be honest about who we are. He identifies four main styles of evangelism personified by Peter, Paul, the formerly blind man and the woman at the well. Some of us confront others, some are more intellectual, some focus on our testimony and others invite people to come and see. One of these likely comes more naturally to you. This doesn’t mean you can’t utilize the other styles. God has made you in particular ways to reach particular people. Others in your life will be reached using other styles or introducing them to people at church who share in that style. We need each other for a church to faithfully evangelize.

Rice then addresses the cultural changes that have taken place in the last few decades that create addition obstacles to evangelism. People are generally ignorant of Scripture now. They don’t have a basic background that includes the Bible. Many have shifted from having objections to faith to thinking faith irrelevant. Current research notes that the average people will hear the gospel for 2 years before coming to faith. That time frame is increasing. Evangelism is a long term commitment to love a person and speak truth to them. They are less likely to visit church or a Bible study now. We need to be willing to bring the gospel, and the Bible to them.

He concludes with two things to do: pray and go.

This book is quite short. That could be a disadvantage if you are looking for an exhaustive volume on evangelism. This is not the book for you. But it is a focused book for people needing motivation and some direction. It is quite helpful in that regard. He accomplishes his goals. He includes enough personal stories to illustrate his points and help you realize this is an ordinary guy wanting to be faithful, like you.