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Christian Living

September 16, 2010

Last night we received the shocking news that one of our next-door neighbors had taken his life just a few hours prior. He was only fourteen years old. Though he was a boy who suffered from Asperger’s and a few obsessive kinds of disorders, he was still, by all appearances, quite a normal kid—a reclusive one, but one who was still a presence in the neighborhood. Yesterday, while out with his mother, he threw himself off a building and fell to his death. We grieve for the family he left behind—for his mother, his sister and his two brothers.

Later today, when my children return home from school, we will need to tell them the sad news. It is a difficult thing to have to tell young children—that a child who lived next door took his own life. As I lay in bed this morning, wondering how I could best explain it to them, I thought back to an old blog post I had written. Though I wrote it seven years ago, it seemed somehow fitting to post it again today since the issues will be the same as I explain death to my three children, all of whom have been blessedly protected from its harsh reality through their young lives.

*****

My son is three years old and has recently begun to become aware of the existence of death. At only three he has far greater capacity to wonder and to ask questions than he does to understand. This makes it difficult and as his father I struggle to try to share with him what death is and how something so terrifying and so final can be made an occasion of wondrous joy.

Today while my wife was at a Bible study, Nick and I settled down to watch a movie. It was a children’s movie and at the end one of the central characters died. I watched Nick as this event unfolded. I could see his face fall and his eyes narrow as the character died. I saw tears form as he watched the loved ones gather around their fallen friend. He turned to me and with tears spilling down his cheeks sobbed, “Daddy, why did he have to die? When is he going to come alive again?” I pulled him to my lap and reminded him of heaven and told him that people who love God go to heaven when they die. I told him how heaven is a place where there is no more death, no more fighting and no more sadness. I told him that it is a place where we can always be with God and where boys and their daddies can be together forever. He tried so hard to understand, but how is a three-year old mind supposed to understand a concept as large and as unnatural as death?

September 13, 2010

The best defense is a good offense. I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase before. Though initially meant for a military context, it has since been applied to all kinds of situations far beyond warfare. It has also been turned around so occasionally you will hear people say, “the best offense is a good defense.” Today we most often hear in the phrase in the context of sports, and now that football season is upon us—the sport of a thousand cliches—I suspect we will be hearing it a lot.

When it comes to sports, it is often the case that a strong offense is the best defense. After all, a team with strong offensive production denies the other team the ability to control the ball and to tally points. The phrase works well in sports like soccer or hockey where, especially in the game’s closing minutes, a team will attempt to control the ball (or puck) for long periods, knowing that this will keep the other team from scoring. But maybe it works best in football. Football is a sport I used to watch a lot and there were many occasions where I saw games where the first possession would last an entire quarter, or very close to it. As the team marched slowly up the field, with play after play, they maintained constant possession of the ball. The defensive team remained on defense and had no opportunity to put any points on the board. The best teams have this down to an art and have mastered the ability to take large chunks of time off the clock while accomplishing little more than keeping the ball out of the other team’s hands. In this case offense serves as defense. The offensive team plays defensively, not attempting to score points as much as they try to keep the other team from getting control of the ball.

The more I live this Christian life, the more I see that there is a spiritual level of truth in that old and worn phrase. The best defense really is a good offense. The best way to protect my heart and life is to be constantly on the offensive. It is in those times that I ease off, those times where I grow complacent and disinterested, that I am most prone to sin, most prone to wandering. It is in those times that I begin to lose battles. The words of 1 Corinthians 10:12 seem applicable: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” When I think I can stand on my own power I am priming myself for a great fall.

September 08, 2010

Occasionally I attempt to think back to all of the questions I receive from readers of this site. I try to think of things I have been asked many times but have never written about. One that came to mind recently is rather a simple question: Under what circumstances may I leave my church? Quite often I receive emails from readers who are concerned that their church no longer preaches sound doctrine or perhaps no longer offers skillful teaching. And they want to know if the Bible allows them or even compels them to move on.

We live in an age of consumerism and this leaves us accustomed to prioritizing our needs and, even more so, our desires, above all else. We march out of stores that do not carry the products we want at the prices we demand; we customize our lives, from the clothes we wear to the cell phones we carry. In all things we are sovereign, we are discerning consumers who demand that things be done our way.

But church is an area where consumerism ought to be the furthest thing from our minds. At church we are part of an involuntary community which is pieced together by God. We are placed under spiritual authorities and are to be subject to them. We need to be very careful, then, to examine our hearts and examine our motives before withdrawing membership from a church. Sadly, though, there are certain situations in which this becomes a necessity.

There are good reasons to leave a church and there are bad reasons to leave a church. I dare say that there are far more bad reasons than good reasons. There are times where you must leave and times when you may leave. In this brief article I want to point to a few of those good reasons. Perhaps another time I can focus more on the really bad ones.

You Must Leave

Most of the reasons you must leave relate to leadership. If the leaders of a church show contempt and disregard for the Bible and for sound doctrine, you are called to separate yourself from them. And it may well be that the only way to do this is to leave your church (though in some circumstances you may be able to have the leaders removed).

Here are four situations in which the Bible tells you that you must leave a church.

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.

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