Monday, June 30, 2008

Where Have All the (European) Babies Gone?

This past weekend, the New York Times magazine featured a startling piece called, simply, "No Babies?" by writer Russell Shorto. The very long and engrossing article spans ten pages (in a web sense) and includes the following notable quotations and ideas.

The plummeting global birthrate--

"[A]round the world, even in developing countries, birthrates have plummeted — from 6.0 globally in 1972 to 2.9 today — as populations have shifted from rural areas to cities and people have adopted urban lifestyles, and the drop has perhaps lessened the urgency of the overpopulation cry."

Some said in the 1980s that the world was vastly and dangerously overpopulated. What the above comment notes, in typical understated highbrow fasion, is that this thesis was wrong on a massive scale. In fact, it would be fascinating to study this thesis to see if it had a discernable effect on the desiccated global birthrate. I would guess that it might have. I would further guess that it was used to enfranchise the selfish lifestyles of (perhaps) millions of people around the world in encouraging them, for the first time in trans-cultural history, to see children as a curse, not a blessing. If this is so, what bitter fruit this ideology has reaped.

The scale of this disastrous trend--

"To many, “lowest low” is hard evidence of imminent disaster of unprecedented proportions. “The ability to plan the decision to have a child is of course a big success for society, and for women in particular,” Letizia Mencarini, a professor of demography at the University of Turin, told me. “But if you would read the documents of demographers 20 years ago, you would see that nobody foresaw that the fertility rate would go so low. In the 1960s, the overall fertility rate in Italy was around two children per couple. Now it is about 1.3, and for some towns in Italy it is less than 1. This is considered pathological.”"

Again, in layman's terms, this translates to "cultural cataclysm." In other words, Europe is dying before our eyes. We are literally watching the slow, agonizing death of much of the Western world.

The dangers this trend poses--

The spiritual concerns aside, though, the main threats to Europe are economic. Alongside birthrate, the other operative factor in the economic equation is lifespan. People everywhere are living longer than ever, and lifespan is continuing to increase beyond what was once considered a natural limit.

Here the writer, Shorto, shows his worldview undergarments, so to speak. The chief cause and effect here involves economic rather than spiritual concerns. This is a classic move of leftist thought--to briefly acknowledge the spiritual dimension of life and then move hurriedly on to the really important stuff, the financial matters that truly drive life. Well, this is in reality a pretty bad idea, in the end. Why do people make economic decisions? Shorto makes much of the changing workplace in his article, and he attempts to argue that two-income families actually help birthrates to rise in many countries, over against the traditional logic that one-income families produce relatively more children. Why, though, do people choose to make the decisions they do? Do not spiritual concerns factor in heavily on this question? What good does it do Shorto and the rest of us to ignore the philosophical tides of nihilism and epicureanism that swept over Europe in the second half of the twentieth century? He ends up looking a bit silly for his refusal to take spirituality seriously, given the massive cultural shifts in twentieth-century European philosophical and religious thought.

On this quirky matter that two-income homes are actually better for birthrates, Shorto asserts that "even conservatives like Willetts acknowledge that societies that support working couples have higher birthrates than those in which mothers are housewives." He goes on to conclude rather triumphantly that "The old conservative argument — that a traditional, working-husband-and-stay-at-home-wife family structure produces a healthy, growing population — doesn’t apply, either in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world today." Hold your horses. It may well be that in certain countries that feature more two-income families, more children are birthed. But this does not answer all questions. For example, women in more egalitarian countries may have more babies than women in other societies merely because they are paid to do so. It may also be true that they have more babies because their husbands invest more in childcare, as Shorto suggests. But this discussion masks a larger point--women in Europe are not having babies, regardless of the structure of the home. There clearly is no major birthrate increase in more egalitarian countries. Furthermore, when the traditional model is itself suffused with selfishness in many quarters, as we can see, women do not want to have children, though they may be at home in the traditional manner.

Beyond this, much of the U. S., which Shorto cites as a "sparkling exception" to this trend, adheres to a decidedly traditional worldview. It's conservatives, in many cases, not liberals, who are having babies. This would seem to directly contradict one of the central assertions of this article.

The final word on the matter--

"When European women age 18 to 34 were asked in another study to state their ideal number of children, 16.6 percent of those in Germany and 12.6 percent in Austria answered “none.”"

This is a frightening situation, indicative of a wider, world-spanning movement that sees children as a curse. Though Shorto strongly concludes that America has fallen under no such spell, one wonders whether his research is accurate. All around us, people want to live for themselves, and not for their families, or on a much broader level, their societies. They want to do what they wish to do, not what is right and good to do as defined by tradition and, I would argue, biblically informed tradition. So many young people want nothing more than to chase their dreams and live narcissistic lives of self-indulgence. Of course, there are some out there who desperately want to have children but cannot for a variety of reasons (illness, singleness, etc.), but these people are more generally the exception, it seems.

Having a child is almost the fundamental good of the family (which is itself nearly the fundamental good of existence!). It is not, in the Bible, a mere option, one of a number of fun things to do if one wants. It is what married people do (when they can). Children are a blessing from the Lord (Psalm 127). Our culture and many others across the world believe the opposite, giving Christians the opportunity to demonstrate that we do not live for ourselves, first and foremost. We do not live to gratify our passing fancies. We live to do something much larger than this, to build something far greater than ourselves, to involve ourselves in the awesome task of physically and spiritually shaping the destiny of a living being we create, and of doing this not only for ourselves, but for our societies, and far, far beyond this, for our God. Having children, in the end, is not a box to check on a laundry list of entertainments; it is an act of worship that enters us into a work almost too great to comprehend and too awesome to carry out.

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Week-est Link, June 28, 2008

1. Here's a PDF copy of the 9Marks eJournal I mentioned yesterday. It's on marriage and pastoral families. A terrific issue, as I said. Thanks, Z, for the note.

2. Did you miss the audio download from the 2008 Band of Bloggers session? If so, here it is. Some of the best commentary from Christians on blogging that I've heard.

3. A Nashville church recently hosted a conference on the church and theology. Speakers included D. A. Carson, Tim Challies, and Steve Lawson. The audio material looks tremendous. Download it and see your vision for the church expand before your eyes. So exciting to see churches, not seminaries, do this kind of thing!

4. If you are in the market for faith-building music that just happens to be elegantly played and beauitfully sung, check out Red Mountain Church's cd "Help My Unbelief." I recently downloaded it and love it.

--Have a great weekend, all.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

New 9Marks eJournal on Marriage Is Online

The new issue of 9Marks looks very helpful. It covers a variety of topics including marriage, being a pastor's wife, and books on marriage. I have a brief review of Danny Akin's book God on Sex in this issue. Here are a few highlighted resources from the latest journal.
There's much more to peruse and benefit from. Yet another excellent journal by 9Marks.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

New Trends in Education That Really Aren't New

Everything new is old again. So is the case in certain American schools, which are overturning sacred modern educational ideology by re-instituting special classes for below-average students. In "Holding Back Young Students: Is Program a Gift or a Stigma?", Winnie Hu briefly reports on this trend and shows how it is igniting a firestorm among educators who have long rejected the traditional idea that students should be, in some cases and in certain subjects, educated according to their intellectual level. Here's the current scene:

With the increasing emphasis on standardized testing over the past decade, large urban school systems have famously declared an end to so-called social promotion among youngsters lacking basic skills. Last year, New York flunked 6 percent of its first graders, and Chicago 7.7 percent.

