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When I bought this I thought it was a biography. I was wrong. That’s one of the weaknesses of online shopping.

While it contains biographical information it is really a walk through the gospel from creation to consummation for those who have experienced abuse at the hands (and lips) of others.

The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith in God Through Childhood Abuse (Biography)The book is The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith in God Through Childhood Abuse by Mez McConnell. McConnell is now a pastor in Scotland, a true trophy of grace. He experienced profound abuse from his step-monster and her band of drunken friends. There was also sexual abuse from a baby sitter, and more.

Rosaria Butterfield was right when she wrote “The most disturbing book that I have ever read. I cannot recommend it enough.”

It is a very disturbing read. Through the first half of the book I was wondering, “Where’s his dad?”. In the forward Mez notes that his father was unaware of what was being done to him and his sister. I was wondering how this could possibly be so. He explains how in the second half, very briefly.

McConnell does not dwell on the abuse he suffered. That is probably a difficult thing to do. He does grapple before us with the process of becoming a Christian and then how to think about “her”. He’s honest about the wrong road of dealing with his abuse that led him into prison. It made him an angry and drug-seeking young man who destroyed others and himself in trying to make the pain stop. He glorifies none of this.

The biographical material usually comprises the shorter chapters. The larger chapters tend to be the more theological ones. But none of the chapters is long. They are meant to be read in a short sitting to give you time to think about them. I think he strikes a good balance between the events of his life, the theology to understand it and the existential struggle all this presents. His is not a faith that seeks to hide from the tough questions. It is all here.

He’s also honest about his target audience and goals.

“This book is for the silent sufferers within our churches (and without).”

“However, this book won’t answer all your questions.”

He begins with a definition of child abuse so people understand the breadth and depth of abuse in its various forms. He includes statistics before his conclusion filled with reality and hope. For instance:

“There’s the unexplained rage and frustrations at people around you- especially your loved ones.”

“I think there is real hope to be found, in the middle of our deepest traumas, in the good news about Jesus Christ. … I also think there is a place for us to find hope and community within the church.”

Initially his struggle was with “Doesn’t God see?” Soon he was agnostic, and then an atheist seeking to vent his rage and numb his pain.

This sets us up for brief meditations on Creation, focused on Eden, and then the Fall and Curse. He wants to explain theologically how we got in this mess of abuse. This leads to meditations about Satan and Adam as the prime actors in this sad drama. He answers some objections to the idea that we fell in Adam from Romans 5. This leads into the reign of death as the wages of sin.

“The truly scary thing is that instead of being a book, the Bible is, in fact, more like a mirror. Once we open it up, we begin to see our true nature reflected in it. We begin to realize that we, too, in deep, dark recesses of our souls, are more than capable of untold horrors against the rest of humanity.”

After a brief word about the world to come, he addresses where we live: in the time between the times. After this McConnell focuses on Jesus’ incarnation, compassion, and suffering. He wants victims of abuse to know Jesus experienced incredible betrayal, injustice and abuse. His is not the compassion of an observer, but a fellow sufferer. Jesus drinks the cup of God’s wrath that we deserved. In the midst of this McConnell defends the biblical view from the recent charges of “cosmic child abuse” in that while it was the will of God to do this, Jesus submitted willingly.

Seeing ourselves as sinners that deserve to drink that cup, but who have received grace can help us turn the corner from demanding justice to extending mercy. The mercy we received meant that Jesus received the justice we deserved. In speaking of justice he moves into a defense of the doctrine of hell. The fact is, as Mez notes, we aren’t just victims but also often victimisers.

With his conversion, McConnell not only learns about forgiveness but also about love. He states that he not only didn’t know how to love, but didn’t know now to process emotions. This is common among abuse victims. Love was a mystery to Mez because the people who were supposed to love him only brought him pain.

“The more I considered Jesus, the less I considered myself. The more I considered His pain, the more my own pain was put into perspective.”

He had to look to Jesus to understand love. He is not alone. Even if you haven’t been abused, you need to look to Jesus to understand what love is and does. And this leads to a discussion of grace: the good we don’t deserve.

He swings back to God’s sovereignty which is a bitter pill for people to swallow, even if they haven’t been abused. He brings us back to Jesus who suffered according to the will of God at the hand of sinners. We see this in Isaiah 53, Acts 2, Acts 4. More generally we see that God brings both good circumstances and catastrophic circumstances like the Covid-19 crisis we currently experience (Eccl. 7:14; Lam. 3:37-39).

“God may have ordained evil in our world, but He does not revel in it. He does not approve of it or take satisfaction in it.”

In answering the difficult question of how God can ordain child abuse, McConnell brings us to the life of Joseph in Genesis. Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers of all people. Well, they were going to kill him. Joseph who was imprisoned for sexual because the mistress he spurned lied. Years later when Joseph was one of the most powerful men in the world, and his guilty brothers before him he made one of the most profound statements in the Scriptures. “You intended this for evil, but God intended it for good to accomplish the saving of many lives.” Joseph could see the great good worked through the evil of his brothers. Mez sees, at least, that this pain was necessary for him to cry out to God. He doesn’t claim we’ll know all or any of the reasons we suffer. But he does claim that good can come out of our suffering and trauma.

This is not a book that is afraid to say the hard things. He says them clearly and effectively.

This books also has a series of appendices. The first is an interview with a child abuser who became a Christian after turning himself in and going to prison. He was a victim who became an abuser. He talks about how difficult it was to find a church willing to let him worship there. He gets into some of the conditions placed on him. He wrestles with bringing his sexuality back within God’s boundaries. In some ways this has happened, and in others there is still internal struggle. He doesn’t completely trust himself. He is unable to contact his victims, and cannot confess his sin to them and ask their forgiveness. One of the lies the told himself though was that the boys liked it so everything was okay. He doesn’t believe this anymore.

One thing I disagree with him is this: “I think we should teach a child exclusively that it’s their body and their private parts. There is no such thing as good touch bad touch. It is all bad touch (excluding medical professionals).” The recent scandals involving Michigan State and the University of Michigan’s team doctors reveal that bad touch happens too often by medical professionals. Not all touch is bad. Sexual touching of children is, however.

Then there is an interview with the pastor of a child abuser. It focused on how the situation developed and how it is going.

The third appendix is a list of FAQS by child abuse sufferers answered by a panel of 3 pastors who suffered, including the author. There is much wisdom here.

“Do not get married without telling your spouse your history. Otherwise, when and if issues come up, it will prove difficult, although not impossible, to move forward together as a couple. … We want to avoid cases of frustration and anger on the part of the non-abused spouse, which can be misinterpreted by abuse sufferers.”

“People who commit these kinds of offenses are master liars and manipulators. … Often people will confess things to me to mask other, more serious sins going on in the background which they want to keep secret.”

They address the problem of forgiving someone who never asks for forgiveness or is dead. Also addressed is the reality of a tight-knit community that has abuse victims in it and their struggle to accept an abuser as a member.

The book concludes with a response from an abuse sufferer. This person found the book very helpful. They addressed their own struggle to forgive; “I feel that if I forgive, they will have won.” In that way and others the book brought their own sin to the surface. We see this again “I feel by saving abusers, God is hitting me with one last sucker punch. Yet, the gospel is real and changing lives. It changed mine.”

And that is McConnell’s goal, to see the gospel change the lives of those who have suffered childhood abuse.

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Every church member is a sinner. One implication of this fact is that every church will experience conflict, both big and small. Churches are wise to cultivate a culture of conflict resolution.

Resolving Everyday Conflict (Updated) Sande, Ken cover imageOne of the things we did as a part of this is to buy a case of Resolving Everyday Conflict by Ken Sande and Kevin Johnson to give away to our members. This doesn’t mean that people will read it, and try to implement it. One of our members is seeking to become a certified conciliator, part of that process is facilitating a series based on the book. Next month we will begin 12 weeks of instruction on the principles of conflict resolution taught in Scripture and summarized in this book.

“Conflict is a normal part of life. … Many relationships are too important to walk away from. Some issues are too big to give in to. And some people won’t let go until they get everything they want. Add a variety of intense emotions to the mix, and conflict can get messy and painful.”

Resolving Everyday Conflict is a greatly shortened version of Sande’s The Peacemaker. This makes it easier to read, and apply, in the ordinary conflicts that people will find themselves in the family, church and workplace. One of the key words is “everyday”. This book is not intended to deal with more profound conflict that results from trauma.

The book begin with The Nature of Conflict. This chapter is largely focused on James 4:1-10. Conflict is about unfulfilled desires both proper and misguided. Being a Christian doesn’t exempt us from these desires, and engaging in conflict to fulfill our desires.

“Many of our differences aren’t about right or wrong; they are simply the result of these God-designed personal preferences.”

Some of our conflicts result from our God-given diversity. We want everyone to share our preferences and opinions. We see uniformity instead of unity. Our unmet desires become cravings and begin to control us, and we begin to try to control other people.

Sande and Johnson then remind us of The Hope of the Gospel. Our fundamental hope for conflict resolution is the gospel. The gospel enables both parties to humble themselves instead of pressing on to a battle to the death. The gospel helps us to be honest with/about ourselves because Jesus has removed the guilt and condemnation of our sin. We don’t need to be afraid anymore.

“Because running away delays finding a real solution to a problem, flight is almost always a harmful way to deal with conflict. … Peacefaking happens when I care more about the appearance of peace than the reality of peace.”

They then discuss Escaping, Attacking and Peacemaking. The first two are among the works of the flesh to avoid or win a conflict. Peacemaking moves us thru conflict toward reconciliation thru confession and forgiveness.

“People who use attack responses when they are more interested in winning a conflict than in preserving a relationship. … Peacebreaking happens when I care less about our relationship than I do about winning.”

