Friday, March 31, 2006

Horrifying sayings of Jesus

In an effort to better implement the Great Commission, John Piper is looking at all the commands of Jesus (HT: SmartChristian). Some of what he's found is horrifying:
If you don’t feel them as horrifying, you are not awake. I think they are calculated to wake us up from our domestication of Christ and his book. This one grabbed me because it relates directly to the issue of Jesus’ authority. At the beginning of the parable of the ten minas (or ten pounds) in Luke 19:14, Jesus describes the citizens’ relationship to the nobleman like this: “His citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’” Then at the end of the parable Jesus says in Luke 19:27, “As for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me."

This is horrifying. Jesus says that people who do not want his absolute authority over them will be slaughtered before his eyes. What should our hearts and minds do with this kind of talk in the mouth and heart of our Lord?
It should come as no surprise to those familiar with Dr. Piper's writings that he finds at least ten lessons in the story.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Service and evangelism

Rusty Peterman, sharing thoughts from Reggie McNeal, considers the connection between service and evangelism.

Much more than "a personal relationship"

John Suk writes about the shortcomings of the language of "a personal relationship with Jesus" (HT: Out of Ur). One problem is that the language of "personal relationship" is not particularly accurate. Another issue goes deeper:
Ultimately, the phrase "a personal relationship with Jesus," is not found in the Bible. Thus, there is no sustained systematic theological reflection on what the phrase must or most likely means. In fact, people experience the personal presence of God--if that is what they are really experiencing--in a wide variety of idiosyncratic and highly personal ways. Publicly, however, when people say they have a personal relationship with Jesus, it sounds like they are saying they have a relationship characterized by face-time, by talk-time, by touching, by all the things--and especially the intimacy--we usually associate with having a personal relationship with another human being.

As a result, using the language of personal relationship is bound to lead to all sorts of confusion. As a pastor I met more than a few people who experienced doubt, or perhaps anger, because they didn't experience Jesus the way their Christian friends claimed to. Not having felt his presence, or listened to his voice. . . they begin to feel like they don't have what others have. If they continue going to church they may even begin to feel like frauds, because the very frequency and off-hand familiarity with which so many Evangelicals speak of such a relationship creates social pressure to conform, to nod, "yes, I know what you mean," and to act as if such a relationship is their reality too.
Fortunately, Suk goes on to offer the antidote: the language of faith.

Update: Mark Horne offers related thoughts here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Perfect pastor chain letter

I wish I didn't keeping thinking how true parts of this "chain letter" are.

Two-headed problem with the wired life

In a recent online article, Joshua Sowin accurately describes the two-headed problem with personal relationships in North America:
The first is that we have little real communal interaction. The second is that we have little quality isolation. A good life needs a healthy balance of communion and isolation. When these are not in balance, both community and inner life suffers. We have replaced true community with virtual interaction, and true isolation with distraction. What we need is a revival of both true community and true isolation.
Such an impoverishment has consequences for the church, of course:
Few of us pray as we ought. And few of us think as we ought. Thinking deeply about something requires silence. Many of us rarely think about something for an extended period of time — we have opinions on all kinds of things, but most of them come from a very shallow knowledge of facts, usually gained from the shallow, entertaining medium of television. The question is, do we make time to think? Pray? Read? Silence is important for all these disciplines.
Mr. Sowin's article says nothing strikingly new, but it's nevertheless right on target and worth reading. Several bloggers, by the way, have already linked to the article, and I'm sorry I don't remember where I first saw the link.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Avoiding the idolatry of the means

All our knowledge, our apologetics, theology, and biblical perspectives are good things, but only as means to an end. The end of such things is to evangelize the lost and edify the redeemed. If they are used or viewed as anything other than that, then we have lost sight of the purpose for them: Jesus Christ and His Kingdom, in that order.

The order is critical, since of the two - Christ and the Kingdom - the Lord Jesus Christ is all that really matters. We must remember Whom we serve, not focusing only on the service He has entrusted to us. His call is first and foremost into fellowship, not service: the latter flows freely and naturally from the former. We are servants of the King, not the Kingdom: we serve the Kingdom only because that is what the King has told us to do.

- Mike Russell

"Send this to everyone in your address book"

Peter Bogert reflects on forwarded e-mails:
They are often sentimental, occasionally misguided, and - when it comes to Christian things - seem to be more often than not untrue. Sometimes they are several years old, and simply making the latest round by means of someone who recently got email.

