Monthly Archives: February 2013

Wormtongue at the Listless Wheel

“Did God actually say . . . ?”
– Genesis 3:1

In Tolkien’s The Two Towers we are introduced to Grima Wormtongue who, under the pretense of caring for Theoden the King, has wickedly ingratiated himself and usurped his moral authority. Indeed, as Wormtongue’s influence over Thedoen grows, the king’s power dissipates. In the Peter Jackson film, we see this vividly in the way Theoden is depicted as a mere shell of a man, somewhat skeletal with a gray pallor and dull, glazed eyes. His counselor has a parasitic effect. It’s a dramatic link, to be sure, but I think of this relationship when I ponder the ambitions of the emergents, the neo-evangelicals, or whatever they’re calling themselves now (or not calling themselves) in seeking to commandeer the the conversation of the evangelical movement. “Christianity must change or die,” a satanic bishop wrote a few years back. His spiritual progeny are catching up to agree with new books and new publishing houses, new conferences, blogs, and talk shows. But we’ve seen the trajectory for years. They can take us no place worth going. Talking out of both sides of their mouths, we ought not be surprised when the forked tongues become more evident.

Professing to be wise, they reveal themselves to be fools. “Did God actually say?” they begin. Then they’ll tell you the answer: “No.” Before long, they insist the gospel cannot expand in this brave new world without a brave new faith that coddles disbelief and calls sin …

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The Three Generosities of a Local Church

Just noodling around with this theory. I think there are three levels of generosity a local church can process through given the gospel’s dominion in the place and the leadership’s determination to be humble and not insecure. From easiest to hardest:

Generous with Facilities

This is the first generosity and the easiest for most churches to engage in. Sometimes even for reasons of conceit — the appearance of busy-ness or the desire to impress others — but most often out of sincere hospitality and graciousness, churches can open their facilities for use by other churches or community groups. Churches have been doing this for a long time, running soup kitchens or community dinners in their fellowship halls, opening classrooms for daycares or Boy/Girl Scout troop meetings, 12-step groups, etc. When a church is generous with its facilities, it shows a gratitude for what’s been stewarded to them and often that their building is not a sacred cow to them.

Generous with Money

Sometimes the first generosity and this one are flip-flopped and churches are more readily generous with money than with their building, but for many, this is a harder generosity, especially in tough economic times. A church’s budget will tell you what is most important to them, just like our bank statements reveal what is most important to us. It can be difficult for a church to be generous with its money because the drift to inward focus and enhancing the internal experience of the church is automatic. When the gospel takes more …

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On the Anniversary of My Sweetheart’s Birth

My wife Becky turns 40 today. She’s so cool she doesn’t even care if you know how old she is. “What’s it feel like to be married to an old person?” she said to me yesterday. (I turn 38 this fall, by the way.) “I wouldn’t know,” I said.

Last week we attended a Valentine’s sweethearts dinner for pastors and their wives in the area hosted by another local church. They had set up a collection of tables for two and volunteers served us chicken piccata over linguine by candlelight. They gave us a sheet of suggested questions for “couple talk.” We played the Newlywed Game (and a pair of actual newlyweds won). The whole night we enjoyed playing by the rules, but we also enjoyed — don’t tell anybody — making light fun of the questions. One of the listed instructions said to “reflect quietly on your life together,” so I rested my chin on my fist and stared dreamily off to space. Becky laughed out loud.

We’ve spent our married life (17 years this summer) not playing by the rules, really. Got married in college. Becky never finished. Went into debt. Moved away from family. Becky became the breadwinner, while I did the stay-at-home dad thing for about eight years.

