Winter Wonderland, and Wild Man Tommy

The snow and ice have hit Portland thick, and we've had some great opportunities to enjoy it!

Below is a video of a sled running the kids and I took between storms at the hill near our house. The snow at the bottom of the hill was just melting, but the sledding was still excellent. Wild man Tommy was steering our sled and turned so hard he almost threw me off at the top! I love the primal "I love speed" roar he uncorked at the bottom of the hill:

That was 2 days ago. After 36 hours of snowfall, it looked a bit different today! Some pics of...

...our house

...our deck!

The sledding hill:

Our street:

Couple loose ends

Book Giveaway Winner
Well, I had lots of readers during last weeks' drawing for the Question of God book, but only four entries for the drawing. What's wrong, no one likes free books!?! Well anyway, the drawing was won by a new reader with the screen name IsleOracle. I haven't heard from the winner yet regarding how to deliver the goods - so IsleOracle, please e-mail me! In the meantime, I happen to have more than one brand new copy of thoe book so I've re-drawn another winner, who is none other than Harvest's tie-dyed free-thinker Mitch Williams! Congrats Mitch! See me Sunday for the book (Ferarri not included...)

Jamaica Blue Mountain Epilogue
The recent saga, which began here and continued here, came to a safe, successful happy conclusion - starting Thanksgiving morning when I brewed my first pot of heaven-in-a-cup. It is indeed a complex, rich, smooth coffee that's different than anything else I've ever tasted - outstanding stuff! I'm drinking my last pot of it as I type these words, having shared a pot with some good friends who spent the afternoon with Amy and I yesterday.

And speaking of sharing... yes, I did leave a baggie with some of the JBM beans in Esther's office yesterday morning, so she too got to have some. So the only question now remaining is, just how deep in my debt is Esther now?

My, how things have changed...

The text of President Washington's original Thanksgiving Proclamation, signed October 3, 1789 follows. Interesting to see Congress and the President reflect their shared sense of God's providential hand over the nation so soon after the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the US Constitution - a sense that our increasingly secular government seems to have forgotten. Read with pleasure - and happy Thanksgiving!

General Thanksgiving
By the PRESIDENT of the United States Of America

WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me "to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war [i.e. the American Revolutionary War]; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed;-- for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish Constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted;-- for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge;-- and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions;-- to enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wife, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us); and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.

(signed) G. Washington

111th Big Game Highlights

Ah, there's nothing quite like watching Cal demolish Stanfurd on a sunny Bay Area November afternoon.

Check out the GORGEOUS "hook-and-ladder" play at the 4:40 mark!

A remarkable turn of events!

Two important updates to my coffee conundrum, and a whole new question.

UPDATE #1 - Voter Fraud Strikes This Blog!!

ACORN, it appears, is still alive and well: registering everyone from Mickey Mouse to the Globe Trotters. And now they've struck my blog's recent coffee poll! Thankfully, no expense is spared here and we've had a crack team of international monitors checking things out every step of the way (pictured right), so there's no way the fraudulent votes would slip past us!

On Monday with 24 hours to go, the polling was a landslide for me: 17 people had voted "Heck yeah!" 3 had voted the more subdued but still Matt-affirming "yes," and only 2 people had voted "no." And one of those two was Esther herself! (the other guilty party, though known, shall remain unnamed) So, at 20 for and only 2 against, the people were clearly speaking for truth and justice. That was at 4:30 p.m.

Then, at 6:00 p.m., a mere 1.5 hours later, the "no" vote tally mysteriously leaped from 2 to 19! A quick check of the site visit statistics showed that only three separate visitors had hit my blog during the time the phantom "votes" appeared. Then, the next morning 3 more site visits mysteriously resulted in 20 more fraudulent votes. Yeah, right... what do you people take me for!?! Looks like someone figured out how to delete their Internet cookies and artificially stuff my ballot box. But WE ARE NOT FOOLED! This is America, and the authentic votes of the people are what count. The people have spoken and Esther was clearly urged by one and all to share a glorious pot of Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee with me. Oh, and the FBI's Voter Fraud Unit is on its way over to Nike headquarters in Beaverton as we speak...

But wait, it gets even better!

UPDATE #2 - The Tables Turn!!

Proving that cheaters never win, and that God is on my side in this, two amazing occurrences have completely shifted the balance of power in this contest. First, a sensible, gracious, and intelligent reader had so much compassion on me that he bought me a half pound of Jamaica Blue Mountain! That's right - I have my first ever bag of this bliss right in my own cupboard! Pat Magee, you're my new hero, and your character is clearly constituted of different stuff than... some people's.

Second, Esther called her mother to make sure a pound of JBM was coming this holiday season for her... and it isn't! Turns out mommy didn't travel to Jamaica this year and thus didn't bring any home, so no JBM for Esther this Christmas! When she told me the news she was sad, but when she realized I had my own JBM she was positively shocked. Justice is so sweet! She couldn't believe that the tables had been turned so completely on her that she followed me and my bag of coffee around the church all morning, begging for a few beans so she could make a pot for herself.

I'm not making this up - this couldn't get any better. Now I am the one with the power! I am the one with the status! I am the one with the beans! Which leads me to my new dilemma...

A NEW QUESTION - Should I give Esther any Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee?

You've now heard the story. You've witnessed the harsh treatment I received at the hands of Esther. Now that the tables are turned you've seen her follow me around and beg me to share with her even though she wouldn't share with me! So how should I respond?

  • Option 1 - No way Jose! Someone needs to learn a lesson in humility and sharing! Especially someone who's job is molding the hearts and minds of the next generation.
  • Option 2 - "Pray about it..."

  • Option 3 - Take the high road and extend grace even though it's not deserved.

Now, I would set up a new poll but I'm afraid ACORN may show up again at any time. So this time, please let me know which option you think I should choose by leaving a comment!

