The Dialect of God's Kingdom

I used to have a friend named Charlie. We lived in the same neighborhood and attended the same elementary school. He was quiet but friendly. Even among fourth grade boys those qualities usually made for a good friendship. Charlie lived next door to another boy in our class and one day after school we were all going to Taylor’s house to play basketball. First, we had to stop at Charlie’s house.

Charlie was the only boy in a house of women. He and his sister lived with their mom. I never met his dad. And Charlie didn’t talk about him much. Our other friend, Taylor, and I had both our parents at home and we both had a brother. Both of our dads did well for themselves, and by extension, us and our siblings. Our moms were always home when school was over. And the chores were evenly distributed among us all. 

But Charlie often carried the lion’s share. Even as a young boy he did a lot of the messier chores. And this day he had strict instructions from his mom. Before he could play he had to finish a few chores. Taylor and I had no intention of helping Charlie with his chores — we expended enough effort avoiding our own chores — but we didn’t want him to be alone in a dark house.

So, the three of us walked home from school, down their street, and straight into Charlie’s house. Fall in the midwest, with it’s iron-gray skies, could make a house feel cold and dark — even at 3 in the afternoon. Standing in their dimly lit kitchen, in alternating blues and reds against a backdrop of white, I recognized the familiar pattern of a sponge-painted wall. 

I have no idea if that was popular in the early 90’s. As a nine year-old boy, I had no interest in home decor or design. It was a familiar pattern to me because we had painted my room the same way. Despite our many differences, we shared the porous pattern of a sponge-painted wall.

I hadn’t told Charlie all of that, though. Neither did I tell him that my wall was blue and yellow, not blue and red. I also failed to mention that I wasn’t a big fan of red. All I told him was: “I don’t like that.” It wasn’t malicious, just honest. Yet my honesty did not stop all the smile from draining from his face, down his legs, and out of the room entirely.

But he didn’t ask my opinion. He hadn’t even mentioned the wall. It didn’t matter to anyone how I felt about the color-scheme they had chosen. No one asked how I felt about it and we didn’t have a strong enough relationship to freely share my opinion about anything at any time. It was true, but not everything that is true needs to be spoken. Sometimes “your truth” needs to stay in “your mouth."

Growing up in the church, I was always taught that Christians have the truth. Jesus, himself, is truth. Jesus is truth in flesh. He even says as much (John 14:6). We are quick to quote Paul, when he tells us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). In real life, this looks like a stubborn insistence on speaking the truth — regardless of whether or not anyone asked; and especially regardless of whether it needs to be said at all. Paul’s words are used as justification for saying whatever we like because we interpret Paul’s words as if he means: “speaking the truth is love.”

But that’s not at all what Paul means. And it’s not even close to what Jesus taught. Jesus taught what is true. But by stating that he is the truth, Jesus rebukes every attempt to insist that truth is merely a proposition. An idea can be true or false, but the timeless truth is embodied in the person of Jesus. In fact, all of the truth contained in Paul’s epistles or Peter's correspondence, or John’s vision, are nothing more than Spirit-inspired reflections on the ways that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Because of this realization—truth is more than an idea or a quality, it is personal—it requires engagement with another person. Jesus spoke to truth to everyone, but he did it face to face. He did it in people’s homes and over meals. He spoke the truth directly to individuals. And his silent answer to Pilate’s question — “what is truth” (John 18:38) — is an indictment on anyone who attempts to reduce truth to an impersonal concept. 

Embodied truth was also embodied love. John states clearly, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Truth and love come together in the person of Jesus. No one else lived and spoke with absolute truth and in complete love. 

When we consider this and begin to observe his interactions with people, Jesus spoke honestly at all times. He also spoke tenderly, but only with those “outside” the faith. To the “truth-is-love” crowd, he spoke only the truth and dropped the love. To those who used truth — and their possession of it — as a club and a wall, Jesus speaks directly and bluntly. To the self-righteous, Jesus — absolute truth in the flesh — resorts to using truth as a club, not to beat but to humble. Jesus uses truth against the self-righteous to shatter their hard hearts. But, to those “living in sin," to the “perverted,” to those with questionable politics and even worse associations, Jesus speaks truth lovingly. 

Another interesting thing to consider: Jesus’ first words in Mark’s gospel are, “The time if fulfilled, and the kingdom is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mk 1:14). Rather than make us guess what that means, Mark shows us. He calls the disciples to follow him and learn to imitate him; he heals the sick and the paralyzed; he delivers demonized men and women; and he teaches. In Matthew, his first words are to tell John that his baptism “is necessary to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). In Luke, the pre-teen Jesus asks Mary and Joseph, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49); John, also, has Jesus asking a question, “What are you seeking?” (Jn 1:38). 

