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May 04, 2008

On a couple of occasions I’ve posted short stories by Stephen Leacock. Well, one of my favorite Leacock tales is this one that he tells about Mother’s Day. It seemed appropriate today since we’re just a week away from the occasion. I plan to make sure that my family treats Aileen at least this well next Sunday. You’ll want to do same.


One year our family decided to have a special celebration of Mother’s Day, as a token of appreciation for all the sacrifices that Mother had made for us. After breakfast we had arranged, as a surprise, to hire a car and take her for a beautiful drive in the country. Mother was rarely able to have a treat like that, because she was busy in the house nearly all the time.

But on the very morning of the day, we changed the plan a little, because it occurred to Father that it would be even better to take Mother fishing. As the car was hired and paid for, we might as well use it to drive up into the hills where the streams are. As Father said, if you just go driving you have a sense of aimlessness, but if you are going to fish there is a definite purpose that heightens the enjoyment.

So we all felt it would be nicer for Mother to have a definite purpose; and anyway, Father had just got a new fishing rod the day before, which he said Mother could use if she wanted to; only Mother said she would much rather watch him fish than try to fish herself.

So we got her to make up a sandwich lunch in case we got hungry, though of course we were to come home again to a big festive dinner.

Well, when the car came to the door, it turned out that there wasn’t as much room in it as we had supposed, because we hadn’t reckoned on Father’s fishing gear and the lunch, and it was plain that we couldn’t all get in.

Father said not to mind him, that he could just as well stay home and put in the time working in the garden. He said that we were not to let the fact that he had not had a real holiday for three years stand in our way. He wanted us to go right ahead and not to mind him.

But of course we all felt that it would never do to let Father stay home. The two girls, Anna and Mary, would have stayed and gotten dinner, only it seemed such a pity to, on a lovely day like this, having their new hats. But they said that Mother had only to say the word and they’d gladly stay home and work. Will and I would have dropped out, but we wouldn’t have been any use in getting the dinner.

So in the end it was decided that Mother would stay home and just have a lovely restful day around the house, and get the dinner. Also it turned out to be just a bit raw out-of-doors, and Father said he would never forgive himself if he dragged Mother round the country and let her take a severe cold. He said it was our duty to let Mother get all the rest and quiet she could, after all she had done for all of us, and that young people seldom realize how much quiet means to people who are getting old. He could still stand the racket, but he was glad to shelter Mother from it.

Well, we had the loveliest day up among the hills, and Father caught such big fish that he felt sure that Mother couldn’t have landed them anyway, if she had been fishing for them. Will and I fished too, and the two girls met some young men friends along the stream, and so we all had a splendid time.

We sat down to a roast turkey dinner when we got back. Mother had to get up a good bit during the meal fetching things, but at the end Father said she simply mustn’t do it, that he wanted her to relax, and he got up and got the walnuts from the buffet himself.

The dinner was great fun, and when it was over all of us wanted to help clear the things up and wash the dishes, only Mother said that she would do it, and so we let her, because we wanted to humor her.

It was late when it was all over, and when we kissed Mother before going to bed, she said it had been the most wonderful day in her life. Funny that there were tears in her eyes.

April 29, 2008

Mark was determined to die. And in retrospect there was really nothing anyone could have done to stop him.

His first attempt came when he was 18 and it left him with scars running the length of his arms. His sister found him sitting calmly in the bathtub, a razor blade lying in the pool of blood. Help arrived in time to save him. When he was released from hospital his parents took him to the finest psychiatrists in the city. Each one of them diagnosed him with something different: one said he had a personality disorder and another schizophrenia. One even told him that he was “just a punk” who was bent on defying his parents and making their lives miserable. I think this one may have been on to something.

Mark overdosed on pills on his sister’s birthday. She had invited a few friends to spend the night and they were in the family room watching a movie when he came down to the basement, delirious from the medication cocktail he had consumed. Another call to 9-1-1 and another stay in the hospital once again saved his life. This time he was admitted to a psychiatric institution where he spent several months resting and recovering. Upon his release, ominously, he told his parents that if he wanted to kill himself there was nothing they would be able to do to stop him.

So what was the family to do? Sure, his family could have tried to ensure that someone was with him every hour of every day, but that would have left his entire family in a state of bondage. They hoped against hope that he had, indeed, recovered, and that he had found some reason to live. They prayed that he would find something worth living for. They grew to trust him, believing at last that he had found reason to go on living. Perhaps his artwork or even his writing could give him the inspiration to face life.

