11/17/2008

A Song and a Blessing


I recently finished Deuteronomy. What a book! Moses recites God's Law to Israel, reminding them that success rides on obedience rather than strength of arms. He calls them to live obediently, rejecting the ways of the nations. He challenges them to love God only.

Deuteronomy ends with Moses delivering a song and a blessing. The song celebrates the way God fights for his people, delivering them from enemies. It ends thusly:

"Rejoice with him, O heavens;
bow down to him, all gods,
for he avenges the blood of his children
and takes vengeance on his adversaries.
He repays thsoe who hate him
and cleanses his people's land."


The blessing spreads hope for the ways God will bless individual tribes. It ends in a similar way;

"Happy are you, O Israel!
Who is like you,
a people saved by the Lord,
the shield of your help,
and the sword of your triumph!
Your enemies shall come,
fawning to you,
and you shall tread upon their backs."


These two pieces remind Israel of the most important thing, just before they enter the Promised Land: God fights the battles. He is the Sovereign One, success depends on Him alone, and their hopes for peace and prosperity rest on their relationship to him.

I love this thought, because it highlights truths that we can appreciate just as much today as the Israelites then. God fights our battles. We cannot look to worldly means for success, we can only live faithfully and trust God's direction for us. Our response to every challenge must be the same; faithfulness and obedience.

It is also beautiful and sad to remember throughout that Moses knows some key things:

1. He will not enter the Promised Land.
2. He will soon die.
3. Israel will fail to walk in obedience.

And yet he delivers this powerful oration with joy and strength, knowing that God will use his faithfulness rightly to bless the world with the knowledge of the Master of the Universe.

Deuteronomy is a powerful book for interacting with the character of God, and I've greatly enjoyed sitting under its teaching.

Next up; Micah.

11/12/2008

The Joy for Those Who Obey



Deuteronomy 30 is the close of Moses' speech to the Israelites, which began in chapter 1. After the horrors of chapter 28 (see my last entry), it is full of welcome joy.

The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers...

It is an excellent closing arguement, because it emphasizes the certainty of God's character and the importance of choosing wisely.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.

What is interesting here is how Moses structures his speech as a call to action. "Do you desire blessing?" he seems to say. "Pursue it! Pursue it rightly, by repenting of sin and walking in obedience. Love God, love your neighbor. Enter joy by living in submission."

Recent days reminded me of the challenge presented by the world's self-centeredness. An atheist friend of mine recommended a book (called The Alchemist) which tries to beautify one young man's pursuit of his life purpose- conveniently ignoring the way he forsakes all duty, relational connections, and responsibility for the sake of finding what he wants. It is attractive because your mind tells you that the path will fulfill your longings.

After all, wouldn't it be nice to leave your spouse and family, leave your responsibilities, leave your problems? Do what you want, when you want? Never have to feel guilty?

It does sound nice. It is also a lie.

God calls us to something else entirely. He calls us to submission and sacrifice, to responsibility and suffering, to glorification of Him rather than of ourselves. And yet strangely, impossibly, and wonderfully- this path of suffering is the true path of joy and prosperity. What a God we serve.

11/10/2008

The Horrors that Await Disobedience
















My latest Deuteronomy (Ch. 28) reading was a little disturbing. It is a clear example of the Old Testament reward/punishment structure for the nation of Israel in response to their obedience or disobedience.

The simple, specific language (take note, all ye who would desire to be good writers!) is especially powerful. If you obey, it says, "Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock." Later it says, "And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you. And the Lord will make you abound in prosperity…"

However, if they do NOT obey, the results are horrifying. "The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. They shall pursue you until you perish." Not only that, but starvation will be so pervasive that, "The most tender and refined woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground because she is so delicate and tender, will begrudge to the husband she embraces, to her son and to her daughter, her afterbirth that comes out between her feet and her children whom she bears, because lacking everything she will eat them secretly, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in your towns." It really does not get much worse than that.

What do you think it felt like, to be among the people receiving this communication from the Lord? Would it not drive you to moralism, to fear, to shame? On one hand, I think our tendency is to gloss over passages like this. We prefer to talk about Jesus, about love, about joy. But are those things even possible without their antithesis? Could the Israelites hope for a Savior to come without a desperate fear of their inability to save themselves?

One portion of faithfulness in the life of a Christian is meditating on all that we have been saved from. The driving, sickening fear of punishment is now a mild guilt; we learn to be dismayed at our sin, but do not feel the pits of hell advancing every time we make a mistake. We cry before God, but not in abject horror at the shrieking tortures awaiting those who fall into serious moral decay.

Yes, our situation is somewhat different. God no longer ties earthly wealth to ethical adherence. But ultimately, our situation is the same. Our disobedience equals death and horror, and we only have one location in history to look to for salvation: the life, death, resurrection, and offer of salvation by Christ to all those who place their faith in him.

It is good to read the Old Testament. It allows us to see our need not merely as individual sinners, but as humanity. And it ought to fill us with desire for the spread of the gospel, as the only hope of the nations.

11/05/2008

Where will the new Wilberforce come from?

William Wilberforce

Over at Owen's blog, he gives an excellent call for Christians to consider public service as an opportunity for displaying the gospel in the world, much the way William Wilberforce did in England. Let me say outright that I agree almost entirely with Owen in this. However, it brought to mind this question; why isn't this already happening? Lots of Christians are interested in politics, we have lots of money and plenty of people in the culture who lean our direction... where are the Wilberforces?

My suggestion is that it may partly be a question of tactics. Here is my response (which I posted in the comments section) to Owen's call.


Owen,

Thanks for this thoughtful article. It expresses well a great need and a helpful metaphor.

However, I think there are two major things that go along with this call.

First, the need for evangelicals to rethink how we educate young people in regards to politics. I think our paradigms are not well thought out, and as a result Christian interaction with politics tends toward the extremely simplistic and unhelpful. Christian teaching about politics tends to focus only on value issues, apologetics, and the like. We are taught to be so moralistic, as well as so vociferous in our denunciations of secular morality, that we have little opportunity to demonstrate the grace and hope that the gospel offers. How can we be excellent negotiators and policy makers when so much Christian thought is devoted to loud denunciations of the evils of the secular worldview? They simply stop listening to us.

I saw this clearly, because for nearly seven years I was absolutely committed to being one of those Christians who would change the political sphere. I studied carefully, debated thoughtfully, took non-paying internships, was introduced to the right people, and so on. However, I soon saw that politics is dominated by secular characters. These people may claim faith, but generally are pragmatic to the core. When they think of Christians, they think of a voting block, but not serious thinkers about civic policy and direction. As a result, they have little reason to support Christian involvement in positions of real power and responsibility, because they do not think them capable of serious engagement with the issues. In fact, the reality is that they basically ignore us and placate us with pro-life votes.

This leads to the other problem. Christian ethics are extremely hard to maintain in the ultra-pragmatic world of politics. Part of the reason that those Christians in politics seem to be “weak” ones is that you usually HAVE to be willing to sacrifice your principles for the sake of advancement to leadership and decision-making roles. Wilberforce had massive advantages in regards to his personal fortune, his location in society and history, the governmental structure, etc. Without those, it is an extremely rare Christian who can both advance politically and maintain his ethical stance consistently.

In my own life, I saw how often (even at the lowest levels of party politics) I was required to compromise to gain notice and influence. Don’t want to steal the other candidate’s signs? You’ll never help run a campaign. Won’t accept money from pornography producers, sweat shop runners, unethical businessmen? We’ll run the guy who will. Won’t vote yes on the bill your party leader supports but you don’t? You won’t be supported by the party, won’t get a leadership position, and will be relegated to a meaningless committee. Won’t do a dirty backroom deal? You’ll never accomplish landmark legislation that will give your resume the credibility it needs to take the next step.

One possible exception to these problems is the legal field. Christians have made some remarkable gains in legal practice and judgeships, often in alliance with conservative groups such as The Federalist Society. Advancement comes through consistency and high standards, which works in Christians’ favor. However, party politics is nigh-unto impossible to navigate without moral compromise, unless a person makes a name for himself outside of the party “system.”

It is this last that is the key. Rather than support parties and hope that solid Christians can penetrate party structures (a rarity), I believe we can be much more effective on the local level. We can look for people with the will and character to make God-honoring decisions, and then strongly support them for jobs like county commissioner, mayor, or attorney general. After that, they have the opportunity to gain enough name recognition to run for Governor… and it’s the governors who are in the best position to run for executive office.

