Death Undone

Gather 'round, ye children, come
Listen to the old, old story
Of the pow'r of death undone

By an infant born of glory


Lyrics by
Andrew Petersen


These song lyrics introduced our church's dramatic telling of the Christmas story this weekend. And in so doing they began to thaw my heart, which I admit was a little cold. To be candid, when it came time to leave home and head out for the first of our Christmas services I didn't really want to go.

I was physically tired, emotionally drained from a long season of ministry, and preparing for a long week of travel ahead. I didn't want to go be a pastor and lead a church service. I didn't even want to talk about Jesus' birth as the culmination of God's vast redemptive plan - a subject you normally can't get me to shut up about. I just wanted to stay home.

So when I arrived, I was pretty out of it emotionally. But one thing that has really struck me these past couple months as our church has studied God's redemptive plan, is how God is undoing death. Maybe it's the suffering that people close to me are experiencing, or maybe it's just my inner longing to go home - real home - I'm not sure. But the songs and scripture passages that have meant the most to me lately are those that speak of brokenness mended, sickness healed, and death killed.

"Listen to the old, old story, of the power of death undone, by an infant born of glory..." As I listened to those words reverberate with music throughout the church, it hit me that this was the point of Christmas: the undoing of death in all its forms. As our arts teams moved through the story of creation, fall, and redemption, culminating in the birth of the one who would kill death and reverse the Curse, I felt selfishness steadily draining from my body. God, what have I to be frustrated about? Whatever ails me, whatever is causing pain and fatigue of life, you are the answer to it.

My fatigue, fed by focusing on my immediate circumstances rather than God's big plan, was dominating my perspective. Could I see beyond my mundane circumstances? Could I see the same ol', same ol' stuff of life as part of God's much larger plan?

That perspective shift set me up perfectly to do my part in the services. I wrapped up the dramatic presentation by talking about Simeon in Luke 2:22-33. Here was a guy who saw beyond the mundane, the everyday. No one noticed when Mary & Joseph brought Jesus to the temple to be dedicated to God because that was such a normal thing for parents to do back then - happened every day. But Simeon had the eyes to see something much greater going on in this particular case, with this particular kid. He knew this was no ordinary boy. This was God's answer to everything that's wrong with the world. Simeon saw Jesus' birth as the death-knell of death itself, and he responded accordingly: with worship. How else could one respond?

Cancer, chronic pain, old age and "natural death" (why is it we call something so unnatural, natural?), saying goodbye to loved ones, exploitation, starvation, oppression... I or people I care about have been affected by them all just this month. These things wear the world out. They wear me out.

But they have lost. Jesus is here. Death is undone. And that means everything to me.

Merry Christmas.

The Elusive Search for a Christ-Filled Christmas

We're now well into the relentless run-up to Christmas, which seems to creep back a bit more every year. The impenetrable wall of Thanksgiving used to shield the months of October and November from overt Christmas season displays. But now even Turkey Day seems to be getting overwhelmed by the the steady onslaught of wreaths, bells, and little incandescent lights, which are now appearing earlier and earlier.

It's probably not news to anyone that this relentless holiday advance is driven largely by retailers. And it's usually at this point that Christians - especially pastors like me - begin to decry the consumerism of Christmas, lambasting a materialistic culture for defacing so holy a day with commercialized vandalism.

But I'm not going to.

Not that materialism isn't a problem at Christmas - it certainly is. But there are at least 2 reasons why I'm not going to pounce on commercialism as the source of what's wrong with our celebration of Christmas. First, it's obvious. And it's been talked about endlessly. There are already plenty of voices weighing in on how to de-commercialize Christmas, and many of these voices much more articulate than mine (like this one for example).

But the second reason is that I think the Kingdom of God is better served when Christians look in the mirror and do business with their beloved God, rather than looking out the window and wagging our collective fingers at those who don't know any better. If we're interested in putting Christ in the center of Christmas, I think one of the best ways is to look anew at Scripture and enter more fully into the implications of the Christmas story. You can read what I mean in an article that just published at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

The answer may be different than you think.

Simeon, who longed for the coming of the Messiah, holds Jesus while Mary & Joseph look on (Luke 2)

Eternal Perspective vs. Instant Gratification

Our church's current teaching series is covering the message of the entire Bible in 12 weeks. We're explaining how all 66 books work together to say something: God's message to us. One of the points we've made repeatedly during this study is that the Bible is unified: the Old and New Testaments fit together and, contrary to popular opinion, they paint the same picture.

One example of the unity between the two Testaments is their perspective: the cast of both is forward-looking and gratification-delaying. Now, this is perhaps expected in the Old Testament, which looks forward to the coming of the Messiah. But surprisingly, despite the fact that the Messiah has already come in the New Testament, it too is forward-looking and gratification-delaying.

This similarity in mindset throughout the entire Bible, and the way it works itself out in our current instant gratification culture, is the subject of an article I wrote for the Colson Center for Biblical Worldview. You can read more here.

Worship Giver

I very briefly touched on Judges 21:25 during last Sunday's message, and the significance of the point being made there has really hit me these last few days. The second half of that verse is often quoted: "everyone did what was right in his own eyes." We see a relativistic, God-rejecting, me-centered culture around us and cite this verse as an apt description of our own world. And it is. But more is going on here.

Narcissism's Cause
The first half of the verse tells us why , and the reason is surprising to modern ears: "In those days there was no King in Israel," This is what explains the statement about everyone being their own boss. The people were not faithful to God because there was no king.

There Is No "I" In "Follower"
But this seems strange! It would make more sense to say something like, the people did what was right in their own eyes because:

  • they were selfish
  • they misunderstood God
  • they suffered from inappropriate pride
  • etc.
But all of these modern-minded explanations have one word in common: "they." The focus of this thinking is on the broken people. But the focus of Scripture is elsewhere - it is on God who promises to fix the brokenness.

The Royal Repairman
The "king" mentioned in Judges is the Messiah - the one whom God said would crush evil, reverse the Curse of Genesis 3, and transform the human heart from rebellion to faithfulness. Humanity's problems began with a "we'll be our own God" mentality, and that mentality can never change itself completely. The solution to the problem isn't inside us. "They" is the wrong place to start looking for a fix.

Enter the King. The Messiah is the one whom the Bible says will repair the "we'll be our own God" mentality. He'll do it for us, from outside of us. He'll give us a "heart of flesh" toward God instead of a "heart of stone," as God puts it in Ezekiel 36:25-27. It is the Messiah who will enable us to follow God rightly, enjoy his benefits, and worship him. He is the Worship Giver.

Not Very Postmodern!
Which brings us back to Judges 21:25. The reason everyone did what was right in his own eyes is because there was not yet a king. Only when The King came could God's people have a new heart that would stay faithful to him. They could not fix this problem themselves. We are completely dependent it seems on God; not only to worship him, but to even want to worship him.

This runs contrary to our current postmodern tendency to think that we are our own best gauges of right and wrong. It also undermines the idea that if I as a Christian detect residual rebellion in my heart, I need to redouble my efforts to eradicate it. As if I could remove the things in myself that impede full worship. Messiah is the Worship Giver.

