Friday, November 29, 2013

An Act of Mercy

Tullian Tchividjian post:  Mountain Moving Mercy

In 2009, Laura Munson wrote a remarkable reflection on the near dissolution of her marriage for The New York Times titled “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” She recounts a painful afternoon when her husband of thirty years came to her, out of the blue, to tell her that he didn’t love her anymore and wanted out of the marriage. She writes, “[My husband's] words came at me like a speeding fist, like a sucker punch, yet somehow in that moment I was able to duck. And once I recovered and composed myself, I managed to say, ‘I don’t buy it.’ Because I didn’t.”
Instead of rising to his hurtful words and responding in kind, she surprised even herself by holding her tongue. She knew that her husband was going through a tough time in his career, feeling less than good about himself, and more than likely transferring that inadequacy onto their relationship. But it’s one thing to understand these things intellectually and another to in the moment:
You can bet I wanted to sit him down and persuade him to stay. To love me. To fight for what we’ve created. You can bet I wanted to. But I didn’t. I barbecued. Made lemonade. Set the table for four. Loved him from afar. And one day, there he was, home from work early, mowing the lawn. A man doesn’t mow his lawn if he’s going to leave it. Not this man. Then he fixed a door that had been broken for eight years…He mentioned needing wood for next winter. The future. Little by little, he started talking about the future. It was Thanksgiving dinner that sealed it. My husband bowed his head humbly and said, “I’m thankful for my family.” He was back.
Reactivity would have killed the marriage. But by some miracle, Munson did not give her husband what he was asking for, which was a fight and a way to scapegoat her for the pain he was feeling. Nor did she try to make him pay for the hurt he was causing. Instead, for all intents and purposes, she turned the other cheek. And it was the key to their recovery. If you’ve ever been in her situation, you know how miraculous it is that she was able to stay quiet. But if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of such an act of mercy, you know it can move mountains.
The gospel announces that we have been.

Reminds Us We Are Waiting

Timothy Paul Jones post:  Why Celebrate Advent?

Once upon a time, there was a season in the church year known as “Advent.” The word comes to us from the Latin for “coming.” The purpose of the season was to look toward the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting.

As early as the fourth century A.D., Christians fasted during this season and ended their fasts with celebrations either of the arrival of the wise men or of the baptism of Jesus. For many Christians today, the most familiar sign of Advent is the lighting of candles—two purple candles, followed by a pink and then another purple—on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.

Advent has fallen on hard times, though. In the Protestant and free-church traditions, the loss is somewhat understandable; we Baptists in particular tend to be quite suspicious of anything with origins in ancient or medieval tradition. Yet, even in congregations that closely follow the rhythms of the church year, the meaning of Advent seems in danger of being misplaced. By the closing week of November, any sense of waiting has been eclipsed by the nativity scene in the lobby, the tannenbaum in the hall, and the list of Christmas parties in the church newsletter.

The Awkward Intrusion of Advent

Why this displacement of Advent as a distinct season?

Perhaps it’s because, for believers no less than non-believers, our calendars are dominated not by the venerable rhythms of redemption but by the swifter currents of consumerism and efficiency. The microwave saves us from waiting for soup to simmer on the stove, credit cards redeem us from waiting on a paycheck to make our purchases, and this backward extension of the Christmas season liberates us from having to deal with the awkward lull of Advent. And so, before the last unpurchased Halloween costume has made it back to the warehouse, halls and malls are decked with plastic holly and crimson ribbon. Thanksgiving provides a pre-Christmas test run on basting turkeys and tolerating relatives—but the primary function of Thanksgiving increasingly seems to be to supply a convenient time to gather for that orgy of consumption and consumer debt known as Black Friday.

Why this Advent-free leap from All Hallow’s Eve to Christmas Eve?

Perhaps because Christmas is about celebration, and celebrations can be re-construed to move products off the shelves. Advent is about waiting, and waiting contributes little to the gross domestic product.

In a religious milieu that has fixated itself on using Jesus to provide seekers with their most convenient lives here and now, Advent is a particularly awkward intrusion. Advent links our hearts with those of ancient prophets who pined for a long-promised Messiah but who passed away long before his arrival.

In the process, Advent reminds us that we too are waiting.

Even on this side of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, there is brokenness in our world that no cart full of Black Friday bargains can fix; there is hunger in our souls that no plateful of pumpkin custard can fill; there is twistedness in our hearts that no terrestrial hand can touch. “The whole creation,” the apostle Paul declared, “has been groaning together for redemption.”

In Advent, Christians embrace the groaning and recognize it not as hopeless whimpering over the paucity of the present moment but as expectant yearning for a divine banquet that Jesus is preparing for us even now. In Advent, the church admits, as poet R.S. Thomas has put it, that “the meaning is in the waiting.” And what we await is a final Advent that is yet to come. Just as the ancient Israelites waited for the coming of the Messiah in flesh, we await the consummation of the good news through the Messiah’s return in glory. In Advent, believers confess that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word.

