PRODUCING BETTER THINKERS

The discussion had been disturbing. The young woman I was counseling was in deep-dish trouble. Her relationships were dysfunctional, she was up to her armpits in debt, and most of her decisions were based on a daily reading of her horoscope.

But the most disturbing thing was that she had grown up attending church. She was supposed to know how to manage life, but she didn’t. Her spiritual journey included a lot of lessons to help her feel good, but very few to help her be good.

That isn’t the way Church is supposed to be.

The Apostle Paul said that in the Church we are to “in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Eph 4:15). We have the Scriptures for, as he told Timothy, “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)

The church is supposed to be God’s university on planet earth, a learning center for Biblical life lessons, a place where each member is constantly growing up into maturity in Christ.

A healthy church is a place where the Christian’s life foundations are laid, where we learn how the Bible applies to everyday life. Healthy churches equip believers to discern between wisdom and the world’s empty values.

Consider some issues believers should be able to think through and come to soundly biblical conclusions: How best to manage our finances? How are we to think about gun violence? What is the best way to help Puerto Rico recover? Should we stay in NAFTA? How about student loan debt? How should we lower the burden on college students? How can we discern between so-called fake news and the real thing?

The list of things we need to know how to think about is endless and simple answers elude us. How should serious-minded believers respond? Can the Bible help?

The Bible doesn’t always teach us what to think. But it can teach us how to think biblically on issues from Abortion to Zoning laws. That’s what it means to develop a biblical worldview. Healthy Christians develop a biblical worldview in God’s university, the local church, becoming in the process better parents, better students, better leaders, better workers, and better citizens.

I’m so grateful for the dedicated Sunday School teachers and small group leaders our church has benefited from over the years! The list is long, but each one has helped us “grow up in all things into Christ,” to think biblically about our world.

And what about you? Do you have the ability to teach? Have you ever tried? Could you take a rotation in Children’s Church, or as a small group Bible study, or Sunday School teacher?

Just like the young woman in my office that day, the church needs good teachers on all levels now more than ever. Ask God if he is calling you to lay the foundation for someone else’s future.

KEEPING A CHILDLIKE SPIRIT

Like children the world over they chased each other around the building after the adults had finished their serious church stuff, squealing with delight. “Easy, now,” I said, trying not to raise my voice or come across too strong. “You guys slow it down a bit, use your inside voices.” I flashed back to the tiled floors and wooden pews of my childhood church, remembering the lightness of spirit, the careless joy of pursuit and escape in a building that felt like home. (The tile was great for sliding under those pews)! That’s what church should feel like for children and I didn’t want to spoil it by being a grumpy old man.

Where does that lightness go? Is it inevitable that our spirits will sag with our waistlines? Must we grow heavy with age?

No. Just as exercise and a good diet can help us stay fit, the spiritual discipline of confession keeps our spirits free of excess baggage. But also like dieting and exercise, confession has gotten a bad rap, an undeserved reputation as something only masochists enjoy, and mercy like something we must leverage from God.

Neither is true. “Confession is not primarily something God has us do because he needs it. God is not clutching tightly to his mercy, as if we have to pry it from his fingers like a child’s last cookie. We need to confess in order to heal and be changed.”[1]

What are the keys to this kind of healing? How to maintain that lightness of spirit? David gave us two clues in the fifty-first Psalm. First, he takes ownership of his sin, and second, he remembers that God is the one we most offend.[2]

I have sinned…”

Most commentators associate this confession with his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband.[3] David doesn’t rationalize. He doesn’t justify himself. He doesn’t deny it or cover it up. He doesn’t say, “Joab misunderstood my orders!” Or “Bathsheba’s marriage was already over anyway. I mean, look, Uriah wouldn’t even go see her when he was in town! That proves the marriage was over!”  David owns it.  “I have done it. I’m responsible.”

The first step to being free from the soul sinking power of sin is taking responsibility for it, refusing to justify or rationalize it away. The first step is to say, “I am the man. I have sinned.”

“…against the LORD.”

The second thing David does is recognize the person whom he has most deeply offended. “I have sinned against the LORD.”

Hey, wait a minute, didn’t David sin against a whole bunch of people? Bathsheba, Uriah, his family, etc.? How is it that you are leaving them out of this confession?

