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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I Hate Resolutions

Resolutions rarely do anyone any good.  The new year is a great time to celebrate something new, something exciting, and a different way of approaching things. Resolutions are a dumb idea though.  Why would I say something like that? Because most people never follow through on resolutions.

If I say I resolve to do something, but never take an action I can still say I made a resolution.  It's the equivalent of having good intentions. Good intentions, by themselves, are worthless.  It's a similar thing to when someone says, "Oh, he's a really smart guy, he just never gets anything done."  Who cares how "smart" you are if you can't follow through with it.

Some Christians might ask about when Jesus talks about the interior life, i.e. in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  For example, if Jesus says that looking at a woman with lust is the same thing as committing adultery with her, then isn't Jesus saying our intentions are important? Yes and no. Define your terms! The intentions we ascribe as being "good intentions" are usually just fleeting thoughts.  These thoughts are only good intentions when we act on them.  We will return to those in just a minute, but suffice it to say that good intentions can only be good when follow through with action.

So what would be the big deal with thinking a certain way about a person of the opposite sex then? When we engage in malicious or sinful thoughts we are actually performing an action.  As Christians, the first specific action includes a willful disobedience to the work of the Holy Spirit.  When we choose to follow Christ as his disciples, we are gifted with the presence of the Holy Spirit. He encourages us to live in right relationship with God and other people.  At this point, we all know that God calls us to fidelity and faithfulness.   When we choose to indulge lust and other sinful thoughts we are changing the character and shape of our souls.  The Holy Spirit wants to form in us a Christ shaped soul, and we are literally changing it into a sin shaped soul!  Paul refers to this in Galatians as following the flesh or sarx, but I would simply say that it is becoming sin-like in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Ouch.

The reason good intentions are meaningless is that we are already filled with the capacity to do good things once the Holy Spirit indwells us.  There is no added value to our thoughts which are already good by the very nature of the Holy Spirit.  The meaning comes when we submit those thoughts to the person of the Holy Spirit and act on them in some way.

So, what about those cases where I have what would normally be called a good intention but something prevents me from following through on it? For example, let's say I want to clean part of the house before my wife comes home so that she has less stress tonight.  However, my children ending up getting sick and I am prevented from doing the cleaning.  In order for this good intention to carry any meaning I must attach an action to it- for example telling my wife or a good friend what I was planning.  Why does this telling change anything? It helps hold me accountable so that I will actually do what I said I will do. Then, when I am afforded the opportunity I will follow through with the rest of the action. If I fail to follow through when I have an opportunity, then we see what kind of intention I really had.

Resolutions and intentions only matter in terms of our actions.  By the way, this is how we form habits, but that's a post for another day.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Joy to the World

The Western Christmas season is upon us yet again.  I really struggled with the idea of making a Christmas post or not, but here you go anyway. My main reason for struggling with the idea is that most of the posts I read are tired, worn-out, and redundant (no offense meant to any particular bloggers- I might have a jaded opinion). Hopefully, this isn't one of those.

Why do people suffer? Happy question, I know. I think there are several reasons for this, but the main amount of human suffering in the world is caused by other humans.  Well, what about the people who suffer because of a natural disaster or a random accident? I still think many of those could be prevented if humans, as a whole, could actually love one another. Most people know by now that the limit on human resources isn't necessarily caused by a strict limit on those resources. Instead, greed, corruption, and hostility often limit the amount of resources shared among people groups. This leads to inability of people to avoid things like monsoons, build proper housing, and get access to clean food and water. I could go on with how our sinful nature affects us individually and globally.

In the midst of this, Christians see the need for Christ, especially at this time of year. Christ calls us to live sacrificially for others.  By this love, we hope to share Christ.  We want to transcend materialism, physicalism, and the downright ugliness of selfishness that surrounds us and indwells us all too often.