Arrival Of The Worship Giver
And that makes this forthcoming Christmas season a significant event. As I head toward the holidays this year I find myself reflecting on the bleak picture of Judges 21:25, and knowing that I am in that boat apart from God's promised King. As we approach the celebration of Jesus' birth, I find myself thinking not just about worshiping him for what he's done or even for who he is, but worshiping him for enabling me to worship him.

This year I worship the one who gives me the heart to worship in the first place.

The Siren Song of Status

Charles Dickens' novel Little Dorrit serves as the inspiration for an article I recently wrote, which is about the inner fight we all have with wanting to please and impress people - often more than we want to please God. Drop by the Colson Center for Christian Worldview and see the results of listening to the call of The Siren Song of Status.

I greatly value the feedback I've already received on this article and I invite yours too, either as a comment here or on Facebook.

Book Review - Why You Think The Way You Do by Glenn Sunshine

This book addresses something I think is important to know: how the way we think has changed over the centuries right up to the present day. In fact I once fantasized briefly about writing this book myself, but the thought went away when I realized how much research I'd have to do to lay it all out correctly. Fortunately Dr. Glenn Sunshine, who as a history professor has a better background for this book anyway, had been compiling the research for a few years already and chose to put it in book form. I've gotten to know Glenn over the past couple years, and have learned to appreciate his insights as a historian, a thinker, and a Christian.

In this book Sunshine describes what the dominant worldview in the West has been, starting with the Roman Empire. He explains that the well-known decadence of the Romans, from slavery to sexual license to infanticide and more, was the result of the basic assumptions about life in the Empire. He also shows how the gradual flourishing of Christianity introduced an entirely different view of life - one based on the Bible - and how this Biblical worldview not only counter-acted many of the evils of Roman society, but became the basis for Western societies into the Middle Ages. He provides a good summary of how Naturalism (the belief that there is no God of any kind; the physical world is all that exists) became such a force in the West just in the last couple centuries, as well as explaining the popularity of postmodern thinking today.

The reason I think it's important for Christians to understand this is basically twofold. First, it helps us understand that all ideas come from somewhere: they come from a worldview. For example, the notion that science has dis-proven God's existence is a one popular today, but it's not a brute fact. Rather, it's a philosophical assumption (ie. an opinion) rooted in the Enlightenment. Learning to recognize the worldview roots of such ideas we encounter increases understanding, helping us sort out fact from opinion. Secondly, knowing why certain ideas have gained traction helps us dialogue more effectively with people who hold other, different worldviews than we do.

This book is written for the layman. It describes the flow of thought in the West for the past 2,000 years as a story, making it easier to grasp. In the process, it explains how Christianity is the foundation for virtually all of the good aspects of Western society, from human rights to science & technology, to personal liberty and representative government. And by implication then, it describes what we stand to lose if Christianity is completely dislodged from the Western worldview by Naturalism and/or postmodernism.

Along those lines, Sunshine ends the book with a list of eye-opening parallels between modern America and ancient Rome. He argues that after two millennia we have come full circle, and that the American worldview is now looking increasingly like the Roman worldview during the decline of the Empire. And he suggests several things Christians and churches can and should do about it. Worth the read.

To get a sense of what's in the book, here's an audio interview with the author.

Another Good Question - Bible Codes & Hidden Messages

We just wrapped up a very cool series of messages at Harvest, where I basically let the congregation determine what we were going to teach on. They submitted a bunch of really good questions, touching on Bible, theology, ethics, current events, and a lot more. I addressed them during our Sunday worship services, suggesting how we can think Biblically about each question. It was a blast!

One of the questions I didn't get to on a Sunday was as follows: "What do you think about The Bible Code by Michael Drosnin? I heard about it but it sounded a little weird…”

Well, the writer of this question has a good instinct. The general idea behind Drosnin’s books (I understand there’s a Bible Code 2 and even a Bible Code 3 now) is that by looking at the Hebrew text of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) one can apply a complicated encryption method and discover secret messages that are hidden within the text. These messages can then be de-coded, and are generally said to be able to predict future events. Sounds cool huh? Anyone curious enough to go buy a copy?

Save your money.

I could elaborate on lots of reasons why Drosnin’s idea is nonsense, including the fact that he’s a journalist (not a scholar), that others have also alleged such things before so this is nothing new, and that every time someone like Drosnin makes these kinds of claims they always stand to sell a lot of books and make a boat-load of money. Curious.

But the most important reason has nothing to do with this particular book or its author. Rather, the really important issue here is how Christians should read the Bible. Simply put, God’s word is not a magic book from which we divine mysterious and elusive secrets. Nor is it some deep conspiracy riddle that needs to be solved.

A secret message in the Hebrew Bible? Don't bet on it.

Instead, the Bible is God’s very plain and understandable explanation of the way the world works, and how we fit into it. He intends that when we read it we would understand what he’s been up to in human history, and how we should live in light of that. God didn’t embed secret codes in the Bible that predict future events, reserved only for the select few who are insightful enough to successfully complete some mysterious scavenger hunt. Nor did he encode messages that could only be deciphered by modern cryptography, leaving centuries-worth of his own followers in the dark. In the Bible, God has spoken to all people at all times, plainly.

How can I say that with such certainty? Because of the example of Jesus and the apostles, who never looked for secret messages and hidden meanings in the Bible. Instead, they followed the plainly evident flow of thought in God’s word. They looked at what the Bible says and how it's put together, and in so doing they understood its real message: it points to a coming Messiah who would be the centerpiece of God’s plan of redemption.

How did they come to that conclusion? What were they looking at that helped them see what the Bible’s message was? I will describe that in our Fall sermon series at Harvest. We’ll look at the way God put the Bible together, and we’ll see what message it sends. And I think I can demonstrate convincingly that Jesus and the apostles read it the same way, and thus understood it the same way. Don’t miss it!

And don’t be surprised when the Bible's flow as I describe it this Fall has nothing to do with secret codes, hidden meanings, or selling tons of books to make me rich.

The Bible As Jesus Read It

The Bible Jesus read (sometimes called the Hebrew Bible) was identical to our modern Old Testament in every respect, except one. Rather than beginning with Genesis and ending with Malachi, his Bible began with Genesis and ended with Chronicles. And many of the books in between were also arranged in a different order. This particular arrangement of the books is important because it helps readers understand the message of the Hebrew Bible.

Jesus alluded to the arrangement of the Hebrew Bible when he walked with two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection. There he explained to them everything the Old Testament taught about him as Messiah. And then notice how Jesus describes this message (Luke 24:44): "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Here Jesus is referring to the three-part structure of the Hebrew Bible:

  • Law of Moses ("Torah" in Hebrew) refers to the first 5 books of the Bible
  • The Prophets includes Joshua, Judges, Samuel & Kings, along with most of the prophets we traditionally recognize
  • The Writings (called here "the Psalms" since this section begins with the book of Psalms) includes everything else in the Old Testament.
But it's not just that there are three sections. It's the deliberate way those sections are attached to one another. They were put together with intentionality, to send the message God wants to send. It's almost as if they are sewn together. And the text in the "seams" where these sections come together emphasizes the dual themes of trust in God's Word and the coming Messiah (which I blogged about below).

