Monday, February 26, 2007

30 Hour Famine pics

These are a few of my favorite pics from this weekend's 30 Hour Famine (World Vision).

A 30 hour food fast, community service, the liminal experience of the TRIBE game, and challenging Famine Sunday message (To Whom Am I A Neighbor? - Luke 10:25-37). The 30 Hour famine was not only fun, but it was a worthy investment of time by our students (and myself). I pray that God uses the experience of hunger, not only to raise our awareness of social injustice in the world, but to increase our hunger for God. As I believe Kendra put it while sharing a testimony in an adult Sunday school class, "I realized as I was fasting 30 hours from food that sometimes I go 30 hours without talking to God or spending time in His Word. I want to hunger and thirst for Jesus more as a result of this experience." Me too, Kendra. Me too.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


As I write this post I am not really sure if I should take an offensive or defensive posture regarding an article I read this morning. A Christian legal group has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a 10-year old boy who was banned for wearing a Jesus costume during his school's elementary festivities. The principal, Patricia Whitmire, told the boy's mother that his costume violated a school policy prohibiting the promotion of religion. The irony here is that Halloween, though it has been embraced culturally in the United States by most as a benign holiday celebration, is at its fundamental root a pagan festival. Last time I checked, paganism is almost always associated with broad set of spiritual and religious beliefs, often dabbling in the supernatural realm, and frequently embracing polytheism.

So let me get this straight. Willow Hill Elementary School in Glenside, PA is celebrating a pagan holiday by allowing students to dress up as characters of their choosing, including witches and devils (and ask any Wiccan and they will tell you that their beliefs are: a) religious; and b) spiritual in nature) - which several children came dressed as and were allowed by Principal Whitmire - but this 10-year old can't come dressed like Jesus? Was he doing anything that would warrant his exclusion from the party other than his attire? Was he proselytizing young children while in character? Did he try to cast the demons out of those kids dressed like little devils? This seems to be a clear-cut case of religious discrimination against any representation of Christianity.

Now here is where I don't know whether to laugh or cry about this case. The family clearly has a legitimate argument. But the mother dressed him as Jesus, complete with a faux crown of thorns, because "she did not want the boy isolated for refusing to wear a costume" because "the boy and his mother are Christians who object to the pagan elements of Halloween." Wouldn't it have been a better witness for Christ for the young boy, who I am skeptical about whether or not he actually objects to the pagan elements of the holiday even if his mother does (he is a 10-year old boy after all), had he not worn any costume and told his friends why he wasn't dressed up? Perhaps this is too big of a burden for a 10-year old, and you could argue that it is, but if he really objects to the pagan elements associated with Halloween, it hardly seems unconscionable to ask him to do so.

Or, at the very least, if he is going to dress like Jesus, why not choose a costume that doesn't appear to mock Jesus (wasn't this the historical effect the Roman soldiers were after in smashing that crown on Jesus' head)? Who dresses their kid like Jesus, complete with a crown of thorns for effect? If I am going to dress up like Jesus for Halloween, give me the Jesus of 2Thessalonians 1:8 who will return in might to this earth in flaming fire, crushing his enemies, or of Revelation 1:12cf with eyes like flaming fire and a voice that roars of many waters with a two-edged sword coming from his mouth, with which he will slay His enemies (Revelation 19cf). Give me a Jesus who is mean and wild.

The school required that students dress up to participate in the party, and those students who did not dress up were sent to the computer room. This school has some serious issues with discrimination. Students were not allowed to participate in the fun and fellowship of the party unless they dressed up? So students were punished for not participating in the celebration of this pagan festival, even if we've embraced it culturally as harmless (and the point of this post is not to argue the merits of whether or not Christians should participate in Halloween)?

At the end of the day this 10-year old boy will probably win this case. If all the facts remain as they have been revealed, and this legal group is competent at all, they will prove that he was discriminated against. However, the end result will probably be that similar parties are banned in the future, kids won't be able to celebrate Halloween at school (many aren't allowed to have Christmas celebrations currently) and Christians will receive the blame. If only this mom had thought to dress up her son as Martin Luther instead. Jesus is culturally hip as long as you put his image on a t-shirt that says "Jesus is my homeboy", but as soon as you start coming in character to Halloween parties you're asking for trouble (and if you are going to come dressed as Jesus, bring your sword).