Yes, he did. Yet the one who has endured the greatest insult is the giver of all good things.  When we sin, we sin against God. We sin in our bodies against the architect of anatomy. We sin in our minds against the builder of brains. We sin in our speech against the maker of mouths, the Logos, the Word of Truth. We sin in our ethics against the Spirit of righteousness. We sin in our souls against the giver of life. We sin not only against other human beings, but against what it means to be fully human – a being formed to reflect God himself. We are at odds not only with other humans, but with the meaning of humanness.

That is why if we really want to keep a childlike spirit we need to confess to the Maker of children. Then and only then can we be synchronized with the source of freedom, peace, and joy.

What is life like for us when we do that? Psalm 32, also one of David’s, explains it. The joylessness is gone, replaced by a rich appreciation of all that life is and all it has to offer. The lightness is back with gladness and expectation of more joy in the presence of God. The songs once sung in heartless ritual now resonate down in the soul. The prayers that once felt like they bounced off a brass sky now ring down the halls of heaven like the shouts of a child playing in a giant cathedral that feels like home.

[1] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, P. 129

[2] See Psalm 51:3-4.

[3] See 2 Samuel 11.

FACING THE EVIL AMONG US The Las Vegas Massacre

My gut double-clutched as I heard the newsman’s report on Monday morning radio: “Over fifty killed, over five hundred wounded.” As John Stonestreet said on Breakpoint yesterday, we weep for the suffering and we call evil by name.[1]

That’s what I want to do today, help us face the evil.

Law enforcement will sift out a motive, and the debate will rage again about gun control, but in the end, these will not speak to our deepest fears. Remember that in 1995 Timothy McVeigh used a Ryder rental truck, fertilizer, racing fuel, and diesel fuel to kill 168 people, injure 680 others and destroy 25 buildings. On 9-11 Islamic terrorists killed almost 3000 with box cutters and airliners. No amount of investigation or new security will bring these people back.

Whatever the outcome of the investigation and the debates, the question will remain: Knowing something like this could happen again, how are we to deal with it on a personal, day-to-day basis?

The Reality of Evil

Historian David McCollough made this comment after 9-11, “We have for a long time now chosen to see everything in shades of gray. We have eschewed the idea of a clear line between right and wrong, good and evil. I think this event changes that.”

Paul called it the ‘mystery of iniquity’. Evil, how it works and why it torments us, is a mystery. But it is not a myth. It is as real as the thunder of a falling tower and as terrible as the rattle of an automatic weapon, and it resides in our hearts too.[2] Each generation must come to grips with the reality of evil.

The Mandalay Bay shooter was not always evil. He was a baby at his mother’s breast. He was a little boy playing sandlot baseball. But something happened and he turned. He was a free moral agent and made a choice to nurture the evil inside and let it grow.

The Bible teaches us that we have a choice.[3] The question is, what will we do with the evil within?

Salt to a Rotting Culture

Were all of us more truthful with ourselves we would admit violence in our entertainment is just as poisonous as pornography. The more we consume it the less we abhor it and the more it becomes a viable option for calming our inner demons.

No one knows what evil drew the Las Vegas shooter to that hotel high ground, but nothing is more certain than that he saw violence as his only response.

Evil comes from within, but it is nurtured by corrupt culture. Jesus said that we are the salt of the earth, we are the light of the world. Surely that means that we have a role in reshaping our cultural taste for violence.

Find True Security

Stories are already emerging of people who made narrow escapes, or left the venue like John Rich of Big & Rich, before the shooting began. But ultimately, safety has nothing to do with where you are or what you are doing. Safety is found in God alone.

I’m not suggesting we ignore security precautions. I’m just saying that five minutes or five seconds one way or the other is often the difference between life and death. And none of us knows which side of that count we will be on when we walk out the door.[4]

If you do not yet have a relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ, God doesn’t want to know your plans for tomorrow. He wants to know your plans for today. Will you trust him with all that you are for all of eternity?

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”[5]

Let your grasp of who he is be so firm, and your understanding and respect for his power be so immense, that no evil on earth can intimidate you.

[1] http://www.breakpoint.org/2017/10/breakpoint-mourning-wake-las-vegas/

[2] Matthew 5:19

[3] Ephesians 4:26-27; James 1:14-15

[4] Psalm 103:15-16

[5] Matthew 10:28-31

ECSTASY THY NAME IS CHASTITY Seven Ways Married Sex is Best

Yes, that is a very COSMO-like headline for a preacher’s blog. But we live in the COSMO generation. We’ve bought into the idea that the best sex is low on commitment, high on recreation, and all about the right “moves.”

Guess what? The best sex isn’t about the right moves. In fact, the moves have very little to do with it. God didn’t make it that complicated. Our bodies can figure out the mechanics of sex without much help.

