Good fences and good neighbors

I go to a monthly ecumenical prayer meeting for English-speaking pastors in Prague. It looks like the setup for a joke: couple of Baptists, a Catholic, a Pentecostal, assorted parachurch folks.

Denominations get a bad rap. Many people don’t see why we can’t just all get along, why there have to be so many different churches. (Actually my city could use more, but that’s another post.) But every month at this prayer meeting, I’m grateful to belong to a denomination.

Now that sounds bad. Allow me to explain.

It’s not that I think my denomination is the best, or that my flavor of Christianity is the only viable one. There are lots of great churches and groups represented at this meeting, a lot of people who love Jesus and are doing amazing things to proclaim him in Prague. There are also a lot of different perspectives. A couple of charismatic guys who pray in tongues under their breath. Several Baptists who would not have enjoyed seeing me baptize 4 young kids on Easter Sunday. A few female pastors who may or may not know where I stand on women’s ordination.  My favorite of the lot, for goodness’ sake, is the Roman Catholic priest whose ideological forebears tried to kill mine. And me, the Presbyterian desperately trying not to come across as a stodgy Presbyterian and keeping his theological humor to himself. (Although there’s been some promising banter with the Catholic priest.)

I respect all these people. I’m glad to pray with them for Jesus to be lifted up in our city. And if we tried to pastor the same church, it would be a train wreck. On second-level-but-still-very-important matters, we’d have no consensus, and we’d spend lots of time arguing and trying to force agreement when there wasn’t any.

As it is, we’re each free to search the Scriptures and follow Jesus the best we can. We can work more effectively, within the structure that best suits our personality and convictions, while wishing the best for each other and coming together to support each other in many different ways. We don’t debate theology at our monthly meetings; that’s not what they’re for. We don’t have to.

Yes, denominations exist in part because of sin and finitude. Yes, it’s bad to think our church is the only real one. But if you have a hard time with all the different flavors of Christianity, remember the proverb: “Good fences make good neighbors.” And when the fences are good, it’s nice to have a neighborly visit.

“This man is not from God, for ________”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
(John 9:16)

Jesus has just healed a man who had been blind his whole life. But, as is so often the case, the Pharisees aren’t happy. This time it’s because he’s healed on the Sabbath.

The Pharisees had lots of rules about what you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. We’re not talking about biblical rules here, God’s rules– we’re talking extra rules added to make double-sure the people didn’t break God’s rules. Healing was work, Jesus healed on the Sabbath, therefore Jesus worked on the Sabbath, therefore Jesus doesn’t keep the Sabbath, therefore Jesus isn’t from God.

Problem: the Pharisees are wrong. Not wrong because Jesus doesn’t care about the Sabbath. Wrong because their interpretation of the Sabbath isn’t the same as God’s interpretation. Theological error leading to spiritual abuse of God’s people, and worse, rejection of God’s Son.

We do this too: write people off because they don’t check all the boxes we think they should.

  • “This man is not from God, for he’s not a 6-day creationist.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he is a 6-day creationist.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he’s in favor of female deacons.”
  • “This man is not from God, for his church has a steeple and he wears a robe.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he wears product in his hair and preaches on a screen.”

Of course, any time the Pharisees criticized Jesus they were wrong. That’s not the case with us– we can have entirely legitimate critiques of pretty much anybody. There are good times, good reasons and good forums to confront or debate on those critiques. When we’re deciding who to work with, who to read or listen to, who to recommend, these things matter.

But we should remember: we have our own issues too. Chances are we’re actually wrong on some of the issues we’re passionate about, and most of the people on the other side are doing good work for the Kingdom. Remember how the Pharisees missed the boat entirely, and don’t miss God’s work through people who think and work differently.

Why the cross is loving

In worship we sing a lot of songs about the cross. We call it “wondrous” and “mighty”. We sing about how it’s powerful, how it cleanses us, how it displays God’s amazing love.

This is all true. But it’s good to stop and think: Why?

The cross was an instrument of torture and death. When we sing about Jesus’ death, we’re celebrating the wrongful execution of an innocent man. Why?