Jesus always spoke the truth and calls his disciples to do the same. Yet, the very first words in each of the four gospels provide a powerful corrective to our “truth-is-love” oppositional approach. Jesus spoke the truth that he was the faithful King who makes unfaithful people righteous (Matthew). Jesus spoke the truth that the Kingdom of God had come near enough that all a person needs to do is reach out a hand (Mark). Jesus spoke the truth that he came that all who follow him would be welcomed as sons and daughters in his Father’s house (Luke). Jesus spoke the truth to reveal what’s really in the heart of every person (John). 

In other words, Jesus spoke the truth because there is no other way for him to speak. Truth is the only language he knows. Truth, in the dialect of the Kingdom of God, is always about God’s promise, his invitation, his welcome, and his presence. 

You know what I wish I would have said to my friend, Charlie?


What I know now, is that a little boy like Charlie would have felt love and acceptance just knowing that his friends were with him. I wish I would have had the maturity to keep “my truth” in my mouth and, instead, speak the truth in the way of Jesus—picking up the broom or the dustpan and joining my friend in completing his chores. And not so that we could get them done quicker or have more time to play. No, speaking the truth of the Kingdom to my friend would mean helping him with his chores, so that in some small way the truth of Jesus’ love could resonate in his heart: “I am with you."

Sanctifying God's Power

Sitting on a log in West Virginia, at age 16, God called me to ministry leadership. The following spring, I was elected to be Student Body Chaplain at my Christian high school. Many of the teachers groaned because I did not fit their expectations for a “spiritual leader.” In reality, I could not be put into a typical high school box.

I was neither rebellious nor overly compliant. I did not go out of my way to break rules; but neither was I all that concerned with keeping them.

I followed my curiosity, asking hard questions of all my teachers, but I could not have cared less about grades. 

My friends came from every clique and high school archetype (jocks, nerds, a/v, etc); every age and stage—junior high to college age. I had a way of connecting with and challenging every person in any position. Social status, position, age, credentials, have always been irrelevant to me. 

Many teachers and administrators had a way of making sure that I knew I was not the model of “spiritual maturity” they thought that I should be; especially after I was quite vocal in my opposition to the board’s decision to expel one of my peers after he had been drinking at friend’s house over the weekend. Keeping him would “hurt our testimony” and send a message to the rest of us that this kind of behavior was acceptable. When my peers and teachers asked for my opinion, I was clear: expelling him “for the sake of the gospel” was actually the least Christian thing they could do. It might even be anti-Christian. 

They did not like that answer.

But the truth is, I never did anything wrong. Unless you count violating unspoken, cultural expectations of spiritual leadership — most of which are just one type of bullshit or another. And, what was most interesting to me, was that many of my peers who had been hostile or indifferent to Christianity (likely because of the prevailing paradigms for “maturity”) suddenly became interested under my leadership. 

I have since seen God do this countless times, everywhere I have been. Without trying, I manage to scare/intimidate/piss off those with any kind of “power” or position or vested interest in maintaining the status quo, while simultaneously making those on the fringes feel welcomed. Before you ask: I have no idea what I am doing or how I do this. It is clear that this is just how God, through his Holy Spirit, works through me. I used to believe that there was something wrong with me. For many years I believed the lies that have followed me. From teachers to prospective churches and search committees to elders, there have always been people who have tried to label me “not a team player” or “disrespectful.” There have been moments where that was true. But it has always been easy for me to admit my faults and ask for forgiveness. The real “problem” is that I am not—and never have been— a people pleaser. Every single person gets the same unvarnished experience. 

It was not until I had enough life experience that I noticed a consistent pattern over these past sixteen years. Those with any position or power, those with influence or a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, people desperately wanting to believe the world is black-and-white and—wouldn’t you know it? They’re always on the right side!— those folks could always find something about me they did not like. 

But those people who had been made to believe that they were just too different, wrong, broken, hurt, critical, or whatever else—those people (from students to seniors) have consistently testified that my friendship, my ministry, my teaching, and my leadership helped them to believe that Jesus was not who they had been led to believe. Through me, somehow, they encountered the real Jesus. And the real Jesus is so much better; unspeakably so.

Why am I sharing all this? Mostly as an exercise in vulnerability. Throughout my life, many people have wrongly concluded that I am just an introvert or shy (myself included!). The reality is that I really enjoy people, but I do not trust them. I have never been one to trust many people; opening up to a very small, select few. 

The fact that Christianity affirms that every person was made in the image of God, means that every person, in some way, despite our sinfulness, embodies a quality of God. For some, they embody God's discernment or his comfort or his generosity. For me, it’s God’s power. I can walk into any room or church or organization and immediately know who is in charge (and who is just pretending to be). Despite many attempts from all kinds, I cannot be manipulated or coerced. You can beat the tar out of me (figuratively or not) and I cannot, will not, stay down. You cannot make me “fall in line” when the line is crooked. This “power” is a curse to the powerful and a gift to the marginalized.