They then shift to the 4 G’s. Sande loves his acronyms to help you remember the process. The first G is Go Higher, or bringing God back into the picture. We want to remind ourselves that we are not simply called to win a conflict. We are intended to glorify God in how we go about the conflict. We are reminded that every horizontal issue also reveals a vertical issue. Our conflict with our brother or sister also involves a conflict with God. We can’t love them unless we love Him, and while we are focused on our glory, kingdom, or agenda we are opposing God’s glory, kingdom and agenda. In this section they also discuss overlooking sin: choosing to forgive without confrontation. They help you to sort out when you should and shouldn’t overlook.

Image result for sande slippery slope

Then we are to Get Real, or own up to our own contribution to the conflict. This is getting the log out of your own eye, which is painful and avoided by most people. Most people are highly defended and overly focused on the other person’s sin (real or imagined) instead of humbled by their own sin. This section includes what Sande calls the 7 A’s of confession to avoid a bad confession which will usually prolong and exacerbate a conflict.

The 3rd G is Gently Engage. You will not this is not “confront”! We are to restore gently (Gal. 6). The goal is restoration, not pummeling the other person into submission. It is established by your own confession and seeking of forgiveness.

“We often stomp into a situation with heavy boots. We lay into people for their sin. That’s a sign of peacebreaking, caring more about getting our way and fixing a problem quickly than preserving a relationship.”

The 4th G is Get Together, Giving Forgiveness and Arriving at a Reasonable Solution. This is about working together to resolve the material issues because the personal issues have been addressed. This includes a discussion of what forgiveness is and isn’t.

The final chapter is Overcome Evil With Good. Hopefully you won’t get to this step because it means one person won’t be reconciled to the other. Peacemaking takes two. Some people want to cling to their peacefaking or peacebreaking. Doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee that the other party will own their own part of the conflict, and work toward gentle restoration.

“Although some opponents readily make peace, others stubbornly and defensively resist our efforts to reconcile. Sometimes they grow more antagonistic and even go hunting for new ways to frustrate or mistreat us.”

We are to love them, do good to them and give them space at times. There are times only God can work in them, so pray instead of push. This is hard because living with the reality of a former friend out there hating your guts is really hard to deal with.

This is a helpful little book that gets to the heart of the issues. It isn’t overly complicated which is important because when you are in a conflict, you don’t have the brain space for complicated. Sande & Johnson keep it simple and sweet. There are plenty of personal illustrations to show you what it looks like.

Doing what this book says to do is not easy (as I speak from firsthand experience). It requires faith. And that faith and obedience may not see the short-term results you would like. You aren’t responsible for the results, just whether you trust and obey, whether you seek reconciliation or you seek your own way.

 

 

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Most books have a story, or I should say stories. There is the story of the book. The story of my book is long and complex and will hopefully come to some sort of resolution soon. There is the story the book tells. But there is also the story of the relationship between the book and the reader.

I was given Coffee with Mom: Caring for a Parent with Dementia by Mike Glenn by one of our deacons and his wife. A very “deaconly” thing to do. This had to have been about a year ago. Occasionally I had time to pick it up. I liked the book, but the book wanted me to face what I really didn’t want to face. Thankfully I was a few thousand miles away. I was actually trying to care for my father who was taking care of my mother.

But things changed when my mom went on hospice care. I began to read more often, which still wasn’t much. After her stroke, I began to read in earnest. That was when I decided I should give my dad a copy.

The book itself is the story of Baptist pastor Mike Glenn as he cared for his mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s and another form of dementia. He gives us background to understand who he was messing with, and who she no longer was.

He started noticing problems when his dad died. He couldn’t tell if the issues were just the grief talking because as points grief and dementia can look alike. But it wasn’t just her grief, it was far more.

His dad had suffered from heart disease and lived far longer than anyone thought he would (largely due to Glenn’s mom). When they were alone his dad would tell Glenn how to care for her after he was gone. There were instructions and promises. She didn’t know about them.

“I talked to a lawyer (she actually did), and he said to write down everything you stole from me. I’m making my list.”

Not that it would have mattered. She was a stubborn woman made more stubborn by a disease that slowly killed you after it killed who you were.

The short chapters of this book tell how he moved her from Alabama to Nashville and made her a ‘prisoner’ in that nursing home. It is about the struggles to care for a woman who doesn’t want to be cared for, only cared about. It is about the unfolding effects of the disease on his mother (no two stories are just alike). It is about realizing that while he’s not his father (as his mother reminded him constantly), “it’s all his fault” meaning he had to be responsible. He struggled to do what was best, not simply what was easy.

“I think I may try another church. I just know too much on this preacher.”

Because it is told largely in narrative it alternates frequently between funny and sad. Glenn has an easy writing style. It almost feels like a Boomer version of Blue Like Jazz but centered on caring for someone rather than trying to figure out who you are.

Since the nursing home was between his home and the church he served, he would stop for coffee with her most mornings. The margins of the book contain sharp little comments she makes. They are funny, unless they are said to you. It isn’t easy to love and care for people with dementia. To make it worse (I think) she never forgot who he was. This meant she knew how to hurt him until the end. But she sounds very much like Lord Crawley’s mother, Violet, on Downton Abbey.

“I tried to raise you right. I really did, but you turned out all wrong.”

The final chapter is about your more basic relationship with God and your parents. It is titled Loving Your Parents When You Don’t Really Like Them. He begins with discussing the command in Ephesians 6 for parents not to exasperate their children. Many parents frustrate and even harm their children. As parents they shape their kids’ first understandings of God. When you are a complete jerk (or absent, unempathetic…), your kids think God is a complete jerk (or absent, unempathetic …). When you’ve been sinned against by your parents, and we all have because they are sinners, you have to deal with that. Some of the damage is bigger and deeper. He is a fool who tries to navigate this on his own. He is a fool who tries to navigate this on the basis of justice instead of mercy.

“Of course I slept well. I have a very clean conscience. How well did you sleep?”

Here his theological leanings show up: “each person must give Christ permission to work.” I get what he seems to be trying to say, but… God’s great work in a person begins with regeneration. Apart from that we are so spiritually messed up we hate God and the truth. We won’t believe. Regeneration is the granting of a new heart so now one wants God to work. God works first so I’ll want Him to work. We also have to recognize that due to remaining or indwelling sin, we still want to hold things against them at times. We want our pound of flesh because the flesh (sinful nature) and Spirit are in conflict with one another inside us. But he isn’t trying to lay out all the theology involved in this. He’s trying to bring you to Jesus whom you need desperately for more than your daddy and mommy issues.

“You’re running a little late this morning, but you’re a Baptist preacher. You don’t know anything about time.”

He recognizes that some parents do so much damage they just can’t be trusted: sexual or physical abuse for instance. Most parents try their best and fail. Others are malevolent and delight in damaging their children. Forgive them but as a counseling professor of mine said, keep the screen door to your life closed. Let them see in (have a relationship) but not come in to continue damaging you or your family.

“Your sermon was short. After all week, I thought you would’ve come up with a little more.”

Image result for screen doorHe then shifts to the fifth commandment: Honor your father and your mother. This is the first commandment with a promise. This commandment is about you as a child, a son or daughter. It is not about your parents. People who love God and honor Him will honor their parents as a result. The vertical relationship determines the horizontal relationships. He fleshes this out in terms of gratitude (they gave you life, and often much more). Secondly, forgive them as you’ve been forgiven (Eph. 4:32). They may not even ask for it but forgive their debt to you. Just as God’s kindness led you to repentance, so yours may lead them to repentance. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you don’t talk about it or give them full access to your life (reconciliation).

“Forgiveness, simply put, is releasing the other person from the expectation they can fix what they did.”

Third, he mentions not hurting them. We forsake revenge even if they don’t repent. We aren’t in the making them pay business. Glenn could have mentioned it is God’s right and duty to repay, so we can rest in that (Rom. 12). Our job isn’t to judge them. Like a physician, do no harm even though you may limit contact. You may not have them over for Christmas, but you can send a card (that doesn’t curse them).

“Let’s go back to the heart of this commandment. This is about you, not your parents. This is about the type of person you are and what you believe about redemption, grace, forgiveness, mercy and love. This is where our theology of Easter is tested.”

I gained a better understanding of what my father experienced. I also gained a better understanding of her experience. So this book allows you to both grieve and grow in compassion. I’m leaving my copy with my father in the hopes it helps him sort through the last few years of his life, grieving the many losses he experienced over the last 7 years.

“I heard you had the flu … I was praying for something worse.”

With all the recollections this is a helpful book not only for caregivers but for pastors, elders and deacons to help care for caregivers. I’m thankful my deacon and his wife cared enough about me to give me a copy. I’m leaving it behind for my dad. I may even buy another for my brother who checks in on him.

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In our day and age humility is not seen as a blessing. We live in the age of the big ego. This is the dawning of the age of narcissism. Our social media usage seems to stroke our pride as we seek after likes.

IThe Blessing of Humility: Walk Within Your Calling‘m aware of the irony. I’m writing this on a blog, part of social media, hoping people will read it. But I’m hoping they will go beyond this blog post to the book I’m writing about: The Blessing of Humility by Jerry Bridges.

Jerry Bridges has written many books that I’ve found helpful in the course of my life as a Christian and a pastor. This is one of the last books he wrote prior to his death. I was unaware of its release until seeing it in a clearance sale. Good for me, but a sad reflection on society and even American church culture. This is a book too many of us need to read.

Pride is like bad breath, everyone knows you have it before you do. The struggle against pride is one that is a daily affair, if we are paying attention. Over time I’ve read a few books on the topic including Humility: the Forgotten Virtue by Wayne Mack, and Humility by C.J. Mahaney. I used Mack’s book for our Men’s study at one point.

In Bridges’ book, he looks at the Beatitudes as a description of humility. Humility is one of the twin traits of mature Christianity. The other is love.