So, here are my suggestions for remembering and living joyfully this Christmas season. As always, these are written with myself in mind just as much as anyone else. 
1. Give until it hurts. Use your commodities like you live to give them away- money, time, and friendship (see #4 below). 
2. Review what it is that actually hurts. This C.S. Lewis quote from Mere Christianity can help you get started:
“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures exclude them.”
3. Pray in a sacrificial manner. Try setting your alarm for the middle of the night and getting up to pray for friends, family, coworkers who need Christ.  Give up a couple meals this month to fast and pray for Christians who are suffering. 
4. Treat your friendship like a commodity people need. I know this could be taken in a weird way, but we already treat our friendship as a valuable thing. We withhold it from people if we don't like them or we are tired of them. Conversely, we give it to those we deem worthy of it because they have earned our trust. What if instead of the Law of Diminishing Returns living in the back of our minds, we just became friends with other people sacrificially. I don't mind thinking of economic terms- let's just turn those economics upside down with the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus. 
5. Trust Christ.  I don't have all the answers, but I really believe I know the One who does. It is time for me to start living like  I know Christ.  This kind of trust is the essence of joyful living. It also explains why it is not a euphoric or happy feeling, although those feelings may happen at times.  
6. Be cheerful. So, what is good cheer then? It is a willingness to help others without complaining. It is an ability to listen without judging.  It allows us to spend time, energy, and resources on others without an expectation of return.  All these things together form a cheerful disposition.  It also means we don't force Christ on others during this time or approach them from a position of power, arrogance, or control. 

I really believe we can celebrate Christ this Christmas. As a Christian, He has done immeasurably more for me than I could do for Him.  I can truly celebrate, Joy to the world! 

And now, the words to my favorite Christmas carol by Isaac Watts:

Joy to the World , the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Luke 2:8-12 (GNT) 

There were some shepherds in that part of the country who were spending the night in the fields, taking care of their flocks. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone over them. They were terribly afraid,10 but the angel said to them, “Don't be afraid! I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all the people. 11 This very day in David's town your Savior was born—Christ the Lord! 12 And this is what will prove it to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Monday, November 24, 2014

Three Books and a Few Thoughts on Reading

Three of the books I recently finished reading are:
1. With by Skye Jethani
2. Ordinary by Michael Horton 
3. After you Believe by N.T. Wright

I selected each of these books independently of the others, but they ended reinforcing similar enough principles I thought it wise to cover them in one post.

First, each book comes from a different perspective and tradition on the Christian faith. With comes from an evangelical, Ordinary is by a Reformed theologian, and NT Wright composes as an Anglican.   Despite these differences, each of the authors ends up addressing what Christian faith looks like in the long haul.   For this reason, I believe these books are best suited for someone who is ready to move on from the basics of Christianity to a longer path of obedience. 

Next, each book does a good job of making a unique contribution to discipleship literature.  In Ordinary, a case is made for the regular practice of Christian community.  Instead of seeking new methods as our identity, the local church must be committed to the original and simple institutions of the early church - i.e. communion, prayer, fellowship, and scripture.  When we realize the radical message of Christianity must be dependent on Christ alone, we give up trying to define ourselves in terms of our radical works. 

In this respect, With assisted me in thinking about the actual working out of personal discipleship.   The purpose of Skye's book is to help us give up life under, over, for, or from God and instead hold to a life of discipleship where we are in constant communion with God. Ultimately, this is about heart change. Being with God changes our perspective on the ordinary because it is here we find our satisfaction rather than in our attempts to control.

Wright is one of my favorite writers, and this book was no exception.  Although his slightly pedantic style can wear on me at times, in this book he winsomely crafts a middle road for the Christian life between legalism and antinomianism. Christian virtue becomes not an end in itself, but the product of a life lived regularly with God.  I think the common thread should be obvious between the three books at this point. 

In conclusion, none of these books on its own would have been a stand out classic. They are all good books, but they have their faults.   However, together these three together reinforced the importance of integrated discipleship. The flaws of individual perspectives can be crippling and distracting when I read.  While reading these books in tandem, the flaws were heavily outweighed by the complementary nature of the books. So, here are some things I've learned through the process, in addition to the things I'm thinking about long-term discipleship.

1. No one tradition has all the answers to a well-formed Christian principle, whether it by discipleship or any other important aspect of the Christian life. 
2. Reading more than one book at the same time can have benefits.
3. Particularly, reading with an awareness of the concepts, applications, and practical perspectives which may complement each other helps gives a deeper appreciation and useful of each individual book. The sum of the whole is greater than the distinct parts.
4. The Holy Spirit can work in ways I may consider mundane, such as my book choices. It is important to submit even those things in prayer to God.
5. My reading should be a regular and simple practice which benefits God's church. 

Overall, thinking about what I have learned has given me new perspective on Philippians 2:3-4, 
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (NIV)

When I read and study in the future, I want it to be even more for the glory of God, in service to His church. God continues to teach me excellent things and I must continue the process by living out in humility what I learn. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Ministry Cave

If you've ever read the Harry Potter series you know how terrible and lonely caves can be.  The main antagonist in the story arc, Lord Voldemort, used a cave to hide some of his darkest secrets. It was there he tortured other children as a child. It was there he hid many of the dead bodies of people he had murdered, and he used their undead corpses as protection for a part of his evil soul.