In my teens, I didn’t understand it.
In my 20’s, I hated it. 
Now, in my 30’s, I am praying God sanctifies it. 

In my pursuit to understand this gift (curse? sometimes), God’s Spirit has lead me to the story of David. David exemplifies a man who embodies God’s power. As a young man, God set him apart to be the next King. Being faithful to God put him at odds with Saul and his people. When unbeatable enemies with incomparable power threatened his people, a teenage David has the audacity to stare a well-armed, highly-trained giant (!) in the eye and say, “God helped me kill bears and lions with my bare hands. You’ll be easier.” That’s the knee-jerk for the man of God who embodies God’s power. “Who says it can't be done?" should be tattooed across my chest. 

For over a decade, David lived on the run, facing attacks and betrayals from friend and foe alike. Then, in 1 Samuel 22:1-3 we’re told that David escaped to the cave at Adullam. There "everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them.” Those who had nothing but need found in David a champion who could show them another way. Many of them would become David’s “mighty men” (2 Sam 23:8ff). I'll take 400 broken men and women who are convinced of their need over the powerful masses any day. 

God has made me a man like David. It has taken me sixteen years, but I am learning to embrace it.

Don’t @ me. 

Living in Apocalypse

Every day, it seems, another leader is exposed for abuse scandals and cover-ups. Most recently, Paige Patterson, a titanic figure among Southern Baptists, has been facing intense criticism. Full disclosure: I believe that he deserves it. The first page of a Google search will explain why I feel that way. But rather than take a strong stand against this damaging style of leadership, the Trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary gave Patterson a cushy retirement as the President Emeritus complete with salary and a new home on campus. It’s possible to honor a leader for the previous decades of honorable leadership while still rebuking them for their equally egregious failures. Paul did it (Galatians 2:11-14), what’s stopping us?

Power makes cowards of us all, particularly those dedicated to holding onto it.

Here’s the real question: what do we make of this #MeToo and #ChurchToo moment? Is this some well-orchestrated conspiracy from a cabal composed of Liberals, LGBTQ activists, and the “lame-stream” media? I think something else is happening; something that ought to shake us. I believe that God is allowing our cultural and institutional sins to be found out. In Numbers 32:23, God warns the tribes of Reuben and Gad. Those had chosen land on the other side of the Jordan river establishing a self-imposed separation from the rest of Israel. The Lord tells them they still bear the responsibility of joining the other ten tribes in driving out their enemies from the land (32:20-22). If they refuse, "you have sinned against the Lord, and be sure your sin will find you out.” For two generations, we have been waging war against those “enemies” of the faith; those outside the “land” of Evangelicalism. We have failed, however, to deal with the enemies behind our own walls. And God’s promise is proving true. 

Statue | Michael's Victory over Satan | St Michaelis Church.jpg

In fact, John the Apostle writes an entire book of the New Testament that embodies this very idea. His visionary work is called an “apokalupsis”, an “unveiling.” Pop culture and bad theology has taught us that the “apocalypse” is the end of the world. Biblically, it actually means to “reveal.” The Apocalypse of John is a dramatic stripping away of the facade that conceals. The root of “apokalupsis” means “to hide, cover, or conceal.” The “a” prefix puts the word in the negative (similar to a-theist, someone who does not believe in God; versus a theist, someone who does believe in God). The Apocalypse that John invites us into in the book of Revelation is the removal of that which hides, covers, or conceals the world as it really is. 

I believe that we are living in a moment in history where God is removing the facades that allow us to live in unrepentant ignorance. Rather than doubling down on fear, we ought to be a people of repentance. No more non-apologies and half-measures. If we really want to be about our Father’s work, then there is only one thing necessary: repentance. At this point, it’s the only thing that will prove we belong to our Father in Heaven. 

Come, Holy Spirit,
Search us and know us
Try our anxious thoughts
Reveal the grievous ways in us
And lead us in the way everlasting. 

Rejecting the False God of Safety

The past two Sundays I preached at two different congregations. Each one is facing their own challenges. They are both stepping into an unknown future. One is uncertain but hopeful. The other has walked a long road. Their eyes show the weariness they are afraid to speak. Before picking passages for either one, I asked the Lord what he would have me teach them; Romans 8 and Mark 4:35-5:20. On their face, these are two completely different texts. Except that they both speak to the same people: weary travelers feeling lost on the road, abandoned by God. 

