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Christian Living

September 06, 2010

A few years ago there was a strike at a juvenile detention center that is near my house. The institution lies directly between my house and pretty much every place I ever drive to, so I had to go by it just about every time I set out. Every day the strikers would update a little sign to tell the world how many days they had been sitting outside, waiting for someone to meet their demands. That number ticked higher and higher. Eventually I figured that if 150 days had gone by and life within the jail was continuing just fine, the employer had learned to get along quite well without the staff. Nevertheless, they contained to remain outside; they continued their strike.

There would always be at least 6 or 8 people sitting at the end of the driveway that leads into the detention center. They would sit in the middle of the driveway so they could block any cars coming in, forcing the drivers to wait a few minutes. On either side of the driveway were little huts they had constructed of shipping crates, plywood and old blue tarps. By all appearances they were held together with nothing but gravity and a bit of frayed nylon rope. Outside each hut was an oil barrel loaded with wood to provide warmth on cool nights.

There was an assortment of garbage, broken lawn chairs, barrels, signs and other assorted trash scattered around the strike site. Any time I drove by the employees would be sitting on lawn chairs either kicked back reading novels or playing cards. For the first few days they held signs and waved at cars, but that stopped before long. For a while they held signs claiming that working conditions were not safe enough. Yet since they were striking for more money, I suppose they would have been happy enough to have those conditions remain the same or even deteriorate if only they were given a bit more money. Those signs eventually disappeared.

August 31, 2010

Facebook. In so many areas of life it’s no longer an if, no longer an option. With 500 million users it is quickly becoming a near-essential tool for families, for businesses and yes, even for churches.

The good news is that Facebook has a lot to commend it; there many things it does very well and thus there are many ways in which Facebook can assist pastors and other ministry leaders. The bad news is that there are also (and inevitably) ways in which it can hinder ministry if not used well. Today I want to look at Facebook as a ministry tool and suggest a few ways in which it can help and hinder. Because of practical limitations I cannot tell you how to go about setting up an account, but at least I can give some suggestions on what to do once you’ve already joined and started to be active.

One of Facebook’s great benefits for you, as a ministry leader, is that it lets you be where your people are. If you are like most pastors, you will find that your church members are not only members of Facebook, but that they are active members. This is where people socialize, where they entertain themselves and where (occassionally) they discuss serious issues. This is not to say that you need to be on Facebook in order to effectively minister to your people, but it does give you one more way of interacting with them, and one that can be very effective. Facebook is at its heart a social media, one used to coordinate communication and this is where you will find that it assists ministry. However, there are a few areas in which you will need to be cautious.

Use Facebook to Supplement Real-World Ministry

As you consider using Facebook in your ministry, or as you consider how you are already using it, spend a few minutes thinking about what Facebook has replaced. It is generally true of new technologies that they do not just add something to life, but that they also replace something that is already there. In the case of Facebook, it may well be that it is replacing real-world face to face ministry. Facebook builds social connections and in some ways enhances them; but it can just as easily diminish them as it replaces offline life with online. There is always the temptation to take the easy route (Post “Happy Birthday” on someone’s wall instead of calling him; Send an email instead of meeting him for lunch). Be sure that you are not allowing Facebook to be an easy way of getting around difficult ministry. And make sure you are not using it to disincarnate yourself, to remove your physical presence from people’s lives.

So as you use Facebook, be careful to use it in a supplementary way, a way that supplements your real flesh and blood contact with the people you are seeking to serve. Use it to share event information, to get people remembering last week’s sermons and thinking toward next week’s, to get people singing the songs you sing and praying for what needs to be prayed for. Use it to share photographs of great events and to encourage people to make contact with one another. The ways it can supplement ministry are nearly endless. But all the while use it to push yourself toward, not away from, face to face contact.

Learn, But Don’t Be a Stalker

There are parts of the shepherding ministry that are active and parts that are passive. This is to say that in many cases you will inadvertently encounter information relevant to your ministry—things you need to act on. You may be told by a mutual contact that there is an important date coming up in another person’s life or that someone has committed a grevious sin. You did not go looking for the information; rather, it came to you. There are other times that you will be more proactive in seeking out information. You may approach a person and ask how he has been doing recovering from a surgery or you may ask him how he has done in the battle against a particular sin.

