Hypocrisy, Division & Riots at the Capitol

The divide is vast. The hypocrisy is thick. The church of Jesus must rise above. 

Last week, as self-proclaimed Patriots stormed our nations capital in undeniably heinous anarchy, I witnessed progressive Christian friends and left-leaning church leaders point fingers across the aisle not only at Donald Trump but at anyone who had the nerve to  cast a vote for the Republican President last November. Conservatives were painted with one broad brush stroke, consigning all to censure, ridicule, and blame. Like with so many moments over the past year, even in the church, I was saddened but not surprised. It was a glaring reversal of the rhetoric and blame-casting that we saw last summer as BLM protesters rioted, looted, and burned businesses leading many conservative Christians to broad-brush all progressives as violent, freedom-suppressing, America-hating imbeciles. In the summer months liberals – some of them anyway – justified the protests saying that they were “mostly peaceful” with a few dissenters. Those same liberals blasted the assault on the capital last Wednesday. Conversely, conservatives decried the violent riots last summer, while a few sought to justify the attack on Congress as a “mostly peaceful protest.” Four years ago, when Donald Trump took his oath of office, a cry of “not my president” rose from one side much to the angered dismay of the other. Presumably, when Joe Biden lays his hand on the Bible next week, a similar sentiment will rise from that other side, much to the consternation of the first. As I said, the hypocrisy is thick. 

After the events at the capital Lebron James and other athletes, artists, and celebrities stoked the fires of division by appealing to the racial divide once more. Joe Biden and the left, who have undeniably been vicious and unrelenting in their hateful rhetoric, are now calling for peace and unity on their terms. Donald Trump, who undeniably has been brazen, belligerent, and demeaning, is now calling for healing and reconciliation. If it wasn’t so sad it would all be laughable. How can so many do so much to destroy and then with a straight face call for peace, justice, and love? Again, the divide is vast – and our politicians, celebrities, and social media memes/rants are never going to bridge that yawning chasm. 

Enter the church. The blood-purchased bride of Jesus. The people for His own possession. The royal Priesthood. The citizens of the heavenly kingdom. The ministers of reconciliation equipped with the only message that can heal the soul and bridge the divide. We know our mission. It’s rather glaringly clear in the pages of Scripture and in the records of church history. 

We are light. We are the salt of the earth. We are Gospel ambassadors. 

We are to unapologetically declare God’s truth. Yet many Christians instead either spread misinformation, conspiracy theories, and wild speculations; or they shelter the truth, unwilling to welcome the storm of ridicule that may follow. 

We are to seek unity – a unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17 – within the church. Yet many continue to point fingers, spew venom, make accusations, maliciously slander, and almost willingly splinter the church. 

We are to trust in the only King who is truly sovereign, surprised by nothing, and declares the beginning of time to the end of days (which includes the appointment of political rulers [Daniel 2:21; Romans 13:1]). Yet with unrivaled (or so it seems) conviction, we trust in a man, a party, a judicial system, or a personal arsenal. 

We must be people of the Book – reading, believing, being comforted by, and proclaiming the revelation there-in. Yet our eyes and minds are dominated by social platforms, media outlets, radical bloggers, and enslaved to the bias of our own hearts. 

We are people who will be known for our love (those are red-letter words); yet we have become known for almost everything but true, Biblical, compassion-filled love. 

Washington is an easy target and buying cultural lies, standing on political platforms, and worshipping fallen leaders is popular. But (and we know this) we are not called to the easy or the popular. Christian friend, stop with the name-calling, the broad-brushing, the venom-spewing, the hate, the divisiveness, the idolatry, and all the rest. It’s not cute, it’s barely clever, and it’s convincing no one of anything. More importantly, your sin grieves the heart of God, wounds His people, and confirms to the world that we are no different than they. Purpose to live according to your calling. Rise above this tumult to be salt and light. Too much is at stake. 

“O Tidings of Criticism & Unmet Expectations”: A word from, about, and for Pastors

“Criticisms against pastors have increased significantly. One pastor recently shared with me the number of criticisms he receives are five times greater than the pre-pandemic era. Church members are worried. Church members are weary. And the most convenient target for their angst is their pastor.” This declaration, which – after a bizarre week of ministry – I posted on social media yesterday, is from an article entitled “Six Reasons Your Pastor is About to Quit” by Thom Rainer. In case you are wondering – hopeful or anxious – no, I am not quitting. Not even close. More about why in a second.

As the statement hung in my stories countless friends reached out, including several pastors to either ask for the link to the article or to simply affirm the sad pronouncement. It has been a tough go for many in this year of cynicism, division, doubt, and hate; and pastors are certainly no exception. In chatting with dozens of pastors over the course of this year, it would seem that none are immune to the constant criticisms; and the foremost reason that emerged for this barrage is the inability of pastors to meet the bevy of expectations under which they find themselves.

Pastors sin. Most church-goers know this and as long as the sin is theoretical then all is fine and even humorous. As soon as actual sin is observed – or even accused of – the claws of the faithful Pharisees dig deep. Of course, all Christians are subject to this scourge; but pastors, since placed on such a platform, endure on a heightened level the graceless, unpardonable judgement of debtors who have themselves been forgiven but seemingly have forgotten.

Pastors are finite. The average pastor is a husband, a father (and if he is faithful, considers those roles with extreme care), a friend, a scholar (of one thing or another), an apologist, a counselor, a fan, and (so easy to forget) a human. He too has just 24 hours in each day; seven days in each week. Sermon prep to instruct the people of God (if taken seriously) demands much time. Couple that with other platforms of instruction, oversight, care for family, immediate needs, personal worship, prayer, on and on and on the list rolls…and the hours typically drain from the week. Christians must prioritize their lives. So too must pastors.

Pastors disappoint. Pastors fail to meet a need – most often when they aren’t aware of the need. Pastors miss communication. Pastors make poor decisions.

Pastors are flawed.

I realize that this blog will not resonate with many because they are not pastors – but my hope is that some reading this will endeavor to pray for, to show grace toward, and to support their pastors more ardently; and that my pastor friends reading this will be encouraged.

The criticism of 2020 is not new – it is only heightened. As we endure the verbal lashing into the new year and beyond, the question must be: how do Christians in general and pastors specifically thrive in life and ministry?

There are numerous ways but here is what preserved me in this year:

  1. To remember that I am completely known and irrevocably loved by God. Brennan Manning, in his remarkable book The Ragamuffin Gospel wrote: “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.” May that be the deepest awareness for each of us as pastors and lay-Christians. We must be relentlessly proactive in drawing this remembrance to mind and soul. You are known, loved, and kept. If you know yourself at all (which let’s be real, is far worse than what people say about you) then this truth can simply not be unremarkable.
  2. Releasing bitterness and showing grace is not only good for the offender but is necessary for the offended. Each of us has given reason for others to be bitter. Each of us is in need of grace. Bitterness cripples the already damaged soul. Repenting of bitterness and choosing to demonstrate the grace of Christ brings joy and healing to the broken soul.
  3. Remind yourself of all those who do know your faults and see your weakness, yet relentlessly pray for, love, care, and support your family and your ministry. These folks are a gift of grace and I can say wholeheartedly and without reservation, that the Spirit has preserved my ministry because of people like this (if you are one of these folks please know that I am grateful for you in truly inexpressible ways).
  4. Our faithfulness pleases Jesus. While others lambast, accuse, malign, and critique, if we as pastors/Christians walk in humble, legitimate faithfulness in Gospel ministry (not that we always will obviously), the One who matters most looks upon us with a smile of affectioned affirmation. That is soothing to the soul and helps me sleep in peace.

