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Archive for January, 2015


The Good Lie starts with sadness, as a group of kids’ village is destroyed in northern Sudan. Their parents were among those killed by the soldiers. And so begins their heartbreaking journey, on foot, to Kenya which is more than 700 miles away. Among the few possessions they carry with them is the family Bible. They are led by Theo who is wise, and whose wisdom they would need to survive as they try to avoid armed troops. Along the way a group of refugees they have fallen in with is slaughtered, but they escape alive due to Theo’s wisdom and foresight. They also face desert conditions, and there is attrition including Theo who allows himself to be captured so the others can live.

They end up spending 13 years in a refugee camp waiting for a new place to go. Eventually they are on the list of those being sent to America. As the movie shift, your source of anger shifts from the Muslim soldiers to the clueless Americans. I know they didn’t mean it to be that way, but you will grow frustrated at the clueless policies of our government. You will be frustrated by how we Americans just don’t grasp how others live. We often assume people know what refrigerators and phones are.

The three young men, separated from Mamere’s sister Abitar (thanks to INS rules), are like young innocents trying to figure out life in a very strange world where no one “gets” them. In one scene Paul tries to explain the scars on his arm come from a lion. This obviously lends itself to some humor (not the story of the lion obviously). There are a few scenes about trying to identify the lions of their new environment.

Mamere thrives initially. Jeremiah struggles with his first job because he isn’t supposed to give the old food away to homeless people. Paul gets introduced to marijuana and his anger over Abital’s being separated from them. His resentment of Mamere threatens to tear the small group apart.

In all of this is their very broken job counselor named Carrie (played by Reese Witherspoon who looks very much like Sally Field at times). Great white hope she is not (some have criticized the movie for portraying her as a great white hope). But she and her boss slowly begin to understand the horrors they faced. They also begin to open their lives to help reunite this family. In some ways she changes their lives, but in many they change hers.

The Good Lie refers to Huckleberry Finn, that which you say to survive. Or like the lie Theo told to save the others. The others have to deal with survivors guilt while they try to adapt to a new world. I don’t want to give away other plot lines. But we all have to deal with circumstances beyond our control, circumstances that have wrought grief and loss. Sometimes we receive second chances. How far will we go to find the ones we love? Will we tell the good lie?

It hits home to me because after adopting our last two kids, we discovered they had two young uncles that were also in the orphanage (CavWife unknowingly took pictures of them because they were helping out with CavSon #2). There was nothing we could do. “All” we can do is pray for them. All we can do is wait for the DRC to resume issuing exit letters.

Back to the movie. It is funny, and sad. It is about living as a community, where the whole is greater than the one and great sacrifices are made. It is about everyone’s lives being changed by everyone else.

“If you want to go fast, go alone.

If you want to go far, go together.” African Proverb

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I wish I had more time to read books on history and historical events. There are so many topics I want to learn about. But when the title of your book is Shot All to Hell, you go to the top of the queue. Mark Lee Gardner likes to use “hell” (or h-e-double hockey sticks as Radar used to say) in his book titles. I’ll have to get his To Hell on a Fast Horse which is about Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. Here Gardner tackles the attempted robbery that ended the James-Younger gang.

I saw this book last winter while wandering SkyHarbor airport while CavWife and kids ate breakfast before they went east for a vacation. It intrigued me, so it ended up putting it on my wish list and got it Christmas (thanks, CavWife!). As a result I read it while on my Christmas vacation. I’ve been a bit busy so I’m finally getting to this.

“They excelled at deception- they had to.”

Gardner notes that it presents a peculiar difficulty in writing about outlaws since lying is a way of life for them. Their own testimony in books, newspaper articles and to friends tends to be unreliable. He looked at other eyewitness testimony as well. This may be as close to the truth as we’ll get to the Northfield Raid.

He begins with the Rocky Cut train robbery which has been attributed to the James-Younger gang to introduce us to them. His point? They knew what they were doing, which makes the failed robbery in Northfield all the more interesting.

“Before September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang had never been challenged, denied, or defeated.”

If they had high school yearbooks then, they would not have been voted “Most Likely to be Famous Criminals” or infamous criminals. They appear to have come for generally good homes. The Younger family was wealthy enough to have slaves prior to the Civil War, and they were “well-schooled, church-going Missourians.” The James brothers grew up as the sons of “a cultured, college-educated Baptist minister.” They too owned slaves.

