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May 18, 2015

Zinner
We learned last week that William Zinnser has died. He was known primarily as the author of On Writing Well, a classic guide to composing non-fiction. It is a book that has meant a lot to me as I have attempted to mature as a writer. This weekend I breezed back through all my notes and highlights and found that the ideas that most impacted me can be distilled into 5 simple headings. I also found that the ideas are applicable not only to professional writers like Zinnser, but to anyone who wants to grow in communication skills. Here are 5 things Zinnser taught me:

Be Diligent

There is really no such thing as that fabled “natural writer.” What actually distinguishes the good authors from the great ones is simply their diligence. Good authors humble themselves with the knowledge of how poor they are, and then they commit themselves to endless practice.

  • “Few people realize how badly they write.”
  • “The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.”
  • “Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.”
  • “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
  • “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.”

Be Ruthless

While Zinsser believes that writing is an act of ego (see below), he also calls for a kind of humility that manifests itself in ruthless editing. If he is known for anything, it is for his constant calls to cut the clutter that marks too much writing (my own included).

  • “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”
  • “Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.”
  • “Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.”
  • “Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away.”

Be Yourself

Zinsser hates writing that sounds unnatural and cannot tolerate people who have a writing voice that is completely separate from their speaking voice. His advice to the writer is simple: Be yourself. His basic assumption is that if your writing appeals to you, it will appeal to others. If you wouldn’t read it, then don’t write it!

  • “You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for. If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.”
  • “You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person.”
  • “Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.”
  • “Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. If you’re not a person who says ‘indeed’ or ‘moreover,’ or who calls someone an individual (‘he’s a fine individual’), please don’t write it.”
  • “The way to warm up any institution is to locate the missing ‘I.’ Remember: ‘I’ is the most interesting element in any story.”
  • “My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and clichés.”

Be Good

He also advocates a growing knowledge of the form and craft of writing.

  • “Readers want to know—very soon—what’s in it for them.”
  • “Good usage, to me, consists of using good words if they already exist—as they almost always do—to express myself clearly and simply to someone else.”
  • “The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.”
  • “Quality is its own reward.”
  • “The Thesaurus is to the writer what a rhyming dictionary is to the songwriter–a reminder of all the choices–and you should use it with gratitude. If, having found the scalawag and the scapegrace, you want to know how they differ, then go to the dictionary.”

Be Practical

Then, of course, he also provides a lot of very practical advice.

  • “If you want to write long sentences, be a genius. Or at least make sure that the sentence is under control from beginning to end, in syntax and punctuation, so that the reader knows where he is at every step of the winding trail.” (This is a particularly brilliant sentence that perfectly models his instruction.)
  • “The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.”
  • E.B. White makes the case cogently in The Elements of Style, a book every writer should read once a year…”
  • “Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change.”
  • “You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive. The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.”

Much more could be said, of course. Zinner’s book remains a classic and one that bears repeated readings. I will be reading it again this summer with my interns, and am already looking forward to it.

Image credit: Shutterstock

May 15, 2015

I will eat just about anything. I’m an adventurous omnivore and often walk into restaurants hoping to try something new and different. But there is at least one exception: I simply cannot tolerate shrimp. I hate those bottom-feeding sea bugs and I will do everything I can to avoid them. Sometimes people try to convince me to try shrimp by saying, “But you’ve never had them fried in garlic butter” or “You’ve got to just try them in the grits.” It’s useless. I am beyond temptation there.

Temptation is a common theme in the Bible, but I wonder how often you actually think about the nature of temptation. What does it mean to be tempted? A temptation is anything that promises satisfaction at the cost of obedience. Temptation is when circumstances work together so that you have the ability and maybe even the desire to do something that God forbids. It is money but without work (so you steal), popularity but without kindness (so you gossip), sexual fulfillment but without marriage (so you commit adultery)—it is the satisfaction you want but through disobedience rather than obedience.

We can gain some important insights into temptation from two poignant illustrations in the book of James.

The Fishing Illustration

Here is what he says in James 1:14: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” We have good desires and bad desires. What James is referring to here are the bad desires, the longings we have for things that God has prohibited. James uses a fishing metaphor and says something like this: You have inner desires that are evil, a product of your sinful nature. Temptation comes when a circumstance engages one of those desires. Here’s the simple formula: Desire + circumstance = temptation.

