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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Obedience

It amazes me how many times I have to explain this concept to my four year old son. The distinction between obedience and disobedience blurs all too quickly for him. Even when there are clear consequences and privileges for disobedience and obedience, he often chooses the disobedient path.

I must admit I blur the lines in my own life. I can't claim to be a four year old though. Sometimes it feels as if I am just a young boy, but that is usually due to my own foolishness. As James would say, "I know the good I should do, and yet I fail to do it." (James 4:17, my own paraphrase).

Why is obedience so hard? Especially when we know the consequences will not and cannot be good for us?

It's a heart issue. We want to be masters of our world. We want to have control. It feels so much more satisfying, or at least we think so, to have control over our own little slice of the universe. Disobedience allows us to assert this dominance over our slice. After all, I have a right to be disobedient if I want.

Rights are invoked by Christians all the time. I have a right to eat what I want. I have a right to watch what I want. I have a right to be friends with the people I want. I have a right to use my money the way I want. I'm sure we could make a long list of all the rights we have.

What's the problem with this type of assertion?

Again, it's a heart issue. Whenever I assert my rights over the rights of another person, I am showing the character of my heart. Even when I am just asserting a right and it is not immediately clear how another person is involved, I am still seeking something for myself.

The heart which seeks to be served is a disobedient heart. But we all like to be served right? Yep, we do. There is nothing wrong with enjoying and appreciating it when someone serves us.
The problem arises when our rights or our wish to be served motivates us. This is what I am talking about when I talk about the heart; the heart is our will which motivates us, desires within us, and moves our will.

One thing I believe Nietzsche got right about slave morality is this - it emasculates everyone when imposed upon others. Slave morality, in essence, is the idea that virtues such as charity, kindness, and humility are a reaction to a master morality of strength and will, originally determined by its consequences. Nietzsche abhorred the biblical and Christian concepts of morality for several reasons, but most importantly he thought it necessary to revalue morality in terms of the will to power.

There are two major distinctions Nietzsche failed to realize about Christian morality, or perhaps he understood and did not believe. In any case, Christians do not believe strength and will are evil in themselves. Second, Christians cannot defend an imposition of morality as the way by which true equality is gained.

On the first point, we believe strength, or fortitude in Aquinas' terms, is a virtue. We just believe strength is shown in different ways, e.g. restraint or the defense of the defenseless. This is why Christians should not always be silent in the face of evil. Christians must be advocates for others.

Christians cannot defend an imposition of morality as the means of true equality because we believe in the uniqueness of salvation through Christ. What does salvation have to do with equality? Everything! Salvation must be universally accessible and universally able to be rejected. If morality is the highest standard of equality, or at least the means by which equality is granted, then salvation no longer rules our thoughts and actions as Christians. Even more, true morality is result of a changed heart, formed by Christ. So, in order for morality to be real it must be first formed in the forge of salvation.

Salvation* must be the guide by which we see all men and women before God. The government may attempt to legislate morality, but Christians must understand it is a relationship to God in terms of Christ that determines our standing, both temporal and eternal.

It is at this point we remember the service of Christ.

Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. (Mark 10:45; John 3:16-17). He showed us the essence of an obedient heart. He showed us how to follow God fully. He did not come to assert his rights, but instead to serve others.

As I celebrate Christmas this year, I want to seek to serve others. I want to do this in strength, but also in humility.

If I am going to serve others, I must be obedient to God rather than my rights.

I am seeking to serve in obedience this Christmas.

Happy Christmas!
-christopher


Luke 2:8-20 (HCSB)
The Shepherds and the Angels
8 In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. 9 Then an angel of the Lord h stood before them, and the glory of The Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: 11 Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David. 12 This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in cloth and lying in a feeding trough.”
13 Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
14 Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and peace on earth t to people He favors!
15 When the angels had left them and returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
16 They hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the feeding trough. 17 After seeing them, they reported the message they were told about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, just as they had been told.



*As a side note, salvation extends beyond the mere conception of getting into heaven. Salvation must be thought of in terms of the full redemptive work of Christ.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Grateful

Being content is a full time enterprise. Seriously, if I don't work at being content, then I start to get distracted by temptations on every side. A few (mostly) silly examples:
Toys - Is there a new Star Wars Lego set out? Cool, let's go look at it at Soren (and try to convince mommy we should buy it)!
Games - That new board game takes 5 hours to play and some of the instructions are in Latin? I can't wait to buy it and play it one time before putting in the closet forever!
Activities - I have been doing this same activity for 2 months now? I really need to start something new! How about Zoomba!
Food - I've eaten beans twice this month? I need to eat the newest food craze now!

