Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sermon Texts for July 2010

July 4 Genesis 10 -- The Table of Nations
July 11 Genesis 11 -- Babel, Babble, and Bible
July 18 Acts 1:1-11 -- Marching Orders
July 25 Acts 1:12-26 -- The Apostolic Appointment

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Video tidbits, June 2010

(HT: Ray)

(HT: Drew)

(HT: Kevin)

(HT: Cameron)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bits & Tidbits, June 2010

Five Mistakes I Make in My Marriage: this is a great list of mistakes that occur in most marriages, frankly. I'll use this in future pre-marital (and marital) counseling.
Bret Michaels Explains His Bandana: yeah, Bret's a little over-the-top with the constant bandana. I'm glad to finally get some closure on this nagging question. Not.
World's Largest Hamburger: I guess there's something impressive about this interesting record-setter; Certainly the fact that they went to the trouble of making a bun and putting "fixins" on it. At the same time, it looks a little bit digusting. (HT: Jeff)
Fifty Worst Inventions: maybe I'm a little too sympathetic to Steve Wozniak, but I don't think the Segway should have been #1. (HT: Tim)
Too Much Government?: this is a great piece from Chuck Warnock about all of the ways that we benefit from our government.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

More on General Assembly overtures

Someone e-mailed me and asked how I thought each overture vote would go.

I'm very limited in my capacity to speculate/anticipate on this sort of thing-- I've tried in the past and been surprised as where I was wrong. That said, here are my best guesses for what the Bills and Overtures Committee (B&O) will bring, and how it will go:
  • Overtures 3, 4, 8, 19, 26, and 27 are all boundary changes for presbyteries. All of these will pass quickly.
  • Overtures 1 and 28 are simple resolutions/affirmations of existing positions, and probably both will pass. #28 may be thrown out because it is so redundant, but given the subject matter, I doubt it.
  • Overtures 2, 7, and 9 are all appeals to amend BCO 9-7 regarding diaconal assistants and clarification thereof. I expect that B&O will combine these into a single harmonized overture, taking something of the best of each (and the final result will probably be mostly #9). I would think this would pass, but not without some discussion on the floor.
  • Overtures 5 and 18 address the same issue in very different ways: one is a BCO amendment, and the other actually undoes a BCO amendment from last year (until it can be properly approved). #5 addresses the problem, but also gives open acknowledgement that there are some parts of the BCO that are "non-binding" (which at present is only due to a "temporary statement" adopted 34 years ago at the 4th G.A.!); therefore, it may be defeated for lack of willingness to declare any part of the BCO officially "non-binding". Given the climate of fear regarding litigation and other consequences with regard to same-sex marriage, I'd be surprised if #18 passes-- unless it can be done with the illicit amendment from last year remaining in place while the approval carries on, which would be weird.
  • Overtures 6 and 20 look at variations of future General Assemblies, both requesting study/consideration by the Administrative Committee. I don't see why either should fail, because it doesn't represent any increase in cost to the Assembly.
  • Overture 10 offers a proposed BCO amendment that would open up diaconal ministry to unordained men and women. This overture will have to be presented on the floor of the Assembly as-is, it seems to me, because it simply wouldn't work to consolidate it with any other amendment: it DOES overture an amendment of BCO 9-7, like the ones above, but also other parts of the BCO. And it is different from #25, both because #25 doesn't offer a BCO amendment and because #10 goes much further than #25. My guess is that #10 will be defeated.
  • Overtures 11 and 15 both offer amendments to the BCO regarding how mission churches are overseen and organized. These will probably be combined by B&O and offered as a single overture, and it will pass without much discussion.
  • Overtures 12, 17, and 22 all ask the PCA to urge the retention of the "Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell" policy. These will be consolidated into a single overture, and there will be a number of people who rise to speak in favor of it. One or two brave voices will speak against it, because (as I said in my earlier post) it is hiding from biblical proclamation about a difficult public topic and the overture is based on the grounds of avoiding legal action. Nevertheless, it will pass.
  • Overture 14 (about "intincture" in General Assembly worship) will be presented on its own, and there will be some discussion about it. I'm not sure how this one will go, but my best guess is that it will be voted down because: a) intincture isn't prohibited by our BCO's Directory for Worship; b) our BCO's Directory for Worship is (unofficially) "non-binding"; and c) it sets a poor precedent for how we determine what forms and styles of worship are acceptable for future General Assemblies. However, IF it passes, look for overtures in 2011 that seek a similar prohibition for certain music styles.
  • Overture 21 affirms the coordination of disaster relief efforts, and it will be presented on its own. It will pass.
  • Overture 23 asks for a study committee on political and economic justice, and it will be presented alone. There will be some who speak against it because they will argue that it isn't the role of the church to speak to this sorts of public matters (yet many of the same will affirm the declaration about the sanctity of life, in spite of the fact that it directly speaks to the public policy issue of abortion). Others will oppose it because it represents a cost to the Assembly to erect a study committee. Overall, though, I think (and hope) it will pass.
  • Overture 24, the call for PCA renewal, will probably be presented as it is: an alternative to the proposed Strategic Plan. There will be some floor debate about it (probably a surprising amount-- at least, surprising to me), and it will be narrowly defeated after several calls for division (= counting of the votes), and the proposed Strategic Plan from the Administrative Committee will pass.