But his artwork was dark as death. His room was filled with dolls, covered in blood and in various states of torture and dismemberment. It sends chills down my spine just to think of it.

One Sunday in July Mark finally won his battle. No one knew he was still so determined to die. His plan was elaborate. It was cruel.

Sunday morning his mother climbed into her car, planning to go to the store. On the steering wheel was a note from Mark saying that he had taken his life, that it was too late to save him, and that he had left clues about his suicide in places they did not expect. His mother, hysterical, ran into the house. After quickly skimming the note, his father ran upstairs and into Mark’s room. Mark lay on the floor, already stiff and cold. A mask ran from a tank of helium to his face. A block of wood had held the valve open as he breathed in the poisonous gas. Mark was dead.

I was asked to come and be with the family just hours after Mark’s death. The coroner had just left when I arrived. The phone was ringing as neighbors called to ask why there had been police cars and an ambulance outside the house. My wife and I sat with the family as they poured out their grief and their guilt. Shouldn’t they have known that he was going to try this again? Shouldn’t they have been able to prevent it? If only they had decided to walk into his room the night before! Mark’s father, searching for meaning in the face of tragedy, spoke of Mark’s death as a gift to the family. Maybe, he said, just maybe, Mark had seen how his problems had contributed to the troubles the family had experienced recently. Maybe Mark took his life so that the family could put aside their differences and renew their commitment to remaining together. Maybe, in some bizarre way, Mark sacrificed himself for the good of others. Maybe this was Mark’s gift. Maybe there was just a little bit of light amidst all the darkness.

Mark gave his family another gift. He left little notes in unexpected places. After his death the family would open a book and find a cruel note he had left there just before he died. His sister opened her Bible and found many passages highlighted. Mark had asked to borrow it and had highlighted passages throughout the Gospels and through Romans that outlined the way of salvation. I’ve often wondered if he understood the passages he had highlighted. I hope he did.

Aileen and I and the members of the church we attended gathered around the family, which has no relatives in North America, providing them with food and taking care of the funeral planning. One of the strangest experiences of my life was returning that helium tank to the store Mark had rented it from. The clerk was quite upset that I did not have the receipt for the tank and told me I could not return the tank until I found it. He finally relented when I told him that there had been a tragedy within the family and he was not going to get a receipt, ever.

In the days following Mark’s death, his parents did reconcile, at least for a time. His mother, who had been living a few minutes away, moved back in with his father. His sister moved home from school, and for the first time in many months the family was truly together.

The funeral was a study in opposites. Or perhaps it was a study in unity. Mark’s friends mostly occupied one side of the church. They dressed in jeans and t-shirts, mostly black. Many of them wore the distinctive makeup of so-called Goths. Many wore pentagrams. Yet these people, so obsessed with death, seemed unable to deal with death’s stark reality. As they stared at his body, lying at peace in the coffin, they broke down. Many of them felt the need to touch him, tousling his hair or touching his shoulder. One or two of them pushed little baggies of marijuana into his coffin.

The friends of Mark’s sister occupied the other side of the church. These seemed mostly to be clean-cut businessmen and churchgoers. His parent’s colleagues, largely professors and scientists, were mixed among them. An overflow room was needed to hold the members of his sister’s church (my church at the time) who came to show their support for her.

These two groups, so different from each other, were united in their grief. Some grieved for the loss of a friend. Others grieved for the grief their friends were feeling. Two of them grieved for a son they were unable to help. One grieved for her only sibling. Throwing herself on her brother’s body, Mark’s sister wept as she poured out her grief that she would never be an aunt. She was now an only-child.

I love her as a sister. She spent countless hours with my family when she was younger and seemed to become another sibling. I told her then that if she ever needs a big brother I am only a phone call away. But I know I’m a cheap substitute for the God-given gift of a flesh-and-blood brother.

The family asked me to read from the Bible and pray at the funeral. What could I say about a young man who hated God and did all he could do to defy Him? What could I say that would provide some comfort to the family and help them through this terrible time? The answer, obviously, was absolutely nothing. So I prayed that God would comfort them. I prayed that God would make Himself real to them and provide them with the strength to go on.