Bobby Jindal



So, there’s no one Senator I can think of whom I would feel entirely comfortable with running for President (this last election being Exhibit A). However, there are several governors who, if not perfect, exhibit signs of being our best hope for mature, thoughtful , and ethical leadership; Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, etc. (Palin hasn’t really convinced me that she is willing to forego the party line).

I guess what I’m saying is this… we Christians should probably focus less on supporting one party or making unholy alliances to focus on one issue, and focus more on using dollars and volunteerism to support individual candidates who show excellent moral character and an ability to create thoughtful and non-partisan policy. This, I think, will separate us from being characterized as a “voting block” and give far greater opportunity to use our civic engagement to point to the health and hope of the gospel.

Isaiah...Churchill?

11/04/2008

Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States


Whatever your party, this is a historic moment for our country.

A Wistful Vote


Well, I voted. There are all kinds of good things about voting today.

-I get to add my contribution to the political process.
-Lines were short.
-NO MORE POORLY WRITTEN POLITICAL ADS.
-No more abuse for my unorthodox political perspectives.
-One less thing for which to be called an argumentative person.
-It looks like almost all of my political predictions are going to come true (I thought Guiliani would do better, but otherwise I nailed most of them).


But that said, I did it with a bit of wistfulness. I voted for George W. Bush both times he ran, and am glad I did so. I will miss him. I think he was an excellent President in many respects.

-I believe he sought to lead in a morally consistent way. He sought to limit stem cell research on embryos, but expanded AIDS relief in Africa. He did more to fight the sex slave trade than any other president, and chose excellent judges who do not view abortion as a right. His tenure was marked by thoughtfulness and character rather than responsiveness to opinion polls.

-I believe he made courageous decisions, such as propping up an economy on the edge of disaster even though his own party was against it. He wanted the nation to be stable, and acted accordingly even though it seemed to go against his own party. He did so in spite of opinion polls.

-I believe he understood his role as a figurehead in times of crisis. His ability to deliver hope and strength exactly when we neeeded it were remarkable. He helped the nation heal quickly after September 11, and carried out justice as best we understood it. He only delivered a few great speeches, but those were truly great. Rather than focus on himself and his ability to fix problems, he guided us to faith in something higher as the source of hope. And he did not give speeches designed to respond to opinion polls.

-I think the justification for the Iraq war was badly communicated, but I think it was the strategically correct move and I believe our nation will reap the rewards (not primarily financial) for generations to come. I think Iraq and indeed the Middle East are significantly better off because President Bush saw a larger need for significant change in that region, and he followed through in a way that UN always has and likely always will be too weak to emulate. And he did not capitulate because of opinion polls.

-I believe he truly cared about us. But he cared too much to try to give us everything we asked for, because George W. Bush is not beholden to opinion polls.

I think these things make him a great man and president, as opposed to his predecessor, who DID build most of his actions around opinion polls.

So today I cast my vote for Barack Obama, because I believe he will be better for the nation on the whole in executing the office of president and casting vision for the people. But I also heave a sigh, because I will miss that brief period when we had a President too stubborn to listen to anything but his own moral clarity.

Thank you, Mr. President.

11/03/2008

Economic Grapes of Wrath


(note: I also submitted this article at Christ and Pop Culture. Even so, my frustration on this point is personal enough that I thought I would post it here as well)

I recently joined a book club, and our next book is, "The Grapes of Wrath," by John Steinbeck. Most interesting was the reason for choosing this particular book; the choosers felt, "it would be especially relevant to our time and situation." In other words, they felt the many parallels between our time and the events depicted in the book warranted close consideration.

Of course, the title for the book comes from the Christian hymn "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," which uses martial terms to depict God's harshly judgmental return before the coming of the new heavens and the new earth. As it says;

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

In other words, the book depicts economic conditions so bad it is like being smashed in a winepress. Steinbeck carries the analogy forward to argue that its best result –or, "wine,"- is the way it forces workers to unite and organize. Still, his book depicts sad and crushing hardships during the late stages of the Great Depression.

But are things really so dire? Our presidential election seems to suggest it is. The campaigns are dominated by discussion of economics, and people have been more willing than prior years to look to government for financial help (even making Obama immune to accusations of socialism, whether or not these are true). President Bush's approval ratings are through the floor, partially for an unpopular war but with a much stronger correlation to the condition of the economy.

I, on the other hand, would tend to disagree for a couple of reasons. First, though government can be of help in times of crisis, it really does not control the economy. Our financial situation is governed by thousands of decisions by millions of different people, all of whom have their self-interest first and foremost in their hearts. To argue that our chief executive is the cause or the downfall of happy economic times is merely to find a scapegoat; any economist worth his salt will tell you that federal government impact on the economy is usually negligible at best.

Second, I would disagree quite strongly with the core accusation that our economy is fundamentally, "bad." After all, our unemployment is at 6.1%, better than all but the most efficient (and usually resource-rich) countries worldwide (by comparison, during the Great Depression it reached 24%). Average income, even after adjustment for the buying power of money, is light-years ahead of any other time in history, American or otherwise. And those truly in some form of poverty have more options for recourse and support than any other civilization that has ever existed.

As these thoughts were running through my mind, I came across a helpful article that compares our economic condition to that of the last twenty years. In it, the authors trash most objective measures of riches, and focus on how we FEEL about our money. In other words, they try to describe economic conditions by our emotional status rather than numbers that depict- well, economic conditions.

Their case is startlingly valuable, because it highlights a basic problem for human happiness; we have no perspective. Though we live in the richest, healthiest, most robust, most diversified economy in world history, we are angry about its condition.

The reason, I think, is a nice little mix of short memories, self-centeredness, and the influence of postmodern thought. Or, we forget things used to be worse, we desire the absolute best for ourselves, and we think the relative value of economic conditions is a matter of comparing them to the best we ever had.

This is a childish way of thinking. If I defined the value of marriage by comparing it to the absolute best our relationship ever was, I would be unhappy all the time (or at least divorced in a very short amount of time). If I defined whether a meal is good by comparing it to the best meal I ever tasted, then a dinner at a four-start hotel would ruin my appetite for life.

Christians, then, need to approach our time in this world very differently. Here are a few principles for responding to living conditions, economic or otherwise.

Trust God's Providence. The Christian who believes God is in control has no real reason to fear or become incensed over the condition of the economy. God provides what is right and good, and our goal must be to respond with faithfulness to whatever he deems to be best.

Practice Contentment. Jeremiah Burroughs, in "The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment," (highly recommended) points out that if our desires are larger than our possessions, we will always be unhappily straining to achieve our desires and ignoring the blessing of our possessions. However, if we learn to constrain our desires to meet our possessions (in other words, accept that God has given what we need), we will find contentment and joy in the present, rather than looking for it in the future.

Hope in the Gospel, not Finances. We look forward not to a time of constant economic growth, or fulfillment of our wildest financial dreams, but to a place of perfect joy and peace. Money is a tool, but it is not a fountain of satisfaction. God, on the other hand, is. In times of economic downturn (relative though they may be), Christians have a special opportunity to show the world that our joy is different from theirs, that our hope is not conditioned on our portfolios, and that Jesus is the same whether we are getting richer or not.

In these and other ways, Christians can reflect the image of God by laughing at days to come, because our Risen Savior is Ruler of All.

10/31/2008

Happiness and Ethics


My readings from yesterday and today in Deuteronomy were both ethical in nature. God lays down laws for his people that go against what they might naturally think or feel or do. His desire is that they recognize His Truth, and in so doing alter their behavior accordingly.

So, I began asking some co-workers questions about how they make ethical decisions. Their answers seemed to compete between two desires... the desire to be nice to people on the one hand, and the desire to be consistent with their atheistic world views on the other. The result was a sort of mish-mashed relativism, where they will say that PERSONALLY they would not, say, kill a pregnant woman to save a group of ten other people, but they also would not say that it is wrong for someone else to do so.

At heart, they believe the key goal in life is to be happy, to be content with decisions, to enjoy life. Because they are young and educated and financially stable, this seems within grasp for them. And yet I feel they will struggle when the storms come with the question of whether their life has value and purpose.

