Me with my lovely wife, Kathy:

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

When Was Jesus Born?

A Facebook post reminded me of the question that comes up every year.  When was Jesus really born?
It is more complicated than we think.
About ten years ago I did some research on the subject for a message series we were doing.  I slightly cleaned up my notes:

(At this time my son and his family lived in Kazahkstan.) In a short time when my grandson asks his mom and dad, “When is Christmas?” the answer could be quite complicated.  Many of Nancy & Chris’s new neighbors will recognize Christmas as being on January 7, while those who have been more influenced by the West will go with December 25.  A friend of mine who lives in Ukraine tells me that many of his Ukrainian friends celebrate both days.  That would be an option that I’m sure Kira & Silas would find attractive.

So, what is the right day? 
            Both, neither, either, whatever.

Have you ever wondered when you looked at a calendar, who figured all this out and made it work?
Well, in 46 BC good old Julius Caesar introduced a calendar that became known as the Julian Calendar.  In order to get things to work out right, the year 46 BC, or as the Romans reckoned time it was the year 708—they began counting time from the founding of Rome--was 445 days long.  Julius’s calendar actually began in 709/45.
The problem with the Julian Calendar is that they figured that a year was 365
1/4 days long.  That is just a little too long.  Under the Julian calendar there were 100 leap years every 400 years.  In our system there are only 97.  As far as you getting to work on time tomorrow, none of this matters, but when you are talking a couple of millennia it adds up.
Some astronomers  recognized the problem and in 1582 Pope—keep that title in mind—Gregory the XIII decreed the new Gregorian calendar.  Various countries adopted the new calendar at different times.
*      Our ancestors here in America, continued to use the Julian Calendar until 1752, Wednesday, Sept. 2 was followed by Thurs. Sept. 14, just to get things to work out.
*      When we bought Alaska from the Russians, they were still using the old calendar, so folk there in the snowy north went to bed on Friday Oct. 6, and woke up on Friday Oct. 18.
*      Greece was the last country in the world to adopt the "Gregorian" Calendar, in 1923.

Though the nations of the world finally agreed on what day it is, the churches still haven’t.   You remember it was Pope Gregory who . . .

The Eastern Orthodox churches who had split from the Catholic Church or was it the other way around—actually they excommunicated each other—weren’t about to  . . .
So to this day they continue to follow the Julian Calendar, at least in part.  (You can find out more than you want to know, here & here.)   
Actually in church history there are several dates that have been considered the appropriate dates for the recognition of Christ’s birth:
*      Clement of Alexandria suggesting the 20th of May
*      Later, in 243, the official feast calendar of the time, De Pascha Computus, places the date of Christ's birth as March 28.
*      Other dates suggested were April 2 and November 18.
*      You can find articles claiming September 11 or 29.

Well, you say, we don’t know the day or maybe even the month, but at least we know the year.  It was zero, right?
BC goes backward up to Jesus birth, and AD starts counting forward after His birth, so Jesus was born at zero.

No, there is no year zero . . .
. . . It’s not even the year one.

Have you ever needed to time something, but you forgot to start your watch when the event began?
So you started your watch when you thought of it and then kind of estimated how much time had already passed.  So you had an accurate count, plus an estimate.  No matter how accurate your time is since you started the stopwatch, your over all timing is only as good as the estimate you made.

It might seem obvious that Jesus was born in the year 1 (of the Christian era, AD, Anno Domini). However, the Christian calendar was only developed around 500 years later, and it took another 500 years before it was generally accepted. As it happens, the Monk (named Dionysius Exiguus) who developed the concept, was apparently off in his calculations by around 4 years, as to exactly when Jesus was born. This results in the fact that Jesus was apparently born in around 4 BC, an odd statement!

The actual calendar that was used during Jesus' life was the Roman calendar. His family would have described His birth to have occurred in (probably/about) 750 AUC.  (This website published by the Roman Catholic Church gives a good summary.)


The fact is there really is no definitive statement.  Conclusions are drawn from various pieces of evidence:
The death of Herod the Great & an eclipse that is mentioned in association with his death.
The beginning of the building of the Great Temple in Jerusalem.
Astronomical phenomena, etc.
The evidence leads to somewhere between 4 & 6BC.

While we may not be able to name the date of Jesus birthday, we do know when it was in a far more significant way.

Look at Gal. 4:4
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, Galatians 4:4


So what is the answer to the question, “When was Jesus born?”  He was born in the fullness of time—when the time was right.  