If you are a pastor who is going through it, please feel free to reach out to me. I would love to chat. If you are a Christian, please pray for your pastors, show grace to all, and remind yourself of these truths. Be encouraged this holiday season. The God of grace has got you.

I Will Not Be Celebrating this Year.

“I will not be celebrating Thanksgiving this year. Quite simply, there is nothing in 2020 deserving of my gratitude.” So, honest confession – I haven’t heard anyone utter these exact words; but the myriad of negative denouncements I have heard stirred with more than a spoonful of myopic lament has led me to conclude that this is the soul-sentiment of many a believer. Last weekend I seemingly shocked many in my congregation when I made the almost blasphemous proclamation that the past six months have been the most joyful in my eighteen years of ministry. A few chortled loudly at the declaration, perhaps convinced that I had to be jesting; but the statement was anything but a joke.

Most friends reading this understand that I do not live in a glossy globe of naivety. I am not ignoring reality or pretending that no ill has fallen on my family or our church this year. In fact, outside of 2017, 2020 has been the most grueling, life-altering, and future-clouding year of my life. Never would I have imagined a year of church shuttering; financial uncertainty; bitter infighting over masks, childcare, and – yes – kinds of hand sanitizer; lockdowns; racial divide; political toxicity; and the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a global pandemic. Never would I have imagined former friends on both sides of the aisle labeling me a liberal and a racist in the same week. Never could I have foreseen my refusal to buy into cultural norms and corrupt ideologies publicly decried as sinful and privately used to spread disunity. I certainly could not have projected a scenario where my little girl, at the height of the pandemic, had to be rushed in for emergency heart surgery. On the surface, it’s been a horrendous year. But just under the surface, as I take time to peel away the obvious ugly, I see significant beauty.

I would highly encourage you, Christian, to do the same, but here are twenty realities that I am thankful for that would not be had 2020 gone according to script:

  1. The shutdown and continued societal impacts have enabled me to linger with my family longer. 
    Family has always been an absolute priority for me, but seasons of lockdown and new social norms have enabled me to hang with and invest in Danielle and my kids with increased regularity and purpose.
  2. New rhythms have forced me to slow down and adapt.
    For years I have worked hard to established healthy rhythms and accept necessary changes, but 2020 forced thoughtful reconsideration of many ministry norms.
  3. A reorientation of so many norms has pushed me to consider the things that truly matter.
    Under the bevy of opinions and friendly fire, with pastors dropping from the ranks, Christians fighting over nearly everything, and friends compromising theologically or practically, I have been driven to really seek for that which must be prioritized in my teaching and apologetic, while permitting secondary issues to be passionately held in open-handedness.
  4. Pressing cultural issues, and how they have rocked the church, have helped in expanding my understanding of many critical matters.
    I have, out of necessity, taken an even deeper dive into exploring how eschatology, prophecy, critical theory, intersectionality, cultural marxism, political ideologies, and political corruption directly affect the church and how Christians should respond.
  5. The necessity of a strong online presence and live-stream has gifted us the capacity to reach far more people with the message of the Gospel.
    As a church, we have been able to minister through the vehicle of media to thousands of folks from around the world. Every Sunday hundreds join us from various parts of the country for our live stream and already we have picked up listeners for our podcast from more than a dozen countries.
  6. The countless calamities have actually been used by God to purify His church.
    This always happens in times of crisis. Many fall away but the true church presses on in even greater devotion. That has certainly been the case in 2020.
  7. The reminder of the need for true community among the faithful has deepened the health of the church.
    Many Christians have taken the shutdown as an excuse to opt out of prior commitments, but countless others have felt the stinging need for true community which has increased their ardor to plug into the life of the church local.
  8. The myriad of controversies and viewpoints have birthed numerous robust and profitable conversations. 
    Yes, there have been toxic, unprofitable discussions across this annual timeline, but so many of the conversations I have taken part in, when seeded by all parties in kindness, care, and a desire to actually listen, have been incredibly helpful.
  9. The shutdown gave us the necessary time to create more space for worship and kids’ classrooms.
    Before COVID 19 rocked our country we had outgrown our worship space and our kids classrooms were overflowing. The past eight months have gifted us the time needed to expand our worship room while building out much larger classrooms.
  10. The chaos created an acute awareness and fostered deep conversations around eschatology.
    I have long stated that “eschatology is a gift to the church in times of chaos” and that proved to be the case this year. There was no small amount of fear-mongering that went down related to the supposed rapture, the anti-Christ, and the “One World Order,” but once more, for those who sought to listen and understand there was much Biblical comfort to be found.
  11. The relentless assault from multiple sides has strengthened my resolve to fear the derision and judgment of others far less.
    This might be my biggest take away from 2020. I understand that to go too far in this direction will result in cynicism, but the constant attacks have been used by the Lord to actually help me not to fear the criticism or hear the slander that used to wreck me.
  12. Needed personal repentance and the suffering of friends has instructed my heart to care much more deeply for others.
    I have not always been empathetic or filled with compassion. In fact, for many years these virtues were virtually absent. But God has graciously brought me to repentance again and again, cultivating within me a deeper awareness of and care for those who are truly suffering.
  13. The compromise of Christian leaders and churches has emboldened me to speak against destructive beliefs and policies.
    Much that has been heralded in 2020 is not only brazenly false but is also diabolically destructive to the Christian message. As a church we could have slid in with other believers and congregations who swallowed the cultural falsities; but instead, by God’s preservation, we have been graced to stand against the blatant mistruths.
  14. The constant attacks have presented an opportunity to be courageous.
    I’m learning to value attack for without it we will never actually exhibit courage. As Lewis said: “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” Thank God for the gift not only to be courageous but to show our kids what bravery looks like.
  15. The diversity of opinions on significant issues has taught me how to graciously disagree.
    “I believe you are wrong.” I have uttered those words almost on repeat this year, and I have heard them leveled from others against me. At times those words have been birthed from toxicity; but as the year has progressed, more often than not, those words have been bathed in grace. Christians must learn how to strongly yet kindly disagree.
  16. The need for community has deepened my friendships.
    We were never meant to walk alone. We were designed for community and friendship. God has gifted me, and hopefully you as well, with deep, abiding friendships that throughout the fray of the past nine months have served me well and strengthened my soul.
  17. The wide-spread exhaustion, frustration, and discouragement for others have provided me endless occasions to lend encouragement to those struggling.
    I’m very grateful for this as well. I am not naturally geared toward encouragement; but God has been rewiring me and cultivating within a true pleasure in bringing hope and joy to the lives of others. Though I still fail, by grace, I grow.
  18. The introduction and normalization of masks in society.
    This one is weird, I admit, and most who know me know that I am not typically a mask-wearer. But COVID 19 and the mask hysteria aside, it would seem that wearing a mask moving forward for anyone struggling with a slight ailment or marginal cold would be beneficial for those they come in contact with. We almost forget that all the other illness that existed before COVID still, in fact, exists.
  19. A deeper love for my church family. 
    Coming into this year I would have acknowledged that the members of BLDG 28 cared for my soul; but the endless tumult has created a backdrop upon which I have seen the true devotion and love that my church has for one another and for my family and this has stirred a deeper and stronger love within.
  20. The Divinely orchestrated beauty from disaster has been a refreshing reminder of how little I actually control.
    I don’t adapt well. I think there is certainly a place for and a benefit in organization and planning. But 2020 did not go according to script which more than almost anything else graciously reminded me that I may plans my path but the Lord directs my steps (Proverbs 16:9).

Throughout this holiday season I hope we will be reminded of all we have from the Lord to be thankful for; and I pray we will actually give thanks. It’s been a good year.

Semper Reformanda.

