Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bits and Tidbits, January 2011

Departure: The Case Against Health. Really interesting piece on how antithetical our culture's approach to "health" and diet is.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Friday, January 29, 2010

Super Bowl halftime-- a british tradition?

Super Bowl 44, on February 7, will feature the band The Who as the halftime show. I love The Who-- don't get me wrong. I'm sure it will be a great show, even though the original members of the band are old enough to be grandparents to many of the NFL players.

My issue isn't with The Who; it's not really an issue, but more simply pointing out something I find interesting.

American football (which is what folks everywhere outside of the U.S. call our game)-- and especially the Super Bowl-- are among the most "American" things around. Yet, the trend over the recent years has been to have a British artist or band perform for halftime. Take a look at this list from the last decade (British artists in bold):

2010: The Who
2009: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
2008: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
2007: Prince (the artist formerly known as "Love Symbol #2")
2006: The Rolling Stones
2005: Paul McCartney
2004: Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Nelly, P. Diddy, Kid Rock
2003: Shania Twain, No Doubt, Sting
2002: U2
2001: Aerosmith, 'N Sync, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, Nelly

So, about half of the years we've had British bands or artists. (In fact, it looks almost like they picked up on the "trend" after 2006 and intentionally went the other way for a few years before coming back to The Who.)

What gives? Are American band just not that good?

Another note: after the 2004 "wardrobe malfunction" debacle, it looks like they've very intentionally moved away from acts that aren't old folks who either a) aren't recording any longer, or b) haven't recorded anything that has had a lot of success in years.

In other words, there seems to be a "no one under 45, and British if possible" policy in place. Anyone else notice this?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bits and Tidbits, January 2010

  • Digital Mom Report-- here's a fascinating report on how moms use computers and online technology. Check Chuck Warnock's summary of it for a taste before downloading the whole document. (HT: Chuck)
  • Fourth Turning predictions-- I've been avidly interested in Strauss and Howe's The Fourth Turning and its implications for several years. This is a list of five predictions for the coming year(s), based on the theories in that book. Very interesting. (They predicted 9/11 in that book, by the way, in not so many words.)
  • Was Pat Robertson Hateful (this time)?-- this piece by David Sessions at Patrol offers the best summary of the background from Pat Robertson's recent, er, comment. It also has thoughtful remarks about Pat and his tendency to comment.
  • "Has the Internet Changed Our Thinking?"-- this is the 2010 question from the Edge World Question Center, an informally-organized group committed to intellectual inquiry. So far this question has generated hundreds of answers in essay form, with great content like this opening sentence from David Dalrymple: "Filtering, not remembering, is the most important skill for those who use the Internet." (HT: NY Times)
  • U.S. Military "Jesus" guns-- Bible references added to Pentagon-purchased gun sights. This one gets the award for the biggest waste of time and money so far in 2010-- from time in investigating the "story" to time reporting it to my time reading it and now posting about it. And yes, I'm wasting your time with it, too; but only because it's a classic example of how ridiculous so-called news reporting has become in our culture. (Bonus link: see this thoughtful piece about the whole thing at Patrol.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sermon texts for January 2010

Updated schedule on 1/26...
January 3 John 4:19-26 -- Worship in Spirit & Truth, part 2
January 10 Romans 8:28-30 (Guest Preacher Doug Barcroft)
January 17 Genesis 1:1-2 -- From chaos to creation
January 24 Genesis 1:3-31 -- By His word...
January 31 Genesis 2:1-3 -- The blessing of holiness

Book Review: The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister

I recently received a copy of The Liturgical Year: The spiraling adventure of the spiritual life by Joan Chittister, which is one of the latest titles in Thomas Nelson's series on "The Ancient Practices" of the church. (Disclaimer: I received this copy for free from Thomas Nelson, in exchange for my commitment to write this review.)

I read another title in this series, Fasting by Scot McKnight, last spring-- and it was excellent. I was excited about the opportunity to read this title, too, for two reasons: a) I have increasingly become a student of the idea of the liturgical calendar over the last several years, and b) I hoped to find a similar unpacking of complex and somewhat obscure ideas in this title that I had found in McKnight's Fasting.

I must say, I was/am quite disappointed.

There is a segment of Christians for whom everything is about the sentiment. The historical foundations and bases for Christianity serve very little purpose for them-- indeed, if those things were entirely removed or discredited, nothing much would change about the way that they think, feel, and practice their version of Christianity. (I would go so far as to say, like Paul, that they gospel they offer is no true Gospel-- because Paul himself appealed to the very real and historical bases of the faith as the thing that makes it credible instead of lamentable.) I may unpack this idea in a future blog post, because I think it is both common in some circles and dangerous.

That said, Chittister's presentation of Christianity and liturgical practice dips into this pool of sentimentality often. It's not hard to recognize; in fact, there are some give-away phrases that show up frequently. When I read Chittister speak of "the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith" in an opening chapter, I had a hunch of what was to come. Unfortunately, I was right.