Book Review (and Giveaway!) - The Question of God

Talk about a fun book! This is one of the most reader-friendly ways to get a handle on what worldviews are and why they matter. This book compares the lives of two of the 20th century's most influential thinkers: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud. It's an interesting comparison. Lewis & Freud were contemporaries of one another, and each man was an influential spokesman for opposing views of life.

Sigmund Freud represents the view that God is imaginary, and science is the only way to know anything - a view which is still widespread today. He inherited a religious influence from his devout Jewish mother and his Catholic nanny, and felt the tension between belief in God and atheism when he was a university student. He eventually chose atheism, and spent the rest of his life trying to get people to leave religion behind altogether.

Lewis experienced an opposite journey. The death of his mother and other difficult circumstances during his youth led him into an aggressive atheism, influenced in large part by Freud's worldview. However as a young adult he became convinced of God's existence, and later became an outspoken Christian.

Two influential thinkers, spreading two very different views on life. And very few 20th century figures exerted the widespread influence of Lewis and Freud.

The Question of God looks at the life of each man, and then contrasts their views on subjects like God's existence, love, pain, happiness, and death. The author draws from the men's writings to describe their views, but he also goes a step further by exploring whether each man actually lived according to his stated worldview - and what the results were.

Engaging, well written, easy to follow, and extremely interesting, this book is a great read. I had trouble putting it down.

And I think you will too. So... I'm giving a copy away! Yes, it's time for another Book Giveaway Drawing. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post by Friday November 21. I'll collect all names Saturday morning for the drawing, and the winner will receive a brand new, never-been-read copy of The Question of God. I'll even cover the shipping if you're not local.

Good luck, and happy reading!

Setting Esther straight...

I need the help of my astute readership to resolve a new problem.

Recently Peet's Coffee announced a new limited crop of the world's most rare and exquisite coffee: Jamaica Blue Mountain. Grown in Jamaica's Blue Mountains (that figures - pictured below) this coffee is well known amongst coffee connoisseurs as being the world's finest, but I've never had the opportunity to actually try it due to the price tag: Peet's is selling it for a limited time only at the astronomical price of $40 per half pound. Ouch! No way can I afford that.

Enter Esther Boley, a fellow coffee snob who happens to have been born in Jamaica and thus is extremely partial to Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee. Because of the family connection to that Caribbean island, Esther's mother sends her a pound of JBM coffee every year for Christmas. Nice gift! So I suggested that out of a whole pound, she would surely be willing to part with a few ounces to a good friend like me so I could brew my first-ever pot of this exquisite treat.

She laughed in my face. Just look at her: she's mocking me. If that's not a "I get Jamaica Blue Mountain and you don't" look, I don't know what is!

Now, regular readers of this blog will recall that when I won free Peet's coffee for a year I got to designate 5 friends who also received free Peet's for the year. Esther was one of those friends. Yes, that's right: my dear friend Esther has been enjoying an entire year's worth of top quality Peet's Coffee shipped right to her door fresh every month, completely free of charge. All because of me! Total retail value of her coffee year is over $400 - yet she laughed at the suggestion of parting with $8 worth of Jamaica Blue Mountain in return. I, I... I'm stunned. I don't know what to do with myself. My equilibrium has been thrown off. I'm not sleeping well anymore. I don't have friends any longer...

Her reason for this moral outrage? She hasn't given me one. When I pointed out all the above to her, she simply said she'd "pray about it." Huh? Pray about it? What's there to pray about!?! That's like praying about whether you should go to work in the morning, or whether to pay your water bill. You don't pray about such things, you just do what's right! Right?

Here's where you come in. Having had my core sense personhood so thoroughly shaken, I've decided to submit this matter to the court of my blog readership. Please register your thoughts in my poll to the right.

Vote for truth. Vote for justice. Vote for a few ounces of Jamaica Blue Mountain - my dream come true!