That is important because both families supported the Confederate States in the conflict. This is what changed everything for both families. Both families suffered at the hands of Kansas jayhawkers. The sons would meet as part of the Quantrill Raiders where they became familiar with  bloodshed and utilizing guerrilla tactics. The war hardened them, and the South’s defeat set the stage for their life of crime which they seemed to view as vigilante justice.

“Circumstances sometimes make people what they are,” Bob once said. “If it had not been for the war, I might have been something, but as it is, I am what I am.”

The book is quite entertaining. I often pondered what it would be like to put together as a movie. As with the real story there are explosive bursts of excitement including the failed robbery and shootout, and then the gunfight that resulted in the capture of the Younger portion of the gang.

Woven into the story is the story of the man Jesse hoped to kill in Minnesota- attorney Sam Hardwicke. Hardwicke was instrumental in a Pinkerton raid that intended to apprehend the James’ boys but resulted in the death of young Archie. This is part of what drove the gang to MN in the first place.

The story brings in the advances in safes that made life difficult for the erstwhile robbers. Gardner also delves into the conflicts and arrogance of the men leading the search for the gang. He also notes the conflicts within the gang, particularly Jesse and Cole Younger’s struggle for power.

It is a story of violence, near misses, second chances and imprisonment. It is a fascinating story, and Gardner tells it, usually, in a very interesting manner. The details of their escape makes you wonder if they wished they’d just been captured in the first place. It was, at times, that unpleasant.

If you like history, and tales of the old west, this is the book for you. Circumstances shape and mold us, opening us up to particular temptations. Sometimes they help us make excuses for ourselves. You will see in them your own tendency to justify your own indiscretions. Lastly you see that sin has a bitter price, and you will pay it eventually.

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Many people forget that John Calvin was a pastor and not a professional theologian. He did try to show the practical implications of his theology. So when Robert White worked on a new translation of Calvin’s 1541 edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, they put part of book 3 of the 1560 French edition into a gift edition as A Guide to Christian Living.

I found this to be a handy little volume. Most mornings I would read a section after my daily time in the Scriptures. The sections are short, but usually there was plenty to chew on. It starts with “Scriptural Foundations for Christian Living” including the idea that Scripture is the foundation and guide for Christian living. Part of the foundation mentioned is our union in Christ.

“The news that God is now joined to us should remind us that holiness is the bond which unites us. Not that it is our holiness which brings us into fellowship with God, since to be holy we must first cling to him, that he might pour his holiness upon us and enable us to follow his call.”

While our goal is perfection, we will not arrive there until glorification. True holiness is internal, not external. It has external effects, but it is internal. Often the call to holiness can discourage even the best of us. We see the gap between where we are and were we want to be (even greater when we consider where God calls us to be: conformance to Christ). But there is pastoral sensitivity here.

“Let each of us go on, then, as our limited powers allow, without departing from the path we have begun to tread. However haltingly we may travel, each day will see us gaining a little ground. So let us aim to make diligent progress in the way of the Lord, and let us not lose heart if we have only a little to show for it. For although our success may be less than we would wish, all is not lost when today surpasses yesterday. Only let us fix our gaze clearly and directly on the gospel, trying hard to reach our objective, not fooling ourselves with vain illusions or excusing our own vices. We should always strive to improve from day to day, until we attain that supreme goodness which we are meant to seek and pursue as long as we live. We will finally lay hold of it when, freed from the weakness of our flesh, we are fully able to share in it- that is, when God receives us into his fellowship.”

He is speaking, at the end, of glorification not justification. That is good news for those who struggle with perfectionism. It is good news for those who are all to aware of their faults and sins. It is an encouragement for those prone toward sloth to continue to press forward.

Having laid the Scriptural foundation, Calvin then begins to discuss “Denying Self: The Key to Christian Living.” Far too few books today discuss self-denial favorably even though Jesus spoke of this as an essential element of discipleship. Self-denial flows out of the truth that we are not our own, but have been bought with a price. It is about consecration and the resulting submission of the Christian. Our lack of self-denial, at times, reveals the two great obstacles we all experience: ungodliness and worldly desires. He wants us to keep our eyes on Christ, our perfect Redeemer, to wean ourselves from such ungodliness and desires which seek to seduce and distract us. His understanding of self-denial is not simply asceticism, but also a life lived in service to others for the glory of God. Self-denial is about loving God and others more than we love ourselves. It must start in the heart. It is also a lift of trust, that God will provide for us instead of us trying to provide for ourselves.

“In sum, whoever depends on God’s blessing will not resort to base and crooked means to obtain the things men madly crave, because he knows such methods will never work to his advantage.”