Now the 8,400-student East Ramapo school district in this verdant stretch west of the Palisades is going further, having revived a controversial retention practice widely denounced in the 1980s to not only hold back nearly 12 percent of its first graders this spring but to segregate them in a separate classroom come fall.

Predictably, Hu blames this situation on the Left Behind Act, favorite whipping boy of many education professionals:

[W]ith the federal No Child Left Behind law and a battery of state mandates increasing pressure on schools to raise test scores, efforts to end the longtime practice of promoting children based on age rather than achievement have taken on new urgency. Districts in Milford, Del., and Lakeland, Fla., are among a handful nationwide that have been experimenting with transition classes in recent years, though both dropped them in the face of parental resistance and, in Florida, concerns among teachers.

Hu provides a very telling quote that reveals why so many contemporary teachers and educators buck against the more traditional system:

“I had a hard time putting just the low-achieving kids together,” said Betty Fitzgerald, principal of Lakeland’s Churchwell Elementary, which ran a separate class for repeating third graders for two years in response to tougher state standards. “It’s like saying, ‘You all are low kids, and you all didn’t pass.’ ”

Here's the central problem, then: self-esteem. It's not so much the bottom line--in this case, what students actually learn--but what students feel that drives the ideology of many contemporary educators and teachers. Now, I'm by no means in a hurry to put students in situations where they feel bad, but my first concern for students is not that they feel good, but that they learn. Funny how our system sometimes loses sight of this aim, which I believe it is intended, funded, and tasked to fulfill.

In the process of education, one often feels bad. I've always felt bad when I didn't do well in school. To this day, I hate getting bad grades. It's unpleasant, furthermore, to have to work hard on difficult subjects. I've currently got a ton of books to read for a PhD class. Is that pleasant in the same way that, say, a basketball game is? No sir. Definitely not. But is the process of reading multiple books on an academic topic hugely helpful to me? Absolutely. Were other self-esteem challenging, character-building educational exercises of similar help to my mind and heart? They certainly were. If difficult educational tasks are navigated with care and support from parents and teachers, great rewards will be reaped by many students (though in today's massive schools, one can understand how teachers and educators would struggle to provide the help many challenged students need--are many of our public schools, perhaps, far too large for their own good?)

Will today's students reap similar benefits, or will they suffer from a system that often seems to care more about their feelings than their minds?

You tell me.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Feminist's Daughter Curses the Movement

The daughter of feminist poet and writer Alice Walker, Rebecca Walker, penned a revealing piece in London's Daily Mail today (HT: Challies). The following quotations from the piece shed much light on the practical effects of feminist ideology. They are, in sum, quite tragic. Walker is not a Christian, and she lives with her child's father, but "How My Mother's Fanatical Views Tore Us Apart" is nonetheless worth reading.

How Walker's mother saw her--

I was 16 when I found a now-famous poem she wrote comparing me to various calamities that struck and impeded the lives of other women writers. Virginia Woolf was mentally ill and the Brontes died prematurely. My mother had me - a 'delightful distraction', but a calamity nevertheless. I found that a huge shock and very upsetting.

How sex was tied to empowerment in feminist ideology (and still is today)--

But the truth was I was very lonely and, with my mother's knowledge, started having sex at 13. I guess it was a relief for my mother as it meant I was less demanding. And she felt that being sexually active was empowering for me because it meant I was in control of my body.

Although I was on the Pill - something I had arranged at 13, visiting the doctor with my best friend - I fell pregnant at 14. I organised an abortion myself. Now I shudder at the memory. I was only a little girl. I don't remember my mother being shocked or upset. She tried to be supportive, accompanying me with her boyfriend.

Although I believe that an abortion was the right decision for me then, the aftermath haunted me for decades. It ate away at my self-confidence and, until I had Tenzin, I was terrified that I'd never be able to have a baby because of what I had done to the child I had destroyed. For feminists to say that abortion carries no consequences is simply wrong.

How Alice Walker mothered her child (or didn't)--

My mother was the polar opposite. She never came to a single school event, she didn't buy me any clothes, she didn't even help me buy my first bra - a friend was paid to go shopping with me. If I needed help with homework I asked my boyfriend's mother.

Rebecca Walker's assessment of the leaders of the feminist movement--

Feminism has betrayed an entire generation of women into childlessness. It is devastating.

But far from taking responsibility for any of this, the leaders of the women's movement close ranks against anyone who dares to question them - as I have learned to my cost. I don't want to hurt my mother, but I cannot stay silent. I believe feminism is an experiment, and all experiments need to be assessed on their results. Then, when you see huge mistakes have been paid, you need to make alterations.

I hope that my mother and I will be reconciled one day. Tenzin deserves to have a grandmother. But I am just so relieved that my viewpoint is no longer so utterly coloured by my mother's.

I am my own woman and I have discovered what really matters - a happy family.

Courtney Tarter, a student at Southern Seminary, reflects eloquently on the piece at GenderBlog: "When women completely deny their God-given right and ability to bear children we are seeing a complete giving over to the desires of the flesh (Romans 1). To see children as a burden to be thrown off is a reversal of the created order and a sinful repression of the desire that probably once burned bright. It should make us weep for them." Amen to that.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Comments on God Delighting in Small (New England) Churches

From Paul Buckley in Methuen, MA (check out his excellent, Christ-exalting blog)--

"I pastor a Sovereign Grace Ministries Church in New England, King of Grace Church. Thanks for your encouraging post! Pastoring in New England has been a wonderful adventure of learning to glory in Christ and the precious folks he does give us and not in our relative church size. It is one thing to say I am pastoring for God's glory, it is another to be tested with small success yet still labor. There are many here as Josh said who have labored faithfully for years (far beyond mine). They are my heroes.

I trust their faithful prayers and labors will indeed be answered in time with new converts, new church plants and a region full of disciples who will surpass them in zeal, knowledge and faithfulness. We intend to labor for Christ and His glory regardless of outcome yet we continue to ask for a greater harvest."

From Mike Freeman in Ohio (formerly of Maine)--

"Having grown up in a Maine small church, I agree with Owen. Additionally, I have labored as a lay youth leader for the past six years at at a church in southwest Ohio. I can say with certainty that the folks in Maine, by and large, "get it." In Ohio, the bible belt, many people go to church because that's what you are supposed to do- even fundamental evangelical churches. In Maine, most people don't go to church; the ones that do come actually seem to want to be there."

Are there other pastors out there who want to comment on the original blog I wrote? I would love more testimony on what it is like to pastor a small church and how you handle it.