The problem with the dichotomy of "the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith" is that the two are historically one-- there is no difference, yet the writer (and others) speak of them, and deal with them, as if they are distinct. Likewise, the problem with Chittister's larger development of The Liturgical Year is that she deals with the historical and biblical aspects as distinct from what makes its it valuable.

The thing about the concept of the liturgical year is that it is biblically, theologically, and historically-based: every concept (at least of the contemporary protestant practices of it) is rooted in a biblical and/or theological foundation. Every piece of it has a biblical/theological meaning and purpose. Likewise, each part-- and the whole-- has a rich foundation of historical practice and purpose. It would not be a stretch to imagine a book filled entirely of the biblical, theological, and historical discussions around each aspect of the liturgical year (which is what I had hoped that The Liturgical Year would be).

Those parts of the discussion are in there; but they are included anecdotally, or sometimes to set up a discussion on inconsistency or problem. But they aren't the focus of the book; they are not even a part of the focus. The thrust of the book, it seems to me, is the sentiment of the seasons. In other words: in the eyes of the author, the importance of the liturgical year isn't so much what it means; it's what it means to you or to me.

A full, well-lived Christian life, though, has plenty of things to be sentimental about without making everything about being sentimental. The Liturgical Year wastes an opportunity to be a book of substance instead of mere sentiment.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Obesity

There was a news report on TV recently that said that the number of dangerously obese Americans climbed from 15% to 35% in the last 30 years. This is a shocking number, and is worth commenting on.

First of all, I agree that more and more Americans (and it seems to be unique to our country's culture-- probably a confluence of a number of things, not the least of which is the sheer excess that defines us) are overweight, and many dangerously so. Without a doubt, this is a culture-wide problem, and one I will say more about in a moment.

But I also need to say this: I think those numbers are inflated-- and maybe greatly so. That's because they are based on the concept of the "Body-Mass Index" or BMI, which is a simple calculation based on your height and current weight. BMI is widely-regarded as an accurate measure of fat percentage, and medical science has determined that higher fat percentages are strongly connected to all sorts of health problems.

But BMI is not as accurate as a measure of body-fat percentage in many people. It is a formula developed in the mid-1800s, and people's body shapes, diets, and lifestyles were very different then. It assumes things like an average proportional body-build to height, which simply doesn't apply as people vary from the average heights (which, by the way, were very different 150+ years ago). In the mid-ranges of BMI, studies have shown that it fails to distinguish between fat and lean body mass. BMI is a popular tool among "the masses" even though it doesn't seem to be taken very seriously by doctors and health professionals; maybe this is because of our obsession with morbid thinness as a culture. One study concluded:

Although body mass index (BMI) has been adopted by WHO as an international measure of obesity, it lacks a theoretical basis, and empirical evidence suggests it is not valid for all populations.
A. Bagust and T. Walley, An Alternative to Body Mass Index for Standardizing Body Weight for Stature, Q J Med 2000; 93: 589-596.


How do I know this? Because BMI always calculates me as way outside of the categories that I should fit into. At my current weight, it categorizes me as obese. Now, I freely admit that I am overweight, and I am working on making corrections on that. But I'm not obese, according to my physician. In fact, if I lost all of the weight that I'm aiming to lose, BMI still shows me being overweight-- though my physician has told me that he doesn't think I need to lose any more than I've targeted. (BMI has my ideal weight at 210 pounds-- almost 80 pounds less than I am now.)

So I think we need better formulas informing us about obesity. But I still think it is a problem-- and it's one that Christians don't take seriously enough.

In a culture that is simultaneously increasingly obese and also obsessed with an unrealistic and unhealthy concept of "thin" as beautiful and ideal, one way that Christians could-- and should-- be counter-cultural (and culture-transforming) is to exhibit proper moderation in the way we think about food, weight, and body size. We should stop comparing ourselves to the magazine covers, TV and movie personalities, and other worldly icons; we should start comparing ourselves, and our current health and eating practices, to what is healthy and beneficial.

You want to know where I see this as most realistic? Witness the typical church dinner. Whether it is catered, a covered dish/"pot luck" situation, or something else, these seldom offer much in the way of healthy options. What if the next dinner at your church offered baked chicken instead of fried chicken? What if there were rice or roasted potatoes instead of mashed or au gratin? What if there were no desserts?

Outrageous... inconceivable-- I know.

When I first started seminary, one of my professors was new, also. He clearly-- obviously-- lost a fair number of pounds in the first couple of semesters. Not so many that he seemed too thin or gaunt, but he had shed 20 or 30 unneeded pounds. I asked him about this, and his response was, "there is a lot of positive peer pressure on the faculty here. It's a real culture of encouragement toward being healthy." Wouldn't it be great if most churches could be like that-- not pressure to be too thin, nor prejudice against those who are overweight, but simply a culture that encourages healthiness?

What do you think: what are some ways that your church could shift toward being a culture of health?

