Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's the Point?

There are times I want to just walk away from this blog and never look back. Times I'm discouraged that some things never seem to gain traction, other times I'm discouraged that I can't spend as much time as I want on it. Admittedly my posting has been sporadic at best recently. I just made it through my "busy season" at work and I followed that up with a nice relaxing vacation. So maybe I'll fully get back in the saddle... or maybe I won't. But you'll still find something up here to provoke thought, challenge, and hopefully encourage. Thank you for being patient, whether waiting for follow-up posts that haven't come, or guest blogs that I haven't delivered, I appreciate your readership.

So why the lament? Well a couple of things I read last week caught my eye and stirred my heart. The first is this tweet from Paul Washer (tried to do the twitter blockquote, but the text doesn't show):
Why do so many young men spend time blogging about theological nuances while the world dies without the Gospel? Why?
Then there's this blog post from Dad Edelen at Cerulean Sanctum: How Would Jesus Blog? I agree with every point of his and I refuse to contribute to the increasing vitriol and hate that is spewed in the name of Christ.

Interestingly, this hate sounds the same regardless of which side you're coming from politically. I may of written about this before. If not, I've certainly thought it. But Get Religion nails it, comparing Westboro Baptist with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

So what do I glean from all this?
  • This blog is just electrons on a screen unless I'm actively doing something. (This is an ongoing struggle for me)
  • I will do everything I can to approach topics in a non-denominational, non-partisan way. My doctrine and politics spill out every now and then, but I assure you that both are rooted not in the particular name of a church or political party, but in the Word of God.

The election cycle is about to heat up again, so expect to see the return of more posts. Also expect to hear about me putting more of what I write about into practice. Hopefully you'll hear about the latter sooner rather than later.

Monday, March 28, 2011

More Like Falling In Love

Last week, I compared Michael Spencer's Mere Churchianity to Francis Chan's Crazy Love. Both address the same problem but come at it from different directions. Yet I think both come to the same conclusion: Jesus is the focus, loving God is the motivation.

Chapter 6 of Crazy Love hits on the motivation. If you're reading the book, you might feel beat up and let down after chapters 4 and 5. Francis leaves no doubt that we "all fall short" (Romans 3:23) regardless of religious or denominational affiliation. The examples of the seven churches in Revelation reminds us that no church is perfect because they are made up of imperfect people.

So what do we do?

When I started reading Mere Churchianity, I had been reading book after book looking for that certain "what" to do to fix the broken church. I read a lot of observations I agreed with while I didn't read much for solutions. The thing is, there isn't a "what". It's about "why". Why do we even bother attending a church? Why do we read our Bibles? Why do we turn to God in prayer? Why should I repent of this sin that I enjoy so much?

My Crazy Love group is made up of a diversity of seekers (and I'm categorizing all of us in that description). Some are dedicated disciples that lean towards the legalistic side, some have backslidden (if that's a word?), some are just hungry to grow deeper, some are looking for fulfilling fellowship. But all of us have the same question: why? If I were to reduce the study to a list of to-dos, we'd eventually break them. If I gave a list of do-nots, we'd go ahead and do them at some point as well. I wish I could say I've been perfectly sinless since I began the group, but I too fall short.

So we need to change our expectations of this study, or any study really, from a list of "whats" and "hows" to focus in on "why". We need to fall in love with God.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Flashback Friday: Where To Now?

This Flashback Friday is a little different. I'm pulling an excerpt from a previous post but expanding on it.

Before I started reading Crazy Love by Francis Chan, I was reading Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer. Both are similar in theme: there's something wrong with the Church. For Michael, it is a lack of being "Jesus Shaped". For Francis, it is being lukewarm. I think both are right, but they have different solutions. Michael encourages to pursue Jesus whole-heartedly, even if that takes you away from you present church. Francis encourages us to fall madly in love with God and do something where we're at.