Faith looks a lot like foolishness and feels like fear. It’s why Jesus constantly asked the disciples, “why are you so afraid? Have you no faith?” Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. We resist living our lives in real faith because we are terrified of fear. We equate God’s goodness with safety. But, in the immortal words of Mr. Beaver from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, “He’s not safe, but he is good.” We resist the real Jesus because he puts us in circumstances that constantly strip away all pretense and requires us to forsake comfort. The real Jesus is terrifying to us because he doesn’t value safety like we do. And we struggle to comprehend goodness without safety. 

After an easy day of teaching, Jesus gets the disciples in the boat and heads out on the Sea of Galilee. A storm large enough to reduce professional fisherman to tears rises up while Jesus sleeps. He is sleeping because, though he is fully God, he also took on full humanity. Every preacher can attest to the unique sort of exhaustion that comes over you after a full day of teaching - even extrovert pastors look forward to their Sunday afternoon nap!

He is also napping as a living exposition. In those days the image of a God in full control of every situation; who was undaunted by the challenges he is faced or the opposition against him; who was at complete peace and ease; was a God asleep. The Twelve interpret his sleep as apathy - “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). They didn’t get the picture. 

Photo by  Jeremy Bishop  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

A groggy Jesus mumbles a command and the storm is reminded of its place. For these men - and all the Jewish people - the sea represents the forces of evil and chaos. It’s constant motion; our inability to control it; it’s unpredictability; the fact that foreign enemies can appear on the horizon without any warning; the sea represents all the characteristics of the nature of evil. This is why John, in Revelation 13, tells of a beast rising up out of the sea. This otherworldly creature embodies all that threatens God’s people. If the Joker was a place on a map, he would be the sea.

Like a well-trained guard dog, the sea is menacing to those he doesn’t know but whimpering and obedient at his master’s voice. 

The life of faith requires us to follow Jesus into the places we are sure will mean our certain doom. And those are the precise places that Jesus is seen in fresh, new, powerful ways. His full power is only shown to those who are willing to walk with him. The trailhead of that desert road is foreboding. Only a fool would willingly walk that way. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” Paul tells us, “but to those who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). There is nothing wise - from a human perspective - about following Jesus. There is nothing safe; there are no guardrails on the desert road to the eternal city. But we do follow one at whose word the Beast from the Sea bends the knee; and who makes the powers of darkness cower, begging for mercy. 

There is nothing safe about following Jesus. But we have made safety the chief virtue of our churches. Safe requires no faith. Safe demands no prayer. Safe asks nothing of us but to resist the call of the real Jesus. “Safe” is the name of our modern day golden calf. Safe gives us the things we want most: money and comfort. 

But safe is also boring. Because it demands nothing of us, we have nothing greater to be a part of. In the words of Simon Sinek - a globally influential business consultant - “profit is not a purpose”. Our souls beg for more than money, comfort, and respectability. 

Why else would every TV network on the planet have travel shows (even the Food Network)? 
Why else would a generation of young people become infamous for their fear of missing out, hence their constant moving and traveling? 
Why else would the 21st century see an exponential rise in businesses whose entire model is based on addressing every conceivable need in the third world?
Why else do husbands and wives of 20, 30, 40 years break apart because of adultery?
Why else do young people climb to the highest points in their cities without harnesses or safety nets of any kind?

Because, one way or another, we will find adventure, even if it destroys everything precious to us.

The safe road is the road that leads to death.
The desert road leads to life. 

This is what the Lord says:

Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.”
— Jeremiah 6:16

Reject the false god of safety.
The real Jesus waits at the desert road.

Photo by  Joshua Gresham  on  Unsplash

Oil, Prayer, and Healing

Some of you might be familiar with the idea of healing prayer, and others may not. The practice comes from James 5:14-15. James tells those who are sick to ask the leaders of the church to anoint him with oil and pray for the Lord to heal.

First, let me explain the oil. The oil is a symbol used throughout the Bible for someone being set apart by God (Ex 28:41), for the presence of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:18; Acts 10:38; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22), and the sign of God’s favor (Ps 45:7). By anointing a sick person with oil we are creating a tangible expression of faith: that the Holy Spirit would come on the person in a unique way to work the Father’s healing power in Jesus’ name. God is the one who heals, the oil is merely a symbol. Like all symbols, the oil points beyond itself to something greater. In this case the healing power of God through the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus.

Second, why healing? When Adam and Eve sinned in Genesis 3 they opened Pandora’s Box. In an excellent book on the subject of sin (called Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be) Cornelius Plantinga compares sin to a parasite, a corrosive agent, and vandalism - among many other pictures. He says that “Sin is disruption of created harmony and then resistance to divine restoration of that harmony” (5). We tend to think that sin is just a particular act to avoid (for example, marital intimacy vs adultery). But, the biblical picture of sin is that of a foreign agent sabotaging every facet of existence. This is why we get sick and why we need glasses. It’s why there is terminal cancer and seasonal allergies. All of creation is caught up in one great Civil War. 

