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August 16, 2005

I have just begun reading The Radical Reformission by Mark Driscoll. Mark is known as being on the Conservative fringe of the Emerging Church. He must at least somewhat orthodox because he invited John Piper to deliver several messages at the 2004 “Radical Reformission Conference.” Don Elbourne listened to the audio and wrote, “John Piper, the key note speaker, delivered three sessions saturated with Christ-centered, God exalting, relevant, practical theology. I admit being already partial to Piper as a recent enthusiastic convert to Christian Hedonism, but I must say I don’t think I’ve ever heard Piper more radically poignant. He tackled current issues such as Greg Boyd’s Open Theology, N. T. Write’s New Perspective on Paul, popular misconceptions about Calvinism and Evangelism, communicating the truth of the gospel in a postmodern culture, and more. He titled his three messages, ‘The Whole Glory of God: Governing and Knowing All that Will Come to Pass,’ ‘The Whole Glory of Christ: Imputation and Impartation of His Righteousness,’ and ‘The Whole Glory of the Gospel of God: From Him, Through Him, and to Him.’ Well worth the listen.”

I thought it might be interesting to examine this book in some detail. I may not provide a synopsis for each chapter, but I would like to do more than simply write a review when I have finished reading it.

Today I’ll introduce the introduction (so to speak). It begins with a short biography of sorts. Driscolls tells a little bit about his childhood and his conversion during college. After graduating he worked in Christian radio for six years before beginning Mars Hill Church in urban Seattle. He later co-founded the Acts 29 Church Planting Network which has started over 100 churches in eight countries during a five-year period.

After introducing himself, he begins to introduce his Reformission. Driscoll defines Reformission as “a radical call for Christians and Christian churches to recommit to living and speaking the gospel, and to doing so regardless of the pressures to compromise the truth of the gospel or to conceal its power within the safety of the church” (page 20). The goal of Reformission is “to continually unleash the gospel to do its work of reforming dominant cultures and church subcultures” (ibid).

These three forces, gospel, church and culture, form a triangular relationship. Reformission begins with a return to Jesus who saves us by His grace and sends us to be missionaries to our world. Jesus has called us to “(1) the gospel (loving our Lord), (2) the culture (loving our neighbour), and (3) the church (loving our brother)” (ibid). Tragically, Driscoll asserts, one of the main causes of the failure to fulfill our mission has come by being faithful to only one or two of these counts.

Driscoll provides three formulas to show what happens when one of these areas is neglected:

    Gospel + Culture - Church = Parachurch

Many Christians become frustrated with the church and abandon it in favor of outside organizations. While these organizations can do a lot of good, they allow people to remain disconnected from the local church. People are connected to unbelievers, but outside of a context where they can introduce these people to the wider church body. This in turns leads to theological immaturity (and I would assert it also leads to a greater possibility of theological error). Further, parachurch organizations are often organized around only one type of person (the poor, youth, etc) so they do not display the diversity of the body of Christ.

    Culture + Church - Gospel = Liberalism

Some churches are so concerned with being culturally relevant that they neglect the gospel. These people convert others to the church but not to Jesus. Driscoll says that “This is classic liberal Christianity, and it exists largely in the dying mainline churches” (page 21). Many conservative Christians would also suggest that much of the Emergent church fits into this category, having forsaken the gospel in favor of culture and community. These people run the risk of loving their neighbour at the expense of loving God.

    Church + Gospel - Culture = Fundamentalism

Some churches care more for the church, its traditions, buildings and politics than the spread of the gospel. While they know the theology of the gospel they rarely take it to the people. We can wonder whether these people love the lost as much as they love their buildings and traditions.

Driscoll claims that Reformission gathers the best aspects of each of these types of Christianity: “living in the tension of being Christian and churches who are culturally liberal yet theologically conservative and who are driven by the gospel of grace to love their Lord, brothers, and neighbours. This book focuses on issues related to the scriptural content of the gospel and the cultural context of its ministry, and I write out of my sincere love as a pastor for Christians, churches, lost people, and culture” (page 22).

Reflections

In reading this chapter I was struck primarily by Driscoll’s affirmation of the centrality of the gospel. This seems to differ significantly from some other leaders within the Emergent church who seem to fit squarely in Driscoll’s category of Liberalism. I take this as a positive sign. I also appreciated the three forumlas he presented as they seem to make good sense. I was immediately able to think of individuals and churches that fit into each of the three categories. I will reserve further comment until I have read more of the book.

