Friday, May 28, 2010

Deeply Troubled

Yesterday, President Obama closed his prepared statements concerning the BP oil spill with these chilling words:

This oil spill is an unprecedented disaster. The fact that the source of the leak is a mile under the surface, where no human being can go, has made it enormously difficult to stop. But we are relying on every resource and every idea, every expert and every bit of technology, to work to stop it. We will take ideas from anywhere, but we are going to stop it.

There is a parallel here to humanity's ultimate problem, namely our problem with sin and evil. This condition is also deep below the surface, pouring out hazardous effects, and "very difficult to stop" (understatement!).

In this sense, the oil spill is not unprecedented but precedented.

This oil spill is deeply troubling. It is an example of how unseen human sins (whether selfishness, sloppiness, or greed) spill over and produce tangible, huge, deadly results. The prophet Hosea said that because of human sin, animals and fish die (Hosea 4:3)--seems like a strange verse until something like this takes place!

Also deeply troubling is the idea that we, as a nation, would rely solely on human willpower and ability to solve such a problem. President Obama referred to relying on "every" Another prophet, Isaiah, pronounced woe upon those who "rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the LORD" (Isaiah 31:1).

I once engraved a Bible with the slogan "No Horses!" Unfortunately, this is a longstanding American tradition. We have a "can do" attitude, which serves one well when combined with praise--but serves any person or nation poorly when combined with pride.

I pray for a resolution to this disaster. I praise God for a resolution, through Jesus, of humanity's ancient and disastrous decision to turn away from our gracious Creator.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Like Shopping on an Empty Stomach

Have you ever gone grocery shopping on an empty stomach? I have, and it's not a good thing. Suddenly, junk foods which might otherwise hold no appeal to me have a strange allure. Pre-prepared items which I normally ignore train their tractor beam on me, and I am powerless to resist. There is no shortage of temptations in the grocery store, and when I am hungry my will power is at its weakest.

What is the solution? Should I just grit my teeth, furrow my brow, and keep walking through the junk food aisle, determined to do my darnedest? Do I just need to pull myself up by my own bootstraps, strengthen my will power, and do the right thing? Thankfully, no. My will power is not much to write home about, but there is a much easier way to avoid the power of temptation. Eating. If I've eaten a good meal at home before I go, I can cruise the aisles of the grocery store with ease, impervious to the temptations around me. When my stomach is contentedly full of good food, the temptations of bad food are weak.

Living a faithful Christian life is the same way. Normal everyday life is full of temptations. Temptations to lust, temptations to greed, temptations to anger, discontentment, irritability, meanness, pride, you name it. And let's face it, some of these temptations are strong. They catch me in their tractor beam and try to pull me in. They promise happiness, joy, fulfillment, meaning and significance in life. Everything will just be some much better, and my life so much richer if I just give in a little bit. Or so they want me to believe.

How do I resist such temptations? Again, my will power is nothing special. I could just try to work up within myself an extra batch of resolve, really hunker down, and hope to do better next time. But as we all know, this will never work. I need stronger medicine.

The key is to eat a good spiritual meal before going out and facing the world. If I can get my heart to be happy in God, content with his goodness, thankful for the grace of Christ, and moved by his undeserved love, then my heart will not be looking to be filled elsewhere. The power over temptation is to starve it at the source. If my heart is empty, and my soul hungry for meaning, then I am susceptible to all sorts of temptations and false promises. But when my heart is full, and my soul satisfied with the love of Christ, then the empty promises are more easily ignored.

The key is not to rely on my own will power, that would be like purposefully shopping on an empty stomach and trying not to come home with any junk food. The key is to know the grace of Christ in the gospel, and to put it to good use!

Friday, May 21, 2010

I Can't Preach 35

No doubt you've heard the Sammy Hagar song, "I can't drive 55." It's one of those contemporary songs that is so well patterned after the psalms - specifically, the psalms of lament.

One foot on the brake, and one on the gas, hey!
There's too much traffic, I can't pass, no...

It's also a psalm/song about standing on principle:

Go on and write me up for 125
Post my face wanted dead or alive,
Take my license and all that jive,
I can't drive...55!

Now, this is how I often feel about preaching. In seminary we practiced preaching 30-35 minute sermons. In many Presbyterian churches, that's about the allotted time. And it's really, really hard to preach a 35 minute sermon.

Picture the scene. The apostle Paul is passing the torch to Timothy and the conversation runs something like this...