Calvin then talks about “Living Under the Cross.” Just as the cross preceded the crown for Christ, so it must for all who are his as well (Romans 8). This is Calvin’s point- we will experience affliction and be prepared to walk thru it. Our fellowship with Christ is confirmed as we experience affliction (unless of course we abandon him because of the affliction). We learn dependence and the sufficiency of his grace thru affliction. Christ’s cross provides us with forgiveness and hope- our affliction is not the final word.  Like Christ we learn true obedience thru suffering (Heb. 2). Obedience is not merely agreeing with God, but to be sought particularly when we don’t agree about the goodness of an action or its consequence. Obedience is often hard, contrary to our desires, or possibly subject to hardship.

“For all whom the Lord has adopted and received into the company of his children must prepare themselves for a tough, difficult life, full of toils and countless troubles.”

“He afflicts us, not to ruin or destroy us, but to rescue us from the world’s condemnation.”

All is not hardship though. Calvin reminds us of “The Glory of the Life to Come.” We need hope to sustain us in the midst of self-denial and the cross of affliction. We need to know it will be worth it. He speaks of scorning the world (thinking little of it in light of eternity). Such scorn is not to be confused with hating the world. It is about not living for this world, this life. We make use of the world, and can enjoy its many blessings because God put them there and they point us back to him. He reveals his goodness, in part, thru the blessings of this world.

“Earth is where we begin to taste the sweetness of God’s blessings, and where we are roused by the hope and the desire to see them fulfilled in heaven.”

He then moves to “The Blessings of this Present Life.” He wants us to properly use earthly goods, to live a well-ordered life. He wants us to avoid the extremes that so often plague people. We are not ascetics, forsaking all goodness and pleasure. And we are not libertines consumed with all goodness and pleasure on earth. We are to cultivate contentment instead of feeding greed or forsaking all pleasure. One thing that God provides to guide us is our calling, general and particular. All Christians are called to holiness by virtue of our union with Christ. We also have particular callings (husband, father, pastor etc.) which also guide us to live a well-ordered life. I must fulfill my responsibilities with regard to those callings before I satisfy my own personal desires. For instance, I love music and have had a large collection of CDs. Since getting married and then having kids I haven’t bought much music for myself. My primary responsibility is to provide for THEM, not me. My music is a luxury but I see many others in similar situations spend lots of money on their music. They must have a much higher salary than I do, or kids who eat far less.

So this is a challenging, as well as encouraging, book. I found it quite useful, as I noted, as devotional reading. Perhaps you will too.

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I had been meaning to read Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Ministry Leadership is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions. for quite some time. I think the subtitle says it all in many ways. I also have had the conviction for a long time that we need to see minorities rising into positions of power.

The book is edited by Kings’ College professor Anthony Bradley. CavWife is an alum. Bradley is ordained in the PCA (and a number of people have caused him to wonder why periodically). He tells his story in the General Introduction and then provides his vision, so to speak, in the afterward. The rest of the book is by a number of contributors who tell their story and make recommendations about how to change institutions.

As a white man this can be a difficult read. Most of us are unfamiliar with stories such as theirs. We can often find ways to write them off. It is important that we listen.

Any compilation like this is prone to be uneven. Yes, some essays are better than others. Carl F. Ellis Jr.’s chapter in particular is quite valuable in my estimation. The contributors are African-American, Hispanic, and Asian. The have all felt left out, unwanted and resented during their time in white institutions.

A few frustrations. When some data doesn’t match up with my personal knowledge, I have a hard time. Perhaps one of us doesn’t have our facts straight. If it is me, no big deal, I would have to learn. If it is them, then it could undermine the overall argument in the eyes of some people.

Disputed Issue #1: Bradley, in his introduction, refers to Peter Slade’s Open Friendship in a Closed Society for the following:

On December 4, 1861, the representatives of forty-seven Southern presbyteries formed an Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA).

I don’t dispute that, but it lacks historical context. It neglects to mention the passage of the Gardiner Spring Resolutions that were passed by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America in May of that year. The situation was nobody’s finest moment. Spring and the other presbyters confused loyalty with the United States with loyalty to Christ. Yes, Romans 13 indicates we are to submit to the State unless it violates the Law of God. The southern presbyteries had to choose between the greater magistrate and the lesser magistrate. Imagine, for a moment, a church having to reject the state in which they exist. While I don’t agree with their view on slavery, they were place in an untenable condition by the Gardiner Spring Resolutions. The context of their forming a new denomination was more complicated than that little blurb leads us to believe. Makes you wonder, will the rest of the book also ignore historical complexities?