August 15, 2005

Most people know that when they set foot in a grocery store they are being manipulated. Grocery store merchandising has become something of a science. The stores know exactly what you need and how to convince you that what you came to purchase is not enough. They know how to encourage you to leave a few more of your hard-earned dollars in their tills.

One way we know that stores do this is that the general layout for most big grocery stores is remarkably similar. In fact, the four stores I frequent in Oakville are nearly identical in layout. Produce is closest to the entrance and extends along one side of the store. The bakery is in the corner. Milk, eggs and meat are along the back, and one of them is always in the far corner, directly opposite the produce. The aisles contain an eclectic, seemingly-irrational collection of products - dog food is on the same aisle as storage solutions, soup is with the ketchup, and so on.

Stores are laid out both deliberately and predictably to ensure that the customer has to walk from one end to the other to purchase even a few basic items. The vast majority of shoppers will first walk the perimeter of the store, picking up the standard items, before beginning to walk up-and-down the aisles to purchase those items that are less common. A simple shopping list of potatoes, apples, bread, beef, eggs, milk and ice cream would take the person to the four corners of the store. Add crackers, cookies, chips and soft drinks and the customer will also have walked along most of the aisles.

It is important to have the customer walk this distance for one simple and obvious reason. The more items he walks past, the more likely he is to put one or two of them into his cart. We all know how easy it is to walk out of a store with far more items than we expected.

The people responsible for marketing within grocery stores know that consumers operate in predictable patterns. Because of this, we are exceedingly easy to manipulate. Most stores have several items which they consider “loss leaders” - items that are discounted to the point that the stores make no money from them or perhaps even lose a little bit. But these items are guaranteed to draw consumers to the store and not only that, but to draw them to a certain part of the store. Near these loss-leaders may be other products that are on sale - products which boast high profit margins. You see, stores do more than simply ensure that the customer is walking from end-to-end. They place items that are about to expire on the ends of aisles to encourage the consumer to help keep their shelves stocked with fresh food. Sometimes they offer these at a discount, while other times they simply make the customer believe that they are offering them at a discount. I have seen items marked as being on sale when they were actually cheaper the week before. High-priced brand name items are placed at eye level, while the cheaper generic ones are placed closer to the floor where they are less likely to be seen.

You get the idea. This is simple, entry-level marketing. More advanced marketing would include pricing, colors, advanced layouts and so on. And of course grocery stores are only one example of this type of marketing. Almost any store, and especially the chains, employ similar tactics. When I worked for Starbucks (many years ago) we had specific patterns we were to follow when placing the bags of prepackaged coffee on the shelves. The same was true of the travel mugs, chocolate-covered coffee beans, and nearly everything else. Members of the marketing team were known to randomly check stores to ensure employees were following these rules.

The fact is that when we walk into stores we are being manipulated. We know this, but usually are apathetic towards it. While we may spend a few dollars more than we had hoped to, it is simply one price we pay to live in a consumeristic society.

But how do we feel when we realize that many churches operate in a similar fashion?

As I stated earlier, the foundation of most marketing is that humans operate in predictable patterns. Marketers study these patterns and learn how they can use them to their advantage to convince us to buy their product. Essentially, they are trying to convince us to make an exchange with them - our money for their product or service.

The same patterns that drive marketing in grocery stores can be applied by churches. We see this most clearly in the Church Growth Movement (CGM). Church marketers have studied us and decided how they can convince us to become part of a church. They know that most people approach churches in a similar way to a grocery store - they are seeking a fair exchange. If the church can convince people that it offers enough, and that it will meet their needs, they will make an exchange of their time, talent and perhaps even their money. It would seem that this has been very successful, as many CGM-based churches have experienced incredible growth.

But there is something troublesome about this. There is something troublesome about manipulating people to become part of a church. Does this not discount the role of the Spirit? If humans are so predictable that they can be convinced of just about anything, what need to we have for the Holy Spirit? Are these people filling the pews of the mega-churches truly saved? Or have they been manipulated into feeling they are Christians when in reality they are simply consumers?

Christianity is not a faith based on exchange. We do not exchange anything with God in order to be saved. It is only the empty hand of faith to which God will extend His grace. I fear that when we allow exchange to become a foundation for our churches we are allowing a consumer mindset to creep in that will create churches filled not with true believers, but with customers, and pulpits that will be filled not by preachers, but by marketers.