Paul: I charge you in the presence of Jesus Christ who is going to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and kingdom...
Timothy: I can tell you're serious about this...
Paul: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season.
Timothy: Okay, I can do that. I've still got a lot to learn, though.
Paul: Here's what I want you to do. I want you to reprove, rebuke, and exhort.
Timothy: All three?
Paul: It's absolutely vital. People are at all different places before the Lord.
Timothy: Alright.
Paul: And also, you need to do this with all patience and teaching.
Timothy: What do you mean?
Paul: You can't just go in their with guns blazing. You need to show them the precious word of God and the beauty of Jesus, and show them how the Christian life flows from that. I would encourage you to use some personal illustrations, because they need to see your progress and example.
Timothy: This is a lot of work.
Paul: There's nothing more important.
Timothy: How much time do I have?
Paul: Could you keep it to about 30 minutes?
Timothy: What?
Paul: Oh, and you also need to do the work of an evangelist. This is absolutely necessary if you are to fulfill you calling. So make sure that you are speaking not only to believers but to unbelievers. You are a missionary as well as a pastor, don't you ever forget it.
Timothy: Does that buy me some more time?
Paul: Maybe five more minutes.
Timothy: Okay, I get it... you're kidding, right? Or maybe you mean to do 35 minutes each day?
Paul: No, just once a week. And did I mention you have to fend off the wolves, too?

Now, don't get me wrong. There are times when you need to drive slow, and there are times when you need to preach short. For example, you don't go speeding through a school zone where children may be playing. Likewise, when you speak to children you have to keep things pretty simple. Also, I don't commend reckless driving... or speeding around when you haven't been adequately trained and still have your learners' permit.

But, man, it's hard for me to contain a message to 35 minutes these days. I begin the week looking at a short text and think, "This week I'll keep it simple." After a few hours of study I'm back to Sammy Hagar mode. Burdened with much that I want to communicate in terms of context, explanation (teaching), application (rebuking, exhorting), illustration, some verses from another part of the Bible to bring to bear... and I haven't even begun to think about evangelism! By the end of the week, I'm more concerned about how to trim my message than about the message itself.

From the day I was converted, the role models in my life have preached sermons of 45 minutes to an hour. This has included preachers from all kinds of backgrounds--Calvary Chapel, Non-Denominational, Orthodox Presbyterian and PCA, and of course the Acts29 guys who never stop till they're done.

I can't preach 35.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Do an easy thing.

Recently I saw a book written by the Harris brothers called Do Hard Things. I loved it. Well, I loved the title, I haven't read the book. The title, however, really resonated with me. After thinking about it, I would only add this: Do an easy thing.

When I was in college, anytime I thought about future career options, I only knew that I wanted to do something hard. I wanted something significant. I didn't want to do just any old job, but rather something that would challenge me, and allow me to challenge others. I enjoyed being around people with high standards, and gravitated towards those professors who really pushed me to excel.

Perhaps this is part of what drew me towards the ministry. Being in the ministry is nothing if not a challenge, and that aspect is alternately enjoyable and frustrating. I think that part of what makes ministry satisfying is the conviction that I am doing something significant for the Lord, that being in His service is an important and necessary place to be. I think this also speaks to why so many people find mission trips so rewarding, because we know that beneath it all we are not only serving others, but we are serving our Lord, and he is pleased with our obedience.

This is all good, and far be it from me to speak ill of mission trips, service, or obedience. But I am beginning to find in my own soul a particular occupational hazard that can affect anyone who serves regularly. It's easy to go from thinking that the Lord is pleased with my obedience (which he is), to thinking that he is now pleased with me because of my obedience. And this is a whole different thing.

You see, the gospel says that God is not happy with me because of how much I do for him, he's pleased with me because of what Christ has done for me. In fact, the requirement of the gospel is not the we serve God, but that we stop serving, and allow Christ to serve us! Remember how hard that was for Peter? To sit down and allow Jesus to do the work of washing his feet was unthinkable to him. And yet me must. We must sit down and allow Jesus to do all the work.

For some of us, particularly those with a sturdy work ethic and an inclination to get busy, this is difficult. But I believe this can be a salutary exercise, to occasionally sit down and stop serving. Just do an easy thing. And remember that God is still pleased with you, as he always is, only because of the work of Christ.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Law and Love

Last week my parents were visiting from Colorado. It was overcast and rainy a couple of the days. During one of those overcast days, Aubrey wanted to go cycling. It hadn't rained in a while, and the roads were dry, so she asked if I thought it was ok to go. Now, Aubrey is an adult, and she doesn't normally have to ask my permission to go for a bike ride. So she mentioned off-handedly to my mom that I don't like for her to go riding in the dark or in the rain, both situations which make it difficult for drivers to see cyclists. My mom joked that I was kind of a legalist for imposing so many rules. (See, I guess my love of nerdy theological jokes is inherited.)

Unfortunately this is the way some people think about the law of God. They see all the rules, and assume that God is just a big kill-joy, who loves rules for the sake of rules.