The best sex happens under the best conditions and it happens that way because we are so much more than bodies with sex organs. We are men and women, made in the image of God, with physical, emotional, and spiritual capacities for intimacy and ecstasy reaching far beyond anything pornography peddlers can imagine.

Thus, chastity is much more than “not doing it.” Chastity before and fidelity within marriage is the best path to ecstasy.

If you have been burned by the COSMO world, or if you are a young adult contemplating your path through our sex-is-everything culture I want to offer you a better way. In fact, I want to offer you a better world.

Married men and women have a better, more consistent sexual experience over the whole course of their lives than unmarried people. The statistics are available to anyone who wants to look, so I won’t spend any time there.[1] Instead here are seven reasons married sex is best.

First, married sex is richer because it can afford to be completely emotionally vulnerable, no fear of being left behind. The deeper the vulnerability the greater the ecstasy, but vulnerability requires levels of trust unavailable to the uncommitted.

Sex can be separated from vulnerability. People do it all the time. But they are missing at least half of the experience, probably more. Many things happen in the marriage, and in the marriage bed before and after lovemaking, that bind husband and wife together heart and soul. Unmarried sex is as risky to the heart as it is to the body, the emotional equivalent of trapeze work without a net. The marriage covenant makes both people more secure, willing to take greater emotional risks and gather its deeper sensual rewards.

Second, married sex is more generous. It is about giving pleasure as much or more than getting it. The marriage covenant fulfills our longing for existential meaning by giving our lives a higher purpose: The good of our mates and our families. Each person is already committed via a covenant spoken before God, to the death, to the other’s well being. That commitment reshapes the entire approach to lovemaking into an act of service, a free act of self-giving. Paradoxically, as Jesus taught, the more we give of ourselves the more we get in return.

Third, married sex preserves dignity. Each one honors the other and doesn’t push them to places where they don’t want to go. Married sex protects our dignity from the pornographization of everything. We treat each other as whole persons rather than objects that exist solely for individual gratification.

Fourth, married sex comes without shame before others and without guilt before God. Our cultural moment has managed to dull this sense of accountability to our creator, but it is not extinct. It is still common for unmarried people to keep the sexual nature of their relationship secret and un-celebrated. Yet celebration attends every wedding and none greater than the departure for the honeymoon where everyone in attendance knows what’s coming next.

Fifth, married sex is spiritually deeper, if the couple are believers, than even the emotional depths mentioned in number one. The Apostle Paul hinted at the spiritual dimension in Ephesians chapter five saying, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.[2] The marriage bed foreshadows the great consummation of the ages in profoundly mysterious ways. The exquisite joy, the honor, security, and oneness we find there is merely the overture of the grand symphony we will join when he returns for his bride, the Church.

Sixth, married sex preserves the neuro-chemical high. The delicate interchange of pheromones, hormones, and neurotransmitters that fire during the act of marriage — oxytocin, nor epinephrine, serotonin, adrenaline and dopamine — along with all the neural pathways of ecstasy God designed for our good create chemical bonds between lovers broken only at great cost. That is why so many of our love songs are about the pain of loss. Multiple liaisons, no matter how greatly lauded in popular entertainment, dull those neural networks, reducing something exquisite into ordinariness and diluting the power of the chemical bond which is one of the factors driving people into stranger and kinkier attempts to reclaim the ecstasy of their first encounters.

Seventh, married sex rejoices in life. It doesn’t resent children and try to get rid of them, it celebrates children as what they really are: the incredible gift of co-creation with our loving father, the fruit of love that comes from love.

No doubt I’ve raised many questions. But this post is too long and the topic is too broad and I don’t want to linger on it, so I’ve listed resources that have been helpful to me below[3]. However, if you would like to know more I’m happy to help.

For too long preachers like me have cursed the darkness of our sexual brokenness.  We need to turn on the light. I hope this post has done that for you.

[1] http://www.nationalsexstudy.indiana.edu/; The Science of Shacking Up

Why cohabitating couples are putting their future at risk. An interview with Glenn Stanton on ‘The Ring Makes All the Difference.’