We sing about how cross shows God’s love. Why?

We sing about how the cross means we’re healed and forgiven. Why?

Even some non-Christians are inspired by Jesus’ example of innocent suffering. But why? Jesus was accused of blasphemy, that’s what he was executed for. Was he really a blasphemer? Or is it particularly virtuous to let yourself be executed when you haven’t done anything wrong? Why?

Why was the cross loving? To adapt an illustration from (I think) D.A. Carson, if I ran onto the Charles Bridge and announced “I love you all! And I’m going to prove how much!”, then jumped into the Vltava, nobody would be amazed at my act of selfless love.

The words we use are so familiar that we need to remind ourselves what they mean. There’s a reason Jesus’ death is good, a reason it’s loving, a reason it’s beautiful. Isaiah tells us:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Jesu’ death was beautiful and loving and good because it was for us in a very specific way: He was found guilty of our sin, took the punishment we deserve. He bore our griefs, our sorrows, our iniquities.

He did not lay down his life to make a general point about passive resistance, or to express the truism that love conquers evil. His love did conquer evil. It conquered evil in a specific way: by satisfying perfect justice. Blood was shed to atone for sin.

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” The guilt is ours. And yet, “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” So when he died, our debt was paid. The breach between God and man was closed.

This “worked” because he had no transgressions of his own for which to be pierced, no iniquities of his own for which to be crushed. He was a substitute. He stood in our place, taking the punishment that by all rights was ours. He took the poison cup out of our hand and drained it to the dregs.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is how God showed his love for the world: by putting his Son to death. So that whoever comes to Christ in faith has death swallowed up in victory. This is why the cross is loving: because Jesus takes our punishment on himself. He opens the door for us.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” His chastisement has brought us peace. By his wounds we are healed.

Sex makes smart people do stupid things

There’s no shortage of stories of sex scandals involving famous people, but one that sticks out to me is David Petraeus.  You’re probably familiar: He’s an American 4-star general who led (at different times) the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, then served as head of the CIA. A brilliant guy. He literally wrote the book on counter-insurgent warfare. He was touted as presidential candidate without people even really knowing what his political views were.

Then, just after last November’s election, Petraeus suddenly resigned after only a year at the CIA. It turned out he had had an extramarital affair with a woman who wrote his biography. The affair was discovered by CIA investigators, who look into these things because the last thing you want in the intelligence community is skeletons in the closet that open you up to blackmail.

Now this guy is talented, high-achieving, promising, disciplined, and smart. (One of my favorite stories: In the early 90’s, Petraeus was accidentally shot in the chest with M-16 rifle during a training exercise. He had major surgery, then left the hospital early after showing doctors he could do 50 pushups, without a break, a few days after being shot in the chest with an M-16.) He knows how to defeat terrorist organizations on their own turf. Yet he was brought down by a run-of-the-mill sex scandal, a series of stupid decisions, and some embarrassing emails with an attractive woman who fawned over him.

A fairly obvious point from this: Sex makes very smart, very wise, very competent people do very stupid things. That’s because sex is very good and very powerful. It’s kind of like a nuclear power plant: very good when working properly, very difficult to restrain when things get out of hand.

It’s designed that way.

adapted from the intro to a recent sermon on the 7th Commandment


This is my 500th post at Wiser Time.

I’m a little proud and a little embarrassed. Proud because to have written something and said “Here, I made this” 500 times is hard and good. Embarrassed because, well, it’s taken over 5 years, and there have been lots of dry spells.

If there’s anyone who was reading years ago and still is, you’ve noticed that I tend to write regularly for a while, then go dark, then start up again. That’s because I get busy/lazy, then decide to get serious about writing, then fizzle out. I don’t want it to always be like this. But a friend once told me “Blessed is the man who never stops starting family devotions,” and I think the same holds for writing.

I started this blog for 2 main reasons. First, I was running a bookstore, and I realized that if I reviewed books I could 1) sell books and 2) get free books. I’m just being honest. Second, I’ve always loved to write, and blogging was the thing back then. I guess it still is for some real writers, so I hang in there. Even without the free books.