This week I talked to my students about being grateful. Thanksgiving provokes us to think about thankfulness, contentedness, and gratefulness.

As I studied for the lesson I encountered a familiar problem. The text showed me I needed to make a change in my own life.

Preparing to teach the Bible should involve several important steps. The text should be read a few times. Prayer finds it ways throughout the experience. Historical and cultural research, cross-referncing, and language study all take up time in the process. Eventually, when the teacher begins to think directly about application, the text must have been fermenting in the soul for many hours. Many times this causes the honest teacher to revaluate their own relationship to the text.

This is where it caused a problem for me. I don't always live out the application and meaning of the verse we were studying.

Colossians 3:17 occupied our discussion this week.

It says, "And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. (HCSB)"

This is not a flippant "Thank You!" We are expected to live out our thanks. The work of Jesus should be at the forefront of every action, internal and external in our lives. It should be transformative.

To be more precise, the thanksgiving we believers express to God through our lives because of Jesus Christ must clearly show the transformative nature of the Gospel.

It must express this...must! If it does not express the transformative nature of the Gospel we are being led away into glorification of self. In a nutshell, this is what the book of Colossians is about. When we are filled with the work and person of Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, our lives contain the sufficiency of Christ.

Sufficiency here does not just mean "enough." This word fails to express the fullness of sufficiency in Christ. Sufficiency in Christ means we have everything we need.

And this is how it all connects- If I truly have everything I need in Christ, then I will be content. To express discontent is to express dissatisfaction with the sufficiency of Christ. It is to be an ungrateful, spoiled, rotten, and petulant child. Nobody likes being around that kid, not even that kid. I do not want to be him.

But I am. Frequently.

Only a person who is content can consistently experience the grateful life. A grateful life, a thankful life expresses it in visible ways. We must consistently act our gratitude.

This week I want to express my gratitude to someone in my life who I am thankful toward. I am going to tell them. I am also going to do something for this person.

I also want to express my gratitude to God. I want to do this in an active way. Prayer and Bible study are good, but our gratitude to God should never end there.

The best part of Thanksgiving is that it is extremely hard to compromise a real "Thank You." We all know how to spot the faker, the person who says "Thank You" in a hypocritical or flippant way. So, instead let's be thankful.

Express your thanks today. Be active. Be visible in your consequences and secret in your identity. That's my plan for now.

Happy Thanksgiving.
-Christopher

Monday, November 12, 2012

Church Music

This is my old set up from my guitar pedal board. I'm a youth minister, but I have also been a participating worship leader in some respect for the last 15 years. 

The worship wars have been going on for some time now.  I am probably not the only person annoyed by them.  The presidential election provoked my thinking about a lot of things, and worship happened to be one of those things. Christians on every side of every issue were ranting and raving about their side last Tuesday- whether it was winning or losing.

Here is one example of someone I assume is a Christian doing that in a public way. 

I want to set the baseline here and then get to the stuff I want to share. First of all, I think both our politics and our worship have serious implications for the rest of our lives. I voted on Tuesday. I am not telling anyone (including my wife) how I voted for any issue, but I did vote.  I did so because I truly believe our politics have serious real world consequences.  Second, there is an objectively right answer to both of these important issues.  We just aren't focused on those things in this post. Third, I have never, repeat never, been in a worship service that played the style of music I would want it to be all the time. It just doesn't happen for me, and I am not advocating any particular style of music or lyrics.

All that being said, Christians often focus on the wrong sorts of things when discussing both topics.

What do I mean? Aren't we supposed to care about important issue x? Of course you are, and there are probably very specific biblical principles related to that particular issue.  You may even be right.

But we get upset about the wrong sorts of things when we don't keep the main thing the main thing. Substance and style matter here people.  More on all that in a minute, but first let's return to the worship wars for just a second to bring church music back into focus.

When we think of the worship wars, we often think of differences in style. Sometimes, a difference in substance separates people, but most of the time this is not the biggest complaint.  I have been in many churches where people complain about the use of the drums, the lack of drums, amplified instruments versus acoustic instruments, praise songs being too repetitive, and older hymns being just plain boring. A number of other things often come up in the complaint category too- style, worship leaders, aesthetics of the room, and slide backgrounds.  We could probably make a much more comprehensive list of all the complaints people in the church have about music and worship.

Let's be honest, this is all petty stuff for the mature Christian.   Don't get me wrong the discussions about substantial issues- i.e. lyrical content of the song, especially about its general and specific referents- should be a concern to all Christians.  However, when we complain about things like repetitiveness, style, or aesthetic concerns we are being self-centered whiners.