August 12, 2005

Earlier this week I posted an article about Christians and movie-watching. The article garnered a fair amount of attention and there were plenty of comments and trackbacks. I was surprised to see that most people who commented actually agreed with me. A few took the other side. One called me a neo-puritan. I kind of like that, so feel free to call me that whenever you like. I’ve been called far worse!

Yesterday I was finishing up Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God by C.J. Mahaney. While the book is written primarily for and about men, the final chapter is written by the author’s wife, Carolyn, and is targetted at women. Carolyn wrote a section called “Make No Provision for the Flesh” which seemed appropriate to this topic. I will provide a few paragraphs for your reading enjoyment:

“But now your family is finally asleep, and you want to escape from all the unpleasantness of your day. So you flip on the TV ‘just to see what’s on.’ A show piques your interest, and you pause with your finger on the remote. Although you know this program can be vulgar at times, it’s the only amusing thing on, and you think you deserve a little leisure time. You promptly dismiss your conscience and settle down to enjoy yourself.

“This scenario I’ve just described may or may not be a familiar temptation to you. Regardless, Scripture teaches that we all have areas where we are susceptible. In Romans 13:14 we read: ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’ In response to this verse, each of us needs to ask: When, where, and with whom are we most tempted to accomodate our flesh and gratify its desires?

“Now I am not insinuating that rest or leisure activities are sinful. God’s Word actually requires us to rest, and there are many God-honoring activities that provide us with refreshment!

“However, I am insisting from God’s Word that we never indulge our sinful desires in our recreational pursuits. For example, we should not read anything, view anything, or listen to anything that arouses impure thoughts or compromises our biblical convictions. That would be sinful!

“Observe David’s commitment in Psalm 101:2-3 (NIV): ‘I will walk in my house with blameless heart. I will set before my eyes no vile thing.’ The psalmists resolve was sweeping - no vile thing. Notice also that David determined to walk with a blameless heart at home. As Charles Spurgeon once said: ‘What we are at home, that we are indeed.’

“So can we say like David, ‘I will walk in my house with blameless heart’? Have we purposed not to see, read, or hear any vile thing? Or are we taking liberties where we shouldn’t? Do we watch any unwholesome movies or television programs? Do we read worthless materials - such as romance novels or magazines - that tempt us to sinful fantasies? Do we listen to ungodly music that stirs up impure thoughts? If we answered yes to any one of these three questions, we must expunge these practices from our lifestyle” (pages 113-114).

I think Carolyn speaks with great wisdom. Perhaps she is a fellow neo-Puritan. When we watch movies or participate in other recreational activities, no matter what they be, do we do so from a desire to heed God’s requirement that we rest, or do we do so from impure motives? Do we do so to indulge our sinful desires? Just a couple of days ago I wrote an article which examined the depth of my own depravity and my own propensity towards evil. Evil always seems to draw me to itself. When I watch movies, do I watch them to indulge these sinful desires which are always lurking just under the surface of my life? Am I drawn to movies by my old man, or by the new man?

Can I say with David that I have a blameless heart and that I have set before my eyes no vile thing? Or do I purposely, recklessly set before my eyes all manner of vile things and perhaps even do so in the name of growth and godliness? Is it possible for me to put on the Lord Jesus and to make no provision for the flesh, while at the same time I seek to indulge my flesh? What I am at home, that is what I am indeed. What I am in the darkness of a movie theatre is what I am indeed. What I am when no one is looking is a clear indication of my character and the extent of my pursuit of godliness. What do these moments say about me?

August 11, 2005

I have been reflecting this week on the Apostle’s admonition to “avoid evil.” Heady stuff for a vacation, I admit! My need to more fully understand this concept arose as I wrote about movies and the Christian obsession with watching and enjoying them regardless of their content. It took me some time, but I realized that I had reflected on this in the past, though it was several years ago.

The last time I remember writing about the importance of avoiding evil was after reading an article about Jeffery Dahmer. I assume that most North Americans are familiar with him, as he gained great notoriety in the 1990’s as one of America’s most vile serial killers. Over a two-decade period he was responsible for the murder (and sometimes cannibalization and other unmentionable acts) of seventeen men. The usual American media circus accompanied his trial and sentencing. His life came to a violent end when, shortly after being sentenced to life imprisonment, he was murdered by another inmate.