There is an assumption that pastors need to read these things. I've hinted to our people that I don't, but occasionally I'll get them anyway. In many cases they are a mixture of Bible and pro-America politics. I am a conservative Republican, but I consider this blend of patriotism and faith to be a hugely misguided distraction to biblical Christianity.
Well said. Peter goes on to offer helpful advice on responding with grace and truth to well-meaning brothers and sisters who perpetuate these kinds of messages. His responses to these kinds of things, by the way, are pretty much the same as mine.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Ten books for preachers

Prof. Claude Mariottini, preacher and OT scholar, has begun a two-part series on ten books pastors should read. He's off to a good start, and you can read his first five recommendations here.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Don't get lazy with the Holy Spirit

Tim Challies, reflecting on the writings of J. T. Moreland, cautions us that, when it comes to interpreting Scripture, we shouldn't rely on the Holy Spirit to take the place of training and hard work in biblical exposition.

Friday, March 24, 2006

When were you saved?

Tony Miles gives a detailed and enlightening answer to the question, "When were you saved?"

Against "battling testaments"

Dan Edelen speaks out against an over-emphasis on either the Old or New Testament within the church:
Are we afraid of the Whole Bible? Are not the Scriptures the unified words of God to Man? If so, then why do we pit the OT and NT against each other? Where is our scholarship that makes it possible for us to be blessed by God with health, wealth, and might, while also understanding that in this world we will have trouble, sickness, and poverty, even in the Church?

I'd love to see an American Church that is routinely operating out of both the New Testament and the Old, not afraid to link both. Instead we get the NT aficionados battling the OT aficionados. Every so often we do get that third way, the Whole Bible Church, but in my travels it seems to be a rarity. Still, it's a rarity we need to ensure is less rare every day.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The thrust of Luke 22:38

John Mark Hicks slashes through misunderstanding of Jesus' "sword talk" in Luke 22:38. And, he's got another book coming out.

Like Jesus or the disciples?

Tony Miles considers the "Jesus Spirit" and "Disciples Spirit." What's the difference?
* The Jesus spirit:
o Interested in movement, bridges, and authentic connections.
o Joyful faith dominates.
o Four drives:
+ "How can we invite others into this kingdom thing?"
+ "God - how I can join You more?"
+ "What are we missing and what else can we think of?"
+ "How can I help promote the Gospel?"

* The disciples' spirit:
o Interested in maintenance, boundaries, and clean living.
o Uncomfortable fear dominates.
o Four drives:
+ "How can I protect my own thing and keep it going?"
+ "God - why are you threatening my ministry?"
+ "What can I do to prove my worth?"
+ "How can I help promote the name of my church/denomination?"
Tony is inviting comments. If you'd like to join the discussion, go visit Tony's blog.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

"Don't Get Bitter"

When you speak a courageous and prophetic word, don't whine about the inevitable consequences. There is nothing more pathetic than a whimpering prophet. Getting hurt in ministry is not merely one of the hazards of the trade. It is inevitable. More than inevitable, getting hurt is often the central means through which the very best ministry gets done. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, "the man who has not suffered, what does he know anyway?" If you don't love people enough for them to hurt you really bad, you probably don't love them enough to do them much good. Remember that a God-man screamed out one dark afternoon, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" And more ministry was accomplished in those brief moments than in all the millennia before or since.

Levels of transformation

John Schroeder has written an encouraging post that reminds us of the need for transformation in both Christians and the church.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Neo-Constantinianism in U.S. churches

Lynn Anderson spoke recently about the "unholy marriage between 'the conservative Christian cause' and American Nationalism, more specifically the right wing view of American economic and political interests":
Such an alliance would have been inconceivable to the early church, which was marginalized by the culture and the state. The early community of faith wielded no economic or political clout. In fact those bands of believers knew that that the powers that be might silence them, crush them, and even kill them. Like most Chinese believers in our day, early believers did not expect Kingdom progress to ride on the wings of government favor. It was illegal to be Christian. Yet the early Christians prayed for the kings and authorities and honored government officials as instruments of God - even when many of those officials were cruel, pagan dictators. Yet, those early believers lived vibrant Christ-honoring lives in authentic communities of holiness, forgiveness and compassion and even though they were powerless and without freedom (as in China today) the Kingdom spread magnificently during those first two centuries.

Amen. In addition to speaking against "neo-Constantinianism," Dr. Anderson also spoke against the sins of consumerism and certainty in the church (HT: Travis Stanley).

