What I Write About

I write about the infinite number of intersections between every day life and the good news of the God who has come to get us.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Obedience : Not By Gratitude

[Note: the next several days posts will be heavily drawn from John Piper and specifically his book "Future Grace" as well as some of my other favorite drinking buddies: C.S. Lewis (especially his article The Weight of Glory ), Augustine, and Jonathan Edwards]

The Bible almost never says that obedience should be motivated by gratitude.

Think about that for a moment. The motivation that is almost universally trotted out as the modus operandi for Christian living, namely gratitude, is almost never used in Scripture. There are literally thousands of verses about obedience, almost none of them explicitly link our obedience with gratitude for what God's done in the past.

Tomorrow I'll talk about how the Bible does motivate us into obedience. But first it might be helpful to see what role gratitude does play in our Christian lives and how it can go wrong when we try to make it an instrument for obedience.

Gratitude is nearly always connected with worship. As we see and understand the goodness of God, his power and wonder and might and how he's moved heaven and hell in order to come to get us, we are of course are moved to 'give thanks with a grateful heart.' This is crucial. There is no true Christianity apart from true worship. Please don't hear me saying that gratitude is not a significant part of our relationship with God.

Gratitude has simply been mis-cast. Gratitude was never meant to function as a motivator towards obedience, and so it goes wrong in a couple different ways:

1. Motivated to obedience out of gratitude often turns into what Piper calls "the debtor's ethic." It's often framed like this: "God has done so much for you, so now it's your turn to go out and do something for him." Steven Curtis Chapman actually had a tragically '80's worship song that said exactly this--"it's my turn now to live my life for him."

The debtor's ethic correctly identifies that God has done an extraordinary thing for us in rescuing us from sin, death, the devil, our own flesh, and an unhappy eternity alternative. What it incorrectly does is frame our response in such a way where we are now charged to attempt to 'pay God back.' This goes wrong on any number of levels: first off, again, there's no place in the Scriptures where our relationship with God is described in this way; secondly, what a miserable experience to spend our whole lives trying to pay back an incredible debt that never gets paid off! What an awful task-master God is who sets us up to go to work in a task that we can't ever hope to accomplish, indeed, can't even come close to making a dent in!

2. Gratitude is an emotion. As such, gratitude ebbs and flows. Today has been quite an extraordinary day of seeing God open up doors and opportunities to be a part of his work on campus. So today, I'm pretty grateful to be a child of God. Some days, frankly, it feels like a lot of work and not a whole lot of pay-off. Clearly, I'm not endorsing that attitude and repentance is the good gift of my Father when I'm in that mindset. But whether I feel particularly grateful or not, obedience is what is required of me. So there must be something bigger than that given to me by God to hang my motives for obedience on.

Tomorrow (and probably the next day) I'll talk about the more firm foundation from which God in the Scriptures does motivate us towards obedience. In the mean time, go dust off your old Steven Curtis Chapman cassettes and tell Steven that he's got some problems with his theology...

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Tour De Obedience Part Deux: What's the Big Deal?

It's a good question, really. If we live in a state of grace, by grace and through grace, and it's grace that secures our place with God and not our works, what's the big deal about obedience?

Grace is not inconsistent obedience. Maybe more is at stake than we who are in the "living in grace means living by inconsistent obedience" camp commonly think. In fact, the Scriptures can't seem to say enough about God's commands and how important it is to obey:

"Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn to the right or to the left" -God to Joshua, Joshua 1

"You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed" Psalm 119. In fact, Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible and the whole thing is a celebration of God's commands and the essential nature of obedience to them. Read it when you get a chance, it talks about commands and obedience in ways that I certainly don't commonly think about them!

And this command and obedience love-fest ain't just an angry, Old Testament thing, either:

"If you love me, you will obey what I command." Jesus, John 14:15

"If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love." Jesus, John 15:10. Yikes, was that a conditional clause talking about our obedience and Jesus' love for us? Maybe there's some ways to look at this that take some of the sting out, but at the very least we've got to see that Jesus is serious about this obedience thing.

Other peeps get into the act as well:

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
-Paul, Galatians 5:19-21. What's interesting about this passage is that this is after he's spent the whole book of Galatians railing against law-keeping as the way to get to God--and yet here he's still arguing that our obedience is an essential part of becoming inheritors of the kingdom of God!

George MacDonald put it this way to those who were asking if they or their friends were really Christians: Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because He said, "Do it," or once abstained because he said, "Do not do it." It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in Him, if you do not do anything He tells you.

So yeah, obedience, it's pretty important. Maybe you didn't need this post to understand that. How we obey and how grace fits into all this, that's where we're headed next.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Tour De Obedience Part One

I've been thinking about obedience the last several weeks, specifically obedience to God. What I think is that there are a couple main camps that our churches and Christian communities in general find themselves in.

Camp One: The "Grace Means Not Talking About Obedience" Camp. I would say that this camp represents a large minority of evangelical churches that many 30 and 20-somethings attend. To illustrate: a friend of mine attended an excellent church that I was familiar wtih that was extremely centered on grace and the work of Christ. Then he moved and found a new church--one that had some strongly evangelistic folks in it who challenged him to take more risks sharing his faith. His comment: "This new church is hard on me--sometimes I just wish we would just talk about Jesus and leave all this other stuff out!" What had happened? Talking about Jesus had become overly-safe for him because his community seldom specifically linked the work of Christ in a clear and direct way to the work that we are then called to do.

Camp Two: The "Grace is for Sissies, You Better Get Your Butt in Gear Because God Helps Those Who Help Themselves" Camp. In today's church landscape, these are much fewer and further between then they used to be back in the good old days. But they play an important role in the whole scheme of things because much of our Christian culture's movement towards Camp One's direction is a result of too much of this in a generation or so ago.