Friday, January 22, 2010

A couple of thoughts on real estate and markets...

Not long ago, a friend and I were talking about the current housing market.

Around here, there was a season of rapid growth and building in the residential housing market, with new homes going up all around; that ended right around the time when we moved here, about two and a half years ago. This "slump" has only very recently begun to show signs (to my eyes, at least) of a rebound, with some new homes being built and signs up for plans of new development. It's probably about the same where you are.

My friend happens to be active in one of the area chambers of commerce, and I mentioned how I had noticed that the real estate market seemed to be coming back a bit.

"Not according to the folks in the chamber, it's not," he replied quickly.

As we explored this further, he offered more information on this assertion: his fellow chamber members involved in real estate maintain that the current market, though showing signs of slight improvement, is still far off of what it was a few years ago.

But let's think back to what we've learned about the real estate market over the last couple of years, while we've been in the midst of an economic recession: as many have tried to analyze and diagnose what the cause of our economic struggles have been, one of the main contributors to the recessive climate was the way that real estate was handled over the past decade or so.

Here are a few of the factors at play that caused the real estate "bubble" that eventually burst a couple of years ago:
People were being "qualified" for loans who had no real means of repaying the loans they were given.
Those who were in a position to repay them were being "qualified" for loans that would require a higher-than-normal percentage of income to be devoted to home-loan repayment.
Loans were being granted for 100% of the value of a home, and sometimes even more-- 115%, 120%, 150%!-- assuming that homes would appreciate rapidly, as they had been.
"Private Mortgage Insurance" or PMI-- once commonly required for most or all loans where the downpayment represented less than, say, 20% of the total amount borrowed-- became an optional additional expense.
New home construction was growing at an enormous pace, far outpacing the rates of previous decades.

The net result of this is the climate that we found ourselves in two years ago: people who couldn't afford their loans (either because they simply didn't have the income or because too much of their income was required), unsurprisingly, weren't able to repay them. They also had no PMI (not that they would have qualified for that under normal circumstances, either) and therefore the loans defaulted, leaving banks with enormous amounts of property unpaid-for. That property was sold at a huge loss, because the rapid construction of new homes meant a lack of demand that drove values down, not up-- and a home financed at 125% of its market value a year or two earlier wasn't worth 80% of that value at present-day.

And here's the bottom line: all of that was the result of a system that was vulnerable to greed, fraud, and usury. All three showed up, and crashed the system.

So back to the current conditions, and here's my big question: should today's real estate market be measured against the markets of three or five years ago, when those markets were inherently based on greed, fraud, and deception?

Wouldn't it be far better to take some sort of market average-- say, the average of the past 25 years-- and measure today's market against that instead? Wouldn't that give us a much clearer picture of how well the real estate market really is doing today?

It might not look as good on paper, and it might not make the builders, bankers, and real estate agents happy. But it might actually represent a sustainable and ethical market-- and that's what I'm interested in seeing established. Aren't you?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Praying for Haiti

Marcie asked me the other night, "how should we be praying for Haiti?"

Here are my thoughts... feel free to add yours in comments.
  • Pray for those who are still alive to be found and treated quickly, and that their sustained injuries would be minimal.
  • Pray for those who are part of the search and rescue teams, that their work would be expedient and that they would have the strength and endurance to continue in their work.
  • Pray for the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of both the victims and the rescuers, that the trauma of involvement in such a disaster would not take a lasting toll on them, and that they would think and believe rightly about the truth of the Gospel.
  • Pray for the existing infrastructure to be able to withstand the pressures and demands on it, especially for healthcare (primarily hospitals) and transportation.
  • Pray for economic and political stability to be established/re-established in the country, and for the future to be greater than the past in these ways.
  • Pray for the rebuilding efforts, especially that they would promote better quality of life and opportunity for a people who have been historically oppressed and destitute.
  • Pray for those who do not know Christ in a saving way to be spiritually awakened and aware of the truth, and that many would come to true, saving faith as a result of the realities faced through a disaster like this.
  • Pray for those who come to faith, and those who are already believers, to receive the spiritual care and nurture that they need, and for the continued establishment of churches.
  • Pray for the laborers who serve as missionaries and ministry workers in Haiti to persevere during these difficult times, and that their ministry to the Haitians would be fruitful.
  • Pray that we who live in comfort and ease around the world would not quickly forget the need and difficulty of disaster recovery in the already-destitute country of Haiti.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Worship 2: Helps for planning worship

I love writing liturgies every week. It is, for me, a many-fold act of my ministry and life: it prepares my heart for worship; it itself is an engagement of worship; it drives me into Scripture and theological thoughtfulness; it is a service that I render to the souls of my congregation.

