Saturday, February 27, 2010

Read This Last

After you've done all your other web stuff, come back and read this quote from John Piper. Because after you read it, there's a pretty good chance it will be time to turn off the computer and talk to God.

See you soon.


Here we go:

"One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time." - John Piper

Friday, February 26, 2010

O my God! (in you I trust)

This morning I was pondering Psalm 25:2 which says, "O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me."

On the one hand, this is a humble prayer of petition from a heart that loved God and trusted in his protection. I seek to have a similarly humble heart, to exercise similar faith, and for God not to let me be put to shame. In fact, the entire Psalm is both a wonderful song of praise and a sneak peak at a godly man's conversation with his Lord.

On the other hand, I can never get past any verse that says "O my God" without getting distracted and suddenly wondering if I've just broken the 3rd commandment. It's even worse when I have to read this verse out loud to others, whether in a small group bible study, or as a call to worship. As much as I try to enunciate as piously as possible, I still feel dirty. David, of course, is not taking the Lord's name (or title) in vain. He's not using the phrase as an interjection, or declaration of surprise. He's actually addressing a heartfelt statement to his God.

So today I did a little research. In the ESV, the phrase "O my God" appears 22 times. Mostly in the Psalms, but also in the prayers of Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel (Notice that it appears in the prayers of the most Godly men in scripture, apparently the problem is just with me!).

So I did a little more research. The Hebrew for this phrase is only one word, meaning "my God." There is no corresponding particle "O" in the Hebrew. The English versions have added the "O" to help convey the directness with which the prayer is addressed to God. This is good news for me. I now feel that as long as I am aware that the verse in question is a prayer to the Lord, I am free to drop the "O." It's funny how such a small change can make such a big difference. "My God" sounds humble and dependent, I like it.

My wife says it's just me. It is just me?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Religious Symbolism of "The Office"

I recently discovered this little show called The Office which airs…well, almost around the clock in reruns. It apparently has a pretty loyal following. Which is reminiscent of another TV show that is popular these days, Lost.

Unlike Lost, however, The Office is rich in religious symbolism. Whereas Lost is about being lost, which is slang for not possessing faith, The Office is bursting with Biblical metaphor.

For example, the show revolves around the creation ordinances: work, rest, relationships, marriage, and family. All this is part of God’s created order, as we see in Genesis 1 and 2. For those who believe humor is a creation ordinance, there’s plenty of that too.

Not to point out the obvious, but those in the “office” sell paper. Get it? The paper clearly represents the written word, a nod to the Protestant Reformation and the mass production of Bibles in the language of the people.

Thus The Office is a metaphor for American evangelicalism. The leader of the “office” is a guy who wears a suit, much like your average evangelical pastor. The “employees” have diverse gifts and backgrounds, as 1 Corinthians 12 describes. They are supposed to work together (see Ephesians 4), but of course this is a challenge as it is in any church—oops, I mean “office.”

And the reason they have such strained relationships, as the Bible tells us, is the Fall. This goes back to the creation account once again, in which sin entered the world and made our relationships a mess. Even as believers, we struggle with our relationships to one another and even to God. And as The Office so profoundly illustrates, we even make the distribution of God’s word merely a means to make a buck. Yes, we do need a new Reformation! Thank you, Office, for this clarion call.

It’s exciting that a show of such striking religious commentary made it onto the air.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Guidance as Big as God

“This is God, our God forever and ever,
He will guide us forever.” (Psalm 48:14)

This phrase caught my attention because, like many Christians I know, I’m pretty interested in God’s guidance. How often have you asked others, or been asked, to pray for “God’s guidance”?

Praying for God’s guidance is a big deal. We want to do the right thing, we want to feel like someone is in charge of the apparent chaos of life, and (perhaps more than anything else) we would really like things to work out well for us.

I think there are a few ideas in Psalm 48 that take God’s guidance to the next level, however.

First of all, God’s guidance is guaranteed: “This is our God, He will guide.” It’s not something we get if we are good, or pray hard enough, but it comes free. It’s the reason we pray with David, “The Lord is my shepherd.” (In fact, the Septuagint translates the second part of this verse, “He will shepherd us forever.”)

Also, God’s guidance is corporate: “This is God, our God.” If you ponder the entire Psalm, it’s a psalm about God being a mighty fortress to His people, plural—to faithful Israel, and by extension to His church. This shouldn’t make us feel as if we’re lost in a crowd, but it should encourage us that we are part of something bigger. God does provide guidance to us as individuals and families, but we’re part of something larger than our own lives.