I'm not going to say one is wrong and one is right. I've come to learn that each of us has our own circumstances that require a response unique to our own walk with Christ. But I do have an observation. I think Revelation 3:20 is one of the most misused verses in the entire Bible. It is the foundation for salvation doctrine for many, though it is written to believers. Michael Spencer somehow uses it to justify leaving your church to pursue Jesus. My excerpt:

It is worth noting that Jesus' condemnations of the Seven Churches in Asia found in Revelation came only a generation after Jesus' death. In other words, it didn't take long for these early churches to become "church-shaped" instead of Jesus-shaped. Michael reminds us of Revelation 3:20, "I stand at the door and knock..." The implication is that for our churches to return to being Jesus-shaped, we need to invite Jesus back in as the focus of our church. Ironically, Michael follows up with the admonition to "pursue Jesus-shaped spirituality [that] won't take you to a building with a sign out front." (pg 210) In other words, "go and do" to seek Jesus-shaped spirituality. However, I think the lesson we can draw from Revelation is instead to "stay and invite" Jesus in to where we are. That may be too passive, and I see Michael's point, but I think Jesus-shaped spirituality is not a matter of going to find Jesus, but of inviting Jesus in. You could argue that the former is divisive and rebellious in the context of organized religion while the latter is individualized and subjective.

Francis Chan, focusing as he does on the lukewarm passage in verse 16, makes the appropriate (by my reading) interpretation by connecting the problem (lukewarmness) with the solution (inviting Jesus in). The important thing to remember, according to Francis in Chapter 6, is that we cannot overcome our lukewarmness through effort. We can't try harder, or we will burn out. Instead, we need to remember our first love (Rev 2:4-5).

I'll have more on this Monday before my Crazy Love group discusses Chapter 6. Stay tuned...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Jesus Saves... Everyone?

Careful, Rob Bell knows you're reading this post! Last week I blogged my obligatory Rob Bell Love Wins post bringing up the ongoing debate over whether he espouses universalism and adding a wrinkle to the discussion. Moments later, my email account spammed all of my contacts. Then later someone tried to break into my house. Seriously. Coincidence? I think not! That's some serious marketing strategy right there. Actually, I'm not sure whether to blame Bell or Kevin DeYoung, because my link to his magnum opus review of the book redirected to an ads.doubleclick site. Hmmm maybe it's the Gospel Coalition covering their tracks to make me think it was Bell? Diabolical!

So I removed the post, changed my passwords, and updated my privacy settings. I'm also not hyperlinking anything on this one, in case all the bugs aren't worked out yet. And no, I don't really think the events of last Friday had anything to do with Bell, his book, or my post. The spam I blame on the hotel computer I used before I caught my flight home. The attempted break-in was simply because someone noticed that I hadn't been home in a week. Not too hard to figure that one out.

Anyway, I took the post down but I still want the discussion. I don't count myself in the universalist camp, yet I can see some of the arguments. The discussion I wanted to raise draws our attention to Jesus' completion of the Old Covenant through his crucifixion. To quote from my deleted post:

If we contend that the God of the Old Testament and New Testament are the same (some argue He is not) and Christ is the completion of the Old Covenant, then we need to go back to that Covenant to put Christ's sacrifice into its proper perspective. My argument is this: if Christ is the sacrificial lamb, the ultimate sacrifice, and that he died for one and all, then aren't all of our sins forgiven given the Old Covenant? (see Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, and 2 Corinthians 5:14) Isn't that, after all, the point of Jesus' sacrifice? Under the Old Covenant there were no prerequisites for faith in the lamb in order for that lamb to be offered up for one's sin. So if Jesus died for all of our sins, shouldn't everyone's sins be forgiven?

If our sins are forgiven by Christ's sacrifice, then does not the shedding of his blood save everyone? And if this is the case, then what is the point of the resurrection as it relates to our salvation?

I have my own thoughts on this, but I'm interested in what you think.

Under the conditions of the Old Covenant, Jesus' sacrifice should atone for all of our sins, therefore all of our sins are already forgiven independent of faith in Christ. If so, what then, does the resurrection mean?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Always and Never

One of the first things I learned when I got married was how to fight. I didn't know there were rules! I just thought whoever raises their voice the loudest wins and whoever walks out first loses. But there are actual rules, believe it or not. And those rules are meant to prevent fights like I just described. The first rule is do not use absolutes. For example, "he never takes out the trash" or "she always leaves the cap off the toothpaste". Don't use absolutes because they often aren't absolutely true.