Learning to Celebrate the Waiting

I am not contending that lighting a few pink and purple candles will somehow, in and of themselves, trigger a renaissance of patience or a yearning for the presence of Christ. Neither am I suggesting that everyone should dismantle their yuletide trees and mute every carol until Christmas morning. But I know that I need this yearly reminder of the meaningfulness of waiting—and I do not believe that I am alone.

Left to myself, I turn too quickly from the God of the gospel and kiss the feet of the gods of efficiency and convenience—false gods that proclaim waiting a waste, a “killing of time.” Advent reminds me that time is far too precious to be killed, even when that time is spent waiting. Advent is a proclamation of the sufficiency of Christ through the discipline of waiting.

So, this Advent season, consider how your family might celebrate the discipline of waiting. Set aside a few moments each evening to consider biblical texts that tell about the first and second comings of Jesus. Or select a book for the month—maybe a novel that guides your family to glimpse both the beauty and the brokenness of God’s creation—then turn off the television each night and take time to read to one another. Or work together to list some ways that the world is broken; then, even as you long for the return of Jesus to make the world right, recognize that God’s work in the world is already underway. God is making the world new even now through the power of the resurrection among his people; so, plan a family activity that joins in God’s redeeming work by setting something right or relieving human suffering in your neighborhood. Whatever you do, let it remind you that, because God has promised to make the world new and has vouchsafed this promise through an empty tomb, no moment of waiting is meaningless. Every passing instant is pregnant with wonder and beauty and glory.

When I recall that there is meaning even in times of waiting, the question that occupies my mind as I stand in line at the supermarket is not whether I’ve chosen the quickest line but how I might invest this waiting in something weightier than my own to-do list.

When I sit in traffic, I am not merely anticipating a shift of color from red to green; I am awaiting the coming of Christ, and there is meaning in this waiting.

When I walk hand-in-hand with a dawdling child who stands in awe of common robins and random twigs, there is every reason to join this child in worship, for there is holiness in her waiting.

Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once suggested that “all happenings, great and small, are parables by which God speaks. The art of life is to get the message.” Advent reminds us to listen for the message that God is speaking, even in the waiting.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Markets Deliver What People Want

Jordan Ballor post: Sabbath Rest and the Moral Limits of Consumption

Each year it seems like the Christmas season starts a little earlier. I'm not talking about the four weeks of Advent or the Christmas season that begins on December 24. The church calendar and the liturgical year remain the same. It is, rather, the Christmas shopping season that seems to be pushed forward bit by bit with each passing year.

Stores stocking Christmas-themed paraphernalia well before Thanksgiving are only one aspect of the creeping consumerism that marks much of contemporary popular culture. Other holidays and holy days, too, have been invaded by the spirit of materialism. National retailer Kmart plans to begin its normal Black Friday sales, named for the Friday after Thanksgiving, at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning. Internet giant Amazon just announced plans to offer regular Sunday shipping service on packages in the New York City and Los Angeles markets by employing the otherwise-dormant United States Postal Service fleet. After this year's holiday season, Amazon plans to extend the Sunday delivery options to more markets.

These are just the latest in a series of incremental steps that have increasingly threatened the moral limits of consumer activity. And although prudence is needed to discern them, and disagreement about where these limits are is unavoidable, such limits do exist.

Consumption and the Sabbath

Consumption is not in itself a bad thing. Indeed, it is a necessary and even salutary activity, instituted by God himself. We enjoy our daily bread and, for those of us living the midst of the blessings of affluence, much more besides. The exchange of material possessions, notably in the form of gifts, is a meaningful and often beautiful phenomenon. The first Thanksgiving was founded on gratefulness for provision of material needs, and we give gifts on Christmas in part because of the rich gifts bestowed on the Christ child by the Magi.

But unlimited consumption is not salutary. Although it is unfashionable nowadays to acknowledge it, the moral order imposes limits on human behavior. Gluttony and greed remain vices, and the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy still matters.

To be sure, the fourth commandment (as numbered by the Reformed tradition) does involve significant complexity in terms of its application and relevance in today's world. In spite of sometimes-remarkable divergences in the understanding of the Sabbath, and particularly how it relates to the Saturday Sabbath as observed by Jews and seventh-day churches, Christians have long recognized the need for a separate day for corporate worship and rest from mundane works.

John Calvin defended the validity of these two uses of the Sabbath commandment, even as he drew attention to the spiritual rest represented in Sabbath observance. Thus, Calvin wrote, the pursuit of holiness "is not confined within a single day but extends through the whole course of our life, until, completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God."

So on one level, there is nothing special about Sundays or holidays like Thanksgiving. As Calvin puts it, because we seek spiritual rest from our evil works every day, "Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days." We still need, however, to regularly observe days for corporate worship as well as physical and mental rest from labor. These "reasons for the Sabbath ought not to be relegated to the ancient shadows," Calvin says, "but are equally applicable to every age."

