Friday, July 27, 2007

O Canada

I'll be in Canada working in a support capacity with a team from Concord serving Renaissance Church in Montreal this week. Montreal is one of the darkest, most spiritually void cities in North America. Please pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit among team members and those we will work with this week. May God be glorified by our Kingdom efforts this week.

Essentials, Non-Essentials, and Christian Fellowship: Causing Somone To Stumble (Part One)

As Paul continues to discuss how we are to love each other in the body of Christ, what interaction between those strong in faith and weak in faith really looks like, we learn that though we may have different freedoms in Christ, we are not to use those freedoms in a way that causes others to stumble. The question, however, is this: What exactly does it mean to cause others to stumble and how can we avoid being a stumbling block? How does this stumbling principle apply in everyday life? For example, if some people who claim faith in Christ think it is sinful for women to wear pants. Does this mean she shouldn’t wear pants?

The dilemma, as Paul sees it, is quite simple, yet complicated. It comes in the form of true truths that exist in contradiction. Look at what I mean.

“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean” (14:13-14).

Paul has come to understand that no food is unclean. At the same time, he recognizes that there are some, who are “weak in faith”, who do regard certain foods as unclean. Therefore, for them, these foods are unclean (again, likely Jewish Christians holding to the dietary laws of their ancestors). So a paradox exists. Once again, Paul is talking about ceremonial and cultural issues, not moral ones. Moral issues are never non-essentials.

The struggle is this: food can be both clean and unclean at the same time. The question is: how should the strong behave when the two consciences are in collision?

Notice Paul’s response: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died” (14:15).

Paul is saying that if the weaker brother is distressed (feels grief or even pain) by your freedom concerning a non-essential, not only because he/she sees you doing something that they disapprove of, but is also induced to follow your example against his/her conscience (this does not mean against his/her will. It simply means that they follow your example without being fully convinced that this freedom is not sinful), you are no longer walking in love. Love is thoughtful and considerate to the needs of the weaker brother. Love will limit its own liberty out of respect for them.

How do we induce weaker brothers to follow our lead? When we eat or drink with an attitude of superiority or scorn towards those who do not have the freedom to eat or drink, it serves as a kind of “pressure” to the weak to conform to our conscience when they do not have the freedom to do so. For example, let’s say that you have the freedom to drink alcohol. You have been fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus that consuming alcohol in moderation is not sinful for you. But your best friend has been raised in an environment where alcohol is viewed as sinful, and they are not settled in their conscience on the issue. When spending time together, you consistently do so in an environment of alcohol, even encouraging your friend to drink, though they are not yet convinced, for whatever reason, it is not sin for them to drink. In such a scenario, you are not walking in love. Failing to walk in love is dangerous. Paul says that failing to consider the influence of our actions on the weak in faith could “destroy the one for whom Christ died.”

This matter of being the culprit who may "destroy" the faith of another is weighty and worthy of our consideration. We'll talk more about this in the next post.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Puppet Wisdom

Sexual purity could bring about the blessing of a "hot" spouse - or so says "Polly Puppet". I'll let you guess who's the cute voice of "Polly".

Sunday, July 22, 2007

God Save the Chihuahua!

No more will I degrade these little creatures of God as good for nothing but selling tacos. Check this out! Chihuahua saves a toddler from a rattlesnake and lives! Sounds like a headline from some cheap grocery line gossip news column.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Essentials, Non-Essentials, and Christian Fellowship: Welcome the Weak(I Mean It!)

Paul's instruction Romans 14:1 is undeniable and non-negotiable for Jesus follower's. He demands that the "strong" welcome the weak in faith. But what exactly does this look like in Christian fellowship?
(1) We welcome them because God has welcomed them (Rom 14:2-3).
Though this seems like an elementary principle it is often violated in our relationships with one another. We are prone to dismiss, despise, reject, slander, marginalize and allow our opinion of others to be colored by a difference of opinion over non-essentials (who hasn't judged the deacon smoking outside the church before services begin in their heart?). We forget that they have been accepted in Christ in the same manner that we have been accepted, and that this reality is the basis of our acceptance.
It is unclear how Paul means we are to do this specifically, but it must certainly pertain, at least slightly, toward our attitudes towards others. We see the negative principle of not "welcoming" each other because God has welcomed us in Jesus at work in the world, and sadly the church is not immune. I believe you have to look no further than the way that prohibitionists in SBC circles are treating non-prohibitionists within the Missouri Baptist Convention over the issue of alcohol in moderation, and the subsequent proposed resolution to ban any future partnerships with the Acts29 Church Planting network (see this post for a summary or Google your own research).
(2) Welcome one another because Christ died to be Master and Lord (Rom 14:4-9).
If Christ is King and we are His servants, why should we be the final judge of those who are the servants of the King, not us (4)? When we reject someone that God has welcomed, we come in between the servant and His master. Christ is the Boss and we have no right to usurp Christ’s position in the life of the Christian. “It is before his own master he stands or falls” (4). The point here is clear. The Christian is responsible to Christ. He is not responsible to us or for us. His approval or disapproval will come from Christ.
Paul further develops this thought because something significant happens in regards to these non-essential matters of faith. Such matters often become a part of a person’s Christian discipleship, so we must be fully convinced in our own mind. Whether one is in the “strong” camp or the “weak” camp over an issue, Paul says what matters most in relationship to God and one another is that “each one should be full convinced in his own mind” (5). Like we said last week, the weaker brother is not the vulnerable Christian easily overcome with temptation; the weaker brother is the sensitive Christian who is indecisive concerning matters of conscience. Paul is calling both the “strong” and the “weak” to be firm in their convictions about matters (this is convicting as I think about my indifference about baptism, millennial views, etc).