Bridges notes that in Jesus’ day, humility was looked down upon in Roman culture, the dominant culture of the day. Before moving into the Beatitudes, he addresses some key texts including 1 Peter 5 which joins precepts and promises.

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,…

Humility is the metaphorical clothing we should wear as we appear in public. We are to be humble in our relationships with others and with God, in keeping with the two great commandments upon which hang the whole law. While humility seems off-putting and working against our advancement in life, God offers promises of grace and glory for those who humble themselves in this way. There is promised blessing for humility.

Bridges view of the Beatitudes is one of what a sanctified person looks like. While our failure to possess these characteristics as we should points us to Jesus who perfectly manifested them for imputed righteousness, we must not stop there. Like Mark Jones, Bridges sees this as a description of imparted righteousness in sanctification. The Beatitudes reflect whom Jesus is making us as He conforms us to His likeness. Thus we are to seek these traits and therefore humility.

“In the Beatitudes Jesus is talking about the character traits of those already in the kingdom.”

In this relatively short book, just under 150 pages, he explains teach character trait and ties it to humility. With short chapters it can be read devotionally. It contains a study guide in the back for group study or personal reflection and application of the material.

What we find is not an exhaustive book, but certainly a helpful book. It is not very technical, assuming a knowledge of the original languages or lots of theological terminology. It is written for ordinary people to study. He often connects the ideas he is exploring with hymns that express those sentiments. It is rich in Scripture and hymnody.

Humility is poor in spirit. We recognize that we are spiritually destitute and unable to please God in ourselves. Our struggle with sin is far more profound than we realize, and realizing that is half the battle. Maturity means increasing in our awareness of this ongoing struggle. Our focus shifts from our actions to our attitudes and thoughts.

It is because we are still practicing sinners that we mourn. We mourn our spiritual poverty. We aren’t simply aware of our continuing sinfulness but broken hearted about our continuing rebellion.

Meekness points us to the humility of accepting the difficult circumstances in our lives as part of God’s wise, loving providence. Following Thomas Watson (for Bridges loved the Puritans as well as hymns) he applies meekness toward other people in terms of “bearing of injuries, the forgiving of injuries, and the returning of good for evil.” We will all be subject to the sins of others against us. Humility does not retaliate but bears, forgives (!) and bestows good. This is so contrary to our prideful flesh what strikes out, bears grudges and tries to destroy the offender. Our words are often weapons we use against them.

“Meekness is a defining grace, produced by the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian, which characterizes that person’s response towards God and man.”

We also have a hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be personally righteous. Such hunger and thirst is not so we don’t need Jesus but so we are like Jesus and bring Him glory. Prideful righteousness, religiosity, is an attempt at self-salvation. It is in this section in particular that Bridges distinguishes between positional and personal (what he calls experiential) righteousness. If I am a Christian I need not hunger and thirst for positional righteousness. I have it! But I do for personal righteousness.

Jesus then moved to mercy, and so did Bridges. He develops the idea of mercy as compassion in action. It is not simply empathy but moving to relieve misery as seen in Isaiah 58 among other places. Part of mercy is remembering the sins of others no more. This is not forgetting but choosing not to bring those sins up against them anymore. This happens only as we see the fact that God no longer remembers our many and grievous sins.

Bob Dylan plays a guitar and sings into a microphone.Another aspect of humility is purity of heart or whole-heartedness. He ties this into the fact that we are not our own but have been bought with a price. We are property of Jesus, as Bob Dylan sang long ago. Purity of heart recognizes this and seeks to see all of life through that lens.

Conflict is regularly addressed in Scripture. When I recently preached through Philippians I was shocked to discover how much this “epistle of joy” was marked by conflict. As someone going through a prolonged conflict, I found hope as well as conviction as I struggled to preach through such a “simple” letter. Humility seeks peace, and makes peace. Peacemaking is very difficult and goes against all our basic inclinations to seek peace on our terms. In other words, there complete surrender.

“To be a peacemaker, then, means we absorb the hurtful words or actions of others without becoming resentful, retaliating, or even cutting off a relationship with the person.”

Humility is revealed in how we respond to being persecuted for righteousness’ sake. While it is appropriate for American Christians to seek protection in our earthly citizenship (Paul, as Bridges notes, appealed to his Roman citizenship at times) we should recognize that our courts system will fail us eventually. We may lose our rights as the tide rises against Christianity. While experiencing hostility, we are not to be hostile but humble. Bridges reminds to entrust ourselves to our Creator, like Jesus, and continue to do good in keeping with 1 Peter 2.

He ends with humility and the gospel. He channels his inner Jack Miller and talks about preaching the gospel to himself and yourself every day. The gospel is not simply the door we walk through to begin life as a Christian but the path we walk as Christians. Humility only grows in gospel soil.

“It is the gospel that will keep us from becoming discourage and will instead motivate us to keep pursuing humility, even when we fail so often.”

This little book is gospel-drenched. That means it is encouraging, not discouraging. Our failures are opportunities to look to Jesus, not a call to despair or simply try harder. The humble and meek Jesus is ready to pardon and help us. Humility keeps coming to Jesus as our only hope. As we do this we find ourselves no better than others, in part because we are not focused on their sins so much. Our sins, and theirs, drive us to Jesus who deals with us as a wonderful, merciful Savior.

This is a book worth the time to read and think about.

 

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I was planning for my vacation reading. I felt the need to be refreshed, renewed. I had recently purchased the Puritan Paperback Christian Love by Hugh Binning. It was short (105 pages), and on love. What could possibly go wrong?

The doctrine of concurrence indicates that two or more persons will the same event for different reasons. I chose this book because I thought it would be encouraging. God chose this book because I needed to be challenged- to wrestle more deeply with the realities of love.

If only I’d looked at the table of contents! The first chapter is “Love and Self-Love”. Binning began his treatise with the problem of self-love which inevitably exposes the selfishness of one’s own heart. At least if you are regenerate (unconverted people being more easily blinded by their self-love).

Sin is the threat to true love. It cuts thru the bonds of love that are intended to hold us together, so that we can have our own way. Sin is contrary to love which is how Jesus summarizes the law of God.

All is not lost. Binning reminds us of Jesus who is our peace. He restores the bonds of love between us and God and one another.

Binning then moves us to the “Excellence of Christian Love”. This is the key here: Christian. It is the love we experience and manifest as Christians. Having the love of God poured into our hearts, we are enable to love others better and better. Eventually we are able to love others well. This, of course, means putting our self-love to death.

“Self-love is the greatest enemy to true Christian love, and pride is the fountain of self-love. … Self-denial and true love are inseparable. Self-love makes a monopoly of all things to its own interest, and this is most opposite to Christian affection and communion …”

The next chapter is “Motives to Christian Love” since he has commended love to us as excellent. He works thru the various motives we have to manifest love. He rightly begins with God’s love for us as revealed in Christ. Christ, who had all things, became as nothing out of love. He humbled himself in order to love us, and as an act of love to us. We see as well the forgiveness and grace of God toward us, that we are now intended to extend toward others. Having knowledge of our own sinfulness, pride and tendency toward self-love, should move us with compassion toward others who also struggle.

The next logical subject is “Christian Love in Practice”, focusing on what it looks like for us to love. There is more here about forgiveness. To love is to forgive our brother 70 x 7. It is to not tell tales (gossip) concerning our brothers. These are the two aspects that draw the most of his attention, or at least caught the most of mine.

Image result for whack-a-mole arcade gameBack we go to “Humility and Meekness”. Binning resumes his gospel-centered assault on our self-love. Pride dies hard. It is like that Whack-a-Mole game. Every time we pound it down, it pops back up again in a slightly different form. He provides some positive ways to cultivate humility in us.

The book concludes with 3 sermons from Binning’s series, the Sinner’s Sanctuary. This was a 40 sermon series on Romans 8:1-15. I can’t conceive of such a long series on 15 verses of Scripture. The focus of these three sermons is the promise of God and our need to live by them; the practical aspects of the doctrine of adoption and prayer. These are largely encouraging.

While this is a short book, the sentences are long. One sentence, a whole paragraph, took up 9 lines of text. Another 7. These are long, complex sentences that moderns (post-moderns) in the age of texts and blog posts often struggle to understand. People familiar with the Puritans understand. Those who haven’t read them will have to work harder. Don’t give up for the struggle thru the complexity will yield gold. The best treasures aren’t found lying on the ground, but must be dug out of the ground.

This was difficult to read existentially. Every page, it seemed at times, was a jab to my self-love. So much for light, encouraging vacation reading. But it was important reading about an important subject. And if God is love (and he is) then there is no more important subject. This is the whole enchilada of the Christian life.

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Sometimes you come across a book that looks like it will address the big questions you’ve been churning over in your mind for years. When you read it you are disappointed because it barely addresses those questions. This can happen more frequently in the age of internet shopping. But it is quite frustrating as you invest time in a book that doesn’t scratch the itch you have.

Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds is one of those books for me. Based on the subtitle I thought it would focus on the profound ways we have been sinned against. Indeed, Chris Brauns does include a number of stories about such profound sins. But I found a disconnect between those stories and the content he presented. So while there was some good material here, it didn’t really help me in the issues I was looking for help personally and professionally.

In his introduction he claims to address “where I’m coming from”. This is not so much about his presuppositions (more in a moment) but the questions he will address, such as: should we forgive God, does God forgive everyone, and should we forgive everyone?

He does lay out one presupposition: “only God’s Word can unpack forgiveness”, a proper commitment to sola Scriptura. He then says “unpacking forgiveness is like relocating a family.” Unpacking takes a lot longer than the actual event of moving. He mentions that 2 years after a move, his family was still unpacking. This is what I was hoping he’d address but really didn’t as I’d hoped. And some of what he said hindered this process, at least as I understand it.

