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Christian Living

May 10, 2013

Not every idea becomes a book. Not even every good idea becomes a book. Between the author and the bookstore stand agents, editors and publication committees tasked with deciding on the few books worthy of time, effort, advances and marketing dollars. I have had far more ideas rejected than accepted. Books on simplicity, the environment, evangelism, pornography and probably many more besides have received the trademark “Thanks, but no thanks.” There is one that haunts me: Ordinary: Christian Living for the Rest of Us.

Yesterday I did some maintenance in Evernote, an application I use to store ideas. I came across the files for Ordinary and my finger hovered over the “delete” button for a moment. It was tempting, but something compelled me instead to open my word processor and begin to write. I couldn’t kill the idea because it is just too near to me. It has been on my mind for three years, at least, and in the back of my mind for far longer than that.

I believe there is an intangible kind of value in living a book before writing a book. The best books are the ones that flow not out of theory but out of experience. Better still are the ones that combine proven theory with actual experience, the ones the author writes in that sweet spot, that point of overlap between the two. Theory is easy to come by; experience is hard won. Theory comes quickly—you need only read a book or two; experience comes only with the slow march of the time that challenges and so often obliterates the theory. I can almost always tell a book that is all theory and no experience. It is a book of head instead of heart, law instead of grace, impossibility instead of practicality.

Ordinary is a book I have lived. I live it every day. I live an ordinary life, pastor an ordinary church full of ordinary people, and head home each night to my ordinary little home in an oh-so-ordinary suburb. I preach very ordinary sermons—John Piper or Steve Lawson I am not and never will be—and as I sit with the people I love I am sure I give them very ordinary counsel. A friend recently confessed his initial disappointment the first time he visited my home and got a glimpse of my life. “Your house is so small and your life is so boring.” Indeed. It’s barely 1,100 square feet of house and forty hours every week sitting at a desk.

May 06, 2013

Paul Miller got paid to stay off the Internet. For a whole year he drew a salary to remain offline and to record the experience of living disconnected. For a whole year he abandoned email and Twitter, blogs and Google Maps, Skype and Facebook, and all the other digital destinations that have become so much a part of our lives. 365 days later he sat down to record his experiences in what has become one of those articles everyone is talking about.

As his journey began, he forecasted that at the end of the year he would be telling us his year away had refreshed and recharged him, it had proven our new technologies are destroying our lives and our communities, disconnecting had give him the peace he was looking for, the enlightenment he longed for.

But such lessons were not easy to come by. At first he enjoyed his break from modern life. He got more active and lost weight and found ways of connecting and reconnecting with family and friends. Without the Internet to distract him he found renewed vigor to visit people in their homes and to get out into the community. For a while the experience seemed to deliver what it had promised.

But not for a long. Soon he had to admit, “I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.” The good habits he formed after unplugging soon fell by the wayside and he realized they had been attractive for a time more for their contrast with the digital life than for their intrinsic value. Soon these things, too, lost their luster. He was right back where he began, albeit offline.

My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the “real” Paul and get in touch with the “real” world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet. Not to say that my life wasn’t different without the internet, just that it wasn’t real life.

He thought that real life was to be found offline but discovered that the lines are not quite so clear. There is value in connecting face-to-face and in being present offline. But much of the Internet is also relational. The Internet is people. He was as lonely offline as he had been online. Unplugging alone was not a remedy to relationship, to productivity, or to much of anything else.

The big lesson he draws from all of this feels awfully unsatisfying.

May 01, 2013

Socially AwkwardAwkwardness is a cultural phenomenon. Jump over to Google and begin to search for “awkward” and you’ll soon find lists, photos and videos of awkward everything—awkward family photos, awkward celebrity moments, awkward missed high-fives, awkward moments in history, and pretty much anything else that could possibly be considered awkward.

Even my kids know what it is to be awkward. It is not unusual for them to blurt out in one of those moments, “AW-kward!” They don’t know a whole lot about how life and relationships work, but they do know that it’s uncomfortable when things have gone wrong. Awkwardness comes about, after all, when social situations do not go quite as we intended; it is that feeling of discomfort or embarrassment that arises when social desires and expectations are missed.

So where did this cultural obsession with awkwardness come from? Why are we suddenly so concerned with it? Adam Kotsko makes a compelling argument that much of it stems from our entertainment. It is no doubt enhanced by our dedication to social media through which our awkwardness can go viral. He says, “Awkwardness is everywhere, inescapable. Awkwardness dominates entertainment to such an extent that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember laughing at anything other than cringe-inducing scenes of social discomfort.” Shows like The Office, especially the original British series, delight in it; shows and movies starring Sacha Baron Cohen revel in it; Curb Your Enthusiasm has been to awkwardness what Seinfeld was to irony. Comedies, especially those R-rated comedies targeted at teens and the immature, champion it.