So the structure of whole Hebrew Bible looks something like this (click for a larger view):

OK, so... what's the point?
The point is that this is the Bible as Jesus and the apostles read it. And this is HOW they read it. It turns out that the Old Testament is not about law and works while the New testament is about faith and grace. No! The New Testament writers got their understanding of faith and grace from the Old Testament. They recognized that the entire Hebrew Bible was about God's plan to redeem all of creation through the coming Messiah. That's why Jesus said, referring to Deuteronomy, "Moses wrote about me." (John 5:46) He learned what his role as the Messiah was all about by reading the Hebrew Bible.

And so did the apostles. As they were preaching the gospel, writing the New Testament to explain Christian doctrine, and laying their lives down for the kingdom of God, it was this understanding of the Old Testament that informed their theology and inflamed their hearts. And it still does so today.

The way we've changed the order of the Old Testament books masks its overall message to a degree. But the more I learn about how clearly and consistently the Old Testament teaches about the importance of faith in Jesus for ultimate redemption, the more in awe I am of what God has done. I have literally been brought to tears numerous times these past couple weeks of studying these things more closely, as I think about my love for my Savior: the Messiah who was talked about all the way back in Genesis.

We're going to look at these things more closely this Fall at Harvest, so for those of you who attend or who listen to our sermon series online we're going to have a great time! I hope you'll let me know as the series progresses if the material we're teaching makes sense, and if it has the same effect on you as it does on me.

Stained Glass Bible

I've always liked big stained glass windows. So many different shards of glass, each unique in its size, shape and color. And with the sun shining through, each piece is bright and beautiful in its own way. But of course we don't pay attention to the individual shards when we look at a stained glass window. We want to see the big picture they add up to. We're transfixed by the way all those varied and unique pieces fit together to form an artistic image that carries within it a message.

I've learned a lot about the Bible from an Old Testament scholar named John Sailhamer. He says the Bible is in many ways like a stained glass window. Each of the Bible's 66 books has its own unique content and form, like individual shards of stained glass. But those shards have been fit together to form a complete picture. As beautiful as each separate verse and book of the Bible is, the greatest beauty of God's Word is in the picture of reality that it forms when viewed as a whole.

Here's just one example: the Old Testament historically consisted of three major divisions: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. These are the same 39 books we have in our OT today, but they're in a different order than we see them in our Bibles. And the order matters! Because when you put them in their ancient Jewish order you notice something: there are transitions in the text between each of the three groupings:

  • Section 1 (the Torah) ends with Deuteronomy 34, which talks about a coming great prophet.
  • Section 2 (the Prophets) starts with Joshua 1, which is about meditating on God's Word
Now hang with me here:
  • Section 2 (the Prophets) ends with the end of Malachi, which talks about a coming great prophet (sound familiar?).
  • Section 3 (the Writings) then begins with Psalm 1, which talks about (you guessed it) meditating on God's Word.
The transitionary material is parallel in each case, and this points to a deliberate message in the Old Testament: from start to finish the Old Testament advances the dual themes of faith in God's Word and the promised Messiah king. These are not New Testament concepts! In fact, Jesus and the New Testament writers saw these themes in the Old Testament and realized that faith in the Messiah was the core of God's plan from the very beginning.

And there's so much more! These transitions are just one of many examples of how the entire Bible is far from a loose collection of random religious writings. Rather, it's a whole, cohesive, master-crafted work of art! And this is what we're going to unpack this Fall at Harvest Community Church. We'll spend time backing way up and seeing how the whole of the Bible's 66 books form a cohesive view of the world, and thus forms the basis of our own view of the world. And I hope everyone's appreciation and love for God's Word increases dramatically, as mine has as a result of learning these things.

Long ago, in many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son" Hebrews 1:1-2

My difficulty with slowing down

I just wrote an article for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview called Sacred Disengagement. It's about our need to step back and reflect on our lives from time to time, with some suggestions for doing so. It was prompted in part by my pondering what it means that God rested on the 7th day of creation, and why he tells us to do the same thing. But there's a personal back story behind why I wrote about this in the first place.

The article was prompted in large part by my personal experience with sacred disengagement, which I didn't have room to get into in the article. Truth is, I find it really hard to do. I don't know why for sure, but I've always found it very difficult to take a few hours away and focus on things like prayer and reflection on my life. I just recently made another attempt: about a week ago I spent 5 days away. The first couple days was just fun, hanging out at my old mechanic buddy's house completely re-wiring the dash in my 1974 Scout and installing all new gauges. Yes, that is fun for me!

Doesn't this look like fun!?!

But the next couple days was my real disengage time. I drove up to Clear Lake, the headwaters of the McKenzie River and one of my favorite places on earth. There I planned to camp by myself and do some fishing, as well as some reflecting. The camping was great, and the fishing was relaxing (gorgeous photos of the lake below).

But as usual I found the reflecting difficult. I parked myself by the lake one afternoon for a couple hours of reading and journaling. After 45 minutes I had made almost no progress. I found it difficult to know where to turn my Bible, or what to concentrate my mind on. A few gallant attempts at concentration ended predictably, with 1,000 busy things crowing in to my consciousness, rushing past every attempt I made to ward them off and keep them out for a while. I was frustrated.

So I packed my things back to the camp site and decided to go for a short hike. As I walked I decided that one way to tame the cacophony of urgent voices in my head was to name them. Perhaps if I gave voice to the thoughts I'd be able to identify them more clearly, lay them at God's feet in prayer, and let them go for a few days. So I began... and the words poured out. Sometimes whispering to myself as I walked, and sometimes walking in silence, my mind was a steady stream of ideas and thoughts, one leading to the next.

Gradually most of the concerns on my mind had been named and I felt I was able to step back mentally and look at them. I began to ask myself questions, such as why certain things were current sources of stress, or what I was intending to do about some of what I had named. I asked myself the questions I would have asked someone else had they told me the same things. This series of questions led to a couple interesting conclusions, and some possible actions I should at least explore as the new school year begins. I hiked back to camp and wrote as many things down as I could remember.

When I returned home I talked extensively with Amy about the experience. She has developed a greater ability to slow down and reflect over the years than I have, brought on in part by her physical limitations but mostly by the mature way she has chosen to respond to them. When I described my initial frustrated attempt at sacred disengagement, she questioned some of my assumptions. That was helpful, and made me think about the whole experience differently. I think I learned at least a couple things about actually doing what I described the article.

First, movement and speaking are good for me. I already knew that the environment we're in is critical for reflection - that's why I chose Clear Lake up high in the mountains, a place I love. But sitting in the warm sunshine while tired and trying to just think does not work for me. It probably works great for some people. But I was struck by the contrast between my total inability to concentrate while sitting by the lake and the clean stream of ideas that flowed naturally while I was hiking briskly, getting my heart rate up some and whispering thoughts and ideas. I'm a verbal processor, and being a guy I find that my brain responds much better to activity than inactivity.

Second, I assumed that all my reflecting had been useful but that it nonetheless wasn't the kind of spiritual reflection I should be after. Amy challenged that assumption, which prompted me to think about the whole Clear Lake experience in different terms. Once I did, the stream of thought that had started while hiking eventually matured a couple days later into some concrete realizations, action plans, and a fresh perspective to start the year. I realized she was right. My idea of what "reflecting" meant was too narrow, a bit contrived and artificial.