Interview by Caryn Rivadeneira. Christianity Today. 2011.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Eph 5:31–32). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[3] https://daneskelton.com/2017/02/08/one-ring-to-bind-them/; http://www.breakpoint.org/2016/12/progressively-regressive-sexuality-rebroadcast/; http://www.breakpoint.org/2014/12/time-new-sexual-revolution/; http://www.breakpoint.org/2013/07/recovering-sexual-wholeness/; http://www.ruthinstitute.org/; http://www.breakpoint.org/2011/11/so-long-sex-week-at-yale/; http://www.miriamgrossmanmd.com/books/; http://www.boundless.org/relationships/2007/a-review-of-unprotected-by-anonymous-md; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/september/science-of-cohabitating.html; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/august/16.22.html;

A FACE LIKE FLINT: Os Guinness’s Call to Courage

8 “Behold, I have made your face as hard as their faces, and your forehead as hard as their foreheads. Like emery harder than flint have I made your forehead. Fear them not, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.”[1]

Thus spoke God to Ezekiel, his prophet to the exiled Jews in Babylon circa 593 B.C., and so speaks Os Guinness to a church increasingly exiled from American culture today in his book, IMPOSSIBLE PEOPLE: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization.

Guinness, the great-great-great grandson of Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewer, is author of over 30 books and one of the most erudite and articulate spokesmen for the truth and goodness of the biblical world view working today. IMPOSSIBLE PEOPLE is a clarion call to the church to face up to the realities of the forces arrayed against the faith and to stand strong against “everything that contradicts the call of our Lord – whatever the cost and whatever the outcome.”

“At stake,” writes Guinness, “is the attempted completion of the centuries-long assault on the Jewish and Christian faiths and their replacement by progressive secularism as the defining faith of the West and the ideology said to be the best suited to the conditions of advanced modernity. The gathering crisis is therefore about nothing less than a struggle for the soul of the West and the place of faith – any faith – in the life of advanced modern societies.”[2]

With that introduction he proceeds through seven concise but weighty chapters to explain the philosophical, social, political and spiritual roots of the mudslide of global modernity now enveloping Western Civilization.

Guinness is not content with social criticism. He does not stop at analysis nor does he offer up practical but ultimately shallow steps at making a difference. He goes deeper by helping us think and pray about our part in the grand drama that is the Church in the world.

The book’s brevity, it is only 225 pages, and Guinness’s clarity make his analysis convincing and fascinating, but it is weighty. It is not a “how-to-do-it” book, but a “how-to-think-about-it” book. Each chapter concludes with an insightful prayer and three discussion questions designed to help the reader decide how he or she will participate in the grand struggle for the soul of civilization. If you like meat in your morning devotions you will find it here. I read it with pen in hand after my first cup of coffee and found it compelling.

The Church in what remains of Western Civilization needs more Ezekiels. Those who feel the call to fill those shoes need to read Guinness.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Eze 3:8–9). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] P. 22

GOD, KIRK CAMERON & HURRICANES

Former Left Behind actor Kirk Cameron made some comments about the recent hurricanes that, taken out of context and twisted by headline writers, made it sound as if Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were God’s judgment on America. As if on cue the blogosphere went bananas.

Patheos blogger, Michael Stone is a good example:

“Cameron is toxic. His glib explanation and justification for his imaginary God’s cruelty and immorality is moronic … Cameron’s God is a misogynistic, moral monster, that lacks any moral standard, and apparently approves of rape, incest, genocide, and slavery, among many other unsavory and decidedly immoral acts.”[1]

Others, including actress Jennifer Lawrence, agreed with this blogger’s sentiments:

“Well, maybe it’s God punishing America for voting for a racist, self-serving, ego driven President. The hurricanes are hitting two states who voted for him. Like you said Kirk…coincidence? I think not!”[2]

Such charges against the God of the Bible are common, so what exactly does it teach about judgment and natural disasters?

First, no one on this planet knows when judgment will come or where it will fall, not even Jesus (See Matthew 24:36-39).

Carl F. H. Henry was a well-known theologian of the 20th century, respected for the profundity of his work, revered for his intellectual brilliance and spiritual depth, and the farthest thing you could imagine from an actor in a Left Behind movie.

Henry said:

“I think we are now living in the very decade when God may thunder his awesome “paradidomai” (“I abandon, or I give [them] up,” Romans 1:24) over America’s professed greatness … Our nation has all but tripped the worst ratings on God’s Richter scale of fully deserved moral judgement.”[3]

Henry said that in November of 1980. Almost four decades have passed. Things have gotten worse and better at the same time. It is presumptuous of anyone to say that any hurricane is God’s judgment.