Daily Bread and Weekly Rest

Different Christians in various traditions have worked out these implications in distinct and sometimes contradictory or idiosyncratic ways. But amid diverse expressions of faithfulness to the Sabbath-keeping mandate, the principle of the commandment still governs the morality of human activity.

A key lesson of the Sabbath is that money is not the measure of all things, and that all of our human activity should not be oriented toward material gain. As Jesus himself said, "Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15 NIV).

For these reasons, it is important for Christians to recognize that their consumption habits affect the larger society in significant ways. Blue laws are increasingly passé, often for good reasons. But blue laws represent a central cultural insight: certain times and places ought to be above the considerations of material consumption. We need room and time for spiritual nourishment as well as physical.

Kmart is opening at 6 a.m. because it perceives, rightly or wrongly, that people want to go shopping to get deals early on Thanksgiving morning. Amazon is offering Sunday delivery because it thinks people want such convenience. So ultimately the blame for encroachment and violations of the moral limits of consumption lies with those who demand such violations. It lies with the people who line up overnight for Black Friday sales and with those who trample others in mad rushes for discounted gadgets. It lies with those of us who prefer the convenience of ordering at the last minute and the instant gratification of delivery any day of the week.

The responsibility of moral consumption becomes all the more salient when we realize that markets are good at delivering what people want. As the economist Paul Heyne observed, this efficiency of the market "is no reason to cripple it. It is reason, however, to think more carefully about what we want." The market will make sure we get what we want. Let's make sure that what we want is what is really good for us.

Gracious Gifts of the Most High God

President Abraham Lincoln. October 3, 1863

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the Source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful Providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, ... peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict ... Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship ... Population has steadily increased ... and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Gospel Entrepreneur

Owen Strachan post: Risky Work: Punch the Gas, Not the Clock

My life changed in 2005. Why? Was it a major epiphany? Did someone give me a massive sum of money? Did I go on an overseas trip?
No. It was a then-unknown show called The Office, and its razor-sharp, low-key-but-hilarious writing, that changed my life.
The show had so many strengths. It was, in my limited experience, the first comedy since The Cosby Show that portrayed real people. It wasn't based on zany events (at least in its first three seasons, which I prefer), but on the ordinary stuff of real life. Everyday existence has plenty of drama, plenty of quiet turbulence, and The Office got that. It had a great love story, with Jim and Pam, but instead of some steamy sexual romp, the show (building off of the British version) allowed the halting relationship between noble Jim and double-minded Pam to pick up momentum over time.
One thing I do think The Office, a show about work, got largely wrong was this, though: work. As the show portrayed it, work is something to endure. Get through. Pass. Not really enjoy. Those devoted to their jobs, like Dwight, are weird. The rest of the cast punches the clock, chips away at their duties, cuts some corners, and generally mopes through the day.
Let's be perfectly honest: from a Christian perspective, work can be tough, long, and even dreary. Sin affects work, both in our hearts and as a result of unfairness. We all taste the curse of daily labor due to Adam's sin (Gen. 3:17-19).
But while work is subject to the curse, it's also given to us by God. Adam did work before he disobeyed God and brought death to us all (see Gen. 2). It certainly looks as though we will be active in the new heaven and the new earth after this world passes away. The apostle Paul urged the Roman Christians to "not be slothful in zeal" but "fervent in spirit" in order to "serve the Lord" (Rom. 12:11).

Sure, I'll Work, But . . .

Many Christians, seeing these familiar texts, would agree with me so far. You might say, "Yes. I'm going to work. I'll make money because I need it for other stuff, including my church." This is a commendable start to understanding and practicing the Bible's bold approach to our daily labor.
But I think there's a great deal more in Scripture to transform our understanding of work.
Many of us, I think, view our faith and our work as largely separate. We go to church and participate in the spiritual work of God; we go to work to make money. The two might overlap—such as when we share the gospel—but are fairly separate.
My generation—20-somethings and 30-somethings—has been seriously affected by this mindset. The problem isn't necessarily that we don't want to work. It's that we don't want to really invest in a vocation. We're tempted to be lazy about building a career and finding a calling. Many of us are drawn to less serious things: video games, hangout sessions, shopping, or sports. What does this lifestyle end up doing to us? It makes us approach work lackadaisically. If we're not careful, we can end up trapped in a permanent winter break with little to do, slightly annoyed parents, and a feeling of aimlessness.
Or, alternately, some of us are tempted to make our jobs an idol, which is an equally harmful pitfall. We were made to work, but we were not made only for work.