I was struck at the two main presuppositions he didn’t address which shape so much about forgiveness. He never defined his understanding of sin. He assumes we all know. He doesn’t use this term often, preferring the terms derived from the verb “to offend”. While sin rightfully offends, we often use that term (which he doesn’t define either) in many ways no connected to sin. It often has psychological (for lack of a better term) uses, and he generally distances himself from other psychological concepts. This focus on “offense” is a more subjective understanding of sin, not an largely objective one. For instance he says “we have all offended his standard” (pp. 45) with regard to Romans 3:23 (I assume since he doesn’t note it). This is a great time to clarify that “sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.” Look, was that difficult? No. But he assumes the reader has a definition of sin, and that it is the same as his unexpressed one.

The other big presupposition was the nature and extent of the atonement. He quotes a few Calvinistic and Reformed guys (he mentions Piper frequently), but how he speaks about forgiveness points to a general atonement in which salvation is possible but not actually procured. I could be wrong about what he actually believes, which is the point: he doesn’t actually express it. (To be fair, he defines ‘propitiation’ on pp. 46.)

Granted, you can’t say everything about everything when you write a book, but these seem to be significant issues that affect much of what you say on this topic. I’m not “heresy hunting” but noticing large gaps in his reasoning.

At times his vagueness affects how he interacts with Scripture. I have notes written in the margins in numerous places questioning how he understands particular texts.

He interacts with Lewis Smedes on the topic of “mandatory forgiveness”, representing a less than biblical view of forgiveness. But he doesn’t interact with anyone else on significant issues. I would have liked him to interact with Dan Allender’s material in Bold Love, as an example. His work regarding forgiveness is different than Brauns’ (and Smedes’). Such interaction would have helped clarify a few things in his book that I still have questions about regarding his perspective.

The main premise of the book is that “we forgive as God forgave us.” He doesn’t simply take this as forgive because we’ve been forgiven, or even in a similar way, but rather “in the same way.” He rightfully notes the graciousness of God’s forgiveness, and the costliness to God in the atonement of Christ. He properly notes the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us in justification. He notes the connection of forgiveness with reconciliation (they are not identical). He also notes that forgiveness does not remove all earthly consequences which in Christ have been transformed from punishment to training in righteousness. But I struggle with his definition of forgiveness.

“God’s forgiveness: a commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously those who repent and believe so that they are reconciled to him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences.”

So, for you to forgive is an identical commitment to those who repent.

Take a moment though to insert that definition into a passage in the place of forgiveness. Passages like these:

76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    in the forgiveness of their sins,Luke 1

30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. Acts 5

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, …. Ephesians 1 cf. Colossians 1:14

In this way, he goes beyond the simple meaning or use of the term forgiveness (which he mentions) as release from a debt to this more complex idea. We therefore offer people forgiveness, but they must repent in order for us to actually forgive them. We have an “attitude” of forgiveness toward them.

So, while he therefore says we don’t need to “forgive” everyone he never gets to what I think is a core issue based on the doctrine of sin. I don’t forgive people unless they sin, thereby incurring a debt, against me. I can’t forgive Timothy McVeigh, whom he mentions repeatedly in this context, for instance because he didn’t sin against me except in the most vague way since I’m an American. I can feel outrage, but that is the problem: I’m carrying an indirect burden since he didn’t take anything away from me. His treatment of this issue, in my opinion, is quite superficial and unhelpful.

Let’s apply this to an unknown rapist whose repentance a victim may never know about. She has an attitude of forgiveness, and a “gift” she doesn’t know where to send. This is where it breaks down for me. Theology is all about distinctions, and there are a number of big ones he doesn’t make. The “gift” makes sense in understanding my personal relationships. But not with regard to profound sins in which there is no personal relationship (for instance with an uncle who physically abuses the victim).

Another important distinction that is never spelled out (or I missed it if he did) was that just because I forgive someone doesn’t mean God does. He seems to imply at points in his argument against automatic or mandatory forgiveness that God does because I do. Not only may there be state sanctions (though he has conflicting statements on this too), there may be divine sanctions that remain.

Let me illustrate: there is a family member who sinned against me profoundly (it was not a crime so there would be no legal sanctions), in a way that still haunts me to this day. That person can’t really face it, or understand it. For an extended period of time I was very angry with them. Despite their lack of repentance I forgave them. I didn’t just have an attitude of forgiveness, but forgave their debt to me. I am reconciled with them despite this sin and their lack of repentance. This doesn’t mean God forgave them or is reconciled with them (by all appearances He has not). I chose to no longer hold this debt against them, and even restore relationship with them despite this profound debt.

He missed another important distinction in his chapter about when you can’t stop thinking about it. Why are you thinking about it? Is the source Satan to continually put up walls between you, to get you to be bitter or feel false condemnation, shame etc.? Or is the source God to help you deepen your forgiveness of the other person? This, in my opinion, matters. But he never mentions the latter possibility.

What I mean is this (which I hoped the book would be about or address): at times we come to a deeper understanding of the debt incurred. Something we thought was a $50 debt is really a $1,000 debt. For instance, I minimized that debt a family member incurred. I needed to face what I really needed to forgive. Ultimately God intended that process for good, even as Satan intended it for evil (to trap me in bitterness). THIS is real pastoral theology, not the superficial approach he presented that we shouldn’t think about it if we’ve forgiven. But what have we forgiven? Have we forgiven the debt as much as we can understand it?

A question he doesn’t really answer is that though forgiveness is often the basis of reconciliation, must I reconcile with someone because I have forgiven them? A rape or abuse victim should forgive the person who sinned against them. Perhaps the person has even repented. Must you be reconciled to them? Have them over for dinner? Leave your kids with them? No!! Forgiveness does not mean that the person is suddenly trustworthy, or that you trust them with your life. It just means you no longer want your pound of flesh, for the debt to be repaid. It doesn’t mean you have to loan out more money.

There was also somewhat of an internal conflict in the book. He thinks we should only forgive if the other person repents. That was not the intention of Jesus’ answer to the question. It was not what must they do for me to forgive them, but if they repent must I forgive them. Very different question, and to distort that distorts the answer. As long as someone repents, I must forgive them. But it doesn’t mean I must wait until they repent to forgive, which is what Brauns says at points.

Later in the book he notes we can overlook an offense. But they didn’t repent. Unlike Ken Sande, whom he references at times, there is no real process for sorting out when I should just overlook an offense or sin. Sometimes even Braun, despite his previous statements, means they don’t have to repent for you to forgive them.

This book does present some good material that may be helpful to a number of people. He is closer to the biblical understanding of forgiveness than Smedes. But there are some holes in the foundation, gaps he didn’t address or distinctions he failed to make that prove unhelpful for others. For instance, my sister-in-law found the book helpful. Okay. I don’t think she’s deceived or stupid. It helped her and that is GOOD. I didn’t find it as helpful. That could be a function of my understanding of theological complexities which differs from hers necessarily as a pastor, and/or the ways I have been sinned against that she has not. I still find Allender’s work more helpful for me. If you are more like my sister-in-law you may legitimately find this book helpful. If you are more like me, you may not find this book helpful for equally legitimate reasons.

 

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I’ve been wanting to read some of John Perkin’s books for some time now. His new book, Dream with Me: Race, Love and the Struggle We Must Win, is a great place to start.

This book is a little bit of everything. Partially autobiographical you get insight into the events that have shaped John’s life and ministry. This also gives people like me a better grasp of the black experience in America.

He also provides some background to Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and summarizes the Three R’s (relocation, reconciliation and redistribution). He also allows himself to dream and invites us to share his dream.

So, there is a little bit of everything John is about in this book. Hopefully it will pique interest in his other books to develop areas on interest more deeply.

John has about a third grade education, and notes he had some help in the process of writing (we all need good editors). As a result the book is easy to understand and generally easy to read. It is not overly complex but not simplistic either. At times it does seem to change direction unexpectedly. There is a stream of consciousness feel to it as if you’re sitting down and listening to John over a cup of tea (you can have coffee if you’d like).

He begins with his story as part of the larger story of segregation in America. Things most of us take for granted were out of the realm of possibility for many/most black Americans. For instance, he noted not only blacks having different waiting rooms for the doctor, but not having appointments. They were for white people, and blacks got the left over time on a first come, first served basis. The medical clinic he founded in Mendenhall was intended to help blacks gain access to health care as if they were white people. And they didn’t exclude whites.

“Black citizens weren’t allowed to participate in the society they had spent centuries helping to build.”

He then shifts into the history of the CCDA. It is based on a biblical view of a new humanity in Christ living and working together for the common good. It is a vision of a “multiethnic, multicultural, multigenerational, multiclass” community based on the same elements in God’s kingdom.

Perkins returns to race relations more specifically in talking about poor whites. Often the only relationships in which they had an power was in their relationships with blacks. They were often damaged and gained some sense of power and worth by playing the oppressor toward the one group lower on the social scale then they were. This, in turn, damaged them even more (oppression damages both the oppressed and the oppressor).

“Wealthy whites also used the poor whites as tools of oppression, making them overseers or guards or sheriffs charged with taking care of the dirty work to keep black people in their place so they didn’t have to. In reality, though, this just fueled the resentment between blacks and poor whites.”

He moves toward his experience with non-violence in the face of oppression. The move away from this is one of the things that concerns him about the present and the future. He believes people have the power to win with love, but often think they don’t (or don’t have the time) and resort to violence and rioting that makes they no better than their oppressors.

“In the face of power, some resort to violence as a way to create chaos. That’s terrorism. That’s what people use when they don’t have the power to win. Nonviolence is a better way. It’s radical.”