It is, on the other hand, an opportunity for God’s people to excel themselves in showing mercy by serving those in need and that, according to USA Today, is exactly what they are doing. About 75% of the National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, an alliance of organizations that help FEMA, is made up of faith groups. Samaritan’s Purse, whom our church supports, is among them.[4]

Second, the only natural – disaster – type judgments recorded in scripture occurred after they were specifically prophesied by one of God’s servants as such. Think of Noah and the Flood, Moses and the ten plagues, and Sodom and Gomorrah.

God is able and sometimes does use the natural elements to execute his judgment, but his habit is to tell us beforehand. Otherwise we may understand disasters as a result of ‘curse on the ground’ from Genesis carrying out its work. Calling a hurricane the judgment of God after the fact is theological Monday morning quarterbacking.

Third, every natural disaster is an opportunity for us to consider our mortality, our impending personal interview with the judge of the universe. The book of Hebrews explains that, “It is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment.” Jesus said that on the Day of Judgment we will give an account for every careless word we speak (Matt.12:36). So Cameron is right when he says hurricanes are an opportunity for humility and reflection, as are other near death experiences.

Fourth, the best news that anyone can ever hear is that judgment has already happened and they missed it.

My brother lives two blocks from the ocean in Panama City Beach, Florida. A direct shot from Irma would have left his home under water and his town looking like New Orleans after Katrina. While he is concerned for his neighbors to the south he is also greatly relieved. Other towns absorbed the energy of that monster storm.

Scripture says all of us carry enough sin to be swallowed up by God’s ultimate judgment. But it also says that all of us can, if we are willing, take refuge in the cross of Christ. He absorbed the energy of God’s judgment for our sin (Romans 3:22-26).

Hurricanes and other natural disasters are to be expected on planet earth after the fall and cannot always be avoided, but they can be prepared for. So too with the judgment of God: It cannot be avoided, but it can be prepared for by taking refuge in Christ.

[1] http://pulpitandpen.org/2017/09/08/kirk-cameron-says-god-sends-hurricanes-internet-collectively-loses-mind/

[2] http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kirk-cameron-draws-controversy-hurricane-comments-1037129

[3] Citation: Carl F.H. Henry, The Christian Century (Nov. 5, 1980). Christianity Today, Vol. 30, no. 8.

[4] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/09/10/hurricane-irma-faith-groups-provide-bulk-disaster-recovery-coordination-fema/651007001/

WAITING ON GOD AND PIZZA

I’ll never forget my boss’s reply to a demanding department head who wanted his project moved to top priority for our maintenance crew: “Your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency for me!”

I gasped and laughed out loud.  I did not think anyone, much less the head of a lowly maintenance department, could talk that way to one of the senior ministers in Atlanta’s largest megachurch and get away with it.

But he did.

I wonder if God wouldn’t say something similar to us when, in our hurry to achieve the next thing on our agenda, we run smack dab into the reality that our lack of patience does not constitute a crisis for him.

Ps. 27:14 Wait on the Lord;

Be of good courage,

And He shall strengthen your heart;

Wait, I say, on the Lord![1]

True, sometimes we use the excuse of waiting on God to cover a lack of planning or initiative. As Denzel Washington said, “Dreams without goals remain dreams, just dreams, and ultimately fuel disappointment.” But waiting on God is a pattern that runs throughout scripture.

Noah spent more than a year inside the Ark, sending out first a raven and then a dove to see if the ground was dry. Yet still he waited, even when the dove did not return, until God said, “Come out of the ark …”

Abraham waited till he and Sarah were past their normal childbearing years before God fulfilled his promise of an heir.

Joseph waited years in slavery to Potiphar the Egyptian, then two more years in prison before he was called to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and elevated to Prime Minister of the kingdom.

I doubt that Moses had this message in mind when he recorded those stories in Genesis, but for those of us in the smartphone generation, where information is instantaneously at our fingertips, it’s important to understand that life does not move on our timetable and God is never in a hurry.

The list is long and full of success for people who learned to wait on the Lord. Moses, David, Daniel, and Elijah come to mind. But waiting on him is not the same as doing nothing. It is more like waiting on the pizza delivery man by putting the plates on the table, the ice in the glasses, and the salad in the bowls and getting the dressing out of the fridge. It is a time of watchful expectancy instead of indolent passivity; patient trust and preparation instead of fussy anxiety and inconsequential busyness.

When the trust is total, the heart is quiet, and the preparation is complete, the task is entered into with confidence and the results, usually, are satisfying. Either way we are living with respect for the One who is truly in charge.

[1] The New King James Version. 1982 (Ps 27:14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.