That's what led me to think about God "resting" in Genesis 2. It also led me to read and ponder Elijah's experience in 1 Kings 19. And all that thinking and study eventually led to the article I linked above. I believe 100% in the accuracy and usefulness of what I wrote, but it came out of a very personal experience. One that was a challenge in some ways, but was rewarding in the end - just as I believe God intends Sacred Disengagement to be.

Morning lakeside


Fishing from a float tube!


This is one CLEAR lake



The very beginning of the McKenzie River


An ancient lava flow comes right down to the water

What We've Told Our Pre-Teen About God's Plan For Sex

No worries: this post is rated PG. :)

The messages are everywhere. Some more subtle, some less so. But all too familiar:

  • If you've got it, flaunt it!
  • Sex is fun and everyone's doing it - just do it safely.
  • To be beautiful is to be sexy; they are the same.
As with many parents, we've sought to help our daughter understand a different - a more Biblical - view of sex.

The Biblical worldview tells us that God made everything for a purpose, but that everything was broken to some extent by our sin (what theologians call "the Fall"). This includes human sexuality: it was designed by God to work a certain way, and we want our kids to know and respect its intended purpose. So how do you explain that to them? Two things have been helpful to us.

First, prompted by a terrific study Amy is doing with Elizabeth, is Proverbs 5:19 which urges husbands to "be intoxicated always in [your wife's] love." Intoxicated is a strong word! God has designed a woman's body to allure - even intoxicate - a man. But only one man: her husband. We've talked with our daughter about the attraction power she will have as she grows, and who God intends her to reserve that attraction for. And she's also learning to recognize the way many women use their God-given attractiveness to draw attention to themselves from any man who will look.

Which led us to the second item: a great illustration (from a terrific little book called Ask Me Anything) of what happens when we don't use our sexuality the way God intended. Author J. Budziszewski says our sexuality in some ways can be compared to a piece of duct tape. The first time it is pressed to something it sticks strongly. But what happens if you peel it off and then stick it to another surface? Perhaps it adheres again, but not as strongly this time. If it is peeled off and pressed to a new surface time and again it will eventually lose its ability to stick at all.

In the same way God intends human sexuality to cement the relationship between a husband and a wife. It's designed to add a unique level of intimacy to the marriage relationship. But if we go beyond God's intended boundary for sex by sharing our sexuality with others, either through inappropriate public displaying of our bodies or by trying to "stick" ourselves relationally to multiple partners via sexual activity, sex itself gradually loses some of its power to cement a marriage relationship the way God intended.

In all this we hope our daughter comes to understand the powerful and valuable gift God has given her as a woman - and how to use that gift for her own good and for God's glory.

How Does A Christian Think?

That's a critical question to our spiritual growth. Becoming more like Jesus means seeing life the way he sees it, and making decisions that reflect his values and goals. Any tools that are really effective at helping us do that are worth knowing about.

And so I want to pass on the launch of a brand new, very cool project on the web called The Chuck Colson Center For Christian Worldview. Colson has been teaching and writing on the subject of developing a thoroughly biblical view of life for decades now, and this site catalogs and archives almost everything he's done and makes it easily accessible to everyone for free. It also connects many like-minded Christian ministries together such as Summit Ministries and Focus on the Family's The Truth Project.

But that's just the beginning.

The site also has constantly fresh and updated articles and Bible studies from a variety of writers to help you grow spiritually:

  • "Worldview" is a short devotional that helps readers learn to see the world we live in through the lens of a biblical worldview.
  • "Ancient Paths" is a weekly Bible study guide that connects us to the wisdom of theologians throughout church history. You can subscribe to this one weekly for free.
  • "Changepoint" is an column-length article designed to address many aspects of life in our fast-paced society, and provide practical insights on how Christians can live out their faith right now.
Reading these brief, accessible articles on a regular or even semi-regular basis over time would go a long way to helping all of us learn to think about life in more biblical terms. And for those who want to take their worldview training to an even higher level, soon you'll even be able to enroll in online classes. The number of opportunities and resources here is really cool!

I am privileged to serve as one of the contributors to the Colson Center site, contributing to each of the three columns mentioned above on a monthly basis. Currently the site features a Worldview article I wrote based on an experience Amy and I once had growing grapes, and tying that to the lesson Jesus teaches us in John 15. Also, this week's Ancient Paths Bible study is one I put together on the deceptiveness of sin, following the insights of 17th century Puritan theologian John Owen. Feel free to check them out, and as always I welcome your feedback!

I'm told that a strong "get the word out" effort will commence in a week or two to let people know the site is now active, but you get advanced notice! Drop by the Colson Center and familiarize yourself with one of most promising, easy to use tools for Biblical worldview to come out yet.

Why I Twitter (and Facebook)

Twitter! Facebook! These "social networking" sites are all the rage these days. And I've joined in - for some specific reasons. I now have three main portals on the web: this blog, Facebook, and Twitter. Each has a unique purpose for me and they're all interconnected.

Quick links:

  • Follow or subscribe to this blog (see links to the right)
  • Stop by my Facebook page.
  • Follow me on Twitter.
1. Why I Twitter
Twitter allows you to send very brief (140 characters max) messages out to all your friends about what you're doing and thinking right now. Being as brief as these messages ("tweets" - isn't that cute...) are they're hardly conducive to stimulating deep sharing or thinking. But they're great for maintaining a sense of connection with a person throughout the day. Ever have a friend or family member you never seem to have enough time to connect with? Twitter is one partial answer - without taking much time both sender and receiver can stay caught up on some of the little stuff in life.

The value of this for me as a pastor has become evident over the past couple years. Leading a church that has over 400 people participating with some regularity is daunting: I can spend hours each week e-mailing, phone calling, and having face-to-face conversations, and still I will have not touched even 1/4 of our congregation! Twitter allows me to create a small window into my day-to-day thinking, and any church members who care to look through that window will have some connection to their pastor as a "real guy." This is no substitute for deep relationship, but it is a very convenient touch point where one would otherwise not exist. And that's why I Tweet!

If you just want a window into my daily world, you can follow my Tweets directly from my Twitter page or you can follow them on my Facebook page, which leads me to...

2. Why I Facebook
Facebook is the main, one-stop place I use to connect with many people. I have my Twitter updates set to update Facebook, which is where many people see them. I also use Facebook to let people know when I've written (hopefully) helpful and useful things on my blog, or elsewhere on the web. It is the bridge that links all my other writing and connecting. I read everything people post on my Facebook Wall, and that's a great place to connect with me sociall throughout the week if you so desire.

Harvest Community Church also has a great presence on Facebook, so I'll connect directly with church members quite a bit as well. If you're at all connected to Harvest, I invite you to connect with us on Facebook too!

3. Why I Blog
This blog is a year-and-a-half old now, and it is my true love. Here I develop the craft of writing, expand on ideas that I may not have had time to get into during sermons, and write for the edification of fellow Christians. My blog focuses mostly on the intersection of biblical theology and personal worldview; that is, how Scripture shapes our entire view of life. I also cover some personal and fun items here, but the blog format gives me a greater chance to go deeper even with those subjects - to dive below the surface level.