And that wraps up all of the overtures (though not all in numerical order). It will be interesting to see where I'm right and where I'm way off. Next week, we'll all find out.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Some thoughts about "Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell"

I got a letter today from a group that works with PCA (and other) chaplains in the military, and I didn't like what I read-- but, I gather, not for the same reasons as many pastors who read it.

Let me say this first: I am thoroughly grateful for the work and ministry of our military chaplains; I have the deepest respect for those who serve in the military in general; and I have no desire to see any of these (and perhaps especially chaplains) to be caused hardship or difficulty in their work or ministry.

The aforementioned letter addressed the soon-coming repeal of the "Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell" (DADT) policy that has been the practice of our military with regard to homosexuals for about 28 years. (Before 1982, there was open practice of discharging anyone who admitted to being gay-- or in some cases who was simply thought to be gay-- even if there had not been any homosexual act discovered or committed.) DADT, which was a compromise from the start, essentially says that military leaders are not allowed to ask anyone if they are a homosexual, those who are homosexuals are not allowed to tell that they are, and a minimum of a certain level of conduct is required before an investigation about someone's homosexuality may ensue.

In May of this year, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate both attached amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (that determines the approval of the budget for all of national defense-- you can bet this is an important bill) that move to repeal the DADT policy. All of the votes to repeal are not to take effect until the receipt a report from the U.S. Department of Defense (and certified by the Defense Secretary, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the President) stating that repeal of the DADT policy would not adversely affect military effectiveness.

Now, in the letter I keep referring to, the following points were made regarding the result of the repeal of this policy (claims in bold, my responses following each):

It would redefine the word "immoral" for the military and legitimize homosexual behavior.

Not any more than has already taken place in our culture, and not in any way that threatens the authority of Scripture. We are already living in a world that generally thinks of homosexual behavior as mainstream, morally-acceptable, and probably based on genetic heredity. This law doesn't suddenly change that-- in the military or otherwise. We lost the battle on that front a generation or two ago, for the most part. Nevertheless, that doesn't remove the authority of Scripture from the world, nor does it undermine its place.

People often throw around the word "morality" as if it is a static, fixed concept, but it isn't. Morality is the fruit of ethics, which is itself a product of worldview. Which is to say, no two Americans can safely assume that anyone else they come in contact with shares their morality, because few of them have actually reflected on their worldview, and fewer still understand the way that their worldview shapes their ethics and morality. (This isn't to say that there aren't like-minded people; only that we cannot assume that someone is like-minded simply because of some other commonality, even if that common ground is something like attending church together.)

The word "immoral" is redefined by everyone, all the time. The repeal of this law will have little or no affect on that.

It would allow an open-ended definition of "open homosexuality"

The word they are looking for is "arbitrary"-- and again, that's already in place.

When I was in college, a friend went to basic training for a few months. When he came back, he told me about his bunk-mate (we'll call him "Ben"), who was engaged to be married to a great girl that the guy had been dating since early in high school (my friend met her, and thought she was great). Ben was never a very athletic guy, and he didn't have the sort of zeal for guns and swagger that some in the military possess; he was a little nerdy, was small-framed and unimpressive physically, and was terrified of the Drill Sargent, but he wanted to get the computer training that the military could provide him. Ben was dismissed from basic training, and there was little reason offered-- but my friend suspected that he had bumped up against an arbitrary definition of the kind of "open homosexuality" prohibited by DADT: someone in the chain of command had determined that Ben's conduct felt a little to effeminate, not quite "manly" enough, and Ben had been "outed" inadvertently by his lack of certain qualities.

In other words, the arbitrary definition is already there, and I don't see how repealing DADT will make it any better or worse.

There's a meta-issue surrounding especially these first two points: definitions of morality and open homosexuality in the matter that DADT offers them (to the extent that it does) are really only with regard to behavior. Insisting that we keep these policies in place is perfectly fine if what we are looking for is the external façade of someone's idea of biblical morality. In other words, if all we want is "whitewashed tombs" (Matthew 23:27), by all means let's insist on keeping DADT. While we're at it, let's renew the call for the 10 Commandments to be posted in our courthouses, and mandatory prayer to be held in our public schools.

But we're not called to preach a legalistic, external pharisaism to our world; we're called to proclaim the Gospel, which is not just a change of clothes but a change of identity. If anything, DADT gives us (and our chaplains) a false sense of accomplishment because we've conveniently created a method for hiding sin.