The Waltz

As I recline upon my bed, without sleep and bombarded with imagery, the scene takes shape in my mind…

A grand ballroom swims into view. The chandeliers are lit. The guests are arranged. The symphony swells. A lovely lady, cloaked in elegance, steps out from a crowd. A gentlemen moves forward to offer his hand. Across the dance floor the delighted couple glide. He whispers in her ear. She flashes a smile. She is the picture of serenity.

A second suitor emerges from the observers. He places a hand upon the first gentlemen’s shoulder, before whisking away the damsel. This couple moves in striking similarity to the first. The lady is the same; but her lead has changed. This second suitor also whispers in her ear. We see her mouth turn downward; her brow furrow. Clearly she is disturbed.

The first gentlemen intrudes, stealing away the lady. Moments later the second gent, almost forcibly this time, steps in. Back and forth the ordeal swings. Time and again she dances, laughs, and glides with the first lead; time and again she is stolen away to lament and discomfort with the second.

What does all this mean? Who is the damsel? Who is he that makes glad? Who is he that offends? The answer is simple.

The first gentlemen – delightful, optimistic, and charming – is faith. The second suitor – forever obtrusive, doubtful, and openly antagonistic – is fear. The lady is the soul of the Christ-follower. The waltz is the daily life for many a believer.

I find myself constantly in this dance. It is not that fear rips me from the grip of faith, but certainly I come face to face, all too often, with my insufficiencies, my vices, my failures. Fear declares to my soul that I am alone, unsupported, uncared for. I do not have what it takes. I am not as polished as that writer, not as knowledgable as that scholar, not as eloquent as that teacher. My affections stray, my soul grows weary, my theology is merely cerebral. The light of hope grows dim. The mouth of my soul twists downward in a scowl. And then, by a stroke of Divine favor, again and again, relentlessly faith, as a gift, takes hold. I am reminded that I am intimately known and unreservedly delighted in by God Himself. I am comforted with conviction, contrition, confession. I know that I am redeemed and that this is enough.

Perhaps you struggle as I do. Perhaps you dance. Perhaps you need to recall the power of Christ through faith. Hopefully this reminds you.

Read more of Aaron’s post at themoderninkling.com

Singing the Heretics?

“Should we listen to or sing the songs of bands with porous theology?” 

It’s a legitimate question and one that came to me, in similar form, this past week. From the dancing Israelites on the eastern shore of the Red Sea in the fifteenth chapter of Exodus, I had drawn a lesson on worship for the church at our weekend gatherings: ‘what we sing to or say about God should be Biblically-informed.’ With so much of modern “Christian music” bordering on doctrinal disdain or flirting with Biblical neglect, a question such as the one above lesson. So, here is my answer to the inquiry…

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This is a terrific question. I am all too aware of the hollowed out anthems of “modern worship;” or the erroneous, if not heretical, teaching that exists in several of the churches behind the most popular of Christian artists. I’ll offer my response as succinctly as possible.

When lifting our voices in adulation to the Lord the most critical component is not the origin of a song, or even our intent to worship through the song, but is rather the content of the song. The lyrics themselves must, without fail, acknowledge our Sovereign for who He is and what He has done – without compromise. This does not mean that every anthem must completely explain intricate Gospel depths or unpack weighty Divine attributes. Instead, what this does mean is that however many or few lyrics are contained in the song, these lyrics must convey a Biblical expression of salvation, glory, brokenness, redemption, dependence, and the list rolls ever onward and upward. Anthems, should recount the excellencies of our Savior far more than the experiences of the subordinates. The question then is really quite simple: does the song in question – not the band who sings it, or the artist who wrote it, or the teacher who shaped it – agree with the testimony of Scripture? If the answer is “yes” then, I believe, we are completely at liberty to sing.

With that said, our affirmation of a song must, at times, come with mature and honest instruction and dialogue. Caveats and clarification are hardly a bad thing in a day of relativism, secularism, and fanaticism. There are remarkable anthems at times produced by musicians who are Biblically compromised. We certainly need to protect fellow believers, and even those scoping out the faith, from the egregious nature of much modern Christian doctrine – or lack thereof – communicated through music.

The easy conclusion is always elimination – of liberties, music, delights, or anything that has even the slightest potential to offend; but that is not, I believe, to what we are called. Instead, we are called to discernment, humility, wisdom, discussion, and tough decisions.

Semper Reformanda

The Absurdity of God Loving Some People and Not Others

Frequently I receive questions from those seeking out truth. A while ago, I received the following query from a young pastor…

“The one thing I cannot wrap my head around is the idea that God only loves some. I feel like I love people more than that and that confuses me. How would you explain this declared reality?”

So I believe it is extremely clear according to Scripture that God loves all people. Of course websites online that want to bash Grace Theology or Calvinistic belief would like to claim otherwise but Reformed folks certainly believe that God loves all people. John 3:16 speaks clearly to this matter as you have pointed out. There are two issues that all Christians must face though.

(1) The first issue to face is the reality that God loves different people in differing ways. No doubt you and your wife love all children in the world generally; but you love your own kidos far more than you love other children and out of the depth of that love you sacrifice, serve, and live in relationship with your kids in ways you would not do for other children. That normal human behavior is an echo of the love of the Divine for us. God loves all people in a benevolent or general sense, showing common kindness to all by gifting them life, breath, and a legitimate opportunity to trust in Jesus. However, he has a far deeper love for his children, whom he lives in relationship with, sacrifices for, and serves in ways that he does not do for those who are not His children. This would be called his special or familial love. 1 John 3:1, Zephaniah 3:17, Romans 8:37-39, Ephesians 2:4-5, and 1 John 4:19 all testify to this reality.

(2) Second, God loves differently than we love, both in a benevolent and in a familial sense. God loves in a benevolent sense but he permits horrible things to occur that He has the sovereign power over and knowledge to stop. With a word of His mouth He could put to flight all infanticide, famine, sexual assault, and on the despicable list rolls. Yet all of these things continue to exist. Biblically we understand that God has a purpose for all suffering and all wickedness but that does not alter the reality that if we could be God for a day then we would vanquish all blatant transgression off the face of the earth forever. He doesn’t do that which simply means that He loves differently and from a different vantage point and position of power and plan than we do.

My little girl had open heart surgery when she was six months old. Her heart would not recover so they had to perform a second surgery on her and insert a life-preserving device. It was a miserable and draining 15 days in the hospital. I met several families in the CVICU whose children were dying. I can unashamedly declare that if I were God, loving as I do, I would heal every single one of those little ones. Yet He doesn’t. Now that reality can and will produce one of two responses in people. First, people will cry foul at God’s allowing suffering or even wickedness to continue, become angry with Him, and ultimately turn away from Him. Or alternatively, they can understand rationally and Biblically that God loves differently than we do and allows suffering and wickedness as a part of human will and ultimately His eternal plan of redemption.

These realities are stated in Scripture, supported throughout church history, and affirmed in various confessions of faith. I hope this helps.

Semper Reformanda

Why Is the Old Testament so Horrifically Violent?

This question isn’t new. Since I entered the realm of apologetics and theological studies in my late teens I have been confronted with it many times. Often the inquiry has been little more than an embittered accusation of cosmic barbarism. But recently, particularly as our church has gone through the book of Judges, the query – in multifarious forms – has been sincerely raised again and again: Why is the Old Testament so violent? It’s a legitimate question. Brutality emerges as early as Genesis 4 with the slaughter of Abel, and the theme continues through to the second chapter of Malachi. Covenants are sealed in blood, sacrifices involve butchery, and on repeat we see gory battles and the massacre of entire civilizations. The “Old Testament God” has been accused of brutish catachresis, and on the sidelines Christians all too conveniently (and often embarrassingly) try to excuse the behavior of God or misdirect minds from the content of Scripture. Are the myriad of accusations against the Sovereign valid? Well, certainly not all of them; but even if some of our confusion around the graphic gore of the OT is legitimized (be we Christian, skeptic, or scorner), we must acknowledge that we are questioning or accusing the Creator from the absolute framework and moral concept of goodness that only He could have established.