And beyond all this, God’s guidance is staggering in its magnitude. “He will guide us forever.” This is amazing! We tend to think of God’s guidance—or at least I do—as an isolated event. And usually limited to a particular decision. But actually, God is working on a grand scale—on an eternal scale. You would think based on this that perhaps all things are working together for our good.

Incidentally, the ESV translation I’ve cited is following the Septuagint here, whereas most translate this along the lines of “He will guide us unto death.” It’s reminiscent of Psalm 73:24, “You will guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.” Or Psalm 23 again, “The Lord is my Shepherd…and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” God does not drop us off at death’s door and says goodbye, but He guides us in such a way that death is traversed and we enter into glory. And you know, God keeps on guiding us even then!

This is our God and guide. Pretty amazing stuff.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Even Paul digressed occasionally...

Particularly in Ephesians 3:1-13, which is, technically, a digression.

He starts the chapter saying "For this reason, I Paul...." but then he gets sidetracked recounting parts of his testimony and the way God had worked in his own life, calling him to be the apostle to The Nations. He doesn't resume the initial thought until verse 14 when he starts again, "For this reason I bow my knee before the Father."

This is what I think happened...

Paul had just finished writing chapter two, a thoughtfully crafted chapter about the effects of the gospel. The gospel takes us from dead in our sins to alive in Christ, from hostility and alienation to peace and fellow citizenship in the kingdom of God. His mind is entranced with the glory of God and the wonder of the grace that is ours in Christ. Now, he's getting ready to pray for the Ephesians. As an opening to his prayer he casually mentions his name and title as the one who is getting ready to intercede in prayer, "I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles."

But as his mind was already saturated with the new-creation-power of the gospel, his name caught in his mind, and caused him to remember how the gospel had worked in his life. He was, after all, one of the greatest examples of the gospel breaking down hostility and replacing it with gospel zeal.

He used to be Saul, now Paul.
He used to imprison those who loved Christ, now he is a prisoner of Christ himself.
He used to hate the Gentiles, now he loved them enough to suffer on their behalf so that some might come to Christ.

The wonderfully intricate theology of chapter two is not meant so that we can simply become intellectually informed. It is written so that we might worship, so that we might love Christ more. Paul moves from considering theology in the abstract, to marveling about how it had personally affected him, how he had been changed by the love of Christ, and how the power of the gospel had overcome even his own considerable hostilities.

What's your testimony? Have you worshiped God for the life changing power of the Holy Spirit working in your life? Have you taken time to digress from the routine details of life, and your routine prayers, to think personally about the life changing grace of God who loves you?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

How to love the Sovereignty of God

Believing in God's sovereignty means believing that God is in complete control. That in his most holy, wise and powerful way he is preserving and governing ALL his creatures, and ALL their actions.

Most of the time, God's providence is mysterious. God is certainly under no compulsion to tell us why he is doing things the way he is. But occasionally we are able to look back and see just one or two of the possible reasons why God did things a certain way. And when we can, it is very encouraging. Most of the time, when bad things happen we simply have to trust the God has our good in mind, even though we can only see bad.

I bring this up, because when Ken and I were in NC two weeks ago, Ken pointed out that I had several stories of being able to look back and see good in what had originally been very difficult circumstances. I need to remind myself of these things during the other 99% of the time when God's providence remains mysterious.

Two stories are similar. Both in Charleston in '05 and in Greenwood in '07 I applied for pastoral jobs which I thought would be perfect fits for me. I was excited about both of them, and thought I had a good chance at being hired for each of them. I was wrong about both of them. And both times, especially the first time, I was extremely disappointed not to get the job. However, it is also true that I now look back at each job and am very thankful that I didn't get them. Both jobs would have been bad fits for me. And in both cases the person who did get the job became a good friend.

I'm thankful to be able to look back on these situations, and realize that although at the time I saw God's providence as only bleak, I can now see what he was protecting me from. And I'm particularly thankful that I now have a job that I love, even though I never saw it coming!

A few concrete examples from my own life can go a long ways in encouraging me when only bad things seem to be happening. I know that someday I'll be able to look back and see the good that God had in mind. It might happen in a few years, or more likely, not until heaven. But either way I am encouraged to love the doctrine of God's sovereign providence, not only in theory, but also in practice.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Lately I've been having devotions with my 2 year old son. We use this book:

He really likes the book, and with it can easily coax out of him the "w" sound. I can also tickle him at the end when the "alligator's gonna getcha!" and that's important too. Since he likes the book so much, I'm hoping that I can use it to get him to put two sounds together--perhaps he'll say "wad" soon--or maybe say a whole word.