We broke the rules of grace too — me especially. I broke the rules of God and I broke our marriage. But Becky broke the rule of common sense. She didn’t love me for a while, and especially didn’t …

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The Story of Grace

Our Gracie has been hard at work the last few days writing her first book. She’s got about 7 pages already, which is a lot when you’re 9 years old and writing longhand with pencil in a legal pad. She watched me sit down at my computer today and quipped, “I don’t have it easy like you.” (I told her I wrote the first drafts of my first three books longhand, pen in notebooks, but she didn’t seem too impressed.) I asked her what her book was about. This is what she said:

“It’s about a lady who is pregnant but she’s stressed out because she doesn’t have a place for the baby, so she starts driving to a motel to stay there because it’s near the hospital but she falls asleep when she’s driving and goes off the road and when she wakes up, she’s lost and doesn’t know how to get back to where she wants to go, and then the car blows up, so she’s out in the snow, pregnant and lost.”

“Wow. Sounds pretty heavy,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “But it all ends well.”

Indeed it does.

How Grace is Like Grace (and How Grace Isn’t)

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Rural Ministry: Too Cool for Hipsters?

Ignore my punchy title, really. Just my shameless ploy at getting your attention. Here is an interesting perspective from a site that is new to me on why rural ministry seems to be off the radar of the church planting crowd otherwise attracted to organic produce, going “local,” and living simply, etc. Darryl Hart on “If Cooking Slowly and Growing Organically are In, Why is Rural Ministry Out?” An excerpt:

Signs are not encouraging though that the growing concern among evangelical Protestants about the environment is having any effect on their church’s estimation of the people who work on farms and live near them. A recent story in Christianity Today on Tim Keller, a popular Presbyterian pastor in New York City, suggests that for all the desires that evangelicals have to be cutting edge and socially aware, a ministry accessible to the rhythms of farming and local communities does not qualify as hip. The story fawns over Keller for his ability to carve out a multiple-congregation structure in the Big Apple, for a theology of the city that says cites are where redemption happens, and for the model of ministry he exhibits to a crop of younger pastors who aspire to make an impact.

According to the news story, “New York attracts the best and the most ambitious.” Keller senses this and ministers accordingly. He told the reporter, “Suppose you are the best violist in Tupelo, Mississippi. You go to Manhattan, and when you get out of the subway, you hear …

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How Do We Cherish Virginity Without Moralistic Fearmongering?

One area of cultural concern I’ve been anxious about gospel-driven sanctification taking root is the teen abstinence movement. One year I attended the local crisis pregnancy center’s annual fundraising banquet and listened to a speaker decry teen pregnancy and the abortions the pregnancies often lead to, and while of course I shared the concern—I
wouldn’t have been there if I didn’t—I was chagrined to hear only the minor notes of the gospel, and even those were covered by the din of fearmongering, enemy-identifying, and law-building. Must we teach our teens to be responsible, to cherish their purity, and to save the gift of sexual intimacy for marriage? Yes, without question. But so many of our
efforts amount to condemning present affections without that expulsive power of a new one. We give them the “no” to sex with a “yes” to virginity or freedom from disease and pregnancy, but no “yes” is as propulsive for saying “no” to sin as the “yes” that is in Jesus.

In 2010, Christianity Today ran an opinion column in which different spokespersons gave their perspectives on the solution to the teen pregnancy and abortion crisis. I was very happy to see the truth of gospel-driven sanctification promoted by Richard Ross, cofounder of the popular True Love Waits organization. In his piece, Ross writes about gospel wakefulness as a spur to successful premarital purity:

The promise is kept most tenaciously by teenagers who have moved beyond moralistic therapeutic deism and who adore the King of Kings with awe and …

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Preaching as Expository Exultation

Expository means that preaching aims to exposit, or explain and apply, the meaning of the Bible. Every sermon explains and applies the Bible. The reason for this is that the Bible is God’s word, inspired, infallible, profitable—all sixty-six books of it. The preacher’s job is to minimize his own opinions and deliver the truth of God. Therefore, it is mainly Bible exposition—explanation and application.

And the preacher’s job is to do that in a way that enables us to see that the points he is making actually come from the Bible. If they come from the Bible and you can’t see that they come from the Bible, your faith will rest on man and not God.