I carried Mark’s coffin to the grave. We laid it down beside the little patch of plastic grass, placed there to cover the stark reality of freshly-dug soil, and solemnly stepped back. His friends soon surrounded the coffin, pulling out their cigarettes as if to share one last smoke with their friend. While they tossed their cigarette butts to the ground beside his coffin one or two placed a flower on top. The pastor led us in a prayer. And then we turned and walked away.

Years have passed since Mark’s body was laid to rest on a hill in a quiet cemetery. Mark’s gift has been forgotten. His parents have gone their separate ways. His sister has moved to Australia where she is involved in ministry, rescuing girls from a life of prostitution. Her mother was baptized about a year after Mark’s death, having been led to the Lord by the simple love of the Christians who surrounded them during those dark days. His father has moved away and remarried.

Mark left pleasant memories of his childhood, but little more than heartbreaking memories of his teenage years. The family has fractured, unable to find grounds for reconciliation. His death was senseless; purposeless. Mark left his family no gift.

But the light still shone even when all seemed so dark. God, who specializes in working good from evil, was able to take what was senseless and purposeless and use it to build His kingdom. All credit goes not to the person who caused the pain, but to the One who used it for good.

Yes, I did post an article awfully similar to this several years ago. Somehow it just seemed timely to post one like it again…

April 23, 2008

Some time ago, no doubt while I was awake in the middle of the night with one of the children, I saw a documentary about some weird disease that causes a patient’s skin to harden. This disease often sets in during childhood and causes the skin to become hard and shiny. I searched around today looking for the name of this condition and I think it must be “systemic sclerosis.” “Dermatology Online Journal” describes it this way: “Systemic sclerosis is a clinically heterogeneous, systemic disorder which affects the connective tissue of the skin, internal organs and the walls of blood vessels. It is characterized by alterations of the microvasculature, disturbances of the immune system and by massive deposition of collagen and other matrix substances in the connective tissue.” That doesn’t mean anything to me, but I guess it all adds up to “hard and shiny.” Though most people experience the disease only moderately (these people see hardening of the skin mostly on their hands and forearms) there are some who see the disease progress so that the skin hardens all over their bodies, leaving even their faces set in hard “masks.” Sometimes it will progress to the organs, hardening them and leading to an early death. It is a horrifying illness when it progresses past the point where it can be easily and successfully treated.

I thought of this yesterday while reading Gum, Geckos and God by James Spiegel. In this book (to borrow a line or two from Publishers Weekly) “Spiegel, philosophy professor at Indiana’s Taylor University, takes deep issues of the Christian faith and dumps them smack into real life with a little help from his children… Spiegel ponders the great issues of the faith with a light touch, thanks to the innate comedy of kids, but also to his own brand of humor.” In a chapter entitled “How Can God Fix Us” he looks at how God can overcome our sin—how He can fix what we have done to ourselves through our sinful natures. He uses The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to springboard into this conversation, explaining how his son, at only four years of age, was able to draw the connection between the death of Aslan and the death of Jesus Christ. He mentions that, when teaching a faith and culture course at Taylor University, he often asks students to raise their hands if they became Christians at the age of four or younger. Almost invariably at least a few of the hands go up. This is amazing, he says, “considering that comprehension of the gospel demands that one understand such weighty moral concepts as duty, sin, punishment, love, and forgiveness.”

I am sure,” he says, “there are many parents who are mistaken in thinking that their kids comprehend the gospel. But the point is that many do. And given their stage of cognitive development, this suggests something supernatural is going on.” And truly something supernatural must be going on for children to understand what too often escapes many adults. A child can sometimes grasp deep spiritual truths that are lost on adults who are, in any other wise, far more wise and far more intelligent. Those who hate the Christian faith and who hate religion in general will insist that children believe because they have been indoctrinated. But we know better; we know that God can work his supernatural work of regeneration even in a child.

Here is why it is more difficult for adults than for children to come to know the Lord. “Sin causes cognitive malfunction, and this is especially so when it comes to moral-spiritual matters. The older we grow without being redeemed, the more polluted we are by our sin and the more entrenched we become in our corrupt patterns of thinking. Though by no means pure, children are less corrupted in their thinking and less hardened in faulty thinking patterns simply by virtue of their being younger. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the overwhelming majority of Christians come to faith by the time they are eighteen years old.”

