T4G Recap and Recommendations

Ryan (@RyanTBrice) really pushed for us to go to “Together for the Gospel” this year. I have to admit, the timing was terrible and I wasn’t looking forward to the long drive. I’ve always heard great things about T4G but I wonder how “together” something really is if its just a room full of male WASPs (or maybe it should be WASCs). I was pleasantly surprised at the number of women and people of color.

The conference was full of great preaching and lots of free books (which is basically my love language). For whatever reason, I was not prepared for how powerful the music would be. We sang only hymns (all from the new “Hymns of Grace” hymnal). I like hymns (I mean, I have a hymnal with my name engraved on it!) but, in general, my tastes are a little more diverse. Not to mention, the “band” was Bob Kauflin on a piano. I was not prepared for how loud and powerful 10,000 voices were going to be. These were not casual singers, these (still mostly men) were singing at the top of their lungs. Most of the time, the piano was just background accompaniment. Often Bob would stop singing and let the voices swell. I think the word “foretaste” captures that moment. Thinking of heaven primarily as worship, these moments of singing were a foretaste of heaven. Here’s a little sample (though it fails to do justice to the magnitude of the moment):

As far as the speakers, I think I’d recommend you start with these three:

  1. The Q&A with Mark Dever and Phillip Jensen. Their discussion was funny, thought-provoking, and convicting. In the middle of their conversation, there were a ton of important practical takeaways. They even broached the subject of Student Ministry! Jensen said in Student Ministry you (1) never get past square one (stay with the gospel), (2) never assume a student is a Christian, and (3) be an expert on sovereignty and sex! Talking about sovereignty and prayer, he briefly explained how our (often) flat view of sovereignty robs the power from God and our prayers: “In God’s sovereignty he is more sovereign than that. We are people, not puppets. His sovereignty encompasses prayer, it is not fatalistic.” There was an interesting foray into Bible translation that was helpful (e.g., how do people in our modern world understand the term “faith.”). Jensen did not fear speaking strongly on a subject (e.g., “I’d cut my tongue out before I’d call a building a sanctuary.”). All-in-all, worth your time.
  2. Mark Dever’s message on endurance. His sermon was rich, encouraging, and convicting. It was good to be reminded of the difference between genuine revival and the false emotion of revivalism. It is never bad to be reminded that “God’s Word is never in danger of not succeeding… The weight of the world is on God’s shoulders, not mine.” This message will have to be watched many times in the future. If you’re discouraged in ministry, watch this message. My favorite moment was to hear him share the personal stories of people in his ministry who have been saved. As he was sharing those stories, I was reminded of the people in my ministry who came to Christ. Each person saved is immeasurably significant and I dare not lose sight of people in the quest to “grow a church.”
  3. Matt Chandler’s message on courage. This message was important because of the culture we now live in. He started by talking about the fear that many in his congregation feel because they are being labeled as phobic and hateful and there is no chance for explanation or defense. In the loss of the pseudo-Christian majority, Christians are going to continue to learn the meaning of genuine courage for Christ.

Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe WordPress.com Blog

WordPress.com is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

Saying Goodbye

IMG_0329

I remember vividly that night more than 7 years ago. Whitney and I had been married for 8 months and finally decided to get a puppy. We prayed about it and took the leap of faith. We weren’t ready. Sleeping on the floor by the crate of our new dog, Freckles, assuring her that she wasn’t alone. I was learning exactly what it meant for something else to be completely dependent on me. We carried that tiny puppy up and down three flights of apartment stairs at 3 in the morning so she could learn to use the bathroom outside. All the while, I was learning to put my own comfort aside because she needed me to take care of her.IMG_1187.JPG

The first day we had her, we had to leave her in the crate while we went to church. We came home to an escape artist puppy who had left her excremental artwork on the floor, the wall, and the door. I felt even more sure that I wasn’t ready to take care of her.