To my knowledge, this subject is not often talked about. Small churches are something of the elephant in the room in many evangelical circles. We all know they're there (in large numbers), but as our environment is suffused with notions of success and grandiosity, we don't want to talk about them much or really even acknowledge they're around. We'd much rather talk about the "success stories" than the churches who are, in their quest for faithfulness, achieving a certain numerical mediocrity.

This (extended) blog is no attempt to demonize large churches. Far, far from it. I give thanks to God for large churches that are faithful to the gospel. God often uses them in special ways. God blesses many, many people through them. For Bethlehem and Covenant Life and other churches of similar size and gospel focus, I am thankful to God. But we must not think that these churches alone are faithful and glorifying to God. If our definition of God's glory is measured along metric lines, we are surely off. If faithfulness must in some way equal numerical prosperity, we are certainly wrong. The very message of the Bible is that God takes pleasure in the few. God, unlike men, does not need recognizable size and prosperity--in terms of His followers--to be delighted. The message of the Bible is that God loves His people. He loves the few. He loves the remnant. He delights in the faithful, self-sacrificial lives of His people. It is not massive size that He searches the earth for. He searches it for faithfulness.

The Bible is rife with stories that support this basic idea. Try it out--test this theme out. Read through your Bible, and see how often God delights in a people who are small in number but great in devotion. See how little emphasis there is on the mere size of things. Tiny Israel, puny David, Gideon's 300, the faithful remnant, the mustard seed, the scattered disciples, the overmatched apostles, the slain martyrs--this is just a tiny selection of biblical matters that show with clarity the joy God takes in the few. In so many of these things, in fact, it is God's explicit design for His numbers to be small.

When a church is small, then, we must not rush to feel bad for it, or wonder what has gone wrong, or contrive many ways to fix it. Perhaps change is needed. But it may well be that God is delighting in the small size of the congregation, taking joy in their gathered worship, smiling as they evangelize and celebrate His supper and struggle to fill an oversized room. Knowing God's character from the Bible, wouldn't it be just like Him to do so?

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Friday, June 20, 2008

The Week-est Link, June 20, 2008: New England Pastors

1. I don't know if you saw this from a few days back, but a New England pastor named Josh left a moving comment on my blog about small churches. Here it is in its entirety:

"I am a New England pastor, and I would wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. The pastors in my association are good men who devote a lot of time to their people. Most of us are bi-vocational, because our churches are too small to pay us full-time. Were any of us to go to other parts of the U.S., we would probably see more tangible results because of the myriad differences in culture. However, we are doing what we can up here to fulfill the commissions given to us. To say that results are the measure of success, instead of fidelity to the Gospel, is probably well-meant but really quite wrong. Results cannot be the be-all end-all for churchmen if our ministries are to be cruciform."

An elegant testimony, and a true one. Thank you, Josh (I don't know him to my knowledge) for commenting. Are there any other New Englanders who want to chip in? Or, is there anyone else out there who labors in a small church as a layman or pastor who would like to comment? I'd love to get your thoughts.

2. My buddy Jed Coppenger, a PhD student in Systematic Theology at Southern Seminary, wrote a stirring tribute to his dad about ten days ago. Read it both to enjoy Jed's reflections and to shape a little bit of your vision for your own family and the families in your churches.

3. An interesting piece from a New Yorker blog about how Barack Obama failed to act with chivalry toward Hillary Clinton during their debates.

4. Get Coldplay's "Parachutes" album for a stunning $1.99. Thanks, Vitamin Z, for the link.

5. Are you weary in your faith? Do you need some music to lift you up? Then pick up Sovereign Grace Music's new cd "Come Weary Saints". You will find several tunes that encourage you and direct you to the promises of God. The first song, "Hide Away in the Love of Jesus", is alone worth the price of the album. It is literally one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. Click the link to hear lengthy samples of the songs.

Have a great weekend, all.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dever and Packer on the Importance of Penal Substitution

The following quotations are from the latest Crossway "Book Report" (HT: JT). They include very helpful statements. Of course, these statements only scratch the surface of the topics covered. If you want to read more about the current state of atonement theory and the biblical case for penal substitution as the central motif of New Testament atonement theory, I would heartily recommend both In My Condemned He Stood by Packer and Dever and Pierced for Our Transgressions by Brits Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach. Both were published very recently by Crossway, and both will prove very helpful in understanding contemporary debates and a robust biblical conception of atonement.

Here are the questions and answers from the "Book Report".

Crossway Books: What are some current objections to the doctrine of substitionary atonement?

J. I. Packer (JIP): One stream of thought claims that God’s holy, just nature does not require any form of propitiation at all. Another claims that for God to expose, and indeed direct, his Son to suffer as a substitute for sinners would be divine child abuse.

MD: Many critics have even suggested that we proponents of penal substitution are trashing all other views, or at least ignoring them. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book on the atonement which does that. Their argument is, I think, theological caricature. The truth is that there’s a soundly biblical and logically compelling case for considering various biblical images of the atonement, and that the image of penal substitution is legitimately considered central. That is a more subtle argument, and Jim Packer makes it superbly in this book.

Crossway Books: You coin the term “anti-redemptionism” as that which the church is up against today. What exactly is anti-redemptionism?

JIP: It’s the view that God forgives or ignores our sins without requiring their punishment. It was the Father’s wisdom to make his incarnate Son our representative substitute who endured the punishment due to us. Liberal Christianity regularly denies this.

MD: One simple way to understand it is the view that people are basically okay, and that we don’t have to have anything quite as dramatic as redemption to fix what needs fixing. Because no name exists for the unorthodoxy we have in view in this book, we labeled it anti-redemptionism. Its essence is sidelining—and in some cases actually denying—the work of Jesus Christ as our Redeemer, who did all that had to be done to save us from hell, in favor of the idea of Jesus as teacher, model, and pioneer of godliness.

If these quotations pique your interest, and I hope they do, consider purchasing these books, and enhancing your own view of the atonement vis a vis the attacks on penal substitution. You might not know it, but many professing evangelicals today question strongly the idea that penal substitution is the central atonement motif in the New Testament. In such times, we need good resources like those Crossway is providing, both to teach us and to keep the church centered on this most central of scriptural teachings.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Does God, Perhaps, Delight in the Small?

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

--Matthew 7:13-14

I think that God delights in the small.

Mark Dever, June 2008

Ministry in New England is notoriously difficult. I was recently talking with my father about this. In a place where faithful Christians often see very little fruit produced from their evangelistic and ecclesial efforts, discouragement can come easily. I've been challenged to pray hard for the pastors and churches of New England, knowing that they face a hard road of ministry.

Most churches in New England are very small. Many see very few people come to Christ, even over the span of decades. There's little triumphalism in this region, little sense that if things shift just a little bit, the culture wars will be won. The church is not about to win the culture wars in New England. It is a city on a hill, but it is a city that few choose to visit, and most choose to ignore. It is not that the majority of pastors and churches of the area are strategically challenged, or lacking in passion, or outdated in methodology. Many Christians pour themselves into their churches and give sacrificially of their time and energy to advance the kingdom and preach the gospel. Many Christians pray ardently for their towns and cities and yearn for their families and friends to come to Christ. Most of these Christians see little visible fruit from their efforts, few desired answers to their prayers. To be a Christian in New England is, in short and in general, to live a life of frustration. One must continually go back to the promises of God for encouragement. Otherwise, one will grow discouraged and lose faith and confidence in the power and goodness of God. In New England Christianity, discouragement comes easily.