I read the story of his life, from his upbringing in a normal family to his gruesome death in prison, with a kind of horror, but also with a kind of fascination. Though the article was, thankfully, short on specifics, it certainly provided enough detail to show just what a depraved individual Dahmer was. And despite the depravity, I lapped this story up like a dog lapping up his own vomit.

Later in the evening I reflected on the fascination I had felt when reading the article. Why is it that I could be absorbed with something so vile and so unnatural? Why would I even want to know the details of such a life? A couple of possibilities came to mind.

Perhaps it could be that it is simply inconceivable to me that such evil could exist in a mind and body just like mine. In many ways Dahmer was little different than me. He was raised in the same society (albeit a few years before my time) with many of the same values, had a job and paid his taxes. Yet within him lurked this terrible evil. So perhaps my fascination was simply my mind crying out in disbelief that this was a man not too terribly unlike me.

The second possibility may be easier to explain by analogy. I was reminded of a recurring theme within that timeless story Lord of the Rings, a story that most people are now familiar with. Frodo Baggins has been bequeathed a ring of immense power. Though at first he does not realize it, this ring is actually a source of incredible evil. It contains within it the wrath, fury and evil of the sorcerer Sauron, who represents the source of evil within Middle Earth. As the story progresses, we see that Frodo has begun to fall under the ring’s power. The ring has a kind of mind of its own and desires to return to its master. As Sauron’s minions search for this ring, Frodo finds himself drawn to them. The ring, which he wears on a chain around his neck, pulls him towards the power of evil. This evil ring around his neck, desires to return to its wicked master.

Within every human there is an evil nature. The Bible, in Jeremiah 17:9 says, “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” Anyone who denies that he has these sinful inclinations is in defiance of the obvious. So perhaps the fascination I felt in reading about someone so vile as Dahmer is simply the evil within me drawing me to an even greater source of evil. Perhaps the evil within me is just crying out and pulling me to allow it to return to its master. It is a daunting thought, that lurking within my heart, just barely beneath the surface, is an evil that is fighting to escape.

The third possibility is that my fascination was based on a combination the other two reasons. The side of me that is appalled by wickedness recoiled at the thought of such evil. At the same time, the part of me that delights in all manner of wickedness was drawn towards more and greater evil. One thing that is certain and is beyond possibility is the wisdom of 1 Thessalonians 5:21-24. “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”

While I may be drawn to evil, and in fact, am willing to admit that I am drawn to it, the fact remains that God commands that I avoid it. And not only am I to avoid evil, but I am to avoid every kind of evil - the mere possibility or hint of evil. God’s standards are high. So is my propensity towards evil. Evil has a magnetic pull that draws me towards it. Thankfully God, in His great wisdom, has placed within me the Spirit who graciously allows me to see this evil, to hate it, and ultimately to avoid it.

August 08, 2005

I began my postsecondary education by concentrating on the study of English and history at McMaster University. After only a few months, I found myself increasingly frustrated with the English courses. It seemed to me that the courses were based primarily on what, in theology, we would refer to eisogesis. We would study an assigned story or a poem and read into it whatever we meaning we felt existed within. It seemed that the more wild our speculations, the more satisfied the instructor became. I eventually walked away from the courses, frustrated that instead of finding what the author was really saying, we pushed our agendas on their works, making these books or poems say what we wanted them to say.

It seems to me that many Christians do this very thing with the arts, and with movies in particular. I cannot count the number of articles I have read in the past weeks dealing with movies, exhorting Christians to engage in popular culture by watching film. Denis Haack, in an article in By Faith Magazine (May/June 2005), asks whether movies “truly help us engage our world with the gospel, or is that simply a thin excuse by Christians who want to justify watching movies.” He concludes that “We don’t have the luxury of ignoring the common grace expressed in film, unless we are content to be deaf to the postmodern generation.” In other words, we need to watch movies if we want to be faithful ambasaddors of Christ in this world. To ignore popular entertainment would be to ignore a God-given means to engage unbelievers in spiritual conversation.

Haack goes on to say that while God extends His saving grace to the elect, He also showers creation liberally with common grace which allows creativity to flourish even among those who deny God’s existence. He feels that we need to seek out this common grace so we can then praise God for it. “We won’t be grateful for God’s common grace if we don’t have eyes to see it…Reformed Christians dare not be dismissive of culture, nore dare we be dismissive of God’s common grace simply because the film in which it appears is part of the cinema of Babylon.”