So if you want to join me on a few deeper dives into what makes life matter, this blog is the place to do it! It is my sincere hope that fellow Jesus-followers find this blog instructive, challenging, inspirational, and edifying. That's why I blog. My goal is to post once per week, and I read every comment posted here and respond to virtually all of them as well (whereas I can't respond to every Facebook interaction - though I do read all those as well).


Social Networking Sites - Philosophy
Twitter & Facebook are not without controversy. Many people avoid them completely, believing they're narcissistic and promote shallow interactions, thus cheapening relationships. These things are undoubtedly true to a large extent. Yet while others (John Piper for instance) see these dangers they also see the potential to redeem such technologies and use them for good. I tend toward this latter position, though for different reasons than Piper. I think he's overly optimistic in his attempt to harness Twitter and use it for larger purposes. But I do think that if we take technologies like Twitter and Facebook for what they are (very wide, shallow, fun connective media) and utilize them as parts of a larger approach to relationships, they can be quite useful.

I think Piper is right to point out that all technologies from movies & TV to the internet & Powerpoint have upsides as well as dangers, and they all call for discipline. For instance it's pretty easy to spend hours each day poring over pretty meaningless stuff on Facebook, and to be thinking about it even when you're not on it. At that point Facebook runs my life. So as with many other things I'm developing some boundaries on my usage. It's a discipline to write one blog post per week (takes a lot longer to write them than to read them!) and so I have designated times throughout the week in which I write whether I feel like it or not. I have also limited my Facebook and Twitter usage to certain times of the day.

As with many things, when used in moderation and with purpose these internet tools can be great ways to connect, teach, and build others up. That's my goal, and I look forward to being better connected with many people! Whether you want to join me on a journey of thinking about the Christian life here on this blog, or you prefer to connect via Facebook and/or Twitter (or all three!) I look forward to seeing you on the web!

Below is my Facebook page - click to expand. Note that some of the updates (center column) are from my Twitter account. I like the way Twitter & Facebook connect!

15

Yesterday was our 15th wedding anniversary. 15! Time does indeed fly. I spend a little time reflecting on our marriage at this point each year, and Amy unintentionally prompted my reflections this time.

Amy's ability to appreciate beauty has always been more advanced than mine, and I've learned a lot from her in that. Her appreciation for art allows her to quickly see the meaning and truths that beautiful and artistic things express. For example, she likes jewelry that says something so this year for our anniversary I bought her a solid gold bead for her Pandora bracelet. She picked it out and chose this one (pictured right) mostly based on just liking the way it looks. Then she stumbled on its name "gilded cage." That struck us both.

Amy has written before, quite eloquently, about how life sometimes feels like a cage - particularly with a chronic pain condition. See the caged bird poem she has on the sidebar of her blog, for instance. We've talked a lot about imprisonment themes in literature: most recently we've discussed the beautiful way Charles Dickens develops the theme of imprisonment vs. true freedom in his novel Little Dorrit. It has meant a lot to both of us to realize that, though "imprisoned" by something like chronic health problems, one can be truly free as they trust in God's wise providence, serve him wholeheartedly, and cultivate a deep love for him and his word. Sometimes the most "free" people are really the most trapped. Freedom comes from a life lived in concert with our maker and his purposes, not from external circumstances.

Still, despite this true freedom, those circumstances remain. Relationships don't magically heal (usually), cancer doesn't just suddenly go away (usually), or - as in our case - chronic pain doesn't just cease (usually). The external "bars" are still there. And have their ways of making their presence known.

In the early years of our marriage I was a determined cage smasher. Any problem that surfaced I would attack with gusto: work harder, work smarter, earn more money, see whatever doctor or specialist was needed... basically, smash the cage! Nothing, I was determined, would prevent myself or my wife from living the kind of life we felt we should be living. Ah, the idealism of youth... I gradually learned that I had no more ability to alter some of the circumstances of our life than I had to command water not to run downhill, or the sun to not rise today. With the almost intractable pride of the human heart, learning one's own insignificance is not a fun prospect. And I'm afraid I was not a patient or teachable student. But reality has this stubborn way of not changing simply because I want it to. Funny how that works.

So learn I did, eventually. And my emphasis slowly shifted from beating my head against every bar of our cage (which always seemed to do more damage to my skull then it did to the cage) to more of an emphasis on thriving where God had planted us. Rather than insisting that water run uphill I began learning how to successfully navigate a stream that's heading downhill. Rather than insisting that every pain be removed I began learning how to thrive, and how to enable my wife to thrive, with the physical limitations God saw fit to allow in our lives. In short, I stopped trying to break the cage and started learning how to cover it with gold.

Not that I'm a genius in that department. Not by a long shot. I still have difficulty knowing as a husband and father when to move forward on an opportunity or when to hold back for the good of my wife and kids. And I make decisions I regularly regret.

But Amy's "gilded cage" bead is the embodiment of the marriage ideal. I don't have the ability to break out of every circumstance that I consider confining. But I do have the ability to thrive in it - to cover those bars with gold, which reflects the beauty of God. Turns out that Amy's little golden bracelet bead is a much better 15th anniversary present than I had imagined.

Of course, that's to be expected: I'm not the one who picked it out.

From The Off Beat Side Of My Brain...

Yes, we're into the dog days of summer - you might say the "Hot Dog Days" of summer here in the Northwest! - and the slower pace got me reflecting on several smaller and off beat things... such as, where does the phrase "dog days of summer" come from anyway?

Two random musings:

First, from the "truth is stranger than fiction" category, here's a sign I saw posted at the cash register of an ice cream shop in Ashland last week:

"Out of courtesy to others, please refrain from talking on your cell phone while ordering."

Huh? Who talks on their cell phone while ordering ice cream!?! I was so surprised at this sign that I asked the lady working there if that happens so frequently that they really needed to post a sign about it. She assured me it did. She said it often happens in the summer heat with a line running out the door, that just when a customer gets to the front of the line their phone rings and they usually take the call. With the popularity of Bluetooth headsets nowadays, the customer will often stand there facing the store employee, and speak in full voice to their caller while everyone behind them is waiting to order. That just strikes me as weird.

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Second, I introduce my Charles Dickens Hall Of Name list!

Amy is in the midst of reading all of Dickens' works and watching many of the recent well-done films of his stories. On vacation last week we watched Little Dorrit, which I really enjoyed. That film got me reflecting on the many colorful and off beat characters in Dickens' stories, several of whom have hilarious names. My current favorites:

From Bleak House, Mr. Tulkinghorn, the sullen, sinister lawyer. His name befits the dark and ruthless character of a man who is only too willing to impale anyone who crosses him, without remorse. He makes my list along with his law clerk, Mr. Clamb who (appropriately) says very little.

Mr. Tulkinghorn

Also from Bleak House, Mr. Guppy, the young, jumpy (and ever-so-slightly creepy) lawyer who darts around kinda' fish-like trying to gulp down opportunity for personal advancement wherever he can find it. Guppy really is a very small fish trying to become a big one by swimming with other "big fish," but he's the only person (other than his mother) who doesn't realize that he'll always remain a little guppy. He even looks a bit slimy and fishy:

Mr. Guppy

From Martin Chuzzlewit... well, Martin Chuzzlewit! What a name. This is maybe the only entry on my list chosen purely for its creative and odd sound.

