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Christian Living

August 04, 2011

There was a time in my life when I worried about money. These were not just occasional thoughts about how little money we had, but the kind of worry that would wake me up in the night, bathed in sweat, my mind racing, trying to figure out how on earth I was going to scrape together a few hundred dollars to pay another bill. I was being eaten up by worry and I came to believe that the solution was to worry some more. Every few days I’d make up a list of all the money we had, all the money we owed, all the money that was coming to me, and would try to make the pieces fit. They didn’t. That night I’d wake up again, lying in the dark, trying to figure it all out.

I thought of those days last week when I was studying the book of Ruth. There was one little thing there that caught my attention and got me thinking about this. At the beginning of chapter 2, Ruth and Naomi have returned from Moab and Ruth declares that she is going to head out to the fields to work; she will take on the role of breadwinner. But here’s the question I had: Why doesn’t Naomi go out as well? It seems that at this point she is not yet an old lady; she is older but not old. At least it is unlikely that she is so old that she can’t go along with Ruth and put in a day’s work. And since gleaning was dangerous work—a woman out in a field alone was always vulnerable—2 would be better than 1. But we are not told why Naomi remained home.

And this led me to wonder if she was experiencing the kind of paralysis that can come when we are overwhelmed with worry. Naomi is convinced that God is sovereign, but she is not at all convinced that he is good. Perhaps she is in a funk and in such a dark place that she can’t even bring herself to get up and get going. Maybe she believes that her job is to stay home and worry. Have you ever been there before? We all worry at times—we all have problems that weigh on our minds, problems related to health or love or money. I think there are times when we feel like we need to worry, like if we don’t worry, God won’t pay attention. We can feel that our worrying is effectual, like it is effective, like it gains the ear of God.

August 02, 2011

The first chapter of Ruth sets the stage for a dramatic reversal. It’s the opening of a story and it immediately draws us into the despair of Naomi. At the end of the book’s opening chapter we are left with a very honest but not-so-pretty portrayal of her. She is a woman who has fallen on hard times—her husband has died and her sons have died, leaving her without any grandchildren, without any future.

Through all of the devastation she has become convinced that the Lord is out to get her. She believes—rightly of course—that God is in control, that God is sovereign, but she no longer believes that God is good. She looks at all that has happened to her and she decides that God is opposed to her; he must be. God is strong, but God is not loving. What other explanation could there be? How could a loving God allow all of this to happen to me?

Is there a darker place to be? Could you love or trust a God who is sovereign, who is all-powerful in this world, but who is not good? What kind of a God would that be? Who could worship such a God, a God who controls all things but who is evil or ambivalent, who just doesn’t care? That would be a mean and savage God, the kind of God we would all want to flee from. 

No wonder, then, that Naomi is in despair. No wonder that she is so low. To believe that God is all-powerful, to believe that he demands our allegiance, but that he is opposed to us—that is terrifying. No one can trust a God like that. No one can truly love a God like that. Naomi has created a false image of God. Instead of allowing God to speak into her circumstances, she has interpreted God through those circumstances. When her life was good, God was good; now that her life has gone bad, she believes that God is bad.

July 27, 2011

Endlesss Choice
Simplicity is a trending topic in our culture and our day; there is good reason for this. We are drowning in stuff and drowning in options. Somewhere along the way, many of us find it all overwhelming and overbearing. Somewhere along the way, all of these choices are making us miserable.

In the past couple of weeks I have been in the market for a new car. Having just accepted a full-time position as Associate Pastor at Grace Fellowship Church, I found that in order for me to do ministry well, and in order for Aileen to be able to keep things running around the home, a second car would be very, very useful. I went out shopping and within hours my head was spinning. My main requirements were reliability and fuel efficiency while also keeping a close eye on price. This led me to the compact market—cars like the Honda Civic, Ford Fiesta (or Focus), Hyundai Elantra, Volkswagen Jetta and on and on and on. Within a fifteen minute radius of my home there are probably 30 or 40 different cars that would fit the bill. But not only that, there are 5 or 6 models of each of those cars—DX, LX, EX, entry model, mid-range, high-end. The choices were bewildering. Oh, but there’s more. Even once you choose your model there are colors to go through, typically 6 or 8 per car. And then there are the accessories to choose from—from better tires to rear spoilers to $50 cup holders and upgraded stereos. And those $2000 navigation systems that don’t do anything a $100 TomTom can’t do.

I eventually settled on a Honda Civic, pretty much ending where I had begun. But even then the choices were not finished. No sooner had I said, “Sold!” than they started telling me what a horrible decision I had made and how badly I was going to need 1 of the 8 extended warranty plans they make available. Suddenly my Honda Civic, historically the most reliable compact car on the market, had become a Lada. In what may not have been my finest moment, I reached over and closed the brochure the guy was leading me through and said, “You sold me this car on its reliability. There is no way I’m going to sit here and listen to you tell me what a piece of junk I’ve bought. So we’re just going to put this away and I don’t want to hear another word about the extended warranty unless you’re going to give it to me for free.”