But every day, I got more and more used to her rhythms, and pretty soon it felt like she was taking care of me more than I was taking care of her. She was my companion through late nights of studying and papers during grad school. Our forays to the dog park always sparked the most interesting conversations. In some sense, she was a better bridge to the gospel than I was on my own. Every time I came in the door from work, her tail wagged so hard that it hit each wall with an ear splitting thud.

When my brother came to live with us, working through a rough spot in his own life, Freckles was his therapy. You never needed to beg for her affection, she gave it liberally. Her bark was scary, unless you knew it was just her way of begging to jump and kiss your face.

When Whitney got pregnant, she went from being “my” dog, to being Whitney’s dog. She used to sit at my feet, under my desk, and follow me around. She could sense something was different when Whitney got pregnant and she turned into a protector. She was Whitney’s shadow.

IMG_4572When J was born, she started checking on him. At first it was licks and sniffs, later we’d find her sitting outside of his room, just making sure everything was ok. She loved that little boy. She tolerated his antics, but love him she did. Sometimes she wanted more space than a 3 year old gives (especially when his idea of love is jumping on and chasing her). But one lick and he was the happiest person in the world.

When we had a miscarriage in 2014, Freckles knew what to do. She snuggled her head under Whitney’s arm, looked up with her big brown eyes, and licked the tears away. There are few things more beautiful than the unrelenting love of a dog.

And today we had to say goodbye.

This moment came suddenly and much too soon. Freckles developed pancreatic cancer and the treatment was too dangerous, too costly, and too ineffective.

To be fair, she was “just a dog.” But “just a dog” was what we loved about her. She was an important part of our family. She was part of our routine, our conversations, our life. She contributed love and affection. She provided companionship and activity. She taught us sacrifice and love. She was the “dog” part of our family. Her intuition and affection played a part in our lives. She was “just a dog” but dogs are family too. I miss her already.

IMG_0798

This poem by Jimmy Stewart captures some of my feelings of joy and loss.

Fear and Worship

My pastor preached a fantastic message on fear the other day from 2 Timothy 1. A lot of the things he said resonated with me. They made so much sense of the world, the way people act, and the way the good news of the gospel gives hope and freedom rather than bondage.

Fear is a universal and powerful emotion. It is good to be afraid of the right things (a.k.a. clowns). I always think of people who should be afraid of something but aren’t, the results are often disastrous. I never understood people who could glibly play with giant snakes or tigers. Some things should cause fear! Some fears are even kind of funny.

However, most people are afraid of the wrong things. Rather than being humorous, a lot of fears leave people paralyzed, timid, and cowardly in the face of things beyond their control. They are afraid of things that shouldn’t matter. They are incapacitated by the meaningless approval of people, by trying to control every little facet of life, by buying into the lie that any problem in life is an unfair crisis, and so much more.

I was pointed to some powerful quotes from Corrie ten Boom that echo the teachings of Jesus in Luke 12:

Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.

Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.

What became abundantly clear as I listened to the description of fear in the Bible is that fear is really an act of worship. We give authority to what we fear. We submit to what we fear. That is why the Bible says to “fear God” but not to fear man. When we fear God we submit to Him, we worship Him. When we fear other things we actually submit to them. When we fear God, we are telling Him that He is powerful, in control, awe-inspiring, worthy of our submission, and rightly entitled to our worship. That is why unhealthy, unbiblical fear is idolatry. That is is why so many people are trapped in their fears. They have literally submitted themselves to their fear. Their fear controls them. They spend their lives offering sacrifices at the altar of their fear. So many of us have sacrificed joy, freedom, relationships, and new experiences to our ungodly fears.

If you look at it closely, you can see by someone’s level of fear where there worship is directed. As my pastor reminded me:

When our heart is set on the world, so are our fears. As a result, everything in the world scares us.

This is why so many people see the world as a great, big scary place. The world isn’t scary. Sure, it’s broken by sin, but behind the brokenness we see the beauty and promise of God’s creation. Behind the pain, we see the longing for redemption. The world is full of murder, hatred, war, and tragedy but that is not all it is. When I see the dancing colors of a vibrant sunset or hear the unrestrained laughter of my child, I’m reminded that God has embedded flashes of hope, which point us to what creation was intended to be and what God promised to come back and make it.