But that's marriage. Living our lives in faith through Jesus Christ requires us to accept absolutes. We live in a world that likes to be grey. We don't like black and white, cut and dry distinctions. We explain away things and rationalize and make excuses because always and nevers are uncomfortable.

But Jesus isn't wishy-washy. He is absolute. And if we really call ourselves his disciples, that means we cannot explain him away. And that makes us want to squirm.

A couple of his always and nevers (from the 2010 NIV):

Luke 14:26-27 "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."

John 13:34-35 "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

Imagine Jesus telling you that you cannot be his disciple. Or that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for you to get to heaven? Absolute. There is nothing wishy-washy here.

Paul gets his licks in too:

Romans 14:23b "...everything that does not come from faith is sin."

1 Corinthians 10:31 "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."

And not to be left out is Jesus' brother James:

James 4:17 "If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for them."

As challenging as these are, this list is not exhaustive. The Bible is full of always and nevers, anyone and everyones, will nots and cannots. Absolutes.

Are you living your life absolutely for God?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Worship Wins

Football and Jesus go together like America and apple pie. In Texas, football is a religion. Some high school stadiums are larger than small colleges. In the Bible Belt, who you root for is as important a question as where you go to church. Georgia Bulldog coach Mark Richt had a cameo role in the Christian movie, Facing the Giants. Further north you find Touchdown Jesus at Notre Dame. Tony Dungy has made a name for himself as the NFL's spiritual mentor based on his outspoken beliefs and willingness to take troubled players under his wing.

It is against this backdrop that the news Tuesday out of the Ohio State University came as a shock. But if you follow college football (or make random blog posts about how the priorities of college ball are all out of whack) it really comes as no surprise. It turns out Ohio State's head football coach, Jim Tressel, knew about the allegations I mentioned in my earlier post all the way back in April. That means he let his players, who weren't just being investigated by the NCAA but by the FBI, participate the whole season capped by their appearance in the Sugar Bowl. His penalty for lying to his university and to the NCAA? A two game suspension and a $250,000 fine. The fine sounds like a lot until you learn that Tressel makes more than $3 million a year. His excuse of an excuse? He didn't want to breach the confidentiality of the investigation. (Sorry, that's not when you choose to stay quiet, it's when you choose to call your lawyer. There's this thing called privilege, coach.)

The irony is that to face the music, coach Tressel had to cancel a book signing tour. The book? Life Promises for Success, Promises from God on Achieving Your Best. This isn't his first Christian book either. He is also the author of The Winners Manual (which includes a forward by John C. Maxwell). I don't follow Big Ten football that closely, so I have no idea if Tressel wears his faith on his sleeve, but I'm not sure I want to learn about God's promises on achieving my best from someone who is now known to cheat, or follow a manual on winning from a coach that plays a soft schedule every year just to choke in the BCS. (Sorry, had to throw that jab in there)

In America, we worship a lot of things other than God. We worship money, fame and fortune, gadgets, status, and on and on. Add sports to that mix. In the cathedral of football, we worship at the altar of wins and losses. If a coach doesn't meet expectations, bring out the pitchforks. (A few years ago Nebraska fired a coach who had just won 10 games. And don't get me started on how Arkansas ran off Houston Nutt.) Churches change their schedules around on Super Bowl Sunday while attendance drops during the NFL season. Christians in America are more likely to strike up a conversation with someone about sports than about Christ. We wear jerseys, hats, and other apparel signifying our allegiances, but hide our faith in the public square. I'm not casting stones. We are all guilty. The scandals that keep piling up require us to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask the honest question: in the heart of the playoff race, who do we worship?

Monday, March 07, 2011

20-80 Rule

An axiom that appears to be an organizational truth: In any organization, 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work. You might think of this as a skewed bell curve, with a small percentage over achieving, most doing just enough to get by, and the remainder under achieving.

Why do you suppose that is? It might be sheer laziness and a lack of desire. It's easy to "pass the buck" and figure someone else, somewhere, somehow, will pick up your slack. And excuses are like armpits, everyone has them and they stink.