Paul explains what he means by this.

“The one who observes the day, observes it to honor the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God (6).

Paul’s line of thinking is summarized in this reality:

“For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and the living” (7-9).

This leads us to a practical question concerning non-essential issues, particularly cultural issues such as alcohol, profanity, tattoos, smoking, clothing, etc. Can I thank God for this? Can I do this unto the Lord? Can God be glorified in this? Am I honoring Jesus with a heart of thanksgiving?
(3) Welcome one another because they are family (Rom 14:10)
We won’t say much about this but this is an important principle. We welcome one another, whether strong or weak, because of our family ties in Christ. The fact that we are family should cause us to be less critical and impatient and more generous and tender with one another. We make allowances and excuses for our natural families that we would never make for others. We need to be this generous in the body of Christ.
(4) Welcome one another because we will all stand and fall before the Great Judge (Rom 14:10b-12)
This point definitely harkens back to the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:1. We must not pass judgment on our fellow Christians because we will all stand before God and give an account for the entirety of our lives. This, of course, does not mean we are wrong to discern truth from error, we are wrong to challenge Christians in their sin, or that we are wrong to exclude unrepentant believers from fellowship.

It means that we are to avoid having an attitude of condemnation. We do not have the authority to usurp God’s place on the judgment seat and pronounce judgment and pass sentence on other believers.

When we consider the words of Christ in Matthew 7:1-6 in their entirety and measure them with Paul’s words here in Romans 14, we learn that we must first put ourselves and our weaknesses under the microscope before we resent others because of the freedoms they enjoy in Christ with a clear conscience, or judge them for freedoms we cannot in good conscience embrace.

Self-reflection will build friction to slow down our rejection of others and enable us to accept them even when their positions on matters that do not compromise the Gospel differ from our own.

How must we apply the truth from this passage?

1) When faced with people and issues you disagree with in the church over disputable matters, pray and ask God to help you welcome them in fellowship because He has welcomed them.
2) If you struggle with this, repent and ask God to give you a tender heart towards the “weaker” or “stronger” brother. Ask Him to give you the right perspective on the situation and make you sensitive to the needs of your brother/sister.
3) In the freedom granted to you in Christ, be sure that you exercise your freedom as an expression of worship and not as an opportunity to sin. Make sure that you have a clear conscience when practicing disputable matters.
4) Treat one another like family. Exercise the patience, understanding and forgiveness you often extend to blood relatives.
5) Do not condemn anyone and repent when you have feelings of condemnation.
This puts us on the right path to understanding what Paul means to welcome the weak, but we won't understand this fully to we see this within the whole context of Paul's argument. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Essentials, Non-Essentials, and Christian Fellowship: Welcome the Weak

Admit it, it is hard to love and accept those who do not share our values or opinions about what should be valued in life or what is culturally acceptable, particularly when there is not a cultural consensus on the issue up for debate. But Paul gives very specific instruction about what the relationships between those who differ in convictions about non-essentials should look like: welcome the weak (Romans 14:1).

As we consider what Paul is saying to this multi-ethnic church struggling to get along because of differences largely influenced by culture and preference, we must take note of the following:

(1) Someone who does not have a biblical view of a non-essential issue is considered weak in their faith. Most of us think we are right about whatever we believe, and no one wants to be considered weak at anything. However, Paul recognizes that it is inevitable that believers are going to have a difference of opinion about non-essential issues, and he considers one group “strong” and one group “weak”. The question then becomes: How do you determine who is who? In this case, Paul is the arbiter who determines who really understands the issue here (diet and days) biblically and who misunderstands the issues.

(2) Being called “weak”, while not flattering and certainly humbling to our lofty opinions of ourselves, is biblical terminology.