But even therein lies an issue for some. Are we left with a “do as I say, not as I do” God? Well, you may chuckle, but the answer to that is yea…kind of. He is infinite, after all, and we finite. He is self-centered, and rightfully so, while we are self-centered but sinfully so. He is not primarily an example to follow but a Judge and (to His children) a Father to be obeyed. So that answers two pressing issues: we must be extremely careful when leveling interrogation against God because He is (1) God (with all the convoluted glory that entails) and He is (2) the beginning and end of all absolute goodness and purity which we may attempt to use as an indictment against Him. So, with those realities established, and while bearing them in mind, we can endeavor to answer this enormous inquiry: Why the violence in the Old Testament? 

I think there are 5 answers to this question which I will briefly explain:

God employs warfare to show His people how to fight well. 

This reality is stated bluntly in Judges 3. God allowed Canaanites to remain in the land of promise “in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before.” What we see clearly in the Pentateuch, the Historical books, and the Prophets is that the art of combat was passed from one generation to another. There were always battles to be fought, and the people of God were commissioned to fight well to defend their people and represent their King. Even today, we learn how to fight, both literally and spiritually from what we find in the Scriptures.

God unleashes brutality as a consequence to sin.

When God looked upon the landscape of His creation, the word that flowed from His Divine mouth was “Good.” In beauty the Lord crafted the world; and sin catastrophically marred that beauty. Violence, aggression, and brutality are used and unleashed by God but the culprit behind these is sin itself. So much of the barbarism of the Old Testament is the outworking, the consequence, or the eradication of persistent wickedness.

God wields violence to protect and purify His people. 

This is a common motif in Scripture: violence and bloodshed are wielded by the Lord to protect His people from the compromise that would undoubtedly come from the invasion of foreign nations. Just as any loving father would act in aggression toward those who threatened the innocence of his children, so God – as the preeminent Father – responds in holy vengeance against those who would seek the ultimate destruction of His children.

God through bloodshed preserves the line of Christ. 

Again and again we see empires rise in the Old Testament seekingly to overthrow and annihilate the people of God. The twelve tribes of Israel are embarrassed, demoralized, enslaved, and tortured. Through patriarchs, prophets, judges, and kings God brings deliverance to ultimately safeguard the line of Messiah. Had the people of Jehovah embraced pacifism they would have been obliterated long before the Savior entered the frame and brought justification to the world.

God uses barbarism to foreshadow the passion of Jesus. 

Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 speak with uncomfortable precision of the suffering Messiah. In the cross and resurrection of Christ we see the convergence of the holy war pattern established in the Old Testament. On the cross Jesus absorbed the furious condemnation of God, and in the resurrection He secured the final victory for the people of God.

Undoubtedly the questions swarming around the violent aggression of the Old Testament will persist, but as Christians we see glimpses of God’s purposes and glory emerging from the darkness to pierce the light.

Semper Reformanda

Blessing or Barbarism? An Answer to the Issue of Abortion

I hope you’ll understand my reason for penning this post with the grit, brutality, and rank candor that I employ. While a sensitive issue, this is not an issue that we can afford to tip-toe around. Children are being slaughtered and the church must be bold and brave to speak up. I only hope that my voice and pen will rise above the fray to inform souls and save lives…

+++++++

I remember the day well. It was late April of 2016. I had just returned from a conference and my beautiful wife had just returned from her 20 week ultrasound. As I sunk into the couch in our living room and stared into Danielle’s distraught face, I prepared myself for what I was sure would be life-altering news. The news came. Our baby, who we – surrounded by friends – had discovered was a little girl less than a week prior, had massive congenital heart defects that threatened her life and assured us that she would undergo open-heart surgery shortly after birth. My shock transformed to rage when Danielle then informed me that having made this discovery, the doctors had reminded her that a fetus with AVSD (the heart defect our baby would suffer from) often carried chromosomal imperfections as well and that chromosomal testing should be done so that we could “make an informed decision.” You may not understand my vexation. You may think I overreacted. You may assume that I am an ardent right-wing bigot with low mental acumen and zero compassion for the expectant mother. So whatever your perspective of me or position surrounding this debate may be, please allow me to explain my disgust.

The choice before us was brutally straightforward. On the one hand we could choose a difficult pregnancy, extremely high medical bills, countless days in the NICU and then CVICU, routine cardiology appointments, physical limitations for our child, and possibly chromosomal abnormalities. That seemed overwhelming (and quite literally has been). Or we could choose to “terminate the pregnancy.” This would mean that on a specified date Danielle and I would make our way to the hospital where a skilled and careful surgeon would insert a suction catheter into my wife’s uterus sucking out the amniotic fluid surrounding our child. The doctor would then ask for the Sopher clamp – a 13 inch long instrument, made of stainless steel and designed with razor sharp teeth on the end. Pressing the clamp into the uterus, the physician would blindly search for something upon which to clasp those steel teeth. He would then take hold of, forcibly twist, and jerk the clamp back. Emerging from Danielle would be a four inch leg that had been kicking her mommy from the inside for the past 7 weeks. Then would come little arms, a developed spine, operational intestines, and a heart that had been beating since day 18. All the while we would know that our baby, who could react to pain since week 8, was feeling every act of violence against her person. Having extracted most of the tiny body, the surgeon would then insert the Sopher clamp one last time to search for something roughly the size of a large plum – namely the baby’s skull. He would know his job was a success when white material oozed from the cervix, the material being a tiny brain that had been channeling waves since week 6. In the end, perhaps a little face would have come back – as is sometimes the case – staring now lifelessly our way. Throughout this whole procedure, all of the extracted baby parts would be placed on a tray and reassembled so the doctor could make sure that the entire baby was accounted for and that there were no parts left behind. There would lay our lifeless, dismembered baby girl.

Dr. Warren Hern, a Boulder, Colorado abortionist who has performed a number of second trimester abortions, says these operations can be troubling to a clinic staff including the doctors themselves. He states, “There is no possibility of denial of an act of destruction by the operator. It is before one’s eyes. The sensation of dismemberment flows through the forceps like an electric current.”

Abortionist Lisa Harris once wrote of her experience aborting babies while herself pregnant: “With my first pass of the forceps, I grasped an extremity and began to pull it down. I could see a small foot hanging from the teeth of my forceps. With a quick tug, I separated the leg. Precisely at that moment, I felt a kick – a fluttery ‘thump, thump’ in my own uterus. It was one of the first times I felt fetal movement. There was a leg and foot in my forceps, and a ‘thump, thump’ in my abdomen.”

These were our options. The blessing of life or the barbarism of death. It was not a choice in our minds. It should not be a choice for anyone. Our little girl would live.

For decades the argument for abortion centered around the false assertion that a fetus was not human. Potential mothers had the right to decide to terminate their pregnancies, most often for the sake of comfort and convenience, because they, after all, were human and the fetus was merely a collection of tissue. However, recent science has so disproven this ridiculous theory that intellectual pro-choice advocates must in fact acknowledge that abortion is the killing of human life. In an article entitled “So What if Abortion Ends Life?” written by Mary Elizabeth Williams, a staunch pro-choice activist, she declares this fact and her position: “Yet I know that throughout my own pregnancies I never wavered in the belief that I was carrying a human life inside of me. I believe that is what a fetus is: a human life. And that does not make me one iota less pro-choice.”