From the same story I'd include the sad, clueless, and unscrupulous distant relative of the Chuzzlewit family, Mr. Chevy Slyme. That one slides off the tongue so smoothly... Slyme is dense, easily manipulated, and without either morals or brains - kind of a pond scum character.

But above all from this story is the greedy, bumbling, pretentious poseur
Seth Pecksniff. That name does a fantastic job capturing its owner's (false) high moral airs, which don't really conceal the conniving, shameless way in which he takes advantage of everyone he meets. This name alone merits the Pulitzer Prize!

Pecksniff

And finally, from my recent Little Dorrit viewing, I can't resist adding three more to my Dickens Hall of Names list. First is the edgy, gruff, touchy old manservant Jeremiah Flintwinch. While discussing this list on vacation my mother suggested Flintwinch as an addition, but I initially thought not. Yet the more I pondered how his name fits his mean, harsh, short-fused character the more I realized that mom is right. I should know by now: always listen to your mother! Thanks for a good suggestion mom.

Jeremiah Flintwinch

Also making my list from from Little Dorrit is Edmund Sparkler, who (quite appropriately) is a bubbly, vivacious -- and completely air-headed -- rich kid. Sparkler is an initial flash of expressive energy... and nothing else. Kinda' like those bubbles in your soda pop. They tickle your nose for a second, and then they're gone.

But the grand prize so far (I haven't read or watched all of Dicken's stuff yet) goes to... Mr. Tite Barnacle - a singularly brilliant name for a man who embodies the wasteful, bureaucratic red tape of his employer, the fictional Circumlocution Office. This government entity is a leech of a bureaucracy which pushes meaningless paper around at taxpayer expense for no reason other than to keep its own employees paid. Well named indeed!

As you can see, Dickens had a flair for not only odd or funny sounding names, but names which captured the key facets of many of his characters. And I thoroughly enjoy this rather eccentric bit of Dickens' writing talents!

Anyone care to add to my Dickens Hall of Names list?

Lawn Theology: Real Love Is A Sprinkler


Those
bizarre-looking squiggles above have actually meant a lot to me these past couple days. It's Hebrew of course; three Hebrew words. More specifically it's the constantly repeated refrain of an ancient worship song recorded in the Bible as Psalm 136, which I will preach on this coming Sunday. Every single one of the short verses ends with these three words, which translate "for his loving-kindness endures forever." That is repeated 26 times in this Psalm. 26! And some people complain today if worship choruses are sung a mere 6 or 7 times!


Why 26 times? Why sing the same repetitive words over and over? You almost get the idea God is trying to pound something into our heads and hearts, which is exactly what I think is going on here. Of course that begs the question of why this particular idea needs to be pounded so heavily.

I think the reason is that God's love is so foreign to our human experience of love. We hear phrases like "God's love is unconditional" in churches, and we get that at one level. But do we love that way? Have we been loved that way by another? Not often. I got to thinking about this earlier this week while corresponding with my friend Mike Maeshiro. Mike made the observation that really, truly loving someone is more than just an act of the will or a commitment. Real love happens when we're so caught up in God's presence and so full of his love that we simply love. Whomever. Not by determined choice (as if we didn't really want to) and certainly not because they deserve it (conditional love), but simply because the reality of love is alive in our hearts. My words, his point.

I agreed with him, and then it occurred to me that this is what I've always understood and taught about God's love: that his love for us has nothing to do with us, but rather it has everything to do with him. When I'm in awe of God's love for me I am not supposed to conclude that I must really be something special - as if God loves me because I'm some really swell guy, and hey who couldn't love me once they got to know me? Instead, I'm supposed to conclude that God is an amazing lover, precisely because he would love someone so unworthy of his devotion as me. God's love for me doesn't call attention to me, it calls attention to him.

Human love, on the other hand, typically arises in response to the value of the one loved. We love things and people who give us pleasure, and in whom we see value. No value or pleasure, no love. And what happens when someone who used to please us no longer does? We often say we've "fallen out of love" with them. My point here really isn't that human love is shallow - I think it's still real. But my point is that human love is contingent. It fixates on something worthwhile, and arises in response to that. Human love is like a garden hose with a spray nozzle: the water only goes to the places you direct it. You choose which plants you want to water (roses, yes! weeds, no!) and only the "good" plants get the benefit of the water.

God's love is more like the sprinkler in the middle of my lawn. It indiscriminately soaks everything in its radius: grass, the annuals in the flower bed next to the grass, the dandelions and clover growing in the middle of my lawn... even the kid in the bathing suit who ran through the spray on a hot afternoon. It simply doesn't matter! The sprinkler doesn't distinguish between "good" targets and "bad" ones. Everything within its reach gets soaked with the life giving water, because by its very nature the sprinkler is an indiscriminate broadcasting device.

That's when my mind drifted back to Psalm 136 and it's lengthy series of repeated declarations that God's loving-kindness endures forever. Because that's what I think this Psalm is saying about God. By his very nature he is a lover. He loves anyone - in fact everyone - not on the basis of their worth or lovableness, but on the basis of his own nature as a lover. God's love is self contained, self-referencing, or (to put it in the Apostle John's terms) God is love.

I feel that there's something simultaneously humiliating and freeing about that. On the one hand, it drives home the idea that God doesn't love me because I'm a swell guy. I can't earn this kind of love, and I don't have it any more than anyone else. On the other hand, what kind of security does this provide!?! I'll get wet even if I am no better than a stinkin' weed. I am loved by God regardless of who and what I am, because God is a lover and nothing I can do can change who he is. THAT is security.

And as Psalm 136 says, that's reason to give thanks to God: because his loving-kindness endures forever.

Shafts of Hope

Hey all: The Wilberforce Project just published another article I wrote, this one about living with an eternal perspective. So I'm writing over there this week - hop on over and let me know what you think!

As I mentioned once before this site is a very cool collaborative effort by Christian ministries and thinkers from around the country. Its goal is to offer lots of different types of biblical worldview resources to the church, in order to equip Christians for effective Kingdom impact in our fast-paced, pluralistic, multicultural world. The full launch happens this summer but there's already a number of great devotionals, study guides, articles and more all available and free. Check it out!

God Blew Me Away At Church Today - And We're Not Even Pentecostal!

Sometimes God moves in unexpected ways. And man, is it cool. That happened at Harvest Community Church this morning.

This is Patrick Dehler, a Senior student at Hillsboro High School who's part of our family at Harvest. I'm sure he'll really dig appearing on his pastor's blog. Everyone say hi to Patrick.

This morning during the worship service he told the congregation about a recent experience he had shortly after my good friend Rosemary Khamati (pictured below with my family) from the Sudan Evangelical Alliance came to Harvest and updated us on the ministry in Southern Sudan. Patrick felt a real passion to help support the ministry there, so he decided to head down to Portland with his guitar, his heart, and a sign that said "help me raise money for Sudan" to see if he could drum up some cash for the little village of Boma.

