Monthly Archives: May 2010

The Gospel and "Look at Me!" Culture

Last Sunday our Bible study class was discussing the revelation that Mother Theresa went through a terrible “dark night of the soul” that lasted for years. I thought about how we didn’t even know this about her until after she died, until after her once private journals were reviewed. While suffering from deep bouts of depression and feeling as though God’s presence had left her, she nevertheless carried on her service to the diseased in Calcutta.

This made me think of how there’s almost nothing we do today that isn’t blogged, Facebooked, or tweeted. When someone in our culture is having a rough time, they tell us online. When they are serving others, they tell us online. And when they are serving others despite having a rough time, they tell us online. There is almost no thought, feeling, inclination, impulse, or attitude we don’t share with everyone who will listen.

On the one hand, such transparency can be very valuable. It certainly is more honest than holding everything in or acting like we’re fine when we’re not. On the other hand, though, there is a fine line between transparency and vanity. Authenticity is great. Except when it’s not.

I think my generation has spun the older Me Generation into a sort of “Look at Me” Generation, and now of course the generations after Gen-X are progressively perfecting “Look at me!” into a science. Or an art. I’m not sure why we seem constantly puzzled that someone like Paris Hilton or Spencer and Heidi …

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Why Morality Cannot be the Baseline

Of the new Robin Hood movie, Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert writes, “Must children go directly from animated dragons to skewering & decapitation, w/ no interval of cheerful storytelling?”

Ebert is one of the few critics who gave that new adult comic book movie for kids Kick-*ss a bad review, questioning its moral compass. In fact Ebert is one of the few film critics who will outright call a movie “immoral” (as he did for one of the Texas Chainsaw remakes and other pictures in the dubiously but aptly titled new category “torture p*rn”).

What I find even more unique about this is that Roger Ebert is an atheist. Yes, I know atheists in general do not think one must be religious to be moral, but that’s not the point I mean to make. I was reminded of Ebert’s cinematic moral compass recently when reading this post at Justin Taylor’s blog, about how/why Steve Jobs forbids p*rn apps on Apple products. From the article:

Steve Jobs is a fan of Bob Dylan. So one customer emailed him to ask how Dylan would feel about Jobs’ restrictions of customers’ freedoms.

The CEO of Apple replied to say that he values:

‘Freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a changin’ and some traditional PC folks feel their world is slipping away. It is.’

The interlocuter replied:

“I don’t want ‘freedom from porn’. Porn is just fine! And I …

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He Created the Seahorses and the Krakens to Frolick

Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great.There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.

– Psalm 104:25-26

The vast seas give their Creator glory. And so do the sea monsters playing in them.

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The Mission is the Vision

The way we’re usually told it works is this: receive a vision for where you want to go, then formulate a mission to get there.

I don’t see that in the Bible as the task of the pastor. (Sorry.)

Instead I think the mission comes first, which is to say God’s mission comes first. It’s not my vision — for a bigger church, for revival, for whatever — I want to put my church on mission toward; it’s God’s mission I want a vision for, and his mission I want to shepherd my church to joining.

The mission is the vision.

But of course this requires reframing success as faithfulness and health, not as . . . well, “success.”

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The Long View: Variations on a Theme

In these days of insta-church and fast forward ministry, it’s refreshing to read takes on ministry that reflect the more biblical imagery of farming and shepherding. Some variations:

Kevin DeYoung on The Glory of Plodding

Tim Chester on Slow Church

Bill Streger on Taking the Long View

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Review: Transforming Church in Rural America by Shannon O’Dell

I accepted a review copy of Shannon O’Dell’s Transforming Church in Rural America somewhat disingenuously. I fully expected not to like the book at all, but I didn’t say that to the New Leaf Press rep who asked if I’d be interested in it. Because I was interested in it; I just figured I’d hate it. With a subtitle like “Breaking All the Rurals,” I was anticipating yet another implicitly condescending plan for transplanting megachurchianity into small, rural churches.

To be fair to myself, there is actually a touch of that in this book. But to be fair to O’Dell, it is clear that his ministry and this literary product of it are based on a love for reaching the lost and a heart for rural communities and the small churches in them. So many outside the rurals — and a few inside — think of pastoring a small church as something you do on your way in or out of ministry, like it’s the 3rd World of pastoral ministry, only not as “sexy” as mission to the real 3rd World. To his great credit — and to the great strength of his book — Shannon O’Dell is not one of these.