Diverse Challenges

Having a healthy perspective on your vocation can be particularly difficult for believers facing one of three circumstances.
1. You're in college or just out of it, and you don't know what to do with your life.
2. You've been working for awhile but don't know what your career strategy should be.
3. You're struggling to find work in a time that still features a relatively weak economy.
These different situations call for unique individual responses. But I want you to see a principle that can help in these instances and many others: God wants you to build a career. He wants you to risk your comfort and ease and boredom and low vocational expectations. He offers you a better, bigger life in his gospel, one that will put every particle of your being to use for his kingdom. The Lord wants you to work for his glory because he's saved you for just that purpose.
You're not a brute; you're not an automaton; you're not a clump of cells. You have the privilege of knowing that God made you intelligent.
Christians are sometimes seen as being anti-creativity. We're all about execution and undisturbed order, not the imagination. We like rules, not creativity. But if we're following the example of our Lord, nothing could be less true! We have the best foundation for entrepreneurship, art, ingenuity, innovation, and the imagination. We know we didn't come from nothing. We're not cosmic accidents who happen to have ended up as thinking beings.
We are the choicest creation of divine intelligence. God has commissioned us, in other words, to build and create.

Gospel Entrepreneurs

We are, if you will, gospel entrepreneurs. Instead of operating in a beaten-down, scared-to-risk, sitting-on-our-hands mentality in which we passively wait for the world to act upon us, we can build godly vocations and careers for God's glory. This kind of existence is driven by and dedicated to the gospel.
God is delighted when you work unto him and find pleasure in your vocation. You are merely doing what he does, after all—working and laboring and creating. This doesn't apply only to entrepreneurs or artists, though; it applies to anyone solving assembly line problems, fixing plumbing issues, untangling math calculations, teaching children new words, cutting hair a new style, figuring out a better base-stealing method, and too many other work responsibilities to count.
As you think and analyze and make things better, you're showing who you are: a being made in the very image of almighty God.
Let's return to my love for The Office. Its early seasons are often rich, funny, and even insightful about life in a fallen world. It's true that work can be long and taxing and even frustrating. You know this; I know this. We all have different duties to perform in our vocations that aren't our personal favorites. I certainly do.
Let's not kid ourselves: it will always be that way, because work is hard. But if we will adopt a biblical vision of work, we can punch the gas, not the clock. We can build something invigorating. We can dream big, make bold plans, and aggressively pursue a vision for our lives that makes maximal use of our God-given gifts and passions.
God has given us the opportunity to work not for temporal, fading things, but for the advancement of the gospel of his kingdom.
Editors' Note: This excerpt is taken from Owen Strachan's Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and Build Something Awesome (Thomas Nelson), which releases today. You can check out the book's website and watch a trailer here

Monday, November 25, 2013

Loving Others, Fearing God and Honoring the State

843 Acres post:  Sovereignty in the Social Order  

M'Cheyne: 1 Chr 21 (text | audio4:56 min)
1 Ptr 2 (text | audio3:29 min)
Highlighted Text: 1 Ptr 2:13-14

State: In medieval times, people believed that God mediated his sovereignty of the different spheres--family, state, church, education, science--through the institution of the church and, therefore, the church sponsored the arts (for example) and controlled the state. In the 1880s, however, Abraham Kuyper argued that each sphere stood coram deo--that is, face before God. God, he argued, is sovereign above all spheres and these spheres draw their own derivative sovereignty from the Lord Himself. This is how we encounter the sovereignty of God in the social order, as "his sovereign authority is exercised inhuman office."

Functions: The state, Kuyper argues, is a special sphere that "gives stability to the land by justice." [1] It has three functions: (1) to mediate between the spheres, e.g., "the family hour" on primetime television was instituted by the state as a negotiation between the family and the media, (2) to protect oppressed individuals within a sphere, e.g., "the minimum wage" was instituted by the state to protect workers within a sphere, (3) to provide for the common good and stability of the people, e.g., roads, police, etc.

Subject: Here, in 1 Peter 2, Peter encouraged his readers to honor the state: "Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to the governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good." [2] Peter recognized that the Lord, having vested authority in the state, calls his people--who are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people for his own possession"--to honor the state as a proclamation of the excellencies of the Lord.

Prayer: Lord, Rather than merely creating this world and then stepping away, you have chosen to govern your creation through us, your image-bearers, as viceroys. We recognize, however, that sin has distorted not only how we govern, but also how we are governed. Through Christ, you have shown us what submission to and honor of authority looks like. Teach us to love others, fear you, and honor the state. Amen. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Forever, Freed, Renewed, Restored

New City Catechism post:

Q52: What hope does everlasting life hold for us?

It reminds us that this present fallen world is not all there is; soon we will live with and enjoy God forever in the new city, in the new heaven and the new earth, where we will be fully and forever freed from all sin and will inhabit renewed, resurrection bodies in a renewed, restored creation.

For additional teaching and prayers tailored to this question, click here to go to the online catechism tool.

