Me with my lovely wife, Kathy:

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Church, Messy As It Is, It's God's Plan, For Now, And For The Future

After a lifetime of pastoral ministry in a small town church, I'm called on to teach a class on theEcclesiology: after four decades +  of preaching, counseling, marrying, burying, weeping, rejoicing, seeing people leave for wonderful reasons--as in Great Commission--and dealing with others who left for all sorts of bad reasons, working through Mondays when I wanted to leave, and enjoying other times when I couldn't imagine ever doing anything else (obviously, the latter pretty much won), I need to figure how to incorporate that experience into a few class sessions, without allowing who I am to hijack what I'm tasked to do--actually teach ecclesiology, not talk about the old days. As I look back on my real-life experience, work through what I'm doing now--getting ready to teach a class at Pacific Islands University--and look forward to what is next--the second half of the class is eschatology (last things)--I find myself again thinking, "The church is this world's last best hope."
church and last things, some 8,000 miles from home.
As I was working on the syllabus for the class, my daughter-in-law, a pastor's wife, sent me this article. Especially, if you are part of the leadership of a church, I encourage you to read it. (If you're old enough to remember the song, don't let the title discourage you.)
Ephesians 5 tells us that God's plan for the Bride of Christ, the church, is to make her a "church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless" (Eph 5:27).  I can assure you, whether you look at the church as a worldwide entity, or you evaluate any local assembly of Christ-followers, she ain't there yet. Don't be discouraged, though. The Church is still the tool God is using to accomplish His purpose. She is an essential part of guiding this world, and each of us, to the destiny God has planned.
The Church: it's what God is doing in the here and now, leading to making all of creation what it ought to be. That's worth thinking about. If you can, I invite you to enroll as a student or auditor in THEO 302, June 26-August 11, Write me at the address below and I can get in touch with people who can help you do that. I know that for most of you, showing up in Mangilao Guam three times a week is going to be kind of hard. If you would like, though, I'll give you some reading you can do so you can study on your own. (Some of it will involve buying some books. Some will be handouts that I'll send you for free. Begin with the article linked below. It's part of my introduction.) If you are interested, send me a note at

Pray for your church, your pastor(s), the church; and I'd appreciate you praying for Pacific Islands University, and for me and my students as we work through THEO 302.

Love the One You’re With

In spite of a couple of horribly run-on sentences, no English teachers were actually harmed in the production of this blog post.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Review of Roger Olson's book, The Essentials of Christian Thought

Roger Olson will be familiar to many readers through his blog on Patheos. This is where I came to know him. You can read more of his biographical data there. It will suffice to say here that Olson grew up in a staunchly Christian home, and kept what is best from that background. He describes himself as "a Christian theologian of the evangelical Baptist persuasion.  I am also a proud Arminian!  And I’m influenced by Pietism."  While I often disagree with Olson, I find his passion for ordering life and scholarship on a right understanding of the Bible refreshing.  When I read that his book on Christian thought was soon to be published (here), I was intrigued. I'm glad I purchased a copy, and I recommend it.

As a small town pastor, I didn't use the word "metaphysics" often, yet, in the way that Olson uses the word in Essentials, I was constantly dealing with the concept. "This book proposes to help especially Christians devoted to the Bible as God’s Word understand its implicit philosophy of reality— what is really real behind and beyond appearances. And it proposes to help them distinguish between the Bible’s implicit vision of reality and competing ones— some of which are sometimes even labeled “Christian” or “compatible with Christianity” (p, 9). Those of you who know my recent history will understand why Olson's secondary purpose intrigued me. "A secondary purpose of this book is to provide administrators and faculty members of Christian institutions of higher education with a relatively simple elucidation of the “faith” part of “faith-learning integration”— a central reason for such institutions’ existence" (p. 9). 

Olson frequently mentions a line from Alfred North Whitehead, "Christianity is a religion seeking a metaphysic. . . ." Olson is not alone in observing that over the past two millennia Christian thinkers have borrowed metaphysical systems from various schools of philosophy. Olson's contention is that while the Bible does not present a metaphysical system in a direct systematic way, the text of scripture is infused with a clear view of what ultimate reality is.