Your sinful desires give you a hunger, an appetite, for something forbidden, something you think you need, something you think you can’t be satisfied without. Then a circumstance comes along and acts like bait, like a lure. That circumstance dangles the opportunity before you, and you are tempted to take a bite. But what you never seem to see is that buried in that bait is a sharp, nasty hook. First it lures you, and then if you succumb to the temptation it hooks you and drags you away.

What James wants you to know is that you are not an unwilling victim of temptation. Temptation is not a kidnapper who drags you into his van kicking and screaming and takes you where you don’t want to go. You climb in all on your own! You are a willing participant in your own kidnapping, in your own temptation. As John MacArthur says, “The problem is not a tempter from without, but the traitor within.”

The Birth & Death Metaphor

James continues in the next verse: “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” He switches from the hunting and fishing metaphor to a birth and death metaphor and says something like this: When you jump in the back seat with evil Desire, Desire will inevitably conceive and give birth to a child named sin, and sin will eventually give birth to a child named death. This is an earthy metaphor he uses here. You can’t fool around with your girlfriend and then act shocked when you find she’s pregnant; you can’t fool around with evil desire and then act surprised when you sin.

Again, your temptations always involve your desires. Temptation dangles a circumstance before you, and because you have a sinful nature you will engage in a battle over whether or not to act on your inner evil desires. If you act on that desire it leads you to sin. You go from inner stirrings of desire to outward actions of sin. Those sinful actions always result in death. That’s the life cycle of sin. Temptation engages your desires, acting on those desires lead to sin, and sin leads to death.

You might ask, What about Satan? Isn’t he the tempter? Aren’t you warned about the world, the flesh, and the devil? Yes, of course you are. But that isn’t James’ point here. He’ll talk about Satan later on, but for now he wants you to consider your own inner disposition to sin. When you do something the Bible forbids, or when you want to do something the Bible forbids, you’ve got to look inside and admit your love of sin, your attraction to sin. Temptation is only attractive because of the evil desire that dwells within you.*

How do you stop the cycle of sin leading to temptation leading to death? It is remarkably simple. You do all you can to avoid the circumstances that lead to temptation, and you work at the level of the desires, putting those evil desires to death, so temptation can no longer dangle that seductive bait in front of you. When the desire is dead, the temptation is no longer attractive.

So go ahead and dangle shrimp in front of me. I won’t be tempted. Why? I hate them. I am dead to shrimp! They simply do not entice me. And this is exactly what needs to be true of sin as well. Go after the evil desires, and replace them with good desires, and those temptation will no longer be appealing. 

* Jesus was tempted but without sin. He was truly tempted, but he had no evil desires, no appetite for evil. This means that there was nothing for the temptation to hook onto, and he was never caught. 

Image credit: Shutterstock

May 12, 2015

I find it almost hard to believe now, but there was a time in my life that I hated coffee. At least I thought I did. I wanted to be a grownup like everyone else, so had tried to drink it on a number of occasions. But every time I did, I found it more disgusting than the time before. I just couldn’t figure out what everyone else loved about it.

It turns out, though, that my friends had unintentionally led me astray. Knowing that I had never drunk it before, they had always tried to make it more palatable by giving me some mixed-up hybrid of coffee, sugar, and cream. They thought it would be best for me to begin with a little coffee and a lot of other stuff that would cut the bitterness. And every time I tried it I hated it.

But then one day it occurred to me that I had never actually just tried straight-up coffee. I poured myself a cup of the real deal, and from the first sip found that I loved it. It wasn’t the coffee I had hated, but the combination of coffee, sugar, and cream! In fact, the joy of drinking coffee was in the full-out flavor, bitterness and all. The problem all along was that people had diluted the coffee, or added something to it, thinking that this would make it more enjoyable. When they added to it, they changed it entirely, so that it wasn’t really coffee anymore.

I thought about this on Sunday morning as I meditated on the text I was about to preach, the final verses of 2 Timothy 3, where Paul tells Timothy about the origin and purpose of the Bible. I knew that I wanted to preach the text in such a way that everything I said flowed naturally and legitimately right out of it. I prayed that I would bring to bear the full weight and urgency of the text, that I would be able to get out of the way so the text could speak.

