Redeeming the Past (A Convocation Address)

This post originally appeared at the Trinitas Christian School blog. 

When thinking of the past, we often find ourselves in one of two precarious positions: veneration or disdain. Looking back on those “good ole days” can cause us to miss out on the gifts of God before us now. Do we, like Saul, desperately seek to evade the consequences of today by reaching out to the ghosts of the past? Or are we more like Ajax, holding silently onto old grudges, forsaking forever a chance for restoration to a friend and comrade? Surely these are not the only ways to view what has gone before us? Is there a way to recall the past without glorifying it unnecessarily, or a way to avoid treating as an experiment in regret? In fact, when we turn to the Old Testament, we find that the writings of Moses and his fellow authors are replete with reminders to remember: “And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not,” (Deut. 8:2). Verses like this show us that remembrance is not just about the past, but it is even about the present. It is how we know where we stand in relation to what came before. As Jesus said to the church in Ephesus, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent,” (Rev. 2:5). As you go throughout the year, I challenge you to remember the past, so that you might easier repent of your sins and learn to quickly forgive your neighbor. That is how we hold the past in the right relation to the present and future.

Resituating Philippians 2

There are plenty of books out there that offer to teach pastors “how to do things right.” There are also a plethora of titles, which promise to explain to readers what the early church was “really like.” In the course of my own studies, I’ve read a range of authors, from Stark’s Rise of Christianity to Chester’s Total Church. Add to that the likes of Watchman Nee, Steve Echols, John Maxwell, and Aubrey Malphurs, and you begin to get the idea. Each of these works offers to guide people through the murky waters of modern Western church by positing ministry against timeless principles or the historical evidence. The last thing I particularly care to read these days is one more book claiming to have the answers. And then along came Joseph Hellerman and his wonderful book from Kregel Ministry, Embracing Shared Ministry. I was initially interested in this book because I am curious about the early church, particularly during the Patristic period. Little did I know that Hellerman was not writing about Augustine or Athengoras.

Embracing Shared Ministry is a practical, concise effort to explain the team-leadership approach to ministry, that according to Hellerman, is found outlined in Philippians 2:6-11. There are three parts to the book: “Power and Authority in the Roman World,” which describes the Roman honor system, with particular emphasis on Roman Philippi; “Power and Authority in the Early Church,” a hermeneutical exploration of Philippians 2:6-11 in light of the Roman social context; and “Power and Authority in the Church Today,” an experience laden prescription for restoring the plurality of elders to the Church system of leadership. Each of them, in their own right, has much to say towards the overall discussion of structuring church leadership in a way that is Biblical and effective in the modern world. It is the third section, on “the Church Today,” that had the biggest impact on me though. Hellerman deals candidly with real situations, and his practical advice (particularly in the “Conclusion”), is indispensable. When I consider applying to a church in the future, I will take his advice seriously, and implement it in the steps I take towards working in the pastorate.

Considering the whole book, it would seem like Hellerman is trying to put together something that is academic and practical. He is not the first to make such an attempt, and fares only slightly better than most. Many of the chapters sound like classroom lectures, and the historical sections can sound particularly droll. While I commend Hellerman’s work (it is without a doubt the best book on church leadership I have read in some years), I worry that the stylistic effort may sometimes overshadow the meat of the book. That is by no means a reason not to read the book. I asked myself, “if my wife read this, would she get it?” While I think my wife quite intelligent, I know that when it comes to reading, this style of writing would seem to drag on for her (my own writing seems that way to her at times as well). So while I think this message it pertinent to all Christians, I think some would be bored by the academics of it, while others will be turned off by Hellerman’s occasional digressions into a more informal “Story-telling” prose. Of course, the nature of writing a book is that it will not appeal to everyone.

I am grateful that Hellerman put this book together, and I am thankful that Kregel packaged it in such a quality format. This is a book that is well worth your time if you’re a Christian, and especially if God has called you into leadership.

Alarmist? I’m in good company.

