When the wreckage washes up

This Vanity Fair piece about how Tinder is changing dating culture was disturbing, though not all that surprising. (Some offensive content at that link, but that’s kind of the point.)

My first response was to plan on sending my children of both genders into seclusion from about ages 15-35. My second was to want to punch the guys quoted in the article, and give the girls a hug.

My third, most rational response was a sense of mild encouragement. The wreckage of the sexual revolution is beginning to wash up on the shore. As the Tinder generation ages, the whole sex-without-intimacy thing will, for many, become deeply unsatisfying. It will also leave them with incredible baggage as they attempt to build marriages and families (still pretty popular among the upper-middle class). Some of them will show up in our churches, carrying this baggage. This is an opportunity. What will we do?

I was a church kid in the 90’s. “True Love Waits” was pretty much the extent of our Christian teaching on sexuality. I was fortunate to get that at home as well as at church, and don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for it. It protected me from a lot of (certainly not all) sexual sin and brokenness. But it’s no longer enough. And as we look at where we are now, in the church as well as in the world, we can see that it was never enough.

It’s not enough to assume biblical sexual ethics. To the extent that most people even know them, they reject them.

It’s not enough to tell people what not to do, because most people have already done a lot of what’s on that list.

It’s certainly not enough to say “Told you so!” when people show up at our churches with sexual baggage.

Here’s where my sense of mild encouragement comes in. The church has Good News for the sexually broken. Not just “here’s what you should do” or “here’s what you should have done,” but good news for where they are. Suffering the effects of their own sin, others’ sin, or quite likely both. Wondering if there is hope for their marriage, or their singleness, or their struggle with temptation of various kinds. Wondering if they are irreparably screwed up, damaged goods.

We have good news for these people because we are these people. We have experienced, are experiencing, the grace of God in the face of our brokenness. My sense is that increasingly this will be a felt need among our neighbors. Let’s be the kind of people who step in to the messy places, show compassion, and offer hope.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

The Pastor’s Kid

I haven’t done a book review in years. For no particular reason, here’s one now.

I’ve been looking forward to Barnabas Piper’s book The Pastor’s Kid for a few months, and got to it on vacation last week. Short review: I appreciated it, and recommend it especially to fellow pastors.

Slightly longer review: The book is worth the price (and the quick, easy read) simply to get that there are challenges inherent to being a PK. Barnabas has done us pastors a favor by sharing out of his own experience what some of those challenges are. He also offers advice on how pastors can help their kids through those challenges, maximize the benefits of being a PK, and perhaps lessen the drawbacks.

Since I work overseas and our church culture is different, I think my kids avoid some of the grief that PK’s in the States get. We haven’t seen much of people in the church bossing them around, or expecting more out of them than they do other kids. (They get MK/TCK issues instead. You’re welcome, guys!) But reading about the in-home challenges, the ways that simply having ministry parents impacts kids, was good for me. My two biggest takeaways:

1. Be your kids’ dad before you’re their pastor. Don’t look at every conversation as a way to make a spiritual point. Focus on knowing your kids, making them feel known and enjoyed. Of course, teaching your kids about the Gospel is an important part of being a dad, as Barnabas would agree, but they don’t need to ever doubt that you love being their dad first.

2. Have shared hobbies and passions with your kids, other than Bible/theology/spiritual stuff. Invite them into that if they’re interested, but show them you’re a normal human being who likes to have fun, and likes to have fun with them. This hit me especially because I have one kid I think might be into that kind of stuff, and one who might not. It would be bad for the one who’s wired more like me to have more access than the other.

The strength of the book is in pointing out the challenges PK’s face. As far as weaknesses, I would have appreciated more on the advantages. He does mention some, like learning the Bible well, but I would say the overall message of the book is that being a PK is hard. That left me feeling kind of bummed for my kids, maybe even a little guilty. More on the positives would have been nice, but that could also be me wanting Barnabas to tell a story that’s not really his so that I’ll feel better.

The book also could have benefited from more stories and illustrations. There were lots of quotes from PK’s, which showed that Barnabas had interacted with lots of them in researching and writing. Sharing more anecdotes from Barnabas’ life and others would have helped me understand his points better.

These small things aside, this really is a good book. I imagine PK’s would enjoy hearing that others’ experiences are similar, and pastors should listen to Barnabas’ perspective even when it’s hard for us to hear.