(3) There is a good chance that all of us are “weak in faith” on some issue. It is highly unlikely that any of us understand every biblical issue rightly. The reason for this is that all of our opinions and presuppositions about Scripture and God have been shaped by certain cultural and spiritual influences. In other words, we are inclined to believe what our culture practices and teaches is acceptable. We are also inclined to believe what influential spiritual leaders/mentors have taught us. But if these influences are less than wholly biblical, it stands to reason that we may have a “weak” view of certain issues.

(4) Important! The issue of “weakness in faith” is not one of character or desire, but one of faith (14:1). Here is why this is important: In evaluation of these issues and how these issues impact our relationships, we must determine whether or not the perceived weakness is weakness of faith or if it is an issue of morality, self-glorifying desire or character. For example, is it immoral for a person to get a tattoo? Has the person who chooses to get “inked” committed a moral offense against God? Even if you believe that permanently marking your body with ink desecrates God’s temple, is this offense a morally offense biblically? If not this is not a character or moral flaw, then it is an issue of faith. However, let’s say that in conversation with the person who wants to get a tattoo the real motive for a tattoo surfaces. Maybe they want to get a tattoo to rebel against a domineering father. Maybe they want to get a tattoo to draw unhealthy attention to themselves or their bodies. Then this issue has become a moral or character issue. The issue in Romans 14 is not one of morality; it is an issue of conscience and biblical understanding and conviction.

Another way of looking at this issue: the “weaker” brother that Paul is talking about is not the vulnerable Christian who is easily overcome with temptation (ie, the Christian who follows the example of another confessing Christian into sin because they are easily influenced by others); the weaker brother is the sensitive Christian who is indecisive or cautions (perhaps overly) concerning matters of conscience.

Paul signals a clear, specific response to the weak: welcome them. Paul couldn’t be clearer: the prerequisite to the welcoming community is that we welcome other believers with a difference of opinion, not for the sake of converting them to our opinion or arguing, but for the sake of Christ.

Welcoming one another is a powerful testimony to the world of the reconciliatory power of the Gospel to change lives and unite people under one banner. In addressing the relationship between “strong” and “weak” brothers Paul wants to be clear: the respect and honor in which we treat one another is of more importance than being right about non-essential issues.

John Stott makes a great observation about this text. Paul remarkably blends theology and ethics (and thus reveals that good theology should drive good ethics). While dealing with very mundane matters such as what foods to eat and what day to worship, Paul grounds the issues in the truth of the cross, the resurrection, the Spirit and the judgment. Do you see what is at stake here?

In closing two things can’t be ignored about 14:1 (and the entire passage):

(1) Paul makes no attempt to conceal, marginalize or sugar-coat what these brothers and sisters in Christ are. They are weak in faith. He regards them as individuals lacking biblical conviction. He considers them immature about the issues of diet and days. He even believes their “opinion” to be wrong (as will be made clear later in the passage).

(2) Nonetheless, Paul demands that the “weak” be accepted by us because of Jesus. They are not to be ignored or marginalized. Their concerns should be heard and considered. They are not to be asked to repent of their position – even if known to be wrong biblically about a non-essential – before they are embraced into Christian fellowship. They are to be wholeheartedly included. When Paul tells the “strong” to welcome the “weak”, he intends that they do so as one who would welcome someone likeminded into their fellowship with open arms. He is encouraging the “strong” to welcome the “weak” into their heart.

We accept the “weak” because Jesus has accepted them in faith. We accept them without passing judgment on disputable matters. Paul does not want the church turned into a debate hall about non-essential matters. This kind of community is subversive to the cause of Jesus.

What does this look like? How can this be done? Check back for the next post.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Essentials, Non-Essentials, and Christian Fellowship: What Are Non-Essentials?