His Compassion and Mercy Prevail

Don Carson:  1 Chronicles 18; James 5; Jonah 2; Luke 7

IT IS ONE THING TO WAIT for the Lord’s coming; it is another to wait well.
One may honestly and self-consciously wait for the Lord’s coming, not only acknowledging that the Second Advent is a necessary part of our creed but even after a fashion looking forward to the Parousia, and hoping it will occur in our lifetime—only to find, on reflection, that the way we live has been affected very little by this perspective. In fact, this waiting for the return of the Lord may be nothing more than a hobbyhorse in our reading or teaching, a well-handled map of the future that divides us from other believers, rather than a fixed point in our worldview that decisively shapes how we conduct ourselves.
Of course, there is an element in waiting for the Lord’s return that is just that—waiting. Just as “the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop” (James 5:7), so we too must “be patient and stand firm” (James 5:8).
But like all analogies, this one isn’t perfect (it isn’t meant to be), and James himself quickly leaves it behind. After all, the farmer is patient because he knows more or less when the harvest will take place; we do not know when Jesus’ return will take place.
There are other differences. The farmer is waiting for crops; we are waiting for the Judge who “is standing at the door” (James 5:9). That means that what we are waiting for has an immediate bearing on how we live: “Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged” (James 5:9) by that very Judge himself.
Moreover, although farmers may have to work hard as they wait for the harvest, in the normal course of events their waiting is not characterized by suffering and persecution. Christians waiting for the End encounter both of those things, James insists—and with that in mind, our waiting might more properly be likened to the perseverance of the prophets (James 5:10) than to the placidity of the farmer. They “spoke in the name of the Lord,” and more often than not were reviled for it. That suffering did not tame their faithful proclamation. But we need not restrict the models we look for to the prophets. Consider Job, a righteous man, who faced catastrophic reversals yet nevertheless persevered—and you “have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11). That perspective is important: in the end, not only God’s justice but his compassion and mercy prevail. The focus on Jesus’ return and on the End not only shapes our current living, but will bring with it perfect vindication in the unqualified goodness of the consummation.

Hope Not Hype

Scotty Smith:  A Prayer for Renewing Hope

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal2 Cor. 4:16-18
     Dear heavenly Father, this portion of your Word arrives today like a geyser of grace, a waterfall of wonder, an ocean of affection. So great is your love, attention and care for us—your sons and daughters!
Following Paul’s lead in this Scripture, I praise you that the gospel calls us to live by hope, not by hype; by honest confession, not by spiritualized denial; by pouring our hearts out to you, not by giving a pep talk to ourselves; by seeing with the eyes of faith, not by medicating our multiplied pains.
Indeed, Lord, some of us have plenty of reasons for losing heart, and we don’t have to pretend otherwise: Relational distress and financial stress; broken health and aching hearts; fresh loneliness and out-of-control busyness; the pain of regret and the power of shame; an uncertain future and a not-so-happy present.
So, Father, help us today use the same set of scales that Paul used—gospel scales. May the combined weight of your great love lavished on us, the glory you’ve prepared for us, and the promise of your presence with us, far outweigh all the other stuff that is weighing down hearts down right now. May the gospel tip the scales WAY over in the direction of perspective and peace, encouragement and hope.
Father, let us see the real Jesus more clearly than we see our real pains; for by seeing Jesus we will see everything else in right proportion. Help us to fix our gaze on our great and grace-full Bridegroom—the author and perfecter of our faith; the writer and resolver of our stories; the bottler and wiper of our tears.
In light of the Day when we will shout, “It all makes now makes sense!” May our cry, today, be, “Your grace is enough.” May eternal things dazzle us much more than temporal things disappoint us. So very Amen we pray, in Jesus’ merciful and mighty name.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