Disputed Issue #2: In Orlando Rivera’s chapter he notes that “the seminary and the denomination it represented…” I attended that seminary. Orlando was in the class before mine. The seminary is not a denominational seminary. Yes, it is most closely tied to the PCA since it assisted in the foundation of the denomination. But officially it is non-denominational. We had professors who were in the SBC, American Baptist and more. Students came from a variety of backgrounds. The retired pastor who assisted in placement was in the RCA, not the PCA. He was a good and godly man, but I was shaking my head when he told me “youth ministry is the mail room of the church.” I’d already worked in a mail room, and really didn’t want to work in the church’s mail room. This doesn’t mean that he didn’t experience these frustrations, misunderstandings and disappointments. I’m sure he did actually. Both of us would love to see changes in the PCA. One sign of hope is the adoption movement among PCA members and pastors. Many of us are adopting children from other races. My prayer is that they will be among the future leaders of the denomination. Time will tell.

On the flip side, Orlando Rivera’s recommendations were very interesting. They may help increase minority enrollment and success in educational institutions. That is a worthy goal and I hope more institutions try to implement his recommendations.

Carl F. Ellis Jr.’s chapter was on discipling urban men. In this context he gives a brief history of black culture since the civil rights movement. He addresses the differences between the achiever class, the under class and the criminal class. This information would help many of us who didn’t grow up in black urban culture understand the cultural context of many current events. I also found a number of his statements with regard to discipleship helpful and challenging.

The Issue of White Privilege

Often when white people hear about white privilege they either don’t understand the concept, or have no clue what they are supposed to do with or about it. We often just feel some kind of guilt.

Anthony Bradley talks about this in his afterward. He thinks we are stuck trying to reconcile and need to begin moving forward.

“But I am convinced that the church will be able to lead society on race only if it moves beyond reconciliation and pursues racial solidarity, which means embracing our common human dignity … and respect differences between ethnic communities for the common good.”

That solidarity means sharing power with one another instead of one group trying to hoard all the power. Reconciliation doesn’t address the issues of white privilege. It never forces us to unpack the ways  in which white people are more advantaged in our culture than others. We white people tend to think we are normal, and that everyone enjoys the same reality we do. It is hard to admit they don’t. Bradley has a higher purpose for that privilege than forsaking it like Francis of Assisi left his father’s wealth behind.

“On the contrary, the point of discussing white privilege is to help whites see how God can use those advantages and freedom from certain burdens as a platform for blessing those without them. In other words, whites may be missing opportunities to use their privilege redemptively in the broken world.”

When I read this I thought of my professor Richard Pratt. His Third Millennium Ministries seeks to provide educational resources to church leaders all around the world for free. He longs to build indigenous leadership. He’s using the resources of our white western world to do it.

The afterward is quite helpful to understand why Anthony Bradley assembled these essays. It really pulls the book together and gives us a better vision for the future. I’m glad I read it. Perhaps you will be too.

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When preaching we can’t always develop every theme in the text, or even the sermon, as much as we would like. Last Sunday I was preaching from John 8. Among the many things Jesus said, He said this:

21 So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin.

We have a bit of a conundrum here. Though they will seek Him they will still die in their sins (in the state of sin and under the penalty of sin). What is going on?

5f778-wizardtimI started by bringing them to Deuteronomy 4. Moses, the great prophet who anticipates the Great Prophet, is warning them what will happen if they don’t seek God with all their heart. If they have divided hearts, and seek the gods of the nations He will send them into exile into the nations. The Assyrian and Babylonian exiles were not chance and happenstance. Exile was one of the curses of the covenant that Moses warned them about.

But exile was not supposed to be the end of the story, even in Deuteronomy 4.

29 But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. 30 When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice. 31 For the Lord your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.

From that as yet unknown place of exile, similar to their experience in Egypt, they will return to the Lord. He is a merciful God and will seek them thru the exile. In our chastisement He holds out His hands to us, so to speak, asking if we’re ready to come home again.

They will find Him IF they seek Him with all their heart. They must be a repentant people, putting aside the gods of the nations. That whole-hearted devotion is further described as listening to His voice: obedience. The desire to obey is one of the signs of true repentance (though the actual obedience continues in fits and starts).

11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. Jeremiah 29

Verse 11 is one of the most frequently quoted passages  and most frequently taken out of context. Jeremiah does not come up with this on his own. It is an application of the covenant to the circumstances of the people of Judah. The curse of the covenant mentioned in Deuteronomy 4 has already happened to Samaria (the northern kingdom) and is in the process of happening to Judah at the hands of Babylon.