I am as sure as I am of Christ’s reign that a comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion, as is now commonly proposed, will prove the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of anti-social nihilistic ethics, individual, social and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen. – A. A. Hodge, “The ‘Engine’ of Atheism,” Evangelical Theology 1890

Hodge was one of the leading theologians at Princeton near the end of the 19th century. In himself, he is worthy of study (and Mark Noll has some good stuff to say about him), but I’m interested in him for a different reason now. I don’t prognosticate like Dr. Hodge did, but I have to give him credit for being right.

Sarah and I just finished the IndoctriNation documentary, and I wanted to interact with it for a few moments before going to bed.

For those who don’t know, IndoctriNation is a Christian family’s journey around the country (mostly the Midwest and Eastern seaboard), to check out the state of affairs in public schools. The conclusion is fairly straight forward: public schools are a wreck, and for no reason should Christian families send their kids to one (nor should Christians work there). The film highlights that prominent Christian leaders like Franklin Graham will say we need to take the schools back, but a quick history lesson will show that they were never really “ours” in the sense that Graham means. According to Gunn and the people he interviews, Christianity and government-run schools are simply incompatible. He talks with people who worked in the government school system for years, until the Lord made it clear to them they had to leave.

The movie is worth it for the interviews alone. Seriously.

Now, for a couple of points of agreement.

1) I’m glad Gunn really pushed the Salt & Light mentality. I have family and friends who work in public schools, and I know they are attempting to serve Christ where they’re at, but I do wonder if they’ve ever really thought about what they’re doing. I know after the 6 months I worked in the government sector, I was in the wrong place. And it’s not that I don’t get it: education matters, therefore we shouldn’t abandon educating young people. I agree. But how can you be salt and light in a place that you are legally forbidden to spread your saltiness or shine your light? Jesus said,

You, beloved, are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes bland and loses its saltiness, can anything make it salty again? No. It is useless. It is tossed out, thrown away, or trampled. And you, beloved, are the light of the world. A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden. Similarly it would be silly to light a lamp and then hide it under a bowl. When someone lights a lamp, she puts it on a table or a desk or a chair, and the light illumines the entire house. You are like that illuminating light. Let your light shine everywhere you go, that you may illumine creation, so men and women everywhere may see your good actions, may see creation at its fullest, may see your devotion to Me, and may turn and praise your Father in heaven because of it, (Matthew 5:13-16, The Voice).

This is so important: you cannot be light in a place where you are made to snuff out the flame. I hear pastors and lay Christians of all types say it frequently, “We’re sending our kids so they can share the Gospel.” Unfortunately, that means you are sending them to do something (that requires training) to a place that tells them there is no God (where they will receive their training). I’ve written at length about this in my philosophy of education, so I won’t rehash it here. But I just don’t get it.

2) I was stoked that Gunn (and others like R.C. Sproul, Jr.) brought it back to Deuteronomy 6. This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture, and it is a conviction for me every day:

Listen, Israel! The Eternal is our True God—He alone. You should love Him, your True God, with all your heart and soul, with every ounce of your strength. Make the things I’m commanding you today part of who you are. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you’re sitting together in your home and when you’re walking together down the road. Make them the last thing you talk about before you go to bed and the first thing you talk about the next morning. Do whatever it takes to remember them: tie a reminder on your hand and bind a reminder on your forehead where you’ll see it all the time, such as on the doorpost where you cross the threshold or on the city gate, (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, The Voice).

Let it be the first and last thing, every day. That’s powerful, and only reinforces my belief that education belongs first in the home. Even if you don’t feel qualified to teach Chemistry, the Word of God should be so paramount in your thinking that your children don’t know any other way to see you other than through the lens of Scripture. Lord knows I do not accomplish this every day, but man, what an awesome responsibility.

Of course, the movie is not without some faults.

1) While I agree with so much of the film (I found myself saying, “This is what I’ve been saying for the last two years,” quite often much to my wife’s chagrin), I cannot get into the idea that evolution is inherently atheistic. Like any other tool it can be used in that manner (even the Bible can be used by atheists to “prove” God isn’t real), but evolution itself cannot be the starting point. Everyone starts here: god. Capitalize, make it plural, whatever; nothing changes the fact the most foundational belief for every person is what they believe about God.