As I prepare for worship every week, I find a handful of resources (in addition to my Bible, of course) are always at-hand:
  • Hymnals-- we use The Celebration Hymnal in the pews. I also frequently turn to the Trinity Hymnal (the newer, 1990 edition) for supplementary hymns, and I have a collection of about 40 or so other hymnals and songbooks that I occasionally refer to.
  • Psalter-- over the last two years, we've increasingly used Psalter selections in our worship. (I'll talk about the Psalter in a future post.) I have several different Psalters, but we primarily use Sing Psalms, a Psalter done by the Free Church of Scotland in 2003.
  • The Worship Sourcebook-- this compilation, which was put out several years ago jointly by Baker, Faith Alive Christian Resources, and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, is an incredibly helpful tool for crafting liturgies. It has brief guides for each section of worship, then several (sometimes dozens) of examples for each section. It also has many sections dedicated specifically to the particular seasons of the liturgical year.
  • The Cyber Hymnal-- I use this website at least a couple of times a month, and sometimes weekly, for identifying tunes for hymns and psalter selections, and for finding alternate tunes.

In addition to these-- my "regular" tools-- I also find help in all of the following resources:
  • General worship sourcebooks-- The good old Book of Common Worship is a great help, especially for special events and services (like weddings and baptisms, for example); Terry Johnson's Leading in Worship is a very similar, but more contemporary, volume. (Incidentally, I find that both have a lot of content that is a bit on the legalistic/ungracious side for my tastes, which is why I don't use them more frequently.) Also, don't forget that the Book of Church Order of the PCA has a directory for worship. So does the Westminster Confession of Faith-- though most editions don't come with it, since it wasn't a "binding" section.
  • Specific worship sourcebooks-- I absolutely love Hughes Oliphant Old's Leading in Prayer as a sourcebook for prayers for different parts of a worship service. I also like Robert Vasholz's two pocket-reference works (published by Christian Focus), Benedictions and Calls to Worship; Vasholz has done some creative things in both. And I've been reminded recently of the great selections of responsive readings of the Psalms in the Trinity Hymnal.
  • Crafted Liturgies-- occasionally I'll mine the work of others for creative inspiration and direction in writing liturgies. I sometimes find that The Book of Common Prayer is helpful in this regard. I also read through the articles and provided liturgies from Reformed Worship magazine, which has all of its archives online.
  • Musical Help-- sometimes the Cyber Hymnal isn't enough, and I'll turn to Hymnary.org as an alternative; it's actually a better layout and easier-to-use website, but it doesn't have as much of the content I'm looking for, usually. I also sometimes find new tunes for hymns at the RUF Hymnbook website. I also (very) occasionally check the Oremus Hymnal website, which offers hymn selections based on the liturgical calendar.
  • Church/Liturgical Calendar-- I'm learning more and more about the liturgical calendar and how it can be helpful in shaping worship. Some sources I've found helpful are Ken Collins' website, the Reformed Liturgical Institute, and the churchyear.net site.

Here are some other resources; I don't personally use these often enough to mention in the lists above, but it's not due to any problem I have with them! I certainly know a number of people who do.
  • General Help-- Christ Community Church of Franklin, TN offers Community Worship Resources, a helpful site that offers all sorts of help for worship.
  • Sourcebook-- an online alternative sourcebook is The Open Sourcebook, which regularly offers very good options.
  • Collects-- a friend of my loves The Collects of Thomas Cranmer by C Frederick Barbie and Pau F.M.l Zahl.
  • Choral Music-- if you have a choir, don't miss the ChoralWiki, where you can find hundreds of choral selections published for free!
  • More on Hymns-- The Center for Church Music offers a website, Songs and Hymns, that is both a guide to hymns and a collection of helps for singing.There is also Hymn Studies, which looks at both origin and biblical/theological content of hymns.
  • Hymn Stories-- if you like to use hymn stories in your "rubricks" for transition between worship elements, you might find 200 Amazing Hymn Stories helpful.

PASTORS: what are some resources that YOU find helpful in planning worship services?

Monday, January 18, 2010

The uniqueness of the PCA

Dr. Roy Taylor, who is the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which is the denomination I serve, recently published a paper entitled, "The Uniqueness of PCA Polity" which he presented at a meeting of all Stated Clerks in the PCA.

By and large, I found Dr. Taylor's thoughts to be fair and accurate. I especially appreciated his section on the essence of presbyterian church government (pp. 2-3), which is a wonderful summary of how presbyterianism is distinct from other forms of government in the church (episcopal, congregational). And I found both his awareness and his description of the nature of weaknesses and strengths in a system (p. 3) to be refreshing, informative, and generally helpful.