He wants them to know that this is not the end, just as we saw earlier. He has plans for their restoration to Him, and the land. If we claim this promise, we must remember that it is spoken to those under God’s chastisement (yes, it still happens as we see in Hebrews 12). We have hope because Christ has born the penalty we deserve and given us His righteousness.

Jeremiah repeats this promise about seeking Him. Their divided hearts that brought them to this horrible place must be united in seeking Him. As a Jealous God, He wants all our love. He doesn’t want to share us with other gods. For them it was Baal, Molech, Chemosh and a host of others. For us it is money, sex, power, security, the State, our spouse (past, present or future), child and a host of others. Affliction can be the call to return to whole-hearted devotion. Then we will find Him. We must remember though, that He is the One who sought us, and gracious gave us that renewed devotion.

So, we can say that they reason they sought but didn’t find Jesus is that they didn’t seek Him with all their heart. In the coming tribulation (fulfilled in AD 70), the unbelieving Jews sought “Messiah” or deliverance from the advancing Roman legions from a variety of sources. They were like the kings of Isaiah’s days, trusting in horses, chariots and Egypt (political alliances). They were not trusting completely or solely upon the Lord. The unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day were the same. They didn’t look to Him alone.

Let’s fast-forward to after the cross. On this side do we still have these same issues as I’ve alluded to? Yes!

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. James 4

Note that last word: double-minded. We see the fruit of this in the first few verses of James 4. Like rudderless boats they are driven along by their ever-shifting passions. They are at war with one another because they are not in submission to God. The Spirit is zealous for them, as James mentions, just as we saw in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah. God is working in our affliction to draw us back to Him. This call to repentance by James includes the notion of whole-heartedness or purity of heart. When we cry out only for Him we are drawing near to Him and He will draw near to us.

James 4 is in harmony with the passages we looked at in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah. We see the dependence of the New Covenant on the Old, and the continuity between them on display (if only we’ll look and listen).

Better, when we are afflicted we should remember that God is pursuing us, seeking to purify our hearts so they are more fully His. In that process we are to stop seeking all else and seek Him as what we really need. If we have Christ we will have all else we need.

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In our men’s study last night we talked about 1 Timothy 3:14-16. We talked about a number of things but I want to focus on our discussion of verse 15.

14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,
    vindicated by the Spirit,
        seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
    believed on in the world,
        taken up in glory.

Paul has a very high view of the church. He points out two things. It is the household of God, and the assembly of the living God.

Household! The household of the day was run by the pater familias. There would be a wife and children, perhaps extended family and servants. Everyone in the household was under the authority of the pater familias. There was a household code of conduct that was to be followed by all.

This is what is behind the idea Paul expresses about conducting oneself in the household of God. God, the Father, determines how we are to live as part of His household by adoption. He regulates the household, not us.

In a household there is love, acceptance and discipline (an essential part of fatherly love, see Hebrews 12). This means there is forgiveness. This also means there are relationships between other members of the family. We are connected to one another. We help another when one is hurting or sick. Yes, sometimes a household is like an infirmary ward. And a classroom. Sometimes it is a party hall, as the family celebrates a birthday, anniversary, holy day, etc. A household has many functions, which is why it is such a helpful metaphor for the church. Paul, and the Spirit, knew what they were doing.

Too often people treat the church as anything but a household. They often view it as a service center of sorts. Not realizing they are part of a family we often treat others like they are there to serve us. Not realizing we are connected, too easily slip from congregation to congregation whenever someone does something we don’t like. We can think little to nothing of the relationships we leave behind.

(Yes, sometimes you have to leave a church. Sometimes you can choose to leave a church. What we shouldn’t do is burn bridges by either how or why we leave.)

Another aspect of a household is that the pater familias assigns tasks within the household. Each family member has responsibilities, except maybe the youngest children. In our family our kids learned a song when they were very young- “Clean up, clean up, it is time to clean up.” This was so they would learn to … clean up.

If we are to view the church as a household, we should think along the lines of JFK’s famous words: ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church. Yes, you should receive benefits from your church, just like every other member of the family. But you also have responsibilities just like every other member. Your place may be to teach, or help others heal, perhaps helping everyone to celebrate, or enjoy a clean environment. There is something for everyone to do.

It isn’t about guilt. It is essentially about love. You are a part of a household formed from God’s adopting love. The ones we serve are supposed to be the ones you love.