I think this is why one blogger recently called “fear” the “greatest false idol of modern Christianity.” A Christian (so-called) who worships at the alter of fear spends all their time pointing out their enemies, managing their morality, and playing defender to God (as if he needs our help). It’s as if they feel that God might lose if they don’t try hard enough. God does not need your defense. He wants your trust, worship, love, and obedience.

It reminds me of a quote I read once:

The message of Christianity isn’t that the world is a scary place where everything and everyone is a potential threat—but you wouldn’t know that on Facebook.

There is a powerful sense among many Christians that everything is bad and everything is falling apart and that the future is hopeless. What that does is put our fear and, in a real sense, our faith in the things of this world. This might be why Christians have such a bad reputation for being fearful, hopeless, curmudgeons.

But there is a better way. There is a way that acknowledges and grieves over the brokenness of this world. But that grief is not as those who have no hope. If we have tasted the goodness of God, then we can have a humble, confident, joyful hope in His promises. We can learn to see the remnants of God’s beauty even in a broken world. We can learn to encourage each other with the proven promise of God’s faithfulness. We can live in fear and worship of God, rather than submission to His creation.

So the question becomes, who or what do I fear and worship today?

Christmas Isn’t Over at Our House

Christmas is one of my favorite times. Our family has been fortunate enough to find a way to carve out meaningful traditions while maintaining some sense of calm and peace. This year was full of lots of things. I was able to preach on Matthew 1-2, we had tons of family in town, and J is at that fun age where Christmas is full of wonder. It is nice when a pair of shoes and sunglasses is enough to evoke awe (such is the life of a 2 year old).

One of the things I wasn’t quite prepared for was J’s lack of compartmentalizing Christmas. We have (for better or worse) boundaries for our Christmas celebration. There’s a time when we start listening to Christmas music and watching Christmas movies (you can see some of my favorites here). Everyone gets all flustered when Christmas displays appear in the store too soon. We also try hard to get our tree and lights down close to New Year’s day.

Our 2 year old does not understand these boundaries. When Christmas and New Year’s came and went he still wanted to watch his favorite Christmas movie (for those wondering I’ve seen “Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas” a gazillion times). Not to mention the “Mickey Mouse and Friends Christmas Favorites” CD is on repeat in the car (surprisingly the music quality is very nice). As he’s going to bed at night, I’m still likely to hear him softly sing Jingle Bells, Joy to the World, or Happy Birthday Jesus over the baby monitor.

The more I think about it, the more I’m okay with extending our Christmas celebration. One of the great frustrations of nominal Christianity is attendance at a worship service that has no bearing on the ins and outs of every day life. The truths of Christmas (e.g., the incarnation of God, the glory and truth of Christ, the worship and adoration of those who first met the newborn King, etc.) should permeate every day of our lives. God becoming flesh is not an occasional or seasonal event to be acknowledged but a world-altering, life-changing, paradigm shift that changes everything. Every decision, every relationship, every day has been forever touched by Christmas, so maybe it’s okay that Christmas isn’t over at our house.

IMG_4472

Liberty University and Benny Hinn: A Match Made in Confusion

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 4.20.27 PM (2)Today the announcement that Liberty University was partnering with Benny Hinn Ministries hit the interwebs. The relationship seemed official. The course material bears the name “Liberty University.” There is even a mock diploma with the name and apparent official seal of LU. The provost of Liberty is in the video with Hinn and a prominent Liberty donor endorsing the partnership. There have been past internet grumblings of associations between late Liberty founder, Jerry Falwell, and Hinn but we all know how hyperbolic the internet can be.

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 3.21.09 PMMany (most?) evangelicals would consider Hinn’s theology and ministry practices to be clearly aberrant. Sproul has argued that heresy is a fair description of Hinn’s teachings (not too mention his lavish lifestyle and spending). Especially those associated with the more conservative strains of American Evangelicalism (e.g., Liberty University) have been quick to denounce the word-faith theology and pseudo-miraculous claims of Hinn. So any such partnership would immediately cause shock.