Why I've Chosen To Vote No On Senator O

OK, in an earlier post I kidded about revealing my choice for president, but this time I'm serious. There's a lot of emotion out there, but there are also rational reasons to support either candidate. What follows is a summary of why I can't throw my support behind Barack Obama, which has nothing to do with fears over him being a "closet Muslim," his being black, or any other of the scare-hype that collects around every presidential candidate. Basically I want to offer rational thoughts and invite rational commentary, agree or disagree. This isn't the place to accuse Obama of being the Antichrist or to insult Sarah Palin's intelligence, etc.
In fact, I have to say I'm drawn to Senator Obama's intellect and his ability (rare among politicians in this sound-byte world) to try and move the conversation to a higher level. In short, apart from his positions I find a lot to like, and I hope to see more leaders who are "wired" like he is rise to national politics. That said, here's why he didn't get my vote:
1. The Economy
It's not news to anyone that we're entering a period of prolonged economic recession, and every credible economic source I've read indicates that this recession will be long (probably a few years at least) and somewhat painful. More painful than anything this generation has had to go through yet (though previous generations have). But history tells us that the powerful US economy, driven by free market capitalism, will recover... unless it's thwarted by ill-conceived government intervention. An increasing body of research (take this article from UCLA researchers for example) is showing that foolish New Deal government policies are why the Great Depression of the 1930's lasted as long as it did. Had Roosevelt not moved so aggressively to nationalize economic solutions, the economy would have recovered much more quickly.
Which brings me to today's economic slowdown/recession. Basic democratic capitalist theory as well as history both seem to suggest that the last thing we should do is expand the size of the government and use political power to change the flow of the economy. Senator Obama's vision for massive entitlement expansion (like universal taxpayer-funded health care) and his publicly standing by his desire to use government power to "redistribute the wealth" are exactly the types of government intervention I think will worsen and prolong this recession. And I find it curious that he's still enthusiastically advocating these wealth redistribution policies at a time when the economy's wealth generating mechanisms are spluttering.
I have to say I appreciate the fact that Senator Obama seems to be stating what he's for in forthright terms. That's a breath of fresh air and I genuinely appreciate, and give him credit for it. But I see the economic question completely differently than he does, and I think history substantiates my view over his. So with respect I disagree with him, and I think an Obama presidency will both prolong and intensify the current economic crisis.
2. The Value of Life
People are tired of debating abortion. So am I. That's the way it always is with the great moral questions of the day. People were tired of William Wilberforce and his Clapham Group debating the African slave trade. People get tired of talking about racism. But I'm glad King & the civil rights crusaders didn't quit doing so, aren't you?
The most interesting thing to me about abortion in this election actually isn't Senator Obama's position (I'll get there in a moment). What's interesting to me is a trend among younger pro-life Christians to actively support pro-choice candidates this year, in an effort to prove that they're not "single-issue voters." What I appreciate about these folks is that they're forcing us to ask some larger questions, and not over-simplify. For example, we care about the value of an unborn baby (as we should), but what about the value of the homeless guy under the Morrison Bridge, or the value of the 12-year-old kid in North Portland who never knew his father? In some ways these Christians are asking their fellow pro-lifers if we've lived consistently with our human-life-valuing convictions. I, for one, don't think we have. No, let me be more specific: I don't think I have, and this is one area in which God has been opening my eyes and changing my attitude in the past few years. I welcome these questions, and I consider myself indebted to those who are asking them.
But I don't think the answer is to de-value one group (the not-yet-born) in order to value another (say, the poor through government entitlements). The answer is push for the value of all people - to take pro-life thinking all the way to its logical conclusions. We are now seeing the results of a view of life that de-values human dignity: recently Baroness Warnock, described as England's "leading moral philosopher," made a public case that elderly people suffering from dementia and other expensive-to-treat medical conditions have a duty to die and get out of the rest of our way. She went so far as to hope soon that some British doctors would be "licensed to put people down." This Orwellian stuff is not make believe, it's simply a human-life-devaluing worldview taken to logical ends. (It's also the result of a nationalized health care system wherein costly health care must be rationed, so governments decide who gets treatment and who doesn't. Yet another reason to re-think nationalization as a solution to our health care problems).
It's this larger view of life that should be the subject of conversation, which is why I welcome questions about valuing all human life. But applied to abortion, I believe the debate should center on the true extremes, such as when a pregnancy seriously threatens a mother's life (which does happen occasionally). Instead this thinly veiled excuse has been used to abort over 1 million babies in America every year, and well over 90% of these abortions are not motivated by concern for the mother's life or health. If we're truly concerned about valuing all human life we'd be discussing how to greatly reduce that 90%+ figure: strengthening parental notification laws, talking to women about post-abortion trauma, having them view 3D ultrasound images of their babies (pictured left) which statistically reduces abortion as moms decide to carry to term, and supporting Pregnancy Resource Centers which bend over backwards to make the non-abortion options more viable for women.
And this is where I again trip over Senator Obama a bit. His Senate voting record, the enthusiastic support he enjoys from groups like the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood (hardly moderate voices on this topic), and his promise to sign the Freedom of Choice Act as his first action after being sworn into the Oval Office all seem to suggest that an Obama presidency would be just what the strong abortion rights lobby would wish for. And while I respect pro-life Christians who support Senator Obama, I don't think he's advocating for a position that will enhance the value of all human life any more than "single-issue" pro-life people are.
3. Executive Experience
Obama's star has risen meteorically fast largely because his supporters say he has the "it" factor. I actually agree: he does. He has more natural charisma than any politician I've seen in a long time. Neither of the Bushes do particularly well in the public spotlight, and Clinton was more of a sweet talker. But Obama seems to actually inspire people. Big difference.
Problem is that fast-rising star has propelled a young & inexperienced man to the fore. He's the youngest and least experienced presidential candidate from either party in recent memory, and that has an enthusiasm-tempering effect on me as a voter. His repeated insistence on meeting with Iranian leaders without preconditions and his repeated opposition to the Iraq troop surge even when everyone else was admitting it worked are just two examples of what sounds to me like naive optimism from a guy who hasn't done this yet. In some ways I think Obama is too smart and talented - and has too much faith in his own intellect. That needs to be tempered by real life executive experience. In a world where we're looking at a nuclear Iran, Islamo-fascist terrorism, the potency of an aggressive communist China, and a newly muscle-flexing Russia, I want someone who's got a better handle on the world scene.
Does all this mean I'm a staunch McCain supporter? Not really. He'll get my vote because I think he better fits the bill, but I'm not overly enthusiastic about him. Which reminds me, I have some thoughts on how we respond to the election results, regardless of whether or not "our guy" wins. But I'll save those for later.
Happy voting! And thank God we live in a country where leaders are limited, and power changes hands from administration to administration without bloodshed. America really is an amazing place.

Book Reviews - ESV Study Bible

No, it's not God's words I'm reviewing here (he he...) it's man's. Amy and I received our new copy of the English Standard Version (ESV) Study Bible hot off the presses, and I have never been more excited about a single Bible study tool before! This thing is incredible.

First off, the translation. The ESV is a modern (2001) translation done by some of the best evangelical scholars on the planet today. Those who attend Harvest know that I preach from the ESV every Sunday, and there's good reason. For years pastors seemed forced to choose between the New International Version (NIV) and New American Standard (NAS) translations. There are many others of course, but these two are tops in popularity amongst evangelical pastors. Both are good translations in their own right, but they're very different.
  • The NIV is a thought-for-thought translation, making it much easier to read than the NAS but not as good a study tool since it's English words don't always align with the underlying Greek & Hebrew.
  • The NAS has opposite strengths: as an almost word-for-word translation it is a more technically accurate reflection of the original languages making it a better study tool (and thus my first choice for years) but that left it's English pretty stilted and wooden.