Some of this discouragement is natural. Some of it, though, comes from a culture within American Christianity in which it is assumed that large congregational size is an unquestionably sure sign of God's blessing. In the same way that many Americans seek grandiose riches and oversized homes as a symbol of fundamental life achievement, many Christian Americans seek massive churches and oversized congregations as a symbol of fundamental providential achievement. Put more simply, we don't want to be small. No one in America wants to be small. We want to be large. Large equals blessing, achievement, status, respect, validation that cannot be taken away. Once our business--or church, or college, or denomination, or home, or wallet, or car, or whatever--gets large, then we'll never have to look stupid and insignificant. We'll never be a nobody again. We'll be someone, and no one will be able to take that away from us. We will win our significance, and we will never lose it.

There's a fundamental biblical problem with such thinking: it's not what God tells us will be the case with Christianity in its cultural forms. There is certainly room for exceptions in passages like Matthew 7:13-14, but the general rule is that Christianity will be marked throughout history as a religion of the few. Now, someone out there is saying that Christianity has had the most adherents of any religion throughout history. That's likely true. But with a few exceptions, the number of truly converted, biblically concerned and faithful Christians in any given culture has been small. Yes, Europe existed in a state of Christendom for hundreds of years, and yes, America was founded in part by Christians, and sure, some countries today have large populations of evangelical Christians, but by and large, Christians are and have been the decided minority in the countries and civilizations of the world. The remnant, not the reigning, has been the rule.

Christ's words in Matthew seven, then, ring very, very true. Though we should believe passionately and actionably in God's desire to save many, yet the fundamental reality of Christianity is that few will believe in it. Few, in the end, will be saved. This idea rubs harshly against our success-obsessed American culture in which size is legitimacy, no, size is existence. So many evangelicals want so desperately to see people saved, a desire that is genuine, but they also want to be culturally significant. We don't want to be weird and small and cultish, like the kid on the playground nobody wants to talk to. We want to see people saved--we earnestly and passionately do--but we also want to be a cool kid. For too many of us, it's not enough that we are accepted by God. We want also to be accepted by man. Our thinking, our methodology, even our understanding of the Bible itself is regularly driven by such a concern.

When a Christian lives in a largely pagan culture, though, such notions--which all of us fall prey to in some form, myself included--are easily scrubbed away. The focus becomes not getting people saved and glorifying God through the life of the church and attaining impressive size and cultural legitimacy, but getting people saved and glorifying God through the life of the church. This is not to idealize the church in New England or any other paganized region. Christians in these places certainly have their struggles and weaknesses, lack of vision and passion sometimes among them. It is to say, though, that in such places the temptation to work hard for cultural legitimacy is strongly diminished. It does not disappear, but it is by necessity diminished. When you labor faithfully in gospel ministry for 25 years and see five people come to Christ, you acquire a different economy of scale in your faith. Of course, it is no bad thing at all to pray for growth and work for growth and think strategically and act with great faith and vision. These are the right things to do. But they must not become ends in themselves. If they do, they will fail in places where God's Spirit is not granting new life to the lost.

This certainly sounds morose and sad. But here's the thing: what if God does not merely tolerate the small, or put up with it while other ecclesial investments flourish? What if God--in a way that is very difficult for our American senses to comprehend--actually delights in the small? What if the thirty-person church in New Hampshire (or South Carolina, or Oregon, or Zaire, or Siberia) actually brings Him great joy? What if, unlike so many of our American peers, God isn't ashamed by the little church, but is delighted by it? Maybe He doesn't look sternly at the pastor of the little church, wondering when he's going to get his act together and grow his church. Maybe He looks lovingly on Him, joyful that he is obeying His Word, evangelizing his area, building up his people in the faith week by week, year by year. I don't claim to speak for God, and I certainly cannot comprehend His mind. But as I search the Scripture, it seems to me that perhaps it is true that God delights in the small.

My mind was led to this track by a comment I heard pastor Mark Dever make a little while back. As I've reflected on Mark's offhand comment, I've considered it in light of my future pastoral ministry, if the Lord does indeed give it. Will I be happy if my church is small and my baptisms are low? Will I grow depressed and angry? Will I snap at my wife and ignore my children and work strenuously to drive up my church's numbers? I pray that I won't. But because I'm a sinner, and an American sinner, I see the potential for such behavior. At this juncture in my life, though, I want to avoid it.

I want to embrace the biblical reality that Christianity will often be small, often marginalized, often ignored, often hated. In spots, it will win huge acceptance. In most, it will not. Some churches will legitimately and by God's grace become very large in number and use this size for God's glory. Most will not. Most New England churches will not, I would guess (though I cannot know). Most New England pastors will labor for year upon year and see few people come to Christ. Most New England congregations will survive budgetarily but rarely flourish. If this is indeed true, is this a sign of failure? It could be, I suppose. But it also could be a reflection of biblical teaching. The hearts of men are hard, and in God's providence and mysterious plan, they are harder in some places than others. New England is such a place at this time.

Yet though our consciences and minds tell us otherwise, perhaps this situation is no stain on God's robe, no embarrassment to His reputation. Perhaps it is, in a way quite inscrutable to us, a joy to Him. Perhaps He loves the little and delights in the small. If so (and I think it is so), what an encouragement to the church of any region and country that is small and struggling. Christians in such places need to work hard and not lose faith. They need to pray for great things and attempt great works for God. But in the midst of difficult and even "unsuccessful" ministry, they need to remember the great love of God, and to find their identity not in their numbers, but in the delight of God which graces their ministries and stamps their lives.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Preaching Christ from All of Scripture? Bryan Chappell Shows the Way

I came across a great link at a site I love,, which has just about anything and everything you could ever want related to reformed theology. Turns out that Dr. Bryan Chapell has had Covenant Seminary post all of his lectures (with PDFs!) on Christ-centered preaching. Here's the blurb on the lectures, which are free (!):

"Dr. Bryan Chapell explores the unifying principle of grace that binds all Scripture together. He outlines and demonstrates the principles and practice of sermon crafting and delivery to illuminate the message of grace in each passage, and to submit it to God's Spirit for the transformation of lives through preaching."

It sounds like this is Covenant's preaching class; I could be wrong on this. If there's a Covenant Seminary student out there who has chanced upon this blog, please feel free to comment and let us know. Whatever the case, I think that you'll find this a manifestly helpful resource in figuring out how to preach the Bible per the conditions Christ gave in Luke 24:44-47. This is not an easy subject to figure out, and one can easily go overboard in one's typology (identifying shadow images of Christ in the people, ideas, institutions, and things of the Old Testament), and so it is great to have a gifted, godly expositor like Dr. Chapell dig deeply into this matter. I hope that these links help you to preach Christ from the Word.