All this is a far cry from teaching him to say, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son." But it's definitely a starting point.

Sometimes Christians debate whether we should "waste time" with people's physical needs, such as providing food for medical care, or whether our job is simply to focus on the "spiritual" needs--give them the gospel that saves their soul.

But when I'm with my son, it all seems very simple. If he's going to learn to praise God, he's going to need "w" and all the other letters of the alphabet too. He's going to need to put two syllables together. And come to think of it, providing food and medical care is fairly fundamental as well.

So I wonder, as we think about those around us who need the gospel: what other, fundamental needs must be addressed in their lives if they are to understand and praise God? And what kind of discernment and patience should we exercise if we are to truly do as Jesus said and "love our neighbor as ourselves"?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why I love the Church

The best thing by far about the church, is that God dwells there.

There are many other excellent things about the church, but this surpasses them all. Ephesians 2:22 says "In [Christ] you (plural) also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit."
  • The God who revealed himself to his people as Yahweh.
  • The One who was, and who is, and who is to come. God Almighty.
  • God who is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.
  • Whose Spirit hovered over the waters in creation, and spoke the universe into being by the word of his power.
  • Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and marked off the heavens with a span.
  • Before whom the nations are as a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales.
  • The One who is worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!
This God dwells with his church. When we gather for worship on Sunday mornings it is not primarily a gathering of believers one with another, but before all else it is a gathering of the Triune God with his people. God speaks to us. We listen, we worship, we are changed.

God dwelt in the Mosaic Tabernacle...

Exodus 40:34-35 - Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

God dwelt in the Solomonic Temple...

I Kings 8:10-11 - And when the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.

God now dwells in his people...

Acts 2:2-4 - And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.

Do you not know that God's Spirit dwells in you?

I love being a part of the church.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Holding Pattern

There is a famous moment from Seinfeld in which Jerry is frustrated with a car rental representative. He made a reservation, but the car wasn’t there for him.

Jerry: I don't understand, I made a reservation, do you have my reservation?

Agent: Yes, we do, unfortunately we ran out of cars.

Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That's why you have the

Agent: I know why we have reservations.

Jerry: I don't think you do. If you did, I'd have a car. See, you know how to
take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation and
that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody
can just take them.

Recently when reading the psalms I was thinking about this episode (stranger things have happened). In Psalm 40:1, David says, “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.”

David had to wait for the Lord. All of us go through times when we have to do the same.

So I was thinking, it’s often easy to shoot up a prayer to God. Sometimes these are broad prayers like "Lord, help me to love you more!" Sometimes they are more specific. But how often do we really hold on to that prayer in our heart, remaining in a prayerful frame of mind as we wait on him to answer?

Perhaps the most important part of prayer isn’t saying the prayer but holding on after we pray.

Just a thought.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Saving the Planet

“It’s easy to sleep at night when you’re saving the planet.”

That slogan was posted prominently in my hotel bathroom, accompanied by a word or two about reusing towels. I’m reminded of a woman who encouraged Americans to use “one less paper towel each day”—since it all adds up. But what is my daily allotment of paper towels, anyway?

I am all for being good stewards of what God has given us. I think Hummers are overkill. I believe black smoke billowing from trucks or factories cannot be God’s endgame, and that being wasteful is sinful.

But I must take issue with this idea that it’s easy to sleep at night when you’re saving the planet.
First of all, in all the great movies, those who are saving the planet get very little sleep. They are usually forced to work overtime to save the planet. And a lot of the saving tends to unfold at night-time.

Second, Jesus actually did save the planet—and he didn’t sleep well the night before. Do you remember Gethsemane? He sweat great drops of blood, praying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me—but not my will, but yours be done.”

And third, those who are trying to the save the planet these days—if they really mean business—are constantly worried about everything! My source for left-leaning news,, is frequently asking questions like these:

“Which fruits, vegetables, and other crops have the smallest environmental footprints?”
“How bad should I feel about taking hot showers?”
“Is it a sin to leave your cell phone plugged in overnight?”

And more!

This is what the Bible means when it speaks about living by the law. We can never do enough. If we try to save ourselves (or, by extension, our own planet), one of two things will happen: we will either try really hard and land in despair, or we will not try very hard at all but still give ourselves a huge pat on the back for “saving the planet.”