And here's the point- When we raise an issue of substance or style in an un-loving, un-merciful, and un-servant like way we fail to communicate the Gospel.

What? Really? Yes!

Whiners fail to communicate the Gospel.

To put it differently, when we attempt to communicate in any way and we are not Christ-like, we fail to communicate the Gospel.

Can the Holy Spirit still get the message across to hearts and minds? Absolutely. God can do wonders like illuminating the dark recesses of our hearts.  It's actually part of the sanctification process.  The part troubling me is our disobedience. We are called to share the Gospel message and we fail to do so when cannot substantially or effectively communicate who God is because we are focused on the wrong things.

Here is what I think about church music:
1. We must remember worship is a lifestyle, not something we do on Sunday mornings. If we can't worship throughout the week, why are we trying to evaluate the music at a service? Let's live it first.
2. Excellence is great; being about attraction is not (See #3).  We should use those servants who are willing to obediently commit to things like practice corporately and individually. It's not a show. We must employ the same standards we would use for things like teachers in the church.  Some people may not be as skilled or talented as others, but they are committed servants and should be utilized appropriately as worship leaders.  See #3.
3. It's not about us. Church music must be about Christ first and foremost.   We can celebrate what God has done, is doing, and will do through our Savior and Lord.
4. Clarity- clarity of mission, clarity of message, and clarity of sound.  This is just about staying on task in every area.  We need to make sure we aren't just putting out noise (virtual or audial). In order to be clear we need to teach things that are both repetitive in some way and new in some way.  Different types of learners inhabit the church.
5. Just about everything else is up for grabs if we follow the first four rules.  Want to use metal to worship? Cool. Just make sure you follow the previous rules.  Bluegrass? Same applies.

Remember, Just because it's old or new doesn't mean you have followed the rules. It just means it's old or new.

Let me know what you think.

in Christ,
Christopher

P.S. Here are two of the most formative verses concerning what I think about church music.

Isaiah 53:2 (HCSB)
He grew up before Him like a young plant
and like a root out of dry ground.
He didn’t have an impressive form
or majesty that we should look at Him,
no appearance that we should desire Him.

Philippians 2:1-11 (HCSB)
 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal. Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus,
who, existing in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God
as something to be used for His own advantage.
Instead He emptied Himself
by assuming the form of a slave,
taking on the likeness of men.
And when He had come as a man
in His external form,
He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death—
even to death on a cross.
For this reason God highly exalted Him
and gave Him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow
of those who are in heaven and on earth
and under the earth
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.



Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Expectations and Desire

Life rarely presents what we expected. I am reminded of this daily in the lives of my two young sons. As they grow and learn each day unfolds uniquely. I try to develop routines with them, but no two days are ever the same. This change, or at least their reactions to change, means I have to be ready for anything.

I often fail. Usually, my attitude just doesn't keep up with what those two throw at me. Sometimes they are having a rough day and I have a bad attitude. The next day when they're ready to move on and have a good day, my bad attitude sticks around. I'm good at controlling it around them. However, the bad attitude seeps out when I'm around my wife or other adults.(I'm sorry if your one of those people I've treated unfairly).

The problem with all of this happens to be my expectations. Is it that my expectations are unrealistic? Possibly. Or maybe they are too imposing on other people (such as the boys)? That might be true too. Maybe I just have too many? Maybe.

The one thing all my expectations usually have in common is that they are fueled by desire. Desire is not necessarily a bad thing. However, desire must be directed by a heart properly formed or it will be untamed, wild, and erratic. It will end up being sinful and drag us in all sorts of ways. This is what James talks about when he tells us desire gives birth to sin (James 1:14-15).

What does proper desire look like in relation to my expectations? Let's look at it with my sons and my attitude. First, I should be praying for them and their development. Second, I should be praying with them. Third, I should be reading God's word on what it means to be a good parent - e.g. in various Proverbs and Ephesians 6:4. Fourth, I should develop a desire to be a godly parent. Another word for develop would be mature or encourage. Having what we would call a wish would not normally be a desire in this sense. A desire is something which consistently motivates us.

When I consistently submit this area to the Lord's will and discipline, the Holy Spirit can alter my desires. Competing desires such as selfish pleasure or perfectionism may increasingly diminish as the Holy Spirit directs more of my life. This is how my expectations can and should change.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Truth is truth

[Reposted from my youth ministry blog- http://www.cflm.org/index.php/youth-ministry/blog]



I am always intrigued when I meet someone who denies something which I have already accepted as true.  In one way or another, it usually ends up being quite interesting. The main reason it interests me is because I end up learning a lot about people and how they come to form their beliefs. 