Of course there is a second barrier to coming to Christ and it is a spiritual one. As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 2:14, without the Spirit’s prior work, no one can grasp the gospel. The spiritual nature of the gospel, that part of the gospel message that transcends natural cognitive abilities, must be overcome by the Holy Spirit. “So there are two major barriers when it comes to grasping and accepting the gospel,” says Spiegel. “One is the spiritual nature of the gospel, which transcends natural reason. The other is our sin, which corrupts cognitive function. The Holy Spirit must graciously overcome both of these obstacles in order to work redemption in any human heart. This implies that all Christian conversions are doubly miraculous and doubly gracious. And given that even after conversion Christians continue to struggle with sin, the Spirit must constantly work to keep us faithful. Job really nailed it when he said that God, ‘performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted’ (Job 5:9).”

And this takes us back to systemic sclerosis. A person’s spiritual condition, it seems, is much like the condition of a patient with systemic sclerosis. While all humans are born sinful, children have less of the pollution and less of the hardening of adults. While the extent of our depravity cannot change, for from the moment of conception it encompasses all that we are, the degree will and must change. Life without God progresses much like the disease. It causes increased hardening. What was once soft becomes hard; what was once supple becomes stiff and stretched. The longer a person denies God and the more his internal pollution increases, the more hardened he becomes against God and against His gracious offer of salvation. No wonder the Bible is filled with commands and exhortations that as parents we dedicate ourselves to teaching our children what God requires of them. And what impetus this should give us to obey Him! “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise…”

April 21, 2008

Raising children isn’t nearly as easy as my parents made it look. Somehow, when I was a kid, I never really considered that my parents had a tough job to do. Though they had five children, and though we kept them pretty active, I guess it never occurred to me that it was a difficult and demanding task to raise us—not only to keep us fed and clothed, but to train us to be productive members of society, to train us to love one another and, more importantly, to teach us to love the Lord. They succeeded admirably in all of those tasks. They made it look easy, at least from my perspective as one of the kids. But eight years of parenting has shown me that it really is not easy at all. Raising children is a trial; it is a constant battle. It has its moments of great joy, of course. But it is a task that requires constant vigilance and great consistency.

One trial we’ve encountered again and again is in having our children obey us obediently. We want our children to obey us well. We do not want to have children to huff and puff and roll their eyes and stamp their feet even when they do what we ask of them. We do not want children who obey in body while their hearts are filled with rebellion and hatred of authority. Yet somehow this seems to be their natural tendency.

The issue of authority is a tough one even for adults. A few weeks ago my friend, my son and I went to the home opener for the Toronto Blue Jays. It turned out to be kind of a rowdy game with people running onto the field and others getting dragged out of the stands due to poor behavior. At one point, just a section over from us, a man was hauled out by the police. As soon as an officer showed up the crowd started chanting, “Let him stay! Let him stay!” They jeered at the officer and at the security guards. They laughed at the authorities, threw things at them, and did all they could to mock and belittle them. Their hatred of authority was tangible; it was alarming for those of us who remained sober and who, with our senses about us, knew that only authority holds off the utter breakdown of society. Our human sinfulness causes our hearts to rebel at the first sign of authority. So often we obey only with great reluctance and with our hearts in utter rebellion.

After yet another episode yesterday, where one of my children obeyed with great reluctance and a great show of disgust, I began to think about this heart of rebellion. I began to think about my own sin and about whether I really do any better than they do. My mind skipped around from sin to sin—those sins that continue to plague my life. I thought of one in particular and quickly saw my own reluctance to obey God in what He says I need to do about it. His commands are clear. I need to repent of that sin, I need to forsake that sin, and I need to love obedience more than that sin. It is only when I learn to love God and His commands more than I love that sin that I will be freed from it.

But I’m like a kid. I like that sin and I hate the authority that places itself over me and tells me to let that sin go. I roll my eyes, I grind my teeth, and I feel my heart rebel. In my heart I tell God that I’d rather sin than obey Him; I effectively tell Him that right now I’d rather have my sin than have Him. This sin is more important to me than my relationship with the Creator of the universe. Oh, I love that sin so much.

So I guess I’m not too different from my children. The remedy they need is the same one I need. Like me, they need to see that authority is given to us as a gracious gift from God. They need to learn to honor authority and to see it as something given to restrain us rather than annoy us. And they need to honor that authority and to obey it joyfully, willingly, immediately and with a joyful heart. This is what I need to do with my sin—I need to hear and heed God’s Word. And this is what they need to do with their sin—hear and heed my words as I seek to teach them what God would have them do.