Also, Chappell has authored a very fine text on preaching. Click here to order Christ-Centered Preaching. I've worked through it and found it quite helpful on this subject. There are lots of drawbacks to the Internets, but there are also many clear strengths. Having great resources like this out there for free is most definitely one of the strengths.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

An Eloquent and Inspiring Call for Mercy by Kay Warren

I recently came across a piece by Kay Warren, wife of megachurch pastor Rick Warren, in Christianity Today. Though I would not agree with all that Warren stands for, I was quite moved by her accounts of recent visits to people in desperate situations in the Ukraine. Here are some moving selections from her article "Talk and Walk":

"People newly diagnosed with HIV come to this hospital for further tests. In one room, a man sat aloof, barely acknowledging our presence. Another man angrily denounced his government's weak response to people with HIV. Anatoly, a local pastor, invited me to this hospital and we listened as the angry man talked about his two-year-old boy with HIV. (This means the mother in the family is almost certainly HIV-positive.) In silence, we grieved together over the uncertain future of this family.
In the next room, two young women sat on neatly made metal beds, apprehensive at our unannounced arrival. One pretty blonde, 23, told us she had been diagnosed for a month. To look at her, you would never know she was ill."

The writing is dramatic, but so is the experience. Here's more:

"Pastor Gennady resembles a swashbuckling movie hero—tall and handsome, with energetic hands he distributes bear hugs and high fives to children passing in the hallways. These precious children once lived on the streets; their arms are scarred by needle tracks from drug addiction. Twenty percent are HIV-positive. Pastor Gennady is known for blatantly grabbing street kids from their hideouts. He offers them safety, detox, and nourishment for soul and body.

Late that day, I joined him in a surprise visit to a basement under a large apartment complex. He had heard that a street boy there was about to die. The entryway into the basement was a hazardous crawl, down a metal ladder hanging onto the wall by a few screws, into inky darkness. As I climbed down slowly, my eyes adjusted. I could see the exposed electrical wires, pipes dripping waste, empty syringes, discarded foil cards that held tramadol (their drug of choice), and dead rats.

The glimpse of wretchedness was enough to smash my heart yet again. In the middle of this, I caught a glimpse of another reality—a local church pastor being the hands and feet of Jesus to someone who perhaps had never personally experienced the love of Christ."

I cannot say that I have easy answers for the questions that revolve around "mercy ministry" to unbelievers. Should local churches invest significant amounts of time and money in it? Should they leave it to individuals to do it? What does the New Testament direct us to do on this question? Should we consider "mercy ministry" to be a form of evangelism? Is this the best way to reach out to the lost in our era? Or is it a distraction from evangelism? These are difficult questions to answer, particularly in light of the fact that the New Testament has to be carefully handled on this matter (as on so many others).

I can say this, though: I am profoundly impacted and challenged by work like that of the Ukrainian pastors. As a person who loves the ministry of words, I am challenged by those who selflessly and sacrificially give themselves to a ministry of deeds. I do not have the answers for the above questions at this time, and I do not endorse all that Rick or Kay Warren teach and practice, but I can say that I am challenged by their example and the example of many other faithful Christians whose names I do not know to be a merciful presence in a world of sin and sickness. Somehow, in some way, I know that I need to have such a heart, and that I need to have such a ministry, however much it causes me to shrink back from its call and claims.

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Week-est Link, June 13, 2008

1. Desiring God has a nice blog post from rapper Trip Lee that is worth reading.

2. Very interesting biography on late twentieth-century evangelicalism. I cannot wait to read this one.

3. Some great music from Sovereign Grace that you may not have heard about. Buy and be encouraged in your walk with the Lord.

Have a great weekend!

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Spirituality of Sin: Greed

A greedy man stirs up strife, but the one who trusts in the LORD will be enriched.

--Proverbs 28:25

If the root of flattery is a lack of trust in God, I think that the root of greed is also a lack of trust in God. Why do we hoard our possessions and store them up selfishly? Greed. Why would we act in such a way? Because we don't trust God to provide for us in the future. We somehow convince ourselves that God is not going to bless us in the future, and so we hoard what we have. Greed produces parsimony, or a lack of generosity. At the root of stinginess, then, is greed; at the root of greed is a lack of trust in God.

You can tell whether you trust God by measuring how generous you are. No one would define generosity by foolishness, of course, that is, by a level of giving that is heedless of the future. It's biblically wise to invest what you have, to save for a rainy day, as the saying goes (or to save for a rainy day in which your children go to college). However, there's wise saving, and there's parsimonious saving. Those who give very little show that they don't fundamentally trust God to provide. The combination of inherent sin and Satan's temptation causes them to come to the illogical conclusion that though God has richly provided in the past, for some inexplicable and sudden reason, His provision has now dried up, and there is subsequently no reason to trust Him for the future. This is a sad and unbiblical way to live.

The center of our lives is God, and trust in Him. If we remember that faith in God is the great gift of this life, then we will avoid idolizing the blessings He has given us. By this I mean that if our understanding of God is small, the things we have will grow large, and we'll try to hang onto them by whatever means we can. If, however, our picture of God is large, and if Christ is our chief treasure in life, and we define happiness by the gift of faith in Christ given us by the Holy Spirit, then we'll hold our possessions and our finances lightly. We won't do so, as I said above, by foolishly pious, thinking that we have no need of planning or saving. But we will balance our wise living with a robust faith in God that trusts Him to provide for us in the future. Armed with such a robust trust, we'll free ourselves from the clutches of greed and allow ourselves to give generously to our churches, our families, our missionaries, our parachurch ministries, and others who can benefit from the blessings God has given us.

How much do you and I trust God? Well, how much do we give? We say that we have strong faith in God. But what shape does that faith take? Does it purport to be faith but end up looking and smelling like anxiety and, in the end, greed? To what ends does the sin of our hearts drive us? These are hard questions, and we will all see sin in how we answer them, but we can all work toward a position of trusting faith that frees us from greed to give generously. If God is our chief prize, and not the things of this earth, how can we not find great joy in generosity, knowing that whatever may come, we have a gift we cannot lose?

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Spirituality of Sin: Flattery

Save, O LORD, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man. Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

--Psalms 12:1-2

Recent days have prompted thought on the nature of sin. What is it, exactly, that induces us to obey our sin nature and to commit transgression against the Lord? I've attempted to think about this in relation to sins that plague my own heart.

Before I go any further, let me first say this: I am a flatterer. The language we choose to describe our sin shapes the way we understand that sin. Instead of saying, "Sometimes I flatter" or "I can sometimes be a flatterer", I have found that I best target the sin of my heart by identifying myself by my sin. Sometimes I commit the sin of flattery; therefore, I am a flatterer. That's it. That's all there is to it. Labeling myself in this way helps me to avoid compartmentalizing my sin (though I still fall prey to compartmentalizing--ergo, I'm a compartmentalizer, too!). I'm not this pristine person who occasionally slips into flattery. I'm a sinner through and through whose sin takes shape in the form of flattery.