The moon landings form a prominent example of a class of beliefs people fail to believe in.  I remember first encountering this disbelief when I was in high school. The person who happened to disavow that Neil Armstrong and anyone else landed on the moon happened to be one of our group leaders. Quietly, I was astounded.  The reasons for not believing in the moon landing were elaborate and founded on what sounded like scientific reasoning.  However, after doing a little investigating at the school library and talking to one of my teacher's I found better reasons to continue believing we landed on the moon. 

The most enlightening thing about the encounter was what happened when I went to share this information with the group leader.  Instead of listening to what I had to say, this person rejected what I said. He said I was just buying into the hype, or something like that... In any case, his reasons for believing or disbelieving always trumped what anyone else presented. He just knew.  

As a Christian, this is a terrible way to believe.   Some people disagree with me, but I think they are wrong. I think Paul would also teach that you are wrong (c.f. 1 Cor. 15:3-8).   

Let me distinguish some things which will I believe will help us be better believers of truth. 
1. Truth is truth- it has a certain character. It is important to know the truth.
2. Truth never changes.  Particulars and contingent information can change, but truth never changes.  
3. Truth changes everything.  The nature of truth affects reality. 
4. Truth is contextual. Rarely does the phrase, "just the bare facts," make sense.  

Christians do know certain things. We are not global skeptics (i.e. people who do not believe something unless it can be proved with 100% certainty).  We may not always know how we come to know things, but we do know them.  

In humility, we should grant three things with all of this: 1. We are wrong at times, maybe even about a great deal.  2. We are limited and do not know everything. 3. We are not the only ones who can know truth. 

Knowledge is a sort of thing with degrees. It is not an all or nothing enterprise.  Truth is, but knowledge is not.   This is why we can acknowledge all of the above and still affirm basic Christian principles and beliefs.  

Returning to the example of the moon landings. How do we know it is true and really happened?  Well, the evidence points that way. Am I 100% percent certain we landed on the moon? No. Do I know we landed on the moon. Yes, I do. I believe the different types of evidence, my common sense, and the testimony of others. 

Our Christian belief should be formed in the same sorts of ways.  

Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life."  (John 14:6).  

I know Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  This changes everything. 

P.S.- just for fun,
The Flag is Still There
Moon House Rock

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Middle Ground

My second son was born earlier this week.  Like most people who have babies, I started thinking about the future as I stared at him.   I also had the opportunity to read more this week, and I finished a book started earlier in the month.

In Descartes' Bones we learn how rationalist philosopher Rene Descartes' remains traveled through Europe and the centuries.  Descartes is most famously known for the Latin phrase cogito, ergo sum by which he reduced certain knowledge to, 'Some being of which I am part, is thinking right now.'  Since he began the rationalist journey in his Discourse on Method, Descartes has been dandy and devil to both religious and naturalistic thinkers.  In his own lifetime, he was seen as both a heretic and devout Catholic, often at the same time. 

Author Russell Shorto  crafted a fine book with a strong thesis.  He claims to show how Descarte founded modernity by attempting to stay on the middle ground between atheistic rationalism and religious faith.  He uses several examples to show how both sides have used Descartes' bones and ideas to serve their own purposes. 

Instead of acceding to either fanatical side, Shorto attempts to show the pitfalls of total ascription to either.  Shorto makes the case of the moderate. Prominently, the debate in mid-19th Century France over the relationship between brain size and intelligence provokes some fun historical reading.   


All that remains of the famous (and contentious) philosopher is his skull. Fitting for someone known, whether rightly or not, for dividing the mind and the body in a dualistic framework. The following poem is inscribed in Latin on the forehead. It provides an odd poetic context for the moderate appeal made by Shorto. 

Latin
Parvula Cartesii fuit haec calvaria magni,
exuvias reliquas gallica busta tegunt;
sed laus ingenii too diffunditur orbe,
mistaque coelicolis mens pia semper ovat.
English
This small skull once belonged to the great Cartesius,
The rest of his remains are hidden far away in the
land of France;
But all around the circle of the globe his genius
is praised,
And his spirit still rejoices in the sphere of heaven.


Although I disagree with some of Shorto's conclusions, I greatly respect and appreciate this work.  It is well researched and reads like a novel.  