August 30, 2010

The ninth chapter of John describes a scene from the life of Jesus and one that was all too common. I wrote about it just a little bit last Monday (God’s Losers and Gainers) but want to return to it today. Let me set the scene. Jesus is walking from one place to another somewhere in the city of Jerusalem and passes by a man who has been blind from birth. During his ministry Jesus encountered hundreds of blind people and countless others who were lame or deaf or otherwise suffering from the effects of the Fall. We read endless examples of his sovereignty in healing these people, in touching them or spitting upon them or in simply commanding that the disability leave them

John 9 is just a little bit different. As he walks by this man, his disciples ask a question. “Rabbi,” they ask, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The disciples assume that this man’s blindness is a punishment that has been justly given him as a curse for his sin or perhaps for the sin of his parents. Somehow they just know that some action has necessitated this punishment. Jesus shocks them by answering, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In other words, he says “Neither—he was born this way so that God’s works should be shown in him.”

As I looked into this passage I came across Matthew Henry’s commentary on it. Henry does just an amazing job of showing what God was teaching here, what he wasn’t teaching here, and how it matters to you and me.

[Sufferings] are sometimes intended purely for the glory of God, and the manifesting of his works. God has a sovereignty over all his creatures and an exclusive right in them, and may make them serviceable to his glory in such a way as he thinks fit, in doing or suffering; and if God be glorified, either by us or in us, we were not made in vain. This man was born blind, and it was worth while for him to be so, and to continue thus long dark, that the works of God might be manifest in him.

Henry says here that God makes people serviceable to his glory and that he does so in the way he thinks fit. He may let us serve him in our actions or in our suffering. Regardless, as long as God can be glorified in us, then our lives are not in vain and our suffering is not in vain. No situation is useless or hopeless or irredeemable if God uses it to glorify himself. This man was born blind and suffered with blindness for a long time so that God could make himself known through him.

That is, First, That the attributes of God might be made manifest in him: his justice in making sinful man liable to such grievous calamities; his ordinary power and goodness in supporting a poor man under such a grievous and tedious affliction, especially that his extraordinary power and goodness might be manifested in curing him. Note, The difficulties of providence, otherwise unaccountable, may be resolved into this—God intends in them to show himself, to declare his glory, to make himself to be taken notice of.

August 23, 2010

A couple of years ago Paul (my pastor and co-elder at Grace Fellowship Church) wrote about an article in the Canadian media which stated that “The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada will recommend next month that all expectant mothers undergo screening for fetal abnormalities such as Down’s syndrome—not just those over the age of 35, as is the practice.”

Dr. Andre Lalonde, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Ottawa and the executive vice president of the SOGC, said the society decided to issue the recommendation so that a greater number of women would have the option to terminate their pregnancies should fetal abnormalities be detected.

“Yes, it’s going to lead to more termination, but it’s going to be fair to these women who are 24 who say, ‘How come I have to raise an infant with Down’s syndrome, whereas my cousin who was 35 didn’t have to?’” Dr. Lalonde said. “We have to be fair to give women a choice.”

“The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada will recommend that all expectant women younger than 40 be given nuchal translucency screening, followed by genetic counselling and amniocentesis if their risk for Down’s syndrome appears high.” Based on this article, Paul wrote:

I reject this proposal from personal experience. Although we rejected amniocentesis as an option in our son’s pregnancy (for the simple reason it might have killed him), we were given indicators through non-invasive testing that there might be a genetic problem. Readers of my blog will know that my son was born with a genetic defect labelled Williams Syndrome—a full-orbed physical and mental disability.

Is my son an accident? A faltering of the progressive cycle of evolution? A drain on society and its money? A thing not as valuable as a fully-functioning “normal” person?

My son is my flesh and blood and his worth is bound up in the fact he was made in the image and likeness of God, knit together in his mother’s womb and held together by the grace and power of Jesus Christ right now. If he never moved a muscle, never spoke a word, never made my life happier at any point, he would be no less valuable to the One who made Him. And no less valuable to me.

One does not have to be at our church for long, or to be with Paul and his family for long, to see how much joy this  boy brings to his parents, his sisters, and his church family. He is greatly valued and treasured because he is a treasure of great value. But in a sense this is largely irrelevant when it comes to this innate value and worth; the value of life is in the fact that it comes from God and is not affected by our desires, whims or preferences. Paul and his wife had no right to interfere with that life (and, thankfully, had no desire to interfere with it).