In Augustine's Confessions, he is using lies and rhetoric (before he became a Christian) to gain status and power in the world. While doing so, he comes across a drunk beggar in the street:

Sighing, I spoke to the friends around me of the many sorrows that flowed from such madness. I was dragging the burden of my unhappiness under the spur of ambition, and, by dragging it, increasing it at the same time. Despite all our efforts, we still aimed only to attain the very happiness that this beggar had reached before us-and there was a grim chance that we should never attain it! For what he had obtained through a few coins gotten by his begging, I was still scheming for by many a wretched and torturous turning, namely, the joy of a passing bliss. He had not gained true joy, but at the same time, with all my ambitions, I was seeking one that was even more untrue.

This caused me to recall why Christian morality is and should be so entirely different from the world. Our message is that our base desires and strivings are essentially false. Though our natural instinct is to sacrifice only at the altar of self-worship through pleasure, it is not what is best or healthiest for our true joy.

Instead, we must first recognize an Objective Truth outside of our contained little lives, and submit our moral choices to the guidelines that flow from that moral truth. For the Christian, this means submitting moral decisions to the prism of God's glory; we find true joy by responding to the good news with faith and repentence, by living to the glory of Him who has saved us, and by entering into His joy and rest when our time here is done.

How much more consistent, how much more beautiful is this picture! The strivings of the world are but begging for coins to get drunk, but the life of the Christian is one of submission and obedience for the purpose of greatest joy in God's glorification.

Keep these things in mind when you are tempted by the things of this world. Remember, as Steven Curtis Chapman sings, that your chains are gone.

10/27/2008

On Leaving and the Purposes of God


Augustine, remembering his mother's fierce desire for him to stay in Carthage rather than move to Rome, because she feared he would never come to faith:

What was it, O Lord, that she was asking of You in such a flood of tears, but that you would not allow me to sail? Nevertheless, You, took Your own secret counsel and, noting the real point to her desire, didn't grant what she was asking in order to grant to her what she had always sought.

The wind blew and filled our sails, and the shore dropped out of sight. Wild with grief, my mother was there the next morning, and filling Your ears with complaints and groans which You disregarded. At the very same time, You used my longings as the means to hasten me toward the fulfillment of all my longing, thus the earthly part of my mother's love was justly purged by the pain of sorrow. Still, like all mothers, though even more than others, she loved to have me with her. She had no idea what joy You were preparing for her through my departure.


Classic Augustine; full of wisdom, full of truth.

10/22/2008

And So We Worship the Stars



















In Deuteronomy 17, God lays out a stiff penalty. If a person turns away from Him to, "worship the stars," or a variety of other false gods, they are to be stoned.

This got me thinking about the ways in which we worship the stars. For instance, our culture has an incredible fascination with celebrity. I can hardly believe the importance people place on Katie Holmes hair, Britney Spears' domestic instability, Will Smith's upper body, or Alex Rodriguez's marriage.

But there are other ways as well. I imagine myself worshiping the stars, and see myself looking in the great nothingness of the dark sky... with hope. Out there, bright points of light could be the seats of the gods, or holes in a black tapestry hinting at glory beyond. I am taken away from everyday frustration and into a world of possibility, where boredom flees and drudgery dies.

When I imagine this heart condition, I see how it carries over to other activities I do even now. I am prone to placing great hope in the starry panorama of technology, where new ideas and solutions can create a happier and more efficient world. I keep close track of new ideas in math and urban design and storytelling and fuel efficiency hoping these things will make life more comfortable and joyful. I allow myself to mentally say, "If this one thing happened, life could be so much better." Rather than merely enjoy new ideas, I place hope for future joy in their hands. In so doing, I worship the stars.

We as Christians must be very careful about the things that fascinate us. While we serve a God not seen, it is all too easy to take comfort in our physical interests. When these interests move from joys to hopes, we risk displacing the power found in God with the amusement found in hobbies.

I still like to look at the stars. And I will continue enjoy using statistics and science to solve problems. But my prayer is that my life, considered as a whole, will display faith in my Creator rather than small-minded fascination with his creation.

A Father's Child


Sometimes my little guy wants something. Usually it involves wanting to play, to eat, or to be changed. If none of those helps, he needs a nap. If it is not one of those four things, it means I am out of ideas and I have to use my special emergency word- “Honey?”

As you can see, it is a dire circumstance because his begging face is irresistible. Also it immediately precedes crying, which is just painful. So when Isaiah wants something, if it is reasonable, I give it to him. If it is unreasonable (like not wanting to go to bed), I steel myself to ignore his pitiful cries for freedom.

This is the simple metaphor used by Christ in Matthew 7 to encourage us to make requests of the Father. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find…or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?...If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

I tend to be comfortable with conflict and challenges- much more comfortable with those things, in fact, than I am with times of peace. Right now my little family is in a time of great peace, and I struggle with restlessness. I want to move on to new battles and challenges, to see lives changed and the Word proclaimed.

On one hand, I need to learn trust and patience. My God is a father more faithful and loving than I could ever be to my own adorable son, how then can I fault the situation he has given us? Each day I am learning to find joy in peace and quiet, when much is at rest. God has placed us here, and I would be ungrateful to overlook the blessings of this time.

At the same time, Christ encourages us to make use of our son ship. As a child of the King, I am to ask for good things with passion and confidence, knowing that God uses my pleading as part of his plan to open new directions and insights. It is as though by crying out, I take a snapshot of a moment in time, so that later I can look back at that snapshot and see how much I have changed; or, more accurately, God has changed me.

So today I work to practice these things; trust and gratefulness for all that God gives, but also desperate pleading for new opportunities to proclaim His gospel to the world. These are the tasks he gives me as a child in my Father’s house. Hopefully without the pouty face.

10/16/2008

The Bruce


I am reading a book called, "The Steps to the Empty Throne," the first of a historical novel trilogy about Robert the Bruce. In a poignant set of scenes, you see how the king of England is disrespectful and condescending to his people when they are in a humiliated position; and soon after, you see a young Robert treating his people in a similar situation with great dignity and respect. It is quite beautiful to see how he used his experiences (even negative ones) to drive his leadership.

Today I filled out health insurance forms for a large part of my precious lunch period- half an hour I could have spent reading instead.

However, I find more joy in it than I used to. When I write down, "Samantha Bartlett," as my wife and, "Isaiah Bartlett," as my son, I declare to the world that we are an interdependent family unit, a small community whose fates are inextricably tied together. I am no longer a smart-mouth kid trying to make my mark on the world- I am leader and representative of a small tribe.

Our goals are simple. We are here to honor God in our stewardship of the life he has given us. We love each other deeply, look out for each other's interests, and drive each other nuts (that last one is for internal use only). We will fight when necessary, make alliances when possible, and try to love all consistently (well, Isaiah is a little lacking in this area, but we'll show him some leniency at this point). Our hope is that our presence in your life is a blessing, but we make no apologies when when our goals challenge your preferences.

As our maturation continues and our identity evolves, our greatest purpose is faithfulness.

Like the Bruce, I hope reflection on my experiences, positive and negative, will help me accept leadership of my small community, so we can together pursue the joys of scriptural faithfulness.

10/14/2008

Why does God require physical locations?

Is it not interesting that even in Deuteronomy, God requires physical locations? In chapter 12, he requires ONLY making certain types of sacrifices in specific locations no less than seven times. He also commands destruction of physical idol worship locations- high places in mountians and hills, under green trees, and beside large pillars.

Of course, Christians see this same impulse (if you can say God has impulses) in God's emphasis on the local church. We are called to gather in his name and to not give up meeting together, called to share what we have, called to use what gifts we have been given. Why?

I think, at core, it could almost be called a pragmatism. God calls us to these things because he is glorified in his people, be they Jews in the OT or the redeemed in the NT (revealing my New Cov. leanings here). God's people are more able to bring glory to him through coming together, through the combinations and recombinations of their gifts and skills, and through mutual care and protection for each other on various fronts. Ephesians 4 makes it clear- our sharing of gifts makes us stronger.

We are to be a city on a hill, but as is true of any city, we will only shine if each member participates and accepts responsibility as part of the body.

At the same time, we recognize our severe dependence on the grace of God. Communities of faith, be they large or small, are entirely needy of God's favor for survival. Without it, and without faithful commitment to gospel ministry, they are no better than a bowling club losing members to the local gardening club.

This is probably a piece of why I so enjoy smaller churches. In a church of 50-200 people, you can have true community. People bless each other with gifts, but are not lost in the cracks. They have the opportunity to be a light to the community without devolving into an attraction for the shallow.