The ESV beautifully bridges the gap between these two translations, accurately reflecting the sense and nuance of the original languages (which suits it perfectly for serious study) while preserving a fluency and readability that makes it ideal for casual reading too. When combined with some of the partner resources, like ESV reverse-interlinear versions for both Greek and Hebrew, I was hooked, and I've been preaching from the ESV ever since.

Then along came the ESV Study Bible, and I'm beyond hooked! This version contains all the helpful tools any good study Bible has like explanatory notes, charts, and diagrams. But they're all fully updated with the latest scholarly and archaeological data, and many are rendered in beautiful color. The cross referencing and Concordance features are excellent from the few I've checked so far. The introductory material before each Testament, each section of books, and each book are exemplary. Click here for a study notes sample: the introduction to Ephesians with very cool charts and color diagrams (warning: 4.5MB link!) But there's still more.

What really caught my attention with this particular study Bible is several collections of articles it contains on a variety of core Christian items. There's a whole series of brief articles on Christian theology and ethics, articles on how to read and interpret the Bible, how the Bible came to be and the reliability of the Bible, information on the original Biblical languages (for non-scholars), articles summarizing other major world religions and pseudo-Christian cults, and even an effective plan to read the Bible in a year (whew!). And the capstone of all this excellent material, which sings most strongly to my heart, is a 3 1/2 page Overview of the Bible which traces God's redemptive plan throughout the pages of Scripture. If every Christian reads and understands that article alone the flow of the entire Bible will come alive! Read the rest of them and you'll have an outstanding grasp of Christian faith, thought, and practice. Click here for a sample article.

The final icing on the cake is that buying a hard copy gets you access to the online version, where all the same articles, maps, diagrams, and study tools are at the click of a mouse, all hyper-linked for easy access (try turning back to Deuteronomy from Philippians... oh wait, you don't need to. Just click!)

All from a single study Bible. I've never seen anything quite as thorough and high quality as this, and I can't recommend it strongly enough.

So go get one.


By the way, I should mention that I have no affiliation with the publisher and receive no benefit from the sale of this study Bible. Other than the benefit of believing God's people are getting their hands on one of the single best resources available for spiritual growth.

So, did YOU know what Solomon's Temple looked like?

Financial Crisis and Christian Living

Last Sunday at Harvest we spent some time praying together as a church regarding how to respond in these financially uncertain times. Our prayer and scripture reading consisted of the following 3 items:
1. Repudiate a faithless partner
Money consistently over-promises, and under-delivers
1 Timothy 6:17
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.

Matthew 6:31-33
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Prayer: Father, we declare this morning that you were right when you warned us that money is a faithless partner. We publicly agree with you that money cannot be counted on to provide the hope we have for security in this world. And we acknowledge that your own promise to care for us is the only sure, solid basis we have in which to place our hope for security.

2. Repent of our Affluenza
1 Timothy 6:6-10
Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

Luke 12:15
Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.

Matthew 6:24
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, you warned us as your followers that money would exert an influence on our hearts. As your people, we acknowledge that we are not free from its influence, just as you said we wouldn’t be. We admit that it is very difficult not to love the sense of security that wealth provides, and not to seek after wealth with undue zeal and passion. And to the extent that we have done so, we confess that we have highly esteemed an object of lesser beauty, and failed to love you more than money. We repent of these misplaced affections, and ask that you would grant to us, your people, an accurate appraisal of the worth of money and the worth of your character, so that we may see your inherent value, and love you more fully for having evicted this lesser idol from the realm of our affections.

3. Reach out tangibly to those who hurt
1 Timothy 6:18-19
They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

1 John 3:17
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, we pray for those in our church and in our community who are struggling or soon will be due to tough economic times – you call yourself Jehovah Jireh, our great provider. God, show yourself to be great by being their provider. Further Lord, we ask you to use us to do it. Having asked for your heart we now ask for your eyes to see the needs around us, and we ask that you would make us your hands and feet by giving graciously and generously to those in need in your name. God, in a time of uncertainly such as this we ask that you would protect your people at Harvest from a hoarding heart that circles the wagons and closes in around what wealth remains. Rather, we ask that you would fill the hearts of those of us who are financially able with generosity and joy at the prospect of meeting needs in the matchless name of Jesus. We ask that you would give us vision beyond our personal circumstances – enough vision to see the incredible opportunity you’ve provided your church to live in light of eternity, and so demonstrate to the world where real security comes from. Be pleased to glorify yourself through us in this way, because it is for the increasing renown of the name of Jesus we ask these things. Amen.

What Communion Isn't

Something's been on my heart for several months now, and I've been looking for the right time to share it with the church. It turns out this coming Sunday is the right time. So what follows is a bit of a "sneak preview" of part of what I'll say Sunday morning for all you Harvest people, and a little window into what our church is discussing for those who aren't attenders. As always, the full message will be available for download from our web archives and is also podcasted at iTunes by searching Harvest Community Church sermon audio.

What's been on my heart is our celebration of Communion, or the Lord's Supper. Not Communion itself, but the way we typically approach it. In evangelical churches like Harvest it is common for Christians to be instructed to examine their own hearts before participating in communion, often followed by a warning that participating while one has sin in his/her life is at best inappropriate, and at worst is somehow a desecration of the cross of Jesus. And so in some cases Christians will even refuse to participate because they know of some deep-seated sin that's got hold of them, and they don't want to profane the cross.

That view is not only wrong, it's a travesty. Let me explain.

The "examine yourself" idea comes from 1 Corinthians 11:28-29, wherein Paul tells the Christians in 1st century Corinth to check their motives before they participate in communion. (BTW, a cool feature on this blog is that if you hover your mouse over a Bible passage like the one in the last sentence, it will automatically pop up without you having to click away from the blog. Try it! It's cool.) But notice why he tells them to examine themselves: in 1 Corinthians 11:20-22 Paul describes the problem in Corinth. They treated communion as a potluck feast, not the sacramental symbol of Jesus' death that it was intended to be. Further, they profaned this feast by bringing their own favoritism (already dealt with by Paul in chapter 3) to the table, and gorging themselves with their friends whilst the "un-cool" people didn't even get to eat. This is why Paul tells them to examine their motives.

