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Christian Living

February 19, 2014

When I was a child my family owned a cottage—a beautiful cottage where I spent every summer of my childhood. On those long, warm, summer evenings, we would sometimes have friends and neighbors from up and down the road converge on our property for giant games of capture the flag. Those were grand nights—the kind of nights that form indelible memories.

One of the things I loved to do when we played capture the flag was to set trip lines. I would string a rope between two trees and wait in the dusk for some unsuspecting person to stumble across it and go down. Looking at it through adult eyes it sounds like a recipe for a cracked skull or broken ankle, but it seemed like good, clean fun back then.

The memory of stringing trip lines flashed into my mind recently, because something I read in a book took me out at the knees, so to speak. And down I went.

Vaughan Robert’s little book True Friendship has a lot to commend it, but there is one thing that stood out more than any other. Before I get to it, though, allow me a brief aside. I’ve thought often about this old blog post from Bob Kauflin:

But even if I don’t read as many books as others, I read. If I’m not reading, I’m relying on my memory. Which seems to be decreasing daily. So I read. I once heard someone say that books don’t change people - sentences do. If I glean two or three sentences from a book that affect the way I think and the way I live, that’s time well invested. So I read. Books give me the opportunity to learn from and about godly, bright, insightful people I’ll never meet. So I read. What I know will always be dwarfed by what I don’t know. So I read. Books help me become more effective at what I do. So I read.

I read for the same reasons. Like Bob, I forget almost everything I read. But I don’t mind, because I don’t want or need to remember everything, so long as I find those two or three sentences that will be resounding in my heart and mind a week or month or year from now.

February 05, 2014

The earliest messages are often the longest-lasting messages. Charles Spurgeon said that the voices of childhood echo throughout life so that “The first learned is generally the last forgotten.” This can be a tremendous blessing when truth is taught early and when it sinks in deep. It is for this reason that Christians have valued catechizing their children, teaching them the foundational truths of the faith while they are young. But this same principle can prove troublesome when the first lessons learned are poor ones, because those lessons are hard to correct and harder still to erase.

From a young age boys invariably receive one very unhelpful message: that men can be friends, but that there are strict, though unwritten, limits on how close a friendship they can have. Boys are taught that friendships are good, but that friendships can only grow to such an extent before they are good no longer.

From my youngest days I knew that it was good to have a friend, but that a friendship could only be so close before our closeness would “out” us. If that happened, I would be called “Sissy!” at best, “Queer!” or a host of other degrading synonyms at worst. We could play rough and tumble games together. We could play with the approved toys together. But we had to be very careful with relational closeness or dependency, because the other boys were watching with suspicion and judgment. The fathers may even have been watching with a wary eye, wondering if relational intimacy might just portend sexual intimacy. We had to be strong, independent, and self-reliant, knowing that every close friendship walked near a cliff and there would be fearful consequences if we came to close to its edge. We could be pals, we could be buddies, but we couldn’t love one another.

In his excellent little book True Friendship (just $2.99 on Kindle!), Vaughan Roberts quotes James Wagenvoord who describes the messages men absorb:

He shall not cry. He shall not display weakness. He shall not need affection or gentleness or warmth. He shall comfort but not desire comforting. He shall be needed but not need. He shall touch but not be touched. He shall be steel not flesh. He shall be inviolate in his manhood. He shall stand alone.

This is the idea of manhood we assimilate before we are old enough to think for ourselves, before we are able to evaluate for ourselves. This is the idea of manhood we absorb before we are capable of going to the Bible to learn for ourselves that it teaches something very different and so much better.

It is not difficult to see Satan’s hand in it, is it? He sees that if he can keep men from forming close friendships, he can keep men from forming close spiritual friendships. If Satan can keep men from acting like friends, he can keep them from acting like brothers.

I have been thinking a lot about friendship recently and realizing the truth of Spurgeon’s statement. Those early lessons really are hard to forget. They are difficult to overcome.

But I’m trying.

January 30, 2014

I once had a job I hated. Day after day I sat in a windowless basement office surrounded by hot, noisy computers. Day after day nothing happened. I had no major projects to inspire me, no big goals to work toward, no clear mission to fulfill. It was a bland and boring existence down there, just waiting for something interesting to happen. But nothing ever did, at least until the day came when they laid me off. I hated that job. I hated going to that office. The eventual pink slip, though intimidating and humiliating, was also something of a relief because at least it promised an end to those days.

I have thought about that job many times as the years have passed. Sometimes it is in the context of periods when the job I do now, a job I love, seems dull and insignificant, when pastoring involves more paperwork than people. Sometimes it is in talking to Aileen who often struggles with the humdrum nature of the work she does in keeping house and raising family. Sometimes it is in talking to other people who feel their skills exceed their opportunities, or who believe their training ought to take them beyond the tasks that consume their working hours.