The church is also the assembly of the living God. That word, ekklesia, is used in the Septuagint to translate the word for assembly or congregation. The church is not just those called out, but also called together. We assemble.

This is so different from the “de-churched” movement which thinks we don’t need the assembly but relies on Christian friendships. The Father appointed some to be pastors and teachers for a reason. He believes in the organized church, so to speak, even if we don’t. He gave instructions, like earlier in 1 Timothy 3, for how the church functions because there is organization to the organism called the church. The God who lives dwells in this living temple (1 Peter 2, Ephesians 2). To reject attendance, participation and membership is quite contrary to God’s revealed intention for the church.

The living God is present when the church is assembled in a way in which He is not when we are alone. I am basing this on Paul’s comments on worship in 1 Corinthians. He inhabits our praises, stirring us up to delight in Him, to confess our sins and our faith. We come together into His presence particularly as we pray and during the Lord’s Table. Corporate worship is distinct from our personal worship due to the preaching of the Word and the Sacraments. Those who neglect corporate worship miss the gracious presence of the living God for their maturity in a significant though hard to express way.

Paul’s vision of the church is far greater than the average American Christian’s. It is time for us to toss our meager conceptions of the church in the trash where they belong and receive God’s many, rich and high view of the church.

 

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Three centuries before Desiring God there was The Pleasantness of a Religious Life. Clearly the former has a better title, but Matthew Henry’s book is in some ways better than John Piper’s. While it is much shorter, it is tougher reading in that venerable Puritan style that is so different from our dumbed down prose. The sentences are longer and more complex. For those who stumble over such things this book is a worthy investment of time and energy.

J.I. Packer wrote a brief introduction to the book, in part, to explain the change in meaning of “pleasantness” over the centuries since Matthew Henry wrote this book. It had a much deeper, richer and more significant meaning that we typically give it today. We think of a pleasant day as one with nice weather, few distractions, some good conversation. They saw far more joy involved. We’d say a great day or an awesome day. The meaning of pleasant has weakened over the centuries. And of course there is the problem of “religious” in our day and age. It seems quite the dull prospect this book, but Packer wants to set us straight.

“Henry’s aim is to make us see that real Christianity is a journey into joy, always moving us from one joy to another and that this is one of many good and strong reasons for being excited and wholehearted in our discipleship.” J.I. Packer

(more…)

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I’ve been thinking about my next writing project. Okay, I’ve been thinking about it for about four years. I’ve begun to do some research; over my study leave I read When the Word Leads Your Pastoral Search.

Chris Brauns’ book is highly acclaimed, for good reason. It is an excellent book but I thought an insufficient book. Let me explain. The material he covers he does in generally excellent fashion. As someone who has searched for a call twice and has helped a number of churches find a new pastor, I thought he missed a number of issues important to the process of searching for a new pastor.

He does address key issues like unity (around the Word) in the search committee, the importance of prayer, the character of the pastor, evaluating preaching and interviewing. He keeps pointing us to the Word. His style is easy to read, and interesting. He uses some very good illustrations. In these areas it is a very helpful book. It should be read by those about to start searching for a pastor.

The bulk of the book seems to be evaluating the preaching of pastoral candidates. I’m not completely convinced of his “basic goal of preaching.” Much of what he says about preaching was learned from Haddon Robinson at Gordon-Conwell. I’m not saying that is bad (his was a good book). Brauns offers this as the basic goal: Truth nourishing God’s people. There are many good elements there. In preaching we speak Truth to people. We as shepherds are to nourish God’s people. We want to see them transformed by the truth.

But that strikes me as a tad reductionistic. Am I being nit-picky? Maybe. As I think of preaching using Frame’s triperspectivalism I think of worship and preaching as having three goals: exaltation of God, edification of God’s people, and evangelizing the lost. Early on he doesn’t sound very Christ/gospel-centered (I got redemptive historical preaching pounded into my head, and I need it pounded into my head). This is largely because of his focus on application (preaching a bullet). He rightly speaks of unction as well, though I’m not sure how you measure that in a recorded sermon. He didn’t really explain that but didn’t weigh it heavily in his evaluation form.

In the section on interviewing, which he compares to dating, he offers some excellent direction for committees. There were a few things that required unpacking. One was the area of leadership and a “right fit”. He didn’t bring us (earlier) through leadership style in trying to figure out who you are as a congregation. The type of leadership needed is an important part of that because there are many kinds of leaders.

This book helped me think more about the areas missing or glossed over in this book. I’m hoping that I can fill in that gap and supplement the many fine things that Brauns has said in this book.