However, the reason I don't like Aubrey riding her bike in the dark or in the rain on busy roads is because I love her very much. I love her enough that I don't like when she does dangerous things. I believe that when God gives rules for his people that his motivation is the same. He loves us very much, and won't have us doing things that don't promote long life and happiness. Because God knows that slander, idolatry, anger, sloth and covetousness don't tend toward life, he tells us to avoid them. He loves us too much to allow us to do things that will only damage ourselves. God is not a kill-joy, rather, he won't permit us to kill our own joy through sin. He knows what is good for us!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Please Be Excited

When I was a kid, I attended a Lutheran church that was fairly liturgical. I still remember a rousing moment in the communion liturgy where we sung, "This is the feast of victory for our God!" I should note that my mom took me to a Pentecostal Church which was rousing in its own way.

When I was a young adult and God had recaptured my heart, I made my way through a few different denominations. For a while, I was in a nondenominational church, but then began attending an Orthodox Presbyterian Church in San Diego. These people knew how to sing hymns, play trumpets, and (just for the record) eat together. My favorite moment in the service was when we stood up after the offering and sung the doxology. Many voices joined together singing the doxology is a beautiful and powerful thing.

Recently, I attended a church that in PCA circles is considered more traditional. There were responsive readings, confessions of faith and of sin, and things were carefully ordered. And man, it seemed listless. And lifeless. I'm not at all judging the hearts, it just honestly made me sad. For whatever reason, people just seemed to mumble their way through the order of worship -- or was it just me?

And so, I was mulling things over in my mind. I didn't want to stereotype (what we call) traditional worship. After all, I do believe in blended worship which requires 1/3 to 1/2 parts traditional songs and forms. In fact, counting the sermon as "traditional" brings us to about 3/4, but anyway...

Here's my thought.

The challenge of any kind of worship is that people have to really understand, and have some excitement about, what they're doing, saying, and singing. In fact, it's not enough to be enthusiastic - it must be the joy of the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17) based on the gospel, not just the joy of nailing the right note (a joy I will sadly never experience). It is mere tradition if it is not invested with some enthusiasm concerning the amazing gift of the gospel. Pastors, teach your people what the forms mean and generate some enthusiasm about the creeds, readings, etc. And don't just do it by explaining or overexplaining everything. Be creative.

This is a problem whether in a traditional or contemporary setting. Lively music can stir excitement about the wrong thing (the cute worship leader or catchy melody). Revelation 3:1 should scare us all. So, we're all in desperate need of God's grace... to enflame our hearts, and to grant us the ability of sing, pray, recite, and listen with enthusiasm for the gospel: what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do!

But again... Pastors, please, I beg of you. Be excited. It starts with us.

Or better yet, it starts with Jesus. And so, Jesus, I beg you, grant us hearts that are truly roused by what You have done!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mother's Day Sermons

One of the vexing questions every pastor faces is whether to preach a Mother's Day sermon.

On the one hand, it's Mother's Day. On the other hand, Jesus didn't invent or command (or for that matter forbid) Mother's Day.

On the one hand, everyone will be thinking about Mother's Day. On the other hand, some people are bummed out by Mother's Day. Especially if their first reminder of it is through your sermon!

On the one hand, churches want to encourage and strengthen families. On the other hand, we shouldn't idolize family or neglect singles.

So what's the official stance here at Moose Are? Well, Jeff can weigh in later. My thoughts are these:

First of all, I was a single guy till I was almost 31 years old. I heard many Mother's Day sermons when I was twentysomething and single, and it never bothered me. It seemed to me that the topic applies to everyone, because we all need discernment about God's design for motherhood--especially in our confused culture. We all should want to minister to, or to encourage, moms (not least of all our own). And so forth.

Second, if you are going to preach a Mother's Day sermon, be biblical. Sometimes churches praise mothers on their day and lambast fathers on theirs. Or, sermons can be a long list of what it means to be a great mom--but Jesus didn't come to call the righteous moms, but the sinful moms.

Yet the best approach, I think, is this. Don't preach Mother's Day sermons or Father's Day sermons every year. Do it occasionally. Instead, frequently apply God's word to moms and dads as you're preaching throughout the year. I'd say easily 40-45 weeks of the year, you should be saying something--even if it's brief--to dads and/or moms. Give concrete examples from your own experience of parenting whenever able.

The advantage here is that you avoid needing to do a "special series" on child-raising or marriage (although these are fine, if God leads). You won't feel as if you haven't addressed these important topics because you do so frequently, and from many angles. Another advantage is that you don't just say the obvious. If you're preaching a sermon on heaven, tell parents what it means to have an eternal perspective not only on their lives but for their kids. If you're preaching on the church, tell parents the importance of involving their kids in worship and/or the body of Christ. Of course, another advantage is that this doesn't give the appearance of disregarding singles, widows, etc., for weeks at a time.