This is diabolical selfishness of the most depraved order. Additionally it is intellectually inconsistent. If someone assaults a pregnant woman and intentionally or unintentionally ends the life of her unborn baby, the assailant is charged with first degree homicide. However, that same mother can willfully choose to end the life of that child, at minimal expense, and it is merely a discarding of undesired cells. If a mother is excited for her baby then that baby is in fact a child; but if that same mother is unprepared for or inconvenienced by the baby then it is just a ball of material.

This week a notable politician, following the celebrated triumph of making full-term abortions legal in New York state, tweeted the following: “Forty-six years after Roe v. Wade, we affirm what will always be true: Women have an unalienable right to make their own decisions about their health care. Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” My response – and common sense, science, and conscience back this: Baby rights are human rights (since we know that unborn children are in fact human life). A baby, as a person – flesh, blood (often of a different type than his or her mother), body, and soul – have an unalienable right to live. And to take it one step further I would ask of the tweet, “always be true to whom?” If it is merely true to you – because it’s what makes you feel fuzzy, or it’s what “seems right to you” – then you have zero authority to dictate that this must be true to anyone else. If it is not just true for you, but is universal truth then there must be a standard of universal truth to which you are appealing. There must be Truth outside of and beyond you that you are calling others to submit and adhere to.

Though science and our souls rise up to validate the treachery of the murder of unborn humanity, there is a higher authority, an absolute truth to which we make our first and final appeal (and before the cacophony of protests swell accusing me of appealing to authority I would simply ask: to what final authority do you submit?) If there isn’t one then you have no absolute right to claim that civilizations that legalize infanticide are evil or wrong. That is merely, your opinion that you cannot press with conviction upon anyone else. Contrasting individual judgment is sacred Scripture – the highest authority. Scripture declares that all humanity is fashioned in the image of God and is therefore inherently, unavoidably, and equally valuable. Scripture states that murder – the willful, unjust taking of life – is evil. Therefore, abortion in any form or at any stage of pregnancy is a diabolical atrocity against the Creator and His most masterful creation.

My sincere and earnest hope is that the church of Jesus Christ will not retreat to uncomfortable silence on this issue. My hope is that babies will be saved, mothers will be loved, and truth will reign. My hope is that not-yet-ready mothers will be supported by the church and will place their little ones in homes of parents who will love and care for them – as our own birth mother did for our first and third child. My hope is that foster care and adoption will blossom within Christianity and that infanticide in the womb will end in our nation. My hope is that those who have administered abortions or endured abortions will know the forgiveness that is found in our Savior and be freed from crippling guilt. Life is precious, valuable, and beautiful. Let’s do all we can to fight for it.

Semper Reformanda

Why this Pastor Loves Atheists

Yes, I do in fact legitimately love atheists.

In a culture that has produced and promoted many lies in the name or for the sake of love, perhaps the most glaring is that to love someone is to accept all that he or she is, including beliefs and practices. This is the height of absurdity. I love my 2 year old, but I don’t let her walk into the pool, however ardently she may desire to do so, because I know it would most likely produce catastrophic results. We don’t allow an addict to continue in their damaging behavior because we are fully aware that what they crave is harmful not only to themselves but to those who love them.

In fact, genuine love both philosophically and Biblically always seeks what is ultimately best for the one loved, even if that contradicts methods practiced or positions espoused. The love that I have for the unbelieving in no way condones or excuses poor behavior or erroneous beliefs. At the same time, my declaration of love for atheists (as well as agnostics, skeptics and cynics) is in no way an exaggeration or falsehood. While acknowledging our rank differences, here are 5 reasons why I truly love the anti-theistic crowd:

  1. They are thinkers.

I hate generalizations. Herding massive amounts of individuals into a one-size-fits-all-of-this-type categorization is nauseating. I understand that there are rude atheists and polite atheists, just as there are rude believers and polite believers. I also understand that not all atheists think deeply and not all Christians are emotionally charged, weak-minded flakes (though the list of best selling Christian resources on Amazon might beg to differ). Admittedly, I do not have a natural fondness for those who base their conjectures primarily (or even solely) on feelings, and this would include both the religious and the non-religious crowds. So one of the things I have loved about many agnostic/atheistic writers/debaters/friends is that they are truly attempting to explore and understand the most haunting questions of our existence. They do not fear to wade into deep philosophical waters. They are legitimately on the hunt for truth – if such a winged beast or demi-god even exists – and in this pursuit they have my admiration and my camaraderie.

  1. They care for those suffering in this world.

The primary gripe of atheists with the God they deny but simultaneously love to hate, is that he is capricious. He is a detached Dictator. The perpetual pain and prolific suffering in the world testify to this reality. While the logical progression behind this argument is, I believe, flawed – which I’ll explore in week three of our upcoming sermon series – it reveals to me that there are many non-believers who are full of compassion for those hurting across our planet. While our motives for caring (myself and the non-believer) are drastically different, I can see and am moved by the expression of their concern nonetheless.

  1. They have caused me to examine deeply my own beliefs.

Some of the most meaningful conversations of my life have taken place across from a fellow who has postulated positions antithetical to my own. Some of the most mind-jarring, soul-searching books or blogs I have ever read were penned by a devout Divine antagonist. I find myself drawn to the works of Hitch, and feel as though he and I – had we ever met – could have been good friends and I would have seen my faith in Christ deepen through his faithlessness. Though I wouldn’t encourage most Christians to read the works of Hitchens, Dawkins, Singer, or Harris, I have been challenged by their writing and led by the Truth (as arrogant as they would say that sounds) into a deeper and more robust understanding of God’s glory and grace.

  1. They are unashamed of the doctrine they embrace. 

If only this could be truly stated of American evangelicals: “they are unashamed of the doctrine (the Gospel of Jesus) that they embrace.” As I study anti-theism I am baffled by the devotion of its adherents to a hopeless fatalism almost as much as I am baffled by the dearth of devotion within Christianity to a hope-delivering Savior. How can folks who are so wrong in their admittedly dark and maddening worldview be so staunch is declaring and defending it? Theologically and even anthropologically there exist answers to this question; but whatever those answers may be, the depth of their resolve is both admirable and convicting.

  1. They are image bearers of the Divine.

While denying the very One who gave them the breath and the voice to deny Him, the anti-theists, atheists, agnostics, and cynics are in no way any less bearers of the Divine Image. They were made – mind, soul, and body – in the very likeness of the God they choose to suppress. My worldview, my doctrine, and the work of the Holy Spirit in my soul have convinced me that all of life – even the life of one who would defame or deny the existence of the King – is a precious, irreplaceable gift. As a unique expression of the Creator’s design, who the Lord of life died to save, I truly do love unbelievers and from that love will battle and dialogue to see truth triumph in these beautiful lives.

This Sunday I’ll begin a new sermon series at BLDG 28 entitled “Your God is Too…” I will offer a defense, in kindness and genuine love, of the Hope that lives within me. I look forward to the conversations this series will spawn between believing and non-believing friends and hope that through those conversations, the questions that will be raised, and the answers that will be given, genuine Love will prevail, pushing back darkness and ushering in light.

Semper Reformanda. 

When Love is Gone

“What do I do when love isn’t there?”