A couple of things stand out to me that are worth thinking/re-thinking about:
  • Dr. Taylor mentions that we have a non-comprehensive Book of Church Order-- and that the "lower courts" (namely, the presbyteries and the local congregations) have the freedom to exercise their wisdom and discretion within the bounds of the principles (p. 3). In other words, our local congregations and presbyteries may enact policies more strict or specific than the BCO stipulates. This had occurred to me frequently regarding the work of a local congregation, but where it is new is in thinking about presbytery: perhaps that is a level at which many of the perceived shortcomings and/or ambiguities could be worked out more fully before overtures to the assembly are made. (I'm thinking about things like how pastoral transition and placement works, for example.)
  • I love how Dr. Taylor describes the dual nature of membership within the PCA as "a dynamic tension between voluntary association and mutual submission" (p. 4). That phrase alone is something to turn over in my head a few times, but his further discussion on the issue is thorough and thought-provoking. I believe that section "c" under that topic needs to be more widely considered and practiced by many PCA Ruling and Teaching Elders, myself foremost.
  • In #8 of the "Distinctives of the PCA" section, Dr. Taylor discusses "the supremacy of theology over polity" (p. 5). I was just speaking with a fellow PCA Pastor from another presbytery, who spoke of the starkness of how important this is.
  • One of the most valuable discussions in the paper, I think, is the acknowledgement of how "'the pendulum effect' may have been too strong as we reacted against the excesses of our former denominational connection." In the ongoing advance of our denomination, I think this piece of the puzzle must emerge as a part of the discussion, and those who are holding too tightly to the reactions "against excesses" must loosen their grip, while others must learn the greater value of the nature of those reactions. This has impact of both theological and political nature, practical and theoretical.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Drifting by Andy McKee

If you haven't discovered Andy McKee yet, here's a great sample if his guitar prowess:


Friday, January 15, 2010

3-D Television

I read this fascinating article from Slate on ESPN's plan to offer a 3-D sports network. Justin Peters's points are excellent, and help me understand the difficulty in the jump to 3-D. Check this salient point:

Live-action 3-D differs from the 3-D camerawork made famous in CGI-heavy movies like Avatar. A 3-D representation of the computer-generated Na'vi looks great largely because you've never seen a Na'vi before. Since you have no idea what a blue cat person is supposed to look like (and since the blue cat people are computer-generated), you don't pick up on any visual distortions. But we all know how a real, 3-D human is supposed to look—and, while watching a 3-D football game, you're acutely aware that the guys in helmets and pads don't look exactly right.


From what little bit I've seen and read about 3-D TV, that's spot-on. But Peters goes on to elaborate what actually does work in 3-D sports:

In my experience, close-ups are where the technology really shines. You're close enough to the action that the added depth starts to matter. Bailey says also that in its broadcast of the USC-Ohio State game, ESPN experimented with low-angle shots that did provide something of a ball-in-the-face effect. Three hours' worth of pigskin flying at your head would make you nauseous, but an occasional through-the-screen shot would do much to convince doubters that 3-D adds something extra to conventional broadcasts.


Neat-- so, I wonder: could a working M.O. be something like a dynamic switch back-and-forth between 3-D and plain HD, where replays and extraordinary plays were in 3-D, but the rest was in 2-D HD?

Maybe-- but even for that to happen, the technology will have to come a long way before it makes it into most living rooms. I don't see folks being too quick to wear a pair of 3-D glasses for the whole game, only to watch the instant replays in 3-D.

My guess is that we're still a ways off from broad adaptation of 3-D TV technology. What do you think?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reading goals for 2010

In reviewing the books I read last year for my "best of" post the other day, I saw some holes in my reading that I want to accommodate better in 2010.

In the course of a year, I read a lot of books-- probably between 50 and 75-- and I cover a wide range of subjects. Last year, I read a good number of books on prayer (naturally, since it was the Ministry Focus for the year at my church), church ministry, preaching, counseling, and Bible exegesis (especially Luke). I was low, so to speak, on a few subject that I want to purposefully read more of this year:
  • Biography/history-- I've never been a big fan of either, but I'm slowly learning how to find more value in it. I'm looking forward to starting with a biography about one of my heroes, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace by Iain Murray.
  • Systematic/Biblical Theology-- As much as I love to think about, write about, and discuss theology, I haven't spent a lot of time reading it lately, at least not in books. Last year, I read only a couple of theology titles; this year, I intend to read at least six or seven, starting with Christian Focus's recent republication of The Marrow of Divinity by Edward Fisher.
  • Philosophy/Ethics-- I was a philosophy major in college, and love to read it; but it has been years since I read any substantial amount of philosophy. I aim to pick up at least a few titles in the ethics category this year, maybe starting with Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics.
There are a couple of other categories that I intend to read heavily in during 2010:
  • Worship-- since it is the Ministry Focus for this year, I plan to spend a lot of time on this subject. Right now I'm reading The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister; two on the short stack are Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship (celebrating the legacy of James Montgomery Boice), edited by Philip Graham Ryken, Derek W. Thomas, and J. Ligon Duncan, III; and The Lord's Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship by Jeffrey Meyers.
  • Bible exegesis (especially Genesis and Acts)-- I start a new sermon series on the first part of Genesis this week; when it is done (probably in mid-summer), I'll start into the first section of Acts, and ping-pong back and forth between Genesis and Acts all the way through both. I've got Dennis E. Johnson's Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ Through All of Scripture on my table at home, and I'll be digging into the nine different commentaries I have on Genesis more and more through the coming months.
What are you planning to read this year?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Prosperity" Abounds...