In Plato's Republic we are greeted by the Allegory of the Cave. The cave is the place where ignorant men remain ignorant about the true nature of the world.  The cave really isn't a good place, as the Good is something outside of the cave.  Much more could be said about this little parable.

Suffice it to say we don't want to live in caves. They are dark. They are lonely. They isolate us from the warmth and clarity of the sun.

Being in vocational ministry is an isolating place. It can often feel like being in a cave.

It may not be the most isolating vocation, but it has to be one of them. I'm sure being a doctor, psychotherapist, or mortician may all be equally demanding emotionally and spiritually. However, I only know my experiences related to professional ministry.

Sometimes you have weeks that seem like they aren't going to end. The apparent setbacks pile on top of each other as if they have a personality and are eager to bury you.  At times like this, ministry can feel like a dank, dark cave on an island in some forgotten, arctic sea. Every time you feel like you deal with the next gust of chill wind, another one comes to knock you down.

So, how do I deal with it?

1. Christ alone.

If I value myself, my work, or my relationship to any of it by the outside factors (i.e. the setbacks) then I'm stuck in the cave and I'm never getting out.  Every time one of these things hits me, I realize it's time to pray. One of the simple prayers that brings me back into the presence of Christ is St. Patrick's shield or breastplate prayer:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I also pray for mercy based upon the sinner's plea in Luke 18:13. This leads me to my next point.

2. Perspective.

I'm a sinner saved by God's grace. God didn't need to love me, but He chose to because of His nature.  This changes everything.  "My" ministry isn't mine because even my life isn't mine anymore. I am Christ's- redeemed by Him and for Him. 

3. Reinvigorated clarity.  

When setbacks inevitably occur in ministry, it helps me to clear away the cobwebs of distractions and ambiguous purpose.   I am in ministry to help equip believers grow in Christ and introduce others to Christ.  Anything that hasn't helped with this dual purpose is not worth pursuing.  

4. Talking it out. 

Finally, I spend time with other believers who I can share my struggles with in a healthy way.  Staying positive and staying away from gossip are two of the marks of healthiness within these relationships. It doesn't mean I pretend everything is OK. It does mean we communicate clearly, assertively, and with grace. 

Of course, there are things I will never be able to share as far as details or names of those things getting me down within ministry. This would be a breach of trust.  However, I can and should share how I am doing and whether I am trusting Christ. This type of mutual confession is good for the soul and good for the church. 

This post helps remind me of my own calling as a disciple and as a minister.  I guess I couldn't sum it up better than Paul as he reminded the Roman church to work out their interpersonal stuff with love. 

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 
(Rom. 12:2)

Time to let Christ drag me on out of this cave and into the sunlight.  Let's overcome some evil today. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Excluded Middle

Last night I was reminded of how often people look at a position and assume there are only two alternatives. Usually this happens when someone fails to adequately distinguish what they mean. When this occurs, an oversimplification occurs and an individual asserts a generalization.

Generalizations are dangerous because they rarely carry the meaning a speaker or writer himself thinks of when writing or speaking the assertion.  Such statements fail to account for sense, time, and referent sufficiently. Since the communicator has a different meaning than the recipient, a closed communication loop is created where the original communicator has distanced himself from his audience.  At times, this distance is intentional.

One example may be a speech writer who is intentionally ambiguous and uses a lot of platitudes.  Such a person may want to call to mind, for the speech recipients, various undefined and broad ideas of patriotism along with emotional experiences which are left open to interpretation. This lack of clarity and vague feelings of loyalty may then be attached to the person who delivers the speech in broad generalizations.  In my experience, this seems to be a common tactic in writing speeches which engender support from a wide spectrum.  This is dangerous for both the individual and society as it encourages individuals to assume and then agree to work with other individuals based upon assumption, rather than upon actual knowledge.

This danger is present not only for political parties, government, and civil societies, but it is also present for the church. I cannot count how many times I have read sermon help materials, small group studies, and other materials designed, ostensibly, to help the church which have relied upon sweeping abstraction to make a point.  This happens when a study guide will present a question with only two alternatives- implying that one alternative is more Christ-like than the other.  Many times, the two alternatives are oversimplified in a way that does no justice to either alternative.