Healing is Part of the Kingdom of God
So, when God comes to redeem humanity he does not just address the soul. Isaiah the prophet described Jesus’ ministry several hundred years before he came. In Isaiah 35:5-6 we’re told that when God comes

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

This same idea is expanded in Isaiah 61 to include nearly every aspect of culture and creation.

When Jesus finally lands on the scene we’re told that his ministry begins with a simple declaration: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand (1:15). From there Mark 1:16-3:6 is story after story of Jesus healing thousands and delivering as many from demons. Each of the gospel writers will go to great lengths to make this connection between OT promises of the Kingdom and the ministry of Jesus (and later, the church). These instances of healing and deliverance are incredible. Yet, In his book on both Luke and Acts, New Testament scholar, Darrell Bock, says, “The important point is not so much the miracles themselves as what they portray (Luke 10:18-20). In Jesus’ ministry, God is present, exercising power through the one he has sent. In Acts, Jesus’ power is expressed through his appointed messengers, which shows that he has been raised and is active. The forces that oppose people meet their defeat and death through Jesus. He can deliver. In other words, physical salvation portrays spiritual salvation."

When we compare the Old Testament descriptions of God’s Kingdom, the gospel’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry and miracles as demonstrating the Kingdom of God. In his shorter book on the Kingdom of God, the late New Testament scholar, George Ladd said this, 

The Age to Come belongs to the future, and yet the powers of The Age to Come have entered into the present evil Age. The Kingdom of God belongs to the future, and yet the blessings of the Kingdom of God have entered into the present Age to deliver men from bondage to Satan and sin. Eternal life belongs to the Kingdom of God, to The Age to Come; but it, too, has entered into the present evil Age that men may experience eternal life in the midst of death and decay. We enter into this enteral life in the midst of death and decay.
— Ladd, G.E. The Gospel of the Kingdom, 71

Earlier in that same book on the subject of “eternal life” he says,

Eternal life has to do with the total man. It concerns not only my soul but also my body. When we finally inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 15:50), that which is mortal - our physical, frail body - will be swallowed up in life. Eternal life includes the redemption of our bodies. The inheritance of the Kingdom of God means the transformation of these bodies of flesh and blood (1 Cor 15:50).
— Ladd, G.E. The Gospel of the Kingdom, 69

Healing is Offered through God’s People
In Matthew 10:1 he gives this same ministry of healing and spiritual deliverance to the twelve disciples. Then in Luke 10 (chronologically after Matthew 10), Jesus assigns this work to seventy-two others. After the Holy Spirit comes to the whole church in Acts 2 healing is included in the work that God does through his people (3:1-10; 4:12-16; 8:4-7). By the time the book of James is written (c. mid-40’s AD) this practice of healing prayer had become common enough practice for James to provide some direction to the rest of the church. 

So, in summary, why healing? Because in Jesus the power of the age to come has become a real part of the Christian life and community. We pray for healing because we believe (1) that God wants to heal; (2) that healing can be part of the demonstration of God’s Kingdom coming into the present time; (3) Jesus has extended this work to the church (specifically, James 5). 

Straining to Glimpse Resurrection

The following is a contribution I made to City Church's Lent Devotional. The text is Romans 8:22-25, which reads:

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

A heartfelt groan is sometimes better than a sung anthem. Tears are a language that God understands.
— Robert Smith, Jr.

I used to think the trees creaked because the wind blew. It’s a sound easy to miss; drowned by the cacophony of modern life. But if you listen you will hear an all-too-familiar groan: that deep, guttural longing. 

I used to look up at the stars and wish they could tell me what they have seen. I’ve heard rumors of a heavenly choir whose song never ends (Ps 19:1-6). Recently Nasa released recordings of sounds captured in space. Now we know the stars hum a haunting song; hopeful and heartbroken. “All creation has been groaning together,” Paul says (Romans 8:22a). She sighs in hope and agony; “in the pains of childbirth” (8:22b). In both pain and longing creation is groaning because new life is coming.

The song of the stars and groaning of the trees is one we all know. Paul tells us that it’s not only creation, “but we ourselves…groan inwardly” (8:23). Maybe the days are good, but night always comes. Your days may be filled with every kind of fruitful and fulfilling activity. Then night falls. And everything that has scuffed, chipped, gouged, and cracked your heart begins to creep out from the shadows. Every lie you have believed, every hateful word you have spoken, every wrong you have committed, every good you have left undone. They visit us in the night. And we groan. 