Monday, February 19, 2007

Rob Bell

I saw this posted on Justin Taylor's site and found it to be a helpful read. Bell is a rising voice in the Emerging Church and gaining traction in the Christian sub-culture through his book "Velvet Elvis" and new upcoming release "Sex God", but it most widely acclaimed for the Nooma video series. Bell is an engaging speaker but listeners and readers of his literature should read with caution and eye's wide open. He seems to be asking the right questions, but he doesn't always seem to be providing the most biblical response. Ben Witherington has a critique on Bell's latest speaking engagement at the University of Kentucky. Read it here. It's worth it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Meditation on Romans 3:5

"But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way)." - Romans 3:5

It's hard not to read this verse and not think of Paul's words later in Romans: "What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory - even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?" (Romans 9:22-24)

Both of these verses - two of the most complicated and complex that we find in Scripture - prompt the same basic question: "If our unrighteousness is the necessary background against which God displays his wisdom, love and mercy in salvation, how can God judge us (humanity) for what therefore obviously has a good end?"

The issue in Romans 3 centers on the faithfulness of God towards unfaithful Israel. Time and time again Israel is the beneficiary of God's pursuing love, grace and redemption in spite of their shameful adulterous affairs with idols and wickedness. This cycle of faithful commitment to the people of God through His covenant stimulated a false confidence in the sign of God's covenant (circumcision) and their efforts to keep the law, leading God's people (Israel) to put their hope in outward adherence to the law (including circumcision) without an inward affection for it (2:28-29). For Paul, what matters, as it regards God's judgment, is not adherence to some outward standard, but rather the inward disposition (circumcision) of the heart.

This prompts the question: What then is the advantage of being a Jew? This question is rooted in the covenant experience of ethnic Israel. God initiated and established a covenant relationship with Israel (Deut 17:6cf). God's righteousness was clearly displayed in fullness through His faithfulness to His covenant people, even though they were notoriously unrighteous. In this pursuit God received maximum glory in revealing the perceived positive scope of His character (wisdom, love, mercy, compassion, etc) in response to unrighteousness. This is the question of Romans 3:5. If the end (God's glory and magnified righteousness) is most clearly seen through the means of sin (unrighteousness), how then can God execute wrath against His covenant people?

What we need to understand is that though God is pleased to extract good from evil, this kindness by God does not nullify the evil will and desire of its author (human sin) (Rom 2:4-5). In humanity's attempt to manipulate God's purposes and relegate God to a status on par with our expectations for how God should govern the world, we demand to know how God can judge sin if sin actually lends itself to that which in the end is beneficial, namely the display of God's righteousness and glory. In the human mind, if God extracts good from evil, shouldn't we then sin more so that God will be glorified to the greatest end (Rom 6:1cf)? Paul sees this kind of thinking as foolish. Why? Because God is Creator. He is good. He is just and His judgments are right (Gen 18:25; Ps 50:6; 58:11; 94:2). It is for this reason that the condemnation of the unrighteous is just (Rom 3:8). The fact that God is most glorified against the backdrop of evil does not necessarily mean that men should not be held accountable for their sin. In actuality, because God's holiness is most clearly seen against the backdrop of sin, this makes His judgment and wrath all the more necessary, because it is then that the light of the supreme worth and majesty of God's holiness dispels the darkness of sin in such a way as to crush any moral excuse and brings man into full account for his lawlessness.

God's righteousness is not incomplete in its glory or display in itself. In other words, it is not manifest only in our unrighteousness; God's righteousness is whole within its expression in the Trinity alone. However, it is more clealry revealed (to us) through our unrighteousness. This should deepen our affection for the beauty of the gospel. Christ, who knew no sin, the fullness of Triune righteousness, became sin, so that you and I, by faith, might become the sons and daughters of God, the righteousness of God in Jesus. It is in the gospel that the glorious grace and beauty of Jesus' righteousness is manifest within the lives of unrighteous, rebellious sinners, whom God redeems and transforms into the image of His Son, to share in the righteousness of God by faith, in love. This is grace. This is love. This is the gospel.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Child Soldiers

It has been almost a year since I watched the film "Invisible Children" and became aware of an unspeakable offense against children, notably the children of Africa. An article today on is a stark reminder of the troubling images buried in my consciousness. There are more than 250,000 child soldiers in the world today. This vile form of human exploitation is rampant in countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, the Democractic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Somalia, Sudan, Myanmar and the Ivory Coast. Most of these children are abducted from their families, and many of them, as a part of their initiation, are forced to either kill family members and close friends or watch others kill them. One young girl, Angela, 12, told of being forced to kill a friend when she joined the Colombia's FARC guerillas. "I closed my eyes and fired the gun, but I didn't hit her. So I shot again. I had to bury her and put dirt on top of her. The commander said, 'You'll have to do this many more times, and you'll have to learn not to cry.'" Another boy in Myanmar, 11, Kim Muang Thang, watched as soldiers gunned down mothers and then their babies. "They swung them by their legs and smashed them against a rock. I saw it."

