Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Present

I am on vacation at the beach in South Carolina. I have looked forward to this trip for months, and everything is just as you would hope. Comfortable beach house, dolphins swimming in the water, relaxed coastal town, and time with family. Yet, just as I noted during last year's trip to the mountains, the blessings of this week easily slip through my fingers, pried away by the dueling emotions of regret over the past and fears for the future.

The present is a present. It is a gift. Sometimes, the present is painful. But many times, it is not. And those times of present peace are indeed a gift. They are gifts of God that give us a glimpse into how it will be for eternity. I had one such gift today, riding bikes with my son in the rain along a lush bike path filled with palmettos and live oaks dripping Spanish moss. That moment was a true present, a gift of God. It gave me a sense of awe as I contemplated what coastal South Carolina would be like in perfection and what the Garden of Eden was like before the fall of man.

But worry and regret tempted me away from receiving that moment as a gift. I think this is why God gives us such serious warnings against fear and worry.


Luke 12
"Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. ... 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29 And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30 For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.

Phil. 4:6
do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Life is hard. God knows that. And He knows we are dust. In the midst of this long marathon of endurance as travelers in a world that is not our home, He gives us presents, little moments of peace and joy that are gifts to aid in our endurance. I think of them like the cups of cold water people hand out to marathoners as they run along. Drink a little and pour the rest over your head. It keeps you going. Those little moments when the clouds part and the Son clearly shines through can be sustaining blessings. Don't let regrets over the past or anxiety for the future knock them away from you in that moment. That's my goal for the rest of this vacation.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Facebook and the Kingdom

Facebook is an interesting beast. I have given a lot of thought to my philosophy of Facebook. I think most of us have adopted some type of philosophy or strategy for how we will interact with it. Some avoid it like the plague. Some have an account not to post anything about themselves but to get updates on friends or family. Some want to be known authentically. Some want to be known superficially. All of these are fine. I don't think it's appropriate to make moral judgements about how other people choose to interact with it.

I find it especially interesting how different Christians interact with Facebook. For many, it's a place to state Christian beliefs and stand up for Christian moral issues. Again, I won't pass a moral judgement on that. And for famous Christians, their personal Facebook page is sometimes a clearing house for their ministry—announcements, devotionals, and so forth. I'm in this weird middle place. I'm not exactly famous, but people read this blog that I don't know personally, and I get more and more requests to be friends on Facebook with people I don't yet know.

Which leads me to articulate my own personal Facebook philosophy. It is simply this – Facebook serves the relationships I already have and want to cultivate at a deeper level. Frankly, many of those relationships are not with believers. I don't feel that Facebook is the place to plant my Christian flag on an issue, though maybe it will help me build a connection with an individual because I know them, their children, their likes, and their dislikes that facilitates real conversation in person about Christ and the Word.

Facebook has helped me connect with cousins that I otherwise wouldn't get to see but maybe once a year. It lets me know when my friend across town is sick and needs a meal or when a coworker's marriage is falling apart. And it's how I let my mom know I have a sinus infection, my friends at church know that I need prayer, or the other preschool moms know that I'm going to the playground in our neighborhood. It's the place that I save pictures from my family vacation.

Also, I have made genuine Facebook-only friends. One friend in particular became my Facebook friend after we met online when she reviewed one of my books. Though we haven't met in person, we have become true friends online, and she often writes supportive, encouraging responses to me.

My husband and I often talk of the struggle between public and private ministry. Facebook can be either public or private. Many use it to support their public ministry which is perfectly fine. But our burden as a family is that private relationships and ministry come first. So far, it's what I have learned and experienced privately that has seemed helpful to people publicly on this blog, through my books, and during various teaching engagements.

In our age of social media, many seem to clamor for a larger public presence. I have been guilty of that at times. I'm thankful for my grounded, private husband, who reminds me regularly that the kingdom comes quietly, slowly over time. There is excitement in large activities with a wide impact, but they can't distract us from the kingdom value of quiet conversations over coffee about marriages, children, and worship. Or warm hugs and faithful support when someone's private world falls apart. This is where the kingdom comes and the place that I want Facebook to serve in my life. If you struggle with the value of what you do privately verses the exciting things other seem to do publicly, don't be discouraged. The kingdom is like leaven, Jesus taught. It starts small but spreads along and along slowly but surely. It's not top down from public ministry but bottom up from one on one contacts. The kingdom work you do in quiet is the stuff of which Christ talks. Do not be discouraged in your quiet love and concern for others.

Luke 17 20 Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, 21 nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you."

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Purity and Peace

The membership vows of our church include this statement.

Do you, in reliance on God for strength, solemnly promise and covenant that you will walk together as an organized church, on the principles of the faith and order of the Presbyterian Church in America, and that you will be zealous and faithful in maintaining the purity and peace of the whole body?