The aim of this exposition is to help you eat and digest some biblical truth that will make your spiritual bones more like steel, and double the capacity of your spiritual lungs, and make the eyes of your heart dazzled with God’s greatness, and awaken the capability of your soul for kinds of spiritual enjoyment you didn’t even know existed.

Preaching is also exultation—expository exultation. This means that the preacher does not just explain what’s in the Bible, and the people do not simply understand what he explains, but the preacher and the people exult over what is in the Bible as it is being explained and applied.

— John Piper, “God So Loved the World, Part 2″

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Liberal Theology

“What is the liberal theology like? It can only be paralleled with what God says in Proverbs 30:20 about the adulterous woman: ‘Such is the way of an adulterous woman; she eateth, and wipeth her mouth, and saith, I have done no wickedness.’ What a picture! Not everyone whose theology has been somewhat infiltrated by liberal theology should be likened to this, but the real liberal theologian (whether the old liberal-type theologian or the newer existential theologian) stands in this place. They say they have done no evil by their spiritual adultery, while not only the church but the whole post-Christian culture shows the results of their unfaithfulness.

“There is no adulterous woman who has ever been so soiled as the liberal theology, which has had all the gifts of God and has turned away to a worship of something that is more destructive than Molech was to the babies whose parents were led astray from the living God to worship this idol. This is not a thing to take lightly. We must show love to the man with whom we discuss. Yes, and we fight for this at L’Abri. We must fight for the fact that he is not to be treated as less than a man. Nothing is more ugly than the orthodox man treating another man as less than a man and failing to show that he takes seriously Christ’s teaching that all men are our neighbors. We do not discuss with the liberal only to win, …

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Die Before You Die – The Way to Joy

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Dane Ortlund’s book Defiant Grace, but you ought to get your hands on a copy. Briefly but deeply exploring the good news of Christ’s kingdom in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Ortlund’s book is four shots of straight gospel whisky. Here’s one of my favorite passages, from his chapter on Mark’s Gospel:

To take up the cross is to take up joy — painful joy, but real joy. For to take up the cross is to walk with the one who in great love bore the ultimate cross in our place. Aim at joy, and you will miss it. Aim at Christ, and his cross-bearing call, and you will find it.

Contrary as it is to all presuppositions, the way to save our life is to lose it. Death was the way to life for Jesus. Death is the way to life for Jesus’ disciples. “Die before you die. There is no chance after,” remarks a character in C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.

If we tunnel in to the very heart of Christian discipleship as articulated by Mark, we find, echoing the mission of Jesus himself, this startling principle: loss is gain. Death is life. Yielding all guarantees receiving all. Self-denial for the sake of the gospel is the secret to saving our life. This was the way the upside-down mission of Jesus worked out, and it is the path of discipleship for his people. Glad abandon is our only sanity.

Contrary to what all …

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How Grace is Like Grace (and How Grace Isn’t)

One of the most vivid illustrations and daily reminders of God’s grace in my life is my daughter Grace. Actually, both my daughters, and my lovely wife before them, are daily reminders of God’s grace to me. But I’ve been making mental connections between nine year-old Grace and from-from-the-foundation-of-the-world grace since the former’s personality started taking dominion in her presence.

In fact, Grace is a lot like grace. Like grace, Grace is a friend to people of all kinds. I hope she never changes, because Grace is very at ease with kids and adults who look and act different. More than that, Grace thinks everybody’s handsome or beautiful. I’m not kidding. She seems naturally wired to see the best in everybody. Grace’s impartiality reminds me of the unpretentiousness of grace, how grace makes space for Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, how grace reignites the imago dei in everybody it lays hold of.

Our Grace has the tenderest of hearts. She wouldn’t put it this way, not yet anyway, but she feels real Jesus-like compassion for people. When Grace sees a homeless man in town, she is broken for him. When Grace knows someone is sad, she feels sad for them. When Grace overhears mom and dad discussing a difficult issue, Grace later enters to offer to help in some adorable way. If Grace happens to overhear mom and dad mention a financial constraint, however minor, she offers up her piggy bank. Grace preemptively offers to be …

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