...or, Brit Hume and Christianity, part two.

As I mentioned in a recent post, the web has been abuzz with Fox News anchor Brit Hume's public encouragement to Tiger Woods to seek hope in Christianity.

I'll say again that I am grateful for Mr. Hume's public witness to the hope of Christianity, and I'm grateful for his boldness in doing so. And I'll say again that I am, in no way, calling into question the authenticity of Mr. Hume's faith nor am I accusing him of purposefully presenting anything other than the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But I'll also say again that some of Mr. Hume's words were as troubling to me as they were encouraging.

I mentioned in my previous post that we must understand that Christ alone (and not "Christianity") can offer forgiveness and redemption. Now I'd like to take up a subject that I've actually been thinking about a good bit lately. This has come up in at least three different conversations I've had in the last two weeks, and now I find it present also in Mr. Hume's comments:

We all believe the "prosperity gospel" to a certain degree.

I know that when I say "prosperity gospel" then everyone has a different idea. Some will think of the scandals of the TV evangelists in the 80s and 90s, when Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert got rich off of donors before the greed and lust caught up with them. Others will think of more contemporary examples like Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, and Joel Osteen, whose teachings (mis)lead people to believe that their financial prosperity are inherently tied to their faith.

Some of these are pitched under the guise of Bible teachings, others under the broader blanket of Christianity, while some are related to Christianity only by association. All of them are adulterations of the teachings of the Bible-- and many of us assume that we're safe from them, simply because we don't attend "that kind of church" or listen to those folks on TV or the radio.

But as I said above, we all believe the "prosperity gospel" to a certain degree. So does Brit Hume-- at least, if his comments on the aforementioned video are any indication. Here's how I know: he said two things that are a direct, if covert, result of prosperity gospel teaching:
  • "The extent to which [Tiger Woods] can recover depends on his faith..."
  • "Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery..."
We may not believe, if we send $100 a week to So-and-so's ministry, that God will make us rich. In essence, however, we all believe something close to what Mr. Hume articulated: if we're really Christians, bad things won't happen to us. If we truly turn to "the Christian faith" then our problems will get better or disappear. If we are authentic believers, we won't struggle the way that we do. In other words, our faith might not make us financially rich but it will keep us from being financially poor.

In short, when we face difficulty in life, our knee-jerk reaction is to assume that it is because of our lack of faith-- we've lost the victory, we lack the faith, or we haven't gotten the blessing. We're all prosperity-gospel-believers when we face struggles.

Contrast this, however, to what the Scripture actually says about struggles (emphasis added):
  • "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." ~John 16.33
  • "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?" ~Romans 8:35
  • "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God." ~2 Corinthians 1:3-4
  • "That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." ~2 Corinthians 12:10
  • "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him..." ~Philippians 1:29
  • "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance." ~James 1:2-3
  • "Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray." ~James 5:13
  • "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed." ~1 Peter 4:12-13

And contrast that, too with what Scripture says about blessings, and how they are present realities out of God's grace, NOT out of our acts of faith or obedience, nor are they withheld from Christians because of our lack of faith or obedience:
"From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another." John 1:16
David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” ~Romans 4:6-8
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ." ~Ephesians 1:3

Friends, watch out for the "prosperity gospel"-- for it is no true gospel.

Worship 1: Ministry Focus 2010

Toward the end of 2008, our Session decided that we would select a "Ministry Focus" for each year: one aspect of spiritual formation, and/or one spiritual discipline, that we would focus on for the coming year. Last year's Ministry Focus was Prayer.

This year (2010) our Ministry Focus will be Worship. Specifically, we'll focus on corporate worship.

As I think about the topics under this category that I want to consider, some of them are:
  • How does God meet with us in worship? And how do we meet with Him in worship?
  • Why do we use the different elements of worship that we do?
  • What is the importance of the different seasons of the church's calendar (e.g., Advent, Lent, Easter, etc.)?
  • How does our cumulative experience of worship (week by week, season by season, year by year) shape our spiritual lives?
  • What are some ways that we can engage more fully in corporate worship?
  • How can congregations involve whole families in worship (especially children)?

I'm looking forward to this focus on Worship. Like last year, I will post reflections, links, suggested resources, and other things related to our Ministry Focus throughout the year.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Beard-volution

I took snapshot of my mug, using my MacBook's built-in camera, every week for the last 10 weeks (11 weeks after starting to grow my beard). Here's the beard evolution (or "beard-volution)...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Brit Hume, Tiger Woods, and the hope of the Christian faith

Brit Hume, one of the newscasters for the Fox News network, commented on his sense about how Tiger Woods should seek a "spiritual recovery" in the wake of the recent events and scandals. Mr. Hume's comments have been making their way around the internet tubes, mostly through YouTube video clips:


I'm pleasantly surprised to see someone so openly appeal to Christianity as a source of hope and transformation, over and against other religions (Buddhism is specifically named). Even on the overtly-conservative Fox News Network, this is an uncommon find, and I applaud Mr. Hume for his bravery and his candor.