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Is Perception Reality? A Question for our current situation:

I have been following the reports of demonstrations, riots, emotional distress, etc. that has come an aftermath of the recent election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence.  I've also read and heard a good bit of reaction to these events.  For any who don't know me, I need to let you know that I'm in the heart of the demographic that is being talked about in many of these stories.  I'm White, conservative, Christian, straight, and from the Bible belt.  I'll try to not be scary.
Some of those who live in my cultural neighborhood have responded to the post-election reports with a combination of law-and-order rhetoric, and counsel that basically amounts to "just grow up."  I haven't been without my opinions, especially about looting and/or destruction of property, but I have tried to do something that I think all of us need to do more of--I'm trying to listen.
Sitting in my warm and comfortable living room this morning it occurs to me that a mantra that I have been reciting concerning a ministry I'm involved in probably has some relevance in the current situation in my world:

PERCEPTION IS REALITY.

Now I'm not getting all New Age-y here.  For one thing the "New Age" is old enough to be on Medicare (and since it is sick it needs to be).  I have railed against concepts like, "If you can dream it you can do it."  I know there is a certain motivational factor to this kind of statement, but I have been around long enough to also see the truth behind this cynical view from Despair.com.
What I mean when I say "Perception is Reality," is if I am going to build any kind of positive relationship with people who have a different view of what is going on around us than I do, I need to grant their view a measure of legitimacy.  Say I'm having a pretty good day.  My caffeine intake is about right.  I haven't gotten any audit notices from the IRS, and the sun is shining.  In my bliss, perhaps ignorant bliss, I greet my friend, "Hi.  How are you?"  My friend clearly doesn't get that my question was a courtesy, a greeting more than a request for information, and proceeds to spew forth a stream of that witch is dark and painful.  At this point let's assume that I really do care about my friend.  I really would like to have a relationship with him going forward.  How will that best be achieved?
  • By immediately pointing out why I think his view of reality is utterly wrong?
  • By questioning his maturity, intelligence, and/or spirituality?
  • By uttering some feel-good platitude?  (The cartoon is offered tongue in cheek, but it make a point.)  Or,
  • Taking a moment to listen to my friend.
In the end I may conclude that my friend is utterly wrong, or I may totally understand why my friend has such a dark view on such a sunny day.  Either way, if I start by listening, I have laid a foundation that could lead to productive conversation.  I can tell you by experience--experience in which I am the bad-guy--that the other three responses don't lead to that opportunity.  At least they aren't likely to.
The way others perceive reality, is the reality that has to be dealt with in getting along with those
others.  When others see reality in the same way I do, that appears to be non-problematic.  I say "appears" because our world is becoming more and more a series of echo-chambers, side by side, each surrounded by totally sound proof walls.  We hear only those who say the same thing we say.  Too often, when we venture out of the realm where all is agreeable, all we do is shout what is constantly said in our group.  We are like kids throwing at rocks at each other.  Most miss, or hit us somewhere that causes little pain, but there is a scar, somewhere under the little hair I have left, that bears witness to the reality that they don't all miss.  Some draw blood.  My Granny was right to discipline my cousin and me, not just because she hit me--boy that girl could throw--but because throwing rocks at each other is not something civilized people do.  Neither is a lot of what I see on the news, or read on Facebook.
Don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that we should surrender our intellect and act as if things that matter don't.  What I am saying is that out of the things that matter it is difficult to find anything that matters any more than another human being.  Listen to James, again.

. . . the tongue [I think we can extend this other forms  of communication].
It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison.
Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father,
and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. . .
blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth.
Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!
(James 3:8–10, NLT)

So, I've been working hard to stay out of the mudslinging business.


It doesn't help.  It just muddies things up.  I'm trying to hear.  I've read articles that forced me to my dictionary, and compelled me to go back and read paragraphs again.  I've read stuff that took pages to say, "I don't like this!"--the election, the demonstrations, etc..  I often don't agree with either--at least not completely.  I am, however, working to hear those on all sides.  I'm not saying that each of us
can create our own reality, but in the realm of, to quote that great philosopher Rodney King, just getting along, I have to start with the reality that at this moment what my friend is saying is reality as he sees it.
Like Frasier, I'm listening.  Or, at least I'm trying.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Historic Election: Now What?

In our nation this morning, you can hear a collective “Wow!” 

"The most stunning political upset in American history."
That's how ABC News commentator George Stephanopoulos described Donald Trump's victory.