PURITY and PEACE. I had dinner with my wise friend the other night, the one that always leaves me scrambling for paper to write down the godly insights she shares. This time was no exception. As we talked about recent controversies in evangelical Christianity, she pointed out the tension in the membership vows of the PCA. It calls members to be zealous and faithful in maintaining both purity (keeping the church unstained and unpolluted by sin) and peace (mutual harmony and contentment). The problem is that it is hard to maintain purity without disturbing the peace. Yet, on the flip side, there will be no long term peace without occasional zealous attention to purity. I love that the membership vows recognize the need for both.

I'm burdened that the larger conservative evangelical culture needs to be concerned for maintaining purity--- not external purity in our culture but the internal purity of ourselves. And not purity in terms of outward morality but purity of the heart. Because “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12).

I'm familiar with 4 situations in different corners of conservative Christianity in which people are disturbing the peace in their cry for purity and correction in the church. It reminds me of the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, the doctor who first recognized the need to wash hands to reduce infections among birthing mothers. Nobody listened to him, and his findings were not accepted until after his death. Over his life, he grew increasingly angry in his writings, finally descending into full mental illness. But all along, he was RIGHT.


He's a case study in the despair brought on when you know the truth, and no one will listen. As far as I can tell, he didn't know the gospel. What if you know the truth and no one will listen and you DO know the gospel? Does it make a difference? I think it does.

How does the gospel break into and transform despair to hope when sinful men and practices go unaddressed in the Church? First, the gospel gives us free access to God where we can boldly bring Him our concerns. After all, it is His Body, and He's the one who promises to make Her glorious. And He even gives us a model for our prayer in Psalms 10.

Psalm 10
 1 Why, O LORD, do you stand(A) far away?
   Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
...
 12 Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand;
    forget not the afflicted.
...
14 But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation,
   that you may take it into your hands;
to you the helpless commits himself;
   you have been the helper of the fatherless.
...
17 O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
   you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
   so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

Second, the gospel gives us a model on how to engage in conflict. I've often talked about grace in conflict on this blog.

Grace in Conflict
Stopping Evil in the World
Abusers of Grace

The bottom line is that offenders need gospel grace. They won't stop offending until God transforms their heart through the power of the gospel. But often, my response to those who sin against others is to sin against them in an attempt to get them to stop sinning. It's a bad cycle. I'm as convinced as ever that the Golden Rule is key for conflicts. You can both stand against oppressive, sinful practices in the church and do it with gospel grace and biblical love. Purity and peace.

As a final note, I do not know anything about the conflicts within Sovereign Grace Ministries except what they have publicly disclosed on their blogs. I know enough from reading there that it is serious, and it is sin. I want to say how much I am encouraged by Josh Harris in particular. I've been impressed by the comments allowed on his blog and the patient responses. That's the antidote to the Ignaz Semmellweis syndrome. Yes, there was/is sin. Yes, it was/is a systemic and widespread culture of leadership that involved harshness and pride with limited accountability. Yes, God is disciplining them for the purity of the ministry. But best of all, there will be peace if they continue to embrace this season, seriously examine themselves, and listen to their critics instead of discounting them as bitter.

May the gospel empower critics as well as those criticized for both the purity and the peace of the Church.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What Bitterness REALLY is

I have written on bitterness and accused people in the past (rarely to their face) of being bitter. In the church, we think that complaining leads to bitterness which leads to divisiveness. A few months ago, a pastor friend, Bob Bixby, wrote a thought provoking post on what bitterness really is biblically. It's the first real exposition I've heard of Hebrews 12, and it has radically changed how I think about this passage and subsequently how I view or judge people who “rock the boat” in Christian circles. Here are parts of Bob's exposition. You can read the full post here. Bob is writing in a very different context, sexual abuse in fundamentalist Christianity, than the one I face here in Seattle. Yet, read in my context, his exposition of Hebrews 12 is very meaningful. Where is part two by the way, Bob?!

The “Bitter Card” has trump power. Pop that baby out, and you can dismiss the criticism. It’s played this way: person A has a grievance that he/she does not feel is being understood. Eventually Person A vents too often, too emotionally, or even sinfully, or gets too close to unsettling the happy delusion of the establishment and consequently in danger of getting too much influence. At this point, play the “Bitter Card.” This puts them on the defensive and, in the minds of the clueless, guts their argument. Plus it has the added benefit that you can say that their defensiveness is proof of the truth of your claim. Often people who play the “Bitter Card” employ Hebrews 12:15 and warn that the bitterness could result in the defilement of many.

So, let me explain. Biblically. 