I'm not, in any way, attacking Mr. Hume nor am I claiming that his beliefs are in any way questionable or unorthodox. I understand that Mr. Hume has come under a lot of fire for his comments, which is both lamentable and unsurprising (as he himself has said). And I'll say this, outright: Mr. Hume has offered further clarification on this topic (check my friend James Grant's blog post for more on this), and on his comments, that to a certain degree mitigate my concerns (which are something of an aside from the topic at hand).

Furthermore, I agree with Mr. Hume completely in this way: the hope of the Gospel is the only hope that Tiger Woods, Brit Hume, Ed Eubanks, or anyone else may look to for true, lasting, and eternal hope.

That said, there are two concerns I have with the way Mr. Hume presented Christianity in the video clip above, and I feel they deserve to be addressed (especially given their common acceptance in our world, even among Christians). I'll take one of them up in this post, and follow up with the second in a later post.

First, Mr. Hume said that Tiger Woods should "turn to the Christian faith" to find the redemption and forgiveness that he needs (and, one might assume, that he seeks). We must be very careful to understand what we appeal to when we urge someone to "turn to Christianity".

Christianity is a religion, a religious belief system. Included within that system is the idea of salvation through faith alone-- something that no other religion promotes or claims. Contrary to common assumption, Christianity is NOT just like all the other religions-- it is unique in that point, among others.

But here's the rub: even Christianity cannot save you. We cannot turn to ANY religion-- even Christianity-- for salvation. There is no forgiveness to be gained through religious observance, nor any redemption to be found in a religion itself.

It is only Christ Who saves. For Tiger Woods, Ed Eubanks, or anyone else to find the forgiveness and redemption that we desperately need, we must seek it in Christ-- and through His grace alone. We cannot find it anywhere else, even in the trappings of "Christianity."

There is a sense that I'm splitting hairs here, because the essence of Christianity itself is this very truth. But when our culture and world speak of Christianity, they often overlook that; indeed, when many Christians speak of Christianity, they often overlook it. And I dare say, when Mr. Hume spoke of Christianity in the above video, his representation of it overlooked it.

This is the very reason why most people assume that Christianity is just another religion. It was the mistake of the formalistic worshipers of the Old Testament, and the error of the Pharisees in the New Testament. It was the end-game of the devolution of the faith in the middle ages, which was the seed-bed for the Reformation-- reclaiming this very distinction. And it must be OUR distinction today, or we surely perish.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Best Books for 2009

Well, I did a poor job of cataloging and rating my books read for 2009. I set out to do essentially the same as I did in 2008, but I failed pretty miserably at that.

So, instead of presenting a comprehensive list (like I did last year), I thought I would do my best to recap what some of the best books I read in 2009 were. Here's that list:
  • Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship by Hughes Oliphant Old. I found this one to be an invaluable resource and guide to how prayer "fits" into the worship service. I look forward to reading more of Old's writings on worship in the coming year.
  • The Living Church by Donald J. MacNair. A superb book on church health, and how to pastor a church with an eye toward sustaining healthy practices.
  • The Pastor as Minor Poet by M. Craig Barnes. A very helpful approach to thinking about pastoral ministry.
  • Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible by Jay E. Adams. This is a thorough examination on a difficult subject, and it is well-handled and thought-provoking.
  • A Call to Spiritual Reformation by D.A. Carson. An excellent work on the prayers of Paul and how we might learn the discipline of prayer from them.
  • Why Johnny Can't Preach by T. David Gordon. This one gives a great challenge to what the problem with much of contemporary preaching is, as well as a look at how to begin to fix it.
  • Fasting by Scot McKnight. A great introduction to a difficult topic, and one that is hard to find good material on. McKnight is biblical and practical in his approach.
  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. One of my favorite writers, and I'm always glad for another book by him. This one looks at what makes exceptional people and circumstances possible.
  • Christ-Centered Worship by Bryan Chapell. One of the best books I've read on worship, considering the biblical and historical precedent for why and how we do worship as we do.
  • The Christian Counselor's Manual by Jay E. Adams. While I disagreed with some of what Adams concludes about how to approach certain subjects, I love the fundamental points about principles and purpose in counseling here exposited.
  • Luke volumes 1 & 2 by Philip Graham Ryken. By far, this was my favorite commentary on Luke as I preached through the whole book; Ryken is a great blend of exposition, theology, illustration, context, and application in every commentary I've read of his, and Luke is no exception.
So, those are the best. I read a lot of others, but if I were recommending, these would be the list.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Biggest changes in Christianity in the last decade...

Christianity Today Online recently compiled a bunch of answers to the question, "what was the most significant change to Christianity in the last decade?"