2) I wish the film had gone on to critique Christian schools. I know, their purpose was fairly pointed, but I worry what will happen when Christians see this film, and then put their kids in a “Christian” school that does all the same things (minus the teaching of evolution of course). Think about it: is evolution really the issue? If Gunn is right and the current model of schooling is based on pagan philosophies which denied the existence of God, and saw humanity as cattle, then why would a Christian school do the same thing? I actually asked someone at ACSI that question, and they deflected the question, got mad at me and hung up without any salutation the first chance they got. I don’t really blame them (I know I can be a pain), but I genuinely don’t get why Christian schools would do the things identical to the public schools while telling parents to pull their kids out of public schools. That’s borderline lunacy if you ask me.

Overall, I cannot recommend the film enough. For the few grievances I might have with it, IndoctriNation is on the money. Christianity, when properly examined through the lens of Scripture in regards to education, is wholly incompatible with government-run education.

I know to many, that sounds like a radical or extremist point of view. Well, if I can count myself in the company of men like A.A. Hodge, men who fear God and love Jesus Christ, then I’ll take any label you want to put on me. Alarmist, included.

Making the most of it

Typically, when I blog, I’m writing about some concept I’m wrestling with, or some argument I lost or posting an occasional book review. Today, I’d like to do something a bit different. I want to tell you about a man I know.

Brian is my brother-in-law. He married my wife’s sister, Rachel, who has been one of my dearest friends for the last ten years of my life. When they got married, I felt blessed because I genuinely thought he’d push my friend (by that point my sister-in-law) to draw closer to Christ. Since that’s what I think a spouse’s primary purpose is, it was a good feeling.

Brian works at a bank. I don’t think it’s where he thought he’d be long term, but he’s happy there. He understands finances and federal statutes far better than I ever could. If anyone from my home town ever asks where they should bank, I send them to Brian. He is gentle, yet able to be firm (as I’ve personally witnessed as his two year old daughter and my two year old son duked it out over toys this Christmas). While I don’t live close to him any longer, I still get a strong sense that he is a good husband, father and employee living out Biblical principles in every aspect of his life.

On my most recent journey to Crestview, he shared a story of how a local woman needed help and he did what he could. He’d never met her. She was simply a customer at his bank who he had spoken to a few times over the phone. We also talked about how his bank will frequently process bills even if the client overdrafts. They don’t want people’s power to go out, so they process the electric bill as an act of good faith. He said something that struck me, “We probably shouldn’t, but we do.” And that is thing: there is much that Brian does that might seem foolish to the world, but he does it.

Jesus said “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit,” (Matthew 7:16-17). And Brian is the kind of guy I frequently see bearing good fruit. He’s not perfect, but that’s not really the point. He has good roots, strongly planted in the foundation of Christ, and I think that’s something worth sharing.

I hope everyone knows a Brian. Someone who takes the phrase, “making the most of it,” and changes it from something negative to something that honors God. To Him be the glory.

Are You A Good Christ?

This is an article that you can read here. I don’t typically repost entire articles like this, but I thought Chan’s musing were worth the read.

ARE YOU A GOOD CHRIST?

By Francis Chan

I think it’s time we stop asking ourselves the question: “Am I a good Christian?” We live in a time when the term “Christian” has been so diluted that millions of immoral but nice people genuinely consider themselves “good Christians.” We have reduced the idea of a good Christian to someone who believes in Jesus, loves his or her family, and attends church regularly. Others will label you a good Christian even though your life has no semblance to the way Christ spent His days on earth. Perhaps we should start asking the question: “Am I a good Christ?” In other words, do I look anything like Jesus? This question never even entered my mind until a friend of mine made a passing comment to me one day.