I find that admitting this to myself is helpful in turning away from my sin. I can't simply jump to consideration of the wonder of Christ's atoning work when I am justly shamed for my sin. No, I need to allow myself to feel the weight of my sin, to offer confession whenever possible to the Lord. In seeking humility and restoration, it is of course best to give the fullest, most heartfelt confession possible. This necessarily involves me calling myself what I am--a sinner whose sin takes definitive shapes and forms. I'm not merely a sinner, after all; I'm a sinner with certain predilections and weaknesses. If all we ever own up to is "being a sinner", then we're not going to get very far in the way of honesty and humility and true confession and gospel restoration.

With all that said, let me say that I think that I flatter people because I don't trust God's providential power. In other words, I flatter people because I think that in order for good things to happen in my life, I've got to make them happen. One of the best ways to make things happen and to get ahead in the world is to heap praise on people who are in positions to help you. It's not a real complicated matter, and it's as old as stone. Smooth things out with the tongue so you walk an easy path. This is a common practice among sinful man, to disingenuously push himself forward by the power of his "flattering lips" and "double tongue" as the Psalmist so evocatively puts it in the above quotation. Sadly, even when people become Christians, they still sin against God by heaping unnecessary praise on others for the purpose of saving their own skin and beating others at their own game.

This is especially true in today's Christian celebrity culture, replete with famous authors and speakers and professors and presidents. For the smooth-tongued among us, it's easy to lie--however gently--to get ahead, to cozy up to people in order to jump off of their backs. Instead of trusting God to direct our paths and bestow what blessings he would give us, many of us talking types drop praise every chance we can get in order to make good and get ahead. It's sad to see others do this, and I have seen a good bit of it in my young years. It's even sadder to catch oneself doing it, and to realize, "I am a flatterer." Those are harsh words. Harsh because they're true.

So what do you do if you're a flatterer? Well, it's pretty simple. You trust God. You live a godly, assertive life but you live it without constantly keeping an eye on yourself and your peers. You try to discern as best you can from Scripture, prayer, counsel, and your intuition what it is that you should do in life for God's glory, and then you do it. But you do so without fretting over all the blessings your friends and fellow workers are getting. You do so without constantly taking stock of your life and then allowing yourself to slip into anxiety because you're not where your ambition tells you you should be. You live assertively and wisely, attempting to take what dominion you can in the world, but you do so with your foot on the brake, staying ready to stop yourself if you sense anxiety and a lack of trust in God to take you where He wants you to go.

The funny thing about all this is that it seems to me that God often lets us flatter and sin to get what we want. Just because you don't do things the right way doesn't mean God doesn't still bless your life. But this kind of achievement pales in comparison to that which is had through trust and faith. If you live aggressively, with sinful ambition fueling your flattery and other trustless acts, you may still get a lot. You might "win" in the game of life, and you might do so as a Christian. But you'll do it in your own strength, on your own time, and at the end, you'll celebrate with your own self. In your planning, God was left behind a while ago. The rewards of the works of your hands didn't come through steady trust and persevering, patient faith. They came through flattery and ambition, the same tools the faithless man of Psalm 12 uses to get ahead in this alien world.

I'm not writing to get anyone specifically, except myself. I know by the grace of God that I'm a flatterer. I know that I often don't trust God to bless and lead me and my family. I can see these things, and increasingly, I can see their ugliness. I'm not backing away a hair from godly assertiveness and kingdom ambition, but I want to distance myself by a thousand miles from my double tongue and the double-minded heart that engineers it. Perhaps you're like me. Perhaps you can see this sin in yourself and the lack of trust that propels it. If you are, pray for yourself and your fellow Christian flatterers. At every chance you get, trust God to lead you. We'll all struggle sometimes to balance godly assertiveness and ungodly ambition, and that's okay. That's how life is--decisions don't come gift-wrapped with five-step directions.

Be accountable to your church, pray for growth, and wherever you can, flex the muscle of faith. Let that double tongue go limp. Maybe then you and I will bring back the faithful to the land--the faithful, of course, being not someone else, some other sinner, but ourselves.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

The Housing Preferences of "Gen Y", and What They Tell Us

One of the best things about having a blog that your family and friends know about is having good links sent to you. My eagle-eyed mother-in-law directed me to a great story in the Charleston Post and Courier by Stacy Downs called "Gen Y in a Rush for Change in New Home Style". It can be pretty difficult to track an entire generation of people, but there are definite trends and themes one can pick up if one looks hard (or has one's mother-in-law looking hard for one!).

Here's the key quotation from the article, which includes an interview with three members of "Gen Y" (the second answer is the most interesting):

Q: Many Gen Y'ers grew up in McMansions. Is your parents' big house your dream house?

Colin: No. I want a smaller space so it's easier to take off and go. A house that's low-maintenance is good. Generation Y traveled a lot in college and will continue to do so through life, so a big yard isn't a plus, either.

Townsend: No. I think that seeing so many of our generation's parents divorce makes us understand that family togetherness is important. So as we start having kids you will see us avoid homes with a living room, family room and finished basement rec room in favor of open-plan homes where the family can share space.

The matter of note in this second response by "Townsend" is the shift in desired architectural style. This young man, Ryan Townsend, wants a home in which the entire family is compelled to be together by the very shape of the house. The style of home of recent decades in which various rooms draw various family members holds little pull for Townsend and at least some of his peers. Many of us have seen and grown up in homes in which the family was separated according to the function of rooms. The kids' play area is in the basement, and so the kids go down there, away from the influence and presence of their parents. The parents stay upstairs, dad watching the big tv in his living room, mom bustling around, perhaps in the kitchen. It is this kind of social segmentation that Townsend and others are rebelling against. These young people see a direct link between architecture and family cohesiveness, and they want to restore this link, believing it to have been broken in recent modes of the family.

I don't know if you're tracking here, but this sidenote, buried in a short article in the Home & Garden section of a Charleston newspaper, is revealing. It shows us the deficiency of the modern mindset. Where once families were (forced) together by the small size of their homes, many modern parents intentionally structured their dwellings to separate the different members of the family. How interesting that this architectural decision mirrored and shaped the larger social patterns regarding the family. It is clear from the rise of the divorce culture and the fracturing of the traditional family in the last forty years that life has mirrored architecture. Where the family once lived together, played together, and slept together--literally in the same room, an unthinkable notion for most Americans--now we do our daily business in isolation. As with so many social trends, it is not clear how much this architectural trend drove the dissolution of the American family, and how much of it was merely a reflection of the dissolution. These chicken-and-egg questions are tough to sleuth. I'm guessing that the two worked hand-in-hand to fundamentally reshape the traditional model of the family.

Whatever the answer, it is clear that "Generation Y" is not bereft of common grace, as it sometimes seems to be in the portraits painted by social commentators. Many of this generation have seen the marriages of their parents crumble. They do not want the same. This reality has so shaped them that they will alter their lives in the most basic ways in order to give their own families the best chance of unity and cohesiveness. All is not lost with the current generation of youngsters (my peers). As with every generation, there are signs of darkness, and signs of common grace. Though their parents might have the cars, the homes, the nice jobs, and all the trappings of conspicuous consumerism that signal high status in our land, the twentysomethings of today know the reality behind these trappings. Many of the "McMansions" that so many of us so easily covet have none of the heart that one finds in the humbler domiciles of the land. This is a lesson for us to read and learn from. The exterior, however eye catching it may be, does not tell the full story. In a world in which riches so easily ensnare, it often covers over a multitude of sins.