It would open the door to make any kind of speech against a homosexual lifestyle a matter of "hate speech" and "civil rights violations"

Now we're getting to the heart of the matter: a fear of litigation and legal repercussions for preaching the message of the Bible. This is a valid and real threat-- not only in the military, but in a country that has embraced the idea of "hate speech" and that declares that the only sort of accountability that can be exercised or ethics taught is the one that says, "you can't hold anyone accountable or call anything else a sin." The threat of restricting hate-speech in my pulpit is just as likely as it is in the military.

There's a certain extent to which I simply don't care about that. And I'll say more in response to the last point.

It would curb evangelical chaplains' bold preaching when covering such sins

No it wouldn't-- or rather, it shouldn't. If a chaplain (or any pastor) is told, "do not preach what the Bible teaches about ___ or you will face the penalty of ___" they should stand ready to face that penalty. There are PCA pastors fighting racism, greed, and other sins common to our culture whose congregations have told them to stop or face termination-- and they should keep on preaching against those sins. Scripture and church history are full of those who were told not to preach or face beheading, being burned at the stake, being impaled, being crucified-- and they rightly kept on preaching.

When we are ordained as PCA pastors, we are asked to take the following vow (among others):
"Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace and unity of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account?"

No amount of potential court action should curtail the preaching of the Gospel. If a PCA chaplain's bold preaching of the Truth is curbed by the repeal of the DADT policy, he should be brought up on charges for abandoning his ordination vows. Period.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Worship 9: Prayers of the People and Pastoral Prayers

Charles Spurgeon-- one of the greatest preachers of the last few hundred years, who was called the "prince of preachers"-- was once asked which he would sooner give up in the worship service, if he could only do one: his sermon, or his prayers for the congregation.

He thought about it, and after much consideration declared that the question was complex and difficult, but if he must choose between the two, he would have to choose the congregational prayers.

Imagine that: the Prince of Preachers, whose sermons were heard by thousands each week and emulated by others, felt that the pastoral prayers were closer to the heart of his pastoral ministry than his preaching.

This season for prayer that comes in the middle of worship for most congregations-- which is often called the pastoral prayer, the congregational prayer, or the prayers of the people-- is an essential part of ministry within a congregation. If Spurgeon took the pastoral prayer/prayers of the people that seriously, the rest of us (pastors) should take it very seriously, too. This means several things, it seems to me:
  • They shouldn't be hurried. One of my former pastors taught me this lesson best, because he never hesitated to keep praying until the prayers were "done". (Of course, we could pray for hours without adequately praying for all of the needs and concerns of a congregation, but that's beside the point.) I find that my pastoral/congregational prayers are usually 10-15 minutes, and that's vital time for the life of our congregation. I've never gotten a complaint that my prayers were too long!
  • They should be intentional. Good prayers at any time are purposeful, not consisting of empty phrases and the same thing repeated over and over again, but expressing well-formed ideas that are useful for the matter being prayed for. How much more so for the congregational prayers! How many pastors enter into this season of prayer too casually, having given little consideration to what they will pray for and how they will pray for it? If the number is one, that is one too many: this time of prayer should be considered, studied, prayed about, and prepared for in the same manner as the sermon and the rest of the liturgy.
  • They should attend to many needs. Obviously there will be items for prayer that are known to everyone, and these should be included in the pastoral prayers. But there are other things that are valuable to include in these seasons of prayer. Praying for the congregation regularly, for the missionaries that your church supports, and for the leaders of the nation are a few ideas. I'll follow up soon with a post about the content of my pastoral prayers, and say more on this then.
  • They should be instructive. This time of prayer is a weekly opportunity for your congregation to learn how to pray. Many of them long for a more vibrant prayer life, but do not know how to get there. Let your pastoral prayer be a model for them each week.
  • They should be corporate. This means that the congregation should be included in the actual praying of the prayers. In our congregation, we accomplish this in two ways: we have a printed list of the general topics that will be covered in that week's prayers, so that the congregation may pray along silently as I pray aloud, and we conclude our congregational prayers with a corporate praying of the Lord's Prayer.

I'll address what comprises the content of my pastoral prayers in a follow-up post.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

4 Reasons to Buy BP Stock

BP's stock has taken a huge hit in the last two months, dropping 50% in value. Many are taking their anger out on BP by selling their shares.