“I quickly came to realize that nonviolence takes more strength than violence- and it takes more than just human strength. It takes God’s strength working in human beings to produce self-control, gentleness, and the other fruit of the Holy Spirit. God’s power comes in our weakness and brokenness.”

From here he moves into the 3 R’s mentioned above. To assist a community, he believes it is best to live there. This often means relocating into the community so you help from the inside, not the outside (and security of your gated community). While there you seek reconciliation between groups and individuals in conflict. This can be race, class, culture or other barriers used by sin to divide and impoverish. He speaks of the redistribution of opportunity, not free stuff. Not working robs people of dignity. He addresses stewardship- sharing our skills and opportunities (like networks) with people who don’t have those skills or opportunities. These new relationships give the poor new opportunities. In the Gospel we see Jesus “relocating” to planet Earth as a man, reconciling all creation to God through the cross and making Himself poor to enrich others. This notion of incarnation is addressed in the next chapter.

“Reconciliation is God bringing people into relationship with Himself and other people. Redistribution is caring for others’ needs as we care for our own.”

“I long to see the church give up its power and privilege the way Jesus did when he came to earth to give us the greatest of gifts.”

Perkins then talks about justice, and the differences between theology done by whites and blacks. He speaks in generalizations, obviously, but those differences affect how we view justice. White evangelical theology has focused on the personal side of redemption thanks to our commitment to individualism (among other things and despite some people’s commitment to covenant theology). Black theology, often written in response to white oppression sees redemption as communal as well as individual. Both are true and in tension with one another. But we tend to be polarized and talk past one another (on many topics unfortunately). He notes how both sides have sins in need of repentance and forgiveness.

After a very personal chapter about his son Spencer, he moves into human dignity, the final fight (love) and forgiveness. I’m not sure about the order there but all three are important if we are to discuss reconciliation and justice. He sees the church as the primary communicator of these truths. Sadly, we’ve allowed tribalism (Democrat vs. Republican, black vs. white, poor vs. rich etc.) to set in so we now disparage those who disagree with us (unAmerican, denier, homophobic etc.). He mentions immigration in particular (recognizing government’s role as possibly different from a Christian’s view) as a place we should be able to talk, and disagree, peaceably.

“So becoming a Christian is discovering God’s love for us, and being a Christian is learning to love God back- and then finding ways to show God’s overflowing love to the people around us.”

I certainly agree with him that the noise in our culture is too loud and we must move beyond it to think and act as responsible people instead of performing a series of knee jerk reactions that perpetuate the conflicts of our time.

“There is too much noise in our society right now, and that noise just keeps getting louder. We need quiet time for reflection. We need to be still and know that God is God.”

He briefly concludes with his dream which shouldn’t surprise us if we were paying attention throughout the book. It is the dream of a civil rights leader and Christian. It is a dream we should all share, one that is not simply about externals but about the heart. I leave John Perkins with the final word.

“I want to see a real community of love. Everyone wants to fight crime, fight violence, fight racism, and fight injustice, but love is still the final fight, and unless we have these communities of love, we will never see this dream realized.”

[I received a complementary copy from Baker Books for the purposes of review.]

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Good and Angry: Letting Go of Irritation, Complaining, and BitternessWe all struggle with anger. It is part of the human experience. Some of us struggle more than others. And our struggle may be different. Some people struggle to show anger. Others are always a road rage incident waiting to happen. Books about anger are varied in their approach and their quality.

Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness by David Powlison is a new book about anger. It is one of the better books on the subject of anger.

He begins by identifying our problem with anger. It isn’t simply the guy with the red face, huffing and puffing while he yells at everyone. Anger is more nuanced than that. It is also expressed in irritation, frustration, complaining and arguing. When we have a more appropriate, more encompassing definition we see that we all have anger issues. He describes the various relationships we have with anger, and the lies we can believe about our anger. He spends time explaining that this book really is about you, and everyone else.

He then explains anger as a function of love. If you never get angry you really don’t love anything or anyone. This is why God gets angry: He loves. He loves His people. He also loves all that is good and holy. Anything that harms His people or violates His goodness is subject to His anger. He responds with anger. Because He is righteous, His anger is always in the proper measure and about the proper things. Ours? A mixed bag. Sometimes we are angry because our “rules” are broken, our kingdom threatened; not God’s. Or our anger is too much or too little for the sin in question.

This means that anger is “natural”, a part of being in the image of God. But like that image, it is now distorted because of our sinfulness.

Powlison moves into the constructive displeasure of mercy. It “holds out promises of forgiveness, inviting wrongdoers to new life.” Anger can motivate to destroy sin. But it can also motivate us in constructive directions like patience and forgiveness. Anger isn’t always given the final word, sometimes that word is forgiveness.

“God is love, and God is slow to anger. He intends to make us like himself. To be slow to anger means you are willing to work with wrong over time.”

He distinguishes, quite helpfully, between attitudinal forgiveness and transacted forgiveness. The first is about you. It does not require the other person to ask for forgiveness. It is about letting them off the hook, absorbing the loss so you no longer want to destroy them. This enables you to approach them to reconcile which is the essence of transacted forgiveness: reconciliation. You can forgive without being reconciled (with an abuser for instance). Remembering that it requires two to be reconciled, you can forgive even though the other person doesn’t want to be reconciled or admit they’ve done anything wrong.

“The attitudinal forgiveness means you can always deal with things that poison your own heart. Transacted forgiveness and actual reconciliation are desirable fruits, but not always attainable.”

He then moves into two other aspects of constructive displeasure: charity and constructive conflict. Charity is, in some ways, hard love or love in hard times. You continue to seek what is best for the other person. Constructive conflict moves toward the person to do that hard work of not simply reconciling, but addressing the sin that sabotages the relationship.

TImage result for frank underwoodhe chapter entitled Good and Angry? focuses on God and His anger. His anger fills the Bible because the Bible is filled with humanity’s rebellion. Our anger does not need to be suppressed, but remade, redeemed. He then moves to James 4 to help us explain why we get angry. We are looking out for ourselves and our kingdoms. I noted in my margin that “we are all Frank Underwood building our own house of cards.” He then moves us to the reality that God gives more grace and what change looks like.

Powlison than proposes 8 questions to take your anger apart so you can be put back together. These questions are attempts to apply what he’d been talking about from James 4.

He then has a series of chapters on tough cases: forgiving unspeakable sins, the everyday angers, being angry with yourself and angry with God. This was, in my opinion, some of the best material in the book. He addressed topics that aren’t often addressed, at least helpfully.

While this is a very good book, I thought the real strength was in the second half of the book. He uses questions at the end of each chapter to help you process and apply the material. I need to go back over those questions. Since anger is such a common problem this would be a helpful book for pastors, elders, parents and just about everyone. It is accessible, easy to understand and helpful. It is a helpful addition for your library.

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11001532_10206025186488500_1318611866669102824_oMy mother has Alzheimer’s. She was diagnosed in the Fall of 2013, if I remember correctly. That’s because I went to visit my parents in the summer of 2014 and she was to the point that she didn’t know who I was.

I never got to say ‘good-bye’, at least so she’d know what was happening. It is hard to see a person who looks like your mother, but who doesn’t remember the last 60 or so years of her life. She doesn’t know who my father is, and calls him “The Boss”. The woman I knew is gone.

She lives in fear. She’s always been a fearful person, but there is less of a capacity to deal with her fear. When I visited with the kids she nearly panicked if they were even remotely near the road. But having them play outside was better than having her not letting them play inside (as happened on a previous visit).

It is tough to consider her life. In many ways she had a hard life as a kid. In some ways this made it difficult for her to be a mother, and to be her son. Nothing like Mommie Dearest, but difficult.

She was born in 1936, shortly before WWII. She was the eldest of 9 kids, and the only girl. That had to be difficult. I think that she, as a kid herself, raised some of her brothers. In some ways I’m not sure she had a childhood, or really knew how to be a mature parent. She did the best she could.

That was actually her understanding of life: God expected you to do the best you could. At least that is what she told the Mormon missionary who came to our door when I was a young Christian. I wish this were so since she was a nominal Catholic who did her best to raise us in the Church. I, her last son, was the only one to be confirmed. Having fulfilled her commitment, I was now free to choose whether or not I went to Mass. I didn’t.

As a teenager I felt like the Gerry Cooney of our family- the last Great White Hope. All my parents hopes seemed to be set on me. That is only my perspective. They never said that. But I was the one who went to college. I am the one with advanced degrees.

She also carried secrets. When I graduated from high school we all went out for dinner. She had a little too much wine, and the next thing I knew I heard about a miscarriage. The woman who had 8 brothers, and at the time had 2 sons lost a little girl. If that girl had been born, I wouldn’t have. I know of a few more, but who knows how many secrets she carried until she lost them all.

I struggled as I fell into the family’s sins. There was warning, but no apparent capacity to help me untangle myself from those sins. One of those sins was her sin- she was an angry person. At times my friends and I took a hellish delight in provoking her to anger.

My real struggle was with her apparent lack of boundaries, or at least her inability to respect mine. She thought she was being helpful. I thought she was being intrusive. I loved her, but I wanted her to realize I was an adult. I think she figured that out by the time I got married, when I was 36.

I think this desire to still parent kids drove her for years. She would baby sit for teachers at the school down the street.

Oh, there were positives. She was the saver in the family. She tried to pass that frugality on to us. She made me save my money from the paper route to pay for driver’s education. When I had it all, she only made me pay half of it. That was a bit frustrating, since I could have taken driver’s ed earlier.

Relationships with parents can be complex. As I tried to sort ours out, I didn’t always handle it well. As a young Christian I wanted something better for them than “doing their best.” I wanted her to know the freedom of forgiveness, to stop having to protect those secrets. I was probably disrespectful. At times I pushed. I didn’t understand how authority affects evangelism. They probably had not idea what to do with me. Thankfully they didn’t cast me out after my conversion like a few of my friends did.