We groan because we’re caught between two worlds. The world-as-it-is pulls us one direction and the world-as-it-will-be pulls in another. Part of us wants to run one direction. The rest, in the other. We’re caught between “the sufferings of this present time” (8:18) and our eager, hopeful longing "for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23). Alongside the trees and the stars we stand on our toes hoping to catch a glimpse of what’s to come. We hold our breathe in hope the day is closer than we thought. 

I used to think the trees creaked because the wind blew. Now I know that they creak because they’re straining to get a glimpse of resurrection. 

Four reasons To Read Those You Disagree With

Several months ago, I cleaned out my personal library. Our son was on his way and there was room for my books or him - not both. As much as I love books, I love my son more. Working through all the titles on my shelves I realized something. All of these books were written by people that I agree with.

This bothered me. 

This bothered me because I know that small streams are made of small springs. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, puts it another way. He says,

When you listen and read one thinker, you become a clone… two thinkers, you become confused… ten thinkers, you’ll begin developing your own voice… two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise and develop your voice.

It's easy for all of us to read those we know we will agree with. It's comfortable. But, is that really beneficial? It may feel like learning, but as Keller says, you may just be a clone. At best you're confused. The reason I was so disturbed by the lack of diversity in my library was because I knew that none of these books would challenge my assumptions or convictions. This wall of texts became a wall against challengers. I think that is foolish.

You read that right - foolish.

Seth Godin helped to popularize the term "Tribes" to refer to our circles of influence. In my own I have found that we're all reading the same books, quoting the same people, recycling the same ideas, and patting each other on the back. But, is it really helping us? The reason it bothered me so much when I worked through my library is that the ease and familiarity with ideas wasn't helping me. I had the literary equivalent of participation ribbons.

I thought of four reasons to read people I disagree with:

1. It will force me to examine the reasons I believe what I do.

As important as it is to know what I believe, I'm convinced it's equally important to know why. This applies to far more than faith. It applies to every area of life. The reason we don't work as hard to discover why is because it is harder and takes far more work. It can also be scary to have our assumptions challenged. But, in the end, it will make you a kinder, more informed person.

That's worth it to me.

2. The willingness to be challenged (and possibly proven wrong!) will keep me humble.

Avoiding any whiff of controversy is comfortable and easy. But, without a challenge it is easy to become arrogant and abrasive. I have yet to meet anyone who thinks those qualities are virtuous. The willingness to be challenged or proven wrong is good for me.

3. It will teach me to engage in respectful and meaningful dialogue - even with those who think I am wrong!

Dr. Russell Moore likes to call this convictional kindness. That's a good way to describe it. Certainty does not have to produce anger or defensiveness. Instead you can affirm the value and dignity of the other person while still disagreeing with them. Isn't that what we all want?

4. It reminds me that even those I think are wrong still have something to teach me.

Have you ever known someone who was convinced they were right about everything? Those people are hard to be around. They will use all kinds of labels ("not a team player", "insubordinate", "stupid") to beat you over the head until you confess their intelligence. Balaam the prophet (Numbers 22) was like that. Because his donkey didn't blindly follow his directions he continued to verbally and physically assault the poor animal. It's not until God allows the donkey to speak and Balaam almost has his head cut off by an angel that he realizes he is the bullheaded jackass in the story.

So, for your next read, why not try listening to someone different; someone you don't agree with?

You Know What Happens When We Assume

This may take most people by surprise, but Preaching is one of the most difficult things you can do. It looks easy. All you have to do is stand up, talk about the Bible and then your work is over for the week! If only it were that easy. Even apart from the weight of its importance, it is terribly difficult. Part of it's difficulty is that it is deceptive. It looks easy, but it's anything but. It is both an art and a science. There are certain elements that we can learn in the classroom and others that we can't.

If I had to narrow it down to one particular temptation that I face - and that I believe many others face - it would be assumption. Those who have theological education like myself can approach a passage of Scripture and assume that we already know what it means. Familiarity with certain books or passages can lull us into a false sense of security and understanding. It's easy to identify a sermon that was build on assumption: it has a certain flatness to it. It can be propped up with all kinds of big words and appeals to ancient languages, but you can't fake depth.

When we assume that we understand a text we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to sit with the text and see the layers unfold. The longer we meditate on a passage the more we begin to see; the more it penetrates our hearts. The famous preacher G. Campbell Morgan would read a book of a Bible at least fifty times before he would ever begin his sermon preparation! Fifty! If I read a passage five times before sermon prep I'm feeling good. But, that familiarity shows up in the pulpit. It creates a depth and compassion that cannot be faked.

Even if you're not a preacher, take some time to read a whole book of the Bible in one sitting. You can start with a short one - try Jude, Philemon or Habakkuk. Read it all the way through without stopping. Then, read it again; and again; and again. Read it until you can't imagine seeing anything you haven't already seen before, then read it again. The more you read it the more the Lord will begin to show you those deeper riches.