But what of movies that glorify sin or that portray what Christians are commanded to flee? Haack tacitly suggests that we can watch anything, provided it does not fall into an area, specific to the individual, that would cause us to sin. “Certainly we must be discerning. We must discern accurately our areas of weakness so we can avoid films with scenes that will tempt us to sin.” Much seems to depend on motives. He says that he does not watch movies in order to see scenes of depravity, but that he watches movies because he loves them. Christian maturity, he says, is necessary for watching movies.

Through the article the author provides examples from movies that portray incest, orgies, paganism, as well as any amount of sex, swearing and blasphemy. Surprisingly absent from the article is any clear biblical support for watching such movies. He makes a couple of appeals to Calvin, but the article depends primarily on his interpretation of common grace.

But I often wonder if the redemptive themes in movies are not merely what we read into them in order to justify watching. Do we really watch movies in order to seek out themes of common grace, or do we watch primarily for our own entertainment, or even to feed a human lust for God, in His wisdom, has forbidden us?

I read another article, which is as yet unpublished, that speaks specifically of The Shawshank Redemption, a movie written by Stephen King that has become something of a modern favorite for many believers and unbelievers alike. The author provides a warning for any readers who may have a “sensitive disposition.” He provides three reasons Christians should embrace this movie, despite swearing, blasphemy, brutal violence and scenes of homosexual rape (albiet non-graphic ones).

“God is the creator and he is the author of creativity and the arts ever before any efforts of the enemy to hijack proceedings.” This seems to indicate that the artist has within him the ability to create art that is good and pleasing to God. But then the enemy interferes with it and makes it something less than pure. Our job as Christians, then, is to examine this art and draw out the redemptive themes.

“God’s omnipotence is such that he is able to use whomever he chooses to speak into the lives of whomever he decides - we are speaking of a God who raised up Cyrus to lead the Israelites back to Jerusalem and a donkey, no less, to speak to Balaam, not to mention Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of the church to reach and revolutionize the Gentile world.” Poor reasoning, really. Just because God has, in the past, used any number of ways to reveal Himself, this does not mean that He will now use movies or any forms of art. I see no biblical support for the idea that God may speak to the believer through film.

“Sometimes our rush to divide the “spiritual” and the “secular” mean we miss God’s attempts to address us through the world of the arts…there is gold to be mined by those with an ear to hear what the Spirit is saying to His church.” This strikes me as near blasphemy, to suggest that the Spirit is attempting to communicate to His church through film. God communicates to His church through the Bible, and to ignore the Bible is to ignore the Spirit.

These are just two of the multitudes of examples. I think also of John Eldredge’s books, which are filled with references to movies. Many other authors, attempting to engage a postmodern generation, depend on movies to provide a link to the culture.

I am increasingly concerned by the way I see Christians embracing film. While films become filled with more and more of the world’s utter depravity, Christians are turning to them for entertainment or even for spiritual reasons, in ever greater numbers. As we have seen, there is any number of ways of justifying this behavior, but I think that if we are honest, we have to admit that we watch movies primarily for their entertainment value. Movies are fun. They are a wonderfully effective distraction from the drudgery of daily life. They can transport us to different worlds and make us feel joy and pain that we have no reason to feel in our real lives. Haack says that “The Royal Tennenbaums allowed me to feel a bit of the brokenness and alienation the books [books dealing with divorce] described but couldn’t emote. [They] have been a window of insight into a world I do not inhabit.”

But God calls us to a high standard. God’s instruction to His people, through the Bible, is that they avoid the very appearance of evil - every form of evil. We are to embrace a higher standard of purity and godliness. I see nothing in the Bible that would convince me that I can and even should watch movies in order to engage the culture. In fact, I find the opposite. How can I be an effective witness if I begin a coversation with an unbeliever by proudly proclaiming that I have just watched a movie that is filled with the very acts my faith tells me I must avoid? Will unbelievers not immediately note the inconsistency between what I do and what I claim to believe?

A clear theme throughout the Scriptures is that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” This is as true of evil influences as it is of good. In the Old Testament, God considered something defiled when it had only the smallest suggestion of evil mixed with the good. Yet we have turned this around, suggesting that the smallest glimmer of good, when mixed with abhorent evil, brings redemption. We seek to redeem what we should not be redeemed.