At this point, the author is relying on the Law of Excluded Middle to try to force Christians into a guilt based reversal of behavior.  This is problematic for a number reasons.

First, as mentioned earlier a generalization, especially in this case, fails to adequately describe its propositional referents.  This may sound confusing at first, but it is quite simple.  Propositions are statements which must have meaning.  Sometimes, Christians try to make propositions but in reality they are issuing non-nonsensical statements which have no referents.  More often, the propositions fail to specifically enough to a state of affairs to be relevant. If we are vague, then we flounder in our ability to communicate effectively.

Second, the two propositions Christians may be comparing as antithetical (opposites) may not in fact be the opposite of each other. This is a very common mistake.  Just because I have experienced something and then replaced it with a different experience does not mean the second thing I experienced was the universal, unilateral opposite of the thing I replaced it with.  Stated differently, following God and not following God are opposites, but there are number of different ways to do both.  On the outside, actions may usually be seen as neutral, it is the heart that matters.

This brings us to the third point.  Generalizations go wrong when they ignore the hidden qualities of the Christian experience.   One of the reasons people misunderstand the proposition in Christian materials is that they are looking at it from the wrong perspective.  One of the chief ways this happens is that the Law still rules Christians rather than Grace.  For a good introduction to the topic see this book:   Set Free .

Finally, the writer may have jumped to application before preparing the audience through a careful study of scripture.  When we think that application is the only or even the primary reason for studying scripture, we may miss out on God's presence in the reading of that scripture.  Not only that, but we may miss out on the specific meaning of the text which may bring us to even more broad applications.  In short, application is inserted into a proposition as being universally true. God's word is universally true, our application of it is not.

When we pretend that someone either follows our interpretation of scripture or they are disobeying God we employing the Law of the Excluded middle in a devious way. We have disastrously conflated our understanding of God's word with God's word and tried to apply it legalistically to someone else. I've probably been guilty of doing this in my writing before, but this post is a reminder of the need to be gentle, careful, and gracious in my application of scripture.

There are other ways the Law of Excluded may not apply to our readings of scripture, but this should be sufficient to get us reoriented towards humility for now. It was at least a good reminder for myself.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fishies and Feets

I'm a stay at home (SAH) dad.  The church I currently work with is kind enough to let me work from home on my lessons, curriculum, and all my other administrative duties.  It just worked out that job was a part-time commitment and my wife would work full-time.

So, how do I like it? I never expected to be SAH parent.  In fact, I've pushed against it for the last few years.  Finally, I'm starting to feel alright with it.  I realized it when my 2 year old son asked me to trace his feet the other day.  My first thought, for the briefest of times, went something like this, "Why can't he leave me alone for 5 minutes!" To be honest, this is usually my thought when my boys ask me for something.  It's usually a struggle for me to focus on the things the little boys need to be kids. I'm often distracted by the things I want to do with my time.

This time was different though. It wasn't a struggle to say, "Yes, Blaise, let's do it!" I surprised myself with this reaction because although I still had the initial, "leave me alone," thought, I instinctively subdued that thought. Instead, I really wanted to play with my son. He was ready for me trace his "feets" and we giggled together as we found paper and a marker to do so.

I had a similar thought when I took my boys to the aquarium today. Many times, I take my boys to the things they like to do because I see it as something they need. Today I saw it as a tremendous way to spend time with them.

Life is odd.  I never intended to end up as a SAH. Yet, here I am.  I've been so busy for so many years of my life God finally had to use my kids to slow me down. Even as I write those words, I know it will appear strange to someone on the outside.  How in the world do a 2 year old and 6 year old slow someone down (besides at the end of the day)?  At least with my kids, God used them to show me how important the experience of life itself should be in the midst of all my busyness.

It's basically taken me 3 years to move internally, spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually from, "Hey, just leave me alone so I can get done what I want to get done." to "Yes, I'd love to be with you." I have a hard time just being- especially with myself. This is what God keeps calling me to though- just being with Him.  I pretend I know what that's all about, but it took little ones to really start to show me.

The Shema, the defining script for the people of God in the Old Testament, makes it clear what type of relationship we are supposed to have with God.  The aspect I've forgotten about is that God wants me to exist with Him, not on my own.  So many times, my busyness gets in the way of just knowing God.  Yet, God patiently calls me to hear from Him. He is no fragmented, crazy, fractured God. The Lord is one.  This is God's holiness.  The distraction is part of what I am being called out and away from.
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your Godwith all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, NASB)

God waits for me to respond to Him the same way my sons want my attention- no reservations, no holding back, no internal distraction, and no halfway heart.  It sounds so peaceful. Why can't I do it then? My sin, the old self is holding me back.  