The Apostle Paul spends Romans 12-13 calling the believers within this multi-ethnic church in Rome to a life of love - first to their neighbor, then to their enemies, and finally in the way that they life to fulfill the intent of the law rather than living to satisfy their fleshly appetites. But in Romans 14-15 he puts the demands of love under the microscope. Here is where we put true love to the test as the Apostle scrutinizes the relationships that professing believers have within one another while testing them against the most mundane things in life: diet and days. He takes the everyday issues of eating, drinking, and what day to worship and uses them as the litmus test to gauge how well the people of God love each other as they figure out how to express - or whether they should express - their Christian liberties to the glory of God.
Some people read Romans 14-15 and see a lot of room for what are commonly called "gray matters". Let me be clear: I don't believe there are gray matters in Scripture. The reason for this is that the word itself suggests that God is either: (a) completely silent on certain issues; or (b) He hasn't equipped us by His Spirit to discern how we should handle issues where Scripture lacks clarity. I think it is clear in Scripture that God has equipped us, by His power, in accordance with our knowledge of Jesus, to discern all that we need for life and godliness (2Pet 1:3). For this reason I don't believe there are any true gray matters in Scripture, only a lack of knowledge and discernment on our part.
It is better to understand the issues in this passage (diet and days) as non-essentials. Non-essentials are those issues which are not moral or serious theological offenses, but that Scripture has not either spoken explicitly about for our instruction and good or has left sufficient room for interpretation and disagreement. Non-essentials are the kind of issues that do not compromise or color the Gospel or character of Jesus on display in His children (though I am sure that some people might disagree with or qualify this statement on some non-essential issues. Non-essentials are issues that are largely dictated by culture and tradition. These issues are non-essentials, not because they aren't important, but because they should never be the test of Christian orthodoxy or standard for fellowship.
Some common non-essentials where there is not universal agreement in the church are: wearing make-up and jewelry; tattoos; the consumption of alcohol in moderation; profanity (who decides what is profane); modesty in dress; and smoking tobacco. Included in non-essentials are such theological issues such as: the mode of baptism; the gifts of the Spirit; eschatology; and the precise nature of heaven and hell. Believe it or not, a hotly contested isssue in the 17th century by the Puritans was whether or not a Christian couple should exchange wedding bands!
Paul makes it clear in this passage that matters of diet and days are non-essentials. They are not to be used to measure orthodoxy or used as conditions of fellowship.
Before we can move forward to present day application we must understand what was happening contextually. Paul is writing to a multi-ethnic church, a gathering of people with varied traditions, family backgrounds and cultural traditions, united under the banner of Jesus Christ by faith in His death and resurrection. He lumps the audience into two groups, counting them among the "strong" or the "weak". It is very likely that Paul considers the "weak" to be Jewish Christians who still held a conscientious commitment to Jewish regulations regarding diet and days. Many likely held to OT food laws, eating only clean items. They probably observed the Jewish Sabbath and festivals. Most of them probably were vegetarians, not because they didn’t desire to eat meat, but because eating vegetables only was the only way to ensure they didn’t eat non-Kosher meats!
Within this setting you also have Gentile converts who had no qualms about what to eat and probably thought very little about what day to worship. Observing the strict practices of the Jewish Christians would have been confusing and probably frustrating to some. This is the occasion for Paul's letter. Here we have a potentially disastrous mix of cultures that certainly presented opportunity for sharp disagreements, hurt feelings and divisive conduct.
Now that you understand the setting we will look at the specific dynamics unfolding in the next post...

Friday, July 13, 2007

Essentials, Non-Essentials, and Christian Fellowship: An Introduction

The post For What Purpose was intended to stimulate thinking, dialogue and questions, and I believe it did just that. But questions need answers or else we slide down the postmodern slippery slope leading us to world of questions, undiscerning acceptance, and anarchy against biblical and pastoral authority. Over the next several posts I'd like to explore the meaning of Romans 14-15 since I referenced it so many times in the "purpose" post. I hope this exercise will proof fruitful as you put your nose in the Word of God and seek clarity and understanding from His Word.

Romans 14-15 is much more than a passage about Christian liberty. It can certainly be used to justify whatever freedom we have in Christ related to diets and days (or other non-essential issues such as the mode of baptism; the giving and receiving of wedding rings; wearing make-up or jewelry; tattoos; profanity [professing believers around the world do use language regularly that we would find offensive in our culture]; gifts of the Spirit; and the precise nature of heaven and hell). But more than being a treatise for our liberty in Christ, it is a passage where Paul, after calling believers in Rome to live a life of love - for one another, for enemies and in the way we fulfill the law by making no provision for the flesh in our relationship to God and others - Paul brings the issue of "liberty" under the microscope by bringing our Christian relationships under greater scrutiny. In other words, Paul recognizes that our opinions and convictions about these non-essential matters have great potential to divide and destroy the unity we are called to strive for in the Christian church (Eph 4:3; Heb 12:14).

The questions is this passage are significant:
(1) How are we to relate to other Christians when their beliefs on issues that are not central to the Gospel are different from our own?
(2) What is the difference between an essential belief and non-essential belief biblically?
(3) When matters of conscience become a part of our moral DNA, how do we respond to believers who are persuaded differently?
(4) Why do some Christians induldge in activities or hold to beliefs that we could never imagine participating in or believing?
(5) Is there such a beast as "gray matters" of faith - issues where there is no clear instruction from Scripture about what we should believe?

I hope that this text will answer these questions and others. Feel free to post comments or questions along the journey.

Will You Pray For My Puppy?

If the humans get tired of me I guess I could try my hand as a pet Chaplain. Just what the world needs, somone who specializes in the spiritual needs of animals.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Eating Disorders and the Gospel

Michelle from SoloFeminity has posted an excellent article on her struggle with eating disorders and the freedom secured for her in the Gospel. This is a helpful read not only for those women (and men) struggling with eating disorders and body image, but for those of us trying to understand the psychology of eating disorders and grasping at straws for how to counsel people in a God-focused, Gospel-centered way.