And then I think back to that job in network administration, to the grumbling and discouragement, and in retrospect, and upon further reflection, I have to own my guilt in it. What I see more than anything, and what concerns me more than anything, was my utter lack of joy in what I was doing. I fully believe that job was my calling, my vocation, at that time in life, and yet I did it without any passion, any drive. I did it without any joy. I failed at my calling in that time and in that place. I deserved to be laid off!

But the job wasn’t the problem. I was the problem because I refused to attach any significance to the work I was doing. The work was boring and mundane, dull and tedious, because I allowed it to be that way. I wasn’t thinking Christianly about that job or the work I was meant to do there. My lack of joy in doing my job was a direct result of the lack of significance I attached to it.

Here’s the thing I had to see, and the thing I still need to call to mind: Work is not significant only when it utilizes my full capacity or full capabilities. Work is not significant only when it offers unusual challenge or special opportunity. Work is not significant only when it is measurable in dollars and cents or praise and compliments. Work has intrinsic significance because it gives me the opportunity to do something with joy—with joy in the Lord. I can do my work in such a way that it glorifies God, or I can do it in such a way that it dishonors him. Anything I can do to God’s glory has significance. It has great significance!

January 22, 2014

My children are growing up fast and, between you and me, they’re growing up a little bit faster than I had expected. My son is thirteen now, just a half school year away from being in high school. I sometimes find myself remembering when I was thirteen, and the kinds of things I awakened to and became interested in. Though I see now that I was only a kid, I was sure that I was all grown up. It’s disquieting at best. Meanwhile my oldest daughter is 11, going on 16. I love her to death, but she too is getting far too old for her own good. There are three kids in our home, but only one of them is still a child.

As my kids grow up, I find that I need to have important but uncomfortable discussions with them. They are unfortunate discussions, but the kind you’ve got to have in a world like ours. I suppose the only thing worse than having those discussions is not having them.

Some time ago we implemented a plan in our home to protect the kids from some of what lurks out there on the Internet. We removed Internet access from some devices, limited it on others, and applied filters that keep tabs on what we are doing online. It has been very smooth from a technological perspective, but a little less so on the interpersonal level.

Recently my son said, “Dad, you’re treating me like I’m addicted to pornography. But I haven’t ever seen it and don’t want to see it!” And he’s right, to some degree. If I’m not treating him like an addict, I am at least treating him like a pre-addict, someone who has the inclination, or who may well have it before long. In this way I think I understand him a little better than he understands himself. Of course our Internet plan is not designed only to protect the children from exposure to pornography, but that is still one of its major purposes.

But his exasperation and hurt feelings gave us opportunity to talk about one of the principles I have found helpful in my own life: When you are at your best, plan for when you are at your worst. I see this as an application of 1 Corinthians 10:12-13: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

January 15, 2014

Every pastor, and I suppose every Christian as well, has a kind of theological toolbox, a means of dealing with the questions and concerns that appear throughout life. I was thinking recently about the tools I use most often and narrowed it down to two. There are two grids I’ve found especially helpful, and ones I return to again and again, not only in my own life, but also as I interact with others.

What Is of Primary Importance?

How do we know which of the Christian doctrines are most important? How do we know where we must stand firm without wavering and where we may be able to work with others despite differences? While no truth is insignificant, there are clearly some doctrinal foundations that, if disrupted, will force the whole structure to collapse.

I have been helped here by Al Mohler who borrowed from the medical world to describe theological triage. Theological triage is a means of sorting doctrine into three levels of theological urgency.

First-level doctrines are those that are those that are most central and essential to the Christian faith. They are doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture. These are the doctrines that demanded councils and creeds. These are the doctrines that if you deny, you will soon deny the Christian faith altogether.

Second-level doctrines are significant issues, but ones for which there is still disagreement among gospel-believing Christians. We can still affirm the faith of those who believe the opposite of what we believe, but we may not be able to enjoy denominational or local-church fellowship with them. These are issues such as the meaning and mode of baptism, and whether or not women are permitted to serve as pastors.

Third-level doctrines are those for which Christians may disagree, even while maintaining the closest kind of fellowship. You and I may believe different things here, but it will not diminish our fellowship and we can easily participate in the same local church. Eschatology is an example of this kind of doctrine, where as long as we affirm the bodily and victorious return of Jesus Christ, we may disagree on exactly what sequence of events will lead to it.

Theological triage sorts doctrines into one of these three categories and helps us see which issues are the most urgent and important and which issues ought to receive the most thorough and vigorous defense. This is a tool I find myself pulling out of my toolbox again and again.