In other words, this passage isn't a universal call for Christians to "clean up their act" before participating in communion. Communion isn't a call to get clean so we're acceptable to God. In fact, rightly understood it's just the opposite.

In the same passage Paul talks about what communion is when he says in verse 26 "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes." Think about that for a moment: what does it mean to "proclaim the Lord's death"? It means we declare that Jesus' broken body and shed blood are the only way our sins are cleansed. So then, why would we try and clean up our sins before celebrating the death of Jesus, when the cleansing of our sin is exactly what makes the death of Jesus worth celebrating? If we're not careful we may find ourselves not only be guilty of misinterpreting Paul's point in 1 Cor. 11, but we may also be guilty of proclaiming exactly the opposite of the gospel: that we have to get cleaned up before we come to Jesus.

The best person in the world to take communion is the Christian who is wrestling with sin. By participating, that believer is declaring that the sin in question is only conquerable through the cross of Christ - that freedom from bondage to that sin comes only from Jesus. The death of Jesus, and the sacrament that symbolizes it, is a sign to the world that we're utterly dependent on the savior for life. Let us not rob that glory from him by attempting to clean up before we come to him. As if we could.

Now, I do think a period of reflection is appropriate to communion. We should seek to become aware of our sin during the Lord's Supper, but the reason is so that we can bring it to him for forgiving and cleansing - a spiritual reality of which we're reminded as we eat the bread and drink the cup. Christians should make communion itself an act of confession of sin and rejoicing that Christ's death covers it.

But let us be on guard against the subtle idea that we have to clean up our lives before we come to the communion table, or the idea that we shouldn't participate if we still have sin in our lives. The sacrament does just the opposite for us. It reminds us of how our sin is dealt with: once, for all time, by the blood of Jesus on the cross.

"But as it is, [Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." Hebrews 9:26

Decision 2008 - my choice

Wow, what a competition, huh?
On the one hand we have the seasoned veteran. We all thought he was out of this thing, yet he's been surging lately. He's experienced, battle-tested. We know his ups and we know his downs, because he's been doing this long enough to have been thoroughly scrutinized. In fact, he's been at this longer than most anyone vying for the position. In some ways he's extremely difficult NOT to like: all-American values, self-sacrifice for the cause, that charmingly goofy grin... And yet, for someone so well-known he's strangely unpredictable. He has a way of rankling those on his own side. He sometimes pleases his opponents more than his supporters - something many of his supporters don't easily forget.
And then there's the other guy... the new kid. He's young, almost dashing you might say (certainly compared to his opponent). He's charismatic, with an infectious fire in his belly, a boundless energy, and (as Al Gore might put it) a certain "gravitas." Many look at him and can't help thinking that he's one of those rare, gifted leaders who just has that "it" factor: the intangible, natural, and rare gift for getting it done that outweighs his rather glaring lack of experience. Of course, there is that experience problem: we hardly know the guy. He's barely had a chance to do anything of significance, and his opponents are all too quick to question whether we should hand the "scepter" of responsibility to one about whom we know so little. After all, it looked like he had this thing all sewn up, but suddenly we have a neck-and-neck race again. And in the end the job is not about charisma or gravitas - it's about results.
And that, my friends, is the choice before us. It's a choice that's splitting our unified masses almost right down the middle. Arguments rage, tempers flare, blogs overheat and the news outlets won't let the competition go. But it will be over soon - it must be. For soon, the choice will be made.
Many people are interested in my personal choice, and I'm going to reveal it here. I've kept my cards close to the vest for months now, but with the Fall season getting underway in earnest it's time to endorse my candidate openly. So, in 2008, my vote goes to...

...Kevin Riley for Cal's starting quarterback. Sure he's young, inexperienced (as he showed today in Cal's 42-7 beatdown of Colorado State), and prone to bonehead mistakes. But he's not the only one: our receivers are young too, and the more Riley gets to work with them the brighter football is going to look in Strawberry Canyon for years to come.

Sophomore quarterback Kevin Riley

This has been a very difficult choice. Veteran 5th-year Senior Nate Longshore has led the Bears to many impressive wins over his long career, including 2007's heart-stopping last-second victory over Dennis Dixon's Ducks in Eugene (which netted me a free lunch at Newport Bay, courtesy of rabid Duck guy Scott Stuart). Longshore runs the offense with poise - but his penchant for forcing the ball in late-game situations has cost us too many wins over the years.

Senior quarterback Nate Longshore

Truth be told, in a wild Pac-10 this season my beloved Golden Bears (who currently stand at 1-0 in the conference, 3-1 overall) can finish anywhere from Rose Bowl glory to 6th-place doldrums. Reality will likely be somewhere in between. But I'm not sure we have a noticeably stronger chance of victory with Nate at the controls than Kevin, so in that case my vote is for the future: Kevin Riley for starting QB!

Of course this particular decision rests on the shoulders of a very small electorate: 1 voter, to be precise. And the man who holds that all-important vote will spend a lot of time in the film room before Arizona State rolls into Berkeley next Saturday. So coach Tedford: put in the work, and then go with your gut.

Cal coach Jeff "The Electorate" Tedford

And no matter who lines up under center on Saturday, may Oski have cause to dance deliriously, may the cannon on Tightwad Hill melt from overuse, and may Dennis Erickson return to Tempe with an even whiter head of hair than he has now.


Affluenza hurts

Between teaching a class at George Fox University and kicking off another year of ministry activity at the church, it's been a busy couple weeks for me. Still, this blog needs another post, and since I didn't have a Cal football game today to be embroiled with (the Bears had a bye week after a bad loss last Saturday), today's the day to get the next post up.