I am not opposed to movies, but I do believe that we need to prayerfully consider if we have allowed ourselves to justify what God forbids. There are many movies that I have enjoyed tremendously and I acknowledge that it can be a powerful, effective medium. But I believe it is of utmost importance that we use discernment in the movies we watch - not a discernment that pushes the limits of what I should or should not see - but a discernment that asks whether this is a movie that a Christian should watch. I ought not to ask if this is a movie that I can watch without falling into great sin, but if this is a movie that brings glory to God.

August 07, 2005

One more reason to hate spammers.

I get vast quantities of trackback spam. I have installed a couple of tools to try to deal with it, which is especially important with the links I now have in the sidebar. It seems my measures are either too loose or too tight - I can’t quite seem to get the balance. If anyone out there knows anything about SpamLookup, the Movabletype plugin, I’d love to hear from you!

August 07, 2005

Mark was determined to die. And in retrospect there was 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.

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. 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.

His artwork was dark. 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 reading 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, 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.

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 along with our home church 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 the 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.

In the days following Mark’s death, his parents did reconcile. 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 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 has needed to hold the members of his sister’s church (my church) 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’ve told her 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 fake 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. I was surprised to see that 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.

Several months have passed since Mark’s body was laid to rest in a quiet cemetery in Dundas. Mark’s gift has been forgotten. His parents have decided to divorce. His sister has returned to her studies, moving to Australia. She insists she went there for the opportunity to study abroad. I can’t help but think that she ran from her grief. She has since become involved in a missions organization and is serving the Lord in China. Her mother was baptized at our church about a year ago, having been led to the Lord by the simple love of the Christians who surrounded them during those dark days. Her father has moved away and remarried.

Mark left pleasant memories of his childhood, but nothing but 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 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.

August 05, 2005

I recently finished reading Talking About Good and Bad Without Getting Ugly, written by Paul Chamberlain, a professor at Trinity Western University (Langley, British Columbia) and director of the Institute of Christian Apologetics. This book discusses ways Christians can talk about difficult issues - abortion, homosexual marriage, euthanasia - in our pluralistic society. It was quite good and I will be reviewing it sometime in the next few days.

The final chapter of the book was a case study using William Wilberforce, the British Parliamentarian, as an example of a man who used his Christian convictions to affect change in the culture. Wilberforce was a driving force behind the abolition of slavery within the British Empire. A Member of Parliament for forty-five years, the results of his efforts are still seen and understood in Western society to this day. His impact was felt not only at his time, but has extended through history.

There was on particular aspect of his strategy to abolish slavery that gave me pause to think. Wilberforce was a realistic man and knew (to borrow a cliche) that Rome was not built in a day. He knew that the kind of change he desired would take time, for it required the British people to adopt a whole new mindset. They had to be led to see that slavery was an afront to the God-given value of human beings, even those of a different skin-color. They had to see that the conditions of slavery were an abomination to a nation that claimed to be Christian. They had a lot to learn - a lot to understand. This would take time.

Wilberforce, then, was willing to accept incremental improvements. For example, at one point he supported a bill, passed on a trial basis, that would regulate the number of slaves that were permitted to be transported on a single ship. Previously slaves had been laid in rows on benches, chained on their sides with the front of one pressed against the back of the next. Following the legislation, improvements were made. However, the bill implictly and explicitly supported the continuance of slavery. Wilberforce saw it as a step in the right direction and was willing to support it. Another time he voted for a bill that required plantation owners to register all of their slaves. While this bill also supported slavery, Wilberforce saw that a registry of slaves would keep plantation owners from adding to their number of slaves by buying them from illegal slave smugglers.

Wilberforce saw these incremental changes as accomplishing two goals. First, at the very least, they improved the living and working conditions of slaves. While slavery may continue, at least the slaves were afforded a greater amount of dignity, even if it continued to be minimal. Second, he believed that affording slaves greater rights set the Empire on a slippery slope. Having acknowledged the humanness of the slaves, people had to admit that slaves were something more than animals. The British Parliament had given approval to bills that Wilberforce knew would lead to nothing short of abolition. And of course his beliefs proved to be correct. The incremental changes for which he lobbied proved to be the starting point for the eventual abolition of slavery.

Chamberlain points out that this same strategy has been used by those opposed to the dignity of life. Abortion is a prime example. What was first allowed as a concession to protect the physical health of a woman, soon became a measure to protect her mental health. Mental health is far less objective than physical health and soon abortion was widespread. From there it was only a small step to societal acceptance.