He opened his guitar case, set up the sign, and began singing. After over an hour of playing he had made a grand total of $1.25 - not exactly what he'd hoped for. Then the first really cool thing happened. A homeless guy came up in the middle of a song and peered intently into the case. Patrick thought what I would have thought: 'he probably wants the money.' But the guy didn't ask for money. Instead he read the sign, reached into his pocket, and plopped $1.00 into the guitar case.

Patrick was floored. Scores of people with fancy shopping bags full of stuff had passed by and not given a dime. But here was this homeless dude, much like the poor widow with two copper coins that Jesus taught about, who took from his poverty and gave. And with that Patrick was done with his story. Neat real-life parable, eh? Yet his afternoon in Portland had netted Boma a total of $4.

But this is where it gets really cool, because while Patrick thought the story was done (as did I) God decided it wasn't finished yet. As Patrick was headed back to his seat in church after telling the story, one guy got up in the middle of the service, walked up to Patrick, and handed him some cash for Boma. What a cool, unexpected gesture, I thought.

Then about 40 minutes later, after my home-dog Kenny Stone (Harvest's youth pastor) preached on Psalm 96 and we had Communion, the worship team started playing a couple worship songs. Well, Patrick was playing bass today so he was up on stage with the rest of the team. That's when it started. Someone got up from their seat in the middle of the song, walked up on stage, and tossed some cash at Patrick's feet for Boma - unfortunately his guitar case was backstage, so the floor would have to do! Then another came, and another. Spontaneously, totally unplanned and unsolicited, dozens of people got up during the music and contributed to this growing pile of cash on the stage.

My eyes were closed focusing on worship, so I didn't even see it begin. My unbelievably awesome daughter Elizabeth, who knows Rosemary well and has a huge heart for Sudan, nudged me out of my private worship moment and said "can I go give some money to Patrick for Sudan?" A little taken aback I said, "well sure, but not now!" Then I looked up to the stage and saw what was happening. I immediately apologized to her and asked her how much she wanted to give (since she had to borrow from me and pay me back when we got home). She told me and I gave her the money, and then sat back and watched my 11-year-old join dozens of others in spontaneously giving of what she had to advance the ministry in Sudan.

When the service was over people kept handing Patrick money. The funniest part of the whole deal is he thought the story was over at the $4 mark, but when we counted all the cash given this morning it exceeded $600! I've never seen a high school kid so stunned as he was, and I told him "it's amazing to see what God does, isn't it?" I was telling myself as much as him.

I also thought of the homeless guy who reached into his grimy pocket and pulled out a buck, just trying to make a difference. He may never know how God used him and a passionate high schooler to prod his own people into action. But 60,000% is a pretty good return on any investment - I'd say that's some serious leverage.

And I love watching my beautiful young woman make heart and mind choices that reflect God's heart and mind.

What do you say after such an experience? To whom do you shout your uncontainable exultation? Patrick? Elizabeth? Kenny? The homeless guy?

God.

Anyone else and your missing the whole point of the whole deal. This is what it means to be full of energy, joy and excitement about who God is. That's worship.

Kids at the school in Boma, which our church helped construct. This is their first exposure to books!


Some of the Sudanese kids in Boma

Life is...

...about to get a bit insane around our place.

First off, the kids wrap up their school year next week and thus begin filling ever larger blocks of our daily planners with their delightful presence. Big man Tommy is dispatching 2nd grade, while his big sis (emphasis on big: that girl has shot up at least 6 inches in the last year and is now as tall as her mother) Elizabeth has ascended to the very summit of Elementary School.



And just when that change takes place I begin teaching a class once again at George Fox University called Christian Faith and Thought. This class teaches students how to compare major worldviews like Christianity, Naturalism (atheism) and Postmodernism, and challenges them to think through their own view of life more thoroughly. Students typically come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences so the class is always a lively, engaging and fun process both for them and for me! I really enjoy getting to do it.

This time around I'm doing two classes simultaneously while still working my "real" job - meaning that while I'll still blog some, the frequency of my posting may drop a bit until late July.

And thanks to all of you Harvest members who responded to my request for help last month. After reading all your comments I think I'll start up a discussion forum in late June or July after our current group of classes ends. We'll meet during the Community Cafe/summer breakfast hour to discuss the morning's passage. Emphasis on discuss! So read ahead and come prepared with questions, insights, or simply a willingness to learn together with other members of your church family! Watch the bulletin & Harvest web site for more info.

Amy Sent Me To My Room

My bride is really cute when she gets bossy. And today I got her sufficiently torqued that she instructed me in no uncertain terms to march straight over to the computer and amend my sorry ways! My error?

Recently I wrote a worldview essay for a very cool web site. But instead of telling you all that I'm a sometimes-contributor to this site, and thus propping a site that's very props-worthy, I just re-posted the essay earlier today on this blog. So when Amy realized I wasn't calling everyone's attention to an awesome web resource because of my own ridiculous, violent aversion to self-promotion, she decided it was time to give me the business. She took me to several other blogs to show me how those bloggers cross-linked to other site they'd written for, and nonchalantly wondered out loud what my problem was. As usual, I didn't have a good answer.

So I'm amending my ways! The post has been deleted, but you can still read it under the heading Always Drinking, Always Thirsty at the web site for The Wilberforce Project. This web site has been under construction for many months and is just going live for the first time. The goal is to create the pre-eminent place on the internet for all things related to biblical worldview, from articles to book and web site summaries to studies in historical theology and much more. There's a short video from Chuck Colson on the Project's home page discussing the importance of worldview studies for the church and describing the Wilberforce Project. I encourage you to jump over there and spend a few minutes poking around some of the many very cool and quite varied resources that are already online and available, free of charge.

The group behind the web site is The Wilberforce Forum, which is the other side of Colson's Prison Fellowship ministry. The Wilberforce Forum is dedicated to equipping the church to impact the world for Christ through worldview training, including the Centurions Program:
a full year in-depth study program. I completed the program in 2006 and still consider it one of the best investments of time and energy I've made.

Book Review - Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne

I picked this book up because my friend Seth asked me if I had read it, and if so what I thought. At the time I didn't really know anything about the author, Shane Claiborne. In fact I had only heard of him from a couple youth pastor friends who had seen him speak at youth ministry conferences, and they basically said he was an edgy dude who lived in some sort of inner city commune and talked about being a serious Jesus follower. Sounded like a Jesus hippie to me -- I figured he was part of the emerging church movement and didn't think much else of it, until I got Seth's e-mail.

The length of this post is due to the way the book pleasantly surprised me. My assumption when I started reading the book was that I'd like a lot of it and not like a lot of it. I figured that, like many emergent guys, he'd be asking a lot of good and needed questions about the apathy of the American church. But I also assumed he'd proffer some dubious and typically-emergent answers, such as downplaying the study of orthodox theology and questioning whether anyone could know truth. I planned on being about 50/50 on what he was saying.

Well, it turns out he does live in a commune. But to my pleasant surprise, I ended up being about 80/20 on what he says. Really. (Don't worry mom: I got through my Berkeley years without joining a hippie commune and I'm not about to move your grandchildren into one now...)