The inquiry came from a young man who approached me after I had pulled the pin and chucked the grenade of the “love chapter” during my Sunday sermon. The thought-provoking, soul-convicting body of 1 Corinthians 13 had apparently thumped a nerve with this gent prompting him to posit a question that I receive on multiple occasions – primarily from married folk: I know the Bible commands us to love according to the example and standard of Jesus…but what do I do when it just isn’t there? How do I love when I don’t feel it? Do I simply fake it ’til I make it? It would be easy to answer this query in triteness, but the reality is that the lack of genuine, God-glorifying, truth-clutching, soul-changing love has become a massive epidemic in evangelicalism and therefore must be addressed in candid prudence.

As I have surveyed the pages of Scripture, chatted this subject up with wise men and women, and consorted with those who excel in and fail to love, I have established four principles that must be followed if we are to love (our spouses, our children, our friends, and our Christian brothers and sisters) in the way that God commands.

1 :: Ask
It cannot be overstated – prayer is essential to loving as Christ has called us to love. The sacrificial devotion of 1 Corinthians 13 is so counter-cultural and self-denying that we must be unabashedly Spirit-dependent in order to “walk in brotherly affection.” Jesus calls His followers not to love moderately well but to love in Divine perfection – as He Himself loved (John 13:34). In a culture that prizes emotionalism, eroticism, and self-gratification this can sound practically impossible. Yet Jesus promised that His Father will give the Spirit to whoever petitions (Luke 11:13) and in the power of the Spirit we can do all things (Philippians 4:13). Therefore, let’s beg the Father to fill us with His Spirit and drive deep within us a Divine-like devotion that burns ever brighter.

2 :: Accept
When love seems to have escaped our lives it is imperative that we seek and accept godly counsel. Practical steps will assist us in walking in faithful devotion, so listen to sound advice and implement pragmatic guidelines from folks who consistently demonstrate and live in Christian love.

3 :: Act
In his brilliant work Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” I agree with the British novelist. Expressions of love (actions) are not in themselves love but they can help in developing and maturing love. I am not calling for inauthenticity or fraudulent behavior. Rather I am calling for lives that choose to demonstrate devotion in the earnest hope of finding devotion. Purpose to act in love and there is little doubt that love for others will develop.

4 :: Adore
Never yet have I encountered a follower of Jesus who was enraptured with their Savior while living in apathy or even hostility toward brothers and sisters in the faith. Of course, the primary reason that we strive to see and savor Christ is that He is absolutely worth that adoration; but a bi-product of adoration for Christ is deep-seeded affection for His people. In fact, it is quite clear historically and Biblically that a lack of devotion to others is directly linked to a lack of devotion to Jesus Himself (John 13:35). Loving Christ flows forth in love for others. Therefore, seek to know and adore the Lover of our souls.

Semper Reformanda.

Seven Ways to Father Well

For the first couple years of being a dad my running mantra to other fathers was: “Here’s what I think…but then again I’ve been a father for about 5 minutes.” My advice, however solid, foolish, or naive, always came with it a disclaimer. I had forever chuckled at parental advice from those without children, and had therefore been reticent, before my own kiddos arrived, to hand out child-training tips. Even with the arrival of Spurgeon (my first born) I was reluctant to advise for a couple of years. However, having consumed a half-dozen books on the topic, perused countless blogs, seen the good and bad of fatherhood from friends and acquaintances, and recently enjoyed my fourth Father’s Day as a pop, I figured I would jot down lessons I am learning in my pursuit of being a strong, godly father. Most of these principles have substantial Biblical backing and in none of these principles have I achieved perfection. I am learning, struggling, and pressing through but I already see a ton of fruit in the lives of my kids through the faithful implementation of these principles.

1 :: Husband Faithfully 

The statistics are alarming. Many men who end up addicted to pornography and with a skewed sense of love are products of affection-less parents. Kids need to see their father spend time with, date, hug, affirm, and prize their mother. This is the best example for them of how men are to treat women, and women men. I will admit, I am far more cerebral than emotional so open affection and flowery romance does not come naturally for me – and I know it doesn’t for many men. But if we desire to father well it all begins with how we love our bride.

2 :: Work Diligently

Laziness seems to be an increasing epidemic in this generation. The pithy mottos of “everyone is a winner” and “you can have anything you want just ‘cause you want it” have come back to bite. Fathers should be teaching their sons – particularly through example – how to work hard. Diligence is almost always rewarded and our kids should see us, particularly at home, laboring feverishly to meet the needs of family and the demands of the home.

3 :: Laugh Frequently

Life is cumbersome with many deadlines, dilemmas, and disappointments. In spite of these things, God gives us ample opportunity to enjoy life and laugh often and we should – with our children – take full advantage. Don’t confuse why you work: work to live, not the other way around. Punch out after putting in a solid day of diligent labor. Come home to actually be with and enjoy your family. Put the phone away, the remote down, and relish the Divine gifts of laughter and amusement. For the past three years Dink and I have encountered heartache and loss, yet we are endeavoring to press through those trials and savor the fleeting moments with our kiddos.

4 :: Discipline Consistently

This is tough. Many parents either allow their kids to run roughshod with little correction (to the bewilderment of those in their church, school, or community) or incarcerate their children in a tiny prison of perfection and robotic behavior. Neither is healthy or right. Consistent discipline, not punishment, is what is best and what is Biblical. Punishment is paying back my kid for bad behavior; discipline is instructing my child toward right behavior. Whatever your form of discipline may be, I would strongly encourage you to be consistent, be calm (don’t get angry or hostile), be informative (let them know why they are being corrected), and be loving.

5 :: Hug Routinely

More than any other, this principle should go without saying, but in the hustle and bustle of life we often forget to actually exhibit the love that we have for our children. Kids need tangible expressions of affection. Hand-holding, hugging, cuddling, and kissing your kiddos is proven to increase their health (mentally and physically) and happiness.

6 :: Teach Regularly

The world around us will not cease in attempting to catechize our children. Allow this vicious instructor to stand at the head of the classroom and your children will learn idolatry, discontent, and disrespect. Instead, silence the voice of a godless culture, and rise up to regularly educate your kids. God has gifted us unending instructional opportunities and as fathers we should snatch up these opportunities. Through Scripture, literature, history, narrative, and experience, teach your children life skills, respectful behavior, sports, crafts, art, truth, and the list rolls onward. Disciple them to know, love, and serve God. Don’t allow a day to pass without some type or form of direction taking place. It’s what their little minds and souls need.

7 :: Live Authentically 

Hypocrisy has driven more children from their parents and the church than any other vice. To be clear, hypocrisy is not failing to live up to your established values, but rather is putting on a mask and projecting yourself as something that you are not. While fathers can fool the crowds, they cannot fool their kiddos. Children will see the mask for what it is and grow increasingly repulsed by it. Living authentically means that I am striving to live according to what I know and declare to be right, acknowledging and apologizing when I fail, and reminding myself and my kids of the enormity and undeservedness of God’s remarkable grace.

I truly hope to see men take seriously the gift that is fatherhood and strive forward to lead and love their children well.

Semper Reformanda

Condemnation and Affection?

How could a loving God condemn…?”

The email inquiry came from a concerned mother. It was not at all a new question but the subject matter stilll caused me to bite my lower lip as the angst of that mother is shared deeply by this father. In a culture that adores, preaches, and rationalizes from “love,” the concept of a God who would judge, indict, and damn seems alarmingly and tragically far from loving.

I do want to answer this question – not only for this mother’s sake but also, again, for my own – but first a simple reality has to be plainly stated. Truth is: love as we know and embrace it has been more so defined by culture, society, and our own emotions than it has by Scripture. Here we sit, in close proximity to Valentine’s Day where men desperately scramble for flowers, chocolate, and reservations. Not that I’m capping on V-Day, but if we are honest the 14th of February has been designated as a consumeristic holiday of getting if you’re loved and being discouraged – cause you didn’t get – if you’re (seemingly) not. In essence, the day of roses and hearts is clearly indicative of how our culture views “love.”