Within minutes of the announcement there were affirmations and denials of such a partnership. Liberty issued a statement:

Liberty University is not partnering with Benny Hinn.  Liberty transferred the operations of Liberty Home Bible Institute, a non-accredited biblical studies certificate program, to Mr. Dan Reber a number of years ago.  It is our understanding that LHBI’s new operators are working with Benny Hinn but LHBI is no longer operated by Liberty University.  Mr. Reber was granted certain licensing rights to use Liberty’s name because the Liberty name was deeply imbedded in LHBI course materials.  He was also required to obtain permission from Liberty University for any changes in marketing of the courses and Liberty University is investigating to determine whether this new marketing approach violates the terms of its agreement with Mr. Reber.”

The statement echoes the problem with the partnership. Liberty does not want to be connected to Hinn. Liberty definitely needs to investigate. Yet, while Liberty claims LHBI is no longer operated by the university, their website implies something different. Not only is LHBI on the liberty.edu website, it boasts that an LHBI degree is transferrable toward an LU degree. Further, the current Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Liberty University Provost is seen in the video endorsing this partnership.

So what hath Lynchburg to do with Hinn? In my opinion: too much.

There is no place for LU or its subsidiary institutions, much less its prominent faculty to sacrifice Biblical fidelity and sound Christian theology at the altar of a pragmatic partnership with a theologically and ethically suspect televangelist.

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 4.19.59 PM*Besides, we all know that Hinn is really from the dark side.

 

Where is your confidence?

Listening to Gary preach on Philippians 3 I was reminded of one of it’s central themes: confidence. Paul mentions it several times.

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh — though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more (vv. 3-4).

Now our society is brimming with admonitions toward self-confidence. In fact that seems to be a lot of what people are looking for. They want to feel good and feel confident. They want some stability. Most admonitions toward self-confidence tell you to “look inside” for all that you need. The myriad of voices in our culture falsely shout the lie that “deep inside you is the power to do whatever you want.” So we go digging and find that at our core we are never enough.Unknown

Many people have reason to be confident. Some are confident in their ability, their resumé, their accomplishments. Others are confident in their looks or personality. Maybe it is pride in one’s heritage and upbringing.

Paul has met some of these people. They are mainly proud of their special calling as God’s people. They think their religious observance gives them confidence before God. Paul is blunt. He says that he has more reason to be confident and proud than any of them! Paul lists his accomplishments (vv. 5-6). What is striking is that many of these things would have been viewed as really good things. He even lists his sincerity and zeal!

All of these things (even the good ones!) are no true source of pride and confidence. If I am standing on anything other than Christ, I am destined to fall. Even my sincere morality and religious adherence are nothing without Christ. At the end of the day, if my confidence only comes from within then it is not enough. I am not strong enough or good enough or faithful enough or sincere enough. If I dig too deep in my heart, I find out that the well of confidence is dry.

That is why I need a source of confidence that is overflowing, unending, and perfect. Paul says that such a confidence can never be based on one’s own abilities or accomplishments but only in the “righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God” (v. 9).

I find it a much more freeing concept to know that I don’t have to conjure up strength and confidence. I am relieved to know that I can turn to God rather than to myself. My confidence is not within, it is in a far better place—the finished work of Jesus Christ. That is a true confidence that never fades or fails when I come up short in my own strength.

“Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission,” some thoughts

41TfHkM5ZmL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Chester and Timmis offer another insightful, Biblical, and helpful book on “church.” Their previous book Total Church is one of my ecclesiological “must-reads.” This book is helpful because it applies the foundations of “gospel and mission” (discussed extensively in Total Church) in the current Western situation.

They open with a provocative observation on the decline of Christianity in the Western World. Rather than spend too much time bemoaning its fall, they quickly look for the gospel opportunity. I would argue that their underlying question (laid out on pp. 13-21) is this: Do we want to hold on to Christendom or Christ?