August 16, 2010

As you know, I’m hard at work on a book titled The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion. It is a book about Christian living in a digital, technological world. My deadline to hand in the manuscript is September 1 and it looks like I’m on track to hit that date.

A couple of days ago someone asked me “What’s the single biggest thing you’ve learned about technology in your studies?” That required a little bit of thought and I was kind of surprised to conclude that it’s actually something that ought to be really obvious. Yet when I understood this one simple thing, it changed the way I think about technology and the way I use it in my own life. It’s this: every technology brings with it both risk and opportunity. And this is particularly true, or particularly noticeable, when we think about intellectual technologies, those that in some way increase or supplement our mental abilities (which is pretty much what our digital technologies do). It’s obvious, right? But keeping it in mind makes all the difference.

Whether a technology introduces something radical and revolutionary or whether it simply provides a new solution to an old problem, this one thing remains true: every technology brings with it both risk and opportunity; every technology solves some problems while also introducing new ones, it opens up new opportunities even while imposing some new kinds of limitation.

August 10, 2010

I’ve shared here before that I often find it difficult to find real joy and freedom in my personal devotions. At times things go very well, but then inevitably it seems that difficulties creep in and I find that I come to dread my time spent reading and praying. What is at some times delight is at other times the most difficult of duties.

Over the years I have often tried programs, structures to keep me in some kind of reading plan. I’ve tried the plans that take me through the Bible in a year (or two years or…) and always I’ve found them difficult. If I make it through the Pentateuch I fall apart in the prophets. I’ve never successfully completed one.

A while back I stumbled upon Professor Horner’s Bible-Reading System. Though something always disturbs me about getting involved in a Bible-reading system (Would I want to do a date night system? A play-with-your-kids system?) I decided to give it a go. It’s unique among the systems I’ve attempted in that it requires more reading and yet somehow makes all that reading seem so much easier, enjoyable and attainable.

The system is quite simple—every day you read ten chapters of the Bible. That seems like a lot, so stick with me as I explain it. Each of the ten chapters will be from different books, which is to say that at any given time you’ll be reading ten books of the Bible concurrently, one chapter per day. So on day one of the system you will reading the first chapter of Matthew, Genesis, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Joshua, Isaiah and Acts. You will read each of these books, one chapter per day, and then go on to other books before repeating it all again. This means that every year you’ll read through all the Gospels four times, the Pentateuch twice, Paul’s letters 4-5 times each, the Old Testament wisdom literature six times, all the Psalms at least twice, all the Proverbs as well as Acts a dozen times, and all the way through the Old Testament History and Prophetic books about 1 1⁄2 times.

From the outside it looks like this will be a massive amount of work, a huge commitment of time. But I have found that it is not. The beauty of the system is that you will be reading every day at a pretty good clip. The purpose is not to spend a great deal of time in pondering each word, but in reading the Bible so much and so often that Scripture begins to explain Scripture. I have found that it takes me between 30 and 40 minutes per day, either in one chunk in the morning or in two chunks, one in the morning and one in the evening.

Professor Horners System

August 09, 2010

In this digital world, communications dominates. In 2010 141 million blogs were active, 1,052,803 books published, 4.5 billion text messages sent, 175 billion letters mailed, 247 billion emails delivered. Do you see the scope of it? Communication is all the rage. It is what we do for business, education, entertainment, devotion. While people have always communicated and have probably always wanted to communicate more, what is unique in our time is its sheer dominance. What has changed is not the fact that we can communicate and that we like to communicate, but the scope of the it, the speed of it and the reach of it. It is now the dominant paradigm through which we live our lives. Perhaps amidst all of the communication we are prone to forget that we do not need to communicate all the time or that it is not wise to do so all the time. It may be that communication is not always good, that it brings problems even with all of its benefits.

There are two realities that are important as we consider communications. The first is is this: Any study of technology, and especially technologies having to do with communication, will show that a new innovation brings both opportunities and costs. This innovation tends to wear the benefits on its sleeve while the drawbacks are buried deep within and take far longer to see. The second reality is that there is often a connection between technology and idolatry where technology enhances the existing idols in our lives (so that the man who makes sex into an idol will use his computer to pursue pornography, his cell phone to arrange illicit hook-ups, etc). So here we have two realities—that the benefits of a technology always come at a cost and that technology can be closely tied to idolatry.