As our awareness of awkwardness has grown, so too has our concern it so that, as Kotsko says, “We are masters at diagnosing it, if not avoiding it.” Now that we have a cultural awareness of its presence, power and difficulty, we find ourselves wallowing in it.

Our middle-class whites are absolutely hopeless when it comes to dealing with those of other cultures, wondering whether and how to note the difference, what kinds of questions to ask and not to ask—chafing at the supposed constraints of ‘political correctness’ yet feeling very acutely the pressure to differentiate themselves from their low-class and presumably racist Caucasian confreres. And when we all come home at night exhausted from a long day of awkwardness, what do we do but watch yet another cavalcade of awkwardness.

Awkwardness is like watching a car accident. You don’t really want to see it, but you also can’t look away. “The participants in an awkward situation might flee the scene, but in the moment of awkwardness, they are strangely exposed, forced to share to varying degrees in the experience of awkwardness and indeed even drawing innocent bystanders into their impromptu circle. The experience of awkwardness, then, is an intrinsically social one.” There is joy in the horror of awkwardness, perverse appeal in its agony.

April 24, 2013

Stuff Christians Say” obviously struck a nerve; it has racked up tens of thousands of views on YouTube and hundreds of thousands on GodTube. Two guys hop between various locations while offering a long list of “stuff Christians say,” those words and phrases distinct to Christianity. “God thing,” “secular music,” “my testimony,” “traveling mercies”—they are all here. It’s appropriate satire because it rings true. As Christians we can become oblivious to the fact that we have developed a lexicon all our own.

“Stuff Christians Say” got me thinking about not only the little words we use, but the big ones, the theological descriptors. I have often encountered articles telling us that we should avoid using big and unusual words to describe what we believe. The “-ologies” should be avoided—soteriology, eschatology and Christology. So too should the words that are used almost exclusively by Christians—propitiation, sanctification, hermeneutics. After all, what could be more seeker-unfriendly than inviting a person to church and then using words that have no meaning to him? Won’t this make that visitor feel like an outsider?

It seems to me that there are at least two varieties of words in the Christian lexicon, those that are trite and those that are specific. “God thing” is a trite phrase that has no objective meaning and there is not much to lose if we never use it again. “Propitiation” is a very precise term that has a distinct meaning. It is this second category that I believe we need to hold on to and we need to hold on to such words without shame. We impoverish ourselves when we lose these words. We impoverish ourselves if we never learn and teach these words.

I cannot think of any other field or area in which the use of unique and difficult words and phrases is deemed inappropriate or less than ideal. Instead, we educate people to understand what those words mean and then to use them appropriately. Any doctor will testify that a large part of his education was learning the precise terms for the various parts and functions of the body and the very precise ways of referring to conditions and diseases. It would not inspire confidence in your doctor to hear him say, “Well, it looks like you’ve got an owie on that dangly thing in the back of your mouth.” You would not want to turn your fridge over to an appliance repairman who pulled the fridge out, took a look, and said, “I think it’s leaking and you need some more of the cold-making stuff.” Or the radio play-by-play man who had no idea how to describe a play and who had no knowledge of the appropriate statistics. Or the professor of philosophy who had never heard nor used the word “epistemology.” We could dig up examples all day long.

April 19, 2013

You have probably already seen Dove’s viral video campaign called “Dove Real Beauty Sketches.” Released to YouTube on April 14, it has already been viewed more than 10 million times (between the three-minute and six-minute versions). The video includes a simple description: “Women are their own worst beauty critics. Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful. At Dove, we are committed to creating a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety. So, we decided to conduct a compelling social experiment that explores how women view their own beauty in contrast to what others see.”

It is a fascinating experiment. A police sketch artist and a woman sit in a room together, separated by a sheet, so they cannot see one another. He asks the woman to describe her own appearance while he draws a sketch based on her description. Then, before she can see the artist’s work, the woman leaves and a second person enters the room; the artist asks this person to describe that same woman. Then the two sketches are put side-by-side. The results are uniform: the woman describes herself as plainer than she is, heavier than she is, less attractive than she is. The second sketch is always more beautiful and more accurate.

The point is clear: When it comes to beauty, women are their own worst critics. Where others are drawn to what makes them attractive, left to themselves they focus more on their flaws. While granting that “Real Dove Beauty Sketches” is ultimately a commercial for Dove products and hardly an unbiased experiment, it has resonated because there is something in it that we can all identify with.