What Easter gives us

PRAGUE 1

Each year our church has an Easter sunrise service at about the same place where the above photo was taken. (For those of you who don’t live in Prague, you have my sympathy.) We like to worship the risen Jesus at that spot because we love our city, and it’s one of the best places to get a good look at her as the sun comes up. For some of us the pictures taken from this site were one of the first things that grabbed our attention and drew us to Prague. It’s a beautiful city that has enchanted us, a city we love to call home.

We also know that for all the beauty, there is darkness in this city. Everything from government corruption to the sex trade to a lingering feeling of loneliness, of weariness that many of the people feel.  We know all that stuff isn’t the darkness itself, but symptoms of the darkness.

So we look at this city, knowing the darkness, and yet loving the beauty, especially as the sun comes up first thing in the morning. The beauty is there despite the darkness.

The Apostle Paul came to a city like ours once. It was a beautiful city with great history, yet Paul was “provoked in his spirit” as he saw that it was also filled with the worship of false gods. When he got the chance to address people of that city, this is what he said.

Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To the unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.”

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

So Paul gives a fairly straightforward presentation of the Gospel: God is holy, we are created to know him, our relationship to him has been broken by our sin, he commands us to repent. But Paul goes further than that. Unlike most of our gospel presentations, but like most of the ones in the Bible, he goes all the way to the resurrection of Jesus; in fact, all the way to the final judgment.

Paul says all men should repent, because God will judge world in righteousness “by a man whom he has appointed”—Jesus the righteous one will be the Judge. Then he says that God has given assurance of this final judgment by raising Jesus from the dead.

What does that mean?

It means the Resurrection is God’s demonstration that all the promises of the Gospel are true.

It means Jesus really did have the authority to say the outlandish things he said, to call all people to come to him, to command us to repent and believe.

It means Jesus really did die, not for his own sin, but for ours.

It means God accepted Jesus’ death as a substitute for ours; that he could stand in our place.

It means we can escape God’s judgment by believing in God’s Substitute, the Man he has appointed, the Righteous One, Jesus.

It means not only that we should repent, but that we can repent, because God is willing to pardon repentant sinners who come to him by believing in Jesus.

The Resurrection is Jesus putting his cards on the table, saying “I was not bluffing. I really am the truth, the life, the way. I really do lay down my life that I might take it up again. I have defeated death by taking it on myself.”

In other words, Easter gives us a Gospel to preach. It gives us good news for the 1.2 million people in our city, many of whom still walking in darkness. It gives us something to tell them: not just that they must repent, though that’s true, but that they can repent. It lets us tell them that there’s a throne of grace to run to, with a sympathetic and kind and understanding and living high priest.

Easter takes all these things from realm of religious theory, unverifiable and unfalsifiable, and makes them unquestionable. Jesus is either dead or he’s not. If he’s dead, we can believe whatever we want, with no consequence. If he isn’t, the news is better than we could imagine.

Easter gives us a gospel to preach. It gives us good news to believe and to share. Do you believe Jesus is alive? Then that changes everything. Go share that news with your neighbors.

“Of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” He is not here. He is risen. Amen.

(this post was adapted from my sermon at this year’s Easter sunrise service)

Shooting the Bible in the foot

If the existence of disagreement over what the Bible teaches means we can’t be sure what the Bible teaches, then the Bible teaches nothing and commands nothing.

The Bible can’t teach us that there is one God, because some believe the OT teaches henotheism.

The Bible can’t teach us that the one God exists in three persons, because some people are modalists.

The Bible can’t teach us anything about sexual ethics, because people disagree on where the Bible draws the lines.

The Bible can’t teach us to serve the poor, because people disagree on who exactly “the poor” are and what our responsibilities to them are.

The Bible can’t teach us to love our enemies, because Jesus may or may not have existed, and may or may not have said that.

The Bible can’t teach us not to be hypocrites, because how do we know those passages weren’t added later as a dig at the Pharisees? (I just made that theory up, which is how we get a lot of smart-sounding ideas about the Bible.)

The Bible can’t teach us that the Gospel is for all sinners, including homosexuals, because there’s this one “church” in Kansas that believes they can’t be saved.

Of course, this is nonsense. Sure, there are lots of topics where there’s legitimate debate over what the Bible means. But there are also lots of topics where the Bible speaks very clearly, and there has been overwhelming consensus for centuries on what it means. When we shrug and say “who’s to say?” we’re not helping anyone. We’re just shooting the Bible in the foot.

Never assume that smart people know what they’re talking about.

Especially when it comes to the Bible.

I’m reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer-winning The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismIt’s excellent if you’re into that sort of thing. I am.

Today, though, an aside caught my eye. President Roosevelt, having asked Taft twice to return from his post as governor of the Philippines twice to serve on the Supreme Court, wrote him a third time to insist that he return to replace the retiring Secretary of War.