What will surprise you - and what will transform a pastor's preaching - is that depth does not equal complicated. Depth is often simple, yet profound. Sometimes it may be complex or difficult, but it will never be convoluted or asinine. The next time you go to read your Bible try reading the same passage repeatedly. Be careful you don't fall into the trap of assumption. You know what happens when we assume...

Doing Things Badly

Anything worth doing is worth doing badly

G.K. Chesterton

It's safe to say that we all have dreams. What would you do if you knew that you could not fail? Where would you go if you knew you would never get lost? If you are like me, I bet you are dreaming big right now. I would travel the world and take Whitney every place she's ever dreamed. I would work to start a movement of young men who could preach with such passion, clarity and truth that our churches would never be the same. But, those kind of things don't they?

I have had a desire to change the way men at Southern Seminary preach. For the most part, few of my fellow students understand that homiletics is as much an art and science as Koine Greek or Biblical Hebrew. That's a shame. Until I began to take preaching seriously I preached really bad sermons. But, I came across two quotes that changed my thinking, my practice and my fear.

The first is from the late John Stott. He said that the agony of preaching is that you must forget 90% of what you know. Ouch. For seminarians, this is unthinkable. But, your congregations will thank you for it. The second is from G.K. Chesterton. He said, "anything worth doing is worth doing badly". Did you catch that? He said, "badly".

Most of us carry big dreams with us everyday. We think about them during our commutes and when we lay in bed at night. But, we talk ourselves out of them before we even try. We're convinced that every duck needs to be in its row before we can move forward on anything. If we believe that, then we'll never do anything worth doing. We'll live lives of "quiet desperation". Every idea must start somewhere.

Take a look at the first PC or the first car. They're nothing like they are today. But, they had to start somewhere. Ford started with only one car. One hundred years later, their F-150 is a best-selling pickup truck. That didn't materialize out of thin air. It's been a century in the making. The Apple II would get you laughed out of every office building and trade show today. But, now any kid with a MacBook Pro can produce films that rival even the best film companies. All it took was a dream and a willingness to start doing things badly. Excellence will come in time.

I'm stepping out. It's terrifying. Every day I face down the demons of despair who echo the same refrain: "this will fail". But, that's the beauty of it all. If it all fails, my identity is in securely in place in Jesus. So bring on failure! Let's all commit to doing those things we dream about. Let's see what God will do when we live in the security of his promises. Our endeavors may not pan out the way we dream, but in Christ we will never be failures.

So, dream big and do things badly!

Religion and Politics

Note: The following is from a recent paper I wrote for a course I recently completed called 'Christian Ethics'. I sought to explore a Christian's relationship to the state that avoids Nationalism (i.e. USA as a "Christian nation" - it's not) on the one hand and antipathy or disinterest on the other.

From Constantine to the Protestant Reformation Christianity enjoyed a privileged position in political authority. Even with the decline of Christendom around the time of the Reformation the Reformers still saw the church as having an influence upon the realm of kings and rulers. “From the outset, Protestanism was bound to cause political ripples” writes Alister McGrath. The effects of the Reformation were not limited to the realm of religious ideas. They directly affected the entire culture including politics. Many in the contemporary world have seen this as problematic and antithetical to the nature of the church . They would argue that there should be a very clear distinction between the church and the state. Gregory Boyd wrote his Myth of A Christian Nation precisely because he saw an American Christianity that too closely related itself with the Nation of the United States. In his words,

For many in America and around the world, the American flag has smothered the glory of the cross, and the ugliness of our American version of Caesar has squelched the radiant love of Christ. Because the myth that America is a Christian nation has led many to associate America with Christ, many now hear the good news of Jesus only as American news, capitalistic news, imperialistic news, exploitive news, antigay news, or Republican news. And whether justified or not, many people want nothing to do with any of it.

The illustration of the cross smothered by the flag is powerful. Chuck Colson also warns against using the tools of politics to bring about the Kingdom of Christ.

This is an important and powerful corrective to much of Evangelical political thought. David Gushee published an incitful article at the website of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship at Union University. He identifies an unarticulated view of America that some Evangelicals hold that equates the United States with the Old Testament Nation of Israel. This is the mindset that Boyd, Colson and others are arguing against. It is usually expressed in language that seeks to “take back America”. David Gushee explains that this analogy (America as Israel) is inappropriate on two levels. “It makes for bad theology…[and] it makes for bad policy.” The bad theology informs and shapes the bad policy.