The thesis of this book is that, while philosophy can be helpful for answering questions the Bible does not answer, two considerations must be made. First, the Bible is not devoid of any metaphysical vision of ultimate reality; it implies one and that is easily discernable if one does not approach the Bible with a wrong assumption (e.g., that narrative cannot imply a metaphysic). Second, discerning that biblical metaphysic is a matter of looking behind the narrative at what it assumes about ultimate reality. There a clear vision of ultimate reality is apparent to any discerning reader looking for it. That clear biblical vision of ultimate reality is, as already expressed, the supernatural, personal (but not human) God of Israel and of Jesus Christ. . . . (p. 140-41)
In Essentials Olson points out where this borrowing has led to what he regards as pollution of the stream of Christian thought. Quoting from one of his "guides," Edmond La Beaume Cherbonnier, "aspects of extrabiblical philosophy have crept into and corrupted Christian theology over the centuries and still does so today" (pp. 88-89). Olson also briefly articulates his view of what the Bible presents as the ultimate view of reality. He compares this Biblical view with other popular views. And, though he denies that his is a book of apologetics, he upholds the Biblical view as superior over all the alternatives. In the later endeavor, Olson makes use of a word coined by Emil Brunner, "eristics." He gives a brief, practical definition on page 106, "[W]hen set alongside alternative worldviews, Christian philosophy is superior."

As pointed out at the beginning of this article, Olson is Arminian in his theology. Another of his books is Against Calvinism. As is to be expected, his Theological orientation comes through in Essentials. While those of a Calvinist persuasion will find some of Olson's thoughts along these lines troubling, perhaps even provoking, in the end, they are worth considering. Olson does not merely bluster about his Theological orientation, he raises thoughtful observations and questions. Even those of us who end up disagreeing with Olson concerning parts of his presentation will find ourselves sharper for the experience. I found Olson's book to be less a lecture, and more a long conversation over coffee. Not only did I find it intellectually stimulating, I enjoyed the read.
Toward the later part of the book a key theme began to be clear to me. Rather than try to put it in my words, I'll let Olson state it himself.
The biblical narrative . . . implies that God’s sovereignty . . . permits room for human free will as the power of alternative choice— the ability to do otherwise than God wishes. Everywhere God blames people for their sins, not himself. Their hardness of heart is their own doing, not God’s. Reason not only strains to accept the paradox offered up by divine determinists; it breaks apart when attempting to embrace both absolute, all-controlling divine sovereignty and human responsibility for sin. Also, extreme versions of God’s sovereignty such as divine determinism cannot avoid verging close to pantheism or what some philosophers call theopanism— the idea that God is all there really is; all is merely an extension of God. Without some degree of creaturely autonomy and freedom the ontological interval between God and creation so crucial to Christian metaphysics threatens to close. (p. 229)
. . . God’s freely chosen creation of free cocreators.  This is a paradox but not a contradiction.  It implies risk on God’s part. . . . this is all based on God’s voluntary self-limitation or self-restriction of power as explained earlier. . . . [T]he Bible and the best of Christian thought view history as an “unpredictable invention of two separate liberties bound together in a common enterprise.” (p. 231)
To interject a bit of my own musings for a moment, that concept of God taking a risk, exists at the far edge of my thinking about things Divine. Yet it is unmistakeable that such concepts--perhaps anthropomorphic, something Olson denies--do exist in Scripture. "Because of sin, then, human freedom must be understood as power of contrary choice granted by God in an act of awful love and risk— for the sake of fellowship" (p. 232). At this point Olson is close to Open Theism, a view that he in another place rejects. This is one of the "I need to think about this some more." points that abound in this book. It is one of the reasons that I plan to read it again.

I read the Kindle version of Essentials of Christian Thinking. I found it easy to read. The search feature in the Kindle version is useful. I don't know whether the print version has an index. The Kindle version does not. If my review is not sufficient to persuade you to purchase the book--something I find hard to believe--and you find yourself at a Christian bookstore, or you have opportunity to look at a friend's copy, I would encourage you to read the appendix (p. 235). It will enable you to see whether you want to read the book or not.

ZONDERVAN The Essentials of Christian Thought Copyright © 2017 by Roger E. Olson

Olson, Roger E.; Olson, Roger E.. The Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.


Introduction: Why This Book

  1. Knowing Christianly: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story Interlude 1 [Modernity/Postmodernity]
  2. Ultimate Reality Is Supernatural and Personal (But Not Human)
    Interlude 2 [Clearing up some misconceptions]
  3. The Biblical Vision of Ultimate Reality Retrieved
    Interlude 3 [Philosophy, Apologetics, Paradox]
  4. Non-Biblical, Non-Christian Views of Reality
    Interlude 4 [". . . the generic Greek philosophy of the educated elite of the Roman Empire . . . is the metaphysical philosophy that has most often and most profoundly influenced Christian thought"]
  5. The Biblical-Christian View of Ultimate Reality: God
    Interlude 5 ["If Yahweh God, the Lord, is ultimate, absolute reality upon which everything else, outside of God, is dependent, how can God be conditioned or limited in any way? How can the metaphysical ultimate reality be vulnerable?"] 
  6. The Biblical-Christian Perspective on the World
    Interlude 6 ["Has science replaced metaphysics in the modern world?"]
  7. Biblical-Christian Humanism
    Interlude 7 [Questions of Freedom and Sin]
  8. Appendix: A Model for the Integration of Faith and Learning