At the same time, they are small enough to see their need. They can pray, "O God Almighty, thy sea is so vast and my boat is so small!" and mean it. They can watch the destructive power of sin and know that, "Come Lord Jesus!" is the only hope.

All this to say one thing; commit yourself to your local church. Make sacrifices to contribute. Be there as often as you can. Get to know the members, and fall in love with their quirks and failings (and do not hesitate to make light of your own!). You have no better opportunity to praise your maker than to join hands with fellow believers and display the hope of the gospel.

God loves physical locations, I think, because they force us into the, "warts and wounds," of community, a place where frustration and boredom can run high, but where the friction burns away dross and highlights the beauty and purity of our Father's plan for the world. To that end, then, we must show up.

10/10/2008

Discerning Life's Romance


I long for a romantic life. I imagine travelling some mystical world, one that does not include high health care costs or excel spreadsheets. There I enjoy adventure and leisure, with problems that are immediate challenges rather than long term budget shortfalls.

Of course, that place is mere fantasy. And yet, do we not all desire for life to have a romantic flavor, an epic feel, a powerful thematic storyline?

I think this desire explains John Elderidge's popularity. Though theologically imprecise, he captures our internal wish to participate in a story larger than our lives and more poetic than balance sheets and alarm clocks.

It's here that reading Deuteronomy and Augustine's Confessions simultaneously has been such a blessing.

In Deuteronomy, Israel comes together to remember all that God has done for them. Their hearts are strengthened for the coming wars against Canaan (a land of people viewed as "sons of Anak" for their size, living in cities, "fortified up to heaven.") by the memory of all God had done for them, and by reminders of his promises. They are readied to enter this terrifiying land, but "Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God. He will destroy them and subdue them before you." (D. 9:3)

In Confessions, Augustine celebrates God's action in his life, even referring to the joy of God making him miserable while he was in sin. He prays, "...I confess my shame to Your glory. Bear with me I pray, and give me the grace to retrace in my present memory the devious ways of my past errors and so be able to 'offer to God thanksgiving.'"

In both cases, the people of God find comfort by remembering their past, and discerning the part that past played in the larger story of God's action in the world. Their participation held meaning because both ups and downs had roles in proclaiming God's glory to the world.

From all this, I am reminded to remember. I am called to spend time appreciating (perhaps even articulating) God's action in my history, and to take joy in how he uses my life to glorify His name.

So today, as I fight annoyance at the cost of healthcare or impediments to financial stability, I remember. I recall my wife and son, both brought to an undeserving man desperately needy of their stabilizing influence. I recall my varied job history, and the incredible frustration it brought... along with great preparation in a variety of areas. I recall years of embarassment at having a quick mind that cannot seem to settle down and master any one area- and yet I now see how it has prepared me for ministries that favor just such a mind. I recall anger at my many failures, and then appreciate their value for sanctification.

Joy takes work, and today I celebrate the way God shows himself in our histories, allowing us to see the epic romance of participating in God's plan of glorification.

10/02/2008

Conform to Obey


Today's reading from Deuteronomy was chapter 5, where the "younger" exodus generation recalls the bringing of the 10 commandments. The response of the people is wonderful- they are so overcome they cannot stand to remain in God's presence. They ask Moses to hear the word of the Lord for them, and commit themselves to hear and obey what Moses tells them from the Lord.

This recalled to my mind how important obedience is. Quite a breakthrough, right? But obedience is more than simple action response to a command. Real obedience is a constant reshaping of life and character to correctly submit to God. One who truly fears him will accept his desires on his terms, rather than carrying out their version of what he "means." The Israelites here are a good example, because their fear of God leads them to change themselves to better submit.

"And the Lord heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the Lord said to me, 'I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. Oh that they had such a mind as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendents forever!'"

I hope that I am growing in my ability to see how I need to change my life to better submit to and obey God out of fear and reverence. If I want to be a minister of the Word, it is key that my life be constantly conforming to better obey.

9/30/2008

Are you happy?


An atheist was once addressing a crowd of people in the open air. He was trying to persuade them that there was no God and no devil, no heaven, and no hell, no resurrection, no judgment, and no life to come. He advised them to throw away their Bibles, and not to pay attention to what preachers said. He recommended them to think as he did, and to be like him. He talked boldly. The crowd listened eagerly. It was "the blind leading the blind." Both were falling into the pit (Matthew 15:14).

In the middle of his address a poor old woman suddenly pushed her way through the crowd, to the place where he was standing. She stood before him. She looked him full in the face. "Sir," she said, in a loud voice, "Are you happy?" The atheist looked scornfully at her, and gave her no answer. "Sir," she said again, "I ask you to answer my question. Are you happy? You want us to throw away our Bibles. You tell us not to believe what preachers say about Christ. You advise us to think as you do, and be like you. Now before we take your advice we have a right to know what good we will gain by it. Do your fine new ideas give you a lot of comfort? Do you yourself really feel happy?"

The atheist stopped, and attempted to answer the old woman's question. He stammered, and shuffled, and fidgeted, and endeavored to explain his meaning. He tried hard to return to the subject. He said, he "had not come to preach about happiness." But it was of no use. The old woman stuck to her point. She insisted on her question being answered, and the crowd took her side. She pressed him hard with her inquiry, and would take no excuse. And at last the atheist was obliged to leave, and sneak off in the confusion. His conscience would not let him stay: he dared not say that he was happy.


(taken from Practical Religion, by J.C. Ryle)

I do not think this is a hard and fast rule, per se. There are people who seem very happy and content without being Christians, and a lot of Christians who are not happy or content.

But even so, I am often struck by the stark difference between the empty life of self-service and the joyful life of submission and service to God.

Recently, I realized I've almost entirely let go of apologetics. I used to be very much into the creation-evolution debates, arguments about reality, or technical discussions of Biblical accuracy. Those things are still good: I think it is wise for Christians to have a good understanding of them. But for as for me, my trust is in God because of the works he does; the way he has shaped and molded me through experience, the way his answers are always the healthier answers, and the way he speaks to me through my own prayers.

Though I tend toward sorrow and struggles with depression, I still find my joy in the hope of the gospel and the glory of God. I believe relationships can be healed through the strength of the Spirit even when my strength wanes. I know my purpose is tied to my obedience and not my competance. And I am happy, because God is real and all he says and does is right.

9/23/2008

Moses and me: Practicing Faith and Pragmatism



I am too selective in my Scripture reading. My favorites include Psalms, Jeremiah, Habbakuk, Ephesians, Hebrews, and James. The Samuels, the Corinthians, and the Timothys are also nice. Revelation is just right out.

I recently finished Colossians, which I quite enjoyed. However, it is very similar to Ephesians. So, I'm going to try something a bit new and go with Deuteronomy.

Simply beginning with chapter 1, I saw that even Moses struggled with the problem of both trusting God and living pragmatically at the same time. God was very clear on several points; Israel would re-enter the land, they would do so at the end of the 40 year exilic period, and God would be with them.

Even so, Moses spent much time in preparation. He organized a diverse and thorough leadership structure, so that the majority of problems could be handled locally and only the largest issues would hit his desk... or his camel, I suppose. Further, though he knew God had blessed this generation, he spent a lot of time (specifically, the length of the book of Deuteronomy) reminding them of the Law and exhorting them to obedience. (Hm... a diversified organizational structure and ethics training. Maybe Wall Street should read Deuteronomy too!)

This interplay between "God WILL do it" and "we should honor his blessing with faithfulness" is a powerful though sometimes confusing one.

On one hand, I need to continue to remind myself that God is a God of faithfulness. He knows his purposes for me, will bring things about in just the way I need, and will maintain sovereign care over my future.

On the other, I still need to focus my mind on my job, shepherd the people I love (both prayerfully and pragmatically), fulfill my ministry obligations, and look for opportunities to build the kingdom.

Moses knew the weakness of his people, and was careful to strengthen them with clear teaching and exhortation, as well as pragmatic structures to prepare them for the rigors ahead. I hope I can do the same to honor all God's blessings, trusting while doing so that his sovereign guidance steers the ship.

5/17/2008

Fun notes and pictures.

Ok, I have a series of more serious posts coming up, so I thought I'd throw a few fun things out there first.

First of all, to satisfy Jamie and any other Isaiah fans out there, here are a couple pictures.


Dude, chill.


Who are you people?


Me and My Buddy


The End of a Long Day... or 2 hour period.