Monday, March 20, 2006

The "wham, bam, thank you ma'am gospel"

Out of Ur asks if churches are guilty of pimping Jesus (HT: Blogotional).

The book of Job and glib positive thinking

Bob at Gratitude and Hoopla has been reading the book of Job, and Bob thinks the church is as fond of easy answers as Job's comforters:
We in the church today are not so much plagued by miserable comforters as pre-occupied with positive-thinking. Today's Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar would not be judgmental cads, but glib positive-thinkers, with a message like, "Cheer up, Job. God's got a wonderful plan for your life, just you wait and see." It's a message no less inappropriate. I have a feeling that Job would have found it every bit as unsatisfying as the dour message of his three so-called friends. God's response, on the other hand, might have been exactly the same: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?"
Good points. And I hope Bob will forgive me for quoting his concluding paragraph.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Excursus: Stanley family update

Well, our sitter has just arrived, and Carolyn and I are about to leave for East Tennessee to make final preparations for moving my dad here with us. He's lived in the same house for 57 years and tells us he's simply too overwhelmed with all the things he and my mother collected through the years. He wants us to show him what to keep, what to sell, and what to simply throw away. That's our mission for the next five days. When we return, we'll begin working on adding a bedroom to our house.

After four nights on the job I'm really enjoying the work as an overnight grocery stocker at Wal-Mart. I thank our God for the work, for the money, and for the folks I'm working with. Maybe it's the prayers, but I've found myself amazingly upbeat in this new position. Thank you so much, those of you who have been offering special prayers for my family and me these past few days.

Thanks, too, for your prayers for our work with the church. Sunday we had a relatively large turnout for worship, and I felt strengthened in my preaching. God is at work in our congregation, and I pray we'll cooperate with him in that work.

I plan to take about a week-long break from posting. In the mean time, rejoice in the Lord. I started this blog as a way to encourage fellow Christians, especially preachers, to allow the Word of God to transform hearts. And yet I have been blessed by God through the prayers and encouragement of brothers and sisters in Christ, from Knoxville to Gold Coast and all points in between. To God alone be the glory.

Cynical view of doctrine

To a point, right doctrine is critically important for the unity of the church. But after some other point, the never-ending proliferation of doctrine upon doctrine simply becomes absurd, as Mark Horne scathingly observes:
Doctrine upholds the status of a ruling class, if only in their own minds. When outsiders agree with the doctrine, then the doctrine is in danger of failing in its function--it threatens to become a source of unity rather than a tool of exclusion. This danger can easily be remedied. There is potentially an infinite chain of doctrines implicit in any doctrine. Just regress far enough down the chain until the outsider fails to affirm the words you want him to use. As soon as that occurs, you can reinforce the barriers you need to maintain.
I only wish Mark were overstating his case here, but I'm afraid not.

On labels and control

One of the subthemes of this blog is the call to rise above all of the "-isms" that plague the church and simply to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified. That's why I enjoyed Dan McGowan's recent post on the absurdity of labels in both life and the church:
I am not a Charistmatic or Pentecostal or Presbyterian or Baptist or Methodist or Conservative or Liberal or Emergant or Postmodern or Revolutionary - - those are titles and labels.

I am a Christian - who follows Christ - who is SOMETIMES charistmatic & pentecostal & reformed & conservative & liberal & childish & impatient & emerging & revolutionary & stubborn...

Label me if you must. But your labels have nothing to do with who I REALLY am.
Sounds right to me.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

New blog for elves, dwarves, hobbits, and men

Well, the word is out that Mike Russell, erstwhile blogger at Eternal Perspectives, has begun a Middle-Earth-themed blog, The Lord of the Kingdom. In his inaugural post, Mike tells what it's all about:

The purpose of this blog is to draw from the wealth of wisdom and depth of insight in Tolkien’s covertly Christian book in order to shed additional light on the Christian life and the struggle against, not flesh and blood, but spiritual forces that oppose all that is good. Characters and events elaborate and shed additional light on the unseen realities of life. There is much wisdom to be found in Tolkien’s words, wisdom that originated in the Bible and has found new expression on the lips of Gandalf, Aragorn, Faramir, and others in Middle-earth.

