Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Gospel Isn't a Long-Range Missile

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a message that is meant to be communicated up close and personal.  Yes, you can text the gospel, email it, preach it to thousands in a stadium, tweet it even, but it is not normally received or communicated outside the context of a relationship between the hearer and the listener.

The gospel is not just communicated for conversion, for the first decision to follow Jesus.  The gospel is the mainstay of the Christian life.  It is through the preaching of the Gospel that we mature in the faith.  (Colossians 1:28-29) The gospel that saved us is the gospel that sanctifies us.

In light of the fact the gospel ministry is an ongoing and life-long process, I want to remind us of this verse:  “we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.”
(1 Thessalonians 2:8)

This verse reminds us that those who minister the gospel need to be in real, loving relationships with the people they 'proclaim' the gospel to.  Do you want an effective ministry?  Make it gospel-centered.  How do you have gospel-centered ministry? Life on life.   Do you want to share the gospel? Then share your gospel-filled life as well (Philippians 4:9)

So, we should ask the question:

  • How well do I know the people to whom I minister?  Do they know you? 
  • Do I hang out with them regularly?  
  • Do I have a few of them on 'speed-dial'?  
  • Is my life open enough to have people over (or go to their place) from time to time? 

A Prayer Asking God to Move

Recently, some friends and I were discussing during our church's Foundations Course what it means to be "born again." Though it is used in many non-biblical ways, the phrase "born again" is a biblical one.  But what does it mean?  When we were born from our mother, even though our life began, the reality is that we were born spiritually dead.  In order to have spiritual life, we must be born "again" (or born "from above") (see John 3:1-21; 1 Peter 1:3-8; Titus 3:1-7).  This "new birth" is a transformation of our hearts, a change of our desires and inclinations.  (Titus 2:11-14; Ezekiel 26:25-32; 2 Corinthians 5:17).  This change is not something we can make in ourselves, but it is an act of God, a work of God in us (Look at John 3:1-21 again).  In many ways, the cry of the Christian's heart is for God to come and change us, to make us new, to transform us.  In fact, the desire to pray this prayer is evidence that you are already born again.

A Christian's spiritual life really starts when we respond to this move of God, and a Christian's life continues for eternity dependent on God in the same way.  We continually respond to and ask for God to work and move in us.

The following prayer comes from a book called "The Valley of Vision" and perfectly captures the heart of someone who knows they are dependent on God (John 15:5):

O Supreme Moving Cause,
May I always be subordinate to thee,
  be dependent upon thee,
  be found in the path where thou dost walk,
    and where thy Spirit moves,
  take heed of estrangement from thee,
    of becoming insensible to thy love.
Thou dost not move men like stones,
  but dost endue them with life,
  not to enable them to move without thee,
  but in submission to thee, the first mover.
O Lord, I am astonished at the difference
  between my receivings and my deservings,
  between the state I am now in and my past gracelessness,
  between the heaven I am bound for and the hell I merit.
Who made me to differ, but thee?
  for I was no more ready to receive Christ than were others;
I could not have begun to love thee hadst thou not first loved me,
  or been willing unless thou hadst first made me so.
O that such a crown should fit the head of such a sinner!
  such high advancement be for an unfruitful person!
  such joys for so vile a rebel!
Infinite wisdom cast the design of salvation
  into the mould of purchase and freedom;
Let wrath deserved be written on the door of hell,
But the free gift of grace on the gate of heaven.
I know that my sufferings are the result of my sinning,
  but in heaven both shall cease;
Grant me to attain this haven and be done with sailing,
  and may the gales of thy mercy blow me safely into harbour.
Let thy love draw me nearer to thyself,
  wean me from sin, mortify me to this world,
  and make me ready for my departure hence.
Secure me by thy grace as I sail across this stormy sea.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Best Parenting Article You'll Ever Read

This is going to be the best parenting article you'll ever read.  Well, maybe.