And while global awareness of this horrific tragedy is rising, the widespread future implications of this practice is unfathomable. Even if global pressure leads to international accountability and the prosecution of war crimes for rebel leaders, and even if these child soldiers are released, what will be done to help rehabilitate these impressionable children who are being shaped into natural born killers? In many cases where child soldiers are liberated, peacekeepers de-weaponize the children (take their guns) and simply send them back to their villages. But how does an 8-15 year old who is used to taking what they want by force with little regard for human life transition normally into the ebb and flow of village life where cooperation and value on human dignity are prized core values? How does a child who has been traumatized by inconceivable acts of violence against others, and likely themselves, assimilate back into a culture of trust?

There is a great need in these countries for Christians who are called to love and care for orphans and widow. There is an overwhelming need for healing that can come only from the gospel. These victimized children who forcibly transitioned from victim to victimizer need the liberating hope of Jesus to set them free, not only from their physical bondage to these rebel leaders, but to a greater degree, they need freedom from the physical and emotional trauma of this evil being forced upon them. I'm not sure how the Church needs to intervene, but to do nothing is to concede this generation to the god of this world. And there is no doubt that without the inner transformation of the gospel, no amount of secular rehabilitation will matter, and these children will likely become a migrant form of professional killers, simply because their life-context has taught them this is the only way to survive. And that will have an even more profound cultural impact on Africa and other countries where child soldiers are being employed than we can imagine.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Warning Those Who Teach

I recently read a post expressing the writer's confusing search for a God of meaning and purpose typical of the postmodern, emerging "conversations" taking place among younger evangelicals. Whether or not conversations that:
  1. express doubt over the sufficiency of language to express real truth about divine mystery;
  2. overstate the impact of cultural context on our understanding and interpretation of God (although we clearly underestimate this fact at times in Christian orthodoxy);
  3. exaggerate the subtle similarities of all religions and minimize the key differences between world religions and Christianity, leading one to universalistic tendencies;
  4. question our ability to know anything with any certainty, thus nullifying any absolute, universal claims to truth;

...are an engaging, healthy and fruitful debate within the evangelical church is a topic for another blog. And the truth is, it's not that questioning is inherently wrong, but doubt-filled searches certainly become problematic when there is never: a) any attempt to sufficiently answer the questions because one is anti-propositional; or b) any attempt to answer the questions on the basis of any objective authority (meaning relativism and subjectivity is the new virtue for our day).

You see, the emerging evangelicals say that the pursuit of God is really in the journey. But they miss the point. The redemptive story, the over-arching narrative unfolding in this world, has both a beginning and an end, and the purpose of the journey is to discover the God who reigns over it all. To make too much of the journey is to make an idol out of the journey and forsake the God who is the reason for the journey of faith in the first place.

But what really grabbed my attention in this post was not the honest transparency of the author, but a response to the author's words. After commending the muddled quest for answers and meaning, the response closed with these words: "'s really fun to teach and start to mess other people up as well; there's nothing like seeing a light click on in someone's head." This coming from a graduate student at a flagship university for a major Christian denomination in the United States.

I found this to be a frightening statement, not because all teachers of God's Word have all the answers, but because of the cavalier attitude of the one who thinks it is "fun" to "mess other people up as well", as if having a melting pot theology riddled with doubt and confusion, void of any concrete meaning or certainty or propostional foundations, is a confesssion of faith to be admired.

God's Word has some sobering words for teachers, and it does not come close to affirming the deceptive joy apparently found in tainted the pursuit of pure, sound doctrine (which Scripture says is something to be valued; Job 11:4; Rom 16:17; 1Tim 1:10; 4:6; 6:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1; 2:10).

"Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1).

"But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine" (Titus 2:1).

"Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers" (1Tim 4:16).

"Obey your leaders and submit to themm, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account" (Hebrews 13:17).

I don't know the young man who posted the comment above. I don't know his motives for doing so, and his comments surely may have unwisely been spoken in jest as he considers the reality that the more he thinks he knows about God, the less in fact he does know. But I would submit that while there is a profound mystery to God, He has revealed Himself fully in Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:15cf), and there is more to know about God than the postmodern mind is willing to concede. Yes, we need not lose sight of the glorious mystery of the Divine because we are only inching along in our knowledge of Him, and therefore we shouldn't "box" God into too rigid propositions about Him, leaving room for the veiled splendor and glory that God is. But God has revealed and given us all that we need in Jesus (2Peter 1:3cf) for life and godliness. God has revealed Himself to us through language (the Word; John 1:1cf), and these revealed things are what we are to focus on in the Scriptures (Deuteronomy29:29), and not only should we draw near to these things, but they also belong to our children.