July 18, 2011

Jason DunhamJason Dunham of Scio, New York, joined the U.S. Marines in the year 2000. Just 18 years old when he enlisted, he quickly showed leadership ability and was chosen as a squad leader in Kilo Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment. Dunham’s unit took part in the invasion of Iraq and it was here that he would perform an act of outstanding gallantry.

On April 14, 2004, Corporal Dunham was in the town of Karabilah, leading a patrol to scout potential locations for a new base. Over the radio they heard that a nearby group of Marines had been ambushed by insurgents; at least 2 had received severe injuries. 

Cpl. Dunham’s patrol jumped aboard some Humvees and raced toward the convoy. Near the double-arched gateway of the town of Husaybah, they heard the distinctive whizzing sound of a rocket-propelled grenade overhead. They left their vehicles and split into two teams to hunt for the shooters, according to interviews with two men who were there and written reports from two others. Around 12:15 p.m., Cpl. Dunham’s team came to an intersection and saw a line of seven Iraqi vehicles along a dirt alleyway, according to Staff Sgt. Ferguson and others there. At Staff Sgt. Ferguson’s instruction, they started checking the vehicles for weapons.

Cpl. Dunham approached a run-down white Toyota Land Cruiser. The driver, an Iraqi in a black track suit and loafers, immediately lunged out and grabbed the corporal by the throat, according to men at the scene. Cpl. Dunham kneed the man in the chest, and the two tumbled to the ground. 1

Two other Marines rushed to help, trying to subdue the driver. From a few yards away another Marine heard Dunham yell, “No, no, no—watch his hand!” The Iraqi man dropped a grenade, armed and ready to explode. Dunham immediately threw himself upon that grenade, covering it with his helmet and his body, to contain the explosion and protect his squadmates.

The resulting explosion left Corporal Dunham unconscious, face down in his own blood. He would never regain consciousness, dying several days later as a result of the horrific injuries he had sustained.

July 14, 2011

This is not a book review. I will be discussing a book—a rather popular book, at that—but I will not actually review it. Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages is a perpetual bestseller, one that is a near-constant presence on theNew York Times list as well as the Christian lists. And, like so many bestselling Christian books, it is one in which I see some genuine strengths combined with some appalling weaknesses. It is a book that demands that we heed the old cliche to chew the meat while spitting out the bones. What I want to do today is offer a critique of the whole idea of love languages and then show how I have found them to be useful.

The Basics

The heart of the book is a description of 5 ways in which people tend to be wired or ways in which they tend to want to have love expressed to them: affirming words, gift-giving, physical touch, quality time and acts of service. Chapman believes that each of us has tendencies toward some of these and away from others. Each of us can probably take a look at the list and order them from 1 to 5. Some of us love being served while others of us love receiving gifts. But for others acts of service and receiving gifts are nearly meaningless. In his wisdom and kindness, God has made us to be very different even in the ways we give love and receive love.

There is no doubt that Chapman touches upon something real here. I need only look to my own marriage to see that Aileen and I both have our own “language.” The ways I can best express love to her are through quality time and acts of service while the way I love to receive love from her is through physical affection and quality time. Chapman’s idea, of course, is that I find out from Aileen how she likes to be loved and then begin to love her just like that. If quality time is at the top of her list, I will be sure to give her a lot of quality time. Implicit in this is that she will return the favor—she will learn my love language and love me that way in return. When we follow the model, a happy marriage will ensue. In this way, then, Chapman gives us a helpful way to describe the different ways we are wired and gives a realistic way of putting these love languages into action.

July 11, 2011

There was a time when Christians used militaristic language without shame. Only one or two generations ago, Christians often spoke of being part of an army fighting against the forces of darkness. Hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers” were sung often and were sung proudly. But in recent years, this type of language has fallen out of favor in the church. Many feel that this language serves to deter the unchurched from responding to the gospel. Unbelievers, it seems, do not respond well to the idea that they are to be conquered by an army.

Brian McLaren discusses this metaphor in his book A Generous Orthodoxy: “The human race has been conquered by an alien power or powers (Sin, the Devil, and Death are the most common antagonists, although Paul’s more ambiguous ‘principalities and powers’ could also be included). Jesus goes to battle with the alien power(s), and appears to be defeated in death, but his death turns out to be the undoing of the antagonist. In this metaphor, military terms such as battle, defeat, and conquering are predominant.” McLaren advocates rejecting this type of language and replacing it with something more appropriate for our culture. Such language, he argues, is contextual, which means that Christians are under no obligation to use it.