And lest I be unclear... Mother's Day sermons are great. I've preached 'em, I've appreciated hearing 'em. We need 'em. But I just think the best approach renders it unnecessary to have one every year.

I'm thankful for my wife... who is, in fact, a mom too. She's the one who encouraged me to follow this approach. She's smart, and I like that about her.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Two Conversations

Just finished Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, which I began reading about six weeks ago. Everyone else began reading it seven years ago and finished six years and 345 days ago. I know not every Moose reader is a fan of Miller or emergents, emergings, etc. But I'd like to say a few words about this book.

First, I think it's a well written, honest, and sometimes humorous piece of writing. I think it's orthodox, overall, though Miller is not a theologian. And I think Miller shows himself to be a pretty thoughtful guy. There's a certain type of guy who observes and absorbs the world around him, and actually has something interesting to say about it; these are the true, or at least the better, artists. I wish I was more like that.

Reading BLJ is also an interesting experience because it captures well a certain "moment" in American Christianity. Miller articulated well the feelings of a younger generation of evangelicals who were (and are) concerned deeply with the issue of authenticity. If there's one theme that runs through the book, it's authenticity. Coming out of a certain brand of evangelicalism, Miller was discouraged by that which seemed fake, pretentious, unnecessary, and ultimately sub-biblical on the evangelical landscape.

This attitude, arising in the 1990's, marked the rise of the emerging (good) and emergent (not so good) churches, which were tired of the business model of churches, the CEO model of pastors, and the marketing model of evangelism. While not completely free of those traps, I think that for this reason the "emerging church" trend, when it remained biblically grounded, marked a healthy protest. As with all protests, though, there is pride and there are mistakes - in fact, Miller takes jabs at himself over this too.

I realize you are not reading this post anymore since you knew all this already. But for those of you who may have scrolled quickly to the bottom, I thought I'd post a quotation that comes near the end which I think ties into Jeff's post from yesterday:

"When I am talking to somebody there are always two conversations going on. The first is on the surface; it is about politics or music or whatever it is our mouths are saying. The other is beneath the surface, on the level of the heart, and my heart is either communicating that I like the person I am talking to or I don't. God wants both conversations to be true."


Monday, May 3, 2010

What to do when loving your neighbor looks suspiciously like hating them.

When I lived in Charleston I had a desk job. It was boring. To pass the time, I would email with other friends who also had desk jobs, and were also spending all day in front of a computer screen. Among other topics, we had a semi-theologically oriented list serve where about 15 of us could discuss semi-theologically oriented questions during the day. We called it the Question of the Day.

Most of our semi-theological topics on the email list were centered around how Christians could most profitably interact with the culture around us. I think that is the Apostle Paul had been a part of our list serve discussions (he wasn't, except indirectly), I think he would had advocated an approach based on speaking the truth in love.

Unfortunately, that was not always my approach. And while I have only myself to blame for that, I've come to see that my entire tradition has not always excelled at speaking the truth in love either. You see there are two parts to speaking the truth in love. There is the truth, and then there is the love.

We in the Presbyterian and reformed traditions would do well to recognize that we have not always included both parts. We love the truth, we delight in truth, we pursue truth at all costs, and we love when convenient.

I think that sometimes we conservative folks have gotten the idea that if we are speaking the truth, that it is by definition loving, regardless of how it is presented. We reason that if it is true that the truth will set you free, then speaking truth is a loving thing. However, I think the reason Paul admonishes us to speak the truth in love, is because there is such a thing as speaking the truth without love. We can use the truth as a bludgeoning device, to build ourselves up, by breaking others down. We can use the truth as a club to guilt or shame people into conforming to our standards. We can use the truth harshly when we are not really interested in investing our lives to redeem the brokenness around us.

When we do this, I think Paul would say that the truth we are speaking is not really the truth at all anymore, because it is no longer an accurate reflection of him who IS the truth. And he would say that it just goes to show how badly we really need Jesus. And it shows how far we have to go in learning how to speak the truth to a broken world while combining it with a self sacrificial love that truly desires the good of our neighbor.

Sometimes we (I) are guilty of using the truth as a guilt-inducing goad to drive people to repentance based on fear. But Paul says in Romans that it is God's kindness that leads us to repentance. If our goal in speaking the truth to those around us is to display the lavish kindness of God, and his indescribable love for sinful people, then I think we will be speaking in love. Love for our neighbor, and love for our neighbor's creator. And I think we will be speaking the truth, because we will be reflecting the love of Christ, who is the truth.