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NPR’s Weekend Edition took an unusual turn. When I listen to NPR, which I do periodically, I don’t usually agree with their perspective on things. But it is good to hear opposing viewpoints. Sometimes they have interesting stories about people. This was not a story I expected to hear on NPR since it doesn’t fit their usual narrative.

They interviewed PCA pastor Allan Edwards. In his teens he realized he was attracted to men, not women. As a Christian he sought to figure all this out in terms of his relationship with God. It was not easy for him, he wanted to make sure he understood the Scriptures correctly. He came to the conclusion that he did, and that acting on those desires was wrong.

“I think we all have part of our desires that we choose not to act on, right?” he says. “So for me, it’s not just that the religion was important to me, but communion with a God who loves me, who accepts me right where I am.”

Here is what we have to remember; we ALL have wrong desires, including wrong sexual desires. Homosexuals are not the only ones who have sinful desires. We do them a disservice when we talk like they are. Those desires, at times, seem quite powerful. We can allow them to define us, to form our identity.

Allan wisely did not let his sexual desires define him. He finds his identity in Christ, as his parents’ son and his wife’s husband. Soon he’ll add his child’s father. Yes, he is married to a woman. Yes, they have a sexual relationship. He chose the route of marriage, not celibacy. Some of his friends chose celibacy.

The interviewer brought up the word “suppress” which wasn’t one he was wild about. He expresses his sexual desires in the context of marriage. He puts to death his same sex desires, as we would put any other sinful desire to death. We are to do this with our greed, hatred, fear and other sinful desires.

His wife displayed wisdom in discussing this.

“There’s always going to be situations where a partner is sexually attracted to someone else and isn’t necessarily dealing with sexual attraction with their partner,” Leeanne says.

We often don’t admit this or want to talk about this. At times we will be attracted to other people. Just about everyone deals with sexual attraction toward people other than their spouse. It is just a question of whom.

“Everybody has this experience of wanting something else or beyond what they have,” Allan says. “Everyone struggles with discontentment. The difference, I think, and the blessing Leeanne and I have experienced is that we came into our marriage relationship already knowing and talking about it. And I think that’s a really powerful basis for intimacy.”

What should be obvious is that he isn’t suppressing this or hiding it. He is open and honest. As a result it becomes a matter for prayer and encouragement, as well as ministry. Too often pastors are limited in ministry because people think they aren’t sinners. Maybe they used to be, long ago, but not now. But pastors continue to have struggles with sin, including sexual sin. They struggle with the desires of their hearts, including sexual desires.

When we hide these struggles they gain power over us. We suffer in silence. We don’t enjoy the fellowship with other sinners saved by grace, as Bonhoeffer notes in Life Together. As Steve Brown would tell us in seminary, “demons die in the light.”

But it is scary. That is because people can over-react or misunderstand. I once told a few other pastors, as we shared prayer requests, that I was struggling with lust. They were afraid I was having an affair. They meant well, but I was not inclined to share more. I did tell them I’d begun treatment for low T, and suddenly felt like a teenager again. Thankfully I didn’t have the acne too. I thought I was more sanctified than I was but it was just getting older. The increased testosterone didn’t put desires in my heart, but revealed them. I saw afresh my incredible need for Christ, my never-ending need for Christ (in this life).

As Christians we have to stop pretending we are more sanctified than we really are. We need more honesty about what is lurking in our hearts. We need to be more honest about weaknesses. Expressed properly they open the door to ministry to both Christians and non-Christians. People recognize they are not alone, and that because of Christ (who is ever and always our justification) we are accepted by God despite our on-going experience of temptation and practice of sin. Perhaps people will see that love does cover a multitude of sin.

114. Q. But can those converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?

A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with earnest purpose they do begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God. Heidelberg Catechism

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Being on vacation we were able to spend an evening, or two, with CavWife’s sister and her husband. Since we had Netflix available on the iPad we decided to watch a movie. CavWife and I have been wanting to watch Ragamuffin and they hadn’t seen it yet.  Since it was over two hours long, and the sisters are not night owls, we turned it into a miniseries.

Ragamuffin is based on the life of the late Rich Mullins. I used to have his first album on vinyl years ago. I still own Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth and A Liturgy, a Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band. He had a prophetic bent that was similar to mine. We shared an appreciation for Francis of Assisi who turned his back on wealth to follow Christ much to the frustration of his father. As Calvin would say, “To scorn this life is not to hate it.” In the movie he seemed to not only scorn it but hate it. You can hear in his music that Rich struggled with this world and its allurements as well as his own sin. As a result, the latter album in particular would encourage me during times of suffering , disappointment and loss.