But other people believe that we need to rediscover this kind of military language. Stanley Gale, author of Warfare Witness: Contending with Spiritual Opposition in Everyday Evangelism, is one of these. Warfare Witness is a book dealing with spiritual warfare, a topic that has received surprisingly little attention in Reformed circles. Gale seeks to remedy this.

He believes that it is beneficial for Christians to have a militaristic understanding of the spiritual battle that rages around us. He bases his argument on the fact that this is exactly the kind of language God chose to use in the Bible. He writes, “Some might not feel comfortable with the military concept and terminology. Yet…this is exactly the way our King and Commander would have us understand the nature of evangelism and approach to the work of witness…All of us enfolded into the king of God, as children of God and heirs of life, are servants of the Most High and soldiers of the cross.”

July 07, 2011

This is now the third article in this series on homeschooling and public schooling. In the first article I offered a small glimpse at the changing Christian landscape when it comes to education and then placed education in the category of secondary doctrines or disputable matters. This brought us to Romans 14 where Paul writes about weaker and stronger Christians. In the second article I looked at how people who disagree on disputable matters ought to relate to one another and how each will be particularly prone to sin against the other.

Today we come to the tricky and unavoidable question: When we consider education, who is weak and who is strong? In certain ways I think this question has been answered along the way. Over the past 2 days I’ve seen quite a few ugly comments both here on the blog and on Facebook. The comments bear all the marks of temptations particular to the weak or the strong. And that is part of the reason that I wanted to wait until today to suggest who are the weak and the strong. A friend wrote me to say that by the end of the article he was already longing to be considered strong and already despising the weak. This gave him a good moment to examine his heart. It has certainly done the same for me.

Who Is Weak? Who Is Strong?

I think my answer is going to be disappointing. To be honest, I am a bit disappointed with it! I have thought about it a great deal and have changed my mind several times. Like most of you, I have wanted to believe that I am strong; I haven’t wanted to admit weakness. And yet someone must be weak and someone must be strong. Where there is disagreement on secondary issues there must be someone who has worked out more of the implications of being justified by grace through faith. So who is it? It is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

Maybe I can illustrate the tension by thinking back to the early days of homeschooling. Here we had public schooling as the norm in most Christian contexts. But then a few families pioneered what would soon turn into a powerful movement. As I understand strength in its Romans 14 context, these people were strong. They understood that God gave them freedom to go against the mainstream and to educate their children as they felt the Lord was leading them. Today, though, there may be a family in a church in which everyone else homeschools. Yet this one family feels the freedom to enroll their children in the public schools. In this context this family is strong, understanding that they have the freedom to educate their children in the way they have been convicted. In one case the homeschooler is strong and in the other the public schooler is strong. Please note that I have not said in either case that all of the other people in the church are weak.

July 06, 2011

Yesterday I began a short series on homeschooling, public schooling, and the ways in which we educate our children. I provided a small glimpse at the changing Christian landscape when it comes to education and then placed education in the category of secondary doctrines or disputable matters. Today’s article will be a little bit longer, so I’ll ask your patience as you read through it. In this article we will look at how people who disagree on disputable matters ought to relate to one another and how each will be particularly prone to sin against the other.

A Text

As Christians we are called by God to live in gospel community, to live with one another as family. We are to do so despite differences in what we believe, not at the core of the faith, but in matters that are of some dispute. Bound together by the gospel and sharing a common belief in the pillars of our faith, we are to love one another even through considerable diversity. This diversity extends not only to those of different races or colors or creeds, but also to those who understand Scripture in a way that is different than we do and, hence, to those who apply Scripture in a different way.

The fourteenth chapter of the book of Romans is a great gift to the church as it instructs us in how we are to live together even with different beliefs on secondary matters. In this passage the Apostle Paul distinguishes between 2 types of Christians, the strong and the weak, and tells them how they are to not only tolerate one another but how they are to love and accept one another. While Paul looks specifically to just 2 issues—vegetarianism and the observance of holy days—what he teaches is applicable to any other secondary issue within the church. As we look to the issues of public schooling and homeschooling, we will find great value in turning to this text and applying it to ourselves.

Important to the context of the chapter is that everyone Paul speaks about here is a Christian. He is not discussing issues in which a non-Christian disagrees with a Christian, but issues in which Christians disagree with one another. What we see is that Paul does not tell these people that they have to come to a common agreement. Rather, he allows them to hold differing views and instructs them on how to love one another even with those differences. What we learn is that being of the same mind in Christ and being part of the same family in Christ does not require that we think the same things about secondary matters.

Also important to the context of the chapter is that the people Paul writes to are not relying on their vegetarianism or on their observance of holy days to merit salvation. What they believe on these issues they believe only after affirming that they are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This is not an issue of how anyone is saved. Instead, it concerns one of the implications of living as one who has already been saved; it concerns living out of that faith.