From Strength to Weakness

Tullian Tchividjian post:  Progressing Downward

A couple weeks ago I talked about Reader’s Digest Christianity, and how it reduced the Christian faith to pithy, easily-achievable goals that ensure our personal improvement. Here, I have a different (though depressingly similar) target: “LiveStrong” Christianity. LiveStrong bracelets are today even more popular than the infamous WWJD bracelets were 10 years ago, despite the public fall from grace of their namesake, Lance Armstrong.
In the minds of many people inside the church, “Livestrong” is the essence and goal of Christianity. You hear this obsession in our lingo: We talk about someone having “strong faith,” about someone being a “strong Christian,” a “prayer warrior,” or a “mighty man/woman of God.”  We want to believe that we can do it all, handle it all. We desperately want to think that we are competent and capable— we’ve concluded that our life and our witness depend on our strength. No one wants to declare deficiency. We even turn the commands that seem to have nothing to do with strength (“Blessed are the meek” or “Turn the other cheek”) into opportunities to showcase our spiritual might. I saw a church billboard the other day that said, “Think being meek is weak? Try being meek for a week!”
We like our Christianity to be muscular, triumphant. We’ve come to believe that the Christian life is a progression from weakness to strength—“Started from the bottom, now we’re here” (Drake) seems to be the victory chant of modern Christianity. We are all by nature, in the terminology of Martin Luther, theologians of glory—not God’s glory, but our own.
But is the progression from weakness to strength the pattern we see throughout the Bible?
Take Samson, for instance. As a kid growing up idolizing Rocky, Rambo, and Conan the Barbarian, the story of Samson was right up my alley. I may have been bored by the rest of the Bible, but not the Samson narrative. Anybody who could kill a thousand bad guys with the jawbone of a donkey had my respect. He was the Wolverine of the Old Testament and I wanted to be just like him. Samson seems, at first blush, to be an exemplar of “Livestrong” Christianity.
The story of Samson is actually the exact opposite of the “weakness to strength” paradigm that has come to mark our understanding of the Christian life. Samson’s story shows us that the rhythm of Christian growth is a progression from strength to weakness, rather than weakness to strength.
Samson starts off strong. He’s invincible. Seemingly indestructible. Clearly unbeatable. He’s what we all want to be—what, down deep, we’re all striving to be. Maybe not physically, but spiritually.
We think his strength is in his hair (heck, even Samson thought that his strength was in his hair), but before every great deed Samson performed, we read, “The Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him.” Before he tears a lion apart with his bare hands (Judges 14:6), before he kills the 30 men of Ashkelon (14:19), and before he kills a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey (15:14), the exact same phrase is used: “The Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him.” The author of Judges is at pains to make it clear that these feats of strength are not Samson’s, but God’s.
Think about the times in your life when other people have told you that your faith was strong. Aren’t people always saying that when you feel the weakest? When you feel like you’re barely hanging on? There’s something to be said for the real-world truth of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:27—“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” It is when we feel foolish that God shows himself to be wise. It is when we feel weak that God shows himself to be strong.
The Philistines are not defeated until Samson is weakened. His hair is shaved, his eyes are gouged out, and he’s chained up like an animal in the zoo. He finally realizes that he is weak and that God alone is strong and so he prays and asks God for a generous portion of strength. God answers his prayer and Samson brings the building down on himself and all the lords of the Philistines. It is when Samson is at his weakest that he is most powerfully used.
Gideon experienced something similar to Samson. Gideon is prepared to fight a battle. He’s got his army ready—32,000 strong. But God reduces his army from 32,000 to 10,000 by getting rid of everyone who’s afraid. Then he reduces the army from 10,000 to 300, keeping only those who drink “like a dog.” Then he reduces their weaponry to trumpets and empty jars. No knives, no swords, no spears. God wants to make it obvious that their promised victory is owing to his strength, not theirs.
We see this same pattern in the life of the Apostle Paul. By his own admission (Phil. 3:4-6) he started off strong. His spiritual resume was more impressive than anybody else’s. And yet God systematically broke him down throughout his life so that by life’s end he was saying stuff like, “I’m the worst guy I know” and “I’m the least of all the saints” and “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
The hope of the Christian faith is dependent on God’s display of strength, not ours. God is in the business of destroying our idol of self-sufficiency in order to reveal himself as our sole sufficiency. This is God’s way—he kills in order to make alive; he strips us in order to give us new clothes. He lays us flat on our back so that we’re forced to look up. God’s office of grace is located at the end of our rope. The thing we least want to admit is the one thing that can set us free: the fact that we’re weak. The message of the Gospel will only make sense to those who have run out of options and have come to the relieving realization that they’re not strong. Counterintuitively, our weakness is our greatest strength.
So, the Christian life is a progression. But it’s not an upward progression from weakness to strength—it’s a downward progression from strength to weakness. And this is good news because “Livestrong” Christianity is exhausting and enslaving.  The strength of God alone can liberate us from the burden of needing to be strong—the sufficiency of God alone can relieve us of the weight we feel to be sufficient. As I’ve said before, Christian growth is not, “I’m getting stronger and stronger, more and more competent every day.” Rather, it’s “I’m becoming increasingly aware of just how weak and incompetent I am and how strong and competent Jesus was, and continues to be, for me.”
Because Jesus paid it all, we are set free from the pressure of having to do it all. We are weak. He is strong.

Thank, Call Out, Tell, Sing, Revel, Study, Remember, Seek

Thank God! Call out his Name!
    Tell the whole world who he is and what he’s done!
Sing to him! Play songs for him!
    Broadcast all his wonders!
Revel in his holy Name,
    God-seekers, be jubilant!
Study God and his strength,
    seek his presence day and night;
Remember all the wonders he performed,
    the miracles and judgments that came out of his mouth.
Seed of Israel his servant!
    Children of Jacob, his first choice!
He is Godour God;
    wherever you go you come on his judgments and decisions.
He keeps his commitments across thousands
    of generations, the covenant he commanded,
The same one he made with Abraham,
    the very one he swore to Isaac;
He posted it in big block letters to Jacob,
    this eternal covenant with Israel:
“I give you the land of Canaan,
    this is your inheritance;
Even though you’re not much to look at,
    a few straggling strangers.”

