Monday, November 23, 2015

Evangelical Brothers Rooming with a Runner

I shared a hotel room with three other guys in downtown Atlanta last week. We convened there for the National Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meeting -- a.k.a., Christian Nerd-fest, replete with bow ties and beards -- to think through a theology of marriage and family, among other topics. My attendance was also spurred on by the discount books and meaningful dialogue.

The four of us crammed into a single Motel 6 room, vying for bathroom time and sharing two full sized beds. I slept terribly and my digestion revolted. Fortunately, our conversations about family, ministry, and the Bible were rich. And I was able to maintain my running routine.

I always pack my running gear when I travel. Not only do I want to make up for the billion calories I consume at restaurants or fast food joints, I also love to experience a new city or landscape while jogging. The view from the street while buzzing past buildings, city parks, and pedestrians only rivals the skyline scene.

In recent years I have run the crowded Washington DC Mall, the industrial Newark (NJ) Airport roadways, scenic Carpinteria (CA) beachfront, and competed in the bustling Chicago Marathon. 

Last Tuesday I set out from my hotel to Olympic Park, making two laps before returning. Although the route was short, I came back drenched in perspiration. I removed my sweaty socks, took off my sweaty shirt, shed my sweaty pants... (Any more details would verge on pornography, so to the point...) These soiled garments couldn't go straight to my bag for fear of making the rest of my clothes musty. Unfortunately, I didn't have a line to hang them on. So I improvised. Sweaty running gear accented door knobs, light fixtures, and the TV screen.

Rooming with a runner has few benefits. The other guys may feel good when I launch out and they lounge around. Or they may feel guilt when I get up early to exercise and they sleep in. They may feel gluttonous when I counter my calories and they keep consuming.  Most likely, they may feel gross when they find my wet boxers briefs dangling from the shower head.

Fortunately, my roommates extended grace when I stunk up the place. That is the benefit of rooming with Christian brothers.

Monday, November 9, 2015

I Wasn't Born for a Beard and Other Emascurities.

I was not born to wear a beard. Every November this reality comes crashing down on me, when I commit to "no shaving" to raise awareness for Prostate Cancer. (Side note: I'm not sure if "No Shave November" really intends to help fight the disease, or simply steal some thunder from the ubiquitous pink in October. However, if breasts and prostates were in a popularity contest, it takes little imagination to crown a winner.)

Any amount of time I give to growing a beard results in no more than a dirty dusting of facial hair. I get scruffy, not hairy. I look gross, not handsome. I fight the feelings of inadequacy because my genetic inheritance boasts more baldness than burliness.

My emascurities (a word I coined for insecurities that make me feel emasculated) extend well beyond facial hair.

When I was in youth choir, the director had me sing with altos. When I answered the phone as a child, callers confused me for my mother. When I reached middle school, I was the last of my friends to grow armpit hair and experience a drop in my voice.

Making matters worse, to date I cannot fix cars, remodel homes, or lift weights. I have never shot a gun, caught a fish, or won a wrestling match (my daughters excluded). I've experienced a growing disinterest in professional football, violent movies, and winning in games.

In place of these stereotypical, testosterone-driven activities, my recent cache of pleasures includes long jogs, a good cry, curling up with a book, and meaningful conversations.

If it weren't for my lovely wife, I might question my manliness all together. She fortunately does not judge masculinity by facial hair and handyman skills. "What a man," she said a week ago when I scrapped iron deposits out of our toilet. "What a man," she exclaimed when I made dinner for the family and cleaned the dishes afterwards. "What a man," she chimed when I called a guy who was angry at me and sought to repair the relationship.

My wife knows I was not born for a beard. Not all men are. The measure of a man must go beyond our grooming to our goodness. Every man was born to honor God, love his wife (if married), shepherd his children (if a parent), work with integrity, and outgrow his insecurities.

A beard is a bonus feature I will never achieve.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Prayers and Pits

Tolerance does not accept all ways of thinking. Religious convictions and practices often get pegged as oppressive and legislated to the margins. Christians should not fear the margins, it is a position where faith has historically thrived. The prophetic voice of critique and hope resounds from the margins. When Christian voices mingle with the mainstream, they're often diluted or drowned out.