Taking the Soul to Task

In James 1:2-4 God’s servant writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know the testing of your faith produced steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” I think we often mistakenly pigeon-hole the implications of these verses to the big issues of life such as financial instability, cancer, unemployment, or the death of a loved one (to name a few). While the instruction of James 1:2-4 certainly applies to these life-altering circumstances, it is not limited to them.

The testing of our faith does not always come in such dramatic fashion. It may come in the form of criticism over an unsatisfactory performance on the job. It may take the form of a personality conflict that impregnates our hearts with sinful thoughts and desires. It may be revealed by the stinging rebuke for sin by a brother who seeks nothing more than we be conformed more into the image of Christ (Proverbs 27:17). These “trials” often reveal pride, selfishness, insincerity, ignorance of God’s Word, rebellion, and more in our hearts and lives.

When the trial is this subtle, what is our response (and do you recognize it for what it is)? And is our response the kind of response that not only honors Jesus, but brings about His desired effect in our lives – the “full effect” as James calls it - which is to make us “perfect, complete, lacking in nothing.”? Do we recognize these more subtle forms of testing as God’s means to produce steadfastness within us?

The kind of steadfastness that James has in mind is called hupomone in the Greek. Hupomone is the ability not only to endure or gut out all circumstances; it is the ability to endure them humbly, and in so doing, see God turn the circumstance into greatness and/or glory. The only way, I believe, that we will develop a steadfastness that has the full and intended effect God desires in our lives when our faith is tested is by taking the soul (heart) to task.

Richard Sibbes writes, “It were an easy thing to be a Christian, if religion stood only in a few outward works and duties; but to take the soul to task, and to deal with our own hearts, and to let conscience have its full work, and to bring the soul into spiritual subjection unto God. This is not so easy a matter, because the soul out of self-love is loathe to enter into itself, lest it should have other thoughts of itself than it would have.”

When the heart is exposed for the fraud that it often is, it generally retreats and deceives, causing the undiscerning believer to embrace a higher view of the condition of the heart than it appropriate (Jeremiah 17:9). It is for this reason that we must always apply God’s Word to our hearts during trials and testing. This is what it means to take the soul (heart) to task.

The author of Hebrews writes: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). May we seek the truth about ourselves as revealed to us through God’s Word for God's glory and our sanctification and joy in Him.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Calvinists Top The Church Planting Charts!

Particular Redemptionists and Reformed Theologians, more commonly referred to as Calvinists, are consistently assaulted (often wrongly) for lacking evangelistic zeal. Now there is proof (and there always has been if opponents of particular redemption would take their fingers out of their ears long enough to hear it) that evangelism and Calvinism go hand-in-hand. A recent survey by Leadership Network reveals that the top two reproducing (ie, church planting) churches in America are Redeemer Presbyterian (New York City pastored by Tim Keller) and Mars Hill Church (Seattle based church pastored by Mark Driscoll). Both churches have planted over 100 new churches since their inception. Church planting is about making disciples, which happens initially through the proclamation of the gospel in a culture and the response of those who hear the gospel and turn to faith in Jesus (evangelism). But the process doesn't and should never end with evangelism. It continues with the disciple-making process which makes church planting so crucial to long-term, viable spiritual harvest. Not only are these two churches and their pastors on the front lines of the culture war to bring people to Jesus, but they are actively involved in nurturing the confessions of sinners within the authority and structure of the church so that those who confess Jesus might mature into Jesus-loving, sin-fighting, God-glorifying warriors for the Kingdom. This, in my opinion, is a significantly more biblical approach to evangelism and discipleship and stands far and above as superior to the "hit-and-run" evangelism model championed for so many years in evangelical circles where we lead people to make a "decision" for Jesus but fail to nurture the seed scattered on the hearts of the hearers. Lack of passion and zeal to plant churches within cultures leads to a higher rate of nominalism and false professions within the church. May this research be a positive reminder that a strong belief in the sovereignty of God in salvation and His purpose to set His affections on His people for His glory is not the death knell to evangelism, but rather the jet engine that propels us forward into the culture for His glory and our good. May it also remind us that our theological differences and the nuances that shape our soteriology and views of election and man's response in salvation are not issues which should divide us, but rather issues that should sharpen our doctrine and understanding of Scripture as followers of Jesus seek the clearest understanding of God possible as revealed in His Word.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Scripture and Science Agree

"...the intentions of a man's heart is evil in his youth (childhood)"(Gen 8:21)
"The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies" (Psalm 58:3).

Studies now show that infants begin to lie and deceive as young as 6-months old. Previously researchers did not believe that children developed this "skill" until as old as 4.