I can relate. During my early teens, when I rejected the faith of my fathers and of my childhood, it was my deep fondness for the good people of Middle Earth that kept me from simply falling into every kind of sin. It's probably not overstatement to say that Middle Earth may have kept me from moving so far away from God that I would never have returned. I'm glad to see that Mike has begun his new blog--and that he invites only like-minded people to visit:
There will be some small-minded, rigid people who will eschew the use of Tolkien’s masterpiece for such purposes. To them I say: go elsewhere. I have found solid food and refreshing drink in the realms of Middle-earth. If they are unable to find gold or mithril in The Lord of the Rings, I wish them well in other places. But I will not suffer them to despoil the joy or spiritual food that some may find on this blog.

Fair enough. I know many of you will enjoy Mike's work (Dan Cruver, for one, comes to mind). Enjoy.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Strategies for evangelizing and secular worldviews

Tim Keller has written an enlightening article on deconstructing secular beliefs in evangelism (HT: Keith Plummer. By the way, Keith has been writing some strong evangelism articles of his own lately: here and here).

Trying to simply follow the Bible

Rusty Peterman, reflecting on some thoughts from Mike Cope, writes briefly on the challenges of "just following the Bible":
We get too much of our interpretation of the Bible from someone else, rather than reading the Bible and letting God do his work in us. No person, in whom God has placed the Holy Spirit, should settle for "already chewed" food. We don't nourish our physical bodies by letting others do the chewing. Why do we opt to feed our souls this way?
Amen. Still, as the post makes clear, interpretation is not simply an interaction between the believer and God--it's also a community process.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The value of more formality in worship

Bill Gnade has finished his series of essays in favor of more "informed formality" in Christian worship: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Rejecting pagan rules of the game

Paul Littleton takes issue with two words the Bible never uses to describe itself: inerrant and infallible.
I believe we need a higher view of Scripture than what the term "inerrancy" provides. Granted some will be inclined to argue that there is no such thing as a higher view of Scripture than to say that it is inerrant. . . .

One of my objections to those terms in regard to the Scriptures is that they are negative words as noted by the "in-" prefix. That means that, at the foundation, we are making a statement about what Scripture is not, namely they are not in error and they are not fallible. But surely we can speak more highly of the Scriptures than to hang our hats fundamentally and primarily on what they are not. In fact, while I have not done a thorough study on this (and perhaps should do so) I don't recall a single place in the Scriptures themselves where they are described by what they are not, but rather by what they are.
Paul also takes issue with those who would force the Bible to answer post-Enlightenment, rationalistic questions foreign to Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the other NT authors.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Blogging burdens

When the congregation I'm now with hired me nine months ago, it was with the understanding that weekly contributions were not enough to sustain a full-time preacher's salary. The church had been without a paid preacher for three years, though, and had saved enough money to pay me through the end of the year.

The idea was to ask other churches to help pay my salary for a few years while our little congregation grew to be self supporting. A few Christians and congregations responded in amazing ways, and I thank our God for them. Still, contributions aren't enough to support the Stanley family, even with generous donations from Christians outside the congregation.

So this week I've started a second job stocking groceries full-time at Wal-Mart. On one hand I'm honored to make tents for the sake of the Gospel. On the other hand, I'm really not sure I'll be able to deal with the rigors of this additional burden--on top of my work as minister and my family's trying to remodel our house so that my dad, recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's, can move up here from Tennessee. Please pray for us.

I intend to keep blogging, but sometimes only one post per day. Also, I'll probably have to cut down on my commenting on others' blogs. I hope and pray that what I do write is edifying for you and me both.

The dangers of forgetting the Devil

Dan Edelen reminds us not to underestimate Satan:
One of the sad outcomes of scientific rationalism is that Satan has been transmogrified from a real entity into a myth, a psychological malady, or a pointy-tailed object of mirth. Long before Nietzsche announced the death of God, Satan was well on his way to being mentally expunged from his role as ruler of this world, relegated by sections of American pseudo-Christianity to a box in the far corner of the basement.
Dan's article is worth reading.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

When disciples crash and burn

Lately I've been thinking on a more visceral level than usual about preaching and Christian leadership. Today I feel compelled to share some of those reflections, particularly if you're thinking about entering vocational preaching ministry yourself.

The past few weeks I've been reminded--sometimes forcefully--how very, very heartbreaking Christian ministry can be. One day we rejoice that the Word has taken root in the soul of a new Christian, but before long we look on in horror as their faith withers in the sun and shallow ground. We feel the exhilaration of a new believer freed from sin, but soon the thornbushes of everyday life wrap them up. After a while, despite our best efforts to hold on, we don't see them anymore.