Later, while in a counseling degree program I was angry. I withdrew. It was my relationship with my eventual wife that changed it. Family is important to her. I also knew I had plenty of baggage and I didn’t want her to suffer for the sins of others. I began to address my own anger. I began to realize that my parents didn’t have the capacity to understand or own up to certain things. I couldn’t wait for an apology before forgiving them.

I think CavWife was the only daughter-in-law she liked and respected. I think. It was hard since she really didn’t reach out to CavWife. I’m glad she got to hold her granddaughter. I’m glad she got to visit us here in AZ. My kids did not get her sense of humor. Oh, well.

I still deal with the debris, but I’m choosing not to hang on to things.

Another incremental step in her decline presses in. I’m not sure the best path for my father to take. I’m not sure how to support him from 2,000 miles away.

It still makes it difficult to process her absence because it was a complicated relationship. As a result my desire to mourn seems complicated too. And not just because she is here but also isn’t. I reach for thoughts and words but they seem so slippery.  I’m left with memories, conflicting and confusing (at times) memories.

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I have a love/hate relationship with pre-marital counseling. I enjoy doing it, and it is important to do. I have yet to find the best material for me to use. I’ve tried a variety of options. I want a balance between structure and freedom (this is generally true of me). I want to be faithful and cover the basics. But I want the freedom to follow what I discover. We aren’t just dealing with topics, but with people who have real histories that need to be uncovered because their relationship is unlike any other.

I feel like I’ve ping-ponged over the abyss as I’ve tried (in my own perfectionistic baggage) to find the perfect balance. I apologize to the many “guinea pigs” I’ve worked with over the years.

With a couple preparing for marriage I’ve waded into these murky waters again. Last time I adapted some of the materials in my “soon-to-be-published” book. I’m sure of of that will hang on, but I wanted to cover some of the standard topics better.

As a result, I purchased two books. One of them was Tying the Knot by Rob Green. This is an attempt to have Christ-centered pre-marital counseling. “Jesus” and “Center” are part of each chapter title. He covers your life, love, problem solving, roles and expectations, communication, finances, community and intimacy. His desire is to see all of these things in light of the object of your faith: Jesus. Each chapter has homework to process the information and apply it in your relationship. It is intended for use with a pastor or mentor in preparation.

A pastor or mentor is important precisely because we need to be pushed. There are things we would rather not talk about. This is the way we are. We want to duck the hard questions. People “in love” don’t want the boat rocked. They think they have arrived, they have found their soul mate. The search is over, but hard questions can question that conclusion. A good mentor will be able to tell a couple there are serious concerns. Struggles are okay- they deepen love or reveal we’re really into self-interest not actual love. So don’t deny struggles, or make too much of them. What matters is what you do with them.

He does start with each person’s relationship with Christ. He wants to encourage them to have Christ as of utmost importance to each future spouse. Too often people cling to a cultural form of Christianity. We treat Jesus as an optional add-on to life as opposed to the most important person in our lives. Jesus is a king, and Christians are part of His kingdom and are to keep that kingdom central. When we don’t, we become more like neighboring nations that continually fight for control. Our kingdoms begin to matter too much and the person who threatens our kingdom must be conquered or eliminated.

Green then distinguishes between a worldly understanding of love and a biblical one. Real love isn’t about epic dates and woozy feelings. It is about sticking together in the midst of adversity, short-term and long-term. God doesn’t bail on us. He enables us to not bail on each other whether it is the flu, job loss, cancer etc. He expounds 1 Corinthians 13, and reveals how we have been loved by Christ.

Problem solving is a problem for many of us because we are “hurt hoarders”: we do keep a record of wrongs which creates long-term problems in a relationship. He focused on recording their wrongs and the growth of bitterness. We can also record our wrongs and withdraw out of a sense of guilt, shame and failure. Both make solving problems increasingly difficult. He covers some of the lies we can believe about problems that create more problems. He then lays out some basic principles to keep in mind. He brings the freedom we should experience due to the doctrine of justification to confess our sin, and to forgive theirs. For couples or individuals who really struggle with this I’d recommend When Sinners Say “I Do”.

With roles and expectations Green briefly delves into the reality of roles as God-given, and the differing expectations we have. I think he does a good job of distinguishing between roles and expectations. Too often they are confused. Expectations are person-relative. Roles are God-established. An overly progressive or liberal view makes roles all person-relative because men and women are interchangeable. Some conservatives try to cram expectations into roles. There are no divine dictates about who cooks, does dishes or takes out the trash. Each couple works through those things in light of the gifts, interests, competing time demands and responsibilities etc. Each person comes from a different family culture and the couple needs to form a new family culture that is faithful in that to which God speaks and loving & wise in that to which He doesn’t.

In communication he focuses on words as the overflow of the heart. We all need renewed hearts. Only Jesus can renew our hearts. Too often we speak in ways that diminish, wound and degrade our spouses. When your kingdom is on the line you will not care about collateral damage. And this is the problem.

In discussing finances, Green wants us to see ourselves as stewards. This means that how we spend our money is tied to our relationship with Christ. His kingdom, not our own, should determine where our money goes. Too many people give little thought to Jesus when they think about cars, homes, vacations, snack food etc. We’ve been trained to think about the environment, or “fair trade”. But most haven’t been trained to think about stewardship. That’s important too! More important actually.

He includes a rarity in pre-marital counseling material- a chapter on church. He talks about community and one of those communities is the faith community. It is one of the ways we keep Jesus in the center, and a manifestation of Jesus being in the center. He loves the Church! It is His Bride. How can we love Jesus and not love His Bride. Oh, unlike Him she is far from perfect. She’s like us, and therefore hard to love at times. Loving the Church is part of how we learn to love like Jesus.

He wraps up with intimacy, or sex. We tend to keep Jesus out of our sex lives. I am reminded of Only the Lonely when he brings her home for dinner together. Mom has gone out and this is going to be the big night when they finally fornicate. In the bedroom there is a statue of Jesus, so he puts a hat over the statue thinking then God won’t see. We fail to see Jesus as the Creator of our bodies and therefore of sex. He has authority over our sex lives and does regulate them. Sex is intended to strengthen the one flesh union as an expression of love, not self-interest. That shapes how we talk and do sex in marriage.

Tying the Knot covers almost all of the essential topics. It is a very readable book and is not verbose. He gets to the point, sometimes a little too quickly.

He could have spent a little more time developing Christ as the Creator and Lord of marriage and His supremacy and sufficiency in all things related to life and marriage. But better a book this size than the size of mine. He was able to stay focused and that is helpful for young couples on the road to marriage.

I’m surprise that child bearing and rearing is not really covered. I say this since “be fruitful and multiply” is part of the creation mandate (and Noahic covenant and Abrahamic promise), and forms one of the purposes of marriage. We live in a culture where marriage and children are increasingly separated as evidenced by more children being born outside of marriage, and more couples choosing to be childless (a national magazine had this as its cover story a few years ago). It is one of the topics I encourage friends to discuss before they are engaged. If you can’t get on the same page regarding children and how they will be raised there will be many conflicts surrounding those topics. I found this to be a glaring omission.

But all together, I thought this was a very good book. I plan to use this book and not the other with the young couple coming for pre-marital counseling this summer. It doesn’t say everything, but what it says it does say well.

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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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Thanks to Augustine hope and despair have been on my mind. In the wake of the recent events in Ferguson, I’ve had many thoughts about all if it. Like most people I’ve read lots of musings on the situation, some of them good and some not so good. I find that most commentators hit one aspect of the situation. That is okay as long as we don’t expect them to speak exhaustively. As I’ve turned this over in my mind I see so many angles to it.

On Sunday I used Isaiah 9:1-7 for my sermon text. I’d already planned on that text well over a month ago. It proved very appropriate in the wake of a week like last week.

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
3 You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
4 For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

The Light arrives in the midst of darkness. Here we see the darkness of injustice and oppression. The Son of David would come to end injustice and oppression. His reign is one of justice and righteousness. We who are Christians affirm the NT teaching that this child is Jesus the Light of the World and the Son of David who sits on his eternal throne now.

Scripture and history point us to an already/not yet understanding of this text. Jesus has already come to redeem His people. Jesus already sits upon the throne. Jesus has not yet removed all injustice and unrighteousness. That awaits His second advent. The kingdom has been inaugurated, continues and awaits consummation or completion.

This means we live in the time between times. We, as Christians, have the capacity to treat others with justice and righteousness. But we live in a society that is marked by injustice and unrighteousness. This should not surprise us. We see this in Hebrews 2:

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.

Nothing, it says, is outside His control even though it may not look like it. There is still rebellion within His realm. Remember, we were numbered among the rebels. It was His role as the Lamb of God that removed the guilt of our rebellion. We, too, deserved the just wrath of God for our part in the unrighteous and injustice of the world. Those who suffer injustice often respond with injustice and unrighteousness as well. There is a dark, vicious spiral involved. It requires the grace of God to break it. First He breaks it in individuals. Those individuals can work to break it in society by seeking just laws or enforcing just laws. Those who have been oppressed need to share in the power, not to bring an opposite form of oppression but pursue righteousness and justice.

Christ holds off His return, as I mentioned Sunday, to apply the redemption purchased to the elect. This is what is going on behind 2 Peter 3:

9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

We see that God is working out a number of purposes, seemingly in conflict with one another. He is bringing grace to some of the oppressed and oppressors. He is showing justice to some of the oppressed and oppressors. He is working out judgment and salvation, as well as guiding His people into righteousness all in the midst of the darkness of this world.

“Often times the poor man is the oppressor by unjust clamors. We should labor to give the best interpretation to the actions of governors that the nature of actions will possibly bear.” Richard Sibbes

Many of us see this and are tempted to despair. We see these eruptions of injustice and violence and fear that we’ve made no process. Despair can kill us. We can give up and just let the situation continue unabated. We can give up in a deeper sense and either forsake the truth or fight the monster and become the monster in the process.