There are several individuals who could be considered responsible for sparking modernity- Machiavelli, Galileo, Newton, Hume (just to name a few important people).  However, it is clear no one person produced modernity and its cultural descendants.  Descartes played an important role, but he was not solely or even probably chiefly responsible for such a sea change.  At the same time, this book does a superb job of bringing the philosopher back into his proper place in history.   

I also believe Shorto still writes about religion from a naturalists' perspective on religion.  It is clear he does not believe any one religion may know truth.   Although I agree individuals may not know truth, it is silly to believe a religion should exist as merely partially true.  Shorto seems to believe religion is important for making sense out of the world, in much the same way art and other non-rational (different than irrational) endeavors and experiences help us make sense of the world.   If this is the best we can say religion, then I believe we should jettison it all. It is just not worth it if only serves a pragmatic epiphenomenal purpose in our world.

If on the other hand, religious experience can lead us to truth, then it is worth it.  This is what I mostly thought about in relation to my son.  I pray for him.  I also pray for my older son.  I do want both of them to be moderates in a few things.  For example, politics need more moderate people who are willing to compromise with those they don't share beliefs with. That is how I believe a secular democracy should work. I also believe we need moderates when it comes to the way we engage in civil, public discourse.  

When it comes to faith and meaning- I want my sons to be sold out on what they believe in.  

Does that mean I want them to have complete confidence in themselves, as if they know it all? 

No. 

Not all...because that type of attitude breeds extremism.  

Extremism sees other people as less than human, or as not part of my tribe. I don't want that for my boys.  

But I do want them to have confidence in things like the resurrection, and God's love for all people, and in the necessity of seeking God's will as we navigate the Bible, life, and those times when we aren't sure we have all the facts. I also want them to be completely sure of right and wrong, the need for empathy, and a purpose for their lives. These are just a few of the areas I probably am divergent from Shorto.  

I highly recommend reading Descartes' Bones. It should get you thinking about your place in this world. Most of us think we are moderates, but what does that mean?  What does it mean to walk the middle ground? When is it appropriate to walk the middle ground? Should we ever avoid the middle ground? When should we embrace the middle ground (and does such an embrace implicitly deny such a thing as moderation)? 
  


Monday, May 21, 2012

A Reflection

Although I finished this book earlier last week, I wanted to sit with my thoughts a while before writing this review.  Learning from My Father: Lessons on Life and Faith is a reflection on a life formed from a relationship with a Christian father.  Specifically, David Lawther Johnson's father served Presbyterian churches as a minister for most of his life.  

The lessons learned in the book are nothing startling. However, it contains a number of almost proverbial quotes with which I resonated.  Here's one from the chapter on being a good witness: "Just because many people fail to discuss faith in a credible or welcome way with others doesn't mean we get a pass from doing it (140)." This quote speaks to the point of witness in the Christian life, demands an answer, and sets up good discussion.  

The problem arises from what follows the quote. The author makes it clear he does not really share his faith consistently.  Thankfully, the author painted an honest picture and did not try to write too much about something he didn't know.  On the other hand, I want an author to have had experience with what he is encouraging me to do.  I came away from the chapter, and much of the book thinking, "So what?"  

I really enjoyed reading this book. The style was winsome.  The stories and comments were relevant and appealing.  It just felt like a beginning writer work through his life and faith following his father's death.   Johnson tells a story that opens so many more questions.  It ends up being a little immature.   I appreciate his honesty and willingness to engage questions of faith such as death, evil, and sin. I only wished for more substance 

The real diamonds come from Johnson's father and his interaction with them.  Here, he is insightful, thoughtful, and truly reflective.  I expect this book to touch some people, but it won't connect with everyone.  

For Christians, I would recommend the book for an adult study group working through issues similar to the author. It could be used to prompt discussion about things like care for aging parents, health and wellness, the place of wealth in our lives, and how we develop tools for witnessing to our faith.  All of these topics could be explored with supplementary materials and biblical discussions.  For this reason, and because it deals with issues many people currently face, I can recommend the book primarily as a discussion starter. 


Learning from My Father: Lessons on Life and Faith is published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, and is available from book retailers. 

Thank you to the publisher for my review copy. Some small changes may have taken place between my review copy and the final edit. 


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Things (American) Evangelicals Might Have Forgotten About

This is a short review of American Evangelical Protestantism and European Immigrants, 1800-1924 by William J. Phalen. 

American Evangelicals often forget, or don't even know, just how many of their current practices started. For example, the association of evangelicalism with the Republican Party seems like something natural for many Americans.   However, there were historical and sociological reasons for such associations that often escaped religious reasons.  