One commentator speaking about how we—the talking heads on TV—got it so wrong, said, “Pollilng broken.”  Indeed as we look at not only the two candidates in this contentious campaign, but the methodology behind them, it shows clearly that, in spite of our best efforts, we are not nearly so in control as we would like to think.  The losing campaign was powered by an incredibly sophisticated data-driven, computer aided, algorithm guided, scientific process.  The winning campaign was run by a man’s gut.  (No pun intended, but if a bit of humor helps, go with it.)  It kind of reminds me of the John Henry statue a few miles from where I sit.  On this night, man beat machine.  Since most of us had already accepted that the machine couldn’t be beaten, we find it a bit un-nerving.
Just this past Monday I was talking to a fellow pastor.  Like me, he sees the man who is now our President-elect as a flawed individual.  He articulated his support, not of this candidate, but of the platform that he represents.  He articulated why he would vote for Donald Trump.  He articulated about seven points—prolife concerns, gender issues, a desire to see a proper respect for law, etc.—all had to do with matters concerning which God’s word speaks; none had to do with prejudice or ill-will toward any group of people.  My friend wanted the outcome that has come to pass, but toward the end of our conversation he said, “I really feel that Secretary Clinton is going to win.”  Then there are those who were so invested in a Clinton-Kaine victory that they couldn’t imagine any other outcome.  As I listen to the morning-after commentary words like shock, seismic, bomb-shell, and greatest-upset dominate the reports.  How should we as God’s people be God’s people in this critical time?
From my position I heard from fellow-Christians over the past few months who were, on the one hand, clearly in favor of a Trump victory, and other—equally Godly, in-love-with-Jesus—sisters and brothers who rather passionately were opposed.  Many of my friends concluded that they could vote for neither of the two leading candidates.  I won’t be surprised to find out that my name was written-in somewhere.  Because of the computer-driven ability to track and crunch numbers, we not only know the big, important, number—who has the most Electoral College votes—but all kinds of other statistics.  As a result we see the deep divisions that exist within our nation more clearly than ever.  There is a knee-jerk reaction to this kind of shocking outcome.  On the one hand those on the winning side can have a tendency to look at those groups who “opposed this historic victory” and seek ways to make them pay.  On the other hand, it is easy for those who did not win the day to be on the “See, I told you so.” watch.  A recent “60 Minutes” piece fleshes out the observation that 82% of Americans were disgusted with the recent political campaign.  (I warn you, in speaking frankly, some of the folk in this focus group express themselves using words of which I don’t approve.)  Frank Luntz’s words, especially what he said at the end of the piece, are worth considering.  Far more eloquent than the pollster, are the words of Abraham Lincoln at his second inaugural.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations” (Lincoln).

This is true about us as a nation.  It is absolutely indisputable for us who are part of the body of Christ.  Many of us—others with far more eloquence than me--have said for months, now, that we need to remember—no, we need to militantly cling to the reality—that all of us who by God’s grace have been made new creatures in Christ have something in common that supersedes anything that might divide us.  Scott McKnight, on this historic morning, stood to lead us in prayer.  I encourage you to join him.
There is a low spot in the bed.  Unless we resist we’ll roll into it.  The tendency is abundantly clear in the 60 Minutes excerpt above.  We tend to look for what is worst in the motives of those on the other side.  I heard it come out clearly in some of the comments that were made by dedicated Hillary/Kaine supporters as it became clear that they were not going to win the day.  “I guess there are more people who support bigotry and xenophobia, than there are who support the dignity of all people”  (That is not an exact quotation, but an honest attempt to capture what I heard.).  I know John MacArthur is, himself, a polarizing person.  I ask you to set that aside for a moment.  I was surprised that he spoke with a clarity with which I was not comfortable, even as a former pastor.  He does, however, articulate the carefully parsed reasoning that entered into not only his decision, but a great many Christians’.  I don’t doubt that such people are out there, but I will say clearly that I did not hear any supporters say anything remotely like, “I support Donald Trump because I hate ______,” or, “because I want to see ______, put down, discriminated against, etc.”  Likewise I heard none of the Hillary/Kaine supporters say, “I want to kill babies.”  Sure, the ideas that each candidate espoused—indeed, the ideas that motivate each of us—have consequences, and it is entirely appropriate for us to point where the way one thinks leads, it is, however, very important that we avoid rhetoric that enflames, and rather seek to engage in conversation that enlightens.

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt,
 so that you may know how you ought to answer each person”
 
(Col 4:6, ESV).

Let’s be careful about how we talk in the days ahead.  Like David, let’s pray that God will guard our speech.  “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3)
Let me again quote from our Sixteenth president.

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” 

God has His own purposes, and, I add, His purposes are not necessarily ours, and we don’t have them figured out.  (Read Romans 11:34-36.)
Let me close what is a fairly gloomy post with an invitation to watch a beautiful sunrise.  No, what I speak of has nothing to do with which candidate or which party prevailed yesterday; it has to do with the end of the Bible.  I read the end of the book, and God wins.  This is one of those times when it is easier than on other occasions to believe God’s sovereignty.  I find myself clinging to that reality, this morning, like a person grasps a piece of flotsam after a shipwreck. 

Hold on tightly, child of God.  He will not forsake His own.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

My Brush with the Josh Harris Kerfuffle

Every once in a while, several things converge on me at the same time.  At this point I'm not talking about too much to do, though for a "retired" guy that does seem to happen fairly often.  What I am talking about is when information from different sources comes my way that seems to point to one particular concern that I have.  That's happening right now concerning Joshua Harris.