Here are four reasons that I see as good justification to buy BP stock:
  • A huge number of people who had nothing to do with the leak caused by the explosion of Deepwater Horizon have pension investments in BP-- including the vast majority of British citizens. The fall of BP's stock price (and the loss of dividends) represents a significant adverse affect that common citizens will have to bear for a while to come.
  • Likewise, the local merchants who are BP franchisees have been, and will be, adversely affected by these events, as well. Boycotting BP, selling shares of BP stock, and otherwise opposing the company hurts your neighbors who own BP stations, your local economy, and that of others around you.
  • If BP goes bankrupt, or even approaches bankruptcy, because of reaction like the mass-selling of stock shares, they will not have the financial solvency to fund cleanup and recovery efforts. In other words, one way to invest in the cleanup and recovery of the huge oil leak/spill in the gulf coastal area is to buy BP stock!
  • These events have been so public, and such an international scandal, that BP will almost certainly become one of the most responsible and environmentally-conscious corporations of our day. I would guess that, within the next few years, BP leads the way in pioneering new technologies to answer the concerns about fossil-fuel dependence.

A fifth reason, substantially less-altruistic than the above, is that the stock represents a great "buy" value, assuming the company will recover and rebound to its former value (and more).

Friday, June 18, 2010

Genesis 9:1-17 outline

I'm going to start posting my sermon outline on my blog each week, a few days before Sunday. We have a handful of folks in the congregation who I know are studying along during the week in preparation for Sunday's sermon, so I hope this will be helpful to them.

Here's this week's outline:

Genesis 9:1-17 -- Promise & Covenant

God's promises bring dignity and covenant to all mankind.

I. God's promise of dignity (vv. 1-7)

II. God's promise of His covenant (vv. 8-17)

Major themes here: Waiting, Promises, Dignity, Covenant, God's faithfulness

Thursday, June 17, 2010

General Assembly anticipation

Once again, I'm looking ahead to the General Assembly of the PCA, starting in less than two weeks. As always, I'm really looking forward to it and anticipate that it will generally be a great week.

Like last year, I'm teaching a seminar (actually, this year I'm teaching two) during the time devoted to workshops and seminars. Mine will be on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.

Also, as I have done for the past two years, I will serve on a Committee of Commissioners. This year I'll serve on the Covenant Seminary Committee (again-- I did that one two years ago, too).

A new twist this year is that I'll be helping a friend staff one of the exhibition booths. Ginger Korljan has reached out to me and to Doulos Resources as a potential partnership, and we (some of the Doulos Resources board) will be working her booth, especially encouraging folks who are considering transition or are in the midst of it.