Camp Three: The "We're Going to Talk about Grace, and We're Going to Talk about Stuff We Have to Do, but We Have no Idea How they Fit Together" Camp. This represents probably the largest percentage of evangelical churches. There's 'grace' sermons to make people feel okay about themselves/God, and then there's the 'to do' sermons that really motivate people to do what we want them to do. But they don't really have all that much to do with each other except that every now and then you've got to preach a good 'grace' sermon in order to make your people feel better about all that stuff that they haven't been doing that you've been telling them to do in all the previous sermons.

What I want to do over the next several days is build a case for obedience. What I want to say is that obedience is essential to our Christianity, that grace is essentially bound up in God calling us to obey him, and that most of us haven't thought much about how God motivates obedience in Scriptures--ergo our obedience is haphazard and faltering. Obedience suddenly feels like duty, whereas forgiveness feels like grace. Suddenly we've created a situation where grace and obedience are somehow opposed to each other. The truth of the matter is that in God's kingdom, these two are never at odds but are in perfect harmony with each other.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Critical Stuff

I think that there's a big difference between critical thinking (which is a gift) and being critical (which is the curse side of the gift).

When Critical Thinking serves people, and particularly the church, by solid and thoughtful and gracious analysis, it's a good thing. When it degenerates to sitting back and taking pot-shots at whoever and whatever (it's easy for some of us to always find something 'wrong') then it's destructive to the community and no longer a blessing.

So critical thinking about Bible study, good. Taking shots at Beth Moore, probably not so much.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Creation Words

This week I started reading Genesis (very inductively, I might add). I've been hanging out in the gospels for this whole past year, and I felt like it was time to get back to some good OT.

What strikes me most as I've lingered in the first chapter for a couple days is this: God speaks. He speaks into chaos and things happen: "God said...and it was so" is a common refrain throughout those six days of creation. He speaks and order appears from chaos, the void is replaced by life. God speaks.

So I've been thinking about the power of words. God speaks to create. The Living Word comes to redeem, to again-make, to re-create. Words are powerful, written or spoken...and especially embodied.

Where I've wandered as I've thought about this is that the power of words and their innate intelligibility is a part of the creational-goodness of God. We only speak and understand one another because God speaks and is understood. We are given the opportunity to speak words of life to one another because God has ordained it to be so.

All our words are borrowed words. We only speak derivitively off of God's speaking. We are only stewards of the words that we use, not their original source. There is a grave and glad response-ability in that. We are invited to respond to the One Great Speaker with our own versions of His words of Life and Goodness.

All our words are substantitive and 'real' only to the degree that they echo God's creational words and the redemptive Living Word. All other words that we use to destroy life or manipulate others will pass away into nothing. But words that echo this initial "LET THERE BE!" will themselves echo into all eternity. Words can bring forth or destroy life. We participate in God's again-making when we speak truth in love (be it a kind word or a harsh rebuke). We participate in the Un-Maker's work when we speak words of destruction, words of un-doing. Words of these type go against the grain of the universe, they will melt in the Great and Terrible Day of Revealing. It will be as straw.

It is a childhood lie that names can never hurt us. Words have power. God's initial word continues to echo through me today, upholding me as I type behind this keyboard. Other words that I have received throughout my life cause me to walk with a limp. But it all starts here, in Genesis 1.

God speaks. We are given to be speakers, too. Are the words of our mouths (and the meditations of our hearts from whence those words come) faithful echoes of the creational "LET THERE BE!" of God? The gentle rebuke from my friend Marshall after the last couple of days' posts press me to pause and consider the faithfulness of my words...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

A Couple More Rants

In the past two days I've managed to offend both Wild at Heart lovers and Beth Moore lovers. Since I'm on a roll with my soapboxes, allow me to climb on a few more before I settle down for the summer. Note: to those of you who are not Christians who read the blog or for those of you blessedly outside the seriously intense Christian sub-culture, I promise that I'll try to get out of the Christian ghetto tomorrow.

1. Focus on the Family. Really, these guys do some decent stuff working with families and working policy issues. But my concern is this: we can only fix our eyes on one thing. Scripture invites, warns, and commands that thing to be Jesus. If we focus too much on the family, family can become (like so many other good things) an idol. In the evangelical sub-culture, we often teeter dangerously close to the edge of this--and we often fall off. When we build our golden calf out of cute kids, wise parenting strategies, and pro-family legislation, it's much harder to see that it is, in fact, a golden calf. What focusing overly-much on the family does in our churches is it marginalizes those who are single, can't have kids, or just honestly don't want kids. I saw a bumper sticker once in Richmond that said, "Focus on your own damn family." I think if I weren't a Christian, I'd feel just about the same way. As it is, I think that the culture that Focus on the Family helps create can be one where the family becomes the be-all, end-all. Really tough, actually, to build much of a case for that from Scripture...

2. Courting v. Dating. I thought that this issue had run it's course, but a student that was in my small group last week at Rockbridge talked about how she had to put away all the Christian dating books that her private Christian school made her read because they stressed her out too much. With "I Kissed Dating Good-Bye" Joshua Harris made the case that courtship is a more Biblical way of relating than dating is. Again, some good things here--clearly the way that the culture views dating is entirely unhealthy, and Harris' book offers some good correctives. But really, the good that he does is undone by his creation of another cute Christian cliche with more rules that we can beat people up with. To say that courtship is more Biblical than dating is like saying that the Bible commands us to eat McDonald's rather than Burger King. The whole system didn't exist back then. And while there are certainly some helpful principles about relating in Scripture that apply to the process of finding a spouse, it's actually pretty quiet on the whole dating v. courtship thing. Let's not make up stuff and say that the Bible says it, okay? That's generally bad.