Before I go any farther, let me give a couple of disclaimers:

  • I've never been a follower of, promoter of, or critic of Joshua Harris.  To me, he has been like a lot of writers and speakers in the Evangelical world.  He has said some things that have been of some help to some people.  He has also said some things with which I didn't and don't agree.  That's OK, I'm sure I've said things he disagrees with.
  • I don't have time to do one of those thorough investigation pieces that cause people to go "Ohh, Aaww," and then re-post the article contributing to its viral-osity.  I'm writing this with limited time, for a limited audience, with a limited purpose in mind.
Back in the 90s Joshua Harris wrote a book that had a profound, somewhat lasting, and, some would say negative, impact on the Evangelical World, especially the homeschooling segment of that world.  I Kissed Dating Good-Bye landed in the my world when we were battling hard against the erosion of standards of sexual-purity and marital-faithfulness that was going on not only all around us but within our own ranks.  As a father of two sons and the pastor of a church where I had influence on, and responsibility for a number of teens and parents of teens I was interested.  I read the book.  As far as I know, I haven't read it since.  I'll share my thoughts about IKDG in a bit. In the last twenty years I have seen various references to Harris's work, some for and some against.  I'm not going to go back and re-read IKDG.  My comments are about generalities and what I remember.  If I have Harris mixed up with other proponents of the courtship movement, I apologize.
Since reading IKDG, I really didn't pay much attention to Harris until a few months ago.  I'm teaching a course on Marriage and Family in a Christian College.  When I asked those who had taught the class before me, I found that they had used another book by Harris as one of the course texts, Sex Isn't the Problem, Lust Is.  I'm not one of those people who can sit down and read a book in fifteen minutes so I looked through the book and couldn't see any reason not to follow the lead of those more experienced than I and use the book.  After reading the book, especially considering the backgrounds of the students we work with, I'm glad I made that decision.  It is a readable book that makes some good points.  More later. About the third week into the class I became aware of, what appears to me to be, a fairly big controversy concerning Harris and IKDG.  Maybe I'm paranoid, but I'm afraid that someone may come across the controversy, and then connect the dots--dots aren't always connected correctly--and conclude that the class I'm teaching is based on a faulty foundation.  Thus this post.  (If you have another reason to continue reading, I'll just consider that collateral benefit.)    

Joshua Harris was only 21 when He wrote IKDG, yet his book had great impact.  It propelled him to instant fame and moved the courtship movement into the mainstream Evangelical conversation.  His book struck a responsive chord in the hearts of many parents and teens.  The trajectory toward the "hook-up" non-relationships of the present had already begun.  Often teen girls (though some guys were hurt as well) were the victims of the dating culture.  A number of these young women didn't want to be dropped on their heart again, others were convinced vicariously, and while there were guys who were convinced for more noble reasons, most guys who became a part of the courtship movement had to join--all of the women in their pool of eligibles had kissed dating good-bye and become entry-level courtship devotees.  I always kind of figure that a lot of those young women wished Josh would come to court them, and not a few guys were upset that he had upset a system that was often rigged in their favor.  There were other advocates of the courtship movement, but Joshua Harris's name became almost synonymous with it.  If you aren't familiar with the courtship movement you can see its basic concepts here.
You can decide in a moment whether I had ulterior motives, but my reaction then (which continues to be my thinking) is summarized below:

I think Harris (and some other courtship advocates) addressed some areas that needed attention.  His winsome presentation of sexual purity and the dedication he expressed were refreshing.  The fact that he was one of the young adults who wanted to get married, and yet endorsed this "novel" approach was convincing, for some even convicting.  He wasn't an old guy telling young folk how to live their lives.  He was a young adult challenging other young adults, "Let's do this better."  His pointing to the problem of dating as just another form of recreation was and is something that needs to be put forth.  As I have often pointed out, "To play football you need a football.  To date (in the usual sense of the word) you need another person.  If we are using another human being like we use a piece of sports equipment, we have a problem."  His emphasis on parental involvement in mate selection is one that needed to be heard, and still does.  While I never signed up for the movement he promoted, I was glad he started, or amplified, the conversation.