There are a number of overtures that have been offered this year, and I'll comment on each one briefly (and a couple, not-so-briefly):
  1. On "ministry to seniors"-- I think this is a good overture, echoing what has already been suggested by the Christian Education & Publications folks about emphasizing ministry to seniors.
  2. To "prohibit deaconesses"-- while I understand the sentiment expressed in this overture, I think it misplaces the emphasis on wording and terminology where that is less helpful. A better overture, seeking to accomplish the same thing, would offer clarification about who the diaconal assistants are and what their function is, where such clarification is needed. (And where it isn't needed, this overture doesn't do anything to strengthen what is already clear.) More on this idea in a few overtures.
  3. To "expand the boundaries of Pacific Northwest Presbytery"-- this presbytery is already HUGE, and from what I understand many presbyters must take a plane to get to the meetings, so I don't see how expanding the boundaries serves their ministry as a presbytery. At the same time, I am not a member of that presbytery, and therefore I speak in ignorance. If they want to expand, that's fine with me.
  4. To "revise the boundary of Central Georgia Presbytery"-- this is pretty standard-issue realignment.
  5. To "amend the BCO clarifying how non-binding sections are to be amended"-- this is the overture that Covenant Presbytery offered, which I discussed earlier. I'm still in favor of seeing this pass, since last year's Assembly made an amendment that seems to me to have been out of order-- but more than that, I'm glad that the topic will be raised for discussion, which may be the most important thing.
  6. For a "feasibility study on a bi-annual General Assembly"-- I love G.A., and would not like to see us meet less. That said, I recognize the practicality of this overture, and would be willing to consider the advice of a study committee on the subject.
  7. To "specify that those who assist Deacons may not be ordained"-- much like #2, this looks like something of a kludge amendment: it sort-of fixes part of the perceived problem, but doesn't offer a real solution and opens up its own set of problems. Does this mean that the Ruling and Teaching Elders may not assist the Deacons in any formal capacity? (If so, that contradicts the BCO's requirement that the Session shall take up those duties that the Deacons are unable to perform.) Look to #13 for more on this topic.
  8. To "revise the boundary of Savannah River Presbytery"-- like #4, nothing to see here.
  9. To "prevent assistants to the Deacons from being commissioned or installed as office-bearers"-- not very different from #7, this one also includes those who are "commissioned"-- which is curious. Does this mean that someone who is appointed by the Session as a diaconal assistant must resign from that capacity to be commissioned as a short-term missionary or recognized as a WIC officer? The semantic problems these amendments introduce are as confusing as what is already in the BCO, if not more so.
  10. To "amend the BCO to allow unordained men and women to perform diaconal ministry"-- here's a departure from the others. "Let's open it up to anyone in the church!" I'm grateful for the boldness of Northern California Presbytery to offer this overture, if only because it punctuates the fact that not everyone in the PCA is either confused or on the "no women in the diaconal ministry" camp.
  11. To "amend the BCO to allow latitude in oversight of mission churches"-- this is a needed amendment, because church planting methods and strategies have changed a lot in almost 40 years, but the BCO's language about how mission churches are established hasn't.
  12. To "ask the government to retain the 'Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell' policy"-- I think this overture is lukewarm and half-a-loaf. Why the "Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell" policy is perceived as inherently better than full disclosure has no basis in the Bible. Are we effectively saying, "it's okay for there to be practicing homosexuals in the military as long as we don't KNOW about it?" I recognize that the removal of this policy leaves our chaplains vulnerable to potential litigation and/or disciplinary action, but I have to wonder if this is justification for anything at all when it comes to standing firm for biblical truth. Maybe I'll blog more about this another time.
  13. To "amend the BCO stating that 'assistants to Deacons not to be elected, ordained, or installed as if they were office-bearers"-- echoes of #2 and #7 here, but this one is getting closer to an actually useful address of what many see as a problem: while the BCO states that the office of Deacon is, in the PCA, an office for men only, there are some congregations where women are selected alongside men and are treated differently only insofar as it comes to whether they are ordained in the same manner. In other words, there are women serving in the function of Deacons, with the title of Deacons, and (as far as the congregation is concerned) in the office of Deacon. Whatever the justification for such a practice, it's not doing things "in order". The function of an "assistant to the diaconate" is not an office, and shouldn't be treated as one (nor should it be left in such an ambiguous state that it could be mistaken as such).
  14. To "prohibit the use of intincture at General Assembly"-- here's curious one. In the several Assemblies that I've been to, the practice of Communion in the opening service has been a diversity of practices: service in rows, and coming forward; use of real wine, and use of grape juice; use of leavened bread, unleavened bread, and whatever category the styrofoam wafers sometimes passed off as "communion bread" is; and, last year, the option of intincture (which is the dipping of the bread into the wine/juice and consuming both at the same time-- and I think it is actually called intinction). I don't prefer intinction, because it's usually done for the sake of expediency (and because I frankly don't like the way it tastes). But I question whether that is the thing we should focus on for instruction or prohibition for future Assemblies. Why not say, "no styrofoam passed off as bread" or "always make real wine available, in accordance with our WCF and BCO standards"? This sounds like a case of, "I'm not used to it that way, so it must be wrong."
  15. To "revise the BCO regarding mission churches"-- like #11, this is a much-needed overture that offers good changes to how mission churches are overseen and organized.
  16. To "affirm unordained deaconesses"-- here's another one that is just a little gutsy because it challenges the (sometimes very loudly) vocal group that opposes anything like an official stance on what women CAN do in their service in a PCA church.
  17. To "instruct MNA, et al regarding 'Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell'"-- see my comments for #12.
  18. To "require proper vote on amendments of BCO 59-1 and 59-6"-- this overture is addressing the same issue as #5, but in a different way. They want to require the proper procedure for BCO amendment to be required for the amendment offered last year of the "non-binding" sections. The function is the same: it raises a needed question about procedure and when we can diverge from it.
  19. To "move Wilkes County from Western Carolina to Piedmont Triad Presbytery"-- another border change, like #4 and #8.
  20. To "consider participation in General Assembly by virtual private network"-- here's a glimpse into the future of denominational assembly: it's optional to attend in a literal, physical manner, and instead you can register and log in via video teleconference and participate. I think this overture is about 2-3 years too early, if for no other reason than that churches tend to be slow to adopt newer technologies. But the day is coming.
  21. For "coordination of disaster relief efforts between MNA and MTW"-- basically, why can't our different agencies cooperate in a more coordinated fashion when it is expedient for good ministry to do so? I think this may be the first step in seeing greater unity between these two agencies.
  22. To "retain 'Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell'"-- see #12 and #17.
  23. To "erect a study committee on political and economic justice"-- this is a breath of fresh air: an overture for the study of something that actually matters to people who aren't presbyterian policy wonks, and that isn't done for the sake of setting the stage for heresy trials. In other words, something that will generally advance ministry on many fronts and bring unity to those serving in such ministry. (For the newcomers to the PCA: yes, this is actually allowed in our denomination!)
  24. A "call for PCA renewal"-- I'm ambivalent about this one, because, on one hand, who doesn't want biblically-based renewal in the PCA? But on the other hand, this is presented as an alternative to the proposed Strategic Plan, which I also happen to like. I'm hoping we can find a way to divide the vote on this one, calling for renewal without dispensing of the Strategic Plan.
  25. On "the role of men and women to office in the church"-- I appreciate that this states affirmatively what roles are availed to both men and women, and that it does so without any assumption that the BCO must be amended to affirm such things. I don't agree with every word, but I think it may be a step in the direction of putting this discussion to rest-- at least for now.
  26. To "move Wilkes County"-- an echo of #19, from the other presbytery involved.
  27. To "transfer Harnett County, NC from Central Carolina to Eastern Carolina Presbytery"-- more boundary movement.
  28. A "sanctity of life resolution"-- this is a well-stated resolution, but I'm not sure what it accomplishes that isn't already stated and affirmed elsewhere in the actions of previous assemblies.