“You will think I am a variety of the horse leech’s daughter,” Roosevelt began, alluding to the biblical parable in which a blacksmith’s perpetually dissatisfied daughter demands ever more of him.

My first thought was “I know the Bible decently well, and I have no idea what she’s talking about.” So I took advantage of my vast theological library Googled it.

Roosevelt is referring to Proverbs 30:15, which starts out “The leech has two daughters: Give and Give.” It can also be translated “The leech has two daughters; ‘Give! Give!’ they cry.” Admittedly it’s a strange verse, having to do with forces in nature that are never satisfied.

At any rate, the KJV uses the word “horseleach,” which is a certain type of leech, but also apparently a term for a veterinarian or blacksmith for horses. The Bible verse, though, is referring to the leech.

This is fun, isn’t it. But here’s the relevance: You can see how Goodwin got where she got. However, in regards to Roosevelt’s allusion,

  1. There is no parable, just [a half of] a proverb.
  2. There is no blacksmith, and therefore no blacksmith’s daughter.

Goodwin is a smart person and a good writer. In all likelihood, she read this obscure reference from Roosevelt, looked up a couple of things, and patched together a backstory. It’s just that the backstory was wrong. It’s a little more interesting is that no one in the pipeline— Goodwin, research assistants, editors– was familiar enough with the Bible to raise an eyebrow. But even there, hard to criticize non-Christians for not knowing obscure Bible passages super well.

Here’s the point: Smart people get things wrong, just like the rest of us. People with Pulitzers and PhD’s are human. They have gaps in their knowledge and understanding, to say nothing of the little biases and mental tricks we’re all prone to. This problem is magnified when the Bible is involved. People who know very little about it feel very confident in making bold assertions about its contents and their value. (I’m not accusing Goodwin of this.)

Never assume that something’s true just because a smart person said it.

Remember that the next time you read something about the Bible that makes you say “wait, what?”

***

Note: It’s possible that I’ve missed something here, that Goodwin is right and I’m wrong. If that’s true, I invite you, kind reader, to bring evidence to my attention, and perhaps you will prove my larger point by refuting my example.

In defense of Facebragging, sort of

You know Facebragging— always only posting amazingly flattering pictures and giddy exclamations about how great life is. Your 857 friends roll their eyes but dutifully click “like” so you’re good and validated. Don’t be that guy.

However, if you read through my timeline, I’m aware that you’ll see tons of cute and funny kid pictures, lots of funny kid quotes, occasional links to things I find interesting, and not much else. Even on Twitter, where I’m purposefully more unfiltered, I don’t share much about bad days. Perhaps this makes me sort of a Facebragger. But I have reasons.

First, in the share-ALL-the-things moment we’re living in, it makes sense to have a bit of a filter. I’m all for being real, for permission not to be OK, all that. But I have… hang on a sec… 901 Facebook friends. (I feel like I crossed 1000 at some point. Hm.) I am under no obligation to be as “real” with all those people as I am with my wife, close friends, coworkers. The idea of 901 people knowing that the combination of sin, stress, and sinus headache is making me not at all fun to be around today is not appealing to me. If the first days of spring are making me glad I’m alive, I’m a little more likely to share that.

The second reason is one I feel more strongly about. My family is not perfect. We (yes, all of us) have tantrums and inappropriate talk and whining on a daily basis. But my family is also freaking fantastic. I am more than happy to highlight how much I love our adventures, and since we have friends on several continents I’m grateful for how Facebook lets us see and share day-to-day stuff. When one of our kids is having a hard day or does something embarrassing, that’s not to share with everybody. If a picture or story doesn’t communicate “this kid is awesome and I love being their dad,” it’s not going online. One day, my kids will be able to look through my digital footprint or whatever, and I hope that’s their takeaway: Dad always loved being my dad.

I don’t suggest we Facebrag, selectively sharing to make our life look like a comparatively flawless paradise of awesomeness. Facebook permanently proved its worth to us when Eliza was sick, allowing us to easily share what was going on and helping mobilize people to pray. Just this week I learned via Facebook of a crushing blow suffered by some friends we’re not in close touch with anymore, and I was able to grieve and pray for them. I appreciate honesty in any and every forum.

I do suggest we think about what and why we’re sharing. Christians in particular are to let our speech be gracious, seasoned with salt. I suspect Paul would also say something like “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, post about these things.”

Actually, our church looks a lot like the book of Acts.