But does this principle apply to our churches? Look around. Is it the same one or two people there early every Sunday morning? When you have an event serving the community can you predict exactly who it will be that shows up to volunteer? Do you struggle finding teachers for your children's Sunday school? (and who doesn't!)

Ephesians 4 is one of the scriptures on which I plant my flag. I will choose to die on this hill, so to speak. The first section of the chapter, "Unity in the Body of Christ" in the 1984 NIV, concludes, "From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." (v 16)

In the fourth chapter of Crazy Love, Francis Chan challenges us by defining the lukewarm christian (intentional little-c). I'll let Jesus define it here:

"I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth." (Revelation 3:15-16)

This is written to a church. A community of believers. A religious organization. And Jesus wants to spit them out of his mouth.

Look around. Are you the 20 or the 80?

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Integrity of the Game

It has become painfully obvious that amateur collegiate athletics are as much about money as their pro counterparts. Although it took years to conclude, the NCAA finally did strip USC of one of their championships and Reggie Bush gave up his Heisman Trophy because his family moved into a house paid for by a prospective agent. The mother of LeBron James, perhaps knowing he wouldn't play a bounce of college ball, drove away from his high school championship in a brand new tricked-out Hummer. Cam Newton's dad shopped his son around to the school that would pay the most, yet somehow Cam came out scot free with a Heisman Trophy of his own. (Funny that character is supposed to be one of the requirements for the trophy) Even if the NCAA determined he was clear (they didn't, the case is still open) I'm not sure how he explains away the stolen computer found during the FBI's investigation. Also during the last football season several players from the Ohio State University were busted selling championship rings and other memorabilia on eBay. They were going to be suspended for their Sugar Bowl game, but a prominent booster and the school president were able to convince the NCAA to wait until next season to implement the suspensions.

In this cesspool, Brigham Young University, the flagship school of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (you know, the Mormons), broke away from its affiliated conference to play football as an independent. The rationale given at the time (and the story has since changed) was that they better serve an evangelistic purpose as an independent, able to reach out to a national (and international with BYU-TV) audience.

For basketball they will align themselves with other private religious schools in the West Coast Conference (Gonzaga, St Mary's, et al). But this season they continue to play in the Mountain West. In fact they played themselves to a #3 national ranking, boasting potential Player of the Year Jimmer Fredette, and controlled their own destiny to secure a number-one seed in the NCAA Tournament.

They controlled their own destiny. And they also control their message. They showed this week that the message is more important than the money. A team earns "credits" for each game they play in the tournament that pays out over five years. It is also distributed amongst their conference-mates. There's also the free publicity of being a "Cinderella". A study commissioned by George Mason after their improbable Final Four run concluded that they earned 650 million dollars worth of free pub. In this economic backdrop, BYU did the unthinkable. They suspended their third leading scorer, and number one big-man, for the remainder of the season. His transgression? Not for possession of drugs or some other high crime, but rather for having consensual pre-marital sex. As some have put it, he was suspended from the team for being a typical 19 year old.

But BYU is anything but typical. They are a religious school with a strict honor code. Pre-marital sex is a violation of said code. It is cut and dry and everyone knows what the expectations are when they sign on the dotted line. It would have been easy to sweep this under the rug, win a couple of more games, go into March Madness as a #1 seed and National Championship contender, raking in millions of dollars in the process. Any other school likely would've done just that. But sometimes, morality is more important than money. And examples are more important than fan expectations.

Whatever you think about the Mormon religion, or even the culture at BYU, as Christians we have to respect this decision. As one fan put it, "As a basketball fan I think this is the dumbest move ever. But I just found the college for my daughter."

Respect the decision or think it's a sin?

Friday, March 04, 2011

Flashback Friday: Leap of Faith

I was originally going to repost this entry from October 2009, but only because I wanted to use the YouTube clip. But the video has since been taken down and the overall theme of the post wasn't what I wanted to share.

Since you can't see the video, I'll describe it to you. If you've seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, you know this scene. It is towards the end when he is trying to get to the Holy Grail. He has to pass three tests, one of which is a "step of faith" over a wide chasm with no bridge or rope. Indy takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and steps forward into the abyss, only to step onto solid footing. The "bridge" was an optical illusion that blended in with the background so could it could not be seen.