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Insuring the Citizens of "X"

(Normally, I'm not very political here. My intention today is not primarily to put forth a political position, but to encourage a civil, sensible conversation. No doubt the ruminations of my mythical king, and my thoughts that follow, leave much out. That's what the comment box is for. If the comments are civil, and based on sound thinking--not only emotion--I'll be glad to post them even if I disagree. After all there is the remote possibility that I could be wrong.)

Let us suppose that I am King of the Kingdom of X. The latest population census indicates that there are ten citizens in my kingdom. Six of my citizens are married. Two lovely couples are still childless. The other husband and wife have grown children who have gone out of our kingdom. They live in Y, Z, or somewhere. There is a widow and widower, lovely older folk. I won't be surprised to be asked to preside over another wedding. The grand matriarch of the kingdom is one-hundred and seventeen. She gave up mountain climbing last year. After she returns from a bike trek to the neighboring kingdoms, she will return to her job as librarian of the Kingdom. Some folk tell me she is getting to be a bit forgetful. Perhaps in five or ten years we'll need to build a nursing home for her.
Then there is Jack the Tenth. He drinks, a lot. He insists on riding his big Howard Davidson motorcycle without wearing a helmet. When he goes down the road there is more smoke that comes from his cigarette than from his bike. Sometimes he smokes some weed that he buys in the Kingdom of Colorado. He says it makes his rides prettier. The kingdom just bought its first ambulance, just in case.
As a benevolent sovereign I want to make sure that my subjects are well cared for, so I'm going to provide what the Kingdom of C calls Universal health care. My kingdom isn't rich--we are still making payments on that ambulance--so I have to figure out a way to pay for it.
My Royal Accountant tells me that we could easily cover eight of our citizens for $10/month. If they all pay. If we knew for sure that Sarah the Matriarch would die in her sleep at home, we could do the same for her, but, there is that nursing home. Then there is Jack the 10th.
"I'm consulting with Count Adrenaline of the Kingdom of Chaos, to come up with an estimate for him. It ain't gonna be cheap or pretty, though."
Bob, one of the young husbands in my kingdom is a sharp lad. He approached me the other day. He
wants to start an insurance company. He might even sell policies in Y & Z. He said for folk like Sam & Sally, the other young couple, he could provide complete coverage for $8/month including agreeing to pay for costs related to the birth of their child, which is about a sure thing. While we were talking the smell of burnt fuel and tobacco wafted through the window, accompanied by the roar of the Howie.
"Him? . . . wouldn't touch him with a ten-foot pencil, no matter how sharp."

OK, my fairy-tale has gone far enough. In the real world not only are the numbers of citizens far greater, the complexity of issues is exponentially greater. Having said that, though, can't we just admit that there are several elephants in the room.

  • Some people are a far greater risk than others. Much of that divide lines up with the divide of old and young.
  • If everyone is going to be insured, the healthy, at least for a time, are going to have to put more in the system, probably much more, than they take out.
  • If there is a government mandate--that means the government can punish you if you don't participate--then those who choose a healthy lifestyle are forced to subsidize those who live foolishfully, or dare I say it, "evil-ly."
  • For an insurance company to say I can insure these healthy, young people for $X, but if I include these unhealthy old people it will cost $X x Y, is not necessarily cruel or a sign of callousness. It is reality.
  • If there is a blanket mandate that anyone can sign up for insurance at anytime without consideration for pre-existing conditions, how is that different than allowing someone to buy a car insurance policy ten minutes after the wreck?
    Compassion and common sense have to have an intelligent conversation on this one.
  • Whether the coverage is single-payer, or as it used to be called "socialized medicine," or provided by businesses, the reality is, it is still a form of insurance. Somehow sufficient money must be collected to pay for what is spent for the care people need. Deciding whether government or business can do it best is a conversation that needs to take place. 
  • There is a limit to how much we can squeeze health-care providers. If fixing plumbing in bathrooms pays better than fixing the plumbing in our chests, guess which career the best and brightest will choose.
Our new President has already begun to "dismantle" the Affordable Care Act. The rhetoric is about to get deeper than the pile of bills one gets after a major surgery. It's important not only that we play nice, but that our conversation be governed by clear thinking.

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:


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
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.