May I recommend Eric Simmons' message Discern the Graymatters for those who've been challenged, angered, frustrated, humbled, exaserbated, encouraged, enlightened or more by the post and discussion from For What Purpose

Do Something

Anthony Bradley writes in his post Orphans vs. American Dream about how missional Christians could make a real impact on the cause of orphans in America.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Tragedy Colors What We Deserve

On Tuesday June 26 five teenage girls were on their way to a vacation home when they passed a van on a two-lane highway, swerved back into oncoming traffic and collided with a tractor trailer. The girls, all recent graduates of Fairport High School in Rochester, NY, were all killed in the fiery crash. Jeff Pearlman of ESPN wrote a story about the tragedy, closing the story with the kind of sympathetic sentiments that you would expect from such an awful, seemingly senseless tragedy. He writes: These girls "deserve to be heading off to their respective colleges. They deserve to travel the world and fall in love and raise children and spoil grandchildren and know a life beyond adolescence."

While the shock and tragic humanity of the death of the young rightly brings thoughts similar to Pearlman's to all of our minds and hearts, it is a colored perspective. It is not until we get God's perspective from God's Word that we can respond rightly to the horrible sting of death brought upon this grieving New York town. Our shrinking world brings tragedies such as this to our attention because we live in a culture of information, a world where we have access to every unfolding event on the globe. Here in the West it is far too easy to grow numb to the sheer despair, madness, and chaos around the world because we are so insulated from it. But we shouldn't merely dismiss these tragedies as sad, sudden or unsettling, and then move on with our preoccupied lives, particularly those of us who hear of such events from the safe distances of our computer or television screens. May God use them to turn our attention towards Him.

I am reminded of a conversation Jesus had in Luke 13. Some people were pressing Jesus on the root cause of a recent tragedy. They thought, "Perhaps these people had suffered such cruel fates because they had done something to deserve premature death." Jesus, when talking about the 18 people who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them and killed them said, " you think that they are worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:4).

This would certainly be an insensitive message to share with the grieving friends and family of these five girls right now, when the sense of loss is so great, grief so deep, and wound so fresh. It would take a cold-hearted, unwise follower of Jesus to say, "I know you miss your girls, but unless you repent you will suffer a similar fate." However, this message does not need to be forgotten, not matter how painful the loss. While it is a matter of God's timing as to when it should be shared, it must be shared. It is a message that once compassionately shared - including to the grieving families in Rochester, NY - I pray is received and heeded.

As Pearlman unknowingly points out, tragedy has a way of coloring what we think we deserve from this life. When sudden suffering or a bitter providence comes such as the one shared above, we have a tendency to falsely believe we don't deserve such a fate. And in some sense it is tragic that five beautiful girls have had the flickering flame of their lives snuffed out to quickly. However, Jesus brings the real issue to the surface in tragedy. Again, don't misunderstand me: the deaths of these girls is an awful, unspeakable tragedy. It is a suffering that I would not wish on anyone. Nor do I believe that God is unaffected by the grief of these families. He is present in this situation and is not silent. But, according to Jesus, it would be unbiblical to suggest that anyone who dies - whether prematurely or in old age - deserves better.

Jesus tells us that people don't experience horrible fates because they are greater sinners than others, but simply because they are sinners like all others. And the warning is real: unless we repent from our sins and turn to Jesus as our Hero, we will all suffer a similar fate. It may be a fiery car crash with our friends or terminal cancer or a massive heart attack or the pull of an undercurrent that causes us to drown. Because of the curse of sin we will all die. Some will die young. Others will die quietly in their old age in their beds. But all will die, and all need to heed the message of Luke 13.

When I read the story about these girls I was reminded of why we should hate sin and its damning curse - and that is just what it is apart from faith in Jesus - a damning curse. Sin and death will have their way with us unless we look to Christ for rescue. It is my prayer that the grace of God will begin to shine through the tears and sorrow of these sober days in Rochester, NY, and that the glory of Jesus would be revealed as the only hope for sinners. May the heavy-hearts of the shattered families be lifted by the grace, mercy and compassion of Jesus during these dark days.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

For What Purpose?

Several weeks ago I had the privilege to officiate a wedding ceremony of one of my former students. It was a beautiful wedding and honor that they would ask me to serve in such a high pastoral role. The night before the wedding Emily and I received an invitation to go and see another of my former students perform at a local bar. Since we had someone to watch the girls and I had never seen Odie play, we decided it would be a good idea to go watch the show.