3. "Growing Kids God's Way" is a manipulative, terrible title for a book, playing off of Christian parents' desires to raise their kids faithfully and bullying them into attempting parenting techniques that may or may not actually be faithful for their family. It works for some kids and families, not for others. Personally, Kelly and I have decided to blend together other parenting strategies--so apparently we're growing our kids Satan's way. Future parents, read all the books you can about parenting, there's some great wisdom out there. But don't get bullied into this book by the cult-like sub-culture that's grown up around it.

Okay, I'm putting away the soapbox for a couple days.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

In Defense of Good Bible Reading

The past several years at Rockbridge I've co-directed or directed the Small Group Leaders' Training Track. During the course of the week, we teach future small group Bible study leaders how to facilitate Bible studies as well as how to build their future small group into a genuine community.

For the Bible study portion of the training, we teach them how to do Inductive Bible Study. Inductive Bible study is a method of studying the Bible whereby you work your way through a book of the Bible in order to gather the full meaning of what it has to teach you. This is in contrast to a deductive or topical study where we focus on one topic (for college students, usually sex) and then find different verses that tell us something about that topic.

Each week we get one or two students who ask in their evaluation why we only teach Inductive Bible study. Hear, oh people, to my reply: Inductive Bible Study is simply a better way to read the Bible. Let me count the ways....

1. Inductive Bible Study takes the fact that the author wrote a whole book on purpose seriously. What happens in Mark 6 has everything to do with Mark 1-5 and sets up Mark 7; what Paul's talking about in Romans 8 is only truly understood when we've read Romans 1-7 and then is qualified, clarified and developed in Romans 9. We only fully understand an author's meaning when we allow him or her to tell us their whole story.

If we watched t.v. shows the way that many Bible study guides have us reading the Scriptures, we'd be as confused about what's happening on "Lost" as most of us are about the Bible. Certainly we could do a deductive or topical study whereby we examined how various t.v. shows talked about God (or sex) and extrapolate some helpful themes or concepts about our culture's view of God (or sex). But that wouldn't be nearly as thorough a study as it would be if we actually watched and intimately knew all those shows, their stories and plot development and characters. We could then more accurately know what the heck the writers were trying to say and draw more substantial conclusions.

2. If I wrote you a letter, I hope you would read all of it.

3. A story: yesterday I took Davis to an indoor playground at our local mall. One child was somewhat aggressive and I was somewhat indignant at how he treated some of the other kids. Davis, of course, locked in on him and followed him around for a good fifteen minutes. The kid started to get a little feisty and at one point he actually head-butted Davis. The mom didn't see it, but I did and I went over to console Davis. While I was consoling Davis, the mom came over to me and said this: "I saw your son following my Justin. I just wanted to let you know that Justin gets a little aggressive sometimes. He's mildly autistic, and he's working really hard today to be especially gentle and nice. We're really proud of him."

My indignancy melted away to love and compassion for this kid. What changed? Context. Context changes everything. How I process and perceive and understand the dynamics of Justin head-butting my kid is completely flipped upside-down by the information supplied to me by the mom.

Sometimes we get head-butted by Scripture and we get disoriented and confused because we don't understand what's going on. Often this is because we haven't bothered to get oriented to the context. In Mark there's a great example. Jesus repeatedly tells people not to tell anyone who he is--he even silences the demons when they profess him to be the Christ. If you hit this on a random deductive study, you'd wonder what the heck was going on: doesn't Jesus want people to know who he is? But if you read carefully start to finish, you begin to see a pattern: in Jewish contexts, Jesus tells people not to tell who he is, in Gentile contexts he tells them to tell everyone what God has done for them. The point? Jewish understanding of Messiah is too loaded with the wrong expectations, especially early on in Jesus' ministry. Jesus wants time and space to re-define Messiah a little bit. Context helps us to see this.

Okay, of course there's times and places for a good deductive/topical study of Scripture. But honestly, the main reason people like them is because they're easier. Inductive is a more faithful way to read the Bible (heck, to read ANYTHING) and it's more work for us as readers. It's just easier to have Beth Moore or some other Bible study guide guru tell us ahead of time what the passage is going to say so that we don't have to bother thinking or engaging with it ourselves.

And that's what I've got to say about that.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Two Foot Mirror

Kelly, Davis and Zoe were with me the first week of camp. We hung out at meals with students and while I was in track times with students they tried to make the best of the mostly wet and cool weather we had all week.

After each meal, Davis and I would leave a little early and go outside the dining hall to throw the frisbee together. This is one of Davis' (and his dad's) favorite past times, and for a little guy he's got a pretty amazing throw. In fact, it's pretty much a show-stopper: when people walking by Davis would see this little kid chuck the frisbee as well as he did they would stop and watch in wonder and amazement. Often, it came complete with cheers and clapping.

As the week went on, Davis became more and more tuned in to the crowds thronging around him. He would get the frisbee, look around to see who was watching, and would often hold the frisbee until the crowd grew a little bit larger...especially if it was a crowd of cute girls. He was no longer throwing the frisbee for the love of the game, he was throwing it for the love of the crowd.

I felt like the Lord was showing me a two foot mirror of my own soul. This is my same sickness. I do some things well. I take those things and use them as a tool to manipulate recognition, praise, applause from the people around me--often timing my performance to get maximum shock and awe value. In so doing, I lose the proper reward for the activity I'm engaged in (in Davis' case it's throwing the frisbee; in my own case it's giving a good talk or caring for a student well or thinking strategically about the next step for our fellowship) and instead exchange it for a secondary thing that would not be bad in and of itself were it not for my constant angling for it.