In this text, we get a glimpse of quite a few historical associations.   Phalen uses primary documents from both sides to make his points, and there is much to be learned here. Speeches, sermons, and articles used by evangelicals get to speak for themselves.   Much time is spent specifically on the plight of Irish American immigrants and the struggles they faced as they came to the United States.  German and Chinese immigrants also get some attention, but the focus is definitely on the Irish. 

After doing a quick google search, it was easy to find out why Phalen had written this book; it was his dissertation at Rutgers.  Although there is at least one significant difference, the addition of a chapter on the  Social Gospel, for the most part the book follows Phalens' dissertation.  The only reason I bring this up, is that is how this book reads- a dissertation by a PhD in history.  It does not significantly interact with motivations or reasons, let alone the diversity of beliefs within American Evangelicalism at the time.  It is accessible to the lay reader, but is often stagnant and tepid.  

I would recommend this book to undergraduates needing an introduction to the history of American Evangelicalism in connection with immigration.  It serves to acquaint us with ideas such as nativism, early prohibitionist stances, ruralism, and the Know Nothing Party.  I would never recommend it on its own.  Probably the best writing deals with the connection between the development of parochial and public schools in this country, but even in this area I would recommend reading this book alongside either books on the history of education or the primary documents.  

Phalen's work may be appreciated for turning our (American Evangelical Protestants) eyes towards history which often informs our present.  Nonetheless, this text requires supplementation to provide the full picture of history.  

Thank you to the publisher, McFarland, for my review copy.

The book is currently for sale at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers. It has a suggested retail price of $45, typical for a book intended more for an academic audience. 


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sharing a Meal

Last night, I had dinner with a friend I hadn't seen for a while. The meal was nothing spectacular, although it was one of my favorites. We are nearing the end of a media series with my youth group, and he had come to share about his visual media company with my students.  After group, we crossed the road and went to a great local restaurant.  We ate and talked about our lives.

On the drive home, I got to thinking about what sharing a meal with someone means.

It's hard to dislike someone when you eat with them, especially if the food is inviting.  We ate Mexican food last night.  My friend commented on something we both enjoy about this type of dining- the chips and salsa.  When you share food like that, more family style, it's extremely hard to dislike someone.  The only way I could fake that is by not eating the chips and salsa.  We ate guacamole too. If I'm thinking about things I don't like about someone, I am not going to enjoy my meal, and I am certainly not going to share food with them.

If you have ever been on an awkward date, you know exactly what I am talking about. If things start to go smoothly, you may choose to share the chips or other appetizer with the person.  As long as you feel  weird about the other person, you avoid those things like the plague.

Conversation is a natural part of eating.  I realize some people like to rush through their food, and I have been known to eat a whole pizza in five minutes.  However, when you sit down at a table with someone, order your food, and wait for it to arrive, you are forced to talk with the other person.  Listening and asking questions is essential at this point.  Otherwise, your conversations become one sided or pointless.

Fortunately, I enjoy hanging out with my friend. He's a great guy.  This just made the meal that much more enjoyable.

Reflecting on it though, I did wonder how much harder it would be to have division, strife, jealousy, and envy within the church if people were to eat together.

I think two major things would be necessary to build community for the church during meals.

First, meals need to be consistently and consciously slow.  Slow eating is all about enjoying the company and enjoying the food, not rushing through.   Conversation naturally flows out of the relaxed atmosphere of a slow meal.

Second, we would have to get out of our regular patterns of who we acquaint ourselves with in our seating patterns.  We'd have to get out of the comfort zone and be willing to put ourselves in vulnerable places, at least at first. I think community would be a natural outcome after a while, but we would have to really practice listening and sharing.

Maybe I am just crazy about food, but then again, the church did use to share meals together.  Sometimes it created problems, but other times it did seem to really foster community.  Wouldn't it be great to find more ways to foster community in the church?

Maybe I am just crazy.
-christopher


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

This post comes from my youth ministry blog; we are celebrating Good Friday with a modified Seder meal this coming Friday, April 6th.  

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I don't know if you are familiar with Passover or not.  Growing up as the son of a pastor, it was something I was fairly familiar with. My family participated in a few Seder meals over the years, and we read the story of the Exodus many times throughout each year (you can read the whole book of Exodus, but I would recommend starting by reading 3:7-10). 

Today, I spent about 2 hours making my own matzah (unleavened bread) for our Seder meal we will celebrate on Good Friday.  It was the first time I had done so, and I was surprised at how much I learned through the experience. 