Second, Drew complained that my last couple Moments of Beauty have featured Asians (Pavoratti and Al Pacino nonwithstanding). So, here is a decidedly non-Asian Moment of Beauty just for Drew. The singer is Eva Cassidy, and if you enjoy this song you'll likely enjoy this and this as well.


Finally, I definitely recommend that you see Prince Caspian. Here is a helpful review for your consideration!


Take care!

5/05/2008

Baby Isaiah Pics!

Hey folks,

Thanks again for your prayers and support. Here are some pictures from a crazy and wonderful weekend!


The Infamous, "Grumpy Old Man"



Isaiah Sees The Light



Mommy and Isaiah



Daddy and bored Isaiah



Funny Face



Sleeping... again.



Growing Family



If you want to see more, click on the "My Pictures" link on the sidebar.

5/04/2008

I'm a father!

Hey Folks,

I'm a Daddy! Samantha's water broke around 3:15 yesterday morning, and we went to the hospital. She was throwing up because of the contraction pains, so she had an epidural around 6:15. From there, it was just a matter of waiting until she was fully dilated.

Isaiah was born at 1:13 on May 3... Derby Day! It was one of the ugliest and most beautiful things I've ever seen. He literally looks like a grumpy old man... the back half of his head is covered in hair, and the front half is bald!

He was a pretty big kid for being a few days early- 8 pounds, 3 ounces, and 20.5 inches long. We love him to pieces even though he's so funny looking.

I've been trying all day to post pictures, until I finally realized the hospital doesn't seem to allow uploads. So, you'll just have to wait a day or two.


Throughout all this, God has been exceedingly kind. An easy pregnancy, my sister and wife delivering two days apart, getting a job. I can only pray that we lean on him in the good times in the same way we were forced to in the very hard times.

Thanks for all your love and prayers,

Ben

Oh yes, and here it is... your Moment of Beauty. This is a special one that talks about three of my favorite things- children, classical music, and Sesame Street!

4/19/2008

Proactively Vulnerable

What does the word vulnerable mean to you?

My own immediate answer is twofold. First, vulnerability calls to mind standing at a window on a cold day, looking out at a bleak landscape. It is a question about what I am doing, whether I have value, and whether there is meaning in my interaction with life. I feel afraid, because the world’s negative answers to my questions could easily hurt, and I therefore feel quite vulnerable. Not a very Christian answer, I grant you, but it’s the first one I have and to say otherwise would be dishonest.

My next imaginative leap flees to the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug (the dragon in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit) resides. He is powerful and angry, full of evil and hate. However, there is a weak place in his armor. This vulnerability in his defenses leads to his demise as he is shot down by a well-placed arrow.

What then is vulnerability? It seems, in some way, to be an area of potential damage. It is something to be protected, guarded, defended. To quote the good Mr. Webster, it is when one is, “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.”

We tend to fear these areas of potential damage in our lives, especially in the emotional context. Because we fear them, we defend them. We avoid them by not talking about our past or our problems, not admitting our fears, not letting anyone too close, not confessing our sin. We formulate sterile worlds that do not challenge us or have any potential to harm us.

This is done by only spending time with others when we are, “in the mood.” We keep visits short and sweet so that we never display a hint of annoyance. We back away from offending anyone. When someone hurts, we, “give them time to themselves.” We share our lives with helpful statements like, “I’m fine,” or, “I’ve been pretty busy lately.” We organize our schedules so that nobody sees our ugliness. If the ugliness does come out, those who do see it usually won’t ever see us again.

These things create a perfect, plastic world where smiles are painted on and everyone is fine. We know about each other, but we would not ask each other for money. We hear others’ words, but do not know how to listen to others’ hearts.

In the church, however, we say we desire close fellowship. We say we want to bear burdens and share sorrows. We say, “If you need anything, just ask.” We say, “Let me know if I can serve in any way.” We say the church is our community. We say.

I want to suggest that real fellowship does not happen without vulnerability. True relationships are not possible until we see each others’ weaknesses and failings, sorrows and anger. Without the reality of the warts and wounds, we are simply acting out the plastic world once again.

But in today’s society, the plastic world is more easily accessible than ever before. The internet, the suburbs, and the automobile have created a perfect storm of community-less life. It is simply easier not to seek out the ugly things that make relationships real.

My perspective, then, is that the creation of real community, in our local context, depends on our willingness to be proactively vulnerable. We must make ourselves, “capable of being emotionally wounded.” We must put ourselves in a position to see the ugliness that is in all our lives, so that we can begin the work of loving, accepting, discipling, and forgiving each other.

How will we create a community that can confess real sin if we are scared that we are the weakest one in the room? How will healing happen when our culture stifles our ability to admit the wound?

Here, then, are a few thoughts on being proactively vulnerable.

1. Live an open life. Find creative, sacrificial ways to spend time with people. More time means more opportunity to know people intimately by seeing them as they really are.

Yes, I realize your schedule is busy. That’s why it requires both creativity and sacrifice. But trust me, the drawbacks of occasional loss of sleep or schedule are outweighed by the rewards of intimacy and honesty in relationships.

2. Share your ugliness. Yes, this is a good thing to save for groups or individuals you have a certain level of trust for. But if you never put anything out there, whom will you trust?

Leaders, especially, need to find ways to show their own weaknesses before God, so that the community can collectively celebrate God’s grace. If leaders (even unrecognized leaders, like the unofficial leader of conversation in a dinner group) do not communicate safety in sharing weakness, nobody else will go there either.

3. Ask hard questions. Though they are very uncomfortable, the fact is that most people want to be known. If you ask simple surface questions like, “how’s it going?,” you’ll get simple surface answers like, “fine.” But if you have the guts to ask questions like, “Does it hurt you that nobody seems to ask you for help when they need it?,” you’ll find out very quickly just how badly people want to be known.

4. Listen to the answers. Don’t just hear them. Come to terms with the pain and loneliness in people’s hearts. Consider situations that might give you the same emotional distress their situation is giving them, and use that mind exercise to develop compassion. Listen to people’s hearts, and let them listen to yours.

5. Pray for each other, deeply and strongly. Pray for real and ugly things, pour out your sorrow for others before God. You will be shocked at how it draws you closer.

Friends, be proactively vulnerable. It is one of the greatest needs in our sterilized culture, and it won’t change unless someone like you does something about it.

4/09/2008

Healthy Interaction About Obama

Hey folks,

Here is a comment left recently by my friend Josh Dove. Notice a couple things. First, it's very irenic (meaning it's designed to be a peaceful interaction, rather than inflammatory) even when disagreeing. Second, he considered all the information that was presented. And third, he has some very helpful points and arguments! I'll put my response at the end, but I wanted to highlight an example of good disagreement between Christians. The beautiful thing, as you'll note, is that disagreeing peacefully actually helps people find more common ground than you might expect!


Ben,

This is an interesting post. I've thought about the post overnight before watching the YouTube video this morning and wanted to share a few thoughts/ask a few questions.

(A) The whole issue of how, exactly, Rev. Wright's comments should affect Sen. Obama's candidacy has not been thought about nearly enough. Here are a few clarifying thoughts:

1. I accept that Obama going to this church for 20 years does not, necessarily, mean that he holds all the same views as Rev. Wright. We all need to be intellectually honest about this.

2. But, these and other comments by Rev. Wright DO at least raise questions about Sen. Obama's core convictions. Because I don't believe Sen. Obama could have been ignorant of Wright's anti-American positions (and by his own admission he was at the church at least sometimes when controversial statements were made) I submit that Sen. Obama's attendance and support for the church poses the following dilemma. Either:

(a) Obama knew of the church's positions and is sympathetic enough with them to remain in the church, which I think questions his judgment, or

(b) Obama knew of the church's positions, and though he opposed them, said (apparently) nothing, kept giving money to the church, and decided to stay (perhaps for political reasons?). This questions his integrity.

The crux of this disjunction rests on Obama's assertions that racial healing/unity is his core concern. My observation is simply that you CANNOT have racial healing as a core value, in any intellectually honest way, and attend for 20 years a church that, to say the least, borders on racism (or, if you want to be even more precise, I might simply say stokes, rather than settles, racial tension).

Is that fair?

In sum, Rev. Wright has a constitutional right, as does Sen. Obama, to hold to whatever opinion he wants to. This is obvious. But I don't want a President who lends a sympathetic ear to an influential anti-American pastor. Obama may, or may not, sympathize with Wright's positions, but were I, or almost anyone that I know, subjected to such ideology from the pulpit, I would raise strong, public objections and/or I would leave. Obama seems to have done neither. For 20 years.