The reality is that parenting is both simple and complicated at the same time.  Most everyone knows the simple and straightforward commands of parenting: love your kid, provide for them, be gentle but firm, consistent and fair, etc. etc.  Everyone from Strabo the Stoic Graeco-Roman philosopher, to St. Paul the great Christian missionary and scholar, to Dr. Phil the psychologist and media attention addict, give the same basic advice to parents.  To be sure there are big differences among the many schools of thought on parenting, but there is a significant amount of common ground as well.

The complicated part is applying this knowledge to a specific family, a specific child, at a specific age and time, in a specific situation... and doing so again and again as both the parents and the child(ren) change and grow and move on in time.  This takes wisdom.  One mentor of mine said that wisdom is "knowing the right thing to do, at the right time, in the right way."  If that's the case, then wise parenting is contextual and therefore... complex.

There are many great resources out there to learn wisdom from.  Certainly life-on-life learning is the best way to learn wisdom.  Whether it is a career, a sport, a religion, a new relational role, the best way to learn is in real-time with someone who has experience and success.  One way to access some of this experience is through the books that wise people write.  Books are no substitute for life-on-life learning (so get off the internet and get a mentor or two), but they can be helpful.

I recently came across one of the most helpful articles on parenting I've ever read (So, we're back to the title of this blog post now).  It was written in the 1860's.  Uncovering parenting tips from the past allows me to have a fresh perspective on my own historical biases.  It is like a cross-cultural experience.

So, if you're ready for a cross-cultural experience, check this out:

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

C.S. Lewis on "Family"

Family is one of those "inevitable" relationships in life.  We may joke about the only certain things in life being "death" and "taxes," but the reality is that the longing for a loving family and the results of sin in our family leave are certainties as well.  In fact, the living pain many have from their families of origin is a reoccurring aspect of my ministry.

  • What good things did you receive from your upbringing?  
  • What about your family as it is right now? What joys do you have there? Why?
  • What wounds and burdens do you bear because of your parents, your spouse, your kids? Why
  • Here's a question many are asking: Is family worth it? Don't friends work just as well?
  • Why do we often have so many problems with family members?

Recently, as I was preparing for a sermon on "family," I ran across this essay by C.S. Lewis.  The author comments on a sermon he heard, and the distance between the content of the sermon and the reality of the subject.

Anyone wrestlings with the realities of family life will find this helpful.  I reproduce it here as I found it online for free (If I'm in violation of a copyright, please let me know, and I'll remove it.)

by C.S. Lewis

...SAID THE PREACHER, 'THE HOME MUST BE THE foundation of our national life. It is there, all said and done, that character is formed. It is there that we appear as we really are. It is there we can fling aside the weary disguises of the outer world and be ourselves. It is there that we retreat from the noise and stress and temptation and dissipation of daily life to seek the sources of fresh strength and renewed purity. ..' And as he spoke I noticed that all confidence in him had departed from every member of that congregation who was under thirty. They had been listening well up to this point. Now the shufflings and coughings began. Pews creaked; muscles relaxed. The sermon, for all practical purposes, was over; the five minutes for which the preacher continued talking were a total waste of time - at least for most of us.

Whether I wasted them or not is for you to judge. I certainly did not hear any more of the sermon. I was thinking; and the starting-point of my thought was the question, 'How can he? How can he of all people?' For I knew the preacher's own home pretty well. In fact, I had been lunching there that very day, making a fifth to the Vicar and the Vicar's wife and the son (RAF.)! and the daughter (AT.S.),2 who happened both to be on leave. I could have avoided it, but the girl had whispered to me, 'For God's sake stay to lunch if  they ask you. It's always a little less frightful when there's a visitor.'