1 Chronicle 16: 8-19 [Message]

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Goodness Is A Fruit of Faith

Jon Bloom post:  Don't Raise Good Kids

Parents, don’t raise good kids. I’m a recovering good kid, and I’m here to tell you that the gospel isn’t for good kids.
I was pretty easy for my parents to raise. I was generally compliant, had a buoyant, warm personality, didn’t get into any serious trouble, was liked by my teachers for the most part, usually did respectably in school, was a leader in my church groups, and had plenty of friends. My adolescent, wild-oat sowing would only generate smirks and eye rolls.
My folks and most adults in my life affirmed me as a good kid, and I believed it. Which posed a problem for me: I struggled to grasp the gospel.

Me? Hell?

Though I believe my pre-adolescent conversion was real — God is gracious to produce and honor a small seed of real faith — it was hard to swallow that I was that bad. God showing favor on me in redemption made sense because others had shown favor on me. But it was hard for me to see that this favor was not the approval of a good kid but the pardoning of a condemned sinner. Really? Me deserve hell?
It took quite a while — I am, in fact, still recovering — to see that in reality I was (am) profoundly depraved. Much of my outward good behavior was fueled by evil, selfish motives. Underneath my good-kid veneer was a glory-stealing, envious, covetous, idolatrous, lecherous person.

What Total Depravity Really Is

That’s why I think one of the best things we parents can do for our children is to teach them the doctrine of total depravity. Here’s how John Piper puts it in the new book Five Points: Towards a Deeper Experience of God’s Grace:
The totality of that depravity is clearly not that man does as much evil as he could do. There is no doubt that man could perform more evil acts toward this fellow man than he does. But if he is restrained from performing more evil acts by motives that are not owing to his glad submission to God, then even his “virtue” is evil in the sight of God.
Romans 14:23 says, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This is a radical indictment of all natural “virtue” that does not flow from a heart humbly relying on God’s grace. (Five Points, pages 17–18)

Hellions in Compliant Disguise

There’s the key: “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Goodness is not behavior that ranks above the median line relative to other sinful people. Goodness is a fruit of faith (Galatians 5:22). When good kids’ behavior isn’t flowing from a deep trust in God, they’re being good for bad reasons. They’re just hellions in a compliant disguise.
The good news is that Jesus came to save hellions! But it’s crucial that hellions know they’re hellions, because “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. [Jesus] came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
So parents, make sure you have a firm grip on the true doctrine of total depravity so that you don’t encourage evil goodness in your children. For apart from Jesus, nothing good dwells in them (Romans 7:18).

Monday, November 18, 2013

Not Centered on Jesus

Colin Smith post: 3 Ways Christ Can Be Outside Your Church

A few months before coming to the United States, I caught up with a professor from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School who was speaking at a conference in England. He wasn't a member of the congregation I was coming to serve, but he knew the church well. I was eager to get his impressions of the suburban Chicago church I'd soon be serving.

Christ Outside the Church

I asked him what he thought would be my biggest challenge, and I'll never forget his answer: "Your greatest challenge will be knowing what to do. They already have everything."

That was the reputation of the church in Laodicea. It was a church of relentless activity and apparent success. A remarkable confidence characterized the people, evidenced by their self-assessment: "I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing" (Rev. 3:17). Laodicea was a congregation with a 5-star rating. Visitors who came would say, "What more could you want? They've got everything here." If the pastor at Laodicea had called the congregation to a season of reflection regarding their spiritual life, the members would have said, "We are doing quite well, thank you."

Yet here's the great irony: For all its fine reputation, Jesus was standing outside the door of this dazzling church, knocking (Rev. 3:20). To me, this is one of the most extraordinary pictures in the Bible. Christ outside his own church! Jesus knocking on his own people's door!

I know this text is often used to invite unbelievers to open their hearts to Christ. And that's fine. But the first application is not to unbelievers, but to the church.

Think about who is knocking at the door: he's the glorified Lord, the head of the church, which is his body and his bride. Christ loves the church and, without him, there would be no church to love. On the cross, he gave himself to bring the church into being. Now, enthroned in heaven, he directs the church in her mission, sustains her amid all the assaults of her enemies, and one day he will usher her into the joy of his presence forever.

The life of Christ centers on the church. But in Laodicea, the life of the church didn't center on Christ. He was outside, knocking on the door.

How can Christ be outside a church? Here are three ways.

1. Christ can be outside the preaching of a church.

In the summer of 2011, I was given some weeks of study leave, which gave me the opportunity to visit a number of churches. Attending a different one each Sunday, I was struck by the number of churches in which the name of Jesus was not mentioned once in the sermon.