However, Scripture paints a differing definition. When the Bible speaks of love – particularly the love of God – is uses the Greek word agape. This is an intense term carrying with it the idea of volition far more than emotion. Agape is a choice to love and as depicted in Christ is carried out in devotion, steadfastness, and sacrifice. It is not dictated by feeling but by appointed favor. In other words, God’s commitment to His children is not in flux but rather is fixed. He does not love me less when I screw up and He does not (can not) love me more when I read my Bible, spend an hour in prayer, share the Gospel, or choose Fireproof for my family movie night. His love is not conditional or consumeristic. He continues – in the face of our faithfulness and flailing – to give us what we desperately need: Himself. All the good gifts of this life – including breath in our lungs, children to hold, relationships to foster, accidents avoided, and – on a deeper level – reconciliation to God, peace for eternity, rescue from sin (the list keeps rolling) – all flow to us as testaments of Divine presence. In commonality, humanity receives temporal “gifts” as a product of God’s benevolent presence. Specifically, Christians receive not only “common grace” but the very presence of God’s favor upon us.

The love a parent has for a child typically depicts Divine, salvific love more closely than anything else in this life. Which brings us to a statement raised in the email from the young mother… I have children…I would never condemn them for not choosing me… To which I reply, neither would God. Not one child of God has ever been condemned. In fact, Scripture and the Reformed tradition teach us that God loved his family so much that He actually, actively persuades – by His Spirit – His kids to love and follow Him. Having been convinced of the worth of God Himself, by God Himself, all the “brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus” do freely and willingly, by faith, choose the presence of God and the pleasures found in His good, Redeeming grace.

However, obviously (though unpopularity stated) not everyone is a member in God’s family. All humanity enjoys, to some degree, the temporal blessings of God’s common presence. However, death will eventually bring an end to temporal blessing and then the haunting question will be: did you take (by faith) God – not just His gifts but His Person – while you enjoyed His temporal blessings, or did you reject Him. If an individual brushed off Christ in this life now in an effort to worship His gifts to them, in essence declaring, “I don’t want God,” then when this life is over they will actually receive what they wished for: the removal of God’s gracious presence and good gifts. That – while in no way being trite – is the condemnation justly deserved for all those who say “no” to the Divine’s invitation to join His family and experience intimacy with Him.

God does have a general affection for each individual, but His unrelenting, continually pursuing, constantly giving agape is reserved only for His sons and His daughters; and for those whom He has brought into His home there is no condemnation.

Semper Reformanda

The Year We Hope For…

…versus the year we may get.

The fireworks have streamed through the midnight sky, “Auld Lang Syne” has been sung, and 2018 has dawned fresh with possibility and, for many, a renewed sense of hope. Glasses raised we toast our friends and petition our God for a stress-free, healthy, and happy year. And while we can certainly wish, hope, and work toward this goal, reality is simple and stark: the year we hope for will very likely not be the year we receive.

Some might say that I am too down-trodden by the events of the past year to pen a post on hope for the new; but I’ve found that when we are at our low points (and often most honest points) God works and ministry rolls out. I’m tired of all the regurgitated, trite Christian idioms that we toss about to sooth our beleaguered souls but in actuality do more harm that good. I’m all for authenticity – straight up, brutal truth. So, while in one breath I wish you a happy new year, in the next breath I’ll direct your hope – if you’ll allow – beyond the flip calendar full of empty promises and misapplied Scripture, to the bigger (and deeper) picture about which God truly cares.

Each Sunday I pace back and forth before a few hundred people attempting to understand and unpack in coherence the difficult claims of Scripture. For many, if not most of them, I think they believe it comes easy for me. In reality, each week – and at times – each hour, I have to look at a burning world, a wrecked society, abandoned children, unspeakable tragedy and choose in the face of the fire to believe. In reality…faith – the clinging to hope and choosing to trust – comes harder for me than for most I am called to shepherd. For some that may sound alarms, and if they are looking for a pastor who will tug on a mask and pump them with fluff and send them into a world that in the spiritual realm eerily resembles The Walking Dead then I wish them well. My job isn’t to tell anyone that 2018 will be easy, that money will fall from the skies if you live like a worship warrior, or that if you “let go and let God” He’ll give you the best. Even the intellectual non-believing community agrees that is garbage; yet some Christians ferociously cling to this pollution that tickles their ears while hollowing out their souls.

Job got it right when he – far more wrecked than I – declared that man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward. Lazarus was faithful and begged for crumbs. Jesus’ cousin chowed on bugs and wailed truth from a wilderness only to land in prison with his head severed for the amusement of a teen. Even Jesus – the best by a long shot – was emotionally, physically, psychologically, and spiritually abused by those He came to rescue from the ruin. Simply (and Biblically stated) with every year that passes the chances of trouble, pain, heartbreak and loss rise.

A couple weeks ago, in an installment of our Advent series, I laid out, from the stage,  some of the challenges that have assaulted my life and the lives of those within BLDG 28 in 2017. Upon stating the brokenness and remarking that 2018 would likely be no better, I then sarcastically quipped, “So…merry Christmas.” A few chuckled at my snarky assertion; but as this year has rolled on I realize increasingly more that the declaration I made in jest is in actuality what my soul and yours needs as we enter 2018: to be merry.

To be absolutely clear, I am not speaking of mind-numbing, reality-denying glee. Rather  I am referencing the term in the way it was originally intended. You see, in the mid-centuries the term merry carried with it the ideas of strength, power, or might. This makes the meaning of Robin Hood’s “merry” men more serious and the lyrics of the carol “God Rest (make) Ye Merry Gentlemen” more substantive. To resound “Merry Christmas” was far more than a bypassing wish; it was a bold declaration that the Mighty One has come.

And He didn’t come to answer all our most earnest temporal petitions (as truly difficult as that is for me to swallow). He came to suffer and be murdered under the direction of God (why it had to be this way is for a much longer, much deeper, perhaps much darker conversation) to in finality crush evil and restore souls. I get it – it’s a bit less fun that smiling out our typical “Merry Christmas” and glibly believing that all will be well in 2018; but we don’t need the trite and light to amuse us this new year. Instead, we need the truth to empower and move us.

As much as we may want to pray for health, for a major hurricane to dramatically jog north leaving not a trace of devastation, or for our baby’s heart rate to recover, there is no Biblical or historical guarantee that God will answer any of these heart-wrenching entreaties. Rather, as we read Scripture and parse through history (including our own) it becomes brazenly evident that God is utterly concerned with saving and strengthening souls to bring increased fame to Himself. So we pray, hope, and strive to that end – to the end that truly, after this year is gone and we look back on 2018 with regrets, fondness, or pain, will really matter. The pain will most likely arrive at some point between now and next Christmas. Will we have the soul strength to face it?

As the new year dawns, the hope for this busted up soul is simple: no significant emotional duress, zero surgeries, and an over-abundance of personal stability, peace, and happiness throughout ’18 (and I would assume – unless you’re a masochist – that you are hoping for much the same). But my foremost prayer – or at least the one I am shooting to be foremost – is not for any of these temporal “blessings” (cause there’s absolutely no guarantee that God will gift us these). Rather, it is that in the face of triumph or tragedy, happiness or harm we will be strengthened in our souls and steadfast in our faith. This is what we need and is the prayer God is most concerned with answering.

Semper Reformanda

When Gunmen Enter Churches

Chills. Shock. Terror. Anger.