It's time to be a kid again and enjoy fishies and feets with my Father. This time though, the roles need to be reversed and I need to open up joyfully to all the cool things my heavenly Father wants to show me. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Race and My Place

I live in a neighborhood that is a fairly good representation of the city of Cincinnati in terms of its character and racial makeup. I love living in my neighborhood. Not everyone looks alike, not everyone acts alike. In all honesty, there are probably safer places to live.  I feel comfortable having my family here. We are part of this neighborhood and we interact respectfully with our neighbors. Sometimes, I get the impression that many white Christians throughout the U.S. would feel very uncomfortable living in my neighborhood. They may even downright avoid my neighborhood because of its racial makeup. I believe this is a tragedy.

Ferguson has been on the minds of most Americans in the past few weeks.  I have no idea if we will ever know what actually happened the night Mike Brown died. There have been commentaries on both sides of the issue that paint either the cops or the black community as villains in the struggle.  I have no desire to take part in such petty arguments.  Why is it petty? I am not a person living in the community, I am not a business owner in the community, and I have neither lost or gained anything because of this ordeal. Most of the people who are casting judgment on the situation have nothing to gain directly or indirectly by what has happened in Ferguson. Instead, the gains made by such people are usually on an ideological level although it does not escape me that language may be used to subjugate (in various ways, through various methods) people who are different than the speaker.

Why would I bring up such a point?  I want to take more responsibility for my actions as a white man of privilege. I recognize that I have certain privileges merely because I was born a man who was white.  This is what Ferguson has brought to my mind with all the arguing.  As a white person, I have never known what is like to be profiled by the police purely because of my race.  I can go where I want to in this country with little to no fear of reprisal because of the the color of my skin. My skin happens to take on a slightly olive color which may be because of a great-grandfather of unknown ethnicity; he got off the orphan train from New York with an assumed identity and was adopted without a second thought into my family. Other than that, I am clearly a white man.  For years, I've had people share racist jokes with me with the expectation that I would laugh at those who were not of the white race. I don't laugh at those jokes  and they quickly go away because of it, but it is assumed that because of my whiteness I will share in the privilege and power those jokes embody.

The privilege doesn't end there either. Even within the church, I have doors open for me precisely because of my anatomy, sexuality, and gender (all of which happen to be interrelated but distinct things).  If I was a woman, I could not realistically hope to be an elder in the brotherhood I hold most near and dear to my heart. *

I could go on about my privilege and place in society, but I won't. Instead, I want to return to my responsibility. I must take on the role of servant.  This is my responsibility. Any power I have must be used to serve others. Admittedly, some of those people I serve include my family.  The people in my neighborhood are also those I must serve.

(Delacroix's Good Samaritan, which I do not own the rights to but show purely for educational purposes) 

Given the case of Ferguson, Christians must think in the same way. When Jesus was asked about those we are called to serve, he answered with a story.  If my anger is raised about the looting, vandalism, and rioting I must think about who I could serve.  If my anger grows deep and heated because of the actions of the police, then I must find a way to serve them.

Sin has left our society beaten, bruised, and robbed of the beauty God intends for His creation.  As the church, when we come across sin's effects and we react with indifference or angst we do a disservice to the cross of Christ.  We must find a way to serve and love those who are different than ourselves.  We must love them in a sacrificial way.

I am not a black person who was raised in this country. I am not a cop patrolling the streets.  I am not a business owner with a destroyed livelihood. I am a white man and I must love my neighbor.

The love expressed here is not from the principles of Old Testament sapiential literature.** Instead, this is the love of a savior who gave all. It is the love of someone at odds culturally with someone else who decides to sacrifice in order to partake in God's restoration and redemption of creation.

Paul sums up my feelings on responsibility towards race and service to others.

All the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.
I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it. (Philippians 3:8-11 The Message)

I have a place in this world, and it is wherever I can serve others.

*Some people in our brotherhood see a sea change happening with women's role in ministry and possibly in eldership.  At this point, I am trying to be faithful to scripture and not comment on anything other than the reality that women currently are not welcome as elders in our brotherhood. 
**I believe Christians can and should support the government in the way that Paul upheld in the NT, especially in Romans. However, I believe we are also paradoxically called to a life of subversion. This life is epitomized by Christ-like servant-hood to which is the essence of kingdom living.