Before I continue let me give you a little more context. I am not a strict prohibitionist concerning alcohol. I do not believe that Scripture teaches that it is sinful for a believer of Jesus to drink alcohol socially and in moderation. It is clear that disciples are prohibited from indulging in drunkenness (Eph 5:18). I believe that Christian liberty allows for the consumption of alcohol as long as it does not: (a) violate the conscience of the one drinking. In other words, as long as they are persuaded in the Lord Jesus, then it is acceptable (Rom 14:14); or (b) the exercise of their liberty does not cause other "weaker"siblings in Christ to sin - meaning that they follow their example and indulge in this observed liberty but are not convinced in the Lord Jesus that indulging in this liberty is acceptable for them. Their conscience, thus, condemns them. Today we might call this giving into peer pressure without biblically weighing the pro's and con's of this liberty and deciding for oneself - under the guidance of the Spirit - whether or not one should drink. A final word of context. I do not make it my practice to drink alcohol. There are other issues related to the issue of drinking such as cultural context and my position and authority as a minister in Jesus' church. So, for these reasons and others, it is my normal practice to abstain from the consumption of alcohol although I am convinced God has granted me the liberty otherwise.

The story continues...At the show Emily and I had a chance to reconnect with many former students from our ministry at Green Valley Baptist Church. Without exception almost every student was drinking. This wasn't really troubling, but a later conversation prompted some questions about the purpose of this activity. If you don't know, OdieMcCool broke up and now Odie is on his own playing music and being the whimsical, creative genuis that he is. One of the students told me that he wasn't sure what he was going to do for "fun" now that the band was busted up because they used to go watch them play 3-4 times a week.

As we were at the bar I noticed that most of the students weren't content to have one drink. There were multiple drinks being enjoyed (to the glory of God is a debatable issue). I left wondering, "What is the purpose behind this activity? Is it solely for leisure? Are the expenses of weekend social drinking - particularly on a regular basis - justifiable Kingdom expenses? Are people here just for fun or for purpose?"

As I consider the teaching of Scripture, when Paul and Peter were confronted with these issues of liberty related to food, drink and even circumcision, this was never an issue of a biblical author championing his liberty to eat certian foods or drink wine; they were always issues where these practices were acceptable in the culture where the Gospel was penetrating and these men of God were faced with whether or not these cultural practices were sinful for those converted in this cultural context. It was never an issue of liberty for pleasure by the biblical author. I've had so many conversations with students (of legal drinking age) who are convinced Scripturally that it is okay for them to drink a beer (and it is - under certain Scriptural conditions), but their only concern is their right to do so. It saddens me to think that we feel so little compassion and cooperation towards the body of Christ that we could cling tightly to an exercise of pleasure over and above the weaker faith of our Jesus siblings (and this is the dominant issue in Romans 14:1-15:7). Paul is concerned, yes, that we have the freedom to exercise our liberty, but that we not do so at the expense of others or the Kingdom.

This brings me back to what I observed: for what Kingdom purpose are young evangelicals around the US championing their liberty to consume alcohol? It is certainly one thing to spend time at a local sports bar weekly building relationships with the patrons and enjoying a cold one when its offered to you. But it is another issue entirely to burn hundreds of dollars a month at a local bar drinking alcohol simply because Scripture doesn't forbid it for pleasure and without purpose. And the same could be said with the excessive amount of money we spend on clothes, entertainment, eating out and more (lest anyone get confused that this post is simply about alcohol).

There is nothing wrong with enjoying what God has given us as a gift for His glory. As a matter of fact, Scripture commands us to enjoy the good gifts God has given (1Tim 6:17). But the issues are those of excess and purpose. I can enjoy a glass of orange juice to the glory of God (and I do so regularly). However, if I am spending $300/mo on orange juice when there are issues of justice, mercy and compassion I have the resources to help eradicate, am I glorifying God with my resources, even if I am giving thanks to God for the $300/mo OJ addiction? And furthermore, for what purpose would I make such excessive expenditures. Paul himself says that "...the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousnss and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom 14:17).

My concern is that Christian liberty has become the "boast" of the younger evangelical. I dearly love many of the students I saw at Odie's concert, but I know little of their devotion to Christ or His Church because I am so distanced from their current life situation. My suspicion is that many of them are only loosely connected to Jesus, rarely attend His Church, and give very little to support the hands, feet and heart ministry of His Bride. And yet, thousands of dollars and hours are likely exhausted pursuing pleasure and the cause of Christian liberty.

The prophet Jeremiah had something to say about what the priorities of the saints of God should be: "Thus says the LORD, 'Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches (and if I can add, let not the disciple boast in his liberty), but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD'" (Jeremiah 9:23-24).

I'm convinced that at the final judgment God will not look down on those of us who boasted in our Christian liberty at the expense of the faith of others or good stewardship with an approving smile. I'm not sure how much God will delight in the proper exercise of Christian liberty. But He does delight in people that know and understand Him, who practice steadfast love, justice and righteousness on the earth. God, I pray that I will pursue these things with the same passion and desire in which I pursue my own pleasure. May my pleasure be found in your smile and no other.