Dan is a long time friend of mine. In fact, he’s the pastor who performed my wedding. He was talking to me about a pastor named Von. Von has been working with youth in the San Diego area for decades. Many of his students have gone on to become amazing missionaries and powerful servants of God. Dan described a trip to Tijuana, Mexico with Pastor Von. (Von has been ministering to the poor in the dumps of Tijuana for years). Dan didn’t speak of the awful living conditions of those who made their homes amidst the rubbish. What impacted Dan the most was the relationship he saw between Von and the people of this community. He spoke of the compassion, sacrifice, and love that he witnessed in Von’s words and actions as he held these malnourished and un-bathed children. Then he made the statement that sent me reeling:

“The day I spent with Von was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to walking with Jesus.”

Dan explained that the whole experience was so eerie because he kept thinking to himself: “If Jesus were still walking on earth in the flesh, this is what it would feel like to walk alongside of Him!” After that discussion, I kept wondering if anyone had ever said that about me-“The day I spent with Francis was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to walking with Jesus.” The answer was an obvious “no.” Would any honest person say that about you?

What bothered me was not that I hadn’t “arrived,” but that I wasn’t even heading in the right direction. I hadn’t made it my goal to resemble Christ. I wasn’t striving to become the kind of person who could be mistaken for Jesus Christ. Isn’t it ironic that a man can be known as a successful pastor, speaker, and CHRISTian even if his life doesn’t resemble Christ’s?

1 John 2:6 “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.”

When John made that statement, he wasn’t speaking about how to be a church leader or even how to be a “good” Christian. He merely stated that anyone who calls himself Christian must live like Jesus did. So how did Jesus live? You could make a list of character traits to compare yourself to, but it would be far more beneficial to simply read through one of the Gospels. After you get a bird’s-eye view of the life of Christ, do the same with your own. Are you comfortable with the similarities and differences?

It’s easy to get caught up in the pursuit of “success” as American church-goers define it. The thought of being well-known and respected is alluring. There have been times when I’ve been caught up in the fun of popularity. I’ve even mistaken it for success. Biblically, however, success is when our lives parallel Christ’s. Truth is, there are many good Christs that you’ll never read about in a magazine. They are walking as Jesus walked, but they are too focused and humble to pursue their own recognition.

We make it our goal to someday have someone say of us: “The day/hour/15 minutes I spent with ______ was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to walking with Jesus.”

As Christians in America, we often complain about how antagonistic people are toward Christ. Personally, I’m not sure that Americans are really rejecting Christ. They just haven’t seen Him.

Try to be COMPLETELY honest with yourself right now. Is the following true of you?

You passionately love Jesus, but you don’t really want to be like Him. You admire His humility, but you don’t want to be THAT humble. You think it’s beautiful that He washed the feet of the disciples, but that’s not exactly the direction your life is headed. You’re thankful He was spit upon and abused, but you would never let that happen to you. You praise Him for loving you enough to suffer during His whole time on earth, but you’re going to do everything within your power to make sure you enjoy your time down here.

In short: You think He’s a great Savior, but not a great role model.

The American church has abandoned the most simple and obvious truth of what it means to follow Jesus: You actually follow His pattern of life. I pray for those who read this article- that we don’t become cynical or negative toward the church. Instead, let’s make a personal decision to stop talking so much and begin living like Jesus. Then we can say as the apostle Paul, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). My guess is that you’ve never had someone say that to you, and you’ve never said it to anyone else. Why Not?

Scattered Shots

There’s been a lot of things rolling around in the ol’ noggin here lately. Stuff about Genesis, like this discussion here. Or the huge blindspots I feel exist in the potiical climate this year, like these things for example. But ultimately, what really got me thinking was a discussion my wife and I had.

I’m working through this book, so that I can have an intelligent discussion about it with a recent high school graduate. And it made a point that my wife and I thought worth contemplating: is the Cross the foundation for our faith?

It’s a trick question mind you, because the Cross is only one part of the foundation of our faith. After all, the Cross without the Empty Tomb is still death. But we discussed it for some time and I pondered whether or not I would seem odd for such a thought amongst my friends and co-workers.

And all of this reminded me of a video I saw recently. It’s worth two minutes of your time:

I totally get what Chan is saying, or at least I think I do. Gathering together matters, not only because it keeps us on mission, but quite frankly it keeps us from heresy too. Christ is clear, “For when two or three gather together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” However, just because something is good, doesn’t mean it is the point.