My mind drifted back to the days when Aileen and I were in churches where the preachers had treated the Bible kind of like my friends had treated coffee. Somewhere they must have lost their confidence in the Bible just a little bit, and they began to believe that it was unpalatable or distasteful to those who hadn’t encountered it before, to those who weren’t used to its flavor. Their solution was to try to change or cut the full flavor. So instead of allowing the text to speak by just preaching it book-by-book, chapter-by-chapter, and verse-by-verse, they approached it through the lens of topics or felt needs. Instead of preaching what it said, no matter how difficult or controversial, they neglected the tough texts in favor of the easy ones. Verses were preached in isolation, not unity, and the Bible was made out to be little more than a means of learning how to live a better and more successful life.

After a few years of that, Aileen and I began to have these disquieting stirrings, these deep concerns that something was missing, that something had gone wrong. But we didn’t know exactly what it was. Then one day we visited another church in the area and an amazing thing happened: The pastor simply preached a text. He opened the Bible, he told us what it said, and he told us why it mattered. It was a tough text, but he did not water it down or run from it. He felt no need to add to it or adapt it. He just preached it. And it was amazing. Once we had tasted that undiluted Word, we realized how delicious it really was. We were ruined to anything less. We still are.

It has been many years since that first cup of coffee and I love it more than ever. I still drink it straight-up black. And more than ever I am committed to the straight-up Word of God, to never diluting it, and to never adding anything to it. It’s absolutely perfect and downright delicious just the way it is.

Image credit: Shutterstock

May 08, 2015

I am not a crier. I’m the kind of person who naturally keeps that stiff upper lip, and there isn’t much that causes my emotions to ride too high or to sink too low. It’s probably the Canadian in me. And yet there is this one thing I do on a regular basis that almost always overwhelms me with a deep sadness. If it doesn’t actually bring me to tears, it brings me awfully close.

A few months ago I downloaded an app called Carousel; this app pokes through all the thousands of photographs I keep on my computer and once a week it packages up a collection of highlights from this week in years past. My phone buzzes, I open up the app, and suddenly I am staring into the past. And it just about breaks my heart every time.

This week there is a photo of my son that was taken on May 11, 2008. He is wearing his brand-new Athletics jersey, ready for another season of little league baseball. He is making a goofy face, masking his discomfort in front of a camera by hamming it up. He looks so young. So young! He was 8 back then, but is 15 today. What happened? Where did the 7 years ago?

The next photo goes back 10 years to 2005, and my daughter is at a princess party, looking so tiny and looking as cute as a button. She was 3 then, and is 12 (going on 19) today. How is that even possible?

Princess Party

And then, right between the two, is May 4, 2006. My two oldest children are in our living room, meeting their little sister for the very first time. Could that really have been 9 years ago? 9 years! 3,285 days!

Meeting

There are thousands of these photos, each one a little link to days gone by and to time that has already passed. While there is joy in looking at those old shots and losing myself in memories, there is also a deep sadness. Why? Because every photo looks like an opportunity lost. Wasn’t it just yesterday that the kids were toddling around, barely able to walk? Wasn’t it just last summer that they ran in circles outside trying desperately to get some dollar-store kites to soar into the air. No, according to the timestamp on the photos that was in 2008. I will never see those 7 years again. They are gone. And what did I do with them? How did I love and serve my children with them? Where did all that time disappear to? Why wasn’t I outside with them, trying to get those kites in the air instead of just snapping a few photos of the action?

This is the tragedy of time. Time is one of the few resources in this world that is given in finite measure. I can always make more money—I just need to work harder or work longer or invest better, and more money will come. But there is not a single thing I can do to gain more time. It ticks by and is gone forever. Every one of those photos shows a moment that has come and gone and will never be repeated. Every one of those photos shows opportunities taken, but also opportunities lost. When I stare into the past I am faced to grapple with all the things I have done and all the things I have left undone. It is nearly impossible to look at those photos and not feel the sorrow of failure.

And yet I know that the photos are just a few snapshots of a few moments, and that our lives are much more than these pictures. They captured some moments, but not the most important moments. No one took photos of me reading Bible stories to the children. No one took photos of Aileen cuddling the girls while talking about life and eternity. No one took photos of our family sitting together in church, singing together, praying together. We don’t have a single picture of the family devotions we do just about every day. No one took photos of my son when he suddenly came to the realization that Christ had died for his sins. These photos record reality, but only the smallest sliver of it. Few of life’s most important moments can be so easily captured.

Note: Watch picture courtesy Shutterstock

May 04, 2015

The Bible is a book full of metaphors—word pictures that God uses to explain who he is and what he requires of us. We are sheep and God is a shepherd. We are treasonous prodigals and God is a forgiving Father. We are trees, able to bear good fruit or bad fruit. Jesus is water, able to refresh the driest, thirstiest soul. From beginning to end, the Bible teaches us using vivid pictures.