So, that takes care of my annual pre-G.A. post!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Is anger the right response?

Like anyone else who has been paying a little bit of attention to current events, I've heard and read a lot of news and opinion in reaction to the oil spill/leak in the Gulf of Mexico, the result of the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon catching fire on April 20, 2010 and sinking on April 22, 2010, its well pipes breaking and crumbling to the floor of the Gulf, more than 5,000 feet below the surface.

Most of what we read now is opinion: what BP (British Petroleum, the company that leased and operated the rig)
should do, what President Obama should do, what the U.S. government should do, etc. There are also the occasional reports that another attempt to cap, plug, or fill the open well have been unsuccessful, as well as reports on how far the ever-spreading oil has traversed onto the coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico, and how the oil poses an increasing threat to wildlife, etc.

Of course, none of these reports are good, and no one is happy that so much oil is being loosed on our natural habitats and threatening so much wildlife. But the opinions seem to be increasingly fueled by
anger as the predominant impetus for voicing them. Without a doubt, anger is one response that we should not be surprised to find in reaction to such an event (or series of events, if you will). But anger normally shades us from the light of reason, and it also tends to cause overreaction.

I have to ask, therefore: is
anger the right response?

Many will claim that it is: after all, even Christians will affirm the reality of "righteous anger". And while righteous anger is a reality, there are several things to keep in mind with regard to righteous anger:
  • First, as Glen Scrivener recently pointed out, "ALL anger is righteous anger-- it's just that 95% of it is self-righteous anger." We must be careful that our anger towards events like the ones following the sinking of Deepwater Horizon aren't simply an attempt to draw comparisons and make ourselves look better? This strikes me as often the case when I hear people start talking about what "others should do". One thing I know to be true: I wouldn't have any better sense about how to handle such a complex and tragic problem than any of the leaders involved. I must be careful, then, that my response to all of this isn't self-righteous.
  • Second, as Dr. George Scipione commented, "yes, there is righteous anger-- but I'm seldom that righteous." Rather than self-righteousness, we need to acknowledge our own lack of righteousness in all of this. I drive a car every day, and heat my home with gas, and use plastics all the time. My world is full of petroleum products. So is yours. We are therefore all culpable, in an indirect way, for the demand for oil that is depleting more readily-available sources and driving corporations to install deep-water wells like the one at Deepwater Horizon. I am not righteous in this; my hands are not clean. Neither are yours.
  • Third, I question whether our anger ought to also be directed at opportunists who are sensationalizing these events and playing on our emotions for the sake of ratings and revenues. The only group of people who benefit in a time like this are the news media. Yes, we need journalism for the sake of staying informed, but I would argue that the sort of journalism that makes up 85% of reporting on something like this is neither strictly informative nor is it done for the sake of our information. There is precious-little such altruism or objectivity in journalism today, if there ever has been any. We need to recognize that we are often being preyed upon by "journalists" whose goal is to incense heightened and irrational emotions for the sake of increased ratings and therefore greater advertising revenues.
  • Finally, I have to wonder what anger accomplishes in this sort of situation. Apart from those who wield genuine power and influence, anger never motivates others to take appropriate action. (And even for those with the power and influence, motivation by anger will substantially reduce the net amount of power and influence they wield.) If we want to see real, helpful reaction to our response to the Deepwater Horizon leak, anger won't get us there.

Is anger the right response? I would say that anger, while understandable and not unfitting for a time like this, is not the
best response. Sadness and grief strike me as better ones. Reasonable accountability and expectation are good ones. Motivation toward substantive, lasting changes in whole-culture patterns (such as significant decrease in dependence upon petroleum products altogether) is a great one. Sorrow for the loss to families and wildlife that our demand for oil causes-- that's a good one.

But anger? No, I don't think anger is either the best or the right response.

What do you think?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Letting others grow

Early in my marriage, I interviewed for a ministry position that I didn't get offered. There were a lot of reasons why I wasn't offered to position (the main one being that I was immature and a jerk), but things started badly because the Senior Pastor knew a good friend of mine in seminary.