First, the process really does get you thinking about what it means to follow God when He tells you to move.  The Israelites were told to prepare their food quickly, eat it, and be ready to leave the land of slavery (Exodus 12).  As I prepared and cooked each piece of matzo, I had to move fairly quickly.  It wasn't something I could deliberate on.

As a Boy Scout, I learned the motto well, "Be Prepared."  Many times in my life, I have wanted to be prepared for the future- going to college, arriving for a job interview, getting married, etc. Although there is nothing necessarily wrong with preparation, it does have the danger of controlling our lives. This is true when we use preparation as a means to worry, and Jesus warned against worry (Matt. 6:25-34). 

In contrast to preparation caused by worry, we have to be ready to respond to God. This readiness comes from the realization that our plans must be held lightly, and when God directs us we must follow.

The second thing I realized while making matzos was that God really does want us to be dependent on Him.  Our readiness to respond must always be placed in the context of relationship.   What does it mean to live with God?  It means we our lives clearly reflect our dependence on him as His people…and that might still sound a little mysterious to some people.

Let me put it this way- we all need food, shelter, and clothing.   Without these things we fail to thrive. The people of Israel could have seen God’s call to follow Him as the losing of their stability and shelter- a very real threat to survival and thriving. When the people of Israel decided to follow God’s instructions, they visibly showed their trust in God.  This is how God became their shelter and provision (for a good example of community praise to God for provision, see Psalm 136).

In other words, the bread of Passover reminds us that everything we have comes from God who has provided. He provided for His people in the past and he continues to provide for us. We must live with the Lord day by day. If your life does not show that, then you probably are not dependent on Him. 


I actually hurt my hands a little while kneading the dough to flatten it. In particular, my wrists are still sore from working the dough.   I still feel the resistance from making the two inch balls of bread.  Again, this process brought me to an awareness of God’s work with His people. 

Both individually and communally, God has faithfully brought His people to salvation. In a piece of matzo, we see this through the history of tradition. Tradition exists to remind us of what God has done.  Some people fall in love with tradition for its own sake and become nostalgic.  Instead, I believe God wants us to see tradition in terms of fulfillment.  The work has been done for us and we now share in the richness of tradition.  

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35).  Partially, he meant that he had come to fulfill the plan of salvation.  In Jesus, the work of salvation has been fulfilled, completed, and made ready for us.   To live without knowing Jesus is to starve, lacking the bread of life, which has been kneaded and worked out in salvation history. This is not just a metaphor; Jesus is the actual means by which we have life.  This is why He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

This Good Friday, we will be celebrating the culmination of salvation history- the cross. We are going to do this through the sharing of a Seder meal.  Hopefully, we will all be reminded of just why Good Friday is truly good. It is a celebration of the Bread of Life, who brings new life to those who are called by His name.

-christopher

Monday, March 26, 2012

The In Crowd

(This post was written for my youth ministry blog and also appears there.)
Rejection.

It’s such a harsh word isn’t it?  And yet we all experience it at some point in our lives.  In movies and television shows, it has often been portrayed as something overcome with a “feel good” ending. Finally, the ugly kid triumphs over the beauty queen and is accepted by his peers. Or maybe the shy girl, who has never been asked out because people make fun of her, winds up getting treated like a princess by the most sought after guy. 

The actual experience of rejection is rarely like the movies. It’s the reason even a game of dodgeball can be depressing.  After all, who wants to be last one picked for a team? It definitely stinks of rejection. It is what we fear and what drives us towards The In Crowd. The In Crowd usually stands for the cool people, those who are popular and favored by their peers.

At the same time, rejection may alienate us from other people. I believe one of the worst places for rejection to occur is within the church.  Many people walk away from the church when they experience rejection from those professing to be followers of Jesus. And yet it continues to happen. Individuals, young and old, end up feeling as if they have been abandoned and pushed to the side. 

This is not a new phenomenon.  The church has struggled with this problem since its early years.  One leading cause of rejection is insidious to the core, and it is called favoritism.

James 2:1 says, “My friends, as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, you must never treat people in different ways according to their outward appearance. (GNT)”

Favoritism in this context is about treating people differently based upon who appears more likely to return the favor or preferential treatment.  When James wrote his letter, some Christians were engaged in this behavior and thought it was a good thing.  As he describes the situation, to show favor in this way involves a disdain for someone who looks poor (James 2:2-3).  Rejection here involves two actions- 1. verbally shaming the poor person and  2. providing them with fewer opportunities in the church community.

James believes anyone who acts disdainfully towards the poor and shows favor on the rich is idolatrous.  In other words, when you judge someone and reject them because of how they look, you are pretending to be God.  We replace the love and compassion of our creator with selfish behavior and attitude. This is the reason God has no patience for our favoritism.   