Monday, July 02, 2007


Paraphrasing John Calvin: The evil in our desires does not lie (usually) in what we want, but that we want it too much. Discuss.

Vibia Perpetua

I have recently been reading and enjoying the book From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya by Ruth Tucker. I found one story about a woman named Vibia Perpetua and her slave girl Felicitas compelling, faith-stirring, courageous and heart-breaking. The stage is set in the 3rd century in North Africa in the great Roman city of Carthage. Widespread persecution erupted under the rule of Emperor Septimus Severus. In 202 he issued an edict forbidding the worship of either Christianity or Judaism. As a worshiper of Serapis, the Egyptian god of the dead, Severus felt threatened particulary by Christianity, and his edict was primarily aimed at prospective new converts to quelch the spread of Christianity.

Saturus was a Christian living in Carthage at the time of this edict. He was a deacon who conducted catechism classes for new converts. Among those attending his class were Perpetua and Felicitas. Perpetua was a 22-year old mother of an infant son and her servant Felicitas was 8-months pregnant. There is very little historical record or documentation of Perpetua's husband, but historians have speculated he was either dead or had abandoned his young family because of her faith. Saturus, Perpetua, Felicitas, and three other men were arrested under the edict of Serapis and condemned to die.

While some scholars speculate that parts of Perpetua's story are more legendary than factual, the story is filled with such human emotion that historians believe most documentation is an historical account of the real events. When her father received word of her arrest and death sentence (she was his only daughter), he begged her to renounce her faith. As a nobleman her father endured much shame when she was arrested, but she was unmoved in her devotion to her new faith. Even when threatened with beating at the hands of her father she never waivered.

But what her father could not accomplish in breaking her solid demeanor, her infant son could. We are told that Perpetua was "racked with anxiety", almost to the breaking point, when two Christians brought her infant son to the prison. "I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger. In my anxiety I spoke to my mother about the child, I tried to comfort my brother, and I gave the child in their charge. I was in pain because I saw them suffering out of pity for me. These were trials I had to endure for many days. Then I got permission for my baby to stay with me in prison. At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and anxiety over the child."

As the days drew near for her execution she began to experience more pressure from her family to recant. Her father again came and pleaded with her to put family considerations before her creed: "Do not cut us off entirely; for not one of us will ever hold up his head again if anything happens to you", begged her father. But Perpetua was unmoved, convinced that she was in this position in accordance with God's will.

The next day Perpetua's father learned that she was to be thrown to wild beasts, and in his love and compassion for his daughter he attempted to rescue her. Though heroic, her father was discovered and beaten by the authorities. Perpetua was overwhelmed with sorrow for what her father endured for her sake.

He continued to persist in persuading her to abandon her faith in Jesus. He took her infant son, placed him on her breasts and said, "Be merciful to us, daughter, and live with us!" Perpetua's response is incomprehensible to the spiritually dead. We are told that Perpetua, unwavering in her faith, "threw the child aside, and repulsed her parents, saying, 'Be gone from me, enemies of God, for I know you not!'"

It was finally too late Perpetua and her friends. The trial was over and their fate was sealed. But rather than be overcome with sorrow and fear for the impending suffering, the group became more and more concerned that they remain worthy to suffer for Jesus. Their loyalty to Jesus remained unflinching.

As they were brought to the arena they witnessed to the crowds who came to be entertained by their deaths. According to Roman custom the men were taken first to be tortured for the pleasure of the crowd. Saturus stopped at the gate for one last word of testimony to Pudens, the prison governor, who later turned to Christ and became a martyr himself. The men were then sent into the arena with a bear, a leopard and a wild boar. Their suffering was intense and their torture was brutal.

Perpetua and Felicitas, who had given birth while in prison, were stripped and sent into the arena to face a "mad heifer". The gory torture soon became too much for even the blood-thirsty crowd who began shouting "Enough!".

But these were just the preliminary stages of their deaths. All remained alive and were brought to the executioner. As Perpetua was brought to the gladiator charged with beheading her, she noticed some grieving Chrsitian friends and said, "Give out the Word to the brothers and sisters; stand fast in the faith, love one another, and don't let our suffering become a stumbling block to you." Horribly, the first blow to execute Perpetua failed. She cried out in pain, took the gladiator's trembling hand and directed the sword to her throat. It was finally over.

This is a moving account of true devotion to Jesus in the face of severe suffering, loss and agony. Most of us would give anything to preserve our families, and yet this woman lost everything - including her family and infant son - to gain the glory of Jesus. Perpetua's willingess to lose all things for the sake of Christ reminds us of Jesus' words in the Gospel of Matthew: "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:37-39).