There is some cause for despair, in a good and not giving up sense. While we have been justified, Christians are not fully sanctified.This means we still sin. We still have blind spots (race issues can be one of them!). The gospel has already begun to transform us into the image of Christ but has not yet finished its work.

Note what Calvin says about us:

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 might 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 goal, trying hard to reach our objective, not fooling ourselves with vain illusions or excusing our own vices.

This sentiment found its way into the Heidelberg Catechism.

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.

If we cannot act with perfect righteousness and justice how can we expect an unbelieving world to do so. So, we should despair or give up hope in human governments accomplishing this. As Isaiah 9 notes, only the zeal of the Lord will accomplish all this. Hope, as Red noted in The Shawshank Redemption, is a dangerous thing. If our hope is in earthly perfect apart from the return of Christ, we will experience the bad form of despair that resorts to resignation or violence.

“A holy despair in ourselves is the ground of true hope.” Richard Sibbes

Let us set our hope on God’s promises to be fully accomplished upon the return of Christ. This hope can sustain us in the midst of the continuing darkness. It also helps us to rejoice over the modest gains as we see people exhibiting righteousness and justice. We need to remember that God works on the behalf of those who wait for Him. Such waiting is not passive. For instance, William Wilberforce longed to see England free of slavery. He worked for years, first to end the slave trade and then to end slavery. It took decades, and many setbacks, but he saw God bring this about. Yet there was still much work to be done in the human heart which is “naturally” filled with evil and inclined toward unrighteousness.

18 Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
    and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
    blessed are all those who wait for him. Isaiah 30

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul who seeks him. Lamentations 3

Righteousness and justice do not come easily or quickly. It times waiting for them feels like we are dying. We want everything to change now. A rightly understood hope enables us to wait. And suffer while we wait if need be.

16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. 1 Peter 4

Peter, who watched Jesus suffer unjustly, suffered unjustly. We do well to receive his counsel to the early Church. If we suffer we should entrust ourselves to our Faithful Creator and Redeemer. Instead of a useless rage or foolish resignation, we trust. As we trust, we continue to do good.

Doing good can have many faces. It includes forgiving those who acted with injustice. This prevents bitterness from growing and corrupting your response to injustice. It includes helping those who have been harmed by injustice. You can help them pick up the pieces of their lives. It can mean running for office or seeking a promotion that enables change.

Let us remember that there is a despair and a hope that can kill us. There is also a form of despair and hope that can grant life as we lean upon Christ.

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God Loves Sex, now that is a book title! Sadly that is a concept that is foreign to so many Christians. It is easy to get that idea if you do a selective reading of the Bible. It is easy to find all the “do not’s” and get the idea that God doesn’t really like sex and views it only as a means to a procreative end. This kind of view has led many to take an allegorical approach to The Song of Songs, a book in the Bible which I believe exalts the beauty (and frustration) of a redeemed marital sexuality.

It has been a number of years since Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III have collaborated on a book together. It has been a very beneficial collaboration, in my mind. This particular collaboration is highly dependent on Longman’s commentary on The Song. I recently read that commentary to prepare for a Sunday School series on the Song. I’m grateful that this book was released in time for me to read it as well.

This is not an academic look at The Song. While it is dependent on Longman’s commentary it is not a commentary. Allender’s contribution is seen in the subtitle: An Honest Conversation About Sexual Desire and Holiness. It is written to the heart too, inviting us to ponder our sexuality and its expression in our lives.

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I’ve been trying to not say anything about Ferguson. There are too many problems at work (obstruction, militarization of the police, racial profiling, riots & looting, racism, media manipulation, social activism …) and our culture has a tendency to be reductionistic. There is also a problem of a lack of knowledge (what are the facts?) as well as understanding.

Let’s start by saying that I am writing this as the white father of a black son (and daughter). I have concerns about when they are older and not with me or their mother. At this moment we don’t live in a community with many African-Americans. The racial issues seem to be more about the white vs. Hispanic or white vs. Native American populations. I grew up in a place where the most common minorities were Puerto Ricans (usually poor) and French Canadians (often middle class).

These realities color my perspective. I understand that. So while I don’t want unarmed teenagers gunned down by police or citizens, whether they are black or white, I have seen too many times when our country has been burned when more facts come out. I remember the Tawana Brawley hoax (thanks Al Sharpton), the fact that Zimmerman was a “white Hispanic” and not just Hispanic who was physically assaulted. I remember the false accusations against the Duke Lacrosse team who while not angels were not rapists either. In other words, there is a growing list of false accusations by one community (and the press) against the other. As a result, I withhold judgment precisely because we’ve been through this before.

As a white man, I see knee jerk reactions (fed by the media AND the police who routinely refuse to release information that could defuse situations). I do want accurate, timely information. I completely understand a community’s desire to get information. I see peaceful protest, like Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated, as the best option. Too often I see violent protests and looting (they make for good headlines, I know). Frustration is vented in the wrong directions, and it ends up looking like Do the Right Thing, Part 2. Misplaced rage is an ugly thing and the wrong people get hurt, financially or physically. I still remember the clips of the Rodney King riots when the man was pulled from the truck and beaten with a cement block.

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unPlanned is the story of how Abby Johnson went from being the director of a Planned Parenthood (PP) office to being an advocate for the pro-life movement. It is a story worth reading as she tries to fairly assess both sides of this controversial issue. She has seen the issue from both sides and hates the extremes of both sides.

In an earlier post I mentioned the disconnect. Her story begins with disconnect. Her life and doctrine were disconnected. She believed one thing and did another. This led her to have secrets. She makes an interesting observation about secrets.

“Once it had taken hold within me, my secret had the power to shape and influence my reasoning, my perspective, my conscience. Years later, I would discover that the box in my soul wasn’t sealed as well as I’d thought. It was releasing undetectable yet poisonous fumes that wafted through my soul in silence and contaminated my heart.”

Her secret was that before her first (ill-advised) marriage she had her first abortion. She now understands more of the implications. She had to face not only the killing of her child, but depriving her parents of grandchildren. We don’t live on an island. And those secrets leak out. They shape our decisions and our perspective on the world.

Her secret made her an easy recruit for PP in college. She rightfully wanted to help women but her own baggage had to be justified. She heard the talking points about wanting to make abortion rare, and feeling guilty wanted to defend herself and others from the perceived condemnation of the pro-life movement. She is honest about the power of self-deception. She started to tell herself little lies, and then bigger lies, to justify her increasing role within PP.

The wicked flee when no one pursues,
    but the righteous are bold as a lion. Proverbs 28

She speaks of her spiritual struggle during those years. God seemed so far away from her. She didn’t understand why. But she did experience rejection from one church when they discovered where she worked. She and her husband were denied membership and encouraged to move on. Later, after her “conversion” she was essentially told to leave the “pro-choice” denomination with its liturgy that slowly reshaped her heart. Strange how pastors can allow such issues to keep them from ministering to people. I may have denied her membership, but invited her to stay and “see what happens.” That might not have been welcome words. But God can change hearts.

13 Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
    but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. Proverbs 28

She shares her perspective on the pro-life movement as an outsider. She entered PP thinking they were mostly extremists. Dhe did  meet some extremists. at the fence which while literal also functioned as a metaphor throughout the book. But she also met compassionate, caring people at the fence too. There were more of them, and they worked to get rid of the crazies. Slowly her misconceptions about the pro-life movement were being challenged. She struggled with the paranoia of PP’s leadership and yet found it a safe place to hide due to her own guilt all at the same time. She also came to see, slowly, that the talking points were just that- talking points that really didn’t reflect the decisions being made by those in power.

She does not get into the “politics” of the issue. There is no mention of a politician. But as I ruminated on the book and the time frame of the events I noticed something. Senator Obama’s talking points on abortion during the Presidential election (which duped so many evangelicals) sounded remarkably like Planned Parenthood’s talking points, including making abortion rare. Yet, it was during his administration that PP lost their grant money for birth-control. This meant that more children would be conceived in less than desirable circumstances so women sought divorce, and PP needed to perform more abortions to pay their bills. That was the money-maker and they pushed directors to perform more, and were contemplating doing late-term abortions.

Abby was caught in the middle of this change by what was happening inwardly. The rules had changed on her and she was asked to go beyond her comfort zone. It seemed increasingly less about helping women and more about ideology and making money. And then came the fateful day.

The title is a double entendre: she was “removed” from PP, and this was not her plan. But it was someone’s plan: God’s. Many of the pro-life leaders in her community had been praying for her for years. Those prayers began to be answered as she was forced to participate in an ultra-sound guided abortion. She saw what actually happened inside the womb during an abortion. She could not prop up her shaky convictions with the well-intended lies anymore. Now she knew she had to get out.

Those who forsake the law praise the wicked,
    but those who keep the law strive against them.
Evil men do not understand justice,
    but those who seek the Lord understand it completely. Proverbs 28

The continues her story as she finds help from her former “enemies” and betrayal at the hands of “friends.” It moves into the injunction PP sought against her (without grounds) and her “coming out” to the media.

This book is a quick read. It moves along fairly well, though there were times I did want her to move faster. It comes across, to me, as an honest, humble read. It is, at times, an emotionally difficult read. There will most likely be tears. It tries (and mostly succeeds) to be a fair read. She doesn’t demonize PP though she is honest about the actions of some people in PP. She does see a difference between the average volunteer and those higher up in the organization. She was wronged by them as they turned on her for leaving. She made no public statements until after they made a press release. It is important to know that there is often a big difference in motive between PP and many who volunteer or work there. Her unspoken lesson is that we need to win them to “our side” in a way similar to how she was won over: prayer while you wait for God to act.