With that in mind, let’s see what Paul has to say to the people in Rome and, by extension, to all of us who want to think rightly about homeschooling and public schooling.

July 05, 2011

Several years ago I wrote a series of articles in which I sought to explain why my wife and I have chosen to educate our children as we have. Since then I have often wanted to revisit the subject but have held back, largely because of the concern that whatever I write will inevitably offend people I love. I know people on both sides of the debate who have been badly wounded. This debate is so personal and so urgent that it is nearly impossible to discuss it without offending someone; I do not want to be a cause of unnecessary offense.

And yet this is an important matter and a matter of growing concern within the church. It is with some trepidation that I begin to take it up once more. I plan to take an approach that I hope will speak equally to people who are on either side of the debate and even to those who may be undecided. Primarily I want to talk about how the Lord calls us to relate to one another—how homeschoolers are to relate to public schoolers and how public schoolers are to relate to homeschoolers. I’ll leave the Christian schoolers among you to decide which group you most closely line up with; for sake of ease and clarity I will largely leave you out of this one.

Here is how I am going to proceed. Today I will take a brief look at the contemporary landscape within the church and make a couple of assumptions about the nature and importance of the debate over education. In the next article I will turn to the Bible to find guidance on how we will be prone to relate to one another over an issue like this one. From there we will see how the Bible can guide us as we seek to make wise decisions concerning education and how we can then relate to those who make a very different decision. What I want to do is get past the debate and to the heart—your heart and my heart.

The Landscape

Some people reading this article will have little context for the debate. In some parts of the Christian world homeschooling is almost unheard of while in other parts the public schools have long since been abandoned. But for many of us, perhaps even most of us, this is a very important and timely discussion. In my travels I have observed that the conservative Christian world, and the Reformed world at least, has begun a great migration away from the public schools so that today the majority of families in many churches, perhaps even most churches, are defaulting to homeschooling. Even those who do not homeschool continue to consider it and debate its merits. In most good-sized churches it is likely that you will find a mix of public and homeschooled families (and probably some Christian school families as well). Many families have or have had children in a combination of all 3. My own church seems typical with about two-thirds of the church homeschooled with the other one-third mostly in public school (there are a couple of children in Christian schools as well).

This represents a massive shift. When I was a child, homeschooling was a fringe option. I knew only a handful of people who were homeschooled. In those days the homeschoolers felt the weight of mockery and condemnation for stepping outside the mainstream. Today the situation is very nearly reversed. If you visit a conservative church and speak to those who have their children in public schools, you may well find that they now feel the weight of condemnation, or perceived condemnation, and that they feel as if they are the ones outside the church’s mainstream.

June 27, 2011

I grew up in a Christian culture in which very little evangelism took place. How little? The first believer’s baptism I ever witnessed was my wife (she was my girlfriend at the time) and that was when we were eighteen or nineteen. It was the first time our church had ever baptized an adult. And what’s more, it was the first time most of the people who attended that church had ever seen an adult get baptized.

A few years after my wife’s baptism we moved away from the town we had grown up in so we could be closer to my place of business. In the past decade we have been members of two different churches that place much greater emphasis on reaching the lost. We have seen many, many people come to faith, including several who are now close friends. We have seen lives altered dramatically and have seen more baptisms than we can count—baptisms in churches, rivers, pools, and a really big, ugly aluminum tank. We have shared in the joy of seeing people profess their faith by being baptized. It truly is one of the greatest joys of any church.

Over the years I’ve had to reflect on what made the churches I attended as a child and teenager so ineffective at evangelism. While there are several reasons I could provide, and they are of varying importance, there is one that I believe stands at the foundation of the rest: These churches often regarded the unbeliever as the enemy. Of course the church would never have articulated that belief, but it seemed to be deeply rooted.

This attitude manifested itself in many ways. One of the clearest ways was among the children of church members. They would rarely, if ever, be allowed or encouraged to play or even interact with the unsaved children in the neighborhood. I knew an “urban missionary” whose children were confined to their backyard and were forbidden from playing with the other children. The churched children were not allowed to play with other children lest they become corrupted by their worldliness.

My observation was that this approach failed and failed badly. First, the church was not faithful in its calling to take the gospel throughout the world. They preferred to exist in an enclave, safe from outside influences. Second, and ironically, the children developed a fascination with the world. I believe this was, in large part, because access to the outside world had been denied to them and they had never seen the pain and heartbreak that are the inevitable results of forsaking God. The world can look awfully attractive until a person sees the results of giving himself over to it. Third, the parents were prone to ignoring worldliness in their own children. I know that I saw more drugs, more drinking, more disrespect and more awful behavior in the Christian schools I attended than I did in the public schools. This isolation simply did not work. What I saw was that we do not need the world to teach us worldliness. Worldliness arises from within.

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