In my (precious few) free moments lately I've been doing some thinking about the current economic crisis. Massive government bailouts, wildly swinging stock markets, and even the government takeover of a major insurance company (AIG) have dominated headlines. What's going on? As one might expect both presidential candidates have weighed in with some typically vague explanations. But yesterday John McCain caught my attention when he delivered a speech in which he got more specific, laying the blame for our current economic woes right at the doorstep of mortgage lenders and the investment banking industry. Out of greed, he said, the lenders enabled themselves to offer bad loans to consumers which were then invested in by banks. Now that the bottom is dropping out, we're all paying for their avarice.

While I appreciate hearing something direct and specific from a presidential candidate, I think Sen. McCain missed the real culprit in the current financial crisis: us. He is partially right, in that greed in the financial services industry is part of the problem. But the economy isn't an investment bank or a lender, the economy is you and me. And we're kidding ourselves if we don't think we are largely to blame here.

A lot of the current problem can be traced back to 10-15 years ago when US lenders pressured authorities to relax lending standards so they could do more business. Low documentation and no documentation systems, 100% financing and other "creative financing" options, relaxation of underwriting standards... all of this was designed to allow lenders to make more loans - loans to people they never would have loaned money to a few years before. Now, is this greed? Sure it is. More loans mean more commissions for brokers.

But before we make an easy scapegoat of the entire home lending industry (I'm surprised the press hasn't started popularizing the term "big investing"), let's look in the mirror. After all, mortgages don't just appear out of nowhere - someone has to take out the loan for there be a mortgage in the first place. And just who was it that was entering all those zero-down, double-mortgaged, creatively financed loans? Greedy consumers. Who was taking out 110% of the equity in their houses? Greedy consumers. Who was it that jumped at the chance to buy a house they couldn't have purchased a few years ago, just because a few rules changed? Yep, greedy consumers. Just because some commission-paid broker tells me he can get me into that house I'm lusting after doesn't mean it's a good move on my part. And if I'm foolish enough to do it anyway, can I really put all the blame on the "greedy broker"? It isn't just dastardly Wall Street tycoons or Gollum-like mortgage brokers who are at fault here - there was plenty of greed right in our bathroom mirrors.

The reason I've been bugged about all this is I see a nation screaming for a scapegoat, not facing itself in the mirror. We're pressuring the federal government to fix the problem and "go get the bad guys." Now, the government has a role to play especially where laws were broken. But Nancy Pelosi, George Bush, Barack Obama, and John McCain aren't going to fix the basic moral problem in our nation: we deny absolute values (like the good postmodernists we are) and then things like greed, now unchecked, run amok.

And run amok it has. America has experienced an epidemic outbreak of affluenza. Consider the indicators, which I turned up via some simple web searching of places like the Federal Reserve and US Dept. of Commerce:

  • Consumer debt (doesn't include people's houses) was $2.4 trillion in 2006. That's $19,000 of non-mortgage debt per US household.

  • Mortgage debt increased 84% (from $7 trillion to $12.8 trillion) between 2000 and 2006. That's almost doubling in just 6 years. This statistic is the result of the relaxed lending standards I noted above, and it's the source of our current financial crisis.

  • Credit card debt alone tripled between 1990 and 2000.

  • In 2001, the percentage of Americans who filed for bankruptcy exceeded that of Great Depression. That year more Americans filed for bankruptcy than graduated from college.
Americans have an affluenza problem - we gotta' have it all now, and we'll borrow like crazy to get it. This makes us easy targets for unscrupulous lenders (our greed makes us easy prey for their greed) and it leaves us financially incapable of weathering difficult times. Soon housing prices dip or some other reality hits and we find we have more debt than assets. Consumer confidence wanes, investing markets buckle, and voila: you've got a crisis. Until we the people decide the problem is looking at us from the mirror, and until we determine to live differently, these kids of problems won't go away. We need to train ourselves to borrow less, spend less, and save more. Thankfully, programs like Financial Peace University (which we host at Harvest) and Crown Financial Ministries teach people how to do exactly that.

And we need to stop demanding that Washington remove the symptoms of our affluenza if we're not willing to attack the root of the disease. That only further moves our government toward practical socialism, which is the worst thing we can do to our economy in the long run.

Borrow less, spend less, save more. Too bad that slogan wouldn't win anyone the White House.

Politics, Persuading, and the Moral Law

I just saw this article, which is a more thorough, and more eloquent, version of the point I've been making with regard to Christians and politics. It's nice to find someone else who agrees with you, and does an even better job explaining himself! The article is long, but I recommend the read - well worth it.

The main point the author makes is that we concerned Christians need to frame our arguments in terms that are accessible to non-Christian Americans. We're deeply concerned about things like abortion, and the breakdown of marriage & family. So we need to learn how to make the case that abortion & family breakdown are bad for our country, whether you're a Bible-believing Christian or not.

The way to do so is to utilize Moral Law - the innate sense all people have of right and wrong, which is accessible through reason. This is the tool C.S. Lewis used so effectively to impact the thinking of millions of secular people in Book 1 of his classic Mere Christianity. And as I wrote previously, it's the tool William Wilberforce used in his anti-slavery crusade, and it's the tool MLK used with such success during the Civil Rights era.

A sample from the article, which illustrates the difference between making a purely "religious" argument and making a more broadly accessible, moral argument:

"Rather than argue that abortion is contrary to God’s law and that we need to bring the Constitution into conformity with God’s law, social conservatives should argue that as a matter of scientific fact the child in a mother’s womb is a whole, living human being, and that as a matter of moral truth the direct killing of any peaceable human being is gravely unjust..."