How Can I Know God’s Will?

How do we know what God desires from us? How can we know God’s will for our lives? This is a question we all ask at various points in life and it is a question we all need to help others with from time to time. The tool I use here simply requires asking three questions.

January 13, 2014

Marriage is under attack. Marriage has always been under attack. The world, the flesh and the devil are all adamantly opposed to marriage, and especially to marriages that are distinctly Christian. Marriage, after all, is given by God to strengthen his people and to glorify himself; little wonder, then, that it is constantly a great battleground.

I have been thinking recently about some of the foremost foes of Christian marriage and, really, the foremost foes I see creeping up to assault my own marriage. Here are 6 deadly enemies of marriage, and Christian marriage in particular.

Neglect of Foundation

The enemy of marriage that deserves to be at the very top of the list is this one: neglecting the foundation—neglecting the biblical foundation. The Bible makes it clear that marriage is an institution decreed by God and an institution meant to glorify God by displaying something about him. The great mystery of marriage is that the covenantal relationship of husband and wife is a portrait of the covenantal relationship of Christ and his church. Marriage is from God, about God, to God, and for God, so we neglect God at our peril. It is only when the biblical foundation is in place that we are able to rightly understand how a husband and wife are to relate, how they are to take up their separate roles, and how they are to seek to bring glory to God both individually and as a couple. To build marriage on any other foundation is to neglect the rock in favor of building upon the sand.

Neglect of Prayer

Prayer is our lifeline, the means through which we praise God, express our gratitude, confess our sin, and plead for help. The couple that prays together is confessing before God that they are dependent upon him, that they are unable to thrive without him. Private prayer is essential to the Christian life, and prayer as a couple is essential to the Christian marriage. Here, kneeling at the bedside or sitting by the fire, the husband and the wife meet with the Lord together, praising him for his goodness and grace, confessing their sin against him and against one another, and pleading for his wisdom and help. When prayer ceases, the couple is tacitly proclaiming that they can survive and thrive on their own, that they do not need God’s ongoing, moment-by-moment assistance. Prayerlessness is a great foe of marriage.

Neglect of Fellowship

Another great enemy of marriage is a lack of fellowship—local church fellowship. Satan loves it when he can compel an individual to withdraw from the church; how much better when he can draw away a couple or a whole family. When a married couple leaves the church, or even pulls back to just doing the bare minimum, they are leaving the place where they are meant to see healthy marriage modeled, where they are able to worship together side-by-side, where they will find friends before whom they can open up their marriage so others can see and diagnose their struggles. Marriage thrives in the context of the local church and withers outside it.

January 10, 2014

Praying in circles is fast becoming a thing in some Evangelical churches. People have been taught to draw circles around the things they want, or even to walk in circles around the things they are sure the Lord ought to grant them. In either case, they are to pray around those things and in that way to claim them for the Lord.

The inspiration, I suppose, is Mark Batterson and his book The Circle Maker (my review). Batterson bases his prayer technique on a story from the life of Honi Ha-Ma’agel, a Jewish scholar who lived in the first century B.C. Jewish history records him as being a miracle-worker in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha. Here is a brief account of his greatest miracle:

On one occasion when God did not send rain well into the winter (in the geographic regions of Israel, it rains mainly in the winter), he drew a circle in the dust, stood inside it, and informed God that he would not move until it rained. When it began to drizzle, Honi told God that he was not satisfied and expected more rain; it then began to pour. He explained that he wanted a calm rain, at which point the rain calmed to a normal rain.

Batterson explains, “The prayer that saved a generation was deemed one of the most significant prayers in the history of Israel. The circle he drew in the sand became a sacred symbol. And the legend of Honi the circle maker stands forever as a testament to the power of a single prayer to change the course of history.”

And it is from Honi that Batterson found the inspiration to begin praying in circles. In his book he describes many occasions in which he has prayed in circles and seen the Lord grant what he asked. The promise of his book is that it “will show you how to claim God-given promises, pursue God-sized dreams, and seize God-ordained opportunities. You’ll learn how to draw prayer circles around your family, your job, your problems, and your goals.”

I want to give you three reasons not to pray in circles in the manner Batterson prescribes.

It’s Extra-Biblical

What I consider most notable about Batterson’s approach to prayer is that it is extra-biblical. It is not drawn from the New Testament or the Old Testament but from the Talmud. To the Jew the Talmud is the authoritative, binding body of religious tradition; to the Christian it is nothing, no more binding and no more prescriptive than Encyclopedia Britannica. It may be of historical and academic interest, but it does not represent the voice of God to his people. When Batterson prays in circles, he begins with a tradition outside the Bible and then looks within the Scripture to build a shaky support structure.