Although James was concerned with the treatment of the rich and poor in the Christian community- the principle extends to all categories we tend to put people into.  Christians are not to judge other people by their appearance.  If we judge people and treat some people better, it necessarily means we are going to treat other people worse. By doing so, we are pretending to be God and rejecting them. 

You may wonder if I am saying we should not have close or best friends.  This is not what I am saying at all. I am saying our words and actions towards all people must be equally charitable.   Jesus commanded us to love one another (John 15:12).  We are supposed to do this in a self-sacrificial way.  This is what it means to live in Christian community and not show favoritism.  

For Christians, The In Crowd needs to be redefined. In a healthy, Christ-centered Christian community, The In Crowd is everyone, there is no need for different cliques or groups.  When we act as Jesus commanded us, rejection is left behind with the arrival of acceptance. 

I remember being rejected at several points in my life.  One of those times was my freshman year of college. I’d been dating a girl for a while and she broke up with me over spring break. It was while I was out of town.  Definitely felt rejection setting in then.  Feelings like desperation, hostility, and loneliness were overwhelming at the time.  I had to seek out help and affirmation in order to work through that experience.  I found the help and affirmation I needed by turning to other Christians. They prayed with me, shared scripture with me, and I reaffirmed my commitment to Christ. Thankfully, they extended grace and love to me instead of judgment or seeking their own desires.  I was welcomed as part of The In Crowd.

God accepts us this way too- “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8, NIV)” The favor God shares with us is his love, and it is not dependent upon us being cool, pleasing him, or doing something for him.  God loves us because He is love (1 John 4:16).

What would it be like if Refuge! (our youth ministry) redefined The In Crowd in Christ’s terms?   Rejection would be gone.  It wouldn’t be about being cool. It would be about being authentic people. It wouldn’t be about trying to please other people. It would be about living through the power of the Holy Spirit. It wouldn’t be about what any individual could get out of it. It would be about who we are as Christ’s church.  The In Crowd would be about loving one another.

The second half of 1 John 4:16 says this, “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him (NIV).”

-christopher


Friday, March 23, 2012

Review of "Taking Jesus at His Word" by Addison Hodges Hart

It is refreshing to read a meditative work born out of life experiences. Although written for Christians and non-Christians alike, Addison Hodges Hart's Taking Jesus at His Word  will appeal most to people who already believe in the message of Jesus.  Jesus is presented as a teacher, but also as Lord.  Every chapter reads easily.  This is not to say that Hart has softened the message of Jesus.  Rather, his writing style invites readers to sit and ponder the words of the Messiah.

And yet we have much more than introspection.  There is also a call to action.  Some readers may be off-put by the pragmatic leanings of Hart.  From my perspective, this is one thing I agree wholeheartedly with the author about.  Orthopraxy in its proper context is always appropriate. 

On the other hand, I do have my methodological concerns with the book.  Throughout, there is an implied approach to hermeneutics and exegesis with which I do not agree.   My concern is not that Hart, or any other author, agrees with my own approach to these subjects.  Instead, I am concerned when a meditative work, focused on the words of Jesus, unnecessarily inserts these concerns into the text.  For example, Hart dismisses the possibility of the historical background of Jonah. The issue of Jonah's historicity is a completely unnecessary addition to this book.  Jesus may or may not be using an implied typology in Matthew 12:40- "For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights." There are a number of opinions on the relationship between Jesus and the historicity of the book of Jonah. Glossing over the subtle differences in opinion from Christian traditions does an injustice to Hart's project.  He has engaged in partiality and division. Although this may have been unavoidable in some instances, there are several cases in which he makes this methodological mistake.  Probably the biggest one comes in the first appendix. Instead of allowing the Gospels (and Jesus) to speak in their own voices, he adds his belief that all the Gospels were written after 71 AD.  In another work, this would not necessarily be a problem.  In this work, it is distracting and confusing given the fact that footnotes and other scholary apparatus are (correctly) not included. This book would have been even better with the divisive elements left out of it. 

Given these methodological considerations, I would still give a  recommendation of Taking Jesus at His Word.  In particular, Christian leaders may find this book refreshing and inspiring in its attempt to take seriously the words of Jesus. Hart leaves us no doubt that Jesus intended his followers to actually follow, not just give him lip service.  Discerning leaders may want to make use of the study questions in the back and use this as a starting place for Christian practice.  


Thank you to the publisher for my early review copy. 

-christopher