In the early days I was honest-to-goodness trying to be a big deal, A-list Christian blogger. (Spoiler alert: nothing close.) Back then I wanted to be a big deal in lots of ways. I don’t anymore, at least not on my better days. But I do love to write, and I do love the things I write about, and I love to have created something. So I hang in there, and we’ll see if anything bigger ever comes.

Here are some of my favorite posts and stories.


The best kind of heartache” is, I think, my favorite thing I’ve ever written. That day we had toured the hospital where Eliza would be born. It was fine, but to us it was foreign, and that was a little scary. Then the doctor told us she thought it wouldn’t be long, and it hit me that this was all actually going to happen. Another kid, another million ways to have our hearts ripped out of our chests. I went back to the office and wrote this as sort of external processing, which is not normally my scene. Having a family is the hardest and best thing that has ever happened to me.

I still laugh out loud when I read “You don’t know what it’s like out here.” Because I’m the kind of guy who laughs at my own jokes, sometimes when no one else does. (Also, I really miss going out for beers with Tyler on Tuesdays when he finished RUF.)

One day, just before we moved to Prague, I started getting emails that people were commenting on “Coexist?“, a post from several months before. Like, lots of emails. It turned out I had been linked by one of my favorite political writers on my favorite political blog. I had 30,000 visitors that day, and was called lots of fun names. I later swapped several emails with the big-deal guy when he was visiting Prague. He remembered me. So I got that goin’ for me.

I Will This Day Most Joyfully Die,” a post about Jan Hus, means that I am officially an award-winning writer. I have the Charles Spurgeon caricature poster to prove it.

And another one about these “feelings” things I sometimes have: “Music = home.


Thanks for reading. Seriously.

95 5 Theses on kids and ministry

I jotted these down in 2010 as we were starting out in Prague. As our kids get older they’re becoming more relevant. They’re especially true for us as “professionals” (sorry Dr. Piper), but I think they’d apply to any family seeking to serve Jesus in their daily life.

1. Kids are not a distraction from ministry; in fact our kids are our first and most important ministry. They will sacrifice for the kingdom like we will, but we will not do ministry at the expense of raising our children in the nuture and admonition of the Lord. Sometimes we’ll have to say no to good ideas because our kids need us.

2. Our family is called to serve the God’s kingdom together. We want to involve the kids in this service and teach them it’s our joy to lay down our lives for the sake of the kingdom.

3. Letting others see our family loving each other well, including repenting and forgiving, is a great opportunity for ministry both to believers and nonbelievers.

4. Integrating our kids into ministry will give us the opportunity to bless those who long for family, especially singles and young marrieds, by welcoming them into ours.

5. Being joyfully involved in our kids’ lives will give us opportunities to get to know other families, including parents we otherwise wouldn’t have an inroad with.


The Protestant Reformation was kicked off on the issue of indulgences. This was a practice of the medieval Roman Catholic Church: to oversimplify, the pope could release your soul, or someone else’s, from time in purgatory as a reward for you doing a good deed. Like, mmm, I don’t know, giving money to the church. Just thinking out loud.

Pretty tidy arrangement. Do whatever bad deed you’re into, pony up a little cash and you’re good.

We still have these today, especially for the rich and famous. So Al Gore’s house can have a carbon footprint the size of Montana, but it’s OK, because he buys carbon offsets. (He owns stock in a company that sells the carbon offsets, but that’s neither here nor there.) Bono can spend over a grand to fly his hat first-class because he also spends a lot of time asking other people to give their money to the poor. Obama can run a drone war and get a pass, because he’s not George Bush he supports gay marriage (now).

But that’s just the low-hanging fruit. We do this too. I don’t want all the moral demands of worshiping the living God, but I do give money to charity, so I’m good. I dealt with Hard Person A earlier today, so I should be OK to ignore Hard Person B tonight. I’ve already moved 5000 miles for Jesus; do I really have to engage with the homeless guy I pass on the way to work?

Indulgences are just one more way we seek to justify ourselves. One more dead-end street. There is none righteous, no, not one. The less we try to explain that away, the better the Remedy will look to us.