Yes, there certainly are stories of sustained triumph and growth in the church. But that doesn't make the crashes any less painful. The early church in Jerusalem sometimes grew by thousands of new believers a day, but I suspect the brethren took no delight in the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.

Disciples fall away, and it hurts. When this kind of heartbreak sets in, it's tempting to choose a theological extreme to soothe our minds: ultra-Calvinism ("Well, it's God's perfect will that they be damned, after all"), or arch-Arminianism ("Hey dude, their choice"). But what if we refuse to read Scripture and our own experience through a ready-made theological lens? Where do we find encouragement at times like these?

The best answer I've found is to rejoice: to rejoice that God has allowed us the immense, undeserved honor of proclaiming the Good News of Christ Jesus; to rejoice that, whether anyone listens to us or not, we don't have to suffer the pain of not proclaiming the gospel; to rejoice that, if we are faithful, our heartache is the heartache of Jesus.

Please don't think I'm writing this to try and make myself look good. Not at all. I sometimes think I keep preaching because, no matter how much it hurts, it's not nearly as bad as not preaching. And so I rejoice and thank God that I can.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Jesus 101 at Open Switch

Ben at Open Switch has written a helpful little post on basic christology.

Weekend reminder

Although it's from last weekend, Frank Turk reminds readers that putting our faith into practice makes a difference in our lives.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Strong medicine: Three things the NA church needs

Bloggers are offering strong antidotes for rampant individualism in the North American church. Kirk Wellum, for example, writes that the condition of the church points to a very basic need:
I wonder about the frequency and depth of our prayer lives because of the condition of the church and the lives of individual Christians. Is it possible for us to be praying as we should and things remain as they are? Where is the advance of the gospel? Where are people being converted in significant numbers? Why are so many Christian marriages falling apart? Why are so many teens raised in the church no where to be found as soon as they have the freedom not to attend? Why can't Christians get along with each other? Why are so many Christian pastors and leadership teams so easily sidetracked with worldly agendas that keep them from focusing on what is most important?

My suspicion is that there is little serious prayer.
Along similar lines, Brian Comery considers the effects of letting the American dream into our churches:
You can see it: Christianity is about us. We use it to achieve our dreams of being the complete person . . . The consumer mindset found in most pews can in many ways be traced back to our [society's] subconscious notion that reliance on or subjection to anything is tantamount to letting the machine win. . . .

The greatest sin of the American church is not a lack of depth theologically (though we are woefully shallow), nor is it a euro-centric worldview (though we do have severely tinted glasses on), nor is it a lack of relevance or acknowledgement of today’s culture. Cultural irrelevance or lack of depth are symptoms of a greater disease.

We need more obedience.
Finally, Bill Gnade makes a strong case that North American Christians also need informed formality:
We do not need fewer ritualistic and customary formalities, we need more; and we need to know why we need more. It is not that Christianity needs to be stripped of black tie and tails; it needs to be adorned in black tie and tails precisely because no one knows why formality is needed, or what it even is. Christians today speak of Jesus Christ as King and Lord, royal images all; and yet they pray and sing to that King as if He was as unkingly as the nearest buddy at the bar. We have dressed ourselves and our worship in street clothes, not because we are poor, and thus these are all we have or can do; but because we want to be perceived a certain way by others. It is not about God. It is about us.
Strong medicine, all.

Update: Swap Blog cautions us not to take the rejection of individualism too far.

Marriage need-to-know

Before preaching or teaching on marriage, make sure to read Jim Martin's series, "41 Things Married People Ought to Know." Here's a sample:
7. The bottom line in marriage is not personal happiness. The bottom line is holiness. . . Christ followers allow God to use their marriage to help them become more like Jesus.
I recommend Jim's post. There's plenty more where that came from.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Trusting the engineer

Victoria Gaines encourages us to stay on the train.

Energy for captivating sermons

In a short, nuts-and-bolts article from Preaching Today, Craig Brian Larson considers energy that makes preaching captivating. And how can we tell if we have it?

Hearing a sermon on tape is the acid test. On tape preachers lose the benefit of their winsome facial expressions, physical movement and gestures, the excitement of a crowd, and the presence of God in the meeting. Taped sermons strip preachers down to their voice and words. I have heard many sermons in person that I thought were world class, only to listen later on tape and be unmoved. So if you can captivate hearers on tape, then in person you can preach.

What grabs hearers even on tape is energy. I have observed three types of energy in sermons. If preachers have at least one type, their messages can capture hearers so they might fully hear the Word.

The article goes on to give practical advice for adding energy to your sermons.