My friend (I'll call him Steve) had, at one point in his life, been militantly dogmatic and so wholly-unloving that he isolated a lot of other believers. Steve is a smart, well-read, and articulate man who can hold his own in any discussion or debate, and can be quite persuasive-- and early on he used his powers of persuasion for beating others over the head with his dogmatic beliefs. Years later, hecame to a deeper understanding of grace, and God used that season to make my friend into one of the most pastoral, caring, and gentle people I know, who is able to love others in ways that are living demonstrations of God's grace. In short, in many ways Steve is almost nothing like he once was.

I met Steve years AFTER his re-awakening to God's grace, and only knew him as that man. This Senior Pastor, though, only knew him before then. And at one point in the interview trip, the Senior Pastor asked me who some of the men who were helping me to grow were-- and among them I named Steve (not yet knowing that this pastor also knew Steve). His response was, "anyone who has been heavily influenced by STEVE is not someone I want influencing our children." The interview may as well have been over then.

Every time I think about that interview, two things always occur to me: first, what a jerk I was the whole time! And second, what a shame that this Senior Pastor has such a low estimation of the power of God's grace, that he cannot conceive that a man like Steve would ever be brought out of his dogmatism and unloving spirit. It had been almost 20 years since these men were in seminary together; was there no hope in this pastor that spiritual growth could occur in his classmate?

This was a valuable lesson for me. Since then, I have wondered how this same pastor would regard me, were we to meet again. Much has happened to me since then, and I believe that Christ has brought a lot of maturity to me in that time. While I still have a long way to go with spiritual maturity, I would hope that he (and others who knew me "back then") might give benefit of the doubt, trusting that God could have done much over 12 years.

Also because of that experience, I have often second-guessed my estimation of someone else, and by God's mercy have frequently checked myself when I was disappointed in the behavior or character of others. When I was in seminary, I occasionally saw immaturity in my classmates, and was inclined to wonder, "could God use men like that in His service?" Remembering my own experiences and times (like the one described above) when I was far-worse than merely immature, I determined to hope in the capacity of God's grace, and pray that He would exercise it beyond my wildest expectations.

Even now, just a few years after seminary (I finished in December 2005), I already see how He is doing that. I see and hear of men who I knew that are instruments for God's Kingdom in mighty ways. How much will God have done with them when 20 years have passed?

What is your view of the capacity of God's grace? Do you doubt that He can bring even the most hardened or entrenched sinner to Himself? Do you question whether grace could be powerful enough to overcome the dogmatism, the anger, the unloving spirit of the most difficult Christian? Do you recognize and admit how far His grace has brought you from who you once were?

If we don't believe that someone can truly be new creations in Christ, perhaps we don't understand the measure of His grace. Perhaps we are blind to how far He has brought us. Maybe we even misunderstand the Gospel.

But if we see the depth and width and length and height of His grace and love for us, and how greatly He has saved us from who we were, we might also hope the same for others.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Worship 8: Family Worship

A friend from college, who has two boys (ages 2 and 4) e-mailed me a while back to ask for suggestions about family worship and devotionals. This is such a good question, and worth the time to think through. Marcie and I have had mixed success with what we tried, but what we’ve liked has been really great.

For younger children, I would start with 
The Big Picture Story Bible. It’s a very different kind of story Bible— so different that it may take you a while to get the hang of what’s going on, but it’s an excellent starting point, I think. The “big picture” idea is that it draws out the whole-Bible, unified message of God’s covenant love and grace. 

From there, I would move to the 
Jesus Storybook Bible. This one has gotten a lot of great reviews lately, so you may have caught wind of it. The publisher is actively developing helpful resources here, so you might find some other things that go along with it (like an audio version, I think, and maybe some discussion questions are in the works?). It’s much closer to a traditional story Bible, and probably does one of the best jobs for ages around 5+.

Next I would move to Catherine Vos’s 
The Child’s Story Bible. I don’t like how this story Bible basically tells the stories as separate, disconnected truths— it makes it harder to draw out the “big picture”— but it does a nice job of getting the more detailed versions of the Bible stories across. With the foundations laid by the first two, my concerns are mostly assuaged. This one has been around for ages (I still have mine from when I was a child) but is still one of the best.

So, maybe a recommended reading plan would be:
  • age 2 thru age 4½-ish, The Big Picture Story Bible
  • 4½ thru 6ish, the Jesus Storybook Bible
  • 6ish to maybe 7 or 8, depending on reading level, The Child’s Story Bible
  • After that, get them a regular children’s Bible, like the NIrV Children’s Bible (very like the NIV) or the ESV Children’s Bible.

A few other thoughts…

I picked up 
The Family Worship Book last summer, and have found it to be a useful guide. There’s a lot of good advice and instruction here, and it’s a needed resource for an often-difficult topic.

Also, I got 
Hymns for a Kid’s Heart vol. 1 and Vol. 2 at the PCA’s General Assembly last year, and I really like the concept. It’s a great idea to introduce hymn-singing to children at home, but it can be hard to do— these books (with CDs) make it a lot easier.