Lunch at the vicarage nearly always follows the same pattern. It starts with a desperate attempt on the part of the young people to keep up a bright patter of trivial conversation: trivial not because they are trivially minded (you can have real conversation with them if you get them alone), but because it would never occur to either of them to say at home anything they were really thinking, unless it is forced out of them by anger. They are talking only to try to keep their parents quiet. They fail. The Vicar, ruthlessly interrupting, cuts in on a quite different subject. He is telling us how to re-educate Germany. He has never been there and seems to know nothing either of German history or the German language. 'But, father,' begins the son, and gets no further. His mother is now talking, though nobody knows exactly when she began. She is in the middle of a complicated story about how badly some neighbour has treated her. Though it goes on a long time, we never learn either how it began or how it ended: it is all middle. 'Mother, that's not quite fair,' says the daughter at last. 'Mrs Walker never said -' but her father's voice booms in again. He is telling his son about the organization of the RA.F. So it goes on until either the Vicar or his wife says something so preposterous that the boy or the girl contradicts and insists on making the contradiction heard. The real minds of the young people have at last been called into action. They talk fiercely, quickly, contemptuously. They have facts and logic on their side. There is an answering flare up from the parents. The father storms; the mother is (oh, blessed domestic queen's move!) 'hurt'- plays pathos for all she is worth. The daughter becomes ironical. The father and son, elaborately ignoring each other, start talking to me. The lunch party is in ruins.
The memory of that lunch worries me during the last few minutes of the sermon. I am not worried by the fact that the Vicar's practice differs from his precept. That is, no doubt, regrettable, but it is nothing to the purpose. As Dr Johnson said, precept may be very sincere (and, let us add, very profitable) where practice is very imperfect,3 and no one but a fool would discount a doctor's warnings about alcoholic poisoning because the doctor himself drank too much. What worries me is the fact that the Vicar is not telling us at all that home life is difficult and has, like every form of life, its own proper temptations and corruptions. He keeps on talking as if 'home' were a panacea, a magical charm which of itself was bound to produce happiness and virtue. The trouble is not that he is insincere but that he is a fool. He is not talking from his own experience of family life at all: he is automatically reproducing a sentimental tradition - and it happens to be a false tradition. That is why the congregation have stopped listening to him.

If Christian teachers wish to recall Christian people to domesticity - and I, for one, believe that people must be recalled to it...:..- the first necessity is to stop telling lies about home life and to substitute realistic teaching. Perhaps the fundamental principles would be something like this.

1. Since the Fall no organization or way of life whatever has a natural tendency to go right. In the Middle Ages some people thought that if only they entered a religious order they would find themselves automatically becoming holy and happy: the whole native literature of the period echoes with the exposure of that fatal error. In the nineteenth century some people thought that monogamous family life would automatically make them holy and happy; the savage anti-domestic literature of modern times - the Samuel Butlers, the Gosses, the Shaws - delivered the answer. In both cases the 'debunkers' may have been wrong about principles and may have forgotten the maxim abusus non tollit usum ('The abuse does not abolish the use.' ), but in both cases they were pretty right about matter of fact. Both family life and monastic life were often detestable, and it should be noticed that the serious defenders of both are well aware of the dangers and free of the sentimental illusion. The author of the Imitation of Christ knows (no one better) how easily monastic life goes wrong. Charlotte M.Yonge makes it abundantly clear that domesticity is no passport to heaven on earth but an arduous vocation - a sea full of hidden rocks and perilous ice shores only to be navigated by one who uses a celestial chart. That is the first point on which we must be absolutely clear. The family, like the nation, can be offered to God, can be converted and redeemed, and will then become the channel of particular blessings and graces. But, like everything else that is human, it needs redemption. Unredeemed, it will produce only particular temptations, corruptions, and miseries. Charity begins at home: so does uncharity.

2. By the conversion or sanctification of family life we must be careful to mean something more than the preservation of 'love' in the sense of natural affection. Love (in that sense) is not enough. Affection, as distinct from charity, is not a cause of lasting happiness. Left to its natural bent affection becomes in the end greedy, naggingly solicitous, jealous, exacting, timorous. It suffers agony when its object is absent - but
is not repaid by any long enjoyment when the object is present. Even at the Vicar's lunch table affection was partly the cause of the quarrel. That son would have borne patiently and humorously from any other old man the silliness which enraged him in his father. It is because he still (in some fashion) 'cares' that he is impatient. The Vicar's wife would not be quite that endless whimper of self-pity which she now is if she did not (in a sense) 'love' the family: the continued disappointment of her continued and ruthless demand for sympathy, for affection, for appreciation has helped to make her what she is. I do not think this aspect of affection is nearly enough noticed by most popular moralists. The greed to be loved is a fearful thing. Some of those who say (and almost with pride) that they live only for love come, at last, to live in incessant resentment.