One of my favorite metaphors is one we find in Paul’s epistles—the picture of Christians, of the church, as a body. In 1 Corinthians 12:12, Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” A human body is made up of many parts, each of which has its own function, and each of which is integral to the functioning of the whole. And in the same way, each local church is made up of a great variety of people. Each of us is given special gifts by God, meant to bless and encourage other Christians. This makes each person indispensable to the functioning of the whole church. Just as there are no superfluous body parts, there are no redundant Christians. We are all gifted so that we can be a blessing to others.

As a pastor, I have the opportunity to meet many people as they come to our church for the first time. Many of them are looking for a new church—they have just moved to Toronto or have just left a church that has crumbled. I meet with these people and tell them about our congregation, and I invite them to participate in the life of the church.

It does not take long to learn which of them are burdened with the desire to participate fully in the life of the church and to use their God-given gifts to serve others. And it does not take long to learn which of them are coming to the church with the intention of remaining at the fringes. The sad fact is that there are many Christians who want to be served but do not want to serve. They mean to take advantage of the gifts God has given others, but without serving their brothers and sisters with the gifts God has given them.

Ed Welch offers a challenge here:

Persons searching for their gifts think that they can “find” their gifts in isolation from the body. They have forgotten that the orientation of God’s people is outward rather than inward. The question should be this: How can I grow in love for and service to the body of Christ? Gifts are the way we naturally love and serve.

Christian, God has gifted you in such a way that you are a necessary part of a body, a local church. Those gifts are the way you are to love and serve others as you love and serve Christ. Will you use your gifts for their good and his glory?

Image credit: Shutterstock

April 30, 2015

When it comes to writing, my most common struggle is not one of increasing inspiration but of decreasing friction. Sure, on some occasions the problem is one of inspiration, of coming up with the fresh and interesting ideas. But more often the problem is one of friction, of getting those ideas out of my mind and onto the page. For that reason I, like many other writing enthusiasts, value any tool that reduces friction, that makes it easier and smoother to transfer words and ideas from my brain to my screen.

I do almost all of my writing on a computer these days, mostly because I can type much faster than I can write; a pen just slows me down in those times when the words are flowing. Plus, in most cases, that ink will still need to be transferred to bits and bytes eventually. Today I am going to tell you about 3 software tools that are extremely valuable to me precisely because of the way they reduce friction. Writing is like just about every other area in life in that the writer is dependent upon his tools and will generally find that better tools lead to more satisfying results.

Ulysses

For shorter projects, I have found no better writing tool than Ulysses. It has been around for a few years and I have used it from the outset; the most recent version is, by far, the most powerful yet. I suppose I need to say from the get-go that Ulysses is available only for the Mac and the iPad, so it won’t help a whole lot if you are committed to your PC (though I suspect there must be a similar tool for you). Ulysses has several features that make it very powerful for creative writing projects, but I will focus on just two.

The best thing about Ulysses is its utter simplicity. It reduces the screen and the text to its barest elements by using something called Markdown—a kind of syntax that is easy to understand and easier still to use. Gone is the obscene clutter of Microsoft Word and the buttons and switches of Apple’s Pages. Gone is the need to click a button whenever you want to apply simple formatting to your text. Instead Ulysses presents a clean and bare screen. An asterisk before a word marks it as italics; two asterisks before a word marks it as bold; and, you guessed it, three asterisks marks it as bold italics. Headings are marked with nothing more than a # (for a first-level heading), ## for a second-level heading, and so on. It makes for an ultra-simple and ultra-clean writing experience that remains uncluttered by extraneous formatting.

Ulysses

A close second is the way Ulysses completely separates the formatting of what you see on your screen from what you will see later on the printed page. Again, when you open Ulysses to write, you can just write. You don’t need to concern yourself about how it will look later when it comes time to save it as a PDF or when it comes time to print it. Just write. There is no higher compliment I can pay to the software than this: It simply allows me to write.

Scrivener

Ulysses is my preferred software for writing blogs, articles, and even sermons. While it is possible to use Ulysses for book-length projects, and while I intend to try it this way soon, I usually find myself gravitating instead to Scrivener. Now for every way Ulysses is simple, Srivener is complex. Yet Scrivener is also very helpful and very powerful when it comes to long projects and when it comes to projects that depend upon a significant amount of research.