Yet I saw in Harris's work (and the movement he represented) things that I found problematic:
  • He seemed to take dating at its worst and compare it to an idealized courtship.  Many of us are guilty of using that paradigm in making our arguments.
  • At least some of it appeared to me to come down to a matter of semantics.  Some of what he called courtship sounded a lot like dating.  At least that was the way it came out when others tried to apply what he wrote.
  • He had made an error that is incredibly common with those of us who try to apply and help others apply the truth of scripture.  He saw some things in scripture that needed to be applied in our culture--in particular in the Evangelical culture of the day.  He arrived at what was a way of obeying these precepts.  Then he communicated his message in a way that made it seem like his was the only way of conforming to the Biblical standard.  Harris basically admit this here.
  • Others who were part of the movement for which Harris became the poster-boy, and some of his followers took his ideas as Gospel truth and carried them to extremes that he may not have intended.
  • There is one more.  When I dated and courted (if there was a courtship movement in the late 60s and early 70s, I didn't know anything about it, so I use the word "court" in a more general way) my wife, I did so over the objection of her father.  He did finally give his blessing to our marriage, but if IKDG had been around 30 years before and had Kathy and I followed its guidance we never would have made it to the ring buying time.  I had struggled with the principles Harris presented in his book--you can listen to my story here (warning: this won't win me a prize for video production, but it has pictures), or read it here (no pictures)--and had obviously come to a different conclusion than Harris.  I thought when I was going through it, when I considered it two decades later, and I still think that I was honoring the scriptures in my decision making.
Just the other day I became aware that Josh Harris is publicly repudiating at least parts of IKDG.  It is clear that he is sorry for the pain that the application (misapplication) of his book has caused. I walked into a conversation that was already going on, but here it is in basic outline.
  • As is often the case in today's world, news of this first showed up on Twitter.  Harris said "I'm sorry."
  • Along the way there have been quite a few complaints posted--maybe my first bullet wasn't where it first showed up--about how IKDG, and the "purity culture" in general had harmed people.  
  • This article takes these "whiners" to task, but in doing so provides enough information to bring you up to speed, maybe more speed than you want.
  • That was followed-up a day or two later with a piece--either written by one of those speed readers I talked about, or a guy with a great memory--that basically told the anti-whiner to quit complaining; the whiners of the first part really do have a case.
I'm sure you can find a whole bunch more on this, but, as I said, I'm short on time, so I kissed looking up articles about IKDG good-bye.  (Sorry, I just couldn't resist.)

Which brings me to Harris's book that we are using in my class.  I'm told you can get it for free, but you can do your own searching.  The book was written a few years after IKDG and it's follow-up Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship.  At the time of writing Harris was working with Pastor C. J. Mahaney.  A short time later Harris would take over leadership of the sizable and influential church where Mahaney was pastor.  
I read the Sex is not . . . before I was aware of the controversy.

A ministry of Moody Church had this to say about the book: "It’s hard to find a Christian book on sexual purity that strikes a biblical balance. Some books are too vague. . . . Others are too specific . . . [or] . . .loaded with specific lists of “dos” and “don’ts” and unintentionally promote legalism. . . . If you’re a college-age young adult desiring Christ-centered purity in your life, I strongly recommend you give this short but powerful book a read!"

Tim Callies blogged about Sin is not. . . "Harris holds out lust as a problem, but provides the gospel as a solution. And that isn’t even a fair fight. An excellent little book that is easy to read, easy to digest, and suitable for all audiences, I recommend Sex is not the Problem (Lust Is) without hesitation."

In my websearch I found frequent complaints about damage (I'm giving the critics the benefit of the doubt here) caused by Harris's first two books, but not Sin is not . . . .  That in itself proves little, but when I read the book, I noticed that the author appeared different than the one I remembered in IKDG.  Clearly, as some other reviewers point out, Harris exhibits a remarkable level of transparency.  He begins the book with what amounts to a confession and then goes on to state, quoting C. J. Mahaney, "Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through my obedience to God" (49).  The name of the chapter is "You can't save yourself."  The tone of the entire book is not a dependence on some sure-fire formula, but a reliance on God's grace, and a grasping of the resources He provides.
I can't read minds, but it looks like Harris was already moving toward the maturity that I think his Twitter apology indicates.

So, how to wrap this up?
  • My intent in posting this is to let the students in my class, and others who may read the stuff posted in regard to my class, know that, yes, I am aware of the controversy, and, no, I don't think it makes the book we are using useless. On the contrary.  I think it is a useful little book.
  • In fact I don't think I Kissed Dating Good-bye is useless.  If one reads it as one should, as the writing of a young adult attempting to address real problems by offering what he sees as solutions consistent with Scripture, then the book has value.  If one takes it, as many did, as a Thus saith the Lord formula, it can lead to problems.
  • I think this is a good fight.  It shouldn't be avoided.  Being clobbered with a strong argument,even with a well-aimed emotional tirade often has a mind-clearing effect.  
  • My intent was not to defend Joshua Harris, though I hope he comes out of this a better man.  He has gifts that the body of Christ needs in this day.  I have great sympathy for any who were sincerely trying to follow the Lord in their relationships, and were led astray by the courtship-movement.  Often when when pendulums swing they do so like a wrecking ball.  Folk get hurt.  Those of us who claim to speak for God need to do so with care and humility.  Rather than take any pleasure in the "come-up-ance" that has come to a guy who gained to much influence to soon, we should all realize that we are but clay pots.  Let's be humble as dispense the message.  On the other side, we all need to resist the urge to follow the latest trend, especially a trend that reinforces our own, previously held, conclusions.  
  • As is often the case with my blog posts, this has helped me to think through the matter.  If it has been any help to you, to God be the glory.  If you have further thoughts I welcome them.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Deer Hunting and a Book on Marriage, It's About Hitting the Target