And so I'm learning how to recklessly delight in simply throwing the frisbee well. I'd love to learn to enjoy playing catch with my good Father rather than always being so tuned in to the people around me. I'm grateful to the Lord for showing me another way to understand my battle with this monster that it is my pride. And for even giving me a taste of the Father's sadness as I lost the enjoyment of the simplicity of the game with my son.

Davis and I have got a long way to go in terms of living in a state of humble grace. In the mean time, yesterday he and I were back at it in the driveway, just the two of us, lazily tossing the frisbee on a glorious Spring afternoon--and it was very, very good.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Back in the Saddle

When I first started training InterVarsity Staff Interns, I remembered the word of wisdom I once overheard from someone else: never be afraid to train someone who will be a better staff worker than you. I think that this is excellent advice, except I'm not sure that it applies to bloggers. Thanks, Macon, for some excellent, thought-provoking posts over the past couple of weeks. I only hope that for the rest of you, your regularly-scheduled blogger is not a disappointment!

I've got lots of thoughts rolling around in my head coming off of camp that will serve for blogging material, but let me start with the end: recovery.

Each of the last several years, my wife Kelly has taken the kid(s) to her dad's in Ohio for the last half of the second week of camp. She schedules her return flight home for two days after I get home in order to give me two days to binge-sleep and recover so that when she gets home, I'm 100% ready to take over child-care for a couple of days.

In between 10-hour-long stretches of sleep and 2-hour naps, I generally try to watch movies that Kelly would have no interest in watching. Last year, I watched all three Lord of the Rings movies, extended editions. This year, I watched all ten episodes of Band of Brothers.

For those who are unfamiliar, Band of Brothers was an HBO series that chronicled the exploits of Easy Company during World War 2. Easy was on the front-lines of much of the war and had some pretty incredible experiences. The story is as much about the bond forged among the men of Easy Company as it is about their adventures in Europe. I was, of course, captivated for all ten episodes.

As I've considered my heart's response to each of the last two years movies (LOTR and Band of Brothers) I find they stir the same longing in my soul. In both stories there's a small group of randomly put-together companions who rally together around a cause and an enemy much greater than them and triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.

Not to get overly-Wild at Heart on you here, but I think I was made for this story. I think that most of us, men and women, were made for this story. I think we're born with a longing to find our place in the Story much bigger than our own in a community that's about something much more important than just ourselves. These stories make millions by hitting our taproot longings for community around God's purpose and mission.

I think that this is the story that Scripture invites us to participate in. Although I will confess that the enemy often doesn't feel quite so clear and the stakes don't feel quite as high. This has, I believe, more to do with our own dullness than the reality of the situation. And perhaps we need more gospel presentations and Biblical teaching that capture this part of the Story.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


Thinking some more about my last post, it occurred to me that it bore directly on the answer to the question, "If you could do your life over, would you change anything?"

This, essentially, is the equivalent to asking, "Do you have any regrets about your life?"

Most folks that I hear answer this questions move through two phases:
Phase 1 - remembering the regrettable actions
This is usually accompanied by them looking pensively into the distance, eyes slightly unfocused, with their face registering the emotional content of the memories they're running through: smirk, frown, smile, grimace.
They begin to say, "Well, there was this time . . ."

Phase 2 - justification of regrettable actions
They then begin to remember what happened after those actions, specifically the things that they learned as a result of the actions, or the way that the consequences of the actions positively shaped them, and they end up saying something like, " . . . but if I hadn't done that, then I never would have learned XYZ, and XYZ is such a good thing to know. So, no, I wouldn't change anything."

On one level, this self-justification for sin in light of eventual positive consequences can seem quite benign: "I probably shouldn't have yelled at my Mom, but then we had the deepest conversation we ever had, so I guess I'm kinda glad I did."

Applying the same logic, though, to a different situation reveals the brokenness of this thinking: "Yeah, I shouldn't have shot and killed that guy, but then I went to prison and learned a valuable lesson: You never, ever want to go to prison. I wouldn't have learned that lesson without actually going, so, in the end, shooting & killing that guy turned out to be a good thing for me."

Actually, for non-Christians, this kind of eventual-positive-consequences as redemption of sin seems to me to be the only way one can move through the world with any kind of intact psyche. We were not created to live under the burden of unredemption. We were created to live as redeemed children of our Heavenly Father. So if we're not going to experience the true Redemption from the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit, then we needs must find some other form of redemption.

This sort of weak consequences-based redemption is not ultimately satisfying, and is usually accompanied by folks just simply forgetting their own past so as not to live under it's burden. Further, I think that deep down, we know that this lame attempt at redemption is just that: lame. And a kind of cognitive dissonance develops where you know that what you're doing is ineffective, yet you continue to do it hoping that it will work.

I catch myself applying this kind of redemption to myself, though. And when I do, I think, "Why am I trying to redeem my own sins? The Father has already done this for me!"

So if you ask me, I'll tell you: I have some serious regrets about thing's I've thought, said, and done over the course of these past 31 years. But the Lord has redeemed those sinful thoughts/words/actions and brought good from many them in the here-and-now, and I trust that at the revelation of all things, I will see how all has been redeemed.

I didn't have to touch the stove to learn that I would get burned. But when I burned myself, the Lord used it to teach me about stoves, about him, and about myself. I wish I had never touched the stove, but I am greatful to follow a God who redeems.