And another sample:
"Nor should social conservatives be afraid to argue for maintaining marriage’s structure. If marriage isn’t the union of one man and one woman coming together as husband and wife to become father and mother to any children their marital love may bring, then social conservatives should demand that their opponents explain what marriage is. Is it simply the union of any consenting pair of sexually active adults? If so, then why only two? And why does it have to be exclusive and permanent—why not open or temporary “marriage”? Indeed, if marriage isn’t about a bodily union, then why limit it to sexual relationships at all? How about codependent relatives? How are marriage and children connected? Do children need mothers and fathers, or not? These debates can and, in fact, must be had at the level of reason."
I daresay we "social conservatives" need to learn how to use the valuable tool of Moral Law and reason, which are both accessible by those around us, as we make the great proposal that there is a better way to live. Maybe a great place to start is to read Book 1 of Mere Christianity to get a sense of what arguing from Moral Law looks like, from a man who did it so well.

See, Now THIS Is Why I Love Oregon

Just back from a week's vacation: 5 days in the mountains and 2 at the coast. Stunning surroundings, and since pictures are worth a thousand words...

Our cabin was in the trees just above the RV in this picture - right on the McKenzie River. We fell asleep each night to the rush of water on rocks - very soothing.

With Cal's football season opener right around the corner, we took advantage of the many bear statues to stir up some Golden Bear mojo!

I spent one afternoon hiking the 4 miles around Clear Lake, which is the headwaters of the McKenzie. And man, is it CLEAR! The water is so fresh and cold (43 degrees!) that it loooks like a swimming pool...

Note the 4 submerged tree trunks clearly visible in the center of the above picture. The trees date back 3,000 years to when the lake was originally formed by a lava flow. They're still preserved, being submerged in such cold water for so long.

Trail through the lava field... From the lake the water flows into the McKenzie, and then just a little downriver it spills over two lava dams to create two of Oregon's more beautiful waterfalls:

Then it was off to Newport on the Oregon coast for 2 days, including a run through the famous Oregon Coast Aquarium where Elizabeth and Tommy made friends with a very curious Sea Otter:

And finally, a climb to the top of the (still operational) Yaquina Head Lighthouse:
More vacation pictures on Amy's blog.

We returned home Saturday night just in time to watch the Golden Bears overcome enough early-season jitters to beat a decent Michigan State team. Tommy: give them Bears a high-5! Great way to end a vacation!

(Check out our tailback, #4 Jahvid Best, in the video below around the 2:15 mark and after. That's called SPEED baby! The 2 plays of the game occur at 8:45 and 10:15 in this 12 minute video)

Cal vs MSU Highlights from sam walton on Vimeo.

Another Proposer in Action - Why We're Involved in Politics (part 3)

The other "great proposer" that comes to mind has been written about so many times by so many different people, one almost hesitates to bring him up again. But one aspect of Martin Luther King's life is rarely gets mentioned: and it relates to this idea of being a Proposer.
King manifested the same two characteristics I mentioned previously about Wilberforce. First, Christianity was the basis of his worldview, and it fueled his quest to abolish discrimination. This is evident in one of King's better known writings, Letter From Birmingham Jail. There King distinguishes between just and unjust laws. The difference? "A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law." King shared with Wilberforce that stubborn quality of all great Christian influencers of culture: he actually believed the Bible was true, and he didn't seek to hide it.
Second, while politics was an important part of his crusade, King didn't simply attempt to get his way via political power (Impose). He appealed to the hearts of all Americans, seeking to persuade them of the evils of racial segregation (Propose). His commitment to nonviolence, developed in the early years of his effort after the front porch of his house was destroyed by a bomb, is the most obvious example of how King aimed to change hearts, not just laws.
And that was his understanding of the church's role in society. In 1963 King wrote, "The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority." (my emphasis)
Looking at both Wilberforce and King makes me think. In what ways can I be a Proposer in 2008 America? Many issues concern me, such as family breakdown, rampant abortion, lack of personal responsibility, and denial of truth, just to name a few. But in addition to supporting political efforts that affect these issues, how can I further appeal to the hearts and minds of people? I find I need to learn how to make the case that there is a better, Jesus-based way to live than what we're doing now. I may need to get better educated, learn how to paint a picture people can understand and relate to, and (perhaps above all) engage.
As the election draws closer I may take a stab at doing so right here, and I'd love to hear how you think I'm doing.

Beguiled By Beijing? China's Image-eering

We've seen fireworks that weren't there. We've heard a singer who didn't sing. And we've cheered along with fans... who weren't fans. Is this some bizarre case of mass hallucination? Nope, more like a slieght-of-hand illusion of Olympic proportions. In other words, just another day in the life of the Chinese Communist Party - a group that will seemingly go to any lengths to put forth a good image.
But China's "image-eering" goes much farther than computer generated rockets to mask pollution-filled skies, and a lip-synching cutie to mask the bucked teeth of the real singer. It even goes beyond busing fill-in spectators (who received government-issued cheering batons and were drilled on how to cheer in pre-event rehearsals) to mask the half-empty sports venues. No, China's image-eering is much more sinister.
Communist China is determined to rise to international prominence, no matter the cost. And "The Party" doesn't hesitate to use the full power of its dictatorial control to achieve an image that the world will admire. China touts its recent "economic miracle" both for national pride and to attract international investment. Foreign businessmen are taken on carefully coreographed tours, and journalists are allowed to train their cameras on glistening skyscrapers in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. But what's never shown or reported are the rural villages where millions of Chinese peasants suffer from some of the worst 3rd world conditions, like pollution and a lack of food, clean water, and basic health care. China's economic "miracle" is being experienced by maybe 200 million Chinese, and at the expense of the other 1 billion.
And space would fail me to describe the evils of China's infamous one-child policy, and the forced abortions and sterilizations that go with it, and the thin curtain China strives to pull over its ruthless persecution of Christians. But if you don't want to think about such horriffic realities, just listen to China's government and you won't have to.
China's Communist governmment struggles mightily to restrict access to the truth. Much like the Pharisees whom Jesus called "whitewashed tombs," China is engaged in a desperate attempt to burnish its international image while concealing the polluted, rotten truth. Which is why they were so keen on hosting these current Olympic Games. What better world stage on which to act out their carefully coreographed image enhancement program? And judging by the descriptions of NBC's commentators, the image is being swallowed whole and joyfully disseminated back to the States.
Should this knowledge diffuse our enjoyment of the Olympics? It doesn't for me. I love watching sports I participated in (track and swimming) get airtime, plus the chance to watch other sports we never get to see. No, I see no reason not to get into the Games. Just be aware as you do that much of what you're watching behind and between the competitions is image-eering at its best.
And while you're at it, pray for the grace and truth of Jesus to spread like wildfire through China.