I live in an area where real men kill deer.  One of the lessons I learned early on as the pastor of a church full of deer hunters is to not plan anything special during deer season.  If you can't beat 'em . . . I tried hunting for a while.  The problem is I lack patience.  To be a good deer hunter you have to put in time learning to think like a deer, you have to get up early, and you need to be quiet.  I'm not good at any of that, and I wasn't dedicated enough to learn.
Oh, and there is one more thing.  I don't shoot very well, so on those rare occasions when I did see a deer, and let the lead fly, I generally missed.  I figure I didn't miss by much, but as the saying is, "An inch is as good as a mile."

I was reminded about my ability to propel a 30/30 bullet right by a deer, without damaging so much as a hair, right after I read a book by John Piper, This Momentary Marriage.  We Evangelicals have talked a lot about marriage in the last few years.  Though we have thrown a lot of words at the issue, I fear that our aim is like mine on those cold November mornings.  We have focused a lot of attention on making clear what marriage isn't--it's not a relationship between two people of the same sex.  We haven't paid enough attention to what marriage is.  I'm concerned that in our zeal to protect marriage we, by our failure to hit the mark--truth be told we haven't even aimed at it--have actually weakened our culture's commitment to what marriage really is.  I found Pastor John Piper's little book to be a much needed lesson on straight shooting.
For a long time I've had this feeling in my bones that we Evangelicals were really giving the same-sex-marriage crowd some excellent arguments to support their cause.  The average man or woman in the pew, especially among the younger set within the church, describes heterosexual marriage about the same way as our dominant culture does.  It is roses, and candlelight, and wine, and soul-mate, and earth-moving sex.  I'm not saying that Evangelicals are selfish, some are, but we have done a pretty good job emphasizing that marriage is not about me using someone else for my own pleasure.  It is about me giving myself for and pleasing my mate.  I'll leave aside for the moment the difficult reality that we must wrestle with, that one gains the greatest satisfaction when one gives the most.  Screwtape, and even Wormwood, can play you with that one like a yo-yo in a windstorm, but, as I say, I'll save that one for another day.  The problem is when we make marriage all about pleasing our spouse--putting her or him in first place--we almost hit the target.  Almost.
In his introduction Piper admits the strangeness of beginning a book on marriage with the tragic stories of three martyrs--four really.  When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hung by the Nazis he was engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer.  John and Betty Stam were young missionaries with a baby to raise when they were beheaded by the Chinese Communists.  Strange though it may be to use martyrs to introduce a book on marriage it is effective.
The aim of this book is to enlarge your vision of what marriage is. As Bonhoeffer says, it is more than your love for each other. Vastly more. Its meaning is infinitely great. I say that with care. The meaning of marriage is the display of the covenant-keeping love between Christ and his people.  (15)
If the pastor from Minnesota begins his book in an unorthodox manner, he proceeds to what is regarded in our culture as madness.  It's right there in the title of the first chapter, "Staying Married is not about Staying in Love."
I pray that this book might be used by God to help set you free from small, worldly, culturally contaminated, self-centered, Christ-ignoring, God-neglecting, romance-intoxicated, unbiblical views of marriage.
The most foundational thing to see from the Bible about marriage is that it is God’s doing. And the ultimate thing to see from the Bible about marriage is that it is for God’s glory.  (21)
Marriage is God's doing, and it is for His glory.   "Marriage was designed from the beginning to display the new covenant between Christ and the church."  (33)  Marriage is the doing of God, and the display of God--in particular the marvelous covenant love between Christ and His bride, the church.  That is why we should do marriage well.  Displaying such a grand theme is a high and holy calling.  We ought to do it well.
In the middle section of the book Piper helps us explore how to do it well.  He deals with issues like forgiveness and forbearance, the role of husband and wife, and the unique calling of singleness.  I particularly appreciated his framing of childbearing.
[T]he meaning of marriage normally includes giving birth to children, this is not absolute. . . . The decision about whether to conceive children is not ultimately a decision about what is natural, but about what will magnify the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. . . . Marriage is not absolutely for making children; but it is absolutely for making children followers of Jesus.  (140-141)
Piper's last two chapters give his view of divorce and remarriage.  While I disagree with his position that remarriage after divorce is always wrong, I do appreciate the fact that he continues with his theme of what marriage is really about.  "Keep your marriage vows in such a way as to tell the truth about the unbreakable covenant love of Christ."  (164)

Because of the brevity of the book, 192 pages, Piper is selective in choosing the particular aspects of marriage that support his theme.  In the broadest sense, this is a book about what marriage is, and why we should pursue the lofty goal of doing marriage well.  While there are ideas that husbands, wives, and singles will find helpful, this is not primarily a how-to book.