Scrivener is similar to Ulysses in the way it separates the content as you write it from the content as you will later print it. There are, essentially, two very different templates: One for the way the book looks when you write it and one for the way the book looks when you print it. That is a good thing as it nicely reduces the kind of clutter that appears on the screen in Word or Pages. Scrivener also has some very helpful tools that make it simple to do the kinds of things you so often need to do when writing a book: Keeping track of the progress of various chapters and sections, moving entire chapters from one place in the manuscript to another, and even accessing short but helpful summaries of every section. It is not a multi-purpose tool like Word, but one created specifically for writing books, and that single-mindedness displays itself in many ways.

While I often wish that Scrivener was a little simpler to use, I have invested time in learning it (thanks to many instructional YouTube videos) and have come to appreciate many of the capabilities it provides. When I use the full-screen writing function, most of the program’s complexity is hidden and, again, I can just plain write.

Evernote

There is one other tool I depend upon, though in a different way: Evernote. Any writer knows that creative ideas can appear at any time and in any context and that when inspiration strikes we simply cannot wait—we’ve got to write them down or they will be gone. I rely on Evernote as my omnipresent note-taking tool. When I have an idea and need to capture it, Evernote is always available on my phone or computer. Sometimes I write it, sometimes I narrate it, sometimes I photograph it, sometimes I highlight it. But whatever I need, Evernote is there. Once I have captured those words or that idea, I know that I will remember it in the future.

And those are the 3 tools I use because they reduce the ever-present friction that keeps ideas locked in my brain. Are there tools you prefer?

April 28, 2015

A friend of mine expects that she will soon be engaged to be married, and finds herself wondering about the nature of engagement. We assume it: We must get engaged to be married before we actually get married. But what is engagement? Is it an inviolable agreement with all the significance of marriage? Is it a tentative agreement that can be broken off on a whim? What exactly is this thing we call engagement?

The first thing we must admit is that there is no New Testament command that a couple must be engaged before they are married, and no New Testament edict about what an engagement looks like. We see a description of betrothal—something similar to engagement—in the lives of Mary and Joseph, but no prescription that we are to imitate this exact form of it. We see glimpses of similar traditions in the Old Testament but, again, nothing that binds us today.

Whatever engagement is, we need to admit that it is a cultural, not a biblical, construct. Like the white dress at the wedding or the black suit at the funeral, engagement is a construct that varies significantly from culture to culture. We see this when we can look past our own traditions.

My church has a significant Ghanian population and I have learned that the West African view of engagement is very different from the Canadian and American view; I have learned as well that many first- or second-generation immigrants practice a kind of hybrid engagement that combines elements of Ghana and Canada. As I travel to the southern United States I see that engagement there is a little bit different from engagement here in the Great White North. When I was in India I met a wonderful Christian couple who had been introduced to one another at their engagement ceremony, and who were still strangers on their wedding day. Each of these cultures has a form of engagement, but there are significant differences between them.

So what is true of engagement here in twenty-first century Western culture? And how can we do engagement well?

I understand engagement as a relationship where a couple deliberately increases the intimacy of their relationship as a prelude to marriage. The primary business of engagement is increasing relational intimacy to ensure compatibility. The couple makes their agreement (or engagement) with one another before their friends, family, and church, making it not only a personal agreement, but a community one. Engagement is a formal agreement that these two people are serious about pursuing the lifelong commitment of marriage and that, though they are not yet fully committed to marrying one another, they are escalating their intimacy to ensure that they can be suitable for one another.

Let me be clear: I am not talking about sexual intimacy. I am not even necessarily talking about physical intimacy. I am talking primarily about relational intimacy. While a man and woman are dating they may discuss previous relationships or past traumas, but when they are engaged they must begin to discuss these things—at least they must if they are wise. Their engagement gives them the structure, the urgency, and the end-goal that allows them to pursue topics that are too intimate for those who are dating, but too serious to leave until after wedding rings have been exchanged.

How does a couple do this? Primarily by both deliberate and casual communication. They talk together on their own, and tell one another about their joys, their fears, their strengths, and their weaknesses. They open up about their family backgrounds, their sexual history, their traumas, and their triumphs. They talk openly, honestly, exhaustively, and intimately.