The other major lesson here is, interestingly enough, architectural. Simply put, how you structure your home matters. You might not think that, but Mr. Townsend has a point, a great one in fact. He's seen something very basic, so basic, in fact, that most of us would overlook it altogether. The home's structure will naturally shape the life of the family living inside of it. If you lay out your home in such a way as to cordon off family members from one another, that is likely what you will get. Your kids may well grow distant from you. Dad and mom may pursue their own interests and spend less time together. It seems that one of the very best things a family can do to grow close and glorify God together is to, well, be together. Not real complex, is it?

There is something profound that happens when people occupy the same space. They learn to love one another, to quickly resolve conflict, to work together, to talk to one another, to share stories, to work out life's difficulties, to fashion character by quickly and unselfishly forgiving one another, to pitch in and help with household duties, to listen and subordinate one's narcissistic urges to dominate the conversation, all under the watchful eye and direction of dad and mom. Isn't this what the "experts" are always telling us about family meals--that simply eating together is incredibly helpful for healthy rearing of children and cultivation of togetherness? How shocking. It's not therapy and individuality and fanatical devotion to outside pursuits that strengthens the family--it's simply being together, spending time with one another, allowing dad and mom to shepherd their children and the children to interact and grow in a safe and loving environment. It seems that the traditional family structure, however outdated and simplistic it may appear to our twenty-first century eyes, had a great deal of its theory right.

A final note of application concerns our church buildings and how we structure them. Are they set up to encourage fellowship? Or are they split into a thousand sundry classrooms and boardrooms? Is there a large chunk of common area for people to get together and talk? Or have we so segmented our buildings that people find it impossible to get together? One of the best things about my alma mater was that it had a massive quad that drew students like flies and that encouraged the entire campus community to gather in a common place. Many of our church buildings would benefit from a similar design, I think.

Who would have thought that the way we structure our homes will radically direct the quality of our families? On this matter, the "Ys" clearly have it--if we would seek a healthy home, we've got to structure it accordingly. The structure of the building will shape the quality of the home--and we're not talking about the shutters and stairways, but the relationships and experiences.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

The Week-est Link, June 6, 2008: 9Marks Video and the Coldplay Record

1. Go here to watch the new 9Marks promotional video. Everything 9Marks puts out is provocative, and even their promo videos fit the bill.

2. Speaking of provocative 9Marks material, here's an interesting blog post by Mark Dever on the use of video in worship. Some will disagree, some will agree, all should find some stuff to chew on.

3. Vitamin Z has a link to the new Coldplay album. If you click on it, you can hear the record in its entirety. I've heard a couple of songs, and it sounds unique and inventive.

That's about it for now. The Link is slowing down a bit in the summer, but I'm still here for you, trying to find gems for your summer consumption.

Have a great weekend!

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Celtics, the Lakers, and Some Thoughts on the State of the NBA and its Narcissistic Stars

Tonight at 9:30pm, the Celtics and Lakers begin competition for the NBA championship. For those who don't know, this is a renaissance of basketball, one that hearkens back some two decades to the glory days of the NBA, when Larry Bird worked his Hoosier magic and Magic Johnson (an overrated player--but then again, I am from Maine, and thus a diehard Celtics fan) roamed the court.

(Side note: one of the funniest things about sports is the ridiculous concept of "history." History, for sports and the sports marketing machine, extends about fifty years back. That which is truly ancient, occurring in realms almost inconceivable to the modern mind, happened between 60-100 years ago. Much of what drives this truncated view of history is the fact that modern sports are closely linked with television. Television is notorious for developing an undernourished version of history--History Channel excluded, of course--in which events barely two decades old are seen as almost comically passe. History, friends, is the realm of things that stretch back centuries, millenia, not merely decades! But alas, I am a wannabe historian, and these things irk me.

Side note continued: If you think I'm on a jag here, just consider my words after you've watched the hundredth commercial or halftime spot recalling the "glory days" of twenty years past, replete with slow motion footage and mystical voiceover. This little side note won't change anything, of course. However, it may free one watcher, one lonely viewer, from the absolutely hilarious conception of history common to television, marketers, and those for the twain meets. Histrionics concluded.)

Okay, with all that said, if you're interested in the game, read this hilarious Bill Simmons column on it. Bill Simmons writes for ESPN, he's not a Christian to my knowledge, he can be irreverent, but he's quite insightful on the game and frequently witty in the extreme. If you're going to follow the series, he'll give you a good briefing on the match-up.

For my part, I am ready for the NBA finals. Really--I've been preparing. Meditation, balancing exercises, that sort of thing. Why? Because the NBA finals offer a level of over-heated, self-serving entertainment of the kind rarely glimpsed in the mortal realm. NBA athletes are far and away the best in the world. They possess a collection of skill, dexterity, strength, size, and grace that is unmatched by any other class of sportsmen. However, with this burden of talent comes a burden of ego. There is no one like the NBA superstar. The world exists to drool over him, throw money at him, applaud him til all palms are red, all while he preens and pouts and whines and machinates and ruminates before television commercials about his barely comprehensible greatness. There are a (very) few exceptions to this rule, but most of the NBA superstars and stars and even normal role players one watches are highly skilled not only in the art of basketball, but the discipline of relentless, unimpedable narcissistic self-obsession.

However, they are extremely fun to watch, if you can just ignore the histrionics, attention-grabbing disorders, and general interest in self-promotion.

When overseas recently, I watched some rugby, which was quite fun. Rugby players are talented athletes, and they play before thousands, and they have their own brand of machinations, but theirs come nowhere near those of NBA players. Rugby players work hard, work together, and when they succeed, they briefly celebrate with their teammates and then move on. As one who admittedly loves the grace and skill of the NBA, it was a pleasure to watch the character and team-oriented play of the rugby players. There was no Lebron James out there, no player who seemed to have become a demigod in his eyes and the eyes of those who follow him. The rugby game was sport as it should be: competitive, fun, skillful, and team-oriented, not individual-exalting.

With all of this bluster, I confess that I still love to watch the NBA. I can't help myself. At its best, played at its highest level by its best players, it is a forceful ballet, an athletic drama. Its top stars, most of them outfitted with extraordinary coordination, 36-inch verticals, and fine-tuned ability, lead their teams in coordinated attack and defense. The best teams exist together in a kind of physical harmony, the players sharing a common mind and will. For these reasons, I try hard to overlook the lack of character displayed by many players and to enjoy the gift of graceful competition. Reminds one that Christians really have an opportunity to shine in the realm of sports. When one plays hard but fairly, skillfully but not self-servingly, one can really stand out. We should not abandon sports, but should season them. That includes the NBA and other levels of basketball and even local gyms and rec leagues. The world is sin-infested, and we can't just turn our backs on it--we need to be salt in places that smell, leaven in realms of dullness and decay.