My advice: Realize that you are not the savior. Trust Jesus as the Savior. And then, as you live for him, try to keep the place relatively clean.

Monday, February 8, 2010

How to Avoid Spiritual Arbitration

I'm a big baseball fan. It's really the only sport that I love following. But winter is the off-season for baseball. Which means there's not much baseball news worth reading about these days. There's some, but not much.

The off-season baseball news revolves around contract signings. Those players who are free agents are renegotiating their contracts, and trying to get more money. Contract talks are all about determining how much a player is worth. And they determine a players worth by looking over his statistics from the past few years. What is his batting average? How many hits did he get? How many errors did he commit? By looking carefully at how a player has performed, they determine what that player is worth.

Sometimes we act as though we believe that God treats us the same way, determining our worth based on our performance. "I just know its going to be a bad day, because I didn't have a quiet time this morning." "The reason I didn't have success is because I didn't pray hard enough." "My co-worker doesn't deserve my kindness because they have no respect for ______."

But in God's eyes our performance does not determine our worth. He does not love us more when we do good (how could he? the Bible says our best works are like filthy rags!). And he does not love us less when we do bad.
For he himself is our peace - Ephesians 2:14

God is at peace with us. We are at peace with him. Not because of our performance, but through Christ. Because Christ paid the penalty of our sins on the cross, he made peace. God welcomes us just like he welcomes Christ. My worth is determined by Christ's performance.

When we live based on our performance there is no peace. We are all judge and no friend. We are all negotiation and no acceptance. All demand and no grace.

But when we live out of grace, accepting the free gift of peace based on Christ's bloody cross, we have peace with God, and peace with one another. We stop judging others. We start loving. We stop standing aloof from God, and begin to draw nigh.

God is not up in heaven scouring our stats to determine how to act towards us. He loves us based on the work of Christ alone, with no eye towards our miserable stats. And one effect of the gospel is that we no longer scour other's stats to determine how to treat them. As one of my elder's used to say, "the ground is level at the foot of the cross."

Friday, February 5, 2010

Advance the Church

Great to see Jeff at yesterday’s Advance the Church regional conference. We heard several solid messages. Here’s the main thought, or most memorable point for me, from each speaker:

Matt Boswell, speaking on worship. Our ecclesiology is our true theology. In other words, what we really believe is reflected in how we structure the church and its worship. Also, as a worship leader, he “sided with pastors” that preaching is the most important element of worship.

Tyler Jones, speaking on "Living the Mission." Are we seeing an exodus from churches because pastors are willing to “lead” the mission but not actually live it? He posed some excellent questions for pastors, here are the top two: “Have you architected your life so it’s impossible to be on mission?” And, “Do you fail to share Jesus with lost people because of pride?” That is, because you secretly believe that as a pastor you’ve already done your job?

J.D. Greear, speaking on "Keeping the Gospel at the Heart of Mission." Church ministries are like cars that naturally veer hard to one side—unless we keep our hand tightly on the wheel, programs and ministries will become ends in themselves and not means to communicate the gospel and make disciples. Jesus’ signs were temporary—the eyes Jesus opened went blind again in death, those He raised from the dead eventually died. Our “signs” (displays of love w/in our communities) are temporary also—therefore, they must always be accompanied by clarity concerning the gospel message.

David Platt, on the Great Commission. We are tempted to do everything but what Jesus said in Matthew 28, namely, make disciples. Building a church is easy: have a great performance, a place, programs, and professionals to keep it all running. You can grow a church…while still forsaking the command to make disciples.

Bottom line: It was not a good day for church programs. They were rebuked for their pride, removed from center stage, and asked to sit quietly in the back row.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Church Transplanting

Haven't seen Jeff in over two years. But we've met up in Durham, NC for a pastor's conference. Many who will be there are church planters, replanters, and revitalizers, so I thought it appropriate that USA Today's cover story this morning was about church replanting.

Or, as Jeff called it, transplanting.

There's a move afoot to physically relocate a 100 year old basilica from Buffalo, New York to Georgia. It will take a lot of time and energy, and a whole lot of money. I encourage you to read the story because it reveals how different people think about the church. Is it a building? Is it a piece of architecture? I love old church buildings... but the church is something so much more incredible.

Our greatest concern is not church planting, but about transplanting the gospel into people's hearts. It's something only the Holy Spirit can do, but it's a joy to be involved on the fringes.