As I read about Wilberforce I wondered if I, put in the position of a parliamentarian, could support legislation that supported abortion or euthenasia or homosexual marriage, even that legislation seemed to be a step in the right direction. Would doing so be pragmatic, as I convinced myself that the results validated the means? Or would it be sinful to tacitly support something so wrong, even while believing that it would lead to a more biblical end?

Chamberlain suggests that this principle, which we see in the life of Wilberforce, is the hardest to accept. He writes, “In their zeal to achieve a specific goal, whether banning abortion on demand, eliminating poverty or improving labor laws, some today operate with an ‘all or nothing’ mentality. Anything less than accomplishing one’s full goal all at once is viewed as an unacceptable compromise, as giving tacit approval to an unjust practice” (page 120).

But I think Chamberlain also helps uncover the solution. We need to be careful, when pondering such a choice, that we do not make a decision based on two alternatives, only one of which is real. Wilberforce did not have the opportunity to vote for or against slavery. Instead, he was given the opportunity to decide between the status quo and a slight improvement on it. He voted for the improvement. While we might say that in doing so he also voted for slavery, and there may even be some truth to this, the fact is that this vote was not, in reality, for or against slavery. He kept focused on what was immediately attainable, but with his eyes gazing longingly at a future target of complete abolition.

Might we do the same with abortion, euthenasia and the cheapening of marriage? I know of politicians who have refused to vote for incremental change, stating that nothing but the end result would be worth their support. Is it possible that these people missed a golden opportunity to enact at least some level of change that may have proven beneficial? I can’t say. In fact, only God knows for sure. But it is certainly possible that these people were too fixated on the final goal, not realizing that this was simply not attainable. Not yet.

One lesson Chamberlain wants us to learn from Wilberforce’s life is that change, especially change that is as wide as society, comes in increments. This is true whether the change is for good or for ill. Those who promote abortion, euthenasia or homosexual marriage seem to realize this and have been effective in their strategy of bringing about change. Perhaps as Christians we have been too focused on the final result and have not been able to know a good thing when we see it.

Amazon Link to Talking About Good and Bad Without Getting Ugly

August 04, 2005

As you may have noticed, unless you’re on of those people who only reads the site via RSS, I have done a fairly major revision to the layout of the site. While leaving the design much the same (if it ain’t broke…) I added a new sidebar which contains all sorts of good information.

Most important is the SideBlog. I have often lamented (though only to myself) that the format of my blog is not conducive to post multiple short entries to the blog. The site is created for articles more than for news-bytes. The SideBlog gives me the ability to post tidbits: links to other sites, nearly-insignificant thoughts, and so on. It also allows people using RSS if they’d like to subscribe to that blog or only the main one.

I also added a list of recent Trackbacks. These are links to other bloggers who have recently referenced a post on my site. They may be talking about me or about you (the people having the discussion). It is fun to watch how discussions filter across the Internet and I thought this would be a good way of keeping tabs on that.

Finally, I added a list of books I am currently reading. I may remove this in favor of something else if and when I think of it.

Despite the use of some reasonably complex CSS (code) I trust most browsers will be able to cope with the changes. Those of you using 800x600 resolution (which appears to be only about 16% of users) now have another good reason to upgrade to a bigger monitor or a higher resolution. The site will still look fine, but the SideBlog will be off the screen to the right.

Feel free to let me know your thoughts, especially if you have other ideas about what I might do with that space.

August 02, 2005

Ron Gleason, (pastor, doctor of something or the other, and all-around nice guy) who posts in the Community Blog has begun a series called “The Death Knell for the Emergent Church Movement.” The first article in the series has been posted and the other parts will follow in coming days.

Ron begins by saying, “Bad theology usually manifests itself in an attack on the ordinary means of grace that God gave to the Church of Jesus Christ. We also need to understand that when such an attack occurs, it is not an isolated event. Rather, it extends its tentacles across a wide range of biblical truths and everything-either directly or indirectly-becomes infected, tainted. Whatever the current language of the attack is-either frontal or subtle-we should not spend a lot of time attempting to “appreciate” what precious little good in found in the movement itself.”

He goes on to say, “By and large, when the attacks occur, people spend a lot of time giving “left-handed” compliments to the attackers, especially if they come from an evangelical church. This is akin, in a church setting, to Americans walking on eggshells around the politically correct crowd.”

Ron is not willing to give nearly as much respect to this movement as many other Evangelicals, as you’ll see in this articles and no-doubt in the ones that follow.

Keep reading it here.

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