In all of life there is a conflict between who we believe we are and who other people believe we are, and in this conflict we tend to believe that we are the ones with the better and more accurate assessment. What is true of the outer man is equally true of the inner man. In fact, it may be even more pronounced.

April 15, 2013

If you hold to a traditional marriage, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, wants you to know that he is not interested in your business. On the other side of America pastor Tim Keller says, no problem, you can be a Christian and believe that gay marriage is perfectly acceptable. These are two things you may have read in the news or in the blogosphere over the past couple of weeks. Both made headlines, but both were based on at least some misinformation and on ignoring crucial context. Both illustrate an urgent concern.

We can all agree that in this digital age we are inundated with news and information. We live in a constant flow of facts, figures and headlines. For most of human history information has been a scarce resource, but today it has become abundant and over-abundant. We no longer have to go looking for information; rather, we have to find ways of better filtering and prioritizing the unending glut of information we are subjected to day-by-day.

One of the ways we are adapting to the glut of information at our disposal is to skim, to glance at the thousands of pieces of information to look for the very few bits that are most urgent and relevant. It is a necessary skill if we are to avoid drowning. Yet there is a cost to our skimming. The more we skim, the more we become people who prefer to skim, people who would rather skim than read patiently and deeply. As we continue down this path, we become increasingly comfortable looking no further than a headline and comfortable drawing our conclusions from just a few words. Instead of looking to sources and verifying facts, we skim, draw our conclusions, and move on. Or worse, we skim, draw our conclusions, and then hit one of the ever-present “share” buttons, using social media to share a lie or to “like” a lie. This is exactly what many Christians did with Howard Schultz and Tim Keller.

We can go all the way back to 1563 to find a corrective. The Heidelberg Catechism speaks brilliantly to the ninth commandment: You shall not bear false witness. It challenges us not only to avoid lying, but to be people who speak the truth and who are as horrified by deceit and misinformation as we are with outright lying. It gives us no leeway when we speak (or blog or tweet) rashly. Here is its answer to the question, What is required in the ninth commandment?

That I bear false witness against no man,
nor falsify any man’s words;
that I be no backbiter, nor slanderer;
that I do not judge, nor join in condemning any man rashly, or unheard;
but that I avoid all sorts of lies and deceit, as the proper works of the devil,
unless I would bring down upon me the heavy wrath of God;
likewise, that in judgment and all other dealings 
I love the truth, speak it uprightly and confess it;
also that I defend and promote, as much as I am able,
the honor and good character of my neighbor.

Whatever Howard Schultz said, and no matter how much we may disagree with what he said, we do nothing for our cause when we “condemn him rashly, or unheard,” to use the Catechism’s phrasing.

April 01, 2013

Toronto is home to a significant Jewish population—over 160,000 according to the census of 2001. A significant part of the population is Orthodox Jews who attempt to live in close conformity to the laws and precepts of the Torah as it is explained in the Talmud. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the heart of the community has been along Bathurst street and if you were to drive through that area today you would see Jewish schools and synagogues, kosher supermarkets and many distinctly Jewish businesses. The yarmulke is as common there as the baseball cap is in the suburbs and as you visit offices in the area you will frequently spot a mezuzah affixed to the door frame. I enjoy the area, especially its bakeries, and find myself there often.

Murray is a friend and a fellow elder at Grace Fellowship Church. For the past twenty-nine years, he has been a paramedic and over the course of his career has often found himself working right in the center of Toronto’s Jewish community. His job has taken him into many homes, businesses and synagogues and along the way he has developed relationships and friendships. Over the years he has shared with me several interesting little glimpses of his work in that community—a community that attempts to adhere to every part of the Old Testament law. It is fascinating to hear how these attempts manifest themselves in the twenty-first century.

Elevator Sabbath ServiceJewish law forbids work on the Sabbath, but the question that has always plagued law-keepers is this: what actually constitutes work? Many modern interpretations of the law state that using an electrical button on the Sabbath constitutes work. Pressing a button closes an electrical switch and the closing of the switch is interpreted as “building” a circuit. Any kind of building on the Sabbath is strictly forbidden by the law. For that reason, many of the apartment buildings in this area use a feature in their elevators known as “Shabbat [Sabbath] service.” Sabbath service removes the need to press buttons. When the service is engaged, the elevator will either stop at every floor on both the way up and the way down, or it will rise to the top and then stop at every floor on the way down. In either case, the sanctity of the Sabbath is maintained. (Wikipedia’s article on Shabbat service is fascinating in its explanation of the variations of interpretation).