However, this does not mean Christians ought not have any involvement in politics. On the contrary, we have a responsibility to work for the good of those around us – Christian or not. Despite what they have been quoted as saying above both Boyd and Colson see Christian participation in politics as a necessary stewardship that is informed and shaped by the Gospel of Christ. These men, among others, are warning against identifying the church with the state. Carl Trueman in his Republocrat states this issue succinctly: “The gospel cannot and must not be identified with partisan political posturing.” In a sermon on Matthew 5:13-14 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes a similar statement: “As Christians we are citizens of a country, and it is our business to play our part as citizens, and thereby act as salt indirectly in innumberable respects. But that is a very different thing from the Church’s doing so.” What is being envisioned in this paper is a Christian political involvement that avoids the extremes. Those extremes being the flag wrapped cross and the Christian-less public square.

Following the public embarrassment of the Scopes Trial of 1925 many fundamentalists removed themselves from the public square. Beginning in the 1940s a split began to take place among their ranks. The result was a fundamentalism that refused social action and the neo-evangelicals who saw it as their Christian responsibility to fight evil and social ills. McGrath explains this well,

In the 1920s and 1930s, fundamentalism turned its back on any attempt at social outreach. For reasons that are not entirely persuasive and rest more on imagined associations than on demonstrable convergences, many influential fundamentalists saw efforts to help the poor as betraying a commitment to liberal theology. After all, were not the proponents of the “social gospel” during the modernist controvery of the 1920s theological liberals? Until recently, fundamenalists tended to see Christian social action as limited purely to struggles for religious freedom and against abortion. For evangelicals, in contrast, the gospel clearly calls Christians to fight racism, sexism, and poverty as well.

The difference between the two was the issue of social action as a result of bad theology. As a result of their distorted view of the Kingdom the fundamentalists hung to their isolationism and removed themselves from cultural and political engagement. The evangelicals began to search for proper ways to “live out” the gospel while still proclaiming the gospel.

The reason the brief foray into american religious history is important for the purpose of this paper is that it is highly illustrative and helpful. Fundamentalists saw themselves as tasked with the purpose of redeeming Christian America and saving it from the Communists and Darwinists. When they failed (according to public consensus following the Scopes Trial) they retreated and are only heard from when one of their own does something absurd or rediculous. They embody the seclusion that is being argued against in this paper. The divergent group (Evangelicals) advocated a distinct approach. Casting off both the seclusion of their fundamentalist heritage and condemning the Christ-less social gospel they forged a path ahead that was both engaging and orthodox.

Russell Moore interacts with the well known Evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry in his book The Kingdom of Christ. In the introductory chapter he comments on Henry’s new evangelical approach: “The new evangelical theologians maintained that their agenda was far from a capitulation to the Social Gospel, but was instead the conservative antidote to it. This was because, Henry argued, evangelicalism was a theology calling for engagement, not a program for engagement calling for a theology.” The reason this paper began with a look at the Scriptures was the embodiment of this exact statement. Evangelical political involvement is first determined by the Scriptures. The theology it teaches then shapes Christians involvement. And, as it concerns Evangelicals, theology makes engagement necessary.

As referenced in the above section on Scripture and the State, Romans 13 gives us a picture that is well summarized in the immortal words of Abraham Kuyper: “There is not…an inch in the entire domain of our human life of which Christ, who is sovereign of all, does not proclaim ‘Mine’”. Christians must acknowledge the absolute rule of Christ over all areas of human life on this planet. Second, we must avoid the mistakes of our fundamentalist forefathers in secluding ourselves from any involvement. Salt is worthless if it has no saltiness and if it’s kept in isolation in pantry. Salt’s preserving power and seasoning ability is found only in contact.

The words of Francis Beckwith are very helpful in this regard.

It seems clear that because Christians in a liberal democracy have the historically unique power to enact laws that advance the common good, they have a special obligation to take their citizenship seriously and use good judgment in voting and supporting legislation and poitical candidates. This is not to say that Christians will always agree on the proper route by which the government ought to advance the common good. But there is no doubt that they have a biblical mandate to advance it.

The truth of the American situation is that Christians can accomplish great moral good through political means. It is hard to avoid the example of William Wilberforce who used his political position to bring about moral reform in England over the issue of the slave trade. Christians ought to avoid the thought that we should not attempt to legislate morality. John and Paul Feinberg are helpful in this regard when they point out that morality is legislated every day. They issue the corrective that, “If Christians refuse to work for programs and policies that reflect their morality, they may find themselves legally forced to live under the immorality of the non-believing!”

It is precisely in this regard that Christians must be gospel-centered in our approach to politics. If our work of moral improvement becomes solely about morals we have betrayed our own fundamental commitment to the gospel which enables sinful humanity to seek to live a godly (i.e. moral) life. What is essential for Christian participation in the public square is a relenteless, articulate commitment to the gospel. It was the death and resurrection of Christ that shaped the Apostles understanding of the state and the Christians relationship to it.