I heard much about marriage, family, and community. I heard a great deal about opening yourself up to other people. There were many general references to God, and plenty of quotations from the Bible. But in many of these messages, Christ was conspicuously absent. Even when the sermons were from the Bible, Christ was too often outside the preaching.

2. Christ can be outside the mission of a church.

Last year our leadership team read and discussed an excellent book by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert titled What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. You might wonder why anyone would need a book about the church's mission. Isn't the Great Commission clear? Yes it is.

But no matter how clear the Great Commission is, mission is widely being redefined in our time as being a blessing, or being a presence, or alleviating need—all of which can be done without even mentioning the name of Jesus.

"Go make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19-20) is a radically Jesus-centered mission. But many churches are redefining mission in a way that leaves Christ outside, knocking at the door.

3. Christ can be outside the fellowship of a church.

A defining mark of our day is that people desire community. We want to "do life together." I've used that phrase, and you probably have too. Doing life together is good, but it's possible to do so with Christ outside the door.

Christian fellowship goes beyond doing life together. It's about doing life together, in Christ, with Christ, and for Christ.

The word "fellowship" literally means sharing in a common life. When Jesus lives in us, we share together in his life. Getting into a small group for fellowship is a marvelous benefit, and building supportive relationships is a huge blessing. But let's be careful to keep Christ at the center of our fellowship. We don't want him outside, knocking at the door.

The great challenge for the Laodicean church was the low temperature of their spiritual life. They were neither hot nor cold, but somewhere in between. Spiritual temperature rises as Christ becomes central to the whole life and ministry of a church. And that includes a church's preaching, mission, and fellowship.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Optimize Your Talents, Interests and Passions for the Good of Others

Matt Perman post:  How to Follow Your Passion .. And Your Strengths

Some thinkers have started arguing that “follow your passion” is bad advice. The real problem is not with the advice itself, but rather with a failure to understand the true definition of “passion” and the role it plays in a person’s life.
This issue is extremely important not only because we need to know how to make good career decisions. It is also pertinent because denying the importance of “passion” in choosing our jobs constitutes a denial of the doctrine of vocation itself.
This becomes clear if we look a bit closer at Scott Adams’ comments in his recent Wall Street Journal interview. After saying that following one’s passion is typically bad advice, Adams goes on to say that passion usually follows your work, rather than precedes it. The idea is that people get excited about a job or a project once it starts getting successful and people are performing well. Adams goes so far as to say that “my observation is that anybody can have passion when something is working.”
But is that true? Is it actually the case that “anybody can have passion if something is working?”
The answer is no, and though I appreciate Adam’s attempt to address this important issue, it leads us to misunderstand what our strengths and passions are.

What Are Strengths, Exactly?

Most of us tend to think of our strengths as what we are good at. Your strengths are the things you do well, and your weaknesses are the things you do poorly.
But what if there is something you do well that you actually hate to do? Can you call that a passion, or strength? Does it ever happen?
Marcus Buckingham is one of the leading researchers and authors on helping people identify their strengths. He is the co-author of the landmark book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, which is based on groundbreaking research by the Gallup Organization, which also led to the StrengthsFinder test that so many have found helpful.
In his book, Go, Put Your Strengths to Work, Buckingham tells the story of a guy named Matt (no relation, despite the name!). Matt was an all-star swimmer in high school. The problem was, he hated to swim. He hated it so badly that he would get terrible migraines before swimming.
Was swimming a strength for Matt? No. Buckingham points out that our strengths are not just things we are good at, but rather the activities that strengthen us. Your strengths are what strengthen you.
So, while it is often fun when things are working and going well, I have to differ from the idea that passion is irrespective of specific activities and merely a function of whether things are going well.
Why is this so important? I mentioned at the beginning of this post that this all relates to the doctrine of vocation. Here’s how.

Passion and Vocation

God has a specific purpose for each of us. He doesn’t typically drop it from heaven, telling us what our purpose is directly. Neither are we to try looking for obscure messages that we try to piece together to identify our calling.
Rather, there are certain gifts, talents, abilities, resources, and even personalities God has given us and we have not chosen. These are usually the markers of our calling. As many Reformed theologians used to say “the gift is the call.”
There are things about us which God has placed in us, apart from our own doing or choice. We need to take account of those things in choosing our course, because our course is not ultimately a result of our choice, though it may seem that way. Rather, it is a result of the working and design of God.
Here’s another way to put it. God has given you certain gifts and abilities. You have a responsibility to steward those well (1 Peter 4:10-11). Not to use your gifts is bad stewardship. Our passions and strengths are among the gifts God has given us. To the best of your ability, find the job and career that allows you to optimize your talents, interests, and passions for the good of others.
What a tragedy it would be to let your God-given passions lie dormant out of the notion that you only need to find something to do with your life that “works,” rather than something in which you truly feel an echo of what God has put in your heart.
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