As is the case in many large cities, Toronto’s Jews have access to Hatzoloh, a non-profit organization whose purpose is to respond rapidly to emergency medical situations in Toronto’s Jewish community. Though they cannot transport patients to hospital, they are able to respond to calls and to assist paramedics in providing emergency services and language translation. Though they are on-call and available 24 hours a day, there is one small change in their operations on the Sabbath when driving a vehicle is forbidden. Their job is to extend mercy and prolong life and, according to Talmudic interpretation, responding to calls does not violate the Sabbath. However, once a call is complete, they are no longer on a mission of mercy and would be in violation of the Sabbath if they were to drive. What they do instead is employ a service run by non-Jews who will drive both their vehicles and the emergency personnel back to their homes.

The glimpse of the community that fascinates me most is the one which begins with Murray responding to a call on a hot, summer Saturday afternoon. After he completed the call and was walking back to his ambulance, he saw a man outside a neighboring home waving him over. This man led Murray into a very hot home and explained that his mentally disabled son had inadvertently turned off the air conditioning and they could not turn it back on without violating the Sabbath laws. He pointed to the thermostat and asked Murray, “Could you please turn it back on?” Murray flipped the little plastic switch and the air conditioner immediately came back to life. The man and his family were exuberant in their gratitude.

As Murray spoke to this man, and as he speaks to other members of the community, he sometimes asks whether he should become Jewish. Wouldn’t this be the path for him to live in obedience to God and to experience divine blessing? The answer is, “No! Don’t become Jewish! If you become Jewish you will have to obey the law—the whole law.” And the law is a heavy burden.

March 27, 2013

For several years of blogging I had it all wrong, and I wasn’t wrong only in blogging, but in all of life. I believed that the way to measure success with this blog was to keep an eye on statistics, to measure growth in readership over a period of weeks or months or years, and to do the things that were necessary to stimulate that kind of growth. Where I saw growth in the number of readers I believed I had succeeded and where I saw a drop in the number of readers I believed that I had failed.

But somewhere along the way I came to understand and to reflect on a much bigger and wider principle that applies not only to blogging but to all of life. It is the principle that it is more blessed to give than to receive (see Acts 20:35). This is hardly an obscure passage or a verse that Christians have forgotten about, but it was one that was demanding application in my life. Once I began to ponder and apply it, it completely re-adjusted my evaluation of blogging and called me to re-assess any measure of success. It re-adjusted my evaluation of a lot of life.

For a long time I was stingy in linking to other sites, thinking that in some strange way affirming another person’s success or contribution was lowering my own, as if a vote for them was a vote against me. I suppose this intersects what I have written about in The Lost Sin of Envy. But then I came to see that the most exciting part of having a growing blog is not the growing number of readers but the increased sending capacity. Deeper joy is found in blessing others with readers, in drawing attention to other people’s efforts, than in drawing attention to my own. Where I had once been deliberate in not pointing to other sites and other articles, suddenly I found great joy in it. Buried in a dashboard that collects important statistics related to my site’s health is a little meter that keeps track of how many people have clicked from my site to someone else’s—it is a number that can reach into tens of thousands a day. Few metrics are more encouraging.

Once I saw this principle in effect in something as mundane as a web site, I began to see it elsewhere in my life.

I saw it in my finances when I realized that the joy of a big or overflowing savings account completely pales in comparison to the joy of giving money to those who need it more urgently and who can use it more profitably. If I want to experience joy I will find it more in obedience to God’s commands regarding generosity than in the illusion of financial security or over-abundance. It is far more blessed to give than to receive or to hoard.

March 25, 2013

When I speak at a conference, or at a church that is not my own, I often have the opportunity to meet people for just a brief period of time. At a church or conference I am typically asked to speak on a specific topic—sometimes I speak to men about pornography and about building a healthy, Bible-based view of sexuality. Sometimes I speak to a mixed audience about technology and how few of us are thinking about our digital technologies and using our digital technologies in distinctly Christian ways. Other times I speak about spiritual discernment or spiritual maturity.

Whatever the case, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon in the discussions I have after I speak or preach. I thought about this yesterday as I continued to read through Jerry Bridges’ The Discipline of Grace with the young adults at my church. Bridges speaks at conferences all the time and has noticed this very same phenomenon. 