[Editor's Note: Your usual Piebald Life poster, Alex, is back from Camp. Huzzah! Though you may regret his time away, Macon his guest-blogger, thoroughly enjoyed his stay. Macon will decamp to the Stokes Kith & Kin blog without any regrets about his time here. Because he "learned so much," of course.]

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A little of this, a little of that

There's a bit of Conventional Wisdom that goes something along the lines of: "To really understand X, you've got to understand the opposite of X." This is also sometimes clarified with: "To really understand X, you've got to participate in the opposite of X."

Whether we're talking about food, "I didn't know how great my Mom's cooking was until I got to the College Cafeteria!" or love, "I didn't know how horrible my previous boyfriend was until I started dating Macon," or automobiles, "Wait until you drive her Lexus, then you'll know how lowly is your Yugo," comparisons are often quite efficient and sufficient for clarifying information and knowledge.

But it's when we start drifting into a kind of Yin-Yang theory of opposites that we can find ourselves in theological trouble. That is, where we begin to think that we must know the False if we are to know the True, or even more sinister: that the True must have a little bit of the False in it.

This was the original temptation: Eve & Adam knew The Good, The True, The Real in the garden. Certainly they did not know the depths of these, but they knew the beginnings of them and God had prepared the Earth as a place where they and their descendants would grow up in their knowledge of them. One way to see the temptation by the evil one was one of comparison: knowing The Good is not enough, to really know something, you've got to know both The Good and The Evil. "Then you shall be as God."

But is this the case? Had God handicapped Adam & Eve in his creation of them when he forbade them to eat of the knowledge of Good & Evil? I think that the witness of Genesis is that God's creation was "very good," and that Adam & Eve had no need to know Evil in order to know the Good.

It's strange, then, to hear some Christians say of sins (either by them or against them), "Oh, that had to happen so that God could teach me how much he [loves me/is best for me/is in control of my life]." I scratch my head and wonder, "What kind of God is that who can't teach us Goodness, Truth & Life simply by using Goodness, Truth & Life?"

I think that two things are at play here. The first, and probably the lesser of the two, is that we use this approach to justify sins (either committed by us or against us). And by this I mean quite literally the justification of sin: the sin is now "good" because "good" came from it.

The other thing at play is that we confuse God's redemptive act of bringing good out of the jaws of evil (if you will) for God's needing the act of evil to teach us some important life lesson. For example, when my son is tall enough to reach the gas cooktop in our kitchen, I will need to teach him that he is not to touch the burners when they're lit. What I want is for him to learn from me simply by listening to & believing me. And this is entirely possible! Not only that, but I would add that should he go through his whole life without burning himself because he believed me, his knowledge of gas burners is every bit as robust as someone's knowledge of burners who, in fact, burned their hands.

At the same time, should Aidan disbelieve me and burn his hand, I will take that experience and use it as a "teachable moment" and redeem the pain & terror by bringing good from it: the good of learning about fire, heat, & the burners. But I do not think it correct to retrospectively decide, "It's good that he burned himself, because he learned something," or, "Well, he had to burn himself in order to know that he shouldn't touch the flame." (What kind of terrible father would I be, if I took that view of how Aidan must learn things?)

No, I think what we must say of the burned hand experience (and of all such experiences) is that, by God's grace, we can learn something from it, or put another way, that nothing, not even tears, are "wasted" in God's economy. But we need not, nor should not, go so far as to say, we had to know or experience evil to know the good. Thanks be to God that he is quite capable of teaching us the good without resorting to or being dependent upon evil.

[Editor's Note: The return of your usual Piebald Life poster, Alex, is nigh upon you. Keep your lamps full of oil, and you wicks trimmed as you await his return from the Land of Goshen. In the meantime, Macon is guest-blogging. Macon generally shines his 5 watt bulb along the Austin Greenbelt, in the shadow of his brother and sister, and at the Stokes Kith & Kin blog. ]

Monday, May 15, 2006

Who'syer Saviour Now?

Now, don't get me wrong, I've got a whole hekuva lot of respect & admiration for a certain Megachurch Pastor near Chicago. He seems like a really nice guy, and there's no question that he's had a massive effect both on Evangelicaldom in general, and on the lives of individuals, famous and not-so-famous. I've been privileged to attend a spectacular Evangelism Conference of his, as well as two of his Church Leadership Conferences, all of which were exquisitely produced, full of delicious intellectual content, and which made me excited to get out and do [fill in content of conference here]!

But I have one problem with one of the messages coming out of this epicenter of the evangelical church. (Which message I have now heard in other places, including both my previous & current church.)

That message is: "The Local Church is the hope of the world." (This message is sometimes amplified with, "and there is no 'Plan B.'")

It's clear to me that what The Pastor is trying to say is that the Local Church is a main & normative place where people can come to know their Gracious Heavenly Father, revealed in his Son by the Spirit. The Local Church is the gathering of Believers, and in this gathering Jesus Christ dwells by his Spirit.

He is also doing his best to rally the troops to leadership in their Local Churches, thus energizing & empowering churches to be more available for outreach and evangelism.

But taken at face value, a quite reasonable thing to do, the phrase "The Local Church is the hope of the world," contradicts that other, more Biblical, truth: "Jesus Christ is the Hope of the world." In fact, when anyone says anything with the formula, "X is the hope of the world," and X does not equal "Jesus Christ," most evangelicals get rather bothered. So I'm continually amazed when I hear this phrase repeated in theologically respectable circles.

Of course, there are ways to explain why one can get away with saying, "The Local Church is the hope of the world," without veering near unto heresy. "I mean that Jesus uses his Church to bring people to him." Or, "I mean that, within the Local Church, people can find Jesus!" Or, "Well, the Church is Jesus' Church, so that means that I'm really saying that Jesus is the hope of the world."