It seems that God’s job in training me is at least as difficult as mine in training my children.

April 19, 2008

Recently I’ve spotted my book in some interesting places. This first picture was one I snapped a short time ago in a bathroom. My book is at least in good company there, sandwiched between titles by Sproul and MacArthur. While I won’t identify the owners of this bathroom, those who know me may be able to read the clues in the monogrammed towels and figure it out.

spotted.jpg

This second photo was snapped by a friend (or really the younger brother of an old friend) while traveling in Cambodia. He writes, “I took your book along with me to Cambodia when I went there for an internship. I also took it along with me to Rabbit Island, off the southern coast of Cambodia, by Kep. While reading it, I was struck by just how far this book has traveled….and took a picture, thinking you might enjoy seeing your book in exotic locales.”

spotted2.jpg

If you’ve got my book in a strange place or have spotted it in a strange place, send along a picture!

April 13, 2008

Thanks again to everyone who took the time to pray for Michaela and who sent along notes and emails. She was released from hospital yesterday evening and, though she’s still a bit grumpy, she is definitely doing much better. We are very grateful to God!

I do believe this is the final excerpt I’ll be sharing from David Wells’ The Courage To Be Protestant (available now at Amazon and everywhere else). As promised, this one deals with what Wells calls the “marketers”—those Christians who seek, perhaps inadvertently, to shape the church after the world. Wells says quite a bit about them in this book, but this portion of the second chapter stood out to me.


It seems rather clear, then, that the market which is defining most churches today is the one in which people are seeking some spiritual connection but, at the same time, are opposed to things religious. By that, they have in mind doctrines to be believed which they have not defined for themselves, moral norms to be followed which they have not set up for themselves, and corporate practice which is expected. Skip the religion; give us the meat and potatoes of what is spiritual, they are saying. That is what these marketing churches are attempting to do. So, it is no great revelation that those who are fed this trashy diet are frequently those with no worldview and in whose life biblical doctrine has little place.

Perhaps the crowning disappointment in this whole undertaking is the dismal failure of the worship services which are really thought of as being the marketers’ piece de resistance. In fact, eight out of ten believers do not experience the presence of God in their worship at all. Is this really such a stunning outcome to services in which the centrality of truth has disappeared, where biblical categories have been lost, and in which the entertainment ethos dominates everything?

George Barna was one of the primary architects who designed this new approach to “doing” church. He was in on the ground floor three decades ago. As the church’s most assiduous poller, he undoubtedly expected by this time to be the bearer of good news once his marketing strategies were widely adopted, as they have been. It has not turned out that way. It has fallen to him to be the most important chronicler of his own failure.

Leaving behind this long trail of failure as if it had never happened, Barna has nevertheless struck out in a new direction with the same old panache, bravado, and undented self-assurance. The evangelical world has neither gasped nor even blinked. In 2005, he published his book, Revolution which predicted that the church in the coming decade would lose much of its “market share” but, never mind, because now it could climb aboard a different cultural trend and succeed even more spectacularly. Now, serious spiritual revolutionaries can simply cut themselves loose from every local church. Just walk away! Permanently. And find biblical Christianity elsewhere.

What is resulting from Barna’s approach is barely recognizable as Christian today. And that is what makes the desire of some of the leading American marketing pastors to export their experiment to the rest of the world almost incomprehensible. It certainly is an expression of unbounded chutzpah.

The truth is that no matter how proficiently we learn to “do” church in terms of the Western, affluent, highly individualistic market, we are doomed to failure. Indeed, the more proficient we become, if that proficiency requires that we denude ourselves of theology, the more certainly we doom ourselves to failure. The method is inherently flawed. If it succeeds in replicating itself at all, it will only be replicating its own failure. That is what the marketers have failed to see.

April 10, 2008

Anonymity and accountability are topics I have returned to several times over the years. They are issues that continues to concern me and challenge me as the internet grows and matures and as my involvement in it increases. A few days ago I posted some other thoughts about accountability (Drawing Out the Infection) and thought this would be a useful follow-up.