When people come up to me after I speak they often ask about how they can stop committing a sin that they find especially offensive. The Holy Spirit has convicted them of a sin and they are looking for a little bit of guidance in how to approach putting that sin to death. Men will come up and ask specific questions about how to stop giving in to the temptation to look at pornography or the temptation to allow their eyes and minds to wander. Women may come up and ask about how to stop being so responsive to their cell phone every time it beeps or vibrates or about their apathy toward spiritual maturity. These are good questions and I am always glad to talk about them.

But here is something interesting I’ve noticed: While it is common for someone to ask how to put off a particular sin, it is rare for someone to ask for guidance in putting on a particular godly trait. We are ashamed of our sin and bothered by it. This is good. But we are less ashamed of our lack of Christian character and less bothered by it. This is not good.

And I think this is where so many of us fail in our attempts to grow in godliness. This Christian life is one of continually putting off the old man with all its traits and putting on the new man. But our ultimate desire is not to be not-sinful but to be truly godly. We are not to aim at being not-sinful but to aim at being marked by Christian character. We experience the greatest success in battling sin when our desire is not only to stop sinning but to have our lives marked by the opposite character trait. The thief needs to do more than stop stealing; he needs to learn to be generous. The porn-addicted young man needs to do more than stop looking at pornography; he needs to learn to love and honor younger women as sisters. The angry mom needs to do more than stop lashing out at her children; she needs to learn to display patience and kindness. In each case the aim is not to stop sinning, but to be a display of Christ-like character.

The challenge for each one of us who desires to be godly is not only to identify the sin in our lives, but to identify the better and holier trait. And this, this fruit of the Spirit, this evidence of God’s grace, is what we aim for in our desires, in our prayers, in our labors.

March 13, 2013

The blogosphere in general and the Christian blogosphere in particular has had its share of successes, but also its share of failures. Many of its most egregious and public failures have been in the realm of polemics—discussing or debating controversial topics. Many bloggers have mastered all the practical rules of blogging, the short paragraphs, the use of subheadings, the best times and dates to post their articles. But these same bloggers, myself included, would do well to work toward mastering the spiritual rules of blogging.

I recently found help in an unusual place, Robert R. Booth’s Children of the Promise, a book on the always-controversial subject of baptism. He says

We know we understand an opposing view only when we are able to articulate it and receive the affirmation of our opponent that we have accurately represented his position. Only then can we proceed to argue against it. It does not take a big man to push over a straw man—little men are up to this simple task. Nor is it enough to say that our brother is wrong, or silly, or that his arguments make no sense; we must be prepared to demonstrate such claims. Some argue that they do not need to demonstrate such claims. Some argue they do not need to understand opposing views. But they cannot expect to engage people who disagree with them.

Indeed, and this applies to discussions far beyond baptism. In a recent article Tony Payne turns to football (soccer) to provide the helpful illustration of playing the ball rather than the man. “As in football, so in debates and arguments, we should strive to play the ball not the man; to discuss the issue itself rather than attack the person presenting the issue. This is not easy. It requires the ability to separate the pros and cons of a particular argument or issue from the personality who is presenting them, and to subject your own arguments to the same honest scrutiny that you bring to bear on the alternative view.” 

You know you’re dealing with someone who is playing the man not the ball when he makes a straw man of your view; that is, when he presents your side of things in an extreme or ugly light, or describes or illustrates it in such a way as to make it unattractive. By contrast, a ball-player endeavours to describe and present the opposing view as fairly and reasonably as he would like someone to present his own view.

Ball-players also freely and honestly acknowledge what is good and right in the opposing view, and avoid intemperately damning the whole because of a defect in the parts. They seek to stick to the issue at hand, and not broaden or generalize the disagreement into a questioning of character or bona fides.

Playing the ball also means seeking to remain in good relationship with the person you’re disagreeing with, so that you can hopefully shake hands and share a coffee after your debate, or continue to work together on other projects or platforms. This is the ideal, and we should strive for it—to avoid targetting the person, and to deal instead with the issue, in the hope of coming to a common mind.

A very helpful and extensive word on gospel polemics comes from Tim Keller. It bears regular and repeated readings. Keller looks to D.A. Carson and several other theologians and arrives at seven rules that should guide our discussions, our polemics, our controveries, our words.

#1. Carson’s Rule

The first rule comes from D.A. Carson and states You don’t have to follow Matthew 18 before publishing polemics. ”[I]f someone is publicly presenting theological views that are opposed to sound doctrine, and you are not in the same ecclesiastical body with this person (that is, there is no body of elders over you both, as when, for example, both of you are ministers in the same denomination,) then you may indeed publicly oppose those without going privately to the author of them. Carson does add a qualifier, but that comes under the next rule.”

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