And we, as those called to teach, are to teach these things, not with some misguided glee in screwing up people's thoughts about God, but for the purpose of building up God's people in Jesus (1Cor 14:12; 2Cor 13:10; Eph 4:12) and teaching sound doctrine intended to strengthen, not weaken, their faith. There should no joy in potentially being an accomplace to apostasy - which is precisely what teachers who lead people away from God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture - will become.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Time for Everything

I am reading Ecclesiastes 3 in preparation to teach this Sunday morning and I find myself pondering the implications of these words for the church today.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;...a time to break down, and a time to build up;...a time to keep, and a time to cast away..." (3:1-2, 3b, 6b).

Nothing is immovable or impervious to change - except, it seems, the sacred cows of the traditional church. The approach to ministry and culture by the Western church over the past century has served the Kingdom in the West well, although we began to see cracks in the foundation in the early 1960's. But with a century of cultural traction gained by a society that for decades embraced traditional Judeo-Christian values comes the false security and assumption that the way the gospel has always been communicated within the context of Western culture is the way that it should continue to be communicated; they way that people have been discipled in years past remains the way to disciple in the 21st century; and the language people have long-sense adopted to speak about God still resonates in the hearts and ears of the hearer.

But the reality about Western culture is that it is post-Christian, post-modern, secular, religiously diverse, and intolerant of a comprehensive, expansive view of life governed by God and applicable to all people. This means the assumptions of the traditional church - speaking of the structure and approach of the church, not the gospel - and the nature and efficacy of an out-dated contextualization, can no be assumed as effective.

The challenge, as I see it, is in seeking God's wisdom to know when: what has planted may need to be plucked up, and even re-planted; what has been discarded may need to be rebuilt; what we have long kept and treasured as sacred may need to be discarded. The question is then: what is on the table? What, within our traditional structure, is "out of season"?

I think there are multiple things up for consideration ranging from:
  1. when the people of God gather
  2. how often the people of God should gather weekly
  3. what should the people of God do when they gather as it relates to discipleship, ministry, evangelism, worship and mission
  4. how should we express ourselves to God in our affections through corporate worship (hymns, choruses, instrumentation, drama, media, etc)
  5. what is the best use of our time regarding discipleship (does Sunday school still work?)
  6. how do we maximize Christian fellowship when we gather (small groups or no, that is the question)
  7. how do we best communicate the gospel in our community
  8. where should we take the gospel in our community
  9. how are we spending our resources
  10. what is the role of the teaching pastors and other pastors? are they professionals and in what way should our expectations be shaped by culture? in what ways are we ignoring the burden Scripture places on our pastors and replacing the burden with a humanly conceived, culturally-dictated expectation?

The questions are many. I bet you even have some you could add to this list. What are they? We need God's wisdom to know what season this is for the church in the West, and God's humility to lay aside our comfortable, preconceived, packaged ways of contextualizing the Gospel and seek the Spirit's leadership and boldness to reinvent ourselves with God's help for the good of all nations - including our own - and the health of Jesus' church.

One Generation Away

"And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel (Judges 2:10).

This passage is a sobering reminder that biblical faith is only a generation away from extinction. Of course, God is sovereignly ruling over this universe and the gates of hell will not prevail over His Kingdom, but there are formidable spiritual consequences emerging in Western culture rapidly divorcing itself from biblical ethics. A generation is rapidly
assimilating into a post-Christian, secular humanistic, religiously pluralistic society void of
absolute truth and inclusively tolerant of every faith except Christianity.

A recent article by Time magazine confirms many of the concerns raised in this post last week. Modern youth ministry, in many cases, is probably doing more to harm the cause of Christ in our culture than it is in aiding the Kingdom and revealing God's glory to the nations. The reason for this is that many youth ministries focus more on entertainment and music than they do on the Word of God and helping students understand the implications of biblical faith on the real life issues that we all face in this world such as disappointment, suffering, dealing with prosperity, death and more.

Check out the article and let me know what you think.

Word from the Weird

An astronaut was arrested in an attempt to kidnap a romantic rival in a love triangle. Lisa Marie Nowak, married mother of three children, drove 900 miles armed with a BB gun and pepper spray to confront a woman she believed was a competitor for the affections of Navy Cmdr. William Ofelein. But here is where it gets really weird. Nowak allegedly wore diapers on her 900 mile drive to confront her rival because she didn't want to waste time going to the bathroom.