Idols are typically good things that seek to become ultimate things. Communication is just the kind of good thing, the kind of very good thing, that can so easily become an ultimate thing. How would we know that there is an idol in our lives? It may be the kind of thing we look at right before we go to sleep and the first thing we give attention to when we wake up. It may be the kind of thing that keeps us awake even in the middle of the night. A 2010 study by Oxygen Media and Lightspeed Research sampled the the habits of 1,605 young adults. The researchers found that one third of women between the ages of 18 and 34 check Facebook when they first wake up, before they even head to the bathroom; 21% check it in the middle of the night; 39% of them declare that they are addicted to Facebook.

We might also know we serve an idol when it is something we carry around with us at all times. A Pew Research study found, not surprisingly, that cell phone use is nearly ubiquitous today. Three-quarters of teens and 93% of adults between ages 18 and 29 now have a cell phone. Cell phone use has grown substantially among pre-teens so that 58% of 12-year-olds now own one. Lisa Merlo is a University of Florida psychiatrist who studies digital addictions—addictions to the Internet and other technologies. She finds that for a growing number of people the need to be in constant communication is so powerful that they cannot even turn off their cell phones in order to sit through a two-hour movie. Their obsession with their phones resembles any other form of addiction. “As with traditional addictions, excessive cell phone use is associated with certain hallmark patterns of behavior, including using something to feel good, building up a tolerance and needing more of it over time to get the same feeling, and going through withdrawal if deprived of it.” Meanwhile a recent Japanese study found that children with cell phones tend not to make friendships with children who do not have them. And all of this is really just the tip of the iceberg. Communication is just what we do today.

By all appearances we have made communication into a kind of cultural idol. In most cases it is not Facebook or the cell phone that is the idol. Instead, they serve as enablers, as enhancers, of the greater idol of communication. Christians have proven to be far from immune to this idol, from following along as the culture around us becomes obsessed with communication and dedicates vast amounts of time and resources to it. Christians will do well to remember that in God’s economy communication is but a means to the far greater, far more noble end of enjoying God so we can bring glory to him. Communication can detract from this purpose just as easily as it can serve this purpose.

When words serve God, they draw hearts to what is of greatest importance. Such words are full of meaning, full of life. When words serve an idol, they distract, they damage, they focus on quantity over quality. Thus words call us not just to use them sinlessly, but to use them to share what is substantial, to say what is best, to encourage, to bless. In an age that can be almost unbearably light, frustratingly anti-intellectual, woefully unspiritual, words have the ability to draw people to what matters most.

August 03, 2010

Over the past few weeks I spent a good deal of time studying the life of General Stonewall Jackson. He is one of the more complex individuals I’ve studied—a man who had a strong sense of God’s sovereignty yet was something of a hypochondriac, a man who exhibited a great deal of Christian character who nevertheless also owned slaves. The tension between these things is what makes him so interesting to me. He was by no means a perfect man and this makes him all the more fascinating.

As I was reading about Jackson I also read a new book by John Stott—one I reviewed yesterday. In this book Stott points out eight areas in which he thinks Christians need to rediscover obedience if they are to be radical disciples of Jesus Christ. In Jackson I was looking to the past through twenty-first century lenses and in Stott’s book I was looking forward through those same lenses. One book showed what Christians have been, the other book suggests what one man says they ought to become.

Between these two books I have been given a lot to think about. One thing I found myself pondering is the areas in which Christians of the future will judge the Christians of today. You and I look to the southern Christians of the mid-1800’s and marvel that they could somehow believe that slavery was anything less than abhorrent. We look even to those who disliked slavery and wonder how they could have been so complacent, so passive in the face of such evil. “I am against slavery but feel we should let it die a natural death” does not impress us. But only outright arrogance could lead us to believe that we have no blind spots, no areas in which future generations of Christians will shake their heads and marvel that we could have been so blind.

So I spent some time thinking about those things, wondering where our blind spots may lie. And here are three possibilities, three suggestions.

Abortion

Christians hate abortion. We believe that God is the creator of life and believe that life begins at the very moment of conception. We believe that each life is a gift, whether it is a life that is wanted or unwanted by the mother, whether it is a life that will be “normal” or one that will be marked by profound disability. All humans are created in the image of God and, therefore, all life has intrinsic value. And if all of this is true, then of course we despise abortion and long to see it abolished. We hate it so much that we do…well…what do we do? If we are honest with ourselves we have to admit that most of us do not do much of anything.