Daniel chapter six provides an interesting case study in prophetic action in a godless world. While the Medes and Persians were known for their policy of tolerance (Ezra 1:1-4), Daniel quickly finds out that tolerance has limits. His jealous opponents trick King Darius into making a law that restricts prayer to the king for a thirty day period. They know Daniel will chose the law of God over the law of the land.

And he does. Daniel continues praying - bowed to the ground, facing Jerusalem (1 Ki. 8), three times a day. His religious acts are not a political statement. He is not posturing. Daniel simply maintains piety in the face of scrutiny because he values God's unchanging law over the ever-shifting law of the land. His prayerful resistance results both in persecution (e.g. a night in the lions' den) and God's protection.

While America is not Israel, Christians can certainly relate to the political environment of Daniel's day. Laws morph. Tolerance reigns. That is, except for tolerance of firm morals and upstanding faith. American Christians empathize with Daniel's sense of exile no more than Christians of any time and place understand exile. Christians are not citizens of this world (Phil. 3:20). And as strangers and exiles, Christians are not called to greater politicking, but greater piety (1 Pet. 2:11ff).

Perhaps the best starting point for piety is on one's knees. Praying. Confessing. Resisting the gravitational pull of a godless world to drift into the mainstream. This sermon calls us to such a faith as this. 

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, November 2, 2015

Revivalism and Pious Prayers

Piety is a bad word these days. It sounds officious and religious. It implies higher moral ground and prudish sexual standards. It seems oppressive and disingenuous.

The word has not always received such negative reactions. Its word origin shares roots with "faithful, believing, devout." In the former days of John, Paul and James, belief and action were not divorced. "Faith without works is dead," James wrote (2:14-26). "Love in deed and truth, not simply tongue and intention," John exhorted (1 John 3:18).

In more recent history, preachers of the Great Awakening sought to practice holiness in daily life. Rather than accept the divide between orthodoxy and orthopraxis, men like John Wesley and Alexander Mack gave themselves to daily confession, Bible study, worship, witness, and humble service. It was Wesley who considered many of his countrymen "Almost Christians," because he noted their profession of faith did not align with their practice.

In a world trending toward godlessness -- not always in deed (for environmentalists and educational reforms have done some good), but certainly in outlook and egoism -- a return to piety is crucial. Revival will not grow from more evangelical politicking or mere "relevant" posturing, but from a return to piety.

In its purest form, piety holds the truth of the gospel (Christ buried, raised, ascended, and alive in His church - 1 Cor. 15) in one hand, and the other hand invests itself in work and worship. The apostle Peter, who understood his audience as a paradoxical blend of exiles and priests, summarized the call to piety well:

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe themglorify God in the day of visitation.

I pray the church return to piety. I pray she humble herself, pray, seek the face of God, and turn from her wicked ways, positioning herself not only to receive the blessings of God's forgiveness (2 Chron. 7:14), but also to direct the world back to God in the process.

It's not too late for a global revival. A return to piety may be its spark.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Sovereignty of God in a Self-Help World

The sovereignty of God is not nearly as sexy a topic as how to lose weight, manage my money, reduce stress, or make friends and influence people. Everywhere I turn I find another blog or book or podcast telling me how to make my life more efficient, effective, and controlled.

David Allen tells me how to Get Things Done. James Clear shows me how to Transform My Habits. John Acuff inspires me to Start being awesome. Kary Oberbrunner emails me to get clarity on who I am and where I'm going to Ignite my Soul. And Oprah is ubiquitous.

I'm no enemy to growth and maturity, but all these resources resound with the message: me, Me, ME!

Maximize MY Potential. Discover MY Purpose. Do It MYself.

Our culture is not unique in its enthronement of the Self. This drive for transcendence is traceable back to the book of Genesis. The original lie from the Garden of Eden still echoes. "We can be like God."

Sadly, when we believe this lie, we not only set ourselves up for failure, disappointment, and judgment (e.g., Adam, Gideon, Saul, David, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod), but we neglect our primary calling: to give praise to God (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). Our rightful place is not the throne -- that is God's -- but the altar (Romans 12:1-2).