But the point of theology & preaching is to make the things of God and Salvation clearer to the average person, not confuse the issue of who/what is actually our hope. (Besides, the old hymn just doesn't sound right the other way: "My hope is built on nothing less, than the Local Church and smiling greeters.")

Interestingly, the point of the phrase is not actually to educate. Rather, it is to motivate the folks in the Local Church. If it were to educate on the matter of hope, then The Pastor would use it when he is telling someone the Gospel. But when it comes to the Gospel, the Gospel is preached: Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior.

The "Local Church as world's hope" sermon is used internally to motivate folks to leadership & service within their churches. And here we see it's main usage: the actual sermon goes something like this:
A - the Local Church is the hope of the world
B - the Local Church's work is dependent upon it's members
C - You are a member of your Local Church
Therefore, You are the hope of the world.

Some preachers feel that this is not persuasive enough, so they add an additional Premise:
D - There is no "Plan B."
This is kind of the rhetorical exclamation point, to say: "No, seriously, You are the hope of the world and if you screw this up, the world is screwed."

All sorts of bells ring in my head on this: it sounds vaguely like something one would hear from a pre-Reformation Catholic Church, "The Church is the gatekeeper to salvation"; or like the pre-Babylonian captivity Israelites, "This is God's Temple! His only plan!"

Fine company, I'm sure, but The Pastor, the pre-Reformation Catholic Church and the pre-Babylonian captivity Israelites are all wrong on this point.

Jesus Christ alone is the hope of the world. He does normatively use the Local Church, and he does normatively use we local churchmembers in his hope-bringing work. But the glory of God is that his work of bringing many sons and daughters to glory will not be stopped, neither by stinky local churchmembers, nor by bad preaching, nor by a lack of Local Churches.

[Editor's Note: Your usual Piebald Life poster, Alex, is off at Chapter Camp for one more blob-filled week. As a tawdry substitute, Macon is guest-blogging. Macon's normal walking styles are Left-Right-Left-Right, Right-Left-Right-Left, with the occasional Right-Right-LeftRight-Left-LeftRight (especially when he encounters hopscotch). He also limps along at the Stokes Kith & Kin blog. ]

Friday, May 12, 2006

Friday Grab Bag

Man! Can you believe that in the non-English speaking world, people actually use English words as a kind of Graphic Art! They don't even know what English words their using. Check this out.

I can't believe anyone would be so dumb as to do . . . oh, wait. Nevermind.

Wouldn't it be great if daily objects could tell you when you'd need them? What if your umbrella could tell you that you need to bring it along? This one can.

Of course, an umbrella won't help if you're a plane needing to land in a thunderstorm. Here's a video of Air Traffic Control directing FedEx planes to land in Memphis over, under, around and through a storm.

Xibit, Pimp My Heart! (Yo.)

Finally, it's time to get ready for the best of all sporting events, the World Cup. Check out this guy's World Cup celebratory bike. (If you've ever watched the Tour de France, you'll recognize the builder/rider instantly. He's the dude who dresses in the devil outfit and runs up the mountain with the riders. I had no idea he was a multi-sport kind of devil.)

And on that note, "If you don't give my football back, I'm going to get my dad on you."

[Editor's Note: Your usual Piebald Life poster, Alex, is off at Chapter Camp these two weeks. In his stead, Macon is guest-blogging. Macon's normal habits are Starbucks (chillin' wit' Aidan), hunting through the dryer for that mysterious last sock, keeping it real, and the Stokes Kith & Kin blog. ]

Thursday, May 11, 2006

For Real, Yo.

Four(ish) years ago, after an evening of fine company, conversation, food & wine, I stood in the living room of some friends of mine and declared, "I think that we should abandon the word, 'Truth' and start using the word, 'Real,' especially when it comes to talking about God to not-yet-Christians."

My reasons for thinking so were mostly along the lines of practicality: peeps these days were less interested in "truth" and more interested in "real" and I didn't think we'd lose much value by switching terms and would gain more hearing for the Gospel.

I was thinking I was having a particularly brilliant & momentous insight and figured that comments along the lines of, "That is a particularly & momentously brilliant thing to say!" would come rolling my way.

Not so much. (Folks were nice, of course, but not in agreement.)

Ever since then I've continued to think about it, because I still feel like my first insight was correct. (This feeling, mind you, has no bearing on whether I am, in fact, correct. I realize this.)

Nonetheless, I've continued to think about it and today I thought of another way of talking about it.

"Truth" is a subset of "Real." That is, all that is true is real, but true is not an adjective that properly describes all that is real.

For example: 2+2=4 <-- True, but we wouldn't, in common usage, say, "Two plus two is four . . . man, that is real." In fact, we mostly use "real" to describe experiences. Put another way, "real" is more commonly (and perhaps more properly) used when the object is a subject, and "true" is more commonly used when the object is an object.

So, people can be "real" or "fake," a conversation can be "real," an experience can be "real" or not. (One of the great debates that the Matrix sparked was whether what happened in the Matrix was "real." The movie's moral was that the "steaks" in the Matrix were not "real", though the lie that was the Matrix did have serious consequences.)

Postulates are "true/false," statements are "true/false." (The previous sentence was redundant and a run-on: True.)

I think another difference between the words "real" and "true" is that the criteria for determining them are very different. "True" demands a kind of certainty to be intellectually proven/disproven. "Real" requires both an intellectual and visceral determination.