In an unrelated, but equally disturbing story that stretches the boundaries of personal hygiene, some hard-core methamphetimine users are turning to collecting and drinking the urine of other users to get high.

Both of these stories remind us that unrestrained sin leads to futility of thinking (Romans 2:21) and the dishonoring of ones body (2:24).

Friday, February 02, 2007

Slammin' Modern Youth Ministry

I recently listened to an excerpt from a message by Voddie Baucham given before a gathering of pastors addressing the steep decline and departure among evangelical students from the church after their first year of college. Statistics reveal that somewhere between 75% and 88% of confessing believers leave the church, most never to return, after their first year of college. The implications of this are not just that biblical Christianity is losing traction within Western culture, but that biblical Christianity is slowly dying within Western culture.

Baucham's implicit presuppostion is this: biblical Christianity flourishes within culture, not necessarily through evangelism, though the church is called to bring the gospel to every tribe, tongue and nation, but biblical Christianity prospers through the family.

There is a telling stastitic that supports this presuppostion and the impact of families upon culture. Currently, within the US, the birth rate is below the replacement rate for the first time in history. What this means is that we have more people dying in our population and less births to replace the dead, and thus sustain our culture. The birth rate within the US is currently at around 2 children per family. People are marrying older in life and choosing to have less children, and even an indiscriminant general observation of the nuclear family reveals that there is a certain stigma in Western culture related to large families (more about this later).

Let's look to Europe to see the growing implications of a low birth rate versus a high mortality rate. In France the birth rate is about 1.5 children per family among the indigenous French. There has been a steady influx of North African Muslims into France and other European countries over the past several years. These Muslims average about 6 children per family. With a rapid influx of Muslims competing in the culture with a declining presence of indigenous French, what do you think will soon happen? France will soon be a predominantly Muslim country simply because Muslims will outnumber everyone else. And why are the French having so few children? This points to a love affair with prosperity over children and families. It almost seems that Western cultures despise children. Have you noticed how often large families are mocked for having 3+ children with comments like, "Don't you know how that happens?"

The same kind of thing is happening in the US. Since 1965 the number of Muslims has increased in the US from 800,000 to over 4 million (and some estimate as high as 8 million). The Buddhist population has increasted from 400,000 to 2 1/2 million and the Hindu population from 100,000 to 1 million. And all the while Christian families are having less and less children.

To put into perspective that Christianity is dying, take the conservative number that we lose 75% of evangelical Christian students after their first year of college and apply it to the general membership within the Southern Baptist Convention, which currently stands at 16 million. By the next generation the SBC membership will be 4 million if current trends hold. By the following generation the membership will be 1 million. The next generation, 250,000. You might be inclined to argue that evangelism is the solution to a low birth rate and the survival of Christianity. At the current pace of our decline it would take 1 Christian to reach 3 lost people to retain our current numbers. Right now, within SBC life, it takes an average of 43 confessing believers to reach 1 lost person.

If this isn't startling enough, here is where it gets interesting. Baucham says that the SBC response to this dire situation over the past 30 years has been reach children through youth and children's ministry, not through the family. We live in a church culture that has more resources to reach people than ever before, and more youth workers than at anytime in the history of the church. Yet, sadly, the numbers of confessions of Jesus and baptisms among youth and children are rapidly declining.

According to Baucham, and I think he is right, God's plan for seeing students come to know and fear God is the family, not youth ministry. He points to Ephesians 6:1-4 and reminds us that if we want childrne to be Spirit-filled we should not send them to their youth pastor, we should send them to their parents. The submissiveness of children to their parents in obedience from the heart with joy is the truest sign of genuine spirituality.

This message doesn't have all the answers. Not everything in youth ministry is bad or needs to be scrapped. Not everything is unbiblical, though much that we see in youth ministry today works against Scripture. But there is no doubt that the current model for ministry to children and youth needs critical care and attention. There will also always be cases where we can't send children to their parents for evangelism and spiritual discipline because their parents don't love Jesus. But this fact should not dominate the structure and focus of our youth ministries. It should be a consideration, but not the driving impetus to establishing ministry with no regard for the family, no structure in place to encourage, motivate and disciple parents, and no intentions of folding students into the overall life of the church.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Big, Bad NFL

The NFL is putting a stop to Fall Creek Baptist Church's Super Bowl party in Indianapolis, Indiana. The church planned to show the game through a video projector, but copyright laws limit its projection to screens 55 inches or less. The League is really serious about cracking down on people taking advantage of the Super Bowl, aren't they? And to think that I violated this copyright law every year of the four years I served on staff at Green Valley Baptist in Hoover, Alabama. I'm just glad Big Brother wasn't watching me!