Champions for humility, contentment, sacrifice, and denial will not get much air time in a Self-Help World. G.K. Chesterton noted this form of thinking even back in his day.

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert--himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt - the Divine Reason. (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 23)

Social Darwinism, Scientific Naturalism, and Self-Helpism are Sirens. They lure the Self only to shipwreck it. But in the call of the Sovereign God there is fullness, joy, purpose, and hope. God's sovereignty is rich, spanning the course of time, assuring His promises, withstanding our pain, including our prayers/deeds, and working for His glorious good (cf., Gen. 50:20; Ps. 115:3; Is. 46:9-10; Acts 2:23-24; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11; Rev. 4:11).

These truths may not be sexy, but they are orthodox. And, according to Chesterton, orthodoxy is more appealing. "There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy."

Now if I could only lose those last three pounds...

Monday, October 19, 2015

Heaven Rules (Daniel 7)

Life has a way of grounding us. Delusions of grandeur come crashing down. King Nebuchadnezzar faces this reality after another nightmare. When he relays the imagery of a glorious tree chopped to pieces, only upstanding Daniel can interpret. He tells the king who the True Sovereign is - God Most High, Ruler of Heaven. And if Nebuchadnezzar does not humble himself, the dream will become reality. It does: God grounds him. The Most High God has a way of humbling people so they respect His sovereignty.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, October 12, 2015

Preaching, Darrell Bock, and Evangelical Worship - Part 2 of 2

After the Let's Know the Bible Conference, our church hosted Dr. Darrell Bock for Sunday morning worship. To be honest, I had some reservations after the three-hour event on Saturday. Fifteen people from Leesburg Grace attended the conference; most of them looked like drowning rats (but beautiful drowning rats) by the end, awash in theological terminology and apologetic arguments.

One of my elders said it was difficult to follow but he likes being stretched.

A lady from my congregation said it mostly went over her head.

I loved it, but I am biased and biblically trained.

So when Sunday morning rolled around, my level of pastoral concern went to threat level orange. Our worship service comprised Dr. Bock's third audience in three days and the only non-academic setting. I could imagine he was tired, and the given topic ("What's in a Name: Jesus' Use of 'Son of Man'") was not suitable for minors.

One of last things I want people to experience following a Sunday morning sermon is confusion. I hope to push people to seek God through His Word. If the sermon comes riding on the clouds, God's people will dismiss it. Believers do not object to critical thinking, but they come to Sunday morning worship to be inspired, not just intellectually stretched.

We explained to Darrell our church's demographics, culture, and the flow of service. We always start late, slog through announcements, sing four or five songs, and open up the microphone for sharing and testimonies before the sermon. "You'll start preaching about eleven," Herb said.

"They have forty-five minutes of introductory stuff?" Darrell asked. It was clear by his question he viewed preaching as the highlight of the morning. Everything else was prescript.

Of course, not all people agree on the purpose of the Sunday morning gathering. Ask twenty pastors and twenty different answers will follow. Ask a hundred church members, and as many variations will arise. People come for social aspects, for encouragement, for food for thought (or just food), for volunteer opportunities, for uplifting music, for prayer, and for guidance.

Preachers are mistaken if they assume people primarily come to listen to them. They act as if the sermon is the apotheosis of Sunday morning. All other elements of the service either revolve around or reinforce the sermon. I can understand this thinking based upon my diligence in sermon-crafting every given week.

But evangelical worship transcends the sermon. It's somewhat errant (and arrogant?) to construct all of Sunday morning around the message. For if the sermon does not serve the purposes of connecting God's people to their Heavenly Father, it may be nothing more than a resounding gong or bloated idea. The same goes for worship music, corporate prayer, tithing, greeting, and, yes, even announcements.

All elements of the worship service must aim at building communion between God and His people.

Darrell's sermon grew my appreciation for Jesus' use of Son of Man. It reminded me that God -- not death, sin, or Satan -- speaks the final word about Jesus: He is vindicated.

And He will return, riding on the clouds, which is exactly where the evangelical mind wanders when preaching is over our heads.