I think that God is more adequately described using "real," than "true," Even though it is true that there is a God. The Triune God of Grace, the Father revealed in the Son by the Spirit, is a Subject (you might say The Only Subject), not an Object. To refer to him as "real," I think is more helpful than to move to one level of abstraction and refer to a statement about him as "true" (e.g. "there is a God, and he's the Christian one.")

at any rate, it's fun to swing people for a loop who are looking for a fight about the truth of the existence of God and instead start talking about his real-ness instead.

[Editor's Note: Your usual Piebald Life poster, Alex, is off at Chapter Camp these two weeks. In his stead, Macon is guest-blogging. Macon's normal haunts are dark corners of libraries, the comic book rack in the 7Eleven, theology/philosophy sections of used bookstores, and the Stokes Kith & Kin blog. ]

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Imagining the Squared Circle

I love to read Science Fiction and Fantasy novels. (Great. Two posts and I've already identified myself as a nerd and a geek.)

Faster Than Light Spaceships, alien species, worlds hanging in the balance, epic quests, swordfights, telepathy, huge explosions: yeah, I dig all of that. But the main reason I treasure SciFi/Fantasy books are because they make me think.

First, there's the imaginative stretching that happens. What, exactly, does a six legged cat-like creature with retractable 6 inch claws that sometimes walks on four of the six legs, sometimes upright on the back two (and two legs which have human-like hands), look like* ? Man, I've really got to use my imagination for that. What about a race of humans who've so developed their communication skills that they don't have to use words anymore, they can communicate faster & deeper things just by the most minute facial gestures* ? How is it that I'm supposed to visualize that happening? Read SF/F and give your imagination a serious work out by visiting places and meeting beings to which there is no analog in our world.

Then there are the theological questions that arise in SF/F. I'm not simply talking about the question, "If there are aliens in the universe, did God save them in Christ, too?"* While an interesting question, and one I often return to when I'm playing in my head, there are more serious theological questions available to us. Give me a book with a robot, and we'll spend our time thinking through what it means to be human.** Give me a book set where humanity is far, far, far off in the future, and it's time to start thinking about the philosophy & history of religion.* What about a story set in a universe where humanity is no longer bound by physical illness or restraint? Now we'll start talking about the nature of sin. How about an alternate universe where people are born with magical talents?* Now we can discuss what it is to bless one another (or wound one another) with our gifts.

But the best part of reading SF/F books are the way they can affect one's view of the world. The truth is that we do live in a world where we cannot see the fullness of reality. There does exist a spiritual realm in which we live & move & have our being. Living in this reality requires the godly use of our imaginations. Imaginations, though, atrophy for lack of use, and SF/F helps get the pump primed, so to speak. I also think that what you read changes your headspace. It "grooves" your brain, if you will, so that your thoughts more naturally flow through certain channels.

For me, this means that my reading helps me to see a universe teeming with the possibility of the invisible breaking through to the visible. Having practiced the art of believing without seeing (seriously, who's ever really seen a lamp grow out of the ground?*), it's easier for me to believe that I, somehow, wonderfully, exist in Christ. Or that you, dear reader, are sitting in front of your computer surrounded by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Scripture tells me that I'm more than I am, that the world is more than it appears, that something which happened 2000 years ago, on the other side of the globe, has a direct effect on my very being, and on the actual fabric of the universe.

Yeah, I can see that.

Monday, May 08, 2006

It's an honor just to be nominated

Thanks, Alex, for the invitation to guest-blog for you while you're camping resorting at Rockbridge. While I in no way expect to be able to produce the kind of brilliance that your readers are used to over here, I do plan on making sure they're still here when you get back. Mostly, though, because I expect a kind of car-wreck phenomena to be at play: they just won't be able to look away from the tragedy of a wrecked blog.

I normally (some might say "abnormally") post at The Stokes Kith & Kin Community Blog, aka, Kith&Kin, aka K&K. I'm one of the Kin, in case you're wondering. Since this is Alex's blog, I won't put up pictures of my own uber-cute son. But if you check in at K&K, you can see one there.

And, for a last little bit of introduction, some history.

When I was a student at my fair alma mater, my IV chapter invited Jim Sire to come for a few days of evangelism, "Davidson Style". (Which is to say, "Nerd Style.") I had the honor of being his driver and during one of our times in the car, he and I spoke about what it means to be an intellectual. He was talking to me about the book he was writing at the moment which, when finished years later, was Habits of the Mind.

In our drive (and in the book) he called himself an "Intellectual Wannabe," a title I promptly co-opted for myself. Here's how he defines a "Christian Intellectual":
An intellectual is one who loves ideas, is dedicated to clarifying them, developing them, criticizing them, turning them over and over, seeing their implications, stacking them atop one another, arranging them, sitting silent while new ideas pop up and old ones seem to rearrange themselves, playing with them, punning with their terminology, laughing at them, watching them clash, picking up the pieces, starting over, judging them, withholding judgment about them, changing them, bringing them into contact with their couterparts in other systems of thought, invting them to dine and have a ball but also suiting them for service in workaday life.

A Christian Intellectual is all of the above to the glory of God.
I like that definition very much.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Camp Prayer Requests

So as we get ready to pack it up and head out to Rockbridge, I'd love it if you'd pray for us.

*The family will be with me for the first week. This is great, except that the pace is pretty exhausting and Zoe's sleep schedule is not particularly conducive to what one might call a good night's rest for her parents. Davis has also been a little under the weather, so we'd love prayer for health and rest.

*I'll be directing Small Group Leader Training Camp. Eighty-eight students each week who will all be leading Bible studies back on campus in the fall. Please pray for these students to be open and teachable and to be well-equipped for their work in the fall.

*I'll be working with a staff team in our track of about twelve each week. Pray for us as a team, for the speakers who will be teaching about various aspects of leading a small group, and for responsiveness to the Spirit as we work with students who have different needs, different levels of confidence, and different natural abilities in leadership.