Admiral Lord Nelson once remarked that “every sailor is a bachelor when beyond Gibraltar.” This was a statement about anonymity, something that was quite rare in even just a few generations ago. Nelson knew that once his sailors moved beyond the bounds of the British Empire, beyond society’s systems of morality and accountability, they underwent a transformation. Every man became a bachelor and sought only and always his own pleasure. If you have read a biography of John Newton you’ll see a vivid portrayal of a man who was able to be a gentleman at home but who was vulgar and abusive while away. All it took was a measure of anonymity and he became a whole new man.

In the past, anonymity was both rare and difficult. People tended to live in close-knit communities where every face was familiar and every action was visible to the community. Travel was rare and the majority of people lived a whole lifetime within a small geographic area. Os Guinness remarks that in the past “those who did right and those who did not do wrong often acted as they did because they knew they were seen by others. Their morality was accountability through visibility.” While anonymity is not a new phenomenon, the degree of anonymity we can and often do enjoy in our society is unparalleled. “For most people most of the time, their villages or towns were sufficiently cohesive and their relationships sufficiently close that behavior was held in check. In small towns neighborliness was often ‘nosiness’ just as in cities anonymity was often ‘liberation.’ But the point still stands—traditional morality was closely tied to accountability.”

Undergirding these statements is the fundamental belief that humans require accountability. Left to our own devices, we will soon devise or succumb to all manner of evil. As Christians, those who seek to live by a higher standard, we know that we need other believers to watch over us and to hold us accountable to the standards of Scripture. Passages such as Ecclesiastes 4:12 remind us that “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” The Bible reminds us that “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17) and that we are to “provoke one another to love and good works…exhorting one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Life is far too difficult and we are far too sinful to live it in solitude. We need community. We need accountability. And God has been good to give us the local church as the primary means of this accountability.

Our society values anonymity. There are many who feel that anonymity is a right and one that must be closely guarded and protected. Those who use are familiar with internet technology will have noticed the influx of tools designed to protect the anonymity of the internet user. The latest versions of web browsers come with tools designed to erase, with a single click, all traces of what a person was doing while browsing the web. Other tools allow a person to be untraceable to others as he travels various web sites. While there may be legitimate applications to these tools they are, by and large, used by those who are up to no good. Interestingly, the software developed by Christians to guard against perversion do the exact opposite—they make public what a person has done. By removing the anonymity they provide accountability.

Anonymity extends far beyond technology. It extends to the workplace where many people travel extensively, spending weeks of every year in hotel rooms where what they do and what they watch is kept behind closed doors. Many hotels make a point of telling their visitors that they can order any movies they like while keeping the titles entirely anonymous. We live in communities where we may not even know our next-door neighbors either by name or by face. When we arrive home from work we pull the car into the garage and close the door behind us. We live only yards away from people we may never meet. Churches grow larger and relationships grow weaker. We are anonymous, impersonal people in a largely anonymous, impersonal world. We live beyond Gibraltar. Guinness does not exaggerate when he writes “More of us today are more anonymous in more situations than any generation in human history.”

I have often seen the effect of this anonymity in my line of work and in my wife’s. Aileen sells products online. It is not unusual to have a person who is somehow dissatisfied with his transaction write her an email that is rude, abrasive and even filled with profanity. But invariably, if the person later phones her or if she decides to phone the disgruntled customer, the person is much more kind and even-tempered when the communication is less-anonymous. I would assume that if they were to meet face-to-face, these customers would be more civil still. Anonymity can have a profoundly negative effect on people.

I do not think that Christians are any more immune to the temptations of anonymity than are unbelievers. Guinness asks, “Why are there more temptations in a hotel room in a distant city than at home? Why do more people ‘flame’ on the Internet than would ever lose their cool in an office?” These questions are surely as applicable to those who seek to follow Christ as they are to those who do not. Christian-owned forums and blogs are all the proof we need that Christians require accountability as much as anyone. Perhaps more so.

Many bloggers and other Internet users value anonymity. A blog is understood by some to be a place of refuge and safety—a place where a person can post what is on his mind and on his heart while revealing little about who he truly is. It is a place to let loose with the anger and frustration. It is a place where a person can speak out to other people and about other people without ever having to look those people in the eye. If every sailor is a bachelor beyond Gibraltar, we could as easily say that every blogger is a pundit or a curmudgeon or an expert or a righteous man when in front of his keyboard.