Donald Miller, whose writing I enjoy, had a  disappointing article a couple of weeks ago on why he doesn’t go to church very often. Plenty of people have offered critiques on the piece as a whole, so I won’t do that, except to observe that most members of my small, young church could give a better explanation of why church matters than this best-selling Christian author.

I do want to respond to one point in Miller’s followup post.

Your church likely looks nothing like the church in the book of Acts, which, was not much of a prescription on how to do church anyway…

Unless you are Shane Claiborne, your church probably doesn’t look anything like the church in the book of Acts, so let’s not get self righteous.

Yes, the irony meter is spiking in that last sentence. And yes, a better conclusion than Miller’s would be “Well, I’ll saddle up with the imperfect church that God provides and try to help make it better.” But the more I thought about this critique, the less sense it made.

Certainly our churches are flawed. We have many blind spots. We can always do more to care for each other, to teach the Bible more powerfully, to serve the poor in our city, to share the Gospel more consistently. But actually, the church I serve looks a good bit like the church(es) in Acts. And I bet yours does too.

  • We devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, and to prayer, like in Acts 2:42.
  • We share with each other sacrificially when one is in need, like in Acts 2:45 and 4:34-35.
  • We gather on the Lord’s day to worship, like in Acts 20:7.
  • We receive the preached Word with joy, like in Acts 8:8 and 13:48.
  • We take up offerings to help the poor and do other good works, like in Acts 11:27-30.
  • We pray for boldness in sharing the Word, and for God to move in power, like in Acts 4:29-31.
  • We ask God to work miracles for the sick, like in Acts 3:1-7 and about a hundred other places.
  • We work to train and recognize godly leaders, like the deacons in Acts 6:1-6 and elders in Acts 14:23 (and elsewhere).
  • We bring these leaders together to make biblically-informed, Spirit-guided decisions on doctrinal and practical matters, like in Acts 15.

We need to grow in all of these. And I would love to see some things I don’t see. I would love to see God adding to our number daily those who are being saved, like in Acts 2:47. I would love to see undeniable miracles pointing to the power of God, like we see throughout the book. I would love for us to pray more faithfully and more boldly. In short, I would love to see revival in my city, as we see it in several cities in the book of Acts. But revival, miracles, conversions– these are God’s work. Faithfulness is our job; fruit is his.

Church-bashing is a popular sport right now, and you can always find the ammo. Many of the critiques are true. But there are many imperfect-but-healthy churches filled with many imperfect-but-growing Christians seeking to be faithful and obedient. Being part of one of these churches, appreciating the good and trying to help correct the flaws, is one of the best things you can do for your own spiritual growth. And we need all the help we can get.

Breaking and bruising

When Jesus knew Peter was about to deny three times that he knew who Jesus was– while Jesus was suffering to save Peter’s skin– he spoke to him very gently.

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)

When Peter had just been the first of the disciples to confess Jesus as the Messiah– for which Jesus praised him– and then tried to talk Jesus out of doing something that was going to be very hard, because he loved Jesus and didn’t want him to suffer, Jesus was not as gentle.

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:23)

Many times Jesus spoke gently, reassuringly. This follows Isaiah’s prediction of how the Servant of the Lord would proclaim God’s word:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:1-3)

Other times, sometimes with the same people, he could be very forceful. And we haven’t even brought up his words to the Pharisees.

Pastors, along with all Christians, should look to Jesus to learn how to treat people. He never broke a bruised reed, and neither should we. He never spoke harshly to someone who needed to be reassured, to the downcast who needed their heads lifted up. But you might say that he did bruise some reeds. He spoke strong words to those who were unbroken in their sin, who needed to be humbled so they might seek God’s grace. Sometimes that’s a pastor’s job. Sometimes that’s every Christian’s job.

Who is sufficient for these things?

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:5)

The only thing there is

On Sunday, 9 June of this year I was rehearsing with the band at church when I got a text from Melissa: “Kels just called. They’re taking your mom to ICU.” Mom was in the hospital with pneumonia, but I had talked to her the day before and she sounded ok. Now her blood pressure was dangerously low. By that night they had her on a ventilator, and we decided I needed to fly to Georgia.

As I lay down for a couple hours of fitful sleep, some words played on a loop in my head. “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” I’m not sure I’d read those words on a page in 10 years or more.

When I was in college I spent a lot of time memorizing Scripture. I did some in seminary and afterward too. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t do much memorization anymore, though I have a big stack of index cards on my desk. But that day, while on a long flight not knowing whether my mom would be alive when I got off the plane, lots and lots of Bible verses came to mind, many of which I had memorized a dozen years ago or more.