This morning I was reading in Mark 3 (we'll be studying the Gospel of Mark all week in camp) and Jesus was talking about binding up the strong man to plunder his house. It was fun to pray that over the next two weeks we might plunder the strong man's house together as students are in Scripture and are trained to be co-plunderers with the Spirit in the fall. Pray for happy plundering!

Talk with you all in a couple weeks. Enjoy Macon!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Response to Religious Convergence: A Parable

A couple days ago I was talking with a guy that I'm just starting to get to know. He expressed that his impression of the various faith and religious traditions was that there was a tremendous amount of convergence and overlap--enough to conclude that they probably weren't all that different. I've been ruminating on a response, should I get a chance to offer one as our relationship develops, here it is:

When I lived in Richmond two major interstates ran right through the middle of town: I-95 and I-64. For several miles in Richmond, 95 and 64 were the same roads. So I could be driving from St. Louis to Williamsburg, you could be driving from D.C. to Miami, your mom could be driving from Virginia Beach to Charlottesville and my Aunt Margaret could be driving from Pooler, Georgia to Philadelphia and for that stretch of road we'd all have the same experience. We'd see the same buildings, share the same traffic, and hit the same pot holes.

But what makes the journey the journey is not just the roads we take to get where we're going but where we came from and most importantly where we end up. Miami is emphatically NOT St. Louis.

It is not surprising, then, that many religious views share common stretches of road, particularly behaviorally and moralistically. Indeed, if we are all 'image bearers' of God, it would be surprising if we did not. But the points of commonality and convergence are not fundamentally defining to any of the world's major religions. All religions start with some sort of deity and offer some sort of paradigm or story about how the world works, what's wrong with it, and how the gods/God intervenes to make it better.

And at these points of supreme importance, the most central aspects of each religion, the road diverges sharply. The answers to the most important questions of "Who is God?" and "What is the purpose of humanity?" are so deeply disputed that the only way to create convergence in these most serious places is to do serious violence to the historical assertions of each faith tradition. The Trinity is a deep offense to the Allah of Islam; re-incarnation is not Muslim, nor is it 'the new heaven and the new earth' of the Christian Scriptures. It sounds rather like hell to me, actually.

History is so full of violence over religious disputes that the post-modern, 21st century world is weary of disagreement and wary of where difference might take us. I am glad to embrace the places of convergence and partner with people of other faith traditions in issues where we wholeheartedly agree. We must not, however, facilitate the illusion that points of convergence means that the whole thing is essentially a convergence.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Piebald Life Understudy

At the end of every school year, InterVarsity in our Region (VA, NC, and SC) hosts a two-week long camp where staff and students from all our schools come for training, relaxation, worship, and fellowship. When I say 'camp' what I really mean is resort: forty person hot-tub, beach volleyball courts, excellent food. We take over a Young Life camp, and Young Life knows how to do camping in style.

Staff come and stay for two weeks, students cycle through for one-week periods based on when their exams wrap up. We've got 307 registered for week one, 375 for week two. This is my fourteenth year going to camp--four as a student, my tenth as a staff--and I still love what God does in people's lives there.

But this is my first year going to camp with a blog to take care of. So, I found a guest-blogger who will be filling in the Piebald Life void in your hearts: Macon Stokes.

Macon is the most regular contributor of snarky comments and wise remarks on Piebald Life. If you've ever checked the comments, you've probably been exposed (for better or worse) to Macon's quick wit and keen intelect. Macon will do a phenomenal job in my absence, my only concern is that you will not want me back upon my return.

I leave with the family on Saturday, so I'll post two more days and then it'll be Macon for a couple weeks. I hope to get some internet access at some point to check-in and say hello.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Bias in Standardized Testing

For a long time now there has been argument about bias in testing for students. My good friend Bart posted an interesting example of this over at Magnum B.I.

I posted a comment/proposal that I think could solve the whole problem. Let me know what you think.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Inexorable Love

I realized yesterday morning that I cuss a whole lot more than I used to.

It's pretty light cussing, really. The 'd' word mostly, occasionally the 'h' word. And it's mostly internal or really low under my breath so the kids don't hear it.

I'd really like to blame my kids for it. Two and a half years ago I averaged probably about an hour more sleep than I do now, I had forty-five minutes to an hour each day to be with the Lord first thing in the morning, I seldom if ever tripped over the same plastic toy five times in fifteen minutes, and my handling of human waste (both solid and liquid) was non-existent.

My life has fewer margins and more stresses. And so I find myself frustrated, frazzled, and stressed out much more often. The prosecution rests.

But yesterday morning, as I thought about my new-found cussing hobby, the Lord invited me to press through the symptoms to the root of the problem. My kids are not the problem. The problem is I'm a control freak--especially when it comes to my time. Having kids has simply made it harder for me to control my environment, to make decisions on my own terms, or to be independent in my comings and goings.

Last Monday I posted a rant about Zoe's sleep and asking God why he wouldn't let her and us sleep. Yesterday I began to realize that what's going on here is much bigger than sleep. It's about fault lines in my character. God, in his inexorable love, continues to bless me with circumstances that expose my grasping for control that I might realize the futility of it in all areas of my life and repent.

Circumstances do not create issues; circumstances simply reveal sin issues latent in our hearts. If Zoe has to wake up fifteen times a night for me to be free of my addiction towards control, then God in his infinite and patient mercy will give me that blessing. My tendency is to kick against the goads, but I'm beginning to take deeper breaths--

As I was typing that last sentence, I got called away for an emergency search for Thomas the Train and a paci for Davis. Gotta' go.