There are so many days as of late where I wish I could throw everything to the wind and love mercy, doing justice in the process, all while walking humbly before my God. And I am convinced that along the way I would encounter, just like Elijah of old, all the others who have heard the Lord’s calling to the hard things and stepped up.

I want to be on the front lines of IJM or Living Water. I want to get my hands dirty, and rub shoulders with the people God loves, and who love Him, through the process.

But right now, the hard things boil down to being a light where I’m at; to being a good husband, and a gracious dad. Sometimes, I need to be reminded of that. Still, I look for those souls who enkindle the same spark in me that I hope I spark in others: seek God, and obey Him.

Sunday Morning Again

I’ve been thinking a bit about Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” (I really dig the Shawn Mullins rendition). There is something about the song that resonates within me on one hand, reminding me that I have not always lived out the faith God called me to. However, it is very frustrating on the other hand.

How do we continue to live in sin? How do we say we love Jesus, and then divorce our wife over something petty? How can we tell people they need the Gospel, and then ignore the homeless man at the intersection? There seems to be such a disconnect sometimes. We say it, we pay it lip service, but we don’t live it out. For some of us, we want to but no matter how badly we want that life…if just never seems to work out. For others, living it out doesn’t even matter. “I’ve got my seat on the first plane to heaven, so leave me alone!” Sound silly when you read it out loud, but boy, it doesn’t seem silly to the folks who live it.

When I first drew close to God (or was drawn close for all you Calvinists out there), the Spirit constantly brought me back to the Book of James. I have read that book more than any other, without a doubt. Every time I pick up a new Bible, be it a new translation like the Voice or simply a different study version, I read James first. It’s my standby.

And there’s this one verse I always come back to: “Without actions, faith is useless. By itself, it’s as good as dead. I know what you’re thinking: ‘OK, you have faith. And I have actions. Now let’s see your faith without works, and I’ll show you a faith that works.’” For all of the beauty and mystery found in John’s Gospel, my second favorite book in the Bible, this tiny section constantly calls to me. And just in case I was inclined to treat this as some vague notion, James doesn’t leave me the option: “Real, true religion from God the Father’s perspective is about caring for the orphans and widows who suffer needlessly and resisting the evil influence of the world.” Faith should result in something practical that goes beyond our basic duties.

I don’t know how else to read this. It’s not meant to sound judgmental. Nor is it meant to beat someone down. If anything, this is an encouragement. When I don’t know where to start living my faith out, God gives us direction: start with the poor.

There are so many different aspects to our faith, and each of them helps us to be truly alive in Christ. We aren’t called to be activists. We’re called to be colonists (to borrow a phrase from N.T. Wright). We’re spreading God’s kingdom in this world. Through prayer, reading, relationships, writing, serving, singing, feeding, worshipping…these are how we let other know our King is real.

Its an awesome responsibility. Don’t waste it.

Saving the World

I know a couple of high schoolers who have a serious desire to be a missionary. One of them said she just wanted to drop out of high school and move to Haiti until it was all taken care of down there. Another has frequently told me she doesn’t know what to do, but she knows she wants to do something. But it will probably be after college.

Both students love Jesus, and I believe the Spirit has probably placed a calling on their life for mission work (just as He placed a calling my life in the 9th grade for teaching). But I think these students indicate two very common perspectives that can all too easily fall into ineffective behaviors.

We have to be careful about our eagerness to dismiss schooling, or our desire to laud it. A pastor I respect wrote recently about the need to really ask ourselves, “is this a time to go or stay?” While he was talking about jobs, it’s a good principle that should be applied to school as well.

Over at What Christians Want to Know, they point out that much of a missionary desire is about emotions: “People can be emotionally moved by a dynamic speaker. But an emotional feeling will only sustain someone on the field for a short time. A true calling by God on their life is what is necessary to keep a missionary on the field.”