I still remember being at David Castor’s house when Lenore came in and let us know that Rich had died in a car accident in September 1997. We were all stunned and saddened.

There was a disagreement about this movie along gender lines. The women loved it and the men while appreciating much of it struggled with particular aspects.

Ragamuffin focused on Rich’s fractured relationship with his father. It portrayed him as haunted by the negative statements of his father, like “Why is it that everything you touch breaks?” This inability to connect with or please his father profoundly shaped the Rich portrayed in the movie.

He was also bitter about a relationship with a woman that didn’t turn out the way he wanted. She had a strong sense of what she wanted from life, and while attracted to him recognized that he had a different calling she wanted no part of. Their engagement is not even a part of the movie. At times it seemed as though he wanted no part of it either. He is portrayed as an exceedingly unhappy man.

I don’t mind if a movie shows a man’s weaknesses and sins. That he struggled with alcohol and smoked cigarettes didn’t bother me. What bothered me was his portrayal of a self-absorbed jerk. In the movie you wonder how he could have any friends. He would blame bandmate “Justin” for not being there. There was an unstated need for Justin to keep an eye on him, and protect him from his own temptations.

You wonder how fictionalized this story was. I wonder what his good friends, particularly Beaker aka David Strasser. As I look at biographical information, Justin is probably a version of Beaker who also left their life on the road to start a family. His relationship with Beaker seemed far more significant that portrayed in the movie. While introducing “Hold Me, Jesus” during a concert, Rich talks about listening for Beaker to snore so he could feel tempted in Amsterdam. That was the night he claims to written the song. They apparently shared a room on the road and were best friends by all accounts. In the movie Justin is more of a guitar player, lackey and nearly silent travel companion (though he didn’t “introduce” Rich to Brennan Manning via a sermon tape).

On the other hand, Mitch McKeever who was also a long-time friend portrayed himself in the movie. He was the man in the Jeep with him that night in September 1997. So maybe the portrayal of Rich in Ragamuffin is accurate. Maybe.

If I remember the movie sequence correctly, Rich sings “Hold Me, Jesus” in concert prior to meeting Brennan Manning. This is significant, perhaps, since “Hold Me, Jesus” is on A Liturgy, a Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band. This term, Ragamuffin, was one he got from Manning. As a result, I got the sense that they played a little lose with the chronology to fit their narrative for the story.

His relationship with Brennan Manning was significant in helping him resolve his struggle with God (at least in the movie). I remember hearing Brennan speak at the New Sound Festival (89? The Charlie Peacock Trio and the Choir were among the performers that year) and being brought to tears. He had a profound message of grace and the love of God. Part of what was refreshing about Manning was his honesty about his struggle with alcohol.

There is a key moment in the movie, after Rich drank far too much, that Brennan invites him on a retreat. Rich had been struggling since his father’s death. One day Brennan asked Rich to spend the night alone and write a letter from his father.

What happened next was also seen differently based on gender differences among us. They used flashbacks to those painful moments in his relationship with his father. Then they completed those flashbacks, without explanation. Were they completed memories he had neglected as he focused on the negative, or were they simply what he wished his father had said? The women didn’t really care and found it “emotionally powerful.” The men cared. Was his father a better man than he remembered, or was this just psychological manipulation on his own part?

Our memories matter. We can distort the truth by focusing on part of the memory. These memories then color our relationship either appropriately or inappropriately. We can used them to nurse our bitterness, or grow in appreciation.

In the past my relationship with my father was more complicated than it is today. I focused on particular memories. I grew bitter regarding his very real failures. But those failures are not the sum total of my father. I had to remember other, better, memories too. I am faced with this again as I think of my mother and try to mourn now as Alzheimer’s has largely erased the women I knew.

In the movie there is great ambiguity about these memories. I didn’t really like the ambiguity. But this sequence is used to resolve his father issues so that Rich dies in peace, so to speak.

The movie had a number of scenes in concerts in which Rich is talking. This man comes off a cynical and bitter. Additionally there seems to be little church life except playing concerts. He seemed to have no connection to the church. But during the credits they showed some video of the real Rich Mullins talking during a concert. He seemed very different than the man in the movie, more like the guy I think of when I remember Rich Mullins: funny, not full of himself and pointing people to the church as community. As I think about Ragamuffin I wonder, where was THAT guy? Is he a figment of my imagination or is Ragamuffin a figment of theirs? As the old Tootsie Pop commercial says, the world may never know.

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