(B) The CHIEF tragedy of Rev. Wright is how he has made a mockery of the pulpit and the Gospel. Liberation theology is not Gospel theology.

(C) I did listen to Sen. Obama's speech in its entirety, and I thought it was terrible, not in the delivery but in the content. But, that is for another discussion. I merely mention this to evidence that I have taken into account Sen. Obama's response.

At any rate, you can only trust that I submit these comments in a spirit of cordial conversation, rather than that of debate. We should both harbor few expectations of changing the other's mind, but a little clarity and friendly exchange could prove quite interesting.

Best wishes,
Joshua



Ok, this was a fantastic comment, but I do have some differences. Thankfully Josh has broken his questions down very clearly, so I'll just respond as they were written.

A) Josh suggests that a person cannot attend a church for 20 years while disagreeing with a large political/theological issue such as a severely negative view of America. The fact that he says he did means he is either sympathetic to the views or has a lack of integrity.

My disagreement here rests on two things. First, I believe Obama's membership at his church was partially pragmatic. Nearly his entire career, before an almost miracle run to the Senate and presidential candidacy, was devoted to one local area in downtown Chicago. Anyone who has tried to get something done politically in a largely African-American community knows that the church is the spiritual, cultural, and political center of African-American community life. I'm sure Obama was much more effective as a community organizer and state senator by being a member of that church than he would have at, say, a small church in the suburbs. And to put it frankly, it would have been very hard to find a church with a non-liberation theology perspective. But as Obama himself says, he was invited to church by others, and while there experienced his spiritual "conversion." Whatever you think of his theology, the fact is that it was a powerful experience for him, and that type of thing breeds a lot of loyalty. Combine that with the understanding of the church as "center of the community" (rather than ONLY "place of worship") and you have understandable ingredients for a local community organizer to stay at the same place and become deeply ingrained in that community.

Second, I DO believe you can be part of a church, for a specific reason (in Obama's case, community influence), and disagree with fairly major things. My last church was American Baptist. I disagreed on their egalitarianism, certain church practices, and a host of denominational problems. However, while I was in that city, my wife and I had a specific role and mission there. We had a flourishing ministry with college students, a Sunday School class I taught, friends we had accountability with, and a pastor and his wife who loved and mentored us. We became a close part of that wonderful little community, and we very likely would have stayed if God had not led us elsewhere. Does the fact that my church allowed women to preach disqualify me from being president of the CBMW someday?

B) Josh says the chief tragedy of Reverend Wright is his commitment to liberation theology, which is not gospel theology.

Josh is absolutely correct about this. Liberation theology, as far as I can tell, is a false gospel which I have never seen preach the true gospel correctly. It is wildly popular in poverty-stricken areas, including most inner cities (especially African American communities), the shantytowns and favelas of Latin America, and other places.

Keep in mind, though, that this is true of the Health and Prosperity Gospel as well, which is huge in a lot of white and Asian communities. The church must constantly be speaking to all of these groups, proclaiming the one true gospel of Jesus Christ.

And as a matter of politics, keep in mind that McCain is certainly no Christian!

C) I'll be interested to see which things Josh disliked about the Obama speech. As far as I could tell, it was well researched and quite honest. The vast majority of factual information he communicated was true as far as I know and have studied.

But, as Josh says, we'll have to discuss it together when we get the chance. I am also going to spend some time talking with an African-American friend of mine here at the seminary, so that he can give me some insights into some of the things Obama said, as well as how he views his role in a church that he has some large theological disagreements with, but is working to reform (that last bit should tip you off that his mission is very different from Obama's, so I don't mean to equate them. I just plan to get some good insight from him).

Anyways, I hope this and my original post on Obama have been helpful examples of how Christians can discuss contentious issues like politics, race, and abortion in a thoughtful and constructive way.

And yes, I'm planning on doing a post (as I said I would) when I get the time about how a Christian can vote for someone who supports abortion.

Till next time.

What Does the Weird Northerner Read?

I was tagged by Rich. This is new to me, but I suppose I'll play along for the sake of solidarity with my TABC/SBTS/CAPC friend.

Of course, this could be a bit different of an exercise. I'm a little different in my reading habits than the average guy around here. I tend to read a little bit of a lot of books each day, so I get through more books more slowly, and it all averages out. Keep in mind I likely won't finish any of these this week, except maybe the Jane Jacobs book. We'll see what happens.

What are you reading on Spring reading days?

>Things That Count-Gilbert Meilaender. Highly recommended!

>The Revolt of The Masses-Jose Ortega y Gasset

>The Baseball Chronicles-David Gallen, ed.

>Neither Poverty Nor Riches-Craig Blomberg

>Dark Night of the Soul-Saint John of the Cross

>Bernard Malamud: The Complete Stories-Bernard Malamud

>The Death and Life of Great American Cities-Jane Jacobs

>Hope-Jeremiah Burroughs

>The Discoverers-Daniel Boorstin


What do you wish you had time to read?

>The Brothers Karamozov-Fyodor Dostoevsky

>The Structure of Scientific Revolutions-Thomas Kuhn

>Peter the Great-Robert Massie

>The Rise and Fall of the British Empire-Lawrence James

>Hearing God's Words-Peter Adam


What have you decided NOT to read that you were assigned to read?

I suspect certain sections of Theological Aesthetics (Richard Viladesau) will fall by the wayside. Thankfully, having only two classes allows me to miss very little.

What is one great quote from your reading?

On having children-
"But there are no guarentees that the final, 'product,' of this process will be what the parents anticipated. Parents know this, of course, and are therefore understandably anxious about their children's future. However understandable such anxiety may be, it also constitutes a great temptation-the temptation to try to be the guarentor of our children's future, to protect them from all disappointment and suffering. To give in to such temptation would be, in effect, to deny their freedom to be an-other like us, equal in dignity. This means that parents must seek more than their own satisfaction in rearing their children. They must give themselves in faith and hope, recognizing that they are not more than co-creators and that they cannot shape the future."
-Gilbert Meilaender, Things That Count

Why are you blogging? (You’re supposed to be reading!)

Blogging is one helpful way to articulate the things I learn. When we read, learning certainly happens. But the true value of learning isn't to just plug it in and say, "I have read this!" The true value is to take all those inputs from reading and to understand and articulate truth as best you can. This process of learning, comprehending, and articulating is key to helping us conform our physical daily lives to the transcendent truths of Scripture. Certainly none of us would be better off if Augustine had spent more time reading rather than wasting his time writing!

Let's see, we're running out of people to tag. I'll tag brand-new blogger Drew Hickok, the always intellectual Josh Dove, and Mr. Muleshoe himself, Riley Byers.

4/07/2008

Improv Everywhere Does It Again! Baseball

I can't get enough of these guys. As I've mentioned in the past, Improv Everywhere entered my YouTube pantheon with their Frozen in Grand Central Station. However, they've taken a direct shot at my heart with this one. I love kids, I love baseball, and I love this mission!

Enjoy watching Improv Everywhere stage the Best Game Ever.

Whoops! I forgot that when I put up links, I want to also remember to put up a Moment of Beauty. Here it is.

Obama's pastor, Rev. Wright, in Context

We as seminarians often say, "You have to look at the verse in context!" It's quite frustrating when someone takes a small portion of a teaching out of context and misuses it.

May I submit to you that this should be true of how information is reported, as well?

Look, I don't agree with Reverend Wright on a host of things. But please be fair and thoughtful in how you evaluate him. The best way to do this is to first read up on and understand the paradigms of liberation theology and the Jim Crow era, both of which formulated his character.

Another way to do that is to listen to the things he says in context. I think you'll find it's not quite so bad as short clips make him out to be.

While you're at it, at least hear Obama out in his response.

And here is the hero of Christians all over, Mike Huckabee, and his reaction to the Obama speech.

4/05/2008

The Place of Decision

Sometimes I imagine a large white room. The floors are cold plastic tile, and you wish for a leather chair and deep carpet. The high ceilings give no sense of place or comfort. The lone furniture is a metal folding chair. Sheets of paper covered in 10-font print lie strewn across the floor.