Some of the conclusions that Piper draws are not based on interpretation of scripture, but inference from scripture.  His conclusion that having children is not absolute is based on an extrapolation of the Bible's teaching on singleness.  While I agree with his conclusion, I wasn't impressed with how he got there.

I have already made known that I disagree with his perceived prohibition on remarriage, though I give him credit for humility and grace in admitting that others have come to differing conclusions on this.

Piper begins each chapter with a quotation from Bonhoeffer's writings from Tegel Prison.  These are well chosen and give power to the points Piper makes in each chapter.

The great value of the book is the encouragement it gives us to aim better as we address the issue of marriage.  I wonder if Satan is as pleased with Evangelicals defense of marriage as he is with the attacks that elicit the defense.  When the marriage we defend is a marriage that is about human pleasure--mine and/or my spouses--our argument contains the key points needed to refute what we say.  Why should others be denied the privilege of giving and receiving pleasure?  I fear we have wasted too much ammunition shooting at the who-should-marry target, and failed to hit the Who-marriage-is-about bulls-eye.

Like most of Piper's writings, you can read This Momentary Marriage for free.  Click on the link


(Oh, and about the deer hunting,  I gave it up, and worked on looking pitiful.  Apparently I do that much better than I can shoot.  Thanks to skillful and generous hunters, who are impressed with my hungry look, Kathy and I generally have all the venison we want.}

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Thoughts following the murder of Father Jacques Hamel:

This post was sent out and posted as a Something to Think About article.  I am posting it here because it is bit more serious, and hopefully far-reaching than some of what I put on STTA.  I think it is something worthy of consideration particularly for those of you who share my background, or for others trying to figure us out.  This wasn't the first time a Christian leader was martyred, and it won't be the last.

Standing with Those Who Stand for Christ

 

Ask not for whom the bell tolls:

The Institute on Religion & Democracy calls it Jihad on the church.
Father Jacques Hamel, an 86 year old Roman Catholic Priest was leading worship when two Muslim extremists, burst into the church in Normandy France, shouting, "Allah Akbar," and slit the cleric's throat.  ISIS issued a statement that two of its soldiers had carried out the attack.
The murder took place in a country other than mine, in a church that is different than mine, and it was perpetrated against a pastor whose Theology and practice are not my own.  What I, and others like me need to realize is what made Father Jacques Hamel a target of terrorism is something that is absolutely true about me.  He died as a representative of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, died in our place, and arose victorious.  In no sense was it one of them who died in this cowardly, ugly attack.  Father Jacques was/is one of us.

So, how do I react?
My branch of Christendom--Evangelicalism, Conservative Evangelicalism, The movement formerly known as Fundamental, Historical Fundamentalists, I don't know what to call my kind--suffers serious division on how to answer this question.  At the risk of creating further divide, but in hopes of moving us toward sanity, I make the following suggestions:
  • My kind has a history of "coming out from among them."  I was taught the virtues of separation.  Not so much the value of unity.  This is a time to link arms, to embrace.  We may disagree on the definition of what it means to be a Christian, certainly we have a variety of answers to the question of how we do Christianity, but let us not forget.  Father Jacques was not killed because of what he believed about the mass he was performing, or because of his allegiance to the Roman Catholic hierarchy.  His throat was cut because he was a follower of Christ, and because he was leading others to follow Christ.  He and I are the same.  No "buts."
  • We have to walk spiritually, and chew gum politically at the same time.  One of the terrorists who attacked the church in Normandy was a known terrorist.  The church was known to be on a hit list.  One of the tasks of governments, perhapsTHE task, is to keep order, to keep the citizens of a land, and others within its borders, from killing each other.  I need to be disciplined enough to give the same answer when the attack is by "Christians" on a group of Muslim worshipers.   My nation, the United States, has a history of protecting freedom of worship.  That value seems consistent with the teaching of Scripture.  The Bible presents a balance and a tension between a personal response that is characterized by charity and forgiveness, and a governmental policy of security and justice.  Having police armed with Glocks is not contradictory with the response of the members of Emmanuel A.M.E. church in forgiving the murderer of their pastor and fellow-church members (here).
    Christians who emphasize the importance of forgiveness are right.  Likewise those who stress law and order are on solid ground.  Those who exclude one or the other are wrong.
  • We need to eliminate from our thinking any notion that this business of standing up and speaking for the Lord is safe.  It isn't.  That distortion has been perpetuated because we, my kind, have been living in an anomalous time and place.  Christians always and everywhere have been called to a Romans 12:1dedication.  It's just getting clearer, now.
    We do not stand for Christ because it is easy or safe.  We do so based on this calculation:  
 
We believe that Christ died for all,
we also believe that we have all died to our old life.
He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves.
Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.
(2 Corinthians 5:14–15, NLT)
  • The prayer requests that the Apostle Paul offered in the First Century make a great deal of sense in our world.
    ". . . pray for us that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified . . . and that we will be rescued from perverse and evil men; for not all have faith" (2 Thessalonians 3:1–2).
    ". . . pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak" (Ephesians 6:19–20).
    One missions leader, for a period of time, forbid the people in his office from praying for the safety of the personnel they represented.  Prayers for safety were taking up all the air in the room.  Prayers for boldness and effectiveness need to be offered, as well.
So, I close this STTA with prayer.