But there is more. They take pre-marriage counseling together under the guidance of a godly pastor and his wife, or under the guidance of an experienced Christian couple. They read the Bible, pray, and worship together both together and corporately. They spend time with godly couples they admire, peppering them with questions and simply observing how different marriages works. They read books together—books on marriage, of course—but also perhaps books on money or sex or any other area that tends to cause difficulty in young marriages. They ramp up their relational intimacy toward what they will experience as husband and wife, while carefully holding off the sexual intimacy that will eventually seal their relationship.

Can an engagement be broken off? Yes, I believe that it can. After all, the couple has not yet taken their vows and has not yet experienced sexual union. And there is a sense in which this kind of engagement only makes sense if it can be broken. The increase in relational intimacy may expose certain sins or character traits or past traumas that one of them simply cannot tolerate. This makes the modern Western engagement somewhat different from ancient betrothal, and perhaps different from contemporary engagement in other parts of the world. Engagements can be broken off, but the tacit agreement is that this will happen only under the saddest or most serious circumstances.

That is engagement as I understand it at this time and in this place.

Image credit: Shutterstock

April 27, 2015

I have a particular interest in technology and the way human society has been shaped by it. Over the past few years, I have pursued this interest by reading several books and watching several documentary series on the race to the moon. Having been born in 1976, I was too young to witness anything more than the aftermath of this epic race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and maybe this is why it fascinates me so much. It was history unfolding in the world I was born into.

Every film series eventually reaches its climax at the moment Neil Armstrong sets his foot on the moon’s surface. The sound track swells, the camera pans, and then Armstrong steps off the lunar module and utters his unforgettable words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Recently, as I watched another dramatization of this event, I found myself thinking, “I wish I could be involved in something that significant.” Those astronauts and the vast team that supported them left their mark on history. Those men accomplished something unprecedented in human history, and they spent the rest of their lives basking in the fame of their accomplishments. Though forty-five years have passed, we continue to laud and honor them today. For a moment, I wanted to be able to leave behind that kind of legacy.

But very quickly I caught myself. I thought about the sweep of history and all the great moments and inventions, and I realized that even an accomplishment as grand as the space race will disappear into the annals of history. Someday Neil Armstrong will be as significant to history as the inventor of the plow or the first man or woman to shoot an arrow from a bow. These, too, were important historical moments that forever changed the world, but the people involved have long since faded away and been forgotten.

And then I thought of one of the great and enduring privileges that is mine as a Christian. I have the honor and the duty to preach the gospel and to call upon other people to hear it and to heed it. I am able to stand between God and a person He has created and to tell him about the One who made him and the One who can save him. And sometimes that person responds in repentance and faith. Sometimes he is given ears to hear the words, eyes to see the Savior, and a heart to believe and obey.

And this—preaching the gospel and seeing another person transformed by God’s power—this is something that will endure through the ages because human beings will endure through the ages. We’re created for eternity. This accomplishment by God and for God will endure through all eternity—even after the greatest of human accomplishments have faded away.

Image credit: Shutterstock

April 22, 2015

A few weeks ago I announced that I will be hosting a summer internship program for several high school students. For 8 weeks we will focus on theology and worldview while also working on improving writing and communication skills. All of this can and will be done via the Internet, which means that students from around the world were welcome to apply. In the end, nearly 100 people applied for those 3 internships, with the applications coming in from all across the globe. And let me tell you: The future of the church is looking pretty good.

I deliberately made the application process just a little bit difficult in order to force the students to think carefully before applying. After answering a series of questions ranging from “What is your favorite subject at school” to “What are some ways you serve in your church?”, each of the applicants had to record a short video testimonial—an explanation of how the Lord saved them. I have watched each one of these videos now, and I don’t know when I have been more encouraged.

100 videos at a few minutes each: Do the math and you’ll see that I spent somewhere around 8 hours watching teenagers tell how they became Christians, and then I spent a few more hours reading their answers to the application questions. Now, I promised them confidentiality, so will not speak about any person in particular, but I do think it is interesting to reflect on the applicants as a group. Here are some things I observed.

Of the 100 videos I watched, nearly all of the students were able to articulate the gospel, and were able to express the difference between their life before conversion and their life after. Very few of the students used generic language or easy Christianese; instead, they were able to express how they had personally placed their faith in Jesus Christ, and they were able to explain how the gospel has turned away God’s well-deserved wrath while giving them Christ’s perfect righteousness. Time and time again I heard students express the best truths in deeply personal and soundly biblical ways.