3. We must realize the yawning pitfall in that very characteristic of home life which is so often glibly paraded as its principal attraction. 'It is there that we appear as we really are: it is there that we can fling aside the disguises and be ourselves.' These words, in the Vicar's mouth, were only too true and he showed at the lunch table what they meant. Outside his own house he behaves with ordinary courtesy. He would not have interrupted any other young man as he interrupted his son. He would not, in any other society, have talked confident nonsense about subjects of which he was totally ignorant: or, if he had, he would have accepted correction with good temper. In fact, he values home as the  place where he can 'be himself' in the sense of trampling on all the restraints which civilized humanity has found indispensable for tolerable social intercourse. And this, I think, is very common. What chiefly distinguishes domestic from public conversation is surely very often simply its downright rudeness. What distinguishes domestic behaviour is often its selfishness, slovenliness, incivility - even brutality. And it will often happen that those who praise home life most loudly are the worst offenders in this respect: they praise it - they
are always glad to get home, hate the outer world, can't stand visitors, can't be bothered meeting people, etc. - because the freedoms in which they indulge themselves at home have ended by making them unfit for civilized society. If they practised elsewhere the only behaviour they now find 'natural' they would simply be knocked down.

4. How, then, are people to behave at home? If a man can't be comfortable and unguarded, can't take his ease and 'be himself' in his own house, where can he? That is, I confess, the trouble. The answer is an alarming one. There is nowhere this side of heaven where one can safely lay the reins on the horse's neck. It will never be lawful simply to 'be ourselves' until 'ourselves' have become sons of God. It is all there in the hymn - 'Christian, seek not yet repose.' This does not mean, of course, that there is no difference between home life and general society. It does mean that home life has its own rule of courtesy - a code more intimate, more subtle, more sensitive, and, therefore, in some ways more difficult, than that of the outer world.

5. Finally, must we not teach that if the home is to be a means of grace it must be a place of rules? There cannot be a common life without a regula. The alternative to rule is not freedom but the unconstitutional (and often unconscious) tyranny of the most selfish member.

In a word, must we not either cease to preach domesticity or else begin to preach it seriously? Must we not abandon sentimental eulogies and begin to give practical advice on the high, hard, lovely, and adventurous art of really creating the Christian family?

Monday, September 19, 2016

In the Name of Jesus...

Recently, I preached a sermon on Colossians 3:17 - “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Emphasis added)  I think this may be the most revolutionary command in the New Testament.  If somehow, by God's grace (see Colossians 3:16), we were enabled to obey this command, I believe our lives and the lives of those around us would change in ways we really can't imagine.  This, I think, is the "coming" of the Kingdom we so often pray for as Christians.  
Thanks to F.F. Bruce's commentary on Colossians, I ran across this poem by George Herbert: "Elixir".   Hebert's poem is like a rock tumbler:  read it, and your soul is thrown in the tumbler with "in the Name of Jesus."  

The Elixir

Teach me, my God and King, 
         In all things Thee to see, 
And what I do in anything 
         To do it as for Thee. 

         Not rudely, as a beast, 
         To run into an action; 
But still to make Thee prepossest, 
         And give it his perfection. 

         A man that looks on glass, 
         On it may stay his eye; 
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, 
         And then the heav'n espy. 

         All may of Thee partake: 
         Nothing can be so mean, 
Which with his tincture—"for Thy sake"— 
         Will not grow bright and clean. 

         A servant with this clause 
         Makes drudgery divine: 
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws, 
         Makes that and th' action fine. 

         This is the famous stone 
         That turneth all to gold; 
For that which God doth touch and own 
         Cannot for less be told.