This is why school is important for most people. Strong emotions are needed to get things done in countries where no one is a “slave” to their watches, or people are already discouraged by decades of bondage. But in order to rightly use that power, you have to know how to channel it. School, whether its high school or college, can help you to more readily recognize where your energies can be put to use. A good example of how training is important can be found through the work of an organization here in Florida called ECHO. They are doing some brilliant things in third world countries, all in the name of Jesus. But they don’t send anyone anywhere without some formal training.

Too much emotion might save souls, but it won’t help rebuild agriculture. But on the flip side of that coin, too much school can kill the flame that God had once ignited in your heart. I’ve noticed a trend in some of my previous classmates: the more education they receive, the more cynical they become. They stayed too long in the academic world of ivory towers and dusty book shelves, all the while forgetting that those things don’t matter one whip if we’re not doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

In the long run, school should be a benefit, but that benefit must be tempered with God’s leading. It’s the only way to know when to stay, or when to go, which is a big question when you’re trying to save the world.

Drawn In

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We are attracted to light.

My son (pictured above) knows this first hand. When viewing the synchronized light show at the downtown square where we live, he could not take his eyes off the nearby tree that was constantly flashing from one color to the next. He had to touch them, and even tried to blow them out at one point because he was concerned they were hot. It was a moment to cherish, no doubt.

But that is not the end of its importance.

It reminded me of the magi, and the light that drew them to Christ. And then there’s the shepherds, and the angelic light that drew them to that treasured manger. Peter was drawn to the glorified Christ, Paul was changed through a blinding light. Make no mistake, our longing for light can be clearly seen throughout Scripture.

This makes Jesus’ words about the reasons why we cling to the light, or avoid it, take on a powerful tone this season. But it also makes me wonder: does the light of Christ shine through me?

Jesus said we can’t hide the light when we’re people of God, and then reminded us that we are light so that people will see God. So, much like the stars and angels of old, we beckon to those who have not met Christ or who have maybe lost their way. We cry out on their behalf, and we know that God listens.

Are you a light this Christmas? If you are, will your light shine throughout the year?

58: The Film

That was the genius of this movie. It wasn’t a “look at all these starving children and feel guilty.” It was just seeing reality for what it is and these real people accepted it as such. Both the good and the bad. – Elisa, Founder of Average Advocate

I’ve been searching for the words to describe 58: The Film, but someone else had already said what I wanted to say. The quote above accurately details what made 58: The Film so powerful.

It was interesting to take part in the website, because it was there that I discovered many of the organizations behind the film are groups that my wife and I already partner with in various ways (Compassion International, Living Water, ECHO, etc.) That, in and of itself, was motivating. If these groups can work together, then other Christians should be able to gather together and do this, right?

Out the gate, the response has been muted. There have been no world-wide revivals of Christians living out Isaiah 58. There are still the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed.

And yet, Christ still reigns.

This is a hard truth that I have been dealing with lately. If my goals are not met, does that mean Christ is no longer sovereign? The easy answer is, “that’s silly.” The truth is though, many, like me, want to give up when the response isn’t what we thought it would be.

What if the vision isn’t contagious?

The reality is, sometimes we aren’t communicating well. Other times, people aren’t receptive. But regardless of what hindrances exist, we all must live up to what God has called us to.

A friend tonight told me had “stirred” up the worship pastor in our church. He meant it half-jokingly, but the statement made an impact. Am I stirring people up towards God? Because that’s what I think He’s called me to do.

All of this goes to say, 58: The Film stirred something in me. And I want that stirring spread like a wildfire through everyone I encounter. But even if it doesn’t, I must always remember: “I am neither an optimist, nor a pessimist; Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!”

My dearest Father, Who resides in heaven eternal, may Your name by glorified and made holy through Your people. I beg You to use me as an instrument to make Your will a reality on earth, just as it is in heaven. I thank you for the provision you have blessed me and my family with, and I pray that we will be a blessing to others as a result. Forgive me my insecurities and selfish ambitions, just as I forgive others through the strength and love you have given me. Keep me from temptation Lord. Do not let Satan have his way in my life. For everything: this world, the afterlife, all power, and all glory; they’re all Yours eternally. Amen.