These feelings partnered with a hosts of others coursed through my body this past week. I sat before my laptop aghast at the barbarism and treachery so evidently displayed in the mass shooting at a church in Texas. I could barely stomach the reports. Twenty-six dead, among them an 18-month old child. I could only clutch my family ever more tightly and plead with the God of all comfort.

Within an hour texts and emails began to stream across my phone. Friends were rightfully outraged. Parents were understandably shaken. Questions flooded my mind and were echoed by our churchgoers. Why does this continue to occur in our country? Where is God during these attacks? Is it safe to come to church anymore? What steps should we take now…?

The famed Prince of Preachers once declared, “Half our fears arise from neglect of the Word.” He was not stating that every terror is produced from failing to live in Scripture, but rather that proper doctrinal instruction and the testimony of the Holy Spirit calms our souls during seasons of grief and moments of tragedy. Paul declares to Timothy that God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind (2 Tim. 1:7). In the face of extreme loss and horrific violence the apostle is ensuring us that the Spirit of God does not lead us to play into trepidation, but rather to face fear in the strength Christ has provided, with loving action and godly wisdom. Of course, the prospect of something like what happened in Sutherland Springs happening in our own church is beyond frightening, but godly concern should never give way to non-sensical, God-doubting terror. As feeble servants of a steadfast Sovereign, we should remind ourselves of the Spirit-inspired words of Paul and seek to walk in what the Spirit provides.

Power

As Christ followers clinging to the truth of Scripture, the sovereignty of God, and the reality of His sweet providential working through suffering, we have a very unique position and perspective in this world. We understand these truths, can rest in them, and can encourage others to do the same because of the power of the Holy Spirit residing within. During moments of devastating loss and crippling fear, we should, armed with the Word and filled with the Spirit, speak the truth to troubled hearts (including our own).

Love

This is not the time to press forward our political position concerning firearms on social media. Twenty-six individuals were murdered. Twenty others lie in hospital beds. Families are mourning. A town is reeling. What these victims, these families, and this community needs is love. We exercise Gospel-affection for them through prayer. Don’t simply nod your head and agree with this sentiment. Instead, stop right now and pray. We don’t need more Christians who “believe” in the power of prayer; rather we need Christians who pray.

Self-discipline

This is not the time to freak out. However, neither should we just ignore the alarming events and senseless violence that continues to plague our world. We live in a fractured, sin-riddled, self-serving society and until Jesus returns we will continue to see rampant wickedness – at times in the form of violent outbursts. Therefore, we as believers can ill-afford to bury our heads in the warm suburban sand while the world around burns. Instead, we should, with the Spirit gifted self-discipline we possess, prepare. Prepare in the Word for the legitimate questions that will undoubtedly come from believers, unbelievers, and even our own fledging hearts when pain assaults. Prepare to protect our families and our churches from senseless acts of violence. Prepare to serve those who will suffer under the injustice of a sin-filled world. Self-discipline means that we will not be reactive to atrocities and loss, but proactive in speaking out against injustice and intentionally pursuing Gospel peace.

As the blood-bought bride of the resurrected and sovereign King, eternally loved by His Father, and infused by His Spirit with power, love, and self-discipline, let’s resolve, in the face of darkness, to live as people of hope.

Semper Reformanda.

Why No Altar Call

Halloween is nearly upon us and candy is flying off store shelves as kids and adults alike search for the perfect costume. Some costumes will be humorous, others whimsical, while others will be down right disturbing. If I can be straight up, I’ll admit that a nightmarish H-day costume for me would be of a King Jimmy toting, three piece suit wearing tent-revival preacher who, with cherry-red face and sweat-soaked brow implores the listeners to “come to the altar” as the calypso eerily plays just one more stanza of “Just As I Am.” Ok, so that would be more frightening scene than holiday outfit, but either way, that haunting nostalgia would freak me out.

For those who did not grow up in the church – particularly the white-knuckling, Bible-thumping, altar-calling church of the southeast United States – the above setting would bore but not bother you. However, for those, like myself, who were subjected to this environment (not at the hands of my parents, thank God, but in some churches/camps of my youth) you know the emotionalism, coercion, and manipulation that at times cascaded from oversized pulpits. Fear-mongering and even bullying was common place during “invitations.” To this day, if I am at a concert, a youth camp, or a worship gathering and someone wraps down their talk with “now, bow your heads and close yours eyes…no one looking around…raise your hand…walk this aisle…” I instinctively cringe. So, to say I have a tainted history surrounding what some would label an “altar call” would perhaps be an understatement.

 

For those who are unfamiliar with what I am addressing, you are likely bored by this point, but if you are still reading allow me to summarize. An “altar call” is a tradition in some denominations or churches within evangelicalism in which those who wish to make a new spiritual commitment to Jesus are invited to come forward publicly, gather at the “altar,” and pray. Though some churches would hold this tradition to be a sacred necessity of genuine Christianity, it is in actuality a recent historic practice. In the late 18th century God began to stir once again throughout the newly formed United States. This movement of theological accuracy and mass soul transformation came to be known as The Second Great Awakening. In an effort to corral believers and report conversions, preachers came up with a system that required devotees to make public professions in crusades or church services. Other early names for the “altar call” were the “the anxious seat” or the “mourner’s box.” The most famous (or I would say “infamous”) revivalist of the 19th century was a former lawyer by the name of Charles Grandison Finney. Finny is championed by some current evangelicals, but in actuality promulgated much false doctrine including a denial of substitutionary atonement, original sin, and imputed righteousness. He preached moral rectitude and meritorious righteousness, as evidenced by his systematic theology. He believed in sinless perfection for the believer, and therefore each time a Christian transgressed he or she fell from grace and was in need of salvation once more. It was Finney who popularized the altar call as a means of roping people back into “believing again.” The tradition gained steam in the late 19th century with the preaching of D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday and accelerated under the ministry of Billy Graham in the 20th century.

Over the course of the past 5 years I have received at least a dozen inquiries into why we at BLDG 28 do not employ an altar call, with the most recent coming just last week. It is not because we believe that altar calls are from the pit of Hades or woefully outdated. Rather, there are legitimate concerns that give us considerable reason to shelf this tradition:

We do not want folks to be confused over “the means” of the Gospel. 

It is faith that unites us to Christ, not strolling down an aisle or gathering at an altar (Romans 3:24).

We do not want folks to place their faith in a decision, a movement, or a prayer, but rather in Christ Jesus.

I am not a Christian because I repeated a trite prayer or raised my hand in church. I am a Christian because King Jesus lived, died, and lives again to gift me saving faith and reconcile me to Himself. When asked how we know we are truly Christian, our response should be that we are trusting Him (Acts 16:30).

We want to avoid any hint of manipulation. 

I don’t want someone begrudgingly “taking” Jesus just because I was overly coercive or wouldn’t shut up. I want them to trust Jesus because the Spirit of God, through the Word of God, by sound preaching has opened up their hearts to actually love God.

We do not want to grant false assurance. 

There are countless people, particularly in the Bible-belt southeast that would ardently claim that they have Jesus because they have done one or all of the action items I’ve spelled out above. Their assurance is tethered to something they did for God rather than something God has done for them. We can have assurance of salvation and it is a beautiful thing. But that assurance is found in the sovereignty of God, the conviction of the Spirit, the denial of self, the submission to the Scriptures, and the merits of Jesus – not in my religious practice.

While I would never condemn a church or preacher for utilizing an altar call, I would advise such a church/minister to do so cautiously and without manipulation. As for us at BLDG 28, we have been privileged – through the unadulterated Gospel – to see legitimate conversions take place regularly over the past five years, and will continue to rest in the Spirit, to take His Word, regenerate hearts, and use our impassioned pleadings surrounding Jesus to bring rebels home.

Semper Reformanda