There are some great take-aways from this collection. A few of my favorites are:"Evangelical angst about its current state and future prospects. Evangelicals are trying to figure out who they are and who they should be. We see that in the 'Evangelical Manifesto,' the Gospel Coalition, in This We Believe. There are all these movements trying to define who evangelicals are and what evangelicals should be. Since evangelicalism is the only growing segment of American Christianity, its angst and future will matter deeply to the church in North America."
Ed Stetzer, editor, president, LifeWay Research



"A widespread abandonment of Christian doctrinal commitment — even doctrinal knowledge. Forget the rising number of people with no religious identity; the news to me is the vast number of self-identified Christians who have no real knowledge of, or deep commitment to, a specific Christian faith. You could say they were watering down Christianity's teachings, but I question if they even know those core teachings."
Cathy Lynn Grossman, religion reporter, USA TODAY



As for MY answer (CT didn't ask me-- oh well...)-- when I heard about the thesis of the article, I put my thoughts down on paper before I read the rest (I didn't want my take to be influenced by the others). My answer is...

The shift of center in Christianity. Until the late 90s, the United States was the current seat of Christianity world-wide, with that seat having shifted to the U.S. from Europe following the Renaissance/Reformation/Enlightenment era (it shifted to Europe from the Middle East during the medieval period/middle ages). In the last 10 or so years, however, the center has shifted away from the U.S. to Asia and parts of Africa. In the last 10 years, the number of Christians in China has grown from approximately 15 million to about 54 million. The Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea has more than 837,000 members-- yes, that's in one congregation (by way of comparison, that is more than double the membership of the entire denomination that I minister in, the PCA, with almost 341,000 members). Christians in Africa represent almost a quarter of all Christians, and they have been sending missionaries to the U.S. in earnest over the last 10 years. Americans tend to still think of ourselves as the center of Christianity, and we therefore conclude that our faith is under threat because the church in the U.S. is losing steam; this shift clearly demonstrates that that isn't so, and that the correlation between U.S. Christianity and world Christianity is not so strong. (Note: J. Lee Grady, of Charisma magazine, noted this change in a similar way in the CT piece.)

A close second would be the growing individualism of American Christianity. In fact, if the first were not true then I would quickly conclude that this were the most significant change. The United States is built and founded upon principles of rugged individualism, and that inevitably shapes everything that we think and do. Nevertheless, the growing trend in the church for "consumerism" in the practice of faith is striking; almost every decision that the average Christian makes about the practice of his/her faith is now based on some metric of "what do I get out of it?" This change, so contrary to biblical Christianity, is a serious threat to orthodoxy and to the long-term viability of the church in the U.S. History looks back on the decline of Christianity in Europe and attributes it to the philosophies of Descartes, Kant, Hume, Nietzsche; these were those who set up what became the atheistic, modern/post-modern culture that is common in Europe today. If the trend toward individualism within the American church continues, I predict that history will look back on the decline of Christianity in the U.S. and attribute it to the philosophies of Jefferson, Jay, Adams, Locke-- the men who set forth the foundations of our nation and culture on a bed of personal liberty and autonomy.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Surgery cancelled

Abbey's surgery has been cancelled-- well, postponed, actually. It's now scheduled for late February.

Please pray for us. We are frustrated and disappointed. We are ready for Abbey to have this behind her, and not to have the obstacles to development (speech, eating, etc.) that she has. We're stressed out by the build-up to this event, and by the let-down as well. Pray for God's grace to quiet our hearts.

Abbey's surgery...

One of my twins, Abbey, was born with a cleft palate; that means that the roof of her mouth isn't a solid bit of tissue as most of ours are. Last March, we traveled to Chicago for an initial visit with the Shriners' Hospital, who will be performing the surgery and follow-up treatment to repair this cleft.

They told us then that they would likely do the surgery in August or September. Over the summer, though, it was scheduled for the very end of October-- however, she had a cold and was not able to go through with the surgery then. So they rescheduled it for this Thursday, January 7.

But she caught another cold last week, and while she is better now, she still has a little bit o' sniffles. We will be calling later this morning to find out if they still want us to come. If so, then both Marcie's mom and mine will come (later today, in fact) and keep the other three kids while Marcie and I drive to Chicago on Tuesday, check in on Wednesday, sit through the surgery on Thursday, wait for recovery on Friday, and (D.V.) travel home on Saturday.

Assuming this goes through, I'll take much of the next week off to be home with Abbey (and the rest of the clan). My good friend Doug Barcroft is preaching for me for the next two weeks, and my Session will cover the large majority of the pastoral needs for the next two weeks.

If they say NOT to come, then a lot of that is off; our moms will turn around (they drove to Atlanta last night and are waiting there for word), and we'll be back to waiting for the next surgery date.

Please pray for us as we await word from the Shriners, and as all involved take the various steps and actions required. We don't want to have to wait again, but neither do we want to move ahead with a surgery that would be imprudent to have at this point.

I'll provide updates today and through the week as I am able; otherwise, I'll be somewhat out-of-pocket this week, blog-wise and otherwise!