In those moments, there was no clever tweet, no episode of Arrested Development, not even a John Piper sermon that kept me sane. Only God’s word could do it.

Mom rallied. After two weeks I came home to Prague. I had a wedding to prepare for the week I arrived. Then I spent a week clearing off my desk, and planned to start all my regular meetings back the next week.

Except that at the end of desk-clearing week, my daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and our old life ended, and a new life started.

We have had 9 or 10 hospital stays of varying length. Our boys have been with lots of different people and watched more tv (and gotten more care packages) than usual. Most of our test results have been good, though the waiting never gets any easier. E has gone under general anesthesia six times. And we have stayed sane. I attribute this mostly to Scripture and prayer.

I certainly don’t mean we get up early every day for a long and substantial quiet time. It would be better if we did, but we don’t. I do mean we cry out frequently, and we remind ourselves of what we know to be true: not the vague assurance that everything will be ok (it might not, not the way we want it to be), but the actual promises God makes to us. I mean our friends copy and paste from their devotional reading and remind us. Like the IV that gives Eliza the fluids and nutrition she needs, God works by his Word and Spirit to keep us.

On Eliza’s first night in ICU after her surgery the wheels were coming off for me. There was a point where they wouldn’t let us in and we didn’t know what was happening. It turned out not to be a problem, but it was the most scared I’ve ever been. Then her numbers just weren’t as stable as they had been through the afternoon, and the stress of staring at them was driving me up a wall. I went outside and paced back and forth in the cool night air, reciting Psalm 46 out loud over and over. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. The Lord of Hosts is with us. The Lord of armies is with us.

That was enough to calm me down enough for that hour. Nothing else was working. I memorized that psalm when I was in seminary, and however long it took has paid off richly in the last three months.

God is always so eager to speak to us, to reassure us, to give us a firm foundation to put our feet on. His Word is so rich, so deep, so powerful and effective. And we are– I am– so eager to run to cheap things like the iPad I’m writing this on for fun.

I am 20 years older than I was in June. I hope some of the changes last. I still like to zone out plenty, but I have less patience with trivial and more desire for real. I have less energy, so I think hard about what will sap it and what will increase it. I want to pick up that stack of index cards again.

Please run to God’s Word. Do it when it feels good and when it doesn’t. When the earth beneath your feet gives way, his truth is all you have to stand on. It’s the only thing there is. It is sweet, solid ground.

A case for weekly communion

At the church I serve, we take the Lord’s Supper every week. We don’t think this is the only way to go, or that it makes us more spiritual than churches that practice monthly or whatever-other-interval Communion. And yes, it’s more work for the preacher to also prepare a somewhat-different meditation on the Lord’s Supper each week. But here are some reasons I’m glad we do it the way we do.

the Gospel every week

We want to make the Gospel clear in every sermon. Since we generally preach through books of the Bible, and our emphasis in preaching will reflect the emphasis of that day’s passage, the core of the gospel will be more obviously presented some days than others. Weekly Communion gives us one more opportunity to preach the center of the Gospel every week.

The Lord’s Supper also demonstrates and explains the Gospel in a way that goes beyond verbal explanation. So people who struggle to pay attention to preaching are given an additional way to learn and appreciate its truth.

good for non-Christians

The fencing of the Table, where we announce that it is for believers and not for nonbelievers, means we can draw a clear line every week. It forces attenders to ask where they stand with Christ and is a reminder that the Gospel calls for a response. It is a relatively easy way to plead with people to come to faith.

good for believers, especially struggling believers

Weekly Communion means a weekly reminder that the promises of the Gospel are not just true, but true for me. It’s a reminder that God does not simply demand that I meet his standard, but that Christ was broken and poured out in order to meet God’s standard for me. It’s a reminder that he gave himself up for me, and that he continues to feed and strengthen me. Especially for our people who are struggling (to believe at all, with besetting sin, with besetting self-righteousness, with an especially difficult season of life), it’s an important reminder that we do not struggle alone.

practical considerations

With monthly communion, it’s easy for some people (mothers of young children, those who travel often) to go several months without taking the Lord’s Supper. Weekly Communion means that if you miss one week, you have another chance in seven days. It also gives our children more chances to see this demonstration of the Gospel, which is sure to lead to their asking questions that open the door to conversations about the Gospel with them.

as simple as all that

Again, taking the Lord’s Supper every week is not necessarily the mark of a more mature church, and it has its own challenges. But Communion is a gift God wants to give his people. He promises to strengthen us through the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments. So we feel like we might as well give him as many chances to do that as we can.