Also in the musical line: check out
Seeds Family Worship, which are songs for Scripture memory that are particularly written for children (but also are good enough not to be annoying for parents).

And, don’t be afraid to use children’s books that aren’t explicitly “story Bibles” to help with your family devotionals. There are some really good ones, like RC Sproul’s 
The King Without a ShadowThe Priest With Dirty Clothes, and The Poison Cup; Sinclair Ferguson’s The Plan; and Oliver Hunkin’s The Dangerous Journey (which is a children’s re-telling of the Pilgrim’s Progress). Also, every household should be equipped with Sinclair Ferguson’s Big Book of Questions & Answers and his Big Book of Questions & Answers about Jesus

When your kids are showing early signs of faith, you might think about starting to work through a catechism. There is a version of the
Westminster Shorter Catechism that has been reworked for children, called The Catechism for Young Children. I also love the Heidelberg Catechism as a very approachable and family-friendly catechism. Starr Meade's book Training Hearts, Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Shorter Catechism looks really good, though I haven't seen it. And Richie and Susan Hunt's Big Truths for Little Kids also looks very good as something along the lines of a catechism.

When you think your kids are ready to be received by the church as communing members (don't believe the myth that they have to wait for a certain age-- when they are ready to profess their faith publicly, they are ready to be received and partake of the Sacrament), I would encourage you to speak with the leadership of your church. When that time comes, I would humbly recommend the
Covenant Discipleship Student's Workbook, which I co-wrote with my friend Richard Burguet. There's also a Parents' Handbook to guide parents, as well. This would make a good addition to family decotionals.

Finally-- and this might be the best advice I have-- don't be legalistic about family devotionals! Maybe the worst thing that someone can do, in trying to teach the Gospel to their children, is to place in their children's path the stumbling-block of legalism (in devotionals, of all places). If things stall, then be patient and start again, but be flexible and be careful to avoid a legalistic approach to family worship.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Books for May 20010

I got a lot of reading done in May, because I was in bed recovering from oral surgery for a week, and on a plane for a couple of days. Here are the books I read in the month of May:
  • The Truelove by Patrick O'Brian: this one is another that dips just slightly in the pace of the story, though there are some very important pieces of the overall arc introduced here. (9)
  • The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O'Brian: good overall, there is a section of this one that drags for a few pages. By this point O'Brian had reached the stage as an author wherein his editors print whatever he gives them without a critique; in the larger scheme of things an entire section of this book could have been cut out completely (maybe he was leaving open the development of a character who never emerges again as a prominent figure; that's the best explanation I can offer). (9+)
  • The Commodore by Patrick O'Brian: back up to the pace and quality through-and-through with this one. (10)
  • The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O'Brian: (10)
  • The Hundred Days by Patrick O'Brian: another segment is folded into this one that is a bit tedious, but not so much as the others. Overall, this one is quite good, though the death of a couple of characters is dealt with in surprisingly-brief form. (9+)
  • Blue at the Mizzen by Patrick O'Brian: First-class as an unintended end to the series, with only a few minor details left open-ended. This one makes a satisfying conclusion. (10)

One final comment about the O'Brian novels:
Blue at the Mizzen, #20 in the series, was NOT O'Brian's intended end of the series; at his death in 2000, he was part-way through the writing of #21, which was never titled. That partial work was published in 2004 as The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey (in Great Britain) or simply 21 (in the U.S.), and is interesting both in form and content-- as a publication, we see O'Brian's hand-written notes on one side of the book, and the typed transcript that he completed himself on the other side (the handwritten parts, which are very difficult to read, go on for quite a bit longer than the typed portion). I bought a copy immediately at its release, but can't find my copy! So I'll read it when I can either find mine or get another.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Newbigin on the Authority of Scripture

I've been reading Lesslie Newbigin's Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel in Western Culture and I was struck by this brilliant quote in chapter 3, regarding the way that so many of us, as formal or informal Bible scholars, approach Scripture with attempts to preserve meaning in a religious sense, without regard for the interaction with accuracy and fact as it pertains to science and history:

"The scholar examines the text but is not, in any profound sense, examined by it. If he is a believer, he will draw from the text illumination for his own faith. But his faith does not rest on the authority of the text. It is rather that he perceives a congruence between the faith to which the text bears witness and his own."
Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel in Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), p. 47.

It is hard to overstate how accurate and prophetic this quote is in our day. I see this in my own life. And as a pastor I constantly encounter the frustrating truth of this set of circumstances in people around me, both within and outside of the church. I could list some examples (I would only have to look back a few weeks to fill the page), but I'm not sure that would be profitable or the best way to move in the right direction.

What would it look like to be "examined by the text"? What are the ways that your faith is not resting on the authority of the text, but merely shares some congruence with it?

The more we can consider this question, the more we shall be re-made in His image, rather than re-making Him in ours.