Of the people who applied, roughly half are homeschooled and the other half are divided between public and Christian school. There was no discernible difference between the groups when it came to their understanding of the gospel and their ability to express it. The same was true when it came to church background—whether they were Southern Baptist, Sovereign Grace, Evangelical Free or Reformed Presbyterian, whether they were from The Summit Church, Covenant Life Church, Bethlehem Baptist Church, Harvest Bible Chapel, or the little church down the road, almost all of them expressed a similarly deep understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ.

I am not sure why this is noteworthy, but I feel it is: The vast majority of the applicants, over 90%, were Caucasian. There were a few exceptions, though even when there were exceptions the applicants would often tell that they had been adopted into Caucasian families. Whatever else this means, I suppose it means this: If we take the readers of my web site as a kind of “core sample” of the New Calvinism, it remains largely a movement of and by middle-class white people. (I will grant, of course, that many non-Caucasian folk may be thoroughly Reformed but not able to participate in an English-based internship program.)

Another observation I made is how many young people make a profession of faith when they are very young—5 or 6 years old—but then later doubt the reality or significance of that profession. Most can articulate a time when they were a little bit older, often around 10, 12, or 14, when they either had what they now consider a true conversion experience, or when they suddenly realized that they needed to have a faith independent of their parents. Time and again I heard of the good Christian kid who said the right things when he or she was very young, but then actually began to live as a Christian in those early teenage years.

Parents and pastors ought to be encouraged. What you are teaching your children is making a difference. What you are preaching from the pulpit is making a difference. Almost every applicant had heard the gospel repeatedly at home, and almost every applicant had heard the gospel repeatedly at church. And, not surprisingly, over time the gospel did its work in them. If there was anything that concerns me, it is how few of these teens spoke of older friends or mentors (who are neither parents nor pastors) who had helped them in their journey to faith. Get involved in the lives of teens!

My final observation is this: It is going to be excruciating to trim down the list of applicants to only 3. Even after going through the applications again and again, I’ve got at least 10 times more people remaining then I can actually accept. Yet time and finances (this is, after all, a paid internship) dictate that I cannot offer the internship to all of them. In the end I am still looking for 3 normal, godly teens who are eager to learn more about theology and worldview. But I’m also trying to figure out if there is some way that I can at least double that to 6. It grieves me to have to say no to any of them.

(A final note: If you applied for the internship program, you can expect to hear from me over the next couple of days.)

April 20, 2015

I find one of the trickiest matters of Christian living to be the matter of motives. I often find myself wondering why I do the things I do. Just as often, I find myself wondering why I do not do those things I refuse to do. Sometimes, even with a lot of focused thought, I can make little headway.

I think the Apostle Paul would identify with me. In Romans 7, he wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (vv. 15–16). He was not looking to his motives per se, but he was still considering his life and finding that he was unable to discern why he did sinful things even when he wanted to do holy things. He saw his lack of holiness and his pursuit of sin and marveled at his own inability to do even the good things he wanted to do.

Like Paul, I am a Christian. I have been granted salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Day by day, my mind is being transformed by God’s Word, and I am being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.

As the Lord does this work within me, I find a growing ability to know the right thing to do in a given situation. When I am sinned against, I have a greater knowledge of Scripture to draw upon as I attempt to respond with grace. When I am asked to give money to a cause or a mission, I have deeper wells to draw from as I consider whether this is a worthy cause. When I am faced with a decision and am uncertain whether I should stay or go, whether I should say yes or no, I increasingly have the mind of Christ and with it the ability to make a wise and God-honoring decision.

And yet sometimes I still do not know why I do the things I do. Am I giving to that mission because I believe the Lord is using those people to do His work in his world, or am I giving to that mission because it makes me feel good or because I want the missionary to respect me? Am I speaking grace-filled words to the person who offended me because I really love him despite the offense, or am I doing it to show off and to convince myself of my own holiness?

Too often I simply do not know. I pray and think and ponder and in the end I simply cannot untwist it all. We are complex people with complex motives. We are being made holy, but in the meantime we still have sin clinging to every part of ourselves.

I have found freedom in two ways. The first is repenting of poor motives. Even if I cannot pinpoint where my motives are sinful, I know there must be some sin in them, and so I ask that they be forgiven through the work of Jesus Christ. And then I determine to concern myself less with discerning motives and more with doing the right thing. I look to the cross, I look to the Bible, and I attempt to discern the next right thing to do for God’s glory.

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