Copernican revolutions are never easy. In this case she had the support of her husband and family who never wanted her working there in the first place. She found newer, truer friends among many of those who had been praying for her for years. They loved her even when she was on the other side of the fence. She lost many “situational friendships” when she left PP. They didn’t love her despite their differences of opinion on this ethical matter: She was seen as betrayer and persona non grata.

On the flip side, she found forgiveness as she admitted her own sin. She experienced freedom from condemnation for her own abortions, and the many she had participated in. She wants people to hear the offer of grace, not the words of condemnation. Those of us who are pro-life need to be reminded all too often.

It is a book I wish more people would read because it is honest about PP. The good, and the bad. It gets past the talking points and propaganda we hear. It is like something of a cult in many ways. They have a doctrine that is disconnected from practice, an outward face that hides the inward reality. They are afraid of those “outside” and paint them in the worst possible light. They turn like rabid dogs on those who leave. Yeah, perhaps we need to talk about the cult of Planned Parenthood and its child sacrifice.

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Everybody has done it. No, not that it. I’m talking about gossip, and while I’m sure a couple of people in addition to Jesus haven’t partaken of gossip, the number is quite small. Even little children gossip; we call it tattling. Elderly women are known for being busy bodies. We do it at lunch with co-workers, over dinner with friends and over the phone with other members of our church. Gossip is such a part of us we usually don’t know that we are doing it. There are whole industries devoted to feeding our appetite for gossip. But when we are caught we feel nearly as much shame as if we were doing the other thing.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. Romans 1

There aren’t many books that deal with gossip which is strange for such a common sin. We minimize how serious it is, but it shows up in the list of sins found in Romans 1. Often we focus on the sins of others, especially those outside of the church, and neglect those sins that have a serious foothold among those in the church.

Resisting Gossip by Matthew C. Mitchell is not only a much needed contribution but an excellent contribution that should be read by church leaders and …. well, just about everybody (see my intro above, and note the questions at the end of each chapter). Mitchell always keeps an eye on the gospel as he exegetes our hearts and shows us how to fight the war of the wagging tongue (to play on his subtitle). He also follows a thoughtful plan in laying out the book.

Mitchell begins with a definition of sinful gossip. His working definition is “the sin of gossip is bearing bad news about behind someone’s back out of a bad heart.” This recognizes a few things. There are times in which it is okay to bear bad news about a person. Church discipline would be impossible if we could not do that. It has to do with the motivation. The motivation of gossip is usually to either be “in the know” or to harm the other person’s reputation.

Like the author, I am an information junkie. In my counseling classes we often talked about “the vows” that people make to never be hurt again. Or look stupid again. Or …. I remember a time when I was about 12. A teammate’s father was giving me a ride home from a basketball game. He asked if I liked BTO (Bachman-Turner Overdrive for those of you not in the know). Clueless as to what he meant. I felt embarrassed, and didn’t want to feel that again. It begins to dominate your life, and it knows no bounds. You move from facts about stuff to the dirt on people. It feels good to be in the know. It feels horrible to be the last to know.

“There are a number of sinful heart motivations that can produce sinful gossip. The good news is that the gospel of Jesus Christ has answers for them all.”

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There has been a wave of books recently on the topic of homosexuality. I haven’t read them all. Out of the Far Country by Christopher Yuan and his mother Angela tells the story of his life as a gay man and subsequent conversion after ending up in prison. The non-biographical Love into Light by Peter Hubbard was very good. Is God Anti-Gay? by Sam Allberry is also very good though it is shorter (though in need of a different title). One thing that sets this book apart from Hubbard’s is that Sam admits that he experiences same sex attraction (SSA). Like Yuan, Allberry takes a conservative approach to the Scriptures. What is significant is that both of them end up saying, “Yes, this applies to me too.” They seek to live by what they teach which should eliminate at least some of the pushback. They are not homophobes, they don’t claim to now be heterosexual and they are celibate.

Sam starts off with the words of Jesus to all who want to follow Him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. Mark 8

He does this to show that everyone who comes to Christ repents, or turns away from all they were seeking life in in order to receive life in Christ. We all have to put parts of our life to death. This was clear to me even before I became a Christian. This is why it took a year for me to become a Christian- I didn’t want to give up my sin. All of us are the same before God if we are not united to Christ by faith, we are dead in sins and trespasses. Homosexuals are not in some special class.

“Every Christian is called to costly sacrifice. Denying yourself does not mean tweaking your behavior here and there. It is saying ‘No’ to your deepest sense of who you are, for the sake of Christ. To take up your cross is to declare your life (as you have known it) forfeit.”

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Our world is insane about many things. Sin will do that, produce a form of insanity. But when it comes to Sex & Money, our world is really crazy. Paul Tripp’s newest book is about these “pleasures that leave you empty and the grace that satisfies.”

He confesses that this was a very difficult book for him to write, precisely because of what it revealed about his own heart. Really, that is what most of this book is about: the heart. The manifestations of a heart gone astray he’s focused on are sex and money. This is not an easy book to read for the very same reasons- the waywardness of your own heart will be revealed.

“I am sad to think that when it comes to sex and money, we still buy into the legalism that says if we can organize people’s lives, give them the right set of rules, and attach them to efficient systems of accountability, we can deliver people from their sex-and-money insanity. … Few areas of the human struggle reveal more powerfully the sad sinfulness of sin than the sex-and-money evils that are done thousands of times every day.”

He begins the book with a series of scenarios that illustrate our insanity when it comes to sex and money.

  • A fifteen year-old self-appointed expert on oral sex.
  • An 8 year-old boy who is addicted to internet pornography.
  • A married man who masturbates daily.
  • Teachers having sex with under age students (nearly nightly on the news these days).
  • Unemployed high school students bombarded with offers for credit cards.
  • The average amount of consumer debt people carry creating an “anxiety-producing dance debt.”
  • Governments worldwide are deep in debt, near bankruptcy. And their citizens are rioting because they don’t get enough benefits.

And we could go on. You could go on. I know of pastors arrested in “massage parlors”. I know people arrested in the sting operations designed to get men trying to have sex with minors. And these are only what comes out in public. What of the sex and money sins that are still hidden?

“Both offer you an inner sense of well-being while having no capacity whatsoever to satisfy your heart.”

But there is a deeper theological orientation that Tripp wants us to consider: both creation and redemption. He made us sexual beings. He placed us in a world where sex and money issues are unavoidable and significant part of our ordinary experience. You should get the feeling that you are living in your own version of Deuteronomy 8: test, humbled and too often found wanting. Yet…

“The gospel graces us with everything we need to celebrate and participate in both areas of life in a way that honors God and fully enjoys the good things he’s given us to enjoy.”

Tripp moves into the dangerous dichotomy, expanding on the fact that God is Creator. One of the teachings that has done us much harm is that some of life is sacred and some is secular. The fact of creation shows, as Paul says in Colossians 1, that everything was made by God and for God. It is all intended to bring Him glory, and us good. it is all under His rule. A gospel-centered approach starts here because sex and money aren’t the real problem. We are.

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In my sermon series on Colossians, Christ: Supreme & Sufficient, I am getting to the section on sanctification which includes some “vice lists”. What is a pastor to do?

First, Paul is addressing not only sins among the Colossians in general, but among the Colossian Christians. They had to put them to death, and put them off precisely because they were committing them. The sin lists are appropriate for most Christian communities regardless of their context: people struggle with sex, anger & hatred, their speech, covetousness and bias/prejudice/hatred based on ethnic background and culture.

The question I spent half the night (and many other hours spread over the past few months, and years) pondering is how much about my personal life (past and present) should I share in the context of preaching about these sins.

First, I don’t want to give the impression I have arrived, or never sinned. I know, some people live in a make believe land where their pastor never sinned big. If he sinned, it was forgetting to cover his mouth when he burped or some other peccadillo. I was not converted until I was 20. I have plenty of baggage from my family of origin, and plenty of sins (big and small) from which God has delivered and is delivering me. As Paul Tripp frequently notes, we are all “in the middle of our sanctification.” That means there are sins I used to commit and no longer do. That means there are sins I am still in the process of putting away. That means there are sins that God hasn’t even revealed to me yet because I’m nearly overwhelmed by the ones I know about.

Second, I want to be honest about my past and present struggles so people don’t think they are alone. I’m not going to talk about the sins of someone else in the congregation (“Of course we all realize Tom has a problem with …”). I can’ share stories of church leaders of the past. But they need to know that I need grace, AND find Christ sufficient. I know, it should be obvious to them I sin, but since they don’t live with me they may not see how sin operates in my life. Even then, there is the unseen world of my thoughts that is unknown to all but my closest friends. While they can’t, and shouldn’t, know it all they should know some of it.

But it isn’t that easy. There are a few counter-balances I must weigh in considering what I do and do not share about my past and present.

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Only one set of sins has its own chapter in The Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung. He does not address that set of sins because it is popular to do so (in some circles it is easy to do so).

He addresses them for two reasons. The first is their connection to union in Christ, which Paul draws out in 1 Corinthians 6. The second is that they seem to be the blind spot for the contemporary American Christian. That might not seem obvious to us. Each generation and culture has its blind spots. Earlier generations had a blind spot on issues of race. That is one reason the practice was able to flourish in largely Christian nations. That was why Jim Crow laws and other manifestations of systematic racism were common in this nation in which most people would classify themselves as a Christian.

Sexual sins surround us. Part of Kevin’s point is that while we still call the most grievous manifestations sin (few Christians refuse to call adultery and pornography use sinful) but we have seen an erosion of our sexual mores that represents a significant departure from the biblical standard. Things like fornication, nudity in movies, songs encouraging non-marital sex etc. have become so common place that we are not shocked anymore, and don’t seem to mind them.

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