Even though the Spirit does the hard work (and provides the money as necessary, too!), getting caught up in His activity does sometimes feel like ... well, work. Perhaps we forget this. Perhaps it surprises us that serving Jesus is sometimes tiring. But remember that Paul said, "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though not I, but the grace of God that is with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Fortunately, as that verse also indicates, it is never lonely work. Not ultimately, anyway... Not if it's done by the power of the Spirit.

Holy Spirit, work in me, that I may work.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Challenge of Preaching about Honey

The challenge of course, is that words are simply inadequate to capture honey. They can not convey the experience of tasting honey. The only way to truly know honey, is by tasting. As Jonathan Edwards says:
There is a difference between believing that God is holy and gracious, and having a new sense on the heart of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. The difference between believing that God is gracious and tasting that God is gracious is as different as having a rational belief that honey is sweet and having the actual sense of its sweetness.

By my carefully chosen words, artfully crafted stories, and precisely accurate descriptions, I might convince you to believe honey is sweet. I might even begin to convey something of the experience of eating honey. But until you take a that first intoxicating bite, you will have no familiarity with the unique joy that is honey, nor knowledge of its exact flavor.

God is both simpler and more complex than honey.

One the one hand, God is infinitely more complex. (that's probably an understatement!) A few tastings might be sufficient to let us feel we have a taste for honey. But a lifetime of acquaintance with God will only serve as a prelude to begin to know him as he is.

But on the other hand, we might also say that God is simpler. Or we might at least say that we have more resources at hand. God has revealed himself to us in such a way that we might know who he is.

But the challenge remains. Can I preach in such a way that people will not only learn about God, and even believe in him, but feel in their gut the comfort of his sovereignty; taste the sweetness of his holiness; the joy of his goodness; feel awe at his infinity; be humbled by his mercy; feel loved by his love; fear his majesty; delight in his grace; be confounded by his providence yet submit to his wisdom with peace and confidence?

Because God is a person (though not a human), knowledge of him will always be experiential, and complex. In comparison, preaching seems so mundane, so one-dimensional. When I first read the Edwards quote above, I despaired of preaching, as though preaching could only convey knowledge not experience. And yet God has ordained the spoken, preached word as one means by which he makes himself known to his people. Preaching is not limited to conveying merely an abstract sense, which must then be ratified by concrete experience. God is able to convey himself through preaching. Preaching can indeed impart a "new sense on the heart."

To know honey, you need a bear-shaped bottle of goodness, and a spoon. To know God you need the scriptures, able to make you wise unto salvation, able to let you taste and see that the Lord is good.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Four Reasons I like the Prodigal God

Well I finally finished Keller's Prodigal God. And like the rest of the world, I liked it. To be honest, I've got a bit of a contrarian streak, so I considered writing about the things I didn't like in the book. But, to be honest again, I really really liked the book, and I'd rather rave about the good features than try to be really picky and find something bad. So here we go, the things I liked about Prodigal God.

1. Keller doesn't preach to the choir. I find that many popular books and blogs spend a lot of time saying things that their audience already agrees with. Its easy for conservative authors to rail against homosexuality or abortion, just to name two examples, because we conservatives all hate those things. But not Keller. Knowing that his book will likely be read mainly by conservatives, Keller goes after the conservative sins of spiritual pride and self-righteousness. Keller takes us all down a few notches. And yet somehow, every conservative person I know who's read the book has loved it! This speaks highly of Keller's pastoral skill.

2. I liked it because I'm one of those self-righteous conservatives who needed to hear Keller's pastoral, Biblical, loving, straight forward, rebuke. Beyond simply calling conservatives proud, which would have been true, Keller insightfully exposes some of the more subtle ways that we "elder-brother" types rely on our own spiritual accomplishments for our standing with God, rather than relying on the righteousness of Christ.

3. Keller demonstrates both explicitly in his teaching, and implicitly in his message, how to apply the gospel to heal a sinful heart. In other words, having diagnosed our condition, he applies the remedy. And the remedy is not trying harder, or knowing better, but knowing and relying on the grace of Christ in the gospel.

4. Keller is a skillful writer and a polished communicator. What I really need is the truth, and Keller makes the truth both accessible and inviting. This particularly stood out to me late in the book when he notes that his main point had been made two centuries earlier by Kierkegaard, in a comparison of the 'aesthetic' and the 'ethical.' I can only imagine that a book discussing Kierkegaard's conception of the aesthetic and the ethical would fly off the shelves like a nice cold cup o' plague. But Keller pleasingly drew me in, taught me, and let me go before I ever even suspected I was being served reheated Kierkegaard. Well played, Keller.