Of course, if the Celtics win this series, that would be just fine with this New Englander. If some team full of narcissistic athletes has to win, I'll take the New England team every time.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Piper on Fundamentalists, and What it Means for the Church

20 Reasons I Don't Take Potshots at Fundamentalists by: John Piper

1. They are humble and respectful and courteous and even funny (the ones I've met).
2. They believe in truth.
3. They believe that truth really matters.
4. They believe that the Bible is true, all of it.
5. They know that the Bible calls for some kind of separation from the world.
6. They have backbone and are not prone to compromise principle.
7. They put obedience to Jesus above the approval of man (even though they fall short, like others).
8. They believe in hell and are loving enough to warn people about it.
9. They believe in heaven and sing about how good it will be to go there.
10. Their "social action" is helping the person next door (like Jesus), which doesn't usually get written up in the newspaper.
11. They tend to raise law-abiding, chaste children, in spite of the fact that Barna says evangelical kids in general don't have any better track record than non-Christians.
12. They resist trendiness.
13. They don’t think too much is gained by sounding hip.
14. They may not be hip, but they don’t go so far as to drive buggies or insist on typewriters.
15. They still sing hymns.
16. They are not breathless about being accepted in the scholarly guild.
17. They give some contemporary plausibility to New Testament claim that the church is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
18. They are good for the rest of evangelicals because of all this.
19. My dad was one.
20. Everybody to my left thinks I am one. And there are a lot of people to my left.

--from Desiring God

This post is worthy of a good deal more attention than I can give it right now. It's not that it's overly developed, because it's not. Rather, I'm thankful that someone has taken the time to stand up for Christian fundamentalists, who are regularly and relentlessly bashed in the media and even in Christian circles. Many Christians adopt the world's position toward fundamentalists--a term that can function as a catch-all for non-Christians, and can also refer to the actual category of separatist Christians--and think that it is appropriate to lambaste fellow believers who hold to fundamentist tenets. This is entirely inappropriate. Christians are not to slam one another, to bash one another, to publicly insult one another, and to use the same derogatory labels that the world uses against people who, while holding to some different beliefs, nevertheless share saving faith in Christ.

I've seen this happen numerous times in recent days in major evangelical media outlets, and I've heard prominent Christian leaders do the same. Christians sometimes conflate Christian fundamentalism with other forms of supposedly fundamentalist religion--like Islamic fundamentalism, for example--and thus speak of the two as if they are theologically similar. This is egregious! Though the two groups may both approach their faith with high levels of devotion, Islam is a false religion, and Christian fundamentalism is a faith born of God and faithfulness to His Word. Do not make this mistake. It is incredibly uncharitable and hugely insulting to people who, whatever differences one may have with them in their praxis of the Christian faith, are brothers and sisters.

This is not to say that I think that there are necessarily huge differences between "evangelical" Christianity and "fundamentalist" Christianity. There are some, but I do not think that they are huge, and like Dr. Piper, I find many wonderful things in Christian fundamentalist circles. Some of my favorite people and best teachers are and have been fundamentalists. Some of the most faithful and fruitful Christians I know are fundamentalists. They are the farthest thing from extremism, and they are terribly injured when uncareful and uncharitable people label them derogatorily.

Next time you're about to use the word "fundamentalist", think about what you are intending it to mean. Consider it carefully, and opt for the most charitable conception possible. In that way, you will honor your brother--and the Lord who unites you.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Henry Center Travelogue, Day Five: Final Thoughts

Here's the recap from day five, the final day of the conference, May 31.

I’m not going to recap the last few talks, though I will tell you that this morning featured a stimulating session with Drs. Robert Priest of TEDS and David Lee of Evangel Seminary. In their papers, the speakers considered the topic of contextualization on theological grounds. Priest, an anthropologist, encouraged the audience to theologically contextualize–that is, adapt–their message to foreign contexts. Lee gave several examples of how this might be done, noting that in China, Christians can accommodate the biblical idea of wisdom to the lives of those to whom they witness with little trouble.

All this provoked reflection on the ways in which we as Christians fit the timeless truths of the Bible to the situations in which we find ourselves. We never simply teach the Bible in a new place–and that’s that. We’re always adapting what we’re teaching, choosing the right words, picking out certain clothes, deciding what we need to focus on doctrinally in this particular place with these particular people. All of us, then, do contextualization on a theological level, whether we realize it or not.
At the same time, though, the Bible is the norm that norms all other norms, as the Reformers put it. Though it comes to us in specifically Jewish and Greek clothing (with some other cultures in the mix as well), the truths of the Bible transform our reality and dictate to us the terms of our existence in the particular cultural situations in which we find ourselves. We don’t pick and choose which biblical ideals fit our situation best, and implement them as we see fit.

Becoming a Christian is at the most fundamental level a matter of submission. We as sinful rebels submit ourselves to the God who, with Spirit-opened eyes, we now see to be not a tyrant, not a deity we can manage, not a shadow, but a majestic being whose very existence threatens to destroy our own. From this posture, we run–we do not walk–to follow the will of this holy God, allowing Him to shape us and the cultural outlook we possess.

As one can see, there are significant issues to work out here. In some sense, this is the task of theology–to apply timeless truth to contemporary life.

Our conference is ended. We have had a very fruitful week in Hong Kong. We have heard from expert scholars and learned from global saints. We have broken bread–lots of it–with Chinese Christians, and we are all the richer for it. As we have considered the nature of evangelical identity through academic work, we have in some sense altered our own personal conception of evangelical identity. The act of international fellowship, after all, is no mere passing of the time, but is itself a transformational act. How thankful we at the Henry Center are for opportunities like this. We bear a huge debt to our generous supporters who, like Dr. Carl F. H. Henry, care deeply about the global church of Christ, and have taken tangible steps to nurture and support it. We look forward to our Nairobi conference in August 2008 and our Tokyo conference in 2010, endeavors that we trust will accomplish further advancement of God’s kingdom in our own lives and in our world.

On behalf of Center director Doug Sweeney, thank you for reading this series. All our best to you in your work to advance the gospel in a world that so desperately needs it.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Excellent Material from the reThink Conference on Family Ministry

I'm back in the states, and recently received word on an important and helpful conference on family ministry:

"A couple of weeks ago Providence Baptist Church the reThink Conference 08 in Raleigh, NC. The conference came about as a result of Steve Wright’s book on family equipping entitled reThink. What started small has gained tremendous momentum. reThink has already picked up endorsements from Dr. Randy Stinson of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and C.J. Mahaney of Sovereign Grace Ministries, just to name a few.

Alex Chediak flew in from California to live blog the conference and did a tremendous job."

Here are the links to the live-blogs:

Session I: Leon Tucker

Session II: David Horner

Session III: Dave Owen

Session IV: Steve Wright

Session V: Dr. Randy Stinson

I would encourage you to read these blogs, and then to buy the book. I recently got it and am really looking forward to reading it and reaping fruit for my own family ministry.

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