Several dozen doors line the walls. They have peepholes, which allow one to see about a foot beyond but not much more. The metal doors are gray, but you rarely see that because each is covered in hundreds of bits of paper, the type with sticky backing loved by secretaries. These sticky notes are either blue or red. In varying types of handwritten urgency, they make their case.

“It would make Mom happy!” says one blue sheet on a particular door. Directly next to it is a foreboding red, suggesting, “My dad would be secretly embarrassed.”

Moving from door to door, you realize you are in the Place of Decision. The room is the state of mind we all must enter when a time for choosing comes. Perhaps yours is more comforting than mine, but of course I only know my own little corner of the world.

Each door is one answer to the decision at hand. Some are locked- they are not options this time around. Some are unlocked. However, you can only walk through one. And you must first be confronted by those infernal bits of paper. Blue bits are reasons this door is a good one, red bits are reasons it is not.

How do you choose?

Some go by color. Do blues outweigh reds?
Some are cautious. Does this door contain as few reds as possible?
Some are cantankerous. Choose the door with the most reds! It’s the only way I can feel unique!

The variations are, of course, quite endless. I imagine some go to the doors one at a time, peel off all the notes, and sit squirming in the metal chair as they shuffle through each note, one at a time. Some arrogantly pick a single note off the door and ignore the others. Some take the notes to a wall and arrange a hierarchy, designing a system that puts the key considerations at the top. Some simply ignore the doors, and wait until all but one are locked from the outside.

Amidst the diversity of approaches, one universal truth stands out. We must choose. Nobody gets to avoid the Place of Decision; no one can be given a long and unaltered hallway. We must choose.

My room, my Place of Decision, is ugly. It is cold and frustrating and I do not like to be there. And yet it is not a room you can leave behind. Each new wrinkle of life brings me back to that room to face decisions with varying degrees of importance.

So then, let us pretend for a moment that I am a wise man. I am in this room ALL THE TIME. What should I do? Why, I should make it a more comfortable and more efficient place. I should organize and upgrade. I should not allow such a significant portion of my life to be so physically and spiritually empty.

How will this be done? Answer: The Right Tools.

My Place of Decision should be filled with helpful tools and furniture, things that bring guidance and wisdom in accordance with my life commitments. These include;

-a prayer bench with two permanent imprints in the cushions
-a worn and dog-eared Bible
-a telephone with wise mentors on speed dial
-shelves of books, to interact with great minds of the past
-an easy-access door (with no lock) for a close friend
-a diary and family photo album

Much could be said about these items, and about other things for improving my room. That is a discussion for another day. For now, let me emphasize that these items must be IN the Place of Decision.

Too often, we leave these things outside, while life is smooth and relatively free of hard decisions. Then, when we are forced into the Place of Decision, it is cold and barren and scary and stressful. Our furniture is forgotten and ignored.

And so, alone and distressed, we fight through red and blue sticky notes one at a time. By ourselves.

When we live this way, why are we surprised to feel as though God has left us alone?

2/28/2008

Links: A Breath of Fresh Air

My last two posts (and, hopefully, my next one) are focused on topics that have been in the public square a lot lately. Many of my (three or four) readers are probably bored by now. So, I thought I'd give you a break. Here are some fun or fascinating links I've come across in recent days!

First and foremost, THIS is just way too cute. I can hardly wait to be a father!

This website is called detroitblog, and I think it's absolutely fascinating. If you get a chance, go back through the archives to get an amazing window into inner-city life. This post is just one example- and it's very sad. Christians need to spend time thinking about the serious spiritual problems these areas face.

I know many people don't like him. I know they regard him as a failure. But here's a neat article about a man whom, despite his failings, I will always love and respect.

Are you interested in philosophy? This website has an incredible store of key philosophy texts. I already have used it to find a lot of stuff I remembered learning from my liberal arts program in college.

This website is just awesome. It uses statistics to show the relationships of various economic and health characteristics in countries around the world. Be sure to watch the lectures to see how he uses the gapminder tool... and then try it out for yourself!

Boy... if only we had the discipline to listen to political debates like THIS these days.

This website is wonderfully helpful, but also a bit saddening. It's called We Feel Fine, and it takes a beautiful approach to searching through people's blogs. The sad part, of course, is that it highlights the incredible lostness in our world. This video helpfully explains the tool and how to use it.

THE AMAZING OCTOPUS.

Are you interested in global warming? Well, I strongly suggest you watch these lectures. I can hardly get over this silliness of this debate. If you are looking for a repository of articles representing both sides of the discussion, HERE YOU GO.

Finally, I cannot leave without at least one moment of beauty. Here it is.

Obama: Comments, Criticisms, and Further Thoughts

Wow- my last post garnered more comments and interest (both on and off the Internet!) than any other since… well, since I started sharing bits and pieces of my life on blogger in 2002. Thank you Christ and Pop Culture!

Here’s what I want to do. First, I’ll review some of the feedback I’ve gotten from comments both on and off the web. In my next post, I’ll flesh out some of my thoughts on why I am voting for Obama and how I think about some of the issues involved. Keep sending in your comments! They are very helpful to me.

First, Matt Privet agrees with my McCain frustrations, but argues that not voting at all is a better approach to the problem. As a political conservative, he sees possible dangers in supporting a candidate with a more liberal stance. From a political philosophy standpoint, he makes a very strong point. As I have mentioned in a few places, I’m trying to toss a lot of those philosophical stances out for this election, focusing on trying to vote as an extension of Christian faithfulness rather than voting for political ideology. However, the conservative in me has a LOT of sympathy for his helpful point.

Next, my friend Matt Wireman lets me know that he’s not entirely convinced… and guides us to a very helpful article (and yes, Matt, I had seen it previously) discussing some of the things a president is able to do that help control the spread of abortion. Matt is right to point to this issue; it is a key problem in the question of whom to vote for. I will flesh out my understanding of this problem more in a bit, but for now let me say simply that I just do not see it. Abortion trends seem significantly unaffected by the president in office- you would think 8 years of dominating federal politics would be enough for conservatives to make at least SOME gains in abortion reduction, but I just do not see it. Still, it is a very important aspect of the discussion to consider.

Alan agrees with the problem of single-issue voting, but is struggling with the issue of Supreme Court Justice appointments. I think he is right to do so, but I would suggest that conservatives put far too much faith in the Supreme Court. Remember, they do not make law… they merely interpret it. Also, they generally try not to take cases they have already spoken on. Though we certainly desire more conservative justices, I’m no longer convinced that voting for a string of conservative presidents to try to wait for the liberal justices to die off is viable or justifiable.

Alex Fear is a Pentecostal from England (read that twice! Are you with newfrontiers at all?). He comments that the American focus on the abortion is really quite unique- at least in England, it’s barely a political issue at all. He supports the bottom approach I’ve advocated elsewhere for addressing the abortion problem through social action and heart change rather than political change. One thing that especially struck me was when he said, “The church should be offering the answer…” Amen to that. The problem is not merely abortion- it’s all the reasons for HAVING an abortion which are widely accepted as morally ok. We as a church need to offer answers of hope, help, forgiveness, and a better way forward.

He also brings up the fairly common “what about capital punishment?” argument. I actually don’t think that’s a very helpful paradigm. Capital punishment is a right of the state. I do believe Christians should lobby for leniency, and even for abolition of capital punishment, but it is not on a moral parallel with abortion. When the state kills a dangerous criminal (who have GIVEN UP their right to freedom and even life), it is protecting society. When an individual aborts their baby (who is entirely innocent), they are usually not protecting anyone or anything other than their personal interests, even if those reasons are heartbreaking ones.

My good friend Luis chimes in, supporting again the bottom-up paradigm of going after root causes rather than bulldozing with legislation. To receive a compliment from him is a mighty thing! There are few people whom I enjoy interacting with so much as him- I think we challenge each other well, and so it’s fun to agree on something!

Pastor Bill Reichart from Georgia agrees with the trend away from a purely Republican voting line, and links to a post he’s written on God’s politics.

My friend Gracelin agrees with voting for Obama in her usual subtle and nuanced style. As you’ll see, though, she’s as smart as they come and has done her homework in a variety of areas. Can you say, “future journalist?” I say yes. Probably for the NY Times before the Wall Street Journal, but one can always hope!

Outside the Internet world, two of my church's excellent elders (I won't say which two) cornered me to talk politics. They had some very helpful arguments that should be considered.