A "Proposer" In Action - Why We're Involved in Politics (part 2)

It's one thing to discuss the differences between imposing and proposing in concept, but real-life examples may make the difference even more clear. The first such example that jumps immediately to my mind is William Wilberforce.

Wilberforce was the British member of Parliament in the late 18th and early 19th century who is best known for abolishing the slave trade, and later slavery itself, throughout the British empire. He joined Parliament as a young man, and his charisma and powerful rhetorical skills all but guaranteed him a long career of power, success, and self-indulgence. That all changed when God interfered, and Wilberforce committed his life to Jesus. Over the next few years his priorities and goals in life all radically shifted, and it is instructive to see how this career politician lived out his faith as a legislator. (A great brief summary of Wilberforce's life and what made him unique can be found here).

Two things stand out to me about Wilberforce's life. First, he was a passionately committed Christian. In today's parlance Wilberforce was a "conservative evangelical," and many of his opponents would label him with the modern-day term "fundamentalist." Wilberforce's book Real Christianity is a head-on, no-holds-barred assault on the shallow, meaningless Christianity of his day. He lambastes the the fact that almost all 19th century Englishmen called themselves Christians, but in truth they lived secular lives that were guided by secular goals. The book is incisive, biblically accurate, and intelligent, but it is not diplomatic or delicate - Wilberforce minces no words. If an American evangelical wrote that book today he would immediately be pilloried as a narrow-minded bigot. Of course Wilberforce was no bigot. He was simply a (very intelligent) man who had the audacity to believe that the Bible was actually true, and should actually inform our lives and our priorities. And that's the case he proposed to his countrymen.

Which leads me to the second thing about Wilberforce: his faith was not a segregated component of his life, it was the driving force behind everything he did. Wilberforce understood that Christianity is a worldview, and his commitment to Jesus formed the basis of his entire political career. In a 1787 journal entry Wilberforce famously wrote "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [moral values]." Wilberforce sought not only to end slavery, but to re-awaken morality in a secular, decadent age. In other words, Wilberforce didn't just intend to end slavery by seizing political power and forcing an end to the slave trade by law (impose). Rather, he recognized that he needed to appeal to the conscience of his fellow countrymen - to persuade them of the evils of the trade, and make his case in their hearts, not just in Parliament (propose).

To this end, Wilberforce and his allies engaged in many public efforts outside the halls of government. They went directly to the British people through speeches and rallies, petition drives, books and pamphlets (one a first-hand account from a former slave). They initiated campaigns which thousands of people joined, such as a refusal to buy or use sugar from slave plantations. They enlisted the help of famous British artistic potter Josiah Wedgewood, who created a medallion that was one of the enduring images of the abolition movement (pictured right).

In all these efforts, Wilberforce and his friends were appealing to the hearts and minds of their fellow countrymen. They were proposing a much better way of life: a humanitarian, life-honoring, compassion-saturated, truth-dedicated way. And it worked.

Wilberforce began his political quest to abolish slavery in 1787, and his first official bill to abolish the slave trade was handily defeated. But on February 23 of 1807, after twenty years of work both inside and outside government, a bill abolishing the slave trade was passed by a whopping 283-16 vote. It was the death-knell of British slavery, and in 1833 (more than 45 years after his quest began) slavery itself was outlawed in the British Empire. Wilberforce died three days later.

In all of this, Wilberforce was a great proposer. He frequently took unpopular stands (even against his own party), and was routinely mocked by his opponents. If job-approval polling had existed back then he would have made the even the least popular American presidents look like rock stars in comparison. In fact his moral stands likely cost him a chance to become Prime Minister. Being a Proposer doesn't mean we're always trying to make the public happy. It often means just the opposite.

Wilberforce was after the truth, not just popularity or re-election. And over time, with perseverance, he was able to persuade the majority of his countrymen of the rightness and justice of his cause, and re-awaken their conscience.

So, my fellow Christians, what about us? How do we become Proposers today rather than merely Imposers? How do we advocate for a better way of life, rather than just try to get our way? On issues of great concern to evangelicals, such as the breakdown of traditional family structures, moral laxity, and other things we believe are hurting our nation: are we making that case? Are those who disagree with us hearing a well-reasoned, passionately-believed, and consistently-lived explanation of why we think what we think about poverty, the environment, abortion, marriage, national security, immigration, etc.? We generally know where we stand on these issues, but we may need to become better at making the case for those issues - making a great Proposal.

One thing this definitely implies is that we can't just sit in our churches and bemoan the sorry state of affairs, emerging only briefly to vote in a given election. We have to engage people, and not just in election years. We have to think carefully about how to make our case in this era where politics and religion are taboo subjects. These are not easy things to do. It wasn't easy to get the British to talk about slavery either, but thank God Wilberforce didn't let that stop him.

If you haven't yet seen the film Amazing Grace which chronicles the life of Wilberforce and his fight against the slave trade, I highly recommend it. It's a high quality and entertaining film, but it also effectively captures the faith and actions of this man who did so much to propose a better way of life based on God's truth... and succeeded like few others have.

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