… The “root of bitterness” in Hebrews 12:15 could more aptly be applied to the scourge of immorality and its abuses than to the wounded, spiteful, angry, and sometimes over-the-top venting of those who have been “defiled” by it. In other words, friends, the disgruntled are more likely the “many” who have been defiled by the “root of bitterness” ... than bitter souls who ought to be dismissed for having a bad attitude.

It is the root of bitterness, not bitterness that defiles. But that may be stretching it too much. At the very least, “root of bitterness” ought to be understood as an evil core, a wickedness that cannot be more darkly described than using the words from the Pentateuch. It is the essence of a person who, though in the fellowship of believers by association, has “failed the grace of God” and is not even a saved person. That wickedness, a wickedness that could manifest itself in all sorts of ways ... ultimately springs up and defiles many of the people within the fellowship of believers. That the writer of Hebrews thinks such a person is an unsaved person seems clear by his use of Esau seeking repentance even with tears but not able to find it.

...

The Scripture repeatedly emphasizes the need to be vigilant over the community of believers. Hebrews 3:12 calls for community vigilance. And, when sin occurs, there ought to be a godly purging. Instead, (in certain situations) the root of bitterness was retained and those who were defiled by it were sent away.

...

There’s no denying that sometimes victims and their friends and the disgruntled “many” are sinful. Very sinful. But, pastorally, it’s just plain stupid to try to control somebody’s speech or the effect of it on others by pulling out the “Bitter Card.” First of all, anger and indignation is not always “bitterness.” Wounds and hurts still felt are not bitterness.

When I was at (Bible college), I was wrongly taught that bitterness is “harbored hurt.”  The idea that you still felt the pain of something ten years later meant that you had “harbored the hurt.” That, we were told, was bitterness. And, “Be careful,” we were warned, “because that root of bitterness will spring up and defile many people.”

To the contrary. The reason there are so many disgruntled and hurt and wounded and angry opponents of (various offensive people or institutions within conservative evangelical Christianity) is because the “root of bitterness” was not vigilantly rooted out. It’s not too much of a stretch, considering the context of Hebrews 12:15, to read into the word “defiled” something more than just a moral defilement but a cultic/ceremonial/communal defilement. In other words, the cultic (and, I mean here “worship”) and communal fellowship among those affected by the “root of bitterness” and the rest of the believers is severely damaged. That’s why it is a community obligation to “see to it that no one among you fails the grace of God.”

The whole of Hebrews 12 is misapplied if applied exclusively to the individual. The verbs are plural. It is addressed to the community. “Lay aside every weight… and sin” is not just to the individual, but to the community. … The community of faith is, like the Author of our faith, in a conflict with sin. In fact, the writer says exactly this in verse 3: “in your struggle against sin.” Unlike the Author of our faith we have not resisted to the point of “shedding of blood” (a euphemism for death, I believe). This struggle against sin includes our own sin which “clings so closely” (v.1) and, like our Captain’s struggle, “hostility against” us (v. 3). Our own sin has painful consequences and the hostility of sinners against us is also painful. This we are called to endure because it is training (“discipline”). ...

This understanding makes the following verses make sense, especially as it is understood corporately. While too many people get defensive and circle the wagons trying to point out the excesses of accusers, instead he/she should “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather healed” (v. 12-13). Again, this is all plural and directed to the community of faith. It simply says, “Fix the problem. Straighten the path.”

...

It flies in the face of reason not to admit that many people have been hurt in (certain) circles and it is belligerently ungodly to dismiss it by saying, “Well, everybody is a sinner.” The godly response is to be trained by it and to say, “Let’s lift up the drooping hands and the weak knees.” In other words, let’s strengthen those in our community that are discouraged by sin. Yes, even our sinfulness. Therefore, “let’s make straight paths” and fix the problem so that what is already “lame may not be put out of joint.”

Instead, ... churches too often (not always and, yes, there are many exceptions), shoot the wounded or tell them to quit “harboring hurt.” The striving for peace of Hebrews 12:14 is not to have a voiceless group of subdued villagers who meekly bow to the elders. The striving for peace in the community of faith is accompanied by a striving for holiness without which no man will see the Lord (v. 14). This is why it is absolutely imperative that the community of faith “see to it” (episkopéō) that no one fails the grace of God and that a root of bitterness springs up and defiles many people.
The word “see to it” is a Greek word that even most laypeople would recognize. It’s a word that is at the root of our word for pastor/overseer. I suppose you could translate 12:15 this way: You all oversee [yourselves] that no one fails to obtain the grace of God. The person who fails to obtain the grace of God becomes a “root of bitterness” that will spring up and defile many.

...

I think that Hebrews 12:18-29 builds on this community idea. The Hebrews were inclined to think that they needed to protect the visible, tangible, and touchable identifiers of their previous community of faith under the old covenant. Thus, the writer says, “The reason why I have encouraged you to lay aside every weight and sin and vigilantly make sure no one in your community is actually with an unbelieving heart (3:12, 12:15) is because it is the heart, not externals and names and labels, that matter. “You have not come to what may be touched….” (12:18-21). Instead, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (12:19-24).
...