It is likely that for all Christendom’s good you can’t have both. And that’s not to mention its many demonstrated ills. Christendom cannot exist in a pluralistic society because it requires political and/or military power. Following Christ requires radical love and service. Conversion cannot be coerced by power but must be won by love.

It is a losing battle to only focus on rechurching the dechurched (see p. 26). Reintroducing Christian culture without Christ is a painfully misguided attempt at returning to the glory days. What is needed is a radical commitment to reaching the unchurched with the gospel. To do this requires that Christ and his message be the central principal of our lives EVERY DAY.

We need to do church and mission in the context of everyday life. We can no longer think of church as a meeting on a Sunday morning. We must think of church as a community of people who share life, ordinary life. And we cannot think of mission as an event that takes place in an ecclesiastical building (p. 28).

The church is about the “people of God” not some sort of “building of God.”

One of the central contentions of this book is that our marginal status as Christians in the West requires us to think differently about mission. One way is by dropping our preoccupation with church [defined as a building] (p. 85).

The foundation of Gospel community is the word of God (1 Peter 1:23). Nothing can supplant that foundation. If the word is first and final, then the way it says “to do” mission is important. Mission in the Bible is not primarily “attractional” (e.g., “come and see”) but “go and tell.” Even when crowds came to Jesus, he was “among them.”

Much of the message of this book is broken down into four basic truths about God. These liberating truths are for those we pastor and those who pastor (p. 76).

  1. God is great, so we do not have to be in control.
  2. God is glorious, so we do not have to fear others.
  3. God is good, so we do not have to look elsewhere.
  4. God is gracious, so we do not have to prove ourselves.

IMG_2758The discussion of pastoring based on the greatness, glory, goodness, and grace of God (pp. 82-83) was the most helpful and convicting part of the book for me. It helped me identify some latent sin in my heart toward God and the church. As a result, I could identify with various levels of “over-pastoring” (e.g., self-importance, domination, micro-managing, proving myself) and “under-pastoring” (e.g., fear of others, conflict avoidance, seeing people as burdens.”IMG_2759The same truths that inform pastoring are truths to be proclaimed to those we are seeking to reach with the gospel. This book is wonderful in its biblical depth, theological acumen, and cultural analysis. However, it is also very practical. The chapter on “everyday evangelism” recognizes the necessity of sharing the “good news” on which our faith is built but also the difficulty that many of us have. Not everyone is a natural evangelist! How do you develop the ability to share the gospel in everyday life?

  1. Make your everyday conversations with other believers about the gospel! By talking about Jesus more with your Christian friends you will find it easier to talk about Jesus with your non-Christian friends (pp. 111-112). “If you find it hard to talk about Jesus with Christians, then how do you expect to talk about him with unbelievers?”
  2. Let your unbelieving friends in on your everyday Christian community. If your unbelieving and believing friends are sharing a meal at your house, your unbelieving friends are bound to overhear your conversations about Christ (p. 112).
  3. Don’t assume that people have a Christian background. As a result, your gospel presentations must be more holistic, more big-picture, and more patient (p. 112).
  4. “Sometimes less is more” (p. 113). Silence is okay. Give people time to think. Give the Holy Spirit some space to work. Don’t expect that everyone can make the journey that has taken you a lifetime in a few minutes.
  5. Allow the people you are sharing the gospel with to ask their questions. Don’t just answer the “popular” objections to Christianity.

Chester and Timmis suggest that “story” is the primary way that people in the modern world interpret life. As such, everyone has a “story” that includes their version of salvation. Look for points of intersection between the “true” gospel story and the functional gospel story that most people have.

The authors bring the book “full circle.” They started explaining the marginal status of modern Christianity and end similarly “at the margins.” As such, the Biblical admonition to expect persecution and suffering should be taken seriously. The result is a paradoxical coexistence of joy and grief amidst suffering. But suffering is no threat to the will of God. Suffering has no power over the “hope of glory” (e.g., 1 Peter 1:6, 4:13).

In the end, the authors are challenging the church to take the mission of God seriously “every day.”

theology, life, culture, and miscellany