The first argued that, as an initial step, abortion should be left up to the states. Should that happen, abortion debates would be local and presidential politics would be freed to focus on other issues. This is a great scenario, but I don’t think it could last very long if it happened. The first thing the ACLU would do is go to a poor area of a large state that outlaws abortion (say, Texas) and find a woman who wants an abortion but is financially unable to leave the state. They would argue that it if the SC has not OUTLAWED abortion, then this woman is being denied her rights merely on the basis of living in a state that is against abortion. I feel that it’s the same structural problem that slavery presented- keeping the decision in the hands of the states bears too many inconsistencies to make it last.

The second pointed out that there are a million smaller decisions pertaining to abortion that are made at a lower level- and that a pro-choice president, over time, would encourage a mostly pro-choice government work force (committee chairs, bureaucratic positions, etc.) that would have negative effects across the board. This, again, is a strong point. However, as far as I know, the majority of federal bureaucratic positions are filled without regard to political stance (specifically to prevent this type of influence from the executive). Further, this gets back to the original question about abortion- will political answers really win the day?

These comments were all helpful to me, and were excellent articulations of the various problems associated with the abortion issue in the evangelical community. Thank you to everyone! I will soon write a post on my take on the abortion issue in presidential politics.

2/22/2008

I Will Vote For Obama

I will vote for Barack Obama.

I realize this post will not be popular. I realize it flies in the face of some strongly held beliefs, and many will feel I am doing something questionable, even wrong. However, I believe I am making the best choice I can, and that I am being as God-honoring as possible.

Let me also throw in a few disclaimers. I am a registered Republican. I currently am and have always been politically conservative. I attended a mostly liberal college within my university and remained conservative. I have worked for a Republican running for Congress (Tom Hickey), a Republican state senator (Loren Bennett), a Republican congressman (Mike Rogers from Michigan), and have voted for Republicans almost exclusively. I have credentials that would prevent me from being hired by nearly any liberal organization. Furthermore, I am a big fan of George W. Bush and some (though not all) of the hard decisions he has made in his presidency. If this race were him against Obama, I would vote Bush.

And yet I am voting for Obama. Why?

Now, this post is long. Here is my request. If you are skimming, feel free to skim away. However, if you want to criticize or respond to my post, that’s fine, but PLEASE READ THE WHOLE THING FIRST. I have spent lots of time reading the many blogs and commentators supporting or disparaging Huckabee, Romney, McCain, Paul, Thompson, Clinton, Edwards, and Obama. I do look at the major issues, the candidate biographies, and the ins and outs of the campaign. Please respect me enough to hear me out before rebuking me. If you REALLY want to be fair, I suggest you even take a few minutes to check out the things I link to.

I will first highlight some (though not all) of the reasons I find Obama to be an attractive candidate. I will then list some (though not all) of the reasons why I am willing to vote against John McCain and the Republican party in this election cycle. I will close by briefly referring to other statements I have made in the past regarding politics.

First, some of why I am for Obama.

Obama articulates a common hopeful vision.
Throughout American history, the greatest presidents have articulated a unifying vision for the country. This has been key to our sense of togetherness and accomplishment in facing various problems. More than any other candidate, Obama is thoughtful and intelligent in assessing, considering, and articulating the various struggles we face as people, and then guiding us into a sense of commonality as we deal with those things.

Obama is connected to society.
None of the other candidates has been so closely and intimately invested in the problems of local government as he. His work in inner city Chicago will, I think, help him to be more thoughtful about the effect national policies have on local communities than the other candidates. This speech illustrates my point about these last two paragraphs.

Obama has the most Christian worldview of the remaining (viable) candidates.
Though one could argue that Huckabee deserves to win this category, he is pretty much out of the race. Barack Obama has articulated a conversion experience, and has faithfully and consistently lived out his faith. You may have some theological disagreements with the African-American church, as I do, but there is no denying that his faith is much more clear and authentic than any claimed by McCain or Clinton.

Obama’s character and approach to problem solving will, I believe, be more constructive on the world stage.
He reminds me of Tony Blair in his thoughtful and articulate approach, willing to acknowledge faults and mistakes but always looking for a positive way forward. I look forward to seeing his talents on display at the international level, whereas the thought of being represented by the maverick McCain or the pandering Clinton just scares me.

Obama is by far the most thoughtful and reflective candidate regarding the role of faith in politics.
If one is to be fair to him, you really must listen to his Call for Renewal speech (you can READ IT too, but seeing and hearing it is more effective). Though you may disagree with the conclusions he has come to, he has clearly put much consideration into the way he approaches such a large and contentious issue.


Now, here is why I am prepared to vote against the Republican party.

The Republican party has squandered its opportunity.
Though there is much I like about George W. Bush, the party on the whole has been given every advantage in the world and they cannot seem to get anything worthwhile done. They have not found ways to create good policy, they have not found ways to work helpfully with Democrats, and they have done more to hurt the nation’s view of conservative political policy than they have to help it.

The Republican party is no longer listening to Christians.
We have become a voting bloc for them, a monolithic single-issue creature that will support ANYONE so long as they agree in one key area. I have worked in the United States Congress, heard their conversations, seen the way they make decisions, seen how they talk about evangelicals, and seen the results. I tell you plainly; for the most part, the party is not listening to us. They pay us verbal respect because we are large, but they are not responding to our desires so long as we guarantee them our votes in exchange for the lip-service of being against abortion.

Since when is coming down hard on illegal immigration something for Christians to get fired up about? What has happened to our compassion for the foreigner, the outcast, the exile? And yet we allow the party to tell us how we should think about that and many other topics… so long as they, “are pro-life,” an issue which most politicians can’t influence anyways. (note: I speak generally here- I realize some Christians do have good reasons for wanting a tougher stance on the problems of illegal immigration. However, I do think it’s an area many Christians just follow the party line on, rather than researching it carefully)

John McCain is an immoral man.
Do you remember when the big Republican argument for supporting Bob Dole was, “Bill Clinton is immoral and unrepentant”? McCain is very much in the same vein. He has had multiple affairs. The most recent led to his divorcing his wife and remarrying less than a month later. Any, “repentance,” he has displayed was over hurt feelings, but not over the sin itself. Does this disqualify him from the Presidency? No. However, Christians who argued that morality was reason to vote for Dole and against Clinton should check themselves carefully in this race.

John McCain is a bad policy maker.
The laws he has helped write are mixed up gobblygook; they were not thought through clearly, they were not written well, and they are not making our country a better place. Nothing about his career suggests that he will ably handle the highest administrative office in the land. This is a big problem to me, as you’ll see in THIS POST on this topic.

John McCain is not a leader or a consensus builder.
For his entire career, he has played the part of maverick. He revels in challenging convention, and rather than work with others he takes his case public to wedge his opponents into a rhetorical corner. The whole campaign finance fiasco, for instance, was a case in point. He made a big moral issue out of campaign finance, made his party look bad, and then wrote a bad law to the sound of thunderous applause from the public and meek acquiescence from the rest of the Senate. The result? There’s even MORE money in campaign finances, it’s even EASIER to get support from questionable sources, and individuals have even LESS influence than they used to as compared to larger lobbying organizations. Why should I trust him as a leader? HERE is an article describing some of the problems of McCain's signature legislation.



Overall, I believe my role as a Christian voter is to vote for the person I feel will best lead the country, so that the name of Christ can most easily be proclaimed to everyone. To me, that candidate is Barack Obama.

Of course, it is fine that many (if not most) Christians disagree with me. I understand and appreciate the case made by most evangelicals regarding abortion, just as I understand and appreciate the arguments made by most African-American churches regarding social justice (by the way, they really DO have some helpful things to say that we evangelicals should consider carefully).

I certainly would never say that to vote for John McCain because of a single issue is wrong- I know that we are all just trying to work out faithfulness as best we can. If you want to see the other side of this question from a man much more intelligent and articulate than I, check out Owen’s post HERE. For my own thoughts on that particular issue, you can look HERE.

But this is the place I’ve come to. I’ve been into politics since I was in high school, and in all that time I have never before supported a Democrat for president. However, I believe that this is the best possible time for Christians to declare to the world that we will not be pigeon-holed, that we are not an automatic voting bloc for the secular leaders in the Republican party, and that our aim and goal is of a much higher and more lasting importance than the advancement of the conservative party agenda.

For me, this means I am voting for Barack Obama. My hope and prayer is that we evangelicals can continue to carefully consider and discuss these things as the campaign continues, without disparaging each other for taking one side or the other.