I am moved by Bob's words--”it is the heart, not externals and names and labels, that matter.” I immediately think of Christ's strong warning that “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12: 34). When someone's words are contemptuous, angry, and unloving, it is because their HEART is contemptuous, angry, and unloving. And the community of faith has an obligation to examine, hold accountable, and guard against the ones that “fail the grace of God” and sow this root of bitterness, NOT the ones who were wounded by it and cry out against it.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Disposable Single Men

In a recent post on singleness, the comments revealed some heated frustration with single men by some single women. The perception was that the men control the outcome, and single women were at their mercy in terms of dating and marriage. I won't over analyze that discussion again except to say that we can't generalize single men like that any more than we can single women. There are a WIDE variety of goals and values among Christian single men as there are among Christian single women. For a moment, I'd like to give a totally different perspective – one from an unemployed Christian single man who longs for marriage yet has been unable to secure either a wife or a job to support a family. His perspective may be informative for those of us who only see the issue of singleness in the church from our own experiential perspective.

Disposable--designed for or capable of being thrown away after being used or used up (a disposable cup); free for use; available (Every disposable vehicle was sent). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved July 06, 2011, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/disposable


The salient idea I'm considering as I just entered month 22 of job hunting and have failed to land any work is the idea that the unmarried man is disposable, not just in this culture but in any culture.  I think it is with this idea my fellow unmarried peers in their later 30s or early 40s are contending in different ways.  We find different ways of facing this reality. Many of the guys whose lives I've observed are unusually bitter about being single and feeling like losers because of it.  The temptation for some is to externalize their sense of failure and transform it into wrath and enmity toward marriage as a concept.  In this corner is the declaration that marriage is an abomination reflecting an outdated morality and moralism that should not require any sanction from church or state... 

Others externalize their sense of failure not by way of impugning the very concept of marriage but by impugning the opposite sex.  I've seen this happen with a few guys who have decided the problem is that women are shallow.  These guys are usually unable to admit that the shallowness of women in assessing them is less acceptable than their own decision that this or that woman does not pass muster with them.  The trouble with men and women who would merely impugn the other gender is that this seems to reveal two things.  The first thing it reveals is a sweeping double standard with respect to gender.  The second thing it often reveals is a reluctance to consider one's own shortcomings or, less pleasant still, a reluctance to admit that nobody's sins account for one's single condition.  It can be easier to assume that one must be a loser than that one isn't a loser but just isn't married anyway. A few guys seem more comfortable lamenting that women are shallow or that they are unappreciated than to confront their own coveting, envy, malice, or other problematic spiritual fruits.

Externalizing failure for marriage is perhaps the easiest thing for neo-Reformed to do. This is something both sexes find easy to do.  "Where are the men?"  "Why don't the men grow up?" That's easier than conceding that at different times and different places men are not financially situated to marry. …

[Most government assistance and worker retraining programs are aimed to help FAMILIES withstand economic hardship. This has left my friend in a hard situation.]

I don't know a whole lot of guys who internalize failure but that's definitely where I have landed.  ... Rather than choose to see these things as special rights and privileges afforded to married people by the government, I see them as doing what the welfare net is supposed to do, make it easier for families to withstand economic hardship.  … But it is still disappointing that attempting to get more education to transition into some other professional field is not possible.  I picked up a specialized set of skills nobody needs and the feeling of being superfluous just within the job market is weighty enough, never mind the prospect that because I'm also not married that I am, at another level, even more disposable in society. ...I remember a fellow resenting that he was told that because he was unmarried he had more time to serve in ministry, which was basically a guilt trip to tell him he needed to keep serving in a ministry team because he was single and had no excuse for scaling back activity.  Exhaustion and mistakenly over-committing are both valid reasons.

 But then there's Isaiah 56:3-8, which talks about those foreigners and eunuchs who considered themselves cut off from having any part in God's people.  They couldn't inherit land that was already allotted and the eunuchs could not even participate in crucial parts of Temple worship due to physical deformity or mutilation.  In a cultural setting in which no wife and no children meant a person was a nobody who had no legacy, God speaks to eunuchs as those who through faith in God and obedience to Him receive a legacy better than sons and daughters and an everlasting name.

I appreciated hearing his perspective on this and hope that it will provoke thought on what we expect of single men in the church and how we treat those that don't meet our expectations. It's not just single women! But also, as we face the ugly realities of the loss, let us marvel at the proclamation God makes in Isaiah 56 over the single guy incapable of marriage or children. It is truly profound and changes everything!

Isaiah 56
3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from his people";
and let not the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree."
4For thus says the LORD:"To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.