I've used that clip several times to describe how sometimes we just need to take a leap of faith. We have to close our eyes and step forward, trusting that God is in control.

Last week I talked about stress and worry being a symptom of a lack of faith in a God bigger than us. I then talked about how the things we stress out about are usually blessings. Yesterday, I gave a personal anecdote to show that God will provide, even if his promise makes us laugh. I hope you notice the theme. That post was supposed to have followed the other two last week, but my week was derailed. This post was intended for last Friday when I was literally taking a leap of faith.

Enough background though. Why is it so hard to make the big decisions in life? Why are we so reluctant to pull the trigger? Lack of faith? Stress and worry? We don't see the blessings? I think all the above, mixed with some bad theology concerning the will of God. Leading into last week's leap of faith, I've been reading Kevin DeYoung's Just Do Something. A good book and great reminder, covering ground I had read before in Decision Making and the Will of God by Friesen and Maxson. If you're familiar with the latter, I recommend the former; it's much, much shorter!

But the gist is that we convince ourselves that there is a specific plan God has for each of us. A "will of direction" that there is a specific job, a specific spouse-to-be, a specific home, and so on. Yes, God is in control and he wants the best for us. Those are his "will of decree" and "will of desire". In other words, God's sovereign and moral will. Who we marry is only aligned with God's will when it does not violate either his sovereignty (which it by nature cannot) and his morality. The same is true of jobs and other big decisions.

The advice is to pray for wisdom, study the Word of God for moral guidance, and seek Godly advice. If you do all three then you can step forward into the unknown with confidence because in the end, God is still in control.

It sounds easy. Until you have to do it. Last week I interviewed for a new job. This job would take me and my family all the way across the country. It sounded hard and maybe a little over my head, but I was convinced it was an open door God provided. So last Friday, after months of prayer, study and input, I took a leap of faith.

(since this was supposed to have been posted last week before my interview, you're going to have to wait to hear the ending. Stay tuned...)

Thursday, March 03, 2011

They Laughed

Last week I talked about Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, commenting on how the things that stress us out are usually blessings. But let's flip back a couple of chapters before Isaac was born and the blessing was promised.

"Then the LORD said, 'I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.'

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, 'After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?'

Then the LORD said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.'

Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, 'I did not laugh.'

But he said, 'Yes, you did laugh.' (Genesis 18:10-15)

We stress out about blessings, but sometimes we don't even believe blessings can happen. Here, Sarah doubted the promise of God. She thought the blessing was so ridiculous that she laughed. We respond the same in our lives as well. "Are you kidding me? God would never do that for me!" We laugh at God's promises to forgive and reconcile, to heal and sanctify. Sometimes we even laugh off the promise that God will take care of us when times are hard. "God is giving me what I need? I need a job, that's what I need!"

But what we really need is faith. It would be easy to laugh at this promise: "I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." (Matthew 17:20) That is, until you see it happen.

A few years ago my wife gave up her full time job teaching to raise our firstborn. She was committed to be there through his infancy. We were both making entry-level salaries and had just bought a house. Finances would be tight. We knew that. But we also knew it was necessary. Shortly after making this decision, I got a raise. It wasn't enough to make up for her lost income, but it helped.

About a year and half later, my wife was ready to return to work. She went in to interview. She had the experience. She had recommendations. She was working towards her credential. She was a shoe-in. But she wouldn't take just any position. She would not work full time in order that she could continue to be with our son as much as she could. The interviewers literally laughed.

After she interviewed we were snacking on refreshments in the gym when someone came and asked if she was the one looking for a part-time job. "We are trying this new program..." This time, we laughed as my wife took a part time position she would hold for the next couple of years.

Leading to that day, my wife struggled with even wanting to go interview, knowing the odds were stacked against her. We prayed about it and resolved that God could do anything and that we would be blessed so long as our priorities remain Him and our family over jobs and finances. We knew we would somehow be blessed whether she got a job or not.

They laughed. Sarah laughed. Now we can look back and laugh too. God is not so small that he cannot do the impossible in our lives.

How have you seen God do the impossible?