Lord, I pray for those who love Father Jacques; May they know your comfort and peace.  Grant that they will respond with the grace that is becoming to those of us who bear your name.
I ask that the authorities in France, the US, and around the world will act with justice and appropriate firmness.  I pray that all--even those whose worship is a lie--will have freedom to worship in safety.
As the Lord of the harvest, I ask that You will send forth laborers into the harvest, even the parts of the field that are not safe.  I pray that those who represent you in dangerous places will be effective witnesses.  As your servant, the Apostle Paul observed, that might be by life, or by death.
I pray that Your will be done down here in this messy world, and, Lord, I yield myself, dedicate myself, to that task.
I long for Your Kingdom to come.
Amen.
  
 
It’s STTA.
 

You can read more about the life-changing Good News, that gives us something worth dying for,  here.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Is This The Best We Can Do?

I just read Al Mohler's blog-post of a couple of weeks ago.  I found Mohler's reasoning and conclusions to be helpful.  Central in his piece is the conviction that character does matter.  His observation agrees with mine.  Evidence--and that is all we can go on--indicates a serious lack of a solid moral base in both major presidential candidates.

Mrs. Clinton simply doesn't seem to care about truth and integrity.  The recent announcement by the FBI, though indicating that the former Secretary of State would not be indited, was hardly an indication that she is a person of character.  She is clearly dedicated to the "We will absolutely not ever interfere with any abortion." position of the the Democrat party.  I cannot say whether her position is one of personal commitment or political expediency.  Either way it is a serious ethical flaw.  On one hand it represents a disrespect for human life, on the other it displays a glaring lack of integrity,  While a case can be made that she is was the victim of her husband's adultery, and her willingness to work through those issues and preserve her family is admirable, I have not heard her offer an apology to "The vast right wing conspiracy" since it became clear that, indeed, her husband did have "sex with that woman."

Recently, Evangelical (former) leader James Dobson announced that he believed that Donald Trump is born again.  The report, based on what he heard, indicates that Paula White led the presumptive Republican candidate to faith in Jesus.  I will gladly lead the rejoicing should such a report turn out to be true, but the fact is, I have no idea whether it is true or not.  I am struck with the convenience of floating this story at a time when Republican strategists are desperate to gain Evangelical support for their candidate.  In a subsequent statement Dobson speaks with greater caution.  Like me, it now appears that he is hopeful, but agnostic on the matter.  More to the point, the reality or fiction of the reports about Trump's conversion are irrelevant to the decision before me.  I know many folk--I would probably put myself in the group--who clearly are trusting the Gospel of Christ for life and eternity, who would make horrible presidents.  It is in a different realm, but the concept is relevant.  Paul, passing on counsel to his younger delegate, Timothy, cautions him to “not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others." (1 Timothy 5:22, NASB95)  When looking for someone to lead the church the standard was not, "Is he reported to be born again?" but, does he exhibit the necessary character?"  (See 1 Timothy 3) Though such character flows from a heart changed by "grace, through faith," it takes time to be seen.  We haven't had, and we won't have, the time to inspect the fruit.

In case it isn't clear, what I'm saying is I don't see either of the major candidates to be somebody I am for. As far as it goes, that is a sentiment that I hear from a number of Evangelicals.  They aren't for either candidate, however they are more, not-for, one candidate, and so they will, therefore, vote for the other.  One reason I appreciated Mohler's article is that he doesn't make that case.  Fairly early on Russel Moore wrote on that line of reasoning.  "Should we vote for the lesser of two evils?"  I admire the clarity of his conclusion.
Our primary concern is not the election night victory party, but the Judgment Seat of Christ.
When Christians face two clearly immoral options, we cannot rationalize a vote for immorality or injustice just because we deem the alternative to be worse. The Bible tells us we will be held accountable not only for the evil deeds we do but also when we “give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32).
This side of the New Jerusalem, we will never have a perfect candidate. But we cannot vote for evil, even if it’s our only option.
 During my pastoral career I avoided endorsing candidates.  I'm not doing that now.  If anything I'm saying that I don't see either of the major candidates as worthy of my vote.  That's bipartisan, folks.  What will I do on November 8?  I don't yet know.  I am trying to approach this mess in such a way that my integrity will be intact on the other side.  I know that many of you will disagree with me on one or more of my points.  I have little interest in arguing.  I'd rather encourage.  Do what is right; at least try.