Guinness says that, in former days, morality was accountability through visibility. Yet today many of us are able to remain invisible. Not too long ago I was an invisible blogger. In some ways I valued my anonymity, and yet I knew that it could be a danger. I wrote a lot and my site was read by many people, but all the while I was safely removed from the people I wrote for and wrote about. I began to see the effect of this in my writing. It became increasingly abrasive and showed a distinct lack of character. But a couple of years ago, by the grace of God, things began to change. By live-blogging conferences I had to emerge from my home office and meet many of the people who read this site and whose sites I read. This has been, in every case, a tremendous blessing. At the same time I made changes to my life, even going so far as to begin attending a new church where I could come face-to-face each week with people who would encourage or exhort me as necessary. I deliberately sought people who could challenge me and keep an eye on whatever ministry opportunities arise from my writing.

I am not suggesting that I am a model to follow. But I think that God was gracious to me in revealing the necessity of avoiding complete anonymity. He helped me understand that accountability is closely tied to visibility and that personal holiness will come not through anonymity but through deep and personal relationships with my brothers and sisters in the local church. And so I have sought to make myself more visible that I may accept correction and reproof when it is necessary. At the same time I have renewed my commitment to the One who is always watching and who knows every word I write and every intent of my heart. And so this is my challenge to bloggers and to those who comment on blogs: make yourself accountable through visibility. Commit yourself to purity of heart and to only speaking or writing what is honoring to God. And then ensure that there are people who know you, who read your words, who will lovingly exhort and correct you when you do not keep this commitment. In this way we can honor God and maintain a focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ.

April 08, 2008

Joe Carter recently declared that he would be the last evangelical in America. He was being a little tongue-in-cheek of course, but the point was clear. He thinks the label “evangelical” is a good one and and one worth holding on to. “Naturally, I understand why some of my fellow evangelicals prefer not to be saddled with the label. The negative connotations imbued by both our friends and our enemies have weighted it down with unnecessary baggage. But I don’t think we should drop it altogether, especially for higher-level terms like ‘Christian’… I think being an evangelical is the best way for me to be Christian; for better or worse, I’ll never abandon the tradition or the label.”

I found this interesting because I’ve been reading the forthcoming book by David F. Wells and in this volume he suggests that perhaps it is time to let go of the “evangelical” label. Here is his defense and his proposal of an alternative:

Those who still think of themselves as being in the tradition of historic Christian faith, as I do, may therefore want to consider whether the term “evangelical” has not outlived its usefulness. Despite its honorable pedigree, despite its many outstanding leaders both past and some in the present, and despite the many genuine and upright believers who still think of themselves as evangelical, it may now have to be abandoned.

If the word “evangelical” has outlived its usefulness, what is the alternative? Here, I am flummoxed. My own labels are too ponderous to be used widely. I am reaching out for help. I am advertising for a new label!

In this book, I am … going to think of myself as being a biblical Christian first and foremost, as being in continuity with Christians across the ages who have believed the same truth and followed the same Lord. The period in which these truths were brought into the most invigorating, health-giving focus was the Reformation. I therefore think of myself as reformational in the sense that I affirm its solas: in Scripture alone is God’s authoritative truth found, in Christ alone is salvation found, it is by grace alone that we are saved, and this salvation is received through faith alone. It is only after each of these affirmations is made that we can say that salvation from start to finish is to the glory of God alone. These affirmations do not stand simply as solitary, disconnected sentinels but they are the key points in an integrated, whole understanding of biblical truth. It is this which gives us a place to stand in the world from which to understand who we are, what the purposes of God are, and what future lies before us. These are the things that historic Protestants believe and that is what I am.

And this is what I think offers the only real hope for our postmodern world. Not only so, but it carries in it the best help for the evangelical world in its wounded and declining state today. I do not know what the evangelical future will be but I am certain that it will have no good future unless it finds this kind of direction again.

This will take some courage. The key to the future is not the capitulation that we see in both the marketers and the emergents. It is courage. The courage to be faithful to what Christianity in its biblical forms has always stood for across the ages. So, let’s begin exploring what this might mean for us today.

I’d love to know what you think. Is the term “evangelical” saddled with too much baggage? Is it time just to let it pass into history like so many words and labels before it? Or, because it is a word with such a noble heritage and with such a profound meaning, is it one we should cling to? Is it a label you wear proudly or with shame?