January 08, 2014

You have heard the distinction as often as I have—the distinction between head knowledge and heart knowledge. We learn facts about God, about his character, about his Word, but it is not until those facts reach the heart that they become spiritually beneficial. They say the journey from the head to the heart is the longest journey of all.

I’ve never been too comfortable with this distinction between head knowledge and heart knowledge, and recently Andrew Davis helped me sharpen my thinking a little bit. In his book An Infinite Journey (see my review) he tells about a testimony he once heard.

“I grew up in a Christian home, said the young lady who was sharing her testimony at an evening church service, “and I learned a lot about the Bible. But it was all head knowledge, not heart knowledge. It wasn’t until all that head knowledge moved down to my heart that my life began to change.” I watched as she pointed from her head to the center of her chest, to represent the movement of this knowledge, almost like the journey food travels through the esophagus to the stomach.

We have all heard people speak like this and we know what they are getting at. Yet here’s my concern: When we speak in this way, we pit the two kinds of knowledge against one another, with head being the enemy and heart being the friend. It’s like we need to battle the head in order to reach the heart, or like head knowledge is the necessarily evil we need to endure to reach the heart.

Now obviously there is a genuine concern that is being addressed in language like this. I was once much like this young lady. I grew up in a Christian home and knew facts about God and the Bible and the Christian faith, but without actually being saved. I think of a man like Bart Ehrman who, though an ardent enemy of Christianity, has a vast knowledge of the Bible. In God’s Word we encounter demons who know that God exists. We encounter apostates who once professed the Christian faith and knew a great deal about it before they wandered away and eventually revoked the faith.

December 30, 2013

I like to be strong. At least I like to appear strong. You do too, I think. Most of us value strength and look down on weakness. We honor those who have their lives together and regard with suspicion those who do not.

Strength = good, weakness = bad. That is our functional formula. But it is not the Lord’s. 2 Corinthians 12 says it very differently: “ ‘My grace is sufficient for you,” said the Lord, “ ‘for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Paul saw that weakness, not strength, was key to his ministry. He had to own his weakness so the Lord could fill him with strength. The stronger he was, the weaker the power of God would be; the weaker he was, the greater the power of God would be.

Kent Hughes says it well:

But what we most need to see is that power in weakness is shorthand for the cross of Christ. In God’s plan of redemption, there had to be weakness (crucifixion) before there was power (resurrection). And this power-in-weakness connection is what Paul reflected on when he contemplated Christ’s praying three times amidst his weakness and powerlessness in Gethsemane before his death on the cross, which was followed by the power of the resurrection! Paul came to understand and embrace the fact that his thorn in the flesh was essential to his ongoing weakness and the experience of Christ’s ongoing power.

Paul knew of Jesus, who was not afraid to let other people see his weakness. When he became weary and overwhelmed he would just up and disappear, heading into the wilderness to get some time with his Father. When he was in the garden he took some of his friends with him and asked if they would watch and pray. He knew weakness and he did not try to bluster his way through it.

December 16, 2013

We all have some familiarity with that deep, gnawing, pit-of-the-stomach anxiety, that stubborn worry that refuses to abate. The cause and effect may be a little different for each one of us, but we all have a time and a place and set of circumstances that causes us to be anxious.

In his book Running Scared, Ed Welch makes 4 fascinating observations about worriers and their brand of vision-casting.

Worriers Live in the Future

Worriers live in the future. We are all people of the past, present and future, and worry has a way of spanning all three time zones. Fear is often triggered by past events, then reacts to crises in the present, and anticipates their consequences in the future. Fear’s preference, though, is to point you to the future, and to do this it relies upon the power of imagination.

We tend to think that imagination is the realm of the child, but it is equally the realm of the worrier. We have imaginations so we can consider things that do not yet exist. We admire people with expansive imaginations as visionaries, people who are able to look ahead and anticipate the trajectory of the nation, of the church, of the business, or of the individual. The worrier is a visionary too, in that he sees, or thinks he sees, the future, and what it will bring. He lives in the future. He creates a vision of the future, he transplants himself there in his mind, and he feels all the traumatic emotions associated with it.

Worriers See the Future in Minute, Gory Detail

Worriers live in the future, and they see that future in minute, gory detail. I cannot say it better than Welch: “Worriers are visionaries minus the optimism.” That stings. Where a visionary has an optimistic view of the future based on his ability to see current patterns and predict a better alternative, a worrier sees the future in great detail, but always in gory detail. When she anticipates tomorrow’s medical appointment, she is already living in a future where her child is battling cancer and succumbing to it. When she sees her child pulling out of the driveway, she catches a vision of twisted metal and broken bodies. She sees the future, but she sees it as bleak and disappointing.

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