The book (in a really small nutshell) is an attempt to wake up an affluent, apathetic American church and call her to a lifestyle of serious Jesus-following. He makes several different points in support of that goal using lots of stories from his personal journey interspersed with some free-flowing pontificating-on-paper. I won't recount all of his arguments (he already wrote the book, so I don't need to do it again!) but the core principle is to call Christians to a lifestyle of "radical love" which Claiborne sees as the only Jesus-ordained way to change the world. He's real big on Tony Campolo, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa, and he's real not-big on George W. Bush, Marketing-driven evangelical mega-churches and Pat Robertson. Come to think of it I'm not a big fan of the last two myself, even though I don't really go in for everyone on his list of heroes.

What I like
There's a lot of detail I could agree and disagree with, but I think the book's main strengths boil down to three major ideas.

First, unlike the worst of emerging church voices, Claiborne still takes the Bible seriously. I can't tell you how refreshing this was to see, and it allowed me to take his ideas more seriously than I would have otherwise. I could let his ideas challenge my own understanding of the gospel and agree or disagree with his perspective as with a brother in Christ, fellow truth lover and follower of Jesus. This was a way different experience than reading the postmodern nonsense that spews forth from some Emergents.

Now, his book does strike me as just a bit selective with Scripture. He's quick to quote any passage that speaks of liberating the poor and the oppressed, to the point where there wasn't much other Scripture quoted that I recall. To be fair though, that is essentially the thesis of his book and one can never say everything in a single volume. And there is a lot of scripture that speak of not befriending (or becoming) the oppressive rich & powerful. I also liked the fact that he didn't only quote from the gospels and the words of Jesus, as some Emergent guys are wont to do. Whether one arrives at all the same conclusions as Claiborne or not, one has to give him a lot credit for not losing a high view of Scripture as he re-thinks the American Christian life. I almost screamed in shock and joy when he said the way to correct bad theology isn't with no theology, but with good theology.

Second, Claiborne works hard at maintaining and conveying humility. This is no small feat in a book that aims to prophetically criticize much of church life. For instance, he admits at one point that he got caught up in the "rage against the machine" liberal activist culture which thrives on anger and hubris. He eventually recognized that arrogance can never undo arrogance and disowned his angry liberal activism for something more mature. Kudos to him for not only learning the lesson, but trying to teach it to others. He's still involved in more protesting and confronting than I personally care for, but this feels like a difference of emphasis to me rather than a completely different mentality. And while it's pretty obvious that he thinks more Christians should do what he's doing, he doesn't come out and say that we're not serious Christians if we don't.

One more thing I liked, and which I think is the most important contribution in this book, is the way he links reaching out with relationship. I think this is huge, and I've come to completely agree with him here. The idea is that our philanthropy and charitable giving are often mediated by massive public and private institutions, so when we give we often never see or know who is being helped. But when we spend time with the poor, the oppressed, and the washed-up we learn their story and come to see them as human beings made in God's image (which they are) rather than as losers and statistics (which they're not). The hooker working the corner, the addict and the abuser are the ones Jesus sent us to love and preach the gospel to. When we take the time to build relationships in this way, helping "the poor" becomes helping Joe Donatello, Mary Sanford, or her kid Jessica. Grace becomes personalized.

This is how generosity works, by which I mean it's far easier to get people to part with their money for the good of others when they know the "others" who are being helped. For example, we've sent about 10 people from our church to Boma, Sudan over the past year to help build and operate a school among other things. My good Kenyan friend Rosemary Khamati from SEA Partners recently came to Harvest and told us of some of the clothing needs for the school kids in the cool rainy weather. After her presentation I overheard one of the past team members tell Rosemary that no matter what the funds would be raised, and this lady had a determined fire in her eyes when she said it. Did this fire come from a general "bent toward philanthropy" or from being goaded to give by one of my amazing sermons on money? No way. It came because this woman has been to that school and has loved, served, and taught those kids herself. Relationship produces a Jesus-honoring desire to part with our own money for the good of others.

A Swing And A Miss
One thing I think Claiborne whiffs on is capitalism. He's not super clear on his vision for global economy, and seems to lump all economic systems together. At one point he declares he's neither capitalist or socialist, but after reading his book I have no idea how he sees the big economic picture; he doesn't explain how he thinks it should work. Now to be fair to Claiborne, many much smarter people than he (and than I) have fundamentally missed the essential genius of democratic capitalism including most of the people he's read and been mentored by. It's an easy mistake to make when so many intellectual voices shout down the perceived evils of the "greedy system." I hope some day Claiborne picks up a copy of Michael Novak's The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism which is an unfortunately difficult read that nonetheless contains a better view of reality.

Claiborne is extremely concerned about the plight of the world's poor, and rightly wants to live a life that loves them in Jesus' name. But it is too easy to decry the gap between rich & poor, as he does many times in his book. This simplistic look at the world's economy is not entirely off base, but it misses a much deeper and more important point: both the rich and the poor have been getting richer in the West because of one system: democratic capitalism. For example, Novak notes that in non-capitalist France during the 1780's, 4 out of every 5 families devoted 90% of their income to buying bread - and only bread - to stay alive. And French life expectancy in 1795 was roughly 25 years. Compare this to capitalist England which saw real wages double between 1800 and 1850 and again between 1850 and 1900, all while the population was increasing. Here's the point: anyone interested in seeing poverty driven back should be interested in capitalism, for as Novak puts it "after five millennia of blundering, human beings finally figured out how wealth may be produced in a sustained, systematic way."

The key insight is that democratic capitalism is the only political/economic system that respects the beautiful human spirit created in the Image of God - that's why democratic capitalism works. Claiborne misses this point, but again in fairness so do a lot of people. Capitalism entices creative people to create, innovative people to innovate, and as a result wealth is created and even the non-innovative and non-creative benefit. Is the world's wealth distribution sick? Of course it is. But what democratic capitalism needs is a strong moral vision for life that provides guidance and moral backbone to its wealth-creating potential. And Christians are well suited to provide such a moral vision. In fact that vision is precisely what Claiborne's book is all about, and his stories are quite effective at getting it across. This makes his predictable criticisms of wealth inequality a double shame because his vision contains the seeds that made capitalism thrive in the first place, and which can make it do so again to the benefit of all. We Christians should be urging a moral vision onto capitalism, so that more wealth can be created and better distributed to alleviate the suffering of the world's poor. Claiborne seems to get the latter point, but he misses the former point altogether. A couple examples from his book come to mind, but this post is getting long already and I don't want to risk sounding more critical of the book than I actually feel.

Concluding Thoughts
In fact I'm much more high on this book than I thought I'd be. It was useful to have read it while in the midst of Novak's book, and right after I had finished David Wells' The Courage to be Protestant. I think orthodox protestant Christianity needs a new/old vision moving forward: new in the sense that it should be different from the big-ticket, me-centered world of Marketing mega-churches, and old in the sense of being grounded in the theological orthodoxy and redemptive vision that has characterized the Christian faith for millennia. I don't personally think Claiborne has all the answers (he probably doesn't think so either) but I do think he has a different enough perspective to jolt the church into asking some big (and good) questions, yet orthodox enough to be worth listening to. He did so for me.

Good job Shane!

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