In the very first chapter, he challenges assumptions and rebukes condescension about small churches in rural areas, even laying out a biblical case for the primacy of “the wilderness” in Scripture, which is something virtually unheard of in today’s missional conversation. Then late in the book, O’Dell writes …

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Multiple Benefits. One Benefactor.

Much theological confusion can result in conflating justification and sanctification. These are separate “events.” But both events are all of grace. Even our working out of salvation with fear and trembling is the result of God working in us. Our gracious Father prepared our good works beforehand, that we might walk in them.

From Sinclair Ferguson:

This first thing to remember, of course, is that we must never separate the benefits (regeneration, justification, sanctification) from the Benefactor (Jesus Christ). The Christians who are most focused on their own spirituality may give the impression of being the most spiritual … but from the New Testament’s point of view, those who have almost forgotten about their own spirtuality because their focus is so exclusively on their union with Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished are those who are growing and exhibiting fruitfulness. Historically speaking, whenever the piety of a particular group is focused on OUR spirituality that piety will eventually exhaust itself on its own resources. Only where our piety forgets about ourself and focuses on Jesus Christ will our piety nourished by the ongoing resources the Spirit brings to us from the source of all true piety, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.– James 1:17

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The One Source of Total Salvation

The finished work of Christ is that beautiful spring from which flows our forgiveness from sins, our justification before God, our receipt of Christ’s righteousness, our adoption as sons, our reconciliation with the Father, our reconciliation with our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ, our sure sanctification, our grounds for the Spirit’s fruit, our position as a royal priesthood, our serving as Christ’s ambassadors in the advancing kingdom of God, our resurrection from the dead, our eternal reward, our enjoyment of the new heavens and the new earth, and our participatory witnesses of God’s restoration of all things.

The gospel of first importance produces a myriad of blessings I suppose that were every one of them to be written the world itself could not contain the books. Grand thing, then, that God is remaking the world to broadcast them best.

The large tree of salvation, with branches enough for bird of every kind and from every place, grows from the mighty mustard seed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Review: Holy Subversion by Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax’s book Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals is small, short, and unassuming. Like a hand grenade.

And like a grenade, it packs quite a wallop. Trevin’s book — which covers the major idols of modern society — tracks along the somewhat recently rediscovered approach to discipleship as repentance from idolatry and redirection of worship to the One True God by using the “gospel” language of the early church under the Roman Empire. If Jesus is Lord, N.T. Wright reminds us, then Caesar is not. So Trevin transports that key exchange into our modern context: there is nothing new under the sun except the endlessly innovative marketing employed by the gods of the age.

One by one, Trevin reveals to his readers the Caesars of self, power, success, money, sex, and leisure, and sets forth plainly and persuasively how the Christian life requires renouncing the abuse of good things as god things and the subverting of this idolatry with the worship of Jesus Christ.

This is the most helpful and powerful part of Trevin’s effort, however: He roots out and reveals this idolatry in the active practice of Western evangelicalism. From sniffing out ambition and zeal for “success” in seminary student surveys to clearly rebuking the reverence of Self epidemic in modern churches, Holy Subversion gets very personal very quickly. But Trevin never writes high-handedly or bitterly. Indeed, I can think of few among the young-types, restless-types, and Calvinist-types who are as winsome — on both …

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The Gospel Empowers Its Own Implications

This post from Justin Taylor is really important.

A taste:

The dominant mode of evangelical preaching on sanctification, the main way to motivate for godly living, sounds something like this:

You are not _____;

You should be _________;

Therefore, do or be ________!

Fill in the blank with anything good and biblical (holy; salt and light; feed the poor; walk humbly; give generously; etc.).

This is not how Paul and the other New Testament writers motivated the church in light of the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit. They did give imperatives (=what you should do), but they do so only based on indicatives (=what God has done).

The problem with the typical evangelical motivation toward radical or sacrificial living is that “imperatives divorced from indicatives become impossibilities” (to quote Tullian Tchividjian). Or another way that Tullian puts it: “gospel obligations must be based on gospel declarations.”

Yes. This is crucial for anyone aspiring to gospel-centered teaching and preaching, and to anyone aspiring to gospel-centered ministry, from how we teach our children Bible stories and Bible lessons to how we “gospel” each other in small groups and classes.

Last weekend I had the great privilege and blessing of speaking to youth pastors, youth workers, and youth themselves at The Calling conference in Auburn, Maine. In a morning session, I preached to impress the importance of gospel-centrality for all of life, and therefore all of ministry. In the afternoon session, I preached a message called “The Empowering …

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