What have you done in the past week, the past month, the past year to actively combat abortion? If you are like me, you’ve done very little. You may have prayed that God will change hearts and change the laws of the land. And this is good, of course. If there is to be any change, prayer will be instrumental. You may have spoken to some friends or neighbors or family members, trying to convince them of the value of life. But very few of us have done anything substantial, anything that could possibly one day appear in a history text. Few of us move beyond the “I hate it” stage into some form of active combat.

If we imagine Christians a century in the future, or perhaps two centuries, how will this kind of action, or inaction, appear to them? What will the verdict of history be? How will we be able to explain our complacency? They will read our words, all perfectly preserved in digital media, and they will know that we wrote and spoke about our hatred for abortion and our desire to see it abolished. But will they see actions to go along with all of those words? Maybe we are just waiting for it to die a natural death.

July 26, 2010

Centuries ago the Puritan preacher Richard Baxter penned some wisdom on the subject of reading. His concern was for people to become better, more discerning readers. His advice seems as timely today as it must have been for the men and women of the seventeenth century. It may be it is even more important today since we have access to far more books and writing (and blogs and web sites and Twitter feeds and e-books and…) than the Puritans could ever have imagined.

I’ve taken the liberty of adding annotations to his words of wisdom.

Make careful choice of the books which you read: let the holy scriptures ever have the pre-eminence, and, next to them, those solid, lively, heavenly treatises which best expound and apply the scriptures, and next, credible histories, especially of the Church … but take heed of false teachers who would corrupt your understandings.

Devotion to reading must never take pre-eminence over the study of Scripture. If we spend many hours every day reading but only a brief period of time studying the Scriptures, we would do well to examine our priorities. This is not to say there has to be a certain ratio (if I spend one hour reading the Bible I earn one hour of reading other material). Rather, it simply means that in our hearts, in our affections, the Bible must remain supreme. It is not a sign of spiritual health if we wake up eager to read a book but dreading time in the Bible. We should also take care if we find that we enjoy reading about the Bible more than we enjoy reading the Bible itself.

When we do read, we need to give priority to good books that increase our knowledge of and love for the Scriptures. Beyond them, it is wise to study the history of the church so we can never lose sight of our roots and seek to avoid the sins of our fathers. And finally, we should read with discernment and avoid submitting ourselves to the writings of false teachers who will corrupt our understanding of the truths of Scripture.

1. As there is a more excellent appearance of the Spirit of God in the holy scripture, than in any other book whatever, so it has more power and fitness to convey the Spirit, and make us spiritual, by imprinting itself upon our hearts. As there is more of God in it, so it will acquaint us more with God, and bring us nearer Him, and make the reader more reverent, serious and divine. Let scripture be first and most in your hearts and hands and other books be used as subservient to it. The endeavours of the devil and papists to keep it from you, doth shew that it is most necessary and desirable to you.

Baxer reiterates that the Bible must be pre-eminent. The Bible alone is God’s full, inerrant, infallible, authoritative revelation to us and we must treat it accordingly; it must be first and most. All other books must take a subservient and complementary role to Scripture.

July 05, 2010

My knowledge of Scripture is nowhere near encyclopedic. However, I am quite sure that if I were to sit back today and read the Bible from cover to cover I would not find a direct command from God saying “Thou shalt read the Bible daily.” I would not find a guide to personal devotions and I wouldn’t find chapter and verse requiring daily quiet times. However, neither do I need to have that kind of explicit command in order to understand the value of spending time every day reading the Bible.

When I think about the area of daily Bible study I find my mind drawn to the issue of assurance of salvation—whether or not a Christian can be certain that he is saved. I think I am led this way because the Bible is so central, so integral to the Christian life, that to feel no love for it, no desire to study it, must be a sign of spiritual sickness. I would certainly never say that a person who does not want to study the Bible or who does not enjoy studying the Bible is not a Christian. But I would venture to say that the Christian life is so dependent upon Scripture that a person who has no regard for the Bible and who shows little interest in it would have good reason to seriously consider his salvation. Such a person would do well to examine his soul to see if he really has come to know the Lord.

Let’s look to just a few reasons why we, as Christians, should desire to know and study the Bible.

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